Profiles dig deep, assembling original details to convey the essence of a person or place—and sometimes both—as you’ll see. These are the stories that gave us keen insight into the lives of others, drawn from hundreds of editors’ picks selected in 2023.

Amor Eterno

Skip Hollandsworth | Texas Monthly | May 8, 2023 | 7,531 words

Before May 24, 2022, Kimberly Mata-Rubio, a part-time local reporter and mother of six children living in Uvalde, Texas, was shy and quiet. After that horrific day at Robb Elementary School, when two teachers and 19 children were murdered—including her daughter, Lexi—Mata-Rubio was forever changed. She was overwhelmed with grief, but also felt compelled to speak, to do anything she could to fight for justice for Lexi. Shortly after the shooting, she testified in a hearing about gun violence. She then started to speak at rallies, at home and in Washington DC. She became a fierce advocate for gun control, even meeting with Ted Cruz to push him to support an assault weapons ban. (Not a spoiler: he didn’t.) In those months that followed, she realized that she had a voice. (Recently, in fact, she ran for mayor of Uvalde, though she lost the bid last month in a special election.) I’ve sat down several times to write why I picked this story by Skip Hollandsworth, but have scrapped numerous attempts. They all read hollow and repetitive, because I’ve written versions of them before. My Best of 2022 pick in this category was also a Uvalde profile, about student Caitlyne Gonzales, so it seems that I can’t help but return to this town, to this tragedy. Perhaps immersing ourselves in the narrative of tragedy is a form of emotional retreat, a way of numbing the constant onslaught of violence in the world. Hollandsworth’s piece reminds us that these stories do not end when the spotlight of our attention moves on, but continue to transform communities, families, and individuals. This is an emotional, difficult, but necessary portrait of a grieving mother finding meaningful ways to honor her daughter’s life, and perhaps help birth a better world for all of us. —CLR

Ginni and Clarence: A Love Story

Kerry Howley | New York Magazine | June 21, 2023 | 7,555 words

For the second year in a row, my favorite profile was written by the inimitable Kerry Howley, one of the great chroniclers of America’s right-wing resurgence. Last year, I adored—and seethed over—her profile of anti-abortion activist Marjorie Dannenfelser; this year, Howley turned her attention to Clarence and Ginni Thomas. The former, of course, is the conservative Supreme Court justice confirmed to the bench despite being credibly accused of sexual harassment—laying the groundwork for the Brett Kavanaugh fiasco a quarter-century later—who more recently was exposed for accepting expensive gifts from various billionaires. Ginni, Thomas’s wife, started a political consulting firm with money provided by one of those billionaires, and used her influential perch inside the Beltway to support the January 6 insurrection. In this profile, Howley illuminates how the Thomases’ almost alchemical bond as a couple makes them such a potent, ruinous force in the American project. The insight here is as sharp as the prose. “There was something in Ginni and Clarence that reinforced and refined a shared extremism, something beyond their shared intolerance for ambiguity,” Howley writes. “There was an interlocking set of beliefs, a fatalism born of the lived experience of racism and the entire heavily manned edifice of white ignorance.” When I got to the end of this piece, I whispered under my breath, to no one in particular, damn. SD

