Your love is better than ice cream
The Lilith Fair of newsletters is baaaaack with twisted tales of sinister balletomanes, huckster trials, and a real dick move…
To everyone who jumped aboard the S.S. Spread: We considered sending each of you a Dairy Queen Dipped Cone to demonstrate our gratitude, but couldn’t quite figure out the logistics. Dry ice? Drone delivery? We offer you instead this less drippy yet equally delicious (and borderline erotic) love letter to that all-American frozen treat—a post that seriously exceeds the brief from Bon Appetit. Honestly, readers: Thank you! And welcome back. Knowing that you’re along for the ride made building Issue No. 2 all the more exciting: Just as we hoped, you shared hot tips on the stories and podcasts you’re loving, many of which we’ve happily tucked into this week’s reads. Already, you are helping to SPREAD. THE. WORD. See how easy that was?
Rachel & Maggie
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It starts out as a solid ballet-crime story and escalates—and we do mean escalates—from there!
Dance! Deceit! Poison!...Ben Carson!? Sink intoVanity Fair’s thrilling, fastidiously reported yarn by writer Alice Robb and let the juiciness wash over you. The story begins as a profile of a God-fearing, gun-toting, gushingly-in-love swindler couple who found a serious ballet company in Charleston, South Carolina, drawing top dancers from around the world. But when American National Ballet goes belly-up, the depth of Robb’s reporting really starts to boggle the mind (she even got the pivotal teenage daughter/stepdaughter on the record). Things only get weirder and darker from there, and the ending is explosive. I can’t wait for the TV adaptation, for which I would like to cast Spread fave Margaret Qualley—or maybe The White Lotus’s Sydney Sweeney?—as our ballet-fanatic wifey-lead, Ashley Benefield, please and thank you.—Rachel
Without the ability to smile, could she feel real happiness?
The day after playwright Sarah Ruhl gave birth to twins, she looked in the mirror of her hospital room and noticed, “the left half of my face had fallen down. Eyebrow, fallen; eyelid, fallen; lip fallen, frozen, immovable.” Vogue’s long tradition of publishing excellent personal essays is somewhat under-sung in the Hadid-stagram era, but these are almost always my favorite reads in the book. This excerpt from Ruhl’s upcoming memoir, is a great example. The writer recalls with alacrity an experience that would have driven lesser women—me, for example—over the edge: With her twins admitted to the NICU, Ruhl was sent home to deal with her toddler daughter and a new diagnosis, Bell’s palsy. Would it go away? Maybe, maybe not. Reading this last week while my entire family recovered from Covid—so, yes, that happened—I was moved both by Ruhl’s rock-steady parenting and by her perseverance: Three months after the twins’ birth, with her face still frozen, she is backstage pumping breast milk during the opening of her latest play. Life marches on.—Maggie
Gary’s anatomy is not for the faint of heart.
Ever found yourself pondering Gary Shteyngart’s penis? If you’d like to keep it that way, his essay in this week’s New Yorker is a hard pass for you. What strikes me most about his harrowingly personal tale—interspersed with bits about the historical/cultural/medical significance of circumcision because this is the New Yorker, people!—is that it’s both very women’s magazine-y and not at all women’s magazine-y. Unspooling on a personal experience involving a medical mystery and scores of experts? Very lady mag!1 Mining the shock-value of one’s nether regions in print to the tune of 7,000 words (and these are not $2 words, I’m guessing)? Not very lady mag! Fellow editors, imagine sitting in an editorial pitch meeting at a women’s title and saying, “Colleagues, I’ve got a good one: It’s the tale of an ingrown hair and it’s going to be buzzy. I’ll just need 12 pages in the feature well.”
Is it okay for the New Yorker to devote this kind of real estate to such a journey? Because this piece is a very entertaining way to kill an hour, let’s say yes. (But let the record show, we’d welcome a female equivalent.) To me this story underscores the age-old truth that for so many reasons—their humble looks; the fact that they belong to the 49 percent of the population that has historically hogged the power—penises are pretty funny. And Shteyngart is famously funny, but also heartfelt here (in the tale, he loses his own sense of humor when he loses his connection to his member).—Rachel
Rachel, the Spread will never give short shrift to women’s bodies. This Radiolab ep—recommended by my friend Amanda, an all-round genius, midwife, and my own personal go-to medical expert—is the antidote for our cultural mentulomania2. It explores fascinating, little-known research about the link between women and autoimmune disease. Did you know females are diagnosed with rheumatoid arthritis at eight times the rate of males? Did you know our immune systems are far superior to theirs (one explanation for why men who get Covid have a higher rate of hospitalization and death)? This episode connects the dots—far better than I can here—between XX chromosomes, the placenta (basically an alien life form that lives in our bodies), and breakthrough therapies that use a form of estrogen to treat autoimmune disease.—Maggie
Taking on America’s most haunted house.
One of my favorite parts about the New York Times’s “Never Too Late” series, which debuted this summer, is the lengths to which its editors go to insist that the subjects of a column about being old (or on the verge of it) aren’t really old. Age is nothing but a construct! But if you’re feeling old, don’t worry, it’s never too late! Take this bit from last week’s Q&A with fiction writer Jocelyn Nicole Johnson, 50, whose My Monticello, a book of short stories capped with the novella from which it gets its title, was published yesterday: “While 50 is considered relatively young in many circles, for a first-time author to find her way onto the grand stage is a rarity.”
