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.

One

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.

Two

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.

Three

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.

Four

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?

Five

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.

Six

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. 

Seven

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.

Eight

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.

Nine

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 Ancestry.com 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.

Ten

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.


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Lost in Summerland

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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.”

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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.

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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.”

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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.

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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.

Commonwealth v. Mohamed

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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.

1.

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.

2.

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.

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3.

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.

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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—”

“Yes.”

“—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.

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4.

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?”

“Yes.”

“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.

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“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?

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5.

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.

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6.

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 Old and the Restless

The Old and the Restless

An indecent proposal, a crime of passion, and legends of murder in an enclave of bohemian retirees.

By Chris Walker

The Atavist Magazine, No. 75


Chris Walker is a former staff writer at Denver alt-weekly Westword. Prior to living in Colorado, he spent two years bicycling across Eurasia, during which he wrote feature stories for NPR, ForbesThe Atlantic, and Vice. His website is chrisallanwalker.com


Editor: Seyward Darby
Designer: Jefferson Rabb
Copy Editor: Sean Cooper
Fact Checker: Tekendra Parmar
Illustrator: Bijou Karman

Published in January 2018. Design updated in 2021.

Act I

Ajijic. Such a strange word, Jackie Hodges thought as she rode in a Porsche convertible through a stretch of lush, rolling mountains in central Mexico. The 45-year-old American knew virtually nothing about the small town where she was headed, including how to pronounce its name. “Ah-hee-heek,” locals would patiently repeat again and again after she arrived. In Mexico’s indigenous Nahuatl tongue, the word means “place where the water is born.”

It was the fall of 1969, and Hodges needed a distraction. Her second marriage was coming apart at the seams. Eager to get away from her home in Pasadena, California, she’d seized upon an invitation to visit Lona Mae Isoard, a friend who lived in Ajijic. Hodges had always puzzled over Isoard’s decision to move there. A talented painter who liked to wear her gray hair in a French twist, Isoard was a seasoned traveler who’d lived in Paris and Rome. Why settle down in a Mexican pueblo of barely 5,000 people just south of Guadalajara?

The environs were pretty, at least. Hodges spotted Ajijic as the Porsche, in which Isoard had picked her up at Guadalajara’s airport, crested a mountain pass. She took in the expanse of Lake Chapala, Mexico’s largest freshwater lake. It stretched some 11 miles south and 50 miles east to west. Dotting its northern edge were picturesque fishing communities, one of which was the women’s destination.

They wended their way down the highway until the convertible’s tires met cobblestone. The Porsche rattled into the heart of Ajijic, where blue tin placards proclaimed the narrow streets’ names, children ran around shoeless, and bare-chested men hawked fish pulled from the lake. Hodges spied a pig strung up outside a home, rivulets of blood running from a gash in its neck down its snout to the ground. Nearby a group of caballeros with spurs on their boots rode sidestepping horses. The women drove past the Posada, a lodge and watering hole that had served as the de facto center of Ajijic’s expatriate scene since it opened in 1938. Eventually, they came to a row of brightly painted brick-and-mortar homes, one of which was Isoard’s.

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“Rest up,” the painter told Hodges after they’d gotten settled. She would need energy.

The following evening, Isoard threw nothing short of a bacchanal. Some 60 people came, martinis flowed, and conversations slurred. “Have you met Jackie?” Isoard said to guest after guest, nudging the newcomer into the night’s starring role. The air was thick with smoke from Cuban cigars; a group of businessmen had just returned from Havana. At one point, they launched into a spirited argument with a couple of former diplomats over America’s embargo of the island nation. Rolling her eyes, Isoard directed a five-piece band she’d hired for the night to stand close to the men. Then she gathered up several women and displaced the debate with a dance floor.

Before the party was over, Hodges had a good if drunken understanding of Ajijic’s expats. Most of them were retired or nearly being so, but they refused to act like they were aging. Among them were many artists, writers, and actors—both has-beens and still-wannabes—who made the town feel like a Shangri-la for sun-setting bohemians. The wild party scene was fabled among those who’d experienced it, and some impressive names had made cameos. D.H. Lawrence wrote the first draft of his novel The Plumed Serpent while residing in the area in 1923. During the 1950s, Beat writers swallowed a drink or five at the Posada. Then came the hippies, who earned Ajijic a shout-out in Tom Wolfe’s 1968 book The Electric Acid Kool Aid Test as a stopover during a drug-fueled escapade by the LSD evangelists known as the Merry Pranksters.

The discomfiting contrast between their privileged existence and the substantially poorer one of the Mexicans they lived among didn’t seem to bother many expats. Ajijic’s low cost of living was a draw, along with its bucolic setting and temperate weather. To foreigners, whatever the town lacked—paved roads, telephones, TVs—it made up for with characters who embodied a popular saying: Once a private crossed the border into Mexico, he could be a general. People’s pasts became whatever they said they were. Take Zara Alexeyewa, known as La Rusa, who’d lived in Ajijic since the 1920s and claimed to be a ballerina from Russia. Over time local journalists and historians would uncover some 18 aliases she’d used and pinpoint her birthplace as New York. Alexeyewa fancied herself queen of the expats. Her attitude was imperious, and she was never seen walking anywhere. She rode around on a black horse, sitting sidesaddle in a long dress and wide-brimmed hat.

Hodges, a free spirit who’d always lamented that she missed visiting the Paris of Gertrude Stein by a generation, was enamored. After her visit with Isoard, she returned to Ajijic for longer stretches over the next three summers. By 1972, she was looking to buy a casita. By 1976, she was divorced and living in Ajijic year-round. She began dating a housing contractor, got married again, and never looked back.

I know this because she’s my grandmother. Now 93, Hodges has lived in Ajijic all my life. The place has changed since she first arrived. Development has altered the landscape, and Mexico’s drug war has taken a toll. My grandmother, though, is a time capsule. A flamboyant raconteur, she embellishes stories of parties that evolved into orgies and acquaintances who turned out to be CIA spooks with dialogue she couldn’t possibly have been privy to. I take everything she says about Ajijic with a grain or two of salt.

In 2015, she told me a story I couldn’t shake, about a person she couldn’t shake. Around Thanksgiving, we were in her living room discussing the litany of outrageous people and situations she’d encountered. Short and rail thin, with a dyed platinum-blond bob, she gesticulated as she spoke. Suddenly, with dramatic flair, she declared, “I’ve only met one person in my lifetime that I thought was truly evil.” The way she emphasized the last word jolted me. She meant it.

That person was Donna McCready, a charismatic, controversial figure in Ajijic in the 1970s and 1980s. So incredible were the instances of seduction, betrayal, and violence in which McCready is said to have played a part that they are now the crown jewels of local lore. Many of the old-timers who got entangled in McCready’s web are long gone, as is the woman herself, but some are still alive. I sought them out to hear their accounts, which added layers both macabre and poignant to the story my grandmother told me.

It boils down to this: In Ajijic, Donna McCready’s name is synonymous with murder.

Act II

One balmy afternoon in late 1976, Judy Eager was sitting near the entrance of the Posada when she saw two women roar into view astride motorcycles. They were newcomers, sporting black leather jackets and stony expressions that seemed to say fuck you. Expats rolled into Ajijic all the time, usually in less dramatic fashion. Eager and her husband had arrived only two years earlier, on the recommendation of a cab driver in Guadalajara, where they’d been vacationing. Soon after, they moved to town and took over stewardship of the Posada. Slinging drinks at the bar, they got to know everyone.

In the pair of leather-clad women, Eager sensed trouble. They pulled up to the Posada and came in for drinks. Their names were Donna McCready and Lois Schaefer, they were from Sausalito, California, and they were on a road trip through Mexico. They were also dating. Ajijic hosted a sizable gay population, but its members tended to be discreet about their relationships. The women were anything but: At the Posada, they were all over each other. The “dykes on bikes,” as Eager described them, took a liking to Ajijic and decided to stay.

Schaefer was middle-aged and boisterous, while McCready was in her thirties—young for an Ajijic expat—and resembled a school-age tomboy, with a short, shaggy haircut and thick glasses. On first impression she was quiet, but she relished making a scene and telling shocking stories. According to one Ajijic resident, McCready and Schaefer once decided to get a drink at Azteca, a dark cave of a saloon on the town’s main plaza. It catered to blue-collar Mexicans and featured a trough under the bar where patrons could relieve themselves. When an inebriated man insulted Schaefer, McCready came at him swinging. The women were hauled off to jail on assault charges—which McCready later claimed were dropped because she gave the station chief a blow job.

Schaefer and McCready didn’t stay together long. Mundane arguments over things like doing the dishes could turn violent. After they split, Schaefer struck up a new romance with a blonde named Susie Emery. One night during a squabble, Emery pulled out a gun and shot Schaefer through the breast; the bullet entered one side and came out the other. Judy Eager recounted the aftermath in her diary, which she recently showed me. “They both ended up in jail, had to pay a large fine to get out, and were both on probation for three months,” Eager wrote. “They became lovers again. Lois had Susie’s name tattooed above the bullet hole.” In Ajijic, it was a characteristically crazy incident.

McCready, meanwhile, got around romantically, according to Jan Dunlap. The two women bonded over a mutual predilection for mischief. Dunlap had moved to Ajijic with her five kids in 1967, after federal agents raided her home in New Mexico as part of a crackdown on a marijuana-trafficking ring involving her husband. She later opened Big Mama’s, a bar located across the street from the Posada that quickly earned an unholy reputation as a site for drug transactions. (Dunlap swore she wasn’t involved.) In comparison with the Posada, where caballeros only occasionally engaged in pistol shootouts—Eager called them “misunderstandings”—Big Mama’s was a dive. Patrons stumbled between the two establishments every night, until someone drunkenly announced whose house everyone could migrate to for a party.

McCready came by Big Mama’s alone around 11 a.m. most days to have a nip of tequila and chat with Dunlap before checking her mail at the post office. The women traded gossip, and McCready talked about her recent flirtations and sexual conquests. No one was off limits. McCready even propositioned Dunlap one day. “I already tried that once and didn’t like it,” she replied with a hearty laugh.

McCready wasn’t beautiful, in Dunlap’s opinion, but she could switch seamlessly from controlling an interaction with her charm to listening with apparent sympathy. Dunlap suspected that McCready’s savvy was why some people were drawn to her. Others thought it signaled a proclivity for manipulation. “If you studied her closely, her cold gray eyes gave away the secrets of a hard diabolical mind and a mean spirit,” reads the treatment for an unpublished screenplay about McCready, written in the 1990s by a former actor and Ajijic resident named Bob Jones. “The time left to her would be littered with victims.”

Around 1979, McCready began working as a home nurse for Steve and Pat Harrington, an older couple who owned a large estate on a hill above town. The home had a private drive, up which expats climbed to attend lavish parties—the sort that made other locals, who thrived on a culture of one-upmanship when it came to entertaining, green with envy. Steve had developed a serious heart problem that required constant care. McCready landed the job by claiming to have nursing experience. (No one I spoke to could remember whether she really did.)

As the weeks passed, McCready spent increasing amounts of time at the Harringtons’ tending to her sick charge. She also spent a lot of time wooing and then sleeping with Steve’s wife.

When Dunlap heard about the affair, she thought it fitting for McCready and her scorn for social mores. Dunlap would later recount it when crafting her own screenplay about McCready, called With Money Dances the Dogs:

PAT

Kiss me, DONNA. I need your arms around me.

DONNA caresses PAT. She has her hands inside PAT’S clothing, fondling her breast. One hand moves further down. PAT is in ecstasy, forgetting everything. DONNA is being very methodical, she knows what she’s doing.

Steve’s health declined quickly, and before long he died. According to Mexican law, a body must be buried or cremated within 48 hours of death. Unless there’s suspicion of foul play, autopsies are not routine. Steve was interred, and that was that.

McCready and Pat soon went public with their romance. For some residents, especially those who’d been friends with the Harringtons for many years, the affair was terribly gauche. When Judy Eager heard the news, she was angry. How could Pat move on from Steve just like that? Was she lonely or confused? My grandmother visited Pat, whom she considered a friend, and noticed that she’d undergone a makeover intended to take years off her appearance. She wore a pink dress and had curled her hair. “She was flitting about like a little kid,” my grandmother recalled.

Gossip began to swirl, including the conjecture that Steve may have succumbed to a most unnatural death at the hands of his wife’s lover. It was the sort of gross speculation that expats relished, especially while sipping cocktails. “If you live in Ajijic,” Dunlap told me, “you know it thrives on scandal.”


The first time I spoke to Dunlap, she told me that, not long after Steve died, McCready arrived at Big Mama’s for one of her visits. The place was empty. McCready marched over to the bar and announced, apropos of nothing, that she’d killed Steve.

Dunlap stood waiting for the punch line, but it never came. Instead, McCready doubled down on her claim. “She said she smothered him with a pillow,” Dunlap recalled, “and that Pat was watching from inside the coat closet.” Later, McCready told Dunlap that she and Pat had plotted the murder in order to collect Steve’s inheritance, only to discover that he’d changed his will to give some relatives the Ajijic estate and most of his money. Perhaps he’d sensed something nefarious afoot.

In another interview, Dunlap remembered McCready jesting publicly about murdering Steve. “She used to brag about it at cocktail parties,” Dunlap told me. “She’d say jokingly, ‘Sure, I killed him.’ Everyone would just listen to her and laugh.”

Dunlap wasn’t sure what to think, much less say. Why would her friend admit to a crime and risk getting caught? Was she trying to deflect suspicion through morbid humor? On the other hand, if she was lying, it was a bizarre yarn to spin, even for someone with a devilish streak and a fondness for shock value.

In the absence of proof, Dunlap uneasily let the matter lie. Years later, in her fictionalized take on the story, she tweaked the narrative to depict McCready poisoning her elderly employer:

STEVE is in bed, reading a book. DONNA enters the open doorway and knocks.

DONNA

Stevie Poo, I’ve brought you a pot of hot tea, made English style. See, I’ve even added milk, just the way you like it. My mother used to serve it to me like this, she always said it made me relax and sleep better. Here’s hoping it does the same for you.

It would be easy to dismiss this as the stuff of cinematic melodrama, a scenario Dunlap dreamed up for her screenplay. (The script was never produced, but there is periodic chatter around town of Meryl Streep or Sharon Stone being attached to it—wishful thinking in a community of lifelong dreamers.) No one else I spoke to remembered McCready boasting openly of killing her lover’s husband.

Dunlap, however, wasn’t the only Ajijic resident to claim that McCready confessed in confidence to murder. Nor was Steve Harrington the only purported victim.

In 1982, at a New Year’s Eve dinner party at the Posada, a distraught-looking Pat pulled my grandmother aside. “I’m losing her, Jackie,” she whispered miserably. “Donna is in love with someone else.” She was right: McCready broke up with Pat, prompting the spurned widow to leave Ajijic for good. McCready then moved on to occupy one corner of another love triangle.

Dunlap wasn’t the only Ajijic resident to claim that McCready confessed in confidence to murder. Nor was Steve Harrington the only purported victim.

Like the Harringtons, the Taylors were a wealthy retired couple. Albert had been a producer of Broadway shows, and Hildegard was a former model. They maintained an aura of elegance—Albert often wore a monocle—and fawned over one another. When he developed dementia, however, Albert’s personality changed. Pamela Duran, who knew the Taylors well, described how Hildegard would take him to social gatherings, where he sat silently among friends as if in a stupor. In other instances, he grew abusive, yelling at his wife for reasons he couldn’t articulate.

Hildegard sought someone with nursing experience to care for her ailing husband, and McCready got the job. Given how sick he was, no one was surprised when Albert died. But Duran was stunned when, one afternoon, McCready sidled up to her on the Posada’s patio, where she liked to watch the sun set over the lake. McCready sat down at Duran’s table and admitted out of the blue to killing Albert.

According to Duran, McCready leaned forward so that other happy-hour drinkers couldn’t hear her. “I killed Albert by smothering him with a pillow,” she whispered. Duran could only stare at her blankly. “He just didn’t have any quality of life,” McCready continued. “He couldn’t finish a sentence. He peed on himself all the time. And he was mean to Hildegard, so I went in and put a pillow on his face, and I killed the old bastard.”

“You… you did?” Duran finally stammered.

“Yeah, I did.”

Duran told me that she didn’t reveal McCready’s confession to anyone. “I knew that if I did, she’d say, ‘Oh, I was just bragging. I didn’t do that,’” Duran said. “I knew she was telling the truth.” Jan Dunlap also said McCready told her about killing Albert, but by dropping a radio into a tub where he was bathing—and with Hildegard’s knowledge. No one else I spoke to had heard anything about Albert being electrocuted.

The verifiable outcome of his death was that Hildegard and McCready announced their relationship as if it were an engagement. “Everyone, I want to tell you something,” Hildegard said at a dinner party, after clinking her glass with a fork to get the room’s attention. “I am in love with Donna!” Once again, though, McCready’s relationship with a new widow didn’t last long. This time the reason was tragic. Hildegard developed a nasty cough, and when she and McCready traveled to a hospital in Houston to have it checked out, they learned that the cause was terminal throat cancer. Hildegard’s demise was fast and ugly. She had a tracheotomy, and McCready would indulge her requests at parties, which Hildegard still attended, to pour gin down the tube in her throat.

Hildegard died in March 1984. For a brief time, McCready’s spark for trouble seemed to dim. She wasn’t seen at many social gatherings, though she did host a prime-rib dinner in Hildegard’s memory. Some residents felt sorry for her. But when McCready received a sizable inheritance, including at least one property the Taylors had owned in Los Angeles, the cloud of suspicion around her darkened once more. She really is just a gold-digger, people whispered, some with genuine disdain, others with morbid glee.

By all accounts, McCready moved on, setting her romantic sights elsewhere; my grandmother claims that McCready once made a pass at her, right after her third husband died. McCready’s most fateful entanglement, however, was yet to come. It involved a couple with an outwardly idyllic marriage who kept painful secrets, and an indecent proposal gone horribly wrong. No one disputes that the affair ended in a brutal crime.

Act III

When Joe and Barbara Kovach decided to retire in 1980, they had no idea where they’d wind up. They just knew that they wanted to explore the world outside the Chicago suburbs where they’d spent most of their marriage and raised their daughters. Joe, 61, and Barbara, 50, had been movers and shakers in Bolingbrook, a small town Joe had helped to incorporate in 1965.

Joe spent his days behind a typewriter as editor in chief of Beacon, a local newspaper. Barbara ran the paper’s sales department and was active on the board of Bolingbrook’s library and park district. When they decided to leave, the Kovaches wrote a farewell column:

We have lived here for 17 years and have been publishing Beacon for 16 years. Without qualifications, this has been the richest and most rewarding time of our lives, and it has been our friends, associates and readers who have made it so. We will be going to warmer climes and will be facing new challenges and experiences, but leaving will not be easy…. The only way to say good bye is to say it. Good bye. We love you. JJK and BAK.

Then the Kovaches made that classic American move: They bought an RV, which they christened the Pinta, and decided to drive until they felt like staying somewhere. Over several months they headed east, then south, sending their adult daughters postcards from a hit parade of monuments and museums. They crossed the border into Mexico and, like my grandmother more than a decade prior, eventually came upon a panoramic view of Lake Chapala. “Barb, I don’t know about you,” Joe said as they looked at the water, “but I’m never leaving.” It was December 1980. They settled in Ajijic, sold the RV, and rented a house.

The couple came with extra baggage—the emotional kind. Joe wasn’t faithful. He was always flirting with other women and had even made public gestures that landed him in hot water with Barbara. He’d had trouble explaining why, when he’d met a woman in Bolingbrook who owned a cherry tree that wasn’t producing fruit, he’d bought two pounds of cherries and individually tied them to the tree’s branches. Then there was the period when he spent weekends in Indianapolis, supposedly to get better acquainted with a son from a previous marriage whom Barbara had never met. When the son called the Kovaches’ house one day and announced that he was trying to establish contact with his absent father for the first time, it became evident that the tall, slender man with whom Joe had taken pictures in Indianapolis wasn’t really his son. Presumably, the photo was part of a scheme to cover up the fact that he was visiting another woman.

Barbara nearly left Joe a couple of times. Once, she packed her bags and bought a plane ticket to Miami to stay with her sister-in-law. Joe convinced her to let him drive her to the airport and, before they even reached the terminal, to cancel her ticket. It wasn’t wholly surprising; she’d always been susceptible to his persuasions. The Kovaches had met in 1950 in Boston, where Barbara grew up and was studying at the Massachusetts School of Physiotherapy. Joe, born in Hungary, had come to the United States as a child and wound up in Boston after his first marriage ended. He was six foot two, strapping, and a real charmer. When he began courting her, Barbara was dating a doctor, so Joe sent her a case of apples with a note attached: “An apple a day keeps the doctor away.”

When he began courting her, Barbara was dating a doctor, so Joe sent her a case of apples with a note attached: “An apple a day keeps the doctor away.”

Joe’s charisma, however, was a facade that shielded troubling behavior from public view. To his four daughters, Kitt, Karen, Kim, and Kandi, in order of age, he could be a tyrant. He was obsessed with instilling an appreciation for the arts, literature, and history. Most family dinners took place at 6 p.m. sharp and began with a quiz. Joe asked trivia questions, and if one of his daughters gave the wrong answer, he replied with cutting commentary like, “You need to worry about getting married, because you’re clearly not going to make it in school.” As the girls grew up, small infractions of house rules could trigger disproportionate responses. Once, Joe woke Kandi up around midnight and made her hand-wash every dish in the kitchen because she’d put one back in the cupboard with a trace of food on it. Another time, Joe had her spend an entire Sunday walking back and forth across the street in front of the house because he’d caught a glimpse of her forgetting to look both ways.

When tragedy struck, Joe was similarly controlling, and Barbara went along with him. Kitt developed leukemia when she was a young teenager. Her parents decided not to tell her that she was dying; in fact, they told no one except Kim and Karen—their youngest was spared from the news—and a few close friends. They claimed that they didn’t want Kitt to fear dying and acted as if her nosebleeds and waning energy were nothing to worry about. One day in 1968, when she was 15, Kitt went to the hospital for a particularly severe nosebleed. She never came home. After her death, the Kovaches grieved and continued to celebrate her birthday privately, but Joe and Barbara also insisted on keeping a stiff upper lip. “It was as though, if you didn’t talk about it, it didn’t happen,” Karen later told me.

Setting out in the RV a dozen years later was a chance for the Kovaches to put the past behind them. Barbara saw it as an opportunity to move past Joe’s affairs and reset their marriage. But things didn’t exactly work out that way.


Ajijic had always had painful colonial undertones: foreigners staking their claims to various pieces of property and hiring locals as their gardeners, drivers, and maids. The extent to which the two worlds—white and not—meshed depended on what sort of life an extranjero (foreigner) envisioned on the shores of Lake Chapala. Each of the Kovaches had different priorities.

Barbara committed to learning Spanish and hoped to model herself on longtime expat philanthropists like Neill James, who after arriving in the 1940s supported aspiring Mexican painters and donated to the Lake Chapala Society, which provided funds and school supplies to area children. Barbara’s good works took the form of cooking and delivering meals to residents, both foreign and Mexican, when they were sick. To bring in additional income, she worked as a cashier at a clothing boutique that catered to wealthy tourists and Mexican vacationers.

Joe, by contrast, didn’t bother to learn much Spanish. He started running bridge games and organizing luñadas, guided nighttime horseback rides that promised a dude-ranch-like experience with meals cooked over a campfire. The moonlit trips quickly became popular among extranjeros, who put a wild spin on them. One night, after swigging vodka atop their horses, two women charged into the streets of Ajijic like cavalry, announcing themselves as “the rowdy bunch.”

Where the Kovaches had a shared interest was parties. They cultivated a reputation in the town’s Rolodex of social hosts and wrote letters to their daughters back in the States saying that retirement was the most fun they’d ever had. They had so many friends, they held a small “practice party” the night before throwing a big shindig, inviting B-level acquaintances who wouldn’t fit in their house for the main event.

By the mid-1980s, McCready had also jumped into the hosting game. Her signature was a lobster feast. She would travel to Mexico’s Pacific coast and come back with at least a dozen crustaceans, which she then served to impressed dinner guests. Also impressive to inebriated crowds was the pet duck she kept in the swimming pool in her front yard. “Donna was now the hostess with the mostess,” reads Bob Jones’s script treatment. “She developed her own fan club, of which Joe and Barbara were her key members.”

McCready and the Kovaches also got to know each other through the Lakeside Little Theatre. The nonprofit organization, founded in 1965, organized productions of classic English-language plays, as well as scripts written by expats. Joe was an actor, while Barbara worked behind the scenes fundraising to secure the company a permanent venue so that it could stop staging shows at the Posada. McCready was the theater’s treasurer and also directed plays. In December 1985, she helmed Send Me No Flowers, a comedy about a man who thinks he’s dying and tries to find his wife a new husband; the movie version starred Rock Hudson and Doris Day. Joe had a small part in the show as a salesman of burial plots.

At cast parties, according to one Ajijic resident, McCready displayed a “cruising mentality” as she eyed potential love interests. Joe gave her a run for her reputation. Retirement hadn’t cured his wayward eye as Barbara had hoped it would, and he garnered a social profile as an arrogant, irredeemable flirt. At one of Joe’s luñadas, my grandmother recalled, a woman fell off her horse and broke her arm, after which he showed up at her door with flowers and profuse apologies. The woman found the gesture kind, but when he kept coming back day after day, she told him to stop or she’d have to call the police.

Joe and McCready eventually—some might say inevitably—collided in a scenario so bawdy that it seemed yanked from the pages of Shakespeare. In late 1986, after deciding he was attracted to McCready, Joe asked her to have an affair. If she had sex with him, he claimed, she’d never want to sleep with a woman again. Amused and not entirely opposed to the idea, McCready made a counterproposal: First she’d whisk Barbara away on a trip. If she couldn’t seduce Joe’s wife, then she’d sleep with him.

Joe agreed to the wager, and the women went on the trip. What exactly transpired, no one who’s still alive knows. But McCready won the bet—and more. After the women returned to Ajijic, Barbara had news for Joe: She was leaving him, for good this time, to be with McCready.

Joe and McCready eventually—some might say inevitably—collided in a scenario so bawdy that it seemed yanked from the pages of Shakespeare. 

At first the Kovaches didn’t tell their family about the separation. Letters they wrote in late 1986 make no mention of McCready. One such missive was the couple’s Christmas letter:

This month marked our sixth anniversary in Mexico. How time does fly. We have been living in our present home in Ajijic over two years and plan to stay here indefinitely. The place suits us to a T and there is just enough work and gardening to do to make it interesting and not tedious…. Perhaps in the near future you will head down our way. It is still the best bargain vacation spot.… Just give us a little notice to make sure the casita is available. Again, a merry Christmas and a happy new year. As ever, Barbara and Joe Kovach.

Privately, however, losing Barbara drove Joe nuts. He was feeling particularly vulnerable because he’d just learned that he had prostate cancer and would need surgery to remove the tumor. He’d started taking medication to relieve his pain and counter erectile dysfunction—an insult to his bruised sexual ego. In desperation, Joe faked a suicide attempt to get Barbara’s attention. He called her at McCready’s house and begged her hysterically to come home, claiming that he’d taken a bunch of pills. The ploy didn’t work.

Joe, Barbara, and McCready kept their strife under wraps. The wider expat community was unaware of the disintegration of the Kovaches’ marriage and McCready’s role in it. Not even the troupe at the Lakeside Little Theatre knew. Only very close friends were told what was happening. In retrospect, this may have been because Barbara and McCready hoped to slip out of Ajijic without much of anyone knowing.

In early January 1987, they told Joe that they were moving to California to start a life together. McCready would sell property in Los Angeles that she’d inherited from Hildegard and use the money to buy a house in Palm Springs. The women elected not to cut off contact with Joe, operating on the shaky understanding that they could all stay friends. In an undated letter to the two women, which I obtained from the Kovach family, Joe kept a cordial tone as he addressed their pending departure:

It is evident that you will have to stay at Donna’s house for some time to take care of some practical matters which concern all of us, mostly Barb and I. Following are a list of these matters, though I doubt if they are all inclusive.

Notifying our kids and your parents and other relatives. I will offer no objection on how or what you tell them but for the sake of consistency I should get a copy of these letters. Perhaps the same should hold true for mutual friends in the states. You will also be giving explanations to your co-workers and our mutual friends in this area.

I still think it is very important that you and Donna make some arrangement for your benefit if things do not work out for you. You know you can always come back to me but feeling the way you do about me I do not think you would. Rest assured however, that if you want to come back and I am living with someone else at the time, that person will know that you have first priority because it is you that I love.

In any case, I believe we should all get together at our house after work tomorrow, sober and calm, and discuss all this. You will want to pack your bags in any case.

The women agreed to meet with Joe but flipped the invitation, asking him to McCready’s house for dinner on the evening of January 9. Two days later, they planned to drive away for good.


The gathering began smoothly enough. Joe arrived at McCready’s house at 7 p.m. He and Barbara poured aperitifs as McCready readied the meal. The trio made it through at least a couple of drinks and accompanying niceties before the conversation went south.

Joe had come prepared with a Hail Mary appeal, as he had when he’d dissuaded Barbara from leaving him on the way to the airport many years prior. Couldn’t the women delay their departure, at least until he had his prostate surgery in Guadalajara? McCready said no. But how could they just abandon him like this? They’d be kicking a man who was already down. McCready again flatly refused. She and Barbara were leaving, she told Joe, on January 11.

That’s when Joe lost it. He yanked out a hunting knife that he kept tucked inside one of his boots, common knowledge to anyone who’d seen him use it during the luñadas. According to what Barbara later told friends, he lunged toward McCready, who yelped and dived underneath her dining room table.

Barbara threw herself in front of Joe. She could feel McCready’s arms wrap around her legs as she faced down her husband.

“Go ahead and kill me!” she screamed.

“I would never kill you, Barbara!” Joe yelled back.

Barbara kept her gaze locked on her husband and his hunting knife. Then the thought occurred to her, Why isn’t Donna helping me?

She felt her lover’s grip weakening on her legs and heard a gurgling sound. She looked down and saw that McCready’s neck had been sliced open. Joe had managed to do it when he’d first come at her with the knife. McCready was bleeding out on the Turkish rug beneath the table.

She gasped for air a few times through her punctured trachea, then stopped. She was gone.

“You see what you’ve done?” Barbara cried.

“Yes, I’ve killed her!” Joe responded. “And they’re going to hang me for it.”

Joe didn’t chase Barbara as she burst out of McCready’s house and ran a block to the home of her friend Kathy Curtis. “Joe just killed Donna,” she blurted out when Curtis opened the door. Curtis brought Barbara inside and called the police. When they arrived, they took Barbara to the station to be interviewed. Then officers walked with Curtis over to McCready’s house, where a crime-scene investigation was already under way.

By the next morning, the news had spread. As expats ran into each other in Ajijic’s main plaza and tight lanes, there were hushed conversations, and some not so hushed ones. The rumor mill went into overdrive. One version of the story involved Joe beheading McCready. A neighbor claimed to have heard Joe sharpening a knife before he left for the dinner. Could the murder have been premeditated? When my grandmother heard the news, she was shocked by the barbarity of the crime.

Barbara didn’t want to talk to anyone. After leaving the police station, she holed up in McCready’s house, which hadn’t been scrubbed of her lover’s blood. Joe was nowhere to be found. Clothes, cash, and his yellow Volkswagen bug were gone from his house. He’d fled in the middle of the night.

The buzz continued at a long-planned bake sale to benefit the Lakeside Little Theatre. Every gringo in town seemed to be there. Cookies, bread, and pastries exchanged hands as people shared information and opinions about the murder. There was shock, along with speculation that Barbara might have helped Joe escape. They were still married, after all, and he was the father of her children.

The gossip also contained a heavy dose of she had it coming, which calcified as the days and weeks passed. Xill Fessenden, an artist who moved to Ajijic in 1985, remembered people talking about how McCready had stolen three wives and probably killed two old men. “So many people came to the defense of Joe,” she told me. “People kept saying that Donna deserved it.”

“I mean, she may not have been the nicest person in the world,” Fessenden added, “but who deserves to be murdered?”

Act IV

Interest in that question evaporated quickly. After McCready’s death, there were new scandals for expats to fixate on, like the revelation that a couple of their own were CIA operatives associated with the Iran-Contra affair. “The thing that people always said about the stories that came out of Ajijic was that, once all those stories were collected, no one would believe them,” Ron Wallen, a former resident, told me. “Because that’s what Ajijic was: one unbelievable story after another.”  

No one heard from Joe again. Barbara organized McCready’s cremation and remembrance, to which none of the deceased’s family came. Then she found herself marooned. Joe had taken the checkbooks, the Social Security payments they received were in his name, and she didn’t qualify for any of her lover’s estate. A stipulation in McCready’s will assigned her assets to her most recent “live-in” spouse, and when lawyers asked Barbara for mail sent in her name to McCready’s address, she couldn’t provide any.

Some townsfolk who felt sorry for her offered distinctly Ajijician gestures. One artist invited Barbara over to unveil a large painting that depicted the murder. In the work, Joe loomed over McCready’s crumpled body, clutching a bloody knife in one hand. The artist thought that seeing it might be cathartic for Barbara. Instead, she started crying and asked to leave.

By 1989, Barbara had saved up enough money selling textiles and working as a caterer to move away. She headed to Barbados, where she worked at a bed and breakfast, then to Maine to care for her elderly parents. She remained in contact with a few people in Ajijic but never set foot there again.

“That’s what Ajijic was: one unbelievable story after another.”  

Over the years, the absence of key players in the crime, combined with many locals’ aging memories, distaste for McCready, and fervor for juicy lore, allowed falsehoods to become accepted fact. Joe cutting off McCready’s head, for example, hardened into the plot. Paradoxically, the effect of countless retellings was reductive. Characters were essentialized—the wily predator, the long-suffering wife, the jealous husband—to support the tale’s operatic scaffolding. The internet and the ability to scout for information about the event and the people involved didn’t become part of the cultural mainstream until well after 1987, making it easier for the story to remain cocooned.

Separating myth from truth meant diving into a murky quagmire of loose ends that most Ajijic residents had never been concerned with. Why did Barbara enter into a romance with a woman who’d used her as a sexual bargaining chip? How did Joe evade justice? Did the Kovaches ever meet again? And, above all, did anyone know the truth about Donna McCready?


First I traced the Kovaches’ trajectories to find out where they’d wound up. In December 2016, I tracked down their daughters, all of whom live near Phoenix. At Karen’s house, we sat in a ring around the dining room table. The women all possessed the same almond-shaped eyes and easygoing smile, which looked a lot like Barbara’s, based on pictures of her that I’d seen. I explained how I’d first heard about Joe’s crime and produced a copy of Jan Dunlap’s screenplay, which they didn’t know existed. They eagerly paged through it. Kim read some of the dialogue aloud:

BARBARA

I’ll go home and talk to JOE. It may take a while, so don’t get all bent out of shape if I don’t come back until tomorrow.

“Oh, Mom would never say that!” Kim declared with a laugh. Her sisters agreed.

Collectively, the women then shared what they knew about the events that transpired after McCready’s murder. Some of it their parents had told them; other details were divulged in family letters.

After leaving McCready’s body on the dining room floor, Joe decided that he had to get across the U.S. border as quickly as possible. His yellow Volkswagen was a fugitive’s nightmare, but he got behind the wheel anyway and headed for the safest place he could think of: his sister Ann Garey’s house in Berkeley, California, some 1,800 miles north. During a pit stop in Puerto Vallarta, he called Garey. He refused to explain what had happened but said that he would be at her door in a few days. He continued driving north, then ditched his conspicuous coupe before leaving Mexico. He worried that border security might have been told to look out for it. Joe walked into America.

Whether he took a bus or hitchhiked north, no one can remember. By the time he arrived at Garey’s home, he was a wreck: paranoid, haggard, and lacking a plan for what to do next. He told his sister, who’s now deceased, that he’d killed a woman in Ajijic. She was horrified, but Joe swore that he’d acted in a moment of madness. McCready drove him to do it, he said, by mocking him.

In a letter to the Kovach daughters dated February 6, 1987, Garey wrote that Joe was heading to a local hospital for his prostate surgery:

Emotionally, of course, he is still in sad condition, but physically he at least looks much, much better than when he arrived. We all know that this is not the kind of thing Joe would do if he were rational—no matter what she [McCready] said. Something inside him must have snapped and who can say what it was. It’s such a terrible thing to have happened—to everyone concerned. Unfortunately there is no way to undo it—so it seems we all have to go on doing what we are doing—each in their own way—and that is coping and trying to make the situation as bearable as possible.

By then, Kim and Kandi had traveled to Ajijic to be with their mother. They were stunned by everything they learned. They’d known very little about McCready before her murder, and they had no idea Barbara was interested in women. They were told about the bet that had initiated the affair; Barbara had been angry about it, but not enough to ignore her attraction to McCready. As for Joe, he was a philanderer and a cruel father, but he’d never been physically abusive. That he could murder someone seemed unthinkable to his daughters. By his own confession, though, he’d done it.

In Berkeley, Garey found Joe a therapist and a lawyer. Harold Rosenthal was the attorney; he’s retired now. When I spoke with him, he said that he received at least half a dozen calls from the FBI regarding Joe in the winter of 1987. There was no formal charge against his client, but the agency wanted him to “answer some questions.” Rosenthal advised Joe, whom he found to be a “very, very nice man,” not to agree to it. Meanwhile, Rosenthal focused on readying a defense, operating on the assumption that the FBI would eventually obtain a warrant and arrest Joe.

That never happened. Months passed, and the FBI stopped calling. Rosenthal finally decided that there must not have been enough political will or interest to mount a transnational legal case. (Though the U.S. consulate in Guadalajara reportedly cooperated with local authorities immediately after McCready’s death, no one I talked to at the State Department, including representatives of its historical archives, could find any documentation to that effect.) Joe could live his life having gotten away with murder.

Joe’s therapist was named Richard Delman. He’s still in practice near San Rafael, just north of San Francisco. Delman described Joe as “regretful and remorseful about the death of Donna.” He also said that Joe “desperately wanted to be rescued” from the situation he’d dug himself into but refused to pay for intensive psychotherapy. Joe was shocked by the cost of treatment and talked about how everything was cheaper in Mexico, where he’d grown accustomed to the peso. The best Delman could do was recommend that Joe establish regular routines for himself rather than worry about whether he’d find himself in handcuffs on any given day. “He suggests I try to get back into the same kinds of things I’ve been doing: bridge, theater, etc.,” Joe wrote to Kim on February 23, 1987. “This is exactly what I would like to do after getting settled down and getting a job.”

More than anything, Joe wanted Barbara. “That is still the most difficult part for me, not hearing from Barb,” he wrote to Kim. “I’m 67 and feeling old for the first time. I just hope there is enough time left for her to forgive me before it is too late. Thirty-four years and four children is a lot to throw away because of one moment of insanity.”

According to their daughters, Barbara and Joe never saw each other again. When they signed divorce papers in 1989, they did so separately. It was Barbara’s decision. She ignored Joe’s pleas for forgiveness, which he expressed in letters as he moved from California to Arizona, then to Illinois, and finally to Budapest, his birthplace. In a missive dated December 1, Joe wrote:

Dear Barb,

Another year older. Two years ago, I did not think I’d last this long. Even a year ago I had doubts. Strangely enough, I feel quite well, mentally and physically. Have not had a depressed period for over a month or more. Have put on a few pounds. Nightmares are much less frequent and I often sleep through the night. My guilt feelings have not abated, and I suppose they never will, but I am learning to live with them. Why this discourse? Well, Hon, I still entertain the thought that you still retain enough feeling for me to be glad to know that I’m feeling and doing better. Perhaps you do not care at all, which is probably closer to the truth. I find it so very difficult to cling to the hope that you are concerned. I love you so very much.

