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Andrew Forsthoefel’s Long Walk

The summer after graduating from college, a young man walked out the back door of his home in Chadds Ford, Pennsylvania—and didn’t stop until he reached the Pacific Ocean, 4,000 miles away.

An excerpt from Walking to Listen


“Why don’t you just drive?”

That was one of the first things some people asked me when I told them what I was doing. The answer was simple: Sure, driving would get me there faster, but it would cut me off from everything in between the beginning and the end. And where was “there,” anyway?

Something human is sacrificed traveling at high speeds, I came to believe, because humans are actually quite slow. When we walk, we are brought back to ourselves again, immersing our awareness in the body and all its sensitivities, creating space for the mind to breathe and explore and play. There’s so much to feel, and there’s nothing to distract you from feeling it. Walk long enough and this immensity of feeling begins to blur the boundaries between you and everything else. One elderly man called it “the white time.” His name was Jerry Priddy. He walked two miles every morning, hadn’t missed a single day since 1995. That was like walking across America four times.

“You amble along,” he said, “and it’s like being whited out in a snowstorm. You can’t see anything and you’re not aware of anything, and it’s going on around you. It don’t amount to a whole lot, but the sum total is it’s a beautiful experience when you get through. It clears your head. You’re there.”

There was no such thing as boredom in the white time because everything was always in flux. The white time demanded my engagement. I couldn’t just sit in it, as I would in a car, because I was my own vehicle. I was married to the movement. I was the movement. Each and every stride was an active stitch binding me to the land and to everyone I met. In this way, the road wasn’t a contradiction, like it would’ve been at car-speed. When you drive, the car isolates and insulates you from everyone and everything you pass; it’s a severing from the surrounding world. When you walk, however, the road takes you from the beginning to the end not by severance but by connection—connection to the people you meet, to the land you touch, to the sun and the wind and the rain.

Despite the growing magic of it, the walking was, at the very same time, still utterly miserable at the end of most days. I’d been walking all through the winter by now, and it hadn’t gotten any easier. By dusk, I was always ragged and raw. The blisters kept coming, and I hadn’t gotten used to the ass chafing yet. I gave up hope that I ever would. The worst, however, was the Deep Itch. I won’t elaborate, but a piece of advice if you’re heading out for a long hike: bring baby wipes.

There was, in fact, something worse than the Deep Itch: mosquitos. It was February now, warm enough for them. They could fly faster than I could walk, which was unfortunate because I was about to walk through the swamps of Mississippi and Louisiana.

I’d heard horror stories about the breeds on the Gulf Coast. “They’re bigger than VW bugs.” “They drink DEET like blood.” “They’ll carry you away.” They only caught me twice. The second time, I was in southern Louisiana setting up camp in a field shielded from the highway by a grassy berm. When the steady pestering became a full-fledged attack, I took refuge in my tent. I lay naked on my back, watching the mosquitos slowly flood the space between the mesh ceiling and the rainfly outside. There were hundreds. They floated so delicately, silent little sprites poking at the mesh skin, hopeful for a drink. I watched them for nearly an hour, the ballet of bloodsuckers.

But the first time the mosquitos swarmed me, almost in Mississippi, I was on the road, exposed. I put on my rain jacket. It didn’t do much. Now they all just went for my face. I started swatting at the air and slapping my face, bellowing. This was craze walking, a manic, delusional unraveling. If I found myself babbling in an argument with the headwinds, begging aloud to the rain for mercy, or nursing personal grudges against each and every mosquito, I was craze-walking.

The mosquitos abruptly disappeared at around 5 p.m. I peeked out from my rain jacket. An egret was standing in the marsh, its ivory white shocking against the tall brown grass, and two blue herons burst out of the forest. Pelicans cruised above, joined for an improbable moment by a bald eagle. I started shouting, “Yes!” Over and over again. Perhaps a side effect of the craze-walking.

This was the real-life swamp, the bayou. The mosquitos were benign compared to the bigger beasts lurking deeper inside. There was legitimate cause for concern with the alligators. Wild boars ran free, and bobcats, too, and packs of stray dogs. Somewhere in the murky waters swam saw-toothed monstrosities called alligator garfish. There was even rumor of a panther, I would soon be told. And everything was soggy, which meant there were precious few camping spots. Not that it mattered. I wasn’t going to sleep on the ground in that hungry place. The tree canopy seemed much safer. Then again, there was the panther.

When I first crossed into Mississippi, I was spared a night in the swamp by a benevolent alligator rancher named Allen and his girlfriend, Addie. Allen ended up letting me stay in the guest room of his apartment above the ranch’s showroom. He had a few alligators in captivity, including a 13-footer called Big Bull, but those weren’t the ones to worry about. There were others outside the fences. Hurricane Katrina had flooded Allen’s compound when it blew through, raising the swamp right over the pens. When the waters subsided, the alligators were gone, all 150 of them. Allen had recaptured 40 in the seven years since the hurricane. The math didn’t favor camping.

The ranch was right on the edge of the swamp next to Highway 90 outside Pascagoula. Out back, a small fleet of airboats propelled by gigantic fans bobbed by a dock, and a swath of mucky marshland was fenced off for the alligators. Shining a flashlight that night from Allen’s porch, I could see their eyes gleaming.

The TV played in the living room, a show about passion killings. It was part of a series called Deadly Women Tuesday Marathon. Sitting between Allen and Addie, watching the grisly reenactments, I wanted to crack a joke—“I promise I’m not taking notes”—but I thought better of it. We were all sleeping under the same roof that night, and I didn’t want to put anyone on edge.

“Allen watches this to make sure none of the women he’s fooling with are on there,” Addie said. She had a riotous laugh. She called me “kiddo” and “dear,” and earlier, before Allen invited me inside, she had come out to my tent and brought me a plate loaded with lasagna. And then another one. After the second plate, I started calling her my Mississippi mother. She said that if her son were walking across America she’d inch along behind him in her car the whole way, shouting advice and honking at strangers. “You stay away from that boy!” “Drink some water, honey!” Addie reminded me of my Aunt Ginger back home. She’d said she was going to follow me in her minivan. My Aunt Janet had promised to join her.

“Your poor mother,” Addie had said when I first met her. “I don’t know how she’s doing this.” That was probably the most commonly asked question of all: “How is your mother doing this?” We talked often, and I asked her once myself. How are you doing it?

“If I don’t let you die,” she said, “if I don’t embrace that the end of your life could be at 23, then it’ll be a lot harder. I’ll freak out. So I have to completely let go and say yes to anything. I have to say the same yes you have to say, in a different way. I just have to work very hard to stay still. There are times where inside I’m like, ‘No! No! No!’ and I have to lock her up in the bathroom, that animal mother.

“So at night I assess: ‘What’s the fear? What’s hard about this?’ I’m worried about you being outdoors. It’s so anti-intuitive for me, because you were in my womb. You need to be sheltered somewhere, but you’re on a road without a shoulder with freaking 18-wheelers.

“That’s the hardest. ‘How will it be if he dies, or if he gets seriously, seriously injured?’ And I say, ‘It will not be good, and he can’t not do this.’ Because I know that if you don’t do this thing, it won’t be good for you. So it’s really about letting you not come back. It doesn’t fit with the animal mother in me, but my yes is becoming stronger than my fear. It’s a process. Every day is, ‘He could die today.’ I feel very alive. Awake. I literally feel like I’m in two places at once—where I am and where you are. I think that’s just love.”

The night before I left home, we had a bonfire out in the backyard. It was at the fire that I first felt, somewhere beyond my intellect, that I might actually die on this walk, and that this might be one of the last times I ever saw my mom. We prayed. I wasn’t entirely sure to whom or to what, but that didn’t matter to me. All the discussions I’d had in high school and college about the existence of God seemed so trivial now, even moot. I wasn’t interested in proving or disproving anything. I only wanted to start this walk on the right foot, and that meant acknowledging my own tininess, honoring the fact that I couldn’t do what I was about to attempt to do alone. At the end of our homegrown backyard ceremony, my mom washed my feet with warm water, a Catholic ritual that seemed relevant now given all the walking my feet had in front of them. That was when Mom first let me die.

I found many mothers on the road, and Addie was one of my favorites. She kept making me laugh. On the TV, a woman was braining her sleeping lover with a cricket bat.

“God, this is insane,” I said, looking away.

“Well, I lost my sanity a long time ago,” Addie said. “But don’t worry, I found it again. I keep it in a little bottle at the bottom of my drawer, so it’s not lost anymore. I just don’t have it on me. I’ll get it out when I’m ready. Until then,” and here she leaned forward to look at Allen, “watch out, baby.”

We both laughed.

Allen shook his head and grunted.

“Oh, he’s an old crank,” Addie said. “But I’m an old bitch, so we get along.”

Allen wore cowboy boots and a big belt buckle. He was from southern Louisiana, the first Cajun I’d met, born and bred on the bayou. He’d suffered a couple of alligator bites in his lifetime. The worst one was from a seven-footer. It almost took his hand off.

“It wasn’t no big deal,” Allen said. “He didn’t do it on purpose.”

“You ever wrestle any?” I asked.

“No, not really. Just when we had to go out catching them after Katrina. You gotta jump on they backs and hold them down. I don’t do tricks anymore, like them guys like they do? Put them heads in they mouth and all like that? That’s people that ain’t got no brains. That’s crazy.”

“What do you do if you get caught by one?” I asked. “A big one, like that guy you have out there?”

“Gator like Big Bull grab you? They ain’t nothing you can do.”

Allen told me a few more swamp stories into the recorder. The conversation drifted into nostalgia—how things used to be, how today’s just not the same—and then, rather abruptly, we were talking about the Apocalypse.

A Great Tribulation was on its way, Allen said. An Armageddon. A God War. I would know it when it came. It wouldn’t be tornadoes or earthquakes or another Katrina. It would be like nothing anyone had ever seen before, something unbelievable, like fire raining down from the sky.

“Says in the Bible, ‘One will be taken along and one will be left behind.’ So if you’re left behind that means you’re probably going to be destroyed. Bible says that God separates people, just like a shepherd. Separates the sheep from the goats. Says the sheep know his voice. The goats? Well, they’re gonna blow off into everlasting destruction. The sheep go off into everlasting life. God already knows who the sheep are.”

Allen spoke quite matter-of-factly about the end of the world, but perhaps that was to be expected from someone who’d nearly lost a hand to an alligator and didn’t think it was a big deal.

“No one can know for sure,” he said, “but I think it’s coming soon.”

I could see how the promise of an apocalypse was comforting as Allen described it to me. It explained the baffling complexity of the world. When Armageddon arrived at last, everyone would know the truth of this mystifying human experience. It would be absolute—there’d be winners and there’d be losers, the ones who just never got it. Sheep were sheep. Goats were goats. That was that. I almost wanted to believe it myself.

I didn’t know what to say as he expounded. Mostly I kept quiet, wondering if he thought I was a goat. To me, he was neither goat nor sheep. He was Allen. I was Andrew. We were each our own kind of animal, a tiny, unique branch in the dendritic evolution of humanity. Walking the country was like an exercise in taxonomy, cataloguing the varieties of the human species. I’d already encountered so many, and would meet many more as I continued: hitchhikers and hobos, waitresses and their regulars, road-trippers, ranchers, and roughnecks, raccoon hunters, deer slayers, hog stalkers, mothers of five and seven and ten, firefighters, police officers, professors and pot growers, laughing cowboys and solemn mechanics, the hippy-dippy ice sculptor, the drunken hibachi chef, the farmers of cotton and corn and goats, fledgling sweethearts and ancient lovebirds, an old-time bounty hunter, a small-time shrimper, a homemade-ice-cream maker and a biscuit baker and a master of crawfish étouffée, a Hopi glassblower, a Navajo medicine man, a Cajun mystic, an ex-con, an ex-president, preachers of fire and brimstone, football heroes fallen from glory, mariachi DJs, a deluded messiah, cosmetologists and embalmers of the dead, wannabe crop-dusters, would-be walkers, the lost, the found, the saved, the damned, and an old man on the highway called Nowhere.

And then there was Addie, my Mississippi mother, and Allen, the doomsday alligator rancher. Of course, all these people were far more than the titles I’ve just given them, but that’s taxonomy, finding some kind of order in the chaos and classifying it. Why bother, in this case? Because then an amalgam of indistinguishable faces splinters off into hundreds of millions of fragments—individual human beings. The closer you look, the more varieties you find, and any goat-and-sheep dichotomy starts to look completely absurd. Americans become Mississippians, who become alligator ranchers, who become Allen, who likes hunting in the swamp on his airboat at dusk and watching the Deadly Women Tuesday Marathon; who believes in goats and sheep, and probably thinks you’re a goat; and who feeds you a huge breakfast in the morning anyway.


Reaching the Gulf Coast was bizarre, like crossing into a new state. Did I really just walk to the Gulf of Mexico? A bit to the north I’d begun to see seafood joints and Cajun markets and billboards for beaches. It seemed impossible. My footsteps were actually covering ground, one by one making finite that which had once seemed so infinite.

On Highway 90 I passed through Pascagoula and Biloxi. The signature of Hurricane Katrina was still written everywhere, almost seven years later. Twisted trees kowtowed at absurd angles. Buildings were flayed down to their structural skeletons, or being built anew.

In the bayou country just north of New Orleans, fishing boats lay beached on the marshy banks, rotting.

Pearlington, Mississippi, had seen the worst of it. The quaint little bayou hamlet had become a war zone. Those who’d stayed for the hurricane had stared straight into her furious eye. I’d arrived in the town at sunset and, as always, I needed a place to camp out. A bar was on my left, a church on my right. I went left.

