Weekend Reading

True Crime, Family Ties, Poison, French Style, and Lost Donkeys

For your languid mid-August perusal, works by Rachel Monroe, Lucy Sexton and Joe Sexton, Elena Kostyuchenko, Nymphet Alumni, and Everett Ruess

  “How an Amateur Diver Became a True Crime Sensation” by Rachel Monroe in The New Yorker

‘Jared Leisek carved a lucrative niche in the YouTube sleuthing community. Then the sleuths came for him.’

Rachel Monroe is no stranger to true crime. She devoted her first book, Savage Appetites, to the subject. But the digital aspects of this story, which we intentionally won’t spoil here, felt like a new and disturbing dimension to her. “The book that I wrote about true crime was not entirely historic, but a lot of it dealt with the pre-social media era,” she told The Fine Print. “I’ve been thinking a lot about what it means when you have social media feeds and the algorithmic incentives attached to these impulses that seem to be a standing thing in human nature — our fascination with the terrible things that happen to other people — and how those things fit together in ways that seem really gross. This story seemed to be a good illustration of that.”

The fact that Leisek’s story played out primarily online meant that there was an overwhelming amount of material to draw on. “They just so thoroughly documented everything they did and would film themselves finding a body and then film a live stream afterwards where they’re talking about it. In some ways, as a reporter, that’s a huge benefit because it’s all right there on video on YouTube, and they’re talking about things in the moment. Obviously, it’s directed towards a YouTube audience, so it’s curated, it’s not pure in any way, but it’s not them looking back and trying to shape the story now that things have fallen apart. Then when things do fall apart, this all happens also very much on YouTube, everybody’s filming reactions,” Monroe said. “It’s all filmed, which is kind of a dizzying thing to deal with in trying to tell the story because it is all playing out so performatively. That was what I wanted to capture in the piece: how everything becomes content. The good and the bad, all of it is just grist for the mill.”

But a story drawn entirely from videos would have lacked the serendipity of live reporting. “I started writing it before I had any idea that I would have access to any of the main players, and initially, it seemed like I wouldn’t,” Monroe said. “Nobody was replying to my emails, I was like, ‘This is going to be a story that I’m writing from YouTubes,’ which is fine, but not ideal.” A preliminary hearing was scheduled in Utah to handle the accusations against Leizek. Monroe thought, “maybe I’ll go and at least I can talk to Jared face to face. Either he’ll agree to talk to me or if he turns me down, at least maybe that could be a scene.”

The day before it was meant to happen, the hearing was canceled, and neither Leisek nor his accuser were in the state. “I was super depressed and felt like a failure. I went back to the hotel room and was like, ‘Okay, the only way that I can make myself feel better about this complete disaster of a reporting trip is I’m gonna make a list of the half dozen key players in this story and write really persuasive emails to them right now,’ just to make myself feel like I was doing something,” Monroe said. “I think Jared emailed me back the next day.”

 “Held Together” by Lucy Sexton and Joe Sexton in The Atavist

‘A filmmaker was producing a documentary series on the Iran hostage crisis. Then her father went missing overseas.’

We’ve written lots and lots about oaklings, but documentarian daughter Lucy Sexton and veteran New York Times reporter father Joe Sexton’s article may be the best oakling story ever told. It begins, “I am the daughter of a newspaperman,” and the consequences of that fact spiral out in this beautifully written narrative in which father and daughter trade off sections. Throughout the story, they pushed each other in their writing and reporting.

When fellow former Times reporter Ian Urbina asked Joe to join him in the reporting project that led to their kidnapping in Libya, he thought of his daughter’s adventurous reporting abroad. “I was nearly 62; there weren’t going to be many more shots at foreign correspondence. Did I have the stones for it?” he writes. “My second child, Lucy, had shown herself capable of risky work.” Joe, on the other hand, pushed Lucy toward a more literary voice. “When I was in the third grade he edited one of my writing assignments and added the word ‘divine’ to a sentence,” she writes. “In a way only the child of a writer ever could, I argued: This wasn’t ‘my voice.’”

Their voices remain distinct in their respective sections. Joe’s style swings more poetic, with references to Seamus Heaney and Bob Dylan, while Lucy’s is slightly more prosaic and efficient. However, at the start of one section, she breaks out lyrically: “Every 17 years, dormant cicadas come to life, emerging from underground in a vast brood. As if the convergence of my work life and personal life hadn’t felt symbolic enough already, Washington was covered in a plague of the bugs as I awaited news about Joe. Standing in the grassy park in front of the State Department, I felt cicadas crawl up my legs.”

