In the infamous Metropolitan Detention Center in Brooklyn, Ghislaine Maxwell is under constant camera and live surveillance. Her small cell contains a bunk and a steel lavatory. It has no windows. The drinking water is allegedly brown; the food so harshly microwaved as to be almost inedible. She is – this by now is common knowledge – charged with enticement of minors and sex trafficking, on behalf of Jeffrey Epstein. The victims have been interviewed in documentaries and on the news. Hearing their chilling testimony, it’s easy to forget that Maxwell’s charges have not yet been tested in court – legally, she is still innocent.Well over 90 per cent (some say 97 per cent) of American trials are settled in plea bargains before going to court. Punitive pretrial detention and the prospect of very long sentences put pressure on suspects to enter pleas, admitting some aspects of a crime while withholding others, and sometimes naming names. Maxwell’s potential list of names would be media gold, of course, but it would also be of enormous value to prosecutors and politicians eager to show – against all evidence to the contrary – that everyone is equal before the law.
We commissioned the writer Chris Dennis, who knows the inside of American prisons, to write about Maxwell for this issue of Granta. His essay is a thoughtful meditation on incarceration, and on sexual predation. Dennis had had many sexual encounters with adults by the time he ran away from home, aged fourteen. He didn’t perceive these encounters as abusive at the time – the insight that true consent is predicated on equality, and that the consent he gave was meaningless, came later. ‘I had a boundaryless teenage life,’ he writes, ‘one where I was sought out by deviant adults who pretended they wanted to care for me, while also assuring me that I was mature, that I was like them, even when I was not.’
Kaitlin Maxwell’s autobiographical photoessay ‘Soft Pink Light’, acquired by our new photography editor Max Ferguson, reveals the intimacy of three generations of women. But there is ambiguity here, too. The images – many of them self-portraits – oscillate between scenes of preparation for exposure to the external gaze and intimate introspection. The scenes are meticulously staged, and so quiet that the implied physical and existential hardship (the lives we imagine beyond the rooms depicted) feels understated, or even concealed. What is at stake here? What is exposed, and what is hidden?
The concept of hardship, or even suffering, is not the only lens through which to see. What Ruchir Joshi calls the image vernacular of Calcutta’s misery has been done a thousand times by visiting photographers. His images and text fragments, by contrast, draw attention to unexpected details. The city’s infrastructure, one senses, may be breaking under the sheer weight of human footfall, but there are other notes here, too; a mixed track of urban and rural life. Joshi sees, and listens. He is of the city, in the same way that Kaitlin Maxwell is of her family.
Barry Lopez, the acclaimed nature writer, died in December last year. Debra Gwartney, his partner of many years, describes their final weeks together for this issue of Granta. It’s a heartbreaking story, written with extraordinary precision and restraint. The couple had been made homeless by the violent forest fire that destroyed the part of rural Oregon where they lived – hundreds of houses were evacuated, and many burned to the ground. Lopez’s prostate cancer, for a long time kept in check with drugs, turned terminal, and he died in a rented home in the town of Eugene. Gwartney doesn’t say so, but Barry Lopez’s last essay, the unfinished piece of writing she mentions in her text, was a Granta commission. ‘On Location’ begins with a journey to an Alaskan Yup’ik community, and ends with a chance encounter in the Mojave Desert, where Lopez runs into a man verifying maps and satellite images – a practice called ‘ground truthing’. Throughout the text there are references to location; to finding out about place and to finding one’s place; to refugees, to destruction, to menacing development. Knowing what we now know, the last line is particularly poignant: ‘Today, it’s as if every safe place has melted into the sameness of water, and that we’re searching for the boats we forgot to build.’