(Demonstrators wave placards and EU flags as they call for a People’s Vote on the final Brexit deal)
Since the EU referendum in June 2016, the Brexiteers have fared as badly as their opponents warned. Rather than delivering the seamless withdrawal from the European Union that they promised, they have collided with reality.
Even when the United Kingdom leaves the EU on 29 March 2019, it will be forced to obey all European laws for at least two years during an inevitable transition period. Any new trade agreement that the UK reaches will sacrifice either political sovereignty – with Britain becoming a rule-taker, rather than a rule-maker – or economic prosperity, through withdrawal from the single market and the customs union.
Those leading the People’s Vote campaign express outrage at this and much else: the Brexiteers treated a narrow 52-48 Leave vote as a landslide victory for “the people”; the Leave campaign falsely claimed that “Turkey is joining the EU”; Vote Leave broke electoral law through overspending; the Brexit vote has already squeezed living standards – through higher inflation – and reduced GDP growth by an estimated 2 per cent. All of this is true, but some ardent Remainers go further: they dismiss the referendum result as “advisory”; they deride Leave voters as ignorant and racist; they denounce the BBC as the “Brexit Broadcasting Corporation”; they romanticise the opaque and troubled EU; and they assume that Remain would win a second referendum.
One of the reasons that the pro-EU campaign lost in 2016 was its excessive confidence and arrogance. Having imposed reckless austerity on Britain and long denounced Brussels as a bureaucratic ogre, David Cameron assumed that he could nevertheless alarm voters into backing Remain. He could not and was forced to resign, his reputation destroyed.
For many of those who backed Brexit, including a significant number of Labour voters, the referendum was a chance to reject both a discredited British political establishment, a failing economic model and a profoundly flawed EU. The conduct of the most ardent Remainers since the Leave vote shows that too few have learned from this experience. Brexit was not the result of a population “brainwashed” by propaganda but a reflection of profound economic and social discontent: the largest public spending cuts in postwar history, the longest fall in living standards since the Napoleonic Wars, the erosion of social cohesion, the loss of social trust and – we should not delude ourselves – anxiety about the uncontrolled free movement of people.
Rather than simply dismissing the vote for Brexit, Remainers must grapple with its causes. A second referendum would not be inherently undemocratic. As David Davis, the former Brexit secretary, stated in 2012: “If a democracy cannot change its mind, it ceases to be a democracy.” But before the country voted again, we would all need more seriously to reflect on the result of the first vote, its antecedents and effects.
The minority of Remain voters who were truly devastated rather than merely disappointed by the result cannot simply point to the flaws in the conduct of the 2016 referendum. They must be better prepared to make their own arguments. That the Leave side misled voters and broke electoral law, and that the media struggled to articulate what was at stake, does not negate the sincere opposition of many to our EU membership.
Opinion polls show, at best, a marginal shift in voting intention since 2016. Having lost one referendum that they expected to win, it would be truly reckless for pro-EU elites to lose a second. Yet more than this, rather than mimicking the worst excesses of their opponents, they must demonstrate that they understand the forces driving this age of upheaval.
For some families, game nights are at the very core of who they are and how they live together. From generation to generation, brothers and sisters and cousins in game families have shared in-jokes, swapped anecdotes, and passed down the legend of that time Grandma accidentally drew something kind of racy in Pictionary. When they gather around a game board, they’re at their smartest and their funniest, and they make some memories.
And then there are those families whose kids melted down during one game of Monopoly, and they never pulled a board game out of the cabinet again.
No matter where you are on this continuum, Slate’s list of the 40 best family games is for you. The past two decades have seen a renaissance in family-friendly tabletop gaming, with new games taking the best elements of the classics, then reimagining and improving them. Some of the more popular modern games have become franchises, spawning expansion packs, special variant editions, and mobile apps. There’s no reason why any parent these days should wish for a fun family gathering and then come back from the store with Scrabble, Battleship, or Clue. There are so many better options out there: games that are more fair, more exciting, and more likely to provoke memorable conversations afterward about the choices everyone made.
To make this list, I polled Slate’s staffers—those with kids and those who simply once were kids—and tried out a mess of new games previously unfamiliar to my game-crazy family. The games on our list run the gamut from the old-fashioned to the state-of-the-art. Some are expensive, and are improved by spending even more money on their optional add-ons. Some are cheap enough that you could find them in the dollar store—or even play them for free. What they have in common is that they follow my Five Commandments for a Great Family Game:
Games should be the right length. Long enough to allow players to develop strategy and potentially to come back from early setbacks, but not so long that everyone gets sick of them before they’re over.
