- 1 Getting Bin Laden
- 2 Netherlands
- 3 Master of Play The many worlds of a video-game artist.
- 4 Swingers Bonobos are celebrated as peace-loving, matriarchal, and sexually liberated. Are they?
- 5 The Running Novelist Learning how to go the distance.
- 6 Noble Savages Edward St. Aubyn concludes his Melrose series.
- 7 Home Fires How soldiers write their wars.
- 8 Guy Walks Into a Bar By Simon Rich
Getting Bin Laden[modifica | modifica wikitesto]
hortly after eleven o’clock on the night of May 1st, two MH-60 Black Hawk helicopters lifted off from Jalalabad Air Field, in eastern Afghanistan, and embarked on a covert mission into Pakistan to kill Osama bin Laden. Inside the aircraft were twenty-three Navy SEALs from Team Six, which is officially known as the Naval Special Warfare Development Group, or DEVGRU. A Pakistani-American translator, whom I will call Ahmed, and a dog named Cairo—a Belgian Malinois—were also aboard. It was a moonless evening, and the helicopters’ pilots, wearing night-vision goggles, flew without lights over mountains that straddle the border with Pakistan. Radio communications were kept to a minimum, and an eerie calm settled inside the aircraft.
Fifteen minutes later, the helicopters ducked into an alpine valley and slipped, undetected, into Pakistani airspace. For more than sixty years, Pakistan’s military has maintained a state of high alert against its eastern neighbor, India. Because of this obsession, Pakistan’s “principal air defenses are all pointing east,” Shuja Nawaz, an expert on the Pakistani Army and the author of “Crossed Swords: Pakistan, Its Army, and the Wars Within,” told me. Senior defense and Administration officials concur with this assessment, but a Pakistani senior military official, whom I reached at his office, in Rawalpindi, disagreed. “No one leaves their borders unattended,” he said. Though he declined to elaborate on the location or orientation of Pakistan’s radars—“It’s not where the radars are or aren’t”—he said that the American infiltration was the result of “technological gaps we have vis-à-vis the U.S.” The Black Hawks, each of which had two pilots and a crewman from the 160th Special Operations Aviation Regiment, or the Night Stalkers, had been modified to mask heat, noise, and movement; the copters’ exteriors had sharp, flat angles and were covered with radar-dampening “skin.”
The SEALs’ destination was a house in the small city of Abbottabad, which is about a hundred and twenty miles across the Pakistan border. Situated north of Islamabad, Pakistan’s capital, Abbottabad is in the foothills of the Pir Panjal Range, and is popular in the summertime with families seeking relief from the blistering heat farther south. Founded in 1853 by a British major named James Abbott, the city became the home of a prestigious military academy after the creation of Pakistan, in 1947. According to information gathered by the Central Intelligence Agency, bin Laden was holed up on the third floor of a house in a one-acre compound just off Kakul Road in Bilal Town, a middle-class neighborhood less than a mile from the entrance to the academy. If all went according to plan, the SEALs would drop from the helicopters into the compound, overpower bin Laden’s guards, shoot and kill him at close range, and then take the corpse back to Afghanistan.
The helicopters traversed Mohmand, one of Pakistan’s seven tribal areas, skirted the north of Peshawar, and continued due east. The commander of DEVGRU’s Red Squadron, whom I will call James, sat on the floor, squeezed among ten other SEALs, Ahmed, and Cairo. (The names of all the covert operators mentioned in this story have been changed.) James, a broad-chested man in his late thirties, does not have the lithe swimmer’s frame that one might expect of a SEAL—he is built more like a discus thrower. That night, he wore a shirt and trousers in Desert Digital Camouflage, and carried a silenced Sig Sauer P226 pistol, along with extra ammunition; a CamelBak, for hydration; and gel shots, for endurance. He held a short-barrel, silenced M4 rifle. (Others SEALs had chosen the Heckler & Koch MP7.) A “blowout kit,” for treating field trauma, was tucked into the small of James’s back. Stuffed into one of his pockets was a laminated gridded map of the compound. In another pocket was a booklet with photographs and physical descriptions of the people suspected of being inside. He wore a noise-cancelling headset, which blocked out nearly everything besides his heartbeat.
During the ninety-minute helicopter flight, James and his teammates rehearsed the operation in their heads. Since the autumn of 2001, they had rotated through Afghanistan, Iraq, Yemen, and the Horn of Africa, at a brutal pace. At least three of the SEALs had participated in the sniper operation off the coast of Somalia, in April, 2009, that freed Richard Phillips, the captain of the Maersk Alabama, and left three pirates dead. In October, 2010, a DEVGRU team attempted to rescue Linda Norgrove, a Scottish aid worker who had been kidnapped in eastern Afghanistan by the Taliban. During a raid of a Taliban hideout, a SEAL tossed a grenade at an insurgent, not realizing that Norgrove was nearby. She died from the blast. The mistake haunted the SEALs who had been involved; three of them were subsequently expelled from DEVGRU.
The Abbottabad raid was not DEVGRU’s maiden venture into Pakistan, either. The team had surreptitiously entered the country on ten to twelve previous occasions, according to a special-operations officer who is deeply familiar with the bin Laden raid. Most of those missions were forays into North and South Waziristan, where many military and intelligence analysts had thought that bin Laden and other Al Qaeda leaders were hiding. (Only one such operation—the September, 2008, raid of Angoor Ada, a village in South Waziristan—has been widely reported.) Abbottabad was, by far, the farthest that DEVGRU had ventured into Pakistani territory. It also represented the team’s first serious attempt since late 2001 at killing “Crankshaft”—the target name that the Joint Special Operations Command, or JSOC, had given bin Laden. Since escaping that winter during a battle in the Tora Bora region of eastern Afghanistan, bin Laden had defied American efforts to trace him. Indeed, it remains unclear how he ended up living in Abbottabad.
Forty-five minutes after the Black Hawks departed, four MH-47 Chinooks launched from the same runway in Jalalabad. Two of them flew to the border, staying on the Afghan side; the other two proceeded into Pakistan. Deploying four Chinooks was a last-minute decision made after President Barack Obama said he wanted to feel assured that the Americans could “fight their way out of Pakistan.” Twenty-five additional SEALs from DEVGRU, pulled from a squadron stationed in Afghanistan, sat in the Chinooks that remained at the border; this “quick-reaction force” would be called into action only if the mission went seriously wrong. The third and fourth Chinooks were each outfitted with a pair of M134 Miniguns. They followed the Black Hawks’ initial flight path but landed at a predetermined point on a dry riverbed in a wide, unpopulated valley in northwest Pakistan. The nearest house was half a mile away. On the ground, the copters’ rotors were kept whirring while operatives monitored the surrounding hills for encroaching Pakistani helicopters or fighter jets. One of the Chinooks was carrying fuel bladders, in case the other aircraft needed to refill their tanks.
Meanwhile, the two Black Hawks were quickly approaching Abbottabad from the northwest, hiding behind the mountains on the northernmost edge of the city. Then the pilots banked right and went south along a ridge that marks Abbottabad’s eastern perimeter. When those hills tapered off, the pilots curled right again, toward the city center, and made their final approach.
During the next four minutes, the interior of the Black Hawks rustled alive with the metallic cough of rounds being chambered. Mark, a master chief petty officer and the ranking noncommissioned officer on the operation, crouched on one knee beside the open door of the lead helicopter. He and the eleven other SEALs on “helo one,” who were wearing gloves and had on night-vision goggles, were preparing to fast-rope into bin Laden’s yard. They waited for the crew chief to give the signal to throw the rope. But, as the pilot passed over the compound, pulled into a high hover, and began lowering the aircraft, he felt the Black Hawk getting away from him. He sensed that they were going to crash.
One month before the 2008 Presidential election, Obama, then a senator from Illinois, squared off in a debate against John McCain in an arena at Belmont University, in Nashville. A woman in the audience asked Obama if he would be willing to pursue Al Qaeda leaders inside Pakistan, even if that meant invading an ally nation. He replied, “If we have Osama bin Laden in our sights and the Pakistani government is unable, or unwilling, to take them out, then I think that we have to act and we will take them out. We will kill bin Laden. We will crush Al Qaeda. That has to be our biggest national-security priority.” McCain, who often criticized Obama for his naïveté on foreign-policy matters, characterized the promise as foolish, saying, “I’m not going to telegraph my punches.”
Four months after Obama entered the White House, Leon Panetta, the director of the C.I.A., briefed the President on the agency’s latest programs and initiatives for tracking bin Laden. Obama was unimpressed. In June, 2009, he drafted a memo instructing Panetta to create a “detailed operation plan” for finding the Al Qaeda leader and to “ensure that we have expended every effort.” Most notably, the President intensified the C.I.A.’s classified drone program; there were more missile strikes inside Pakistan during Obama’s first year in office than in George W. Bush’s eight. The terrorists swiftly registered the impact: that July, CBS reported that a recent Al Qaeda communiqué had referred to “brave commanders” who had been “snatched away” and to “so many hidden homes [which] have been levelled.” The document blamed the “very grave” situation on spies who had “spread throughout the land like locusts.” Nevertheless, bin Laden’s trail remained cold.
In August, 2010, Panetta returned to the White House with better news. C.I.A. analysts believed that they had pinpointed bin Laden’s courier, a man in his early thirties named Abu Ahmed al-Kuwaiti. Kuwaiti drove a white S.U.V. whose spare-tire cover was emblazoned with an image of a white rhino. The C.I.A. began tracking the vehicle. One day, a satellite captured images of the S.U.V. pulling into a large concrete compound in Abbottabad. Agents, determining that Kuwaiti was living there, used aerial surveillance to keep watch on the compound, which consisted of a three-story main house, a guesthouse, and a few outbuildings. They observed that residents of the compound burned their trash, instead of putting it out for collection, and concluded that the compound lacked a phone or an Internet connection. Kuwaiti and his brother came and went, but another man, living on the third floor, never left. When this third individual did venture outside, he stayed behind the compound’s walls. Some analysts speculated that the third man was bin Laden, and the agency dubbed him the Pacer.
Obama, though excited, was not yet prepared to order military action. John Brennan, Obama’s counterterrorism adviser, told me that the President’s advisers began an “interrogation of the data, to see if, by that interrogation, you’re going to disprove the theory that bin Laden was there.” The C.I.A. intensified its intelligence-collection efforts, and, according to a recent report in the Guardian, a physician working for the agency conducted an immunization drive in Abbottabad, in the hope of acquiring DNA samples from bin Laden’s children. (No one in the compound ultimately received any immunizations.)
In late 2010, Obama ordered Panetta to begin exploring options for a military strike on the compound. Panetta contacted Vice-Admiral Bill McRaven, the SEAL in charge of JSOC. Traditionally, the Army has dominated the special-operations community, but in recent years the SEALs have become a more prominent presence; McRaven’s boss at the time of the raid, Eric Olson—the head of Special Operations Command, or SOCOM—is a Navy admiral who used to be a commander of DEVGRU. In January, 2011, McRaven asked a JSOC official named Brian, who had previously been a DEVGRU deputy commander, to present a raid plan. The next month, Brian, who has the all-American look of a high-school quarterback, moved into an unmarked office on the first floor of the C.I.A.’s printing plant, in Langley, Virginia. Brian covered the walls of the office with topographical maps and satellite images of the Abbottabad compound. He and half a dozen JSOC officers were formally attached to the Pakistan/Afghanistan department of the C.I.A.’s Counterterrorism Center, but in practice they operated on their own. A senior counterterrorism official who visited the JSOC redoubt described it as an enclave of unusual secrecy and discretion. “Everything they were working on was closely held,” the official said.
The relationship between special-operations units and the C.I.A. dates back to the Vietnam War. But the line between the two communities has increasingly blurred as C.I.A. officers and military personnel have encountered one another on multiple tours of Iraq and Afghanistan. “These people grew up together,” a senior Defense Department official told me. “We are in each other’s systems, we speak each other’s languages.” (Exemplifying this trend, General David H. Petraeus, the former commanding general in Iraq and Afghanistan, is now the incoming head of the C.I.A., and Panetta has taken over the Department of Defense.) The bin Laden mission—plotted at C.I.A. headquarters and authorized under C.I.A. legal statutes but conducted by Navy DEVGRU operators—brought the coöperation between the agency and the Pentagon to an even higher level. John Radsan, a former assistant general counsel at the C.I.A., said that the Abbottabad raid amounted to “a complete incorporation of JSOC into a C.I.A. operation.”
On March 14th, Obama called his national-security advisers into the White House Situation Room and reviewed a spreadsheet listing possible courses of action against the Abbottabad compound. Most were variations of either a JSOC raid or an airstrike. Some versions included coöperating with the Pakistani military; some did not. Obama decided against informing or working with Pakistan. “There was a real lack of confidence that the Pakistanis could keep this secret for more than a nanosecond,” a senior adviser to the President told me. At the end of the meeting, Obama instructed McRaven to proceed with planning the raid.
Brian invited James, the commander of DEVGRU’s Red Squadron, and Mark, the master chief petty officer, to join him at C.I.A. headquarters. They spent the next two and a half weeks considering ways to get inside bin Laden’s house. One option entailed flying helicopters to a spot outside Abbottabad and letting the team sneak into the city on foot. The risk of detection was high, however, and the SEALs would be tired by a long run to the compound. The planners had contemplated tunnelling in—or, at least, the possibility that bin Laden might tunnel out. But images provided by the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency showed that there was standing water in the vicinity, suggesting that the compound sat in a flood basin. The water table was probably just below the surface, making tunnels highly unlikely. Eventually, the planners agreed that it made the most sense to fly directly into the compound. “Special operations is about doing what’s not expected, and probably the least expected thing here was that a helicopter would come in, drop guys on the roof, and land in the yard,” the special-operations officer said.
On March 29th, McRaven brought the plan to Obama. The President’s military advisers were divided. Some supported a raid, some an airstrike, and others wanted to hold off until the intelligence improved. Robert Gates, the Secretary of Defense, was one of the most outspoken opponents of a helicopter assault. Gates reminded his colleagues that he had been in the Situation Room of the Carter White House when military officials presented Eagle Claw—the 1980 Delta Force operation that aimed at rescuing American hostages in Tehran but resulted in a disastrous collision in the Iranian desert, killing eight American soldiers. “They said that was a pretty good idea, too,” Gates warned. He and General James Cartwright, the vice-chairman of the Joint Chiefs, favored an airstrike by B-2 Spirit bombers. That option would avoid the risk of having American boots on the ground in Pakistan. But the Air Force then calculated that a payload of thirty-two smart bombs, each weighing two thousand pounds, would be required to penetrate thirty feet below ground, insuring that any bunkers would collapse. “That much ordnance going off would be the equivalent of an earthquake,” Cartwright told me. The prospect of flattening a Pakistani city made Obama pause. He shelved the B-2 option and directed McRaven to start rehearsing the raid.
Brian, James, and Mark selected a team of two dozen SEALs from Red Squadron and told them to report to a densely forested site in North Carolina for a training exercise on April 10th. (Red Squadron is one of four squadrons in DEVGRU, which has about three hundred operators in all.) None of the SEALs, besides James and Mark, were aware of the C.I.A. intelligence on bin Laden’s compound until a lieutenant commander walked into an office at the site. He found a two-star Army general from JSOC headquarters seated at a conference table with Brian, James, Mark, and several analysts from the C.I.A. This obviously wasn’t a training exercise. The lieutenant commander was promptly “read in.” A replica of the compound had been built at the site, with walls and chain-link fencing marking the layout of the compound. The team spent the next five days practicing maneuvers.
On April 18th, the DEVGRU squad flew to Nevada for another week of rehearsals. The practice site was a large government-owned stretch of desert with an elevation equivalent to the area surrounding Abbottabad. An extant building served as bin Laden’s house. Aircrews plotted out a path that paralleled the flight from Jalalabad to Abbottabad. Each night after sundown, drills commenced. Twelve SEALs, including Mark, boarded helo one. Eleven SEALs, Ahmed, and Cairo boarded helo two. The pilots flew in the dark, arrived at the simulated compound, and settled into a hover while the SEALs fast-roped down. Not everyone on the team was accustomed to helicopter assaults. Ahmed had been pulled from a desk job for the mission and had never descended a fast rope. He quickly learned the technique.
The assault plan was now honed. Helo one was to hover over the yard, drop two fast ropes, and let all twelve SEALs slide down into the yard. Helo two would fly to the northeast corner of the compound and let out Ahmed, Cairo, and four SEALs, who would monitor the perimeter of the building. The copter would then hover over the house, and James and the remaining six SEALs would shimmy down to the roof. As long as everything was cordial, Ahmed would hold curious neighbors at bay. The SEALs and the dog could assist more aggressively, if needed. Then, if bin Laden was proving difficult to find, Cairo could be sent into the house to search for false walls or hidden doors. “This wasn’t a hard op,” the special-operations officer told me. “It would be like hitting a target in McLean”—the upscale Virginia suburb of Washington, D.C.
A planeload of guests arrived on the night of April 21st. Admiral Mike Mullen, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs, along with Olson and McRaven, sat with C.I.A. personnel in a hangar as Brian, James, Mark, and the pilots presented a brief on the raid, which had been named Operation Neptune’s Spear. Despite JSOC’s lead role in Neptune’s Spear, the mission officially remained a C.I.A. covert operation. The covert approach allowed the White House to hide its involvement, if necessary. As the counterterrorism official put it recently, “If you land and everybody is out on a milk run, then you get the hell out and no one knows.” After describing the operation, the briefers fielded questions: What if a mob surrounded the compound? Were the SEALs prepared to shoot civilians? Olson, who received the Silver Star for valor during the 1993 “Black Hawk Down” episode, in Mogadishu, Somalia, worried that it could be politically catastrophic if a U.S. helicopter were shot down inside Pakistani territory. After an hour or so of questioning, the senior officers and intelligence analysts returned to Washington. Two days later, the SEALs flew back to Dam Neck, their base in Virginia.
On the night of Tuesday, April 26th, the SEAL team boarded a Boeing C-17 Globemaster at Naval Air Station Oceana, a few miles from Dam Neck. After a refuelling stop at Ramstein Air Base, in Germany, the C-17 continued to Bagram Airfield, north of Kabul. The SEALs spent a night in Bagram and moved to Jalalabad on Thursday.*
That day in Washington, Panetta convened more than a dozen senior C.I.A. officials and analysts for a final preparatory meeting. Panetta asked the participants, one by one, to declare how confident they were that bin Laden was inside the Abbottabad compound. The counterterrorism official told me that the percentages “ranged from forty per cent to ninety or ninety-five per cent,” and added, “This was a circumstantial case.”
Panetta was mindful of the analysts’ doubts, but he believed that the intelligence was better than anything that the C.I.A. had gathered on bin Laden since his flight from Tora Bora. Late on Thursday afternoon, Panetta and the rest of the national-security team met with the President. For the next few nights, there would be virtually no moonlight over Abbottabad—the ideal condition for a raid. After that, it would be another month until the lunar cycle was in its darkest phase. Several analysts from the National Counterterrorism Center were invited to critique the C.I.A.’s analysis; their confidence in the intelligence ranged between forty and sixty per cent. The center’s director, Michael Leiter, said that it would be preferable to wait for stronger confirmation of bin Laden’s presence in Abbottabad. Yet, as Ben Rhodes, a deputy national-security adviser, put it to me recently, the longer things dragged on, the greater the risk of a leak, “which would have upended the thing.” Obama adjourned the meeting just after 7 P.M. and said that he would sleep on it.
The next morning, the President met in the Map Room with Tom Donilon, his national-security adviser, Denis McDonough, a deputy adviser, and Brennan. Obama had decided to go with a DEVGRU assault, with McRaven choosing the night. It was too late for a Friday attack, and on Saturday there was excessive cloud cover. On Saturday afternoon, McRaven and Obama spoke on the phone, and McRaven said that the raid would occur on Sunday night. “Godspeed to you and your forces,” Obama told him. “Please pass on to them my personal thanks for their service and the message that I personally will be following this mission very closely.”
On the morning of Sunday, May 1st, White House officials cancelled scheduled visits, ordered sandwich platters from Costco, and transformed the Situation Room into a war room. At eleven o’clock, Obama’s top advisers began gathering around a large conference table. A video link connected them to Panetta, at C.I.A. headquarters, and McRaven, in Afghanistan. (There were at least two other command centers, one inside the Pentagon and one inside the American Embassy in Islamabad.)
Brigadier General Marshall Webb, an assistant commander of JSOC, took a seat at the end of a lacquered table in a small adjoining office and turned on his laptop. He opened multiple chat windows that kept him, and the White House, connected with the other command teams. The office where Webb sat had the only video feed in the White House showing real-time footage of the target, which was being shot by an unarmed RQ 170 drone flying more than fifteen thousand feet above Abbottabad. The JSOC planners, determined to keep the operation as secret as possible, had decided against using additional fighters or bombers. “It just wasn’t worth it,” the special-operations officer told me. The SEALs were on their own.
Obama returned to the White House at two o’clock, after playing nine holes of golf at Andrews Air Force Base. The Black Hawks departed from Jalalabad thirty minutes later. Just before four o’clock, Panetta announced to the group in the Situation Room that the helicopters were approaching Abbottabad. Obama stood up. “I need to watch this,” he said, stepping across the hall into the small office and taking a seat alongside Webb. Vice-President Joseph Biden, Secretary Gates, and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton followed him, as did anyone else who could fit into the office. On the office’s modestly sized LCD screen, helo one—grainy and black-and-white—appeared above the compound, then promptly ran into trouble.
When the helicopter began getting away from the pilot, he pulled back on the cyclic, which controls the pitch of the rotor blades, only to find the aircraft unresponsive. The high walls of the compound and the warm temperatures had caused the Black Hawk to descend inside its own rotor wash—a hazardous aerodynamic situation known as “settling with power.” In North Carolina, this potential problem had not become apparent, because the chain-link fencing used in rehearsals had allowed air to flow freely. A former helicopter pilot with extensive special-operations experience said of the pilot’s situation, “It’s pretty spooky—I’ve been in it myself. The only way to get out of it is to push the cyclic forward and fly out of this vertical silo you’re dropping through. That solution requires altitude. If you’re settling with power at two thousand feet, you’ve got plenty of time to recover. If you’re settling with power at fifty feet, you’re going to hit the ground.”
The pilot scrapped the plan to fast-rope and focussed on getting the aircraft down. He aimed for an animal pen in the western section of the compound. The SEALs on board braced themselves as the tail rotor swung around, scraping the security wall. The pilot jammed the nose forward to drive it into the dirt and prevent his aircraft from rolling onto its side. Cows, chickens, and rabbits scurried. With the Black Hawk pitched at a forty-five-degree angle astride the wall, the crew sent a distress call to the idling Chinooks.
James and the SEALs in helo two watched all this while hovering over the compound’s northeast corner. The second pilot, unsure whether his colleagues were taking fire or experiencing mechanical problems, ditched his plan to hover over the roof. Instead, he landed in a grassy field across the street from the house.
No American was yet inside the residential part of the compound. Mark and his team were inside a downed helicopter at one corner, while James and his team were at the opposite end. The teams had barely been on target for a minute, and the mission was already veering off course.
“Eternity is defined as the time be tween when you see something go awry and that first voice report,” the special-operations officer said. The officials in Washington viewed the aerial footage and waited anxiously to hear a military communication. The senior adviser to the President compared the experience to watching “the climax of a movie.”
After a few minutes, the twelve SEALs inside helo one recovered their bearings and calmly relayed on the radio that they were proceeding with the raid. They had conducted so many operations over the past nine years that few things caught them off guard. In the months after the raid, the media have frequently suggested that the Abbottabad operation was as challenging as Operation Eagle Claw and the “Black Hawk Down” incident, but the senior Defense Department official told me that “this was not one of three missions. This was one of almost two thousand missions that have been conducted over the last couple of years, night after night.” He likened the routine of evening raids to “mowing the lawn.” On the night of May 1st alone, special-operations forces based in Afghanistan conducted twelve other missions; according to the official, those operations captured or killed between fifteen and twenty targets. “Most of the missions take off and go left,” he said. “This one took off and went right.”
Minutes after hitting the ground, Mark and the other team members began streaming out the side doors of helo one. Mud sucked at their boots as they ran alongside a ten-foot-high wall that enclosed the animal pen. A three-man demolition unit hustled ahead to the pen’s closed metal gate, reached into bags containing explosives, and placed C-4 charges on the hinges. After a loud bang, the door fell open. The nine other SEALs rushed forward, ending up in an alleylike driveway with their backs to the house’s main entrance. They moved down the alley, silenced rifles pressed against their shoulders. Mark hung toward the rear as he established radio communications with the other team. At the end of the driveway, the Americans blew through yet another locked gate and stepped into a courtyard facing the guesthouse, where Abu Ahmed al-Kuwaiti, bin Laden’s courier, lived with his wife and four children.
Three SEALs in front broke off to clear the guesthouse as the remaining nine blasted through another gate and entered an inner courtyard, which faced the main house. When the smaller unit rounded the corner to face the doors of the guesthouse, they spotted Kuwaiti running inside to warn his wife and children. The Americans’ night-vision goggles cast the scene in pixellated shades of emerald green. Kuwaiti, wearing a white shalwar kameez, had grabbed a weapon and was coming back outside when the SEALs opened fire and killed him.
The nine other SEALs, including Mark, formed three-man units for clearing the inner courtyard. The Americans suspected that several more men were in the house: Kuwaiti’s thirty-three-year-old brother, Abrar; bin Laden’s sons Hamza and Khalid; and bin Laden himself. One SEAL unit had no sooner trod on the paved patio at the house’s front entrance when Abrar—a stocky, mustachioed man in a cream-colored shalwar kameez—appeared with an AK-47. He was shot in the chest and killed, as was his wife, Bushra, who was standing, unarmed, beside him.
Outside the compound’s walls, Ahmed, the translator, patrolled the dirt road in front of bin Laden’s house, as if he were a plainclothes Pakistani police officer. He looked the part, wearing a shalwar kameez atop a flak jacket. He, the dog Cairo, and four SEALs were responsible for closing off the perimeter of the house while James and six other SEALs—the contingent that was supposed to have dropped onto the roof—moved inside. For the team patrolling the perimeter, the first fifteen minutes passed without incident. Neighbors undoubtedly heard the low-flying helicopters, the sound of one crashing, and the sporadic explosions and gunfire that ensued, but nobody came outside. One local took note of the tumult in a Twitter post: “Helicopter hovering above Abbottabad at 1 AM (is a rare event).”
Eventually, a few curious Pakistanis approached to inquire about the commotion on the other side of the wall. “Go back to your houses,” Ahmed said, in Pashto, as Cairo stood watch. “There is a security operation under way.” The locals went home, none of them suspecting that they had talked to an American. When journalists descended on Bilal Town in the coming days, one resident told a reporter, “I saw soldiers emerging from the helicopters and advancing toward the house. Some of them instructed us in chaste Pashto to turn off the lights and stay inside.”
Meanwhile, James, the squadron commander, had breached one wall, crossed a section of the yard covered with trellises, breached a second wall, and joined up with the SEALs from helo one, who were entering the ground floor of the house. What happened next is not precisely clear. “I can tell you that there was a time period of almost twenty to twenty-five minutes where we really didn’t know just exactly what was going on,” Panetta said later, on “PBS NewsHour.”
Until this moment, the operation had been monitored by dozens of defense, intelligence, and Administration officials watching the drone’s video feed. The SEALs were not wearing helmet cams, contrary to a widely cited report by CBS. None of them had any previous knowledge of the house’s floor plan, and they were further jostled by the awareness that they were possibly minutes away from ending the costliest manhunt in American history; as a result, some of their recollections—on which this account is based—may be imprecise and, thus, subject to dispute.
As Abrar’s children ran for cover, the SEALs began clearing the first floor of the main house, room by room. Though the Americans had thought that the house might be booby-trapped, the presence of kids at the compound suggested otherwise. “You can only be hyper-vigilant for so long,” the special-operations officer said. “Did bin Laden go to sleep every night thinking, The next night they’re coming? Of course not. Maybe for the first year or two. But not now.” Nevertheless, security precautions were in place. A locked metal gate blocked the base of the staircase leading to the second floor, making the downstairs room feel like a cage.
After blasting through the gate with C-4 charges, three SEALs marched up the stairs. Midway up, they saw bin Laden’s twenty-three-year-old son, Khalid, craning his neck around the corner. He then appeared at the top of the staircase with an AK-47. Khalid, who wore a white T-shirt with an overstretched neckline and had short hair and a clipped beard, fired down at the Americans. (The counterterrorism official claims that Khalid was unarmed, though still a threat worth taking seriously. “You have an adult male, late at night, in the dark, coming down the stairs at you in an Al Qaeda house—your assumption is that you’re encountering a hostile.”) At least two of the SEALs shot back and killed Khalid. According to the booklets that the SEALs carried, up to five adult males were living inside the compound. Three of them were now dead; the fourth, bin Laden’s son Hamza, was not on the premises. The final person was bin Laden.
Before the mission commenced, the SEALs had created a checklist of code words that had a Native American theme. Each code word represented a different stage of the mission: leaving Jalalabad, entering Pakistan, approaching the compound, and so on. “Geronimo” was to signify that bin Laden had been found.
Three SEALs shuttled past Khalid’s body and blew open another metal cage, which obstructed the staircase leading to the third floor. Bounding up the unlit stairs, they scanned the railed landing. On the top stair, the lead SEAL swivelled right; with his night-vision goggles, he discerned that a tall, rangy man with a fist-length beard was peeking out from behind a bedroom door, ten feet away. The SEAL instantly sensed that it was Crankshaft. (The counterterrorism official asserts that the SEAL first saw bin Laden on the landing, and fired but missed.)
The Americans hurried toward the bedroom door. The first SEAL pushed it open. Two of bin Laden’s wives had placed themselves in front of him. Amal al-Fatah, bin Laden’s fifth wife, was screaming in Arabic. She motioned as if she were going to charge; the SEAL lowered his sights and shot her once, in the calf. Fearing that one or both women were wearing suicide jackets, he stepped forward, wrapped them in a bear hug, and drove them aside. He would almost certainly have been killed had they blown themselves up, but by blanketing them he would have absorbed some of the blast and potentially saved the two SEALs behind him. In the end, neither woman was wearing an explosive vest.
