There’s this parable that economists always tell.
Your car breaks down and you take it to the mechanic. He opens the hood and looks at your engine for a few seconds. Then he takes out a little hammer and taps it on the top. Suddenly it works again.
‘That’ll be 0,’ he says.
‘But all you did was make a little tap!’ you protest.
‘The tap, that’s ,’ he says. ‘Knowing where to tap, that’s .’
Like everyone else who writes for a living, I’ve been reading the Fareed Zakaria plagiarism allegations with a knot in my stomach.
Here’s what we know so far:
Dude has written for legit every publication, so his current employer and his alma maters investigated his old work for copy-pastage. They apparently didn’t find anything because Zakaria was back at his desk after a few weeks.
Then, this summer, two bloggers with awesome pseudonyms started looking into his work more closely. They found dozens—no, seriously, dozens—of instances where Zakaria paraphrased from other authors without giving them credit.
Check out this clip from his book, with questionable phrasing in yellow:
He also pilfered some figures from Michael Lewis’s (love him!) investigation of California’s financial problems.
Then Zakaria issued a suuuuper half-assed rebuttal (‘These are all facts, not someone else’s writing or opinions or expressions’) that was torn apart by theOur Bad Media bloggers (seriously read it, it’s the best post of this whole episode).
So those are the charges. Now we can start debating how pissed off about them we want to be. The Columbia Journalism Review (love you guys!) just put out a longform-ish dissection of what we talk about when we talk about plagiarism.
Lots of the debate, like every debate ever, hinges on definitions. Plagiarism sounds like a binary distinction—you copy-pasted or you didn’t—but looking at it so technocratically allows writers to do what Zakaria did, make slight modifications to other people’s sentences to slip past plagiarism-detection software
The real issue here is lack of attribution, which is just a Zakarian weasel-word for ‘stealing other people’s ideas’.
Let’s go back to the Michael Lewis example. I’m not particularly offended by the fact that Zakaria took a few of Lewis’s words and put them in the same order. As Zakaria himself points out in his rebuttal, there’s only so many ways to say something.
But dude, Lewis worked to get those numbers. Using them to make a broader point about municipal finance, the difficulty of balancing a budget in as a medium-size American city, that was Lewis’s idea to find those numbers and use them as an argument.
The defences of Zakaria usually stick to the technical definition. Here’s the CJR again:
Jacob Weisberg, head of the Slate Group, defended Zakaria’s mistakes as “minor, penny-ante stuff” unworthy of the “plagiarism” label, according to The Daily Beast. “I’m not sure we have a strict operational definition of plagiarism at Slate,” he added in an email to CJR. “To me, plagiarism involves not just using someone else’s research or ideas without credit, but also taking passages of prose and distinctive language.”
Fred Hiatt, Zakaria’s editor at the Washington Post, prefers the term ‘improper attribution’, which sounds about as serious as a parking ticket.
I was listening to a badass podcast this morning called ‘America’s Diversity Explosion Is Coming Just in Time.’ The interviewee, a Brookings Institution researcher named William Frey, wrote a book about how America’s changing racial and age-al makeup is going to remake the country for the next generation. It’s a provocative argument, and he uses hella stats to make it: About 80 percent of people over 65 are white, compared to about 50 percent of people under 17. Fifteen percent of all marriages are multi-racial. Blacks vote for Democrats over Republicans by a margin of 87 percent.
All those numbers are publicly available, they’re mostly from the Census and shit, but knowing where to look, pulling them out, putting them in that order, drawing conclusions from them, that is work. This dude has read and thought and written way more about this than I ever have, and it would be such a dickmove for me to copy the work part and then be like ‘the numbers were there all along!’ Zakaria is deliberately mixing up the tap with knowing where to tap.
Which leads to my proposal for how we should consider these cases in the future: What would the original author think if they read your summary? If Frey, the Brookings dude, read the above two paragraphs, where it’s clear that it’s his ideas and my summary, I don’t expect he’d feel robbed. Even if I happen to have used phrasing similar to his or a few words in the same order, it washes out under the credit I’ve given him.
When my development article came out, I sent it to the authors whose books I’d summarized. I wanted to share it with them, not just the story but the experience of getting their ideas and examples out to a broader audience. I wasn’t worried they’d find the article, I was worried they wouldn’t retweet it.
Part of the reason I do this is just basic politeness and golden-rule-following, but it’s also a sort of self-regulation mechanism. Knowing, before I even start writing, that the authors I’m discussing are going to read what I say and think about them, it makes me more careful—not just in my phrasing but in my conclusions.
That’s why I’m always arguing for more collaboration between journalists and their sources. Personally, I’m utterly terrified of accidentally plagiarizing something. I know the ‘I forgot to add a footnote!’ excuse sounds like ‘I have lots of black friends!’—but losing track of sources, forgetting that a sentence in your notes is someone else’s words and not your own, it’s a genuine risk. Working with the sources of your ideas is the only reliable protection against inadvertently stealing the expression of them.
I’m not suggesting the plagiarized-from authors should be given responsibility for Zakaria’s fate, or that every single article should be approved by its sources before its released. But read those passages above (especially the one from his book! Phwoof!) and ask yourself, ‘if you wrote the original text, would you feel comfortable with Zakaria’s version?’
Personally, I wouldn’t be pissed that he stole my words, I’d be pissed that he stole the thing I was using my words to describe. Detecting plagiarism doesn’t require more sophisticated software, it requires more sophisticated ethics.
Under the current definition, plagiarism asks whether two authors are tapping in the same place. We need one that acknowledges the work of knowing where to tap.
Photo by Seung-Hwan Oh!
This is a guest post by Willa Hammitt Brown, a doctoral candidate at the University of Virginia, where she is finishing her dissertation, “Gentlemen of the Woods: Manhood, Myth and the American Lumberjack, 1860-1920″. She is a teaching assistant in the Department of History and the Women’s and Gender Studies program. Content note: this article mentions sexual assault.
“I have worn the honors of Honor
I graduated from Virginia” – :The Honor Men”, James Hay Jr, 1903
“Nobody wants to send their daughter to the rape school” – Rolling Stone, 2014
This morning I got an email from the President of my University, the University of Virginia. In it, she quotes Thomas Jefferson, and invokes tradition, honor and idealism. She harks back to the long history of a storied institution. “Honor and tradition inform our thinking,” she explains, but where “success is demanded as much as it is sought” we mustn’t let “idealism outweigh our reality.”
You’d almost forget she was talking about rape.
We have found ourselves, at my prestigious, sheltered, Southern university quite suddenly in the spotlight, and we are not handling it well. Not well at all.
U.Va is one of the oldest public universities in this country and currently ranked second in the nation. Our campus is a UNESCO World Heritage site. Thomas Jefferson founded it, Edgar Alan Poe, Woodrow Wilson and two Kennedys attended it. We claim, wrongly, to have the oldest written honor code of any American university. And we are, at this moment, ground zero in the debate over campus sexual assault.
None of this is unrelated. Our traditions, our reliance on honor, our language of quiet gentility are what reinforce toxic levels of privilege. We are a culture, and we are an institution, that protects rapists and promotes rape culture.
A quick primer on the state of sexual assault prevention on campuses in the United States: The Federal government has recently (in 2011 to be precise) begun to crack down on universities that do not adequately handle sexual assault cases under the provisions of Title IX. Title IX, a federal act passed in 1972, guarantees equal access to education for men and women, specifically banning discrimination based on sex. It’s under Title IX, for instance, that we are required to fund women’s sports at levels at least, in theory, on par with men’s.
In 2011 the Obama administration wrote what’s called a “Dear Colleague” letter, writing that sexual harassment and assault create an environment hostile to women, and that if they are not properly addressed it will be considered a Title IX violation and result in institutions losing their federal funding. The Department of Education has since made it very clear they intend to follow through. Eighty-six universities and colleges are under investigation for mishandling complaints. But only eleven are under a full, Federal noncompliance review. We are among those lucky few.
Three days ago, Rolling Stone published a scathing article criticizing U.Va, detailing the case of a gang rape that happened two years ago, and the relatively little that’s been done about it since. I won’t quote the article much here for a few reasons. Firstly, it’s more than a little sensationalist and I don’t want to get into the mire of journalistic integrity. Secondly, while I agree with the author in most of her portrayal of the University, her emphasis on pushing survivors to report, rather than on creating an environment in which reporting feels safe, troubles me. And finally, it honestly could not come with a trigger warning big enough. Please feel free to go ahead and google it, but do it when you have an hour to quietly process what you will find there.