The bar was called Turtle Landing. I took a seat next to a tan, rough-faced man with an aquiline nose whose cigarettes smoldered in the dark. His name was Randy Turpin. His partner, Susie Sharp, looked strong and sturdy, and smiled a lot. She wore glinty glasses. They’d both just come back from the Mardi Gras parade in Bay St. Louis, the same one I’d walked past that morning. When I admitted I’d never really taken part in a Mardi Gras parade, Susie festooned me with a bunch of beads and a crown of purple panties, thrown from the floats. Everyone at the bar seemed to be wearing some mark of Louisiana loyalty—Saints sweatshirts, LSU hats—and although no one else was wearing panties like a swim cap, I thought I fit in better with them on.

After a few beers, Randy and Susie offered to put me up at their place for the night. At their kitchen table, they told me their Katrina stories. Everybody in town had one.

“You ever have one of those dreams where you’re falling and wondering whether you’re going to hit the ground or not, and you just won’t wake up?” This was Randy. “We never had a chance to figure out whether we were going to hit the ground or not. You just can’t wake yourself up from that nightmare until it quits. I’ve had over six years to think about it now, and that’s as close as I can put it. That falling dream. You know you’re falling, and you know you’re dreaming, but you won’t wake yourself up. And then the pressure changed, and it was like you were taking off vertical in a jet and your ears just go POOF!”

He spoke with little emotion, his voice sandpaper rough. He was the kind of guy I’d want to be around if I ever found myself trapped in a Category 5 hurricane, the kind of guy who takes an ax into the fray, which was exactly what he did. I wouldn’t have thought to do that, but it made sense: if the water rose too high, you’d have to get to the roof somehow.

“And then everything got calm,” Randy said. “Dead calm. They tell you about the eye of the storm? That’s what we was in. Pretty blue sky above you. Someone said, ‘It’s over!’ and I said, ‘No, we got the other side of this sombitch to go through. Something bad fixin’ to happen.’ About 10 minutes later, something bad happened. That’s when we seen the water. It just rose up so quick. You either moved right then or you drowned. You were past the point of being scared. There’s no room for being scared.”

“Everything that was down went up, and everything that was up came down,” Susie said, showing me pictures of the aftermath. It didn’t seem possible that water and wind could be responsible for such devastation. It looked more like the work of mercenary giants, legions of them. The bartender at Turtle Landing had told me that the whole bayou had emptied itself out onto Pearlington, the water climbing as high as 28 feet. Houses floated off their foundations, crashing into telephone poles like possessed pinballs. Trees snapped. Refrigerators shot through the roofs of flooded homes, propelled by their own airtight buoyancy. After it was over, sludge coated the town. Dogs lay dead. Fires burned.

“It looked like a nuclear bomb went off,” Randy said. “But we know how to survive in the woods and on the water. Hunting, fishing, trapping. Nobody went hungry. There’s no ‘me’ in this town. It’s ‘us.’ Because it’s us against the elements down here. It ain’t us against the government. It ain’t us against the blacks. It ain’t us against the whites. It’s us against what we got to deal with out there.” He pointed in the direction of the swamp. “Yeah, we just know how to get along. You do what you do with what you got. You have food to spare? You spare it. That’s just the way it goes.”

“Everybody knows everybody,” Susie added. “And if you don’t know somebody, somebody you know knows them.”

“So somebody like me sticks out?” I said.

“No, you don’t stick out,” Susie said. “You’re just . . . noticed.”

“We trust in people,” Randy said. “It costs us a lot sometimes, and sometimes it don’t cost us nothing but a handshake. It might be our curiosity. It might be just the way we are.”

This story is an excerpt from Walking to Listen: 4,000 Miles Across America, One Story at a Time. Reprinted by permission of Bloomsbury Publishing. Copyright 2017 Andrew Forsthoefel.

Family Ties

Deep connections to the town and the College led Kate Perine Livesay ’03 to choose Middlebury—not once, but twice.

On a spring evening in 1999, Kate Perine and a friend were poring over their honors economics homework in Rosenwald-Shumway, a girls’ dorm at Deerfield Academy. Kate was wrapping up a postgraduate year at the independent school in western Massachusetts after finishing up her career at Middlebury (Vt.) Union High School the previous year.

But Kate had more than just homework on her mind. Another consequential deadline loomed: she had to decide where to go to college. She’d been accepted at both Amherst and Middlebury; coaches at both schools were hoping to have her on their field hockey and lacrosse teams. She had visited both campuses but couldn’t seem to make up her mind. As the month between her acceptance letters and decision day wound down, her parents, and two admissions offices, grew increasingly restive. “They were both great choices,” she says now. “In retrospect, there was no bad outcome—though I guess that’s up for debate, because who really wants to wear purple?”

After listening to perhaps more than she wanted to hear about Kate’s dilemma, her friend suggested a solution: flip a coin. At first, Kate thought it was ridiculous to leave that kind of decision to chance. But her friend argued it would be a way to get at Kate’s true feelings. Say it’s heads for Amherst, and tails for Middlebury, and you flip the coin, and it comes up heads. If you’re excited, then you know Amherst was right for you. But if you feel inclined to flip again, then you know Middlebury was the school you really wanted. So they flipped the coin, and Kate now says she doesn’t remember whether it came up heads or tails. But she does recall the hollow feeling in the pit of her stomach as she contemplated the coin flip going Amherst’s way. In that moment, she was sure where she wanted to go.

Fast-forward to today, and you can look back on an 18-year series of events set in motion by that coin flip. It includes two NCAA championships in lacrosse at Middlebury as a player; 10 years at Trinity College, eight as head coach, with a national title in lacrosse for the Bantams, their first; and an eventual return to her alma mater, in fall 2014, as assistant to Middlebury’s legendary lacrosse coach, Missy Foote. Kate spent a year as Missy’s assistant, helping her and the team reach the NCAA Final Four in 2015, the final season in Missy’s 38-year, hall-of-fame career. Then Kate, now Kate Perine Livesay, took over the program for the 2016 season, which ended with another NCAA championship for the Panthers, and coach-of-the-year awards for both Kate and her assistant, Alice Lee.

Back in 1999, in Middlebury, Kate’s parents couldn’t foresee any of this. They were just happy Kate had made a decision, finally, and they knew where to send a deposit. And while they hadn’t pushed her in one direction or another, they were beyond thrilled to hear that Middlebury College was the choice.

Ken Perine and Carolyn Leggett Perine ’73 had long family connections with the College and the town. Both grew up in Middlebury and were classmates at Middlebury Union High School. Carolyn Leggett, president of her senior class, was a four-sport athlete at MUHS, playing field hockey, basketball, and softball, as well as a little lacrosse on a club team. She would go on to Middlebury College, graduating in 1973. Ken Perine was a cross-country runner, a ski racer, and a golfer. He was senior class vice president. He earned a degree from Dartmouth but spent his last year of college at Middlebury.

Carolyn’s mother, Janet Leggett, worked for decades in the dean of students office at the College. Carolyn’s sister Jane also worked at the school, as did numerous cousins and in-laws. Ken’s father, Gordie Perine ’49, worked in admissions and then in alumni affairs and fundraising at Middlebury. (He became known over his many years at the College as “Mr. Middlebury.”) Gordie, who came to Middlebury after serving in World War II, and his wife, Alice Neef ’47, met as students at the College. Alice, who also received a master’s from the Bread Loaf School of English, was a teacher for many years at Middlebury Union High School.

After graduating from Middlebury, Carolyn joined the admissions office, expecting to spend a couple of years there. She retired 38 years later as associate dean. Ken retired a couple of years ago after a long run as president of the National Bank of Middlebury.

Given all those connections, it seemed surprising that of their four children—Chandler, Jennifer, and twins Kristen and Kathryn—none had chosen to attend Middlebury, until Kate’s fateful coin flip. Chan went to Bowdoin College, followed a few years later by his sister Kristi. And Jenn had chosen the University of Vermont.

Carolyn and Ken say there was no pressure on Kate to pick Middlebury, and Kate agrees. But her parents do think her postgrad year at Deerfield made it easier for her to do so. Kids who grow up in a college town often feel the need to expand their horizons when it’s time to choose a college. But Kate had already been away; her decision was to return home, not simply to stay put. She also got some positive reinforcement from her Deerfield classmates; many were dying to attend Middlebury. It was, ultimately, the family connections, her love for the place, and her respect for Missy Foote that tipped the scales in Middlebury’s favor.

Ken says his father, Gordie, was also wondering whether there would be another generation of the Perine family at Middlebury. “My dad would never have pushed Kate in that direction,” Ken said, “but he was secretly hoping.” Carolyn recalls that even in his last days, Gordie made it to all of Kate’s home games. “One of our best pictures is of him and Kate, after a lacrosse game, and he’s on a golf cart with an oxygen tank,” Carolyn said. “He was her biggest supporter.” He passed away in 2002.

No doubt Gordie—“Grandpa GoGo” to the Perine kids—was a big supporter. But Kate and her siblings had no more enthusiastic fans than their parents, who introduced them to sports of all kinds at an early age. Carolyn, who had also played lacrosse in college, started up a girls’ youth lacrosse league when her daughters were old enough to get involved.

It wasn’t long before Carolyn and Ken became fixtures on the sidelines at high school games. They were the couple with the tripod and the video camera, taping just about every game their kids played. Carolyn started things off, just because she enjoyed doing it, and then Ken joined in as play-by-play guy. “The way I remember it,” he said, “we were watching the girls play basketball, and I was very vocal. Carolyn got tired of listening to my harangues, so she handed me a microphone and said, ‘Here, you can talk into this. You can’t swear, you can’t say bad things about people. You have to be positive.’ ”

Thus was born a family hobby that would produce hundreds of tapes, from both high school and college games, still filling most of a room in the Perine household. They shared tapes with the parents of athletes who’d had especially good games, and coaches asked for copies to share with opposing teams. At the end of each season, Carolyn would make highlight reels for the teams.

The filmmakers kept at it right through their children’s college careers, though it was a little more complicated when they had kids on men’s and women’s teams at both Bowdoin and Middlebury. They recall some horrendous weather conditions, with perhaps the worst being a game, not in Maine or Vermont, but at Connecticut College, where the field was still surrounded by snow, and the wind was howling off the frigid waters of Long Island Sound.

They also saw a lot of good lacrosse. During Kate’s four years at Middlebury (she also played four years of field hockey and two years of basketball), the lacrosse team lost a total of three games, put up 51 straight wins in one stretch, and took home two NCAA titles, in 2001 and 2002.

After she graduated in 2003, Kate spent part of a year working at Two Brothers Tavern in Middlebury, saving up for a five-month trip to New Zealand, Australia, and Southeast Asia with two college teammates, Dana Chapin Anselmi ’02 and Meg Bonney Martinson ’03. “My parents said, ‘That’s fine, but we want you to have a job to come back to,’” Kate recalled. She had looked into graduate assistant coaching jobs and found that another former teammate, Julia Bergofsky McPhee ’02, would be winding up a two-year stint at Trinity at about the time Kate got back from her travels. She landed a job there, coaching field hockey and lacrosse and working on a master’s degree in history.

As her two-year stint wound down, Kate learned Trinity head coach Kara Tierney was going to be away for a year as her husband did a one-year residency at Dartmouth-Hitchcock Medical Center in Hanover, N.H. Kate took over as interim head coach and the team did well, qualifying for the NCAA tournament. “That was really exciting,” Kate said, “and it turned out that early in the season, Kara announced she wouldn’t be coming back. So it was just total luck that we did really well, and they said, ‘Well, we don’t feel the need to do a search.’ So I just sort of fell into the head coaching job. And it ended up being a great gig.”

That summer, 2007, Kate married Reeves Livesay, a Bowdoin grad. She started work as the head women’s lacrosse coach in the fall, and later that academic year she completed her thesis and earned her master’s degree. She would go on to serve as head coach for eight years, turning Trinity into a powerhouse in the NESCAC and on the national scene. She had a record of 127 wins versus 26 losses, for an .830 winning percentage; her teams won four NESCAC championships and, in 2012, an NCAA title.

In the Livesay years, the Bantams also became something of a nemesis for Missy Foote and the Middlebury Panthers. In Kate’s last five years at Trinity, starting with the 2010 season, they defeated Middlebury eight straight times, including the regular season and NESCAC and NCAA playoff games; six were one-goal wins.


Kate’s success was in Missy Foote’s mind when she began thinking about retirement. She tells the story of being in a meeting of the Porter Hospital board of directors when the discussion turned to succession planning for the hospital’s longtime CEO, Jim Daily. They talked about having someone come in and work with Daily for a year before his retirement. “And sitting right across from me, at the other end of the table, is Ken Perine,” Missy said. “And so I’m looking at Ken, and I’m literally writing notes to myself saying, ‘Ahh, now I know how I want to do this. I want someone to come in and learn the ropes for a year, and I know who that person should be.’”

Missy had always admired Kate’s competitiveness and field sense as a player. “What makes her a great coach is what made her a great player,” Missy said. “She was a low defender, and she loved to be able to see the whole field, to evaluate what was going on. She knew, three moves ahead, what she was going to do with the ball.”

Missy raised the possibility with Erin Quinn ’86, Middlebury’s athletic director, of asking Kate to consider coming on as an assistant for a year, with the understanding that she would take over when Missy retired at the end of the 2015 season. He was supportive but also said they could do it the old-fashioned way, with Missy retiring and then starting the search for a new coach. But as he and Missy talked it over, they came up with a lot of pluses to having a carefully planned transition. If they could get Kate to agree, Erin said, instead of telling prospective students that they really didn’t know who the coach would be next year, “we’d be able to say that Missy, a hall-of-famer, was going to coach one more year and then retire, and, holy cow, the new coach would be Kate Livesay, who won a national championship at Trinity.”