A second SEAL stepped into the room and trained the infrared laser of his M4 on bin Laden’s chest. The Al Qaeda chief, who was wearing a tan shalwar kameez and a prayer cap on his head, froze; he was unarmed. “There was never any question of detaining or capturing him—it wasn’t a split-second decision. No one wanted detainees,” the special-operations officer told me. (The Administration maintains that had bin Laden immediately surrendered he could have been taken alive.) Nine years, seven months, and twenty days after September 11th, an American was a trigger pull from ending bin Laden’s life. The first round, a 5.56-mm. bullet, struck bin Laden in the chest. As he fell backward, the SEAL fired a second round into his head, just above his left eye. On his radio, he reported, “For God and country—Geronimo, Geronimo, Geronimo.” After a pause, he added, “Geronimo E.K.I.A.”—“enemy killed in action.”
Hearing this at the White House, Obama pursed his lips, and said solemnly, to no one in particular, “We got him.”
Relaxing his hold on bin Laden’s two wives, the first SEAL placed the women in flex cuffs and led them downstairs. Two of his colleagues, meanwhile, ran upstairs with a nylon body bag. They unfurled it, knelt down on either side of bin Laden, and placed the body inside the bag. Eighteen minutes had elapsed since the DEVGRU team landed. For the next twenty minutes, the mission shifted to an intelligence-gathering operation.
Four men scoured the second floor, plastic bags in hand, collecting flash drives, CDs, DVDs, and computer hardware from the room, which had served, in part, as bin Laden’s makeshift media studio. In the coming weeks, a C.I.A.-led task force examined the files and determined that bin Laden had remained far more involved in the operational activities of Al Qaeda than many American officials had thought. He had been developing plans to assassinate Obama and Petraeus, to pull off an extravagant September 11th anniversary attack, and to attack American trains. The SEALs also found an archive of digital pornography. “We find it on all these guys, whether they’re in Somalia, Iraq, or Afghanistan,” the special-operations officer said. Bin Laden’s gold-threaded robes, worn during his video addresses, hung behind a curtain in the media room.
Outside, the Americans corralled the women and children—each of them bound in flex cuffs—and had them sit against an exterior wall that faced the second, undamaged Black Hawk. The lone fluent Arabic speaker on the assault team questioned them. Nearly all the children were under the age of ten. They seemed to have no idea about the tenant upstairs, other than that he was “an old guy.” None of the women confirmed that the man was bin Laden, though one of them kept referring to him as “the sheikh.” When the rescue Chinook eventually arrived, a medic stepped out and knelt over the corpse. He injected a needle into bin Laden’s body and extracted two bone-marrow samples. More DNA was taken with swabs. One of the bone-marrow samples went into the Black Hawk. The other went into the Chinook, along with bin Laden’s body.
Next, the SEALs needed to destroy the damaged Black Hawk. The pilot, armed with a hammer that he kept for such situations, smashed the instrument panel, the radio, and the other classified fixtures inside the cockpit. Then the demolition unit took over. They placed explosives near the avionics system, the communications gear, the engine, and the rotor head. “You’re not going to hide the fact that it’s a helicopter,” the special-operations officer said. “But you want to make it unusable.” The SEALs placed extra C-4 charges under the carriage, rolled thermite grenades inside the copter’s body, and then backed up. Helo one burst into flames while the demolition team boarded the Chinook. The women and children, who were being left behind for the Pakistani authorities, looked puzzled, scared, and shocked as they watched the SEALs board the helicopters. Amal, bin Laden’s wife, continued her harangue. Then, as a giant fire burned inside the compound walls, the Americans flew away.
In the Situation Room, Obama said, “I’m not going to be happy until those guys get out safe.” After thirty-eight minutes inside the compound, the two SEAL teams had to make the long flight back to Afghanistan. The Black Hawk was low on gas, and needed to rendezvous with the Chinook at the refuelling point that was near the Afghan border—but still inside Pakistan. Filling the gas tank took twenty-five minutes. At one point, Biden, who had been fingering a rosary, turned to Mullen, the Joint Chiefs chairman. “We should all go to Mass tonight,” he said.
The helicopters landed back in Jalalabad around 3 A.M.; McRaven and the C.I.A. station chief met the team on the tarmac. A pair of SEALs unloaded the body bag and unzipped it so that McRaven and the C.I.A. officer could see bin Laden’s corpse with their own eyes. Photographs were taken of bin Laden’s face and then of his outstretched body. Bin Laden was believed to be about six feet four, but no one had a tape measure to confirm the body’s length. So one SEAL, who was six feet tall, lay beside the corpse: it measured roughly four inches longer than the American. Minutes later, McRaven appeared on the teleconference screen in the Situation Room and confirmed that bin Laden’s body was in the bag. The corpse was sent to Bagram.
All along, the SEALs had planned to dump bin Laden’s corpse into the sea—a blunt way of ending the bin Laden myth. They had successfully pulled off a similar scheme before. During a DEVGRU helicopter raid inside Somalia in September, 2009, SEALs had killed Saleh Ali Saleh Nabhan, one of East Africa’s top Al Qaeda leaders; Nabhan’s corpse was then flown to a ship in the Indian Ocean, given proper Muslim rites, and thrown overboard. Before taking that step for bin Laden, however, John Brennan made a call. Brennan, who had been a C.I.A. station chief in Riyadh, phoned a former counterpart in Saudi intelligence. Brennan told the man what had occurred in Abbottabad and informed him of the plan to deposit bin Laden’s remains at sea. As Brennan knew, bin Laden’s relatives were still a prominent family in the Kingdom, and Osama had once been a Saudi citizen. Did the Saudi government have any interest in taking the body? “Your plan sounds like a good one,” the Saudi replied.
At dawn, bin Laden was loaded into the belly of a flip-wing V-22 Osprey, accompanied by a JSOC liaison officer and a security detail of military police. The Osprey flew south, destined for the deck of the U.S.S. Carl Vinson—a thousand-foot-long nuclear-powered aircraft carrier sailing in the Arabian Sea, off the Pakistani coast. The Americans, yet again, were about to traverse Pakistani airspace without permission. Some officials worried that the Pakistanis, stung by the humiliation of the unilateral raid in Abbottabad, might restrict the Osprey’s access. The airplane ultimately landed on the Vinson without incident.
Bin Laden’s body was washed, wrapped in a white burial shroud, weighted, and then slipped inside a bag. The process was done “in strict conformance with Islamic precepts and practices,” Brennan later told reporters. The JSOC liaison, the military-police contingent, and several sailors placed the shrouded body on an open-air elevator, and rode down with it to the lower level, which functions as a hangar for airplanes. From a height of between twenty and twenty-five feet above the waves, they heaved the corpse into the water.
Back in Abbottabad, residents of Bilal Town and dozens of journalists converged on bin Laden’s compound, and the morning light clarified some of the confusion from the previous night. Black soot from the detonated Black Hawk charred the wall of the animal pen. Part of the tail hung over the wall. It was clear that a military raid had taken place there. “I’m glad no one was hurt in the crash, but, on the other hand, I’m sort of glad we left the helicopter there,” the special-operations officer said. “It quiets the conspiracy mongers out there and instantly lends credibility. You believe everything else instantly, because there’s a helicopter sitting there.”
After the raid, Pakistan’s political leadership engaged in frantic damage control. In the Washington Post, President Asif Ali Zardari wrote that bin Laden “was not anywhere we had anticipated he would be, but now he is gone,” adding that “a decade of cooperation and partnership between the United States and Pakistan led up to the elimination of Osama bin Laden.”
Pakistani military officials reacted more cynically. They arrested at least five Pakistanis for helping the C.I.A., including the physician who ran the immunization drive in Abbottabad. And several Pakistani media outlets, including the Nation—a jingoistic English-language newspaper that is considered a mouthpiece for Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence agency, or I.S.I.—published what they claimed was the name of the C.I.A.’s station chief in Islamabad. (Shireen Mazari, a former editor of the Nation, once told me, “Our interests and the Americans’ interests don’t coincide.”) The published name was incorrect, and the C.I.A. officer opted to stay.
The proximity of bin Laden’s house to the Pakistan Military Academy raised the possibility that the military, or the I.S.I., had helped protect bin Laden. How could Al Qaeda’s chief live so close to the academy without at least some officers knowing about it? Suspicion grew after the Times reported that at least one cell phone recovered from bin Laden’s house contained contacts for senior militants belonging to Harakat-ul-Mujahideen, a jihadi group that has had close ties to the I.S.I. Although American officials have stated that Pakistani officials must have helped bin Laden hide in Abbottabad, definitive evidence has not yet been presented.
Bin Laden’s death provided the White House with the symbolic victory it needed to begin phasing troops out of Afghanistan. Seven weeks later, Obama announced a timetable for withdrawal. Even so, U.S. counterterrorism activities inside Pakistan—that is, covert operations conducted by the C.I.A. and JSOC—are not expected to diminish anytime soon. Since May 2nd, there have been more than twenty drone strikes in North and South Waziristan, including one that allegedly killed Ilyas Kashmiri, a top Al Qaeda leader, while he was sipping tea in an apple orchard.
The success of the bin Laden raid has sparked a conversation inside military and intelligence circles: Are there other terrorists worth the risk of another helicopter assault in a Pakistani city? “There are people out there that, if we could find them, we would go after them,” Cartwright told me. He mentioned Ayman al-Zawahiri, the new leader of Al Qaeda, who is believed to be in Pakistan, and Anwar al-Awlaki, the American-born cleric in Yemen. Cartwright emphasized that “going after them” didn’t necessarily mean another DEVGRU raid. The special-operations officer spoke more boldly. He believes that a precedent has been set for more unilateral raids in the future. “Folks now realize we can weather it,” he said. The senior adviser to the President said that “penetrating other countries’ sovereign airspace covertly is something that’s always available for the right mission and the right gain.” Brennan told me, “The confidence we have in the capabilities of the U.S. military is, without a doubt, even stronger after this operation.”
On May 6th, Al Qaeda confirmed bin Laden’s death and released a statement congratulating “the Islamic nation” on “the martyrdom of its good son Osama.” The authors promised Americans that “their joy will turn to sorrow and their tears will mix with blood.” That day, President Obama travelled to Fort Campbell, Kentucky, where the 160th is based, to meet the DEVGRU unit and the pilots who pulled off the raid. The SEALs, who had returned home from Afghanistan earlier in the week, flew in from Virginia. Biden, Tom Donilon, and a dozen other national-security advisers came along.
McRaven greeted Obama on the tarmac. (They had met at the White House a few days earlier—the President had presented McRaven with a tape measure.) McRaven led the President and his team into a one-story building on the other side of the base. They walked into a windowless room with shabby carpets, fluorescent lights, and three rows of metal folding chairs. McRaven, Brian, the pilots from the 160th, and James took turns briefing the President. They had set up a three-dimensional model of bin Laden’s compound on the floor and, waving a red laser pointer, traced their maneuvers inside. A satellite image of the compound was displayed on a wall, along with a map showing the flight routes into and out of Pakistan. The briefing lasted about thirty-five minutes. Obama wanted to know how Ahmed had kept locals at bay; he also inquired about the fallen Black Hawk and whether above-average temperatures in Abbottabad had contributed to the crash. (The Pentagon is conducting a formal investigation of the accident.)
When James, the squadron commander, spoke, he started by citing all the forward operating bases in eastern Afghanistan that had been named for SEALs killed in combat. “Everything we have done for the last ten years prepared us for this,” he told Obama. The President was “in awe of these guys,” Ben Rhodes, the deputy national-security adviser, who travelled with Obama, said. “It was an extraordinary base visit,” he added. “They knew he had staked his Presidency on this. He knew they staked their lives on it.”
As James talked about the raid, he mentioned Cairo’s role. “There was a dog?” Obama interrupted. James nodded and said that Cairo was in an adjoining room, muzzled, at the request of the Secret Service.
“I want to meet that dog,” Obama said.
“If you want to meet the dog, Mr. President, I advise you to bring treats,” James joked. Obama went over to pet Cairo, but the dog’s muzzle was left on.
Afterward, Obama and his advisers went into a second room, down the hall, where others involved in the raid—including logisticians, crew chiefs, and SEAL alternates—had assembled. Obama presented the team with a Presidential Unit Citation and said, “Our intelligence professionals did some amazing work. I had fifty-fifty confidence that bin Laden was there, but I had one-hundred-per-cent confidence in you guys. You are, literally, the finest small-fighting force that has ever existed in the world.” The raiding team then presented the President with an American flag that had been on board the rescue Chinook. Measuring three feet by five, the flag had been stretched, ironed, and framed. The SEALs and the pilots had signed it on the back; an inscription on the front read, “From the Joint Task Force Operation Neptune’s Spear, 01 May 2011: ‘For God and country. Geronimo.’ ” Obama promised to put the gift “somewhere private and meaningful to me.” Before the President returned to Washington, he posed for photographs with each team member and spoke with many of them, but he left one thing unsaid. He never asked who fired the kill shot, and the SEALs never volunteered to tell him. ♦
- The original version of this article stated that the SEALs moved to Jalalabad on Wednesday, but in fact they moved on Thursday.
Netherlands[modifica | modifica wikitesto]
amantha was sitting on a lawn chair in her parents’ garage, smoking a joint, when she decided to run away. She had just graduated from high school, where she had few friends, and felt invisible. She went to class stoned and wrote suicidal poems about the shame of being molested by a family friend: “why try when there is no hope / for my dirty soul there is no soap.” The thought of remaining in her home town, in central Florida, made her feel ill. Reclining in her chair in the brightly lit garage, she closed her eyes and thought, Is this going to be my life?
Samantha had got A’s in high school and had planned to escape to college, until she realized she couldn’t afford it. The only other option, she decided, was to flee. She wanted to go to Manhattan, which she’d never visited, because it seemed like a good place to meet other lesbians. Samantha enjoyed reading about botany and had long assumed that, like some plants, she was asexual, a self-sustaining organism. She found it trivial and unbecoming when girls at school pined over their crushes. Then, at fifteen, she watched “Lara Croft: Tomb Raider” and was uncomfortably captivated by Angelina Jolie. Her English teacher at the time had the students spend five minutes every day on an exercise called Vomit, in which they wrote down every phrase that occurred to them. Their pens could not stop moving. “In my fifty-millionth Vomit, I spaced out and wrote, ‘I’m a lesbian and no one knows,’ ” she told me. “It was this crazy voice that knew.”
Throughout the summer of 2009, Samantha researched the logistics of being homeless in New York, reading all the articles she could find online, no matter how outdated. She learned that if she went to a homeless shelter before she was eighteen social workers would be required to contact her family. She wanted nothing to do with her parents, who, she believed, hadn’t taken her complaints of sexual abuse seriously; her mother suggested it was a hallucination. Samantha planned to live on the streets for several weeks, until her eighteenth birthday. Then she would begin the rest of her life: getting a job, finding an apartment, and saving for college.
In a purple spiral-bound notebook, she created a guide for life on the streets. She listed the locations of soup kitchens, public libraries, bottle-return vending machines, thrift stores, and public sports clubs, where she could slip in for free showers. Under the heading “known homeless encampments,” she wrote down all the parks, boardwalks, and tunnels where she could sleep and the subway line she’d take to get there. Her most detailed entry was a description of an abandoned train tunnel in Harlem and the name of a photographer who had taken pictures of the homeless people who lived in it. She hoped that if she mentioned the photographer’s name she would be “accepted by the underground society.”
On September 5, 2009, she bought a Greyhound bus ticket using the name Samantha Green. (She has asked me not to use her legal name.) Her parents were away for the day, visiting friends, and she told her thirteen-year-old brother that she was leaving for New York. He expressed concern about her being homeless, but she reassured him. “It’s kind of like camping,” she said. Her brother, who had always treated her with reverence, agreed not to tell her parents where she was going. He helped her break into her father’s safe so that she could take her birth certificate. Then he drove her to Walmart, where she bought a durable backpack, a roll of duct tape, protein bars, multivitamins, a box of garbage bags, a canteen, and a jar of peanut butter.
Samantha’s parents came home six hours after she left and found a note on her bed: “I’m not coming back for a long time. . . . I am safe where I am.”
Samantha spent her first few nights in Central Park, sleeping under a pine tree. She wore the cargo pants, steel-toed Brahma work boots, and blue hoodie that she had left home in. She kept an open book by her side so that anyone passing by would assume she was a student who had drifted off. Using her backpack as a pillow, she slept lightly, alert to the sound of footsteps. More than any noise, she feared the buzz of police radios. She avoided thoughts of danger by embellishing them, imagining that her absence was of central concern to the police. She survived her first days in New York, she said, by “acting like I was in some sort of spy novel.”
For hours every day, she wandered around the city, memorizing street names and bus routes, observing how the neighborhoods changed depending on the time of day. Her favorite time was just before dawn, when the bars let out. She watched drunken tourists shout foolish things as they searched for cabs, and enjoyed knowing that, comparatively, she had her bearings. Rarely sleeping more than four hours a night, she was constantly looking for opportunities to close her eyes. One of her first discoveries was the Museum of Natural History, where the bathroom stalls were conveniently narrow. She could sit on the toilet, her head against the stall, until she was woken at the end of the day by the sound of the janitor’s mop.
By sharing cigarettes, she befriended other homeless kids, many of whom hung out at the Apple Store on Fifth Avenue. Their poverty wasn’t apparent—most of them had stolen at least one trendy outfit—but Samantha could spot them easily, because of their backpacks and the way they lingered near the least impressive computers. (The pictures in their Facebook profiles had shiny new laptops in the background.) On rainy nights, Samantha occasionally slept with them on the A, C, E subway line, which has the city’s longest route. They called it “Uncle Ace’s house.” One person would stay awake, on guard against cops or thieves; the rest napped until the end of the line.
Many of the kids knew each other from the youth shelters, a decentralized and temporary system that turns away far more people than it houses. The city has roughly two hundred and fifty shelter beds for some four thousand youth between the ages of thirteen and twenty-five who are homeless on any given night. This substratum of the homeless population has historically been overlooked. Until 1974, running away was a crime. The federal youth shelter system wasn’t established until the seventies, following an era in which homeless kids were seen as middle-class dropouts who would shortly return home. The media portrayed them as rebellious flower children in search of a countercultural utopia. According to a 1967 article in the Times, the crisis involved “thousands of young runaways, particularly girls, who are flooding the Village area to live as hippies.”
During the recent recession, the rate of unemployment for people between the ages of fifteen and twenty-four reached nearly twenty per cent, a record high. Samantha dropped off her résumé (which she printed at libraries) at dozens of fast-food restaurants, but having no job experience, and given her appearance—she had packed no change of clothes—she seldom got called for interviews. She tried to make money by recycling bottles, but older homeless people had cornered the market. Instead, she shoplifted. It was easy, because of her wholesome looks. Half Cherokee on her mother’s side, she had sharp cheekbones, high-arched eyebrows, and long, shiny hair. She targeted chain stores like 7-Eleven and Whole Foods: she’d steal a package of oatmeal from one and then use the microwave at the other.
In a journal stolen from Barnes & Noble, she kept a log of all the items she’d pocketed: Advil PM, beef jerky, “Practical Guide to Cherokee Sacred Ceremonies and Traditions,” four lesbian romances by Gerri Hill, Emergen-C, an exercise shirt, an onion bagel. “I started this log with the intention of paying all these stores back when I got back on my feet again,” she wrote on the second page. “I now know that’s impossible.”
On Samantha’s eighteenth birthday, October 9th, she woke up in Central Park, the bottom half of her body in a garbage bag to block the wind. She was wearing the same cargo pants she’d had on when she arrived in New York, now belted with a shoelace, because she’d lost weight, and a Burberry coat she’d stolen from Macy’s without realizing that Burberry was a designer brand. Most of the kids she’d met had been arrested for trespassing, shoplifting, or hopping subway turnstiles, but she had managed to avoid the police for more than a month. On her first day as an adult, she allowed herself something resembling pride.
By late morning, Samantha had checked into a shelter called Turning Point, in Sunset Park, Brooklyn, which struck her as the kind of neighborhood where she could sleep behind a dumpster without being bothered. At the shelter, which accommodated twenty people between the ages of sixteen and twenty-one, she was placed in a room with four other girls. Samantha was surprised and encouraged to discover that all of them were lesbians.
Her roommates, who referred to each other as sisters, simplified their reasons for being homeless: “I got kicked out because I was gay” was a frequent refrain, and Samantha eventually adopted it. Inevitably, though, their stories were more complicated, involving an intersection of sexual identity with abuse, neglect, or family poverty. According to some surveys, up to forty per cent of the nation’s homeless youth are gay, lesbian, bisexual, or transgender. Many have run away from foster care, where they were abused or felt ostracized. Others were rejected by their families, often for religious reasons.
Once homeless, they embarked on the kind of self-experimentation that they felt incapable of at home. Samantha was impressed by the way the other girls at the shelter, most of whom were from New York, had refined their sexual identities. The day she arrived at the shelter, she was asked if she was a femme, A.G. (short for aggressive), or fem-agress—terms Samantha had never heard. At dinner, one of Samantha’s roommates pointed out the key signifiers of different girls at the table: an oversized T-shirt, hiding breasts bound by athletic tape, was one sign of an A.G., while a femme, easily mistaken for straight, was identified by the company she kept. Samantha’s own style was plain and inscrutable. Her father had always wanted her in dresses, and simply wearing pants felt like a rebellion. She associated style with “cheerleaders looking at dumb-ass magazines” and didn’t realize that lesbians dressed up, too. “I just hoped someone else would categorize me,” she said. “I didn’t know what the hell I was.” (On the opening page of her notebook, she copied a quotation from George Bernard Shaw: “Life isn’t about finding yourself. Life is about creating yourself.”)
Samantha found her roommates tough and moody but supportive. They shared clothes and cigarettes, taught her how to use a MetroCard—she’d become so good at hopping turnstiles that she hadn’t learned how to take a train legally—and included her in their far-fetched plans for the future: they intended to rent a place in Connecticut, where they’d heard the cost of living was low, by cashing in all their food stamps.
One night, after she had been there three weeks, Samantha was in the back yard of the shelter when a male resident, a pot dealer, offered her a cigarette. A rumor spread that Samantha had kissed him, a transgression made more egregious because she’d rejected the romantic overtures of one of her roommates. The next day, the girls accused her of “fronting,” of not being a “real lesbian.” “They told me I had to leave,” Samantha said. “They said their sister was on the street and needed my bed. I said, ‘Oh, hell no, guys, I’m not leaving.’ ”
The adult shelter system is legally obligated to provide shelter to anyone who seeks it, but Samantha was afraid of going there, after hearing stories about young people, especially gay ones, who had been exploited and sexually harassed. She stayed at Turning Point, even though she felt increasingly uncomfortable among the other girls, who continued to call her a “poser.” “They were bored,” Samantha said. “There was a lot of groupthink, like ‘Here’s someone we can hate.’ ” On November 3rd, her twenty-sixth night at the shelter, Samantha had just taken a shower and was getting ready for bed when a girl called Chocolate Cake demanded that she apologize for lying to them. Samantha refused. Three more girls entered the room and began yelling at her and pressed her against the wall. Samantha said that when she fought back, punching and kicking, one of the girls took a knife out of her pocket and cut her throat. Bleeding into a towel, she ran outside to the street and called 911 from a pay phone. She was taken by ambulance to Lutheran Medical Center, in Brooklyn.
It didn’t take Samantha long to recover from the wound. But in the hospital she developed a constellation of new ailments: she had vertigo, an ear infection, and a fever, and was coughing up blood. After three weeks, Samantha signed out of the hospital against medical advice. She left with her hospital roommate, Christina, a pale, thin eighteen-year-old who told Samantha she had run away from her abusive mother, in Brooklyn, several times; as a minor, she’d always been sent home. She was emboldened by Samantha’s “motherly vibe.” “She was my escort,” Christina said. “She knew all about the shelter system, and I was like, ‘You know what? Let’s do this. We’re going to do this. This is my door out.’ ”
Christina called herself “pansexual”: she was attracted to A.G.s, femmes, transsexuals, and men. She initially had a crush on Samantha, but Samantha was too shy to make a move, so they settled into a familial relationship, realizing, “We were meant to be sisters.” A veteran shoplifter, Christina gave Samantha advice on technique, urging her not to pause or glance at security guards or cameras. “You’re in, you’re out—easy-squeezy,” she said. Together, they stole batteries and deodorant from large chain stores and then sold them to bodegas in Harlem at half price. On inventory lists in her journal, Samantha tracked how many items they’d moved in a day, and the profit margins.
They used the lists of resources Samantha had compiled in Florida to navigate the youth shelter system, which comprises some twenty drop-in centers and emergency shelters, five of which cater specifically to gay and transgender teens. The agencies’ services are often in flux, depending on the year’s allotment of government grant money. After leaving the hospital, Samantha and Christina began going to the Door, a youth agency in SoHo, where they got free meals, met with career counsellors, and kept warm. Samantha felt like an outsider there until she befriended a transgender boy named Ryan, who was popular among all segments of the homeless population—the ravers, the stoners, and the gay kids. Ryan was glad to meet someone else with Native American roots—he had spent his early childhood as a girl in an Inuit village in Nunavut—and he began calling Samantha his older sister (even though she was younger than him) and Christina his younger one. He admired their shoplifting skills—his specialty was stealing fruit—and called their money-making operation “pulling a Duane Reade.”
Ryan, who had already been homeless for two years, had been kicked out by his mother when she cleaned his closet and discovered his stand-to-pee device in a box labelled “Children’s Books.” When he confessed that he wanted to take hormones so that he could live as a man, she demanded that he do it elsewhere. He spent his first few months in New York sleeping at the Metropolitan Community Church, near the Lincoln Tunnel, which opens its doors to homeless gay and transgender youth. At the church, Ryan acquired what he described as his “gay family.” The fictional bloodlines were forged rapidly, often after someone shared a survival tip, like how to apply for food stamps or Medicaid or avoid the street corners that were frequented by pimps. Two people referred to Ryan as their gay mother. “I have this real butch-queen way about me sometimes,” he explained. Three others called him Father. “At some point, people just started calling me Dad, and I was like, O.K.? All right. I guess that’s who I am.”
The family roles were based not on age but on the knowledge people had about living on the streets. There was a new generation within the gay family every four or five months; Ryan’s children mentored other kids, and soon he was a grandfather. He lost track of how he was related to people, but the connections still gave him social cachet. “The beauty of the gay family is that you can walk into Union Square and you have an in—you’re not alone,” he said. “I can go up to a stranger and ask who his gay mother is. And it’s like, Oh my God, I’m your uncle!” He added, “A lot of us lost our biological families, so the gay family fills the void.”
Some members of his gay family were immersed in the city’s ballroom scene, which relies on a similar family structure, organized by “houses” that function like fraternities. At night clubs and performance spaces, the houses compete against each other in balls—a contemporary incarnation of the drag pageants that were a staple of the gay subculture in Harlem in the thirties. House mothers (typically transgender women or drag queens) assume a nurturing role, while the fathers (often female butches) tend to take on stereotypically masculine tasks, enforcing the rules. The children, mostly black or Latino, vie for prizes by modelling and voguing, which combines moves from ballet, break dance, and walking the runway. Luna Ortiz, father of the House of Khan, told me that the nuclear-family structure of houses “happened automatically, because there were all these young people who didn’t have anyone gay to admire and model themselves after.”
Ryan’s gay aunt Sasha, whom he met at the Metropolitan Community Church, had spent hours trying to teach Ryan to vogue so that he could participate in the balls, but she eventually gave up. “I love him,” Sasha told me. “But he’s an old man—no rhythm.” A black transgender twenty-five-year-old, who is six feet one and wears long, matronly dresses, Sasha prided herself on her ability to give her gay family “backbone, structure, that mother image.” She had become homeless after aging out of foster care and had lost her first apartment when her landlord, upon discovering that she was transgender, called her a “batty boy,” Jamaican slang for “faggot,” and attacked her with a mop. When she finally got another apartment (which she has since lost, because the government housing program, called Advantage, was terminated), she let her gay family sleep at her place for weeks at a time. “I took them out of the street and I raised them,” she said. “Just like any other family, they came together. They all wanted to live with Mommy.”
Samantha never felt “fabulous” enough to be part of a gay family—the music she had mistaken for cool, like AC/DC and Led Zeppelin, had put her at a permanent disadvantage. The gay families reminded her of high school. They were “closed worlds” and had their own lingo, adopted from the ballroom scene: terms like “throwing shade” (disrespecting), “trying it” (being cheeky), and “reading” (insulting). Samantha felt more comfortable socializing with people in street families, which were smaller, whiter, and included both straight and gay kids. There were no parent figures, only brothers and sisters. “ ‘Mom’ was a sore, taboo word,” Samantha told me. “Despite everything that happened, a lot of us still missed our moms.”
The core of Samantha’s street family was Christina, Ryan (who remained close with his gay family), and three boys they met through Streetwork, a youth program with a shelter in Harlem where twenty-three people can stay for thirty days in a row. The hope is that residents will find work and a place to live, and then move on, but it was never enough time. Throughout 2010, Samantha cycled in and out of Streetwork so many times she lost count. Each time she was discharged, she walked a few blocks to St. Nicholas Park, hopped a fence near the basketball courts, and descended a slope through fifty yards of overgrown shrubs and fallen branches, accumulation from years of storms. She slept on a flat limestone rock, surrounded by trees. She and her street family spent their nights on the rock, which they covered with a stolen rug, until they reached the top of Streetwork’s waiting list again, a process that typically took several weeks.
Samantha handled domestic matters, like cutting the poison ivy around the rock and purifying rainwater with iodine. She was alternately called paranoid and prescient, the one who was constantly wary of arrest: for loitering, smoking pot, and hopping turnstiles—the pillars of their daily routines. A former Cutco salesman named Paul, who kept kitchen knives on the rock for protection and used the knife case as a pillow, was proud that he had persuaded Samantha to date him for a week. During that time, she considered the possibility that she was bisexual. “Finally, I was just like, ‘I can’t do it, I’m sorry. You’ve helped affirm my identity as a lesbian, if that helps.’ ”
When Samantha was readmitted to Streetwork, she made sure everyone on the rock got into the shelter, too. She found herself employing the same tactic as the girls at Turning Point. If she decided that a girl didn’t need her bed, because her circumstances weren’t desperate, Samantha would urge her to leave. “Seriously, my sister is on the street because you’re taking up a bed. Go back to Grandma,” she thought. “She’s not beating you, she’s not raping you.” When that failed, she got people kicked out by planting drug paraphernalia on their beds.
