A great profile accomplishes the nearly impossible by making you feel like you truly know someone you’ve never met. It’s a feat of empathy and insight, the kind of alchemy that turns reporting into rapport. The five examples here span all manner of tone and subject, from victims of gun violence to digital charlatans, but they share one very important trait: They lodged in our editors’ minds long after the reading was done.
John Woodrow Cox | The Washington Post | October 24, 2022 | 8,582 words
“It had been 100 days since Caitlyne hid in a classroom, listening to a stranger slaughter 19 fourth-graders and two teachers across the hallway at Robb Elementary,” writes John Woodrow Cox. “Caitlyne knew them all.” I revisited Cox’s profile of 10-year-old Caitlyne Gonzales, one of the survivors of the school shooting in Uvalde, on a week when I was touring public elementary schools, since my 4-year-old will be entering kindergarten next fall. As I visited classrooms, I pictured my daughter sitting on a rug, listening to the teacher reading a book; I imagined her coloring at her desk. My eyes well up as I read details about Caitlyne and her classmates’ lives: the things they like, the things they do. Watching TikToks, doing cartwheels. The things that 10-year-olds are supposed to do. Cox does what he does best: He immerses us in Caitlyne’s day-to-day life and, with care and respect, tells an incredibly moving, human story of loss and resilience. So much of this story hurts to read, particularly lines that reveal the impossible reality and trauma our children face in a country that values guns over their lives. Caitlyne shouldn’t have to wear a lanyard with the photos of her dead friends. She shouldn’t know more about ballistic windows and bulletproof backpacks before knowing how to ride a bike without training wheels. She shouldn’t have to travel to the nation’s capital to beg this country’s leadership to do something to make our schools safer. (“I’m gonna go meet Joe Byron,” she says at one point, which is at first funny, but also deeply disturbing.) Caitlyne should be playing, learning — not fighting for action and accountability. It has now been 212 days since the Robb Elementary School shooting. This is just a reminder so we don’t forget. —Cheri Lucas Rowlands
John Woodrow Cox recommends a profile from a WaPo co-worker:
“The Remarkable Brain of a Carpet Cleaner Who Speaks 24 Languages” by Jessica Contrera for The Washington Post: My colleague Jessica Contrera’s story on a carpet cleaner who speaks 24 languages was such a delight. Many reporters would’ve seen it as an 800-word feature, but Jess went so much deeper, revealing the complex person behind the extraordinary talent. It never feels saccharine or belonging in the genre of manufactured, feel-good stories that make us cringe. The profile was often painful and poignant — moments that made the joyous ones feel earned.
Christian Wallace | Texas Monthly | May 11, 2022 | 6,127 words
I am fascinated by vital elders. I want to be a vital elder. So when I see fascinating profiles of “old” folks kicking proverbial butt, I am there for it. Boots O’Neal was 89 at the time Christian Wallace wrote this fun, deeply reported profile of a cowboy who just loves to go to work every day, decades after many would have hung up their spurs to sit on the porch full-time and tell tall tales. Boots has a roundup of stories, that’s for sure. But by getting up before first light, riding a horse, and moving ornery bulls for a living at the end of his ninth decade, he is also the story. Wallace does a masterful job, not just in painting a portrait of Boots’ working life, but into capturing precisely what drives Boots to do the job he’s loved for the past seven decades: “’There’s not very many people in the world who love their job,’ Boots and Nelda’s daughter, Lauri Colbert, told me later. ‘I mean, people might like their job, they might tolerate it, but he loves it. When they give him the weekend off, he’s kind of mad about it.’” This devotion to his craft, coupled with the deep knowledge of ranching he’s accumulated over a stunningly long career — possibly longer than any cowpuncher alive — has propelled Boots to a level of fame practically unheard of for a working cowboy. —Krista Stevens
Christian Wallace recommends:
“‘She Made Us Happy’: The All-Star Dreams of Uvalde’s Biggest José Altuve Fan” by Roberto José Andrade Franco for ESPN: It’s been difficult to even read stories about Uvalde, so I can’t imagine how painful this piece was to write. Roberto’s profile of 10-year-old Tess Mata is an incredible tribute to a young life taken too soon. It’s also more than that. By exploring historical events that shaped this part of South Texas and the American West, Roberto helps us — not make sense — but contextualize the racism and violence that continue to shape and shatter our lives.
