Boat Squatters, Liberal Arts Cults & Toxic Masculinity

By Flora Stadler

A great long form article doesn’t feel like a slog. I love long reads that push the word limit for a single sitting, but still grip me until the end. This week, I’ve got three articles that fit this description.

Lost at Sea: Poverty and paradise at the edge of America
By Joe Kloc for Harper’s
Approx length: 6,000 words

Photo by Therese Jahnson for Harper’s

In a bay along the coast of Sausalito, Ca., is a graveyard of abandoned boats that’s home to about 100 people who call themselves anchor-outs. This makeshift squatter community has existed there in some form for more than a century. Kloc tells the story of a few residents in a loose, meandering style that matches their own—dropping in and out over several years. It would be easy for him to caricature residents who call themselves Dream Weaver and Innate Thought, but he doesn’t. There’s no attempt to put a moral frame around their lives, or a cohesive narrative that makes sense of everything. It’s all snapshots: a man who used to work with Shel Silverstein and inherited his boat; a young woman with multiple sclerosis who lived there with her small child until their boat sank; an amateur painter who started selling his work and moved ashore. There are hints at the disparities that brought them to the boats, and the tensions that may eventually evict them, but the focus is personal.

A Little History: “The bay has served as a stopover for sailors headed down the coast, or out into the Pacific, for at least two centuries… The first live-aboards came with the Gold Rush, when those who had made fortunes moved onto rectangular crafts with gently curved roofs and French doors, then lost everything playing monte in the city… They were followed by San Franciscans who had lost their homes in the earthquake and fires of 1906, and then by opportunistic bootleggers and rumrunners.”

Larry Ray and the Stolen Kids of Sarah Lawrence
By Ezra Marcus and James D. Walsh for The Cut (New York Magazine)
Approx. length: 9,000 words

Photo illustration by Art Handler for The Cut

When I’ve heard my alma mater mentioned over the years, it’s usually as the punchline of a joke about lesbians or humorless feminists (à la American Psycho or Ten Things I Hate About You). I usually roll my eyes. It’s easy to stereotype the formerly all-girls’ liberal arts college as radicalized, but the campus, its location and size, all felt very cloistered—an insulated place to push into adulthood. But this story is counter to all that, a rabbit-hole nightmare centered on a crazy, charismatic ex-felon who essentially moved into his daughter’s dorm and started a sex cult. Larry Ray, a well-connected and controlling guy with a complicated past (Did he help NATO stop a bombing in Kosovo? Who knows for sure!), took a handful of kids in his daughter’s dorm and manipulated them so thoroughly that several have tried to commit suicide multiple times, another was last seen living in a homeless shelter, and one began working as a prostitute to pay Ray back for all of the “damage” she’d done to his property. Their parents are traumatized, and there’s still a lot of mystery around how this happened. How could Sarah Lawrence have such a relaxed policy on dorm-crashing prison dads? Although Ray is the perpetrator, there’s a lot the school has to answer for.

Supplemental Reading: Behind the Reporting of New York Magazine’s Cover Story on Larry Ray

My Cousin Was My Hero. Until the Day He Tried to Kill Me.
By Wil S. Hylton for The New York Times Magazine
Approx. length: 11,500 words

Photo illustration by Mike McQuade for New York Times Magazine

It’s a really long read, but this novella of an article grabs hold from the beginning and doesn’t let up. The spine of the story is the night Hylton was almost murdered by his cousin, whom he idolized. But it moves in and out of that night expertly, charting the writer’s growth and his cousin’s slide, and how those two paths eventually cross with explosive effect. Hylton explores every aspect of his masculinity—his impulse to fight, his romantic relationships with men, and how holding to traditional gender roles contributed to the disintegration of his marriage. He contrasts his own revelations with his cousin’s embrace of violence and machismo, which leaves them both crippled. It deals with all the subtleties of gender identity and how we become a summary of our choices, good and bad. It’s so compelling that, when I stopped halfway through reading it to run some errands, I couldn’t stop thinking about it. Eventually I had to pull over so I could find out how it all ended.

The Gist: “My attraction to my cousin and my detachment as a husband both reside in the pantheon of male tropes. Masculinity is a religion. It is a compendium of saints: the vaunted patriarch, the taciturn cowboy, the errant knight, reluctant hero, gentle giant and omniscient father. Like Scripture, each contains a story of implicit values. Fraternity, dominance, adamance, certitude — these are the commandments of male identity. Maybe in societies deep through history, those qualities helped organize a world of chaos, but the antediluvian constructs of masculinity are easily weaponized in modern life. The virtue of strength invites abuse. Adamance enables intransigence. Restraint devolves to disengagement, and fraternity yields exclusion. The veneration of those traits is poison to young men. It offers an easy escape from the necessary struggle of self-reflection and replaces the work of interior discovery with a menu of prefabricated identities.”

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