Right now I’m not interested in talking about the article. I’m interested in talking about what happened after: what happened when the veil was lifted and we saw ourselves as we really are. As my friend Rachel said about the article, I say too about the response, “the most shocking thing is that everyone seems so shocked.”
In the wake of the article, we all began a quick scramble to be victims, too. There was outrage from the relatively small cadre of on campus feminists that the article claimed there were no feminists here. There were outcries that we’re not all privileged, and we are more progressive than portrayed. Most of all, there was outrage from the fraternities that they were getting too much blame (on Yik Yak, a social network that allows anonymous messaging, a post reading “I became a victim when last night after exiting my fraternity house someone yelled out rapist, I’ve worked hard my 4 years here to address sexual assault and now I’m viewed as the problem” was up-voted 172 times in two hours) Everyone rushed to be the victim, because a victim cannot be part of the problem. But none of that is really the point. Of course there are feminists, and of course there are progressives. No one truly believes every Fraternity brother is a rapist. But when we coddle bruised egos and tell each other that you and I are not the problem, we are hiding from the truth.
Because we are all the problem. Only thirty-eight assaults were reported at UVA last year, out of hundreds we know to have happened. Of those, only a few went to arbitration, fewer still to any guilty verdict. A university that has expelled over a hundred people in the last twenty years for cheating has never, not once, expelled a rapist. A university that insists that every faculty member read a forty page booklet on the Honor Code and then pass a fairly asinine quiz on it to be allowed access to our email accounts provides no training on sexual misconduct whatsoever. Even if a rape were reported to most of us, we wouldn’t know what to do.
Rapes are perpetuated by a relatively small number of people – these are not, for the most part, he-said/she-said situations. For one in four women to be sexually assaulted does not mean one in four men are sexually assaulting them. So we need to take action, we need to seek justice – we need to remove criminals, serial criminals, from our midst. But there is a reason that people don’t report.
And that reason is us.
A gang rape is reported in horrific detail, and the administration responds first by addressing its reputation. Their next move was to hire (and then swiftly un-hire) a lawyer to investigate who had been a member of the very fraternity where the rape happened. When finally they took action to shut down greek life, students responded like they had been personally attacked. There is, in this reaction, a deep-seated contempt for those who don’t conform. If you cannot take our traditions, if you cannot live with our honor, perhaps you don’t belong here.
Honor, it seems to me, has become an empty word at the University. Or, rather, it has become a word loaded with meaning, but meaning we all steadfastly refuse to acknowledge. It has become a word we all use to get around discussing or thinking about “understanding”, “tolerance” and “responsibility.” Because in our vaunted language, it is meant to encompass all three. In reality, it serves to suppress all three.
When we talk about honor we do so in a culture steeped in the history of white supremacy, class privilege and gender privilege. The traditions and concept of “honor” we harken back to are those of Southern gentility – a gentility built off the exclusion and oppression of others. Anytime that privilege is unthroned, even a little, the rallying cry in response is “tradition.” When we were the last public university to accept women, it was because of tradition. When we attend football games in pearls and ties, the uniform of the privileged, it’s because its tradition.
A call to tradition is a call to protect our fun at the expense of another person’s comfort. I saw it, and participated in it, while at Oxford as an undergraduate. When balls, black tie, sub fusc, and formal halls would come under attack as practices that made the University an uncomfortable and even hostile space for people who did not come from a white middle- or upper-class background, I, too, would join in the cry that these traditions were what made Oxford so wonderful, so special. It is only in retrospect that I wonder to what extent what I really meant was, “if you can’t conform to this special place, then you don’t really belong here. It’s not on me to make room for you.”
That was hard to see as a student, as someone who enjoyed those traditions. But from the vantage point I now have, as an outsider looking in at the undergraduate life of another University whose calling card is also old-fashioned tradition and gentility, I can see more clearly that when we say we live in a “community of honor” we mean, “to question our community is to question our honor.” When we say we prize tradition, we must admit that that tradition is built of slavery, and racial, class, and gender privilege.
This all came starkly to light the day the Rolling Stone article went live. President Sullivan sent an email within the day, which opened by addressing, before any solidarity with the student who spoke up, before any responsibility for the botched investigation, and certainly before any responsibility for the crime happening on our campus in the first place, the “negative portrayal” of the University.
In a desperate attempt to preserve and increase our reputations, we rest on concepts like honor and tradition to shut down debates about privilege and diversity. I am not the first to point out that it’s hard to have your privilege questioned. And I do not pretend that this is the only problem. There are state-wide legal frameworks that perpetuate rape culture (such as the fact that due to still extant Virginia brothel laws, only frats can serve alcohol, all sororities are dry), and there are frameworks within the university as well – we are a business, and powerful, wealthy donors cling tightly to tradition.
But there is also the way we talk about ourselves, and the words we use. When your traditions are built on a history of white supremacy, perhaps it’s time to criticize them. When Honor is a word we use to make ourselves feel better, it is merely an empty construct. Coming forward to speak through your pain and terror about assault is honorable. And there is only one honorable thing we can do in return: listen.
At band rehearsal this week (I play in a covers band for weddings and corporate functions) I scribbled this onto a scrap of paper between songs as the band rehearsed with a drummer who is filling in for me for an upcoming gig. I’d had the title floating in my head for about a week […]
Freshly Pressed: Editors’ Picks
This is it! I want to become a cartographer. I so enjoyed the assignment of this week in the fourth week of the ‘Make Art That Sells-e-course.’ I have been drawn for many hours on this one. Of all theassignments, I enjoyed this one ABSOLUTELY the most. I just couldn’t stop thinking and drawing – sent the kids to my mum to draw all day and I almost didn’t stand up today . A real discovery – and I just started. I discoered also that a lots of illustrators out there map the world in drawings, like on They Draw And Travel.
It’s a hell of a lot of work too, a map like this! The key is to find the right scale – I think I made the mistake of wanting to put too much on one map. But to be continued! Pure Joy! I share with you the final map and also some of the 20 drawings that are included in the map.
Next in the list: my neighborhood Borgerhout.
For our latest Longreads Exclusive, we’re proud to share Julia Scheeres’ adaptation of her book, A Thousand Lives: The Untold Story of Jonestown, which tells the story of five people who lived in Jonestown at the time of the infamous massacre, which occurred 36 years ago, on Nov. 18, 1978.
This story also includes home movies—never before released publicly—from inside Jonestown. The footage, discovered after the massacre, includes tours of the compound by Jim Jones and interviews with many of those who lived and died there. You can view the entire series of clips at YouTube.com/Longreads.
* * *
The journey up the coast was choppy, the boat too far out to get a good look at the shore. While the other passengers spread out in sleeping bags over the deck, 15-year-old Tommy Bogue gripped the railing, determined not to miss a beat of this adventure.
This was his first sea journey. His first trip outside the United States. His first sighting of jungle. Guyana: the very name was exotic. He’d never heard of it before his church established a mission there. As the shore blurred by, vague and mysterious, he imagined the creatures that roamed beyond it. Many of the world’s largest animals lived there: the giant anteater, the giant sea otter, the giant armadillo, the 20-foot green anaconda. He’d read and re-read the Guyana entry in the Encyclopedia Britannica until he could spout off trivia to anyone who paid attention to what the skinny, mop-haired teen had to say. Now, as the trawler chopped through dark waves, he ticked off this book knowledge to himself. He knew a few things about the strangeness surrounding him, and those few things comforted him.
Everything about Tommy was average—his height, his build, his grades—except for his penchant for trouble. His parents couldn’t control him. Neither could his church. He was always sneaking out of services to smoke weed or wander the gritty streets of the Fillmore District. Ditching church became a game—one that he was frequently and severely punished for—but one that proved irresistible.
They’d only told him the day before that he was leaving for South America. His head was still spinning with the quickness of it all. He was glad to get away from the never-ending church meetings and rules. But mostly he was excited about seeing his father. Jim Bogue left for Guyana two years earlier, and although he’d called home using the mission’s ham radio, the conversations were rushed and marred by static. His father sounded proud of all the pioneers had accomplished at the mission post, and Tommy was eager to see it for himself.
