Tag Archives: VICE US

You’ll Die in a Nuclear War, but These Elites Will Be Saved

There are details in Raven Rock: The Story of the US Government's Secret Plan to Save Itself—While the Rest of Us Die that read like they've been ripped from the pages of a pulp spy novel. The book, written by national security expert Garrett M. Graff, takes us inside the bunkers cut into granite mountainsides and dug under an elite country club. He brings us deep beneath the White House on 9/11 and into the cockpit of an airplane that doesn't officially exist. As you make your way through Raven Rock, it's easy to forget that all this elaborate high-tech doomsday infrastructure is actually real.

But Graff's half-century chronicle of the government's nuclear planning is far from an escapist spy thriller—he spends as much time on the mundane bureaucratic details of building and maintaining an elaborate worst-case scenario. To the executive branch leadership, the question of "winning" a nuclear encounter becomes, like any other government project, a logistical nightmare. There are thousands of cogs that must work in unison to protect DC leadership, symbols of democracy like the Declaration of Independence and the Liberty Bell, and a few specific private industry heads before the capital is flattened by a nuke. In almost every test, and during the few attacks that have hit within American borders, hardly any of the well-laid plans actually worked.

Graff does a great job communicating the true, specific horror of a nuclear war for the average American, which is, effectively, that we'll all die and only a handful of very senior officials will be protected. Since the Kennedy administration, government officials have repeatedly explained the futility of protecting the civilian population. This has led to doomsday procedures—referred to as Continuation of Government (COG) planning—becoming narrower and narrower. Plans that prepared for nationwide civil defense under Eisenhower today simply focus on saving a coterie of top government officials—for example, Clinton advisor George Stephanopoulos would have been saved, but press secretary Dee Dee Myers, along with almost all of us, would not have been. In a scene in Raven Rock, General Thomas Power explains to a horrified John F. Kennedy, "Look—at the end of the war, if there are two Americans and one Russian, we win!"

But as awful as nuclear war would be, Graff does well to highlight the impact of doomsday planning on peacetime government, and what it says about our democracy in general. Spearheaded by the executive branch, COG planning leaves most of Congress and all of the public out of the confidential decision-making. The classified programs, technology, and infrastructure are impossible to account for—Graff estimates they cost the country at least $2 billion annually. They also include crisis plans that run counter to the Constitution. JFK's attorney general's emergency briefcase, for instance, would have allowed him suspend habeas corpus. Other presidents' apocalypse contingencies have included forced nationalization of industries as well as plans to install unelected private sector executives to run broad swathes of the emergency government. Graff makes it clear that surviving a nuclear war would not be much better than dying in one: If doomsday plans save neither American people nor America's democratic principles, what exactly are they protecting?

Raven Rock, which should have been a Cold War history, now feels especially timely, hitting bookstores right as a President Donald Trump and North Korea's Kim Jong-un's on-again, off-again relationship pushes us ever closer to nuclear holocaust. I called Graff to talk about secret bunkers, shadow governments, and the unfortunate fact that we'll all die during a nuclear war.

VICE: I was somewhat aware of the idea of doomsday prepping, but the scale of the investment and the infrastructure was pretty shocking to me. What got you interested in the United States government's doomsday plans?
Garrett M. Graff: I've covered national security and intelligence in Washington for a dozen years at this point, and it's something that you sort of bump up against—you hear people talking about these facilities, you hear people talking about some of these programs. But a couple of years ago, when I was at the Washingtonian , a colleague of mine found a federal employee's ID on the floor of a parking garage, and was like, "I'm gonna give it back to him." But when we turned the ID over, it had evacuation instructions on the back. I decided to follow the directions to this facility on Google Maps, and looking on Google Satellite, you could see that if you follow the instructions, it ends in a road that just disappears into a mountain in West Virginia. At that point, I'd never heard of the facility and had never seen anyone talk about before. And I was like, "Oh wow, this is a whole new series of bunkers that have been built up since 9/11."

Throughout the book, sources remind us again and again that, in all likelihood, almost every average American will die in a nuclear encounter. There's a stunning quote from the New York deputy head of Civilian Defense in the late 70s about warning sirens the city had installed: "The people who hear them will run into buildings and be turned into sand in a few seconds anyway." How would public sentiment change if it fully registered that despite the billions spent on nuclear war prepping, the average citizen would not survive a nuclear encounter?
That, in my mind, is the central tension of the whole book: The government started off with all of these grand hopes to be able to protect the citizenry and then gradually the scale of the weapons and the size of the weapons overtook any reasonable efforts to protect the civilian population. The government plans just kept getting simpler and simpler until it was just about getting this core group of government leaders into the side of a mountain or up into a plane somewhere.

And you talk about how the doomsday prepping is really about protecting the idea of the US government rather than American citizens.
I think that that gets to what is the absolute essence of the question that these doomsday planners have struggled with for generations and continue to struggle with today, which is: If you are trying to preserve America, well, what is America? Is it the presidency? Is it the three branches of government? Is it the Constitution and the Liberty Bell? Is it a capitalist society? You really see how different generations of government planners struggled with that question. And now it seems like the answer is, effectively: America is the presidency, and then eventually, after some length of time, it's three branches of government, and after some additional length of time, it's a functioning post office, tax system, so on and so forth.

In the book, William Arkin, a nuclear weapons scholar, tells CNN: "As long as we have nuclear weapons, we're going to have to fudge the Constitution."
Yeah, and I think that part of what is weird and troubling about this entire world is we know precious little about what these powers mean today. For all we know, there could be czars walking out amongst us right now, who after a catastrophic attack, will help nationalize industries. And I'm sure that there are similar pre-written executive orders and draft legislation waiting on shelves in Washington offices or bunker safes ready to be unveiled in the moment of a catastrophe. In some ways, it's not so troubling to me that these systems exist—it's how little we actually know about them, even the ones that are in play today.

"If you are trying to preserve America, well, what is America? Generations of government planners struggled with that question. The answer is, effectively: America is the presidency, and then eventually, after some length of time, it's three branches of government, and after some additional length of time, it's a functioning post office, tax system, so on and so forth."

The book is definitely dark, but I took comfort in a scene that kept occurring throughout: A president would come to office, have the reality of nuclear war explained to him, and then realize that it was too terrible to even consider. Do you think that the American President's understanding the gravity of the nuclear option is the best deterrent to nuclear war?
Yes, absolutely. And you see that on both sides. There's also the Khrushchev quote in the book about how when he was first given the nuclear powers, he was terrified by them. But then he thought about it and was like, "Oh, well. I guess no one's ever going to use them, so it will be OK."

What's frightening to me is the question of whether or not Trump understands that gravity.
And the entire point of everything that was done during the Cold War was about trying to simplify and remove any checks or balances or impediments to a president quickly and unilaterally launching a nuclear war. So, that's a real challenge in the system—the entire point of the system is geared toward ensuring that the moment a president decides to launch nuclear weapons that they are launched as broadly and as efficiently as possible. But that all presupposes that the person who would make that order is the most sober and thoughtful and well-educated person in the nuclear system.

"You've really seen the US government over the last couple of decades pretty much decide that people are going to be left on their own."