Kate’s tenure at Trinity had been great, and she wasn’t looking for another job, but she and Reeves, by then the parents of two girls, Alice and Dana, were thinking a little more about the future, and where it might take them.One important reason was the diagnosis Carolyn Perine received in February 2011: she had cancer of the appendix. She had her first operation in March of that year, the start of a long series of treatments. At the time of her diagnosis, she already had four grandchildren, and all four of her children were expecting new arrivals. “Despite my losing 50 pounds from some intense chemo,” Carolyn said, “Ken and I were at the births of all four girls, two in Boston, one in Hartford, and one in Middlebury.” Six years later, their tribe of grandchildren has grown to an even dozen.

All of the issues in Middlebury made it hard for their grown children, part of such a close-knit family, not to be nearby. Jenn and her family lived in town, Chan and Kristi were down in Boston, and Hartford seemed a long way from home. So when the possibility of a return to Middlebury came up, Kate was ready to take it seriously.

“When I was at Trinity, I was happy to be there, and didn’t allow myself to daydream about what-ifs,” she said. But things changed when her mother got sick. “It’s just so hard to know what’s around the corner with an illness,” she said, “so for us, we were willing to do whatever we could to be near my mom, with our kids. That was a huge part of the decision to come back.” By the time they got to Middlebury, Kate and Reeves had a third child: Annie was born in 2014, the week before they moved north.

Missy and Kate agree that their year of coaching together could hardly have gone better. Missy was still very clearly the head coach, but Kate brought her own strengths to the job. “It was great,” Missy said. “It was like having two head coaches, on and off the field.” Erin Quinn points out that head field hockey coach Katharine DeLorenzo was also an assistant in lacrosse that season. “I was hoping that the women on that team appreciated what they had,” he said, “with those three on the sidelines, all amazing coaches, all incredible role models.”

The team had a great run through the regular season and playoffs, making it to the NCAA semifinal game. There were only two seniors on the team (though two important players)—Katie Ritter ’15 and Cat Fowler ’15—so Kate got to know well the team she would be taking over in 2016.

In 2015, the Panthers lost their regular-season game to Trinity, Kate’s former team. And they did so again last year, Kate’s first season as head coach. But in that game, Kate felt, you could see the beginning of the end of the Trinity jinx. The game was close at halftime, and the team “realized that if we played hard, we could make them uncomfortable, we could take them out of their flow,” Kate said. In the second half, they lost some draws and a few calls didn’t go their way, and they wound up losing, 13–9. Kate believed the players just hadn’t developed enough confidence in themselves. “But we learned that we needed to be more aggressive defensively,” she said, “and play as more of a unit offensively. We spent a lot of time on offensive movement from that game on.”

Turns out that was the team’s first and last loss of the season. Three weeks later, in the NESCAC final at Trinity, the Panthers built an 8–1 lead at halftime and held on for a 10–7 win that gave them an automatic NCAA berth. Trinity received an at-large bid, and it was not hard to envision the two teams meeting again in the national championship game.

“By the time we got to the NESCAC final,” Kate said, “we talked in the locker room about how this isn’t Trinity you’re playing. This is the team that’s in the way of you winning the NESCAC championship. And we played a really great first half, and even though Trinity came back in the second half, we did what we needed to do. And we won. If we’d played a perfect game, maybe we wouldn’t have had the same focus going into the NCAAs.”

The team played well and beat Gettysburg in the NCAA regional final, and then it was on to the Final Four, which included Trinity. In the semifinals, they faced Cortland State, which had been ranked first in Division III most of the season. “I wasn’t sure we were better than Cortland, and I’m still not sure,” Kate said, “but we certainly played better that Saturday.”

Middlebury won, 16–11, advancing to the championship game—against Trinity. The Panthers built a 5–0 lead at halftime, and held off a Bantam rally to win, 9–5, and take their first NCAA title since 2004.

Ken and Carolyn Perine, longtime chroniclers of their daughter’s athletic career, were celebrating, but the 2016 playoffs were different for them. They didn’t travel to Philadelphia for the games but instead spent the weekend taking care of Kate and Reeves’ three girls, so that Reeves, now a teacher and soccer coach at MUHS, could make the trip.

As for Kate—now with four national titles, two as a player, two as a coach—she’s no longer the uncertain kid who flipped that coin at Deerfield in 1999. “It’s not Kate Perine, mom’s seventh grader, or Kate Perine, the MUHS sophomore, or the Middlebury College first-year,” says Erin Quinn. “It’s Kate Perine Livesay, professional coach. And I think it’s important that she went off and found her own voice, and crafted her own messages, which are really consistent with Missy’s but are authentic to who Kate is. So when she came back she was firmly standing on her own two feet.”

Through the Looking Glass

For much of her life, sophomore Meron Benti has been seen as being different. How she views herself is another story.

Meron Benti doesn’t remember much about her early childhood in Ethiopia. What she does recall are fragments of memories: car trips to the capital city, Addis Ababa; the waiting rooms of doctors’ offices; certain rooms of her house in the mid-sized city of Shashamane. The house that she rarely left, at least during daylight hours, unless it was for another visit to some new doctor.

She doesn’t remember the rare occasions when she did venture outside with her family; she only knows about the people who would stare, the children who would follow them down the street, the hecklers who would suggest that her mother had committed adultery with a European, or, worse, that her mother was bewitched and Meron was the daughter of the devil. She only knows about these things because she heard them in stories told by her family years later.

She doesn’t remember her first day of kindergarten, or much of kindergarten at all. Of course, she wasn’t privy to the fact that the school in her neighborhood didn’t want to take her, that the teachers didn’t want to teach her, that she was thought to be incapable of learning in a “regular” classroom, and that the school administrators felt they had no way to accommodate “her differences.” She doesn’t remember what other kids said to her or if they said anything at all. What she does recall of her year of kindergarten in Ethiopia was going home at the end of the day and staying there until it was time to go to school the next morning.

“I guess I just blocked all of this out,” Meron would tell me many years later.

When the school year was over, her parents made plans for Meron to move to Italy to live with her adult brother, Ayle. She would never live full time with her mom and dad again. She was six years old.


Albinism is an inherited genetic condition that reduces the amount of melanin pigment formed in one’s body; when it affects the hair, skin, and eyes, this is known as oculocutaneous albinism, of which there are seven types. Meron doesn’t know which type she has—“It really doesn’t matter, at least not to me” she says—though it’s likely she has OCA1 or OCA2, the latter being the most common form of albinism worldwide and the most prevalent in people of African descent.

In either of these types of oculocutaneous albinism, a genetic defect disrupts the normal production of melanin, the pigment that gives human skin, hair, and eyes their color. The result for people with OCA1 or 2 is extremely fair skin, light-colored eyes, and hair coloring that ranges from white to light blonde.

Meron is the youngest of 10 children, nine of whom have dark skin. Her parents, too, are black, yet they both carry the albinism gene. Albinism is a recessive trait, which, if you recall from high school biology, means that each of her parents carries a recessive gene for the condition, but they do not manifest the condition themselves. Both parents gave Meron a copy of their chromosomes; she had a one-in-four chance of an autosomal recessive inheritance of albinism. Unlike her siblings, the odds played out differently for her.

Being different meant a move to another continent and country, to a place where her condition was better understood and medical options were more readily available. “Most people think of albinism as being ‘devoid of color,’” says Murray Brilliant, one of the world’s foremost experts on the genetics of human albinism. “And while this perception can lead to social stigma—such as what Meron experienced as a child and often resulting in even more dire consequences for patients in other regions of the world—the condition is defined, medically, by deficits in vision.” (It should be noted that Brilliant was told about Meron and her condition in an interview. He has never met her.)

Meron’s vision is severely compromised, the result of undeveloped retinas that are lacking a critical layer of pigment known as the retinal pigmented epithelium (RPE). One of four distinct pigmented layers in the human eye, RPE helps maintain photoreceptor cells; with a limited (or nonexistent) RPE, there are fewer of these cells at the center of each retina. The result, says Brilliant, is a degraded field of vision.

Think of a photograph with a limited number of pixels per square inch, he explains to me. “If you enlarge the photo, the image gets pixilated, it gets blurry,” he says. People with albinism may be able to see something up close—say, 10 or 20 feet away, relatively well, but as distance increases what one sees gets more and more blurry.

Meron has told me that she is extremely nearsighted, which might not be technically true, Brilliant notes, as albinism doesn’t affect the shape of the eyeball, but the result is the same. Objects that are more than, say, 20 feet away become very blurry to her. To illustrate what this is like, she recalls standing on a street corner in Oakland, California, a few years ago. Traffic was zooming past her, and her attention was drawn to a box on the far side of the intersection. She had never seen such a contraption before, and in the middle of the box was a blurry, digitally lit hand. Then the hand disappeared and the box appeared to be empty. She stood there for about 30 seconds, just staring at the box, not even noticing that the traffic in front of her had stopped. And then the hand was back, and the rush of cars had resumed. She couldn’t see the numbers counting down the time she had to cross the street.


“I remember everything about Italy,” Meron says, contrasting her recollections of living in Europe with her hazy recall of events in Ethiopia.

At six years old, she and an older sister, Mimmi, settled in a small village in Tuscany, where their brother was working and playing soccer on a semipro team. (Though Mimmi was less than thrilled about moving to Italy, too, their parents felt it was essential that Meron have a female presence in her life.)

The timing was fortuitous: just a few months prior, as Meron’s parents were exploring medical options beyond Ethiopia for their daughter, her brother had struck up a conversation about his sister’s condition with a neighbor in the small Tuscan village where he lived. This neighbor wanted to help and offered both to introduce Meron to an ophthalmologist that she knew and, as an Italian citizen, to sponsor her immigration to Italy.

The ophthalmologist had a litany of eye problems to consider and treat. In addition to Meron’s retinal issues, she is extremely light sensitive, the result of a reduced layer of pigment in the iris; she also has a condition called nystagmus, which affects both vision and depth perception. This causes her hazel eyes to dart rapidly back and forth, an involuntary movement that she no longer notices, but is evident when you talk to her in person.

She thinks that her vision issues had as much to do with her Ethiopian teachers not wanting her in their classroom as her skin coloring did, a theory that Brilliant thinks is reasonable. (“There’s an assumption that one is incapable,” he says, “especially when at a young age and in places where help is less accessible.”)

In Italy, Meron does not recall her vision being a social or educational handicap, but there were new challenges. For the first time, she recalls being cognizant of looking different than her siblings, perhaps because they stood out in a predominantly white region. She recalls the sidelong glances of this “big black guy walking down the street with a little white girl.” And while she reminds me that her appearance was more stark then—“I was six or seven years old, so I wasn’t wearing makeup. My hair was white, my eyebrows and eyelashes were white, my skin extremely pale”—she says that people didn’t really pay much attention to the albinism. “What seemed to make a difference to them was my being an immigrant,” she says.

At first, she says, people assumed she was Scandinavian, but when she explained that she was Ethiopian, opinions of her grew harsher.

“I was bullied,” she says, “though I guess I didn’t know what that was then. I just thought people were being mean.” She remembers one classmate in particular, who, upon hearing she was from Ethiopia, began to sing about Mussolini invading her country. “He told me his grandmother loved Mussolini,” she says, a sense of wonder still present in her voice all these years later.

Her brother tried his best to assimilate Meron into the culture of her new home. He insisted that she learn Italian, and by the time school started in September, she was nearly fluent. And she says that while she missed her parents intensely at first, gradually she allowed her memories of them to recede. It was her way of coping with being away from them.

It was six years before she returned home for a visit. She went alone, and she has a clear memory of walking off a plane in the Addis Ababa airport and becoming overwhelmed.

For six years, she had not seen another black person aside from her brother and sister, and now she appeared as the only white person in this bustling airport. And then there was the rush of people, not just her immediate family, but distant relatives and family friends. “I didn’t recognize my brothers,” she remembers. “I couldn’t tell who was my brother, who was my nephew, who was a neighbor. And then my mother . . . she seemed taller than I had remembered her, so I guess I was looking at her funny, and she burst into tears. She thought I didn’t remember her.”

But the truth was, she says, she did feel estranged from her mother. Her coping mechanism had worked. “At first, it didn’t feel like she was my mom.”

Gradually, over her two-month stay, familial ties emerged. It wasn’t exactly normal, she says (“though what counts as normal?”), but it was normalized. Being 12, though, she was also much more aware of how she was received outside of her house. She remembers walking around town with her siblings and having other kids harass her. First they would approach her asking for money (“That happens a lot in Ethiopia; people assume that if you are white then you have a lot of money”), and then when her brothers grew defensive, tipping off the others that she was with them, the remarks turned caustic.

The stories she had heard about being called a “devil child,” she says, apparently were true.


Meron returned to Italy, yet says that in all her time there, she never felt at home. She found herself missing Ethiopia, a feeling that intensified after another visit the following summer. “I thought about moving back for high school, but my brother told me that was a bad idea,” she says. “He was probably right.” So she began to cope the best way she knew how: by forgetting.

By this time, her brother, Ayle, had taken a job in the United States and had moved to Oakland. She and her sister remained in Italy and settled into a predictable routine: “She worked; I went to school,” Meron says. Around this time, Meron began modeling, first for fashion students at a local university, and then with an agency. Yet she also says that she began to isolate herself from the rest of her surroundings; looking back on this period, “it wasn’t that different than when I was a child in Ethiopia.” She wasn’t hiding exactly, but she wasn’t engaging with the culture (aside from her modeling), either. She went to school, a rigorous science academy, six days a week, and she studied all the time.

