Castles in the Sky

Castles in the Sky

While renovating a house in San Francisco, a couple discovered a diary, hidden away for more than a century. It held a love story—and a mystery.

The Atavist Magazine, No. 109

Christina Lalanne lives in San Francisco and works in the travel industry. She holds a master’s degree in historic preservation.

Editor: Seyward Darby
Designer: Ed Johnson
Copy Editor: Sean Cooper
Fact Checker: Adam Przybyl
Illustrator: Jacqueline Tam

The typeface Blocus is used courtesy Martin Desinde via the Velvetyne Type Foundry.

Published in November 2020.


A few years ago, my husband and I decided to buy a house. We wanted to save a piece of historic San Francisco, making a new home in an old place before it became unrecognizable. Mat and I visited a few grand Victorians, their facades dripping with gingerbread trim. Inside we expected to find the San Francisco that my parents and grandparents knew: formal, dignified, timeless. Instead there was clean, crisp minimalism. Silicon Valley tastes had gotten there first.

What luck, then, that we did find our house. Narrow and wooden, it was in some ways a time capsule of 1910, the year it was completed, with stained-glass windows, parquet floors, and a built-in buffet. Most of its surfaces, however, had been painted white. Realtors had informed the sellers that to attract buyers and a good price, the place needed to be brightened up. So the subtle distinctions among types of wood—oak, mahogany, fir—were erased in favor of aesthetic uniformity and an oppressive glare.

Thankfully, the house’s most unusual features were left exposed, though you had to squint to see them amid the encroaching whiteness. Two murals, dusty and faded—they were unsigned and of no great ability, but what charm they had. Stretching across all four walls of the dining room was a depiction of colonial San Francisco. Catholic priests, swashbucklers, and revelers passed in front of a faded Mission church, opposite a seascape with a Spanish galleon in the foreground and another silhouetted on the horizon. Seagulls hovered above the buffet. A small back room presented a quieter, more reflective mural. It was a landscape of the American West at its most idyllic: a tranquil lake and waterfowl surrounded by a thick forest. Occupying two corners were, respectively, a white stork and a pair of mute swans, distinguished by their orange beaks. A mighty, lone mountain loomed behind them.

Who had created these scenes? My imagination filled in a story. Maybe the builder was a European aristocrat whose father had squandered the last of the family fortune. The son was forced to live modestly, in no grand neighborhood and in a house too small for servants. But he refused to do so without art or elegance, so he adorned the walls himself.

Or perhaps he was a man of noble Spanish descent who with melancholy dreamed of the days before American fortune seekers arrived. Even though he hadn’t lived through that era himself, it was in his blood. He could feel what it was like when California was sparsely populated by Indians, cattle, and Spaniards, when contact with the rest of the world came through only a handful of ships per year.

Maybe he was a former frontiersman who recalled the wonder of the landscapes he had willed himself across. People don’t understand nowadays, he would say, how easy they have it—just hopping on a train to get where you’re going doesn’t provide the same satisfaction as getting there on foot. He recalled leaving home as a boy, the flatness of the East giving way to the ruggedness of the West. He hadn’t just witnessed the change—he’d felt it beneath his boots.

The first week we owned the house, Mat and I learned the true identity of its builder. Such are the wonders of the internet. A quick newspaper-archive search and there he was: Hans Jorgen Hansen, a young Danish immigrant alternately described as a carpenter and a contractor. He built many houses. This one, finished when he was 30 years old, was his home.

He had created something beautiful, but the world it seemed didn’t value his vision of beauty anymore. I was determined to restore the house and to hear what it had to say, to find the story I was sure it held. What I didn’t expect was that the story would come to me in written form, after being secreted away for more than a century.


It is probably easier to ignore the past, to forget what came before and remake the world clean and new. That has never appealed to me. I value the past because I have to. My parents died when I was in grammar school, my mother a year before my father, orphaning me and my three siblings. Now, years later, few traces of them remain. I inherited my dad’s 1969 orange Jeep, by which I mean that Mat and I dragged its remains out of a barn and spent thousands of dollars making it drivable again. The Jeep is old and stiff, the floor rusted through in spots, and there never were doors or a roof. I’m sure I make for a curious sight driving around San Francisco in what most people would relegate to a junkyard. I joke that one day, just like in the cartoons, I’m going to go over a bump and suddenly be holding a detached steering wheel, the rest of the Jeep broken in a heap beneath me.

Renovating a house, then, wasn’t the first time I had taken something old and neglected and broken and tried to make it whole again. Our house is on the western side of San Francisco, in what was once marked on maps as the Great Sand Waste. Drifting dunes were tamped down to create more than 40 avenues of prewar, suburban-style housing, and the neighborhood was optimistically renamed the Sunset District. There is a calm sameness to the swath of single-family homes that seem to march out to meet the ocean. While I will never love the fog that drifts in from the Pacific and the drabness it brings, I chose to live here. And I convinced Mat to do the same, out of a stubborn insistence that I am a San Franciscan. I grew up here. So did my father and grandfather.

I once found a picture of our house from 1914. Sand is piled up on the empty lot on the south side, where an apartment building would eventually be built. A woman and child perch on a horse cart being drawn up the street. Lace curtains hang in the house’s windows. They seem so real that, sitting inside more than 100 years later, my urge is to turn around and part them, letting in whatever sunlight manages to peek through the passing clouds.

Even when there is sun, the dining room gets almost no light. That was intentional: Builders at the turn of the 20th century knew that dining rooms would be used most often in the evening, when candlelight cast a warm, intimate glow. To enhance the effect they were placed in the center of homes, the ceilings set lower than in other rooms, and the walls paneled in polished wood. Mirrors, brass fixtures, and crystal knobs lent sparkle.

When we moved in, these details were covered by the menace of white paint. At first I thought I would just strip the buffet. I geared up—heat gun, dental tools, chemical strippers, protective respirator—and worked for three weeks, six hours a day. When I finally freed it, the oak glowed a beautiful, natural orange. The art-glass windows in the cabinet doors had been a garish yellow, but now that the panel behind them wasn’t white, they were a warm amber. The room’s mural of colonial San Francisco even seemed to mellow. The galleons no longer sat on a chilly black ocean—the water was a lovely midnight blue. I noticed for the first time the use of tangerine paint on every wall, meant to complement the wood in the buffet.

I knew it wouldn’t be right to stop. I had to liberate the wall panels, the window frames, the box-beam ceiling. I stripped the dining room for a year and a half, patiently picking paint out of egg and dart trim and dentil molding. Stripping leaves a lot of time for thinking, and my recurring fantasy was of unloading trash bags full of white paint chips onto the doorstep of whoever had decided that obscuring this house’s interior was a good idea. Perversely, perhaps, I enjoyed the work and continued the transformation when I finished the dining room. I spent six months stripping the small back room with the second mural, three weeks stripping the bedroom mantel. Today the house’s entryway greets me with half-white, half-exposed panels every time I walk through the front door.

Other parts of the house we sent off for restoration. We had the living room mantel and the bookcase next to it ripped out, and we carefully labeled the pieces of wood that piled up on the floor so we knew how to fit them back together. Mat and I knocked 13 doors off their hinges, then removed the hardware too. We hauled everything out for a chemical bath. After being dipped in giant vats, the wood came back renewed.

Our house began to offer the kind of clues I’d hoped for, hints about its story. When we took the bookcase off the wall, a piece of paper slipped out. I unfolded its edges, perforated by a hundred tiny nibbles that made me wonder if resident mice had been trying to make paper snowflakes. The bites formed a perimeter around a faded hand-drawing of the brackets on the house’s exterior. This was part of the builder’s original design.

When we repurposed a bedroom as part of an enlarged kitchen, we carefully removed the charming inlaid squares in the floor’s corners to reuse later. Under each one, someone had placed a piece of card stock advertising a tailor named C.J. Petersen. Who was he, and why had someone put the cards there? I leaned them on a window ledge as a reminder to find out.

I once discovered a paper bag crumpled up in the house’s rafters. I’d hoped it held photographs that previous owners had forgotten. Maybe I would catch a glimpse of lives otherwise lost to time. But when I opened the bag, I immediately threw it down in horror. Inside were two sets of dentures. Surely someone was having fun with me.

I was raised Catholic, and while it’s not very fashionable to believe in God anymore, the alternative is to accept personal extinction. I believe only time separates the living and the dead, and that it’s not an insurmountable barrier. My parents, for instance, still exist somewhere. My youngest sister once went to a psychic who surprised her by announcing that our parents were watching and guiding her. Except they really weren’t too concerned with her—they’d been busy directing their energy toward our sometimes wayward brother. (My sister was annoyed but conceded that he was probably a better use of their resources.) I was sure that whoever left the dentures had a far less noble purpose. I imagined them looking down from the heavens, laughing at a century-delayed joke.

One cold January evening, as the fog hung low to the ground, the cable cut out while we were watching TV. Mat went downstairs to reset the modem. Our basement had been torn apart for several months because we were doing a seismic retrofit. The steps I soon heard Mat walking back up were also in need of an upgrade. The wood that at some point had been used to repair the staircase was cheap, and the sound the steps made underfoot was loudly hollow. That night, however, the thud was arresting. Mat wasn’t walking back to me—he was bounding.

He flung open the door to the room where I was waiting and held out a book, its marbled cover torn and thick with dust. Somehow I knew in that moment that it held the key to the house’s story. By bringing the house back to life, I had earned it.

I opened the cover and saw in elegant handwriting the name Hans Jorgen Hansen and the year 1900. It was a diary belonging to the man who built our house. As I turned the pages, I noticed that someone else had written on them, too, a woman named Anna. How unusual, I thought, for two people to share a diary—even more so because, according to historical records, Hans’s wife was named Christine.


The story of Hans and Anna begins the way stories often have over the centuries: A youth on the verge of manhood sets out from his ancestral village. In this case that village is in Denmark, and the year is 1900. The forces of the world conspire to entice young men like Hans, now 20, out of the fields and into cities. If they have a yearning for adventure and a bit of daring, they continue onward to new lands. They may never return to the villages that shaped them because the world needs them. Its appetite for ambition and cleverness is insatiable. Tradition be damned—here is progress.

On the second day of the first year of the new century, Hans loads his suitcase into a wheelbarrow and sets off down an icy road, pushing his belongings over gentle hills. He arrives at a train station, where he buys a third-class ticket to the industrial city of Odense. By urban standards it’s provincial, but broad boulevards have supplanted medieval lanes, lending Odense a bit of grandness. Hans is here for a train transfer, but with time to see something new, he walks into the bustling town.

He’s looking for a bookstore—an appropriate goal in the city whose most famous son is also Denmark’s greatest storyteller, Hans Christian Andersen. This Hans, the subject of our story, appreciates Danish literature, but right now all he wants to read about is America, because that is where he longs to be. On Vestergade—gade is Danish for “street”—at one of the largest booksellers in Odense, he thumbs through journalist Henrik Cavling’s dispatches in From America. He would like to buy it but should probably save his money. He doesn’t want to leave empty-handed, however, so he purchases a diary instead.

That diary—dagbog in Danish—will accompany Hans around the world. It will feel at times as if it were his only friend, his dear bog. For now he continues by train to the seaside town of Faaborg, where he will work.

Anna and Hans knew better than most that the bonds of blood aren’t always enough to keep people together. Together they would create something stronger.

When he arrives, a letter is waiting for him. It’s from Anna in America. Anna who has already gone into the mouth of the hungry world. From the moment he first saw her, six years earlier in his village, Hans knew it was his destiny to be with her, the beautiful girl with black hair. It wasn’t her fault that she had to leave him. Anna lived with her grandparents, and she was only 14 when her grandfather died. She and her grandmother had no one else to rely on in the village, so they soon left for a place called Michigan, where Anna’s aunt lived.

People said that if her mother had made better choices, Anna’s life would have unfolded differently. Anna was born out of wedlock. Other boys might have looked down on her for this, but not Hans. In Anna he saw a nobleness of spirit.

Besides, his mother had also committed a sin when she conceived him; he and Anna had that in common. Their respective fathers were good enough to acknowledge their progeny, bestowing them with a little dignity and a surname. Anna’s paternal grandparents were the ones who’d raised her. But she and Hans knew better than most that the bonds of blood aren’t always enough to keep people together. Together they would create something stronger.


I didn’t learn these details from the diary. At least, not right away. Its entries were written almost entirely in Danish, which I can’t read and don’t speak.

There were two diaries, in fact, the second of which had relatively little writing, all of it by Hans. There was also a stack of letters. Mat found everything—all this treasure—when he went to reset the modem. The basement ceiling had recently been demolished as part of our renovations. The books and letters had fallen from their hiding place, a cavity where Hans—who else?—had stashed them. I wondered if Mat and I were the first people to read them in a century.

At first all I could learn about Hans and Anna was gleaned from the documents’ few sections written in English:

Dear Anna… Tonight I have been reading over and over again your old letters from the dear old time; but I must not dream the old dreams; but Oh Anna I can’t help it because I do love you in spite of all.

Dear Hans… I am to blame for all you have ever suffered and God forgive me for it…. I am so sorry I was such a good for nothing foolish girl but at the same time I never meant to do any sin.

What drama or scandal was locked in these pages? Handwriting is a funny thing, not least because few people read it much anymore. Anna’s was neat, polite, and comfortably contained by the page. Hans, whose writing made up 90 percent of our find, had a bolder stroke. His flourishes veered maddeningly into indecipherability. In places, the pressure he exerted on his pen had made the ink pool and the letters bleed.

I sent a few diary passages to various Danish friends of friends, but while the language was theirs, none wanted to spend the time required to decipher such baroque penmanship. Frustrated, I made out the letters as best I could and typed the words they seemed to form into Google Translate. At first what came back was gibberish. But the longer I spent with the words, the more of them I got right, and the more the translator divulged actual language. I was also becoming familiar with Hans’s scrawl. His “D” was the longest, most elegant version of that letter I’d ever seen. It marked the beginning of the diary entry in which he lovingly recalled meeting Anna when they were children.

I eventually typed every word from the diaries and letters—some 20,000 in all—into the translator, and a picture of Hans and Anna’s story began to come into focus. Mat and I also did some genealogical research, amassing supporting facts. I found documentation of Anna and her grandmother’s 1897 passage to New York via Ellis Island. I found the household in St. Joseph, Michigan, where Anna was employed. I found evidence of Hans’s departure from Denmark after his stint in Faaborg—a voyage to Sydney, Australia, and onward to Brisbane—as well as his death certificate and a record of his grave just outside San Francisco, which we visited. We reconstructed Hans’s family tree and found a great-grandson on Facebook. We learned that Hans had three children with the woman named Christine, and that their marriage ended in divorce. 

I was sure I knew why: Hans and Anna could only love each other. What then had kept them apart?


Winters in Denmark are long and cold. The wind that sweeps off the North Sea blows through the country’s bays, shallow hills, and beech forests. The nights, too, can seem endless. A man may find himself alone with his thoughts for longer than should be allowed. “There is not much to say,” Hans writes one January evening, “just that time was twice as long as the previous day.” Sheltered by thick, half-timbered walls, illuminated by weak candlelight, Hans and other men stave off boredom with games of cards and letters from faraway places.

Hans often lies awake at night imagining himself in New York, where Anna will travel from Michigan to reunite with him. In his diary he writes that the streets “will be completely different from the cobblestones of Faaborg.” He decides to “learn something useful to be worthy of her” and becomes a carpenter, a job he hopes will allow him to earn his way to America and support Anna. But good-paying work can be hard to come by in Denmark, and Hans will spend portions of the winter and spring of 1900 trying to find it.

In moments of despair, his mind wanders back to happier times. When he was 14, he tended cows in Husby, the farming hamlet where he grew up. Husby overlooks the sea, and the wind carries the smells of agriculture into peoples’ homes. At the heart of the village’s expansive fields sits the parish church. Most churches in rural Denmark have simple whitewashed towers, but not this one. To create a symbol befitting their status, the local aristocracy—among the most powerful landholders in the country—took inspiration from Italian artistry. Husby’s church boasts a copper onion dome atop a Tuscan-yellow tower, a glimmer of grandeur in an otherwise modest landscape.

Hans remembers his younger self leaving the cow fields one day to play with other boys in the village and seeing Anna for the first time. “In my quiet mind,” he reminisces in his diary, “I imagined myself and Anna engaged.” It was as if he didn’t really have a choice, not that he wanted one. Fate brought them together again at age 16, working as farmhands at the home of a widow. Anna was lively and dramatic, a “witty endearing spirit.” After she moved to America, she and Hans began a correspondence. They “became closer and came to rely on each other,” like family of their own choosing.

“I have seen many beautiful girls,” Hans writes in his diary, “but no one has been able to erase the image of my dear black-haired girl with the brave and joyful mind.”

Now, in Faaborg, Hans receives letters from Anna assuring him that she loves him. He is certain their union “will soon become reality,” that they “live only in the world of dreams yet.” In Danish, there’s a word for this kind of reverie: luftkasteller, or “castles in the sky.” Hans is building luftkasteller. The castles are their future, his and Anna’s, strong and impenetrable.

Or so he thinks.

Passage to America can be expensive. Other Danes are instead leaving for Australia, where the government is so desperate for labor that it will subsidize a man’s journey. Hans would likely live someplace hot and dusty. Going there would delay his arrival in America by years. Still, it feels one step closer to Anna.

That is how Hans finds himself in the middle of the Indian Ocean, aboard the steamship Oroya, as the year turns from 1900 to 1901. The journey to Sydney lasts 45 days. Hans and a few Danish friends board another ship to Queensland, then travel 300 miles to the territory’s interior, where dry grass stretches on and on until there is enough moisture to support a forest of red cedar, kauri pine, and other trees. The men help fell those forests, cutting the timber used to fuel the continent’s economic growth.

Hans lives in what the Australians call a humpy: a structure made of two poles stuck into the ground to keep a tin roof aloft, and open in front to the elements. There is only enough room for two makeshift beds. One is for Hans and the other is for his friend, a man named Sorensen. They wash their clothes in a river and cook their food over an open flame. The Australian heat is so fantastic that sometimes Hans can only laugh at it.

He thinks often of Anna, especially at night as the moon rises. “I have seen many beautiful girls,” he writes in his diary, “but no one has been able to erase the image of my dear black-haired girl with the brave and joyful mind.” Yet something has changed. He has not received a letter from her since he left Denmark. “I long to hear a little from little Anna in America,” Hans writes in April 1901. “It is 6 months since I got the last letter from her but I wait every day.”

He doesn’t know it yet, but his luftkasteller are about to break apart, and they will threaten to crush him. By the end of 1901, Anna will be married to another man.


The details of when Anna decided to forsake Hans and how she told him weren’t contained in the diaries or letters that fell from my basement ceiling. Perhaps Anna did finally send him a note in Australia, only to say that she couldn’t wait for him any longer—she needed certainty, a family, a life. Or maybe she had no choice. Anna would later write, vaguely, of getting “in trouble on my own.” Did she, like her mother and Hans’s had before her, become pregnant out of wedlock? Unlike them, did she decide to marry her lover? I could only guess that the missive containing that explanation was gone because Hans couldn’t bear to keep it.

Anna’s marriage might explain why Hans didn’t write in his diary for four years. He suffered grief in silence. Their story wasn’t over, though. I knew that for sure, because Anna didn’t write in the diary until 1905.

I was hooked on the puzzle I was piecing together, to the point that people in my life started asking why. To me the question was the reverse: Why wouldn’t I try to untangle the story of a love affair more than a century old? Who wouldn’t want to learn what became of Hans and Anna? So what if they weren’t my ancestors. So what if they were just ordinary people who lived ordinary lives. Anyone in my position, with a diary full of mysteries that all but fell into her hands, would surely go to the same lengths to find answers.

In truth, I know that my fascination with the past—reawakening it, finding meaning in it—motivates me to ask questions that many people don’t need answered. It compels me to do things that to others seem drastic, even obsessional, but to me feel inevitable. Like scraping paint from the walls of my house for so many hours, over so many months, that long after I’ve removed my respirator for good, I sometimes think I can still see its outlines on my face.

A few years ago, while going through digitized family videos, I found old Super 8 footage of my dad taking a trip to Utah in his—our—orange Jeep. No sound, just moving images of my 20-year-old father, with his own father by his side, maneuvering along four-wheel-drive trails. The Jeep was shinier than I’d ever seen it. There was no one left to ask what route my father and grandfather had taken on that trip, but I knew the canyons of Utah well. I was certain I could find the trails from the video. I isolated images of rock formations and scoured online photos until I found a match: Paul Bunyan’s Potty, a natural arch in Canyonlands National Park. Mat and I loaded the Jeep onto a rented trailer and towed it 1,100 miles to Utah. We brought a drone and a GoPro with us. Mat did all the filming as I drove roads the Jeep had been down some 40 years earlier.

I don’t know what I expected to find in Utah, only that I was sure I had to go. The same was true when I bought a plane ticket for April 2019 and traveled more than 5,000 miles from San Francisco to Denmark. I rented a car and drove alone down country roads on a frigid day, feeling excited and a little embarrassed. When I arrived in Husby on a Sunday, the buildings were so sparse that calling it a town seemed generous. The only business I was able to identify was an auto repair shop, and it was closed.

I wanted to find a road called Norregade—it was there, at the home of the widow of a man named Lars Andersen, that Hans and Anna first spent time together as teenagers. “The wind is crying out and bringing back to my thoughts the winter when we were together,” Anna once wrote. She and Hans said their goodbyes on Norregade before Anna left for America. “I remember our last meeting like it was a shooting star,” Anna wrote. “God knows if we meet again on this rolling earth.”

On my map of Husby, Norregade didn’t exist. I assumed it had been renamed and I just needed to ask someone in town. Driving Husby’s back roads, I spotted a couple out for a chilly afternoon stroll. I slowed the car, rolled down the window, and shouted, “Do you speak English?” They turned to look at me and replied with an almost bewildered “Of course.” Well, I explained, I have a strange question. You see, I come from America, and a Danish man built my house 100 years ago, and I found his diary, and do you know where Norregade is?

The couple said they didn’t, that they were only weekenders. But their neighbors might. They climbed in my car and we drove 30 seconds to the home of a retired couple who were in the midst of baking rye bread. I asked if they knew Norregade. We don’t, they said, but our other neighbor might—she’s 90 years old. The husband went to fetch her. Five minutes later she was beside me, the expert who had lived in Husby her whole life.

She knew Norregade—it was now called Sjobjergvej. (Vej means “way.”) She had known the Andersens, too, the family of the widow Hans and Anna once worked for. She even knew which house had belonged to them, and marked its location on my map. I set out for Sjobjergvej, where I asked my questions all over again and found myself welcomed into the home of another couple. The old farmhouse where Hans and Anna worked had long ago been demolished. Still, I was in the place where their love story began.                                              

People’s eyes lit up when I explained why I was in Husby, just me and my binder full of photocopied diary entries. A woman cheered when I showed her pictures of my house, like Husby’s worth in the world had been secured by what one of its sons achieved elsewhere. And here I was, ratifying his efforts by traveling all the way to Denmark.

I visited other towns that figured in Hans and Anna’s story. I contacted regional archives to locate documentation of their existence. I sat with historians who translated diary entries better than I—which is to say Google—ever could, scribbling as they spoke. I popped into a coffee shop and didn’t leave for five hours, as an impromptu cadre of locals pored over documents and pictures, coming up with their own theories about Hans and Anna. I sparked enough interest that I was later contacted by an amateur genealogist who sifted through Danish church records on my behalf, gathering information about Hans’s and Anna’s families.

I came home from Denmark with a better understanding of who Hans and Anna were and where they came from. If only every trip a person takes could be so warm, so fruitful. Hans once wished the same, only to embark on a hopeful journey that ended in bitter disappointment. 


Hans’s American dream gnaws at him. Is the country really all that people say it is? He finally is able to find out for himself when he travels to California’s northern timber country, where the giants of the forest sit in a landscape that formed in the Jurassic period. The redwoods are the tallest things alive. The Douglas firs are almost as mighty. Together they seem to dare men to build something—a civilization—as grand as they are.

Hans finds San Francisco to be a marvelous party disguised as a city. He plays cards, bowls, and gambles. He wonders if settling down will ever be for him if it means that he’s not with Anna.

They still write to each other. As friends. Childhood friends. Practically family. In the fall of 1905—more than five years since Hans left Denmark, and eight since he last saw Anna—he travels to see her. He is bound for Chicago, where she can visit him from her home just across the city’s great lake, and he can return the courtesy. He’ll find work and a place to live for a while. And maybe he’ll like it enough to stay. Maybe Anna will ask him to.

Anna is the same kindhearted, buoyant young woman he remembers—still beautiful, with jet-black hair and sharp, full features that give depth to her lingering girlishness. She has lived in the small town of St. Joseph ever since she left Denmark. Her grandmother and her aunt and uncle are close by. She has no children. She has worked as a servant in wealthy households. She has never been truly happy.

But oh, how Anna has loved Hans’s letters. What adventures he’s had, how worldly he’s become.

Anna’s marriage isn’t going well. Her husband, whom Hans meets in Chicago, is a mischievous and sometimes callous man. He was born in Germany. He loves to drink, sometimes with women who are not his wife. His name is Emil, but no one calls him that. Everyone calls him by his last name, Frost—even Anna.

Frost isn’t a fool. He sees what’s going on between Anna and her friend. Once, when drunk, man to man, Frost tells Hans he would sell Anna to him for $500. Then he pretends it was a joke all along. Ha! Frost says he couldn’t live without her anyway. Later, Frost tells his wife that Hans “didn’t care enough…. I won’t let him have you now.”

On one of Anna’s weekend visits to Chicago, she and Hans go out, just the two of them, for dinner at a restaurant on Humboldt Avenue. Neither will write down what transpires that evening, but maybe—surely—it happens like this: Their conversation turns to Frost, because it always does. Anna grew up without parents and told herself that, even if her origins were impure, she would always be pure of heart. She’d made a vow. But if only her husband could be more like Hans. He sits listening to her. It takes everything within him not to move his hand across the table and put it to Anna’s cheek and tell her he loves her more than anything. At the very least he needs her to understand that he thinks she deserves the world. Hans starts to tell her about his diary with the marbled cover. He will give it to her, and she will understand how he feels. The proof is in the writing.

She still has hope, or maybe it’s faith. “It is God’s will that when you and I again get together it will be under different circumstances,” Anna writes.

Anna returns home to St. Joseph in possession of the diary. She reads Hans’s words from 1900 onward and is overcome—she scribbles into one of the diary’s margins that when she grasped his devotion, her heart “almost stood still.” She knows the diary is not hers to keep, but when she gives it back to Hans, she wants him to find comfort in her words, just as she has in his. Anna writes:

Oh how my heart ached for you the day we left Chicago. I sat like a dead woman all the way home. Frost talked and I could not answer. I think that was the saddest day of my life. How I would love to be with you but I can’t until God wills it so…. My beloved brother life would be empty if it were not for you…. We were born to each other I feel it.

The possibilities spin in her head. It’s not an honorable thing to do, leave one’s husband. At least not now. Maybe she will in the future. Even though it would be a sin. But doesn’t God want people to be happy? Doesn’t he want her to be happy?

When it’s time to return the diary, some two months after Hans gave it to her, Anna has made up her mind. “I would be the happiest woman in the world if I could always be with you but there would be one little drop in our cup and that would be that I would always fear that I had done a sin,” she writes in her final entry. To leave her marriage would jeopardize her soul—and Hans’s, too. “In parting us this time,” she writes, “[God] also saved us from the results of what we would have done.” As long as Frost “does his duty,” Anna says, “I shall do mine.” She still has hope, or maybe it’s faith. “It is God’s will that when you and I again get together it will be under different circumstances,” she writes.

It is a sad truth to bear, and Hans decides to return to California. He has shared everything with Anna—what more can he do? She is welcome to visit him. “You are all I have,” he writes in the diary, “and you are as welcome as flowers in May. I am always waiting for you to pay me a visit or to stay forever.”

Hans makes his arrangements to leave Chicago, diary in hand. One day he writes with what feels like finality, pledging to get married to someone else just to show Anna he can live without her—she who says she loves him but who “promised someone else the same.” Hans writes, “You and I little Anna could be happy; but you set me apart for another.… Anyway, I am not angry with you in any way.”

It is now the spring of 1906. What neither of them knows—what no one knows—is that the God whom Anna so fervently believes in will soon punish San Francisco. On April 18, at 5:12 a.m., the ground beneath the city will shake harder than it has ever shaken before. When the earthquake is over, the fires will start; they won’t stop for three days, until most of the city is reduced to ashes.

Once the dust of the disaster settles, the old game of making a fortune will return in full swing. Two hundred thousand people—half the city’s population—will be homeless, which is good business for someone like Hans. Skilled men will be needed to sweep up the ashes and put houses back where they used to be.

Hans returns to San Francisco, or what’s left of it. He will stay forever.


To tell the story up to this point, I had most of what I needed. The diaries and letters were often rich in detail, certainly full of emotion. I just needed to organize what Hans and Anna wrote into a narrative, supplemented by what I had learned in Denmark and in my genealogical research. But Hans mostly stopped writing in his diary after leaving Chicago. An entry here and there, nothing more. They were short and often melancholy. “The sadness is coming over me again,” he noted on August 10, 1908.

The last time he wrote in the diary, Hans was 30. It was 1910, the year he finished building the house in which I now live. It probably didn’t happen this way—probably wasn’t this dramatic—but I imagine Hans huddled in the dark of his basement, shaking his head in disappointment as his pen meets the pages of his bog for the last time. Before he closes the cover and hides the diary in the ceiling, he writes:

September 19, 1910

Many years have gone since I last wrote in my book, and I have to talk to someone tonight…. My whole life has been destroyed and I have now been away from [Anna] for a long time. And yet her and no other is what my life is all about. Anna, Anna why is everything against me. Everyone tells me I’m crazy, because I am not taking any interest in anyone but you. I shall always keep you in my mind and treasure your memories and keep them for myself. Goodnight, you are my life’s star, without you everything is empty and you never want to write to me. Everything that I have is your letters and the memory of you. Goodnight my beloved friend, you are my everything. Hope disappears. I hope it will rise again.

Three months later, Hans married Christine Petersen, literally the girl next door, on what was surely a miserable wedding day. “I know that I do sin if I marry another,” he’d once written. Hans and Christine’s great-grandson told me that their marriage was not a happy one. Their divorce was contentious, and Hans was not remembered fondly by his descendants. I didn’t pry. I knew from Hans’s diary that he soured over time. A romantic became a cynic. A hopeful youth grew into a bitter man.

Maybe Hans wasn’t wholly deserving of my sympathy, but understanding what ruined him was another matter. I still had so many questions: Did Hans leave the diary and letters untouched for as long as he lived in the house, or did he retrieve them from their hiding place on occasion to read in secret? Christine and her brother C.J. Petersen, the tailor whose name was on the cards Mat and I found in the bedroom floor—one small mystery solved—were awarded the house after Christine’s divorce from Hans was finalized in 1929. Were the hidden documents left behind on purpose, valueless after so many years, or forgotten in the chaos of separation?

More research only led to more questions. In newspaper archives, I found a perplexing detail: Right around the time that Hans returned to San Francisco, in 1906, Anna and Emil Frost were divorced after all. Unfortunately for Hans, Anna’s liberated future didn’t include him. Maybe it was only the idea of Hans—comforting, attentive, a reminder of home—that Anna loved.

I knew that Anna was 25 when she divorced. After that her trail went cold. I couldn’t find evidence of her anywhere. As I had when I first saw the murals in my house, I started filling in the blanks with a story: Anna lived the rest of her life in Michigan, working in other people’s homes. She remarried someone kind and reliable, but it was a relationship absent the passion she had known with Hans. She had children. In old age, perhaps she returned to Denmark. She’d once written to Hans that she couldn’t “wait til we get to our fatherland … where our feet trod when we were children (God bless those days).” Maybe for the sake of nostalgia—something she hadn’t allowed herself to feel while raising her family—she traveled to Husby and visited Norregade, standing on the quiet lane I would visit several decades later. Maybe she hoped that being there could answer her questions about the life she’d chosen not to live.


I have a vivid memory, early one morning when my father was in the hospital, of my uncle making his way up the carpeted stairs to the bedrooms where my siblings and I slept. I was nine years old. I knew my uncle was bringing bad news. How is that possible, to just know? Maybe his steps were slower or heavier than normal. Or maybe you can feel someone you love slipping away from this world.

Every few years I have a different experience of knowing. I’ll be in a crowd or walking down the street, and I’ll catch a glimpse of my mother or father. Something about the way they move or hold themselves or brush their hair from their face makes me certain. I’m wrong, of course, but the joy is true. If only for a moment, something I want seems real.

A similar thing happened when I finally found Anna. My trip to Denmark had furnished me with the facts that follow a person during their life, no matter where they end up. I knew Anna’s date of birth and the village where she was born and her date of entry into the United States. I knew that her father was Danish, her mother Swedish. I found her application for a passport. I looked at her picture, her dark hair and mournful eyes. She signed her name in the same meticulous way she had in Hans’s diary.

These facts are what made me sure that the Anna I came across on was unmistakably, irrefutably her. My heart leaped in my chest. Then it fell, because of where I found her and what it might mean.

She wasn’t in Michigan or Chicago or Denmark. Anna had been in San Francisco all along.

She had moved here by at least 1910. What reason could there have been but Hans? Yet two months after Hans wed Christine, Anna married a man named L.B. Carpenter. They never had children. A mining engineer, Carpenter died in 1929 and left Anna with no choice but to return to domestic service as the Great Depression unfolded. Meanwhile, Hans never recovered his financial footing after divorcing Christine, though he continued to build houses. He moved into a residential hotel in the Tenderloin, a neighborhood then full of clerks and teachers, skilled laborers and transient workers, all living conveniently in the city’s downtown.

Did Hans and Anna try a relationship when she first arrived, only to find that it couldn’t live up to what they’d imagined for so long? Hans’s diary gives no indication of this—perhaps when they were finally together, he didn’t feel the need to write. In his final entry, Hans wrote that he’d been “away from [Anna] for a long time.” What if he meant months, not years, as I’d assumed? I found myself hoping so. The notion of Anna coming to San Francisco and not seeing Hans felt impossible.

Hans died in 1966, Anna in 1968, which meant they both lived into their eighties. I was able to find only skeletal traces of their later lives. Addresses in city directories. Census data, but only up to 1940. Newspaper clippings that mentioned city lots Hans was developing. Anna didn’t have any descendants to find and interview. Hans and Christine’s great-grandson told me that St. Joseph, Michigan, sounded familiar, but he wasn’t sure why.

There was one final revelation, and with it a glimmer of hope: In the last decades of her life, Anna moved into an apartment building in the Tenderloin. She lived only three blocks away from Hans. Maybe this was a coincidence, but I remembered the words of their youth. “I know that sometime a time will come when Anna and I are together,” Hans wrote. “A voice whispers in my ear that (Everything comes to those who wait) and I will wait for you to come in 20 years.” Here is Anna: “When you and I get to be 80 years old I shall love you just the same no matter where you are…. Never forget that I am always with you and always will be, [even] if you go to the end of the world.”

I drove to the Tenderloin and walked the distance between their apartment buildings. The historic cityscape, rebuilt after the 1906 earthquake, is pleasing, even if the neighborhood became synonymous with inner-city vice. This was already becoming true in the mid-20th century, when Hans and Anna lived here. Perhaps by then the tempestuousness between them had eased and they were a comfort to each other. I imagined Hans ambling to Anna’s apartment, and Anna coming down to greet him, seeing his familiar grin. Maybe they no longer interpret the pull between them as romance, cherishing it instead as an unbreakable kinship.

She takes his arm and, side by side, they walk through the city.


In the home movie Mat and I re-created in Utah, I am behind the wheel of my father’s Jeep. The drone, piloted by Mat, shows me driving a barren red-dirt trail, steering through a series of technical four-wheel-drive maneuvers, and coming to a patch of earth where the road ends. The drone zooms out to show why: I have come to a bluff—there is a sheer 1,000-foot drop to the Colorado River below. Since the Jeep can go no farther, I get out and walk to the edge.

When we returned home from Utah, I took our footage and combined it with what my father had filmed on Super 8. I spliced scenes together, blurring the line between past and present. The moment when I’m on the precipice cuts to one at the same spot shot decades earlier. My father is there, his legs dangling over the cliff. I reversed the footage at this point so he appears to turn and greet me—the approaching figure—with a knowing nod. He’s like the wise knight in The Last Crusade, waiting all those years for Indiana Jones to arrive.

The movie seems to enter a time warp at this point, flashing rapidly between past and present. Few people who know my family have been able to get through it with a dry eye. At the end, Mat runs into the frame for the first time. The spell is broken. Mat puts his arm around my waist as we wave to the camera. Or are we waving to my father, thanking him for leading us here and for the opportunity to see him again?

I am desperate to communicate with the past, but so much of it is elusive, scattered, unknowable. I’m all too familiar with the frustration of sifting through fragments of truth and possibility for answers to my questions. I understand now that searching and listening and following are vital, but not always enough. I reconstruct what I can and use imagination to bring the rest into being. To set the world as it should be. To set it as I need it to be. What else can I—or anyone—do?

I write all this enveloped by Hans’s study. It’s a beautiful, peculiar little room, the one with the second mural. The sharp California sun streams through the picture window, with its tulip-patterned stained glass, and brightens the Honduran mahogany I spent half a year liberating from white paint. The effort it has taken to get here—I know it, because it was partly mine. The room sprang from Hans’s mind and from materials he could get his hands on, but it is here, still, because of me. So is the love story once concealed in the basement. I found it, heard it, and told it the best way I know how.

Maybe, though, someone else’s version of Hans and Anna’s story was always in plain sight. I stare up at the mural of the American West. For a time, I was confused by the two mute swans and the white stork, painted in corners of the room, because neither species is native to North America. I should have put it together sooner: The mute swan is a symbol of Denmark—the national bird—and features in Hans Christian Andersen’s iconic fairy tale “The Ugly Duckling.” White storks, now rare in the country because of habitat changes, traditionally arrived in Denmark from Africa each spring, signifying new beginnings.

The pair of swans—they’re Hans and Anna, aren’t they? Surrounded by the possibilities of a new world, swimming together in calm waters, together forever. It’s what Hans wanted more than anything, this ending to their story, and he made it so.

© 2023 The Atavist Magazine. Proudly powered by Newspack by Automattic. Privacy Policy. Privacy Notice for California Users.

The Bard

The Bard

One man’s quest to save the music of the Holocaust.

The Atavist Magazine, No. 102

Makana Eyre is an American journalist based in Paris. His first book, about Aleksander Kulisiewicz and the music of the Holocaust, will be published by W.W. Norton & Company.

Editor: Seyward Darby
Designer: Ed Johnson
Copy Editor: Sean Cooper
Fact Checker: Kate Wheeling
Illustrator: Clay Rodery

Special thanks to Barbara Milewski, associate professor of music at Swarthmore College, and Peter Wortsman, writer and translator, for their translations of the song lyrics. Translation assistance was also provided by Joanna Suchomska and Iza Wojciechowska.

Published in April 2020.


Thousands of people had journeyed to the ruins of Waldeck Castle, a collection of stone arches, mossy walls, and eroded towers on a ridge in the Hunsrück mountains of West Germany. It was May 1967, the fourth spring in a row that a folk festival had been staged at the medieval site. Forests spanned the valleys below—miles and miles of oak and hornbeam, green and thick with leaves.

The festival drew young people from across West Germany and other parts of Europe. Clad in jeans and colorful shirts that wouldn’t have been out of place in a hippie enclave like San Francisco—or, two years later, at Woodstock—the audience lounged on the grass and watched dozens of performers take the festival’s small stage. There were earnest voices, acoustic guitars, and lyrics about peace, love, and resilience. Among the performers were local acts—Romani jazz bands, for instance—and big names from overseas, including Sydney Carter, who played the song “Turn Him Up and Turn Him Down,” and Hedy West, a banjo-playing folk revivalist inspired by the Appalachian culture in which she grew up.

One performer seemed out of place. He was an old man—at least he looked old. He was thin, and in his hair and eyebrows were streaks of gray. He was known to perform wearing an ill-fitting outfit, baggy and striped. It was the uniform of a concentration-camp prisoner.

An excerpt from “Jüdischer Todessang.”

The man stood before the microphone, holding a steel-string guitar. He took a long pause before he spoke, offering a few words about the songs he would be singing. Many of their composers, he said, had perished in Nazi camps. The man closed his eyes and drew a deep breath before plucking the guitar and beginning.

Bom, bom, bom, bom

His voice was heavy and haunting.

Lee-lay, lee-lay, lee-lee-lay

The piece was intended for a chorus, but no other voices joined.

We’re bound for the gas

For the gas

For the gas

The crowd before him sat hushed.


On a bygone spring day, in May 1940, a bus pulled up to a white gatehouse 20 miles north of Berlin. Flanking the structure were walls with razor wire looping along their crests, threatening pain or worse for anyone who tried to escape from KL Sachsenhausen, a Nazi concentration camp. Framed in the center of the camp’s wrought-iron gate were three words: “Arbeit macht frei” (work sets you free).

The bus’s passengers were mainly Polish political prisoners: intellectuals, writers, and artists, many of them purged from the streets and flats and cafés of Kraków and the surrounding region. Among them was 21-year-old Aleksander Kulisiewicz.

“Alles raus!” the SS guards screamed. Everyone out!

The guards circled the bus. Some of them held the leads of German shepherds, and the dogs lurched and snarled. Others wielded clubs. On the crest of each man’s cap gleamed a silver skull and crossbones, the forbidding symbol of the SS-Totenkopfverbände (Death’s Head Units). When the prisoners squeezed out the bus’s door, they were met with screams of “schnell, schnell” (quick, quick) and the blunt end of the guards’ clubs. They ducked the blows as best they could.

By then, Kulisiewicz had suffered beatings at the hands of the Nazis for several weeks. The first one took place in an interrogation cell at the jail in Cieszyn, his hometown, located along the Olza River, which formed Poland’s border with Czechoslovakia. His crime, ostensibly, was writing an article. In response to events like the annexation of Austria and the terrorizing of Jews on Kristallnacht, Kulisiewicz had published pieces in local newspapers decrying Adolf Hitler and the rise of fascism. In the interrogation cell, SS men placed a copy of one article on the table before him. “With a fist, we will squeeze every insult against the Polish nation down your throat,” it read, “and we will use the broken teeth to make an inscription in front of the theater in Cieszyn: ‘People who are passing by! Tell Adolf that this is the way we broke the teeth and hit the face of the Hitlerite system.’”

The SS officers beat Kulisiewicz, breaking his teeth as they went. “Count, you dog!” he heard them shout. Kulisiewicz was forced to count each bloody tooth he spat onto the concrete floor, bowing and repeating “danke schön” (thank you) every time.

The beatings continued in the Polish city of Wrocław, where the SS transferred Kulisiewicz, and then at Prinz-Abrecht-Straße, the Gestapo’s headquarters in Berlin. During his journey to Sachsenhausen, as fists and boots rained down on his body, Kulisiewicz sometimes found himself thinking of the last student he’d tutored in Polish literature, a job he took after finishing his own studies. Her name was Ewunia, and she was just six years old. He taught her about Polish history, the beauty of their mother tongue, and the writers she would read one day, men like Adam Mickiewicz and Henryk Sienkiewicz who had penned epic poems and sprawling novels under other repressive regimes. Kulisiewicz imagined Ewunia growing up with that knowledge still alive in her mind. Somehow it made the blood in his mouth less bitter.

Kulisiewicz was forced to count each bloody tooth he spat onto the concrete floor, bowing and repeating “danke schön” (thank you) every time.

Kulisiewicz and the other new prisoners at Sachsenhausen were ordered to form rows of five. They stood in a large semicircular yard dirty with black cinders; around its perimeter was a wide track paved with smooth stones. Beyond the yard were dozens of long one-story barracks, painted dark green and fanning out from the heart of the camp. Prisoners hurried about, dressed in striped shirts and pants made of a stiff material. They only ceased their frantic motion when they were addressed by a member of the SS. Then they would halt, take off their caps, and hold them rigidly against their right thighs until the guard moved on. Some prisoners pushed carts full of dirt or sand. Others carried wood on their shoulders. Harnessed like animals, some men pulled carts filled with garbage.

Every prisoner was thin, but some were so emaciated that their stomachs and backs appeared to meet. They shuffled from place to place, sometimes hunching over to scavenge for cigarette butts flicked away by guards. There was an otherness about them, as if the camp had forced an essential piece of their humanity to depart. Kulisiewicz committed their image to his memory. He would later learn that they were called Muselmänner, a slang term that many prisoners used to describe those among them who seemed ready for death. To Kulisiewicz, the word—German for “Muslim”—connoted foreignness, alienation, and dislocation.

When the guards finished counting them, the new arrivals were ordered to march. They made their way to the intake buildings in the quarantine barracks, isolated by barbed wire from the rest of the camp. In quarantine they would be subjected to lessons in physical discipline for however long the SS wanted—it could be weeks or months. Each man waited to be called forward to a desk, behind which sat another prisoner; much of the camp was run by detainees. When it was Kulisiewicz’s turn, he gave the man at the desk his full name (Aleksander Tytus Kulisiewicz) and date of birth (August 7, 1918). He was handed a slip of paper. Written on it was the number 25,149.

“Learn it by heart,” the prisoner at the desk said. It was Kulisiewicz’s new identity.

There were more lines, more waiting. In one room, the prisoners were forced to give up their belongings. Clothing, watches, cash, food, papers—all of it documented in ledgers and stuffed into sacks. Naked, they went to another room, where men with electric razors shaved them under harsh lamplight. Everything was shorn: pubis, armpits, legs, head. Kulisiewicz felt the teeth of a shaver press against his forehead and plow to the base of his skull. Stroke by stroke, his dark hair fell onto his bare shoulders and down to the floor.

Then came the distribution of uniforms, a cold shower, and barracks assignments. Kulisiewicz’s barracks held about 300 men. He received a cloth badge bearing the letter P inside a red triangle, which he had to sew onto his uniform. P meant Polish; the red signified that he was a political prisoner.

Kulisiewicz realized that most of the detainees in charge were German. It seemed that many of them were communists and trade unionists, people the Nazis viewed as enemies who were put in the camp during the regime’s crackdowns of the 1930s. The SS guards were like angry deities who intervened in the drudgery of camp life to scream, beat, and kill. “There are no sick prisoners,” one blockführer (block leader) told new arrivals. “In the camp, you’re either dead or living. The only way out is through the crematorium.”

The white Gothic script painted across the gables of the barracks closest to the camp’s main yard suggested another way out. In German, the words said, “There is one path to freedom: its milestones are obedience, industry, honesty, order, cleanliness, sobriety, truthfulness, sacrifice, and love of the Fatherland.” Kulisiewicz could read the writing because he’d grown up speaking German with some of his relatives.

At the end of his first day in Sachsenhausen, Kulisiewicz sat over a bowl of soup. A few potatoes rested at the bottom of the murky broth. Around him were other Poles newly torn from their lives and loved ones—priests removed from parishes, teachers from classrooms, communists from printing houses, students from dormitories. Before bed, Kulisiewicz looked out the window of his barracks. He saw watchtowers looming over the camp, with gun barrels protruding from observation points. Beyond them he glimpsed the tops of pine trees scraping the dull evening sky.

Kulisiewicz lay on his side between two other men, on a straw mattress on the floor. What did he think of as he tried to escape a waking nightmare? Maybe he conjured what brought him joy. Perhaps, as he fell asleep, he thought of music.


In 1926, as a boy of eight, Kulisiewicz wanted to impress some of his friends and a girl he liked named Věruška. It was a harvest day, hot, and workers from nearby fields sat around on their break drinking coffee and eating potato pancakes. Kulisiewicz loved to entertain, and when he and his friends climbed onto the roof of a laundry business, he found what he hoped could be his props: two wires that fed electricity into the building.

The adults on the ground below warned the children not to touch the snaking cords, that they would deliver a fatal shock. But Kulisiewicz couldn’t help himself. The temptation of testing the adults’ honesty consumed him so much that he brushed the back of one of his hands over the wires. When he wasn’t shocked, he decided to go a step further: Mimicking a ringmaster or magician, he declared that, for his next act, he would pick up the wires, surely astonishing Věruška and the other children. Over the shouting of the adults, Kulisiewicz did as he said he would and grasped the cords in his fists.

When he awoke, he was buried up to his neck. He couldn’t feel his body; he could only bob his head up and down against the loose, sandy soil. Witnesses to his electrocution had put him in the ground, believing that the earth might draw the charge out of his body. Eventually, he regained enough of his strength to crawl from the hole, with some help, and go home.

Kulisiewicz soon realized that, ever since the accident, he’d spoken with a horrible stutter. There was no speech therapist in Cieszyn, so one day, when a circus came through town, his father took him to the hypnotist—a man known only as Roob. “You must speak, you must recite poems, but you will do it differently than all other children,” Roob told the boy. He instructed Kulisiewicz to picture a blank page in his mind and then imagine writing what he wanted to say. “Whatever you write on this page, read it immediately, and if you do that, you will not stutter,” Roob said. “You will even be able to speak publicly.”

Kulisiewicz spent the rest of his childhood practicing the technique. He used it when asking for meat at the butcher, writing out in his mind how much ham or tenderloin he wished to buy. At school, when the class recited poetry or passages from Poland’s great books, Kulisiewicz imagined the words before saying them.

The technique helped him overcome the stutter. It also helped him nurture a budding power of memory. From early in his life, Kulisiewicz had found it easy to recall words and lists. In school he excelled at anything requiring memorization. The technique Roob taught him further sharpened his recall, making it extraordinary: He could store information and call it forth whenever he desired, like pulling a book off a shelf in his mind.

Several years after encountering Roob, Kulisiewicz himself joined the circus: In his late teens, he left home to follow a young woman, an acrobat he’d fallen in love with. His job with the circus largely consisted of cleaning up and breaking down tents, but he learned about performance, too. Clowns, dancers, and contortionists taught him how to tell jokes and engage an audience.

Kulisiewicz’s father was dismayed. His own roots were humble—the elder Kulisiewicz was one of more than a dozen children born in a small Polish village to a carpenter and his wife. He’d married a woman who was raised upper middle class, the daughter of an Austro-Hungarian engineer, and he had studied at the prestigious Jagiellonian University in Kraków, a remarkable feat for the son of a rural laborer. He went on to become a language professor at a classics school attended by the sons of local nobility. He wanted his son to complete his education.

Kulisiewicz obliged his father, enrolling in Jagiellonian University to study law, but his coursework held little interest for him. Instead of memorizing legal doctrines, he was drawn to the city’s cabarets. Music had always fascinated him. In Cieszyn, the townspeople sang Polish folk tunes, and sometimes as a teenager he’d heard Yiddish and Romani melodies. He had a good voice, and he could whistle well. Because of his memory, he learned songs quickly and never forgot them. For small sums of money, he would perform in Kraków’s smoky clubs, singing the tangos and love songs of interwar Poland. He became obsessed with the rush that being onstage delivered.

While in law school, Kulisiewicz performed music in Kraków’s clubs.

In September 1939, Nazi Wehrmacht tanks rumbled into Poland. Luftwaffe bombers screeched across the sky, leaving plumes of black smoke in their wake. Meanwhile, in the east, Joseph Stalin’s tanks rolled over the cobblestone streets of cities and towns. The Red Army imprisoned Polish soldiers and took over local governments.

After five weeks, the roar of the invasions died down. The Polish army had been crushed. Some military leaders escaped to France, where they attempted to form a government in exile. When that didn’t work, they fled to London and tried, with little success, to govern their occupied land from afar. Others were rounded up and sent to camps. After just two decades of freedom, secured at the end of World War I, Poland was again under the control of its stronger, more aggressive neighbors.

Kulisiewicz’s father was at immediate risk after the Nazi invasion: The family heard that the regime was planning to purge schools and cultural institutions and to deport professors and teachers to labor camps. When the knock on the door his family feared finally came, Kulisiewicz was the one who answered it. The SS officers asked where his father was. Kulisiewicz said that he was out. The men reviewed the records they’d brought with them and said that the regime wanted Kulisiewicz, too. He was detained on the spot.

In the days and hours leading up to that moment, Kulisiewicz had been mourning the loss of his country. He thought of Biłgoraj, east of Cieszyn, which the Nazis had torched. Because it was an old, poor place, its houses built mostly of wood, much of the town had disappeared. Only piles of ash and a forest of orphaned chimneys remained.

The devastation of Biłgoraj was a far cry from the thoughts that had consumed Kulisiewicz not so long ago. Before the invasion he’d fallen in love again, this time with a young Czech woman named Bożena. She sold vegetables in the town square. She was poor and often barefoot, and she didn’t love him back. Kulisiewicz tried to change her mind. Sometimes he stood next to her baskets of potatoes, cauliflower, parsnips, carrots, and turnips and sang to her.

“You will go hoarse,” she told him, trying to shoo him away, “and won’t impress the world with your singing anymore.”


Sunday afternoons were among the only times when the prisoners in Sachsenhausen’s quarantine had little to do. They took the chance to recuperate before the next day, when their brutal disciplinary routine would begin again: the marching, the squatting, the running. The Nazis called it “sport,” a euphemism for physical activity so intense it seemed choreographed to drain the life out of a man. Kulisiewicz had been at the camp only a few weeks, but his naturally slender body was already shrinking. His arms were sinewy; bones jutted out where they hadn’t before. Around him men had begun to die of malnutrition.

Kulisiewicz was anxious to make contact with his family. He had no information about their fate, nor, surely, would they of his. They had no way of knowing that he was hundreds of miles from home, already wasting away.

On this particular afternoon, guards informed the prisoners that the camp authorities would let them send letters if they paid for stamps. But Kulisiewicz had no money. The unfairness of it brought tears to his eyes. He made his way to the barracks where the SS housed some priests. Surely, he thought, a man of God would take pity on him and give him the money to write home. A stamp was only six reichspfennigs, after all, just a few cents.

He approached a Czech priest, still fat from his privileged life before the war. Kulisiewicz spoke Czech—he’d done so with Bożena—and he had studied the country’s literature. He hoped that his knowledge would endear him to the priest. In Czech, Kulisiewicz recited the poetry of famous writers like Jiří Wolker and Jaroslav Seifert, then he asked for a few coins, explaining the situation. The priest considered the request and asked for something in return: Kulisiewicz’s margarine ration.

Kulisiewicz feared that giving up a morsel of fat could mean death, but a letter to his family seemed worth the risk. He left the priests’ barracks with coins in his pocket and a thought weighing heavily on his mind: The camp was full of opportunists, men only concerned with saving their own skins. Even the priests he’d been taught as a child to revere, who were supposed to be generous and good, were bastards willing to survive off the misery of others.

Music helped Kulisiewicz cope. He often sang in his head as a way to distract himself from the torture and humiliation of sport. Now, as he walked away from his encounter with the priest, he began to whistle a song: Vittorio Monti’s “Csárdás,” a wailing tune inspired by Hungarian folk music. Its melancholy opening notes were meant to be bowed out on the lowest string of a violin.

After a few minutes of walking, Kulisiewicz noticed a prisoner behind him. The man was short, bald, and thick chested. Stitched to his striped uniform was a yellow Star of David. He seemed to be listening intently. Kulisiewicz stopped his song. The man said shyly, almost in a whisper, “Please, keep whistling, sir.”

Kulisiewicz was taken aback. The man spoke Polish and addressed him formally, despite being at least two decades older. Still feeling the sting of losing his margarine, Kulisiewicz muttered a reply. He didn’t wish to talk with a stranger who he assumed wanted only to beg for something or recruit him to a camp organization. The man persisted, talking to Kulisiewicz about music he liked. Eventually Kulisiewicz warmed to him.

When Kulisiewicz confessed what had happened with the margarine, the man took him by the arm and together they walked back to the priests’ barracks. Kulisiewicz pointed out the Czech priest who’d taken his ration. The priest was leaning against a wall, chatting with someone and munching on bread. The man with Kulisiewicz approached the priest and demanded that he give back the margarine. Speaking sharply, the man looked the priest straight in the eye, unafraid. Other prisoners heard him and gathered round.

“I have no idea what you’re talking about,” the priest replied, smiling.

The man pressed, and the priest’s smile disappeared. The priest lunged forward, his hands in fists, and struck the man across the face. He called the man a damn filthy Jew. More prisoners joined in, kicking and yelling at him.

When they managed to flee, the man was bruised, and Kulisiewicz was disgusted. They eventually had to part ways, because Jews and other prisoners weren’t housed together. As Kulisiewicz made his way to his barracks, he couldn’t stop thinking about the Jewish prisoner.

Prisoners sometimes sang in the barracks at Sachsenhausen.

A fellow Pole named Bolesław Marcinek told Kulisiewicz about the choir. Marcinek was 17 and had also been held at the jail in Cieszyn. One night in the barracks, Marcinek said that if he liked music, Kulisiewicz should go listen to the singing in blocks 37 and 38, where Jews were housed. A group of men had formed a choir and sang whenever they could, thanks to a block guard, a communist prisoner, who allowed it.

Kulisiewicz was stunned. As soon as an opportunity arose, he snuck into block 37 to watch one of the choir’s secret rehearsals. He stood in the back of the room, up against a wall. Some 30 men were arrayed before him, warming up their voices. All of them wore the Star of David. Some were balding, with wrinkles crawling around their eyes and across their foreheads. Others were young—still teenagers, perhaps—with smooth faces and thick hair.

The men didn’t seem to be professional musicians, but that didn’t matter. Their conductor knew how to draw out the best possible sound. He would stop the men’s singing to adjust the division of voices, making sure there were four strong groups—altos, tenors, basses, and basso profundos—able to sing in harmony. He assigned each man to a group based on the tone, timbre, and range of his voice.

The conductor was the man who had stood up to the priest. His name was Martin Rosenberg. That a clandestine choir existed at Sachsenhausen was surprise enough to Kulisiewicz. That he’d already met the conductor, and under such unusual circumstances, felt like more than a coincidence—it was something like kismet. When he noticed Kulisiewicz, Rosenberg smiled. He kept his hands aloft, never stopping his work. His blue eyes gleamed.

Kulisiewicz recognized some of the music, folk tunes and songs featured in Yiddish-language films of the 1930s. He saw how the members of the choir seemed revived, if only a little, by the music. Rosenberg later told him that he formed the group—at great risk to everyone involved, especially himself—because he had to. “I could not look at those people, knowing that they would die and they would never sing together,” Rosenberg said. “That would be a betrayal.”


Kulisiewicz felt much the same. On a warm summer evening, he stood in a corner of his barracks before a few dozen prisoners. They leaned against bunks or sat on the floor. When the dazzling brightness of a watchtower spotlight swept past a nearby window, it illuminated their ashen faces.

Kulisiewicz began to sing. His voice was faint, so as not to draw the attention of the camp guards:

I’m a godforsaken Polish pagan

To everyone here I’m less than nothing

They pu-pu-pu-push me around


Oh Muselmann, Muselmann

Kulisiewicz looked at the faces of the men before him. They were mostly Poles, expelled at gunpoint from the lives they knew. By then everyone knew what their future held: chattel labor, murderous overseers, beatings, hangings, their only means of escape in the plumes of black smoke rising from the crematorium.

Beyond barbed wire the sun shines brightly

Beyond barbed wire children play

But on the barbed wire

A sad, charred body droops


As the song came to an end, Kulisiewicz would have slowed to the pace of a lullaby:

Mama, my mama

Let me die in peace

It was the first performance of the first song he’d created at Sachsenhausen.


When they could, Rosenberg and Kulisiewicz met to talk about music. Rosenberg said little about his life or the circumstances that had brought him to Sachsenhausen. It was as if there had been a breach in the universe—everything that happened before the war, outside the camp, seemed inconsequential in comparison with the here and now. Unless, that is, a fact of someone’s previous life made them special in the Nazis’ eyes, for better or worse.

Rosenberg alluded to being a communist and expressed disdain for Europe’s aristocracy. In time, Kulisiewicz learned that he was born in 1890, came from the Polish town of Szreńsk, not far from Warsaw, and went by a musical alias before the war: Rosebery d’Arguto. That’s what Kulisiewicz took to calling his friend. Rosebery, in turn, called him Aleks.

Often they met before or after one of the Jewish choir’s secret rehearsals. Rosebery spoke of his favorite composers—illustrious Europeans like Edvard Grieg and Felix Mendelssohn, and beloved Poles like Władysław Żeleński and Józef Nikorowicz. The men discussed how fascism profaned music and used it for evil. They built a bond that transcended their age difference and the fact that one of them was a Catholic and the other a Jew.

Rosebery’s choir staged its first performance, hidden from the Nazis but open to some prisoners, in block 39. Beforehand, men stacked up the barracks’ collection of thin mattresses and blankets, making space for the crowd that eventually gathered. During the show, Rosebery’s hands—rising and falling, beckoning strength and then urging softness—seemed to shape the men’s voices.

The choir held more performances and so did Aleks, sometimes to celebrate birthdays or holidays. Rosebery and Aleks determined which barracks were the safest for gatherings—usually the ones overseen by German leftists who had been imprisoned since the Nazis’ rise to power. The men also knew how to calibrate the timing and volume of performances. If, say, a prisoner had escaped the camp, everyone was subject to much greater scrutiny. Performances needed to be smaller, quieter, and possibly held at night—or not at all.

All the while, Aleks composed his own songs, putting new lyrics to melodies he remembered from his youth. He did it for entertainment and to avoid thinking about the camp’s conditions. He also used music to create a record of life in Sachsenhausen. Prisoners were dying of malnutrition, exhaustion, disease. They were taken to the crematorium and turned to ash. Many prisoners knew that, across the Nazis’ expanding empire, the regime was killing people: men, women, and children, shot and buried in trenches. While squatting during sport, his legs swelling from the lack of circulation, Aleks wrote lyrics about the horror the world had become. Word by word, line by line, verses came together in his mind.

He couldn’t write the songs down. Doing so would mean punishment, even death. Nothing could be saved—except in his memory. Using the trick the hypnotist had taught him as a child, Aleks began to build a catalog of music and poetry. At first much of it was his. But some pieces came from Rosebery and his choir, and over time they increasingly came from other prisoners. A man in the barracks after a long day of sport would begin to sing, and Aleks would listen, committing the words and melody to memory.

