Two Thousand Miles From Home

Two Thousand Miles From Home

As Russia invaded Ukraine, three women from the same family became pregnant at the same time. Then the war tore them apart.

By Lily Hyde

The Atavist Magazine, No. 144

Lily Hyde is a writer and journalist based in Ukraine. She has written for The Guardian, Politico, the Times of London, and Foreign Policy. She is the author of Dream Land, a novel about Crimea.

Editor: Jonah Ogles
Art Director: Ed Johnson
Copy Editor: Sean Cooper
Fact Checker: Olena Goncharova
Illustrator: Andriana Chunis

Published in October 2023.

Oy, bida! Oy, bida bida bida
A ya ba, a ya baba moloda

Lydia Kuznichenko is singing a Ukrainian folk song to the baby she’s holding in her arms. The tune is cheerful, although the words translate as something like: Oh, woe is me! And I’m a young woman. Lida, as she is known, is still young. She has grey-green eyes and dark golden hair, a face not meant for grief. She laughs and teases the baby: “Yes, yes, is your grandmother young?”

Sitting with Lida on the bed in her small brick house in the village of Ridkodub, Ukraine, I am wearing a heavy bulletproof vest that is supposed to protect me from the war raging outside. The baby, buttoned into a white onesie and a little blue jacket, has nothing to protect him except his grandmother’s arms. He is very small, not quite three months old.

Outside it’s a cold, pale winter’s day, December 30, 2022. We are in the Kharkiv region, about 20 miles west of the Russia-Ukraine border, and seven miles from the front line of the war between these two countries. A set of shelves in the room is piled with folded baby clothes and blankets—pink, blue, lemon yellow, white. On the veranda outside, tiny clothes and socks are pinned to a line, having been washed by hand in water heated on the old-fashioned stove. The house is a simple Ukrainian village home, warm and quiet except for the crackle of wood burning in the stove. When there’s a long, deafening roar outside that makes the windows tremble, or a series of more distant thumps, I’m the only one who flinches. The baby wriggles, then sleeps.

Both of them do—there’s another baby in the room, on the bed. The infants have a good many adopted uncles in Ridkodub, men who wear camouflage, army boots, and bulletproof vests. They think the babies are twins at first. “No!” Lida corrects them. “They are daughter and grandson. They are nephew and aunty.” Their names are Vitalina and David, and they have seen more woe in their few months on earth than many of us could imagine in a lifetime.

If Lida were to tell these babies a story instead of singing a song, how might she start? Perhaps like this: There were three women—Liuda, Lida, and Lera. They were from two generations of the same family; they lived a few miles from one another, and they all became pregnant just a few weeks apart. But a war came between them and divided them from one another. One of them traveled 2,000 miles to come home; another was lost.

No. That story gets too sad too quickly.

Perhaps she could start like this: There is the story about David and Goliath. Little David went out to fight the giant Goliath, who threatened to destroy David’s whole nation. And everyone thought that Goliath would win in three days, but little David would not be defeated.

Yes, that’s a better way to begin.

Lida’s family, the Slobodianyks, are a big, close clan. Arkady and Halyna moved from the Vinnytsia region, in central Ukraine, to Ridkodub, in the Kharkiv region, in 1986 with their four children. Lydia and her twin sister, Liudmyla, were still babies when the family relocated to work at the kolkhoz, the Soviet collective farm. Another daughter was born in nearby Dvorichna.

Lida and Liuda, as they were known, did everything together. Liuda was the eldest by five minutes. They studied at the local school and sang in the school choir. When they were 12, they started helping out at the farm, too, milking the cows. The twins performed together at local clubs and concerts, two girls with bright faces, harmonizing as they sang rich, plaintive Ukrainian folk songs. Lida had her first child—a son, Maksym—at 18. Liuda followed three months later with a daughter.

Maksym was a timid, serious baby. Lida bounced and tickled him, and sang nonsense songs to coax out his smile. The baby’s father left the family early on. Maksym grew up close to his mother; he had her green eyes and dark blond hair, but not her lively, outgoing temperament. A brother was born, then a sister as cheerful as Lida; Maksym remained the quiet, stubborn one.

By the mid-1990s, the kolkhozes had become private farms, but otherwise it felt as if not much had changed in their uneventful corner of Kharkiv region. Fields of wheat, maize, and bright sunflowers stretched to meet big skies, like picture postcards of the yellow and blue Ukrainian flag. The Oskil River wound past Dvorichna, between high, chalky banks overgrown with wildflowers and riddled with the burrows of steppe marmots.

As the children grew, the family gathered regularly; the farthest any of the five adult Slobodianyk siblings and their families had gone was to the regional capital, also called Kharkiv, where the oldest brother lived. Everyone else lived within a few dozen miles of one another in the district of Kupiansk. By the end of 2021, Arkady and Halyna had 15 grandchildren and great-grandchildren, and perhaps soon there would be another: Maksym had recently startled Lida by bringing home a girl he’d met at agricultural college. Her name was Valeria Perepelytsia, or Lera for short. A girlfriend! Not Lida’s shy Maksym—who, by the way, was only 17. The young couple had already started talking about having a baby.


Early on February 24, 2022, a sound like the sky tearing in half ripped through Lida’s dream.

It was dark, not even 4 a.m. The house in Ridkodub was quiet, her younger son, Dmytro, and daughter, Uliana, peacefully asleep. It was just a horrible dream, she decided. She dozed off, then woke again to another loud noise. Perhaps someone was setting off fireworks outside.

When she looked out her window, she saw that the sky in the northeast, toward the Russian border, was on fire. It was not a dream or fireworks. It was what the United States had been warning of, the thing no one in Ukraine wanted to believe could happen: Russia had invaded Ukraine.

Russian troops had amassed along the Ukrainian border for months, as Russian president Vladimir Putin declared that the neighboring country needed “denazifying” and “demilitarizing” while insisting that Ukraine was really part of Russia anyway. Despite U.S. and EU warnings, few Ukrainians thought there would be an attack beyond the eastern end of the country, where Russia had fomented a conflict in 2014 and effectively occupied parts of the Donetsk and Luhansk regions. Kharkiv bordered Luhansk and Donetsk—and Russia. But no one was prepared for Russian missiles falling on civilians and destroying infrastructure all over Ukraine. On the morning of February 24, Russian tanks not only crossed the border into Kharkiv region, but advanced on Kherson and Mariupol in the south and toward the capital of Kyiv to the north.

Lida phoned Maksym, who was staying with Lera and her family in Velykyi Vyselok, about 17 miles away, across the Oskil River. The call woke him up. “How can you sleep,” she yelled, “when the war has started?”

Maksym had been watching the news closely and messaging with his older cousin in the Ukrainian army. But his cousin had not prepared him for this. Lera, however, knew exactly what war was. She had experienced it before, eight years ago in Luhansk. She remembered how her mother hid her and her younger sister in the wardrobe during the bombings, and shared with them the only food they had: half a loaf of bread per day.

Now she and her mother scrambled to dress her baby brother, Artem, and gather a few essentials. Lera’s instinct was to run, although she didn’t know where to go. Grad rockets roared right over the house. Lera’s younger sister, Alyona, had been five when the Perepelytsias fled their home in Luhansk region. Now the buried trauma surfaced. She crouched like the little quail—perepilka—of their surname, put her hands over her head, and screamed.

No one went to work that day. People hid in basements and root cellars as planes and helicopters flew overhead and columns of tanks and artillery drove through Ridkodub and Dvorichna. They were unmarked, and Lida’s neighbors weren’t sure which country they belonged to; it was only on the very last column, which came through at about 4 p.m., that they saw a Russian flag. The few Ukrainian defenses near Dvorichna and Velykyi Vyselok were quickly overwhelmed.

On February 27, the mayor of Kupiansk, the administrative center of the district, surrendered. Soon Kherson fell in south Ukraine. The remaining Ukrainian forces near Lida’s home retreated to defend Kharkiv, which for the next three months was bombarded as Russian forces sought to take the city. But in the settlements near the border, after that first day when Russian troops passed through, everything went strangely quiet.

It was their home, it was Ukraine. Why should the Russians force them out?

On February 28, Vitaly Kucher was in his flat in Dvorichna with his wife and four-year-old daughter, wondering if he still had a job, or a country, when he got a call from a colleague: “You have ten pregnant women waiting outside your office. Why are you at home?”

Kucher, 34, had a homely, round face, and had worked as a gynecologist in Dvorichna for ten years. Before that his father was the local pediatrician. Everyone knew the Kuchers: Between them they’d ushered most of the district’s children into the world and through years of inoculations, illnesses, and accidents. As a child, Lida had been enchanted by Kucher senior during doctor visits; in 2014 and 2015, Kucher junior saw her through her pregnancy with her daughter, Uliana.

Now their hometowns were occupied by Russia. Yet people still lived and loved, pregnancies progressed, and babies were born. Kucher went back to work at Dvorichna’s hospital.

In Ridkodub, Dvorichna, and Velykyi Vyselok, people soon got used to the helicopters flying overhead, as regular as coffee in the morning. Russia was much closer than Kyiv, and the area had long had close relations, both official and unofficial, over the border. A Russian occupation authority installed itself in the Dvorichna House of Culture but seemed clueless when it came to running the appropriated territory. Kucher and his colleagues continued their work almost as usual, stamping hospital paperwork with the Ukrainian stamp.

“Do you know why it took us so long to react?” Kucher asked me when we met in a central Ukrainian village in summer 2023. “Because nothing happened! There was no shooting, no violence, no terrible bombing. Everything was quiet, except for us not knowing who we were anymore.”

Kucher had over 40 pregnant patients during the occupation. There were no buses anymore, so they came on foot or by bike. If several lived in the same village, they might join together to pay for gas and a driver.

One of Kucher’s first patients after the invasion was Lida’s twin sister, Liuda, newly pregnant. Kucher knew her well—she had four children already. Liuda and Lida always had babies at about the same time; they did everything together. Kucher wondered whether Lida might soon turn up outside his office.

Instead, in late March a very young woman was among the patients waiting to see him. She was small and slim, with clear pale skin, dark eyes, and dark hair in a topknot. Her partner was waiting outside. They were both 17. Her name was Valeria Perepelytsia, and the partner was Maksym Kuznichenko, Lida’s oldest son.

Kucher usually referred such youthful pregnancies to social services, to discuss whether to keep the child. Such services were no longer available, however; the director had fled to Poland. The girl in front of Kucher now was so young. But she was very certain that she and her partner wanted the baby, even if the timing was terrible. Kucher was impressed by Lera’s mature attitude. He filled out a medical card for her and scheduled monthly checkups.

When Lera realized that she was pregnant, she’d cried hysterically at first. How would two underage parents bring up a child in wartime, when everything was so uncertain? Maksym had tried to calm her down. In Velykyi Vyselok as in Ridkodub, the Russians had merely passed through and left checkpoints between settlements. Practically everyone in both villages remained, working at the commercial farms or on their own small plots, hoping it would all be over soon, that it wouldn’t affect their lives too much.

Lera’s mother, Svitlana, already displaced once from Luhansk, announced that she wasn’t going anywhere. The elder Slobodianyks in Ridkodub also refused to leave. Here they had a roof over their heads, a vegetable garden, geese and pigs and rabbits to look after. And it was their home, it was Ukraine. Why should the Russians force them out? Besides, they had no savings to cover the enormous travel costs, and the trip was dangerous. Kharkiv was being bombed; the Russians were just outside Kyiv. Where would they go?

Pregnant Liuda had an additional reason for staying. Her husband supported the Russian invasion, and he wasn’t the only one in the district. It was the first real disharmony there had ever been between Liuda and Lida.

In the end, only Lida’s younger sister Sveta left, using the last so-called green corridor to government-held territory, at the end of March. The rest of the family stayed put, Lida and the younger children in Ridkodub, Liuda near Kupiansk, and Maksym with Lera and her family in Velykyi Vyselok. Maksym got a job at the farm where Lera’s mother worked, looking after the calves, and complained about the smell of the animals that clung to his clothes.

Lera cycled to her appointments in Dvorichna, but a question remained: Where would she have the baby? Though home births are not permitted in Ukraine, she approached the only medic in Velykyi Vyselok, a nurse named Natasha Dikhman, and asked if she could help in case Lera had an emergency or couldn’t reach a hospital. Natasha worked part-time in a small first aid center, measuring blood pressure, dispensing basic medications, and patching up injuries. She had limited knowledge of midwifery, and told Lera and her mother not to expect qualified help from her.

Kucher usually sent complex cases to Kharkiv, including births to underage mothers. But the road to the city was closed now. Some of Kucher’s patients went to hospitals in the nearby Russian towns of Valuyki or Belgorod, where they met with incomprehension about what was happening across the border. Russian state media barely reported on the invasion. If Russians paid any attention at all, they likely thought that the so-called special military operation—Russia’s euphemism for the war—was a continuation of the military action in occupied Donetsk and Luhansk.

Kucher’s patients described to him their absurd interactions with doctors in Belgorod, who asked, “Why are you coming to us?”

“Well, we’re occupied.”

“Who by?”


Lera refused to go to Russia, the country that had already destroyed her home once. She had relatives there, but she hardly spoke to them, since they supported the invasion. Kucher planned for her to go to the hospital in Kupiansk, which had a basement bomb shelter, when it was time to deliver her baby.

The region had become a grim, lawless gray zone where the only accepted narrative was the Russian one.

The veneer of normality in the district of Kupiansk soon wore thin. There was no public transit anymore. No working cash machines or banks. No postal service or deliveries. Shops and gas stations and pharmacies emptied. The only evacuation to free Ukrainian territory was organized by volunteers from Kharkiv, who drove daily to the dam across the river at Pechenihy, the only crossing point on the front line in the region. There they picked up refugees and distributed food and medicines. It was a risky undertaking. As medications at the Dvorichna hospital ran out, the pharmacist decided to cross into Ukrainian-held territory to obtain more. On the dam—now a no-man’s-land between the two sides—he came under fire, and returned concussed and empty-handed.

At the beginning of April, internet connectivity disappeared. Landlines and cell phones stopped working. For three weeks there was no electricity. Soon, obtaining anything at all became a struggle: gas, medicine, bread, news.

Russia started importing food and medication in summer, though they were sold at prices locals couldn’t afford. No one could get money or access salaries or pensions because the banks were all closed. War entrepreneurs cashed money from Ukrainian debit cards, taking a cut of up to 30 percent. In Velykyi Vyselok, people survived thanks to the farm, which paid its workers in produce—meat, milk and eggs, flour, sunflower oil. In many ways, it was a return to the grim 1990s after the USSR collapsed. Or—for the few who remembered—like the Stalinist 1930s or Nazi-occupied 1940s, when no one could say what they really thought for fear of informers and the punishment that might follow.

Those in Dvorichna and Ridkodub were fortunate: There were few instances of torture, murder, or disappearance typical of the Russian occupation even just a few miles away. Anyone who’d served in the Ukrainian army—particularly those fighting in occupied Luhansk and Donetsk since 2014—knew they were targets, and they left if they could or went into hiding. But anyone who stayed loyal to Ukraine risked harassment, arrest, or worse. When they encountered Russian soldiers shopping in the market in Dvorichna or Kupiansk, or buying piglets from the farmer in Ridkodub, they avoided eye contact.

They knew that by staying, adapting, surviving, they could run afoul of Ukraine’s new law criminalizing collaboration with the enemy. No law could encapsulate the experience of living under occupation or pin down the shifting, porous line between survival and collaboration. Distributing Russian humanitarian aid, for example, could violate the new law; for Russia that aid was one way to claim that the invasion had local support and to trap people in systems that would complicate the return of Ukrainian control. Businesses had to register with Russia or face confiscation; state workers were required to sign contracts with occupation authorities or lose their jobs and invite suspicion of their loyalties. Of course, Russian armed forces used local services and amenities, and the locals couldn’t refuse them.

The only widely available TV was Russian, which endlessly repeated that Russia’s special military operation was a liberation from Nazism and NATO’s tyranny. Accessing other news sources was risky and had to be done discreetly. In Velykyi Vyselok, the nurse Natasha Dikhman used a generator to tune in to Ukrainian satellite TV for half an hour after she milked her cows every evening. Between shifts, Maksym climbed a stack of hay bales where he sometimes got service with a Russian SIM card (the only way to get internet) to check Ukrainian news and exchange messages with his relatives in the army.

Everyone had their secrets, including Lida.

In mid-July, the family met in Ridkodub, in the yard of Lida’s house. Liuda had been to Dvorichna for her regular checkup, then came to visit her parents and twin sister, bringing her four children. Lera and Maksym were there, too. It was warm and quiet. At the end of the row of houses, a Russian flag atop the farm’s water tower was the only visible sign that all was not well. The children shouted and played. The adults drank tea at the wooden table under the fruit trees, the site of so many big, cheerful family parties, and discussed the babies that were coming.

Liuda had announced her pregnancy to the family first. When she told her twin, Lida said, “What are you thinking of? At a time like this?” She had asked the same thing of Maksym in April after she spotted a prescription for prenatal vitamins and noticed that he refused to let Lera lift anything.

Soon after, the family found out that their cousin Vladyslav and his wife, who lived outside Kupiansk, were also expecting. Liuda’s baby was due first, in about six weeks. Vladyslav’s was next, a week or so later. Lera and Maksym’s baby was due at the end of October.

“And what about you, Lida?” Liuda teased her twin sister. “There’s just you left for a full conclusion.”

Lida had been quieter than usual, listening to the others. She had split with Uliana’s father, although they were on good terms. That winter, she had started to see a local man called Vitaly. For several years, she’d had irregular periods and health problems. Even when she finally started to suspect something, it took time to find a test to confirm it. “Well, I have some news for you,” she said at last. Maksym saw that she had gone red. “I’m pregnant, too!”

Being pregnant gave them something to talk about, since they couldn’t talk about the occupation or how it had affected their family. Their oldest sister’s first son would soon graduate from a military academy in western Ukraine and go to fight for his country. A cousin was missing in action in Mariupol; another, Oleksandr, who had grown up with them in Ridkodub, was serving on the front line. They couldn’t discuss these things, because the other side of the war was represented in the family: Liuda.

Liuda’s husband, like Lera, was from the occupied part of the neighboring Luhansk region, where the current war had begun in 2014, when Russia fanned, financed, and fought a conflict against Ukraine in Donetsk and Luhansk. The region had become a grim, lawless gray zone where the only accepted narrative was the Russian one—that Ukraine had no right to exist, that it was run by nationalists and Nazis, or natsiky, who had waged war on the Russian speakers of the east. Lera’s uncle was still in occupied Luhansk, hiding from the military police, who rounded up men on the street and packed them off to fight for Russia against Ukraine. Some of the soldiers now in Dvorichna and Kupiansk were from occupied Donetsk and Luhansk.

The Slobodianyks were Ukrainian speakers, and loyal to their country. But Liuda’s husband insisted that the 2022 invasion was Ukraine’s and NATO’s fault, and Russia had come to liberate Ukraine and return it to its rightful place as part of Russia. Liuda had begun to repeat this narrative. Lida was being torn between her twin, who was closer to her than anyone in the world, and her own children. Maksym especially could barely stop himself from arguing with his aunt, or contain his rage at those like her husband who colluded with the Russian occupiers.

So that day in the garden, they talked around the silences, or filled them with babies. It was the last time they would all be together.

Since they lacked cellular connectivity and reliable transportation, Vitaly Kucher in Dvorichna became the three pregnant women’s only regular source of information about one another. They passed messages through the doctor, who tried to schedule Lida’s checkups to coincide with Liuda’s so the twins could meet. People clung to their routines, convincing themselves that everything was normal. Natasha Dikhman remembers a cool, rainy summer of tending the animals and digging in the garden; she herself grew the biggest potato she had ever seen, the size of a baby’s head.

But Maksym knew that things were going to change. At the end of August, perched atop the hay bales, he exchanged messages with his army cousin.

“Wait, we’ll be there soon,” his cousin wrote.

“How soon?”

“All in good time.” 


On September 1, Liuda gave birth to a baby girl in Kupiansk’s maternity hospital. The town was emptier than usual, almost peaceful. There was talk of a Ukrainian counteroffensive in the southern Kherson region, but in Kupiansk Russian soldiers strolled in the local parks eating ice cream. Schools and colleges reopened with a Russian curriculum. Staff who refused to teach it were interrogated or forced to leave. Parents were told they would receive a bonus if they sent their children to Russian school, a fine if they didn’t. Russia was tightening its grip on occupied areas, hammering home its message that the only future was Russian. On September 3, Lida and Liuda’s cousin’s baby was born in the same hospital.

In Ridkodub, Lida and her mother were canning their crop of tomatoes, essential stores to keep them going through winter now that neither were working or could access any money. Seven-year-old Uliana and 13-year-old Dmytro helped; there was no school for them to attend in Ridkodub. At the end of August, Russian military police, or perhaps state security officers from the FSB (the successor to the Soviet KGB), had come for Yuri Tyahilev, Lida’s parents’ neighbor, the village’s head teacher and a staunch Ukraine supporter. They put a bag over his head and held him with other prisoners in a tiny, sweltering, windowless cell for three days of brutal questioning: Who is loyal to Ukraine? Who fought for Ukraine Donetsk and Luhansk?

As soon as he was released, Tyahilev and his wife, who also taught at the school, left Ridkodub and drove to the Russian border, hoping to reach their daughters in Europe. Just hours after they fled, the Russians broke down their door.

Maksym and Lera had hoped to come to Ridkodub on September 7, and to stay until the baby arrived. Maksym was worried about his mother now that she was expecting a child, too. It was easier to travel from there to Dvorichna. Lera and Lida could pass the later months of their pregnancies together. And if his soldier cousin was right about what was coming, he wanted them to be together.

They didn’t go for the most banal of reasons: Maksym couldn’t get the day off work. How different their lives would have been if only they’d gone that day.

Maksym and Lera were on the other side, in Velykyi Vyselok. They were separated from Lida by the front line.

Talk of a southern offensive had been a ruse. On September 6, Ukraine launched a surprise attack on Russian forces in the Kharkiv region. It advanced at lightning speed. By September 7, Lida could hear the roar and thud of incoming and outgoing fire. The war that had somehow passed over them was getting closer by the hour.

Overnight on September 8, a missile hit the House of Culture in Dvorichna, where the Russians had their headquarters. The Russian forces were completely unprepared. “They started running,” Kucher said, “like rats from a sinking ship.”

On September 9, Ukrainian forces entered Kupiansk. In Ridkodub, the sound of battle was continuous. Lida couldn’t reach Liuda or their cousin Vladyslav in Kupiansk, as there was no cell service. Rumor was that the Ukrainians would be in Ridkodub in two or three days. Lida thought: How can we wait? Two or three days seemed like an eternity.

September 11 was a cool, overcast day, with apples falling from the trees. In the early afternoon, three soldiers passed the fence around Lida’s yard—quiet, shadowy figures wearing olive sweatshirts under bulletproof vests and carrying automatic rifles. They were some of the first soldiers Lida had seen in Ridkodub in more than six months of war. She and her neighbors ran toward them. Then Lida stopped. What if they were Russian? It was difficult to distinguish the uniforms; they weren’t close enough to see arm patches or the strips of tape the two armies used to announce themselves.

One neighbor, less cautious, shouted: “Slava Ukraini!” Glory to Ukraine!

Lida waited for gunshots. Instead the answer came: Heroyam slava! Glory to the heroes!

The stress of the past seven months released. Little Uliana screamed with hysterical laughter. They hugged the soldiers and begged for news. Later that day, Lida took a photograph of her children and two of the soldiers holding a Ukrainian flag. As soon as she had cell service, she would make this her profile photo on Viber, a messaging app popular in Eastern Europe. Then her family would know that Ridkodub was safely Ukrainian again. Her oldest son and his pregnant girlfriend just had to hang on a little longer.

The following day Lida went to her mother’s house, since there was sometimes service there. She could hear horrible shelling in the distance, and the sky was red over Dvorichna. But she’d been back in free Ukraine for 24 hours, and this was another good day—there was cell service, and a message from Maksym. He told her that they were OK and she should hold on, that Ukrainian soldiers were on their way.

Then she saw that the message had been sent five days before. She tried to call Maksym, but there was no answer.

After those first delirious days, things began to go wrong. The first Ukrainian soldiers entered Dvorichna on September 10, Kucher recalls, although officially the town was liberated on September 11, like Ridkodub. “We were overjoyed. We thought: We’ve been liberated, everything is great!” he remembered. “And then on the twelfth was the first really heavy shelling, and the first victims.”

On September 12, Lera, his youngest patient, was supposed to come for an ultrasound. She hadn’t shown—it was the first appointment she missed in six months—but Kucher was in no position to think about his patients. That afternoon, the town shaking under Russian fire, he and his wife and daughter ran to the basement of their building. They didn’t emerge for three days. There was no water, no electricity, no phone or internet, and no letup in the bombardment.

Late on September 15, the family ventured back to their flat. The next day, Kucher managed to evacuate his wife and daughter with a group of volunteers. The following day he left, too.

The counteroffensive had come to a halt, just past Dvorichna, over the Oskil River. (Later, Ukrainian forces retreated to the west bank of the river itself.) Maksym and Lera were on the other side, in Velykyi Vyselok. They were separated from Lida by the front line.

In the following weeks and months, the shelling of Dvorichna continued, and it reached Ridkodub as well. The town lost gas, electricity, and water within days of the Ukrainian advance, but cell service was restored, and the Ukrainian army brought a Starlink terminal with them, which they shared with locals for internet access. In late September, Lida found out that Liuda and her children were alive; after three days sheltering in the basement with the newborn, they had fled to Russia with Liuda’s husband. But there was no contact with Maksym and Lera.

On October 4, as Lida was coming home from her parents’ house, cradling her pregnant belly under her coat, her younger sister, Sveta, called from Slovakia, where she had been living as a refugee since April. “Are you alright, Lida? Have they been in touch with you?”

Lida knew that she meant Maksym and Lera. As far as Lida was aware, they were still where they’d always been, less than 19 miles away, across the Oskil River. But that might as well have been an ocean away.

Lida’s younger sister began telling a confusing story about a girl in Kharkiv who’d posted on social media about people in Velykyi Vyselok. As Sveta spoke, she began to cry.

“What is it? What’s the matter?” Lida asked, panicked. “Sveta, tell me, what’s wrong?”

“Lera had her baby,” she heard through the sobs. “She had a boy, on the first of October. And they’re fine.”

Lida was a grandmother. It was this thought that stayed with her as she, her parents, and her two younger children hid in the root cellar with the neighbor’s family—15 people in a 40-square-foot space, squeezed in among the potatoes and the jars of pickled tomatoes and cucumbers. They distracted themselves from the missiles falling outside by trying to guess the baby’s name. Ilya, perhaps—Lera liked the name. Maksym wanted Oleh, after his cousin in the army.

They wrapped themselves in coats and hats against the damp chill of the cellar. The Ukrainian soldiers billeted in the village gave them flashlights, lamps, and bread, and charged their phones for them. One day, as Lida was cooking on the outdoor stove, a cluster bomb landed in the yard, scattering lethal fragments through the marigolds. By some miracle, Lida was only bruised as she scrambled for shelter.

In early October, the school where Yuri Tyahilev taught two generations of the Slobodianyk family was destroyed. Later that month, Lida got a text message from an unknown Russian number. The message said it was from Maksym. She called the number; a female voice answered. “It’s Lera.”

“Our Lera?”

“Your Lera!”

The baby, she said, was called David. The name had come to them out of nowhere, but she and Maksym knew right away that it was right. The baby was fine—they were all fine. They were at home, using a neighbor’s phone. How was Lida’s pregnancy? The younger children? They hoped to be reunited soon. And that was all.

There was no Kucher anymore in Dvorichna to pass reassuring messages between them. The hospital had been destroyed—a direct strike on Kucher’s office on the third floor. The grade school was gone, the kindergarten, the market. Everything. For Lida’s next medical checkup, at 34 weeks, the Ukrainian military organized an ambulance to take her to the hospital in Kharkiv.

Kucher, via phone from a village in central Ukraine, didn’t want Lida to take any risks. The doctors in Kharkiv kept her in the hospital for a week, although she was eager to get back home to her children. And her eldest was always on her mind. Lida had unlimited access to Ukrainian news now, and it was full of horrors and war crimes uncovered in towns liberated from Russian control. Torture sites in Kupiansk. Mass graves in Izium.

Lida remembered the times she’d put her head down and stared at the ground to avoid looking at Russian soldiers on the street in Dvorichna and Kupiansk. Maksym, that timid child she’d teased into smiling, was alone with them now. Was he managing to control his temper, his disappointment and hope? She didn’t know if he could keep his head down.

One day in late October, she was at the hospital when she got another call from an unknown number. It wasn’t Lera this time. The caller asked if Lera and Maksym had arrived yet.

“Arrived where?” Lida said. As far as she knew, they were still in Velykyi Vyselok, under occupation with her grandson.

“In Ridkodub,” the voice said. “They left Vyselok two days ago to come to you. Did they get through?”

“But I’m not in Ridkodub,” Lida said. The woman at the other end of the call explained that Lera, Maksym, and the baby had left by foot on October 25. Lida couldn’t speak. Her parents were at home; they would have called if Maksym and Lera had shown up there. How could they have crossed the front line? It was impossible. “They’re not there!” she managed.

The doctors threatened to tether Lida to her bed with an IV if she didn’t calm down. She roamed the hospital’s corridors, heavy with the baby she carried, a devastated mess of tears. Somewhere between their two villages—amid the familiar fields of sunflowers, the Oskil winding along its chalky banks, the green water and yellow lilies all burning now—her son and his family had vanished. They didn’t answer their phones. She couldn’t find them. One, two, three days. Nothing.


In mid-September, Maksym found cell service at the haystacks in Velykyi Vyselok. He saw his mother’s Viber photo, his brother and sister in Ridkodub holding a Ukrainian flag with two Ukrainian soldiers. He could feel the smile on his sister’s face spreading across his own.

For months the Russians and their supporters in Kupiansk and Dvorichna, along with the Russian propaganda that was all they watched or listened to, had insisted that his home was and would always be Russian. Now Maksym took a screenshot of the photo as proof that they were wrong. His family were already liberated. Just like his cousin had told him: “We’ll be there soon.” Lera’s baby, due at the end of October, would be born in free Ukraine.

He waited and waited for the Ukrainians to reach Velykyi Vyselok. But they did not come.

Instead, after Kupiansk was liberated on September 10, the village filled with Russian soldiers and matériel retreating from the Ukrainian advance. Dvorichna was completely cut off, and travel and communication were incredibly risky. One afternoon Natasha Dikhman’s husband, Valery, climbed a tree near their house in Velykyi Vyselok where he could get service and talked briefly with their oldest son, who was in Poland and worried sick about them. Seconds later shells whistled past, from Russian soldiers on the highway who probably suspected he was photographing their positions. Valery tumbled out of the tree. He and Natasha were a quiet couple in their forties, devoted to their two sons; before the war, Natasha had called their eldest daily. But now Valery told his wife: “I’m not going anywhere again to make a call.”

On October 1, Natasha was at home making a breakfast of korzh—a flatbread—on the woodstove when Maksym knocked on the door.

“Aunty Natasha, I don’t know what to do,” he said. “I think Lera has gone into labor.”

Lera had been in intense pain since the previous afternoon. By evening it was clear that she was in labor, but her water wouldn’t break. At 2 a.m., and again a few hours later, Maksym ran to the Russian soldiers, begging them to take his girlfriend to a hospital in a nearby occupied town. The soldiers sent him away with a bottle of hand sanitizer. Driving anywhere, they said, especially at night, was too dangerous.

So Maksym had come to Natasha. He was trembling. He was just a boy, the same age as Natasha’s youngest. He didn’t know what to do or whom to turn to. “I understand, but how can I help?” Natasha asked him. “I haven’t got anything on hand, and there’s nowhere to take her.”

Natasha’s small first aid center, undisturbed all summer, had been looted in September by Russian soldiers who were now living in the kindergarten across the street, amid a jumble of cots for small children and boxes of bullets and military rations. Natasha still had some of the medication soldiers had brought to the village and given her to distribute. But it was for blood pressure and upset stomach; nothing that would help with a birth. She ran with Maksym through the village to the home that Lera’s mother, Svitlana, shared with her partner.

The overheated little house smelled of woodsmoke and fish and sweat and desperation. Lera was on the veranda, swaying, pressing her forehead against the cool windowpane and swearing a blue streak. “That’s right,” Natasha told her. She felt like cursing herself, at the whole awful situation. “Curse, swear, breathe. Just keep breathing.”

The house shook from the shelling outside. Lera had clung to the hope that she would give birth in a hospital, not at home. Now she asked whatever higher power was listening to please let it happen here in the house. She didn’t want to deliver her baby while hiding in the cold, dark root cellar.

There was no electricity in the house. Natasha asked if Svitlana had any supplies. “There was absolutely nothing!” Natasha recalled later. “No diapers, no disinfectant, no iodine—nothing.” A neighbor offered to tear up a clean sheet to wrap the baby in. Natasha told her to bring whatever she could find. She brought a bottle of vodka. Even as she recalled the scene to me months later, Natasha’s laugh was tinged with hysteria. “On one hand, it’s funny. On the other hand, it’s terrifying. The grad rockets are flying overhead, the house is just wood and clay, and everything is shaking. And there I am with Lera.”

Her greatest fear wasn’t even the rockets but complications from the birth. What if Lera hemorrhaged? Or the baby was breech? She wasn’t trained for this. She had no experience. She could have the death of a child on her hands, or of a mother who was little more than a child herself.

The hours wore on. Maksym waited in the kitchen or on the bench outside, smoking cigarette after cigarette, ignoring the bone-shaking roar of artillery; all he could hear were his girlfriend’s screams.

Almost 24 hours after Lera’s labor started, the baby was born. It was a boy, and the thick, dark umbilical cord was twisted several times around his neck. Natasha unwound it quickly. She cleared mucus from his mouth and nostrils, and slapped the tiny, crumpled bottom. At last he breathed and cried.

She weighed the child using a spring scale, used for tomatoes and cabbages at the market. She had to guess his height. She wrote in a notebook: “I, Natalia Dikhman, attended the birth of a child born to Valeria Mykolaivna Perepelytsia. Male, 2.300 kg, 37 cm. 3.40 pm, 1.10.22.”

On Natasha’s way home, still shaken, a woman stopped her to ask: “Is the baby born yet?” After Maksym’s desperate attempts to get help, the whole village knew about the drama. Natasha had no great expectations of herself. She had been brought up to think that in a war, the heroes are the soldiers at the front. But now it sank in that without training, without equipment, while the war rained death around them, she had helped to bring a new life into the world. Perhaps, in her own little way, she was a hero herself.

She looked in on the new family twice after that. Baby David was tiny, of course—he was almost a month premature. The second time, Lera thought he was developing jaundice. But Natasha could do nothing for him.

After ten days, Lera weighed the baby. He had put on just 200 grams, less than half a pound. She was feeding him with her own milk—thank goodness it had come through, because they had no baby formula—and she felt weak and tired all the time. But that was surely from stress.

She weighed David again two weeks later. The scales showed exactly the same as last time: 2.5 kilograms, roughly 5.5 pounds. He was such a quiet little thing, rarely crying, his eyes dark and colorless under almost transparent lids. He fed frequently, but for short periods, and he barely filled the cloth diapers she put on him. Lera’s step-aunt told her that she looked very pale; perhaps she had anemia. Eat buckwheat, the aunt advised. But no one in the village had buckwheat.

The couple grew increasingly desperate. It wasn’t just that mother and child were ailing. It wasn’t just the artillery fire; it was possible to get used to the rockets and mortars that could kill them. There was another constant fear now—that Maksym would be detained or called up to fight. On September 26 he had turned 18, old enough to go to war for the wrong side.

Before Ukraine’s counteroffensive, the few enemy soldiers they saw in Velykyi Vyselok had left the villagers alone. Now those soldiers were jumpy and paranoid about partisans and spotters who might call in a strike from Ukrainian forces, which were less than seven miles away. The soldiers moved tanks into the village, so that the residents became human shields. At first these men were Russian contract soldiers, or Ukrainians from occupied Donetsk or Luhansk who’d been mobilized. They could be brutal or sympathetic; they might shoot a civilian out of a tree or weep and tell him they hated the war and wanted to go home. But soon, in a pattern repeated everywhere in occupied territory, these rank-and-file soldiers were supplemented by Russian military police and FSB.

Up to ten FSB officers came to Velykyi Vyselok. They looked entirely different, even from a distance. Their uniforms were smart, and they carried new, high-precision rifles. Their job was to cleanse the population of potential dissenters and troublemakers.

Lera was sure that some people in the village were reporting to the FSB about Maksym. She had learned to guard her words long ago, when Russian-backed fighters had taken over her hometown in Luhansk region. But her boyfriend hadn’t been as cautious. Most of Velykyi Vyselok knew that he had a Ukrainian flag at home and a cousin serving in the army with whom he’d exchanged messages.

As Maksym watched Lera grow paler, their baby more listless by the day, he swallowed his fear and pride and went to the soldiers in the kindergarten, pleading with them to transport his family to Ukrainian-held territory. The front line was the railway that ran roughly parallel to the east bank of the Oskil, near a village called Tavilzhanka. All they had to do was reach the railway.

The soldiers refused. Even if Maksym made it to the other side, they said, the nationalists and natsiky would shoot him as a saboteur; why should they risk their lives for that? They made what might have been jokes or might have been threats: When are you going to volunteer to fight, Max?

In late September, the FSB detained one of Lera’s neighbors. They took him to a bombed-out airfield nearby and shot at him until he confessed to fighting in the Ukrainian army. On October 25, as Maksym was leaving work at midday, a villager named Kolya called him over. The man told him quietly that the FSB were looking for him. “You’ve got one, maybe two days,” Kolya said.

Maksym sat down, head in hands, for about ten minutes. Trying to think. To decide. Then he hurried home and told Lera they were leaving. They would walk to the railway, six miles west. If they left right now, they could reach Ukrainian-held territory before nightfall, and they would be safe.

Lera ran quickly to her mother’s house to say goodbye. Svitlana wasn’t there. Lera hugged her sister and kissed her brother. She was leaving 13-year-old Alyona in charge, the sister she was so close to that people said they were like two drops of water. She had carried little Artem on her hip and changed his diapers; his first word wasn’t “mommy” but “Lera.” Now she had her own baby to look after. She tore herself away and ran from the house in tears because her mother wasn’t there to say goodbye.

They took only the stroller and a few clothes for David in a little case, along with their passports, the notebook where Natasha had recorded David’s birth, and Lera’s medical card from Kucher. For themselves they had only the clothes, light coats, and trainers they were wearing.

Two teenagers with a baby stroller. Russian soldiers driving past on the exposed, shell-cratered road stopped and offered them a lift. Maksym thought he’d be arrested every time they passed. It was soon clear that they’d never make it before nightfall, so they accepted a ride to the next village. When the soldiers left, Maksym smashed his phone, with its incriminating messages and photos.

Tavilzhanka was a long, sprawling settlement along the road that led to the river and Dvorichna on the other side. It was quiet as they resumed walking, the only sounds those of a rural autumn day: crows cawing, the wind rustling crisp leaves. As they neared the front line, many of the houses were just piles of rubble, blackened roof beams, a sickly smell of damp plaster and burning. The ground had been broken and dug up, either deliberately, to hinder the advancing Ukrainians, or by missile attacks. The train station was in ruins. The Ukrainians were just a few hundred yards away, on the other side of the railway.

There was a burst of gunfire. “Take David in your arms,” Lera told Maksym. “If something happens, get down on the ground with him.” Maksym was bigger and could offer more protection. More gunfire. Then mortars. The Ukrainians were shooting back. A mortar landed so close, there was no warning whistle. They were showered with earth. Deafened. They had only a couple hundred feet to go, but they couldn’t make it through the barrage. They had to turn back.

The soldiers in Tavilzhanka were Ukrainians from occupied Luhansk and Donetsk. Before the Russian army recruited its own prisoners for the same expendable purpose, it usually put these men in the most dangerous forward positions. The soldiers offered to take the family to Russia. They told Maksym that he and Lera wouldn’t make it through the fighting, that they should wait a week or two if they wanted to get to Dvorichna—by then the Russians would have taken it back from the Ukrainians.

That night the family stayed with a colleague of Maksym’s from the farm. Maksym was determined to try again the next day. The morning dawned cold and raining. Drones flew overhead, scouting for a strike, their characteristic whir sending soldiers diving for cover. Then machine gun and mortar fire. Heavy rain turned the blasted ground to thick mud.

David was so fragile; he had no warm clothes or blankets. Maksym’s colleague told them to stop being stupid, to go with the soldiers offering to take them to Russia, where David could get the medical help he needed. By then, Lera was exhausted. Her head ached. Over the past two days, David barely stirred; he was too weak to even cry. The soldiers from Luhansk were at least familiar. In another life, one the war hadn’t wrecked, they were miners and mechanics like her uncle and father. She and Maksym gave in.

A pair of soldiers sped them to another village, where they transferred to an Ural army truck. Countless civilians were crowded in the back, dirty and disheveled. The truck lurched over muddy, bumpy fields, avoiding the roads. Tears ran down Lera’s face; she was too tired to wipe them away. I’ll come back, she silently promised someone or something, maybe the poor battered earth under the heavy wheels. Please wait for me, I’ll come back soon.

The truck crossed at a bombed-out checkpoint staffed with Russian soldiers. As they passed through, Lera realized that she’d lost her phone. They were in Russia, and they were truly alone.


After that terrible call on October 27, Lida finally pulled herself together. Back in her hospital bed in Kharkiv, her own eight-month baby wriggling and kicking inside her, she called siblings, neighbors, friends, volunteers, soldiers—anyone who might help find her son and his new family. She forced the image of their dead bodies out of her mind. She told herself: Wherever they are in the world, a mother will find her children.

There was no green corridor to Ukraine-controlled territory from Velykyi Vyselok. The only place they could go was Russia. And Lida knew someone there who might help: Liuda. She and her family, including their baby daughter, Darya, had fled to the Russian city of Belgorod during the battle to liberate Kupiansk. Soon Lida got a call from someone in Tavilzhanka saying that Maksym and Lera had gone to the same city. Though the relationship was more strained than ever, blood was blood. Lida asked Liuda to search the refugee camps and hospitals for her son and grandson.

During the fierce fighting of Ukraine’s Kharkiv counteroffensive, thousands of civilians fled or were transported by Russian forces over the border, forcing the Russians in Belgorod to confront the war next door. But any deviation from the official narrative about the special military operation was ruthlessly stifled. Russian state-controlled media—and there was no longer any other kind—told them that the Ukrainians arriving in their city were Russian-speaking victims of the Nazi government in Kyiv, to be rescued and absorbed into Russian history and culture. Of course, Russian prisons were also full of Ukrainian civilians who had been searched, questioned, and detained at checkpoints or border crossings—a process called filtration—and said to be terrorists or Nazis themselves.

In principle, the Russian government offered help to those it did not detain. It housed them in summer camps, at sports facilities, and in tent encampments. It provided transport to more permanent arrangements in far-flung provinces. Russian volunteers who supported the invasion provided food, clothing, medical supplies—the same items they’d donated to the Russian army.

That assistance was a staple of Russian propaganda TV. It showed grateful Ukrainians on mattresses in sports arenas or hostel rooms, thanking Russia for saving them. Russia also facilitated the adoption of Ukrainian minors into Russian families. Maria Lvova-Belova, the presidential commissioner for children’s rights, adopted a teenager from Mariupol and was a frequent presence on TV, hugging and kissing Ukrainian youth, applauding as they were issued Russian passports. She told the cameras that some of these children insisted on speaking Ukrainian or singing the Ukrainian national anthem, but they soon learned to love Russia.

Liuda was staying with her children in a flat in Belgorod while her husband looked for a permanent place for them to settle. She called one hospital looking for Maksym, Lera, and David. Nothing. She called a second and was told that a month-old baby with a very young mother had been admitted. David had been found.

When she visited the hospital, David was in a dimly lit ward. The staff wouldn’t let her inside. She took a photograph on her phone, through the blinds covering the glass. She sent it to Lida, who was lying in a hospital just over the border. But Lera wasn’t with her child. The staff told Liuda that the mother wanted to abandon the baby.

The worst thing, they soon realized, was that they couldn’t get their child back.

In fact, when Maksym and Lera arrived in Belgorod, just before midnight on October 26, Lera had asked to be taken immediately to a hospital, because she was afraid that David might be dying. She was taken to a facility several miles outside the city. Once they were there, medical staff whisked David away. He was so malnourished that he was transferred to a pediatric hospital back in Belgorod, where they intended to keep him until his weight stabilized. But Lera couldn’t go with him—she was too weak, and COVID-19 protocols prevented parents from accompanying their children anyway.

The doctor wanted to admit Lera too—he said that she had anemia. But her treatment would be administered at the hospital outside town, far from David. Afraid to be so far from her child, Lera refused.

While David was in the hospital, Lera and Maksym stayed in a refugee camp several miles from Belgorod. Neat rows of white-and-blue tents stood on an expanse of tarmac. Inside, 12 or more people had been assigned beds. The place was clean and orderly enough, but the tent walls flapped in the autumn wind, the heaters did little to push back the cold, and there was no privacy, no place to speak freely about what came next, about returning home to Ukraine.

The camp was full of refugees from Kupiansk, Dvorichna, and even Ridkodub. But for Maksym and Lera, there was little comfort in finding themselves among neighbors. Instead, they were confounded that so many Ukrainians seemed to believe that Russia really had saved them, although they weren’t always clear about what from. The refugees repeated rumors Maksym heard in Velykyi Vyselok—that Ukrainian forces had executed all the teachers in the district, or that there were in fact no Ukrainian soldiers to speak of, that they were all foreign mercenaries and NATO forces.

When Maksym challenged these accounts, he was told that he’d been brainwashed, or that he was a natsik himself. In the end, any argument was reduced to a single axiom: Because they’d come to Russia voluntarily, Ukraine would always consider them traitors, so they couldn’t go back. Perhaps the refugees repeated the Russian line to protect themselves from the horror of filtration. But in Maksym’s eyes, they were traitors indeed.

There was constant pressure to speak Russian and to remain in the country. In Russia they would be given an apartment, they would receive benefits, everything would be free. While Maksym and Lera were at the camp, four buses left, taking large groups of Ukrainians to distant Russian cities. Each time, the couple were urged to leave, too. You can’t stay in this camp forever, they were told, and you can’t go back to Ukraine, where there is only shooting and shelling, extremism and fascism. And why would you go to Europe? No one wants you there; no one speaks your language. Stay in Russia.

Yet it was obvious that Russia’s so-called welcome of Ukrainians fell short. The food in the camp was awful, a soup made with random ingredients: macaroni, cabbage, crab sticks, pickled cucumbers. It was hard to obtain a mobile number, book a train ticket or a hotel room, or even buy cigarettes. Everything required an ID, and most people only had Ukrainian documents.

But the worst thing, they soon realized, was that they couldn’t get their child back.

When Lera returned to the doctor, he gave her tea and chocolate. He said he understood that she didn’t want to be separated from Maksym and David, but she was perilously weak. If she didn’t agree to treatment for anemia, the pediatric hospital staff would never let her even hold her baby, because she might faint and drop him. He promised that she could join David once she’d had treatment.

Lera consented to a blood transfusion. Her hemoglobin levels were dangerously low, and the transfusion may have saved her life. It came from the local blood bank. From now on, Lida—if they ever made it home again to merry, irreverent Lida—would be able to tease her: Lera is our little Rashistka.

After two days, despite the doctor’s promise, Lera still wasn’t transferred to the hospital where David was being treated. So she checked herself out and went to retrieve him. First, the doctors said they couldn’t give David to her because he was still recovering. Then they said they couldn’t return him without documents proving that he was her child. It was only when doctors wanted to x-ray David’s eye that they allowed Lera to briefly see her son.

When they’d first arrived in Russia, David was less than a month old, and Maksym and Lera only recently turned 18. Russia’s abduction of Ukrainian children was not yet headline news: The International Criminal Court wouldn’t issue a warrant for Putin and Lvova-Belova for the crime of illegally transferring children from Ukraine to Russia until March 2023.

Maksym and Lera had made a courageous, desperate effort to stay in Ukraine, but they had been forced to go to Russia instead. Now everything around them conspired to keep them there—and away from their child. Lera had the medical card from Kucher at the hospital in Dvorichna, which confirmed that she had been pregnant up to August. The only other document they had connected with David was the notebook page on which Natasha Dikhman had recorded his birth.

Armed with this evidence, they did the only thing they could: They went to the Belgorod registry office and applied for a Russian birth certificate. They left with a greenish slip of paper, emblazoned with the two-headed eagle of the Russian state, declaring that David Maksimovich Kuznechenko had been born on October 1, 2022, in Velykyi Vyselok, Kupiansk district, Kharkiv, Ukraine. The surname was spelled wrong, with an e instead of an i following the first n, but they didn’t care. What mattered was that it said he was born in Ukraine. The registrar had offered to add a stamp confirming that the baby was a Russian citizen. Lera and Maksym declined.

Document in hand, Lera could finally collect David from the hospital. He had grown at last, and was stronger, with a soft feathering of hair. His eyes focused on Lera, although one of them—the one x-rayed by doctors—seemed darker than the other.

They were reunited at last, and now they wanted to go home. While the young couple trekked between hospitals and the tent camp, Maksym’s mother had contacted them with good news: She had found a volunteer who promised to help them return to Ukraine. Lida’s cousin Vladyslav, whose wife had given birth just two days after Liuda in Kupiansk, had also fled to Russia in September. From there the family traveled to Poland. Vladyslav gave Lida contact information for a woman who helped them. He said she was part of an underground network of Russian volunteers who supported Ukraine.

Though Maksym was wary when he first met her outside the tent camp in Belgorod, the volunteer quickly proved her worth. When Lera and Maksym left the hospital with David, she booked them a hotel room; the family paid for it with money Lera’s uncle in Luhansk had wired. Lera sent Lida a picture of the three of them cuddling together for the first time in over three weeks. At last they were together, they had some privacy, and someone was helping them.

The volunteers did all the things the Russian state did not. They bought bus and rail tickets to destinations chosen by the refugees, and shuttled them to stations and borders. They booked hotel rooms, or placed Ukrainians in the houses of sympathetic families. They bought phones and SIM cards, and contacted anxious relatives left behind in Ukraine.

Most of these volunteers opposed the war and saw helping Ukrainian refugees as their moral duty—and the only way to express their opposition. They were constantly concerned about security, both their own and that of their work. Those who would talk to me at all described a huge international relief operation working entirely underground—an army of ants, as it was described. One person would pick up refugees, provide for their immediate needs, and pass them on to the next person, like links in a chain. “I try not to know anything more than is necessary,” a volunteer told me. “After the war, maybe then we’ll get to talk about what we did.”

On November 20, Lera and Maksym began their long trip home, handed from volunteer to volunteer, trusting in strangers’ goodwill with every step. First they went to Voronezh, in southwestern Russia, where they spent two days. There they met other Ukrainians, not just from their corner of Kharkiv region but from all over. They were bewildered and angry, or apathetic and secretive, heading for Europe. Here, finally, not everyone said they’d been saved by Russia.

Next came a 20-hour bus ride to the border with Belarus, Russia’s partner in the war. They waited hours there, while phones and documents were checked and bags searched. Then they were in Minsk, and after that Brest. Another night in a strange bed, sheltered by people whose names they barely knew. At 9 a.m. on November 24 the last transfer came—yet another volunteer, in a car. By now the other refugees had peeled away, bound for Europe. The roads were almost empty. They shared the ride with just one elderly Ukrainian couple.

The car dropped them off at Mokrany-Domanove, the only checkpoint still open between Ukraine and Belarus. The Belarusian border guards didn’t want to let them through. They pointed out that Maksym’s Ukrainian ID had expired, that David had a Russian birth certificate. They asked what they thought about the war and pored over their phones. “What’s this yellow and blue?” they asked Maksym suspiciously. It was a Ukrainian banking app; Maksym told them he had installed it to access his student stipend.

The guards made a final attempt to detain them. To Lera they said, “Don’t you know that if you cross that border, your boyfriend will be handed his army boots right away?” They towered over her slight five-foot frame.

“Then this baby will have a soldier for a father,” she said.

Finally, about midday, after nine months of living under Russian control, they were allowed through. They had several bags, filled with baby clothes and diapers from the volunteers, and winter clothes for themselves. Maksym didn’t even notice their weight. He flew across the no-man’s-land to the Ukrainian checkpoint. It was if an unbearable burden had fallen from his shoulders.

Returning Ukrainian refugees, or those freed from occupation, often speak about the relief of familiar words, foods, road signs. The yellow-and-blue flag, signs of safety and civilization. Coca-Cola they can afford, no rubles required. A change in the air itself: freedom to breathe. But this wasn’t the end of Maksym and Lera’s journey. They still had to cross most of Ukraine, from west to east.

First they needed to speak with Ukrainian security services—Ukraine performs filtration, too. (They advised Lera to use David’s Russian birth certificate for toilet paper.) Assisted by Ukrainian volunteers this time, they boarded a bus for Kovel. Then there was a 20-hour bus ride through Kyiv en route to Kharkiv. David slept for most of the journey, until the last leg, when he started to howl. Soon he would meet Lida for the first time, though not his other grandmother; Svitlana was still in occupied territory. But in the crowded Kyiv bus station, Lera’s father, Mykola, was waiting.

Mykola and Svitlana had split up when the family still lived in Luhansk. Lera and her father often talked, but they hadn’t seen each other in years, since before she escaped the shelling in 2014. Now, at the end of this journey, fleeing that same small fire that had grown into a conflagration, they met again. It was just a brief rest stop at a bus station, just long enough for Mykola to kiss his grandson, shake Maksym’s hand, and slip some money into his daughter’s pocket after hugging her tightly. They both cried. 

There was so much death and grief in Ukraine now. But to balance it, here were two babies, alive, together.

Lida waited for well over an hour at the bus station in Kharkiv. The bus, delayed by snowy roads, finally arrived around 9 p.m. She saw Lera first, wearing a bright red coat and hat. Then Maksym. Then baby David, a well-wrapped bundle in Lera’s arms.

She had rehearsed this moment, worried that she would embarrass herself by collapsing into tears. Instead, trembling with excitement, she found herself shouting, “Slava Ukraini!”

Her voice rang through the cold, poorly lit bus terminal, full of weary or anxious travelers, all with their own war stories. Some people smiled, some laughed. Many replied: “Heroyam slava!”

Lida’s baby was born in Kharkiv on November 28, a rosy, healthy girl with a fluff of fair hair. Lida called her Vitalina, after her father, Vitaly, and because the name means “alive.”

One of Lida’s cousins had been missing in Mariupol for nine months now. Her beloved twin was in Russia, with the niece she’d never seen. Lera’s mother and siblings were still trapped by the occupation. There was so much death and grief in Ukraine now. But to balance it, here were two babies, alive, together.

Four days later, Lida returned to Ridkodub. There was no water, no electricity, no gas. The roads, broken by shelling and tanks, were lethal with black ice. A week after she arrived, a shell landed just down the road, destroying the kindergarten. But Maksym and Lera and David had made it back. They’d traced a loop of nearly 2,000 miles to return to the place they’d started. Together, they were home.


Returning to Ridkodub was not quite the happy ending everyone wanted. It was difficult for Lera to continue her studies with no electricity or transportation; she had to take her midterm exams using the army’s Starlink terminal. And the village was no place for a baby who needed medical care. David’s right eye had a cataract, and he required surgery.

Lera and Maksym left with Yevhen Sanin, a volunteer from Kharkiv who’d taken me to meet the family at the end of 2022. He drove them back to Kharkiv on January 4, along the same route we’d traveled, at top speed to avoid the missiles still battering the ruins of Dvorichna and Kupiansk.

They moved into a hostel for displaced people and waited for the surgery. But without papers David couldn’t be admitted, and they couldn’t register for state support either. So, at the end of January, Lera, Maksym, and David met a lawyer at the Zhovtnevyi district court in Kharkiv. In some ways, this was the last stage of David’s journey. His parents had brought him this far to ensure he would grow up in Ukraine. Now they had to make him Ukrainian by law.

Births in occupied territories can be registered in Ukraine only after a court hearing. Ironically, it had been easier getting a Russian birth certificate than to make David a Ukrainian citizen. Lera still only had Kucher’s medical card and the handwritten notebook page. Their lawyer told them not to mention the Russian birth certificate. Ukraine had broken off all diplomatic relations with its neighbor, and after almost a year of bloody invasion, with at least 7,000 civilians and tens of thousands of soldiers dead, that document could only count against them.

They considered asking Kucher, who had acted as a witness for several other of his patients in similar predicaments. But then they learned that Natasha Dikhman, who had helped Lera during the birth, was now in Kharkiv.

After Maksym and Lera had left at the end of October, life in Velykyi Vyselok became unendurable. The shelling was intense. Russian soldiers went from house to house, looting or demanding alcohol, when they weren’t firing at Ukrainian forces on the west bank of the Oskil. Natasha and Vitaly Dikhman managed to evacuate their youngest son in November. At the end of December they too left, driving over the frozen fields in their battered car, the windows smashed by a shell that had landed on their garage. They exited through Russia and returned to Ukraine though a rarely open checkpoint between the warring countries, arriving in Kharkiv on December 25. There were ruined buildings everywhere, but compared with Velykyi Vyselok it was peaceful.

Natasha had heard that the young family made it back to Ukraine. In January, Lera called asking for help one more time. That’s how humble, unassuming Natasha, who never wanted anything but a quiet life, found herself recounting the whole awful story in a courtroom. She held David while Lera and Maksym spoke to the judge. The baby was still tiny, but his grip on her finger was strong. He looked just like Maksym. The hearing took about an hour. The next day, his parents received a Ukrainian birth certificate for David Maksymovych Kuznichenko.

Home, even a home right on the front line, was familiar, a place of love, somewhere he could be in charge of his own life again.

After the court hearing, the couple stayed in Kharkiv. Maksym got a job at a supermarket. He earned just enough to rent a flat on the top floor of an apartment building; it was discounted because anyone living there would be at greater risk from ongoing, if less frequent, air raids.

Lera’s mother, Svitlana, called occasionally from Velykyi Vyselok, but she said less with each call—just a brief “we’re alright.” In the spring, Mykola, Lera’s father, enlisted in the Ukrainian army.

At the end of January, Lida moved with Vitalina and Uliana away from Ridkodub, to live near her older sister in a village a little farther from the front line. Her parents stayed behind with Dmytro. Liuda remained in Russia with Darya, the third of a trio of wartime babies. The twins spoke only when Liuda’s husband wasn’t around.

Sometimes their older sister told Lida to stop weeping for her twin. “You don’t understand,” Lida would say. “You’re both my family, but Liuda and I are one. We’re two, but we’re one. If she is in pain, I am in pain. If I hurt, she hurts.” The war couldn’t sever that connection. “It’s very hard without her,” Lida told me.

I met Maksym again in Kharkiv in May, at the funeral of Yevhen Sanin. He was killed by shelling in Dvorichna while attempting to evacuate another family to safety. The cemetery, where hundreds of Ukrainian flags fluttered above military graves less than 14 months old, was already familiar to Maksym. In January, he had attended the burial of Oleksandr, Lida’s cousin, killed while fighting near Lyman in Donetsk region.

All this time, Maksym had been mulling over a decision. When I first met him, after he’d returned to Ridkodub in December, I asked why they hadn’t gone to Europe when they had the chance. There, David would be safe. Why go to such extraordinarily difficult lengths to return to Ukraine, with all its uncertainty and danger?

Because, they said simply, it was home. Patriotism is a difficult, discredited word for many Europeans. For Ukrainians it has become a way of life—a deep, fundamental expression of survival, like the words Slava Ukraini. Maksym had spent months in occupied Ukrainian territory, a scared boy, a teenage father at the mercy of Russian soldiers who threatened to make him fight for an invading force. He’d been powerless to protect anyone. Home, even a home right on the front line, was familiar, a place of love, somewhere he could be in charge of his own life again.

Lera graduated from college in July and celebrated her 19th birthday. She had filled out, and there was color in her cheeks and on her newly manicured nails. Max had a tattoo of the Ukrainian state symbol, the tryzub or trident. He had grown, too. He was impatient with his job and with the young people—kids his own age—who came into the supermarket or hung out in cafés and bars to enjoy themselves, forgetting about the war. His male colleagues were worried about being drafted to fight in Ukraine’s slow, bloody second counteroffensive.

On August 9, Ukraine announced obligatory evacuation of all settlements in the Kupiansk district, including Ridkodub. The armed forces didn’t want civilians caught up in the push to take back the remaining territory—that was how Maksym explained the evacuation to me.

In late September, Lida turned 38, and Maksym 19. On October 1, David would be one year old. “After that I’m going to swear my oath,” Maksym told me the last time we met, on a hot, late-summer day in their rented flat overlooking Kharkiv’s botanical gardens and the student hostels that housed hundreds of displaced people from Kupiansk, Ridkodub, and Dvorichna. “I’m going to sign up for the army myself, so that it’s my choice, not someone else’s.” He was going to protect his family, even if that meant he had to leave them.

David was holding on to his father’s knees, gazing up into his face. Maksym tossed him into the air to make him smile, then gave him his phone to hold. “Go on, take it to mommy,” he said. The little naked child clutched the huge phone and toddled unsteadily to Lera. He had just learned to walk.

In memory of Yevhen Sanin, 1976–2023.

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Held Together

Held Together

A filmmaker was producing a documentary series on the Iran hostage crisis. Then her father went missing overseas.

The Atavist Magazine, No. 141

Lucy Sexton is a documentary filmmaker and journalist. She was a producer on Hostages (HBO), Five Rounds to Freedom (Showtime), and Dirty Money (Netflix). Her writing has appeared in The New York Times, Vice, and other publications.

Joe Sexton spent 25 years as a reporter and senior editor at The New York Times, and eight years as a reporter and senior editor at ProPublica, the nonprofit investigative news organization. In May 2023, he published his first book, The Lost Sons of Omaha: Two Young Men in an American Tragedy.

Editor: Seyward Darby
Art Director: Ed Johnson
Copy Editor: Sean Cooper
Fact Checker: Alison Van Houten
Illustrator: Matt Rota

Published in July 2023.


I am the daughter of a newspaperman.

Throughout my life, I’ve used a version of this sentence to talk about myself: in college application essays and internship cover letters, on first dates, and now in this story. At 32 years of age, my pride in stating what is a core fact of my existence hasn’t diminished.

My dad, Joe Sexton, began his career as a sportswriter at the City Sun in Brooklyn, New York. One of his earliest stories was about the Rikers Island Olympics. He later covered a young Mike Tyson; he sat ringside, and had the blood on his clothes to prove it. When he made it to the sports desk at The New York Times, he spent years terrorizing the Mets and their ownership for crimes of mediocrity and incompetence.

Then, at 34, Joe was suddenly a single father of two daughters. I was just shy of three at the time. If memory can be trusted, I have a few vivid images—random snapshots captured through my toddler’s eyes—of the good and the bad: my tiny cowboy boots against shimmering asphalt; a stash of candies in a porcelain pitcher; being in a dark, frightening hotel room. When it became clear that my mother had demons she would need to wrestle with alone, Joe gained custody of me and my sister.

Here’s another memory: a late-night bottle of milk Joe gave me while friends, presumably fellow reporters, were visiting our house. Joe was simultaneously holding his family together and building a high-profile media career. Work meant that he was on the clock 24/7, and the Times became a second home for our family, a place where we were surrounded by people rooting for the three of us. When Joe jumped from the sports desk to the metro section, the newsroom served as a backup babysitter. When a story demanded that Joe’s feet hit the pavement, two little girls weren’t the worst accessories in pursuit of a quote.

Joe helped the Times garner a fistful of Pulitzer Prizes and covered everything from 9/11 (he dropped me off at school in Brooklyn that morning, and I didn’t see him for days afterward), to the sex-abuse scandal at Penn State, to the ousting of two New York governors. Eight years and more stories and prizes followed at ProPublica, the nonprofit news organization.

Early on, our lives could feel unstable—we moved more times than I can count, and my mom cycled in and out of our orbit—but Joe was always solid, secure. Despite the brutal work hours, he made sure to cover beats that kept him close to home. Weeks after turning 17, I began a decade of doing the opposite: I adventured across the globe, first to Argentina and Ghana, then to Thailand, Cambodia, Vietnam, and South Korea, on to France, and back to East Asia. I volunteered, produced documentaries, did investigative research, worked at Vietnam’s national English daily, fell in love, opened a restaurant, got a master’s in international security, and flirted with intelligence work and law school before settling back into documentary filmmaking.

Why the constant need to uproot myself? I’m sure a therapist could find some link to childhood trauma. I was too busy to question it; I was living as freely and fearlessly as possible. Joe, with his daily news grind in New York, was the only anchor I needed.

In May 2021, Joe upended this comforting metaphor when he told me that he’d be going to Libya to report a story. It sounded like a good one. But heading to a country racked by violence and without a U.S. embassy didn’t seem like something the careful and even anxious dad I knew would do. Joe and my stepmom had twin girls who were not yet in middle school. Beginning foreign correspondent work at the age of 61, on a dangerous story no less, was an interesting life choice.

Still, I put my travel and reporting experience to work helping him prepare. Jailbreak his cell phone so a foreign SIM card would work? I could do that. Secure a rapid PCR COVID test for travel? I could do that, too: For the previous six months, I’d been navigating strict protocols while filming an HBO series about the 1979 Iran hostage crisis, when the U.S. embassy and staff in Tehran were held captive for 444 days.

