Over the past decade, Lilly Dancyger has contributed 11 of her own pieces to Narratively and edited many more stories in her former role as our Deputy Editor, while also writing for other outlets and editing the acclaimed essay collection Burn It Down. She also spent much of that time working on her book-length memoir, which has shifted course considerably over the past 10 years. Negative Space, which fuses personal writing, reporting, and visual art, will be published on May 1, 2021 and is available for preorder now. We talked with Lilly about the long, winding and rewarding process of writing her genre-bending memoir.
Negative Space took you over a decade to write. It must have had a lot of iterations! Could you give me a sense of the discovery process for what form the book would take?
It was a very incremental process. I wasn’t able to see clearly what shape the book wanted to take until I was several years into the process.
Originally I didn’t set out to write it as a memoir at all, it was just going to be an artist’s monograph: the story of my father’s life and his art. But throughout the writing process, everyone who read it kept asking for more of my story in it. Over time, it became a memoir, and I ended up weaving those strands together—the story of my father’s life and art, and then my story of uncovering his story and trying to make sense of it.
I kept thinking that I had added enough of myself … Then every time I would add more and show it to somebody else to read, they would give me the same feedback. Finally, I jumped all the way in and was like, “Okay, my story is going to be a whole storyline, and I’m going to braid it in rather than trying to just put little tiny bits of my story mixed in with my father’s.”
How did working as an editor for Narratively shape the way you approached writing, editing, and revising your own work?
It definitely helped me develop a sharper eye and understand that cutting and being open to new directions is part of the process. Editing other peoples’ work, I know that when I suggest big changes it’s not because there’s nothing good in the work, it’s because I care about it, think it’s good, and want it to be even better. That has helped me be a little bit less precious about my own work.
What do you see as the role of personal writing and memoir in alleviating or reimagining grief and mourning?
For me, and I know a lot of people who write memoir and personal essays feel this way, writing is how I figure out how I feel and what I think about things. I’m compelled to write about things that are too complicated for me to just hold in my head and figure out in my brain. I need to get them out onto the page so that I can make sense of them.
A lot of the impetus of this project was my attempt to do that with grief, thinking, “Okay, what am I going to do with this for the rest of my life? What do I do with this grief so that it’s not festering and weighing me down?” I was ready to live my life and be a person and be excited about things. The way that I could figure out moving forward was to turn my grief into something. So, now it lives in a book and I can live my life.
What advice would you give to someone who wants to write about their trauma or grief? How do you put yourself in a space where you can write candidly about very sensitive material while knowing, in the back of your mind, that it’ll be published one day, and that the people you’re writing about will read it?
I would say, first of all, take your time. It takes a long time to process and figure out how you really feel and also to decide what you’re comfortable putting out in the world. Don’t sell your most personal stories for a few bucks or so they’ll come out quickly. Give yourself time to ruminate: Some essays take years to write and that’s okay.
Also, I think the question of how people in your life are going to react is a publishing question, not a writing question. So give yourself the space to write and think about it like it’s not ever going to happen. When it comes time to publish, then take a pause and ask yourself if there’s anything in there that you really don’t want people to read. Or just do what I did and say, “Fuck it, I’m just going to put it all in there and deal with it later.”
In the book you discover that, in a sense, your father was teaching you how to be an artist all along, even after his death. You became an artist through writing about your father. How did this shape your identity as a writer, and how do you think it will leave an imprint on your work moving forward?
It entirely shaped my identity as a writer and changed a lot about me as a person as well. It completely established, altered, and deepened my relationship with my own work and my understanding of myself as a creative person. I think it’s going to be the foundation of everything else that I do forever.
I’m currently in the early stages of working on something new and I’ve been thinking about that a lot. It’s strange to work on something new after all this time. It’s exciting and freeing, but I also feel like I have no idea what I’m doing because I’m starting over from zero. Although, I am starting at a much higher skill level than when I started this project. To write Negative Space, I had to learn how to write; I learned how to be a writer through the process of writing it. So I feel like I’m starting at a better place than I did last time but I’m also curious to see what happens.
I have a feeling this new thing is going to take me through all kinds of unexpected stuff, and I’m going to have to learn a bunch of new stuff to do this one, too.
What is your new project about?
This one is not about my father, although I’m sure he’ll find his way into it somewhere. It’s an essay collection about female friendship and also a bunch of other stuff. I’m excited to work on essays partly because getting the structure of the book’s long, complicated narrative was such a headache and a nightmare. So I’m working on something small—pieces of story that are self-contained and each stand on their own. It feels more nimble being able to jump around and think about something for a few months and then think about something else. I’m going to try to not spend ten years on this one.
At the end of the book, you talk about how when you finally finish it, you’ll have to find a new way to mourn your father. I suppose the book coming out next month will be the final step, but do you have any idea yet what new way you’ll mourn him?
Right now, in the lead-up to publication, my life is still very much about this book. In a way, more so than before because it’s public. I don’t know what’s going to happen once the publicity pushes over and I can say that I really am done. I think it’s going to be strange, it will probably be a little sad and weird and disorienting just because I’ve been working on this for more than a third of my lifetime. I think making it a central part of my identity publicly rather than only privately is weird and uncomfortable but also good.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
To spotlight all the exciting book projects out there by Narratively contributors, including Lilly Dancyger’s innovative memoir Negative Spacewe created The Narratively Bookshop. When you buy any book from the Narratively Bookshop, 10% of the purchase price goes to Narratively, helping us publish lots more great stories, and another 10% goes to supporting independent bookstores.
If you live outside of the United States or the United Kingdom, you can purchase Negative Spaceon Amazon or Barnes and Noble.
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The legendary Roman emperor Caesar Augustus was on the Greek island of Samos, preparing for an important expedition to Syria, when he received envoys from the Kingdom of Kush, in present-day Sudan. Journalist Selina O’Grady records in her book And Man Created God that the ambassadors presented Augustus with a bundle of golden arrows and relayed this message: “The Candace sends you these arrows.” (Candace was the Latinized spelling of Kandake, the Kushite term for “queen.”) They added that the emperor had two options for how to view the offering: “If you want peace, they are a token of her warmth and friendship. If you want war, you will need them.”
For an African queen to give such an ultimatum to the most powerful man in the world would have been considered a serious insult. After all, Augustus had almost single-handedly transformed Rome from a republic to an empire, and the territory he now reigned over stretched from as far as northern Spain, through to parts of central Europe, and all the way to Egypt. His legions wore bronze breastplates and wielded spears, swords and javelins, all much superior to the hatchets the Kushites carried as weapons. In addition, Kush had many natural resources — such as gold mines, iron and ivory — that could have enriched the treasuries of Rome, enticing Augustus to attack, even without the insult.
But this Kushite queen — whom the Greek geographer and historian Strabo of Amasia described as “a masculine sort of woman and blind in one eye” — had proved to be a formidable foe for the “son of god,” the title given to Caesar Augustus on Roman coins. He received the bundle of arrows from the envoys and promptly signed a peace treaty.
In truth, this was not so much a treaty as it was a surrender. Augustus submitted to all of the demands made by Queen Amanirenas, including that the Romans withdraw from all Kushite territories they had occupied and pledge that they would never again seek to collect taxes or tributes from her kingdom.
It was a remarkable concession for the world’s most powerful man, demonstrating just how feared and respected the one-eyed queen truly was.
Kush was part of a region below Egypt known as Nubia. It was a place where, unlike most of the world at the time, women exercised significant control. In the Nubian valley, worship of the queen of all goddesses, Isis, was paramount, and Nubia had several female rulers during its history.
Queen Amanirenas reigned over Nubia from 40 B.C. to 10 B.C. Her throne was in the city of Meroë, and from there she and her husband, King Teriteqas, presided over the wealthy kingdom.
Janice Kamrin, curator of Egyptian art at the Metropolitan Museum, writes that “based on its position as an intermediary between the Mediterranean world and sub-Saharan Africa, Nubia was a key transit point for luxury goods such as ivory and exotic objects. Of great importance was gold, a commodity found in the Nubian deserts and greatly prized by the Egyptians.”
To satisfy the demands of their luxury-loving populace, the Egyptians highly depended on trade with Meroë, which Queen Amanirenas controlled. Her labyrinthine palace, with massive brick-vaulted rooms lined with gold leaf, was a warehouse stocked with great blocks of gold and ivory tusks. She bartered her treasures for goods from Egypt, including cloth, corn, bronze bowls and glassware.
But 10 years into the reign of Amanirenas, the political landscape changed when Augustus seized control of Egypt from the grasp of Mark Antony and Cleopatra. He proclaimed himself emperor and established Egypt as a Roman province. He was now on Queen Amanirenas’s doorstep.
Before leaving Egypt to continue his quest to seize more territories, Augustus appointed a military colleague named Gaius Cornelius Gallus, a Roman poet and knight whom he had a close relationship with, giving him the title of praefectus Alexandreae et Aegypti, prefect of Alexandria and Egypt.
Only a year after the conquest, the Egyptians in the south rebelled against Roman rule, causing Cornelius to lead his forces south to repress the dissidence. After regaining order, he crossed into Amanirenas’s Nubia and laid claim to the island of Philae. He brought a local ruler there under Roman control, and in return for paying homage to Rome, he gave this dynast the powerful title of tyrannus (tyrant).
As a sign of intimidation and also his ego, Cornelius had his achievements inscribed on a large stone tablet that was erected in Philae. To publicize his fame, he listed the victories in Latin, Greek and hieroglyphic Egyptian. The monument, dated 16 April 29 B.C., read in part: “Gaius Cornelius Gallus son of Gnaius, the Roman cavalryman, first prefect of Alexandria and Egypt after the defeat of kings by Caesar son of the divine, and the vanquisher of Thebaid’s revolution in fifteen days.”
Queen Amanirenas reluctantly accepted the annexation of a part of her kingdom. Recognizing the military supremacy of the Roman legions, she saw that it was not time to fight yet. Instead, she watched the enemy’s moves closely.
Soon after, the Nubians in the annexed regions started complaining about the tyrannus. On the orders of Cornelius, he was imposing increased taxes on the traders who brought goods to the frontier and claiming tax rights over autonomous Nubian communities allied to Kush.
Cornelius, for his part, continued to celebrate his exploits with grandiose monuments. Roman historian Cassius Dio, who lived from 155 to 235 A.D., described how “he set up images of himself practically everywhere in Egypt and inscribed a list of his achievements, even upon the very pyramids.”
These extravagances were not looked upon kindly back in Rome, where the standard directive was to glorify the emperor, not his underlings. Cassius added that Cornelius “indulged in a great deal of disrespectful gossip about Augustus and was guilty of many reprehensible actions besides.” Suffice it to say, he was on the outs with Emperor Augustus, who ultimately disenfranchised Cornelius and issued many indictments against him. The Roman Senate unanimously voted that he should be convicted in the courts, exiled and deprived of his estate. Overwhelmed by his bleak prospects, Cornelius killed himself before the decrees took effect.
Both during and after the time of Cornelius, the massive Roman Empire kept expanding. This growing footprint made it difficult for Augustus to keep tabs on all corners of his kingdom at the same time — something Queen Amanirenas paid close attention to.
In 26 B.C., Emperor Augustus appointed Aelius Gallus, another Roman knight, as the next prefect of Egypt. Gallus had hardly settled in when the emperor commanded him to undertake a military expedition to Arabia. Three complete legions, approximately 15,000 troops in all, had been posted in Egypt to secure the province, but at Augustus’s command, many were transferred to Arabia to help in securing this newly sought territory. This presented Queen Amanirenas with an opportunity to challenge Rome’s power.
While the Roman troops were being removed from Egypt, Queen Amanirenas marshaled her army to liberate her people up north from Roman authority. Together with King Teriteqas, they commanded an army of 30,000 warriors from Kush, marching along the mudflats of the Nile and into Egypt.
Historian Cassius Dio narrates in Roman History that the Meroitic army “advanced as far as the city called Elephantine, with Candace as their leader, ravaging everything they encountered.”
They took the entire Triakontaschoinos region, including Syene, Philae and Elephantine, a terrain of 200 square miles. Strabo adds that in these cities, the Kushites “enslaved the inhabitants, and threw down the statues of Cæsar.” They then retreated south with loot, Roman prisoners and thousands of Egyptian captives. As a last insult, they lopped off and carried away the head of a statue of Augustus.
Upon arriving back home in Meroë, Queen Amanirenas took the bronze head, with its neatly disarrayed hair, protuberant ears and startling open eyes of colored glass, and buried it beneath the entryway steps of a temple dedicated to the god Amun. David Francis, an interpretation officer at the British Museum, said in an interview with Culture24 that, “in burying the head, the Meroites ensured that everyone who entered the building would trample this image of the emperor Augustus beneath their feet — ritually perpetuating their victory over the Romans.” It was the queen’s daily reminder that she had triumphed over the most powerful man in the world.
The Kushite victory did not last long. When the news reached Alexandria, the acting governor Gaius Petronius set out with a cavalry of 800, plus 10,000 Roman infantry. By then, the Kushite army had withdrawn to the city of Pselchis. Petronius pursued them, sending envoys ahead to demand the return of the captives. But the envoys were confused. They found that there was no leader in command of the warriors. By this, they meant no male leader. King Teriteqas had died suddenly of sickness or injury, and they simply could not comprehend that a queen alone ruled the Kushites.
Yet Kush did have a leader, and she was not done fighting yet.
The queen’s warriors, having assembled at Pselchis, came forward to battle, each carrying a large oblong shield made of raw ox hide and armed with an array of axes, pikes and swords. They outnumbered the Romans by almost three to one, but Strabo reported that they were “poorly marshaled and badly armed” compared with the heavily armored, well-drilled legionary ranks. The Romans drove them into retreat, and many of the Kushite warriors fled back to the city or into the desert. Some warriors escaped the battlefield by wading out into the Nile. They hoped to make a stand at a defensive position on a small island, but the Romans secured rafts and boats to capture the island and take them prisoner.
This time, the emboldened Romans invaded much deeper into Kushite territory than before. Petronius also captured some of Queen Amanirenas’s generals, whom he questioned about their leadership structure. They told him that the Kandake was the ruler in their kingdom. But they also distracted his attention with tales of a male leader. The generals informed Petronius that Akinidad, son of Queen Amanirenas, was based in the northern city of Napata, their ancient capital and holy city, which housed important temples and royal cemeteries. Unbeknownst to Petronius, this was a ruse, as the Kushite rulers had deliberately left Napata hundreds of years earlier.
Petronius confidently marched to Napata, sure that victory there would subdue the Kushites for good. He found that Prince Akinidad was in fact not there and that the actual capital, Meroë, was still more than 330 miles south. Angered at being misled, he burned the city and rounded up its occupants for transport back to Egypt as slaves.
But the queen’s ruse had worked. Petronius had marched so far and now did not have the capacity to unleash his army on the kingdom’s true ruler. He had already traveled more than 570 miles from Syene, a distance almost as long as the entire length of Egypt. Strabo wrote that Petronius “decided that the regions beyond would be difficult to traverse.” Cassius Dio added that “there was no advantage to be gained by remaining where he was with his entire force, so he withdrew, taking the greater part of the army with him.”
But Queen Amanirenas and her forces did not share his sense of exhaustion. She counterattacked with vigor, fiercely pursuing the retreating Romans back to the fortified hilltop city of Primis.
The queen herself was a fearsome presence on the battlefield. Her “masculine character,” as Strabo described her, referred to her commanding presence as a war leader. She towered above her troops, sporting three facial scars on her cheeks; these were indicators of physical beauty for the Meroë queens, which some Sudanese women still wear today. In one battle, as she clashed with the Romans, an enemy soldier injured the queen, blinding her in one eye.