Sometimes Aleks sang of courage—of men like Jan Miodoński, a doctor and professor who once confronted Sachsenhausen guards when they threatened some older prisoners. In other instances, Aleks sang of home:

Oh Kraków, oh Kraków

Lovely city

Everyone’s astonished

By your beauty

“Mister C”

Aleks wrote lyrics about the wider war. In the wake of the Allied humiliation at Dunkirk, Hitler’s army advanced east and west across the continent, snuffing out any hope that the conflict would be a short one. At a secret performance, Aleks debuted a song that he called “Mister C,” about Winston Churchill:

It’s the second year, dear God

And the swastika’s still frolicking

There is no power that can exhaust it

So we’d all better get down on our knees

Meanwhile, Mister C puffs his big cigar

Mister C blows out some smoke

Europe crumbles all around him

But he’s got the coin and he’s got the blues!

Mister C will snuff out his smoke

And he’ll spit on Adolf’s “Sieg!”

He’ll pay for Adolf’s funeral on the Isle of Rugia—

Maybe as early as ’43!

For Aleks and Rosebery, for the men who witnessed their performances, and for those who sang or hummed along, music was a form of defiance. If the prisoners shared their art, the Nazis couldn’t take everything from them.

While squatting during sport, his legs swelling from the lack of circulation, Aleks wrote lyrics about the horror the world had become. 

When Aleks was released from quarantine and joined the main part of Sachsenhausen, he found himself farther than ever from Rosebery. Still, they found ways to meet. Sundays were when they were most likely to see each other and seek an escape from their circumstances by talking about music. Once, Rosebery complained about jazz renditions of folk songs. Why ruin beautiful music?

Adapting to life outside quarantine felt like being initiated into a new universe. There were more than 10,000 men on the grounds, prisoners from all over Europe, and a strict hierarchy was observed. At the top, as ever, were the Germans, mostly political dissidents and convicts locked up before the war. Below them were men that the Nazis considered Aryan—Norwegians, for instance—followed by the French. Eastern Europeans came next: Poles, Czechs, Ukrainians, and, in increasing numbers, Russians. On the lowest rung were Jews and homosexuals.

A prisoner’s ranking, Aleks soon realized, wasn’t necessarily fixed. Upward mobility was possible if a man had useful skills or other resources. Being fluent in German put him above many of his fellow Poles, but he would have to figure out other ways to make himself indispensable, or at least not an easy target. For Rosebery, being both Polish and Jewish, the scramble for status was even harder and more necessary. In the 1930s, he had conducted socialist choirs that sang in protest of capitalism. This ingratiated him with some of the camp’s German communists, who arranged less arduous work assignments for him or gave him extra food.

Sachsenhausen was a machine for the Third Reich. The men who survived quarantine were assigned a work detail, and their toil was in the service of Hitler’s vision for his new empire. The camp’s brickworks, for instance, supplied building materials intended to expand Berlin. Another unit assessed the strength of synthetic leather that the Nazis hoped would be durable enough to stitch into boots for Wehrmacht soldiers fighting on both fronts. It took only a day of work for Aleks to understand that the SS would squeeze every bit of energy and effort out of him; if he died, they would replace him with another man. Protecting himself from the most brutal kind of work was a matter of survival.

Each day began with reveille at 4:15 a.m. The men made their beds, ate stale bread, and drank hot liquid brewed with burned potato peels or rotten roots to make it seem like coffee. By five they were marching to the appellplatz (roll-call square), which faced a gallows. Thousands of men lined up in rows of five, standing at attention to be counted. They repeated the ritual at dusk.

Aleks was assigned with many other Poles to the brickworks, which was located along a canal about two miles from the main camp. The SS guarded the prisoners’ every move as they worked. On the canal were barges piled with sand. The men’s job was to unload sacks of it, carrying the heavy cargo across a narrow plank stretching from barge to bank. Sometimes guards would shake the plank as the men crossed; to them it was an amusement. If a prisoner fell into the canal and couldn’t swim, often the SS men laughed as they watched him drown.

These and other deaths produced a grisly sight at evening roll call. The SS required that every man from that day’s work be present, dead or alive. Survivors hoisted corpses onto their shoulders or dragged them to the appellplatz. After roll call, the dead were left in heaps. Prisoners working as body collectors lifted them onto wooden carts and wheeled them to the crematorium.

When winter arrived, the brickworks became more dangerous still. A layer of ice formed on the canal, and sometimes the plank iced over, too. By then the prisoners were carrying cement—two sacks at a time, tied together and looped around each man’s neck. If a prisoner fell and broke the ice, no matter how much he clawed for life, the sacks would drag him below. Shards of ice sliced men’s hands as they sank. Blood stained the canal’s frozen surface. The bodies were never recovered.


Singing in his barracks, Aleks made a name for himself with his darkly comic lyrics. He composed lines about Wilhelm Böhm, an enthusiastic crematorium guard known to call out to prisoners who passed by him, “Come to Böhm! You’ll surely be coming my way soon, so why not now?” Aleks sang:

Whether it’s by night or day

I smoke corpses—full of joy!

I make a black, black smoky smoke

’Cause I am black, black Böhm!

“Czarny Böhm”

Soon, Aleks’s power of memory became as well-known as his musical skill. Prisoners started coming to him, asking that he remember their songs. “Aleks,” they would say, “do you have some room in your archive?” He would close his eyes and respond, “Dictate it to me.”

This was how he met a man called Aron. Tall, young, and once broad shouldered, before starvation set in, Aron told Aleks his story when they met while sweeping the camp’s pavement. Before the war, he had worked as a watchmaker in Poland, where he’d lived with his wife and young son. When the Nazis deported Jews from their town, the family were sent to Treblinka, a death camp. There the SS smashed his son’s head against a wall and shot his wife. Aron told Aleks that he witnessed both murders. He begged an SS guard to let him stay with his son overnight, before the body was incinerated the next day. He pulled the boy’s corpse from a pile and curled up on the floor next to it. In a silence heavy with the stench of death, Aron composed a lullaby in Yiddish.

Aron told Aleks that he’d managed to escape Treblinka and obtain a fake passport. He made his way to Berlin, where he again found work as a watchmaker. He went undetected until one day he saw some boys from the Hitler Youth bullying an old Jew. He leaped from his workshop and hit one of the boys. The police arrived, examined his documents, and realized that they were counterfeit. Soon he was on a train to Sachsenhausen, not because he had escaped from Treblinka, and not because of his heritage. It was only when he undressed at the camp’s showers that he was outed as Jewish.

Aron asked Aleks to memorize the lullaby that he’d written at Treblinka. It took several days for him to dictate it, because they could speak only while they swept. The SS were watching, so they had to be quiet and keep close. Lyric by lyric, Aron shared his song:

Crematorium black and silent

Gates of hell, corpses piled high

I drag stiff, slippery corpses

While the sun smiles in the sky

Here he lies, my only little boy

Tiny fists pressed in his mouth

How can I cast you into the flames?

With your shining golden hair

Aleks saw that the man’s knees were thicker than his thighs, that he spat blood, that his body looked almost transparent. Sometimes feces ran down his leg. Still, Aron went on, bending his head toward Aleks, demanding that he remember the lullaby. “This is my only vengeance, you goy!” he wheezed.

Lulay, lulay—little one

Lulay, lulay—only son

Lulay, lulay—my own boy


Oh, you sun, you watched in silence

While you smiled and shined above

Saw them smash my baby’s skull

On the cold stone wall

Now little eyes look calmly at the sky

Cold tears, I hear them crying

Oh, my boy, your blood is everywhere

Three years old—your golden hair

When he reached the final stanzas, Aron’s voice rose, almost to a shout:

Lulay, lulay—little one

Lulay, lulay—only son

Lulay, lulay—my own boy


“Shut up or we’ll attract attention!” Aleks said. “And anyway, what kind of lullaby is this if you shout it?”

Aron looked at him with contempt. “You’re an idiot,” he said. “All I wanted was for my child to wake up.”

“Aleks,” prisoners would say, “do you have some room in your archive?” He would close his eyes and respond, “Dictate it to me.”

Life grew more brutal. The SS picked off prisoners to kill in arbitrary ways. They would order a man to take off his cap and throw it past a cordon line, then order him to retrieve it. If he did, the guards shot him for trying to escape; if he didn’t, they shot him for insubordination.

Thousands of Soviet prisoners of war arrived, then quickly disappeared. Word soon spread that the SS had lined them up in a special building. The guards shot them one at a time until they were all dead.

Aleks felt the depth of the camp’s cruelty when SS guards who had learned about his singing took him to the medical ward. The chief doctor of Sachsenhausen, Heinz Baumkötter, injected him with the bacteria that causes diphtheria, an ailment of the respiratory system that can cause suffocation. It can also destroy the vocal cords. That evening back at the barracks, Josef Čapek, a painter, and Walter Thate, a onetime paramedic who worked in the medical ward, smuggled Aleks an antitoxin. A few days later, the doctor brought him back in to see how the injection was working. Baumkötter forced Aleks to sing, and since he was still able to, the doctor injected him with another dose of the bacteria.

Again friends snuck Aleks the antidote. Again when he discovered that the bacteria had no effect, Baumkötter gave Aleks another dose. After taking the antitoxin once more, Aleks was summoned by Baumkötter. This time the doctor merely shrugged. “Let that dog continue to sing,” Aleks heard him say.


Rosebery feared that the Jews had little time left. He told Aleks he saw omens that he was sure presaged their deaths. One evening in early October 1942, he came to Aleks. “You are not a Jew,” he said. “If you survive, you must sing my song of bitterness and revenge, my death song. You have to sing it all around the world, or else I will curse you and you won’t be able to die in peace.” Aleks promised he would.

The song Rosebery referred to was an adaptation he had just completed—new lyrics put to an old melody. He called it “Jüdischer Todessang” (Jewish Death Song). Aleks heard it a few nights later, when he attended a rehearsal of Rosebery’s choir, which had continued to perform in the Jewish barracks. It was cold, and a hard rain was falling. Aleks saw shivering men singing by candlelight, their faces glowing. He crouched in a corner; prisoners who were not Jewish were strictly forbidden from being there.

First came the basses, deep and slightly hoarse: Bom, bom, bom, bom. They sang in unison, their eyes fixed on the flourishes of Rosebery’s outstretched hands. Then came a falsetto voice: Lee-lay, lee-lay, lee-lee-lay. It was Rosebery himself, Aleks realized. He imagined the basses as death, fast approaching, and his friend’s voice as the children it would soon claim. He knew the melody: It was a song from a Yiddish-language film that was popular in Poland before the war.

A young Jew with the thick neck and muscles of a newly arrived prisoner stepped forward. In a pure and vivid baritone, he sang of ten brothers who traded wine. One by one, the brothers died:

Yidl with your fiddle

Moyshe with your bass

Play, oh sing a little

We’re bound for the gas!

For the gas

For the gas

Aleks saw SS guards burst into the barracks before the song reached its end, a series of quiet knells. He quickly slipped out a window into the darkness as a guard gripped the youngest singer, Izhak, and smashed his head. He watched as the rest of the men were marched outside to the appellplatz and forced to their knees. In the mud, soaked through by the rain, they continued to sing.

A guard kicked Rosebery in the teeth, and blood splattered on the guard’s shoes. The SS man made Rosebery lick it off. Lee-lay, lee-lay, lee-lee-lay, the men kept singing.

The guards forced them to stay there through the night. Many did not live to see morning. For those who did, it was only a few days before the SS rounded them up and deported them to a death camp. Rosebery was among them. The night in the rain had been the last concert of Sachsenhausen’s Jewish choir.


Aleks was devastated by the loss of his friend. Still, he kept composing, adding riskier songs to his repertoire—ones that could get him killed if the SS ever heard them. Months turned into a year, then another. When he learned of the Nazis’ waning power in the war, he revisited a song that he’d written shortly after he arrived at the camp. He called it “Germania,” and initially it had been about the seemingly unstoppable expansion of Hitler’s empire. Now Aleks added a second verse:

You had half the world



Now you’ve got crap in your pants

And crap to patch your pants!

Shit-caked country!


The Americans and the British intensified air raids on Berlin in the winter of 1943 and 1944. Aleks could see the planes roaring across the sky toward the capital just south of the camp. Bombs shrieked toward the earth. Sometimes the blasts were powerful enough to shake the bunks of the barracks and bright enough to see from the windows. Aleks wrote:

My, oh my, pretty little gate

You swallow everyone up, you don’t let anyone out

My, oh my, nasty gate

You’ll be busted to pieces

I guarantee it, filthy scum!

New prisoners arrived in droves. Thousands of Polish men came to Sachsenhausen after the Germans crushed the Warsaw Uprising. Prisoners came from other countries, too—the Nazis’ territory was shrinking, and detainees had to be put somewhere. The camp’s population swelled into the tens of thousands. Among the new arrivals were women. Food, already scarce, became an extravagance; the weakest prisoners died rapidly. As he starved, Aleks furiously memorized the songs he heard people sing.

Bombs shrieked toward the earth. Sometimes the blasts were powerful enough to shake the bunks of the barracks and bright enough to see from the windows. 

In late March 1945, word got around that everyone at Sachsenhausen would soon be evacuated. On April 20, for the first time ever, there was no roll call at the appellplatz. The next day, the blockführer announced that everyone who could walk would leave immediately.

Aleks took his place in a column of Poles—as ever, five wide—and began marching. If someone stopped or fell, the SS shot them and left their body on the road. Aleks understood the danger he was in. He could hear artillery rumbling in the distance and machine-gun fire popping in the forests. The SS were jittery. The slightest infraction could mean death; the guards even shot men who stopped to urinate. Aleks saw bodies in ditches, presumably unlucky prisoners who’d been shot in the columns ahead of his. Eventually, dead women and children were in the ditches, too.

The marching ceased only at night, when the prisoners camped along the road. Some men found shelter in old barns, and a few lucky ones dug up potatoes in abandoned gardens. Songs swirled in Aleks’s mind. He had to be careful—to blend in, keep his head down, never make eye contact with a guard. Sticking out could mean death.

The march ended without a fight. Soviet troops didn’t intervene. Prisoners didn’t revolt. After a few days of marching, the SS guards simply fled, disappearing into the forest, changing into civilian clothing taken from farmers or the dead. Suddenly, the prisoners found themselves free. Some ran. Some just sat on the ground, trying to gather the strength to decide what to do next.

Aleks remained for a few days where the marching had stopped, near the German city of Schwerin. Then he moved on, determined to trek back to Poland. He walked and took buses and trains when he could. He traversed Czechoslovakia and eventually reached the river that marked the border with Poland—the Olza, on whose banks he had grown up. He could see Cieszyn across the water.

By then he was sick. He reached a hospital, where a doctor diagnosed him with typhus. His fever was high. He lay in a bed, delirious, approaching death. When he mumbled, asking for a nurse to come to him with a typewriter, the doctors thought he was mad.


His fever eventually broke. When he was able to leave the hospital he found his family, who had survived the war. Life went on, as it must. In the postwar years, Aleks enacted a convincing imitation of normal. On some nights, he went to cafés in Kraków where former Sachsenhausen prisoners met to share stories. The men worked as carpenters, engineers, doctors, and scientists. They were committed to rebuilding Poland, even as it struggled under the yoke of the Soviet state. Aleks, by contrast, felt stuck. He’d held several jobs—overseeing a lemonade factory, working as a journalist in Prague. His first marriage, which produced two sons, ended. He found himself obsessed, to the detriment of everything else in his life, with the promise he’d made to Rosebery.

By 1960, Aleks was working as a salesman; his wares were state news pamphlets. He was often on the road, traveling throughout Poland, and along the way he met more and more people who had survived the Nazi camps. He asked them for their stories and about music they remembered. Soon he was corresponding with strangers, writing hundreds, perhaps thousands of letters to former prisoners of Sachsenhausen, Dachau, Buchenwald, and other camps. Documents, musical scores, recordings, maps, notes, and diaries arrived at his apartment. Aleks, with a meticulous eye and a fastidious method, filed everything neatly into folders he kept in cabinets and on shelves.

The work took a toll. Money was scarce, and his health faltered. A second marriage, in which he had another son, ended. Aleks’s friends encouraged him to give up documenting the music of the camps, but he couldn’t.

Aleks began performing some of the songs he learned, mostly at festivals or in small gatherings at student clubs and concert halls. He did so first in East and West Germany, then in other parts of Europe. Often he donned a camp uniform. Singing was a political act, albeit a wholly different one than it had been at Sachsenhausen. In Italy, neofascists planted a bomb under the stage where he was set to perform. The police, tipped off, disarmed the device.

Kulisiewicz dedicated his life to documenting the music of the Nazi camps.

The performance at the Waldeck Castle festival was an important one, placing Aleks alongside prominent figures in the folk revival. Who was in the audience mattered just as much. With World War II more than two decades gone, many young West Germans wanted to show the world that, unlike previous generations of their countrymen and women, they were on the right side of history—that they opposed, for instance, the bombs lighting up the skies of Vietnam. The annual festival, which had started as a celebration of music with little in the way of organization (or sanitation), had always had political overtones. The 1967 event was no different. “The fourth festival should openly discuss not only the difficult questions of our society, but also the difficult questions about the form of artistic engagement,” the program stated.

When he took the stage, Aleks’s music reminded the festival’s audience that the past was still present—that the terror their fathers had inflicted lived on, and would forever. When he finished, the crowd remained quiet. It was how audiences usually reacted to his music. Applause felt unseemly in response to what he’d just performed: the songs of the dead—of his dead.

Back in 1945, feverish at the hospital, Aleks hadn’t been mumbling. He’d been dictating music—the lyrics of the songs written on the blank pages of his mind during his five years at Sachsenhausen. He needed to say the words aloud, for someone to listen, in case the typhus killed him. He needed to pass the music on, as he’d told Rosebery he would.

A nurse realized that there was sense to what he was saying, so she got a typewriter and started to transcribe. She returned again and again to his bedside over several weeks. When Aleks was finished, the nurse had typed of pages of song lyrics and poems.

Among them were the mournful lines of “Jewish Death Song,” which Aleks would perform at Waldeck Castle and elsewhere. He had kept his promise.

Publisher’s Note

Aleksander Kulisiewicz died in Poland in 1982 at the age of 63. His archive, which contains the correspondence, music, scores, and memoirs he collected from former prisoners of the Nazi camps, is now housed at the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum (USHMM) in Washington, D.C.

The excerpt from “Jüdischer Todessang” comes from publicly available audio of Songs From the Depths of Hell, Kulisiewicz’s 1979 album, produced by Smithsonian Folk Ways Recordings. Other music samples are from the collection Ballads and Broadsides: Songs from Sachsenhausen Concentration Camp and are used with the permission of the USHMM.

“The Bard” is based in part on the memoirs and memories of Holocaust survivors. As is well documented, trauma of the kind endured by camp prisoners can affect what a person remembers, and how. The Atavist presents events as sources recalled them, supported by rigorous fact-checking of the circumstances in which they occurred.

© 2023 The Atavist Magazine. Proudly powered by Newspack by Automattic. Privacy Policy. Privacy Notice for California Users.

Lost in Summerland


Lost in Summerland

At the world’s largest gathering of psychics and mediums, two brothers confront a painful secret.

By Barrett Swanson

The Atavist Magazine, No. 98

Barrett Swanson is a writer whose work has appeared in Harper’s, The New Yorker, The Paris Review, and The New York Times Magazine, among other publications. He is the recipient of a Pushcart Prize and the Halls Emerging Artist Fellowship at the Wisconsin Institute for Creative Writing. His essay collection Lost Causes (Counterpoint Press) will be published in 2021. 

Editor: Seyward Darby
Designer: Ed Johnson
Copy Editor: Sean Cooper
Fact Checker: Kate Wheeling
Illustrator: Emanuel Polanco

Published in December 2019. Design updated in 2021.

As best we can tell, the hauntings began after Andy’s traumatic brain injury. On Christmas Eve 2005, outside a scuzzy bar on the east side of Milwaukee, a drunk man sucker-punched my elder brother, bashing his head against the wall of a brick alcove and leaving him splayed on the snow-confected sidewalk, unconscious with seven brain contusions. For several days, my family sat vigil around Andy’s bed in the ICU, whispering prayers into clasped palms, wincing at the doctors’ ambiguous status updates. At first the prognosis was fatal. So extensive was the bleeding, the hospital felt sure it was only a matter of time before Andy slipped irrevocably into a coma. But he woke fortuitously on the morning of the 30th, wide-eyed and cogent, requesting, of all things, a meal from Boston Market.

After a nine-month-long odyssey of dizzy spells and aphasic episodes, my brother, then 22, regained most of his memory and, as we liked to joke, the better parts of his personality. He bought his own apartment and finished a bachelor’s degree, got married and took a corporate sales position. But something strange started to happen over the next couple of years. At night he heard creaky footsteps in the hallway and stray voices in the closet. Initially, we feared the worst and believed the head injury had jostled his brain into psychosis—a grim but not altogether unreasonable conclusion. Eventually, my dad flew out from Milwaukee to visit Andy at his new home in Houston, and when he arrived, he found my brother sitting meditatively cross-legged on the kitchen floor, with the lights of the chandelier above him flickering of their own accord. Without even the most cursory acknowledgment of my father’s arrival, Andy said, with a kind of holy calm, “There’s someone in the room with us.”

In time my brother began to insist that he could speak to the dead and receive dispatches from the spiritual realm. Whenever I visited him on the West Coast, where he had eventually taken a job in the tech industry, his friends would pull me aside at bars to confide that Andy had “summoned” their dead relatives, battering me with questions about what it was like to grow up with him. Most of my family grew convinced of his paranormal talents. (Bear in mind that up until that point my parents had been lapsed Catholics and flinty-eyed midwesterners, with little tolerance for the supernatural.) My father once gawked at water glasses that slid across the breakfast island—presumably the work of spirits—while Andy stood transfixed at the kitchen’s threshold. When my grandmother passed away, my sister-in-law reported seeing a green orb floating over Andy’s bedside, and upon shaking him awake, they both watched, dumbfounded, as the glinting emerald sphere drifted toward the ceiling and vanished. “Your brother,” my mother once said to me, in a solemn whisper, “has powers.” Things reached some sort of apogee when Andy said he was stopped for a traffic violation and, just as the cop began scribbling a ticket, he channeled the ghost of the officer’s mother, who had recently died from congestive heart failure. The cop let Andy off with a warning.

Naturally, I tended to regard these stories with smirks and sidelong glances. Andy, who is three years older than me, has long had a weakness for showmanship—his coworkers nicknamed him the Bull for his ability to B.S. his way through corporate presentations—and to those who know him well, it wouldn’t be inaccurate to suggest that he has coasted through life on the wind of his own charisma. I have seen him make barrooms come to life with karaoke renditions of “November Rain.” I have seen him dicker with car salesmen, performing such adroit campaigns of ingratiation that he invariably rolls out of the lot in a vehicle for which he has paid several thousand dollars below sticker. I once joined, very briefly, a rave at a club in Milwaukee, a victim of my brother’s coaxing. And so it was precisely this capacity for stagecraft and sweet talk that made me doubtful of—and amused by—his claims of paranormal élan.

But soon these “visitations,” as Andy likes to call them, began happening with a fervor and frequency that made his wife scared. Whenever he went on business trips to places like Amsterdam or Beijing, she’d receive odd transcontinental phone calls during the wee hours, with Andy sounding rattled and nonplussed, muttering darkly about spirits in the bathroom or unattributed thudding on the hotel room walls. Hoping to leaven the issue when I learned of it, I waggishly ventured that perhaps the noises were merely the clamor of some netherworldly tryst, lost souls reuniting in the honeymoon suite. But he dodged my attempt at humor and said, with absolutely zero irony, “You know, you might be right about that.”

I worry my tone will seem to gainsay what I mentioned before about maintaining a dose of utmost skepticism. But if you could only hear the earnestness of my brother’s testimony, then you too might entertain a squirm of doubt. You too might suspend your disbelief. Could it be that my brother, by fluke of grievous brain injury, had somehow become a maître d’ to the underworld, summoning wraiths to ease suffering and evade misdemeanor tickets? Was he some kind of a modern-day Charon, straddling the river between the living and the dead?

In the spring of 2018, he called out of the blue and asked whether I’d ever heard of a place called Lily Dale, a quaint hamlet an hour south of Buffalo, New York. It is home to about 275 residents, many of them registered psychics and mediums. Each summer, some 22,000 tourists descend upon the town for séances and drum circles, hoping to reunite with departed loved ones. “Imagine Wet Hot American Summer,” Andy said. “But with dead people.”

Initially, I begged off, claiming a busy summer of yard work and university teaching. “Oh, come on. It could be a bros’ trip,” he said. “Plus, you could watch me do my thing. By the end of the week, I guarantee you won’t think I’m full of shit.”

“I don’t think you’re full of shit,” I said.

A silence came over the line. Truth be told, I sensed that his bluster was Andy’s cover, that perhaps he was trekking to Lily Dale because he’d grown frightened by what was happening to him and was now desperate for an explanation.

Cursory groundwork on the Internet would later yield several reports of marquee figures who’d be heading to the camp that summer. There was the feral-eyed Michelle Whitedove, a fifty-something “angelic channeler” and “forensic medium” with a mane of autumn-colored hair, a woman who had been named America’s Number One Psychic by a reality TV show in 2007. On YouTube, I found a clip of the show, called America’s Psychic Challenge, in which Whitedove roams a ten-acre swath of desert and divines the exact location of a man buried six feet underground with a small tank of oxygen. Also in attendance would be Reverend Anne Gehman, a pearl-wearing, lid-fluttering medium who taught classes on bending spoons and whose clairvoyant abilities had allegedly helped investigators catch the serial killer Ted Bundy.

“Well, what do you think?” Andy said. “Do you want to come with me?”

Was my brother some kind of a modern-day Charon, straddling the river between the living and the dead?

Over the next few months, whenever I mentioned my impending trip to “Silly Dale,” as online wags have rechristened it, colleagues at various universities would barrage me with paranormal tales. In the interest of leaving their reputations unbesmirched, I will refrain from uttering their names in print, but rest assured: These were highly credentialed members of their fields. In hushed tones, they told of dalliances with clairvoyance, about sourceless bumps in the night. One colleague, a poetry professor, regularly consulted psychics and mediums; another put her faith in the portents of Tarot card readings. All this seemed of a piece with the broader resurgence of heterodox traditions, for in the days leading up to our trip, it seemed like I couldn’t hop on the Internet without stumbling across stories about millennials turning to astrology, or CEOs embracing eastern religions, or covens of young witches casting spells in New York City. Even the renewed interest in psychedelics—see Michael Pollan’s How to Change Your Mind or Tao Lin’s Trip—felt like a quest to open up the doors of perception.

It’s telling that Spiritualism, the creed of Lily Dale, was born in the middle of the 19th century, a time when many Americans were suffering, in real ways, from a welter of epistemological disruptions—the Civil War and Darwinian theory, the death of God and the birth of capitalism. Spiritualism’s nativity scene took place in upstate New York in the 1840s, when a trio of adolescent sisters—Leah, Kate, and Margaret Fox—reportedly heard mysterious rappings on the walls of their parents’ house. Once news spread of their ethereal activities, the Fox sisters launched a whirlwind tour of New England and the Midwest, holding séances in town halls and hotel parlors, drawing audiences of all classes and backgrounds. What emerged over the next four years was a national craze for paranormal communication, with spirit circles—clubs for channeling the dead—forming in almost every city that the girls had visited. One newspaperman in Cincinnati claimed that some 1,200 local mediums came out of the woodwork in the wake of the Fox sisters’ performance.

The notion that spirits could intervene in worldly affairs was, of course, not new, but there had never been a formal religion based exclusively on the premise that humans could receive communiqués from the dead, particularly their dead loved ones. While the movement’s various sects quibbled over doctrinal differences, Spiritualists were united in the belief that a brigade of so-called spirit guides helped each individual find their way toward Summerland, a term that eventually became the religion’s sobriquet for heaven. And while we might expect modern science to have rinsed such thinking from the American imagination, the movement remained surprisingly durable, as evidenced by the political tumult of the 1960s—another period of narrative breakdown—when many people turned to New Ageism for balmy existential comfort.

Once again the center was not holding. By 2018, the country lacked a workable epistemology, and even our most cherished pieties were wobbling or already lay in smithereens. I’m not sure how many examples I should provide. Need I mention that The New York Times was running page-one stories about the existence of UFOs? Would it suffice to say that scientists were alleging, in peer-reviewed journals, that octopuses were aliens, that reality was nothing more than a pixelated shell game? Meanwhile, our nuclear codes were in the hands of a buffoonish real estate mogul, and millions of Americans had fallen under the sway of fake news and conspiracy theories. Perhaps this was why members of the commentariat began sounding the death knell, contending that, with the 2016 election, America had at last fulfilled John Adams’s 1814 disclaimer about the fate of any democracy. “It soon wastes, exhausts, and murders itself,” he wrote in a letter. “There never was a democracy yet, that did not commit suicide.”

It seemed that we had passed on to some bleak, dusky afterlife, a mist-swarmed purgatory of facts and alternative facts out of which emerged such fearsome ghouls as InfoWars, Stephen Miller, and Space Force. Given that our lives had essentially become posthumous, could you really blame me for wondering if my brother could summon ghosts?

It seemed that we had passed on to some bleak, dusky afterlife, a mist-swarmed purgatory of facts and alternative facts out of which emerged such fearsome ghouls as InfoWars, Stephen Miller, and the Space Force. 

The route to Lily Dale wended through a swath of upstate New York that once served as the fertile crescent of American utopian thinking—John Humphrey Noyes’s Oneida community, Frederick Douglass’s abolitionist newspaper—and yet the scenery itself was hardly so auspicious. Much of this area was waylaid by the 2008 recession, and husks of mills and factories still dotted the wearisome landscape. As Andy and I drove, we glimpsed remnants of the old Bethlehem Steel plant, and the Concord grape vineyards south of Buffalo looked like a postapocalyptic Napa Valley. So godforsaken was this neck of the country that Donald Trump, in the waning days of the 2016 election, had condemned it, not unfairly, as “a death zone.”

Hunched at the wheel, I snuck glances at my brother, whose face was sallow and draggy with fatigue. Most days he resembles a bald and musclebound Elijah Wood, but his flight the previous night was delayed by several hours, so both of us were running on no sleep and looked a bit like revenants.

“Here are just a few of the workshops on deck this summer,” Andy said, thumbing his smartphone and scanning the agenda from the Lily Dale website. “There’s ‘Fairyology: Finding Fairies 101.’ There’s ‘Orb Phenom—Orbs Are Among Us!’ Or we could check out ‘Getting to Know Your Spirit Guides.’ Plus, there’s a drum circle on Friday, and a séance tomorrow night.”

“You sure you’re up for this?” I asked.

“Yeah, man,” he said. “Let’s get weird.”

Mercifully, things brightened as we veered toward our destination. A sign read “Lily Dale 1 Mile Ahead.” We flew past three lakes rimmed with cottages, and when the clouds parted, the sky unleashed a bucolic, life-affirming blue. Nevertheless, I felt a burgeoning unease about our whole larkish adventure. Not only was this the first trip I’d ever taken with my brother, but I also wasn’t sure if I was prepared—emotionally, spiritually—for the week ahead. What if our cavortings with mediums caused Andy to have a psychotic break and I had to commit him to some remote upstate hospital? There were historical precedents for such crack-ups. In 1852, some 90 individuals from around the country were said to lose their minds and enter asylums after partaking in spirit rappings. Or what if I discovered that Andy had been lying about his abilities and this effected some irrevocable schism in our relationship, sundering our bond for all time? Then there was the possibility that he’d prove himself a bona fide medium, which would mean what, exactly, I had no idea. Yet for reasons I struggle to explain, I secretly hoped that my brother was the real deal, that he’d prove me wrong by the end of our voyage. Something lodged deep in our past—a moment long banished and left unspoken—seemed crucially to depend on it.

At the end of a secluded road, Lily Dale came into view.

“Look at my forearms,” Andy said. His skin was brailled with goosebumps. “The energy here is ridiculous.”

Threading through a warren of elm-studded streets lined with pastel Victorians, we saw a battalion of stone angels guarding the porch of one gothic-looking home, and a couple of blocks later, a bay window had been plastered campily with a decal of a cartoon ghost. Was it possible that I heard, from somewhere far off, a group of people singing Bob Dylan’s “Blowin’ in the Wind”? Soon we passed a hillock near the main auditorium where a scrum of aging tourists was performing the languorous waltz of tai chi. Near the pet cemetery, we made a wrong turn and had to swerve past an open field, which was already filling up with tents and RVs. My first thought was that Lily Dale looked like an old-fashioned summer camp, except that instead of trust falls and archery class, there were astrology walks and confabs with ghosts.

When it was our turn at the parking gate, the attendant met our eyes, then pressed his fingers to his temples, as though receiving a radio dispatch via dental fillings. “Welcome, welcome,” he said with an impish grin. “We’ve been expecting you two.”


Our first day on the grounds was a derby of occult activities. After meditating in something called the Healing Temple, we met a septuagenarian Reiki instructor named Pilar who had tufts of peacock feathers superglued to her spectacles. She called them her “eyeglashes” and explained that she was slowly transforming into a blackbird. On the patio of a coffee shop, Andy befriended an affable blond man named Jayson, who professed to be a medium in training from Brooklyn and whose first coup as a psychic came when he divined the future spouse for one of his clients. (The couple’s subsequent gratitude was noted in the Vows section of The New York Times.) He and Andy hit it off by making fun of my skepticism—God, he’s so emotionally closed off, isn’t he?—at which point Jayson scrolled through his phone, showing me grainy nocturnal photos of Lily Dale’s enchanted Leolyn Woods, an apparent hot spot for nymphs and orbs.

“OK, so these you could argue are bugs or whatever. But this,” he said, pointing to the relevant photo, in which a cricket was frozen wing-spread in the flash of a smartphone camera. “I mean, come on. That’s a fucking fairy.”

Throughout the day, people kept sharing their photos. A gray-haired pilgrim named Susan accosted us on a veranda. “Can I show you guys something?” she asked. Before we could answer, she riffled through her purse and unearthed a dozen photos, each of which she laid on the surface of a wicker end table. “I have a lot of activity in my house,” she said. One image showed a mishmash of Scrabble letters in which I slowly perceived the relevant message. “MOTHER LOVES SUSAN,” it said, “WHO IS MY DAUGHTER.”

“Automatic Drawing with Miss Bonnie” took place in the Octagon Building, not far from the Lily Dale museum. After a short prayer and some guided breathing, we were paired off and asked to close our eyes before “surrendering to spirit.” From across the room, I watched Andy blindly sketch a tableau of what looked, frankly, like a thicket of penises, which I was worried would offend his partner, a medium in training from Pennsylvania. When time was up, Andy relayed his message. “I know it’s strange,” he said, “but I keep seeing the name ‘Tom’ among all these phallic symbols.”

The woman gasped. “Tom is my husband’s name,” she said. “And that’s just his issue. I’m going through menopause right now, so let’s just say that he’s been frustrated with certain aspects of our marriage.” I watched as she and Andy erupted with guffaws, whereupon Andy turned to me and raised his eyebrows, simpering triumphantly. Yet it was hard for me to take this as ironclad evidence. Show anyone a hodgepodge of random images, and if they’ve thrown off the tethers of logic and good judgment, doubtless they’ll be able to conjure associations to their own interpersonal dilemmas. Still, that Andy had intuited the husband’s name did leave me somewhat dazzled.

Things on my side of the classroom were hardly so jovial. I was partnered with a rawboned blond woman named Ashley who looked to be in her late thirties and who had come to Lily Dale with her parents. Gravel-voiced and sullen, she worked full-time in a Walgreens warehouse, and while there was an Amazon distribution center down the road, it was hard to land a gig there. So far at Lily Dale, the messages she’d received “from spirit” had been spot-on and uplifting—exhortations to stop stressing. I asked what sorts of things she fretted about.

“Sometimes I wish I had gone to college and actually done something with my life,” Ashley said. “The problem was, I didn’t know what I wanted to do. So I never ended up doing anything.”

In the face of her weary candor, I couldn’t seem to muster the journalistic moxie needed to ask a follow-up question. But what I would discover in the coming days was that Ashley’s story chimed with many testimonies of the Lily Dale pilgrims. Hailing from beleaguered rural towns across New England and the Midwest, they were suffering from all manner of emotional or financial disaster and were desperate for a more hopeful story—that their lives were being guided by cadres of benevolent spirits, that though present circumstances were bleak, they shouldn’t give up the ghost.

“This,” Jayson said, pointing to the relevant photo, in which a cricket was frozen wing-spread in the flash of a smartphone camera. “I mean, come on. That’s a fucking fairy.”

That evening at the Maplewood Hotel, I unpacked my suitcase while Andy lounged on his bed, swiping languidly at his smartphone. Between responding to what appeared to be a deluge of work emails, he told me, with a baffling nonchalance, that he’d been having a recurring vision of a kidnapped midwestern girl whose face had colonized network news that summer. He was vague about what exactly these visions entailed, though the images he disclosed were not especially promising (cornfield, head injury). Then, without prompting, he said, “Whenever you travel, it’s always important to unpack. That’s what makes it feel like home.”

I wasn’t quite sure how to respond to any of this—the visions, the unsolicited travel advice—and so our conversation was full of awkward lapses and long moments of silence.

Not since childhood had Andy and I shared such close quarters, and even then, the propinquity usually resulted in a verbal skirmish or an all-out fracas. I suppose our relationship in those days could be best described as Cain and Abel–ish. This was owing, more than anything else, to our wildly divergent temperaments. Whereas he spent most nights hunkered in the basement and pummeling a Stratocaster, I would toil under the glow of a desk lamp, trying to make honor roll for another semester. Whereas he wore earrings and a leather jacket, I jogged across town in ankle weights, hoping to make varsity as a freshman. Our mother often explained the variance in our personalities this way: “Aren’t genes amazing?”

Still, as adults, we somehow managed to construct a passable relationship as brothers, even if, at times, it could feel performative and falsely nostalgic. For instance, whenever our family got together for birthdays or Christmas celebrations, a preening one-upmanship tended to infuse our interactions such that, within minutes of him picking me up from the airport, we’d be quoting lines from old movies, doing our bad Al Pacino impressions, or making fun of each other’s hairlines, all of it delivered with the snappy banter of brothers on a network sitcom. Rarely did we spend much time alone, however. And while we had joked over the years about his psychic abilities, we had never once hazarded an earnest discussion about them.

Which was why it was so unsettling to find ourselves inside the cramped precinct of our hotel room, brushing our teeth or changing clothes only a few feet away from each other. Almost by reflex, I found myself curious about his habits of being—his shaving techniques, his pre-bed calisthenics—rather the same way I would creep into his room as a child to marvel at his possessions. I’d flip through his CDs—Nine Inch Nails, Spiritualized—or try on his flannels, occasionally summoning the courage to pluck out a few notes on his Fender. And so, even though I was a man in his thirties—a husband, a university professor—I somehow found myself becoming again my brother’s little brother.

Perhaps this was why I found it so gratifying that the merry denizens of Lily Dale kept referring to us as a unit. As we shuffled from one psychic appointment to another, or traversed campus on our way to a séance, they’d bellow at us from across the road, “Hey, hey, it’s the brothers!” One medium traipsed over while Andy and I were eating dinner at a picnic table and said, “Well, are we making any progress with this guy?” I assumed he was referring to my glacial incredulity, and I was curious to hear what my brother might say. “I think he’s weakening,” Andy said. “But I’m not sure he buys it.”

“Bah,” the medium said, waving his hand at me, like a Dickens character. Then he slapped Andy’s back with affectionate gusto and stomped off toward the Healing Temple. We chewed for some time in silence. Then Andy gave me a styptic look. “I know you think this place is nutty,” he said.

I reminded him that we’d just seen a man barf up jewels that he claimed were relics from the spirit world. This was at a demonstration of something called “apportations,” in which a medium will brusquely produce supernatural objects through a transdimensional portico (in this case, his mouth).

“It’s just, I was really hoping to get some answers here,” Andy said. He explained that his wife had become increasingly worried about him. Before he left for Lily Dale, there’d been a scene. They feuded in the car outside the airport, with finger-pointing and furrowed brows. Perhaps she doubted him, called him crazy, something like that. His prognostications had grown darker over the years, more unsettling, and she didn’t want to believe what he had to say.

“Things have gotten pretty grim, so I know that she wants me to get it under control,” he said.


In the mid-19th century, Spiritualism’s earliest practitioners were inclined to believe that technological advances like electrical wires could be divine portals to the spiritual realm. It was for this reason that Benjamin Franklin became the movement’s patron saint and that its flagship periodical was dubbed The Spiritual Telegraph. One early adherent believed that electricity was “the vehicle of divine mentality,” which could be harnessed to communicate with “all parts and particles of the universe.” At a distance of two centuries, it’s easy to malign these Americans for their naiveté, but we must remember that, within the span of two decades, they’d gone from waiting months to get a letter in the mail to somehow receiving a cross-country dispatch by telegraph within minutes. From there it was only a short leap of logic before supposing you could commune with ghosts.

Part of me wondered whether my brother’s job in the tech industry had made him susceptible to precisely this delusion. An evangelist for cloud software, he had decked out his house over the years with a whole flotilla of smart technologies: thermostats that respond to voice commands, a refrigerator that alerts him whenever the eggs are running low. Even Amazon’s Alexa had become a frequent interlocutor at family dinners, telling knock-knock jokes to his children or dispensing Jeopardy-grade trivia to him and his wife. To be ensconced in such an environment—one so seamlessly attuned to your whims and predilections—perhaps it was only a matter of time before you regarded yourself as similarly omniscient.

The reigning consensus at Lily Dale, however, suggested otherwise, because virtually all the mediums to whom I spoke insisted that my brother’s premonitions were likely caused by a cerebral hemorrhage. “That or a high fever can trigger it,” said fifth-generation Spiritualist Gretchen Clark. Lauren Thibodeau, a Lily Dale medium with a PhD in psychology, explained that it’s not uncommon with near-death experiences. “Depending on the study,” she said, “you find that between three-quarters to 100 percent of people who almost died will tell you that they became psychic, they became healers, they became mediumistic.”

This supposition is more or less in keeping with the findings of Diane Hennacy Powell, a neuroscientist trained at the Johns Hopkins School of Medicine. Powell has written a book called The ESP Enigma: The Scientific Case for Psychic Phenomena, which I brought with me to Lily Dale and had been reading surreptitiously whenever Andy went on jogs or bedded down for the evening. Though derided by critics as wholesale bunkum, the book is interesting in places, particularly when it conjectures a direct correlation between brain trauma and clairvoyant prowess. While some mediums are genetically predisposed to their gifts, Powell has said, “There are also cases where people haven’t had psychic abilities until they’ve suffered head traumas. What’s common is that these people who’ve had this head trauma, the structure and function of their brain has changed.”

Ordinarily, I would not be willing to lend these theories much credence. After all, as a dutiful child of poststructuralism, I’m well aware that science suffers from a dastardly case of confirmation bias, and one needn’t wander far to locate rigged experiments or cherry-picked data. But it turns out that modern researchers can replicate the results of parapsychological studies—those that supposedly prove the existence of clairvoyance and telepathy. Shortly before our trip to Lily Dale, I had dredged up an article from American Psychologist by Lund University professor Etzel Cardeña, who suggests that the most cogent and persuasive explanations for these phenomena involve fringe physics and quantum entanglement, which conceive of objects not as isolated and entropic but threaded together in a vast tapestry, where every movement is connected via gorgeously reticulated spindles, even across time and space. It gets weirder. Calling upon the research of Princeton physics philosopher Hans Halvorson, Cardeña has suggested that this “superentanglement” explains why an individual can sense, even across great distances, the abrupt death of a loved one. It was this theory, in particular, that I kept returning to in the days and weeks that followed. Was it possible that family members could be quantumly entangled?

About a year before our trip to Lily Dale, in the midst of an unremitting depression, I began to contemplate suicide. I will resist the sentimentality of describing the causes. Enough to say that I had been plagued by a neurochemical glitch since childhood, and some periods of my life were worse than others. I had tried everything: Prozac and CrossFit, yoga and therapy. Routine occurrences prickled my thoughts like wind against a burn scar, and most days were less endured than climbed. For the first time in two decades, I found myself down on my knees, my hands threaded in unstudied prayer, whispering pleas and apologies to the God-shaped hole in my mind. I told no one—not even my wife—of my plans, that the escape offered by leather belts and ceiling beams had begun to strike me as inordinately appealing.  

Then I awoke one morning to a voice mail from my mom, telling me to call as soon as I got up. Naturally, I worried that someone had died, that our family had been visited by yet another disaster. But it turned out that Andy had called her in the middle of the night, terrified and inconsolable. There were tears in his voice. Out on the West Coast, he’d been barhopping with friends when he got the most unnerving presentiment.

“What did he say?” I asked.

“He—” my mom started, her voice wounded with concern. “Oh,” she said. “He just drank too much. I’ll tell him you’re fine, honey.”


On our second afternoon at Lily Dale, Andy and I wandered to the Forest Temple for one of two daily “message” services. It featured a round-robin of seven or eight mediums standing at the front of an outdoor amphitheater and haphazardly beckoning spirits. We sat below a sun-dappled canopy of hemlock and elm, amid roughly 200 other tourists, and watched as, one by one, the mediums did their thing.

Like all niche communities, the Spiritualists at Lily Dale have evolved their own extensive lingua franca, rife with daffy euphemisms for the brute facts of life, the most representative of which are their various phrases for death. These include “passing over,” “in spirit,” “going from the earth plane,” and “departing for Summerland.” So much of the ethereal argot is gooey and granola crunching, but at times its poetics attain a distinctly erotic mood, especially when a medium approaches a member of the audience and asks, “May I come to you?” Other idiomatic expressions amplify the carnal entendres with shades of penetration. “May I step into your vibrations?” or “May I touch in with you, my friend?”

This consent seeking seems proper. After all, the communiqués can get fairly intense. Toward the end of the service we attended, one of the mediums brought forth a message for a shaggy-haired twentysomething named Bobby, who was sitting in the back pews with his friends, a cluster of raffish-looking bohemians. The medium described the spirit of a gaunt, pallid man who’d been pacing across his apartment in the moments before he died and over whom “a river of tears had been shed.” After the service, Andy caught up with Bobby and asked whether the medium’s description had meant something to him.

“Yeah, man, that’s my cousin, who OD’d on heroin,” Bobby said. “The last couple days, he’s been following me around.”

That evening we met up with Bobby and his friends under the gazebo of Lily Dale’s dock, which jutted into the moon-glazed shallows of Cassadaga Lake and offered us shelter from a pinprick drizzle. Soon cans of Budweiser were slugged and packs of American Spirits were torn open. There were seven friends altogether, gregarious and in their early twenties, wearing hemp fibers and various configurations of tie-dye. One got the sense that their Birkenstocks had treaded the grounds of many outdoor music festivals. Each introduced themselves with a fun fact and their astrological sign, as was their special custom whenever meeting new people. Bobby was a Taurus who was slogging through a master’s degree, penning a thesis on agricultural-reform movements in postcolonial West Africa. His girlfriend, Erica, was a grad student with a pixie haircut whose fun fact was that she was a rabid fan of the Red Hot Chili Peppers. But the obvious ringleader of the group was Mekenna, a big-eyed, fast-talking hairstylist with a Harry Potter tattoo. A Pisces, naturally, she said, and everyone laughed.

It turned out that Mekenna and her cousin Meredith came from seven generations of Spiritualists, and their distant ancestors helped found Lily Dale at the crack of the 20th century. They grew up coming here every summer, studying the Fox sisters and playing tag among the crystal-clutching tourists who thronged the streets from June to August. Mekenna’s grandmother is a longtime Lily Dale resident, and her mom is a practicing medium in Milwaukee. For a moment, I tried to imagine a childhood where your parents routinely nattered with spirits—where nightly prayers might involve the ectoplasmic manifestation of your dead grandpa. Reckoning with such phenomena as a digital native must have been a trip. Consider the impulse to post about family séances as a sullen, irascible teen: FML, Mom is channeling grandpa again. He says I’m too boy-crazy for my age. LOLZ. But growing up, Mekenna and Meredith tried to keep the theology under wraps. Turned out their peers weren’t exactly accepting. Often recess featured a hail of vicious schoolyard epithets: Demon! Satanist!

Of course, now that nearly every strain of American occultism had experienced a sudden renascence, the group didn’t much witness this kind of opprobrium anymore. If anything, they said, there’d been a growing consumer market for all things esoteric: jade stones for Kegel exercises, crystals for off-kilter chakras. Even a mainstream lifestyle brand like Goop could get rich by peddling New Age curios. It was enough for me to wonder why occultism had come into vogue again.

“Look at what’s going on in the planetary alignment,” Meredith said. “That would help explain things. The outer planets are generational, so when we think about big movements or certain decades as having unique characteristics, it’s probably because Pluto was in Libra then.” Pluto in Libra turns out to be a quintessential astrological formation among stargazers, who believe it to be responsible for the upswell of divorce throughout the 1970s.

Despite whatever coldhearted materialism I professed to endorse before our trip, I nevertheless found myself enthralled by a worldview that could so neatly explain massive social disruptions. Part of me worried that the group would think I was baiting them, but I asked anyway: “So why is Trump happening?”

The gazebo resounded with their collective groans. But Meredith had an answer at the ready: “So, last year’s solar eclipse lined up with his chart exactly, in countless ways.”

“But astrology is not determinist, so it didn’t make Trump happen,” Bobby cut in. “There’s plenty of socio-political underpinnings to our societal problems.” Unlike Meredith, who had been raised in the cradle of Spiritualism, Bobby became interested in this theology as an adult, and I got the sense that he was worried I might see them as witless yahoos, clutching maladaptively to backward explanations.

Again Meredith countered, looking toward the stars. “You can do charts of countries or events—anything that has a time and place—and the birth chart of America is, like, very, very Cancer,” she said. “So why is the United States so concerned about defense? Why are we about protecting the homeland?”

“Well,” Bobby said, “whomever we elect is a symptom of a larger disease—that being our economic system of capitalistic exploitation. Obama was a symptom of this larger disease as well. He came at his particular time and his particular place. And we didn’t get a whole lot different from Obama.” He quickly sketched the last decade of geopolitical woes—Syria, Libya, Turkey—before eventually concluding with syllogistic finality: “So all of this is part of a larger disease that exists in the United States.”

“But that’s been going on way before Obama,” Meredith said.

“Oh yeah,” he said. “That’s how we’ve been operating since this country’s inception.”

“Obama’s a Leo,” Mekenna said, “in case anybody’s curious.”

As the evening unraveled and the lake boiled with rain, our talk shifted, and the group became curious about the origins of my brother’s mediumship. “I would hear stuff,” Andy said. “And I would be like, I’m going fucking insane. I’m losing my mind.” A few years ago, when his wife’s uncle died, freakish things started happening in their house. Furniture would move. They were lying in bed one night when a picture frame skated across the dresser. “Every time we fought, something would intervene,” Andy said. “We would walk into a room screaming at each other—two Scorpios, right?—and the lights would start flickering, or the volume on the TV would go wildly up and down.” One night he woke up and saw the apparition of his wife’s uncle loitering in the bedroom’s corner.

“I didn’t understand any of it. I didn’t know what the fuck was going on,” he said. “But eventually I got to a point where I was like: I get it. And I could start hearing the messages. I would pray, and I would actually hear responses.”

I had heard bits and pieces of this story before, but always in the elusive, half-joking manner in which Andy tended to relay them. To hear him speak so earnestly now was a little unnerving, and I glanced at the kids to see whether they might roll their eyes or snicker at him. But they never did.

He started transmitting dispatches from his wife’s dead relatives, which was difficult, he said, because they were Dutch and only spoke broken English. (At this point, my skepticism flared—what, they can break through the time-space continuum but have no access to Google Translate?) He began doing readings for his wife, predicting that certain events would happen on a given timeline, and to her astonishment, they consistently panned out. Soon she was dragging friends home on girls night—“when they were all hammered at two o’clock in the morning”—so he could do readings for them, too. Sometimes he’d find himself wandering out of the house and driving to the grocery store for no apparent reason. It wasn’t until he saw a particular shopper that he’d realize why he was there: “I’d be walking the aisles and find myself saying, ‘Is your name Mandy?’ And I’d be like, ‘Uh, your mom’s here.’”

“That’s some Long Island Medium shit,” Mekenna said.

Andy turned to me and, seeming to register my skepticism, remarked, “Barrett thinks I’m full of shit, because he’s never seen it before.”

“Analytical Aquarius,” a girl named Fargus said, rather wearily.  

“All weekend, I think he’s been googling ‘How to test your psychic brother,’” Andy said.

I felt, for the first time, somewhat ashamed of my hidebound incredulity, perhaps because I was newly aware of how desperately my brother needed this story—an Iliad in which his injury wasn’t random misfortune but a godsend that endowed him with spiritual purpose. Perhaps this was related to the wider cultural appeal of a worldview like astrology. After all, at least some of these millennials were professing to read our worldly turmoil by the stars, which offered the tantalizing prospect that if I could understand such celestial oscillations, then maybe I could rest assured in knowing that Saturn would soon be in retrograde, that Trump would be ousted, that words like truth and facts might one day mean something again. Given the grief we’ve endured at the hands of this administration, to say nothing of the head-swiveling instability caused by our most recent recession, one could be forgiven for pursuing such a totalizing narrative, with the reassuring plot twists of conflict, climax, and feel-good denouement. What united my brother and these kids was that they were looking for a benign, large-hearted way of being in the world, a story that could cleanly explain what was happening and why, and I couldn’t help admiring the sheer blamelessness of that.

As the rain slowed to a drizzle, we headed back to the encampment, where the air was flavored with bonfires and lights were still glowing in the Maplewood Hotel. Perhaps a séance or two was yet underway? Our farewell was full of hugs and promises to hang out tomorrow. Maybe it was owing to the day’s marathon of activities, but I found myself weirdly enamored of these Spiritualist kids, who were now somewhat adorably counseling my brother on finding a New Age community. Mekenna offered to put Andy in touch with her mom. Fargus and Meredith were confident that there were Spiritualist churches in California. But Andy confessed that he was scared to come out publicly as a medium. “The energy here is really safe,” he said. “But back home I’m just a freak at 2 a.m. for drunk friends who want to talk to dead relatives.”  

They were looking for a benign, large-hearted way of being in the world, a story that could cleanly explain what was happening and why.

The next morning, I woke at dawn to tunnels of sunshine blaring through the window. Songbirds chirped metallically in the trees. My sleep had been scanty and thin, not only because of Andy’s prodigious snoring, which resembled the flatulent-sounding horn of a sea freighter, but also because our accommodations were decidedly rustic. Our narrow room boasted two twin beds, each monastically appointed with scratchy blankets and crick-inducing pillows. Indeed, the bedding seemed to have been last updated during the Reagan administration.

Likely, part of my sleeplessness could be attributed to our upcoming class with Reverend Mychael Shane, a medium who offered an eight-hour(!) workshop on enhancing your mediumistic skills. If ever there were a test that could prove my brother’s claims, this would be it, which was why I hurried us across campus, admonishing Andy, who was still dripping from a brisk shower, as we veered toward the Assembly Hall.

Soon we made our way toward the rostrum, over which a large stained-glass window read “Church of the Living Spirit.” There sat Reverend Shane, a beefy heap of a man with wisps of silver hair and soft, bearish eyes, wearing a lavender polo and ecru slacks. Sitting in a horseshoe of folding chairs around him were our fellow classmates. There were Mark and Allen, a couple from a Spiritualist church in Florida; Karen, a local medium who served in the Healing Temple; Reverend Jane, an “international medium” with feathered bangs and disco-era makeup; and Margaret, a self-avowed “Mychael Shane groupie.” Over the subsequent eight hours, we were offered a whirlwind tour of physical mediumship, including things like apportations and “trance channelings.”

During introductions, Andy told the group the story about his brain injury, at which point Shane launched into a personalized sermon.

“You know, there’s nothing wrong with you,” he said.

Andy laughed. “Can I get that in writing, please?”

“I’m really trying to be serious here, OK?” Shane said, noticeably peeved. “There’s really nothing wrong with you. Who has a right to say even that there is? Who can say that you have a problem or something’s not working right? Maybe you’re thinking, Why did these things happen to me? Only you are gonna find out the answer. Luckily, you have the support of your family. I mean, your brother is sitting right there.”

Andy looked at me. The rest of the group looked at me. I gave a little sheepish wave. Suddenly, I felt like some scurrilous gate-crasher, here only to poke fun at some downtrodden individuals, my own brother among them. Soon I had a memory of Andy splayed on his hospital cot, his forehead gashed and bleeding, a nest of IV tubes snarling up his arms.

Then, almost as an afterthought, Shane advised Andy to invest in PepsiCo and Aflac.

My brother turned to me, his eyes throttle-popped and spooked. Later he would tell me that he’d just closed deals with both of those companies.

“You’re always going to appear off to others,” Shane continued. “That’s never going to change, but that’s OK. Because you are a divine, beautiful entity that has purpose and is necessary and needed in this world.”

The next segment of class involved billet readings. Shane explained that, one by one, each of us would come to the front and have silver dollars duct-taped over our eyes, which would then be covered by an eye mask and a bandana. Everyone else in the room would jot a question on a note card, and on the other side we’d scribble a number. “Could be 11, could be 10,043. Doesn’t matter,” Shane said. Everyone’s note cards would be placed in a wicker basket, which would then be handed to the blindfolded medium, who in turn would “read” both sides of the cards. Feats like these, Shane told us, can be “the worm on the hook to get people interested in this stuff.”

The early results were pitiful. Reverend Jane went zero for six. Mark and Allen batted about .300. I got two of the numbers right and felt momentarily cocky—do psychic abilities perhaps run in the family?—but then flubbed every subsequent card.

“Can you see through there?” Shane asked Andy after I’d blindfolded him. There was something ceremonial, if not eerily religious, about this tableau, with Andy sitting before me, eyes closed, humble as a monk, waiting to be tested.

“No,” Andy said. “I wish I could. I actually have a fair amount of anxiety in claustrophobic spaces. Ever since my injury, I don’t do well with tight spots.”

I returned to my seat and watched as Andy began shrugging in a jerky, vaguely Tourettic way, and when he reached for the first card, his hand quavered noticeably, reminding me of the spasms he’d suffered from cerebral edema during those long, anguished nights in the ICU. For a moment, I wanted to call this whole thing off, but then he placed the first note card against his forehead and inhaled deeply, audibly. “Nine,” he said. “And uh, I’m not sure if it’s my claustrophobia or something I’m picking up, but the number nine and a question about space.”

He handed the card to Reverend Shane. “The number is a nine. And the question is: ‘What is a sacred space for me to go to?’”

“Good job,” said Karen, the healer.

“Not bad,” Shane said. “Well, my job is done. See you all later.”

Everyone laughed.

Andy rummaged through the basket before extracting the next card. “I see a one and a seven, so maybe 71, but I’m not getting the question.” He passed the card to Shane. “Seventeen,” the reverend said. “So that’s what’s called spiritual dyslexia. The question is: ‘Where are my shoes from?’”

For the next card, my brother said, “I don’t know if it’s the answer to the question or the number, but there’s only ‘one.’”

“There is a circle with a one in it,” Shane said. “Not bad. OK, a couple more.”

Even with the blindfold, I could tell my brother was distressed. His cheeks were flushed, a paddled crimson, and his forehead was a geyser of sweat. Shane’s assistant, Cynthia, noticed this, too. “You’re almost there,” she said. He bungled the next one, which was my card, but I didn’t reveal this. Then, unbidden, he said, “Well, that was my brother’s card.”

I shook my head, happily perplexed, but before I could unleash a cynical rejoinder, he was plucking another card from the basket. “I see the number 2019. And I see my tattoo”—inked on his left arm was the symbol for infinity.

“Your tattoo is on there,” Shane said. “And the question is, ‘What will be the big news story for 2019?’”

At this point, people in the room were shaking their heads, their eyes mirthful and guileless, astonished in a childlike way. I turned around to gauge the reactions of two Lily Dale facilitators, who had been hovering in the back throughout the proceedings and who now gave Shane a covert thumbs-up, as if to certify that my brother was the real deal, the genuine article. The next afternoon, one of these women would suggest that Andy give readings at the 4 p.m. message service. Another would urge him to get certified by the Lily Dale board. Even Reverend Shane would offer to be Andy’s mentor at the end of the night.

Andy couldn’t read the last card, but even with a couple of blunders, the room was still full of swift converts to his cause. Karen the healer said, “Could you tell me your last name again, so that when you’re rich and famous I can say I met you?”

“That made me really uncomfortable,” Andy said.

“You got every number right,” Mark said. (And most of the questions, too, I think.)

“That’s one for the records,” Allen said.

There was something ceremonial, if not eerily religious, about this tableau, with Andy sitting before me, eyes closed, humble as a monk, waiting to be tested.

By the time the workshop had ended, it was midnight, and a big moon loomed overhead, washing the campus lawns with a thin ethereal light. Somewhat predictably, our walk back to the hotel was punctuated by sprees of unmitigated fraternal boasting (“So, bro, how do you like them apples?”—that sort of thing), and I was worried that my brother’s laughter, as it ricocheted across the courtyard, would rouse some angry spirits or perhaps a few pilgrims trying to catch some post-séance shut-eye.

I asked Andy what he felt as he was blindfolded, how he was able to identify so many cards.

“I could feel these different energies approaching me,” he said. “So I just asked them to make it go fast.”

A silence fell between us as we shuffled under a vault of wind-hissed elm trees, and without really thinking it over, I found myself asking the question that had been grating at me all week and that, I realize now, was the whole reason we came.

“A year ago, Mom called me in the middle of the night and said you were worried about me. Do you remember that?”

“Yeah,” he said.

“Do you remember why you were worried?” I asked.

As soon as I posed the question, I regretted it. The truth was, I didn’t know what to make of what I’d witnessed that night, and suddenly, I was leery of what he might say.

“I kept seeing visions of you killing yourself.”