She didn’t respond, and Joe eventually gave up writing to her. But he frequently asked his daughters how Barbara was doing, including when they hosted him in their homes. He wore out his welcome in every instance, proving the same overbearing presence he’d been in the women’s childhood. “He’d blame my kids for everything,” Kandi told me. Karen wondered where a man who’d murdered someone and destroyed his marriage found the audacity to return letters she wrote to him with grammatical corrections appended.

Kandi and Karen severed contact with their father in the final years of his life, as he lived off $900 a month in Social Security checks and whatever he made occasionally writing for Hungarian newspapers. Only Kim stayed in touch with him until he died in November 2011. She was the one who broke the news to her family, including Barbara. Her mother hardly reacted. “She was emotionally and physically divorced from him,” Kim recalled.

Joe’s body was donated to science. No funeral was held.

By then, Barbara was living in Phoenix to be close to her daughters and grandchildren. She avoided talking about what had happened in Ajijic. Kandi brought up McCready with Barbara just one time.

“Mom, do you think you’re a lesbian?” she asked tentatively. “Do you want help finding a partner?”

“I think I was just lonely,” Barbara responded, then changed the subject. She never spoke of McCready again before dying of pancreatic cancer in December 2013.

For three decades, the woman their mother loved and father killed had been a lingering mystery to the Kovach sisters. They listened with rapt interest as I described my grandmother’s proclamation that McCready was evil. They’d never heard the rumors about her murdering Steve Harrington and Albert Taylor. In fact, they’d talked to very few Ajijic residents who knew McCready or their parents.

It wasn’t entirely a surprise, then, when Kim offered to join me in Ajijic as I looked for evidence of McCready’s life. She wanted to find it, too, and share it with her sisters. We agreed to meet in Mexico in August 2017.


Ajijic no longer feels like a secret. Cheap flights arrive regularly in Guadalajara, and snowbirds—people who travel south to escape the winter in second homes along the lake—are more common than ever. The breathtaking natural views that lured my grandmother and many others have been irreparably altered. Development has been swift and aggressive. There are power lines, radio towers, and rambling McMansions in the foothills above the water. Along the lakeshore are crowded bars, convenience stores, and a Domino’s Pizza. In 2008, Walmart set up shop on the highway leading to Guadalajara.

Juxtapositions define Ajijic. On my first day there, I went on a stroll and passed a parade of horses and a brass band—a funeral procession. Then I turned a corner and saw a Google Street View car, bumping along the cobblestones with its roof-mounted camera.

Longtime expats bemoan this state of affairs. A friend of my grandmother’s blamed NAFTA. “We began to get satellite TVs, telephones, imported items, and all sorts of creature comforts that you wouldn’t have here before,” she told me. “Plus, there were no gated communities. Now people can close the gate, and they’re in Mexico but they’re not really here.”

“There were no gated communities. Now people can close the gate, and they’re in Mexico but they’re not really here.”

Like many foreigners in the community, she was quick to gloss over expats’ complicity in the disparities between the lives of foreigners and natives. It’s true, however, that the days when residents ran into each other on a daily basis in a handful of haunts have all but vanished. Big Mama’s is gone; Jan Dunlap, the onetime proprietor, now lives in California. The Posada moved in the 1990s, and the new version just isn’t the same.

When I pressed locals for their memories of McCready, I found their recollections similarly diminished, save those pertaining to her love affairs and death. People who talked with authority about her as a local legend knew remarkably little about her life, particularly before she came to Ajijic. It was as if she had only ever existed in a paradisiacal version of the town and become fossilized as a social upstart with an untamable libido.

Even residents who kept notes about life in Ajijic had little to share. When I met Judy Eager for coffee at the new Posada, which she now runs with her son, she produced a large bound diary. The only entry Eager could find about McCready from the years leading up to her death described her arrival with Lois Schaefer in 1976. It said that the women had lived together “for eight years” in California before relocating.

Schaefer died in 1988, but her son, Ed, lives in the Bay Area. We spoke on the phone, and he remembered McCready, whom his mother met in 1965 or 1966, shortly after she split with Ed’s dad in an acrimonious divorce. Ed spent summers with the two women at their home in Sausalito, and he said McCready, whose background was a mystery to him, “wanted nothing to do” with a kid. She and Schaefer drank heavily, hosted large parties, and sometimes got into scary arguments. Once, they came home “drunker than skunks,” and when McCready noticed that Ed hadn’t done the dishes, she threatened him with a butcher knife. Ed stayed outside wearing only his underwear until his mother had calmed McCready down enough that it was safe for him to go back into the house. Another time, he came home and noticed three fresh bullet holes in the side of the house.

“To me it was no big deal,” Ed said. “It was like water off a duck’s back, because it was always crazy,” meaning life with his mom. Before we hung up, Ed confirmed the story about Schaefer being shot through the breast by a lover in Ajijic.

One afternoon, I paid a Mexican driver named Chevy, who patiently ferries elderly expat women around town, to take me to McCready’s house. We talked in Spanish, and I told him I was working on a story about un asesinato (a murder). This didn’t faze him. Today there are a number of sensational murders associated with Ajijic. In 2000, an American couple, Norris and Nancy Price, were shot to death in their home. Police suspect that it was a contract killing, ordered over a land dispute. In 2005, authorities arrested Perry March, who was living with his young children and father in Ajijic, for murdering his wife in Tennessee a decade prior. He was convicted the next year. In 2012, hit men from a drug cartel killed, decapitated, and disposed of 18 Mexicans just outside town.

McCready’s home on Avenida las Robles was painted bright blue and orange and surrounded by a wrought-iron fence. The pool where her pet duck once swam was still in the front yard. When we pulled up, Chevy instantly knew whose murder I was interested in. “Oh!” he exclaimed. “Señora Donna!”

It turned out that when he was a teenager, McCready had hired him to wash her car every weekend and deliver copies of the local newspaper to her doorstep. Chevy said she was always very nice to him.

My conversation with Chevy led me to Carlos Hernandez Del Toro, a local attorney who also knew McCready. He was wary of talking to a reporter but said that McCready came into his life when she and Pat Harrington organized a drive to collect supplies for his high school. McCready took a liking to Del Toro and eventually supported him through law school in Guadalajara. He went on to represent her interests and said she was like a godmother to him. As with Chevy’s recollections, the generosity Del Toro described was absent from most expats’ depictions of McCready. But anything he knew about her personal life Del Toro wasn’t willing to discuss. As soon as I mentioned Hildegard Taylor and the property she’d left to McCready, he blurted out, “I have no interest to talk to strange people I do not know!”

I then turned to public records in search of McCready. The only news item I could locate was the dramatic 1987 article about her murder in a Mexican newspaper, accompanied by her obituary. It said that McCready was 45 when she died, that she kept “manikins in her home she used for target practice,” and that she was originally from North Carolina, where she attended “the state university.” I called the registrars at both of North Carolina’s main higher-education systems and found no record of her attendance. Through searches of government databases, I found a Donna L. McCready, which seemed promising, given that the newspaper article about her death had said that McCready’s middle name was Leason. But the birth year (1936) and location (Los Angeles) of the person I’d found conflicted with McCready’s obituary. I emailed a surviving brother of Donna L. McCready and one of his sons, who replied, “Donna never lived in Mexico, hope that helps you.”

I couldn’t help but wonder if McCready had used her real name when she was in Ajijic and before, in Sausalito. Maybe she was someone else entirely. Given her affinity for stirring up intrigue, it didn’t seem out of the question.


The most revealing insights about McCready came from a small cluster of people who considered themselves her friends. They don’t run in the same Ajijic circles as my grandmother, and their take on what happened 30 years ago is different from prevailing opinion.

Helen DesJardins and Joan Gamma have lived in Ajijic on and off since 1983. When I met them at their home, a short walk from Lake Chapala, they told me that the rumors about McCready murdering the husbands of her lovers were ludicrous. “Donna wasn’t like a lot of people thought she was. She was very loyal,” Gamma told me. She would know: Gamma was with McCready at the hospital in Houston when Hildegard Taylor succumbed to throat cancer. Gamma described her friend as devastated by the loss.

She also dismissed the idea that McCready tried to seduce women for financial gain. “If she was all out for money, then why did she end up with Barbara?” Gamma asked. “Barbara had no money.” She and DesJardins hadn’t known about the bet with Joe Kovach when it happened, but they were certain that no matter how it was formed, the bond between McCready and Barbara was genuine.

“Donna was a somewhat tragic figure,” Gamma continued. “She had a rough childhood. She had a terrible stepfather, and her mother was dead.” I asked for more details, but that was all she knew.

It wasn’t the only reference I heard to McCready having a traumatic history. Jan Dunlap said that McCready once described an uncle sexually assaulting her when she was just eight or nine. But Dunlap’s knowledge ran no deeper than Gamma’s. McCready, it seemed, hadn’t liked to talk much about her early life, and no one pushed her to reveal more than she wanted to. In Ajijic, after all, a person’s past was whatever they said it was.

Gamma suggested a connection between McCready’s younger years and her liaisons with married couples. “What she wanted was a family, so she would come into a family of people—husband and wife—and she would love them both,” Gamma explained. “She wanted to be accepted by them.” If true, it would mean that Steve Harrington and Albert Taylor dying in succession, with McCready in their employ and sleeping with their wives, was mere coincidence. In which case people’s assumptions about McCready’s ulterior motives might have derived from astonishment that Pat and Hildegard would take a female lover.

“What she wanted was a family, so she would come into a family of people—husband and wife—and she would love them both.”

Toward the end of my trip, Kim Kovach arrived in town. Together we met with Estela Hidalgo, an artist and sculptor who was a friend of Barbara’s. The encounter started out awkwardly, as Hidalgo didn’t mince words about Joe. “I’m sorry,” she said to Kim, “but I didn’t like your father from the first moment I met him.” Hidalgo described Joe as “rude” and said she knew people who wouldn’t invite him to parties because his womanizing made guests uncomfortable. “I know,” Kim replied.

Then Hidalgo pivoted to talking about Barbara and how deeply affecting the events of January 9, 1987 must have been for her. “She loved Joe and Donna, so she lost two people in one second,” Hidalgo said. As for McCready, Hidalgo said, she “looked for trouble. There were dinners when she tried to seduce two or three women in a single evening.” When she fell for Barbara, though, she changed.

“When she was with Barbara,” Hidalgo said, “it was only Barbara.”


What I came to realize was that when McCready was alive, prejudice ran deeper in Ajijic than its carefree expats were willing to admit. It carved lines around crowds and cliques on the basis of class and identity. These borders were largely invisible to the people they divided; everyone mingled at the same parties and bars and dinners, because that was life on the shores of Lake Chapala. Still, social and cultural rifts defined the local appetite for gossip—in particular, what sorts of behavior were considered beyond the pale and who was cast in the recurring role of the town villain. When I regaled my grandmother with Gamma’s and Hidalgo’s theories about McCready, she balked. “I don’t buy it,” she said. Never mind that, as she eventually admitted, Hildegard once wrote her a letter rejecting outright that McCready had killed Albert. (My grandmother said she later lost the letter.)

When Ajijic’s old-timers pass away, the legend of Donna McCready will slip quietly into oblivion. It’s vexing not to have an answer to every question about the enigmatic woman. Yet it also feels fitting for someone who enjoyed inspiring a mix of ire, suspicion, and yearning. Even in death, McCready wreaked havoc.

The morning before we left town, Kim Kovach met with Gamma and DesJardins to pour a vial of Barbara’s ashes, which she’d brought from Phoenix, into the lake. They did it at the end of a pier next to Ajijic’s esplanade. “It was lovely,” Kim later told me. Gamma and DesJardins mentioned to Kim that, over the years, they’d scattered several friends’ ashes on the lake. “You should write a book about all of them,” Kim told the women, “and you should call it Our Friends in the Lake.

Among those friends was McCready. Her memorial wasn’t lovely, I learned, but it was perfect.

On a January day in 1987, Barbara and a few friends gathered on the same pier where Kim later stood. After a wine toast, the executor of McCready’s will, a retired lawyer from California, inverted a plastic bag containing her ashes in order to dump them in the water. Just then there was a gust of wind. The executor lost his grip on the bag, dropping it into the lake, and a portion of the ashes blew over the small crowd.

“She was all over everybody,” one of the attendees told me. “Donna got the last word and the last laugh.”


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The Devil’s Henchmen

The Devil’s Henchmen

Iraqi forces have killed thousands of Islamic State fighters. In death, what do they deserve? Seeking answers in the ruined city of Mosul, a reporter unearths a terrible crime.

By Kenneth R. Rosen

The Atavist Magazine, No. 68


Kenneth R. Rosen writes for The New York Times, where he joined the staff in 2014. He is a Logan Nonfiction Fellow whose work has appeared in The Atlantic, New York, and Foreign Affairs, among other publications. He has reported from the Middle East, North Africa, and across North America.

Editor: Seyward Darby
Designer: Jefferson Rabb
Copy Editor: Sean Cooper
Fact Checker: Tekendra Parmar
Photographer: Alex Kay Potter
Translator: Hadi Kebber
Special thanks: Tim Arango, Erin Banco, Rasha Elass, Dexter Filkins, Luke Mogelson, Kiran Nazish, Runa Sandvik, Douglas Schorzman, and many others whose names are withheld for security reasons.

Published in June 2017. Design updated in 2021.

I

A stone skitters down the hillside, clips a tangle of cloth, and stops short of a human’s lower vertebrae. Next to it, strewn in the dirt and grass of a sun-swathed wadi—one of thousands of small desert valleys scattered across northern Iraq—are a coccyx, femur, humerus, and elbow joint. Ribs soak in a puddle nearby. Each bone is a dirty, decalcified umber, like a masticated chew toy.

Hasan, a 24-year-old enlisted in the Iraqi Federal Police, stands on the sandy road that snakes along the wadi’s eastern edge. The air is thick with the smell of burnt rubber, bloated rigor, and oil fires. Hasan, who gives me only his first name, has stubble on his chin. He wears blue and gray fatigues and black combat boots, one of which he used to kick the stone that now rests near the scattered remains of a dead man. They are a fraction of what the ravine holds: A short distance away, near the hood of a destroyed Humvee, is another body, stripped of flesh but still braided with the scraps of a brown shirt worn at the moment of death.

That moment came in February, when it was much colder in Albu Saif, this village on a bend in the Tigris River a few miles south of Mosul. Iraqi forces swept through en route to reclaiming their country’s second-largest city from the Islamic State. Two months later the village is quiet. The northward view of Mosul, bisected by the Tigris, is dark, halting, and handsome. Lofted train tracks traverse Albu Saif before terminating on Mosul’s western side, where Islamic State militants are making their last stand. Some 340,000 people have been displaced in the past six months, fleeing the most intense urban warfare waged since World War II; another 100,000 will join them by mid-summer. Mosul’s main railway station is gutted. Concrete rubbish recalls where buildings once stood. Those that still do, and the people who’ve taken shelter inside them, hang on like corporeal tissue unwilling to decompose.

Hasan saunters along the road to show me more of what the liberation of Albu Saif left in its wake. A fully clothed skeleton lies prone on the hillside, frozen in what looks like an attempted escape from the wadi. It’s a strange relief to see something still lying in the place where it fell, appearing unmolested by nature or man.

“All that is left of them are bone,” Hasan says with cool bravado. He wears his camouflage cap with its brim tilted upward, his bootlaces loosened. He wipes a bead of sweat from his brow. “Our force came from above and passed them here. This is just what we found when we killed them.”

They were Islamic State fighters. Hasan’s unflappable demeanor tells me that he doesn’t give a damn about them and that I shouldn’t either. They were scarcely human when they were alive, just bone, flesh, and evil. Now I could kick a rock at them, too, if I wanted. Maybe Hasan expects me to.

He shifts his weight, plunging his hands into his pockets. He doesn’t make much eye contact as he speaks, and he never dwells on one detail of the battle that took place here more than any other: Soldiers arrived, encountered militants, killed them, and moved on. Whether this plain account is the product of shame, modesty, or trauma, I can’t say.

But what if he told me? Would I believe him?

About all anyone can trust in war is that everybody lies.

To gaze across the desert from Albu Saif’s pleated hills is to see the past as much as the present. The cursive paths of Nineveh province twist across pinched-earth berms and cut through plumes of smoke left by air strikes, artillery shelling, and mortar rounds. They lead to settlements that in some cases have shaped northern Iraq’s landscape for thousands of years.

The building block of ancient Mesopotamia was the mud brick, concocted from earth, straw, and water. The bricks were dry and stiff, valiant against the harsh Middle Eastern climate and its unrelenting heat. But they disintegrated over time. For a settlement to survive, surfaces had to be fortified again and again. Sometimes a village’s structures were razed and rebuilt. By design, the debris of what stood before served as the foundation for what came next: A new building rose from the ashes of another. The cycle repeated itself over centuries, the accumulations climbing upward like small mountain kingdoms reaching slowly for the sky.

In Arabic, these mounds are called tels. Stripping them layer by layer would take you back in time. In the Kurdish city of Erbil, about 50 miles southeast of Mosul, the medieval citadel rests atop the remains of a civilization from the fourth millennium B.C. Destruction in Iraq has always been the genesis of preservation.

All of which would be a beautiful legacy were it not hidden beneath the country’s unshakable and unfortunate reputation for human viciousness. This trait receives the brunt of global attention. Iraq, like the wider region in which it sits, is seen as a spinning top of sectarian disputes, foreign invasions, mass atrocities, and terrorist insurgencies.

The latest of these scourges arrived in June 2014: the Islamic State, riding in shiny Toyota Hiluxes with machine guns welded to their beds. The militants overran Mosul as well as Ramadi and Fallujah to the south. Iraqi security forces dropped their weapons and fled, gifting the new arrivals with a bounty of ammunition depots, armored vehicles, and military installations. Close to one million civilians in Nineveh province were left under the extremists’ rule.

More than two years later, in October 2016, a coalition of armed forces—Iraqi, Kurdish, American, French, British, Australian—began to retake the city. By late January, eastern Mosul was declared fully liberated. Across the Tigris, Islamic State fighters settled into the Old City, a cross-hatching of narrow alleys and architecture hardly altered for centuries. The labyrinth is home to the Great Mosque of al-Nuri, where Islamic State leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi proclaimed the establishment of his caliphate; three years later, his fighters would raze it.

It’s demanding, bloody work to dislodge an enemy from this urban maze, but now, in late April, liberation forces report that the number of militants in Mosul has dwindled to fewer than 1,000. By mid-June, the number will drop below 500. A trident offensive is under way to complete the mission of saving the city: Units of Iraqi special ops and police advance from the south, while Shia militias and the Ninth Armored Division of the Iraqi Army move in from the west and north, where the Islamic State’s black flags still twitch atop adobe structures in the desert stretching between Mosul and the Syrian border.

Death is pervasive, the scale of it astonishing. Several thousand civilians have been killed or injured in air strikes and frontline combat since the Mosul offensive began. In March, an American bomb reduced a home in the city’s al-Jadida district to a concrete pancake, killing more than 100 civilians; it was one of the deadliest incidents in Iraq since the American invasion of 2003. Islamic State fighters have launched chemical attacks, and their armed drones buzz overhead. Militants lob mortars without discretion, use civilians as shields, and execute residents who defy their orders or attempt to flee. Thousands of Iraqi soldiers are dead; thousands more are wounded. A hospital in Qayyara, a town just south of Mosul, has morgue refrigerators full of casualties. Other facilities keep bodies in rooms where the air-conditioning is set to about 60 degrees Fahrenheit, the lowest temperature the meager units can reach.

There is space earmarked for burials, including cemeteries in the Wadi Ekab and Wadi al-Hajar districts. Combat and diminished infrastructure make reaching many of the locations nearly impossible. Instead, people inter the bodies of loved ones, and sometimes those of strangers, in their backyard gardens, quiet and fertile respites amid mass ruin. Families bury children where they die, on the same afternoons and in the same places where they played hours before, wearing Disney T-shirts and kicking scuffed soccer balls.

What happens to the Islamic State’s dead—several thousand, according to Pentagon estimates—is a different matter. No one wants to talk about it. To this ancient, undaunted land, the manner of a death means little: A body, whether its soul was good or wicked, is debris upon which Iraq can rebuild once again. To inhabitants, though, the question of what extremists who have murdered, raped, and pillaged deserve in death has an obvious answer: nothing. Rid your home of evil, any way you can, then get on with life. A logical response, perhaps, but an ineffectual one. Pain runs deep in this terrain, and its stains keep accumulating, even after combat subsides.

Journeying through Mosul, I expected to witness retribution against dead militants masquerading as deliverance. But I didn’t—not immediately. I had to go looking for it, because, as in any war, Iraq’s living are hastily writing the narrative of the dead. Triumph grants them this privilege. They are setting the terms of what is right and wrong, factually and morally, in the mythology of the battle for Mosul. Out of self-interest as much as ideology, they are veiling or erasing their own cruelties with talk of oversight, collateral damage, and, above all, patriotism.

Bending the rules of war is the eternal exploit of victors. Breaking them is how heroes risk becoming the evil they pledged to vanquish. This is the lesson of Islamic State bodies, and the bones collecting filth in Albu Saif.

II

A Humvee with crude ballistics plates attached to its front skids to a halt near where Hasan and I stand. The moment that follows is one of chaos and questioning, shouting and misunderstanding, each individual figuring out who is who and what each wants, whether or not they should die. It is bedlam imbued with normalcy. From the front passenger side steps an Iraqi federal police captain, followed by a jejune soldier in faux Oakley sunglasses, keen to please his commanding officer. With his rifle the soldier sights the stark hillside, long cleared of any threats. Hasan salutes impassively in the heat.

The captain, who calls himself Salah, is proud, with his chest heaved outward and a broad stride. He surveys the area. He commanded the village’s liberation, which makes him a primary author of the story told about it to reporters like me.

Salah makes small talk. He says we are friends, brothers even, aligned against a common enemy. Triumph is near; the Islamic State will soon be finished. He and his men are doing whatever it takes to win. But we must understand: It is not easy.

He points down to the bones and the eager soldier hops to, heading toward the Humvee. The young man misunderstood his commander’s instruction, which was to walk down the hill. Salah grabs the neckline of the soldier’s flak jacket to steer him the right way, toward a small inclined trail worn into the earth. We descend into the wadi, where we choke on air that smells of putrefaction.

Salah wants to tell me what happened in this place where nothing seems to grow, only to wither. “It was raining,” Salah says, recalling the February battle with the Islamic State. He sketches lines in the air to indicate movements and punctuate moments. His Humvee’s windshield was a web of cracks from bullets smacking into it; shell casings arched from smoking rifle chambers; men shouted, radios fritzed.  “We lost the driver,” Salah explains, gesturing to the trashed hood in the ravine. Another of his men died, too.

“But we killed many of them,” he continues, referring to the militants. “The next day, I came to take the Humvee out and put some dirt on the bodies. I was afraid of bugs and diseases.”

“Yes,” Hasan affirms. “That’s right.”

There is no cavity in the earth. No bomb, mortar, or grenade detonated here. The militants must have been caught in a cluster—unusual for a fighting force that, as a tactical matter, keeps squad members spread out in combat—and then killed individually. Shot, most likely, either in the wadi or just above it.

“Let them decay,” Hasan says while I ponder the scenario. “We don’t know when it’s going to happen, but someone will come to bury them here.” Not anyone from the army or police, though. Salah and Hasan agree that cleanup is not their job.

On the eastern bank of the Tigris, just north of Mosul, sits a tel dating back to before 600 B.C. When archaeologists excavated the mound, known as Kouyunjik, in the 1850s, they discovered the library of Ashurbanipal, an Assyrian king. Inscribed on thousands of clay tablets was some of the world’s earliest known literature, including The Epic of Gilgamesh, a poem about a king searching for the secret to eternal life. During the journey, Gilgamesh summons his deceased friend Enkidu to discuss the afterlife of fallen soldiers:

“Did you see the one who was killed in battle?”

“I saw him. His father and mother honor his memory and his wife weeps over him.”

“Did you see the one whose corpse was left lying on the plain?”

“I saw him. His shade is not at rest in the Netherworld.”

The same leitmotif infuses other ancient works, including The Iliad. At the end of Homer’s epic tale, Achilles slays Hector, leader of the Trojan army, and drags his body around the walls of Troy: “He pierced the sinews at the back of both his feet from heel to ankle and passed thongs of ox-hide through the slits he had made: thus he made the body fast to his chariot, letting the head trail upon the ground.” Achilles then refuses to bury the mangled corpse. The gods, horrified, intervene to ensure the safe return of Hector’s body to his family. The Iliad ends with the Greeks and Trojans agreeing to a truce so that Hector’s funeral may be held.

Respect for the dead later became a tenet of major religions, including Islam. Abu Bakr, the first caliph after the Prophet Muhammad’s death, instructed Muslim warriors, “Do not commit treachery or deviate from the right path. You must not mutilate dead bodies.” A Muslim who dies fighting is a shahid, or martyr. The Koran is vague on how one should be buried, but hadiths, sayings from the prophet that expound upon Islamic law, state that martyrs should be placed in the ground, without wrappings, steeped in their own blood.

In the modern era, the maxim that armies should respect the dead, even those of their enemies, holds fast in international law. The Geneva Conventions prohibit despoiling, mutilation, and other ill treatment of corpses. They also call for reasonable measures to be taken to bury bodies humanely. Meanwhile, the statute of the International Criminal Court considers committing “outrages upon personal dignity,” including that of corpses, a war crime.

Officially, Iraqi authorities have embraced millennia-old dictums in their confrontation with the Islamic State. In his “Advice and Guidance to Fighters on the Battlefield,” issued in 2015, Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, a leading traditionalist cleric, reminds militia soldiers of Islamic law: “Do not indulge in acts of extremism, do not disrespect dead corpses, do not resort to deceit.” According to local media, the independent Commission for Human Rights in Iraqi Kurdistan emphasized in a letter sent this winter to media outlets and Iraqi military groups that “improper actions against the dead are also human rights violations.” Bodies should be buried in easily identifiable places and according to international standards, with personal information put into glass bottles so their families can identify them later—even the families of Islamic State fighters.

However respectful and righteous, these measures are often impossible. Militants rarely carry identification, at least none that would prove useful or intelligible outside the caliphate; most go by noms de guerre. Many families are loath to look for relatives who left home and never came back, lest they become associated with terrorists. Others are too far away to even try. More than 20,000 foreign nationals have joined the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, with upwards of 3,000 hailing from countries in the West.

The vicissitudes of conflict also obstruct religious obligation. The majority of Iraq’s population is Shiite Arab, who bury their dead in the world’s largest cemetery: some five million plots on more than 4,000 acres in the city of Najaf, growing by 50,000 graves each year. In Mosul, however, Sunnis have long tipped the population scale. (The city has also played host to Christians, Jews, Kurds, Yazidis, and other minorities; so complicated were Nineveh’s demographics that, on a 1918 map of sectarian divides, T.E. Lawrence denoted the region with two question marks.) The Islamic State is also comprised predominately of Sunnis. Both sects require that bodies be cleaned (ghusl), shrouded (kafan), prayed over by a cleric, and buried as quickly as possible after death. Despite traditional reservations about organ donation, in beleaguered Iraq it’s encouraged; to save one man’s life is to save humanity.

A few months ago, some local officials suggested that Mosul establish a single graveyard for Islamic State fighters—a monument to their defeat and a place that families would know to come. Religious rites weren’t part of the calculation; efficiency and keeping hated bodies separate from those of innocents were. But what if people came to pray at the tousled loam, believing the men beneath it to be heroic martyrs? Creating a dedicated Islamic State burial site risked memorializing the crimes against humanity that dead fighters had committed. The idea was scrapped.

The pace of battle here is too fast anyway, the trajectory of fighting unpredictable. Bodies can’t be relocated systematically when the lines of combat are constantly redrawn. Mass graves—dozens of bodies thrust into open, earthly wounds—are often all that Mosul’s liberators can manage. They use bulldozers to hurriedly entomb dead militants, one atop the other, in rolling waves of dirt. No identification or markings are left aboveground. Excavation would be the only way to determine who lies beneath the topsoil: whose sons, brothers, husbands, and friends, after leaving home, perished in ignominy.

To be bulldozed into the earth is a bitter end but a better one, I’m assured, than the Islamic State would ever offer.

To be bulldozed into the earth is a bitter end but a better one, I’m assured by soldiers, than the Islamic State would ever offer. It too has employed mass graves, including one in the Khasfa sinkhole, five miles southwest of Mosul. Hundreds, perhaps thousands of bodies rest beneath dirt and water there, all executed by the zealots during their occupation of the city. Now the group supposedly kills its own wounded in retreat and carries the bodies away from battle to an unknown fate. “Sometimes they just take the head off,” says Ali Kasem, a federal police lieutenant, “so they can’t be identified in the future.”

We are riding in a convoy behind the front line in Mosul’s western neighborhoods when he tells me this. Kasem, a heavyset and cherubic man, sits in the rear of a passenger van adorned with a shoddy coat of spray paint in a camouflage pattern. His arms are spread across the back row of seats like he’s a prince being chauffeured in a chariot.

Despite what Kasem says, in at least some cases the Islamic State has buried its fighters in Mosul. There is a makeshift cemetery, I hear, in the basement of a building, dirt mounds scattered between the beams supporting the structure above. The police warn me that it’s too dangerous to visit. They won’t risk lives to show me the graveyard.

In the al-Tayaran district, the convoy stops near a food station: a truck with some flattop grills churning out falafel cakes and fried okra on samoon bread. Starving children, a few of the hundreds of thousands of denizens still trapped in the city, clang metal plates and pots. Some of their friends are buried nearby, having mistaken an improvised explosive device (IED) for a toy.

Down the street is a pair of 32-ton Caterpillar D7R bulldozers, two of the 132 sent over by the United States since 2015. Each one is worth some $200,000. Like golf carts on driving ranges, they have become targets—not of balls but of bullets. Graze marks and holes mar the machines’ plating and glass.

One of them is driven by a twentysomething man named Muhammad. He is bashful, timidly accepting the chance to speak about his new front-line job with the police. He’s been manning a bulldozer for only a few months. “Whenever they advance, I push,” he says. “We clean the streets of destroyed cars, explosive devices, mines.…”

Before he can say what else he clears away, his commander, agitated, cuts him off. When I ask Muhammad if he knows where any Islamic State fighters are buried, he glances at his boss, who waves him back to the Caterpillar. Muhammad turns a key and the machine coughs and groans to life. As it moves away, it passes a sullen man crouching on the pavement, ostensibly with nowhere to go, nothing to do.

The Kurds have a saying for when all hope is lost: “Even the devil has left.”

III

Captain Salah stands akimbo after recounting his victory in Albu Saif. The practiced tale is rife with false humility, worth telling a Western journalist and, perhaps, future generations of Iraqis who will grow up here. The dead fighters whose grisly remains we stand among were from Saudi Arabia, Syria, and Iraq, maybe Germany, Salah says. But if they died in battle and didn’t carry identification, how does he know? I puzzle over this and, once again, how the fighters came to die where they did. A small viaduct cuts through the hillside, connecting the wadi to another that leads east toward the Tigris. The hollow concrete passageway is like an esophagus. The wind whispers through it.

Maybe the fighters maneuvered within the viaduct to ambush the liberation forces on the road above. They must have known, however, that striking from a low position and through an echoing tunnel was unwise. They would have been noisy sitting ducks for an elevated attack by Salah and his men. Perhaps, then, they battled head-on from the road and fell into the gully when they were shot in combat. Why, though, would they have exposed themselves to gunfire as a group, out in the open with nowhere to possibly retreat?

Through a translator, I press Salah to explain again, this time more clearly, how the battle transpired: How hard it was raining. How many fighters he encountered. What kind of resistance they put up, and from what vantage point. I also ask how he knows the nationalities of the men if they were killed on sight.

Hasan kicks another rock, and another. The soldiers who arrived in the Humvee begin to laugh among themselves. Hasan joins in. The eager soldier, still shadowing Salah’s every move and hanging on the commander’s words, reminds me of a G.I. Joe cartoon. I’m irritated by the irreverence.

Then Salah reaches for his phone and begins to chuckle, too. He has something to show me. It is something I want to see—but wish I didn’t.

Islamic State corpses charred and hog-tied, hung from utility poles or splayed on roads, used as props in selfies—these are just a few of the descriptions of defilement noted by journalists, aid workers, and other eyewitnesses since the start of the Mosul offensive. Iraqi troops, and maybe civilians, sometimes take justice into their own hands.

On the broad road that leads into east Mosul, I see one body strung up. Residents tell me this man was a militant; no one explains how he got to where he hangs. If there were more like him, disgraced in death, they’re gone now. Perhaps for the benefit of people like me, outsiders peering in. Phones, I come to learn, hold the full picture. Young soldiers in Mosul share images and videos of death like kids trading baseball cards on a playground. In one picture I’m shown, the bodies of militants are bound with heavy rope. In another, Iraqi soldiers are captured snapping their own photos of two corpses crumpled near a motorcycle.

Yet source after source tells me: Everything is done in accordance with the law. Dozens of police officers, municipal officials, and clerics provide an assortment of vague answers to the question of what happens to the Islamic State’s dead. “When we see them, we bury them,” one man says. Others talk of delivering bodies to doctors or asking the local health ministry to deal with them. “The NGOs come and take them” is another response.

“We have nothing to do with IS bodies,” says Mohammed Mahmoud Suleiman of the Iraqi Civil Defense. “We just care about the civilians.” A police major insists “it is obvious” if dead men were militants “from their beards, Kandahar clothing, and they have weapons with them.” If only weapons in Iraq were a rarity. If only men living under the Islamic State’s control are not forced to dress like their rulers, grow their beards the same way. If only civilians were not coerced into fighting for the Islamic State. In life, camouflage was a matter of survival; in death, it can be deceptive.

The extremists don disguises, too. They dress as police officers or shave their faces to infiltrate military bases or displacement camps on the outskirts of Mosul. They manipulate the urban battlefield, using civilians as armor and their streets and homes as trenches. Today, there are at least ten civilian deaths for every one combatant killed in war, according to the International Commission of Missing Persons (ICMP). A century ago, that ratio was reversed.

Justice is woefully finite and enduringly expendable. Innocents receive it when possible, but the distribution reaches only so many. It is easy to grow impatient in the game of hurry-up-and-wait. Bureaucracy as a rule lags behind the speed of fighting, struggling to gather proof of crimes before it disappears or is destroyed. Science is slow, too. The ICMP, created to excavate mass graves in Bosnia back in the 1990s, now operates in other places that are experiencing disaster, including Iraq. This isn’t its first stint in the country. Previously, it probed the mass graves left by Saddam Hussein’s murderous Baath regime.

Justice is woefully finite and enduringly expendable. Innocents receive it when possible, but the distribution reaches only so many. 

While the organization is practiced, the ICMP’s work is laborious: It gathers DNA samples from civilians, digs through burial sites, and compares the genetic material the living have provided with what it manages to procure from the ground. “People bury the dead randomly, so when the soft tissue melts the bones mix together,” says Fawaz Abdulabbas, deputy head of the ICMP mission in Iraq. “When we excavate, we don’t excavate full bodies. We excavate bone.” Genetic matches help families learn what happened to the missing. Ideally, they also provide evidence for criminal trials.

The group hasn’t started digging in Mosul; it could be months before it does. “This is a very long, complicated process,” Abdulabbas says. An understatement, given that he knows he’ll never finish the task—there will be corpses left unidentified in holes or lost piece by piece to the environment. Surely Islamic State fighters, viewed as the least important of all bodies, will make up a large percentage of those lost forever.

The ICMP began its work last year in Tikrit, some 150 miles south, where the Islamic State massacred 1,700 Iraqi soldiers in June 2014 at Camp Speicher. Video from the event shows soldiers lying in pits awaiting execution. Others take their last breaths on the bank of the Tigris. At the river’s surface, water buffalo still graze; beneath it are the bodies of at least 100 army cadets.

Other institutions seem to jump ahead dangerously on matters of justice, ushering wrongdoers through ad hoc proceedings. It is midday when I arrive in Qaraqosh, about 20 miles east of Mosul. It was Iraq’s largest Christian city until the Islamic State sent many residents fleeing and murdered others. The sun above feels hotter by the minute, as though concentrated through a giant magnifying glass on this already-blanched place. Dozens of people are milling around, because the United Court of Nineveh, once based in Mosul, has relocated here for now. Pop-up tents are arrayed with printers used to produce birth, death, and marriage certificates; papers issued under the Islamic State’s rule are invalid and must be replaced.

A pickup truck screeches down a street lined with yellow and green police cars. In the back are seven young men, their hands bound with thin cloth ties and their eyes blindfolded with the same material. The guards transporting them say they have confessed to being members of the Islamic State. They are unloaded and lined up outside a gate. When it opens, a small ruckus occurs: A woman shouts angrily, charging that the Islamic State killed her husband. The men, faces gummy with the feral muck of imprisonment, grab each other by the hems of their shirts as if bearing a pall. They shuffle forward, blind leading the blind, and the gate shudders behind them.

Once inside an administrative building, they are told to face a wall. Their necks look rough and vulnerable. An official with the Ministry of Interior, who doesn’t give his name, tells me they were arrested in Nimrud, an ancient Assyrian city 20 miles south of Mosul that now lies in ruins, carved lions and winged bulls toppled from their grand reliefs. I am instructed not to speak to the men. They are all doomed for Jahannam, or hell, anyway—what value are the words of the devil’s henchmen?

alexpottera-1498578346-71-12.jpg
Suspected militants detained in Qaraqosh.

“They were arrested for joining and supporting ISIS,” the interior official continues. “After our investigation, we found they were not killers.” They’ll be judged for other crimes, namely supporting and promulgating the caliphate. They’ll press their thumbs on a blue inkpad and use their prints to sign their testimonies. “We provide them food and comfort,” the official says. “Their food is better than ours!”

The men look like teenagers. “Most of them are young,” the official tells me. “We have a juvenile court, too.” No one else mentions a forum dedicated to judging adolescents, who under international law are in a different class of defendants than adults.

I approach one of the prisoners. He moves his head, as though attempting to see through the blindfold, until he locates my voice. There is a tattoo on one of his forearms. In Arabic it reads, “She loved me and left me.”

He’s loved her, a woman in Mosul, for the past eight months. He tells me her name, but I shouldn’t seek her out. Anyone involved with a member of the Islamic State could become a target; a few weeks after my visit, there will be reports of local residents targeting the families of militants, of 11 blindfolded boys and men left roasting in the sun south of Mosul after suffering death at the hands of vigilantes.

“Yes,” the tattooed prisoner says, “of course I miss her.”

There are many stories of men and women supporting the Islamic State out of necessity, finding no better choice, no other route of escape from lives they cannot endure. Perhaps he was one of them, hoping to fill an unbearable vastness with mortal love and religious zeal. If he survives all this, maybe one day he will be reunited with the woman to whom he has pledged allegiance by inking his body. If he didn’t kill anyone, maybe he will be spared from the fate of professed murderers: a hanging in Baghdad.

Or maybe he will wind up dead, a casualty of war’s aftermath.

