Yoko Ono was sitting backstage at the Barclays Center in Brooklyn, frail and dressed in black, and turned to Nadya Tolokonnikova and Masha Alyokhina with words of wisdom. “Every step you take will change the world,” she said.
The two women, recently released from jail as members of Pussy Riot, possibly the world’s most famous, undefinable punk collective, had just finished getting 18,000 people to scream “Russia will be free!” in unison, and were now antsy and fidgeting, saying nothing; they don’t really understand English, which doesn’t help. Their appearance was the most anticipated moment of this all-star concert organized by Amnesty International to raise the profile of political prisoners worldwide, despite the fact that they are not, and never were, an actual band.
“I did things like the ‘bed-in,’ and at the time people didn’t know,” Ono continued, “but now it’s all over the world.” She waited for a reply.
Finally, Nadya’s husband, Petya Verzilov, chimed in: “Yoko, we’re staying four more days in New York. If you have time, we’d love to meet.” With that, they were off, ushered toward the arena’s garage and into a waiting SUV, and Ono strolled back to her dressing room. Madonna, who introduced them onstage, was expecting them at dinner.
The six weeks since Masha, 25, and Nadya, 24, were suddenly released from prison as part of an amnesty issued by President Vladimir Putin have been a whirlwind. When they were first arrested in February 2012 after performing an anti-Putin punk anthem in Moscow’s main cathedral, they were unknowns, disguised by balaclavas in a video that would become the single best-known piece of art to emerge from post-Soviet Russia. One chaotic, revelatory trial and lengthy prison sentence later, they find themselves being flown first-class to Singapore, Holland, Ireland, Sweden, and now New York. Berlin is next. They’ve met government ministers and rock stars, drag queens, and Stephen Colbert.
Nadya and Masha entered prison at the height of a promising era. Moscow had risen up against Vladimir Putin. Protest was alive; change appeared to be around the corner. Pussy Riot took this further than anyone, adopting striking visuals and a form of protest Russia had rarely seen. Wearing bright clothes and masks, they would storm sites — Red Square, churches, fashion runways — and shout and dance around while someone filmed. Though often referred to as a band, they never actually played instruments during these guerrilla performances. They never had plans to put out an album — that would be against their anti-capitalist ethos, they said. Their arrest signaled the beginning of the end. But they don’t seem to have realized this. In the two years since they were arrested, a small handful of opposition activists have issued reports on corruption, environmental catastrophe, and decline in freedoms, upping their output in the lead-up to the Sochi Olympics. It lands in a void.
“I don’t know where this apathy comes from,” Nadya told me the day before the Barclays Center show, standing in fresh slush outside the the U.S. mission to the United Nations, where they held a closed-door meeting with envoy Samantha Power. Usually, Nadya speaks in slogans, short and clipped statements full of unflagging determination, always on, playing the part of the professional revolutionary. Now she was confused. In prison they fought the system — writing endless complaint letters, going on hunger strikes, trying to publicize the horrific conditions within. “If you’re apathetic in jail, that’s it, that’s the end.” Masha added: “There’s some apathy in society, we have to admit. [Putin] achieved that. Our task is to turn that around.”
There is no such disinterest abroad. Abroad, Masha and Nadya are rock stars. They are surrounded by hangers-on and handlers. At home, they are opposition activists and wacky performance artists. At home, things are more complicated.
Forty-five minutes before the Barclays Center show was to begin, I got an email, subject line: “An Open Letter From Pussy Riot.” It read, in English, that the group was “very pleased” by Masha and Nadya’s release, before softly praising their decision to focus on prisoners’ rights. “Unfortunately for us, they are being so carried away with the problems in Russian prisons, that they completely forgot about the aspirations and ideals of our group — feminism, separatist resistance, fight against authoritarianism and personality cult, all of which, as a matter of fact, was the case of their unjust punishment.” And then the kicker: Masha and Nadya are no longer part of Pussy Riot, because of their devotion to their new cause. “Unfortunately, we can not congratulate them with this in person, because they refuse to have any contact with us. But we appreciate their choice and sincerely wish them well in their new career.”
As we’re in our seats before they take the stage, I ask Masha and Nadya if they’ve seen Katya’s letter. They look at me and smile and say nothing.
The letter was signed by six masked members of Pussy Riot, leading with one named Garadzha. It was the name Katya Samutsevich sometimes used.
I called Katya a few weeks after Masha and Nadya got out of prison.
“Honestly, we’re not really in touch,” she said through the crackle of a Skype call reaching from Moscow to New York. “They’re totally involved in their new project and it’s really hard to talk to them. I saw Masha once, Nadya not at all. We haven’t found time. It’s difficult.”
It was around 3 a.m. in Moscow and Katya, 31, had eaten and napped after braving the January cold to join several hundred other people at an annual march commemorating the double murder, five years ago, of a crusading lawyer named Stanislav Markelov and Anastasia Baburova, a young journalist for Russia’s only opposition newspaper, Novaya Gazeta. The two were gunned down in broad daylight — Markelov by radical nationalists upset at his defense of anti-fascist activists, Baburova caught in the crossfire trying to save him. Their framed photographs sit under an arch in central Moscow, in the shadow of the gold-domed Christ the Savior Cathedral, to mark the spot where they were killed. Masha and Nadya had called on their followers to attend. They were there in spirit, but physically in Singapore, flown in by the organizers of the inaugural Prudential Eye Awards, a new program promoting contemporary artists in Asia and sponsored by companies like Rolls-Royce and Singapore Airlines, as well as London’s Saatchi Gallery.
I asked Katya how she felt about the release of her two former groupmates, but Katya has never been really good at talking about feelings. Ask her about art or protests or lawsuits and she’s fine. Ask her how she felt when her mom died or when a nation turned against her, and she clams up. “I feel physical lightness,” she said, eventually. “For a long time it was like this heavy rock. They were jailed for so long and now it’s over. More than anything, I feel lightness.”
Katya was there when five members of the group, as well as a small handful of journalists and Verzilov, Nadya’s husband, walked into Christ the Savior Cathedral to perform their anthem against Putin. She was there in a Moscow detention center where the three women were subsequently held, on separate floors, for six months awaiting trial. She was there, inside a glass cage in a stuffy Moscow courtroom, as prosecutors and lawyers exchanged insults while a black dog growled in a corner during Russia’s trial of the century. And she was there when the three women were found guilty, sentenced to two years in prison — labor colonies, really — after being convicted under Article 213 of the Russian penal code for hooliganism motivated by religious hatred.
But that’s where their stories diverge. Six weeks after the women were sentenced in mid-August 2012, they entered a Moscow courtroom for the last time, going through the motions of asking for an appeal. Few thought it would lead to anything. The trial, like all high-profile trials in Russia, was orchestrated from above, Pussy Riot’s supporters said. Why would Putin let them out now?
Katya had switched lawyers at the last minute, and they had chosen a new approach: They would argue that Katya, kicked out of the church before the women managed to rip off their overcoats and shout and dance near the altar, hadn’t really taken part. The appeals judge bit. Katya walked free.
The accusations started immediately: The former lawyers, Mark Feygin, Nikolai Polozov, and Violetta Volkova, hinted repeatedly that Katya had made a deal with the Kremlin in exchange for her release. Katya reacted the only way she knew how. The judicial system — notoriously politicized, corrupt, and rotten — had released her, and that’s where she would turn, issuing lawsuit after lawsuit against the lawyers, trying to get them disbarred, trying to get them punished for landing the women in jail in the first place. It’s hard to believe Katya was released, in a trial watched by the whole world, without the explicit approval of someone on high. But that’s what Katya had to believe: “It’s hard to say what really happened,” she told me once. “What the documents say is that I had no real legal defense, that they violated my rights to defense.”
It was a classic divide-and-conquer move, perfected by the Kremlin over centuries. Putin, a former KGB agent drunk on an equal mix of power and paranoia, may be its best practitioner. In the process, he helped destroy Pussy Riot as the world had come to know them.
After a brief stop to check in at the Ace Hotel (“We can do any hipster shit!” Masha shouted upon entering), it was time to rush to the West Side studios of The Colbert Report. I was nervous — Masha and Nadya tend toward the serious. They were in New York on a mission. They didn’t always break into easy jokes. They had landed in New York not four hours before. Would they understand what Colbert did was sarcasm?
And would the audience understand them? At least one audience member asked, “Do you think they’re going to perform?”
Nadya and Masha defied all expectations and broke into easy banter. They teased Putin about the anti-gay law and joked about prison. They talked about Bolotnaya and invited Colbert to join Pussy Riot. They looked beautiful under the studio lights, and not at all out of place.
In December, I flew to Moscow to try to see the women, their relatives and supporters, and the people who wanted to see them jailed. They were set to walk free in March, at the end of a two-year sentence. Their arrest had ushered in a new wave of conservatism in Russia, pushed on by the Kremlin and its partner in crime, the Russian Orthodox Church.
Putin had long appealed to the church for legitimacy. Lacking any ideology of his own, Orthodoxy filled the void. Patriarch Kirill, the head of the church dogged by rumors that he had been a KGB agent in Soviet times, took up the appeal and issued grand statements. He likened anti-government protests to blasphemy. He called the Putin era a “miracle of God.” Putin repaid him in kind, with funds and property and lots of attention.
A host of new laws followed Pussy Riot’s arrest. On one day in June, the Russian parliament passed a law banning “gay propaganda” and hours later passed a law banning “insults to religious believers.”
I had begun to think of Pussy Riot as “holy fools,” a term that has existed in Russia since the 15th century. They are people who take on the affectations of madness or extreme behavior with the explicit purpose of shoving a mirror into the face of society and showing how mad it has become. For the past five centuries, they have dressed in rags and carried props, shouted from the rooftops or pretended they couldn’t speak, hung around churches and city squares. Various Russian rulers have treated them with a mix of awe and horror, harbingers of truth and dangerous outliers. Pussy Riot, with their bright clothes and crude lyrics, seemed to fit the mold. That they were arrested after a performance in a cathedral while hoping to highlight the all too close relationship between the church and state only reinforced the idea.
On a cold Wednesday morning, I stood inside the Church of St. Nicholas on Three Mountains in central Moscow. The air was filled with incense, the light was soft and gold, and dozens of people took turns approaching the icons that lined the church’s wall to kiss them or lean their heads against Jesus Christ’s feet. The service was led by the booming voice of Father Vsevolod Chaplin, one of the Russian Orthodox Church’s best-known figures. As head of the church’s Department for the Cooperation of Church and Society, he is near the very top of its leadership and acts, in effect, as its spokesman.
As the service ended and people began to stream out of the church, Chaplin invited me to join a small feast he was holding in the church’s annex just down the road. He had gathered two dozen members of the Orthodox intelligentsia — magazine editors, the head of a school for deaf children, onetime advisors to governments past. The wine was plenty, accompanied by smoked fish, beet salad, and other usual Russian fare. It was 11 a.m.
Chaplin sat at the head of the table, plump in a long black frock outfitted with a chest pocket for his iPhone. He invited me to sit to the right of him, a distinguished place for his “distinguished foreign guest,” and pointed out a man named Alexander Zaldostanov, better known as “The Surgeon,” to his left. He’s a tall man with broad shoulders and his wardrobe invariably includes leather, except for the soft black scrunchie holding back his long hair. The right side of his neck features a massive spider tattoo.
The Surgeon is the head of a biker gang called the Night Wolves. They shout about God and the church, the importance of serving God and the Kremlin, which in their rhetoric is often the same thing. The Surgeon, too, is now part of the Orthodox elite, a fixture in churches but especially on state TV, riding his motorcycle into the sunset alongside Putin. In a way, he is Putin’s crudest but clearest messenger. I asked him what the Night Wolves stand for.
“What do you mean ‘stand for’?” he asked. “Of course we are for Orthodox Christianity. As the role of the church grows in Russia and the more de-Christianization grows in the West, the more important it is for the government to be with the church. It’s great when the government provides the power and the church provides the soul.”
In the nearly two years since Pussy Riot were first arrested, Putin has used the Church to build his own brand of “family values” while presenting those opposed to him as agents of the West. He picked up the national outrage provoked by Pussy Riot’s performance, goaded on by state television, to say repeatedly over the course of six months that the country was under attack from the U.S. State Department as well as U.S. “soft power,” liberal values like human rights and acceptance of homosexuality. A slew of laws followed in June and July of 2012 — NGOs that received funding from abroad were forced to declare themselves “foreign agents”; offending religious feeling became a crime, as did the propaganda of “non-traditional relations among minors,” which was theatrical shorthand for same-sex relationships.
The laws encouraged various vigilantes to impose this new conservative vision. A group called Occupy Pedophilia began going around the country, luring gay men into meetings via online chatrooms and then humiliating them on camera before posting the result to YouTube. Orthodox groups multiplied. One, called God’s Will and led by a young man named Dmitry Enteo, became a regular at LGBT rights protests, shouting down demonstrators as godless. Once, they stormed on stage to interrupt a play at Moscow’s most storied theater, the MKhAt, founded in 1898 and home to Russia’s most famous playwright, Anton Chekhov. Enteo rushed the stage during a play that lambasted government officials and hinted at same-sex liaisons. “How can you stand this insult to our faith?” he screamed at the audience. “Why do you hate Christ so much — after all, he was crucified for us!”
The Surgeon, and his group, also took up the cause, turning from tough-guy bikers into defenders of Orthodox Christianity in general and Putin in particular. I asked him what he thought about gay people, because what else do you ask a man in a biker outfit with a massive neck tattoo? “It’s disgusting,” he said. “Especially those who support it, this snake. They’re all links in one chain — this homosexuality that’s obnoxiously making its way here. These are all processes geared toward the destruction of Orthodoxy.”
I wanted to talk more but it was time for the feast. The Surgeon invited me to visit his bikers’ club, in the north of Moscow. “Come on Saturday night,” he said. “We wanted to call it Mad Max, but that sounded too American. So we called it Bike Center.” (I stopped by briefly later in the week. It was a cavernous club filled with burly men in leather vests, sitting at tables decorated with knives and skulls and Orthodox crosses. In the middle of the room stood an ATM machine and an ad for how to get mortgages. It was that ubiquitous reminder that nothing in Russia is real.)
Chaplin is the most public face of the church’s campaign to boost conservative values, and had led the charge against Pussy Riot, saying they were doing the work of the devil and the West and sometimes both. But he is a more complicated figure, surrounding himself with relative liberals after turning to religion as a teenager in the 1980s, when that was what dissidents did to show their discontent with the Soviet government.
Chaplin took great swigs of wine and told the room I was researching holy fools. “Look at all the holy fools here!” Chaplin recalled the holy fools that hung around his neighborhood as a child. “There was Igor Notkin. He walked around in a white suit, a white hat, and collected money for his soul — he honestly said he was collecting money for vodka. It was the beginning or middle of the ‘80s.”
A magazine editor leaned over and whispered: “Craziness is contagious, you’ll see. You’ll catch it, and everything will open up to you.”
There were endless toasts, and Chaplin was getting drunk. One man, from the Kremlin administration, stood up to cheer him on. “I would like to wish that, on this holiday, as on all other holidays, we always have in front of us global — you could say, strategic — goals,” the man, Andrei Tretyakov, said, his glass still raised. “We must think in the scope not of one year, not just the present situation, but about a decade, and understand that these productive relations are the fruit of mystical and historical events.”
Chaplin smiled and drank. It was the lunch of a victor basking in his own glory. Out of nowhere he addressed the room: “There are two words that are banned from use in this building.”
His guests waited.
“Pussy Riot.” And then he laughed. Everyone laughed.
Those two words were first spoken in public on Oct. 1, 2011, when Nadya and Katya, inseparable friends since they first met in 2009, held a class at festival organized by opposition activists in Moscow’s outskirts. There had been debates and music, speeches by Russia’s leading activists: Chess grandmaster Garry Kasparov talked about upcoming parliamentary elections, anti-corruption fighter Alexey Navalny talked about ways to highlight fraud, environmentalist Evgeniya Chirikova talked about the links between ecological destruction and Russia’s ubiquitous corruption.
These were long-standing issues, but the small crowd was infused with a new anger. One week earlier, Putin had taken the stage before a crowd of apparatchiks and Kremlin youth activists gathered at one of Moscow’s Soviet-era stadiums to announce that he would be returning to the presidency after four years as prime minister, a move he had made to circumvent a constitutional ban on serving more than two consecutive terms in the Kremlin. It was a cosmetic move, but an important one to all involved — it allowed Putin to follow the letter of the law, to avoid accusations of “dictator”; it allowed Russia’s urban middle class to hope, despite themselves, that an alternative to the longtime leader was possible.
Katya and Nadya sat side by side and spoke quickly as they addressed the small crowd. “In our opinion, only when politics meets culture is something interesting born,” Nadya said into a microphone. She walked the mainly male crowd through a short history of feminism, quoting from a ’90s-era riot grrrl manifesto (“We live in a society that says women are dumb, women are bad, women are weak”) and thinkers like bell hooks. She called out Putin for his approach toward women. It was the only time she raised her voice. They went on to cite feminist bands and artists — Bikini Kill, Niki de Saint Phalle, Guerilla Girls, Pussy Riot. No one blinked an eye, or realized that Pussy Riot didn’t actually exist yet. To the crowd, they were all unknowns.
To Nadya, and to Katya, there was no way to fight Putin without feminism. It went beyond the macho antics for which he had become known — the shirtless photo shoots, the rough language (he once publicly threatened to circumcise a French journalist with whom he disagreed), the fact that his wife (whom he finally divorced last year) was hidden away from public view for years. Machismo, and a conservatism bordering on institutionalized misogyny, had become a very foundation of Putin’s policy.