Strabo’s description of the queen as “masculine” was in line with how Greco-Romans viewed powerful female rulers. Professor Brittany Wilson writes in Unmanly Men that the Greeks and Romans depicted foreign queens in a negative light and even viewed female leaders as a sign of a nation’s barbarity. These queens were often portrayed as “manly women” who went beyond the bounds of proper female behavior. Governor Petronius looked down on the queen’s new disability as well; from then on he referred to her derisively as “the One-Eyed Candace,” judging her “deficient” eyesight as mirroring her deficient insight as a ruler.
Yet again, these men underestimated Queen Amanirenas. After her wound healed, she returned to the front line. Losing an eye in battle only made Amanirenas stronger and braver. But her suffering was not over. When her troops reached Dakka in 24 B.C., clashing with the Romans to ensure Kush’s sovereignty, her son Prince Akinidad was killed in the campaign.
She had lost her husband, her eye and now her son. As a leader, many of her warriors had been killed in the fight, her generals and some of her people had been abducted, and her city of Napata sacked and razed. And still the war was far from over. But now she had but one thing left to fight for: her kingdom. Fueled by grief and anger, the Kandake, now blind in one eye, fought on.
Up until this point, Queen Amanirenas and her troops had been fighting a defensive war, aimed at keeping the Romans from permanently annexing any part of her kingdom. But after the destruction of Napata and the death of Prince Akinidad, they went on the attack. Over the next two years, she fought with all she had to offer. Her fearlessness even forced the admiration of Strabo, who said, “This queen has a courage above that of her gender.”
In 22 B.C., she marshaled a second force of thousands of Kushite fighters and marched toward the Roman troops who had set up camp in Primis, now the border of the Roman Empire.
It was a face-off of epic proportions. Based on the geography of Primis, it is nearly certain that the Kushite warriors entirely surrounded Petronius and his men. However, the Romans had a large array of ballista — ancient canons that, although less deadly than military weapons today, could still fire deadly darts over long distances. This made a frontal assault by Queen Amanirenas nearly impossible; she would have lost countless warriors. Yet Petronius was surrounded and had no way to escape. A stalemate.
Petronius was extremely eager for a ceasefire. Since becoming prefect of Egypt, Queen Amanirenas had untiringly engaged him in war, not giving him a moment’s peace to officiate his administrative duties of supervising tax levies, or even enough time to take part in the celebratory festivals, chariot races and hunting parties that the more leisurely nobles in Alexandria enjoyed. And now he was trapped in a hilltop city, with seemingly no way out.
Realizing there was no way forward, Petronius urged Queen Amanirenas to meet with Emperor Augustus himself and settle matters. The Meroë warriors offered a prideful response: They claimed in jest that they did not know who the “Caesar” was, or where they could find him.
Petronius, surely not appreciating the joke but eager to escape his current predicament, responded by giving them escorts to the Greek island of Samos, where the emperor was preparing for an expedition to Syria.
Dr. Robert Steven Bianchi, a renowned Egyptologist, writes in Daily Life of the Nubians that “this is believed to be the first recorded instance in the entire history of Africa when diplomats representing a Black African ruler independent of Egypt traveled to Europe to effect a diplomatic resolution.”
By sending her envoys and not going personally, Amanirenas showed herself to be superior to the emperor and Rome. She would not deign to travel hundreds of miles just to negotiate; she had people who could do that for her.
And the one-eyed queen indeed emerged victorious. The five-year war had cost the Romans many men and lots of money — a continued war with the tenacious Queen Amanirenas was not high on the imperial agenda. At the Treaty of Samos in 21 B.C., Caesar Augustus declared Kush to be sovereign and remitted all claims of tribute. Roman troops evacuated Primis and also ceded the areas in the southern portion of the Thirty-Mile Strip to the Kushites. They pulled back to Dodekaschoinos, which was established as the new border. Along with his signature on the official treaty, as one more step to appease the Nubian people, Augustus directed his administrators to collaborate with regional priests on the enlargement of a temple at Kalabsha, as well as the erection of another at Dendur.
The Kushite forces lent no such fealty to the Roman idols. As the emperor’s troops withdrew, the queen’s fighters toppled the statues of Augustus that had been placed in the occupied towns.
While the war had been long and bloody, the Kushites were now free. Queen Amanirenas spared her people centuries of domination by withstanding conquest. Unlike so many other kingdoms across Europe, Africa and Asia, she neither ceded her territory nor paid any tribute to Rome. Her kingdom was hers, and hers alone.
After the Roman War, Amanirenas dedicated herself to rebuilding the kingdom and making life better for her people. She spent the next 11 years of her reign in peace, an era that was one of the most prosperous times of Kushite history, often referred to as the kingdom’s golden age. She never remarried. She died in 10 B.C. and is buried in Jebel Barkal, Sudan. The Kushites commemorated her with a wall painting in a pyramid chapel at Meroë that portrays her holding a bow, arrows, and a spear tethered to a group of seven Roman captives.
The story of Queen Amanirenas is a powerful testament to one woman’s fighting spirit, but it’s also a testament to just how long people have been overlooked and underestimated because of gender, race and disability — in this case, underestimated at her enemies’ peril.
The full extent of how she humiliated the Romans has yet to be disclosed, since the Kushite account of the war, written in the Meroitic script, has not been fully decoded. Scholars hope that the ongoing excavations in Meroë will uncover another Rosetta Stone that will allow them to further translate these ancient texts. We may yet learn more about the fierce one-eyed warrior queen who triumphed over the Roman empire, battling her way to an unprecedented peace treaty, not resting until she defended her people and secured one of the best deals in history.
The first thing I can recall clearly was sitting in a hospital room in the dark.
I knew something was wrong — that there was something wrong with me — and yet, I couldn’t tell exactly what. I realized the left side of my face was numb. Hanging on the wall in front of me was a television, but there was something wrong with it too. A ghostly copy was superimposed over the standard set; it was rotated at roughly a 15-degree angle and faded away into the burnt cream walls. Is the TV the problem, or is it me?
My mother and a nurse wearing scrubs entered from the left, a disorienting place outside of my field of vision.
“That’s our girl,” my mom said, approaching my bed. “How are you doing today?”
Why was she so nonchalant? Why wasn’t she worried? Considering the haphazard inventory I had just taken, I probably should have demanded answers or cursed a bit. Raised some hell. Instead, I replied with an uncertain “… good,” slightly alarmed that she, too, possessed a ghostly, tilted imprint. When I was young, my mother always went on, at length, about the difficulties of raising my prone-to-tantrums, bang-his-head-on-the-concrete-when-angry older brother. Then, turning to me, she’d say, “But you, you’re so easy. And calm. And you never complain.” I guess that hadn’t changed. I wanted to ask her what was happening — and where I was. Instead, I swept my arm in front of me and, trying to find out what would happen next, said, “And now?”
Before she answered, another character entered from the hallway, but this one I couldn’t place. Fairly young — my age, by the look of him — his youth was accentuated by a clean-shaven chin under full, feminine lips and a baseball cap perched precariously on his head, above his boyish face. He had the look of a perpetually surprised toddler, lips slightly parted in wonder and curiosity.
“Now you have physical therapy,” he commented.
The physical therapist, a blonde woman with chin-length hair, stepped in from stage right, clipboard in hand and a laminated badge dangling from a lanyard around her neck. When she entered, the nurse left, not wanting to crowd the room.
The physical therapist pushed a rolling walker to the edge of my bed and beckoned me to rise. My initial movements were the stop-motion stutter of a crude animation. I reached for one of the walker’s handles. And missed. The double image layered on top of what I thought was the actual walker jutted out awkwardly in a direction that led me to believe it couldn’t be the real one — was I wrong? I tried again. Yeah, I was wrong.
“Are you OK? Ready to stand?” the physical therapist asked.
Planting my feet shoulder-width apart, clinging to my walker, I clambered to a standing position — I’m generous when I use that phrase. Between my shaking limbs, bent knees and outstretched arms, I must’ve looked more like a member of a seniors’ Pilates class than the 25-year-old woman I presumed myself to still be. Everything, including myself, felt familiar yet foreign, an already-read book revisited accidentally. An eerie sense of déjà vu — my own personal uncanny valley, so familiar but not the same.
“OK, Brooke.” The physical therapist then addressed my mother and her companion. “We’ll be back in 45 minutes.”
The therapist led me down a long hallway lined with other rooms and other patients. Every few feet, the therapist paused and waited for me to inch toward her, patiently watching with a fixed smile for the stop-motion hermit crab to scuttle closer.
“Now just a little farther to the elevator,” the therapist said, pulling me back to the task at hand. I had just discovered I was having issues multitasking: Whenever I started thinking too much, I couldn’t walk.
My god, I thought, I am exhausted and we’re not even where we’re going yet.
When we finally reached the elevator, I stepped inside, at the therapist’s behest.
“I feel like I know you,” my voice hissed out of my mouth like a barely audible stream of gas. A death rattle that made syllables and managed to form words.
At first, I wasn’t sure she had heard whatever had escaped my throat. Her back, still facing me, seemed crystallized in position. Finally, she turned and looked at me for a long moment. When the elevator doors dinged close, she took a deep breath and sighed.
“My grandpa’s girlfriend has your name.”
Linda’s mouth tightened, but her eyes softened.
“I know. I’ve introduced myself to you nearly every day for the past two weeks.”
Luckily, my memories started to stick after that disconcerting moment with the TV. Unluckily, weeks had already elapsed since I had been admitted to the hospital, some of which time I’d been comatose. I started receiving various stories about what had happened. Some true, some, I would eventually come to realize, fiction.
One day, shortly after I’d started to remember Linda the therapist, the boy with the childlike face and childlike hat — I’ll call him Stanley here — slipped into the hospital bed with me. Alarmed, but oddly complacent, I said nothing, even as he leaned close to me and whispered into my ear, “I’ve been telling everyone that I’m your boyfriend.”
Hadn’t this happened before? Him divulging he was my boyfriend … it felt familiar. How many times had this happened?
“OK,” he parroted and turned to Naked and Afraid on the TV.
“My face is numb.”
“Yeah, you’ve been saying that.”
“That screen is double.”
“Yeah, you’ve been saying that too.”
Stanley cocked his head to the side like a confused dog and considered my question — or at least, I figured he was considering it. Maybe he was worried about me. Maybe my well-being concerned him.
“What do you remember?” he asked me.
“You moved your stuff into my room.” I knew this had happened, even though I hadn’t realized it a moment before. But I remembered that detail and I knew I knew him. In what capacity? His claim to be my boyfriend didn’t feel right — it couldn’t have been romantic. Wasn’t I just doing him a favor?
His already round, wide eyes widened further. He pursed his lips and diverted his gaze.
“You allowed me to move into your apartment temporarily.” Stanley paused. “That’s the last thing you remember? And you don’t remember what you had been doing that day?”
Stanley let out a huff of air in exasperation. He shook his head in exaggerated impatience, rolling his eyes.
“The day you and Cassie climbed a redwood near the trailer park and you fell 25 feet out of it.”
According to my mother, in the early days of my hospitalization, every time Stanley entered my hospital room and announced himself to the doctors and nurses as my boyfriend, I threw out an arm in a warped imitation of Vanna White and exclaimed, “I guess I have a boyfriend now.” Cue Pat Sajak chortling good-naturedly.
It came back to me early on, distinctly, that he had never wanted to be my boyfriend before this.
But whenever I broached the subject, Stanley told me he hadn’t known what he wanted before, but uncertain of whether I would live or die, he became aware of how he felt. My skepticism remained even as my memory wavered.
Yet, he showed up each day, and I began to believe him when he said his feelings had changed. Trapped in my bed and visited by therapists I only partially knew and family members I only vaguely recognized, it was nice to have someone else come see me and do word puzzles in bed with me, even if I didn’t always remember who he was right away.
Other friends of mine who came to see me in the hospital were wary of Stanley, but his insistence on his right to be there and his role in my life stifled any objections that even my best friend, Sam, thought to make. My mother and I had always communicated infrequently about my romantic endeavors. Coping as best she could, she remained intoxicated most of the time I was in the hospital and didn’t question Stanley’s version of events. Later, she said I seemed like I wanted him there.
When I was released from the hospital, I couldn’t walk without an arm crutch, and my memory was still far from intact. Santa Clara Medical Center insisted I leave in a wheelchair, and I was wheeled out to Stanley’s car. He said we’d decided together that he’d move to San Diego with me. With no memory of the original conversation, I believed him, but I felt overwhelmed.
Following the seven-hour drive to North County San Diego, I told my mom I didn’t want to live with him. And although Stanley repeatedly hinted he should stay at my parents’ home, my mom put her foot down and said Stanley couldn’t live with us.
So he got a recruiting job and a room nearby. On weekdays after getting off work, he’d walk through the side gate without announcing he was coming. On one particular day in late fall, two months after my hospital stay, he came into the backyard while I skimmed messages on Facebook that I’d received as an inpatient.
I had been talking to our mutual friend, Cassie (I’ve changed her name here, as well as Stanley’s), from college. We’d been exchanging messages on Facebook, and while looking at our conversation, I saw an older message she’d sent me, while I was in the hospital, which I had no memory of.
“Cassie messaged me while I was in Santa Clara,” I mentioned to Stanley, my eye still fixed on the screen. “I said you joked around, saying you hoped my memory stayed impaired, and she replied, ‘Is there something he doesn’t want you to remember?’”
I laughed. Stanley didn’t.
“Why do you think that’s funny?” he demanded, pulling the laptop toward him. He didn’t sit down. “Why would you tell her that?” He shoved the laptop away and placed his hands on either side of his head. “Why would you say that to her?”
“Hey, relax,” I grunted while using both the table and chair to pull myself to a standing position. Once facing him, I added, “I don’t see what the problem is.”
“You don’t — you don’t — ” Livid, Stanley couldn’t seem to express himself through his rage.
Instead of walking away or going inside, I just stood and watched him stutter as his face flushed until he finally formulated words. And boy, what words they were.
“What is wrong with you?” he started. “Here I am, doing everything I can to help you — sticking around when we thought you were going to die, staying when you were r*tarded, not leaving when we weren’t sure if you’d get better. And I’m here now even though — look at you.” He paused to wave a hand from my short hair to my bare feet.
Incapable of speaking, I retreated through the sliding glass door into the kitchen. All of the words I wanted to say slithered through my mind, broken, disconnected. But nothing came from me.
“And you might be like this forever! And instead of telling Cassie how supportive I’ve been, you say that to her? Why couldn’t you have told her how good I’ve been to you — trying to make you look like less of a mess, getting your hair cut, taking you to get your face waxed because it was disgusting.”
As he spoke, he encroached on my space, stepping forward until his face was less than a few inches from mine. His hands still flapped in the air to either side; I think he may have wanted to grab me by the shoulders but refrained. It wasn’t until he vibrated each hand on the left and right side of my face that I realized I was shaking too.
Stanley pulled his hands back, made a noise that sounded like a mixture of an exasperated moan and a frustrated yelp. Finally, he stomped out of my parents’ kitchen like a schoolboy suffering a tantrum. All I heard next was the gate slamming behind him.
Later, he pretended we’d never had that interaction — I only brought it up once in the following days, and he insisted he didn’t know what I was referring to.
More than two years before I woke up disoriented in the hospital, it was the beginning of my “junior” school year at the University of California, Santa Cruz (UCSC). All of the out-of-town transfer students over the age of 22 were corralled on the first floor of the transfer dorm. That dorm became a haven for all of us who had spent our post-high school years not attending college. But we had finally pulled together those community college units to gain admittance to a four-year school. And by God, we were celebrating.