Unfortunately, the book is coming out an important moment, with Trump and Kim Jong-un posturing about nuclear war. You've spent years studying the government's doomsday preparedness—if North Korea dropped a bomb on America, do you think the public would be safer today than we would have been in the 1960s?
Well, you do have to look at the level of scale: North Korea doesn't, at least yet, have anywhere close to the arsenal that the Soviet Union did at its peak, or even that Russia has today. But that is of little comfort to anyone who does get hit by a nuclear weapon anywhere in the world today. I think the actual technical answer to your question is: Yes, we are safer in that Kim Jong-un would only be able to kill perhaps several tens of millions of people as opposed to several hundreds of millions.

But I don't think that's actually the question that you're asking. I think you're asking: Are we any better prepared today? And I think the answer to that is no. In some ways, we haven't taken civilian preparedness seriously since the end of the Cuban Missile Crisis. And the experience of a generation of doomsday planners is that protecting the civilian population is actually more trouble than it's worth. So you've really seen the US government over the last couple of decades pretty much decide that people are going to be left on their own.

Follow Joseph Bien-Kahn on Twitter.

Raven's Rock: The Story of the US Government's Secret Plan to Save Itself—While the Rest of Us Die by Garrett M. Graff is available in bookstores and online from Simon and Schuster.

Ivanka Trump Is Not Your Friend

The Trump Century Tower is a 57-story luxury skyscraper in the heart of a gentrifying neighborhood controlled by one of the world's most bloodthirsty strongmen. In a 2012 ad for the property, you can watch the developer's son Robbie Antonio explain how the building was born out of a meeting with Ivanka Trump and promise it will be "the most important residential condominium the Philippines will ever see." As her dad plays golf in the background, Ivanka herself appeals to Filipino consumers on "a great quest for luxury."

Several years later, the tower is nearly complete, even as the American dynasty behind it has moved on to bigger things. The man who swung a golf club in the ad's b-roll is now the leader of the free world, recently launching missile strikes at Syria in what one high-level official called "after-dinner entertainment." These days, Donald Trump's eldest daughter is not just the face of a glass tower in Asia or the purveyor of the finest luxury goods your local Dillards has on offer, but a White House adviser who convenes with foreign heads of state.

Meanwhile, just before the election, the Trump Century Tower's developer, Jose Antonio, was appointed by Filipino president Rodrigo Duterte—a man whose answer to his nation's drug problem is to encourage vigilante shootings of suspected dealers and users in the street—as a special envoy to the United States. Just this weekend, President Trump invited Duterte to the White House, setting off alarm bells for exhausted watchdogs who can barely keep up with the most ethically dubious administration in decades.

Since dad began running for president, Ivanka Trump, a businesswoman and public figure in her own right, been touted as a social progressive who might moderate his worst impulses on everything from women's health to war to gay rights. But even if this proves to be the case, she has shown over and over again that she's as compromised as anyone in a White House that includes dudes admitting straight up they want to use the government to make themselves richer.

Next to the white nationalists hanging out in the West Wing, it's tempting to see Ivanka—who converted to Judaism to marry Jared Kushner, also an adviser to the president—as a comforting presence. (This may be partly the work of a marquee branding effort helmed by Democratic communications whiz Risa Heller.) Whatever Ivanka's handlers are doing behind the scenes, it seems to be working: The first daughter is currently shilling an advice book for working women that has garnered positive press—both by outlets that are and are not government-funded—even in the midst of her latest ethics controversy. (It has also won its share of scathing reviews.)

But to Jeff Hauser, executive director at the watchdog group Revolving Door Project, Ivanka Trump's meticulous attention to branding and how she's perceived might actually be the key to combatting corruption in her father's White House.

"There's a school of thought in politics where you go after the squealer—not the most important person, but the person most likely to respond to pressure," he told me. "Ivanka cares. She wants to be thought of as a moderate, smart, pragmatic, feminist success story. Scrutiny on her could actually produce results."

To back up, Ivanka Trump's conflicts raised eyebrows before her dad even won the election. After introducing him at the Republican National Convention, Ivanka tweeted about the dress she was wearing, causing it to sell out online. Then, during a November interview on CBS, the daughter of the president-elect wore a $10,800 bracelet from her jewelry line and the company sent out an email blast to fashion writers promoting the piece's appearance. After a media backlash, the brand issued an apology—something her father almost never does.

Even as President Trump angered the Chinese government early on by jumping on the phone with the leader of Taiwan, Ivanka has proven a much more effective—or at least tactful—emissary on the global stage. For starters, she seemed to garner an immense amount of good will from Beijing after a video of her daughter singing a song for Chinese New Year went viral on that country's version of Twitter. Now young Chinese apparently consider Yi Wan Ka (a.k.a. Ivanka) their idol, with tabloids reporting people are getting plastic surgery to emulate her appearance.

This idolization obviously bodes well for Ivanka, who just got a bevy of lucrative trademarks approved by the Chinese government, and with them the ability to sell a whole slew of products bearing her name to crazed fangirls sometime in the future. (It's worth mentioning that these trademarks were approved on the same day that Chinese president Xi Jinping visited the Trump resort in Mar-a-Lago in Florida to hang with Ivanka's father, and that she has additional trademarks in Japan and Canada—two countries whose leaders she met with in November and February.) Putting all of that aside, Ivanka Trump still has a stake in her father's DC hotel, where foreign dignitaries can theoretically stay in hopes of currying favor with her dad.

True to her penchant for cultivating a righteous brand, the first daughter has at least taken baby steps toward good governance, placing her own businesses in a trust. And in March, after ethics groups demanded clarity on Ivanka Trump's status in the White House, she announced plans to become an official, unpaid employee of the government.

"I have heard the concerns some have with my advising the president in my personal capacity while voluntarily complying with all ethics rules, and I will instead serve as an unpaid employee in the White House Office, subject to all of the same rules as other federal employees," she said in a statement.

But Ivanka Trump hasn't gone all the way, liquidating her assets and moving them into a completely blind trust, like George W. Bush and Barack Obama did. That makes advocates like Paul S. Ryan with the good government group Common Cause think the first daughter's professed ethics concerns are more about optics than anything else.

"She cares about her brand and her reputation," Ryan says. "That may cause her to do things that we want to hear, but I'm not convinced that it will lead her to do the things we need her to do as a country. Her personal fortune is directly influenced by foreign trade policy, and because the mechanism for enforcing our ethics laws is so weak, all we can do is hope for the best."

Democratic senators Elizabeth Warren and Tom Carpenter on Monday released a response they got from the Office of Government Ethics, detailing how Ivanka's new gig will require her to tell us where she's getting her income, which includes ongoing payments from her father's company and her own brand. She says she won't participate in day-to-day business decisions, even if she can still veto specific deals. She's also promised to recuse herself from government affairs affecting her assets and is prohibited by law from intentionally enriching herself with the new gig.