Samantha preferred sleeping on the rock to staying at the largest youth shelter in the city, Covenant House, a fortresslike eight-story building with a hundred and eighty beds—seventy per cent of the city’s beds for homeless youth. The institution, situated two blocks from the Port Authority bus station, was founded by Franciscans in 1972, and its Catholic underpinnings have complicated the shelter’s response to increasing numbers of gay residents. Samantha thought the staff members were “weird and shunning to the gay girls,” and she felt pressured to go to church. (The shelter said that it does not make anyone attend religious services.) “I told the staff lady I really don’t have good feelings about church—like, how is that going to help me?” she said. “Then they sent the pastor to talk to me.”
Ryan left Covenant House because staff members insisted on using his legal, female name, and he felt humiliated by the process of sitting for attendance. Several times, when he checked in at the guard’s station, he was told that the only resident with his last name was female. He preferred to be on the streets, where he felt recognized as a man. His gay father, Pablo, a thick-shouldered, twenty-one-year-old Latino, took care to use the correct pronouns for his transgender children, whether or not they looked as masculine or feminine as they wished. “They’re still figuring out how to feel real,” Pablo told me. “Ryan was a beautiful young lady. But I was just like, ‘Dang, that’s not you. You are a dude.’ He had the personality down pat.”
More so than Samantha, Ryan found himself drawn to Christopher Street, in the West Village, which on warm weekend nights is populated by cliques of gay and transgender teens. Biological boys who wear wigs or eyeshadow or glitter on their faces walk up and down Christopher Street, checking who’s out for the night, before settling on the Christopher Street Pier, which juts out into the Hudson River. On the lawns of the pier, they take turns voguing. Ryan’s gay grandmother, Donna, told me that “as soon as you come out of the closet, all you hear is ‘You need to go down to the Village. You need to get your face out there.’ ”
For fifty years, the pier has offered a rite of passage for young people, often impoverished ones, who are trying on new sexual personas. In the sixties, the street kids who hung out on the pier were central to the Stonewall riots, which took place about five blocks away. In an article written shortly after the riots, Dick Leitsch, the director of one of the first gay-rights organizations, attributed the success of the 1969 uprising to the bar’s youngest customers, who had to panhandle for the price of admission. They had been “thrown out of their homes with only the clothes on their backs by ignorant, intolerant parents,” Leitsch wrote. They stood up to the police because they “had nothing to lose.”
The West Village now projects a homogeneous image of gay identity: wealthy, professional, and white. The streets are lined with upscale shops that sell smoothies, gourmet cupcakes, and purebred puppies. The Stonewall Inn now draws mostly tourists. Carl Siciliano, the director of a shelter for L.G.B.T. youth, told me he finds it pathetic that in the birthplace of the gay movement there are so many gay kids who have been “utterly dispossessed.” He said the gay movement has focussed on “issues of privilege,” specifically gay marriage. “Our movement has left its youngest, poorest members behind.”
After dark, the Village attracts a far less streamlined demographic. At the pier, older transgender women teach younger ones how to apply foundation and eyeshadow, to tuck and bind their penises so that they can wear fitted dresses, and to create fake breasts by inflating and shaping condoms in their bras. Ryan’s gay aunt Sasha told me that she started coming to the pier when she was a “different soul,” a ten-year-old boy. Older teen-agers helped her “find the right wardrobe, the right setting, the right approach.” “I observe, I study,” she said. “I see a lady crossing her legs calmly, mellow, and, two days later, I’m doing it, too.”
Sasha’s studies extended to sexual interactions. Other transgender women on the pier made money by giving oral sex to strangers—they called it strolling—and so did she. For a time, she could entertain the idea that she was “practicing” to be a woman. That sentiment faded quickly, but it took her less than an hour to make enough money to pay her cell-phone bill, so she continued.
Ryan began strolling, too, during a time when he was sleeping in Columbus Circle and subsisting on only a few meals a week. “I went up to one of my sisters and I told her, ‘I’m really desperate. I need you to show me the ropes,’ ” he said. She led him to Weehawken Street, a narrow residential lane in the West Village, and taught him how to make eye contact with men who were cruising.
On his first night, Ryan took several pills of Triple C (sold in pharmacies as Coricidin Cough & Cold), which made him feel as if he were hovering a few feet above the ground, watching the world and himself from a comfortable distance. When a potential client drove by, he had been instructed to get in the car and say, “Fifty for oral, no touching.” He didn’t bother explaining that he was biologically female. Although he didn’t take hormones, he had a deep, raspy voice and passed easily. He was confident he would be seen as “just another gay boy.” He completed the job while sitting in the passenger seat and was out of the car within minutes. “I didn’t think of him as human,” Ryan told me. “He was just a dollar sign.”
Ryan began spending at least one night a week with a group of half a dozen homeless youth who serviced men in cars, in the rest rooms of nearby diners or bars, and in hotels or apartments. “Then we’d all take a break and fall back down to the pier,” Sasha told me. “That was our battery-charger rest spot.” If someone had been with a client who was violent or stingy, the news was shared widely. One of Ryan’s friends took a cell-phone picture of a man who had attacked her. “By the next morning, all of us knew never to get in that man’s car,” he said.
Ryan discovered that most of his clients didn’t care that he was biologically female—some had a fetish for it. He acquired seven regulars, who came to him on a weekly basis, and nine “frequenters,” who visited him once or twice a month. If the person appeared sane and gentle, he would trade sex for a chance to sleep in a bed. “Sometimes I could pretend—I would convince myself—that I was having sex with someone I had chosen,” he said. In the morning, he would slip out of the apartment before the stranger woke up.
Ryan avoided streets that were monitored by cops, though it was never clear to him whether he was the victim or the perpetrator of a crime; technically he and his friends were pimps to one another, occasionally sharing both clients and money—a dynamic that is rarely part of public conversations about youth prostitution. According to a recent investigation led by anthropologists at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice, ninety per cent of underage teens in New York City who engage in “survival sex”—selling their bodies for money, drugs, food, or shelter—meet their clients on their own, through friends, or through “fictional families.” There are as many male youth prostitutes as female ones. The researchers asked eighty youth what they would need to leave the sex trade, and most of them said stable housing or employment. “These young people exchange sex for money not because they are being held and trafficked as sex slaves,” the authors wrote, but because they “exist at the lowest stratum of a socio-economic and cultural system that is failing them.”
Some of Ryan’s friends on the pier joked about prostitution as if it were a profession, asking each other what time they got off work. They could make two hundred dollars if they agreed to “go raw” (without a condom). “It can be very enticing when you know that money can feed you and your family for a few weeks,” Ryan said. “You’re just like, ‘Fine, O.K., whatever.’ ”
There were hierarchies among those who made money this way, with those who could be easily “spooked” (identified as transgender) at the bottom. Ryan’s gay grandmother, Donna, who began working as a prostitute when she was thirteen, told me that other transgender women called her “knotty,” meaning ugly, because she was scared to use illegal hormones or get silicone injections to make her breasts, cheeks, and butt look feminine. “It’s all about how much money you invest in yourself,” she said. In rough neighborhoods in Brooklyn, men would throw things at people who seemed stuck between genders. When Donna wanted to insult someone on the pier, she would say, “At least I can go to Brooklyn.”
In February, 2010, Ryan discovered that he was H.I.V. positive, which did not completely surprise him. Many nights had been spent consoling friends who had gotten their test results; they comforted each other with the mantra “It’s not a death sentence anymore.” The rate of H.I.V. infection among the homeless is three times higher than it is among the rest of the population, and the risk of transmission is disproportionately elevated among youth. Kate Barnhart, the director of New Alternatives, a drop-in center on Christopher Street for L.G.B.T. youth, told me that one in five of her clients is H.I.V. positive. Discussions about who is “D. and D. free”—clean of diseases and drugs—are part of the homeless scene. Samantha once made out with a girl who, unprompted, pulled her negative blood results out of her backpack. When she learned of Ryan’s diagnosis, she assured him he’d live a long life, and then urged him, “Dude, wear a condom.” Ryan began laughing and reminded her, “I can’t wear a condom!’ ”
Samantha hoped eventually to find a wife, have children, and move to the country, a plan that began to recede farther into the distance. She had a tepid, on-and-off relationship with another homeless girl, which consisted mostly of making out in public bathrooms. Samantha didn’t mind that her partner occasionally smelled, but she knew the relationship would collapse under other circumstances. She could get into lesbian bars if she wore her job-interview outfit, which made her look older—she wore shoplifted loafers, slacks, and a black button-up shirt that didn’t show the dirt—but small talk rarely went well. Inevitably, Samantha was asked where she lived. When she responded truthfully, some women acted as if she were out to swindle them. Samantha decided that she didn’t want to date anyone who wasn’t homeless. “There would be no balance of power,” she said.
Samantha and Ryan talked about the “housed world” as if it were an exotic culture, intrinsically superior to their own. They spoke in academic tones, trading theories about the patterns of “housed thinking.” They treated the subway, where they occasionally panhandled, as a human laboratory: people’s impulses toward charity had far less to do with them, they concluded, than with the other passengers riding the train. Few people looked at their faces until the first dollar changed hands, which then created some sort of force field—other passengers would suddenly feel compelled to be generous, too. They rode the trains deep into Brooklyn, because they found that poorer passengers were more likely to hand over their change.
Samantha considered herself romantic for having believed that “if you worked hard enough it would all come easily—the job, the apartment.” But she never doubted her decision to run away—her only regret was not skimming more money from her father’s business—and she encouraged her brother to join her as soon as he finished high school. Samantha called him at least once a week from pay phones and, eventually, a cell phone that she paid for by cashing in her food stamps. They both excelled at “stuffing the feelings down” and rarely mentioned their parents, who didn’t know they were in regular contact. They discussed new dishes that her brother was cooking—Samantha had taught him to cook—and her brother urged her to be more vigilant. He considered her current means of self-defense—an empty SoBe-tea bottle, which she planned to crush over someone’s head, if the need arose—an inadequate form of protection.
After applying for jobs for a year and a half, the only offer Samantha got was an unpaid, part-time internship at Streetwork as a peer counsellor, which she hoped would look good on her résumé. She and Christina stopped shoplifting, because they worried that security guards at pharmacies had begun to recognize their faces. Samantha made money by panhandling on her days off. In her journal, she noted the intersection and how much money she’d collected—anywhere from nothing to eighty dollars—which she shared with her street family.
Her favorite place to panhandle was a leafy block of Hudson Street near the Chambers Street subway station, where thousands of professionals converged during rush hour. Samantha noticed that when she looked “stereotypically movie homeless,” wearing ripped sweatpants and a baggy, dirty sweater, she could bring in nearly twice as much as when she wore her usual clothes. Christina helped her come up with a convincing hairdo: two braids, smothered with Vaseline. “I wanted to look as small as possible, like vulnerable,” Samantha said. She sat on a milk crate with her knees drawn to her chest, her arm draped over a pink backpack; she was convinced that the color made her seem more sympathetic.
Unless she was hungry or needed to use a bathroom, Samantha could usually trick herself into thinking that she was “just a normal person person.” But, after a few hours of panhandling, she felt as homeless as she looked. She often drank Delsym, a cough medicine, and “accentuated” it with a few pills of Nyquil, a combination that made her bold enough to look people in the eyes. With the right mixture of drugs, she could pass the day engrossed by the irregular shapes on the sidewalk and the beautiful halo at the tip of her cigarette. Every now and then, she would remind people of her presence with a cheery phrase, like “Happy Wednesday!” She rarely offered details about her life. “No matter what comes out of your mouth, they’re going to think you’re manipulating,” she said. “But if you just shake your cup and look them in the eye, there’s no lying about that.”
Samantha and Ryan were both terrified of becoming “lifers.” They saw the signs in their friends, who stopped trying to get job interviews, missed their appointments with caseworkers, and cycled in and out of psychiatric hospitals or rehab centers, becoming accustomed to people telling them what to do and when. Close friends, even Christina, disappeared for weeks at a time. Samantha kept track of them by checking their status updates on Facebook, to make sure they were alive.
Homelessness narrowed Samantha’s field of vision, making the future so abstract as to be nearly imaginary. The concerns of the day—finding food and a place to sleep—eliminated all other thoughts. By early 2011, she was making herself reserve at least one day a week for “dealing with the future.” She subsisted on food she’d procured earlier in the week, and spent time at the Apple Store and public libraries, working on applications for subsidized housing. Samantha’s best shot was New York/New York III supportive housing programs, which pair rental assistance with mental-health services. The programs require proof of a year of homelessness—Samantha compiled letters from all the shelters where she’d slept—and evidence of a psychiatric illness, which was not difficult to come by. Nearly all her friends could meet the requirements for at least one diagnosis, between the trauma of living on the streets and the trauma of whatever had sent them there. (To get Supplemental Security Income, Samantha and her saner friends coached one another on how to exaggerate their dysfunctions, imitating behavior they had witnessed among the chronically homeless.)
For Ryan, two years older than Samantha, aging out of the youth shelter system—most agencies cut people off at twenty-one or twenty-four—represented a “point of no return.” With state cuts to homeless services, there are few routes out of the city’s vast adult shelter system, which currently has its highest population on record, the result, in part, of high unemployment and rents that continue to rise. The waiting list for public housing has more than a hundred and fifty thousand names on it.
Ryan had already gone through the application process for New York/New York III housing and was waiting to move into a new building for homeless youth called the Lee, but he doubted that a room would ever open. “I saw so many other people fail, and was sort of like, ‘Why bother?’ ” he said. His gay parents told him that he could live with them in an abandoned home that they’d discovered just south of Queensboro Plaza. The two-story house had no heat, electricity, or running water; they all peed in a bucket and dumped it out the back window. Ryan slept on blankets in the living room on the second floor, his parents slept in an alcove, and his gay aunt Jaymmie, a black transgender woman, took over the first floor, which she disinfected with Clorox. They enjoyed discussing how they would furnish their new home. “We were going to turn it into a condo,” Jaymmie said. “We had dreams.”
Only gay or transgender people slept at the house, because those were the people the residents trusted. Jaymmie, who was legally male, had disavowed the adult shelter system after a man attempted to rape her in the bathroom of the Bellevue men’s shelter. “It’s just nasty how people treat me because I’m feminine,” she said. Ryan’s gay grandmother, Donna, had already gotten her own room in an apartment, but she frequently dropped in at the abandoned house. She worried that her landlord found her “too flamboyant, not quaint enough,” and found it helpful to “get away from the heterosexual world and have an outlet.” She said that the house reminded her of her earliest days hanging out on the Christopher Street Pier, when she was thirteen and overwhelmed by the sense of “communion, of having faith in each other.”
In September, 2011, the state’s first permanent subsidized apartment building for homeless gay, lesbian, and transgender youth opened, on 154th Street in Harlem. The building, called True Colors, was co-founded by Cyndi Lauper, who had been troubled by all the L.G.B.T. teens on the Christopher Street Pier who seemed to have nowhere else to go. Samantha happened to meet with a caseworker the day that the building began accepting applications, and was one of the first to apply. Only a few weeks before her housing interview, she had been hired to do outreach work for another youth agency—a paying job. She signed a lease that limited her rent to thirty per cent of her annual income, or two hundred and eighty-six dollars a month.
The apartment had hardwood floors, a single bed, a narrow kitchen, and a large window overlooking Frederick Douglass Boulevard. Samantha found herself avoiding the apartment, which felt obtrusively quiet. For two years, she had longed for privacy, and now she was embarrassed that she couldn’t appreciate it. With her basic needs met, other dilemmas revealed themselves—how to afford college and, eventually, she decided, medical school. It was impossible to stay calm in such silence. On her second night in the apartment, after lying awake for hours, she got out of bed, showered (using a garbage bag as a curtain), dressed for work, and walked in the dark to the D train. She fell asleep minutes after claiming her favorite seat, the one in the back corner, where she could press her knees against the adjacent bench and rest her head on the train’s wall.
Samantha had come to True Colors directly from Ryan’s new apartment at the Lee, on the Lower East Side; Ryan had waited nearly a year for a room to open. He, too, felt as if he had forgotten how to be alone, and described his apartment as a kind of “purgatory.” “You’re stuck between worlds,” he told me. He turned his room into what he called his “faux-shelter.” When it rained, he would fit up to five people in his two-hundred-square-foot apartment. Christina, who was pregnant, slept on an air mattress on the floor. Once, the room was so crowded that Ryan’s gay father, Pablo, had to sleep in the bathtub.
Samantha and Ryan felt there was no longer an excuse for all the substances—mostly weed, over-the-counter drugs, and cheap wine, stolen from Western Beef—that had softened their experience on the streets, and they joined a chapter of Alcoholics Anonymous in which most of the members were lesbians. Samantha saw being sober as her final act of severing herself from her life at home. (She started a new Facebook account for her sober self.) “This is my one chance,” Samantha told me. “If I mess it up, I’ll be here for the rest of my life.”
Ryan felt like a straggler, hopelessly behind on his education, having lost more than three years of his life. He called Samantha when he was fighting the urge to use drugs again, which he yearned to do whenever he felt overwhelmed by impatience. With encouragement from his caseworker, he enrolled at LaGuardia Community College, after writing his college essay at the Apple Store. “I am homeless on the basis that I am transgendered,” he wrote. “My Mum kicking me out and disowning me . . . provided me with the permission and opportunity to be myself.”
Samantha had been housed only a few months when she came down with bronchitis, mononucleosis, and pneumonia, perhaps because her new job required that she spend the day outside, shaking hands with dozens of people. At the hospital, tests showed that she was H.I.V. positive. Later, she learned that she had tested positive for the virus in 2009, after she had been attacked at the shelter in Brooklyn. It’s not clear from her medical records why she was never informed; most likely, the blood results came back after she had left the hospital, and it was impossible to find her. She responded to the disease, which she believes she contracted when she was raped by the family friend in Florida, with a serene kind of anger. She was confident that she would be fine, once her doctors found the right combination of antiretroviral medications, because, like Ryan, she was “stubborn enough”—a phrase she used as the highest compliment.
But living alone made recovery more difficult, and, after being hospitalized for two weeks with pneumonia, she was too weak to walk. She was sent for ten days to a nursing home in a desolate neighborhood in Far Rockaway, Queens, three blocks from the beach, for physical rehabilitation. She appeared to be the youngest person at the institution, which resembled a run-down motel, by about forty years. One of the few people who seemed cognizant of her presence was a half-blind woman, her face lopsided from a stroke, who shouted every time she saw Samantha, “Hello, little girl!”
The diagnosis felt like another insult from afar, reminding Samantha of her inability to escape home. She had been trying to adopt a more nuanced view of her parents, whom she no longer saw as malevolent, just estranged from reality. At one point, she had even bought her parents a card that said “Missing You.” But she never mailed it.
Like Ryan, Samantha felt most comfortable in her new apartment when her street family was crowded inside it. In August, while recovering from a second bout of pneumonia, she was thrilled when Christina, who had been out of contact for several months, showed up with her baby boy. Christina was fleeing the family shelter where she lived with the baby’s father, who she said had just threatened to kill her. She told Samantha she needed a place to stay until she could get into a shelter for victims of domestic violence.
Paul, their friend from the rock in St. Nicholas Park, who was living at an adult shelter, was there to assist with the move. The baby was crying, chewing on a toilet-paper dispenser, and Paul and Samantha tried to get him to sleep by plopping him on the bed and singing some of the songs they’d perfected on the rock: “Hallelujah,” “Hotel California,” “American Pie.” Samantha sang in tune, in a smooth soprano, with goose bumps on her legs and arms, occasionally pausing to cough.
The music put Christina in a nostalgic frame of mind, and she began looking at old cell-phone photographs, many featuring members of their street family on tightly made single beds at the various shelters where they’d stayed over the years. Except for the series featuring Samantha’s panhandling makeover—they had experimented with a few hair styles before settling on the braids—the pictures, like those of any teen-agers, caught them at their edgiest, in many whimsical closeups. Samantha noted with disapproval that in several pictures Christina was bony and gaunt. “Now you see why I fed her!” she shouted. “I keep you eating,” she told Christina. “You need to come over here more so you’ll be healthy.”
When the baby woke up, screaming, Christina rushed out of the apartment for an appointment with a caseworker, Paul pushing the stroller. Samantha was left with a friend from the building named Jacob, whom no one had noticed enter the room. He had come in without knocking and gone straight to the bathroom, in tears. He had just lost his job at a smoothie shop. Samantha said that he must be exhausted—he was in beauty school and slept only a few hours a night. She offered to beat up his boss and then urged him to take down the number of a career counsellor. “You’ll just work hard to make things O.K.,” she told him. He nodded, following her as she moved around the room, picking up random objects that the baby had thrown on the floor. “Eventually, everything will be O.K.,” she repeated. “If you work hard enough, it has to be.”
Master of Play The many worlds of a video-game artist.[modifica | modifica wikitesto]
hen Shigeru Miyamoto was a child, he didn’t really have any toys, so he made his own, out of wood and string. He put on performances with homemade puppets and made cartoon flip-books. He pretended that there were magical realms hidden behind the sliding shoji screens in his family’s little house. There was no television. His parents were of modest means but hardly poor. This was in the late nineteen-fifties and early nineteen-sixties, in the rural village of Sonobe, about thirty miles northwest of Kyoto, in a river valley surrounded by wooded mountains. As he got older, he wandered farther afield, on foot or by bike. He explored a bamboo forest behind the town’s ancient Shinto shrine and bushwhacked through the cedars and pines on a small mountain near the junior high school. One day, when he was seven or eight, he came across a hole in the ground. He peered inside and saw nothing but darkness. He came back the next day with a lantern and shimmied through the hole and found himself in a small cavern. He could see that passageways led to other chambers. Over the summer, he kept returning to the cave to marvel at the dance of the shadows on the walls.
Miyamoto has told variations on the cave story a few times over the years, in order to emphasize the extent to which he was surrounded by nature, as a child, and also to claim his youthful explorations as a source of his aptitude and enthusiasm for inventing and designing video games. The cave has become a misty but indispensable part of his legend, to Miyamoto what the cherry tree was to George Washington, or what LSD is to Steve Jobs. It is also a prototype, an analogue, and an apology—an illuminating and propitious way to consider his games, or, for that matter, anyone else’s. It flatters a vacant-eyed kid with a joystick (to say nothing of the grownups who have bought it for him or sold it to him) to think of himself, spiritually, as an intrepid spelunker. The cave, certainly, is an occasion for easy irony: the man who has perhaps done more than any other person to entice generations of children to spend their playtime indoors, in front of a video screen, happened to develop his peculiar talent while playing outdoors, at whatever amusements or mischief he could muster. Of course, no one in the first wave of video-game designers could have learned the craft by playing video games, since video games didn’t exist until people like Miyamoto invented them. Still, there may be no starker example of the conversion of primitive improvisations into structured, commodified, and stationary technological simulation than that of Miyamoto, the rural explorer turned ludic mastermind.
In his games, Miyamoto has always tried to re-create his childhood wonderment, if not always the actual experiences that gave rise to it, since the experiences themselves may be harder to come by in a paved and partitioned world. “I can still recall the kind of sensation I had when I was in a small river, and I was searching with my hands beneath a rock, and something hit my finger, and I noticed it was a fish,” he told me one day. “That’s something that I just can’t express in words. It’s such an unusual situation. I wish that children nowadays could have similar experiences, but it’s not very easy.”
Fishermen have a saying, in reference to the addictive sensation of a fish hitting your line: “The tug is the drug.” Gamers, as video-game players are known, thrill to “the pull,” that mysterious ability that good games have of making you want to play them, and keep playing them. The pull used to extract quarters from your pockets. Then it became a force that pinned you to a couch. Later, it got your entire family to shadowbox in the living room. Whatever the interface, a great game invites and rewards obsession, and Miyamoto’s games are widely considered to be among the greatest. He has been called the father of modern video games. The best known, and most influential, is Super Mario Bros., which débuted a quarter of a century ago and, depending on your point of view, created an industry or resuscitated a comatose one. It spawned dozens of sequels and spinoffs. Miyamoto has designed or overseen the development of many other blockbusters, among them the Legend of Zelda series, Star Fox, and Pikmin. Their success, in both commercial and cultural terms, suggests that he has a peerless feel for the pull, that he is a master of play—of its components and poetics—in the way that Walt Disney, to whom he is often compared, was of sentiment and wonder. Certainly, in Mario, the squat Italian plumber who bops around the Mushroom Kingdom in a quest to rescue Princess Toadstool, Miyamoto created a folk hero—gaming’s first—with as great a reach as Mickey Mouse’s.
What he hasn’t created is a company in his own name, or a vast fortune to go along with it. He is a salaryman. Miyamoto’s business card says that he is the senior managing director and the general manager of the entertainment-analysis and -development division at Nintendo Company Ltd., the video-game giant. What it does not say is that he is Nintendo’s guiding spirit, its meal ticket, and its playful public face. Miyamoto has said that his main job at Nintendo is ningen kougaku—human engineering. He has been at the company since 1977 and has worked for no other. (He prizes Nintendo’s financial and creative support for his work: “There’s a big difference between the money you receive personally from the company and the money you can use in your job.”) He has never been the company’s (or his own) boss, but it is not unreasonable to imagine that Nintendo might not exist without him. He designed the games and invented the franchises that caused people to buy the consoles. He also helped design the consoles.
In the gaming world, the creators of the games are not always widely known, much less venerated; the structure of the business, in which engineers and artists do their work for hire, and in which, increasingly, they do it in greater numbers, owing to the more complex technology of the games, consigns them to relative anonymity. Part of it, too, is that games are typically considered to be commercial products, rather than creative works; consider the fact that game titles, unlike the names of, say, movies or songs, appear in most newspapers and magazines, including this one, un-italicized and without quotes. There aren’t very many video-game auteurs, but Miyamoto is one.
The original Super Mario Bros. was the best-selling video game of all time, until Wii Sports surpassed it, two years ago—and Miyamoto was one of the leaders of the team that came up with the Wii. The Super Mario Bros. franchise has sold more than two hundred and forty million units, and that’s not including Mario Kart, Mario Party, and other offshoots, which have sold tens of millions more. Yet it is for the nature of his games, rather than for their commercial success, that Miyamoto is so widely revered. In a poll last year of nine thousand video-game developers, who were asked to name their “ultimate development hero,” Miyamoto was the runaway winner. “At the end of the day, most of the designers out there now grew up playing his games,” Will Wright, the creator of the Sims and Spore, and the developer who came in third in that poll, told me. “He approaches the games playfully, which seems kind of obvious, but most people don’t. And he approaches things from the players’ point of view, which is part of his magic.”
Securing an audience with Miyamoto in Japan is a little like trying to rescue Princess Toadstool. You must pass through a series of stages and contend with various obstacles and delights. The Japanese, by and large, aren’t accustomed to the way of an American reporter; it is unusual for them even to invite friends over for dinner, to say nothing of a gaijin with a tape recorder and a notebook. (An old Japan hand warned me, “Japanese people don’t generally ask questions directly about one another.”) The corporate ethos in Japan, and especially at Nintendo, is self-effacing; the humility that has kept Miyamoto at the company for three decades, rather than in, say, Silicon Valley, seeking his billions, also governs the apportionment of credit. Miyamoto has been a superstar in the gaming world for more than two decades, but neither he nor the company seems inclined to exploit his stardom. They contend that the development of a game or a game console is a collaborative effort—that it is indecorous to single out any one contributor, to the exclusion of the others. Miyamoto is also guarded about his private life. The fact that anyone would be curious about it baffles him.
The first time I saw Miyamoto in person was in Los Angeles last June, at the E3 Expo, the video-game industry’s annual American convention. It’s a huge affair, befitting a sixty-billion-dollar global industry. Nintendo, for its presentation, rented out the Nokia Theatre and filled it with nearly four thousand gaming enthusiasts, journalists, and executives. Early in the program, Miyamoto appeared on a giant video screen to demonstrate Legend of Zelda: Skyward Sword, the fourteenth installment in the Zelda series, which he created in 1986, and which involves the adventures of an avatar named Link, who roams a fantasy world in an attempt to rescue a princess, Zelda. Miyamoto’s explanation of how to deploy the controls was dubbed with an English translation. (His father was an English teacher, and Miyamoto understands some English, but he can’t speak it well, and he insists on doing interviews and public appearances in Japanese.) With a zap, Miyamoto’s image suddenly disappeared from the video screen and reappeared below it on a scrim of white curtain, and then Miyamoto himself burst out through the curtain and onto the stage, to riotous applause. Grinning broadly, dressed in a white Zelda T-shirt, an untucked and unbuttoned dress shirt, and jeans, he wielded the Wii’s two controllers—the Wii Remote and the Nunchuk—as a sword and a shield. At fifty-eight, he is trim and agile, with a boyish mop of black hair and an easy smile. In public, Miyamoto often strikes a lighthearted crouching pose, a proto-Wii stance that seems to owe a little to the gunslingers of the first video game he ever played, Western Gun, and a little to Yosemite Sam.
As Nintendo’s creative taskmaster, Miyamoto had a hand in most facets of the development and design of the Wii, introduced in 2006. Internally code-named Revolution, it was the first wireless motion-capture gaming console; sensors allow players to dictate the movements of their onscreen avatars. The simplicity and dynamism of the controller, which Miyamoto conceived and helped design, attracted several new constituencies of what are called “casual” (as opposed to “hard-core”) gamers to video games—the Wii Bowlers and Guitar Heroes to whom the name Zelda may have still summoned up Mrs. Fitzgerald. (Miyamoto, in fact, named his Zelda for her.) “Our goal was to come up with a machine that moms would want,” he has said. The Wii has less processing power and graphic sophistication than rival machines from Sony and Microsoft, but it has outsold them by a wide margin, owing to its ease, sociability, and accessibility, and also perhaps to the misconception that, say, Wii Tennis is a form of exercise.
