Précis — July 23, 2013, 1:00 pm

Writers Go in Search of a Good Night’s Sleep

We asked some of our favorite writers how they were sleeping. Their responses ranged from the personal, to the scientific, to the historical.

“I wake up neither because of my will nor because of anyone else’s. I wake up because my body wakes to attend to the child’s body,” writes Sarah Manguso, beautifully expressing a new mother’s altered relationship to sleep. “I await his next cry. My body rises and moves down the hall carrying me with it.” She ends her poetic essay thusly: “I’m growing accustomed to living in this new body, newly capable of briefer, shallower, broken sleep — a mother’s body, a machine designed to wake up.”

New York–area readers: Please join us at McNally Jackson Books in SoHo on Wednesday, July 31, at 7 p.m. for Sleeping With Harper’s Magazine: Authors in search of a good night’s rest. Details are here.

Historian A. Roger Ekirch informs readers that sleeping through the night is a modern idea: “Unlike the seamless slumber we strive to achieve, sleep once commonly consisted of two major intervals, a ‘first sleep’ and a ‘second sleep.’ ” In the hour of wakefulness in between, “people did practically everything imaginable” — including have sex, whose timing in the wee hours, Ekirch reports, was believed by some to increase fertility.

“I heard about gaboxadol and decided I had to try it,” writes Hamilton Morris of a rare chemical remedy for insomnia that, though it is nowhere near being approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, could be an improvement over Ambien, Valium, and Xanax. But what really appeals to Morris is the hallucinogenic delirium gaboxadol is said to induce. The intrepid reporter scores some: “In my darkened bedroom,” he writes, “I could hear otherworldly music emanating from the motor of a box fan, the white-noise buzzing slowing, taking on the character of an electric viola, the room’s various shadows animated by strange movements as if cast by a flickering candle—but none of this proved distracting.” Morris finds that gaboxadol is indeed the perfect hypnotic.

Rebecca Solnit wonders about the inner lives of the CEOs and world leaders who view their sleeplessness as a proud symbol of their industriousness. “They’re subjected to the same sleep deprivation as the prisoners at Guantanamo, and it affects them in similar ways,” she writes. “Sleep and dreams are the wilderness of the mind. The rulers of the world are probably eyeing that land as something that can be harnessed for production; the torturers must see it as enemy territory to be napalmed and carpet combed”

“I tell myself it’s a virtue, my failure to sleep in my own house, or at all,” writes Heidi Julavits, describing her nocturnal life as a “sleep hunter,” wandering from room to room in her Maine house with a flashlight, a bottle of pills, two pillows and a blanket. This is a lovely evocation of the perils of family life: the deep care we feel for those we love, and the anxiety that can sometimes cause.

“I’m not talking about noise. Think of the rackets you’ve slept through,” writes Deb Olin Unferth, kept up at night by fighting neighbors who doom her to “the sleeplessness of the exiled, the expat, the atheist, the existentialist, the incarcerated.” She called the police who came a few times and then stopped, the landlord stopped taking her calls, even her friends stopped speaking to her due to the long incoherent emails she wrote throughout the night. “Sleeplessness can do a number on you,” she writes. “It goes on too long and that posture becomes your personality.”

“It is always preferable to have something, or someone, to blame. At midcentury we faulted mother,” writes Christine Smallwood in her history of bed-wetting cures, which leads from ancient methods (directing the child to consume the testicles of a hedgehog) to present-day behavioral training, barbaric in its own right. “Tonight in America, 5 million of these wetters will worry themselves to sleep,” she writes, “many of them lying atop rubber sheets, moisture alarms clipped, velcroed, or otherwise fastened to their pajamas.”

“As much as I want to help my clients, I don’t empathize with them,” writes author Rebecca Curtis, who also works as a holistic nutritionist. “They cannot sleep; I can. They want to; I don’t. I hate to sleep, especially if I’m alone.” As she reviews a variety of homeopathic remedies, Curtis reveals the fears and loneliness that make her want to stay awake. “The idea of turning off my life and opening up my subconscious, my dreams, and my self (soul?) is so abhorrent to me,” she confesses, “that I have slept with the bedroom light on for the past six years.”

Gideon Lewis-Kraus writes of his experience at a Tokyo cuddle café, where a small membership fee and thirty dollars buys a man forty minutes of sleeping time with a young pajama-clad woman. Sexual overtures are forbidden, though for ten dollars you can stare into your sleep partner’s eyes or have her pat you on the head. “Here you do pure things,” explains Lewis-Kraus’s partner. “Men come here want time, relax time. It’s like being in their room in their house. Bed is best relax item.”

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Secrets and Lies·

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In 1973, when Barry Singer was a fifteen-year-old student at New York’s Yeshiva University High School for Boys, the vice principal, Rabbi George Finkelstein, stopped him in a stairwell. Claiming he wanted to check his tzitzit—the strings attached to Singer’s prayer shawl—Finkelstein, Singer says, pushed the boy over the third-floor banister, in full view of his classmates, and reached down his pants. “If he’s not wearing tzitzit,” Finkelstein told the surrounding children, “he’s going over the stairs!”

“He played it as a joke, but I was completely at his mercy,” Singer recalled. For the rest of his time at Yeshiva, Singer would often wear his tzitzit on the outside of his shirt—though this was regarded as rebellious—for fear that Finkelstein might find an excuse to assault him again.

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About fifteen years ago, my roommate and I developed a classification system for TV and movies. Each title was slotted into one of four categories: Good-Good; Bad-Good; Good-Bad; Bad-Bad. The first qualifier was qualitative, while the second represented a high-low binary, the title’s aspiration toward capital-A Art or lack thereof.

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America’s Constitution was once celebrated as a radical and successful blueprint for democratic governance, a model for fledgling republics across the world. But decades of political gridlock, electoral corruption, and dysfunction in our system of government have forced scholars, activists, and citizens to question the document’s ability to address the thorniest issues of modern ­political life.

Does the path out of our current era of stalemate, minority rule, and executive abuse require amending the Constitution? Do we need a new constitutional convention to rewrite the document and update it for the twenty-­first century? Should we abolish it entirely?

This spring, Harper’s Magazine invited five lawmakers and scholars to New York University’s law school to consider the constitutional crisis of the twenty-­first century. The event was moderated by Rosa Brooks, a law professor at Georgetown and the author of How Everything Became War and the Military Became Everything: Tales from the Pentagon.

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For time ylost, this know ye,
By no way may recovered be.

I spent thirty-eight years in prison and have been a free man for just under two. After killing a man named Thomas Allen Fellowes in a drunken, drugged-up fistfight in 1980, when I was nineteen years old, I was sentenced to life without the possibility of parole. Former California governor Jerry Brown commuted my sentence and I was released in 2017, five days before Christmas. The law in California, like in most states, grants the governor the right to alter sentences. After many years of advocating for the reformation of the prison system into one that encourages rehabilitation, I had my life restored to me.

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Happiness Is a Worn Gun


“Nowadays, most states let just about anybody who wants a concealed-handgun permit have one; in seventeen states, you don’t even have to be a resident. Nobody knows exactly how many Americans carry guns, because not all states release their numbers, and even if they did, not all permit holders carry all the time. But it’s safe to assume that as many as 6 million Americans are walking around with firearms under their clothes.”

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