The men are taken a few blocks away to a formerly private villa that now serves as a courthouse. Up a stairway with golden railings, like a Jacob’s ladder to perdition, there are two adjacent rooms with a thin wall between them. In one, men and women plead to be reimbursed for the damages wrought by conflict: a destroyed car, a leveled home, lost possessions, a dead relative. In the other, captives are questioned. Judge Sadoon al-Hassan Yani invites me to witness those proceedings. “We want you to see,” he says, “that we have democracy.”

Lawyers wait for the suspected militants’ answers to align with the reports handed to them by the initial captors, men like Captain Salah. All the first reports are damning. There are no third-party testimonies, no physical evidence. Only confessions.

The judges and investigators sit in heavy clouds of cigarillo smoke. When satisfactory answers have been given, and a prisoner’s thumb stamped to paper as verification, the arbiters wave the man away to be processed in Baghdad. They pass their judgments with the same ease given to clearing their lapels of ash.

IV

As he laughs, Salah swipes the screen on his phone with a pudgy finger caked with mud. Pictures appear, then slide away. He stops, finally, on a video and tilts his phone horizontally, to offer the fullest frame. The frozen image at the start of the video shows the ravine where we are standing. “There were seven of them,” Salah says. “They confessed.” Like the men at the court in Qaraqosh.

This is Salah’s own confession: Seven members of the Islamic State surrendered to him and his men in Albu Saif in February. Two were injured. “After we interrogated them, we took them here,” to the wadi, Salah says. “They are criminals of war, and we killed them.”

Some were led to where we now stand and executed by firing squad. To end one of the wounded men’s suffering, the captain says, soldiers drove over him with a Humvee. Salah plays the video. It scans the wadi, capturing bodies in torsion, clothes dirtied by the earth and puddles into which they had recently fallen. “Captain Salah, we do not have any wounded and no captives,” a voice off-screen says.

Salah swipes back to the photographs. One shows a fighter before he was executed, sitting in the back of a vehicle, his hands unbound. He appears to be talking calmly, even pleasantly, to the men who are about to kill him. This is how Salah knows the militants’ nationalities.

I look away from the phone and notice a vine creeping through a crack in the nearby viaduct. The tunnel is dark, and the light on the other side is a contrasting white blur, tall and rectangular like a distant tombstone.

There’s more to tell, more to erase from the first version of this story, the proud and palatable version. One of the bodies was set on fire, Salah says. It kept his men warm at night. The desert can drop to below freezing in February when the sun sets.

He explains, “It was too cold.”

The video Salah shared with the author is available to view here. Warning: The footage contains graphic images of dead bodies, some of which are unclothed.

Around the time of my visit, the humanitarian news outlet IRIN reported on a raging mental-health crisis in Iraq, exacerbated by “the barbarity of IS and almost three years of conflict involving heavy civilian and military casualties and mass displacement.” The battle for Mosul “is proving particularly tough, leaving Iraq’s armed forces mentally and physically exhausted.” They have “witnessed friends and comrades being killed or horribly maimed by the militants,” the report continues. “Some soldiers confessed to IRIN their desire to exact revenge on IS captives or corpses.”

There is no excuse for savagery. But there are explanations, however insufficient. Flyblown corpses are used for psychological warfare and for catharsis.

The IRIN report describes a federal police officer kicking the head of a dead militant, then setting the corpse’s hair and beard on fire. “You think you’re going to heaven?” he shouts. “There is only one place you are going, and that is hell!” Then he breaks down crying.

As I’m absorbing Salah’s confession, a brigadier general in the Iraqi Federal Police approaches me at a checkpoint near Albu Saif. He wears a ring with a turquoise inset and has a blue pen stuffed into his shirt pocket. He tells me about an incident in western Mosul during which a man he thought was a civilian tried to blow himself up. This man pressed the detonator attached to his suicide vest, but it failed, so he grabbed a gun and started shooting people. The brigadier general killed him.

“I wonder about how it affects me to kill all those people,” he tells me. “At the beginning, it was difficult to kill a person even if they were a criminal, because they were still people.” His eyes are marbled with tears that never run. A breeze catches some trash and twirls it in the air.

“It affects you psychologically,” he continues, “like if you kill a cat or dog with a car and you wonder if only you had not driven so fast, maybe this would not have happened.” But then you move on, appoint the blame to nature’s endless variables, tell yourself you couldn’t have avoided it.

I see the brigadier general’s spent demeanor in other, wearily moral men. Among them is Sayed Hazar, who commanded the Kurdish military police in eastern Mosul. He buried at least a dozen Islamic State fighters in that part of the city this winter, dragging them to shallow graves upon which he piled dirt in small pyramids, like settled hourglass sand. Sitting in his office in Erbil, he shows me his combat wounds. On one of his hands the skin is rippled and patched, the result of being too close to a car bomb.

“I couldn’t bring them coffins,” he says of the dead militants. His posture is stoic, his head unbowed, as he utters words that sound mundane only to people drained by catastrophe, alien to those who aren’t. “But I could bury them to protect them against animals,” Hazar continues. “For humanity I buried them, and after burying them we placed rocks for when the families come looking for them in the future, to help find them.” The rocks, planted near homes and shops and schools in Mosul, have no markings.

There’s also Munir Ahmad Qadir, heavyset and wearing a gray dishdasha. I meet him along some of the back roads of Gogjali, a neighborhood on the outskirts of eastern Mosul. He tells me that there’s a cemetery close by, one where civilians and militants are buried side by side. “It’s three minutes by car. Do you want to see them?” he asks.

“I couldn’t bring them coffins. But I could bury them to protect them against animals. For humanity I buried them.”

We navigate the worn dirt paths where grass grows only between the tracks left by previous cars for others to follow. As Mosul slips farther behind us, a green pasture appears ahead, stretching on a gentle incline toward an open sky. It’s peaceful here. At the far edge of the field is a low stone wall encircling a graveyard that seems well tended. Some of the graves date back to the Iran-Iraq War. “I am a cattle farmer, but I have been digging graves since I was 13,” Qadir says as we alight from the car. “My brother and the rest of my family, all of us buried the bodies for free. I know all of their names.”

He waves his hand over part of the land. “All these graves are from October. We do not care if they are Muslim, Yazidi, Shabak, whatever. We buried them for God,” Qadir says.

He points toward the only unmarked graves. “These are ISIS,” he says. Twelve in all, with stones stacked neatly around the edges. Some of the plots seem unreasonably small. “The body’s in a bag,” he says of one. “It’s just pieces of someone.”

The fighters were killed in air strikes in eastern Mosul. Afterward, residents in the area complained to security forces that the stench of death was overwhelming. If they didn’t like it, they were told, they should bury the bodies themselves.

So they did. No cleric was present, no ceremony was performed, and the dead still wore their clothes. But they were interred in a proper cemetery, which here seems like a rare form of compassion.

V

I don’t want to believe Salah’s second story until I can review the phone footage on my own, in private. In the wadi, he promises to send it to me. Days later, after some cajoling, it arrives on my computer along with the pictures he also showed me. Maybe he finally sent the materials to unburden himself in some small way of what happened in Albu Saif. Or maybe he thinks I have a perverse desire to bask in bloodlust.

Salah’s photos and video show what comes after extrajudicial killings: the final resting place of some of the most hated men on earth. One of the dead militants in the video is half naked, his lower body exposed. Others are twisted under or around each another. The only way for bodies to end up like that is to line men up and kill them. It makes sense now why the first version of the story made none at all.

I go back to Albu Saif to revisit the scene in light of what I now know happened there, to scrounge for whatever glimmer of hope and humanity the place still holds. The skies above the village and Mosul in the distance are slate gray, a stainless chromium backdrop to the ongoing battle against the Islamic State’s last redoubt. In western Mosul, the militants are fighting to the death as if they invite it.

Along the same route where I first encountered Hasan and Salah, I meet three young men who live in Albu Saif. My military minders don’t want me talking to them. They say it isn’t safe in the village, that it’s riddled with landmines. Throughout my trip, chaperones have only been interested in my speaking to residents who are returning to Mosul or police officers who tell of cleared zones, unwired bombs, and dismantled IEDs. Only the victorious need apply when it comes to the stories I’m allowed to gather. This time, though, they give up, get in their vehicle, and drive away.

I ask the young men about the Islamic State fighters who were stationed in Albu Saif during the group’s occupation of the village. Mohamad, a cattle farmer in his late twenties who says he worked in an appliance store in Mosul before the militants arrived, points to a destroyed house. “They were living in that one, and they had an office in that house over there,” he says, gesturing to another structure. “If you did not bother them, they did not bother you.”

One of the other men, who won’t give his name, says that some fighters forced local civilians to join the Islamic State’s ranks. “In front of our house, they had missiles,” the third man, 22-year-old Rajwan Mezher, recalls. “There was no work. Life was very difficult. When we could not find a piece of bread, ISIS was feasting.”

Some militants tried to flee when Iraqi forces came to liberate the village this winter, but they were killed in air strikes. “The dogs finished them,” Mohamad says. Around here many feral dogs are emaciated and sickly. Others, though, are fat and healthy.

I ask the three men about the bones in the wadi. I tell them the first story and then the second one, of humiliations and executions and desecrations.

“Yes, that’s true,” Mohamad says passively, as though confirming Salah’s confession as any old fact. The impact of tragedy is reduced by its recurrence. Eventually, it would not be unreasonable to feel nothing at all.

We talk a while longer. The men hope the main route into Mosul will reopen soon; they want to get vegetables and other food, perhaps not realizing that sustenance is scarce in the besieged city and that their best luck is in the displacement camps.

When we part, they wave goodbye as they walk along a narrow path traversing the wadi. They get my attention one last time, pointing into the earthen cicatrix. There are more bones, dead men I haven’t even seen yet.

It is growing dark. Before long, armored vehicles speeding past will look like they are chasing endless cones of light. I glance into the wadi once more before I go. Carved by centuries of wind and water, it is so heavy with dusk and silence and loss that it feels painfully alive. I hear a whisper but mistake it for a scream.

The Improbable Life of Paula Zoe Helfrich

She was the daughter of a U.S. spy, an exile from Burma, a flight attendant in a war zone, and half of an epic love story. But how much of that was true?

By Julia Cooke

The Atavist Magazine, No. 67


Julia Cooke’s essays and reporting have appeared in Virginia Quarterly Review, SalonThe New York Times, and Tin House. They have been anthologized in The Best American Travel Writing 2014. She is the recipient of a 2016 New York Press Club award and the author of The Other Side of Paradise: Life in the New Cuba, which features reporting on youth culture in Havana. 


Editor: Seyward Darby
Designer: Jefferson Rabb
Copy Editor: Sean Cooper
Fact Checker: Jake Scobey-Thal
Photos: Courtesy of Rebecca Sprecher and Mary Uyeda

Published in May 2017. Design updated in 2021.

One

The four Burmese officers who came to the apartment that morning in 1963 didn’t break down the door. They pounded hard, though, very hard. When Paula Zoe Helfrich answered, they told her in no uncertain terms that she would board an evening flight out of Rangoon. She would not be allowed to return.

A steely new regime in Burma was causing outsiders to scatter. Indian merchants were gathering what earnings could be salvaged from their teak and rice mills before heading west. White expatriates weighed England versus Australia. Deportations of foreigners grew increasingly common. Still, Paula had assumed that her father’s stature would ensure her immunity. He had worked with the highest powers of Burma’s postcolonial government; surely his 17-year-old daughter would skim above any discord like fat on milk.

Besides, she was a native. Her parents were from Illinois, but she had been born in Rangoon. She spoke Burmese. She reflexively knew the differences in climate, language, and culture between the country’s highlands and ports. She had ridden elephants in the jungle and wore longyis, traditional wrap skirts. She had a job at a tourism desk in Rangoon’s stately Strand Hotel and a room in the apartment of a family friend. After work she and her boyfriend, a handsome Burmese student with revolutionary leanings, walked along the shores of Kandawgyi Lake, where dense foliage furnished private nooks. She loved how the pink evening light reflected off the nearby gilded Shwedagon Pagoda onto the lake’s flat water.

Disorder, the result of World War II’s aftermath and simmering interethnic conflict, had afflicted Burma for as long as Paula could remember. Consequences were visible: People displaced from the countryside lived in shantytowns along Rangoon’s fringes. In 1962, the situation took a dramatic turn. The military staged a coup and expelled international organizations, including the Ford Foundation and the Asia Foundation. It banned Western-style dancing, horse racing, and nightclubs. That summer, troops stormed a Rangoon University meeting on democracy, killing dozens of people, according to human-rights groups. The next day, the regime blew up the campus’s student union. The situation became progressively dire as the months wore on.

The following September was when the officers came for Paula. She was ordered to leave because she had spent time with questionable people, namely her boyfriend. Her father didn’t put up a fight. She had less than 24 hours to pack her possessions, bid farewell to the love of her life, and stop for a bowl of mohinga, perfumed fish and noodle soup, on her way to the airport. When Paula told me this story, she described her deportation so vividly that I all but saw the officers’ broad shoulders in her doorway, the rutted roads jolting the car that ferried her to the plane, and her hands nervously gripping her knees as she rode.

She was heading to a place she’d never been and a family she’d never met: grandparents, an aunt and uncle, and cousins in Chicago. She would find the Windy City smelly and orderly, sometimes beautiful but too often cold. She had never experienced the sting of a Midwestern winter. She didn’t even own a coat.  


I once spent half an evening as Paula’s daughter. We met at a 2014 conference in Bangkok of former Pan Am flight attendants; she was the keynote speaker and I was researching a book. In her speech, she talked about growing up in Southeast Asia and feeling out of place in the United States when she was plopped there in the 1960s. She’d lived a series of interlocking adventures: traveling the world with Pan Am, helping evacuate refugees during the Vietnam War, running for office in Hawaii, self-publishing a novel based on her life, returning alone to live in Burma, now called Myanmar, as a middle-aged woman. Paula’s voice was silvery, musical, and rich with laughter. She was in her sixties, she told the group, but she felt like she was thirty. Her two daughters still asked her what she planned to do when she grew up.

The conference’s final dinner involved a river cruise. We drifted past the Thai capital’s skyscrapers, drinking wine and listening to the wafting music of a sequin-clad Elvis impersonator under a sky that threatened rain. At one point, I found myself sitting next to Paula on a crusty vinyl stool bolted to the boat’s aft. I was younger than everyone in the crowd by three decades and had grown weary of explaining my provenance. Paula noticed.

Paula and her daughters.
Paula and her daughters.

“Wanna be my daughter?” she asked conspiratorially, leaning toward me in a quiet moment. Her smiling face, eyebrows raised, was an invitation. “Sure,” I answered.

For the next hour, as people swirled by to talk to Paula, she introduced me as her offspring. It wasn’t an impossible sell—we both wore our curly hair loose and natural; we both had strong opinions and loud laughs. I watched as she explained who I was with zero doubt or hesitation ruffling her features. The other women nodded in understanding. I caved when I ran out of platitudes based on my thin knowledge of her. I finally admitted that we were not, in fact, related, and everyone was amused. No one asked who I really was.   

Paula struck me as magnetic and the rare person who, with no loss of kindness, acts first and considers how people might feel afterward. She seemed in full possession of herself, and what I felt that night was akin to envy, staring upward from my relative youth at this woman of boundless energy and verve. She captivated listeners with the details of life events that seemed stolen from fairy tales. Most striking was an epic love story: When she moved back to Myanmar, Paula told me, she found the teenage boyfriend that the deportation had cost her and married him.

What a magnificent coincidence, I thought, to anchor Paula’s story. The contours and formative incidents of her life, in Paula’s sweeping, confident telling of it, conformed with cookie-cutter precision to the grand currents of history in Southeast Asia. Burma’s independence coincided with her birth and imbued her upbringing with adventure. Its slide into authoritarianism displaced her physically but couldn’t uproot her identity or her affections. Decades later, the country’s reopening drew her into its ebullient orbit and engineered an improbable reunion with a man she’d thought she would never see again. The arc of a life, punctuated by remarkable love, loss, and deliverance—it was a saga that I wanted to write.

The contours and formative incidents of her life, in Paula’s sweeping, confident telling of it, conformed with cookie-cutter precision to the grand currents of history in Southeast Asia.

I also wished to be as curious and bold as Paula when I eventually married and, I hoped, became a mother. She became more than a potential interview subject; she was a candidate for some personal pantheon of spirited women I could locate in my mind on demand, perhaps even call on from time to time. Paula spoke of my coming to visit her in Myanmar as inevitable.

She was right: After a year of occasional correspondence, I flew to Yangon, as Rangoon is now known. It was September 2015. “Aaaaah! Julia, yes!” came the cry from her bedroom when her husband announced that I was at their front door. Paula gripped my arm when she saw me. She’d lost weight since I’d met her, and her hair was less curly. Even so, her gaze possessed startling immediacy. She was impatient and impetuous by nature, but when she looked at you, she seemed to scan everything she found and settle on something—the piece of you that interested her most.

Paula still embodied the dichotomies that had initially drawn me to her: international and American, feminist and feminine, strident and warm, independent yet deeply connected to others. As I talked with her, interviewed friends and family, and explored documents pertaining to her past, another contradiction revealed itself, this one between fact and fiction. Put simply, not every detail of the stories Paula told me about herself was true. In some cases, veracity was less splendid, while in others it was more poignant. “Paula was a creative person,” her younger sister Mary Uyeda told me, “and there were times when that creativity exceeded reality.” Why was the truth of her objectively extraordinary life not enough for Paula, I wondered. Why did she need more?

Somerset Maugham, one of many writers to use Burma as a backdrop, once described it as having “a beauty not of nature, but of the theater.” When I met Paula, the country had become her stage for reclaiming the junctures of a life often shaped against her will. I didn’t know it yet, but I was part of her farewell performance.

Two

In the archives of the Harry S. Truman Library and Museum in Independence, Missouri, a samurai sword sits in storage, never before displayed to the public. It is believed to have belonged to Shojiro Iida, commanding general of the Japanese 15th Army in Burma during World War II. Aung San, the architect of Burmese democracy, gave it to Truman in 1946.

Memorandums between Truman’s office and the War Department reveal some hesitation over the president’s acceptance of the sword. To not take it risked alienating the man very likely to claim power in an independent Burma. To receive it would be to recognize his legitimacy while England still technically ruled the gangly country stretched alongside China and Thailand. In the end, Truman’s top military aide accepted the sword on his behalf.

Lieutenant Colonel Baird Helfrich was the emissary dispatched to gift the blade to the president. A lawyer by training, he had arrived in Burma in 1944, to lead a secret wing of the Office of Strategic Services (OSS), the precursor to the CIA. He was tasked with infiltrating various groups of anti-English revolutionaries to identify those allied with the Japanese and cultivate others deemed susceptible to American influence. He fell in with Aung San, then a leader of Burma’s Anti-Fascist People’s Freedom League, and “displayed outstanding acumen, diligence, and daring in obtaining information vital to the United States Government,” according to his OSS personnel file.

After the war, Baird returned home to Illinois, where he married a woman named Patricia “Pat” King who’d been a code breaker in the Navy. They honeymooned in China, then returned to the Midwest, where Baird continued his law career. In Rangoon, Aung San was assassinated in July 1947, six months before Burma achieved the freedom for which he’d struggled. The Anti-Fascist People’s Freedom League vaulted into power nonetheless, with U Nu, an ally of Aung San’s, as prime minister. The new government quickly found itself navigating conflicts with ethnic minorities and political rivals fighting for their say in the country’s future.

The Helfrich family.
The Helfrich family.

By the early 1950s, civil war had ebbed. Burma had a lively media and a growing educational system. U Nu aligned himself with anti-communists on state visits, and under General Ne Win, the army became professional and unified, able to squelch border skirmishes with the Chinese. Foreign interest in the country swelled. Burma was rich in natural resources and strategically located amid the Cold War dominoes of Indochina.

Baird sensed opportunity: A few years in Burma investing in various businesses and his family could return to the United States with the funds and connections to launch his political career. (If he still worked for covert services, Baird slid under such deep cover that today the CIA will “neither confirm nor deny the existence or nonexistence” of records on his postwar activities.) His wife found Illinois “much too quiet to suit,” anyway. So they decamped. “It all sounds just a bit monumental an endeavor,” Pat Helfrich wrote in her first letter to her skeptical parents, describing various projects and plans that she and Baird would undertake in their new home.


Paula told everyone she knew, even her children, that she was born in Burma. For some listeners, she added a dash of intrigue: Pat delivered the Helfriches’ first child in Rangoon, but Baird wanted the infant to have a passport indicating that she’d been born on American soil. Not long after her birth, he walked a few blocks from his downtown office, where he represented John Deere and other American businesses seeking a foothold in Burma, to a warren of townhouses and department stores. There, in a small, discreet office, he had Paula’s first passport forged. It said she was born in Peoria, Illinois.

This is the first fable to fall away from the scaffolding of Paula’s life. Her mother’s letters, which Paula collected and intended to publish, reveal that she was born in the United States: in Peoria, on August 15, 1946, one year to the day after the Japanese surrendered in World War II. The Helfriches’ next three children—Ellie, Stuart, and Mary—were also born in Illinois. Paula was five when the family moved to Burma. “Paula has come through the whole thing as casually as though she were just crossing the road,” Pat wrote to her parents.

On the other side of that road lay Technicolor longyis, gleaming pagodas, spicy curries, and more than 135 ethnic groups that testily comprised the country. It’s plausible that Paula’s early memories of the Midwest faded quickly and forever. Or perhaps she claimed Burma as her point of origin, knowing it was not, because it felt truer than fact.


A family of six stands in front of a wood-gabled, Tudor-style white house with that colonial incongruity between European architecture and surrounding tropical foliage. It’s April 1952; the Helfriches have arrived on an ocean liner from California to learn that their new home at 26 Park Road in Rangoon is occupied by another family, the result of a miscommunication with a Burmese friend of Baird’s who rented the house to them from overseas.

The knowledge that her family would be sharing a house with the Nicholses, Americans who were leaving for Madras (now Chennai) in India that September, startled but didn’t displease Pat. She had people to introduce her to life as an expat housewife. In letters home, she wrote of new activities and routines. The children gaped at the snake charmer at the Rangoon Zoo, splashed around at the Kokine Swimming Club, and admired a cream-colored Packard owned by a friend of Baird’s, with a horn that tooted “Yankee Doodle Dandy.” The humidity prematurely sealed Pat’s letters; bugs ate her books. Paula called the abundant lizards that flitted through the house “baby alligators.” Pat and Baird sat through daily Burmese lessons, but the words never stuck. The children took almost immediately to the language.

Paula attended classes for a time at a school called Methodist English, where her classmates included Aung San Suu Kyi, Aung San’s daughter. I spoke with the now famous politician’s schoolmate and former personal assistant, writer Ma Thanegi, who told me that though she’d known of Paula, they weren’t friends. The foreign children socialized less with the native Burmese than they did with their own.

Paula (left) and younger siblings.
Paula (left) and younger siblings.

Pat claimed to hate segregation, the backbone tenet of colonial life holding that Western children should grow up free of the polluting influence of locals. In her letters, she wrote of her own unlearning of American-ness. Though a Burmese servant could have gone to the outdoor markets for her, Pat shopped for her family’s groceries herself, learning how the religious affiliations of the vendors—Buddhist, Hindu, Muslim—dictated who sold what and when. She had a strapless gown made by a local tailor who used rattan cane in place of whalebone for the stays. Pat fancied herself a trendsetter.

Paula once described her mother’s letters as “chirpy,” but I sense tension in them, especially the ones from that first year: a bold young wife and mother in a far-off place writing home to her staid, well-to-do, disapproving “Mother and Daddy.” Pat described the dignitaries and business groups the Helfriches entertained; she effused about the government’s eagerness to adopt mechanized farming, which had helped Baird secure his John Deere contract. She wrote indignantly that clips her father sent her penned by a Chicago Tribune reporter—articles from that time describe Burma as a “land of sham” that “claims to be just about everything it isn’t,” where “officials can’t speak [their] own language”—didn’t match her observations. She’d met the reporter in the mere three weeks he’d spent in the country and found him chinless and haughty, like a British overlord. He couldn’t be trusted, Pat told her father. Still, she requested, please keep sending such “interesting—if ill-informed” articles.

Through all her writing ran two consistent threads: a commitment to adventure and unconventionality, and an acute awareness of how to shape the way other people viewed her life. Paula would inherit both qualities.

Three

“By the old Moulmein Pagoda, lookin’ lazy at the sea, There’s a Burma girl a-settin’, and I know she thinks o’ me”

The first lines of “Mandalay,” Rudyard Kipling’s famous 1892 ode to colonialism, introduce readers to Moulmein, a port city in Burma some 200 miles overland from Rangoon. Moulmein is also the setting for George Orwell’s iconic anti-imperialist essay “Shooting an Elephant,” in which a British officer, who may or may not be Orwell himself, reluctantly kills an elephant that has rampaged a local market. “When the white man turns tyrant,” Orwell writes, “it is his own freedom that he destroys.”

By the mid 20th century, the city had bloomed into more than an object of literary appeal. It was an industrial hub, a signal of independent Burma’s economic rise. Workers floated felled logs down the Thanlwin River for the timber industry, and rice mills clustered along the waterfront. The Helfriches and their children—there were five by then—moved to Moulmein in 1956. Baird had business interests there and wanted to monitor them closely.

Riding an elephant at the Moulmein mill.
Riding an elephant at the Moulmein mill.

At his wood mill, two trained elephants worked from seven to four each day, scooping logs from the river and dragging them up the shore. The workday ended with the blaring of a horn. The elephants, accustomed to the sound, would stop lugging and stand still. In the evening humidity, which settled like a blanket around the shoulders, Paula and her siblings visited the animals. They’d touch them and giggle. Sometimes, Paula rode one and gave it orders to pick up planks of teak between its trunk and tusks. In her memory, “Moulmein was elephants,” she later told me. It was also the scent of fresh bread and coconut pancakes from an Indian bakery, and the Helfriches’ dark-wood longhouse on stilts. The children rode to school, which was run by Catholic nuns, in a rickshaw pulled by a donkey. Among some 2,000 students, they were the only Westerners.

Pat had invited her parents to visit Burma, at one point offering first-class passage on a luxury ship and sightseeing “from Moulmein to Mandalay to the Shan Hills.” Mother and Daddy’s rejection was not included in the cache of letters that Paula later collected. Another letter, though, indicates that the Helfriches booked passage back to the United States in 1957. They spent the summer visiting family and friends, road-tripping from Illinois to Virginia. They stopped in Europe on their way back across the globe. Pat was pregnant with her sixth child by then. En route to Rangoon, she suddenly went into labor. After an emergency landing in Iraq, baby Tommy was born at the American hospital in Baghdad.    

Before reading the letters, I had asked Paula whether she’d been to the United States before her deportation. “Never,” she’d told me, firmly shaking her head. “We had been on one trip to Europe, we’d gone through Rome and to different places in the European continent, and Paris.”

Her cousin John Miller remembers meeting her in Virginia on the trip she claimed she didn’t take. Paula would have been 10 or 11. Miller told me that he was disconcerted at how much of the chicken served at one dinner the young Helfriches devoured—gristle and sinew, pieces and parts that American kids discarded—and how their eating habits contrasted with their prim British accents.


Back in Burma, the post-independence government began to fracture. “It had always been a hodgepodge of competing interests, ambitions and loyalties, held together by the partnerships at the very peak, between U Nu and his chief lieutenants,” writes scholar Thant Myint-U in his history of Burma, The River of Lost Footsteps. “There was no clear ideological divide or really even differences over policy. It was more the story of friends and colleagues who after twenty years living and working at close quarters, through war and peace, were getting tired of one another.” In 1958, a weakened U Nu ceded power to the military; he would reclaim control two years later through a popular vote. The U.S. embassy began warning Americans when it was prudent to stay indoors. Burma in the late 1950s was firm but wobbly, “like a bowl of Jell-O,” Rhoda Linton, an American woman who taught at a missionary school back then, told me. “You never knew what to expect. Things changed very fast or not at all.”

Burma in the late 1950s was firm but wobbly, “like a bowl of Jell-O,” said Rhoda Linton, an American woman who taught at a missionary school back then. “You never knew what to expect. Things changed very fast or not at all.”

By then, the Helfriches had quit Moulmein for a farm up north in Burma’s hilly Shan State. Baird had overseen a rollout of John Deere tractors there some years earlier. Pat, intent on securing a good education for her eldest child, sent Paula to high school in Darjeeling, India, the summer resort of the British Raj. At Loreto Convent, a school where Mother Teresa had trained and Vivien Leigh had attended classes, Paula’s classmates included Nepali royalty and the scions of aristocratic families from Thailand and Bhutan. She learned to play field hockey and ride horses. She ranked among the top three students in her class, argued on the debate team, and acted in plays; she stepped into Bela Lugosi’s shoes to play the lead in Dracula and sang as Cousin Hebe in HMS Pinafore.

On vacations, Paula returned to Shan State. It felt prosaic beside Loreto, all farmland and a tangle of younger siblings. Cosmopolitan Rangoon, though, tugged at her, even as the political havoc there worsened. In 1962, a final coup entrenched Ne Win in power and landed U Nu, his ministers, and 30 ethnic chiefs in custody. The new military-run government abolished the constitution, disbanded parliament, and introduced the Burmese Way to Socialism, an ideology that prioritized state-run institutions and rejected outside influence. The government nationalized major industries, including rice farming, mining, and logging. Production quickly plummeted, and foreigners began leaving the country by the thousands, then tens of thousands, every month.

As a teenager in Burma.
As a teenager in Burma.

When she finished high school, Paula moved to the capital. Despite its tumult—or perhaps because of it—she loved the city. She enrolled in a typing course, where she sat at a small, flat desk amid rows of Burmese classmates, her wavy light-brown hair deflated by the tropical air. She learned shorthand and the feel of onionskin beneath her fingers. At night, wearing lipstick purchased at Bogyoke Market, she attended dances at the Strand under high ceilings with polished wood rafters and lilting fans. One day she met a charismatic young man, the life of every party. He waited for her outside her typing class on his motorcycle. The force of what she felt for him came as a surprise, and they hoped to elope, revising their plans on an almost daily basis in the constantly changing political climate.  

Paula felt alive: loved and in love. She also felt invincible—until the day those four officers knocked on her apartment’s door.

Four

Seventeen-year-old Paula continued wearing longyis after arriving in Chicago against her will. She eventually began to dress in Western styles, but she couldn’t kick her foreign accent. Social codes mystified her: wearing shoes on shag carpeting; the way people said “come over anytime,” then looked at her funny if she actually did stop by. She missed eating rice at every meal. Paula had an American passport, but she play-acted at being an American.

She lived at her grandmother’s house, the two-story brick manse in Winnetka where Pat had grown up and where certain doors remained closed at all times. Grammy, as Paula called her, was convinced that the ghost of her recently deceased husband flickered through the house, lingering in rooms that she forbade her granddaughter from entering. “I expect that the effort to make Grammy understand about Burma is a hopeless pursuit,” Pat commiserated in a letter.

Adulthood was thrust upon Paula. She found work as a Pan Am receptionist; she had flown the airline to and from India during her school days. By the summer of 1964, when Chicago was rocked by race riots in the suburb of Dixmoor, Paula had secured a job as a travel agent and discovered that she could eat rice and curries at an Indian restaurant in the city. Not the same as in Burma, but not terrible.

Letters from her parents grew melancholy. Pat and Baird urged their eldest child to be forbearing; they certainly had to be. The industries in which Baird had invested were decimated by nationalization. His missives to Paula included requests to borrow money from her small salary to help the family stay in Burma, even as everyone they knew was leaving. The demonetization of currency in 1964 wiped out savings across the country.

The same year, all remaining ethnic Indians, including those whose families had been in Burma for generations, were expelled. Hundreds of thousands boarded boats and planes with nothing but the clothing on their bodies. By 1965, the Burma Socialist Program Party stood as the country’s only legal political entity; dissent was not tolerated. “This Ne Win bunch,” Baird noted in a letter, “are surpassing even our wildest thoughts on irresponsibility and goodies for one’s friends—and jail for thine enemies.”

Paula traveled to Maryland that year to welcome her younger brother Stuart to America; he would live with family friends in order to attend high school while the rest of the Helfriches prepared to return. Baird flew in a few months later to procure a job in Washington, D.C., and a house in the suburbs. In 1966 came Pat and the younger children, including a new baby named Cathy. They arrived in New York on a coal steamer after a month at sea. One particularly gruesome ocean swell had sent Cathy rolling across the deck in her lifejacket.

Paula, Baird, and Stuart converged on Manhattan to meet the remaining Helfriches at the harbor. They were thin and shabbily dressed. All the possessions they’d packed into their Burmese baskets fit with them in two taxis, which Paula told me carried them to the Waldorf Astoria. A friend had lent them an apartment for a few days.

In one of the final letters Pat wrote to Paula before the Helfriches moved, she described traveling from the Shan State farm to catch a train to Rangoon for a wedding. There was rain and a bus headed for the wrong destination. She finally found a potato truck and hopped in the back with five Burmese passengers. Clunking through the rain, after small talk established who they all were and where they were going, after the sharing of fruit and snacks, the Burmese began to sing. “As I watched … beautiful scenery pass and flash by, listened to the music, and realized that I was riding on a potato truck,” Pat wrote, “I had a funny and weird feeling. I was perfectly at home.”

Now the Helfriches’ Burmese experiment, all 14 years of it, was over.


Back in Chicago, Paula told me, she enrolled at Northwestern University. Her attention, though, was elsewhere. In her novel Flying, which Paula described as a thinly veiled memoir, the protagonist, Zoe (Paula’s middle name), writes a brokenhearted letter every day to her Burmese boyfriend. He is a guerrilla, fighting the new regime. Eventually, the missives are delivered through a sequence of shadowy messengers, winding up in either Burma or Vietnam. She never knows for sure where her boyfriend is hiding, and she never gets a letter back.

Around her neck, Zoe wears a silver coin on a tattered string, a gift from her boyfriend. An anthropology professor identifies the coin as a pendant. He points to its Buddhist iconography and asks how she came by the piece. Zoe “kept the details to herself,” the book reads. “Who would believe it?”

When they met again many decades later, Paula discovered that her long-lost love still enjoyed dancing, as they’d once done together at the Strand. Now, though, he preferred to wear a longyi and nothing else. Her husband the warrior, she said, “who I can’t for the life of me get to wear a shirt.”

Five

Marriage to someone else, someone not concealed in a jungle, must not have seemed like the worst idea. It offered a new beginning, a dive into an adult life of her own making. Paula met a man, a Chicagoan of Polish descent, and they soon wed.

The marriage didn’t go well, and it didn’t last long. He was abusive. She didn’t speak of him much to anyone, not then and not later, I was told in interview after interview with friends and family; she never mentioned him to me. I imagine the unhappiness of that marriage falling around her like a veil. The turmoil, the feeling of powerlessness, must have been at once familiar and new. It fell to her to get out. So she did.

Paula divorced and, within a few years, started working at Pan Am again, this time as a stewardess. She met every requirement for female employees in the airline’s golden age: fluency in English and another language, at least two years of college, height over five foot two, trim, beautiful, extroverted, quick on her feet. Also: able to walk down an aisle in heels without wobbling, culturally aware, flexible yet bossy, witty, and afflicted by wanderlust. Paula wanted to return to Southeast Asia and visit other faraway destinations.

Who spoke Burmese? The stewardesses didn’t expect to see this white woman, “cute as a bug on a pistol, obviously a very strong personality,” as one friend from that time described Paula.

Most of the women who signed up for Pan Am’s stewardess program had predictable language proficiencies: French, German, Spanish. Paula Zoe Helfrich, from Maryland, as she was listed in the training class of March 1970—all traces of Chicago and the Midwest erased—spoke Burmese. Later, on flight sign-in sheets where the women listed their languages before takeoff, those who came after Paula would glance up and look around in confusion. Who spoke Burmese? They didn’t expect to see this white woman, “cute as a bug on a pistol, obviously a very strong personality,” as one friend from that time described Paula to me.

During a Pan Am layover in Tahiti.
During a Pan Am layover in Tahiti.

The itinerant lifestyle suited Paula. A crew flew together for a week or a few, passing days in Paris and Monrovia and Singapore and Sydney, then splintered apart for time off. On vacations, Paula went to the Amazon, where she trawled caves thick with monkeys. She went to Timbuktu, just because she could. Pan Am kept strict rules for its stewardesses’ appearance, and in company photos Paula’s hair is neatly tied under a prim hat. She cocks her head and wears an arranged smile. In personal photos, though, her long hair is parted down the center and cascades down her chest. The more implausible the setting or action, the more comfortable she appears. At a zoo, she grins with her arms slung around a snake a foot wide and several times as long, curled across her neck and shoulders. Wearing a bikini, she leans against the post of a thatched hut in Guam, legs crossed, sipping a mixed drink. Atop a curved rock with the sand houses of Timbuktu clustered in the background, her hands pick at desert grasses.

The Vietnam War was in its fifth year when Paula started working as a stewardess. Pan Am contracted critical support to the U.S. military, blurring the line—as it had during World War II—between private, profit-seeking business and government entity. At one point, providing services for the war effort in Saigon was Pan Am’s largest global operation. A stewardess had to be able to relate, as more than one who’d worked for the airline told me, to celebrities and CEOs, but also to refugees and immigrants boarding a plane for the first time, and to servicemen on their way into combat, holding in their chests the sharp knowledge of what they’d been drafted to do. The women carried identification cards designating them as second lieutenants in the armed forces; in the event of capture, they were to be treated according to the terms of the Geneva Conventions. After meal service, they would listen to tales of combat or play cards with soldiers heading for a stint of R&R. Sometimes, disembarking from a flight, they would glimpse bullet holes in the plane’s fuselage.

The early 1970s was also an era of skyjackings and political bombings; a stewardess had to remain composed on the knife’s edge of danger. All were trained in emergency procedures and casual diplomacy, taught to conduct themselves as surrogate ambassadors to the United States. In Flying, Zoe, who becomes a stewardess like Paula, knows how to tell a passenger to fuck off with “a ten-dollar sentence,” so long as she adheres to protocol and smiles.

When she had enough seniority to choose, Paula requested Pan Am’s Honolulu base as her home. She lived near the beach, and when she wasn’t flying, she spent time with surfers and musicians and Army vets. Then a tragedy took her to the very edge of the war.


Operation Babylift was supposed to be a series of flights paid for by the U.S. government to evacuate orphans from Saigon as North Vietnamese troops threatened the city in early 1975. Various humanitarian and adoption agencies would help place the infants and young children in homes across America. Similar missions had brought children from Germany and Japan at the end of World War II, from Korea in the 1950s, and from Cuba after the Bay of Pigs.

On April 4, minutes after an Air Force cargo plane carrying the first group of orphans took off from a base in Saigon, the flight crashed, killing dozens of children and adults. It would be over a week, the Pentagon reported, before another flight could depart. Horrified by the disaster, American businessman and philanthropist Robert Macauley mortgaged his New Canaan, Connecticut, house to cover the fee of chartering a Pan Am 747 to get the survivors and a few hundred additional orphans out of the country. A second plane, paid for by an adoption agency, would follow.

In Hong Kong, several stewardesses were informed that their plane would be departing for Vietnam, not continuing on its scheduled route. They were all offered the chance to stay behind rather than fly into a war zone; a few quietly took their leave. The night before the flight, the remaining women slept at a Hyatt hotel—or didn’t sleep at all, as one told me. On the bus to the airport they were silent. Among them was Paula.