I stopped and looked at my brother, who kept walking and peering around. Even in the twilight, I could see that his eyes were darkened with stress and little sleep, the oncoming erosion of middle age, and on the other side of the continent, there was a whole other life waiting for him. It was a minor cruelty to remember that this week wouldn’t last, that somehow we had become men in our mid-thirties, duty-bound to jobs and the burdens of our own families. The next day, we’d drive back to Buffalo, and at some point that night, he’d vanish without a trace, taking an Uber to the airport, leaving me to wake alone in the pre-dawn stillness of a sullen July morning.

But right then, in the dark of the Spiritualist campus, I was ready to believe my brother knew something that I simply could not fathom. If he intuited my past struggles—if he could divine the place in my life where the narrative began to break down, where the plot took a swerve—then maybe he could also foresee the future, which had come to seem ever more uncertain, a monstrous void of flux and foreboding. Given what I’d just seen him do, I wanted to believe my brother knew the ending to this story. I wanted to believe that I would listen. But all I could manage was a blithering acknowledgment, a little brother’s sheepish confession.  

“That was a really lonely time for me,” I said.

He was quiet for a moment. Then he shrugged. “Well, you weren’t alone,” he said.


The next morning, pilgrims were queuing up at the doors of the Healing Temple. There were elderly people inching toward the entrance with the help of metal walkers, plus a posse of young women with slovenly topknots, their tote bags emblazoned with “Feminist Witches.” A maroon-haired woman from Cleveland rapped with me about LeBron James’s recent move to the Lakers, then offered to balance my chakras with the swings of her pendulum necklace. The line moved slowly. And eventually, the early parishioners who were already inside the temple emerged from its heavy oaken doors—their faces were radiant and changed.

Next to the temple’s walkway was Lily Dale’s gnarled and stunted prayer tree, whose crown of spired branches had been tessellated with thousands of ribbons in every possible shade of teal and magenta, orange and pink. On them, lonesome Americans had scribbled abridged prayers, hopeful bulletins, little valentines to the dead. “Mom, I miss you every day. Enjoy Heaven!” and “Love + Light to Those in Need” and “Unify My Family.”

Back home this effusion of wishful thinking would’ve struck me as saccharine and pathetic. But here, under gentle wind chimes and blue sky, I found myself shorn of cynicism, earnestly moved by these barefaced gestures of pathos and heartache. When future historians try to understand how we reckoned with our cultural and political disasters, they’ll need only to comb through these variegated streamers to see how desperate and mournful we’d become. I thought of Susan, waiting for more Scrabble-letter dispatches from her mom. I thought of Ashley, back home in Connecticut, stocking product for Walgreens. And I thought of those bright-eyed millennials, our spirit guides—Erica and Mekenna, Kate and Fargus, Meredith and Bobby. Six of the colored tassels I affixed to the prayer tree were for them. Then my mind turned to my own mom and dad, to the rest of my family, all of whom were worried about me and Andy, hoping against hope that, despite everything, we’d be OK.

Inside the temple, nine healers stood at the altar. They wore bright white smocks, like special envoys from heaven. Seated before each of them, in a wooden chair, was a congregant with upturned palms and shuttered eyes. The healers waved their hands over each congregant’s body, their movements mime-like and untouching, a silent legerdemain. A tall man with a gray ponytail stood at the back of the room and played a wooden flute whose soulful, dirgy tones were both solacing and elegiac. Piquant incense perfumed the air, and eventually, the temple commandant pointed me toward the altar. I took a seat in front of a soft-voiced, bespectacled man who directed me to close my eyes. Put at the front of your mind, he told me, all your dead, all those who’ve passed into spirit. “We believe in everlasting life,” he said, “so know that those people are with you right now.”

You’ll think I’m exaggerating, but something started happening to me. As the man performed his arcane ministrations, some trapdoor on the left side of my brow flew open, and ages of stratified blackness were leaking out. Soon there were tears running from my eyes.

Somehow I was transported to a moment from 20 years ago, when I was standing at the edge of a river in the midst of my first adult-grade depression. Twelve years old, with a dark, spinning brain, I had wandered away from our family’s camp and was peering into the depths of a river, watching the brunette water froth and churn over a herd of jagged stones. I cannot tell you what came over me next, but in a moment I was there, disappearing into the violence of a brown crystalline burst.

The current was alive, a man’s hands, and almost immediately I was regretting my decision. But when I managed to breach the river’s surface, I could see my brother appear on shore, a blur of dark jeans and red T-shirt, entering the water just as soon as I went under. Somehow I was being tillered toward a raft of downed branches, where my brother had pulled us to refuge, where I had a moment to calm down and wipe the water from my eyes. I found that I was crying, still terrified, still boyishly confused about what I had done and what I still might do. How near that story of total obliteration had been, of following my dead to the other side of the river, of wanting so desperately a final and irrevocable exit.

My brother said nothing. His face was full of a terrible understanding. Always, even across time and distance, his face has been full of this terrible understanding. Then he was telling me it was time to go, and with our heads barely above the surface, he reached out to me, and I held on to him, and he ferried me back across the water.

Masterpiece Theater


Masterpiece Theater

A Dutch gallerist made thousands of forgeries and passed them off as the work of real artists. When he was caught, a new con began.

By Anna Altman

The Atavist Magazine, No. 94

Anna Altman has written for The New Yorker, The New York Times, n+1, Bloomberg Businessweek, and other publications. She has also worked as a German fiction scout and a German-to-English translator.

Editor: Seyward Darby
Designer: Ed Johnson
Copy Editor: Sean Cooper
Fact Checker: Kate Wheeling
Illustrator: Harry Haysom

Special thanks to researchers Maria Hohmann and Stefan Kuiper.

Published in August 2019. Design updated in 2021.


At first the letter read to Mira Feticu like a suicide note. “I am tired of being the guard,” it said. “The story is over. It only brings trouble.”

Consisting of a few short sentences typed on cream-colored paper, the letter wasn’t signed. “It was so dark,” Feticu said later. “I thought, What story? Somebody needs something.” The letter described a remote forest in Romania, Feticu’s native country, and included instructions. “Follow the path. After 450 meters you will find an old tree,” it directed. Nearby was another tree, marked with red paint. “Harlequin lies buried under the rock.”

The letter wasn’t a suicide note—it was a treasure map. The harlequin was Pablo Picasso’s Tête d’Arlequin (Harlequin Head). Completed in 1971, two years before the artist’s death, it’s a drawing in ink, colored pencil, and pastel on thick brown paper. The work was part of a private collection that hung in Rotterdam’s Kunsthal museum, a pavilion designed by Rem Koolhaas, until the early morning hours of October 16, 2012, when thieves broke in through a back door and made off with the Picasso and six other works, by Henri Matisse, Claude Monet, Paul Gauguin, Lucian Freud, and Jacob Meyer de Haan. Experts estimated that the missing items were worth as much as $115 million. Four Romanian men were apprehended, tried, and convicted, but the art was never recovered. The mother of one of the men claimed to have burned it in her kitchen to protect her son; she later retracted her statement, but a forensic analysis of the ash in her stove found traces of what appeared to be nails from art frames used before the end of the 19th century. Some experts believe that at least three paintings went up in flames.

The mysterious letter sent to Feticu in November 2018 suggested that the harlequin drawing had survived. “Can you imagine?” she asked me a few months after she received it in the mail. “The chance to find a Picasso.”

Feticu is an author and poet who lives in the Netherlands. She has a round, youthful face and straight dark hair that she sometimes dyes blond. In 2015, she published a novel called Tascha, based on the story of a girlfriend of one of the Rotterdam thieves, who brought his lover to the Dutch city to become a sex worker. Presumably because of the book, Feticu was the recipient of the letter indicating that whoever had the Picasso drawing wanted to give it up. The note was an invitation: Come get it.

Feticu told me that she contacted the Dutch police, speaking briefly with a detective who had investigated the heist in 2012; he said that he would call her back. When he didn’t, Feticu confided in Frank Westerman, a fellow writer and friend. They decided to go to Romania together.

Five days later, Feticu and Westerman were tromping through a snowy forest in eastern Romania, near the village of Carcaliu, where the thieves were originally from. Following the letter’s instructions, the writers walked until they located a stripe of red paint on a tree. After clearing away snow, leaves, and a thin layer of dirt at the foot of the trunk, Feticu and Westerman found a rock. Underneath, wrapped in plastic, was the treasure they’d hoped would be there. The black ink, the pastel shading, the elongated, contorted face with a bulbous nose, close-set eyes, and deep wrinkles that hardly look like laugh lines—it was the missing harlequin.

Feticu burst into tears. “I was more than excited,” she told me. Holding the Picasso in her hands, she considered how the tragedy of the Rotterdam heist, and the humiliation she felt it cast on Romanians, might be transformed into a story of redemption.

Feticu and Westerman returned to their car, photographed the drawing, and sent the images to news programs in the Netherlands. They then drove to the Dutch embassy in Bucharest, where the Picasso was whisked to Romania’s national art museum. Rather than greeting them as redeemers, the police interrogated Feticu and Westerman for several hours, to make sure the writers weren’t complicit in the heist. “I was a little bit scared, because the Romanian police are not so kind,” Feticu said.

The pair were cleared, and news of their discovery headlined the evening news in Romania. The story quickly spread around the world, picked up by outlets like The Guardian, the Associated Press, and Le Figaro. A sensational crime, an anonymous tip, and a prized work of art buried in the earth made for a remarkable tale. Reporters and art lovers alike were hopeful that authentication efforts would prove that a masterpiece had indeed been found.

Within 24 hours, however, the optimism had evaporated.

Peter Van Beveren, a onetime curator of the collection from which the work was stolen, saw a digital image of the drawing and recognized it as a fake. He noted at least six differences between the work that Feticu had found and the original Picasso: the trajectory of lines, the color tones—“deviations,” as Van Beveren called them. Confirming the curator’s suspicion, Westerman and Feticu soon received email messages from men who had seen the news out of Romania. Picasso hadn’t made the drawing, they said. But they knew who had.

“For as long as mankind has coveted objects for their history, their beauty, their proximity to genius, the forger has been there with a mocking smirk ready to satisfy the demand,” writes Frank Wynne in his book I Was Vermeer, a study of Han Van Meegeren, a notorious art forger who swindled, among others, Hermann Göring. A successful forger has the ability to produce art of high quality, certainly, and also an inside knowledge of the workings of the art world, from its business dealings to its social mores. A forger is a storyteller, even a performer—someone who can charm customers, appear trustworthy, and spin a convincing tale about where an artwork came from and how they came to possess it. To forge art takes showmanship and a healthy dose of chutzpah. Frauds must be willing to brazenly claim that a work is genuine; some go so far as to approach experts or artists themselves and request authentication.

This collection of talents, such as they are, isn’t as rare as it might seem. Fakes are everywhere in the art world. Thomas Hoving, the former director of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, estimated in his 1996 book, False Impressions: The Hunt for Big-Time Art Fakes, that 40 percent of the 50,000-odd works he examined during his tenure at the museum were “either phonies or hypocritically restored,” an idiosyncratic way of saying that someone had added signatures or flourishes to a real piece. Other estimates of how much of the art market is fake range from 20 percent to more than 50. As Wynne points out in his book, this is not a recent phenomenon: In 1940, Newsweek quipped that “of the 2,500 authentic works painted by Jean-Baptiste Camille Corot, 7,800 are in American collections alone.” Some experts believe that museums have the greatest number of forged works, in comparison with galleries and auction houses. Once it’s been acquired, art in museums isn’t likely to be subjected to further scrutiny.

Maybe the least common type of forgery is the presentation of a substitute work for an existing one, as was the case with Tête d’Arlequin. Most fakes fall elsewhere on the scale of falsification, from works of unknown origin upgraded in value by a forged signature, to copies of lithographs or other printed works added to a limited series, to canvases painted in the carefully emulated style of a major artist.

There are plenty of ways for forgers to exploit opportunities in the way art is produced and authenticated. Although the public celebrates solitary genius—one individual being singularly responsible for an oeuvre—renowned artists over hundreds of years have signed pieces produced by the people they employ in workshops. Andy Warhol called his studio the Factory for that reason. Determining what is genuine, made by a particular hand, is a tricky business, and the unregulated ecosystem of trained experts, historical documentation, and scientific techniques used (or not used) for authentication lets through plenty of fakes.

It takes a certain psychology to exploit art’s loopholes: a tendency toward self-aggrandizement, a loose relationship with the truth, and a sense of superiority, particularly vis-à-vis art royalty. Many forgers take a perverse pleasure in thumbing their noses at gatekeeping elites. And forgers can be something of a Rorschach test for the public. The art world, with its exclusivity, money, and pretension, elicits strong, sometimes negative reactions. The idea of someone skilled enough with a paintbrush or pen to fool the rich and powerful can be tantalizing. “To art critics, the forger is a mediocre artist seeking revenge; to the media, a conman interested only in money; to the apologist, he is the equal of the masters he forged; to the public he is often a folk hero,” Wynne writes.

The forger whose work appeared on the Romanian news in 2018 is among the most prolific in modern history. He spent some 20 years duping auction houses, art dealers, collectors, and perhaps even the artists he mimicked. He then spent another 20 capitalizing on his notoriety as a criminal. He painted the Picasso that wasn’t (not his best work, admittedly) and conspired to bury it in Romania.

Since the fake Tête d’Harlequin was uncovered, he has continued to tell his story on his terms—in an attempt to reclaim lost glory, perhaps, or because he believes in the self-mythology he perpetuates. He says that in playing with the line between authenticity and perception, what people know to be true and what they want to believe, he’s pointing out our collective hypocrisy when it comes to art, beauty, and talent. In piecing together his past and tracking him down in the present, I navigated boasting, trickery, contradictions, and unlikely invitations—on the part of the master forger and from people fascinated by his life and work.


One day in late September 1993, Sue Cubitt, an art historian, was sitting at her desk at Karl and Faber in downtown Munich. The 70-year-old auction house held art sales twice a year, and the catalog for the fall auction was nearly due at the printer. Cubitt was going over details of the works that would be on offer when a Dutch dealer came in without an appointment. “He was more like a kind of bureaucrat. He was a sort of unobtrusive character who spoke quite softly,” Cubitt recalled. “He raised no suspicion.”

The man introduced himself as Jan Van den Bergen, and he offered a drawing by Karel Appel for sale. Appel, also Dutch, painted expressive, figurative abstractions, often in bright colors, and he drew inspiration from folk and children’s artwork. Associated with the COBRA group—an acronym for a loose association of artists in Copenhagen, Brussels, and Amsterdam—Appel was prolific and well-known in the European art scene. That day in 1993, Van den Bergen handed over an Appel drawing created with a brush and pen, in India ink and crayon. Dated 1950, it depicted several crudely drawn figures and was titled Deux Enfants et un Poney (Two Children and a Pony).

While many consigners haggle over a minimum price at which to sell their pieces at auction, Van den Bergen said that he wasn’t picky. Cubitt took the drawing and jotted down some notes so that she could draw up a contract. Van den Bergen gave her an Orléans, France, address for his gallery. Back then, throughout the art world, it wasn’t customary to ask for personal identification—this was a gentleman’s business, and no one wanted to be rude. Unbeknownst to Cubitt, Van den Bergen made other stops around the same time to consign works at auction houses in Bonn, Cologne, Hamburg, and Dusseldorf.

Van den Bergen promised to follow up promptly with the Appel drawing’s certificate of authenticity, which he had neglected to bring with him. Some weeks later, the certificate arrived by mail. It had what Cubitt described as “a very flamboyant Appel signature”—quite large, but with the telltale slanting letters that the artist used. With its authenticity attested to, Karl and Faber decided to put the drawing in its upcoming auction.

Two months later, Cubitt received a fax from Jan Nieuwenhuizen Segaar, the proprietor of Nova Spectra, a gallery in The Hague that represented Appel. Karl and Faber’s auction catalog had come to Nieuwenhuizen Segaar’s attention, and he knew immediately that Deux Enfants et un Poney was not an original work. Concerned, Cubitt informed her boss. In her telling, he wasn’t convinced that he should pull the work from the auction—it already had bids, and Cubitt said he “was keen on every single deal that he could make.” She remembered telling him that they had no choice, not with “negative information”  in hand. “I won, and it did not come under the hammer” of the auctioneer, Cubitt told me.

The fact that Van den Bergen had consigned an inauthentic work didn’t immediately raise eyebrows. Mistakes happen; people don’t always know when they’re handling a forgery. A dealer might be asked by a client to sell an inherited work that turns out to be a fake, or one dealer might mistakenly sell a forgery to another. When a work is considered suspect, an auction house calls an expert—the artist, their primary dealer, a conservator—for verification. In most cases, if the work can’t be authenticated, the house simply declines the sale, explains why, and returns the work to the consigner. “You don’t just run to the police and say, ‘I think something’s wrong, can you deal with it?’” Cubitt explained.

The episode with Van den Bergen might have been forgotten, but six months later, on March 30, 1994, he returned to Karl and Faber. Again it was just days before the house’s auction catalog was due at the printer. Van den Bergen had three items he wished to consign: an ink drawing by Marc Chagall, a gouache by Asger Jorn, and a painting by Appel. Cubitt was on holiday, so her secretary received the items and drew up the necessary paperwork. The contract stipulated a total value of 80,000 deutsch marks (about $50,000 at the time). The auction that would include the works was scheduled for early June.

When Cubitt returned to the office, she found the items waiting for her. “I remember looking at the name of the consigner and thinking, Aha, we have to be very careful here,” Cubitt recalled. She leaned the three works against a wall, facing outward so that she could see them each time she walked past. “I’d come back to them and look at them again and again,” she said.

None of the works was anything special or unusual—the Appel was a bit garish, while the Chagall, in Cubitt’s words, was “decorative, a lot of blue, one of these typical floral bouquets.” But the certificate for the Chagall made her suspicious. It didn’t have several of the usual pieces of information. It lacked a number—akin to that included on an invoice—that would indicate its assigned place in the authentication records of the Comité Chagall, a foundation in Paris that verifies the artist’s work. It bore the foundation’s official stamp but neither an address nor a date of review. Instead, there was a typewritten paragraph attesting to the work’s authenticity.

Then Cubitt noticed a typo. The certificate said that the Chagall had been made “environs 1952.” In French, environs means “in the area of”—whereas environ means “circa.” It isn’t a mistake a fluent French speaker is likely to make. “That’s what really set the alarm bells going off,” Cubitt said.

She consulted experts about all three of Van den Bergen’s latest consignments, reaching out to Nieuwenhuizen Segaar at Nova Spectra to review the Appel, an art historian named Otto Van de Loo to look at the Jorn, and the Comité Chagall in Paris. All of them rejected the works as inauthentic. The Comité said that the certificate for the ink bouquet was a fake, but a good one. Nieuwenhuizen Segaar told The Art Newspaper that the certificate on the Appel was also suspect. “Appel rarely issued certificates,” he said. “When he did, he didn’t sign them like this, nor did he go into details about the technique used.”

Cubitt decided to call the police.

She contacted Ernst Schoeller, the superintendent of the art and antiquities division of the State Office of Criminal Investigations in Stuttgart. A trim man with arched black eyebrows, Schoeller specialized in art crimes, including forgery cases. In response to Cubitt’s tip, Schoeller called several auction houses across Germany. He learned that Van den Bergen had recently offered 35 works to five institutions. The items were of comparatively modest value. The highest reserve price—a minimum amount below which an auction house agrees not to sell—of any of the works was around 37,500 deutsch marks ($22,500) for a Chagall. Still, a fraudulent operation on the scale of dozens of consigned works was notable.

Schoeller’s interest was piqued. By chance, due to other investigations, he’d gone to Paris a few months prior, where he’d procured one of the Comité Chagall’s authentication stamps. Schoeller was quickly able to confirm that the stamp used on the Chagalls that Van den Bergen had consigned was fake—it was the wrong size. Suspecting that he had a seasoned fraud on his hands, Schoeller advised German auction houses not to give Van den Bergen notice that he was being investigated, lest he go dark.

Schoeller traveled to France, where along with local police he arrived at the address that Van den Bergen had given to Cubitt as the location of his gallery. It was on the Rue Maltotiers in Orléans. Except there was no gallery: It was just an apartment building. A visit to an address that Van den Bergen had used in Paris led investigators to a plumbing and bathroom-fixture shop. A woman who worked there said she would occasionally forward Van den Bergen’s mail to yet another address in Orléans, so the police returned there. To Schoeller’s consternation, that address was a front, too—it was the site of an abandoned house. But the tip wasn’t for naught: The post box was the same one listed as a return address on some of Van den Bergen’s fakes when they were delivered to auction houses. It was also where Schoeller found a check from a German auction house for 10,000 deutsch marks (around $6,100).

In a matter of days, their pursuit took Schoeller and the French authorities farther south. In the early morning of May 6, 1994, Schoeller and a phalanx of police arrived in Linazay, a town of only about 200 residents situated between the cities of Poitiers and Bordeaux. At the end of a long driveway of flowering chestnut trees was a twin-turreted, 20-room mansion called Château de la Chaux. (Chaux means “lime,” as in whitewash.) Van den Bergen rented the property for about 5,000 francs ($900) per month.

No one was home. A gaggle of geese cackled in the expansive interior courtyard, threatening to give away the plainclothes police officers who planned to hide among the trees and bushes, waiting for Van den Bergen’s return. The person who eventually arrived was a woman named Ellen Van Baren; she was Van den Bergen’s girlfriend. She drove onto the property in a battered Renault and quickly found herself surrounded. Later, in a TV interview, she recounted seeing between eight and ten police cars, and “one German guy [who] was very excited and asked me all kinds of questions. He walked around the house, and the more rooms we entered, the more paintings we saw, the more excited he got.”

Van den Bergen had all the tools required to produce fake certificates of authenticity, including a bag full of stamps and 30 vintage typewriters used to approximate typefaces from various time periods.

Inside the château, Schoeller found hundreds of artworks that he and the French police suspected were fraudulent. They were attributed to masters like Picasso, Matisse, and Joan Miró. They were arranged in neat stacks, apparently ready for sale. Fake Chagall paintings hung above the stove, drying. Several rooms were designated for a particular artist whose style was being faked. Authorities also found half-finished works, sketches for new ones, contracts with auction houses in Belgium, Switzerland, and New York, and false authentication certificates. Moreover, Van den Bergen had all the tools required to produce fake certificates of authenticity, including a bag full of stamps and 30 vintage typewriters used to approximate typefaces from various time periods. In a dustbin were strips of paper cut from forged certificates to eliminate watermarks, which might have given away the documentation’s true age.

“You know you’ve reached the end of your hunt,” Schoeller said years later in a TV interview. “You’re at the source of the whole evil.” He called the feeling of discovering what was inside the château “sublime.” (Schoeller, now retired, initially seemed willing to discuss the case but ultimately declined to be interviewed for this story; he said that he didn’t want to spend his retirement talking about his work.)

The Telegraaf, a Dutch newspaper, called the cache the largest quantity of fakes ever found in a single location. Schoeller’s investigation estimated that the total value, had the works been sold under false pretenses, was likely more than five million deutsch marks ($3.1 million). Given the scale of production on display, it was difficult to estimate just how many fakes had already entered the market, purchased by unsuspecting buyers before the police caught on. Newspapers reported that forgeries produced at the château had turned up in Switzerland, France, Belgium, Holland, Luxembourg, Scandinavia, and the United States.

Scale wasn’t the only issue that made tracking sales difficult. “The works are so damn good,” Schoeller told the Stuttgarter Nachrichten, “that the forgeries are hard to recognize.”

Creating a damn good fake isn’t easy. Beyond a superlative ability to paint, a forger needs materials appropriate to the era in which the real artist worked—canvases, frames, and paint pigments. These can be difficult to source or re-create, and many forgers are found out because of mistakes they made in their choice of supplies. For example, the presence of acrylic paints, which became available in the first half of the 20th century, would readily give away a fake rendition of an old master’s work. Then there’s the process of re-creating the natural aging that artworks undergo, especially oil paintings and works on paper. Temperature, humidity, dust, and dirt all take their toll. Forgers must “damage” a counterfeit to the extent commensurate with its purported age. Experts armed with UV lights, X-rays, and other technology might see right through the lie.

That is, if such intense scrutiny is applied at all. The technology and expertise required for authentication are expensive. While major museums and high-end dealers have the funds to put acquisitions under a magnifying glass, more modest outfits often do not. They rely instead on the trained eyes of employees, the reputations of consigners, and historical documentation of ownership and certification, known in the art world as provenance. Some of the biggest art cons in recent decades relied on compelling backstories. Wolfgang Beltracchi, who along with his wife, Helene, was convicted of selling some $45 million in forged artwork in 2011, concocted an elaborate tale in which Helene inherited a significant collection from her grandfather. The works didn’t have certification, she claimed, because many of them had been looted by the Nazis, and the paperwork was lost in the process. The Beltracchis went so far as to concoct vintage photographs of Helene posing as her grandmother in front of some of the forgeries, which they presented to auction houses and dealers as proof.

Strategy, or deciding what kind of art to fake, is also key. Potentially blockbuster works—oil paintings by Michelangelo, say, that might be worth tens of millions of dollars—are likely to be put through the authentication wringer. Less prized items are not. Prints, works on paper, and gouaches (opaque watercolors) usually sell for less than $10,000 and pass through small auction houses and dealers. It’s much easier to elude detection when the stakes, relatively speaking, are low.

That may have been one reason Van den Bergen forged the types of works he did—smaller-scale compositions on paper rather than oil paintings. But he may have had other, more personal motives. Among the paintings recovered from the château were large-format abstract canvases, filled with geometric shapes in shades of lime green and orange. They were originals of the artist, and Schoeller wasn’t impressed. “He’s a perfect craftsman but not an artist,” the investigator told the Stuttgarter Nachrichten. “He has no style of his own.” Perhaps that’s why he’d become a forger in the first place—an abundance of artistic ambition without the vision to realize it. 

One way or another, authorities hoped to get answers from him: Van den Bergen was apprehended at a train station, slightly tipsy, a few hours after the raid at the château. He joined Van Baren in the Orléans jail. As Schoeller and other investigators would learn, it wasn’t the first time that the forger had been detained. And his name wasn’t Jan Van den Bergen—it was Geert Jan Jansen.


Jansen was born in 1943 in Waalre, a town in the southern Netherlands. Today it’s a wealthy enclave, but when Jansen was growing up—just after World War II—life was modest, even austere. His father was a lighting designer and engineer, and Jansen later described his parents in his memoir, published in 1998, as “idealists who liked to hike in their free time. Vegetarians and pacifists who required few creature comforts. Not too much time should be spent on eating and drinking. Anything that looked luxurious was regarded with suspicion.” The family was unpretentious but loved the arts. Jansen recalled going to his first exhibition at the age of three, at the Van Abbe Museum in the city of Eindhoven, where his parents lifted him up so he could see the paintings better. In 1956, the Jansens took their son to the Venice Biennale.

Jansen moved to Amsterdam in the 1960s to study art history. He’d enjoyed painting and drawing from a young age, and he later said that he regretted not attending an art academy. As a student, he visited galleries and auction houses and attended his second Venice Biennale in 1964, describing it as “the Olympic Games of fine arts.” He became interested in the Bergen School, a Dutch expressionist style from the early 20th century. It wasn’t popular among art buyers, so Jansen could purchase original pieces on a modest budget. “As a student, you don’t have money to buy everything you like, so I had to sell one painting in order to pay for another I enjoyed still more,” he later said. “That way I started to get into the art business.”

Jansen’s amateur collecting segued into a vocation. After finishing school, he worked in an Amsterdam gallery called Mokum; founded in the early 1960s, it specialized in realist painters. Later, Jansen set up his own spaces—first Gallery Jakob, and then Gallery Raam. He sold contemporary art collected by a prominent Dutch family. Sometimes he wrote art criticism for a weekly newspaper. He got married and had two sons.

Jansen’s galleries weren’t terribly successful, and he struggled to support his family. His first forgery, a gouache he produced in the mid-1970s, was completed during a particularly slow period at work. He joked—alluding to the unflattering depiction—that the painting could have been a self-portrait. He would later describe the act of creating it as happenstance, but signing it as a Karel Appel original certainly was not. Nor was the decision to consign it to a local auction house or to sit in the back row of the sale watching as bids rolled in. It reportedly went for 2,600 guilders ($1,400), and Jansen later claimed to have recognized the buyer: Aldo Van Eyck, an influential architect who knew Appel personally. Jansen also claimed to overhear Van Eyck boasting to an Amsterdam art dealer that he’d seen the gouache in Appel’s studio and it was easily worth three times what he’d paid for it.

It’s all but impossible to prove whether or not these circumstances are true; both Van Eyck and Appel are now deceased, and betrayals and lies seem to come easily to Jansen. “Honestly, I regretted it. I felt guilty,” he wrote of selling his first fake. “But I couldn’t change anything.” Which, of course, wasn’t true—he could have confessed and righted the wrong. Instead, he forged again.

His second fake was another gouache attributed to Appel, depicting a child with a toy. After that he kept mimicking the Dutch artist, whose work was in demand among buyers. In his licit business dealings, Jansen had handled a number of real Appels, so consigning a few extra ones, albeit fakes, wasn’t likely to raise eyebrows. Appel’s work had a crude quality that was easy to copy—so easy, in fact, that he was the target of many forgers. Moreover, the artist wasn’t always scrupulous about authentication. Nieuwenhuizen Segaar confirmed that, on more than one occasion, Appel mistakenly authenticated fake works attributed to him.

Renée Smithuis, a Dutch dealer active at the same time as Jansen, told me, “Everyone knew that Jansen was forging.” Some people worked with him anyway—Smithuis said she did not—because he sold works at relatively low prices. That was “attractive for many shady art dealers,” Smithuis explained. In some instances, Jansen used fake names for consignments: Van Tongeren, Van Drissel, Van Geren. He later bragged that he had “so many names, I can hardly count them.”

Over the years his schemes grew. He began working with a screen printer to replicate hundreds of Appel lithographs. He branched out, forging the styles of more prominent artists. “For me the excitement was in mastering an artist’s style, and I’ve mastered the entire alphabet of 20th-century artists: Appel, Chagall, De Kooning, Matisse, Picasso,” Jansen later told Wynne, the author of the book about forgery. Jansen also claimed that the quality of a fake was less important than a convincing signature. “I discovered there was a real thrill in the ‘magic-wand effect,’” he said. “You scribble the right artist’s signature in the right place and suddenly doors open.”

In 1981, according to A Small History of Dutch Crime, by Pieter Felter, the Dutch police were tipped off to the existence of a forged Bart Van der Leck painting. The trail, Felter wrote, led to Jansen, who claimed that two disgruntled gallerists in his business circle were the informants. The subsequent investigation led police to search Jansen’s home in the town of Edam, where they confiscated business documents and several paintings. They also found stamps used to produce authenticity certificates, including one from the Asger Jorn Foundation in London. According to press reports, a search of one of the city’s famous cheese factories near Jansen’s home turned up 76 fake Appels that he’d somehow stashed there, though how or why he’d chosen the location eluded investigators.

Jansen and his wife, an art restorer, were taken into police custody. He denied wrongdoing, and the couple spent four days behind bars. Ultimately, no charges were filed. Creating and possessing forged work isn’t punishable under the law. Newspapers reported that the police hadn’t amassed enough evidence of actual crimes—namely, the sale of fakes passed off as originals—and that people negatively affected by Jansen’s con hadn’t come forward to file legal complaints.

According to Jansen, business continued as usual after his release. In 1988, Appel lithographs that seemed to originate with Jansen attracted police suspicion again, in part because a gallery in Amsterdam was selling them at such low prices. Although the history of the legal case is murky, with many details lost in the predigital era of Dutch law enforcement, traces suggest that Henk Ernste, an art dealer, knowingly sold Jansen’s forgeries. Ernste was expelled from Switzerland and deported to the Netherlands, where he was arrested at Amsterdam’s Schiphol Airport. He was able to avoid criminal proceedings by agreeing to a financial settlement.  

When police looked for Jansen, however, they couldn’t find him. Jansen separated from his wife and took up with another artist named Ellen Van Baren. He was doing a lot of his dealing in Paris; hoping to avoid detection by Interpol, he and Van Baren moved regularly. They settled in the French countryside in January 1989, five years before Schoeller caught up to them. By then, the statute of limitations had expired for any charges that might have been brought against Jansen in the Netherlands.

After the arrests in 1994, Schoeller issued a triumphant press release laying out the international scope of Jansen’s fraud and lauding the French police for helping bring him in. Schoeller also praised the “vigilant auction house” in Munich that tipped him off—a nod, specifically, to Sue Cubitt. “It now has to be determined how many art lovers were impacted,” the investigator concluded, calling on anyone with a complaint against Jansen to come forward. In France, where Jansen faced prosecution, the maximum penalty for art forgery was five years.

The bar for proving that an art crime has been committed is difficult to clear. Once complainants come forward seeking reparations—usually from the buyers of fraudulent work rather than the artists who’ve been copied—authorities must prove that misrepresentation contributed to the decision to purchase, that a financial loss was suffered, and that the seller had been intentionally deceptive. (Dealers who sell fakes almost always play dumb.) Because the burden of proof is heavy, many forgery cases don’t end up in court unless they concern additional crimes, such as mail fraud or breach of contract.

Jansen acknowledged to police that he had made the 1,600 fakes they found in his château, but he denied selling any forgeries. According to the Dutch newspaper Algemeen Dagblad, authorities turned up receipts for sales made under false names for a total of 60,000 Dutch guilders (nearly $33,000) over four years. It was something—proof that Jansen was lying about not selling fakes—but not enough, perhaps, to mount a prosecution that would end Jansen’s gambit for good. “It is not much at all for so many works,” Jansen’s lawyer said in an interview.

Schoeller’s call to art lovers who’d been defrauded was followed by a similar entreaty in France, disseminated through radio, television, and other media. According to the Sunday Telegraph, the police in Orléans even displayed some of Jansen’s fakes at its headquarters, purportedly to jog the memories of people who might have done business with Jansen in the past. This created a spectacle more than it produced useful information. Indeed, the authorities’ efforts led to very little in the way of complaints against Jansen.

Frustrated, the French public prosecutor threatened to charge buyers of Jansen’s fakes as accessories to a crime if they refused to help. At that point, according to press reports, two complainants came forward. Allegedly, other defrauded purchasers whom authorities had contacted directly responded with a shrug. Journalists covering the case described one individual saying that he loved the painting he’d purchased from Jansen and didn’t care whether it was genuine or not. Another man, an art dealer, allegedly insisted that what he’d bought was authentic.

Frustrated, the French public prosecutor threatened to charge buyers of Jansen’s fakes as accessories to a crime if they refused to help.

While the case languished, Jansen and Van Baren sat in jail for six months. Jansen spent his time writing a memoir and painting. He claimed that fellow prisoners called him Van Gogh and that the director of the prison joked about wanting to commission two Picasso drawings. Eventually, the pair were released—the state couldn’t legally keep them in custody any longer—but they remained in Orléans on probation for 30 months. The French government confiscated Jansen’s passport so he couldn’t travel. “Without an identity card, you can’t rent a house, you can’t open a bank account. Friends, my family wanted to send me money—it was not possible,” Jansen later complained. He also had to check in with the police regularly. In a profile from this period, the Dutch newspaper De Volkskrant described him showing off his best fake signatures, including those of Picasso and Matisse, on a napkin at a restaurant. An hour later, he signed his own name at a required police visit. “I had almost forgotten how,” Jansen quipped to an officer.

When his probation ended, Jansen moved to Antwerp, Belgium. “Not because he fears problems in the Netherlands,” a sympathetic, perhaps credulous news report said of his decision not to go home, “but because of a scarcity of houses.” Jansen continued to paint, but he had a new scheme: He sold his derivative works—“lookalikes,” he called them—under his own name, hoping to profit from his scandalous public persona. He finished the memoir he’d begun writing in jail. He called it Magenta: Adventures of a Master Forger.

By 2000, the French had pieced together enough evidence to put Jansen on trial, but it was a limp across the finish line. Only one accuser appeared in court—a second failed to show. According to the Sunday Telegraph, Jansen promised to reimburse the claimant. He was convicted and given a year in prison, with four years of probation. His sentence was suspended because of the time he’d already served. Van Baren, for her part, denied collaborating with Jansen. “I transported a few things, but I thought they were real,” she said at the time. She was charged and convicted as an accessory, and her sentence was also suspended for time served. The Algemeen Dagblad headlined its coverage of the trial, “French justice department has to let go of ‘the swindle of the century.’” The paper also referred to the result of the case against Jansen as a “black day for justice in France.” Jansen’s lawyer mocked the court’s inability to pin charges on the couple. “Speaking in artistic terms,” he said, “it wasn’t a masterpiece.”

Causing further embarrassment to the French, Jansen responded with a complaint of his own: He wanted some of his artwork back. The lot was being stored at the Palais de Justice in Paris. Authorities didn’t want forgeries flooding the art market, so a court had ordered them destroyed; the plan was to burn the lot in an incinerator at the Louvre. Other works, including Jansen originals, could be sold off, the court said, “if it could be established that they were indeed genuine.” Jansen, worried that the authorities would make mistakes and that real works would meet a fiery end, demanded that approximately 200 works of true value be returned to him. He described them as small pieces by major artists that he’d bought either because he liked them or as research for his fakes. On a list Jansen submitted to the court of works to be salvaged were paintings, watercolors, and etchings by Rembrandt, Miró, Picasso, Magritte, Matisse, Leo Gestel, and Sal Meijer.

A French judge ruled against Jansen’s request to recover the items. As an article in the Telegraaf explained, determining which works were real would incur sizable costs to the state. Jansen was livid, telling the press, “If the judge doesn’t want to investigate what is real and what is fake, then you shouldn’t burn them. I already accepted the loss of the value of the works a long time ago. But it is just a principle, it is not right.”

Jansen refused to take no for an answer, and he had an unlikely ally in Rudi Fuchs, the director general of the Stedelijk Museum in Amsterdam. In a written statement, Fuchs argued that the collection shouldn’t be destroyed: It included several works he considered to be genuine. (He stressed that his plea was not a defense of Jansen.) The Dutch secretary of culture, Cees Van Leeuwen, also weighed in, emphasizing that the real works needed to be identified and saved.

In 2005, more than a decade after Jansen’s arrest, a French court agreed to let him recover some of the works from the château. According to Jansen, the returned items were a hodgepodge of genuine and fake art, because the experts whom the French justice system had summoned weren’t up to the task of making correct determinations. “These people were mostly the same ones who authenticated my work as real for the previous ten years,” Jansen later said derisively in a TV interview. He continued to tell the press that the French were going to destroy genuine works. “Among the lots to be burned is a Miró I bought at auction at Drouot in Paris,” he said in one instance. “Nothing is wrong with that one, and I even have the purchase receipt, but it won’t be released.” Jansen added, “That the experts are incapable of authenticating those works doesn’t give them the right to simply destroy them.”

Ultimately, it isn’t clear how many works, if any, were burned. Jansen didn’t go back to France to get what the court allowed him to retrieve; he still feared arrest. Instead, Van Baren drove a truck across the border to pick up the trove. Many of the returned paintings were damaged, Jansen claimed, with canvases coming off their stretchers. Some looked like they’d been stored in standing water.

Jansen described their condition as yet another sign of elite hypocrisy. His own criminality, he insisted, wasn’t so egregious. “I know I did something that is not allowed,” Jansen told De Volkskrant. “But I don’t think anyone is worse off for it.”


That line became something of a professional philosophy for Jansen, and it permeates Magenta, his memoir. The book is an uncontested account of his life, told exactly as he wishes. It is nonetheless revealing about the psychology of a man obsessed with both deceit and attention. Throughout the text, Jansen jumps around chronologically, revisiting his childhood and art-history studies alongside what he considers to be the greatest, and most audacious, hits of his criminal career. He admits to not being great with dates or figures—a convenient hedge against accusations that he may have gotten details in the book wrong—and he is forthcoming about his flexible approach to truth. “I have the habit, in all circumstances, of being silent or lying,” he writes. But just three pages later, he claims that he doesn’t “enjoy lying.”

Jansen boasts of petty crimes, like sneaking out the back door of a hotel so he wouldn’t have to pay, and other, more serious ones, like stealing money from the Swiss bank vault of a colleague. His version of the events surrounding his 1994 arrest boldly contradicts other people’s accounts, as well as known facts. He writes that Sue Cubitt was freshly hired at Karl and Faber when he consigned an Appel to her; in fact, she’d been working there for more than a decade.

Similarly, he devotes considerable space to his disciplined silence in the face of interrogations about the works recovered at his chateau, though a London Times article from May 1994 told a different story. Describing an “Ali Baba’s cave of art fakes,” the article reported that Jansen “accepted responsibility for the works discovered in the raid.” The report continued, “After his arrest, Mr. Jansen displayed his talent to the investigating judge, reproducing several famous artists’ signatures.”

In Magenta, Jansen gloats about seeing his fakes in galleries from London to New York, in museums, and in the catalogs of reputable auction houses, but he demurs on the details of the works and where he sold them. (People who’ve had dealings with Jansen, including Nieuwenhuizen Segaar, Appel’s gallerist, and Smithuis, the Dutch art dealer, refute the claim that Jansen sold to reputable museums outright.) Jansen also describes visiting Andy Warhol’s Factory, where he says he took the liberty of signing paintings in Warhol’s name in front of the artist himself. Afterward, Jansen says, Warhol asked him to drop his pants so that he could take a Polaroid. Jansen uses the anecdote to brag that he’s well-endowed.

Jansen describes visiting Andy Warhol’s Factory, where he says he took the liberty of signing paintings in Warhol’s name in front of the artist himself. 

The arrogance on display in Magenta is evident in interviews that Jansen has given since the events in France. “Even I find it crazy to think I’ve created genuine Picassos. But every time I look in the catalogue raisonné of his work, there they are,” he told Wynne. The implication is that once the art world accepts a work as genuine, for all intents and purposes it is. But there’s also delusion in his thinking, namely the idea that someone mimicking an artist can meaningfully add to an authentic oeuvre. Jansen goes even further: If fakes are as good as the real thing, aren’t they worth celebrating? “When a musician reproduces a sonata of Bach, one applauds him. Me, I reproduce a sonata of Picasso and I am placed under arrest,” he lamented to the CBC in 2008.

Jansen loves to cast himself as a victim, suggesting that early in his career he was naive to play by the rules of the art world and trust that it wasn’t corrupt. He complains that people would sell work for him and never give him the money he was owed. Eventually, desperation led him to change tack. “I simply couldn’t afford the rent anymore. Gas and electricity were turned off, the bailiffs were at the door. That kind of misery,” he once said. He turned to forgery, which only showed him how venal and greedy the art world was, how full of mercenaries and, at times, how willfully ignorant. “Most art dealers and gallery owners are interested in earning money,” Jansen writes in Magenta. “An art dealer who has invested in a work doesn’t want to look for mistakes in the painting anymore, that doesn’t interest him. A dealer wants to earn and tries to find a customer as soon as possible.”

He spins anecdote after anecdote, all with the same purpose: to illustrate that what he did was well within the bounds of the sketchy behavior the art market routinely tolerates or even encourages. One of his favorite stories—impossible to confirm—is about a fake Picasso that he sold to a London collector. During the sale, the collector wasn’t satisfied with the provenance documentation, so he insisted that he and Jansen approach Picasso together to verify the work. Picasso’s response, according to Jansen, was elliptical: “How much did you pay for that? That much? Well, in that case it’s a real Picasso.”

Jansen has gone so far as to brag about his devil-may-care attitude, which he says reveals the art world’s flaws. In an interview with the Dutch newspaper De Morgan, he said that he once finished some fake certificates of authentication in the early morning, mere hours before consigning the works. In Magenta, he describes slapdash methods of aging his fakes, from emptying a vacuum bag full of dust onto canvases to leaving works under a doormat for weeks. “The footsteps do wonders,” he says. He writes of one fake getting wet from either cat urine or spilled beer; it didn’t matter which. He sold it anyway. To achieve craquelure, the network of fine cracks that appear over time and indicate a painting’s vintage, Jansen describes leaving works on top of a hot oven or putting watercolors out in the sun. He also claims that once, when a thunderstorm scattered gouaches he was drying on a balcony, he inadvertently stepped on a few in his haste to recover them, leaving footprints. He decided to consign the gouaches anyway, and he recalls the dealer who bought them insisting that the marks were proof of authenticity—only an artist would walk on his own work.

Jansen wants people to see his adversaries as ridiculous, unworthy of sympathy or any claim on the truth. It’s a pompous take, certainly, and his musings on the nature of quality conveniently gloss over the value that comes from knowing whose mind conceived a work and whose labor created it. Jansen has expressed pride that his forgeries were never found out for stylistic reasons—it was documentation, like errors on certificates, that exposed him—but Nieuwenhuizen Segaar disagreed. “Jansen doesn’t want to be betrayed by his work, by gouache or ink, but by text,” the gallerist told me. “He’s always trying to put himself in a better light than he is.”

Nieuwenhuizen Segaar pointed out that, arguably, the beginning of the end of Jansen’s criminal career was his recognition of the fake Appel drawing in the Karl and Faber catalog. If not for that, would Cubitt’s suspicions have been aroused when Jansen returned with another consignment? Would she have scrutinized the Chagall certificate, noticed the typo, and set off a police investigation? “He’s not a big forger. They don’t exist!” Nieuwenhuizen Segaar exclaimed, taking issue with the very idea of expert counterfeiters. “If they are big forgers, they make their own paintings.”

After the trial in France, Jansen did create his own work, in the style that Schoeller once dismissed as pedestrian. Jansen boasted that he had “developed a method” of painting abstract canvases by using a teapot to pour acrylic paint in graphic patterns. Occasionally, he found venues to show his work. Cubitt told me about going to the European Fine Art Fair in Maastricht about a decade after Jansen’s conviction. She took a wrong turn and ended up on a deserted industrial street. At the end of it was a huge sign bearing Jansen’s name, advertising an exhibition. “I thought, Am I going in? Will he recognize me? Will he shoot me?” Cubitt recalled.

She did go in, and Jansen didn’t recognize her. “His paintings were, as you’d imagine, a kind of very ugly version of Karel Appel,” Cubitt said. “Really hideous color. There were a lot of them, and they were big.” She added, “It was quite interesting to see that he was back doing something he’d never been successful with.”

Jansen profited more by emphasizing his talents and history as a forger. With his so-called lookalikes, instead of expertly copying signatures and forging authenticity certificates, he presented the paintings as the work of “Geert Jan Jansen in the style of.…” He even copied famous paintings. Van Gogh’s Red Vineyard and Thatched Cottages at Cordeville, Klimt’s The Kiss, Monet’s water lilies—Jansen forged them all. He began advertising his versions of famous works in the Telegraaf and other Dutch newspapers; in at least one case, he offered a free silkscreen print in the style of Picasso, Matisse, or Klimt to anyone who purchased a DVD detailing his career as a forger. “Nowadays, Jansen lives as a well-respected artist,” the ad read. “But how did he once end up on the wrong track? What role did the art market play? What is the secret behind his fabulous technique?”

Jansen was offering supply to meet demand: The public was fascinated by him. In 1999, he appeared on an episode of The Black Sheep, a Dutch TV show that brings controversial figures on stage to confront a panel of their critics. During his appearance, Jansen came face-to-face with several dealers and collectors he’d defrauded and experts he’d tricked. Other people were brought in not for any past interactions they’d had with Jansen but for their representative opinions. Then there was a couple that had purchased one of Jansen’s forgeries; rather than press charges when they learned the truth, they’d opted to open a museum devoted to fake art in a small Dutch town.

Nieuwenhuizen Segaar was there—he was irate—and so was Smithuis, the Dutch art dealer, who rose in partial defense of Jansen. “I like the man, and I also think he is a criminal,” she said. “I don’t justify what he did, but it’s not Mr. Jansen alone who is hypocritical.” Jansen came across as more celebrity than crook. Asked by the host why he agreed to go on the air with his critics, Jansen replied wryly, “Because I am the black sheep, and they are the herd.”

When I contacted her for this story, Smithuis elaborated on the hypocrisy she’d mentioned on the show. She explained, namely, why she thinks people were loath to press charges against Jansen. “Of course they did not complain to him (or the police),” she wrote in an email. “That would affect their ‘good’ name.” We talked, too, about a mystery: Did Jansen’s forging make him rich? It’s hard to say without access to his financial records. According to the Sunday Telegraph, at the time of his arrest in 1994, Jansen had about £100,000 (approximately $150,000) in seven bank accounts. The French police commissioner who worked the case, a man named Jean-Claude Colin, speculated at the time that Jansen had “fat bank accounts” in Europe’s tax havens.

Smithuis is skeptical that Jansen ever had money socked away. If he’d really been wealthy, she pointed out, more people would have tried to sue him. “He was a small painter with a big mouth, an amiable appearance,” she told me, “a man who presented himself much bigger than he was.”


Jansen’s career didn’t repel everyone. His hubris, his outspoken personal philosophy, and his hunger for publicity brought him to the attention of two theater directors several years after the case in France. The resulting creative relationship was the reason Jansen forged a Picasso that wound up under a tree in Romania, duping Mira Feticu. That con, in turn, was the reason I began reporting this story—and why I eventually found myself fuming in a dark auditorium in Germany.

Yves Degryse and Bart Baele run an experimental theater company in Belgium called, improbably, Berlin. They first collaborated with Jansen in a 2014 production called Perhaps All the Dragons, a roundtable of 30 individual monologues detailing real but unusual lives. Jansen’s was one. Sensing there might be more to say, the directors concocted a new production focused wholly on Jansen. Considering the artists whom Jansen liked to emulate, and given the works lost in the high-profile Rotterdam heist, Degryse and Baele came up with a concept that linked the life of the master forger with the fallout of the crime. “The idea was very quickly there,” Degryse told me, “and then the preparation took many months.” Berlin decided to call the piece True Copy. (Jansen also takes credit for the title.)

The convoluted plan went like this: Jansen forged the Picasso drawing stolen from Rotterdam and gave it to the directors, who took it to Romania. They buried the drawing and set up a surveillance camera in a nearby tree. Then they sent out six anonymous letters—three to people in Romania and three to individuals in the Netherlands. Among the recipients were journalists, an art detective, and Feticu. The directors waited to see if anyone showed up in the woods. If someone did, Degryse and Baele hoped that the Picasso would be authenticated and perhaps even restored to its collection.

In the meantime, True Copy debuted in Antwerp in early November 2018, just days before Feticu and Westerman went searching for the forged Picasso. Jansen was billed as the star, taking to the stage to talk candidly about his career as a fraud. In early performances, audiences learned of what was happening in Romania via video screens that showed footage of the harlequin drawing being buried and of the empty forest. If someone came looking for the work, audiences were told, that denouement would be incorporated into the show. Indeed, once Feticu and Westerman arrived, film of them digging up the Picasso became part of the play.

According to Berlin’s directors, what they did in Romania wasn’t a publicity stunt or a joke—it was a test to see how far a forgery could go before the art world realized it was being conned or was willing to admit it. The aim, the directors said in a press release after Feticu’s discovery became international news, was “to find out at which point in the process things would falter, with whom and why.” Would an expert point out discrepancies? Or would the desire for a work to be returned to its rightful place win out? As Baele put it in an interview with a British newspaper, “Isn’t it much more refreshing to go along with a beautifully packaged lie?”

Degryse told me that the project had even higher-minded intentions. What if a forger could use their talents for good? So much art has been lost, stolen, or destroyed in the world—what if Jansen could offer the “gift,” as Degryse put it, of restoration? Berlin imagined a scenario in which a beloved work of art was found, the world rejoiced, and that was the end of it. “Nobody knows it’s a fake,” Degryse said. “That was the ultimate goal.”

It didn’t come to pass. Jansen’s fake was found out, and quickly. The ruse was revealed when the Berlin directors contacted Westerman and Feticu to explain what they’d done.  True Copy continued its run, touring cities in Europe. Berlin publicized the show as putting Jansen “center stage,” so in May 2019 I booked a ticket to see it in Germany. Degryse mentioned that there was a twist in the performance—did I want to know what it was? Assuming it was something best experienced in a theater, I said that I would wait.

Up to that point, I’d had trouble getting ahold of Jansen. Degryse said that it wouldn’t be a problem to interview the star. I boarded a plane wondering which version of Jansen I would finally meet.

When Jansen took the stage, he looked younger and healthier than I’d expected—the directors had told me that the 75-year-old was recovering from a recent bout of pneumonia. He appeared as he did in photos, with large blue eyes, thick lips, and a balding pate trimmed with tufts of gray hair. He wore brown trousers, a blue button-down shirt, and a wide-lapel blazer. He kept a pair of plastic-frame glasses on a lanyard around his neck; sometimes he perched them on his forehead.

The set included a gallery wall, dense with video screens in gilded frames displaying images of some of the most famous paintings in the world, as rendered by Jansen’s hand. A modest wooden table was positioned at the front of the stage, where at times Degryse and Jansen sat talking. The script borrowed heavily from Magenta, and it was almost entirely a monologue. Jansen expounded on his theories of authenticity, quality, and storytelling. He rehashed his favorite anecdotes, like the one about emptying vacuum bags on his work. He went on at length about art dealers who “weren’t exactly guilt-free themselves,” because they often didn’t really care whether works were real or not. “They all skirted the issue. Mentioning it meant incriminating each other,” Jansen said. So what if he exploited people and took a tiny piece of a lucrative pie? He bragged that he’d never had an unsatisfied customer.

Though he explained how he made fakes, Jansen didn’t show the audience his process—at least, not immediately. Creating art was meant for the studio, he said, so Berlin built one for him behind the set, in an unseen space that he sometimes retreated to down a narrow passage, with a camera operator on his heels. What Jansen did in the studio appeared before the audience via video feed on the set’s gallery wall. That way the forger retained the privacy he required to make his art while viewers got the voyeurism they’d been promised.

Everything Jansen said went unopposed; the play wasn’t interested in juxtaposing his distorted positions with arguments against what he’d done. Degryse told me that Berlin had considered bringing other perspectives into True Copy but decided against it, so that audiences would get an unadulterated take on the ideas that sustained Jansen. “It was better to make the extreme choice to let him talk,” Degryse said.

The auction got my blood pumping—this must be the twist, I thought. Even if the painting was a fake, and not a very convincing one, what a great story it would make for whoever bought it. 

At one point in the show, Degryse, clad in black jeans and leather boots, took on the role of an auctioneer. One of Jansen’s paintings—a large portrait similar to those Picasso painted of his lover Dora—was on the block. “It’s perfectly legal,” Degryse reassured the audience. “We just have to agree on one thing: The work we are auctioning was made by Geert Jan Jansen but bears the signature of the original artist. In here it’s a Geert Jan Jansen, but the moment you leave the room, that changes.… If you buy it and hang it up in your house, to the outside world it becomes genuine.” Degryse assured the audience that the auction was real, that bids were binding. They would start at 2,000 euros ($2,200).

The auction got my blood pumping—this must be the twist, I thought. Even if the painting was a fake, and not a very convincing one, what a great story it would make for whoever bought it. In spite of myself, I found myself yearning to bid. Uncertain what to make of Degryse’s insistence that the auction was real, however, and without 2,000 euros at my disposal, I kept my hands in my lap. (Degryse later told me that many winners never claimed their lots. Berlin had sold only six of Jansen’s paintings by the time I saw the show, despite dozens of performances.)

The audience’s mood had been loose since the opening curtain. People laughed loudly, including at Jansen’s quip that “an Appel a day keeps the doctor away.” Were they taking at face value the claim that Jansen did no harm? I asked the man sitting next to me why he found it all so funny. “I guess not knowing what’s true and what’s not,” he replied with a shrug. But the audience’s laughter didn’t sound uneasy. It sounded like they felt they were in on a joke.

The final scenes of the play included footage from Romania: Degryse and Baele mounting their camera and leaving the forest. Feticu and Westerman digging in the ground. A gasp, a shriek, Feticu crying. Romanian police setting up a perimeter of yellow tape. Word ricocheting around the world that the Picasso had been found.

As the video vignette concluded, the play’s background music grew moodier. Then there were two voices: Jansen speaking on stage and another man, unseen, speaking from the art studio. “I knew you wouldn’t be able to keep quiet,” Jansen said, as if irritated. “Why are you interrupting me, Geert Jan?” Suddenly, he was referring to the voice backstage by his own name. “Why can’t the work of a real—a good—master forger be a masterpiece?”

As he spoke, the man on stage fumbled at his neck, loosening his collar. He let his glasses hang on their lanyard and removed his microphone. And then he reached with both hands into the neck of his undershirt and peeled off a full-head mask. Underneath was a balding man, his bare head glistening with sweat from more than an hour under stage lights and latex. Without looking out at the audience, the man walked into the hidden studio, where the audience could see him on video drawing up next to—yes—Jansen. The real one, it seemed. Jansen introduced the man in the mask as Luk Sponselee, an actor. “Tonight, and the coming nights, you are Geert Jan Jansen,” the real Jansen said. “Not really, but it’s not a monstrous lie either. Very authentic.”

The music became a steady drone. In the play’s final moments, the gallery wall rotated, slowly revealing the hidden studio. But inside, where we expected to see Jansen and his double, there was nothing. Just darkness—an abyss—with one narrow, piercing light shining out at the audience.

Degryse and Baele had a talking point they used in interviews: What if you’re looking at a work of art and it moves you, and then someone whispers in your ear that it’s fake? Your emotional experience of the artwork changes, but why? Is the change valid? The directors seemed to be arguing that devaluing art based on its origins is an acquired prejudice, something that benefits the market but not the viewer. Art can be beautiful—and stay beautiful—no matter its origin, and we should question why we value the aesthetic quality of an image less than the aura of the person who made it.

True Copy mimicked the experience that Degryse and Baele described. The audience believed that it was seeing Jansen, and there was a strange frisson, a mise en abyme, in observing someone who’d built a career on lies tell what he claimed was the truth. It was part of the reason I traveled so far to see the show. Would I find him believable? Impressive? Charming? What would I have made of Jansen if he had walked into an auction house where I worked and tried to sell me a drawing?

Instead, viewers of the play were confronted with the familiar distance of theater. We weren’t watching Jansen at all, but an actor, someone taking on a life that he’d never lived. We didn’t learn anything about Jansen’s believability or self-presentation. Instead, the theater directors played with the distance between what we expected—and were told to expect—and reality. I found the conceit cheap, but it played well. The rest of the audience seemed enchanted. During a Q&A after the performance, one person told Degryse that the decision to use an actor instead of Jansen himself was a gift.


I knew before I went to Germany that Feticu was angry about what had happened in Romania. “It has not been a joke for me. My whole life was turned upside down,” she wrote in an email. Westerman had a different reaction. “I ended up in a work by Eugen Ionescu,” he told one news outlet. Feticu and Westerman had invited the men behind True Copy to speak to them about the whole episode on a Dutch TV program, but they declined. “She accuses us of having misled her on this journey. I do not understand that,” Degryse told a newspaper reporter. “The profession involves certain risks.” (He seemed to mean journalism, though that isn’t Feticu’s primary vocation.)

Feticu, who is publishing a short book about the debacle, called Picasso’s Downside, said that she didn’t think it made much sense for a convicted criminal—a counterfeiter, at that—to be given a platform for spouting lessons about authenticity. Art should be a playground for experimentation and expression, she said, but there should be limits imposed by human decency.

After the play, I was less interested in heady concepts and skillful sleights of hand than in the fact that Jansen was nowhere to be seen. I had come ready for an interview. Was he in the theater somewhere? Was he even involved with the show? Had he painted the Picasso, or were there endless layers—and lies—to the clever deceits True Copy unspooled?

I returned to my hotel room and looked back through my correspondence with Degryse. Yes, he had said that arranging an interview wouldn’t be a problem. I looked at the press release for True Copy, and yes, it was there: “Berlin puts Geert Jan himself on stage.” There was a suggestive quote from Jansen, though. “The only one who never gets any recognition is the forger,” he said. “Unless he is unmasked.” And then I reread reviews of the play. One, on the Arts Desk website, said that Jansen is “present” before musing that “even writing this I’ve become an accessory to Berlin’s fibbing, for not everything written above is fully true.” No one revealed the secret. (For his part, Degryse would have preferred I not reveal it, either.)

When I confronted Degryse, sitting in the grass in a park near the theater the day after the performance, he wasn’t overly apologetic about misleading me—even though I had crossed an ocean and was, as it happened, visibly pregnant. “There are more people who don’t trust me anymore after True Copy,” Degryse said. “Maybe I should have said beforehand, it’s really an important question, this question of how much do you want to know.” I asked again if he could arrange the interview he’d promised, and Degryse called Jansen on his cell phone. It seemed clear that he’d never mentioned me to Jansen before. Degryse set a date for an interview, but I would have to go to the Netherlands, to Jansen’s estate.

That’s how I found myself about an hour outside Utrecht, in a car with Berlin’s communications officer, going up a long driveway toward a 15th-century château on the banks of the meandering Kromme Rijn river. The home’s monumental facade was fronted by symmetrical, curving staircases. This is only one of Jansen’s homes—he also spends part of the year in Italy. He still lives with Ellen Van Baren, who rode her bike past our car on her way to her own painting studio.

Jansen greeted us at the top of the stairs in slate-green slacks, a purple linen shirt, and a cardigan. His glasses were on a lanyard around his neck. The château was impressive and generous, with high ceilings and elaborate stucco. It was shabby, too, with peeling paint and cracked plaster in every room. Modest belongings were scattered around. Jansen’s bed, surrounded by stacks of paintings, had a thin coverlet on it.

Like the La Chaux estate where Schoeller had found Jansen’s stash of fakes, the mansion hosted several studios, each peppered with the detritus of a painter: rolled up tubes of paint, dirty brushes, tilted easels, half-finished canvases. Jansen told me, in occasionally halting English, that he paints every day, sometimes on several canvases, in the styles of various artists. Nearly every room had several canvases hung on the walls. Jansen has boasted that he doesn’t copy works, that he “adds his own” to an existing series (say, for example, Monet’s haystacks), but the paintings at his château told a different story. Here were Vincent Van Gogh’s irises, Edward Hopper’s lonely diner patrons, Vermeer’s streetscapes. (Now that he’s no longer constrained by the need for convincing historical materials, Jansen makes more premodern fakes.) There were white, gessoed canvases covered in nothing but Jansen’s rendition of Picasso’s signature. There was even a Banksy—the only contemporary artist, Jansen said, that he’s interested in copying.