Wright told me, “Miyamoto starts from the kinesthetics of the controller. What is this thing going to feel like in my hands? Will I feel like I’m instinctively connected to this world? As opposed to, I’ve got sixteen buttons, and I’m trying to figure out which button does the super-thrust power-up, in which case it’s very cerebral, kind of like learning to play the piano. Rather than, you know, just picking up a shovel and starting to dig. He’s had an amazing impact not just on software and games but on the hardware as well.”
At E3, Miyamoto said a few words in English but then went on in Japanese—a translator stood beside him—as he turned toward the giant video screen and demonstrated the new Zelda game. He guided Link through a landscape of cheerful menace, slashing at quasi-comical enemies. “Let’s take a look at these mushrooms,” the translator said, without affect. “Here we see the Deku Babas, popped up here.” Onscreen, giant carnivorous flytrap plants bobbed and weaved, and Miyamoto vanquished them with swipes of his sword. “You can let loose sword beams,” the translator went on. “If you look at the Bokoblins, you’ll notice that they are protecting themselves with their swords and they’re trying to block my attacks.” The Bokoblins, ratty sword-wielding soldiers, made an alluring squashing sound when Miyamoto killed them.
The sincerity with which everyone considered the Bokoblins or the Deku Babas, amid the pomp of a corporate showcase, was bewildering; it brought to mind some combination of Dungeons & Dragons and the N.F.L. draft. I am not a gamer. I took a few whacks at Super Mario, when it came out, in the mid-eighties, but mostly my video-game experience predated the Nintendo invasion and the unabating craze for home systems. I played arcade games, and I played them poorly; my quarters never went far. I usually wound up watching friends play, muttering over their shoulders in vain attempts to persuade them to play street hockey or Nerf football instead. The games were Space Invaders, Asteroids, Missile Command, Pac-Man, Robotron, Tempest, Centipede, Defender, Joust, and Galaga, which I did become passably proficient at and which, if I see it now, in a pizzeria or an airport, still inspires me to hunt for change. There was also Donkey Kong, which was unlike any of these others: it had a sense of humor, a narrative context, and beguilingly goofy graphics.
Although I missed out on all of it—not only on the brothers Mario and the Nintendo games but on Call of Duty, World of Warcraft, SimCity, and Halo—I saw legions get sucked in, and so I formed the not uncommon opinion that video games, like motorcycles or heroin, were irresistibly seductive and profoundly insidious. I had decided to avoid them completely, and, when I had kids, to keep them away from video games as best I could. This I have mostly done, but for the purpose of this assignment I’ve had a loaner at home—a Wii, with all the fixin’s. It will be hard for us to bid it goodbye.
Nintendo has been in the business of play since 1889. Its founder, Fusajiro Yamauchi, made playing cards, or karuta. Well into the next century, the company’s main product was hanafuda—cards made from crushed mulberry bark and lavishly illustrated with symbols such as animals and flowers— which replaced the painted seashells that the Japanese had traditionally used and which became widespread in Japan for gambling. As it happens, fortune and luck are intrinsic to the company’s name. Made up of the three kanji characters nin, ten, and do, the name has been said to mean “Leave luck to heaven,” or “Work hard, but in the end it is in heaven’s hands,” as the journalist David Sheff rendered it, in his 1993 portrait of the company, “Game Over: How Nintendo Zapped an American Industry, Captured Your Dollars, and Enslaved Your Children.” (Sheff decided to write the book, which in spite of the title is generally admiring, after watching his young son Nic get hooked on Super Mario; Nic’s addiction, years later, to methamphetamine became fodder for another book.)
In 1949, Yamauchi’s headstrong and debonair great-grandson Hiroshi Yamauchi, aged twenty-two, took over Nintendo and began restlessly casting about for ways to extend its reach. He secured a licensing agreement with the Walt Disney Company and scored a big hit with American-style playing cards adorned with the image of Mickey Mouse. Other entrepreneurial gambits—instant rice, a taxi fleet—fared poorly. In the mid-nineteen-sixties, Yamauchi hired an engineer named Gunpei Yokoi and a crew of young tinkerers to think about making toys and games, and their experiments helped foster a culture of whimsy and risk amid Nintendo’s rigid corporate structure. As one of them told Sheff, years later, “Here were these very serious men thinking about the content of play.”
The very serious men turned out a succession of silly gizmos. There was the Ultra Hand, a device with a gripping hand at the end of it; the Love Tester, a primitive electronic contrivance that purported to measure the level of ardor between a boy and a girl; the Beam Gun, which used a ray of light to hit simulated targets. (Nintendo converted abandoned bowling alleys into “shooting ranges,” where you could fire at simulations of clay pigeons.) Across the ocean, a company called Atari, based in California, had created Pong, the first hit video game. Pong, originally an arcade game, was turned into a home version in 1975. Inspired by Atari, and by the craze for a new arcade game called Space Invaders, Yamauchi, who told Sheff that he had never played a video game, led Nintendo into the arcade business, and also pushed for the development of a home console like Atari’s, an apparatus that would come to be called the Family Computer, or Famicom.
In 1976, Miyamoto, then age twenty-four, was a recent art-college graduate, with a degree in industrial design and an enduring fascination with the Japanese comic strips called manga. He liked to draw and paint, make toys, and play bluegrass on the banjo and the guitar, and wasn’t sure how any of this was going to translate into earning a living. He had a vague idea that he’d create some kind of mass-market object. His father got him an interview with Yamauchi, through a mutual friend. Miyamoto showed the company some toys he’d made, two wooden clothes hangers for kids in the shape of crows and elephants. Yamauchi hired him to be an apprentice in the planning department.
What Miyamoto became, however, was Nintendo’s first artist. He started out by designing the console for a car-racing game, and then by conceiving the look of the attackers for a knockoff of Space Invaders called Space Fever. His breakthrough came after an arcade game called Radar Scope, which Nintendo had hoped would be a hit in America, failed, leaving the company with an inventory in the United States of two thousand unsold Radar Scope cabinets. Yamauchi tapped Miyamoto to design a new game to replace Radar Scope in those cabinets.
The game he came up with was Donkey Kong. He had in mind a scenario based on Popeye, but Nintendo was unable to secure the rights, so he invented a new set of characters. The hero, the player’s avatar, was a carpenter named Jumpman. (Miyamoto had initially called him Mr. Video, with the intention of using him in every game, much in the way that, he said, Hitchcock appears in many of his own films.) Jumpman’s pet gorilla had kidnapped his girlfriend, Pauline, and escaped with her to the top of a construction site. The object of the game was to climb up through the girders while dodging the gorilla’s projectiles, and then vanquish the gorilla and rescue the girl. The goal, in other words, was to get to the end of the game, not just to pile up points. (“Donkey” was the word Miyamoto found in a Japanese-English dictionary for “stubborn” or “goofy.” “Kong” was a word for gorilla.) Prior to Donkey Kong, games had been developed by engineers and programmers with little or no regard for narrative or graphical playfulness. Donkey Kong, which débuted in 1981, had a story, a sense of humor, funny music (which Miyamoto helped write), and an ingenious game logic. It had four distinct screens, like a manga panel. This was also a new and soon-to-be-ubiquitous genre: what Miyamoto has called a running/jumping/climbing game, otherwise known as a platform game. At first, the Nintendo executives in America thought that Donkey Kong, as both a name and a game, was doomed. Looking for a better name for Jumpman, they settled on Mario, because of his resemblance to their landlord. To their surprise, the game was a huge hit.
Mario, of course, went on to bigger things. When Nintendo released the Famicom in the United States, in 1985 (it was rechristened the Nintendo Entertainment System, or N.E.S.), Super Mario Bros. was the game that sold the machine and in turn laid claim to the eyes, and the thumbs, of the world. The market for home games had crashed, and several companies went under or got out. Super Mario represented a re-start. Again, the object was the rescue of a maiden, who has been kidnapped by Bowser, or King Koopa, an evil turtle. Mario, now a plumber, and joined by a lanky brother named Luigi, bounced through the Mushroom Kingdom, dodging or bopping enemies in the form of turtles, beetles, and squid, while seeking out magic mushrooms, coins, and hidden stars. When you set down these elements in ink, they sound ridiculous, but there is something in this scenario that is utterly and peerlessly captivating. There were eight worlds, with four levels each, which meant that you had to pass through thirty-two stages to get to the princess. You travelled through these worlds left to right, on what’s called a side-scrolling screen. It wasn’t the first side-scroll game, but it was the most charming and complex. What’s more, the complexity was subtle. Yokoi, Miyamoto’s mentor, and the inventor of the Game Boy device, had urged him to simplify his approach. The game had just fifteen or twenty dynamics in it—how the mushrooms work, how the blocks react when you hit them—yet they combined in such a way to produce a seemingly limitless array of experiences and moves, and to provide opportunities for an alternative, idiosyncratic style of play, which brings to mind nothing so much as chess. Will Wright cited the theory of emergence—the idea that complex systems arise out of the interaction of several simple things. “The hardware wasn’t much better than Atari’s,” he said. “The polish and the depth of the games were. Super Mario was so approachable, so simple, so addictive, and yet so deep.” The game’s musical score, an entrancing suite by the Nintendo composer Koji Kondo, may be to one generation what “In-A-Gadda-Da-Vida” was to another.
Jamin Brophy-Warren, who publishes a video-game arts and culture magazine called Kill Screen, told me that there is something in the amplitude and dynamic of Mario’s jumps—just enough supernatural lift yet also just enough gravitational resistance—that makes the act of performing that jump, over and over, deeply satisfying. He also cited the archetypal quality of Mario’s task, that vague feeling of longing and disappointment which undergirds his desperate and recurring quest for the girl. “It’s a story of desire,” Brophy-Warren said.
There are generally two approaches to thinking about games: narratology and ludology. The first emphasizes story, the second play. The next time I played Super Mario, on the Wii (you can order all the vintage games), I found myself in a narratological mode. Mario reminded me of K. and his pursuit of the barmaid Frieda, in Kafka’s “The Castle,” and of the kind of lost-loved-one dreams that “The Castle” both mimics and instigates. But then a Koopa Troopa got me, and I had the distinct thrill of starting over with the press of a button—quarters hoarded now only for parking meters. If the game was anything, it was unpretentious, and it was better to approach it that way. As Wright had said, “When you play his games, you feel like you’re a kid and you’re out in the back yard playing in the dirt.”
A year after the début of Super Mario Bros., Nintendo released Miyamoto’s Legend of Zelda. Unlike Mario, which was linear, Zelda let you venture in all directions, exploring worlds within worlds, with an array of choice and depth never seen before in a video game. The ingenuity of the coding made the game’s imaginary world, called Hyrule, seem boundless. The game was hard to figure out: more puzzle than plaything.
Hyrule, of course, was in many ways based on Miyamoto’s childhood adventures. Miyamoto told Sheff not only about the cave but about dares among his friends to make forays into neighbors’ basements and yards, or about a neighbor’s bulldog that would charge him each time he passed by, jerking on its chain, or about getting stuck high in a tree or wondering what was at the bottom of manholes. He filled his games with his childlike interpretation of the world as a carnival of quirky perils and hidden delights. Hyrule, he once said, is “a miniature garden that you can put into a drawer and revisit anytime you like.”
Nintendo is insistent that it’s in the entertainment business, presumably because entertainment implies accessibility and ease—greater commercial reach. The term “entertainment” also suggests passivity, and so Nintendo’s emphasis on it does a disservice to video games—the good ones, anyway. You take in entertainment but take part in play. One you watch, the other you do. You might say that video games are both diminished and enriched by the fact that we have to play them in order to enjoy them. “Many video games ask for a lot in order to be played, so it is not surprising that some people do not play video games,” the Danish ludologist Jesper Juul has written. “Video games ask for much more than other art forms.”
Entertainment can put on airs; it might, over time, turn into something else, like art, literature, or a department at Brown. Novels, as we’re often told, were once deemed frivolous, much in the way that video games are now. “Video games are bad for you?” Miyamoto once said. “That’s what they said about rock and roll!” Certainly, video games have their highbrow evangelists and critical apologists, who may consider them to be cultural artifacts, coded texts, mythopoetic fictions, or political paradigms. In this respect, they may have more in common with opera than with hopscotch or cribbage. And yet they are first and foremost games, and games, regardless of how much we may love them, are by definition trivial and superfluous. For whatever reason, everyone deems some games worthier or more virtuous than others (except for those outliers who have no interest in any kind of game at all). You may think that bridge is noble, and that blackjack is dumb; that football is courageous, while squash is for wimps, or else that football is idiotic and squash refined. Often, the judgments have to do with ancillary benefits: Athletics enhance fitness and character but take time away from your studies or the festival of foreign films. Chess stimulates the mind but can crimp your love life. Video games, no matter how many people love them, rarely fare well in these matchups. The best analogue for their combined disreputability and ubiquity may be masturbation.
And yet the success of this “casual revolution,” as Juul has called the spread of easier, more accessible video games, like the Finnish sensation Angry Birds, has engendered the idea that games should be more widely integrated into everything we do—that we are insufficiently engaged unless we are passing simultaneously through a real world and a simulated one. The answer is more games, not less, according to Jane McGonigal, a game designer and the author of the forthcoming book “Reality Is Broken: Why Games Make Us Better and How They Can Change the World.” Her dream, as she put it in a speech last spring, is “to make it as easy to save the world in real life as it is to save the world in online games.” We try harder when we play. “In game worlds, I believe that many of us become the best version of ourselves,” she went on.
The Dutch cultural historian Johan Huizinga, in his classic 1938 study “Homo Ludens” (“Man the Player”), argued that play was one of the essential components of culture—that it in fact predates culture, because even animals play. His definition of play is instructive. One, play is free—it must be voluntary. Prisoners of war forced to play Russian roulette are not at play. Two, it is separate; it takes place outside the realm of ordinary life and is unserious, in terms of its consequences. A game of chess has no bearing on your survival (unless the opponent is Death). Three, it is unproductive; nothing comes of it—nothing of material value, anyway. Plastic trophies, plush stuffed animals, and bragging rights cannot be monetized. Four, it follows an established set of parameters and rules, and requires some artificial boundary of time and space. Tennis requires lines and a net and the agreement of its participants to abide by the conceit that those boundaries matter. Five, it is uncertain; the outcome is unknown, and uncertainty can create opportunities for discretion and improvisation. In Hyrule, you may or may not get past the Deku Babas, and you can slay them with your own particular panache.
The French intellectual Roger Caillois, in a 1958 response to Huizinga entitled “Man, Play and Games,” called play “an occasion of pure waste: waste of time, energy, ingenuity, skill, and often of money.” Therein lies its utility, as a simulation that exists outside regular life. Caillois divides play into four categories: agon (competition), alea (chance), mimicry (simulation), and ilinx (vertigo). Super Mario has all four. You are competing against the game, trying to predict the seemingly random flurry of impediments it sets in your way, and pretending to be a bouncy Italian plumber in a realm of mushrooms and bricks. As for vertigo, what Caillois has in mind is the surrender of stability and the embrace of panic, such as you might experience while skiing. Mario’s dizzying rate of passage through whatever world he’s in—the onslaught of enemies and options—confers a kind of vertigo on the gaming experience. Like skiing, it requires a certain degree of mastery, a countervailing ability to contend with the panic and reassert a measure of stability. In short, the game requires participation, and so you can call it play.
Caillois also introduces the idea that games range along a continuum between two modes: ludus, “the taste for gratuitous difficulty,” and paidia, “the power of improvisation and joy.” A crossword puzzle is ludus. Kill the Carrier is paidia (unless you’re the carrier). Super Mario and Zelda seem to be perched right between the two.
Months after seeing Miyamoto in Los Angeles, I was invited to meet with him in Japan. This stage was tricky. The convolutions of the Japanese transit system—various private and public railways stacked atop one another, each with its own fare regimen—were like the early subterranean screens of a Super Mario game. Repetition improved performance; the efficient conversion of yen coins into ticket stubs and the confident stride to the proper track gave rise, like the successful navigation through Mario’s sewers and the ingestion of Fire Flowers and Starmen, to a pleasurable sense of competence and grace.
Miyamoto recognizes that there is pleasure in difficulty but also in ease, in mastery, in performing a familiar act with aplomb, whether that be catching a baseball, dancing a tango, doing Sudoku, or steering Mario through the Mushroom Kingdom, jumping on Goombas and Koopa Troopas. His games strike this magical balance between the excitement that comes from facing new problems and the swagger from facing down old ones. The consequent sensation of confidence is useful, in dealing with a game’s more challenging stages, but also a worthy aim in itself. “A lot of the so-called ‘action games’ are not made that way,” Miyamoto told me. “All the time, players are forced to do their utmost. If they are challenged to the limit, is it really fun for them?” In his own games, Miyamoto said, “You are constantly providing the players with a new challenge, but at the same time providing them with some stages or some occasions where they can simply, repeatedly, do something again and again. And that itself can be a joy.”
Our conversation took place at Nintendo’s headquarters, in an industrial neighborhood south of Kyoto’s central train station. Across the street was an electrical switching station and, beyond that, an elevated segment of superhighway, still under construction, ending abruptly in the air. The Nintendo building is a giant white cube, seven stories tall, surrounded by a plaza of white cobblestone and beyond that a white brick wall. From the upper floors, a programmer could see, in the distance, the pagoda roof of the main hall of Tofuku-ji, an eight-hundred-year-old Zen temple, rising over the trees at the edge of town. The Nintendo building is just ten years old, but, for video-game fans, who sometimes wait outside the gates for a glimpse of Miyamoto, it is already something like the Kaaba, in Mecca. He generally does not consent to autograph requests, for fear of being inundated. He is more often recognized, or at least approached, by foreign tourists than by Japanese, occasionally while he is out walking his dog. His first thought is that the tourists are looking for directions. To preserve his anonymity, he makes it a point not to appear on Japanese TV programs.
The front lobby was vast and unadorned. A young assistant led me down the hall and into a conference room and instructed me to sit facing the door: traditionally a seat of honor for a guest. Someone had arranged some Super Mario plush toys on a windowsill. I had repeatedly asked for, and been denied, a tour of the offices or any opportunity to see Miyamoto outside this room. When I asked the assistant who’d shown me to the conference room where Miyamoto was, he replied, “Mr. Miyamoto is the person who is very difficult to find. In Nintendo, everyone wants to find him.” Five of the building’s seven floors are occupied by game developers, half of them artists and half of them engineers.
Miyamoto appeared a moment later, accompanied by Yasuhiro Minagawa, a Nintendo spokesman who would act as Miyamoto’s translator. Amid small talk about a recent heat wave in Japan, Minagawa, tall and tousled, said, “I use the term ‘murderous.’ ” Miyamoto, dressed in a striped button-down shirt and black pants, regarded me with a wide smile. Up close, I could see that he had freckles and a few gray hairs. His upper lip sticks out a bit, like that of a character in a Matt Groening comic strip. He was carrying a beat-up and bulging old leather diary with a painted, hand-tooled relief of a horse on its cover. A friend had made it for him. It was where he jotted down thoughts and ideas. He said he was very busy: there was a deadline looming for the release of a new handheld device with a 3-D display that requires no 3-D glasses. Also, it was the twenty-fifth anniversary of the release of Super Mario, and he was judging a competition in which thousands of players had used a Nintendo program to make and submit their own Mario animations. Miyamoto himself was to narrow these down to fifty finalists.
As Minagawa translated each of my questions, Miyamoto often buried his face in his hands or rubbed his eyes and frowned, as though Minagawa had misheard me and, instead of asking Miyamoto to parse the differences between entertainment and play, was telling him he’d gone broke. But it became clear, once he began talking, animatedly, with extravagant hand gestures and giggles of delight, that the apparent anguish was merely an expression of deep thought, a counterpoint to his ebullience in answering. Miyamoto spoke in paragraphs, with Minagawa taking notes on sheets of paper, which he tossed aside as we went. (Minagawa’s translations were necessarily hasty. In places, I have cleaned up his English.)
I mentioned the quote in David Sheff’s book about the very serious men who devised the company’s early games, and asked Miyamoto what he and these serious men understood.
“It’s about enjoying something,” he said. “I used to draw cartoons. I’d just show them to some of my friends, expecting that they were going to appreciate them, that they were going to enjoy reading them. And I haven’t changed a bit about that. When I’m making video games today, I want people to be entertained. I am always thinking, How are people going to enjoy playing the games we are making today? And as long as I can enjoy something other people can enjoy it, too.
“Nowadays, my main focus is on trying to find some new, unprecedented experiences that people can get deeply into, deeply absorbed in. But some of my job involves something completely different—when there is a game that is not yet interesting, I have to think about how I can change it or adjust it so that people can be entertained.” In fixing games, he relies on his taste and intuition. And then he asks family and friends to play them. Nintendo doesn’t use focus groups. “I always remind myself, when it comes to a game I’m developing, that I am the perfect, skillful player. I can manipulate all this controller stuff. So sometimes I ask the younger game creators to try playing the games they are making by switching their left and right hands. In that way, they can understand how inexperienced the first-timer is.
“What we demand in development is sharing the common feeling.” Minagawa interjected that Miyamoto had used the term kyokan: “Kyo is the sharing and kan is the emotional feeling.”
“Suppose someone is talking about his children,” Miyamoto continued. “If I am a father, I can understand personally what he’s talking about. We have kyokan.” The term kyokan was used by the primatologist Masao Kawai to describe his empathic approach to studying monkeys; Kawai would befriend them and insinuate himself into their lives, so that he could better observe their behavior. Miyamoto said he wants the game players and the developers to have kyokan: for the players to feel about the game what the developers felt themselves. The developers are the primatologists, the players the monkeys.
One method for achieving understanding is the doling out of information, about what to do when, in just the right doses. “We always use the term ‘difficulty’ when we talk about gameplay,” he said. “If a game is too difficult, people may not want to play it again. With the appropriate level of difficulty, people may feel like challenging it again and again. As they repeat it, the amount of information they can acquire naturally increases. . . . I always try to be conscious about that kind of gradual improvement.
“Sometimes the test players complain that there are too many enemies in one stage. And when I approach the designer of that scene with that kind of complaint sometimes he or she says, ‘Oh, maybe they couldn’t find the stars at the beginning. As soon as they find out that the star makes you invincible, it’s more joy.’ And the developer insists that hiding the star in the beginning is going to be great. But if game players don’t understand this, and they can’t find the star, then the game doesn’t make sense at all.”
He compared the craft of luring players forward in a game to writing a good detective novel. “To what extent are you going to hide the secrets?” he said. “In order for a mystery or a joke to work, we have to provide the necessary amount of information. Not too much, not too little, but the perfect balance, so that in the end people can feel, How come I didn’t realize that? The difficulty with video games, unlike movies or novels, where the authors themselves can lead the audience to the end, is that in games it’s the players who have to find their own road to the end.”
Earlier, Miyamoto, a bluegrass fanatic, had suggested that learning to play a game is like learning to play a musical instrument. “Take the guitar,” he said. “Some people, when they stumble over how to accurately place their fingers in an F chord, they actually give it up. But once you learn how to play an F chord you become more deeply absorbed in playing the guitar.” The F chord, as he sees it, is a kind of bridge between indifference and pleasure. “If the bridge is too easy to pass by, it’s called ‘entertainment.’ If it’s rather difficult, it can be called ‘hobby.’ ”
Miyamoto often listens to music on his way to work. (He used to walk or ride a bicycle, but now Nintendo makes him drive, for his safety and its peace of mind.) “If I find that a certain musical phrase is very nice, probably the first thing I am going to do in my office is I am going to pick up the guitar and try to imitate that phrase until I can get it right,” he said. He uses a program on a Nintendo DSi handheld device to slow down the phrases, to unpack and understand them.
This urge to improve is a key ingredient in the formula, if there is one, for what keeps people playing a game. Miyamoto has become an aficionado of absorption. He has observed, for example, that some of his friends at his swimming club—he swims to stay in shape—have become obsessed with their technique and its contribution to speed and faster times. He also has friends who collect various things, and he studies the seriousness with which they tend to their collections.
He also studies himself. Miyamoto is the closest thing there is to an autobiographical game creator. His experience with his family’s pet Shetland sheepdog, and, more to the point, with other dog owners, gave him the idea for Nintendogs, a popular game in which you create a simulation of a pet and look after it on the DSi. And Pikmin, a game featuring tiny creatures that have stalks protruding from their heads and that live and travel in pods called Onions, arose out of his time puttering in the garden. When he turned forty, he decided to give up cigarettes and pachinko and get in shape. He took up swimming and jogging, and began weighing himself every day on a digital scale. He hung graphs of the data, down to the gram, on the bathroom wall. “Once the graphs I’d recorded started to pile up, I started to feel a strange fondness for them—regardless of whether I was gaining weight or losing weight,” he said a few years ago, in a Q. & A. with Nintendo’s president, Satoru Iwata. All this became, for his wife and his daughter, a source of curiosity and amusement, and an idea occurred to him. “This could be a nice trigger for conversation,” he told me. “If I could make it into a game, it could probably help isolated fathers get more association with their daughters.” He brought the notion to the team of designers developing games for the Wii. They were skeptical, but eventually they came out with Wii Fit, a fitness game, which has since sold thirty-seven million copies worldwide. It suits his view, and the industry’s, that introducing an element of play to a transaction or a task can get people to do things they might not normally do. In the commercial sphere, this is called “gamification,” or, more gratingly, “funware”: make something a game, in a supermarket or on a social network, and Homo ludens will play it. “It’s a shame if we narrowly limit the definition of video games,” he said.
This tendency for his personal fixations to become platinum-selling video games has given rise to an obsession, among gamers, with whatever Miyamoto says he’s up to. When I asked him, to that end, what he did for pleasure these days, he said, “I like changing the interiors of the house, or sometimes even the exterior of the house. Sometimes I’m called the Sunday carpenter. Even at midnight or at some early hour in the morning, I will change the location of the sofa in the living room. That’s me. Something tells me that by changing it my life is going to be more enjoyable. At least it’s going to give me some fresh feeling.” (Rearranging the furniture: this game came along years ago, and it was called the Sims.) In terms of non-video games, he prefers games of luck, in which a weaker player has a chance of winning, such as hanafuda, to games of skill, like go and shogi. “I’m not as good at so-called ‘strategic games’ at all.”
The Japanese word for play is asobi. In “Homo Ludens,” in a chapter summarizing various languages’ expression of the “play-concept,” Johan Huizinga notes that asobi can mean “play in general, recreation, relaxation, amusement, passing the time or pastime, a trip or jaunt, dissipation, gambling, idling, lying idle, being unemployed.” The opposite of asobi might be majime, which can mean “seriousness, sobriety, gravity, honesty, solemnity, stateliness; also quietness, decency, ‘good form.’ It is related to the word which we render by ‘face’ in the well-known Chinese expression ‘to lose face.’ ”
“Anything that is impractical can be play,” Miyamoto said. “It’s doing something other than what is necessary to continue living as an animal.” As to its purpose, he said, “When it comes to other animals, they play to prepare themselves for hunting. If you ask me why human beings play, well, I just don’t know. It must be just for pleasure. We generate chemicals in our brain so that we can have some pleasure, and by now we’ve come to understand that pleasure makes you happier, and being happier makes you healthier.”
The games Nintendo has been making have become less isolating and more social. The Wii was designed, in some respects, to bring gaming out of the basement and into the living room—to make it more acceptable to parents, many of them retired gamers themselves, and to reach more eyeballs and thumbs. “I became more conscious about the environment in which people play the video games, especially after we had our first child,” Miyamoto said. (He has a son, twenty-five, who works at an advertising agency, and a daughter, twenty-three, who is studying zoology.) His children played video games, although on sunny days he made them go outside to play. “I don’t think I ever talked about doing homework first. But, if there was any rule, it was that inside our house the video games—hardware, software—they are my property, so that when the children want to play they have to borrow them from me. So, for example, when I said, ‘It’s time for you to stop. Otherwise you cannot play again at all’—I think it worked!”
He doesn’t have much time anymore to play other games. He noted, with what seemed to be some annoyance, that the long pregame movie sequences that come with most games—prologues that establish the narrative and the scene and that involve no gameplay at all—take what little time he has actually to play. (As it happens, Donkey Kong was among the first games to have a pregame sequence.) To find out what’s out there, he prefers to interview Nintendo’s developers and employees about their experiences playing games. When I asked him which game developers he admired, he named only one, Will Wright. “It’s becoming increasingly difficult to tell, from the looks and the play of the games, who has created the software,” he said.
Unlike most of the better-known game designers, Miyamoto doesn’t have a particular niche. His games have spanned many genres. He’s also been at the forefront of three major phases: the side-scrolling game; the free-roaming 3-D game, like Super Mario 64 and Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time, to which Grand Theft Auto and its ilk owe their existence; and, with the Wii, the motion-capture game, now the prevailing paradigm. (Consider Kinect, the new Microsoft toy.) The only big shift he missed, perhaps, is the push toward hyperrealistic graphics.
“I recognize that there are certain types of games for which the photorealistic graphics are suited,” he said. “But what I don’t like is that any and all games are supposed to be photorealistic.” He prefers to direct his team’s efforts and resources toward the quality of the gameplay—the choices and challenges inherent in the game, also known as the game mechanics. Mario, his most famous creation, owes his appearance to the technological limitations of the first Donkey Kong game. The primitive graphics—there were hardly enough pixels to approximate a human form—compelled Miyamoto to give Mario white gloves and red overalls (so that you could see his arms swing), a big bushy mustache and a red hat (to hide the fact that the engineers couldn’t yet do mouths or hair that moved), and a big head (to exaggerate his collisions). Form has always followed functionality. The problem now, if you want to call it one, is the degree of functionality.
What impressed him most about the early manga artists of his youth, aside from the fact that they created a genre “from nothing at all,” was how they later subverted it. “When they became much older, they started to destroy the style they themselves had created,” he said. For example, they began to ignore the cartoon-panel framework or combine multiple narratives or else use the manga form to explore macroeconomics or their own private thoughts. “When I started working for the company, I thought that someday I would like to do the same. I wanted to destroy the styles that we ourselves created. I don’t think we can do so completely, but I think that in the way that we are making video games today we might be getting closer to my idea of destroying the original style.” He went on, “Because we ourselves have created the original format or style of video games, we understand why we had to do it at the time. Because we understand that, we can also understand why some of them must be kept intact and why some of them we can destroy.”