When Putin first came to power on New Year’s Eve 2000, handed the presidency by Russia’s first post-Soviet leader Boris Yeltsin, his platform, insofar as it can be called one, was security. Russia was in the midst of a second war in the southern republic of Chechnya, waged by separatists and Islamist radicals, on whom the government blamed a series of apartment bombings that had killed hundreds across Russia just months before. The country was on edge, and it was tired. Putin was to be the strongman and the anti-Yeltsin, the outgoing president who was old, drunk, and plagued by indecision and health problems.
Putin waged a brutal war in Chechnya and won an uneasy peace — the republic, just 250 miles from Sochi, is now ruled by a ruthless strongman accused of an endless litany of human rights abuses, while the rebel violence has seeped beyond his borders.
Closer to home, Putin brought as many aspects of Russian public life under his control — starting with the media, moving on to oligarchs, and then to the country’s vast natural resources. It wasn’t an inherently obvious campaign; Putin always made sure to mask his moves with arcane Russian bureaucracy. When, shortly after coming to power, he brought down a channel called NTV to replace it with a friendly owner, he used tax charges. When he decided in 2003 to arrest Mikhail Khodorkovsky, then the country’s richest man and his clearest potential opponent, it wasn’t under a decree saying opposition was outlawed — it was on charges of fraud and tax evasion. When he decided to boot Royal Dutch Shell from the country’s most promising oil and gas project in the Far East, the company faced an endless slew of charges of environmental wrongdoing. Putin created a mask of theatricality to all he undertook, technically unassailable by law. The apex came with his decision to step down as president only to return four years later — he never broke the letter of the constitution, if he did violate its spirit.
The vast majority of Russians were unbothered. They had inherited this theatrical legacy from Soviet times (which featured regular elections even though there was just one party to vote for), and were happy to see the chaotic and violent 1990s, epitomized by the mess that was Yeltsin, gone. The country was back off its knees, the saying in Russia went, even as restrictions on basic freedoms grew greater.
A tiny minority disagreed. And that’s what they called themselves — the nesoglasnie, the disagreed. They were an oddball mix of Soviet-era dissidents and rebellious youth who began taking to the streets of Moscow in 2009 for protests that were regularly dispersed by police. They would shout, “We disagree!” and wait to be bundled into arrest vans. They would sit for a few hours in detention centers around Moscow, be released and pay fines, and come out the next week or next month, whenever the next protest was held. They demanded the right to gather and the right to free speech. Some were punks, others were 80 years old. All had one thing in common: They were outside the system, proud of their nonconformity, and committed to shouting Putin out, even if no one heard them.
Katya and Nadya were natives of the protest scene. They had met in 2009, when Nadya and her husband, Petya Verzilov, attended an art exhibit at Moscow’s avant-garde Rodchenko School, where Katya was a member of the first graduating class. Katya was short and quiet and socially awkward, and declared unequivocally brilliant by her professors and fellow students. Talking and making art allowed her to come out of her shell. After years of trying to live a “normal life,” working as a computer programmer at a company that serviced nuclear submarines, she finally felt at home.
Nadya and Petya had met in the dorms of Russia’s leading college, Moscow State University, drawn to each other by their mutual love of philosophy, contemporary art, and fucking shit up. “I think it really was [love at first sight],” Petya once told me as we sat in an Italian restaurant near his apartment shortly after his wife was sent to jail. “She had some knowledge of contemporary art and very few people in philosophy circles had any interest or understanding of it. So for me that was a huge surprise: A girl from Norilsk, she was 17, and she understands all this stuff — I was kind of shocked!”
They moved in together two months later. Nadya gave birth to their daughter, Gera, shortly after that. They flitted around Moscow’s underground galleries and art spaces, and in early 2007 hooked up with another couple, Oleg Vorotnikov and Natalia Sokol; together they founded Voina, an art group that built upon the Russian art tradition of shocking performance art, known as “actionism.” In that tradition, Voina married politics and art — they threw live cats around a McDonald’s to protest for workers’ rights; staged an orgy in front of a bear at Moscow’s natural history museum to protest the election of Dmitry Medvedev, whose last name derives from the Russian word for “bear”; and, in later years, drew a massive phallus on a drawbridge across from the security services’ headquarters in St. Petersburg. They were also difficult personalities, and by 2009, three years after forming, the group split into rival factions, with Nadya and Petya taking over the Moscow scene while Oleg and Natalia focused on St. Petersburg. Katya, who had been drawn into the group by Nadya and Petya, stayed with her friends.
“Nadya and Katya always had this idea that inside Voina they should create a gender, a feminist faction,” Petya said. There was never a set membership in Voina — people came and went, took part in certain performances and not in others. The feminist faction would work the same way.
Nadya and Katya drew their friends into the group. One of them was a serious young woman named Masha, whom Nadya had seen at environmental protests. She was feisty and well spoken, outraged about Russia’s environmental destruction first and foremost, and a committed vegan and mother to her son Filipp, who she’d had, like so many other Russian women, at the young age of 19.
Together they — and nearly a dozen other women — became Pussy Riot.
When I first met the group, they had no names. They had no faces.
It was late January 2012 and they were just starting to make a name for themselves after releasing a video called “Putin Pissed Himself,” featuring eight women in neon tights and dresses shouting “Revolt in Russia!” smack in the middle of Red Square. They uploaded the video to their LiveJournal account and it started making the rounds on opposition sites online. Previous clips — shouting atop scaffolding in the metro, disrupting a fashion show with a guerrilla punk performance — had gone largely unnoticed. “Putin Pissed Himself” made them the buzz of Russia’s online opposition community — because they managed to hold a punk performance on Red Square, because they cursed, and because as they did all that, they were women.
Women in Russia hold a bizarre dual role — at once carrying the nation on a day-to-day basis while almost completely absent from public life. Outside the home, (young) women are there to look pretty. They are there to have babies and cook and clean. They are not there to speak up. They are definitely not there to usher in change. By hiding their faces and raising their voices, Pussy Riot were challenging the entire social order — not just the man in the Kremlin at whom their anger was directed. I had to meet them. After a brief exchange of emails from an anonymous Gmail account, they agreed to an interview for my newspaper, The Guardian.
One snowy January evening, I emerged from the metro at Chistiye Prudy, a picturesque old part of Moscow dotted with churches and little lanes. A woman met me, wrapped in a big winter coat, a winter hat completely covering her face (with holes cut in for her eyes and mouth), and nodded her head in the direction we were to go. I tried to make chitchat, but she didn’t say a word. We walked in silence to a courtyard, down a set of steps, and into an underground bookstore. Two other women joined us. They had set up three chairs and a video camera and introduced themselves. One presented herself as “Tyurya,” who I would later learn was Nadya, wearing a shimmering black dress and a yellow winter hat, with makeshift holes for her eyes and mouth; “Garadzha,” who I would later learn was Katya, covered her face with a red hat fitted with eyes and mouth holes, and “Shaiba,” the tallest and quietest, her face covered in orange, whose identity I still don’t know to this day.
They were euphoric with the protests that had been gripping Moscow for the past month, in the wake of a parliamentary election that had clearly been rigged, part of the larger project to bring Putin back to the presidency. After years of political apathy, Moscow had risen up. The small circle of protesters had grown to several thousand. It felt like something was changing, and Pussy Riot wanted to do something shocking.
“We wanted to create a new form of protest — maybe not such a huge one, but we compensate for that with the bright, provocative, and illegal nature of our performances,” Nadya said, sitting between her two masked friends. “People ask us all the time, ‘Why are you involved with feminism, with LGBT rights, with the environment, when our main problem is that Putin has to go?’ But that’s why we talk about all these things — so they’re always at the forefront.”
Katya leaned back in her chair and said: “It’s not like we just want an overthrow [of the government]. We need to be prepared. We need to explain things to people — feminism, LGBT, so everyone can be prepared for the revolution.”
They were heady days, filled with the possibility of change. Weeks later, Nadya and Katya, as well as Masha, would be in jail. They had done audacious things before, but this performance — of a punk anthem calling on the Virgin Mary to “chase Putin out” — came after more than 100,000 people had taken to the streets of Moscow against Putin and went inside a building that was more than just a cathedral, but a symbol of the Russian Orthodox Church’s deep ties with the Russian government and its own corruption. Two weeks before the performance, Patriarch Kirill, the church leader, had called the Putin era “a miracle of God.” The women saw him, in effect, as campaigning for Putin, even as Moscow rose up. Putin needed a scapegoat, and he found one.
The protests continued as Masha, Nadya, and Katya languished in a Moscow detention center awaiting trial. Then, on May 6, a protest turned violent. It was the day before Putin’s inauguration, and the Kremlin was growing tired of the sustained demonstrations. Riot police blocked off access to the protest site, a square known as Bolotnaya, just steps from the Kremlin. The clashes were short but violent — riot police beat protesters with batons; protesters stole riot police helmets and hung them from trees like trophies. The next day, Putin rode through a Moscow sealed off from people to retake his post in the Kremlin. In the weeks that followed, police scoured Moscow for protesters, eventually arresting 27 people (some were later amnestied in the same procedure that freed the women of Pussy Riot). The youngest was 19; some were pensioners. Riot police injured in the clashes were compensated with apartments in the center of Moscow.
The trial of the three women began three months later, in the midst of a sweltering Moscow summer. It was like nothing Russia had seen since Soviet days. Gone was the pretense of propriety — the women weren’t charged with evading taxes, disturbing public order, or, as had been done with at least one opposition thinker, jaywalking. They were charged with being hooligans “motivated by religious hatred.” They gave heartfelt political speeches, and they were rebuked by prosecutors who said speaking of feminism in church was a sin.
On the last day of the trial, before they were found guilty and sentenced to two years in prison, Nadya addressed the court: “The three members of Pussy Riot are not the ones on trial here … This is a trial of the entire political system of the Russian Federation, which, to its great misfortune, enjoys quoting its own cruelty toward the individual, its indifference toward human honor and dignity, repeating all of the worst moments of Russian history.” She spoke for a generation: “The young people who have been flayed by the systematic eradication of freedoms perpetrated through the ‘00s have now risen against the state. We were searching for real sincerity and simplicity, and we found these qualities in the yurodstvo (‘the holy foolishness’) of punk.” It was the closest thing to a mission statement the group would ever have.
Two days after the celebration at the Church of St. Nicholas, halfway across the country, Andrei Tolokonnikov and his 80-year-old mother Vera sat around a small kitchen table in a rundown Soviet-era high-rise in the depths of Siberia. The electricity had gone out, as it does almost every day, and Vera lit candles so we could see the pancakes she’d made for dinner.
They’d gone to see Nadya, his daughter, that morning. She’d recently been transferred to the prison hospital in Krasnoyarsk, after publicly complaining of death threats and slave labor at the labor colony in the republic of Mordovia where she had been serving her sentence. They waited for three hours in order to pay 400 rubles (around $12) for a 15-minute video chat with Nadya, on the other side of a wall. There were 20 other people waiting to do the same with their relatives.
“She was sad. Who knows why?” Vera said, rummaging through the kitchen drawers looking for another candle. “Maybe she’s not feeling good, maybe she’s tired; it’s monotonous there. Before, she was happy, she joked, laughed.”
Andrei had other concerns. The fight for Pussy Riot’s legacy began in August 2012, the moment they were jailed. There were vague whisperings over who owned the “brand,” who maintained the rights over their global mythology. The women had a team of three lawyers, there was Petya, there was Andrei. And in October, there was Katya, released unexpectedly on a suspended sentence.
Everyone turned against her — even Nadya’s father, who knew how close the two women had once been. “If she looked like Brigitte Bardot, I would forgive her the treachery of the lawyers, the libel, everything,” he said in the dark kitchen. “A woman is supposed to be…” he trailed off. “But such a little twerp? That goes around reading lectures to everyone about feminism, what’s the use?”
Nadya and Masha were released just a couple of weeks later, walking out of their respective prisons and into media scrums, fielding endless questions on what they would do next. Nadya announced that they would start a human rights organization devoted to prisoners in Russia, calling it Zona Prava, which translates as Zone of Rights or Zone of Justice. When I talked to them in the days following their release, they sounded filled with a mission: “It gives you bravery — you know that you better understand the law, your rights, you learn to speak,” Masha said of her time in jail. “You have basic legal knowledge, which you need to breathe in Russia.” Nadya chimed in to say, “We have to help those who are in a worse situation than we are.”
Hours before Masha and Nadya took to the stage in Brooklyn, the Bolotnaya defendants read their final statements to a court in Moscow. In court parlance, a judge will now deliberate. In fact, she will wait to hear which decision is correct. It might not even have to come to that — more than 99% of Russian court cases end in convictions. To be charged is to be convicted. The judge will formally issue her decision on Feb. 21.
Nadya opened her laptop and Masha turned on her iPad as soon as they got in the SUV that had been ferrying them around Manhattan. An interview with NPR was next, and they were tired. “I don’t want to go to NPR,” Masha said. Masha is full of nervous energy that she channels into endless cigarettes. One minute she’ll flash a smile, the next she’ll furrow her brows in confusion. Every emotion is written on her face. Sometimes her nerves stun her into silence.
In the car, they caught up on tweets from the Bolotnaya trial and chatted nervously about their appearance that evening. They had never addressed so many people before — especially people who expected them to sing. They said they weren’t thinking about that. They were there to deliver a message.
I asked Masha what this global tour, this Amnesty show, could achieve back in Russia. It’s a country ruled, for now, by the will of one man. Masha and Nadya have often said so themselves, not least when they called their release from prison a “PR stunt” carried out by Putin to win him points ahead of the Olympics. So when Steven Hawkins, the executive director of Amnesty International USA, says things like, “Amnesty’s network of activists were instrumental in the outcome of their case,” does that not undermine things?
“You can see it as naive or idealized,” Masha said, staring through the windshield onto the slushy streets of New York. “But with each action, you see that you’re doing what you exist for.”
Nadya was more blunt. She turned from her computer and said, “Why are you so cynical?”
That night, they lingered backstage as a crowd of thousands filled Barclays and sipped $18.50 cocktails. They took seats near the stage as Cake sang, “I want a girl in a short skirt and a long jacket.” (I thought of Katya’s letter, which said their newfound advocacy “is hardly compatible with radical political statements and provocative works of art … just as gender-conformity is not compatible with radical feminism.”) Moscow was a world away, Russia’s prisons even farther.
Masha and Nadya took to the stage after an introduction from Madonna (“I’d like to thank Pussy Riot for making the word ‘pussy’ a sayable word in my household”). They quoted from the closing statements issued by Bolotnaya defendants just hours before. Masha seemed nervous, while Nadya paced from one end of the stage to the other like she’d been doing it all her life.
Afterward, backstage, Masha stood looking a little shell-shocked. She wanted to have a cigarette, but there were pop legends competing for her time. Days earlier, she had just arrived in New York and was standing in a corner office at Amnesty International’s headquarters trying to understand what was happening. The human rights grou
Richard Hell is telling me about eating glass in the 1970s. Although Hell, who co-founded Television and fronted Richard Hell and the Voidoids, is widely considered one of the first arbiters of punk music and culture, this isn’t some daredevil boast on the level of Iggy Pop’s famous chest-slashing or Sid Vicious’ standard performative self-abuse. Rather, we’re discussing an accidental surprise in a dish he was served at Veselka, a 24-hour diner in the East Village that has doubled as something of a home front for artists in the city for decades. “One time I went in there and ordered coleslaw and there was broken glass in it. I took a bite and was like, ‘What’s this crunchy stuff?’”
“I’m sure you’ve ingested worse,” I say. He laughs. “Oh, you think?” Hell, like many of his contemporaries in the ’70s music scene of downtown New York, sustained a long-term addiction to heroin during his time as a musician. Unlike many of his contemporaries, he lived to tell the tale, and has done so in the excellent new memoir I Dreamed I Was a Very Clean Tramp.
He is also one of the central figures in the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s Punk: Chaos to Couture exhibition, where his music and image are heavily featured. While Hell is credited as one of the pioneering architects of the punk sound, his prominent inclusion of the Met’s punk fashion show is also the result of his being the first musician to spike his hair and tear, safety-pin, and write on his clothes, which created an aesthetic that continues to signify “punk” throughout the ongoing mutation of the genre’s actual sound. “I finally went to the show yesterday,” Hell tells me nearly two weeks after its opening. He brandishes a small stack of merchandise with portraits of a younger version of himself on it. “You see, I have a refrigerator magnet.”
Hell is sitting on the squat couch in the East Village tenement apartment where he’s lived since 1975. “It’s treating what was a whole view of the world that had substance to it as a kind of Halloween costume. It doesn’t really provoke much. It’s just irrelevant.”
He’s excited to point out artworks on the walls of his book-crowded living room as a small cat pokes around our feet. They’re beautiful pieces, sure, but I’m still taking in Hell himself. At 63, he’s still as handsomely rumpled as he is in the photos of him taken in his youth, although he’s replaced his trademark ripped-and-pinned clothing with a halfway-open collared shirt and plain black pants. He reaches to show me the essay he contributed to the exhibition catalogue for the Met show and continues. “They were in a hopeless position. The guy [ostensibly Andrew Bolton, the curator of the show] was in over his head. It’s not entirely his fault. He comes from this whole other world where the highest value is being chic. That’s the opposite of what we were doing. He kept being pulled in different directions to figure out how to reconcile and it just ends up being completely superficial. I cringed all the way through it, or just got irritated or annoyed.”