The Vermeers and Rembrandts didn’t appear believable at all—more like gestures, the kind of knockoff a certain type of collector who loved a particular artist might purchase knowing full well that it wouldn’t fool anybody. The Klimts offered slightly better approximations of the real thing. More striking than the quality of any particular painting, however, was the overwhelming preponderance of work and the sheer variety of output. Upstairs in an attic lit by a massive skylight were piles upon piles of paintings—hundreds of them, uncatalogued, a practice Jansen had always resisted lest a record be used against him in court. There were originals and fakes, some in elaborate gilded frames, others naked. They were all left open to the elements. Dead flies littered one corner of the floor.

After touring the house, Jansen and I sat to talk in the kitchen, which was lined with open cabinets that revealed mismatched dishes. Stroopwafels sat in a box on the counter beside an IKEA lamp; a fake version of Monet’s water lilies hung on the wall.

Upstairs in an attic lit by a massive skylight were piles upon piles of paintings—hundreds of them, uncatalogued, a practice Jansen had always resisted lest a record be used against him in court.

Jansen told me that working on True Copy allowed him to speak—really speak—for himself. “I’ve had a lot of publicity and interviews, but when I see it in the newspaper, it’s a little bit different. They use words I would never use. Even things I detest,” he complained. (Magenta, it seemed, wasn’t enough of a platform for him.) He called the French justice system his biggest promoter. “They told everybody they couldn’t see the difference. They called me the most important art forger of the century,” Jansen said. I recalled, too, the ad hoc exhibition of his work at the Orléans police station. Jansen smiled slyly as he recapitulated some of his elaborate theories, including that his fakes had been a boon to the artists he copied. He’d helped ones with smaller oeuvres, for instance, gain recognition. “I took a lot of work out of their hands,” he said. There was no sense that he had done the artists any wrong.

Jansen was friendly, even solicitous—he was proud to show off his château and the multitudinous works showcased within it. But he also seemed tired, his performance perfunctory, like his heart wasn’t in the rehearsed show he was putting on. I heard once more about Aldo Van Eyck claiming to have seen Jansen’s forgery in Appel’s studio, about Picasso’s response to an expensive fake, about a prison director in France who’d asked Jansen to make him his own faux masterpiece. Jansen had his sound bites, and he intended to stick to them.

Was it all worth it, I asked, the course he’d taken? Did he ever lose sleep over his crimes? Jansen’s response was quick and blasé. “Oh no,” he said. “I enjoyed it.”

Where he seemed less practiced was when we discussed his original works. He wanted to do more of them, he said, but forgery, even when forthright, brought in more money. He didn’t have gallery representation and wanted it. For the time being, he invited people to his castle once a month for what he called an exhibition. On a table by the front door was a sign-up sheet for his mailing list with half a dozen names scrawled on it—real ones, presumably, written by the people authorized to sign them.

The Heart Still Stands


The Heart Still Stands

Red Fawn Fallis found love and purpose on a Dakota prairie. She thought it would save her life. Instead, she went to prison.

By Elizabeth Flock

The Atavist Magazine, No. 90

Elizabeth Flock is a Peabody and Emmy-nominated journalist, author, and documentary filmmaker who focuses on stories about gender and justice. Her work has appeared on PBS NewsHour and in The New York Times, The Atlantic, and other publications. Her first book, The Heart Is a Shifting Sea, a study of love and marriage in contemporary Mumbai, was published by Harper in 2018.

Editor: Seyward Darby
Designer: Ed Johnson
Copy Editor: Sean Cooper
Fact Checker: Matt Giles
Illustrator: James Dawe

Published in April 2019. Design updated in 2021.

A statue of a pioneer family stands in front of the state capitol building in Bismarck, North Dakota. A mother cradles a baby, a son leans against a wagon wheel, and a father peers into the distance. The monument represents the settlers who built lives on the banks of the Missouri River after staking their claim to land occupied for centuries by the Mandan Indian tribe. The descendants of white pioneers now spend their days in Bismarck’s banks and office buildings, pool halls and bingo parlors, Chinese buffets and five-and-dimes. Americana is ubiquitous here. Many trucks and Harley-Davidsons cruising the city’s streets are emblazoned with the Stars and Stripes.

The Burleigh Morton County Detention Center, a concrete complex next to a field of heat-withered grass, flies the flag, too. On a July morning in 2018, I drove there to interview a prisoner whose story is uniquely American, though perhaps not in the way many North Dakotans like to think of the word. Her name is Red Fawn Fallis, and her 2016 arrest was the kind of dramatic incident that splashes across the media and is replaced just as quickly—a story of limited interest to most people, but a crisis for those affected by it. In Indian country, including much of North Dakota, this pattern is all too familiar.

Fallis is a member of the Oglala, one of seven bands of the Lakota Sioux. In photos that I’d seen she was striking, with a steady gaze, a sweep of black hair, and a closed-mouth smile that suggested she knew something others didn’t. A tattoo of a galloping horse covered the left side of her neck. At the jail, a clerk directed me to a back room, where a row of stiff plastic chairs faced what looked like pay phones with video screens. When one of the screens crackled on and Fallis’s face appeared, she looked different. She wore an orange jumpsuit and had tired, swollen eyes; she seemed worn out by the 21 months she’d spent in custody. When she spoke, her voice was soft but certain. She was sure of the story she wanted to tell.

I asked her to take me back to October 2016, to the day she was accused of firing a gun at a police officer. Instead, she began a few months earlier, when she met a man named Heath Harmon. As she said his name—Heath—her tongue stuck between her teeth for an instant, as if encountering a bone. Harmon had stopped Fallis short the moment she met him, with his clean-cut good looks and his offer to help as she and thousands of other protesters fought the construction of the Dakota Access Pipeline at the Standing Rock Sioux Reservation. She’d fallen in love—the foolhardy, let’s-not-wait kind, full of promises and gifts. “Flowers, the whole nine yards,” Fallis said. She shifted in her chair and continued. “I’ve always believed in love. I still do.”

There was no way to understand Fallis’s incarceration without first understanding her love for Harmon. And there was no way to understand that without going back even further, to the first love Fallis ever received.

Fallis was born tiny and early in 1979, on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation, a poor, windswept community in South Dakota. Her mother, an alcoholic, gave Fallis to a cousin, hoping the little girl would have a better life. The cousin was Troy Lynn Yellow Wood, a broad-shouldered woman with dark hair and a patch of silver. She had two children already and welcomed Fallis as her own.

Yellow Wood, who lived in Denver, was a force in the American Indian Movement, an activist group founded in 1968 to fight for indigenous rights. In its early days, AIM was dominated by men, but Yellow Wood made herself known. She had an open heart and an open home, a sturdy one-story brick house with extra room. She gave acquaintances money when they needed help getting on their feet and offered AIM activists and single mothers a place to crash. She lived like a single mother herself, in a relationship with a man who drove trucks and only came around every once in a while.

From an early age, Fallis was outgoing and mischievous. She liked playing pranks on her adoptive mother, doing impressions, and imitating scenes from movies. She developed a big heart like Yellow Wood’s. Once, she tried to collect winter coats for people in Ethiopia, until she learned that Ethiopia was a tropical country and people there didn’t often need coats.

Fallis accompanied Yellow Wood to important indigenous ceremonies, including the sweat lodge, or inipi, and the sun dance, a sacred, closely guarded ritual. The U.S. government had outlawed the dance in the late 19th century as part of a widespread effort to erase Native culture. The ritual wasn’t openly practiced until the passage of the 1978 American Indian Religious Freedom Act, which guaranteed the right of Native people to express their beliefs.

Yellow Wood wanted Fallis to be connected to her ancestors’ traditions, including their spirit of defiance. The Oglala Lakota were the people of Crazy Horse, the legendary leader who helped his people win the Battle of the Little Bighorn—or the Battle of the Greasy Grass, as the Lakota call it—against the Seventh Cavalry, led by George Armstrong Custer, in 1876. (Crazy Horse was killed the next year, bayoneted in the back by a U.S. soldier.) Yellow Wood took Fallis to AIM events, where people delivered fiery speeches about broken treaties and failed government policies. Fallis grew up hearing about the dramatic 71-day standoff between Native activists and federal agents in 1973 at Wounded Knee. When she was just six, she marched at the front of an AIM rally in Denver attended by thousands of people. Sometimes her political awareness led to problems at school, like the time a teacher told her class that Christopher Columbus had discovered America and Fallis was sent to the principal’s office for insisting otherwise.

By the time Fallis was 14, she’d started seeing a counselor, a kindly, soft-spoken man who knew a lot about the challenges Native children often face—high rates of ADHD and fetal alcohol syndrome, for instance, but mostly trauma, the intergenerational kind that passes through families and communities as if they’re rows of dominoes. Fallis kept a dream journal and shared it with her counselor. Once, she dreamed that she was caught up in a swirling vortex, headed for destruction. She thought it represented the sad fact that all her friends were starting to use hard drugs and get into trouble. She understood why. Home life could be hard. For all her generosity, Yellow Wood was in an abusive relationship with a man who drank. She worked all day, and strangers cycled through her house. When Fallis was nine, she was abused in an incident she still can’t bear to talk about. The counselor believed it left her with post-traumatic stress disorder. Other Native kids whom Fallis knew faced similar struggles. “We couldn’t help but be interested by the streets,” she said.

Fallis fell for bad men. Her first boyfriend beat her. People said his spirit was tormented, and she broke it off. He killed his next girlfriend and himself, leaving Fallis to wonder if she could have done something to help or stop him. She began dating another man, wooed by his charisma, and learned that he was a member of a gang. Yellow Wood worried that he might kill Fallis; he’d already left her with bruises. Without a stable father figure or a good model of a romantic relationship, though, Fallis justified staying with him. “It helped me to say, ‘That stuff happens in relationships,’” she said.

One afternoon in 2003, Fallis and her boyfriend were driving to a 7-Eleven, and a car wouldn’t let them pass. According to a police statement, her boyfriend argued with the car’s driver, then pulled out a pistol and fired at him. The man was wounded, and Fallis pled guilty to being an accessory to a crime, a felony. She served 30 months on probation. The relationship ended.

Fallis then met a man with a hard-set jaw and closely shorn hair. They got married when Fallis was in her twenties. She was open with him, even telling him about the trauma she’d faced as a child, which felt like a heavy stone lodged deep inside her. The night after she shared the story, she dreamed that a friend took her away on horseback—they galloped off with stars at their heels. It inspired the tattoo on her neck.

Her husband turned out to be unpredictable, like the rest of the men in her life, and she left him. She wondered why the same thing kept happening to her. She didn’t want to be a woman who cycled through toxic relationships.

Then Fallis learned that Yellow Wood was dying of cancer. She set aside her troubled romantic life and moved in with her adoptive mother. She offered to look after Neiamiah, one of Yellow Wood’s great-grandsons, who was wild and playful like Fallis had been as a child. Yellow Wood stared death in the face and said that she wasn’t afraid.

Not long after Yellow Wood died in June 2016, a friend called Fallis and told her that people were protesting the construction of an oil pipeline in North Dakota. Fallis knew that if Yellow Wood were alive, she would have gone. Fallis threw some clothes in a bag and left within the hour. Family members would join her later. A double rainbow appeared behind her car as she drove north from Colorado, heading toward the Standing Rock Sioux Reservation. It seemed like a sign.


Standing Rock is one of the largest reservations in America, covering roughly a million acres of land and straddling the border between the Dakotas. When Fallis arrived, she found people camped out on the vast prairie in tepees, sleeping bags, and tents. Their only neighbors were a herd of bison, their only view the Missouri River and the open sky. Their goal was to halt construction of the $3.8 billion pipeline, which would carry oil from the Bakken and Three Forks fields of North Dakota to central Illinois, a distance of some 1,200 miles.

To many Native Americans, the Dakota Access Pipeline was a nightmare foretold: An old Lakota prophecy had warned of a black snake that would enter the earth, poison its water, and destroy the world. Protesters feared that the pipeline would contaminate the water supply of the Standing Rock Sioux. Because it would traverse unceded land—territory that was never granted to the United States by treaty—it might also desecrate sacred sites, including ancient burial grounds.

Demonstrators were up against a conglomerate led by Energy Transfer Partners, a Dallas-based company worth tens of billions of dollars, as well as law enforcement and private security forces. When they first set up camp, in April 2016, the protesters had no visibility or political clout. What they lacked in might, however, they made up for with willpower. They demanded that the Army Corps of Engineers consult the Sioux before giving the final go-ahead for Energy Transfer Partners to break ground. The tribe filed suit against the Corps, asking for a temporary injunction that would stop the project. (A district court judge denied the motion.) Native youth started an online petition that attracted more than 150,000 signatures. A group of them ran 2,000 miles from North Dakota to Washington, D.C., to deliver the document to lawmakers.

Then Standing Rock went viral, evolving from a protest into a movement. Using the hashtag #NoDAPL, demonstrators calling themselves water protectors invited other Native Americans and their allies to North Dakota. Over the summer of 2016, the number of protesters exploded into the hundreds, then thousands; people bedded down in a network of camps that spun off from the original one. Participants streamed demonstrations on Facebook Live and other platforms. Celebrities including Leonardo DiCaprio and Rosario Dawson voiced their support for Standing Rock’s goals.

An old Lakota prophecy had warned of a black snake that would enter the earth, poison its water, and destroy the world.

Spirituality was central to camp life. Native prayers were spoken at every meal. Protesters held pipe ceremonies and other rites to invoke divine protection of the Sioux’s water. Sweat lodges made of canvas and red willow branches popped up on the prairie.

When she first saw Fallis at camp, Phyllis Young, an AIM member and a leader at Standing Rock, was shocked. Young had been one of Yellow Wood’s close friends, and Fallis was her niece. (Among the Lakota, some familial relationships are chosen and considered at least as strong as a blood bond.) Young knew how much Fallis, then 37, had endured in her life. Fallis slipped a necklace of Yellow Wood’s over Young’s head. “She’s not here, so I’m here. I’m here to stand beside you,” Young recalled Fallis saying. The women hugged for a long time.

Young is a no-nonsense Native elder who often inspires deference in younger activists. Fallis, though, was comfortable making demands. She asked Young to help her procure supplies—Band-Aids and washcloths, for instance—for the children at camp. Fallis borrowed an ATV and became a fixture on the red four-wheeler, delivering packages and shuttling people to and from demonstrations. She also worked security, keeping an eye out for guns, alcohol, and drugs, which elders had banned at Standing Rock. “I learned how to rough it. I helped everywhere I could—in the kitchen, with donations, unloading firewood,” Fallis said. “Every night we went to sleep with the sound of prayers on the microphone, and every morning we woke up to them. At camp you carry that beauty within you.”

Life wasn’t trouble-free, particularly as the ranks of protesters swelled. Camp could be noisy, even chaotic. Respites were as hard to come by as showers. More worryingly, in the late summer police sent to monitor Standing Rock began to crack down on demonstrators. They arrested people on charges like criminal trespassing. Fallis used the ATV to transport injured water protectors away from encounters with cops.

One day, Fallis was put in plastic handcuffs and charged with disorderly conduct. She claimed that she was just pouring water onto dirt as part of a protest. When the police released her from custody, she went back to camp, where she felt newly vulnerable. Then Heath Harmon arrived.

The weather on the Great Plains can be extreme. Too hot, too dry, too windy, too wet. It was often that way at camp—too much of something. But Fallis and Harmon met under clear, sunny skies on August 17, 2016.

The previous day, Harmon’s brother, Chad, had married Phyllis Young’s daughter at the Morton County courthouse near Bismarck. To outsiders the match was an odd one, given that Chad was a police officer with the Bureau of Indian Affairs, which was frequently at odds with AIM, and Young’s family was prominent in the movement. The ceremony was small and unadorned. Harmon, with the good looks and affability to suggest he didn’t mind being single at 44, served as a witness. Fallis, busy at camp, didn’t attend.

After the ceremony, the two families celebrated together at a restaurant, where Harmon talked with John Reyna, the bride’s brother, about hunting and the outdoors. Eventually, the conversation shifted to the pipeline. Everyone in Bismarck was talking about it. Harmon was taking college classes in preparation for working in the oil industry, and he had questions about the protests. Wouldn’t a pipeline create jobs and bolster the economy? Reyna, a tranquil, sturdily built man, invited Harmon to camp to see it for himself.

As Harmon drove south from Bismarck along Highway 1806, which follows the curves of the Missouri River, the city’s bland buildings and manicured lawns gave way to rolling hills and steep buttes. Eventually, the main resistance camp, Oceti Sakowin (Seven Council Fires), came into view: a sea of tepees, tents, cars, and people. Sage and sweetgrass burned. Horses pawed at the ground in makeshift pens. Signs reading “Mni Wiconi” (Water Is Life) were everywhere.

Shortly after his arrival, Harmon met Fallis. She was charmed by the newcomer. Harmon was trim and muscular. He kept his shirt neatly tucked into his khaki pants and wore glasses and a baseball cap, giving him the look of a young suburban dad. He wasn’t wearing a ring.

“Who are you?” Fallis asked, flirting a little.

Harmon told her he was also Native, raised on land that sat above rich oil reserves on the Fort Berthold Reservation in western North Dakota. He’d since moved to the Bismarck area, where he lived with his mother. Reservation roots, city upbringing—just like Fallis. She watched as Harmon made himself useful unloading firewood from a truck. “It was so nice that someone was willing to be helpful. Not just to me, but everybody,” she said.

That night she and Harmon went together to a concert at camp. Afterward they walked alone on the prairie. Like Fallis, Harmon understood how it felt when life didn’t go as planned: He’d been married and divorced. He’d had a drinking problem and was now sober. Unlike other men Fallis knew, he seemed to have matured from his experiences.

After their first encounter, Harmon began making regular trips from his home to camp. Fallis loved when he cracked up at her jokes and told her he liked her smile as much as her wit. He didn’t participate in the demonstrations against the pipeline, but he listened attentively when Fallis talked about why the fight mattered so much. He offered to bring her to the city to shower and do her laundry.

Fallis felt like she should resist his interest, worrying that it was too much too soon. But every time she backed off, according to several of her friends, Harmon would show up at camp with a gift: a beaded purse, boots, a sweater, a single rose. One friend remembered a day when Harmon played a wooden flute long used in Native courtship. It emitted a haunting sound. “I thought, OK, I have not heard a man play a flute in a really long time,” the friend said. “He was totally setting the bar for everyone.”

Most important to Fallis, Harmon won over her family. One of her aunts said that it was like she’d won the jackpot, because Harmon was so generous and kind. An uncle was overjoyed that she’d found someone who treated her with respect.

Fallis decided to let Harmon in. When he called her “baby,” she said it back. Soon they were sleeping in the same tent. One day, Fallis showed Phyllis Young a diamond ring on her finger. She said that she and Harmon were engaged. In a girlish, exuberant voice, Fallis announced, “Auntie, I’m in love.”


Not everyone was enamored with Harmon. Karen Antelope, a woman with salt-and-pepper hair and blue-lined eyes, didn’t trust him from the start. She and Fallis had met at camp when Fallis asked her for a cigarette. Fallis introduced herself and her heritage, hollering, “Lelelelele!”—a Lakota cry. “Gee, you’re a feisty Oglala aren’t you?” Antelope replied, laughing. The women became inseparable after that.

Antelope thought Fallis seemed insecure when Harmon was around. Harmon, meanwhile, clung to Fallis like a burr on a shoe. Antelope was suspicious of Harmon’s constant gift giving. After a friend joked that Harmon should give Fallis’s family horses and a saddle if the relationship was serious—an old Sioux custom—he came to camp with a beaver-pelt hat and high-back saddle for one of Fallis’s relatives.

Antelope grew more concerned about Harmon when he issued warnings. In September 2016, he began to tell Fallis that she was in danger. By then camp was swollen with people. A district court judge had recently denied the Sioux’s request to halt the pipeline project, and Energy Transfer Partners was preparing to start its work. Water protectors were taking more desperate measures: setting up road blockades, chaining themselves to construction machinery. Police came to demonstrations dressed in riot gear and made dozens of arrests. North Dakota’s governor activated the National Guard, and protesters could hear a surveillance helicopter buzzing overhead all day. In one dramatic incident, private security firms hired by Energy Transfer Partners deployed guard dogs and pepper spray on demonstrators, leading to several injuries. Security at camp was deteriorating, Harmon allegedly told Fallis. She needed to protect herself.

Fallis saw the change at camp as well as anyone. When she’d first arrived in August, she’d been friendly with the police, offering them tobacco and joking around. In September, she was arrested a second time while protesting. In her recollection, plastic handcuffs were pulled so tightly around her wrists that they went numb. She heard officers shouting at female protesters, telling them they were stupid for bringing children to camp. Fallis felt differently. This is how you teach your children to stand up for what’s right, she thought.

At Harmon’s urging, she agreed to move to a quieter part of camp, where one of her relatives had a trailer. Soon after, according to Fallis, Harmon began offering to help with the resistance. Until then he’d been a bystander, supporting Fallis from the wings. Now he seemed to want to get involved. Fallis found it strange when he suggested risky actions. One day, Harmon offered to drive Fallis and two friends on a reconnaissance trip along the pipeline’s planned path. Mia Sage Stevens, who was in the truck, remembered Harmon suggesting that the women tear up the flags that marked the route—the sort of behavior that might draw backlash from the police or private security. “He said we could do it at nighttime, and we just blew it off,” Stevens said.

Then came the suggestion that Fallis and her friends arm themselves. Karen Antelope remembered Harmon approaching her one day as she was repairing a fence and saying, “We gotta secure our territory here.” He offered to bring metal poles to bolster the fence—along with ammunition.

Harmon brought up the subject again, Antelope claimed, after she mentioned a security guard who’d raced around camp in a vehicle, scaring her. Antelope recalled Harmon suggesting that he provide her and Fallis with weapons. “It made me wonder why he was so gung ho with guns,” Antelope said.

Officers shouted at female protesters, telling them they were stupid for bringing children to camp. Fallis felt differently. This is how you teach your children to stand up for what’s right, she thought.

Harmon’s radical turn worried Fallis, too. What was motivating him? He used to give her flowers and play love songs; now he showed up with items like a gas mask and a bulletproof vest, saying that she needed to protect herself. When Harmon first told her she should have a gun, she was unnerved.

“What are we going to do with guns here?” Fallis asked.

“You can bury them,” she remembered Harmon replying.

“I’m a felon. I can’t have guns around,” she said, referring to her 2003 conviction.

Antelope saw the new version of Harmon as pushy. He and Fallis “fought all the time, argued all the time,” Antelope said, “because she talked to everybody, many of them males, and he didn’t like that at all.” In a way, his behavior didn’t surprise Fallis: Of course their love had been too good to be true. Of course she hadn’t hit the romance jackpot. The progression of their relationship was typical of every bond she’d ever had with men. By October, Fallis was considering breaking things off.

She became more convinced that it might be time to move on as she got to know an activist and musician named Cempoalli Twenny, who’d dropped everything in Los Angeles, where he lived, to come to Standing Rock. Twenny wore a goatee and dreadlocks and made reggae-inflected music. He was a longtime advocate for Native rights and saw connections between the pipeline protests and other social struggles. He often played his guitar at camp, and he shared events from Standing Rock on social media.

Still, when Harmon’s birthday arrived in mid-October, Fallis tried to salvage what they had. She baked a cake and threw a party, but the mood at the gathering was tense. Around the same time, Fallis and Harmon fought at his mother’s home, a suburban split-level. Harmon’s brother, Chad, was there, and he chided Harmon for bringing Fallis to the house.

“Why don’t you tell her the real reason you’re at camp?” he asked.

When Fallis asked Harmon what his brother meant, he brushed her off. He said Chad was just accusing him of being at camp to “chase tail.” Fallis wondered if Harmon was telling the truth. She’d been taught never to lie. Lying was what the government did. It wasn’t something that should happen between lovers.

On October 27, Fallis went for an early dinner at a steakhouse with Harmon and his mother. She didn’t feel like having a good time. Things with Harmon were still rough, and it was Yellow Wood’s birthday, the first since her death. After the meal, Fallis checked her phone and saw worrying messages and posts. “No more excuses get to Standing Rock now,” one read. “The next seven generations are depending on you.”

Twenny, the musician Fallis admired, was live-streaming a demonstration that had just started at camp. “We’re being surrounded,” he said, turning the camera from his face to take in what was happening around him. Some 300 police officers had arrived wearing riot gear and carrying guns and batons. Armored vehicles rolled in behind them. They had instructions to clear out demonstrators along Highway 1806 who were directly in the pipeline’s path, which law enforcement considered a safety issue. “They have loaded guns, they have live ammunition,” Twenny said. “It’s time to rise up.… Pray hard, stand strong, this is ground zero, this is treaty land, this is our land.”

Fallis felt a sharp stab of guilt and panic as she scrolled through the news. The whole point of coming to Standing Rock was to honor her mother. Now, on the most critical day of the fight, she wasn’t there. She told Harmon they had to get to camp right away.

They sped south to Standing Rock and stopped at the trailer where they’d been staying. Fallis grabbed a fire extinguisher and gas mask in case fires broke out or the police used pepper spray. She put on a camouflage baseball cap, shouldered a backpack, and told Harmon she’d ride her ATV over to where the eviction was happening. Harmon agreed to drive a pickup and meet her there. Just before she left, Fallis later alleged, Harmon told her to take a large black and gray jacket. She was wearing a coat already, but he insisted that she needed another one to keep warm while zipping through the autumn chill on her four-wheeler.

As she rode, Fallis noticed that the coat felt lopsided. It was heavier on one side than the other. There was something in one of the pockets.

That something was Harmon’s Ruger LCR, a .38 Special revolver so compact that firearms websites regularly vote it among the best guns for concealed carry. It weighs about a pound when loaded. According to Fallis, she found the gun when she put her hand in the pocket. In a split-second decision, she decided to leave the weapon where it was, rather than dispose of it before encountering police.

By the time Fallis arrived, the battalion of officers had already swept through camp, shouting “Time’s up!” as they ripped tents from the ground and made arrests. A private guard, chased by protestors into a pond, stood in the water brandishing an assault rifle. Fallis could see that a barricade the water protectors had set up to prevent police from gaining ground was in flames. Someone told her that a demonstrator on a horse had been shot; it wasn’t clear if he’d been hit with rubber bullets or real ones. Fallis, who’d found it difficult to show emotion even when Yellow Wood died, began to cry. She looked around for Harmon but couldn’t find him.

What happened next was chaotic, and Fallis’s memory of it is hazy. So are the recollections of other people who were there. Several videos of the incident, shot by bystanders and police, are the best evidence of what occurred. Fallis dismounted her ATV and approached a row of police near the highway, shouting through her gas mask. The officers stood in position to block protesters. Six armored vehicles, some with doors open like wings, were parked nearby. The yellow prairie stretched into the distance. Fallis’s words are mostly inaudible in the videos, but her tone and body language make it clear that she’s angry. She later remembered shouting, “You should be ashamed of protecting the pipeline instead of the water.” She pointed accusingly at the police.

Other protestors sang traditional songs or lambasted the cops. Young, Fallis’s aunt, watched the standoff. Neither she nor Fallis saw Harmon arrive in his truck. He parked away from the scene and walked in a wide arc across the highway.

About three minutes after she began chastising police, Fallis turned away from them. An officer tackled her from behind. She fell to the ground, landing on her back. Heavily armed police tried to flip her over onto her stomach. Other officers moved in to surround the arrest, making it hard for bystanders to see what was going on. “I remember a scuffle,” Fallis told me. “My gas mask was pulled off.” Her mind turned to the revolver in her pocket. “I thought, Crap, I’m a felon, and I’m with a gun,” she recalled.

One video shows a protester asking why the police were using such force on a small woman. Fallis, five feet three inches and 135 pounds, tried to wriggle out from under the men’s weight. Officers pulled on her arms, struggling to get her wrists into plastic handcuffs. Fallis pulled back. She kicked her legs. She contorted her body.

Somewhere near the ground, there were three rapid sounds: pop, pop, pop. They came from Harmon’s revolver.


Police arrested more than 140 people that day. The charges filed by the state of North Dakota against Fallis were by far the most serious, including preventing arrest, carrying a concealed weapon, criminal conspiracy to endanger by fire, engaging in a riot, and attempted murder. On October 31, four days after the protest, Fallis called Harmon from the Burleigh Morton County Detention Center. It was the first of more than two dozen recorded calls between them.

“Hi,” Fallis greeted him uncertainly. She said that she hadn’t seen the news in lockup and didn’t know what people were saying about her. Quietly, Harmon told Fallis that she’d made headlines on the East Coast.

“Like world news?” Fallis asked, her voice rising in panic. “Like national news?”

“Yeah,” Harmon said. At least one story included her mugshot, an awful photo: face puffy, eyes half closed, hair a mess. Harmon joked that it looked like someone had beaten her up. Fallis let out a wild, uncomfortable laugh. When Harmon began reading the article to her, she sobered.

The story reported that she’d fired three shots at police deputies as they tried to move illegal occupiers off private land. It quoted Fallis telling officers afterward that they were lucky she hadn’t shot them. The man who’d tackled her, Thadius Schmit, a cop from South Dakota, said that he’d arrested Fallis for “being an instigator and acting disorderly.” Although no one was hurt when the gun went off, the state’s criminal complaint against Fallis alleged that she’d been trying to kill an officer.

“Oh, my God, they said that I shot at the cops?” Fallis asked Harmon. She was angry now. In her telling, the gun had gone off by accident in the struggle with officers. She couldn’t remember if her hand had been in her pocket or not. She’d been restrained on the ground when the gun fired—how could she have aimed at anyone? “They are so fucking full of shit,” she said.

Harmon tried to keep reading, but she interrupted him. “I’ve heard enough, I’m disgusted, I don’t care,” she said. “They’re just going to fucking make an example out of me.”

A video shot by a bystander documenting Red Fawn Fallis’s arrest.

Harmon was silent. He said nothing about witnessing her arrest.

“You’re free to walk at any time,” Fallis told him. “I probably would.”

A voice announced over the line that their time was almost up.

“I love you,” Harmon said.

On November 9, Fallis called Harmon again. She was confused. That day she’d learned that she was facing an additional charge—theft of property—because Harmon had reported his revolver stolen the day after her arrest. He’d told police that the weapon had gone missing from his mother’s house sometime in the past few weeks.

“You know that charge I caught today made my shit like ten times worse,” Fallis said.

“I can imagine,” Harmon replied.

“I’m not going to take responsibility for something I didn’t do,” she said. “I don’t know how to feel. I’m, like, over here fucking, like, wanting to fucking die of a broken heart, because I don’t know what the fuck is real or what isn’t anymore.”

Harmon paused before answering. “I’ll make it right,” he said.

The next day, Fallis called Harmon again. She asked why he hadn’t retracted the theft report yet. She was no longer upset; she was furious. Harmon tried to calm her down and said he’d talk to the police soon.

“If you’re not going to fucking tell the truth, then I will, about everything,” Fallis told him.

“Hey, I’m telling you the truth,” Harmon said.

“If you’re not going to tell them the truth about me,” Fallis continued, “and the fact that I didn’t take that from you”—meaning the gun.

Harmon told her that he couldn’t discuss the gun over the phone for legal reasons.

“It’s not OK, because there’s a lot at stake here,” Fallis said through tears. “My life.”

The call cut off.

Over the next few days, Fallis phoned Harmon several more times. In some conversations, he told her that he was sorry and that he loved her. Fallis seemed to believe him. In others, she pressed him. Had he made the report to hurt her? Or to save his own skin when he realized that a gun licensed to him had gone off during the arrest? It didn’t make sense to her. Harmon was taciturn, occasionally reassuring Fallis.

In early December, after Fallis had been in jail for more than a month, Harmon finally met with law enforcement. He didn’t try to exonerate Fallis, however. Harmon said that he’d kept the gun at camp and Fallis had known exactly where it was. He said that she’d loaded up a backpack before driving her ATV to the raid and hadn’t wanted him to look inside. Harmon described Fallis as having an “attitude” the day of the eviction. He said that she’d talked about “going to see [her] mother.”

As for the gun being stolen, Harmon admitted that that was a lie. It wasn’t the only one he’d told in recent months. For most of his relationship with Fallis, Harmon had been working as a paid FBI informant.

Harmon became a confidential source in August 2016. According to documents obtained by Fallis’s lawyers and first reported by The Intercept, Harmon’s task was “to collect information regarding potential violence, weapons, and criminal activity” at Standing Rock. Over the course of two months, he met or spoke with FBI agents at least half a dozen times and reported to his handlers that he’d developed a “sub-source” named Red Fawn, who told him that Native elders were opposed to belligerent actions against the pipeline. On August 22, Harmon estimated that less than 5 percent of the people he’d encountered were “aggressive” and said that he’d seen no firearms, explosives, or fireworks at camp.

The previous week, Morton County sheriff Kyle Kirchmeier had stated publicly that his office had received reports of guns fired at Standing Rock. Water protectors maintained that this wasn’t true. Kirchmeier declined to comment for this story, but Cecily Fong, a spokesperson for the North Dakota Department of Emergency Services, told me that law enforcement had been concerned about potential violence, including “protesters trespassing, marauding around the countryside, killing livestock.” (Fong has since left the department. The North Dakota Stockmen’s Association has stated that it wasn’t aware of any connections between protesters and attacks on farm animals.)

Still, Harmon’s reports focused heavily on the issue of weapons, as though they might turn up if law enforcement willed them to. He mentioned guns to the FBI at least four separate times, though he never claimed to have actually seen one. He also talked about members of AIM, including Phyllis Young. In late August, Harmon said that he’d observed Young addressing protestors and that he’d learned the type of car she was said to drive. An FBI agent wrote in a report, “The CHS [confidential human source] has a family connection as well as direct access to Phyllis Young and her close family and is well-suited to continue coverage of her activities and involvement with the anti-pipeline movement.”

Three weeks before the police raid and Fallis’s arrest, the FBI took Harmon off the books as an informant. According to an unclassified document, Harmon requested termination. The reporting agent noted that he would recommend Harmon as a source again. The FBI paid him $2,000 for his services. (The bureau declined to comment for this story.)

Heath Harmon (Courtesy of Fallis’s legal team)

Fallis learned of Harmon’s affiliation while she was in jail. After all the phone calls, all of Harmon’s pledges that he’d make things right, Fallis got the truth from her lawyers.

Her first reaction was denial. She loved Harmon, and he’d been an ally of the water protectors. She’d grown up hearing from Yellow Wood about the surveillance and infiltration tactics the FBI used in the 1960s and ’70s, when it kept close watch over AIM as part of Cointelpro, a project that targeted dissident groups across the country. Fallis also knew that the trauma caused by FBI activity could lead to paranoia. In 1975, an activist named Anna Mae Aquash had been murdered by other AIM members over rumors that she was an informant. (Yellow Wood was one of the last people to see Aquash alive, because Aquash was using her home as a safe house.) Was Fallis misunderstanding or making assumptions about what Harmon had done?

Soon, though, the hurtful, dizzying truth clicked in. A flood of troubling details—maybe signs that she’d missed—washed over Fallis. Harmon’s many evasions. The guns he wanted to bring her. That question from his brother: “Why don’t you tell her the real reason you’re at camp?”

Soon after Fallis learned he’d been an informant, Harmon came to the jail for a visit. He drove with one of Fallis’s aunts, a woman named Theresa Burns. When Burns was ushered in to see Fallis, Harmon was told he couldn’t come. Confused, Burns asked Fallis when they were face-to-face what was going on. Burns remembered Fallis saying she was “freaking out” because she’d just learned that Harmon worked for the FBI. She didn’t want him anywhere near her.

“I have to ride back with him,” Burns said. “I’m scared.”

“Auntie, how do you think I feel?” Fallis asked.

Burns claimed that, after the visit, she confronted Harmon in the car. She asked why he’d set up her niece. According to Burns, Harmon began to cry. “What did you do? Did you plant it on her?” Burns asked, referring to the gun. Harmon said no, and that he’d told the police things about Fallis when their questioning began to scare him. Burns’s head spun. She was a longtime AIM activist, but she’d never heard of anything like this.

She told Harmon that she believed he’d planted the gun. According to Burns, Harmon didn’t reply. She described the remainder of the ride as “chilling.”

Fallis’s other family and friends found out about Harmon soon after that. Karen Antelope was so upset, she couldn’t bring herself to watch the video of Fallis’s arrest. John Reyna felt both betrayed and responsible, because he was the one who’d invited Harmon to camp for the first time. Young, who’d seen men hurt Fallis before, felt only disdain. “He threw her to the wolves,” she said.

Fallis vowed never to see or speak to Harmon again. He was the one who needed help and prayers, she told herself. He’d taken money in exchange for lies and used a woman he claimed to love. She, on the other hand, was Oglala. As she’d once told Harmon in a phone conversation, “I’ll stand proud, like a buffalo. I’ll stand and face the storm.”

In late 2016, the federal government denied Energy Transfer Partners a permit to drill under the Missouri River, effectively stalling the pipeline until President Barack Obama left office. Around the same time, North Dakota dropped its case against Fallis to clear the way for federal charges, including civil disorder, possession of a firearm and ammunition by a convicted felon, and discharge of a firearm in relation to a felony crime of violence. The last charge carried a mandatory minimum sentence of ten years. The maximum penalty was life behind bars.

Fallis put on a good face. News of her predicament was spreading over social media into the wider #NoDAPL movement. Family and friends, with the help of other Standing Rock activists, launched a Free Red Fawn campaign, and some 30,000 people would eventually join its Facebook page. “I’ve been getting messages about a lot of you being concerned and worried,” Fallis wrote on her personal account in January 2017. “I wanted to let you know that I stand strong, I stay in prayer, and I never falter from my beliefs as a protector of all things sacred.”

Supporters held fundraisers in Denver and Los Angeles to help pay her legal fees. Celebrities, including actors Mark Ruffalo and Shailene Woodley, spoke out in support of Fallis. A petition on to drop all charges against her drew more than 20,000 signatures. Some of Fallis’s supporters tried to track down Harmon, without success. He was no longer living at his mother’s house outside Bismarck, and none of his old phone numbers worked. In lieu of confronting him in person, people dug up information: Harmon had once been arrested for criminal mischief. His alcoholism had led to four DUIs in seven years. He’d racked up charges for driving with a suspended license.

Supporters began referring to Fallis as a new Leonard Peltier, referencing the AIM activist sentenced in 1977 to two consecutive life terms for shooting federal agents on the Pine Ridge reservation, where Fallis was born. Many believed Peltier was framed, especially after journalist Peter Matthiessen published his 1983 book, In the Spirit of Crazy Horse, which alleged government misconduct in the case. Bruce Ellison, Peltier’s lawyer, came out of semiretirement to defend Fallis. A white Jewish man from New York, Ellison had decades of experience with Native clients, and if there was one thing he’d learned in that time, it was that the government thought it could get away with more in Indian country. “I believe that Red Fawn was set up that day to be arrested as a water protector with a gun,” he told me. “Law enforcement had been screaming about that in court and in the media, that water protectors were armed and had explosives, and yet no one had been arrested with a gun.”

In the pretrial process throughout 2017, Fallis’s legal team argued that law enforcement had had no probable cause to arrest her, because she’d merely been exercising her First Amendment rights. They pointed out that the gun belonged to Harmon, as did the coat Fallis was wearing when she was restrained by police. (According to Harmon, the coat belonged to Fallis, and he didn’t tell her to wear it the day of her arrest.) Her lawyers said that she hadn’t intentionally pulled the revolver’s trigger; how it went off was a mystery.

The prosecution, meanwhile, argued that she had meant to fire the gun and that in doing so she’d endangered lives. Police officers present at her arrest wrote in reports that, after the gun went off, Fallis laughed and said things like “All pigs deserve to die” and “If I wanted to kill you, I would have shot you in the head.” Fallis described these accusations as “totally false.” If it sounded like she was laughing, it was only because she was gasping for air after her gas mask was yanked off.

Officers’ statements sometimes conflicted. One said that after the shots rang out, he took the gun from Fallis’s left hand. Another said he saw the gun seized from her right hand. A third said the gun was loose on the ground. Three videos—one taken by a security drone, one shot by a bystander, and another recorded by cops on the scene—do not show Fallis firing the weapon.

Ellison was concerned that the government wasn’t sharing everything it knew about Harmon. The FBI sometimes gave informants a long leash to lead people to commit crimes. Honeypot schemes weren’t unheard of. Ellison found it suspicious that law enforcement had included Fallis in a chart of #NoDAPL activists of concern, created nearly two months before her arrest and not long after she and Harmon met. Ellison didn’t think Harmon’s description of Fallis’s behavior and comments before the eviction raid could be trusted. Harmon had lied to authorities at least once, about the gun being stolen. What would stop him from doing so again?

Fallis’s family agreed. “Those intelligence agencies knew who Red Fawn was, they knew who her mother was, they knew who her family was, and they knew their connections to the American Indian Movement,” said Glenn Morris, Fallis’s uncle. He believed that law enforcement had tried to identify Standing Rock’s leadership in order to neutralize it.

Fallis on furlough after her arrest. (YouTube)

As Fallis’s January 2018 trial approached, it was clear that potential jury members might not see the case that way. At least 91 percent of Bismarck’s population is white, and many residents were opposed to the #NoDAPL demonstrations. A survey from the National Jury Project showed that the vast majority of eligible residents had already decided that arrested water protectors were guilty. Non-Native people sometimes referred to the protests as “the event,” their voices dropping low when they said it. An owner of a country-music bar near Standing Rock told me that his white customers no longer went to the reservation’s casino. A neighbor of Harmon’s mother said that law enforcement had held their temper at camp, but she couldn’t say the same for the other side.

Fallis’s lawyers petitioned the court to move the trial out of state. A judge instead allowed a change of location to Fargo, three hours east of Bismarck. Fallis’s lawyers argued that the jury pool would be similar, and as the trial date approached, Fallis grew nervous. Since October 2017, she’d been in a halfway house. It was better than jail; she could see the outside world, at least. But what if a jury put her away for life? Fighting to prove her innocence, she worried, might not be worth that risk.

The prosecution offered her a plea deal in which her most serious charge—firing the gun—would be dropped if she took responsibility for possessing a weapon as a felon and for the civil disorder charge. The government would recommend no more than seven years in prison. On January 18, 2018, a few days before Fallis was due to appear in court to give the prosecution her answer, she signed out of the halfway house to attend an adult-education program. She never showed up in class. When she returned to the house, it was a half hour after she was due to return. Fallis went back to jail.

Her family learned that she’d skipped class to be with Cempoalli Twenny, the musician from Standing Rock. Since Fallis’s arrest, Twenny had been championing her cause, pledging on social media that he wouldn’t stop saying her name until she was free. He’d also begun calling her as often as he could. Unlike Harmon and other men Fallis had dated, Twenny didn’t shower her with compliments, gifts, or promises. He listened quietly when she spoke and reminded her that each day was a new day. If she got upset or angry, he told her to pray. “He’s brought me so much kindness and unconditional love,” Fallis told me.

Fallis had needed to talk about the plea deal with someone she trusted. She’d chosen Twenny. The following Monday, Fallis appeared in court. She’d come to the only decision that made sense to her. The judge asked if she pled guilty. A long silence followed. Finally, Fallis answered, “Yes.”

Fallis’s sentencing was scheduled for June 25, 2018, the anniversary of the Battle of the Greasy Grass. Per the plea agreement, the prosecutors recommended a cap of seven years in prison, but the judge could go higher. Fallis’s team thought she would get at least three to five years.

The day of the hearing, her supporters gathered at a downtown Bismarck hotel. From there they planned to go together to the courthouse. They were fidgety with anticipation. Fallis’s aunts and uncles came, along with her sisters and friends. Neiamiah, Yellow Wood’s great-grandson, wore a “Free Red Fawn” T-shirt that featured a photo of Fallis, her fist raised. Twenny stood in the back of the room wearing a denim vest with “In the Spirit of Crazy Horse” stitched onto it. He had a newly inked tattoo on his hand: Red Fawn’s name.

Ellison arrived with bad news. The judge in the case was sick, and sentencing would be delayed. Twenny made a video call to Fallis in jail. He handed the phone to Neiamiah, who said “I love you” in a whisper. “I love you,” Fallis whispered back. Neiamiah flipped the phone’s camera around to show her everyone who was there.

Twenny wore a denim vest with “In the Spirit of Crazy Horse” stitched onto it. He had a newly inked tattoo on his hand: Red Fawn’s name.

“I’m kind of all talked out,” Fallis told the crowd, then took a deep breath. “I’m an Oglala Sioux Lakota,” she continued. “So I’m born free, I live free, and I’ll die free.” She ended with the old Lakota cry—lelelele!—and much of the room joined in.

Fallis was sentenced a few weeks later, on July 11, 2018, in Bismarck’s federal courthouse. When she arrived, she was shackled at her wrists and dressed in a traditional ribbon skirt decorated with sunflowers, her mother’s favorite. The defense asked for leniency, pointing out that President Donald Trump had recently pardoned two white cattle ranchers in Oregon who’d set fires that spread to government land. It called four witnesses, a last-ditch attempt to sway the judge to hand down less prison time. A neurophysiologist testified that if Fallis had had her hand on the gun, she might have accidentally discharged it in a reactive grip response to how the officers had pulled on her arms. Fallis’s childhood psychologist, to whom she’d showed her dream journal, spoke of her history of trauma and domestic violence, which left her vulnerable to further abuse and manipulation. Glenn Morris testified that the case wasn’t just about Fallis—it was about her community, too. “It’s often not the big traumas that affect us. It’s the million everyday things,” Morris said. “Being ridiculed for her name because she’s a Native woman, and on Columbus Day. Being told there was a war and she lost and everyone else won and get over it. Well, she’s not going to get over it. She has this history in her heart and in her blood.”

Fallis had the opportunity to speak. “I came to North Dakota in August 2016 with a good heart and a good mind after watching my mom battle cancer and battle life,” she said. “After her death, I wanted to move forward in a positive light. I helped anyone at camp that I could. It started a new chapter. And then the circumstances of Heath Harmon.”

It was the only time his name was mentioned in the hearing. Fallis said that she wouldn’t be sitting in the courtroom that day if it weren’t for him.

Judge Daniel Hovland sighed as he surveyed the room. “I’m not going to go down the path of trying to determine Ms. Fallis’s intent in the midst of the chaos,” he said. He called her supporters’ campaign for her release “much ado about nothing.” Then he announced Fallis’s sentence: 57 months in federal prison, minus time served.

The prosecutors nodded, satisfied with the verdict. Ellison bowed his head, knowing it was the best he could expect.

By the time Fallis was sentenced, oil was already flowing through the Dakota Access Pipeline. Mere days after taking office in January 2017, Trump had signed an executive memorandum to move forward with the project. The Sioux asked a district court for a restraining order to block construction, but the request was denied. The Army Corps of Engineers never completed a full environmental review of the project. It was an undeniable defeat for the protestors.

At Standing Rock, many of the water protectors—freezing, angry, and exhausted—packed up and went home. Those who remained eventually burned what was left of camp. They hoped the tall fires, at least, would symbolize their defiance. Stragglers were forcibly removed by law enforcement, and by the summer of 2017, some protesters had reassembled at other pipeline fights in Minnesota, Pennsylvania, and Louisiana.

Harmon moved on, too. For seven months while I reported this story, he was a ghost. Phone numbers were disconnected, an email address was inactive, and he seemed to have no presence on social media. His lawyer didn’t respond to any of my phone calls. Word that he’d left Bismarck and gotten a job in oil fields led to stops across North Dakota at derricks and workers’ camps, but no one seemed to know his name.

A public-records search got a hit in Billings, Montana, where Harmon had reported his address at an apartment complex. When I got to the city in the middle of winter, the snow was thick and deep, blanketing everything in an eerie quiet. Harmon no longer lived at the address I’d found. At the Billings Police Department, I learned that he had a record—not for a crime he’d committed, but for one he’d reported. In July 2018, a few days after Fallis was sentenced in North Dakota, Harmon had called the cops because he’d found a child wandering the streets with no parents around. The address for him listed on the report was different than the one online. It led me to a tan house with wind chimes and a box of dog food on the porch. No one answered the bell, and a neighbor told me that Harmon was long gone.

A few weeks later, out of the blue, Harmon called me. He talked slowly and was tentative at first. He told me he wanted to set the record straight. He was trying to start a new relationship, and the woman didn’t want to date him after reading the negative media coverage of his involvement with Fallis and the FBI. He called while on a long drive from Bismarck to Wyoming, where the woman lived and where he hoped to win her over. We talked for nearly two hours.

He told me about how he’d wanted to be a Navy SEAL but was discharged from the Army due to an injury, cutting his career short. He’d worked a host of jobs: as a carpenter, doing construction, in oil fields. When the pipeline protests started, he was interested in collecting intelligence for law enforcement because he “didn’t want anybody to get hurt.” He explained that he’d believed in the protestors’ cause but was worried about potential violence, so he’d asked his brother for a number to contact the FBI. (When reached by phone, Chad Harmon said he didn’t give his brother a phone number for the bureau and didn’t help him get the informant job.)

Confirming the contents of the FBI documents I’d read, Harmon described his assignment as looking out for firearms, drugs, and criminal behavior at camp. He denied suggesting that Fallis and her friends destroy flags along the pipeline’s path. He said that he and Fallis were attracted to each other but that the relationship was never romantic. He had excuses for each act that might be construed as expressing serious interest in her: The saddle wasn’t a gift symbolizing his commitment to Fallis, it was just something he wanted her grandfather to have. He’d always liked to play the traditional wooden flute. And the ring—the one that Fallis had told Phyllis Young signified her engagement—was just plastic.

Harmon also said that he’d never told Fallis he loved her. I pointed out that in the jail phone recordings, he says “I love you” multiple times. There was a long silence. I could hear rain and the windshield wipers on Harmon’s car. “Love is a broad, broad word,” he finally said. “I was caught up in the moment, and I didn’t really mean it.”

“Love is a broad, broad word,” Harmon said. “I was caught up in the moment, and I didn’t really mean it.”

He claimed that he’d never used his relationship with Fallis to help his work as an informant, but he admitted that he’d talked to the FBI about her, warning agents of her family’s AIM connections. He said that he quit being a confidential source when it made him uneasy; the Standing Rock protesters wouldn’t look kindly on a snitch. As for the gun, Harmon said he’d brought it to camp to protect himself and Fallis.

“How did she get the gun on the day of the raid?” I asked.

Another long pause.

“I don’t know, grabbed it,” he eventually said. “She knew where it was. I didn’t see her take it, but after I heard the shooting I put two and two together.”

As for his shifting story about the gun, he told me he’d lied about the weapon being stolen because he was afraid of being blamed for the shooting. He felt no responsibility for Fallis being in prison—she’d brought that upon herself.

“I think she had that plan to kill a police officer,” he said.

Harmon saw himself as a victim of media coverage that portrayed him as a traitor to Fallis and his culture. He paused and sniffed, as if he were about to cry. “This follows me around,” he said, “and there’s nothing I can do about it.” Soon after, we hung up.

The next morning, Harmon called me again. His talk with the woman in Wyoming had gone well enough, and he wanted me to forget everything he’d said. He told me that he’d made a mistake in talking. “It’s been like a shit storm all the way around,” Harmon said. “My trust in anyone is zero now.”

After Fallis was sentenced, she was scheduled to move to FMC Carswell, a federal women’s prison in Fort Worth, Texas, that housed nearly two thousand inmates. When I talked to her before the transfer, she seemed upbeat. Fort Worth was far from her family and friends but also from Bismarck, and she was grateful for that. She’d heard that the prison held other indigenous inmates, and she was excited to meet them. She said that she’d maintain her traditions behind bars, the way Yellow Wood would have wanted her to. She was going to become fluent in the Lakota tongue. Maybe she’d try to write a book about the struggles of Native American women—specifically, how men so often treat them like objects. “All I can speak on is my truth,” she said.

She told me about the vivid dreams she’d been having, just like when she was a kid. In one, the first man she ever dated came back to apologize for abusing her. He and Fallis sat across from each other at a table, then Yellow Wood came in and told him it was time to go. “That was a really beautiful dream,” Fallis said. “That relationship shaped a lot of my life with men.”

Once Fallis got to Carswell, I wrote to her several times but didn’t hear back. The only person in regular touch with her was Twenny. He called her in prison almost daily. On his Facebook page, he wrote that each new day was one closer to her release. During a visit in December 2018, they talked through monitors for 45 minutes before Twenny had to leave.

Just before Fallis’s 40th birthday the following February, she was put in administrative segregation. Twenny told me that the move was due to a prison scuffle. I asked him if he was worried, and he gave a small laugh. “Well, she won,” he said.

He told me Fallis was a beautiful soul and that he was confident they’d be together when she was released, which was then 774 days away. He told me how much he loved her.

Commonwealth v. Mohamed


Commonwealth v. Mohamed

A car crash in Kentucky left a 13-year-old girl dead. A Sudanese refugee was charged with her killing. Could anyone get justice?

Margaret Redmond Whitehead

The Atavist Magazine, No. 89

Margaret Redmond Whitehead is a journalist and fiction writer whose work has appeared in Good Housekeeping, Reason, Narratively, and other publications. She was a Banff Centre for Arts and Creativity Literary Journalism fellow in 2017. Follow her on Twitter @margredwhite.

Editors: Seyward Darby and Jonah Ogles
Designer: Jefferson Rabb
Copy Editor: Sean Cooper
Fact Checker: Tekendra Parmar
Illustrator: Hokyoung Kim

Published in March 2019. Design updated in 2021.


On the morning of May 23, 2015, on a highway in Scott County, Kentucky, two cars kissed and then pitched off the road.

The black Toyota Tacoma pickup was headed west on its way to a youth volleyball game. Emily Sams, 13 years old, with long brown hair and large, soft eyes, was perched in the back seat. She wasn’t wearing a seatbelt. Her father, Jeff, was driving. Her mother, Shella, was riding shotgun.

The other car, also going west, was a blue Toyota Camry. A refugee from Sudan named Mohamed Abdallah was driving. A willowy man with fine features in his early thirties, Abdallah and a friend, Mohammed Tom, were on their way from Baltimore to Louisville, where a community of Masalit—the men’s ethnic group, from the Darfur region of Sudan—had invited them to attend a meeting. It was at least a nine-hour trip, and Abdallah had been driving through the night to make the morning appointment.

At approximately 7:05 a.m., Abdallah’s sedan went into a yaw on I-64 West, moving forward and sideways at the same time. The car slid across the asphalt, leaving its lane and making contact with the Samses’ truck. Metal bit metal, and both drivers lost control of their vehicles.

Abdallah’s Camry spun down the side of the road until it hit a leafy thicket. After the car came to a halt, Tom pulled Abdallah through the driver-side door to safety. Abdallah stumbled toward the wrecked black pickup. Its front right side was caved in. Shella was still in her seat, and one of her legs looked unnaturally crooked. Behind the wheel, Jeff asked for his daughter. With no sign of a third person in the truck, Abdallah searched the debris.

He found Emily, dead, near a tree. Her neck was bent, her body twisted. Flashbacks of war shuddered through Abdallah’s mind: blood and dust, torched grass huts. He crumpled to the ground.

Emily’s grandparents, who were traveling to the volleyball game in a different car, arrived at the scene. A truck driver also saw the smoking Camry and pulled over to help. He found Abdallah collapsed near Emily. Abdallah would later remember the truck driver, a burly white man with a gut, saying “Let’s pray,” followed by a few questions.

The first was, “Where are you from?”

“We’re coming from Baltimore, Maryland,” Abdallah said.

The second: “I didn’t mean where in the U.S. Where are you from?”

“We’re from Africa,” said Abdallah.

And finally: “Are you Muslim?”

“Yes,” Abdallah said.

The truck driver walked away, toward the Samses’ pickup.


I first met Abdallah at Baltimore-Washington International Airport. It was October 2012, and I was in my second year as a resettlement caseworker for refugees. I waited near the arrivals gate, clutching a cup of Dunkin’ Donuts coffee and making sure my International Rescue Committee badge was visible. Abdallah was one of seven Darfurian men landing that night. I had a tiny row house ready for them in the Baltimore neighborhood of Pigtown. Earlier that day, I’d picked up three rotisserie chickens for their first dinner in America.

I’d been working with Darfurian refugees for a few months, but Abdallah and three of the other men who arrived that night were the first Masalit people I’d met. Most historical accounts place the start of the genocide in Darfur in 2003, when the Sudanese government began a vicious campaign to eradicate or evict the region’s western ethnic groups. The Masalit, however, have been under attack since at least the mid-1990s, a peril of living in the borderland between Chad and Sudan.

Abdallah was never a fighter, but he witnessed violence. In 1996, when he was 14, his father was killed resisting members of the Janjaweed, a state-sponsored militia, as they robbed the family of cattle. When he was 16, the Janjaweed massacred 50 people in an adjacent town. When the militia came to Abdallah’s town in 1998 and cut down his uncle, the family fled to Chad. They returned briefly, but the attacks increased. They left Darfur for good in 2003.

A week after the men arrived at the airport, during orientation, I asked if they had any questions. This was a time when clients typically asked me to repeat the details of their transitional benefits, like food stamps. Abdallah, leaning on the table around which the men were sitting, raised a hand.

“How can I be a good neighbor in America?” he asked.

I looked at him, astonished. His brown eyes, ringed in thick, dark lashes, stared back at me. He held a pen in his long fingers, waiting to write down my answer. “Well,” I said, “you can help your neighbor take in the groceries.”

He scratched that down with his pen and asked another question.

“Where can I volunteer?”

“How can I be a good neighbor in America?” Abdallah asked. I looked at him, astonished.

Abdallah quickly became my point person for his house. He would consolidate the queries of all seven occupants and bring them to me. When a cantankerous roommate stirred up drama, I sat in the living room to mediate and Abdallah interpreted for me. Whenever the other men raised their voices, he rocked back and forth, his thin back curved tensely and his arms pressed against his chest. Conflict made him squirm.

Around the resettlement office, other people came to rely on Abdallah, too. He was easygoing, neat, eager, and humble. His English was good and getting better. In 2013, Abdallah joined a trip to hear President Barack Obama speak, and he took his role as an audience member so seriously that he showed up in a suit. He was dismayed when the president’s staff filled the event’s front rows with people wearing T-shirts and jeans. Abdallah, dressed to the nines, had to stand in back.

Once, he hit gravel while riding his bicycle and crashed. I met him at Johns Hopkins Hospital. Sitting in the pharmacy, I pointed to a TV screen where Obama appeared in a news segment. “Look,” I said. “It’s your friend.”

Abdallah glanced up, laughed, and waved his hand dismissively. “I’ve already seen the real one,” he said.  

A few days before Christmas in 2013, Abdallah and one of his roommates caught me on the street in front of the resettlement office. Grinning, they pressed a plastic bag into my arms. It was a Christmas gift. Inside the crinkling white plastic was a pleather jacket from Marshall’s. On a small piece of notebook paper, the men had scrawled a message in blue ink: “Hi Maggie—this is small gift from Jamoa yahia. mohamed Abdallah. and Juma mohamed. Thank you so much your helping, and thank you agania.”

I wasn’t supposed to accept presents from clients. I couldn’t control when a wizened Nepali woman surreptitiously slipped a can of Coca-Cola into my purse, but I’d disappointed dozens of clients with apologetic refusals of thoughtful offerings. Still, I accepted the jacket from Abdallah. My designated time—eight months—as his caseworker was technically up. I’d been waiting for this moment, when I could become his friend.

One weekend in September 2015, after I’d left resettlement work to become a graduate student and writer in New York City, I was supposed to meet Abdallah in Baltimore. He’d agreed to be an interpreter for one of my reporting projects. “I can’t pay a lot right now,” I said when I called him. “Only $15 an hour. But I hope I can pay more later.” The rate didn’t faze Abdallah. “Of course,” he replied. I could tell from his voice that he was smiling.

I never saw Abdallah that weekend. By the time I arrived on Friday, he was in jail. Earlier that day, four officers had shown up at his door with handcuffs and arrested him. His alleged crime was causing the fatal car crash in Kentucky four months prior. He would stay in a Baltimore cell, appear in court, and then be transported to Kentucky to await trial. The news felt like a punch below the ribs.

The Darfurian community in Baltimore was in a frenzy. My host, a refugee named Abbas Yahya, spent the weekend fielding and placing phone calls, then racing out the door to emergency meetings to discuss the situation. For many community members, it wasn’t a question of what had happened—they were aware of the crash and that Abdallah had been coping with its aftermath—but of what came next. What would the American justice system do? How would it assign blame for what seemed to be a tragic accident? The last two Masalit clients of mine who’d gotten in trouble with the law were young men caught sipping beer in a public park. They had no idea why they kept receiving mail from the city government, and their unpaid fines soared to more than $900 each. Abdallah’s legal tangle was far uglier, and it was more confusing than anyone in the community knew how to handle.

Yahya dropped me at the bus station early Monday morning, three hours before I was scheduled to leave for home. He apologized and explained that he wanted to get to Abdallah’s court hearing on time. Yahya knew he could only watch, but he intended to be there anyway. Like several other Darfurians in Baltimore, he considered Abdallah his dearest friend.

Abdallah was charged with second-degree manslaughter and two counts of assault; according to his indictment, he “wantonly drove his automobile into the [Samses’] automobile.” He was transported to a jail in Kentucky and held on $75,000 bail. From home, I wrote Abdallah a letter. “I was in Baltimore the weekend you were arrested,” it began. It devolved into a patchwork of encouragement and advice.

Two weeks later, I received an envelope with a red stamp on it that read “INMATE MAIL UNSECURED.” Abdallah wrote that he’d always told other people to be safe and not get in trouble, “but today I’m here in jail.” Being behind bars “let people miss a lot of appreci oppertunity.” Still, he wrote, he was trying to stay positive.

Former resettlement colleagues of mine pitched in to help Abdallah. One happened to be living in Kentucky, where she was working on a farm. She visited Abdallah in jail. Another, Amanda Olmstead, then the Darfurians’ main contact in Baltimore, found a private defense lawyer in Kentucky who agreed to represent Abdallah. The lawyer’s name was Dan Carman, and he haggled Abdallah’s bail down to $7,500. Yahya and Olmstead split the cost, and Abdallah was released on house arrest.