But the government ethics office is not a law enforcement agency, and it can't actually compel any meaningful change—it's just there to spotlight issues and occasionally make noise about glaring misconduct, like Kellyanne Conway hawking Ivanka's clothes on TV. And the Obama-appointed head of the agency will finish his term in early 2018, which means President Trump can select a new one sympathetic to his worldview. Meanwhile, the prospect of some kind of public corruption investigation into the administration by the attorney general's office is basically nonexistent now that Jeff Sessions, a Trump campaign surrogate who was forced to recuse himself from the Russia probe, is running the show.

"I'm holding back my attempt to chuckle at the notion that he would enforce any of these laws aggressively with regards to the Trump administration—never mind with regards to a member of the Trump family," Ryan tells me.

Depressingly, it seems like one of the better ways to discourage corruption in the new administration may be as simple as Americans looking askance at Ivanka and denting her public image. In fact, around the same time President Duterte's impending visit was announced, a Twitter user posted a photo of a billboard for Trump Tower Manila featuring her likeness. Though the image sparked outrage, the photo was out of date, and conservatives used the apparent mischaracterization as a way to deflect from the glaring ethics issues at stake.

Meanwhile, ads for the Filipino property featuring Ivanka quietly disappeared from its website.

Follow Allie Conti on Twitter.

All Your Favorite Marvel Heroes Team Up in the First ‘Defenders’ Trailer

After each facing off against their own respective bad guys, Netflix's Marvel heroes are back in the first trailer for The Defenders, pulling their individual super powers together to face-off against some very well-dressed ninjas.

In the official trailer Netflix dropped Wednesday, Matt Murdock—blind lawyer by day, Daredevil by night—comes to the legal aid of Jessica Jones, a super strong private detective. Meanwhile, the unbreakable Luke Cage meets Danny Rand and tries to figure out what his whole glowing fist thing is all about. Soon the team learns it has to work together (and tolerate one another) to beat on some fancy ninjas, led by Sigourney Weaver's villainous Alexandra, in a long white hallway.

Like it did with its respective Avengers heroes, Marvel has already produced each of the good guys' backstories in individual lead-ups to the blockbuster event. The plan started well with Daredevil, which was a brutal, dark contrast to the Marvel Cinema Universe films. The second series, Jessica Jones, was widely celebrated for its handling of sexual abuse. Luke Cage faltered in the second half of the season and seemed to be suffering from superhero overload. Then the whole train sort of fell apart with the wildly panned Iron Fist, a show about a blond white guy learning mystic Asian kung-fu, which was criticized both for being both kind of racist and completely boring.

Still, the superhero gravy train rolls on and The Defenders will hit Netflix in August. Check out the trailer above and watch all your favorite Marvel heroes—plus, I guess, Iron Fist—trade moody quips before bashing on some bad guys while Nirvana plays in the background.

The Defenders premieres on Netflix on August 18.

Coming Out to My Twin Brother Ruined Our Relationship

Gengoroh Tagame is often cited as Japan's most influential gay manga artist. Called the "Tom of Finland of Japan," Tagame has been working as a full-time, openly gay erotica artist since 1994. His work has been described as "Mishima meets Mapplethorpe," combining a meticulously drawn manga style with boundary-pushing themes of bear culture, bondage, S&M, and sexual abuse.

The 53-year-old artist's latest and easily most mainstream title, My Brother's Husband, Volume 1, comes out next week in English from Pantheon. Featuring Tagame's signature draughtsmanship, cinematic visual storytelling, and hypermasculine beefcake characters, the graphic novel is a beautiful, stirring, and deeply human work.

The story follows Yaichi, a terse single father, and his bubbly, inquisitive daughter Kana. When Yaichi's estranged twin brother dies, his husband, a mesomorphic Canadian named Mike Flanagan, arrives at Yaichi and Kana's doorstep. His twin's husband brings with him new and subversive ideas, like marriage between two men (in Japan, same-sex marriage is still illegal), that challenge Yaichi's more traditional values.

In the excerpt below, "Silhouettes," Yaichi spends the day with Mike, sharing the places of his and his brother's childhood, when he comes to a sudden, painful revelation. The panels read from the "right-most side"—right to left—as is customary in Japanese written language.

—James Yeh, culture editor

From My Brother's Husband


From MY BROTHER'S HUSBAND: Volume 1 by Gengoroh Tagame, translated by Anne Ishii. Copyright © 2014 by Gengoroh Tagame. Translation copyright © 2017 by Anne Ishii. Reprinted by permission of Pantheon Books, an imprint of the Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group, a division of Penguin Random House, LLC. All rights reserved.

Actually, ‘The Great Gatsby’ Is Trash

Among the books everybody's forced to read in high school, The Great Gatsby is one of the most famous and definitive. Its legacy goes hand-in-hand with the idea of the Great American Novel—relatively easy to read, lesson-imparting, "universal"—and it's so ensconced in framing who we think we are that its name possesses a stamp of its canonical concreteness.

I, for one, hadn't read Fitzgerald in the last 20 years, and hadn't planned to before the advent of I'd Die for You, a collection of Fitzgerald's previously undiscovered stories that came out earlier this week. I couldn't even remember why I hadn't exactly loved Gatsby years before, feeling only a vague lingering effect little beyond its name. How had The Great Gatsby continued to stand the test of time? What gave it grounds for being deemed by Time magazine as "one of the most quintessentially American novels ever written"?

What I found in my rereading was not what I would call great—or even necessarily sharp—writing, but the mirage of such. Somehow, since its 1925 publication, Fitzgerald's prose seems to have grown bloated, decorously written yet so bland that it feels like it requires a translation from purple to purposeful. The book's certainly not poetic, nor is it particularly well-paced, mostly either digressing about upbringing or meandering through the motions of yet another bourgeois day. "Reserving judgments is a matter of infinite hope," Nick Carraway admits up front, on the first page. "I am still a little afraid of missing something if I forget that, as my father snobbishly suggested, and I snobbishly repeat, a sense of the fundamental decencies is parcelled out unequally at birth."

What is he trying to "snobbishly" warn us of? That if we don't see the value in the story he's about to tell, it's we, the readers, who have the problem? At once, then, we can detect the foundations of the myth of Gatsby: Here's a prick of a book we have for too long been afraid to simply call a prick and walk away.

Carraway is a young, well-to-do white guy who takes it upon himself to affectively mansplain his basic life plan to the reader, like some scotch-breathing friend of a friend at a dinner party you should have skipped. We're supposed to be along for the ride with this guy, or so it seems—he's neither so unlikeable as to have a temperature, nor likable enough we hope he turns out OK in the end. 

He's like human wallpaper: a state of being that should be understood up front as devoid of irony, and the kind of people F. Scott Fitzgerald surrounded himself with in daily life and in admiration. He depicted them in this work, whose climate he described to his editor Maxwell Perkins as "a sincere and yet radiant world." Looking back, we shouldn't see the flaws in these characters' outlooks or practices as caricature, or even criticism, but instead as a tale intended to reveal the troubled intersection of their dreams—to feel their yearning, however misplaced. To write it all off now as satire or even foreboding would be to gift it context it does not mean to earn.