“My first reaction was that it was like a wax museum presentation of a Broadway musical of punk. It had the same relationship to punk that Grease has to Larry Clark’s Tulsa. It didn’t do justice to any of the reality of what was behind the original clothes and what their message was. But, like I said, that wasn’t their intention. It was being turned into silly clothes. Appropriation can be interesting, but this was just superficial riffing on what we were doing and what they could respond to, and it was so limited. It was false. It was stupid.”
Despite blanching at the Met’s translation of punk culture, he has little misty-eyed nostalgia for the era he believes they’re misinterpreting, or for the grittier New York that spawned it. “It’s all happened in this natural kind of process that I’ve been present for, so it just feels normal,” he says. “I’m not really too sentimental about it. You do hear a lot of mourning [from other longtime New Yorkers]. It can be wrenching in a lot of ways, but if you want old, you can go to Europe. I prefer to live in New York, where that’s the sort of identity — everything gets replaced.”
When I ask him if there’s anything he misses from his days as the king of CBGB, he doesn’t trot out bawdily recounted anecdotes about drugs, celebrities, or women (and he has plenty of these, as you know if you’ve read the book). Instead, he reflects on youth. “There was a lot that was gruesome in my life then, so I don’t have any regrets. What was central to anything sweet about that time, for me, is that it was when I was young. There’s something about when you’re young that you don’t have at any other point in your life, and that’s a sort of openness to everything. No bad habits yet. No ruts in your thinking.”
He closes his eyes and continues. “You’re having so many experiences for the first time. You will never have that intensity again. The first time you do anything is the most powerful (but there are exceptions). The consciousness that you have when you’re young, you don’t have it at any other point in your life. You don’t know how to place it in context. The whole world is fresh.”
I’m startled and touched by the answer, and when, with a raw throat, I ask him when he thinks that goes away, I have an emotional stake in the answer. “You try to maintain it as much as you can. For me, it’s also this concept of running away, too, in the sense that you’re looking for situations for yourself where everything is new again. It’s a way to maintain a freedom from habit that makes everything feel stale.”
For Hell, a man who has lived in the same apartment for nearly 40 years, I imagine it can be quite hard to reconcile the impulse to run away with reality. But he says maintaining a sense of excitement about life has more to do with trying to keep one’s mind open to the world than it does with a constant need for external stimulation. “You form an opinion and then your opinions become kind of crutches for yourself. There’s perceptions. You assume that you know what something is like because you’ve formed this opinion about it and that’s not really mentally healthy.”
Hell’s book is a stark, intently detailed history of his life, and I ask him if writing it was, in part, a reaction to his life being subject to this brand of external editorializing for so long. “It was mostly for myself. Sure, there was an element of wanting to put things in a context that is true to me, when I saw things put in a context that was untrue or unfair or something. It was mostly because I just wanted to have everything that I have known and done and seen in an object that might hold some meaning.”
I Dreamed I Was a Very Clean Tramp is far from Hell’s first written work, though. After quitting music in the 1980s, he began a long and diverse career as a writer, publishing nonfiction and journalism in publications such as Spin and GQ as well as fiction, most notably his 2007 novel Go Now.
But his first story came far before these, or the ones he told with Television and the Voidoids, or any of his other creative pursuits in New York, as I see firsthand after asking him about the experience of being his own biographer. “I’m in a better position than other autobiographers might be because I kept journals. And my mother is fanatical about never throwing anything away, so she had all these papers from when I was a kid.” I know this from the pages of Tramp, whose title is taken from a small book, made of construction paper and crayon and bound with tape, that Hell found in one of her boxes.
He asks me, “Do you want to see it?” and of course I do, are you kidding me? He places The Runaway Boy, written by Richard Meyers, age 8, in 1957, in my lap. I start to cry a little.
After noting the bindles on the cover, we turn to the opening chapter, “My First Plans.” Hell includes the text in full in his memoir, but here’s a brief synopsis: It’s a retelling of what happened when a 7-year-old Hell and two of his school friends tried to run away from home. They planned to meet at a cave at midnight with supplies they gathered from their homes, but Hell was caught by his father, who found his stash of food and clothes. After hearing about his son’s plans, as the second chapter, “A Surprise!” details, Hell’s dad didn’t punish him, but instead unexpectedly agreed to drive him to the cave and let him go if his friends were there. They weren’t, but young Hell was more taken with his father’s gesture than disappointed, so he went to bed happily: As the last line of the story says, “I dreamed I was a very clean tramp!” It’s meaningful not only because it definitively augurs the beginning of a life spent romanticizing escape and adventure, but also because it’s one of Hell’s most concrete memories of his father, who died a few weeks after this runaway attempt. As an adult, Hell was convinced that the actual story took place, but no one else in his family remembered it until he found this in his mother’s house not so very long ago; for decades, the dream was his alone. I try not to crease its pages.
Since Hell is a person who seems to believe very fervently in mutability, in terms of mind and culture and life in general, writing this more recent memoir must have been an enormous effort. To write something down, after all, is to fix it in place — an action that seems antithetical to a self-professed “tramp” whose life has been characterized by longing to start fresh over and over again. I ask if the idea of making his past, and the people and events in it, into a finite document was worrisome to him in this way. “Yes, you’re right. There’s definitely a danger. Just like we were saying about opinions, once you start describing something in a certain way, it almost forces it into this shape permanently. That was something really delicate in the writing. That’s something you have to be conscious of when you’re working on the book that you want to describe the things you’re describing with as much depth as you can bring to them because, by putting these experiences in this book, you’re probably dooming yourself to forever looking at them in that way.” I misunderstand, slightly: “Is it that you’re making yourself accountable to that memory of things forever?”
“It’s not even making yourself accountable — it’s just you’ve then engraved it into your brain. You’re not going to be able to go back and see it outside of those words, that description, in the future. In the epilogue to the book, when I performed this complete turnaround with [Television co-founder] Tom Verlaine, who had been kind of a villain in a way, it’s described with a lot of respect and admiration. Until that point in the book, the conclusion is that I hate him. In the epilogue, that gets flipped. I think part of the reason I did that was also to make the point that everything in the book could be written differently.”
It’s interesting to me that he brings up Verlaine, his former best friend and artistic collaborator for years, before I do; I had thought I would have to be delicate in asking about him. Hell left Television in 1975 after tension with Verlaine became untenable, and the two have remained famously estranged since. In the epilogue that Hell describes above, they meet by chance outside of a bookstore, and although they exchange just a few words before parting ways, the experience is a heady and powerful one: “When Tom spoke to me there outside the bookstore, it was 42 years ago, 1969, and he was 19 years old; we both were. His misshapen, larded, worn flesh somehow just emphasized the purity of the spirit inside. He made a bunch of beautiful recordings too. Who gives a fuck about the worldly achievers, the succeeders at conventional ambitions?”
I might as well ask, so I do: “Have you heard from Verlaine about the book?” Hell doesn’t hesitate in his answer. “No, and I won’t. He’s not the kind of guy that reacts to what other people say about him. I don’t really think about how other people I wrote about in the book respond to it, except when I was writing about people I’m still in touch with or have any kind of friendly relationship with — they matter to me. All the girls that I describe as having any kind of relationship with that I was able to reach, I sent what I wrote before I published, or if I didn’t know how to reach them, I’d change the name. One person was mad, but she said it was OK. I didn’t want to take any chances, so I changed her name, and another person wanted her name changed. The other five or six were fine.”
Hell talks about sex — a lot, and with a lot of women — in his book, and, as with everything else he covers, often goes into extreme detail when describing his erotic experiences. I tell him it certainly seemed like there were more than “five or six” lovers discussed in its pages. “Well, a lot of them are dead, so,” he says. I sit up slightly straighter, embarrassed at my insensitivity, but then he breaks into a grin. “The women I was involved with are important to me. My life with the women whom I’ve known is really central to who I am. It would have been really false not to describe what went on between us…and often it was mostly sex!”
This, this funny little off-color aside, embodies the most important thing I’ve learned about Hell — that he’s uninterested in anything false, or careful, or petty, even on the most minute levels. When he told me about finding ground glass on his tongue at Veselka, I asked him why he eventually went back. “Anyone can make a mistake,” he said. “Be large.”
And what happens when he feels like making a great escape these days?
“I have my means. I run away inside myself now.”
1. David Miranda is Nobody’s Errand Boy — BuzzReads
When Glenn Greenwald’s 28-year-old Brazilian partner was detained in London this summer while transporting documents related to the bombshell Edward Snowden story, many assumed he was unfairly roped into a situation he didn’t understand. That couldn’t be further from the truth. Read it at BuzzReads.
2. Too Much of Too Little — The Washington Post
Eli Saslow reports from McAllen, Texas, one of the poorest and most food stamp-reliant parts of the country — and also one of the most obese. What can be done when what little that is available to eat is killing people? Read it at The Washington Post.
3. Locked in the Cabinet — Politico Magazine
Glenn Thrush looks critically at the ineffectual presidential Cabinet: “The staffers who rule Obama’s West Wing often treat his Cabinet as a nuisance: At the top of the pecking order are the celebrity power players, like former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, to be warily managed; at the bottom, what they see as a bunch of well-intentioned political naifs only a lip-slip away from derailing the president’s agenda.” Read it at Politico Magazine.
4. I Was Drugged by a Stranger — BuzzReads
“One night at a music festival, someone put something in my drink. What happened next was humiliating and taught me how common these incidents are, and how easy — and wrong — it is to blame the victim.” Read it at BuzzReads.
5. The Vatican’s Secret Gay Life — Vanity Fair
Much has been written about the supposedly powerful “gay lobby” in Rome. Michael Joseph Gross travels there to try to separate myth from reality. Read it at Vanity Fair.
6. The Dream Boat — New York Times Magazine
“Our destination was an Australian territory, more than 200 miles across the Indian Ocean, called Christmas Island. If the weather is amenable, if the boat holds up, the trip typically lasts three days. Often, however, the weather is tempestuous, and the boat sinks. Over the past decade, it is believed that more than a thousand asylum seekers have drowned.” Read it at New York Times Magazine.
7. Voyage of No Return — The Ascender
In 2023, four civilians plan to leave earth and embark on the long journey to Mars. Are they serious? Is there a chance they’ll possibly succeed? Read it in the debut issue of The Ascender.
8. Why Did the Schaibles Let Their Children Die? — Philadelphia Magazine
“They may be dead because their parents practice a brand of Christianity that seems straight out of the Dark Ages. The D.A., however justified in charging them with murder, is rubbing up against the American founding principle of religious freedom. It is a case that may, in fact, threaten the very existence of their church.” Read it at Philadelphia Magazine.
9. What Happened at Brian Holloway’s House? — Grantland
The story broke in late August: a former NFL player’s vacant second home was trashed — allegedly — by 300 teenagers, whom he vowed to “save” via a vague, and much publicized social media campaign. Jay Caspian Kang uncovers the complicated man behind the deceptively simple story. Read it at Grantland.
High Street in Ellsworth, a busy four-lane road lined with a Denny’s, a McDonald’s, an L.L. Bean outlet, and a Sun360 tanning salon, leads to Mount Desert Island and Acadia National Park. Beyond the strip malls and lobster pounds, further down east, are scarlet-hued blueberry barrens and miles of unbroken fog. Drive from southern Maine in the summer and you’re bound to sit in Ellsworth traffic. Guidebooks claim the regional identity of the city has been stripped away, but at 3 a.m. the morning I arrived, a sign flashed outside the pet store in the cold night air: Cleaner Net & Air Pump For ELVER.
Behind Jasper’s Motel and Restaurant, a yellow extension cord snaked through the window of Room 27 and connected to a 110-volt bubbler pumping oxygen into a tank of elvers on the back of a Ford Super Duty, or, as its license plate says, EEL WAGN. This is Bill Sheldon’s truck. He’s an affable, clean-shaven guy, aged 67, with glasses and an LED light clipped to the brim of his hat. In 2012, he paid his fishermen $12 million for elvers (about a third of the estimated $40 million paid out in Maine over the season) and, for a couple weeks this spring, the elver kingpin holed up at Jasper’s Motel with a half million dollars in cash. The best runs and the best money too, he said, arrived on dark, moonless, rainy nights.
The elvers flew out of Logan or JFK international airports to China and Taiwan in clear plastic bags filled with oxygenated water to feed the fastest-growing animal-feeding operations on the planet: Asian aquaculture. The baby eels, two inches long with glassine bodies, nearly invisible sperm-shaped fauna with a thin black vertebrae and a pair of magnificent black eyes, swim inland on the final stretch of a five-month, several-thousand-mile-long quest to find a freshwater home.
Eel farmers need babies caught in the wild since no one’s reliably bred the species in captivity. They are reared in ponds like seedlings: Plant a farm with elvers and, in six months, a pound of elvers might yield 1,200 pounds of meat that then might, at $10 a pound, fetch $120,000. Seventy percent of eels, unagi, was sold in Japan, according to one estimate by the newspaper The Yomiuri Shimbun. James Prosek’s seminal book on the subject, Eels, reports that some 40% of eel eaten in a Manhattan sushi joint probably flew from Maine to Asia and back again. Scarcity drove the prices up and, stream-side, a pound of elvers sold for around $2,000. Rumor had it some fishermen were clearing nearly $100,000 a night.
One foggy Saturday in mid-April, with a light drizzle on the windshield at daybreak, I sat with Sheldon in the Eel Wagon. He was in a parking lot near the Union River, its banks all lit up with LEDs and Coleman lanterns, the fishermen said, like the Vegas Strip. Sheldon seemed preoccupied. He clicked a Carhartt pen. Under his armrest, in bank bundles of ten grand and five grand, he kept piles of money. (He said he paid the owners of the parking lot, a local construction company, a onetime fee of $5,000 to keep a rival dealer off his turf — apparently a Korean guy in a white-paneled van, whom I never saw — though another dealer told me, “Ellsworth is lousy with Koreans.”)
Recently the local paper, the Bangor Daily News, reported that MS-13, the El Salvadorian drug gang, was after dealers’ cash. A pillhead had also followed Sheldon down to the river one night. “If I was sitting in New York City, selling roses or whatever, chances are I’d get robbed,” he told me. “The fact that I can run around with all this money just speaks well for Down East Maine people. Certainly some bad apples. But to be able to operate like this, I don’t know what it means, except what I just told you.” Elver fishermen returned with wads of hundreds when Sheldon overpaid, which happened quite often, probably, I’d guess, on account of taking prescription medical marijuana. Nonetheless, he wasn’t taking any chances. A flare gun dangled from the grab handle of his truck (“So I can shoot him in the guts,” he said, pointing the thing out the driver’s side window), and he displayed a black Glock .40 on the dash.
Everywhere the elver dealer went so did Larry Taylor, a stocky, 48-year-old guy in jeans and a sweatshirt. Taylor had a concealed .45, a 9 mm in his belt, and a 12-gauge pistol-grip pump. A friend told him Sheldon was looking for someone with a concealed carry permit, and Taylor, a contractor, was laid off, he said, “because of mud.” (Mud season, in other words, makes outdoor work all but impossible.) All morning, the two dumped buckets of eels into a fine-mesh net. Before daybreak, a young woman in rubber boots and a big sweatshirt pulled up to the parking lot. Small talk.
“How’s little Alyssa?”
“A little better.”
Sheldon weighed a squirming mass, a softball’s worth of elvers, in a metal mixing bowl. “Thirty-six hundred dollars,” he said. “You’ll get even more tomorrow night.”
“I will? That’s good.”
A while later, another fisherman rolled in with less than a fifth of a pound. Sheldon hopped behind the wheel of the Eel Wagon. “Nobody else caught nothing,” he said, punching numbers on the oversize buttons of his calculator. “Six eighty-four,” he said, and counted out $700. “Have breakfast on me.”
Around daybreak, Taylor drove over to Dunkin’ Donuts, and then the two went back to Jasper’s Motel, where they continued dealing in the back lot.
In 1970, a fisheries attaché in Tokyo sent a memo asking if the state of Maine had enough elvers to warrant a commercial fishery. The task fell to Sheldon, a state employee with a newly minted degree in wildlife management from the University of Maine at Orono. His boss told him, “Bill, go out and find out if we got any.”
Over the next two springs, 1971 and 1972, Sheldon found transparent elvers — “glass eels,” as he called them (he and many others use the terms interchangeably) — swimming up every stream he visited: the Kennebec, the Penobscot, the Pleasant, and the St. Croix. The transparent fish shimmied over waterfalls, rocks, fishways, and straight up the face of hydroelectric dams. His report, “Elvers in Maine: Techniques of Locating, Catching and Holding,” describes the basic life cycle: In November, orphaned at birth in the mysterious depths of the Sargasso Sea at the heart of the Bermuda Triangle, eels begin their elusive migration as transparent ribbons “shaped like willow leaves.” Known as leptocephali, literally “slim-headed creatures,” they float up the East Coast on the North Atlantic Drift and — with no homing instinct — they’re blown inland. They wriggle toward the smell of freshwater in Florida, up the East Coast all the way to Maine and Greenland, or to the coastal waters of Haiti and Venezuela if the currents carry the larvae southward. In freshwater, translucent glass eels develop into pigmented, serpentine elvers.
Eels live for up to 20 years, and the American species, Anguilla rostrata, once inhabited nearly every body of freshwater east of the Mississippi. Sheldon didn’t say then — and no one can really say to this day — why eel migration is the reverse of most other fish and why at the end of their life the entire population heads back to their birthplace in the Sargasso Sea where they have one last orgiastic night before dying. “Wherever eels spawn,” he wrote, “it seems likely that the entire North American population could be sustained by the spawning of adults from only a few of the freshwater population.”