Miyamoto fans have made pilgrimages to some of the larger limestone caves near Sonobe. These have electric lights and permanent stairways and are open to tourists. He told me that although he’d visited these caves, they weren’t the ones he’d talked about exploring as a boy. His were smaller, more hidden. A few years ago, he was in Sonobe and went to look for them. He found that houses and roads had replaced a lot of his old terrain, and that someone, presumably out of concern for safety, had blocked off the entrances to his caves.
Two days after my meeting with Miyamoto, I went to Sonobe to have a look around. I took a taxi. The driver, like Mario, wore white gloves. He spoke no English. It was a bright, mild autumn day; in the hills outside the city, the foliage was beginning to turn. We got off the highway in Sonobe, which seemed both rural and light-industrial in a way that reminded me of Nyack. The houses were small and close together, with handsome roofs of ceramic tile. We stopped alongside the Sonobe River, where Miyamoto, as a boy, had caught fish with his hands, and I descended the bank and stared at the riffles for a while until I realized, with a start, that there were six or seven giant carp in a pool right by my feet. Then we stopped at the Shinto shrine, at the foot of one of Miyamoto’s mountains; a quick reconnaissance of the bamboo forest that abutted it turned up nothing but garbage—an instant-ramen wrapper, a gym sock. Next up was Komugi Mountain, atop which, Miyamoto had told me, I would find the ruins of Sonobe Castle, the epicenter of his childhood explorations. We parked near a collection of municipal buildings, including a new pagoda-style “international center” that had been modelled on the castle. We walked past a drained swimming pool and a little park decorated with statues of stone monkeys and lions to a paved lane that appeared to wind its way to the top of Komugi Mountain, which, it turned out, was hardly a mountain at all; it had an elevation of just a few hundred feet. It was thinly forested, with a sign every hundred yards or so describing the flora in Japanese. The driver and I stared helplessly at the signs; I was reminded of those moments in Zelda when you push a button on the Wii Remote and are provided with hints about what to do next. The button, in this case, was defective. Sunlight slanted through the trees; the hollows were full of ferns and mushrooms. Near the top, a path broke off and led to a flat open plot, where the castle should have been, but, save for an old stone wall, there were no ruins to be seen. A set of austere monoliths dominated the site. There was also a small nursery surrounded by a fence.
On a whim, I went down the backside of the hill. It was steeper here, and more thickly wooded, and the earth underfoot was gravelly and slick. I had to hold on to branches to keep from sliding. About twenty yards down, I came across a hole in the ground. Someone had slid some logs into it lengthwise, to narrow the entrance. Leaves had packed in around them, like mortar. Three logs had been lashed together and planted in the earth as a crude little fence. For a probe, I found a branch nearby, but it hit nothing. Holding my cell phone, I stuck my arm in, but the phone’s display illuminated only roots and dirt. The opening, if you’d cleared out the stuff blocking it, would have had room for the frame of a boy with a lantern.
I wandered around in the brush for a while longer but found no other open holes. Visible below, in the valley, was a running track, a soccer pitch, and a giant dirt lot, where you could hear the shouts and screams of children at play. I bushwhacked back to the cab, and we drove around to where the sounds had been coming from: a schoolyard. I stood at the edge of it for a spell and watched a bunch of boys, aged nine or so, play a frenzied and unruly game of kickball. On one side of the yard, a group of girls were playing something else. One at a time, they dashed in and out of the brush at the foot of Komugi Mountain. The object, it seemed, was to venture in deeper, or stay in longer, than the girl before.
Swingers Bonobos are celebrated as peace-loving, matriarchal, and sexually liberated. Are they?[modifica | modifica wikitesto]
n a Saturday evening a few months ago, a fund-raiser was held in a downtown Manhattan yoga studio to benefit the bonobo, a species of African ape that is very similar to—but, some say, far nicer than—the chimpanzee. A flyer for the event depicted a bonobo sitting in the crook of a tree, a superimposed guitar in its left hand, alongside the message “Save the Hippie Chimps!” An audience of young, shoeless people sat cross-legged on a polished wooden floor, listening to Indian-accented music and eating snacks prepared by Bonobo’s, a restaurant on Twenty-third Street that serves raw vegetarian food. According to the restaurant’s take-out menu, “Wild bonobos are happy, pleasure-loving creatures whose lifestyle is dictated by instinct and Mother Nature.”
The event was arranged by the Bonobo Conservation Initiative, an organization based in Washington, D.C., which works in the Democratic Republic of Congo to protect bonobo habitats and to combat illegal trading in bush meat. Sally Jewell Coxe, the group’s founder and president, stood to make a short presentation. She showed slides of bonobos, including one captioned “MAKE LOVE NOT WAR,” and said that the apes, which she described as “bisexual,” engaged in various kinds of sexual activity in order to defuse conflict and maintain a tranquil society. There was applause. “Bonobos are into peace and love and harmony,” Coxe said, then joked, “They might even have been the first ape to discover marijuana.” Images of bonobos were projected onto the wall behind her: they looked like chimpanzees but had longer hair, flatter faces, pinker lips, smaller ears, narrower bodies, and, one might say, more gravitas—a chimpanzee’s arched brow looks goofy, but a bonobo’s low, straight brow sets the face in what is easy to read as earnest contemplativeness.
I spoke to a tall man in his forties who went by the single name Wind, and who had driven from his home in North Carolina to sing at the event. He was a musician and a former practitioner of “metaphysical counselling,” which he also referred to as clairvoyance. He said that he had encountered bonobos a few years ago at Georgia State University, at the invitation of Sue Savage-Rumbaugh, a primatologist known for experiments that test the language-learning abilities of bonobos. (During one of Wind’s several visits to G.S.U., Peter Gabriel, the British pop star, was also there; Gabriel played a keyboard, another keyboard was put in front of a bonobo, and Wind played flutes and a small drum.) Bonobos are remarkable, Wind told me, for being capable of “unconditional love.” They were “tolerant, patient, forgiving, and supportive of one another.” Chimps, by contrast, led brutish lives of “aggression, ego, and plotting.” As for humans, they had some innate stock of bonobo temperament, but they too often behaved like chimps. (The chimp-bonobo division is strongly felt by devotees of the latter. Wind told me that he once wore a chimpanzee T-shirt to a bonobo event, and “got shit for it.”)
It was Wind’s turn to perform. “Help Gaia and Gaia will help you,” he chanted into a microphone, in a booming voice that made people jump. “Help bonobo and bonobo will help you.”
In recent years, the bonobo has found a strange niche in the popular imagination, based largely on its reputation for peacefulness and promiscuity. The Washington Post recently described the species as copulating “incessantly”; the Times claimed that the bonobo “stands out from the chest-thumping masses as an example of amicability, sensitivity and, well, humaneness”; a PBS wildlife film began with the words “Where chimpanzees fight and murder, bonobos are peacemakers. And, unlike chimps, it’s not the bonobo males but the females who have the power.” The Kinsey Institute claims on its Web site that “every bonobo—female, male, infant, high or low status—seeks and responds to kisses.” And, in Los Angeles, a sex adviser named Susan Block promotes what she calls “The Bonobo Way” on public-access television. (In brief: “Pleasure eases pain; good sex defuses tension; love lessens violence; you can’t very well fight a war while you’re having an orgasm.”) In newspaper columns and on the Internet, bonobos are routinely described as creatures that shun violence and live in egalitarian or female-dominated communities; more rarely, they are said to avoid meat. These behaviors are thought to be somehow linked to their unquenchable sexual appetites, often expressed in the missionary position. And because the bonobo is the “closest relative” of humans, its comportment is said to instruct us in the fundamentals of human nature. To underscore the bonobo’s status as a signpost species—a guide to human virtue, or at least modern dating—it is said to walk upright. (The Encyclopædia Britannica depicts the species in a bipedal pose, like a chimpanzee in a sitcom.)
This pop image of the bonobo—equal parts dolphin, Dalai Lama, and Warren Beatty—has flourished largely in the absence of the animal itself, which was recognized as a species less than a century ago. Two hundred or so bonobos are kept in captivity around the world; but, despite being one of just four species of great ape, along with orangutans, gorillas, and chimpanzees, the wild bonobo has received comparatively little scientific scrutiny. It is one of the oddities of the bonobo world—and a source of frustration to some—that Frans de Waal, of Emory University, the high-profile Dutch primatologist and writer, who is the most frequently quoted authority on the species, has never seen a wild bonobo.
Attempts to study bonobos in their habitat began only in the nineteen-seventies, and those efforts have always been intermittent, because of geography and politics. Wild bonobos, which are endangered (estimates of their number range from six thousand to a hundred thousand), keep themselves out of view, in dense and inaccessible rain forests, and only in the Democratic Republic of Congo, where, in the past decade, more than three million people have died in civil and regional conflicts. For several years around the turn of the millennium, when fighting in Congo was at its most intense, field observation of bonobos came to a halt.
In recent years, however, some Congolese and overseas observers have returned to the forest, and to the hot, damp work of sneaking up on reticent apes. The most prominent scientist among them is Gottfried Hohmann, a research associate at the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology, in Leipzig, Germany. He has been visiting Congo off and on since 1989. When I first called Hohmann, two years ago, he didn’t immediately embrace the idea of taking a reporter on a field trip. But we continued to talk, and in the week after attending the bonobo fund-raiser in New York I flew to meet Hohmann in Kinshasa, Congo’s capital. A few days later, I was talking with him and two of his colleagues in the shade of an aircraft hangar in Kinshasa’s airport for charter flights, waiting for a plane to fly us to the forest.
It was a hot morning. We sat on plastic garden chairs, looking out over a runway undisturbed by aircraft. The airport seemed half-ruined. Families were living in one hangar, and laundry hung to dry over makeshift shelters. A vender came by with local newspapers, which were filled with fears of renewed political violence. European embassies had been sending cautionary text messages to their resident nationals.
Hohmann is a lean, serious, blue-eyed man in his mid-fifties. He has a reputation for professional fortitude, but also for chilliness. One bonobo researcher told me that he was “very difficult to work with,” and there were harsher judgments, too. He lives in Leipzig with Barbara Fruth, his wife and frequent scientific collaborator, and their three young children. Three or four times a year, he flies to Kinshasa, where he charters a light plane operated by an American-based missionary group. The plane takes him into the world’s second-largest rain forest, in the Congo Basin, and puts him within hiking distance of a study site called Lui Kotal, where he has worked since 2002. When Hohmann first came to Congo—then Zaire—he operated from a site that could be reached only by sweating upriver for a week in a motorized canoe. “People think it’s entertaining, but it’s not,” he told me, as we waited. “It’s so slow. So hard.” He added, “You always think there’s going to be something round the next bend, but there never is.” He is an orderly man who has learned how to withstand disorder, an impatient man who has reached some accommodation with endless delay.
Hohmann makes only short visits to Lui Kotal, but the camp is run in his absence by Congolese staff members on rotation from the nearest village, and by foreign research students or volunteers. Two new camp recruits were joining Hohmann on this flight: Andrew Fowler, a tough-looking Londoner in his forties, was an experienced chimpanzee field worker with a Ph.D.; Ryan Matthews was a languid Canadian-American of thirty who had answered an online advertisement to be Lui Kotal’s camp manager, for three hundred euros a month. We had all met for the first time a few days earlier, in a café in the least lawless neighborhood of Kinshasa, where Hohmann had flatly noted that, of all the overseas visitors he had invited to Lui Kotal over the years, only one had ever wanted to return. Fowler and Matthews were a bit wary of Hohmann, and so was I. We had exchanged small talk over a pink tablecloth, establishing, first, that the British say “bo-noh-bo”; Americans, “bahn-obo”; and Germans something in between.
Fowler and Matthews had just taken their last shower before Christmas. They would be camping for at least nine months, detached from their previous lives except for access, once or twice a week, to brief e-mails. Fowler, emanating self-reliance, was impatient for the exile to come; he had brought little more than a penknife and a copy of “The Seven Pillars of Wisdom.” Matthews was carrying more. As we discovered over time, his equipment included a fur hat, a leather-bound photo album, an inflatable sofa, and goggles decorated with glitter. Matthews is a devotee of the annual Burning Man festival, in the Nevada desert, and this, apparently, had informed his African preparations.
Matthews would be keeping accounts and ordering supplies. Fowler’s long-term plan was to find a postdoctoral research topic about bonobos, but his daily duty, on this trip, was to be a “habituator”—someone able to find the community of thirty or so bonobos known to live near the camp, and stay within sight of them as they moved from place to place, with the idea that future researchers might be able to observe them for more than a few seconds at a time. Fowler called it “chimp-bothering.” (Watching bonobos, I understood, is not like ornithology; there’s no pretense that you’re not there.) It gave an insight into the pace of bonobo studies to realize that, nearly five years after Hohmann first reached Lui Kotal, this process of habituation and identification—upon which serious research depends—remained unfinished.
“There’s a satisfaction for a scientist to come home at night with his notebook filled,” Hohmann said with a shrug. “The most happy people are always the ecologists. They go to the forest, and the trees are not running away.” He and his colleagues were still “racing through the dark, trying to get I.D.s,” and most of the interesting bonobo questions were still unanswered. Is male aggression kept in check by females? Why do females give birth only every five to seven years, despite frequent sexual activity? In the far distance, such lines of inquiry may converge at an understanding of bonobo evolution, Hohmann said, and, beyond, the origins of human beings. “It’s a long path, and, because it’s long, there are few people who do it. If it was quicker and easier? There are hundreds of people working with baboons and lemurs, so it’s not so easy to find your niche. A student working with bonobos can close his eyes and pick a topic, and it can’t be wrong.”
We finally boarded a tiny plane. Our pilot was a middle-aged American with a straight back and a large mustache. As we took off, Matthews was speaking on a cell phone to his mother, in New Jersey—enjoying the final moments of reception before it was lost for the rest of the year. The Congo River was beneath us as we rose through patches of low clouds. Suddenly, the plane seemed to fill with clouds, as if clouds were made of a dense white mist that could drift between airplane seats. The pilot turned to look—the fog seemed to be coming from the rear of the cabin—and then glanced at Hohmann, whose seat was alongside his. “Is that O.K.?” the pilot asked, in the most carefree tone imaginable. Hohmann said it was, explaining that liquid nitrogen, imported to freeze bonobo urine, must have been forced out of its cannister by the change in air pressure. Meanwhile, Matthews told his mother, “The plane seems to be filling with smoke,” at which point his phone dropped the call.
We flew inland, to the east. The Congo River looped away to the north. Bonobos live only south of the river. (Accordingly, they have been called “left-bank chimps.”) The evolutionary tree looks like this: if the trunk is the common ape ancestor and the treetop is the present day, then the lowest—that is, the earliest—branch leads to the modern orangutan. That may have been about sixteen million years ago. The next-highest branch, around eight million years ago, leads to the gorilla; then, six million years ago, the human branch. The remaining branch divides once more, perhaps two million years ago. And this last split was presumably connected to a geographical separation: chimpanzees evolved north of the Congo River, bonobos to the south. Chimpanzees came to inhabit far-flung landscapes that had various tree densities; bonobos largely stayed in thick, gloomy forest. (Chimpanzees had to compete for resources with gorillas; but bonobos never saw another ape—one theory argues that this richer environment, by allowing bonobos to move and feed together as a leisurely group, led to the evolution of reduced rancor.) From the plane, we first looked down on a flat landscape of grassland dotted with patches of trees; this slowly became forest dotted with grassland patches; and then all we could see was a crush of trees barely making way for the occasional scribble of a Congo tributary.
After three hours, we landed at a dirt airstrip in a field of tall grass and taller termite mounds. There were no buildings in sight. We were just south of the equator, five hundred miles from Kinshasa, and three hundred miles from the nearest road used by cars—in a part of the continent connected by waterways or by trails running through the forest from village to village, good for pedestrians and the occasional old bicycle. The plane left, and the airstrip’s only infrastructure—a sunshade made of a sheet of blue plastic tied at each corner to a rough wooden post—was dismantled in seconds, and taken away.
Joseph Etike, a quizzical-looking man in his thirties who is Hohmann’s local manager, organized porters to carry our liquid nitrogen and our inflatable sofa. We first walked for an hour to Lompole, a village of thirty houses made of baked-earth bricks and thatched roofs, and stopped at Etike’s home. “People were amazed when Gottfried first came to the village, and asked about the bonobos,” Etike recalled, standing beside his front door. (He spoke in French, his second language.) “They’d never heard of such a thing.” His salary was reflected in his wardrobe: he was dressed in jeans and sneakers, while his neighbors wore flip-flops and battered shorts and Pokémon T-shirts. I asked Etike how local people had historically thought of the bonobo. “It depends on the family,” he said. “In mine, there was a story that my great-great-grandfather became lost in the forest and was found by a bonobo, and it showed him the path. So my family never hunted them.” But the tradition was somehow not fully impressed on Joseph as a boy, and when he was seventeen someone gave him bonobo meat, to his mother’s regret. How did it taste? “Like antelope,” he said. “No. Like elephant meat.”
One afternoon in 1928, Harold Coolidge, a Harvard zoologist, was picking through a storage tray of ape bones in a museum near Brussels. He examined a skull identified as belonging to a juvenile chimpanzee from the Belgian Congo, and was surprised to see that the bones of the skull’s dome were fused. In a young chimpanzee (and in a young human, too), these bones are not joined but can shift in relation to one another, like broken ice on a pond. He had to be holding an adult head, but it was not a chimpanzee’s. Several similar skulls lay nearby.
Coolidge knew that this was an important discovery. But he was incautious; when the museum’s director passed by, Coolidge mentioned the skull. The director, in turn, alerted Ernst Schwarz, a German anatomist who was already aware that there were differences between apes on either side of the Congo. And, as Coolidge later wrote, “in a flash Schwarz grabbed a pencil and paper,” and published an article that named a new subspecies, Pan satyrus paniscus, or pygmy chimpanzee. This was the animal that eventually became known as the bonobo. (In fact, bonobos are barely smaller than chimpanzees, except for their heads; but Schwarz had seen only a head.) “I had been taxonomically scooped,” Coolidge wrote. He had the lesser honor of elevating Pan paniscus to the status of full species, in 1933.
Live bonobos had already been seen outside Congo, but they, too, had been misidentified as chimps. At the turn of the century, the Antwerp zoo held at least one. Robert Yerkes, a founder of modern primatology, briefly owned a bonobo. In 1923, he bought two young apes, and called one Chim and the other Panzee. In “Almost Human,” published two years later, he noted that they looked and behaved quite differently. Panzee was timid, dumb, and foul-tempered. “Her resentment and anger were readily aroused and she was quick to give them expression with hands and teeth,” Yerkes wrote. Chim was a joy: equable and eager for new experiences. “Seldom daunted, he treated the mysteries of life as philosophically as any man.” Moreover, he was a “genius.” Yerkes’s description, coupled with later study of Chim’s remains, made it plain that he was Pan paniscus: bonobos had a good reputation even before they had a name. (Panzee was a chimpanzee; but, in defense of that species, her peevishness was probably connected to a tuberculosis infection.) Chim died in 1924, before his species was recognized.
For decades, “pygmy chimpanzee” remained the common term for these apes, even after “bonobo” was first proposed, in a 1954 paper by Eduard Tratz, an Austrian zoologist, and Heinz Heck, the director of the Munich zoo. (They suggested, incorrectly, that “bonobo” was an indigenous word; they may have been led astray by Bolobo, a town on the south bank of the Congo River. In the area where Hohmann works, the species is called edza.) In the thirties, that zoo had three members of Pan paniscus, and Heck and Tratz had studied them. By the time their paper, the first based on detailed observations of bonobo behavior, was published, the specimens were dead, allegedly killed by stress during Allied air raids. (The deaths have been cited as evidence of a bonobo’s innate sensitivity; the zoo’s brute chimpanzees survived.) As Frans de Waal has noted, Heck and Tratz’s pioneering insights—they wrote that bonobos were less violent than chimps, for example—did not become general scientific knowledge, and had to be rediscovered.
Twenty years passed before anyone attempted to study bonobos in the wild. In 1972, Arthur Horn, a doctoral candidate in physical anthropology at Yale, was encouraged by his department to travel alone to Zaire; on the shore of Lake Tumba, three hundred miles northwest of Kinshasa, he embarked on the first bonobo field study. “The idea was to gather all the information about how bonobos lived, what they did—something like Jane Goodall,” Horn told me. Goodall was already famous for her long-term study of chimpanzees in Gombe, Tanzania, and for her poise in the films made about her by the National Geographic Society and others. Thanks, in part, to her work, the chimpanzee had taken on the role of model species for humans—the instructive nearest neighbor, the best living hint of our past and our potential. (That role had previously been held, at different times, by the gorilla and the savanna baboon.) At this time, Goodall had confidence that chimpanzees were “by and large, rather ‘nicer’ than us.”
Horn’s attempt to follow Goodall’s model was thwarted. He spent two years in Africa, during which time he observed bonobos for a total of about six hours. “And, when I did see them, as soon as they saw me they were gone,” he told me.
In 1974, not long after Horn left Africa, Goodall witnessed the start of what she came to call the Four-Year War in Gombe. A chimpanzee population split into two, and, over time, one group wiped out the other, in gory episodes of territorial attack and cannibalism. Chimp aggression was already recognized by science, but chimp warfare was not. “I struggled to come to terms with this new knowledge,” Goodall later wrote. She would wake in the night, haunted by the memory of witnessing a female chimpanzee gorging on the flesh of an infant, “her mouth smeared with blood like some grotesque vampire from the legends of childhood.”
Reports of this behavior found a place in a long-running debate about the fundamentals of human nature—a debate, in short, about whether people were nasty or nice. Were humans savage but for the constructs of civil society (Thomas Hobbes)? Or were they civil but for the corruptions of society (Jean-Jacques Rousseau)? It had not taken warring chimps to suggest some element of biological inheritance in human behavior, including aggression: the case had been made, in its most popular recent form, by Desmond Morris, in “The Naked Ape,” his 1967 best-seller. But if chimpanzees had once pointed the way toward a tetchy but less than menacing common ancestor, they could no longer do so: Goodall had documented bloodlust in our closest relative. According to Richard Wrangham, a primatologist at Harvard and the author, with Dale Peterson, of “Demonic Males” (1996), the Gombe killings “made credible the idea that our warring tendencies go back into our prehuman past. They made us a little less special.”
Meanwhile, bonobo studies began to gain momentum. Other scientists followed Horn into the Congo Basin, and they set up two primary field sites. One, at Lomako, three hundred miles northeast of Lake Tumba, came to be used by Randall Susman, of Stony Brook University, and his students. Further to the east, Takayoshi Kano, of Kyoto University, in Japan, made a survey of bonobo habitats on foot and on bicycle, and in 1974 he set up a site at the edge of a village called Wamba. Early data from Wamba became better known than Lomako’s: the Japanese spent more time at their site and saw more bonobos. Susman, however, can take credit for the first bonobo book: he edited a collection of papers given at the first bonobo symposium, in Atlanta, in 1982.
In the winter of 1983-84, in an exploration that was less gruelling but as influential as any field research, Frans de Waal turned his attention from chimps to bonobos, and spent several months observing and videotaping ten bonobos in the San Diego Zoo. He had recently published “Chimpanzee Politics: Power and Sex Among Apes” (1982), to great acclaim, and, as de Waal recently recalled, “Most people I talked to at the time would say, ‘Why would you do bonobos if you can do real, big chimpanzees?’ ” Among the papers that drew on his studies in San Diego, one was particularly noticed in the academy. In “Tension Regulation and Nonreproductive Functions of Sex in Captive Bonobos,” de Waal reported that these apes seemed to be having more sex, and more kinds of sex, than was really necessary. He recorded seventeen brief episodes of oral sex and four hundred and twenty equally brief episodes of face-to-face mounting. He also saw forty-three instances of kissing, some involving “extensive tongue-tongue contact.”
In the late nineteen-eighties, Gottfried Hohmann was an ambitious scientist in his thirties; he spent nearly three years in southern India, researching vocal communication in macaques and langurs. “But it was difficult then to get funding for India,” Hohmann told me. “And the bonobo thing was just heating up. Frans’s paper really affected everyone” in the scientific community. “Tongue-kissing apes? You can’t come up with a better story. Then people said to me, ‘We want you to go in the field.’ ” Hohmann ran his hand back and forth over his head. “So,” he said.
We were sitting on a wooden bench at the edge of a forest clearing barely larger than a basketball court, talking against a constant screech—an insect tinnitus that the ear never quite processed into silence. Trees rose a hundred feet all around, giving the impression that we had fallen to the bottom of a well. Two days after our plane touched down, we had reached Lui Kotal. In the intervening hours, which were inarguably more challenging for the three newcomers than for Hohmann, we had first camped in a violent rainstorm, then followed some unflagging porters on a trail that led through the hot, soupy air of the forest, and along waist-high streams that flowed over mud. We had then camped again, before crossing a fast-flowing river in an unsteady canoe.
Now, at five in the afternoon, the light at Lui Kotal was beginning to fade. People who work there make do with little sun—and with a horizon that is directly overhead. Around us, the wall of vegetation was solid except where broken by paths: one led back to the village; another led into that part of the forest where Hohmann and his team have permission to roam—an area, six miles by five, whose boundaries are streams and rivers. In the clearing stood a dozen structures with thatched roofs and no walls. Some of these sheltered tents; a larger one was a kitchen, where an open fire was burning; and another was built over a long wooden table, beside which hung a 2006 Audubon Society calendar that had been neatly converted—with glue, paper, and an extravagant superfluity of time—into a 2007 calendar. At the table sat two young American volunteers who were not many weeks away from seeing the calendar’s images repeat. Pale, skinny men in their twenties, wearing wild beards, they looked like they needed rescuing from kidnappers. Three others were less feral, and had been in the camp for a shorter time: a young British woman volunteer, an Austrian woman who had recently graduated from the University of Vienna, and a Swiss Ph.D. student attached to the Max Planck Institute.
Hohmann, shirtless, was in an easy mood, knowing that much of the logistical and political business of the trip was now done. Before leaving the village, I’d seen something of a bonobo researcher’s extended duties. The men of Lompole had convened around him, their arms crossed and hands tucked into their armpits. Hohmann remained seated and silent as an angry debate began—as Hohmann described it, between villagers who were unhappy about the original deal that compensated the village for having to stop hunting around Lui Kotal (this had involved a bulk gift of corrugated iron, to be used for roofs) and those who worked directly for the project and saw the greater advantage in stability and employment. Hohmann had finally got up and delivered a forceful speech in Lingala, Congo’s national language. He finished with a moment of theatre: he loomed over his main antagonist, wagging his finger. “It’s good to remind him now and then how short he is,” Hohmann later said, smiling.
By 1989, Hohmann told me, he had read enough bonobo literature to be tempted to visit Zaire. Even if one left aside French kissing, he said, “the bonobo allured me. I thought, This is a species.” By then, thanks to field and captive studies, a picture of bonobo society had begun to emerge, and some peculiar chimpanzee-bonobo dichotomies had been described. Besides looking and sounding different from chimpanzees (bonobos let out high whoops that can seem restrained alongside chimpanzee yelling), bonobos seemed to order their lives without the hierarchical fury and violence of chimpanzees. (“With bonobos, everything is peaceful,” Takeshi Furuichi, a Japanese researcher who worked with Kano at Wamba, told me. “When I see bonobos, they seem to be enjoying their lives. When I see chimpanzees, I am very, very sorry for them, especially for the high-ranking males. They really have to pay attention.”) In captivity, at least, male bonobos never ganged up on females, although the reverse sometimes occurred. The bonds among females seemed to be stronger than among male chimpanzees, and this was perhaps reinforced by sexual activity, by momentary episodes of frottage that bonobo experts refer to as “genito-genital rubbing,” or “g-g rubbing.” And, unusually, the females were said to be sexually receptive to males even at times when there was no chance of conception.
“We said, ‘We have to answer: Why is it like this?’ ” Hohmann said. “The males, the physically superior animals, do not dominate the females, the inferior animals? The males, the genetically closely related part of any bonobo group, do not coöperate, but the females, who are not related, do coöperate? It is not only different from chimpanzees but it violates the rules of social ecology.”
Hohmann flew to Zaire and eventually set up a small camp in Lomako Forest, a few miles from the original Stony Brook site. His memory is that Susman’s camp had been unused for years, but Susman told me that it was still active, and that Hohmann was graceless in the way that he took over the forest. And although Hohmann said that he worked with a new community of bonobos, Susman said that Hohmann inherited bonobos that were already habituated, and failed to acknowledge this research advantage. Whatever the truth, the distrust seems typical of the field. The challenges of bonobo research call for chimpanzee vigor, and this leads to animosities. Susman told me that Hohmann was the kind of man who, “if he was sitting by the side of the road and needed a filter for his Land Rover, people would drive right by. Even if they had five extra filters in the trunk.”
When a researcher has access to a species about which little is known, and whose every gesture seems to echo a human gesture, and whose eyes meet a human gaze, there is a temptation simply to stare, until you have seen enough to tell a story. That is how Hohmann judged the work of Dian Fossey, who made long-term observations of gorillas in Rwanda, and the work of Jane Goodall, at least at the start of her career. “They lived with the apes and for the apes,” he said. “It was ‘Let’s see what I’m going to get. I enjoy it anyway, so whatever I get is fine.’ ” And this is how Hohmann regarded the Japanese researchers, for all their perseverance. The Wamba site had produced a lot of data on social and sexual relations, and Kano published a book about bonobos, which concluded with the suggestion that bonobos illuminated the evolution of human love. But “what the Japanese produced was not really satisfying,” Hohmann said. “It was narrative and descriptive. They are not setting out with a question. They want to understand bonobos.” Moreover, the Japanese initially lured bonobos with food, as Goodall had lured chimpanzees. This was more than habituation. At Wamba, bonobos ate sugarcane at a field planted for them. The primatological term is “provisioning”; Hohmann calls it opening a restaurant. (As an example of the possibly distorting impact of provisioning, Hohmann noted that the Wamba females had far shorter intervals between births than those at Lomako.)