Plot-wise, The Great Gatsby—like so much realist narrative fiction—is easily boiled down to a handful of bullshit tacked around some semblance of Character Motivations. Nothing substantial really happens—and not in a conceptually compelling kind of way, like Gaddis or DeLillo or Delany, or in a way that nonetheless brings the text alive with nuanced language, like Gass or Stein or Morrison. Basically, we just follow Nick around as he is witness to infidelity on the part of his cousin's husband, later to become drawn in as a sort of wingman for Gatsby to try to help him get in said cousin's pants. There's a bunch of parties where Nick is mostly a bystander, periodically interjecting whitewashed observation as people bicker over relationships and Gatsby blathers amidst his privilege about how he was in the war once. Eventually, there's a car crash and some murder, but even that seems only there to force the story to a head, to wield its point—which, I guess, is that life is short and no one's happy? Well, no shit.

Essentially, the book resembles the least titillating episode ever of The Real Housewives of East Egg. If The Great Gatsby is indeed definitively American, it's in a way like American Psycho, without the comedy or the gore—another who's fucking who and who wants to be fucking who tale, phrased in the most lame and sexless possible way.

Did I mention that several of these characters speak like white nationalists? "It's up to us, who are the dominant race," says Tom Buchanan, Daisy's husband, "to watch out or these other races will have control of things." "We've got to beat them down," Daisy concurs, cementing such an outlook as part and parcel of the novel's emotional marrow. "We're all white here," Nick's date Jordan offers later, an attempt to calm down a fight between the men, as if that fact alone should end the struggle over who owns Daisy's heart.

Can we just please, at last, say fuck these people? While we're at it, fuck their story, its author, and the book itself. Regardless of how it evokes some state of how things were, perhaps even still in some ways how they are, the book's position as an icon among language-based ambition has long gone stale. As literary fiction, Gatsby holds up the table for everything we've been told for decades books are "supposed to do": to set up what's going to happen at the end of the story on the very first page, and to display in tedious detail who is speaking and where they are and why. I can actually feel myself getting dumber and more mindless as I read it, almost like suffocating, which is perhaps exactly why it has become inculcated by American schools as a cornerstone of the foundation of our learning: Most media is meant to numb you out, making you care only to the extent that you will buy more of it.

Which brings me to the conclusion that The Great Gatsby is not only not a great novel, but one by which the continued CPR over its legacy has only done us all a psychic damage, both literarily and as a culture. There might have been a time when The Great Gatsby seemed newfangled or boundary-breaking, or even just a solid literary book, but in our current landscape, it's a barely passable melodrama, one played out by dick-bag socialites and white supremacists, satire or not. Reread The Great Gatsby as an adult who has read outside of the canonical framework we're presented and you'll realize why so many young people hate to read; because, if nothing else, they can just as easily absorb the exact same sort of story on most any channel on TV. What good's an imagination, after all, when our "greatest novels" seem secondhand to reality's script?

Blake Butler is the author of several books of fiction, most recently the novel 300,000,000. Follow him on Twitter.

I Escaped My Manic Demons, but My Jailed Clients Often Can’t

This article was published in collaboration with the Marshall Project.

I met Raheem in an arraignments shift at the Bronx Criminal Court in New York, where I was slated to serve as his social worker.

Raheem had been arrested for stealing lice shampoo from a pharmacy and then getting into a scuffle with the security guard who caught him. As we talked, he fidgeted and scratched at his body while explaining that a lice plague was ravaging the world and only he knew the secret cure. He added that he actually had enough money to buy the shampoo, but couldn't let the store employees know about his plan, so he had tried to sneak out without paying.

At the time, Raheem was on parole, stemming from his record of over 30 arrests, almost all of them minor misdemeanor charges related to his unmanaged schizophrenia. The new arrest meant he would be sent to prison for a year.

The outcome of Raheem's case was hard for me to swallow—and not just because I was part of his defense team. Like Raheem, I too had once shoplifted from a pharmacy while in the grips of a manic episode. For some reason that had felt completely compelling at the time, I needed to stock up on over 20 bottles of nail polish without anyone knowing about it.

As a well-dressed white woman, however, nobody suspected a thing and I had simply walked out of the Chapel Hill, N.C., store without notice. The episode ended in a psychiatric hospitalization, through which I received the treatment I needed to get my symptoms under control.

Even as someone who advocates every day for people with mental health diagnoses, and whose work involves dismantling the stigma that surrounds them, it is still hard for me to disclose my own struggle.

I was diagnosed with bipolar disorder the year I graduated from college. It happened after my first full-blown manic episode, in which I sped on a highway at over 100 miles an hour after buying a $3,000 engagement ring on a whim, planning to surprise my then-boyfriend halfway across the world.

Needless to say, this plan did not come to fruition, and my spontaneity, risk-taking, and impulsivity soon morphed into terrifying psychosis. I was suddenly convinced that my reality was just a big stage and everyone was acting out a script, and I was hospitalized and prescribed anti-psychotics and mood stabilizers.

About four years after my first episode, I pursued a master's degree in social work with the intention of becoming an advocate for those like me. In a mental health policy class, I remember debating the use of physical restraints, and arguing vehemently against the practice. My classmates did not know that I myself had been strapped to ER beds and restrained in seclusion rooms.

But it was in that same class that I learned about the deinstitutionalization and subsequent over-incarceration of people with mental illnesses, and began to slowly comprehend my privilege as a white woman whose circumstances had allowed her to lead a productive and fulfilling life in between episodes.

Now that I am a social worker at the Bronx Defenders, I've met many people like Raheem: men and women of color struggling with mental illness while trying to survive in the South Bronx, one of the poorest districts in America. Many end up ensnared in the criminal justice and immigration systems instead of getting the health care they need.

And I have met many more clients whose experiences are eerily similar to mine, even if their outcomes could not have been more different.

Not too long ago, I had to call a man to inform him that his brother, Jose, my client, had been arrested in a psychiatric hospital for allegedly assaulting a nurse. I heard him weep on the other end of the phone—and I remembered the time that, in the throes of my own psychosis, amid the chaos of a hallway in the ER, I bit a nurse because I thought she was trying to kill me with laser beams.

I was not arrested. Instead, I was admitted to the psychiatric ward and walked out, restored to my sane self, about two weeks later.

I'll never forget Jacob either: a green-card holder from South America whom we represented through an immigration public defense program funded by New York City.

Check out the Motherboard documentary about the strange, troubled fate of smart gun technology in America.

Jacob had been working as a medical professional when he first began experiencing symptoms of schizophrenia. His illness caused him to lose his job, and he fell into homelessness and substance abuse in an effort to self-medicate. He was in and out of hospitals and ended up being arrested as the result of an incident in which he found himself responding to powerful command hallucinations. His convictions landed him in immigration detention, where he continued to deteriorate and even attempted suicide.

Despite our effort to explain his symptoms and need for treatment, an immigration judge denied his application for relief. Jacob was put on a charter plane back to a country he hadn't been to in decades, where he no longer has any family or access to meaningful treatment. I never heard from him again.

It is in moments like these that I feel survivor's guilt most acutely. I have struggled to live with my diagnosis, but how can I reconcile the stark contrast between my experience and those of Raheem, Jose, Jacob, and so many others? Every time I visit my psychiatrist in her Park Avenue office, I feel a pang of guilt accompanied by overwhelming gratitude. Gratitude that I have access to quality care, and gratitude that I respond well to treatment.