Cue the night after we all moved in: Everyone left their dorm doors propped open and flitted from room to room, taking a shot here, nabbing a plastic cup of our hallmate Cassie’s homemade wine there. Everyone except me. Stationed at the school-supplied prefab wooden desk underneath my bunk bed sans bottom bunk, I was drinking whiskey and playing music from a USB-connected speaker.
“Anyone dislike Tom Waits?” I shouted in the general direction of the bodies amassed in my room. “All right, well, that’s what we’re gonna listen to now.”
Among the gyrating bodies, a short guy in a blue baseball cap, brim pushed up jauntily, slid forward with an elbow pointing at me. He looked too young to be drinking.
“I like Tom Waits,” he offered. “I’m Stanley.”
“Let me guess,” I snapped, “you like Rain Dogs. That’s fine ’n all, but we’re going to listen to some real sad shit right now.”
Later, Stanley would divulge his first impression of me: feet up on my desk, pugging whiskey straight from the bottle and ranting to him about Tom Waits. He thought I was a bitch. And I would tell him that I thought he was a disrespectful asshole. That didn’t stop him, after our initial meeting, from tapping on my dorm door every day, asking if I wanted to go walk in the woods or mountain biking. And it didn’t stop me from taking a swig of my ever-present whiskey and replying, “Sure.”
We weren’t together, but we weren’t not together. Before we slept together, Stanley spent all of his time with me and stopped seeing all of the other women he had been involved with. By the end of that first semester, we had slept together multiple times, met each other’s family at Thanksgiving, and still not talked about what, exactly, we were doing. At the time, I didn’t think a conversation was necessary; I figured we had a gentleman’s agreement and were on the same page: exclusive but unserious.
Although we lived on the same hallway, Cassie and I weren’t particularly close outside of the companionship provided by a common pastime: drinking. At the end of that year in the transfer dorm together, we all dispersed. Cassie moved into UC Santa Cruz’s on-campus trailer park — the one I’d fall out of a tree next to, a year later — and I found a room in an old Victorian on Mission, not far from Laurel Street and downtown.
Part of me figured Stanley wouldn’t skulk around my door anymore, since we no longer lived a few feet away from each other. But sure enough, he ended up in a sublet off of Laurel Street and would rap on my window from the front porch, softening his big brown eyes when I pulled back the blinds to see who it could be.
One day, Stanley, now sitting by that window at the computer chair and desk my sublet provided, broached a conversation we had never touched upon before, one I always avoided with everyone: acquaintances, bar patrons, friends — whatever Stanley was.
“How did you lose your virginity? I remember when I lost mine … ”
For the life of me, if you asked me how Stanley lost his virginity, I wouldn’t be able to tell you anything about it. I stopped listening after his initial question.
“Are you OK?”
Stanley’s genial curiosity caught me off guard.
“Yeah, I was just … thinking.”
“You don’t look OK.” He came over and sat next to me on the sublet’s twin bed. A wood frame painted white housed a run-of-the-mill mattress, neither soft nor hard. Stanley peered into my eyes incredulously, daring me to confirm what I could see him working out in his mind. So I did.
“It, uh, wasn’t my choice.”
“Do you remember his name?”
And I said it for the first time in nearly 10 years. I don’t know how I wanted Stanley to react. I don’t know what I wanted him to do — maybe nod? Maybe ask if I wanted a drink? Oh, God, I wanted a drink. The previous night, I had polished off my bedside whiskey and hadn’t had the chance to walk to the liquor store before Stanley popped over. But I know I didn’t want him to do what he did.
Immediately, he bounded to the computer and opened Facebook.
“And this was in San Diego? OK, let me see.”
And then he began clicking on profiles and muttering to himself, “No, too young. Couldn’t be this one. Hmm, new to the area — no. You don’t know his last name?” Stanley glanced over at me and then stopped touching the computer.
At the time, I didn’t have the vocabulary, but now I can describe how I felt — confused, disoriented, overwhelmed. I heard the words, I understood them, but none of them stuck with me. It’s almost like tunnel vision, but the opposite seems to happen — everything expands and your field of vision contains too much and none of it makes sense. Your eyes water because everything feels overexposed and lacks detail.
I didn’t notice him rejoin me on the bed or when he took my limp hand from my lap and held it. But I did hear him when he said, “I think people place too much weight on a person’s sexual history.”
And then he kissed me gently and we had sex, on a mattress that could have been hard or soft or just fine. But it hadn’t been love — he felt sorry for me. He insisted, afterward, that he cared about me, but he didn’t want to be together, couldn’t be in a relationship. And I understood because, I felt, who would want to be with me?
No one knew about this interaction, but I’m sure the leeway I gave Stanley despite the boundaries he crossed — because of his reaction to a truth I hated so much — looked like love.
In the months after I left the hospital, my memory slowly but surely came back to me. I remembered all of this, about how I met Stanley and what our relationship was like before the accident. But I still had some questions. Some missing pieces — like how I could have let any of this happen.
“Icouldn’t tell you before,” said Cassie. “Because I thought you were in love with him. How could I tell you what Stanley had done?”
This conversation with Cassie took place before I fell out of the tree, and it came back to me as I gradually regained my memory. Nearly seven months after leaving the dorms, we were sitting at an outdoor table on the patio of UCSC’s Kresge Café, where we often met to talk about the likes of Amiri Baraka or Jean Toomer for our poetry class. It was well into our second year at UCSC, our “senior year,” that Cassie and I began hanging out consistently and (relatively) sober; Cassie had an elective slot open, and I suggested she take a poetry class with me.
Cassie rubbed her left arm with her right hand but kept her eyes on mine.
It happened on Memorial Day Weekend when we all still lived in the transfer dorms, she said. Only a little over half of a year before our meeting at the Kresge Café. Memorial Day had been a transfer dorm hallmate’s birthday and everyone had gone to Cowell’s Beach to celebrate — everyone except me. They left before I returned from — where had I been? I don’t know. Drunk somewhere. Like always.
Cassie described a beach bonfire. But then she and Stanley had run into the woods to find firewood. She described Stanley slinging his arm around her neck, the same way he did to me. Cassie hadn’t found this strange, and I didn’t think she would — when he did this to me, I felt more like a “bro” than a romantic partner. It was when she fell down that things changed.
She described them losing balance and toppling over a log. And then she told me Stanley started ripping down her pants and putting his mouth on her … I can’t go there again.
“I told him to stop and he did.” Her voice trailed off as if, maybe, she should excuse him for the initial violation since he was so good at following instructions afterward.
“I am … so fucking angry — ”
“This is why I didn’t want to tell you,” Cassie whispered. “I didn’t want you to hate me.”
“No, no, no, no, no.” The word tumbled out of my mouth and wouldn’t stop. “No, no, no.” Maybe if I said it enough, she’d know. “Not with you — you did nothing wrong — with him. With him. He’s a fucking monster.”
And I hated myself. Because I had been awake, drunk but awake, when they returned. Everyone else clambered upstairs to continue the party, but Stanley pulled me into his room and into his bed. After what he had done.
When Cassie told me all of this, Stanley had been studying abroad for months. Neither of us had heard from him in that time. I heard from other mutual friends he had a girlfriend of sorts.
A month after Cassie’s revelation, Stanley commented on the UCSC trailer park’s public page, a community Cassie was a part of, and received a harrowing response from a friend of Cassie’s: We’d rather not have any sexual assaulters in our community, thanks.
Which, of course, caused Stanley to call me — the first time in nine months we’d had any contact.
“What is she saying about me?” he shrieked.
“Not really sure who or what you’re talking about.”
“Don’t play fucking dumb: Cassie. It was an accident. I stopped. What is she telling people?”
I sighed and tried to keep an even tone. “Whatever happened, it obviously caused her more harm than you thought.”
“You were raped,” Stanley responded. It sounded more like an accusation than a comment; it felt more like an accusation.
I didn’t answer, and he continued. “You know what real assault is like. You need to tell her. Call her right now and make sure you tell her. You have to tell her what it’s really like — that, what was his name? That the construction worker came into your room and held you down and told you not to scream and forced his fucking — ”
“Hey, hey, hey now.” I didn’t need the play-by-play. “I get it, I get it. Jesus.”
And because it’s easier to shove your hurt onto someone else than addressing the bleeding parts inside yourself, I called Cassie and did the worst thing I’ve ever done in my life: I told her it could have been worse.
“Cassie,” my voice cracked as I told her everything and then said, “What Stanley did was inappropriate, but he stopped.”
I n the months following my coma, these memories returned to me in sporadic waves. I remembered, and then I convinced myself I must be misremembering, I must be wrong. Stanley would storm out whenever I brought up the past, only to return the following day like nothing had happened, which made things even more confusing.
But I finally called Cassie toward the end of January 2016, five months after I had moved back to San Diego. I wish I could say I had mustered the courage a month earlier, as soon as I realized there was something Stanley didn’t want me to remember, but how could I possibly tell her I remembered, that it had come back to me, and Stanley was still here?
“Cassie?” I asked quietly when a voice answered the phone. I stood in the backyard of my parents’ house, the only place I could be alone.
“Brooke! It’s so good to talk to you. How have you been? What happened?”
I told her everything: Santa Clara, Stanley, not knowing exactly what had happened.
“I called Stanley as soon as the ambulance took you away,” Cassie said slowly, “I figured he would have contacted your family. The hospital had to find your parents’ information? Why didn’t Stanley call your parents?”
A foreboding sensation crept into my gut and my skin became cold and clammy. It was overcast, typical January weather in San Diego, but far from cold.
“That night,” she said, “we had made it to the top, at least 85 feet up, and you were really confident — we were joking around — and then all of a sudden you looked at me and told me, ‘I have to get down. Now.’ Then you sped down, and I think climbing to a lower branch before you fell is what saved your life.”
“And,” I started and then stopped to moisten my mouth — it had gone dry — and eased myself down to sit on the concrete patio. “That’s all that happened?”
“Well,” Cassie added, “I did think it was weird when I heard Stanley was still with you in San Diego. Before we climbed the tree that night, you were telling me how much you hated him. You had him buy a plane ticket back home in front of you to be sure he was really leaving. He had just moved all of his shit into your room after his lease ended, and you wanted him gone.”
“Cassie,” I replied weakly.
“Well, it’s good the two of you have worked things out. It was just, y’know, weird.”
It was true; my misgivings hadn’t been unwarranted.
Stanley and I had been involved, but it was long over, and — as usual — Stanley used me right when I thought I was rid of him. When he came back from studying abroad, he stayed with me for about a week and insisted I mediate a conversation between him and Cassie. (I did, and she said she wasn’t going to press charges.) He found his own place, but then when the spring quarter ended and his sublease was up, he moved all his shit into my room; I protested but he insisted. I kept telling him that he needed to just go home, but he continued to insist, over and over again, that he needed to stay to make sure “Cassie wasn’t going to do anything.”
I still have no memory of the night I fell out of the tree, but Cassie told me I had made him buy a plane ticket in front of me to be sure that he would leave.
After concluding our phone call, I remained seated on the ground outside. I felt stupid; I was stupid. Stanley had been convincing me he was doing me a favor, that I needed him. When really, he needed me. Still paranoid about what had happened with Cassie and his reputation, he had been using me to convince everyone he was a good person.
Aweek after my call with Cassie, I was baking cookies. Remembering the recipe, the measurements, the order I needed to mix the ingredients, exercising my fine-motor skills to mix them — it was all good practice. It was all rehabilitating, my occupational therapist told me.
Next to the kitchen sink, my mom swirled a glass of champagne and said, almost as if she were channeling it from another plane, “Three days into your coma, Stanley told me we should pull the plug on you.”
Above the bowl of sugar and butter, my hands held a jar of peanut butter and an overlarge spoon, motionless. I stopped to look at her, closing one eye to combat the double vision the damage to my occipital lobe had caused.
My mom averted her eyes as she added, “And he would sit forever and try to guess the code to your phone — he was desperate to get into it.” Then she shrugged. “But you seemed like you wanted him around …”
“When I was in a coma?” I asked.
My mom ignored this and said, “Stanley told me he knew you and knew what you’d want.”
Even knowing this, knowing my life had been disposable to him, I was too weak of a person to make him leave. Stanley kept coming by my parents’ house every day, telling me I should stop focusing on rehabilitating my mind and should instead make my physical appearance more appealing. Often, he’d drop me off at walk-in waxing salons, instructing them to make my face smooth, “less disgusting.”
“I just want to be able to think again,” I’d whisper after.
“This is probably the best you’re going to get,” he’d reply. “You need to take better care of yourself. You have a lot of competition.”
This obsession with outward aesthetics culminated in him taking me to Calaveras Mountain, a small mountain in east Carlsbad, and bidding me to run to the top.
“My physical therapist said I shouldn’t do any strenuous exercise without her … my body still can’t regulate temperature.”
Stanley shot me a look of disdain and hissed, “My stepdad is a physiatrist — I know what I’m talking about. I guess you don’t actually want to get better.”
Halfway up Calaveras, my double vision split even further — something I didn’t think was possible — and I felt bile rising in my esophagus. Taking a knee, I put both hands onto the dirt-covered path and threw up.
“My dad was never easy on me,” Stanley solemnly whispered, a bizarre explanation for his actions.
We walked the rest of the way down.
“I think I need to go,” Stanley finally said one day.
“Do whatever you need to do,” I responded.
We were sitting at a Thai restaurant in a strip mall. Across the way, I had briefly worked as a hostess in a restaurant when I was newly 18; they tore it down and built a Red Lobster in its place.
“You’re not upset?” He searched my face. “Would you want to stay together? You’d miss me.”
I wondered who he was trying to convince.
“Yeah, we can stay together … even though you tried to kill me.”
Stanley reeled back as if he had just been slapped. His feminine lips parted and his bottom jaw hung open, aghast.
Stanley, enraged, knocked over his tea. It had been almost empty. The outrage felt performative; the spill theatrical. I was beginning to get a headache; I just wished someone would be honest with me — my mom, Stanley, anyone who had been there. Everyone wanted to protect themselves at my expense. I felt like a child every time the thought “But what about me?” sprang into my head.
“I just meant if it got to that point — if you were going to be brain dead.” His hands flailed and his lips flapped as they always did when he tried to make a point. I’d finally settled on Beaker — he looked like Beaker from the Muppets. “If you were brain dead, your mom would just keep you forever in a back room drooling all over yourself! Look at you now — you don’t even have your own bed and they’ve been taking your disability money for months.”
That was sort of true; once I had been established as disabled by Social Security, they started dispensing $775 a month to me, an amount based on my previous W-2s and work history. But I chose to give it to my parents — the insurance had covered the majority of the medical costs, but my mother had racked up hotel bills staying in San Jose. I handed the provided debit card for my disability benefits to my father and said, “For everything I’ve done.”
As I explained this, Stanley’s mouth quivered in a dumbstruck “O.” But his horror and confusion only infuriated me; I had told him all of this before. He knew this — or should have. Did he ever listen to me?
“And did you say that?” I shot back, restraining myself, but barely.
“‘If it got to that point?’”
“I didn’t need to. That’s obviously what I meant.”
Stanley left the same week.
He telephoned me in February 2017, more than a year later.
By this time, I had finished my bachelor’s degree by taking my remaining classes at UC San Diego, and I’d started working seasonal shifts as a production assistant at an academic publishing company. I took the train to work by myself. An eye surgery had corrected my double vision, and I no longer needed to close one eye or wear a patch to see. On paper, I appeared to be a legitimate, functioning adult, and no one asked about my abnormal gait or inability to write by hand.