The one thing I couldn’t help Joe with was taking his health more seriously. Just before his trip, he revealed that doctors had found a macular hole in one of his retinas. Left untreated, it could compromise his vision, which was already so bad he was legally blind without his glasses. He didn’t address the defect before going to Libya, nor did he plan to deal with it upon his return. Joe had always been cavalier about taking care of himself—his diet, sleep, and mental health all suffered. Perhaps this stemmed from his Irish Catholic upbringing, which glorified hard work, sacrifice, and personal neglect. Perhaps it came from his lifelong tendency to see himself as invincible when he was on a mission for work or for his family, which he almost always was.

I had seen Joe that way, too—until now. For the first time in my life, I found myself worrying about a future in which I would have to take care of him.

On a spring day, Joe and I sat on the porch of our house in Brooklyn, ignoring my concerns and discussing our respective reporting projects instead. I googled directions to a shop on Coney Island Avenue that sold burner phones in case my neophyte dad needed them on his journey. A few days later, Joe was on a plane to Libya and I was on my way to Washington, D.C., for the HBO project.

For me, the project was a moment of reckoning. I was nearly 62; there weren’t going to be many more shots at foreign correspondence. Did I have the stones for it?


Mitiga International Airport in Tripoli looked like something out of a Mad Max movie. The runways were pockmarked, the hangars appeared abandoned, and the ghostly shell of a scorched, half-collapsed airliner sat in one corner of the tarmac. I all but expected Lord Humungus to poke his masked head out of one of the plane’s blasted windows. The scene was no surprise: The airport had witnessed successive sieges during the years of civil war that followed the violent toppling of Libya’s longtime strongman, Muammar Qaddafi. The real shock was how exactly I’d found myself landing there on a hellishly hot afternoon in May 2021.

Some backstory might help. I spent 25 years as a reporter and editor at The New York Times, and ten years into that run, I was asked whether I might like to be a foreign correspondent in Africa. At the time, I’d also wound up a single dad of two young girls. Just seeing that the dishes got done, the socks were properly matched, and the hastily made bologna sandwiches made it into their lunch boxes felt like heroic accomplishments. My life’s ambitions, rather jarringly, had shrunk to this: Get the girls to 18 years old unharmed. So the idea of living in an armed compound in Nairobi while responsible for covering nearly a dozen often troubled East African countries seemed an imprudent reach. I demurred.

Truth be told, I wasn’t sure I had the guts for it anyway. I was not a particularly brave person. Was I also a coward of sorts? This was a chastening worry that would stay with me over the decades after I turned down the chance to go to Nairobi. Then, in 2021, shortly after going freelance, I fell in with Ian Urbina, an old colleague from the Times who’d started the Outlaw Ocean Project, a nonprofit committed to some of the most daring reporting on the planet. Piracy on the high seas; slavery on fishing ships; the secretive, illegal dumping of oil into the ocean—Ian was covering all that and more. He was looking for an extra hand and said that I could start by joining him on a reporting trip to Libya. I agreed to go.

Libya struck me as a place of mystery and menace. Seventh-century Phoenicians had laid claim to the territory, and the Greeks and the Romans followed suit. The Spanish and the Ottomans came after that, and then, in the early 20th century, Italy planted its flag. Following the second World War, Libya won its independence, and for close to 20 years it was a U.S. ally, a country of petroleum riches and strategic geopolitical significance. American oil companies flocked there, and Washington leased a major military base. Then, in 1969, Qaddafi staged a coup. The ardent Arab nationalist installed himself as both chief of the armed forces and leader of Libya’s new governing body, the Revolutionary Command Council. Forty years of calculated cruelty and international misdeeds ensued. Under Qaddafi, Libya was seen by the U.S. government as an agent of terror and an enemy of Israel.

Qaddafi met his end during another revolution, the Arab Spring of 2011, and in the years that followed, Libya became a failed state. We would be going there to report on a darkly astonishing story taking place within the country’s borders: the brutal mistreatment of migrants trying to make their way from poverty and conflict to the safety and promise of Europe. The European Union was increasingly unwilling to accommodate these desperate people and their dreams, but it had effectively outsourced the dirty work of halting the flow. Libya, riven by rival militias and foreign mercenaries, was the EU’s most eager and immoral proxy, ramping up a veritable industry of abuse. Migrants on flimsy rafts were captured on the Mediterranean, transported to grim detention facilities inside Libya, and subjected to what the United Nations has since deemed crimes against humanity, including torture, rape, and murder.

A month before we set out for Libya, a 28-year-old migrant from West Africa was shot dead by guards inside one of the country’s most notorious migrant jails, a cluster of converted warehouses in Tripoli known as Al Mabani (the Buildings). We didn’t have the name of the migrant or know where his body had wound up. Still, we meant to tell his story. It may have been a Libyan gunman who shot the young man, but his blood was arguably on the EU’s hands.

There would be four of us working together, and though we would arrive in Libya with the help and blessing of the Red Crescent, an aid organization, our safety briefings made plain the risks we faced. We were given tracking devices in case we went missing. We were told to make photocopies of our passports and put them in the soles of our shoes. An action plan was created, to be set in motion by people back in the U.S. if we went silent for 24 hours.

For me, the project was a moment of reckoning. I was nearly 62; there weren’t going to be many more shots at foreign correspondence. Did I have the stones for it? My second child, Lucy, had shown herself capable of risky work. She’d even been a whistleblower in Ghana during a semester abroad, reporting fraud at the orphanage where she volunteered.

In the lead-up to the trip, I didn’t have trouble sleeping as I feared I might. I didn’t have panic attacks either, although they’d afflicted me at times throughout my life. If I was fooling myself, it was working. Soon I was on a plane to Amsterdam, then to Istanbul, and on to Tripoli. Out the window upon our descent, Tripoli—in its heyday an outpost of beauty and charm on the Mediterranean—had the look of a washed-up prizefighter: scarred and nicked, teeth knocked out, face sagging from a thousand beatings.

Red Crescent officials met us at the airport. There was an awkward wait as our bags were examined, but we were cleared to enter and soon were in a van with our security: three local men in T-shirts and sunglasses. Arrangements had been made for us to stay at the Corinthia Hotel, said to be Tripoli’s most luxurious accommodations. The place had a violent history. In 2013, the Libyan prime minister was kidnapped from the hotel. Two years later, ten people were shot dead when a militia stormed the place. Just a week before our arrival, the latest set of gunmen had turned up in a show of force, but no one was hurt.

We never made it to the Corinthia. Instead we were taken to the Royal Gardens, a nondescript four-story hotel on a side street near Tripoli’s central square. No explanation for the change was given. The Royal Gardens had the feel of some sort of front, as if the clerks and concierges were playing a role. It was hard not to be a little spooked.

I didn’t wear glasses, but Joe did. I couldn’t remember an occasion when I’d seen him without them, save for an occasional swim in the ocean.


As a story producer for the HBO series, I was responsible for historical and political research, and for developing compelling characters and storylines. The origins of the Iran hostage crisis date back to well before 1979 and are anything but settled. The dynamism and nuance of Iran’s history, culture, and people challenge even rigorous academics. And I, no academic, belong to a generation of Americans who have only known Iran as an isolated, theocratic, dictatorial country—a “pariah state” and sworn enemy of democracy.

It wasn’t always so. Cyrus the Great, who built a mighty Persian empire during his reign in the sixth century B.C., was known for his tolerance of religious and cultural diversity. A prominent statesman, Cyrus is credited with fostering ideas about human rights and centralized governance. Thomas Jefferson was an admirer and drew from Cyrus during the drafting of the Declaration of Independence. Fast-forward to the modern era, when Iran and the U.S. began to build a strong if complicated friendship. In the late 19th century, American missionaries founded hospitals and schools in Iran. When the Soviet Union refused to leave occupied lands in Iran’s Azerbaijan region after World War II, President Harry Truman brought international pressure to bear to encourage withdrawal. The countries’ relationship tightened again when Shah Mohamed Reza Pahlavi came to power in Tehran.

In 1953, the CIA helped coordinate a coup that quelled a pro-democracy challenge to the monarchical ambitions of the Shah, who would go on to establish increasingly authoritarian rule while proving an indispensable ally to a series of U.S. presidents. America relied on the Shah for oil, military contracts, and intelligence. In an effusive New Year’s Eve toast, President Jimmy Carter declared Iran an “island of stability” in the Middle East.

Just a year after Carter uttered those words, the Shah fled Iran as supporters of revolution rallied behind the Islamic clerics who’d been his harshest critics. Ten months later, on November 4, 1979, a group of students seized the U.S. embassy, an act meant as a rebuke of America’s friendship with the deposed Shah. According to the students, they intended to take embassy staffers hostage for a short time, but the situation lasted more than a year. In Tehran, the wave of nationalism and anti-American fervor that erupted around the crisis became a veil behind which repressive religious forces stepped into a political vacuum. The theocracy ushered in by cleric Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini continues to this day.

The team behind the HBO documentary hoped we could put the people at the center of this complex story back into the frame. Earning and protecting the trust of subjects is a great privilege of the work of a documentary storyteller, and on this project I came to know a rich and varied cast from around the globe: American hostages and their families; academics and analysts who covered the crisis; Iranians who either supported or opposed the revolution; journalists who met Khomeini during his brief time in France, before his triumphant return home, or who captured events in Tehran at great personal risk.

Learning these people’s stories often meant asking them to relive traumatic events. Parvaneh Limbert, wife of hostage John Limbert, described the horrible moment when she learned that her husband had been seized half a world away. During one of my visits to the Limberts’ home, Parvaneh showed me pictures of her life in limbo as she cared for two kids alone; there were photos of Christmas trees, family dinners, bedtime routines, and trips to Washington, D.C., all without John.

The documentary’s archival team amassed a library of footage, photos, and news clippings that brought me closer still to the agony of uncertainty. I watched the hostages’ families give heartbreaking press conferences. Some recounted nightly rituals of scanning the news for a glimpse of their loved ones in footage released from the embassy. Newscasters described how Michael Metrinko’s family went months without knowing if he was alive.

Former hostages told me about the anxieties and fears that came with being cut off from the world. The only certainty was disorientation. Several people recounted the horror of being blindfolded, led outside, and lined up as if before a firing squad. They heard their captors load guns and count down—in place of “zero” came the mocking click of an empty chamber. Despite the decades that had elapsed, the former hostages’ terror remained fresh in the telling.

A catalog of rarely if ever seen footage from inside the embassy also provided glimpses into the hostages’ experience. One clip in particular stuck with me. In it a hostage explains to a Red Cross doctor that his eyeglasses had been taken from him on the first day of the crisis and were never returned. It was painful to imagine what he experienced—the blurred vision, the headaches, the world circumscribed.

I didn’t wear glasses, but Joe did. I couldn’t remember an occasion when I’d seen him without them, save for an occasional swim in the ocean.


Becoming a single dad ended my sportswriting career; I couldn’t make a West Coast swing during baseball season while responsible for two young girls. So I moved to the Times’ metro desk and became a decent city reporter, doing a mix of hard news and feature stories. Over the years, my girls tagged along on some of my assignments, from the explosion of TWA Flight 800 off Long Island to a Hasidic mother in Brooklyn who was one of the most sought-after nitpickers during a plague of lice in local schools. When the Times asked me to help conduct in-house seminars on street reporting, I made a point of telling younger reporters that success is often determined before you get out the door. If you’re fatalistic about getting what you need, failure awaits. If you force yourself to believe that an improbable reporting coup could happen, often as not it does. Corny maybe, but also true, at least in my experience.

I followed my own advice with Libya, trying before I arrived to imagine what reporting there would be like. I foresaw secretive conversations with friends and relatives of jailed migrants in dusty streets outside detention facilities. Maybe there would be a way to talk to prisoners through barred windows. Notes might be exchanged.

I felt naive, then, when two members of our team returned to the Royal Gardens after venturing out to Al Mabani. Their driver had refused to even slow down while passing by the jail, so fearful was he of being stopped at gunpoint.

Needless to say, the landscape of the city was less than ideal for the kind of street reporting I knew. To merely venture out, by foot or by car, was to risk being confronted by the armed men stationed at a convoluted pattern of checkpoints throughout Tripoli. And then there was the matter of our security team. Though they had been assigned to us with the help of the Red Crescent, a little googling showed that the firm they worked for seemed to be run by a former Libyan military official accused of war crimes. Were they actually government minders monitoring our doings? Militia members themselves? Did it matter?

Libya, I was discovering a little late, was an inscrutable place.

In addition to me and Ian Urbina, our team included Dutch documentary filmmaker Mea Dols de Jong and Pierre Kattar, a video journalist who’d spent years at The Washington Post. Against the odds, we soon got some reporting breaks. A variety of aid organizations had done years of work documenting abuses and offering comfort to the tens of thousands of migrants swept up and detained inside Libya. One of those organizations was able to provide us with the names of the young migrant shot dead at Al Mabani and of a witness to the killing. The dead man was Aliou Candé, a farmer and father of three from Guinea-Bissau, captured by the Libyan Coast Guard as he tried to make his way to a new life in Italy. The witness was a man from Ivory Coast named Mohammad David; he had managed to escape Al Mabani in the tumult that followed Candé’s murder. We had a cell phone number for him.

On our first night in Tripoli, three of us made it to Gargaresh, an area that had become a migrant ghetto. Militias liked to make brutalizing sweeps of Gargaresh’s mix of hideouts and encampments. Along the neighborhood’s main drag, a blur of neon lights, furtive figures, internet cafés, and cheap food joints, we met Mohammad David. He spoke French, and Pierre, whose father once served as a translator for the U.S. embassy in Paris, could make out enough of what he said to extract a rough narrative of Candé’s killing.

There had been a fight inside one of Al Mabani’s crowded, fetid cells. Guards fired their automatic rifles indiscriminately. Candé was struck in the neck, and his blood streaked a wall as he dragged against it before falling down dead. Other detainees didn’t allow his body to be removed from the cell until they were granted their freedom, which was how Mohammad David made it to Gargaresh.

The incident was a stark reminder that Al Mabani, like many other jails in Libya, was run by one of the violent militias that had divided Tripoli into wary, sometimes warring fiefs. These forces extort the families of jailed migrants for ransom payments, steal aid money meant to help feed and clothe their captives, and sell men and women into forced servitude. Candé’s killing, for a rare, brief moment, gave some of his fellow prisoners leverage over their captors.

In the days that followed our conversation with David, other unlikely reporting triumphs piled up. We found a man who served as a kind of informal liaison for migrants from Guinea-Bissau eking out a living in Tripoli. He brought us to Candé’s great-uncle, who showed us police documents pertaining to Candé’s death; a “fight” was listed as the cause of his demise. The liaison said that Candé had been buried in a vast walled-off expanse of dirt that served as the graveyard of Tripoli’s unwanted. We hired a local photographer to launch a drone camera over the acres of burial mounds, most of them unmarked. He managed to locate one into which someone had scratched the name “Candé.”

In subsequent days, our team snuck two other men who’d spent time at Al Mabani into our hotel. One of them, a teenager, told us that he’d taken a bullet in his leg the night Candé was killed. We pushed the limits of prudence in pursuit of these reporting coups. Pierre had brought a drone camera with him, which he flew above Al Mabani. The scene he captured looked a lot like a concentration camp: men huddled under threat of violence after being fed in a courtyard, then marched back to their cells single file, beaten in the head for so much as looking up at the sky.

It soon became clear that our security guys were reporting back to their bosses, whoever they were, at least some of what we were up to. At one point, we got a visit from an American expatriate who said she worked for the security outfit. She warned us that what we were doing was dangerous and demanded we apprise her of any further proposed reporting efforts outside the confines of the hotel.

One morning we notified Red Crescent officials that we wanted to visit the morgue where Candé’s body had been taken. Mea and I got in a van and made our way through Tripoli’s streets. The morgue was part of a complex of squat buildings shielded by an imposing set of walls and fences. Inside was a man at a desk. We asked to see Candé’s records, and he rifled through several filing cabinets.

A freshly wrapped body lay on a gurney in the middle of the main room. In a side room, a worker ran water from a hose over another body. Behind a set of curtains was a wall of refrigerated chambers that could hold perhaps two dozen corpses. It was impossibly hot and completely quiet.

Mea recorded what we were seeing from a small camera set discreetly against her stomach, until someone noticed and reported it to the man at the desk. It was time for us to go.


Many of the people we interviewed for the documentary emphasized that we didn’t have to go as far back as 1979 to hear about the experience of being a hostage in Iran. The country still holds U.S. citizens in captivity, using them as pawns in its efforts to have various political and monetary demands met. This fact led me, shortly after Joe’s departure for Libya, to a law office in D.C. near Dupont Circle. I hoped to gain insight into the current situation by talking to Babak Namazi and his family’s attorney, Jared Genser.

The Namazis’ experience is tragic: They have suffered not one but two loved ones being taken hostage in Iran. Babak, the eldest of two sons, was born in Iran not long before the revolution that forced his family and many others into exile. The Namazis became American citizens and built a successful life; they’re especially proud of the decades that Baquer, Babak’s father, spent working at Unicef, fighting for vulnerable children around the world. During a visit to Iran in 2015, Babak’s younger brother, Siamak, was seized by the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps. The IRGC, an agency born out of the revolution and tasked with maintaining Iran’s internal security, is known to use surveillance, unlawful detention, and torture against foreigners and Iranian citizens alike. Since 1979, it has used hostage taking to gain political leverage in negotiations with Western countries. Increasingly in the past decade, the IRGC targeted Iranian dual citizens and permanent residents from the United States, the United Kingdom, Canada, France, and other nations.

In 2016, Baquer traveled to Tehran based on a promise that he would be permitted to visit his son in prison. Instead he was taken hostage by the IRGC as soon as he got off the plane. Both he and his son were held on spurious charges of collaborating with a hostile government. Trials to convict IRGC hostages are little more than cynical nods at justice: Often there are no witnesses, no time allowed to build a defense, no opportunity to dispute the charges before a judge.

Babak and I had spoken at length about his family’s ordeal, and now I would be spending some time with him as he made the rounds in the U.S. Capitol. Families of hostages are left to push congressional leaders to act and to ponder cruel questions: What can lawmakers do to help them? What sort of financial, political, or nuclear deal or prisoner swap will be enough to secure their loved ones’ release?

For me, relief from this emotionally weighty work came from the stream of texts I received from Joe in Libya. We always kept each other up to date on our respective projects, from the minutiae of storylines and quotes we loved to the journalistic joys of acquiring crucial evidence or getting a key source to open up. Joe sent me photos from Tripoli that captured the travails of finding good iced coffee, which his New York blood desperately needed. We texted about the excitement and strain of overseas reporting—the translators, the logistics, the agencies that are “dysfunctional even when they’re on your side,” as Joe put it.

But it wasn’t all levity: There was a video of a dead man in a morgue, and photos Joe and his colleagues obtained of poetry scratched into the walls of cells. There were images of paper scraps with poker scores kept by migrant men trying to kill time, and footage from a drone the team had flown over a notorious prison. Joe mentioned dodging undercover intelligence, perhaps even local militias.

I knew this was dangerous material to be exchanging between our personal phones, but I wasn’t particularly keen to tell him to stop, to cut myself off from him and his journey. We’d worked hard to get where we were—a journalistic duo, a bonded pair.

Our father-daughter relationship was not uncomplicated, as evidenced by the fact that, even as kids, my sister and I called our dad Joe. Therapists refer to it as “adulting” when children are forced to mature rapidly and parent themselves or others. Our household was one of silent, industrious survival. Joe was a stoic workaholic. I shared in his anxiety about empty bank accounts, which resulted in my habit of hoarding money along with the Halloween candy in a dresser drawer.

Once, while Christmas shopping, we ran into a reporter Joe knew. In a well-meant aside, the man told me that I should appreciate the career sacrifices Joe made to stay close to his girls. I felt a deep mix of guilt and anger. Yes, he’d made sacrifices, but if we’re being honest, Joe wasn’t home all that much. On school nights, hours after falling asleep, I’d wake to join him as he caught up on the day’s sports scores and ate a midnight dinner. It was the only time I could reliably be close to him.

His work shaped our relationship in other ways large and small. Help with homework wasn’t common, but when I was in the third grade he edited one of my writing assignments and added the word “divine” to a sentence. In a way only the child of a writer ever could, I argued: This wasn’t “my voice.” Did he even know what a third-grader’s writing looked like? I made it a point that Joe Sexton of The New York Times would not be permitted to edit anything else of mine until it came time for me to apply to college.

As it happened, it wasn’t until that rite of passage occurred nearly a decade later that Joe and I started to build a deeper relationship. Once I was in college, I sent a rather frank email to my mother, with Joe cc’d, making it plain how little anyone had ever told me about what happened with our family. Joe’s reply included a lengthy PDF attachment titled “The History of Us.” I later got those words inked on my shoulder.

In time Joe became dad, then friend, and later, when I got into journalism, collaborator. The gift of our admiring, candid relationship felt precious. It also made me susceptible to tears when it came to stories about fathers. Rewatching The Lion King? I was a mess. Working on the Iran project, I found myself especially sensitive when hearing about hostages with children, be it John Limbert in 1979 or Baquer Namazi in 2016. Babak hadn’t seen his dad in five years; I had just sat next to Joe on the porch a week prior. The idea that my dad might never come home was impossible to fathom.


The takedown was efficiently executed: Several cars moving in tandem. Men with automatic weapons. Commands hollered in Arabic for us to keep our heads down. It was close to 8 p.m. on May 23, a Sunday evening, about a day and a half from our scheduled departure from Tripoli.

Hours earlier, after visiting the morgue, our reporting trip had taken another surprising turn: We were informed that the Libyan Coast Guard might allow us aboard one of its patrol boats. That would mean actually getting out on the Mediterranean, perhaps even witnessing a roundup of migrants trying to reach Europe. In recent years, the Coast Guard had been accused of firing on or capsizing migrant rafts. People pulled aboard Libyan vessels reported being beaten and terrorized.

We were excited that our efforts might end on a fruitful note and proposed to our security team that we go to a restaurant for a celebratory dinner. There was a good Turkish place across town. Ian stayed behind at the Royal Gardens; his teenage son needed help with his homework over Zoom.

On almost every trip through the city, our security team had been wary of men in white cars. The significance of the color was hard to decipher—maybe it indicated undercover police—but their worry was intense and constant. When looking for a spot to launch the drone over Al Mabani, for instance, they’d abandoned several options after white cars were seen nearby.

Now, about halfway to the restaurant, there were suddenly white cars all around us. Our driver wheeled into the thick of Sunday evening traffic to turn around, then floored it, intending to dash back to the hotel. We didn’t get far. In a roundabout below an overpass, there was a crash to the right side of the van. We came to a stop.

“They’ve got guns,” Mea said.

The front doors of the van were thrown open. Our driver was pistol-whipped and yanked from the vehicle. The security guy in the passenger seat was heaved out, too; taking his place was a young man of perhaps 21, his face electric with excitement and an AK-47 in his hands. Our van had been tricked out with goofy interior lights and an array of cup holders—it always struck us as a cut-rate prom-night vehicle. Now it was a scene of shouts and silent prayers. I put my head down as directed and pulled my windbreaker over it.

The van sped off. This had taken perhaps 30 seconds.

Rocketing through Tripoli I was strikingly calm, but I wasn’t feeling courage so much as an altered sense of reality. It seemed as though we were in a movie, not a potentially deadly abduction. If I was deluded, at least that felt better than panic.

We listened for any sense of where we were headed. There was a sharp turn and a sudden stop, then the scraping and clanging of what sounded like a gate rolling open.

Ordered from the van, we were marched along, heads pushed down. I thought of the detainees in the courtyard of Al Mabani unable to look up at the sky. Inside wherever we’d been taken, we were blindfolded. I’d worn glasses since the third grade at Saint Saviour grammar school in Brooklyn, and probably hadn’t been awake without them on for more than five minutes in the five decades since. Now my glasses were gone, and what sight I had was blocked by cloth.

Standing, then forced to sit, it was hard to cope with the expectation of being hit. Instinctively I braced myself, my head turned sideways to soften a blow. Our captors shouted at us in Arabic, turning a gorgeous language hideous. There were bits of broken, angry English, too.

“Libyans are not stupid,” one of the men hollered.

“Who is Mohammad David?”

It became clear that these men had been to our hotel. My guess was they’d found David’s name and number in our phones. The thought occurred: Maybe our captors were members of the militia that ran Al Mabani.

I heard Ian’s voice. He’d been taken, too, hooded and stomped on by men who stormed his hotel room. He’d been on a call with his wife, who heard the men and her husband’s cries as two of his ribs were broken and he was dragged from the room barefoot. Whoever they were, they had all of us, along with all our stuff: notebooks, cameras, drone, recorded interviews, computers and hard drives, passports, money, tracking devices.

“Who killed George Floyd?” somebody screamed derisively. I had to assume that they’d found our concern about Candé’s death inside Al Mabani ironic, given Floyd’s murder by police in America a year earlier.

Our captors soon zeroed in on Pierre. Born in Lebanon, Pierre was invaluable to our reporting, with his gift for languages: English, French, Italian, some Arabic. Now the men who’d taken us hit him in the head, and the words they yelled implied that they regarded him as a traitor.

Libya’s record on the treatment of people in its jails and prisons is miserable. I’d researched it before the trip and copied a passage from a UN report into my notebook:

Torture continues today in Libya. It is most frequent immediately upon arrest and during the first days of interrogation as a means to extract confessions or other information. Detainees are usually held without access to lawyers and occasional access to families, if any…. From late 2011, the United Nations Support Mission in Libya has recorded 27 cases of deaths in custody where there is significant information to suggest that torture was the cause, and is aware of allegations about additional cases which it has not been able to fully investigate.

Were we being held by the government? A militia? Even knowing that there might not be much of a distinction, the latter still felt more frightening. If militias were involved, I feared that people back home learning of our abduction might be a more remote possibility, and that our status as Americans might matter less to our captors.

While I was blindfolded, my sense of the passage of time faded. Every once in a while I’d be moved; from where or to where, it was impossible to say. There were shifts in temperature—one spot felt air-conditioned, the next torrid. There was no talking. Our captors seemed to get a kick out of stepping on my feet every once in a while, grinding my toes. But was this just for their amusement? Perhaps it was a detention technique, or a way to kill time before shooting us.

On my checkered journey toward a college degree, I once went off to work in Wyoming, fixing track and building snow fences for the Union Pacific Railroad. The wages allowed me to save up enough for a year of school abroad, in Dublin, where one subject I was good at was the study of beer. An Irish poet and writer named Seamus Deane taught one of my classes, and he just so happened to be childhood friends with a rather more prominent poet, Seamus Heaney. Heaney came to read for our class one evening, and we had more than a few pints afterward. Thus began my most sustained love affair with a writer’s work, and among Heaney’s poetry I most cherish is a series of gorgeous sonnets he wrote upon the death of his mother. In one verse, he likens his mother’s absence to the loss of a beloved chestnut tree on his family’s farm in Northern Ireland—he calls what’s left behind “a bright nowhere.”

Contemplating being shot, this phrase came back to me. When I opened my eyes underneath the blindfold, the material appeared gauzy, whitish yellow in color. A bright nowhere. Maybe I’d already been shot.

After hours of silence there was a commotion, and once again we were on the move. Yanked to our feet, we heard guns being fiddled with and slung about. We were pushed outside. It was a hard, enraging thing to walk blindfolded. I held a hand out to steady myself against a possible fall and was shoved in the back of the head. It was hardly grave in comparison with what might happen, but it made me furious. Crazy as it sounds, I thought, Go ahead, shoot me, beat me, whatever, but do not fucking push me when I cannot see.

I could smell the Mediterranean, salty and thick. In our reporting, we’d heard multiple accounts of migrants being shot and dumped in the sea. Maybe it was time to take hurried stock of my life.

It had been rich in blessings. I found a second chance at love, a wife full of beauty and forgiveness. I got my two older girls to adulthood safe and healthy, and then, at 51, had two more girls—twins. I shared in a bounty of consequential reporting. Throughout that charmed life, I made a million mistakes at home and on the job, but they all proved survivable, for the people and institutions I sinned against and for myself.

In the Libyan darkness, I contemplated what I’d most like to say to the people I loved and served. “I tried my best” is what I landed on. I was instantly embarrassed at the self-serving ring to it. But it’s what I had.

Once more came the sounds of gates or doors scraping open, of car and motorcycle engines being revved. Then I felt the cold blade of a knife against my groin. I could hear my track pants tearing.

No God, please.

It turned out that the captors were just cutting the elastic string from my waistband. Hanging myself—not an idea I would have had—was evidently not going to be an option.

I was pushed to the ground and wound up on my ass. There was a mash of bellowing and then, once again, silence. I could tell through the blindfold that wherever we were, the lights had just been turned out. To my right I sensed another person. I could hear breathing. I guessed it was Pierre.

“You there?” I whispered.

“Yes,” Pierre said.

My rational brain told me that the only thing to do was get back to work. It’s what Joe would have done.


It was around noon on May 24. I was at the head of a conference table, prepping for the following days’ work on the documentary. I don’t know why I chose that moment to check my personal email. When I’m in the field it can be hard to remember to eat. Perhaps it was a sixth sense that made me look.

Sitting at the top of my inbox was an email from my stepmother to everyone in our family, sent just a few minutes before. Joe and his three colleagues in Libya had been taken the night before and hadn’t been heard from since. It was suspected that Libyan intelligence was responsible. The Outlaw Ocean team was raising alarm bells with whomever they could. My stepmother had asked The New York Times’ director of global security for advice; she is a photo editor at the paper, and both Joe and Ian Urbina are beloved alumni.

I was taken aback. Was this real? I spent some time just trying to grasp the basic facts. What happened, when, and why? Few things were answerable.

My first struggle was practical and professional: how to explain this. I needed to let someone know what I was going through, worrying about my dad’s kidnapping overseas while running around Washington, producing a documentary about hostage taking. The coincidence was darkly poetic. In my head I started rehearsing versions of “I know this might sound crazy, but…”

I sought the best way to summarize my situation to my boss, the right words to use. Was my father captured? A prisoner? A hostage? All of the above? I called the series’ producer, who took the news and its ambiguities in stride, offering help and gracious concern. I then shot off a succinct reply to the family email chain: I was on call to help, I wrote, and felt “confident they will be out in no time.”

For the time being, I told no one else what had happened. In times of emergency, my consciousness switches to a kind of third-person observer, similar to how many of us experience dreams. I can step outside myself to see the larger narrative. Maybe this tendency lets me remain calm rather than deteriorating into tears. In this case, given my work on the series and everything I was learning about hostage taking, it also allowed me to keep perspective, to remind myself of the spectrum of precedent for this sort of incident. 

Then my rational brain told me that the only thing to do was get back to work. It’s what Joe would have done.

Late that night, when I returned to my hotel room, I looked through the last messages I’d exchanged with Joe. There were photos, videos, and details about evading men who appeared to be undercover officers. Our communication now felt careless, incriminating. How naive we’d been in dismissing the risks he was taking. Knowing Joe’s unsophisticated relationship with technology and passwords, Libyan intelligence operatives were probably scrolling through everything I was seeing on my phone. Our exchanges might be used against Joe and the rest of his team.

Sometime after 2 a.m. I spoke to my stepmother. “Who else should I tell about the texts I received from Joe?” I asked. Then, thinking on it further, I realized that there might be something else I could do—someone I could talk to. I was anxious to get to work, both for Joe and for the documentary. Sunrise was just a few hours away.


I assumed it was morning when I heard a door or gate bang open. I could sense light through my blindfold. Then, with no warning or explanation, the wrap was taken off. The men who removed it were gone before I really saw them. Pierre’s blindfold was off too. We were left—me barefoot, him in socks—in our tiny cell.

Without my glasses, it was hard to take in the details of our cramped quarters, but I did my best. We had been sitting on a thin and ratty foam pad. There was a high, narrow window that sunlight streamed through at an angle. Ants were everywhere. A blue metal door held a slat that slid open from the outside. There was a toilet, and two heavy wool blankets were heaped in a corner.

I was glad Pierre was there, but for a while we didn’t speak much, each of us making our own private assessments: Did surviving the night bode well? Mean nothing? Might we be released in an hour, or never? Back at the hotel, thinking ahead to our proposed embed with the Libyan Coast Guard, I’d checked the weather forecast. The temperature in Tripoli was supposed to climb above 100 degrees. Pierre and I could already feel the heat of the day start to cook us in the airless cell.

There is a grisly track record of American journalists abducted and harmed or killed overseas. The executions of Daniel Pearl of The Wall Street Journal in Pakistan and freelancer James Foley in Syria are perhaps the most well known. I’d had friends and colleagues abducted as well. David Rohde was held for seven months by the Taliban in Afghanistan and Pakistan before he managed to escape. My wife had friends and colleagues who were taken by a Libyan militia in 2011 while they were on assignment for the paper. They were physically assaulted before being freed days later. “We were each begging for our lives because they were deciding whether to execute us, and they had guns to our heads,” one of the photographers, Lynsey Addario, said in an interview after the ordeal. “And I remember thinking, ‘What am I doing here?’ Like, ‘How much do I really care about Libya?’ And then I thought, ‘Will I ever get my cameras back?’ I mean, which is the most ridiculous thought, of course, when you’re about to die.”

That’s how my mind worked as the silent hours slipped by. I imagined having fingers cut off under interrogation, then minutes later wondered whether the captors would bring me my glasses and what they’d feed us for lunch. The idea that we might spend years in custody led me to daydream about the prospect of learning Arabic. Perhaps that would prove a valuable asset for a former sportswriter looking for work in his seventies. Assuming I lived or was ever returned to the U.S.

Pierre and I had met for the first time barely a week earlier, and now we shared our backstories. He lived in Rome and had a 20-year-old son. He worked as a freelance video journalist and filmmaker, traveling the world for major news organizations. I talked about my wife and four girls. Lucy shared his talent for languages and international adventure—Pierre would have gotten a kick out of her.

Shame soon became the dominant sensation, a lacerating inclination to blame myself for what was happening. Had coming to Libya been in any way sensible? Was launching drones above Tripoli or filming inside a morgue anything but provocative and reckless? The shame went beyond my own lack of care and formidable arrogance. Locked up, unable to see very well, startled by the simplest sounds, I assigned legitimacy to our captors: They were right to have taken us. We deserved it. I suspect those practiced in the art of detention know that captives often feel this way and exploit it.

It was hard to get comfortable in the cell. There wasn’t enough room for Pierre and me to stretch out. We could come close to spooning and at least get our legs extended, but this was awkward, and the hard floor ground into our hips and shoulders. Seated upright, we could prop our bent legs against the wall that held the toilet. Traffic was audible through the cell’s high window, but we could only guess where we were or what time it was.

At one point the slat in the door slid open. Two small bottles of water were passed through, then two small bags comically marked “SandOwich.” I had no appetite. I’d taken antidepressants for a decade, mostly to treat anxiety. What little I knew about the medication was that you did not want to come off it cold after long-term use. The side effects could be pronounced: nausea, vivid dreams, dizziness, headaches. I wouldn’t be getting my meds, that was for sure. And the food hadn’t come with coffee, another longtime drug of mine. Oh boy.

Pierre and I were eventually summoned out of the cell, one at a time, for a brief encounter with a man behind a desk. At last we could get some sense of the facility we were in. There appeared to be three cells on either side of a narrow corridor; the place had the feel of a particularly grim drunk tank. Was it a government building of some kind? A holding cell adjacent to a courthouse would be a stroke of luck, rendering the possibility that we’d be shot less likely.

Seated before my inquisitor, I fancied that I might at least get my glasses. I think he only showed me my passport, then sent me back to the cell. Night crept in; the lights went out. Human voices rose up now and again, but it was hard to say if these were people inside the facility or beyond its walls, and whether they were groaning or praying.

Morning brought more water and nothing else. In the weeks before our trip, I’d hired an agent and cooked up a book proposal. An email arrived when we were at the hotel in Tripoli; a publisher wanted to set up a Zoom call to talk about the idea. The meeting was scheduled for 10 a.m. the morning after we were taken. I got a perverse laugh out of thinking what that call must have been like: an agent and a prominent publisher left waiting for a prospective first-time author who never showed, and never bothered to reach out and explain why.

Pierre proved to be a charming and fastidious cellmate. He revealed that at one point he’d been a busker on the streets of Paris, playing guitar, singing, and evidently doing well with the ladies. Dylan songs were in his repertoire; “To Ramona” was a favorite. Amid our acute boredom and generalized despair, he sang it for me:

I can see that your head
Has been twisted and fed
With worthless foam from the mouth
I can tell you are torn
Between stayin’ and returnin’
Back to the South
You’ve been fooled into thinking
That the finishin’ end is at hand
Yet there’s no one to beat you
No one t’ defeat you
’Cept the thoughts of yourself feeling bad

It made me smile.

For the family of a missing or detained person, the worst fears come from a lack of information. Knowing nothing definitive, you can only imagine the conditions your loved one is in.


May 25. Joe was still missing. We had gotten no news. The name we had for the U.S. deputy chief of mission for Tripoli was out-of-date. Joe’s friends and colleagues were trying to get the attention of government officials, but we still had no clear point of contact at the State Department.

Compartmentalizing gets a bad rap; it can be a useful tool, especially when your job, and possibly your sanity, is on the line. I spent the day listening to Babak Namazi tell the harrowing story of his brother’s seizure by Iranian intelligence, the family’s lack of knowledge about Siamak’s condition, the Iranian government’s offer of a visit with Siamak that had lured his 80-year-old father, in poor health, back to Tehran. Bearing witness to the emotional strain that accumulates over years of constant anxiety about absent loved ones was tough. I tried to focus on the details of the Namazis’ story and on taking notes, but at times my ability to box things up wavered.

When the intersection of my work and personal life felt particularly cruel, I reminded myself how relatively lucky I was. While my father and I were only on day two of our shared ordeal—or was it day three for Joe, given the time difference?—the Namazis had surpassed day 2,000 of theirs. My father was a foreigner pursuing a sensitive story that, while honorable as a journalistic matter, required traveling to a country he probably wasn’t equipped to be in. Siamak and his father were being held in the country of their birth, speaking their native tongue with their captors. Iran was a place they had every right to be.

As the hours with Babak passed, I discovered that, for the family of a missing or detained person, the worst fears come from a lack of information. Knowing nothing definitive, you can only imagine the conditions your loved one is in, and you worry about their emotional state and the motives of their captors. Not being able to do anything, and having to rely on governments to make the difficult calculus of how to maximize the odds of bringing a person home unharmed, was as maddening as it was terrifying.

Negotiating with hostage takers is fraught with both moral and mortal hazard. Capitulating to extortion encourages abduction, but frequently the only way to free a hostage is by meeting captors’ demands. Trying to muscle or shoot one’s way through an impasse can be extremely unwise. The tragedy of Desert One, during President Carter’s failed mission to free the hostages in Tehran by force, is vivid evidence of that.

The serendipity of spending time with Babak was that I’d learned of one person in Washington who was intimately aware of the unique difficulties of securing the release of hostages. Roger Carstens, the special presidential envoy for hostage affairs, had handled some of the most intractable cases around the world, including the Namazis’. As it happened, Babak and his lawyer were scheduled to meet with Carstens the following day, and I was eager to come along—for the documentary and for Joe.

I got a call from Carstens’s director of communications, Joan Sinclair, to discuss the visit. With journalistic business squared away, I took advantage of the unhappy coincidence.

“So Joan, now I have a personal situation I need to talk about,” I said. “I hope you can help.”


On our second night in captivity, I was taken from the cell down a corridor, outdoors briefly, and then back inside to an office. Two men appeared to be in charge; both would tell me that they had once worked for Qaddafi’s secret intelligence service. One of them enjoyed making fun of my circumstances in the form of long, evidently hilarious riffs in Arabic. The other was a tall, doughy guy in sandals who carried a briefcase everywhere. He spoke English and mentioned that he’d received some training in the U.S., perhaps with the Department of Homeland Security. My goatee and full head of graying hair reminded them of Colonel Sanders. This cracked them up, and they took to calling me “Kentucky.” I laughed with them, both humiliated and grateful for the distraction.

Eventually, I was taken to a courtyard, and a phone was held under my chin. A State Department official was at the other end of the line. My captors told me to say that I had committed crimes but was being treated well. I think I managed to say that we’d been given water. I copped to no crimes. Back in the cell, Pierre told me that he’d been through the same routine.

I recalled that President Biden had recently named a special envoy to Libya. The envoy had his work cut out—he faced competing authorities, shifting alliances, and an overall sense of impunity for those interested in committing violence against migrants, neighbors, rivals, journalists. Still, I told myself that executing Americans was an unlikely outcome, given the international repercussions it might invite. Then again, by this point the only thing I felt confident about was that I didn’t really know anything at all.

The prospect of long-term imprisonment began to sink in. Given the dysfunction in Libya, we could become trophy captives, stuck here for months or even years. Pierre and I discussed what that sort of future might hold. Then we heard a faint tapping on the other side of the wall. We tapped back. We took the crude exchange to be evidence that Ian, Mea, or both were being held close by. Our spirits lifted slightly.

After James Foley’s brutal killing by the Islamic State in 2014, his mother created an advocacy group to track Americans held abroad illegally and to press the case for their release. There were an average of 34 U.S. hostages overseas every year between 2012 and 2022. Terrorist groups aren’t the only bad actors—foreign governments are, too, and in recent years the number of governments holding Americans hostage has grown from a handful to nearly twenty. The taken include businesspeople, aid workers, journalists. U.S. officials work hard to bring Americans home, but success is spotty at best.

I hated that my wife and kids were suffering with this knowledge, and with so much unsaid and undone between us. This was the slice of shame that cut deepest. I’d mythologized myself as a parent. Maybe all parents do this. It had sustained me to think that I raised my older girls well despite tough circumstances, and I entertained the notion that I was a more present dad to the twins. But cracks in this account appeared over the years. For me love was a demonstrative act: I did things for my wife and kids. I went to every soccer game, dance recital, school play. I sent the girls to summer camp, and we traveled to Ireland and Argentina, France and Mexico. Our home was always open to their friends. Holidays were rich with ritual. And I worked—too often, for too long, with obsession and insecurity. I gave too much of myself to the Times especially, but the paper was more than an employer. It provided me with purpose, and it allowed my girls to feel pride and community and safety.

But love as actual communication—an intimate connection of shared wonders and wisdom and worries—I wasn’t so good at. It was a painful pity. My elder girls, Jane and Lucy, weren’t hardships to bear, and they were more than good soldiers in our durable little platoon. They were among my life’s greatest gifts, a source of joy and comfort, women of grit and accomplishment. Parenting them was a labor, but of the best sort, powered by love and full of satisfactions. I wish I had told them that more often.

Again I put myself through the mental exercise of imagining a long detention. Would we be in a prison full of the destitute and ill, left to rot? Or perhaps a sun-bleached quarantine in the desert or on a Mediterranean shore, where the day-to-day depredations wouldn’t be awful, profound isolation and boredom the main punishments? Maybe in a place like that they’d let us read books.

I did the math—what would it mean to be gone a year, three years, ten? I’d had the thrill of officiating at the wedding of my eldest daughter, Jane, but Lucy was still single. The twins were barely in middle school. Maybe I’d make it back for another marriage and two college graduations. I could endure the wait. Or so I told myself.


Every 17 years, dormant cicadas come to life, emerging from underground in a vast brood. As if the convergence of my work life and personal life hadn’t felt symbolic enough already, Washington was covered in a plague of the bugs as I awaited news about Joe. Standing in the grassy park in front of the State Department, I felt cicadas crawl up my legs.

A few minutes before, I was present when Babak met with Roger Carstens. The men had been in correspondence for years, and rather than stiffly shaking hands, they embraced. Then the men left me outside while they went to discuss sensitive matters.

When Carstens’s communications director called my cell phone a short while later, I expected it to be about interviewing her boss for the series. Instead she told me that Carstens would be coming back outside. He wanted to talk to me.

Carstens and I walked together across the grass by the Albert Einstein Memorial. Despite an earlier career as a lieutenant colonel in the Army Special Forces, he’s the kind of guy you immediately feel comfortable calling by his first name. Roger’s affable smile, youthful energy, and casual demeanor can put anyone at ease. These qualities make him well suited to his difficult role.

The job of the president’s special envoy for hostage affairs was created in 2015, around the time the Obama administration was making headway in talks with Iran. Those talks led to a nuclear deal and the release of six Americans. Under the Trump administration the nuclear deal was undone, but the position of hostage envoy remained. Its effectiveness was limited by turnover until 2020, when Roger took the job. Finally, hostages and their families had an advocate with staying power. Roger built meaningful relationships with the people he tried to help; his direct line was available whenever they needed it.

He kindly gave me what assurances he could. A team at the State Department, including people in Tunisia, were on the case, and they were going to do everything possible to bring Joe and his colleagues home. Getting the attention of the country’s most senior hostage negotiator made me feel like I had at least done something to help my father. Now if any news about Joe came across his desk, he would at least have a face—mine—to connect it to.

Soon after speaking with Roger, I got another call. An Associated Press reporter had learned what was going on in Libya and wanted to know if I’d be willing to talk. This was somehow the most disorienting aspect of the week so far. I had always been the one reaching out to people for their stories. Now I’d experience, even if just a little bit, the invasive nature of media attention. The idea that Joe’s abduction might be newsworthy hadn’t even occurred to me. I imagined the headline: “Four Journalists Seized in Libya; Still Missing, Day…” Wait, how long had it been? I did the math. It was now May 26—three days.

For the first time, I felt myself freaking out. But then my rational brain kicked in again. Make a call, send an email, make sure lunch was ordered, do something. Leaving the buzzing white noise of the cicadas outside, I hopped in a van with some colleagues and headed to the Capitol for more meetings.

En route, my phone rang again; Leslie Ordeman, the deputy chief of mission in Tunisia, was calling. He was involved with the case of Joe and his colleagues, and he was able to offer some concrete facts. The U.S. government had determined that they were in the hands of some arm of Libyan intelligence. No one had seen them in person, but they’d spoken briefly on the phone after days of being incommunicado. They seemed at least physically OK.

My stepmother had mentioned at one point that Joe would be without access to his medication. I thought about the hostages from 1979, the fear that formed in the silence of their personal silos, the embassy staffer who lived without his glasses for 444 days. My voice wobbled as I fought back tears.

Ordeman was concerned, knowledgeable, and anxious to move quickly. He said that the president and the attorney general of Libya were working with U.S. authorities. I pushed for information about the political climate in Libya, who the actors were, and what they might want by seizing journalists. I felt compelled to explain why I was unusually well informed about state-sanctioned hostage taking.

The call meant that my personal emergency was no longer a secret to my colleagues. At least now I had some concrete information to share. I asked the team to keep my situation quiet. I didn’t want to be a distraction, much less a retraumatizing presence, for the people we’d be interviewing for the documentary.

All four of us, together for the first time since the abduction, were brought into an office, where a table was set with coffee, ice cream, and pastries. We were told to sit around it and look happy.


The third day of our captivity was a rapid-fire mindfuck of hope and dread. It began with word that we’d be filmed in order to show American officials that we were alive. It was also suggested that this might be a prelude to our release.

The scene was preposterous. All four of us, together for the first time since the abduction, were brought into an office, where a table was set with coffee, ice cream, and pastries. We were told to sit around it and look happy. We spoke in whispers about trying somehow to signal in the proof-of-life video that all was not well. We decided to make a point of thanking the U.S. officials for their efforts and asked them not to stop, but we couldn’t know if this would be edited out before Washington saw it.

We did our best to comfort one another. Ian, who’d been identified as our team leader, worried that he might be kept even if the rest of us were let go. He pleaded with us not to forget him.

Back in our cell, Pierre and I now knew that Ian was housed next to us. He’d been the one tapping on the wall. Mea was in her own cell down the corridor. If we strained to listen, we could just barely hear one another speak. We talked about what to do and whom to contact if one of us was released before the others. If we were compelled to sign confessions, we decided, we’d add a coded message to the documents to later serve as evidence that they had been coerced.

But no one would go free anytime soon. Instead came hours of withering interrogation. Ian went first. He was accused of being a spy; our visa documents, the Libyans said, falsely portrayed us as doctors working with the Red Crescent; the Outlaw Ocean Project was accused of being a CIA front. The penalty for espionage, Ian was told, was death.

Pierre and I were taken to another room. Behind a desk was the same young gunman who’d helped commandeer our van by jumping into the passenger seat. Pierre and I were seated in chairs facing him. For two hours, not a word was spoken. The gunman doodled with pencil and paper. Then, with a sense of ceremony, he prepared to pray. He knelt on a rug; he spoke solemnly and at length. Was it merely a time of day when prayer was required? Or was this some sort of ritual they were doing before harming us?

Then the gunman took Pierre away, leaving me alone with a burly, silent older man. He put his pistol on the desk in front of me, the barrel pointed at my chest. He stared at me; I stared at my feet.

When it was my turn to be interrogated, I was moved to another room. The process began with more screams of George Floyd’s name. Two men were seated at computers. A man to my right took notes. On my left was a man I’d already met, the one who spoke English and boasted of being trained in America. Another man in a suit and tie served as interpreter.

Our captors evidently had researched us, taking advantage of our online presence and the reporting material they found in our possession. They’d also listened in on our conversations between cells. The guy who spoke English paced the room menacingly, asking questions and making accusations, alternately sarcastic and aggressive. What was the Outlaw Ocean Project? Whose money was behind it? Why did we think we could interview migrants and their informal ambassadors in Tripoli? We’d lied about our profession on our visa documents. We’d been caught videotaping inside the morgue. We’d broken laws. Why did we have copies of our passports in our shoes? What was the purpose of our tracking devices?

I am not a practiced liar. I’ve had a pretty close affinity with honesty throughout my life. Fibs, minor deceptions, self-promotional embellishments—I’m guilty of those, for sure. But a strategic deception? Not me. What was the right play here? Answer honestly and risk incriminating us all? Shade the truth and minimize my role? Mislead and risk reinforcing the idea that we were agents of some nefarious conspiracy? I had no time to weigh these options, yet I felt that whatever I said could determine my future.

I decided to answer honestly. I told the men that we were there to report on mistreatment of migrants. I placed the blame for that mistreatment on the EU. Libya, I suggested with emphasis but not sincerity, was a victim of Europe’s immigration policies. I had no idea why our travel documents showed that we were doctors.

At one point, the interpreter told me that the interrogation wasn’t going well. The men didn’t believe me or my colleagues. Our claims had been disproved. This prompted my first moment of sustained panic. For three days, I’d been surprised by my composure. I’d gutted out our gunpoint kidnapping, being blind for days, and coming off the meds that helped hold me together. I’d contemplated a bright nowhere and perhaps made some kind of peace with it. Now everything was crumbling. I thought of a line from an old Billy Bragg song: “A virtue never tested is no virtue at all.”

For the first and only time, I pleaded for my freedom. I have a wife and four daughters, I told the interpreter. Make them understand that. I’m not a spy. I need to go home. But the notetaker didn’t appear to be writing any of it down.

Then, almost as quickly as it had darkened, the mood in the room lightened. The men barraging me with questions were suddenly more interested in debating than in intimidating me. We talked about Middle East politics and life in New York. I’ve always been a wiseass, and it has sometimes served me well in tough situations, so I went for it. I joked, poked fun at myself, shit-talked America. Whether or not the men understood everything I was saying, they seemed amused. I was not above playing the clown to get out of this.

At one point, the English-speaking man put his hand on my forearm. He told me that everything would be all right. He didn’t say how or why. I realized that this could be a sadistic trick. Yet I trusted him.

They moved me to another room, where I sat with the young gunman who’d prayed a few hours before. He held a smartphone and was wearing earbuds. He gestured if I wanted to listen, and then gave me the earbuds. I heard a recording of someone reciting the Koran. For the first time in days, Arabic sounded beautiful again.

I smiled, gave the gunman a thumbs up, and returned the earbuds. He got up and returned with a tiny cup of Turkish coffee. I drank it slowly. I could have kissed him.


After the call from Tunis, things moved rapidly, if unevenly. Within a few hours, I received word that Joe and his colleagues would be moved to a hotel, where they would receive a visit from local representatives on behalf of the U.S. The next update I got seemed to walk that news back—things had been either delayed or aborted. An hour later, the plan was back on track.

Despite the seesaw, the momentum felt positive, and by the end of the night the verdict felt clear to me: Your dad is alive and will be coming home. There would be red tape to negotiate, but now it seemed a matter of days until Joe and his colleagues were safe.

Slowly, the fear that their abduction could turn into months of negotiations—or worse—drained out of me. I shifted from wondering whether I’d get my dad back to worrying about the state he’d arrive in. From numerous interviews with hostages and their families, who were held emotionally hostage at home, I knew that trauma can last decades and manifest in unexpected ways. I wondered about the invisible wounds Joe would have to grapple with once he was back. Despite my relative calm at the moment, I wondered too what I might feel later.    

We tend to romanticize father-daughter relationships, feminine sweetness supposedly capable of softening the steeliest men into expressing protective, effusive love. I’ve never been particularly sweet—brash and sassy are better descriptors. Meanwhile, Joe never worried over bloodied knees. When my sister or I broke an arm as kids, he wound our casts in bubble wrap so we could keep playing soccer. “It builds character,” was his favorite refrain. Later, as adults, Joe and I learned to talk about our feelings—to express hurt, excitement, concern. Maybe this would change once he was back. Maybe all I could do for him was sit by while he watched sports or ate his meals in silence.

My childhood, at least, had prepared me for that.


It was late at night when we were brought out of our cells, gathered together in a room, and, one by one, presented with what amounted to a confession. The documents were in Arabic; we didn’t know what they said. Still, with release tantalizingly close, including a coded message in the documents didn’t feel so urgent. We signed hastily and without complaint.

We were hustled into two cars. I could smell the sea again, this time with less dread. I heard the scraping and clanging as a gate opened—the sounds that had welcomed us to our detention were now sending us off. The cars wound through deserted streets, then turned into a parking lot and stopped next to a loading dock. We were told not to say a word or otherwise call attention to ourselves as we were marched through the back door of a hotel. We were each given a room and barred from communicating.

A shower sounded exquisite, but I didn’t have the energy. I wanted to do as little as possible. I wanted to stay quiet, not push my luck, be prepared if we were moved again. I sat on a padded bench in the hotel room and listened to a blaring public broadcast outside my window—the morning call to prayer.

There were armed guards outside our rooms. The occasional knock was almost as jarring as anything I endured in captivity, each one jolting me into the prospect that we were being played, that the confessions we signed meant that we were headed for a long stint in prison.

One knock, though, brought a little comfort: the chance to tell my wife that I was alive. A phone was held in front of me. It wasn’t meant to be a conversation. I was to answer no questions and make no promises. I delivered my lines, and it was lovely to hear her cautious assent.

There was a television in the room. I had gotten my glasses back, and I briefly turned to a soccer match but wound up entranced instead by a video feed from Mecca, with hajjis walking counterclockwise around the Kaaba. I watched for hours and thought unceasingly of what days before had felt beyond hope—that I’d see my family again. Jane, my beautiful, stoic eldest. My youngest, the twins, masters of memorizing the globe’s nations. Libya, to them, was an answer on a geography pop quiz: What is the North African nation bordered by Egypt, Tunisia, Algeria, Niger, Chad, and Sudan?

And then there was Lucy. She was ten times smarter than me. If I’d bequeathed anything to her, it was stubbornness, tenacity, an ample supply of self-certainty. We relied on each other. And we argued like hell. I worried that she was frightened for me. I also worried that she’d scold me for my folly upon my return.

Finally, after two more days, in the draining heat of a Friday evening, Ian, Pierre, and I were taken to the airport. (Mea, a Dutch citizen, had been flown out earlier; she would meet representatives from her country in Istanbul.) We were told that we were being deported and would never be allowed in Libya again. That was fine with us. We didn’t ask why we were being let go, because we didn’t care. Laughably, we had to take a COVID test before we could get on our flight. Having our captors run a swab up each of our noses was one of the stranger indignities among the many we withstood.

The young gunman who appeared to warm to me had an AK-47 in his hands as we made our way to the terminal. The airport, it turned out, was under the control of people not affiliated with our captors. There was a brief, tense dispute about us and our fate, but eventually we made it to the tarmac.

Our captors couldn’t have been cheerier. The crisis, if it was that, was over. The mean stunt, if it was instead that, now had its final scene: The armed men extended their hands to shake. We then boarded a plane bound for Tunis. It taxied along the fractured runway, past the carcass of the incinerated airliner, and lifted off. The three of us held hands as Tripoli vanished beneath us.

In Tunis, we met with U.S. embassy officials. I realized that one of them was the woman I’d spoken to on the phone in the courtyard of the detention facility. She probably had the cell numbers of one or more of our captors in her phone. I made a note of it, figuring we might like to track down the fuckers one day.

The embassy arranged for Pierre to fly to Rome, and for Ian and me to fly to Paris, where we spent the night on the floor of the airport. When the time came, we hugged and made our way to our separate gates—he was heading home to Washington, D.C., I to New York. When the announcement came to board my flight, I trembled a bit. I had all my documents in order, including proof of my negative COVID test, but I was stopped by the ticket agent.

There had been a change. My boarding pass was no good. I almost threw up. Then the agent said I’d been upgraded to first class. Ian had done it secretly out of his own pocket. Tears snuck down my face.

There would be more. During the flight, I watched a Ben Affleck movie. He’s a washed-up onetime high school basketball star, divorced and angry and a drunk. He’s hired to coach his old school’s team. The film is banal, cliché. I loved it, and wept uncontrollably.

My return home, I realized, would be a rocky one.


I first got to see Joe a couple of weeks after he got back from Libya. He’d asked for time by himself when he first arrived. Maybe he was processing, or avoiding, or just learning to breathe slowly and steadily again. The few details he shared about his ordeal made it sound worse than I had imagined.

Joe promised he would see a therapist and expressed how thankful he was to be home. Beyond that and sending long Seamus Heaney poems in the occasional text, he was soon back to comporting himself the way he always did. He still refused eye surgery. He didn’t tell his family about the cold sweats and racing heartbeat he woke up to every morning—that revelation would come nearly two years later, when he underwent multiple bypass surgery. (The doctors, stumped by the absence of any health issues or worrying cholesterol numbers, confirmed that stress really can weaken your heart.)

In characteristic fashion, Joe needed little time to get back to work. On November 28, 2021, the reporting he and his colleagues had done before their capture resulted in an article in The New Yorker, a damning account of Libya’s mistreatment of migrants with the support of a willfully blind, even encouraging, European Union. Ian and Pierre worked to get a handful of the migrants who’d spoken to them for the story safely out of Libya. The article and Ian and Pierre’s noble efforts garnered multiple awards, including the James Foley Medill Medal for Courage in Journalism.

Meanwhile, over several months, Joe and I tried together to find some answers about what had happened to his team. We learned a bit more about who was behind their capture: An arm of Libyan intelligence, which it seemed was affiliated with a militia known as the Al Nawasi Brigade, controlled the black site where Joe and his colleagues were held. The Libyan government had recently named a new intelligence chief, and the taking of four foreign journalists might have been the old guard flexing its muscles, announcing that it still held sway in Tripoli. We learned that the proof-of-life video had alarmed Washington. Both the Libyan president and attorney general were enlisted to intervene, but the exact mechanics of the team’s release would remain a mystery to us.

I suspect it’s easier on Joe’s conscience not to know what, if anything, might have been extracted in exchange for his coming home. I hope that when he reads this, he will take what I say to heart, release any feelings of guilt and spend that energy on more worthy pursuits—on joy, on beauty, and, yes, on the work.

A profound lesson I learned from participating in the documentary about Iran is how powerful and cathartic it can be to tell your own story in your own time. The Namazis’ story has at least one happy chapter: In the fall of 2022, Baquer Namazi was given his American passport and allowed to leave Iran. I couldn’t help but cry with relief, joy, and sorrow when I heard the news. Siamak remains imprisoned, but after more than six long years, Babak was able to hug his dad. By then, I knew that specific kind of relief intimately.


When I made it back to New York, I was unsure how to conduct myself. I tried to stay busy, calling my agent to apologize for my no-show at the meeting with the publisher; buying a new phone; seeing how much material I could recover from the old one seized in Libya. But I was also paralyzed in some ways. The prospect of seeing my family felt overwhelming. I feared that I might come apart in a fashion that would unsettle more than reassure them. I needed space to regather my wits.

I called an old friend, one of the most accomplished war correspondents of his generation, and visited him at his home on the Rhode Island shore. We got in his boat at dawn one morning and went to dig for quahogs. It’s slow, laborious work, and we did it in restorative silence. Out on the water, shoulder to shoulder with a man intimately familiar with all forms of trauma, I recalled a quote from John Updike. His protagonists, Updike said, “oscillate in their moods between an enjoyment of the comforts of domesticity and the familial life, and a sense that their essential identity is a solitary one—to be found in flight and loneliness and even adversity. This seems to be my feeling of what being a male human being involves.”

I’d always found this both true and damning.

Soon enough I rejoined my family. There were tears and beers, and I learned how much had been done on my behalf—by them and by people at the State Department enlisted to help find and free me. I connected with a good trauma therapist, started to write my first book, juggled feelings of acute embarrassment and wonder at my good fortune. But of all the emotions—fear, shame, pride, regret—the most powerful by far was gratitude. I promised myself that I’d try to feel it more profoundly and express it more directly and often.

A little over a year after my return, I got an invitation from Lucy to attend a private screening of the Iran hostage series she helped produce while I was in Libya. The event was held in a sparkling new skyscraper on Manhattan’s West Side. There were filmmakers and former hostages, and I watched Lucy move among them—hugging, laughing, thanking. It was clear she’d done valued work, that she was cherished both by the families she’d gotten to know and by the veteran documentarians she’d ably assisted.

It was a moment of pride, and of recognition. She was indeed a newspaperman’s daughter. My daughter.


It was nearly 6 p.m. on September 17, 2022, and I was running late. I was headed to the preview of the HBO series, Hostages, held at one of the enormous towers in Manhattan’s Hudson Yards.

I knew Joe was likely already there, still the anxious dad who arrived early to everything. He’d flown in from Vermont, where he now lived, to be my plus-one. I imagined him standing awkwardly alone and felt a sudden bolt of worry. Inviting him to watch the series might be triggering for him—how had that failed to cross my mind until now? I’d been caught up in my own nerves about viewing the project with an audience, including the documentary’s subjects, for the first time. Maybe I was also following his lead.

When I arrived at the crowded theater, it didn’t take long for me to spot Joe. He wasn’t standing awkwardly alone; he was pitching a story to a film director. In the aftermath of Libya, there was and would be much for him to fight for and against, but Joe was still Joe: curious, jovial, alive.

We took our seats and the lights went down. My worries about the audience died away. My dad—my best friend, my work partner, my anchor—was next to me. His was the opinion that had always mattered most. But regardless of his verdict, and in a signal of just how far we’d come since third-grade homework, I knew we could agree that just being here, together, was divine.

Correction: This article has been updated to more accurately reflect how long Lucy Sexton has known her stepmother.

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The Quality of Mercy

The Quality of Mercy

Gary Settle has helped dozens of federal prisoners get compassionate release. Will it ever be his turn to go home?

By Anna Altman

The Atavist Magazine, No. 139

Anna Altman is a writer and social worker in Washington, D.C. Her writing has appeared in The New Yorker, The New York Times, The Washington Post Magazine, The New Republic, and other publications. Her previous Atavist story, “Masterpiece Theater,” was published as Issue No. 94.

Editor: Seyward Darby
Art Director: Ed Johnson
Copy Editor: Sean Cooper
Fact Checker: Darya Marchenkova
Illustrator: James Lee Chiahan

Published in May 2023.

The quality of mercy is not strained.
It droppeth as the gentle rain from heaven
Upon the place beneath. It is twice blessed:
It blesseth him that gives and him that takes.

—William Shakespeare, The Merchant of Venice

It was February 2019, and Mary Price had rarely seen her office so busy. A wiry woman in her sixties with shoulder-length straight hair, Price is general counsel at FAMM, a nonprofit organization in Washington, D.C. FAMM is an acronym for Families Against Mandatory Minimums, and in addition to opposing severe sentencing, the group broadly advocates for the fair treatment of people in prisons across the United States. FAMM had recently sent out an edition of its newsletter, which supporters knew as the “FAMM Gram.” The response from readers began as a trickle, then became overwhelming, and for good reason: The newsletter outlined historic changes to the U.S. government’s compassionate release process.

Since the mid-1980s, federal prisoners have been able to seek compassionate release for what the law deems “extraordinary and compelling reasons”—including old age, terminal illness, and severe disability—by requesting that the Bureau of Prisons file a motion on their behalf in court. The BOP, however, rejects almost every request it receives. In January 2018, the Department of Justice reported that the BOP had approved less than 10 percent of the compassionate release applications it received over the previous four years, allowing just 306 people to go home. (Within the same time frame, 81 prisoners died waiting for the BOP to respond at all.) The DOJ’s Office of the Inspector General called the process “poorly managed,” with “inconsistent and ad hoc implementation [that] has likely resulted in potentially eligible inmates not being considered for release.”

