Women We Read This Week

Rachel Sturtz’s “Unprotected” in Outside

Colorado-based Rachel Sturtz spent a year investigating this story, about USA Swimming’s handling of coaches who sexually abuse and assault the young swimmers in their care. The national governing body for amateur swimming hasn’t just turned a blind eye to serial predators in its ranks, it has also gone out of its way to obstruct accusers in their efforts to get justice. Horrifying. And heads up: the opening, in particular, could be triggering.

Paige Williams’ “Double Jeopardy” in The New Yorker

In a piece that might well startle even the most jaded critic of the American criminal justice system, Paige Williams tells the story of Shonelle Jackson, a young black man convicted of capital murder in Alabama in the 1990s. The circumstances of his role in the murder were murky; the jury, which had doubts about his guilt, voted unanimously to spare him the death penalty and sentenced him instead to life in prison. (Why they voted to convict at all when they substantially doubted his guilt is another question.) And then the judge used a little-known provision to override the jury and sentence Jackson to death.

Williams delves into the provision and its prior uses, its origins as a form of protection for people whom juries disproportionately sentence to death – i.e, young black men like Shonelle Jackson – and its twisting into a tool for “tough on crime” judges to impress the electorate. It’s a depressing and essential read.

Eva

Elmo Keep’s “All Dressed Up For Mars and Nowhere To Go” in Matter

Set aside a good chunk of time (Matter estimates it at 42 minutes) to read Elmo Keep’s fascinating and thoroughly reported story about Mars One and its mission to the red planet. Part science, part business, part profile, we learn about the practicalities of a Mars mission—how human bodies might react, what kind of technology we still don’t have to get there, the ambiguity behind the private company’s ambitious plan – and we get to know quite a bit more about Josh, one of the purported 200,000 applicants for the mission. To make it to Mars has become his singular pursuit, and he is the lens through which we inspect this intergalactic dream.

Keep serves as Josh’s foil, one who is less interested in sacrificing a life on Earth for humanity’s life elsewhere. There are moments where Keep’s anxiety is palpable, like this passage, after waking up from a nightmare prompted by discussion of the mission:

For months, a tiny bird with a skull no bigger than a walnut had taken up residence directly outside the window, and every day it filled the early morning with its unfathomably loud song. Sometimes I could hear the bird three rooms away while music played in the house. It refused entreaties of birdseed to lure it further down the garden. It was incredibly irritating, but at that moment it was the sweetest sound I might have ever heard. I threw open the window and inhaled the cold morning air and the scent of the honeydew flowers and looked at the endless blue of sky where the crescent moon was faintly visible and just to be certain, reached out and touched the rough bark of the tree’s sturdy trunk.
I am in no way made of the right stuff.

What struck me most upon finishing this piece was a strange sense of optimism. Even though I was just as skeptical as Keep that anyone would be reaching Mars anytime soon, let alone colonizing it, the idea still entranced me. Like Josh, despite the impossible timeline and the lack of viable technology and the impracticalities of it all, I still had hope that maybe, just maybe, Mars could work.
Sara Button

Emily Esfahani Smith’s “There’s More to Life Than Being Happy” in The Atlantic

When I was a teenager, out of high school but still living at home, my father gave me a small, slim book to read–Man’s Search for Meaning by Viktor Frankl. I remember being concurrently flattered that he was recommending reading for me, and worried that a book with a title like that one would be over my head. Instead, the book was compelling and straightforward, a quick read. It was, looking back, the first time I engaged in philosophical thought not attached to something at school, the first time I realized there were such things to think about on one’s own time. I’ve never forgotten that title, nor the name Viktor Frankl and so it’s not surprising this essay in The Atlantic caught my eye. Emily Esfahani Smith uses Frankl’s 1946 bestseller to illustrate a perceived confusion between happiness and meaning.

…the book’s ethos–its emphasis on meaning, the value of suffering, and responsibility to something greater than the self–seems to be at odds with our culture, which is more interested in the pursuit of individual happiness than in the search for meaning.

Smith tells us that in 1991 the Library of Congress and Book-of-the-Month Club listed Frankl’s book as one of the ten most influential books in the U.S. It has sold millions of copies, worldwide. If Frankl were alive today, I think he would approve of altering the title of his book to be gender inclusive–let’s say The Human Search for Meaning. Try to imagine a subject or a title more pertinent to us all. Why are we here? For what purpose do we exist? How do we best proceed? What essentially matters?

These questions are much larger than questions about human happiness. Frankl points out that happiness cannot be pursued, it must ensue. In this way, happiness is a by-product of meaning; when one is living a life of meaning, one is likely to be happy. Happiness without meaning is simple, slight, transparent and too focused on the self.

Smith reports that some researchers caution against the pursuit of “mere” happiness.

While happiness is an emotion felt in the here and now, it ultimately fades away, as all emotions do;…feelings of pleasure are fleeting….Meaning, on the other hand, is enduring.

Having negative events happen to you, one study found, decreases your happiness but increases the amount of meaning you have in life.

Substitute for the word “meaning” above the word texture, the word complexity. To label time in a Nazi concentration camp as a “negative event” seems grossly understated. Frankl’s commitment to finding meaning in the horrific, or to find meaning past the horrific, renders any pursuit of simple happiness superficial by comparison.

I have no doubt that my father read Frankl’s Man’s Search for Meaning to stave off his own debilitating depression, and to remind himself he had reasons to stay among the living, a purpose greater than himself. One part of that purpose was caring for his children; one part of that caring was sharing Frankl’s book with me.

Melanie

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