As the trawler swung in a wide arc toward land, the other congregants crowded Tommy at the railing. The boat nosed up the Waini River, its wake lifting the skirts of the mangroves as parrots flashed in the high canopy. The travelers slipped back in time, passing thatched huts stilted on the riverbanks and Amerindian families, who eyed them warily from dugout canoes.
At Port Kaituma, Pastor Jim Jones finally emerged from the wheelhouse, wearing the dark-lensed, gold-framed sunglasses that rarely left his face. He welcomed them to the village—which seemed to consist of little more than stalls selling produce and used clothing—as if he owned it. Tommy listened attentively to Pastor Jones, who was only there for a short visit. Guyana was a fresh start for him and he wanted to make his father proud.
A tractor pulling a flatbed trailer motored up. The newcomers boarded it with their meager belongs. As they lurched down the pitted road toward the settlement, they grabbed the high sides, joking as if they were on a hayride.
Pastor Jones raised his voice over the thrumming diesel engine to boast about the mission. About the “ice cream tree” whose fruit tasted like strawberry sherbet. About the abundant crops of cassava, bananas and cutlass beans. About his protective aura, which surrounded the property—there was no sickness there, no malaria, no typhoid. No jungle cats or snakes dared venture onto it. Nothing bad happened there.
At some point, Tommy noticed the squalor: the shanties lining the road, the kids with open sores and distended bellies, the dead dogs rotting where they fell. The trenches of scummy water. The stench. The mosquitoes. None of this jibed with the movies of the mission they’d seen at church, which made Guyana look like a lush resort.
The tractor turned down a lane that wound through a tight stand of trees. The canopy soared 200 feet above them. The light dimmed and Tommy glanced behind them at the receding brightness, then ahead to where his father waited.
[pullquote align="center"]Guyana was a fresh start for Tommy and he wanted to make his father proud.[/pullquote]
* * *
The draw of that lonely outpost, some four thousand miles away from California, was different for everyone. Some wanted to escape the ghetto. Others wanted to be part of a bold social experiment. They were going to give a big thumbs-down to AmeriKKKa and forge a utopia free of all the evil -isms. Some people planned to volunteer a few months before returning home. Others thought it’d be a great opportunity to their kids to spend a semester abroad. In the beginning, members of Peoples Temple referred to the settlement as Jones did, calling it “the promised land.”
When Tommy arrived, there were only two dozen people living in Jonestown. In those early days, there was a real sense of purpose. Old people sorted rice and cleaned vegetables, young people weeded the fields and hauled boards from the sawmill.
Tommy worked alongside his dad, hammering together cottages. They’d both changed in two years. Tommy sported a scraggle of fuzz on his upper lip; his father seemed more defeated than ever. In California, with Jim Jones’s encouragement, Jim Bogue’s wife had embarked on an affair with another church member. This was not uncommon; Jones split up marriages and families as he saw fit. Loyalty to the cause, he preached, should trump mere human alliances. When Tommy jumped off the tractor trailer, Jim Bogue rushed to embrace him, joyful tears wet on his cheeks. It was the first time Tommy had ever seen his father—his reserved, stoical father—cry.
They relaxed together at suppertime, when the settlers gathered to eat family-style dinners of fried chicken or fish with local greens. Cans of Pepsi were shipped up from Georgetown, and the kitchen handed out peanut butter fudge for treats. Afterwards, they’d play board games or watch movies in the large, open pavilion at the settlement’s center. Some nights the youth would find a boom box and dance as the voice of Diana Ross wailed in the jungle. It was July 1976. America was celebrating its bicentennial; Jonestown was birthing a new society.
Then it all changed.
New West magazine was about to publish an exposé portraying Jim Jones—by now a celebrated California powerbroker—as a charlatan who faked healings, swindled money from his followers, and fathered a son with an attractive acolyte. It was all true.
Until then, Jones had only visited the mission sporadically. But now he moved in permanently, occupying a secluded cottage on the outskirts of Jonestown with two concubines while his wife took up residence nearby.
Then he started to evacuate his flock from San Francisco before the scandals went public. By fall of 1977, there’d be 700 people shoehorned into Jonestown, five times more than the compound could feed.
But Jones didn’t care whether his people thrived in Guyana—he had far darker plans for them.
For several years, he’d been mulling over an idea he called “revolutionary suicide.” He wondered if his followers were dedicated enough to Socialism to kill themselves for it. In 1973, he’d talked to confidants about the possibility of loading his top aides onto buses and driving them off the Golden Gate Bridge, or onto a plane and having someone shoot the pilot. But then he came up with a grander plan: Jonestown. In a remote jungle in South America he could isolate his followers and do as he pleased with them.
By the time they regretted moving to Jonestown—a two-day boat ride from civilization—it was too late. They were trapped there. He confiscated their money and passports and dropped all ministerial demeanor.
“If you want to go home, you can swim,” Jones told disgruntled residents. “We won’t pay your fucking way home.”
In September, he raised the notion of “revolutionary suicide” with the rank and file. He took a vote to see how many people supported it. Three loyalists raised their hands. The vast majority of Jonestown residents were shaken by his word and vehemently argued against it—they’d come to Guyana to forge better lives for themselves and their children, not to die.
But Jones wouldn’t let the subject drop. He harangued them nightly; they had to prepare themselves to give the ultimate sacrifice.
Tommy was scared. He started plotting his escape, with his best friend Brian Davis, who was also 16. From the Amerindians Tommy had learned jungle survival skills—how to build snares, find water, differentiate between poisonous and edible plants. To develop a “jungle eye” to get his bearings by focusing through the trees at breaks in the foliage. To ditch trackers by walking up streams or in circles.
He shared all this with Brian. They schemed in whispers, out of sight, in the dark. They’d make their way to Venezuela, then somehow back to California. On Nov. 1, 1977, under the guise of looking for firewood, they crossed the line separating the fields from the jungle and ran, clutching gunny sacks stuffed with food, clothing, and matches.
They made good headway until darkness fell. There is no “jungle eye” at night. When they raised their hands to their faces, they felt heat emanating from their palms, but saw nothing. They kept tripping on vines, startling at weird noises. All the fanged and clawed creatures hunted at night—the jaguar and puma, the anaconda and emerald tree boa. They turned back to the road running between Port Kaituma and the neighboring village. As it cut through a steep hill, the Jonestown guards surrounded them.
At the pavilion, the throng waited, angry at being hauled out of bed. Jones sat on a platform at the front, sneering as the guards shoved the teens toward him.
In a low growl, Jones asked the boys how far they thought they’d get before switching on a tape recorder resting on the table beside him. The tape, Q933, was one of 971 audio tapes that FBI agents recovered from Jonestown after the massacre.
It starts mid sentence, as the guard berates Tommy:
… I’d just like to say, this idiot—you’ve been in the bush, but you’ve only been around where people are always at…and there ain’t going to be no animals there. You get out in the Venezuelan jungle, and you’re going to run into every kind of fucking thing. They would’ve killed you, you’re lucky we found you. You know what lives here, man, you know it. Don’t say you don’t.
Jones: “What lives there? The puma? The leopard? The ocelot? ‘Bout 50 different breeds of poisonous reptiles? Are you aware of this—any of this? How long you been around here?”
Tommy: “Fourteen months, Father.”
Jones interrogated the boys, then asked if anyone else had questions for “these assholes.” The size and sound of the crowd’s fury is frightening even on a low-quality tape recording. How much more so it must have been for the two boys that night. The recording shows Jones’ disturbing ability to switch from a gentle rebuke to an enraged bellow in the space between two words. He whipped the crowd into a frenzy. “Goddamn white fascist bigots!” a woman shrieks. “You’re evil!” Jones shouted before spitting several times. Tommy’s mother Edith rushed forward to slap his face repeatedly until Jones told her “enough.”
The conversation took a surreal turn when Edith suggested she cut both their heads off, then commit suicide, to keep the “church from getting in trouble.”
A long debate ensued about whether the boys should die. Jones stopped the recording the session before dictating their punishment, but a slip of paper retrieved by the FBI revealed what it was. The typed release, signed by Jim and Edith Bogue and by Joyce Touchette—Brian’s guardian in Jonestown—permitted the boys to be “physically restrained by chain” to prevent them from running away again.
The next day, each boy had a metal ring welded onto his ankle, which was connected to the other boy by a three-foot chain. They were forced to run wherever they went, dragging the chain between them. They had to sleep together, shower together, use the toilet together, and sleep on the same bunk.