Lucy had her father’s advice in mind when she wrote that. “Joe reminded me, ‘make this as present tense as possible.’ Good writers place themselves in a time, a place. What’s it smell like? What emotionally was going on? And I really do remember the cicadas. It was quite apocalyptic at some moments. I’ve never seen a cicada swarm like that,” she told The Fine Print. “Metaphorically, I thought, it is kind of interesting. So much of the story is about crazy coincidence and 17 years feels very specific. The fact that it was all happening at the same time added a little layer of symbolism.”

 “How They Tried to Kill Me” by Elena Kostyuchenko (translated by Bela Shayevich) in n+1

‘I want to live’

In the first month after Russia invaded Ukraine, Elena Kostyuchenko documented kidnappings and torture by Russian soldiers in occupied Kherson. Her stories for Novaya Gazeta struck a nerve, occasioning a takedown notice from the Russian Prosecutor General’s Office and — as she first described in this essay on Tuesday, originally published in Russian on Meduza and subsequently in English translation on n+1 — an order for her assassination passed to a Chechen subdivision of the Russian National Guard. She fled Ukraine, eventually landing in Germany, and got to work on a book. “I know that you want to come home,” Dmitry Muratov, the Nobel-peace-prize-winning editor-in-chief at Novaya Gazeta, told her. “But you cannot go back to Russia. They will kill you.” She was planning on returning after finishing the book, anyway, until she fell ill in Munich last Fall, in what appears to be a poisoning.

The same day that Kostyuchenko published her essay, Russian investigative outlet The Insider published a story that placed her story alongside those of two other exiled Russian journalists and dissidents who seem to have been poisoned in the last year. The next day Kostyuchenko appeared telling the story on vDud, one of the biggest Russian YouTube interview channels. “We can’t understand why it took you this long to come to us. You should have called the police right away,” a German detective told her, as she reports. “But I didn’t think I’d been poisoned. I’m still not sure,” she replied. “Why didn’t you think so?” “It seemed crazy to me. And I’m in Europe. … I felt like I was safe.”

“I lied to the police,” she writes later in the essay. “It wasn’t that the idea of it ‘seemed crazy’ to me. During my time at Novaya Gazeta, four of my colleagues were killed. I organized the funeral of Khimki journalist Mikhail Beketov, he’d been a friend. I knew that journalists got murdered. But I did not want to believe that they could kill me. I was protected from this thought by revulsion, shame, and exhaustion. It disgusted me to think that there were people who wanted me dead. I was ashamed to talk about it. Even with loved ones, let alone the police. And I felt how exhausted I was, how little strength I had left, that I wouldn’t be able to go on the run again.” With her book I Love Russia — which intersperses reporting from the country with snippets of memoir — due to be published in October, concerns that she might be poisoned again abound. “The police believe that it might become a trigger. That the people who tried to kill me in Ukraine, and, possibly, in Germany, will try again,” she writes. “I want to live.

Kostyuchenko had been talking about the book with her translator Bela Shayevich, who previously translated Nobel-winner Svetlana Alexievich, since they first met in New York in 2018. “We met up and I was like, ‘I want to translate your book.’ And she was like, ‘What book?’” Shayevich told The Fine Print. “I think that the project of her book was an inevitability. I just knew that it was gonna happen and that I really wanted to work with her.” The project stalled then for lack of an organizing principle. The idea was put on hiatus until Russia launched its full-scale attack on Ukraine on February 24, 2022. “The event of the war created the structure that all of this stuff that she had been writing about had been leading to this moment,” Shayevich said. “So it really came together over the summer of 2022 and then we sold it to Penguin in October. She was gonna go back to Russia on January 2nd, and then she got poisoned.”

It took a while for Shayevich to realize what was happening to Kostyuchenko. “At first she was just like, ‘Oh my God, I have Covid for the third time in six months.’ And I was like, ‘Yeah, of course you do. Look at how you live,’” she said. “She is a person who goes through so much and lives under such extreme pressure that anything that was manifesting somatically seemed like it could very easily be a response to how insane her year was or the fact that she was planning on returning to Russia in three months and that her body was saying no.” She was waiting on a chunk of text from Kostyuchenko, which she finally received on December 10. After a ten-day translating spree, they scheduled a meeting to discuss Shayevich’s translations. “The morning that we’re supposed to have this meeting, like an hour before, she’s just like, ‘Hey, I was at the police station for nine hours and now I’m going to the hospital. I don’t know how long this is going to take. I don’t think I can meet with you today,’” Shayevich said. “It wasn’t until midnight that night that it dawned on me what the combination of police and hospital might mean.”