I ask her if she was sad, lonely: “You were a teenager,” I say, “and, sure, this can be a time filled with adolescent angst, but it’s also an age when many lifelong friendships are born.”

She shrugs. “No, I still think of myself as being pretty lucky. I mean, during that time I had Facebook friends, people with albinism, who were teenagers like me, and they needed guide dogs to get around or walked with a cane. I felt fortunate that I didn’t need any of that.”

Meron probably would have finished her studies in Italy, had she not received a phone call from her brother inviting her to come visit him in America the summer after her third year in high school.

I ask if this was her first time coming to the United States.

“Yeah—the first and last time,” she laughs. “That’s when I stayed.”


While researching this story, I came across a portfolio from an Italian fashion shoot in 2013 featuring Meron that currently appears on the website behance.net. Highly conceptual and stylized, the shoot is titled “Beauty and the Beast.” Meron is the “beauty” in this concept, and the images of her are striking. She’s sitting in a white chair, her pale skin and blonde hair accentuated by a pale peach-colored dress and an orange flower that she holds in two hands, close to her face.

“That was my favorite shoot,” she tells me when I ask about it a few weeks ago. “I loved the concept.”

She pauses and starts to say something, then stops.

“But . . . ?” I say.

“They were interested in having someone with very fair skin, which was fine—most of the shoots were of that nature,” she says. “But in this one, they really emphasized my whiteness. They even added white makeup on top of my pale skin and my hair! It took me two days to wash it entirely out of my hair.”

She continues: “I’ve always wanted to do something more colorful, like what we did with Brett.” (She’s speaking of the photo shoot for this story.) “Those vibrant colors feel more like me.”

I ask her if she felt that the white makeup further masked her identity in addition to accentuating her whiteness.

Again, she pauses. “I don’t know if I would have phrased it that way then, but it certainly makes sense now.”

Meron tells me that she had never thought about the concept of race until she came to the States a few years ago. “Ethnicity yes, race no,” she says. “Race is not a concept you really think about in Italy, at least not where I was,” she says, “because everyone is the same. And in Ethiopia, that’s literally true. Everybody is the same race.”

She first thought about this concept and how it applied to her when she was registering for high school in Oakland, where she was, once again, living with her brother.

We all know the question, a prompt to check off a box identifying one’s race, only Meron had never seen such a question before.

“There were all of these choices, and I was very confused,” she says. “I thought, I’m white, but my whole family is black.

“So, what did you do?” I ask.

“I checked black.”

The significance of her decision was not lost on her, especially as she spent more time in the U.S. “I may lack melanin, but I’m Black,” she says. (The capitalization of “Black” in this instance is intentional.)

During the past few months, Meron has emailed me a handful of stories to read and videos to watch. One piece she sent me was a story that appeared on National Public Radio, titled “People of Color with Albinism Ask: Where Do I Belong?”

“When I saw that story”—she first saw it online before listening to it—“I was so excited. I thought, Yes, finally someone understands me.”

What she had begun to experience in the United States was that she was Black, “but not fully, if that makes sense?” she says. What she means is that the longer she has spent time in the U.S.—first in Oakland and now at Middlebury—she has grown to understand what it means to be Black in America. “I consider myself Black, but I have white skin, so people don’t see me that way, at least superficially, and how you are seen can mean everything.”

She continues: “I go places with my Black friends; they are looked at differently. I have seen them followed by clerks in stores, and that never happens to me. Ironically, the same treatment that Black people can have in the United States is what I experienced in Ethiopia. So I can relate, but I’m not facing that situation anymore. At least not here.”

Immediately after arriving in Oakland a few years ago, she applied for asylum in the United States. The process was long—it was 18 months from the time she applied until a decision was made—but because of her personal history in Ethiopia, her application was approved. She recently applied for a green card to obtain permanent residency status, a process that took her to an immigration office in St. Albans, Vermont, about 20 miles south of the Canadian border. After handing in her paperwork, a clerk summoned Meron back to her desk.

“I think you made a mistake,” she said, sliding a form across her desk to Meron, the form where Meron had indicated her race.

“No, I didn’t make a mistake,” Meron replied.

“Are you sure?”

“Yes,” Meron said. “My whole family is black.”

“If you say so.”


Meron is now a sophomore at Middlebury; how she got here from Oakland Tech High School isn’t all that interesting. “Google,” she laughs (though she does credit a history teacher for encouraging her to apply to Ivies and the top liberal arts colleges, types of schools she had either never heard of or never given any serious thought to previously).

But her experience so far has been “amazing,” Meron says. An anthropology major, Meron’s focus has returned to her native Africa, though with designs that expand beyond Ethiopia. “This is strange for an Ethiopian,” she laughs. “There’s a joke that Ethiopians consider themselves apart from the rest of Africa.” In January, she took the intensive leadership and innovation course called MiddCORE, and for her class project she came up with the idea of a summer camp in Kenya for people with albinism. She chose Kenya rather than, say, Ethiopia, she says, because not only is albinism more prevalent among the populace, but the stigmatization and associated danger that comes with it is higher.

I’ve learned that as bad as Meron had it in Ethiopia, there are countries in sub-Saharan Africa where having albinism can cost you your life. A recent report by an albinism advocacy organization called Under the Sun has documented hundreds of attacks against people with albinism in countries such as Malawi, Tanzania, and Kenya. (In Tanzania there were gruesome reports of killings and dismemberment.) Meron acknowledges that attempting to start her camp in Tanzania wouldn’t be safe for a college student, though she quickly says she could envision starting a nonprofit that serves people with albinism in Tanzania or Malawi in the future.

And as for now, even Kenya may be too risky. Meron applied for a fellowship with Middlebury’s Social Entrepeneurship Program in the hopes of putting her idea into action. But her application was denied, in large part because of the risk associated with the endeavor, the program’s faculty director, Nadia Horning, tells me. But to say Horning was impressed with Meron’s application would be an understatement. “This is somebody who will be an agent for social change,” Horning says. An associate professor of political science with a focus on African politics, Horning has gotten to know Meron through the African student organization Umoja. Horning is the group’s faculty advisor, and this year Meron is its copresident. Horning has learned the same thing that I have during the course of reporting this story: “All her life, Meron has taken a deficit, a handicap, and turned it into an asset,” she says.

Though Meron did not receive funding for her project, she, along with a few other applicants, were offered a nonfunded opportunity to continue researching projects under the auspices of the Center for Creativity, Innovation, and Social Entrepreneurship where they would have space to work and access to advising. Not everyone who was offered the opportunity accepted, Horning says, though Meron did immediately upon the offer.


Meron Benti has an elaborate tattoo on her back consisting of a constellation of symbols that form the shape of the continent of Africa. She says that because her phenotype does not contain any Black features, she wanted something on her body that “hinted to people that I am African.” A heart symbol represents Ethiopia. The image also contains native African species such as the sankofa bird and the denkyem crocodile, as well as West African Ashanti symbols.

I joke that it’s not very Ethiopian of her to be thinking so deeply about other African countries, and she laughs. She says that the symbols not only reflect her origins but also her adaptability to live in different environments. She tells me that until coming to Middlebury, she had never really met any Africans who were not Ethiopian. (The irony that she had to come to rural Vermont to do so is not lost on her, but she hastens to add that the fact that Middlebury facilitated this is one of the many reasons she loves the school.) Now these students of color from other countries, the United States included, are among her best friends.

Not too long ago, a group of students organized a Women of Color brunch, to which Meron was invited.

“I don’t think they realized how happy that invitation made me feel,” she says. “When people acknowledge me as being a person of color without me having to remind them . . .”

“It’s your identity,” I say. “

It’s more than that,” she says. “It’s belonging.”


What Ray Zilinskas Knows Will Terrify You

One of the world’s foremost experts on chemical and biological weaponry believes we are at the dawn of a new age of warfare.

The blurry surveillance camera footage from Kuala Lumpur’s international airport showed a woman in white approaching the estranged half-brother of North Korean leader Kim Jong-un from behind. She daubed his face with a toxic substance—which one, investigators did not yet know.

Kim Jong-nam died on February 13, en route to the hospital.

Over 8,500 miles away at the Center for Nonproliferation Studies in Monterey, California, Raymond Zilinskas watched the video on the New York Times website and followed reports on Kim Jong-nam’s death. As director of the chemical and biological nonproliferation program at the Middlebury Institute of International Studies, his office is like a mini-museum of chemical and biological weapons protection gear. Standing near the entrance is a life-sized mannequin in mud-colored, heavy rubber, full protective gear from World War II. Above his desk sits a brunette mannequin’s decapitated head, enshrouded in a gray gas mask shaped like a horse’s snout. The same masks were passed out to protect civilians during the 1941 Pearl Harbor attack, Zilinskas explains during my recent visit.

Nearby, another doll head with long-lashed eyes, this one draped in blue and pink Mardi Gras beads, wears a gas mask once used by the Israelis. And in a corner, a dummy sports rubber boots and a gray apron over white protective cloth that cloaks the face, mouth, and head, with only the eyes visible under protective goggles. The Soviets used such suits in the 1940s and ’50s to catch rodents, Zilinskas says. They would take gerbils out of the traps and comb them for ectoparasites, which would fall into the pots of oil they carried. “They would take it all to the lab,” he says, looking for Yersinia pestis—an organism that causes bubonic plague.

Viruses, contagions, contaminants, and germs—he knows how they can kill you when used as weapons, which is why soon after Kim Jong-nam’s death Zilinskas began fielding questions from journalists. Malaysian authorities reported that there had been a second face-smearer, also a woman. One of the suspects appeared on the surveillance footage in a T-shirt with “LOL” on its front. The two were apparently hired assassins for the North Korean government. Of all the mysteries, one in particular burned: Which poison might have killed him?

At first, Zilinskas says, “I thought it was cyanide,” a substance once used by KGB agents. “They would squirt a cloud of cyanide, and when that happens the person who is receiving it goes ‘Huhhhh,’” Zilinskas says, sucking in air. He is 78, in gray jeans and loafers, with a tuft of white hair and white eyebrows that dip into a V-shape when he talks. “It takes a minute, maybe two minutes. Boom. Gone.”

But when Zilinskas heard how long it took for Kim Jong-nam to die—20 minutes—he knew it could not have been cyanide. Something just as potent and paralyzing was at play, and it may have offered one of the clearest affirmations yet into the extent of North Korea’s chemical weapons capabilities.

Ten days after Kim Jong-nam’s attack, Malaysian authorities reported that the killers had used the nerve agent VX. That’s when the deluge of emails and phone calls to Zilinskas from around the world really started. A reporter for the Los Angeles Times wrote him: “It’s a big story, and everyone’s scrambling—and you know this issue better than most.”


Beyond his collection of doomsday paraphernalia, Zilinskas is one of the world’s foremost experts on chemical and biological weapons. He is frequently called upon to answer questions about such topics not only by journalists, but by other academics, historians, governments, and even Hollywood writers. Zilinskas recently served as an advisor to the FX television show The Americans, helping the writers and producers grasp plot lines involving lethal pathogens.

His exhaustive research has taken him around the world to Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan, Ukraine, Belarus, Kyrgyzstan, Moldova, Tajikistan, and beyond. He spent 11 years conducting dozens of interviews with former Soviet scientists, and combing through documents and intelligence files to cowrite, along with Milton Leitenberg, The Soviet Biological Weapons Program, a stunning 921-page investigation published in 2012 by Harvard University Press.

The book uncovered a large-scale offensive biological weapons program, detailing how the Soviet Union amped up its production facilities using microbiology to weaponize bacteria and viruses, and alter pathogens to make them resistant to vaccines. The Soviets hired tens of thousands of scientists and technicians for this undertaking, despite having signed the Biological Weapons Convention in 1972, which bans the development, production, and stockpiling of biological weapons.

Zilinskas wrote about how Soviet scientists created new strains of pathogens, genetically engineering Legionella pneumophila (which causes Legionnaires’ disease) to secrete certain peptides along with pathogens, which stimulates a host’s immune defense system—activating immune cells capable of destroying the myelin of nerve cells (destruction of myelin in the human body induces a multiple sclerosislike illness).

Zilinskas’s work also revealed how the Soviets transferred a gene that codes for the production of the diphtheria toxin (which causes diphtheria, a throat and nose infection), into a new host, which was Yersinia pestis (the plague source) to make it more virulent than strains found in nature. And his book documented how the Soviets weaponized Bacillus anthracis, which causes the disease anthrax. Indeed, in 1992, then Russian President Boris Yeltsin admitted that an anthrax accident, which infected 94 people and killed 64 in the Soviet city of Sverdlovsk in 1979, had been caused by its own military development.

“It is frightening because the idea that someone can and is willing to apply science and medicine in order to manipulate and grow microorganisms for the purpose of deliberately bringing about illness and death contravenes so much of our society’s ethics that it is beyond the pale of civilized behavior,” Zilinskas and Leitenberg write. “The possibility that virulent bacteria or viruses will be developed to arm biological weapons and, when used, threaten vast populations with disease and death is incomprehensible.”


Zilinskas tries not to lose sleep over threats that could occur at any time. If he knew a pandemic disease was approaching, he says, he would work to take precautions that would help the community, but he knows “the probability of me being injured while driving is much, much greater than being injured by chemical or biological weapons.”

Yet, as Zilinskas has proven, the possibility is real.

In his research, he visited anti-plague institutes from Soviet times, including one that led to the discovery of a top-secret report about a smallpox outbreak in 1971 in Kazakhstan. “There had been no smallpox in Russia and the Soviet Union since 1936,” Zilinskas thought at the time. So how did the outbreak occur? “What happened here? What was the big mystery?”