A guard led them to a fallen tree and ordered them to turn it into firewood. They chopped wood from dawn to dusk. During their second week, Brian, exhausted and sore, slid his thumb over the wood splitter as Tommy wielded the sledgehammer.
“Hit it,” he whispered. Tommy refused. “Dude, hit it so we can have a break,” Brian insisted. They argued briefly before Tommy relented. The guard took them to the clinic, where a nurse bandaged Brian’s thumb and sent them back to work.
A year later, one of the boys would make a final, successful, attempt to escape Jonestown.
The other would die there.
* * *
In December 1977, another cord tethering Jim Jones to reason snapped when his mother died in Jonestown. A life-long smoker, Lynetta was in the last stages of emphysema when she moved to Guyana. In December, she suffered a stroke that left her partially paralyzed, and she died within two days. A few hours after her death, an emotional Jones gathered his followers in the pavilion to notify them of her passing. He described his mother’s last moments as she gasped for air with her “tongue hanging out, saliva flowing down her face. She couldn’t move her eyes.” He invited people who knew Lynetta well to take a last look at her. Although she looked horrific while she died, in death she looked “very well, very well indeed,” he said.
Again he raised the specter of mass suicide.
“How many plan your death?” he asked.
“There’s a number of you that do not lift your hand and say you plan your death. You’re gonna die. Don’t you think you should plan such an important event?”
He called on a 75-year-old Texan named Vera Talley.
“Sister Talley, don’t you ever plan your death?”
On the tape recording of the conversation, she sounded hesitant.
“No,” she finally said.
“And why don’t you, dear?” Jones asked.
“I don’t know, I just hadn’t thought about it.”
“Don’t you think it’s time to think about it?”
The old woman was confused; she thought Jones was talking about life insurance. “My husband quit paying it and I didn’t have no money to pay it, and I just let it go, and I hadn’t thought no more about it.”
“I’m not talking about insurance,” Jones said. “I’m talking about planning your death for the victory of the people. For socialism, for communism, for black liberation, for oppressed liberation … Haven’t you ever thought about taking a bomb and running into a Ku Klux Klan meeting and destroying all the Ku Klux Klan people?”
The microphone buzzed loudly, interrupting and angering Jones. He admonished people sitting in the back of the pavilion to stop playing with their babies and pay attention.
Maya Ijames, an 8-year-old biracial girl with a cloud of soft black hair, lifted her hand. She, too, was confused.
“What does planning your death mean?” she asked sweetly. On the tape, her voice is shockingly innocent and clear.
In his response to Maya, Jones launched into a diatribe, the essence of which was captured in one sentence: “I think a healthy person has to think through his death, or he may sell out.”
The remark revealed Jones’s deepest fear, that his followers would betray him. He’d rather they die first. “When somebody’s so principled, they’re ready to die at the snap of a finger,” he told the crowd, “and that’s what I want to build in you, that same kind of character.”
He described various methods of suicide. “Drowning, they say, is one of the easiest ways in the world to die. It’s just a numbing, kind of sleepy sensation.”
The crowd was solemn, and their lack of enthusiasm infuriated him. “Some of you people get so fuckin’ nervous every time I talk about death!” he shouted. He stuck out his tongue and pretended to gag, just as he’d seen his mother do in her last breaths. The crowd laughed uneasily.
An elderly woman refused to smile at his antics, and he turned on her: “You’re gonna die someday, honey!” he bellowed. “You old bitch, you’re gonna die!”
He started keeping lists of those residents who didn’t raise their hands when he held votes for revolutionary suicide, of parents who were “too attached” to their children. He directed Jonestown’s medical team to research ways to kill everyone and to be creative about it—there wasn’t enough ammunition to shoot the one thousand people who now populated Jonestown.
On Wednesdays, the camp doctor, Larry Schacht—a loner with depressive tendencies like Jim Jones—took a break from healing Jonestown residents and researched ways to murder them. He grew botulism and other deadly cultures in discarded baby food jars, but ultimately decided suicide-by-bacteria would take too long. Another scrap of paper, collected by FBI agents, reveals his “solution” to the problem. “Cyanide is one of the most rapidly-acting poisons,” Schacht wrote in the memo. “I had some misgivings about its effectiveness, but from further research I have gained more confidence in it, at least theoretically…cyanide may take up to three hours to kill but usually it is within minutes.”
He placed an order for one pound of sodium cyanide from J.T. Baker, a chemical company in Hayward, California. The order, which cost .85, was for enough poison to kill 1,800 people.
* * *
The extreme duress of life in Jonestown made people crack. They didn’t care about socialism if it meant chronic hunger, exhaustion, and fear. Some days they’d stand in the food line after a day of working in the fields, only to be handed a few slices of watermelon. At night, Jones screened documentaries on Nazi death camps or read from the torture memoir of a Chilean Socialist, hoping to infect them with his relentless nihilism.
Despite the odds, residents clung to the hope that they’d get out of Jonestown alive. Human instinct is to survive; surrendering to death is unnatural. Jim Bogue made a plan. He got his family into Peoples Temple—now he had to get them out.
Since Jones was constantly badgering residents to finds ways to make money, Bogue proposed gold prospecting. It would allow him to survey the jungle and the possibility of escaping through it. He didn’t know a thing about gold—other than that it seemed to be all that the cursed soil was good for—but the leadership agreed to give him a go at it, even ordering prospecting guides and pans.
He set off into the jungle with another Jonestown resident named Al Simon. Bogue found a kindred spirit in Simon; neither man was in Jones’s inner circle and both were estranged from their wives. Something in Bogue’s gut told him Simon was trustworthy. It was possible to get a sense of another resident’s true feelings by reading their body language during Jones’s harangues: a wince, a sigh, a moment’s hesitation during a death vote. But it took months for Bogue to broach the topic of escape with Simon. First they discussed the failure of the farm. Eventually they discussed the failure of Jim Jones.
Simon was also deeply afraid. In the rallies, he sat with his toddler, Summer, sprawled sleeping in his lap, while Crystal, 4, and Alvin, Jr., 6, dozed on the hard bench beside him. He was thankful that they were too small to understand most of what was said during those bleak discussions. He made it clear that he was against revolutionary suicide. “I feel all the children here should have a right to live to carry on,” he wrote to the Temple leader. As the months passed, however, it became increasingly clear to him that Jones didn’t give a damn about anything, even children.
Using machetes, the two men started hacking a path behind the sawmill. They planned to forge a trail for several miles to the narrow-gauge railway that ran between Port Kaituma and the neighboring town. Bogue wrote Jones periodic updates, saying he’d found a promising streambed that had a “good rock formation, good water source”—always adding that he’d need more time to suss it out.
The men’s progress was agonizingly slow. The rain forest was dense with vines and saplings, and in some stretches, they’d hack for hours, until their muscles shook, only to clear few yards. Blisters caused by his water-logged boots covered Bogue’s feet, but his resolve to save his family was a powerful anesthetic.
Somehow their plan would succeed; they had to believe it. The opposite was unfathomable.
Then came another twist: Congressman Leo Ryan from San Mateo, California, announced plans to visit Jonestown. He wanted to investigate charges that residents were being held against their will.
When Jones heard the news, he was beside himself. He gathered residents in the pavilion:
Jones: “I can assure you, that if he stays long enough for tea, he’s gonna regret it….son of a bitch. You got something to say to him, you want to talk to him?”
Jones: “Anybody here care to see him?”
Jones: “I don’t know about you, I just wanted to be sure you understood where I’m coming from. I don’t care whether I see Christmas or Thanksgiving, neither one. You don’t either. We’ve been debating about dying ’til, hell, it’s easier to die than talk about it…I worry about what you people think, because you’re wanting—trying to hold onto life, but I’ve been trying to give mine away for a long time, and if that fucker wants to take it—he can have it, but we’ll have a hell of a time going together.”
At first he refused to let Ryan enter Jonestown. But his lawyers urged him to reconsider. Barring the congressman would only validate rumors that Jones was hiding something, and when Ryan returned to Washington, he’d probably hold hearings on the matter.
And so, on Nov. 17, the congressman, along with an entourage of reporters, relatives and government officials, were escorted into Jonestown. At first, the reception went well. Residents obeyed orders to not complain and offered rehearsed answers to prying questions. Before the group’s arrival, they’d been fed a hearty dinner of barbecued pork, biscuits, callaloo greens, as well as the first coffee they’d tasted in months. Having a bellyful of good food buoyed their morale.