For a long time, when the BOP denied a request, a prisoner had no recourse; the bureau’s decision was the final word. That changed in December 2018, following years of advocacy by FAMM and other groups, when Congress passed the First Step Act. Among other criminal-justice reforms, the law allowed a prisoner to file a motion for compassionate release directly with a federal judge if the BOP denied their request or didn’t respond to it within 30 days of receipt. FAMM was eager to share the news and connect eligible individuals with lawyers who could help them. Price knew the organization had to move quickly. “We were very concerned that people who were nearing the end of their lives or very sick would be going before judges without any help,” she said. “We couldn’t just leave these people on their own.”

FAMM’s newsletter was delivered to 40,000 incarcerated individuals via CorrLinks, the federal prison system’s email service. Price felt a thrill of anticipation—“a sense of stepping off into something that was unknown,” as she put it. She knew that sometimes a recipient would print a copy of the newsletter and pass it around the cellblock. Over days, then weeks, Price and her colleagues were inundated with hundreds of phone calls and emails from people seeking compassionate release or inquiring about the process for loved ones behind bars.

Amid the deluge, one inquiry stood out: It was written by a prisoner on behalf of someone else. The sender did not disclose his name. “I am writing this from the ‘Cancer’ floor of FMC Butner,” he wrote, referring to the Federal Medical Center in Butner, North Carolina. The five-story facility provides health care to some of America’s sickest male prisoners; it includes a psychiatric unit, a unit devoted to orthopedic surgery, and a cancer ward. “This is directed at the situation of another patient,” the sender wrote. “He is terminal and is unable to contact you directly.”

The sick man, R. Smith, had lung cancer. As Price later wrote in an article for the American Bar Association, he was in persistent pain and dependent on a feeding tube. With a prognosis of less than 12 months to live, and a sentence lasting much longer for distributing drugs, Smith applied to the BOP for compassionate release. But instead of going home, he was bound for FMC Butner’s hospice ward.

The anonymous person who contacted FAMM said that he had heard Smith crying to his family during a call on the ward pay phone. A longtime recipient of FAMM’s newsletter, the man knew that Smith might now have another way to seek compassionate release. With Smith’s permission, he was using Smith’s CorrLinks account. BOP policy forbade prisoners from using one another’s accounts, and the sender knew he risked punishment for doing so, which is why he left the message unsigned. He asked: Would FAMM consider helping Smith?

Smith’s case was exactly the kind Price had in mind when she drafted FAMM’s newsletter. FAMM connected Smith with an attorney, who began to prepare a legal motion. Meanwhile, according to Price, Smith got sicker. One of his lungs collapsed, and the man communicating with FAMM from inside Butner reported that Smith had been moved to an outside hospital better equipped to treat him. Smith’s lawyer couldn’t get updated information about his condition, but this wasn’t unusual: The BOP can be especially evasive about medical details near the end of a person’s life. “There’s no more cruel part of the BOP than this,” said a former federal defense attorney who spoke on condition of anonymity.

Smith’s lawyer filed an emergency motion in federal court for his release. The court then ordered the BOP to provide an account of Smith’s medical condition by that afternoon. The BOP didn’t meet the deadline, so the judge contacted Smith’s doctor directly. Upon learning how poorly Smith was doing, the judge ordered his release within ten days, as soon as appropriate transport could be arranged. No one could reach Smith in the hospital to deliver the news, so Price sent a message to the person at Butner working on his behalf. She hoped that he would find a way to tell Smith that he didn’t have to die behind bars.

Smith’s case was a turning point for FAMM’s work on compassionate release because it offered a blueprint for helping qualifying individuals. FAMM worked with the Washington Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights and Urban Affairs and the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers to expand the capacity of the Compassionate Release Clearinghouse, a newly created entity that recruited, trained, and supported lawyers representing sick or elderly prisoners requesting early release. In its first year, the Clearinghouse screened some 500 inquiries and placed more than 125 cases with lawyers.

Smith’s case also marked the start of a unique relationship. “Mr. Smith and his family are very lucky to have you in his corner,” Price wrote to the man who’d helped Smith. “We should all have friends like you.”

By then, Price knew the man’s name: Gary Settle. He was slow to tell her much about himself, but he continued to send CorrLinks messages to FAMM as he recruited more people at Butner for the Clearinghouse. In emails he sometimes used the moniker “P/H,” for “patient/helper,” in part to protect himself from BOP censure, and in part because he didn’t want to draw attention to himself. He felt that his personal story—including why he was serving 177 years in prison, along with his own cancer diagnosis—was beside the point.

Gary Settle as a child

Settle was born in 1966 in Hawthorne, California, a small city adjacent to South Central Los Angeles. His childhood had what he considered “storybook” elements: loving parents, a brother to horse around with, Little League games, family camping trips. In the summer his mother, Kay, took time off her waitressing job to drive the boys to the beach. Settle was bright—“so smart I could smack him,” Kay said. At age ten, he asked his mom for copies of Shakespeare’s plays, then named his cat Ophelia. “We weren’t rich in money, but we were happy, we had friends, there were always people over,” Settle wrote in a document he calls his “life story,” which he shared with me.

In time, Settle developed a rebellious streak. If Kay told him to stay within a few blocks of the house on his skateboard, he’d ride to busy areas downtown instead. When Settle was 13, his parents bought a farm in Ohio; his father thought the fresh air and country life would be good for the family. “We all had to learn on the fly all the farming tasks—feeding the cows, milking them and shoveling the other substances they produced by the wheelbarrow load,” Settle wrote. “If Green Acres hadn’t already been made, we would have had a great pilot.” It was a major transition for Settle: the unrelenting responsibility of farm work, the unfamiliarity of the local culture. His puka-shell necklace and faded Levi’s didn’t vibe with the rural Ohio style of bib overalls and John Deere hats.

Even so, he quickly made friends. He got into the habit of enlisting his buddies to help with household tasks. “Once, I told him he couldn’t go to a baseball game because he had to help with the chores,” Kay recalled, “and all of a sudden the whole team was weeding.” The town closest to his family’s farm had a single traffic light, two police officers, a barber shop, and “at least ten bars,” according to Settle. There was little to do, so he and his friends drank. Settle recalled being a happy drunk, outgoing and enthusiastic; he boasted that his charm was infectious.

Settle also liked to showboat—driving recklessly, hood surfing, doing motorcycle stunts. “I was not breaking any laws other than traffic ones,” he wrote. “Those I was shattering.” In fact, a juvenile court found him guilty of an offense when he was 17; the case records are sealed, but Settle said that the conviction stemmed from a fistfight he had with a man in his twenties. Looking back, he wondered whether spending his teenage years in a small town with few opportunities contributed to the course his life took.

In 1985, Settle got his high school sweetheart pregnant, and soon they married. At age 20, Settle had expenses and responsibilities, and he grew restless. When he heard about a gig with a construction company in Florida, he decided to move there with $400, two buddies, and no plan—he left his family behind for the time being. He and his friends arrived in time for spring break and blew all their money at Daytona. When Settle got a job, he had to sleep on a picnic table behind a church for a week, until he got his first paycheck.

Despite an inauspicious beginning in his new home, Settle worked hard, and he advanced from laborer to finisher and then to foreman. The construction company had contracts all over the Southeast, so Settle traveled, staying in motels. When the workday was over, he and his crew headed to strip clubs or hung out in bars.

Settle found a house big enough for his family; his wife gave birth to their son, Nathan, back in Ohio, then moved down to join him. In time Settle’s parents decided to relocate to Florida, too. Settle started his own construction company in Orange City, just north of Orlando. But for all that was changing, Settle still liked to spend his free time drinking with friends.

One day, after a few beers, he went to the drive-through window at a bank to deposit a check. He recognized the teller—she was a woman he knew from the local bar scene. “What do you want?” she asked with a smile. He replied, as a joke, “Give me all your money.” The woman bent out of sight and then reappeared holding a plastic container full of neatly stacked bills. “You mean this?” she asked, laughing.

A few weeks later, Settle ran into the woman at a bar, and she brought up their exchange at the bank, saying there had been $35,000 in the box. After their conversation, Settle couldn’t get the number out of his head. All that money, and so close he could have grabbed it.

At 27 years old, Settle was facing life in prison. It was all so uncanny—sitting there in a suit, knowing he would never be free again—that he almost felt compelled to laugh.

In October 1991, the Daytona Beach News-Journal reported that a tall white man with long brown hair and a mustache had walked into a bank during a Tuesday morning rainstorm. He was wearing the waistband of a woman’s stocking over his face and carrying a white bag. He vaulted the counter and pulled out a semiautomatic handgun, then took a stack of cash before fleeing on foot into a wooded area. Heavy rainfall prevented the sheriff’s helicopter from tracking him, and the dogs and deputies chasing him lost his trail.

It wasn’t Settle’s first robbery; he’d begun holding up banks and stealing cash the year prior. Most of the time, he didn’t run away—he stole a car from a bank clerk or customer. One time he approached a car with an elderly woman sitting behind the wheel. According to Settle, when she informed him that she needed her walker if she was going to get out, he pulled it from the trunk, got her to her feet, and then sped away. He could hear sirens in the distance.

By April 1992, the FBI was pursuing what it described to the West Volusia Sun-News as a “serial bank robber on the loose.” They believed that he was responsible for as many as seven bank robberies and one attempted robbery over an 18-month period. The criminal, the FBI said, was “armed, dangerous, and ready to strike again.”

That account didn’t square with how Settle saw himself. “It is embarrassing to admit this, and shameful to acknowledge,” he wrote later, “but in a way, I thought of the whole thing as a sort of prank or practical joke, with a big cash payoff.” According to Settle, he didn’t encounter any law enforcement, and he had no problem persuading tellers to cooperate. He was never in a bank for more than a minute or two, and he never hurt anyone physically. He saw his plunder as “free and easy money.” (A woman present during one of the robberies would later testify that her encounter with Settle scared her so much that she quit her job, and that she would “never be able to work again or be able to be alone again in the future.”)

Settle had accomplices—sometimes he had one drive a getaway car—and in September 1992, two of them decided to rob a bank on their own. They were caught before they succeeded, and during their interrogation they fingered Settle as the mastermind of the operation. Shortly after, Settle, who was on a trip to Boston at the time, was arrested for running a stop sign and driving under the influence. When police in Massachusetts ran his name through their databases, they—and Settle—learned that he was wanted in Florida on federal bank robbery charges.

Settle was indicted on March 18, 1993, on nine counts of bank robbery, one count of attempted bank robbery, one count of conspiracy, and ten counts of carrying a firearm while committing a violent crime. The government alleged that, in total, Settle had stolen around $190,000. “If I would have done something worthwhile with the money, I don’t think I would feel any better about things, but I might not feel so foolish,” he wrote. “The only people who really benefitted from the robberies would be various bartenders, waitresses, and strippers.” By the time he was indicted, Settle had separated from his wife. He later described himself as being at his “reckless, selfish worst.”

Settle pleaded not guilty, and he later claimed that he rejected a plea bargain that would have come with a relatively scant 12-year sentence had he testified against his accomplices. (The prosecutor denied making such an offer.) During pretrial detention, Settle twice attempted to escape from county jail. When his case finally went to trial in Orlando, he did what he could to appear serious, wearing a suit and taking notes. On May 11, 1993, the jury found him guilty of almost all the charges against him.

With his conviction on the books, Settle was subject to the Sentencing Reform Act of 1984, a result of congressional hand-wringing about rising crime rates that was later called “the most dramatic change in sentencing law and practice in our nation’s history” by the United States Sentencing Commission. The act sought to address what elected officials considered “undue leniency” in the criminal-justice system, as well as inconsistencies in sentencing around the country. Among other things, it abolished federal parole and created a system of mandatory penalties for certain crimes, giving judges less discretion over sentencing.

By the time Settle was tried, the mandatory minimum for a violent offense committed with a firearm was five years. If a person previously convicted of such a crime carried a gun during a second violent offense, the mandatory minimum was 20 years. How, though, should a court sentence someone found guilty of armed robbery for the first time, but on multiple counts in a single legal proceeding? As it happened, that exact question had been addressed just prior to Settle’s trial, in the 1993 Supreme Court case Deal v. United States. In a 6–3 decision, the court ruled that the harsher mandatory minimum should apply even in a single indictment.

When Settle was sentenced on August 30, 1993, the case law was so new that Judge Patricia Fawsett had to review it over a lunch recess. When she retook the bench, Fawsett sentenced Settle to a mandatory 2,127 months in prison, or just over 177 years: 12 for the robbery and conspiracy charges, and 165 for carrying a gun into a bank nine separate times. She ordered that he serve them consecutively.

Fawsett wasn’t inclined to be lenient, telling the defense that Settle showed “utter disregard for the law,” “a complete lack of remorse,” and “lack of concern for the terror he caused.” Still, she seemed troubled by the length of the sentence. “I do not think this is an appropriate result,” she said, “but I feel bound by the law as I understand and explained to you.”

Settle felt that Fawsett approached his sentence as if it were just a problem to solve; she even asked the attorneys present to check her math. At 27 years old, Settle was facing life in prison. It was all so uncanny—sitting there in a suit, knowing he would never be free again—that he almost felt compelled to laugh.

Adeel Bashir, a federal public defender currently working in the Middle District of Florida, where Settle was tried, told me that he has “only ever seen one other person get 2,000-plus months.” It’s the kind of sentence that would make a criminal-justice professional wonder whether the defendant had killed a child or was a serial pedophile. “To date, people ask me if Gary’s sentence is a typo,” Bashir said.

When Settle was transferred to a new facility, he almost always ran into someone he knew. Butner was no different, except that many of the people he recognized were dying.

Early during his time behind bars, at a prison in Atlanta, Settle tried to escape along with two other men—one of whom was the actor Woody Harrelson’s father—by scaling a wall using a makeshift rope. They surrendered when a guard fired a warning shot from a tower.

Settle spent the next two decades on a tour of federal prisons. He was housed for a few years at the infamous supermax facility in Florence, Colorado, where prisoners are kept in solitary confinement for more than 20 hours a day. That’s where Settle was when his father died in 1996. He had already used the one 15-minute phone call he was allowed that month when he heard the news, so he had to wait until the following month to call his mom to grieve with her.

By 2016, he had landed at U.S. Penitentiary Beaumont, which sits in the southeastern corner of Texas, half an hour from the Louisiana border, in a place known as the Golden Triangle because of its rich oil reserves. It’s also sometimes called Texas’s cancer belt because of its high cancer mortality rate. At Beaumont, routine bloodwork showed that Settle had an elevated level of prostate-specific antigen, or PSA, which is often used as the first indication of a prostate cancer diagnosis. According to Settle, he was not informed right away. “It takes a while in those places for the mill to grind,” he said.

At his next stop, USP Hazelton in West Virginia, Settle “started to feel weird.” He had been diagnosed with Graves’ disease, a thyroid disorder, and needed a double knee replacement. In 2018, doctors told him that his PSA was 50.5 nanograms per milliliter. Many physicians consider 4 ng/mL to be the point at which they recommend further testing to screen for cancer. Settle’s level, in other words, was astronomical.

He had a biopsy, which showed a very high likelihood of cancer. When doctors proposed removing his prostate, Settle declined; the surgery can have unpleasant side effects, including incontinence and erectile dysfunction. He asked for hormone therapy instead, and requested a transfer to a medical facility. After an extended back and forth, which Settle described as “a lot of gnashing of teeth and wailing of banshees,” the BOP sent him to FMC Butner for treatment.

After nearly three decades in federal prison, whenever Settle was transferred to a new facility, he almost always ran into someone he knew. Butner was no different, except that many of the people he recognized were dying. “I was shocked at the appearance and bearing of the prisoners I have known and the ones I did not,” he later wrote. “I was around people who looked like concentration camp inmates.”

Butner is one of seven federal facilities that serve very sick prisoners, some of whom wind up there because they didn’t get the treatment they needed to stave off serious illness. The law guarantees prisoners a constitutional right to health care—a right, ironically, afforded to no other group in the country—but in reality health care resources are limited behind bars, and potentially life-saving procedures are not always granted, even when they’re clinically indicated. A former federal public defender who spoke anonymously said that, in reviewing clients’ medical records, it’s not unusual to find someone who was told years prior by a prison doctor that they needed an immediate kidney transplant but never got one, or who had a heart condition requiring a visit to a specialist that the BOP never facilitated.

“Because most correctional health services are designed to cut costs and reduce perceived litigation risks, transparency and quality of care are not top priorities,” Homer Venters, a former chief medical officer for New York City’s jails, writes in his book Life and Death in Rikers Island. Prejudice also erodes standards of care. According to a DOJ report, “The belief that those convicted of serious crimes have somehow earned their suffering, as if the pain of illness and old age in prison were a part of the inmate’s just deserts … [is] widespread and intense among some custody personnel and … prevalent also among health care providers.”

Holding the prison system accountable for this bias is difficult. In a landmark 1976 case, the Supreme Court ruled that substandard medical care in prisons violates the Eighth Amendment’s prohibition against cruel and unusual punishment only if it rises to the level of “deliberate indifference” and not just “mere negligence.” The difference between these two concepts is the subject of an ongoing debate that prisoners have little power to influence. (In a statement, the BOP said, “We make every effort to ensure the physical, medical, and mental safety of inmates confined to our facilities through a controlled environment that is secure, humane, and in line with community standards of care.”)

At Butner, Settle learned that there was a saying for someone whose health showed a marked or rapid decline: He’s falling down. Paradoxically, this meant going up—to the fifth floor, where the hospice ward is located. A BOP PowerPoint presentation about Butner describes the hospice cells as private, with small nods at comfort such as flower-patterned quilts, pillows that match the blue cinder block walls, or a cushioned chair next to a bed. When Settle arrived, Butner held a monthly memorial service for the recently deceased. He said that a single service often honored as many as 30 people.

After beginning hormone therapy and radiation, Settle was able to maintain his strength and physical independence, so he considered himself lucky. In turn, he did what he could to help others. He noticed that one cancer patient, wheelchair-bound and too weak to push himself, would lock his chair to that of his cellmate, who would shuffle his feet to get them both around the halls. Settle offered to wheel them to meals and chemotherapy appointments, and gave the same assistance to others who couldn’t walk. “You’re not even really supposed to do that,” said Richard Hodge, who was incarcerated at Butner at the time. “Gary could have been wrote up for breaking the rules.”

Settle also assisted with hygiene, changing diapers on grown men. “I’m just putting myself in their perspective,” he said. “It’s got to be very humbling.” Settle reflected that he hadn’t cared for his son much when he was a baby; perhaps this was a way of atoning for that. (Settle was long divorced and hadn’t been in direct contact with his son in many years.)

When he read the FAMM newsletter about the Compassionate Release Clearinghouse, Settle saw another way he could help people. What was more important, he reasoned, than someone living out their last days in freedom, ideally surrounded by their loved ones? He made R. Smith his first project.

Compassionate release is grounded in the idea that changes to a person’s health may weaken the justification for their incarceration. What reason is there for imprisoning someone with Alzheimer’s when he no longer understands that he is being punished? When someone with late-stage liver disease can’t get out of bed and is no longer a threat to society? When “rehabilitation” is no longer feasible because a person has advanced cancer? “We’re not doing any social good, if we were in the first place, in keeping them locked up,” Price said. “And we can do a great deal of good in terms of helping people repair relationships and comfort each other and say goodbye.”

There is also a financial calculus that works in the BOP’s favor, one noted prominently in a 2013 DOJ report on compassionate release: It’s almost always cheaper to release sick people than to keep them locked up until they die. One study found that the annual cost of caring for just 21 seriously ill prisoners in California was almost $2 million per person, while the median per capita cost of nursing home care in the state was $73,000 per year.

After a judge allowed Smith to go home, Settle noticed a shift at Butner. He later wrote an email to FAMM, trying to put into words what he was witnessing. “In this place of death and dying, among incarcerated men who are holding on to life with nothing but more cells, more keys, more misery in their future, your efforts are having real, tangible results. Your efforts are giving hope,” he wrote. “You are giving life back to people, and you are giving them the most precious gift of all, time. Time to heal old wounds, to take a last breath of freedom and to leave this world with peace and dignity.”

FAMM worked closely with Settle through the summer and fall of 2019 to help people at Butner. “We didn’t appoint him,” Price said. “He appointed himself.” Settle made copies of FAMM’s newsletter and distributed them to his neighbors. He kept an eye out for people whose health was worsening and approached those he thought might qualify for compassionate release. He told them what he knew about the First Step Act, which he had studied, and about the Compassionate Release Clearinghouse. He spent six to eight hours a day requesting medical records, addressing envelopes, and updating his contacts on the outside about various cases. Settle read medical records, cross-referencing terms with a diagnostic manual and a medical encyclopedia he’d ordered, so he could send the most pertinent information about sick prisoners to their lawyers. Before long his cell was covered with piles of paper.

Settle also relayed information from incarcerated individuals to their family members. He helped people who were too sick to make it to a computer, those who had been transferred off-site for care, and others who had never learned to read or write. Sometimes he wrote compassionate release requests himself, parroting the language he had seen in other applications. The ones that went to the BOP were all but certain to be rejected or ignored, but that was part of the process: For a prisoner to file a motion directly with a judge, they first had to “exhaust administrative remedies,” in legal parlance.  

Word got around Butner about what Settle was doing. He would leave his cell after a nap to find four or five guys gathered outside, some of them in wheelchairs with paperwork in their laps. He was willing to assist just about anyone—he said he only refused people convicted of sex crimes. “Gary is able to form relationships with all kinds of people,” said Juliana Andonian, an attorney who used to work at FAMM. “He didn’t want to make himself the center of the story. That was really notable, the lack of ego.”

It isn’t uncommon for people in prison to help one another with legal matters. Jailhouse lawyers—some with legal training, some without—review statutes in a prison’s law library, file paperwork, and perform other tasks for fellow prisoners, often for a fee or some other form of compensation. “Someone less sincere could make a lot of money or do a lot of harm,” Andonian said. Settle refused payment, even to cover the cost of emails he sent and phone calls he made. The mother of a man Settle helped go home remembered sending him a thank-you note. “That’s about all he let me send him,” she said.

One day a thought dawned on Price. “He is doing this job that the Bureau of Prisons should be doing,” she said. “They should be moving heaven and earth to be sure that people are connected to family and loved ones when they’re near the end of their lives.”

Among the people Settle helped was a man in his thirties named Victor Webster, who was originally from Montana. Webster was in treatment for Ewing’s sarcoma, a rare cancer that occurs in or around the bones. He’d had the whole left side of his rib cage removed, followed by extensive chemo, but then a tumor developed on his chest plate. “His mental state was poor,” Settle said. “He assumed he was going to die in prison.” When Webster didn’t want to continue treatment, Settle pushed him in a wheelchair to his chemo appointments. He also got to work helping Webster obtain compassionate release.

Settle sent increasingly urgent emails to FAMM on Webster’s behalf, asking the group to move quickly. He visited Webster several times a day, until finally he was able to deliver the news that a judge had granted him immediate release. “I wish I had the ability to describe how the natural stoic look on his face collapsed or the strength of the hug I received from a guy I had been helping dress and stand up for weeks,” Settle said.

Webster went home in early July 2019. According to Settle, before he left he gave Settle a chain necklace with a cross, which he’d worn every day he was at Butner. Soon after he got home, Webster spoke with Settle and said he’d spent a wonderful Fourth of July with his family, including his nieces and nephews. They bought fireworks and set them off for him. Webster died that September. “It was sad it was just so short,” his mother, Debra Claassen, said of her son’s time at home.

The names and stories piled up. Von Skyler Cox, who had stage IV lung cancer and a prognosis of less than ten months, wrote to FAMM on behalf of “myself and my family and the ‘Patient/Helper’ ” after he was granted compassionate release in August 2019. “Your efforts have reminded me and many others that there are Great People in the world who have not forgotten us,” Cox wrote. Andonian printed out the email and put it on the office fridge. 

Settle noticed certain patterns—for instance, that a lot of the men granted release had been charged with crimes in blue states, where judges were perhaps more inclined toward compassion or less concerned about the political ramifications of releasing people from prison. (Recent research indicates that federal judges appointed by Democratic presidents are more likely to grant compassionate release than those put on the bench by Republicans.) According to Settle, some of the men who went home had been convicted of violent offenses, but he ruefully noted that they often had shorter sentences than he did.

He became swept up in the momentum. “Once I got going with it, I had to do it,” Settle said. “What type of person would I be if I did not assist people and their families at this most crucial time when I could?” He went on: “There is nothing I can do about the past, but I get to decide how I live the rest of my life.”

“Simply put, we are grateful for Gary, and awed by the care and compassion he shows for those in distress,” the FAMM letter said. “We have learned from him how to do our jobs better.”

In August 2019, about five months after they began corresponding, Price decided to meet Settle in person. “I want to make sure that he is safe doing this,” Andonian recalled Price telling her. According to Settle, the Butner staff were increasingly aware of his efforts to help people secure compassionate release, and their reactions were mixed. He had never gotten in trouble for using other people’s CorrLinks accounts, but some corrections officers told him he was “making them look bad.” He found that Butner employees with medical backgrounds tended to be more receptive, even expediting his requests for medical records and quietly referring patients to him. Still, to Settle they seemed jaded, like “how you would be if you worked in a dog pound and you get to see sick animals that they put down.”

Price’s job doesn’t put her into a lot of direct, consistent contact with people in prison. Rather, her role is usually to assess a person’s needs and connect them with resources. On her way to North Carolina, Price’s overriding feeling was curiosity—who was this person who had committed himself to advocating on behalf of others? She and Settle spent an afternoon together in Butner’s visiting room. As the hours wore on, Price asked Settle if he wanted anything from the vending machine; steadfast in his policy of not accepting any gifts, he politely refused. Water was free, “so we drank a lot of water,” Price said.

After the visit, Settle gradually began corresponding with Price as a friend. She told him about what she was growing in her garden and described a recent whale-watching vacation. He talked about his mother, Kay, whom he worried about all the time, and what he was reading. Price sent him books she thought he might like, including a trilogy by Ivan Doig and two books of poetry; one, by Ada Limón, Settle saved until Christmas to read as a treat. When Price was sick, Settle asked his mother to send her flowers.

That December, Andonian, Price, and another FAMM employee, Debi Campbell, asked Settle if they could write a letter to Kay. “I knew him well enough to know his mom was his treasure,” Andonian said. The FAMM team wanted to tell Kay how much Settle had come to mean to them. Settle consented.

“Gary, who calls himself the ‘patient/helper,’ impressed us immediately,” the letter to Kay read. “He follows up conscientiously on each and every person he works with. Beyond winning or losing, he cares about their spirits.” The FAMM staff said that, by their count, Settle had helped 19 people obtain release, allowing them to spend their last days with their families. “Simply put, we are grateful for Gary, and awed by the care and compassion he shows for those in distress,” the letter continued. “We have learned from him how to do our jobs better.”

Soon Settle’s assistance would become more urgent than ever.

Overcrowding, unsanitary facilities, poor medical care—those were just some of the reasons COVID was able to tear through U.S. prisons at astonishing speed. Within weeks of the virus being declared a national emergency, rates of infection in prisons far outpaced those in the population at large. By the end of April 2020, eight of the country’s ten largest COVID outbreaks were in prisons or jails. Still, the BOP was slow to implement masking, social-distancing, and testing policies. Some incarcerated individuals were scared to report symptoms because it meant being sent to solitary confinement.

Butner was hit particularly hard. With its medically vulnerable population, including many cancer patients, the facility was practically a showcase for the comorbidities that can make people who contract COVID especially susceptible to severe illness or death. By late July 2020, a remote inspection by the DOJ’s Office of the Inspector General found that 1,020 people imprisoned at Butner had COVID, and that 25 of them, along with at least one staff member, had died. Later, in the fall 2021, the ACLU would report that Butner had more than twice the number of COVID fatalities as any other federal prison. (The ACLU and Washington Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights and Urban Affairs filed a lawsuit against the BOP over its handling of COVID at Butner, but a judge dismissed the case over procedural questions.)

The BOP has policies about notifying family members if a prisoner becomes seriously ill, but these are not always strictly followed. At the height of the pandemic, loved ones often struggled to obtain updated information. One former federal defender who spoke on condition of anonymity described receiving calls from people who were desperate to know about their loved ones. I haven’t heard from my son in a month, they said; or I don’t know if my brother is in a hospital unconscious or just in quarantine. “It created so much panic for family members,” the former federal defender told me.

The Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act, passed in March 2020, expanded the BOP’s authority to place prisoners in home confinement for a portion of their sentence. Prisoners don’t have to apply for this sort of transfer, so Attorney General William Barr directed the BOP to identify “suitable candidates”—those with COVID comorbidities, convictions for nonviolent crimes, and low risk of recidivism. According to data from the Marshall Project, the BOP placed nearly 5 percent of its incarcerated population in home confinement by October 2020. But at Butner, among other places, the bureau dragged its feet. The DOJ would later estimate that although 1,070 people at Butner may have been eligible for home confinement as early as April 2020, the BOP had released only 68 by July.

Meanwhile, according to the Marshall Project, the BOP didn’t budge from its usual stance on compassionate release, approving less than 1 percent of the more than 31,000 requests it received in the first year of the pandemic. A 2022 NPR analysis later found that at least one in four federal prisoners who died of COVID had sought compassionate release. (In a statement, the BOP said that it “carefully followed updates from the CDC, and guidance was provided to our facilities” about protective measures. With regard to compassionate release, the bureau gave a brief summary of the request process and noted that “the decision on whether to grant such a motion … lies with the sentencing court.”)

Hoping that it could help people get home before it was too late, FAMM ramped up the work of the Clearinghouse, recruiting an army of attorneys and paralegals to get release requests before the courts. It decided to support appeals from prisoners with vulnerabilities to severe COVID infection, which under the unprecedented circumstances might legally qualify as “extraordinary and compelling reasons” for early release. Prior to the pandemic, the Clearinghouse had screened about 500 requests for assistance and helped some 60 people go home. From the start of the pandemic to the end of 2021, nearly 5,500 requests came in. People wrote about having asthma, compromised immune systems, cancer. They were terrified of contracting COVID and dying. From the flood of communication, Clearinghouse attorneys were able to file 1,069 motions for compassionate release in the first year of COVID, 205 of which were granted.

At Butner, Settle threw himself into helping people, including Richard Hodge, who was serving 98 months for conspiracy to distribute drugs. Hodge had received two organ transplants before he arrived at Butner, and when he contracted COVID, the virus hit him hard. As his body struggled to clear the infection, he could barely stand up to use the bathroom. He didn’t eat for ten days, and he lost about 30 pounds. He later claimed that, despite having a compromised immune system, he was given “no treatment whatsoever.” Hodge said that the Butner staff was indifferent, at most checking his temperature and blood pressure. “You either survive or you don’t, that was their mentality,” he told me. (In a statement, the BOP said, “We do not comment on anecdotal allegations or, for privacy and security reasons, discuss the conditions of confinement for any inmate or group of inmates.”)

Settle implored Hodge to seek compassionate release, lest there be a worse outcome if he got COVID a second time. “He kept after me,” Hodge said. “I didn’t think I had anything coming, but Gary kept insisting.” Settle helped Hodge file his compassionate release application with the BOP to exhaust his administrative remedies and connected him with FAMM and an attorney. “Gary had all the information,” Hodge said.

In March 2021, a judge granted Hodge’s request; he was a free man. He went home to Laurel County, Kentucky, where he could receive specialized care at a transplant clinic and spend time with his kids and grandkids. “It was all because of you my friend,” Hodge later wrote to Settle in an email. “I owe you so much, and I wish there was some way I could bring you out of there bub.”

“I have a very small family, but I dream of an opportunity to be part of their lives,” Settle wrote. “I am humbly asking that you please consider giving me that opportunity and you have my word, you will never have cause to regret it.”

In July 2020, Andonian encouraged Settle to seek compassionate release. Thanks to hormone therapy, Settle’s prostate cancer was in remission, but he had other medical conditions that could increase his risk of severe COVID. Initially, Settle was not in favor. “I felt I did not qualify,” he said. “I thought that the finite amount of resources FAMM had at their disposal would be better used to assist some of the very sick prisoners I knew.” Andonian urged him to reconsider. She told him how deserving he was.

After they spoke, Settle went back to his cell and broke down in tears. “I’m not sure if my familiarity with the process made it more powerful,” he said, “but it was an overwhelming sense of gratitude, happiness, and other emotions.”

With Andonian’s help, two attorneys filed a motion on Settle’s behalf on January 27, 2021. It highlighted the threat COVID posed to him, his work helping people seek compassionate release, and his unusually onerous sentence. The First Step Act, which had made compassionate release more accessible, also gave judges expanded discretion to reduce sentences, especially mandatory minimums. “During his almost three decades of incarceration, Mr. Settle has grown from a reckless young man into a thoughtful middle-aged man known for the meaningful relationships he builds with others,” the motion read. “Mr. Settle’s extraordinary acts of service while in prison demonstrate his sincere rehabilitation and underscore that the period of incarceration imposed by the Court has served its intended purpose and should be amended to time served.”

The motion contained letters from people Settle had helped and from Victor Webster’s mother. They praised Settle for being “above prison politics” and for helping people exercise their rights. “In a place full of hate this guy oozed with love,” one stated. “[I] would love to see him in regular clothes, see how fast or how slow he drives.” A cancer survivor reflected on Settle’s compassion: “When I was mentally down Mr. Settle would come into my cell and sit for hours at a time listening to me.” Webster’s mother said she would be “forever grateful” that Settle helped ensure that her son could die at home in Montana.

Settle also made a direct appeal to the judge reviewing his request. He wrote that while he couldn’t explain the decisions he made as a young man, he had tried to be a better person since. What weighed on him most was being away from his family, especially his mother. “My own medical situation over the last few years has exposed me to the fragile nature of life and the importance and lasting value of family connections,” he wrote. He hoped to reconnect with his son, meet his grandchildren, and care for his mother as she aged. “I have a very small family, but I dream of an opportunity to be part of their lives,” he wrote. “I am humbly asking that you please consider giving me that opportunity and you have my word, you will never have cause to regret it.”

On March 5, 2021, Judge Carlos Mendoza of the Middle District of Florida denied Settle’s motion. He ruled that Settle’s health issues didn’t meet the criteria for compassionate release—he wasn’t terminal, and he could care for himself. “Covid-19 alone is not an extraordinary and compelling reason to grant release,” Mendoza said. In his view, reducing Settle’s sentence would minimize the seriousness of his offense, and “protecting the public remains a paramount consideration.” In other words, Mendoza considered Settle to be a threat to society.

The ruling was a gut punch to Settle and his supporters. “I was disappointed—I still am—by the shortsightedness of the judicial inquiry,” Andonian later said.

Eleven days after Settle’s request was denied, his physician contacted him with more bad news: The cancer was back. Mendoza had ruled on outdated information.

Settle knew of people who were granted compassionate release but, because they had no family to help them, died in prison as free men.

I began communicating with Settle in July 2021. I had read Price’s American Bar Association article about the work FAMM was doing on compassionate release, which referred to Settle’s crucial role without mentioning him by name. I asked the FAMM staff if the anonymous helper was amenable to having his story told. Andonian said that he was.

Settle and I had just one exchange on CorrLinks and a single phone call before his communication privileges were taken away. According to an incident report he later shared with me, he was written up for speaking to a member of the media without following “special mail procedures”—he had not obtained the prison’s permission before speaking with a journalist. Settle said that he was also placed in solitary confinement for two weeks. He eventually had his privileges restored, and for the next few months he called me several times a week. In chunks of no more than 15 minutes, due to the prison’s time limit on outgoing calls, he told me about his life and the people he’d helped send home.

That November, Settle wrote to say that his cancer had spread. A PET scan showed that it was in his lymph nodes, making it stage IV. He was starting treatment: hormone therapy again, along with eight rounds of chemo and perhaps radiation. He wrote that he saw cancer “as a challenge, as a fight I will be in till it’s over.”

He reported, too, that a social worker had told him he met the criteria for compassionate release—a coded way, Settle knew from his work with FAMM, of saying that he had less than 18 months to live. There was no guarantee he would get out, but given his new prognosis, he could ask the courts to consider his case a second time. Doing that would mean breaking his mother’s heart in a new way: Settle had avoided telling Kay about his cancer diagnosis—she thought that he’d filed his first compassionate release motion because his Graves’ disease heightened his COVID risk. He lied because Kay was a cancer survivor and because his father had died of the disease. He didn’t want to cause his mother anguish. Now, though, he had to tell her: If he requested compassionate release, the BOP would contact Kay to vet her as a suitable end-of-life caregiver. (Settle knew of people who were granted compassionate release but, because they had no family to help them, died in prison as free men.)

Settle said that telling his mom about his cancer was “the hardest thing I have ever done.” Kay told me she didn’t “scrape, rant, or rave” when she heard the news. She just asked “what number” the cancer was. “We’re going to beat this,” she told her son. Settle wept.

Settle found himself comparing his own situation with those of the people he was helping. He observed what happened to his neighbors as their bodies broke down and to the compassionate release motions of people with advanced metastatic cancer. He saw people with long histories of incarceration and multiple convictions, including for violent offenses, be sent home.

There were signs that his case might go the same way. Prison wardens are apt to deny compassionate release requests, stymieing them before they can even get to the BOP’s Central Office for final review, but Butner’s warden agreed that Settle met the criteria and recommended him for release. The response came as a surprise; for Settle it also confirmed just how poor his prognosis was.

While Settle waited to hear from the BOP, his legal team prepared to take his request to court if it was denied. Juliann Welch and Adeel Bashir, federal defense attorneys in the Florida district where Settle was originally tried, agreed to helm the effort, while Price and others at FAMM would offer guidance and support. Settle referred to them as Team Gary. The existence of a support squad strategizing about his case astonished him. “Up until a few years ago, I was Team Gary,” he said.

The omicron variant was racing through Butner when the BOP’s Central Office overrode the warden and denied Settle’s request, noting that his release “would minimize the severity of his offense and pose a danger to the community.” Settle and his lawyers now had to prepare to once again go before Judge Mendoza, who was still on the bench with jurisdiction over the case. Given Mendoza’s previous ruling, Team Gary hoped to get the U.S. attorney assigned to the case to support Settle’s release. It would be harder, they reasoned, for Mendoza to say no to both the defense and the state.

Welch and Bashir sent a package of materials to the U.S. attorney’s office, including character references and notes from medical experts who had evaluated Settle’s health records. A doctor concluded that although Settle would recover from the side effects of cancer treatment, he would require increasing amounts of assistance and ultimately need around-the-clock care, “either in a palliative or hospice setting.” A nurse at Butner who had cared for Settle wrote that she thought there was essentially zero chance he would reoffend. Research supported her intuition: The DOJ found in 2013 that only 3.5 percent of people granted compassionate release reoffended, compared with 41 percent of all individuals discharged from federal prison.

Still, Welch and Bashir offered concessions—a period of home confinement, for example, or an ankle monitor—that they hoped would guard against the judge’s concerns that Settle might still be dangerous. “The hurdle we have to get over is convincing the court that he’s also deserving,” Welch said, “because all of this is very firmly discretionary.”

Settle waited to learn about his fate. As weeks and then months ticked by, our email exchanges and phone conversations became less focused, more desultory. I had fewer pointed questions for Settle to answer before the phone line cut off. He told me about what he was reading: The Economist, The Wall Street Journal, Neal Stephenson books. He bemoaned that his 82-year-old mother still insisted on climbing a ladder to clean her gutters. He told stories, including one about visiting his grandparents when he was a child. Settle recalled clambering up a cherry tree even though he’d been told it was too weak to hold him. When he fell, he was stunned more than hurt, but still he began to cry. His grandfather gruffly told him to get up, adding, “If you’re going to be stupid, you’re going to have to be tough.”

Settle told me he still tried to live by that way of thinking. “I brought this on myself,” he said, not for the first time, about his incarceration. There was no point in complaining. “Except about the sentence,” he added dryly. “I’ll complain about that.”

Sometimes Settle slipped into dark moods. He was serving a life sentence with a life-limiting illness, and he was surrounded by people in a similar position. It was a lot to bear. “Anxious and impatient could be my middle names,” he said.

He tried to stay busy, even while undergoing cancer treatment. He worked on compassionate release motions for his neighbors and spent time on his own case, hoping to help Team Gary. He sent Welch a copy of his medical records—even though she already had them—highlighting what he considered the most important parts. He kept track of side effects from his treatment, including mouth sores, debilitating fatigue, and a numb left leg, so that no one could claim he was tolerating it well. He counted how many pills he took: 39 on most days, 51 when he had chemo. He had never slept comfortably in prison, and the steroids he was now taking didn’t help. He made sure to exercise and drink plenty of water, but eating healthy could be challenging: According to Price, the prison gave Settle only one piece of fruit—a banana—per week, and the “salad” on offer was just lettuce.

Settle allowed himself to consider what life outside prison would be like. He wanted to speak to at-risk youth, to cook the food he liked to eat, to submerge himself in water for the first time in almost 30 years—“preferably swimming but I will settle for a good soak in a tub,” he said. Kay, too, fantasized about the contented time she might have with her son. She had a room ready for him in her home, and she looked forward to going to the beach and sitting on her patio together, enjoying the view. “It’s going to be a whole new world,” she said.

Settle also hoped that if he was released he might get better treatment, buy more time. Kay felt the same way—in our conversations, she kept mentioning the urgency of getting her son to a “good doctor.” Sometimes it felt as though Settle and his mother had allowed themselves to believe that the terminal diagnosis only applied within prison walls. I wondered, if Settle were released, how it would feel to face the knowledge that he would still die of a painful disease.

When Settle saw his oncologist, he peppered the doctor with questions: Why was he having pain in his back? Could it be an indication that the cancer had spread to his bones? Bone metastases were notoriously painful and hard to treat; developing them was one of his biggest fears. According to Settle, the oncologist told him, “You look too good to be that sick!”

Settle said that he didn’t keep in touch with many people when he was feeling low, but he spoke to me because it made him feel “muse-like.” He mentioned the author John Irving, who has said that he liked to start a new novel by writing the last line first. “With that idea in mind,” Gary wrote to me, “how does some variation of this ending sound: ‘And Gary walked out the prison door….’?”

After he heard the news, Settle called me and barked a mock headline for my story: “Not Terminal Enough!”

Early in the spring of 2022, the assistant U.S. attorney who had reviewed the materials sent by Welch and Bashir announced that she would not support Settle’s motion for compassionate release. She believed that, even in his diminished state, he posed too great a risk to society. A social worker who advocates for people to be released from prison due to serious illness told me that she often sees prosecutors take this approach: “They want them to be on death’s door.”

After he heard the news, Settle called me and barked a mock headline for my story: “Not Terminal Enough!”

Once again it felt as if a decision was being made based on out-of-date information. In April, a scan indicated that Settle’s cancer may have spread to his spinal column. His wrists had become so weak, likely from arthritis, that he was wearing splints that reached to his elbows. By May, he couldn’t hold a toothbrush and barely managed to secure the large buttons on his prison uniform. Due to weakness in one of his legs, likely caused by metastases pressing on his sciatic nerve, he was issued a walker. It went without saying that even if he wanted to rob a bank, he couldn’t easily enter one, much less hold a gun or get away quickly.

His deteriorating condition led to accidents: Settle burned his arm when he spilled hot liquid on it, and he had a couple of falls. He could no longer push his wheelchair-bound friends to meals. “This is a really hard time for him, a really hard transformation from being the person who gives and supports to being the person who has to be supported,” Price said after visiting Settle that spring.

There is no limit to the number of times a person can apply for compassionate release, but Settle’s attorneys believed that he probably had one more shot. For Team Gary, the question became whether to file the motion with Mendoza, despite the assistant U.S. attorney’s lack of support, or wait until Settle was even sicker. Settle was resolute: He wanted to file and be done with the uncertainty.

On May 27, 2022, he tested positive for COVID. The symptoms started with nausea and vomiting; eventually, he developed fever, chills, and trouble breathing. He was placed in isolation. He later told me that he survived for three days on cough drops and water.

Settle’s lawyers filed his motion for compassionate release on May 31, with a request that it be expedited because of his COVID infection. They laid out Settle’s “changed medical circumstances” and the Butner warden’s determination that Gary met the criteria for a reduced sentence, even though his superiors disagreed. They emphasized that with his “imminent, continued, and significant physical decline consequent to his incurable condition,” along with his utter lack of inclination to reoffend and his demonstrated remorse and rehabilitation, he didn’t pose a danger to the public. Releasing Gary “does not undermine respect for the law,” the motion read. In an interview, Welch put it more bluntly: “His case is what the government had in mind when they wrote the compassionate release statute.”

In response to the motion, Mendoza called an in-person hearing—an unusual move. Settle and his lawyers hoped that meant the judge was seriously considering granting his release. The hearing took place on a hot summer day in Orlando, and it lasted about 45 minutes. Mendoza asked questions about Settle’s health and disciplinary record, and he raised several concerns: Why had Settle never sent apology letters to the people he had terrorized during his robberies? Why had he waited so long to express remorse? Welch read a statement Settle had written, and Mendoza seemed receptive. “It appears as if he’s accepting responsibility for what he did,” the judge said. Welch then requested that, should Mendoza not yet deem Settle ready for release, he consider abeyance—hitting the pause button on the motion—so that when Settle’s condition worsened, as it inevitably would, the motion could be considered again.

Mendoza said that he needed time to think. “This is a very difficult decision I’m being asked to make,” he said before adjourning the hearing.

A month later, Mendoza scheduled another hearing, this one by telephone. Within moments of starting the call, he dashed Team Gary’s hopes. The judge told Bashir, who attended the hearing on Settle’s behalf, that he saw no examples of Settle’s rehabilitation and remained concerned about his disciplinary record. Moreover, Mendoza said he found Settle’s statement of remorse disingenuous, given that he’d waited until he was seeking release to express it, and had never directly asked his victims for forgiveness. For those reasons, Mendoza concluded, the motion for compassionate release was denied. He did not allow for comment before ending the hearing.

Afterward, Price at FAMM got a call from Settle. He hadn’t been able to reach Bashir and figured Price might know how Mendoza had ruled. Price had heard the news. “I was deeply saddened by the denial and outraged by the form it took,” she wrote to me in an email. When she saw that Settle was calling, she didn’t answer—she thought it was better that he speak to his attorneys. But when he called a second time, she answered.

“So what happened?” Settle asked. Price, who had begun to weep, didn’t know what to say, so she hesitated. “OK,” Settle said in response to her silence. “I know.”

Settle then called Kay to tell her that he wouldn’t be coming home. “I am not going to say any more, as we are both going to cry,” he told his mom, though in truth he was already crying. Then he hung up the phone.

“It’s a process I trust and believe in that failed me,” Settle said. “I’m so glad the law exists even if it doesn’t help me. It’s my bad luck.”

I first requested a visit with Settle in April 2022, when Butner was still operating under tight restrictions because of COVID. In late summer, as case numbers went down and social distancing eased, I filed another request. Despite persistent prodding, months went by without a response. Price wrote to the BOP, reiterating that Settle had a right to speak to the press. “Mr. Settle is dying. Delay may be a denial,” she noted. Finally, in December, I was informed that I could have a one-hour visit with Settle. I would not be allowed to bring recording equipment.

On a bright, unseasonably warm January morning, I arrived in North Carolina’s Research Triangle. The sky was a limpid blue as I made my way to Butner, along pine-forest-lined roads with entrances to the corporate facilities of Novo Nordisk and Merck. When I turned onto Federal Center for Correctional Research Road, I was trailing an ambulance. The complex was eerily quiet. No one was in the yard, and no guards were visible.

Passing through security, I noticed wood cutouts of motivational phrases—Respect, Correctional Excellence, Integrity, Courage—hanging on the white cinder block walls. A TV screen in one corner flashed the phrase “Kindness is giving hope to those who think they are all alone in the world.” I was escorted to the visiting area by an officer wearing a bulletproof vest. Gray chairs were tipped against tables and stacked against the wall. There was no one else there. I asked the officer if I could shake Settle’s hand or hug him when he arrived and was granted permission.

Settle rolled into the room in his wheelchair wearing Timberland-style work boots and a jumpsuit with his name and prisoner ID number on the left breast. He stood up to embrace me, then moved to a regular chair. We had spoken on the phone scores of times, totaling a dozen hours or more, and I felt like I knew him well. But being in someone’s presence always brings new knowledge of them. Settle’s eyes were a bright golden brown, and his silver hair had been cut the day before, making it bristly.

The officer left us alone for the hour, and I decided to treat our meeting not as an interview but as a chance to be together. We talked about how angry Settle was when he first got to prison (“I just wanted to punch someone—I had no patience for anything”) and about forgiveness, namely his difficulty granting it to himself. He showed me photographs of his grandchildren and teared up when he talked about his mom, as he often did. He reflected on Mendoza’s denial and on the fact that he had allowed himself to hope for a better outcome.

Since the visit we have remained in touch, and almost every time we speak, Settle talks about a new compassionate release case he’s working on or another Butner prisoner who finally made it home. He told me that his story is “fairly well known” around Butner, and that people give him “pitying looks.” His friends, both inside and out, are frustrated on his behalf. “It really saddens me to know that with all he’s done for other people, and his medical condition now, that he isn’t at home with his family,” Richard Hodge wrote in an email. For her part, Price said, “He deserves better.”

Settle described compassionate release as “a process I trust and believe in that failed me.” With his own path foreclosed, Settle will likely die in prison. His only chance for a different end to his story is clemency, about which he is understandably pessimistic: Clemency petitions move through the Department of Justice at a glacial pace—it can be years before an answer comes—and a vanishingly small number are approved. The Trump administration approved only about 2 percent of the clemency requests it received, and the Biden administration is on track for roughly the same number. Still, Settle has decided to submit a request, with the support of Price and others.

Lately, Settle has been wrestling with whether he should continue cancer treatment. He has outlived his 18-month prognosis, and while his pain is constant and his mobility compromised, a recent CT scan showed that his tumors have stopped growing. His PSA has doubled, however, and doctors have recommended further hormone therapy. He isn’t sure he should bother. “I haven’t come to a full decision yet on whether to fight,” he said.

Before our visit at Butner, Settle sent me an essay he wrote—the title, a nod to Viktor Frankl, was “A man’s search for a reason to live.” In it, Settle reflected on his road to Butner and the toll of his cancer treatment, writing that it had “devastated” him physically and spiritually. “Maybe the latter was because I could not rationalize why I was undergoing such debilitating treatment when the effects of it were intended to extend my ‘life,’ ” he surmised. “This is not to say that I felt like dying during that time, or now. But my thoughts were simply, why? What do I have to look forward to?”

In trying to answer this question, he found himself reflecting on the work he’d done with FAMM. By his count, he had helped 42 people secure compassionate release. He wrote that he was glad to be part of an effort that brought hope to people in a hopeless place, and was honored to have met Price, Andonian, and others. “With my life experience it is not surprising that I was unused to communicating and interacting with people of this caliber,” Settle wrote. “That many of them have become dear and true friends is even more than surprising, it is humbling.”

“If I hang around for a little while, who knows what impact I can have?” he concluded. “In testament to the love and respect I have for my friends and to honor their work is reason enough for anyone to continue to live, even in here.”

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Sins of the Father

When Lesley Hu wanted to vaccinate her young son, her conspiracy-obsessed ex-husband went to unimaginable lengths to stop her.

Sins of the Father

By Eric Pape

The Atavist Magazine, No. 137

Eric Pape has worked as a journalist on five continents. His writing has appeared in Newsweek, The New York Times, Foreign Policy, Fast Company, and other publications. He was the deputy editor of the nonprofit media startup Civil Beat in Hawaii, and a story adviser on the Peabody Award–winning documentary Who Killed Chea Vichea? 

Editor: Seyward Darby
Art Director: Ed Johnson
Copy Editor: Sean Cooper
Fact Checker: Alison Van Houten
Photographer: Ian Bates

Published in March 2023.

A small, good-natured boy named Pierce O’Loughlin was growing up between the homes of his divorced parents in San Francisco. Nine-year-old Pierce was accustomed to custody handoffs taking place at Convent and Stuart Hall, the Catholic school he attended. On changeover days, one parent dropped him off in the morning at the hilltop campus overlooking the bay, and the other picked him up in the afternoon. The parents avoided seeing each other. Their split had been ugly.

On the afternoon of January 13, 2021, Lesley Hu, Pierce’s mother, arrived at Convent and Stuart Hall for a scheduled pickup. Hu planned to take Pierce to a Coinstar machine to exchange a small bucket of coins for a gift card he could use to buy toys. Then they would go to dinner at a restaurant called House of Prime Rib, because Pierce loved to eat meat.

But Hu’s son wasn’t waiting for her at the school. Staff told her that he had been absent that day. They didn’t know why.

Another mom might have assumed that her child had a cold or that his dad had let him skip school and taken him somewhere fun for the day, but not Hu. She wondered if Pierce had been kidnapped—not by a stranger but by his own father.

Over the course of their marriage, Hu had watched as her now ex-husband, Stephen O’Loughlin, became obsessed with pseudoscience, self-help gurus, and conspiracy theories, spending long nights watching videos online, then sharing the details of fantastical plots with Hu, their friends, and people he barely knew. The COVID-19 pandemic had only made things worse. O’Loughlin huddled for hours at his computer streaming YouTube clips and poring over right-wing websites—what he called “doing research.”

One of O’Loughlin’s fixations was vaccines. He believed that Pierce had been damaged by the routine inoculations he received as a baby. O’Loughlin was adamant that the boy be given no more shots—not for COVID-19, when a vaccine was eventually authorized for kids, nor for any other disease.

In 2020, Hu had filed for the sole legal right to make decisions about her son’s medical care, which would empower her to vaccinate Pierce regardless of what her ex wanted. She felt good about her chances in court. On January 11, as a condition for a continuance he had requested in the medical custody case, O’Loughlin suddenly agreed to let Pierce receive two vaccinations. In retrospect, according to Hu’s attorney, Lorie Nachlis, “it all seemed too easy.”

When Hu discovered that Pierce wasn’t at school, she wondered if O’Loughlin had agreed to the vaccinations only because he was plotting to steal Pierce away before their son could receive them. To Hu it wasn’t improbable—her ex seemed that far gone.

Hu and her boyfriend, Jim Baaden, had recently decided to move in together; Hu was planning to tell Pierce the news that evening at dinner. Now Baaden picked Hu up at Pierce’s school, and together the couple sped to O’Loughlin’s home in San Francisco’s posh Marina District, trying not to dwell on worst-case scenarios.

When they arrived outside O’Loughlin’s Mediterranean-style apartment building, they noticed that the blinds in the living room, which was on the ground floor of the unit, were drawn but disheveled. For a moment, Baaden recoiled. O’Loughlin was a gun owner. What if he’d barricaded himself and Pierce in the apartment? Baaden imagined O’Loughlin aiming the barrel between the blinds, ready to shoot.

Baaden and Hu approached the building’s intercom and buzzed O’Loughlin’s apartment. No one answered. Hu began banging on the door to the building and screaming. She considered breaking in, but Baaden told her to call 911 instead.

Hu could not fathom how someone like O’Loughlin—a man of means and privilege—had come to believe outrageous lies. She knew that various misinformation networks and snake-oil salesmen had facilitated her ex’s paranoia and exploited his psychological fragility. But Hu had always stayed focused on what she considered her most important task: raising and protecting Pierce.

There would be time in the future to consider, almost endlessly, what happened to O’Loughlin. For now, in a panic, all Hu could do was wonder: Where had he taken their son?

Stephen O’Loughlin’s apartment building

A dozen years earlier, Stephen O’Loughlin was a very different man. At least he seemed to be when Hu first met him at an Italian wine bar. O’Loughlin, then in his mid-thirties, with a strong jaw and a slightly crooked smile, started chatting her up. He said that he was in finance and that he worked out. Hu, 28, wasn’t interested in his advances. She considered herself an independent woman. She worked in midlevel management and had served as the executive director of the Hong Kong Association of Northern California, a business group. The child of immigrants, she had aspirations to achieve more, to make her parents proud. Besides, she had gotten out of a long relationship recently, and she wasn’t at the bar looking for a date—she was there to cheer up a friend going through a tough time.

But O’Loughlin was persistent, and after several glasses of champagne, Hu decided that he was funny. He asked her charming if oddly specific questions: What was her favorite kind of wine? What sort of bottled water did she drink? As Hu prepared to leave, O’Loughlin asked for her number. She hesitated but gave it to him.

He texted to ask her out. She had a busy work schedule at her family’s company, which leased shipping containers, but O’Loughlin insisted that they find time to meet as soon as possible. When they did, he picked Hu up in a brand-new car stocked with her favorite water. A bottle of sparkling rosé she liked was waiting at the restaurant where they’d be dining. “He remembered everything I said the night we met,” Hu explained.

They began going out with friends for fun, alcohol-infused nights at clubs around San Francisco. O’Loughlin often brought Hu flowers. He was generous, picking up the tab on club nights and when dining out with Hu and her parents. “He was like that for months,” Hu recalled. “He said that he’d talked to his Asian friend and that he should be generous with my family.” Reaching for his wallet at the end of a meal, O’Loughlin would insist, “No, I’ve got this.” (Hu later learned that he’d been using his professional expense account.)

Early in their relationship, O’Loughlin, who grew up in Ridgefield, Connecticut, painted an incomplete picture of his parents and sister. His mother, he told Hu, was “the greatest person in the world.” He was more reserved when talking about his father. He said that he adored his two nieces, and when he and Hu visited the girls on the East Coast, O’Loughlin took them to Toys “R” Us and bought them whatever they wanted. “They were elated, so surprised,” Hu said. She told O’Loughlin she wanted kids of her own. He said he did, too.

Still, when O’Loughlin proposed after about a year of dating, Hu wasn’t sold on the idea. She didn’t like the way O’Loughlin, an arch conservative, got blustery when talking about politics. Hu, a Democrat, didn’t feel like he listened when she spoke about serious issues. O’Loughlin projected such certainty about their future as a couple, however, that Hu found herself saying yes to marriage.

Almost immediately after the engagement, O’Loughlin changed. The flowers, gifts, and other gestures of affection disappeared. He stopped paying for meals with Hu’s parents. Hu realized that O’Loughlin’s generosity had been transactional. He was a salesman by trade, peddling financial services for the firm Eaton Vance, and he brought the strategy of his job to his personal life: Once he landed a deal, he stopped spending time and energy on it.

Hu’s parents were concerned. Her dad took O’Loughlin out for a drink and suggested the couple at least wait a while to get married. “Steve came back really angry,” Hu said. After that, O’Loughlin attended gatherings of Hu’s family only begrudgingly. He wore what Hu called his “shit face,” looking bored or angry. He urged Hu to quit her job at her family’s company.

The situation became so bad that Hu gave her engagement ring back. “I can’t do this,” she told O’Loughlin. “It’s really hard.” As both of them wept, O’Loughlin promised to do better. Hu wanted to believe him. In return, she agreed to leave her job. “It was the only way it would work,” she said. O’Loughlin couched distancing Hu from her family and their business as an opportunity: He suggested that she could find employment in fashion retail, a field he knew she was interested in.

Figuring out a new career path, however, took a back seat to wedding planning. Hu threw herself into designing a celebration in Italy, until O’Loughlin nixed the idea. Instead, they reserved space at a resort in Santa Barbara. They were married in front of 150 guests on October 10, 2010.

For their honeymoon they traveled to the Maldives, the tropical archipelago in the Indian Ocean. Hu described it as “paradise.” The newlyweds stayed in an elegant cabin suspended over pale blue water alive with stingrays and other aquatic life. They were supposed to be spontaneous, to relish nature, to jump in the water whenever they felt like it. But O’Loughlin was hardly in the moment; he took part in a single activity with his wife each day, then went back to their room to immerse himself in self-help books. He complained to Hu and was rude to hotel staff, especially waiters. When he learned that most of the employees, like nearly all residents of the Maldives, were Muslim, he seemed disturbed.

Hu noticed something else: O’Loughlin wouldn’t walk beside her. He was always a few steps ahead. “Anywhere we went,” Hu said, “I was secondary.”

It was all enough to make her contemplate a quick divorce right after the honeymoon. But when they were back in California, Hu was hit with waves of nausea. A test confirmed that she was pregnant. She decided it was no time to break up the marriage.

Despite what he’d said while courting her, O’Loughlin didn’t seem excited by the prospect of having a child. According to Hu, he acted as if she wasn’t pregnant. He didn’t ask how she was feeling and didn’t want to put his hand on her belly when the baby kicked. He took Hu on a babymoon to Australia, only to reveal that the trip coincided with an installment of Unleash the Power Within, an event organized by self-help guru Tony Robbins. Among other things, O’Loughlin was drawn to Robbins’s idea that nutrition was an essential building block of self-improvement. He started eating dressing-free salads and supplement-filled health shakes that he insisted Hu prepare for him.

O’Loughlin also became convinced that Eaton Vance was swindling him. He talked Hu in circles about how he should have been earning far more money through commissions than he was, and he became argumentative with his bosses. Late in Hu’s third trimester, O’Loughlin sat down with colleagues for what he thought was a regular meeting. Instead, they took his work computers and informed him that he was fired. As Hu’s due date approached, O’Loughlin became preoccupied with the idea of suing the company.

Hu went into labor on July 27, 2011, nine months and 17 days after her marriage to O’Loughlin. It was a difficult birth. Hu, a petite woman, had to deliver an 8.3-pound baby. She was in such tremendous pain that doctors pumped her full of medication. “I couldn’t push the baby out, so they used a vacuum [extractor],” Hu said. Once Pierce arrived, there were more complications—his oxygen levels were dangerously low.

Rather than express concern for the baby or his wife, O’Loughlin seemed put off by everything that was happening. He had expected a cinematic birth. “He kept saying, ‘That wasn’t normal,’ ” Hu recalled. “He was so obsessed with the birth not being right.”

Nothing, it seemed, was ever right for O’Loughlin.

O’Loughlin wouldn’t walk beside her. He was always a few steps ahead. “Anywhere we went,” Hu said, “I was secondary.”

O’Loughlin didn’t sue Eaton Vance, perhaps because Hu and her family convinced him that he would lose. After Pierce’s birth he got another job, but he didn’t like his boss, a woman of color, and quit after a few months. O’Loughlin had sold his bachelor pad in San Francisco for a tidy profit, and he and Hu moved to a new home in Carmel-by-the Sea, a wealthy, picturesque beach community about 120 miles south of San Francisco.

As O’Loughlin coasted along without a job, he all but ignored Pierce. Hu had to handle every feeding and diaper change. “All Stephen would do was sing to the baby,” she said. O’Loughlin preferred to spend time engaging with the world of gurus and life coaches.

His friend Todd Criter saw this growing fascination firsthand. Criter, a longtime financial adviser at Merrill Lynch, met O’Loughlin in 2009. “We’d go to the best restaurants in the city, thanks to his expense accounts,” Criter said. O’Loughlin was charismatic and ambitious, with a head for numbers. Criter liked the guy but “never felt like Steve had a big heart.” If anything, O’Loughlin seemed “cold and calculating.”

Criter had gotten into Tony Robbins back in the early 1990s, after seeing the impresario on late-night TV. Robbins was just becoming a household name; in a few years, he would claim President Bill Clinton as a client and be well on his way to building a business empire. (Multiple fans and former employees have since accused Robbins of sexual harassment; he has denied any wrongdoing.) Criter liked the way Robbins talked about business mastery and developing discipline, and decided to buy the guru’s cassettes and books.

Two decades later Criter had outgrown Robbins, but after being fired from Eaton Vance, O’Loughlin doubled down. That meant spending money. The underlying concept of Robbins’s organization is that a person can buy access to empowerment, and paying more means getting more. Robbins’s offerings are tiered: You can buy a ticket to an event or pay a premium for the best seating. For about $85,000, an acolyte can get “platinum” access, which includes face time with Robbins and his wife, Sage.

O’Loughlin couldn’t comfortably afford to go platinum, but Hu estimated that he still spent tens of thousands of dollars on all things Robbins. He became a facilitator in Robbins’s organization and attended weekend training events with the man himself. He also went with Criter to a 2012 gathering in Palm Springs called Date with Destiny, which promised to help attendees “discover your purpose in life.” Robbins’s marathon sessions lasted deep into the night. Criter remembered the room where they took place being strangely chilly. Participants were pushed out of their comfort zones, encouraged to talk about pain and trauma. The experience could be exhausting and disorienting. “It’s like he’s going to break you,” Criter said. “The only thing missing was waterboarding.”

Other sessions were led by a man named Donny Epstein, a chiropractor who Robbins has claimed can “take the energy fields in your body and around your body, take the intelligence that creates your body, and align it with what may be seen as your true, ultimate blueprint.” Epstein’s work centers on what he describes as the 12 stages of consciousness, beginning with suffering and ending with community. Epstein is known for putting volunteers in what appear to be unconscious or semiconscious states, and then triggering involuntary movements in their bodies.

Criter attended one of Epstein’s sessions in Palm Springs and found it unnerving. “As soon as we walked out, I said, ‘What the hell just happened?’ ” Criter recalled. By contrast, O’Loughlin seemed stimulated. “I feel like they’re trying to reorganize my brain,” he told his friend.

O’Loughlin decided to learn everything he could about Epstein, watching online videos and reading articles and blog posts about him. It wasn’t just that O’Loughlin wanted to understand what had happened in Palm Springs, how Epstein had seemingly gained control of participants’ minds and bodies—he wanted to figure out how to replicate it.