A mature female pumped out as many as 22 million larvae, and where brackish tidewater met freshwater, Sheldon began catching them in a homemade Sheldon’s elver trap, a shoebox-sized cage cobbled together with wood and a window screen with a garden hose for a carrying handle. He sent one batch to Japan just to see if they made it alive. They made it, but Japanese buyers preferred the Japanese eel, Anguilla japonica. A pound of American eels were worth $30, so Sheldon went into the lobster business. By the late 1970s, a Washington Post headline read, “Japan Interested in Maine Trash Fish.” (“For a while,” the Post story said, an eel fisherman “was getting $300 per pound… But the bottom fell out after only a few months.” One guy kept elvers in a wooden water tower in an attempt to stockpile but he too was left with nothing when the market crashed.) Former North Carolina Sen. Jesse Helms accused Japan of manipulating prices in 1978; a buyer in San Francisco told the Wall Street Journal that Americans simply didn’t know how to handle their eels.
Sheldon began chasing the elver runs, traveling to Florida in January and fishing right up the East Coast. It was legal in all the coastal states. Elvers reached New Jersey in February, and when they hit Maine in March and April, he came home. In 1995, a shortage of Japanese eels sent prices from $55 a pound to $300, and anyone with a mesh net began staking out claims. Police reports began filtering in that year: Fishermen pushed each other into streams, fistfights broke out, and gas tanks, some said, were being filled with bleach. Property owners lobbied to keep the working-class trespassers off their waterfronts. Those selling adult eels for bait wanted to put a stop to catching the baby elvers. Sheldon argued the high natural mortality rate meant any elvers he caught might be eaten by predators anyway. By the late 1990s, Florida, Connecticut, and New Jersey banned elver fishing. One 1999 Bangor Daily News editorial said fishermen could not be blamed for an apparent decline in eel populations; these laws were motivated more by snobbery than biology.
Biologists have never witnessed an eel’s entire life cycle and never counted every elver invading all the world’s rivers and streams, but, by many estimates, the range of American eels has contracted over the last century. Few, if any, eels survived the journey down the St. Lawrence River and into Lake Ontario, and the population fell to as little as 1% the historic level. Along the banks of the Kennebec River in central Maine, a fisherman named Doug Watts found piles of rotten eels below a hydroelectric dam. An eel passed through a turbine looked like bloodied fingers stuck through a whirring window fan.
In 1997, Watts petitioned the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to have the species listed as endangered. Nothing really happened. In 2011, Craig Manson, a former Bush administration official and the head of a nonprofit in California called the Council for Endangered Species Act Reliability, or CESAR, sued the feds. Some fishermen suspected Manson was part of a right-wing conspiracy to disrupt the Endangered Species Act. What better way to get the attention of East Coast politicians than by listing the eel as endangered and forcing federal agencies to remove some 25,000 dams to accommodate them, sabotaging the Act’s reputation to force the issue of reform? When I put these allegations to Manson, he said, “My mother would be shocked to hear that.” The legal petition he filed, if anything, appeared to exhibit a genuine concern for the species even if it was, as Watts said, some sort of “nine-dimensional chess.” Either way, Watts said with all the cash being waved around, the overseas demand guaranteed a state-sanctioned extinction of some of the last eels left on earth. “We’re giving our birthright to a bunch of people from Asia. ‘Here, have ‘em! Drive ‘em to extinction!’ In 20 years, the truck I bought with that eel money, the oilcan’s going to break on a dirt road and I’m going to be divorced and that’s it! There’s your species! This is the economics of planned, deliberate extinction.”
Scientists from the International Union for Conservation of Nature and Natural Resources consider the European eel (Anguilla anguilla) endangered and met in July to discuss the imperiled status of the Japanese eel. Meanwhile, American eels went from $300 a pound to $3,000, creating a black market halfway around the world. If the nighttime standoffs and the poachers caught in New Hampshire and Rhode Island this year were any indication, the promise of striking it rich — with or without a state-sanctioned license — proved irresistible all along the Atlantic coast. In early February, three men were caught with 24,250 elvers in New Jersey. (One of them, Robert Royce, was once allegedly involved in a scheme to import 25 tons of marijuana from Haiti. He’d since changed his last name but not, it seemed, his ways.) Marine patrol officers caught another New Hampshire man in Maine with over 100,000 illegal elvers. Selling a pound of illegal elvers would probably cover the fine.
One morning, after Sheldon smoked his prescription meds and began writing out receipts, I asked if he ate at the sushi place across from his motel, which sold roasted unagi (freshwater) and anago (saltwater) for $5.50 and a signature roll with eel for $12.50. Eel tasted like spaghetti, as far as he knew, but the Asian chefs were after the texture. They filleted and grilled the oily flesh over an open flame, or steamed and smothered the meat in soy sauce. Every year, Japan celebrated Doyo Ushi No Hi, a traditional eel-eating day in late July when restaurants served unagi as a source of stamina during the sweltering summer heat.
“I had smoked eel one time,” Sheldon said, “and I tasted it for two days.” All of a sudden, he opened his door and rolled out of the Eel Wagon, leaving its door ajar, money locked under the armrest. Seconds later, he returned with a single elver, a translucent wriggling worm of a fish, its thread-like black spine visible through the skin. The elver tickled his palm. He tilted his head back, opened his mouth, and dropped it in. Eyes closed, Sheldon gripped the skin around his Adam’s apple. Then, he swallowed and waited. “Right around here,” he said, “he starts swimming back up.”
The taste for eel drove hundreds of buyers to Maine. A dealer from the Eel Depot in Flushing, Queens, Kevin Shi, 42, with spiky hair, glasses, and a can of Coke in his hand, first claimed to speak no English and then told me in rapid-fire clip, “I buy for Chinamen.” In his rented Maine warehouse, he kept a shotgun propped up behind the rice cooker. Other dealers said the 2011 tsunami had wiped aquaculture ponds and sent the price skyrocketing. Sheldon claimed he had been in the midst of an international bidding war. Korean buyers called him. He mimicked his conversation.
“I don’t have any for you. I’m selling to China.”
“Well, we pay you the same.”
“Well, we pay you more.”
Sheldon then called his buyers — Chinese guys who wired him $600,000 on handshake deals — and said, “These guys want to pay me more for the eels. It’s pretty hard to turn down a bigger offer.”
“We’ll match the price. Fuck the Koreans.”
That, in so many words, Sheldon said, was the reason so many dealers and fishermen and poachers were running around. There was simply too much at stake.
Six hours into the day and not yet 9 a.m., his cell phone went off, a duck call: quack, quack, quack. “Go ahead,” Sheldon said.
“Sorry to bother you. It’s Solomon. You down by the river or up at the hotel?”
“At the hotel. Take your time.”
A stream of water spilled into the parking lot at Jasper’s Motel and a line of fishermen formed — lobstermen in hip waders, young guys in Adidas track pants, a woman in a neon Harley sweatshirt. All carried five-gallon buckets outfitted with battery-operated aquarium pumps. The pumps had names like Hush Bubbles and sold for $15 down at the pet store. Fishermen dumped buckets of water through a fine-mesh net. Sheldon weighed out the elvers and counted out hundred-dollar bills. Around 9 o’clock, a woman with brown hair who looked about 40 walked toward Room 27.
“I don’t need toilet paper,” Sheldon said, shouting. “I don’t need towels.” (The housekeeper took him seriously and delivered neither towels nor toilet paper to Room 27.)
One of the guys standing at the Eel Wagon said, “He don’t bathe.”
Sheldon lowered his voice. “I don’t,” he said. “I’m in the water every day.”
When he returned from his nets on the Union River, everyone else stood back. Four pounds and later six pounds. (For those keeping score at home: That’s one night, a bad night, mind you, and he’d have paid out nearly 20 grand for those elvers.) One fisherman said, “The man can fucking fish.” Sheldon said it was simply a matter of knowing when to set out your nets.
Prior to the arrival of the elver-dealing kingpin and his armed assistant, the Drug Enforcement Administration raided Jasper’s Hotel in an apparent drug bust. Another morning I visited, Jeff Camber, 55, a self-employed blueberry farmer in hip waders and a Budweiser hat, brought his catch in. Camber held court in the parking lot as if he were giving a stump speech. (I couldn’t tell if it was for the benefit of the press — or, as the fishermen joked, maybe he was running for local office.) He despised the semi-vacant strip mall across High Street, where drug dealers reportedly sold pills, $50 or $60 a pop, wide open in the parking lot. As much as a third of the eel money, by some estimates, went to pharmaceuticals. Camber said he’d found his daughter’s works stashed all over his house and, on top of all that, she overdosed at this very motel on Christmas Eve. (She survived.)
It almost seemed too bad to be true, like a fish story in reverse. The kernel of truth I heard was this: We’re just trying to scrape by, me and the lifelong clammer who walked bowlegged, the recent divorcée who’d spent her life savings fighting an ex-husband’s cancer, or the guy who tried to get locked up every winter just so he could eat three square meals a day for the first time. Eel money paid taxes; it paid for “decent vehicles,” and it paid to fix up family homes. Five grand of one woman’s eel money went toward cosmetic breast surgery. (The recipient, a 28-year-old recovered drug addict who didn’t have a job, told me it wasn’t dramatic, but had been a boost to her self-esteem.)
Later that morning, Dennis Tozier, a big guy with sweat-matted hair, emptied his bucket and, referring to a long-simmering feud with another fisherman, said, “Back when it was $30 a pound, nobody was fighting.”Another fisherman showed up with a clipboard. A group of men listened as Sheldon read a handwritten statement on why global warming probably meant more elvers would be coming to Maine. There were only so many places to put a net in and you only have two months to fish. They kept the middle third of the river clear for the elvers to pass through and stopped fishing two nights a week. No one really expected the money to last even if the species survived. The semi-exclusive club had to protect against poachers and the hundreds of Native American fishermen and women that some seemed to consider poachers. Everyone was trying to cash in on the most lucrative thing Down East Maine had seen in years. Camber, who claimed some Native American blood, said he’d threatened to conk out a guy with a tribal permit dipping in front of his net. I was later asked, rhetorically, I suppose, “Have you ever seen a glass eel on a cave wall?” Racism or resource scarcity, it was a fine line.
One Sunday night in late March, Donnell Dana, in patched denim jeans and a camo Remington ball cap, walked along a silvery mat of grass with a dip net, a fine-mesh net mounted on the end of a long pole. He had seen the osprey and crow return to the Pennamaquan — its sandy banks still drained of color, the maple forest melting with snow — a sign that the elvers would come wriggling in on the nighttime tides.That night, 16 marine patrol officers parked green pickups near the bridge in Pembroke, a town straddling a remote tidal inlet about as far down and east as you can get in Maine. Their doors slammed shut and, with halogen flashlights drawn, officers unmoored three nets tied taught to the Pennamaquan’s banks. All belonged to tribal fishermen.
The raid set off a cascade of phone calls and, within minutes, 50 Passamaquoddys — many from the Pleasant Point Reservation, a hurried 10-minute drive to the east — lined a narrow road, a winter’s worth of dust swirling in their headlights. The state fisheries commissioner, Patrick Keliher, received intelligence from U.S. Customs and Border Protection that an additional 150 members of the tribe crossed from Canada into Calais, 40 minutes to the north. State police arrived for backup. (Because of amount of cash going around, the commissioner later told me, a lot of guns were being carried.) Frank Miliano, 6’3” and 200-some-odd pounds with tattoos lining both his forearms, rushed toward the state officials, according to Newell Lewey, a tribal leader with a runner’s physique, glasses, and a graying ponytail, who held Miliano back by his shirt. Miliano was pissed, Lewey told me, saying, “No fucking way you’re taking my fucking net.”
Dana heard the commotion down below and kept dipping for elvers. He didn’t want to argue about fishing. He wanted to do the fishing. Dana strayed no more than a mile from home; he didn’t feel welcome further south where rival fishermen might cut his nets or steal his catch. Most nights, he drove home and combed sand fleas out of his catch with a pool skimmer and a credit card.
Down the road from Dana’s house, a black Mercedes full of Asian traders pulled into Tim Sheehan’s gravel lot, six hours from Logan Airport, looking for elvers. Sheehan, a boyish former biology teacher turned seafood dealer, said the elvers arrived at the end of winter when there was nothing, when everyone was dirt-poor, when the clam prices were down. The sardine canneries had closed, the cod were long gone, and urchins disappeared overnight. Elvers offered a $40 million opportunity in a county where the official poverty rate stood at 20%. He’d even offered to go 50/50 on nets and waders with tribal fishermen.
The threat of listing the entire species as endangered had, in effect, capped the number of Maine elver fishermen at 744. When four new licenses came up for grabs in Maine earlier this year, 5,200 residents applied for the lottery. Tribal leaders — asserting a historic and inherent right to fish — sold 575 licenses, which prompted commissioner Keliher’s visit. Maine was no longer in compliance with a federal management plan, jeopardizing the entire elver season. After visiting his kids on Easter Sunday, Keliher drove to the frigid banks of the Pennamaquan to take a stand.
Dana, 57, born to a Passamaquoddy mother and a white father, has been fishing since the early 1980s. He fished for elvers with a state-recognized tribal license. When I asked about the tattoo on his wrist — AIM, for American Indian Movement — he said it was a mark of drinking too much on the reservation when he was 16. Once before, state officials threatened to take away his right to dig for clams and dive for urchins and, when that happened, in 1995, Dana said he’d go to jail before buying a license. Now he didn’t want to get involved. He wasn’t looking for trouble, and his son was out on probation. There were no jobs. A fishery might collapse overnight. He’d seen it happen before. If officials shut this one down, you could kiss the elvers good-bye. Chances are he’d never see opportunity like this again. (I never saw him again; the cell phone number he gave me has an automated greeting, “Your call has been forwarded to an automatic voice messaging system of” and someone, Dana presumably, says, “Captain Morgan.”)
By the time I heard the story of the Easter Sunday raid from a dealer named Randy Bushey, a wiry guy with a cigarette-stained mustache and a gold lobster lapel pin, he said he’d tipped Keliher off after buying elvers from a tribal fisherman with a license numbered 566. That Sunday, Keliher stopped by his seafood dealership on the drive to Pembroke. According to Bushey, he said, “What are you doing, Bush?”
“Breaking out the Winchesters,” Bushey told the commissioner. “You’re going to need them.”
Keliher claimed that these rumors about an armed standoff in the middle of the night between “nine wardens and 400 Indians” at best represented an exaggeration of a much smaller truth, like someone had caught the fish of a lifetime.
At the heart of all the conflict, though, the elvers did appear to be the fish of a lifetime — even if it were just enough eel money to put a roasted chicken on the table or a grilled unagi to quell the heat, whether it was the fate of a species or just some pills or a joyride in a small plane above the reservation.
When I met Newell Lewey, a tribal leader whose house overlooks the Pennamaquan, he told me the Passamaquoddys had fished and hunted long before previous gold rushes decimated cod or herring or urchins. The tribe would never cede its rights. The state’s limit on elver licenses was a thinly veiled attempt to take what little opportunity there was left. “It’s like throwing one bone to bunch of hungry wolves. Five hundred years of this,” he said. “Divide and conquer. That’s what they do best.” Lewey told me twice, just to be sure. “It’s like throwing one bone to bunch of hungry dogs.”
Further north, where the St. Croix River divides St. Stephen, New Brunswick, from Calais, Maine, cars lined up on a bridge at the border. Underneath, a single elver net bobbed like an oversize white condom stretched by an icy, swift-moving current. Behind a brick Customs and Border Patrol building, Doug Wood and his dad John sat in a white van buying elvers; the sign on the side of their van said, Got Glass Eels? (The upside to working near Customs, the younger Wood told me, was the lot had 24-hour video surveillance. He still kept a handgun holstered under his jacket just in case.) Through a barbed-wire fence, down a rain-slicked trail, the river bobbed with 17 nets — all Passamaquoddy fishermen.
One evening, I met Fred Moore III on a street that dead ends at the river. Moore, 53, a ruddy-faced man missing lateral incisors on the left side of his mouth, coordinates the tribe’s fisheries committee. We were accompanied by Mark Richter, 50, a former member of U.S. Airborne who acted as security. He had a sheathed hunting knife on his belt and, Moore told me, a concealed carry. The spring peepers had just emerged in the brooks, and we walked to Moore’s camp, a blue pop-up tent with two nylon chairs and a pile of Dunkin’ Donuts coffee boxes.
I asked about the standoff. “Fear-mongering,” Moore said. “Fear-mongering. Every time, native people attempt to assert themselves.” The standoff came as the result of a violent, oppressive government that allowed “non-natives” to go around killing eels for electrical power and recreation. He didn’t kill living things for the fun of it. (When I mentioned to him what I’d been told about glass eels on cave walls, he said he’d never seen a white man painted on a cave wall either.)
The wind picked up on the riverbank at twilight. High above the rushing river, an icy 38 degrees, a colony of turkey vultures circled. The black birds, with distinctive V’s notched in the underside of their wings, moved in a slow counterclockwise flight. They arrived when the interstate was built, Moore said, and they were chasing an osprey. He descended into thought. “We can identify with that osprey. Got its rights from the same place we did. Vultures come by and attempt to drive it out. When newcomer government convinces the osprey to leave, we’ll be right behind him.” Moore laughed.
He’d been accused of being an instigator, telling tribal members they ought to fish. Bounties on Indian weren’t popular these days, he told me, but the tribe seemed to be hated just because they existed. Moore said he personally went to meetings with state officials when he might otherwise be fishing because he didn’t know who would do it. As I was about to leave, Moore said, “Why’s a dog lick his own dick? Because he can.” He laughed again. That night, he caught two wriggling elvers and set them both free.
