Happy Monday, gentle readers! It’s the most spooktacular month of the year, but we promise none of our longreads recommendations are scary. Well, maybe one or two. We’re thinking a great deal about intimate personal stories this week, which drove a number of our selections. Who are we as humans? How do we get there?
‘All American‘ (Nicole Chung for Longreads)
In this excerpt from Nasty Women, an outstanding anthology featuring essays from smart, sharp, excellent women from across the U.S., Chung explores racism and American identity, and what it’s like to live as an Asian American in a society where many white people think ‘white’ means default while people of colour are ‘from’ somewhere. For Chung, the experience is complicated by being a transracial adoptee, and the result is a deep, compelling essay.
I remember, at some young age, being at the grocery store with my parents when a white woman approached us and asked, “And where is this one from?” as though I were some curiosity acquired from a catalogue. You can experience “harmless” racism like this as commonplace, week in and week out, and still understand that it is wrong. I hated the woman’s phrasing, her strangely benevolent smile, her expectation that we would answer because the information was hers to demand.
‘Some Mother’s Boy‘ (Alina Simone for The Atavist)
In 1921, a young man was struck and killed by a train. Despite the community’s best efforts, they couldn’t figure out who he was, and he was buried anonymously. In most cases, if someone isn’t identified soon, they sink into obscurity, but not in this case; 96 years after his death, a determined campaign finally put a name to the body, and created some long-belated closure.
The first thing I learned about unidentified bodies is that they need nicknames. A moniker can derive from the place where a body is found, like Cheerleader in the Trunk, discovered in Frederick, Maryland, in 1982. It can refer to when a corpse turns up, like Valentine Sally, found on a February 14 in Williams, Arizona. Or it can memorialize a physical characteristic, like Tok, Alaska’s One-Eyed Jack, who was wearing a leather eye patch when he was located in 1979. Nicknames serve as convenient shorthand for cops tracking cases. They can also generate intrigue, empathy, and investigative leads. The best nicknames tell stories that captivate.
‘How Science Is Unlocking the Secrets of Addiction‘ (Fran Smith for National Geographic)
Though we’ve sunk considerable resources into understanding and treating addiction, it proves to be an incredibly stubborn medical challenge — and one that costs people with substance abuse disorders dearly, alongside those around them. Unscientific battles over addiction dominate conversations about policy, while researchers are hard at work on figuring out how to care for those in need. This is a fascinating story.
Not long ago the idea of repairing the brain’s wiring to fight addiction would have seemed far-fetched. But advances in neuroscience have upended conventional notions about addiction—what it is, what can trigger it, and why quitting is so tough. If you’d opened a medical textbook 30 years ago, you would have read that addiction means dependence on a substance with increasing tolerance, requiring more and more to feel the effects and producing a nasty withdrawal when use stops. That explained alcohol, nicotine, and heroin reasonably well. But it did not account for marijuana and cocaine, which typically don’t cause the shakes, nausea, and vomiting of heroin withdrawal.
‘When ‘Not Guilty’ Is a Life Sentence‘ (Mac McClelland for the New York Times Magazine)
There’s a popular notion that people who plea not guilty by reason of insanity ‘go free,’ stepping from the courtroom to the street effortlessly. That’s not actually how it works. Instead, they’re remanded to psychiatric care for months, but more commonly, years, ending up caught in a strange limbo that may have them incarcerated for even long than the term of the sentences they would have served.
Instead, James, now in his 40s, has been in the hospital for almost two decades. This isn’t because he was sentenced to 20 years, or to 25. He was not sentenced at all; he is technically, legally, not responsible. The court believes beyond a reasonable doubt that he committed the act he was accused of, a prerequisite for the state to accept an insanity plea. The plea does not, however, prescribe or limit the duration of his stay. The laws that govern the practice of committing people who are acquitted because of mental illness dictate that they be hospitalized until they’re deemed safe to release to the public, no matter how long that takes.
‘Bassel Khartabil: The Syrian who fought to the death for a free internet‘ (Alice Su for Wired)
To be a digital revolutionary under a repressive regime at a time of turmoil and chaos is dangerous — but for some, the benefits are worth the risks, even if the cost is ultimately their lives. This is a sensitive, thoughtful profile of a man who believed in a better world.
Phillips and Khartabil met at a time of great optimism for ‘open culture’ advocates like them. Both men became active in the Creative Commons, a movement dedicated to open source programming and a culture of sharing knowledge across the world.
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Photo: David Geitgey Sierralupe/Creative Commons