Editor's Note — November 12, 2015, 12:35 pm

Introducing the December Issue

Alexandra Kleeman subjects herself to a week of bed rest, Nat Segnit celebrates Waterloo’s bicentennial, Charlotte Dumas documents Japan’s endangered horses, and more

HarpersWeb-Cover-2015-12-302x408This issue marks the 317th I’ve worked on as either editor or managing editor of Harper’s Magazine—and also marks the last editor’s note I will write. That task, as well as the editorship of the magazine, I leave in the very capable hands of Christopher Cox, who has been an editor at Harper’s for the past five years.

Herewith are the highlights of the December 2015 issue.

As many as 700,000 pregnant women in the United States are prescribed bed rest each year. The treatment is supposed to benefit both mother and child, most notably by delaying premature births. Unfortunately, it’s becoming increasingly clear that bed rest has no positive effect on fetal health and a negative effect on maternal health. So why are doctors still prescribing it? For our cover story, Alexandra Kleeman submitted herself to five days of bed rest—with one thirty-minute break each day—to see what would happen to her body. Her essay is a broadside against a practice that has its roots in nineteenth-century quack medicine and survives today thanks to a combination of ignorance and paternalism.

In June, Europe celebrated the Battle of Waterloo’s bicentennial, commemorating Napoleon’s final defeat by the Duke of Wellington. Nat Segnit was there to witness the four-day pageant, which took place on the site of the battle, in present-day Belgium, and featured a reenactment in which 5,000 soldiers and 1,000 camp followers participated. In his Letter from Belgium, Segnit drinks watery beer, meets a Napoleon impersonator, and contemplates, amid the sound of musket fire and French battle cries, the future of the European project that the revelry is meant to celebrate.

In 2008, three political novices living in Sarajevo—Pedja Kojovic, a former journalist and poet, Danis Tanovic, an Academy Award–winning filmmaker, and Dino Mustafic, a theater director—helped found a new political party in Bosnia called Naša Stranka. The party was born of frustration with the ethnically segregated political system that was codified by the Dayton Accords, which ended the country’s civil war in 1995. Though Naša Stranka enjoyed early success, winning 15 percent of the vote in its first local elections, the party’s progress since has been plagued by a series of setbacks. In her Letter from the Balkans, Elisabeth Zerofsky asks whether it is possible to bring substantive political change to a country riven by ethnic divisions so rigid that they are actually enshrined in law.

Also in our December issue: a Photo Essay by Charlotte Dumas documenting Japan’s endangered horses; J. C. Hallman on gambling and suicide in Atlantic City; new fiction by Michelle Huneven; Rick Moody on Extreme Weight Loss; Rivka Galchen on Antigone; and our own James Marcus on Primo Levi.

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More from Ellen Rosenbush:

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Ted Conover among the homesteaders of Colorado’s San Luis Valley; Christopher Ketcham on the Gilets Jaunes; Marc de Miramon on former Rwandan President Paul Kagame; Jacob Mikanowski on Hungary’s far right

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The Red Dot

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I.

That year, the year of the Ghost Ship fire, I lived in a shack. I’d found the place just as September’s Indian summer was giving way to a wet October. There was no plumbing or running water to wash my hands or brush my teeth before sleep. Electricity came from an extension cord that snaked through a yard of coyote mint and monkey flower and up into a hole I’d drilled in my floorboards. The structure was smaller than a cell at San Quentin—a tiny house or a huge coffin, depending on how you looked at it—four by eight and ten feet tall, so cramped it fit little but a mattress, my suit jackets and ties, a space heater, some novels, and the mason jar I peed in.

The exterior of my hermitage was washed the color of runny egg yolk. Two redwood French doors with plexiglass windows hung cockeyed from creaky hinges at the entrance, and a combination lock provided meager security against intruders. White beadboard capped the roof, its brim shading a front porch set on cinder blocks.