The guests were treated to a talent show. The Jonestown band played. Residents danced. It was an intricately staged song and dance.
At a break, Ryan addressed the audience: “This is a congressional inquiry. I think that all of you know that I’m here to find out more about questions that have been raised about your operation here, but I can tell you right now that, from the few conversations I’ve had with some of the folks here already this evening, that whatever the comments are, there are some people here who believe this is the best thing that ever happened to them in their whole life.”
The residents’ applause, which lasted a full minute, reverberated off the metal roof. The NBC cameraman panned over the ecstatic crowd, before returning to the congressman, who waited for the noise to subside with an awkward smile. He attempted to speak several times, but was drowned out each time by applause, whistling, shouting, and drums.
Around eleven that night, residents started to fade into the darkness toward their cottages. The elaborate charade seemed to be a success.
Until the next morning. During an interview, NBC correspondent Don Harris asked Jones about the allegations of mistreatment and imprisonment. Jones denied everything. Harris showed him a note that a resident had slipped him the previous day. “Help us get out of Jonestown,” it said. Next, Edith Parks, a grandmotherly woman with white hair and cat’s-eye glasses walked up to a State department official. “We want to leave,” she said.
The house of cards was tumbling down.
Tommy saw Edith Parks talking to Ryan’s aide, Jackie Speier, and panicked. They’d been ordered to steer clear of visitors. He sprinted to find his dad, who told him to collect his two older sisters and meet up at the sawmill.
Al Simon was already there with his daughters and father, Jose Simon.
There was no time to wait—they needed to leave now, Bogue said.
But Simon couldn’t find his boy, Alvin, Jr. He wanted to return to the central area. “I’m gonna get him, and I’ll be right back,” he said. Bogue promised his friend they’d wait for him; the two men had forged a path to freedom together and together they would hike it out.
But Al Simon didn’t return. Finally the party decided to return to the pavilion to look for him. They found a growing number of defectors and decided to join them.
Congressman Ryan told the Bogues that the truck was too full; they’d have to wait for a second load out.
“There won’t be another load,” Edith Bogue retorted.
Jim Jones walked up to Jim Bogue and threw his arm around his shoulder.
“You know you don’t have to go,” Jones said.
Bogue just looked at the ground and shook his head.
“If you do go, you’ll be welcomed back anytime,” Jones said. “Even some of those who have lied against us have come back.”
Bogue just let him talk. He had nothing more to say to him.
[pullquote align="center"]‘Help us get out of Jonestown,’ the note said.[/pullquote]
* * *
The sky had been swirling with dark clouds all morning and now a giant wind heaved through the pavilion, sending papers aloft and rocking the wooden planters hanging from the rafters. It was if all the tension in Jonestown had condensed in the sky above it and had now, on this final, horrible day, transmogrified into its own physical force. The clouds split open, rain drummed the pavilion’s metal roof, drowning talk, stifling movement. A moat formed around the structure’s edges.
Jones sat defeated as his aides pressed in around him. He didn’t listen to their reasoning that too few people had left to justify any drastic action. He simmered with rage, telling his lawyer that those who were leaving were traitors. He narrowed his eyes with hatred behind his dark glasses, licking his dry lips repeatedly, intent on his diabolical plan.
Tommy saw his buddy Brian Davis in the crowd.
“Why don’t you come on?” Tommy asked him.
“I can’t go,” Brian said. He had a weird flat look on his face. His father, a true believer, stood beside him.
As the defectors carried their baggage down the walkways, their roommates, relatives, co-workers, friends, and adversaries watched, huddled in doorways, eyes darting, chewing their cuticles. “Goodbyes” seemed beside the point.
As Al Simon walked his kids toward the dump truck with his father, his estranged wife appeared. She pulled Alvin Jr. from his grandfather’s arms and shrieked at her husband:
“You bring those kids back here! Don’t you take my kids!”
Jose Simon snatched up his grandson again and cradled him to his chest like a baby, then starts toward the truck again. The television camera zooms in: the grandfather’s face is grimly determined, the boy’s eyes wide with anguish. They hurry down the muddy path and catch up to Simon, who carries Summer while Crystal, lopes beside him. The two men walk shoulder to shoulder, casting nervous glances behind them.
They almost made it.
[pullquote align="center"]‘You bring those kids back here! Don’t you take my kids!’[/pullquote]
Jones’s lawyers intervened; Simon couldn’t just take the kids. Congressman Ryan offered to remain at the settlement to negotiate the custody matter but as he talked to the lawyers, a burly ex-marine named Don Sly rushed from the crowd and put a knife to the congressman’s throat. The lawyers pulled him off and urged Ryan to leave—for his own safety. The politician was clearly shaken—as a representative of the United States government, he thought his position would afford him respect and protection in Jonestown.
The defectors crowded into a huge dump truck. Ryan, shirt ripped from the tussle, climbed into the cab. The drive to the airstrip took forever. Halfway to the front gate, the truck stopped so the television crew could film a few last shots of the jungle. The defectors protested. “Grab your sisters and hit the jungle if anything goes down,” Tommy’s dad told him.
At the airstrip, more anxiety: the airplanes that were supposed to be waiting weren’t there.
Fifteen minutes later, a five-seater Cessna appeared, followed, several minutes later, by a 20-seat Guyana Airways Twin Otter. NBC’s Bob Brown filmed them landing. In the background, you can see a group of men huddle together then walk to the tractor-trailer, which was parked next to the smaller plane. Speier started making seat assignments. There were 30 people but only 26 seats. The defectors boarded first. She told the reporters that some of them would have to wait and fly out the following day. They protested, each eager to file their Jonestown story before the others. An Amerindian child ran onto the plane, and Speier was trying to coax him out when the passengers noticed the tractor trailer barreling toward them across the airfield.
Driving it was Stanley Gieg, a handsome 19-year-old from the San Francisco suburb of Walnut Creek. Gieg stopped 30 feet away from the Otter, parallel to its open gangway. Five men who’d been crouched in the trailer bed, stood, holding guns. They hopped to the ground and started shooting as they walked toward the plane. They shot out the nose wheel, then trained their guns on people.
Tommy was sitting directly in front of the gangway. “Duck down!” someone yelled, and everyone—including the pilot and co-pilot—dove to the floor. The woman in front of Tommy, wasn’t fast enough. A bullet hit the back of her head and her brain landed in the seat next to her. Tommy jumped up to close the door, putting himself in the line of fire. He knew they’d all die if he didn’t. He pulled on the cables, but the gangway cables were too heavy. His sister Teena jumped up and together they closed it. Tommy was sprayed with shot in his calf and Teena took a .22 bullet in hers.
The assailants walked to the other side of the plane, firing their guns. Ryan ran around the front of the plane, before crumpling to the dirt grabbing his neck. “I’ve been shot,” he said.
NBC cameraman Brown continued filming the attack until he was hit with a slug. In the raw footage, he groans loudly before the film dissolves into gray static.
As the passengers inside the Otter watch from the windows, the gunmen stalked among the wounded, shooting them point blank. Dead were Parks, Brown, Harris,
Greg Robinson, a photographer for the San Francisco Examiner, and Leo Ryan—the only U.S. congressman to be assassinated.
Once the attackers drove off, Tommy lowered the gangway. The survivors got out and were starting to regroup when someone yelled, “they’re coming back!”
Tommy grabbed his sister Teena and sprinted for the bush.
Back in Jonestown, Jones summoned his followers to the pavilion one last time. He told them the congressman was dead and that the Guyanese army would arrive at any moment—to torture and kill them. “We had better not have any of our children left when it’s over,” he said.
The FBI would collect Jones’s final speech from the tape recorder beside his chair. The “Death Tape,” as it became known, ran for 44 minutes, and included more than 30 edits where Jones stopped and started recording. After one early edit, Jones warns a “Ruby” that she’ll regret what she said—if she doesn’t die first. A survivor would later state that high school principal Dick Tropp also opposed Jones’s plan, calling it “insane.” We’ll never know how many others he silenced.
On the tape, Jones’ voice is sometimes slurred. Probably he is high. He lisps some words beginning with “s.” “Suicide” becomes “thuicide,” “simple” sounds like “thimple.” His autopsy report would reveal that his tissue contained levels of the sedative pentobarbital that were “within the toxic range,” evidence of long-time abuse of barbiturates.