For me, Johnson and her work hit home, literally: My husband and I moved from Brooklyn to Johnson’s hometown of Charlottesville, Virginia, in August 2017, four days after white supremacists descended on the city, tragically killing the young protester Heather Heyer, injuring and otherwise traumatizing countless others, and turning the city itself into an international symbol. Our four years here have been dominated by a citywide reckoning with the legacy of slavery, all in the shadow of Thomas Jefferson’s plantation cum tourist destination, Monticello. For the past 20 years, Johnson has taught art at a local elementary school in the same district as the ones our children attended. She writes (and in this piece, speaks) profoundly about how Virginia—with all its ghosts and beauty—centers her fiction. And yes it is remarkable that Johnson, at 50, signed a two-book deal with Henry Holt and already sold the My Monticello rights to Netflix. How did this happen? As Johnson tells Issac Fitzgerald, a combination of time, experience, and luck. And, of course, all roads lead to Roxane Gay.—Rachel
So Rachel. When my first book (nonfiction, btw) comes out in 2022, I will be 45. If I’m reading this correctly, that makes me a dinosaur. Thanks, New York Times! After confronting this realization, I consoled myself by envy-scrolling Lithub’s list of 20 debut works of fiction by women over 40. Hey, it’s never too late! Grrr.—Maggie
Life is about to get a lot more zhush-y.
Interiors sites and fashion blogs anticipate our return to “real life”—whenever that happens—as a nonstop whirlwind of metallic pink and cheetah print. As someone who’s as bored by the status quo as the next girl and also lacks the essential discipline to make minimalism look anything more than half-baked, I say: Party on! But I’ve been missing a quality explainer that framed this as more than an inevitable pendulum shift. In the Canadian literary/journalism mag the Walrus, writer Mireille Silcoff scratches that itch vividly and with killer vocab (who among us knows what a purdonium is?), delving into the reasons a return to maximalism feels “like a lid had been lifted, revealing years of pent-up desire for the full, the festive, the flagrantly jouissant.” Fact is, spending 18-plus months locked in the reality of our own messy homes—in the writer’s case, after a recent divorce and alongside two young daughters—called bullshit on Marie Kondo. “It’s not really possible to neutralize a chaotic life with homemade granola and a collection of jute shopping bags hung from beechwood pegs. And, increasingly, it feels dishonest to pretend otherwise.”—Maggie
Will this woman-on-woman debate be the true legacy of Elizabeth Holmes?
Maybe you’re thinking, If I have to read another word about Silicon Valley trickster Elizabeth Holmes, my eyes will bleed tiny, “nanotainer” size rivulets of blood. I feel you. I read the book. I watched the doc. I was pretty sure my appetite for Holmes and her $9 billion blood-testing hoax was sated for life. But then, in August, I read about female tech founders who find themselves constantly compared to the disgraced Holmes (I cannot stop thinking about Everly Health founder Julia Cheek, whose investors suggested she dye her hair: the mere act of entrepreneuring while blond risked too much similarity.). And then, of course, surreal details began to emerge from Holmes’s trial, now in its fifth week: The courtroom makeover (no more Steve Jobs t-necks). The pregnancy timed just when she was about to go to trial for charges that could land her up to 20 years in the slammer. The black-clad, blond-bunned “Holmies” lined up outside the courthouse. Fine, Holmes. You got me. I’m in. Again. Spread reader Jen Marshall tipped us off to writer/podcaster Rachel Dodes’s essay at the Conversationalist, which satisfies on two levels: Dodes marinates in all the oddball details, but also pushes back persuasively on the argument—most notably made by tech whistleblower Ellen Pao in the New York Times—that Holmes is getting unfair treatment. Why is the government going after the rare female “unicorn” who broke the rules, demanded Pao, while turning a more or less blind eye to male founders like WeWork’s Adam Neumann and Uber’s Travis Kalanick, both accused of a long lists of misdeeds? It’s not easy for one feminist to debate another’s accusation of gender discrimination, but Dodes doesn’t flinch: It’s not as if Holmes lied about whether or not her rideshare app worked, Dodes argues. She lied about medical technology—blood tests that led people to believe they had cancer, vitamin deficiencies, or that they were having a miscarriage. This is a fun read that brings up deeper threads about how women judge other women, and not only for their misguided eyeliner choices.—Maggie
Dear Maggie, I too have my popcorn out for this chapter of the Holmes saga. But I also have to get something off my chest: Several years ago, on the occasion of Elle’s 30th anniversary in the U.S., I booked Elizabeth for a photo portfolio starring 30 path-breaking women who were then 30 years old. It was quite a get, a feather in my cap in the eyes of my boss. Holmes jetted down to Southern California from San Francisco for our shoot; she took a waiver on hair and makeup, insisting on doing her own, ah, signature look herself. Readers, I am a small part of the media machine responsible for this woman’s duping of America!—Rachel
Rachel, the greatest gift you can give yourself is forgiveness. It’s time.—M
The Short Stack, aka, wait…there’s more!
The next Sugarbaker project: Save America! (NYT) // Wordsmith Olivia Stren recalls a wild woman of a first work wife. (The Kit) // Leading an IPO while fighting breast cancer (Fortune); meanwhile, a breast cancer diagnosis no longer necessarily means chemo. (NYT) // “Bathscaping” is a thing. (Fashionista) // The prescience of “Blue Steel.” (GQ)
We will find a way to refer to this story in every issue, until every reader in America has consumed it, so you might as well dig in now. “Ring of Fire” is our ur-ladyparts-medical drama story, told unflinchingly by the brilliant (ex-Elle) writer Miranda Purves.
Mentulomania: (Noun.) An excessive interest in the penis.