Maybe these elvers were among those that survived, scaled the Grand Falls and Woodland dams, and lived out their lives. In 20 years, perhaps they would evade turbines and fishermen and bluefin tuna and porbeagle sharks and make the long migration back to the Sargasso Sea. The life cycle of the American eel ran counter to almost every other known fish. Some suspected the story of the eels ran counter to endangered species cliché “You don’t know what you’ve got till it’s gone.” In truth, no one ever knew what they had.
One morning, I sat with Bill Sheldon in his hotel room. Empty Coke cans surrounded his espresso machine and black laptop. Handguns lay on the neatly made floral bedspread. Outside, the Eel Wagon pump emitted a steady thrum. As he saw it, he was handing out money to people who needed it. Some made a couple hundred. Others made enough so they didn’t have to work the rest of the year. He fondled a wad of hundred-dollar bills in the pocket of his fleece vest and looked out the window. Sheldon nodded toward a familiar face, a guy named John Tilghman, walking across the parking lot. “There’s a guy. He goes dipping. He’s only got one arm,” Sheldon said. “He was eeling one night and a huge alligator bit his arm off.” Perhaps, this too was another fish tale. Sheldon stood up, opened the door, and bellowed out, “John got on to them. What the hell happened?”
“Did something right tonight,” Tilghman said. “I guess.”
“Sure. Been waiting for that.” Sheldon weighed out a bowl full of elvers. “Two point three four,” he said, and counted out $100 bills. As I recall, the one-armed fisherman pocketed $4,200 that morning.
The name is a problem: The Good Men Project. A good man, whatever one’s perspective on the difficulties in finding one, is a good thing. The man who proclaims the distinction? Less so. Smacks of a certain diffident arrogance, this, a common enough characteristic among the gender: insecurity in need of passive-aggressive assurance. The good man who calls himself a Good Man is not really sure he is good, yet is unwilling to concede the point. He craves recognition but is too proud to ask for it.
Tom Matlack, founder of the website the Good Men Project, may or may not be a good man — he calls himself a “work in progress” — but he is a wealthy one. Crude as that observation may be, money, which counts in all walks of life, counts for a lot in media. Publications, print or electronic, are almost always the province of wealthy men or women content to lose money in the pursuit of a very specific something: wish fulfillment, respect, revenge, attention, approval, compensation, power (less of that to go ‘round these days), the redress of some existential or vainglorious wound.
Matlack, a successful venture capitalist, has sunk some $500,000 into the GMP, and helped raise nearly as much from his wealthy friends and colleagues. Hardly significant money for someone of his affluence, but substantial enough for an endeavor unrelated to his profession, and in an industry guaranteed to lower the bank balances of even the needful rich.
Since Matlack launched the GMP in 2010, it has received notices — favorable and otherwise — from publications such as The Atlantic, Salon, Slate, Cosmo, Huffington Post, Jezebel, and others. Billing itself as “not so much a magazine as a social movement,” its more than 1,200, mostly unpaid, contributors — “evangelists” in the GMP parlance — have cranked out approximately 15,000 posts about subjects ranging from parenthood to rape culture to the men’s rights movement, many of them by Matlack, who, until publicly and bitterly distancing himself from his site in April, was both its primary voice and controversy-stoking lightning rod. Even the posts he didn’t condone — like the one a GMP editor wrote that implied that drugs and alcohol, as opposed to sexually criminal men, were largely to blame for rape — he chose not to condemn.
During his time on the site, Matlack posted a staggering volume of articles, on every conceivable topic: details of his alcoholic fall and recovery, his failed first marriage, the loss and reclamation of his children, why men die younger than women and what men should do about it, gun violence, sex trafficking, rape, “male lust” — “is male lust a rainbow of colors, stifled by our discomfort with the male need for sexual encounter?” — sports, war, “psychic angst,” feminism, the death of the American dream, people he happened to meet, things he watched on television, and, of course, his views on good manhood — “Hug Your Kids Today,” “Are Men Needy? No Men are Good!” “What Makes Dudes Cry?” — plus many, many — seriously, many — more.
Navigating this dizzying range of subjects, you begin to wonder if perhaps you have discovered Matlack’s something, his particular need or existential wound. This insatiable determination to share, to expound, impress, lead, cajole, atone, and instruct: Is it only to be expected of a high-function, always-on-the-clock, type-A corporate killer at play in the unbounded fields of his pet project? Where does that energy go without that pet project at his disposal? Is he a dude-visionary, salvaging workable male archetypes from the debunked, discarded, and disgraced slag heap of the old machismo? Or is he an addict, happily in possession of a new thirst that can never be slaked?
Matlack lives in Brookline, just outside Boston, in a rangy red brick Tudor that seems too big for its corner lot. On a chilly April morning, he answers the door dressed in tan jeans, a green fleece that appears sturdy enough for use in the woods, and wool-lined moccasins. It’s a Sunday and he looks tired as he invites me in, accepting my offer of a handshake with one beefy, calloused hand — a by-product, I would learn, of his stint as captain of the Wesleyan University rowing team. He is a still-athletic looking man pushing 50, tall and muscular and imposing, with those mitt-like paws, a craggy and weathered face, fatigued blue eyes, and a guarded smile that reveals a set of unusually large teeth.
He settles us down to talk in the living room, which he says had been decorated by his second wife, Elena, who had taken an interest in interior decoration in her spare time away from the charity work she does for kids. She’s not here, and neither are his children. The two teenagers from his first marriage have mostly lived with his ex-wife (the eldest is now in college), and his 8-year-old son with his current wife is at church.
Matlack slumps into an easy chair, his large frame collapsing into a surprisingly self-conscious hunch, as he waits for me to ask him just where the hell does he get off with a name like the Good Men Project.
“Let’s start at the beginning,” I say.
In September 1996, Matlack was the 29-year-old chief financial officer of the Providence Journal, a daily publication of many virtues, including but not limited to its possession of a dozen highly valuable cable television stations at the time. During his tenure at the paper, Matlack helped engineer three highly lucrative deals. First was the sale of the cable holdings, which came in at a profit of $1.4 billion. Next took the Journal public via a cash-raising initial public offering. Finally, he arranged the sale of the paper, to a Texas-owned media conglomerate, for another $2 billion. Prior to the sale, he negotiated for himself a golden parachute of three times his yearly salary plus an equity stake in the corporation. “It’s public record. I made a couple of million bucks,” Matlack says with the offhand pride of someone who has subsequently made far more. (His venture capital fund has earned him “tens of millions” on just one of its deals in 2001.)
Typically, how the wealthy man with a publishing jones made his fortune is irrelevant. Yet with Matlack, background matters. He grew up in Amherst, Massachusetts, the son of an ultra-liberal English professor father and a family therapist mother. “We had this big house with the idea of making it a — I hate it when I say it — a commune,” he says. “For five years we had all kinds of crazy people living with us. Graduate students. Like-minded hippies.” His father, who holds degrees from Princeton, Oxford, and Yale, was a leader of the anti-Vietnam War movement at Cornell, where he taught before UMass. “He organized all kinds of demonstrations. Actually sent his selective service card back to selective service. My family was Quaker so he had a right to be a conscientious objector, but he spent time in prison regularly.”
Matlack occasionally accompanied his father to the demonstrations, and at age 7, was detained during a protest at Westover Reserve Air Base in Chicopee, Massachusetts. “I’m in the cell with these guys, and I’m talking to my dad about how to plead,” Matlack says with a laugh. His father’s career suffered as a result of his activism, however. He was passed over for tenure, dropped out of academia, and his marriage to Matlack’s mother was strained. “I saw my dad fail as a professor. It was very difficult to watch. He kinda couldn’t get it together, even though he was brilliant.”
Matlack was a loner in high school, a big kid, very athletic — he ran, swam, played soccer — but uncomfortable in his body. Because of his size, kids at school often challenged him to fight, but he was unable to respond due to “this Quaker thing I had in me.” (Matlack’s beliefs currently run more toward the spiritual but not religious.) He fled, graduated high school a year early, and went off to college at Wesleyan. His unease trailed him, though, and he began drinking, although he says bulimia was in fact his most significant problem. It wasn’t until graduate school at Yale that he reformed his eating habits. “The unhealthy eating stuff actually wasn’t something that I could maintain. At that point, my focus became 100 percent alcohol.”
This continued literally until a week after he completed the final Journal deal and his life imploded. He was by then a full-fledged, out-of-control alcoholic, the kind who rolls his car on a bender, cheats on his wife, and neglects his two young children. The insecurity and poor self-image that fueled his drinking and bulimia translated into recklessness in business, a trait Matlack believes gave him an edge. “It allowed me to do things that no one else would ever do,” he says. “I’m negotiating these deals and people who actually care about their lives are shitting bricks ‘cause they realizing the impact of screwing it up. I didn’t feel it. I didn’t feel the pressure. I was like, who cares?”
This recklessness worked less well in his personal life. His wife knew about the drinking. They’d met in a bar as Yale MBA students, and Matlack says he was attracted to her “probably because I thought she drank the way I did. That didn’t turn out to be the case.” She suspected — correctly — that he’d been cheating, and when he went out one night she rifled through his stuff, discovered a phone number, and confronted him. “I had been denying it. For some reason something clicked and I stopped denying it. And she went nuts.” She told him she was “definitely going to get all [his] money.” But that wasn’t it. “You’ll never see your kids again.’”
A few days later, Matlack had his last drink. In time, he repaired his relationship with his children. (But not his wife. More than 15 years after their divorce, Matlack still struggles to be charitable about her. He says she’s working toward a Ph.D. in theology, a process he ascribes to a desire “to become some sort of nun.” Despite being “perfectly attractive,” he explains, she hasn’t entered another serious relationship since leaving him. “Too much of a bitch,” he adds, with some glee.)
It was in recovery that Matlack decided that being a sober man would not be enough. He would have to become a sober man. “In AA, the primary idea is to stop drinking. But there’s also this secondary idea of the sober man,” explained one of Matlack’s friends, who’s also been through AA and asked I not use his name. “That means you treat people with respect. Live with integrity. Do the right thing, reaching your hand out to people who need help.”
“The idea of GMP comes out of that concept,” added Matlack’s friend. “When you’re in recovery, a lot of what it’s about is being able to bare yourself to other people. Giving freely to other men. It’s a whole different way of relating.” Matlack, he said, wondered, “Why can’t men have more of these relationships like this? There are men with stories to tell, incredible things to say. Why aren’t they telling them?”
The Good Men Project began its life in 2009 as a failed book. Matlack, despite his years at the Providence Journal, had no experience on the editorial side of publishing. But he was smart and confident, and, inspired by the stories he had heard in recovery, decided to co-edit and self-publish a book: The Good Men Project: Real Stories from the Front Lines of Modern Manhood.
Recent years have seen the publication of a host of much-discussed books by women detailing their condition: smart and provocative polemics like Hanna Rosin’s The End of Men and Elisabeth Badinter’s The Conflict; corporate-era twists on the Horatio Alger myth, such as Sheryl Sandberg’s Lean In; studies in gynocentric absurdity of the kind found in Pamela Druckerman’s Bringing up Bébé, Naomi Wolf’s Vagina, and Kay S. Hymowitz’s Manning Up; Amy Chua’s Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mom above all.
These books, plus the legions of mom-and-related-shopping blogs, comprise a large, formidable, and discrete industry. Comparable male efforts have failed to deliver the same cultural impact; unfortunately, the Good Men Project book, which took the form of an anthology of short, earnest essays on manhood, did little to change that. A representative example, from Joel Schwartzberg’s “Birth of a Father”: “Charlie started crying, and then I joined him… that shared sob was our first bonding.”
To help promote the book, Matlack brought on an advertising exec turned social media expert named Lisa Hickey. Hickey, like Matlack, came to GMP with a difficult background. She had been physically and sexual abused by her father (to be precise, Hickey says only her sister was sexually abused; she has memories of acts of “sexual inappropriateness” by her father, but prefers to leave it at that), and she also struggled with alcohol, a subject she later discussed in “I Used to Stand in Dark Hallways and Say ‘Kiss Me,’” a 2,000-word GMP blog entry that included a trigger warning for victims of sexual violence and abuse: “Did I say, ‘yes’ to Bob? I’m sure, at some point that night, I did. I’m also sure I said ‘no’ or at least ‘I’m not sure.’ I clearly remember saying, ‘wait,’ over and over.”
Hickey helped promote the book, and a documentary of the same name, on Twitter and Facebook. Matlack, meanwhile, focused on making public appearances, at an idiosyncratic array of locales that included Sing Sing prison, the Institute of Contemporary Art in Boston, colleges and bookstores, a synagogue, and, as Matlack put it on the Huffington Post, “a Gay Center, a feminist bookstore, [and] an off-Broadway theater.” In Los Angeles, he participated in a good-men panel discussion with Mad Men creator Matthew Weiner, and Shepard Fairey, the noted illustrator who created the Obama “Hope” posters.
Matlack knew Weiner from Wesleyan, they were friendly, and he agreed to show up. What Weiner apparently didn’t know was that Matlack had been using their connection to each other, and Mad Men, as props in his writing and public speaking, riffing on the idea of remote, irresponsible masculinity. (“We’re obsessed with Don Draper because he’s us. It’s like this guy is actually falling apart and you can’t see it. And we’re actually falling apart and we can’t see it.”) Weiner objected to having his intellectual property sullied in this fashion. Sometime after the L.A. event, Weiner’s lawyer contacted Matlack, telling him, “If I ever mention him again in print he was going to sue me.”
The book sold 3,000 copies.
Matlack says he was ready to let the idea go. “I had hoped that the book would take off. It didn’t take off. You know? I’d had my fun.” Hickey, however, convinced him that a market existed for good men online, in the form of a GMP web publication. “I told him I couldn’t sell a million copies of the book,” Hickey told me over the phone. “But I could sell a million people on the idea of a good man.”
Matlack agreed to continue, and he provided seed money for the site launch and overhead, plus contacts to his venture capitalist pals. He wasn’t interested in running things on a daily basis, so he licensed the GMP name to Hickey. She is, in fact, CEO of Good Men Media Inc., a company name that sounds like it was swiped from early drafts of The Hudsucker Proxy. That’s not to say Matlack ceded Hickey control of his baby. He may never have assigned or edited any posts, but he remained the largest single investor, retained a seat on the board, wrote (a lot) for the site, and, of course, kept a bigfoot’s say in editorial direction. He was, for better and worse, GMP’s face, voice, and pretty much everything else minus daily operations.
The site launched in June 2010, and Matlack and Hickey initially decided to hire a professional editorial staff. New York Times Magazine writer Benoit Denizet-Lewis came on as the editor-in-chief, along with several other young, full-time editors. (Denizet-Lewis only agreed to speak to me about his time with GMP off the record, but he characterized it as positive.) Denizet-Lewis left after about a year, and shortly thereafter, when Matlack and Hickey realized how much money they were spending to pay editors, they got rid of them. Volunteer editors now work mainly for free, earning a percentage of whatever revenue is generated by posts they assign or write. The reception among feminist-oriented sites to the GMP was a welcoming one. “I thought a website for men focused on gender issues through a male lens was a positive thing,” says Jill Filipovic, the editor of the website Feministe. “Women that I know that were writing about gender tweeted some of their articles, and they thought it was great too.”
In its earliest days, GMP would use prominent names to leverage traffic, which expanded fairly quickly to more than 800,000 unique views per month. “Sh*t Guys Do,” for example, consisted of short quotes on the daily male habits of a range of publishing notables, including James Franco, Sebastian Junger, Robert Pinsky, Junot Díaz, and Andrew Sullivan. For balance they included some successful-but-not-famous men, like a urologist named Stephen Siegal. The entirety of his contribution: “Slice and dice.”
They also began publishing click-worthy, confrontational, and intellectually substantial writers, regardless of gender. These have included people like Amanda Marcotte, a respected blogger who covers politics and feminism. Known for her cutting sense of humor, Marcotte’s work has, on occasion, veered into the controversial. In 2007, she wrote a satirical post for the site Pandagon about the Duke lacrosse team’s sexual assault case, asking, “Can’t a few white boys sexually assault a black woman anymore without people getting all wound up about it?” She was, at the time, blogmaster for the doomed John Edwards campaign, and was forced to resign.
Marcotte’s tenure at GMP didn’t end well, either, although she was initially optimistic about what GMP could accomplish. “There’s long been a hope among feminists,” she told me, “that if men could start their own groups and talk about masculinity, we could dismantle some of the toxic messages defining maleness away from traditional models of oppression and dominance and aggression.” Ultimately, though, she grew skeptical, saying that sites like GMP encourage a form of male defensiveness that ends up “excusing bad behavior and attitudes.”
In particular, she butted heads with Matlack, largely over what she felt was the sexist tenor of his writing. She quit writing for the site, but not before telling Matlack “he could basically kiss my ass.” The transcript of an email argument between the two includes Marcotte upbraiding Matlack for trying “to cast me and your other critics in the role of domineering females who brook no dissent,” and, when he tried to placate her, the contention that “passive-aggression” — his — “was worse than naked aggression, which at least has an honesty about it.” Matlack, when asked about Marcotte, called her “hypercritical” and “just offensive on a real level.”
Hugo Schwyzer, the defrocked male feminist today best known for his theatrical and ceaseless online collapse, was also a GMP columnist. He quit in December 2011 after Matlack, in but one example of his editorial bigfootery, spiked a post he’d written that criticized Matlack. “He wanted to publish a takedown on me,” Matlack said. “I said, ‘Hey, you know, this is fucking my site. I don’t need this guy saying I’m a complete asshole.’”