In the air on the way to Saigon the next day, Paula mixed formula and set up cardboard cribs. The plane must have seemed cavernous: the cold, canned air with so few bodies to warm it, the rows of metal and fabric seats, the sense of a clock ticking toward inevitable pandemonium.

As it neared Saigon, the plane dove steeply to avoid possible mortar fire, causing the women’s stomachs to plunge. On the runway, the plane taxied past the wreckage of the Air Force C-5A. The stewardesses had been told to keep away from the windows, not to look at the charred gray metal set against waving palms and rice paddies.

On Operation Babylift.
On Operation Babylift.

The plane stopped. The doors were opened, and a blast of heat entered. Then people were rushing up the stairs. Children’s limbs were bare, their faces streaming. Soon the women who held the orphans had damp faces, too. “You didn’t know if it was sweat or tears,” Tori Werner, the plane’s purser, told me. The stewardesses helped pat the infants down to check for bombs and converted the upstairs cabin of the 747—where they usually served lobster thermidor and cherries jubilee to first-class passengers—into a makeshift sick bay. The children wore bracelets with their names and those of their prospective adoptive parents on one wrist, medical bracelets on the other. The Pan Am women read off diseases: polio, hepatitis, tuberculosis, chicken pox. Doctors from a Seventh Day Adventist hospital in Saigon who had been enlisted to fly with the children wanted to bring their nurses, but the women hadn’t been granted permission to leave the country. “We strip-searched the nurses and stowed them in the lavatory until after takeoff,” Werner told me.

The stewardesses loaded infants into cardboard bassinets and pushed them under the seats. They strapped in whomever they could. With some 400 children packed in, the pilot took off. The scent of vomit and loosened bowels filled the plane’s air. “That’s the smell of freedom,” Paula would remember crowing as the flight ascended, banking high in the sky.


After delivering the children to the United States, the flight’s crew was given two weeks off. Paula rested in Honolulu. Just one day later, though, she received a phone call. “Would you like to fly another babylift?” the voice on the other end asked. A flight had been chartered again.

This time the crew didn’t make it to Vietnam. Controversy had sprouted around the mission; children with living parents had been discovered among the rescues. Within a month, a federal class-action lawsuit would be filed alleging that many of them hadn’t been orphans. Years later some of the children would seek out birth mothers in Vietnam. Others would call the Pan Am stewardesses, by then retired, on Mother’s Day.

Paula signed on for other potential evacuations from Saigon in the waning days before the city’s fall. For two weeks, according to one fellow stewardess, Paula and a Pan Am crew waited at a base in Guam for assignments. Flights had to make it in and out of Saigon before nightfall; if they didn’t leave by 3 p.m., they wouldn’t leave at all. At three, the pilots and stewardesses could start drinking the tension away, before reliving the same anticipation the next day.

During those two weeks, on a flight to evacuate some Americans, Paula told me, she smuggled Vietnamese refugees on board. Because it was unofficial, you’d be hard-pressed to find their names in a passenger manifest. In Flying, she writes about a U.S.-chartered flight for a dozen aid workers; Zoe, enraged at the waste of so many empty seats, marches “in cold fury” to the Vietnamese Pan Am agent and invites him to put refugees on the plane. The plane returns to Guam with 100-odd Vietnamese bar girls and their half-American children. “A different kind of Babylift,” Paula writes. “They were all survivors, hard-edged and glittery, beautiful and absolutely fierce in their determination to make a new life—it did not much matter where.”

No one from Pan Am with whom I spoke remembered young Vietnamese women being evacuated on such a flight. Werner, though, recalled Paula getting off a plane in the Guam heat one day “just so upset. The crew had taken out only 22 people. They could have taken 150. People were desperate to get out. She thought it was very selfish.” In her fiction, it seemed, Paula had righted the wrong she’d been unable to prevent in real life.

Six

Here is fact verifiable by the existence of her two daughters: In Hawaii, Paula married a fellow Pan Am employee. She stopped flying in 1976 and shifted to a position in management, then hopscotched to catering and, finally, to operations. Her husband tried to convince her to move to California, and she gave it a shot, but the mainland never stopped feeling foreign. They returned to Hawaii, a sort of middle ground between the country on her passport and the one she considered home. In 1980, Baird and Pat moved to Hawaii, too; most of the Helfriches would eventually converge there. Pat cooked Burmese food in her kitchen. When the menu included curry, her children would descend on her house.

Baird died in 1981. Paula told me she took some of his ashes and scattered them in Moulmein, though how and when is unclear. In the 1980s and 1990s, Myanmar was one of the most isolated countries in the world. Agitation and crackdowns were common. Aung San Suu Kyi led the National League for Democracy (NLD), which won elections handily in 1990, but the military nullified the results and put Suu Kyi under house arrest for much of the next two decades.

With one of her daughters in Hawaii.
With one of her daughters in Hawaii.

To Paula’s two daughters, born in the early 1980s, Myanmar was a far-off place of wondrous tales whispered to them at night before bed. The elephants at the teak mill; lions that lived under the house in Moulmein; their uncles hunting deer or boar in Shan State. They also heard stories of the boarding school in Darjeeling, where the prince of Nepal had given their mother a rose. In winter, Paula told them, she would steal out of her dorm bedroom when she heard jackals howling at the moon, her feet light on the sharp chill of stone floors, her hands pushing a high window open. The windowsill was wide and sturdy, and she’d sit on it. The big, bright full moon hung above her. She would howl with the jackals.  


Paula and her husband divorced when she was about 50. She went back to school for anthropology and took her daughters to visit the convent in Darjeeling. Inspired by her involvement in the Transport Worker’s Union in her Pan Am days, she began to work for senator Daniel Inouye and soon became executive director of the Hawaii Island Economic Development Board. She had a knack for fundraising, event planning, and public advocacy. After a decade in politics, Paula decided to run for local office in Hilo. Her bid for county council was rebuffed; she lost to a lawyer after, as her daughter Laurien Helfrich Nuss put it, “being kicked around a bit” by the old boys’ club.

In Darjeeling, Paula told her daughters, she would steal out of her dorm bedroom at night and sit on a wide, sturdy windowsill. A bright full moon hung above her, and she would howl with the jackals.  

She retreated into daily life in Hilo. She had a boyfriend, daughters in and just out of college who visited regularly, and correspondence with Rebecca Sprecher, an old stewardess friend, with whom she jointly wrote chapters of what would become Flying. Still, the world beckoned.

In Myanmar, a series of 2007 protests incited a violent crackdown but also persistent rumors of infighting within the junta. Meetings held with United Nations officials and Suu Kyi presaged an opening. That year, Paula and Mary, her younger sister, signed up for a volunteer medical mission to the country: Mary was a nurse, and Paula served as a translator. On the plane, Paula stood up at one point and walked to the bathroom. When she returned, Mary told me, Paula announced that she was going to stay in Yangon after the mission.

She’d met someone in the back of the plane in line for the restroom who had offered her a job teaching English at an international school. He could help her get a visa. The long-ago deportation, apparently, wouldn’t pose a problem. She’d finished the heavy work of parenting, Pat had passed away in 2000, and she was no longer married. Why not go?

After the plane landed, Paula composed emails to her daughters: “Hey what do you think, your mom’s gonna move to Burma.” Laurien told me that she wasn’t surprised.


Some things from Paula’s childhood were familiar: the smells of burning wood and diesel fuel, of mohinga stalls on the streets; the multitude of ethnic groups sharing the same space. New, though, were the government minders who tracked Paula’s whereabouts. Whenever she saw them outside her apartment, she invited them in for tea. They never accepted.

Her first few years in the country coincided with increased sanctions and mass incarcerations of dissidents. Then, as though the bubble of strain hanging over the country had become so large that it could not help but quiver and burst, change began to happen. In 2010, Myanmar held its first elections in 20 years, leading to a shift from military rule to military-backed civilian rule. Suu Kyi was freed from house arrest. In 2011, the government released thousands of prisoners and signed a law allowing unions and strikes. The next year, the NLD won 43 legislative seats—by the numbers not much power, but recognition of legitimacy nonetheless. The new president introduced economic reforms, liberalizing foreign investment and reducing state control over a swath of industries. International sanctions began to dissolve.

Paula’s 2011 wedding to Saw Phillip.
Paula’s 2011 wedding to Saw Phillip.

Paula taught English to children and translated for monks. She helped to reinstate a local Rotary Club and attended biannual reunions with Loreto Convent alumni. Occasionally, she wrote articles for a Burmese business magazine. She was involved in the Pan Am network through which I met her and gave a weekly talk at the posh Governor’s Residence Hotel, lecturing about Burmese history to guests sipping gin and tonics. She always wore a flower in her hair.

And then there was love. Paula had not moved back to Myanmar with the intent of finding it, but she did. She told Sprecher, her Pan Am friend, that she encountered the object of her affection—the man she told me was her teenage boyfriend—at a horse race in Bagan, an ancient town known for its temples rising like a toothy crown into the sky. Their relationship bloomed around a campfire. It was comfortable and new, daunting and exciting.

Her father had often referred to Myanmar as a “missed opportunity.” Paula didn’t want the same to be said of her own life. “She was going to fulfill that dream of marrying a Burmese man,” her sister Mary told me, “which she could not have when she was 16.”

Seven

In July 2015, Paula wrote me an email. “Hurry! I will return to Hawaii Dec with husband… this may be it as I have health issues. Nothing fatal but serious and $$$ challenges, dammit.” For several months, we’d been talking of meeting again; this would be my only chance.

I quickly booked my ticket and flew to Myanmar. I knew I would be chasing Paula’s past down streets renamed by the regime that kicked her out, looking for her childhood in crumbling buildings. I would also be tracing the blurry line between truth and fabrication in a mind given to embellishment.

After landing, I rode into Yangon watching its famous round pagodas glint above the trees. I saw glass and steel buildings that had been constructed in just the past few years, since the loosening of trade sanctions. On traffic medians, clusters of children played soccer, their limbs flashing under the streetlights.

The next morning, I hired a driver to take me on a tour of the city, a haphazard combination of nationally relevant locations and places Paula had frequented: the Strand Hotel and the sprawling university complex where she’d canoodled with her husband way back when; Suu Kyi’s house and her father’s enormous red tomb. The driver, Than Lwin, sketched out stories of student protests, like those in 1988 that percolated from the university out to monks, housewives, taxi drivers—seemingly everyone. He didn’t tell me about the thousands of people the government killed when it retaliated. At Suu Kyi’s home on Inle Lake, Than Lwin explained how an American man—“Fifty! He was fifty!”—swam across to meet the Nobel Peace Prize winner while she was detained. There was no sensationalism in his telling of history, just action and reaction plainly related, with human idiosyncrasy sprinkled in.

In Yangon’s endless, messy traffic, cars were plastered with campaign bumper stickers and flags. Privately owned vehicles, which had more than doubled since the loosening of import laws, offered the opportunity to mount an opinion.

I had arrived in the lead-up to a general election, and Suu Kyi, still leader of the NLD, was running. I saw few campaign posters, but in Yangon’s endless, messy traffic, cars were plastered with NLD bumper stickers and flags. Privately owned vehicles, which had more than doubled since the loosening of import laws in 2011, offered the opportunity to mount an opinion.

After moving back to Myanmar.
After moving back to Myanmar.

Paula wasn’t answering her phone or email. She hadn’t come to meet me at my hotel as we’d planned. When I went to the Governor’s Residence to try to get her address, I was told that she hadn’t given her usual talk in weeks. I knew she lived in Thanlyin, a city of just under 200,000 people across the Bago River from Yangon. Than Lwin picked me up on my second day to go find her. As we sat in traffic on a bridge, he pointed out condo towers rising on the far bank; the 135-acre complex was financed mostly by a Singaporean firm. According to legend, he added, shifting easily to the ancient past, this was the same spot where Prince Min Nandar had been swallowed by a crocodile.

In Thanlyin, we went to the market, the municipal water office, two Buddhist complexes, and the local immigration office searching for signs of Paula. Than Lwin translated or spoke on my behalf. Finally, a pink-lipsticked immigration bureaucrat, one of 12 uniformed women in a room thick with wobbly stacks of manila folders, thumbed through a list of foreigners in Thanlyin—all on business, social, or meditation visas—and found Paula’s address.


My palms were sweaty when we pulled up to a concrete house with high white walls and metal gates. Her husband answered the door. So this was him, the stuff of romantic legend. He was tall, fit, and shirtless, just as Paula had described him. He chewed betel nut impassively as Than Lwin introduced us, and he spoke very little English. I saw behind him two suitcases splayed open on the floor at the edge of the nearly empty living room. Their departure from Myanmar was imminent.

Paula’s husband retreated into the house and waved me in. I stood in the living room with Than Lwin for a moment, then heard Paula’s high, loud voice as she walked in unsteadily to greet me. “We were just saying, When is Julia coming to visit?” she exclaimed. She was much sicker than she had let on in her email. Her legs had slimmed enough that, without the cane she used, they appeared unable to support her.

Her husband dusted off what little furniture remained in the living roomthey’d sold or given away the rest in preparation for their departure—and we sat down to talk. “I don’t know that I know,” I said, turning on my recorder, “how you two first met?” Finally, I would learn the full arc of their love story, of rekindled infatuation and the improbability of entering into a marriage they’d plotted as lusty teenagers.

In an instant, the myth crumbled. Paula said they’d met for the first time not long after she arrived in Myanmar. He was head of security at the school where she first taught English. Paula interrupted herself to speak in Burmese to her husband, who disappeared and reemerged with a glass of water and a pillow for her feet. “He’s Karen,” she continued, referring to an ethnic minority that has been fighting the government since the 1940s. He had once been a soldier in the Karen National Liberation Army.

I wanted to press her—I also wanted to do anything but press her. Paula was so ill, her home so bare, her husband so attentive, and my arrival so hasty. Our conversation drifted. Then, as if it could suffice, I returned to the topic of her marriage and kept my approach simple: So she hadn’t wed her teenage sweetheart, I clarified.

“Ah no,” she said brightly, as if she’d forgotten having said otherwise. “That was Allan.” He was Chinese-Burmese and had moved to Australia years before. She’d seen him once or twice when he’d come to visit Myanmar; he had five children of his own.

Her third husband’s name was Saw Phillip. He was a few years younger than her and handsome, with a broad, open smile. He was a fan of American country music, an avid cook of local delicacies like snake and eel, and a horse trainer. They spent four years circling one another, attracted but not interacting much, until they found themselves together at the horse race in Bagan. After they began to date, Saw Phillip didn’t wait long to suggest marriage; as a Christian, he didn’t approve of cohabitation before marriage. We’re too old to mess around, he told Paula as he proposed. In photos from their 2011 wedding, they wear velvety flower leis, stitched together by Paula’s daughters.

Paula and I spoke for an hour and made plans for interviews over the coming days. As Than Lwin and I drove back across the river, my mind felt thin and reedy. I tried to wrap it around the details of her life that Paula had shared and the fractures running through them. Perhaps, I thought, I could find mooring in Myanmar itself, something physical and true. Than Lwin and I headed back to Yangon, to 26 Naut Mauk Street, which used to be 26 Park Road, Paula’s first house in Myanmar.

It looked nothing like the photos I’d seen. A high fence had been erected around the house, and fancy cars sat in the driveway. Nearby, the occasional well-preserved colonial-era home faced others with walls so deteriorated that they resembled latticework. During the bad decades, I learned, the elite had allowed their houses to rot. An unpainted exterior let them live comfortably inside while seeming to remain equal with the population outside: a true facade. Now they were shells.

The remnants of Paula’s past were equally gutted in Mawlamyine, as Moulmein is now called, where Than Lwin and I drove on a sunny afternoon a few days later. We found Baird Helfrich’s teak mill, or what remained of it. The languishing structure had sat empty for years before it was finally bulldozed not long before we arrived. A towering smokestack, lumpy earth, and hunks of gray stone remained. Two stray dogs nosed the dirt. None of the neighbors knew what was going to be built on the empty land, but fresh orange bricks stacked in a pile augured some new structure.

I wondered what had happened to the elephants Paula so loved. As the economy worsened, I learned, elephants working at mills were sent into the wild to fend for themselves. But they’d lived so long in captivity that they starved. Supposedly, mossy hunks of elephant bones still litter the jungle around Mawlamyine.

Eight

There is another version of how Paula left Burma in 1963, less dramatic but no less devastating. The Chinese invasion of northern India the year before had put a stop to her classes in Darjeeling ahead of a holiday break; students had descended from the mountains on a train line clogged with munitions for the Indian army. When classes resumed in the new year, Burma’s government had tightened restrictions on foreigners’ movement across the country’s borders. Paula never graduated from Loreto Convent. She moved to Rangoon, took a typing course, and worked at the travel desk at the Strand—that’s all true. She was in love with Allan and she wanted to stay in Burma, even as it was falling apart around her.

In this version, the real one, triangulated from letters, the memories of family and friends, and her own contradictions, Paula was sent away—simple as that. Pat and Baird made the decision. Her parents needed permission from the government; any foreigner trying to leave the country would have had to fill out the proper paperwork. They did so, and then they put her on a plane to Illinois. Her younger siblings were told that she needed to expand her opportunities. She also needed to meet, as her sister Mary put it, other fish in the sea.

“We knew America was going to be a big change for you and that all of us are going to have to do some adjusting to get back into the swing of American life,” Baird wrote in a November 1963 letter to Paula, just a few weeks after she’d left. “We also think that some of your initial impressions will modify slightly, and hope that things are gradually settling down for you,” chimed Pat in the next missive.

As I read these letters, sitting on my couch in New York on spring mornings that were longer and brighter every week, I considered how something as objective as the sun in Chicago must have betrayed Paula. She’d never experienced seasons, other than dry and rainy. She wouldn’t have been used to the way daylight up north gets thinner as September moves to November, and how the sun races across the sky in December. The loss of light, along with the cold, would have felt foreign, perhaps like an alternate reality.


Autobiographical memory is among the trickiest of all psychological materials. The emotional content of an experience affects the way it becomes imprinted in the mind, which then erodes with age. Research also shows that the emotions we feel when looking back on an experience, along with the reasons we want to remember it, shape which details surface and which are forgotten. There’s other sculpting that occurs between an experience and its recollection. “Knowledge acquired after an event, and changes in our feelings toward and appraisals about an event, can lead to biases in how we recall emotional details,” psychologists Alisha C. Holland and Elizabeth A. Kensinger wrote in a 2010 study. Memory, then, can be factually inaccurate but also the truest window into how a person perceives her life.

The stories people believe about themselves depend on audience reception, too. Storytelling, as an evolutionary mechanism, is how humans transmit facts, using sticky emotional content to amplify instructive potential. In Paula’s narration of her life, I discerned call and response: People’s fascination with specific details, their evident desire for shock and awe relieved by romance and justness, influenced the tales she spun. I was one of these people who, with a needy ear, unwittingly encouraged her. “Mom knew so much about the world, fact-wise,” her daughter Laurien said. “She had this ability to tell stories and embellish or create them in such a way that they became these legends.”

Pain also played a part. “Coping mechanisms in dealing with emotional disappointment … can also influence memory,” Holland and Kensinger wrote. Laurien noted that her mother “found comfort in being able to almost psychologically reframe her trauma through telling a truth that felt right to her versus what was literally fact.” When I compare the facts of Paula’s life that I discovered with the version she told me, where there are inconsistencies there is also survival instinct, a need to persevere through chaos, to rationalize mistakes made, love sacrificed, and stability lost. Each creative retelling of her past enabled Paula to take a step forward, bridging gaps in official narratives she did not write. Stories allowed her to generate fissures in the flat surfaces of power structures that she could not control.

In Vietnam.
In Vietnam.

One of those structures was Myanmar itself, whose government all but erased the first decade of her life. The regime didn’t talk about or teach the history of the 1950s, except to say that the civilian authorities of the day didn’t care about nationalism and were risking the country’s future. State propaganda still paints the fleeting decade between colonialism and military rule with the same black brush; it is sometimes called the “time of trouble.” Than Lwin told me that he wanted to study history, but the university in Yangon was closed for much of the 1990s, when he was of student age, for fear of an uprising.

Only recently have efforts to preserve memories and revive open discussion emerged. Last year a collection of Burmese and Western academics relaunched the Independent Journal of Burmese Scholarship. Christina Fink of George Washington University told me about an oral-history project conducted in 2010 for the NGO Internews: Several dozen elderly Burmese were interviewed about the postcolonial era. Their testimonies varied, but they spoke overwhelmingly of freedom of speech, vibrant media, and the aftermath of civil war. Each interviewee put different conditions on the publication of his or her interview: “not to be released until I die,” for instance, or “not to be published until full democracy is achieved.” The interviews have not been released.

Paula’s idea of home was plastic out of necessity. She remembered it one way, experienced it another, and lived, in her mind, somewhere in between.

Nine

“I’m making a list!” Paula exclaimed when I walked into her house for lunch on my last day in Yangon. At that point, I’d spent hours listening to stories in which dates shifted and anecdotes played out first in one setting, then in another. I had resolved to ask no more questions, only to be present. “A list of all the places I’ve been for you,” she continued. “I loved anything to do with weird places and blood and guts and gore.”

She numbered the list in shaky block letters. She started with the Yucatán, where she’d climbed pyramids and thought of Burma’s jungles, and then the Amazon. The Marquesas, Nepal, Huahine in French Polynesia, Syria. Just as she wrote “East Africa” next to number nine, her pen ran out of ink. I told her not to worry about it. She was writing on the back of an undecipherable lab report from Pun Hlaing Siloam Hospitals. It was stained with soy sauce from a feast Saw Phillip had prepared for us, which we had just devoured.

Each creative retelling of her past enabled Paula to take a step forward, bridging gaps in official narratives she did not write. Stories allowed her to generate fissures in the flat surfaces of power structures that she could not control.

I left Yangon two days before Paula and Saw Phillip were scheduled to depart for Hawaii. I spent my last sunset in Yangon walking its crooked sidewalks, sidestepping rusty splotches of betel-juice spit. Aung San Suu Kyi, whose party would win the election the following month, smiled down on me from posters that had finally sprung up during my stay. I ate a bowl of mohinga at a restaurant downtown. When he drove me to the airport that night, Than Lwin gave me a fossilized hunk of wood from his native village as a parting gift. “Maybe I am a reporter, too,” he said gravely as he shook my hand.

My arms had started to itch at dinner, and by the time I landed for a layover in Hong Kong, my entire face had swollen into a fair, if unpurpled, approximation of someone who’d lost a fistfight. I found a doctor, got a few shots, and remained in Hong Kong for 24 hours, until the swelling went down. The allergic reaction was minor, an entirely solvable bit of bodily treason, and yet the symmetry struck me—the taste of what Paula must have felt many times in her life: isolation, fear, and throbbing unreality, and then, when order was restored, a chasing sense of luck, confidence, even fearlessness.

Less than a day after I arrived home in New York, Paula landed in Hawaii with Saw Phillip. Her daughters met her at the airport and took her straight to the hospital. Within a day and a half, she had died. Liver disease was the cause. Rebecca Sprecher, her Pan Am friend, called and told me. The news struck me as both unbelievable and fitting: Paula’s death was sudden and tragic to those who knew her, but she had hurdled into it telling her own story.

The impact of a story—its spell—is unique to every listener. Different people were drawn to different aspects of Paula’s life. “She was an actress and a politician, too,” her sister Mary told me. “She was truly passionate.” Sprecher admired the combination of intellect and daring, how Paula read T. E. Lawrence and “had me reading the Raj Quartet long before Masterpiece Theater [adapted it]. She went everywhere, she had read everything, she knew everything…. I was in awe of her.” As perhaps the last person to hear Paula tell her story in full, I was rapt by the Herculean effort of remaining a woman who moved through the world with daring and panache even when outside forces threatened to disable those impulses.

“There is no Myanmar word for goodbye,” Paula wrote in the prologue she’d planned to publish with her parents’ letters. “One simply announces a departure.”

Welcome to Dog World!

My job was to make tourists believe they were seeing the “real” Alaska. Then things got real.

The Atavist Magazine, No. 49


Blair Braverman’s work has appeared in Buzzfeed, Orion, High Country News, The Best Women’s Travel Writing, and elsewhere. Her first book, Welcome to the Goddamn Ice Cube, is forthcoming from Ecco/HarperCollins. She trains and races sled dogs in northern Wisconsin.

Editor: Joel Lovell
Designer: Gray Beltran
Producer: Megan Detrie
Copy Editor: Sean Cooper
Fact Checker: Christopher Swetala
Images: Blair Braverman, Kevin Ellis/Metro DC Photography
Video: Ken Carlisle, Kevin Ellis/Metro DC Photography

Published in June 2015. Design updated in 2021.

Dog World was perched atop a glacier near the edge of an icefield the size of Rhode Island. The only reasonable way to get there was by helicopter, and eight times a day they came in, five birds, loaded with cruise-ship tourists who’d spent $500 to go “flightseeing” over the icefield and then set down on the glacier for a dogsled ride—a taste of Real Alaska.

At first, from the helicopter, the only thing they’d see was the sweeping ice, smooth and white, punched through with mountaintops. If they had never been there before, the sight was near religious, something to bring them to tears. The pilots were instructed to play Enya on repeat, piped directly into their passengers’ headphones—music the tour company believed was a properly swooning soundtrack for the otherworldly vista below.

We lived there from May to September—I and nine other musher guides, a few staff, and 200 huskies—in a cluster of canvas tents and plastic igloos. Our job was to provide a luxury experience: all the thrills of a glacier with none of the discomfort, either physical or mental, that comes with the terrain. It wasn’t that our efforts were secret; they were just invisible. We cleaned the kennels constantly so that tourists would be spared the sight of a single lump of dog poop. We raked up fur that collected on the snow and piled it behind the tents in an enormous mound we called the woolly mammoth. Sometimes we had to be creative: If my dogs’ eyes got sore from the sun, I’d put mascara around them to minimize reflected light. “Those dogs must be related,” the tourists would say, admiring the huskies with big black circles around their eyes, and because it was easier than explaining, I let them believe it.

Nothing was meant to live on the glacier, and the longer I stayed, the clearer this became. Yet somehow we all got used to it. We no longer jumped at the gunshot crack of an avalanche on a sun-warmed afternoon. Turquoise lakes a half-mile wide formed and vanished overnight. As the surface snow melted, the foundation under our camp sank steadily away, and we’d wake to find our tents, which were on skis, perched atop pedestals of hardened snow. On rainy weeks, we gave up the dream of staying dry. At night, when I undressed, my waterlogged, sunburned skin fell off in white strips, which I’d toss to the nearest dogs, who sniffed them and turned away. I wrapped my fingers in duct tape to keep my shredded skin in one piece when I shook hands with tourists. When it was foggy we probed for crevasses, working a tight grid through camp, pushing aluminum poles into the snow until our palms blistered and our muscles burned. I never saw a big crevasse, but sometimes turquoise cracks split the snow. They were usually small, just a few inches across, and when I crouched close and peered into them they seemed to extend down forever.

The camp was a closed system: If we ate cherries for lunch, we’d be picking the pits out of the outhouse pump two days later (and getting a lecture from our manager about not swallowing pits in the first place). All human and dog waste had to be packed into barrels and flown to Juneau in a sling that dangled beneath the helicopters. On a bad day, we called it the Goddamn Ice Cube. On a good day, Summer Camp on the Moon.

But if the camp was a closed system, then the tourists, with their camcorders and designer sunglasses, existed outside of it. Our job was not to give them a peek in but to build the walls of their fantasy so solidly that they could not see anything else—to reassure them that even though they were on a glacier, nothing was dangerous, all was good, and everything was under control.

Our days started at 6 a.m. sharp and lasted until early evening. Most of my time was spent guiding the tourists. Each of the eight daily tours consisted of an orientation, a lap around a two-mile trail, and a chance to pet the dogs. My groups were often surprised that their guide was a young woman, and when I first arrived on the glacier I had taken pride in disarming them with my enthusiasm and knowledge. I praised their adventurousness, offered expertly timed confessions (“I was terrified on my first helicopter ride, too!”), took photos with their cameras and let their kids stand in front of me on the sled runners, pretending to drive. At first the performance was exciting, a chance to play the role of my bravest, brightest self. But with time my end of the conversation solidified into a script, one I could deploy with pristine enthusiasm. I hardly noticed what I was saying.

The tourists were always curious about glacier life, and I did my best to give them what they wanted. I told them about the hummingbirds that stopped by on their way to the moss-covered mountains, but I didn’t tell them about the time a lightning storm closed in on us and I thought for sure we’d all get electrocuted. I told them how strange it was to live in a world almost totally drained of color, but not about the elaborate plans another guide and I had come up with to escape the glacier on foot if we ever needed to. I told them the food was great and the mushers and dogs were like family and I had the best job in the world. Then I’d go back to my tent and cry.

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During my last summer on the glacier, I shared a tent with a girl named Rebekah, who became one of my closest friends. I was 20 years old, a Californian who had fallen in love with dogsledding at a folk school in arctic Norway. Rebekah was a homeschooled 18-year-old from Indiana who had never been away from her family for more than a week and who lived her life, in her words, guided by Jesus Christ and His teachings. She had cherubic curls and a constant sheen of sweat on her pink face; because she was an assistant, not a musher, she always seemed to be running from one chore to the next, fetching this harness or that shovel for whoever called out to her first.

There were a few male mushers at the camp whose teasing had an edge. One evening, Rebekah removed her boots and socks in the community tent to find that her feet had swollen like bread dough and had the pale cast of something left underwater. “That’s trench foot,” said a musher named Chad, who was new to the glacier. (Some names have been changed in this story.) “I saw it all the time in Nam. You’ll have to amputate.”

“If you amputate, you’ll go to hell,” said Dan. He was in his mid-twenties, handsome and popular.

“Shut up, Chad,” another musher said. “You never been to Nam. You’d’ve shit yourself like a baby.” 

None of them were looking at me, so I didn’t say anything. 

That night, Rebekah and I stayed awake longer than usual in our tent. Often we sat in silence, reading young-adult books about the end of the world and trading pieces of trail mix, but that night we talked.  “I just want to go home,” Rebekah said. “Don’t you want to go home?”

She was planning a short trip to see her family, a break to steel herself for the last month of summer.

I nodded but I didn’t answer. I wanted the best for Rebekah, but when she talked about leaving my throat went tight. I was scared that she wouldn’t want to come back. I didn’t know how I could stay on the ice without her.

It hadn’t always been that way. The previous summer I’d loved the job: working with the dogs, adjusting to the spectacular landscape—not to mention getting paid more than I’d ever made before. There were more women around then, three or four female mushers at a time, veterans of major dogsled races who could handle an ice auger like an embroidery needle. I copied the way they talked and dressed, buying my clothes off the men’s rack at the Salvation Army, joking with the pilots, and lifting water buckets between tours so that I’d be strong enough not to wobble when someone tossed me a 50-pound sack of dog food. The other women seemed to belong on the glacier in a way that I—who was torn between a desire for adventure and a deep-seated aversion to physical risk—never would. But they welcomed me. And for a while, as my skin darkened and my arms hardened and I learned not to flinch at the roar and wind of the helicopters, I began to feel more like them, like the tough girl I had always wanted to be. 

But the real difference between those summers for me was that during the first one Dan and I were a couple. Everyone was nice to me when I dated Dan, including, at first, Dan himself. He took me hiking, showed me around Juneau, and wrote sweet notes that he folded up in dog booties and tossed to me across the kennel.

“You’re good on a snow machine,” he told me one night. Then, when I blushed: “What I mean to say is, I think you’re pretty.” 

I lost my virginity to him in a cheap tent in a campground on one of our days off. By the next day, our relationship had changed. Sex seemed to make Dan a different person, focused and cold, insistent even when my body was sore. “You’re not supposed to like it yet,” he told me repeatedly over the next weeks—practice would make perfect. That sounded wrong to me, but I couldn’t argue from experience. I cobbled together boundaries where I could. 

One line was agreed upon: Dan and I would never hook up on the glacier. For one thing, we were disgusting, covered in grease and sweat and a days-old film of dog poop. And sleeping in each other’s tents would risk both our jobs; the company was strict about single-gender living spaces. But more important, there was no privacy on the glacier; nothing you did in your tent belonged just to you. Every thump, every murmur, traveled clearly across the ice from one tent to another. I wanted the other guides to see me as a musher, not a girl. The last thing I needed was for them to hear that.

A few weeks after our first time together, though, Dan slipped into my tent while I was alone, promising that he just wanted to hold me. Before long he was tugging my long underwear off my hips, kissing me even as I pressed my mouth shut. Tensing his arm when I tried to push his hand away. Pulling a condom from his pocket, rolling it on. As soon as I saw it, my heart sank: He had come here for this. I told him I didn’t want to, and he told me yes, I did, he could tell. When I clenched my knees together he shoved them apart. “Shh,” he whispered as I squirmed, no place to pull away between his body and the tent wall. “We don’t want everyone to hear us.”

“Everyone” meant the men on the other side of the canvas. They couldn’t know. I couldn’t face them if they knew. I closed my eyes and let my body go slack. 

When it was over, Dan got up quickly and slipped out through the tent flap. He walked out backward, so that his floating head was the last thing I saw. “Now we can say we’ve had sex on a glacier,” his head said. “Admit it, that’s pretty cool.” 

I grabbed a baby wipe from the box on the floor and rolled over to face the wall.

I wished by then that we had never gotten together, but I didn’t want to confront him and shatter the careful social balance of the camp. The only thing harder than dating Dan on the glacier would be breaking up with him on the glacier. And so for the rest of the summer, I played girlfriend the same way I played dogsled guide, learning the motions week by week, not stopping to think about what it all meant.

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I started college that fall. Dan gave me a framed photo of the two of us, one I couldn’t remember having been taken. He told me I was only going to school to please my parents. What I should do, he said, was follow my heart and come north to live with him. We could drive dogs year-round. I pretended to think about it. I put the photo facedown in my desk drawer and covered it with papers. 

That winter I broke up with Dan again and again, but each time he wrote to me the next day as if nothing had happened, until finally I gave up trying to object. Our correspondence lagged. He was far away, and I distracted myself with things that were closer, adopting a vegan diet, working out for hours every day until I no longer recognized the body Dan had fucked.

It never occurred to me that I wouldn’t go back to Alaska. It never occurred to me that I might not want to. Of course I’d go back to the ice. I didn’t know how else I’d get to be with the dogs, doing what I loved. And for a while on the glacier, I had felt tough. What would it mean about me if I turned back now? 

When I landed in Juneau, expecting to be picked up by one of the company’s support staff, Dan stood by the baggage claim. He greeted me with a hug, said he’d taken the day off to meet me. Of course he had. We were going to have a great summer, he said, without a hint of acknowledgment of our months-long breakup. His certainty made me question my own. Had I misunderstood the whole thing? 

Over the next day, as we waited in town to fly up to the glacier, I told Dan I wouldn’t sleep with him. I told him I didn’t like it when he touched me. I told him I didn’t want to be a couple. But the more I objected, the more he tried to convince me otherwise. “Just give me a reason,” he kept saying.

Later, when he slipped his arm around me in the women’s apartment, I found the only words that had an effect: “I’m not attracted to you.”

“Why didn’t you say so?” Dan said, crossing the room in three steps, smacking the doorframe on his way out. And like that, the matter was settled.

Dan had already arranged for side-by-side kennels and shared days off, which meant that we spent a lot of time over the next weeks, when we weren’t ten feet apart among our rows of dogs, pressed together in a helicopter flying to and from the glacier. We handled this at first by ignoring each other completely. But soon he began upping the ante, talking loudly to other guides about how I was doing my job wrong, how I was unfit to give tours, how the dogs would never listen to my high, girlish voice. I’d enter the kitchen tent to find him questioning the veterinary care I gave my yearlings or scoffing at something he’d overheard me say to a tourist. Once, as he escorted a couple to my sled, I heard him say, “She’s good at acting like she knows what she’s doing. It’s too bad you didn’t get an experienced musher.” But usually when I was within earshot he’d fall quiet. 

I’d seen guides laugh along as Dan mocked the more vulnerable among us. He had been particularly amused by a heavyset couple who had needed snowshoes to get around and ended up quitting early in the season. After they left, he made fun of another new guide, the only black musher, for wanting to be a doctor. Dan teased him even more when he was seen exiting an outhouse with his laptop. Weeks later, that guide was fired.

When Dan aimed his scorn at me and the others followed, I was dismayed but not entirely surprised. What bothered me more was when they harassed Rebekah. Hard-working, cheerful Rebekah, who Chad tried to get to deworm the dogs by inserting the pills rectally. Rebekah, who’d fallen for the idea of Alaska, the idea of dogsledding, and back in Indiana had saved up money from making change in a McDonald’s drive-thru to buy herself a malamute and a husky, which she trained to pull her on Rollerblades. Her dream had been to mush dogs. And by the time she planned to see her family, she’d been on the glacier for two months, more than half the summer, without once getting to drive a dogsled. She kept setting aside time, getting her work out of the way—and somehow, just as she was about to go out on the trail, someone would yell that they needed her to scoop poop or fetch some booties, and the trip would be delayed once again. 

But now Rebekah was about to leave, and she couldn’t see her family without having driven a sled. So I begged an hour off and we hit the trail with enough time for a quick ride before her departure. We had just taken off when five helicopters rounded a distant mountain single-file and then roared into camp, coming down fast on the ice, hot rotors thumping. Moments later, nearly 30 stunned and immaculate cruise-ship tourists stood around the American flag at the edge of the dog yard. 

It was not a scheduled landing. I knew it, and everyone back at camp knew it, but we also knew better than to acknowledge to the tourists that anything was unusual. 

So the other mushers didn’t even glance at each other as they corralled the tourists together with big smiles and shouts of “Welcome to Dog World!” Rebekah and I, partway down the trail, stopped our dogs and watched from a distance. The tourists seemed happy—we could hear the buzz of their excitement—and the guides ran around harnessing dogs and hooking them to their sleds as quickly as they could. The pilots huddled together behind the helicopters. 

It turned out that a sudden storm, a wall of cloud between Juneau and the glacier, had blocked their usual flight path and forced them to forgo the flightseeing tour and make an early landing. Now, from the glacier, the weather looked overcast but by no means terrible; visibility was better than it often was. The pilots decided to continue on schedule. They lifted off in a line, heading back to Juneau. In an hour, they would return to pick up the tourists and drop off the next group. The mushers took off with their tours, and Rebekah and I continued along the trail.

For a while, at least, the ride was lovely—maybe the best I’d had all summer. It wasn’t raining, Rebekah was laughing, and the tourists’ voices sounded from the other trails, where other people were responsible for them. But within 15 minutes another rumbling echoed over the glacier, and a tiny figure in an orange vest zoomed toward the dogsled trails on a snowmobile. This was Malcolm, our manager. We’d been warned about orange vests: They were used to signal urgency. 

Malcolm waved to the tourists as he passed them—“Stunning, isn’t it?”—and then came to a stop next to Rebekah and me. “We’re in trouble,” he said. “The pilots can’t get back.” His voice was higher than I’d ever heard it. “Nobody’s hurt, but the tourists are trapped here now. They’re trapped here.” 

Rebekah was jumping a little on the sled brake. “What should we do?” she said. 

He told us to let the staff know what was going on without alarming the tourists. “Just tell them they’ll be here longer than expected—maybe an extra hour or two until the weather clears. And girls? Try to make it sound like a good thing.”