I’ll never forget Tess — or this story.
Kerry Howley | New York Magazine | May 9, 2022 | 7,800 words
I knew as soon as I read this piece in May that I would pick it for Longreads’ Best of 2022. Not because the subject, Marjorie Dannenfelser, is from my hometown, went to the same university I did, and got married in the Catholic church attached to my middle school. All that made me feel eerily close to the piece, sure, but what makes Kerry Howley’s work worthy of inclusion here is that she uses a magazine profile as a vehicle for challenging the tropes and omissions, the lies and distortions of America’s anti-abortion movement. “If we are by now accustomed to discussing ulterior motives and the well-documented history of legislators using abortion rhetoric to consolidate the right,” Howley notes, “we speak less of how the rhetoric works: by triggering in its subjects a stomach-churning horror.” And: “Almost all social movements work to erase context contrary to the cause. In this case, the context is a woman.” Howley shows how Dannenfelser, a powerful, single-minded activist, orchestrated a generation’s worth of horror and erasure, leading directly to the overturning of Roe v. Wade. —Seyward Darby
Sean Williams | Outside | September 20, 2022 | 6,616 words
There is something primal about skipping stones. See some rocks near a body of water and I’ll bet you chuck one across it, as millions have done before you, all the way back to competitions in Ancient Greece. The subject of this profile, Kurt Steiner, has tapped into this deeply embedded part of our psyche. Stone skipping, he says, has an “undeveloped natural purity, a refuge against the consumerist, plutocratic, kleptocratic, f*cking destroy-and-build-up-everything mentality.” In this beautiful piece, Sean Williams attempts to find out more about Steiner and this ancient sport. It was not an easy quest: Kurt lives in a cabin with no central heating or shower, craps in a bucket, and goes weeks without cell or internet coverage. It took Williams a year to reach Steiner via email, two years to set a time to meet him, and an intense few minutes to persuade U.S. border guards he was entering the country to interview a stone skipper. It was worth it. Williams immerses himself in Steiner’s world, spending days with him, skipping stones until his elbow throbs, talking for 12 hours at a time. He discovers a fascinating character for whom stone skipping is a respite from mental illnesses, love, and loss. The time invested in getting to know Steiner is apparent in every word. A respectful, thoughtful look at someone who has found a way to step out of society as we know it — and produced some record-breaking throws to boot. —Carolyn Wells
Sean Williams‘ favorite lede of 2022:
“Deep in Guyana’s Jungle, Just Upriver from a Thundering Waterfall, My Boat Began to Sink . . .” by Jamie Lafferty for The Financial Times
This was going to be a story about trekking in the western reaches of Guyana, about beautiful waterfalls and indigenous people living in an area where the border with Venezuela is a mushy and unimportant thing. Then I found myself travelling with a pair of influencers, so instead it was going to be about what it’s like to witness, up close, the rise of their industry and the death of mine. It was going to be about content and clicks and why any of that matters in a place with no electricity, let alone WiFi.
But then something weird happened, and we all almost died together, so now it’s really a story about that.
Madeleine Aggeler | GQ | May 5, 2022 | 3,054 words
What was the year of the scammer? Was it 2016, when a scammer became president of the United States? 2018, when the Anna Delvey saga became known? 2019, when twin documentaries about the Fyre Fest fiasco landed on competing streaming platforms? Or has it truly been 2022, when a man named Brian Johnson amassed a following of millions on TikTok and Instagram by selling supplements and espousing an “ancestral lifestyle” that includes eating a pound of raw beef liver a day — only to be brought low in December after his staggering (and obvious) steroid habit was revealed? It’s a trick question: Thanks to the attention economy, every year is the year of the scammer! But at least 2022 brought us Madeleine Aggeler’s treat of a profile of Johnson, a man who hasn’t seen a shirt or a parenting manual in years. (I’m not saying that boxing lessons in the living room is bad parenting; I’m saying that calling them “Savage Liver Boys” and filming them eating organ meats is maybe worth a think.) Be clear: This is not a history-bending profile. It is, however, a wildly entertaining one. And more importantly, it’s a valuable reminder that social media isn’t a dumpster fire just because Elon Musk bought Twitter; it’s a dumpster fire because the only thing it rewards is extremity. We’ll see if that’s changed by the end of 2023, the year of the scammer. —Peter Rubin
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