This kind of outsized reaction to criticism became a regular occurrence for Matlack, particularly in social media, where he could be relied on for a rejoinder to even the smallest slights. “He seem[ed] like someone who wants to be publicly liked and has a hard time balancing that with doing the right thing,” says Filipovic, who occasionally encountered Matlack on Twitter. “Part of his issue is having a hard time realizing people are really not going to like you.”
GMP’s surest method for gaining attention has been controversy. A March 2011 special package, for instance, included contributions from figures in the much-derided men’s rights movement. Men’s rights activists, or MRAs, are less a group than a phenomenon, a loosely linked collection of writers, bloggers, and comment-section trolls who occasionally coalesce into activism around the supposed shoddy treatment men receive during divorce. In a 1985 book, Men Freeing Men: Exploding the Myth of the Traditional Male, early MRA firebrand Rich Doyle described divorce courts as “slaughter-houses” that function as “collection agencies for lawyer fees, however outrageous, stealing children and extorting money from men.”
Other MRA concerns include false rape accusations, underreporting of woman-on-man domestic violence and sexual assault, anti-boy bias in youth education, resentment of the expectation for men to fight and die in the military, “paternity fraud,” and a generalized — and nutty — perception of female social privilege and anti-male discrimination.
MRAs have found a happy home on the internet, strengthened by the twin miracles of blogging platforms and unregulated comment forums. (MRAs offer a grateful prayer each night to their — definitely male — maker for the creation of Reddit.) Their websites skew cranky and politically incorrect, obsessed with addressing perceived transgressions against the male gender. Paul Elam, of A Voice for Men, for instance, has reveled in attacks on Matlack (“Tom Matlack is to the understanding of manhood what Bernie Madhoff [sic] is to the understanding of corporate ethics”) and taken great pleasure in needling him as a “mangina” — mangina being the prevailing insult among online MRA-folk.
An example of the discourse GMP invited onto its webpages with the MRA special package: Dan Moore of MRA blog MenZ Magazine contributed a post that included a section he called “Why Do MRAs Hate Feminists So Much?” Answer: “In a nutshell: because nearly everything they say is a lie.”
Elam chimed in too, with an article on misandry — a popular MRA term and hobbyhorse — that was subsequently removed from GMP’s website. I emailed Lisa Hickey to ask why it had been taken down, and she responded, “Paul Elam has publicly called me a lying scum [and] a cunt… I’d prefer to ignore anything he says.”
Matlack was wary about publishing the package. Men’s sites that wade into the MRA morass, no matter what their intent, risk having their identity conflated with it ideologically: Access to the forum reads as tacit acceptance. But he couldn’t argue with the traffic it delivered to the site. Ironically, his biggest complaint about the package was the response from the MRAs, who, he complained, “view any sympathy with feminism as a sellout.”
There were milder controversies too. “Yoga Pants Nation” was a February 2013 article by GMP contributor Nathan Graziano that chronicled his discomfort at being compelled to exercise in workout rooms filled with fit women in see-through yoga garb. “Yoga pants have brought out my worst chauvinistic characteristics,” — by which he meant arousal — “the characteristics I’d like to deny exist inside me. But when it comes to yoga pants, I can’t.” (Graziano also wrote “Lap Dance Anxiety,” which told much the same story: “I’m not exactly sure how to behave when a strange woman straddles me for cash.”)
The response to Graziano, particularly after the MRA feature, was less than positive, and reflected the ways in which the GMP had squandered some good will from feminist-oriented publications. Katie Baker, a Jezebel staff writer, tweeted that it was “reason #423482 to not even hate-read @GoodMenProject.” At The Frisky, Amelia McDonell-Parry published a response she called “Women Wear Yoga Pants Because They Are Comfortable, Not Because They Apparently Give You a Boner.”
Matlack, predictably, defends Graziano, calling him a “good guy” who had merely put voice to “what every guy — every straight guy — I know thinks.” His logic: “All these women are walking around in yoga pants, including my fucking 18-year-old daughter. It makes me uncomfortable because it makes me horny” — women other than his daughter, presumably — “and I don’t want to be horny because I don’t want to objectify women. And people went crazy. Because ‘he’s a sexist pig!’”
Far, far more inflammatory were the rape articles. In November 2012, GMP published “Nice Guys Commit Rape, Too,” by Alyssa Royse. In it, Royse appeared to offer a qualified defense of a friend who had committed what she deemed a morally ambiguous rape. “On the night in question,” she wrote, adopting the distancing tone of a police procedural, her friend had gone to a party with a woman; they’d gotten drunk, found a quiet room, and fallen asleep. “By all accounts, when she woke up, he was penetrating her.” Royse’s argument on behalf of her friend is hard to follow, but amounts mainly to: rape is confusing. “My friend thought he was doing what was expected. And while he was wrong, weeks of flirting, provocative dancing and intimate innuendo led him to believe that sex was the logical conclusion of their social intercourse. Many people watching it unfold would have thought that, too. Of course they would all be wrong. But if something walks like a fuck and talks like fuck, at what point are we supposed to understand that it’s not a fuck?”
Two weeks later, GMP went several ethically questionable steps further, with “I’d Rather Risk Rape Than Quit Partying.” In this story, an anonymous man wrote that he had “moved from one party scene to another my whole adult life,” searching “for that incredible sense of liberation and possibility that you only find at the bottom of the bottle and a hot room full of crazy people…it is only after the fact that you start figuring out that one of the tradeoffs you’ve accepted is a certain amount of rape.” (Emphasis added.)
The writer gave no indication of remorse or reformation. “Some might think it’s monstrous of me to keep drinking, keep partying,” he wrote. “But I have had so many good, positive, happy experiences because I took a chance and altered my state and connected with someone else sexually, it seems crazy to throw all that away. Do people who’ve been in car accidents give up driving?”
GMP accompanied these articles with one by Joanna Schroeder, a GMP editor, who explained the decision to publish, and argued for drug and alcohol abuse as the primary culprit in both. “When,” she asked, “will we truly start to discuss the role alcohol and drugs play in sexual assault?” adding, “As long as we continue looking at people who commit rape through this black and white lens of ‘good’ and ‘bad,’ we won’t be able to see how close many of us are to becoming victims…or even rapists.”
Matlack says he wasn’t directly involved with the decision to publish the rape articles, but he defends doing so. “Publishing them was fine. The way we handled the framing of them was less than ideal. I think people missed the point and I wrote at the time that people missed the point. To somehow characterize us as being pro-rape or rape apologists is ridiculous.”
Matlack shows me to the home office he keeps in a converted attic on the third floor. It’s a small and sparsely adorned man-cave, with a desk for his computer, a few tasteful photos and paintings on the wall, an aging couch, and, on the floor, a green meditation pillow and a votive candle.
A week before I headed to Boston, Matlack sent me an email to fill me in “on where my head is on manhood and the GMP.” He had been having reservations about the site, and had in fact stopped blogging recently. “I have decided to pull back on a number of fronts and regroup. I am thinking about this year as a kind of sabbatical of sorts.”
He would, of course, remain a shareholder and member of GMP’s board. He expected that he would still be “often quoted,” and was still “very passionate” on matters related to men. But lately he had come to realize that his interactions online, whether blogging or in social media, strayed from what he called “his highest self,” and did not reflect his original intentions for GMP. “Never in a million years,” he wrote, “would I have thought that writing, speaking, and talking about men being good fathers, husbands, et al would have kicked up the massive shitstorm that it has.”
The roots of that shitstorm, and his lowered self, were twofold. Part of the blame went to the MRAs, whose mangina taunts never seemed to flag. Worse than the MRAs, though, was the “virulent strain of feminism that has more or less taken over any discussion of gender anywhere.” Contemporary feminists, he explains in his office, riled him to no end, because they weren’t really feminists, not in the way he understood it.
“I thought of feminism like my mother did,” he says, strains of righteous indignation creeping into his voice. “Equal rights. Reproductive rights. Fair playing field. Let’s vote for Shelly Chisholm.”
“Shirley,” I interrupt.
“Whatever. I’m all for Shirley Chisholm. I went to Wesleyan. We didn’t spell women with an ‘E,’ we spelled it with a ‘Y.’”
Matlack bristles at the memory of a Twitter battle that GMP would later dub “The Wrath of the Feminists.” It began when Matlack tweeted, “Why can’t women accept men for who they really are? Is a good man more like a woman or more truly masculine?” This — admittedly sexist, whiny, and unwise — assemblage of 127 characters in support of his article “Being a Dude Is a Good Thing” generated hundreds of angry responses, from prominent feminist bloggers, ordinary women, former GMP writers like a pre-collapse Hugo Schwyzer and Amanda Marcotte, and yes — yes! — Roseanne Barr, who declared that “women command all arenas of power and everyone knows it and denies it too.”
Matlack parried every thrust: “I never said women are henpeckers,” “I am not stomping my foot,” “I founded GMP based on the power of individual men’s stories of goodness, in all their diversity. You call us all rapists,” “My privilege? I grew up with nothing,” “I consider myself a feminist,” “read my mangina piece.”
Worse yet was the pushback engendered by his part in an online New York Times debate on women and makeup, entitled “The Power of the Rouge Pot.” Matlack had written what he felt were all the right things: Women should wear makeup if they want to, skip it if they don’t, it was up to them, no judgments, they shouldn’t worry. He added that he preferred his wife unembellished, calling her “the most beautiful woman on the planet,” even in the morning before she put on makeup “or clothes.”
It was perhaps that last bit that provoked a chorus of detractors. Amanda Marcotte took to Slate to charge Matlack with implying that all women were “silly bunnies who don’t know what we’re doing with a powder brush.” Christina Huffington claimed that the post held up an unfair notion of “effortless” female beauty — and questioned whether Matlack’s wife’s beautiful morning appearance didn’t come of some doing.
Matlack relates the blow-by-blow of these conflicts to me with a pointillist sense of righteous indignation. Gone is the guarded hunch of our earlier conversation. He angrily stretches his frame to its full length, the ropy muscles in his neck pull taut, color creeps into his pale cheeks, and his voice rises as he gestures with his hands, narrows his eyes to ireful slits, and rains venom on his enemies.
Of his female critics: “This is a men’s site; who cares what you think? I don’t give a shit! We’re trying to have a conversation about what men actually feel. That might ruffle feathers with women, but they have a thousand places to talk about that. Go write for Jezebel, for God’s sake. Don’t do that here.”
Of his arguments about editorial direction with Lisa Hickey and the GMP editors: “The readership should be guys like me. And that doesn’t mean it shouldn’t include men of all kinds of class, men of all race, men of all gender orientation, men of all geography, whatever. But, by playing to the fringe, you’re missing the opportunity. We’ve become a place where men are like, ‘Let’s nuance the patriarchy. Let’s admit that we’re all feminists in the modern sense of the world, and you know, let’s talk about how men are wrong but it’s not their fault.’”
He shakes his head. “I find this stuff really upsetting, all this back and forth with people. I really do.”
But he doesn’t. Not at all. He loves it. It gives him energy and purpose, brings him fully to life. He is a happy online warrior, ready to give satisfaction wherever, whenever, name the place, choose your weapons.
Which, to his credit, he has recognized is not good.
So, he tells me, he will “step back” and “stay out of the limelight.” He will devote his free time to his family, his investments, and his workouts. He will foster his meditation practice — pillow and candle explained — and develop a book idea that he at first didn’t want to discuss but eventually described as “Eat, Pray, Love without going anywhere.”
The problem is that he has already blogged that very morning before I show up, posting an irate response to an anodyne New York Times article that basically called for universal paternity leave. This prompts another online ruckus the next day, which results in these choice words on Twitter for Hugo Schwyzer: “Oh Hugo, go back to group sex with your students. You were so much more likeable then.” (Schwyzer seems to have taken Matlack’s advice and run with it.)
A bout of email bickering with Lisa Hickey and the GMP staff ensued, until Matlack, in a single, frustrated spasm, deleted his Twitter account, resigned as a GMP columnist, and withdrew from the board. He retained his stake in the site, however, and told Hickey to continue sending “his monthly board pack email so I can see how my investment is going.”
This seemed a pretty drastic step: burning of the bridge and the ships. Clean break. Cold turkey. A sober man once again. Yet there was something honorable about it. The GMP could, and would, continue without him. Lisa Hickey, whom I spoke with in July, told me traffic on the site remained consistent in the first few months after Matlack departed, and had increased recently, hovering near the 2 million uniques mark. More important, though, Matlack seemed to understand what his withdrawal would mean: the surrender of his starring role in the black box theater of contemporary male discourse; the diminution of any cultural relevance for his something; a self-aware act of erasure. But with it, he might actually aid his original goal: to help create a new way for men to express themselves, a new frame of gendered self-reference, an updated code or vocabulary to match the era in which men find themselves. That couldn’t happen amid the clamor that had engulfed his public persona.
I emailed Matlack to ask if he was serious. “Yes,” he replied. “Done.”
A week later, I received an email from him. He’d written something about the Boston Marathon bombings and its connection to boys. “You have any use for this?” he asked. “At BuzzFeed or otherwise?”
Correction: The story has been corrected to reflect that Matlack’s two children from his first marriage have mostly lived with their mother; clarified the timeline of the Providence Journal deals; as well as Ms. Schroeder’s title. (9/9/13)
1. “It’s a place where kids have fun now.”
The playground where it happened doesn’t look the same as it did back then. The trees and shrubs where the shooters lay hidden in wait have been removed. The hulking two-story gymnasium wall has been patched to repair the pockmarks from the stray bullets. The sidewalk that jutted out from the door to the sixth-grade hallway was pulled up the year after the shooting. Five trees, planted to commemorate the five who died that afternoon, now dot the hillside behind the school, each 7 or 8 feet high. A 6-foot brick wall snakes along one side of a memorial garden; behind it sits five red picnic tables, five stepping-stones, and a weathered silver sundial inscribed with the names of the dead.
“It would be hard for me to come out here if it hadn’t changed,” says Debbie Spencer, a sixth-grade teacher at Westside Middle School. Spencer is one of only two current staff members who were here back on March 24, 1998, when two students, 11-year-old Andrew Golden and 13-year-old Mitchell Johnson, turned this northeast Arkansas schoolyard into a killing field. The other remaining staff member, according to Spencer, doesn’t talk about it.
Despite the changes to the playground, some superficial scars remain: a few small divots in the concrete near the door to the school, a couple of indentations in that gymnasium wall. But you wouldn’t recognize these bullet marks unless you were looking for them, and Spencer’s current crop of students runs all over the area without much of a care. “It’s a place where kids have fun now,” she says. “They don’t know. They weren’t even born then.”
At the time it happened, the rampage at Westside Middle School was arguably the worst school shooting in U.S. history. In a plot that seemed far too fiendish for the young minds that hatched it, that Tuesday afternoon, just after lunch, Golden pulled a fire alarm luring his classmates and teachers outside, and then he and Johnson opened fire on them. The ambush killed four students, Paige Ann Herring, 12, Britthney Varner, 11, Stephanie Johnson, 12, and Natalie Brooks, 11, and one teacher, Shannon Wright, 32; an additional nine students and one teacher were injured.
Within hours of the incident, the national media descended on Jonesboro, Arkansas, and the rolling hills 15 minutes outside the city where Westside Middle School sits. The parking lot of the elementary school next door filled with satellite trucks, news helicopters circled, and reporters hounded anyone with even the most tenuous connection to the shooting or the victims. In the days that followed, the world gasped at images of tearful sheriffs, horrified parents, and stunned schoolchildren, asking what could possibly push two young boys to such violence against their classmates and friends, and how this small Southern community could ever find a way to go on. Then, a few weeks passed, and the satellite trucks, the helicopters, and the reporters picked up and left, and the rest of the world moved on.
Today, the shooting is a historical footnote, and Jonesboro is just another name on a depressingly long list of places that seem cursed to be remembered — in some cases, barely — for the schoolyard carnage they played host to: Pearl, Paducah, Springfield, Littleton, Red Lake, Nickel Mines, Newtown. The details of each of these towns’ tragedies are uniquely horrible, but with a decade and a half of distance, the story of what happened to this place and to these people — the students and faculty who lived through it, the families of those who didn’t, the first responders, the shooters themselves — feels at times like an inspiration, and at others, like a grim cautionary tale.
But the residents of this community never signed up to be an inspiration or a cautionary tale. For almost everyone I spoke to over the course of a week in and around Jonesboro, it’s the defining event of their lives, yet not something they talk about with strangers, or even with one another. But once they were convinced to open up, most seemed eager or relieved to share, accepting that their stories were not theirs alone but part of a larger story that goes far beyond northeast Arkansas, and that is still being written.
2. “Nobody knew what was going on.”
Although the massacre came to be identified as “the Jonesboro shooting,” the school itself actually lies closer to a small town of roughly 1,500 people called Bono. There’s a smattering of small, boxy houses and graying buildings — a truck and ATV accessories store, a Kum & Go gas station, Kelley’s IGA supermarket, a grim-looking H&R Block office, the Bono Church of Christ, a dilapidated but possibly still operational Warrior Gym — but nothing resembling the kind of town square that can lend even the most down-on-its-heels Southern backwater a steely nobility. The place feels unplanned.
The school is about five miles from Bono — drive south for a few minutes on Highway 63, then take a two-lane road for just over a mile, through hills dotted with small houses, country churches, and one scrap-metal yard piled with rusted-out vehicles, until you reach a hilltop where the middle school, high school, and elementary school that make up the Westside Consolidated School District (motto: “Heading in the Right Direction”) are spread across a large patch of land. Past the school, the road flattens out into an expanse of farmland toward the tiny towns of Egypt and Cash. Most of Westside’s students come from around here and refer to Jonesboro — a town of more than 60,000 with its own daily newspaper, small airport, and Division I college (Arkansas State University) — as “the city.”