Rebekah drove fast around the trail, and we were waiting in the kennel by the time the other teams returned. We split up to spread the word: “Great news! You get a longer tour than usual!” While the tourists cheered and rushed to pet the dogs, I sidled up to each musher and whispered an update in his ear. Chad snorted—“Nice one, Blair”—but Henry, an older guide whom I considered a friend, nodded and squeezed my arm before straightening up and returning to his group. I had been hoping that Rebekah would reach Dan before I did, but by the time I’d worked my way over to his kennel she was still several teams away, giggling sharply and gesticulating to a man in a cowboy hat.

When Dan saw me coming, he led his tourists away from me, toward the lead dogs, who had flopped down in the snow. “This here is Mo,” Dan said. “He’s awesome.” (I noticed he was following instructions: Mo was short for Money, but Malcolm had directed him never to use the dog’s full name, since tourists might interpret it as angling for tips.) When I reached the group, I put on my biggest tour-guide smile and gave them the news.

“Wow!” said Dan. “Why don’t you all pet Mo for a minute?” He walked a few feet off, head down, and I followed. “What’s going on, Blair?”  

I told him the birds couldn’t get back. This was the closest that Dan and I had come to being alone together in two months, and I couldn’t help noticing how familiar he was.

“OK,” he said. He crossed his arms. 

“Just keep them happy for as long as possible,” I said. “I’ll let you know when there’s more information.” 

For just an instant, Dan looked up, and our eyes met. We both took a step back. “Don’t tell me what to do,” he said. “And next time, send Rebekah. At least she knows not to interrupt me when I’m with tourists.” By the time I gathered a response, he had walked away. 

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Back at camp, Malcolm and Nell, our cook, were standing around the satellite phone. They had called the cruise ship to say that the passengers would be late; the captain had agreed to wait three hours, but no longer. Nell was heating a massive pot on the propane stove, preparing cocoa. The goal was to keep things fun for as long as possible. Let the tourists hang out in the kennel, then bring them in for hot drinks. They were making plans for snowmobile rides and a snowman contest. As long as the backup helicopters arrived within an hour or so, there was no reason for the tourists to worry.

But after a half-hour in the kennel, when the weather had not just failed to clear but gotten worse, we brought the tourists into the community tent and fed them cookies. Malcolm broke the news: They were stranded. The helicopters couldn’t make it in. “No,” a man said, “that can’t be. My ship is leaving.” This met with nods of agreement. Then the tourists got angry—at the guides for misleading them, at the pilots for misjudging the weather, at the ship for not waiting. Didn’t we understand that this was a serious inconvenience? A woman had left her infant child with a babysitter. A couple was worried about standing up a dinner date. A few people raised concerns about medication they’d left behind, but their voices were lost in the general despair. 

By that second summer, it seemed to me that the tourists’ unhappiness was a bomb that could detonate at any time, and my job was to keep it from doing so. I had, at that point, spent almost six months giving eight rides a day, eight hour-long rides during which I acted delighted by all things dog and glacier, fascinated by every detail that my passengers cared to tell me about their cruise—a whale that very morning!—and their trip so far, and their relatives stuck at home, and their new Welsh corgi. It all felt so fake. I was still somehow a great guide, as measured by the generous tips and teary hugs I received, and the grateful letters that arrived occasionally, wadded in a pilot’s pocket. But the truth was, the more the tourists loved me, the more I resented them. I blamed them for not seeing through me; their admiration felt like a constant reminder that I didn’t deserve it anymore. By the end of each day, my cheeks sore from smiling, it felt like all I could do was stand in the snow, watching the patterns of light on the mountains, ducking my head at another sexual remark of the kind that, without Dan on my side, I was no longer spared. “Another one, Blair,” a pilot would call, letter in hand. “What are you doing, giving blow jobs?”

Ten thousand tourists passed through the camp each summer, and I had never seen any of them get stuck like this before. But it didn’t really surprise me, either; nothing about the glacier surprised me anymore. I had learned, over months of avalanches and lakes, trench foot and neoprene, to adjust to its changes without question. I stood back and watched the tourists from a distance. They were mostly middle-aged couples dressed in striped raincoats of the type I imagined were sold on cruise ships. A little girl held hands with her mother. Another woman walked in tense circles, pointing her useless cell phone at the sky. For a moment, as I watched the tourists jostle in line for the sat phone, blatant in their desperation to leave, I envied them. And then the moment was gone. The tourists became tasks again, not people—each one simply another item on my to-do list. 

Framing a backcountry emergency as an extended luxury tour is no enviable task, but Malcolm did his best. “We have a cook,” he announced, his voice confident. “We have plenty of food and water.” He laid out his plan for making their unexpected stay as enjoyable as possible, offering them as many dogsled rides as they liked. 

The tourists looked grim, but Malcolm gave them a pleasant nod and then stepped outside, gesturing for the staff to follow. “I don’t care what you need to do,” he whispered once we’d gathered around him. “Just keep them happy. Do whatever it takes. Act like this is the best thing that ever happened to you. And for God’s sake, don’t do anything that could get us sued.” 

The afternoon passed in a haze of card games, the tourists checking their cell phones in vain, the weather reports over the sat phone steadily bleak. At some point, it became clear that they would be staying for dinner. 

Nell, who ran a tight kitchen, must not have been pleased. But she knew how to keep her cool—she had been on the glacier longer than most of us. Nell could work magic with a propane stove, making lasagna, fry bread, biscuits and gravy. In the same way that the guides monitored the dogs’ weight and food intake, Nell scrutinized ours; since I had lost weight over the winter, she had taken to pouring oil over my food. The second a staff member sneezed, she was ready with a mug of hot chocolate and orange Tang, a mixture she swore by for the vitamin C. 

The tourists ate Nell’s dinner—meat loaf, real mashed potatoes, chocolate cake—around picnic tables in the community tent. The staff squatted behind the storage tent, eating sandwiches. We would be ceding our tents and cots to the tourists—we had extra sleeping bags for emergencies—and after dinner Malcolm went tent by tent to make sure the quarters were ready. He’d decided we should call the tourists “guests,” as if they had been invited over for a dinner party and just happened to be spending the night. “Put all your stuff in trash bags,” he said, “and pile it outside. We want to make sure the guests are comfortable.” 

When he reached our tent, Malcolm made Rebekah and me take down the perfume ad we had tacked to the support beams. “We can’t have the guests sleeping under a naked picture of Leonardo DiCaprio,” he said. But when Rebekah reached to take down a photo of a baby at a day care center where she worked back in Indiana, Malcolm stopped her. “Put that somewhere prominent,” he said. “It makes us seem human.”

Rebekah surveyed the empty tent. “Where are we going to sleep?” 

“I really don’t care,” Malcolm said. 

Back in the community tent, the tourists were gathered around the three tables, playing Go Fish and Parcheesi. A few guides hung around outside, sitting on a pair of snowmobiles, not saying much. Every 20 minutes or so, one would take a long breath, stretch a smile across his face, and pass through the tent flap. “Parcheesi! I love Parcheesi! Who’s up next?” Whoever had been relieved would step out of the tent, visibly deflate in the sudden chill air, and collapse onto the empty snowmobile seat. In this way, the tourists were infused with a constant rotation of freshly conjured enthusiasm.

When it was Rebekah’s turn, she stepped off the snowmobile and headed toward the tent. 

“Rebekah,” Chad called after her. 

“What?” 

“Just remember: Jesus hates you.”

After my Parcheesi shift, I didn’t feel like waiting with the other guides, so I began pacing the camp. I wandered over to the kitchen, but I could hear Nell talking to herself, so I walked over to the storage tent, figuring that if anyone confronted me I could say I was looking for something. When I stepped in, I found Chad and Henry sitting close together. They had been whispering but stopped abruptly.

I asked if we had duct tape. Chad looked at me blankly. 

“To fasten a bandage,” I said. 

“Maybe we could use her,” said Henry. “I could use an assistant.” 

“What’s your medical training?” said Chad.

I’d needed first-aid certification to qualify for the job, but when I applied I was living in Norway, far from any official courses. Our limited training at the folk school consisted of a few encounters with classmates who hid in the woods, covered in reindeer blood, moaning over various feigned injuries that we were encouraged to remedy with birch branches and torn strips of T-shirt. Afterward, I made my own certificate. 

“Some medical training,” I said. 

“Good.” Henry lowered his voice. “There’s a woman here, she’s got this blood-pressure thing and her meds are back in Juneau. I’ve been talking to the hospital. They say that if she’s stuck here through tomorrow, we’re going to have to let blood.” 

“Let blood?” I said.

Chad told me they’d find me when they needed help. “The guests can’t know about this, all right?” 

“All right,” I said. It was all I could do to keep my voice calm.

“All right,” said Henry.

They were waiting for me to leave. 

“All right,” I said again. Then I stepped out of the tent and zipped it shut and looked out at the white sea of that endless fucking glacier. 

I thought about going to the kennel next, but I knew the dogs would get noisy and people would notice and I’d need a reason for being there, so I decided instead to figure out sleeping arrangements. There wasn’t much to figure out. The men had claimed the community tent, the storage tent had no floor space, and Nell would have the kitchen, which left the vet tent for Rebekah and me. That was OK. It was far away, at least. I slung our trash bags over my shoulders and staggered through the snow, dumping them just outside the entrance. Then I untied the bags and began rummaging inside. I had my head so deep in one that I didn’t notice when Dan came up behind me. 

He was holding back a dog with each hand, clutching their collars as they stood, panting, on their hind legs. I unzipped the flap and threw my blanket onto the floor. “No room for dogs,” I said. “We’re sleeping here. There’s nowhere else.” 

Dan pushed past me into the tent. When I followed him in, I saw that he had kicked aside my blanket and was making room for the dogs. 

“Why are you doing that?” I said. “We need to sleep here.” 

“The dogs are sick,” he said. 

“The dogs are fine.” 

He didn’t answer. 

“Dan,” I said, “why are you doing that?” 

It struck me that I’d never been afraid of him, not even when he had pressed himself onto me, when he’d hushed my objections. I’d been resigned, unhappy, but never afraid—at least not like I was in a storm or a helicopter. And I wasn’t afraid now, either. Unhappy, yes. Resigned. And here was Dan. It all felt familiar.

“Dan,” I said again, more softly. “Why are you doing that?” 

“Don’t sleep here,” he said. “Sleep with me. We’ll find a place.” 

“I can’t.”

“We could fix all this right now,” he said.

I thought about it. What would be harder, what would be easier.

“I miss you,” he said. He was crying, and the sight of that shocked me more than anything else that happened that day. “You’re different now,” he said. “I miss who you were. You were a better person before. Don’t you remember how happy we were? We could have that back. It’s up to you.”

It was up to me—if only I would sleep with him. The unspoken standing offer, now made clear. 

I’m ashamed now to admit how seriously I considered it: the proposition that things could change, that the animosity, at least, could be over. I tried to remember the feeling of Dan’s mouth on my ear, the heat of his skin against me. Whether those feelings were more or less horrible than the silence, the muttered comments and strained relationships with coworkers, my constant prickling awareness of his whereabouts. It was hard to say. 

“I told Rebekah I’d stay with her tonight,” I said. “Besides, there’s nowhere else to sleep.” 

“We could tell Nell we need the kitchen,” Dan said, and I was caught off-guard by the absurdity of it, the image of Nell wielding ladles to defend her territory, and for a second everything dissolved and we were two people laughing. 

“Fine,” Dan said. “But it’s not going to get better. When you want it to, come find me.”

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We assured the tourists that the helicopters planned to come first thing in the morning, because what else could we do? We had to get to bed somehow. Rebekah and I hooked Dan’s dogs to a cable staked outside the vet tent. We spread our blankets in the small rectangle of floor between plastic chests and stacked dog crates, boxes of Neosporin and Cipro and tea tree oil. There was a folding table with mascara, zinc cream, rolls of stiff new booties. A propane heater hissed in one corner, and the rafters were draped in dark insulating blankets. Within a few minutes of lying down, curled beside each other, the tent had warmed enough to release the strong smell of piss and menthol. It burned the inside of my nose.

I had always liked nights on the glacier, the thin buffer of time between leaving the kennel and falling asleep. Most evenings I’d spend an hour or so grooming trails on a snowmobile, gunning the engine repeatedly to keep the metal grader from catching in the snow. It was an optional job, cold and loud at a time of day when most of the others were settling in after dinner, but I volunteered whenever I could. I’d realized early on that driving the trails was the only time I could be alone. I loved it when a fog came in, when I couldn’t hear voices or dogs and couldn’t see anything but white opening up in front of me, white closing in behind. When I finished the rounds I’d pull up to an empty camp, a silent ghost town with just the faint glow of flashlights showing through tent walls. Rebekah was usually asleep by then, and I’d peel off my clothes carefully, draping the rain shells and long underwear over the half-dozen lines strung from the central rafter. I hung my boots up last, upside down, catching the toes in loops of string so that moisture drained overnight. Then I’d tiptoe through fast-spreading puddles and fall onto my cot, zip my sleeping bag, and exhale. 

Now, in the vet tent, Rebekah was not asleep. I could hear her turning, could make out the tiniest of whimpers. It was black in the tent, the snow’s glow blocked by the insulating blankets—the first real darkness I’d seen in weeks, and even that was unsettling. I whispered, “How are you doing?” 

“My flight,” she said. 

I’d forgotten. “Your parents will understand.” 

She sighed. That wasn’t the point.

“I’m sorry the guys are so mean to you,” I said. It was the first time I’d acknowledged it aloud. “I wish they weren’t.” 

“What do you mean?” Rebekah said.

“You know. Trench foot, Jesus. Everything.” 

“They’re just being guys,” she said. “That’s how they do things.” 

“But it shouldn’t be like that. You shouldn’t have to go home because of them.” 

“I’m going home because I miss my family,” she said. 

Not to escape, like I wanted to.

“They’re meaner to you than they are to me,” Rebekah said. “I mean, if I can say this—Dan is the worst.” She told me how she’d met him at the beginning of the summer, before I’d arrived there, and how he’d said “all sorts of things” about me. “I was pretty nervous to share a tent with you, actually, after what I heard. Then I met you and within five minutes I was like, What was he talking about? ’Cause you were so nice.” 

“No,” I said, trying to make sense of it. According to Dan, we hadn’t broken up yet. I had the odd, sudden sense that Rebekah was embarrassed for me. 

I thought: We were never happy. Neither of us. Of course. 

It took me a long time to fall asleep. I wondered how many of the tourists were also awake, twisting in their borrowed sleeping bags and blinking their eyes against the constant, unfamiliar glow of the icefield. Where was the little girl, and the woman whose blood we might have to let? At the thought of her, my stomach turned. What would we use—a knife?

The tourists were probably uncomfortable, I thought. They were probably scared. They’d wake to realize that they were still here, still trapped—that none of it had been a dream. 

Rebekah and I woke early to the sound of voices. She went straight to the community tent, but I was relieved when Malcolm directed me toward the kennel instead. I spent the morning moving team by team, working to get all the dogs fed. I wasn’t used to caring for the other guides’ dogs, and when one of them nipped my arm, I felt like throwing down the food in frustration. But reaching my own team felt like coming home. I took my time with each dog, rubbing ointment between their toes, kissing the dips between their eyes. Even though it was overcast, I spread sunscreen on the females’ bellies and over the males’ balls, extra protection from the UV rays that reflect off the ice. I took pride in brushing them sleek and stretching their muscles with my thumbs. 

Every so often, heart pounding, I’d peek into the storage tent to get medical updates. There was no news on the woman with too much blood—I figured she must’ve been stable enough to stay with the group, even if her condition was serious. It would be years before I learned that she may never have existed, that the whole bloodletting thing was probably a lie made up to provoke me. 

But if the bloodletting was a lie, other dangers were real. One man was an insulin-dependent diabetic, and if he were stuck on the ice for just one more day, he might slip into a coma. I heard whispered news that a mountain-rescue team was mobilizing back in Juneau, ready to cross the frozen wilderness with ropes and ice picks, carrying insulin in their packs. 

For close to two hours I stayed with the diabetic man, who I guessed was in his mid-fifties. He sat on a cot, breathing slowly, radiating a calm that I envied. I tried to tell him the stories I’d perfected over months of tours—tall tales about dogsledding adventures, arctic weather, cute puppies. He was a patient listener, but the stories felt empty to me. Halfway through a secondhand story about a polar bear encounter, which was one of my standbys, I found myself wishing that I’d never started telling it at all. So instead I took a piece of paper and drew a picture of the man, taking my time. I tried to capture the angles of his broad face, his soft skin. When I finished, he admired the sketch at length, then tucked it into his breast pocket. He took my hand and told me how honored he was to be spending time with such a lovely young woman. I squeezed his hand and felt like a liar. 

When the man fell asleep, I left his tent and went outside. Some of the guides were sitting on the snowmobiles, looking out over the icefield. It took me a moment to realize what they were watching. There was a figure in the distance, heading away from us. “He won’t get far,” someone said. “He’ll either get spooked and come back, or he’ll fall into a crevasse.”

“Who is that?” I asked.

“Chad,” the guides said in unison. One of them added, “Either he’s going for help or he just lost it.”

“Lost it?” someone else said. “What’s to lose?” They all laughed.

Chad waved. I knew he was just goofing off and would come back soon, but he looked so small out there that the idea of watching him horrified me. I thought about going back inside the community tent, but Dan was probably there, so instead I went to the guest outhouse and locked the door. It smelled nice in there, like biodegradable cleanser. I stood with my eyes closed, leaning against the wall, grateful to be alone. But at some point I noticed myself, a sad, foul-smelling girl, hiding in an outhouse, and once I’d noticed that, I couldn’t un-notice it. I squirted sanitizer on my hands and trudged back out into the snow. 

Late in the afternoon we gathered the tourists in the community tent, planning to break the news about a possible second night. They had been remarkably positive all day, playing along with our smiles, bravely agreeing to an umpteenth round of cards. Some of the younger ones had even helped to feed the dogs, hauling buckets of soupy kibble from plastic igloo to plastic igloo. They were trying as hard as we were, but their faces in the tent were solemn. 

That was when we heard the thin rumble, so quiet that at first I thought it was in my head. Everyone froze, listening, and then began to cheer. The tourists rushed out into the snow, clutching their jackets as the birds landed. I stepped back and watched from the kennel, sitting on a doghouse as some guides ushered the diabetic man into the nearest helicopter. Rebekah and the other tourists climbed into the other four.

I don’t remember whether any of the tourists hesitated and looked back. It’s true that earlier a few had made remarks about wanting to stay. “I can’t believe you get paid for this,” they’d said, fantasizing about how, if they could take the summer off, they’d love to come work here. Malcolm took this as a sign of success. But in the moment, midrescue, the dogs were in a frenzy, yelping and leaping on their chains, and the pilots were shouting, and the noise of the rotors drowned everything else. 

I remember this, though: When the helicopters first came into view, all of the guests, as if by instinct, raised their arms, reaching. And without realizing it, I did, too. 

The Fort of Young Saplings

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The Fort of Young Saplings

A writer’s quest to understand her connection to a distant people and their history.

By Vanessa Veselka

The Atavist Magazine, No. 43


Vanessa Veselka is the author of the novel Zazen, which won the 2012 PEN/Robert W. Bingham prize for fiction. Her short stories have appeared inTin House, Yeti, and Zyzzyva. Her nonfiction can be found in The American Reader, The Atlantic, GQ, and Medium, and was included in the 2013 Best American Essays anthology.


Editor: Charles Homans
Designer: Gray Beltran
Producer: Megan Detrie
Copy Editor: Sean Cooper
Fact Checker: Riley Blanton
Illustrator: Andrea Dezsö
Audio: Emily Kwong and Richard Nelson
Other Images: The Alaska State Library Historical Collections, the Alaska State Museum, the Bancroft Library at the University of California at Berkeley, and the Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library at Yale University

Published in November 2014. Design updated in 2021.

One

In 1972, in Juneau, Alaska, my father was adopted into the Kiks.ádi clan of a native Alaskan people called the Tlingit. This made me a clan child of the Kiks.ádi, a relationship that would bewilder me for years.

To be clear, the Kiks.ádi didn’t take me home to live with them. I was tangential to an honor conferred on my father, a community organizer for the Model Cities program—one of Lyndon B. Johnson’s War on Poverty initiatives—who had built friendships among the Tlingit while working alongside them on the Citizens Participation Committee in Juneau. None of this would be my story to tell except that when they adopted him they also got me, and all my earliest memories are of totem poles and Native faces, of wandering in the constant rain at beach picnics listening to the Tlingit language, and of the Raven and the Eagle, icons of the primary cultural divisions of the Tlingit, which I saw everywhere—on coffee mugs and ritual drums, on tourist T-shirts and the regalia of Tlingit dancers at the Alaska Native Brotherhood Hall—and were the first representations I knew of a larger, ineffable world.

There was never a reality, though, in which I would be Kiks.ádi. Tlingit are matrilineal, and my mother was not adopted. My parents split up, and my mom took my brother and me back to Houston. Whereas my Tlingit grandmother’s house had been full of bric-a-brac and stuffed frogs, my maternal grandmother’s house was full of plastic-covered furniture and large wooden lamps shaped like pineapples. Nana had a three-inch-thick harvest gold rug that she raked in one direction daily. I lay in the shag like it was a field of wheat and watched Ultraman. While I might have been recognized as Kiks.ádi yadi—child of the Kiks.ádi—by my father’s clan, my own clan was the Rug Raking Plastic Sofa Bridge Players. We had locusts instead of ravens.

The year my dad left Alaska, my mom moved to New York. By then I was nine and had already lived in seven different states. I knew what kids who move a lot know: try to be invisible or try to be impressive, which is why on day one of my new fourth grade class I loudly proclaimed myself the sort-of-daughter of a proud Tlingit warrior tribe that no one ever beat. Sadly, we did not move again.

By now it was the late Seventies in Greenwich Village. Boys at my school were grabbing girls and pulling them into unseen corners of the playground, pushing them down and dry-humping them in a game called “rape.” Half our parents were dealing or doing cocaine. The rest seemed to be drunk. The vigil flame of syndicated television burned, for many of us, around the clock.

But I could not let the Tlingit go. Even though I was mercilessly teased as an “Indian princess,” even though my father had stopped talking about the Tlingit and my mother got uncomfortable when I spoke of the adoption, I remained faithful in the belief that I belonged to a family of great and unbeaten warriors who would someday welcome my return. In the summers, when my brother and I went back to Alaska and he played with friends, I attended adult-education classes at the Alaska State Museum. I was not the only white person in the Intro to Tlingit Culture and Language course, but I was the only eight-year-old. I had been imprinted at just the right age. Like the Velveteen Rabbit, I wanted to be real.

Still, eventually I had to admit that I probably was a delusional liar and a troubled child. Even at 11, I could see the telltale signs. I was living amid the wreckage of a fourth marriage and a fifth school. My classmates were right. Real Indians rode horses, and we had already killed them all. If there were any left, I wasn’t one of them.

Two

The Tlingit don’t fit stereotypes of Native Americans. They’re more like Vikings. Or maybe they’re more like Maori. A fiercely martial people, terrifying in their samurai-like slat armor, their bird-beak helmets, and their raven masks, they never surrendered to a colonial power, never ceded territory. When Russia sold Alaska to the United States in 1867, the Tlingit argued that the Russians held only trading posts and that the rest was not theirs to sell. The protest was unsuccessful, but it was the beginning of a narrative: The Tlingit had never signed away their land, had never sold it, had never moved.

It was an argument the Tlingit would make, nearly a century later, in the courtroom. In 1959, the Tlingit sued the federal government in Tlingit and Haida Indians of Alaska v. United States and demanded fair compensation for their stolen land. The Tlingit turned out to be as strategically brilliant in the courtroom as they were on the battlefield. They won a pittance but kept their claims alive, navigating difficult legislative waters and, in the 1960s, joining a statewide native movement seeking a settlement. The Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act of 1971 would award the state’s indigenous people nearly $1 billion and recognize native ownership of 44 million acres of prime forest, 22 millions acres of mineral rights, and 16 million acres of subsurface mineral rights. At the time it was signed, the bill was the gold standard of indigenous settlements.

The huge infusion of cash lessened the economic pressure for Alaska Natives to abandon tribal lands. As a result, Tlingit still live today where they lived before European contact and make decisions with little or no interference from the Bureau of Indian Affairs. A friend of mine told me once of a Tlingit elder no more than five feet tall who was unpopular at powwows because she liked to walk up to the biggest Lakota or Crow she saw, jab her fingers in his or her chest, and say, “You lost! We won!” It was terrible diplomacy—the Tlingit are not famous among other tribes for their modesty—but she was not necessarily wrong.

It was true, of course, that the Tlingit could not escape the profound suffering that came from European colonialism. Epidemics devastated the population, and those who remained suffered from all too familiar oppression. But economically and culturally, one could argue that no tribe fared better. If, as historian Shelby Foote once said, the psychology of the American South holds within itself the identity of a defeated nation, then perhaps the Tlingit psyche holds within it the opposite—faith in its ability to fight and win. It was easy to see why my dad was drawn to them.

My father shared a rural sensibility with his Tlingit friends. They certainly shared a distaste for pacifism. A former Marine from Texas, he had spent time in Brazil and cowboyed in the Texas panhandle. After taking a job with Model Cities, he was sent to a small border town populated by Mexicans and run by whites, and after that to Alaska.

The Citizens Participation Committee, which advised on funding for War on Poverty initiatives, was fighting to get federal money flowing to the poorer Tlingit neighborhoods of Juneau. My father was not the first white man hired to work with the CPC; another had been hired several months earlier, causing uproar among Tlingit activists. But at least he had been an Alaskan. My father was a different story. Not only was he a white man, but he was a Southern white man—and, rumor had it, some kind of cowboy who had never even been to Alaska before. The job he took effectively made him chief operating officer of the committee, a position many in the community felt should have gone to a Tlingit.

A year later, for reasons I’m not sure I fully understand—such things are always shaded by time and relationship—Andy Ebona, the Kiks.ádi executive director of the CPC, went to his mother, Amy Nelson, clan mother of the Kiks.ádi, and asked her to adopt my father. She agreed but didn’t say when. Then one day my father got a call from Andy saying he should get down to the Alaska Native Brotherhood Hall right away—that Amy was going to do it. He rushed over there, but nothing happened. Later he found out that he hadn’t been dressed right. He was in jeans.

In the end, the ceremony was simple and quick. Amy asked him to stand. In front of witnesses, she held a dollar bill to his head and gave him his name, Aak’wtaatseen, which means “swimming or moving frog” and comes from a story about a man from another culture who brings something needed to the people. Like all great honors, the name was part recognition, part threat. Promise that you will live up to this, it said. But it did not make clear how.

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Three

In 1991, as a young adult, I returned to Juneau—something I had always said I would do. I hadn’t been there since third grade, but my own sense of relation to the Tlingit never fully left. Sometimes I was comforted by the thought of the adoption and other times ashamed to have believed in it at all. Still, one of the first things I did when I got to Juneau was look up my Tlingit uncle Andy Ebona.

Waiting on the corner where we agreed to meet, I half-expected a Miyazaki-like apparition, a giant frog with garnet eyes and pockets full of gold nuggets and salmonberries—so vivid and unsorted were my childhood memories, and so disorienting was it to be back among them again as an adult. Instead, Andy turned out to be a middle-aged man, roughly my height, with a cook’s build, a little round but solid, with thick black hair and a broad face. One of the first things he said to me was to tell my father, “Our mother wants to know why her son doesn’t write.” I wanted to be that letter, but I wasn’t. Neither of us seemed to know what to do with the other.

I ate grilled salmon in Andy’s apartment. I had planned all along to make a grand statement of loyalty—I never forgot about the family, I wanted to say, and I never took off my frog ring, it just vanished in a lake when I was ten, and I can still say “raven” and “shaman” and “thank you” in Tlingit, just in case you were wondering—but I didn’t want to appear entitled. Nor did I want to make him think I thought the experience was exotic. Lost in a fog of cultural sensitivity, I said nothing.

Later we went to a family gathering out on Douglas Island, and that evening I ate herring roe on hemlock and gumboot for the first time and saw my Tlingit grandmother, Amy, for the last time. She was small and gracious, but I don’t think she remembered me. After a few hours I slipped out, convinced I’d done everything wrong. At this point in my life, I know that’s the way 22-year-olds often leave parties, under a shroud of inarticulate failure, but at the time I assigned it to other things. I assigned it to being a collateral relative.

That afternoon I had asked Andy about the Kiks.ádi, and he had spoken of the Battle of Sitka. Going to a bookshelf, he’d handed me a book on the Tlingit written in the 1850s by a German explorer. There weren’t any good books yet, he said, but one was on the way. The Kiks.ádi had beaten the Russians twice, once in 1802 and then again in 1804 at the Battle of Sitka. The battle came up again later that night in passing. It was, I learned, a subject quickly raised once in the company of Kiks.ádi, so bonded were they to those events. The battle belonged to them and they belonged to it. These things are inextricable.

Four

I didn’t see Andy again for over 20 years. Then, in 2011, he sent me a Facebook friend request. There was no message, and it wasn’t a particularly intimate gesture, but it was the first gesture I had received from him that was meant for me directly. Over the following months, a few more requests trickled in from people who knew me as a child, and soon a stream of images began to appear onscreen: snapshots of the Citizens Participation Committee meetings, of my parents and me as a two-year-old, of Andy and other friends picnicking on a rocky beach.

I decided to go to Juneau again. My trip had one purpose only: to connect with my Tlingit family. I wouldn’t tell this to any of them, though; it would be too pathetic. I would be casual. I would pretend I was dropping by the coastal mountain range 1,500 miles to the north of my home.

Wanting to be prepared, I returned to my fallback: study. I started with the Kiks.ádi victory at the Battle of Sitka. I went first to Wikipedia, our era’s greatest repository of received wisdom, where I was stunned to find an account that confidently stated that the Russians, not the Tlingit, had won:

Though the Russians’ initial assault (in which Alexandr Baranov, head of the Russian expedition, sustained serious injuries) was repelled, their naval escorts bombarded the Tlingit fort Shís’gi Noow mercilessly, driving the natives into the surrounding forest after only a few days. The Russian victory was decisive, and resulted in the Sheet’ká Kwáan being permanently displaced from their ancestral lands. They fled north and reestablished an old settlement on the neighboring Chichagof Island to enforce a trade embargo against the Russians.

The word “fled” hit me first, then “decisive.” If the battle was such a clear-cut Russian victory, why had the Kiks.ádi been bragging about it for the past two centuries? I paused for a moment between the two stories. Then, like any thinker with the slightest leaning toward postcolonial critique, I set aside the dead old white man account. If the Kiks.ádi claimed to have beaten the Russians, I would take it as gospel. Instead of asking if it was true, I would ask how it was true. I would prove my loyalty.

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The Tlingit settlement at Sitka, 1793. Painting: Sigismund Bacstrom, Courtesy of the Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library, Yale University.

Five

On the afternoon of September 19, 1804, Alexandr Baranov, chief manager of the Russian-American Company, sailed into the Sitka Sound on his ship the Ermak. With him were three smaller armed ships, a flotilla of several hundred sea kayaks, and the Russian Imperial Navy’s sloop-of-war, the Neva. The 1,200 men Baranov brought with him were mostly mercenaries—former Navy sailors and fur traders moonlighting as hired guns—some Aleuts, and a handful of company employees. They were there to send a message to the Tlingit: Sitka belongs to Russia.

Russia first began claiming territory in present-day Alaska in the 1740s, following Vitus Bering’s exploration of the Alaskan coast. Like other colonial powers, Russia wanted to expand its sphere of influence, but its main interest in Alaska was whale oil and fur. Over the next four decades, the Russians hunted along the Aleutian Islands and eastward into the gulf, colonizing as they went. 

The most successful of the colonial-commercial ventures was the Shelikhov-Golikov Company, of which the young Baranov was manager. In 1799, Tsar Paul I, seeking to consolidate his power in the colonies, turned his attention to the SGC. He created from the old enterprise a new, larger company and, after granting it a trade monopoly, invested his and his brother’s personal money in it. The aristocracy soon followed, displacing the merchant investors of the venture’s earlier iteration, and the Russian-American Company was born. 

Modeled after the Dutch East India Company, the RAC was meant to be an empire-building machine. At this point, it was sea otter that the Russians needed, that remarkable mammal whose fur so efficiently warmed the wealthy of Moscow and St. Petersburg. It drew them deeper into what is now the Alaskan panhandle, and the ancestral home of the Tlingit.

The Tlingit had always been a problem for the Russians. Letters between SGC managers warned that they weren’t like the other native tribes. Fifty years before Baranov’s arrival in the region, the Russians lost two landing parties to the Tlingit, the second in search of the first. No more were sent.

In 1792, in the Prince William Sound, Baranov himself had been caught up in a Tlingit attack targeting Chugach and Alutiiq natives with whom he was trading, and most of the men with him were killed. In a letter to his employer, Baranov described his Tlingit assailants as “outstanding warriors” who moved with perfect coordination and discipline. “On their heads they had thick helmets with figures of monsters on them, and neither our buckshot nor our bullets could pierce their armor,” he wrote. “In the dark, they seemed to us worse than devils.”

This experience must certainly have been on Baranov’s mind six years later when he arrived in Sitka Sound for the first time. A dark and dense rainforest of cedar, spruce, and hemlock rose up from the water, trees over 200 feet tall with crowns disappearing into the mist (which was everywhere) and the drizzle (ever present).

Sounds of the forest.

As he sailed into the sound, Baranov passed beneath the shadow of Noow Tlein, an ancient fortified settlement, which had been inhabited by the Tlingit for at least a thousand years. Built atop an outcrop of rock that rose 60 feet from shore to shoulder, Noow Tlein was surrounded on three sides by water. Baranov, upon seeing it, wisely chose to sail on. Shipwrecking (something he did a lot) seven miles north, however, he was forced to trade his prized chain-mail shirt to the Tlingit in exchange for his life.

The Kiks.ádi, smart middlemen that they were, struck a deal allowing Baranov to build a trading post. But three years later, in 1802, the Tlingit rose up. K’alyaán, a great Kiks.ádi warrior, struck the initial blow, killing a blacksmith and taking his hammer. (Later he would wield it in the Battle of Sitka.)

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K’alyaán, a great Kiks.ádi warrior, with his blacksmith’s hammer. Photo: David Rickman, courtesy of the National Park Service.

Baranov was away in Kodiak when he got the news that his fort was gone. It took him two years to return to Sitka. It’s easy enough to wonder why he would have bothered to reclaim such a remote colonial outpost. But the Russian-American Company was funded by the aristocracy back in St. Petersburg and backed by the Russian Navy. The geopolitical jockeying for the Pacific Northwest was intensifying; British and American ships were trading in the area, and Spanish ships weren’t far to the south. Sitka was Russia’s most promising foothold in North America, and now it was lost.

Now, imagine you’re a rube like Baranov, a former Siberian glass-factory manager turned company man. You’ve been hacking away in the bloody business of colonization for years. Suddenly, you land a job as the head of Russia’s first joint-stock entity. It’s going to be big, the tsar and his brothers have put their personal funds into the venture, sea otter is going through the roof, and you’re no longer in the sticks but on the vanguard of imperial expansion.

And now you, Baranov, have lost Sitka—the only harbor in southeast Alaska with access to both the sea and the straits leading to the Inside Passage. And your former business partners are now trading their precious fur pelts to the Americans for arms and gunpowder, which they intend to use against you. As Lenin would later say, what is to be done?

If you are the tsar, you send Imperial Navy warships. If you are the Russian-American Company, you send mercenaries and slaves to fight. If you are Alexandr Baranov, you muster your backwoods gumption, put on a fresh chain-mail shirt—because nothing says fealty like chafing beneath 20 pounds of wrought-iron rings—and get yourself down to Sitka and take that post from the Tlingit however you can. 

Six

Baranov himself never wrote of the Battle of Sitka. Many years later, he told the story to a financial auditor for the company; that was the extent of it. Company documents refer to the halo effect of the battle on trade but little else. The only written eyewitness account of the battle comes from the journals of a Russian naval officer, Lieutenant Commander Yury Lisiansky.

At the time of the battle, Lisiansky was only 31 years old but already enjoying an illustrious career. A veteran of the Russo-Swedish War, he had served in the Baltic and had connections to some of Russia’s older aristocratic houses. In 1802, while the Tlingit were busy destroying Baranov’s first fort, Lisiansky was sent by the tsar to England to buy ships for the Russian-American Company. In a precursor of private sector–state alliances to come, he used corporate credit and imperial gold to make a shady deal for two overpriced secondhand vessels, the Leander (rechristened the Nadezhda) and the Thames (the Neva).

Taking command of the Neva, a square-rigged tall ship with 200 feet of deck length and 14 cannons, Lisiansky set out to circumnavigate the globe on what became known as the Krusenstern Expedition. The Neva and the Nadezhda had already rounded Cape Horn, visited the Galápagos, and completed their circuit of the oceans when, in Hawaii, Lisiansky received new orders: Leave the Nadezhda. Forget going to Canton. Forget going to Japan. Head straight to Sitka. Help Baranov win back his fort.

Sounds of the harbor.

“From the moment we entered Sitka Sound and until we dropped anchor,” Lisiansky later wrote in A Voyage Around the World in the Years 1803-1806, “not a human being was to be seen anywhere, nay not even any sign that hereabouts was any settlement. Before our eyes were forests, covering the shores totally everywhere. How many uninhabited places have I seen, but none can compare in wilderness and emptiness with these.”

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A map of the Tlingit fortress at Sitka, drawn by Yury Lisiansky, 1805. Image: Courtesy of the Alaska State Library Historical Collections.

Lisiansky hated Sitka and complained of its weather and general gloom. Forced to wait in the bay for a month for Baranov to come, he was ecstatic when the manager arrived. Now they could engage and get it done. But on the first day of combat, the Russians were soundly defeated. Caught in a pincer move on the beach by Tlingit warriors led by K’alyaán with his blacksmith’s hammer, the Russians took casualties, broke ranks, and ran for the woods and water. They lost five cannons, and Baranov himself was seriously wounded.

For the next four days, the Tlingit fort was bombarded from the sea by the Neva as emissaries went back and forth. Both sides raised white flags, sometimes simultaneously. At the end of the sixth day, the Russians were in the fort and the Tlingit were in the forest. On these facts everyone agrees.

But the more I learned of the battle, the shakier the claim of a decisive Russian victory seemed. The battle was not followed by an influx of Russian trading posts. The Tlingit did not become slaves, as had other tribes. Although the Kiks.ádi abandoned their position, they did not exactly flee, but instead made an organized retreat, covering their people with a rear guard and taking up a new position on the straits. From there they launched an effective trade embargo to cut off the transport of fur to Russia. The following year another Russian trading post fell to the Tlingit in Yakutat and was permanently abandoned.

The retrospective logic seems to be that since the Kiks.ádi do not run the United States today, they must have lost to the Russians in 1804. Native wins are irrelevant. Native defeats are final. The Russians would inevitably prevail, and if not, it didn’t matter anyway. The Battle of Sitka, the lost posts, the embargo on the straits—these were details.

For almost 200 years, there was no published Tlingit account of what happened in Sitka. The Tlingit refused to speak publicly of the battle. Doing so ran against deeply held beliefs. First, talking about a conflict where peace now exists was considered rude and dangerous. Second, stories were considered property, tied to certain places and certain people. If it wasn’t your dead, it wasn’t your story.

There is almost no way to describe the Tlingit concept of ownership without distorting or reducing its complexities. Clans “own” their regalia and their crests, but they also own their ancestral relationships to a place, their songs and dances, their stories and the images that came from those stories. If branding and intellectual property rights were taken to an extreme and merged with the Marxist ideal that people must not be alienated from the objects of their labor—nor from the collective identity arising from that labor—then we might approach the Tlingit sense of ownership. The word for this is at.óow, which has been translated as “a purchased thing.” The Battle of Sitka was a purchased thing. It was paid for by the Kiks.ádi, and it could not be sold out.