Uncertain if I should answer Stanley’s phone call, I watched his name manifest on my cell phone screen and blink away when I didn’t touch it. A month later — I don’t know if curiosity gripped me or if I hoped for an explanation, or at least an apology — I called him back.
“I was surprised to see you calling,” Stanley said by way of greeting. “I took mushrooms and went to a really dark place and called you because I knew you’d make me feel better. Do you think I’m OK?”
“What do you mean?”
“For someone who didn’t do anything wrong, you certainly are acting like you did something wrong.”
“Fuck, Brooke, I didn’t do anything!”
“You ripped her pants down — ”
“I DIDN’T RIP HER PANTS DOWN. I PULLED THEM DOWN.”
“Did you unbutton them?”
“Did you unbutton her pants?”
“I don’t know. What the fuck does that matter?”
“It does matter. It all matters. You’ve tortured me for over two years — do you realize that? Cassie told you two months before my accident that what you did was fucked up, but she wasn’t going to do anything punitive. And then — and then — you lied to my family and friends, saying you were my boyfriend to paint some sort of sympathetic narrative for some made-up situation you thought you were in — something that wasn’t real. But what happened to me was real. Everything — my whole life — my whole life. And my whole life meant nothing to you … you — ”
“Wow,” Stanley interrupted in amazement. “Your speaking — your speech is really good. You could barely string together a sentence before. You — ”
“You!” I roared back. “You stressed me out all of the time. You interrupted me. You yelled at me until I shook. I — ” My voice cracked. I felt — all at once — I felt pain. Regret. Shame. Remorse. “In the time you’ve been out of my life, I’ve made such improvements,” I continued in a near whisper, “… amazing improvements … if you had never been around … if you hadn’t forced your way into my recovery … ” I trailed off.
“You can’t put that on me — I was going through something — ”
“No.” It was resolute enough to make Stanley fall silent. “You went through nothing. You did something very wrong to Cassie. And me — you probably stunted the progress I could have made. I’ll never know. Goodbye, Stanley.”
Cassie doesn’t hate me, but she should. At least that’s how I feel about it.
We were able to see each other in person in 2017, then we talked on the phone in the summer of 2019. She’s doing well, despite everything, and understands the emotional manipulation Stanley employed to keep me under his thumb. She’s given me grace I’m not yet ready to give myself.
I don’t know where Stanley is or what he’s chosen to do with his life. I hope he’s done some self-reflection, but I doubt he has. The hold rape culture has on us all makes it nearly impossible for genuine self-reflection to occur in these types of men.
My physical deficits are still an everyday part of my life, but I’ve come to accept my disability. Ironically, the trauma of my accident, recovery, and new identity as a disabled person pales in comparison to the effects of Stanley’s destructive presence. I’m suspicious of all romantic partners and don’t trust the motives anyone purports to have. I’m distrustful and resentful. I go to therapy to discern which parts of my skepticism are warranted and which are pure paranoia. Even when I know, am painstakingly shown the truth, it doesn’t feel real or genuine.
Despite this, I’ve developed a tenuous romantic relationship — maybe the word “situation” is more accurate — with an old friend who lives on the other side of the country. I think this is all I’m capable of, and right now, it’s all I want. Maybe that’ll change, but for now, I’m grateful for my cognitive capabilities, the drive to stay sober, and the lack of responsibility for someone else’s emotional stability — maintaining my own is quite enough.
The American gangsters entered the British bank at three minutes to closing time on a Friday afternoon. Three men — two brothers and an accomplice — arrived outside, wearing black masks and gloves, horn-rimmed glasses, and narrow-brimmed trilby hats pulled low over their foreheads. They were armed with two revolvers and an automatic pistol. It was 2:57 p.m. on June 2, 1933, and the bank was the Cattle Market branch of Lloyds Bank in the soot-black industrial city of Newcastle upon Tyne in North East England. Outside, at the Friday meat market, butchers and wholesalers closed up their stalls and rinsed blood from their cleavers. Inside, at the end of a busy week, bank clerks tallied up receipts and attended to the last straggle of customers, including apron-wearing market workers and a 15-year-old girl. The masked men pushed through the bank’s double doors and raised their guns: “Everybody stand still and put up your hands.”
The brothers were Joe and Tommy Duffy, a pair of self-proclaimed American gangsters. They described themselves as hardened villains who had run with America’s most notorious criminals and served time in the country’s toughest prisons. They claimed reputations as violent enforcers and armed robbers — and had the broken noses and gunshot wounds to prove it. Now they were bringing the bullet-spraying American bank robbery to sleepy England, where armed robberies were virtually unknown. But their gangster credentials were about to be severely tested. They had chosen the wrong bank, in the wrong city, at the wrong time, and there would be terrible consequences.
The Duffy brothers were American gangsters who had been born to Irish parents in Edinburgh, Scotland, two of a family of nine sons. Joe immigrated in 1923, ending up in Detroit, and Tommy followed across the Atlantic a few months later. Joe was then 20 years old and Tommy — the more rambunctious of the pair — was 18. Joe was looking for work as an auto mechanic but couldn’t seem to find any. Tommy described himself as a “regular little roughneck.” He was a fearsome brawler and hoped to become a professional boxer in the United States. When that didn’t work out, the brothers tried a series of jobs: restaurant dishwashing, skyscraper construction, railroad work. They may also have tried to become farmers. But, according to an anonymous associate who spoke to London’s The People newspaper in 1933, “They soon quit that for the rackets.”
This was the era of the gangster, the bootlegger, the racketeer. Prohibition and a thirst for illicit alcohol were allowing organized crime groups to flourish. Al Capone was waging war on the streets of Chicago. Arnold Rothstein was building a criminal empire in New York. Prominent gangsters, pictured on the covers of newspapers in chalk-striped suits and fedoras, became nationally infamous. The hit movie Underworld, starring George Bancroft as gang boss Bull Weed, was the first of a series of gangster pictures that helped turn their protagonists into glamorous antiheroes.
By their own account, it was the ease of obtaining guns that led the Duffys to become gangsters. They saw an ad in a magazine, sent off $18.73 and received two revolvers in the mail. The brothers became holdup artists, targeting stores and payroll trucks. They also ran shipments of booze over the border from Canada for bootlegging gangs and became linked to some of the biggest names in American crime.
The Duffys ran with Capone’s mob in Chicago and with Rothstein’s accomplice Jack “Legs” Diamond in New York. Tommy claimed Capone offered him a job after spotting him during a boxing match. According to their “ex-gangster” associate, the Duffy brothers always carried guns and were “absolutely callous and cold-blooded.” They also looked the part. “Both the Duffys dressed immaculately,” said the associate. “They wore silk monogrammed shirts and paid as much as £2 for ties and £10 for shoes.” (Equivalent to about $177 and $885 in 2021.)
By the summer of 1926, the brothers were living in New York in a furnished room on the second floor of a red-brick rowhouse on West 11th Street. In early 1927, they held up Nathan Wolf’s drugstore on Eighth Avenue and walked out with $60 in cash. A week later, they robbed the Beck-Hazzard shoe store, also on Eighth Avenue, and took $25. These were relatively small takes, but the brothers would later claim to have committed several more high-profile armed robberies, including at least one bank robbery.
Certainly, their activities brought them to the attention of law enforcement. New York Police Commissioner Joseph A. Warren listed the Duffy Brothers on a lengthy wanted list of holdup gangs, alongside the likes of the Laughing Gang, the Harlem Terrors (also known as the Sucker Gang), and the Headache and Aspirin Gang. Commissioner Warren promised to rid the city of this scourge.
One evening in March 1927, the brothers were oiling their revolvers to prepare for a holdup when one of the guns went off and shot Joe in the left shoulder. Tommy rushed his brother to Saint Vincent’s Hospital, just a few blocks away. There, doctors treated the wounds — and called the New York Police Department. Detectives arrested the Duffys and searched their room, where they found the revolvers. A report in the New York Daily News referred to the Duffys as “immigrant brothers led astray by revolver ads.” Interviewed by the newspaper, Tommy and Joe claimed to have turned to crime due to poverty and admitted only to the Nathan Wolf’s and Beck-Hazzard stickups. The detectives believed they were guilty of several others. Both brothers were convicted of robbery in the first degree and sentenced to 20 to 25 years in jail. Joe was 24 and Tommy was 22. They would not be eligible for parole until March 1947, 20 years later.
The Duffys were initially sent up the Hudson River to Sing Sing but were soon separated. Joe went to Auburn State Prison, where the tough “Auburn system” of solitary confinement and enforced silence had been developed. Tommy went to Clinton State Prison in Dannemora, known as Little Siberia for its ice-cold winters. During their stays, both brothers experienced deadly riots in which several guards and prisoners were killed. Tommy was in the thick of the trouble and spent six months in solitary confinement. But Tommy said that while inside they were well looked after by their gangster friends, who ultimately used their “political pull” to get them out of jail.
In April 1930, after serving a little over three years, the Duffys’ sentences were commuted to deportation by New York Governor Franklin D. Roosevelt. “It seems to be the sensible thing to do, to deport them,” said Roosevelt, who was two years away from being elected U.S. president. Tommy asserted that “the Diamond mob in New York got going with the palm oil for me,” meaning they’d greased someone’s palm with a bribe. Given Tommy’s penchant for embellishing his gangster bona fides, his version of events is probably exaggerated. More likely, Roosevelt just wanted the Duffy brothers out of the country. But whatever the truth, the brothers were placed into steerage on the SS Duchess of Richmond, and arrived back in Scotland on U.S. Independence Day, July 4, 1930, determined to introduce American gangster methods to Britain.
The headline in the Scottish Weekly News read: “My Life as an American Gangster.” The author, named alongside a gun-toting photograph, was Tommy Duffy. Published 18 months after the brothers’ return to Scotland, the article was a lurid tale of violent holdups and bank robberies straight out of a Hollywood gangster picture. It was a hugely exaggerated and often ludicrous account of bullet-blazing shootouts and high-speed pursuits featuring an A-to-Z cast of infamous gangsters.
One character it did not feature was Joe Duffy. Tommy didn’t mention his brother, and many of the events he did write about in an apparent attempt to cash in on his criminal reputation were entirely fictionalized.
It was a more shocking and incriminatory story than the one the brothers had given to the Daily News following their arrest in 1927. In that modest account, there was no suggestion of any association with Al Capone or Legs Diamond, or of any criminal activity other than two stickups. Perhaps the brothers were playing down their criminal connections in hopes of leniency. But their circumstances at that time — operating from a rented room with mail-order guns for low-value takes — did not seem particularly glamorous. The discrepancy between that Daily News story and the Weekly News account suggested that the Duffys wanted to inflate their reputations from small-time crooks to big-time gangsters. With their sensationalist account, the brothers had an agenda. At least initially, they intended to become movie stars. Gangster movies were big business. Hollywood released more than 30 crime pictures between 1930 and 1933. British studios also churned out crime movies, including the early pictures of Alfred Hitchcock.
But the nearest Joe and Tommy got to silver screen stardom was a period working as movie extras at Elstree Studios near London. After that, they went back to Edinburgh and worked as tracklayers for the city’s tram system. But honest work didn’t suit them, and Joe was fired after stealing copper wire from the tram lines.
Then, according to their anonymous associate, they began to scheme up ways to raise enough money to bribe their way past immigration and back into the American crime game. “They told me they were desperate to get back to the United States,” said the associate. “They knew quite well they could never make crime pay over here.” The brothers reckoned they would need a few hundred pounds, and they could think of only one way to get it. They tracked down some guns — probably decommissioned World War I weapons that had been reactivated on the black market — and planned an armed robbery.
Tommy and Joe asked their associate to join them in “the holdup business.” He refused, claiming he would never carry a gun. Instead, the Duffys recruited an Edinburgh tracklaying colleague named William Abbott to be the third member of their robbery gang. Abbott was a married man with a 6-year-old child and was undergoing treatment for tuberculosis. He was known to local police but did not have a criminal record. He certainly had no experience of American gangster methods, nor apparently a full understanding of the implications of using them in Britain.
Strict firearms regulations and tough punishments meant armed robberies were extremely rare in Britain. Laws brought in to curb the circulation of military weapons following the war heavily restricted the purchase and possession of guns. Criminals convicted of gun crimes could expect lengthy prison sentences and brutal floggings with a cat-’o-nine-tails — a flailing whip. If a criminal killed someone while committing a gun crime, they could expect to be hanged. But, according to their anonymous associate, the Duffys were willing to do anything to get back to the United States, no matter the consequences. “Nothing else would have induced them to take such a risk,” he said, “for both of them had a deadly fear of the ‘cat.’”
While these kinds of crime were virtually nonexistent in Britain, the public was familiar with them. British newspapers awed readers with tales of American armed robberies that seemed as distantly romantic as tales of the old Wild West. One editorial boasted that Britain, with its fearsome justice system, would “never suffer the gunman.” But in 1932, a British criminal named James Spenser, who had recently served time in California’s San Quentin prison, warned of an imminent “invasion” of American gangsters. “Their mouths are watering at the thought of London with its unarmed police,” Spenser wrote in a much-syndicated newspaper column. “What a city to loot! Scotland Yard should be on its guard.”
For the Duffys, Newcastle upon Tyne, in the northeast of England, must have represented an even more appetizing target. It was more compact and less hectic than London, with fewer police officers — none of them armed with anything more than a truncheon. Importantly, the town was situated on the main road and rail routes between the brothers’ primary haunts of London and Edinburgh. The Cattle Market branch of Lloyds Bank seemed particularly vulnerable. It was small but busy. Late on a Friday afternoon, it was likely to be piled high with weekly deposits — including takings from Friday’s wholesale meat market. The Duffys planned to march through the front door, terrify the occupants into submission with their guns, and walk out the back door with the cash.
But Newcastle, a medieval walled city, had a long history of fending off aggressors, from marauding Viking raiders to invading Scottish armies. Proud of its relentless production of coal, ships and Newcastle Brown Ale, neglected by the government and disregarded by the rest of the country, this was a tough-as-nails city that was used to looking after itself. Its residents — known as Geordies — spoke in a dialect that was mostly impenetrable to outsiders. They were fiercely protective of their community. By 1933, the global depression was biting the city hard. Times were tough, and every penny was wrought from sweat and blood. The people of Newcastle would not give up their hard-earned money without a fight.
“Everybody stand still and put up your hands.” One of the masked bank robbers, thought to be Joe, leaped onto the counter and leveled his gun at chief teller Leonard Harrison. Startled and acting on instinct, Harrison picked up a £5 bag of silver coins and hurled it at the robber, striking him in the face. Joe recoiled and yelled to his accomplices: “Shoot him! Shoot him if he moves!”
Another of the masked robbers, probably Tommy, stepped forward with his revolver and ordered the teller and other employees to hand over their guns. This was an unnecessary request in England. “We do not have guns,” the teller explained. Joe climbed over the counter and began to empty the cash drawer and fill his pockets with notes.
The masked men ordered the bank’s customers to kneel on the floor. The third robber, Abbott, began to tie their hands behind their backs with green cord. One customer, a 15-year-old girl, either refused or misunderstood and was pushed against a wall with a revolver pressed to her head.
Hearing the commotion, the bank’s acting manager John Ainsley came out of his office, then rushed back inside to telephone the police. Before he could reach the receiver, one of the robbers stepped into the doorway, pointed a gun at his face, and told him, “Put up your hands or I will shoot.”
Meanwhile, bank clerk Joseph Robson rushed to a barred window at the rear of the building and yelled for help. Workers in the adjacent buildings heard the yells but assumed there was a fire and called the fire brigade rather than the police. One of the robbers followed Robson and told him, “Put them up or you will get something through you.” Then, realizing the alarm had been raised, the robber asked, “Which is the way out?”