Games should be fair. If you sit in a specific seat, or go last, you shouldn’t be disadvantaged.
Games should be action-packed. It’s more fun when there’s something for players to do on every turn, or even on other players’ turns; it’s frustrating to be skipped because you lack the resources to make any significant moves.
Games should help you learn something. “Educational” games are often boring, but some of the most entertaining games offer either implicit or explicit lessons about reasoning, sportsmanship, math, ethics, and teamwork.
Games should encourage spontaneity. Games that favor creativity and conversation make each experience more personally rewarding to all of you than games that are played the same way every time. After all, you’re not playing with just anyone. You’re playing with your family, so it’s more fun to play a game that lets each of you shine.
We’ve arranged our 40 games by the ideal age for a kid to play them, from 4 to 16. (Of course, that’s merely a recommendation. Plenty of little kids enjoy games that you might think are too advanced for them, and plenty of big kids enjoy something simple now and then.) We’ve also noted what style of play each game is, the optimal playing conditions, and whether each game might even be fun—perhaps after a glass of wine?—for adults to play together after the tots have gone to bed. And we’re also celebrating the fun of family games by publishing Slate writers’ odes to the games they love the most—and their defenses of the truly bad ones.
So buy a game or two, borrow one from a friend, or see if your local library has games to lend out. And then pop some popcorn, light a fire in the fireplace, and gather ’round the table. It’s never too late to get a game night tradition started. Roll to see who goes first!
Too many games aimed at preschoolers are shiny and (God, no) noisy. They’re often festooned with colorful licensed characters, but they don’t actually engage the mind. Guess Who? is all about observation and logic. Youngsters scrutinize 24 faces, pay attention to what makes them unique, and ask yes/no questions to narrow down the identity of their opponent’s secret someone. For children, there’s nothing quite like the kick of eliminating multiple targets at once, just by asking, “Is your person smiling?” or “Does your person have blue eyes?”
Using plastic swine as dice makes Pass the Pigs kooky and adorable for both young and old. Points depend on variables like whether the little porker’s nose is touching the table (a snouter!) or its legs are in the air (a razorback!). This is also a good game for teaching the concept of risk. Players keep rolling until they choose to stop or until they wipe out, racking up points so long as they avoid any of the killer combinations. On any given turn—even the last one of the game—a player can surge into the lead, or lose everything.
The most enduring Western variation on the centuries-old Indian game of Pachisi, Sorry! is at once one of the easiest games for kids to learn and one of the most frustrating to play—though its frustrations are character-building. Yes, you’re trying to move your pieces—your “mice,” in traditional game parlance—around the board toward “home,” but the game’s peak occurs when you have the chance to sabotage the competition, sending one of your opponents’ pieces back to the start. Sooorrrrry!! The game offers opportunities for families to have some deep discussions about patience, about not being a sore loser … and about the virtues of showing mercy.
The late Richard Scarry’s picture books have been popular for generations, not because they tell great stories (they’re mostly plotless), but because his minutely detailed drawings of anthropomorphic animals are so pleasing to the eye and nourishing to the imagination. During this Busytown game, players regularly stop their pieces’ forward motion to scurry around the long, narrow board, scrutinizing hundreds of illustrations to find a handful of items scattered about. Best of all: The game is cooperative, not competitive—everyone has to make it to the finish line together—which makes this the game least likely to provoke arguments among tots still learning sportsmanship.
The name “Concentration” is a catch-all for a variety of matching games—some officially branded as Concentration, some not—wherein players flip over face-down cards in pairs, looking for two alike. It’s a versatile enough concept that it can be played with a standard deck for free, or with specially designed cards that add twists. (For those lucky enough to have Milton Bradley’s home version of the TV game show Concentration, there’s an added bit of fun: As the pairs come off the board, they reveal a rebus puzzle, which must be solved for the big win.) The game can be played alone or in groups, but in every iteration there’s an orderly quality that’s almost meditative. Bit by bit, cards find their mates and get stacked into neat little piles.
As in Tic-Tac-Toe or Connect Four, the object of Sequence is to string together markers into a straight line—in this case, five colored chips, arranged across a board. The difference is that players’ choices in Sequence are limited by the cards in their hands, which correspond with squares on the playing area. This is an easy game for kids to grasp (especially the variation Sequence for Kids), because in each turn there are only so many plays to make and because their cards are determined by random draw. It’s also a fun game for parents to play with their children, with just enough strategy and just enough chance that adults will be neither bored nor dominant.