Seven

“Even those who bought us, should hear what happened.” —Sally Hopkins

For many years the Kiks.ádi, though reluctant to make their stories public, had been recording their elders telling them for the clan’s own purposes. Sometimes it was little more than a tape machine brought down to the ANB Hall, turned on at a potlatch. Other times the recordings were more formal. In 1958, a Tlingit man recorded a retelling of the events of 1802–1804 for the National Park Service, including an account of the Battle of Sitka.

The woman he recorded was Shxaastí,a Kiks.ádi tradition bearer. Her English name was Sally Hopkins. One of 12 daughters, Hopkins was born in Sitka in 1877. She’d heard the stories as a girl, from elders who were contemporaries of Baranov. Her dialect alone was a treasure for linguistic anthropologists, containing within it the transition markers between ancient and modern Tlingit, an echo of pre-contact speech. She had the sound of ghosts in her voice. Her telling of the Battle of Sitka included over 60 names that otherwise would have been lost to history. Hopkins herself believed passionately in documenting and publishing the stories before they vanished, a belief she passed on to her Kiks.ádi children.

Her story, recorded in 1958, covers the altercations of both 1802 and 1804, but the sequence of events isn’t always clear. Tlingit oral histories are often organized by genealogy, following paths of relationship instead of chronological time. Other Kiks.ádi accounts preserve the 1802 debates between clan leaders, complete with colorful accusations that the sons of the Wolf clan are “sucking on the Russians.” In 1804, though, such debates were either nonexistent or left out of the story by its original tellers; perhaps the stakes were just too high to inflect with humor.

It took 30 years for the Kiks.ádi community to approve the release of these and other elders’ recordings. Finally, in 2008, the University of Washington Press published Russians in Tlingit America: The Battles of Sitka, 1802 and 1804. This was the “good book” my Uncle Andy had said would come all those years ago. In it were new translations of Lisiansky’s memoir by Lydia Black—a noted scholar and translator—along with Russian-American Company documents, Baranov’s personal letters, and, for the first time, a translation of multiple Kiks.ádi accounts of the Battle of Sitka.

My copy of Russians in Tlingit America arrived several weeks before I was scheduled to leave for Juneau. Somewhere between the size of a hotel Bible and Jung’s Red Book, it was 500 pages of dense type. Wanting to be better prepared, I postponed my trip and began to read. No one was waiting for me anyway.

Although the Russian and Tlingit versions diverged in perspective, they agreed on much of the basic flow of events. The battle had never gone as planned for the Russians. They expected to meet the Kiks.ádi at Noow Tlein, the ancient fort overlooking the harbor. According to the commander of the Neva, it was a near impregnable redoubt. But when Baranov and his men arrived, they were met by only a small party of Tlingit. The settlement had been abandoned.

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Yury Lisiansky’s drawings of Tlingit masks and other artifacts. Image: Courtesy of the Alaska State Library Historical Collection.

Baranov’s men raised Russian flags inside the empty village. They slept in Kiks.ádi houses. Noow Tlein, where Tlingit had lived for over a thousand years, was occupied without fight or ceremony. This alone must have given the Russians pause. If nothing else, Tlingit are a people of ritual. Their social etiquette rivals the DSM-5 for coding and complexity; they make geisha look slovenly. If they were really intending to give up the fort, they would have danced for days; they would have exchanged gifts and sung. Instead, there was only silence.

According to the Tlingit account, the Kiks.ádi were using Noow Tlein as a decoy. They wanted to draw the enemy out of their ships so they could see how many men they had and how serious they were. They knew all along that the Russians would rely on naval power, so they had spent the interim years building a new fort, Shís’ghi Noow—“fort of young saplings”—specifically designed to withstand naval bombardment. Shís’ghi Noow was built at the high-water line of a gently sloping beach seven miles from Noow Tlein. Gunships could barely get near it, and only during certain tides. If a ship did get in range, the fort’s structure was designed to deflect cannon fire.

These details are corroborated by the Russian version of the story. In Lisiansky’s journal, Baranov complains that the shallows are preventing his ships from getting within firing range of Shís’ghi Noow. He later laments that when they do, his cannonballs keep bouncing off the Tlingit fort. It was a mystery to the Russians, but not to the Kiks.ádi. They had watched the way a cannonball’s direct hit shattered seasoned wood. For this reason, Shís’ghi Noow’s walls had been built of saplings whose green and pliant wood offered a certain amount of give. The timbers were also angled and braced to disperse shock down and away, redirecting balls into pits dug to catch them. Coming ashore after the battle, Lisiansky writes that he gathered at least 150 cannonballs from around the fort walls.

It was never a given that the Russians would win the battle; Lisiansky acknowledges this himself at various points in his account. What neither Baranov nor Lisiansky knew, however, was that the Tlingit had already lost the fort before the Russians ever fired on it. 

On the eve of the battle, a Tlingit canoe was blown up as it passed between islands just off the coast. Both sides record the event, though with discrepancies. Some say it was a Russian shot that caused the explosion, others that it was carelessness among the young Tlingit men in the boat. Some say there were survivors, others that the entire crew was killed. The incident earns only a few lines from Lisiansky. Later, however, the Russian commander would come to realize its importance: The canoe carried the entire stockpile of Tlingit gunpowder.

The explosion was the moment the Tlingit lost the fort. All of their deft evasions and defensive tactics had been in the service of an offensive, prepared over the course of years, which the Kiks.ádi now knew would never come. And the canoe held more than gunpowder. Also inside were the future clan leaders of each Kiks.ádi house. All of them were killed.

The story became a song, “Sooxsaan,” which is one of the two anthems of the Kiks.ádi. The story in “Sooxsaan” is told through the eyes of a mother who loses her child when the canoe he is sleeping in drifts away. She sings out her grief for him to his uncles, those who were lost in that other canoe. It is a song that marks the passing of different futures. Even reading about it, I worried that I was treading on forbidden terrain. This, more than anything, was a purchased thing.

Eight

The Fort of Young Saplings was empty when the Russians walked in. They had expected people, negotiations, but there was no one. It was not the victory they had imagined. It didn’t say: You’ve won. It said: We are not done yet.

That winter in Sitka, without goods to trade—or anyone to trade with—and afraid to hunt in the forest, the Russians sent delegations across the snow to the Tlingit asking them to make peace and come back. The emissaries were turned away.

The Russians eventually abandoned the Fort of Young Saplings, decamping to Noow Tlein, which was vulnerable from the sea but less so from the land. Obviously, it was not the ships of rival colonial powers the Russians feared but Tlingit incursions by land and longboat. In Glorious Misadventures: Nikolai Rezanov and the Dream of a Russian America, Owen Matthews describes the colony at Noow Tlein as having two towers and a stockade “ringed with cannon—pointing not at the sea, but towards the endless threatening forest around.”

Nothing in the details of the battle and its aftermath showed it to be anything but a strategic withdrawal by the Tlingit. The Kiks.ádi tested the Russians at one fort while they moved their people to another; when the munitions were blown, they dragged out the surrender, faked a chain-of-command breakdown to create diplomatic chaos, and got their people safely into the woods. The Russians couldn’t follow because the Tlingit rear guard kept them engaged near the fort. Over time, they were effectively trapped behind the palisade of Noow Tlein, sending envoys out into the snow.

The story of the Battle of Sitka in Russians in Tlingit America struck me as curiously familiar. It took me a few days before I realized what it was. It was Napoleon. It was Moscow. Perhaps, if I hadn’t read so much Tolstoy in my early twenties—particularly if I hadn’t read War and Peace five times—I wouldn’t even have looked at the Battle of Sitka and thought about the burning of Moscow. But I had and I did. The Tlingit strategy was really no different than what the tsar’s forces would do eight years later when facing Napoleon on Russian soil.

After the Battle of Borodino in September 1812—that valiant last stand where the Russian army suffered horrendous losses—Field Marshal Mikhail Kutuzov did the unimaginable, the un-European thing, stepping aside and letting Napoleon have Moscow. Moscow! The Russians had been there almost as long as the Tlingit had lived at Noow Tlein. How could they abandon it? Yet in the era of saber rattling and charges, amid emerging virulent nationalism, this is exactly what Kutuzov did. And what did he say as Napoleon marched toward Moscow? “I aim not to defeat, but I’m hoping to deceive him.” What deception could he have meant?

L’Empereur marched into the metropolis expecting dignitaries, expecting rituals. He got none. Despite wanting to be gracious, he could find no object for his magnanimity. Napoleon in Moscow, like Baranov in Sitka, alone and far from home on the edge of winter, waited on a surrender that would never come. I have Russia, said Napoleon. No, said the tsar from St. Petersburg, you have Moscow. I have Sitka, said Baranov. No, the Tlingit said, you have the fort.

Both the Tlingit in 1804 and the Russians in 1812 had withdrawn from the field when they were unable to defeat the invaders, and they had regrouped elsewhere. Both created confusion through diplomacy and sent mixed messages to stall the enemy’s approach. Both evacuated their people without surrender, leaving the enemy no one to negotiate with. And, to this day, both the Tlingit and the Russians inhabit their ancestral homelands. Yet somehow, what Kutuzov did is remembered as a brilliant strategy that saved a nation, while what the Tlingit did is considered, by nearly everyone but the Tlingit, an unequivocal defeat.

I began to wonder how Russian Kutuzov’s strategy really was. How great was the psychological distance between 1804 and 1812, between St. Petersburg and Sitka, Kutuzov and the Kiks.ádi? And in the periphery of my mind was also the drumbeat, the unvoiced thought: What a gift to bring.

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An 1805 drawing of the Russian-American Company outpost at Sitka. Image: Courtesy of the Alaska State Library Historical Collection.

Nine

The line between passionate curiosity and total fixation is thin. At first I had hoped simply to acquire some conversational fluency on the Battle of Sitka, but now I could think of little else. It seemed at first like historical heresy, but really, why couldn’t Kutuzov’s response to Napoleon have been inspired by a battle in the colonies? I knew I couldn’t prove a connection between the strategies. I was after the possibility.

The obvious first thing to establish was how Kutuzov could have heard about the Battle of Sitka. Lisiansky had published a memoir. I looked up its publication date: 1812, the same year that Kutuzov abandoned Moscow. But both men lived in St. Petersburg; their social circles could easily have overlapped. I considered it equally likely that there was some connection through the Russian-American Company. The tsar and the aristocracy had all invested in the venture, and it seemed plausible that Kutuzov—who had served three successive Romanov monarchs—would have as well. That would have given him a direct interest in the happenings in Sitka, if nothing else. A list of early investors in the Russian-American Company should show his name. 

What I needed was a Russian-speaking researcher I could afford. Impoverished, unemployed, and with time on their hands, it turns out they’re not so hard to find. Since I needed someone who knew how to do academic research, I contacted the Russian department at my former college. Given a list, I chose a young man named Auden and sent him out onto the Internet to dig up everything he could for $200. He was to look for social ties between Kutuzov, Lisiansky, and Baranov—anything that would make a conversation about the Battle of Sitka a reasonable proposition.

Soon he began sending updates. While he wasn’t able to find a list of investors, he had come across some kind of company lady’s auxiliary, of which both Kutuzov’s wife and her half-sister were members. The company also had a ship called the Kutuzov. Ships, like buildings, are often named for war heroes—but just as often for investors. Perhaps the field marshal was both.

Finding a reputable military historian willing to entertain the notion was much harder. The idea that the Tlingit might have saved Russia from Napoleon didn’t exactly open doors; it was more the kind of wild postulation used by middle-aged professors to pick up undergrad girls at coffee shops. But I didn’t care. I was opening the imagination to new possibilities, and the imperial myopia surrounding the Battle of Sitka deserved to be corrected. Didn’t it?

In an attempt at rigor, I refined my questions. How unusual was what Kutuzov did? Were there examples of native tactics making there way back into European warfare? What exactly constitutes a victory? These were safe questions. My real theories I kept to myself.

Growing inside, though, was another uneasiness. The more I spoke of the Battle of Sitka, the less sure I was that I had a right to the story in which I was entangling myself. We tend to think of a story as personal property. I own it because I heard it. This strikes me now as a very colonial way to view the world, though also a human one. And as much as I promised myself I would confine my speech on the subject to what the Kiks.ádi allowed to be published, I found I couldn’t stop my imagination. I could not help but explore the story and open it up. When I did, it changed. Something I read in Russians in Tlingit America echoed—“An unauthorized telling constitutes stealing.”

Ten

After some searching, I found my way to a military historian named Niall Barr. A senior reader in European military history at King’s College London, Barr had been engaged by the British Ministry of Defense to teach tactical history to officers. The Joint Services Command and Staff College where Barr teaches is an hour outside London by rail. By sheer random luck, I was to be in England the following week.

It was Armistice Day, and at 11 a.m. sharp the train car fell silent. Texting stopped, pens were laid down, and the cart coming through the aisle with juice and coffee paused to commemorate the dead. In contrast to Veteran’s Day in the United States, there wasn’t a flag in sight, only red poppies pinned to coats and collars.

I was nervous about meeting Barr. I had not told him of my theories regarding Kutuzov, only that I was doing some work on the Battle of Sitka and needed help understanding Napoleonic-era field tactics. There were many ways to eviscerate my idea—I was coming up with quite a list on my own—and I didn’t want to chase him away before the conversation even began.

We met at the train station and walked to a nearby pub. A tall man in his forties with a poppy affixed to his black wool coat, Barr had gentle manners and an elegant mind. He had looked into the Battle of Sitka and was intrigued by the construction of the Fort of Young Saplings, something I hadn’t thought too much about. “Artillery fortification is a highly skilled business,” he said. “You’re working out the angles. People train for years. It’s all about math and geometry, but you really can’t discount native intelligence.”

I told him what I knew of the battle, the abandonment of the fort, and accounts of the peace ceremonies. I asked Barr if that sounded like a victory.

“There are laws of war,” he said, “conventions, some formal and some informal. Professional soldiers know that. By 1812, these conventions in Europe are well understood. When you place a fort under siege, you have certain rights and responsibilities, and the besieged have certain rights and responsibilities. Once a practicable breach has been made—meaning that soldiers can actually get through your fortifications—the governor of the town or fort is to surrender. If he doesn’t, the breach will be stormed. If it is stormed, the assaulting troops are at liberty to offer no quarter. They can kill everybody. So once there’s a practicable breach, that’s when you surrender.”

“But the Tlingit didn’t surrender.”

Barr paused. “It’s a powerful idea, how wars end. Who decides who has won and lost? These are eternal questions. You see”—he leaned in— “it’s this absurd situation. If a garrison commander surrenders, it’s all lovely and nice and everybody marches off. But if the garrison refuses to surrender, it leads to bloodshed and brutality. The very act of surrendering tells you which code is going to be active.”

But the Tlingit didn’t surrender, I repeated. The Russians had to ask for the deal, bring gifts, and go through a four-day ceremony wearing Tlingit adornments. How was that a Russian victory?

“Baranov sued for peace?” Barr considered a moment. “Still, the fort was vacated, and that would have meant victory.”

At this point I rolled out some of my more subversive ideas about Kutuzov and the defense of Moscow. Barr didn’t scoff. Rather, he seemed a little delighted. I asked him how atypical the field marshal’s strategy had been. “At the time, if you occupied somebody’s capital, then it was game over,” Barr said. “You can’t protect your capital, therefore you should surrender. This is where the Russians did something different—something traumatic, because due to the Orthodox Church, there is something special about Moscow in the Russian psyche. They consider it to be the new Rome. The idea that Moscow would be occupied by a heretic like Bonaparte was beyond the pale.”

I asked Barr if he knew of European commanders using tactics in Europe learned in the course of colonial warfare. He did. During the French and Indian War of the 1750s, he explained, the British general Edward Braddock was attacked in the woods near what is now Pittsburgh. As usual, he kept his men in tight formation and had them fire carefully timed volleys at their opponents—a disastrous tactic for wilderness combat. Most of Braddock’s expedition was slaughtered, and the remaining troops were routed. Yet over the years, the regiment that emerged from the experience, called the 60th Royal American, employed the Native skirmish tactics learned in America and used them to great effect in the Battle of Waterloo in 1815.

So maybe Baranov did consider himself victorious when he inherited his empty fort. Everyone has the prerogative to be wrong. But here was a concrete example of native tactics finding their way onto European battlefields. Barr also confirmed my sense that the abandonment of Moscow was a radical move. On these two rails, I traveled closer to all possibilities.

On my way back to London, I got another message from my researcher, Auden. He had found a possible social tie between Kutuzov and Lisiansky: a naval officer who was close to both men. It was a complex net of relationships, said my researcher, but he had sketched out a kind of diagram and had attached a scan.

Excited and unable to wind down as the landscape streamed by outside, I slipped a DVD lecture on the Greco-Persian Wars into my laptop. Maybe this would put most people to sleep, but for me it’s a minor obsession: I have watched all 48 episodes the Great Courses has to offer on ancient Egypt, their 36 lectures on Medieval Europe and the Tudor Conquest, and 24 lectures on the Age of Pericles. By now I was on to the Persian Empire, and as the train rolled through suburban London I listened as the professor dissected the ancient Battle of Cunaxa.

Eleven

“Be brave, my son. This is where things fail.” —Sally Hopkins

My father didn’t talk much about the Tlingit adoption after he left Alaska. He didn’t know how to handle it. He said he never did anything to earn it, and he wasn’t sure what was expected of him afterward. Not wanting to be yet another white man claiming what wasn’t his, he waited for a signal nobody knew he was waiting for—and, over time, the adoption, which was meant to create a bond, carved out a gap instead.

When he left Alaska, he let the relationships slip. He didn’t bring up the adoption back in the Lower 48 because he didn’t want to get lumped in with all the Dances With Wolves New Agers. Recently, he admitted to me that he’d missed the point entirely. “It’s not whether you deserve it,” he said. “It’s what you make of it.”

For my stay in Juneau, I booked a room through Airbnb on Starr Hill, a place I knew well as a child. The neighborhood’s clapboard houses and metal stairs negotiating steep hillsides had not changed. I had once seen a salmon fall from the sky there and hit the ground a few feet away from me. The eagles fighting for it overhead had let it slip, and one swooped down, snatched the fish in its talons, and climbed, leaving behind just a few silver scales.

Now, under a bank of mist moving down Mount Robert, was the grim little playground next to what was once my school. On the other side of the governor’s mansion was the neighborhood where my Tlingit grandmother had lived. Not far from there was the Alaska State Museum, where I took classes as a child, and the State Office Building, near where my father once worked—a tombstone for urban renewal, square as a child’s building block.

In the little rented room, I spread out my papers. Since I wouldn’t be meeting my uncle until the next day, I had some time. I covered the floor with my notes, legal pads, and printouts with circles and arrows highlighting connections. It didn’t look like historical research. It looked like the hotel scene from The Wall.

Baranov had turned out to be a dead end. My researcher had found nothing to connect the lowly company man with anyone in the aristocracy, much less the illustrious Kutuzov. It wasn’t unthinkable that a man like the field marshal, with a deep financial interest in the fur trade and a military strategist’s mind, would have had enough curiosity to ask, if given the chance—“What happened in Sitka, anyway? Open another bottle of vodka, and bring me a fresh cigar!”—but there was no evidence that such a chance had ever arisen. Baranov was simply too low on the food chain, and his family had no meaningful power to bridge that gap. In Russia, he was a nobody. Even the Order of St. Vladimir medal presented to him got his name wrong.

Kutuzov, however, did seem to have a connection with Lisiansky. As a young man, Kutuzov had grown up in and around the house of his relative Ivan Golenishev-Kutuzov, whose son Loggin Ivanovich was in the Navy and fought in the Russo-Swedish War like Lisiansky. Loggin wrote a book on circumnavigation and is mentioned in a biography of Lisiansky. As Navy men with such shared interests, proximity, and experiences, they probably knew each other well, and Loggin was close with his father, who was close with Kutuzov. It was a plausible social avenue.

But something else had begun to trouble me. My problem was proving that what Kutuzov did was special at all. My problem was Cunaxa.

In 401 BC, a Greek mercenary force invaded Persia. The armies clashed near Cunaxa (now the city of Hillah in Iraq), where the Greeks routed their opponents—but their leader, Cyrus the Younger, who had intended to claim the Persian throne, was killed. Even worse, the army was now deep in enemy territory, with dwindling supplies and no means of getting home. They headed north, hoping to reach the Black Sea and build a fleet. And since the Persians were unable to defeat the Greeks in a frontal assault, they drew them into the snowy mountains as winter set in, harassing them without ever making a direct attack. What the Persians had done—redefining victory and fighting on—was no different than what Kutuzov would do.

“If you occupied somebody’s capital, then it was game over,” Barr had told me. “This is where the Russians did something different.” I clung to that. But it was only the first half of his statement. The second was, “But it’s also about the conditions you find yourself in.” What bound the strategies in Sitka and Moscow was desperation. These were people fighting for their ancestral homeland, and they did what people in that position do. They changed their definition of victory so they could fight on. Who lets their capital burn while their army still stands? The answer is: anyone who must. We did. In the War of 1812, Americans at Bladensburg let the British raze Washington so they could come back against them in Baltimore.

Cunaxa was the spoon tap that cracked the egg. Over the next 12 hours, sitting in my Juneau Airbnb, my whole theory fell apart. I hadn’t wanted to arrive empty-handed. I had wanted to bring victory. And beneath the debris was only my desire to belong.

Something I had dismissed as ephemeral now came to mind. The Neva was one of two Russian ships that circumnavigated the globe. The other was the Nadezhda. Aboard the Nadezhda was a man named Fyodor Ivanovich Tolstoy, Leo Tolstoy’s older cousin. Leo grew up listening to Fyodor Ivanovich’s stories of duels and sailing around the world, and many believe he was the basis for the character of Dolokhov in War and Peace. And who can say if Fyodor Ivanovich then repeated a tale told to him by his compatriots on the Neva, a story about a great tribe of warriors in the colonies. And who can say if the way he told that story seeded in the child Leo ideas that would surface years later when he imagined the invasion of his own country? It is impossible to gauge what children make of what they hear. Often things come to mean much more than ever intended. 

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Twelve

Down the hill from the house where I stayed in Juneau is the pretty little blue-and-white Russian Orthodox church that appears in so many paintings and postcards of the city. Dedicated to St. Nicholas, it was built in 1894 to serve the Tlingit, who were converting in large numbers, just as their relatives in Sitka had done.

The parish is poor, and as I approached the building I saw that it was in disrepair. There was scaffolding on one side, but the work looked abandoned, and the twine securing a tarp had come loose, allowing it to whip in the wind. I entered late and without a headscarf into the small octagonal room, its vermillion-and-gold icons lit by candlelight. The heat was off and it was cold. A young Russian woman wearing a leopard-print scarf and white knee-high boots ushered her children past me, genuflected, and stepped out of my way. The man leading the service, a tonsured reader in a floor-length black robe, was my uncle Andy.

The Ebonas have been Russian Orthodox for many generations, something they take great pride in. I wasn’t sure if Andy would recognize me, but he did. During a momentary pause in the liturgy, he came over and gave me a big hug—I was touched that he had slipped out of the ceremony to do that. “I’ll make us dinner tonight,” he whispered, then returned to his place near the icons.

Listening to the service, which alternated between Russian and Tlingit, I saw something else I had missed in my postcolonial analysis. I’d left no room for the potential graciousness of peacemaking and its role in the cessation of violence. My assumption had been that if the fighting stopped, either the Tlingit or the Russians had to be subjugated. Nowhere in this narrative was the possibility of a peace that recognized equality rather than domination.

Andy lives in his mother’s house, which he and his siblings inherited in 2002 when Amy Nelson, clan mother of the Sitka Kiks.ádi, “walked into the woods,” as the Tlingit say. Amy had been taught songs and dances by her mother, and she embraced the culture and passed it on to her children with steadfast commitment. Her obituary said she had been a cannery worker, a housekeeper, and a nurse’s aide—and Andy, who is known to be a fantastic cook, told me she taught him how to use the kitchen so he could take care of the other kids while she worked.

Walking into Amy’s living room for the first time in many years, I was pleased to see stuffed frogs still hiding in various places. Over the sofa in the sitting room was a print showing the first day of the Battle of Sitka. It captures the moment when K’alyaán, brandishing his blacksmith’s hammer, led his warriors to the beachhead and took the enemy by surprise. In the picture, Baranov is gravely wounded, and the remaining Russians are fleeing toward their ships. It is a day of victory.

In the kitchen, Andy had a large pot of venison marinara going on the stove. He added some spices, then turned it to simmer. Standing by while he stirred the sauce and set water to boil, I talked about the Battle of Sitka and told him my crazy theory about Kutuzov and the Tlingit.

Andy smiled patiently. “That’s interesting,” he said. “Maybe.”

I waited for more, but he just kept stirring.

“Don’t you think it’s good to question these things?” I asked.

“Sure,” he said and handed me a plate of venison pasta.

In the living room we set up TV trays and ate. I asked him about “Sooxsaan,” the traditional lament for the lost canoe. I wasn’t sure if it was polite to ask to hear something like that—the exact nature of at.óow is still beyond my grasp—but Andy was kind enough to find a recording from a Kiks.ádi party in the 1940s. He put the CD on, and a few seconds later a woman began to sing. The song was profoundly sad, but the woman’s voice was astonishingly sweet and agile. It was high but also warm, without a hint of shrillness. She sounded like a young Ella Fitzgerald.

“That’s my grandmother,” Andy said quietly.

The singer was Sally Hopkins, whose vanished dialect had so fascinated the linguists. When “Sooxsaan” ended, another song began, and Hopkins’s voice, which had been full of sorrow, turned darting and honeyed. She started to skip around the melody like she was only flirting with each of the notes.

“What is that?” I asked with a laugh.

“That,” said Andy, “is a love song.”

We finished listening, and then Andy suggested we watch something on TV. We settled on an episode of Game of Thrones, both of us marveling at King Joffrey’s atrocities, and an hour later I went home with homemade bilberry jelly and smoked salmon in a mason jar. The last thing I saw was Andy in the doorway with the print of K’alyaán and his hammer behind him.

The Kiks.ádi cannot be separated from the Battle of Sitka. In some ways, I will never be separate from the Kiks.ádi. I had heard Sally Hopkins sing because my father was adopted. It was not something I earned. It was more than enough.

Thirteen

My father was not the only man Amy Nelson adopted. She also adopted a man named Peter. Peter, an old family friend, is well known and respected within the community, and 85-year-old Tlingit women sometimes call him Uncle, but more often he is known by a nickname they gave him, Bushkaa.

I asked Peter how he saw his adoption. “Well, a lot of people are adopted, from friends to officials at the highest levels,” he told me. “It’s what you do with it. I’m in pretty deep, but I know where I stand. You know how they say everything can be brought back to The Godfather? I’m like Tom Hagen—a loyal and trusted servant. Of the family, not of the blood. There is a difference. You can see the people who take it too far and go around calling everybody brother.”

I’d been taught to say Uncle and Grandmother. Maybe I was someone who took it too far. All along I’d wondered if I was really following my father’s story and not mine. Yet I had been there, too. Does that make it mine? The Kiks.ádi wrestled with these same ideas, because if the Battle of Sitka was a Kiks.ádi story exclusively, then what about their Eagle and Wolf wives and children, their husbands? And what about the Russians? They had also been there. They, too, had paid with their ancestors.

Accounts of the Peace of 1805 say that the Tlingit “made the Russians their relatives,” which probably means they adopted them. It’s reasonable to assume that Baranov, too, was at some point adopted. He never made it back to Russia but died at sea in 1819 from an illness and was thrown overboard somewhere near the Philippines. In an odd coincidence, he died on the same day as General Kutuzov, though several years apart. Stranger still, the Russian-American Company ship Baranov died on was the Kutuzov. It was as close as the two men ever got. 


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A bronze crest reportedly given by the Russians to the Kiks.ádi to restore peace after the battle of 1804. Photo: Alaska State Museum.

In 2003, the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act returned ownership of K’alyaán’s blacksmith hammer—then on display at a Sitka visitors center—to the Kiks.ádi. The claim states that although the hammer is a Western object, it “took on ceremonial significance in Kiks.ádi memory, symbolizing their loss of life and resistance to domination,” making it at.óow.

The following year, exactly two centuries after the Battle of Sitka, the Kiks.ádi invited a descendant of Baranov to participate in a Cry Ceremony—a ritual laying away any remaining grief regarding a conflict. The ceremony was held on Castle Hill, where Noow Tlein once stood and which is now a state park. It is also the site where, in 1867, the Russian flag was lowered and the U.S. flag was raised for the first time over Sitka.

The forts are gone now, the site grown over with grass. These four acres comprise the only land the Tlingit ever agreed to forfeit. The Russians had a right to sell Castle Hill but nothing else. This was the inextinguishable claim the Tlingit would push through the courts until the 1971 Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act, which was, perhaps, the true end of the Battle of Sitka.

It’s unclear exactly how long the Tlingit have been in the Alaskan panhandle. Unromantic evidence like fish traps and basket-weaving techniques place the Tlingit on Baranov Island alone for at least 6,000 years and at Noow Tlein for at least a millennium. The earliest dates put their appearance at 10,000 to 12,000 years ago, and most clans have very specific stories about rising waters and where they went to avoid them. These stories appear to match the sea-level rise in the rock record and, much to the excitement of anthropologists, new discoveries based on paleo-shoreline models. The stories cannot be truly collected or cataloged, though. They are not extinct, just unavailable. They are at.óow.

On the Forest Service tape from 1958, just before Sally Hopkins begins to speak, is the voice of her son. He is inviting her in the proper Tlingit way to tell the story of “how we became human.” And she recounts the Battle of Sitka. It is not the story of a lost homeland but the story of lost ancestors. The Sitka in her story is larger than the fort on the hill or at the river’s mouth. It is the ancestral Sitka, which emanates deep into the woods and well out to sea. This is an idea strangely reflected in modern Sitka, which is the largest incorporated city borough in the United States. At 4,800 square miles in size, it includes all of Baranov Island, as well as Chichagof Island, where the Kiks.ádi spent the winter of 1804. It also includes a large swath of ocean, which, though typically part of the domain in Tlingit consciousness, is somewhat rare in the definition of city boroughs.

In this vast Sitka, Castle Hill is a dot. The town is a small circle. The Russians are the blink of an eyelash in light of 10,000 years upon the land. Along the Southeast coastline, the names—Yakutat, Klukwan, Hoonah, Auke Bay, Klawock, Angoon, Kake, Sitka—are as they were when Baranov first shipwrecked on those shores. Turning again to the definition Barr gave me of European victory, that whosoever vacates the fort at the end of the day has lost, I wondered: How big is that fort? And how long is that day?

Queen of the Tokyo Ballroom

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Queen of the Tokyo Ballroom

When Jennifer Sky was 15, she was offered the chance to spend a summer working as a model in Japan.

By Jennifer Sky

The Atavist Magazine, No. 33


Jennifer Sky, a former model and actress, has written for Interview, Tin House, The Daily Beast, The New York Times, and New York magazine’s The Cut blog. She earned a BFA from the New School and is currently completing a graduate degree at Brooklyn College. She lives in Brooklyn.

Editor: Charles Homans
Producers: Gray Beltran, Megan Detrie
Photography: Images of Tokyo from the series Night Crawler 1995, 2010, courtesy of Takehiko Nakafuji/Zen Foto Gallery. Images of Jennifer Sky courtesy of the author.
Fact Checker: Riley Blanton
Copy Editor: Sean Cooper
Music: “Empty Rooms” by A. P. Vague/CC BY-SA 3.0

Published in January 2014. Design updated in 2021.

One

When I was 15 years old, I was invited to spend six weeks of my summer break modeling in Japan. The offer came from an agency in Miami that I had done some work for, though I was hardly what you’d call a professional—I had never spent more than two nights away from my South Florida home.

On a spring morning in 1992, my mother and I drove the two hours down to the agency’s Ocean Drive offices, an Art Deco building that had been newly refurbished and painted teal. We were shown into a glass-walled conference room. Across the table sat my booking agent—a blond-haired Italian man—and the woman after whom the agency was named. She wore pointy black shoes and spoke with an accent that I was not yet worldly enough to recognize; it seemed to me like a mixture of French and all-purpose poshness. I recognized her face from some of the older magazine covers in the lobby.

Mom and I sat listening as the two of them explained the offer. Because of my age, they assured us, there would be chaperones and supervision: The agency would transport me to and from all the castings. An apartment was being arranged in advance and would be waiting for me. There would be another girl going, too, who was also 15 and was from the west coast of Florida. She would be my traveling companion and my roommate for the summer. I would never, they promised, be alone.

They told us again and again how it was possible for me to make tens of thousands of dollars. And they made sure to point out how lucky I was that the Japanese agency had chosen me.

From Night Crawler 1995, 2010.    	Courtesy of Takehiko Nakafuji    	Zen Foto Gallery
From Night Crawler 1995, 2010. Courtesy of Takehiko Nakafuji Zen Foto Gallery

Two

There was not much in my upbringing that suggested I was cut out to be an international model. I was conceived in a double-wide trailer in a rural beach town, a bicentennial baby born to a pair of self-taught, self-sufficient hippies. By the time I could walk, our family had graduated from the trailer to a wooden house on stilts that my parents had designed and built away from town. The house stood on top of an elevated strip of land that overlooked the dewy savanna to the west and the Indian River to the east. It was a secret kind of place, at the end of a driveway lined with wild cherry trees, the property so overgrown that you couldn’t see our house from the solitary road. The area’s original homesteaders—some of whom were my distant kin—named it Eden.

As a child I was a nail-biter, a tree climber. I could spend the better part of a morning digging around on the nearby savanna, dreaming of other worlds. I had a cat, Harvey—a girl cat with a boy’s name—with whom I was convinced I could communicate telepathically. She would deliver a dead bird or rat to my feet, and I would collect the carcasses in my little red pushcart until my mom discovered them with horror and threw them away. I was the girl who managed to get head lice more than once a year, the one the mothers at school feared.

My parents believed in independence. My father, who had grown up in Eden, told me stories of adventure, of roaming the savanna with a shotgun under his arm and canoeing to the small islands in the middle of the river to fish and dig for crabs. When he was 15, his parents let him and his younger brother travel unaccompanied to Mexico on a surfing trip. My mother, who had been raised in upper-middle-class Long Island, was allowed to skip school to visit Manhattan as a child. They were the sort of people who trusted in my ability to chart my own course, even at a young age and even if it veered far afield of the kind of life they had built for our family in our little house on stilts.

If that life was idyllic, it was also isolating for a teenager. Magazines were my portals into other worlds. I coveted the issues of Seventeen that arrived in the mailbox at the end of the drive each month, with their pictures of beautiful coeds on the red-brick campuses of northern schools, wearing the latest plains, the subtlest tweeds, the sharpest pleats—clothing that couldn’t have been further from the cotton T-shirts and shorts of my own wardrobe.

The walls around the desk in my bedroom were papered with cutouts of their lovely faces and perfect figures. They were goddesses to me; I was fascinated by them, from their waist-length hair to the tips of their prep-school oxfords. They ruled a world so wholly unlike mine, one that contained everything I wanted to be and everything I wasn’t. I fantasized about somehow gaining entrance to it—about being sent to an international boarding school, maybe, where French cooking was a requirement. A mix of envy and lust pulsed at my temples.

So, when I was 14, I applied for a Seventeen modeling contest. I sent in a few modeling-style photographs I had, the product of a “junior charm” course I had attended at the local beauty school to correct some of the odd social cues I had begun to develop. My family was genuinely surprised when a package arrived from the magazine. In it was a letter, stating that I was one of ten finalists, and a single roll of film, which I was to have someone shoot of me and send back undeveloped to compete for a trip to Los Angeles and a feature in the magazine.

A friend of my father’s, a man who worked as a photographer for the local paper and surfed the breaks with him on weekends, agreed to take the pictures. I waited anxiously for over a month for the results. I had all but given up when another letter arrived congratulating me on being among the three finalists.

My mother and I were flown to Los Angeles and put up in the Shangri-La Hotel, in Santa Monica. The next day we were picked up at 6 a.m. in an oversize RV and taken to Malibu’s Zuma Beach. I was surprised by how chilly California could be in the morning. The Winnebago was filled with people from the magazine who had flown in from New York for the shoot: editors, makeup artists, makeup assistants, assistants’ assistants. At first I sat at attention, studying every movement around me, but I soon lost count of people and names and reverted to just smiling sweetly.

In the back of the Winnebago was the wardrobe room, with each of my “looks” or “changes” on a rack with my name on it. One at a time, I was handed an outfit off the rack; I would change, then be sent out to show the team from the magazine, who would look at me and mutter about how the outfit did or did not work well on my body type, tugging a bathing-suit strap here and a miniskirt hem there. Polaroids were taken, and then we would move on to the next hanger.

The wardrobe room was full of people, and there was nowhere private for me to change. I was self-conscious, but it slowed me down trying to hide from view without seeming like I was hiding. I wanted to fit in, to seem like I had been doing this for a while. If getting completely naked and dressing in front of everyone was the way models did it, I would do it, too. But as I did, my stomach began to ache, and I anxiously looked around for my mom.

I had no idea how much work it took to get the perfect photo—the hours of hair setting and face painting, the clipping, clamping, and pinning of each outfit. The director told me and the other two finalists to run up a sand dune, toward the camera, carrying a large wooden umbrella. We did it 40 or 50 times as the photographer clicked away and I silently barked orders at myself: Lift. Run. Smile like you mean it. That night at our congratulatory dinner, I was so exhausted that my mom had to take me back to the hotel early, after I almost fell asleep in my taco plate.

Still, I was enthralled by the hive-like energy of the fashion shoot and the rush of adrenaline it produced; I was hooked. Back in Florida, I convinced my mom to help me embark on a career. At the local library, she found addresses for several of the big agencies in Miami Beach. After some interviews and test photos, I signed with one of them. It was what the industry called my mother agency, the one that would introduce me to other opportunities outside Miami, help me make the jump from local to international work, and take a tidy 40 percent—20 percent from the model, 20 percent from the client—for each direct booking. My mother agency was the one that would send me to Tokyo.

The summer I went to Japan, my sister, three years my junior, went to a sleepaway camp in a nearby state park. There she would make fires, swim in the lake, and watch a tornado drive across the savanna as counselors rushed everyone to safety. It was the year our paths would permanently diverge. My sister took the road of traditional American childhood: camps, clubs, school dances, talking on the phone with friends late into the night. I would drop out of high school a week after my 16th birthday, get in the brand-new car that I’d bought myself, and move to Miami. Tokyo was the turning point, the definable moment when I left childhood behind.

Three

I spent the night before my flight to Japan in the basement of my parents’ house with my boyfriend, Ryan. We bathed together, secretly, while my family slept three stories above. Keeping the lights low for fear of discovery, I lit candles. I had hoped the effect would be romantic, but instead I was a wreck, clinging to him in the dripping dark.

By the time the sky began to lighten and Ryan had gone home, I’d cried myself dry, at least temporarily. I managed to zip up my oversize duffel bag and get myself out the front door and into my mom’s car without breaking down. I refused to allow my parents to know just how scared I was to leave. There would be so many things I would never tell them about my model life.