Pierce O’Loughlin in 2017

O’Loughlin’s attention span proved short; in a matter of days he had moved on from Donny Epstein. But the digital paths he continued down were slippery. Through online searches, O’Loughlin discovered Conspiracy Theory with Jesse Ventura, a TV show hosted by the professional wrestler turned Minnesota governor who claimed that 9/11 was an inside job. Ventura’s show promised to explore government secrets, ask questions no one else was asking, and let audiences make up their own minds about what was true. It led O’Loughlin to other content—videos, blogs, forums—about what powerful people supposedly weren’t telling him.

For the first time Hu could remember, her husband began making bizarre claims. Busy caring for 17-month-old Pierce, she tried to tune O’Loughlin out when he ranted about how Barack Obama was born in a cave and had been a CIA asset before he was elected to the U.S. Senate. She fell asleep as he talked about the New World Order and awoke to discover that he’d been up all night scouring the internet and now wanted to talk about the sprawling influence of the Illuminati. She cringed when O’Loughlin began parroting Alex Jones’s lies about the Sandy Hook massacre being a hoax.

Hu bore the brunt of O’Loughlin’s outlandish musings and intensifying paranoia, but others felt it, too. O’Loughlin warned at least one family friend, “The government is coming to get us.” A mutual acquaintance asked Todd Criter, “What happened to Steve?”

One day O’Loughlin and Hu were in their kitchen, which had a beautiful view of Carmel Valley, when he spotted men in orange suits outside. He insisted they’d been sent by the government as part of a nefarious plot. “He was freaking out,” Hu recalled. As gently as she could, she told him the men were just picking up garbage.

O’Loughlin didn’t believe her. He insisted on preparing to flee government persecution, stocking their car with guns and enough food and water to last four months. “I couldn’t stop him,” Hu said. “It’s scary to go up against someone who thinks the world is coming to get them.”

Whenever the couple argued, Hu slept on the floor next to Pierce’s crib. Sometimes O’Loughlin came in and yanked the blankets away from her. “He was unraveling,” Hu said. “I thought, How long does this have to last?”

She considered leaving, but she worried about Pierce. Despite showing no interest in parenting, O’Loughlin told Hu that if she ever tried to take their son away, he would call law enforcement. Going to court meant uncertainty. It wouldn’t be easy for Hu to muster the preponderance of evidence necessary to persuade a judge that her husband was unfit to care for Pierce. O’Loughlin could still flip from spouting delusional theories to playing the part of Capable White-Collar Guy. What if Hu escaped the marriage only to lose custody of her child? It’s a question many women in toxic relationships face, a fact that offered Hu no comfort. If anything, it made her situation seem bleaker.

At some point, O’Loughlin told Hu he was going to write a book. He claimed to have “figured it out,” referring, as far as Hu could tell, to some greater truth about the world that he’d arrived at during the countless hours he spent online. “I’m going to write it all,” O’Loughlin said excitedly.

When Hu told her family what was going on, they staged an intervention, encouraging her to get out of the marriage. Searching for an escape hatch, Hu became fatalistic. Maybe if he would just hit me, she thought, it would make leaving easier.

Then one day she had an idea: If O’Loughlin was so convinced U.S. authorities were after him that he was ready to leave home on a moment’s notice, why not actually go somewhere for a while? O’Loughlin, Hu, and Pierce could spend time together as a family in a quiet place far away. Maybe that would shake O’Loughlin out of his deranged state, re-center him. “In retrospect it sounds stupid,” Hu said. “But in the moment, I didn’t know what to do.”

Hu contacted some cousins who lived in Germany, and they invited her to come for a long visit. To her relief, O’Loughlin agreed to go. They arrived in the town of Buxtehude in January 2013. Sometimes referred to as the fairy tale capital of the world, Buxtehude is the setting for many German folk stories. It’s lined with canals, brick thoroughfares, and old red-roof buildings. Hu, O’Loughlin, and Pierce stayed in a house on her extended family’s property. Hu had briefed her relatives on her husband’s issues before arriving, and she found solidarity with a couple of divorced female cousins. “They had dealt with some of their own ex-husbands,” Hu said.

O’Loughlin didn’t stop spending his nights online, and he slept most of the day. Still, Hu said, “Stephen seemed calmer.” She focused on catching up with her cousins and caring for Pierce, who required the thorough attention most toddlers do. The situation wasn’t perfect, but it was better than life had been in Carmel.

Then O’Loughlin found a new obsession. Out of the blue he insisted that the family go to Egypt. International news programs were covering a wave of crackdowns in Tahrir Square, two years after the start of the Arab Spring. O’Loughlin believed that the mainstream media were liars. He wanted to prove it by going to Egypt and seeing for himself that there was no violence.

Hu didn’t want to take Pierce somewhere dangerous. She thought about going back to California, but O’Loughlin kept Pierce’s passport in his possession. Hu could only take their son over international borders if O’Loughlin allowed it.

Perhaps from desperation, Hu reasoned that if O’Loughlin witnessed the unrest in Egypt, it might at least chip away at his belief in conspiracy theories. “I was hoping he would calm the fuck down and maybe realize that he didn’t know everything that was going on,” Hu said. “I was thinking, This is Pierce’s dad, this is the guy I married. I needed to do what was necessary to make it work.”

As it happened, Hu’s brother had just been to Egypt on business. He told her that if they were guided by the right people, the family would be fine. Her brother put Hu in touch with a tour manager who found them a five-star hotel in Giza; because of the protests and crackdowns, tourism had plummeted, so the family got a discounted stay. They booked a flight to Cairo.

The family visited the pyramids, where desert winds lashed the stones, and the statue of Sekhmet, the ancient Egyptian goddess of both war and healing. “I hate to say it,” Hu said, “but it was a cool time.” When they approached Tahrir Square one day, a demonstration was happening, but it didn’t seem to register with O’Loughlin. “He didn’t really care,” Hu said. “He was already onto different things.”

O’Loughlin’s new interests surprised his wife, because they seemed of a crunchier variety. O’Loughlin started talking about reincarnation and the origins of the earth. He told Hu he was having a “spiritual awakening.” His experience was informed by a group of American tourists, most of them middle-aged women, who were also visiting Giza. New Age types who wore flowing, patterned clothes, the women said they visited Egypt every year with the goal of healing the earth. They prayed in front of the Sphinx and talked about energy frequencies. When they told O’Loughlin about an amazing psychic they’d met with recently in a video call, O’Loughlin wasted no time looking him up.

David Groode promoted himself as a numerologist and “personal intuitive life coach.” From his hotel room in Egypt, O’Loughlin scheduled a call with Groode at his home in Palm Springs, California. According to Hu, the “reading” Groode did of O’Loughlin “blew his mind.” The two men began to speak frequently, for hours at a time. Groode said that O’Loughlin had boundless energy and asked questions that were “way out there,” even for Groode. O’Loughlin seemed to feel as if he were trapped in some kind of game or matrix. “He was questioning how everything was designed, what’s real and what’s not,” Groode said. “Sometimes I’d be drained after talking with him, because it was another reality.”

Through Groode, O’Loughlin connected with a guy who said he could clear “Akashic records”—basically, the totality of someone’s experiences and emotions—in order to awaken “ancient wisdoms.” Hu said that O’Loughlin “loaned” this person between $15,000 and $20,000, then let him work it off at an hourly rate by clearing O’Loughlin’s supposedly clogged psyche during phone and video calls.

One day, O’Loughlin insisted that Hu let Groode do a psychic reading of her. Since they were still in Egypt, it happened over Skype. Hu found the whole thing mundane. “He said, ‘You have a loving family, but you get in fights with your mom,’ ” Hu recalled. At the end of the conversation, Groode had her write down various concepts and resources she could use to improve her mental state. “I took the paper and threw it in the trash,” she said.

Groode also concluded that Hu was what he called “a daughter of Amma.” That pronouncement prompted O’Loughlin to fly his family from Egypt to Kerala, India. There, nestled between the jungle and the shores of the Indian Ocean, was the ashram of Sri Mata Amritanandamayi Devi, also known as Amma. A Hindu spiritual leader, Amma encouraged simple gestures to uplift humanity. Groode, who had attended some of the guru’s events on her visits to California and hugged her several times, thought that learning from Amma was crucial to the next phase of O’Loughlin and Hu’s evolution as individuals and as a couple. “I felt it would put them all on a better path and give them some added protection,” Groode said.

It didn’t feel that way when the family arrived in Kerala. Hu said that on their first night at the ashram, they were kept in a room in a building that locked from the outside. Daylight didn’t bring much comfort. The ashram was packed with foreign devotees of Amma who seemed to define one another according to how much time they spent worshiping their leader. “There were a lot of holier-than-thou Westerners who were stinky and messy and rude,” Hu said.

Hu slept with Pierce on top of her, hoping to protect him from bugs. She worried he would catch a stomach ailment. When she and O’Loughlin were asked to write down what they hoped to accomplish during their time at the ashram, Hu said that she wanted Pierce to be blessed.

O’Loughlin wished for something else. In his youth, he’d undergone elective surgery to alleviate a profuse perspiration problem. He told Hu that the procedure hadn’t worked. In India, he took to wearing an undershirt to prevent sweat stains, but in the tropical heat, the extra layer of clothing had the opposite effect. At the ashram, O’Loughlin wrote that he wished for Amma to stop his perspiration.

Hu wanted so badly to believe that their round-the-world trip might bring out a better version of her husband, a version she’d glimpsed when they first started dating. When she learned about his wish, she responded with a question: “Are you fucking kidding me?”

O’Loughlin seemed to feel as if he were trapped in some kind of game or matrix. “He was questioning how everything was designed, what’s real and what’s not,” Groode said.

The family returned to California in April 2013. While Hu minded Pierce—bathing him, feeding him, playing with him, putting him down for naps—O’Loughlin took long walks around Carmel speaking into a voice recorder. He said it was for the book he was writing.

Neither O’Loughlin nor Hu had a job. Hu didn’t know how she’d manage to leave her husband if it came to that. “If I’d been working, maybe I wouldn’t have felt so weak,” Hu said. “I was away from people who knew me professionally and believed in me. I was with stay-at-home moms who didn’t do that sort of thing. I couldn’t find the power to say, ‘Enough!’ ”

Acting on David Groode’s advice, O’Loughlin engaged with various spiritual and self-help groups, both online and in person. He weighed which of them seemed worth the sizable sums of money they inevitably demanded of their followers, while berating Hu when she bought household items at Target. O’Loughlin soon developed an affinity for a group called Access Consciousness, based in Houston. If Tony Robbins’s sales pitch was about boosting achievement, Access Consciousness’s was about repair and expansion of the mind.

Access, as insiders call it, was founded by a former real estate businessman named Gary M. Douglas. Facing lawsuits from collection agencies and in debt to the IRS, Douglas declared bankruptcy in 1993. Within two years he had reinvented himself, launching a self-help organization modeled in part on Scientology, whose founder, L. Ron Hubbard, had also received bankruptcy protection before launching his controversial, lucrative church.

Douglas drew additional inspiration from New Age practitioners whose social circles he’d run in while living in Santa Barbara in the late 1980s. At parties, some of these people had “channeled” messages from spiritual entities: the dead relative of a guest, for instance, or the victim of an unsolved murder. Around the time Douglas founded Access, he began claiming that he had channeling powers—and when he channeled, he went big. Douglas said that the assassinated Russian mystic Grigory Rasputin spoke through him; when this happened, Douglas adopted an accent and his voice boomed. Briefly, he claimed that he could channel aliens, too. (Douglas declined to answer questions sent to him by email for this story.)

By the time O’Loughlin discovered Access in 2013, there was no longer much talk of channeling. Instead, the organization promised to transform the lives of its followers by helping them break down internal barriers and reach a freer version of reality. Access talked about finding new ways of seeing, thinking, and feeling, about overcoming traumas and insecurities, about eliminating personal enemies. It offered teachings in the form of manuals, some of which, published in 2012 and obtained the same year by the Houston Press, included the following wisdom:

How do you handle a demon bitch or bastard from hell? You call them up and say quietly to them three times, “If you do this again, I will kill you.” Make sure nobody else can hear you. You have to mean it. Maybe not this lifetime, but you will kill them.

[“Family” stands for] fucked-up and mainly interested in limiting you.… The reason they love you is that you agree with them.… Remember, the only reason to have a family is if they have money you might inherit. Otherwise, divorce them.

In many cases where children were sexually abused, the child allowed themselves to be molested because it was a way of stopping the person from doing it to anybody else. And they knew it—even if they were only six or seven years old. That was a great gift and a bizarre point of view to realize that they know it’s what they have to do.

That last assertion may have had particular resonance for O’Loughlin, who claimed he was a victim of childhood sexual abuse. He told Hu that when he was 11 or 12, a Catholic priest named Father Stubbs touched him with his penis. He said he fought the priest off and then told his parents about the incident, but they remained part of the church’s flock. (O’Loughlin’s parents did not reply to requests for comment. Several men have accused a Father Charles Stubbs, who served in Connecticut, of molesting them when they were young. Stubbs was removed from the priesthood in 2004.)

Hu knew the exact moment when Access succeeded in hooking her husband. He was attending one of the group’s events and called Hu to tell her that Douglas himself had asked to get together for a drink and a chat. When O’Loughlin arrived at the hotel room where they were meeting, Douglas said, “The consciousness of this room was just raised.” It was a high compliment that made O’Loughlin feel special. “Boom, he was a member,” Hu said. “After that he was gung-ho Access. They gave him the bait, and it went right down.”

At first Hu didn’t mind Access—what little she knew about it, anyway. Its principles were kooky, but O’Loughlin had become fixated on worse. If Access could help him on his quest to figure out what was missing in his life, Hu might finally be able to breathe. Soon, though, her opinion of Access changed.

Access “facilitators” are followers who essentially start a sub-branch of the group and stage local events. O’Loughlin became a facilitator, and he invited Todd Criter, his old friend from Merrill Lynch, to one gathering at his house. Criter, who was generally open-minded, was gobsmacked by the event. O’Loughlin had always been health obsessed, yet the refreshments table was filled with soda, powdered donuts, and other junk food. O’Loughlin explained Access’s philosophy that people could, through sheer force of will, transform their reality, including the nutritional value of what they ate. “We believe that your body can convert anything into what it needs. If you need protein or iron or green vegetables, you can get that from sugar,” O’Loughlin told Criter.

In the living room, Criter found people touching each other with tuning forks. “I go into these things gung-ho, but I was like, What the heck?” Criter said. When Hu came home from an outing with Pierce, Criter asked her what was going on. She rolled her eyes.

Much like Scientology, Access offers a plethora of techniques that it claims people can use to achieve enlightenment. One of them mixes acupressure with chakra methodology. Access leaders say there are 32 “bars” or points on the human head that when lightly touched help to “mute” a person’s limitations. The organization also tells followers to repeat “clearing statements” to move bad energy out of the body. The most common statements sound like babble to the uninitiated. For instance, “right and wrong, good and bad, POD and POC, all nine, shorts, boys, POVADs and beyonds.” Much of this is Access shorthand: POD stands for “point of destruction,” POC for “point of creation,” and POVADs for “points of view you are avoiding and defending.” The “nine” are “layers of crap.”

According to the website of Douglas’s right-hand man, Dain Heer, people can use clearing statements “to change almost anything that is keeping you stuck, limited or tied up in knots!” A clearing statement can wipe away, as if by “magic,” what Heer describes as “all that stuff, all that yuck, stuck and what the fuck that you’ve been dealing with.”

Access insists that the power to heal exists within the self, and O’Loughlin was willing to pay the group to help him marshal the tools he supposedly already possessed to elevate his existence. Access’s revenue streams include tiered memberships, book sales, and admission to live and recorded events. According to a legal filing, Hu estimated that her husband spent between $3,000 and $5,000 a pop on Access gatherings in far-flung places, including Venice, Italy. He told her that these retreats were helping him unpack his mental baggage, even as he continued to verbalize fears that the government was out to get him.

According to former insiders, Access bears many hallmarks of a cult. Leaders flatter recruits and convince them of things they might not otherwise believe. A past member who spoke on condition of anonymity said that the group drives wedges between its followers and their friends and family because “you have better control of someone if they aren’t linked to anyone else.” (A p.r. representative for Access did not reply to a request for comment.)

Hu went to a few Access events with O’Loughlin, including one held in the ballroom of a hotel, where people lay on massage tables with blankets and pillows to have their bars “activated.” Douglas and Heer sat on a stage. “They said, ‘Welcome, you humanoids. You’re here. You’ve found us,’ ” Hu recalled. She was convinced that O’Loughlin had become part of a dangerous club. “It was disabling his head,” she said.

Hu noticed that the deeper he got into Access, the worse O’Loughlin treated women. Several female acquaintances told her that in social situations he either said inappropriate things to them or acted as if they weren’t there. “A neighbor was so disgusted with him that she invited me to her birthday party but said he couldn’t come,” Hu told me. “That kind of thing happened over and over.”

In early 2015, O’Loughlin told Hu to meet him at a Super Bowl party at a friend’s mansion in Pebble Beach, just north of Carmel. As the Seattle Seahawks faced off against the New England Patriots, Hu waited for her husband to arrive. She had no interest in football, but O’Loughlin did, so it was strange that he was late. Hu called him repeatedly, but he didn’t answer. Finally, she gave up waiting and headed home, where she found O’Loughlin sitting in front of his computer, “researching.”

“Why didn’t you call?” she asked. “Is it this Access Consciousness bullshit?”

O’Loughlin’s reply was laced with a peculiar combination of flattery and misogyny. He told Hu that she’d been influenced by the other women at the party. “You’re so psychic,” he said, “you’re picking up the anger of the women toward men.”

A view of the Golden Gate Bridge

I can’t do this anymore.

That was the essence of the letter Hu wrote to O’Loughlin on March 23, 2015, while he was away at an Access event. She didn’t know how to say to his face that their marriage had exhausted her, so she put it down on paper. His response when he returned home and read the letter surprised her: He suggested they go to couple’s therapy. He even told her that she could pick the therapist.

Hu reluctantly agreed to the idea, but sensing that he’d likely sabotage sessions with anyone she selected, she told O’Loughlin he could choose the therapist they saw. He picked Gary Douglas. Hu agreed. “I needed to be able to look Pierce in the eyes and say I tried everything to make this work,” she said. According to Hu, before they traveled to Houston to see Douglas, O’Loughlin told her that he’d prepaid more than $22,000 for ten hours with the Access founder.

The counseling took place at Douglas’s large home, which was filled with antiques and had a pool in the backyard. Hu was surprised when Douglas didn’t automatically take O’Loughlin’s side—instead, he encouraged O’Loughlin to do a better job of listening to his wife. Later Hu would wonder if Douglas had an ulterior motive. “Maybe Gary was trying to draw me in [to Access],” Hu said.

In the weeks after their counseling sessions, a series of small cruelties pushed Hu over the edge. For Mother’s Day, she asked for a new cell phone. Instead, O’Loughlin reset her existing phone and “gifted” it to her. Soon after, when Hu decided to take a birthday trip to Las Vegas with friends, O’Loughlin insisted on planning it. He promised to make it a great experience, then abruptly told her he was canceling the trip.

In July 2015, Hu announced that she wanted a divorce. She told O’Loughlin that she would be vacating the house the following day and he could keep most of their material possessions. In what she later described as “the hardest thing I had done in my life at that point,” Hu also said that Pierce could stay with O’Loughlin for the time being. She feared that leaving with their toddler would cause O’Loughlin to erupt, making her life a greater hell than it already was and possibly threatening her chances of being awarded custody down the road. Once she’d separated from O’Loughlin, Hu would figure out how to retrieve Pierce as soon as possible.

The next morning, O’Loughlin woke up and drove 120 miles to Berkeley for an appointment, ensuring that he wouldn’t be back by the time Hu had said she’d be leaving. “He didn’t believe me,” Hu said. She waited until O’Loughlin returned, then said goodbye to Pierce. O’Loughlin seemed bewildered that he would have to care for the boy alone.

“What does he eat?” O’Loughlin asked.

“He’s four years old,” Hu replied. “You can ask him what he eats.”

Hu drove to her parents’ home two hours away. “It was like leaving your kid in the wilderness and going to look for help,” Hu said.

Soon after Hu left, O’Loughlin texted her to say that he would be dropping Pierce off at her parents’ place. When he arrived, he plunked himself down in the garage and said that he would change. Hu had no interest in returning to the marriage. Still, hoping to avoid an argument, she signaled that it might be possible to make amends.

Todd Criter, who by then was “100 percent team Lesley,” soon got involved to “play a diplomatic role.” Criter talked to O’Loughlin, who insisted he wanted Hu back. “I had probably ten or fifteen conversations with him,” Criter recalled. “I said, ‘You have to prove you won’t treat her like an asshole anymore, and you’re not doing that.’ ” Initially O’Loughlin would agree, then by the end of the call he’d be talking about what he needed to “make” Hu do.

When it sank in that Hu wasn’t coming back, O’Loughlin became consumed with anger. He channeled it in familiar ways, seeking to control aspects of Hu’s life. That included Pierce, and in particular the boy’s health care.

Hu drove to her parents’ home two hours away. “It was like leaving your kid in the wilderness and going to look for help,” she said.

In 1998, Andrew Wakefield, a British doctor, and a dozen coauthors published a study in The Lancet seeking to explain a surge of autism diagnoses in children. The study suggested that the MMR vaccine, which protects against the measles, mumps, and rubella, was the cause. Twelve years later, The Lancet, with the support of ten of the study’s authors, retracted the findings. The statement announcing the retraction noted that “several elements” of the study were “incorrect.” It cited ethical problems with Wakefield’s work, including the fact that some funding for the study had come from lawyers representing parents who were suing vaccine manufacturers. Subsequent investigations found that Wakefield had falsified medical records, and in 2010, he was banned from practicing medicine in the United Kingdom.

There is no evidence that vaccines cause autism, but thanks to Wakefield’s study, influential anti-vax advocates, and the advent of social media, the notion that they do spread like wildfire. Some parents of children with autism believed they’d finally found the explanation for their families’ suffering. Others, fearing the purported health consequences, forwent vaccines for their young kids. Meanwhile, conspiracy theorists agitated about the mass poisoning of Americans, and some conservative politicians framed vaccination as a matter of parental choice and personal freedom. The result was a sort of zombie vaccine skepticism—even after the Lancet retraction, it just wouldn’t die.

O’Loughlin seemed to catch the anti-vax bug the moment Pierce was born. When medical staff inquired about giving Pierce the hepatitis B vaccine, which the CDC recommends all babies get within 24 hours of birth, Hu was still heavily medicated. O’Loughlin seized the moment. “We’re not signing this!” he declared, referring to the document a parent had to sign to consent to the vaccine. Later, when Hu was able to deal with the paperwork required for various early childhood inoculations, O’Loughlin expressed astonishment that their son was receiving so many shots.

When Pierce was one, he began to vomit after eating. Hu pinpointed the cause: She had stopped breastfeeding and was giving her son cow’s milk. When she switched Pierce to goat’s milk, the problem went away—it was an allergy or intolerance, nothing more. O’Loughlin refused to believe this. He consulted the internet for what might make young children throw up and decided vaccines were a legitimate cause. He didn’t want Pierce to receive any more shots ever.

When it came time to enroll Pierce in preschool, a local mom told O’Loughlin and Hu about a physician who helped parents avoid school vaccine mandates. The doctor’s name was Douglas Hulstedt, and he sometimes encouraged parents to refuse childhood vaccinations if there was a family history of autism, Crohn’s disease, lupus, or Type 1 diabetes. He once speculated in an Atlantic article about anti-vaxxers that studies showing no link between the MMR vaccine and autism might have “fraud in the reportage.” (Hulstedt did not reply to requests for comment.)

O’Loughlin insisted on taking Pierce to see Hulstedt. Hu was stunned by how messy and low-tech his office was. “I thought, This isn’t a cutting-edge guy at the top of his game,” Hu said. Hulstedt examined Pierce and agreed to write a medical waiver, which would make it possible for the boy to attend preschool without getting any further vaccinations. The stated justification was Graves’ disease, an autoimmune condition affecting the thyroid gland. Hu knew that her son didn’t have Graves, but she agreed to use the waiver to enroll Pierce at Potrero Canyon Preschool in the hope of sidestepping conflict with her husband.

By the time Hu and O’Loughlin filed for divorce in 2016, Pierce was a year out from kindergarten. His pediatrician said that he needed to get on the vaccine schedule recommended for all kids, but O’Loughlin wouldn’t hear it. In divorce proceedings, Hu didn’t try to obtain full custody of Pierce; she was afraid of O’Loughlin, and she knew that California’s family courts preferred to keep both parents in a child’s life whenever possible. When the divorce was finalized, Hu and O’Loughlin were awarded joint custody of Pierce.

Hu and O’Loughlin, both of whom relocated to San Francisco, communicated sparingly and established a handoff routine that ensured they didn’t have to see each other. Still, at the beginning of each school year, Hu would try to change her ex’s mind about vaccines. He wouldn’t budge and warned Hu that if she vaccinated Pierce without his consent, he would fight her in court. Hu and O’Loughlin kept using Hulstedt’s waiver, even though, since their visit to his office, the Medical Board of California had placed Hulstedt on probation and required that he take refresher courses in record keeping and professional ethics. Pierce turned six, seven, then eight without getting any shots beyond those he’d received when he was very little.

The waiver wouldn’t work forever, though—that’s what Pierce’s pediatrician, Nicole Glynn, told Hu and O’Loughlin in an email sent on December 23, 2019. “I am not trying to scare you but want to warn you,” Glynn wrote. A new law was set to take effect on January 1, under which California would tighten restrictions on vaccine waivers. In the future, it wouldn’t be enough for a doctor to recommend an exemption for a child—public health officials would have the final say. Also, the state would review existing waivers signed by doctors who issued five or more of them in a single year.

Glynn noted that Pierce was behind on shots for tetanus, diphtheria, and whooping cough (known collectively as Tdap), as well as polio, hepatitis B, chicken pox, and MMR. “Likely you will have to get him up to date on vaccines prior to next school year,” Glynn wrote, “so if you want to do it slowly I would suggest planning ahead.”

Hu said that when she read the email she was “relieved that someone was looking out for Pierce.” She decided not to reply—O’Loughlin could put in writing whatever objections he had, then she’d decide what to do. She couldn’t have guessed that their dispute was on a collision course with history.

Lesley Hu and Pierce in 2020

California’s first known COVID-19 case was recorded in Orange County on January 25, 2020. San Francisco declared a local emergency due to “conditions of extreme peril” exactly one month later. Schools closed on March 16. Full lockdown followed. Case numbers rose, as did the death toll.

Pierce spent most of his time with Hu. O’Loughlin had gotten a job with an investment fund called LoCorr and said he was too busy to supervise Pierce while the boy attended online school. When O’Loughlin did have Pierce at his apartment, Hu hoped that her ex would take COVID seriously. Instead, O’Loughlin told his son he didn’t have to wear a mask in public. “Pierce would say, ‘Mommy, I don’t know what to do. The city said I had to,’ ” Hu recalled.

When Hu heard on the news that a COVID vaccine was in the works, she was determined for her son to receive it. “Pierce WILL be getting a Covid-19 vaccination when it becomes available. You better believe it,” she wrote in a message to O’Loughlin. In response her ex turned aggressive. One day he came to Hu’s home demanding to see Pierce, who was quarantining so that he could visit his newborn twin cousins. Hu said O’Loughlin “went ballistic” when she explained the situation. He screamed at her, threatening to call the sheriff, until she let Pierce come downstairs. Both Hu and her son were crying. “I had been dealing with a real asshole for a really long time,” Hu said, “but then he turned into a whole other level of asshole.”

It’s unclear to what extent O’Loughlin was still involved with Access Consciousness at this point; he told Hu that he blamed the group in part for the demise of their marriage and indicated that he may have disengaged from it. But if he was still an Access insider, he may have been exposed to anti-vax messages, particularly once COVID hit. According to a former Access member who spoke on condition of anonymity, the group’s leadership suggested that “everyone who got the vaccines would die within two years” and “this will be good because the vaccine will kill all the stupid people.”

Hu wanted to sue for full custody of Pierce, but her lawyer told her that she was unlikely to win. It would be hard to prove in court that O’Loughlin posed a greater risk to his son by being in his life than not. Hu decided to seek sole medical custody instead. Once upon a time, O’Loughlin might have easily defeated her request by convincing a judge that joint custody required both parents to agree on consequential medical decisions, but state legislation signed in 2015 emphasized that a child’s health took precedence over parental rights. That law, combined with the new policies governing vaccine exemptions, meant that Hu had a strong case. It didn’t hurt that at the exact moment she decided to fight for the right to vaccinate her son, the greatest hope for quelling a global pandemic was the development of a potentially life-saving shot.

Hu filed for sole legal custody over medical decisions about Pierce, as well as control of his U.S. passport, on July 8, 2020. In paperwork presented to the court, Hu said that her ex’s “stance on vaccinations has taken on a cult-like tone.” O’Loughlin was now obsessed with proving that vaccines had damaged Pierce as a baby. When Pierce had a stuffy nose or other common ailment, O’Loughlin would shoot video of the boy breathing; he claimed that the footage showed that Pierce was unnaturally fragile. O’Loughlin also suggested that Pierce’s below-average height and slight weight were evidence that vaccines had stunted him.

O’Loughlin claimed that he wasn’t opposed to vaccines in principle—he pointed out that he’d gotten a flu shot before Pierce was born. Rather, he was certain that Pierce shouldn’t get vaccines because he was uniquely vulnerable to their ill effects. “The question here is not about vaccines in general,” O’Loughlin said in a court filing, “but rather the reactions our son in particular has to vaccines.”

In response, Hu said that “Pierce has never been diagnosed as a ‘vaccine-injured child’ and that none of the boy’s treating physicians ever stated that ‘Pierce has had dangerous, negative reactions to vaccinations.’ ” When O’Loughlin tried to take Pierce back to Hulstedt to obtain that diagnosis, Hu argued that, given his controversial history, Hulstedt shouldn’t be considered a reliable authority. “Pierce is a very healthy child, noted by his healthy appetite and also by every annual medical check-up record from birth to now,” she said in a court filing. As for his relatively small stature, it wasn’t abnormal, especially considering that he was half Asian.

In November, Hu and O’Loughlin agreed to take Pierce to a Stanford allergist, Kari Nadeau, to test his reaction to vaccines. After gently pricking several needles on Pierce’s back, Nadeau saw no adverse response and said that Pierce could be vaccinated. O’Loughlin was furious. After raising his voice and telling Nadeau she was wrong, he stormed out of her office.

Hu noticed that the turmoil was taking a toll on Pierce. Whereas he had at one time been comfortable with COVID tests, it now required time and reassurance, “as well as the implementation of breathing exercises,” to persuade him to have his nose swabbed. O’Loughlin had told Pierce that vaccines were dangerous, and the boy wanted to believe his dad. “Pierce actually asked me, ‘Mommy, how do you know that the doctors won’t give me too much of the vaccination and make me sick?’ ” Hu said in a court filing.

O’Loughlin required the nine-year-old to activate GPS tracking on his smartwatch whenever he was with his mother. Sometimes Pierce came to Hu’s house dirty, as if he hadn’t had a bath while staying with O’Loughlin. Hu became upset when she heard that some of Pierce’s friends didn’t want to play with him because they thought his dad was “weird.” The situation was untenable. Something had to give.

Hu wanted to sue for full custody of Pierce, but it would be hard to prove in court that O’Loughlin posed a greater risk to his son by being in his life than not.

Early January 2021 was a fraught time in America. President Donald Trump, who vacillated between taking credit for COVID vaccines, which were just being made available to certain populations, and casting doubt on their efficacy, had spent the previous nine weeks trying to convince the nation that the election had been stolen. Fear was in the air, and subtle and not-so-subtle efforts were afoot to stir up passions and anger. On January 6, violence erupted at the U.S. Capitol.

Thousands of miles away, the battle for medical custody of Pierce advanced toward its conclusion. A Zoom hearing was set for January 12, and Judge Victor Hwang was expected to make a ruling. O’Loughlin’s argument boiled down to this: By vaccinating Pierce, Hu would place the boy at risk of catastrophic injury. Lorie Nachlis, who was now representing Hu, felt confident that her client had a strong case rebuffing O’Loughlin’s claims based on well-established science and Pierce’s medical history.

The day before the hearing, O’Loughlin called his ex, something he almost never did. He told her that he’d found another doctor whose opinion he wanted to present to the court. That would require a continuance in the case so the doctor could be deposed. Hu told him to talk to her attorney, but she conveyed to Nachlis that she didn’t want a continuance—she wanted the whole thing to end.

After reading about O’Loughlin’s proposed witness, Nachlis weighed the options with her client. The witness was a Michigan doctor and prominent anti-vax figure named James R. Neuenschwander. He had said that vaccines were a cause of autism and suggested that COVID shots might be linked to more than 12,000 deaths. He had also rubbed shoulders with acolytes of QAnon, including at a 2020 event held at the Trump National Doral hotel in Miami.

Nachlis proposed a plan of action: She would inform O’Loughlin’s attorney that Hu agreed to the continuance so long as Pierce could start receiving vaccinations in the meantime. If O’Loughlin balked at this stipulation, the judge would decide at the next day’s hearing whether to rule on medical custody—hopefully in Hu’s favor—or to grant O’Loughlin’s request for a continuance. If there was a continuance and Neuenschwander was deposed, Nachlis would argue that O’Loughlin’s choice of a doctor with fringe views who had never seen or treated Pierce to testify about the boy’s health cast serious doubt on his judgment as a parent. Ultimately, the situation could work to Hu’s advantage if she decided to sue for full custody of Pierce one day.

Hu approved the plan, and O’Loughlin quickly consented to let Pierce begin receiving his overdue shots. Her ex’s compliance came as a surprise to Hu. Why fight so hard to prevent Pierce from getting vaccinated, only to relent in an instant? Then again, O’Loughlin was proving to be anything but rational. Maybe he was willing to take a loss in the moment because he really believed Neuenschwander would help him defeat Hu in the long run.

The January 12 hearing took place on Zoom and lasted only a few minutes. Judge Hwang asked each parent whether they agreed to the continuance; Hu and O’Loughlin said yes. The next hearing was scheduled for March, and Hwang ordered that in the interim Pierce would receive the Tdap and MMR vaccines one month apart. Hu asked Hwang to tell O’Loughlin to assure their son that getting vaccinated was safe. Hwang obliged.

After the hearing, Hu emailed Pierce’s doctor to share the good news. Hu was scheduled to pick up Pierce at school the following afternoon, and she hoped that in the coming days he’d receive the first vaccine. She also called Pierce to ask him about his day and tell him she loved him. “I miss you so much,” the boy said.

Jim Baaden and Hu in 2023

January 13 was a sunny, cold day, typical for winter in San Francisco. Hu went to work in the morning—she’d rejoined her family’s company—then spent 30 minutes hitting balls at the Presidio Golf Course with her boyfriend. Hu and Jim Baaden hadn’t been dating long, only since the previous summer, but already things were serious. They knew Pierce would be excited about them moving in together; they’d told him he could get a big dog once they all lived in the same place.

Baaden dropped Hu near Pierce’s school that afternoon, planning to circle back in a few minutes to pick them both up. As Hu approached the campus, she could see the Golden Gate Bridge in the distance. She scanned the kids gathered outside the school for Pierce. “He would wear this puffer navy blue jacket and Air Jordans,” Hu said. “He was always pulling his socks up to his ankles.” But she didn’t see her son.

When Hu learned that Pierce hadn’t come to school that day, time seemed to collapse. She called O’Loughlin, but he didn’t answer. Baaden picked her up, and they went to O’Loughlin’s apartment. They called 911 and then went to a police station, where Hu described O’Loughlin’s anger over their divorce and obsession with Pierce’s health. She suggested that her ex might have tricked her in the court hearing the day prior, that he’d never intended to let her vaccinate Pierce, that he’d kidnapped their son.

But where would they have gone? Hu contacted O’Loughlin’s family on the East Coast, but they weren’t much help. She reached out to his assistant at LoCorr, who said that O’Loughlin had missed a Zoom meeting and wasn’t responding to emails or calls. At that point, Hu started to cry.

By then the police had dispatched two officers to O’Loughlin’s apartment. They knocked but got no answer. They were hesitant to break down the door. Back at the station, the police asked Hu to think: Was there anyone who might have a key to O’Loughlin’s apartment?

Of course, Hu realized—Joe Stern, O’Loughlin’s friend who’d rented him the apartment. She contacted Stern, who agreed to provide the key to the unit. When he arrived, there were five officers waiting. They knocked on the door again, announced themselves as police, slipped the key into the lock, and entered.

The apartment was messy and silent. The officers treaded carefully. There wasn’t a hostage situation, as Baaden had feared. Nor had O’Loughlin kidnapped his son.

The police found O’Loughlin first, in the kitchen. He was hanging by a noose. Pierce was in his room lying on his bed. He’d been shot with one of two guns officers would recover at the scene—one on the kitchen table, the other at O’Loughlin’s feet.

Father and son were declared dead at 6:13 p.m. A neighbor interviewed by police recalled hearing two gunshots around 5 a.m. But Pierce had been shot only once. A police report would note that there was a wound on O’Loughlin’s neck. It appeared that he’d shot himself while suspended two feet above the kitchen floor, perhaps because the noose alone failed to kill him.

There wasn’t a hostage situation, as Jim Baaden had feared. Nor had O’Loughlin kidnapped his son.

Stern was the one who informed Hu about what had happened. “He told me the news. That’s all I remember,” she said. “I think my soul went out to Pierce.”

She told the police that she needed to know if her son had been shot in the face. She wanted to be able to remember his eyes, the soft slope of his nose, and his round cheeks, unaffected by unspeakable violence. “I don’t know where the Destroyer shot him, but they said it wasn’t in the face,” Hu told me when I first interviewed her, six months after her son was murdered. “I want to think it was in the heart, so that he didn’t suffer.”

The Destroyer was how Hu sometimes referred to O’Loughlin. More often she called him the Nobody. Rarely did she use his name.

O’Loughlin didn’t leave a note in his apartment. Perhaps there’s one out there on the internet, amid the mire of obsession and delusion he dwelled in for so many years. If so, neither Hu nor the police has found it yet. That leaves Hu, her family, her friends, and the people who supported her medical custody case grasping to understand what happened. What was going through O’Loughlin’s mind when he decided to kill his son and himself? Did he really believe he was sparing Pierce from a lifetime of damage caused by vaccines? Was he in the grip of psychosis for some other reason?

Todd Criter learned about the tragedy in the midst of a move to Wisconsin. In retrospect, Criter couldn’t remember a time when O’Loughlin was generous or kind. “I would give him a hard time about it. I would say, ‘Stephen, you are so heartless,’ ” Criter said. “I don’t know if he had the capacity for empathy.”

Still, Criter never thought that O’Loughlin would hurt his son. Only when O’Loughlin was dead could Criter see that all along he’d been showing what he was capable of. “I remember The Sixth Sense, thinking what a stupid movie it was—until the end. When it becomes clear that Bruce Willis is dead, it all makes sense,” Criter said. “There were signs, and you just chose not to see him. So yeah, with Stephen it clicked.”

David Groode said that he spoke to O’Loughlin a few times while the medical custody battle was ramping up, and he found O’Loughlin to be overwhelmed by it all. “I think he felt that Hu was trying to take everything important to him away and it really flattened him,” Groode said. “It took a lot of his inspiration and motivation to be excited about life away.” The last time the two men spoke, O’Loughlin was “pretty bitter.” Still, when Groode learned about the murder-suicide, he couldn’t “fathom how somebody could be so into being on a spiritual path and transformation, and wanting to reach these new levels of consciousness, and then turn around and do that.”

After the crime, Nachlis sunk into a profound depression. “I didn’t want to get out of bed,” she said. She had taken on a medical custody case but came to see it as something much bigger. “It was about mental illness and domestic violence,” she said. “I believe this was a relationship in which he, Steve, exhibited all of those coercive, controlling behaviors.” For a long time, Hu “was trying to accommodate him to prevent the conflict, to protect Pierce,” Nachlis said. When she stopped trying to appease her ex, and insisted that their son be vaccinated, O’Loughlin felt as if he was “losing control.”

Perhaps he believed that killing Pierce and himself was the only way of regaining control over Hu. Certainly, it was the cruelest.

From left: Convent and Stuart Hall school, and a bench in a nearby park

Hu and Baaden have since left San Francisco, where too many memories lurk. They moved to the desert and got a St. Bernard, the biggest dog they could find, in honor of Pierce. Hu lights a special candle on July 27, her son’s birthday, and asks friends to do the same.

There are days when she still can’t believe that what happened is real. Sometimes she finds herself pinpointing the parties she believes were complicit in her loss: the conspiracy theorists who nourished O’Loughlin’s resentments and preoccupations, the self-help groups that deluded him, the anti-vaxxers who fed him lies. “I want to seek justice from the people who had a hand in this,” she said, “to get them to stop.”

After the murder-suicide, officials brought a complaint against Douglas Hulstedt to the California medical board, alleging that he had engaged in “repeated negligent acts in providing vaccine exemptions.” In February 2023, the board revoked Hulstedt’s license to practice medicine.

Hu also believes that the legal system should bear some responsibility for ensuring that other mothers don’t suffer a tragedy like hers. At least 910 children have been murdered by a parent during contentious divorce or custody proceedings in the United States since 2008, according to the nonprofit Center for Judicial Excellence. In California, Hu is advocating for family law attorneys to require that clients declare any guns in their possession and make the weapons inaccessible for the duration of legal proceedings. She calls the effort Pierce’s Pledge and maintains a website with a list of gun storage resources. After she appeared with Nachlis at a family law event in Costa Mesa this February, people came up to her crying. Several attorneys agreed to the pledge.

In her darkest moments, Hu finds her mind running in circles of self-blame, searching for what she could have done differently, what might have saved Pierce. Hu wishes she could trade places with her son. “I would in a heartbeat,” she said. She knows she’ll have to cope with feelings like this forever—that there can be losses in life so sharp, so shocking, that they leave a person forever broken.

Hu sometimes thinks about the book O’Loughlin was writing. During the divorce, he was adamant that he retain the rights to it—he was sure it would be a big success, and that Hu would miss out. By then Hu knew the truth. Before they separated, she’d helped transcribe some of O’Loughlin’s audio notes. They were incoherent, full of self-help lingo and fragments of conspiracy theories. For stretches O’Loughlin would repeat the same phrase: “Things are not what you believe in.”

Hu compared what she heard to the moment in The Shining when the embattled wife caring for her son in a remote, empty hotel flips through the manuscript her husband has been writing, comprising the same line typed over and over, and realizes that he’s losing his mind. “To me, The Shining had a happy ending,” Hu said through tears, “because the child survived.”

Reporting for this story was supported by the McGraw Center for Business Journalism at the Craig Newmark Graduate School of Journalism at the City University of New York, and by the Los Angeles Press Club’s Charles M. Rappleye Investigative Journalism Award.

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A woman, an elephant, and
an uncommon love story spanning
nearly half a century.

The Atavist Magazine, No. 136

Shannon McCaffrey is a political reporter at the Atlanta Journal-Constitution. Previously, she worked for the Associated Press and Emory University. She is also a journalism instructor at Kennesaw State University. She holds an MFA in narrative nonfiction from the University of Georgia.

Editor: Seyward Darby
Art Director: Ed Johnson
Copy Editor: Sean Cooper
Fact Checker: J. Patrick Patterson
Photographer: Peyton Fulford

Published in February 2023.


Hurricane Michael crashed through southern Georgia in a fury. Winds whipping at more than 100 miles per hour sheared off rooftops and stripped cotton plants bare. Michael had fed on the tropical water of the Gulf of Mexico, gathering strength. By the time it made landfall, it was one of the most powerful hurricanes in U.S. history.

In its aftermath, Carol Buckley gazed out at the wreckage strewn across her land. It was October 2018. Three years earlier, emotionally broken, she had come to this secluded place just north of the Florida Panhandle in search of a new beginning. Now she feared that she would have to start from scratch once again.

Buckley fired up a Kawasaki Mule and steered the ATV across the rutted fields to get a closer look at the damage. At 64, Buckley had a curtain of straight blond hair, and her eyes were the pale blue of faded denim. Years spent outdoors had etched fine lines into her tanned face. The Mule churned up a spray of reddish mud as she bumped along.

Michael had toppled chunks of the nearly mile-long chain-link fence ringing Buckley’s land. She was relieved to see that the stronger, steel-cable barrier inside the perimeter had held. Felled longleaf pines lay atop portions of it, applying immense pressure, but the cables hadn’t snapped. Installed to corral creatures weighing several tons, the fence stood firm.

Here outside the small town of Attapulgus, near quail-hunting plantations and pecan groves, Buckley had built a refuge for elephants. It was the culmination of a nearly lifelong devotion to the world’s largest land animals. But at the moment, Buckley’s refuge lacked any elephants—and one elephant in particular.

There are many kinds of love stories. This one involves a woman and an elephant, and the bond between them spanning nearly 50 years. It involves devotion and betrayal. It also raises difficult questions about the relationship between humans and animals, about control and freedom, about what it means to own another living thing.

The woman in this story is Buckley. The elephant is named Tarra. They met at a tire store in California, and together followed a serpentine path from spectacle to safety: from circus rings to zoo enclosures to a first-of-its-kind sanctuary. But now their bond was being tested. For complex reasons, Buckley had lost custody of Tarra, and just before Michael struck, a jury had deadlocked on whether the two should be reunited. In a few months, the case would go to trial again. If Buckley won, she would bring Tarra home to Attapulgus. If she lost, it was possible she’d never see the elephant again.

The uncertainty was a nightmare. But the fence Buckley built for Tarra had withstood a monstrous storm. This was, she thought, a good omen.


Anyone who has ever had a beloved pet can tell you that the relationship between an animal and its owner is special. Pets aren’t property in the way a house, a car, or a pair of shoes is. Some people love their animals in ways that defy logic. They don’t think of them as things; they think of them as family.

Even more nuanced are the relationships people have with highly intelligent animals like chimpanzees and dolphins. And elephants. In the past few decades, research has piled up showing that elephants are some of the brightest and most emotionally complex creatures on the planet. Like humans, they are self-aware—they can even recognize themselves in a mirror. They can also experience pleasure, pain, and grief.

Discoveries about elephant intelligence have helped bring about a sea change in the way the animals are treated. Some circuses, under pressure from animal rights groups, have stopped featuring elephant acts. Ringling Bros. retired its elephants in 2016, then shut down altogether the following year. Some U.S. states have banned exotic-animal performances and toughened animal welfare laws.

Activists are pushing for governments to do more: In 2022, the New York Court of Appeals considered whether Happy, an elephant in the Bronx Zoo, had the legal rights of personhood. If the question seems preposterous, consider that courts have held that corporations can be considered people in certain instances. So why not an elephant, which is a living, breathing creature?

Last June, the appeals court rejected the legal argument, which had been presented by an organization called the Nonhuman Rights Project, by a 5–2 vote. Still, some animal rights advocates see reason for hope: The case spurred public dialogue about the treatment of captive animals and whether some species should be no one’s property, ever.

Buckley’s views on owning animals have changed over the years. Understanding how and why means starting at the very beginning. Buckley grew up with dogs, and as a young adult she had a German shepherd named Tasha. One day in 1974, Tasha broke Buckley’s concentration when the dog went into a frenzy, barking at something outside the bay window of Buckley’s home in Simi Valley, a Los Angeles suburb. Rattled by the commotion, Buckley looked outside to see what Tasha saw. And there it was: a baby elephant.

A slim man was walking the elephant with a rope. The calf must have weighed as much as a refrigerator. Buckley bolted through the front door. “Who is she? Why is she here? What are you doing with her?” Buckley asked the man.

Buckley was 20 and had just moved to Simi Valley. She grew up south of Los Angeles in a large family. At her all-girls Catholic high school, she had been a mediocre student and so hyperactive that the nuns ordered her to run laps to burn energy. Buckley wasn’t sure precisely what she wanted to do with her life, but she knew it wouldn’t involve sitting still. She was studying exotic animal management at a community college, figuring that would set her on an exciting career path. Seeing an elephant stroll past her door seemed like fate.

“Come over to my tire store,” the man holding the rope told her. “She’s there every day. You can feed her.” Buckley was there waiting when the man and his elephant returned from their walk.

At the time, few rules governed the ownership and treatment of exotic animals. Bob Nance, the tire shop’s proprietor, had a small menagerie—a Siberian tiger, parrots, monkeys—that customers could gawk at while their new Michelins were being mounted. His pets were a selling point. And a baby elephant? Now that was something. Her name was Fluffy, which a kid had suggested in a naming contest Nance sponsored in a local newspaper.

Fluffy wasn’t Nance’s first elephant. Before her there had been Dolly, purchased from Louis Goebel, an exotic-animal impresario who’d created an LA theme park called Jungleland. But things with Dolly didn’t go as hoped. Her keepers pulled up to Nance’s shop, unloaded the nearly full-grown elephant, handed Nance a training hook, and were on their way. Nance, who had no experience with elephants, hacked off the end of a car axle, stuck it in the ground of his parking lot, and chained Dolly to it during work hours. At night he tethered her to an outbuilding. Once, Dolly yanked herself free—sort of. The police called to alert Nance. Bob, they said, your elephant is dragging a building down Los Angeles Avenue. 

Nance feuded with city officials over whether zoning laws allowed him to keep an elephant at his store until one day, reluctantly, he agreed to sell Dolly to a circus operator. Soon after Goebel called him up. Jungleland was about to close its doors, and a newly arrived baby elephant needed a home. Could Nance help? A calf, Nance reasoned, would be easier to handle, at least for a while. “Of course,” he told Goebel.

Fluffy was probably from Burma, where it was common for poachers to kill mother elephants in order to capture their valuable calves. It was an act of unimaginable cruelty, not least because baby elephants are extremely close with their mothers, and suckle for as long as five years. Fluffy was about six months old when she was shipped to the U.S. Most likely, animal merchants in Thailand packed her into a wooden crate, loaded her aboard a cargo plane, and launched her on a stomach-churning flight over the Pacific Ocean. It wasn’t unusual for baby elephants to arrive dead. 

Fluffy became the star attraction at Nance’s store. She was good-natured and always hungry. Sometimes Nance stuffed her into the back seat of his Lincoln Town Car and drove her to nearby elementary schools, where wide-eyed students admired her. Nance outfoxed the city officials who’d complained about Dolly by keeping Fluffy in a travel trailer, which allowed him to move her when he needed to.

After meeting Fluffy, Buckley herself became a fixture at the tire store. She showed up many mornings before class. She shoveled the dirty wood shavings out of Fluffy’s trailer and fed the elephant breakfast. Fluffy consumed four quarts of formula from a bottle, along with a pile of fruits and vegetables. Twice a week, Buckley wheeled a buggy through a local produce store and loaded it up with whatever was available: apples, oranges, cucumbers, bananas, onions. Carrots were Fluffy’s favorite.

In those early days, Fluffy tolerated Buckley, but she adored Nance, who always had a pocket full of shiny jellybeans. She chirped excitedly whenever he appeared. Nance wasn’t too concerned about training Fluffy, until one day she nearly crashed through a glass door at the tire store. Nance agreed to let Buckley teach Fluffy a few things about how to behave. 

Buckley had never trained an elephant before, so she started by using the methods she’d used with her dogs growing up. Positive reinforcement was the most important one. Buckley would instruct Fluffy to lift her foot, then demonstrate what she meant by physically pulling the elephant’s leg up off the ground. When Fluffy got the move right on her own, Buckley rewarded her with food. Fluffy was stubborn, but dangle a banana in front of her and she’d do anything you asked. 

Back then, most captive elephants didn’t get rewards for behaving as they were told. In circuses, on film sets, and at animal parks, handlers used what’s known as dominance training. When an elephant didn’t do what they demanded, they whacked it with a bull hook or punished it some other way. Buckley was aware of that approach, but it didn’t feel right. Fluffy was bursting with energy and eager to please. Training her felt like play. “It wasn’t about control,” Buckley said. “It was about trust and building a relationship.”

Years later, Buckley would question the foundation of her work with Fluffy. But for now she was happy. Fluffy seemed to be, too. The elephant learned to follow one command after another. Tricks came next. The future was rich with possibilities: of what Fluffy might do, of who might see her, of where Buckley might take her.

By the time Fluffy was a year old, she and Buckley were inseparable. When Buckley sat on the floor of the elephant’s trailer to do homework, Fluffy watched over her. When Buckley didn’t pay the elephant enough attention, Fluffy nudged her playfully with her trunk. 

According to Buckley, there were nights when she brought Fluffy home with her. She would back the elephant’s trailer up to the bay window of her house so they could see each other. Buckley studied with the light on while Fluffy dozed outside in the dark. Sometimes Fluffy awoke and stretched out her trunk, 40,000 tiny muscles working in unison, probing toward the lit window as if to make sure Buckley was still there.

Buckley and Fluffy at the tire shop in California.
Courtesy of Carol Buckley

Today, graduates of the Exotic Animal Training and Management Program at Moorpark College run zoos, sanctuaries, and research facilities. Some manage animal acts for Hollywood studios. Moorpark has become the MIT of animal wrangling, the place where you learn how to get a tiger to open its mouth wide for a veterinary exam without being eaten alive. But back in the mid-1970s, the program was in its infancy.

The two-year associate’s degree was the brainchild of William Brisby, a onetime high school biology teacher who taught himself how to work with dangerous animals. Sporting thick sideburns, a full beard, khaki attire, and aviator sunglasses, Brisby looked like a safari guide. In a way he was. He created a teaching zoo for the Moorpark program, the first resident of which was a gray wolf named Kiska. Students took turns caring for her. Brisby later acquired capuchins, a camel, even a lion, according to author Amy Sutherland’s book about Moorpark, Kicked, Bitten, and Scratched.

Sutherland describes Brisby as both charismatic and problematic. He divorced his first wife, became engaged to one of his students, then broke it off to marry a younger one. A mythology sprang up around him, which gave him swagger. People said he’d trained dolphins with the Navy—not so, according to the founder of the Navy’s marine mammal program.

Brisby could be tough, dictatorial even. “For the next two years in this program you don’t have a life,” he told first-year students. “You belong to me.” But Buckley wasn’t intimidated by Brisby. She was audacious and headstrong. Brisby became her mentor as she figured out what to do about Fluffy.

By the summer of 1975, Buckley was dedicating all her free time to the elephant. She spent a month with Robert “Smokey” Jones, a legendary elephant trainer. She also volunteered to take Fluffy to events—people paid for the elephant to appear at parties or on camera. At a Mother’s Day celebration in Topanga Canyon, Fluffy surprised everyone, including Buckley, by plunging into a pool. When Fluffy was booked on Bob Hope’s Christmas special, she infuriated the star by reaching out with her trunk to touch his crotch.

Occasionally, Buckley recognized how precarious the whole endeavor was. She towed a two-ton elephant in a trailer on Southern California’s busy freeways and winding canyon roads. Once, up north in the foothills of San Jose, she saw a couple of boys at the side of the road harassing a snake. She pulled over and hopped out to scold them as the snake slithered into the woods. Then Buckley turned and saw the trailer; she’d parked at the edge of a steep drop. One wrong move—an emergency brake not set right, Fluffy shifting her weight just so—and the vehicle could have crashed into the ravine. Buckley felt a shiver and knew she needed to be more careful.

The more time Buckley spent with Fluffy, the less she spent on schoolwork. She sought Brisby out for advice. She told him she saw a future with Fluffy, a chance to make the elephant her career, book gigs across California, maybe around the country. Brisby leaned back in his chair as she spoke. When she finished, he reminded her that the Moorpark program was designed to help students break into the exotic-animal management industry. With Fluffy, Buckley had already done that. She didn’t need Moorpark anymore. “Don’t come back for the second year,” Brisby advised.

Buckley left school. She moved into a small trailer next to Fluffy’s on Nance’s property. According to Buckley, Nance started paying her on a weekly basis to care for the elephant. When Buckley asked Nance to build Fluffy a barn, he did. 

But the arrangement didn’t last long. Simi Valley, ringed by hills and thick with citrus groves, had once felt a world away from the busy heart of Los Angeles. By 1976, however, housing tracts were crowding out the farms and ranches. Nance didn’t like what he saw and decided to relocate to Northern California. Buckley seized the opportunity. With a loan cosigned by her father, she bought Fluffy for $25,000. 

Buckley was sure Fluffy would be a star, but decided that the elephant’s name wouldn’t do. She wanted something that would look good in lights. Buckley scribbled letters in a notebook, trying out different combinations. Eventually she wrote down T-A-R-R-A. Yes, that was it. Tarra.

Tarra and Buckley performing on skates.
Courtesy of Carol Buckley

The calls started coming in. Tarra appeared in an episode of Little House on the Prairie, in which a circus passes through to the pioneer town of Walnut Grove. Carol Burnett sat atop Tarra in the movie Annie. Tarra appeared on one of Jerry Lewis’s telethons.

But Buckley soon discovered that there was less demand in show business for a lone elephant than for a herd of three to five that could perform tricks together. Buckley wasn’t about to buy more elephants, so Tarra would need a gimmick to be competitive.

One day a man approached Buckley at a sports expo in Santa Barbara where Tarra was doing tricks to amuse visitors. He introduced himself as an ice skater and gushed about Tarra. 

“She’s so coordinated,” he said. “I could teach her to ice-skate!”

“No, you will not,” Buckley huffed. 

A year or so later, she reconsidered. When Buckley and Tarra weren’t on the road, their home base was Ojai, California, where they lived along the Ventura River. Twice a day, rain or shine, they waded into the river together. Tarra splashed excitedly while Buckley watched. The river was full of large, smooth boulders, and Tarra picked her way across them with astonishing ease. She was eight by then, and the size of an SUV; she ate about 50 pounds of food a day. But she was nimble. Buckley marveled at how Tarra balanced on the boulders, gripping the edges with her toes. 

OK, Buckley thought, let’s give this skating thing a try. In Southern California, she decided, roller skates would be a better fit.

Buckley visited a local welder, who estimated that it would cost $2,500 to construct metal skates big and strong enough for an elephant. Buckley had $3,000 in her bank account. She called her mother. “You know Tarra better than anyone,” her mother told her. “If you think she would like it, then do it.” Buckley emptied her bank account and commissioned the skillet-size skates.

Then she went to a shoemaker to inquire about “boots”—really what she wanted was more like mammoth ankle braces—to give the elephant additional support. “Before you say no, just come and meet her,” Buckley pleaded. The shoemaker did and, charmed by Tarra, agreed to make the boots. 

On a sunny spring morning, Buckley walked Tarra to a stretch of concrete near her home, the foundation for a house that had never been finished. Today it would be the setting for a most unusual lesson. Like she had so many times before, Buckley asked Tarra to raise one of her front legs. When the elephant complied, Buckley guided her foot into a skate—the straps were made of seatbelts, the wheels of industrial casters. Then she repeated the process with the other front foot. The leather boots rose about halfway up Tarra’s stocky legs. Buckley would only be trying out the front skates, to see how the elephant took to them.

Tarra bounded off, trumpeting and chattering, rolling and playing. She seemed almost to bounce with glee. Wobbly at first, she quickly gained confidence and control.

Two weeks later, Buckley took Tarra to an abandoned warehouse, where there would be room for her to experiment for the first time wearing all four skates. Tarra glided across the concrete floor. Her excitement was contagious.

Buckley now had a roller-skating elephant. Tarra didn’t spin or do tricks; the fact that she was on wheels was enough to attract attention. The bookings poured in. Buckley and Tarra promoted Shriner circuses on the West Coast. They appeared at roller rinks and in vast parking lots. Before events, Buckley got on her hands and knees with a level to make sure the venue didn’t slope, making it difficult to stop. Then she adorned Tarra with a shiny headdress and got ready for the show. Buckley skated alongside Tarra, dressed in a leotard cut high at the leg.

On the road, they bunked together in a custom trailer. When it was time to sleep, Buckley climbed into bed in a compartment up front and said good night. She could hear Tarra slump against the wall and slide down to the floor. The trailer shook as the elephant got comfortable. Buckley fell asleep to the rumble of Tarra’s heavy snores.


The sharp wind that comes off Lake Ontario in winter can make even the hardiest soul seek refuge. In 1988, Buckley and Tarra were doing just that, hunkered down near Toronto. But they weren’t sheltering from the elements so much as from uncertainty. They had wrapped up a series of performing jobs when Leslie Schreiber, Buckley’s old Moorpark roommate and the co-owner of the Bowmanville Zoo in the town of Clarington, about 60 miles east of Toronto, hired Buckley to look after the facility’s seven elephants for a few months. Buckley added Tarra to the group and began keeping a journal, scribbling ideas and plans for a future that would look very different from her past.

Buckley was at a crossroads, disenchanted with her nomadic life and unsure whether Tarra should continue to perform. After more than a decade on the road, it was clear the elephant wasn’t enjoying herself. When Tarra was younger, Buckley had been sure to make pit stops during long trips so Tarra could play, swim, and explore wooded areas. Now that she weighed nearly four tons, spontaneous leisure time was harder to manage.

Meanwhile, Buckley had witnessed the unsavory side of the exotic-animal circuit. Many elephants were run through their paces by handlers they barely knew, who used bull hooks and batons to compel obedience. When the animals weren’t performing, they were often chained up.

Not everyone treated elephants that way—certainly Buckley didn’t. But how could she justify being part of a culture that tolerated abuse? She loved Tarra but wondered whether she’d made the right choices. “Do I wish that when I first met her I knew all that I know now?” Buckley said years later. “Of course I do.” Then again, she’d started her career so young, at a time when few people in the U.S. gave a second thought to the welfare of animals. “All that we went through together, that’s how I gained the knowledge and the experience that has helped create another way and a better situation for her,” Buckley said. “I don’t regret it.”

The unease Buckley was grappling with by the time she arrived at Bowmanville reflected a growing ambivalence across North America. People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, which formed in 1980, had exposed the abuse of animals in research labs and slaughterhouses. PETA was polarizing, its tactics confrontational, but the inhumane practices and conditions it exposed were influencing public opinion about animals held in captivity. These included elephants, which were still mainstays of circuses and smaller outfits like Buckley’s.

In Canada, Buckley initiated a new chapter of Tarra’s life. Elephants had been wowing crowds at American zoos since the first one opened in 1874, in Philadelphia, where curators bought an elephant from a traveling circus and tied it to a tree. Zoos had improved a lot since then, but there would always be downsides to captivity. Elephants are prone to foot problems and other ailments if they don’t have space to roam. They need stimulation that zoos can’t always provide. (Since 1991, more than 30 American zoos have eliminated their elephant exhibits altogether.)

But Tarra was no longer a feisty calf, and at Bowmanville she seemed to enjoy being part of a herd for the first time in her life. Elephants are extremely social, and Tarra formed strong bonds. Buckley wondered if placing her at a zoo where she’d have a permanent community would be preferable to life on the road.

After their stay in Canada, Tarra spent some time at the Racine Zoo in Wisconsin, then returned to Ontario. In 1991, Tarra turned 17, placing her on the precipice of the most fertile stretch of a female Asian elephant’s life. Research suggested that female elephants with offspring were less stressed than those without. Buckley reasoned that having a calf might make a zoo even more comfortable for Tara. As it happened, there was a breeding program in Ontario, a place called the African Lion Safari Park. There, while looking for a mate for Tarra, Buckley met someone just as obsessed with elephants as she was. 

Scott Blais had begun working at the park when he was 13, cutting the grass, directing traffic, and picking up garbage. At 15, he graduated to elephant training. He learned to chain the animals inside barns and either beat them with bull hooks or use the tools to grab them by sensitive areas, such as under the lips or behind the ears, when they didn’t do as they were told. Pain was used to get elephants to stand on their heads and balance on their hind legs; they lived in a near constant state of submission. When Buckley arrived at the park with Tarra in tow, Blais was exposed to a different way of handling elephants. He started to view the techniques he used as barbaric. He asked Buckley to teach him, and they struck up a friendship.

Soon they were a couple. They were 18 years apart in age, but that didn’t seem to matter much. Besides, Buckley looked younger than she was, while Blais, his hair already receding, looked older. Their relationship blossomed, and so did their shared vision for, as Blais put it, “the larger idea of how to change the lives of captive elephants.”    

When Tarra became pregnant by a bull elephant at the park, Buckley considered her options. She needed to find a zoo that wanted an elephant, a calf, and two keepers—Buckley and Blais intended to stay together. The Nashville Zoo made an enticing offer: Excited at the prospect of housing Tarra, and eventually her baby, zoo administrators proposed creating a 30-acre elephant habitat. Buckley accepted the offer. She, Blais, and Tarra set off for Nashville. 

Not everyone treated elephants that way—certainly Buckley didn’t. But how could she justify being part of a culture that tolerated abuse?

Elephants gestate for nearly two years. Unlike in the wild, Tarra had never watched a fellow female give birth or witnessed the tight matriarchal herd that forms around a newborn to help raise it. No one was sure how Tarra would react to a calf. 

The months passed peacefully, until one morning Tarra bolted across the zoo yard, her eyes bulging. She had experienced her first labor contraction, and it startled her so much that she seemed to be trying to run away from the pain. The veterinarian was informed, but then the contractions stopped.

“You’re OK, girl,” Buckley told Tarra. “You’re going to be OK.” 

Three days passed. The wait was agonizing. Finally, Tarra’s contractions began again. The veterinarian wanted to speed up the labor by inserting an IV line of oxytocin. Buckley called a friend, an elephant expert at the London Zoo, who warned that if the calf came too fast, and Tarra wasn’t dilated, the birth could be dangerous.

“Is she squirting milk?” the friend asked. 