They kept pushing to finish work on the book despite Kostyuchenko’s dire condition. “We just crashed through. Elena is a beast and a machine. She was working nonstop even though she was insanely sick,” Shayevich said. “She’ll claim that she was sleeping all day but she was not.”

They also knew she would eventually have to write about the poisoning. “Elena was really anxious about writing the essay because, while the essay is one of the things that could keep her safe, by just going public about what happened to her, at the same time, she felt incredibly uncomfortable going public without having definitive proof of what happened to her,” Shayevich said. “It’s this journalistic impulse because it’s such a mindfuck to be poisoned and not know what’s happened to you. To go out claiming that you’ve been poisoned without having this proof was a big block for her. But she had to do it. And, so as far as I understand, the order of operations was that Dud contacted her for an interview and she told him in the interview, and then she was just like, ‘Well, if it’s coming out August 16th on Dud, I have to finish this piece and publish it.’ So she wrote it in Russian and gave it to me last Thursday and then I gave her a text on Friday.”

“Initially Elena had wanted to make her announcement in The New York Times, but The New York Times wanted an exclusive and they wanted to have the right to publish it in English in whatever form they wanted 24 hours before it appeared in any other language. Elena was pretty shocked by that attitude because she didn’t understand how she could possibly make a statement like this in English before she addressed her own people with it,” Shayevich said. (A spokesperson for The Times declined to comment.) “So she decided that the best course of action would be to publish it in n+1, where we have such a warm and supportive relationship with [publisher and co-editor Mark Krotov] and there isn’t this sense of competitiveness and profit-driven ideas about spreading information. She couldn’t betray her principles there and that is generally how she works.”

“French Girl Style,” Nymphet Alumni

‘Following the passing of icon of effortlessness and honorary Frenchwoman Jane Birkin, we examine the mythology of the French girl — from the culture of chic aphorisms that surround her’

There was a generation of podcasts that felt like Twitter digests and analyses. Nymphet Alumni is more of a TikTok digest and analysis, which is helpful because while I’ve caved and now technically have TikTok, I haven’t figured out how to enjoy it. The first episode I listened to was “Into the Superflat,” which felt like it was about an aesthetic that hardly exists offline. This one, however, dives into old print delusions running rampant in the app.

“There was a really popular book on French parenting called Bringing up Bébé: One American Mother Discovers the Wisdom of French Parenting. Some of my friends who are new moms have said that it’s really good, but it’s so funny to me because now a French girl obsession begins at conception and you’re literally raising your kids in a francophile way,” says one of the hosts on the episode. “It seems like a really advanced form of cultural cringe. It’s so self-deprecating towards the perceived failings of American culture that are usually related to obesity, lack of sophistication, ignorance, looking like shit all the time.” The book, she explains, makes up “these imaginary situations of how American moms are so sloppy and always frazzled and in this emergency state, while French kids are eating braised leeks and playing by themselves while their parents sip coffee.”

Her co-host brings it back to the familiar territory: “I always see these TikToks that are American mothers who live in France showing the menu for their child’s school, the food they’re served at school, and then, in the comments section, there are tons of American moms being like, ‘Oh my gosh, I wish this was what my kids were served. The American school system is failing us so much.’ I see that echoed all the time in TikTok parents.”

The Letters of Everett Ruess

‘The story of a young artist who walked into the Southwestern desert and vanished, and the legends he left behind—includes his personal correspondence.’

In 1934, 20-year-old Everett Ruess and his donkeys disappeared near Davis Gulch in Utah. He’d spent the preceding years wandering deserts, canyons, and mountains, mostly alone. The mystery, the legend of Ruess’s willful solitude, and his lyrical writings have fueled a minor cult in the near century since. Though his untimely death occasioned their collection, his letters home are best read as soothing travel-writing, pulsing with awe at sublime wilderness, fuel for daydreams of an untethered life. They’re collected in The Mystery of Everett Ruessby W.L. Rusho, whose introduction and notes lean into the mythology, proclaiming, “Rare indeed is an Everett Ruess, who could sense beauty so acutely it bordered on pain.

Rusho tends to highlight Ruess’s Whitmaniac raves, but his observations, so often gathered in starlight, are the material most worth returning to. One moment, in a letter mailed to a friend from Kayenta, Arizona, on March 9, 1931, runs: “It is too bad that you sleep under a roof where you cannot see the falling stars at night. In a couple of days the moon will be full, too. I slept very coolly until I got the tarpaulin. Ice forms almost every night. In one camp next to a cliff, you could hear the echo of a bean dropped four inches above a plate. It sounded like a firecracker. (No hyperbole.)”