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The incalculable human cost of institutionalization. An homage to rappers gone far too soon. A profile on the trans son of an anti-trans zealot. A summer camp that helps children to process grief, and bearing witness to the survivors of the 2020 explosion at the Port of Beirut.

1. The Ones We Sent Away

Jennifer Senior | The Atlantic | August 7, 2023 | 13,585 words

Fair warning, dear reader: This will be among the best stories you read this year. Prepare yourself to be wrecked. In this masterpiece of longform journalism, Jennifer Senior reports on her aunt Adele, a woman later diagnosed with Coffin-Siris syndrome 12, a genetic condition that manifests in intellectual disability and physical delays. Adele was institutionalized at 21 months old on the advice of doctors who insisted that a care placement was the best thing for her, leaving her older sister Rona bereft “as though she’d lost an arm or a leg.” At its core this story is about trauma and loss, suffered chiefly by Adele who was deprived of her family and early chances to expand her intellectual capacity, warehoused in the notorious Willowbrook State School. The shockwaves of loss extend outward to Adele’s mother, father, and sister, deprived of Adele’s presence in their lives, and to society at large, deprived of Adele and the person she could have become had she received more enlightened, loving care much earlier in life. Glimpses into Adele’s psyche, including her need for order, her penchant for needlepoint, and delight in matching her clothing, hint at the contours of Adele’s personality. Senior, in trying to name her aunt’s condition to attempt to understand the scope of loss, confronts the many ethical concerns of writing about someone who is not able to give consent. Tracing her aunt’s living conditions and likely treatment at Willowbrook makes for extremely difficult, but absolutely necessary reading, to ask and attempt to answer a vital question: How do you comprehend the cost when, despite the best of intentions, we fail to provide essential care to the most vulnerable among us? —KS

2. Remembering the Rappers We Lost

Danyel Smith | The New York Times Magazine | August 8, 2023 | 4,548 words

Things don’t always match up as neatly as this: Exactly 50 years ago tonight, a young woman named Cindy Campbell threw a back-to-school party in their Bronx apartment building’s rec room. The DJ was her older brother, known as Kool Herc; the ensuing soirée would come to be known as the night hip-hop was born. If you’ve been on the internet anytime this week, of course, you probably already know the broad outlines of this story; celebrating the culture’s golden anniversary has become the most ubiquitous editorial peg in recent memory. Every outlet imaginable has done every story imaginable—and NYT Mag’s special issue has some of my favorites, from Tom Breihan’s Too Short profile to Niela Orr’s exploration of the norm-breaking current generation of female artists. But Danyel Smith’s elegy delivers something altogether different. Death has long lurked within hip-hop, as it does within most creative pursuits; however, given this country’s systemic ills that face the culture’s overwhelmingly Black artists, the actuarial tables here tip ominously askew. Lives cut agonizingly short by violence, by health, by drugs, by flukey tragedy. Smith contends with all of these in turn, saying the names of the people who matter to many of us, but are anonymous to many others. This is a tally I’ve been keeping and a story I’ve been telling — conversationally, journalistically, eulogistically, bitterly, in novel form — since the late 1980s, she writes. Her three-plus decades as a journalist and a fan have given her a cruel proximity to these tragedies, and you feel the accrual of that pain in her writing. Yet, as Smith so often does, she manages to end the piece by embracing life; the final act is so buoyant, so transcendent, so defiant, that you’ll likely run it back just to re-experience the frisson it causes. In another piece of synchronicity, this essay was published on the death day of one of my favorite artists, Sean Price, and I’d woken up that morning with hip-hop’s mortality on my mind. Even if he and the rest of these dearly departed never get the credit they so richly deserve, pieces like Smith’s give me hope that they’ll never be forgotten. —PR

3. He’s the Son of an Anti-Trans Influencer. It’s His Turn to Speak.

Christopher Mathias | Huffington Post | June 30, 2023 | 7,864 words

This is how you write a story about a moral panic: You call it dehumanizing and terrifying, you don’t entertain even an ounce of both sides-ism, and you center the targets of the panic without stripping them of agency. Kudos to Christopher Mathias, one of the best reporters covering right-wing extremism in America, for his profile of Renton Sinclair, the trans son of a zealous anti-trans advocate. Renton’s mother, a former Miss America contestant, has used him to advance her odious agenda. Here Mathias lets Renton tell his story, on his terms. It contains chapters about his mother putting him in conversion therapy, overlooking his suicide attempt, cursing the testosterone that sustains him, and humiliating him before national audiences. But Renton’s story is also about resilience, respect, and joy. He has a message for trans people afraid to come out because they fear a loved one might abandon them. “That is 100% not on you,” he says. “It doesn’t mean you’re fucking bad. It doesn’t mean you’re wrong. It doesn’t mean there’s something broken with you. That is someone else being fucked up.” Amen. —SD

4. Notes from Grief Camp

Mitchell Consky | The Walrus | August 9, 2023 | 3,500 words

At Camp Erin, a group of boys from the same cabin name three caterpillars Gerry, Larry, and Harry. It’s one of several small details sprinkled throughout this beautiful essay that is incredibly affecting. These boys are having fun—rolling down hills, dancing on stages, naming caterpillars—despite having recently lost their dads. Camp Erin recognizes that children process grief differently from adults, that they can transition from devastation to joy in a moment, and that joy is still worth celebrating. I loved that these kids had the respite of naming caterpillars, that grief didn’t weigh them down every second, and that “grief camp” encouraged this. The boys form a close bond with Mitchell Consky, their counselor, and his first-hand account of how he steers them into realizing they all share the loss of their fathers (Consky included) is gentle and touching. I expected an essay on child grief to be gut-wrenching, and while I did wipe away the odd tear, I came away feeling that Camp Erin was a special place. The children realize they are not alone and can talk about their grief. They also just have a summer camp. —CW

5. Beirut, at Sunset

Tamara Saade | The Delacorte Review & Literary Hub | August 3, 2023 | 3,971 words

When a disaster strikes affecting thousands, the only way you can possibly begin to understand the toll is to learn the stories of survivors. On August 4th, 2020, 218 were killed and 7,000 injured in an ammonium nitrate explosion at the Port of Beirut. Through personal accounts, and as a way to confront her own trauma over the event, Tamara Saade bears witness to those that were there. “I had thought that telling the stories of other people would make writing about August fourth easier for me,” she writes. “But I came to see that it was as hard, if not harder, to do justice to these people and their stories of that day.” In this beautiful braided essay, Saade processes her own thoughts, reactions, and feelings, alongside those of the citizens she profiles in the aftermath of the explosions. Sentence by sentence, scene by scene, Saade’s measured prose makes cogent the post-blast chaos and confusion, creating order out of disorder, in a bold attempt to find peace where once was pandemonium. —KS

Audience Award

Here’s the piece our audience loved most, this week.

The Land Beyond the Drug War

Jack Holmes | Esquire | August 1, 2023 | 6,470 words

Inconsistent potency makes doing fentanyl—already up to 50 times stronger than heroine—like playing a game of Russian roulette. Will you get the dose you can tolerate or will you take the hit that leads to overdose? For Esquire, Jack Holmes reports from Portland in Oregon, a state which decriminalized drug possession via Measure 110 in an attempt to treat drug abuse as a behavioural-health disorder. —KS