My personal experience has been both a blessing and a curse. It has made me more compassionate and patient in working with clients experiencing mental health symptoms, but it also challenges me with painful reminders of past experiences that continue to be shrouded in shame and a feeling of unearned privilege.

So I've learned that to be the best possible social worker for the community I serve, I must understand that vicarious trauma is real—that if I don't try to understand how my own experiences affect my interactions with clients and vice versa, I am doing them a disservice. In the social work profession, we are often in a position of power over our clients, and to some extent, we separate them fully from ourselves.

But I think we should all recognize that many of us share much more in common with our clients than we would readily admit. It is time for people like me to say: I, too, am one of them, but I have been permitted to survive . Survival should not be a luxury.

Kristen Anderson is a social worker at The Bronx Defenders, a public defense office serving low-income communities in New York City.

Obama Has Always Been Cool with Taking Wall Street Cash

This week, we got a sense of just how many Americans are concerned about the financial prospects of a family that recently won a rumored $60 million book deal. Social media erupted at the news that Barack Obama will accept a $400,000 speaking fee for a healthcare conference run by financial services firm Cantor Fitzgerald. Some on the left denounced the buckraking; plenty of others expressed righteous indignation over anyone telling the former president what to do.

And almost no one was honest with themselves.

Talk of optics and norms and appearances of impropriety and who is allowed to take money from whom represents a grand exercise in denial. The truth is that Obama is perfectly comfortable with raking in Wall Street cash. After all, it aligns well with someone who spent massive political capital to shield financial executives from their self-inflicted wounds. Taking this money won't undermine what Obama believes in; it is what he believes in.

I know this because Obama spokesman Eric Schultz said so in a statement on his boss's behalf. "Regardless of venue or sponsor, President Obama will be true to his values, his vision, and his record," Schultz wrote. "With regard to this or any other speech involving Wall Street sponsors, I'd just point out that in 2008, Barack Obama raised more money from Wall Street than any candidate in history—and still went on to successfully pass and implement the toughest reforms on Wall Street since FDR." (He could have also said "the only reforms on Wall Street since FDR.")

Contrary to the complaint that liberals unnecessarily hold Obama to a higher standard, it's the president himself who is boasting that he can take their money, drink their booze, and vote against Wall Street, to paraphrase the legendary California lawmaker Jesse Unruh. But while he did many positive things, when it comes to Wall Street, Obama is either oblivious to his own legacy, or trying to fool you about it. On that front, it's precisely his values, vision, and record I call into question.

Obama inherited a bailout he whipped Democrats to support while he was still a candidate. In office, he failed to overhaul or shrink a financial system that represents everything wrong with the modern economy. He didn't even stop the bonuses flowing at AIG.

During his transition, Obama promised up to $100 billion in bailout funds to prevent foreclosure; eight years later, only about $24 billion has been spent, most of it too late to stop the over 9.3 million American families who lost homes in the worst foreclosure crisis in 80 years. The government program Obama's Treasury Department built to mitigate foreclosures, without congressional interference, became a foreclosure-creation machine instead.

No banker with any real agency in the crisis ever saw the inside of a jail cell in the most punitive nation on earth. Even when mortgage companies got caught falsifying mortgage documents in courts nationwide, and stealing homes with false evidence, Obama's Justice Department made no effort to hold individuals responsible, instead stonewalling promising investigations and stringing along a disappointing series of no-fault settlements barely worth the paper they were printed on. For those who say a president is not a prosecutor, I'd submit that then-HUD Secretary Shaun Donovan spending two hours on the phone with me in 2012, defending the 49-state foreclosure fraud settlement that let bankers off the hook the day before its announcement, suggests that maybe the White House had something to do with it.

Obama's legacy isn't on the line because of a few speaking fees. It's not even about the money. He made his choice while in office to align with financial power, with the people who write the checks. And this damaged both America's economy and its sense of fairness, rupturing the nation's social fabric. It set the stage for the worst leader in modern times to tweet his way into office on a wave of indignation.

I've made these points over and over, so let me just illustrate with a story: Robynne Fauley of Sandy, Oregon, is a cancer patient undergoing chemotherapy who is probably going to be kicked out of her home on Monday. The case is an absolute mess, replete with a chain of internal emails going back nine years, showing bank employees plotting to fabricate documents so they can evict this woman once and for all. In the absence of accountability, this is what our system has devolved into: three line workers on an email chain figuring out how to squeeze foreclosures past a judge. When nobody pays a price for fraud, fraud proliferates.

Obama's defenders call this irrelevant when lives are on the line with President Trump. But there will be another president someday (let's hope), and if Democrats ever want that kind of power, they'll have to stop pretending about their past, about where they stand while incomes stratify and power concentrates.

In the meantime, as long as everyone's telling a complete stranger what to do with $400,000, I'd say: give it to Robynne Fauley. She could use it.

Follow David Dayen on Twitter.

My Father, the Cold War Spy

In August 1961, before General Dmitri Fedorovich Polyakov became one of the CIA's most valuable Cold War assets, he was a decorated Soviet diplomat meeting an American general in a quiet room next to a United Nations cocktail party. The hale, stoic Polyakov asked the American what would happen if the Soviet Union were to invade West Berlin, not knowing FBI agent Ed Moody was in the basement below them secretly recording the conversation. "It would mean an all-out war," General Edward O'Neill told Polyakov. Four days later, on August 13, East German guards began installing barbed wire along their border with West Berlin, the beginnings of what would soon become a wall.

"In the years to follow, Moody would often wonder if the interchange he heard between Polyakov and O'Neill might have played a role in persuading [Soviet leader] Nikita Khrushchev to build a barrier rather than attempt to take West Berlin by force," Eva Dillon describes in her intimate and chilling memoir, Spies in the Family: An American Spymaster, His Russian Crown Jewel, and the Friendship That Helped End the Cold War. Polyakov only used hypotheticals, hoping to maintain a delicate balance and avoid a superpower standoff, Dillon explains. "Building a wall," she writes, "would frustrate and anger the Americans, but they weren't likely to go to war over it."

Spies in the Family collects several of these secret interactions that shaped the course of the Cold War, contextualizing each with what was going on behind the scenes: the personal relationships, emotional grief, and, at times, ulterior motives of the individual spies involved.

Dillon is uniquely equipped to offer such intimate details of the key players in the Cold War: Her father, Paul Leo Dillon, was one of the many CIA operatives identified in Philip Agee's 1975 Inside the Company: CIA Diary. Although she was years away from learning that her father was tasked with handling Polyakov, America's highest-ranking, longest-serving Soviet double agent—"the jewel in the crown," according to former CIA director James Woolsey—Dillon's book reveals, through a combination of personal memories, meticulous research, and interviews with 18 of her father's CIA colleagues as well as the Soviet general's son Alexander, the friendship that emerged between her father and Polyakov and the geopolitical future they forged.

"In general, governments operate on this other plane from the reality that's going on underneath," Dillon, a former president of Reader's Digest, recently told me over the phone. And whereas most coverage of CIA strategy can only present recorded events, Dillon can provide motivations, offering a more intimate, humanizing look at both sides of the Iron Curtain. "I'd read so many of these books written by insiders and journalists and historians and they were wonderful, but I felt that they missed the human side of it, the side that affected the people that surrounded these incredible unsung heroes of the Cold War."