He moved in with a Masalit friend in Louisville; he wasn’t allowed to go back to Baltimore. Abdallah’s life in Maryland, including recently procured jobs as a security guard and an interpreter, dropped away like freshly snipped strings.

For two and a half years, Abdallah waited as his case moved through the legal system. The only places he was allowed to go outside of his apartment were the Amazon fulfillment center where he worked and the courthouse. Carman tried to negotiate a plea deal, but the prosecution wouldn’t budge on the charges or drop the penalty lower than five to 15 years in prison. Under federal law, a conviction for a “crime of moral turpitude” or an “aggravated felony,” which includes manslaughter, would place Abdallah at risk of being deported. To stay in America, he would have to stand trial and hope for the best.

Abdallah’s plight stuck in the back of my mind like a deep splinter. I’d let myself forget about them, then I’d see his Facebook posts—a humanitarian plea about Darfur, a cheesy inspirational quote, a Merry Christmas message, a selfie—and feel a sick pang. I’d remember that there had been a collision, that now Abdallah was in Kentucky, that a young girl was dead.

The few times we spoke, Abdallah evaded my questions about his case. Thinking that he was embarrassed, or that maybe he didn’t know the answers because legal matters can be so bewildering, I didn’t press the issue. I saw him once during his house arrest, in October 2016, when research took me to Louisville. Abdallah arranged for me to interview a young Masalit couple at his home, where he could interpret. I felt a surge of relief knowing that I’d see him in person and ensure that he was intact.

Abdallah was living on the third floor of a brick apartment building. When I arrived, we sat in the living room, me on a chair and Abdallah on a sagging couch. He poured me syrupy tangerine-colored juice. Rubber slippers rested in a doorway, available to anyone who needed to walk on the gritty tiles of the kitchen floor or into a nearby bathroom that smelled like pools of cool, stagnant water. The hems of Abdallah’s pants, as always, were let out to compensate for his long legs. Even so, they didn’t cover his ankle monitor. The device cost him $10 a day.

As an interpreter, Abdallah seemed his usual self, focused and professional. But when we spoke between interviews, he was subdued. His English had regressed. His shoulders drooped. When I asked what was happening with his case, he looked askance.

“Some things are not finishing,” Abdallah said.

“Do you know when they’ll be finished?”

He muttered something about his lawyer. I changed the subject.

When I left, Abdallah bid me goodbye from his front walkway, the invisible force of his ankle monitor tethering him to his home.



Through the speakerphone, I heard anxious, distant voices. My cell phone sat beside me on a sofa cushion. I clutched a notepad. Everyone on the line that day in January 2018, including my spouse, Sara, sitting across from me, knew Abdallah and felt invested in his situation. Amanda Olmstead had scraped us together for a conference call because she finally had details about Abdallah’s trial. It was scheduled for February 19. Carman, the defense lawyer, had told Olmstead that he needed character witnesses. Specifically, he needed white, American faces—people who could speak to Abdallah’s upstanding nature and “mix in” with the Darfurians who would inevitably show up in the courtroom to support their friend.

Olmstead told us what else she knew. The girl who’d died in the crash was named Emily Sams; her identity entered into my consciousness as a dense weight. Shella Sams, who worked in special education, had been in a wheelchair since the accident. Abdallah would be tried where the incident happened, in Scott County.

Someone asked if Abdallah’s charges were, well, normal. Olmstead explained that, according to Carman, they were not. It was unusual for felonies like second-degree manslaughter and assault to result from a crash involving sober drivers who hadn’t done anything overtly reckless. Authorities in Scott County had also deemed Abdallah a flight risk, despite preexisting limitations on his movement. He was a refugee with a green card; he couldn’t travel abroad without applying for a special permit. Between work and volunteering, he was entrenched in his community.

A knot of confusion settled across the conference call. Why, then, was this happening? We could guess but didn’t know for sure. And if what we suspected was true, we needed to hear it.

Olmstead relayed in more detail what Carman had said about Scott County: It was predominantly white, and it was conservative. It also had a sour history with immigrant drivers. On the same day as Abdallah’s accident, an undocumented Mexican man hit and killed a bicyclist, panicked, and drove a few miles with the dying man’s body in the back of his truck, where it had landed after hitting the windshield. The police eventually stopped him. The driver, who had a history of DUI convictions, was stoned and drunk. He was given 35 years in prison. At his sentencing, the man asked the cyclist’s wife for forgiveness. “You took away my husband,” she responded. “You have no respect for life.” Later, to the press, she said, “Obviously, we would like him to be in jail for life.”

Carman believed that Abdallah likely wouldn’t get much sympathy from a Scott County jury. From my vantage point, it was easy to share his concern. In 2016, Scott County went for Donald Trump by 31 points. The president had since vowed to keep Americans safe by barring people like Abdallah from entering the country. Young male refugees—unencumbered by children and often the first of a population to flee a troubled region—and Muslim immigrants were under intense national scrutiny. When I mentioned Abdallah’s predicament to friends, many furrowed their brows in apprehension. “And his name’s Mohamed?” they asked.


Several people from the conference call blocked off the third week of February in our calendars; some of us planned to carpool to Kentucky. Olmstead reserved an Airbnb in Louisville, one with bunk beds and a pull-out couch. We debated who should take on the role of the white character witness: Who knew Abdallah best? Ultimately, Olmstead and I were cast.

I felt desperate for information, in much the same way that my clients did when I was a resettlement caseworker. Refugees often wanted any useful thing I could tell them, any crumb of knowledge. How strange now to be on the other side. I counted down the days until my first phone call with Carman, which Olmstead also joined.

“I think he’s innocent,” Carman told us. He was a fast talker, with what I assumed was a Kentucky accent. “It was just an accident. Mohamed didn’t do anything wrong.”

To be clear, Carman continued, Abdallah had been speeding. My brain fumbled with this information. The Abdallah I knew followed rules to a fault. The cognitive dissonance ground down the words even as I transcribed them.

The GPS from the Camry, now in evidence with Scott County, showed the car going around 19 miles per hour over the speed limit, which was 70, around the time of the accident. In the preceding hours, Abdallah had topped 100 miles per hour three times. Under Kentucky law, going more than 15 miles per hour over the speed limit may accrue several points on someone’s license, but it doesn’t necessarily qualify as reckless driving. In order to prove its case, the prosecution would have to establish that Abdallah had demonstrated flagrant, excessive disregard for highway safety—“wanton” behavior, in legal speak, that showed indifference to the lives of other people on the road.

“There’s a lot going on in the case right now,” Carman continued, including the fact that, on his advice, Abdallah had hired an accident reconstructionist named Henry “Sonny” Cease, a retired major for the Kentucky police. Abdallah had paid Cease $5,000 up front but hadn’t yet received the accident report, which made us nervous. There was no way to tell if what Cease had to say would help or hurt Abdallah’s defense.

It was possible, Carman continued, that a Scott County jury might vote for a partial conviction as a compromise. “These jurors, they’ll see Mr. Sams in the grocery store,” he said. A partial conviction, however, wouldn’t mitigate the risk of Abdallah being deported. “The law is on Mohamed’s side,” Carman explained, “but the equities are not.”

When I spoke to Abdallah the next day on the phone, knees curled to my chest on my sofa, his voice sounded tight and low. For the first time, he talked to me about the accident. Jittery, I wrote down what he said on a half-size yellow steno pad.

He told me about the Sams family. How he thought he remembered their truck bumping his Camry before he went into the yaw. How he staggered to the pickup after the crash. How he looked for the girl and found her. “It was so sad,” he said. “It was so, so sad.” He told me about the truck driver and the questions: Where did he come from? Was he Muslim?

Abdallah and I spent the rest of the call brainstorming people who might be willing to write a character-reference letter for him. When I hung up the phone, I stared at the list of 53 names—people who’d been my colleagues, interns, and volunteers. They’d helped Abdallah during his resettlement, rented to him, hired him, and worked alongside him. He remembered them all.

We had prioritized people we hoped would win over a Kentucky judge. Most had Anglophone names. Only a few were Darfurian men. My striving for this mix would repulse me in retrospect. Right then, though, I didn’t care. I wanted a bluegrass roster.

When I sent out a mass email to the people on the list, I took care to explain that their letters wouldn’t be used during the trial; I didn’t want to get anyone’s hopes up. The letters would come into play if Abdallah were found guilty. The writers’ job would be to convince the judge to minimize the sentence so that Abdallah might be able to stay in America.

I googled “what to wear as a character witness” and scoured my wardrobe for warm, feminine clothing. Nothing black. Nothing too coastal elite.

Days later, on another call with Abdallah and Olmstead, we ran through everything we didn’t know, including why Scott County didn’t have Abdallah’s official statement from after the crash and how Mohammed Tom, who was set to testify, would get to Kentucky from Washington State, where he’d relocated. “It was an accident,” Abdallah kept repeating. “It was an accident.” He said it so many times that I finally snapped and told him that he’d better pull it together and get his head in the game. Get a nice suit. A respectable haircut. Practice American eye contact.

After Abdallah hung up, I told Olmstead that maybe I shouldn’t have been so harsh. She said that it was fine, that it needed to be said.

I took phone calls from Darfurians who couldn’t come to the trial but wanted to submit letters for their friend. I prompted them with questions, transcribed what they said.

“Mohamed is a good man. He is always giving,” said Jamoa Yahia, on a break from driving an 18-wheeler to Texas. “Whatever he has, he gives to people who need it.”

“Everyone loves him,” said Hassen Ismail. He added that Abdallah’s mother, who was still living in a refugee camp in Chad, was heartsick and scared.

I drove to Baltimore one day, shooting down I-95, and for a moment screamed so hard I thought my voice might rake open the flesh of my throat. When I arrived, I sat on Abbas Yahya’s couch, helping him with his own letter. “All the Darfurians in Baltimore have been impacted by the accident because we miss Mohamed,” Yahya dictated. “It feels like all of us had an accident.”

I admitted to Yahya that I’d cried during a recent call with Abdallah. He looked at me aghast—appalled by the breach in my professional veneer. I felt viciously bored with myself. When I got back home, I tore through my closet, packing for Kentucky. I had googled “what to wear as a character witness” and scoured my wardrobe for warm, feminine clothing. Nothing black. Nothing too coastal elite.

Carman called me to go over what he would ask me on the stand. I hammered him with anecdotes I’d been stockpiling: Abdallah’s good-neighbor question, the incident of overdressing to see Obama.

“Those are good,” Carman said, “but I can only ask, like, three questions. How do you know him, can you form an opinion on his character—”


“—and what that opinion is. And you can basically just say ‘high’ or ‘very high.’”

That was all I’d get: a fragment of a sentence.

I doubted that so brief a testimony could persuade a jury of my faith in Abdallah. At the very least, though, I could bear witness. I’d been at the airport for Abdallah’s beginning in this country. If it came to it, I would be there for the end.



Georgetown, the seat of Scott County, is a picture-perfect small city. The buildings on its main drag are old, made of brick, and so charming they belong in a movie. At the courthouse, security guards smiled and nodded as I passed through the metal detector.

I arrived toward the tail end of jury selection, which had taken up most of a Monday morning. More than a dozen of Abdallah’s friends and supporters were already inside the courtroom. As witnesses, Olmstead, Mohammed Tom, and I were relegated to a hallway, opposite two nearly exhausted candy machines and a lime-crusted water fountain. We wouldn’t be allowed to watch the trial until we’d testified.

In the early afternoon, a young woman emerged from the courtroom and came over to us. She was Kalee Collett, Carman’s assistant. She had wide, clear eyes and straight blond hair. Her serious expression made her look older than her 19 years. She brought good news: Jury selection had been rigorous. For starters, the defense asked potential jurors to identify any biases they held against people of a certain skin color or religion, along with whether or not they knew the Samses personally. The prosecution had unsuccessfully tried to cut a black woman, citing a previous speeding ticket and alleging that her profession—engineering—would make her a difficult juror. A Hispanic man and a white woman who said she was from South Africa had made the final panel.

After Collett left, we took turns standing up to peer through large, rectangular windows into the courtroom. I tried to take notes, balancing my notebook on the ledge. But there wasn’t much to record: I couldn’t hear what anyone was saying.

At 4 p.m., the doors opened and jurors filed out. They looked numb and exhausted. A young man with sandy hair touched his stubble, an absent look in his eyes. The only black juror’s steps were narrow, her shoulders pressed in, as if trying to take up less space. A middle-aged woman with thinning hair and gaunt cheeks looked like she could use a smoke.

In the car on the way to our Airbnb, friends who’d been in the courtroom caught me up on the day’s events. A couple of them worried over the defense’s opening statement. Carman, who with his beard and stocky frame reminded me of a short lumberjack in a nice suit, had sketched out Abdallah’s past for the jury while Collett passed Abdallah a box of tissues. The statement took less than five minutes to deliver. The prosecution, meanwhile, offered meticulous scene setting.

The county’s first witness was Scott Burgett, who had traveled to Kentucky from Overland Park, Kansas, where he worked for the tech company Garmin. Pat Molloy, the lead prosecutor, asked Burgett about the GPS device he’d helped design, which was the model in Abdallah’s car. Then Molloy had Burgett read some of the data pulled from Abdallah’s GPS. Minutes before the accident, the Camry exceeded 90 miles per hour. According to Burgett, the car’s speed at the moment of the collision was 89 miles per hour.

The next witness was deputy sheriff Jeb Barnes, the first officer to respond to the crash. A large bald man who seemed affable and honest, Barnes described how the Samses’ truck had rolled and flipped before hitting the edge of a concrete drainage ditch and going fully airborne. Emily’s body was thrown around, a loose item in a violently pitching cabin. Barnes believed that Emily died before the truck hurtled through the treetops, shearing off its roof. She was ejected through the gaping hole that remained.  

Barnes said that, despite asking for one, he’d never received a statement about the accident from Abdallah. Olmstead mentioned that she found this odd: She remembered helping Abdallah write his police statement when he got back to Baltimore, before she knew how serious the situation was.

Barnes introduced into evidence several photos that he’d taken of the accident: skid marks, smoking vehicles, what he called “gouges in the earth.” His testimony had a poetic precision. He was the last witness of the day.

Abdallah’s allies gathered for dinner at his new two-bedroom apartment. The living room had a large central rug ringed with couches and chairs. The space wasn’t as shabby as the one I’d seen a year prior, but Abdallah hesitated when someone complimented him on his home. He said that every time he had friends over, his upstairs neighbors called the police.

Soon after arriving, I found Abdallah alone in the kitchen, free of his suit jacket and dress shoes, next to an oven where he was roasting a huge foil-covered dish of goat meat. I’d never seen him so thin. He was happy to have company. While he cooked, I leaned against the fridge. We joshed about how much sugar he put in his tea. We giggled at each other’s bad jokes. The mood was light and ephemeral, like the soft crackle of carbonation.

Abdallah spread black trash bags across the living room rug and brought out dishes: hummus, pita, bell peppers, store-bought chicken, the chunks of goat. He added bottles of water to the array, placing one in front of each guest. For the span of the meal, we let go of the trial. We stopped rehashing how the Garmin man had listed high speed after high speed. How frustrating it was that Abdallah’s official statement was missing. How Carman seemed fine but we needed Atticus Finch.

Midway through the meal, I disentangled myself from the packed-in knees, the arms reaching for food, to stand on a chair and take a few pictures on my phone. Too often we document only victories, the moments of joy but not of loss. No one takes candids at a funeral. The images I got were muted by the apartment’s low light, like something out of time. They already looked like artifacts I would unearth one day, after the verdict had been read and there were no more choices to be made.

Too often we document only victories, the moments of joy but not of loss. No one takes candids at a funeral. 

On the second morning of the trial, Collett gathered Abdallah’s friends together in the hallway: seven young white women, a white, ponytailed man, and a dozen Sudanese men in sharp suits and pointy-toed shoes. She warned us that it was crucial for us to keep it together today. The Sams family was going to testify. Shella had undergone 25 surgeries since the accident. Both of Emily’s grandmothers would be there. Many people who took the stand would be grieving.

When the Samses were finished, the defense would begin its case. At some point, I would be called to testify. Carman eventually came into the hall to prep me. I had to be careful, he said, because if I went off script—did anything other than answer his exact questions as succinctly as possible—the judge could shut me down.

Carman looked a little rueful over this restriction. Then he raised his eyebrows. “Unless,” he said, “if they ask you a question during cross-examination. If they give you an opening when they talk to you, you can go on for as long as you want. If they do that, go for it.”

He gave a meaningful nod. I nodded back, feeling unequipped for a filibuster.

As the morning passed, a man and a woman stood against a nearby wall. They emanated quiet intensity. The man, who was paunchy, looked stressed. The woman leaned against him, draping her thin limbs out across his chest and belly. They murmured to each other in pleading tones. I thought I heard the words “this country” and “Christian.”

I turned to Olmstead. “I think that’s the truck driver,” I said quietly.

She nodded. She’d been listening, too.

Eventually, the man was called into court—Abdallah’s court—and he disappeared behind heavy double doors. When he emerged 30 minutes later, he and the woman boarded the elevator. We didn’t see them again. Soon after, a raised voice in the courtroom snapped me to attention. It was muffled but hard, and clearly female. The volume ebbed, then spiked again.

“I think it’s the grandmother,” said Aliza Sollins, an old colleague.

“I saw her go in,” Olmstead added.

“Is she shouting?” I asked.

A while later, I peered through the narrow window while Shella Sams testified. Her composure struck me: She bore a gentle dignity in the midst of a storm.

That afternoon, when I was called to testify, the air in the courtroom felt stiff yet mildly electric. A damp light filled the space. I walked the single aisle between the wall and the gallery, past the double row of jurors. A bailiff settled me into the witness area, which held a small, walled-off table with a chair. There was a microphone, but it was too far away for me to reach. I imagined how I must have looked, a poor fit for the witness box and sweating through my carefully selected clothes.

Carman asked me my name. I gave it.

“Just generally and briefly, how did you come to know Mohamed Abdallah?” he asked.

I explained that I had been his caseworker. I knew I was supposed to look at the jury, but my brain couldn’t override how weird that felt.

“And did you have dealings with him for a number of months or even years?”

“Yes, I had dealings with him most intensely for eight months, and then on, for about two years.”

“Have you been able to be around him enough,” Carman asked, “to be able to form an opinion of his character?”


“And what is that opinion?”

I straightened my back and leaned toward the microphone. “Extremely high,” I said.

A portly prosecutor who was assisting Molloy rose to cross-examine me. “Were you at the scene of the collision that occurred between the defendant’s automobile and the Sams family?” he asked.

“No, I was not,” I said.

“So you don’t have any direct knowledge of that day or that incident. Is that correct?”

“That’s correct.”

“Nothing further.”

I was dismissed. Testimony delivered, I was allowed to take a seat in the gallery.

Carman called for Mohammed Tom. At my urging to trim his goatee and wear dress shoes, Tom had shaved his entire face raw and smashed his feet into a too-small pair of brown Oxfords. He plopped onto the seat and slouched into a casual posture that treaded the fine line between self-assuredness and arrogance. I wished he would sit up straight.

An Arabic interpreter pulled up a chair beside the witness stand. Tom could put on a show of English, but it was mostly a confidence act. Carman questioned Tom for 13 minutes, after which Molloy, an older man with short hair, glasses, and a white beard, stepped in for the cross-examination. I thought Tom seemed confused at times, which he tried to mask with pride, appearing certain of everything he said even when it clearly wasn’t correct. At least once, he answered a question before fully hearing what it was. I thought there might be a hitch with the interpretating, because Tom’s answers didn’t always match Molloy’s questions. Also, the interpreter’s dialect didn’t sound like Sudanese Arabic.

In a Southern drawl, Molloy asked questions about minute details: the placement of chargers inside Abdallah’s car, the location of a cell phone, where the GPS sat on the dashboard, and the speed of the vehicle. At first, Tom insisted that Abdallah never went above 70 miles per hour, didn’t once break the speed limit. He would have known, Tom said, because the steering wheel would have started shaking. He mimed holding a rattling wheel. I gaped at him from my seat.

“The car is four-cylinder,” Tom said. “If you go over 70, it starts shaking.”

“Over 70, it starts shaking,” Molloy repeated.

“Four-cylinder, the car can go as fast as 80,” Tom said. “We didn’t go more than that.”

“So 80 would have been the top speed, is that correct?” Molloy asked.

Tom considered. “I think the fastest we went was 75. I don’t think we reached 80.”

“OK, 75 it is then.”

“I think so, yes.” The way Tom said it sounded like sure, why not.

I dug my fingers into the bench with such force that Aliza Sollins reached over to hold my hand. On the witness stand, Tom grabbed a couple of plastic water cups and started a series of improbable demonstrations reenacting the accident. Tom described the Samses’ truck bumping the Camry twice on its right side, which he indicated had caused Abdallah to veer left then right before hitting the Samses’ pickup. Tom tried to explain how he’d wanted to help the Samses after the accident.

“And that’s what you really came here to say, isn’t it,” Molloy said. It wasn’t a question.

“Yes,” Tom said, without irony.

The questioning lasted another 15 minutes. When it was over, Tom sauntered away from the witness’s chair. By the time he walked past me, three Darfurian men were already tearing into him. I hissed at them to be quiet or go eviscerate Tom out in the hall.


“What?” Tom kept asking, bewildered. “What?”

Abdallah took the stand without an interpreter. I watched him in profile as he leaned forward in the witness chair, placing both elbows on the table and folding his hands. His long legs were bent at the knees and tucked beneath the chair. Carman threw him softballs: Where did he grow up? Where is Chad? Where did he work? Did the United States government give him permission to be in the country? Abdallah spoke carefully, eyes up. At Carman’s subtle reminders, he addressed the jury.

When the questioning turned to the accident, Carman called in an interpreter. He explained to the judge that this was for accuracy, but it was also clear that he’d wanted to show off his client’s articulate English before getting deep into the testimony.

Abdallah admitted he’d driven fast, but said that his speed had gone only into the seventies and eighties. Like Tom, he said that he’d lost control of the car when the Samses’ vehicle nudged his Camry twice. After the crash, he recalled, “We tried to help. I was so scared, so I got the energy to help. We tried to open the door [to the pickup], but the door was locked, was jammed, and it wouldn’t open. And the man was crying and screaming, ‘Where’s my daughter, where’s my daughter?’”

“What are your feelings about all of this?” Carman asked.

Abdallah decided to answer in English.

“First of all, I would like to say is, I really feel very troubled about the family was lost their daughter. And I saw the mom sitting in the wheelchair. I just remember that I lost—I lost my father.” Abdallah wept as he spoke. “I saw the same situation. It is hard for me to describe.”

When Molloy addressed Abdallah on cross-examination, he said “ab-doo-lah,” as in “zip-a-dee-doo-dah.” I wished the pronunciation were correct; names are so vital to who we are. Molloy’s questioning began with a reference to Tom’s testimony, which Abdallah quickly contradicted, saying the car didn’t shake at any speed.

“I was the one who was driving, and I would know if the car is shaking,” he said.

“So when Mr. Tom said that—and he was pretty adamant about it—that’s not true?”

Abdallah agreed but pointed out that Tom had trouble understanding the questions.

“So it’s a language problem,” Molloy said. But hadn’t the court given Tom an interpreter? Abdallah explained that Arabic wasn’t Tom’s first language, Masalit was.

Molloy brought up the 911 call after the accident. According to Abdallah and Tom, they weren’t confident enough in their English to communicate with emergency dispatch, so they gave their cell phone to the truck driver—whose name, I finally learned, was Ed Schreiber. During his testimony, Schreiber had said that Abdallah and Tom were speaking in Arabic on the phone and that he had to snatch the device out of Abdallah’s hand to call for help.

Molloy continued: Hadn’t Abdallah avoided the police after the accident—skipped town and gone back to Baltimore, where he evaded Scott County’s attempts to get his official statement? Abdallah insisted this wasn’t true. Officer Barnes had called him once to get a statement, but when Abdallah asked for an interpreter, Barnes said there wasn’t one available.

“I told him, ‘My language is not enough,’” Abdallah said. “He did not engage with me in any conversation about the accident. I asked him a few questions. I said, ‘If you give me the chance, I can tell you what happened.’”

Abdallah sent a paper statement. When it bounced back in the mail for some reason, he sent it again. The authorities in Scott County apparently never got it.  

Molloy asked whether Abdallah had contacted Shella Sams after the accident. Abdallah said no. Molloy looked unimpressed. “You never called her,” he said. “You never said a word to her, in almost—what—two years or little better, about how bad you felt, until you saw her in this courtroom today.”

“Right after the accident, I was really sad,” Abdallah replied. “And I know she’s a mother, so she was very sad, too. So I couldn’t reach out to her. Then I found out I was a defendant; they accused me of something.” He didn’t think he was supposed to contact the family, even though he wanted to know how they were—“to see what’s going on, what’s happening with them. I wouldn’t leave a situation like this.”

After Abdallah finished testifying, Carman called Olmstead so that she could tell the court about helping Abdallah with his statement. Calm and businesslike, Olmstead described how Abdallah came to her office for guidance. He’d already written a draft of the statement on scrap paper; Olmstead mostly helped as a proofreader, a human spell-check. She remembered Abdallah saying later that the statement had been sent back to him.

On cross-examination, the prosecution asked whether Abdallah had been in further contact with Scott County investigators. Olmstead answered, “He did tell me that he had called the police department a lot because he didn’t know what had happened with his car.”

“So his concern was his car?” the questioning prosecutor asked.

“One of them, yes,” Olmstead replied, her eyebrows rising.

I drove Abdallah and Tom home that night. In the back seat, Tom felt terrible, shaking his lowered head and saying over and over how sorry he was. He’d never be able to save face in the Darfurian community after making Abdallah look like a liar by association.

“Don’t worry about it,” Abdallah told him from the front seat. “It’s OK. It’s OK. I’ll tell them you did OK.”

At Abdallah’s apartment, Tom exiled himself to a bedroom. No one could coax him out.

People again filled the living room. Pizza boxes and plates of leftovers littered the floor. We were exhausted but reviewed the events of the day before I’d been called to the stand, including the testimony of Sonny Cease, the accident-reconstruction expert. A square-headed, heavyset man with sharp eyes, Cease brought toy cars with him to the witness stand; apparently, juries like that kind of thing. Cease contested the Garmin representative’s testimony about Abdallah’s speed, arguing that when the Camry slid sideways out of its lane, the friction with the asphalt would have reduced its speed to closer to 76 miles per hour at the moment of the collision with the Samses’ truck. Yes, Cease said, speed kills—but it didn’t kill this time.

Then there was the testimony of Ed Schreiber. The prosecution lauded him as a good Samaritan. On the stand, Schreiber described pulling over in his truck, comforting Emily’s grandparents, and later attending her funeral. On cross-examination, Carman asked Schreiber about the 911 call.

“You mentioned something about their religion to dispatch, did you not?” “Yes, sir,” Schreiber said. “That’s because when I grabbed the phone out of his hand, there was a name there that was actually a Muslim name, it was Mohamed something.” Carman then shifted gears and asked Schreiber about his Facebook account. Did he publish an anti-Muslim post on October 13, 2015? “I might have,” Schreiber said. What about on November 1, 2015? “I may have.” “Now, it’s just my job,” Carman said, shuffling papers at the podium. “I’ve got to do this.” His head snapped up. “Are you a racist?” “No, sir!” Schreiber replied. His chin rose in defiance. What about images of Confederate flags, Carman asked—did he post those? Carman gave Schreiber more dates. “I think. I mean, I’ve posted a lot of stuff,” Schreiber said. “I mean, I see stuff, and I repost it, and whatever.”

At Abdallah’s apartment, as our group talked, new, unspoken admiration for Carman hung in the air. A warm appreciation for the bailiffs also went around the room. The older Kentucky men had been kind: opening doors, pouring us cups of water on the witness stand. Nothing outside of their jobs, but their consideration seemed genuine.

I wondered about the heart of a place: Does such a thing exist? Who can legitimately claim to best represent a community out of everyone working to protect it, with their inevitable range of worldviews? The following day, the jury would be tasked with delivering a fair verdict on behalf of Scott County. What would that mean to them?



Judge Jeremy Mattox arranged the files in front of him. “Good morning, folks, and welcome to day three of the Commonwealth versus Mohamed Abdallah,” he said. The courtroom was the fullest it had been so far. The Samses and their supporters were there, along with some reporters and public defenders in training. Tom, whom Abdallah had cajoled into showering and dressing, sat with us. A clutch of Darfurian men who were expected to be there hadn’t yet arrived. We tried to spread out, take up space, make our group seem larger than it was.

To still my brain, I wrote down every word I could catch of the lawyers’ closing statements. It felt like cheating, a cop-out from having to watch what happened. I told myself that recording an event was important.

Carman took up a position behind a podium near the jury. He drank from a white paper cup and covered a cough with his fist. He buttoned his suit jacket, crossed his arms over his chest, and leaned back. “What I’m going to do with you here this morning,” Carman told the jurors, “is give you a top ten.” He asked that the men and women each take out a notepad and write down the items he listed. I was poised to do the same.

“Number ten.” Carman moved away from the podium, taking his notepad with him. “It was an accident.” He said each word slowly, emphatically. “And there are reasons we do not criminalize accidents.”

Number nine: Speeding didn’t cause the crash. He said it twice, reiterating Cease’s evaluation of the accident.

Carman cocked his head and swung back around the podium for number eight. “Mohamed’s vehicle was probably hit twice,” he said. Abdallah had been consistent on this point from the start of the case, and Tom remembered it, too: the Samses’ truck making contact with the Camry right before the accident. The Samses, however, had testified that their car never touched Abdallah’s until the crash. I wasn’t sure who had physics on their side; as the prosecution had pointed out, I wasn’t there for the collision. Carman scanned the jury. “A graze,” he said, “a small bump.” He gave a who-knows shrug.

The seventh point was that there were no drugs, no alcohol, no drag racing, no devil-may-care attitude involved in the crash. “Number six—this one’s not easy for me to even say. It’s not easy to remember, but it is my solemn duty to have you write down number six,” Carman said. “Emily was not wearing her seatbelt.”

For his fifth point, Carman touched on witness testimony. First, there was Schreiber. “He might have a bias against people of a certain color, people of a certain religion,” Carman said. Of the testimonies from Abdallah and Tom, Carman argued, “Nobody was coached.”

Number four: There were other opportunities for justice. A civil case, money from insurance companies. Lives didn’t have to be ruined further for there to be justice. For number three, Carman read aloud the legal definition of wanton: “aware and consciously disregard[ing] a substantial and unjustifiable risk. The risk must be of such nature and degree that disregard thereof constitutes a gross deviation from the standard of conduct that a reasonable person would reserve in such a situation.” Abdallah’s driving, Carman said, simply didn’t meet this definition.

Number two was what kind of a person Abdallah was. “You heard about his reputation in the community,” Carman said, then paused. “Did you notice all his support? If one of us were to go to trial, would ten or fifteen people show up every day of that trial?” The group of late-arriving Darfurian men had just settled into their seats in the back of the room.

“Moved around. Refugee from Sudan,” Carman continued. “Reminds me of Matthew, chapter eight: ‘Foxes have their den, birds have their nests, the Son of Man has no place to lay his head.’”

Carman noted how forthright Abdallah was during his testimony. “Did you notice his hands were shaking a little bit?” Carman asked. “I don’t think it’s ’cause he was being untruthful.… You know why he was a little nervous?” Carman leaned toward the jury and lowered his voice to a dark whisper. “Because this is for all the marbles.”

For a moment he was silent, letting the jurors hold that thought.

“Moved around. Refugee from Sudan,” Carman continued. “Reminds me of Matthew, chapter eight: ‘Foxes have their den, birds have their nests, the Son of Man has no place to lay his head.’”

Carman was moving fast now. My heart sped up, too. “That brings us to number one.” He flipped to the next page in his notebook. The prosecution hadn’t “even come close,” Carman said, to proving Abdallah’s guilt beyond a reasonable doubt. He held forth on the concept of equal justice under the law, an idea dating back to ancient Greece and found in the Old Testament—in Hebrews, Exodus, Leviticus. Carman seemed to be morphing before the court, achieving a deft grace.

“The evidence shows that if this were Jimmy Smith from Georgetown, not Mohamed Abdallah, who got in an accident with the Samses, we would not be here today,” Carman said, jabbing a finger in the air.

“When the accident happened, who’s the first one on the scene?” he reasoned. “God love him, Ed Schreiber. He’s telling the dispatch, ‘I think these are Muslims.’” As for Mohamed struggling to submit his statement, “He’s dealing with logistical issues. He’s a doggone refugee!”

Carman abruptly stopped moving. He said that he believed America’s justice system was the best in the world. No one should be put on trial for “what color they are, what religion they are, what language they speak.” He banged his fist on the wall of the jury box. “Maybe I can imagine this kind of indictment, this kind of prosecution, this kind of conviction” happening somewhere else, Carman said, “but not in this county, not in this commonwealth, and not in this country. We are better than that.”

For the first time, I felt a flash of hope.

When Molloy rose to address the jury, I again burned anxious. In contrast to Carman’s fevered sermon, Molloy’s voice was low and steady. He choked up when he spoke of the Sams family. He knocked the flaws in Tom’s testimony. Molloy, a longstanding advocate for civil rights, rejected Carman’s argument that the trial had anything to do with racism, xenophobia, or Islamophobia. “This case is not about Mr. Abdallah’s place of birth. It is not about his religion. It is not about the color of his skin,” Molloy said. It was about what Abdallah did, and what he didn’t do. Abdallah drove too fast and “never showed any remorse, ever,” Molloy argued. “When Mrs. Sams came into the courtroom, he broke down crying. For himself. What a perfect time to say ‘I’m sorry.’”

“This is the day that Mr. Abdallah is to be held accountable,” Molloy concluded. “This is the day that you, the jury, having heard all you have heard, can hold him accountable for what he has done.”

The jury holed up in the deliberation room, and we clustered in the courtroom. Beside me, Abdallah sat with his hands stuffed between his knees. We chatted with Collett and Carman and produced the stack of 30-plus character-reference letters that we’d collected. I read them aloud to Abdallah. I skipped the parts where writers said that he seemed depressed and withdrawn because of his legal troubles, focusing on the bits where they heaped on praise. Every few letters, I reminded him that if the jury found him guilty, these documents were going straight to the judge.

Carman gave us the rundown of the ways the trial’s aftermath could go. Once Abdallah was convicted, he would be taken to jail on the spot. A probation officer would conduct and write up a presentencing investigation, which might take up to a month. The court would then hand down a final sentence. Immigration and Customs Enforcement could opt to deport Abdallah or render him a closely watched nonresident, a man who would move like a ghost through prison and life in America until he left the country or died.

Carman tried a metaphor. It’s like we’re on a path in the woods, he said, and we might have to turn and go down another path. We might get to a clearing. We might turn down a path and, whoa, there might be a bear, and we might have to shoot the bear.

Everyone stared at him.

He mimed releasing an arrow from a bow.

At 4 p.m., five hours after the jury began deliberating, the courtroom stirred. Collett whispered to us that there was a verdict. We drifted to our places. At the defense table, Abdallah looked slight and flimsy. The Sams family returned and sat up front. I looked at the backs of their heads with shame, pain, sorrow, indignation. There was a hard shiver in the back of my ribs that wouldn’t cease.

Seated in a back row of the gallery, between Olmstead and Tom, I watched officers I hadn’t seen before file in. They lined up against a wall and near the exits. Handcuffs glinted at their belts. Unlike the cordial bailiffs, these officers were younger and grim faced.

A peal of laughter sounded from the jury room. I felt nauseous and nostalgic for a half-hour ago and the burden of waiting.

Then the jury returned.

“Will the defendant please rise?” Judge Mattox asked.

Abdallah stood. My throat compressed.

“On count one,” Mattox read, meaning the second-degree manslaughter of Emily Sams, “we the jury find the defendant not guilty.”

Olmstead’s grip on my hand tightened. My other hand jumped to one of Tom’s but missed and hit his thigh.

“On count two,” for assault, “we the jury find the defendant not guilty.” The result was the same for the third charge, the last one.

I traded glances with Olmstead, whose stunned, frozen face mirrored mine. Tom was so busy showing no emotion I couldn’t tell if he’d missed what just happened. In front of us, other members of our party twitched and shifted on their benches.

Affectless, we rose as the jury filed out. One juror winked in our direction as he left. We let the Samses exit the courtroom next. Abdallah stood for their exit like a soldier at attention. Then we walked out in silence.

In the hallway, we shattered. Darfurian men held their heads and wept. They dove at me, at Abdallah, at anyone, with close embraces. They collapsed on my shoulders. At Abdallah’s side, Collett’s cheeks were wet with tears. We stumbled into the elevator, desperate to escape. I caught Carman ducking his way through a snuffle. The back of my hips hit the elevator’s wall. My hands found the railings behind me as my knees gave way.

We scattered to our cars. I was worried we’d leave someone behind, but we went, and in going, I somehow climbed into the back seat of my car. Abdallah got into the passenger seat. He closed the door, then he threw himself between the seats onto an armrest and sobbed.



Fawzia, a Darfurian woman who attended the last day of the trial, announced that we were “going to the river.” She knew a restaurant where we could celebrate, but her proclamation also felt baptismal. It was time to be clean of this.

The next morning—after the delirious phone calls, ululations, a glittering night, dinner by the river, more tears—Abdallah, Tom, and another friend came over to the Airbnb for pancakes and jam. We all sat in the sun-drenched living room, on the furniture and on the floor. It felt strange not to be in court in the daytime, stranger still for Abdallah to have shown up at some place he wished to go.

Abdallah kept repeating Mattox’s words: “Mohamed Abdallah, you are a free man.” His eyes shone when he relived how Carman had pounded his fist on the jury box. He echoed the Bible verses Carman had used, slowly committing them to memory.

Later, at a bowling alley where he chose “FREE MAN” as his name on the computer screen, Abdallah kept checking his cell phone. A man who worked for Scott County was supposed to contact him, and Abdallah was anxious that they meet. Eventually they did, in the parking lot of an Ethiopian restaurant where we went for a late lunch. The man swung open the door of a silver sedan and passed Abdallah a large pair of surgical-style scissors. In a series of hurried, stiff clips, Abdallah cut through the plastic band of his ankle monitor. Then he hugged everyone in sight.

Inside the restaurant, Abdallah thanked the crowd of Americans and Darfurians gathered. “I was very, very being patient, to see whatever the result happened,” he said of the trial. “I should be happy with that.” He looked around the room as he spoke. “Finally, yes, I’m a free man,” Abdallah said. “God bless everybody.”

A year after his trial, Abdallah was still in Kentucky. “You must think I’m crazy,” he told me. Driving away from the courthouse the day of the verdict, Abdallah had paged through a book on U.S. national parks, looking for ideas of where to move now that he could. He stayed in Kentucky because he applied for American citizenship through an immigration lawyer in Louisville. Once that was done, maybe he’d leave. Put in for a transfer at Amazon. Go to California. Maybe Utah. Pennsylvania.

Abdallah knew he’d been lucky. Still, it haunted him that, after the trial, Carman advised him not to reach out to the Samses. Just let it lie, the lawyer said.

I called both Carman and Molloy. The men had acute memories of the case, but their perspectives were different. Before the trial, Carman told me, he and Molloy were “pretty friendly,” often joining the same happy hour after work. A little wistfully, Carman said those days were through. Molloy told me that Carman had crossed a line in his closing argument when he suggested that a local defendant would have been treated differently than Abdallah. For Molloy, a man who had dedicated his life to justice, the insult implied in his opponent’s argument was intolerable.

I learned from a lawyer for Abdallah’s car-insurance company that the Sams family had settled for close to $60,000. I doubted that, as Carman had hinted in court, money felt anything like justice. I reached out to the Samses in February 2019. Emily’s father responded to me by email, taking on the task because Shella was still in recovery and exhausted at the end of the day. She had an infection in her femur that would require two additional surgeries.

Much of what Jeff Sams wrote was tough to read. He graciously said that he didn’t blame me for my participation in the trial—“I assume you were simply telling what you knew to be true about someone you knew”—but several of our truths diverged. He rankled at Carman, who he said should either “win an Oscar for that performance or burn in hell.” He also thought that bringing race into the trial had muddied the waters. For him the case was about speed. He saw Abdallah as a person with appalling moral decrepitude who lied to save his own skin. Still, Sams wrote, “Would I be happy if he was in jail, no. Would I be happy if he was deported to whatever hole he crawled out of, no. Would I be happy if he suffered and drew his last breath, no. That may seem odd, but it wouldn’t bring me joy. My joy is buried in a cemetery. My joy can’t surface as I watch my wife struggle to walk, do ordinary tasks, choke down 30 pills a day, or hold her as she cries because she misses our daughter.”

“We had nothing to gain from this,” Sams said of the trial. “Nothing would bring back our dead daughter, nor give my wife the ability to overcome paralysis. It was just a continuation of a nightmare.” They had been “handed down a sentence of pain, suffering, and tears long before it. It was a life sentence to us, no way around that.”

Earlier in the year, he’d attended a ceremony for Emily’s basketball team; the players and coaches had asked him to come. “They miss her just like everyone else. She was a stellar kid who made all A’s and was good at volleyball and basketball. Quick witted. Pretty. A great kid,” Sams wrote. “Not a day will go by we won’t think of her. Think of what she would look like, what college she might have attended, how great a volleyball player she would have been, what career she would choose, what boy she might bring home or marry, how many kids she might have, where she might live, or simply what it would be like to just hear her voice and hug her today.”

He added, “That child alone and missing her could be its own book.”

Justice, a concept ostensibly rooted in clear-cut truths, is in fact fickle. America can inspire grief and faith in the same stroke.

If I’d expected reconciliation, it wasn’t there. I remembered something my wife had said during the trial. “It didn’t feel like justice,” she’d observed after the first day of the proceedings. “It felt like two boys trying to win a game.”

What if the quest for justice brings no healing, only more pain? Abdallah lost nearly three years of his life; the Samses found no reprieve from their immense hurt and grief. If the accident had happened in peacetime Darfur, Abbas Yahya told me once, village leaders likely would have convened and decided upon compensation for the people affected. Here we duked it out until everyone in the vicinity of the case was black and blue.

Much like an angry brawl, the participants had different reasons for coming to the ring. Where the prosecution saw a need for consequences, the defense perceived systemic racism. I reached out to several jurors to better understand their decision in the case, but none responded. I’ve tried to stop guessing what went on in their minds—to surmise what, as individuals, they value and fear.

In our narrative-heavy culture, we are taught to interpret people and places as symbols, to imbue them with meaning. Stories, though, often fail to reflect the world’s complexity and contradictions. Justice, a concept ostensibly rooted in clear-cut truths, is in fact fickle. America can inspire grief and faith in the same stroke. And Abdallah, a man onto whom other people—myself included—have projected their perspectives, is nobody’s best or worst dream of him.

When I talked to Abdallah in the months following the trial, I sensed a sort of transient state. He couldn’t visualize his next step until he got his citizenship, giving him purchase in a country that had both welcomed and thwarted him. Life beyond the verdict still held a question for Abdallah—and, it seemed, for everyone who’d endured the trial. We were waiting to see what this land would hold.

Update, May 2019: Two months after this story ran, Mohamed Abdallah became a U.S. citizen. He took his oath in a government building in Louisville, Kentucky. It rained all day, but Abdallah told the story’s author that he didn’t mind—rain signaled a new beginning.

The End of Forever


The End of Forever

What happens when an adoption fails?

By Rowan Moore Gerety

The Atavist Magazine, No. 86

Rowan Moore Gerety is a reporter and radio producer. He is the author of Go Tell the Crocodiles: Chasing Prosperity in Mozambique (New Press, 2018).

Editor: Jonah Ogles
Designer: Jefferson Rabb
Copy Editor: Sean Cooper
Fact Checker: Adam Przybyl
Photography: Johanne Rahaman, Rowan Moore Gerety, and courtesy of Deon and Gladina Richards

Published in December 2018. Design updated in 2021.


Of her five children, Djenane Phadael Estimé was hardest on two-year-old Marie Jacqueline. Djenane said that the little girl was hardheaded, and she wanted her to grow up to be a good person. When Djenane got angry, she beat Jacquie, as her family called the toddler, with belts, plates, and shoes. Jacquie walked with a limp because of a broken femur that her parents had left untreated. In November 1999, she finally died.

One Sunday night, Jacquie complained of pain in her arm and couldn’t fall asleep. Djenane took her to a Haitian healer who treated injuries, no matter how severe, with a mentholated ointment. They returned to their home in Lake Worth, Florida, around midnight, and Djenane put Jacquie to bed. The next morning, the toddler wouldn’t wake up.

In a panic, Djenane called her niece Claire Dameus, who often left her own children at the Estimés’ while she worked as a nursing assistant. Dameus instructed Djenane to call 911, then drove over to the family’s one-bedroom apartment in Lake Worth, a working-class town north of Miami. She found her aunt cradling the stiff child as Djenane’s husband, Pascal, stood nearby. They hadn’t yet called 911, so Dameus did. The emergency operator told her to put Jacquie on the floor and perform CPR.

“Don’t go nowhere,” Dameus said to Djenane. “Everything is not easy no more. When 911 come in, they’re going to ask questions.”

Paramedics found Jacquie dead on the kitchen floor in a tiny red dress. The cause was recorded as multiple blunt-force trauma to the head, but it was impossible to say which of Jacquie’s injuries had killed her. There were nine distinct contusions on her head; at least one of them had caused hemorrhaging in her brain. Twelve of her ribs were broken. She had a black eye and a burn mark on her thigh.

The Estimés’ four other children were in the apartment when Jacquie died. Gladina, who would turn one the next day, was the only sibling who appeared to be unscathed. Pinder, age three, had bruises on his arms and scabies on his hands, chest, and back. Seven-year-old James, the eldest, had impetigo so severe that it had spread to his lymph nodes, and there were welts on his body consistent with a belt or electrical cord, though he insisted he’d gotten them from falling down.

Then there was Deon. The four-year-old had fewer outward signs of abuse or neglect than his brothers did, but he also seemed more afraid. Slight and wide-eyed, he barely spoke to the men and women in navy blue uniforms who whisked him and his siblings away from their home. In the hallway of the police station, waiting to be taken to a doctor, Deon played quietly with green plastic toy soldiers.

That night, Deon and Pinder were sent to a children’s shelter, while James and Gladina went to a foster home. Within 24 hours, Djenane and Pascal were charged and denied bail. The state of Florida pledged to seek the death penalty for Djenane for committing first-degree murder. Pascal faced up to 15 years in prison for his failure to intervene or notify authorities about the abuse.

The case made headlines as as one of the worst documented cases of child abuse in Palm Beach County. “Hey, that’s my mom!” James cried when he saw Djenane’s mugshot flash across a TV screen at the shelter, where he and Gladina eventually joined their brothers while authorities decided what to do with them.

Florida’s Department of Children and Families (DCF) placed the Estimé siblings in kinship care, which meant that they’d be fostered and potentially adopted by members of their extended family. First they lived with Dameus, the cousin who’d called 911, then with one of their mother’s relatives a few miles south, in Lantana, along South Florida’s Atlantic coast. In August 2001, they were sent to the outer limits of the state’s child-welfare system: to their grandfather’s house in Haiti. (International placement in kinship care is uncommon but not unheard of, especially in states with large immigrant populations, such as Florida, California, Arizona, and Texas.) In a picture from the day they arrived in Saint-Marc, a small coastal city in Haiti, the Estimé children pose with their grandfather, Merès, and two DCF staffers—“a white lady and a black lady,” Deon remembered.

It wasn’t easy to get the siblings to Saint-Marc. The DCF spent months making arrangements, which included finding a Haitian organization that could serve as a liaison until Merès formally took custody of his grandchildren. The agency was gambling on oversight, too. The closest U.S. government outpost was the embassy in Port-au-Prince, about 55 miles south of Saint-Marc, and a DCF caseworker would only be able to visit Haiti every few months. The main point of contact for the Estimés would be an uncle who spoke halting English and lived in the capital. Still, family was family, so the DCF left the four children and $500 with Merès.

The Estimés felt at home in Haiti. Deon and his brothers had been born there and spent the first few years of their lives in Saint-Marc, before moving to Florida. Now they played chicken with cars along the main road and hitched rides on motorcycle taxis to get to Liberty Academy, a small private school run by American missionaries across the street from the Caribbean Sea. In a jungle of vines near Merès’s house, they played hide-and-seek and picked Spanish limes with the freewheeling kids who lived in a cluster of thatch-roofed houses nearby. They weren’t supposed to be there, but the risk that they might get caught by the pig farmer who owned the land was part of the fun. “Everybody said that the guy chopped off people’s heads,” Deon recalled.

One day the kids spotted the farmer, and most of them scrambled over a fence to safety. Deon—six years old, scrawny, and seconds too slow—got caught. “Merès! That’s my grandfather!” he blurted out. The man’s face softened, and he let Deon go. The next day, Merès brought his grandson back to the farm with a bucket of slop for the owner’s pigs. “People would be trying to sneak to get Spanish limes,” Deon said. “But all you had to do was feed his pigs and he would give you some.”

Having children in his house proved to be a strain on Merès. He had a business hauling loads of rocks from riverbed quarries to construction sites in a dump truck. With grandchildren at home, “I wasn’t able to work,” he said. “I had to go back and forth to school, to drop them off, to bring them lunch money at noon.” The funds that the DCF had given him didn’t stretch very far. “Five hundred can’t do anything for a year,” Merés said. “To give the kids three meals a day, to buy beds.”

When a DCF caseworker came for a visit, Merès asked for support. Instead, the caseworker decided to take the kids back to Florida. Deon remembered his grandfather sitting him and his siblings down before they left. “He said he couldn’t take care of us anymore, and that the next day, people would be coming to take us back,” Deon said. On August 12, 2002, a year and ten days after arriving in Saint-Marc, the kids boarded a flight back to Florida.

By then, Djenane had pleaded guilty to second-degree murder and been sentenced to 38 years in prison. Pascal had already been released after serving two years for lesser charges. Both had signed away their parental rights. Because Deon and his siblings were minors, they weren’t named in news stories about their sister’s death and the case against their parents. The kids asked about their mom and dad all the time, but they hadn’t seen either one since the day they were taken into custody.

Because the DCF had exhausted the available options to place the siblings with family members, the Estimé children now fell into a different pool of kids overseen by the state of Florida. They were potential adoptees, children in need of new parents altogether. For the state, the goal was permanency, a home where the siblings could live safely until they turned 18. For the kids, it was something more: a forever family. Deon would get neither.

From left: Arrival in Haiti; Deon’s adoption-agency photo. (Courtesy: Gladina and Deon Richards)


The Estimés’ return to Florida coincided with a sweeping overhaul of the state’s child-welfare system, led by then governor Jeb Bush. Between 2000 and 2002, the DCF handed off responsibility for licensing, case management, and adoption in the foster-care system to a constellation of firms contracted on a county-by-county basis. This model of privatization, called community-based care, was hailed by the governor as a path forward for an underfunded and overcrowded system considered one of the worst in the country. Yet it was unproven and controversial. State officials acknowledged that pilot programs in the late 1990s had failed.

Melissa Neeley was a bubbly 26-year-old when she started working in the community-based-care system. After college she’d worked with the families of developmentally delayed children in Texas. Then she moved across the country and took a job as the manager of a chaotic group home in Lake Worth, where she made $10 an hour and fielded midnight phone calls about psychiatric commitments. “I wouldn’t say I had no idea what I was doing, but I wasn’t in my happy place,” Neeley recalled. One day an adoption caseworker encouraged her to apply for a position at Children’s Home Society, the nonprofit tasked with overseeing foster care and adoption in Palm Beach County. Neeley got a job as a case manager and was promptly handed 40 files, more than double the workload prescribed by the state.

The children whose lives were laid out in that paperwork were scattered in homes as much as an hour’s drive from Neeley’s office in West Palm Beach. Florida law requires caseworkers to visit each of their charges at least once every 30 days, but many of Neeley’s kids hadn’t been seen in months. Recruitment of adoptive parents had stagnated. It was difficult work, but Neeley found that her friendly bearing helped repair relationships with foster parents who had soured on her predecessor.

The Estimé kids were among her first cases. Gladina, too young to remember what her family had been through, was growing into a spunky, confident child. Once, sitting in Neeley’s office, she burst into tears when she learned that one of the interns there was blind. When Neeley asked why she was crying, Gladina whimpered, “Because she can’t see how cute I am.” James and Pinder “had defiance in their blood,” Neeley remembered, and still seemed to be processing the abuse they’d experienced. Staff from the DCF believed that Pinder may have been hiding in the room where his mother beat Jacquie the night she died. Sometimes, Pinder wouldn’t even speak to Neeley—he would just size her up from across the room.

Deon was different. “He was so sweet,” Neeley said. Somehow what had happened to his family “didn’t touch him quite as roughly.” A DCF report written just before his ninth birthday described Deon as “a well mannered, likable” boy who loved “to swim, play football, and ride his bike.” Still, there were hints of lingering trauma from his early life and the bewildering experience of being uprooted. The report described a child coping with unimaginable pain. “It is hypothesized that Deon cries and refuses to talk to a trusting adult when his feelings are hurt in order to avoid further feelings of sadness, grief, or loss,” the report observed. “[Deon] often changes the subject to avoid discussing his past experiences with his biological family.” It suggested three alternate coping mechanisms: “hugging his teddy, watching TV, and playing video games.”

Neeley—or Miss Melissa, as the Estimés called her—conducted home visits and interviewed prospective adoptive parents to see if they’d be a good fit for the siblings. She was determined to find a family that would be willing to adopt the four children together, however unlikely that might be. “I wouldn’t budge on that, because they had already lost too much,” Neeley said.

For a while, the siblings were in three foster homes in three different towns. Only Deon and Gladina were together, in Belle Glade, a town of 17,000 people nestled among sugarcane fields in a swampy stretch of Florida between Lake Okeechobee and the northern Everglades. Their foster mother was a deeply religious woman named Mrs. Clark who sent Deon to a small Christian school called Miracle by Faith. On Sundays, she took him and Gladina to church in a neighbor’s garage, which had been decked out with a stage and plastic chairs for pews. Clark was a strict disciplinarian who cared for four or five kids at once and didn’t hide the fact that she considered foster care a business. Foster parents are often given stipends by the state; in Florida at that time, the amount was roughly $15 per child per day.

Mrs. Clark was a strict disciplinarian who cared for four or five kids at once and didn’t hide the fact that she considered foster care a business.

“They always let me know, ‘Hey, we’re not your family,’” Gladina recalled of Clark and her Jamaican boyfriend. The kids weren’t allowed to socialize outside the house and spent their afternoons inside, watching Dragonball Z on TV. They were scolded for taking food from the kitchen without asking. “Tell the truth. God’s watching,” Mrs. Clark would say.

During visits, Neeley noticed an unhealthy fear developing in Deon and Gladina. When another driver cut Neeley off on the highway one day and she swore out loud, Gladina, strapped into the back seat, began to sob hysterically. “You’re gonna go to hell now,” she said. “God’s gonna punish you because you said a bad word!” As Christmas approached, Neeley made the rounds to the kids in her organization’s care, giving each one a plush brown teddy bear with a bow tie. When Deon got his, he promptly walked across the room and gave it to Mrs. Clark. “You deserve this teddy bear for putting up with a child like me,” he said. Neeley was shocked. She watched Gladina look around the room as she clutched her own bear. “She looked torn, wondering if she was supposed to follow Deon’s lead and give her the teddy bear, too, or if she was supposed to keep it because Miss Melissa gave it to her,” Neeley said.

Things were worse than Neeley knew. Mrs. Clark had once yanked Deon’s ear so hard that she ripped the skin where it connected to the boy’s head. When teachers sent Gladina home early from preschool after a bookshelf fell on her, Mrs. Clark spanked the little girl for disrupting her daily schedule, then made Gladina sit in a corner until Deon got home. Gladina was four at the time. “I used to pee the bed every day,” Gladina said. “To avoid them beating me from peeing the bed, I would throw the clothes in the washing machine.”

Then one day, Deon tangled with Mrs. Clark’s boyfriend and mustered the courage to pick up the house phone and dial 911. Bit by bit, a damning picture of the home came together on Neeley’s desk. Deon and Gladina were removed. “Mrs. Clark didn’t stay in business too long after that,” Neeley said.

In September 2004, Deon and Gladina were sent to Real Life Children’s Ranch, a sprawling, faith-based group home in Okeechobee where more than a dozen children lived in four bungalows, each overseen by what the ranch called “professional parents”—often a husband and wife who lived on the property with their own children. Deon arrived a few weeks after the start of fourth grade, a gangly four feet seven inches tall and 71 pounds. He was shy but excited to be among a crowd of kids. The ranch felt like it was part family farm, part summer camp, where children fed and watered the ranch’s animals as part of their daily chores. In the afternoons, they could float on inner tubes in a fish pond or spring off a trampoline into the water. Boys and girls lived in separate houses, but Deon and Gladina saw each other every day on the school bus. Gladina took comfort in knowing that her big brother would wake her up and make sure she got off the bus at the right stop if she fell asleep.

Still, the constant upheaval in Deon’s past had consequences. He had always struggled to stay focused in school. Now he bristled at authority and was repeatedly suspended for mouthing off at teachers. Professional parents at the ranch had him fill entire notebooks with the phrase “I will not use curse words” and show the notebooks to Neeley when she visited.

From left: Deon, Gladina, and James; Deon and Pinder. (Courtesy: Gladina Richards)

Adoption was the subject of constant speculation at the ranch, but none of the kids really understood how it worked. Would-be parents showed up to spend time with children they’d singled out on an adoption agency’s website, where they could view head shots and brief bios of the children. Other kids would watch and listen, hoping to pick up tidbits about the lives on offer to their friends. They focused their enthusiasm less on an emotional connection with adoptive parents than on the trappings of family life: a big house, a pool, toys, go-karts.

Deon knew that things didn’t always work out like kids hoped. One family who had expressed interest in adopting all four Estimés when Deon and Gladina were still in Belle Glade backed out when they absorbed the details of James’s and Pinder’s case files. At the time, James was 12, an age when he was half as likely as a younger child to be adopted. Nine-year-old Pinder, meanwhile, had been diagnosed with bipolar disorder and was taking an antipsychotic medication. Neeley started to worry that keeping the siblings together might be impossible. “There comes a point in any adoption case that you start thinking, Which is more important, keeping them together, or getting them out of this system as quickly as I can?” Neeley said. “It doesn’t matter how good a system it is, it’s still a system. It’s not a family. It’s not home.”

Shortly before Christmas in 2005, Deon and Gladina went to a restaurant with other kids from the ranch on the way back from church. Gladina noticed a black couple in their late thirties at the other end of the table. Eventually, they came over to introduce themselves as the Richardses. They didn’t have a family, but they wanted one. (The Richardses declined to be interviewed for this story.) When the kids loaded back into the ranch’s transport van, they peppered Gladina and Deon with questions: Do you know them? Are they going to adopt you?

Gladina had watched the movie Annie more times than she could count, and the way people around her talked about adoption made it seem like something she should hope for. Then again, she was happy at the ranch. “We’d already moved from a trash place to a better place,” she said. “You don’t test your luck.” Deon, meanwhile, couldn’t understand why he and Gladina would have to leave if they didn’t want to. “I wanted to stay at the ranch forever,” he said.

“It doesn’t matter how good a system it is, it’s still a system. It’s not a family. It’s not home.”

A few weeks later, the Richardses came back bearing McDonald’s—a Big Mac for Deon and a Happy Meal with chicken nuggets and a Little Mermaid necklace for Gladina. The couple took them to see the movie The Pink Panther and to tour their house in Orlando, which had a backyard shaded by a tall sycamore tree. There was a park with a baseball diamond just up the street. It looked like the type of place where a happy family would live, but Deon was hesitant. He thought he deserved the family he wanted. If adoptive parents got to choose kids, why couldn’t kids choose adoptive parents?

Florida’s child-welfare system is supposed to take kids’ opinions into account if they are “of sufficient intelligence, understanding, and experience to express a preference,” according to state law. It’s in no one’s interest for a child to go to a family they don’t like. But how does one determine that a child is old enough or understands enough about their situation to raise an objection? When Deon announced on a car ride with ranch staff in early 2006 that he didn’t “want to go with that frickin’ family,” one of his professional parents scolded him for being ungrateful. “After that I stayed quiet,” he remembered.

Neeley had noticed that Deon and Gladina didn’t seem to form as strong a bond with their prospective family as some kids do, but the Richardses were new to parenting. Besides, Neeley thought, these were easy, happy-go-lucky kids. “Deon and Gladina didn’t have any of the behaviors that would make you say, ‘Oh, I really need a family that has raised kids before,’” she explained.

In June 2006, during the adoption ceremony at the Palm Beach County courthouse, a judge looked Deon in the eye and asked if he had any reservations about the Richardses adopting him. He stayed quiet.


Deon and Gladina moved in to the Richardses’ L-shaped ranch house on Cedar Bay Road, at the north end of an Orlando subdivision called Dover Estates. They each had their own room. Fridays were family night, which meant playing games, eating at restaurants, or going to the movies. Deon and his new dad put together model cars and launched a toy rocket in the neighborhood park. Mr. Richards was a commercial pilot at AirTran, and his job afforded the family free plane tickets when they flew standby. They took getaways on a moment’s notice. In Washington, D.C., they visited museums on the National Mall, and Deon posed in front of a green screen for a photo that showed him in a suit, shaking hands with President George W. Bush. In New York City, they went to Times Square and the Statue of Liberty. In Maryland, they visited Mrs. Richards’s extended family; once they went up for a single day, just to attend a cousin’s birthday party.

A few months after Deon and Gladina moved in with the Richardses, Pinder was adopted, too, by a Cuban American family that lived outside Miami. The Perezes had three biological children of their own, two boys and a girl. The setup was “kind of like our original family,” Deon said. After Pinder’s adoption, the Perezes drove up from South Florida to meet Deon and Gladina in Orlando and brought them on family trips to SeaWorld and Disney World.

None of the Estimé kids had seen their parents since the day they first went into state custody, seven years earlier. For James, the only sibling without a permanent solution, the lack of closure was devastating. By middle school, he was stealing cars and running away from his foster home. He lived with the family of a retired sheriff’s deputy in Royal Palm Beach. They wanted to adopt him, but James resisted. “Y’all are not my family,” he said. Neeley, whose involvement with the other Estimé kids ended when they were adopted, was still responsible for James’s case. She thought he might be acting out in frustration at being apart from his siblings. “When James was worried about what was going on with them, his behavior was ten times worse,” Neeley said.