Only one person is heard opposing Jim Jones on the tape, and that is Christine Miller, a 60-year-old native of Brownsville, Texas.
Miller: I feel that as long as there’s life, there’s hope. That’s my faith.
Jones: Well— someday everybody dies. Some place that hope runs out, because everybody dies.
Miller: I’m not saying I’m afraid to die.
Jones: I don’t think you are.
Miller: I look about at the babies and I think they deserve to live, you know?
Jones: I agree. But don’t they also deserve much more, they deserve peace.
Miller: When we destroy ourselves, we’re defeated. We let them, the enemies, defeat us.
Jones: We will win. We win when we go down.
Miller: I think we all have a right to our own destiny as individuals. I have a right to choose mine, and everybody else had a right to choose theirs.
She was shouted down. An elderly man took the microphone, crying. “Dad, we’re all ready to go. If you tell us we have to give our lives now, we’re ready—I’m pretty sure all the rest of the sisters and brothers are with me.”
He is roundly applauded. The tide had turned in Jones’ favor. He’d been goading them toward this night for years.
Jones: Please get us some medication. It’s simple. It’s simple. There’s no convulsions with it. It’s just simple. Just, please get it. Before it’s too late. The GDF (Guyana Defense Force) will be here, I tell you. Get movin’, get movin’. Don’t be afraid to die. If these people land out here, they’ll torture our children, they’ll torture our people, they’ll torture our seniors. We cannot have this.
Parents try to console their children. Lovers embrace. Confused seniors wonder what’s happening. Jonestown guards circle the pavilion, guns trained on the cowering residents—they can either take the “potion” or be shot.
Jones is impatient.
Jones: Have you got the medication here?! You’ve got to move!”
From the school tent, aides carry a large steel drum containing a dark purple liquid. Dr. Schacht mixed his toxic cocktail carefully. It contains potassium cyanide, valium, chloral hydrate (used to put babies and small children to sleep for surgery) potassium chloride (used to stop the heart muscle in lethal injections) and Flavor-Aid, a cheap Kool-Aid knockoff. Nurses fill paper cups and syringes with the poison and residents are told to form a line, mothers and babies first.
It’s impossible to determine how much time passes between edits on the Death Tape. The tape is recycled; whenever the mike falls silent, there is a ghostly bleed through of the Delfonics’ 1968 hit “I’m Sorry.” The music would later be misconstrued by some, including FBI analysts, to be live organ music, as if a funereal march played while people lined up to die.
As Jones talks, trying to soothe the congregation, kids scream. High-pitched, terrified screams. “Don’t tell them they’re dying!” Jones tells parents. He reassures them that it’s only “a little rest, a little rest.” Poisoned parents, weeping, carry their poisoned daughters and sons into the dark field next to the pavilion, cradling them as best they can as they begin to writhe and froth at the mouth. They watch their kids die, then begin to convulse themselves.
Jones tapes his last lie for posterity: “We didn’t commit suicide, we committed an act of revolutionary suicide protesting the conditions of an inhumane world.”
He descends from his throne and pulls residents who hesitate toward the vat.
After watching his people die in agony, Jones chose a quicker death. It would be interesting to know his last, drug-sludged thought as he placed the barrel of his .38 Smith & Wesson revolver to his right temple and pulled the trigger. He’d accomplished his deepest desire: soon, people all over the world would know his name. It would be synonymous with evil.
* * *
As Tommy and Teena plunged through the jungle, the small holes peppering his calf hemorrhaged blood. Pure adrenaline kept him moving. He used the survival skills the Amerindians taught him, leading his sister in circles and walking up streams to keep their attackers at bay.
He grew delirious from the blood loss. He thought he saw a man leaning against a tree, smoking a cigarette. He grew convinced that birdcalls were actually made by the Jonestown thugs as they signaled their positions to each other and zeroed in for the kill.
At the Port Kaituma rum shop where the other airstrip survivors had taken refuge, Jim Bogue told reporters he wasn’t worried about his son. “He knows the bush,” he boasted.
But Tommy lacked the primary tool for jungle survival: a knife. Without one, they couldn’t eat. They gulped down muddy river water. By the third morning, his leg smell like rotten meat and maggots infested the bullet holes. He could barely walk. He’d see a light in the distance, and limp toward it, thinking it was a way out of the jungle, only to find it was an opening in the canopy, a light well. He and Teena sunk to the jungle floor, dejected, when they heard the splashing of boat oars. “Tommy Bogue!” called a lilting Guyanese voice. It was one of the Amerindians who’d taught him how to survive in the bush.
When rescuers carried him into the rum shop on a stretcher, for the second time in his life, Tommy Bogue saw his father cry.
* * *
* * *
Julia Scheeres is the author of the memoir Jesus Land, which was a New York Times and London Times bestseller. A Thousand Lives: The Untold Story of Jonestown was named one of the “Top 10 Books About the 1970s” by the Guardian and was named a “best book of the year” by the San Francisco Chronicle and the Boston Globe. She lives in Berkeley, California, with her husband and two kids.
It’s a wonderful time to be a nerd on the internet, more or less. There are inclusive spaces almost everywhere, and many of these inclusive communities are doing a great job holding gatekeepers and tastemakers responsible for the chronic lack of diversity in mainstream media properties. Nerds have become the best kind of pop/geek culture critics by […]
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I still have two of your voicemails.
Those voicemails riled me up when you left them. Marry that sweet man of yours! you told me. You loved Anthony the moment you met him. And why wouldn’t you? He exudes loving patience, something you had so little opportunity to experience in your life.
Just drive to Vegas and marry him! you followed up, in your living room, on the phone, in your voicemails. It’s really not that far, and you’ll be glad you did! Even if he’s bad at finances. What couple doesn’t argue over money?
I grumbled that I’d stop taking your calls if you kept trying to push marriage on me. You knew that wasn’t what I wanted. I’d hid under the table as your own husband beat you black and blue. I’d heard your screams as you tried to keep him from hurting my siblings and me, too. I’d absorbed every single word of blame others spoke not only when you tried to leave, but afterward, too:
You should’ve left sooner!
You should never have left!
He wouldn’t have beat you if you’d been a better wife!
I never wanted that. Never. And isn’t abstinence the best protection? Never marry and there’s no need for escape.
That was the idea. But then, the idea crumbled little by little in the face of my reality: that I had a partner who sometimes felt like another child, but more often was my rock. My sounding board. My comfort.
I had to say “yes” when he asked the second time. I wasn’t saying “yes” to your marriage, or your husband, but “yes” to a lifetime with a man who guides by partnership, not force. I wasn’t saying “yes” to your pushing, but to him. All of him, for the rest of my life.
And yet, when I got married, my “yes” to him felt a little like a “yes” to you, too. I chose your best friend to give me away. I felt you with us as I stood in the sunshine and prepared to say yes, yes, yes. I wept, but they were tears of yes. Wholehearted, unabashed yes.
As I celebrated my first anniversary earlier this month, I paused to look at your voicemails. I didn’t listen to them. I didn’t need to. But I did wish I could return them. I wished I could call you back and tell you, “I did it, Mom. I married him. You were right all along.” I wanted to tell you everything I’ve learned over the last year, and ask you about everything I still don’t understand. I knew I couldn’t. You don’t have a phone or a phone number anymore.
I also knew I’d be writing you a letter soon. What I’d say, I didn’t know, but I knew I had to tell you whatever was in my heart when I sat down to write it.
I didn’t know what I’d write until opened the package Madeline sent me this morning. One small box was a birthday present for me; the other, a belated birthday present for Li’l D.
Madeline sent me a tape. Specifically, she sent me a compilation tape I’d made in August 1995. I quickly tried to calculate where I would have been when I made it. I would have been sixteen, newly graduated from high school, and living–briefly–back at your house. You’d have sung certain songs with me and shaken your head at others. “Is this music?” you’d have asked, not meanly, nor judgingly, just trying to keep me close with open conversation as I tried to pull away further. Faster.
Li’l D opened his present as I remembered sixteen. Madeline had sent him a Little Golden Book. You loved those books more than any of the countless others you brought home in my childhood, telling me and my siblings that knowledge would bring us freedom. It would be our key out of poverty.
“Read it to me, Mama!” Li’l D shouted. “Read it, please!” I told him I would, but that I wanted to start my tape first.
“How do you play it?” he asked. I showed him. We paused, then gazed at the tape player in mutual anticipation.