He found out there had been an accidental discharge of the variola virus, which causes smallpox, on a small island in the Aral Sea, between Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan. The virus had drifted off and reached a marine research ship, infecting a 24-year-old fisheries expert who was sampling sea water and sea life specimen like plankton. The ship landed in Aralsk, Kazakhstan, where the infected woman developed a fever and rash. Over the next three weeks a dozen more cases turned up with similar symptoms, traced back to her, and five people died. It turned out the virus had come from open-air tests carried out on Vozrozhdeniye Island—a leak from a Soviet chemical weapons lab.

“I was so upset when I learned that the Soviets had weaponized smallpox virus,” Zilinskas says, leaning back in his office chair. “Smallpox had been wiped out by the world in 1977 . . . so the whole world was susceptible. People weren’t being vaccinated anymore.”

A framed photo behind him shows a version of him from a time when his hair was not white. In it, he wears a short-sleeved button-down with a pocket protector, standing in front of an airplane marked “UN” in blue. It was taken in 1994, when he served as a United Nations biological weapons inspector in Iraq, participating in two expeditions encompassing 84 facilities that were researching, developing, or producing microbial products. “We had to go out to these fields to look at the agricultural helicopters to see if they’d been converted to use chemicals of biological weapons,” he remembers. “That was the hottest I’ve ever been,” estimating it was about 125 degrees at times. The inspectors were followed everywhere by Iraqi minders who monitored and videotaped their visits.

On his desktop computer, Zilinskas pulls up a file with the words Iraq’s BW Facilities Map in neon green. He points the cursor on a map to a desert area where the Iraqis developed and produced chemical and biological weapons in bunkers. He notes Salman Park, a main research laboratory, and Al Hakam-main, a development lab and plant with large fermenters, as well as a foot-and-mouth disease vaccine plant that had some production of botulinum toxin and Bacillus anthracis. “It was exciting,” says Zilinskas, who is still a consultant to the U.S. Department of Defense.

His interest in politics and war began when he was a boy. His parents were from Lithuania, and his mother was pregnant with him when the Soviets invaded. She fled Red Army soldiers and while en route in November 1938 ended up giving birth to him in Tallinn, Estonia. With infant in arms she managed to get onto a fishing boat and make it to Sweden, where Zilinskas was raised speaking Swedish. His English carries faint traces of the accent. He was seven when World War II ended, and he holds onto a vivid memory from a year later when the Soviets sent a ship to the Stockholm harbor intending to cart Lithuanians back. The soldiers stood on the harbor with menacing looks, holding machine guns, waiting to round up and load people. “My family was deathly afraid of being deported to the Soviet Union,” he remembers. “Stalin was not a very nice guy. . . . We all were wondering, ‘Are we going to be shipped out?’”

They did not get sent back. At age 12, he immigrated to the United States, first to Chicago, then to Los Angeles, where he attended high school in San Fernando and joined the Army Reserve after graduation. He was sent to Fort Ord in Monterey for eight weeks, then to Fort Gordon in Georgia to be trained as a military police officer. He was assigned to a U.S. Army Reserve division in Los Angeles as a medic, and spent time training at a military hospital in Fort Ord during the Vietnam War. The experience sparked his interest in pathology in patients. He says he encountered “parasites I’ve never seen. We would have different types of malaria. We would have fecal stuff. People who would have ringworm.”

Zilinskas got his medical technologist license from the state of California, working part time at a hospital where he immersed himself in everything from hematology to blood banking to clinical chemistry and microbiology. He then returned to California and went on to work as a clinical microbiologist for 16 years before entering graduate studies at the School of International Relations at the University of Southern California.

It was the early 1970s, and the first genetic engineering studies were emerging. Zilinskas wrote his dissertation on policy issues generated by recombinant DNA research, and genetic engineering techniques for biological weapons development. While in graduate school, he also remembers taking a European history course and writing a paper on Swedish politics, vis-à-vis the Soviet Union after World War II—inspired in part by that moment from his childhood in Sweden, watching Soviet soldiers with guns looking to deport Lithuanians.

The ascent of his career has run parallel to a period of proliferating questions and concerns over biological and chemical weapons development and control. Even since the Biological Weapons Convention, there has been reason to believe that offensive bioweapons programs have made strides in China, Syria, and Russia, not to mention that deadly agents may be making their way into the hands of terrorist groups.

These perils are evolving, which is what makes Zilinskas’s role on the world stage so important, says Rita Colwell, former director of the National Science Foundation. Colwell also previously served as president of the University of Maryland Biotechnology Institute, where she recruited Zilinskas in 1987 to launch its center on bioethics, microbiology, and biotechnology. He came to the Center for Nonproliferation Studies in 1998. “He’s keenly interested in ethical processes, how one does medicine, how one does science,” she says. “And he cares deeply about policy issues associated with national security and intelligence.”


After the reports linking VX to the Kim Jong-nam attack became public, inquiries to Zilinskas about the nerve agent multiplied. A journalist from the AFP news agency asked him in an email: “How did the attackers avoid coming to serious harm when they appeared to handle it without any form of protection?” and “How was Kim able to walk and get help given how quickly VX is supposed to work?”

As with other nerve agents, Zilinskas explains, VX inhibits the acetyl cholinesterase enzyme, which under normal circumstances breaks down the chemical acetylcholine. When receiving a signal from the neurological system, acetylcholine stimulates muscles to do their normal work. But if acetyl cholinesterase is destroyed by VX or other kinds of nerve agents, acetylcholine does not break down, and muscles go into involuntary contractions.

“Your eye pupils turn to pinpricks,” Zilinskas says. “You start drooling. Your sweat glands start going. You defecate. You urinate. And in the end your breathing is not efficient anymore. You die of asphyxiation.”

As with cyanide, however, pure VX would have taken out Kim Jong-nam in far less than 20 minutes. A single drop can kill. And anyone who came close to it or had the substance on their hands could have died too. “I immediately thought about binaries,” Zilinskas says, explaining that when VX is divided into two separate compounds, each is harmless on its own, and each can work in a slower release form. But when mixed together, the chemical result becomes a deadly weapon. This would explain the involvement of two suspected face-smearing women: “One has the precursor, the other comes and smears it,” Zilinskas says. “Now there is VX.”

There were news reports that one of the women involved ran to the bathroom after the attack, which also fits with Zilinskas’s suspicions, because the effects of VX can be mitigated if quickly washed off. “It seems to me at least one of them must have had training in how to do this,” he says.

North Korea is not a state party to the Chemical Weapons Convention, but it is part of the Geneva Protocol, which forbids chemical and biological weapons in warfare. “We have known they have a big chemical industry, so they certainly have the capabilities to produce any chemical they want to,” Zilinskas says. “We’ve been thinking for a long time that yes, they have chemical weapons. . . . Now, if it’s really the North Koreans behind this, it’s proof.”


On Zilinskas’s desk, alongside a copy of the Monterey County Weekly, which features a full front-page photo of Kim Jong-un and the headline “Going Nuclear,” there is a thick stack of printer paper with handwritten markings in the margins of the text. It is Zilinskas’s latest manuscript. The book, cowritten with Philippe Mauger, examines biosecurity and biotechnology in Vladimir Putin’s Russia.

“It’s going to go to the publisher this coming week,” Zilinskas says, looking relieved and satisfied. The spark for this newest project came in 2012, when the Russian government newspaper Rossiyskaya Gazeta published an essay by then Prime Minister Putin, in which he stated: “What is the future preparing for us? . . . In the more distant future, weapons systems based on new physical principles (beam, geophysical, wave, genetic, psychophysical and other technology) will be developed. All this will, in addition to nuclear weapons, provide entirely new instruments for achieving political and strategic goals.”

Soon after, then Minister of Defense Anatoly Serdyukov promised to implement “the development of weapons based on new physical principles: radiation, geophysical wave, genetic, psychophysical, etc.” In August 2012, the U.S. Department of State noted that Russia has remained engaged in biological activities.

Their production of any kind of bioweapons would violate the Biological Weapons Convention, but as Zilinskas points out and as outlined in his previous book, Russia inherited the past Soviet program of offensive biological research and development. The microbial strains for potentially murderous manufactured bacteria could be reactivated for a “third generation” of biological weapons. Russia’s recent behavior, he says, indicates that such a program could already be under way.

A future with “genetic weapons” would include powerfully emergent methods, including gene editing technologies—which has shown immense promise for treating disease and strengthening the human species, but which in the wrong hands could also wipe out an entire population. This technological ability to alter organisms is progressing so rapidly that government regulators can’t keep up, and the idea of containing such research globally is an impossible goal. It is frightening to consider what would happen if terrorists used gene editing tools—which can be obtained relatively easily and at a low cost—to unleash highly lethal modified pathogens upon enemies. Zilinskas brings up a Pakistani scientist, Abdur Rauf, who had a degree in microbiology and was working to set up a bioweapons lab for al-Qaeda. Rauf had found a way to produce Bacillus anthracis.

“His notebooks fell into the hands of the CIA when the Americans came in in 2001,” Zilinskas says. “If there is a person who knows about microbiology, if he gets a colony of Bacillus anthracis, has a fermenter, is able to dry the spores . . .”

Take the Tokyo subway massacre of 1995, when the Aum Shinrikyo cult unleashed the odorless chemical weapon sarin, killing 12 people. “Anybody with good chemistry, chemists, and chemical equipment could do it,” Zilinskas says. Aum Shinrikyo “bought the precursors and they made the sarin used in the Tokyo subway, but they did also produce VX.”

If they could do it, so could other terrorists, so could North Korea, so could any smart extremist, radical, insurgent, enemy, or incendiary with the right tools.

Less than two months after the murder of Kim Jong-nam, Zilinskas began fielding messages again—this time in response to the reports of 86 people, including 28 children, who were killed in a chemical weapons attack in Syria. Hundreds more were injured, and horrific images of dying children being hosed down, and parents cradling their dead kids flooded news reports. Authorities suspected sarin gas unleashed by the Assad regime, despite its denial of involvement and joining into the Chemical Weapons Convention.

Zilinskas saw the photos, which reminded him of Damascus in August 2014, Halabja in March 1988, victims in Auschwitz, and the Stalin purges of 1930s. Today the images are pervasive. With the Syrian attack, unlike past generations of chemical warfare, “Now you have hundreds of people with cell phones taking videos and photos,” Zilinskas says.

Before the two most recent nerve gas attacks, concerns over chemical weapons seemed to have taken a momentary back seat to nuclear weapons in the public eye. Zilinskas agrees that nuclear weapons remain of highest concern for the world’s population. But, he adds, “We probably will see more uses of chemicals by well-organized terrorist groups such as ISIS and, perhaps, Taliban, and who knows what North Korea might do beyond assassination.”

Return to Freedom


Near the end of the 2013 Academy Award-winning film Twelve Years a Slave, the movie’s protagonist, Solomon Northup, is rescued by a man named Cephus Parker, who was the owner of a dry-goods store in Saratoga Springs, New York, and who was well known to Northup and his family. In the film, Parker explains to Edwin Epps, Northup’s sadistic “slave master” and owner of the steamy, sweat-drenched plantation on Bayou Boeuf in central Louisiana, that his “slave,” whom Epps knows as Platt, is actually Solomon Northup, a free black man from New York. Incredulous, Epps curses and threatens Parker and Northup as the two men make their way to the carriage that drives them to safety. 

On the second page of his memoir, Twelve Years a Slave, published in 1853, Solomon gives thanks to his actual rescuer: “Henry B. Northup, Esq., of Sandy Hill, a distinguished counselor at law, and the man to whom, under Providence, I am indebted for my present liberty, and my return to the society of my wife and children, is a relative of the family in which my forefathers were thus held to service, and from which they took the name I bear. To this fact may be attributed the persevering interest he has taken in my behalf.”   

Why did John Ridley, the screenwriter, and Steve McQueen, the director, choose to show Parker as Solomon’s rescuer rather than Henry Bliss Northup? Perhaps Ridley and McQueen feared audiences might assume mistakenly that Henry Northup had come to claim his chattel property. After all, Solomon admits that his “forefathers” were “held to service” by the white Northups. Yet, he also refers to Henry as a “relative.” This curious circumstance is the consequence of one of Henry Bliss’s great-uncles, Captain Henry Northup, owning Solomon’s father, Mintus, in Rhode Island during the last quarter of the 18th century. Historian William Piersen points out in Black Yankees that 18th-century white New Englanders typically viewed slaves as part of the family unit, as fictive kin. Additionally, although relations between whites and freed blacks in the North were generally strained in the decades following Northern emancipation at the end of the 18th century, some freedmen and freedwomen, as Joanne Melish notes in Disowning Slavery, expected the patronage of their former masters to continue. For years after gaining his freedom in 1798, Mintus and his family remained within the orbit of the white Northups. It is no wonder, then, that after 12 years of unlawful bondage, Solomon exclaimed upon seeing Henry Bliss standing before him on the Epps plantation on January 3, 1853, “Henry B. Northup! Thank God–Thank God!”


According to the authors of Solomon Northup: The Complete Story of the Author of Twelve Years a Slave, Henry Bliss Northup’s English ancestors settled in Providence, Rhode Island, in 1643, seven years after Roger Williams founded the colony. By the end of the American Revolution, most of the Northups, many of whom were Quaker farmers, had relocated to eastern New York state just across the Vermont border, some in Hoosick Falls near Glens Falls and others in Granville to the north. Captain Henry Northup, Henry Bliss’s great-uncle, brought with him Binar, his enslaved servant girl, and Mintus, his enslaved laborer, Solomon’s father. 