After living on the East Coast for eight years, I’d recently left New York City to take a job at an investigative reporting magazine in San Francisco. If it seems odd that I was a fully employed editor who lived in a thirty-two-square-foot shack, that’s precisely the point: my situation was evidence of how distorted the Bay Area housing market had become, the brutality inflicted upon the poor now trickling up to everyone but the super-rich. The problem was nationwide, although, as Californians tend to do, they’d taken this trend to an extreme. Across the state, a quarter of all apartment dwellers spent half of their incomes on rent. Nearly half of the country’s unsheltered homeless population lived in California, even while the state had the highest concentration of billionaires in the nation. In the Bay Area, including West Oakland, where my shack was located, the crisis was most acute. Tent cities had sprung up along the sidewalks, swarming with capitalism’s refugees. Telegraph, Mission, Market, Grant: every bridge and overpass had become someone’s roof.

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I am eight years old, sitting in my childhood kitchen, ready to watch one of the home videos my father has made. The videotape still exists somewhere, so somewhere she still is, that girl on the screen: hair that tangles, freckles across her nose that in time will spread across one side of her forehead. A body that can throw a baseball the way her father has shown her. A body in which bones and hormones lie in wait, ready to bloom into the wide hips her mother has given her. A body that has scars: the scars over her lungs and heart from the scalpel that saved her when she was a baby, the invisible scars left by a man who touched her when she was young. A body is a record or a body is freedom or a body is a battleground. Already, at eight, she knows it to be all three.

But somebody has slipped. The school is putting on the musical South Pacific, and there are not enough roles for the girls, and she is as tall as or taller than the boys, and so they have done what is unthinkable in this striving 1980s town, in this place where the men do the driving and the women make their mouths into perfect Os to apply lipstick in the rearview. For the musical, they have made her a boy.

No, she thinks. They have allowed her to be a boy.

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The writer and filmmaker Virginie Despentes lives in a nondescript modern building in the Belleville neighborhood of Paris. I know it well: it has a Bricorama—like a French Home Depot—on the ground floor, where we sometimes had cause to shop back when we lived in the neighborhood. The people who work there seemed to hate their jobs more than most; they were often absent from the sales floor. In the elevator to Despentes’s apartment, I marvel that while I was trying to get someone to help me find bathroom grout she was right upstairs, with her partner, Tania, a Spanish tattoo artist who goes by the name La Rata, like someone out of one of Despentes’s novels.

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Discussed in this essay:

Plagued by Fire: The Dreams and Furies of Frank Lloyd Wright, by Paul Hendrickson. Knopf. 624 pages. $35.

Frank Lloyd Wright isn’t just the greatest of all American architects. He has so eclipsed the competition that he can sometimes seem the only one. Who are his potential rivals? Henry Hobson Richardson, that Gilded Age starchitect in monumental stone? Louis Sullivan, lyric poet of the office building and Wright’s own Chicago mentor, best known for his dictum that form follows function? “Yes,” Wright corrected him with typical one-upmanship, “but more important now, form and function are one.” For architects with the misfortune to follow him, Wright is seen as having created the standards by which they are judged. If we know the name Frank Gehry, it’s probably because he designed the Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao, Spain, in 1997. And Gehry’s deconstructed ship of titanium and glass would be unimaginable if Wright hadn’t built his own astonishing Guggenheim Museum on Fifth Avenue some forty years earlier.

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That night at the window, looking out at the street full of snow, big flakes falling through the streetlight, I listened to what Anna was saying. She was speaking of a man named Karl. We both knew him as a casual acquaintance—thin and lanky like Ichabod Crane, with long hair—operating a restaurant down in the village whimsically called the Gist Mill, with wood paneling, a large painting of an old gristmill on a river on one wall, tin ceilings, and a row of teller cages from its previous life as a bank. Karl used to run along the river, starting at his apartment in town and turning back about two miles down the path. He had been going through the divorce—this was a couple of years ago, of course, Anna said—and was trying to run through his pain.

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At Ivanwald, men learn to be leaders by loving their leaders. “They’re so busy loving us,” a brother once explained to me, “but who’s loving them?” We were. The brothers each paid $400 per month for room and board, but we were also the caretakers of The Cedars, cleaning its gutters, mowing its lawns, whacking weeds and blowing leaves and sanding. And we were called to serve on Tuesday mornings, when The Cedars hosted a regular prayer breakfast typically presided over by Ed Meese, the former attorney general. Each week the breakfast brought together a rotating group of ambassadors, businessmen, and American politicians. Three of Ivanwald’s brothers also attended, wearing crisp shirts starched just for the occasion; one would sit at the table while the other two poured coffee. 

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