A standard deck of playing cards is all you need for a round of the classic card-shedding game Crazy Eights. The genius of Uno is that it enhances Crazy Eights with special game-changing cards like “Skip” and “Draw 2,” adding elements of unpredictability and opportunities to play defense. Invented in the 1970s by an Ohio barber, Uno pioneered a whole subgenre of branded games that tweak the rules of pre-existing playing-card favorites like Spades or Rummy.
While Uno’s name and mechanics (a gaming term for the design of the game’s rules and user experience) have been extended to dozens of other products (Uno Attack! Uno Slam! Duo!), it’s still best played in its original form, with a small group of people and a ton of idiosyncratic house rules.
One common gaming objective is to claim as much territory as possible, on a fixed board, an open table, or even a piece of paper. Dots and Boxes—which has been around for more than 200 years—provides a simple, elegant way for anyone with a pencil and notepad to play a variation on the territory game, and to make it as simple or challenging as the competitors choose. Players fill a page with a square grid of dots (at minimum, nine, with no maximum), then take turns drawing short lines between the points, angling to close off one or more of those lines into squares, immediately seizing that space. Call it the thinking person’s Tic-Tac-Toe.
Yahtzee’s a perfectly fine game, but it’s usually obvious after about five turns who’s going to lose, making completing the rest of the round something of a chore. In recent years, game designers have been working to maximize the most fun element of Yahtzee—rolling a handful of dice successively and putting aside the good ones—while eliminating the dreary disappointment of only partially filling in a scoresheet. In the fast-paced, tricky Las Vegas, players finish their rolls, then decide which dice to place in one of six casinos, with the hope that at the end of the round they’ll have the biggest “bet” on that property, and win the money it pays out. The dollar amounts are randomized, and because ties cancel each other out, sometimes the second-highest better wins—all of which allows Las Vegas to combine shrewd decision-making and fiendish luck.
Qwirkle is among the most attractively designed of a subset of games that rely on the basic tile-laying and points-scoring mechanics of Scrabble, but which eliminate the need to have any kind of advanced vocabulary. Like Iota, Latice, and many others, Qwirkle replaces letters with multicolored shapes, which players put on the table in sets, maximizing their score if they can combine what they lay down with sets already played. The rules are easy to grasp, but ace players will see combinations others miss—which is why if you have a family of smarties, you may want to play this game with a timer, so each turn doesn’t devolve into five-plus minutes of intense staring and chin stroking.
Yes, the name “Mexican Train” is questionable, especially given that it refers to a rogue spur where players slough off their misfit tiles. Nevertheless, this is the easiest-to-learn and most enjoyable of the classic domino games—which is why so many domino sets are sold with the name “Mexican Train” embossed right on the front of the box. The game requires both long-term planning and the ability to come up with alternatives on the fly, as players spot patterns in their piles of bones and methodically match number to number, trying to keep building their “trains” before an opponent or a numerical gap forces a change in course.
There’s a lot to love about Spot It!, a card game that’s inexpensive and portable, with rules variations that extend the basic mechanics in fun ways. The immediate aim is always the same. Each of the 55 cards displays an array of eight images (a snowman! A clock! A ladybug!), and between any two cards, there is always one—and, somehow, only one—matching symbol. Players have to find that match and shout it out first. Whether you’re playing a card-collecting version of Spot It!, a card-shedding version, or something else entirely, the race to be the first person to see a connection is always a nail-biter.
Countless board games ask players to move their pieces, square by square, from Point A to Point B, usually at the prompting of dice, spinners, or cards. In Labyrinth, competitors can move as little or as much as they like along the corridors of a maze, heading toward objects they’re tasked to collect. The trick is that the maze is always changing—and the strategy along with it. Labyrinth looks like a cute game for little kids, but figuring out exactly the right way to manipulate the maze itself could bedevil even a Ph.D.
The venerable code-breaking game Mastermind is like a more refined version of Battleship, as one player tries to narrow down the order of four colored pegs hidden by her opponent. A preset number of turns adds tension, limiting how methodical the guesser can be. The fun of Mastermind comes in watching as an idle proposition (“I dunno … yellow, purple, red, blue?”) gradually shifts into an actual, logical deduction.
Kids have been playing variations of the card game Rummy with their parents and grandparents for generations, but Rummikub supercharges the game by turning the cards into dominolike tiles, and letting players disassemble and steal from their opponents’ “melds.” The result is a complex, challenging game in which a player can sit frustrated for a half-dozen or more turns, unable to make a move, until the right tile comes along, and suddenly he’s able to go nuts and lay down an entire rack at once.