Buckley looked at Tarra’s chest. “Yes.” 

“That means she’s dilated,” the friend said. He told Buckley that Tarra should receive a lower dose of oxytocin than the vet had proposed, and not from an IV, but through a shot in a muscle.

The needle pierced Tarra’s grooved skin, and within a few minutes she was in the throes of labor. In captivity, elephants are often chained up during birth for the protection of vets and keepers. Buckley hated the idea. As a compromise, she agreed to put a 40-foot chain on one of Tarra’s back legs; that way the elephant would still be able to move around.

Tarra squatted, and finally there was progress. A head emerged, followed by front legs folded into the body. But soon the calf became stuck. There was no good way for the humans watching the birth to solve the problem. Then a primal instinct took hold of Tarra: When the next contraction came, she lifted her unchained back foot, placed it against the calf’s head, and in a single swift movement pushed the baby out.

Slick and gray, the calf landed on the barn floor. Tarra seemed exhausted but calm. She stepped a few feet away and watched. The baby lay silent and still. It wasn’t breathing. The vet moved in to resuscitate it. He crouched over the calf and pumped its chest rhythmically with his palms. Five minutes passed. Ten. Twenty. 

“Keep trying,” Buckley implored. Tarra didn’t interfere; she remained at a distance, as if keeping vigil. Buckley was weeping, her sobs deep and ragged.

After the vet declared the calf dead, Tarra walked back over to it. With her trunk, she sucked at the calf’s mouth, then placed the tip of her trunk against the baby’s so that their nostrils were touching. She breathed out hard, then sucked in even harder. It seemed like a last attempt to remove anything that might be blocking the calf’s airways.

Then, gently, Tarra placed a back foot against the baby’s side. Elephants’ foot pads are sensitive—so sensitive they can detect a heartbeat. After a few moments, Tarra walked away.

Later, a necropsy revealed that the baby had arthrogryposis, a stiffening of the joints often accompanied by limb deformities. Apparently, while pregnant, Tarra had been bitten by a mosquito carrying a virus that caused the condition. It was a freakish tragedy that meant there would be no happy elephant family on display at the Nashville Zoo, at least not one including Tarra. The zoo wanted Tarra and Buckley to stay, but the promised elephant habitat never materialized. Disillusioned, Buckley decided to leave.

Rather than look for another zoo, Buckley wanted to try something new. There was an idea she had been toying with for a while: What if there was a place elephants that had been cast out of zoos and circuses could go? Somewhere that the sick and elderly could spend their last days? A refuge where elephants, and only elephants, could exist in a state as close to the wild as possible? No such place existed in North America. Buckley resolved to build it.

She set out on the back roads of rural Tennessee looking for a piece of land cheap enough to afford and large enough for elephants to roam. She found it on the first day. The property lay at the end of a dirt road in the tiny town of Hohenwald, German for “high forest.” There, along Cane Creek, the hills rolled gently into a large valley. The land surrounding the property was owned by Champion International, a paper company. It was quiet, private, and protected.

After the 112 acres were purchased, Buckley and Blais spent their days in the sweltering Tennessee heat sinking reinforced fence posts. They worked through red tape with skeptical state wildlife authorities to get the necessary permits to establish the Elephant Sanctuary in Tennessee. In March 1995, the day after Tarra’s barn was finished, she moved in. 


The sanctuary became a runaway success. Over its first 15 years, the mom-and-pop operation transformed into a nonprofit with a board of directors, an international reputation, and an annual budget of more than $3 million. It bought more acreage, built more barns, and hired more staff. Most important, it took in 23 elephants, about half of which were “retired” by their owners or guardians to roam the countryside in herds alongside Tarra.

Each elephant had a gut-wrenching story. When Barbara arrived in 1996, she was emaciated, suffering from a wasting disease; she had been kept in isolation for years because her owners didn’t know what else to do with her. Jenny had been chained up in Las Vegas, underweight and barely able to walk because of an untreated leg injury. Shirley’s harrowing journey as a performing elephant had taken her to Cuba, where she was captured briefly by Fidel Castro’s forces, and then aboard a circus ship that caught fire and nearly sank, burning her in the process. An altercation with another performing elephant left her with a broken leg.

Buckley saw each animal’s plight as a glaring symbol of human ignorance. At the sanctuary, the elephants healed. The “residents,” as they were called, took long walks along spring-fed streams. Some of them were interacting with other elephants for the first time in years. Like any community, they worked through minor dramas and personality conflicts. Remarkably, two elephants named Shirley and Jenny had lived together before. When they reunited at the sanctuary, they greeted each other like old friends and became inseparable.

Tarra was the sanctuary’s welcoming committee. She was younger and healthier than the other elephants, and eager to make friends. But her closest companion was a dog on the property, a white mutt named Bella. Buckley would eventually write a children’s book about the pair, and they were featured on national TV. “When it’s time to eat, they both eat together,” Buckley said in a CBS Evening News segment. “They drink together. They sleep together. They play together.”

Life at the sanctuary wasn’t always idyllic, however. There were controversies, including one involving an elephant called Flora. Once the centerpiece of a traveling circus run by a man named David Balding, Flora had landed at the Miami Zoo after Balding became concerned that she was too aggressive to be in front of crowds. When Flora was barred from the zoo after injuring a keeper, Balding thought the Tennessee refuge might be a good option. Balding dropped Flora off in 2004, and she went on a monthslong rampage, tearing up fences and directing her aggression at caregivers and other elephants. Gay Bradshaw, a psychologist and ecologist specializing in animal trauma, diagnosed Flora with PTSD and said that visits from Balding could hamper her recovery. Buckley forbade Balding from seeing Flora. Balding tried to change Buckley’s mind, but Buckley wouldn’t budge. The saga would play out in the documentary One Lucky Elephant, in which Balding comes across as sympathetic, Buckley as unyielding.

The sanctuary also suffered tragedy. In 2006, Winkie, an Asian elephant, trampled and killed staff member Joanna Burke. The death hit the sanctuary’s tight-knit staff hard. Questions swirled about whether Winkie would be euthanized, but Burke’s grieving parents wouldn’t hear of it; their daughter loved elephants, they said, and she wouldn’t want the animal put down. Winkie remained at the sanctuary, and Burke was buried just outside the grounds.

Upsetting incidents punctuated what some employees said was a tense work environment. Buckley labored day and night, and had no use for anyone who didn’t demonstrate the same level of commitment. In her mind, elephants came first; pity the person who disagreed. Even her romantic relationship grew strained. “People were always on edge,” Scott Blais wrote in an email, “always waiting for the next yelling session, never knowing what direction to turn.”

Buckley has denied berating staff. If she yelled, she said, it was to get someone’s attention. “Elephants are potentially lethal. If staff doesn’t listen to instruction in the moment, they may be in danger,” Buckley explained. “If someone says I yell, it was always done out of concern for their safety.”

Buckley knows she’s intense and single-minded, and she was never more so than about the sanctuary. It was her passion. She never hesitated to make her opinion known. When the board decided to build an elephant education center in downtown Hohenwald to give the sanctuary, off-limits to visitors, a public face, Buckley supported the idea, but she balked at the price tag and the board’s decision to pay chairwoman Janice Zeitlen’s husband, an architect, $60,000 to design the space. According to Buckley, when a tuberculosis outbreak hit the refuge, affecting elephants and humans alike, a board member told her not to report it to state regulators.

The sanctuary would later deny this and allege that Buckley failed to implement proper tuberculosis containment protocol. It would make the claim in legal filings, because that’s where Buckley and the institution she cofounded were headed: to court.

Buckley labored day and night, and had no use for anyone who didn’t demonstrate the same level of commitment. In her mind, elephants came first; pity the person who disagreed.

On a cool Saturday morning in November 2009, Buckley sat in her office gazing through a bank of windows at a soft expanse of pasture dotted with stands of maple and yellow poplar. Across the room was another set of windows, this one looking onto the interior of the sanctuary’s main barn, which housed several massive elephant stalls. The days when she watched Fluffy through the bay window at her home in California were a distant memory.

The sanctuary’s board was convening that day. The group had recently discussed the refuge’s rapid growth with a consultant, and Buckley thought that would be the subject of the day’s meeting. Around 10 a.m., board members arrived one by one: an art gallery owner, a bank executive, an infectious-diseases doctor, local community leaders. The only member with a background in animal management was Buckley’s old Moorpark friend Leslie Schreiber. 

As soon as the group had settled around a glass table in Buckley’s office, she sensed that something was wrong. Charlie Trost, a board member and attorney, seemed to be the only person in the room willing to meet her eye. He handed her a letter and told her to read it. The letter said she was being placed on involuntary leave pending review. Buckley wasn’t to speak to sanctuary employees, donors, or the media.

The room went silent as Buckley looked up.

“What’s happening?” she asked. “Why is this happening?”

Trost replied that she should finish reading the document.

Watching from across the room was Blais. He and Buckley were no longer a couple. According to Buckley, Blais had cheated on her with another staff member. (Blais denies this.) After separating, they’d continued working together—or tried to, anyway. By the time of the board meeting, Blais had come to feel that Buckley’s treatment of the staff posed a risk to the elephants. As he later put it in an email, there was “no way with the innate sensitivity of elephants,” especially “those who have experienced their own trauma,” that the sanctuary’s animal residents weren’t “affected by the impact that Carol’s abuse had on the care team.”

Buckley’s vision went blank; time seemed to stop. The next thing she knew, she was kneeling in a closet in her home, which was located on the sanctuary grounds. She was staring at racks of clothes. She wanted to die; she thought she might. Schreiber had followed Buckley home. Now she eased her friend into a chair.

Both Schreiber and the sanctuary’s managing director, Kate Elliott, who had attended the board meeting by telephone, disagreed with Buckley’s suspension. Trost informed them that it didn’t matter. “We have the votes to approve this,” he said. (Trost declined to be interviewed for this story.)

Buckley wanted to fight the board, but that could jeopardize her chances of eventually returning to her job. Over the next few weeks, the days grew shorter and a winter chill set in. Buckley wasn’t allowed in the sanctuary’s barns, so she took long walks among the elephants when they were in the fields. The animals, and Tarra most important among them, knew nothing of the turmoil. They made Buckley feel grounded.

According to Blais, over the course of Buckley’s leave, the full impact of her management style became clear, and he told the board he couldn’t work with her anymore. As a compromise, the board offered Buckley a job running global outreach—she would still be affiliated with the sanctuary, but she wouldn’t interact with staff or be involved in day-to-day operations with the elephants, including Tarra. Buckley said no.

In March 2010, her leave became permanent: She was fired by the board. “They broke me the way you break an elephant,” Buckley said. “I’m tough and I didn’t break easily, but I broke.”

To Buckley, the biggest blow wasn’t losing her job—it was losing Tarra. She had to leave her home at the sanctuary, but the elephant she had rarely been apart from for the past 35 years was better off staying put. The refuge was the only place that made sense for Tarra, and no one knew that better than Buckley; it was why she’d created it in the first place.

When Buckley left Tennessee that spring, heading to Asia for a long-planned trip to work with elephant trainers, she said goodbye to Tarra in a field. “I’ll be back in a few months,” she told the elephant, who stretched her trunk toward Buckley’s nose, as she often did. Buckley walked away with a catch in her throat, but she was sure she’d be reunited with Tarra after her trip. Even if she couldn’t work at the sanctuary, she thought, she could visit Tarra. Maybe not right away, but soon enough.

Instead, four years would pass before Buckley saw Tarra again.

“They broke me the way you break an elephant,” Buckley said. “I’m tough and I didn’t break easily, but I broke.”

Shortly after being fired, Buckley sued the sanctuary for wrongful termination and for the right to visit Tarra. The sanctuary denied any wrongdoing and said that Buckley would not be admitted onto the property. Whether she would ever see Tarra again became a question for a judge. Buckley waited; the court system, as it so often does, moved at a glacial pace.

One day, Buckley saw video footage of Tarra and thought she looked lethargic. Buckley decided to amend her lawsuit. She could live with the circumstances of her dismissal, but she couldn’t live without Tarra. She would fight to prove her ownership of the elephant—that Tarra belonged to her, not to the sanctuary, and that she should be the one making decisions about Tarra’s care.

In December 2014, a judge permitted Buckley to visit Tarra, but set strict guidelines for the encounter. According to a court order, Buckley could make physical contact with Tarra only if the elephant “chooses to get close enough to the bars to allow Ms. Buckley to touch or pet [her] or otherwise show affection.” The visit took place on December 22. In a memo Buckley wrote immediately afterward, she said that Tarra seemed “despondent and looked and acted depressed.” She questioned whether the elephant had been drugged; the sanctuary’s veterinarian assured her that was not the case. When the visit ended, Buckley walked back to her car in tears. “It was devastating,” she said.

Worried that sporadic visits would confuse and upset Tarra, Buckley decided not to see the elephant again until a court ruled in her favor. The next time she came in contact with Tarra, Buckley vowed, it would be to transport her to a new, shared home. Where that home would be was an open question.


As legal filings flew back and forth, Buckley stayed busy, spending months abroad working with elephants in India, Nepal, and Thailand. Over the years, Buckley had become a recognized expert in aspects of elephant health care. In Asia, she taught locals how to prevent and treat injuries and infections on the feet of working elephants. She helped install solar-powered electric fences around the animals’ enclosures so they wouldn’t have to be chained up.

Pictures of Tarra popped up regularly on the Tennessee sanctuary’s Facebook page. A newsletter, Trunklines, documented her wanderings—typically she walked more than a mile per day—and her dunks in the property’s lakes and ponds. If Buckley tuned in at the right moment, she might see Tarra lumbering along, captured by the sanctuary’s live EleCam. But Buckley rarely looked for Tarra online. It was too painful.

Instead, when she was stateside, Buckley focused on finding a place to build another sanctuary, somewhere she could relocate Tarra if she won her legal battle. A realtor sent her listings in Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama, Florida, and Georgia. Her old friend Schreiber accompanied her around the Southeast to look at properties. Buckley rejected one spot after another. The soil was too sandy, or the location too close to busy neighborhoods.

One day in 2016, her realtor called, excited. “I think I found it!” he said. He was referring to a plot of more than 850 acres, right along the Georgia state line with Florida, comprising grasslands, clusters of pine trees, a large pond, and even a small house where Buckley could live. Through donations and financing, she got the money she needed to purchase the land. She would have to do the same things she did in Tennessee to get it elephant-ready: clear fields, install fences, build a barn. She recruited volunteers and got to work.

In August 2018, Buckley returned to Tennessee for the custody trial. It ended in a hung jury. Buckley went back to Attapulgus, to her empty elephant refuge. A retrial was scheduled for eight months down the road. Once more Buckley waited. When Hurricane Michael tore through Georgia, she was surprised to find that it gave her hope.

If Buckley tuned in at the right moment, she might see Tarra lumbering along, captured by the sanctuary’s live EleCam. But Buckley rarely looked for Tarra online. It was too painful.

The second trial in the case of Carol Buckley v. the Elephant Sanctuary in Tennessee, Inc. began April 1, 2019, in the Lewis County Courthouse, a rectangular brick building in Hohenwald. Since putting down roots outside the town of some 4,000 people, the sanctuary had become a point of pride for locals. Tarra was its bona fide star. The courtroom was packed. Buckley sat with her lawyers, her nerves jangling like loose keys. She tried not to let it show.

While the case was emotional for everyone involved, Buckley chief among them, legally speaking it turned on a single dispassionate question: Who owned Tarra? In his opening statement, Bob Boston, one of the attorneys for the defense, argued that when the sanctuary became a nonprofit a few months after it was founded, ownership of all its property, including Tarra, transferred to the new entity. He asked the jury not to wrench Tarra away from the place where she’d lived more than half her life, where she’d bonded with other elephants. Among the sanctuary’s “founding principles,” Boston pointed out, “was to remove elephants from lives of isolation.”

Next, Ed Yarbrough, one of Buckley’s attorneys, turned on the country charm like a faucet. In a gentle drawl, he painted a picture of young Buckley in California. “When she saw this elephant, her whole life changed. I mean, it’s literally true,” Yarbrough said. “Here she is today, forty-some-odd years later, trying to get her elephant back.” He recounted adventures Buckley and Tarra had gone on together, “long before any of these people ever thought about a sanctuary.” To illustrate the crux of the case, Yarbrough made a comparison. “When you get married in Tennessee, if you already own your house and your land, and then somehow that marriage doesn’t work out, when you split up that doesn’t go to the other party. That’s separate property. It stays with the original owner,” he said. “Tarra is separate property and needs to stay with her owner.”

Scott Blais had flown in from Brazil, where he’d moved to run another elephant sanctuary. His dark hair was thinner than ever, and he’d gotten married a few years before. He came to testify, as he put it, on behalf of Tarra. He took the stand after lunch on the first day.

“Did you view the sanctuary and its elephants to be yours?” Boston asked him.

“No,” Blais replied. “The whole basis of a nonprofit organization is it’s not a personal possession. It’s not a personal business. It’s a nonprofit that is governed by a board of directors, and with that, there’s no personal possessions that is the result of the activity of the organization. We don’t own the land, we don’t own … the physical property, the barn, the vehicles.” And certainly not the elephants.

In Blais’s view, Buckley had betrayed their once shared vision of how elephants should be cared for—as creatures whose most important relationships were with other elephants. “This is their permanent residence. This is their life, with or without us,” he said. “It’s about their life separate from any individual human. And I think, when I really ponder it now, this is the fundamental principle we really got right.”

When Buckley took the stand, Yarbrough started to ask if at any time she had given Tarra to the sanctuary. Buckley interrupted before he could finish the question. “It’s unthinkable,” Buckley said. “I would never do that voluntarily. I devoted my whole life to this elephant. Why would I give her away?” 

Buckley’s answers to other questions showed that, in her mind, the notion of ownership and what was in Tarra’s best interest were inextricably linked.

“First of all,” Yarbrough asked, “do you love Tarra the elephant?”

“Of course,” Buckley replied.

“Do you want what’s best for her?”

“I’ve always wanted what is only best for Tarra.”

“If you were persuaded that the best thing for Tarra was to remain right where she is, that’s where you would leave her?”

“I would leave her there in a minute.”

“If you were persuaded that what was best for her was to go somewhere else, would you do that?”

 “I’d do that as well.”

“Is that what this case is about?”

“That’s what this case is about. The only way that I can assert my authority over making sure that Tarra is cared for at the highest level, every aspect of Tarra, not just her physical—her psychological, her mental, her emotional—the only way I can assert my authority is to…,” Buckley trailed off, then gathered herself to finish her thought.

“If they won’t acknowledge that I own her,” she said, “I cannot have any say about how she’s cared for.”

“I devoted my whole life to this elephant,” Buckley said. “Why would I give her away?”

The trial lasted three days. Other testimony focused on the sanctuary’s “disposition policy,” which states that an elephant resident can only be transferred out of the facility, including by its owner, if a veterinarian, the board, and the site’s directors deem it to be in the animal’s best interest.* Boston argued that the policy applied to “all elephants” at the sanctuary, including Tarra. Even if the jury found that Buckley owned Tarra, the fact that her transfer hadn’t been recommended meant she should stay where she was. However, Yarbrough argued that the disposition policy was a moot point: It hadn’t existed when Tarra became the sanctuary’s first resident, he said, so it didn’t apply to her.

It was sunny outside, a true spring day, when the judge sent the jury to deliberate. After three hours, they glumly filed back into the courtroom. Like the jurors in the first trial, they were deadlocked. “Go ahead and talk some more and see what you can do,” the judge told them. “We’ll be here. Just let us know what you decide.”

Buckley panicked. She wasn’t sure she could face another mistrial—more money down the drain, more years without Tarra. Her lawyers and friends in the gallery who’d come to show support tried to calm her down. But she needed an answer.

Around 20 minutes later, the jurors came back. One by one, the judge asked the foreperson about the counts in the case.

“Do you unanimously find that the Elephant Sanctuary has proven, by clear and convincing evidence, that Carol Buckley made an irrevocable gift to the Elephant Sanctuary of the right to possess Tarra?” the judge asked.

“The answer is no,” the foreperson said.

“Do you unanimously find, by a preponderance of the evidence, that the Elephant Sanctuary maintains a policy that permanent residents of the sanctuary are not removable by their owners?”

“The answer to that is yes.”

“Do you unanimously find, by a preponderance of the evidence, that Ms. Buckley agreed to transfer Tarra under the same policy referenced in question two above, that Tarra is not removable by Ms. Buckley?”

“The answer to that is no.”

Buckley wasn’t sure what it all meant. It seemed like a legal jigsaw puzzle, and she couldn’t work it out. Wide-eyed, she turned to her counsel.

“Did we win? What happened?” 

“You won, Carol. Tarra’s coming home.” 

Buckley began to cry. 


A fine rain was falling the November day in 2021 when Buckley arrived in Tennessee to retrieve Tarra. The wipers squawked a steady rhythm against the windshield of her Subaru as she pulled onto the property where, more than 25 years before, she’d seen such promise and possibility. But Buckley didn’t dwell on what could have been. Two months prior, her refuge in Georgia had welcomed its first elephant, a former circus performer named Bo. Now Buckley was bringing home its second resident, and the one who’d inspired its creation.

The Elephant Sanctuary in Tennessee had appealed the verdict in Buckley’s favor, and for two more years legal papers had shuffled back and forth. An appeals court finally ruled in the summer of 2021 to uphold the verdict and deny the sanctuary its request for a new trial. What followed were months of wrangling over the details of Tarra’s transfer. There was paperwork to fill out, medical testing to conduct. Some details of the transfer were contentious. The sanctuary didn’t want Buckley to be present when Tarra was loaded into the trailer that would carry her to Georgia. Perhaps it wasn’t surprising that, in a battle that became as bitter as this one did, the end would be messy.

Barred from the barn where keepers were preparing Tarra for her trip, Buckley and her lawyer sat in front of a closed-circuit television in the sanctuary’s sleek new veterinary building. On screen they watched as a semi pushed Tarra’s trailer through the mud, maneuvering its back entrance until it was nearly flush with the gate of an enclosure next to the barn. Buckley’s breath caught as Tarra walked into view. The footage was grainy, but she could see that the elephant had aged. Her legs seemed stiff. Her grooved gray hide sagged.

Tarra had been off the road for 27 years. Near the trailer, she was visibly uneasy. Caregivers scattered a trail of hay on the ground leading to the ramp she’d have to climb to enter the vehicle. Predictably, the elephant followed the food, scooping it into her mouth with her trunk as she went. But when she reached the ramp, she hesitated. Gingerly, she placed her front legs onto it but would go no further. After a moment she backed up and paced the enclosure. Again sanctuary staff lured her with a trail of hay; again she refused to ascend the ramp. Her ears flared and she swayed back and forth. Tarra was growing stressed.

C’mon girl, Buckley thought.

By the time Tarra was penned inside the trailer, four hours had passed. Buckley watched as several caregivers lingered at the door, presumably saying goodbye. As they departed, one of them collapsed on the ground, sobbing. (The Elephant Sanctuary of Tennessee declined an interview request for this story. “The sanctuary is honored to have provided care for Tarra for 26 years, and we express gratitude for all the things she has taught us,” it said in a statement. “Tarra is truly missed every day and will always be a part of our family and our herd.”) 

The semi roared to life. The trailer began to move. Buckley climbed back into her Subaru and followed Tarra off the property. A short distance away, the vehicles pulled over. Buckley wanted to make sure Tarra had enough food for the journey to Georgia. She also wanted to see her elephant.

Tarra’s eyes were wide. All 9,700 pounds of her were contained in a steel cage. Buckley was glad to see her, but she also felt afraid of Tarra for the first time in her life. She wondered: Is this the same Tarra I knew? Has she changed? Will she remember me? Is she angry? Scared?

Back on the road, the vehicles turned south. They sliced through the heart of Alabama, passing Birmingham and Montgomery. As the hours ticked by, Buckley kept her eyes on Tarra’s trailer.

They arrived in Attapulgus at 11 p.m. under the glow of a full moon. The semi’s brakes hissed, then went quiet. Buckley got out of her car. To release Tarra from the trailer, she would have to unhook an interior gate. For a few seconds, she would be alone with the elephant without steel between them. Buckley would be vulnerable; if Tarra was upset, she could crush her. That couldn’t be how their story ended, could it? After all the struggle, the heartache? 

Buckley gathered her nerve, and as fast as she could, she slid the gate open and stepped away from the trailer. Tarra didn’t charge. After a few long moments, she appeared in the doorway. She seemed deflated, exhausted. Her head drooped. With slow, heavy steps she eased onto the ramp and took in her surroundings. Standing to the side, Buckley watched apprehensively. 

“How are you doing, honey?” she said softly. “It’s me.”

Tarra turned her heavy head toward Buckley, and her sleepy eyes opened wide. She clambered off the truck and let loose a chorus of chirps and squeaks. It was like she was picking up a conversation with a close friend after years apart. Tarra reached her serpentine trunk toward Buckley, but Buckley shrank away. “Give me some time, honey,” she said. “I’m a little afraid of you right now.” 

Despite all she’d learned about elephant behavior, Buckley couldn’t possibly know what the past ten years had been like for Tarra. Had she grieved? Had she moved on? Tarra slowly explored her new terrain. She used her trunk to touch sage grass and blackberry bushes. But she never strayed far from Buckley. They were both older now, a little slower. The arrogance of youth was tempered.

After a few minutes, Tarra walked toward Buckley again. This time Buckley relaxed, and Tarra closed the last bit of distance between them. She slipped her trunk gently around Buckley’s waist and pulled her close.


Gusts of wind scraped clouds from the sky, leaving it fresh and blue. In a field of browning grass, Tarra ambled, an exotic interloper, incongruous with the region’s surrounding crops and cows. A black and white dog named Mala bounded her way. Tarra gave a low rumble you could feel more than hear. Mala, like Bella before her, had become the elephant’s close companion. But Mala’s arrival also signaled something else: Buckley was coming.

A few minutes later, Buckley heaved into view on her four-wheeler. She cut the engine about 100 yards from Tarra and dismounted. Two rectangles of hay were strapped to the vehicle; a second dog, Samie, perched on the seat.

“Hey, pumpkin,” Buckley called to the elephant.

They walked toward each other, and when they met, Buckley patted Tarra’s shoulder. She inspected one of Tarra’s feet and her tail, talking all the while. “Mama’s here. How are you doing, girl?” she asked. Buckley scattered the hay for Tarra to eat and sat down on the grass to watch, her knees drawn to her chin. Mala and Samie wrestled and scampered, weaving between Tarra’s legs. Tarra was careful when she moved; a misstep would crush her canine friends in an instant.

In three days it would be the one-year anniversary of Tarra’s arrival in Georgia. There had been challenges. Bo, the other elephant at the refuge, who had been in a circus before his owner handed him to Buckley in September 2021, was a six-ton mountain of a creature. With a broad, twin-domed head and sweeping tusks, Bo loomed over Tarra. When they first met, Bo came on strong. He was castrated, so it wasn’t about attraction; he’d once performed with a group of female elephants, and he was excited for companionship. Tarra was wary, and Bo gave her space. Tarra eventually sought him out and lifted her trunk to breathe in his scent. They both relaxed. Now, if Tarra made the first move, the elephants touched trunks and leaned on each other.

For Buckley, the past year had brought some closure. When she won custody of Tarra, the court ordered the Elephant Sanctuary in Tennessee to pay trial costs worth tens of thousands of dollars. Buckley cut a deal. She agreed to cover the expenses herself in exchange for Tarra’s golden headdress and one of her roller skates, artifacts from the elephant’s performing days. The sanctuary had hung them at its welcome center in a display labeled “CAPTIVE.” A caption read, “[Tarra] worked for two decades in the circus at amusement parks and in the film industry. In 1995, she retired and became the first resident of The Elephant Sanctuary.” Buckley’s name was nowhere to be seen.

After she was forced out of the Tennessee sanctuary, Buckley was derided in some animal rights circles for being “a circus girl.” Tarra’s days on roller skates had not aged well—to many elephant lovers they seemed crass, even abusive. But Buckley isn’t ashamed of her past. “I have no desire to change history,” she said. “Tarra enjoyed skating. The people who don’t think she did are the ones who never saw her skate.”

Recently, Buckley got her hands on the chest she once towed Tarra’s skates around in. “That’s her baby stuff, her baby shoes,” Buckley said. She’s not sure what she’ll do with them yet—maybe set up a small display somewhere in California to memorialize Tarra’s early days.

For all the fondness she feels toward Tarra and their shared story, Buckley firmly believes elephants belong in the wild. She opposes the importation of new elephants and the breeding of the nearly 400 elephants in American zoos. She cringes at the notion of an elephant being construed as someone’s property, but acknowledges that as long as the law sees them that way, already captive elephants should be placed in the best possible hands. Reintroducing them to Africa or Asia won’t work—the change would be too dramatic, too dangerous. Refuges are the only answer.

If she met Tarra today, galumphing down a California street, Buckley would find her a place at a sanctuary. Then again, without Tarra, would Buckley know what such a thing is? Would one even exist in the U.S.? On every step of their journey together, Buckley said, Tarra led the way, guiding her toward a kind of enlightenment.

Buckley would like to expand the refuge beyond Tarra and Bo, but the money isn’t pouring in. Partly that’s because of the drama surrounding her lawsuit against the sanctuary. But there’s also been a proliferation of elephant-related causes, sanctuaries, and charities around the world. A quarter of a century ago, Buckley was blazing a trail. Now she’s part of a crowd.

Buckley is a little rueful about this, thrilled at the attention elephants now receive but skeptical that all the people working with them know what they’re doing, keep up with the latest research, spend money on the right things. Buckley knows, too, that some of the qualities of her personality that make her good with Tarra and other elephants—her stubbornness chief among them—can alienate fellow humans.

In the field with Tarra, Buckley is at peace. There’s a cadence to their relationship they’ve both come to expect and rely on—daily rituals of feeding, roaming, and communicating. When Buckley heads home at the end of the day, she knows she’ll see Tarra again soon. She feels lucky. Maybe Tarra does, too.

“See you, honey,” Buckley says.

The elephant watches her go.

*This story has been updated to elaborate on the terms of the sanctuary’s disposition policy.

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When Johna Ramirez’s son joined a wildly popular circle of tween YouTube influencers, it seemed like he was fulfilling his Hollywood dreams. But in the Squad, fame and fortune came at a cost.

By Nile Cappello

The Atavist Magazine, No. 135

Nile Cappello is a journalist, screenwriter, and producer whose writing has appeared in HuffPost, Rolling StoneVice, and other publications. Her previous Atavist story, “The Girl in the Picture,” was published as Issue No. 118.

Editor: Seyward Darby
Art Director: Ed Johnson
Copy Editor: Sean Cooper
Fact Checker: Kyla Jones
Illustrator: Rob Dobi

Published in January 2023

Hollywood is the last place you’d expect to meet Johna Kay Ramirez. She doesn’t come across as cutthroat. Thin, with auburn hair and warm eyes, Johna is thoughtful when she speaks and quick to apologize when she goes on a tangent. She’s the kind of person who knows that “bless your heart” is often a veiled insult. Hollywood, with all its glitz, glam, and high drama, became part of Johna’s story because of her children.

Born and raised in the Great Plains, Johna met Nelson Ramirez at a department store in Enid, Oklahoma; she sold shoes, he worked in menswear. They married, and in 1991, when Nelson got a job as a tech recruiter in Texas, the Ramirezes moved to Austin. Johna did video production for a local news station, then worked for a state agency. In 1998, when the Ramirezes had their first child, a daughter they named Liana, Johna became a stay-at-home mom. A son, Jentzen, came along eight years later.

Liana caught the entertainment bug first. What started as recreational dance classes quickly evolved into a passion for the performing arts. Liana loved being under bright stage lights, and Johna was proud to watch her precocious toddler blossom into a talented young girl. Liana appeared in local dance and theater productions, and by the time she was 13, her ambitions had surpassed the scope of what Austin could offer. She dreamed of being on the Disney Channel, of making it big in Hollywood. If Selena Gomez, a half-Latina teenager from Texas just like her, could become a star, Liana was sure she could, too. She had the talent and she had Johna, her chauffeur, line-reading partner, meal deliverer, videographer, and number one fan. “I knew how much my daughter wanted this, how much it meant to her,” Johna said. “So whatever I could do, whatever skills I had, I would use them to help.”

In September 2011, Johna snapped a photo of Liana at an airport gate. Her smile is all teeth, and a black bow holds back a portion of her curly brown hair. Mother and daughter were on their way to Los Angeles for Liana’s first Hollywood audition. The role was in a production of A Snow White Christmas, a stage musical. If cast, Liana would appear with Neil Patrick Harris, then a fan favorite on TV’s How I Met Your Mother, and with Lindsay Pearce of The Glee Project.

The audition was held at the Westfield Culver City mall on a Saturday morning. Kids and their guardians hustled inside and waited near a stage situated between Macy’s and Victoria’s Secret. Liana received her audition number and practiced the dance routine she’d be performing. She breezed through the first cut and kept going. In the final round, she danced to Michael Jackson’s “Thriller.” At the end of the number, right as the audience began to applaud, Liana looked over at her mom, beaming.

Johna announced the good news on Facebook. “She nailed it and she got a role as a dancer,” Johna wrote. “Can you hear us screaming?” Back in Texas, the Austin AmericanStatesman ran a piece about Liana. “Teen heads to Hollywood to dance in her dramatic debut,” the headline read.

The Ramirezes decided that Nelson would stay in Texas, where he had recently started his own business, while Johna took Liana and five-year-old Jentzen to California for the duration of the production. They would be joined by Johna’s mother, Martha, who would help with child care and managing Liana’s obligations. Johna drove her kids and mom to Los Angeles, a more than 20-hour trip mostly through dry, flat rattlesnake country. She’d never taken a leap like this—never lived somewhere like Los Angeles, been around serious entertainment people, or parented without Nelson. Johna was leaving her comfort zone in the rearview mirror.

She was surprised by how much she liked Los Angeles. Within a few days of arriving, she and Martha had their first celebrity encounter, an exchange with Kiefer Sutherland over potatoes at a Whole Foods. The city’s traffic was a pain, but they managed to sightsee, visiting the Hard Rock Cafe and Universal Studios, where Jentzen posed with actors dressed up as Dora the Explorer and the donkey from Shrek. Liana stayed busy with the stage production, and Johna spent long hours at the theater, watching as her daughter rehearsed and had costume fittings. Liana would appear in 32 performances over two months, working straight through the holidays. 

When the show wrapped, the Ramirezes reunited in Austin. Within a year, however, they decided to resume living as a split family. The musical had led to auditions and bookings for Liana, and she needed to be closer to LA to take advantage of them. Johna relocated to California full-time with her kids and tended to their day-to-day needs, while Nelson provided financial support from afar. Liana made appearances on Nickelodeon, the Disney Channel, and the prime-time network shows Criminal Minds and The Goldbergs.

As it turned out, Liana wasn’t the only family member who had star potential. With a smattering of freckles and a megawatt smile, Jentzen drew attention from casting directors, talent, and other industry insiders when Johna brought him on set with his sister. “You’ve got to put him in commercials,” stage moms told Johna, pinching Jentzen’s cheeks and ruffling his shaggy brown hair. He was in the sweet spot for child actors: old enough to memorize lines, but still young enough to be considered cute. Soon Jentzen was building out his own IMDb page, appearing in web series, short films, and the Lifetime movie Babysitter’s Black Book. 

For Johna, Jentzen’s success further validated her decision to move to Los Angeles. Every parent hopes that a child will find their thing. Other families travel to soccer tournaments, move across the country to train with gymnastics coaches, or spend thousands on STEM camps where kids learn to code and build robots. Liana and Jentzen didn’t just like acting—they were good at it. Plus, their budding careers allowed Johna to spend time with them, whether that was backstage at rehearsals, stuck in gridlock on the 101, or putting together audition tapes at home. “It wasn’t just something they did,” Johna said. “It was something we all did together.”

Without auditioning for it, Johna had been cast in a new role: “momager.” She played it well, surprising even herself with how easily she toggled between cooking meals and attending movie premieres. She learned how to advocate for her kids’ needs and when to say no on their behalf.

As Jentzen approached his teenage years, he began kicking around the idea of getting into YouTube. A child actor’s presence on social media was increasingly important to casting agents and directors. Johna, whose experience with social media was limited largely to updating her Facebook account, wasn’t convinced. “I just didn’t know what we’d post,” she said with a shrug.

Then, eight years after arriving in Hollywood, the Ramirezes saw a promising ad, known as a breakdown, on LA Casting, a website that film, TV, and online productions use to enlist talent. A breakdown typically includes a description of the project, the parts to be cast, and the pay rate, along with information about how to audition. The breakdown the Ramirezes saw was for something called the “Piper Rockeele Show,” which was planning to shoot a YouTube video on the Venice Beach boardwalk. Described as taking inspiration from the movie Grease, the shoot would involve a tween character named Chase brushing off Piper, the show’s eponymous star, to look cool in front of his friends. Chase seemed like a good fit for Jentzen; the listing offered $1,500 for eight hours of work, a very good rate.

The Ramirezes weren’t familiar with Piper Rockelle—her name was spelled wrong in the breakdown—but an internet search led to a tween girl with a YouTube channel boasting hundreds of hours of video content, including original songs, makeup tutorials, and staged pranks and challenges like “24 Hours HANDCUFFED to my ‘BOYFRIEND.’ ” Jentzen showed Johna his iPhone screen. “Mom, she’s got a lot of subscribers,” he said—more than two million.

Johna didn’t have a problem with Jentzen participating in another kid’s social media content. It was easier than striking out on his own in the wilds of YouTube. Jentzen replied to the ad and was asked to come in for an audition.

The day of the tryout, the Ramirezes had another appointment across town and were running late. Johna tracked down a number for the person, a voice coach, who’d posted the breakdown on LA Casting. According to Johna, the coach assured her there wouldn’t be a problem. “They really wanted him at the callback,” he said. “They really liked him.”

It is one of many moments that now haunt Johna. “Can you imagine if we would have missed the callback?” she said, shaking her head. “How maybe life would’ve been different?”

More than three years later, Piper Rockelle’s popularity has exploded. She has more than 25 million followers across Instagram, TikTok, and YouTube. There are hundreds, perhaps thousands, of fan pages dedicated to her. Piper has staged live meet-and-greets and musical performances around the world, and she sells her own line of merchandise. She lives in a pink and purple house worth $2.3 million in Sherman Oaks, previously owned by the actress Bella Thorne.

But all is not well in Piper’s world. Her own momager, Tiffany Smith, is being sued by 11 former members of the Squad, the name given to the circle of child actors who appear in Piper’s videos and ostensibly are her friends. Two of the plaintiffs are cousins of Piper’s. The kids allege that, when they were in the Squad, Smith verbally, physically, and in some cases sexually abused them. They also claim that Smith knowingly produced exploitative content featuring her daughter and other minors. “Smith would often boast to Plaintiffs and others about being the ‘Madam of YouTube’ and a ‘Pimp of YouTube,’ and that she ‘makes kiddie porn,’ ” states the lawsuit, which was filed in January 2022. Smith’s boyfriend, Hunter Hill, and Piper Rockelle Inc. are also defendants in the suit. Hill, who works behind the scenes to produce Piper’s YouTube videos, is accused of conspiring with Smith to “sabotage” the plaintiffs’ careers after they left the Squad.  

Johna knows the plaintiffs and their parents personally. She doesn’t doubt their claims. However, she isn’t part of the lawsuit. For the past few years, Johna has been fighting a legal battle of her own. It began after Jentzen auditioned for Piper’s team, and it has pitted her against Smith as well as her own family. Today, according to Johna, all she wants is to have a relationship with her children again.

This story is based on interviews with Johna and Nelson Ramirez; two of the plaintiffs’ mothers, Steevy Areeco and Angela Sharbino; and the plaintiffs’ attorney, Matthew Sarelson. It draws on hundreds of pages of court documents, personal communications shared by sources, and the trove of social media content produced by Piper and the Squad. Smith and Hill did not respond to requests for comment. They have denied the allegations against them.

Seven years ago, Piper Rockelle hadn’t yet gone viral, or moved to Los Angeles, or started the Squad. Seven years ago, she was just a kid in Georgia with big bows and big dreams. 

Forty miles outside Atlanta, in the lush foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains, sits Canton, Piper’s hometown. Attracting families looking for a quiet, scenic alternative to the city, Canton has a main drag framed with redbrick sidewalks and sits just a few miles from the bucolic Hickory Log Creek Reservoir. According to videos later posted on Piper’s YouTube channel, Tiffany Smith met Piper’s father when they worked at a local veterinary clinic together. Their relationship fell apart when Tiffany, then in her mid-twenties, learned that she was pregnant and Piper’s father, who has never been identified publicly, pressured her to get an abortion. Tiffany kept the baby and went on to raise Piper as a single mother. It was just the two of them and a collection of rescue cats.

If Liana Ramirez’s aspirations were shaped by Disney and Nickelodeon, Piper’s were the product of Toddlers & Tiaras, the popular TLC reality show documenting the kiddie pageant scene, which ran for nine seasons and gave the world Alana “Honey Boo Boo” Thompson. Tiffany put Piper into pageants at a young age. She got her daughter airbrushed headshots, fake tans, bedazzled dresses, and partial dentures, known as flippers, designed to perfect a child’s smile. Piper sparkled in the spotlight. She was adorable. She was sassy. She twirled and winked at the judges and blew kisses at the audience. Piper collected crowns, sashes, and titles, making a name for herself in regional competitions.

Tiffany was convinced that her daughter was destined for bigger things. In 2016, the year Piper turned nine, Tiffany turned her attention to social media, reviving a dormant Instagram account she’d set up a few years earlier. Using her middle name, Rockelle, in her stage name, Piper became active on, the lip-sync audio app that two years later would be sold to a Chinese company and reemerge as TikTok. She also started creating YouTube content, posting her first clip in November 2016. In it, the third-grader makes slime in her kitchen. The video is simple, with low production values, and relies almost entirely on Piper’s extroverted personality and charisma in front of the camera. It would receive more than 4.5 million views—a figure that to anyone who isn’t a young kid or the parent of one might seem insane.

Gen Z is the first generation to never know life without the internet, and they watch a lot of YouTube. By 2020, according to Pew Research, 89 percent of parents with a child between five and eleven reported that their kids watched videos on the platform; 81 percent with three- and four-year-olds, and 57 percent with a child age two or under, said the same thing. But YouTube’s youngest users aren’t just interested in watching music videos, reruns of Paw Patrol, and old episodes of SpongeBob SquarePants. They like content made by creators they can relate to—ones who look and act like them.

YouTube has given Gen Z their own form of reality television: They can watch other kids be silly with their friends, try on clothes, play with toys and games, and get famous in the process. In 2015, the year before Piper joined YouTube, three-year-old Ryan Kaji began posting unboxing videos on his channel Ryan’s World. Kaji opened new toys in front of the camera, inviting young viewers to vicariously experience his excitement. In 2017, Forbes ranked Kaji as the ninth-highest-earning YouTuber, reporting that he made $11 million that year. Two years later, Kaji made $26 million and shot to the number one spot.

Adults might not understand the appeal of watching a video of Kaji tearing into a Lego set or Piper making slime in her kitchen for the same reason young kids are unlikely to grasp the popularity of The Bachelor: The content isn’t made for them. But the viewers it is made for can’t get enough of it.

Building on the success of her first video, Piper made more YouTube content and attracted more followers. With visibility came opportunities. Piper and Tiffany began taking trips to Los Angeles, where they filmed videos with fellow “kidfluencers” and visited the Walk of Fame and other Hollywood landmarks. According to fan pages, Piper became the fastest “Muser,” or app user, to reach 750,000 followers on, where she posted videos of herself dancing and performing comedy skits.

Piper’s social media content paid off in a big way when she was cast in a reality show called Dance Twins. Produced by the creator of Dance Moms, a wildly popular Lifetime program, the show followed twin sisters Nisa and Tria as they ran rival dance studios in Cleveland, Tennessee. Shot in 2017, it lasted only one season and is no longer streamable, but the trailer and various clips remain on social media. In one snippet, Piper, cast as a student of Nisa’s, sits for an interview with her mother. Piper describes Tiffany as the quintessential cool mom. “Every kid wants to hang out with her,” she says as the clip cuts to footage of Tiffany dabbing. Tiffany, in turn, says Piper is her “best friend.” 

Episode nine followed Piper, who was ten at the time, as she prepared to perform at a minor league baseball game with a team of backup dancers in matching jerseys. Among them was ten-year-old Corinne Joy. A competitive dancer who’d already tried out for America’s Got Talent, Corinne hit it off with Piper. They both lived in the Atlanta area, so they exchanged information and planned to meet up back home.

In an interview, Corinne’s mother, Steevy Areeco, said she was happy for her daughter to have a new friend with similar interests, and found Piper to be polite and hardworking. But she described immediate red flags when it came to Tiffany. She had a tendency to overshare, Steevy said. One of the first times Piper and Corinne hung out in Georgia, the moms got to know each other. Tiffany told Steevy unprompted that her boyfriend at the time was a registered sex offender, but dismissed the crime as a consensual encounter with a minor.

According to Steevy, Piper began receiving gifts in the mail from a fan Tiffany called “Meagan” and implied was around the same age as her daughter. Tiffany eventually admitted that Meagan was actually an adult man. When she offered to introduce Steevy to him so that Corinne could start getting gifts as well, Steevy said that she declined.

Tiffany and Piper moved to Los Angeles full-time in late 2017. They rented an apartment in Hollywood and threw themselves into auditions and collaborations set up by Piper’s then manager, Matt Dugan. At the time, Dugan was working with a roster of young social media influencers trying to break into film, television, and the music industry, including Raegan Fingles, aka Raegan Beast, a popular creator on; Kristen Hancher, now a top earner on OnlyFans; and Danielle Cohn, a former pageant girl turned Muser like Piper. (Dugan did not reply to requests for comment.)

According to Steevy, Tiffany eventually invited her and Corinne to Los Angeles for a visit. But the night before they were set to leave, Tiffany explained over the phone that she couldn’t host them. There was someone else living with her and Piper in their one-bedroom apartment. Steevy and Corinne went to LA anyway and stayed in a hotel.

The other resident of the apartment, Steevy learned, was Tiffany’s boyfriend, a content creator named Hunter Hill, known online as H2balla. Originally from Wyoming, the blond-haired, blue-eyed Hill had gained a following on before moving to YouTube and other platforms and becoming one of Dugan’s clients. He was 20, more than ten years younger than Tiffany. Hunter and Piper sometimes made content together, including numerous videos and posts in which they claimed to be brother and sister.

Steevy didn’t know what to make of Hunter, but it was hard to ignore the results Piper was getting in Los Angeles. When Brat, an online network that produced short-form content for kids, launched in the summer of 2017, it was in partnership with Dugan’s talent management company. This ensured that Brat’s shows drew heavily from Dugan’s roster of clients and contacts. Piper was soon cast as a lead in a show called Mani; she portrayed the young sidekick to an eccentric male nanny. The first season, which aired on Brat’s YouTube channel, received between 5 million and 17 million views per episode, propelling Piper toward Gen Z superstardom.

Hoping to jump-start her daughter’s career, Steevy moved with Corinne to Los Angeles in November 2018. They didn’t know a lot of people in California, just a few dance moms and Instagram acquaintances, so they spent time with Piper and Tiffany. By early 2019, Corinne and Piper were filming YouTube videos together, along with a few other preteens with burgeoning online followings. This was the first iteration of what would become known as the Squad. 

A kind of self-styled Mickey Mouse Club, Piper’s group of collaborators included her friend Sophie Fergi, who was also on Mani, and a boy named Sawyer Sharbino. Sawyer’s teenage sisters, Saxon and Brighton, had already made names for themselves in Hollywood, appearing in the remake of Poltergeist and on The Walking Dead, by the time Sawyer started a YouTube channel at age nine. Sawyer was inspired by Saxon’s ex-boyfriend, Jake Paul, a controversial social media star known for pulling outrageous stunts. Paul had appeared on a Disney show but agreed to leave after a news station reported on the chaotic parties, filled with underage fans, that he threw. Undeterred, Paul parlayed his popularity into brand deals, partnerships, sold-out stage shows, and meet-and-greets. He was living proof that social media could do more than help kids launch a career in entertainment—it could be their career.

Piper also started filming with Sawyer Sharbino’s friend Gavin Magnus, a kid with gelled hair and pop-star aspirations. Gavin and Sawyer had met at the 13th birthday party of Hayden Sumerall, a singer and content creator linked with one of the most famous teenagers on the internet, Annie LeBlanc. Annie (who now goes by Jules) got her start on her family’s popular vlogging channel; by mid-2017, she had her own web series and had recorded her first viral cover song, a duet with Hayden. Jules and Hayden were in a “ship,” or relationship, known to their followers as “Hannie.”

For as long as the will-they-or-won’t-they dynamic has existed in serialized entertainment, enthusiastic fans have pined for popular characters to fall in love and cheered when they got together—think Ross and Rachel on Friends, or Jim and Pam on The Office. Fueled by Hollywood media, millions of people also become invested in celebrity relationships, some of which acquire their own portmanteaus: Bennifer, Brangelina, Kimye. Among kidfluencers, ships draw on both these trends. User-generated content ushered in a new era of voyeurism and so-called para-social relationships, in which viewers feel a degree of intimacy with the people they see on screen. Lines between what’s real and what’s scripted are blurred. Ships like Hannie are orchestrated by kidfluencers, their parents and managers, and in some cases brand sponsors, but they seem real to young fans—or real enough.

The popularity of ships offer content creators unique business opportunities. Just as sex sells with adult audiences, puppy love hooks pubescent ones. Hannie played out on Annie’s and Hayden’s respective social media feeds. The 12-year-olds made content together and about each other; they held hands, hugged, and laughed. While fans gushed in the comments and on messages boards, Hannie sold merch, went on sponsored trips, and released music videos.

The ship became a case study for parents looking to help their kids blow up on social platforms—parents like Tiffany Smith and Gavin Magnus’s mom, Theresa. When Gavin released his first single, “Crushin’,” Piper was cast in the video. Both kids were 11 at the time. The video, which went live on Valentine’s Day 2019, shows Piper as the object of Gavin’s affection, accepting a bouquet of heart-shaped balloons and posing for selfies with him. The video went on to get 33 million views. Piper and Gavin kept making content together, fans demanded more, and before long “Pavin” was born.

Piper and Gavin went from calling each other crushes to declaring themselves boyfriend and girlfriend. But their content wasn’t always the YouTube equivalent of love notes left in middle school lockers and initials doodled inside hearts on notebook covers. They made videos of pranks staged at each other’s expense. Some were straightforward enough: Gavin ignoring Piper for 24 hours to see how she’d react, Piper pretending she lost her memory and couldn’t remember who Gavin was. Other video concepts required explanations for Pavin’s young fans.

In a June 2019 video titled “CATFISHING my girlfriend to see if she cheats,” Gavin starts off by saying that to accomplish his goal, he’ll need a cat and a fish. After an emoji for each animal pops up on screen, an adult male voice behind the camera says, “I don’t think that’s how catfishing works, Gavin.” Feigning ignorance, Gavin knits his brows above his bright blue eyes and asks, “How does it work then?” He proceeds to offer viewers a lesson in online deception 101, persuading a friend to text Piper “flirty” messages and then accusing Piper of not being “loyal” when she responds.

Pavin’s popularity was still rising when, on July 24, 2019, Gavin shocked fans with a video titled “My Breakup **THE TRUTH…IT’S OVER**.” In the video, Gavin’s friend Connor Cain is told to read aloud a text that Gavin claims to have sent to a group chat with Piper and Sophie. “I’m sorry it’s ending like this. I can’t take the anxiety, stress, and overall complication of this,” Connor reads as a screenshot of the text appears next to his face. “There are going to be times where I will see pictures of all of us and remember when we were having fun. Not being so controlled, not being just ‘investments.’ ” When Connor finishes reading, he scrunches up his face with discomfort.

Gavin then plops down on the sofa where Connor is sitting and addresses viewers directly. “I know this is probably really tough, but Pavin’s over,” Gavin says. “There were a lot of things that went down, a lot of things that were inappropriate.… I was removed from a toxic environment.” Referring to himself and Piper, he says, “Please don’t send any hate to either one of us. There’s already enough going on, on Instagram and on the, like, legal side.”

Gavin doesn’t give specifics. He fiddles with his phone as he talks. He looks relieved when, at the end of the video, he’s able to be his usual on-screen self: He roughhouses with Connor and high-fives him, then encourages viewers to buy his music and merch. The video concludes with a series of bloopers from the shoot.

Gavin’s family would soon have a law firm begin preparing legal action against Tiffany Smith and Hunter Hill. By then, Piper’s team was well on its way to identifying new talent to fill the void left by Gavin. Four days before the breakup video went live, they held auditions for a number of new roles on Piper’s channel. One of the kids they saw was Jentzen Ramirez

The popularity of ships offer content creators unique business opportunities. Just as sex sells with adult audiences, puppy love hooks pubescent ones.

Johna wasn’t in the habit of keeping up with kidfluencer gossip. She didn’t know about Gavin’s video or that Piper and her team were hitting back, using social media posts and direct messages with fans to accuse Gavin of “cheating.” She was just hoping that Jentzen got a job with Piper.

A week after her son’s audition for the Venice Beach shoot, Johna got an email letting her know that Jentzen was invited to be in a different video, for which he would be paid just $125, not $1,500. According to Johna, when she asked for clarification about the project change and the lower rate than what had been advertised on LA Casting, she received a call from Tiffany Smith and Heather Trimmer, the mother of Piper’s sidekick, Sophie. The women wanted Jentzen to be in a video in which a trio of boys would rate outfits worn by their daughters. In Johna’s telling, Tiffany assured her it would be “innocent tween content,” with no inappropriate attire.

A $125 day rate was well below the threshold Johna had set for Jentzen’s work—she wanted to make sure the jobs he accepted were professional and worth his while. But Piper was famous; she could help Jentzen break into social media. Johna decided to make an exception.

The Ramirezes arrived just before call time at an apartment complex in the heart of Hollywood. Johna double-checked the address; she was accustomed to working on studio lots or at public locations, surrounded by box trucks and crew members loitering on the sidewalk between takes. Inside, the Ramirezes were directed to a common area where another tween creator was already sitting. Lev Cameron, a blond dancer born in France, had appeared previously on So You Think You Can Dance: The Next Generation and Dancing with the Stars: Junior. Lev was 13, the age Jentzen would soon turn. The boys waited together to be called in for the shoot, which was happening upstairs in the apartment where Piper lived with her mom and Hunter.

Johna was surprised by Tiffany when she appeared in the common area. She looked, talked, and acted more casually than the people in charge of other shoots Johna had taken her son to. Johna got the impression that Tiffany expected her to wait downstairs while Jentzen was filming. When Johna moved to accompany her son, Tiffany was resistant. “The kids do better when the parents aren’t around,” Johna recalled Tiffany saying.

Johna wasn’t naive about exploitation of kids in the entertainment business. She’d always taken comfort in the extensive legal protections offered to child actors in California. State law outlines requirements about payment, on-set education, time off from work, and other matters pertaining to kids’ well-being. Johna had seen the effects of these protections firsthand, in the form of meal breaks, tutors, and financial-planning resources for child actors and their families. Before her exchange with Tiffany, she’d found that parents were encouraged to keep eyes on their children at all times during shoots. Minors weren’t supposed to be alone with adult cast or crew members.

Out of habit and also on instinct, Johna insisted that she go upstairs with her son. Once there, however, Johna found herself hanging back, staying inside the apartment while Jentzen filmed with the other kids in the hallway. She didn’t want to be the only helicopter parent and possibly get in the way of her son making friends who could lead to more work. Johna told herself she’d have to adjust to this new slice of the entertainment world.

At the instruction of Tiffany and Hunter, who handled the technical aspects of the shoot, Piper and Sophie put on various outfits, and the boys, equipped with whiteboards, played fashion police. The girls wore ensembles baring their midriffs and catwalked toward the boys for each round of judging. The video, which over time would receive more than seven million views, was posted on Sophie’s personal YouTube channel under the title “My Crush REACTS to my FASHION NOVA Outfits.”

Fashion Nova was the retail company whose clothes the girls were promoting. The video didn’t specify which of the boys was Sophie’s crush. Soon, though, Jentzen would fill that role.

Jentzen had never had a girlfriend, real or scripted. Johna didn’t know much about ships. But when Tiffany approached her not long after the shoot about forming one between Jentzen and Sophie, it seemed like a good opportunity. So “Jophie” was created. Piper soon entered a ship with Lev. Fans seemed excited by both pairings. The video in which Jentzen calls Sophie his crush for the first time has more than six million views and 9,600 comments to date.

Success came fast. Day rates, Johna learned, weren’t how Squad members made money. In fact, the kids weren’t regularly compensated by Piper’s team, a fact later corroborated in legal documents. Instead, they profited by being in Piper’s inner circle: As Squad members, their personal social media channels garnered attention, which could translate into revenue. Jentzen would eventually earn between $30,000 and $40,000 a month from brand deals, sponsored posts, and monetized videos. Putting her experience in production to use, Johna became her son’s videographer and editor, helping keep his suddenly remunerative social accounts flush with content.

According to Johna, she and Jentzen verbally agreed to share his earnings. California law dictates that a child actor’s income is theirs alone, but Johna claims that she and Jentzen decided it was fair that her labor be compensated. Together mother and son set up J&J Ramirez Productions LLC.

A real friendship formed off-screen between Jentzen and Lev. Johna was thrilled. Her son had a new community and steady work. Jentzen seemed happy appearing in Piper’s video for her single “Treat Myself,” where she dances in a short skirt at a party with her friends, and making content with titles like “KISSING My Best Friends BOYFRIEND To See How My CRUSH Reacts.” Piper’s channel scripted and marketed the various milestones of experimentation, awkwardness, and humiliation common in the lives of American kids. Her followers ate it up.

Piper’s fans seemed to especially like it when she used her videos to make Gavin Magnus look bad. Gavin would later allege that Piper’s team, which kept pushing the idea that he’d betrayed Piper somehow, launched an #UnfollowGavin campaign that cost him more than 20,000 followers. The acrimony became a hot topic in kidfluencer gossip forums, also known as shade rooms, and in clips posted by the Paparazzi Gamer, a vlogger known for chasing down young YouTube stars on their way out of LA restaurants or events at the Wish House, a mansion worth tens of millions of dollars where social media stars gathered to make content. Pavin’s fandom became a house divided, and each side had strong opinions about who had wronged whom.

The former pair’s collaborators were split, too, urged by the adults behind Piper’s and Gavin’s content to choose sides. Soon Piper and Gavin weren’t just two halves of a onetime ship, they were the leaders of rival kidfluencer cliques. Piper’s Squad and Gavin’s GOAT Fam competed to film the most videos and get the most views. 

In November 2019, Gavin posted a new video about his breakup with Piper; this time he was ready to go into detail. He admitted that he and Piper had agreed to form a ship to grow their profiles. The situation turned sour, Gavin claimed, when Tiffany became “abusive and obsessive.” Gavin called the nearly seven months he worked with Piper and her mom the most stressful of his life. He said that he wasn’t allowed to hang out with anyone Tiffany didn’t “approve” of, and that Tiffany had “anxiety attacks” during which she did extreme things, including jumping out of cars and screaming at the kids working with her daughter.

“There were texts and DMs of her saying, like, really inappropriate things, almost things that, like, an ex-girlfriend would say to you,” Gavin recalls in the video. “She would yell at me over text and call me names that a 12-year-old shouldn’t be called by a 30-year-old woman.” He also accuses Tiffany of offering him a vape and says he isn’t the only kidfluencer to stop working with Piper because of her mom’s behavior.

As fans responded to the video, debating the validity of Gavin’s claims, Piper’s inner circle received a clear message. According to Johna and other former Squad moms, Tiffany described Gavin and his mother, Theresa, as liars waging a smear campaign against her and hurting Piper. At first Johna believed her. She’d heard stories about Theresa and Tiffany fighting for months before Gavin left the Squad—maybe this was all a matter of revenge on the part of a bitter mom and her son. But as time went on, Johna wondered if Gavin was telling the truth.

As much as Jentzen loved being part of the Squad, the hours he spent filming were long, beyond what’s legally permitted for working minors in California, a fact supported by paperwork that Johna would later file with the courts. Johna, who put Jentzen and Liana in online school while they pursued their careers, noticed that there were no tutors available on set for Squad members. She and other Squad moms have since stated in interviews that they were especially concerned about Piper, who claimed to have dyslexia and didn’t seem to be able to read very well. But it wasn’t clear to Squad members’ parents which workplace standards applied in the Wild West of social media content creation, or who was responsible for enforcing them. Tiffany? YouTube? Some other entity?  

Johna worried too about what she viewed as Tiffany’s eagerness to control the lives of Squad members, to the point that it was difficult for them to do much of anything except film with Piper. According to Johna and other moms interviewed for this story, Tiffany didn’t just discourage kids from going to parties, attending auditions, or being tagged in photos that didn’t involve the Squad—she often viewed it as outright disloyalty. Kids she deemed ungrateful for one reason or another fell off the shooting schedule, the social media equivalent of being benched, until Tiffany changed her mind. According to Angela Sharbino, Sawyer’s mother, after she told Tiffany that she wanted her son to take on more traditional acting roles, Sawyer would show up to Squad shoots only to watch his friends film without him. “Tiffany just wanted to waste his time,” Angela said.

All the while, Piper’s content seemed to grow ever more adult. According to the 2022 lawsuit, Tiffany gave Squad members instructions about what to do in videos: She directed kids to kiss to make ships seem more real, and to “push their butts out,” “make sexy kissing faces,” or “wear something sluttier.” Because parents often weren’t with their children during shoots, they didn’t always know what went on until later. Even then they were wary of complaining, because dissent risked retribution.

Leaving the Squad wasn’t an easy decision, not for kids who wanted to be stars. Former members saw a marked decline in the growth of their brand once they stopped filming with Piper. The accumulation of followers slowed, and revenue streams dried up. In part this was because proximity to Piper was lucrative; distancing oneself all but ensured financial losses. According to the lawsuit, however, there may have been other reasons kidfluencers who left the Squad suffered setbacks. Angela Sharbino alleges that Hunter Hill admitted that he’d “tanked” kids’ channels by “embedding” their videos on porn sites, which could get the content flagged and unlisted by YouTube, and using bots to add and subtract subscribers in quick succession, which affected the recommendation algorithm. According to court documents, Hunter allegedly told Squad members and their parents that he had a contact at YouTube, someone he called “Alex,” who helped him boost Piper’s content while suppressing the work of her rivals.

Johna didn’t want to jeopardize Jentzen’s career by walking away from the Squad. Nor did she want to go to war with Tiffany. She wasn’t the kind of momager willing to air out dirty laundry about her child’s collaborators on a livestream or slide into fans’ DMs with gossip about other kidfluencers’ parents. And she worried about Jentzen losing important personal bonds. Unlike other kids his age, Jentzen didn’t have close friends he’d met in homeroom, at lunch, or on a school sports team—he had the Squad.

In February 2020, Tiffany announced that the Squad would be taking a road trip to Las Vegas in an RV. Jentzen was waiting to hear about a callback at the time. According to Johna, Tiffany told her that she and Jentzen could head back early if he got good news. The problems started as soon as the trip did. The kids were invited to ride in the RV with Tiffany and Hunter, where they would shoot content during the more than four-hour drive north; the parents were expected to follow separately in their cars. Once the group got to their Airbnb, according to Johna, Tiffany announced that she wanted the boys and the girls to spend the night in adjoining rooms unsupervised. As a result of the setup, Piper and Lev fell asleep one night side by side. Their friends snapped photos and teased them when they woke up. (Johna said she insisted that Jentzen not sleep with his friends, but instead stay in a room with her and another mother-son pair.)

When Jentzen got the callback he’d been waiting on, Johna was glad for the excuse to leave. But according to Johna, after she told Tiffany the news, she got a phone call from Piper’s manager, Peggy Iafrate, who had replaced Matt Dugan in 2019. In Johna’s recollection, Peggy made it clear that if Jentzen left the trip early, he would be kicked out of the Squad. Jentzen missed the callback. (Iafrate did not reply to requests for comment.)

When the Squad returned to Los Angeles, they went to a five-bedroom rental home in Hollywood where Tiffany had recently moved Piper’s content operation. Everyone was exhausted, but Tiffany wanted to keep filming. At some point, according to Johna and the lawsuit plaintiffs, Tiffany cornered Jentzen and Walker Bryant, another Squad member, in a bathroom. She berated them, calling them “horny bastards” for allegedly holding hands with two girls who weren’t their assigned crushes. Later, during a car ride, the boys told Johna about the encounter. At the time, they seemed freaked out.

Johna decided that she wasn’t being paranoid, dramatic, or overbearing. She could no longer ignore what her gut was telling her: that Tiffany wasn’t safe. It was time for Jentzen to leave the Squad.

Despite the bathroom incident, she knew that her son would resist. Jentzen had become a bona fide YouTube star, and he credited his success to Piper and her team. Leaving the Squad would mean losing his closest friends. Johna would need to cushion the financial and emotional impact of pulling out.  

Johna called her husband, Nelson, in Texas. Nelson hadn’t had much interaction with Tiffany, Hunter, or anyone else involved with the Squad. While Johna had previously voiced some concerns to him about the working environment, she wanted to believe—and wanted Nelson to think—that she had the situation under control. After all, attending to the kids and their careers was her job. Now Johna unloaded: She told Nelson about issues on the set of Squad shoots, the types of videos Jentzen was making, the control Tiffany had over the group, and the backlash that ex–Squad members seemed to face.