Dillon spent her childhood relocating with each of her father's international assignments. Throughout the book, she introduces each new setting with youthful curiosity (and limited perspective): seven children in a cramped apartment in Rome, making beaded necklaces on the Spanish Steps, jumping in the Trevi Fountain on a dare. Afterward, Dillon reveals what was really happening behind the scenes: Her father was supervising case officers in Italy, one of the largest hubs for Communist parties in the capitalist world, until the family had to abruptly return to the States without reason. Thanks to interviews with her father's colleagues, she later learned that her family's hasty departure was because they had been compromised, and, most likely, her father's cover was blown.

Through these conversations with ex-CIA members, Dillon also begins to understand why Polyakov (whose file still remains classified) secretly worked with American intelligence: not to turn his back on his comrades, but out of a sense of loyalty to Russian citizens. "[Polyakov was a] World War II hero, but he began to see the Soviet leaders as corrupt thugs mocking the sacrifices that the Russian people endured during the war," Dillon told me. "He wanted to help the Americans understand the Soviets' thinking and intentions, that they were also just as afraid of nuclear war as the Americans were. It helped the Americans realize that the Soviets weren't these crazy warmongers. He helped defuse tensions."

Dillon tracks the paranoia and emotional grief that guided the broader US-Soviet relationship through the Cold War. In her chapter about Operation REDSOX, which recruited Soviet refugees and parachuted them back into their homeland as informants, she traces her father's anguish after he trained spy teams in Berlin only to learn that all of his students were shot and killed upon entering Soviet territory. The traumatic experience caused her father to take the unusual step of self-assessing his own "considerable" "mental demands" in a job evaluation, though each specific item is redacted.

Dillon maps out the "Great Mole Hunt" that turned aggression inward, debilitating American intelligence from within, thanks to the increasing paranoia of a few. But perhaps the most startling aspect of these portraits is how relevant they've become today. With concerns about Russia eclipsing most other headlines in the United States, the paranoia and aggression that Dillon captures in each story feels eerily familiar.

"Cold wars are often inflamed by unexplained incidents, where everybody suspects each other," she said. "The current day one is the hacking of the DNC." She compared the tensions that intensified over the 2016 election cycle to the summer of 1985, when the mysterious disappearance of dozens of Soviet assets, including Polyakov, catalyzed a desperate search for a mole, or foreign spy, and a subsequent blame-game across the ranks that cost several people their careers.

"I'd read so many of these books written by insiders and journalists and historians and they were wonderful, but I felt that they missed the human side of it, the side that affected the people that surrounded these incredible unsung heroes of the Cold War."

Dillon also sees a parallel in how turf wars within the intelligence agencies stifle results, comparing it to today's "paranoia surrounding today's congressional intelligence investigations into whether Russia colluded with the Trump administration." When Polyakov wanted to work with the CIA, a jealous FBI team instead gave him an FBI agent masquerading as a CIA spy, hoping that Polyakov would work exclusively with them. To Dillon, that competitiveness sounds similar to Democratic lawmakers accusing the FBI of withholding information during the congressional intelligence investigations over Trump's relationship with Russia.

"I think things happen in cycles, and I think we're very much back to a very similar cycle to the earlier Cold War compared to what some people are calling Cold War 2.0," Dillon explained, comparing what she learned writing this book to the current political situation. Just as quickly as the Soviets moved from allies to rivals following World War II, it seems as though the current presidency is bringing the Russian-American relationship into its next iteration, where Russian influence in elections and foreign policy has ushered in an era of speculation bordering on outright paranoia.

Yet, despite what Trump and Putin may want their citizens to think, they aren't the only actors in control. As Dillon reminded me, "There were bigger things that went on but there were also people, real people who were out there doing what they could to lessen something like the very real threat of nuclear war." Dillon's father and Polyakov shared attempts at avoiding a superpower standoff, though filled with personal tragedy, were ultimately successful. As Spies in the Family illustrates, the decrees of leadership only go so far. The friendships, conversations, and allegiances of the individual can shape a country's policies, even if done in secret.

Follow Mary von Aue on Twitter.

Spies in the Family will be published by Harper on May 9.

A Serial Killer’s Random Murders Are Haunting Phoenix

Sylvia Ellis followed the sound of quavering voices into the 3 AM darkness outside her house, where she saw what was left of her daughter's red Chevy Cobalt. Members of her family had thrown the doors open in a failed attempt to save the people inside, and the dome light glowed, illuminating a portrait of carnage and broken glass. Ellis's 33-year-old daughter, Stefanie, lay slumped against the wheel, soaked with blood and barely breathing. She would die about three weeks later, after falling into a coma. Thirty-one-year-old Angela Linner, her daughter's partner, lay by her side, dead.

Later that morning, Ellis would learn that her 12-year-old granddaughter, Maleah, who was lying out of sight on the back seat, had been murdered, too.

The man believed responsible for the murders has been dubbed the Phoenix Serial Street Shooter by police and the local press, and is thought to have started his spree in March 2016. In total, he killed at least seven people in at least nine attacks over the course of about four months, stretching until July 11, when he abruptly went dark. The murders at the Ellis residence, which took place June 12, 2016, were his last known fatalities.

All of his victims, whether wounded or killed, were black or Hispanic, although police do not suspect a racial motive. There was no other discernible pattern to their ages or genders—he shot women, men, children, and adults ranging from teenagers to 50-somethings. Most of them were standing outside their homes or the homes of a loved one doing something mundane like making a phone call, or listening to the car stereo, as Ellis, Linner, and their child were the night they were murdered.

"My eyes open every night at three now, the same time as when the murders happened," Ellis told me from her dining table, her dark eyes gazing toward the sunlight coming through the kitchen window. "It happens almost like an alarm clock."

Sylvia Ellis posing in her Phoenix home. She lost her daughter and granddaughter to the Phoenix Serial Street Shooter in June 2016. All photos by Michael Lundgren

Phoenix's Serial Street Shooter has carried out most of his attacks in Maryvale, a gritty working-class neighborhood that produced NFL safety Darren Woodson. Here, residents are inclined to wonder aloud if a suspect would have been caught some time ago if his victims were rich or white. In my own brief time in the city, black and Hispanic residents near the sites of the shootings were generally aware of his reign of terror, while whites living around the strip-mall streets of the city's more affluent neighborhoods—with their robust central air-conditioning and bland, new American architecture—had either forgotten or never heard about the bloodshed in the first place.

Meanwhile, Phoenix police sergeant Jonathan Howard, the public information officer for the case, told me that the possibility of the suspect being Hispanic has created added headaches for his detectives—police worry that people who might have knowledge about the case are reluctant to speak out of fear of being deported. To get tips, police are using Silent Witness, a program that allows people to remain anonymous even while claiming a $75,000 reward for accurately naming the killer. But for those who fear their families being torn apart, such promises can seem like a trap.