Not enough people know about the excellent German card game 6 Nimmt!, released in the U.S. a decade or so ago as Take 6! (though that version’s long out of print). As in Hearts and Spades and many other card games, players try to avoid getting stuck with a lot of points—which happens if they play the wrong number at the wrong time and end up having to pick up one of the rows of cards already on the table. The gameplay combines guesswork, chance, and some shrewd strategy. Sometimes, the best option for players is to take a lower-value row intentionally, to avoid a stiffer penalty. Choosing when to make that sacrifice can be the difference in the score—and is what makes 6 Nimmt! a useful exercise in pragmatism for young and old alike.
Whether you’ve dropped some serious bucks on a full-size table for your game room, or you’re economizing with one of those tiny tabletop versions, whenever tiny jets of air make a plastic puck float and slide, it’s like a little miracle of science. Also, there’s something about air hockey that gets the competitive juices flowing. Swat the puck hard off the boards and into the goal, just past your sister or cousin or uncle’s flailing paddle, then throw in a little trash talk as you announce the new score. It’s the rare sports-related pastime at which the nonsporty can excel. Who’s got next?
Camel Up offers yet another clever twist on “moving the mice” around a board. In this game, players don’t zip to the finish line as one of five different colored camels. Instead, they place bets throughout the race on which piece might come in first and which’ll bring up the rear. The “Supercup” expansion enhances Camel Up’s unpredictability, giving players more choices on any given turn between wagering, rolling the dice to move pieces further along, or making smaller proposition bets. Much of the fun of the game comes from talking through all the different potential scenarios—“camel-stacks” inclusive—and figuring out the most likely outcome.
Square by square, players map out an entire shared kingdom in Carcassonne and populate it with their own human-shaped “meeples,” who earn points for their masters based on the cities, roads, and fields they complete. Because the builders only have access to one tile at a time, planning ahead in this game in minimal. Instead, the trick is to properly deploy a limited pool of human resources onto the land. One of the first and most popular of the modern wave of tile-laying tabletop games (a genre that also includes Alhambra, Kingdomino, Small World, and Kingdom Builder), Carcassonne has spawned more than a dozen expansions, which can be played together, potentially extending the game by hours. Experienced players prefer the first two: Inns & Cathedrals and Traders & Builders. Be warned, though: Adding any more than two expansions at a time makes the play more confusing, and kind of exhausting.
Sometimes known (and sold) as “Werewolf” (or some other name that puts a frame around the concept), Mafia is at once an engaging party game and a fascinating social experiment. In one phase, the players assigned to be the villains silently agree to kill one of the heroes. In the following phase, the survivors—good and bad alike—deliberate, choosing someone from the pool of the living to pay for the crime. The fun comes from playing pretend and working with a group to solve problems. But Mafia also promotes paranoia, asking people to consider the possibility that someone they think they know well is a dirty liar—or that they themselves are capable of condemning an innocent.
Like Uno, Phase 10 adds some new rules and gimmicks to a pre-existing card game: Contract Rummy, in this case. In each round, players must lay down the right number of runs or sets to move on to the next “phase.” Because the challenges get harder over time, some players can fail for multiple rounds—getting increasingly irritated—and then make a sudden surge. Also like Uno, Phase 10 has generated a number of variant editions, some involving dice or a board. The best version is the “Master’s Edition,” which gives players control of the order in which they complete the phases and also allows them to “bank” cards to use in later in rounds.
One of the more popular recent game mechanics has players passing a hand of cards after picking one to lay down for themselves—with the understanding that they may never see the best cards in that hand again. Sushi Go Party! (a revised, expanded, and improved version of the game Sushi Go!) is this premise at its most sublimely cruel. Because some items that roll by on the sushi “treadmill” only score points in combination with other cards, players have to make hard choices, hoping that the gyoza or tempura they need will come back around. A fast pace and “damned if you do, damned if you don’t” set of options make this game addicting.
The best argument-starting, subjectively judged game this side of Cards Against Humanity (which, more often than not, is decidedly not family-friendly), Apples to Apples asks players to decide which of a set of proposed nouns best fits that round’s designated adjective. Is Andy Warhol more dangerous than a sword? Are babies more fragrant than roses? Like the best party games, this one quickly conforms to whatever crowd’s playing it, so it can be as rigorous or as silly as the family holding the cards.
