A gathering of some of the best pieces by women we’ve read this week.
Michelle McNamara’s “In the Footsteps of a Killer” in Los Angeles Magazine
McNamara’s story is as much about her own obsession as it is about an uncaught serial rapist and killer. McNamara and several kindred spirits in an online sleuthing community have spent years trying to piece together the trail of the man she calls the “Golden State Killer,” who was active in the 1970s and 1980s, and has never been caught. They scour the web, memorize old files, and sometimes even arrange to meet potential suspects in person. Meanwhile, the killer remains a mystery. It’s a chilling read.
What gripped me that summer before I started high school wasn’t fear or titillation but the specter of that question mark where the killer’s face should be. When you commit murder and remain anonymous, your identity is a wound that lingers on the victim, the neighborhood, and in the worst cases, a nation. For digital sleuths, a killer who remains a question mark holds more menace than a Charles Manson or a Richard Ramirez. However twisted the grins of those killers, however wild the eyes, we can at least stare solidly at them, knowing that evil has a shape and an expression and can be locked behind bars. Until we put a face on a psychopath like the Golden State Killer, he will continue to hold sway over us—he will remain a powerful cipher who triumphs by being just out of reach.
I did not enjoy this piece. I did not “like” it. In the beginning, especially, I felt for it that same sense of begrudging enmity I feel at times watching Girls: I do not sympathize with your plight as a Vassar grad and underpaid editorial assistant who, in her quest for “intellectual New York bohemianism,” digs herself into debt. Growing up in a suburb in which real estate agents drive around pointing out the homes of Ivy League grads, I want to say, you were not “poor.” Even comparatively. And I have zero empathy for the aftermath of the decision to spend $60,000 on an M.F.A. in order to live the “creative lifestyle” in Manhattan.
But I do respect and appreciate the analysis and the honesty here, and I think this piece is important. It pinpoints in an infuriating way so much of the unspoken culture of New York, which Daum describes as distinguishing “from stuff”:
“It is to have heard rumors that Domino’s Pizza has ties to the pro-life movement, that Bob Dylan’s mother invented White-Out and that Jamie Lee Curtis is a hermaphrodite. It is to never wear nude panty hose, never smoke menthol cigarettes, never refer to female friends as “girlfriends”…to know that anyone who uses the word “chic” is anything but. It is to know arugula from iceberg lettuce, Calder from Klimt, Truffaut from Cassevetes. It is to be secure in one’s ability to grasp these comparisons and weigh one against the other within a fraction of a second… to know, as my Jewish Manhattanite friends put it, ‘from stuff’—to know from real estate, from contemporary fiction, from clothing designers and editors of glossy magazines and Shakespearean tragedies and skirt lengths.”
Daum is unflinching in charting how she followed this dream of informed cultural distinction so doggedly that she developed a sort of dementia about her own means, and about what exactly wealth looks like: it turns out all the frayed rugs and peeling paint in Woody Allen movies require a certain pedigree and the financial inheritance that comes with it. But this always goes unsaid. For so many people in the creative class in New York City, money has a breezy quality: it just sort of flutters in from back rooms when you need it, when you’re doing an unpaid internship or taking a job that could never pay your bills, when you need that oak-floored apartment while you’re finishing your $60,000 M.F.A. before you get settled in publishing. This is an attitude Daum describes this way: “For me, money has always, truly, been ‘only money,’ a petty concern of the shallower classes, a fatuous substitute for more important things like fresh flowers and ‘meaningful conversations’ in the living room.”
Ultimately, this reduces the “creative class” to the Vassar and the Yale and the Columbia grads who are steeped and intuitively versed in the culture of “from stuff.” For whom money is something of the “shallower classes.” Part of the success of Girls has also been to reveal this, but the show ultimately embraces and even celebrates it. Lena Dunham’s character Hannah supposedly comes from ho-dunk Michigan, and struggles to make her rent: in reality, Dunham is a native New Yorker, who went to a private arts school in Brooklyn, received coverage in The New Yorker for her first film, and just cinched a $3.5 million-dollar book deal.
“New York City, which has a way of making you feel like you’re in the Third World just seconds after you’ve thought you conquered all of western civilization, has never really been part of the rest of the world.” This quality of otherworldliness, of there-is-no-place-like-New-York, is what sucks creative people in, and I agree that the city is fascinating and mesmerizing and energizing and indeed, utterly unique: I could just never afford it. But, as Daum’s ultimate success as a writer–even after her epic debt–goes to show, maybe, to some extent, we have to buy our way in. — Sarah
Daisy Hernandez’s “Blackout” in Hunger Mountain
What do you do when you get to the top and realize that it’s 1) not what you expected, and 2) not at all where you want to be? This is just one of the many questions afloat in Hernandez’s personal essay, which chronicles her time as an intern at The New York Times in the early 2000s. Key to Hernandez’s now tarnished view of the Times is the realization that it’s an institution that’s inherently white, inherently male, (a PWI–Predominantly White Institution–as she calls it) and where, during her time there, an executive editor dared suggest that he, “a white man from Alabama” gave “a young black man too many chances.”(This was in reference to the controversial Jayson Blair case.)
Hernandez’s winding prose leads us from the lofty, golden-lit, cathedral-like tranquility of the Times offices down into the less glorious homes of New York citizens. One of these homes is that of her parents, and we go down to the basement where her father has “made a little home for himself apart from the family. He has his beer, his radio, even a mattress so he can take naps.” Hernandez admits: “I am afraid of finding him dead in the basement one day.” Of Cuban and Colombian descent, Hernandez jokes how her family knows she has “married the best man I could possibly find—the New York Times—and we all know it.” And it’s this idea–that it’s supposed to be the best–which leads her to think twice about quitting even after she’s realized her discomfort.
“Blackout” explicitly explores injustices within race, class, and gender, but its beauty lies in how it implicitly challenges the veracity of the media, journalism, and what we traditionally think of as “truth.” By writing a personal essay about her time as a journalist, Hernandez is allowed to fully explore the complexity of her vexation with this PWI. Her personal story, the Latino context she provides, the various fleeting moments she has with people in the office all lend to the essay’s labyrinthine feel. It was published a while back (and was a runner-up in the 2011 Hunger Mountain Creative Nonfiction Prize), but I can’t say how happy I am to have stumbled across it. — Amanda