She arranged for him to spend a few days with the Richardses around Christmas 2006. When he got to Orlando, James was relieved to see that Mr. Richards liked planes and action figures. This man’s a nerd, but at least he’s not an alcoholic, James thought.

James returned a second and third time over subsequent holidays, and he started to talk about moving to Orlando. He gushed to Neeley about how Mr. Richards had promised to take him up in a Cessna prop plane. Neeley was apprehensive. She knew James to be angry and mercurial, and he’d been held back twice in school. “James is not Deon and Gladina,” she said. When she got a call from the Richardses in late 2007, she braced herself for the news that James could no longer visit. But that wasn’t what Mr. Richards had to say. “He told me they wanted to adopt James, too,” Neeley said.

Meanwhile, Deon was struggling to adjust to his new parents’ rules. Kids at the ranch were taught to be polite and address adults as sir or ma’am. They were told to say dang instead of damn and heck instead of hell, and to never take God’s name in vain. Though he was used to a relatively strict environment, the Richardses’ idea of manners caught Deon off guard. If he answered “What?” when Mrs. Richards called his name, she’d shoot back, “Don’t what me!” If he or Gladina spoke in a tone of voice she didn’t like, their mother sometimes slapped them across the face.

Once, while the family was in the Orlando airport, returning from one of their trips, Deon and Mrs. Richards got in an argument, and he told her, “I hate you.” When the family got home, Mr. Richards spanked Deon. Corporal punishment became one of the Richardses’ methods of dealing with bad behavior. Gladina said her father regularly gave them “whuppings,” meted out on bare skin with a belt or a wooden paddle. Once, in Deon’s telling, he and Pinder, who was visiting, were riding bikes borrowed from a neighborhood friend when Mr. Richards drove past and ordered them home. He accused Deon of stealing the bikes. Deon shouted back, “I didn’t steal those frickin’ bikes!” His father retorted, “Who do you think you’re talking to like that?” and began hitting him on the back and legs.

James, whose adoption had been finalized, smoked joints on the bus and picked fights at school, but he was careful not to act out at the Richardses’ home—he didn’t even grumble about having to attend early Sunday services at the family’s Baptist church. Together, he and Mr. Richards bonded over a love of cars, working on a blue 1984 Monte Carlo that Mr. Richards was fixing up. It reminded James of working with his grandfather in Haiti, grabbing tools as they tinkered with the dump truck in the driveway.

James shared a room with Deon, where they had a PlayStation and a weight bench, but the brothers barely knew each other by then; they hadn’t lived together since coming back from Haiti five years earlier. Now, at opposite ends of puberty, the three-year age difference between them felt huge. Deon was into basketball and football and decorated the walls of their room with posters from Sports Illustrated. James was more interested in girls and going out with friends. Some days he didn’t come home until it was time for bed. Deon only remembers really bonding with his brother when James agreed to help him prepare to go out for freshman football; they played catch together in the back yard.

From left: Family trips to New York City and Washington, D.C. (Courtesy: Deon Richards)

The summer before ninth grade, Deon tried out for the team with his friend Shaquille Evans. Shaquille was put on the roster as a running back. Deon made the team, too, but his parents wouldn’t let him play—they said he needed to do better in school first. It was true that he rarely did homework and dodged questions about grades, but Deon felt like he had nothing to work toward without sports.

Gladina tried to tune out the arguments between her brother and their parents. When they fought, she would close the door to her bedroom and turn up the volume on reruns of Saved by the Bell and The Golden Girls. “The TV was my best friend,” she said. When things got particularly heated, Deon would sometimes spend the night at Shaquille’s. His friend’s mother, Nicky, was warm and welcoming. She’d had the family’s driveway widened just so her son and his friends had more room to play pickup basketball. Deon took to referring to Mrs. Evans as Mom.

James had always encouraged Deon to keep the peace with their parents, but by the time things really went south with the Richardses, James was gone: Just before Christmas in 2009, the 17-year-old left the house after an argument about cutting the lawn and never returned. His stuff stayed in the room he’d shared with Deon.

The Richardses took an increasingly hard line with Deon. They changed the locks and told him to stay out of the house until Mrs. Richards returned from work at 8 p.m. Gladina recalled her parents’ rationale as “OK, you want to be grown? You’re grown now.” That only made Deon want to leave more. He slept at friends’ houses, sometimes sneaking back in through his bedroom window to grab a change of clothes. One Friday at 11 p.m., before a weekend when Deon was grounded, he stormed out of the house wearing only a T-shirt and red basketball shorts. After 48 hours passed, the Richardses filed a missing person report. Deon finally came home on Tuesday.

Nicky Evans thought Deon wasn’t treated well at home and should consider reporting the Richardses to the DCF. But she could see that he was worried about getting split up from his sister, so she encouraged him to diffuse the tension, even sending him back home on occasion to make up with his mother. “He was always saying he just wanted to get older so he could get out,” Evans recalled. “I said, ‘Deon, whatever your mom asks you, just do it. You’re almost there.’” But Deon felt himself losing control.

Finally, he snapped. One day, about six months after James left, Deon was suspended from school and tried to hide in the closet until Mrs. Richards left for work. When she found him, she started throwing his sneaker collection into trash bags—ten pairs of shoes he had either traded for or bought with proceeds from a job passing out fliers for a local pizzeria. According to Deon, his mother accused him of stealing them and he lost his temper, threatening to blow up the house and break the windows of her new Chrysler Pacifica. Mr. Richards, who was also home, demanded that Deon, who was 15, go to the garage to be spanked. When Deon refused and left the house, Mr. Richards called the police. They found Deon at a friend’s and arrested him for “threats to do harm” to his mother.

Gladina worried that Deon’s relationship with the Richardses had reached a breaking point. She was terrified that he’d leave, like James had. You couldn’t stay just for me? she thought.

The next day, an investigator from the DCF came to the Richardses’ home and heard competing stories of what had happened. Both parents said Deon had threatened them, while the teenager claimed that the Richardses had abused him. As the investigator tried to make sense of things, she was working with limited information: It was 2010, and Florida’s child-welfare groups were in the process of integrating three separate data systems that tracked case histories. Deon’s pre- and post-adoption information should have been linked, giving the investigator access to records dating back to 1999, when Deon was taken from the house in Lake Worth where Jacquie died. In practice, though, access to information in cases like Deon’s was scattershot. The investigator noted that Deon’s tendency to run away “may be indicative of abuse in his past” and that he’d been adopted because his birth mother “beat his sister.” It isn’t clear if she knew anything more specific about Deon’s early life.

The facts on the ground that night suggested to the investigator that the family was at least stable. The Richardses had no criminal history and said they wanted a better future for their son. According to the investigator’s report, Mrs. Richards said that Deon was going through a rebellious stage and that he needed mental-health treatment, though there’s no evidence that she attempted to connect Deon with a therapist. (In fact, Deon had not received counseling since being in foster care in Belle Glade.) Mrs. Richards acknowledged using corporal punishment, though Mr. Richards denied it. Gladina corroborated Mrs. Richards’s assertion that Deon was often the aggressor in conflicts with their parents.

Both parents said Deon had threatened them, while the teenager claimed that the Richardses had abused him.

The Richardses seemed eager to follow up on the investigator’s suggestion that they seek family counseling, and Mrs. Richards signed a “safety plan” promising that she and her husband would not use corporal punishment. Deon entered a diversion program that would keep the misdemeanor charge off his record once he’d completed probation. The DCF investigation was closed within a few weeks.

Over the next several months, the situation didn’t improve. Deon worked out with a basketball team but quit when he realized he’d need his parents’ help to pay for travel and get a doctor’s permission to play in games. Arguments over washing dishes and picking up dirty clothes quickly escalated. In September 2011, four weeks into Deon’s junior year of high school, he got out a loaf of bread in the kitchen to make a sandwich. Mrs. Richards thought he was taking it to his room and blocked his path—one of the house rules was that the kids couldn’t eat in their bedrooms. She grabbed at the loaf, and a scuffle ensued.

What happened next is disputed. Deon said he suddenly let go of the bread, causing Mrs. Richards to lose her balance and fall backward. Mrs. Richards said Deon shoved her and that she had to hit him to defend herself. She dialed 911 and told the dispatcher that her son had pushed her. When the police arrived, they arrested Deon for battery. The only injury noted in the incident report was Mrs. Richards’s broken pinkie nail.

When a DCF investigator visited the house, Mr. Richards said that he’d bought a gun for the first time in his life. “I am not going to confront Deon empty-handed,” he said, according to the investigator’s report. “I will use a firearm to protect my family.” The shape of Deon’s life seemed to shift with those words: He was an outsider, not a son.

Deon was sentenced to a year of probation. The court stipulated that he complete 15 hours of community service, submit to random drug tests, write an apology letter to Mrs. Richards, and “obey parents.” The DCF again concluded that what was happening in the family didn’t require intervention. “No indicators of inadequate supervision,” the investigator’s notes stated.

The family was scheduled to begin counseling, but Deon showed up high to one of the sessions and refused to participate. The next month, he landed in the hospital after he used K2, a legal but potent concoction of synthetic cannabinoids that left him passed out on a friend’s lawn. When a DCF staffer suggested sending Deon to a youth shelter to give the family time to cool down, Mr. Richards said that he and his wife had already tried “everything.” The DCF staffer noted in a report, “Parents stated they were done with child and that the department could do what they needed to do to take the child in custody. The father said he … will do anything to keep [Deon] out the home.” For reasons that aren’t clear, the agency’s conclusions about the family’s dynamic were dramatically different than they had been just weeks earlier: “Parent talks about child in predominantly negative terms, hasn’t met child’s basic needs, risk of violence, escalating incidents.”

Still, Deon stayed with his parents until one night in mid-December, when he came home late and Mr. Richards, suspecting that Deon was high, refused to let him into the house. Deon kept ringing the doorbell until his father shut off the fuse. “Call the police!” Deon taunted from the yard. “I know the routine.” When he did make it inside, Deon went to the kitchen where, Mr. Richards told police, he started “verbally attacking” his mother and “pushing her into the cabinets.” Mr. Richards got his wooden paddle and hit Deon until the teenager went to his room.

The police returned and arrested Deon. He would never set foot in the Richardses’ house again. His adoption had failed.


The perils of foster care are well documented. The number of placements and the length of time children spend as wards of the state are linked to higher rates of juvenile delinquency and teen pregnancy, and to lower earnings as adults. After an adoption, the risk and uncertainty of foster care is supposed to resolve into a bond with a family that the child will keep for the rest of his or her life.

The reality, though, is that adoptions sometimes fall apart, leaving children in a precarious position. The phenomenon isn’t well studied or understood. Once an adoption is finalized, welfare agencies typically end contact with children and their new families. Adopted children also tend to move and change their names, making it difficult for researchers to gather enough data for rigorous analysis. “You have to have access to a sizable group of people,” said Trudy Festinger, a professor emeritus of social work at New York University who performed one of the few studies on the phenomenon of failed adoptions. “Where do you go to get that?”

What data there are suggest that the vast majority of adoptions are successful. But small studies have found that somewhere between 0.5 and 8 percent of children adopted out of foster care no longer live with their parents after four years. According to the Department of Health and Human Services, a number of factors can play a role in failed adoptions, including a child’s history of sexual abuse, emotional or behavioral problems, the number of siblings the child has, whether the adoptive parents have raised children before, and, most importantly, the child’s age. Adoptions of teenagers fail far more often than those of younger children.

If an adoption is going to fizzle, it usually happens during the trial period, before the arrangement is finalized in court. This is called a disruption, and the kids return to foster care as the search for an adoptive family resumes. Adoptions that break up after becoming legally binding are called dissolutions, a process that requires a court to terminate parental rights. From 2012 to 2017, the DCF counted 348 dissolutions out of nearly 17,000 adoptions statewide, or roughly 2 percent of the total.

Deon (left) with a friend in Miami. (Photo: Johanne Rahaman)

Other adoptions fall apart but are never legally dissolved. When Deon’s parents kicked him out for good, the 16-year-old found himself in limbo: He was a juvenile lockout, which meant that he couldn’t go home although the Richardses were still his legal parents. He spent the night of his arrest in juvenile detention and then went to a weeklong, court-ordered rehab program for marijuana and K2. When he got out, Deon said, “instead of the Richardses coming to pick me up, it was somebody from DCF.”

He reentered foster care. The state’s position was that family reunification was still in Deon’s best interest, but in court the Richardses requested a no-contact clause, which prohibited Deon from reaching out to them and suspended any family counseling. Still, because the Richardses had parental rights, caseworkers had to ask their permission for everything—from sending Deon to get a haircut to obtaining his state-issued ID. The family also remained entitled to a $300 monthly adoption subsidy until Deon turned 18. The court ordered the Richardses to pay $150 a month in child support after Deon moved out, but according to a judicial review, they only sent him the money once.

Gladina was caught in the middle, left at home with the basketball she’d bought Deon for Christmas; he’d been removed from the home before she could give it to him. When she asked the Richardses how Deon was doing, they told her not to worry—he was being taken care of. She only saw her brother twice in the spring of 2012. On one of the visits, she told him that the Richardses were planning to move to Atlanta. Deon told a caseworker, who reached out to remind the family that they were required to inform the DCF if they relocated. Mr. Richards responded that there was no firm timetable for the move.

In June, as soon as Gladina finished the school year, the Richardses relocated to Georgia and ceased all contact with the DCF. They didn’t leave a forwarding address.


After leaving the Richardses’, Deon had moved into Great Oaks Village, a county-run group home of stucco cottages situated on a leafy campus outside downtown Orlando. It was January when he arrived, and he walked around in shorts and a T-shirt even though it was 50 degrees outside because his other clothes were too small. His toes broke through the basketball shoes that the staff had given him; afraid of seeming ungrateful, he didn’t want to admit that they were too small. The kids at Great Oaks fought and stole from one another, but they also shared stories of trauma and loss without judgment. Seven- and eight-year-olds spoke with authority about drug use; teenage girls talked matter-of-factly about sexual abuse and rape.

To employees, Deon seemed like a kid who was adrift and angry at the world. During the six months he was under their care, he was the subject of five missing person reports, filed each time he left the facility for more than four hours without permission. He had never been diagnosed with any clinical disorders, but a social worker’s assessment from Deon’s time at Great Oaks contains a stark list of the experiences he carried with him:

Failed adoption placementLack of primary supportSeparation of siblingsAdoptionBiological parents are incarceratedDeath of a siblingHistory of multiple foster home and school placementsJuvenile justice involvement

With the Richardses out of his life, Deon reached for the closest thing he still had to family: the Perezes. His brother Pinder had a cell phone, a pool in his backyard, a gaggle of relatives who showed up for Thanksgiving, and—most enviable to Deon—a father who coached his kids’ sports teams. In June 2012, Deon moved to Ft. Lauderdale to be closer to the family, but he hesitated to push for the close connection he craved, fearing it could strain his relationship with his brother.

He spent three months at a for-profit boys’ shelter called Crescent House, where neighbors complained of drugs, fights, break-ins, and vandalism, and police averaged two visits a week. Deon avoided most of the trouble thanks to his friendship with his roommate, the biggest kid there. “If he didn’t like you, you had a bad time there,” Deon said. (The city received so many complaints that it shut Crescent House down in 2016.) Deon wasn’t able to enroll in a GED program because he didn’t have an ID and couldn’t get one without help from the Richardses. With no identification, he was also unable to get a job, sign a lease, or open a bank account.

After he turned 18, in January 2013, Deon was finally free to make some of his own choices. He moved back to Orlando, landing at a group home for young adults who had aged out of foster care. He enrolled in a state program that would provide him with up to $1,200 a month until he was 23 years old, as long as he could show proof of employment or full-time enrollment in school. But Deon teetered on the edge of being able to do either. He was hired at a business called Extreme Laser Tag, then fired for coming in late. He lost a job working the turnstile at SeaWorld after four months when he went to the cafeteria and tried to redeem a stolen meal ticket that a colleague had given him. He enrolled in community college, intending to work toward an associate’s degree in physical therapy, but he gave that up, too. “I wasn’t ready. I wasn’t committed,” Deon said.

Deon didn’t have an ID and couldn’t get one without help from the Richardses. With no identification, he was unable to get a job, sign a lease, or open a bank account.

In the fall of 2015, he returned to Miami and moved into the home of Pinder’s adoptive grandmother, where he didn’t have to pay rent and there was plenty of good Cuban food on the table each night. He tried school again, and between his state stipend and a Pell grant, he had more money than he’d ever seen in one place. Pinder’s dad, Mario, urged him to go out for the college basketball team. But then Pinder’s grandmother found pot paraphernalia in Deon’s clothes while doing the laundry. In the spring of 2016, she told him he had to move out.

Deon, then 21, decided to try living on his own for the first time—no adoptive parents, no group-home supervisors, no sympathetic quasi-grandmothers. He had $3,000 saved up, and he gave a friend a few hundred bucks to sleep on his couch. The next six weeks ran together in a blur of blunts, fast food, and nights out at clubs. Deon was still taking college courses—earning B’s and C’s, doing about as well as he ever had. But everything else in his life remained precarious. “I had a lot of flashy things,” Deon recalled, “but I didn’t have anything.”

When a friend was robbed in a weed deal, Deon lent him $1,500, more than half the money in his bank account. Then Deon rear-ended a car while driving that friend’s BMW, and he knew he’d never get the loan back. When he got kicked out of his apartment, he started sleeping in another friend’s car, but a week later he lost all his clothes when the vehicle was repossessed. Deon and that friend resorted to sleeping on the poolside reclining chairs at a condo complex in the Miami suburbs for a few days. When it got cold, they retreated to the entryway to the pool’s bathrooms and woke up shivering as the sun rose.

Deon had finally reached his lowest point. As he saw his old friends from high school saving money and passing milestones, he realized that he’d been living passively, day to day. “I was just letting stuff happen to me,” he said. “A lot of people my age, they’d been working, they had cars, and I was just stagnant.”


I first met Deon in 2017, while reporting on what happens when kids in Florida age out of foster care. I learned the outlines of his story then and got back in touch a few months later, to see if he’d be interested in plumbing his case files to learn more about why his adoption had failed. In the spring of 2018, we started to meet regularly for breakfast at a restaurant near where he was living. His order: a Cuban sandwich and a mamey shake.

Earnest and soft-spoken, Deon has a quiet charisma and the stooped, self-effacing walk of someone trying to seem smaller than he is. He still says dang, heck, and frickin’, a hangover from his days at the ranch. Lithe and muscular, he stands six-foot-three, and his hands are just big enough to palm a basketball. Deon still plays obsessively, practicing crossovers as he walks down the street, dribbling in his bedroom until the downstairs neighbors yell at him to stop. When he plays basketball, Deon says, he feels at peace.

We talked for hours as I jotted down the shards of memory he’d retained from childhood: the sounds of Haitian Creole, the taste of warm lettuce served over a plate of rice and beans, banging his shin on the edge of the bed while roughhousing. “I remember I got this scar, or do I still have it?” he said, reaching for his right leg. “Yeah, this scar right here.”

His case file offers a different kind of life history. In theory, every piece of paper from the time Deon entered foster care at age four, through his adoption at age 11, and into extended state care after he turned 18 should have been readily available to him once he requested a copy of his case file. Organizations that are part of Florida’s community-based-care system are required to keep records on kids in state custody until they turn 30. Deon and I made dozens of calls to the long list of agencies that came in contact with his case over the years, including the DCF, Children’s Home Society, Community Based Care of Central Florida, and many others. Hundreds or even thousands of pages had gone missing, particularly those from Deon’s early years in the system. In some instances, we had to prod the agencies repeatedly to get what documents still existed.

All told, we obtained more than 2,000 pages from Deon’s file, along with more than 1,000 from the investigation of his birth parents’ criminal case. They reveal a bevy of people who tried to help Deon: case managers, state-appointed guardians ad litem (who advocate for a child’s best interest in court), and independent-living coordinators. One person’s email signature read, “Choices… not circumstances determine what people make out of their life!!!!!!”

Deon dribbling to a basketball court in his neighborhood. (Photo: Johanne Rahaman)

Yet for all their good intentions, the sheer number of people involved contributed to the problems Deon faced. In the bureaucracy of child welfare, the only constant for him was change: a new face when an old caseworker got promoted, someone who had to get up to speed on his life when the person who knew all about it suddenly quit or was transferred. Much of Deon’s case file is written as though no one will ever read it. One report from when he was 19 traces the path he could take to working as a physical therapist. “There are no identified barriers to reaching goals,” the text reads. “Deon is motivated and has many supports in place.” In staid language, Deon’s lack of support is framed almost as an asset: In lieu of a nuclear family, he had an endless roster of paid employees who divvied up parenthood’s material tasks.

I never had parents. When he finally said it out loud, Deon seemed surprised somehow, like he’d tried so hard not to wallow in the past that the thought hadn’t crossed his mind. “I never had parents—I never had parents at all,” he told me again. “Never, man.”

One day in 2014, Deon got a call from a man with a Haitian accent: it was his birth father, Pascal. He had become a Jehovah’s Witness and was renting a room from a fellow worshipper just a few miles away. Fifteen minutes later, Pascal pulled up in an old truck. “I thought it was going to be super special,” Deon said. Instead, the meeting was short and awkward. “We talked for a little bit, but there wasn’t really a connection,” Deon said. After a few minutes, Pascal said he had to go. The two spoke briefly on the phone a few weeks later, but they haven’t been in contact since.

In the fall of 2018, Deon also reconnected with his mom, Djenane, in prison. He didn’t write to her—he was too impatient for snail mail—but instead used a messaging service that allowed him to buy a set of 30 virtual “stamps” for $12. One stamp allowed him to send or receive a note. Djenane sent him a recorded video, which cost four stamps. In it, Deon saw his mom’s face for the first time since he was four. Djenane was almost 50. She wore a baby blue V-necked uniform, with her gray hair plaited in two thick braids that hugged the sides of her head.“I love you, I love you, I love you, my son,” she said to the camera.

Deon went quiet as we watched it together. He had yet to respond to the video—he’d run out of stamps, and before he could buy them he needed to get a job. “I appreciated the opportunity to speak with her,” he said. “It really kind of filled a void.”

Deon’s case is a revealing study of one of the starkest policy choices a society faces: Who should care for children whose parents, including adoptive ones, can’t shoulder the responsibility? In Florida, authorities have made modest efforts to improve post-adoption services. Since 2015, case managers have been required to pick up the phone and conduct a welfare check at the one-year mark. In annual reports to the state legislature, the DCF now flags what it calls preventable disruptions, cases in which services like family counseling might have helped an adoption go through if only they’d been made available.

It’s hard not to see moments in Deon’s life where different decisions might have led to different outcomes. Deon’s cousin who first called 911 when Jacquie died and his grandfather both say they would have adopted the four siblings if only they’d had more financial support; unlike foster parents who receive payments automatically, extended family must apply to receive a recurring stipend for kinship care, and Deon’s family members say they weren’t aware this was an option. For all the Richardses’ eagerness to adopt, if they had known more about raising older kids with a history of trauma, perhaps their relationship with Deon wouldn’t have frayed so quickly. A counselor who worked with the family noted that the couple didn’t seem to grasp the difference between parenting a five-year-old and a 15-year-old.

Then there were Deon’s own misgivings. When the judge asked during his adoption ceremony if he had reservations, the 11-year-old felt pressure to stay silent. “That’s like the biggest regret I ever had in my life, not speaking up,” he told me.

Deon’s case is a revealing study of one of the starkest policy choices a society faces: Who should care for children whose parents, including adoptive ones, can’t bear the responsibility?

I sent the DCF more than 50 questions while reporting this story; as of press time, it hadn’t answered any of them. I reached out to the Richardses several times, too, and spoke briefly to each of them—just long enough to explain that I wanted to write about how and why Deon’s adoption had fallen apart and the complicated emotions that must linger on both sides. Somehow they’d gone from claiming Deon as their son and wanting to love him forever to cutting off all contact, even as Gladina remained their child. Both Mr. and Mrs. Richards initially expressed openness to speaking with me but then declined to answer questions.

Deon still feels a measure of good will toward his adoptive family. He credits Mr. Richards with teaching him how to address strangers and potential employers. He acknowledges that the Richardses have been good for his sister. In high school, Gladina became a standout student and ran track. She graduated with honors, enlisted in the Army Reserve, and spent a semester at the University of Florida before deciding to become a firefighter.

Deon is the first to admit that he was a rebellious kid who sometimes acted out of spite. Looking back, he knows it must have been hard for the Richardses to adopt three children hardened by a life of abuse and contingency. James recently reconnected with the Richardses via Facebook, and Gladina says that her parents still ask about Deon sometimes. For Deon, though, losing his forever family has made it hard to hold on to anything else. Seven years later, Deon said, “I feel like I’m still getting my life fixed from the way things were at the Richardses’.”


When he was sleeping by the pool in 2016, Deon admitted that going it alone wasn’t working. He called a youth-services coordinator at his old foster-care agency in Orlando. Within a few days, Deon had a spot at a nonprofit supportive-housing program in Miami called Casa Valentina. Deon moved into Casa Valentina’s young-men’s house, a two-story stucco building not far from Miami-Dade College, where he was taking classes. Rent was $300 a month for an airy, one-bedroom apartment where he could stay for two years as long as he attended group meetings on Tuesdays and met weekly with an educational adviser and case manager.

He was still a long way from where he wanted to be, but Casa Valentina at least brought Deon some stability. The year after he left the Richardses’, he’d moved nine times in ten months; five years later, he still hadn’t spent more than six months in the same place. He started to make friends playing basketball at a court at the end of his block. He left the program for a few months in January 2018, only to go broke and wind up selling food stamps at a corner store. Luckily, Casa Valentina let him come back, giving Deon a second chance to overcome what one staff member described as his penchant for self-sabotage.

Deon got a job working at a stand that rents chairs and beach umbrellas on Miami Beach. As the sun set one summer evening, he scooped up armfuls of towels and dragged stacks of chaise longues across the sand like a linesman doing football drills—leaning forward, calves flexed as his toes pointed into the sand. He chatted with people on the beach, including a man in his sixties who did daily calisthenics with his dog by his side. “He’s not barking today!” Deon remarked. A moment later, the yapping began. “I spoke too soon,” Deon quipped. He told me that the dog’s owner had grown up on the streets of Colombia, apprenticed as an acrobat in Spain, and spent decades as a traveling circus performer. “When you don’t have a family, you make a lot of friends,” Deon explained.

One Friday in 2018, Deon and I drove to meet Melissa Neeley at a restaurant in Lake Placid, Florida, near her new home and career as a social worker for hospice patients. She’d become a county director for the Children’s Home Society before deciding she needed a change of pace. She first heard about the trouble at the Richardses’ at a conference in Orlando a few years after Deon’s adoption was finalized. Neeley told me that she tried calling the family but never heard back. “I was heartbroken,” she said, “and then really, really angry. I wanted to say, ‘You made that commitment. Who the heck are you to back out of that without notifying me, without calling me and saying you need help? This is not the puppy you take back to the pound. This is a child, and you committed to being their parents in front of judges and witnesses and God.’”

Melissa Neeley and Deon reunite at Cang’s. (Photo: Rowan Moore Gerety)

At the restaurant, a pan-Asian spot called Cang’s, Neeley stood up from her booth when she saw Deon for the first time in a dozen years, her arms outspread. They hugged, then their menus lay closed on the table for 30 minutes while they caught up. Neeley, arms crossed, looked up at Deon through oval glasses. Deon, grinning and fidgety as he basked in her affection, pulled up pictures from his siblings’ Instagram accounts. Together they scrolled through photos of Pinder’s trips to California and Paris, past James in a haze of smoke, to snapshots of all four Estimé kids in their rare moments growing up together. “That’s the little girl I know!” Neeley said when she saw an old photo of Gladina.

Neeley tried to help Deon look back on his missteps in the same way she saw them, as part of a lifelong negotiation to make the best of bad circumstances. “All you kids, you had so little control over your lives,” she said.

“After I left the Richardses’ house,” Deon said, “I just wanted to rebel, because I didn’t…”

“You didn’t belong anywhere.” Neeley said knowingly. “All I can think of is maybe they had expectations of who you were supposed to be. And you weren’t who they wanted you to be. That comes out a little bit wrong but…“

“Because we had expectations of what we wanted to be,” Deon said.

Deon declined Neeley’s invitation to order something he’d never eaten before—though he agreed to taste her seaweed salad—and opted for General Tso’s chicken. When the food came, Neeley instructed Deon on how to use chopsticks, laying one stick across the crook of her thumb and pinching the second like a pencil. The meal stretched over three hours, alternating between fits of giddy nostalgia and heartfelt reassurance.

“Now that we’re meeting again and talking and stuff like that, now I can put that chapter of my life to a close,” Deon said.

Neeley didn’t miss a beat. “What are you going to do with the next chapter?”

“I don’t know,” Deon sighed. “Just try to expand as much as I can, travel a little bit. Start my own family, do my own thing.”

First, though, he had to figure out his next move. In January, 2019 Deon will no longer be able to stay at Casa Valentina, and he’ll have to face adulthood on his own. He’s still taking classes towards a physical therapy degree and working as a pool attendant at a hotel downtown. He’s planning to move into an efficiency apartment in a friend’s building. He hopes that the next move will finally bring some stability. Whenever he and Gladina talk on the phone, she asks him questions about the future. What about paying for school? How is he going to make rent?

“You don’t gotta worry about me,” he tells her. “I’m an adult. I can figure this out.”

The Whalers’ Odyssey


The Whalers’ Odyssey

A courageous tribe, a colossal foe, and a terrifying ocean voyage.

Story and Photos by Doug Bock Clark

The Atavist Magazine, No. 84

Doug Bock Clark’s writing has appeared in The New York Times, GQ, Wired, Rolling Stone, and The New Republic, among other publications. He won the 2017 Arthur L. Carter Reporting Award and is a visiting scholar at New York University’s Journalism Institute. This story is adapted from Clark’s first book, The Last Whalers (Little, Brown), which is available for order.

Editor: Seyward Darby
Designer: Jefferson Rabb
Copy Editor: Sean Cooper
Fact Checker: Adam Przybyl

Published in October 2018. Design updated in 2021.


The Lamalerans are the last of their kind. For five centuries, the Indonesian tribe has survived by hunting whales from a rocky Pacific island so remote that their countrymen call it the land left behind. Several Inuit communities hunt the massive mammals, too, but the Arctic seafarers increasingly derive sustenance from packaged foods and mechanized fishing methods. Not the Lamalerans. The 1,500 tribespeople still get most of their calories by spearing prey with bamboo harpoons. Annually, they take about 20 sperm whales—from a worldwide population in the hundreds of thousands—and use every part of their catch. They jerky the meat to feed themselves through the lean monsoon season, when storms make it difficult to launch boats.

From 2014 through 2017, over several extended visits, I lived with the Lamalerans to document their exceptional but threatened culture. The tribe has long followed the ways of their ancestors, a set of rules handed down through the generations that dictate a camaraderie so intense that anthropologists have ranked the Lamalerans as one of humanity’s most cooperative societies. Today, venerable traditions are being undermined by cell phones, television, government regulations, and other modern influences. One area where the old ways persist, though, is the hunt: Dozens of Lamaleran men still coordinate on ancient wooden boats to kill the largest toothed predator in the world, then share in the bounty.

Whaling is harsh, dangerous work, and not every hunt is successful. Such was the case in 1994, when the Lamalerans undertook a harrowing voyage that became the kind of legend that fathers tell their sons. Not only did they fight for their lives against a seemingly invincible whale, but they confronted a danger new to many of them, one more threatening than any leviathan: the outside world.

Baleo! Baleo!—“The hunt is on!”

The cry resounded through the seaside village of Lamalera, beginning on the beach and sweeping through the ramshackle houses and surrounding jungle as every man, woman, and child who heard it added a voice to the shouted relay, chorusing that sperm whales had been sighted. It was a Thursday in early March 1994, and the squalls of the monsoon season were nearing their end. Many hunters were pile-driving flagstones into their village’s single dirt road, which had all but liquefied during months of rain. They dropped their shovels and sprinted to the shore. Using log rollers and their shoulders, they shoved the téna, their 35-foot wooden whaling ships, across the sand and into the surf. Captains yelled exhortations. Once the water unyoked the weight of a boat from the backs of its crew, the men leaped aboard.

Ignatius Blikololong, 44 years old and one of the most renowned harpooners in the tribe despite his slight frame, had bid a hasty but impassioned farewell to Teresea, his wife, before setting out. Teresea was due to give birth to their next child at any hour. Ignatius did not want to leave her, but he could not shirk his duty; the tribe had almost exhausted its food stores. As he clambered atop his hâmmâlollo, a bamboo platform jutting five feet from the prow of the téna, and sharpened his harpoons, he prayed for a swift and safe return.

Also aboard Ignatius’s téna, which was called the Téti Heri, was Yosef Boko Hariona, Teresea’s close relative. He was entering his sixth decade and his eyesight was faltering, but still he whaled; his son had died, and there was no other man to support his wife, husbandless daughter, and grandchildren. Yosef Boko wielded the ship’s tiller oar as the crew paddled through the breakers. Though he could no longer stroke as forcefully as younger men, he steered with savvy.

Six boats in all cut through the waves, chasing the white whale spouts, which contrasted against the dark sea and stormy sky. As they rowed the men sang:

Kidé ajaka tani-tena (Many widows and orphans cry)

Lié doré angina (Requesting for the wind to join us)

Hari hélu bo kanato. (And for the fish to come to us.)

The Lamalerans sing for every occasion. To celebrate a successful hunt or to lament returning home empty-handed. While axing trees, building boats, pestling rice into flour, weaving sarongs, rocking babies to sleep, and recounting the stories of the ancestors. The songs are more than music—they are prayers. The Lamalerans believe that everything, from whales to the sun, has a spirit they must honor. The music entreats the winds to rise, the waves to fall, and the ghosts of the tribe’s dead, whom they worship according to a unique mixture of Catholicism and animism, to help the living. The Lamalerans believe that the ancestors send sperm whales to sustain the tribe and as a reward for following the old ways.

Ignatius Blikololong calls to the whales.

The group of téna converged on the whales like a wolf pack. Aboard the Téti Heri, Yosef Boko called out a rhythm and ten men with hand-carved wooden oars paddled in unison. When the boats were sufficiently close to the whales, which weighed dozens of tons each, Yosef Boko shouted, “Nuro menaluf!” (hunger spoon). Colloquially, it means, “Row as fast as you’d spoon rice if you were starving!” Or perhaps most accurately, “Row like you want to feed your families!”

On the hâmmâlollo, as his crew paddled furiously to bring him within striking distance, Ignatius readied his 15-foot bamboo harpoon, which was tipped with a foot-long iron spearhead, forged in the village. He got so close to his prey that he could see ellipses of O’s dimpling its gray snout, stamped by the suckers of giant squid the whale had devoured a mile below the ocean’s surface. Ignatius crouched low, his muscles quivering as he held his weapon above his head, then he dove off the hâmmâlollo with kamikaze grace, ramming the harpoon into his prey with the full weight of his body. The harpoon’s shaft shuddered, bent, and then straightened, stuck in the soft flesh two feet below the whale’s dorsal hump. Ignatius rebounded off the animal’s flank and into the sea, then frantically swam back to the Téti Heri.

A harpooner jumps to spear a whale.

The Lamalerans’ strategy in a hunt is to land as many harpoons as possible. As a second lamafa (harpooner) from another téna added his weapon to the animal’s back, the ropes attached to the harpoons drew taut, and soon the whale was pulling the weight of both ships. Ignatius and the other hunters hoped that the animal would soon exhaust itself, allowing the men to swim alongside it and saw at it with their knives until it bled to death and they could drag it ashore. As the Téti Heri and the other boat harried their prey, the other four téna speared the remaining whales in the school, including a 30-ton female and a toothless, 10-foot infant.

At first the battle was close enough to shore that Teresea and the other hunters’ wives watched, as if Lamalera’s oceanside cliffs were bleachers and the sea a stadium. Whaling was always risky, with injuries and occasionally death resulting from the hunts, but it was also routine enough that any sense of danger was dulled. Before long two téna brought the female and baby whales to the beach, the crews singing gratefully to honor the ancestors. But the Téti Heri, along with three other téna, were dragged by their whales over the horizon. Teresea and the other women returned to weaving or cooking, keeping one eye on the sea.

By late afternoon, instead of the palm-leaf sails of the téna appearing again in the bay, a storm front arose. The ways of the ancestors forbade the use of engines on whaling boats, but the tribe did have two skiffs equipped with outboard motors, which it dispatched to find the hunters. Strafing rain turned the search party around. At dusk the downpour broke briefly, and the tribe lit signal fires on the beach to guide the whalers home. Fresh rain soon extinguished the flames. The weather made Teresea nervous, but hunts sometimes extended overnight. There was no cause for worry yet.

Through the night, Teresea crouched in her bamboo hut and cradled her pregnant belly. Her youngest son, Ben, slept on a mattress stitched out of old rice sacks and stuffed with corn husks; he had tried to maintain a vigil for his father and to comfort his mother, but eventually he had succumbed to exhaustion. Every so often, Teresea would rise and peer out the hut’s door and through the storm toward the thrashing ocean, wondering nervously whether the baby or Ignatius would arrive first.

Ignatius dove with kamikaze grace, ramming the harpoon into his prey.

Two whales had towed the Téti Heri and the other téna east. At first, Ignatius, Yosef Boko, and their fellow hunters had rested for several hours, confident that the combination of blood loss and the drogue of the boats would exhaust their prey. But as Labalekang, the volcano looming behind Lamalera, diminished from a mile-high peak to a thimble of dirt, the whales never faltered. As dusk drew near, the hunters decided that they needed to attack again.

The whale that the Téti Heri and another boat, the Kéna Pukã, had initially harpooned tore through their ropes and escaped. The men’s last chance to return to Lamalera with a catch became the whale lashed to the other two téna—and currently giving them hell. One of those boats, the Kelulus, had just been uppercut so hard by the whale’s tail that its crew was stuffing two cracks zigzagging through the hull with sarongs, trying to keep the sea from bubbling in.

As the Téti Heri attacked the whale to distract it from the listing Kelulus, Ignatius found himself confronting a grotesque beast: Its head and belly were streaked with white, as if it were partially albino, and half its lower jaw had been snapped off, probably during battle with another sea creature. When Ignatius embedded his harpoon, the whale began lobtailing—inverting itself so that its tail stood out of the water and its nose pointed toward the seafloor, then sledgehammering its flukes into the waves. Ignatius ordered his ship to flee, spooling out rope attached to the latest harpoon. To cover the Téti Heri’s retreat, the Kebako Pukã landed another spear, the tenth lodged in the animal; in retaliation, the whale stove in the ship’s bow strake. Half the crew stripped to plug the puncture with their shirts while the rest back-paddled.

Stymied, the fleet let its opponent take several hundred feet of rope, rowed close together, and conferenced. Some of the men said that, when they first attacked the school, they had seen a calf—the one that the other boats had slain and taken back to the village—suckling this whale. They guessed that it was a mother strengthened by a desire for revenge. Ignatius feared that she was not an animal at all but an unholy monster. Though she was only about 45 feet long, she had already done more damage to the boats than a bull whale could.

The sun crisped to an ember, and its last rays were blotted out by thickening clouds. As the whale drew them farther out to sea, Ignatius realized that they had not trapped the animal—it had trapped them. From the hâmmâlollo, he waved a two-foot flensing knife and addressed his fellow hunters.

“The time has come for us to cut our harpoon ropes and go home!” he shouted.

The other whalers responded, “Don’t let it go! We’ll take it tomorrow!”

And so they kept on.

Night soiled the evening. The men hammered sprung boards tight again with whetstones, roped shattered strakes back into place, and stuffed pith caulking into cracks. Lightning flared. Thunder drummed. Rain began to pellet the Lamalerans as waves tackled the téna. The men became so exhausted bailing water with halved coconut shells that they had to work in shifts. Ignatius labored stoically, not resting like the others, and tried to ignore his yearning for his wife, his worry that their child had been born, and his guilt for not being there.

Around midnight the storm subsided. The men bedded down atop wound ropes and furled sails. The fleet had rushed into battle so abruptly that they carried almost no food or drink, so the men wrung rainwater from their hair and clothes into their mouths. Yosef Boko stowed his steering oar but remained awake, tracking the whale’s movements as they were telegraphed through the harpoon ropes. As the tiller man, it was his job to guide the whalers home, and even if he could not steer them to safety right then, he felt a responsibility to keep watch. He trembled with the premonition that this whale would defeat them. When Ignatius had offered to cut the ropes, Yosef Boko had silently urged him on. If he was lost at sea, who would care for his family?

By the time dawn pearled, the broken-jawed whale was hauling the Lamalerans through sea beyond the sight of land. Ignatius called the téna together and announced, “We must have offended the ancestors yesterday for the whale to be so fierce. We must all clean our mouths so that God will entrust this whale to us and the village can eat.” The hunters prayed.

Soon after, it seemed that at last the whale’s strength began to wane. She no longer surged forward, instead paddling tiredly along the water’s surface. Rather than fountaining, she spouted only light mists in quick bursts, as if hyperventilating. Believing her to be weakened, Ignatius did not select a harpoon from the weapons rack for his next move. Instead he tied a rusty boat hook to a bamboo pole and ordered his men to row quietly forward. He slid the hook into the whale’s blowhole and yanked back.

The colossal head turned. An eye judged Ignatius.

The whale geysered, dislodging the hook. Then she head-butted the Téti Heri so hard that caulking popped out from between its boards, and the Savu Sea began trickling in. A terrifying possibility dawned on Ignatius: Perhaps the whale had only been playing weak, trying to draw in the fleet to destroy it. No blood reddened her spouting, which meant that the harpoon strikes had failed to penetrate her vital organs. Her wounds were only skin-deep.

The whale battered the Téti Heri with its tail until the téna retreated. Next it broke off the hâmmâlollo of the Kéna Pukã and rammed open the bow of the already hobbled Kelulus.

In a desperate sortie, the lamafa of all four ships gathered in a phalanx on the prow of the Kebako Pukã, the lone undamaged ship, and attacked together. But no matter how much pink blood poured from her lacerated hide, the whale’s spouting remained pure.

Ignatius was sharpening a lance with a whetstone for the next assault when the Kebako Pukã’s hull leaped beneath his feet, nearly catapulting him into the sea. The whale’s flukes tore open the bow, so that its halves only connected like a clamshell at the keel. The men fled the wreckage, swimming to the Téti Heri. The whale lobtailed, as if challenging the Lamalerans to return to the ring.

Whaling boats at dusk, with raised palm-leaf sails.

Ignatius, Yosef Boko, and many of the other men were now convinced that their opponent was an evil spirit. The hunters finally agreed to cut the ropes that bound them to the devil whale and return home without a catch. But the harpoon lines were not disposable factory-made ropes: They were the leo, the spirit ropes of the téna. They were woven from jungle cotton and the bark of gebang palms and hibiscus trees, representing weeks of communal work in the village. They could not be carelessly trashed. It was decided that someone would swim to the whale, through the shark fins now razoring the bloody ocean, and cut the lines near the harpoon heads, to save as much of their length as possible.

Fransiskus “Frans” Boli Bediona, a stocky 36-year-old with a wild beard and mane, who served as the backup lamafa on the Kelulus, volunteered for the mission. As one of the tribe’s shamans, he participated in the hunting with a religious fervor, and he had been one of the strongest voices urging the fleet not to give up the day before. Now he was sure that the ancestors were testing the mettle of their descendants, and he meant to meet that challenge.

As Frans pulled himself along a harpoon rope with one hand and clutched a knife in the other, he kicked the hammerhead and tiger sharks that zipped in and nosed him like dogs. The Lamalerans believe that a shark will not hurt a man with a pure heart, and Frans knew himself to be righteous. As he drew closer to the whale, the sharks peeled off to avoid the reach of its tail. He got within a few feet of the whale’s flukes, then hacked through the harpoon lines. The ropes were reeled in, and Frans hitched a ride on the last one.

The whale stroked away, shadowed by dorsal fins. Then she spouted, raised her flukes—either in threat or farewell—and dove. She did not resurface.

The Lamalerans believe that a shark will not hurt a man with a pure heart.

The Lamalerans set about improvising what repairs they could. The crew of the Kéna Pukã winched ropes around its prow, squeezing the boards tight enough to prevent the boat from taking on more water. It was in bad shape, but many men loaded into it, for the Kebako Pukã and the Kelulus could now support only skeleton crews. Then the whalers lashed their fleet into a line, with the Téti Heri in the lead. Abandoning the damaged téna was never discussed, for the Lamalerans believe whaling ships have spirits just as men do. Frans felt that the Kelulus and the Kéna Pukã, both ships he often served on, had mothered him through trials “like a hen protecting her chick.” Now he had to protect them.

With clouds smothering the sun and land hidden by the horizon, the Lamalerans were unable to track north toward home. To save their flagging strength, they decided to play the lottery of the wind. The crew of the Téti Heri stood up a 20-foot bamboo mast and unfurled a sail made of dried palm leaves quilted across a grid of ropes. Once, entire fleets had sailed the Pacific using such sails, but these were probably among the last in the world. The Lamalerans rotated the fabric around the mast until it caught a zephyr, and the téna skidded together over the waves.

By midafternoon, palm-fringed hills edged above the southeastern skyline like a cloud bank. It was Semau Island. The Lamalerans had located themselves, but the discovery was not a happy one: Semau lay more than 100 miles from Lamalera. Rather than try to make landfall, they decided to direct themselves homeward.

As a second evening neared, another storm swaggered toward the boats. The two damaged ones, tugged along by the functional pair, were slowing progress, so the men of the Téti Heri told Ignatius to ask the other crews to let them go ahead alone. Ignatius strained his sandpapered throat to make himself heard over the groaning squall. “May we go?” he asked. “The wind is strong. We will tell the village what has happened and where you are.”

Frans was enraged. It was unthinkable that the crew of the Téti Heri would even consider leaving: That was not the way of the Lamalerans. The most important directive of the ancestors was that the unity of the tribe was paramount. All fathers taught their sons a saying: Talé tou, kemui tou, onã tou, mata tou—one family, one heart, one action, one goal.

“We live and die together!” the men in the damaged téna answered Ignatius. “You can’t go ahead!”

The waves were sharpening into whitecaps. The crew of the Téti Heri urged Ignatius to try again.

Contradictory feelings roiled his heart: He would never abandon his tribesmen, but would not they all have a better chance of survival if the Téti Heri raced ahead? There was no point in solidarity if it meant his children, including his unborn baby, would lose their father. Ultimately, even if he wanted to remain with the fleet, he could not overrule his crew, yet he wanted the other tribesmen’s blessing to leave.

“May we go first so the village knows we are not all dead and can send help?” Ignatius shouted. Again he was rebuffed.

Only this time, as he was calling to his brethren, his crew untied the rope linking their boat to the others. Unburdened, the Téti Heri shot ahead on the turbulent sea. The other téna shrank to three bobbing figures. Then the lowering heavens curtained them off. Ignatius could not control his tears. He felt as if he had been forced to forsake his tribesmen. And he knew that the ancestors always exacted revenge for such failures—on individuals and on the tribe as a whole.

The Téti Heri could not outrun the latest gale, and before long the storm threatened to use the boat’s sail like a lever and flip the craft over. It took Ignatius and two other men to dismantle the mast, though usually one man could handle it. The tempest seemed to double the darkness of the night, and it whirled the boat and heaved the sea over the outriggers. Men slumped against the thwarts, bailing desultorily, and those too exhausted to work crawled under the sail. Five times Ignatius gathered the crew and led them in prayer, until the accumulating water forced them to resume bailing.

We are all brothers, Ignatius thought. It would have been better if we had died together. Lord, at least bring us to shore, so our families can find our bodies and give us proper funerals, and we can join the ancestors.

We are all brothers, Ignatius thought. It would have been better if we had died together.

That night the eighth child of Ignatius and Teresea came crying into the world. Even though she was a girl, she was named Ignatius Seran Blikololong Jr. Christening her with her father’s name was a way of summoning his lost soul home.

The next morning, a Saturday, dawn flickered behind wet clouds like the flame of a whale-oil lantern sparking to life behind a bamboo lampshade. Maria, Frans’s wife and Ignatius’s sister, had slept on the beach to tend the signal fires, and she woke with sand in her hair. Nearby, Fransiska, Yosef Boko’s wife, refused to eat and ignored her grandson, who cried and pawed at her for attention. The women were joined in their vigil by nearly 50 other wives, and the group watched as the village’s fleet launched to locate their husbands. The 17 boats dispersed toward every point on the compass, carrying fresh coconuts, water, and rice wrapped in banana leaves, to feed the men if they were found.

The Savu Sea is not wide; on a clear morning, it is possible to glimpse the peaks of Timor Island, situated on the other side of the expanse, from Lamalera’s cliffs. Even if the téna had been dragged south into the Indian Ocean, they should have been able to navigate back to where search parties could spot their sails. That two full days had passed without a sighting meant that the likelihood of a safe return was swiftly diminishing. The men might be added to the list of the Lamalerans, more than 39 in all, lost at sea in the previous century. Every year, the village’s priest inaugurated the hunting season by reading each name aloud.

Faces of Lamalera.

The elders gathered under the banyan tree in the village square to try to ferret out the crime that the ancestors must have been punishing them for in sending so many men to a watery demise. A runner was dispatched to the island’s capital, a 30-mile trek over the mountains, so that government authorities could broadcast a radio message to alert ships in transit to look for the missing téna. Then the tribe gathered on the beach for a religious service.

Shortly thereafter, as if by the grace of God, someone spotted a diamond sail splitting the horizon. A motorboat was dispatched to run supplies to the téna. A man with binoculars announced to the crowd on the shore that the Téti Heri was coming in. A rumor circulated that a corpse was aboard. The whalers had been nearly three days at sea without food and water, after all. Teresea, Maria, and Fransiska wept, knowing that Ignatius and Yosef Boko crewed the Téti Heri.

When the téna made landfall, its crew was so sunburned that skin from the men’s chests and thighs had peeled away. Their lips were puffed and blistered. Bloodshot, their eyes seemed to glow. Even supported by a man on either side, the returned could barely walk.

Tribesmen had to coax Yosef Boko to let go of the tiller oar. He had barely slept the entire journey, believing that as long as he held the oar, he was protecting his crew. When he stepped out of the boat, he embraced Fransiska; though both normally prided themselves on their reserve, they were racked by sobs. At their house, Yosef Boko washed the salt water off his body with a bucket shower, devoured a plate of rice, and fell into a sleep that would last nearly a full day.

While the rest of the men were surrounded by their families, Ignatius walked down the beach toward his hut. Fear unmanned him. Where was his wife? Had something gone wrong with the pregnancy? A female relative, whose husband was aboard one of the boats still at sea, approached and slapped him on the shoulder. She cried, “Where is my husband? Where is my husband?” His throat was so dry Ignatius could not speak; he had been unable to stomach the water and mashed bananas delivered to him by the motorboat. How could he explain to this woman that they had left her husband behind?

Then he spotted his eldest daughter, who pushed her way out of the crowd and hugged him. “You have a daughter!” she said of the new baby. Ignatius croaked an apology for not being there when the baby arrived, but his daughter laughed. “The important thing is that you’re home!” she said.

Once the happy families had returned to their abodes, only the disappointed wives of the men still at sea were left to build a bonfire on the headlands. Maria threw deadwood onto the flames as if making an offering or willing the desperate light to beckon Frans home. She was increasingly sure that her husband was dead and that she was now a widow, a status every Lamaleran woman fears, not only because of the loss but because the tribe’s faith forbids remarriage. If Frans did not return, she and her three children would have to subsist on charity.

Every few minutes, eerie trumpeting echoed from the darkness like distant, mournful music. After the crew of the Téti Heri had admitted to leaving the fleet in hopes of sending help once they got home, the motorboats had been dispatched again, this time with conch shells, which could be heard over a great distance. Between calls made by the motorboats’ crews, Maria and the other yearning wives listened for any answer. Around midnight the motorboats returned alone. The wailing of the women woke the village.

For days afterward, Maria waited on the beach for sails that never came. Eventually, when all hope was lost, the village sent divers to retrieve nautilus shells, their delicate whorls bent into the shape of eternity. The tribe buried the shells in place of bodies.

Maria threw deadwood onto the flames as if making an offering or willing the desperate light to beckon Frans home.

After the Téti Heri had untied itself, Frans had furiously watched Ignatius, his brother-in-law, and the other betrayers go. It felt as if the abandonment took a long time. Each time the fleeing téna sank into a trough between waves, a moment later the tip of its sail would reappear as the ship was lofted by a roller. Frans thought of his three children, especially his infant daughter, only nine months old, with her sweet, bubbling laugh. The ancestors had granted him barely any time to get to know her. He tried not to brood on the hardships his children would endure without a father to protect them. He hoped at least that Ignatius would step in. Almost all his other male relatives—men who could have provided for Frans’s family in his stead—clung to the wrecks of the three téna.

Eventually, the Téti Heri’s sail did not rise again.

The remaining men were in desperate condition. Frans had caulked a breach in the Kelulus with his shirt, and he wore only shorts; already his chest and shoulders blazed and prickled with sunburn. Thirty-four people were crammed onto the Kéna Pukã, which comfortably held no more than 14, and it rode so low that waves spilled over its railings. The other two boats were attended by a single bailer each to keep them from swamping. The whalers could have lightened the load of their sinking ships by discarding equipment, but they believed that the leo had souls and the sails were the ships’ sarongs. Without them the boats would be naked.

Swept east, the men glimpsed the bent tip of Labalekang. The volcano, which towered above their village, provided some small hope. They began to paddle weakly, taking a few strokes and then resting. Black clouds avalanched toward their backs. Soon night hid Labalekang and brought with it a new storm. Despite having to furiously bail, Frans was thankful for relief from the torturous sun and the nourishment of the rainwater.

Dawn emerged bluebird clear, hazeless. Labalekang had vanished. The crew had lost all sense of position in the night. No one possessed the strength to lift a paddle. Some men’s speech began to slur. Frans told himself that he must not cry; he needed the moisture.

Late Saturday afternoon, not long before Ignatius and the crew of the Téti Heri would arrive home, the abandoned whalers spotted a pair of cinder-cone volcanoes to the east. The sight crushed Frans: It was Flores, two islands west of his home. The latest storm had swept them dozens of miles off course and outside any area that a Lamaleran ship would search for them. They tried to maneuver north and east, but the wind was against them, driving them farther from the Savu Sea and into the wilderness of the Indian Ocean. Some men tied themselves to their ships so that if they died, their bodies might one day be found. Frans was not ready to do that, not yet.

That night rain came again—without a storm, for once. The men suckled from their shirts, their beards, and the sail. Once they had rehydrated, some began chewing their clothes. One thin hunter gorged himself on dried tree pith. Except for a few noodles of seaweed plucked from the ocean, they had eaten nothing in three days. With too many men for everyone to lie down in the hulls of the boats, they took turns slumping over the thwarts or sprawling on the hâmmâlollos.

Frans fever-dreamed about God, heaven, hell, and his family. At a vague hour, the cloud cover momentarily parted to reveal the star-encrusted sky. The Southern Cross was staked there. Frans knew this constellation as the Pointer, since from the Savu Sea it always aimed toward Lamalera. For a moment the way home was revealed. If they could just follow that course, Frans might survive and once more balance his daughter atop his head while she screamed with laughter and pulled at his hair. But then the clouds returned and stole the knowledge of the direction where his family lay.

By Sunday morning, the Kebako Pukã was taking on so much water that the other boats could no longer pull it. The craft would have to be abandoned. Its captain, Fransiskus “Sisu” Bataona, volunteered to go down with his ship, but the others told him it was not necessary. Instead, he climbed atop the hâmmâlollo, now jutting just above the waterline. Sisu felt like a leaf at the end of the dry season, withered and about to fall. He addressed the spirit of the téna: “We now have no more strength. It is better that you go before us and wait for us on shore.” He invoked a ceremonial leave-taking sometimes used to say goodbye to the dead.

Frans fever-dreamed about God, heaven, hell, and his family.

The other Lamalerans wept. They knew everyone shared responsibility for abandoning the sacred téna. The disappointed ancestors would surely exact their vengeance.

By the time that Sisu disembarked for another boat, the currents had started to take the Kebako Pukã. The boat swiveled, its hâmmâlollo grazing the harpooning platforms of its two fellows as if in farewell. Waves edged up the prow. Soon the ocean swallowed the ship. A hoarse wail burst from the Lamalerans.

Throughout Sunday afternoon, the Lamalerans hallucinated, imagining they saw signal flares on Lamalera beach and paddling as hard as they could toward them. The extinguishing of the sun ushered in yet another night at sea and demolished the whalers’ fantasies: There was nothing ahead but darkness. The men lay still as corpses in their ships. Frans thought some of them had already died. Still, he did not lash himself to the thwarts. He could endure a little more. If morning dawned hopelessly, he would tie himself to the téna. It would be as God willed it.

A little before midnight, Frans stirred from his fugue to one of his shipmates croaking. The man was pointing a finger. Frans followed the man’s direction and saw a row of halogen-lit windows floating above the Savu Sea, framing fancily dressed men and women with pale skin. A thick beam of light roved across the waves, blinding him when it settled on the téna. Frans suddenly understood why the ancestors had teased the whalers with the phantasm of home: They had been encouraging the crews to cling to life for just a few hours more.

A metal vessel four times as long as a téna, with the words Spice Islander painted across its hull, chugged toward the Lamalerans. Salvation had arrived in the form of a cruise ship.

Hauling a whale ashore.

Frans had glimpsed modern ships while hunting, but he had rarely seen one this close. When a metal arm lowered a speedboat into the water, he thought he was delirious. The speedboat zoomed up to the Lamalerans, and its crew tied on to the téna in order to drag the bewildered whalers to the Spice Islander. Promises of food and water enticed those crew members who had prepared for death to untie themselves and climb aboard.

As the Lamalerans stepped onto metal stairs lowered from the bow, 40 or so foreigners lined the railing, aiming strange metal boxes that emitted white flashes. The hunters leaned against the sailors, infantile with weakness. The white-skinned men and women shook the Lamalerans’ hands and gave them plastic water bottles, which the men struggled to open until someone showed them how to unscrew the caps. The tourists made them pose and held up the metal boxes once more. Frans was too tired and thankful to care.

The captain of the ship, a man named Sebastianus, led them to the mess hall. They were served coffee sugared with condensed milk, along with crumbly slices of white cake, which tasted bitter to Frans and which Sebastianus told them was called bread. The captain was from Larantuka, the largest city in the archipelago where Lamalera is located, and he had met members of the whaling tribe before. His eastern Indonesian accent and familiarity with their culture put the men at ease. Sebastianus explained that the Spice Islander had been cruising from the Komodo Islands, home of the legendary dragons, to Timor, where the tourists would fly home, when he heard a radio bulletin about lost ships. His marine radar soon pinged two unidentified vessels adrift off normal shipping lanes, and he set out to investigate.

At the end of the meal, Sebastianus apologized that the two surviving téna would have to be scuttled. Frans and the other Lamalerans begged him to save the boats, explaining their spiritual value. He agreed to try. Using the onboard crane, his crew winched the Kéna Pukã onto the cruise ship’s deck, where its hull, ravaged by the whale, was bared for all to see. But when the Spice Islander’s crew tried to lift the Kelulus, the damaged vessel began to break apart.

The Lamalerans beseeched Sebastianus to drag the Kelulus to the nearest island, where they hoped to stash the wreck until they could return for it. But he explained that doing so would take them many miles out of their way, and he had to get the foreign passengers to their destination the next day, lest they miss their plane. “The law of the sea is to save people,” Sebastianus said, “not boats.”

Until then, a sole Lamaleran had remained aboard the Kelulus to protect it. Now he was brought onto the cruise ship, carrying the leo. The téna’s sail and harpoons were left for the ancestors, who would row it in the watery underworld. The floodlights of the Spice Islander illuminated the Kelulus as it began to sink. “You go ahead and wait for us on shore,” a Lamaleran cried out. “Soon we will join you!”

The rope between the Kelulus and the Spice Islander was unknotted. A whaler declared, “It’s better that I go with my téna!” and tried to climb over the railing, but other men restrained him. Many Lamalerans wept hysterically. Others covered their eyes, unable to watch the sinking of the second ship they had lost in a single hunt. Frans tried to face the tragedy unblinkingly, but inside he grieved as if he was watching the drowning of a family member.

Every téna had an eye painted on either side of its bow. As the Spice Islander motored away, its wake spun the Kelulus to face the departing Lamalerans. As the two vessels separated, the Kelulus never broke eye contact. Frans was sure that its spirit was bidding him a personal farewell. The tourists photographed the spectacle.

The Lamalerans slept that night on nests of blankets and pillows piled on the viewing deck. Frans was so exhausted he could not help but sleep, but he kept waking abruptly to unquiet thoughts. What would have happened if the Spice Islander had not discovered them? And how would the ancestors judge them for losing the téna?

“The law of the sea is to save people, not boats.”

The next morning, Frans was thrilled and unnerved as he explored the cruise ship. He had never been on a vessel that did not rock in the waves before. The air-conditioning baffled him. He was amazed by the miniature waterfall that poured from a bathroom ceiling to clean him. He was amused that the tourists pooped in a chair; Lamalerans use squat toilets. When he glimpsed the queen-size beds and ceiling lights of one of the tourist’s cabins, he could not help but wistfully compare it with his mattress stuffed with corn husks and his tiny brick house with no electricity.

Sebastianus had radioed ahead, and a crowd of government officials, journalists, and expat Lamalerans thronged the wharf of Kupang Harbor on Timor. Behind them, sunlight glittered on thousands of corrugated tin roofs, TV aerials, and radio antennas. Frans had only ever traveled to the rural islands neighboring Lamalera to fish; he had never seen anything like this. His first instinct was to hide, but he had no choice except to confront this brave new world.

As he and the rest of the whalers waited for a ferry to take them back to Lamalera, Frans wandered Kupang’s dusty lanes. He saw the impending future: multistory concrete buildings, TVs blabbing about Indonesia’s president, radios playing Ace of Base, motorbikes zooming across newly built asphalt roads. Here were more than 100,000 people who had forgotten their ancestors and abandoned the sacred past for a future that, to him, seemed cheap, chaotic, and unfulfilling. That made Frans yearn for home.