Tracy Chapman’s “She’s Got Her Ticket” filled the room, and you were in its notes, its wistfulness, its dream of something better on the other side of a plane ride. I stood with my son and felt you in its notes, but also with you in your own living room, where Tracy Chapman once played incessantly.
Two months ago, Li’l D heard her for the first time. Sure, we’d played her before, but it was never more than background noise to Li’l D. This time, Li’l D loved her. He asked Anthony all kinds of questions about her, starting with one you often fielded from me: “Is this really a girl? No, really?”
For days he only wanted to listen to her. “More Tracy Chapman, please!” he’d chant. “More, more, more!” And, oh! I could feel you smiling at the goodness of my child, your grandchild, requesting this music you’d have lovingly shared with him.
Back in today, I’d promised Li’l D a book. After I’d settled onto our new rug, he nestled himself into my lap and helped me hoist his little brother into his lap. We read his new book nestled together just like that, with Tracy crooning in the background.
I read through tears. Like on my wedding day, they were tears of yes. Yes, you found your ticket. Yes, you flew away. Yes, I feel you here anyway, in every tear, every laugh, every snuggle with my children. I feel you especially profoundly today, our shared birthday. I am now 36. You would have turned 57 today, if only you hadn’t stopped breathing at 52.
I wasn’t sold on kids. I wasn’t dead set against them the way I was against marriage, but didn’t really see a place for them in my life. There on the rug today, reading a Little Golden Book to my two little boys, I thanked my lucky stars for the millionth time that God laughs when people plan.
These boys, this husband, this life, none of it was what I envisioned for myself. You‘d envisioned it for me and it irritated me.
But it’s better than anything–everything–I’d envisioned. Better than money, better than power, better than fame.
I hold these boys in my arms every day. I feel your arms around me when I hold them.
I feel your heart, your smile, your love. I say thanks for Thunder Thighs, my favorite superhero.
You always begged me not to write about you. You thought I’d write about how you beat my siblings and me, how you yelled at us, how you could barely feed us and only kept us in a home by selling other people’s trash. I do write about these things, because they’re part of you. But they’re a small part, so enormously insignificant compared to your laughter, your love, your lessons in forgiveness, our birthday trips to Farrell’s and Pietro’s. I wish I’d written more about you in your life, so you could have seen how greatly your loving acts overshadowed your lost and tired ones. I wish I could’ve started writing sooner, or that you could’ve lived longer to see your love through my eyes.
I wish you could’ve heard that sweet man of mine talking Tracy Chapman with Li’l D. But, you know, it kinda feels okay that you couldn’t hear with your own ears, because you are in my heart, in my footsteps, in my snuggles with my sons every day, and I am happy to keep listening for you. To keep loving for you.
To keep reading Little Golden Books. To try forgiving. To listen to Tracy Chapman and be thankful, so thankful, for the gift of taking you with me.
Happy birthday, Mom.
On our birthday and always,
I am alit by–and with–your love.
To appropriately describe the power of Texts From Jane Eyre and Other Conversations With Your Favorite Literary Characters, the debut book by Mallory Ortberg — the funniest writer on the Internet and the co-creator of the wonderful website The Toast — it seems best to list the places where I laughed while reading it: on the subway, laughing hard enough that the L train glared at me; in bed with a wicked case of insomnia (my chortling woke up my husband); at the Flavorwire office, where we all fought over who got to read the book first.
The beautiful thing about Texts From Jane Eyre, based on Ortberg’s original column for The Hairpin, is that it offers exactly what it says on the cover: the Western canon is parodied and spoofed through the silly modern invention of texting. Ortberg’s comedy is shot through with love and deep literary knowledge, highlighting the silly and outrageous subtext bubbling under classics from Lord Byron to Nancy Drew. It’s hilarious, wickedly smart work that also serves as a fantastic reading list. It was a pleasure to talk with Ortberg at the Flavorwire offices during her recent visit New York.
When did you realize that you were good at writing jokes like the ones in Texts?
I really love doing really stupid jokes. I remember in the sixth grade when my dad showed me Monty Python and the Holy Grail with my best friend and I drove everyone crazy by reciting every scene verbatim. So, I’ve always loved bits. But definitely, in the last three to four years is when I really started feeling like, man, making jokes about literary characters for a short amount of time is what I was put on this earth to do. So glad I found a very specific calling early in life.
I was reading your book at the same time as Megan Amran’s Science… For Her! And both books felt like an extension of the kind of manic female voice that Edith Zimmerman was using at The Hairpin when she was the editor.
Totally, and I think Caity Weaver [at Gawker] or Patricia Lockwood [poet, Motherland Fatherland Homelandsexuals] probably fall under the same umbrella, but they’re all pretty distinct. I wouldn’t say that any of us are clones of each other at all, but there’s definitely that wonderful, unhinged, zany sense of, “I want to be weird and funny and you’re gonna love it.”
Let’s talk for a minute about the Transcendentalists, like Henry David Thoreau and his Concord crew. What was up with those guys?
Somebody could write a long, thoughtful essay about how Thoreau was misunderstood, how the purpose of Walden was never “I’m going to live a life of complete solitude,” and so he shouldn’t necessarily get crap for having people come visit him and bring him marmalade. But I don’t want to write a long essay about that; I want to write jokes about how he steals pies from his neighbors and he talks to his friends late at night in Boston asking them to bring him stuff.
And his parents were pencil factory owners.
He didn’t even make his own cabin, and he literally was just like, “Can I use your cabin for two years, and then get really famous and let me not pay you or anything?” It’s such a dirtbag move, like, “Hey man, can I use your lake house for a while and write my book there?” I mean, it’s fine, but it’s very silly, and people need to treat it with the silliness that it merits. He was like, “I’m not paying taxes, whatever.” I think he owes the world a few apologies.
Did you read every book in preparation for Texts?
Kind of! I had already read all of them. I went to the kind of college that really does say, “Here is the Western canon, read it.” Which is definitely not the only thing you want to do with your English major, you definitely want to reach beyond that, but it was pretty traditional in that sense. So I read the Western canon and have a lot of thoughts about it, apparently.
It was just stuff that I felt really familiar with. I grew up in a house where there was a lot of reading. My parents were both pastors, so there was a lot of Little Women, and European and white North American classics. I love, love, love and have read a lot of other stuff, but the Western canon felt kind of like something I knew intimately. And it was full of so much silliness that it was often — like, I love the Western canon — but it’s sort of silly and it’s full of assholes. Generally people either say either, “Let’s not talk about this because we talk about it too much,” or, “Let’s talk about it very seriously and take it very seriously and Hemingway was very serious and he’s very important.” But these people are goofballs.
The Sun Also Rises is insane.
I cannot tell you how full of joy I am that his granddaughter [Mariel Hemingway] is now like a Zen lifestyle blogger. I don’t know if she blogs [ed. note: her personal blog is titled: “Living a Holistic Life”], but she writes very meditative books with, “Fill your house with lightness, and drink green juices, and stretch,” and he would’ve just gone nuts. He would be miserable. I wish that all of those guys had grandkids who all they did was do yoga and scented themselves and avoided bread. It just would’ve driven them crazy. Like, I wish so much that F. Scott Fitzgerald had like a gay grandson who just taught deep breathing.
There’s a distant relative of his who is a twee musician [Blake Hazard].
Good! May they all have twee descendants. Or simply centered, balanced people who treat the people in their lives well, as sort of like a counterbalance to, “Well I’m going to shoot every animal in Kenya and then die.” Well, where did he die? He shot himself in Florida or something? Who cares? He shot himself.
Do you feel a profound power, running The Toast and being your own boss?
Yes, I do. I really like it. It’s really cool because [Toast co-founder] Nicole [Cliffe] is my favorite person in the world, so I love working with her, and I always want to please her. I love what we get to do. I have a really high sense of motivation, as opposed to just like, “Oh, I feel like writing jokes today.” Being your own boss is really, really fun. I think it’s great. If you want to do it, you should give it a try.
It seems like you just emerged on the Internet fully formed as a comic writer. Where did that come from?
Well, I started writing on the Internet in 2011, and I was doing recaps of The Vampire Diaries for free for a website that I don’t even remember the name. After that I was working in publishing and writing a ton on the side, and I started writing for The Hairpin and then started writing stuff for The Atlantic and Gawker and The Gloss and a couple other places. It certainly wasn’t overnight. I spent a couple years trying to find out what my voice was. Turns out it was just the one that comes out of me when I talk. I was able to spend a lot of time doing it and quit my job and emerged like Venus from the sea, fully dressed in a bathrobe.