Cheap farmland, family, and a friendly environment for slavery may have drawn Captain Henry to New York. Rhode Island terminated slavery for those born after March 1, 1784. Mintus, born between 1776 and 1778 (d. 1829), was not entitled to freedom in either Rhode Island or in New York, which passed a gradual emancipation law in 1799. Nevertheless, in his will made out in March 1797, Captain Henry stipulated that Mintus should be freed on September 1, 1798, which indeed came to pass.

At some point, Mintus married Susanna, a free woman of color described by Solomon as a “quadroon.” By 1804, Mintus had taken up farming in the small Adirondack town of Minerva, where Solomon was born on July 10, 1807. Farmers from Granville settled this town in 1804, which lay about sixty miles northwest of Granville. Mintus may have been able to rely on the support of a patron there, as he had earlier relied on the white Northups. 

Between 1808 and 1810, Mintus moved back to Granville, where he perhaps managed Clarke Northup’s farm for several years while Clarke tended to his tanning business. In 1816, however, Mintus took his family to Kingsbury, a small community west of Granville, where he most likely farmed as a tenant. That year was the “year of no summer,” and thus a summer of few crops, thanks to the volcanic eruption of Mount Tambora in Indonesia. The poor harvest may have compelled Mintus to move his family to a farm near Fort Edward to be near Nicholas Carr Northup, who lived in nearby Sandy Hill (renamed Hudson Falls). Here, Mintus acquired enough property—at least $100 worth in 1821—to vote, a requirement of all men wishing to exercise the franchise in New York. (After 1822, the state eliminated this property requirement for white males, but raised the ante for black male voters to $250.) Solomon most likely received a common-school education here and learned to play the violin.

John Holmes Northup, brother to Clarke and Nicholas, farmed and blacksmithed in Hebron, a community five miles south of Granville. John and his wife, Anna Wells, raised nine children, the seventh of whom was Henry Bliss, born on April 4, 1805. Given their close ages, fictive kinship ties, and nearness of residences, Henry and Solomon surely spent time together, playing or working on a Northup farm, or perhaps even attending together North Granville Academy. Henry Bliss confirmed as much in his 1852 affidavit, testifying that he had known Solomon since childhood and had been well acquainted with his entire family. As they grew older, however, their lives diverged.


According to Edith Hay Wyckoff, author of The Biography of an American Family, a multigenerational history of the white Northup family, Henry Bliss Northup left home in 1821 at the age of 16 in search of adventure. To the displeasure of his family, he first journeyed to New York City, then to Rhode Island, where he hoped to board a whaler. Instead, an in-law got him assigned to a schooner sailing for the West Indies. After a few months at sea, Henry was ready for college. According to Middlebury College records, he studied at North Granville Academy in preparation for matriculating at Middlebury in 1825, where his older cousin, Carr, studied between 1813 and 1815.

Middlebury records indicate that Henry Bliss undertook a standard classical course of study throughout his four years: Latin and Greek, chemistry and natural history, mathematics and natural philosophy, trigonometry and geography, natural theology and astronomy, law and philosophy, and rhetoric and English literature. During those four years, he lived in the building known as the “West College,” later renamed Painter Hall. Each quarter, his family paid $5 for tuition, $1.50 for his room, and $1.50 for incidentals, for a grand total of $32 per year—an affordable price for a freehold farm family, considering that in 1825, the average farm laborer in New York earned about $120 a year while the average skilled mechanic earned over $350 per year. Henry was a diligent student, but not one above pulling pranks; during his sophomore year, the College informed Henry’s parents that the report of his involvement in a duel on campus was simply a rumor, nothing more than “a matter of sport.”

Henry and his 23 freshmen classmates constituted one-quarter of the total student body. However, four years later, only 18 of his classmates graduated, each of whom gave a speech at Commencement on August 19, 1829. During the afternoon portion of the program, Henry gave the second oration, in Latin: “Influence of Association on Love of Country.” No extant copy of his speech exists. However, one might infer from the title—and from his anti-Freemasonry political leanings—that Henry may have called for a renewed “republican virtue”; that is, for Americans to show love of country above party and fraternal organizations. One year after graduating from Middlebury, Henry, now president of an anti-Mason organization in Washington County, New York, penned a “Proceedings of a Convention of Young Men, of the County of Washington, Opposed to the Masonic Institution,” in which he calls for the eradication of Freemasonry. His essay, critical of the recent murder of Mason William Morgan for publishing the secret inner workings of the organization, demands that Americans rescue “freedom of conscience and liberty of thought and speech” from the Masonic “Party,” which he labels a “Regency.” He rails against local Freemason groups that claimed to be the inheritors of the moribund Republican Party, which Henry hails as the party “consecrated to purity of principle and incorruptible integrity . . . the party of the people; the party of honest men . . . [who] detest hypocrisy and delusion.” This essay represents the foundation of Henry Bliss’s political and moral beliefs: distaste for corruption and abuse and a love of individual freedom and personal liberty.

After graduating from Middlebury College, Henry B., as he began to call himself, moved to Kingsbury, New York, then to Sandy Hill, where he practiced law for over fifty years. He also developed a taste for politics. In 1837, he was elected clerk of the board of supervisors in Washington County, New York, a position he held for the next six years, and one that required great organizational skills. In 1838, Middlebury awarded him a Master of Arts degree. Between 1847 and 1850, Henry B. served as district attorney for Washington County. In 1852, he campaigned for the United States Senate. Henry B. also served one term as a member of the New York Assembly in the mid-1850s. His ambitions meshed well with his talents.

Along with valuing his political and legal careers, Henry B. prized family. On December 10, 1831, he married Electa Taylor of nearby Granville. The Taylors and the Northups created a tight-knit extended family: Electa’s older sister, Ruth Taylor, married Henry B.’s older brother, Nicholas Carr, of Sandy Hill.

Henry B. and Electa enjoyed a long and happy marriage of 46 years. Together, they raised seven children, six of whom survived to adulthood.


In June 1841, Henry B. received a curious letter informing him that his fictive kin, Solomon Northup, had been kidnapped, was held in bondage, and was on a boat headed toward he knew not where. Henry B. could do little with such vague information. In fact, New York Governor William Seward refused to deputize Henry as a rescue agent for the state of New York, even though the state’s legislature had granted governors of the state this new power. The 1840 “act more effectively to protect the free citizens of this State from being kidnapped, or reduced to Slavery” grew out of a dispute with Virginia over returning fugitive slaves. Seward insisted that fugitive slaves were entitled to a trial instead of summary return South. The governor of Virginia demanded that Seward uphold Article IV,  Section 2, of the Constitution: “No person held to Service or Labour in one State, under the Laws thereof, escaping [to] another, shall, in Consequence of any Law or Regulation therein, be discharged from such Service or Labour, but shall be delivered up on Claim of the Party to whom such Service or Labour may be due.”

Seward refused to recognize this argument, and furthermore insisted on New York’s right to return to the state “any free citizen . . . of this State . . . kidnapped or transported away, into any other State or Territory . . . for the purpose of being there held in slavery.” The kidnapping and selling of free blacks into slavery, which historians today call the “reverse underground railroad,” was a fairly widespread practice in the 1830s and 1840s, especially in Northern states that bordered slaveholding states, in Northern cities, and even in the nation’s capital, where the lack of freedom papers led regularly to the enslavement of free blacks. (On his journey south in 1841, Solomon met two such men—Robert from Cincinnati and Arthur from Norfolk—who became victims of the reverse underground railroad.)

Eleven years later, in early September 1852, during the height of his campaign for the United States Senate, Henry B. received another letter, this one addressed to Cephus Parker, the dry-goods store owner depicted in the film Twelve Years a Slave. Parker and William Perry, another store owner in Saratoga Springs, quickly passed the letter to Solomon’s wife, Anne, who in turn journeyed to the neighboring village of Sandy Hill to place the correspondence in Henry B.’s hands. This letter, written by Samuel Bass, the Canadian-born antislavery itinerant carpenter who had befriended Solomon on the Epps plantation, explained exactly where Solomon could be found in Louisiana. But Henry B. was too busy campaigning for the Senate to act on this information. Solomon would have to wait until after the election. 


In Fort Edward, New York, on Christmas Day 1828, 21-year-old Solomon Northup married Anne Hampton, a biracial woman from Sandy Hill. They raised three children, and throughout their marriage Anne worked as a domestic in private homes and as a cook in hotels and taverns. Solomon labored at several trades, including repairing the newly opened Champlain Canal; rafting lumber from Lake Champlain to Troy, New York; farming; and playing the fiddle.

In 1834, Solomon and Anne moved to the summer resort village of Saratoga Springs, where Anne’s reputation as an outstanding cook grew. In addition to playing his violin, Solomon worked as a hack driver and perhaps as a waiter. Some evidence suggests that Solomon, described by one acquaintance as a “wandering fellow,” may have traveled far and wide—perhaps as far south as the slave states—in search of work.

In March 1841, two white men, who gave their names as Merrill Brown and Abram Hamilton—but whose actual names were Alexander Merrill and Joseph Russell—introduced themselves to Solomon as performers in a circus in Washington, D.C. They invited Solomon to accompany them to New York City, promising him $1 a day for driving their team and easy money for playing his fiddle before audiences at night. Against the advice of several skeptical friends, Solomon accepted their offer. Once in New York, Solomon’s escorts secured “freedom papers” for him and convinced him to continue with them to the nation’s capital.

Arriving in Washington, D.C., rather than going directly to the alleged circus, the three men explored the city. They witnessed the funeral procession of the late President William Henry Harrison, viewed the Capitol and the White House, and during one afternoon and evening, engaged in one of Solomon’s reported pastimes: drinking. They hopped from tavern to tavern until Solomon passed out. When he awoke, Solomon found himself without money and without his freedom papers, fettered in a slave pen, awaiting transport to Louisiana.

By far, Solomon’s cruelest “master” throughout his 12-year ordeal was Edwin Epps, well known in the region as a brutal breaker of slaves. Solomon could not let on to Epps that he was literate, nor reveal that he was freeborn. When he told his prisoners in D.C. that he was a freeman, they beat him severely and cautioned him to never utter that claim again. To declare his free status to Epps would have surely meant Solomon’s quick death, which would have eliminated conveniently any evidence that Epps had engaged in illegal human trafficking. Instead, Solomon witnessed and endured unimaginable brutality for more than a decade.

In November 1852, Henry B., campaigning as a conservative Whig, lost a close election for the Senate to a former Free-Soiler opponent, who ran as a Democrat. One might speculate on why Henry B. delayed rescuing Solomon: fear that making public his connections to Solomon would cost him the election; or perhaps calculating that if he won, he could exercise greater authority in rescuing his childhood friend. Regardless, within a few days of losing the election, Henry B. collected affidavits from members of Solomon’s family and friends, to which he added his own letter of surety. This time, with sufficient, convincing evidence documenting Solomon’s whereabouts, New York Governor Washington Hunt deputized Henry B. with the necessary authority to bring Solomon home.

Understanding that liberating Solomon would not be easy, Henry B. armed himself with as much authoritative weight as possible. First, he paid a visit to Associate Supreme Court Justice Samuel Nelson in Washington, D.C. The two men had much in common: both men had roots in Hebron, New York; attended North Granville Academy and Middlebury College (Justice Nelson graduated in 1813); and both practiced law. However, the two men disagreed politically: Justice Nelson, a Democrat, supported the legality of slavery; Henry B., a Whig, probably detested the immorality of slavery. Nevertheless, Justice Nelson gave Henry B. a letter of introduction.

Before reaching the Epps plantation on January 3, 1853, Henry B. stopped in Marksville, Louisiana, where Bass had posted his letters, to hire a lawyer, to interview Bass, and to have legal papers drawn up that would authorize Henry B. and the local sheriff to remove Solomon from the Epps farm.

At the plantation, they presented Epps with the irrefutable evidence that the man whom Epps believed was Platt was in fact Solomon Northup. According to Solomon, Epps spewed that if he had known of their coming, he would have run him “into the swamps . . . where all the sheriffs on earth” would not have found him.


On their return trip to New York, Henry B. and Solomon stopped in Washington, D.C., to try to bring Solomon’s slave trader, James H. Birch, to justice. Because Solomon could not testify against a white man in that city, Judge Morsell found in Birch’s favor. An article in the January 20, 1853, issue of the New York Times noted this injustice: “The evidence of this colored man was absolutely necessary to prove some facts on the part of the prosecution, as he alone was cognizant of them.” Birch then filed a countersuit against Solomon, alleging that he had colluded with Merrill and Russell to defraud him. When Henry B. offered to speak for Solomon, Birch dropped his suit.

Back in Saratoga Springs, Henry B., Solomon, and David Wilson, a local lawyer, collaborated in writing his memoir, a task they completed in three months. Their goals were several: to publicize Solomon’s tragic story; to help Solomon back on his feet so that he could pay off a number of debts (he sold the copyright to his memoir for $3,000); and to get the word out about his local kidnappers. Meanwhile, Solomon found himself busy as a speaker on the abolitionist circuit. In addition, he performed in two stage plays based on his memoir in New York and Massachusetts, to little acclaim. All the while, local newspapers ran stories continually about Solomon’s ordeal.

By the time the memoir was published in July 1853, Henry B. had spent a considerable amount of time and money to apprehend Solomon’s kidnappers. Virtually upon publication, the authorities apprehended Alexander Merrill in Wood Hollow near Gloversville, New York. Merrill, described as a “desperate fellow” who slept with a Bowie knife and a pair of pistols on the floor, was a known kidnapper. They also apprehended Joseph Russell, his accomplice, on a canal boat. The case against these two men went to trial at the county court in August 1854. However, due to some clever maneuvering by the two men’s defense attorneys to get the charges of kidnapping in New York dismissed, and through a series of appeals to the State Supreme Court and to the Court of Appeals, which necessarily created delays and ultimately threw the case back to the county court, the case grew stale and cold. The charges against the two kidnappers were dismissed in May 1857. 