Finally, after several days, the Kéna Pukã was loaded into the cavernous metallic hold of a ferry. The tribe had been alerted by then to the survival of the men, and it sent a message directing the ferry to drop them at a neighboring village, where they had to wait several days while the nautilus shells were dug up and a shaman reversed the funerals that had been performed for them. Later, Frans would help lead a separate mystical rite to recall the souls of the sunken téna.

Yet there was no ceremony to remedy the unprecedented betrayal by the Teti Heri’s crew. It had rent the unity prescribed by the ancestors: talé tou, kemui tou, onã tou, mata tou. The ancient Lamalerans had considered this oneness so fundamental that they did not leave instructions for how to heal a break.

The tribe rebuilt their fleet, and the whale hunts continued. Frans reconciled with the men of the Teti Heri. Still, an existential rupture remained, like a leak in a téna. Over the coming years, Frans would sometimes find himself staring at the western horizon, remembering the alien world beyond it. He wondered with trepidation when it would arrive. He knew it would not be long.

Fransiskus “Frans” Boli Bediona takes a break from work.


Two decades later, when I met the Lamalerans, they were engaged in a desperate battle to preserve their traditions against the overwhelming pressures of globalization, which had already extinguished many indigenous cultures around the globe. Ignatius was striving to teach his son Ben how to whale, but Ben was making secret plans to run away to the tourist mecca of Bali and become a DJ. Ben was not alone among the new generation yearning for a modern life, casting doubt on the survival of the ways of the ancestors. And yet some of the tribe’s youth still fought to continue the traditions. Even after a whaling accident in 2014 almost killed Jon Hariona, the grandson of Yosef Boko, he kept striving to become a lamafa, like his ancestors before him.

The full story of the Lamalerans’ struggle to forge a place for their way of life in the new millennium is told in my forthcoming book, The Last Whalers.

The Long Shots


The Long Shots

A sports phenom shunned for drug abuse, a strongman down on his luck, and the leap of faith they took together. 

by Luke Alfred

The Atavist Magazine, No. 83

A journalist for two decades, Luke Alfred has served as sports editor and senior cricket writer at the Sunday Times in Johannesburg, South Africa. He is the author of books about cricket, rugby, and the lost art of walking.

Editor: Jonah Ogles and Seyward Darby
Designer: Jefferson Rabb
Copy Editor: Sean Cooper
Fact Checker: Adam Przybyl
Illustrator: Allegra Lockstadt

Published in September 2018. Design updated in 2021.


John McGrath was hunting a ghost: a man more than two decades his junior who seemed to melt into thin air. Every few days in the spring of 2013, McGrath, a 46-year-old native of Ireland, climbed into his black Jeep and drove ten miles from his home in the city of Paarl, South Africa, to Mbekweni, a predominately black township. He guided the thick tires of his vehicle around the potholes and puddles dotting Mbekweni’s narrow streets. He drove past small shops and roadside kiosks selling apples, potatoes, cigarettes, snuff, and gum. McGrath kept his window rolled down so that he could ask passersby if they had seen the phantom he was looking for: Luvo Manyonga, a young man full of possibility.

McGrath knew a thing or two about possibility. A strength coach for competitive athletes, he’d recently spent 18 months training the South African women’s tug-of-war team for the 2013 World Games, an event held every four years featuring sports that aren’t part of the Olympics. The women weren’t expected to do well—other countries had far better teams—but McGrath cared little for odds, records, and other supposed predictors of athletic success. He believed in hard work, hope, and surprises. Six-foot-six, with a chiseled torso and sculpted arms, he embodied the principles of his training methods. He’d weathered personal obstacles to become a rower and, later, an old-fashioned strongman, bending steel bars and other unlikely objects in front of stunned audiences. With his guidance, South Africa’s tug-of-war team won the bronze medal at the World Games.

The games were the reason McGrath had first heard about Luvo Manyonga. As part of his preparation, he’d attended a two-day symposium of coaches, trainers, and members of the South Africa Sports Commission and Olympic Committee (Sascoc). The meeting was held at a hotel in Johannesburg, in a conference room where the walls were lined with life-size posters of South African athletes in action. One of the images showed Manyonga in midstride, as if running on air. He was long and lithe, his legs extended and arms spread wide, as if every muscle in his body were pushing, propelling, willing him forward. He was jumping because that’s what he did best: Manyonga was one of the most promising long jumpers the world had ever seen.

McGrath found himself staring at the image, but not because of Manyonga’s height, form, or technique. “It was something about his eyes that pulled me in,” McGrath told me. “I recognized something in his face.” What, exactly, McGrath couldn’t quite say. But he was transfixed.

Despite Manyonga’s prominent photograph, South Africa’s top sporting authorities only rarely spoke about the young man anymore. He’d broken the country’s long-jump record at the age of 18 and had won international medals. He’d been on track to compete at the 2012 London Olympics, but his demons had gotten the better of him. He’d tested positive for methamphetamine and been banned from competition for 18 months. Sascoc, which determines which South African athletes compete for their country on the global stage, had all but turned its back on him.

Squandered talent, delegates of the Johannesburg meeting told McGrath, shaking their heads. Their resignation sparked his interest. He decided to find Manyonga and offer to train the athlete widely considered too toxic to touch.

Tracking Manyonga down wasn’t easy. He was still using drugs and sometimes pawned his cell phone for cash, which made him difficult to reach. So McGrath went looking for the athlete at his family’s home in Mbekweni. Manyonga lived in a four-room house on Machule Street that was hot in summer and cold in winter. It had been built atop the ruins of another structure destroyed by fire. McGrath parked his Jeep and walked up a path strewn with rubble, the remains of the other home, to the back door. He was ushered into the cramped living quarters by Manyonga’s mother, Joyce, a short, gospel-loving domestic worker in her sixties, and Vuyiseka, his elder sister.

Joyce and Vuyiseka said they had no idea where Manyonga was. They rarely did. Around Mbekweni, the would-be track star was known to scrounge and steal to feed his habit. If McGrath wanted to find him, he could try two of Manyonga’s preferred hangouts—the community center and the railway station—or linger through the night at Rennie’s Corner, a dingy nightclub.

Or, Joyce offered, McGrath could talk to Eugene Maqwelana, who ran Living Hope Ministries, a local evangelical church. Maqwelana’s father had once played rugby with Luvo’s father. As a respected pastor, he was well-connected and heard almost every shred of gossip that circulated through the 30,000-person township.

When McGrath reached out, Maqwelana was surprised. White men with blue eyes didn’t appear in his church very often. The pastor knew that Manyonga, who sometimes attended Bible classes held by Living Hope Ministries, was sliding quickly toward rock bottom. “Luvo was so raw,” Maqwelana told me. “One night in my Bible class, I asked if anyone would like to say anything, and he said yes and stood up and asked us to pray for him. After that he just wept. You could really see that this boy was broken.” Any punt on the township’s pride turned prodigal son seemed worth taking. Maqwelana promised McGrath that he’d find Manyonga and set up a meeting.  

Through other youth in the Bible class, Maqwelana got word to Manyonga that his presence was requested at the community center, to meet with the pastor and an Irishman. In the township, if a pastor says he wants to see you, he isn’t giving you a choice. Social custom dictates that you show up looking your best—clean pants, pressed shirt, shined shoes—and listen respectfully to what he has to say.

Manyonga did one better, arriving at the appointed time with a white Panama hat on his cleanly shaven head. Maqwelana interpreted the dapper accessory as a signal that the young man was eager to impress, even if he wouldn’t admit it. Maqwelana believed that deep down, despite being 22 and cocky, Manyonga wanted salvation.

The pastor introduced the two men and then left McGrath to make his pitch. Manyonga slumped slightly in his chair, wearing the neutral face he reserved for the authority figures in his life—teachers, parents, and Pastor Eugene. Sensing his audience’s unease, McGrath turned his wooden chair around so that he could straddle it and lean his thick forearms atop the back. The posture was informal and friendly; it also took the edge off the perpetual pain in McGrath’s back, the result of injuries sustained over years of athletic competition.

“Listen, Luvo, I know where you’re at,” McGrath began, his voice thick with a liquid Irish brogue. “I believe you can be an incredible jumper, and I believe I have the skill to get you going toward your dreams.”

McGrath was careful not to wag a finger or spout holier-than-thou warnings and maxims. He didn’t want to come off as judgmental. He didn’t give a damn if Manyonga liked to get high, but here was the thing, McGrath said: Manyonga had the sort of talent that comes around once in a blue moon. There are precious few people who have both the ability and the opportunities necessary to become a Michael Phelps or a Usain Bolt. The track world had for all intents and purposes abandoned Manyonga. His family was worried sick. He had everything to gain. What was there to lose?

“So how about you come and train with me then, Luvo?” McGrath asked.

Manyonga pursed his lips and moved them sideways, screwing up his face as he mulled over the question. Finally, his mouth broke into a half-grin, charming yet boyishly shy.

“OK,” he said. “When?”

McGrath raised an eyebrow. “Tomorrow. I’ll pick you up at 10 a.m.”

“Get ready,” Manyonga said, “because I’ll show you who’s boss.”

“I know you will, Luvo,” McGrath replied.

With that, Manyonga stood up and walked out. McGrath watched him and his Panama hat go. He could only wonder if the long jumper would actually show up to train, but he knew that the stakes felt sky-high. By the age of 30, McGrath thought, either Manyonga would be standing on an Olympic podium or he’d be lying in a gutter, dead from an overdose. What McGrath didn’t know, and perhaps couldn’t, was that the choice Manyonga made that day would shape the course of the Irishman’s life, too.


Manyonga had sports in his blood. His mother grew up in the dusty Eastern Cape village of Dordrecht, where she sprinted and played netball, a game similar to basketball. His father, John, was willowy and long necked and became a rugby winger—a position often given to the fastest athletes—for teams in upcountry mining towns.

The couple moved from their rural home to the growing sprawl of the Western Cape in 1977, settling in Mbekweni, a township of concrete houses and tin shanties. Joyce got seasonal work picking grapes, and John operated a forklift and played for the local rugby team, Paarl Blues. Things were tight for the growing family even before John lost his job. By the time Manyonga was born in 1991, during the waning years of South Africa’s apartheid regime, John was consistently unemployed and frequently absent from home. Joyce took up the financial slack as a domestic worker for an Indian woman in Paarl, a town of vineyards and whitewashed houses.

Manyonga was a solitary child. He spent much of his time watching television by himself, pencils in hand, re-creating what he saw on the screen on scraps of paper. He drew cartoon figures, some of which still hung on the walls of the family’s Machule Street home when McGrath visited years later. “He was very quiet. He never had friends,” Vuyiseka said of her baby brother.

The only time Manyonga seemed to find his place in the neighborhood was when he played a game called three sticks, or drie stokkies in Afrikaans. Jumpers took turns hopping over the sticks, which were placed at regular intervals and moved farther and farther apart with each round. Anyone who couldn’t clear all three was eliminated. Manyonga was always the last one standing.

As he grew, so did Manyonga’s enthusiasm for jumping. He began leaping over random objects—car tires, plastic crates, cardboard boxes—lying around Mbekweni. By the time he was a teenager, he attracted street-corner audiences who clapped and gasped in admiration as he cleared long lines or tall piles of stuff. Jumping made him feel free and at peace. “It is as if when I jump,” he told me years later, “I am just in heaven.” It also gave him something to do so instead of getting into trouble with his chommies, boys he knew in the township.

In high school, Manyonga joined the track team. His school didn’t have the facilities or coaching to help him nurture his natural ability, but once or twice a season the team competed in regional meets at Coetzenburg Stadium, about 20 miles from Mbekweni, on the quiet, tree-lined campus of the University of Stellenbosch. It was at one such meet in early 2009 that Mario Smith saw Manyonga perform the long jump.

Smith was the no-nonsense, chain-smoking head of the university’s athletics department. “He’s a guy who looks at the data, runs the numbers, and keeps his emotions in check,” said Shaun de Jager, one of Smith’s track and field athletes at the time. What Smith witnessed in Manyonga was a body moving with such casual grace that it was almost scandalous.

The long jump dates back as far as the first Olympic Games in ancient Greece. It involves an athlete taking a running start, reaching a takeoff point, and leaping as far as they can into a narrow sand or dirt pit. When Manyonga prepared for a jump, he stood up straight, his head tilted toward the sky. As he hurtled down the runway, he adjusted his stride pattern so that he’d launch from his left foot, departing earth for air. At the apex of the jump, Manyonga’s favorite part, he seemed to yearn for his legs to grow just a little longer. Often, in that moment, he flashed his teeth, giving the impression that he was on the brink of a raucous laugh.

What Smith witnessed in Manyonga was a body moving with such casual grace that it was almost scandalous.

Smith approached Manyonga and asked to be his coach, even though Manyonga wasn’t a student at the university. It was a canny move: Smith recognized that he could do something for Manyonga and that the reverse might be equally true. Manyonga, a world-class talent, could make Smith’s name as a coach outside university sports, maybe even outside South Africa.

There were complications from the start. Athletes of Manyonga’s caliber typically adhere to a strict daily training schedule, but money for transportation from Mbekweni to Stellenbosch was in short supply. “Luvo couldn’t be there every day,” De Jager told me. Still, the young man’s ability blossomed. “The amazing thing was that Luvo could understand immediately what Mario said,” De Jager observed. “What took other athletes weeks took him days. I’ve never seen anything like that before.”    

The first major test of Smith and Manyonga’s partnership came in July 2009, when they traveled to Mauritius for the African Junior Athletics Championships. Despite having worked with Smith for only a few months, Manyonga jumped 7.49 meters and came in third. Before long he was hitting 8 meters in practice, good enough to put him in medal contention at the Olympics, should he ever get there.

In July 2010, at the World Junior Championships in New Brunswick, Canada, De Jager figured it was a no-brainer that Manyonga would seize gold. But it wasn’t so easy. Competitive long jumping has two rounds, a qualifier and a final. The top 12 jumpers in the qualifier advance to the finals, where each takes three jumps. The top eight then take another three turns. The person with the best distance across those six jumps wins. At the junior worlds, Manyonga’s only real competition was Spain’s Eusebio Cáceres, and after five jumps, Manyonga held the lead at 7.7 meters. Then Cáceres posted a 7.72, leaving Manyonga one last turn to retake the lead.

Smith, known for his cool, clinical demeanor, pulled from a blue packet the latest of many Rothmans cigarettes he’d smoked during the finals. He lit up in the warm Canadian evening. Manyonga stepped to the line, sprinted toward the pit, and lifted off. When he landed, he’d smashed Cáceres’s distance, jumping 7.99 meters.

“Mario just freaked out,” De Jager recalled. Smith dashed toward Manyonga and grabbed him in a hug. “Luvo is just one of those super energetic guys, bouncing all over the place,” De Jager explained, so his joy came as no surprise. Smith’s, though, was a departure. “It was nice to see Mario go across like that and get all emotional,” De Jager said.

With Manyonga’s gold in hand, there was no question: The long-legged boy from Mbekweni was causing a stir in the track world. His future, personally and professionally, was wide open.


McGrath knew what it was like to use sports as an escape from a troubled childhood. In the 1970s, he grew up in a working-class family of six—mother, father, and four boys—not far from the country towns of Tallow and Cappoquin in County Waterford, Ireland. Home life was tough; McGrath’s dad had an unpredictable temper. His mother, who worked as a confectioner, was softer. McGrath sometimes picked blackberries that she baked into pies and wedding cakes.

He and his brothers played rugby and hurling, an Irish game similar to field hockey. After school they earned money harvesting onions or doing other odd jobs. McGrath put the money aside for his first bike, a red and white Raleigh with a fancy white seat. When he came up short on a down payment, his father, who could be generous when he wasn’t angry at his sons, made up the difference. McGrath rode it in ever wider circles around the house each day, venturing as far as he could before he had to turn around and head home for dinner.

One summer afternoon in the late 1970s, while learning to swim in a municipal pool, McGrath was approached by several members of a local rowing club running a recruitment drive. Would he like to join? His face dripping wet, McGrath looked up from the pool and asked when and where he was wanted.

Rowing provided an even greater escape than McGrath’s one-speed Raleigh. Soon his younger brother Oisin joined the club, too, and they traveled to Limerick, Cork, and Dublin for regattas. McGrath wasn’t a fluid rower, but he was powerful, a dynamo with the oars. He discovered that he loved the calm of the Blackwater, a gloriously wide tidal river next to the club’s boathouses. He could lose himself in the steady rhythm of pulling the oars and the labor exerted by his legs and lower back.

Over a decade of competition, with calm deliberation, he and Oisin powered past some of the best rowers in Ireland. In 1992, they competed on a four-man team in a qualifier for the Barcelona Olympics, breaking the course record by five seconds—only to have a Cuban team break it by six, dashing the McGraths’ hopes of advancing to Spain. “That race was the greatest of my life,” McGrath said. “I’ll never forget the exhaustion of coming in second.”

Not long after the head-to-head battle with the Cubans, disaster struck: McGrath was exercising when he felt a sudden sharp pain in his back. It was a prolapsed disc. Rowing became impossible, and within a year, he’d drifted away from the sport entirely. He took up martial arts like kickboxing and hapkido, among other disciplines that didn’t make heavy demands on his back. He grew fascinated by strength and conditioning, how it could help athletes of all skill levels. In 2002, he became the strength and conditioning coach for Mount Sion, a hurling team in Waterford.

The same year, McGrath picked up a hardback copy of a book called The Mighty Atom, by Ed Spielman. It tells the story of Joseph L. Greenstein, born premature and asthmatic as Yosselle Greenstein in the Polish border town of Suwalki in 1893. Doctors predicted that he would die before adulthood, but he survived and, of all things, joined the circus. Despite his diminutive size, Greenstein apprenticed with a wrestler and strongman called Volkano. In 1911, he came to the United States, where he reinvented himself as the Mighty Atom. Greenstein performed at Coney Island, slamming nails into plywood with his palm and flexing his pectoral, trapezius, and other bulging upper-body muscles to break the links of metal chains crisscrossing his chest. “The Modern Hercules,” a promotional poster for the Mighty Atom declared.

McGrath identified with Greenstein’s restlessness and self-sufficiency. He also shared the Mighty Atom’s views on the benefits of vegetarianism and avoiding alcohol. “No doubt about it,” McGrath told me. “The Spielman book changed my life.” In his free time, McGrath read about the lost tradition of Irish strongmen—performers and itinerants like Michael “Butty” Sugrue—and started training to bend horseshoes and tear telephone directories in half with his bare hands.

By 2008, McGrath had met a woman named Elke who was originally from South Africa. They lived on a farm outside Waterford called Bawnfune House, complete with prefamine sheds amid rolling green fields. Then the Irish economy fell off a cliff: Property values declined by more than 60 percent, and interest rates skyrocketed. Suddenly, McGrath couldn’t pay his mortgage. The bank took the farm. “I was in a horrible corner,” McGrath recalled.

McGrath started training to bend horseshoes and tear telephone directories in half with his bare hands.

Amid the mayhem of the crash, Elke announced that she wanted to return home to Paarl. McGrath followed, partly out of a lazy sense of adventure, and partly because he had few other options. He flew to South Africa with some clothes, two rolled-up paintings by a favorite Waterford artist, and two hurling balls, called sliotars, from his days training the lads at Mount Sion.

McGrath found Paarl alien. He didn’t understand a word of Afrikaans. He stood out as a tall, bulky foreigner with a funny accent. He longed for the fish and chips shop near the Mount Sion grounds and the grassy islands that run down the middle of Irish country roads. But he did his best to make a go of it. He picked up odd jobs performing vaudevillian feats of strength in school gymnasiums or delivering motivational speeches about the power of dreams and positive thinking. “I love the performance aspect of it,” he said of being a strongman. “But finally, it’s only a tool to prove to others that anything is possible. Bending paradigms is more important than breaking chains.” He coached two local rugby teams and helped some fellow enthusiasts build a Marine-like outdoor obstacle course called Die Pyntuin (the Garden of Pain).

None of it paid well, though. He and Elke began to grate on each other’s nerves. They fought, blamed each other for fighting, then fought some more. They soon separated.

McGrath scraped the money together to rent an empty warehouse on the industrial side of town; he wanted to open a strength and conditioning gym. The building was dark, drafty, and worn around the edges, but it was his. Bit by bit, McGrath attracted clients. The national women’s tug-of-war team was his first big get, and their medal at the World Games boosted his credentials. He was still in an existential breach, but he was determined to claw his way out.


In some ways, it was success that led to Manyonga’s downfall. Although he received no prize money to go with his gold medal at the junior worlds, sponsors began reaching out. Adidas paid for his kit, training shoes, and spikes, and he received a small stipend from Sascoc. In local terms, he was rapidly becoming a meneer (big man).

Smith persuaded Manyonga to live in a communal athletes’ house in Stellenbosch to focus more on his training. Doing so would mean dropping out of school before receiving his qualification—the South African equivalent of a high school diploma—but Manyonga didn’t mind. “At that time, Luvo, he was just flying,” Vuyiseka told me.

Manyonga shared the house with four other track and field athletes. He had his own room and a little privacy, two things he’d rarely experienced in Mbekweni. The five housemates spent weekends hanging out, eating Smith’s decadent homemade pasta dishes. But during the week they trained hard. Manyonga made steady gains in strength and technical acumen. Before long, Smith felt that Manyonga was ready to jump against anyone in the world.

Athletics South Africa, the country’s governing body for track and field, entered Manyonga in the long jump at the World Athletics Championships in South Korea. Though he placed fifth, he earned a $5,000 check, almost as much as the average annual income for black South Africans. Upon his return home, Manyonga, who was 20, set out to impress. He bought new clothes and attracted a group of friends who were happy to let him pick up the tab whenever they went out for meals or drinks. He disappeared from the training house for days at a time and stayed out all night at clubs in Mbekweni and Kyamandi, a township outside Stellenbosch.

Many people in these clubs used crystal meth, which had started flooding into South Africa from Nigeria in the late 1990s and was soon produced locally. One morning, after a night of partying, Manyonga woke considerably worse for wear. He pulled on jeans, splashed water on his face, and headed to Kyamandi. He had heard from a friend that tik, the local name for meth, was a cheap cure for a hangover, and he thought he could find someone dealing in the township.

Smith called to ask why he was late for training. Manyonga hung up.

Manyonga bought a small baggie of meth that day. When he smoked it, he heard a tik-tik-tik as he inhaled the heated lolly, or pipe; the sound was the source of the drug’s name. He loved how meth made him feel. The sensation of being high was nearly as good as jumping, he would later tell me. He didn’t have to worry about Smith pushing him, shouting at him to do better during training. He didn’t have to worry about fitting in at the athletes’ house as a township boy who hadn’t completed his exams. He didn’t have to worry about pressure or expectations or anything else. For a few hours, he didn’t have to think at all.

Soon the other athletes at the house noticed that personal items were disappearing. Money went missing from a wallet; cell phones mysteriously vanished like socks in the dryer. His housemates suspected Manyonga was taking things of value that he could trade for drugs. As they were cooling down after a training session without Manyonga one day, they brought the subject up with Smith. The conversation was amiable enough, but the young men felt that their coach didn’t take what they’d said to heart. “It felt like Mario didn’t want to see what we were seeing,” De Jager said. Still, Smith recommended that Manyonga visit a Stellenbosch-based sports psychologist named Dawn Saunders. “It was my impression that Mario sensed something wasn’t right,” Saunders told me. “It was almost as if he wanted me to confirm his suspicions.”

Busy with his new social life, Manyonga cut back on training, but he continued to compete and even to excel, a matter of enduring frustration to his less talented housemates. Though he underwent random drug testing before some meets, Manyonga didn’t get caught. Tik is detectable in a person’s system for only about nine days after use, and Manyonga would abstain from smoking just long enough to avoid testing positive.

On March 20, 2012, less than five months before the London Olympics, there was a meet scheduled at Coetzenburg Stadium, Manyonga’s home turf. He hadn’t planned to compete, so he’d snuck out of the house the day before to smoke a tik pipe in Kyamandi. Irritable with Manyonga’s wanderings, Smith decided to force the long jumper to participate, no matter how tired or unprepared he was. “Mario was pissed off,” said De Jager. “He put pressure on Luvo to compete. He always knew that if Luvo just hit the plank, the chances were good that he’d put in a good jump.”

Following the meet, a mere 24 hours after smoking tik, he was selected for a drug test. When it came back positive, Manyonga was immediately prohibited from further competition pending a hearing before the South African Institute for Drug Free Sport (SAIDS), scheduled for a month later. Depending on what the panel decided, Manyonga faced a ban of up to two years.

Manyonga was devastated, and Smith was irate—at his star jumper but also, in De Jager’s telling, at himself. Smith insisted that Manyonga voluntarily enter an outpatient rehab center near Cape Town, in the suburb of Hout Bay. For several weeks, Manyonga spent his days at the rehab center, going through counseling and working on strategies to avoid a relapse. When he next visited Saunders, “he was upset and disappointed,” she recalled. He also “didn’t deny anything.” During their talk, Manyonga was deferential and apologetic, less a meneer than a frightened kid, scarcely out of adolescence. Jumping had been his source of power and his escape. If he couldn’t jump, what would he do?

When Manyonga was scheduled to appear in the suburban Cape Town offices of SAIDS, Smith went with him, and the coach asked Saunders to come, too. The London Olympics were less than three months away. Saunders, like Smith, felt strongly that Manyonga was a young man from difficult circumstances who’d made a mistake; she understood how rare his talent was, how limited his support system, and how easy it must have been to get caught up in the culture of tik. As they prepared to enter the SAIDS offices, Saunders asked Manyonga how he was feeling.

“Mum can’t be proud of me now,” she remembered him saying. “I’ve brought shame on my family.”

Jumping had been Manyonga’s source of power and his escape. If he couldn’t jump, what would he do?

At the hearing, Manyonga, Saunders, and Smith sat on one side of a large boardroom table; on the other was a panel of four administrators and lawyers (three of them white, one Malay) who would decide his fate. Manyonga accepted strict liability—he didn’t dispute that he’d tested positive—but otherwise spoke little. Saunders and Smith did most of the talking.

Saunders described the long jumper’s background, his dysfunctional home life, and the rigors of Mbekweni. Manyonga had shown contrition, Smith added, and voluntarily sought out treatment. His mother earned 120 Rand (roughly $9) per week as a domestic worker; his dad rarely had work. If Manyonga didn’t jump, he would have no income, and his family would lose his financial support, too. He needed only one more jump to qualify for the Olympics.

Some of the panelists teared up or blew their noses. “So you believe, Mr. Smith,” asked Andrew Breetzke, the chairman, “the athlete has the potential to become one of the world’s great long jumpers?”

“I do,” Smith replied. “He’s my most gifted athlete. He can hurdle parked cars.”

After approximately three hours, the meeting was adjourned. The panel would deliver a verdict within two weeks. The mood during the car ride home was somber. Smith drove and Saunders sat in the front; Manyonga was in the back seat. Saunders heard sniffling coming from behind her at one point but didn’t turn around.

As they rolled down the N2 highway toward Stellenbosch, Saunders noticed the shanties of Khayelitsha, the largest township in South Africa. She had seen it many times before, but the sight now shamed her. The lingering divisions of apartheid, between the haves and have-nots, was as much a part of the South African landscape as the breathtaking silhouette of Table Mountain and the fields of grazing rhinos in Kruger National Park. And just like the townships, Manyonga personified the raw injustices of his country.

Saunders started to cry. She looked across the car and saw that Smith was crying, too. “What a bugger up it was,” she told me. “I don’t know if another nation can understand this—that this is what it means to be a South African.”

Two weeks later, the verdict arrived: Manyonga was banned from jumping for 18 months. The mitigating factors of his background and home life meant that he didn’t receive the maximum two-year sanction. Breetzke told me that he felt bad about the whole situation—a “quintessential South African tragedy,” he said—but rules were rules.

Over the next year, Manyonga disappeared from Smith’s radar. He bounced around Mbekweni, from club to club, aimless, often high—until the day he met John McGrath.


At 10 a.m., the time they’d agreed to meet to begin training, McGrath pulled up in his Jeep at Manyonga’s Machule Street home, vacillating between hope and doubt that the young man would even be there. To McGrath’s relief he was, though he’d ditched his Panama hat for a black tracksuit. McGrath got out of the Jeep, and he and Manyonga bumped fists and snapped their fingers in greeting. Then they both got in the car and headed to the gym.

To start, McGrath wanted to establish a baseline for Manyonga’s natural gifts. He had the young man hold a broom across the front of his thighs, the handle horizontal to the ground. He asked Manyonga to jump over it from a standing position, then, with the handle pressed to his hamstrings, to jump over it backward. The exercise was nearly impossible; McGrath had seen it done successfully only a few times in his career as a coach. Manyonga did it ten times in a row.

Still, there was room for improvement. Manyonga was naturally supple, but he wasn’t nearly as strong as he could be. A long jumper needs the explosive power of a sprinter to fly down the runway and maximize his launch. Manyonga could run 100 meters in 10.5 seconds; McGrath told Manyonga he could get that number down to 10 if he wanted to. The young athlete also needed better stability in his ankles, so he could withstand the bone-jarring force of his takeoff without injury.

McGrath concentrated on exercises that would strengthen Manyonga’s core and thighs without sacrificing his natural speed and agility. Manyonga rode a stationary bike. He worked with weights and medicine balls. He did one-legged jumps onto raised blocks. Days turned into weeks, weeks wheeled into months, and Manyonga became stronger and fitter.

Sometimes they were joined in training by Ryk Neethling, a freestyle swimmer who had won a gold medal at the 2004 Athens Olympics as part of South Africa’s 4×100-meter relay team. The three men quickly established a rapport. They were relentlessly competitive, challenging each other to acts of strength and endurance. Manyonga was easily bored, so they devised games to keep things interesting. Sometimes they’d race around the facility’s perimeter, pushing wheelbarrows full of weights as fast as they could. “Somehow,” McGrath recalled fondly of the competitions, “Ryk would always start before I said go.”

As Manyonga put on muscle, McGrath did, too. Within a few months, he realized that he had never been in better shape and that he was having more fun than he’d had in years. After workouts during which they blasted songs by Lil Ray Jimenez, McGrath and Manyonga would go to Paarl for coffee or a shake and a burger. They were an unusual pair: McGrath was the pale white of the sun-shy Irish, while Manyonga was a lustrous black. McGrath was like a brick wall of solid muscle, while Manyonga was narrow and agile. He walked on his toes, not the soles of his feet, giving the impression that he was always about to take flight. They joked with each other and talked about women and music. Manyonga loved R&B and a South African genre called gqom, which mixes rap and house music. McGrath’s tastes inclined toward heavy metal, Irish folk, and the Ramones. “We were very equal,” McGrath recalled of their relationship. “I talked about Ireland and the Irish weather. He talked about going swimming in the dams behind Mbekweni.”

As they became closer, there was one subject that Manyonga didn’t seem comfortable discussing: his relationship with Mario Smith. From the little Manyonga said, and from what McGrath heard from other athletes, it was clear that the coach-athlete bond had become a strained one.

McGrath’s and Smith’s paths seldom crossed—they moved in different athletic worlds—but he empathized with Smith, because he had frustrations of his own with Manyonga. Sometimes the long jumper skipped training sessions and would be unreachable because he’d sold his most recent cell phone. Things went missing from the gym, like a mountain bike and thumb drives of music. While McGrath didn’t have proof that Manyonga was to blame, he’d also never lost things like that before. McGrath let it go. “Some battles you fight,” he told me. “We were in a delicate phase. I suspected that he was still smoking tik but looked the other way. I couldn’t be with him every hour of the day, and I didn’t want to go down that particular rabbit hole.”

McGrath knew that Manyonga needed Smith’s expertise on the technical aspects of jumping to compete again, so when Manyonga’s ban expired, in September 2013, the Irishman arranged a three-way meeting at Val-de-Vie, a luxury golf estate where Ryk Neethling worked when he wasn’t swimming. The gathering, McGrath announced after they’d all sat down, was about leaving the past behind and finding common ground. “I made it quite clear,” McGrath said, “that no one person would help improve Luvo—it was going to be a joint effort.” They agreed to put the ban behind them and set their sights on the Commonwealth Games, scheduled for Glasgow, Scotland, in July 2014. It was the ideal venue for Manyonga to return to international competition: high-profile but not exceptionally so.

To get there, the trio established a daily protocol. Manyonga would train with McGrath in Paarl in the morning, then with Smith in Stellenbosch in the afternoon, before returning to Mbekweni at night. Smith would either pick him up or see to it that a car came to fetch him. The routine would give Manyonga structure and support at every turn, along with a new goal to replace his dashed London dreams. Whatever bad habits the young man still had, Smith and McGrath hoped to keep them at manageable levels.

The coaches decided that Manyonga would compete at a meet in Coetzenburg Stadium in March 2014, just two days before the cutoff date to qualify for the Commonwealth Games. Manyonga wasn’t quite in peak shape, but Smith and McGrath hoped he would qualify with one of his early jumps, before he got too tired. He reached 7.65 meters on his second attempt, more than enough to make it to Glasgow.

But there was a hitch: Afterward, Athletics South Africa claimed that the jump was never reported and therefore couldn’t be ratified—meaning that Manyonga hadn’t officially qualified. When Sascoc announced South Africa’s Glasgow team on June 11, 2014, Manyonga wasn’t on it. All his hard work had been wasted effort. His official ban had ended nine months prior, but now it seemed to have been informally extended.

According to McGrath, Manyonga took the news in stride. “I was more freaked out than Luvo was,” McGrath told me. Perhaps, he mused, Manyonga had already “had to take so much shit” in his life as a poor black man in South Africa that this felt like business as usual. Then again, Manyonga wasn’t one to be open and honest about his feelings. Playing tough was an act of youth and a product of circumstance.

Manyonga’s official ban had ended nine months prior, but now it seemed to have been informally extended.

One night, two weeks after Sascoc’s announcement about Glasgow, Smith was driving from Stellenbosch to Paarl in his battered Opel Kadett when an oncoming car came over a rise and hit him head-on. Both vehicles immediately burst into flames, killing Smith and the other car’s four occupants.

The news spread quickly, and the athletes Smith had worked with most committedly took it hard, like the loss of the family member who’d been the glue holding everyone together. “We had a really good training group,” De Jager said. “The fact that Mario died broke us apart.”

Manyonga had known Smith for five years. The coach had given him a shot—twice—and been a father figure. Even during the painful months of the ban and the distance it had created between them, he’d loved the man.

After the accident, Manyonga drifted back to Mbekweni. When he and McGrath saw each other or spoke, Smith’s death wasn’t mentioned. “Luvo didn’t reveal too much of his pain to me,” McGrath said.

On the day of Smith’s memorial, Manyonga put on slim-fitting red pants, a crisp shirt, and pointed black loafers. He left his family’s home intending to catch the train to Stellenbosch, where the service would be held. But he got waylaid: He ran into some friends, smoked a tik pipe, and never caught the train.


The day of Smith’s funeral was when I met McGrath and Manyonga for the first time, though it wasn’t an easy undertaking. On a work trip to the Western Cape, I’d heard about an Irishman who’d befriended a long jumper with talent to burn, now ostracized from the South African track community because he used drugs. My interest piqued, I’d contacted McGrath, who explained Manyonga’s tendency to disappear. On the day of the memorial, we chased him for five hours: An acquaintance on the street said they’d seen him an hour or so prior and pointed us to one of Manyonga’s haunts, where the scenario repeated itself, before we finally found him at the train station.

Exhausted—and irritated—by the search, we went looking for something to eat and somewhere to talk. I learned much about Luvo that day: the purity of his potential, the depth of his relationship with McGrath, and the intensity of his love of tik, which he described to me with rapt attention to detail. He also talked about his drive to succeed. “I want to be someone in life,” Manyonga told me, “not a hero or a millionaire. I want to be a normal person with a family, a person people look up to and say, ‘One day, I want to be just like him.’”

The product of my reporting was an article, “The Impossibility of Loving Luvo,” published in South Africa’s Mail and Guardian in August 2014. The wheels that the story set in motion were slow but powerful. The African National Congress, the country’s governing party, reached out to its Mbekweni branch, and Manyonga and McGrath were invited to a parliamentary meeting in Cape Town. The two men explained the long jumper’s predicament. The lawmakers said that while they couldn’t make any decisions about Manyonga’s fate, they would call people who could.

Within a few weeks, McGrath’s phone was ringing. Sascoc was interested in Manyonga again. The committee offered to enroll him at the High Performance Centre (HPC) at the University of Pretoria, better known as Tukkies. The HPC was the best athletic center in the country.

“I want to be someone in life, not a hero or a millionaire. I want to be a normal person with a family, a person people look up to and say, ‘One day, I want to be just like him.’”

On the heels of Smith’s death, McGrath felt it was the right move for Manyonga. “Never,” he told me, “have I seen someone as straightforwardly gifted as Luvo.” McGrath didn’t want the young man to pass up a chance to get his talent back on track.

In June 2015, a year after Smith’s accident, Manyonga moved to Pretoria to train. He wasn’t thrilled about the HPC’s insistence that he submit to random drug testing, but he was glad when, one sunny winter morning not long after he’d arrived, he met someone eager to be his new coach: Neil Cornelius, a trainer at the HPC. “I knew of his troubles and his past,” Cornelius told me, but “there was never any doubt” that with work, Manyonga could “break barriers.”

Not that Cornelius liked everything he saw. Manyonga still walked and ran on his toes and needed to get out of the habit during his jumps, Cornelius told him, because placing a full foot on the ground would give him a firmer takeoff. Manyonga also admitted to his coach that, because he was scared of heights, he closed his eyes after launching into the air. Cornelius urged Manyonga to keep them open. “I told him that if you close your eyes, you are losing control and direction,” Cornelius explained. “If you don’t have visual feedback, you don’t know where you are going.”

Under Cornelius’s tutelage, Manyonga gained in confidence and strength. His technique became more precise and his jumps progressively longer. With dedication, on the right stage, he could possibly break American Mike Powell’s world record of 8.95 meters, set at the 1991 World Championships in Tokyo.

McGrath was nearly 800 miles away in Paarl, but he tried to visit Manyonga regularly. When he flew up from Cape Town for work, he would arrange his schedule to spend at least half a day with his friend. They would meet and shoot the breeze over a cappuccino or a meal. “Luvo had a fierce appetite, that I can tell you—he’d have mighty breakfasts,” McGrath recalled, “and a good conversation with the waitress as well.” They went to rugby matches and, once, to watch a motocross race. “That was probably the last uncomplicated visit we ever had,” McGrath said.

The complications didn’t stem from an argument or disagreement, which McGrath and Manyonga rarely had in earnest. The problems were subtler and more frustrating. Manyonga moving to Pretoria, far from the trauma he’d endured and the mistakes he’d made, created a rift between the life he’d lived and the one he wanted to build. McGrath sat on the far side of that divide, a reminder of a past self that Manyonga wanted to shed like old skin. He was young, gifted, and impetuous. His friendship with McGrath seemed better set aside with a gentle hand than dragged along with him into the future.

When I spoke to McGrath on the phone, I asked if he felt hurt by the growing distance between him and Manyonga, but he insisted that nothing was wrong. “This was how it was meant to be,” he’d once said of Manyonga’s move to Pretoria. In another conversation, he noted, “My motive was always to get him on his feet and get him going again.” On another occasion, McGrath added, “I was always gunning for him to get away. I was never going to carry his suitcase around the world.”

In March 2016, Manyonga’s rehabilitation reached a critical moment. At a low-key meet at Pilditch Stadium in Pretoria, he jumped 8.2 meters. The distance guaranteed that, after years of hardship and uncertainty, Manyonga was finally able to go to the Olympic Games for his country. McGrath wasn’t at the meet, but when he heard about Manyonga’s victory, he texted his friend, “Show the swagger.”

A month later, Manyonga was set to appear at the South African Athletics Championships. It was the country’s biggest stage, and Manyonga hoped to wow audiences with further evidence of his comeback. McGrath and Manyonga’s family were in the stands at Coetzenburg Stadium. Manyonga had jumped there hundreds of times before; it felt like a spiritual home. Cornelius whispered in Manyonga’s ear that he was on the cusp of becoming a legend in front of the entire country.

Manyonga’s first two jumps in the qualifying round were massive, but officials deemed them foul, meaning Manyonga’s toe had passed the edge of the takeoff plate. His third attempt was an utter failure: a negligible 6.7 meters. Manyonga didn’t advance to the final round and ultimately finished 13th. A victory might have established Manyonga as a favorite at Rio. Instead, he would be entering sports’ biggest stage as an inconsistent underdog.

When it was all over, Cornelius took the athlete aside.

“This is the last time this happens,” he growled. “The last time.”

“Yes, coach,” Manyonga replied, looking at his feet.

“Time is running out, Luvo,” Cornelius said. “Carry on like this, and medaling at Rio is just a dream. You with me?”

“I am, yes. It won’t happen again.”


McGrath was nursing a secret. He was injured, badly, and had been for months. At first, in 2015, he thought the pain running like a hot wire down his left leg was a pulled muscle, but he soon realized that it was the recurrence of his 25-year-old rowing injury, which affected his fourth and fifth vertebrae. “It robs you of joy, an injury like that,” McGrath told me. “It was hell to sit and difficult to walk. The only thing that really helped was to lie down.” He felt alone; he’d been separated from Elke for years, and while he had clients at the gym, none gave him purpose like Manyonga had. Friends told him that he should consider moving back to Ireland.

Instead, McGrath focused on the thing that had pulled him through other dark times: training. He had a bag full of grip exercisers called Captains of Crush. He could use them to maintain the strength in his wrists and forearms without compromising his damaged back. He started with a relatively easy gripper, equipped with 140 pounds of resistance, and worked his way up to 300. He squeezed the devices for an hour each day, swapping hands and pausing occasionally to rest his aching arms. It was a solitary activity, physical meditation of sorts. As he clamped the handles of the grippers together again and again, his mind meandered into daydreams. “That’s where I conjure up the feats that I’m going to do,” McGrath told me.

Sometimes he imagined performing in front of the Association of Oldetime Barbell and Strongmen, an international group dedicated to preserving the tradition that had made the Mighty Atom famous. McGrath had appeared before the association once before, in 2011 in Coney Island, where he’d done two tricks. The first was a complicated maneuver in which he bent a steel bar into a curlicue; the second involved bending a bar by clamping the middle between his teeth and pulling the ends downward. But he wanted to do more, including bend nails. The feat held a certain cachet in strongman circles. The Mighty Atom had done it. The Atom’s most ardent disciple, Slim “the Hammerman” Furman, had too. Because of their short length and the bender’s diminished leverage, nails are more difficult than steel bars. Among the most challenging to manipulate are what are known as red nails: seven inches of steel, five-sixteenths of an inch in diameter, that have been cold rolled, or processed at lower temperatures to make them stronger than standard nails.

In early 2016, after months of minimal exercise beyond just gripping the Captains of Crush, McGrath grew impatient and decided to push himself. He picked up a steel bar one day and tried to bend it. Immediately, pain coursed through his back. He was nearly incapacitated. He took anti-inflammatories and other painkillers, but nothing helped. Around the same time Manyonga headed to Rio, McGrath finally admitted that he needed surgery. It was the only way to relieve pressure on a nerve near his spine.

The operation went smoothly, but as he recovered, McGrath’s doctors gave him some news he didn’t want to hear: He should never again bend a steel bar, let alone a nail. McGrath let their advice sink in as, lying on his back, he watched the Rio Olympics unfold on television. He was pumped so full of narcotics that he could barely muster the strength to shout when Manyonga appeared on screen, clad in his green, yellow, and white uniform, ready to jump.

Despite Manyonga’s lackluster performance at Coetzenburg, McGrath believed Manyonga could medal in Rio; so did Cornelius. But the rest of the sports world had lost sight of the promising South African during what amounted to a nearly five-year hiatus from high-profile competition. Manyonga quietly took fourth in the qualifying round and advanced. “Excited for tomorrow,” Cornelius texted him that night. “Sleep well.”

The long-jump final began at midnight in South Africa, where Manyonga’s family watched via a satellite feed their neighbors had pooled their money to purchase for the family. McGrath watched from a friend’s house where he was staying while recovering from surgery. As the competitors took the field, commentators described the fight for gold as a two-way race between Great Britain’s Greg Rutherford and America’s Jeff Henderson. When TV cameras focused on Manyonga, he did a buzzy little jig, his natural showmanship coming to the fore.

Rutherford went first and jumped 8.18 meters. Manyonga then hit 8.16. Henderson followed with 8.2. Manyonga’s next two jumps were ruled foul. Rutherford, meanwhile, moved ahead of Henderson with a jump of 8.22.

When it was time for his fourth attempt, Manyonga stood on the track, his eyes focused on the pit ahead. He leaned back, then sprinted and leaped into the air. When he landed, the number that flashed on the scoreboard was the best of the night: 8.28 meters. In his fifth jump he would surpass it, reaching 8.37 meters, a personal record in competition.


Manyonga strutted toward the stands, his face breaking into a grin. On Machule Street, people screamed at the television and clapped their hands. McGrath, feeling a surge of pride even as he was unable to react with a physically taxing whoop or fist pump, was sure that the event was over. No one would beat Manyonga.

Henderson had one jump left, and Manyonga watched from the side of the track, where he sat on the ground, leaning back on his arms as casually as if he was at a picnic. Henderson rocketed toward the pit and soared into the air.

He hit 8.38 meters. Just like that, Manyonga was bumped from first place.

“I was so close,” he sighed to reporters afterward. “I had my hands on that gold medal.” Still, he’d won an Olympic silver medal, a feat that, just a year prior, had seemed all but impossible.

McGrath had once predicted that either Luvo would be dead from an overdose or he’d be standing on an Olympic podium by the time he was 30. At 25, Manyonga had fulfilled that prophecy. The Irishman shared the news on Twitter, posted a Facebook message, and sent Manyonga his congratulations. As the hours passed, his emotions mounted. “I stayed awake all night, and at around 5 a.m., it dawned on me what an achievement this was,” McGrath told me. He broke down crying.


Many people in South Africa had been sure that Manyonga would never live up to his potential. The long jumper had proved them wrong. McGrath wanted to do the same to the doctors who’d told him he’d never be a strongman again.

After leaving the hospital, he’d worn a back brace and used crutches. Once he ditched those, he embraced Pilates and yoga. He went to physical therapy and changed his diet, incorporating intermittent fasting like the Mighty Atom once had. Slowly, he began to exercise more rigorously. “I went by feel and trained around my injury,” he told me. “I did push-ups, pull-ups. I always took a safe position. I never picked up anything off the floor.”

Six weeks after surgery, he had the chance to do a paid strength performance for Adidas employees gathered at a Stellenbosch hotel. He couldn’t bend a bar by traditional means, so he bent one while holding it clamped between his teeth. He leaned his head back, raising his jaw toward the sky, while yanking down on either end of the three-foot length of steel. “Something must give in a situation like that—generally it’s the bar,” McGrath told me with a chuckle. “Your teeth crushing down into your gums feels wrong. It’s counterintuitive. The taste of steel isn’t particularly pleasant.” The performance went off without a hitch and with minimal pain.

In addition to a much needed paycheck, the event gave McGrath confidence. The Association of Oldetime Barbell and Strongmen was having its annual dinner in Newark, New Jersey, in October 2017. If McGrath trained hard in the year leading up to the event, he might be able to set a world record for the most red nails bent in under a minute. “Those nails are strengthened by a process that gives them approximately 500 pounds of resistance,” McGrath told me. “You’re not going to do more than seven or eight in a minute.” That became his goal.

Reaching it required a change of technique. He couldn’t bow his back to the same degree he once had, which meant he couldn’t manipulate a nail while holding it down in front of his torso. Instead, he’d have to bring it up close to his chin and bend it in half with a relatively straight back, providing the necessary explosive power with his shoulders, biceps, and forearms. All of his training was geared toward strengthening his upper body.

One day while McGrath was training, Pastor Eugene Maqwelana, the man who’d first introduced the Irishman to Manyonga, phoned. He was planning a men’s retreat in Paarl and inviting community leaders. The coaches of a rugby team would be there, and Maqwelana wanted Manyonga to come, too. Could McGrath persuade him to fly down from Pretoria?

McGrath called Manyonga, who agreed to come, though their conversation took a strange turn.

“I’m next-level now, John,” Manyonga said. “I need a bodyguard.”

“You what?” McGrath replied incredulously.

“A bodyguard, you know.”

McGrath thought Manyonga might be joking, playing up an above-it-all celebrity persona for laughs. But Manyonga’s tone suggested he was serious.

“You’re a fucking athlete,” McGrath replied, annoyed, “not Jay-Z.”

The strongman picked the long jumper up after his flight down south for the retreat. Following the event, they went to Bean-in-Love, a favorite coffee shop from their time training together at the gym. Back then they were just two friends stopping in for a snack; now everyone in the neighborhood knew Manyonga. “Walking back in there was kind of cool,” McGrath said. “There was a sense of achievement.”

But tension was palpable in what wasn’t said. The two men ignored the bodyguard conversation and its implications—namely, that the gulf between them was wider than ever.

Away from the streets of Mbekweni, Manyonga still struggled to cope with temptation. As he trained for the 2017 World Athletics Championships, scheduled for London in August, he was lured into the drug scene in Sunnyside, a Pretoria suburb. He went on a bender in July and voluntarily committed himself to rehab. “He was so weak he couldn’t jump,” said Danie Cornelius, who runs the track and field program at the University of Pretoria (and is also the father of Manyonga’s coach, Neil). While there, Cornelius said, Manyonga tested positive for cocaine. The staff kicked him out, but he was readmitted after authorities at the University of Pretoria pleaded for the center to take him back.

With three weeks to go before the worlds, Manyonga’s entourage was wild with worry. From afar, McGrath was aware of the troubles, but he was reluctant to interfere. When Manyonga arrived in London, his closest supporters held their breath, hoping his raw talent would overcome his recklessness. The young man exceeded even the most optimistic expectations: Sporting a pair of pale blue spikes, Manyonga jumped a whopping 8.48 meters early in the final round, literally drawing a line in the sand. No one else could match the effort. He was champion of the world.

After his victory, he called his family. “We cried a lot,” Vuyiseka said. “Mum was very happy.”

By that time, Manyonga had begun working with a new sports agent, a man named Lee-Roy Newton, who made it clear to reporters that he was going to rewrite Manyonga’s public narrative. He told The Guardian that sponsors didn’t want to go near stories with lingering negativity—stories like a sports figure who had struggled with a drug problem. (Newton did not respond to a request for comment about Manyonga’s 2017 experience in rehab.)

For McGrath’s part, he felt that Newton drove an even deeper wedge between him and Manyonga, a sense borne out when, while working on this story, I called Newton to set up an interview with Manyonga about his relationship with John. I wondered, however naively, if I might be able to help bridge the gap between the long jumper and the strongman. Newton told me that Manyonga didn’t want to talk; Manyonga thought McGrath was trying to take credit for his success and didn’t want to have anything to do with a story linking their journeys together.

It was a response that, to a certain degree, I understood. In South Africa, people who come from little are rightly protective of their success; others taking credit can feel like robbery of the worst kind. And people who offer a helping hand too often forget or gloss over the conditions that made assistance necessary in the first place. If Manyonga, blessed with innate physical brilliance, wanted to move through the world like a kid with diamonds on the soles of his shoes, that was his right.

Then again, McGrath seemed less interested in credit than he did in connection. Even as Manyonga continued to win meet after meet and title after title around the globe, McGrath kept visiting the young man’s family. He helped Vuyiseka pay for outstanding school fees and sometimes pitched in for groceries or the odd bottle of wine. “We lost Mario,” Vuyiseka told me, “and then came John.”

At root the story of McGrath and Manyonga isn’t one of debts owed. It’s about two people from diverging worlds pushing the limits of what’s personally and humanly possible, who for a brief but glorious time labored side by side in that effort. They were changed by it. Then, as quickly as they’d met, they burst apart, burning bright in different directions, but with a single contrail in their wake.

On October 21, 2017, after months of preparation and planning, McGrath took to a small, wobbly stage in a conference room at the Marriott Hotel in Newark, New Jersey. It was a Saturday afternoon, and golden leaves were falling from the trees outside. The audience was small, no more than 50 or 60 people, devotees of the sport that strongmen like to call the Iron Game.

The room was better suited to a dentists’ convention or a gathering of financial brokers. The carpet muffled sound, the wallpaper was tasteful, and the light fittings were demure. Even the doors seemed to close with a plush murmur. It was not a place for the savage grunts of bar-bending men, yet there they were, grunting away.

Throughout the afternoon, men in leather waistcoats and boots stepped forward to bend steel. Others forced rods into improbable shapes, full of curlicues and rococo flourishes, called iron butterflies. One man, Eric Moss, lay on his back between two chairs, a concrete paving slab balanced on his stomach. His partner climbed the rungs of a nearby ladder, a kettlebell in hand. Once he was sure of his balance, the partner dropped the weight onto the paving stone, which cracked with a thud. A plume of dust rose from the slab. Moss jumped up and blinked, to thunderous applause.

Next it was McGrath’s turn to bend red nails. He and a friend had been wrapping the tips of nails in blue Cordura for hours. Combined with chalk, the cladding helped his grip. Once McGrath was on stage, a 60-second stopwatch started and he was handed the first nail. He pulled it close to his chin and dealt with it easily. He was given a second nail, then a third. His technique was uniform: Stepping forward slightly, he’d seize the nail, and once it was solidly in his grip, he’d push and grimace with all his upper body’s might until the nail’s two ends nearly touched. Then he’d toss the narrow U-shaped piece of steel to the floor.

As he moved through nails four, five, and six, his pace slowed imperceptibly. By nail seven he was struggling, and there were only 20 seconds left on the clock. The audience took a collective breath as he made no initial impression on nail eight. Finally, with much effort, he managed to bend it. By the time the ninth nail was in his hands he was spent, his arms like jelly. McGrath had bent the last nail only partially. “Your power system is gone,” he told me later. “I thought I might have had time for another one, but I didn’t.”

After review, the result was seven nails fully bent; two didn’t make the cut because they weren’t the right shape. Still, it was one more nail than the previous world record. In the small universe of strongmen, McGrath was a victor.

It wasn’t quite the Olympics; there were no television cameras in the room, and I was the only reporter present. As McGrath gulped air and accepted compliments and backslaps from the audience, I couldn’t help but think of Manyonga. I wondered if McGrath was thinking about him, too. Did he want to tell his friend about what he’d achieved—how he, too, was a world champion after overcoming so much? Did it hurt to know that Manyonga might never learn about the scene at the Marriott?

I asked McGrath what went through his mind when he knew he’d set the world record. He didn’t answer immediately. In the radiating satisfaction of his achievement, he paused in thought. Finally, he said that he wouldn’t change anything about his journey at all.

The Trigger Effect


The Trigger Effect

In September 2017, a police officer shot and killed a queer college student in Atlanta. By the end of the year, several of the student’s friends had been arrested, and two were dead. What happened at Georgia Tech? 

By Hallie Lieberman

The Atavist Magazine, No. 82

Hallie Lieberman is a historian and journalist who writes about sex and gender. She is the author of Buzz: A Stimulating History of the Sex Toy, published in 2017 by Pegasus Books. Her writing has appeared in The Forward and The New York Review of Books, among other publications.

Editor: Seyward Darby
Designer: Jefferson Rabb
Copy Editor: Sean Cooper
Fact Checker: Matt Giles
Photographer: Annalise Kaylor

Published in August 2018. Design updated in 2021.

The 911 caller’s voice was calm, almost cheerful.

“Hey, I’m up at West Village,” the person said, referring to a cluster of buildings at the Georgia Institute of Technology, better known as Georgia Tech. “It looks like there’s somebody, like, skulking around outside. It looks like he’s got—he’s got a knife in his hand. I think he might have a gun on his hip.”

It was 11:17 p.m. on September 16, 2017, a humid Saturday night. The university had resumed classes for the fall semester less than a month prior. A report of a potential gunman on Georgia Tech’s campus, situated in the heart of Atlanta, triggered emergency texts and tweets urging students to find shelter. Campus police were dispatched to West Village, located less than a third of a mile from their headquarters, to assess the situation. Was there really an armed man? If so, did he intend to harm himself or someone else? In the era of school shootings, tragedy that feels at once familiar and devastating is always just a trigger pull away.

“It looks like he might be drunk or something,” the 911 caller said, trying to provide a clear picture of the suspicious man. “He’s got long blond hair, white T-shirt, jeans.”

The dispatcher repeated the description and noted it in his records. Then he asked for the caller’s name, in case the police needed it.

“Uh, sure,” the caller said. “Scott Schultz.”

At that moment, Cat Monden was dashing around West Village, searching for her best friend, Scout. A bespectacled computer-engineering major, Scout had shown up at Monden’s door earlier that night, a green and white shoebox in hand. “Consider it a belated birthday present,” Monden heard Scout say, before her friend shoved the box into her hands and walked away without another word.

After closing the door, Monden went back to the couch, where she and another friend had settled in for the night to watch television. Monden thought it odd that Scout would come and go so abruptly. Even odder was what was inside the shoebox—all of Scout’s Magic: The Gathering cards, bearing images of fantastical wizards, beasts, and weaponry. Any obsessive player of the game, which both Monden and Scout were, knows that the cards are expensive and can take years to collect. Giving them away is tantamount to announcing that you’ll never play again.

There was something else in the box—a note to Monden. It thanked her for being the best friend Scout had ever had.

Cassandra “Cat” Monden

Monden and Scout had found each other in Georgia Tech’s tightly knit community of LGBTQ students. Monden was a petite black transgender woman, and Scout was white, bisexual, intersex, and nonbinary—that is, gendered neither male nor female and using the pronouns they and them. Monden and Scout were involved in Georgia Tech’s Pride Alliance. By 2017, Scout was in their second year as president of the student advocacy group. Like many LGBTQ youth, Scout, who was 21, struggled with mental-health issues, including thoughts of suicide. Though they boasted a 3.9 GPA and the admiration of fellow students committed to progressive activism, Scout had tried to kill themself at least once before.

The note in the shoebox wasn’t explicit, but Monden recognized it as a cry for help. She sprang off the couch and ran out into the hallway, leaving her keys in the apartment as she went.

After descending the building’s main stairway, her first stop was Scout’s apartment, located on the first floor. Monden banged furiously on the door until she was greeted by a bewildered roommate. Together they went into Scout’s room; it was empty. Another roommate walked into the common area and asked what was going on. “We can’t find Scout,” Monden said.

The trio hurried out of the apartment, planning to search West Village and beyond, if necessary. They spotted blue lights bouncing off nearby walls—the beams of police cruisers’ emergency lights. A fellow student warned them away from Eighth Street, which ran in front of the housing complex. The cops were trying to deal with a guy who was walking in the road, carrying a knife.

Several officers from the Georgia Tech Police Department (GTPD) had shown up in response to the 911 call. They spotted the man described to dispatch walking shoeless in front of a parking deck adjacent to a Wing Zone franchise, popular among students craving late-night calories. The man moved slowly, as if dragging his bare feet across the pavement required real effort. His shoulders were hunched and his arms hung limply at his sides. In his right hand, he clutched a small multitool that included a screwdriver and a short blade.

“C’mon, man, drop the knife,” one of the officers shouted. The cops all had their weapons trained on the suspect.

“Shoot me,” the man replied, continuing his measured advance.

“Nobody wants to hurt you, man,” a cop said. “Drop the knife.”

The man seemed unsure what to do. For a few seconds, he sped up his pace. Then he froze before again moving slowly toward the officers. Some of them backed up, giving him room. They kept their guns raised.

By then, Monden was just down the street, watching from the sidewalk in horror. She knew the person the police were trying to subdue. It wasn’t a man—it was Scout.

“Speak,” an officer shouted. Scout was silent. The cops asked for a name. Nothing. The officers ordered Scout not to move. Scout didn’t listen.

Instead, Scout kept walking, getting within 20 feet of one of the cops, a 23-year-old named Tyler Beck. Students peered out of dorm windows, and Monden looked on helplessly. With his colleagues arrayed around him, Beck pulled the trigger of his gun. There was a flash of light, and then a bullet tore into Scout’s body. They fell face forward onto Eighth Street. A video of the moment, captured by an onlooker’s cell phone, shows Scout’s prone body through a veil of leaves hanging from one of the young trees lining the road.

Monden released a mournful, guttural scream. Scout’s roommates grabbed her arms to stop her from running toward her friend, afraid that she, too, would be shot. Monden broke free and bolted at the cops. One of them restrained her. “We should put cuffs on this girl,” she heard another officer say.

Perhaps because Scout’s roommates pleaded with them, insisting that she wasn’t a danger, the police decided not to detain Monden. An ambulance arrived to transport Scout to the hospital. Monden went back to her apartment to get a phone charger, then ran from car to car on Eighth Street, banging on windows and begging through tears for someone to drive her to the ER. Finally, she gave up and sprinted away, heading toward the hospital.

Soon after, a text alert went out to the Georgia Tech community: “There is no longer a threat to campus.”

Monden arrived at the hospital desperate for word of Scout’s condition. Other friends joined her in the ER waiting room, where they huddled together in disbelief. At one point, a stranger with dried blood caked on her shirt approached them. “What happened?” she asked, concern in her voice. “You kids look like somebody died.”

Monden and her friends weren’t sure if someone had, and the doctors wouldn’t tell them. Law enforcement and university administrators milled around the waiting room, but whatever they knew they kept to themselves. Scout’s parents were en route from Lilburn, Georgia, a 30-minute drive from Atlanta. As Scout’s next of kin, they would be updated first.

One by one, Scout’s friends went home to get some sleep, including Monden. By the time she woke up, before dawn, the news was spreading: Scout was dead.

A press release issued at 6:45 a.m. by Georgia Tech’s dean of students described a “sudden and tragic death.” It didn’t mention what had transpired on Eighth Street; it didn’t specify that Scout had been shot by campus police. “We have communicated directly and offered our support and deepest sympathies to Scout’s family,” the release concluded. “At times like these, we are reminded of the importance of coming together in support, understanding, and care for one another.” Two statements issued later the same day, including one from Georgia Tech’s president, G.P. “Bud” Peterson, also omitted salient details. One described Scout’s death as “the result of an incident.” (University officials declined to comment for this story.)