“I need your help,” she said.

According to the lawsuit, Tiffany directed kids to kiss to make ships seem more real, and to “push their butts out,” “make sexy kissing faces,” or “wear something sluttier.”

Nelson agreed that he would assist with what he and Johna referred to as the “exit process.” As it happened, by early 2020 they weren’t the only people looking to cut ties with Piper’s team—so were the parents of Walker Bryant and of a girl named Indi Carey. Johna and Walker’s mother, Jennifer, had talked before about some of the concerns they shared regarding the culture of the Squad; during shoots, they took turns making Starbucks runs to ensure that one of them was close to their sons at all times. Now, along with Indi’s parents, they agreed to announce their kids’ departure from the Squad in tandem. They hoped there would be strength in numbers. “We’d already seen how she was able to manipulate people and turn them against each other,” Johna said, referring to Tiffany. “We didn’t want to let that happen again.”

Meanwhile, another former Squad member began making public accusations against Tiffany. After appearing in a music video for one of Piper’s songs, Clementine Lea Spieser* worked with the Squad for four months before stepping away in March 2020. Weeks later, as fans were swapping theories about her absence, Clementine posted a video clarifying her reasons for leaving.

Wearing a red cap-sleeve shirt and black choker, Clementine recites a prepared statement in front of a bubblegum pink backdrop. She says she “felt pressured” by Piper’s team to do things she was uncomfortable with. “They tried to put me in a love triangle,” Clementine says. “I’m only 13. I don’t think I should fake a relationship this early.” She also alleges that Tiffany “kept shoving confidentiality agreements in our faces, pressuring us to sign them so she could try to silence us like everybody in the Squad, so she could try to control the public story of every single Squad member. And if [the team] felt we didn’t listen, they would punish us by not promoting us, to show their power.”

Two weeks after Clementine posted her video, Tiffany sued Clementine’s mother, Caroline Fratacci, for defamation and intentional infliction of emotional distress. The lawsuit, which was later settled out of court, accused Caroline of spreading false rumors that went well beyond what was described in Clementine’s video. Tiffany claimed that Caroline had told people she was guilty of “heinous crimes”—including the sexual assault of a minor.

To refute the defamation charge, Caroline’s legal team obtained a letter written by content creator Raegan Fingles. Like Piper, Raegan had gained a following on before moving to Los Angeles to work with Matt Dugan. His letter, submitted to the courts, details an incident that he claims occurred at Tiffany’s Hollywood apartment one night in 2017.

A group of influencers and their teams, including Piper, Tiffany, and Raegan, had attended an event sponsored by a company called Rock Your Hair. When the party ended, some of Dugan’s clients went to Tiffany’s apartment to film content. According to Raegan, who was 17 at the time, Tiffany provided alcohol to everyone, including nine-year-old Piper. The group then decided to go live on an app called YouNow. During the stream, an apparently intoxicated Tiffany turned to Raegan, grabbed his face, and started kissing him. Piper, standing behind them, could be seen pulling Tiffany away from Raegan before Tiffany again appeared to force herself on the teenager.

Raegan’s letter alleged that Tiffany’s behavior continued off camera. He claimed she grabbed him by his waist and attempted to drag him into a bedroom. “I was scared Tiffany was going to rape me,” Raegan stated. He claimed that he reported the incident to Dugan, who told him he would make sure Tiffany was held accountable. “Dugan was my mentor at the time,” Raegan wrote. “I trusted him fully to do the right thing.” When Raegan saw the next day that videos of the livestream no longer seemed to be online, he assumed Dugan had reported them or otherwise had them taken down. Raegan didn’t go to the police. (According to reporting by the Los Angeles Times, Raegan was contacted by the FBI about his allegations against Tiffany in 2021.)

Raegan’s letter was dated May 30, 2020, and its allegations made the rounds among kidfluencers and their families that summer. So did other accusations found in a demand letter and legal complaint drafted by a law firm on Gavin Magnus’s behalf after his breakup with Piper the previous year. Those documents, leaked to parents whose kids were once in Piper’s orbit, allege intentional infliction of emotional distress, civil harassment, violation of child labor laws, and cyberstalking by both Tiffany and Hunter. They describe a “Svengali-like” relationship between Tiffany and the kids in the Squad, and include screenshots of text messages Tiffany allegedly sent to Gavin, chastising him for tagging a friend outside the group in his content; the texts call Gavin a “hypocrite” and “shout out slut.”

The documents also describe the association between Tiffany and the adult male fan of Piper’s known as Meagan, the one Steevy Areeco had heard about back in Georgia. According to accounts provided by Gavin and his parents, Tiffany referred to this fan as “the Stalker” and “the Pedophile,” but sent him videos of her daughter in exchange for money, food, and gifts. A final, bizarre accusation made by Gavin and his family is that Tiffany sometimes pretended to be a character she called “Lenny the Dead Cat.” Under the guise of Lenny, she would make sexual comments to Squad members and “manipulate and scare the children into silence.”

Gavin’s parents never filed the documents with the courts, and they never would. Instead, over the summer of 2020, Gavin and Piper began making content together again; one segment is titled “Spying On My EX BOYFRIEND for 24 HOURS Challenge.” A YouTuber with the handle Mayhem, who reports and comments on internet culture, shared a screenshot of a greeting card adorned with rainbows that Gavin’s mother told her social media followers she’d given to Tiffany to make amends. “I just wanted to send a quick note of thanks for allowing Gavin to see all of you,” the card reads. “I am so sorry for the past.” (Theresa Magnus did not reply to requests for comment.)

When Johna heard about Raegan’s, Clementine’s, and Gavin’s accusations against Tiffany, she was overwhelmed. What responsible parent would fail to question how an adult like this is still working with children? she remembered wondering.

By then she was thinking this about her own husband.

On April 26, 2020, the Ramirezes, the Bryants, and the Careys had a conference call with Peggy Iafrate to tell her that their kids were leaving the Squad. A few days later, Nelson traveled from Texas to visit his family. Johna was prepared for Tiffany and Hunter to put up a fight and for Jentzen to be upset. She was hopeful that together she and Nelson would weather the fallout. But then, on Mother’s Day, around two weeks after the call with Iafrate, Nelson made an announcement: Jentzen would not be leaving the Squad.

After talking to Jentzen and to Tiffany, Nelson had a different take on the situation. From his perspective, which Nelson emphasized in an interview for this story was informed by his experience in corporate management, if there were problems in the Squad pertaining to scheduling and on-set rules, these were just the growing pains of a new business. “The idea that the kids were working their asses off and it was a slave camp are wrong,” Nelson said. “The kids wanted to be there and had to be dragged away.” He felt that Johna and some of the other Squad moms had exaggerated, misconstrued, or even made up allegations against Tiffany because they resented how much their kids needed her and Piper to be successful. The women were being vindictive, to Nelson’s mind, and he saw no reason to be concerned about Jentzen’s well-being.

Besides, staying in the Squad was what Jentzen wanted. Liana supported the decision, too. She was still trying to make it in Hollywood; she had even filmed some videos with the Squad. (Neither Liana nor Jentzen replied to requests for comment.)

Johna was shocked. Over the years, the geographical distance between her and Nelson had left their marriage feeling more like a business arrangement than a love story. But they’d made it work well enough and always presented a united front for their kids. Now, in what felt like an instant, Johna found herself effectively sidelined from her family.

Meanwhile, the Squad knew that Johna had tried to remove Jentzen from the group. That made her persona non grata in what was effectively her son’s workplace. Nelson took over as the principal decision maker about Jentzen’s career, coordinating things from Texas. Liana chaperoned Jentzen on routine Squad shoots, while Nelson joined him for out-of-town content trips whenever possible. When it came to supervising her son, Johna became the adult of last resort.

Caring for his basic needs, though, was still her responsibility—Jentzen continued to live with Johna. Soon, he was spending more and more time out with friends. When he was home, he often stayed in his room. Text messages between Jentzen and Johna about schoolwork, meals, and laundry became short and tense. In many instances, Jentzen didn’t respond at all.

Johna felt trapped. She couldn’t defy her husband and children if she wanted to keep their family intact. Still, when she spoke with Nelson in Texas, which according to Johna wasn’t often, she hoped to convince him to see her side of things. She didn’t want their son to fail, Johna insisted, she just wanted him to be safe. “I kept trying to tell him that Tiffany is going to tear our family apart,” Johna said.

That September, Sophie Fergi became the latest kid to leave the Squad. Sophie and her mom, Heather, had been living with Piper, Tiffany, and Hunter. When the mother and daughter moved out, Tiffany was furious. Reportedly, there was a fight over ownership of some pet cats.

Soon after, Heather got in touch with Johna. According to Johna, Heather suggested that because Sophie had worked closely with Jentzen in their ship, it would be healthy for the kids to have a goodbye conversation, just the two of them. The mothers knew that Tiffany wouldn’t approve—Sophie was no longer welcome near anyone in the Squad, including Jentzen—so they orchestrated what Johna called a “parent trap.” She and Heather agreed to bring their kids to a location at the same time. Johna didn’t tell Jentzen why.

When Jentzen realized that Sophie was there, he refused to get out of the car and called Tiffany and Hunter to ask what he should do. He then asked Johna if she’d conspired with Heather. Fearing further alienation from her son, Johna said no.

Nearly three weeks after the botched meeting, according to court documents, Tiffany and Nelson learned what had happened and painted it as a betrayal. Squad members were told that Johna could not be trusted—she was possessive, greedy, and trying to ruin her son’s career. Johna went from feeling unwelcome around the Squad to being labeled as a threat.

Jentzen kept living with his mom, but their relationship grew even more strained. Johna felt powerless as her son filmed videos like “I had my first kiss on camera,” shot with Elliana Walmsley, a new Squad member. She couldn’t stop Jentzen from using his earnings to buy expensive clothes and gaming consoles. She agonized as his GPA in online school dropped to a 1.0.

Finally, seeing no other choice, Johna filed for divorce and joint custody of Jentzen on March 11, 2021. A month later, she submitted a legal petition for the appointment of a conservator over Jentzen’s estate. She hoped to make it clear that she wasn’t attempting to take Jentzen’s money but to protect him.

When she spoke with Nelson in Texas, which according to Johna wasn’t often, she hoped to convince him to see her side of things. She didn’t want their son to fail, Johna insisted, she just wanted him to be safe.

The first real glimmer of outside concern about the Squad appeared, fittingly, on social media. In August 2021, the pop star Pink tweeted, “How many kids like Piper Rockelle are being exploited by their parents? And at what point do the rest of us say … ‘this isn’t okay for a 13 yr old to be posing in a bikini whilst her MOTHER takes the photo?!?!’ ” Pink appeared to be referring to a carousel of images on Piper’s Instagram account. Shot in a backyard pool, the pictures show Piper wearing a blue tie-dyed string bikini, running her hands through her brown hair; in some shots she purses her lips, while in other she sticks out her tongue suggestively. To date the images have received more than 300,000 likes.

Pink’s tweet was shared widely and picked up by the media, including TMZ and Business Insider. Critics were dismayed by the high heels, crop tops, and hair extensions that Piper and other female Squad members had taken to wearing in videos.Piper drew comparisons to a young Brooke Shields, while Tiffany was presumed—by people who view the Kardashians as a less than ideal business model—to be taking cues from Kris Jenner.

Johna watched as the drama played out. She hoped it might finally bring about some positive change.

Five days after Pink’s tweet appeared, YouTube removed the thumbnail images of three of Piper’s videos, citing violations of its child safety policy. One image, from a video titled “My boyfriend walked in on me,” showed Piper clutching a towel against her seemingly bare body, with her mouth agape and cheeks red, as Lev shields his eyes. The other two photos showed Piper and her friends in bikinis; one was from a Fashion Nova promotional shoot, while the other was from a video titled “Wearing A Hot Outfit Then Leaving Him!” YouTube left the full videos up.

Piper defended Tiffany, telling TMZ that her mother was supportive of her career and that the bikini photos, along with other controversial content, had been her idea. In a Paparazzi Gamer video picked up by OK magazine, Piper claimed that Pink’s characterization of Tiffany was “not true,” but acknowledged that it wasn’t the first time she’d heard concerns about her online exposure. “People say that about me, like, literally 24/7,” she said with a shrug.

The same month Pink’s tweet appeared, Piper turned 14. To celebrate her birthday, the Squad was going to film content at Disneyland and spend the night in a nearby hotel. Neither Nelson nor Liana could go with Jentzen: Nelson was in a Texas ICU with COVID, and Liana was preparing to care for him once he was sent home. Johna felt like she needed to act. She was still Jentzen’s mother, after all, and she didn’t want him spending the night alone with the Squad, and especially with Tiffany.

Johna couldn’t go on the trip with Jentzen—he didn’t want her there, and Tiffany wouldn’t allow it anyway—so Johna offered her son a compromise: She would pick him up at the end of the first day of shooting and either stay with him at a hotel or take him home and drive him back early the next morning. Jentzen wasn’t happy with the arrangement, and when Johna got to Anaheim that evening and texted him about a place to meet, he didn’t reply. Johna tried Tiffany and another mom of a Squad member—nothing. Around 11 p.m., a text arrived from Jentzen’s phone questioning whether Johna had discussed her plan to pick him up with Nelson. “Your father is incapacitated in another state,” Johna replied. That message, and others Johna sent to Jentzen as midnight approached, turned green on her phone, indicating that they weren’t delivered. Johna suspected that he’d blocked her number. 

Johna didn’t see any other option but to file a missing person report with the Anaheim police and return home to await news of her son. The next morning, the police notified her that they’d confirmed Jentzen’s location at a hotel. She could meet them there. According to Johna, the police assured her that she’d done the right thing by filing a report.

When she arrived at the hotel, Tiffany and Hunter were there, and Jentzen was taking selfies and cracking jokes with a few cops. Johna got the sense that she’d already been painted as the problem—a stage mom unable to cope with the fact that she couldn’t dictate the terms of her son’s career. “He makes a lot of money, you know,” Johna remembered one of the officers saying to her. (Johna said she later found texts from the same cop on Jentzen’s cell phone—apparently they’d exchanged numbers.)

Johna was at a loss. She didn’t want to cause a scene. So she let Jentzen go to the second day of filming at Disneyland.

As it happened, Johna had recently received an alert on her iPhone that she was being tracked via AirTag. She found the device attached to her car. After the trip to Anaheim, Johna took the AirTag to an Apple Store for help determining where it had come from. The store confirmed what she already suspected: The AirTag was registered to Jentzen’s phone number. 

Jentzen hoped to distance himself from Johna as much and as soon as possible. The month after the Disneyland trip, a court appointed an attorney to help him navigate his legal options. His parents’ divorce proceedings weren’t likely to end anytime soon; seeking emancipation could be time-consuming and cumbersome. Enter Liana.

On November 29, 2021, Jentzen’s sister submitted a legal petition for temporary guardianship of him. Liana, 23 at the time, claimed that she was already Jentzen’s primary caregiver and that Johna was “seldom home.” She brought up the meeting Johna and Heather had arranged between their kids as an example of Johna creating situations in which Jentzen was “harassed” and “denigrated.” Liana said that her younger brother’s income made him “capable of being self-supporting,” and that Johna’s main motivation for keeping custody of her son was to access Jentzen’s money.

Johna refuted her daughter’s allegations in her own declaration to the court. She provided photos of grocery hauls, folded laundry, COVID tests, and trips with Jentzen to see a doctor in recent months—evidence of her being an attentive mother. She referenced the mature content Jentzen had been making with Piper’s team and shared messages from his online school about the number of missed days and unfinished assignments on Jentzen’s record.

She also presented corroborating statements about the type of mother she was, including one from Christopher Bender, a former talent manager and stunt coordinator who’d worked with Jentzen in the past. Bender said that Johna, whom he referred to as a “single mother,” had safe and healthy interactions with her son. “It was refreshing to be able to find an active mother who was not trying to make the child’s career their own career,” he wrote, “but simply there to further the child.” Johna’s close friend Michelle Tyer described the sacrifices Johna made by moving to Los Angeles for Liana and Jentzen. “If anything, I think the biggest mistake that has happened is that Johna has loved her children so much and has let them take advantage of her,” Tyer wrote. 

Other testimonials offered context about Tiffany and the Squad. Sophie’s mother, Heather, characterized the Squad as “cult like.” She alleged that Tiffany had tried to drive a wedge into her family too, in an effort to keep Sophie in Piper’s inner circle. “Similar to Johna, my daughter’s father was absent,” Heather wrote. “Tiffany reached out to the father that wasn’t involved and tried to bring him in and wanted him to take custody away from me.” 

On December 9, the parties in the guardianship case met with a judge to hear an initial report by William Spiller Jr., the court-appointed counsel representing Jentzen. Spiller acknowledged that he’d had limited time to review the case, and though he’d spoken with Jentzen, Liana, and Nelson, he hadn’t interviewed Johna. He also indicated that he didn’t find the supporting declarations Johna had provided relevant to the case. Spiller emphasized that the recommendation he was making that day was “temporary.” He hoped it would provide Jentzen with “some level of stability and consistency.”

Spiller told the judge that he supported Liana’s request. He characterized Jentzen as a successful “internet and social media trendsetter and personality” whose career was being hindered by Johna’s efforts to remove him from the Squad. He suggested that Johna’s motive in fighting for custody was financial, pointing to J&J Ramirez Productions, the LLC she and Jentzen established, as evidence that she wanted at least some portion of her son’s money. (Johna said Nelson knew about the LLC from the beginning; Nelson said he had no idea it existed until much later.) Spiller did recommend granting Johna’s original request for a conservator over Jentzen’s estate. However, he supported installing someone Jentzen had approved.

Johna’s lawyer pointed out that he and his client had gathered a “plethora” of evidence for their side of the case. But the judge accepted Spiller’s recommendation, awarding Liana temporary guardianship of Jentzen and placing the boy’s preferred conservator in charge of his money.

The day after the hearing, Jentzen posted a video on his YouTube channel in which he and Elliana announced that they were ending their ship, which fans had come to know as “Jelliana.” Wearing a white hoodie with a graphic of a barbed-wire heart and jeans ripped at the knee, Jentzen sits at the end of a bed and says “some things just, like, weren’t working out.” With Elliana at his side, her blown-out blond hair carefully fanned out over a pink cropped jacket, Jentzen explains that he’s dealing with “a lot of problems just, like, within my own family that I don’t really want to get into right now, but I’m sure you guys will find out at some point in my life, so it’s just been hard for me to, like, juggle.” To date, the video has over 2.6 million views.

A permanent-guardianship hearing was scheduled for December 21. The date came and went. The court pushed back the hearing once, then a second time. Eventually, Jentzen moved out of Johna’s house and into an apartment with Liana that Nelson had rented for them. Johna grew more despondent by the day.

Then, in January 2022, a friend shared some surprising news: A lawsuit had been filed against Tiffany and Hunter—a big one.

Johna refuted her daughter’s allegations in her own declaration to the court. She provided photos of grocery hauls, folded laundry, COVID tests, and trips with Jentzen to see a doctor in recent months—evidence of her being an attentive mother.

Matthew Sarelson is the first to admit that he didn’t know what to make of the case when it landed on his desk. Based in Palm Beach, Florida, Sarelson is an attorney who practices business litigation, specializing in corporate dispute resolution and compensation contracts. He loves CrossFit, fine wine, and beach days with his family. His Instagram feed is filled with photos of grilled steaks and proud-dad videos shot from the sideline at youth soccer games. He’d never heard of Piper Rockelle before 11 former Squad members and their parents contacted his firm, which has an office in California. They were seeking legal representation.

The families had compared notes and identified what they saw as patterns of abuse. That included Hunter and Tiffany’s alleged “interference” with the kids’ content once they left the Squad, which the families claimed had caused “a precipitous loss of income.” Then, too, there were incidents that the parents believed raised serious concerns about the safety and well-being of any kid who was still in the Squad, including Piper.

Several former Squad members said that, during the 2020 trip to Las Vegas, Tiffany had provided them with hemp brownies while they were separated from their parents in the RV. They said that on more than one occasion Tiffany “engaged in the use of recreational drugs” around them and encouraged them to do the same. Corinne, Piper’s old friend from Georgia, who had left the Squad in May 2019, told her mother and later Sarelson that Tiffany once took her to the post office to mail Piper’s worn training bras and panties to a fan. Corinne remembered Tiffany saying, “Old men like to smell this stuff.” Sophie, who had appeared in 186 videos with Piper, described seeing Tiffany grab Piper’s face and kiss her on the mouth to teach her how to make out on camera. Sophie also claimed that Tiffany once called her “flat,” referring to her chest, and wondered aloud to her whether a male member of the Squad had “a bunch of freckles on his dick.”

Several kids described Tiffany talking about sex with them. Reese, the daughter of Tiffany’s sister Ashley, filmed a few videos with Piper in 2020 and 2021. Reese, who was about ten at the time, recalled her aunt asking her if she’d “ever had sex before” and telling her that she “should.” Numerous ex–Squad members described Tiffany touching them inappropriately: slapping their butt, poking at their anus through their clothing, and rubbing their thigh. The kids said Tiffany sometimes assumed alter egos, including one she called “Lenny,” the same name Gavin Magnus mentioned in the unfiled legal documents his family prepared against Tiffany. According to former Squad members, while acting as Lenny, Tiffany would chase kids around her home yelling threatening phrases, including “I’m going to touch you in your sleep.” Reese described being “ambushed” by Tiffany and “tossed” onto a bed, where Tiffany proceeded to rub her right arm “all over Reese’s face” while pretending it was “Lenny’s penis.”

Sarelson was horrified by what he heard. “I found the kids to be very, very credible,” he said. He thought about his own young children, who had begun asking for iPhones and Instagram accounts, and wanted to learn TikTok dances and buy merch from online influencers. Sarelson agreed to take the case.

On January 12, 2022, two days after Piper posted a tearful video telling fans she had COVID for the second time, Sarelson filed a complaint on the 11 plaintiffs’ behalf. It lists ten charges against Tiffany, Hunter, and Piper Rockelle Inc., including unjust enrichment, civil conspiracy, sexual battery, and intentional infliction of emotional distress. In a broad sense the suit suggests that, in the world of online content creation, there may be alarming gaps in compliance with California’s legal protections for child entertainers. “These violations would never happen on the set of a regular movie production,” Sarelson said.

While the case made headlines, the Squad proceeded with business as usual. On January 14, Piper posted a sprawling video in which she informs fans that her pet bird, Pablo, has died, pranks her friends by telling them she still has COVID after testing negative, and listens to Tiffany talk on the phone with a doctor about the likelihood of getting pregnant with a second child. Next up: a video in which Piper sets Jentzen up on a date. The Squad and their parents didn’t comment publicly on the lawsuit.

Still, Tiffany and Hunter didn’t go undefended. When the YouTube channel of the Dad Challenge Podcast, which promotes the hashtag #KidsArentContent, hosted a livestream to read the legal complaint in its entirety, messages from Theresa Magnus’s YouTube account appeared in the chat. “Your not getting the story,” one of them read. The stream’s host replied, “Are you telling me then that Tiffany is innocent?” Theresa’s account said “yes.” Toward the end of the stream, either Piper or someone using her YouTube account entered the chat, too. “You don’t know what you’re even talking about,” the user wrote.

Much like Pink’s tweet a few months prior, the lawsuit was followed by YouTube taking action. On February 10, Piper’s channel was demonetized, meaning that it would no longer include ads. In April, Piper began promoting herself on Brand Army, a subscription-based platform where she didn’t have to rely on advertising to make money. She also launched an app designed to help social media influencers monetize their content. Called Rares, Piper’s app lets other content creators sell exclusive photos and videos; fans are teased with blurred edits of content and charged for full access.

According to the Los Angeles Times, as Piper’s team pivoted her business model, California’s Department of Industrial Relations launched an investigation into the Squad’s working conditions. A spokesperson for the department contacted for this story stated that, for confidentiality reasons, he could not confirm the existence of an investigation.

In July, Tiffany countersued the former Squad members, invoking the federal Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act—better known as RICO. She alleged that the kids’ parents had conspired to damage her reputation and Piper’s business with “false allegations of sexual abuse.” She claimed that YouTube demonetization had cost Piper between $300,000 and $500,00 in monthly advertising revenue and between $50,000 and $125,000 in brand deals. The plaintiffs’ parents denied wrongdoing. Tiffany dropped the suit in October.

As of this writing, the ex–Squad members’ case is scheduled to go to a jury trial in April. The following month, Johna hopes to finally resolve the status of her relationship with Jentzen—the legal status, anyway.

The suit suggests that, in the world of online content creation, there may be alarming gaps in compliance with California’s legal protections for child entertainers. “These violations would never happen on the set of a regular movie production,” Sarelson said.

When Johna first read the former Squad members’ complaint, she had mixed feelings. “I was both validated and dismayed,” she said. “On the one hand, there were others now making the same shocking allegations I had long suspected. But I also felt dismayed when I compared it to how LA county is looking at my situation.” Johna sent the complaint to Spiller, who remained on Jentzen’s case as the family awaited a permanent court order. She hoped it would help him see things from her perspective.

In a report filed in March 2022, Spiller argued that the lawsuit wasn’t relevant to Jentzen’s case. “Apparently, Johna believes that the lawsuit supercedes [sic] in importance the Guardianship proceedings,” he asserted. “But [I] cannot make the connection between the two.” Spiller described Johna’s effort to bring the lawsuit to bear on the situation with Jentzen as a “red herring,” emphasizing that in his estimation the Ramirezes’ disagreement is over Jentzen’s finances, not who he works with. “I attempted to explain to her that lawsuits are not only common but contain only allegations until proven,” Spiller wrote.

For his part, Nelson Ramirez believes that the allegations in the lawsuit are baseless. “Tiffany is not an angel, but what they are saying is not true,” he said. Nelson noted that a lot of Squad parents have been “vulgar at times…. Sometimes it’s funny, and sometimes it’s like, oh, that should not  have been said. But that’s all it is.”

The Ramirezes are due for a court-mandated mediation session in May, two months shy of Jentzen’s 17th birthday. Depending on the outcome, the question of his permanent guardianship may go to trial. According to Johna, Jentzen rarely answers her calls or texts. She doesn’t hear from either of her kids on holidays, and she’s no longer included in family events, like Liana’s engagement last summer. When she was able to sit down with Liana after the celebration, she found her daughter to be “very upset.” According to Johna, Liana said that Nelson told her the family’s legal issues were draining money he’d planned to use for her wedding.

Jentzen now has more than five million followers across YouTube, TikTok, and Instagram. His profile on the latter references Philippians 4:13, a Bible verse that reads, “I can do all things through Him who strengthens me.” In mid-January, he posted a prank video he shot with his sister, in which he pretends to set Liana’s wedding dress on fire. He and Elliana Walmsley are once again filming content together, and he went on a tour of the UK and Ireland with the Squad last year. But recently Jentzen hasn’t been shooting with Piper’s crew.

The last time Johna saw Jentzen was on August 30—it was one of only a handful of in-person encounters the mother and son had in 2022. Johna said that Jentzen asked her to drop her objection to Liana’s guardianship petition and her claim to partial earnings from their LLC. “Maybe then we can be friends,” she remembered Jentzen telling her.

Johna has read a lot about parental alienation. She imagines Jentzen turning 18 and never speaking to her again. She wonders what it will take to prevent that. She isn’t sure it’s in her hands anymore. Maybe hitting pause on his work with the Squad, as Jentzen seems to be doing, will help him see his career differently, see her differently. Maybe then Johna will be able to stop fighting.

*The story has been updated to correct the spelling of Clementine Spieser’s name.

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The Curious Case of Nebraska Man

The Curious Case of Nebraska Man

A fossil tooth, a splashy debate, and a strange chapter in America’s long history of science denialism.

By Madeline Bodin

The Atavist Magazine, No. 134

Madeline Bodin is a science and environmental journalist in Vermont. She has written for publications including Hakai, High Country News, the Boston Globe, Scientific American, and Popular Mechanics.

Editors: Seyward Darby and Jonah Ogles
Art Director: Ed Johnson
Copy Editor: Sean Cooper
Fact Checker: Julia Shipley
Illustrator: Lan Truong

Published in December 2022.


The rancher plucked the tiny tooth out of the sand of a dry creek bed. Around him was a grassy plain studded with low, flat hills. The small, dark object in his hand was worn down by use in life and by the water it had encountered over millennia. The tooth had long since petrified into stone.

Harold J. Cook had uncovered fossils in western Nebraska for much of his life. As a teenager in 1904, he led a paleontologist from Pittsburgh’s Carnegie Museum to a trove of early-mammal bones. The fossils practically tumbled from a hillside on his family’s ranch, known as Agate Springs. Among the bones were remnants of Dinohyus, an animal resembling a pig that stood as high as eight feet at the shoulder, and the still mysterious Moropus, a horse-like creature that dug in the earth with hooves that resembled claws.

The news that the Cooks’ land was bursting with the bones of ancient mammals set off a polite war among the leading natural history museums, which hoped to gain exclusive access to the fossil beds. Harold’s father, however, wanted the institutions to work together to wring all possible scientific knowledge from what would be known as the Agate Fossil Beds. He never profited from the treasure on his land. His family’s contributions to paleontology were celebrated in other ways: One scientist named an extinct rhinoceros in his honor, and an antelope with two of its four horns on its nose after young Harold.

Another scientist, Henry Fairfield Osborn, lured Harold Cook to New York City to work at the American Museum of Natural History and to study with him at Columbia University. Cook returned home after a year to help run the ranch when his mother became ill. That meant he both knew the land and knew fossils, making him a valuable hire for any paleontology expedition in the region.

In 1917, the year the United States entered World War I, Cook assisted paleontologists from the Denver Museum and the American Museum in digs at fossil beds along Snake Creek, some 20 miles south of his family’s ranch. Whether he picked up the tooth while scouting for those excavations, during one of them, or sometime after, he never said. Broken bits of fossil, turned blue-black by iron phosphate, were common in the region, and had little scientific value compared with the bones of entire herds of pony-size rhinoceroses or the corkscrew-shaped dens of prehistoric beavers. But Cook believed he had found something truly special. Based on his knowledge of fossils, he suspected that the tooth belonged to a primate, and not a mere monkey—an ape perhaps. An even more tantalizing prospect was that the tooth belonged to an early human.

If Cook was right it would be a heady find, as scientists had yet to identify either variety of fossil in America. Meanwhile, paleontologists around the world were eager for evidence of so-called missing links—transitional fossils that could help prove that humans evolved from apes. Men who claimed to have found missing links often became famous.

Cook was correct about one thing: The tooth was important. But it would become part of history in a way he never imagined.


Four years later, in October 1921, William Jennings Bryan stood behind an ornate wooden pulpit in the auditorium of the Union Theological Seminary in Richmond, Virginia. The room’s delicate stained-glass windows glowed in the fading autumn light. Bryan had strong opinions about fossils and their potential to destroy the worldview that he and others in the room held dear.

The dozens of students and faculty who packed the auditorium, which also served as the seminary’s church, had every reason to expect that Bryan’s lecture would be an experience they would talk about for the rest of their lives. Bryan, then 61, was a national sensation at the age of 36, when as a Nebraska congressman his electrifying speech at the Democratic National Convention swept him into position as the party’s candidate for president. He went on to receive two additional Democratic nominations, granting him the dubious honor of being among only a handful of U.S. presidential candidates to receive electoral votes in three elections without prevailing in any of them.

Bryan, a lawyer by training, supported a woman’s right to vote, an eight-hour workday, a progressive income tax, the regulation of banks and the stock market, and the prohibition of alcohol. He despised the way unchecked industrial capitalism ground down working people, sometimes robbing them of their savings in bank failures and stock market swindles. He reserved special disdain for the financier John Pierpont Morgan. That Bryan himself lived a lavish lifestyle didn’t seem to mar his reputation: His plainspoken appeals to the average citizen earned him the nickname the Great Commoner. In 1913, Woodrow Wilson appointed Bryan secretary of state, but Bryan’s pacifism led him to resign the post two years later, when Wilson’s response to the sinking of the Lusitania signaled America’s march toward war in Europe.

Once out of office, Bryan didn’t recede from public life. He kept doing what he did best: give speeches. Public lectures were popular middle-class entertainment in the years before radio and movies were commonplace. Prior to his appointment as secretary of state, Bryan sometimes gave two of them per day on the Chautauqua and Lyceum circuits, sleeping in his train seat between engagements and using his coat for a pillow. Now he traveled from coast to coast to speak.

A devout Christian—among his first aspirations as a boy was to become a Baptist preacher—Bryan also wrote a nationally syndicated newspaper column about the Bible and taught Sunday school classes to thousands of people in a public park in Florida, where he and his wife had moved for her health. He became such a popular religious figure that he was asked to give a week of lectures at the Union Theological Seminary, an honor typically reserved for the nation’s leading ministers. Bryan focused his talks on a topic outside his usual purview: science.

Bryan’s words, which still echo across America a century later, were some of the first shots fired in a new battle over evolution, pitting science against faith.

It was not a subject he had any special interest in prior to World War I, but during that conflict, Bryan told his listeners, European had slaughtered European without a thought that they were all children of God. He attributed that blind savagery to what in the end was his own flawed interpretation of Charles Darwin’s theory of human evolution, which Darwin had introduced to the world some 50 years earlier. Bryan argued that Darwin’s painting of humans as the descendants of apes was a demotion in ontological priority that provided tacit permission for the deaths of millions. Bryan quoted liberally from The Science of Power, a book by Benjamin Kidd that linked Darwin to the “selfish” and “godless” philosophy of Friedrich Nietzsche. “Darwin’s doctrine leads logically to war,” Bryan declared.

War wasn’t the only thing Bryan blamed on the theory of evolution. He was also disturbed by reports, mostly from parents, that students were losing their religious faith by studying Darwin’s ideas, as well as geology, in college. “If it is contended that an instructor has a right to teach anything he likes, I reply that the parents who pay the salary have a right to decide what shall be taught,” Bryan said.

Bryan’s words, which still echo across America a century later, were some of the first shots fired in a new battle over evolution, pitting science against faith. Bryan further promoted his cause by printing hundreds of copies of a pamphlet containing one of his Richmond lectures. He sent it to editors and friends and in response to fan letters. A year later, the Union Theological Seminary published Bryan’s speeches in a book titled In His Image.

While Bryan was promoting the book, The New York Times invited him to contribute to its pages. Though he loathed big cities and East Coast elites—basically everything the Times seemed to represent—he accepted the offer. Bryan often drafted his public writings in a large scrawl, using either a soft pencil or a thick-nibbed pen. It was up to his secretary, a Mr. W. E. Thompson, to corral the wild stampede of letters into neat, typewritten lines.

Bryan’s New York Times editorial condemning Darwinism, which cribbed generously from his Richmond lectures, was published in the February 26, 1922, paper, a Sunday edition. Despite there being “millions of species,” Bryan declared, scientists “have not been able to find one single instance in which one species has changed into another, although according to the hypothesis, all species have developed from one or a few germs of life.”

Newspapers across the country reprinted the piece or ran glowing commentaries about it. If Bryan hoped to be God’s PR flack, he earned his full commission with that editorial alone.

However, one sentence from it would soon come to vex Bryan. Not only was Darwin’s theory an insult to God, Bryan had noted wryly, but it was also unpatriotic. Darwin “has us descend from European, rather than American, apes,” he wrote. An eminent scientist would soon seize the opportunity to turn Bryan’s quip into a taunt.


By the gray light of a March day in 1922, Henry Fairfield Osborn took a close look at the fossil that had just arrived from Harold Cook. Osborn, the president of the American Museum of Natural History, in Manhattan, was perched on the window ledge in his top-floor office. He saw that the fossil was dark in color and small enough to fit in a pillbox. It had a crown and roots—undoubtedly, it was a tooth.

Osborn had taken a liking to Cook from the moment they met in Nebraska many years prior. “Harold Cook is one of the most attractive young men I have ever met,” Osborn wrote in a letter to his wife. “He knows all the fossils … is an ideal young ranchman, a good geologist—refined and charming.” Cook went on to coauthor a scientific paper with William D. Matthew, one of Osborn’s lieutenants at the museum, after finding dozens of fossils belonging to ancient rhinoceroses, rodents, and peccaries in the same fossil beds where Cook found the tooth that Osborn now held in his hand.

Two weeks before the tooth itself arrived in New York, Osborn had received a note from Cook. “I have had here, for some little time, a molar tooth from the Upper, or Hipparion phase of the Snake Creek beds, that very closely approaches the human type,” it read. Cook wanted Osborn to examine the fossil and give his expert opinion. Osborn would do more than that: The tooth was exactly what he needed in his fight against William Jennings Bryan.

While The New York Times was preparing Bryan’s article for publication, it had asked Osborn to write a rebuttal. Osborn had the swagger required to answer a former secretary of state who happened to be one of the most famous men in America. He had been museum president for 14 years and was a distinguished Columbia professor. At the age of 64, his days of digging in the earth were long over. He visited archaeological sites around the world to drum up publicity, not to get his hands dirty; with his well-tailored suits and push-broom mustache, Osborn did not object to having his picture taken.

Osborn had expanded his museum’s collections, facilities, and prominence in city life with his fundraising. His connections to wealth ran deep: He grew up in New York’s high society, with a railroad tycoon for a father and a mother who came from old New England stock. John Pierpont Morgan, a target of Bryan’s blistering political attacks, was his uncle; Theodore Roosevelt was a childhood friend. As a young man, Osborn traveled to Britain to study with the biologist and anthropologist Thomas H. Huxley, who was known as “Darwin’s bulldog” for his fierce defense of evolutionary theory. Osborn even met the great man himself when Huxley gave an aging Darwin a tour of his lab, where Osborn at the time was dissecting a lobster brain.

Like Bryan, Osborn was a Presbyterian and a pious churchgoer; also like Bryan, he read the Bible regularly. But while Bryan worried that science was eroding faith, Osborn believed the two went hand in hand.

Osborn’s steadfast faith in God, and in what he believed was life’s innate yearning for higher forms, put him at odds with the growing number of scientists who accepted that human origins were messy. He couldn’t abide natural selection and what Darwin called “chance variation” as the mechanisms of evolution. To Osborn, evolution proceeded in a straight line and toward a definite goal.

In his written response to his adversary, Osborn strove to speak the language of a believer. He mentioned St. Augustine. He quoted from the Book of Job: “We find the guiding precept of the naturalist, ‘Speak to the earth and it will teach thee.’ ” He insisted that there was no conflict between science and religion, no clash between morals and empirical facts. “Evolution by no means takes God out of the universe, as Mr. Bryan supposes,” he wrote, “but it greatly increases both the wonder, the mystery, and the marvelous order which we call ‘Natural Law.’ ” Osborn saw evolution as God’s means of creating living things. He wanted Bryan and his followers to see it that way, too.

Osborn delivered his rebuttal to the Times’ offices personally. It was published on March 5, in another Sunday edition. Bryan soon launched an additional volley in this war of words, this time via the New York Herald. “Papers full of evolution of man and religion,” Osborn wrote in his datebook.

He wondered if he should retire to the Hudson Valley mansion left to him by his father to write a book countering Bryan’s campaign. Perhaps a fellow Princeton alum could help him. “Write to Charles Scribner,” Osborn’s datebook reads. He would meet Charles and his brother Arthur for lunch a few days after jotting down this note. The argument with Bryan was one that Osborn wanted to win, presumably one he felt he needed to win—for his own pride, for his museum, and for science.

The timing of the tooth’s arrival was almost providential, as if God himself were responsible. The fossil, which Osborn guessed to be a few million years old, might influence scientists’ ongoing search for humanity’s ancestors. More important for his purposes, it would almost certainly embarrass his rival. Perhaps, contrary to Bryan’s quip in the Times, there was an American ape after all.

“Tooth just arrived safely. Looks very promising. Will report immediately,” Osborn telegraphed Cook on March 14. Later that day, he followed up with a jubilant letter. “The instant your package arrived, I sat down with the tooth, in my window, and I said to myself: ‘It looks one hundred per cent anthropoid,’ ” Osborn wrote. “I then took the tooth into Doctor Matthew’s room and we have been comparing it with all the books, all the casts and all the drawings, with the conclusion that it is the last right upper molar tooth of some higher Primate.”

Osborn was known as a snobbish sophisticate, but in his letter to Cook he gushed with excitement. “We may cool down tomorrow,” he wrote, “but it looks to me as if the first anthropoid ape of America had been found by the one man entitled to find it, namely, Harold J. Cook!”

After dispatching the letter, Osborn set in motion a publicity machine that is hard to imagine working so swiftly in today’s scientific communities, with their safeguards like peer review. It helped that Osborn controlled one of the cogs. On April 25, the museum’s own scientific journal, American Museum Novitates, published a paper by Osborn announcing “the first anthropoid primate found in America.” Osborn named the newly discovered species Hesperopithecus haroldcookii.

The same day, Osborn used his influence to obtain a last-minute speaking slot—just five minutes, he promised—at the annual meeting of the National Academy of Sciences in Washington, D.C. He stood beneath an arched proscenium and addressed the most esteemed men in his field. “A single small water-worn tooth, 10.5 millimeters by 11 millimeters in crown diameter, signalizes the arrival of a member of the family of anthropoid primates in North America,” Osborn began, with the signature mix of exactitude and significance that characterizes so many scientific presentations. Near the end of his talk, around the four-and-a-half-minute mark, Osborn’s tone shifted. “It has been suggested humorously,” he said, “that the animal should be named Bryopithecus, after the most distinguished primate which the state of Nebraska has thus far produced.”

Osborn was of course referring to Bryan, and taking aim at his New York Times article. “It is certainly singular that this discovery is announced within six weeks of the day,” Osborn continued, “that the author advised William Jennings Bryan to consult a certain passage in the Book of Job, ‘Speak to the earth and it shall teach thee,’ and it is a remarkable coincidence that the first earth to speak on this subject is the sandy earth of the Middle Pliocene Snake Creek deposits of western Nebraska.”

The Philadelphia Inquirer noted that, at the event, jokes about Bryan were “bandied about by octogenarian members of humorous proclivities.” Soon the New York Times published a feature, complete with jibes, about the former congressman’s feud with Osborn. Later the paper issued a pointed editorial on the matter. Titled “The Tooth of Time,” the editorial invoked Shakespeare to suggest that the fossil from Nebraska had appeared at the worst possible moment for Bryan. “Sharper than a serpent’s tooth it must seem to Mr. Bryan,” the editorial read.

Meanwhile, Osborn had casts of the tooth made and sent them to paleontologists around the world. If he was expecting agreement on the fossil’s significance, however, he didn’t get it. Arthur Smith Woodward, a curator at the British Museum of Natural History, needed just three paragraphs in the prestigious journal Nature to assert, gently, that the tooth was more likely to belong to a species of ancient bear known to exist in North America than to a primate. After all, no ape living or extinct was known to be native to the continent. Grafton Elliot Smith, another paleontologist in Britain, gave the early-20th-century version of a hot take: He declared the tooth to be one of a human ancestor and took the opportunity to restate, for a popular audience, his own racist notions of human evolution, which he saw as culminating in a superior northern European race. Smith’s take received splashy coverage in the Illustrated London News.

Osborn disagreed with both men’s assessments of the tooth, writing that Woodward had “shown too great incredulity” and Smith “too great optimism.” He also took issue with an unrealistic two-page illustration of “the ape-man of the Western world” that accompanied Smith’s article. In the image, drawn by Amédée Forestier, an artist who specialized in historical illustrations, two hunched, ape-like people stand on the bank of a river. Behind them are horses and camels, representing other fossils found near the tooth, and the low buttes of western Nebraska. One of the figures, a man, drags a wooden club. Though based on Forestier’s “fancy,” as Smith put it, rather than actual science, the illustration would inform the public’s conception of Hesperopithecus haroldcookii.

Osborn organized a team of researchers, including his junior colleague William K. Gregory, to study the tooth more closely. They published their findings in January 1923, along with photos, measurements, and a comparison of the tooth with one belonging to Java Man, the moniker given to what at the time was believed to be the earliest hominin fossil ever discovered. (Found in the Dutch East Indies—now Indonesia—in the early 1890s, Java Man would be formally designated a member of the species Homo erectus in 1950.) Osborn’s team concluded that the tooth belonged to a higher primate of some kind “hitherto unknown.”

Osborn was sure that the tooth would be a lasting contribution to science, crowning his illustrious career. He was a recognized expert in the study of ancient horses, elephants, and the rhino-like titanothere, and his prowess in promoting science to the public was unmatched. The tooth would distinguish him further, securing his place in the ranks of great men who studied human origins, a field maturing into what we now know as paleoanthropology.

But Osborn’s aspirations would be overtaken by events. Soon, evolution itself would be on trial.


Bryan never wavered in his quest to squelch evolutionary theory. He was a staunch advocate for laws banning schools from teaching it, but success came in half measures. Oklahoma prohibited evolution from being mentioned in textbooks, but not the teaching of it; Florida declared instruction of the theory “improper and subversive,” but passed no law against it.

Only in March 1925 did Bryan finally secure a victory, when Tennessee outlawed the teaching of “any theory that denies the Story of the Divine Creation of man as taught in the Bible, and to teach instead that man has descended from a lower order of animals.” Mississippi followed in 1926, as did Arkansas in 1928. In the meantime, the Tennessee law became the subject of a legal case orchestrated to be a public showdown.

The case is one of the most famous in history: The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) announced that it was seeking teachers willing to challenge the new law in order to bring the question of its constitutionality before the courts. John Thomas Scopes, a 24-year-old teacher in Dayton, Tennessee, volunteered to be the defendant, incriminating himself by stating that he had taught the theory of evolution to high school students. Attorneys for the town agreed to prosecute him for violating state law in the hope of bringing publicity to a community that had seen better days. Scopes was indicted in May 1925.

A clock started ticking for Osborn. If he wanted to maximize sales of his book defending evolution, the one he had proposed to Charles Scribner three years prior, he needed to publish it before the beginning of a trial that was sure to be a national spectacle. He hurriedly finished writing—his 1922 Times article criticizing Bryan made up an entire chapter—and included a foreword that placed the book in the context of the legal dispute. He dedicated the book to Scopes himself, quoting from the Bible: “The truth shall make you free” (John 8:32). Scribner rushed the text into print, with the title The Earth Speaks to Bryan.

As the trial approached and press coverage grew to a roar, reporters and editorials quoted liberally from Osborn’s book, favoring a sentence declaring that Bryan, not Scopes, was the man really on trial in Tennessee. Osborn’s chief asset in his argument against Bryan was the Hesperopithecus haroldcookii tooth, which he described as the “still small voice” of God that spoke to Elijah in the Book of Kings. In response, Bryan, who had secured a position on the team prosecuting Scopes, penned an article criticizing Osborn for believing “that a tooth in his hand is an irresistible weapon.” Bryan continued: “The Professor’s logic leaks at every link, but it is no worse than that of his boon companions who, having rejected the authority of the word of God, are like frightened men in the dark, feeling around for something they can lean upon.”

Osborn was expected to be one of the defense’s expert witnesses in Dayton. Prior to the trial, Scopes had traveled to Manhattan to visit his ACLU sponsors, and Osborn met with him to offer advice. He provided names of people he thought would be good witnesses and told Scopes to beware of support from leftist radicals; Osborn suspected it would hurt the case. But Osborn was too late. Clarence Darrow, a well-known defender of union leaders and anarchists, had already joined Scopes’s legal team.

The day of his encounter with Scopes, Osborn declined to testify at the trial. “Mr. Scopes was a little disappointed with the meeting,” the Chattanooga Times reported. Osborn said his decision was based on the fact that his wife was ill, but there may have been other reasons, including his distaste of Darrow. Still, Osborn agreed to show members of Scopes’s legal team around his museum’s Hall of the Age of Man, which featured reconstructed busts of prehistoric humans, murals depicting how they may have lived, and of course fossils. Osborn wanted the attorneys to see evidence of evolution for themselves before mounting their defense.

The organization of the hall reflected Osborn’s views on human evolution, including the idea that the races were different species, with the white race the most advanced. Like many prominent scientists of his day, Osborn was a eugenicist. He had persuaded Scribner to publish his friend Madison Grant’s 1916 book, The Passing of the Great Race, an important rallying point for the eugenics movement, and even wrote the preface. (A few decades later, Adolf Hitler would call the book “my Bible.”) In 1918, Osborn helped found the Galton Society, a group of American scientists who supported selective breeding. In 1921, he hosted the Second Congress of Eugenics, where speakers discussed whether sterilization would protect desirable heredity—or, as Osborn believed, whether segregation would do the job.

How we love the stereotype of the haughty scientist, so sure that his knowledge makes him superior to most, if not all. But Osborn was not that man. It was not his erudition, nor his father’s money or his family’s place in society, that he believed made him better—it was his genetic material.

Osborn might have been content to spend the summer of 1925 promoting his ideas about evolution, inscribing copies of his book, and commenting on the Scopes trial from afar. But in mid-June, he received a dispatch from Nebraska. An Austrian paleontologist named Othenio Abel had discovered another tooth in the Snake Creek beds, and it was in much better condition than the one Harold Cook found. Albert “Bill” Thomson, a fossil collector in western Nebraska who worked for Osborn, was with Abel when he unearthed it. Thomson immediately wrote to Osborn informing him of the discovery.

Osborn wrote back to Thomson, marking the envelope “confidential.” The rancher who owned the land where the tooth was found was requesting $400 for the right to dig further, but Osborn thought it could be had for $150, as long as the rancher didn’t know how important the tooth was. “In the meantime,” Osborn wrote, “guard the tooth as if it were the Koh-I-Noor diamond, because I consider it priceless.”

Osborn sent his best fossil hunter to the scene. The man’s name was Barnum Brown. Some twenty years prior, Brown had scratched from the dry earth of Montana the bones of a large, carnivorous dinosaur that in a scientific paper Osborn had named Tyrannosaurus rex. Now Brown arrived in Nebraska with a chimpanzee skull, which Osborn had sent along so the team could compare the new tooth, and anything else they turned up, with a higher primate’s features.

As it happened, the rancher wouldn’t budge from his offer. With only $250, which Osborn had provided to cover expenses, Brown and Thomson resorted to sneaking around the site. In short order, they found another tooth and a jaw.

As the attorneys presented their opening statements at the Scopes trial in Tennessee, Osborn finalized plans to travel, but not to Dayton. Instead he would visit Nebraska, perhaps to convince himself that the new finds were everything he hoped they were. On the day the Scopes judge ruled against allowing the jury to hear scientific testimony, since in his view the only question at hand was whether Scopes had violated the law—a major blow to the defense’s dreams of making the case for evolution—Osborn boarded a train and headed west.

Osborn relished being back in the field. He enjoyed a camp breakfast surrounded by Nebraska’s low, flat hills. He was glad to see Cook again. In his datebook, he noted where in the timeline of early-mammal fossils his team’s new finds might belong.

But the biggest discovery would happen after Osborn returned to New York. A single day of screening gravel in dry washes at a new digging site revealed a dozen more teeth that could have belonged to primates, along with three bone fragments that everyone on hand interpreted as either human-made tools or evidence of their use. One looked like an awl with a hole in it, another was shaped like a “trowel or paddle,” and a third bore hack marks. “We discovered yesterday evidence of early man,” Bill Thomson wrote to his boss.

Osborn was “tickled to death and thinks this is the greatest find of the season,” Barnum Brown wrote in a letter of his own. Not least this was because Osborn was hopeful that the bones would mean defeat for his nemesis. Bryan could mock one tooth, but how could he deny a growing body of evidence that ancient primates, and possibly human ancestors, had inhabited his home state?

In Dayton, despite a fellow prosecutor’s protest, Bryan had agreed to answer questions on the stand. His testimony set the stage for the trial’s most dramatic day; the judge had to move the proceedings outside because of the number of spectators who showed up. Darrow peppered Bryan with questions about the Bible. Did he believe, as was implied in the story of Joshua, that the sun revolved around the Earth? He did not. Did he believe that Eve was literally made from Adam’s rib? He did. Darrow asked Bryan if he believed that the Earth was only some thousands of years old, where Cain’s wife came from, and if the first rainbow appeared following the flood that had necessitated Noah building his ark.

Finally, Bryan jumped to his feet and accused Darrow of slandering the Bible. “I am examining you on your fool ideas that no intelligent Christian on earth believes,” Darrow replied.

The next day, the jury spent only a few minutes finding Scopes guilty, after Darrow had asked them to do just that. The trial had always been for show, and since the judge wouldn’t allow scientific testimony, Darrow wanted to hustle ahead to an appeal, seeing it as a second chance to bring evidence of evolution to a national audience by way of press coverage. (The ruling was overturned on a technicality, however, so the defense never got quite the case it wanted. The Tennessee law would remain on the books until 1967.)

Scopes was fined $100, which the ACLU intended to pay. Bryan also offered to cover the amount—a token of appreciation, presumably, for helping to bring the debate that was his life’s work to such prominence.

Osborn never got the chance to find out how Bryan would react to the new fossils from Nebraska. According to his biographer, Lawrence W. Levine, immediately after the trial Bryan seemed happy enough. He spent the next few days writing, traveling, and lecturing. Then, on the afternoon of the Sunday following the verdict, he laid down for a nap after dinner in Dayton and never woke up.

Bryan’s body was sent to Washington, D.C., by train. According to Edward J. Larson in his book about the Scopes trial, Summer for the Gods, admirers lined the tracks. Bryan was buried in Arlington National Cemetery. “What really moved him was a lust for revenge,” journalist H. L. Mencken wrote after Bryan’s death. “The men of the cities had destroyed him … now he would lead the yokels against them.”

An enduring effect of the Scopes trial was to help cement cultural stereotypes and deepen divisions like the ones Mencken described. In the years and decades that followed, the battle over evolution would continue to ebb and flow. And while Osborn’s primary foe was dead, his position on the front lines would soon shift.


The intellectual empires of paleoanthropologists rise and fall based on fragments of rock and bone. So do their reputations. Osborn undoubtedly knew this, which might explain why he didn’t carpet the press or the scientific world with announcements about the 1925 finds in Nebraska like he had after Harold Cook’s discovery of the tooth.

Some of his colleagues expressed doubt soon after the new fossils appeared. Back in New York that August, Barnum Brown sent a letter to Bill Thomson. “In looking over the teeth,” he wrote, “I am still very doubtful as to whether they are ‘primate.’ ” Determining the truth would require locating a specimen attached to a larger fossil that could be more easily identified. “I think the question will not be settled until you find a jaw containing one or more of these questionable teeth,” Brown wrote. “So good luck to you.”

No conclusive judgment would be made for a few years. In the meantime, Osborn kept pushing his ideas about evolution. On at least one occasion he referenced the recent discoveries in Nebraska: In April 1927, at the bicentennial conference of the American Philosophical Society, he cited the tool-like bone fragments as “ancient evidence of man.”

The bulk of what he said at the meeting, however, meant that afterward nobody was talking about the tools. “I regard the ape-human theory as totally false and misleading,” Osborn told those assembled. In its account of the lecture, a newspaper in South Carolina wrote, “ ‘Fundamentalists’ may derive cheer, perhaps, from the recent statement from Dr. Henry Fairfield Osborn, who takes issue with the ‘monkey theory’ of evolution.”

Osborn, of course, wasn’t a creationist, nor did his comments before the American Philosophical Society represent an about-face. Rather, he was laying out a theory he had been working toward for years. Osborn argued that modern apes and humans had evolved independently through distinct lines of ancestors, each having sprung from “neutral stock” millions of years ago. “We should now resolutely set our faces toward the discovery of our actual pro-human ancestors,” he said. Osborn believed those ancestors would be found in Asia.

Three weeks later, Osborn again presented his theory, this time closer to home, at the Medical Society of Kings County, in Brooklyn. Spectators filled every seat and spilled out the door, according to the Brooklyn Times Union. A neurologist joined Osborn to talk about the evolution of the human brain. The third speaker was William K. Gregory, Osborn’s deputy at the museum and one of the coauthors of the 1923 paper on Hesperopithecus haroldcookii. Gregory vehemently disagreed with Osborn’s ideas about human evolution, and it was he who grabbed the Times Union’s headline: “Suffer from Pithecophobia? Many Do, Says Dr. Gregory.” Pithecophobia, the paper explained, is “the dread of apes, or at least the dread of them as our ancestors or relatives.”

Gregory wasn’t done challenging Osborn. In December 1927, he published a retraction in the journal Science distancing himself from the previous findings about Hesperopithecus haroldcookii. The man Osborn once described as having “an eagle eye on Primate teeth” now argued that the tooth plucked from obscurity by Harold Cook did not come from a primate at all—it belonged to a kind of peccary. (Similar to boars, peccaries are native to North and South America; the javelina of the desert Southwest is a species of peccary.) “This much may be said: Nearly every conspicuous character of the type can be matched in one or another of the Prosthennops teeth,” Gregory wrote, referring to an extinct genus. In short, he claimed, Hesperopithecus haroldcookii had never existed.

Ironically, the whole affair was more or less anticipated in 1909, when on a dig in Nebraska, Cook and William D. Matthew wrote that some fossilized peccary teeth showed a “startling resemblance” to those of primates, “and might well be mistaken for them by anyone not familiar.” Cook himself was the person who would misidentify the first Nebraska tooth, setting in motion an unfortunate chain of errors. But in retrospect, he could be forgiven for the lapse, as could the men who subsequently examined the tooth. Scientists John Wolf and James Mellett wrote in a 1985 paper that it had wear patterns more typically seen on primate teeth than on those of peccaries. The most reasonable explanation, they wrote, is that “the tooth … was rotated in the jaw in life, and that its odd position produced the primate-like wear pattern.” It is rare for a tooth to twist in the jaw like that, but not unheard of—similar mammal fossils have been found. (As for the bone fragments, they weren’t tools at all. Wolf and Mellett noted that they had likely been “crushed and split” into their unusual shapes by hyena-like dogs.)

The New York Times covered Gregory’s retraction of Hesperopithecus haroldcookii with a front-page article and an editorial. “On the whole, it was a bad day for science,” the paper said. But science triumphs when mistakes are corrected. As the Times also pointed out, “Osborn and his colleagues can snatch consolation from the extinct jaws of the toothsome wild peccary. For science, as this incident shows, demands proofs even from its most exalted.”

Osborn appeared to take his disappointment like a gentleman, quietly accepting Gregory’s explanation of the tooth’s provenance. It may have helped that, except for the Times’ article and editorial, there was little coverage of Hesperopithecus haroldcookii’s abrupt erasure from the scientific record. In no small part this was because there seemed to be nobody to wield Osborn’s mistake against him—or, more precisely, no one of Bryan’s stature, deemed worthy of front-page headlines.

John Roach Straton, the pastor of Manhattan’s Calvary Baptist Church, which sat a few blocks from Osborn’s museum, tried to take up Bryan’s mantle. “I am writing to President Henry Fairfield Osborn respectfully suggesting … that he put this tooth in a handsome glass case … but change the name … to Hesperopigdonefoolem osborniicuckoo,” Straton wrote in a lengthy telegram to The New York Times, which published it. But even with his church’s radio station, capable of broadcasting his sermons over a 500-mile radius, Straton didn’t have Bryan’s name recognition or popularity. He died in 1929 without making much of a dent in the evolution debate.

Challenges to teaching evolution petered out, too. As Larson writes in Summer for the Gods, “Discussion did not resolve disagreement; each side so deeply believed its position that further information simply increased its vehemence.” But the country also had bigger things to worry about: the Depression, namely, and soon enough World War II.

Over the years, new scientific data would strengthen evolutionary theory—Darwin’s version, not Osborn’s. In The Descent of Man, Darwin wrote that humans likely evolved in Africa because chimpanzees and gorillas, the great apes he believed to be humans’ closest relatives, lived there. But in the early 20th century, Asia had its supporters as the cradle of humanity, with Osborn leading the way. Given fossils such as Java Man, there was a logic to this thinking. Fossils, however, were only part of the reason Osborn placed his hopes on Asia. The other reason was his racism: Like many of his fellow eugenicists—and today’s white supremacists—Osborn believed that a light-haired, blue-eyed Aryan people had risen from central Asia and swept westward, becoming the Nordics, the pinnacle of humanity. However, as more remains of human ancestors were unearthed in Africa, including the first australopithecine fossils, discovered by Raymond Dart in South Africa and Louis and Mary Leakey in Tanzania, it became clear that the Asia-centric view of human evolution was illegitimate.

In 1930, Gregory published another paper challenging Osborn’s work in the study of human origins. Despite their differences, the two men remained coworkers and friends. When Osborn retired, he recommended that Gregory replace him as head of the museum. (The trustees selected someone else.) “It was greatly to Osborn’s credit that he refrained from using his power to silence his former assistant,” Gregory wrote in a biographical article about his longtime boss, “and that he always treated the latter not only with perfect fairness but with unfailing friendship, so that to the day of his death there was never a cloud between them.” Osborn died in 1935.

Most scientists forgot about Hesperopithecus haroldcookii. The tooth pulled from the Nebraska sand wasn’t even terribly useful as a peccary fossil. Still, there were some who would cling to what they insisted on calling Nebraska Man. These people, fueled by anti-science beliefs, would keep the memory of Osborn’s mistake alive for a century—and likely beyond.


The Glendive Dinosaur and Fossil Museum is the second largest of its kind in Montana, but you won’t find it on the state’s official “dinosaur trail.” The reason is hinted at in a sign at the reception desk. “The Glendive Dinosaur and Fossil Museum is proud to present its exhibits in the context of Biblical history,” it reads. As visitors enter the exhibit area, they pass the same Bible quote that Osborn used in his articles against Bryan 100 years ago, displayed in ornate lettering: “Speak to the earth, and it will teach you.”

In a small display on the second floor are illustrations and descriptions of “fraudulent attempts to find the missing link.” There are three examples: Java Man, Peking Man, and Nebraska Man. The first two are still part of the scientific canon as human ancestors, but opponents of science are keen to flaunt doubt, however fleeting, as proof of absolute error. Peking Man, discovered in the 1920s in northern China, was lost during World War II, and at least one influential creationist has asserted that the fossil casts and drawings scientists have worked with ever since were falsified to support evolutionary theory. Eugène Dubois, the Dutch geologist who discovered Java Man in 1891, prevented other scientists from examining the bones for years, raising the question of whether they were fake. Despite being untrue, the hoax claim persists among creationists.

As for Nebraska Man, Robert Canen, the director of the Glendive museum, pointed me to the website of the Institute for Creation Research (ICR) for insight. Articles on the site herald William Jennings Bryan as an important figure in the field of “creation science,” such as it is, and nearly everything Bryan said or wrote with regard to evolution after 1922 includes something dismissive about the tooth. “We use [Nebraska Man] to illustrate that many times attempts are made to fill in the evolutionary progression from an ape-like ancestor to humanity,” Canen himself writes. “Even things like a single tooth can be misinterpreted, often because of the researcher’s worldview and attempts to justify that worldview.”

That much is true, but other claims about Nebraska Man made by creationists are patently false. For example, some creationist websites claim the tooth was offered as evidence of human evolution at the Scopes trial. As court transcripts and newspaper accounts from the time show, the jury heard no scientific testimony about the tooth or anything else. Still, many Bible literalists have put Nebraska Man on the witness stand and kept him there.

Nebraska Man has become a tool wielded by the anti-science set to support the very arguments Osborn once hoped it would help refute.

Creationism regained ground as a political cause among fundamentalist Christians in the 1960s, likely because anti-evolution laws such as Tennessee’s were finally being overturned. In 1972, Nebraska Man made an appearance in a popular creationist book titled Evolution? The Fossils Say No! References to it have been widespread in creationist advocacy materials ever since. Nebraska Man is mentioned in books, on websites such as and, and in children’s workshop and museum displays, including one at Kentucky’s Ark Encounter, a creationist theme park that claims to have attracted millions of visitors since opening in 2016. These venues often suggest that Nebraska Man was more than an embarrassing scientific mistake—it was a hoax. “It looks very much like part of a deliberate campaign or even a confidence trick on the part of the leading American paleontologists and cannot be dismissed as a simple error,” a 2009 creationist article states. Amédée Forestier’s illustration of “the ape-man of the Western world,” despite being just a rendering for a newspaper, is presented as artistic “propaganda” for the fraud.  

If Osborn hadn’t been so eager to confront Bryan with evidence of evolution found in Bryan’s own backyard, if Bryan hadn’t let Osborn get under his skin, and if the press hadn’t been so keen to amplify their feud, perhaps an American ape would be just another disproved idea, quietly shoved deep into science’s junk drawer, alongside a geocentric universe and the lost continent of Lemuria. Instead, Nebraska Man has become a tool wielded by the anti-science set to support the very arguments Osborn once hoped it would help refute. If there’s an axiom in this strange tale, perhaps it’s that truth isn’t always enough to skewer lies.

This is never more the case than when lies have power on their side. Today, conservative state legislatures are attempting to ban matters of scientific consensus from being taught in schools: that human sexuality is diverse, that human-caused climate change is real. Meanwhile, conservative Christian leaders are some of the foremost kingmakers of U.S. politics and have the ear of multiple members of the Supreme Court—a potential boon for lawmakers in several states who over the past two decades have supported policies limiting the teaching of evolution. Glenn Branch, deputy director of the National Center for Science Education, an organization that provides resources for teachers, said that the court’s summer 2022 ruling in Kennedy v. Bremerton, allowing a public high school football coach to pray midfield after games, may well influence how evolution is treated in classrooms. “While there is a difference between a football coach praying on the 50-yard line and teaching creationism in biology class,” Branch said, “it remains to be seen what the new legal landscape is like.”