Hohmann’s first stay at Lomako lasted thirteen months. Halfway through, Barbara Fruth, a German Ph.D. student, flew to join him; they eventually married. (Up until then, “I was not thinking of having a family,” Hohmann said. “I was just doing what I did. I said, ‘I don’t have the time, and who’s crazy enough to join me?’ ”) Hohmann and Fruth flew back and forth between Germany and Lomako, and the bonobos eventually became so habituated that they would sometimes fall asleep in front of their observers. The Max Planck Institute is not a university; it supports an academic life that many professors elsewhere would find enviable—one of long-term funding and no undergraduates. Hohmann was able to publish slowly. Though not immune to the charms of ape-watching, he was at pains to set himself precise research goals. How did bonobos build nests? How did they share food? As one of his colleagues described it, Hohmann wanted to avoid being dirtied by the stain of primatology—a discipline regarded by some in biology as being afflicted by personality cults and overextrapolation. The big bonobo picture might one day emerge, but it would happen only after the rigorous testing of hypotheses in the forest. When a publisher asked Hohmann for a bonobo book, he responded that it was too soon. “Gottfried’s one of those people who don’t want to risk being criticized, so they make absolutely certain that they’ve completely nailed everything down before they publish,” Richard Wrangham told me, with a mixture of respect and impatience.
In 1997, not long after the birth of their first child, Hohmann and Fruth decided to live in Congo full time. They leased a house in Basankusu, the nearest town to Lomako with an airstrip. Hohmann had already picked up the keys when civil war intervened. The troops of Laurent Kabila, the rebel leader and future President, were at that time making a long traverse from west to east—they eventually reached Kinshasa, and President Mobutu Sese Seko fled. One day, when Hohmann was at Lomako without his wife, soldiers from the government side turned up and gave him a day to leave. “They wanted to get everyone out of the area who might help the rebels,” Hohmann said. (Around the same time, the Japanese researchers abandoned Wamba.) Hohmann took only what he could carry. On his way back to Kinshasa, he was interrogated as a suspected spy.
The bonobo fell out of the view of scientists at the very moment that the public discovered an interest. In 1991, National Geographic sent Frans Lanting, a Dutch photographer, to photograph bonobos at Wamba. “At the time, there were no pictures of bonobos in the wild,” Lanting recently told me. “Or, at least, no professional documentation.” On his assignment, Lanting contracted cerebral malaria. But he was stirred by his encounter with the bonobos. “I became sure that the boundaries between apes and humans were very fluid,” he said. “You can’t call them animals. I prefer ‘creatures.’ It was haunting, the way they knew as much about you as you knew about them.” It became his task, he later told Frans de Waal, “to show how close we are to bonobos, and they to us.”
Many of his photographs were sexually explicit. “National Geographic found the pictures of sexuality hard to bear,” Lanting said. “That was a place the magazine was not ready to go.” The magazine printed only tame images. Not long after, Lanting contacted de Waal, who had recently taken up a post at Emory, as a professor of primate behavior and a researcher at the Yerkes National Primate Research Center. Agreeing to collaborate, they approached Geo, the German magazine. As de Waal recently told me, laughing, “Naturally, Geo put two copulating bonobos on the cover.” Not long afterward, Scientific American printed an illustrated article. In 1997, the Dutchmen brought out a handsome illustrated book, “Bonobo: The Forgotten Ape.”
By this time, the experiments of Sue Savage-Rumbaugh had drawn the public’s attention to Kanzi, a bonobo said to be unusually skilled at communicating with humans. (Savage-Rumbaugh’s claims for Kanzi have been a source of controversy among linguists.) But de Waal’s book established the reputation of the species in the mass media. Lanting’s photographs, since widely republished, showed bonobos lounging at Wamba’s sugarcane field, trying yoga stretches, and engaging in various kinds of sexual contact. A few pictures showed bonobos up on two feet. (As a caption noted, these upright bonobos were handling something edible and out of the ordinary—cut sugarcane, for example—suggesting a pose dictated by avidity, like a man bent over a table in a pie-eating contest.) In his text, de Waal interviewed field researchers, including Hohmann, and was fastidious at the level of historical and scientific detail. But his rhetoric was richly flavored, and emphasized a sharp contrast between bonobos and chimpanzees. “The chimpanzee resolves sexual issues with power,” he wrote. “The bonobo resolves power issues with sex.” (“If chimpanzees are from Mars, bonobos must be from Venus,” de Waal wrote on a later occasion.) Bonobos were more “elegant” than chimpanzees, he said, and their backs appeared to straighten “better” than those of chimpanzees: “Even chimpanzees would have to admit that bonobos have more style.”
In a recent conversation, de Waal told me, “The bonobo is female-dominated, doesn’t have warfare, doesn’t have hunting. And it has all this sex going on, which is problematic to talk about—it’s almost as if people wanted to shove the bonobo under the table.” “The Forgotten Ape” presented itself as a European tonic to American prudishness and the vested interests of chimpanzee scientists. The bonobo was gentle, horny, and—de Waal did not quite say it—Dutch. Bonobos, he argued, had been neglected by science because they inspired embarrassment. They were “sexy,” de Waal wrote (he often uses that word where others might say “sexual”), and they challenged established, bloody accounts of human origins. The bonobo was no less a relative of humans than the chimpanzee, de Waal noted, and its behavior was bound to overthrow “established notions about where we came from and what our behavioral potential is.”
Though de Waal stopped short of placing bonobos in a state of blissful serenity (he acknowledged a degree of bonobo aggression), he certainly left a reader thinking that these animals knew how to live. He wrote, “Who could have imagined a close relative of ours in which female alliances intimidate males, sexual behavior is as rich as ours, different groups do not fight but mingle, mothers take on a central role, and the greatest intellectual achievement is not tool use but sensitivity to others?”
The appeal of de Waal’s vision is obvious. Where, at the end of the twentieth century, could an optimist turn for reassurance about the foundations of human nature? The sixties were over. Goodall’s chimpanzees had gone to war. Scholars such as Lawrence Keeley, the author of “War Before Civilization” (1996), were excavating the role of warfare in our prehistoric past. And, as Wrangham and Peterson noted in “Demonic Males,” various nonindustrialized societies that were once seen as intrinsically peaceful had come to disappoint. Margaret Mead’s 1928 account of a South Pacific idyll, “Coming of Age in Samoa,” had been largely debunked by Derek Freeman, in 1983. The people identified as “the Gentle Tasaday”—the Philippine forest-dwellers made famous, in part, by Charles Lindbergh—had been redrawn as a small, odd community rather than as an isolated ancient tribe whose mores were illustrative. “The Harmless People,” as Elizabeth Marshall Thomas referred to the hunter-gatherers she studied in southern Africa, had turned out to have a murder rate higher than any American city. Although the picture was by no means accepted universally, it had become possible to see a clear line of thuggery from ape ancestry to human prehistory and on to Srebrenica. But, if de Waal’s findings were true, there was at least a hint of respite from the idea of ineluctable human aggression. If chimpanzees are from Hobbes, bonobos must be from Rousseau.
De Waal, who was described by Time earlier this year as one of the hundred influential people who “shape our world,” effectively became the champion—soft-spoken, baggy-eyed, and mustachioed—of what he called the “hippies of the primate world,” in lectures and interviews, and in subsequent books. In “Our Inner Ape: A Leading Primatologist Explains Why We Are Who We Are” (2005), he wrote that bonobos and chimpanzees were “as different as night and day.” There had been, perhaps, a vacancy for a Jane Goodall figure to represent the bonobo in the broader culture, but neither Hohmann nor Kano had occupied it; Hohmann was too dour, and Kano was not fluent in English. Besides, the bonobo was beyond the reach of all but the most determined and best-financed television crew. After 1997, that Goodall role—at least, in a reduced form—fell to de Waal, though his research was limited to bonobos in captivity. At the time of the book’s publication, de Waal told me, he could sense that not everyone in the world of bonobo research was thrilled for him, “even though I think I did a lot of good for their work. I respect the field workers for what they do, but they’re not the best communicators.” He laughed. “Someone had to do it. I have cordial relationships with almost all of them, but there were some hard feelings. It was ‘Why is he doing this and why am I not doing this?’ ”
De Waal went on, “People have taken off with the word ‘bonobo,’ and that’s fine with me”—although he acknowledged that the identification has sometimes been excessive. “Those who learn about bonobos fall too much in love, like in the gay or feminist community. All of a sudden, here we have a politically correct primate, at which point I have to get into the opposite role, and calm them down: bonobos are not always nice to each other.”
At the Lui Kotal camp, which Hohmann started five years after being expelled from Lomako, the people who were not tracking apes spent the morning under the Audubon calendar, as the temperature and the humidity rose. Ryan Matthews put out solar panels, to charge a car battery powering a laptop that dispatched e-mail through an uncertain satellite connection. Or, in a storage hut, he arranged precious cans of sardines into a supermarket pyramid. We sometimes heard the sneezelike call of a black mangabey monkey. For lunch, we ate cassava in its local form, a long, cold, gray tube of boiled dough—a single gnocco grown to the size of a dachshund. A radio brought news of gunfire and rocket attacks in Kinshasa: Jean-Pierre Bemba, the defeated opposition candidate in last year’s Presidential elections, had ignored a deadline to disarm his militia, and hundreds had been killed in street fighting. The airport that we had used had been attacked. The Congolese camp members—including, at any time, two bonobo field workers, a cook, an assistant cook, and a fisherman, working on commission—were largely pro-Bemba, or, at least, anti-government, a view expressed at times as nostalgia for the rule of Mobutu Sese Seko. Once, they sang a celebratory Mobutu song that they had learned as schoolchildren.
“It was so easy for Frans to charm everyone,” Hohmann said of de Waal one afternoon. “He had the big stories. We don’t have the big stories. Often, we have to say, ‘No, bonobos can be terribly boring. Watch a bonobo and there are days when you don’t see anything—just sleeping and eating and defecating. There’s no sex, there’s no food-sharing.’ ” During our first days in camp, the bonobos had been elusive. “Right now, bonobos are not vocalizing,” Hohmann said. “They’re just there. And if you go to a zoo, if you give them some food, there’s a frenzy. It’s so different.”
Captivity can have a striking impact on animal behavior. As Craig Stanford, a primatologist at the University of Southern California, recently put it, “Stuck together, bored out of their minds—what is there to do except eat and have sex?” De Waal has argued that, even if captive bonobo behavior is somewhat skewed, it can still be usefully contrasted with the behavior of captive chimpanzees; he has even written that “only captive studies control for environmental conditions and thereby provide conclusive data on interspecific differences.” Stanford’s reply is that “different animals respond very differently to captivity.”
In the wild, bonobos live in communities of a few dozen. They move around in smaller groups during the day, in the pattern of a bus-tour group let loose at a tourist attraction, then gather together each night, to build new treetop nests of bent and half-broken branches. But they stay in the same neighborhood for a lifetime. When Hohmann found bonobos on his first visit to Lui Kotal, he could be confident that he would find the same animals in subsequent years. On this trip, the bonobos had been seen, but they were keeping to the very farthest end of Hohmann’s twenty-thousand-acre slice of forest: a two-hour walk away. (“They are just so beautiful,” Andrew Fowler, the British habituator, said, after seeing them for the first time. “I can’t put it any other way.”) There was talk of setting up a satellite camp at that end—a couple of tents in a small clearing—but weighing against the plan was the apparently serious risk of attack by elephants. (Forest elephants headed an impressive lineup of local terrors, above leopards, falling trees, driver ants, and the green mambas that were sometimes seen on forest paths.) So the existing arrangement continued: two or three people would go into the forest and hope to follow bonobos to their nest site at night; the following day, two or three others would reach that same point before dawn.
When I went out one morning with Hohmann and Martin Surbeck, the Swiss Ph.D. student, the hike began at a quarter to four, and there were stars in the sky. We walked on a springy path—layers of decaying leaves on sand. I wore a head torch that lit up thick, attic-like dust and, at one moment, a bat that flew into my face. We stepped over fallen tree trunks in various states of decay, which sprouted different kinds of fungus; after an hour or so, we reached one on which local poachers had carved a graffiti message. Poachers, whose smoked-bonobo carcasses can fetch five dollars each in Kinshasa’s markets, have often been seen in the forest, and their gunfire often heard. Their livelihood was disrupted last year when Jonas Eriksson, a Swedish researcher on a visit to Lui Kotal, burned down their forest encampment. I was later given a translation of the graffiti: “JONAS: VAGINA OF YOUR MOTHER.”
Hohmann stopped walking at half past five, at a point he knew to be within a few hundred feet of where the bonobos had nested. Bonobos sleep on their backs—“maybe holding to a branch with just one foot, and the rest of the body looking very relaxed,” Hohmann had said, adding that “nest-building is the only thing that sets great apes aside from all other primates.” (He speculates that the REM-rich sleep that nests allow may have contributed to the evolution of big brains.) We would hear the bonobos when they woke. When we turned off our flashlights, there was a hint of light in the sky, enough to illuminate Surbeck using garden clippers to cut a branch from a tree and snip it into a Y shape about four feet long; he tied a black plastic bag across the forked end, to create a tool that hinted at a lacrosse stick but was designed to catch bonobo urine as it dripped from treetops. Surbeck’s dissertation was on male behavior: he would measure testosterone levels in the urine of various bonobos, in the hope that power structures not easily detected by observation would reveal themselves. (If an evidently high-ranking male had relatively low testosterone, for example, that might say something about the power he was drawing from his mother. A male bonobo typically has a lifelong alliance with its mother.)
There was a rustle of leaves in the high branches, like a downdraft of wind. To walk toward the sound, we had to leave the trail, and Surbeck cut a path though the undergrowth, again using clippers, which allowed for progress that was quieter, if less cinematic, than a swinging machete. We stopped after a few minutes. I looked upward through binoculars and, not long afterward, removed the lens caps. The half-light reduced the forest to blacks and dark greens, but a hundred feet up I could see a bonobo sitting silently in the fork of a branch. Its black fur had an acrylic sheen. It was eating the tree’s small, hard fruit; as it chewed, it let the casing of each fruit fall from the corner of its mouth. The debris from this and other bonobos dropped onto dead leaves on the forest floor, making the sound of a rain shower just getting under way.
In the same tree, a skinny bonobo infant walked a few feet from its mother, then returned and clambered, wriggling, into the mother’s arms—and then did the same thing again. And there were glimpses, through branches, of other unhurried bonobos, as they scratched a knee, or glanced down at us, unimpressed, or stretched themselves out like artists’ models. Hohmann had plucked a large, rattling leaf from a forest-floor shrub that forms a key part of the bonobo diet, and he began to shred it slowly, as if eating it: bonobo researchers aim to present themselves as animals nonchalantly feeding rather than creepily stalking. He and Surbeck made solemn, urgent notes in their waterproof notebooks, and whispered to one another. They were by now aware of some twenty bonobos above us, and could identify many by name (Olga, Paulo, Camillo). A fact not emphasized in wildlife films is that ape identification is frequently done by zoomed-in inspection of genitals. A lot of the conversation at Lui Kotal’s dinner table dealt with scrotal shading or the shape of a female bonobo’s pink sexual swelling. (“This one is like chewing gum spit out,” Caroline Deimel, the Austrian, once said of a female.)
At about six-thirty, the bonobos started moving down the trees—not with monkey abandon but branch by branch, with a final thud as they dropped onto the forest floor. Then they walked away, on all fours, looking far tougher—and more lean and muscular—than any zoo bonobo. An infant lay spread-eagled on the back of its mother, in a posture that the scientific literature sweetly describes as “jockey style.” (A bonobo’s arms are shorter than a chimpanzee’s, and its back is horizontal when it walks. A chimpanzee slopes to the rear.) As the last of the bonobos strolled off, we lost sight of them: the undergrowth stopped our view at a few feet. We walked in the direction they seemed to have gone, and hoped to hear a call, or the sound of moving branches. Hohmann told me that bonobos sometimes gave away their position by flatulence. The forest was by now hot, and looked like a display captioned “SNAKES” in a natural-history museum: plants pulled at our clothes, trees crumbled to dust, and the ground gave way to mud.
We heard a sudden high screech ahead—“Whah, whah! ”—and then saw, coming back in our direction, a reddish blur immediately followed by black. We heard the gallop of hands and feet on the ground, and a squeal. Hohmann told me in a whisper that we had seen a rare thing—a bonobo in pursuit of a duiker, a tiny antelope. “We were very close to seeing hunting,” he said. “Very close.” The bonobo had lost the race, Hohmann said, but if it had laid a hand on the duiker in its first lunge the results would have been bloody. Hohmann has witnessed a number of kills, and the dismembering, nearly always by females, that follows. Bonobos start with the abdomen; they eat the intestines first, in a process that can leave a duiker alive for a long while after it has been captured.
For a purportedly peaceful animal, a bonobo can be surprisingly intemperate. Jeroen Stevens is a young Belgian biologist who has spent thousands of hours studying captive bonobos in European zoos. I met him last year at the Planckendael Zoo, near Antwerp. “I once saw five female bonobos attack a male in Apenheul, in Holland,” he said. “They were gnawing on his toes. I’d already seen bonobos with digits missing, but I’d thought they would have been bitten off like a dog would bite. But they really chew. There was flesh between their teeth. Now, that’s something to counter the idea of”—Stevens used a high, mocking voice—“ ‘Oh, I’m a bonobo, and I love everyone.’ ”
Stevens went on to recall a bonobo in the Stuttgart Zoo whose penis had been bitten off by a female. (He might also have mentioned keepers at the Columbus and San Diego zoos who both lost bits of fingers. In the latter instance, the local paper’s generous headline was “APE RETURNS FINGERTIP TO KEEPER.”) “Zoos don’t know what to do,” Stevens said. “They, too, believe that bonobos are less aggressive than chimps, which is why zoos want to have them. But, as soon as you have a group of bonobos, after a while you have this really violent aggression. I think if zoos had bonobos in big enough groups”—more like wild bonobos—“you would even see them killing.” In Stevens’s opinion, bonobos are “very tense. People usually say they’re relaxed. I find the opposite. Chimps are more laid-back. But, if I say I like chimps more than I like bonobos, my colleagues think I’m crazy.”
At Lui Kotal, not long after we had followed the bonobos for half a day, and seen a duiker run for its life, Hohmann recalled what he described as a “murder story.” A few years ago, he said, he was watching a young female bonobo sitting on a branch with its baby. A male, perhaps the father of the baby, jumped onto the branch, in apparent provocation. The female lunged at the male, which fell to the ground. Other females jumped down onto the male, in a scene of frenzied violence. “It went on for thirty minutes,” Hohmann said. “It was terribly scary. We didn’t know what was going to happen. Shrieking all the time. Just bonobos on the ground. After thirty minutes, they all went back up into the tree. It was hard to recognize them, their hair all on end and their faces changed. They were really different.” Hohmann said that he had looked closely at the scene of the attack, where the vegetation had been torn and flattened. “We saw fur, but no skin, and no blood. And he was gone.” During the following year, Hohmann and his colleagues tried to find the male, but it was not seen again. Although Hohmann has never published an account of the episode, for lack of anything but circumstantial evidence, his view is that the male bonobo suffered fatal injuries.
On another occasion, Hohmann thinks that he came close to seeing infanticide, which is also generally ruled to be beyond the bonobo’s behavioral repertoire. A newborn was taken from its mother by another female; Hohmann saw the mother a day later. This female was carrying its baby again, but the baby was dead. “Now it becomes a criminal story,” Hohmann said, in a mock-legal tone. “What could have happened? This is all we have, the facts. My story is the unknown female carried the baby but didn’t feed it and it died.” Hohmann has made only an oblique reference to this incident in print.
These tales of violence do not recast the bonobo as a brute. (Nor does new evidence, from Lui Kotal, that bonobos hunt and eat other primates.) But such accounts can be placed alongside other challenges to claims of sharp differences between bonobos and chimpanzees. For example, a study published in 2001 in the American Journal of Primatology asked, “Are Bonobos Really More Bipedal Than Chimpanzees?” The answer was no.
The bonobo of the modern popular imagination has something of the quality of a pre-scientific great ape, from the era before live specimens were widely known in Europe. An Englishman of the early eighteenth century would have had no argument with the thought of an upright ape, passing silent judgment on mankind, and driven by an uncontrolled libido. But during my conversation with Jeroen Stevens, in Belgium, he glanced into the zoo enclosure, where a number of hefty bonobos were daubing excrement on the walls, and said, “These bonobos are from Mars. There are many days when there is no sex. We’re running out of adolescents.” (As de Waal noted, the oldest bonobo in his San Diego study was about fourteen, which is young adulthood; all but one episode of oral sex there involved juveniles; these bonobos also accounted for almost all of the kissing.)
Craig Stanford, in a 1997 study that questioned various alleged bonobo-chimpanzee dichotomies, wrote, “Female bonobos do not mate more frequently or significantly less cyclically than chimpanzees.” He also reported that male chimpanzees in the wild actually copulated more often than male bonobos. De Waal is unimpressed by Stanford’s analysis. “He counted only heterosexual sex,” he told me. “But if you include all the homosexual sex then it’s actually quite different.” When I asked Hohmann about the bonobo sex at Lui Kotal, he said, “It’s nothing that really strikes me.” Certainly, he and his team observe female “g-g rubbing,” which is not seen in chimpanzees, and needs to be explained. “But does it have anything to do with sex?” Hohmann asked. “Probably not. Of course, they use the genitals, but is it erotic behavior or a greeting gesture that is completely detached from sexual behavior?”
A hug? “A hug can be highly sexual or two leaders meeting at the airport. It’s a gesture, nothing else. It depends on the context.”
At Lui Kotal, the question of dominance was also less certain than one might think. When I’d spoken to de Waal, he had said, unequivocally, that bonobo societies were dominated by females. But, in Hohmann’s cautious mind, the question is still undecided. Data from wild bonobos are still slight, and science still needs to explain the physical superiority of males: why would evolution leave that extra bulk in place, if no use was made of it? Female spotted hyenas dominate male hyenas, but they have the muscle to go with the life style (and, for good measure, penises). “Why hasn’t this levelled out in bonobos?” Hohmann asked. “Perhaps sometimes it is important” for the males to be stronger. “We haven’t seen accounts of bonobos and leopards. We don’t know what protective role males can play.” Perhaps, Hohmann went on, males exercise power in ways we cannot see: “Do the males step back and say to the females, ‘I’m not competing with you, you go ahead and eat’?” The term “male deference” has been used to describe some monkey behavior. De Waal scoffs: “Maybe the bonobo males are chivalrous! We all had a big chuckle about that.”
Hohmann mentioned a recent experiment that he had done in the Frankfurt zoo. A colony of bonobos was put on a reduced-calorie diet, for the purpose of measuring hormones in their urine at different moments in their fast. It was not a behavioral experiment, but it was hard not to notice the actions of one meek male. “This is a male that in the past has been badly mutilated by the females,” Hohmann said. “They bit off fingers and toes, and he really had a hard life.” This male had always been shut out at feeding time. Now, as his diet continued, he discovered aggression. “For the first time, he pushed away some low-ranking females,” Hohmann said. He successfully fought for food. He became bold and demanding. A single hungry animal is not a scientific sample, but the episode showed that this male’s subservience was, if not exactly a personal choice, one of at least two behavioral options.
The media still regularly ask Frans de Waal about bonobos; and he still uses the species as a stick to beat what he scorns as “veneer theory”—the thought that human morality is no more than a veneer of restraint laid over a vicious, animal core. Some of his colleagues in primatology admit to impatience with his position—and with the broader bonobo cult that flattens a complex animal into a caricature of Edenic good humor. “Frans has got all the best intentions, in all sorts of ways, but there is this sense in which this polarizing of chimps and bonobos can be taken too far,” Richard Wrangham said. Hohmann concurred: “There are certainly some points where we are in agreement; and there are other points where I say, ‘No, Frans, you should go to Lomako or Lui Kotal, and watch bonobos, and then you’d know better.’ ” He went on, “Frans enjoyed the luxury of being able to say field work is senseless. When you see wild bonobos, some things that he has emphasized and stretched are much more modest; the sex stuff, for example. But other things are even more spectacular. He hasn’t seen meat-sharing, he has never seen hunting.”
“I think Frans had free rein to say anything he wanted about bonobos for about ten years,” Stanford told me. “He’s a great scientist, but because he’s worked only in captive settings this gives you a blindered view of primates. I think he took a simplistic approach, and, because he published very widely on it and writes very nice popular books, it’s become the conventional wisdom. We had this large body of evidence on chimps, then suddenly there were these other animals that were very chimplike physically but seemed to be very different behaviorally. Instead of saying, ‘These are variations on a theme,’ it became point-counterpoint.” He added, “Scientific ideas exist in a marketplace, just as every other product does.”
At the long table in the center of the camp, I showed Hohmann the “Save the Hippie Chimps!” flyer from the Manhattan benefit. He was listening on headphones to Mozart’s Requiem; he glanced at the card, and put it to one side. Then, despite himself, he laughed and picked it up again, taking off the headphones. “Well,” he said.
We were at Lui Kotal for three weeks. “If you stay here, the hours become days, become months,” Martin Surbeck said. “It all melts.” We had two visitors: a Congolese official who, joined by a guard carrying an AK-47, walked from a town twenty-five miles away to cast an eye over the camp and accept a cash consideration. He stayed for twenty-four hours; every hour, his digital wristwatch spoke the time, in French, in a woman’s voice—“Il est deux heures.”
I saw the bonobos only one other time. I was in the forest with Brigham Whitman, one of the two bearded Americans, when we heard a burst of screeching. In a whisper, Whitman pointed out Dante, a senior male, sitting on a low branch. “He’s one of the usual suspects,” Whitman said. “Balls hanging out, that’s his pose.” Whitman ran through Dante’s distinguishing characteristics: “He’s very old—perhaps thirty—and missing most of his right index finger. His lips are cracked and his face is weathered, but his eyes are vibrant. He has large white nipples. His toes are extremely fat and huge, and his belly hair is redder.” He was the oldest male. “Dante just gets his spot and he doesn’t move. He just sits and eats.”
We followed Dante and a dozen others throughout the afternoon. They climbed down from trees, walked, and climbed back up. Small, non-stinging bees congregated in the space between our eyeballs and the lenses of our binoculars. In the late afternoon, Dante and others climbed the highest trees I had seen in the forest. It was almost dark at the forest floor, but the sun caught the tops of the trees, and Dante, a hundred and fifty feet up, gazed west, his hair looking as if he’d just taken off Darth Vader’s helmet, his expression grave.
In the lobby of the Grand Hotel in Kinshasa, the Easter display was a collection of dazed live rabbits and chicks corralled by a low white wicker fence. At an outdoor bar, the city’s diplomatic classes gave each other long-lasting handshakes while their children raced around a deep, square swimming pool. I sat with Gottfried Hohmann; we had hiked out of Lui Kotal together the day before. As we left the half-light of the forest to reach the first golden patch of savanna, and the first open sky, it had been hard not to feel evolutionary stirrings, to feel oneself speeding through an “Ascent of Man” illustration, knuckles lifting from the ground.
By the pool, Hohmann talked about a Bavarian childhood collecting lizards and reading Konrad Lorenz. He was glad to be going home. He has none of the fondness for Congo that he once had for India. Still, he will keep returning until retirement. He said that in Germany, when he eats dinner with friends who work on faster-breeding, more conveniently placed animals, “I think, Oh, they live in a different world! People say, ‘You’re still . . . ?’ I say, ‘Yes. Still.’ This big picture of the bonobo is a puzzle, with a few pieces filled, and these big white patches. This is still something that attracts me. This piece fits, this doesn’t fit, turning things around, trying to close things.”
Because of Hohmann’s disdain for premature theories, and his data-collecting earnestness, it had sometimes been possible to forget that he is still driving toward an eventual glimpse of the big picture—and that this picture includes human beings. Humans, chimpanzees, and bonobos share a common ancestor. Was this creature bonobo-like, as Hohmann suspects? Did the ancestral forest environment select for male docility, and did Homo and the chimpanzee then both dump that behavior, independently, as they evolved in less bountiful environments? The modern bonobo holds the answer, Hohmann said; in time, its behavior will start to illuminate such characteristics as relationships between men and women, the purpose of aggression, and the costs and benefits of male bonding.
At Lui Kotal, there were no rocks in the sandy earth, and the smallest pebble on a riverbed had the allure of precious metal. It is not a place for fossil hunters; the biological past is revealed only in the present. “What makes humans and nonhuman primates different?” Hohmann said. “To nail this down, you have to know how these nonhuman primates behave. We have to measure what we can see today. We can use this as a reference for the time that has passed. There will be no other way to do this. And this is what puts urgency into it: because there is no doubt that, in a hundred years, there won’t be great apes in the wild. It would be blind to look away from that. In a hundred years, the forest will be gone. We have to do it now. This forest is the very, very last stronghold. This is all we have.”
The Running Novelist Learning how to go the distance.[modifica | modifica wikitesto]
long time has passed since I started running on an everyday basis. Specifically, it was the fall of 1982. I was thirty-three then.
Not long before that, I was the owner of a small jazz club in Tokyo, near Sendagaya Station. Soon after leaving college—I’d been so busy with side jobs that I was actually a few credits short of graduating and was still officially a student—I had opened a little club near the south entrance of Kokubunji Station. The club had stayed there for about three years; then, when the building it was in closed for renovations, I moved it to a new location, closer to the center of Tokyo. The new venue wasn’t big—we had a grand piano and just barely enough space to squeeze in a quintet. During the day, it was a café; at night, it was a bar. We served decent food, too, and, on weekends, featured live performances. This kind of club was still quite rare in Tokyo back then, so we gained a steady clientele and the place did all right financially.
Most of my friends had predicted that the club would fail. They figured that an establishment that was run as a kind of hobby couldn’t succeed, and that someone like me—I was pretty naïve and, they suspected, didn’t have the slightest aptitude for business—wouldn’t be able to make a go of it. Well, their predictions were totally off. To tell the truth, I didn’t think that I had much aptitude for business, either. I just figured that since failure was not an option, I had to give it everything I had. My strength has always been the fact that I work hard and can handle a lot physically. I’m more of a workhorse than a racehorse. I grew up in a white-collar household, so I didn’t know much about entrepreneurship, but fortunately my wife’s family ran a business and her natural intuition was a great help.
