Photo: janwillemsen

Women We Read This Week

Elizabeth Weil’s “What Really Happened to Baby Johan?” on Matter

When a child dies, people want answers. Elizabeth Weil gives us a story where there is no easy resolution. In exploring the tragic death of three-month-old Johan Aspelin, she lays out all of the available information, which, rather than clarifying the issue, serves only to mystify.

One evening, Kristian, Johan’s father, called 9-1-1 and said that he had “dropped his son.” Baby Johan was rushed to the hospital, and, later, doctors reported that he had brain swelling and bleeding, a classic sign of what was once called “shaken baby syndrome.” Weil gives us the inherent problem with so-called “shaken baby” cases — there are no witnesses other than the infant and the caregiver. The symptoms once considered hallmarks — difficulty eating, fussiness, brain swelling, hemorrhaging, and, sometimes, death — can also be caused by other injuries and diseases. The victim is, of course, too young to explain what happened.

But by personalizing the story, Weil makes it stand out from the others like it. There’s the grief of the mother, the pain of the accused father, and the enduring love of the family who continue to live despite the terrifying circumstances. As Weil writes, “The litany of horrors involved when one member of a family is accused of killing another is impossible to process.” Here, the real story is how people live — with their doubts, their anxieties, and their need to be a family. It is, in the end, about how we all tell ourselves stories so that we can endure.


Vanessa Veselka’s “The Fort of Young Saplings” in The Atavist

I finally made time for an Atavist story from late last year: Vanessa Veselka‘s meditation on her early childhood years in Southeast Alaska, her father’s ceremonial adoption into a Tlingit community there, and her fascination – both as a child and in her recent adult years – with that small slice of her identity.

The story revolves around Veselka’s efforts to research the history of a famous, and murky, battle between the Russians and the Tlingit at what is now Sitka, in 1804. Both sides claim victory, and Veselka goes looking for answers. But there’s an important concept in Tlingit culture: atoow, the notion that stories, a people’s history, are an “owned” or “purchased” thing – in other words, that not all stories are ours to tell. That’s a troubling and powerful idea to a writer, and one I’ll be thinking about for awhile.


Lindy West’s “What happened when I confronted my cruelest troll” in The Guardian

I have only experienced trolling light, the occasional “slut” or “cunt” comment lobbed my way by some cartoon-faced icon on Twitter in response to articles I write for Al Jazeera English. Lindy West, on the other hand, is practically drowning in online hate, and she plies those misogynist waters with as much grace as she can, as much grace as anyone can when they get daily threats about being beheaded or cut into 1,000 pieces. West writes, “You’re telling me you don’t have hundreds of men popping into your cubicle in the accounting department of your mid-sized, regional dry-goods distributor to inform you that – hmm – you’re too fat to rape, but perhaps they’ll saw you up with an electric knife?” She managed to deal with the daily harassment until a troll made an account on Twitter with the name and photo of her dead father and started harassing her. It broke her down emotionally, and she made herself vulnerable and wrote about it. And the troll read what she wrote and emailed her:

Hey Lindy, I don’t know why or even when I started trolling you. It wasn’t because of your stance on rape jokes. I don’t find them funny either. I think my anger towards you stems from your happiness with your own being. It offended me because it served to highlight my unhappiness with my own self.

Lindy West reached one troll, the meanest one in her life. In the words of another of my favorite heavily trolled feminists, Lena Dunham, “Let us celebrate @thelindywest, internet saint.” For more on West and her troll, listen to “If You Don’t Have Anything Nice to Say, SAY IT IN ALL CAPS” on This American Life.


Ayana Mathis’ “What Will Happen to All of that Beauty” in Guernica

This story is a fascinating exploration of Mathis’ “descent into the question, and the wound, of faith” as she examines her Pentecostal religious experience and racial identity. Having read many “how I left my evangelical childhood” memoirs, this piece struck me in its graceful recognition of the nuances of religious experience. The author examines her own lack of grace towards her family’s experience and how the church of the civil rights movement in its resistance to injustice offered her new avenues for understanding faith.

Borroowing its structure from Marie Howe’s poem “Magdalene- The Seven Devils,” Mathis’ piece delves into the complexities of inner life: shame, doubt, pride, belonging and the loss of belonging. She writes:

“I believe in the God of James Baldwin’s Harlem boys, and in the God of poor people and of the music my folk have made. If I have faith, it is in the God of the offscouring of all things.”

The piece delicately excavates the ways you can never truly erase an identity you have held.



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