In contrast to its status among creationists, Nebraska Man could hardly be more invisible to scientists. Broken into pieces after a nervous X-ray technician dropped it in 1925, then glued back together, the tooth is kept in storage at the American Museum of Natural History, stashed in a clear plastic box surrounded by the casts Osborn made of it 100 years ago. This description comes from the noted geologist Donald R. Prothero of California State Polytechnic University, Pomona: “The crown is completely worn away, so there’s not much that can be said about it.” It is “smaller than your pinky fingernail.” By email via a spokesperson, the museum stated that its collections staff couldn’t provide any details about the tooth.

Seen from a clear vantage, the story of Nebraska Man is one of how science works: Claims are made, developments veer in unexpected directions, our understanding of the natural world lurches forward. But vanity, zeal, and misinformation complicate that view. Osborn wrote in a 1925 article, “Nature is full of lurking surprises.” So too is history, as the fate of Nebraska Man shows.

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A Matter of Honor

A Matter of Honor

Why were three Afghan women brutally murdered at the edge of Europe? A journey from Mazar-i-Sharif to Istanbul to Athens in search of answers.

The Atavist Magazine, No. 133

Sarah Souli is a journalist based in Athens, Greece. Her writing has appeared in publications including The EconomistViceThe GuardianAllure, and Travel and Leisure. She was previously a staff writer at Colors magazine. Her work has been supported by the International Women’s Media Fund, Fabrica, and the Alfred Toepfer Foundation.

This story was completed with generous support from the Incubator for Media Education and Development, a nonprofit journalistic organization founded in 2018 with an exclusive donation from the Stavros Niarchos Foundation.

Editor: Seyward Darby
Art Director: Ed Johnson
Copy Editor: Sean Cooper
Fact Checker: Kyla Jones
Illustrator: Oriana Fenwick
Researchers: Khwaga Ghani, Aminullah Habiba Mayar

Published in November 2022.

“Just by being there, the border is an invitation.
Come on, it whispers, step across this line. If you dare.”
Kapka Kassabova

Life in a diaspora can have the dull ache of a phantom limb. In the Istanbul neighborhood of Zeytinburnu, in August 2021, the pain was acute. More than 2,000 miles away, the Taliban was starting to take back control of Afghanistan; within days the country would fall to an old regime made new. The events had plunged Zeytinburnu, an enclave of tens of thousands of Afghans displaced from their home country by war, poverty, and other ills, into a state of collective fear and mourning.

The context seemed to render my investigation, now dragging into its third year, futile. What did three dead women matter when a whole nation was having its heart ripped out?

The heat of late summer shimmered off the pavement as I spent long, liquid days moving from one person to another, displaying my phone screen and asking the same question: Do you know these women? I approached customers in call centers that promised good rates back home, patrons in restaurants where the smell of mutton biryani filled the air, elderly men sipping tea on wooden benches, and mothers watching children at a construction site that had been turned into a makeshift playground. I lost count of how many people I asked. Everyone gave the same answer: No.

On what was supposed to be my last afternoon in Zeytinburnu, I stood outside a café window watching a young Afghan man inside churn cardamom shiryakh (ice cream) in a large copper pot. The customers behind him drank fruit juices and devoured frozen treats amid kitsch decor: blue plastic flowers, a glossy relief of the Swiss Alps. The scene felt at odds with the urgent historical moment; in Kabul, as the American military withdrew, the Taliban was shooting people dead in the streets. Still, perhaps my professional defeat, my failure to find answers, would go down easier with sugar.

*Names have been changed for individuals’ safety.

The door to the café jingled as I walked inside with Tabsheer,* an Afghan journalist and translator who was helping me report. We sat at a plastic table, where a waiter placed a dish of ice cream swirled to a perfect point and dusted with pistachio. After we ate, Tabsheer suggested, “Let’s just ask one more person. We’re here. We might as well.”

We settled on a middle-aged man who, in a pressed shirt and slacks, would have looked the consummate professional if not for the comically large banana smoothie he was drinking. We walked over and introduced ourselves using the same tired script. I took out my phone and pulled up a photo of a woman, her glossy red lips pursed in a coquettish expression that over the course of my reporting had come to signify disappointment—at men, at law enforcement, at me, the journalist trying to unearth her story.

The man looked at the image and put down his smoothie. He furrowed his brow and leaned in slightly. His lips parted and he hesitated a moment, which prepared me for familiar disappointment. Then he spoke.

“Yes,” he said. He cocked his head to the side. “Yes, I know this woman.”

“Are you sure?”I asked, incredulous at the turn the day had taken.

I pulled up another photo—a teenager with dark eyes, her straight hair tucked behind one ear. “What about this girl, do you recognize her?” I asked, holding my breath.

The man narrowed his eyes. “Yes,” he repeated.

I brought up another photo, this time of a young man looking over his shoulder, his mouth firmly set. “I often saw them together around here, but this was many years ago,” the man said. He looked at me quizzically. “What do you want with these people?”

I chose my next words carefully. Few things spook people like the mention of murder. “I’m looking for them,” I replied. “Something bad happened to them in Greece.”

The man held my gaze for a moment and took a sip of his smoothie. Whatever he was weighing, when he set his glass down he seemed to have made up his mind. “I know all these people, and I know their story,” he said. “I will tell you everything.”

Three Years Earlier

On the morning of October 10, 2018, a Greek farmer named Nikos Papachatzidis left his house to tend his fields. His land abutting the Evros River had long been a source of pride. This slice of the world, on the very eastern edge of Europe, is fertile, a place where sugarcane, cotton, wheat, and sunflowers grow in abundance.

With his snow-white hair blowing in the breeze, Papachatzidis, then in his early seventies, hopped onto his tractor and began tilling the soil. As he drove, he noticed something on the ground: a human hand, bound with a length of rope. He stopped the tractor and climbed down to find a dead woman, her face more or less intact, with a wide wound on her neck. Papachatzidis called the police.

Papachatzidis is not a man easily ruffled. When the police arrived, they cordoned off the area around the body, and Papachatzidis went back to work on another part of his land. He stayed out until sundown, at which point he returned home, exchanged his muddy boots for house slippers, and told his wife about the dead woman. At first she was angry—why had he waited all day to tell her? Then she grew so scared that a killer might be on the loose that she spent a sleepless night praying.

The next day, the couple received a phone call from the police. The bodies of two other women had been found on Papachatzidis’s land. It was likely that all three were migrants or asylum seekers. They had been murdered.

Bodies turn up along the Evros River with morbid regularity. The thin, shallow waterway divides Greece and Turkey for some 120 miles—the countries’ only shared land border—before dumping into the Aegean Sea. The area around Papachatzidis’s farm is a popular gateway for people desperate to enter Europe in search of freedom, safety, and dignity. But while traversing the river is less treacherous than a boat passage across the Mediterranean, it is by no means safe. Between 2018 and 2022, more than 200 migrants and refugees died trying to cross the Evros. Hypothermia and drowning are the most common causes of death. The strong current is challenging even for capable swimmers, and natural debris such as tree branches can snag on clothing and drag people—often children—to the river’s muddy bed. Across the Evros, other dangers await. Smugglers load people into vans bound for Thessaloniki, Greece’s second-largest city, with drivers who are often scared and inexperienced, resulting in horrific car crashes along the highway.

Murder, though, is a different matter. It is all but unheard of in Evros, the Greek region that takes its name from the river. For locals, the crime on Papachatzidis’s land was the most brutal act in recent memory.

Word spread fast, fueling rumors. This was the work of Islamic State operatives, some people said. No, the Turks did it. No, only a Greek soldier could be responsible. Greece, after all, had militarized the border in recent years, in an effort to keep migrants out of the European Union. With support from Brussels, the Evros River was now lined with fences and patrolled by men with guns. Some police officers who intercepted Afghans, Syrians, Somalis, and other migrants after they crossed the river allegedly violated international human rights law by sending them right back to Turkey, a practice known as pushback. (Despite overwhelming evidence to the contrary, Greece denies that it engages in pushback.) Over the coming years, several people would be shot dead trying to enter Evros. In March 2020, as border police and the military fired upon migrants, reportedly killing two, European Commission president Ursula von der Leyen thanked Greece for being “a European shield.”

A glaring indignity, among many others, is that Europe is not always aware of who dies on its doorstep. Identifying bodies found in Evros is the job of one man: Pavlos Pavlidis, a doctor and forensic scientist. When a migrant dies, the body is taken to Pavlidis’s morgue at University General Hospital in the seaside city of Alexandroupoli.

Pavlidis is tall and gaunt, with the stooped demeanor of a man used to doling out bad news. His job often feels Sisyphean: endless and hopeless. Unlike the sea, the Evros River has no salt to preserve bodies, and faces quickly disintegrate beyond recognition. Most identifying documents are lost or heavily damaged during crossings. Pavlidis takes DNA from the bodies and notes potentially identifying clues—tattoos and circumcisions, for instance—as well as material possessions. He sometimes works with the International Red Cross and various embassies to try and contact the families of the deceased. In most cases, the bodies he inspects are never identified.

When Pavlidis arrived at Papachatzidis’s farm, a grisly scene awaited him. Two of the women were found on their knees, facedown in the soil. Roughly 330 feet away, the third woman, who looked older than the others, lay sprawled on the ground, as though she had tried to run away and been knocked off her feet. All three had their hands bound, and their throats were cut. Their shoes were laced and their pants were buttoned.

Pavlidis is not an emotional man. In the more than two decades he has spent toiling in a hospital basement, he has learned not to think about what the dead were like when they were alive, or what they experienced in their final moments. A morgue is no place to contemplate the immense cruelty of the world if one wants to stay sane. “You get feelings,” Pavlidis said with a firm shake of his head. “I don’t want that.”

Pavlidis oversaw the transfer of the women’s bodies to Alexandroupoli, where they were placed on metal gurneys. The sharp chemical smell of the hospital masked the musk of decay. Decomposition had already set in; it appeared that several days passed before Papachatzidis discovered the bodies. Pavlidis noted that the women were dressed like “Europeans,” in tight denim and without headscarves. They had no identifying documents. Pavlidis found no internal bruising or other signs of trauma. No drugs or alcohol were in the women’s systems, and there was no evidence of sexual assault. The younger women were still, at least medically speaking, virgins; the older woman was not.

Pavlidis took DNA samples from skin, clothes, and hair. He scraped underneath the women’s fingernails, which were manicured and painted pearly pink. Genetic testing soon illuminated one piece of the story: The women were related. The younger two were sisters, and they had been killed a short distance from their mother.

The cause of death in each case was hemorrhagic shock brought on by severe blood loss. The women’s jugular veins had been cut, likely by someone right-handed. In Pavlidis’s experience, wounds of this nature were often sloppy and jagged; slicing someone’s throat is difficult, especially if they’re screaming or moving around. But the wounds on the women were precise. “It was like a butcher cut,” Pavlidis told me, sitting in his office. A cigarette smoldered in a glass ashtray on his desk, and an old PC hummed behind it. “I’ve said from the beginning, this guy is a professional.”

Two knives were found at the crime scene: one nine and a half inches long, with a serrated edge, and another, slightly shorter, with a black plastic handle. Both had been wiped clean. Police found a few other items near the bodies, including a water bottle, a bag of almonds, a tube of lipstick, and a soda can.

The most important piece of evidence was also one of the luckiest finds: a Samsung mobile phone tucked in the mother’s breast pocket. The local police didn’t have the technology to extract metadata from it, nor the experience to handle what was likely to become an international criminal investigation. The women had been killed in Greece after leaving Turkey, and it was all but certain they’d begun life in a third country. To find out who the women were and who had killed them, someone with resources and connections would have to run the investigation.

In the photos on the phone, the women were suddenly alive. In some images they had their arms thrown around each other. Filters—floating pink hearts, rabbit ears—embellished others.

Zacharoula Tsirigoti is short and compact, with small fingers that seem constantly to be rolling cigarettes with the assistance of a little machine she keeps in her purse and reddish hair that, when we met, was cropped close to her scalp. But while outward appearances indicate a woman built for efficiency, during our first interview Tsirigoti called herself “a romantic.” I watched her tear up twice while talking about her work.

From the age of 13, Tsirigoti wanted to be a police officer. “Not like the riot police that just beat people up,” she clarified, wagging a finger in the air. She wanted to give back to her community; she was attracted to the ethos of service and protection. After graduating from university, Tsirigoti started off as a constable, then spent 22 years working on relations between the Hellenic police and foreign law enforcement. She eventually became head of the Aliens and Border Protection Branch, and in 2016 was promoted to lieutenant general in the Hellenic police in Athens, making her the highest-ranking female officer in Greece.

None of this was without challenges. Greece is the lowest-ranked EU country in terms of gender equality; the Hellenic police is not a bastion of feminism. “The society in Greece is not ready to accept women doing jobs that men used to do,” Tsirigoti said. She sprinkled tobacco onto a rolling paper and looked up at me with a sly smile. “They gave me this branch because they thought I couldn’t manage the situation, but they were wrong,” she said. “A woman is more diplomatic than a man.”

Diplomacy was one characteristic needed to helm the investigation into the triple murder in Evros. Another was patience. Tsirigoti knew it might take months, if not years, to make progress in the case. The required paperwork and bureaucratic maneuvering, already Kafkaesque in Greece, would become even more dizzyingly complex when other nations entered the mix. With her commitment to her work and her Rolodex of international contacts, plus her deep understanding of migration patterns between Greece and Turkey from her time in border protection, Tsirigoti was ideally suited to the job.

One factor working against the investigation was general disinterest in the victims. In November 2018, a month after the murders, Eleni Topaloudi, a 21-year-old Greek woman, was attacked, gang-raped, and killed on the island of Rhodes. The case mobilized the nation, and police quickly arrested the perpetrators. The following year, when Suzanne Eaton, a sixty-year-old American woman, was murdered on Crete, the crime made headlines around the world, and her killer was brought to justice in two weeks. By contrast, the three migrant women killed in Evros barely made the news.

Tsirigoti didn’t just keep law enforcement’s attention on the case—she was the attention. “For me as a woman, it was very sad to see a mother with her two daughters killed like this,” she said. “To cross the border to another country there is a cause. They are human beings, not a number. I wanted to prove to the world, to the EU, that the Greek police investigate and care about everything. It was a matter of honor.”

The first step in the investigation was to contact Interpol, the international organization that facilitates cooperation among law enforcement in 195 countries. Greek police sent a “black notice” to the agency, an official request for information pertaining to unidentified bodies. They shared fingerprints taken from the three bodies—if the women had been registered as asylum seekers in, say, Turkey, there was a chance Interpol would be able to identify them. “We expected to get an answer from them,” Tsirigoti said. But that route turned out to be a dead end.

Tsirigoti hoped that the phone found on the mother would hold clues, so in December 2018 she turned to the Hellenic police’s anti-terrorism unit—not because she suspected that the women had been killed in an act of terrorism, but because the unit is the most technologically advanced in Greek law enforcement. Forensic analysts extracted data from the phone, including 511 contacts, 282 text messages, the dates, times, and numbers associated with 194 calls, and hundreds of photos and videos. Additional messages were found on social media platforms, along with data indicating when and where Wi-Fi was activated.

Sifting through the information, Tsirigoti was able to begin piecing together the women’s identities. They were from Afghanistan, and their first names were Fahima, Rabiya, and Farzana. Fahima, the mother, was in her mid-to-late thirties. Rabiya was 17, and Farzana couldn’t have been older than 14. In the photos on the phone, they were suddenly alive. In some images they had their arms thrown around each other. Filters—floating pink hearts, rabbit ears—embellished others.

Now that Tsirigoti knew the women’s nationality, her next move was to reach out to the Afghan ambassador in Greece, Mirwais Samadi. In March 2019, she shared the black notice and other details about the case with him. A much needed stroke of luck: Samadi was close with the chief of police in Kabul. He called in a favor to accelerate the process of formally identifying the women.

Two months later, in May, Tsirigoti received a document from the Interpol office in Kabul. It stated that Fahima was married with five children: Rabiya, Farzana, and three younger ones, two boys and a girl. The whole family had left their home in Mazar-i-Sharif, in the north of Afghanistan, in early 2018. They had passed through Iran before settling in Istanbul for a few months, where they sought passage to Europe. When the Mazar-i-Sharif branch of Interpol received photos of the deceased women, one of Fahima’s sisters and an uncle identified them; law enforcement was able to corroborate their identities with a brother-in-law of Fahima’s living in Europe.

Tsirigoti then turned her attention to Turkey, visiting the country five times as part of the investigation. She worked with the Turkish authorities, trying to track down men who may have come in contact with Fahima and her daughters. Since the women were migrants, they almost certainly had paid smugglers to get them across the Evros River. Those men could be murder suspects or the last people to see the women alive.

But that summer, Tsirigoti’s investigation came to a sudden halt. Political allegiances run deep in Greece, and Tsirigoti had been appointed to her post under the leftist Syriza government, which in the July 2019 elections lost power to the center-right New Democracy party. The new government made sweeping changes to police leadership, and on July 23 Tsirigoti, only 54 at the time, was forced to retire. “I didn’t finish the investigation,” she said, “and I feel very sad about it. But the police is a man’s world.” She shrugged.

Before vacating her office, Tsirigoti spoke with the officer who would take over the case. She made him swear to God he’d solve it. He promised he would, then handed it off to a small team of young male officers. It soon stagnated as police cooperation along the Greek-Turkish border all but ceased under the new government.

Conflict between Greece and Turkey stretches back centuries. After nearly 400 years of occupation by the Ottomans, Greece declared independence in 1821. Four wars followed. In 1923, a forced population exchange of 1.2 million Orthodox Greeks living in Turkey for 400,000 Muslim Turks living in Greece drastically altered the demographic makeup of each country. Refugees came to constitute one-fifth of Greece’s population—among them was Tsirigoti’s grandmother.

Another influx of refugees, this time in the 21st century, became a new source of acrimony between Greece and Turkey; both countries are keen to stir the pot of nationalist ideology and point fingers at each other when it suits them. Greece insists that Turkey isn’t doing enough to stop displaced people from crossing into European territory, while Turkey, host to the world’s largest refugee population, accuses Greece of pushback measures. Caught in the middle are migrants and refugees, human beings treated as pawns.

With her professional experience and fervent commitment to justice, Tsirigoti had managed to bulldoze through political hostilities to investigate the murders of Fahima, Rabiya, and Farzana. Without her there was a risk that the crime might never be solved. When we first met, in January 2020, Tsirigoti was still keeping an eye on the case, albeit from afar. She also had a theory about what had happened to the women. She leaned in close to tell me. Behind her, cars zipped down a busy Athens street. “It is my belief that this was an honor killing,” Tsirigoti said.

It seemed reductionist to assume that foreign women had been killed for foreign reasons, as opposed to a smuggling gone wrong, a mangled burglary, or something else related to the perilous journey they’d made to Europe. A form of gendered violence seen primarily in extremely conservative communities, honor killings usually occur when a woman or girl is believed to have tarnished a man’s reputation. These are not crimes of opportunity—they necessarily involve a perpetrator motivated by a desire to protect what he perceives as his dignity. Who might have had that motive, and why? Tsirigoti didn’t have an answer, but she thought she knew who might.

Found on the phone in Fahima’s pocket were photos of a young man who appeared to be in his early twenties, with deep-set eyes and black hair that swooped across his broad forehead. There were images of him with Fahima’s daughters in a park, and one of him sitting on a sofa. In some of these, he had his arms around Fahima; in one, she kissed his cheek. What was his relationship to the women? Could it have been a reason for violence, committed by him or by someone else?

Data from the phone indicated that the young man may have been the last person to see Fahima and her daughters alive. Law enforcement had no idea where he was. I told Tsirigoti that I’d try to find him. Then, in a rush of bravado, I went further: I said that I would find out what happened to the three women.

“OK,” Tsirigoti said with a chuckle. “Good luck.”

Zacharoula Tsirigoti and Pavlos Pavlidis

The starting point was easy to see. Authorities had cleared Fahima’s husband of suspicion, but I wanted to speak to him myself. Even if he had nothing to do with the crime, his memories of his wife and daughters could prove invaluable.

After a series of phone calls, I met Abdul* in February 2020, in Victoria Square, a part of Athens’s Kypseli neighborhood that had become a hub for refugees, many of whom would soon be forced into the streets as shelters became overcrowded or shut down during the COVID-19 pandemic. Abdul was a thin, tiny man. He moved nervously, as if he were afraid of taking up space or drawing attention to himself. He seemed suspicious and scared—of me.

Abdul and his three surviving children traveled from Turkey to Greece by boat in 2019. They spent a harrowing few weeks at a refugee camp on the island of Lesbos before they were granted temporary asylum and transferred to Athens. Not long after our meeting, the family would be given permanent asylum in another European country.

As we spoke, Abdul’s children sat nearby drinking orange juice and coloring in spiral notebooks with abandon. Abdul confessed that he hadn’t explained to them that their mother and elder sisters were dead. He sat with his back to them, to shield them from his tears.

“What do you tell them?” I asked.

“That they are waiting for us in Germany,” he replied.

The first thing Abdul wanted me to know was that he loved Fahima fiercely. He could not even utter his daughters’ names—doing so seemed painful beyond comprehension—so he concentrated on his wife. “We were like Romeo and Juliet,” he told me. Fahima was bigger than him, physically and otherwise, and he was fine to let her take the wheel of their life together. She managed their money, and it was her idea to leave Afghanistan. No one in their extended family supported the decision. Abdul had a mostly steady job and earned enough for the family to rent a small house and enjoy tiny luxuries from time to time. The children were in school. Why risk going to Europe?

Fahima wanted her children to grow up free. There was an individualistic component to this—for them to dress as they wished, to have access to technology, to connect with the wider world—but even more important was the chance for her children to live without the looming threat of war. She wanted to ensure that her daughters weren’t forced into marriage or motherhood, or killed at a young age. Fahima was not content with the incrementally better life her family had in Afghanistan.

The family left Afghanistan in January 2018. They packed up a few belongings and took a bus from Mazar-i-Sharif to Kabul, then caught another bus to Herat, a popular crossing point into Iran. They spent a few freezing cold days in Tehran before walking across a mountainous border into Turkey with a group of migrants and refugees, led by smugglers. Eventually they made it to Istanbul, settled in Zeytinburnu, and tried to cross into Greece several times without success. That summer, Abdul left Istanbul to find work in another Turkish city.

His telling of what happened next was frustratingly vague. Was he aware that his wife and eldest daughters were planning on leaving without the rest of the family? He was not. Why had Fahima taken Rabiya and Farzana alone to Greece? He didn’t know. Wasn’t he concerned when he didn’t hear from them for months? He assumed everything was fine. Did he try to locate Fahima? He trusted that she would eventually reach out to him. When he learned that his wife and daughters were dead—first through the Zeytinburnu grapevine, then officially from the Greek police—did he have any idea who might have wanted to hurt them? No, he said. He had no clue.

I spoke with Abdul again after that day, and while his answers became no clearer, what did crystallize was an additional reason for his opacity. Abdul wasn’t just grieving and frightened—he was also embarrassed because his wife had left him for another man. I wondered about the young man in the photos on Fahima’s phone. When I had showed one of the images to Abdul, he paused before telling me that the man was a neighbor in Istanbul, someone he had seen once or twice.

After several sad, complicated interviews, it was clear I wasn’t going to get anything more out of Abdul. I turned next to the people who seemed most likely to know Fahima’s secrets, the things she would never tell her husband, no matter how in love he believed they once were. The Greek police had never formally interviewed Fahima’s family. But in Afghanistan, as in many places, women tend to confide in other women. I wanted to talk to Fahima’s sisters.

Hadila thought that Fahima and her daughters had drowned while trying to reach Europe. As I delivered the news of their murders, Hadila began to cry, rocking back and forth.

Mazar-i-Sharif is Afghanistan’s fourth-largest city; the wider region where it sits, known as Balkh Province, shares a watery border with Uzbekistan. The city is famous for its blue mosque, which Sunni Muslims believe houses the tomb of Ali ibn Abi Talib, the Prophet Mohammed’s cousin. The mosque, with its sea of cerulean tiles that glimmer in the sun, has remained miraculously intact through several military incursions.

In the 1980s, Mazar-i-Sharif was a strategic position for the Soviet army, which transformed the city’s airport into a launch point for missiles targeting the mujahideen. For a brief, sweet period in the 1990s, the city was a generally stable proto-state, before the Taliban took over and massacred some 8,000 people. When it entered the city in November 2001, the U.S.-backed Northern Alliance easily captured Mazar-i-Sharif and killed more than 3,000 Taliban fighters, burying them in unmarked graves. For the next two decades, periods of relative peace were punctuated by horrific violence. Still, Mazar-i-Sharif held on to its reputation as one of the more liberal cities in Afghanistan, so much so that when the Taliban seized it in August 2021, its leaders promptly fled to Uzbekistan rather than face imprisonment, or worse.

Fahima and Abdul were married during the Taliban era. Their wedding was a simple religious affair, without music or even a wedding dress, and it was marred by tragedy. One of Fahima’s brothers-in-law was in a car accident on the way to the ceremony, and the blame was thrown onto the bride. She’s bad luck, her in-laws said. At the time, Fahima was still a teenager—not much older than Farzana, her middle daughter, would be when she was murdered.

Fahima was one of seven siblings, three of whom had passed away by the time she and her family left Afghanistan: One died from a childhood illness, another during wartime, and a third in a gas explosion at home. After Fahima’s death, only three siblings remained—all women—and they lived in or around Mazar-i-Sharif. Rahila was the one who identified Fahima’s body in photographs. Farida had ultraconservative in-laws who wouldn’t permit her talk to her family anymore, let alone a journalist. Then there was Hadila, the eldest sister and the one closest to Fahima. We connected on a video call through WhatsApp in November 2020; the pandemic prevented me from going to Afghanistan.

Hadila was 40 at the time, with eight children of her own. A few of them snuggled around her as we spoke, their heads poking out from under a large pile of colorful blankets. It was freezing in northern Afghanistan, and heat was prohibitively expensive, so they had to make do. Hadila was eager to talk. She said that no one ever contacted her about what had happened to her sisters and nieces—not the police, not Abdul, not even Rahila, who after identifying Fahima’s body fell into a deep depression. Hadila thought that Fahima and her daughters drowned while trying to reach Europe. As I delivered the news of their murders, Hadila began to cry, rocking back and forth. She wiped her tears away with the corner of her scarf.

When Fahima was a little girl, she would follow Hadila around the house, sucking her thumb and tugging at her elder sister’s skirts, dutifully trotting behind as Hadila milked cows or baked bread. They were close and remained so as they grew up, married, and started families of their own. Fahima was something of a black sheep in the community, Hadila explained—full of life and eager to dress up, wear makeup, and dance. “She was always different,” Hadila said, a touch of pride in her voice. Fahima was a good mother, she added, and close with her children, especially her two eldest girls.

Hadila spoke with Fahima on four occasions after she left Afghanistan, and the last two conversations left Hadila feeling whiplash. In the first of those, out of the blue, Fahima announced that she had engaged Rabiya to an older man, an Afghan from Kunduz Province who was well established in Zeytinburnu. This man had connections and promised to provide Fahima and her daughters with documentation to stay in Turkey. The fiancé housed them too. Fahima texted a photo of the suitor to a phone shared by Hadila’s family. Someone later dropped the phone into a toilet, and the photo was lost; police didn’t find it on the Samsung recovered at the crime scene in Greece. The only thing Hadila could remember about the fiancé was his age. He was at least 40, and Rabiya wasn’t yet 18.

Fahima had said she left Afghanistan in order to give her daughters a better life, but it was difficult for Hadila to see how marriage to a much older man would help Rabiya, whom she described as quiet and shy. The detrimental consequences of child marriage, including reduced economic and educational opportunities, and exposure to physical and emotional abuse, are well documented. “I was upset with her,” Hadila said, referring to Fahima, “because Rabiya didn’t want to get married.”

Political borders are no match for gossip, and in Mazar-i-Sharif, Fahima’s family began to glean more information about the mysterious fiancé. “I would hear all these things about this guy,” Nawid, Hadila’s eldest son, told me. “He was an old man, he had two other wives, and he had more children. I heard that it was something done by force and Rabiya was not happy.”

Then, in August 2018, Hadila spoke with Fahima for the last time. Fahima said that she wanted to break off the engagement between Rabiya and the fiancé because Rabiya was unhappy with the match. Fahima didn’t elaborate further. Hadila was relieved for Rabiya, but she also felt a pinch of fear. What if the fiancé retaliated?

In a matter of weeks, Hadila’s sister and nieces would be dead.

Fahima, and a scene from Zeytinburnu

Despite their close bond, there were things that Fahima didn’t tell her eldest sister. Hadila had heard rumors that Fahima was separated from her husband, but Fahima never mentioned it. Until I spoke to her, Hadila didn’t know that Fahima was in a relationship with someone new; the photo of the young man drew a blank stare when I showed it to her. Police in Afghanistan, I soon learned, had identified the man in the picture as Mirajuddin Osman. He was also from Mazar-i-Sharif.

For several months leading up to my conversations with Hadila and other sources in Afghanistan, the Greek police hadn’t responded to my requests for an interview. When they finally did, in early 2021, they said they would speak only on the condition that I share my findings about the murders with them—a sign, it seemed, of how little progress they’d made since Zacharoula Tsirigoti’s ouster from the force 18 months prior. Later I would be asked to testify under oath.

During the interview, I asked if the police had heard anything about Rabiya being engaged. The officers said no. Then they summarized SMS messages retrieved from the phone found on Fahima’s body. There were exchanges between Rabiya and a friend that lamented a situation involving a man called Saïd. None of my sources had mentioned that name. Perhaps Saïd was the spurned fiancé?

The police did confirm what I suspected about Osman—that he was Fahima’s boyfriend. They said they were still looking for him.

Certainly, Fahima leaving her husband for a much younger man—and taking two of their children with her—could have given Abdul motive to hurt her. In Afghanistan, divorce at the behest of a woman is extremely difficult to achieve. A woman leaving home without permission from male family members can be criminalized under Article 130 of the country’s constitution, making it a risky prospect. In even the most sympathetic circumstances, a woman ending a marriage is a cultural taboo. Though Fahima and Abdul were in Turkey by the time they split, they were living in a heavily Afghan neighborhood, where cultural norms, while loosened, were still observed.

I thought back on my interviews with Abdul. He had seemed devastated by the murders, and so beaten down by life that he didn’t have the heart to reprimand his kids as they clambered, shrieking loudly, over the patio furniture of the café where we talked. I could not imagine him killing or enlisting someone else to kill his wife, let alone the daughters whose names he now found it too painful to speak.

The police were equally sure he wasn’t the killer. In fact, they had long suspected that whoever murdered Fahima, Rabiya, and Farzana crossed back into Turkey after committing the crime. Any new leads—about suspects or witnesses, about Osman or the mysterious Saïd—would likely emerge only in Zeytinburnu.

In Turkey all Afghans are treated the same, equally denied health care, employment rights, and formal education. The Turkish government doesn’t recognize them as legal refugees.


hen I arrived in Istanbul in early August 2021, wildfires had broken out across Turkey, and the heat in the city was stifling. I had only one lead to start my reporting: the contact information of a man I’d met on a private Telegram group used by Afghan migrants. The man, who asked that I not use his name, knew Fahima and her daughters in the months leading up to their murders. For a time, he and his wife had lived in the same small, dirty apartment as Fahima, Abdul, and their five children, in a building in Zeytinburnu.

A historically working-class neighborhood, Zeytinburnu sits on the European side of Istanbul. Traditionally, it was the leatherworking area of the sprawling city. In 1983 the Turkish government, in an act of political goodwill to assist people of “Turkish origin and culture,” invited a few hundred Turkmen and Uzbek refugees from Afghanistan’s war with the Soviet Union to settle in the neighborhood. Since then, Zeytinburnu has become home to tens of thousands of Afghans, representing the entire range of the country’s many ethnic groups. Over the course of my reporting I met Pashtuns, Tajiks, Kazakhs, Uzbeks, Hazara, and Turkmen. Pashtuns make up about 40 percent of the Afghan population, and back home they occupy most of the high-ranking positions in government. But in Turkey all Afghans are treated the same, equally denied health care, employment rights, and formal education. The Turkish government doesn’t recognize them as legal refugees.

According to the man I’d found online, for at least a month in the spring of 2018, Fahima and her family lived in a basement room in a blue building where some local smugglers housed their clients. The steps leading to the basement were awkward, requiring a sideways shuffle to descend safely. A naked lightbulb hung from the low ceiling, casting a feeble glow on the grime-covered walls. There was a small landing and three doors, one of which was cobbled together from scraps of plywood and padlocked. A peculiar smell wafted in the air, something unsanitary. I knocked on all three doors, and a young Turkish woman answered one of them, her face half visible through a narrow crack. She had moved in only in the previous year, she told me politely. She didn’t know about any Afghans.

The transitory nature of Zeytinburnu creates a distinct problem for someone trying to piece the shattered mirror of recent history back together. It had been nearly three years since Fahima, Rabiya, and Farzana lived there. The majority of people I talked to on the neighborhood’s streets, along the nearby waterfront, and inside its shops and businesses had arrived in Istanbul within the past year. They could not have known the women whose photos I showed them. Memory loss is a common side effect of trauma, and some of the people I interviewed had trouble recalling events, both recent and long past. One woman I spoke to had been living in Zeytinburnu for four years, but the Taliban had murdered her husband in front of her eyes, and since then she’d had trouble remembering things. “I’ll forget your face as soon as you leave,” she told me, her voice flat.

I had the names and photos of several smugglers who, based on information gleaned from the man I’d found online, I knew had encountered Fahima and her daughters in Zeytinburnu. The women had tried to cross the border into Greece at least four times, racking up debts to their traffickers. I managed to track down some of the smugglers, including one who lived in the same blue building Fahima and her daughters spent time in, but none of them would admit to their line of work, let alone to knowing Fahima, Rabiya, and Farzana.

Turkish law enforcement is omnipresent in Zeytinburnu, and well aware of its smuggling networks. “The police know everything that goes on here,” an Afghan man inside a money-transfer shop told me. He wasn’t the only person to acknowledge the symbiotic relationship that governs the neighborhood: Smugglers pay off law enforcement to turn a blind eye to their business ventures, while also exploiting people’s fear of the who patrol Zeytinburnu threatening imprisonment or deportation. Major disruptions to the order of things are not tolerated. In 2018, the same year Fahima, Rabiya, and Farzana were killed, another Afghan woman, Elhan Atifi, was murdered in Istanbul. The violent husband she’d left behind in Kabul traveled nearly 3,000 miles to strangle her to death. Turkish police quickly investigated and prosecuted him.

I wondered: Had Fahima and her daughters been murdered a few yards into Greece by someone who knew not to kill them in Istanbul? Someone who understood that to protect his interests, he needed to avoid making the crime Turkish law enforcement’s responsibility?

It was a logical enough theory for which I didn’t have a shred of proof. Then, on the verge of giving up hope, Tabsheer and I walked into the ice cream shop.

Mirajuddin Osman

“Zeytinburnu is a place where you can’t hide.” That’s what Mohammed*, the man we approached in the shop, told me after confirming that he recognized Fahima, Rabiya, and Farzana. We had moved to an area upstairs in the café where we could be alone. Mohammed spread his tanned hands on the plastic table between us and sighed before telling us what he knew.

Back in 2018, he said, he’d seen the women together with Mirajuddin Osman. There was speculation in the local Afghan community that Fahima had left her husband and was dating Osman. “Only God knows what was between them,” Mohammed said with a shrug. He had seen Fahima’s husband once or twice in Zeytinburnu, but always alone.

Mohammed cleared his throat and motioned for me to turn off my recorder before continuing. Here is what I wrote in my notes: Fahima planned to marry Rabiya off to a man whom Mohammed called Hajji Saïd. Hajji is an Islamic prefix of respect, reserved for someone who has made the pilgrimage to Mecca. And Saïd was the name the Greek police had asked me about, the man mentioned in Rabiya’s text messages.

Mohammed said that Saïd already had two wives—one in Afghanistan and another in Pakistan. When he decided to marry Rabiya, in early 2018, he also agreed to pay for her: He gave Fahima several thousand euros for his new teenage bride. Around Ramadan, which that year began in May, they were officially engaged, and later they married. Fahima and her daughters then moved into Saïd’s apartment.

Saïd was a man used to getting what he wanted. He had been living in Zeytinburnu for twenty years, and he was a pillar in the community, an important Pashtun smuggler who employed a network of people. In fact, Osman’s brother worked for him at one point. Saïd also owned a hawala shop, overseeing money transfers and electronics sales.

And how did Mohammed know all this?

Because, he told me, he and Saïd were related.

The two men had a falling out, Mohammed explained, and weren’t talking by the time Saïd became engaged to Rabiya. In the summer of 2018, Mohammed traveled to Afghanistan. When he came back to Istanbul, Rabiya, Fahima, and Farzana were gone. He still wasn’t on good terms with Saïd, and could only guess that the women had left for a European country, somewhere cold and far away, like Belgium or Germany. That remained his assumption.

I told him about the murders, about the women’s bodies found prone with their throats cut near the Evros River. Mohammed closed his eyes.

“Whoever did this to these girls, God will punish them,” he said.

“Do you think—well, sorry to ask, but do you think that maybe your…,” I stammered.

“You want to know if he killed them,” Mohammed interjected. “I don’t know that. But I believe this is an honor killing.”

Before we ended our conversation, Mohammed gave me an address. If I wanted to talk to Saïd, my best chance was to go there, to his place of business.

Saïd looked at me hard and said I could come back tomorrow to talk to him. We both knew that if I returned to the store, he wouldn’t be there.

The hawala was on a side street near Zeytinburnu’s main drag. It was evening when Tabsheer and I arrived, and the shop glowed in the darkness. Through the window, I could see five-kilo bags of Afghan rice stacked against one wall; across from these was a display of cell phones and accessories covered in a thin layer of dust. A middle-aged man sat behind the counter scrolling on his phone; a younger man was next to him doing the same thing.

I took a deep breath, pushed the door open, and walked in. Saïd was heavyset, with a rounded jaw and drooping features. There was a large birthmark on his right cheekbone, like a smudged thumbprint. He looked up as I walked toward him, extending my phone. Rabiya’s face was displayed on the screen.

“I want to talk to you about Rabiya,” I said, forgoing all formalities, my voice louder than I’d intended.

Saïd jumped up from his seat and rushed out from behind the counter, flapping his hands. At first he denied knowing the women, whose photos I showed one by one. Then he admitted having seen them in the area. He recognized Fahima—but so what? “People come through here all the time, this is Turkey,” he protested.

He swore that he hadn’t been in a relationship with Rabiya. His breathing became ragged, and his hands started to shake—it seemed like he might have a panic attack. As I held up Rabiya’s photo again, he averted his gaze, shaking his head as tears filled his eyes and threatened to tumble down his cheeks. The young man, who had remained behind the counter, interjected. “He doesn’t know these people,” he insisted.

I would later find out that this was Saïd’s nephew. In the moment, I was frustrated that Saïd had an emotional accomplice. I needed to speak to him alone. “Why don’t we go somewhere quieter to talk?” I suggested.

Saïd changed out of his sandals into dress shoes before we stepped into the hot night. He indicated a café nearby, but no sooner had we reached the street than he stopped and asked us to come to his home. It was an odd turn, and one that momentarily made me panic. Tabsheer and I declined the invitation. Saïd then tried to double back to the store—to retrieve his wallet, he said, since he insisted on paying for the tea we would have while talking. But Tabsheer and I encouraged him to continue on with us. We didn’t want to lose any momentum.

As we walked, Saïd stayed a few steps ahead. He called people on his phone—one of his employees, a friend. His voice was muffled, and it was difficult to make out what he was saying. Every now and then he would turn around and implore us to think of his wives, his children. I kept up a steady stream of questions in English, which Tabsheer translated. Soon Tabsheer realized that Saïd had begun muttering under his breath, in Pashto, “Fuck Rabiya, fuck Rabiya.”

We reached a small, well-lit square with an empty café off to one side—we could talk there, I said. But the mood had darkened. Saïd raised his voice and pleaded loudly with Tabsheer in Pashto, ignoring me. I pulled my phone out and began recording him, and Saïd smacked my hand, less out of a desire to hurt me, it seemed, and more from uncontrollable desperation.

“My mind is exploding,” Saïd cried. People on the street stopped to stare at us. “I’m going to collapse and die right here!” He clutched the sides of his head.

I could feel my heart beating in my chest. Saïd looked at me hard and said I could come back tomorrow to talk to him. We both knew that if I returned to the store, he wouldn’t be there. As he crossed the street to get away from me, he called out to Tabsheer, who approached him one last time.

“Please, you’re an Afghan,” Saïd begged. He touched Tabsheer’s chin—a deferential gesture in Afghan culture. “Get me out of this situation. Do something about this.”

Then he was gone.

The people Tabsheer and I talked to would speak only on the condition of anonymity, and they all said a version of the same thing: Saïd was powerful and dangerous.

The following morning, I returned to Saïd’s hawala. As expected he wasn’t there, but the shop was open and there was a steady stream of customers. The nephew was working the counter. He stared at me with narrow, glassy eyes and kept repeating the same thing: It was sad what happened to these women, but his uncle was a good man, respected in the neighborhood, with two wives and many children back home. Saïd wasn’t the type of man who would hurt anyone. He was religious.

Tabsheer and I stayed for about an hour, leaning against the scratchy, lumpy bags of rice. At one point Tabsheer called Saïd on the phone—we’d gotten his number from Mohammed. “I don’t need to say anything to that woman,” Saïd said. “She’s a journalist, not the police.” He was right. The trip to Istanbul had cast the limitations of my field into sharp relief. I didn’t have the authority to compel Saïd to talk; only law enforcement did.

When Tabsheer and I left the shop, we crisscrossed Zeytinburnu to find people to speak with. It was a mirror image of the beginning of my trip, but instead of showing strangers pictures of Fahima and her daughters, I showed them a Facebook photo I’d found of Saïd dressed in a white shalwar kameez and standing in front of the casbah in Mecca. This time we got the same answer again and again: Yes. Nearly everyone we met knew who Saïd was. Mohammed had been right about his stature in the community.

The people Tabsheer and I talked to would speak only on the condition of anonymity, and they all said a version of the same thing: Saïd was powerful and dangerous. He employed a number of men to run his smuggling operation, which passed people through Evros. No one would confirm his relationship with Fahima and her daughters.

Back in Athens, I was asked to give another deposition to the police; it would be submitted to the judge in Evros who would oversee the murder case, whatever shape it eventually took. I told the police what I’d learned about Saïd. It felt like a moral imperative. Ostensibly, the police could share my information with their Turkish counterparts, who could investigate him. There was also a sense of urgency: By September 2021, the Taliban had taken over Afghanistan, and cooperation with many foreign governments had ground to a halt. If Saïd fled to his home country, he would be all but impossible to find.

That’s exactly what happened. Before the Turkish police could get involved, Mohammed, whom I was still in contact with, told me that Saïd had left Istanbul. With Saïd in the wind, the murder investigation once again ran aground.

Then one day in March 2022, I received a phone call. Mirajuddin Osman had been apprehended and was being held at a prison in northeastern Greece. He wasn’t the last puzzle piece in the case—I was coming to accept that I might never find them all—but he was a crucial one. I sent a request for an interview.

Abdul at the graves of his wife and daughters.

The police investigating the murders should have found Osman earlier—or, more accurately, they should have realized when they first had him in custody. Osman left Turkey in December 2020. A smuggler had promised to take him to Bulgaria, but something went wrong and he entered Europe the same way Fahima, Farzana, and Rabiya did two years prior: over the Evros River. Osman made it to Thessaloniki.

It’s routine in Greece for police to stop foreign-looking people and ask to see identity papers and asylum cards. Those who can’t produce them—and occasionally even those who can—are arrested and may be sent to Turkey. Whether a person gets into trouble with the authorities is a matter of that most cruel mistress, luck. Some people have it, others don’t.

For a while, Osman had it. Then one day he didn’t. He was held in a jail in northern Greece, where his fingerprints and mugshot were taken. It could have been a huge break in the murder case, but due to disorganization among the branches of Hellenic law enforcement, the police in Athens had no idea that their person of interest was languishing in a cell a few hours north. After five days, Osman was released. By the time the Athens police learned that he’d been arrested, he was long gone, absorbed into the underworld that so many migrants pass through. It would be another year before investigators managed to track him down, in Germany. When they did, they extradited him to Greece.

When I met him in March 2022, Osman was incarcerated at a squat yellow prison in Komotini, a small town about an hour from the Turkish border. Komotini has a sizable Muslim population, a demographic relic of the Ottoman Empire. Today it holds the dubious distinction of being one of the poorest and most marginalized places in Greece.

I was shocked by how little Osman resembled the man in the photos I had been looking at for three years. The only thing remaining of his youth was his hairline, still defiantly thick and straight across his forehead. The ordeals of a hard life had been etched into his face and had hardened his gaze. Though he was in his early twenties, he could have passed for forty.

I pressed the plastic phone receiver to my ear and listened to Osman, separated from me by a smudged sheet of glass, tell his side of the story. When he’d first met Fahima, he was barely out of his teens. It happened shortly after she arrived in Istanbul, and the circumstances were surprisingly wholesome: Osman’s mother, who also lived in the city, was very distantly connected to Fahima’s family back in Mazar-i-Sharif. The first time Osman saw Fahima, she was sitting on his mother’s couch, surrounded by all five of her children and her husband. None of those dependents registered as obstacles for Osman. In his eyes, Fahima must have burned as brightly as the Madonna.

Osman became a devout believer, worshipping daily at the altar of his beloved. “It was my first time falling in love,” he said with a thin smile. “Whatever Fahima said, I did without question.” Soon he was spending every free moment he had with Fahima and her two daughters, dedicating the little money he earned working seven days a week on a construction site to small presents and social outings. He felt drawn to Fahima: She was beautiful, sure, but he was particularly attracted to her fierce personality. She was proud, and she knew what she wanted. It was seductive.

By his account, Fahima kept him at arm’s length when it came to decisions in her life. Like Mohammed, Osman told me that Rabiya and Saïd had married, but that he only learned of their engagement on the day of the wedding—Fahima had kept him in the dark until then. The wedding was a proper, quiet celebration, with a mullah reciting words from the Qur’an. Afterward Rabiya, along with her mother and sister, moved into Saïd’s apartment in Zeytinburnu.

Osman claimed that Fahima never told him that she wanted to end the couple’s marriage. He didn’t recall discord of any kind—the couple, he told me, were “fine.” When Saïd was away visiting his other wives, Osman would stay over at the house. “He was always good to me,” Osman said of Saïd.

Near the end of a workday in October 2018, Osman received a call from Fahima. “We’re leaving for Europe. Tonight,” she told him. She meant that he would be coming, too. Ever pliant to her wishes, Osman went to the supermarket, where he picked up a few things to sustain them on the journey: a roast chicken, some hard cheese, a loaf of bread. Like most migrants, they would leave the bulk of their possessions behind.

In Zeytinburnu, he met up with Fahima, Rabiya, and Farzana, and they bundled into a car along with Saïd and three of his associates, including the nephew I had met in Istanbul. The mood was light, Osman recalled. Saïd and his men spoke Pashto, a language Osman was not fluent in, so he focused his attention on the women. The three of them were giddy. After several attempts to cross into Europe, they were finally doing it—they were sure the trip would be a success.

Saïd wouldn’t be coming with them; he would take them only as far as the border. Why would a powerful man smuggle his teenage bride into Europe rather than keep her close by? Did this ring as odd to anyone in the group? If so, Osman didn’t indicate it as he told me his story.

Saïd’s years as a trafficker proved useful: The group wasn’t stopped by the police driving out of Istanbul, and three hours later they managed to evade detection by Turkish border control. Saïd parked the car in a well-hidden spot, and everyone climbed out. It was dark and cold, with only the thin moonlight to guide them. After walking some distance, they reached the Evros River, where a small inflatable boat was waiting for them. Saïd and the smugglers sat on one side, the women and Osman on the other. The lighthearted atmosphere from the car gave way to solemnity.

Once across the river they exited the boat, their feet sinking into the muddy bank. Fahima, Farzana, and Rabiya walked in front of Osman, Saïd, and the rest of the men. They continued for twenty minutes, in an area dotted with watchtowers and crawling with police and patrol cars. The danger of what they were doing must have weighed heavily with each sodden step.

Saïd knew how to remain undetected; he directed everyone through the forest, and the group never met with trouble. Eventually, they reached Nikos Papachatzidis’s fields. Osman claimed that only then did the situation shift—only then did he and the women realize that the real danger came from the smugglers.

The men stopped and opened a backpack that one of them was carrying. Inside were two black-handled knives and rope. The smugglers pulled out the weapons and first used them as a menacing tool to keep the women and Osman in line. According to Osman, the men bound Rabiya’s and Fahima’s hands behind their backs, while he was tied up with Farzana. If the smugglers explained what was happening and why, Osman didn’t recall it. “I don’t know what happened with Saïd that would have made him do this,” he told me.

Saïd pulled Fahima away first, Osman said, dragging her several yards before cutting her throat. He then reached into her jacket and pulled out 2,400 euros, money Fahima had diligently saved to start a new life. Osman said he saw the flash of a knife as it sliced first across Rabiya’s olive neck, then Farzana’s. The women screamed, desperate animal cries that reverberated through the forest, until they couldn’t any longer. No one heard them: The solitariness that had been a source of relief just moments before was now sinister, devastating.

“I was saying my last words,” Osman told me, “because I thought I was going to die.”

But he didn’t.

“Why didn’t Saïd kill you, too?” I asked.

Osman contemplated the question before answering. Saïd spared his life because the exhaustion of killing the three women was too much, he said finally.

It was far-fetched, like so much of Osman’s story seemed to be, especially since three of Said’s henchmen were there. Surely, he could have ordered one of them to kill a witness to his crimes. Osman rubbed his forehead, thinking. Saïd’s nephew wanted to kill him, he eventually said, but Saïd overruled him.

In Osman’s telling, he walked back to the boat with the other men. Saïd told him to keep his mouth shut or he would meet the same fate as Fahima and her daughters. The intimidation continued once they were back in Istanbul, Osman claimed, which is what prompted him to flee to Europe.

Osman insisted that he had nothing to do with the crime—“I’m innocent,” he said more than once in our conversation. Still, he said that he felt responsible for Fahima’s death. “Nobody spoke against Saïd,” Osman told me. “He was too powerful, and if I had said anything he would have killed me. But I blame myself for not going to the police.”

A guard rapped on the door and shouted brusquely in Greek. My allotted interview time—a little over an hour—was over. I was ushered out of the prison. As I blinked against the strong afternoon sun, I considered everything Osman had told me, and everything he hadn’t. His story was riddled with holes, but it was unclear what was pouring out of them: guilt, cowardice, or something more ominous?

Whether Osman played a role in the killings or was only a bystander as he claimed, the motive for the crime remained unclear. Assuming that Saïd was the perpetrator, I ran through possible scenarios. Rabiya’s autopsy indicated that she probably hadn’t had sex—had she refused to consummate the marriage, angering Saïd? Maybe Rabiya begged her mother to free her from a marriage she didn’t want, and Fahima relented: They would go to Europe and never look back. Still, they’d need Saïd’s help to get across the border. Maybe they assured him that, once in Europe, Rabiya would remain faithful, and that he could visit her like he did his other wives. Saïd, being no fool, would have suspected the truth: that Rabiya had no plans to see him again. Maybe he’d read the texts on the women’s shared phone in which Rabiya told a friend that she didn’t want to be with him, or overheard Fahima talking to Hadila about ending the relationship.

Whatever the case, it’s possible that Rabiya’s desire for a new life in Europe allowed Saïd to devise a plan to enact revenge in a place where he knew he’d get away with it—in a foreign country where migrants’ bodies turn up all the time, where he could slip back across the border with ease. It was an elaborate murder plot, but not an implausible one.

Or maybe the killings were more spontaneous. Perhaps the women said or did something after crossing the Evros River that their smugglers deemed a murderable offense. There were plenty of other scenarios that might fit into the blurry outlines of the truth I’d managed to piece together. Clarity was just out of reach, and the only people who could provide it were either unwilling, on the run, or dead.

The odds of solving the murders of three migrant women committed along one of the world’s most fraught borders were impossibly long. Tsirigoti went looking for a needle in a geopolitical haystack. So did I.

As of this writing, Osman is being held in pretrial detention on suspicion of being involved in the murders. According to Greek law, an investigating judge (who declined to provide information for this story) is preparing the case against him. It’s likely to go to trial next year. But even if Osman is convicted, justice will feel at best like a half measure.

According to a police source, a Greek arrest warrant has been issued for Saïd; an international arrest warrant through Interpol is pending. Mohammed told me that since I encountered Saïd in August 2021, he had returned to Turkey on at least two occasions. If only the Greek and Turkish police would cooperate. If only someone would find Saïd and question him, or do the same with the nephew I met at the hawala, the one Osman claimed was present during the murders. If only a key thread in the women’s story hadn’t been left frayed and dangling.

It’s a reporter’s job, of course, to manage such threads, and when necessary to learn to live with them. This is never more true than when telling stories about the murk and the ripple effects of conflict. As Zacharoula Tsirigoti knew when she embarked on her investigation, the odds of solving the murders of three migrant women committed along one of the world’s most fraught borders were impossibly long. She went looking for a needle in a geopolitical haystack. So did I. Perhaps disappointment, to one degree or another, was always where this story was going to end.

But there are threads—many, in fact—that have been woven into place in the more than four years since the women’s deaths. Together they reveal three lives shaped in part by circumstances beyond any one person’s control. Three lives that, in spite of everything, were lived with love, hope, and resilience. Lives cut short on the edge of Europe, like more than 25,000 others in the past decade. Lives that, unlike so many of the fellow dead, can be known, remembered, and honored.

Usually migrants found at the bottom of the Evros River, in crushed cars on the highway to Thessaloniki, or frozen in farmers’ fields are interred under mounds of dirt topped with simple tombstones, each engraved with a unique serial number. But outside Komotini*, there’s a small Muslim cemetery recently reopened for the identified bodies of believers who made it to Europe only to die. In the middle of the plot are three graves with the names of the dead carved clearly into stone.

Fahima. Rabiya. Farzana.

*This story has been corrected to clarify the location and nature of the cemetery.

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True Grit

True Grit

When a storm surge swept dozens of wild horses and cattle from the coast of North Carolina, no one expected there to be survivors. Then hoofprints appeared in the sand.

The Atavist Magazine, No. 132

J.B. MacKinnon is an award-winning journalist whose work has appeared in The New Yorker, National Geographic, and The Atlantic, as well as the Best American Science and Nature Writing anthologies. He is the author or coauthor of five books of nonfiction, and an adjunct professor of journalism at the University of British Columbia, where he teaches feature writing.

Editor: Jonah Ogles
Art Director: Ed Johnson
Copy Editor: Sean Cooper
Fact Checker: J. Patrick Patterson
Illustrator: Luis Mazón

Published in October 2022.

The wild horses all have names. Ronald, for example, and Becky and Clyde. The names sound mundane, even for horses, but each is something like a badge of honor. For years now, the people of Cedar Island, North Carolina, have named each foal born to the local herd of mustangs after the oldest living resident who hasn’t already had a horse named for them. Every island family of long standing has this connection to the herd.

Cedar Island, located in a pocket of North Carolina known as Down East, is what passes for remote in the continental United States these days. Though it’s only 40 miles as the gull flies from the Cape Hatteras area, with its tourists and mortgage brokers, its restaurants with names like Dirty Dick’s Crab House, Cedar Island remains a place with only a scattering of people and businesses, where you can’t be certain of finding a restaurant meal—not so much as a plate of hush puppies—on a Sunday evening. Upon arrival you might not notice that Cedar Island is an island at all. Crossing the soaring Monroe Gaskill Memorial Bridge, which connects it to the mainland, what you pass over is easily mistaken for another of the region’s sleepy, curlicue rivers. In fact, this is the Thorofare, a skinny saltwater channel connecting the Pamlico Sound to the north and the Core Sound to the south. The Pamlico is one of the largest embayments on the U.S. coastline, while the Core is narrow and compact. Cedar Island stands between them, and all three are hemmed in by the Outer Banks.

I’ve just written that Cedar Island separates two sounds, and on maps this is true. Reality is less decisive. Swaths of the small island are sometimes underwater, depending on wind, tide, and season—in particular, hurricane season.

The shifting, amphibious nature of Cedar Island was never more apparent than on the morning of September 6, 2019. Under the whirling violence of Hurricane Dorian, maps lost all meaning. The Pamlico and Core Sounds joined to become a single, angry body of water, shrinking Cedar Island to a fraction of its acreage. It was no longer separated from the mainland by the thin blue line of the Thorofare, but by nearly six miles of ocean.

Most of the 250 or so people living on the island were safe, their homes built on a strip of not-very-high high ground precisely to weather the wrath of hurricanes. The wild horses—49 in all—were in much deeper trouble.

There were also some cows. The cows did not have names.

Few cows in America live longer than six years; many are slaughtered much younger. A Cedar Island cow, on the other hand, stands a good chance of living into its teens, and might even see its 30th birthday.

There is no such thing as a truly wild cow. While Cedar Island’s cattle range more or less freely, the technical term for them is feral—they are the descendants of escapees from domestication. The island’s mustangs are feral, too, but while visitors often come to Cedar Island solely in hopes of seeing the Banker horses, as the area’s herds are known, next to no one makes a special trip to photograph the “sea cows.”

The cows are striking to look at, though. While they vary in color, many have a bleached-blonde coat, blending in with the pale sand and the glare of the sun on Cedar Island’s hammerhead northern cape, where both cattle and horses roam. Tourists are happy to see the cows, just not as happy as they are to see the horses. Here and across America, a mustang—mane flowing, hooves pounding the earth—is an embodiment of beauty and freedom. Cows are not.

For Cedar Islanders, the cows are part of what makes their home distinctive, a fond and familiar part of the community and its history. In fact, the cattle have been on the island far longer than the mustangs, who were transferred from the more famous Shackleford Banks herd three decades ago. But the relationship people on the island have with horses is different than the one they have with cows, in much the same way it is for people nearly everywhere.

“This used to be horse country,” said Priscilla Styron, who has lived on or near Cedar Island for 30 years and works at its ferry terminal. “Everybody rode, they had pony pennings, they had all kinds of stuff. Everybody was always riding horses.” As for the cows, there was a time not so long ago when an islander might round one up from the beach, take it home to graze and fatten up, then butcher it for meat.

As Hurricane Dorian approached Cedar Island, no one troubled themselves about either kind of animal. One islander, who called himself a “simple country boy” and asked not to be named, scoffed at the idea that wild creatures would brook being corralled and taken off-island to wait out the storm. Not that anyone thought that was needed, according to Styron. “They usually protect themselves. You don’t have to worry about them,” she said. “They can sense more than we can.” Cedar Island had never lost more than one or two members of its wild herds to a storm—and Down East sees more than its fair share of those.

In 2019, there were perhaps a couple dozen cattle on the island—no one knew for sure, because no one was keeping count, not even residents who were fond of their bovine neighbors. For at least some of the cows, Dorian was nothing new. Few cows in America live longer than six years; many are slaughtered much younger. A Cedar Island cow, on the other hand, stands a good chance of living into its teens, and might even see its 30th birthday. A cow that was 20 years old in 2019 would have had close encounters with at least ten hurricanes: Dennis, Floyd, Isabel, Alex, Ophelia, Arthur, Matthew, Florence, and two named Irene. The herd could look to its elders for guidance.

Biologists only recently recognized that cows have complex social behaviors, involving depths of comprehension that we might not expect of animals stereotyped as grungy, placid, and dull-witted. A feral herd, for example, will organize nurseries by dividing calves into age groups, each usually overseen by one adult cow while the rest go out to graze. For this to work, the sitters need to understand that their role is to look after calves that are not their own, even if it means settling for low-grade fodder while others enjoy greener pastures. The calves have to grasp that they are under vigilance despite their mothers being out of sight.

No one documented how the cows responded as Dorian approached, but Mónica Padilla de la Torre, an evolutionary biologist, can give us a good idea. “They usually are not afraid of storms. They like storms,” Padilla said. “They like to be cool. They like shade. They appreciate when the rain comes.”

Even before the hurricane loomed on the southern horizon, the herd likely began to move—with that usual cattle slowness, that walking-on-the-moon gait—toward shelter. In the era before hurricanes were tracked by satellites and weather radar, cows were a useful predictor that one was coming. The migration, Padilla said, would have been initiated by the herd’s leaders. Cattle violently clash to establish a pecking order, and once that’s settled a benign dictatorship ensues. Leaders are granted the best places to eat and the best shade to lie in, and they make important decisions—like when to retreat to high ground in the face of a storm.

For Cedar Island’s cattle, high ground was a berm of brush-covered dunes between beach and marshland. There the cows grazed, chewed cud, and literally ruminated, passing rough forage through a digestive organ, the rumen, that humans lack. Far from appearing panicked, the herd was probably a bucolic sight, from the Greek word boukolos, meaning “cowherd.”

A close observer, Padilla said, might have noticed subtle differences among the animals: mothers that were watchful or unworried, calves that were playful or lazy, obvious loners or pairs licking or grooming each other. Padilla once spent several months studying cow communication—I found the urge to describe this as “cow-moo-nication” surprisingly strong—by memorizing the free-ranging animals she observed via nicknames like Dark Face and Black Udder. (She didn’t realize at the time that the latter was a perfect punning reference to the classic British TV comedy Blackadder. What is it about cows and puns?) On Cedar Island, Padilla said, there wasn’t simply a herd that was facing a storm. There was a group of individuals, each with its own relationships, including what Padilla doesn’t hesitate to call friendships.

Dorian arrived in the purest darkness of the first hours of September 6. Three days prior, it had ravaged the Bahamas with 185-mile-per-hour winds, tying the all-time landfall wind-speed record for an Atlantic cyclone. Some observers suggested giving it a rating of Category 6 on the five-point scale of hurricane strength. It had weakened by the time it reached North Carolina, but it was still a hurricane. Thick clouds blacked out the moon and stars; Cedar Island’s scattered lights hardly pierced the rain. Passing just offshore on its way to making true landfall at Cape Hatteras, the hurricane lashed the Pamlico and Core Sounds into froth and spray and sent sheets of sand screaming up the dunes. The scrubby canopy under which the cows likely took shelter, already permanently bowed by landward breezes, bent and shook in the teeth of the storm. A 110-mile-per hour gust on Cedar Island was the strongest measured anywhere in the state during Dorian’s passage.

When the eerie calm of Hurricane Dorian’s eye passed over the island, dropping wind speeds to only a strong breeze, there seemed to be little more to fear. There was still the back half of the storm to come, but Cedar Island residents, both human and not, had seen worse. Even in the off season, the North Carolina shore has hurricanes on its mind. If you see footage of a beach house collapsing in pounding surf, chances are it was shot on the Outer Banks. Drive around Down East and you’ll see many houses raised onto 12-foot stilts; in some homes, you reach the first floor by elevator. Maps show that much of the Outer Banks, including most of Cedar Island and huge swaths of mainland, will be underwater with a sea-level rise of just over a foot. Residents aren’t rushing to leave, though. A hardened sense of rolling with the punches prevails.

Yet with Dorian, something unusual happened as the center of the storm moved northward. At around 5:30 a.m., Sherman Goodwin, owner of Island’s Choice, the lone general store and gas station on Cedar Island, got a call from a friend who lived near the store. A storm surge was rising in the area, the friend said. Fifteen minutes later, as Goodwin drove through the dim first light of morning, the water was deep enough to splash over the hood of his Chevy truck, which was elevated by off-road suspension and mud-terrain tires. “It came in just like a tidal wave,” Goodwin said. “It came in fast.”

By the time Sherman and Velvet, his wife—“My mother really liked that movie National Velvet,” she told me—reached their shop, they had to shelter in the building. Velvet saw a frog blow past a window in the gale. A turtle washed up to the top of the entryway stairs. “It came to within one step of getting in the store,” Sherman said, referring to the water. A photograph shows the gas pumps flooded up to the price tickers.

To understand what happened on Cedar Island that morning, imagine blowing across the surface of hot soup, how the liquid ripples and then sloshes against the far side of the bowl. Dorian did the same thing to the Pamlico Sound, but with a steady, powerful wind that lasted hours.

The hurricane pushed water toward the mainland coast, which in the words of Chris Sherwood, an oceanographer with the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS), is “absolutely perfect” for taking in wind-driven water. The Bay, Neuse, Pamlico, and Pungo Rivers all flow into the Pamlico Sound through wide mouths that inhale water as readily as they exhale it. Much of the rest of the shoreline is an enormous sponge of marshes. What accumulated in this series of reservoirs was, in effect, a pile of water held in place by the wind.

People who know North Carolina’s sounds are aware of the tricks fierce wind can play. Coastal historian David Stick once noted that, during a hurricane, half a mile of seafloor in the lee of the Outer Banks can be left exposed as sound water is pushed westward. When that happens, a bizarre phenomenon can occur: A storm surge can come from the landward side, striking offshore islands in what’s sometimes called sound-side flooding. Scientists know it as a seiche (pronounced saysh).