In 1998, Debbie Spencer’s classroom was on a different hall than the one she teaches in now, but she and Betty Fuller, who was the teacher in charge of in-school suspensions at the time of the shooting, show me her old corridor one afternoon in January, just after school has let out. To me, it’s merely unremarkable: rows of beige lockers, beige cinderblock walls, a squeaky vinyl floor, a bulletin board ringed with handmade paper stars highlighting students’ work. To Spencer and Fuller, it’s something else entirely.
“I still can’t come out those doors,” says Fuller, pointing to the end of the corridor that leads to the playground. She left Westside five years ago for a school in nearby Weiner, but she and Spencer have remained close, a bond that can be traced in many ways to this hallway.
Spencer has broad shoulders, long brown hair, and a warm, motherly disposition. When Golden pulled that fire alarm, she was in her classroom alone. “When I walked out, I saw Stephanie Johnson,” says Spencer. “I thought somebody had pushed her because she went forward. I started to run towards her and that’s when she was hit again. She didn’t get her hands up. She just fell. Then I heard the sound of the gun.” Spencer froze for a moment, then began trying to pull students to the ground. A seventh-grader named Tristan McGowan grabbed her and complained he’d been cut.
“Nobody knew what was going on,” Spencer says. “He held up his arm, and I could see where two bullets went through.” She told him to follow her back into the building, but when she got to the doors, he’d taken off in the other direction and the doors had locked automatically because of the fire alarm. “I just remember the sheer terror: Something’s getting our kids and we can’t get back in.”
After a few moments, another teacher opened the doors from the inside. As Spencer came back in, two students did also, one dragging the other. Fuller, who was still in the hallway at the time, thought the shots might be coming into the building and began corralling some kids behind lockers and into an alcove by one of the classroom doors. The student who’d been dragged inside, a seventh-grader named Brittney Lambie, fell right beside Fuller, bleeding.
As Fuller huddled with the students, one of them told her it was Mitchell Johnson out there shooting; he’d told him not to come to school that day. Fuller had experienced several unpleasant run-ins with Johnson and was immediately convinced she was one of his intended targets — a fact, she says, that was later corroborated for her by the prosecuting attorney in the case.
“A part of me thought, If I just go out there, he’ll quit,” says Fuller. “And let me tell you, I was too damned scared to go out there. I carry a lot of guilt from that.”
In the hallway, Spencer was kneeling over Lambie, whom she’d known since she was in kindergarten. Lambie played on a softball team with Spencer’s daughter, who was also a seventh-grader at Westside, and on road trips they’d all get a hotel room together. “Brittney was yelling, ‘Help me! Help me!’” says Spencer. “I was in shock and didn’t know what to do. I was checking out.”
At this point, Spencer says she heard a voice — “it was God or Brittney’s guardian angel” — giving her instructions. She ran to her classroom and grabbed an emergency kit designed for responding to earthquakes. She began rifling through the five-gallon barrel, not even sure what she was looking for. Eventually she found some washcloths.
“Brittney’s socks were soaked in blood,” says Spencer. “I remember thinking, I’ve got to figure out where the blood is coming from. I was kneeling in it.” She started to undo Lambie’s pants but then looked down the hall and saw Fuller in the doorway with several students. “There were all these boys sitting there wide-eyed. It’s crazy, but I thought, I can’t take her pants off in front of these boys.”
Instead, with scissors, she cut Lambie’s pants from the bottom and discovered she was shot through the femoral artery. “Every time her heart beat, blood was squirting out,” says Spencer. She yelled to Fuller to get her something to make a tourniquet. Fuller found a flat sheet in the earthquake kit but said she didn’t think Spencer would be able to make it tight enough.
“I said, ‘Yes I can! Just give it to me!’” Spencer wrapped the sheet around Lambie’s leg, tied it in a knot, and then held onto it so tightly for so long that she later needed surgery on one of her hands to repair the damage. She propped Lambie’s leg up on a bucket and waited for help to arrive. The wait seemed interminable.
From outside, she could hear a staff member who was with one of the eventual fatalities, a skinny, energetic sixth-grader named Britthney Varner. “She was saying, ‘Hang on, Britthney. Hang on, Britthney.’”
Lambie was crying for her mother and Spencer assured her that her mother was going to meet her at the hospital. “She kept saying, ‘Am I going to lose my leg?’ And I kept saying, ‘No, no, no,’ but I didn’t know. We were the last ones to be reached by EMTs.”
Lambie didn’t lose her leg, but the wound was so serious that doctors said she almost surely would’ve died without Spencer’s intervention. Later that day, when she was talking to police investigators, Spencer discovered that she’d only narrowly escaped being shot herself: A bullet had pierced her purse, her wallet, and her compact.
Karen Curtner, Westside’s principal at the time, says Spencer “was one of the most critical people we had on campus that day. She literally saved this girl’s life because she knew what to do and was able to do it.”
Curtner herself had heard the fire alarm that day while she was sitting in the cafeteria, and by the time she walked out of the school’s front door, the shooting was already in progress. Curtner has short blonde hair, intense eyes, and a no-nonsense manner that one of her friends admitted can make her seem “scary.” She’d lived her whole life in the area, attended Westside schools, and had been hired as the middle-school principal in 1996, several months before the building first opened its doors to students.
As a self-described “country girl,” Curtner was accustomed to the sound of hunter’s rifles, but when she looked into the schoolyard, she was stunned: Some students were splayed out on the grass, others were running around frantically; the sixth-grade social studies teacher, Lynette Thetford, was on the sidewalk, shot in the abdomen.
“Everybody was floundering,” says Curtner. “I don’t know how to describe that feeling — you have no way to defend yourself, and you are ultimately responsible for all those kids. Everybody looks to you and says, ‘What are we going to do?’ I was like, ‘Get in the gym!’”
Once in the gym, the scene was only marginally less chaotic. Some teachers were hiding; others were practically catatonic. Terrified students mobbed Curtner.
“Those kids came up, pulling on me — they actually ripped my jacket,” she says, her voice cracking a little bit. “They were screaming, ‘Help! Call my mama! Call my daddy!’ I had a notebook in my hands, so I said, ‘Write your name and phone number and I’ll call your mama.’ They got that notebook and were tearing those pages off.”
In the midst of chaos like this, time can be a murky concept. Fuller told me the whole episode was over in four minutes. Curtner insisted it was 20 minutes from the time it started until the first help began to show up. Rick Elliott, a lieutenant with the Jonesboro Police Department who responded to the call that day, says that when he arrived, 10 minutes after the shooting began, Golden and Johnson had just been apprehended. He’d grabbed his rifle and bulletproof vest, but after quickly scanning the wood line for more threats, he began to perform first aid on Shannon Wright, who’d been shot in the chest and abdomen and hadn’t yet been reached by EMTs.
Nearly everyone I spoke to described the aftermath as a blur. That night, counselors, psychologists, pastors, and others were available at the school for anyone who wanted to come by — close to 700 did. Teachers were told they had to report back to school the following morning — a mandate that was unpopular amongst the staff — and students were back the day after that. On Friday, the funerals started.
The media was a constant presence throughout, and rarely a welcome one. Reporters staked out the school, the hospital, the sheriff’s department, the funeral parlors, and the homes of victims and survivors. Phones never stopped ringing with interview requests. Photographers hung from the trees at cemeteries in order to get a shot of the grieving families, a second wave of trauma compounding the first.
The intense coverage spurred an outpouring of support from around the world — mostly letters, cards, and small gifts. While most everyone appreciated the sentiment, as Curtner recalls, the sheer volume became overwhelming. “When you flood people with all that stuff, what are they going to do with it?” she says. “For years, we didn’t know. We had a huge display case at the school.”
Garth Brooks called about doing a benefit concert, and Tiger Woods wanted to raise money with a golf tournament. Curtner turned them both down. “Why did we do that?” she says. “I don’t know what I was doing.”
But events like this inevitably bring out, as Curtner puts it, “the crazies.” A clown drove from Florida and insisted he perform for the kids; a magician somehow slipped past police and was caught stealing quarters from students in the cafeteria. There were threats against the kids and staff, and a letter from the Unabomber praising the shooting as “ordained.” Police nabbed one man claiming to be a reporter before he could enter the school. “He had all these newspapers plastered up in his vehicle that had my picture circled in everyone one of them,” says Curtner.
All this hindered efforts to simply get back into a vaguely normal routine at Westside. As Spencer admits, the rest of that school year was pretty much a washout, academically.
“I actually gave grades for writing thank-you cards,” she says. “I just felt that the kids knowing they’re loved is more important than any science they’re going to learn that year. In one of my classes, three people were gone. They didn’t take their names off our roll, so you had to concentrate so hard not to call their names. One day, I called Paige’s name and I lost it.”
3. “People reach this point where they want things back to normal.”
Jonesboro lies near the southern end of the New Madrid Fault, a major seismic zone that stretches from the bootheel of Missouri down into northeast Arkansas. The fault is responsible for four of the largest earthquakes in North American history, all of which happened in late 1811 and early 1812 and measured between seven and eight on the Richter scale. These quakes were so intense that they leveled the town of New Madrid, caused the Mississippi River to run backwards, and created a 40-mile-long, half-mile-wide lake out of a section of the St. Francis River.
In the past 200 years, steady but comparatively mild quakes have continued to shake the area, doing little damage but keeping residents reminded of the potential for disaster right under foot. As such, it’s perhaps unsurprising that the metaphor many people reached for when describing the effects the shooting had on the community was that of an earthquake: Those closest to the epicenter sustained the most significant, enduring damage. As you move farther out, the impact tended to lessen.
For the first few months after the killings, the entire community was shell-shocked — everyone seemed to have some connection to the school — but in many ways, the early response exemplified the best clichés about small towns. Neighbors reached out to one another, local business donated items and services, churches set up programs to offer support and counseling. Gradually, though, a hierarchy of victimhood emerged between those who were “there” and those who weren’t.
Anyone who lost a family member was granted special status, as was anyone who was actually at the middle school during the shooting. But even amongst those who were “there,” fissures developed. Losing a child was different from losing a sibling or cousin. Those who’d been on that sixth-grade hallway and were firsthand witnesses or may have even been injured had clearly experienced something that those in other parts of the school that day couldn’t understand. Dee Kernodle, a licensed counselor who worked with survivors and their families, explains that these differences played a part in determining how people dealt with the emotional fallout.
“People who are on the outer edges of the tremors, they reach this point where they want things back to normal,” she says. “They don’t want their community to be defined this way. They’re kind of ready to move on. Then you’ve got people close to the epicenter who can’t.”
These are not ephemeral concerns. As the community tried to crawl slowly back toward something that might be called normalcy, there were minefields everywhere: When is it OK to remove the makeshift memorials and wreaths that sprung up at the school? What should be done with money donated in the wake of the tragedy? How should the school and the city acknowledge the victims? What new safety procedures or laws should be implemented? Who should have a say in redesigning the playground? How much leniency should parents and educators give to kids who are struggling to cope?
One of the trickiest things has been determining who exactly is where on this emotional earthquake map. When you get past immediate family members or maybe those who gained some notoriety because of their injuries, there’s no sure way to identify those who still walk around today, freighted with this psychic burden.
Dennis Woody, one of the paramedics at the school that day — he attempted to save Paige Herring as her father stood over his shoulder saying, “Come on, guys, come on” — says that the state provided a one-day debriefing for his ambulance company, but that was it in terms of mental-health counseling, and for him it wasn’t enough. He and the other paramedic he worked closely with that day both struggled for a while. “Both of us maybe drank more to try to deal with it. I know some of the other guys had trouble later on too with alcohol, depression, anger issues, marital problems. I know one or two seasoned paramedics that quit as well. I think 90% of the people involved suffered some kind of post-traumatic something.”
Bruce Tippit, the senior pastor at First Baptist Church in downtown Jonesboro, was on hand at St. Bernards Medical Center the day of the shooting, helping to filter information to the families of the victims. A member of his church was in charge of marking the bodies at the school according to the severity of their injuries, in order to prioritize emergency treatment. “She’s never been the same,” he says of her. “She was always washing her hands. She couldn’t get the blood off.” Another woman, he says, a mortician at a local funeral home, embalmed some of the young victims. “It changed her.”
For those most impacted, the effects have often been far-reaching and long-lasting. One person I spoke to says she refers to that sixth-grade class — which has since been plagued by drug problems, divorces, serious illnesses, depression, and suicide — as “the walking dead.” Even today, Tippit says, the shooting is a living, breathing entity that must be handled with care.
“I will only make veiled references to it,” he says. “I will say ‘the tragedy our community knows so well.’ You’ve got people who don’t want you to talk about it — ‘You weren’t there, so how dare you.’ You tread lightly and respectfully because you just don’t know who was affected, why they were affected, and how they were affected.”
Annual anniversaries of the shooting can always be counted on to reawaken these ghosts, but not as much as the similar rampages that have become too common since. After the shootings at Columbine High School in April 1999, a delegation of clergy, teachers, students, and parents from Westside went to Colorado to try to offer whatever wisdom they’d gained from their experience. Jimmy Adcox, the head minister at Southwest Church of Christ in Jonesboro, helped organize the trip, and although he believes it was helpful for some people, it wasn’t necessarily for him.
“I don’t think going to Columbine made me feel better or more useful,” he says. “If anything it just took me right back to where I was. It was a year later and I wasn’t much better off than they were.”
4. “I should’ve shut up and moved on with my life.”
In the weeks and months after the shooting, Mitch Wright was one of the most familiar faces to those who followed the unfolding drama on TV. Wright had been about 30 minutes from Jonesboro when he heard about the shooting on the car radio. By the time he arrived at Westside, his wife Shannon, a sixth-grade English teacher, had already left in an ambulance on the way to the hospital. A little after 7:00 that night, she was dead.
Wright and his son, Zane, 17, meet me at a restaurant in a mall where Zane, who is now a senior in high school, works at a Barnes & Noble. In our email exchanges prior to meeting, Wright had seemed reluctant and at times even angry. He’d warned me that if our meeting didn’t go well, he’d quickly end it. But once we all sit down in a booth, he’s friendly and relaxed, and tends to lean toward me as he speaks, as if confiding something.
After his wife’s death, Wright gave a steady stream of interviews to various news programs. He cut a sympathetic figure in the national media: a thoughtful, grieving widower sometimes toting the 2-year-old son he would now have to raise on his own. He frequently used his media appearances to advocate for changing the sentencing laws so Golden and Johnson, who were charged as juveniles, could be held past their 18th birthdays. (Additional federal charges tacked on three extra years.) He also joined a lawsuit against gun manufacturers in an effort to force them to install trigger locks on their guns.
Wright works in sales, setting up fundraisers for schools, which means he works on commission and had little choice but to get back to it shortly after his wife’s death in order to earn some money. But he felt unfocused and unmotivated, and being in schools all the time made it hard not to dwell on the shooting. He tells me that the counselor he was seeing cautioned him not to make any big life decisions for at least a year. “I totally messed that one up,” he says. “I sold my house in August. I couldn’t live there. I look at it now — I could’ve paid that house off. I was just running.”
He also began dating Diana Davis, a lead news anchor on ABC’s Jonesboro affiliate, KAIT, which among other things, turned a lot of local sentiment against him. “When we started dating, I heard every rumor in the world,” he says. “‘He was having an affair with her before his wife died!’ ‘I saw them together the day this happened!’ Just crazy stuff.”
Wright says he’d met Davis only a couple of times before the shooting, through her ex-husband. They’d initially become friends when Davis interviewed his late wife’s parents, and from there things moved quickly. Thirteen months after his wife’s death, he and Davis got married.
“Anyone who’s going through something like this, you feel like time is moving so slowly,” he says. “In my case, I was scared to death. I’m raising a child, being a mom and a dad. I looked at a 3-year old little boy who was crying all the time. Diana has a daughter the same age as Zane — we would go see them and this 3-year-old girl would have him laughing and playing. Everything felt wonderful. I felt God had truly brought this person into my life.”
Wright continued to do interviews, and following the shooting at Columbine, he was prominently featured during a televised town hall meeting that had been engineered by ABC’s Nightline as a summit of survivors from the two schools. Some around Jonesboro whispered that Wright was a phony for playing up his grief over his late wife while gallivanting with his new one. Others felt he was arrogant and grandstanding. Some accused him of using sympathy over his wife’s death to increase sales at his job. The letters of support he’d gotten in the months after the shooting began to be replaced with hate mail.
The couple had a son together, but in time, the marriage soured in a way that, due to Wright and Davis’ local profiles, was uncomfortably public. In 2009, they divorced. Wright talks carefully and deliberately about the split, as if he’s wary of stirring up this particular hornet’s nest.
“I think Diana always felt in Shannon’s shadow,” he says. “I look back, if I made some mistakes, probably after I married I should’ve shut up, not done any interviews and moved on with my life. That probably affected us.” That said, in retrospect, he thinks the union may have been doomed from the outset. “I just moved too quickly. I wish I could’ve waited and moved forward with the grief process before I ever decided to move on.”
Zane, tall and exceedingly composed, says he has only hazy recollections of his mother. His most enduring memories are of growing up without one. As a young child, he was the object of outpourings of sympathy — often from strangers — to an extent that frequently made him uncomfortable.
“I didn’t like being talked to by females, especially those who would come up and be like, ‘Oh, Zane!’” he says. “I didn’t like being touched. Through grade school, I always felt like I was different: You are the kid that lost his mom. It was hard to grow up with.”