Why Boggle and not Scrabble? Because it’s more democratic, dagnabbit. (Note: “Dagnabbit” is not a legal Boggle word.) In Boggle, everyone uses the same letters, in the same configuration, and since scoring is based on both length and originality, one long fancy word isn’t necessarily any better than a bunch of three-letter words that no other player wrote down. The timer adds excitement too, eliminating the tedious deliberation that can sap the fun out of some family games and replacing it with panicked glances back and forth between the tray of letters and the rapidly slipping sand.
One of the most basic forms of a party game has competitors trying hard to get a group of teammates to guess a name or a title, based on gestures and/or a limited set of clues. In Celebrity, families and friends put their own set of names into a pot and then have to figure out the best way to describe the person in question, without saying the person’s name. In later rounds, the same set of names are reused, but the clue-giver is restricted to a single word, or no words at all. The game costs nothing, and is infinitely adaptable to whoever’s gathered together—play with your English professor friends and guess Romantic poets, or play with tweens and learn all about YouTube stars and their least-favorite teachers.
Though it’s only three years old, Codenames is already a new tabletop classic, with multiple variations and branded spinoffs. A smart combination of a clue-giving party game and a logic puzzle, Codenames has players using single words, Password-style, to guide their partners to one or more other words on a grid. A conservative hinting strategy minimizes the potential for catastrophe but is also unlikely to lead to victory. Instead, teams need to take chances—and the game rewards close relationships, as players rely on what they know about each other to deliver exactly the right prompt.
There are few games quite like Colt Express, a train-robbing adventure that combines multiple modes of play. Players move bandits around two levels of a 3D train board, picking up loot and shooting at each other, while avoiding a lawman—all prompted by action cards that the competitors place one at a time into a deck. Sometimes everyone can see the cards and can map out an appropriate response, and sometimes the moves are secret, and outlaws inadvertently throw away their shots. Collecting the most money matters less than the thrill of watching a heist play out, one crazy card at a time—like a Mad Libs version of Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid.
A perennially popular amalgam of a card game and a board game—with origins dating back to the 1600s—Cribbage anticipated the tough “choose your best cards and pass along the rest” demands of many modern games. Once the players have decided which of their cards to keep and which to kick into the “crib,” the scoring rounds rely heavily on their ability to recognize the many combinations of cards than can earn points. from simple pairs to long runs to numbers that add up to 15. Frankly, the board’s unnecessary, because scores could just as easily be tallied on a piece of paper. But often those big old wooden Cribbage tracks become family heirlooms, passed down to the next generation of card players who enjoy an easeful time spent with a loved one counting points and moving pegs.
The aptly named “cooperative shouting game” Spaceteam requires players to download a free app, which then connects them in a frenzied race against time, working together to repair a disintegrating rocket ship by trading tools from their supply. (There’s also a tabletop version.) Complicated conditions and quirky twists make it difficult to overcome the impossibly short, constantly ticking timer. Between the barked requests and weird commands (“Set Luminous Foot to Full Power!”), this game combines some of the frenetic fun of the old card game Pit with the silliness of a party game.
Not only does Ticket to Ride have one of the cleanest, easiest-to-explain mechanics of the popular modern strategy games, but its basic “build a railroad across the country” concept has been neatly adapted into more than a dozen different maps, each with their own small, challenging variations. The best thing about Ticket to Ride is that while the players are competing with each other—and sometimes getting in each other’s way, claiming exclusive territory first—for the most part everyone’s on their own, trying to complete all the connections they’ve been assigned, before someone triggers the endgame. It’s unusually relaxing, for at least the first half of Ticket to Ride, to make long-range plans and move them closer to completion, one short segment at a time. But then your kids steal your routes, the number of trains start to dwindle, and suddenly making it to Helena becomes a matter of life or death.
Imagine a version of Trivial Pursuit where it doesn’t matter if you don’t know the answers, because you’re not expected to. In Wits & Wagers, every answer’s a number that—more often than not—nobody at the table is likely to have floating around in their heads. (Example: “How many episodes of Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood were produced?”) Everyone simultaneously makes hurried guesses, then places bets on which answer they think is closest to correct.
Beyond learning some fun facts (there were 895 Mister Rogers episodes, just FYI), the rush to write something on the game’s miniature whiteboard means that some poor family member will never live down the time he guessed that the Hollywood sign is 400 feet tall.
Give credit to the ’60s game show Password for popularizing a whole genre of party games in which players try to get teammates to guess a word by rattling off other words—like Charades, with speech instead of gestures. Catch Phrase started out as a board game, then was reimagined as a handheld electronic toy, with beeping and buzzes to make the time limit for every round more stressful, as the competing clue-givers hand the device back and forth. The current version is cheap enough to be a staple of department store and grocery store toy aisles (sometimes in multiple editions) but is way more fun than its price tag would suggest, because of the way it combines Password’s basic method of play with a rousing game of Hot Potato.