On a layover in Detroit, I met my soon-to-be roommate, Lisa, the other teenage girl from Florida. Her father owned a small radio station on the Gulf Coast, and she had brought boxes full of cassettes with her from home. As we got acquainted over small bags of roasted peanuts, I noted the almond shape of her eyes, the bounce of her hair, the way her lips curved at the corners. This was a model, I thought—a creature that actually belonged in the world that I so wanted to inhabit, in which I still felt out of place.

Navigating the industry had been difficult for me; I still had a hard time with social graces, and I didn’t make friends easily. In Miami, I had once had lunch at an outdoor café with my booker and a visiting Italian agent. “You could be a star,” the agent said, “if only you had a better personality.” The Japan opportunity had seemed to me a challenge, a call to arms; in my child’s mind, it grew to something akin to King Arthur’s sword in the stone.

It was afternoon when we arrived at Narita Airport, where we were met by our handler from the agency, a Japanese woman who spoke little English. She took us outside to where a driver in a minivan was waiting. The highway from the airport seemed like something out of the future. It threaded between tall, mirrored-glass office buildings and shorter ones that looked like large sugar cubes and appeared to have no on- or off-ramps. I lost all sense of space and time watching the bright billboards go by. The handler said little to us, and the lack of friendly conversation was disorienting. I felt like an import, goods received. Or maybe we were simply being treated like adults.

Then we were there: a four-story building on a side street somewhere in a city of which I had no geographical understanding. We were ushered inside an elevator barely big enough for the four of us and let out into a narrow corridor on the third floor. Our handler unlocked the door to a one-bedroom unit with a small kitchenette.

The bedroom was off to the left, with sliding doors separating it from the rest of the space. Eying the two pots on a flimsy wire rack hung above the stove, I realized I would now be responsible for making my own food. Everything had the feeling of plastic—cheap, temporary, easily replaced.

After asking the driver to set our bags down, one on each bed, the woman handed us each a large foldout map of Tokyo and the address of the modeling agency, and instructed us to come by with bathing suits the next morning. This was the only time I can recall someone from the agency ever visiting our agency-managed apartment.

After the handler left, Lisa and I looked at each other but said little. The extent of what I had gotten myself into was beginning to sink in. I had been dropped into a culture so different from my own, and I was utterly unprepared for what awaited me outside the apartment door.

I had never used chopsticks before; now they were the only utensils available. I hadn’t been taught a word of Japanese, given a tutorial on how to travel safely around one of the biggest cities in the world, or told where I could wash my clothes. Once I’d built up enough courage to venture out, I was so surprised to see beer sold out of a vending machine on a street corner that I actually stopped and laughed hysterically, pointing and looking at passersby to see if anyone else thought it was amazing.

But if I was intimidated, my roommate was petrified. From day one she refused to leave the apartment other than to buy necessities and make weekly visits to the agency office to pick up her stipend. Mostly she just stayed in bed and, if I asked why she wasn’t going on the castings, mumbled something about pimples. I wasn’t surprised to come home one day two weeks later and find her packing. As I watched her methodically arrange cassette tapes in her bags, I thought what a fool she was for letting the opportunity go.


That first day, after the long flight, all I wanted to do was sit in a shower and feel the familiar sensation of water running over me. But I was shocked to find that the apartment did not have a shower. Instead it had a tiled room, a small steel tank, and a drain in the floor. This took a moment to figure out. I eventually deduced that you were supposed to throw water at your body from the lukewarm tub. I was so tired, so overwhelmed that Japan was already so different, that I didn’t know what else to do but call home.

My parents had given me an international phone card and instructions on how to use it, but it still took me several tries before I was able to figure out the magical code that connected me with Florida. By the time my mother picked up I was crying, whimpering that I wanted to change my ticket and return home the next day. She calmed me down. Coming home was always an option, she told me, but why didn’t I get a good night’s sleep and see how I felt in the morning?

The next day I awoke to an excruciating pain when I peed. This was 1992, a time before widespread Internet access and the immediate availability of medical information. It took me two tries to reach my mother on the phone. “I think you have a bladder infection, sweetie,” she told me.

When Ryan and I started having sex nine months earlier, I had asked my mother to take me to the gynecologist. While she sat out in the waiting room, I asked the nurse practitioner if I could get a prescription for birth control pills without my parents being notified. She gave me several sample packs, and I slipped them into my purse. It would take my phone call from Japan complaining of a bladder infection for my mother to learn that I was sexually active.

Later that day I made my first visit to the agency office, following the directions on the map my handler had given me. Around ten blocks away, the office was the size of my parents’ basement and crammed full of desks. At one of them, I was instructed to sign for my weekly allowance of spending money. With a wad of yen in my pocket, I went shopping for food. Roaming the aisles of a nearby grocery store, I was excited to find familiar-looking boxes of Frosted Flakes and Lucky Charms. My parents had never given me sugary cereals, and I had no palate for them, but they were the only things I recognized.

In the pharmacy aisle, I picked up one indecipherable product after another, hoping to find some kind of lady-parts imagery. I debated going back to the agency and asking for help, but I didn’t want them to think badly of me. I was desperately embarrassed; it felt like I had done something wrong and was being punished. In the end, I bought nothing and resolved to suffer through the infection until my body fought it off on its own.

Outside our apartment, on the front of the building, was a mural of a 30-foot-tall, Warhol-esque yellow banana. It reminded me of the green, wet place I came from—of wide tropical leaves and eating melon slices with my daddy on the porch in the damp summer twilight. When I was out wandering the neighborhood I could see that yellow banana from blocks away.

From Night Crawler 1995, 2010.    	Courtesy of Takehiko Nakafuji    	Zen Foto Gallery
From Night Crawler 1995, 2010. Courtesy of Takehiko Nakafuji Zen Foto Gallery

Four

The following day, the minivan from the agency pulled up outside our apartment to chaperone us to our first casting. Inside were several other teenage girls in short skirts, a few blondes and a lone brunette. We spoke little as the van drove out of the city center; high-rises and neon gave way to suburbs, clusters of trees waving in a soft summer breeze. The van stopped and we filed into a white-walled, four-story office building like a class of parochial school girls on a field trip.

We took a small elevator up and were led into an under-furnished conference room, where five or six well-dressed men and women sat along a table, facing forward silently like pupils waiting for a teacher to arrive. They were the clients we needed to impress, who would ultimately choose which of us would win the beauty pageant we competed in each time we entered one of those rooms. Sometimes we would be told ahead of time what the casting was for; sometimes nobody would bother.

One at a time, each of us stepped forward with a perfunctory smile and presented our portfolios. The room echoed every step of our Mary Janes, every swipe of a damp palm along the back of a skirt. Our books were passed down the line from client to client, each of them flipping quickly through the photographs and uttering small exclamations that were hard to decipher. I worried that they could hear the rapid beating of my heart. Once each of us had presented herself, some of us were Polaroided—the winners were already self-evident, and I wasn’t one of them. We filed out amid thank yous and arigatos.

That night the agency took us out to dinner at a fancy sushi restaurant. The restaurant was dimly lit, with floral wallpaper. We were shown to a large round table where we were seated in a girl-boy-girl-boy arrangement. The boys were men, actually, older and dressed in fine business attire. Out of my element, I sat mute and wide-eyed, trying to maintain a smile, while the other girls laughed and made small talk. A man next to me tried a few times to strike up a conversation before he finally gave up and turned to a frail-looking brunette on his other side.

I had never eaten sushi before, and the morsels of raw fish and rice that were placed before me were utterly perplexing. I had no idea what I was supposed to do with them. Did I pick them up with my fingers? What went into the little sauce dish next to my plate? As I sat there studying the food, terrified of making a wrong move and being exposed as the naive little girl that I was, I felt a hand on my shoulder. “Hi, I’m Kimmy,” the brunette said. “Let me help you.”

Kimmy was from Canada and 22, which seemed ancient to me at the time. Her beauty was more understated than a traditional model’s, and her hair was not the preferred color for the Japanese market, but I soon learned that she had been working in Japan for years. She was established enough to have her own apartment in Tokyo, she told me, and was the person to go to if I had any questions. Meeting her I felt relief. Here was exactly what I needed: an adviser, a mentor, a stand-in for the maternal protection and guidance I craved.


I began to settle into a routine. For the next week, I would get up early and bathe, throwing water at myself in the small dark bathroom, then prepare my body for presentation. After a light breakfast of cereal and fruit—it was all I would eat until dinner—I went outside and waited by the banana mural to meet the van.

But the following Monday morning, I received a phone call from the agency asking me to come in to the office. When I arrived, two bookers, a man and a woman, both dressed in black, told me that the agency van would no longer be picking me up.

“It’s reserved for working models,” the woman said.

“And you haven’t booked anything.” the man said.

“But it’s only been one week,” I pleaded, my face coloring in shame.

“Well, you can still earn your way back onto the van,” she said.

“Yes, we’re still going to let you know when and where the castings are,” he said. “You just need to get there by yourself. Use the subway. Use the map.” I nodded and bowed my head to hide my embarrassment, leaving as quickly as possible—here for only one week and my career was already over.

But I tried. Every day for the next two weeks, I walked to the domed subway entrance near the apartment and took the escalator underground, clutching the list of casting calls I needed to make. The subway station seemed oddly clean, almost sterile, given the number of people who rode it every day; there was a metallic smell to it that reminded me of blood. The first day I attempted to navigate the system, I stood frozen in the station for ten minutes, reaching out to feel the beautiful characters of the Japanese language on the wall, characters that I knew signaled a destination, hoping that somehow their meanings would be revealed to me through osmosis.

The train cars were packed, mostly with men in dark business suits. I stuck out among them, a tall blond alien. There was a man in front of me, his head at chin level, pressed uncomfortably against my chest; the man behind me was similarly snug, but facing the opposite direction.

I had been on the train for several stops when I felt the fingers. At first I didn’t understand what was happening. The fingers felt as if they were everywhere yet seemed to come from nowhere specific. Someone was touching my leg, petting it in a way that made my heart beat rapidly. I began to feel like the closeness of the compartment was going to crush me.

I glared at the man pushing up against me from the front; he stared straight ahead into my chest as if it were a window. My right hand was pinned down at my side and my left arm was aloft, holding on to the metal bar overhead. The hand had worked its way forward and was now poised on my right inner thigh, massaging, occasionally tickling a finger upward. I assumed a statue-like stance, not wanting to move or accidentally bump the hand up into my crotch. Then another hand from a totally different direction grabbed my butt with such force that I actually cried out.

Heads in the compartment turned to look at me; the hands quickly withdrew. I looked down, embarrassed, dazed, close to crying. At the next stop, I pushed my way out of the train and pressed myself against the station wall, propping myself up against it and catching my breath.

I began to dread my daily descent into the tunnels, to feel it in my stomach as I approached the station. I started exhibiting symptoms of what I now know to be anxiety: I stopped showering as much and eating as often. In the station, I tried different strategies to protect myself from what I envisioned as disembodied hands. I’d stand along the tiled wall, waiting until the last moment to run onto the train, hoping to position myself next to the door; at least that way, one side of my body would be protected.

Most of the time, however, I would be pushed into the middle of the car, one arm raised, grasping at the metal bar. Then it would begin. Like a recurring nightmare, the fingers inched their way around my body, trying to find a path up and under my shirt or skirt. I would try fruitlessly to catch the eyes of the man, or men, performing this invisible act, but every face I searched looked past me.

The older models had warned me that this might happen. When I mentioned the incident to Kimmy, she told me, “The men are basically harmless. It’s no big deal. Rape almost never happens in Japan.” But the experience had already affected me in strange ways. In the packed trains I found myself retreating from my own body as if into a warm, dark pool. I assumed the position of a ghost girl, absent from the moment. This ghost self would prove useful for surviving daily life in my chosen profession, too, so much so that I would come to think of it as my modeling suit—one I could put on to stop feeling.

Five

It wasn’t long before I realized that I would never make any money in Japan—that the one or two jobs that I did book wouldn’t be nearly enough to pay back what I already owed the agency in plane tickets and weekly allowances. (The cost of renting a bed in our agency-provided apartment, I would come to learn, was four times market value; this was the industry norm.) The drive to succeed was replaced by a conviction that this was an experience I needed to endure, to survive.

The agency, meanwhile, seemed oddly unfazed by the lack of work I was getting. Of course, there was a bit of disappointment, but they didn’t threaten to send me home or cut off my funds. I was one of many girls they brought to Japan. They seemed to throw us out there like so much spaghetti at the wall, waiting to see who would stick. There came a point in the third week when I just stopped trying.

Instead, I filled my calendar with Kimmy. Each night, she called me with an update and a location where we were going to be dining, which model-themed club we would be visiting, and at what time and by whom I would be picked up. While the core group of four or five models remained the same for most of my summer, the men around us were ever changing. An anonymous cluster of elegant suits and wide grins rotating in and out of our lives.

One night I found myself in a sleek apartment, with a group of people I knew and didn’t know, a red vodka Jell-O shot slipping down my throat, leaving a sugary taste in my mouth. I stuck out my neon pink tongue at my new friend, a European man at least twice my age who was a trader on the floor of the Tokyo Stock Exchange. What was his name again?

A group of my fancy older friends were celebrating something, but I was too hammered to remember what it was. Maybe it was this guy’s birthday? That would be fun. I blinked and looked around his modern Japanese flat, all stainless steel and dark wood and paintings of distorted body parts. For the first time in my life, I was making friends easily; for the first time I seemed to fit in. Thousands of miles from home, I had found a pack of like-minded creatures.

Kimmy passed around another tray of Jell-O shots. A toast was raised. Everyone cheered. God, what was this guy’s name again? He was so awesome. “You’re awesome!” I said.

He kissed my cheek and handed me the keys to his moped. “Here you go, kiddo. Enjoy yourself, take a spin around the block.”

“But I’m only 15,” I said. “I don’t have my license yet.”

“That’s OK,” He assured me. “This is Tokyo. What trouble could you get into?”

The wind massaged my face; the lights blurred into something like a meteor shower around me. My favorite white silk shirt, the one that made me feel like an adult, flapped against the small of my back. My hand was firmly clamped down on the accelerator. I was flying through the streets of Tokyo, completely drunk. I was a ghost. I was free.

The short lesson the European trader had given me was enough to get me up and running. “Just going to take it around the block,” I yelled to him as I scooted away. Wow, I thought now as I gunned it, this is a long block.

I turned onto what seemed like a major street. Through watery eyes, I noticed the traffic slowing at a light, and I slowed down, too. The sidewalks were crowded with pedestrians. Signs and banners illuminated the night. I recognized my surroundings now as Roppongi, Tokyo’s club district, a neon and halogen world of noise and pounding music.

The sound of a horn startled me, causing the moped to teeter and wobble. I regained my balance; the traffic was moving now, the light had turned green. I gunned it again, keeping pace. The cars around me were much smaller than the ones in the States—way smaller than my mom’s minivan. I stopped again. This time I was the first one in line. The street was darker now, quieter. I seemed to be leaving the party district. Maybe I should pull off and figure out how to get back? Spotting the sidewalk, I thought, Yeah, that’s where I should go.

I began to pull over, veering right into oncoming traffic. I quickly realized my mistake, but it was too late.

My hand found the brake, and I squeezed hard. A little red car, headed straight at me, slammed on its brakes, too. I lost my balance and started to tip and slide, right at the car. Horns blared around me. Time slowed down.

By the time I regained my senses, I had come to a stop, my face inches away from the car’s bumper. The driver was still honking. I breathed and tried to get out from under the moped, but the bike was heavy and I was small. Finally, grimacing and stumbling, I managed to get free and wheel it over to the sidewalk.

I brushed the street grime out of my skinned palms, wincing. My understanding of the gravity of what had just happened—and of what had almost happened—was dulled by the liquor in my veins. Instead, I noticed that there was a skid mark and a hole in my white silk shirt—my favorite shirt. Shit, I thought: What was I going to wear to the clubs now?

Where am I? I wondered. Back on the moped, I pulled up beside a cab and shouted the only street address I knew through the open window. The driver nodded and pointed, rapidly instructing me in Japanese. I nodded, understanding little but following his gestures. This happened two more times before I looked up and found myself beneath the big familiar banana.

Standing beneath the mural, relief and shame flooded in. Then I remembered the moped—I had to return it somehow. Using my apartment as a starting point, I had a cloudy memory of where the owner lived. Winding my way through the backstreets of my neighborhood, I rode past the landmarks of the life I had been building in Japan, in spite of myself. The laundromat where on a Sunday four weeks earlier I had taught myself to use the washing machines. The 7-Eleven where I discovered the delicious seaweed-wrapped tuna and rice bundles that I now ate every day. The outdoor market where I was introduced to “Japanese chocolate,” the sweet red bean cakes to which I was now thoroughly addicted. Finally, I reached my destination. I parked the moped in its designated spot; it was probably scratched, I thought.

I staggered up the steps to the apartment and pushed open the door. Laughter, warmth, comfort—as it hit me, I started to shiver. “Hey, what happened to you?” one of the guests asked. I turned to look in a mirror. There was a streak of dirt across my lip, running up my cheek. Both of my palms were red with road rash.

Great, I thought, and started to wipe at the dirt on my face with a shirttail. But when my eyes met my own in the mirror, I stopped. Two more seconds, two more inches, and things would have been different. I breathed in deeply, wondering at the tight clump in my chest and the sudden wild desire to slam my fist into every mirror in the house.

A sound in the room called me back. I turned around; everyone was looking at me with concern and maybe a little amusement. I dropped down onto the couch between people whose names I didn’t know. Safe.

From Night Crawler 1995, 2010.    	Courtesy of Takehiko Nakafuji    	Zen Foto Gallery
From Night Crawler 1995, 2010. Courtesy of Takehiko Nakafuji Zen Foto Gallery

Six

The days and nights began to run together; the former was a haze of recovering from and preparing for the latter. I ate and bathed, applied and removed makeup. A month had gone by, and I no longer thought of home longingly. When I called my parents, I kept the conversations light. I didn’t lie and say I was working—I knew I wouldn’t be able to hide the fact that I was failing in Japan. But I didn’t tell them much about how I spent my days and nights; the truth was, I wasn’t sure how I was spending them myself.

I mostly remember brief flashes: A disco in Roppongi, a pulse resonating from the speakers, and everyone joining together, living within the music. Smoke and booze and heat had loosened our collective bindings. A circle had formed, and my friends and I were at the center, holding hands and gazing at each other drunkenly. A group of older, better-traveled models had adopted me like a puppy and were showing me around the fun house that was Tokyo. Not much modeling had happened. We partied until six in the morning, slept until two in the afternoon, and repeated.

For a second, I thought of the kids back home—red-faced, nasty creatures. I thought of the way they had treated me ever since second grade when I started visiting the learning-disability tutor. I thought of how they laughed when they found out I was a model. Those kids would never believe what this Jenny was doing now!

A tall male figure emerged from the crowd and pulled on my waist. Three Long Island iced teas sloshed in my stomach as I was hoisted up, and suddenly I was looking down from atop the shoulders of a six-foot-plus hottie. Ooh la la! Oh prince, I thought, loving the attention and not really thinking straight at all. The circle of bodies below seemed to be moving in one motion, as if pulled by a single string. Here in this moment, they danced for me—Jenny, Queen of the Tokyo Ballroom!

A hand tugged at my waist. It was Kimmy. Her eyes seemed to be trying to communicate something—a warning? The giant who held me aloft pushed her away lightly and turned, carrying me off into the dark recesses of the club. But the room was crowded and my friends gathered, surrounding him. Soon my feet were back on the ground, and I was assimilated back into my pack, back to safety. We headed outside and I threw up.


The following week I booked my only photo shoot. It was an editorial gig, which is code for a job in which the model makes little to no money but has the privilege of working with better photographers and stylists—and is exposed to higher-end clients via the resulting magazine spread. In this one, I would be dressed up to look like a geisha.

The taxi dropped me off at a studio on a street of anonymous-looking warehouses. It was a large gray space and mostly empty. After I was shown my wardrobe, a line of kimonos and wraps, I was taken over to the makeup area. First the artist wiped my face down with white foundation, then downsized my lips into a red heart shape; a black wig was selected and fitted onto my head. A tight-bottomed kimono and wooden sandals followed.

The makeup area of the studio had a window that faced a line of overgrown bamboo plants. As the makeup artist worked on my face, I looked out at the wall of greenery. This was the longest I’d ever spent in a city, the longest I’d spent away from the tropical lushness of Florida. Any time I spotted a nice tree in Japan, I would stand in front of it for a moment, taking it in. I’d trace the lines of its form with my eyes and wonder what my family was doing back home.

From Night Crawler 1995, 2010.    	Courtesy of Takehiko Nakafuji    	Zen Foto Gallery
From Night Crawler 1995, 2010. Courtesy of Takehiko Nakafuji Zen Foto Gallery

Seven

“He’s a friend,” said the European trader with the moped as he walked me to a silver convertible, two-seat Mercedes. “You guys will love each other.” Sitting in the driver’s side was an attractive man in a crisp tan suit who looked like he was in his early forties. The car moaned with power as it climbed the highway up into the mountains, following a caravan of my Tokyo friends. We were going on an overnight trip, one that Kimmy had coordinated. It was my first time outside the city. “Crazy” by Seal played on the Mercedes’s stereo—one of the tapes Lisa had given to me before she left. I could not help but wonder why I wasn’t in one of the other cars, piled in with my friends.

The top was down, and my hair whipped behind me. My eyes watered with the force of the wind. We were far from Tokyo now; you could tell from the pine-crisp air. I had no idea where exactly we were going or even which direction we were headed. It occurred to me that I should have told my parents that I was leaving the city.

The road veered along the coast, where surfers and colorful umbrellas dotted a beach. It reminded me of home, of my daddy riding the nose of his longboard as it rose along the curl of the wave, of the way he called me “sugar.” I wanted to stop and smell the familiar brine of this strange sea, to stick both my hands in the sand as deep as they would go, and stay like that until the tide came in. I wondered if my parents would recognize me when I returned home. Just four weeks ago, I still had a touch of baby fat on my frame. I was leaner now, perhaps a bit taller even. My hair was longer, the ends split.

The car began to slow as the curves in the road became tighter. Soon we were pulling into a mountain town on the shore of a lake, then parking outside a large house. It was a traditional Japanese home with several bedrooms surrounding an open central space, sectioned off with sliding bamboo doors. Tatami mats were laid out around the wooden floors.

Out back was a deck overlooking a pristine mountain lake, which crisply reflected ribbons of the day’s fading light—the first sunset I’d taken the time to notice in Japan. It was the Fourth of July, and I suddenly felt weird and a little homesick to be spending it here. I imagined what it would be like to jump into this lake, so cold it would take my breath away.

Standing next to me on the deck were three other models, all in their teens. I spotted Kimmy. “Where should I put my bag?” I asked her.

“Oh, you’ll be sharing a room with Heather, Carla, and Amy,” she said, then placed her hand on my shoulder. “Unless you want to switch rooms later—you just let me know.” With that, she turned to the men milling about at the edges of the deck, laughing and drinking from a bottle of something strong and dark. “Let’s head over to the village and get dinner.”

The local noodle house was a small, diner-like restaurant with several long tables and a bar. Our group, which now numbered more than a dozen, took up most of the space. I ordered udon noodles and sipped hot earthy green tea from a fire-sealed clay cup. Beer and sake were passed around. I tasted both, and my body gradually filled with warmth. I giggled and joked; I loosened up. The man in the tan suit came to sit next to me, and we laughed together. I told him that I never drank back home. That I was a good girl. That I had a boyfriend.

It was well after midnight by the time we returned to the house, where we gathered around a low table. Someone opened what they said was a nice bottle of wine. Kimmy was across from me, seated on the European trader’s lap. One of the other girls disappeared into a side room with one of the men. I sat with my knees pulled up to my chest, my back against the wall, watching and listening to the conversation and dipping in and out of consciousness. The man in the tan suit sat next to Kimmy and occasionally said something into her ear.

Finally, I stood up a bit unsteadily and headed to the room I had been given to share with the other girls. I glanced furtively at the tan-suited man, who I knew was watching me. At the door to my room, I turned and saw Kimmy follow another man—not the trader—into an adjacent room. The hem of her rose-colored dress brushed the back of her knees. For a moment, as the bamboo door slid shut, our eyes met. The look she gave me was cold and clear, unlike any I’d seen on her face before.

Later that night I lay on my mat, listening to the crickets outside the screenless windows. Two of the other three model girls had come to bed, their breaths softening into the slower patterns of sleep. I lay awake, watching the ceiling fan stir the mosquito netting above us, listening to the inscrutable sounds of the house, on guard. I couldn’t stop thinking about Kimmy, replaying the look that had passed over her face. It made my back rigid with a fear that had quietly dogged me the whole trip, an instinctive sense of danger that had suddenly taken on a fixed form. I couldn’t stop thinking about our room’s sliding door with no lock.

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Eight

A representative from the agency approached me shortly after my weekend in the mountains, suggesting I shorten my stay; I agreed, and left Japan a few weeks later. Far from making me the promised tens of thousands of dollars, my time in Tokyo had actually cost me money.

Back in Florida, I tried to resume my former teenage life. Riding in the back of my boyfriend’s friend’s cars. Listening to Nirvana at full volume. Putting the alcohol daze of my time in Japan definitively behind me by pronouncing myself straight-edge and vegetarian. But it felt like everything had changed while I was away—as if the world I’d known had been replaced with one that was similar but slightly off. I kept working in Miami as a model; when the principal at my high school expressed his displeasure with my increasing absences for modeling shoots, my parents offered to homeschool me. The week I turned 16, I left home for Miami, where I lived and worked for six months. From there I traveled to Milan, the south of France, and the Yucatán Peninsula, eventually settling in New York.

But the highs of the photo shoots began to dull. I started to show signs that things weren’t right, feeling disconnected and hollow, visited by nightmares. I became withdrawn and startled easily. It was hard for me to travel new routes even in familiar cities, to eat at new restaurants or even shop at the corner store. I became so timid I no longer spoke. Soon I was refusing to leave my room unless I had a job or a casting. At age 17, the peak of my career—I had just gotten my first national magazine cover, for Sassy—I quit modeling.

So I moved home to Eden. Those first few months back, I ran. I ran every night, circling my parents’ tall wooden house, watching the river and the grass beds at low tide. I settled into the idea that I was no longer a model, and I needed to find out what and who I was going to be. I ran and I breathed deeply, inhaling the smells of my raw, wild home.

I healed, or I thought I did. I went on to a career as an actress, moved to Los Angeles, and married a pop star. I was on the cover of Maxim and starred in films opposite Bradley Cooper, DMX, and Peter Falk. Then I left that behind, too. I went through a major illness; recovering from it involved removing half my liver. The pop star and I divorced.

In January 2010, now in my mid-thirties, I moved back to New York to finish college. It was a hard winter. The panic attacks came more frequently. I began taking anti-anxiety and migraine medication, but sometimes it wasn’t enough. Everything was a possible trigger: a classmate laughing when I read a section from an essay about men on a Tokyo train; a writer being openly aggressive at an after-class bar session; someone standing too close to me, staring at me, talking about me. I didn’t understand what was happening. New York was the last city I had lived in as a model, and my return had reignited all the anxiety that I had boxed away for so long. I was an adult now, and my model suit no longer fit.

When a therapist at the university clinic suggested that I was suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder, I was floored. Never had it occurred to me that the things that had happened to me in the course of my modeling career might be a kind of trauma. From the moment I got off the plane in Japan—the moment modeling stopped being an extracurricular pursuit and became my life—I had simply understood all of it as the way the industry was. Sinking into the therapist’s ergonomic chair, I clutched at its edges and wondered: Is this why I’m so scared all the time?

Then, last year, when I was on spring break from my first year of graduate school, I rented a documentary called Girl Model. The film, shot in 2009, opens at a beauty contest in Siberia. We follow a 13-year-old girl, Nadya, as she competes for and wins a two-and-a-half-month contract with a Japanese agency. She is promised care, chaperones, and $8,000 worth of work in Japan. This is a fortune for her family. Her relatives pool their money to buy her new clothing for the trip.

Nadya travels to Japan alone. She does not speak Japanese or even English. She is shown to a tiny apartment that she will be sharing with another girl; she breaks down crying with relief when she realizes that her roommate speaks Russian, too. She borrows money from her roommate to buy food, until her roommate is sent home early after gaining weight on purpose. Nadya’s mother calls her on the documentary director’s cell phone; it is the only way they can afford to talk to each other.

At the end of her two months in Japan, Nadya has booked only one job. She is sent home in debt to her agency, the promised $8,000 swallowed by her living expenses. But a postscript reveals that three months later she returned to Japan anyway, dropping out of ninth grade in hopes that the second time would be different.

When the film finished, I sat in my living room staring at the blue screen for a long time. The familiarity of the Japanese scenery was jarring; memories that I had long ago buried resurfaced. I suddenly was incredibly thirsty. My neck began to itch. I went into the bathroom and saw that I had broken out in hives all over my chest.

At the time, it had struck me as odd that the Japanese agency seemed not to care if I worked. If I was barely getting booked for shoots, why didn’t they send me home? How were they making any money off of me? They were happy enough when my roommate, Lisa, went home. The difference between Lisa and myself, I now realized, was that I was going out. I was going out almost every night. Kimmy had coordinated everything. She was the one who called me each afternoon with the time I would be picked up, who handed out the drink tickets and passed around the shots, who brought me along on the weekend trip to the house by the lake in the mountains.

I remembered back to my last day in Japan, the Monday I flew home to Florida. On my way to the airport, Kimmy asked that I stop by her apartment. I hadn’t eaten yet that day, and the flight would be long, so she insisted on making me a bowl of miso soup and a small salad. It was the first time I’d ever been to her apartment and was shocked by how nice it was. I had always assumed Kimmy was living like the rest of us, in substandard rentals our agencies would indenture us into paying off. Her apparent prosperity puzzled me. She was neither strikingly pretty nor tall nor blond, nor was she ever busy working or going on castings. Never once did she say she needed to head home early for a job; she was always the life of the party.

As I ate, I noticed for the first time that her right wrist was in a brace. She walked with a bit of a limp. I finished quickly; there was something about being here, about being alone with Kimmy, that was making me uneasy. At the door, we embraced and spoke about my returning next summer for a longer time. “The first trip is all about laying the groundwork,” she said. “No one makes money on their first trip. But I’ve been coming here for four years now, and you, you can succeed.”

She pulled me closer. “Trust me,” she said. “Everyone loves you here.”

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When We Are Called to Part

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When We Are Called to Part

An absorbing, affecting, and often funny story of the last years of a vanishing community known as the living grave.

By Brooke Jarvis

The Atavist Magazine, No. 31


Brooke Jarvis is an independent journalist who lives near Puget Sound, Washington. She has written for Rolling Stone, Al Jazeera America, The Washington Post, and Aeon, among others. She is a contributing editor toYes! magazine and a 2013 fellow in environmental journalism at Middlebury College.


Editor: Charles Homans
Producers: Gray Beltran and Megan Detrie
Copy Editor: Sean Cooper
Fact Checker: Megan Detrie
Illustrator: Fabienne Rivory
Researcher: Kelsey Kudak
Source Images: Library of Congress, Hawaii State Archives, Wikimedia Commons

Published in November 2013. Design updated in 2021.

Speeding down the street is a car that I love. A Toyota station wagon—probably from the 1980s, but who can say—that used to be red or maroon but is now mostly gaping, rust-lined holes and sun-bleached swatches of gray and white. The windshield is cracked; since I last saw the car, someone has patched a hole with plywood and covered the top with roofing paper. For a second my breath catches, and I stop in my tracks. Dumb as it is, I hope. But the car is moving too fast, too purposefully down the center of the road. And instead of a pair of sunglasses, white hair sticking out of a visor, and a small, hunched figure with her hand held up to block the sun, in the driver’s seat is a much younger, black-haired woman I don’t know.

I should have realized that the car would still be here. In Kalaupapa, plenty of vehicles keep rolling for years after the salt air and the ingenuity of isolation have left them more plywood than metal. But it’s still a shock. The car is driving, and Gertie is not.

Gertie—Gertrude Kaauwai, known variously as Gertie, Gert, or Girly—hated that station wagon. She’d had to switch to it once her remaining foot deteriorated to the point that, even with her stubbornness and the dexterity gained by more than four decades on crutches, she could no longer climb into her big gray truck. On my first day in the settlement, before I even met Gertie, my new boss pointed the truck out to me on the street and explained that I should get as far out of the road as possible when I saw it coming—usually in the morning, during Gertrude’s food run for her dozens of cats, or in the late afternoon, when she was driving to the bar and would have to squint into the western sun. Just pull into any nearby yard, he said, it’s fine. The disease had gotten to Gertrude’s eyes, and she couldn’t see well at all. If she’d lived anywhere else, she would have been forced to stop driving long before. But Kalaupapa has its own rules.

The settlement, as everyone who lives here calls it, is the only town on an isolated peninsula on a sparsely populated Hawaiian island. Its history began a century and a half ago, when the first boatload of leprosy sufferers arrived—the unwilling founders of what in different times was known as a leper colony, or a leprosarium. Decades after modern medicine neutralized the disease, Kalaupapa is the largest remaining settlement of its victims in the United States.

I’m back visiting for the first time in more than four years, but nearly everyone guesses much less: “How long’s it been? A year? A year and a half?” Time’s passage always feels more uncertain here, more uneven. When I lived in Kalaupapa, I got used to hearing frequent references to patients who had died many decades before, often as if they were still alive. When I was new, and still putting faces to names, I assumed several of them were.

Now I know all too well who’s missing. In a sense, the past four years have been relatively kind to Kalaupapa. During the 12 months I lived here, in 2008 and 2009, we lost nine patients, almost a third of those who remained; since I left, three have died. I heard about them over the phone or by email: Uncle Henry first. Gertrude a year later, on Christmas Eve. Auntie Kay just a few months back. Her things are now boxed up in plywood crates in her side yard, waiting to be shipped to her family on the once-a-year barge.

And someone else is driving Gertrude’s car; someone else is living in her house. No one plays cribbage anymore in the settlement bar, where she used to hold court until the eight o’clock closing time every night. The bar’s owner, a patient named Gloria, tried to ease the transition, rearranging the tables so that no one would have to sit in Gertrude’s old seat. People appreciated the effort, but it was basically futile; her absence was inescapable all the same. These days, with so few patients left, there’s no moving forward after a death in Kalaupapa. There’s really not much moving forward at all.

I used to love to explore the woods outside the settlement, which are filled with evidence of a much bigger town: concrete walkways and front steps that now lead nowhere, glass medicine jars and ceramic doorknobs shining in the mud. Once, a friend and I set out to capture a wild beehive and found our target not far into the forest, inside an overturned, overgrown cast-iron bathtub.

At first I found these discoveries quaint or charming. Like the settlement’s isolation, like its peculiar history, they were half-abstractions, stories to tell when I returned to the outside world. But in time I began to see them as the remaining patients did: relics not just of people they had known, but of a community that had dwindled to just them, and that would not last beyond them. No new patients, and no children, have come in decades; every death is one step closer to the end of Kalaupapa as they have known it.

In a settlement defined by tragedies—parents and children torn apart, years of forced isolation, funeral bells that once rang every day—this is the one that no one expected. The place that no one wanted to create, the place where no one wanted to go, is coming to an end. And even a prison eventually becomes a home, becomes something you mourn.

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“Molokai?” the shuttle driver at the Honolulu airport asked. “Why would you go there? They don’t even have a McDonalds!”

This was true, I knew. Molokai—a 38-mile-long island situated between Oahu and Maui—also had no stoplights, barely a handful of restaurants, and a population holding steady at around 7,400 people. Major roads crossed rivers via fords, not bridges; when the rivers ran high, whole sections of the island would be cut off. The local paper would sometimes quote “Uncle Merv” or “Auntie Paula” without giving a last name. It was known as the last Hawaiian island, one of only two in the archipelago that still had a majority native-Hawaiian population. When I arrived at the open-air airport the next day, a hand-painted sign greeted me: “Aloha,” it read. “Slow Down. This is Molokai.”

And the place I was going made the rest of Molokai look like Manhattan. A year earlier, in 2007, during my final months of college in Virginia, I had discovered an ad for an internship with Kalaupapa National Historical Park, which coadministered an unusual settlement on the Kalaupapa Peninsula, on the north side of Molokai. It was home to 28 leprosy patients—the peninsula’s only permanent legal residents and the last remnants of a 140-year-old community that at its peak had housed more than 1,100 people.

At the time, my friends were applying for consulting jobs in Washington, and when we spoke about our post-graduation plans, I held up the Kalaupapa job as evidence that there were too many interesting opportunities out there, that it would be a shame to settle so soon and so nearby. It was more rhetorical device than plan, though: I never really believed I’d actually end up in Molokai, boarding the little nine-seat Cessna for a seven-minute flight over the edge of the earth.

Residents sometimes explain Molokai’s geography by comparing it to a shark. The southern shore, with its low beaches and shallow reefs, is the belly. Halawa Valley, at its eastern tip, is the nose, and the long beach of Papohaku in the west is the inner curve of the tail. In between are grasslands, farms, and a rainforest cut by deep valleys. Protruding from the island’s north shore—the shark’s dorsal fin—is the Kalaupapa Peninsula.

Looming over the peninsula is a cliff, known to locals as the pali. It formed about 1.5 million years ago, when a landslide sent a third of Molokai crashing into the sea. The break left the island’s north shore a sheer, impassable wall, 3,000 feet high in places—the tallest sea cliffs in the world. Millennia later, the eruption of a small volcano formed a flat peninsula at the base of the cliff. Only incidentally connected to the larger island—“topside” Molokai, as it’s known locally—the peninsula is five square miles of land surrounded on three sides by deep ocean and on the fourth by the chiseled face of the pali. In the winter, storms swell rivers and stir surf, cutting off all ocean access and, periodically, trail and air access as well. The peninsula is an island within an island, a tiny, solitary world of its own.

The plane skimmed briefly over houses and fields, and then the land simply stopped. The earth turned 90 degrees, from flat cow pasture to sheer cliff, and there was nothing below us but crashing waves, thousands of feet down. For a moment, I was afraid that the plane would drop, too, simply fall out of the sky. Instead, we flew along the western coast of a low peninsula, rising subtly to the lip of a deep crater in its center. I registered a forested interior, a jagged, rocky coast on the far side, and, close at hand, a small grid of roads and buildings extending from the beach. We landed on a thin airstrip at the very tip of the peninsula, the plane pulling off the tarmac and parking on the grass in front of a one-room airport and a lighthouse. A few miles to the south, the cliffs we had just crossed faced us, deep green, furrowed, and imposing. Of topside I could see nothing—just a few distant trees at the cliff’s edge. We were sealed in: the tropical-paradise version of a snow globe.

In the 1860s, the peninsula’s unique geography caught the eye of the Hawaiian government. A series of newly introduced diseases—measles, influenza, smallpox, whooping cough—had ravaged the islands, and now leprosy, an even less-understood scourge, had arrived. A chronic bacterial infection, leprosy is rarely fatal, but the disfigurement and pain it causes have long made it one of humanity’s most feared and misunderstood diseases. The bacterium that causes it fares poorly in the body’s warm core, so it primarily attacks hands, feet, faces, eyes, and skin. Numbness and paralysis lead to unnoticed and untreated burns or cuts, and sometimes to infection and amputation. Hands begin to “crab,” or close up, and bones and tissue break down and are absorbed by the body. Victims may lose nasal cartilage, gum tissue and teeth, even eyelashes and eyebrows. Blindness, too, is common.