The work itself was hard. I was at the club from morning till night and I left there exhausted. I had all kinds of painful experiences and plenty of disappointments. But, after a while, I began to make enough of a profit to hire other people, and I was finally able to take a breather. To get started, I’d borrowed as much money as I could from every bank that would lend to me, and by now I’d paid a lot of it back. Things were settling down. Up to that point, it had been a question of sheer survival, and I hadn’t had time to think about anything else. Now I felt as though I’d reached the top of a steep staircase and emerged into an open space. I was confident that I’d be able to handle any new problems that might crop up. I took a deep breath, glanced back at the stairs I’d just climbed, then slowly gazed around me and began to contemplate the next stage of my life. I was about to turn thirty. I was reaching the age at which I wouldn’t be considered young anymore. And, pretty much out of the blue, it occurred to me to write a novel.
I can pinpoint the exact moment when it happened. It was at 1:30 P.M., April 1, 1978. I was at Jingu Stadium, alone in the outfield, watching a baseball game. Jingu Stadium was within walking distance of my apartment at the time, and I was a fairly devoted Yakult Swallows fan. It was a beautiful spring day, cloudless, with a warm breeze blowing. There were no benches in the outfield seating area back then, just a grassy slope. I was lying on the grass, sipping a cold beer, gazing up occasionally at the sky, and enjoying the game. As usual, the stadium wasn’t very crowded. It was the season opener, and the Swallows were taking on the Hiroshima Carp. Takeshi Yasuda was pitching for the Swallows. He was a short, stocky pitcher with a wicked curveball. He easily retired the side in the top of the first inning. The lead-off batter for the Swallows was Dave Hilton, a young American player who was new to the team. Hilton got a hit down the left-field line. The crack of bat meeting ball echoed through the stadium. Hilton easily rounded first and pulled up to second. And it was at just that moment that a thought struck me: You know what? I could try writing a novel. I still remember the wide-open sky, the feel of the new grass, the satisfying crack of the bat. Something flew down from the sky at that instant, and, whatever it was, I accepted it.
I didn’t have any ambition to be a “novelist.” I just had the strong desire to write a novel. I had no concrete image of what I wanted to write about—just the conviction that I could come up with something that I’d find convincing. When I thought about sitting down at my desk at home and starting to write, I realized that I didn’t even own a decent fountain pen. So I went to the Kinokuniya store in Shinjuku and bought a sheaf of manuscript paper and a five-dollar Sailor pen. A small capital investment on my part.
By that fall, I’d finished a two-hundred-page handwritten work. I had no idea what to do with it, so I just let the momentum carry me and submitted it to the literary magazine Gunzo’s new-writers’ contest. I shipped it off without making a copy, so it seems I didn’t much care if it wasn’t selected and vanished forever. I was more interested in having finished the book than in whether or not it would ever see the light of day.
That year, the Yakult Swallows, the perennial underdog, won the pennant and went on to defeat the Hankyu Braves in the Japan Series. I was really excited by this, and I attended several games at Korakuen Stadium. (Nobody had actually imagined that the Swallows would win, so their home venue, Jingu Stadium, had already been taken over by college baseball.) It was a particularly gorgeous autumn. The sky was clear and the ginkgo trees in front of the Meiji Memorial Gallery were more golden than I’d ever seen them. This was the last fall of my twenties.
By the following spring, when I got a phone call from an editor at Gunzo telling me that my novel had made the prize’s short list, I’d completely forgotten having entered the contest. I’d been so busy with other things. But the novel went on to win the prize and was published that summer under the title “Hear the Wind Sing.” It was well received, and, without really knowing what was going on, I suddenly found myself labelled a new, up-and-coming writer. I was surprised, but the people who knew me were even more surprised.
After this, while still running the jazz club, I produced a medium-length second novel, “Pinball, 1973.” I also wrote a few short stories and translated some by F. Scott Fitzgerald. Both “Hear the Wind Sing” and “Pinball, 1973” were nominated for the prestigious Akutagawa Prize, but in the end neither won. I didn’t care one way or the other. If I had won the prize, I’d have been taken up by interviews and writing assignments, and I was afraid that this would interfere with my duties at the club.
For three years I ran my jazz club—keeping the accounts, checking the inventory, scheduling my staff, standing behind the counter mixing cocktails and cooking, closing up in the wee hours of the morning, and only then being able to write, at home, at the kitchen table, until I got sleepy. I felt as if I were living two people’s lives. And, gradually, I found myself wanting to write a more substantial kind of novel. I had enjoyed the process of writing my first two books, but there were parts of both that I wasn’t pleased with. I was able to write only in spurts, snatching bits of time—a half hour here, an hour there—and, because I was always tired and felt as if I were competing against the clock, I was never able to concentrate very well. With this scattered kind of approach I was able to write a few interesting, fresh things, but the result was far from complex or profound. I felt as if I’d been given this wonderful opportunity to be a novelist, and I had a natural desire to take that opportunity as far as I possibly could. So, after giving it a lot of thought, I decided to close the business and focus solely on writing. At this point, my income from the jazz club was significantly more than my income as a novelist, a reality to which I resigned myself.
Most of my friends were adamantly against my decision, or at least had doubts about it. “Your business is doing fine now,” they said. “Why not just let someone else run it while you write your novels?” But I couldn’t follow their advice. I’m the kind of person who has to commit totally to whatever I do. If, having committed, I failed, I could accept that. But I knew that if I did things halfheartedly and they didn’t work out I’d always have regrets.
So, despite everyone’s objections, I sold the club and, a little embarrassedly, hung out my sign as a novelist. “I’d just like to be free to write for two years,” I explained to my wife. “If it doesn’t work out, we can always open up another bar somewhere. I’m still young and we’ll have time to start over.” This was in 1981 and we still had a considerable amount of debt, but I figured I’d just do my best and see what happened.
So I settled down to write my novel and, that fall, travelled to Hokkaido for a week to research it. By the following April, I’d completed “A Wild Sheep Chase.” This novel was much longer than the previous two, larger in scope and more story-driven. By the time I’d finished writing it, I had a good feeling that I’d created my own style. Now I could actually picture myself making a living as a novelist.
The editors at Gunzo were looking for something more mainstream, and they didn’t much care for “A Wild Sheep Chase.” Readers, though, seemed to love the new book, and that was what made me happiest. This was the real starting point for me as a novelist.
Once I had decided to become a professional writer, another problem arose: the question of how to keep physically fit. Running the club had required constant physical labor, but once I was sitting at a desk writing all day I started putting on the pounds. I was also smoking too much—sixty cigarettes a day. My fingers were yellow, and my body reeked of smoke. This couldn’t be good for me, I decided. If I wanted to have a long life as a novelist, I needed to find a way to stay in shape.
As a form of exercise, running has a lot of advantages. First of all, you don’t need someone to help you with it; nor do you need any special equipment. You don’t have to go to any particular place to do it. As long as you have a pair of running shoes and a good road you can run to your heart’s content.
After I closed the bar, I resolved to change my life style entirely, and my wife and I moved out to Narashino, in the Chiba prefecture. The area was pretty rural back then, and there were no decent sports facilities around. But there was a Self-Defense Force base nearby, and the roads were well maintained. There was also a training area in the neighborhood near Nihon University, and if I went there early in the morning, when nobody else was around, I could use the track. So I didn’t have to think too much about what activity to choose. I just took up running.
Not long after that, I also quit smoking. It wasn’t easy to do, but I couldn’t really run and keep on smoking. My desire to run was a great help in overcoming the withdrawal symptoms. Quitting smoking was also like a symbolic gesture of farewell to the life I used to lead.
At school I had never much cared for gym class or Sports Day, since these involved activities that were forced on me from above. But whenever I was able to do something I liked to do, when I wanted to do it, and the way I wanted to do it, I’d give it everything I had. Since I wasn’t that athletic or coördinated, I wasn’t good at the kind of sports where things are decided in a flash. Long-distance running suits my personality better, which may explain why I was able to incorporate it so smoothly into my daily life. I can say the same thing about me and studying. For my entire education, from elementary school through college, I was never interested in things that I was forced to study. As a result, although my grades weren’t the kind you have to hide from people, I don’t recall ever being praised for a good performance or a good grade, or being the best in anything. I began to enjoy studying only after I had made it through the educational system and become a so-called “member of society.” If something interested me, and I could study it at my own pace, I was reasonably efficient at acquiring knowledge.
The best thing about becoming a professional writer was that I could go to bed early and get up early. When I was running the club, I often didn’t get to sleep until nearly dawn. The club closed at twelve, but then I had to clean up, go over the receipts, sit and talk, and have a drink to relax. Do all that and, before you know it, it’s 3 A.M. and sunrise is just around the corner. Often I’d still be sitting at my kitchen table, writing, as it started to get light outside. Naturally, by the time I woke up for the day, the sun was already high in the sky.
Once I began my life as a novelist, my wife and I decided that we’d go to bed soon after it got dark and wake up with the sun. To our minds, this was a more natural, respectable way to live. We also decided that from then on we’d try to see only the people we wanted to see, and, as much as possible, get by without seeing those we didn’t. We felt that, for a time at least, we could allow ourselves this modest indulgence.
In my new, simple, regular life, I got up before 5 A.M. and went to bed before 10 P.M. Different people are at their best at different times of day, but I’m definitely a morning person. That’s when I can focus. Afterward, I work out or do errands that don’t take much concentration. At the end of the day, I relax, read, or listen to music. Thanks to this pattern, I’ve been able to work efficiently now for twenty-seven years. It’s a pattern, though, that doesn’t allow for much of a night life, and sometimes this makes relationships with other people problematic. People are offended when you repeatedly turn down their invitations. But, at that point, I felt that the indispensable relationship I should build in my life was not with a specific person but with an unspecified number of readers. My readers would welcome whatever life style I chose, as long as I made sure that each new work was an improvement over the last. And shouldn’t that be my duty—and my top priority—as a novelist? I don’t see my readers’ faces, so in a sense my relationship with them is a conceptual one, but I’ve consistently considered it the most important thing in my life.
In other words, you can’t please everybody.
Even when I ran the club, I understood this. A lot of customers came to the club. If one out of ten enjoyed the place and decided to come again, that was enough. If one out of ten was a repeat customer, then the business would survive. To put it another way, it didn’t matter if nine out of ten people didn’t like the club. Realizing this lifted a weight off my shoulders. Still, I had to make sure that the one person who did like the place really liked it. In order to do that, I had to make my philosophy absolutely clear, and patiently maintain that philosophy no matter what. This is what I learned from running a business.
After “A Wild Sheep Chase,” I continued to write with the same attitude that I’d developed as a business owner. And with each work my readership—the one-in-ten repeaters—increased. Those readers, most of whom were young, would wait patiently for my next book to appear, then buy it and read it as soon as it hit the bookstores. This was for me the ideal, or at least a very comfortable, situation. I went on writing the kinds of things I wanted to write, exactly the way I wanted to write them, and, if that allowed me to make a living, then I couldn’t ask for more. When my novel “Norwegian Wood” unexpectedly sold more than two million copies, things had to shift a little, but that was quite a bit later, in 1987.
When I first started running, I couldn’t run long distances. I could run for only about twenty or thirty minutes. Even that left me panting, my heart pounding, my legs shaky. I hadn’t really exercised for a long time. At first, I was also a little embarrassed to have people in the neighborhood see me running. But, as I continued to run, my body began to accept the fact that it was running, and I gradually increased my endurance. I acquired a runner’s form, my breathing became more regular, and my pulse settled down. The main thing was not the speed or the distance so much as running every day, without fail.
So, like eating, sleeping, housework, and writing, running was incorporated into my daily routine. As it became a natural habit, I felt less embarrassed about it. I went to a sports store and purchased some running gear and some decent shoes. I bought a stopwatch, too, and read a book on running.
Looking back now, I think the most fortunate thing is that I was born with a strong, healthy body. This has made it possible for me to run on a daily basis for more than a quarter century now, competing in a number of races along the way. I’ve never been injured, never been hurt, and haven’t once been sick. I’m not a great runner, but I’m a strong runner. That’s one of the very few gifts I can be proud of.
The year 1983 rolled around and I participated in my first road race. It wasn’t very long—a 5K—but for the first time I had a number pinned to my shirt and waited in a large group of other runners to hear an official shout, “On your mark, get set, go!” Afterward, I thought, Hey, that wasn’t so bad! That May, I did a fifteen-kilometre race around Lake Yamanaka, and, in June, wanting to test how far I could go, I did laps around the Imperial Palace, in Tokyo. I went around seven times, for a total of 22.4 miles, at a fairly decent pace, and my legs didn’t hurt at all. Maybe I could actually run a marathon, I concluded. Later, I found out the hard way that the toughest part of a marathon comes after twenty-two miles. (I have now competed in twenty-six marathons.)
When I look at photographs of me that were taken back in the mid-eighties, it’s obvious that I didn’t yet have a runner’s physique. I hadn’t run enough, hadn’t built up the requisite muscles; my arms were too thin, my legs too skinny. I’m impressed that I could run a marathon at all with a body like that. (Now, after years of running, my musculature has changed completely.) But even then I could feel physical changes happening every day, which made me really happy. I felt that, even though I was past thirty, I and my body still had some possibilities left. The more I ran, the more my potential was revealed.
Along with this, my diet started to change as well. I began to eat mostly vegetables, with fish as my main source of protein. I had never liked meat much anyway, and this aversion now became even more pronounced. I cut back on rice and alcohol and began using only natural ingredients. Sweets weren’t a problem, since I had never much cared for them.
When I think about it, having the kind of body that easily puts on weight is perhaps a blessing in disguise. In other words, if I don’t want to gain weight I have to work out hard every day, watch what I eat, and cut down on indulgences. People who naturally keep the weight off don’t need to exercise or watch their diet. Which is why, in many cases, their physical strength deteriorates as they age. Those of us who have a tendency to gain weight should consider ourselves lucky that the red light is so clearly visible. Of course, it’s not always easy to see things this way.
I think this viewpoint applies as well to the job of the novelist. Writers who are blessed with inborn talent can write easily, no matter what they do—or don’t do. Like water from a natural spring, the sentences just well up, and with little or no effort these writers can complete a work. Unfortunately, I don’t fall into that category. I have to pound away at a rock with a chisel and dig out a deep hole before I can locate the source of my creativity. Every time I begin a new novel, I have to dredge out another hole. But, as I’ve sustained this kind of life over many years, I’ve become quite efficient, both technically and physically, at opening those holes in the rock and locating new water veins. As soon as I notice one source drying up, I move on to another. If people who rely on a natural spring of talent suddenly find they’ve exhausted their source, they’re in trouble.
In other words, let’s face it: life is basically unfair. But, even in a situation that’s unfair, I think it’s possible to seek out a kind of fairness.
When I tell people that I run every day, some are quite impressed. “You must have a lot of will power,” they tell me. Of course, it’s nice to be praised like this—a lot better than being disparaged. But I don’t think it’s merely will power that makes one able to do something. The world isn’t that simple. To tell the truth, I don’t even think there’s much correlation between my running every day and whether or not I have will power. I think that I’ve been able to run for more than twenty-five years for one reason: it suits me. Or, at least, I don’t find it all that painful. Human beings naturally continue doing things they like, and they don’t continue doing what they don’t like.
That’s why I’ve never recommended running to others. If someone has an interest in long-distance running, he’ll start running on his own. If he’s not interested in it, no amount of persuasion will make any difference. Marathon running is not a sport for everyone, just as being a novelist isn’t a job for everyone. Nobody ever recommended or even suggested that I be a novelist—in fact, some tried to stop me. I simply had the idea to be one, and that’s what I did. People become runners because they’re meant to.
No matter how much long-distance running might suit me, of course there are days when I feel lethargic and don’t want to do it. On days like that, I try to come up with all kinds of plausible excuses not to run. Once, I interviewed the Olympic runner Toshihiko Seko, just after he had retired from running. I asked him, “Does a runner at your level ever feel like you’d rather not run today?” He stared at me and then, in a voice that made it abundantly clear how stupid he thought the question was, replied, “Of course. All the time!”
Now that I look back on it, I can see what a dumb question it was. I guess that even back then I knew how dumb it was, but I wanted to hear the answer directly from someone of Seko’s calibre. I wanted to know whether, although we were worlds apart in terms of strength and motivation, we felt the same way when we laced up our running shoes in the morning. Seko’s reply came as a great relief. In the final analysis, we’re all the same, I thought.
Now, whenever I feel like I don’t want to run, I always ask myself the same thing: You’re able to make a living as a novelist, working at home, setting your own hours. You don’t have to commute on a packed train or sit through boring meetings. Don’t you realize how fortunate you are? Compared with that, running an hour around the neighborhood is nothing, right? Then I lace up my running shoes and set off without hesitating. (I say this knowing full well that there are people who’d pick riding a crowded train and attending meetings over running every day.)
At any rate, this is how I started running. Thirty-three—that’s how old I was then. Still young enough, though no longer a young man. The age that Jesus Christ died. The age that F. Scott Fitzgerald started to go downhill. It’s an age that may be a kind of crossroads in life. It was the age when I began my life as a runner, and it was my belated, but real, starting point as a novelist. ?
Noble Savages Edward St. Aubyn concludes his Melrose series.[modifica | modifica wikitesto]
ccording to Plutarch, Cato the Younger was determined to die. Aghast at having to live under his old enemy Julius Caesar, he tried to stab himself. His injured hand proved too weak for the job, and he fell to the floor, severely but not mortally wounded. His servants and physician rushed to him, at which point Cato redoubled his efforts, “thrust away the physician,” and “plucked out his own bowels.” When Caesar heard of the death, he was less impressed than one might imagine. “Cato,” he is supposed to have said, “I grudge you your death, as you have grudged me the preservation of your life.”
There is something astringently Roman about the world of the English novelist Edward St. Aubyn. Patrick Melrose, the protagonist of what is now a quintet of novels devoted to the Melrose family, is the scion of a wealthy dynasty almost as monstrous as the dodgier Roman emperors; he has spent much of his adult life trying to kill himself with drugs and booze. St. Aubyn’s novels have an aristocratic atmosphere of tart horror, the hideousness of the material contained by a powerfully aphoristic, lucid prose style. In good and bad ways, his fiction offers a kind of deadly gossip, and feeds the reader’s curiosity like one of the mortal morsels offered up by Tacitus or Plutarch in their chatty histories. Here, for example, are two sketches from his new novel, “At Last” (Farrar, Straus & Giroux). The first is of a former girlfriend of Patrick Melrose; she occupies, in all, no more than three pages:
With her curling blond hair and her slender limbs and her beautiful clothes, Inez was alluring in an obvious way, and yet it was easy enough to see that her slightly protruding blue eyes were blank screens of self-love on which a small selection of fake emotions was allowed to flicker. She made rather haphazard impersonations of someone who has relationships with others. Based on the gossip of her courtiers, a diet of Hollywood movies and the projection of her own cunning calculations, these guesses might be sentimental or nasty, but were always vulgar and melodramatic. Since she hadn’t the least interest in the answer, she was inclined to ask, “How are you?” with great gravity, at least half a dozen times. She was often exhausted by the thought of how generous she was, whereas the exhaustion really stemmed from the strain of not giving away anything at all.
And here is Patrick’s aunt Nancy, spoiled and bitter, who sponges off her rich friends and spends her days raging against the injustice of her merely modest private income:
On her monthly trip to the Morgan Guaranty—where Mummy had opened an account for her on her twelfth birthday—she collected fifteen thousand dollars in cash. In her reduced circumstances, the walk to Sixty-ninth Street was a Venus flytrap flushed with colour and shining with adhesive dew. She often arrived home with half her month’s money spent; sometimes she counted out the entire sum and, seeming mystified by the missing two or three thousand, managed to walk away with a pink marble obelisk or a painting of a monkey in a velvet jacket, promising to come back that afternoon, marking another black spot in the complex maze of her debt, another detour on her city walks. She always gave her real telephone number, with one digit changed, her real address, one block uptown or downtown, and an entirely false name—obviously. Sometimes she called herself Edith Jonson, or Mary de Valençay, to remind herself that she had nothing to be ashamed of, that there had been a time when she could have bought a whole city block, never mind a bauble in one of its shops.
Although reviewers liken Edward St. Aubyn to Evelyn Waugh and Oscar Wilde (hard not to, when his characters have neon names like David Windfall), he is a colder, more savage writer than either. He was born in 1960, into a noble English family breezily described in a Guardian interview as inhabiting Cornwall “since the Norman conquest.” Perhaps because he is much more of an aristocratic insider than Wilde or Waugh (the first St. Aubyn baronetcy was created in 1671), he retains no arriviste enamoredness of the upper classes he is supposedly satirizing. On the contrary, his fiction reads like a shriek of filial hatred; most of the posh English who people his novels are virulently repellent. The snobs, drunkards, pedophiles, fools, tyrants, and addicts who pass through these pages are garishly demonic, in a way that seems at once contemporary and oddly timeless. One could imagine St. Aubyn’s Melrose family quintet as not a series of novels so much as dynastic chronicles, disclosing some strange, distant world of primitive barbarism.
“At Last” opens in London, at the funeral of Patrick’s mother, Eleanor Melrose. Patrick tells one of the guests, “I think my mother’s death is the best thing to happen to me since . . . well, since my father’s death.” Readers of St. Aubyn’s earlier novels will know why: “Never Mind,” the first Melrose novel, which was published in 1992, depicted the young Patrick’s rape at the hands of his alcoholic, violent father, David (a scene horribly well described from the point of view of the five-year-old son). “Mother’s Milk” (2006), the fourth novel in the series, disclosed that Patrick’s widowed mother, a silent co-conspirator in the father’s abusive crimes, had shafted her son by depriving him of his inheritance: in her dotage, she handed over the beautiful family house in Provence to a New Agey therapeutic group setting up a “Transpersonal Foundation.” St. Aubyn’s four previous Melrose novels all bear brusquely two-worded titles, as if cursing: “Never Mind,” “Bad News,” “Some Hope,” and “Mother’s Milk.” They represent a blasphemous bildungsroman, of sorts. We see Patrick grow up but fail to enlarge, pickled in poison, schooled only in error, and sliding through overlapping phases of damage: abused child, tormented by his father; wasted young man, shooting up in Manhattan (in “Bad News,” Patrick, now in his twenties, is in New York to collect his father’s ashes); middle-aged father of two boys, alcoholic and depressive, warily watching his neglectful mother die.
“Mother’s Milk” was a beautiful novel, the best of the quintet. St. Aubyn’s ashen prose elegantly conveyed the bitter arrest of Patrick’s early forties. While his mother declined in a nursing home, Patrick drank himself senseless and fought long, enervating battles with his wife, all the while trying not to replicate his father’s alcoholic anger. Patrick’s only ally is his intelligence, and it gives the novels their power. But it is an ambiguous talent for him to have, because there are few apparent strategic advantages to seeing his life as lucidly as he does. Cynical, acidulous, morose, self-pitying, full of banked rage, Patrick would surely be monstrous to live with, but he is vital company in these novels. How he loves the fatal phrase, and how brilliantly St. Aubyn supplies it! A reliable pleasure of reading these books has to do with the clipped satisfactions of aphorism:
The truth was that he hated the very rich, especially since he was never going to be one of them. They were all too often only the shrill pea in the whistle of their possessions. Without the editorial influence of the word “afford,” their desires rambled on like unstoppable bores, relentless and whimsical at the same time.
On every page of St. Aubyn’s work is a sentence or a paragraph that prompts a laugh, or a moment of enriched comprehension. In “Mother’s Milk,” Patrick’s weary wife (the mother of two small children) gets into bed and is “covered by a thin layer of broken rest.” In that same novel, Patrick’s lover, Julia, asks him if he is his own worst enemy. “I certainly hope so,” Patrick replies. “I dread to think what would happen if somebody else turned out to be better at it than me.” Eleanor’s nursing home has that “waiting-room atmosphere in which death was the delayed train.” In the new novel, a bad house guest is dismissed with killing, never-to-be-forgotten scorn: “As a guest, Emily Price had three main drawbacks: she was incapable of saying please, incapable of saying thank you, and incapable of saying sorry, all the while creating a surge in the demand for these expressions.” (Wouldn’t Jane Austen have admired that sentence?)
There is an almost vaudevillian pleasure in St. Aubyn’s diamantine badinage. This same Emily Price, a minor character, is married to Erasmus Price, a philosopher and the author of a difficult book called “None the Wiser: Developments in the Philosophy of Consciousness.” Patrick sees his wife laboring through the work, as bedside reading, and says, “You couldn’t be reading that book unless you were having an affair with the author.” He has guessed right. And she replies (as you knew she would), “Believe me, it’s virtually impossible even then.” One of the most loathsome figures in “At Last” is Nicholas Pratt, an old friend of Eleanor Melrose. He tends to park himself in the middle of a room and loudly practice his “perfectly rehearsed contempt.” As with Patrick, you would not want to be Nicholas Pratt’s friend, but he is viciously good company in fictional form, turning out mots such as this: “A celebrity these days is somebody you’ve never heard of . . . just as j’arrive is what a French waiter says as he hurries away from you in a Paris café.”
Very dry irony is the secret to this comedy, as Patrick certainly knows:
“I haven’t seen you for such a long time,” said Patrick, looking down at Julia’s lips, red under the black net of her veil. He remained inconveniently attracted to almost all the women he had ever been to bed with, even when he had a strong aversion to a revival on all other grounds.
“A year and a half,” said Julia. “Is it true that you’ve given up drinking? It must be hard just now.”
“Not at all: a crisis demands a hero. The ambush comes when things are going well, or so I’m told.”
“If you can’t speak personally about things going well, they haven’t changed that much.”
“They have changed, but my speech patterns may take a while to catch up.”
“I can’t wait.”
“If there’s an opportunity for irony . . .”
“You’ll take it.”
“It’s the hardest addiction of all,” said Patrick. “Forget heroin. Just try giving up irony, that deep-down need to mean two things at once, to be in two places at once, not to be there for the catastrophe of a fixed meaning.”
Nothing much happens in “At Last.” It has the form of Woolf’s “Between the Acts,” or Henry Green’s “Party Going,” in which a static group of characters is gathered in a single place for a short period, and the novelist darts around, inhabiting the perspectives of the chief players. “At Last” begins at Eleanor’s funeral service, moves to a reception at a London club, and ends later that day, in Patrick’s gloomy bed-sit. St. Aubyn, as social satirist, likes parties: he quickly gets to work on his grinning corpses. Broadly speaking, there are two types of posh people in St. Aubyn’s world, the bright ones and the stupid ones. In his fiction, the ratio of smart to stupid is far more advantageous than it is in real life, but this is a minor complaint, gladly passed over for the pleasure of reading pages of implausibly brilliant speech. The awful Nicholas Pratt is palpably bright, and he opens the new novel with a fantastic six-page aria, in which, among other atrocities, he pretends to commiserate with Patrick on his apparent disinheritance: “Try not to be bitter about the money. One or two friends of mine who’ve made a mess of that side of things have ended up dying in National Health wards and I must say I’ve been very impressed by the humanity of the mostly foreign staff. Mind you, what is there to do with money except spend it when you’ve got it or be bitter about it when you haven’t?” Eleanor’s resentful sister Nancy is, alas, one of the less clever. She has threatened to write a book about her family, and has told Patrick, “I mean, it would be much better than Henry James and Edith Wharton and those sort of people, because it really happened.” St. Aubyn dryly reports that she utters this literary self-comparison “without any tiresome show of false modesty.”
One of the book’s running jokes is that Eleanor was a monster, but only her immediate family knows it. At her funeral, Patrick must suffer the sight of his mother’s friends, supporters, and hangers-on eulogizing her world-historical generosity. Beneficiaries of her largesse include those connected to the foundation that has made use of her French house; their chief ambassador at the funeral is Annette, who first met Eleanor “when a group of us from the Dublin Women’s Healing Drum Circle were invited down to Saint-Nazaire.” Annette spouts maxims from Maya Angelou, and announces that Eleanor “never lost a connection to the childlike quality that made her believe so passionately that justice could be achieved.” Another of these Eleanor boosters, a woman named Fleur, who worked in a charity shop set up by Eleanor, and who considers her patron “one of the very few good people I ever met,” asks Patrick if he is proud of his mother. He politely mumbles that he supposes so, prompting the mock-stern response: “What do you mean, you ‘suppose so’? You’re worse than my children. Absolute monsters.”
This is funny, until it is not. There is something a little uncontrolled about the way in which these obviously foolish women are slaughtered at our feet. With their soppy consciousness-raising therapy-speak, they are easy targets for St. Aubyn, and are supposed to be, because the chronicled cruelty of the previous four books cries out to expose their culpable inanities. We know, unlike them, that the House of Melrose was really a palace of abuse and neglect, and that if Eleanor ever did any good in the world it was charity of the “telescopic,” Mrs. Jellyby kind. We know, unlike them, that Patrick has no cause to be proud of his mother, and that, far from applauding the conversion of the Saint-Nazaire family home into a foundation, he has found its loss catastrophic: “For a long time the feeling of madness brought on by the loss of his French home had made it impossible to get over his resentment of Eleanor. Without Saint-Nazaire, a primitive part of him was deprived of the imaginary care that had kept him sane as a child.”