Imagine you’re an explorer, cutting your way through a jungle filled with treasures, trying to reach one of four temples before any of your rivals. That’s the premise of Karuba, which has one of the most ingenious mechanics of any tile-laying game. Each player controls four little adventurers, and each has an individual board to fill with pathway tiles, using the same pieces as their opponents, delivered to everyone in the same order. Nobody has any kind of lucky edge over anyone else, beyond their innate abilities to spot geometric patterns and to plan routes.
Just about everyone who’s ever played Pictionary has heard the same complaint from someone at their party: “But guys, I can’t draw!” And just about everyone has a story about how the person who didn’t want to participate came up with the cleverest or the funniest drawing of the night. What makes Pictionary one of the greatest of all party games is that winning doesn’t demand any polished artistic skill. It’s all about finding the precise, most efficient way to convey a clue to your partners. And the aftermath is just as fun, as exasperated players demand to know just what it was their partners were drawing and guessing. Baby Fishmouth is sweeping the nation!
Each game of Betrayal at House on the Hill starts the same way: Everyone’s all together, in the foyer of a haunted house, taking and giving suggestions turn by turn about where their various characters should go next and what they should do. As the team explores—with the help of shuffled decks of cards that essentially “build” the house with each blind draw—the danger intensifies. And then, at some unpredictable moment, everything changes, and one random player gets “possessed,” taking on the form of some beastie that everyone else has to beat. The number of possible combinations of rooms and monsters makes Betrayal a different experience every time, though it’s ultimately always going to be about teamwork and guesswork, as the mortals try to figure out just what kind of evil they’re facing and how to squelch it.
Introduced in Germany in 1995, the game officially known as the Settlers of Catan quickly spread around the world, transforming tabletop gaming at the end of the 20th century. The blank-looking pieces and wordless board made of hexagons can seem daunting to novices, but the actual turn-by-turn play isn’t that hard to get the hang of. Roll some dice, collect whatever resources you’re due, and then get down to the real work of Catan: building your own miniature civilization if you have the goods to do so, or begging your opponents to trade you some wool or brick or what-have-you so you can make progress. With its balance of wealth accumulation and property management, and its smartly designed variations (in particular “Cities & Knights,” considered by many to be the gold standard for how to design an expansion pack), Catan has for two decades now captured imaginations—and served as a gateway to the exciting, clever new breed of board games.
In each turn of Splendor, players can choose between collecting coins and buying cards that can be used in perpetuity as coins. In either case, this game is ultimately all about constant accumulation: no setbacks, just gain. The goal is to hoard wealth faster than the opposition, to get all the extra jewels and special favors needed to win. Everyone’s equal at the start, but it doesn’t take long for Splendor to become a white-knuckle chase between players trying to become more filthy rich than anyone else at the table.
In the second half of the 20th century, game designers declared virtual war, drawing on elements of ancient combat-themed board games like chess while adding cards, dice, charts, and historical context. Risk is the game most responsible for setting the trend, but Axis & Allies is better, because its specific grounding in the details of World War II gets across the difficult choices of a real global military conflict. Sure, the competition still comes down to armies trying to obliterate each other. But the fighting happens on the sea and air as well as the land, and the battle extends to the homefront, where the economy and the supply chain are factors. No longer will war be decided by who can roll a higher number.
Pandemic is one of the more complex (and critically acclaimed) of the modern cooperative games, in which players are asked to collect resources and to figure out a way to share them in order to achieve a common goal. In this case, the aim is to prevent the eradication of the human race. Teams have to talk to each other and to think several moves ahead, as they come up with a strategy for moving doctors and medicine around a map of the world, before the little colored cubes representing disease spread any further. Other than the novelty of working together with your family rather than trying to crush them, what makes Pandemic such a success is the scope of the challenge. It’s satisfying to move pieces across a board for a noble reason, not just to pile up cash or to reach a finish line.
Family game night needn’t end once the kids start getting old enough to drive and to apply to colleges. Modern designers have created plenty of games sophisticated enough to challenge older children—and to daunt their parents. Village is a more detail-oriented version of games like Catan and Carcassonne, in which players on each turn face a plethora of choices about how to go about their business in a small medieval community. Shop? Sell? Travel? Worship? Get into politics? The gimmick here is that because the game takes place across several generations, players can plan for the future but then have to adjust on the fly as members of their “family” die off. Forget the Game of Life. Village is the perfect game to play with older teens, who are starting to work out what’s really important as they prepare to leave the nest.