Terrified Hawaiian officials looked to the peninsula as a natural prison, a place to quarantine sufferers from the general population. The peninsula’s milder western coast, known as Kalaupapa, was already occupied by a native village, so the first boatload of patients who arrived in 1866 were deposited at Kalawao, the barren, windy eastern coast. (By some accounts, early patients were made to swim to shore, so great was the ship captains’ fear of infection.) The patients were dropped off with few provisions and no medicine, and expected to grow their own food in spite of their health and the harsh environment. Ten of the first 12 to arrive died within two years. The peninsula earned dire nicknames: the painful shore, the living grave.

Change came slowly. Help arrived first in the form of family and friends of the condemned, then religious workers, and, much later, government employees. They were known as kokua—“helper” in Hawaiian, but a word that eventually came to refer to anyone who lived in the settlement but wasn’t a patient. The most famous kokua was a young Belgian priest known as Father Damien, who came to minister to the patients in 1873. He helped build not just a church but also a clinic, homes, and a cistern. He made a point of sharing bowls and pipes with patients and counting himself as one of them. “We lepers,” he would write. Damien eventually contracted the disease himself and died 16 years after he arrived in Kalawao. Gandhi later claimed him as an inspiration; in 2009, the Vatican canonized him as a saint.

Gradually, the settlement was relocated to the calmer Kalaupapa side of the peninsula, replacing the village, and the state began to take a more active role in its management. Supplies and care dramatically improved, but dehumanizing treatment continued. Many houses still have wooden boxes on their porches, built there so kokua could leave meals for patients—then called inmates, as those accused of having leprosy were arrested and put on trial—without having to go near them. Fences separated the patient and staff areas of the settlement, and endless rules governed when, where, and how those inflicted with the disease could interact with others. The building where families could visit their incarcerated loved ones had a chain-link fence running down the middle.

Some patients underwent involuntary tests of experimental medicines; some were sterilized. Those who had children were separated from them. Newly arrived patients, even young children, were told that they would never leave Kalaupapa—that they would die there. “This is your last place,” one patient recalled being told.

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I stepped off the little Cessna that first morning, sweaty and conspicuous in the winter clothes and pallor I had carried with me from the mainland. My new boss, Steve, met me in his truck to drive me back to the settlement. My job was to prepare for the mandated closure of the peninsula’s only landfill by setting up composting, recycling, and waste-prevention programs. Everything we couldn’t figure out how to deal with would have to be flown out at high prices or trekked out on the back of a mule. Trash lady, essentially, but like everything here, made much more complicated—and to my mind at the time, more glamorous and exciting—by separation from the outside world.

Living in Kalaupapa, I’d been warned, meant knowing the math and measurement of isolation. One bar, one post office; a care home for the patients, a cafeteria for workers. Bread was delivered by plane from topside on Mondays to the little state-run store in town. Vegetables arrived Wednesday morning and milk on Wednesday afternoon. (Don’t buy too much or people will talk about it, I learned. Don’t be late or you won’t get any.) One barge a year, an occasion that was celebrated like a holiday. It offloaded food, gas, cars, lumber, and other supplies onto the tractor-tire-lined pier that jutted into the bay and left carrying old appliances and junked cars that were finally beyond saving.

Besides the barge and the expensive Cessna flight, the only other reliable way in or out of Kalaupapa was a brutally steep three-mile trail that led to topside Molokai. Its 26 switchbacks zigzagged up the cliff face like a scar, sun-beaten and dusty in the summer and pitted with thick mud in the winter, and always covered in fresh mule shit from the caravan that brought tourists down for the short daily tour of the settlement.

Workers came to know its uneven steps by heart. Many of them made the journey once or twice a week, either to visit their families topside—only employees and full-time volunteers were allowed to stay in the settlement for more than a few days at a time, and children under 16 were prohibited from visiting at all—or to avail themselves of services that were unavailable on the peninsula. (I once gasped my way up the trail with a 102-degree fever after bodysurfing into a rock and contracting a staph infection; as the signs at the top of the trail warn would-be visitors, there are no medical services for non-patients in Kalaupapa.) One mechanic managed to make it all the way down from topside with a motorcycle, carrying rather than riding it around the sharpest turns. A year after I moved away, a bridge near the top of the trail was washed away in a landslide, rendering the settlement inaccessible except by plane for nearly seven months.

Steve took the paved road that led away from the airport along the beach toward the settlement, rumbling over the cattle guards meant to control the goats, boar, and axis deer that had overrun the island. The strip of land between the road and the ocean, I saw, was filled with graves—field after field of them. Headstones were wildly tilted in the sandy soil, some collapsed into rubble piles or reduced to jagged fragments of metal rusting in the salt air. One tomb was held in the embrace of a large tree that had grown around it.

Many of the graves had no headstones at all, just white wooden crosses with names stenciled in black paint. These were clearly among the most recent memorials. The earth beneath them was still heaped up, still decorated with bedraggled stuffed animals and faded plastic flowers, unopened beers with rusty caps. Behind the wheel, Steve caught me gaping. These, he pointed out, weren’t even all the marked graves—there were large and small cemeteries all over the peninsula, some only recently reclaimed from the forest. And the known graves accounted for only a small percentage of what the settlement’s induction numbers suggested must be here.

A few small wooden cottages started to appear along the road, trucks or ATVs parked in their yards. As we pulled into the center of town, Steve pointed out the churches, the administrative offices, the one-pump gas station, and the store that overlooked the curving concrete pier. Homes fanned out from the tiny downtown in a loose grid—one-story cottages on short stilts, most built from the same handful of blueprints.

Steve dropped me off at Bay View Home, a complex of long, pale yellow buildings whose porches looked west over a row of palm trees, Kalaupapa’s shallow bay, and the receding face of the pali. Bay View had once been a dormitory for blind patients but now housed park workers and the occasional volunteer. On my new porch were a couple of wheelchairs, covered in spiderwebs like the rest of the building. There was also an oddly shaped platform that I later learned was a chair for patients to sit on while sores on their feet were treated and dressed. The last patient to live in the complex, I was told, was a man known as Uncle Peter (Auntie and Uncle are terms of respect for the elderly in Hawaii), who had died only a few weeks earlier. I inherited the task of feeding the cats he had left behind—Tom, Blackie, and Hoover—plus a family of mooching mongooses, all of which congregated on the porch of his abandoned building at mealtime.  

Bay View sat near the edge of the settlement, one of the last buildings on the way to the trail. From the center of town it would have been easiest to walk home by cutting through a round, mown field next to the care home than to stick to the more circuitous road. But in the center of the field lay the rubble and twisted metal remnants of a hospital—it had been destroyed in a fire when both of the settlement’s fire trucks malfunctioned at the same time. Remembering the unmarked graves, I stuck to the road and didn’t cut corners. For weeks I wouldn’t walk anywhere that wasn’t paved.

The Hawaiian word for taboo is kapu. Unlike its English counterpart, the term hasn’t had its ominous religious connotations washed away by overuse: It means the kind of disrespectful behavior that can follow you for the rest of your life, and beyond. I didn’t learn the word for weeks or months, but I felt it right away, on my first day in Kalaupapa. I knew enough of the settlement’s history to understand that there were invisible rules governing everything around me, but not enough to know what they were or how to avoid breaking them.

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On Steve’s advice, my first act as a new resident of the settlement was to go to the bar. There were a surprising number of gathering places in town, given the tiny population, most of them holdouts from a time when the patients were younger and more numerous. There was a slowly collapsing pool hall overlooking the water; a stone pavilion the Lions Club had built on a rocky stretch of beach in the 1950s; a dusty social hall that had once hosted movies (the reels carried down from topside by mule), dances, and visiting celebrities such as Shirley Temple and John Wayne. But these were only sporadically used. The bar, I was given to understand, was an institution.

The front of the bar was an open porch, covered by a slanting roof held up by pillars of cinder blocks. A handsaw with the words “Fuesaina Bar” painted on it hung outside. That first day, I found the place packed; a cow in the pasture above the pali had chewed through the settlement’s TV cable. (This, I soon learned, was more or less normal. Kalaupapa’s electricity, phone service, and sad little dribble of an Internet connection would cut out for days and sometimes weeks at a time.) People crowded around a collection of folding tables and chairs set out on the cement floor.

One corner of the porch was protected from the wind by a thin wall, its windows shielded with wooden slats rather than glass. A tiny white-haired woman in dark sunglasses, a visor, and a knitted cardigan pulled over a polyester button-down was sitting with her back to the window, presiding over a game of cribbage. She had a bandage on one leg, which had been amputated at the shin, and an orthopedic walking cast on the other. A pair of crutches leaned against the wall by her chair. Her fingers were almost entirely gone. When it was her turn to shuffle, she spread the cards across the table and stirred them around with an eraser-tipped stick grasped between the nubs of her fingers and her palm before gathering them back up. This, I knew, was Gertrude.

Gertrude drove her gray truck to the bar at four o’clock in the afternoon every day. She never drank, but she was still the place’s best customer, the one whose presence kept things hopping. A few years earlier, she had stopped coming to the bar at night because she could no longer see well enough to drive home in the dark. Without company or a game to count on, other people stopped coming as regularly, just drifted through or got beer to go. Finally, Gertrude’s neighbor, a historical preservationist for the park named Richard, agreed to ride his bike to the bar every night at eight and drive her home in her truck. Cribbage became a nightly ritual and the bar an axis of the settlement’s social life.

The bar had been owned by a number of patients over the years and had operated under a number of names. In the back room was a counter where Gloria Marks, the current owner, leaned over a ledger, tallying items sold. There was an ice cream freezer, a rack of chips and snacks that all seemed to be flavored with li hing mui—a salty dried plum popular in China, Hawaii, and not much of anywhere else—and a refrigerator stocked with Budweiser, Bud Light, Heineken, and mini bottles of cheap wine. There were old photos of Gloria and her husband, Richard Marks, Kalaupapa’s last sheriff, still living then but mostly unable to leave the care home. You could still see his resemblance to the younger man smiling from the cover of a yellowing magazine displayed in the bar.

There were postcards for sale, a whole stack of them featuring a cloud formation that looked vaguely like the face of Father Damien. As in most of Kalaupapa, there were also cats by the dozen, chasing geckos, fighting each other, reclining on the unoccupied chairs. The cats belonged to Gertrude, if the word can be used to describe the naming and regular feeding of otherwise feral animals. There was Crooked Tail, named for obvious reasons, and a thin, mustachioed cat she called Hitler.

Gertrude walked me through the rules of cribbage, banging her shuffling stick on the table when I made mistakes in counting points. When it was my turn to shuffle, I shyly told the table I wasn’t very good at it. “You got hands!” Gertrude cried. She brusquely instructed me in a method simpler than the one I was trying but still out of reach for her. I shut up and shuffled.

Gertrude’s nickname when she was younger was Spitfire. She refused to go to school after seventh grade and would take off to “the backside”—the wild, uninhabited part of the peninsula east of the settlement—on horseback any chance she got. After losing her foot in her thirties, she used her crutches to do things that made the doctors furious, climbing the trail—it was fenced off at the top in those days—and navigating the boulder-strewn beach that led to a deep valley carved into the cliffs. She siphoned gas out of people’s cars and hid it in drums in the woods, for no other reason than to do it. She was angry a lot. Much of her anger had to do with her first two husbands, both of whom, she told me, became abusive. She cursed people out, broke up relationships. She freely owned up to having been a general pain in the ass.

Gertrude told these stories readily, matter-of-factly, not long after we met, before I had seen much of her stubborn side myself. Of all the patients, she was perhaps the most open to new people, the easiest to get to know. Anyone, no matter how temporary their stay in the settlement, was welcome to join her for cards, to call her Auntie and ask her about her life. You’d find out right away if she thought you were being rude or an idiot—rolled eyes, slow head-shaking and muttering as she focused intently on her cards—but you’d get plenty of chances to do better. And once she got to liking you, she’d rib you mercilessly about your cribbage playing, shriek at your comebacks—in the right mood, she especially loved jokes about her disability—and add your little bottles of bad wine to her bar tab. But heaven help you if you failed to show up for cards for a few days.

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Gertrude would often cover her mouth with her hand while she talked, hiding the effects of the disease. She’d sometimes refer to herself as an ugly old lady—though even into her seventies, she was also an enormous flirt. She was convinced that there were rumors around town—I never heard them from anyone but her—about her “going around” with several young male workers in the settlement. When Richard, her neighbor and close friend, then in his fifties, had a fight with his girlfriend, Gertrude asked both of them, “Is it me?”

Gertrude first came to Kalaupapa in the early 1940s, when she was 11 years old. The doctor didn’t tell her she had leprosy—she insisted that she contracted it only after arriving there. Instead, she told me, the doctor said she was going to live with her mother, who had been sent to Kalaupapa some six years earlier, leaving her family behind on Maui. Gertrude had been told only that her mother was sick and in a hospital; she didn’t remember hearing the words “leprosy” or “Kalaupapa.” Her father had remarried, to a woman Gertrude said abused her, including by burning her with a hot iron. She welcomed the move but had little notion of where she was going.

When Gertrude arrived, she met a young woman and embraced her, convinced it was her mother. But Gertrude’s mother was already dead. The woman was a patient named Sarah Benjamin who took it upon herself to mentor the young girls who were sent to the settlement. “I could be your mother,” she told Gertrude.

In Gertrude’s recollection, after a few months in Kalaupapa the doctors decided she wasn’t sick after all and tried to send her home. She was so terrified of returning to her stepmother that she prayed for what she called “the sick.” Eventually, it came. “I started to get lumps all over my face, in my mouth, all over my belly,” she told me. “Lumps that hurt so much. Nobody can touch you. It was so painful.”

She prayed again: “Jesus, I asked you to give me leprosy. But not like this!” And she believed she heard a voice in response: “You asked for it, my child.” From that time on, she said, “I came sick, sick, sick. I was all, they called it, bust up.” For several years, she was frequently bedridden with pain.

At the time, doctors were still treating leprosy sufferers by injecting them with oil extracted from the seeds of the chaulmoogra tree, a remedy for skin conditions used for centuries in Asia. The injections were painful but arguably a lesser evil than the nausea-inducing practice of taking the oil orally; one doctor wrote in his autobiography that more than one patient told him they’d rather have leprosy.

In 1941, however, doctors at a leprosarium in Louisiana discovered that a recently synthesized drug called Promin could actually cure the disease. Promin required frequent, painful injections, but its advent marked the beginning of leprosy’s gradual retreat from the fearsome place it had occupied in the popular imagination since biblical times. In the 1950s, a pill treatment became available, and by the 1970s drug trials were under way for the treatment still used today, a multidrug regimen that can cure leprosy on an outpatient basis. Today, those who begin taking medication early in the disease’s onset may not experience any noticeable effects at all, and even longtime sufferers can avoid passing it on.

But for those who came to the settlement before the arrival of effective drugs, it was a wringer. Patients who had arrived as children would later describe their terror upon first seeing the settlement’s residents, their faces and extremities ravaged by the same disease they had contracted. I once asked Gertrude what was the biggest change she’d seen the settlement undergo in her years there. “The patients,” she said. “They look more clean.”

After the medicine arrived, it took years before state authorities were convinced that it was safe to shut down the quarantine and allow the settlement’s residents to return to the world that had expelled them. When they did, they considered closing Kalaupapa altogether. But there was the population of current patients to consider—many of them were disfigured or disabled and unused to the outside world, where the stigma attached to their disease had not been erased by its cure. So in 1969, the state decided that patients could choose to leave or to stay—to live out their lives in the only home many had known since childhood, protected from prying eyes and supported by the state, free to travel as they wished. Embracing the isolation that had once been imposed on them, hundreds stayed. But no one new would come.

And so Kalaupapa became a place frozen in time. The community continued to exist, but it could not grow, only slowly erode away. Support staff came and went, and life went on as it does in many small towns, with gossip and grudges and parties and romance. But year by year, the population of patients—to whose lives Kalaupapa’s current reality is unyieldingly tied—grew older and ever smaller.

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Most of my Kalaupapa days began in the predawn darkness in a dank cement building that had once been the settlement’s police station and now housed the maintenance department. (My office had been a holding cell.) I’d gather with the rest of the maintenance staff—a plumber, a carpenter, groundskeepers, a mason, a couple of electricians—for a morning meeting, then spend my day trying to figure out the logistics of getting rid of the settlement’s waste or keeping it from accumulating in the first place. I drove a trash trailer around town, sorted cans and baled cardboard. You learn a lot about a place from its trash—for example, that there’s no isolation Internet shopping can’t breach.

Many patients, I discovered, were generally suspicious of the recycling and composting programs—they would have been an even tougher sell if not for the imminent closure of the landfill—and of newcomers in general. They found it hard to keep up with the revolving door of temporary workers, making friends only to have them leave; some had lodged complaints with administrators to ask for less-frequent turnover. I set out to prove that I was serious about being a part of the settlement community, helping plan dinners and parties and an Easter coconut hunt, showing up regularly for cribbage and craft nights and the recently instituted volleyball games. I joined a group that cleaned out the old social hall, scrubbing the ancient movie screen until decades of grime ran off in thick brown drips. The old system of mule-delivered reels was easily replaced with an LED projector and a Netflix subscription, and suddenly we had the only active movie theater on the entire island.

And I started going to church. I wasn’t religious; I went at first simply to meet people I hadn’t yet encountered. But when a church’s entire congregation consists of seven people, attendance can’t politely be a one-time thing.

Kalaupapa had two active congregations, one Catholic and one Protestant. The Catholic church, St. Francis, had the more robust membership—perhaps not surprising for a place whose most famous former residents are a priest and a nun. (Both Father Damien and Mother Marianne, a nun from Syracuse, New York, who ran a hospital for leprosy patients in Honolulu before coming to Kalaupapa in 1888, were sainted in the years after I left.) Unlike the Protestant church, it also had a full-time clergyman, a tiny Belgian octogenarian priest named Father Felix.

But I was raised Presbyterian and never quite figured out when to stand or kneel during Mass, so that first Sunday morning I joined the handful of congregants at Kanaana Hou, a yellow building whose churchyard was ringed with a stone wall and overgrown bougainvillea. We gathered on the church stoop a few minutes before eight, facing the hale kahu, or minister’s house, which had stood empty for years. Once every few months, a visiting minister would come to preach at Kanaana Hou, but usually it was up to the congregants to run things. This meant that services were short, simple, and often personal—and that I found myself in the unexpected situation of really liking church.

When everyone was gathered, someone pulled the rope to ring the heavy bell in the steeple. We entered together, singing along as a park worker named Richard—the man who drove Gertrude home from the bar each night—played “When the Saints Go Marching In” on his recorder. Church Cat, a sleek, orange fellow who looked decidedly less inbred than most of his settlement peers, waited for us inside, stretching in the sunlight in the center aisle.

That week it was up to Pali, an 81-year-old patient and the church’s de facto deacon, to lead the service. He’d outsourced some songs and readings to other attendants in advance. Other songs he chose on the fly from the church’s English and Hawaiian hymnals, challenging Richard to accompany us or strumming and drumming along himself—he was missing fingers on his right hand—on his perpetually out-of-tune guitar.

Pali, short for Edwin Lelepali, was the life force of the church. Born in Honolulu, he’d been diagnosed with leprosy at ten and sent to Kalihi Hospital on Oahu. He was transferred to Kalaupapa shortly after the Pearl Harbor bombing, sent in a cattle boat along with a large group of mostly child patients to join the settlement’s more than 400 residents; the state figured Kalaupapa would be safer. Like the other patients, he’d been sent there against his will, but when his father visited a few years later, he told him that he’d fallen in love with the place. Instead of the crowded streets of Honolulu, there was hunting, fishing, camping, and the Boy Scouts. He wouldn’t go back to Honolulu if he could.

Years later, Pali helped lay the pipeline that carried water to the settlement from a nearby valley. You could occasionally find his name scratched in sidewalks, floors, or other cement-pouring projects he’d helped with. By the time I met him, he’d buried two wives and countless friends in the graveyard by the beach. He also buried a series of dogs beneath a row of elegant headstones. “Akamai: The Best Watch Dog and Loved,” read one of them. At Kanaana Hou, he oversaw the offerings, the annual bingo game, and the meals after funerals.

When it came time for the sermon, Pali stood up, put his hands in his pockets, and spoke briefly and obliquely about struggling with temptation. We closed, as the congregation always did, by singing the first verse of “Blest Be the Tie that Binds,” the same hymn that punctuates Thornton Wilder’s Our Town:

Blest be the tie that binds

Our hearts in Christian love.

The fellowship of kindred minds

Is like to that above.

After the service, Pali stopped me. “You’ll be here next week, yeah?” he asked. The next week, he asked the same thing. A few weeks later, he told me that the following Sunday it would be my turn to lead the service.

That week was the end of April, which meant that we left Kanaana Hou as the congregation always did on the last Sunday of each month, driving across the peninsula to hold an unusually solemn service inside Siloama, the church’s predecessor from the days when the settlement was on the Kalawao side. The congregation was formed in 1866, the same year the first patients arrived, and the church building dedicated five years later. The building—a white one-room chapel with a narrow steeple that stood out against the dark green cliffs—had been rebuilt or restored more than once, but it was a reminder that our current congregation was the latest, and perhaps the last, in a direct line that began with some of the first patients to be sent there. There were large tombs in the churchyard, a thick Hawaiian-language Bible on the altar, and an outhouse with the “patient” and “kokua” signs left intact from the days of strict segregation. On the wall behind the altar was a plaque, installed in the 1950s by another Kanaana Hou congregation. It read:

THRUST OUT BY MANKIND

THESE 12 WOMEN AND 23 MEN

CRYING ALOUD TO GOD

THEIR ONLY REFUGE

FORMED A CHURCH

THE FIRST IN THE DESOLATION

THAT WAS KALAWAO.

One Sunday morning that spring, a tiny dark-haired woman in glasses, a visor, and a colorful muumuu got up to speak. Catherine Puahala was one of Kanaana Hou’s most dedicated congregants, but she had lately been sick and unable to attend church; she now stood with the help of a kokua from the care home. Catherine was 81. She couldn’t keep on weight and was always cold; she spoke that morning about how delicious the warmer air felt, how glad she was not to have to wear a sweater, how blessed we all were that God made the world so good. Other days in church, she spoke passionately about her neighbors abusing their dogs. They weren’t—she’d begun to hallucinate the howls of animals at night and was tortured by them.

Like Pali, Catherine had lived in Kalaupapa since just after Pearl Harbor. She’d had a happy marriage to a man named Jubilee, one of the long-deceased patients I’d at first assumed was still alive, so often did I hear people talk about him. I saw her mostly at church or at community parties, often dressed in bright colors, a visor pulled low over her face, her arm almost always intertwined with someone else’s. Once, someone asked if she and a pretty young nurse were sisters. “Different mothers!” Catherine quipped.

Earlier in life, Catherine had worked with leprosy-patient advocacy groups both on and off the island. The disease had not been kind to her hands, face, or vision; of all the patients I knew, she had perhaps the most noticeable physical damage. Her smile might not have been recognizably happy to people who didn’t know her, but you could hear it when she spoke. Her voice was somehow both slurred and precise, her enunciation exaggerated to make up for the effects of tissue damage and numbness. But the kindness and happiness that suffused her words were audible—the real version of what actors in commercial voice-overs strive for. We called her Catherine the Great.

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For decades, there was no firm plan for what would happen to Kalaupapa once the last patient was gone. The National Park Service, which started operating on the peninsula in 1980, at the behest of patients who wanted the settlement’s history preserved, began formally drafting one only in 2009. Crafting the plan required striking a delicate balance: preserving the peninsula’s historical seclusion and sacred status while gradually opening it up to the outside world.

Kalaupapa and its residents had been a source of international fascination for the better part of a century—largely on account of Father Damien, whose story was the subject of books and films as early as the 1930s. As the process of canonizing Damien and Sister Marianne advanced in Rome, reporters and miracle seekers alike began to make pilgrimages to Kalaupapa. Over the course of a few decades, the settlement’s patients went from having their outgoing mail fumigated to receiving audiences with Pope John Paul II.

Ever since the patients of Kalaupapa had begun determining their own future in the late 1960s, however, they had carefully guarded their privacy. Many of the modern rules that keep Kalaupapa so isolated—the ban on children, the limits on outside visitors, even the prohibition against surfing (for fear that if residents could surf, outsiders would be tempted to sneak down the trail) had come not from administrators but from the patients themselves. Now the residents of the changeless town found themselves asked to face—and weigh in on—the imminent end of their world. Many simply wished that it would not end, that nothing would change. No development or commercialization, no hotels or camping. Many of them opposed the idea of unescorted visitors, or of visitors staying overnight; a few wanted to maintain the ban on children.

But the end was coming in any case. One of my Bay View Home neighbors was a park employee named JJ, whose job was to tag and organize items that would one day be displayed in a Kalaupapa museum—likely after the patients were gone and more visitors allowed to come. He was cataloging aloha shirts and orthopedic shoes, rosaries and photographs and wheelchairs, musical instruments and specialized tools designed by patients to make everyday tasks easier: opening a soda can, holding a spoon, turning a key, cutting with scissors. Eventually, the curatorial project claimed the foot-dressing chair from the Bay View porch, the one we used to sit on to watch the sunset. It was strange to see it years later, tagged, filed, and de-spidered in a temperature-controlled room filled with furniture and shelves of old prostheses, one of them with a shoe and sock still on it.

Inside a gray curatorial cabinet in another room, beneath a piece of protective white muslin, hung an old Kalaupapa Lions Club T-shirt that I was pretty sure was identical to ones still being worn around the settlement. On a low shelf, I noticed a cinder block that a resident had used to keep a car’s broken hood from flying open—it was painted with a dancing cartoon dog and the words “Hold Down Da Hood.” It reminded me of a smooth, round rock I used to pass on my way to the trail, painted with the slogan “Smile—It no broke your face!” I’d always loved the rock—when I went back to the mainland, I kept a photo of it by my desk—but now its paint had chipped away to illegibility. How, I wondered, do you decide what to preserve and what to let deteriorate? How do you decide when an object has finished its active life and is ready for a museum?

It’s an odd thing to preserve history as it’s still being lived, and surely odder to be a living, breathing character in that history. Early on, I’d expected the patients to be eager to share their stories of the past, their opinions about the way they’d been treated. But they often preferred the small-town gossip of the present, what we called the coconut wireless: who was annoyed with whom, who was getting hired or fired, who drank too much at a party, whether the grass was being mowed often enough, whose visitors caught too many fish.

The community meetings that were held monthly by the Patient Advisory Council, the park superintendent, and administrators from the state Department of Health tended to run toward similar matters. Once we spent at least ten minutes gravely discussing eggs: Why did the store run out last week, and what could we do to keep that from happening again? We spent another 15 minutes debating which dogs were well behaved, which were in heat, and which should probably be kept on leashes. One week administrators sent around an official memo reminding everyone not to park their car in the middle of the street just because they’d run into someone they wanted to talk to.


One day in July, Auntie Catherine the Great announced that she didn’t think she’d be making it until Christmas that year. To the rest of us, her health seemed no worse than usual, but she was adamant. Christmas was her favorite holiday, and she wanted to have one more. So one sunny summer day, a group of patients and kokua gathered at her house to eat a Christmas feast of turkey, dressing, and cranberry sauce. We hung twinkling lights, and a worker dressed as Santa. Catherine grinned as we sang our way through her favorite carols.

A week later, Catherine died after being medevaced to a hospital in Honolulu. Jennifer, a park employee who was a close friend of Catherine’s, came to the Bay View kitchen, where I was on my lunch break, to deliver the news, then hurried out to start prepping programs for the funeral. Catherine would be flown back to Kalaupapa for burial.

The tropical weather and the absence of a morgue meant that there was usually little time for mourning before everyone had swung into action, dropping the day’s work for the familiar tasks that follow a death. Maintenance workers took the old backhoe out to the field by the beach and dug a grave in a pre-chosen spot. They assembled the simple, wooden coffin from a supply that administrators had ordered long before. Nurses dressed the deceased in the outfit that, while living, he or she picked out, packed in a bag, and stored in preparation: burying clothes. They applied makeup, maybe placed a favorite stuffed animal in the coffin. In death as in life, Kalaupapa residents often wore sunglasses, to cover drooping eyelids.

When Catherine died, it was my job to make plumeria leis to drape over her coffin and pick bougainvillea to pass around in bags at the graveside, so that everyone could toss a flower before the sandy dirt was shoveled back in. As I left the Bay View building to pick flowers, I found Jennifer still on the porch, sobbing. The porch was being repainted, and one of the maintenance guys had left a radio on. It was playing a song by Sarah McLachlan that Catherine used to ask Jennifer to play over and over on her ukulele.

I’d worn black to my first funeral in Kalaupapa—for a patient named Elaine, who’d once owned the bar and who chose to be buried in a sequined dress—and stood out ridiculously in the sea of aloha shirts. The next time I was out of the settlement I bought my own, knowing that there would be more occasions to wear it. By the time I left the next spring, seven more patients would die; Catherine was the first of them I was close to. It was shocking to see her in Kanaana Hou, the place where I’d known her best, lying in an open coffin and somehow looking nothing like herself. We sang “Blest Be the Tie that Binds,” the same hymn we sang at the end of church services every Sunday, but this time we sang the later verses, too:

We share each other’s woes,

Our mutual burdens bear.

And often for each other flows

The sympathizing tear.

When we are called to part

It gives us inward pain

But we shall still be joined in heart

And hope to meet again.

Electric drills emerged to screw the lid onto the coffin. Men hoisted it into the settlement ambulance, a hand-me-down from another island still labeled “Johnson Atoll.” Everyone headed out to the cemetery by the beach, where the backhoe stood ready to scoop the dirt back into its place: a grave in front of Catherine’s husband, Jubilee.

We were engrossed in the graveside service when one of the settlement’s fire trucks rolled up. Without asking anyone else’s permission, Kalawaia, a park carpenter, had decided to borrow it to pay tribute. He sent an arc of water over the grave toward the ocean. The sun turned it into rainbows.

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Gertrude hated going to the care home to get the dressings changed on the end of her leg and her remaining foot. But the disease had left her with little feeling in her extremities, so she didn’t notice when her foot became infected late that summer, straining against her bandages. By the time anyone discovered what had happened, her whole lower leg had turned black.

She was sent to the hospital in Honolulu, where doctors wanted to amputate. Losing one foot, however, had been quite enough for her. “You send me back!” she told the doctor once she found out the plan. He warned her that she was likely to die. “Well,” she said, “if I die, I die in my house, and in my place, where I love. That’s alright with me.”

Back at the settlement, Gertrude treated herself with a plant she called “Hawaiian medicine,” the precise nature of which she kept a secret from everyone but the settlement cook she trusted to gather it for her. Amazingly, her leg got better. While it healed, she stayed away from the bar—she couldn’t use her crutches and hated to be seen in a wheelchair. Instead, I’d visit her little green-trimmed house in the afternoons. We’d look at old pictures and watch TV, and I’d help her cut up steak and open cans of food for her cats. Without the distraction of cribbage, she was free to talk, and I took the chance to ask her about some of the things the patients rarely seemed to want to discuss.

Not long before, a state senator had come to the peninsula to deliver a resolution passed by the legislature, 142 years after the first patients came to Kalaupapa: a formal apology for the way they had been treated. The resolution recognized the patients and their families “for their sacrifices, for thinking more of the public than of themselves, for giving up freedom and opportunities the rest of society takes for granted, for rebuilding their lives with pride and dignity, for overcoming prejudice and discrimination, and for consistently reaching out to others in need.”

I asked Gertrude what she thought of the resolution. She said she didn’t need an apology—if patients hadn’t been quarantined, she said, “people like you folks that don’t have the sick” would have gotten it. I considered debating this point with her. In fact, when the Hawaiian government decided to exile leprosy sufferers to Kalaupapa, the risk was lower than anyone knew: Leprosy is far less contagious than was once believed, and an estimated 95 percent of people are genetically immune (though the percentage is lower among native Hawaiians and some other ethnic groups). But I didn’t. Instead, I asked Gertrude about the part of the apology that said the people of Kalaupapa had “been remarkably resilient and have responded to their situations with kindness, generosity, and forgiveness rather than anger, bitterness, and despair.” This seemed like a pretty good summary of what I found most impressive about the patients, I said. Gertrude replied that the legislators must not have talked to the bitter ones.

To explain her own lack of bitterness, Gertrude would often talk about her third husband. When Gertrude’s second husband was dying, he asked his cousin Barney to look out for her. Before long, Barney asked Gertrude to marry him. She said no; he wasn’t a patient, and she couldn’t believe he could really want her. But he kept asking, over and over again, for more than 15 years. In 1995, at age 63, she relented. “He didn’t wait even a few minutes,” Gertrude told me. “He just went to the priest and told him he’s going to marry me.” They were married in Father Damien’s church in Kalawao. Barney taught her not to be ashamed of how she looked, to have patience with those who stared on their visits to the mainland. Most of all, she said, he was kind to her and taught her to be kinder to other people. Though he’d been dead for years, she still credited him with her wide circle of friends, the joy of her current life.

There was a big turnout for Gertrude’s first night back at the bar. Good news is so rare in the settlement that it demands celebration, and we’d all been worried about how the crumbling edifice of Kalaupapa would withstand a Gertrude-sized hole.


It was around this time that I decided to extend my time in Kalaupapa. My initial contract was up after six months, and I’d been unsure of how much longer I should stay. Some of the kokua I knew had come for short contracts and ended up living there for decades, becoming passionate experts in the minutiae of Kalaupapa history. Although I loved our little community, I was also 23 years old, and I felt the horizon getting stiflingly close. But Gertrude’s near miss had reminded me how fragile the Kalaupapa I knew was. I couldn’t leave and expect to find it again.

Adding another six months meant time to get the recycling program up and running, to go hunting with my fellow maintenance workers and learn how to butcher wild boars, to watch the winter bring waves that turned beaches from sand to rock, winds that stripped stop signs from their posts, and rain that turned the pali into a series of gushing waterfalls. It meant more parties and more funerals. Gloria’s husband, Richard, the former sheriff, died in December. In February, Kuulei Bell, a patient and Kalaupapa’s former postmistress, who’d once hung a lei around Pope John Paul II’s neck despite being instructed to hand it to an aide, passed away in a Honolulu hospital. We learned of her death at church on a Sunday. Pali, as I’d often heard him do, began counting the remaining patients—who was in Kalaupapa and who was in the hospital, who might be the next to go. That was the same day I’d told him I’d be leaving the settlement in a month’s time. I squirmed with the guilt of being the latest person to leave him behind.

In my last few weeks, I hiked to the deep lake inside the crater at the center of the peninsula—a trip I had saved, thinking that leaving something unseen would make the insular peninsula seem bigger than it was. I let the little shrimp that live in the water nibble my toes, thinking of the patients’ tales of diving in the lake in their younger days. When I left, I told everyone I’d be back—probably the next winter, I said. I told Gertrude that I’d see her again soon.

But once I was gone from Kalaupapa, time started speeding up again. Soon nearly two years had passed. Then one gray winter day, I received a phone call.

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Gertrude died on Christmas Eve in a Honolulu hospital, not in her home after all. But she would be buried in Kalaupapa. She had been adamant that she didn’t want a funeral, and my friends who went told me it was a strange, spare graveside vigil. People started telling stories about Gertrude, until a kokua interrupted: This wasn’t what Gertrude wanted, she said. So people dispersed. I’m sure some of them ended up back at the bar, sure that it seemed empty and wrong without her.

It was a common observation that kokua were the ones who cried at funerals. Patients tended to be more stoic—they’d been to so many. In the 1940s, Gertrude used to say, there were sometimes two or three a day; she went to every one. I once asked her how she felt about the eventual end of the patient community in Kalaupapa, the end of the world in which she had lived nearly her entire life. She told me she couldn’t imagine Kalaupapa without the patients. “If God gon’ bless me to live yet, in those years,” she said quietly, “it’s going to be very sad for me.”

I didn’t manage to visit Kalaupapa again until last summer, more than two years after Gertrude’s death. Seventeen patients were still living then, but only eight of them were in Kalaupapa. The rest were mostly in the hospital; Norbert Palea, the youngest at age 72, was in prison for smuggling methamphetamine back to Kalaupapa after going to Honolulu for medical treatment. Kanaana Hou’s regular congregation was down to four people. Richard had become an official registered member—concerned that the church that had been started in 1866 would end with her and Pali, Auntie Kay, another dedicated patient member, had asked him to join before she died.

Pali was still running things, though somewhat less ebulliently than I remembered, and still counting patients. “You think they’d keep this place open for just one?” he asked one day as we went riding to the airport in his truck. He’d been repeatedly assured that Kalaupapa could be his home as long as he lived, but lately he’d been asking this question. He was still refereeing volleyball games on Wednesdays and Saturdays. People had started to call the game Paliball, and I heard a kokua compare it to cribbage and Gertrude: It was hard to imagine it continuing without him.

There was a new effort under way to sterilize the cats, and while you still saw them sleeping most everywhere, including all over the warm, silent streets after dark, they were noticeably fewer and even seemed less mangy. High-speed Internet had finally arrived in Kalaupapa, via a very long cable that snaked over the cliff and down along the trail. The bar was quieter at night than I remembered it.

Late one night, a group of young workers played video games on the big screen in the social hall. There was music blasting and a cooler of beer right next to an interpretive exhibit about Mother Marianne. “It used to be so raucous down here, I don’t think the patients would mind at all,” one woman said. “I think they’d be glad somebody’s still having a good time.”

One day I hitched a ride to the airport and walked back to town through the graveyards along the beach. Nearly five years after Catherine’s funeral, the sand was still heaped up on her grave. The name on her wooden cross was faded and partially obscured by dozens of leis made of beads, yarn, and fake flowers; unopened Heineken bottles sat at its base. Nearby I found the new graves of Auntie Kay and Uncle Henry.

On the edge of the beach, in an area where I had never attended a funeral, I found Gertrude’s grave, surrounded by its own little rock wall. Her cross, too, was piled with leis, and a forest of plastic flowers populated by ceramic figurines and seashells crowded around it. The cribbage board we used to keep score was sticking halfway out of the sand, its bright paint worn away to bare gray wood.

I didn’t think I’d cry, but the wholly expected shock of finding a cross with Gertrude underneath it overwhelmed me, and I did. I sat for a while and watched the waves, the ironwood trees swaying in the trade winds, the afternoon light on the pali. It hadn’t occurred to me to bring anything to put on the graves, and now I was sorry.

The graveyard was nicer than it used to be: Richard had found some money to repair the headstones that had fallen over or been split apart by rusting metal. As usual, the beach by the graveyard was empty of people, though a few monk seal pups had hauled out on the sand—a highly endangered species enjoying a recent renaissance, taking up residence on the quiet beaches of Kalaupapa. Watching them reminded me of my first hike up the trail to the top of the pali. From high up the cliffside, I watched a humpback whale float, still, on the surface of the bay. After a time, she began to thrash about so violently, she disappeared in the roiling water. Then something that looked from a distance like a small gray bullet shot out of the waves: a whale calf taking its first breaths.

My last morning in the settlement, I went around hugging people and promising, once again, to be back soon. Finally, I put on my pack and headed for the trail. There’s an overlook at the top, just before it cuts away from the pali and toward the topside road. The view of the peninsula from there is a common image on postcards and in books and brochures about Kalaupapa. In person, though, you can see the movement: a truck headed to the salt pools on the lava cliffs north of Kalawao, a tiny, unidentifiable person walking on the black sand beach. I tried to guess by the location and color of the cars who was home, who was visiting the store, who was taking their dogs out for a ride in the pickup truck. I needed to get going, but I kept turning back for one more look.

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