Do you get exhausted? You write so many jokes all day long, and you’re really good at it. How do you have that energy?
I conserve all my energy by moving very little. I go into like a physical hibernation. I didn’t know that this is what I loved to do until I started doing it. I think a lot of people have a talent for writing a novel. It turns out I’m just really at my best and happiest when I have to come up with a lot of jokes throughout the day. And write 400 words about them. I don’t know what I did before Twitter. I love Twitter, and it was made for me. I had no idea that it existed and then as soon as it came along I was like, “Oh, thank god, I’ve needed this all along and where have you been?”
Where do you see yourself in five years?
Probably still running The Toast. Honestly, this is the type of job I would want to do until I die. I hope that in five years The Toast has more money than anyone in the world, and I have at least one item of clothing that’s made of gold. Cause my dream is, remember the episode of The Simpsons where Homer ends up winning the lottery and he turns into a man that is ten feet tall and is made of gold and is covered in rupees? That’s the goal. That’s the dream.
“By three methods we may learn wisdom: First, by reflection, which is noblest; second, by imitation, which is easiest; and third by experience, which is the bitterest.” – Confucius
So there’s all sorts of hub-bub about Mostly Other People Do the Killing‘s new album Blue (Hot Cup Records), which is a note-for-note re-creation of the acclaimed Miles Davis’ masterpiece Kind of Blue (Columbia Records). Criticism of Blue ranges between “How dare they?” to “What was the point?”
From my bunny point of view, I don’t understand what all the fuss is about. According to Confucius, Imitation is one of the three methods of gaining wisdom. While the other two, Reflection and Experience, may sound more respectable, Confucius doesn’t actually state that any one method is better than the other. We may think of Reflection and Experience as better, but it could be that those are just the methods that are easier to brag about. No one wants to brag about having Imitated someone. However, Imitation should be respected, because it shows humbleness in the acknowledgement that others are better than oneself, and at the same time it shows confidence in being able to admit that you are Imitating.
For those not familiar with Kind of Blue, this is what it is in a nutshell:
I’m just a bunny so I can’t really explain what makes the album so great, but I know it has something to do with it being made up of seven legendary musicians who were improvising in a style that no one was yet familiar with— modal jazz. Modal jazz is hard to explain, but it’s basically when improvisation is based on scales (7 sequential notes in a certain key), as opposed to a chords (3 or 4 notes of the same key played together). So Kind of Blue was an album where musicians who had each individually achieved greatness using improvisation based on 3-4 notes, were brought together and were given twice as many notes and twice as much freedom to work with.
There’s a lot more to this, but I’m just a bunny. You can get expert information here. All I can say is that it grooves with a familiar beat, but it’s still unpredictable. The solos sing and are seamless; they don’t come off as a thing apart from the song. It makes me feel happy. It makes me want to close my eyes when I listen.
As for Blue:
Of course musicians should want to follow in the footsteps of Kind of Blue, and ideally musicians they would do it with their own music, but they can only get there through the learning methods of Confucius; all which have drawbacks. Reflection, while noble, limits oneself to his or her existing knowledge. Experience risks having gigs that are painful, both for the musicians and audience. Imitation has its pitfalls too, but if done well, accomplishment is guaranteed.
The Wall Street Journal quoted Jimmy Cobb, the only surviving member from Kind of Blue, as saying that when he first listened to Blue, he thought he was listening to the original. Mostly Other People Do the Killing (a band that is ironically usually described as unique and unorthodox) should be proud of themselves for being able to imitate the album so well. I know jazz is supposed to all about improvising, but by imitating the band got closer to knowing the genius of the album, which is something that will undoubtedly flow into their own original work eventually.
The Wall Street Journal also quotes jazz historian Dan Morgenstern, who said “Why bother creating a masterpiece that already exists?” With this, I have to agree. While this is an accomplishment for the band, I don’t see where it can go from here. Many will listen to the album, but if they want to buy it, they might as well buy the original. This project could be highly successful on tour, because it could be the closest that anyone who wasn’t around in 1959 can get to hearing it live. Unfortunately, bandleader Moppa Elliott, said that the project was not meant to tour, but maybe they will reconsider, and who knows… maybe they can even get Jimmy Cobb to sit in.
Filed under: Album Reviews, Jazz Lessons, Journal Tagged: Bill Evans, Blue, Cannonball Adderley, Columbia Records, Confucius, Dan Morgenstern, Hot Cup Records, imitation, jazz, Jimmy Cobb, John Coltrane, Kind of Blue, Miles Davis, Moppa Elliott, Mostly Other People Do the Killing, Paul Chambers, Velvet, Wall Street Journal, Wynton Kelly
Freshly Pressed: Editors’ Picks
Do something pointless for 20 minutes this week.
Do something devoid of meaning, devoid of effectiveness, something having little or no sense or purpose.
That may be tough for you to pull off. Our American culture has always been purposeful and effective. We pushed West to get more and more land. Manifest Destiny filled our scruffy settlers with meaning and they pushed. Full of purpose and meaning, we pushed for bigger and better and faster and more. We made cars. Then more cars and bigger cars. Rockets were even faster than cars. We shot upward full of purpose into space. We planted a flag on the land of the moon, that beckoning frontier. We have always been an active culture, pushing effectively for bigger-better-faster.
Our wages grew the whole time. Our success grew and grew, we were effective and purpose-filled. By the 1970s we led the world in many ways. We had more food, more money and more success than any other country. Our food and shelter was as big and grand and as fast as any culture in the history of mankind has ever known. And it showed. The 1976 Cadillac Sixty Special was 20 feet long.
And we kept growing. We began to grow in new ways. We’re still growing, pushing effectively, full of bigger and better and faster and more purpose. It means success. It means beating everybody else.
We now lead the world in obesity, pharmaceutical drug use and the percentage of our population with anxiety. We use more cocaine than any country in the world. We have complained of an obesity epidemic for a decade now, and fast food revenue has grown each and every year in that decade. We have bigger-better-faster food. Bigger people, better and faster at consuming more of everything. We have bigger-better-faster sex. We produce 89 percent of the world’s pornography. Our export is an effective and purposeful push for more and faster everything, because that means better living to us.
Imagine riding a bike. You push the pedals to move forward. If you don’t push, you don’t go anywhere. We’re all aware of that, and we think of riding a bike as being about effective effort against the pedals. Turning a wheel is a cycle, yet we tend to be aware of only half of what we’re doing. Allowing is part of that process, acceptance is part of that process, co-ordination is part of that process. Try pushing with both legs and pushing all the time. Give it all that you’ve got, when you feel the pedals push back against you push harder. What will happen? You’ll push off of your seat, standing tall and rigid as you coast to a stop, and tip over in the dirt.
Once upon a time, it made sense to push for bigger-better-faster food shelter and sex. That has been an effective “meaning of life” for maybe 83,000 generations, so it makes sense that it gives us purpose. It worked for our great-great-grandfathers, it worked for our fathers. We want to push west and up, and push forth into society for more of what sustains life.
Yet quite possibly for the very first time in any culture ever, pushing effectively towards more effectiveness and purpose and making bigger-better-faster food, shelter and sex at all times – is not enhancing our quality of life.
What if we learned to value other things as well?
Do something pointless. For 20 minutes this week, do something that means nothing at all. Get nothing done.
Turn your phone off. Find a quiet place to sit down, and make yourself comfortable. Don’t even think. Don’t even try not to think.
Thoughts will come. Let them pass you by. Imagine walking on the streets of Seattle as people pass you by. Do you grab them by the arm and find out where they’ll take you? Maybe you’ll go to Pike Place Market and they’ll buy you a paper sack full of hot fresh doughnuts. Maybe they’ll lead you down a dark alley if you follow them. Yes, you’ll be curious where your thoughts might lead. Don’t try and figure out if the thoughts are going somewhere good or bad, and don’t try shoving them out of the way. Let them walk on by you.
Count your breath. One, two, three, four, then repeat.
You will feel silly. You will feel as if you are getting nothing done. And you’re not. This is a pointless activity, as silly as picking up a heavy object and putting it down repeatedly..
Doing something pointless for no reason may be the most challenging 20 minutes of your week. Don’t do it because it will bring meaning and effectiveness and purpose to the rest of your week.
Do it for no reason at all.