The body landed in the courtyard, not far from the building’s bins. Shortly before 5am on 4 April 2017, a 65-year-old woman was hurled from the third-floor balcony of a social housing project in the 11th arrondissement of Paris, a rapidly gentrifying area on the eastern side of the French capital. An hour earlier, that same woman – a retired doctor and kindergarten teacher – had been asleep in the small apartment where she had lived for the past 30 years. When she woke up, she saw the face of her 27-year-old neighbour in the darkness. The man, who still lived with his family on the building’s second floor, had first stormed into another apartment, whose tenants had locked themselves in a bedroom and called the police. By the time he climbed up the fire escape into his victim’s apartment, three officers were present in the building.
The autopsy would later reveal that the woman’s skull had been crushed, most likely with the telephone on her bedside table. Before and after his victim lost consciousness, the assailant beat her until the nightgown she was wearing – white, with a blue floral pattern – was soaked with her blood. He then dragged her body to the balcony of the apartment, and threw her over the railing – exactly the same way, he told prosecutors, as John Travolta does in The Punisher, the film he had been watching before the attack. “I killed the sheitan!” he yelled from the balcony, according to testimonies given by neighbours. “Sheitan” is an Arabic word for “devil”. Neighbours heard him repeatedly chant “Allahu Akbar”.
The victim was Lucie Attal, an Orthodox Jewish woman who sometimes used the name Lucie Attal-Halimi. The perpetrator, who confessed to the crime, was Kobili Traoré, a Franco-Malian Muslim. He later told authorities he knew that his victim was Jewish. According to her family, Attal had long felt afraid of Traoré. Her brother, William Attal, told me that Traoré had verbally abused her in the building’s elevator, and she had said she would only feel safe if he were in prison. In fact, Kobili Traoré may never go to prison for the killing: he has been in psychiatric detention since the night of the crime, and a French judge could rule that he is mentally unfit to stand trial.
In the immediate aftermath of Attal’s death, there was virtually no public discussion of her killing. With the upcoming presidential election dominating headlines, the defenestration of a Jewish woman in the 11th arrondissement of Paris was treated by the mainstream French press as a fait divers, the term used to describe a minor news story, which led to considerable outcry in the Jewish community. But after the victory of Emmanuel Macron, the case returned to the forefront, becoming a new frontline in France’s culture wars, among the most explosive in Europe.
The French Republic is founded on a strict universalism, which seeks to transcend – or, depending on your viewpoint, efface – particularity in the name of equality among citizens. In a nation that tends to discourage identity politics as “communautaire” and therefore hostile to national cohesion, the state not only frowns on hyphenated identities, but does not even officially recognise race either as a formal category or a lived experience. Since 1978, it has been illegal in France to collect census data on ethnic or religious difference, on the grounds that these categories could be manipulated for racist political ends.
But eliminating race did not eliminate racism or racist violence. In the case of Lucie Attal, the inescapable fact of the matter is that a Muslim killed a Jew in a society where those distinctions are supposed to be irrelevant. More than a year after the fact, exactly how to label Attal’s death remains a matter of bitter, and perhaps unresolvable, debate. To examine the case is to examine the fractures of the French Republic, the contradictions in the stories a nation tells itself.
Traoré has vehemently denied that antisemitism played a role in his crime, claiming instead that he acted in the throes of a psychotic episode triggered by cannabis. But for William Attal, the only way to understand his sister’s death is as an act of antisemitic violence. “He knew very clearly that Judaism was the motor of her life, that she had all the external signs of Jewishness,” Attal said. When we met in a cafe in the Paris suburb of Nogent-sur-Marne, he wore an anonymous red baseball cap instead of anything that might identify him as Jewish. “We have the obligation to cover the head, but we do not have the obligation to wear a kippa,” he said. “Understand?”
In February 2018, after considerable public outcry from Jewish organisations, who accused the criminal justice system of a cover-up, a French judge added the element of antisemitism to the charges against Traoré. But the case is far from closed. In July 2018, a second court-ordered psychiatric examination declared that the perpetrator was not of sound mind and was unfit to stand trial; a third examination is forthcoming. If he cannot be held accountable for his actions, Traoré cannot, legally speaking, be said to have had a motive. There is the possibility that Attal will have officially died in a random act of violence, as if she had simply been in the wrong place at the wrong time.