After 1857, Solomon disappears from the historical record, save for a few tantalizing bits of evidence suggesting that he lived for a time in Vermont and Canada. Some of his friends speculated that Solomon had been kidnapped again, or even murdered. No grave of Solomon Northup has ever been found.

Although Henry Bliss Northup could not achieve complete justice for Solomon, the effort he gave in pursuing legal redress demonstrates his moral commitment to liberty, justice, and virtue. Henry B. and his wife, Electa, lived out the rest of their lives quietly in Sandy Hill, raising their orphaned granddaughter, Edith. Henry B. died there in 1877, Electa in 1882. Throughout his life, a strong moral compass guided Henry B.’s thoughts and actions, perhaps expressed best in a passage in his 1830 anti-Masonic essay: “The judgement of one honest man is the judgement of another; and nothing is required to ensure our triumph, but free discussion and the diffusion of information. In the diligent use of these honorable means, we shall assuredly prevail.”

In 2014, descendants of the Northups donated portraits of Henry Bliss Northup and his wife, Electa, to Middlebury’s Museum of Art. The paintings have been painstakingly restored and are now part of the museum’s permanent collection.

How He Won

Political scientist Matt Dickinson intended to spend his sabbatical writing the definitive work on the Obama White House staff. Instead, his leave year was dedicated to chronicling one of the most improbable candidacies for the American presidency.

should be clear right up front: I didn’t immediately scrap my sabbatical plans on that June 16 morning in 2015 when Donald J. Trump declared his candidacy for the presidency of the United States. That morning in Trump Tower, when he rode the down escalator to a flag-draped stage, Neil Young’s “Rockin’ in the Free World” reverberating around the atrium, I was as skeptical as anyone that this would be a “real” candidacy.

Instead, as I listened to Trump’s rambling justification for running (“We don’t have victories anymore”) interspersed with an equal mix of outlandish policy promises (“I will be the greatest jobs president that God ever created”) and crude attacks on ethnic groups like Mexican immigrants (“They are bringing drugs, they are bringing crime, they’re rapists”) my immediate concern was to extract the maximum entertainment value from his short-lived candidacy before its inevitable implosion.

Toward that end, I sat down after his announcement and wrote a fiendishly clever (to my mind) satirical piece on my Presidential Power blog explaining why I would break my long-standing policy of not voting in presidential elections so that I could support “The Donald.” After lauding, tongue firmly in cheek, his many stellar qualities—“He’s rich!”—I ended my piece by telling Trump, “You’re hired!”—a not-so-subtle play on his signature tagline from Celebrity Apprentice. And then I waited, smugly, for his political comeuppance. Instead, the comeuppance was mine. During the next six months—a period dubbed by political scientists “the invisible primary” because it tends to weed out weaker candidates—Trump continued issuing vague policy promises while insulting anyone who dared to oppose him, including war heroes, journalists, and media anchors, and, not least, his major political rivals, each of whom he tagged with a demeaning sobriquet: “Low-Energy Jeb” Bush, “Lying Ted” Cruz, and “Little Marco” Rubio. Remarkably, even as an increasingly worried Republican Party establishment began belatedly mobilizing against him, and pundits like Nate Silver continued to predict his imminent demise, Trump’s candidacy did not collapse. Instead, he quickly rose to the top of the public opinion polls and stayed there, despite raising and spending comparatively little money, running few ads, and generally seeming to defy what political scientists thought they understood about how to win a major party nomination.

By the end of 2015, Trump was up 20 points over Cruz, his nearest rival based on the aggregate polls. Most of his other opponents—several had already dropped out—were even further behind and polling only in single digits. How was Trump doing it? Belatedly, I decided to find out. With my wife, Alison (she took notes while I live-tweeted events), I had already begun attending candidate rallies in neighboring New Hampshire, home to the crucial first-in-the-nation primary and thus a magnet for all the presidential hopefuls. These were typically intimate, low-key events of perhaps 50–75 people, held at restaurants, schools, and Elks clubs, in which candidates provided brief statements mapping out their major policy positions, fielded some questions, and concluded by asking for people’s support.

Then, in January 2016, about a month before the New Hampshire primary, I attended my first Trump rally, at a high school in Claremont, New Hampshire. I soon realized I had committed the social scientist’s cardinal sin: opining on a topic I had never really studied, never mind understood. On the night of the rally, Alison and I arrived early, only to find a half-mile-long line to get into the high school gymnasium. The night was bitterly cold—the temperature hovering in the lower 20s—and many of those around us, particularly the high school students, were lightly dressed, so we expected some attrition. Instead, in the more than an hour that it took us to get inside, we saw not a single person leave the line. People passed the time buying the ubiquitous Trump campaign paraphernalia—buttons, hats and T-shirts—talking with a small, friendly group of protestors, and trying to stay warm. When we finally passed through the metal detectors at the building’s entrance, we discovered a packed gymnasium of more than 1,000 people. His was by far the largest campaign audience we had seen to date, save for a Bernie Sanders rally in Lebanon, New Hampshire. The crowd appeared to be a demographic cross-section of New Hampshire voters. Of course, it was hard to discern who the solid Trump supporters were, who might still be undecided, and who came just for the experience. But whatever their leanings, they were in a festive mood.

And then Trump hit the stage. In my blog post, published a couple of days later, I tried to capture the essence of my first Trump campaign speech: “Trump finally took the stage, entering while Twisted Sister’s ‘We’re Not Gonna Take It’ blared from the speakers, almost an hour after the scheduled start time. After referencing the size of the crowd—‘There’s a lot of people still outside . . . should we wait for them? No!’—he immediately launched into a discussion of the latest Reuters poll, which had him leading the race with 42 percent, with Ted Cruz second at 14 percent. He then proceeded to work his way through a series of poll results, all of which showed him ahead of his Republican rivals. ‘And we’re winning big in a place called New Hampshire!’ he exclaimed, to loud cheers. After doing a state-by-state rundown of the polls, he noted, ‘People always ask, “Why do you talk so much about the polls?” Because I’m winning! Believe me, if I’m not winning I don’t talk about ’em.’ He took pains to point out that he was leading among Hispanics in Nevada. Later he would add evangelicals and the Tea Party to his list of supporters—‘I’m winning with everything . . . I’m winning with the smart people. I’m winning with the not-so-smart people too!’”

And, in fact, Trump was winning—and would continue to do so when the actual voting began. After finishing second to Cruz in the Iowa caucuses—a strong performance by Trump in a caucus state where social conservatives dominate the Republican vote—he began methodically racking up victories and clearing the Republican field, beginning with his blowout win in New Hampshire a week later. Ten days after his New Hampshire victory, when the remaining Republican candidates moved south to the more racially diverse state of South Carolina, Alison and I followed. On our arrival we experienced a welcome dose of Southern hospitality when the locals pulled our rental truck from the ditch I had driven it into late at night trying to find our hotel. The next morning, after attending a Cruz rally, we returned to our hotel to find armed security blocking the entrance. It turned out the Trump entourage had moved in to our hotel the previous night, and he and his staff were now preparing to leave to get to his rally. (Later that day we asked the hotel manager what Trump was like. He effusively praised Trump as the most genial of guests.) We hurried ahead to the rally, and once again found ourselves in the midst of a campaign experience like no other.

The next day Trump scored a 10-point victory, ending the candidacy of the one-time front-runner Jeb Bush. On my Presidential Power site I took another stab at explaining Trump’s growing support: “If you want to know why Donald Trump won in South Carolina tonight, you need only have attended his rally yesterday at the Myrtle Beach Civic Center. . . . Inside, Elton John’s ‘Rocket Man’ blared so loud the floor shook. There was an air of expectation as the large crowd waited for The Donald to arrive. The floor of the Civic Center was packed—I estimated maybe 5,000 people pressing forward to the stage, trying to get a closer glimpse of the candidate. . . . As is typical for a Trump crowd, there was a healthy cross-section of demographic groups, but there was a definite segment of what appeared to be the working-class voter; for example, a group of bikers gathered next to me, with one of them wearing a leather jacket and clutching a Trump poster. . . . Trump ended [the rally] by asking the people to come out and vote for him. ‘We are going to start winning, winning, winning,’ he intoned, to rising applause. As we left the arena, people seemed in a festive mood, as if they had attended a great rock concert or sporting event. ‘You’ll remember this great meeting,’ Trump told them near the end of the speech. And he may very well be right.”

Less than 10 days later, on so-called Super Tuesday—the biggest day of the nominating race in terms of the number of delegates at stake—Trump won six more contests to cement his front-runner status. Two weeks after that we packed our bags once more, this time flying to Florida where we had intended to see whether Marco Rubio could resuscitate his flagging campaign in his home state’s March 16 primary. By the time we arrived, however, Rubio was on political life support. With our interest in him dwindling, and unable to get into any of the packed Trump rallies, we settled for a rather sedate Hillary Clinton event hosted by her husband, Bill. The next day, Trump crushed “Little Marco” by nearly 20 percent, ending Rubio’s candidacy. Although Trump’s remaining two opponents, Cruz and Ohio Governor John Kasich, hung on for another two months, the race for the Republican nomination was essentially over.

All that remained was Trump’s official coronation as the Republican standard-bearer. In late July, after attending one more Trump rally in upstate New York, Alison and I headed to Cleveland, host of the Republican National Convention, where, in my role as political blogger, I had secured media credentials. Could Trump unify the party? The talking heads on cable television thought not; they speculated endlessly about the chances for a brokered convention in which the Republican delegates would revolt against a Trump candidacy, and a white knight—Mitt Romney? Paul Ryan?—would ride in to rescue the party from certain electoral disaster. Alison and I spent much of our time staked out at a bar near the security entrance to the Quicken Loans arena, where we could watch media pundits like Chuck Todd, Wolf Blitzer, and Van Jones arrive to pontificate about the coming political bloodbath. Alas, the pundits were wrong again. After watching from the nosebleed seats high inside the arena as Trump gave a lengthy acceptance speech punctuated by frequent applause from a very supportive audience, I summarized my experience as follows: “I flew into Ohio expecting to see a very divided set of Republican delegates, and braced for major demonstrations in the streets. Neither expectation was met. In fact, despite the media’s tendency to focus attention on dissenting delegates and other controversies . . . this was a relatively tame event. Once Trump’s team, allied with the Republican Party leadership, beat back an early effort to amend the rules to allow the delegates to vote their conscience, the battle for the nomination was essentially over.”

And the battle for the general election race now began in earnest.


Trump had done the improbable in securing the nomination. Could he now do the impossible and win the presidency? Many of my colleagues thought not. They believed his appeal was limited to the Republican-leaning portion of the electorate, and that he would lose more moderate voters in the general election, and by a wide margin. Based on what Trump’s supporters were telling me at his rallies, I thought otherwise. As I wrote in my convention blog post, Trump’s message of economic populism was likely to find a broader audience: “I think his message will resonate with that portion of the electorate that has experienced years of stagnant wages, and who are worried about growing economic inequality and security issues.”

Eager to see how Trump’s candidacy would play with a general election audience, Alison and I attended one last Trump rally, in Windham, New Hampshire, during early August. Once again the event was packed, and this time we spent most of it outside, talking with Trump supporters barred by the fire marshal from entering the building. In my blog summary, I wrote: “It quickly became clear that two themes dominated the thinking of Trump supporters. The first, expressed—unprompted by me—by every person I talked to, was economic anxiety. Interestingly, that anxiety was not directed so much at their own situation but toward that of their children, or others close to them. . . . The second theme that emerged, again unprompted by me, was a deep antipathy toward Hillary Clinton. One man, in his early 40s, told me he wasn’t voting for Trump as much as he was against Clinton. Almost to a person those I talked to expressed a fundamental belief that she could not be trusted. At one point in our conversation, a woman whose daughter was having twins lowered her voice to tell me, ‘I’m a Roman Catholic and a good Christian, but I just have to say this: that woman [Hillary Clinton] is evil.’”

For much of the general election campaign, however, it appeared my colleagues might be right. Despite the political science forecast models issued in late summer that indicated the race for the popular vote would be very close, Clinton maintained a consistent lead of 2–5 percent in the national polls throughout the fall, and election forecasts by pundits like Silver using state polls gave her a very high probability of winning the Electoral College on November 8. Could the polls be wrong? In a lecture given in late October, I assured my audience that, historically, the polls were increasingly accurate as Election Day approached. If that pattern held, Clinton should win a narrow victory, I said. As it turned out, the polls were wrong. The political scientist forecast models were not. 

On Election Night my colleague Bert Johnson and I gathered in Crossroads Café to analyze the returns and provide commentary. A large crowd of perhaps several hundred expectant students had gathered. Tittering with excitement, they anticipated history being made by the election of the first woman president. That afternoon, in my final weekly politics lunch, I had laid out the progression of states based on poll closing times—first Florida, then North Carolina, and then Ohio—that Trump had to win if he were to pull off an upset. If he lost any one of them, I told my audience, Clinton would be our next president. That night, as the polls closed in the key states I had identified, beginning with Florida at 7, it gradually became clear as the votes were tallied that Trump was outperforming the polls. He had narrow leads in each of the benchmark states and, more surprisingly, he also led in states like Michigan, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin, which almost no one predicted would be in play. As Bert and I took turns explaining what we were seeing in the returns, the festive mood dissipated. Students grew increasingly hushed. One fled in tears, whispering, “I can’t take this anymore.” By 11:30 p.m., when the staff closed the café down, it was apparent that we had witnessed history in the making—but not the history most had expected. By the time I arrived home later that night, most of the key states had been called in Trump’s favor, and it was all but certain that a billionaire businessman with no political experience was going to be our next president.