Robson indicated the barred window: “That is the only way out.” The gangsters had wrongly assumed that the bank had a rear exit. It was a calamitous error.
Outside, although the meat market was closed, it was still busy with butchers and other workers, burly men with big, bloodied hands who were clearing out for the week. A crowd of them hurried to the bank, again assuming a fire. One of the butchers, Robert Angus, jumped up onto the window ledge to look inside. He saw the three masked men armed with guns, and the bank staff with their hands in the air.
“At first, I thought they were skylarking [playing a practical joke], never thinking it was anything serious,” Angus recalled. Then another butcher, known as Big Jim, ordered his colleagues to fetch their “choppers” and the poles they used to raise the market’s sun blinds. Some of the men began to barricade the entrance to keep the robbers inside. But Angus told them: “Open the doors and let me in.”
Angus pushed through the double doors and strode into the bank, with a posse of other market workers behind him. He grabbed Abbott and, “by a trick of the knee,” sent him to the ground. The bank staff, realizing that help had arrived, began to fight back. Harrison, the teller, picked up a cash shovel and struck Joe behind the ear. Joe staggered forward, then was knocked to the ground by the bank’s junior clerk, George Chambers. By now, the fire brigade had arrived, and several firemen joined the fight. “It was a regular melee,” recalled Angus. “It was a real battle royal.”
Abbott ran toward the door and pointed his revolver at the growing crowd outside. One of the market porters raised a sun-blind pole and, “with unerring instinct,” hurled it at Abbott, knocking the gun from his hand. Ainsley, the bank manager, leaped onto Abbott and the two men began to wrestle on the floor. The meat men then pulled fast the outer doors, trapping the robbers inside, where they were outnumbered and fighting for their lives.
Tommy fled down to the basement and into the vault. Another bank clerk, Charles Robson, followed him down and locked him in. Upstairs, the bank staff and the butchers were “hammering away” at Joe and Abbott with fists, sticks and poles to prevent them from escaping. One of the customers, Kenneth Richardson, who was tied on the ground, recalled that one of the robbers — probably Joe — fell over him with blood streaming from his face.
At some point, one of the robbers — again probably Joe — fired his gun. It clicked harmlessly once, twice, three times, four times, and didn’t discharge. John Ainsley disarmed Joe and stood over him with the revolver. Four men leaped onto Abbott and beat him into submission.
By now, the police had been called. A large number of officers raced to the scene from the nearby Pilgrim Street station on motorcycles and in patrol wagons amid a wail of sirens, causing great excitement on the city’s streets. Workers peered out of windows and came out onto the pavements to watch the action. The police arrived at the bank at three minutes past 3 o’clock — six minutes after the robbery had begun.
“The raiders were caught like rats in a trap,” recalled Angus, the butcher. “They put up a good fight until the police came on the scene. They lost their nerve then, because they realized the game was up.”
When Police Inspector Andrew Donohoe entered the bank, he found Joe and Abbott unmasked and bleeding on the floor, surrounded by butchers and bank workers. In the basement, Tommy had surrendered his pistol to a fireman. Donohoe emptied Joe’s pockets and took possession of almost £292 in stolen cash and an empty coin bag bearing the words “Lloyds Bank, Cattle Market, Newcastle.” Both Joe and Abbott required attention from the police surgeon. Ainsley, the bank manager, had cuts to his face, and one of the clerks was slightly injured. “I cannot speak too highly of my colleagues,” said Ainsley. “All of them were very plucky.”
Witnesses reported seeing a fourth man who might have been keeping watch hurrying away from the bank as the crowd gathered. They also noted a “smart-looking” automobile, which might have been a getaway car. But a fourth man was never identified, and the three bank robbers did not get away. They were dragged from the bank, thrown into a patrol wagon, and taken into police custody.
Joe Duffy, Tommy Duffy and William Abbott first appeared at Newcastle Police Court on the following morning. Joe’s head was swathed in bandages. All three gave false names. But Constable David Nielsen of the Edinburgh Police said he knew all three accused men, and he properly identified them by their real names. The men were charged with unlawfully and feloniously using offensive weapons to assault and rob the employees of Lloyds Bank. All three pleaded not guilty.
Prosecuting attorney David Ensor said the men had committed a crime that was punishable with “penal servitude for life and flogging.” A firearms expert testified that only one of the revolvers, a .455 Webley, had been loaded, and the robbers had attempted to fire it four times. It failed to discharge due to its poor condition. If it had discharged, it would have caused serious injury and perhaps death. “Someone was extremely lucky,” said Ensor. “I submit it does not matter a jot who was using the loaded revolver. They are all equally guilty.”
“This was the worst bank the accused could have chosen for the raid because it had no back exit, there being only a small heavily-barred window,” said Ensor’s prosecution colleague Harvey Robson. “Butchers from the market came to the assistance of the bank clerks, and civilians guarded the door against their escape.”
When asked if any of the prisoners would like to make a statement, Tommy stood and said, “I wish to say nothing. I am not guilty and my name is John Wilson.” But Inspector Donohoe presented to the court a copy of Tommy’s Scottish newspaper article featuring his real name and photo alongside details of his gangster activities in America. “He quoted an instance where he robbed a bank there,” said Donohoe, “and the methods were identical to those used in Newcastle.” The Duffy brothers’ self-portrayal as American gangsters — exaggerated or otherwise — ended up condemning them.
Joe, Tommy and Abbott were all found guilty. “You have carried out a raid which, thank goodness, is practically unknown in this country,” said the judge. “When it is carried out, it must and shall be suppressed with an iron hand.” He sentenced Joe and Tommy to 10 years’ imprisonment plus 15 strokes from the dreaded cat. The judge said the Duffys were “dangerous men,” but he believed Abbott had been their “cat’s-paw” — an exploited dupe. Abbott’s wife, Elizabeth, wept in court as her husband was sentenced to 12 months in prison.
The Duffys appealed their sentences. “Really, no act of violence was committed by the men,” claimed their defense attorney, Howard Grattan-Doyle. “The whole affair was a dismal failure.” But the judge pointed out that a 15-year-old girl had been held against a wall at gunpoint. She had been so traumatized that she could not be called to court as a witness.
The defense also objected to the fact that the Duffys had been characterized as American gangsters, while the evidence suggested they were “not the experienced gangsters they were thought to be.” “These men who were described as American gangsters did not really shape as violent men at all,” said Grattan-Doyle. But that picture had been painted by themselves, and their convictions for armed robbery in the U.S. had been verified by the British police. The appeal failed.
The case prompted reflection on both sides of the Atlantic concerning the differences between Britain’s and America’s gun laws and justice systems. “It’s getting as bad as in America!” exclaimed London’s Sunday Pictorial. No mercy should be shown to armed bandits, the newspaper declared, because Britain would never tolerate them. Another British newspaper said the American bandits must have got a “painful surprise” when they did not get away with their robbery. “We cannot have American gangster methods introduced into this country,” said the Shields News. “This sort of thing must be stamped out ruthlessly.”
In the U.S., newspapers said the case of the Duffy brothers plainly revealed “the weakness of American justice,” and lamented that criminals were more likely to get away in the States. “Criminals in Great Britain are much more likely than here to be caught, when caught to be convicted, and when convicted to serve their sentences,” wrote the Springfield Republican. Gun laws were also questioned, but newspaper campaigns to ban the sale of handguns received negative responses. (“Your slogan ‘Stop Selling These’ is a lot of hokum,” wrote a reader in a letter to the New York Daily News.)
Meanwhile, Howard Hawks’ Scarface movie — based on the life of Al Capone—cemented the image of the American gangster as a glamorous antihero among theatergoers. The real-life exploits of armed robbers Bonnie Parker and Clyde Barrow titillated newspaper readers. And on June 21, 1933, less than three weeks after the Duffy brothers attempted to rob Lloyds Bank in Newcastle, the Dillinger Gang robbed the New Carlisle National Bank in Ohio. It was the gang’s first armed bank heist, and its leader, John Dillinger, would become one of history’s most notorious bank robbers.
Back in Britain, the Duffy brothers were each strapped to a frame and flogged across their backs 15 times with the dreaded cat. The whip’s knotted tails could lacerate flesh and cause blackout-inducing pain. “It is safe to say that the two Duffys will never forget those 15 strokes of the cat,” said the Lafayette Journal and Courier. “Those lashes were no doubt laid on with gusto and sincerity. It was quite a comedown to be scourged to cells in England after selling a vainglorious story of gangster activities in the United States.”
Joe served his prison sentence at top-security Parkhurst on the Isle of Wight and Tommy at the granite-walled Dartmoor in the wilds of Devon. The Duffys would both die in Birmingham, England, in the 1970s. There’s no record of what they did for a living later in life. Neither brother ever returned to America, nor to the gangsterism they had fetishized and romanticized. Tommy had already written his ending back in 1932 in his Weekly News article. “My gangster days are at an end,” he wrote. “I would like to go back and see the old scenes and pals in the States. But I can’t. I must say farewell forever to the racket.” This time it turned out to be true.
I honestly couldn’t believe it. Are they all waiting to get in? You’d think it was one of Amsterdam’s most popular clubs, with some moody, hipper-than-thou DJ spinning from his throne. But nope, it was the Anne Frank House, and apparently, it’s like this every day the museum is open, the line of visitors stretching from the door, along the canal, and through the cobblestone square, hoping to experience just a glimmer of Frank’s life, and death. Frank, of course, is no head-bopping DJ — but she is a celebrity, arguably the most famous victim of the Holocaust, if there can be something so bizarre, so tragic. She’s actually probably the only Holocaust victim most people can name. And when I think about that, with all due respect to Frank and her family and legacy, it’s kind of bullshit.
I didn’t wait in the line. Not because of any problem I have with Anne Frank or the museum (on my next visit, I was smart enough to get tickets in advance), but the truth is that Nazis murdered another 6 million people besides Frank, including millions of teenagers. And yes, Frank’s book, The Diary of a Young Girl, is a perennial international best-seller that introduces younger audiences to the Holocaust, and her story is one of boundless courage and perseverance. In fact, back when I read it in middle school, she was my introduction to the lived experience of someone who had died at the hands of Nazis, and I found her resilience inspiring. But because Frank’s diary is so widely known, and because she wrote about circumstances that most of us will never have to endure, I found it hard to connect to her on a deeper level. And, more importantly, I knew there were so many other stories. Too many. What’s more, the people who wrote those stories didn’t just become people when they died. They had full lives before World War II, and those who were teenagers and young adults would have had their whole lives ahead of them. I wasn’t curious about how they died. (I, like you, had learned all about the atrocities of the ghettos and concentration camps, and I had the nightmares to match.) I was much more interested in how they lived.
That is why I became totally fascinated by a collection of hundreds of autobiographies written by Jewish youth in the 1930s. Most of them lived in Poland and wrote about their lives before the war with intimacy and candor as part of a contest sponsored by the YIVO Institute for Jewish Research. And yet, unlike Anne Frank’s diary, most people have never heard of these writings, let alone read them. While Frank self-censored and edited out her love for the teenage boy hiding with her, the authors in the contest were asked to be super honest and wrote using initials or under fake names that made me think of my own AOL Instant Messenger screen name from the late 1990s (daydreem12, in case anyone’s wondering!) or the handles of teens on TikTok and Instagram today: The Stormer, Forget-Me-Not, Fayvl the Wanderer, The Future, A Galician and Orchid.
Even though you’d think that everything they wrote about would be clouded by the rise of antisemitism and nationalism and the chaos of the late 1930s, they mostly wrote about being teenagers — the same stuff my friends and I would stay up late whispering over the phone or messaging each other about feverishly. They planned when they would finally do it, and giggled over how they’d dreamt about the most romantic makeout sesh EVER. They were absolutely, completely, irreversibly in love, until wait, no, that person sucks, never mind, NEXT! They wanted to join political movements, chant at the top of their lungs at protests, and make the world a much better, more just place. They had BFFs they loved and frenemies they hated, and everything in between (we’ve all had those friends who were actually kind of bitchy and those who tried so damn hard to be cool that they became unrecognizable assholes in the process). And their parents always managed to exhaust and totally and utterly embaaaaaaaarrass the heck out of them.
Unlike a diary, these teens weren’t writing their life story just because they wanted to. YIVO’s research director Max Weinreich came up with the idea for the contest after seeing a similar survey among Black youth in the southern United States. Weinreich was interested in what it meant to be Jewish, and especially what a changing generation of young Jews thought about themselves and the world they lived in. So, in 1932, YIVO put out its first call for autobiographies, asking young adults between 16 and 22 to write about “family, war years, teachers, schools … Boyfriends, girlfriends. Youth organizations … ” and more. They ran announcements around the world and received responses from Jewish teens across Europe, and from as far away as Argentina and Palestine. And they ran another contest in 1934, and a final one in 1939.
As amazing as the autobiographies are, they are also inherently tragic. None of the young people who submitted their entries to the last contest ever found out if they’d won. On the very day four months later when YIVO planned to announce the winner, Hitler’s army invaded Poland. Six years later, around 90 percent of Jewish people living in Poland had been murdered by the Nazis.
What the young people created with their writings are more than just a remarkable historical record. They are an unvarnished window into the vibrant, colorful lives of everyday teens that we assume should have had experiences very different from our own. But what they write feels like it could have been written today — from the catty girls who make fun of you for wearing the wrong thing to that friend who just gets you to, sadly, the hate and antisemitism they saw and experienced.
So here’s another thing I can’t believe: Many of the narratives — which range from 25 pages to a whopping 800 (!!), many handwritten — have probably only been read a couple of times since they were submitted to the contest in the 1930s. And as close as some of the experiences feel to my own teenagerhood, I know I can’t separate them from the time when they were written. The stories these teenagers and young adults tell — some of which we’ve translated into English for the first time for this article, others that we’ve quoted and paraphrased below — feel like an important form of resistance. The rise of nationalism, antisemitism and hate couldn’t take away their eagerness about life, or stop them from dreaming endlessly about what might come next.
The room was dark and the Stormer had started drifting off. Sometimes, right in that moment before sleep, he felt his mom’s warm lips on his forehead. When you’re alone, that type of affection might be OK from a parent. He knew that his mom loved him so much, maybe even a little too much, and that she wanted him to succeed, do something for himself and make her proud. That was one of the reasons he was studying to become a rabbi at yeshiva, or Orthodox Jewish school.
But on this night, the Stormer knew his mother wasn’t coming to kiss him goodnight. Two guys from yeshiva were sleeping over. They were sharing a bed, actually, which wasn’t a big deal — the house was small, they were all friends. The Stormer’s mom was happy to have them over; she probably thought they would be sweet religious boys, nothing but the best influences on her son. And I mean, why wouldn’t they be?
As the Stormer was falling asleep, he had a strange feeling his friends were still awake. They either thought the Stormer was asleep and wouldn’t notice, or maybe they actually wanted him to hear. I guess realizing they were awake gave him some FOMO, and when the Stormer opened his eyes, he caught his friends unfurling each other’s Torahs, if you will — or having “sexual relations,” as he delicately, even prudishly, put it in his dainty Yiddish handwriting. He was shocked, and his slumber buddies “were very embarrassed then.” But they seemed like they were only uncomfortable because the Stormer caught them and he seemed freaked out. Their way of trying to calm him down was to invite him to join in.
