Discover more from Long Lead Presents: Depth Perception
"These weren't the Pentagon Papers. This is my family."
The Atlantic's Jennifer Senior discusses when reporting gets personal. Plus powerful reads on Elon Musk, Henry Ford's failed utopia, and the Supreme Court.
Jennifer Senior, a staff writer at the Atlantic since 2021, won the 2022 Pulitzer Prize in Feature Writing for her indelible cover story “What Bobby McIlvaine Left Behind,” which centers on a family grappling with the death of a young man in the 9/11 attacks on the Twin Towers.
In the magazine’s September issue, Senior explores her own family’s trauma. “The Ones We Sent Away” is a profile of her maternal aunt Adele, an intellectually disabled woman who was institutionalized in the 1950s at the age of 21 months. A few years ago, Senior, who was unaware of her aunt’s existence until she was 12, traveled with her mother to reconnect with a 70-year-old Adele at her group home. The resulting piece is masterful and heart-wrenching. I wanted to learn more, so I gave Senior a call. —Mark Yarm
This interview has been condensed and edited for length and clarity.
I imagine both “What Bobby McIlvaine Left Behind,” which was about a family you know personally, and “The Ones We Sent Away” were incredibly hard to write. Did the fact that the latter story was about your own family make it more or less difficult?
With my family, I felt like it was my right to go there in a way that I didn’t feel like it was my right to go there with the McIlvaines. They didn’t owe me anything — if they didn’t want to talk to me, they didn’t have to. My mother had obviously made a calculated decision throughout her life to not go here.
But my mom was going to feel incredibly self-conscious if she didn’t accompany me [to visit Adele]. Like, what would it look like if she just left it up to me? I think she had to do this whether she wanted to do it or not. And she claims that she was ready and that she really wanted it and that she was grateful that I gave her the opportunity. I hope she’s not lying. But it was delicate.
In the piece, you grapple with your aunt being unable to consent to being profiled. Can you take me through the thought process of determining that, yes, it was okay to do?
I spoke to Jennifer Natalya Fink, the disability scholar who wrote All Our Families and is very committed to relineating lost members back onto their family trees. I spoke to Rosemarie Garland-Thomson, who is a bioethicist. And they gave me the courage to do it. They said, “There is this horrific history of able-bodied people speaking for the disabled. But you’re going in with humane intentions. She has been erased out of your family, and it’s very important to restore her full humanity, to put her back on the tree.” They were taking a leap of faith that I wouldn’t write anything reckless. And I haven’t gotten a single bit of pushback. No one has said, “How dare you?” I’m surprised — I thought somebody would pipe up.
There are so many revelations about your family history in this story. What was one thing that you learned that surprised you the most?
Hearing about the fact that Willowbrook [the notorious institution where Adele was initially sent] had this monster of a dentist who would rather remove teeth than give dental care. That just turned my blood to ice, because all I could think was, Oh my God, that’s how my aunt lost her teeth. That was really shocking.
No one has said, “How dare you?” I’m surprised — I thought somebody would pipe up.
I don’t want to give away too much about the piece, but there’s a particularly emotional scene at the end involving your mother. How did your mom react to this story?
My mom read every section as I was writing it, and my mom being my mom didn’t just fact check — she sent me back everything proofread and copy-edited. I think it’s kind of a joke rule that people can’t know what’s in a piece ahead of time. It’s a little bit ridiculous when you’re writing about ordinary people who are suffering. I mean, these weren’t the Pentagon Papers. This is my family. And I wanted my mother to be comfortable with it, and I don’t think anything was lost by my mother having read every inch of it. So, of course, she loved it.
Since the story came out, I’m guessing you’ve heard from a lot of families with developmentally disabled members. What have their responses been like?