With time, though, he’s come to appreciate some of the gestures people made toward him back then, and tried to pass them on. After the massacre in Newtown, Paige Herring’s mom Pam helped organize a local drive to send teddy bears to the children at Sandy Hook, an effort that drew a lot of support in the Jonesboro area. Zane got very involved, setting up several drop-off stations including one at the Barnes & Noble where he works. Although the effort could be viewed as the sort of well-intentioned deed that ultimately helps the givers more than the receivers, Zane — who received a bear from a donor after his mother was killed — suggests that for a young child, there is more to it than that.
“When you’re going through that as a kid, your innocence is taken,” he says. “You know from a young age that the world outside is not a nice place. Then all of a sudden you start getting bears and letters saying, ‘Hey, we’re praying for you.’ ‘We’re there for you.’ Then you get a second thought that the world may be a bad place and there may be a lot of bad people, but there’s a whole lot more nice people out there. It helps.”
Kernodle says the urge to do something in the wake of each of these new tragedies or to prevent new ones can be therapeutic. Several teachers I spoke to did speaking engagements about their experiences. Linda Graham, a school psychologist who was on the scene at Westside 30 minutes after the shooting and counseled students and faculty in its wake, later helped organize more comprehensive crisis-response teams that integrate school administrators, police, and mental-health professionals. Rick Elliott, of the Jonesboro Police Department, gives talks around the country to law enforcement agencies about what he’s learned from Westside. Kernodle herself travels around giving presentations to help prepare other counselors for the kinds of things she’s faced in Jonesboro.
“There’s a lot of energy in disasters,” she says. “There’s a lot of energy in grief. Your adrenaline pumps. Whether you’re angry at God or at circumstances, that energy, after a time, has to be channeled into something positive.”
5. “We went from being a family that sat down to eat at night to a family that sat across the table and stared at each other.”
The night before Britthney Varner was killed on the Westside playground, she was up late watching the Academy Awards. The following morning, her older sister Brandi, with whom she shared a bedroom, tried to convince her to skip school.
“Britthney said, ‘No, we’ve got to go,’” says Brandi Varner, a tall, straight-talking 28-year-old, perched on the kitchen counter of the house she shares with her mother, Suzann Wilson, Varner’s two children, and her half-brother. “I remember sitting at her funeral thinking, What if I would’ve just pushed her a little harder to stay home? I know I could’ve convinced her.”
Wilson, who is short, with dark hair and a deep, raspy Southern twang in her voice, sits at a table across the room from Varner, wearing a bright orange T-shirt emblazoned with the words “The Joy Is in the Journey.” Between them is a kitchen island sporting a handful of family photographs, the most prominent of which is a large 8 × 11 framed photo of Britthney, smiling broadly in a white shirt, jeans, and a red vest. While we sit and talk, Varner’s kids, Shelbye, 10, and Jackson, 8, wander in and out of the room, and I find myself trying to time my most difficult and personal questions for when they’re not around. I have two kids around their age, and I couldn’t even bring myself to tell them what I was going to be doing in Arkansas. But neither Wilson nor Varner seem at all concerned about shielding the kids from the discussion — they’ve heard this stuff before.
Shortly after Britthney’s death, Wilson channeled her anguish into working with the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence — equal parts activism and distraction. The guns Johnson and Golden had used at Westside had been taken from Golden’s grandfather’s house, and Wilson believed if they had been secured more diligently, the entire tragedy could’ve been prevented. As a grieving mother, she was a forceful spokesperson as well as, to put it indelicately, a useful political prop. She lobbied lawmakers in Little Rock and Washington, D.C., and attended two State of the Union addresses at the invitation of then-President Clinton.
Gun control wasn’t popular in Arkansas, and although for a while her personal grief seemed to inspire a measure of respect, or at least pity, amongst those who disagreed with her, with time she could feel the tide of local opinion turning against her.
“I got referred to as the ‘The Gun Lady,’” she says. “In Arkansas, all they heard was ‘guns’ and ‘she wants some kind of restriction on them.’ They went crazy!” In one memorable standoff, she was heckled by gun-rights advocates on the steps of the state capital and responded with a righteous fury that was replayed on the national news for days.
Ultimately, though, no new legislation was passed, and she’s not sure how many minds around Jonesboro were changed. “Women’s attitudes may have changed some, but not men. These guys are born and raised with a gun. You buy your son his first gun — that’s a rite of passage.”
Others I spoke to had wildly divergent views on gun control, both as a personal matter and a political one. Most seemed to have no problem with common-sense measures like universal background checks, and few saw any reason why civilians ought to have access to so-called assault weapons. Several wouldn’t allow guns in their home but didn’t have problems with others owning them. A few people, including Varner, were against their kids even using toy guns or pretending to turn their finger into one. As Varner puts it, “The magnitude of what we have lived through — what we’re sensitive to and what other people don’t understand — is totally different. How do you awaken everybody’s senses to this when they don’t know what it’s like?”
After the shooting, Varner, who was in eighth grade then, didn’t return to school for a month. When she did, she found that the landscape had changed. “When I went back, the cool kids wanted to be my friend,” she says. “They invited me to come over and sit at their table.’” The following year, she was voted “class favorite” and class officer and was one of the school’s homecoming maids.
“I was the tall girl in my class,” she says. “My teeth were ganked up. I was not the hot chick. And I’ll tell you what: That same year, [Natalie Brooks’ sister] Brynn, she was a homecoming maid too. Brittney Lambie — she got shot — she was a homecoming maid!” Varner laughs loudly. “I remember looking around, going, ‘This is a little awkward! This is the homecoming for the shooting girls!’”
Meanwhile, life at home had grown strained and surreal. Wilson was spending huge amounts of time on gun issues, traveling frequently, and the rest of her hours were absorbed with her full-time job as the administrator at a nursing home. Varner’s stepfather, Bruce, got up at 4 a.m. to go to work every day and wasn’t much of a talker anyway. Her biological father lived on the other side of the state. That left Varner dealing with her feelings about her sister’s death mostly on her own.
“For so long, it felt like I wasn’t able to cry. I didn’t want them to think I was upset, I didn’t want that attention on me. I had accepted the reality that Britthney wasn’t coming back,” Varner says, and nods across the room toward her mother. “She got mad at me one day because she didn’t think I was grieving the way I was supposed to. She was like, ‘You don’t love her! You’re not crying over her!’”
Left to her own devices, Varner admits she went “buck-ass crazy.” She started drinking, smoking pot and having sex. When she was 16, the family hosted a foreign exchange student from Belarus in their home who became Varner’s partner in crime. “Matter of fact, she left pregnant,” Varner says, laughing. “I was so angry at this point.”
Her grades plummeted. She had been planning to go to college on a volleyball scholarship, but during her senior year, a combination of academic problems and a disciplinary spat she had with Karen Curtner, of all people (who had by this time become the principal at the high school), led to Varner being kicked off what ended up being a state championship volleyball team. Since the shooting, volleyball had been her refuge, the one thing she could still do well, where she was judged purely on her own merits. Without it, she lost whatever remaining motivation she had in school. In November, she was expelled. “I was just lost,” she says.
Wilson sighs deeply and nods. “We all kind of floated around each other in our grief,” she says. “We went from being a family that sat down to eat at night to a family that sat across the table and stared at each other. We just didn’t talk about it. We didn’t know how to pick up the pieces and get along.”
Wilson’s gun-control work also seemed to put further distance between her and her husband. “I’m sure he took a lot of ribbing from his friends over the gun issues,” she says. “He didn’t like being in the limelight. I was gone all the time. It took a toll on our marriage. It took a toll on Brandi. I was just too consumed in my own grief to look out for anybody else. I didn’t look at it and go, ‘By doing this, I’m probably destroying my marriage.’ Because I was going to save America! I was going to save that next little kid out there from getting shot!”
Wilson got divorced in 2001. “I think if the shooting hadn’t have happened, we probably would’ve stayed married,” she says. “After losing Britthney, it was the worst pain I’ve ever felt in my life. I think part of why I pulled back from Bruce and Brandi was because I didn’t want to hurt like that ever again.”
As the years passed, Wilson was dismayed to discover that no matter how busy she kept her mind — on her work, on gun control, on anything else — she didn’t feel much better. She could feel herself at the epicenter of the earthquake being gradually abandoned by those on the outer rings.
“I look at the faces of these parents from Sandy Hook and think, everybody is really involved in your life right now but a year from now, people will be like, ‘You need to put that behind you and move on,’” she says. “I actually had people tell me I need to let go and move on. To this day, though, I still have no idea how.”
Wilson isn’t angry at her friends and the community for wanting to put the shooting behind them. She tells a story about someone she works with now whose brother-in-law went missing a week ago and is presumed to have drowned in a river. Today, the woman was back at work, and Wilson found herself at a loss for how to deal with her.
“What do you say?” she asks. “You can’t help her, and you don’t want to say something stupid. I found myself walking a different path so I’m not going to have to make eye contact with her.”
She shakes her head. “People don’t like to look at grief. Grief is ugly. First, everybody was horrified and they couldn’t do enough. But then, it was like, ‘Let’s get this ugly spot off this town.’”
After Varner was thrown out of high school, she was contacted by a college in Missouri and told that if she got her G.E.D., they’d still be interested in offering her a volleyball scholarship. That May, she found out she was pregnant.
“I always said if it ever happened, I’d probably have an abortion because all I wanted to do was play ball,” Varner says. She motions to her daughter, Shelbye, now looking in the refrigerator for something to drink. “I ended up keeping her, of course.”
The baby, who bore a striking resemblance to Britthney, “breathed life back into everybody,” says Varner. As a mother, Varner began to understand her own mother’s profound grief and they began to repair their relationship. But even 15 years later, her sister’s death is not like some old photo album that has been put on the shelf to simply be pulled out and leafed through with interested visitors.
“I’ll lay in bed at night sometimes and plan my kids’ funerals, think about what songs I would play,” she says. “I think about those things and I’m like, this isn’t normal.”
When Shelbye first went to school, Varner had to find the smallest magnet school possible so she could keep tabs on how the other students’ parents stored their guns. “I’m a major control freak,” she says. “I’m super-protective.”
“Overprotective!” Jackson shouts from the next room.
Varner didn’t stay together with either of her children’s fathers, and admits that she’s often found relationships challenging. “The biggest thing is probably being careful about who you love,” she says. “Because I don’t have the energy to worry about all these people. I worry about my kids, my mom, my little brother, and that’s probably it.”
Wilson too still feels Britthney’s absence every day. “I’ve thought of contacting the Sandy Hook parents, but I have nothing to tell them that’s going to make them feel good,” she says. “I wouldn’t want to make them think at some point this is going to be better. It isn’t. There will never be a time they won’t go back and go, ‘What if I had done this different?’ I play that game in my head all the time: ‘What if I had let her stay home from school?’”
6. “All day long I would look at where this happened.”
Lynette Thetford is sitting on the couch in her airy living room, staring out the large glass-paned doors and windows that look out onto her backyard.
“I could’ve never had windows like this back then,” she says, motioning with her hand toward them. “When I was coming home from the hospital, I remember stopping at the grocery store and scooting down in the car because I was afraid somebody was going to shoot at me. In a restaurant, I still don’t like to sit with my back to where people are coming in.”
Thetford, a sixth-grade social studies teacher in 1998, was shot in the stomach that afternoon; several news outlets reported that she had died, and she herself recalls passing out and then seeing a bright light before being snapped back to the schoolyard sidewalk.
“My mama and brother, they’d heard I’d died,” she says. Thetford had three different surgeries, a foot of her intestines removed, and her ureter reconstructed. She didn’t return to teaching that school year, but her physical ailments paled next to her psychological ones.
Thetford’s wearing a blue V-neck sweater and jeans, and talks with the engaged but slightly dispassionate tone of someone who has recounted these stories many times before. After the shooting, she had trouble sleeping and was plagued by constant night sweats. She felt wracked with guilt over not being able to keep her students safe, and she sunk into frequent depressions. At one point, she was taking Oxycodone to deal with the pain from her injuries, then quit it cold turkey, which pushed her dark moods into worrisome territory. “I told my mom, ‘I don’t know why I couldn’t have died like Shannon,’” she says. “My doctor said, ‘You have to get counseling.’”
Counseling helped, but when she returned to teaching in the fall, she faced new challenges. “There were constant reminders,” she says. “My room faced the playground. All day long, I would look at where this happened.” The school had also become something of a shrine to the departed, filled with photos, artwork, and so many of the gifts people had sent. “That’s comforting to some people. To me, it had the opposite effect.”
Thetford struggled through that first year back at Westside. She felt a duty to her former sixth-grade class — now seventh-graders — who had been so devastated by the shooting. If they had to be there, so did she. But even teaching was proving difficult. One day, when her class was studying World War I, she was looking for a film clip to show her students but couldn’t bear to watch all the violence.
“You don’t realize it until you’ve been through something like this, but social studies is war, war, war, war,” she says. “I thought, I can’t do this anymore.” The following year, she took a job as a reading teacher at a school across town. “I felt like I needed to be there for those kids until they got out of the building,” she says. But once they’d moved on to eighth grade, which was housed in the high school, she moved on too.
Thetford’s departure presaged what would become, in retrospect, a mass exodus by the staff over the next decade. Although some of the faculty stayed for longer and some departures were not entirely attributable to the shooting, practically everyone — from janitors and secretaries to teachers and administrators — eventually left the middle school. As I sat with Spencer and Fuller in Spencer’s classroom, they recounted the fates of former colleagues: Some moved to neighboring districts, a few quit teaching altogether, two died of cancer, one female staff member ran away to Branson with a woman from a rodeo.
Graham, the school psychologist, says this instability was unprecedented. “At Westside, you retired or your spouse was transferred or you died,” she says. Curtner stayed for four more years after the shooting, then moved across the street to become principal of the high school. During these years, she was the school’s public face of the shooting — and as such, a repository for the community’s grief, anger, and regret. Some blamed her, saying if she’d paid attention to warning signs, she could’ve prevented the tragedy. For years, the threat of a civil lawsuit against her hung over her head. She became a lightning rod in the national gun debate after refusing to blame firearms for the incident during a press conference. She’d routinely be praised and pilloried for decisions the school made in regard to its safety procedures, mental-health counseling, and commemorations of the incident. After the “shooting class” graduated in 2004, Curtner took a job as the director of a nearby alternative school.
“I never anticipated wanting to go or do anything anywhere else,” she says. “At first, I was like, ‘I’ve got to stay here and hold this together.’ But once that class graduated, I think it was best for me to go on as well so that there wasn’t that constant reminder.” She found that she felt mentally healthier once she put some physical distance between herself and the school, a response she discovered was common amongst her fellow former Westsiders. “Once a few of them started getting out, they started saying, ‘I didn’t realize how much better I am emotionally not to be there.’”
The migration had long-lasting effects. Taken in combination with the shooting itself, Westside, which had long been considered the best school district in the area, gradually diminished in stature. As teachers left, students and their families went right along with them. As people moved away or started paying less for property around Westside, the tax base shrunk, which further hurt the schools. In recent years, things have begun to turn around, but only just. As Kernodle put it, “Westside used to be the school. It’s getting back on its feet a bit now, but it’s 15 years later.”
7. “The biggest question is, ‘Why did they do it?’”
One thing that separates Westside from every other major school shooting in the U.S. has been the fate of the shooters themselves. Neither Golden nor Johnson could be tried as adults; Arkansas law would’ve released each of them on their 18th birthdays. Federal firearms violations were eventually tacked onto their charges, which kept them locked up until they turned 21, but after that they emerged from prison, in 2005 and 2007, respectively, not only as free men, but with no criminal record whatsoever.
Even before the shooters were released, the community was grappling with how to treat their families. The Goldens eventually relocated about an hour north of Jonesboro, but the Johnsons largely stayed in the area. In fact, Mitchell’s younger brother Monte entered the sixth grade at Westside the year after the shooting. That meant that the same teachers who had been shot at — and in one case shot — by Mitchell now had to teach his younger brother.
“The thing that’s significant about Monte is that he looked and acted just like Mitchell,” says Curtner. “It was difficult for the teachers. They would talk about it and how they were careful around him. And the kids would say he was somewhat of an intimidator. By high school, he was considered a bully.”
Johnson’s mother, Gretchen Woodard, made some efforts to get more involved at the school, and while she generally wasn’t met with open hostility, the situation was understandably awkward. Spencer says that when she had Woodard in for the first parent-teacher conference of the next year, she couldn’t help but ask the questions that had been haunting her.
“I just point-blank asked her, ‘Were they trying to kill the teachers? What was going on?’ She said Andrew told Mitchell to kill all the teachers.” Many people seemed to wish Johnson’s family would just disappear, though most also realized they may not have had the financial resources to move. One teacher told me that she thought by sticking around, the family was rubbing the community’s collective noses in it.
Monte, who still lives in Jonesboro, declined to be interviewed, but did write in a Facebook message to me, “The biggest factor I want to get out to the public is not to push away, blame or point fingers at the family of the killers but to embrace them, accept them in society. I graduated from Westside High School. It was one difficult task, I assure you. There was a lot of aggression, anger [and] hatred for me and my family.”
When the shooters were eventually released, the sense that justice had not been done pervaded the community, but beyond that, many of the survivors were outright fearful of what the two might do. Brandi George, a sixth-grader at the time of the shooting, had walked out of the school that day arm-in-arm with Natalie Brooks and Paige Herring. The idea that there would be nothing to stop their killers from legally purchasing guns was chilling. “It w