For anyone who knew Scout, the pieces of the puzzle quickly fell into place. Scout had left several notes, including the one in the shoebox. Videos from the confrontation at West Village showed Scout begging the police to shoot. Then there was the 911 call from a seemingly cool and collected bystander. Scout’s last name was Schultz, and Scott was their birth name, the one they’d used before coming out. Scout had placed the emergency call.

Within 48 hours of the shooting, Georgia Tech was engulfed in crisis. Ideological fissures about police brutality, free speech, and gender identity snaked through campus, similar to divisions appearing in communities throughout the United States. In 2017, at least 28 transgender or nonbinary people in the U.S. died in violent incidents; Scout was the third in September alone. Scout’s parents retained a lawyer. “Let’s face it,” their stepfather, Bill Schultz, told me. “I watched Black Lives Matter. This time it was my kid.” Many people at the university, however, felt differently. Scout “was acting as a danger to everyone in the proximity,” a commenter on the Reddit thread r/gatech wrote. “What is this person a victim of? Their own actions? Play stupid games. Win stupid prizes.”

Was Beck to blame for shooting a vulnerable student or commendable for making a tough call about a threat? How exactly should grieving students be allowed to respond to fatal violence? I set out to write this story not so much to answer these questions as to trace their impact, as well as the lingering trauma of Scout’s death. After a flurry of national coverage, the shooting faded from headlines. Yet at Georgia Tech, where I’m an instructor in gender studies and journalism, the event was only beginning to take its toll. LGBTQ students felt it most acutely, and each frustration, indignity, and misunderstanding they experienced added to the burden. For some of these young people, the weight became too intolerable to bear.

What follows is a story of aftermath—of a community forced to navigate the emotional wreckage wrought by a wave of shock, anger, and confusion. Within a few weeks of Scout’s death, several of their friends were arrested. Within three months, two were dead. Now, almost a year after the shooting, the official narrative of the event is still being written. But by whom?

The Victim

Scout was born in 1995, in Rockville, Maryland, and raised by their mother, Lynne, for the first 18 months of their life. Scout was still a towheaded toddler when Lynne started corresponding online with a defense contractor and Vietnam veteran named Bill Schultz who lived in Southern California. Meeting a romantic interest on the internet was unusual in the late 1990s, but Bill was more comfortable with the virtual world than most people. He’d worked on the development of Darpanet, the precursor to the internet, and gotten his first email address in 1972. Bill and Lynne moved to Iowa together, where they married and had a second child. Scout took Bill’s last name.

Scout was precocious: funny, creative, and a math whiz. Friends of the Schultzes sometimes described Scout as “scary smart.” They were also a perfectionist, always in pursuit of straight A’s, perhaps as a way to maintain a sense of identity and stability as they bounced from school to school. New jobs and subsequent firings or layoffs took the Schultzes to Missouri then on to Kansas. At one point the family had so little money that they lived in a tent in a city park for two weeks. “I was actually relieved, in a way, when Scout got a B,” Lynne said, “so they could see that it’s not the end of the world.”

Scout faced an unusual array of health challenges, including ulcerative colitis and migraines. They also had an anatomical condition called hypospadias, in which the urethral opening is in an atypical position, usually on the underside of the penis. Doctors assured Scout’s mother that hypospadias was merely a urinary issue, but it can also be an indicator that a child is intersex.

As they matured, Scout became an unabashed nerd. They collected Pokemon and Yu-Gi-Oh cards and played Minecraft, Dungeons and Dragons, and Magic: The Gathering with friends. They also became obsessed with Latin. In high school, which they attended in Georgia after yet another family move, Scout became fluent in the classical language, using it in text messages and teaching their dog to sit on Latin command. Scout also began to experiment with gender presentation, donning flowing gowns and lipstick in school plays.

Scout got a scholarship to Georgia Tech and was so excited to attend that they started early, in the summer of 2014. In many ways, the school was a perfect fit. It has always taken pride in nurturing geeks, from gamers to mathletes. It lacks the party-school atmosphere of other state schools, including the University of Georgia, and only a quarter of its students are involved in Greek life. Students focus on academics almost to a fault. According to a recent university report, “Data from the 2011 National College Health Assessment revealed that 89.9 percent of Georgia Tech students reported they were ‘very stressed’ while the national rate was 52.9 percent.”  

Georgia Tech has always taken pride in nurturing geeks, from gamers to mathletes.

Scout thrived academically, and they joined the Pride Alliance, a diverse group that for many members served as a kind of campus family. All students were welcome, no matter their race, gender identity, or sexual orientation, so long as they were committed to inclusion. Georgia Tech’s LGBTQ den mother was a black transgender woman named Kirby Jackson, who sported a short afro and rectangular glasses. She was protective, witty, kind, and candid. “Kirby was really the first person who reached out to me and said, ‘I want to make you feel safe here on campus,’” said Naiki Kaffezakis, a student who is transgender. Jackson founded a transgender support group called T+, which had lean beginnings. “She would sit in a room for a couple hours at a time on a weekly basis,” Kaffezakis said of Jackson, “just in case other people showed up and just in case other people needed support.”  

Through the Pride Alliance, Scout came under Jackson’s wing and met fellow LGBTQ students like Kaffezakis, a double major in nuclear engineering and physics. On National Coming Out Day, October 11, of their sophomore year, Scout announced their identity and orientation for the first time. They shaved a beard they’d worn for a while and wore brightly patterned clothing, glad to draw attention to themself.

Scout seemed so happy in their skin that their mom, Lynne, was stunned to get a call from Georgia Tech’s counseling center one day. “Your son tried to hang himself from his bunk bed with a belt,” Lynne recalled the person on the line saying. The belt had snapped; Scout wasn’t injured. Still, their loved ones had missed the signs that they were hurting.

Scout Schultz over the years. (Courtesy: Bill Schultz)

According to a 2014 survey, 45 percent of trans and nonbinary people 18 to 24 have attempted suicide. By the time Scout tried to take their own life, Georgia Tech had identified that it had a suicide problem—and not just among LGBTQ students. According to a survey of students who use the university’s counseling center, the number “who have ever attempted suicide … has steadily increased from 5.9 percent (2014) to 7.1 percent (2015) to 8.5 percent (2016) to 9.5 percent (2017).”

Scout started seeing an on-site counselor, but their family quickly realized that the resources on campus were inadequate. There was just one counselor for roughly every 1,500 students and a cap on the number of sessions (16) that a student could access over their college career. Scout started taking medication and seeing caregivers off campus, covered by their parents’ insurance. “It seemed like Scout got better after a few months,” Lynne recalled.

Scout continued to earn good grades, was elected president of the Pride Alliance, and demonstrated an interest in social justice that extended beyond LGBTQ issues. They got involved with Black Lives Matter and joined a chapter of the Democratic Socialists of America. They toyed with anarchist ideas. In the winter of 2017, not long after President Donald Trump’s inauguration, Scout cofounded the Progressive Students Alliance (PSA). The group’s first action was marching against the introduction of House Bill 51, intended to prevent universities from preemptively investigating sexual-assault allegations on campus in Title IX hearings. Under the proposed law, suspected felonies, including assaults, would be referred to the local police. Believing that the bill would silence survivors by making them afraid to come forward, PSA students marched from Georgia Tech to the state capitol on March 3, 2017. A few weeks later, the senate tabled the bill.

For every one of Scout’s milestones there was a stressor. The Pride Alliance lost its dedicated space when the school repurposed it and other student groups’ offices for the Greek system to use. The development wasn’t unprecedented: Many of Georgia Tech’s campus groups don’t have offices, including some religious organizations. Still, the loss weighed on the group’s president. Scout “felt the Pride Alliance was more and more disrespected,” Bill Schultz said. “I think Scout took some of the blame for that on themself.” Scout moved the Pride Alliance’s materials into their dorm room. What wouldn’t fit they stowed in their parents’ garage.

Scout also grappled with the euphoria and pain of first love. At a party one night during their junior year, Scout met a slender student from Georgia State University, also located in Atlanta. Dallas Punja was the child of Pakistani immigrants and gender-queer. She was a devoted fan of the web comic Homestuck, about a computer game that accidentally destroys the earth, and the animated show Steven Universe. Scout also loved Steven Universe. The pair spent the party cuddling by a bonfire while Monden danced nearby. Before long, Scout and Punja were dating. Scout even brought Punja home to Lilburn, where Punja greeted Scout’s mom with fake yellow flowers because, she said, they would never die.

Punja wasn’t out to her family and struggled with depression and borderline personality disorder. She’d tried to kill herself twice by taking pills, and she’d once gone to a bridge intending to jump off, changing her mind only at the last moment. Scout tried to quell Punja’s self-loathing.

“feels like i’m repulsive,” Punja messaged Scout once.

“you are Not,” Scout responded. “you are beautiful and I love you sooo much.”

In another message, Scout said, “i’m very tense and anxious. together we can be the splendid combination, like peanut butter and jelly: depression and anxiety.”  

Like many young people’s relationships, the flame Scout and Punja shared burned bright and fast. During the summer before Scout’s senior year, they broke up. According to Kaffezakis, however, “Scout was still very much in love with Dallas.”

“i’m very tense and anxious. together we can be the splendid combination, like peanut butter and jelly: depression and anxiety.”

By the fall semester, the Pride Alliance had been working for almost a year with Tech Ends Suicide Together, a campaign to educate students about warning signs and encourage referrals to the counseling center. In a photo posted on Facebook in support of the initiative, a handful of Pride Alliance members cup their right hands into an O shape, signifying the goal of zero suicides on campus. Scout stands in the back of the group wearing a tie-dyed shirt, shoulder-length hair parted to one side, and a slight, inscrutable smile above a dimpled chin. Close by sits Cat Monden in a Pepsi T-shirt and black cap.

Unlike Scout’s parents, Monden’s father, with whom she’d lived during high school, hadn’t been wholly supportive when she’d told him she was transgender. He’d encouraged her to “try girls first” and refused to let her take hormones. College hadn’t made life easier, exactly; Monden still felt like an outsider. But the Pride Alliance was a home base and safe space, and Scout was her closest confidante. Whether playing fantasy games, decorating a float for Atlanta’s Pride parade, or talking about their dreams for the future, the two were inseparable.

As part of Tech Ends Suicide Together, Monden would have learned that people who want to kill themselves often start giving important possessions away. Nothing, though, could prepare her for receiving Scout’s Magic: The Gathering cards, then watching her best friend die in the street. Her thoughts turned to suicide, too, and she wasn’t alone. “It was almost like a weird game of chicken about who would go through with it first,” Monden said of her friends. “We were all feeling this way but trying to persevere.”

Georgia Tech set up emergency counseling sessions for students, but Monden said she was never contacted individually. “Nobody from Georgia Tech reached out,” said Bailey Becker, the friend Monden was hanging out with the night of the shooting. “That has been an ongoing theme.”

As media coverage of Scout’s death exploded, the Schultzes were troubled by a refrain they heard over and over. The Georgia Bureau of Investigation (GBI) had been tasked with investigating the shooting, and in a much quoted statement released on Sunday, September 17, the day after the incident, it described Scout as “armed with a knife.” The phrase echoed through local news broadcasts, and in a headline The Chicago Tribune described Scout as a “knife-wielding” student. The Schultzes knew Scout wasn’t violent—not the type of person to carry a knife, much less threaten anyone with it. The evidence was in their favor: The only weapon recovered from the scene was Scout’s multitool, and its blade wasn’t extended.  

By Monday afternoon, less than 48 hours after the shooting, Scout’s parents decided to defend their child publicly. Along with their lawyer, L. Chris Stewart, who’d helped represent the family of Walter Scott, the black man shot eight times in the back by a police officer in North Charleston, South Carolina, in 2015, the Schultzes held a press conference. They were in the midst of a divorce but put up a united front. Bill, a tall, heavyset man with stooped shoulders and long brown hair gathered into a ponytail, wore a gray suit, orange button-down shirt, and wire-rim glasses. Lynne, her eyes moist, wore her strawberry-blond hair draped over her shoulders and the straps of her floral sundress. She looked a lot like Scout.

Stewart dramatically unsheathed a large knife and held it up for the press to see. This, he explained, was not what had been in Scout’s possession. Stewart then displayed a multitool like the one Scout had been holding. Next he unveiled a blown-up photograph of the actual tool, taken by a member of the media who’d seen it lying on the pavement where Scout fell.

Then the Schultzes spoke. Bill described “all the people on campus who loved and respected and adored Scout.” His voice seething with dismay, he asked why the police hadn’t tried harder to deescalate the situation. “Whatever happened, it shouldn’t have ended in a death,” Bill said. When Lynne got to the microphone, she seemed to weigh each word in her mouth, as if afraid of letting one slip out too quickly. “Scout had a very promising future, or would have,” she said. “He—I mean Scout,” Lynne continued, correcting her pronoun usage, “stood up for what they believed in. This is a really big loss for a lot of people.”

She stopped speaking and cast her eyes downward, searching. After a pause she whispered, “I don’t know what else to say.”

The Vigil

People grieved, together and alone. One of Scout’s roommates couldn’t bear to stay in her campus apartment, where everything from the posters on the wall to an alarm clock on a table reminded her of Scout. She slept on a friend’s couch instead. On social media, Dallas Punja, Scout’s ex-partner, wrote, “no one gives a fuck about trans people but trans people,” and “s//cout didn’t approve of me drinking this much but ¯\_(ツ)_/¯ they’re dead! so!! who cares what they thought!!! they sure don’t think it anymore!!!!” Punja added, “#i can’t wait till I fucking pass out and stop having s/c/out thoughts.” A makeshift memorial appeared next to a tree on Eighth Street—pictures of Scout, a teddy bear wearing a Georgia Tech T-shirt, bouquets of flowers, cards with messages scrawled inside. “You’re a world changer,” one read. “Rest in Power.”

The PSA organized a campus vigil for Monday night, a few hours after the Schultzes’ press conference. The event was held at the Kessler Campanile, an outdoor amphitheater with a fountain featuring an 80-foot obelisk made of stacked steel discs. The event was supposed to be peaceful and respectful, but Matt Wolfsen, who cofounded the PSA with Scout, was nervous. He knew that Scout had friends in Atlanta’s anarchist and anti-fascist (antifa) circles, whose approach to resistance can be aggressive and who have lately become a nemesis of the political right. Wolfsen contacted some of them to request that, if they came to the vigil, they avoid violence. The people he spoke to assured him that they wouldn’t “be rowdy and rude to the people grieving,” Wolfsen later said, “but afterward, they could do whatever they wanted to do.” The police were worried, too. Public records obtained for this story show that the GTPD decided to send plainclothes officers to monitor the vigil and asked the Atlanta Police Department to have quick-reaction teams on standby.  

Who might be at the memorial wasn’t the only thing that was worrisome—so was what people knew about what had happened to Scout and how they were interpreting it. By Monday evening, several crucial pieces of information had become public. First was the fact that Scout hadn’t been wielding an exposed blade. Second, campus police carried guns and pepper spray but not Tasers, which the Schultzes’ lawyer described as “insane.” (Only 40 percent of campus police forces nationwide carry Tasers.) Third, Tyler Beck, the officer who’d killed Scout, hadn’t received training to navigate situations involving people in psychiatric crisis. Beck, who’d been on the force for 16 months and had gone on paid leave pending an investigation of the shooting, hadn’t completed the crisis-intervention training because it wasn’t mandatory.

People who believed Scout’s death was unjustified were infuriated and galvanized by what they saw as a perfect storm of institutional failures: Members of the GTPD were insufficiently trained and had used excessive force against a queer student suffering because of the campus’s deficient mental-health resources. Others in the Georgia Tech community felt like that reaction manipulated the facts to fit an agenda that demonized police and canonized minorities. “I fail to see a problem. They stopped a deranged lunatic from hurting people. That’s good work,” a commenter on r/gatech wrote. The bluntest view of all was that Scout was to blame for their own death, because what had happened was suicide by cop. “He approached police with a knife saying ‘shoot me,’” an r/gatech user wrote. “What part was undeserved?”

Frustration and accusations coursed through social media in the hours leading up to the vigil and spilled into the Kessler Campanile, where friends hung photos of Scout and distributed candles from plastic tubs. “Why did all of this happen? Why did Scout go down this route?” a student told the Associated Press as dusk settled over campus. “I’m angry,” another said, her voice tinged with disbelief. “I’m angry that the cops don’t have nonlethal ways to deal with things.” A third student said that watching the cell-phone video of Scout’s shooting, which had already been posted online, “induced a lot of panic in me.”  

“He approached police with a knife saying ‘shoot me.’ What part was undeserved?”

About 500 people attended, including Scout’s friends and the Schultzes. Aby Parsons, the director of Georgia Tech’s LGBTQ resource center, was one of the speakers. “Scout was frustrated with how apathetic the Georgia Tech community could be when it came to issues of social justice,” Parsons told the crowd. “They felt that I, as administrator, was trying to use the master’s tools to dismantle the master’s house, when they wanted to smash that house into pieces and build a new one.”

Her words seemed prophetically timed. As Parsons spoke, along the periphery of the vigil a group of protesters, many wearing bandanas over their faces and some armed with hammers and cans of paint and pepper spray, unfurled banners emblazoned with the anarchy symbol and slogans like “Defend LGBT+, End GTPD” and “End Police Violence → End Police.” Fliers circulated announcing, “There will be a march for those who wish to grieve and express their outrage in a collective capacity.” Officers on-site alerted their chief, who contacted the Atlanta police to tell them, according to a affidavit, that “there could be a destructive march occurring.”

Toward the end of the vigil, students lit their candles, turning the amphitheater into a twinkling semicircle. The melody of the Jackson 5’s “I’ll Be There” wafted through the air. Then there was silence, broken when a transgender student began shouting about the lack of mental-health care on campus. Other people joined her.

“Every single year I’ve known someone who has committed suicide,” one person said, according to the student newspaper.

“Why don’t GTPD carry Tasers?” another yelled.

“Why are they here at all?” someone answered.

Before long the yelling morphed into chants of “No justice, no peace, fuck the police” and “Cops, pigs, murderers.” That was when the Schultzes left. “We just weren’t in the mood to hear that stuff,” Lynne said. But many of Scout’s friends joined the chanting and, subsequently, the march. The PSA and Pride Alliance would later say that the demonstration was supposed to proceed to Scout’s memorial on Eighth Street. Instead, the crowd made its way from the campanile toward GTPD headquarters. Along the way they encountered police, but the protesters kept chanting, and some lit flares or beat on drums.

In a burst of adrenaline, Monden launched herself onto the hood of a police cruiser. She stood above the crowd in skinny jeans and a plaid shirt, listening to people scream in anger about Scout’s death. Her friends would later say that Monden caused no damage to the car—“it didn’t even have a scratch,” Kaffezakis told me—but the police claimed she jumped up and down on the hood and appeared to try to break the windshield by kicking it.

Two officers pulled Monden from the car down to the street. She wrestled free and took off running, moving so fast that she lost control of her limbs and fell flailing toward the pavement. The cops grabbed her, and Monden’s friends, including Punja, whose hair was dyed fluorescent pink, ran to her side. The police told people to stay back, and Punja retreated to the sidewalk. One of the cops put cuffs on Monden, who was belly down on the street, arms bent behind her back and a grimace on her face. Blood seeped from the officer’s scalp, through his short blond hair, and down his cheek. A protestor, another cop later stated in an affidavit, had hit the arresting officer in the head with a hammer.

“You murdered one of us!” shouted Kirby Jackson, the transgender activist. Jackson had transferred to GSU that fall for personal reasons but was in close touch with the Georgia Tech LGBTQ community that she’d helped nurture.

The cops led Monden to a cruiser. “Fuck you—you killed my best friend!” Monden screamed as she was placed in the back seat.

The police shut the door and drove her away. Nearby, another cop car was burning. Protesters had torched it, sending flames and smoke shooting into the night sky.

Monden was booked into the Fulton County Jail under her birth name, and charged with a felony for interfering with government property and a misdemeanor for inciting a riot. Later, after police reviewed video from the protest, Monden would be hit with additional misdemeanor charges.

“Yo, she has a cut on her side, she needs to go to the hospital,” Monden recalled the booking officer shouting to colleagues. Monden was bleeding from an injury to her torso, which she’d sustained when she tripped and fell at the protest. She took another ride in a cruiser to the same hospital where Scout had been declared dead. Police handcuffed her to a chair and a physician patched up the wound.

Once she was back at the jail, according to Monden, the intake officer took away her bra. “You’re a boy,” she remembered the cop saying. She was placed in handcuffs, then put in a holding area, where two male GBI agents arrived. It was the first time she’d spoken face-to-face with law enforcement about Scout’s death. After expressing what Monden described as “token sympathy” about Scout, the agents asked questions about her friend’s political affiliations. Monden felt like they were implying that Scout had been “some sort of terrorist.”

After the GBI agents left, Monden was ushered into another room, where she stood in front of a dull gray backdrop and stared straight ahead as a photographer snapped her mugshot. From there she went to a holding cell—alone at first, because the cops didn’t know whether to put her with male or female detainees. Eventually, a man joined her. He was one of two other people arrested at the protest.

Monden would spend two nights in jail, including a stint in a mental-health unit where, after being evaluated, she did her best to sleep as people screamed and banged on their cell windows and doors. When she finally appeared in court, looking weary in her navy blue jail garb, her bail was set at $20,000.

Headlines the morning after the protest described a peaceful vigil turned violent and a campus told to “shelter in place” for the second time in three days. Matt Wolfsen of the PSA posted a picture of the burned-out cop car on Facebook, writing underneath it, “Unacceptable. This isn’t the time to destroy. We must improve as a community out of love.” Many students liked the post, but Kirby Jackson commented, “Fuck you, Wolfsen.”

At a Waffle House near campus, some of Scout’s and Monden’s friends gathered around 1 a.m. to talk over greasy diner food. Wolfsen went, too, and tried to find common ground with the LGBTQ students. Where was the line between righteous anger and pointless violence? Who was allowed to draw it? Wolfsen was struck by the presence of Punja, whom he hadn’t met before that night. She seemed depleted, a shell of a person.

“Look what they’re doing to the trans community,” Wolfsen remembered Punja saying at one point. “Do I really want to live through this?”

“I’m not trans, so I don’t know what it’s like,” Wolfsen replied. “But this is rock bottom. It doesn’t get worse than the police just murdering someone in the street. Hold on—it will eventually get better.”

That night, Punja slept with a friend on either side of her. She didn’t want to be alone. For the next several days, she updated a Tumblr post titled “Since Scout I’ve Stayed At,” which contained a running list of bullet-pointed names.

At 11:30 a.m. Tuesday morning, Georgia Tech’s president, Bud Peterson, released his second statement since the shooting. Once again he didn’t mention the cause of Scout’s death, and he called for unity. Peterson blamed the scene at the police headquarters mostly on “outside agitators intent on disrupting” the vigil. “They certainly did not honor Scout’s memory nor represent our values,” Peterson insisted.

If he knew it, the president didn’t say that one of the people arrested was a Georgia Tech student, a friend of Scout’s and a witness to the shooting. (A statement issued later that afternoon identified Monden as a student.) Nor did he acknowledge that Scout, like many students, had social networks extending to other area colleges and groups. He invoked a phrase that, in the American South, is loaded with fraught meaning. Outside agitator harks back to the Civil Rights Movement, when critics used it to discredit Martin Luther King Jr.’s legitimacy as an organizer. King addressed the phrase in “Letter from Birmingham Jail,” penned in April 1963. “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly,” King wrote. “Never again can we afford to live with the narrow, provincial ‘outside agitator’ idea. Anyone who lives inside the United States can never be considered an outsider anywhere within its bounds.”

Monden’s friends were baffled. In their view, Peterson seemed more concerned about the protest than the shooting. Their confusion turned to outrage when signs of support for Georgia Tech’s police began popping up around campus.

The Backlash

The messages were scribbled in colorful chalk on sidewalks and in marker on posters taped up in dorm windows. We Support GTPD. We ♥ GTPD. We Are One GT. The last slogan seemed to summarize Peterson’s latest public statement.

The student president of the university’s Marksmanship Club started a GoFundMe page for “GTPD Office Recovery.” The fundraiser described Scout’s death as a “tragic suicide,” blamed the Monday riot on “the arrival of violent protestors, many of whom are not even currently attending Georgia Tech,” and asked people to give what money they could to support campus police. “GTPD has always been kind to students, treating us far more as equals than subjects; many of them are Georgia Tech graduates themselves,” the page read. “Now, it’s our turn to give back to them.” The page’s goal was $10,000, which it exceeded by several hundred dollars. The same day, a GoFundMe campaign started for the campus counseling and LGBTQ resource centers. It raised just $150 of its $5,000 goal.

A student named Courtney Allen created a Facebook event encouraging people to “Thank a GTPD Officer.” Allen wrote, “Take some time out of your busy class schedule and thank a GTPD officer. Thank every one you pass. Thank one that you look up to. Go to the department [and] thank all of them. Do something to show that the Georgia Tech student body still loves, cares, and supports our police officers.” In an interview, Allen told me she wanted to show that “students do still love our officers, like we would our family members after a horrible, life-changing event.” Not everyone felt the same way. “The GTPD murdered a troubled young person in cold blood, and you want to thank them?” one commenter wrote on Allen’s event page. “How dare you!”

Bailey Becker
Bailey Becker

Scout was gone, Monden was in jail, and “the first fucking response was, We should show our support for GTPD,” Bailey Becker told me, recalling the mood on campus after the protest. “It’s like, God fucking damn it. I know why you’re saying that, but that doesn’t make it any less basically sickening for me to see.”

Among those who responded positively to the outpouring was Tyler Beck, through his attorney. “He very much regrets the situation he was faced with, he and the other officers,” Don English, general counsel with the Southern States Police Benevolent Association, said of his client. “He is very appreciative of the support he has received from the Georgia Tech community, including most of the students.” Beck’s personnel profile, which was made public in the days after the shooting, contained no black marks. A month before Scout’s death, Beck had received a letter of commendation for “quick thinking” in stopping someone from stealing food from a dining hall by shutting them inside a freezer and calling for backup.

With regard to the shooting, English noted in his statement, “I’ve not talked to one law enforcement professional who would disagree that the use of force was justified in the situation that confronted these officers.” Critics, though, pointed to a case from 2010 that complicated the notion that Beck had no choice but to fire a lethal weapon. According to an Atlanta Journal-Constitution story, a Georgia Tech alum named Kshitij Shrotri attacked postdoctoral research fellow Samer Tawfik, with whom he had a personal dispute, on campus using a samurai sword. By the time the GTPD showed up, Tawfik was lying on the floor covered in blood, and Shrotri was standing above him clutching the sword and yelling, “You will have to kill me!” Police officers drew their guns, aimed them at Shtrotri, and pleaded for him to drop the weapon. Shrotri didn’t, so a cop pepper-sprayed him, subduing the armed threat. Tawfik spent time in the hospital but survived. Shrotri was charged with aggravated assault.

Some of Scout’s and Monden’s friends scrambled to append the chalked “We Support GTPD” messages with the words “…and the LGBT community.” One student told the local NPR affiliate that the pro-police sentiment “is just making it a lot harder to even be here.” He continued, “I did not think it would be so bad and that people would lack so much empathy, or only have sympathy for a burnt car.” Punja wrote on social media, “I’m so fucking sure this is just a nightmare but I haven’t woken up yet!!!!!!!!” and “my EX was SHOT and KILLED by COPS hahahaha What the Fuck.”

Even Matt Wolfsen, who’d initially criticized the protest, felt that the tide of public opinion was taking a worrying turn. Instead of talking about “students hurting” and the campus “needing real systematic change,” Wolfsen later said, he mostly heard complaints about “these crazy people setting fire to cop cars, just causing trouble.” Anxious to change the conversation, he gathered members of the PSA and drew up a list of demands for the Georgia Tech administration: better mental-health care, greater police accountability, improved services and accommodations for LGBTQ people. The PSA planned to deliver the demands to Peterson and hold demonstrations to publicize them.

Meanwhile, Kirby Jackson participated in an as-told-to article with Yahoo News several days after the shooting. “There were many more armed cops than there were Scouts,” Jackson said. “I’m incredibly surprised that the cops couldn’t have wrestled Scout to the ground or found some non-lethal way of ending that situation.” Jackson also criticized the counseling options on campus, which she’d personally found lacking, and defended the protest. “The vigil was very nice—it was a candlelight thing, a very moving, symbolic gesture. It was something Scout would’ve hated, as Scout was much more the type for action,” Jackson said. “It turned into a march over to GTPD headquarters, and it was tense—there’s a lot of anger about how they treated Scout, plus anger at police in general across the country.”

Privately, Jackson worried about Monden’s arrest. How was she handling it? As a black trans woman, was she safe in a penal system not exactly known for protecting vulnerable minorities? (About 20 percent of trans people who’ve interacted with police have been harassed; the rate is 61 percent among black trans people.) “That’s classic Kirby—to worry about other people more than Kirby,” her mother, Angela Amar, told me. When she was little, Jackson would drop pennies on the ground just so other people could pick them up and have good luck.

Monden was released from jail on Thursday, September 21. After consulting with her family, she decided to spend a few days in a mental-health facility. She described the experience as a “whole lot of extremely limited freedoms and awful regimented meals—and cookies, really awful cookies. They were like Lorna Doones. Also, lots of visible crying and fights.”

When she was little, Kirby Jackson would drop pennies on the ground just so other people could pick them up and have good luck.

Just before she entered the facility, Monden had received an email from Georgia Tech announcing that she was being considered for suspension “because of the existence of significant risk to the health and safety of the Institute community.” If she wished to “be heard on whether [her] presence on campus poses a danger,” she had less than 24 hours to contact the relevant campus authorities and set up an appointment. Occupied with the distress she was experiencing, Monden didn’t reply.

A few days later, Monden was released from the mental-health facility. According to school records, the university established through its IT department that the e-mail notifying Monden of the pending suspension had been opened, but that she had not requested an appeal. In a message on September 26, she was officially suspended from school. Monden was banned from campus, pending a hearing before Georgia Tech’s Office of Student Integrity.

Around the time Monden left jail, the GTPD posted on Instagram that it was still actively investigating the protest “in coordination with local, state, and federal law enforcement.” The department asked “anyone who has footage of the march, riot, or events directly preceding or following the violence to upload your video” and provided a link to Leedir, an “eyewitness platform” used by law enforcement in emergencies.

Soon after, the arrests began.

At GSU, police identified a black student who’d been near Monden when she was detained. According to court records, the student was charged with misdemeanors for inciting a riot, willful obstruction of law-enforcement officers, and wearing a mask, hood, or other device that concealed his face. The affidavit for the arrest noted that the student was “known to this Department by him being arrested at other protest”—a reference, seemingly, to a previous demonstration against the Georgia Board of Regents, the governing body of the state’s public universities, for its policies toward undocumented students.

In another instance, according to an arrest report, police at GSU, based on information shared by their GTPD counterparts, entered a classroom, escorted a student who was friends with Scout into a hallway, and asked if she had any weapons. She said no and was patted down, handcuffed, and taken to police headquarters, where she was charged with willful obstruction of law enforcement and inciting a riot. Rumors also circulated that students who weren’t accused of crimes but who had attended the vigil were being pulled out of class and questioned; in a statement for this story, GSU said that never happened.

By early October, a half-dozen people had been arrested. Among them was Kirby Jackson. A police officer called Jackson’s home one day to inform her that a warrant had been issued. Unnerved that other students had been pulled from classrooms and anxious to avoid a similar scene, Jackson turned herself in. She was charged with willful obstruction of law enforcement.

The arrests flew under the public radar. Many professors and students weren’t aware that they were happening, and few media outlets covered them. Page Pate, a local trial lawyer, told a radio reporter that the police’s methods were unusual. “There’s no ongoing crime,” Pate explained. He saw the arrests as sending a message “that you better be careful when you show up and protest at the school or about something that the school has done.” Through a spokesperson, Georgia Tech responded, “No one is being targeted because they protested.”  

Donald Downs, professor emeritus of political science at the University of Wisconsin and author of several books on free speech, told me, “I’ve read a lot of stuff on campus upheaval, but I have not run across any situations where there were arrests made inside classrooms and students questioned like that.” GTPD’s approach risked creating a “chilling effect on free speech,” said Clay Calvert, director of the Marion B. Brechner First Amendment Project at the University of Florida. “Students are less likely to [protest] if they know they are going to be yanked out of the classroom, embarrassed in front of their classmates.”

The site of Scout Schultz’s shooting. 

No one was more nervous about the arrests than Punja. She knew that her pink hair made her easily identifiable in protest footage. She grew anxious when she heard police sirens or saw flashing lights. “I’m not strong enough to go to jail,” Kaffezakis recalled Punja telling her. “I’m afraid of how my family is going to react.” Kaffezakis tried to reassure her friend that “this is not the end of the world.” Punja talked to Monden about killing herself but said she wouldn’t do it if Monden didn’t either—a suicide pact in reverse.

On Saturday, September 30, there was a home football game, a big social event on Georgia Tech’s campus. The team was playing the University of North Carolina, and like thousands of other students, Kaffezakis went to the stadium to watch. She was in the packed stands, checking her phone, when a friend told her to check out a worrying post on Punja’s Tumblr. Punja said she was at a gun show where “a guy asked me if i was here to attend or protest.” She added that the gun show “should really b stricter with the background checks; i’ve been involuntarily hospitalized like 3 times lmfao.”

Kaffezakis immediately dialed Punja’s phone number. A man answered and identified himself as a detective. “What’s going on? Why are you answering?” Kaffezakis asked, pushing through the stadium crowd so she could hear the detective clearly. He said that Kaffezakis would have to talk to Punja’s mother; then he hung up.

It took some time to get Punja’s mom on the phone. After being contacted by authorities, she’d sped to Johns Creek, a small city northeast of Atlanta where, after the gun show, Punja had driven, too. Punja had parked on the side of a road and, with a weapon purchased at the show, shot and killed herself. Law enforcement had spotted her car and identified Punja with ID recovered inside.

A memorial was organized off campus at Kweer Haus, a facility offering short-term housing for homeless LGBTQ people in Atlanta. The theme was pink, Punja’s favorite color. Pink candles and flower petals surrounded a framed picture of the deceased. Pink and silver balloons filled the room. At the end of the vigil, mourners went outside and released them. The orbs drifted above the trees of downtown Atlanta, catching the glow of streetlights. Eventually, they slipped from sight.

The Strain

Before Punja’s suicide, the PSA had released a statement announcing that, if the Georgia Tech president’s office didn’t agree to implement the group’s demands, its members would march to his office and “engage in peaceful and non-violent demonstration, including but not limited to a ‘die-in.’” Students en masse would lay down on the ground “to represent the deaths that will result from a lack of mental health care.” The PSA’s demands included more funding for treatment, mandatory police training in crisis intervention, more gender-neutral bathrooms and gender-inclusive housing on campus, the reinstatement of the Pride Alliance’s office space, and the relocation of the LGBTQ resource center. For a little more than a year, it had been in a renovated storage room, with just enough space for the director’s desk and chair, as well as a couch.

The university didn’t publicly acknowledge the PSA’s statement, but two days later, Peterson made one of his own. In response to Scout’s death, Georgia Tech would be creating four “action teams” tasked with evaluating mental-health services, campus culture, LGBTQ issues, and public safety. They would make recommendations for change no later than November 1, 2017.

READ about Peterson’s action teams.

Behind the scenes, the administration was taking action of a different sort. When it was notified in advance of a planned demonstration at the campus’s student center, where professors and undergraduates would discuss the impact of Scout’s shooting, Peterson alerted the FBI and GBI, as well as state and city police. “After what happened Monday night,” Peterson later said in a meeting, indicating Scout’s vigil, “we didn’t know if we were going to have Charlotte or if we were going to have something that turned out to be a non-event.” He was referring to the widespread protests in North Carolina that had occurred in 2016, after police shot and killed a black man named Keith Lamont Scott. The governor of North Carolina had declared a state of emergency and deployed the state’s National Guard.

About 75 people gathered for the student-center protest on a Friday afternoon, and they were peaceful. They discussed feeling “fear, pain, frustration, deep sadness, [and] disappointment” since Scout’s death, according to a reporter who attended. Around 3 p.m., the demonstrators were alerted that the building was locking up early that day. It wasn’t a planned closure; the administration, it appeared, wanted them to leave the center.

Outside, a police helicopter hovered in the sky. This “is the kind of culture of fear that we’re talking about,” Anne Pollock, a participating professor, told a reporter. “They were very worried that antifa would take over our event or something like that.” Bailey Becker, who attended the gathering, told me that participants were afraid of getting arrested or worse. “All of us went to that protest with this fear,” Becker said. “Is this going to get someone else hurt? Is this benign action going to bring fire on somebody for doing something that they should be allowed to do without question?”

Georgia Tech officials acknowledged the protest in a statement but didn’t mention the decision to shut down the student center. “Since Monday’s activities,” the statement read, referring to the riot, “we’ve had an increased level of security on campus.”

A few days later, Matt Wolfsen was invited to a meeting with Peterson and two state legislators. By then the student government had pledged $500,000 to mental-health services, which the president’s office promised to match. The funds would be dispersed on a proposal-by-proposal basis. Peterson announced a separate $1 million endowment, established through the nonprofit Georgia Tech Foundation, for campus wellness and police training. Peterson also said that he was temporarily lifting the 16-session limit on counseling appointments. Some students pointed out that this wouldn’t address the fact that it often took weeks to secure a session—in fact, it risked making the backlog worse—or that people referred to the counseling center as suicidal often wound up at the Ridgeview Institute, a private psychiatric hospital, where expenses could balloon to nearly $1,000 a day.

Wolfsen had hoped to hear Peterson’s broader plans for improving health services, among other things on campus, when he met with the president and the two legislators at the Paul D. Coverdell Legislative Office Building, a white stone structure in downtown Atlanta. There, Wolfsen and another PSA student sat at a conference table across from representative Park Cannon, a queer black woman and the youngest Democrat in the state assembly. Mable Thomas, who’d served in the legislature on and off since the 1980s, sat at one end, Peterson at the other. The Georgia Tech president was the room’s center of gravity. Tall and patrician, with gray hair combed carefully to one side, Peterson is an engineer by training and the state’s highest-compensated public-college administrator.

The mood was tense. In a recording of the meeting obtained from one of the participants, Peterson responded to legislators’ concern about police preparedness for dealing with students in crisis; just 18 of the 85 officers on the campus force had received the appropriate training. Peterson also apologized for using the term “outside agitators” in his statement after the riot. “That carries a special connotation in the South, and I’ve been cautioned and apologize for the use,” he said. (Peterson, who hails from Kansas but has worked in the South for many years, has not publicly apologized for the usage.)

Just 18 of the 85 police officers on the campus force had received crisis-intervention training.

Cannon and Thomas peppered him with questions about the case against Monden and a perceived lack of sympathy shown by the university toward Scout’s family and friends. “There was almost [an effort] to marginalize it,” Thomas said of the shooting, “like, ‘Oh, [Scout] wanted to die.” She also remarked on how young Scout and the protesters were; most of them were under 25 and “immature as can be.” Her description echoed the only critical feedback in Tyler Beck’s police personnel file: “He is young and is still learning laws, policies, and criminal procedures.”

At one point, the legislators brought up the PSA’s proposed die-in. Wolfsen piped up, speaking to Peterson directly and thanking him for the steps, such as the action teams, that Georgia Tech was taking to address students’ concerns. “That’s been changed,” Wolfsen said of the die-in. “We hear you, and we’re very much appreciative of the efforts you’ve put forward. Going forward we want to make sure that this does result in long-term change. We are not going to be as aggressive anymore.”

Peterson responded, “Have you informed these representatives of your involvement and engagement with the people from off campus on the event Monday night? Have you disclosed that to them?”

Wolfsen was caught off guard. After the riot, he’d reached out to administrators to tell them that he’d personally asked anarchist and antifa factions to be nonviolent and was disappointed that they hadn’t obliged. Now, though, it seemed as if Peterson was suggesting that Wolfsen was trying to hide his contact with nonstudent protesters.

“Did you communicate with them before the event on Monday night?” Peterson demanded.

“Yes,” Wolfsen said. “I talked with them because I wanted them to be very clear about what they were doing.… It fell through, unfortunately. “

“Did you inform our public safety or anybody in the administration or staff at Georgia Tech that you were in communication with people off campus that were potentially violent?” Peterson asked.

The other PSA student jumped in. “It wasn’t that they said that they were going to do something violent,” she said. “It was that we asked them not to.”

“It would have been enormously helpful if we had been made aware,” Peterson said.

When the meeting ended, Wolfsen felt a nagging fear. What if the university thought he’d conspired to start the riot? Wolfsen contacted a lawyer and submitted a request under the federal Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act (FERPA) for his student records.

On October 8, family and friends gathered in Tucker, Georgia, close to the Schultzes’ home in Lilburn, for Scout’s memorial. A picture of Scout protesting House Bill 51, waving a pride flag while walking down an Atlanta street, was set next to a podium and an array of vibrantly colored flowers. In lieu of gifts to the family, the Schultzes asked that people donate to two organizations benefiting LGBTQ youth: the Trevor Project, a national suicide hotline, and a thrift store in Atlanta that supported affordable housing. That Punja, the kindhearted kid who’d given her a plastic bouquet, was also dead made Lynne Schultz feel like she had to do more. She was too upset to deliver a speech, so she distributed fliers on which she’d printed information about resources for suicide prevention.

“We are joyful, angry, celebrating, and mournful. We’re proud and upset, disheartened but resolved,” the chaplain leading the service intoned. “Would the status and lives of secular, freethinking students, at Georgia Tech and elsewhere, be better served if Scout Schultz had lived to continue to work for that?… Yes. How much? We’ll never know.”

In a photograph from the service, Kirby Jackson, fresh off her arrest and awaiting a legal hearing, stands in front of a floral-patterned chair. Her arms hang at her sides, and her hands are clasped at her waist. Like Monden, who was also at the service, Jackson had been banned from the Georgia Tech campus, where she’d continued to spend a great deal of time since transferring to Georgia State and where many of her closest friends still attended classes. “Basically, she was cut off from her support network,” Kaffezakis told me.

Jackson stares directly into the camera, her gaze blank.

The Break

By mid-October, the media had mostly stopped covering the aftermath of Scout’s shooting. Without more rioting, there wasn’t obvious drama to focus on. The charges against Monden, Jackson, and the other people arrested would likely take months to work their way through the legal system. According to Georgia Tech policy, regardless of the charges against her, the university had 30 days after issuing her suspension notice to determine whether or not Monden could come back to school. Days turned into weeks. Thirty days passed. There hadn’t been a hearing, and Monden was still banned from campus. Before long, it was so late in the fall semester that there was no chance she could enroll for the spring. Monden would miss a full year of school. She moved in with her mom, who lived about nine miles from campus, and started working as a barista at a coffee shop.

Meanwhile, in early November, right on schedule, three of Peterson’s action teams submitted their recommendations. The ideas included increased money for counseling, new initiatives to diminish students’ stress, and the hiring of counselors with “extensive training in related areas such as gender and LGBTQIA studies.” But the fourth action group, focused on public safety, hadn’t yet convened because the investigation of the shooting hadn’t concluded. There was no timeline available for when that would happen.

Before Thanksgiving break, Matt Wolfsen got the result of his FERPA request. He was stunned to discover two binders thick with documentation; a third one arrived a few months later. Inside the binders was evidence that the university was tracking his movements. “Wolfsen travelled with a small contingent of students to Washington DC on July 31 to speak with Senator Kirsten Gillibrand [and] Congresswoman Maxine Waters’ staff regarding HB 51,” Steven Norris, the school’s assistant director of social media, wrote in an email to Georgia Tech’s office of communications. “Wolfsen is a registered member of the Democratic Socialists of America Group and is attending their national convention in August as an elected representative from Atlanta.” The administration also had eyes on Wolfsen’s social media, describing him as “one of the moderators of the FB group ‘Students Against House Bill 51.’”

On September 23, a week after Scout’s death, Norris had sent an email with the subject line “Weekend Monitoring.” He’d taken screen grabs of the PSA’s Twitter account, including a picture of a poster on campus reading “We demand the increase of current funding allocated to mental health on campus” and a tweet from Wolfsen describing the PSA’s demands of Peterson. The tweet, Norris wrote, “had received a fair amount of engagement this afternoon.” He added, “Thankfully many more mentions of football game and GT win have dominated conversation streams.”

The practice of colleges monitoring students’ social media is becoming more common. Some universities even pay private firms or purchase special technology to keep an eye on enrollees’ digital lives. Schools say that this tracking is necessary for campus safety and point to examples like a 2014 case in which a University of Georgia student was arrested after posting on the app Yik Yak that he was going to shoot up a building with an AK-47. Critics worry that targeted, sustained monitoring of certain students—those engaged in activism, for instance—could discourage free speech. “A reasonable person might say, instead of risking trouble, I’m going to shut up,” said Adam B. Steinbaugh, director of the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education.

The practice of colleges monitoring students’ social media is becoming more common. Some universities even pay private firms or purchase special technology to keep an eye on enrollees’ digital lives.

In Wolfsen’s case, after he put some of his FERPA records online, Georgia Tech released a statement saying that it had “noticed” his posts because they either tagged or mentioned the university. The administration also pointed out that “he was never reprimanded or disciplined for anything he posted.” Still, the revelation about monitoring set some students, including Scout’s friends, on edge. They wondered if they were being watched and if they should leave Georgia Tech. “They can’t fire students,” Bailey Becker told me, “but they sure as hell can drive us off campus.”

There was a sense among Scout’s friends that if they could just get to the end of the semester, the situation might improve. They could take a break, go home, be with their families, grieve, recharge. In the spring, they’d have more energy and more distance from the shock of losing Scout and Punja.

Jackson, though, was struggling. Her mother, a self-described “eternal optimist,” reassured Jackson that she would get through this crisis. They would contest the legal charges against her and life would go on. “It was going to be rocky, but we were going to make it,” Angela Amar told me.

Jackson turned 24 on November 26. She went to New Orleans with family and friends to celebrate. At a birthday lunch, in keeping with her den-mother reputation, she told a younger female cousin who was getting bullied at school to call her anytime she needed to talk. Soon after, Jackson traveled back to Atlanta for final exams at GSU. She didn’t complete them: On December 6, Jackson shot and killed herself in her bedroom, located on the basement level of her mother’s house. She didn’t leave a note. Her obituary described her as “a gentle and sensitive spirit” and “a champion for the voiceless.” Jackson’s mother realized that the legal authorities weren’t aware of her daughter’s death when, well after the fact, a summons arrived in the mail ordering Jackson to appear in court regarding the charges brought against her following Scout’s vigil.

The day after her suicide, about a half-dozen of Jackson’s friends met at an off-campus apartment. One of them had invited a therapist to talk to the somber group. They shouldn’t blame themselves, the therapist told the young people who’d gathered, and they shouldn’t be afraid to ask for help and to look out for each other. But they’d been doing that already, the students thought, and all they had to show for it were three dead friends.

Monden became obsessed with a photograph posted on Facebook a few months prior. Taken at night under bright streetlights, the image shows a smiling Scout, hair draped over a white tank top and one arm wrapped around Punja, who’s wearing a black jacket and thick-framed glasses. Monden is on the other side of Punja, leaning into her, with bulky headphones slung around her neck. After Jackson’s death, Monden kept looking at the photo, thinking about how she was the only one in the picture still alive. Maybe it was her turn.

It should have been me, Monden thought, not Kirby.

The Pursuit

I started teaching at Georgia Tech in January 2018, after the winter break. As a new arrival on campus, I wasn’t aware of a lot of what had transpired in the fall. I didn’t know, for instance, that Monden was still awaiting word on whether she’d ever be allowed to return to campus. On February 6, one of my students, who is nonbinary, asked me before class if they could make an announcement. It was about a vigil happening at 5:30 that afternoon. I obliged, and the student stood before their classmates to share the CliffsNotes version of Monden’s story, which her friends hoped would conclude after an upcoming hearing before the Office of Student Integrity. The student had fliers, which were placed on a table at the front of the room for anyone who was interested. On one side were the pertinent details about the vigil—time, place, and so on. On the other was an impassioned message:

OSI and GT administration has violated the following rights:

Right to an expedited trial

Right to clear and timely communication

Right to the least restrictive punishment

Right to innocence until proven guilty

Will you be the next target?

Out of curiosity, I attended the vigil. It took place near the Ovation Statue, lovingly referred to by students as the Ice Cream Statue because it looks like a swirl of soft serve. About 30 people were there, including several LGBTQ students. Someone offered me a sign to hold that said “Black Trans Lives Matter.” Was Cat black? I wondered, immediately regretting that I didn’t know the answer to a basic question about a student intimately tied to a campus tragedy. I was struck by how committed the gathered students were to Monden’s case. By contrast, the wider campus seemed to have moved on from Scout’s shooting and the subsequent unrest, just over five months after it had transpired. I wanted to understand why this empathy gap existed.

I interviewed students, submitted records requests, and read all the news and social-media coverage of the shooting that I could find. I talked to family and friends about Scout and Punja and Jackson, learning who they were in life and what their deaths had meant to the people who knew them best. I tracked updates from Peterson’s action teams, including a proposal to establish a new and improved LGBTQ resource center, which would open in the fall of 2018. Students told me that, on some issues, they’d pushed the university to follow through. Based on an action-team recommendation, for instance, buildings were  supposed to have gender-neutral bathrooms available, but the process of installing signs designating the facilities had been slow. At least one student contacted the director of residential life for help; the director put in a work order, and within two weeks more signs had gone up.

One student-led initiative involved digging directly into the wounds left by Scout’s killing. Kaffezakis, with the help of the LGBTQ resource center, contacted the GTPD and offered to train officers on trans awareness and inclusion. The police accepted, and Kaffezakis convinced several of her trans friends, including her partner, to go to GTPD headquarters for six sessions. “For a lot of people there, it was super uncomfortable,” Kaffezakis said, “but there was sort of an acknowledgement that it was something that we had to do.”

For the first 90 minutes of training, Aby Parsons of the LGBTQ resource center discoursed on terminology and bias to about a dozen officers. At one point, Parsons handed officers a series of printed words affixed with Velcro and asked them to stick the items on a board in one of two columns. The words included slurs used against trans people and acronyms like MTF (male to female); the columns were labeled “green light” (acceptable) and “red light” (unacceptable).

Naiki Kaffezakis
Naiki Kaffezakis

The last half-hour was more unscripted. Kaffezakis and the other trans students stood in front of the room to answer questions. “How can we make trans students feel safe?” one officer asked. “Why do we need to use gender-neutral pronouns?” another wondered. “There were a lot of heartwarming parts,” Kaffezakis recalled, and officers who were “very clearly engaged.”

But some seemed unfocused, even annoyed. At one point, a cop asked, “Why do y’all not trust us?”

The obvious response was Scout’s killing, but Kaffezakis decided to go further than that. It wasn’t the GTPD specifically that trans students didn’t trust, she said, it was law enforcement everywhere. She detailed survey research done by the Solutions Not Punishment Collaborative, an Atlanta-based black transgender and queer organization, which in 2016 found that after calling the police for help, more than a third of the trans women of color interviewed wound up being arrested. Eighty percent of respondents had been stopped by police, and about half of those stopped had been questioned on suspicion of prostitution. “Everything that happened with Scout’s shooting,” Kaffezakis concluded, “centered GTPD within that perspective and those expectations.”

When she finished talking, the room was quiet. She hoped it was a signal of sympathy.

In December 2017, according to public records, the GBI handed the findings from its investigation of Scout’s shooting over to the Atlanta district attorney’s office for review. The Schultzes said that they’d been told it could be two years before they know who, if anyone, would be held accountable for their child’s death. Among the items in the DA’s possession are Scout’s suicide notes. The Schultzes said that they haven’t had a chance to read them and won’t be able to until the DA is done with them. The DA declined to comment for this story, citing its policy of not talking about ongoing investigations.

I was eager to talk to university officials to get their perspective on the case, the protests and arrests, and the changes proposed on campus. As any academic knows, committees and recommendations don’t necessarily translate into action; too often, semesters pass with little more than updates on measures that have been forthcoming for what feels like years. I reached out to several decision-makers, including Peterson and the GTPD chief, and was told by each person or their assistant to contact Lance Wallace in communications. Aby Parsons at the LGBTQ resource center didn’t reply to my inquiries. Even the counseling center, which I’d visited hoping to talk to someone about the general topic of mental health on campus, wouldn’t comment. While I waited to be told no, I spotted a bowl of rubber yellow bracelets with #JacketsEndingSuicide printed on them in white lettering and pamphlets about “surviving after suicide loss.”

“I’ve looked at the website she’s writing for. She’s trying to tell as dramatic a story as possible, the facts be damned.”

I contacted Lance Wallace but didn’t hear back, so I decided to drop by his office. The communications building is situated next to Bobby Dodd Stadium, where Georgia Tech’s football team plays its home games; a large picture window in the entryway offers a sweeping view of the pristine green field. I climbed the stairs to Wallace’s office, where the door was ajar. “I’ve looked at the website she’s writing for,” I heard a voice say. “She’s trying to tell as dramatic a story as possible, the facts be damned.”

It took me a moment to realize that Wallace was on the phone and that he was probably talking about me. I waited a few seconds, then knocked. “One minute,” he called out. Wallace ended his call with “Bye, chief.”

When he emerged from his office, he looked and acted the part of a PR professional: polite, charming, and sharply dressed in a suit and tie. He couldn’t answer any questions, Wallace said, because there were still legal matters in process. His office, though, could get me a statement. When I conveyed that I wanted as much information as possible in order to write a balanced story, he smiled. “Absolutely, and it makes perfect sense,” Wallace said. “It’s not that we’re just kicking you to the curb and saying, No, don’t talk to her.”

A few days later, Wallace’s office sent me his statement on Scout’s shooting. “While the case remains under review by appropriate state agencies, Georgia Tech is not in a position to grant interviews on the case,” it read, “and no Georgia Tech employees will do interviews on the topic.”

It’s easy to dismiss what a university does or doesn’t say about its business—to say nothing of attempts to get answers out of them—as unworthy of coverage in the face of bigger, more sensational news stories. Yet how universities act matters, because they’re entrusted with the care of young people and with shaping their worldviews. Public institutions like Georgia Tech and GSU are also accountable to taxpayers.

More urgently, campuses have become microcosms of America’s divided political culture. They’re battlegrounds for disputes over free speech, personal identity, policing, and other pressing social issues. Fringe political groups and actors, some of them affiliated with the far right, stir up controversy and court potential members at colleges and universities, while so-called watchdog organizations like the conservative group Campus Reform scour the web for trolling fodder. A July 2018 Campus Reform article, for example, mocked the University of Wisconsin, Madison, for allowing a student to submit a bias incident report in 2016 for “being forced to choose male or female when completing forms/paperwork.”

Higher education is also on the front lines of a volatile debate over civil disobedience in the face of perceived injustice, waged in earnest since President Donald Trump’s election and amid increased scrutiny of America’s enduring legacy of white supremacy. In August 2018, as the fall semester began at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, protestors tore down a longstanding Confederate monument, eliciting praise from liberal circles and condemnation from many conservative ones. Ultimately, the state’s highest education authorities came down on the side of the right. The chair and president of the UNC system released a joint statement describing the statue’s dismantling as “unacceptable, dangerous, and incomprehensible. We are a nation of laws—and mob rule and the intentional destruction of public property will not be tolerated.” The statement did not mention the statue’s history, including stymied efforts to have it legally removed and a dedication speech in 1913 at which a Confederate veteran praised his fellow men in gray for defending the “welfare of the Anglo Saxon race” and bragged about how he once “horse-whip[ped] a Negro wench” about 100 yards from where the statue stood. As with Georgia Tech’s comments about Scout’s shooting, context was everything—and it was lacking.

Meanwhile, the Georgia legislature, following a model set by several other states and championed in conservative circles, passed a law in the spring of 2018, ostensibly intended to protect First Amendment freedoms on campuses by mandating that public institutions enact “content-neutral” policies regarding speeches, demonstrations, and other “expressive activities.” Yet the law also requires that schools sanction students who “disrupt or interfere with the functioning of the institution or classroom instruction.” In other words, students who protest campus events or school business—who, say, heckle a speaker they find offensive or stage a die-in at the president’s office—now run the risk of being punished.

The Georgia Tech administration was eager for campus life to return to normal after Scout’s death. For some students, however, normal was the problem. Scout’s friends wanted their pain to matter. “Bud Peterson and Georgia Tech are failing the students,” a third-year biomedical-engineering major said on a local news broadcast shortly after the shooting. “The thing is, if we return to the status quo, more people are going to keep hurting. People are hurting right now at Georgia Tech.”

I thought of those people when, through an open-records request, I received documents from Georgia’s Peace Officer Standards and Training Council. I wanted to know Tyler Beck’s status, since little had been heard from or about him since immediately after the shooting; I’d reached out to Beck but never heard back. The documents gave me some answers: As of July 2018, Beck was “actively employed in law enforcement” at GTPD. Since shooting Scout, he’d completed 126 hours of training, including crisis intervention. Meanwhile, the campus-safety action team still hadn’t convened; the website for Peterson’s office said that information about the group was “coming soon.”

In July, the GTPD hosted a going-away party for its interim deputy chief. In a photo from the on-campus event, posted to the department’s Facebook page, a man who appears to be Beck leans against a doorframe, a close-lipped smile above his square jaw. He wears a badge, a polo shirt and khakis, and what looks like a firearm strapped to his belt.  

The Hereafter

Beck isn’t the only person at the scene of Scout’s death who has since returned to Georgia Tech. In the middle of the spring 2018 semester, the OSI decided to revoke Monden’s suspension. It was too late to register for spring classes, but she could come back for the summer term.

As Atlanta slipped into months of ceaseless mugginess, Monden re-enrolled in classes in literature and communications. Georgia Tech is relatively quiet in the summer, but Monden never felt alone. For the first few days of classes, she told me, police officers followed her around. Eventually, she stopped noticing them, or maybe they stopped tracking her. Still, she occasionally spotted students giving her suspicious looks. When she introduced herself in conversations, people sometimes replied incredulously, “Are you that Cat?”

She kept a low profile and focused on the present, perhaps because what would come after the summer wasn’t entirely up to her. Monden wanted to graduate and become a video-game designer, but her charges were still pending; if convicted, she could face a maximum sentence of up to five years in prison. Prisons are notoriously dangerous places for trans people, who endure a disproportionate risk of sexual violence behind bars, and the Trump administration recently rolled back a federal policy mandating that inmates be housed according to their gender identity and not their biological sex. In my conversations with her, Monden seemed averse to talking about the possibility of spending time locked up.

On the morning of August 13, a week before the start of Georgia Tech’s fall semester, Monden appeared in courtroom 4A of the Superior Court of Fulton County. She wore a striped shirt and black dress pants, and her hair was fashioned into short dreads. Family and friends were present, including several LGBTQ students. One of them kept an arm tightly wrapped around Monden’s shoulders as the group waited for the hearing to begin.

Monden was appearing with the two other people arrested at the march following Scout’s vigil. Monden’s codefendants pleaded guilty and received five years’ probation, as well as a fine. “If you interfere with a cop, you’re going to get beat up,” Judge Henry Newkirk told the newly convicted criminals, both of whom were white men. “If you hit me, and I’m a cop, I better have two other cops to help me whip you.”

Monden’s lawyer, meanwhile, took a different approach. After noting Monden’s return to Georgia Tech over the summer, he successfully negotiated for pretrial intervention, which meant that after completing certain court-appointed activities—the specifics of which weren’t logged in the public record and which Monden didn’t want to discuss—his client could petition for the court to reject her case entirely. It wasn’t an outright acquittal or dismissal, but if she obeyed the terms of the deal, Monden would at least avoid a felony conviction.

As for the context in which the events before the court took place, Newkirk acknowledged that “it’s a very unfortunate incident whenever someone is killed, especially by the police.” However, he added that there are “good shots” and bad. “From what I can see, the ones that aren’t [good] usually get indicted,” the judge said.

Friends of Scout’s walking near the Georgia Tech campus.

That her day in court was anti-climactic was in keeping with how life had come to feel for Monden in the months after Scout’s death. At first, she told me, she was angry—so much so that everything she experienced became a blur. But then she grew weary. Even with the threat of jail gone, she didn’t feel much like being an activist anymore. “A lot of people around me are trying to make the best of things,” Monden said. “I’m trying to get through life.”

For the queer community at Georgia Tech, the new school year is full of uncertainty. The revamped LGBTQ resource center proposed by one of Peterson’s action teams opened the first week of classes, a reminder that, in Bailey Becker’s words, “We’re here and fucking vibrant.” At the same time, Becker told me that the Pride Alliance is timid, always wondering when planning activities what Georgia Tech’s administration will think and weighing whether “we can get in trouble for this, because it’s political and we’re political.” The group, Becker added, can sometimes feel like a place “where activism goes to die.” Some of Becker’s LGBTQ friends have considered transferring from Georgia Tech but have stopped short because they “want something from the school that’s not lasting trauma.”

The mood is a far cry from where the Pride Alliance was one year ago. On a sunny summer day in 2017, Scout sat behind a folding table on the Tech Green, the heart of campus. They wore a floral T-shirt and sucked on a lollipop, pulled from a glass jar that passersby were encouraged to rummage through for their favorite flavors. If they didn’t want a lollipop, Starbursts were available, too.

The table was draped with a rainbow flag and offered pamphlets about LGBTQ pride. This was recruitment for the Pride Alliance, and Scout was the group’s ambassador. “Always fun to greet the incoming first-years and get a glance at the folks who make up the future of the organization,” they later wrote on Facebook, capping the message with a smiley-face emoji.

In a picture taken at the event, Scout appears confident. They’d donned a rainbow-colored Dr. Seuss hat, which had flopped to one side. Another student was wearing a trans-pride flag around their shoulders like a cape, and Scout had decided to add a cape to their own ensemble—the rainbow one from the table. They looked like a queer superhero.

If you or anyone you know is struggling with suicidal thoughts, call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255 or visit

To young LGBTQ readers, the Trevor Project is a 24/7 resource for crisis support. Call 1-866-488-7386 or visit