A lot of people have had stories that are just like this one, and they don’t stop in the 1950s. There are people who were institutionalized in the ’60s and in the ’70s — this kept right on going. I’ve had a few people write to me and say, “Taking care of my child is really hard some days. And it was really nice to read this and be reminded of why I’m doing it.” And I’ve heard from a couple of people who said they really appreciate my line about how parents shouldn’t be expected to be saints. You know what I was bummed that I didn’t get? I got some, but I wanted more pictures of the kids, like the ones that were in the viral tweet [that inspired the story].
You won a Pulitzer Prize for your 9/11 story. Do you feel pressure to live up to that?
No. I knew when I was writing that piece that I had the wind at my back and that I was never going to write anything that good again. And that’s totally fine. Also, you have to remember, I’m old, right? I’m 53. I think Pulitzers are probably really cool if you’re young — they can reshape your professional trajectory. But I’ve already written a book. I’ve already been the daily book critic at the New York Times and a columnist at the Times. At this point, I’m at an age where if I get a good mammogram, I’m honestly just as happy.
Yesterday, Fortune reported Twitter (aka X) plans to remove headlines from news stories that appear in tweets, leaving only the photo and link. A post from owner Elon Musk noted the change was a direct order, citing “esthetics” as the reason.
That same day, The New Yorker published a profile of Musk detailing the dependent relationship the U.S. government has established with the billionaire. If there’s a time to stop the spread of reporting with context on your own platform, it might as well be when a critical profile of you is gaining buzz.
Parker Molloy curated this week’s Long List, and these selections show that Musk’s aims are far from unique. The intersection of power, politics, technology, and industrial hubris is well trafficked.
Read anything good lately? Let us know.
“Elon Musk’s Shadow Rule” by Ronan Farrow, The New Yorker (August 21, 2023)
Ronan Farrow latest hard-hitting piece delves into the intricate relationship between the U.S. government and billionaire Elon Musk. With the war in Ukraine as a backdrop, the story captures the juxtaposition of political power structures with the unprecedented influence of a single individual. Highly recommended for readers interested in the interactions of technology, politics, and power.
“Clarence Thomas’ 38 Vacations: The Other Billionaires Who Have Treated the Supreme Court Justice to Luxury Travel” by Brett Murphy and Alex Mierjeski, ProPublica (August 10, 2023).
ProPublica’s spectacular Friends of the Court series explores the relationship between two Supreme Court justices and a cadre of billionaire benefactors. The latest installment is a damning chronicle of money, power, and the highest court in the U.S. that examines how these connections could shape future pivotal decisions before the court.
“Utopia to blight: Surviving Henry Ford’s lost jungle town” by Terrence McCoy, The Washington Post (July 28, 2023).
In the heart of the Amazon, automotive magnate Henry Ford once tried to establish a utopian city, dubbed (of course) Fordlandia. This ambitious endeavor was meant to establish a rubber-producing town, but it quickly turned into a testament to the perils of imposing industrial ideals on the natural world. McCoy, the Post's Rio bureau chief, paints a vivid picture of this forgotten chapter in history.
“The New Turing Test: When AI Becomes Undeniably Alive” by Ben Ash Blum, Wired (August 10, 2023).
Writer and machine learning consultant Ben Ash Blum makes a case in this thought-provoking piece for embracing large language models like Bard and ChatGPT as a resource — a sort of second brain. Blum delves deep into the realm of artificial intelligence and explores the boundaries of what it means to be alive.
As technology inches closer to creating AI that can mimic human thought and emotion, the age-old Turing Test is put under the microscope. Blum asks: At what point do we consider an AI to be truly alive? This article is a must-read for anyone intrigued by the future of technology and the philosophical questions it raises.
With the indictment in Georgia of former President Donald Trump and 18 of his allies for their alleged roles in attempting to overturn the results of the 2020 presidential election, this is a great time to listen to season two of Long Shadow, Long Lead and Campside Media’s podcast detailing the rise of the American far right.
Historian and journalist Garrett Graff walks listeners through conservative fringe movements of the 20th century, illustrating how they helped pave the way for a more public embrace of extremist ideologies, ultimately leading to the last-ditch efforts to cling to power that culminated on January 6, 2021.
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