This sex scene, and how the Stormer felt about it, is kind of surprising and also sort of expected. The Stormer was in his early teens, and this was 1930s Poland, a devoutly Catholic country. His knowledge of sex was … almost nonexistent. It’s not like his teachers taught him proper condom-application techniques, like mine did in early-2000s Bethesda, Maryland, or like his ultra-religious Jewish mom was sitting him down for an awkward chat about what happens when a man loves a woman (or, heaven forbid, if a man wants to have sex with a man!). The Stormer did know that two men having sex was called homosexuality, and he knew it was a big no-no. Maybe because he didn’t want to ruin his mom’s nakhes, or the pride she derived from his being a good Jewish son, or possibly just because he felt it was inappropriate, the Stormer declined their invitation.
I never woke up to friends of mine making out, or more, during a sleepover, but if your pals are having fun doing something that feels illicit, and you’re really not confident in that department, then don’t you just become infinitely more curious? The Stormer was, for sure. “Who knows what I would have done had it not been just before Passover and they hadn’t gone home” for the holiday, he admitted in his nearly 100-page autobiography.
The guys who wrote into the contest weren’t afraid of admitting they thought about sex, a lot, even if they didn’t know that much about it yet. They were teenage boys, after all. Another writer, a guy everyone called the Poet — who does, in fact, write about his life in beautiful, poetic language — recounted the first time he had to admit he didn’t really know anything about sex.
Poet didn’t join the Communist Youth League, or KZM, because of a burning hatred for capitalism; he was just looking for friends and something new. Beyond supporting the Communist Party, the KZM also had meetings where members learned about life, which included sex ed. I can still hear the nervous giggles and obviously bullshit boasting during my sex ed classes — learning about sex is the topic that’s almost guaranteed to make teenagers squirm, especially if they don’t think they know as much as their friends. The Poet was one of those kids who wasn’t giggling and wasn’t boasting, but just sitting there kind of confused. He probably knew less than the Stormer, because no one had ever talked to him about the birds and the bees.
The instructor, who would have only been a little bit older than the Poet and the other kids, noticed how quiet the Poet was. Oh, poor kid, he does not get it, I can imagine the instructor thinking. After class, he took the time to break things down for the Poet, which was good — and bad. “I felt like a child and was ashamed that everyone except me was informed and could take part in the discussion,” the Poet admitted. Being in the KZM also meant being around girls, which was totally new to the Poet, and a little exposure therapy made him less nervous.
But after he left the KZM and wasn’t hanging out with the girls anymore, his sexual urges came back even stronger, which freaked him out. “I’m afraid that I’m an erotomaniac, because sex occupies a considerable part of my brain and can’t be driven out,” he wrote. I wish I could reach back in time, give him a massive hug and reassure him, “You’re perfectly normal, dude! We all thought about sex ALL. THE. TIME — welcome to the club.”
M.L.X, a teenager in Warsaw, also couldn’t get sex out of his head. He wanted a girlfriend, but he knew that even if he found one, they would have been expected to abstain until marriage. Unfortunately, he also thought masturbating was shameful rather than a completely normal way to deal with sexual urges.
Once, he wrote, “in order to suffocate these desires — and maybe out of curiosity — I went at night through the far away streets of Warsaw (without a penny in my pockets), known for their brothels.” He’d heard the stories of girls coming from the country to the city to make a living, and when they couldn’t get a job, they’d end up doing sex work. The idea of having sex with a prostitute “evoked a strong feeling of disgust” in M.L.X., but like the Stormer, he didn’t have enough knowledge or experience to know what he might have actually enjoyed. He had a perception of what the women would be like, based on what others had told him, but when he actually began talking to them, he realized they were “mothers of children, [and] wives of husbands.” In his writing, he insisted that he didn’t have sex with any of them and was just curious about their lives, which I guess we have to believe. And this was probably a much more interesting form of get sex ed than he’d have gotten in any classroom, and less shocking than waking up to your friends having sex with each other on the other side of the bed.
I can hear it now: He’s so into you! Followed by giggles. A girl who gave her initials as G.S. admitted that her friends had pointed out the obvious about her future boyfriend. The dude was not being subtle. He’d follow G. around their Betar Zionist youth group meetings, where he held the title of Commander, like a puppy dog. I have totally been that person who thought they were being subtle, only to be called out later and told that everyone knew exactly what was happening. So I can feel the Commander on this one. Maybe he was just finally trying to build up the courage to say hi, or perhaps just being around her was enough. When you’re crushing on someone, it’s really hard (IDK, impossible?!) to be subtle. But apparently the Commander wasn’t obvious enough, because it wasn’t until G.’s friends pointed out his infatuation that she actually noticed him.
If G. was being honest (and she was often just that, brutally so, in her autobiography!), the Commander was short and not very cute. But, she added, “there was something about him that I found attractive.” He was smart and always had interesting things to say. And also: “He loved me; I knew it,” G. wrote. Someone being obsessed with you is a good thing, right? This is undying, forever, end-game-type love, yes?
Unless it is the bad obsession, which is actually possession, and annoying and scary as hell. Over the summer, G.’s boyfriend started making “a fuss over every word I said to another man,” even when she was just platonically chatting with other members of the Betar group.
G. didn’t take crap from anyone, and she didn’t want to admit that talking to other guys was wrong. So when she was offered a slot to become an instructor in the Betar organization, she took it, even though it meant she’d have to move. It was a classic teenage, not-really-mature way of getting out. And it didn’t solve any of their problems. “We were angry with each other over this for a long time,” she wrote. Even though she knew she wasn’t in the wrong and wanted to be an instructor, she still cried, and he was upset.
I’m reminded of late-night calls with boyfriends in high school; the stakes in teenage love always feeling ridiculously high: Do you really love me? Followed by desperate tears regardless of the answer. You daydream about the wedding and your future kids’ names, even though you don’t have the next month of your life figured out.
After a little time apart, G.’s boyfriend got back in touch. She’d just found a job, and he was leaving for Palestine illegally. Even though she couldn’t go, he still wanted them to be together. “We came to realize that we truly loved each other and that our quarrels were silly,” she wrote. Again, the roller coaster of teenage love: When you’re together, you fight and bicker and privately debate whether the other person really loves you. And when distance threatens to tear you apart, you promise undying love forever and ever. “We promised to love and be loyal to each other,” G. wrote, and her boyfriend promised he would get her to Palestine as soon as he could. It’s nearly impossible to know if she ever made it out of Europe in time.
After chatting with the prostitutes on the streets of Warsaw and gaining a little confidence in the not-looking-like-a-fool-while-talking-to-women department, M.L.X. finally noticed a girl who hung out in his circle of friends. Miriam was pretty, M.L.X. couldn’t deny that, but “external attraction wasn’t enough for me,” he wrote. He wanted something deeper, a real connection and someone he could talk to. As he got closer to Miriam, he realized she could be his girlfriend. “We studied together, worked through various books, talked a lot,” which, he said, “tied us even closer together — and I truly fell in love with her.” This was not a crush, not an infatuation, but a serious and deep love, or so he thought. Miriam loved M.L.X. too, and they started talking about their future.
In his mind, this included living together (and probably sex, lots of sex) although he knew shacking up before marriage was not something Miriam’s family would accept. He had believed that Miriam “stood above the small-town morality and conventions,” but she actually didn’t. In a classic we’re-just-having-fun vs. I-thought-we’d-be-together-forever relationship conflict, M.L.X. didn’t want too much commitment, while Miriam wanted him to get her parents’ blessing and have a real wedding. M.L.X. was kind of brutal, TBH: “I told her as a joke: ‘You see, Miriam, I can be a man, a lover — but a groom I can’t be.” It wasn’t really a joke; he had no interest in getting married, and they drifted apart.
Getting assigned to work with the cute girl in biology; passing notes to the hot guy in history; or sitting with that dream crush during lunch: These are butterfly-inducing moments that teens in 1930s Poland didn’t have. Guys and girls often weren’t in class together, so youth organizations became the main place for them to meet and hang out. In the Tsukunft youth group in Warsaw, Poland, 17-year-old S. Freylich was trying to play the field. He wanted to ask out a girl named Esterke, who was “charming and smart” although not that pretty. Then there was Henia, who wasn’t beautiful either, but Freylich couldn’t say no when she wanted to go on walks together, which was what he considered a date. As if he didn’t have enough love interests, Freylich then got the brilliant idea that he should make himself aloof and mysterious, “believing that this way [the girls] would run after me.” In a really shocking turn of events (eye roll), this plan backfired. I mean, did I totally crush on the guy who painted his nails black? Yes, yes I did. But if he’s not going to respond to your IMs or texts, then what the heck is the point? When Freylich didn’t talk to the girls, they simply ignored him. Later, he “learned the art of flirting” and started picking up girls again.
He also wrote that he was for “free love,” although he didn’t define the term or explain how it would work in his life. Maybe he thought it meant he could be a player: have a girlfriend and flirt with other girls. But he also wrote about how he’d kissed a male classmate when he was younger, so maybe free love just meant he could make out with whomever the hell he wanted, no judgment.
I was shocked that so many of the writers were so open when they wrote about sex and relationships. I guess it just proves that even if the world seems like it’s ending, who you are going to screw or who is going to hold you close is still super important, perhaps even more so than during simpler times.
The teens seemed surprisingly open when talking about sex and relationships. Miglė Anušauskaitė, who has translated and read YIVO autobiographies in her work at Lithuania’s National Library, pointed out to me that the boys talk about sex and the girls wrote more bashfully about relationships and romance. Perhaps the girls couldn’t admit to anything more than kisses and hand-holding, even when writing anonymously. Or, of course, it could have been the other way around too, with the boys exaggerating … just a tad. 😜 With only the authors’ own words to rely on, Anušauskaitė adds, “It makes you wonder if they were really telling the truth,” or just saying something that would make them seem cool. Yup, I knew those guys in high school, too. Everyone’s favorite, right?
Esther didn’t even bother asking her dad if she could go to the movies. He would have said no, just like he said no to everything she wanted to do. The movies, he’d probably say, were indecent, blah, blah, blah. The posters outside the theaters in the 1930s probably made him avert his faux-virgin eyes: the actress Nora Ney thrusting her hip forward, wearing a see-through skirt, while actor Eugeniusz Bodo leaned in to kiss his Tahitian lover. Esther loved reading, the stage, and putting on her own theater performances, even if her conservative and religious father wanted her to have nothing to do with things like that. When Esther saw those posters, I can just imagine her wanting to be Nora Ney, who was born Zoscia Neyman, and leaving her Jewish identity for a spot in Polish cinema. That theater and those movies could transport Esther to the “faraway place, a dream world” that she wrote about finding in plays and the “enchanted worlds” of her books.
Let’s be real, teens cannot be stopped by the wishes of their parents. And Esther saved up enough for a ticket and just went. She felt her heart throbbing as she made her way there, her body filling with “joy and excitement.”
“What I actually saw was marvelous!” she wrote. “I cried and I laughed with the heroes and heroines on screen.”
Esther came home with the guilt of knowing she’d disobeyed her father. “I was terrified that my Father might find out,” Esther wrote. Girl, I know that feeling. You get home and you desperately avoid your parents because if they ask you where you were and you lie, they’ll just know. Hell, my mom could tell something was up simply by some otherwise invisible aura around me. Esther snuck off to bed, and after a few days, when her father hadn’t confronted her, she realized she’d gotten away with it. “I was overjoyed,” she recounted in the journal she kept hidden from her family.
That relief of not getting caught also comes with the excitement of knowing you can do it again. “[T]he way that I am misunderstood is unnerving,” she complained. “My soul aspires to distant horizons, yet I remain in this little world of narrow desires.” So she pushed back against everything her father said she couldn’t do: get a library card, go to school, become a teacher.
So many of the teens in the contest wrote about how their parents didn’t get it, how they were old-fashioned and out of touch. The Poet’s dad — who sewed baby shoes in their apartment for a living — expected the Poet and his brother to sit at their workbenches and sew late into the night, too. The Poet didn’t want to work, he just wanted to get lost in prose. But his father, he wrote, “can’t stand my reading or studying.” As a result, he felt his dad was “wretched” and “simple,” a man who “lacks a goal.” “He doesn’t understand me; he knows nothing about me,” the Poet declared.
In a fragment of an autobiography kept at the National Library of Lithuania, an anonymous writer in the contest wrote that he and a friend, Yankel, had become especially close because their “hearts got connected by a thread of longing and hopeful dreams of breaking free from the influence of our fathers and ignorant pious men.” Fast-forward 80 years and they are basically saying OK, Boomer and rolling their eyes (which I never have to do because my dad is honestly woke AF and very cool).
Even the way their parents’ generation dressed was old. On the streets in Warsaw you’d see men with beards wearing dark cloaks and hats, clothes that looked like they could be centuries old, while young hipsters dressed in the leather jackets of the Betar youth movement and trendy teenage girls wore finger wave bobs, fur-lined coats and high heels.
My generation (millennials) and Gen Z came of age with the internet, and this generation similarly had access to information their parents never could have dreamed of, through public schools, radio and movies, and revolutionary political ideas from Zionist, Communist and Socialist groups. They were so much more connected to Polish culture and identity than their parents ever were. Mame and Tatte absolutely didn’t get it, but their friends most certainly did.
By the time she was 16, there was no way Esther’s family was going to catch her sneaking out. Now, instead of escaping to the movies, she was hanging out with a new friend. The friend had appeared at exactly the right time, after Esther’s father had died and Esther’s depression had set in. Her other friends tried to help her feel better, but teenage girls aren’t always very comforting. In this case, instead of trying to help her get through her depression, they just criticized her for not wearing the latest styles (which is definitely not the advice you need when your dad has dropped dead and you feel utterly and hopelessly lost).
“This young woman whom I had just met was different” from all those other girls, Esther wrote. She was “a breath of fresh air from another, freer world.” This new friend, whom Esther never names in her writing, didn’t care if Esther was religious, what she wore, or that she loved books. This is like meeting the coolest girl in school — not the popular girl, but the girl that gives zero shits about what anyone else thinks. And there you are, kinda nerdy, kinda uncool, desperately wanting her to like you. And to your amazement, she does.
“We began by reading a book together, and before long she knew my innermost thoughts,” Esther wrote. On long summer nights, Esther read poems and sections of her diary to her friend. Was this the type of deep friendship where Esther thought, She is the only one who understands me? Or did it go even deeper than that, into a romantic love that wasn’t considered appropriate at the time and couldn’t be named? The Stormer could talk about the sex between his yeshiva friends perhaps because he said he didn’t want to participate. But Esther might not have known that being in love with her friend in that way was possible. Or maybe she just wanted to sneak out to talk on moonlit walks with someone who really understood her.
Whatever Esther’s real feelings were, when her family found out about the friendship, her older brother “demanded categorically that I break up with my friend.” Esther’s friend was Jewish, but she hadn’t gone to religious school and wasn’t in the young orthodox women’s organization, so Esther’s family (no surprise) didn’t like her. To admit that she needed her friend “would have meant confessing my desire for freedom, for something different, which was ‘forbidden,’” Esther wrote. So she had to at least pretend to give in. She promised her brother she wouldn’t see her friend, but they still met secretly. The thought makes me smile and applaud Esther for this minor but oh-so-important defiance.
As in any teenager’s life, friendships — particularly illicit ones — took on outsized significance. The anonymous writer who described connecting with his friend Yankel because they both wanted to break free from their fathers, wrote about how important it was that he had someone he could really trust. “I would tell him all of my problems, caused by my fanatically religious parents, about how my father used to tear up my books and would often beat me,” he wrote. The writer and Yankel went on walks together and saw their “future in the starlit sky.”
While these descriptions of friendships often sound romantic (and who knows, maybe they were), Anušauskaitė told me that because there wasn’t often an overlap in male and female spaces, these close friendships could take the place of the romantic partnership we would imagine today. In a kind of modern way, there didn’t have to be a binary between romance and friendship; guys could be super close, even touchy-feely, with their male friends, and the same was true among girls.