How did it happen? The next morning I began my U.S. Elections class by recounting what I had seen at the Trump rallies, and how listening to his supporters for the past year provided clues to his victory. Despite the caricatures of Trump voters often presented in partisan social media outlets, I explained, the vast majority were not racist, misogynistic “deplorables.” Indeed, in my conversations, Trump supporters rejected his more inflammatory talking points. Moreover, I pointed out that, although the state polls had systematically underestimated Trump’s support, the fundamentals-based political science forecasts that predicted a closer race proved remarkably accurate. Given those fundamentals—most notably the uneven progression of the economic recovery under Obama, and the difficulty parties had in holding the White House for three consecutive terms—I reminded them that Trump’s narrow victory was not a complete surprise. Nor did it represent a break with previous elections in terms of what motivated voters. It was still largely the economy.

For the most part, my students were not yet ready to hear this. Less than 24 hours earlier they had expected a Clinton victory. Now they were grieving. Several spoke with anger about what they believed Trump’s election really meant about voters in this country. Others broke down in tears. A week later I tried again. Speaking at a College-wide post-election panel, I said, “When you survey most Americans on a gamut of issues and you compare their response in ‘red states’ vs. ‘blue states,’ you find that there’s much more that binds us together, and that we share a common set of values. It’s only the case that when you’re forced to choose between two candidates who may, themselves, be polarized, it appears we are polarized as a nation. In fact, Trump supporters and Clinton supporters agree on much more than they disagree on, and the question, again, is ‘How do you move toward that common ground?’”

How indeed? Presidential elections are inherently divisive. Candidates and their partisans spend most campaigns telling us of the high stakes involved, and the disastrous consequences should their opponent win. In the increasingly balkanized world of cable news and social media, moreover, these polarizing tendencies get magnified. I understand why Trump’s unprecedented (and unpresidentially) divisive language alarmed people, and further exacerbated partisan differences. However, having spent the better part of my sabbatical year listening to Americans explain how they would vote, and why, I am convinced that most of those who backed Trump do not share his more incendiary views. We would do well to remember that our choices of candidates are often more polarized than we are. In reassuring our students that we reject the more demeaning portions of Trump’s message, we must be careful not to demonize the great portion of voters who backed him despite, and not because of, his more hurtful words. We are, in the end, greater together.

Bye, Bye Love

Breakups are hard enough. But when the relationship was born in Middlebury, the uncoupling can be that much more difficult.

When my boyfriend of eight years broke up with me, four years after our Middlebury graduation, I went to Disney World.

It was an odd destination: I was 27, childless, generally wary of crowds. But I needed a fantasy, so I dragged along a close friend, Emily Lackey ’06, who was reeling from her own romantic upset. We sobbed as we rode the Carousel of Progress over and over again, watching the animatronic nuclear family jet into their great, big, beautiful tomorrow. When I came home, my ex had moved all of his belongings out of the apartment.

I remembered only later that my father had once referred to Middlebury as the Disney World of colleges. It was, for those of us lucky enough to fully buy in, something of a dream: a hyperreal and cloistered place, with rules and a language known only to its intimates. And much like the dream of Prince Charming, I believed I had found my epic romance. We had our first date at Taste of India; shared our first kiss at a social house party; had our first blowout argument in the basement of Davis Family Library. I imagined that on our wedding day, we’d trade Cinderella’s Castle for the more modest, but more meaningful, backdrop of Mead Chapel.

Instead, he took up with his best friend’s girlfriend, and I haven’t spoken to him in almost five years.

I wandered, dazed, around the first campus wedding I attended post-breakup, thinking, This was supposed to be mine. This was all supposed to be mine. I would flip to the Class Acts section of the magazine and feel what I can most closely identify as rage. Breakups are, at the best of times, an amicable division of assets, friends, memories. At worst, they are a wrenching apart of some fundamental truth you believed about yourself and the world at large: this is who I am, and this is how I locate myself, and this is the story I tell about my life. Every romance has an element of mythmaking, but Middlebury romances seem particularly susceptible. I was a Midd Kid; I would marry another Midd Kid; together we would raise our children as Midd Kids. It was an identity forged in those moments of young adulthood in which so much is both laid bare and made clear, and it seemed as real, as immovable, as portended, as anything else I knew to be true about myself. Saying good-bye to that identity was almost as difficult—and in moments, more so—as saying good-bye to him.


Like so many others at Middlebury, I first heard the statistic on my college tour: “You know, something like 60 percent of Middlebury students marry other Middlebury students!” said my tour guide, chipper and promising, guileless. Recent examinations of Middlebury love stories have focused on the proliferation of “hookup culture”—in her summer 2015 story “Modern Love,” Leah Fessler ’15 painted a heady, promiscuous world in which roughly 81 percent of students participated in “noncommittal sexual engagements”—but that Middlebury feels radically different than mine (kids these days!), and bears no relationship to Middlebury’s “marriage” mythology.

Even the New York Times weighed in on the myth, in a 1992 piece entitled “Marriage Talk as an Intramural Sport.” “More Middlebury alumni marry each other than do graduates of any other college, former students recall being told by at least two college presidents at freshman orientation,” they wrote. “Some graduates remember hearing a different, more dramatic version: ‘Look to your left, look to your right: Two out of three of you will marry a Middlebury graduate.’”

Let’s correct this notion right away: According to Kim Ehritt, Middlebury’s director of constituent records, the real figure is closer to 16 percent. “That marriage stat is one I’ve tried to debunk so many times over the past 30-plus years,” she writes, claiming she gets asked about the myth every few years by press or an overzealous econ student. “Looking at individual classes, the highest percentage falls in the 25–28 percent range. There’s a jump in the post-WWII/Korean War classes, when many of the men on campus were older veterans. There’s another spike in the classes of the late 1960s (I think in part due to second marriages).”

It’s a salve to my wound: in failing to secure a Middlebury spouse, at least I’m still in the majority. But why does the myth refuse to die?

For starters, Middlebury couples are absurdly strong ambassadors for their kind. A quick glance at the most recent issues of Middlebury Magazine reveals nearly half of the couples captured in the wedding roundup consist of two Midd alums. And the Midd couples I know—and I know many—have built stable, warm unions, and are almost innocent in their views on relationships and romance, having never passed a night at the bar wearily swiping left, left, left.

One half of one such couple, Julia Proctor ’06.5, also remembers hearing the Midd marriage stat during her campus tour. Still, she says, she was under no illusions that she’d meet her husband at college. When Phil Aroneanu ’06.5 asked her to dance at their Feb orientation (“He wasn’t very good”), she didn’t imagine that 10 years later they’d wed on top of a mountain in Maine, surrounded by a host of Midd classmates and friends.

They moved to Burlington after college before relocating to Washington, D.C., and finally New York City, always surrounded by a strong Middlebury contingent. As Phil was one of the founders of 350.org (two of the other founders were a Middlebury couple, since separated), their relationship was, in many ways, an extension of college; as such, Middlebury has played and continues to play a large role in their lives. They can easily rattle off a dozen other Middlebury couples they’d still consider good friends. They’ve held these connections tightly and are now part of a network whose bonds and connections have only deepened since college.

“We love Vermont and think about moving back all the time,” says Phil.

“And our friend groups,” Julia adds, “are still largely Midd Kids.”

“And our professors,” says Phil. “We’re still connected to them.”

“If I compare my summer camp experience with Middlebury, which were both such formative experiences,” says Julia, “I have camp as my own thing, which Phil doesn’t really understand, and I can see how different that is to our connection to Middlebury.”


Of my Middlebury friends who are married, the majority are married to other Middlebury students: if it’s not something in the water that created and cemented these relationships, maybe it’s an issue of timing. These couples knew and loved each other in college; the rest of us are still catching up. One of the starkest reminders of this in my post-breakup life was simply that it was very, very difficult to find someone who shared even a modicum of my interests, curiosities, or passions. In the years after my breakup, I floated—hopeful, alert— through many alumni events. I was willing to toss most of my dating criteria out the window. “Let him just be from Middlebury,” I’d think.

In its geographic isolation, too, Middlebury enforces a sense of solidarity that makes it hard to imagine life without the long lunches in Proctor lounge, the icy trek to Bi Hall in the frigid cold. To fully invest in that world is to forget that anything exists outside of it. It becomes, then, all too easy to roll the carpet of that fantasy further into the future, to the wedding at Mead, the homecomings, the babies in Panther onesies.

For the children of Middlebury couples, that reality is even more potent. In fact, Ehritt speculates that one of the reasons the myth persists is that as older alumni (who heard the statistic from former President Olin Robison, the apparent original mythmaker) graduate, marry, and have children, they pass the romance of their origin story on to their kids. Sarah Little Turner ’06 is the daughter of two Middlebury alumni, Greg ’76 and Ann Downey Little ’77. She entered college under the specter of her parents’ relationship.

“It’s not that there was pressure, but I think, in my 18-year-old brain, there was an expectation or a hope it would happen,” she says. “Before arriving at Midd, it was like, There are all these incredible men who are the perfect match for me, and how will I ever pick one?” That particular fantasy, she said, was crushed not long after she arrived. “But, you know, this is still reality.”

Mine is not, of course, the only Middlebury relationship that ended. Rachel Dunlap ’06 met Lucas Kavner ’06.5 their first shared semester. They became close, and started dating senior year. After graduation, they moved to New York City and took the relationship—and college—with them.

When they did break up, the loss of the relationship was deepened by the perceived loss of Middlebury. “On top of dealing with the regular loss of a breakup, you’re mourning the loss of having that shared experience, all those common friends, and you lose that Middlebury story of having met your partner at Middlebury, becoming a Middlebury family,” Rachel says.

Like me, she subsequently struggled with dating. “When you leave the Midd bubble, you realize how special everyone there is. It’s hard to find that in the real world.” Thankfully, she’s now in a new relationship, and still close to her ex. “I appreciate our friendship even more because it connects me back to all those memories.”  

By sheer numbers, more Middlebury students will break up than marry. Yet somehow, it still feels jarring. Says Phil Aroneanu, “We know a Middlebury couple that got divorced. They were together for all of college, then got married in Vermont, and they were such the epitome of a Middlebury couple.”

“That shattered me,” echoes Julia. “I think we expect those relationships to last—maybe that’s part of the mystique. You see Middlebury couples as these healthy relationships between two strong individuals who know what they want.”

And that, of course, is part of the problem. The Middlebury myth allows us to craft a narrative around the perfect love story. It’s a narrative that—at least in my case—gives us license to mask other issues. As Rachel says: “I think it’s possible that our Middlebury community and closeness might have kept me and Lucas together longer than we would have been otherwise.” It’s comforting, in other words, to stay in the bubble, to resist, if only for a little longer, joining the real world.

Which is not to say that all Middlebury couples inhabit that idyll. Middlebury’s problematic lack of diversity can make romance (among many other facets) difficult. Emiko and Mateal Lovaas Ishihara, both Class of 2006.5, met in passing their first semester; by a stroke of luck, they ended up the only two people in a six-person suite in Ross. “We’ve basically lived together since we were 19,” says Emiko. They became close friends, but didn’t start dating until after college. Neither felt entirely at home at Midd.

“My personal experience was more negative than most,” Emiko says. “I was soul searching. Middlebury can be such an awesome experience, but it wasn’t that for me.” For her part, Mateal cherished the quintessential experiences—cheering on the quidditch team, lunching at the language tables—but ultimately found herself constrained and frustrated. While they’re grateful for the shared memories of their formative years, it was only after they graduated and married that they really came to treasure Middlebury.

“Middlebury had and still has such a small LGBTQ community, and that’s why I think our relationship was meant to be,” says Emiko. They took their infant daughter, Rumi, back to Middlebury this summer. “We took photos in front of Old Chapel,” says Emiko. “It was kind of a pilgrimage, to go back. It was a closed circle, in a way, because that’s how we met. We kept saying to her, ‘This is where you were made!’”


It was through all these conversations that I realized something about what I was really mourning: what I yearned for most was being able to think about Middlebury with unbridled joy. Much as other parting couples suffer the loss of a favorite restaurant, or hear a beloved song turn wrong, I had lost access to Middlebury as sanctuary. I can see now how much of my relationship functioned as a way to prop up that identity, to give me grounding when I lost it: to remind me that I came from a place that was meaningful. That I had a home.

And so for all of that, there is a part of me that wants the myth to continue. College is a time to believe in big things: big dreams, big goals, big change. The myth wanted us to believe in love, and so we did; after all, it was easy to believe at Middlebury, where the aurora borealis once licked the wide sky an eerie green and gold the winter of my sophomore year. Anything was possible, we were told, and so I believed it was possible I’d met my soul mate over warm beer in a dorm room on the third floor of Stewart Hall my second week of college. I think—I know—that I stayed with him longer than I might have if I couldn’t remember the way he looked striding across the lawn in front of Twilight to meet me after class.

In my new partnership—one in which I feel more deeply understood, supported, and cared for than ever before—we are starting from scratch. We have 30-plus years of experiences to unfold for each other. I am ever trying and failing to describe to him the deep, sensory memory of walking back to my dorm from rehearsal late at night across Battell Beach, the profound quiet draping campus, the sharp bite of my boots on snow.

It’s difficult, and exciting, and endless, and someday I will take him to the place I love so much, and try to help him see it through my eyes.