To be sure, cops haven't ignored the Phoenix killer's body count. In fact, the start of the attacker's apparent hibernation came not long after police alerted the national media that a serial killer was on the loose. That's led some to fear he has simply entered a dormant stage, not unlike the "BTK killer," Dennis Rader, a Kansas-based menace who killed at least ten people during the 70s, 80s, and 90s, mostly by strangulation. Rader famously taunted police with sinister letters to papers like the Wichita Eagle and spaced his murders out for years at a time.

The Phoenix shooter mostly approached victims face-to-face, and in at least two incidents, witnesses and survivors claim the killer spoke before firing his weapon, although it is unclear what he said. He often unloaded nine or ten rounds at his victims at close range. Police call this "intent to kill," but to a lay observer it just looks like video-game-style excess.

The Maryvale neighborhood in Phoenix, where most of the shootings took place

The Phoenix metropolitan area, sometimes called the "Valley of the Sun," is a flat and sprawling desert city that grows hotter and drier every year. It also has an unsettling recent history with serial murder and gun violence. Dale Hausner—a serial killer who overdosed on the antidepressant Elavil while awaiting execution in 2013—and his accomplice, Samuel John Dieteman, killed at least eight people here in drive-by shootings between 2005 and 2006. Hausner has been connected to somewhere between 29 and 38 other shootings, in which he targeted pedestrians, cyclists, dogs, and even horses. At the same time the pair operated, another man, Mark Goudeau, also known as "The Baseline Killer," murdered nine people and sexually assaulted over a dozen victims at gunpoint. This past June, while the current serial killer was still at it, a judge upheld nine death sentences and more than 60 other felony convictions against Goudeau, following his appeal.

Phoenix's population includes the same eclectic mix of young progressives, libertarians, law-and-order conservatives, Mexican immigrants, and retirees that are trademarks of several southwestern cities. A fierce pro-gun mentality—what some people might describe as a "Wild West" vibe—is palpable in the local culture. Many of the people I met here owned and carried a gun at all times. Eleven non-fatal shootings took place on I-10, the city's most vital freeway, between August 29 and September 10, 2015, in which someone, or a group of people, opened fire seemingly randomly at cars, horrifying the city's commuters. The case was never solved.

Cops believe the serial killer who emerged last year is a lanky, light-skinned Hispanic male in his early 20s, but unfortunately no witnesses have gotten a clear look at his face. Police circulated a composite sketch of him last summer, but it was generic enough to trigger an eternity of false identifications. Among them was a 27-year-old man named Frank Taylor, who was shot by a woman in Glendale, Arizona, after attempting to rob her of a holstered gun. Police were able to connect him to the Maryvale area, but could not link him to the shootings.

The mother and sisters of Manny Castro Garcia. He was murdered by the Phoenix Serial Street Shooter in June of 2016 while going to pick up his girlfriend for a date.

Should the cops be wrong, and the killer turn out to be white, Arizona's polarized racial politics will inevitably cast a very long shadow. Ebony already ran a story about the murders in August that highlighted the minority status of the victims. And the state has an unsavory reputation with which to contend: Public Enemy's Chuck D once painted Arizona with fury and contempt in the song "By the Time I Get to Arizona," a diss track written after residents shot down a proposal to create a holiday for Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. in November 1990. (Voters approved a state King holiday two years later.) Dossie Ellis, Sr., Stefanie Ellis's father, told me the anger voiced in that song is very much alive in the city's black community, and that he trusted his own family members to investigate the killer's identity by asking around in the streets better than he did the cops.

Police, for their part, claim to have a very strong relationship with Maryvale residents of all races.

For the city's Hispanic community, things are even more urgent: While I was staying in Phoenix, the deportation of Guadalupe García de Rayos, who may have been the first person removed from the country as a direct result of President Trump's immigration policies, drew emotional protests outside ICE headquarters downtown. Meanwhile, Joe Arpaio, the 84-year-old former sheriff of Maricopa County and a controversial opponent of undocumented immigration who once jokingly referred to his jail for undocumented immigrants as a "concentration camp," lost his bid for a seventh term in November. But hostility toward Hispanics crossing the border still runs hot in parts of the state. Trump won Arizona by close to 100,000 votes, and driving through Phoenix these days, you might see a giant billboard thanking the alleged human rights violator Arpaio for his service looming heavily over the coarse desert floor and cars zipping by below.

A neighbor of Horacio Pena, who was murdered by the Phoenix Serial Street Shooter in June of 2016

Nine days before the shooting at the Ellis residence, Nancy Peña, 32, was at work when she got the call from her sister that her twin brother Horacio de Jesus Peña had been shot. She assumed the violence was self-inflicted. Horacio, a caregiver for people with disabilities, led a difficult life, tormented by shyness and schizophrenia, and had attempted suicide at least three times before that night, she told me. But when Peña arrived at the family home to see her brother, she knew it was murder: Horacio lay by the curb of the street, utterly deformed by gunshots. Peña described him as looking "like a puddle." Police later attributed his murder to the Phoenix Serial Street Shooter.

Nancy Peña says she's suffered debilitating panic attacks since that night last June. She now occupies her mind with close to 60 hours of work each week, split between a retirement community and the position her brother left behind at Valley Life, an organization that cares for the disabled. She has tattoos up and down her arm that are tied to moments when her twin ran away or attempted suicide; now she keeps a wall of pictures devoted to him, showing me remembrances in a box, including signed artifacts from local sports franchises like the Phoenix Coyotes or Arizona Diamondbacks offered to the family as gifts following his death.

According to Peña, the strain and horror of her brother's killing shook the foundations of her family. "People say that tragedies like this bring people together, but for us it's been the opposite," she explained, exhaling from a Marlboro Light.

Nancy Pena posing in her home. Her brother Horacio was murdered by the Phoenix Serial Street Shooter in June of 2016.

Because the shootings were spaced out over several months in an area where gun violence is a well-known problem, police didn't determine they had a serial killer on their hands until June—after Diego Verdugo Sanchez, Krystal Annette White, Horacio Peña, Manny Castro Garcia, Stefanie Ellis, Angela Linner, and little Maleah Ellis had already been killed. Howard told me that a "sick feeling" ran through everyone in his department when they finally connected the murders to one individual.

Since the killer stopped working, there's been a fragile sense of relief among officers, mixed with a struggle to unearth new evidence. More than anything, police sought a way to keep word of the investigation alive in the community. But internal frustration mounted, with one source close to the probe telling me the case sparked a good deal of departmental infighting, although no formal changes have come as a result. As Andy Hill, who served as the public information officer during the Baseline Killer attacks but is now retired, put it, "Nobody puts more pressure on the police than themselves" in investigations like this one.

Some Hispanic and black residents in the city beg to differ.

"To say that I've spoken with any officers about this case recently would be a lie," Ellis told me. "No, I'm not satisfied with the work they've done." Nancy Peña and the family of Manny Castro Garcia expressed similar frustrations with the efforts of police, and told me that they worried the case had grown cold in the months that passed since the killer went dormant.

The house in Maryvale where three people, including a 12-year-old girl, were murdered by the Phoenix Serial Street Shooter in June of 2016.