G.W. could easily see that his family didn’t have the money and luxuries that others had, and that sucked. His family lived in a basement apartment, a damp cellar that made it hard for him to breathe and with mold that got everyone sick. Why did they have to live there when “other people lived in beautiful houses”? He wanted to study and go to high school. But even public high school wasn’t free, and he didn’t have enough money for the tuition; he couldn’t even afford to buy a notebook for class. “It never occurred to me that I wouldn’t study and realize my aspirations,” he wrote in his autobiography. It was the brutal honesty of poverty and discrimination that remains an epidemic today: No matter how hard he worked, he couldn’t drastically change his life.
Still a teenager, G.W. had to start working as a tailor. He knew it was a good job, but it was still shitty— his boss didn’t always pay him his wages, the boss’s wife picked on him and made him cry, and the other workers didn’t stand up for him.
When the Tsukunft youth group recruited G.W. and he started learning about socialism, he did not need any academic lessons about economic oppression. Oppression was his life. But now, he was finally able to describe “the evil that I’d had to endure in the workshop, about denouncing everything that is dark and bleak, bloodthirsty and exploitative.” Capitalism isn’t going to solve the problems of young people, he wrote, and I imagine him as a total Bernie Bro posting memes about eating the rich.
The youth groups like Tsukunft and Betar weren’t just about social life, they were about changing the world. Yes, these young people totally joined to make friends and maybe meet a romantic interest (see the Poet). But they also wrote about injustice and what they believed it meant. They sound like young Black Lives Matter and environmental activists today, whose passion reminds me of my own anger about the Iraq War and the invasion of Afghanistan during my high school years. They, and I, couldn’t ignore the “crooked old way” of the world, as G.W. called it. Esther wanted to know, “Why do the wicked prosper and the righteous suffer?” while the Poet, who had lost interest in the KZM and started becoming more drawn to Zionism, wrote his autobiography in Polish (not Yiddish) and declared, “You anti-Semites, I blame you for my inferiority complex and for the fact that I don’t know what I am: a Jew or a Pole.”
One of the reasons they didn’t connect with their parents was because they were so over discrimination and antisemitism. Couldn’t they be Jewish and Polish? They’d had enough of inequality and unemployment. Couldn’t they go to high school and university? Couldn’t they get a good job and have a nice apartment? These organizations promised to make their worlds better, if they were willing to do the work.
Zionism promised a Jewish identity, a homeland, a renaissance, and the training needed to achieve those goals. G.S., who grew up in a secular family and wrote in neat, cursive Polish, met her boyfriend, the Commander, in the Betar Zionist group, which she said had awoken a “strong feeling of Jewishness” in her.
A guy named Yudl wrote that he hated the Betar group that some guys tried to get him to join. All they talked about at the meetings were their outfits, brown uniforms with gold buttons, he wrote. He thought the leaders were immoral and they talked down to him: “They were nothing more than corrupters, criminals, in fact — blackmailers, Jewish Hitlerites, Jewish fascists!”
Instead, Yudl joined the Bundists, like G.W. had. The socialist Bund, or Jewish Worker’s Union, didn’t believe in Zionism but wanted improvements for the Jewish working class. There, Yudl was finally regarded as an equal, and he learned that ignoring injustice, anti-Semitic regulations and attacks clearly wasn’t working; he and his peers needed to do something new, bold and radical.
Now, when he felt like his boss’s widow wasn’t paying him enough, Yudl organized a weeklong strike, which was “victorious,” he proudly recalled.
“When I walked down the street, people patted me on the back: “You’re a good guy,” they told him, “‘a fine member of the proletariat.’”
“Life’s not worth living,” the Poet’s friend Moniek told him. “What’s the use? I’m not going to spend my life operating a sewing machine.”
Moniek wanted to go to Paris to become an actor, and had tried to sneak out of Poland twice but had been caught both times and spent a few months in jail. “I’m weak and ruined by masturbation,” Moniek continued. “I now see that nothing will come of me. Getting to France and then going from there to Hollywood is a childish fantasy.” Another friend told the Poet that sometime later, Moniek was showing off for a girl and jumped “from the public beach into the open river” and drowned. The despair in Moniek’s voice in that last conversation led the Poet to “assume that his death was a suicide.” The Poet didn’t write specifically about how he reacted to Moniek’s death, but he must have been shaken if he really thought that Moniek felt he had no other option.
The Poet wasn’t particularly thrilled with his life at that point either. He could earn money helping his father sew baby shoes, but like so many other Jewish youths who wrote into the YIVO contest, he struggled with the same question: What am I going to do with my life?
For my classmates and other American teens over the last few decades who were privileged enough to have the option, this kind of angst often revolves around picking a college and/or career path. But the young people writing these autobiographies had unique challenges as Jews living in Poland, where state-sanctioned antisemitism was growing. The religious school where Esther found a job was shut down because it didn’t meet government requirements, which was often just a cover for shutting down Jewish schools. When G.S. was looking for a job, someone straight-up told her, “I could help you if you weren’t Jewish.” They were living in a global depression and Jews were being denied jobs just because they were Jews. School also wasn’t an option for many of them. Not only did the Polish government limit admission to Jews in public high schools, in 1937 they capped the number of Jewish students allowed at universities. The proportion of Jews enrolled at university dropped from about 20 percent of all students in 1928 to only about 4 percent in 1938.
For many, including G.S. and the Stormer, Palestine felt like the answer. One journalist in the 1930s found a group of girls dancing the hora, the celebratory Jewish wedding dance, on a Krakow street. When he asked them why they were doing it, they told him that it was “a dance from Palestine and that they will certainly be going there someday.” Some of their friends thought the dance was crazy, but these girls felt it was one thing that would get them closer to Palestine, to a new identity.
Despite these hardships, it’s so easy to see that the young people who wrote these autobiographies weren’t living in constant fear. I know they wouldn’t have been so passionate about love and friendships and finding a job or going to school if they weren’t filled with that incredible hope that comes with being a young adult. They were at that age so many of us look back on with fondness and nostalgia, when we were old enough to say, Fuck yeah, that’s what I want, or Fuck you, I’ll do what I want. And also young enough to have a long future, without the need to commit to one thing or one person. You imagine having a lifetime to become yourself and achieve your dreams.
G.S. never got to meet up with her Commander boyfriend again; he was eventually killed in Palestine. Yet she didn’t grow hopeless. She wrote: “I hope God will give me strength and endurance so that I can stay here long enough to save money for the trip. Then I’ll leave for Palestine and start a new life.”
The Stormer also tried to emigrate illegally to Palestine but got caught and sent back home. Even though his immediate future felt bleak, he had “great hopes that the situation of all humanity will take another direction and that my own situation will change for the better along with it.”
M.L.X. didn’t buy that his life’s purpose was just to get a job and “earn a little money to survive,” while G.W. thought he was going to tear down the capitalist system. Esther was still teaching students, hoping to get a teaching degree, and confiding in her friend that she was writing her autobiography for the YIVO contest.
I love how hopeful they are, and yet I can’t read these sentences without being utterly devastated. We know what happens next.
While YIVO researcher Max Weinriech wanted the autobiographies for a contemporary understanding of Jewish youth culture, they ended up creating a treasure trove of sepia-toned teenage vitality. YIVO had more than 600 youth autobiographies when the Nazis arrived in Poland, and Yiddish speakers were forced to read and select which materials the Nazis would take. Some 300 of the contest entries were later found in Germany and transferred to YIVO’s new headquarters in New York. Fifteen autobiographies, including the writings of the Stormer, the Poet, G.S., G.W., Esther and Yudl, were translated into English and included in the book Awakening Lives: Autobiographies of Jewish Youth in Poland before the Holocaust. Others had been hidden from the Nazis and were found in Vilnius, Lithuania, in 1991 and in 2017, including the 1933 memoir of Beba Epstein, which YIVO used to create its first digital exhibit in the fall of 2020. But hundreds more, telling hundreds more stories of heartbreak and hope, live in archives, untranslated and mostly unknown.
In these writings, we feel the universal longing of young people who yearn to find their place. We cringe with them when their parents are shitty. We grab a hand, shout and sing along with them in the street. We lean in closer when they tell us about their secret friends and that special love interest. We chuckle when they share how they hooked up with allllllll of those girls. We’re inspired by their hopes for the future, their dreams and ambitions, and we understand their need to make the world better. And in today’s world, when we are still fighting tirelessly for justice, acceptance and opportunity for all, maybe now more than ever we should sit back and listen to these struggles and dreams, see real people rather than statistics, and embrace untold stories from those who’ve been oppressed simply because of how they look or what they believe.
I do have to admit that as much as I love the messy realness of these autobiographies, they still break my heart. Yes, partially because I know that so many of their dreams didn’t come true. But even more, because they never even had the time to figure out whether what they dreamed about at 18 was what they still wanted or needed at 28, 48 or 78. More than 80 years after these autobiographies were written, I feel like I’ve become Esther’s secret friend, the one to whom she’s divulged all her inner thoughts. But I’ll never know what happens to Esther, who was working so hard just to get by, who harbored such huge hopes, and desperately wanted her friends and family to accept her. She likely never had a chance to figure her life out … And yet! Esther, who emptied her beautiful heart and soul across 60 pages of neat Yiddish script, is so fucking hopeful it makes me want to march up alongside her and offer my own rallying cry.
“And when a sigh escapes from the depths of my heart,” she wrote, “when sparks of rebellion and protest ignite in my tired but youthful eyes, they vanish in the turbulence of life, which casts off the weak and battles the rebellious. Still from my lips comes an eternal ‘Why?’ Then my shoulders straighten and brace themselves, ready to endure anything, never to surrender, but with faith — onward!”
Editors’ Note: The memoirs of M.L.X. and S. Freylich were translated from Yiddish for this story by Nina Warnke, and Miglė Anušauskaitė shared some of her translations of the YIVO records recovered in Lithuania.
I heard the gun go off and turned my head toward the sound, just in time to watch the spinning aluminum canister slam into my brow. Everything went black. I stumbled. When I regained my balance and opened my eyes, the sight in my right eye was gone. Something in my head told me the tear gas canister was the last thing I’d ever see clearly.
It was May 30, 2020. George Floyd’s death was still headlining most news reports. The country was finally (rightly) paying attention to police killings. Meanwhile, during the protests that followed, another less deadly but still alarming trend was developing: “blinding by police.”
According to Shot in the Head, a report released in September 2020 by Physicians for Human Rights, during the protests between May 26 and July 27 of last year, U.S. law enforcement officials shot 115 people in the head with “less lethal weapons.” Of these victims, at least 30 suffered permanent ocular damage.
“These were some of the worst injuries we’ve seen in a long time,” George Williams, M.D., former president and current spokesperson for the American Academy of Ophthalmology (AAO), explained to me. “If our mission is to protect sight and we are seeing these injuries, we have to step up and say something.” The spike in ocular traumas associated with the protests caused the AAO to issue its first-ever public condemnation of law enforcement’s use of rubber bullets.
As a professional photojournalist, I’d been covering the protests outside the White House when I was shot. It’s perhaps needless to say that any eye-related injury is basically a photographer’s worst nightmare, tantamount to a musician going deaf.
While I dealt with the aftereffects of my own injury and tried to make sense of what had happened, I came up with a new mission for myself: I set out to meet as many of the other people blinded by the police as I could.
“It felt like they were playing Call of Duty.”
Earlier on the same day that I was injured in the nation’s capital, 400 miles away in Cleveland, John Sanders was shot in the face with a beanbag round. Lead pellets from the canvas bag ripped through his left eyelid and ruptured the globe of his eyeball.
I met John, a 24-year-old former journalism student, last July at his friend’s house in a middle-class neighborhood in Akron, Ohio. A self-assured, tall and slender Black man, John’s presence was calming. We sat at a picnic table in his suburban backyard and compared notes about our traumas. A plastic deer used for target practice listed to the side a couple of feet behind us.
John tells me how, in shock and worrying he’d be shot again, he lay down in the street. “You know, ’cause my eye was literally hanging out of my head,” he says in his nonchalant deep voice. “‘Don’t make yourself a target, get down and hopefully someone comes over and gets you.’” As he flattened himself against the asphalt, blood puddled under his head. Eventually a group of panicked protesters gathered around him and carried him off the street. He was stabilized and taken to the hospital.
“It almost seems like they were doing target practice or something,” John recalls. “I literally felt like they were playing Call of Duty out there.”
Unfortunately, John’s injuries were not virtual. In the first three months after being shot, he endured three surgeries: one to stitch up his eye; one enucleation (removal of the eye) and eyelid reconstruction; and one to fill in his orbit with fat from other parts of his body. He was also hospitalized for diabetic ketoacidosis, a potentially life-threatening problem common among diabetics. John is sure it was due to his heightened stress and depression, a direct result of being partially blinded.
As police forces across the U.S. and the globe have grown more militarized, there has been a rise in injuries like John’s and mine — a result of the proliferation of “less lethal weapons” that are not designed to kill, yet leave many civilians with life-changing injuries.
In the peace that followed World War I, law enforcement and military officials around the world began developing new weapons for crowd control. The goal was to create tools that would afford authorities the ability to manage large groups of people without relying solely on violent baton charges and lethal force.
Chief among those new weapons was CS gas, more commonly known as tear gas. First discovered in 1928 by chemists at Middlebury College, tear gas was understood to be a less toxic substance than the CN gas used in the trenches of Europe. It soon became a common tool for crowd dispersal for police departments across the United States, including during labor strikes and civil rights marches.
In the 1960s, the British military developed rubber bullets as a “nonlethal” way to suppress protesters in Northern Ireland, and Argentine intelligence officers adapted electric cattle prods to torture detainees during interrogations. A few decades later, “less lethal weapons” emerged as an important growth sector for the international arms industry, leading to the development of new technologies.
Today, law enforcement and military forces alike have a wide array of less lethal weapons to draw upon. There are kinetic impact projectiles such as foam-nosed bullets, beanbags, pepper balls and wooden baton rounds, to name a few. There are chemical irritants such as tear gases, pepper spray and mace, as well as conducted energy devices such as Tasers and stun guns. Flash bangs and smoke grenades are used to disorient targets. Finally, many police departments across the U.S. are now using acoustic weapons such as the Long Range Acoustic Device (LRAD), which emits an extremely high decibel sound designed to cause physical discomfort and dizziness.
On the same day that John and I were shot, Soren Stevenson was among a group of protesters in Minneapolis who tried to march onto the westbound lane of Interstate 35. Police were quick to arrive on the scene. Most of the protesters hadn’t even reached the on-ramp.
When calls went out for “white bodies to the front,” Soren volunteered. He’d just linked arms with others on the front line when a 40mm plastic round cracked against his head.
“I felt my face, and it was wet and soft where there should have been bone,” Soren recalls. Beyond losing his eye, he was also robbed of his sense of smell and some feeling on the left side of his face.
Soren and I met up in a park near his house in Minneapolis. It was dusk on a cool August night. JusticePirate, his handle on social media now that he wears a leather eye patch, was 25 years old and had recently earned a master’s in public policy from the University of Minnesota. However, his injury and the COVID-19 pandemic had stunted his plans for the future. Soren had just started a job search when he was shot. Between surgeries and recovery, he wasn’t able to find employment until almost a year later, in April 2021.
Soren emphasizes that his injury is small compared to the everyday violence black and brown communities face without respite, and he still hopes that the protests will lead to systemic change.
“This is a moment Americans can’t miss,” Soren says. “We can’t miss this moment to demand both elected and unelected officials do something about racial inequity and police violence.”
“They shot me because I’m Black.”