When Dorian’s eye passed the Pamlico Sound, the seiche the storm had created began to collapse. Then winds from the southern half of the hurricane, which blow in the opposite direction from the storm’s leading edge, drove the water back the way it came. In a sense, the seiche was also running downhill; the ocean tide was falling in the predawn hours, while the hurricane, still pressing down on the Atlantic, forced water eastward, leaving behind a depression. These forces combined to send the seiche pouring out of the Pamlico Sound east toward the Atlantic, nine feet above the water level in the ocean.

The avalanche of seawater was truly vast, equal to about one-third of the average flow of the Amazon River, by far the highest-volume river on earth. The Amazon, however, meets the sea through a gaping river mouth. Dorian’s sound-side surge was trying to reach the open Atlantic past what amounted to a levee of Outer Banks islands with just a handful of bottleneck channels between them. At the southern end of the Pamlico Sound, there was an added obstacle: Cedar Island.

The water didn’t go around the island. It washed right over it.

The surge left nearly as quickly as it arrived, carrying on to the Outer Banks, where it hit the island of Ocracoke with a wall of water higher than anyone there had ever seen before. Once Dorian passed, floodwaters began receding. On Cedar Island they left thick, greasy muck in buildings and debris on the roads, but no serious injuries were reported. More than a third of the buildings on Ocracoke were damaged, but there were no known deaths.

The first news of losses from Cedar Island’s herds of horses and cattle came as soon as the ocean had calmed enough for islanders to go back to sea in their boats. “That’s when they saw a lot of them,” Styron said. “You know—floating.” That Cedar Islanders do not wear their hearts on their sleeves about such things is strongly conveyed by an anonymous source’s reaction when I asked how people felt about the dead animals. After an uncomfortable pause, he said, “You can pretty much guess that.” Then he added, “Mother Nature allowed them to be here, and I guess Mother Nature can also take them away.”

If anyone witnessed what transpired with Cedar Island’s feral herds, they haven’t said so publicly. Most likely, though, no one saw it, since the surge came without warning in the darkness, and the horses and cows often roamed far from people’s homes. The animals would not have been sound asleep in the predawn—feral creatures, like wild ones, are more vigilant through the night than human beings tucked tight in their homes. Still, they may have dropped their guard, sensing that they’d survived another hurricane.

Then suddenly, the sea moved onto the land. Nine feet of water covered the beaches. It drowned the marshes where the cattle fed on sea oats and seagrass, and flowed over the lower dunes. We know from Padilla’s research what the scene must have sounded like: high-pitched, staccato mooing—cows’ alarm calls—ringing out in the humid air, the bawling of calves competing with the howl of wind and surf. In waters rising at startling speed, mother cattle would have raced to find their young, as bovine friends struggled not to be separated.

Twenty-eight horses were swept away. No one knows exactly how many cows were carried off—four of them managed to remain on land, and locals would later estimate that between 15 and 20 were taken by the flood. The water likely lifted the animals off their hooves one by one, first the foals and calves, then the adults. They disappeared into the tempest.

The islands known collectively as the Core Banks, located southeast of Cedar Island, are nearly 40 miles long and rarely a mile wide. On maps they look like a skeletal finger pointing ruefully toward the North Atlantic. Like most barrier islands they’re low—about eight feet above sea level on average, with the highest dunes cresting 25 feet—and the whole of them are protected as the Cape Lookout National Seashore. Hurricanes always roughhouse barrier islands, but on the morning of September 7, 2019, the day after Hurricane Dorian hit, it was clear that this storm had been a beast of a different order.

Ahead of the cyclone, North and South Core Banks was broken by a single passage, Ophelia Inlet. After the storm, there were 99 additional channels through the islands—the banks had been sliced into 101 pieces. It didn’t seem right to call these cut-throughs inlets. They formed as outlets: The seiche that poured over Cedar Island then collided with the barrier islands, and when it did, it bored right through them. “We had never in the collective memory of the park seen a sound-side event like we saw after Hurricane Dorian,” said Jeff West, superintendent of Cape Lookout National Seashore. “I did take quite a ribbing about the fact that I lost 20 percent of the park.”

West was on the first maintenance boat to sail from Cedar Island for the Outer Banks. Docking at a Park Service site a few miles up North Core Banks, he began driving an ATV along the beach. Fifty feet later he reached the first cut-through and, wading into it up to his neck, found an animal carcass. He didn’t take the time to determine whether it was horse or cow. “Sometimes large fish find them tasty,” he told me.

Cape Lookout staff would eventually locate the bodies of nearly two dozen dead horses and cattle, along with deer and seabirds. Most were arrayed along the open-ocean side of South Core Banks, likely having passed through Ophelia Inlet before washing up on the beach. The most far-flung horse and cattle carcasses were found near Cape Lookout Lighthouse, about 30 miles from where the animals first washed into the sea.

Cape Lookout workers buried the bodies that the tides didn’t take away.

Most of the media coverage of Dorian’s aftermath focused on the damage on Ocracoke Island. The first report about Cedar Island’s lost herds mentioned only that horses had drowned; the cows had to wait for follow-up articles. It was a blip in the news cycle, soon forgotten as Democrats in Congress sought to impeach Donald Trump.

A pressing question: Can cows swim? Yes, they can. Think of the Wild West, where cowboys guided their herds across deep rivers to fresh pasture or to market. The Cedar Island cattle had been seen swimming, too. One regular visitor described “little bitty calves” lining up to make a crossing to Hog Island, just southeast of Cedar Island in the Core Sound. “I’m like, ‘Don’t go. You’re not gonna make it. It’s a quarter-mile swim,’ ” he said. The calves made the trip with ease.

But it’s one thing to cross a narrow channel in calm seas, and quite another to swim through a hurricane. Only the sunniest optimist could have hoped for survivors from Cedar Island’s herds. “I’m thinking the way the wind was blowing, it was extremely hard to keep your head above water, swimming when you have waves crashing over,” said Pam Flynn, a retired kindergarten teacher and a Down Easter since 1972, who went looking for surviving animals. “I feel like their last few moments were torture and pain and fear. It was heartbreaking.”

A month passed. Wind and waves quickly filled in the channels created by the storm, but what was formerly the southern end of North Core Banks lingered on as a separate island: Middle Core Banks, which would stand alone for two years. One day in early October, members of a Cape Lookout resource-management team hopped on their all-terrain vehicles for a routine sweep up Middle Core Banks—almost daily, they’d search for sea turtle and bird nests in need of protection from the fond American pastime of driving on beaches. This time they spotted something else: the tracks of some large animal or other. They were too big to belong to a deer, and, with two toes instead of a hoof, could not have been made by a horse. They had to be the prints of a cow. A Cedar Island cow.

“Initially,” West said of being informed about the prints, “I did not believe it.”

Then the resource team sent him photos of the tracks, and West knew he had to see this survivor cow with his own eyes.

“It just renewed my faith that there are good things in life, something at the end of the rainbow,” Flynn said. “You know, a little sign that we’ll be OK, we’ll get through this and go on.”

West grew up on a ranch near Temple, Texas, and had experience tracking cattle. It seemed like he might need it. In the days after the prints were discovered, the cow that left them proved elusive; to West’s knowledge, no one from the National Park Service had yet seen it. Cedar Island cattle are often active at night, moving swiftly like pale apparitions, and although Middle and North Core Banks are so narrow in spots that you can walk from the sound side to the open Atlantic in three minutes, much of the land is a labyrinth of ponds, marshes, and fly-infested thickets. Additionally, resource crews had spotted hoofprints on small adjacent islands—despite the recent seagoing drama, it appeared that the cow was now making short water crossings too. “No fear of swimming, none at all,” West said, with admiration in his voice.

In the end, he found the animal by accident. West had taken a boat out to Long Point on North Core Banks, home to a cluster of rustic wooden cabins that, in more ordinary times, the Park Service rented to visitors. Dorian’s storm surge had razed two heavily fortified structures that provided electricity and treated water to the wind-battered huts. And there it stood, chewing grass—a dune-colored cow among the dunes, with a coat like gold sand blown onto white sand. It was well muscled, a little heavy, basically an ordinary cow.

“ ‘I’ll be damned. There is a cow here,’ ” West recalled saying aloud. “Nothing like your own eyes seeing it.”

At the sight of West, the cow’s eyes got big. Then it ran away.

West knew that he would need to relocate the cow, both for its own sake and to preserve the wild habitat of the park. For the moment, though, the Cape Lookout staff were too busy assessing and repairing Dorian’s damage to deal with a wayward bovine. Meanwhile, rumors of the survivor began to trickle out as visitors returned to the Core Banks and saw tracks. Pam Flynn and her friend Mike Carroll were among them. “We kept going back and back,” said Flynn, until they lucked into a sighting. “We were so excited to see those cows.”

Not one cow, then, but cows: three in all. There was the classic bleached-blonde that West had seen; another one with large, light-brown spots, like a map of the ancient continents; and a pale young adult, possibly the spotted cow’s calf. Somehow they had survived, found each other, and formed a compact herd. “It just renewed my faith that there are good things in life, something at the end of the rainbow,” Flynn said. “You know, a little sign that we’ll be OK, we’ll get through this and go on.”

On November 12, the Charlotte Observer broke the story of the survivor cows, and a media circus ensued on Cedar Island. One unfortunate local figure, wrongly described in the press as the cattle’s owner or caretaker (they have neither), had reporters knocking on his doors and chasing him up his driveway. On television especially, the tale of survival was presented as a quirky good-news story. The Virginian-Pilot would go on to call the cows “the cattle that enraptured a nation.” 

The hook of the story was its element of surprise: We see cows as stupid, physically awkward, mildly comical brutes, not heroic fighters. The media made heavy use of puns, of course, giving the life-and-death story a chuckling, children’s-book quality. Hurricane Dorian had come ashore “like a cattle rustler in the night” and “corralled” the animals. The cows’ survival was an “udder miracle.” An awestruck Raleigh News and Observer tweeted, “Four miles on the moooooove? Who knew cows could swim that well?”

To estimate how far the cows had paddled during their ordeal, journalists seemed to have measured the shortest distance between Cedar Island and the Core Banks using digital tools like Google Maps. Most put the swim at four miles; NBC preferred the precision of 3.39 miles. But when Alfredo Aretxabaleta, an oceanographer working with the USGS, saw one of these straight-line measures, he spied a problem. “During a storm, I just don’t think that’s the path they would take,” Aretxabaleta said. He suspected their journey was longer—much longer.

Aretxabaleta studies the trajectories of objects adrift, using computer models of wind, tides, and currents. He sometimes throws trackable equipment into the sea to float where it will; the science has been jokingly called driftology, but it has repercussions for our understanding of how climate change could affect coastal erosion, where oil spills and other contaminants might flow, and where to carry out maritime search and rescue work. “In a way,” Aretxabaleta said, “the case of the cows is a kind of search and rescue.”

Coincidentally, Aretxabaleta grew up in Spain’s Basque Country, on a farm where the cattle took dips in an irrigation pond. (His assessment: “They are not good swimmers.”) After Hurricane Dorian, Aretxabaleta in his spare time began to model the probable trajectory of the Cedar Island survivor cows once they were swept out to sea. What emerged was far different from the image of cows taking the shortest route across the Core Sound.

In the context of Aretxabaleta’s model, the sea, in the gray pall of first light as the cows are carried away, is a chaos of riptides, breakers, and blowing spray. With the cows’ eyes only inches above water, land is quickly lost from sight among swells as high as ten feet; from the perspective of a single cow, it’s nearly impossible to keep eyes on the rest of the bobbing herd. Each is fighting not so much to swim as to remain afloat. The currents and tides, made stronger by the force of the storm, are in charge.

The animals are first pushed rapidly southeast along the coast of Cedar Island, then into the center of the Core Sound, where they’re gradually drawn close to the powerful outflow at Ophelia Inlet. But as the tide changes from ebb to flood, Ophelia no longer sucks the animals toward it, but pushes them away. With the ocean now flowing into the sound, the herd are swept back to the north. At last the tide switches again, and Core Sound has many dozen new channels through which to send water back to the Atlantic. Like in a tub with many holes, though, it’s the large ones that have the most pull. Any animals still alive are drawn again toward Ophelia Inlet.

The prospect of passing through any channel would be a fearful one. Surfers sometimes dig cut-throughs between the sea and fresh water that has pooled behind dunes; the flow generated in such canals can resemble a river rapid, with waves large enough to surf. The Core Sound is not much calmer. After the cattle are washed off Cedar Island, the wind doesn’t drop below gale-force for seven hours, and white-capped waves linger much longer. Though the Core Sound has shallow areas such as sandbars, Aretxabaleta accounted for them in his simulations and says it’s unlikely that any cow found footing for long, if at all, during its journey.

His model explains how the cows and horses that were found dead on South Core Banks ended up where they did, flushed through Ophelia Inlet and then strewn to the south by the open Atlantic. By his estimation, none of the survivor cows swam four miles on a straight-line path. In fact, Aretxabaleta said, the probable routes taken by the cows, whether living or dead, range from 28.5 to nearly 40 miles. At the low end, that’s considerably greater than the distance across the English Channel. It’s more than ten times what swimmers complete in an Ironman triathlon. By Aretxabaleta’s measure, the absolute shortest period a cow would have been in the water is 7.5 hours; the longest is 25 hours.

“If it had been humans, it would have been incredible—I mean, like Robinson Crusoe,” he said. “The fact that those three cows survived is something close to a miracle.”

Suppose we didn’t settle for miracles, much less the “udderly miraculous.” Suppose we refused to consign the three cows’ survival to fate and chance. There are other factors we might consider, each of which drifts toward reckonings with how humans interact with bovines.

The first possibility is that the Cedar Island cows were able to endure their ordeal because they were a breed apart, not metaphorically but literally. Blood type and DNA tests suggest the feral horses that live on Cedar Island are likely descendants of Spanish colonial horses, which first came ashore in the United States with Juan Ponce de León in 1521. The cows may have Spanish colonial blood too; no one knows, though, because their genetic makeup has yet to be studied. What’s certain is that cattle have been abandoned or shipwrecked along North Carolina’s coastline since at least 1584. The Cedar Island cattle could have more than four centuries of heritage.

Spanish colonial cattle are different from the commercial breeds that predominate today. “They’re long-lived, they’re good mothers, they’ll eat things other cattle won’t,” said Jeannette Beranger, senior program manager at the Livestock Conservancy in Pittsboro, North Carolina. “And they’re smart. The locals will tell you, ‘Be careful. They’ll eat your lunch!’ ”

They are also notoriously tough. In the days before the Civil War, Spanish-descended Pineywoods cattle, for example, were known for heat tolerance, disease resistance, and a capacity to live in landscapes too harsh for commercial breeds. The rugged nature of the Pineywoods cows resulted in a markedly different relationship between them and their owners than we see in today’s industrial agriculture. Some ranchers had so much respect for their cattle that they would not tolerate the use of dogs to harass the animals during roundup. Others felt it unfair and demeaning to confine the cows with fences.  It was only in the 1950s, with commercial feed and motorized equipment used to clear and mow pastures, that the Pineywoods herds began to fade, though a small number of farmers in the Deep South breed them to this day.

Phillip Sponenberg, a veterinary scientist who has spent 50 years searching for the purest-blood remnants of Spanish livestock in the United States, sees signs that the Cedar Island cows share at least a trace of that ancestry. “Some of them are basically white, but they have dark ears, eyes, noses, and feet. That’s a fairly unique color pattern and, in North America, often of Spanish origin,” he said. Some of the Cedar Island cattle also have horns that twist like a Spanish colonial cow’s.

Several experts I spoke to suggested that the fact that any cows at all survived the Dorian surge is clear evidence that they aren’t ordinary cattle. Most agreed that no modern breed would have made it through such a disaster. In this there is recognition of how we’ve degraded cattle as animals, turning them weak and needy. It also feels too convenient. It allows us to duck a more uncomfortable possibility, which is that these animals that most of us readily eat may have made it through the storm by drawing on the same internal resources that humans do in extreme circumstances. Not just a hard-wired survival instinct, that is, but a fierce desire to live—one strong enough to sustain hour upon hour of mortal struggle.

Pain and stress, and especially their severity, may be more challenging to recognize in cows, since as prey animals they evolved to avoid outward signs of weakness, which can attract predators. Cows are stoics; they tough it out.

I should pause here to say that I eat beef. I put cows’ milk on my cereal. I have leather shoes and belts in my wardrobe. Still, like many other people, I recognize that rearing and slaughtering cattle raises issues that are ethically complicated, contradictory, and sometimes deeply weird. None of this, however, is what led me into the terrain of cow psychology. Instead, I simply wanted to know why one cow might survive swimming through a hurricane while another might not.

Remarkably for an animal domesticated thousands of years before the dawn of civilization, the scientific study of cows distinct from their roles as livestock is mostly a recent pursuit. When Mónica Padilla de la Torre reviewed existing research on cow communication more than a decade ago, she was surprised to discover that almost nothing had been done on the subject—which is why she started from scratch, watching cattle through field binoculars like a Dian Fossey of the rangelands. “I think we have a moral responsibility to know these animals that we have lived with for so long,” she said.

For a 2017 paper, Lori Marino, a biopsychologist, reviewed every study she could find on cow psychology. Again, the trove was not impressive. There’s a lot to learn about these animals,” said Marino. “There is resistance to coming to terms with who they actually are, their cognitive and social and emotional complexities.”

The problem, of course, is that those complexities could upend our relationship with the species. Marino describes the prevailing way we think about cows as an ideology, one that frames them as dull creatures that are fine with their lot in life, even if that life includes crowding, untreated lameness, being burned with a red-hot iron, and having their calves taken away—practices common in modern industrial farming.

In Marino’s review of the available research, however, she found that cows are “very sensitive to touch,” and that they respond to injury or the threat of it in ways similar to dogs, cats, and humans: by avoiding causes of pain, by limping, groaning, and grinding their teeth, and by evidencing higher levels of stress hormones in their blood. On the other hand, pain and stress, and especially their severity, may be more challenging to recognize in cows, since they evolved to avoid showing signs of weakness, which can attract predators. Cows are stoics; they tough it out.

Though data on cow psychology is limited, I still found it surprising. It was somehow troubling to learn that cows readily recognize one another and are able to distinguish cattle of any breed from other sorts of animals. Cattle are able to navigate and memorize physical mazes with flying colors, outperforming hens, rats, and even cats, and leading researchers to conclude in the study that “the problems were too simple.” When cows were tested in more complex mazes, one in five succeeded at the toughest challenges, and could recall how to navigate the maze when retested six weeks later.

Here we enter territory more meaningful to the question of how those three cows might have survived swimming through a hurricane, since mastering mazes involves not just intelligence but also motivation. It’s true that only one in five cows solved the difficult mazes, but that may be because they dislike being alone and are fearful of places with many potential hiding places for predators, such as a maze. Throughout the tests, some of the cattle, despite a food reward for completion, appeared to resist, give up, or become fearful. Others were bolder and more curious. “This may,” the researchers reported, “suggest the possibility of the involvement of personality.”

With cows, some of the clearest expressions of apparent personal motivation are found in near-death escapes from slaughterhouses. In one of the most famous examples, a 1,050-pound cow broke loose from a Cincinnati facility in 2002. After jumping a six-foot fence, the cream-colored bovine was seen on a nearby side street, was subsequently spotted on a major parkway, then finally escaped into a wooded city park. Over the next 11 days, it evaded the SPCA, traps, tranquilizer darts, even thermal imaging from a police helicopter, before finally being captured.

The animals we eat are nameless, yet escaped cattle that make the news are often rewarded with names. Once that happens, they are unlikely to be returned to industrial production. In this instance, the cow was dubbed Cincinnati Freedom, and lived out her days at a rescue shelter where she was standoffish with people but bonded with three other slaughterhouse escapees. When “Cinci” was dying in 2008, her cohorts attacked the car of an attending veterinarian.

The prevailing ideology, to borrow Marino’s term, has been to explain away cattle’s responses to the world around them as exclusively innate or instinctive. By this standard, when the herd of cows was swept off Cedar Island into a violent ocean, survival would have been determined by luck and physical strength.

If individual cows have personalities, perhaps not as complex as our own, but no less singular, then that assessment may need to change. Once the storm had washed the herd into the ocean, some of the cattle, stricken by panic, would have quickly succumbed to water inhalation or exhaustion. Others, dragged farther and farther from land by the powerful currents of the seiche, might gradually have lost the spirit to fight on. But is it conceivable that three would keep going, drawing on exceptional mental toughness to push their bodies far beyond anything they’d endured before, in order to survive?

“I would use ‘willpower,’ ” Marino said. “I wouldn’t hesitate to use that term.”

No one will ever be certain exactly what the cows went through. Did the two that were later seen ashore together also make the swim that way? We don’t know. But we can hypothesize that the cows in the water would have tried to stay together. Studies show that even being able to see another cow reduces their stress. Together, they may have faced calamity with less fear. Perhaps that alone made the difference.

We can picture the three cows desperately blinking their eyes against the waves and the wind-driven spray, enduring the creeping cold in their bodies, the gradual ache and depletion in their muscles, the thirst and hunger after what may have been hours at sea, the maddening whine of the wind. Then finally seeing, or perhaps first smelling, land once again. Hearing the roar of the fearsome inlets and fighting to avoid being sucked into one.

Their hooves making contact with the sand.

Scrabbling to gain footing.

Surging onto the land as the water rushed between their legs, then dragged back toward the violent ocean.

Finally walking free, with a feeling like profound relief to be alive.

The question of what happened next can perhaps be told through another tale of animal survival. When Hurricane Fran struck in 1996, the storm surge that hit New Bern, North Carolina, flooded the offices of an auto salvage business to a depth of 16 inches. Inside was a junkyard dog named Petey, who stood ten inches tall. After the flood retreated, Petey’s owner found his dog alive but exhausted. When he saw that Petey was soaked with muddy, oily water up to its neck, he surmised that his pet had dog-paddled inside the building for as long as eight hours to survive. Here’s what animals do after such an ordeal: Petey slept for two days straight.

Though little used this way today, we do have a word for bovines that roam free like mustangs. They are mavericks. The term has roots in one Samuel A. Maverick of Texas, whose unbranded cattle got loose into the landscape around 1850. In one version of the story, the force that scattered his cows was a hurricane.

It’s fitting, then, that on November 21, 2019, it was the duty of six cowhands—complete with lassos, chaps, and spurs—to track down the three mavericks on North Core Banks. One of the men carried a rifle loaded with tranquilizer darts and Jeff West drove a Park Service ATV next to the cowhands astride their horses. The plan had always been to get the cows home, said West. That fact had not prevented fierce debate from breaking out online.

“Some people thought we should just kill them, be done with it,” West said. “Some people complained, ‘Why are we spending taxpayer dollars on this?’ Heard that more than once. Some people said we ought to just leave them alone, let them exist out there on the banks.”

Many assumed that the cows had survived only to be sent back to owners who would fatten them for slaughter. On the Cape Lookout National Seashore’s Facebook page, a theme emerged that the cows deserved to live; through baptism by flood, they had transcended their place in the scheme of things. “If they have to be removed then take them to a sanctuary. They deserve life. Do not turn those babies into meat after what they’ve survived!” wrote Misty Romano. Don Riggs of Asbury, New Jersey, wrote, “Really? Why not just bypass the farm and go straight to the slaughterhouse?” Judy Cook of Oak Island, North Carolina, simply declared the cows “as cool as the horses.”

Modern views about cows are messy. Many of us, if not most, seem capable of holding somewhere in our heads the idea that cows are sentient beings that we should have compassion for, but also of suppressing that idea enough that we allow them to suffer cruel conditions along the way to being killed for our benefit. Jessica Due, senior director of rescue and animal care for Farm Sanctuary, an organization devoted to ending the agricultural exploitation of livestock, tells a story that exemplifies the ways this can play out. The sanctuary has been called more than once by the same man to come and rescue an animal from a slaughterhouse. The man is the owner of the slaughterhouse. He calls on those rare occasions when a cow gives birth while being processed. This is where he draws the line; he strongly prefers not to kill these mother cows. Otherwise, he oversees the deaths of cattle on an almost daily basis. 

Curiously, just as research is emerging in support of the idea that cows are something more than most of us thought they were, they are also under scrutiny as environmental polluters. Cattle are blamed for producing 9 percent of global greenhouse gas emissions, including their famously methane-heavy belching and flatulence. Cows swimming in a hurricane: It could be a Hokusai print for our times. As a result, progressives and vegans look forward to a future with far fewer cows—to save the planet, to protect the animals from our cruelty, or both at once. Many in the industrial beef industry, meanwhile, remain reluctant even to concede that cows are meaningfully sentient. In the 10,000 years of human-cow relations, it’s possible that cattle have never had as few supporters as they have today.

Stephen Broadwell, the leader of the cowhands trotting down North Core Banks nearly three months after Hurricane Dorian, is one of those supporters. Broadwell is russet tanned and often wears a cowboy hat, but that is where the stereotypes end. He was raised in corn, tobacco, and soybean country, where North Carolina’s Piedmont Plateau meets the Coastal Plain. Yet he dreamed of being a rancher. “It’s one of those things—I guess it’s born into you,” he said. At the age of 13, he took a summer job on an 80,000-acre ranch in southern Colorado, and that was that. He was a cowboy.

After graduating early from high school, he earned a veterinary assistant’s degree and soon hired on at 3R Ranch Outfitters in the foothills of the Wet Mountains southwest of Pueblo. It was his immersion in an approach to ranching that attempts to mimic natural systems. “Our neighbors were thinking that we had this magical paradise for a ranch around them, and it was just the management practices they’d put in place years ago,” Broadwell told me. “That really got my motor going.”

The company he runs today, Ranch Solutions, might best be described as a holistic ranching consultancy. Broadwell will come to your property and do pretty much anything you need, including building a house from scratch and putting your first cows out to pasture. He has one rule, however: He will not help you raise more cattle than your land can sustain. He has photos of his team riding through the lush, knee-high grass of a client’s property. It’s a field that had already been grazed, but with the cattle moved off before it was eaten to the ground. The pasture was fertilized by manure and supplemented by cover crops that rebuilt nitrogen in the soil during winter, leading to grassland that sequestered more carbon. A cattle ranch, as Broadwell would have it, is an ecosystem.

The claim that holistic management can achieve this state is hotly contested, but research has lately suggested that yes, cattle can live and die without contributing to climate change. (And let it be noted that there is a strong pot-calling-out-the-kettle factor here, given that the average American human’s carbon footprint is twice that of the average American cow’s.) But we need to raise fewer of them, graze them in ways that mimic natural systems, and keep them off land better suited to food crops.

The future of cattle farming, in other words, may look a lot like the Cedar Island herd. Here are cows that can survive heat that would wither modern breeds, in a landscape where nothing we farm will grow. Here are cows adapted to eat what almost nothing else can. “It’s what a billy goat would not want to eat,” Broadwell said. Here are cows that are disease resistant, drink brackish water, defend themselves from predators, and generally require very little in the way of carbon-intensive coochie-cooing. They are the kind of cows that in the past demanded our respect, and one day might again.

“I grew up with stories from my older relatives about working cows in the river breaks”—steep cliff and canyon country—“and how they were more like deer than cows,” said Jeff West, remembering his youth in Texas. “We ran some cows out in North Fort Hood military reservation, and we only messed with them one time of year, during the roundup. Some of those cows were pretty feisty. But not like these Cedar Island cows. I’ve never run across any cows like these cows.”

When Ranch Solutions and West arrived on North Core Banks for the roundup, they had a plan to haze the survivor cows out of the marsh grass, which grows in muck that’s sometimes deep enough to swallow a horse to its belly. Then there was the chaparral. “Thick is a poor word to describe it,” West said. “It is intolerable of somebody passing through.” It took a long time to locate the cows, and then to work them out into the open so that each could be shot with a dart. Sedated, two of the three became pliant enough to be led back to a trailer that had been ferried to the island.

The final cow, the first to be found after the hurricane—alone—did not become pliant. She fled north, managing to hole up in especially dense and convoluted terrain. The team could just see where she was hiding, and managed to hit her with another dart. Then they waited, sure she would gradually go to sleep. She did not. At last the cowhands tried approaching her.

“And she took off,” West said.

Just up the coast was the Long Point camp where West had first spotted the cow a few weeks after the storm. The buildings still stood empty. Wind sucked and blew between weathered wooden walls. Screen doors creaked on rusty hinges. Hooves squeaked in the sand. It was in every way like the setting for a Spaghetti Western shootout. When one of the riders saw a clean line of fire, the crack from his gun echoed among the shacks, then faded into the roar of the tumbling surf.

With three darts’ worth of sedation flooding her system and blood trickling down her pale coat, the cow somehow ran again. She ran out of the camp. She ran up the beach. After half a mile, she couldn’t run anymore. Then she walked. “It was O.J. Simpson all over again. It was the slow-speed chase,” West said. “It was me and all the cowboys at a walking pace, going along until that cow stopped.”

When she finally did, she stared them down. “Like, ‘Try me,’ ” West said. The cowhands closed in, and one last time she managed to run. Then they got ropes on her and brought her down.

From there the job got easier. With the sun on the horizon, they worked a tarp under her prone body and sledded her down the beach. She came to while walled in by the trailer, her fellow survivor cows beside her. Given hay and fresh water, all three refused it.

The next morning, Ranch Solutions ferried the cows back across the Core Sound, drove to Cedar Island’s northern cape, and backed onto the beach. It was Broadwell who did the honors of swinging open the trailer’s gate. The cows stared at the sudden possibility of escape. They made cautious steps toward the opening. Then they burst from their confines. They ran—galloped—down the sand. Heads up, ears forward, they seemed instantly to sense that they were home and free.

On Cedar Island, the return of the cattle brought a sense of normalcy. When I asked one shopkeeper how islanders felt about the cattle now, she responded instantly. “Fiercely protective,” she said. No one I spoke to on Cedar Island knew of anyone who’d witnessed the three cows’ reunion with the remaining herd—the four animals that hadn’t been swept away by the storm in the first place. But according to Padilla, it likely involved muzzling, low and gentle moos, and gamboling. It might also, finally, have involved grief.

People who’ve looked closely at this issue, such as Barbara J. King, an emeritus professor of anthropology at the College of William and Mary and the author of How Animals Grieve, think the blow would have struck hardest when the survivors came home to find the herd decimated. They might have searched the range for missing herd mates and bellowed in an effort to make contact. King, choosing her words carefully, said, “The potential is incredibly strong for the awareness of loss and feeling of distress that would meet my criteria for grief.”

Yet home also brought a different kind of surprise. The cow that had fought so hard to avoid capture by the cowhands turned out to be pregnant. Could that have played a role in her survival? If a cow has a will to fight for its life, might it also fight for the life of its unborn calf? “Biologically, it wouldn’t be strange to assume that,” Padilla said. “She wants the calf to survive.”

Two months after being returned to Cedar Island, the pregnant cow gave birth to a healthy calf, as blond as the dunes. It was born, as if to mark what it went through in utero, with one brown eye and one blue. The calf was not given a name, but the mother was: Dori. The name is not an allusion to the character in Finding Nemo who sings of how, in hard times, we must keep swimming, swimming, swimming. No: She is named after Hurricane Dorian.

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Alone at the Edge of the World

Alone at the Edge of the World

Susie Goodall wanted to circumnavigate the globe in her sailboat without stopping. She didn’t bargain for what everyone else wanted.

The Atavist Magazine, No. 131

Cassidy Randall’s work has appeared in Rolling Stone, National Geographic, Forbes, and The New York Times, among other publications. Follow her on Twitter @cassidyjrandall.

Editor: Jonah Ogles
Art Director: Ed Johnson
Copy Editor: Sean Cooper
Fact Checker: Alison Van Houten
Graphics: Kate Francis/Brownbird Design
Photographs: Courtesy of Susie Goodall

Published in September 2022.

In the heaving seas of the Southern Ocean, a small, red-hulled sailboat tossed and rolled, at the mercy of the tail end of a tempest. The boat’s mast was sheared away, its yellow sails sunk deep in the sea. Amid the wreckage of the cabin, Susie Goodall sloshed through water seeping in from the deck, which had cracked when a great wave somersaulted the boat end over end. She was freezing, having been lashed by ocean, rain, and wind. Her hands were raw and bloody. Except for the boat, her companion and home for the 15,000 miles she’d sailed over the past five months, Goodall was alone.

The 29-year-old British woman had spent three years readying for this voyage. It demanded more from her than she could have imagined. She loved the planning of it, rigging her boat for a journey that might mean not stepping on land for nearly a year. But she was unprepared for the attention it drew—for the fact that everyone wanted a piece of her story.  

The thing was, her story was a fantastic one. Goodall was the youngest of the 18 skippers resurrecting the Golden Globe Race, a so-called “voyage for madmen,” and the only woman. Last run 50 years prior, the race entailed sailing solo and nonstop around the world in a small boat without modern technology. The media were hungry for it, and people were drawn to Goodall in particular: Here was a blue-eyed, blond, petite woman among the romantic mariners and weathered adventurers. All of them were chasing the limits of what humans are capable of physically and mentally, but much of the coverage singled out Goodall, who wanted no part of the sensationalism. She had been a painfully shy child and was a private and introverted adult. The fervor surrounding her participation in the Golden Globe made her feel like a caricature, an unwilling icon. All she wanted was to sail, to search out the connection sailors had with the sea before satellite phones and GPS. 

When the race began, she was almost able to leave the attention behind. There were quiet days gliding south in the calm Atlantic; ecstatic mornings surfing swell in the Southern Ocean; the sudden appearance of a magnificent sunset through persistent clouds. But the spotlight tailed Goodall like a subsurface current. Now, after two days of brutal storm, she knew the world was watching to see whether she would survive.


In 1966, an English bookstore owner named Francis Chichester riveted the world when he set out alone in a boat to circumnavigate the globe. He wasn’t the first to do so; Canadian-American Joshua Slocum completed the first known solo circumnavigation in 1898, and the feat may have been achieved long before but gone unrecorded. Yet the 65-year-old Chichester chose a dangerous route—one that no one, according to sailing lore, had ever attempted alone: From England he would sail south in the Atlantic, along the coast of Africa to the bottom of the world. There he would pass under the Cape of Good Hope, Australia’s southern coast, and South America’s treacherous Cape Horn before sailing north across the Atlantic again. The remote lower reaches of the Indian, Pacific, and Atlantic where Chichester would spend much of his voyage are known collectively as the Southern Ocean. The region is a vast field of sea unobstructed by land in any direction, with enormous waves, riotous gales, and dramatic skies. Stories abound about ships meeting their end in the Southern Ocean and heroes enduring impossible circumstances. 

Chichester stopped only once on his journey, at the halfway mark in Australia, to perform major repairs to his 53-foot boat, which had been battered by three and a half months on the open sea. When he stepped ashore in England nine months after he’d left, he was greeted like a rock star. Queen Elizabeth II knighted him nearly on the spot. Meanwhile, fellow seafarers understood that, after Chichester’s feat, one great ocean challenge remained: sailing solo around the world without stopping. No one knew if a boat could stand up to 30,000 uninterrupted miles at sea, or what might happen to a human mind so long without company. Nine different men decided to find out. 

They ranged from a former British submarine commander to storied French and Italian sailors to thrill seekers with little seagoing experience. GPS hadn’t been invented, satellite communications and solar panels were scarcely commonplace, and computing had yet to transform weather forecasting. So the men would sail with the accessible technology of the era: a radio, a windup chronometer, and a barometer. They would catch rain for fresh water and navigate with a sextant and the stars.

The Sunday Times decided to brand the men’s individual attempts a formal race, announcing the Golden Globe in March 1968. The event had virtually no requirements or regulations, as the competitors were already planning their voyages, each with its own launch date. But in offering a trophy for the first man to complete the challenge—to incentivize urgency—and a cash prize for the fastest time—to incentivize competition—The Times instantly created one of the greatest adventure stories in history. 

Only one man finished the race. Twenty-nine-year-old Brit Robin Knox-Johnston’s heavy, 32-foot boat Suhaili had been considered a long shot. During the voyage, Suhaili’s water tanks polluted, her sails tore, and the self-steering—a primitive autopilot system consisting of a wind vane that attached to the boat’s rudder—fell apart. The radio malfunctioned two and a half months in; Knox-Johnston had no way of calling for help should trouble have arisen. He jumped overboard multiple times to perform underwater repairs, once shooting a circling shark before diving in. While rigging near impossible fixes to his equipment, he splashed battery acid in his eye and stitched his mustache to a sail while repairing it. When against all odds he reappeared in the harbor of Falmouth on April 22, 1969, after nearly a year at sea, Knox-Johnston sailed into legend. 

The other eight competitors sank, abandoned the journey, or worse. Alex Carozzo bowed out in Portugal, vomiting blood from a peptic ulcer. John Ridgway surrendered to intense loneliness and a poorly constructed boat, exiting the race near Brazil. Nigel Tetley barely survived 80-foot waves in the Southern Ocean, only to have his boat sink a thousand miles from the finish. A storm destroyed Bill King’s mast, and he ended his journey in Cape Town. Favored winner Bernard Moitessier, a sea mystic who practiced yoga naked on deck, was well in the lead after passing Cape Horn. But, imagining the glare of the international spotlight that surely awaited him, he used a slingshot to hurl a message onto the deck of a passing ship, informing the world that he was abandoning the race “to save my soul,” and continuing on to the tropics. 

And then there was Donald Crowhurst. He sailed slow circles around the Atlantic in his rushed build of a leaky boat, transmitting fake radio reports of progress in hopes of fooling the world into believing he was winning. His log told the story of a man slowly going insane under the pressures of deception and monstrous debt to his sponsor, until his transmissions went silent. His trimaran was later found floating on the waves, its skipper having slipped into the ocean in an apparent suicide. 

It would be half a century before anyone attempted the Golden Globe again.

Susie Goodall’s father was obsessed with the sea first. Stephen Goodall learned to sail as a teenager and taught his Danish wife, Birgitte Howells, to sail too. “Sailing is one of those things where people either have a yearning to get back on the water, or they have no particular desire to,” he told me. 

Susie and her older brother, Tim, began sailing and racing small boats on a lake near where they grew up outside Birmingham. In 2004, when Goodall was 15, English sailor Ellen MacArthur set out to break the record for fastest nonstop solo circumnavigation; Susie and Tim followed her journey. After that, Susie read countless books about single-handed sailing and the noble explorers, salty adventurers, and sages who entered into a relationship with the sea as if it were a living thing. Maybe one day she, too, would sail around the world. 

When Susie was 17, she told her parents she wanted to attend university, and they took her to visit several campuses. One day she announced, “I’m not going to go to university. I’m going to the Isle of Wight to become a sailing instructor.” Yes, her father thought. That’s what she should be doing.

Susie got her instruction certificates and taught sailing courses. She also worked on superyachts, delivering boats to port for their wealthy owners or crewing them while the owners were on board. She loved long ocean passages and taking night watches to memorize the patterns of the stars. But the yachts were so mechanized that her work felt like operating a computer. She marveled at stories of sailors once keenly in tune with the ocean and the boats they helmed: Ancient Polynesians, for instance, found their way by swell direction and the flight patterns of certain birds. She taught her students celestial navigation, but there was always backup—a GPS or their smartphone could be turned on at any time. 

Susie voyaged to Iceland, Greenland, Svalbard, and the Baltic, and rose through the ranks of instructors and crew to become a skipper, the small-boat equivalent of a ship captain, in an overwhelmingly male industry. Still, she doubted her abilities. She rarely felt pressured by her crewmates to prove her worth, but that hardly mattered; with few female role models to look to, her internal critic was more than happy to pick up the slack. Susie found herself wondering: Am I smart enough or strong enough? Am I good enough to do this job?

It didn’t help when, in her early twenties, she voiced her dream of sailing around the world to her boyfriend. “Well, that’s just ridiculous,” he replied. “You can’t sail around the world by yourself.”

Susie read countless books about single-handed sailing and the noble explorers, salty adventurers, and sages who entered into a relationship with the sea as if it were a living thing.

In July 2015, Goodall, then 25, was teaching in Iceland when one of her crewmates mentioned that a rerun of the Golden Globe was in the works. When her boat came ashore, she used a computer in her tiny hotel to look up the details. And there it was: The race was set to launch in 2018, the 50th anniversary of the original voyage. Don McIntyre, a decorated Australian adventurer who’d grown up idolizing Robin Knox-Johnston, was masterminding the event. On the edge of 60, McIntyre knew that if he didn’t re-create his hero’s journey now, he never would. And if he wanted to do it, he figured a few others might, too. 

Boats would be limited to the same class as the intrepid Suhaili, between 32 and 36 feet. Sailors would have to navigate with paper charts and sextant, catch rain for water, handwrite their logs, and communicate by radio. No outside assistance would be allowed: no physical contact with anyone else, no help with repairs, no supply deliveries. The specifications couldn’t have been more different than those of the only other solo, nonstop, round-the-world race on offer, the Vendée Globe. That event, which took place every four years, was high-tech, high-speed, and high-cost; the boats alone were worth $300,000 to $5 million. But the new Golden Globe seemed more about the journey than the competition. Goodall downloaded the application and sent in the $3,000 entry deposit.

Telling her parents wasn’t easy. She called her mother—her parents were by now divorced—first. Howells knew something was up just by the sound of her daughter’s breath. 

“What’s the matter?” Howells asked in her light Danish accent before Goodall could speak.

“Nothing, nothing, all is good,” said Goodall. 

Howells waited.

“There’s this race,” Goodall said. “Round the world. Robin Knox-Johnston has done it before. I’ve applied to join it.” She didn’t mention that the race would be nonstop, and run solo without modern technology. She hoped to drip-feed the more worrying details to her family. What Goodall didn’t know was that Howells, on her first sailing trip with Goodall’s father, had read The Strange Last Voyage of Donald Crowhurst. The book recounted the original Golden Globe and Crowhurst’s haunting end. Goodall’s mother knew exactly what her daughter would face. And she also knew from her own experience that the sea offered a connection to something greater and deeper, something perhaps beyond words. 

“I’ve been waiting for you to do something like this,” Howells said. 

In the ensuing months, Goodall didn’t tell many people that she planned to sail the Golden Globe. When it did come up, she dreaded a particular question: What made her think she was capable of sailing around the world alone? She had no response to this. It was true that the farthest she’d sailed single-handed was four miles across the Solent, a strait between the Isle of Wight and mainland Britain. Still, she knew she was a strong sailor and could cope with being alone. 

In truth, that she didn’t know whether she’d make it was part of the reason she wanted to try. She wasn’t content to merely read about the size of the Southern Ocean’s waves, the ferocity of its wind. She wanted to feel those forces, face them on her own. Only then would she know what she was capable of. 

Sailors would have to navigate with paper charts and sextant, catch rain for water, handwrite their logs, and communicate by radio. No outside assistance would be allowed.

Interest in the new Golden Globe came fast and heavy. Dozens of people wanted to run it. McIntyre eventually sacrificed his own entry to devote himself to overseeing such a large event and securing the necessary funding. 

The first meeting of participants was held in London in December 2015. There Goodall was introduced to Barry Pickthall, a former yachting correspondent for The Times who had written dozens of books on sailing. McIntyre had enlisted Pickthall to publicize the race in hopes of gaining a major sponsor. Pickthall was a teenager when Knox-Johnston went around the world, and remembered following the voyage. Of the rerun, he said, “In the end we had 18 starters, with 18 different reasons for going, and very few had aspirations to win it. That wasn’t what they were doing it for at all. They wanted to prove something to themselves, to other people, or just do something they’d always dreamed about.”

In Goodall, Pickthall saw a golden opportunity. Indeed, Goodall remembered him telling her as much the first time they met. He said that having a woman in the race made it more glamorous and he wanted to get The Sunday Times to feature her. “We’re going to dangle you like a puppet for the media so we can attract a sponsor for the race,” Goodall recalled him saying. She was immediately put off. During my conversations with him, Pickthall disputed Goodall’s characterization of their meeting, but conceded that he knew she had media appeal. “It was the sex side of things! Pretty girl sailing around the world,” he said. “And I made the most of it.” 

In A Voyage for Madmen, a book about the 1968 race, author Peter Nichols writes about the “Ulysses factor” in human mythology, “the lone hero figure in society, the rare character who by his or her exploits stimulates powerful mass excitement.” The archetype encompasses a set of characteristics—imagination, endurance, selfishness, discipline, courage, and social instability. Francis Chichester was such a figure, Nichols writes, as were many of the other original Golden Globe sailors. Goodall didn’t fit the Ulysses mold in many ways. It would be difficult to call her selfish, and although she’s an introvert, she’s socially adept, with valued connections to friends and family. But she was a woman at an unprecedented time of women’s empowerment, when the public was hungry for stories of lone heroines who’d found success in male-dominated arenas.

When Goodall told her mother about what Pickthall had said, Howells was surprised. Back in 1989, when she’d just had her daughter, Howells followed Tracy Edwards’s history-making circumnavigation during the Whitbread Round the World Race. Edwards had worked as a cook in the 1985 edition of the race, and she was treated like a servant or worse. One crew member wrote “For sale: one case of beer” on the back of her thermal underwear. After that, Edwards refinanced her house to buy a yacht she named Maiden, and she assembled an all-female crew for the 1989 Whitbread. The media skewered her. Journalist Bob Fisher called the crew a “tin full of tarts” in The Guardian. While other crews were interviewed about experience and strategy, Edwards was asked about packing waterproof mascara and how such a “gorgeous slip of a young girl” expected to raise the millions of dollars needed to participate in such an extravagant race. 

Among the journalists lambasting the Maiden crew was Barry Pickthall. In his telling, it was essentially the women’s fault for the things that were written about them. “They hadn’t done very well in their preparations. We saw all sorts of catfights,” Pickthall told me. “We said, ‘How are these girls going to get round the world?’ ”
When the women came in third and then first in the first two legs of the race, Pickthall said, “We were absolutely astounded. Bob had to change his view to a ‘tin full of smart, fast tarts.’ ”

Howells saw how the media had treated Edwards, but that was nearly three decades before her own daughter planned to embark on a similar endeavor. This is a whole new century, she thought. Surely we’ve moved on.

In April 2016, Goodall combined her savings with a bank loan and bought a Rustler 36 sailboat named Ariadne. Rustlers are sleek and British-built, which meant she could view them close to home—Goodall didn’t have much of a travel budget. Once she’d purchased Ariadne, Goodall packed her bags and moved aboard; she had no money left for rent. The media were already watching her. One story written four months prior had pointed out that Goodall faced “minor issues such as not having a boat or much experience of solo sailing.” She’d addressed the first concern. A solo Atlantic crossing would address the second. 

Ariadne was mostly in good enough condition for the crossing, but to make it around the world, it would need a refit to the tune of $50,000 or more. For that Goodall would require a sponsor. She set a timeline for herself: If by the end of 2016 she hadn’t secured financial support, she would go back to working on superyachts to pay back the money she’d borrowed to buy Ariadne. She would have to abandon her Golden Globe dream, but she’d at least have a boat. She lived on Ariadne on a mooring near Southampton. She woke at 4 a.m. each day to put together packets describing the race and then ship them off to everyone she could think of who might consider supporting her.  

In late fall, Goodall got an email from Tim Stevenson, an investment banker who had a Rustler of his own. He popped over for a cup of tea. They chatted about the race, and Goodall told him about her refitting ideas. Not long after that, Stevenson was at a meeting with Ken Allen, an executive at global shipping enterprise DHL. “I’ve been thinking of sponsoring some women’s sports,” Allen told Stevenson. “Maybe equestrian.” Stevenson replied, “What about sailing?”

Just before Christmas, with mere days remaining before Goodall’s self-imposed deadline, she signed a sponsorship contract with Allen’s billion-dollar company. She thought she’d be over the moon; she was excited. Relieved too. She had what she needed to race. But she felt something else—that it was real now. A massive company with thousands of employees was supporting her. She couldn’t let them down.

Once she’d purchased Ariadne, Goodall packed her bags and moved aboard; she had no money left for rent.

In a small harbor on Antigua, Goodall was facing one of her sailing fears. She dashed from cockpit to bow on Ariadne, trying to get into position to drop anchor. Other boats dotted the surface on all sides, like obstacles in a pinball machine, and cliffs loomed ahead. If she ran into them, it could damage or destroy her boat. But dodging them would be difficult—Goodall’s engine, which sailors used for precision movement when coming into a harbor and anchoring, had cut out more than a week before in the middle of the Atlantic. Goodall knew how to service it and was annoyed she hadn’t been able to fix the problem. Now the wind in the harbor was blowing at nearly 30 knots, pushing Ariadne with it. Finally, Goodall got into position and dropped anchor. She stood on the bow watching, waiting. Please hold, she thought, please hold. 

The anchor stuck. She exhaled. 

In that moment, Goodall completed the first half of her Atlantic loop, which she’d planned as a crash course in getting to know how Ariadne handled, and how she herself would handle on a long solo sail. When Goodall left the Canary Islands three weeks prior, isolation had weighed heavily. She focused her attention on what she wanted to improve on the boat for the Golden Globe, logging ideas in a notebook: where to stow the life raft, how to arrange her sleeping space, where to solder more steel rings around the deck so she could clip a harness to Ariadne in rough seas. She soon got into a rhythm that eased the loneliness, but trade-wind sailing was too straightforward for much excitement. Even with a broken engine, the journey to Antigua was fairly boring. 

That’s why she’d planned a different return route. One thing that worried her about sailing alone around the world was hitting a big storm. Sailors can practice for most things, but it’s not as if a colossal tempest can be conjured up on command to test themselves and their boat. Her return leg, at least, would pit her against prevailing winds and send her into spring squalls. 

She spent a month in Antigua fixing the engine, but it broke again on her homeward leg. She sailed through moderate gales and another length of solitude. Having to be alert to changes in the weather meant her mind was far less likely to wander. This was more like what the Golden Globe would be like, Goodall knew. She loved it.

But as she neared the Azores, a chain of islands 1,000 miles west of Portugal, a scattering of anchored boats and a maze of docks lay ahead, an arrangement far more constricted than what she’d encountered in Antigua. The prospect of coming into harbor with no engine, no room for error, and certain consequences if she hit someone’s boat had been weighing on her mind for days. Heavy weather was close on her heels. She hoped desperately to outrun it, and that some harbormaster might pick her up on the radio and agree to tow her in.

“Please,” she said out loud. She wasn’t sure who or what she was talking to. Maybe the ocean itself. “Show me a sign. I just need to know that everything’s going to be OK.”   

Suddenly, Ariadne was surrounded by dolphins. 

It reminded her of something Moitessier had written in The Long Way, about passing Stewart Island off the southern tip of New Zealand on a misty day. He heard whistling and hurried on deck to find nearly a hundred dolphins in the water around him. As he watched, 25 of them swam from stern to bow and then veered off at a right angle. They repeated the move over and over. He looked down at his compass. He was headed straight for the fog-shrouded rocks of Stewart Island. He changed tack to the right, and one of the dolphins celebrated with a somersault. 

Goodall had crossed most of the Atlantic without seeing much wildlife at all. Now she’d gone from an empty sea to surrounded by dolphins in minutes. It was as if they were telling her everything would be all right. 

Moments later her radio crackled to life. It was the harbormaster. She got a tow before the storm hit.

The prospect of coming into harbor with no engine, no room for error, and certain consequences if she hit someone’s boat had been weighing on her mind for days.

In the two weeks leading up to the Golden Globe launch on July 1, 2018, the skippers brought their boats to Les Sables-d’Olonne, on the Atlantic coast of France. The race contract required that they reserve two full days for interviews with journalists, but few outlets wanted to speak with the other participants, who in turn were freed up to make last-minute preparations. Goodall, by contrast, was swamped.

Some asked her about the work she’d done on Ariadne, and she was happy to show them around the refitted boat. Since purchasing the vessel, she had transformed it almost from top to bottom into what was effectively a tiny floating home. She reinforced the windows of the cabin to stand up against the Southern Ocean’s powerful waves and installed a submarine-style entrance to keep out water in case of knockdowns—when a boat is flung sideways—or capsizes. There were two backup systems at the ready if her mast broke. She stowed an emergency rudder and extra sail-repair kits. In addition, she created a two-week menu of canned and dehydrated food and had enough provisions to repeat it for ten months. She spent hours staring at the world map pinned to the cabin wall, breaking her journey into wayposts in her mind and deciding on dates to celebrate. She laid in cakes and small bottles of wine for special occasions: crossing the equator, reaching the Southern Ocean, her birthday, Christmas, and New Year’s. She learned a visualization exercise that involved hovering above a situation to gain a fuller perspective of it, in case loneliness or tough conditions tempted her to quit.

But other journalists didn’t bother to ask Goodall how she’d prepared her boat, or herself, to cross the world alone. They were far more interested in asking some version of the same question: “So, Susie, you’re the only woman?”

“Well, that doesn’t really matter in rigging my boat—” Goodall began one of her replies in Les Sables-d’Olonne.

“Please just say it for the camera: ‘I’m the only woman.’ ”

Sitting through interviews, she came to feel like a clumsy ballet dancer trying to pivot away from this one thing that everyone wanted her to say. She usually managed it, however gracelessly. But as the race loomed, all the talking wore her down. “Yes, I’m the only woman,” she said.

Goodall had become the unwitting face of the race—singled out, it seemed, because she was the only woman in it. “As the youngest and only female competitor, there is international focus on Goodall’s participation and pragmatic zeal,” wrote Forbes. Yachting Monthly framed the story like so: “At face-value Susie Goodall appears to be a ‘normal’ looking, petite, elegant young lady.” 

Goodall of course understood the arguments for why women and girls needed to see role models in male-dominated sports, jobs, and so on. But the emphasis on her being the sole female seemed to create a whole separate playing field, and she was alone on it. Whether she wanted to or not—and she did not—Goodall felt like some journalists were holding her up as representative of all women in sailing: their navigational skills, endurance, and capacity for handling fear and danger.

The effect was isolating for Goodall, who was already exhausted from preparing for the race. Even McIntyre knew it. “She was just too popular,” he said. “It was getting crazy. At the same time, so much is involved with preparing your boat.” 

Goodall hoped the frenzy would die down once the race began—that, like Knox-Johnston fifty years prior, she would sail off the grid in search of an elemental connection with the ocean. But the race stipulated that participants remain linked to the world during their journey. Golden Globe sailors were required to make weekly satellite phone calls to race headquarters that would be recorded and shared with media, and to send daily texts that would be automatically posted online. Race organizers also asked that they shoot footage of themselves using an old-school film camera, and stop at a series of gates—Lanzarote in the Canaries, Hobart in Tasmania, and the Falkland Islands—to drop it off. The race website would track each boat’s progress in real time. 

In a mandatory self-recorded prerace clip I watched while reporting this story, Goodall held a set of questions from the race team, speaking each one aloud before answering. “How many cassette tapes do you plan on bringing, and what type of music? What books? And how many toilet paper rolls?” Goodall read. She replied that she was bringing a pile of eighties music cassettes and several sailing books, and that she would be keeping the number of toilet paper rolls aboard to herself, thank you very much. 

“What is the most likely thing that would keep you from finishing the race, and how are you trying to solve that?” she read. 

Goodall paused. She’d prepared the boat for every eventuality she could think of. If it was as fail-safe as she hoped, then her will to finish was the only question mark. She had no intention of letting that break, either—not with the whole world watching. But she wasn’t about to say that into the camera.

“I think from a boat perspective, the most likely thing would be something going wrong, like with the mast or hitting something,” she said. “But I’ve done everything I can to minimize that.” Goodall moved on to the next question.

Soon there was nothing left to do but say goodbye to her family. They’d rented a house by the harbor to help her get ready. Goodall wouldn’t be able to speak directly with them for up to nine months—the expected duration of the race, assuming all went well.

Howells had also been busy. She couldn’t imagine being alone for nine months, and she aimed to do everything she could to support her daughter in her isolation. Howells had bought a teddy bear dressed in a raincoat and, over an entire year, photographed various friends and family hugging the stuffed animal. She laminated the photos and collected them in an envelope: an imprint of love to carry her daughter through. Howells gave the package—and the bear—to Goodall the night before the race. Goodall’s father, Stephen, for his part, had spent three years perfecting a recipe: fruitcake that would keep in baking paper and tinfoil. He made 24 of them and presented them to his daughter. 

“So, where should I meet you?” he asked her as they packed the cakes aboard. “At the end of the race, where will you sail to?” 

Goodall knew he was joking, as if she’d do like Moitessier and avoid the fuss at the finish line. She played along. “Iceland. I’ve always like Iceland.”

“OK,” he said. “I’ll see you there.”


On July 1, 2018, vessels jockeyed for position in the Les Sables-d’Olonne harbor. Goodall sat in the cockpit of Ariadne, which had been rechristened DHL Starlight by her sponsor. She was too busy to feel the gravity of actually, finally going. She needed to stay focused on navigating among the boats full of journalists, race crew, and family and friends, and of course the other Golden Globe skippers.  

Only some of the race’s competitors had any designs on winning it: Jean Luc Van Den Heede, a septuagenarian French sailor who’d circumnavigated many times and podiumed in the Vendée Globe; Norwegian Are Wiig, who’d finished second in class in a single-handed transatlantic race; and Dutchman Mark Slats, another veteran circumnavigator. The other skippers had different motivations. Simply finishing would fulfill Estonian Uku Randmaa’s dream. Indian Abhilash Tomy hoped to find a kind of nirvana that wiped the mind clean. Young Irishman Gregor McGuckin had crossed the Atlantic and Indian Oceans and wanted to see if he could make it all the way around the world. 

As Goodall left the harbor, the sea calmed. Normally, when sailing alone, Goodall would connect the wind vane for self-steering, but she didn’t want to move from the tiller. If she focused on steering, she wouldn’t have to think about saying goodbye to her family or the enormity of the distance ahead. It was dark before she finally rose from the helm. And quiet—so quiet.

Down in the cabin that evening, Goodall got a radio call from Ertan Beskardes, another skipper in the race. They chatted about what they had for dinner. They didn’t speak about what they were feeling, but there was comfort in knowing someone else was probably dealing with similar emotions.

Five days later, Beskardes retired from the race. He wasn’t prepared for the challenge, he said. Not being able to speak to his family had robbed sailing of its joy. Goodall was shocked, but then she wondered if Beskardes’s decision wasn’t admirable in its own way. In the year leading up to the race, she deliberately ensured there’d be no boyfriend to leave behind. She had no children. Skippers like Beskardes who sailed away from their families, Goodall thought, were far braver than her.

If she focused on steering, she wouldn’t have to think about saying goodbye to her family or the enormity of the distance ahead.

Sailing across the Bay of Biscay between France and Spain was the first celestial navigating Goodall had ever done without GPS backup; even on her Atlantic loop, she’d kept a system stowed away just in case. In the bay’s busy shipping lanes she slept in short bursts, setting an egg timer to wake her every 15 minutes to check for vessels in her path.

On July 9, during her second weekly check-in by satellite phone, McIntyre asked how her navigation was going. It had been frustratingly cloudy, she told him, and she couldn’t get as many sun and star sights as she would have liked. “Hopefully, you’ll find the Canaries,” he said. “We won’t talk about penalties until later, but it’s a mandatory mark of the course.”

Goodall laughed nervously. If she missed the Canaries, the first compulsory gate—skippers had to remain there for 30 minutes—she’d be the female navigator who couldn’t navigate, the woman who was bad with directions. But a week and a half after she started the race, Goodall made it to Lanzarote. Sailing toward the island before the sun rose, she could smell it—the rich dryness, the salty rocks and docks. She was pleased with herself, and surprised to discover that she was near the front of the pack, arriving fifth. To the annoyance of the race organizers, she didn’t drop any film.

A few days later, Goodall was cruising at a rapid clip when she saw one of her two spinnaker poles flick off from the mast, where she’d been storing it. She dove from the cockpit to grab it, but it fell over the side of the boat before she could reach it and was gone. 

She stared into the ocean. That was a critical piece of backup. If she lost her mast in violent seas, the plan was to use the two spinnaker poles, which support the sails rigged to the front of the boat, to fashion a substitute that would hold sail long enough to get to land. At least she had one remaining, along with a boom, the heavy horizontal pole that attaches to the bottom of the mast and allows the sail to harness wind. If she also lost the boom she’d be in trouble. She didn’t want to imagine that scenario. 

Two weeks later, July 27, was Goodall’s birthday. By then, Australian Kevin Farebrother had dropped out of the race, saying he wasn’t fit for solo sailing, the lack of sleep, as had Palestinian-American Nabil Amra, who’d struggled with a faulty self-steering system. “Sailing is better with friends,” Amra texted from a satellite device. 

Other than losing the spinnaker pole, things were going well for Goodall. She’d been holding down a position in the top five, surprising herself, even with light winds making for slow progress through the sweltering tropics. In her daily texts, which she kept as brief as possible, she described the bright starry skies and the magic of marine life.

For people who haven’t experienced blue-water sailing—an ocean crossing with no land in sight—it’s easy to imagine endless lovely sunrises and frolicking whales. It is not that. The middle of the ocean can seem a great nothingness, at least to those who don’t know to look for the elusive green flash as the sun sets on a clear horizon or the endless shades of blue and silver that flicker across swells. On calmer evenings, Goodall brought up her beanbag chair—one of the few frivolous comforts she’d allowed herself—to recline in the cockpit. She passed hours waiting to take a sun sight, a measurement of the sun’s angle to determine the boat’s position for navigational purposes. She learned to identify land too distant to see by the way clouds formed over it. She thought often of the Southern Ocean. How different would it look compared with this? 

Goodall had never spent her birthday alone. She located the mini bottle of wine packed for the occasion and set it out to have with dinner. Then she pulled out the birthday cards friends and family had sent along with her. She’d prepared to be emotional reading through them, but she was fine—until she got to the one from her mother. 

It is Danish custom to raise a flag at birthdays. Howells always did that for her children, no matter where they were. In the hot Atlantic, Goodall read her mother’s handwriting: “We’ll raise a flag for you. But this year there will be no phone call.” There was more, but Goodall couldn’t bring herself to read it. She folded the note back up to read tomorrow, or maybe the day after. 

She looked forward to her nightly radio check-in, when many of the skippers spoke to one another, provided they were in range. One evening, some of them exchanged inventories of leaks. Her boat, she reported, was bone dry. She was quite proud of that, and told her so—DHL Starlight, that is. Even boats with male names like Moitessier’s Joshua go by “she.” It’s not clear how the tradition started. In some ancient cultures, ships were named after protective goddesses. Others named boats for mothers. This rarely resulted in confusion, since sailors were almost always men. In Goodall’s mind, she and her boat had long ago become “we”—each other’s companion in the great expanse. Goodall spoke to DHL Starlight often, and the boat spoke to her, telling Goodall what she needed and even waking Goodall from sleep when a familiar motion shifted or ceased entirely. 

Goodall also learned to feel when she and the boat weren’t alone: a rising of the small hairs on her arms, a prick at the back of her neck. The first time, she looked behind her to see a ship on the horizon. Another time, a whale surfaced next to the boat. Once, she’d been below deck when the feeling hit; she went above to find an enormous freighter headed toward her. Goodall altered course, and the ship chuffed by.

Goodall wiped sweat from her brow in the late August sun. She’d just spent an hour hand-pumping a liter of ocean water through her desalinator. It turned out that the yellow paint on DHL Starlight’s sails—essential components of her rainwater catchment system—had contaminated Goodall’s fresh water supplies. The paint was DHL yellow. Now it meant she had to spend hours each day at the pump just to get a few liters of potable water from the sea. She only had so much canned food before she’d have to turn to her dehydrated stores, which required water to prepare. She took seawater baths. She thought often about how nice it would be to shower after nine months at sea.

There was no wind to cool her skin; there hadn’t been for days. Her progress was slow, and Goodall was more frustrated than she’d ever been. There was a general race route but endless options for changing course to leverage winds or currents. Recently, Goodall had chosen to go east instead of south in hopes of saving some time. She ended up in a long, windless high-pressure system. It cost her a few places in the race lineup, but she cared less about that now than the boredom and feeling of helplessness hounding her.

Two more participants had pulled out of the race. French sailor Antoine Cousot retired after admitting to the pressure of the undertaking. And Philippe Péché, who’d violated the rules by contacting his partner by satellite phone, limped into Cape Town with a broken tiller. Sitting in the still sea, Goodall empathized with their decisions. Finishing the race, she now understood, would require resisting the urge to give up. It would also require wind. Where the hell was the wind?

She took a drink of water and went for a swim; it wasn’t as if the boat was going anywhere. She treaded water, amazed at the red reflection the hull cast on the surface of the ocean. What a nice change, she thought. She’d had the same point of view—deck, sails, horizon—for nearly two months. It was enough to drive a person crazy.

After more than a week, a hesitant wind gathered momentum, ending Goodall’s purgatory of motionlessness. A text from McIntyre beeped on her sat phone. Fifty-eight-year-old Norwegian sailor Are Wiig had been hit by a storm 400 miles southwest of Cape Town. He was below deck when the boat flipped descending a wave. He hit his head against the hatch and was underwater a few moments, wondering if he might drown. The boat righted, but the capsize broke the mast, smashed a window, and split the cabin roof. Wiig was headed back to Cape Town under jury rig, using backup poles to construct a makeshift mast. The race was over for him. 

The news shook Goodall. Wiig, an engineer and yacht surveyor who’d run transatlantic races, had five decades of sailing experience. If it can happen to him, it can happen to anyone, she thought. She recalled Wiig radioing her about sailing down the coast of Norway in 70-knot winds. The most she’d taken DHL Starlight through was 45 knots. Seventy knots, she thought. What does that even feel like?