Patrick, with his cool wit, plays the adult role quite well; but he is really always the throbbing child, pulsing with pain. And in this way St. Aubyn’s novels seem to be not only books about trauma but traumatized books, condemned to return again and again to primal wounds. The striking gap between, on the one hand, the elegant polish of the narration, the silver rustle of these exquisite sentences, the poised narrowness of the social satire and, on the other hand, the screaming pain of the family violence inflicted on Patrick makes these books some of the strangest of contemporary novels. The gulf is even more acute in “At Last,” because many of the scenes at the London funeral have a delicious, oysterish kind of edible comedy—they read smoothly and go down very easily, like something out of Anthony Powell (in fact, the funeral resembles the long wedding scene near the end of Powell’s “A Dance to the Music of Time”). But ceaselessly working against this comedy is the dark undertow of the text, those memories of everything Patrick has endured: the month he has spent in the Suicide Observation Room in the Depression Wing of the Priory Hospital, with the “daytime antidepressant, the nighttime antidepressant, and the thirty-two oxazepam tranquillizers a day he was taking to deal with the delirium tremens.” We read of how Patrick’s father threw him into a swimming pool when he was three years old, in order to “teach” him how to swim. There is another horrifying scene, in which David Melrose insists on personally circumcising baby Patrick, while Eleanor, a housekeeper, and a maternity nurse look on impotently: “All the women huddled together crying and begging David to stop and to be careful and to give the baby some local anaesthetic. They knew this was no operation, it was an attack by a furious old man on his son’s genitals.” Eleanor once likened this scene to Goya’s painting of Saturn devouring his son, and Patrick’s wife, who knows that painting well, recalls “the gaping mouth, the staring eyes and the ragged white hair of the old god of melancholy, mad with jealousy and the fear of usurpation, as he fed on the bleeding corpse of his decapitated child.” And once again we revisit, in this book, David’s raping of Patrick, and the fact that Patrick’s very birth was the result of David’s raping of Eleanor.
So when Patrick tells a funeral guest that the death of his mother is the best thing that has happened to him since the death of his father, he is being deflectively witty and also being morbidly earnest. This prose, whose repressed English control is admired by everyone from Alan Hollinghurst to Will Self, is drawn inexorably back to a fearful instability, to the nakedness of infancy. A burden of personal, authorial pain can be felt in these pages, unsettling beyond the obvious awfulness of the fictional material; the reader would probably register this personal pressure even if he did not know of St. Aubyn’s own childhood history—that, like Patrick Melrose, St. Aubyn was sexually abused by his father, and has also been a heroin addict. A single paragraph of St. Aubyn’s may start out in clipped comic mode and seem perfectly legible, then slowly curdle into something much more unreadable and mysterious, like this poignant recital of Patrick’s psychosomatic symptoms:
His body was a graveyard of buried emotion; its symptoms were clustered around the same fundamental terror. . . . The nervous bladder, the spastic colon, the lower-back pain, the labile blood pressure . . . and the imperious insomnia that ruled over them all pointed to an anxiety deep enough to disrupt his instincts and take control of the automatic processes of his body. Behaviours could be changed, attitudes modified, mentalities transformed, but it was hard to have a dialogue with the somatic habits of infancy. How could an infant express himself before he had a self to express, or the words to express what he didn’t yet have? Only the dumb language of injury and illness was abundantly available. There was screaming, of course, if it was allowed.
In general, despite the references to time spent in the Depression Wing of the Priory Hospital, the atmosphere of these books is toughly non-therapeutic. Booze, drugs, and anger are the available mithridatic medicines. But there is, at least, clarity, and though clarity has been an ambiguous talent in the past, Patrick struggles, toward the end of this book, to make the right use of it. After the funeral is over, and once he has seen his mother slide into the mouth of the crematorium’s fires, he tries to think as lucidly as he can about his parents and his future. He knows that he must first acknowledge that his mother was not just a victim of his father (the narrative he told himself when growing up) but a perpetrator of child abuse, too. “The truth, which made his blood pressure shoot up as he admitted it, was that she craved the extreme violence of David’s presence, and that she threw her son into the bargain.” Then he must try to bring his life back from wreckage. In middle age, he is profoundly orphaned: his marriage has failed, his two young sons live with his former wife, his parents are dead. But he is no longer a drug addict, and he has been sober for a year, and in this novel’s final pages, as this moving quintet draws to a close, he begins to see the dim outlines of a path. It will be akin to leaving prison after a lifetime inside: “Most of his time had been spent in reaction to his conditioning, leaving little room to respond to the rest of life. What would it be like to react to nothing and respond to everything? He might at least inch in that direction.”
Home Fires How soldiers write their wars.[modifica | modifica wikitesto]
very war is ironic because every war is worse than expected,” Paul Fussell wrote in “The Great War and Modern Memory,” his classic study of the English literature of the First World War. “But the Great War was more ironic than any before or since.” The ancient verities of honor and glory were still standing in 1914 when England’s soldier-poets marched off to fight in France. Those young men became modern through the experience of trench warfare, if not in the forms they used to describe it. It was Yeats, Pound, Eliot, Joyce, and Lawrence who invented literary modernism while sitting out the war. Robert Graves, Siegfried Sassoon, Edmund Blunden, Isaac Rosenberg, and Wilfred Owen—who all fought in the trenches and, in the last two cases, died there—remained tied to the conventions of the nineteenth century while trying to convey the unprecedented horror of industrial warfare, a condition of existence so murderous and absurd that a romantic or heroic attitude became impossible. The essence of modern understanding is irony, Fussell argued, and it was born on the Western Front.
Fussell wasn’t wrong about the Great War, but, in his insistence on its newness, he underestimated the staying power of military myths for each generation. Fussell cited a newspaper story about a London man who killed himself out of concern that he might not be accepted for service in the Great War, and noted, “How can we forbear condescending to the eager lines at the recruiting stations or smiling at news like this.” But in the summer of 1968 Tim O’Brien, a twenty-one-year-old in a small Minnesota town, a liberal supporter of Eugene McCarthy and an opponent of the war in Vietnam, submitted himself for induction into the United States Army. O’Brien couldn’t bring himself “to upset a peculiar balance between the order I knew, the people I knew, and my own private world,” he wrote, in “If I Die in a Combat Zone,” his 1973 Vietnam memoir. “It was not just that I valued that order. I also feared its opposite—inevitable chaos, censure, embarrassment, the end of everything that had happened in my life, the end of it all.” Was O’Brien’s fear of dishonor entirely different from the impulse that drove a forty-nine-year-old man to throw himself under a van in 1914?
Or from the thinking that led Brian Turner to volunteer for the U.S. Army in 1998 and go on to serve as an infantry team leader in the badlands of northwestern Iraq? “I signed the paper and joined the infantry because at some point in the hero’s life the hero is supposed to say I swear,” Turner writes in his memoir, “My Life as a Foreign Country” (Jonathan Cape), published earlier this year in the United Kingdom and forthcoming from Norton here. “I raised my hand and said the words because I would’ve been ashamed in the years to come if I hadn’t, even if it didn’t make sense, even if nobody I cared about ever thought about it, even if all the veterans in my family never said a word, or even if they did, saying, It’s cool, Brian, it doesn’t mean a thing, believe me, the uniform doesn’t make the man.” Here’s Kevin Powers, who joined the Army out of high school and ended up as a machine gunner in the same region of Iraq as Turner: “I had by then inferred that the military was where a person went to develop the qualities that I had come to admire in my father, my uncle, and both of my grandfathers. The cliché, in my case, was true: I thought that the army would ‘make me a man.’ ” The scare quotes suggest Fussell’s wised-up irony, but they weren’t enough to keep Powers home. Every generation has to discover what Fussell called the “hope abridged” that waits somewhere beyond the recruiting office. For Americans, this experience has been an overwhelmingly male one, recorded in literature written by men, but that will change as women—such as Kayla Williams, the author of two Iraq memoirs—go off to combat zones.
Soldiers who set out to write the story of their war also have to navigate a minefield of clichés: all of them more or less true but open to qualification; many sowed long before the soldiers were ever deployed, because every war is like every other war. That’s one of them. War is hell is another. War begins in illusion and ends in blood and tears. Soldiers go to war for their country’s cause and wind up fighting for one another. Soldiers are dreamers (Sassoon said that). No one returns from war the same person who went. War opens an unbridgeable gap between soldiers and civilians. There’s no truth in war—just each soldier’s experience. “You can tell a true war story by its absolute and uncompromising allegiance to obscenity and evil” (from “How to Tell a True War Story,” in O’Brien’s story collection “The Things They Carried”).
Irony in modern American war literature takes many forms, and all risk the overfamiliarity that transforms style into cliché. They begin with Hemingway’s rejection, in “A Farewell to Arms,” of the high, old language, his insistence on concreteness: “I had seen nothing sacred, and the things that were glorious had no glory and the sacrifices were like the stockyards at Chicago if nothing was done with the meat except to bury it. There were many words that you could not stand to hear and finally only the names of places had dignity.”
The style of understated disillusionment remains universally recognizable and pervasively influential in war literature. Vietnam gave us another kind of distancing—black humor, satire, surrealism—often in novels that were not set in Vietnam, such as Vonnegut’s “Slaughterhouse-Five.” (A similar mood suffuses “M*A*S*H,” a movie that was nominally about the Korean War.) Tim O’Brien’s Vietnam writing—his memoir, the interlocking stories in “The Things They Carried,” and, especially, his novel “Going After Cacciato”—combined Hemingway’s hard and exact prose with often fantastical incidents, suited to a jungle war against an invisible enemy. The characteristic voice of Vietnam literature became the matter-of-fact statement of hallucinatory evil, poised between humor and horror. It’s heard in the opening paragraph of “Going After Cacciato”: “The rain fed fungus that grew in the men’s boots and socks, and their socks rotted, and their feet turned white and soft so that the skin could be scraped off with a fingernail, and Stink Harris woke up screaming one night with a leech on his tongue.”
O’Brien’s work, like the work of other great war writers, makes violence inseparable from pity. In “How to Tell a True War Story,” a soldier loses his best friend to a booby-trapped artillery shell, and, later that day, he machine-guns a baby water buffalo in the cruellest possible way. The narrator reports that whenever he tells this story some kindhearted older woman will urge him to move on. “I’ll picture Rat Kiley’s face, his grief, and I’ll think, You dumb cooze. Because she wasn’t listening. It wasn’t a war story. It was a love story.” This isn’t just the soldier’s love for his war buddies, intense as that attachment can be. It’s a redemptive understanding of their capacity for good and evil both, and of the way that war, more than any other human endeavor, leaves them nowhere to hide.
The wars in Iraq and Afghanistan fully meet Fussell’s description of the ironic: they were worse than expected. Both began with hubris and false victories, turned into prolonged stalemates, and finally deserved the bitter name of defeat. The shorthand for Iraq, from “Mission Accomplished” to Falluja, Abu Ghraib, civil war, the surge, U.S. withdrawal, and the ongoing sectarian killing, is a story of exploded illusions. The first wave of literature by American combatants in these long, inconclusive wars has begun to appear—poems, memoirs, short stories, novels. Their concerns are the same as in all war writing: bravery and fear, the thin line between survival and brutality, the maddening unknowability of the enemy, tenderness, brotherhood, alienation from a former self, the ghosts of the past, the misfit of home.
But Iraq was also different from other American wars. (So far, almost all the new war literature comes from Iraq, perhaps because there weren’t many troops in Afghanistan until 2009, and the minimum lag time between deployment and publication seems to be around five years.) Without a draft, without the slightest sacrifice asked of a disengaged public, Iraq put more mental distance between soldiers and civilians than any war of its duration that I can think of. The war in Iraq, like the one in Vietnam, wasn’t popular; but the troops, at least nominally, were—wildly so. (Just watch the crowd at a sports event if someone in uniform is asked to stand and be acknowledged.) Both sides of the relationship, if they were being honest, felt its essential falseness. A tiny number of volunteers went off to fight, often two or three times, in a war and a country that seemed incomprehensible. They returned to heroes’ welcomes and a flickering curiosity. Because hardly anyone back home really wanted to know, the combatant’s status turned into a mark of otherness, a blessing and a curse. The title of David Finkel’s recent book about the struggles of soldiers returned from Iraq, “Thank You for Your Service,” captures all the bad faith of a civilian population that views itself as undeserving, and the equivocal position of celebrated warriors who don’t much feel like saying, “You’re welcome.”
So it’s not surprising that the new war literature is intensely interested in the return home. The essential scene of First World War writing is the mass slaughter of the trenches. In the archetypal Vietnam story, a grunt who can never find the enemy walks into physical and moral peril. In much of the writing about Iraq, the moment of truth is a reunion scene at an airport or a military base—families holding signs, troops looking for their loved ones, an unease sinking deep into everyone.
In “Letter Composed During a Lull in the Fighting” (Little, Brown), Kevin Powers’s first collection of poetry, published this month, the mood is meditative and convalescent, the poet’s mind reopening after a great shock: “I am home and whole, so to speak. / . . . But I can’t remember / how to be alive.” The narrator of Powers’s lyrical and disturbing novel “The Yellow Birds” (which appeared in 2012) is far from whole. Returning from Iraq to rural Virginia, Private John Bartle stands in his mother’s enveloping hug while strangers around them call out thanks: “Yet when she said, ‘Oh, John, you’re home,’ I did not believe her.” “The Yellow Birds” has a fragmentary quality that’s suited to prose by a poet; it’s better at evoking landscapes and states of feeling than at sustained psychological realism. There are remarkable evocations of the uncanniness, even the wonder, of fighting: “When the ringing of the first shots subsided, we heard bullets, sounds like small rips in the air, reports of rifles from somewhere we couldn’t see. I was struck by a kind of lethargy, in awe of the decisiveness of every single attenuated moment, observed in minute detail each slender moving branch and the narrow bands of sunlight coming through the leaves. Someone pulled me down to the orchard floor.”
When a glib reporter asks what combat feels like, a character compares it to the moment just before a car accident, when you know it’s going to happen and are helpless to stop it. “Death, or whatever, it’s either coming or it’s not,” he says, “like that split second in a car wreck, except for here it can last for goddamn days.” Whether or not the fictional soldier is likely to have formulated such a thought, it’s one of the best distillations of combat I’ve read.
Back home, Bartle finds that “everyone wants to slap you on the back and you start to want to burn the whole goddamn country down, you want to burn every goddamn yellow ribbon in sight, and you can’t explain it but it’s just, like, Fuck you, but then you signed up to go so it’s all your fault, really, because you went on purpose, so you are in the end doubly fucked.” Private Bartle’s homecoming is an extreme case, but his emotions are not.
Journalists and historians have to distort war: in order to find the plot—causation, sequence, meaning—they make war more intelligible than it really is. In the literature by veterans, there are virtually no politics or polemics, in stark contrast to the tendentious way in which most Americans, especially those farthest removed from the fighting, discussed Iraq. This new writing takes the war, though not its terrible cost, as a given. Instead of a coherent explanatory narrative, it presents us with fragments; for example, “Dust to Dust,” a 2012 memoir by Benjamin Busch, a former Marine Corps captain and an actor, is organized not chronologically but around certain materials—metal, bone, blood, ash. Fragments are perhaps the most honest literary form available to writers who fought so recently. Their work lacks context, but it gets closer to the lived experience of war than almost any journalism. It deals in particulars, which is where the heightened alertness of combatants has to remain, and it’s more likely to notice things. To most foreign observers, the landscape of Iraq is relentlessly empty and ugly, like a physical extension of the country’s trauma. But in the poetry and the prose of soldiers and marines the desert comes to life with birdsong and other noises, the moonlit sand breeds dreams and hallucinations.
Like Kevin Powers, Brian Turner is a poet. He’s the Isaac Rosenberg of the Iraq War; romantic by disposition, he resorts to surrealist imagery in order to hold out a margin of human sympathy under the extreme pressure of war. His poems—collected in “Here, Bullet” and “Phantom Noise”—keep returning to the most brutal situations: a suicide car bombing in a Mosul traffic circle, the execution of fifty Iraqi soldiers travelling on minibuses, the torture of Iraqi prisoners by American M.P.s. But violence that begins as fact mingles by metaphor with dreams, eroticism, history, classical poetry, until the borders between individuals and worlds melt away. “The Mutanabbi Street Bombing” is about a famous outdoor book market in Baghdad that was repeatedly blown up by insurgents:
Buildings catch fire. Cafes.
Stationery shops. The Renaissance Bookstore.
A huge column of smoke, a black anvil head
pluming upward, fueled by the Kitah al-Aghani,
al-Isfahani’s Book of Songs, the elegies of Khansa,
the exile poetry of Youssef and al-Azzawi,
religious tracts, manifestos, translations
of Homer, Shakespeare, Whitman, and Neruda—
these book-leaves curl in the fire’s
blue-tipped heat, and the long centuries
handed down from one person to another, verse
by verse, rise over Baghdad.
Turner has at least one truly astonishing poem, “Al-A’imma Bridge.” It describes an incident that took place in 2005, when a Shiite religious procession across a bridge over the Tigris in Baghdad turned into a stampede with the rumor of a suicide bomber, and almost a thousand people were trampled to death or drowned. In a single sentence that cascades over twenty-three free-verse stanzas, Turner imagines those falling, a pregnant woman in an abaya, a young woman from Mosul, and the vision opens up to encompass figures from Iraqi history going back to Babylon, Scheherazade “made speechless by the scale of war,” ghosts woken from their sleep, as the Tigris fills “with bricks from Abu Ghraib, burning vehicles,” razor wire, rubble, bombs of every kind:
give daisies and hyacinths
to this impossible moment, flowers to stand for the lips
unable to kiss them, each in their own bright beauty, flowers
that may light the darkness, as they march deeper into the earth.
It is improbable and moving that an American soldier should write a poem of such generous, Whitmanesque spirit about this one Iraqi disaster. The war kept Americans and Iraqis far apart, as each side learned to fear and distrust the other. “In Vietnam They Had Whores,” as the title of one Iraq War story bluntly puts it—in Iraq they had blast walls and body armor. It was possible for British Tommies to preserve a romantic vision of France, for American grunts to find Vietnam alluring, but very few American troops fell in love with Iraq.
Turner is the rare soldier-writer who takes a deep interest in Iraqis—their language and literature, their past, their daily doings, their inner lives. His memoir, “My Life as a Foreign Country,” opens with a metaphor of the writer as a drone aircraft, flying at thirty-two thousand feet over his life, “gathering the necessary intelligence, all that I have done, all that we have done, compressed into the demarcations annotated in the map below.” Turner’s sympathetic imagination takes in even the Iraqi insurgent in Mosul who nearly killed him with a rocket-propelled grenade. “Maybe it isn’t that it’s so difficult coming home,” Turner writes, “but that home isn’t a big enough space for all that I must bring to it. America, vast and laid out from one ocean to another, is not a large enough space to contain the war each soldier brings home. And even if it could—it doesn’t want to.”
The best literary work thus far written by a veteran of America’s recent wars is Phil Klay’s “Redeployment” (Penguin Press), a masterly collection of short stories about war and its psychological consequences. “Redeployment” is military for “return,” and Klay’s fiction peels back every pretty falsehood and self-delusion in the encounter between veterans and the people for whom they supposedly fought. In the title story, which opens the book, the unnamed narrator, back from Iraq, spots his wife in the waiting crowd, dressed to please him but looking somehow unfamiliar: “I moved in and kissed her. I figured that was what I was supposed to do.” In “Bodies,” a marine whose job was in Mortuary Affairs—“processing” the corpses of Americans and Iraqis alike—says, “It was another three weeks before I got home and everybody thanked me for my service. Nobody seemed to know exactly what they were thanking me for.” He visits a former girlfriend, but the war now lies between them: she doesn’t want him, and he can’t tell her the story that’s on his mind, “about the worst burn case we ever had.” Instead, he gives a drunken version to a man he meets in a bar later that night. When he finishes, the man says, “I respect what you’ve been through.” The story goes on:
I took a sip of my beer. “I don’t want you to respect what I’ve been through,” I said.
That confused him. “What do you want?” he said.
I didn’t know. We sat and drank beer for a bit.
“I want you to be disgusted,” I said.
In “Psychological Operations,” the narrator is an Iraq vet of Coptic Christian descent who enrolls at Amherst. He takes a combative interest in an outspoken black classmate—a new convert to Islam—and almost courts her dislike by telling her how he once broadcast sexual insults over loudspeakers to compel insurgents in Falluja out of their houses so that other marines could shoot them. It’s part confession, part argument, part seduction. He can’t decide how he wants the girl to feel about him:
I looked down at my hands, then back up at Zara. I didn’t know how to tell her what coming home meant. The weird thing with being a veteran, at least for me, is that you do feel better than most people. You risked your life for something bigger than yourself. How many people can say that? You chose to serve. Maybe you didn’t understand American foreign policy or why we were at war. Maybe you never will. But it doesn’t matter. You held up your hand and said, “I’m willing to die for these worthless civilians.”
At the same time, though, you feel somehow less. What happened, what I was a part of, maybe it was the right thing. We were fighting very bad people. But it was an ugly thing.
Klay, a Dartmouth grad who served in the Marine Corps in Anbar Province during the violent months of the surge, in 2007, is a writer who happened to be a marine—you can imagine him writing well about anything, not just Iraq. His fiction is extremely funny and absolutely serious, his control over language and character so assured that the array of first-person narrators in these dozen stories—combat grunts, a desk-bound officer, a beleaguered State Department official, a Marine chaplain—are all distinct and persuasive. Klay writes with a powerful restraint about the inversion of normal reality called combat, its permanent effects on bodies and souls, but the best stories in “Redeployment” look at war from a slight distance. The narrator in “Unless It’s a Sucking Chest Wound,” a battalion adjutant, has the inglorious job of writing up the heroics of other marines being nominated for medals. He feels like a real marine only when he returns home and becomes a civilian again—he keeps his hair short so that people will know. (Vietnam vets grew their hair long to blend in.) He meets a woman at N.Y.U. who assumes that he has post-traumatic stress disorder: “I don’t have PTSD, but I guess her thinking that I did is part of the weird pedestal vets are on now. Either way, I didn’t contradict her.” Just as soldiers could never write about glory and sacrifice in the old way after the First World War, the current generation can be ironic about the image of the psychologically damaged vet introduced into the culture with fear and reverence by Vietnam.
The adjutant is one among many troops—their numbers grew over time—who spent their war almost entirely within the confines of an American base. They were known, derisively, as Fobbits, from Forward Operating Base (a satirical novel of that title by a former Army journalist named David Abrams came out in 2012), and they have a relation to combat troops similar to that of civilians to all veterans—the guilt, the awe, the envy, the relief. Back home, the adjutant finds that he misses not Iraq itself but “the idea of Iraq all my civilian friends imagine when they say the word, an Iraq filled with honor and violence, an Iraq I can’t help feeling I should have experienced but didn’t through my own stupid fault.” Klay, who was a public-affairs officer in Anbar—a relatively safe job in a very dangerous place—sounds this minor chord across several stories, with the rigorous honesty that characterizes all his work and is the source of much of its humor and its sadness.
The most morally complex story in “Redeployment,” and perhaps the best, is “Prayer in the Furnace,” about a Marine chaplain in Ramadi who begins to pick up signs that the infantrymen in his combat-weary battalion, led by a hyper-aggressive commander, are committing war crimes. A corporal named Rodriguez, violent and despairing, brings hints, but when the chaplain presses him for details Rodriguez lets him know that he lacks the street cred to understand. “How can you say this place ain’t evil?” the corporal asks. “Have you been out there?” Klay shows sure command of his craft in tracing the chaplain’s anguish as it becomes a crisis of faith. The chaplain writes in his journal:
I see mostly normal men, trying to do good, beaten down by horror, by their inability to quell their own rages, by their masculine posturing and their so-called hardness, their desire to be tougher, and therefore crueler, than their circumstance.
And yet, I have this sense that this place is holier than back home. Gluttonous, fat, oversexed, overconsuming, materialist home, where we’re too lazy to see our own faults. At least here, Rodriguez has the decency to worry about hell.
Torn between awareness of sin and compassion, the chaplain holds Sunday Mass on the base for a handful of marines and tries to break through his inability to minister to them in extremis. He begins his sermon by asking, “Who here thinks that when you get back to the States no civilians will be able to understand what you’ve gone through?” Hands go up. Then he tells three stories. One is about an American parishioner who watched his child waste away with cancer, then angrily refused the chaplain’s glib attempt at comfort. One is about an Iraqi father who brought his badly burned daughter to the base for medical help, then told the chaplain of his hatred of the Americans for humiliating him in front of his family. The third is about Wilfred Owen, gassed in the trenches. “We are part of a long tradition of suffering,” the chaplain tells the listening marines, some of them uneasy, some angry. “We can let it isolate us if we want, but we must realize that isolation is a lie. Consider Owen. Consider that Iraqi father and that American father. Consider their children. Do not suffer alone. Offer suffering up to God, respect your fellow man, and perhaps the sheer awfulness of this place will become a little more tolerable.”
The sermon fails to move the marines. It’s too soon, and Ramadi is too terrible. There will be more combat deaths, and then, after redeployment, a rash of suicides. The story can end only in irony: the chaplain alludes to Christ’s Passion, and Rodriguez spits in the grass. Some of the men will remain alone for years, perhaps their whole lives. But some will begin to recognize their own suffering in the stories of others. That’s what literature does.
Guy Walks Into a Bar By Simon Rich[modifica | modifica wikitesto]
o a guy walks into a bar one day and he can’t believe his eyes. There, in the corner, there’s this one-foot-tall man, in a little tuxedo, playing a tiny grand piano.
So the guy asks the bartender, “Where’d he come from?”
And the bartender’s, like, “There’s a genie in the men’s room who grants wishes.”
So the guy runs into the men’s room and, sure enough, there’s this genie. And the genie’s, like, “Your wish is my command.” So the guy’s, like, “O.K., I wish for world peace.” And there’s this big cloud of smoke—and then the room fills up with geese.
So the guy walks out of the men’s room and he’s, like, “Hey, bartender, I think your genie might be hard of hearing.”
And the bartender’s, like, “No kidding. You think I wished for a twelve-inch pianist?”
So the guy processes this. And he’s, like, “Does that mean you wished for a twelve-inch penis?”
And the bartender’s, like, “Yeah. Why, what did you wish for?”
And the guy’s, like, “World peace.”
So the bartender is understandably ashamed.
And the guy orders a beer, like everything is normal, but it’s obvious that something has changed between him and the bartender.
And the bartender’s, like, “I feel like I should explain myself further.”
And the guy’s, like, “You don’t have to.”
But the bartender continues, in a hushed tone. And he’s, like, “I have what’s known as penile dysmorphic disorder. Basically, what that means is I fixate on my size. It’s not that I’m small down there. I’m actually within the normal range. Whenever I see it, though, I feel inadequate.”
And the guy feels sorry for him. So he’s, like, “Where do you think that comes from?”
And the bartender’s, like, “I don’t know. My dad and I had a tense relationship. He used to cheat on my mom, and I knew it was going on, but I didn’t tell her. I think it’s wrapped up in that somehow.”
And the guy’s, like, “Have you ever seen anyone about this?”
And the bartender’s, like, “Oh, yeah, I started seeing a therapist four years ago. But she says we’ve barely scratched the surface.”
So, at around this point, the twelve-inch pianist finishes up his sonata. And he walks over to the bar and climbs onto one of the stools. And he’s, like, “Listen, I couldn’t help but overhear the end of your conversation. I never told anyone this before, but my dad and I didn’t speak the last ten years of his life.”
And the bartender’s, like, “Tell me more about that.” And he pours the pianist a tiny glass of whiskey.
And the twelve-inch pianist is, like, “He was a total monster. Beat us all. Told me once I was an accident.”
And the bartender’s, like, “That’s horrible.”
And the twelve-inch pianist shrugs. And he’s, like, “You know what? I’m over it. He always said I wouldn’t amount to anything, because of my height? Well, now look at me. I’m a professional musician!”
And the pianist starts to laugh, but it’s a forced kind of laughter, and you can see the pain behind it. And then he’s, like, “When he was in the hospital, he had one of the nurses call me. I was going to go see him. Bought a plane ticket and everything. But before I could make it back to Tampa . . .”
And then he starts to cry. And he’s, like, “I just wish I’d had a chance to say goodbye to my old man.”
And all of a sudden there’s this big cloud of smoke—and a beat-up Plymouth Voyager appears!
And the pianist is, like, “I said ‘old man,’ not ‘old van’!”
And everybody laughs. And the pianist is, like, “Your genie’s hard of hearing.”
And the bartender says, “No kidding. You think I wished for a twelve-inch pianist?”
And as soon as the words leave his lips he regrets them. Because the pianist is, like, “Oh, my God. You didn’t really want me.”
And the bartender’s, like, “No, it’s not like that.” You know, trying to backpedal.
And the pianist smiles ruefully and says, “Once an accident, always an accident.” And he drinks all of his whiskey.
And the bartender’s, like, “Brian, I’m sorry. I didn’t mean that.”
And the pianist smashes his whiskey glass against the wall and says, “Well, I didn’t mean that.”
And the bartender’s, like, “Whoa, calm down.”
And the pianist is, like, “Fuck you!” And he’s really drunk, because he’s only one foot tall and so his tolerance for alcohol is extremely low. And he’s, like, “Fuck you, asshole! Fuck you!”
And he starts throwing punches, but he’s too small to do any real damage, and eventually he just collapses in the bartender’s arms.
And suddenly he has this revelation. And he’s, like, “My God, I’m just like him. I’m just like him.” And he starts weeping.
And the bartender’s, like, “No, you’re not. You’re better than he was.”
And the pianist is, like, “That’s not true. I’m worthless!”
And the bartender grabs the pianist by the shoulders and says, “Damn it, Brian, listen to me! My life was hell before you entered it. Now I look forward to every day. You’re so talented and kind and you light up this whole bar. Hell, you light up my whole life. If I had a second wish, you know what it would be? It would be for you to realize how beautiful you are.”
And the bartender kisses the pianist on the lips.
So the guy, who’s been watching all this, is surprised, because he didn’t know the bartender was gay. It doesn’t bother him; it just catches him off guard, you know? So he goes to the bathroom, to give them a little privacy. And there’s the genie.
So the guy’s, like, “Hey, genie, you need to get your ears fixed.”
And the genie’s, like, “Who says they’re broken?” And he opens the door, revealing the happy couple, who are kissing and gaining strength from each other.
And the guy’s, like, “Well done.”
And then the genie says, “That bartender’s tiny penis is going to seem huge from the perspective of his one-foot-tall boyfriend.”
And the graphic nature of the comment kind of kills the moment.
And the genie’s, like, “I’m sorry. I should’ve left that part unsaid. I always do that. I take things too far.”
And the guy’s, like, “Don’t worry about it. Let’s just grab a beer. It’s on me.”