Howard expressed empathy for the families of victims, and seemed to know them personally, especially Peña, who contacts him regularly looking for updates. He flatly denied that the races of the victims contributed to any lack of urgency on the part of police. Most recently, word of a new person of interest in the case gave Peña a feeling of hope that the killer could be apprehended, but it was coupled with a feeling of frustration that she had heard the news first from local media, and not police.

Meanwhile, cops have been forced to hang onto the few details they do know about the killer and try to isolate what makes him tick.

The shooter may be comfortable with a variety of weapons. Dossie Ellis, Sr., for example, claims to have found 9mm bullets on his property in the aftermath of the shooting. Mel Nicholson, a 63-year-old man who lived outside of the house where one of the murders took place, showed me the holes where 40 caliber bullets tuned up his car and house, slicing through the garage and then several layers of wooden shelving used for cat food and cleaning supplies. Police have said only that the shooter preferred semi-automatic handguns, capable of firing as many as 15 or 16 rounds at a time. He may have also changed cars, having possibly been seen in a late-1990s brown Nissan with a spoiler, a black BMW, and a white car—most likely a Cadillac or Lincoln.

Bullet holes still mark the home of Mel Nicholson, 63, the nextdoor neighbor of Manny Castro Garcia's girlfriend.

It's possible that the shooter travelled with other people, and one witness—a teenager who was staying at the Ellis house when the murders took place—puts him alongside as many as two accomplices. Police would not confirm or deny that account.

Whether or not the city's black and Hispanic communities' fears about police devotion are warranted, the killer's crimes live on in the grieving family members he left behind.

Sylvia Ellis's insomnia, a symptom she shares with Gisela Castro, the mother of Manny Castro Garcia, is coupled with horror-movie visions of her daughter's death: She still sees Stefanie collapsed on the steering wheel of the Cobalt, struggling to breathe, a bullet hole warping her eye.

"Every day the shooting plays in my head like a video," Ellis said. "I'm still living inside of that nightmare."

Follow Michael Edison Hayden on Twitter.

The Tragic Life and Cruel Execution of Ledell Lee

This story was published in collaboration with the Marshall Project.

Ledell Lee was put to death by the state of Arkansas last week. He was the first of three men killed by the state in a mad dash to use their lethal injection drugs before they expired. Another man is set to be executed Thursday. I watched the Twitter feeds of news outlets covering Lee's execution with a racing heart and tears streaming down my face as they reported that he was taken to the chamber, strapped to a table and given a series of drugs to end his life. I ached knowing that he had been afraid of needles his entire life.

The Constitution requires that sentencing juries be presented with biographical information about individuals facing the death penalty before deciding whether or not to end their lives. These histories provide the necessary context for jurors to make a reasoned, moral decision about whether a sentence of death is warranted. The jurors and judge who decided Lee's fate didn't hear testimony about his background, though. They never got a full picture of who he was.

As a mitigation specialist, I work with capital defense teams to investigate the backgrounds of our clients and I was asked by Lee's attorneys to travel to Arkansas to learn his story. In normal circumstances, a mitigation investigation takes years, but I became involved in Lee's case less than two weeks before he was executed. I was the first person to conduct even the most basic inquiry into his life.

On my flight to Little Rock, I tore through hundreds of pages about Lee's case, which spanned 24 years. They read like a fictional account of justice denied: an affair between his judge and a prosecutor on the case, the almost entirely white jury that found him guilty of killing a white woman in his second trial—the first ended in a mistrial. Then there was the appeals attorney who was so intoxicated throughout the most important hearing in Lee's case that he was unable to locate the witness room. Another of Lee's attorneys later surrendered his license after a mental health breakdown. Through it all, Lee maintained his innocence.

On the ground in Arkansas, with little time to spare, our team rushed to piece together a picture of his early life. I spent hours talking with Lee, his friends, and family.

I learned about Lee's upbringing as the second of seven children born to an alcoholic teen mother in a rural northwest Arkansas town. The family lived with Lee's maternal grandmother until he was about 5 years old. Their dilapidated, three-bedroom home was filled with other relatives—Lee's aunts, uncles, and cousins—and got even more crowded with the addition of neighbors who often came by to drink with Lee's grandmother. She, like several of her nine children, drank heavily. Some members of the family also shot heroin.

Growing up, Lee and his older brother didn't have beds to sleep in, so each night they would stake out an area on the floor and use whatever they could to make a pallet. According to Lee, in the sweltering Arkansas summers, the boys would tie a sheet to a fan and connect it to a post to create an air tunnel. In the winter, they'd sleep close to the oven, the family's main source of heat. If that wasn't warm enough, they'd turn on the stove's burners.

Food was also extremely scarce in a house with over a dozen people. Lee's grandmother placed locks on the refrigerator and freezer so that only she could access it. He ate breakfast and lunch at school but often went hungry at home, giving up his serving so that his younger siblings might eat.

Things didn't get much better for Lee as he came of age. He struggled through special-education classes in school and was held back twice. He began stealing as an adolescent—TVs, bikes, anything he could sell easily for a little bit of cash. Then, around 13, he was arrested for the first time and sent to a juvenile facility, where he suffered at least one traumatic brain injury while boxing. His aversion to needles kept him from getting stitches for his busted head.

Lee said that things got better the next year after his family moved to Georgia. He dropped out of school but earned money taking on odd jobs and quickly earned a reputation as a hard, eager worker. Encouraged, he tried to make a go at it in Colorado where one of his brothers was serving in the military. But, unable to find work, he returned to Arkansas after just three months. Back home, he began getting in trouble again with the law.

By 1993, Lee was well known to the police. He had convictions ranging from receiving stolen goods and burglary to misdemeanor assault. On the day 26-year-old Debra Reese was found bludgeoned to death, witnesses said that they'd seen a man later identified as Lee knocking on doors in the neighborhood. He was arrested within three hours of Reese's death and found guilty after a trial that lasted four days with less than three hours of deliberation. It took the jury another three hours to decide to give him the death penalty. But of course, given the many issues with Lee's trials and representation, questions remained. The courts refused to allow Lee's team to conduct DNA testing and new evidence of his likely intellectual disability was never heard.

There were glimmers of similarity between Lee's life and the others I've investigated: extreme poverty, disability, a man working hard but often failing, some tender moments. Compared to my other cases, however, I barely knew Lee. With so many stops and starts in his case, there wasn't enough time to understand how he wound up accused and convicted of murder. That is more than a shame; it means our system failed him.

When the Supreme Court allowed states to reinstate the death penalty in 1976, it was with the requirement that executions not be performed "arbitrarily." Without meeting that requirement, the death penalty is considered cruel and unusual, and our Constitution protects from that. At least we say it does.

Regardless, Ledell Lee was executed knowing that he had a viable defense, finally a team of capable defenders, and a personal story to tell. Despite it all, he was put to death because the state of Arkansas didn't want its lethal injection drugs to expire unused. In the end, what could have been more arbitrary?

Elizabeth Vartkessian is the executive director of Advancing Real Change, Inc. a nonprofit agency that conducts life history investigations in capital and juvenile defense cases.

This article was originally published by the Marshall Project, a nonprofit news organization that covers the US criminal justice system. Sign up for the newsletter, or follow the Marshall Project on Facebook or Twitter.