Nikita Tarver, 33, was getting ready for another surgery when I picked her up in my too-cramped-for-the-COVID-era economy rental car. Since being shot on May 30, she’d moved into her mother’s humble apartment in a gentrified Seattle neighborhood.
“The saddest part of it all was what my friend said afterward,” Nikita recalls. “She said that just before I was shot, she looked back and saw me, the only Black face in a sea of white protesters. They shot me cause I’m Black. That’s messed up.”
Nikita had responded to a message I’d sent to her through GoFundMe, where a friend had created a campaign to help pay for Nikita’s growing pile of medical bills. She told me she wanted someone to talk to. Someone who could understand what she was going through. So did I. For months, we sent each other quick text messages, updates on our trauma animated by eye-patched Memoji.
“… it’s going to be awesome to have somebody going through the same experience to actually speak to. I mean I have people in my corner but they don’t truly understand my situation,” Nikita writes in one message.
I reach out late on another night to vent my frustrations: “I’m done moping around the house. but I get tired super quick!!! And then have to take a long nap. Sucks cause I’m not spending enough time with my kids … hopefully though things will slowly get better … I’ve picked the camera back up and that’s a good thing.”
We talk about our families and plan to start journaling our recoveries, but we don’t actually talk about being shot until I fly out to Seattle to meet Nikita in person.
As we talk, a tear rolls out of Nikita’s good eye. She sighs a deep breath.
“Every day is a roller coaster. I think I’m at about 100 days and I’ve cried every day.” Nikita is transparent in her fragility. “I’m fighting for my fucking eye, never in a million years did I think I was going to be facing this.”
The shot caused a severe scarring of her cornea and left her retina partially detached. Doctors couldn’t give her a timetable or a definite prognosis for the future.
Since our interview, Nikita has recovered some vision, but it is still so distorted that she’s resigned herself to wearing an eye patch.
“Blinding by police” is not a trend that is unique to the United States. Wherever less lethal weapons are used with frequency, some targets inevitably lose their eyes. During the protests that rocked Kashmir, the disputed region between India and Pakistan, in 2016, it is estimated that thousands of eyes were lost to bird shot fired by Indian security forces. In Beirut, at least two eyes were lost in one night during protests following the Lebanese government’s criminal mismanagement of the August 2020 port explosion. In France, the 24 people partially blinded during the Yellow Vest uprising in 2018 became popularly known as the mutilé, or mutilated.
And in Chile, more than 400 people have been blinded or partially blinded since protests against neoliberal economic policies and for a new constitution began in 2019. More than anywhere else, they have become famed embodiments of the broader political struggle — living martyrs of the estallido, or uprising.
“How could someone rob something so beautiful, so marvelous to humans as sight?” a weeping Albano Toro asked the camera in one of dozens of video testimonials collected from members of the Coordinadora de Victimas por Trauma Oculares, a political organizing platform created by Chileans who’ve lost their eyes to less lethal weapons. Built on a praxis of mutual aid and solidarity, the Coordinadora help members receive medical attention, raise funds for those left destitute due to their injuries, coordinate political demonstrations against police brutality, and advocate for transformative change in Chilean society. It’s the kind of advocacy group that, unfortunately, many communities around the world are likely going to need more of in the years to come.
In the ambulance ride to the MedStar Washington Hospital Center, an EMT wrapped my head with a bandage. He asked me some basic questions, presumably to rule out a severe concussion. The bright lights and reflective metal surfaces made me squint. I was in shock; fight or flight had kicked in. There was still relatively little pain, but my senses were alert and I was acutely aware of my surroundings. Accompanying me on the ride were two Metropolitan police officers, also injured in the protests. I glared in their direction. In my mind I ridiculed them for the minor bruises they appeared to have suffered. I didn’t want to show any weakness, even if it was objectively clear that I was in a far more precarious state than they were.
On Sunday, May 31, I was released from the emergency room with an appointment to see a specialist later that afternoon. Twenty-four hours later, I was in an operating gown getting ready to go under the knife. Retina specialists cleaned out the hemorrhaging in the back of my eye, reattached my retina and inflated a gas bubble against the back of it. Finally, a scleral buckle was inserted around my eye. This silicone band held the retina in place by applying pressure on the globe from the outside. It was a permanent addition to my anatomy.
Until the gas bubble was absorbed by my body and the swelling receded, my doctors were reluctant to give me a definite prognosis about how much sight I’d recover. I was sent home and instructed to lie on my left side for the next seven days. Brisk movements could reinjure the eye, and gravity would help maintain pressure on the back of the retina, improving my chances of some recovery of sight.
Matthew Leo Cima was also bedridden, albeit under stricter guidelines. While I lay on my couch in that first week after my operation, I found out about Matthew’s injury on Facebook and immediately sent him a direct message.
For the first week, Matthew had to lie facedown for two hours at a time, only interrupted by 10-minute breaks when he could sit or stand. He tells me that his brow is bruising from the hole on the massage table where he puts his face. He explains that he hasn’t been sleeping well for fear of rolling over in the night.
“I don’t know if you have had a similar reaction but I haven’t even cried yet because I’m so scared for what the pressure in my eye may do from it,” Matthew writes in one of his first messages.
Matthew was also shot in D.C., while protesting in Lafayette Square on May 31.
“I just remember feeling it from this direction, and then hearing the crack of my skull from the ball hitting it,” he remembers. “And then feeling ice cold, smelling blood, and then a bright light that kinda looked like the negative of a Rorschach puzzle.”
A trained cicerone (similar to a wine sommelier, a cicerone is an expert on beer), Matthew brought the same attention to detail used in his day job to his understanding of the medical care he was receiving.
“Submacular hemorrhages and a retinal tear in the macula,” he writes, “Also hyphema but that is clearing on its own. I had surgery on Friday (days after my injuries), it was a pars plana vitrectomy with a gas bubble. My doctor wants to wait for the gas to disappear before talking results and expectations.”
He knows far more about his injury than I do about mine. The more we chat, the more our conversations reveal difficult truths about the differences between our injuries. Whereas my detachment is on the periphery, Matthew’s is in the center of his retina. While I am getting better, he is facing more surgeries.
“I’m not excited to start over with surgery, recovery,” he tells me, “and the finality it represents is also very daunting. But I just keep reminding myself it will all pass soon enough.”
Matthew’s fortitude gave me hope in those first months. As soon as the doctors gave me the green light, I was on my feet again. Recovery was tiring though. There were many afternoons spent napping. The gas bubble inverted the light entering my optic nerve. For a short period of time I was seeing things upside down, an exhausting exercise for my brain, which was tasked with collating and interpreting information from both my good and bad eye.
Matthew tries to encourage me: “My peripheral vision one day was still nonexistent and by the end of that day I could count my fingers. It was a wild day. It will come back dude.”
Once the gas bubble receded, I was left with what I can only describe as drunk eyes. Like a multi-exposure photo, there were two sights superimposed upon each other: one lucid and clear, the other out of focus and hazy.
Rian Dundon, a close friend and one of my favorite photographers, calls me shortly after hearing I’ve been shot. “You’re living a photographer’s worst nightmare,” he says. I smile. I understand what he means. But I find solace in being alive.
“I definitely think of myself as being pretty lucky — even in these circumstances,” I write to Matthew. “So I hold on to the ‘it could be worse’ and focus on the future and recovery … ”
“I don’t want to scare you, but … ”
I’m sitting on the front porch of a brick house in Kansas City, Missouri, when I’m asked a question that stops me dead in my tracks.
“I don’t want to scare you, but have you ever heard of sympathetic ophtha-something?” enquires Sean Stearns, a professional dog walker and sketch comedian.
Sean is referring to sympathetic ophthalmia, a rare syndrome in which the body’s immune system attacks the good eye of a person who’s been partially blinded due to ocular trauma. My palms clam up. Sean can read my body’s reaction.
“It is super, super rare and usually happens in the first couple of weeks after injury,” he adds. I gulp down my beer and take another bite of the pizza Sean and his girlfriend have bought for us.
Sean, 33, was debating with his doctors and girlfriend whether they should sacrifice his damaged eye to save his good one. On the same day as my injury, Sean had been shot in the face with a less lethal round during a protest. His left eye was now completely blind, and his ophthalmologists seemed to think that removing it could reduce the chances of sympathetic ophthalmia. But it would mean he’d have to wear a prosthetic for the rest of his life, not to mention the additional surgery to perform the enucleation.
Losing sight in my good eye was the real nightmare that kept me up at night. An itchy piece of dust and a mundane cornea scratch could easily send me into a full-blown panic attack. So when Linda Tirado calls me to say she’s caught a virus in her good eye and is already losing sight, I almost drop the phone.
Linda, 38, a writer, independent journalist, mother of two and partner of a Marine vet, already had a lot on her plate when she set off for Minneapolis in May 2020. With little sleep and no guaranteed paycheck, Linda ran toward the tear gas. She was lining up a shot when a foam-nosed round burst through her protective goggles and tore her left cornea nearly in two.
“The ironic thing is it was the first story I was doing exclusively as a photojournalist,” she chuckles sarcastically, leaning back in her chair at a desk cluttered with notes and cigarette boxes. “Sorry for the chaos, virtual learning starts tomorrow.” Linda’s two daughters are in the other room reading and playing video games.
“We don’t talk about how often police escalate situations during protests,” says Linda, who has done many interviews about her experience and been outspoken in her condemnation of police brutality. Her critique of the police has made her a target of Blue Lives Matter activists.
Linda asked me to keep her location a secret because her public stature had attracted the worst kind of trolling. She told me death and rape threats quickly became a common occurrence in the comments of her social media feeds. But random angry white men showing up at her doorstep was literally hitting too close to home.
Linda wasn’t the only one fending off trolls. In Fort Wayne, Indiana, Balin Brake was accused by conspiracy theorists of being a trauma actor, faking his injury.
It was easy to spot Balin in Freimann Park, where we’d agreed to meet. He immediately caught the eye with his iris-and-pupil-less prosthetic. Balin, a recently unemployed video producer who had lost an eye when he was hit by a tear gas canister during a protest, wasn’t ashamed of his injury. He has a painted prosthetic that matches his other eye, but he says, “I know my eyes and it’s not my eye. I’d rather just … ”
I finish his sentence: “ … let people see you as you are.”
He nods his head: “Yeah.”
Fort Wayne is a small city, and news of Balin’s injury spread fast. On more than one occasion, his blank white prosthetic gave him away. For some he was a hero; to others he was a disgrace to his Caucasian heritage. White supremacists trolled his social media accounts.
“We have an obligation to tell the world what happens when these devices are used.”
By the end of August, some city governments, like those in Philadelphia, Seattle and Portland, Oregon, had responded to public outcry and enacted limited restrictions on the use of less lethal weapons for crowd control. However, most law enforcement agencies continued to deploy these devices, and some were even expanding their arsenals.
Dr. Williams is adamant that the AAO is committed to condemning the irresponsible use of less lethal weapons. “As the officials who deal with the ramifications of the use of these devices, we feel we have an obligation to tell the world what happens when these devices are used,” he says. “So, we will continue to do that. I can’t see that we would stop.”
It’s a step in the right direction, but those of us who have been shot want more.
Vincent Doyle, an amateur photographer, wants our suffering to mean something: “I was thinking, if there’s so many people, I asked my lawyer, ‘Do you think there’s gonna be a class action lawsuit?’ … ’cause this is nationwide! … Or I mean just as a group come together and — I dunno — do something … even if it’s creative or legislative.”
Vincent’s transformation from witness to victim to self-advocate was immediate. It forced him to personally engage with the violence of the institutional racism he’d faced his whole life.
After he was shot in Dallas, Vincent moved home to Atlanta for his recovery. I was taken aback when he greeted me in a parking lot. The beanbag had collapsed his left cheek. The symmetry of his face didn’t resemble his handsomely boyish self-portraits I’d seen on Instagram. My internal recoil caused a small part of me to die of shame.
Vincent went to the protests with the intention of taking some pictures. But when he saw the red dot of the laser sight dance across his body, he realized that the police didn’t always make distinctions between participants and witnesses.
“Either I run or I hide under the car or I just stay here and hope they don’t do anything,” he recalls thinking. “I remembered whenever my dad had an encounter with the police, he’d take out his phone. So that’s what I did. I didn’t even know I was recording.” The 22-year-old recorded the shot that would forever change his life.
While in the hospital, Vincent was visited on three separate occasions by police officers over the course of four days. Vincent says that some of these interrogations took place while he was on painkillers administered via an intravenous drip. No lawyer was ever present. To add insult to injury, Vincent tells me that the hospital rescinded its initial offer of pro bono care when the video he’d recorded went viral online. In the video, Vincent can be heard cursing at the police as they shoot at him; he assumes the hospital didn’t want to be associated with his foul mouth.
Back in Richmond, Virginia, where I live, protests continued through August. Some of the Confederate statues decorating the former rebel capital came down. But for local activists like Frank Hunt, it wasn’t enough. “After the statues come down, then what? New laws are passed, then what? New politicians elected, then what?” The 30-year-old artist was angry. He was a “frontliner.” He told me he’d been on the street every day since the protests started, right up until a Richmond police officer shot him with a foam-nosed round.
When we met in Marcus David Peters Square, the center of the Richmond protests, Frank still hadn’t received medical attention. It had been nearly three months since he’d been shot. When I asked him why, he avoided the question. Maybe he feared the kind of unwanted hospital visits from police that Vincent had received. Maybe he didn’t have health insurance. Maybe he didn’t want to face the reality of his eye injury.
But Frank didn’t shy away from the struggle. He explained to me that he’d had run-ins with the law and served his time in prison.
I asked him to pose on the Robert E. Lee statue layered in colorful anti-racist graffiti. He looked directly into the camera, an eye patch covering his left eye, and held back his dreadlocks. “My skin color is not a crime” declared his T-shirt to the world.
I ask him if he would have done things differently if he could.
“Hell no,” he replies. “I don’t regret being there! Finding selfless service is difficult.”
“Sometimes it all piles on.”
Months have passed since I did the interviews and portraits for this article. While we all shared the trauma of being shot in the face and losing sight, our experiences of that trauma were defined by the same inequities that tinge the rest of American life. Our physical injuries varied in severity, but so did our access to quality medical care, trustworthy legal counsel, and supportive social networks.
Personally, I tried a therapist for the first time in my life. We had two Zoom sessions and then I ghosted him. Our conversations felt forced and distant. I needed instant feedback.
Instead, meeting and interviewing other people who’d been “blinded by police” became a form of self-therapy. As John Sanders had told me in Akron: “Sometimes it all piles on, all on one day, all at one time. It can be a lot to deal with.” Taking pictures and telling stories helped me process, it helped keep the piling up of emotions manageable.
In October 2020, I created a chat group on a secure messaging platform for what we called the “Shot-In-The-Eye-Squad.” Inspired by the organizing of the Coordinadora in Chile, I wanted to connect all of the people I’d interviewed. I hoped sharing their stories with each other could be as therapeutic for them as it had been for me.
In no time the group grew to 12 participants and became a space to celebrate individual triumphs like a successful surgery, or to soften the momentary defeats of bad news from a doctor. We compared diagnoses and indulged in off-color eye humor. There were moments of mourning, but we were building solidarity, and that solidarity has helped to offset some of the inequities of our circumstances.
In the months that followed, the group continued to grow organically. Instead of me adding new members to the chat, other members found more people who had been shot in the eye and encouraged them to join the group. For the first time in my professional life, I felt like my work was having a tangible impact on the world.
Usually photojournalists spend infinite amounts of time researching and developing story pitches. On a rare occasion though, the story of your career quite literally smacks you in the face.