Lucinda Williams and the Idea of Louisiana

Wyatt Williams | The Bitter Southerner | September 4, 2023 | 6,303 words

The stories I love best are slow and savor-y, served with a love that can transcend pain. Wyatt Williams’s ode to his mother, the state of of Louisiana, and the songwriter Lucinda Williams is a piece I reread often. I return to remember how great writing disappears in serving a story, or when I’m struggling with how to get my point across just so. I’m rewarded with new resonance every time. Williams’s mother and Lucinda were born in 1953 in Louisiana, a place known most often for the destruction wrought by hurricanes; both families endured the stormy weather of violence, alcoholism, and generational trauma. When Williams writes, “She had been through crisis before. She had her ways of getting through it,” he’s talking abut his mother but alluding to Lucinda and the state of Louisiana, all three of which, on deeper inspection, reveal a special kind of resilience. Writers grapple with how to convey inchoate and entangled ideas and feelings but Williams creates beauty out of the chaos by sheer repetition, just like listening to a song on repeat and discovering something new with each spin. “It seems almost impossible that someone could spend 14 years writing 34 lines of poetry,” he writes. “But one of the things to understand about the work is that it isn’t as much about putting down words as it is about learning to see, reteaching yourself to look at the world, your own life, and find the shapes and patterns.” This story is about working hard to make something out of nothing, about naming things you don’t yet understand, about doing the work and paying deep attention in an attempt to find meaning and perhaps even earn a kind of peace. These are universal truths so bold, you know you can’t let go. —KS

Dril Is Everyone. More Specifically, He’s a Guy Named Paul

Nate Rogers | The Ringer | April 12, 2023 | 5,170 words

When you ask people to name the profiles that have stuck with them, they nearly always point to pieces that hinge on proximity. That’s for good reason. Spending hours or days in deep conversation with a subject (or simply fishing) generally works to break down the walls of image maintenance, creating enough unvarnished moments for a good writer to plumb. But there are many other ways to write a meaningful profile, as Nate Rogers’ piece about Paul Dochney proves. Dochney is known by a large swath of the internet simply as Dril, a Twitter persona who for 15 years has polished satirical shitposting to a high sheen and in the process helped architect online culture’s dominant comic voice. It was a nearly uninterrupted piece of performance art, which makes the profile’s quotidian backdrop—an anonymous old-school L.A. greasy spoon—all the more delightful. Like any profile, Rogers gives you the broad beats of Dochney’s upbringing and CV, dutifully threading in secondary interviews for texture and context, but the profile’s real value lies in how he contends with the idea of art in the age of social media. Dochney/Dril isn’t a provocateur; he’s a guy who likes making stuff. It’s just that in a twist of fate, Twitter became the place where that stuff first connected with people. And with that platform teetering ever closer to obsolescence, Dochney’s next steps become even less certain. Amid a sea of stories that seek to examine the role of the “creator,” Rogers’ profile instead sets out to examine the creative urge—and is stronger for it. —PR

Casual Luke Rides the Big Wave

Gabriella Paiella | GQ Sports | June 13, 2023 | 5,175 words

Everyone loves a good underdog story, and this one is particularly delightful. The Eddie Aikay Big Wave Invitational is a surf contest that relies on the whims of nature—the waves in Waimea Bay must reach a butt-clenching height of a minimum of 40 feet for it to go ahead. When conditions are right, competitors race across the world to get there. For North Shore local Luke Shepardson, the commute was less of an ordeal (although he still got caught in traffic, leaving his wife in the car and running down the road). It also happened to be his commute to work. That’s right: Luke worked as a lifeguard at the event, taking his turn to ride the waves between patching up other competitors. He won the competition after riding a wave the size of a four-story building, beating the world’s greatest surfers without even being a professional on the circuit. After the win, Luke finished his shift and headed home to watch The Lion King with his kids. As Gabriella Paiella explains in her enchanting profile, this was all very Luke, who “is known as ‘Casual Luke.’ In Hawaii. Which is like being called ‘Neurotic Matt’ on the island of Manhattan.” Luke’s down-to-earth nature pervades this piece, with Paiella clearly coming to respect an attitude so different from other sports stars. Luke got some money from the Eddie, but not enough for his life to be easy. Living with his wife and two kids in a one-bedroom apartment—in an ever more expensive area—he dreams of “descending back into obscurity” and buying his own home in this little slice of paradise. Nothing more. You can see why, with Paiella painting a lovely picture of family life in this beautiful surf town. Sure, it’s expensive, but the height of elegance is a flip-flop, and everyone knows everyone. (“As Luke’s mom put it after the Eddie: I changed first- and second-place’s diapers.”) This profile oozes sun, sand, salt, and joy. Everyone loves an underdog story, and everyone loves Casual Luke—after all, he has all the big stuff figured out.  —CW

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