During the months of confusion, indecision and silence that followed the killing, people from every side of France’s political debate seized upon the case as evidence of whatever position they already held. In time, the story of Lucie Attal would become the inspiration for any number of politicised narratives, hardly any of which took into account the woman who had died, or even her actual name.
On 10 July, Kobili Traoré was formally interviewed by the judge investigating the case. Three months earlier, on the night of the crime, he had been taken into custody, and police discovered that he already had a considerable criminal record, having served time for aggravated violence and drug dealing. But when police tested him that night, the toxicology report showed a high level of cannabis in his bloodstream, and his behaviour was erratic enough that he was immediately sent to a psychiatric hospital. There he was examined by a respected psychiatrist, Daniel Zagury, who concluded that he was not of sound mind and was therefore not in a fit state to be interviewed by prosecutors. In the months that followed, Traoré remained in the hospital, under warrant but without being formally charged.
When the investigative judge finally interviewed Traoré in July, the young man insisted that antisemitism had not been his motive. “I have never had problems with Jews before,” Traoré said. He claimed that the killing had happened during a bout of temporary insanity. On the night of 4 April he had been with a friend, he said, watching The Punisher. Before turning on the television, the two had gone to evening prayers at the Omar mosque in the rue Morand, according to an investigative account by the French journalist Noémie Halioua. (Mohammed Hammami, that mosque’s former imam, was expelled from France in 2012, when Traoré was a teenager, for having allegedly incited hatred in sermons.) Traoré, who by all accounts was not a particularly observant Muslim, told the judge that he and a friend had gone to pray that night because he had not been feeling well. “I was feeling like I’d been oppressed by an exterior force,” he said in his interview, according to the transcript. “A demonic force.”
The young man defined that “demonic force” as a kind of delirium over which he had no control, induced by the several joints he had smoked. (According to Le Monde, Traoré smoked between 10 and 15 joints a day.) Asked why he had entered Attal’s apartment, he had no answer: “I still do not know,” he said. “It could have fallen on anyone – the Diarras, my family,” Traoré claimed, referring to the family whose apartment he had first entered, before climbing up from their balcony to the apartment of the woman he killed. Yet “it” did not fall on anyone else; it fell on Lucie Attal.
At one point in Traoré’s interview with prosecutors, he was interrogated about what he had said at the scene of the crime.
Investigator: Your family heard, and your sister and your mother have confirmed that you were not feeling well and that you were repeating “Sheitan, sheitan.” What does that mean?
Traoré: It’s “the demon”, in Arabic.
Investigator: Do you speak Arabic?
Investigator: Doesn’t it seem bizarre that you would designate [Attal] as the devil in a language you don’t speak?
In Zagury’s report, seen by Le Monde, the psychiatrist concluded that it was unlikely the killing was a premeditated antisemitic hate crime. However, the psychiatrist saw plenty of antisemitic mechanisms at work, including Traoré’s own confessions that he had somehow been triggered by the Torah and the menorah he saw in Attal’s apartment.
In his report, Zagury pointed out that the particular form delirious episodes take is always shaped by “society’s atmosphere and world events”. “Today, it is common to observe, during delirious episodes among subjects of the Muslim religion, an antisemitic theme: the Jew is on the side of evil, the evil one,” he wrote. “What is normally a prejudice turns into delirious hatred.”
This, he concluded, is precisely what happened once Traoré broke into Attal’s apartment. “The fact that she was Jewish immediately demonised her, and amplified his delusional experience … and caused the barbaric surge of which she was the unfortunate victim.”
Lucie Attal’s apartment block – No 30, rue de Vaucouleurs – is a classic habitation à loyer modéré, or HLM, one of the many social housing projects developed in this part of Paris in the early 1980s to provide residents, many of them immigrants, with affordable housing in a fairly central location. In recent years, the neighbourhood has become the kind of place where trendy cafes, natural wine bars and experimental restaurants with months-long waiting lists seem to anchor every block.
A squat, angular structure plastered with grimy grey tiles on a short, treeless street, the apartment block is as far as central Paris gets from 19th-century grandeur. But the rue de Vaucouleurs is hardly an example of the “social and ethnic territorial apartheid” decried by then prime minister Manuel Valls in January 2015, as he lamented the rise of homegrown Islamist extremism following the Charlie Hebdo attack. It is also a remarkably diverse neighbourhood, which appears at first glance to be a testament to the success of the French social model of integration, not its failures. Local residents describe a far more complex reality than often appears in public discussions of the killing.
One of Attal’s neighbours, Faim Mohamed, 50, told me he had lived in the building since 1997. “Life was cool,” he said, insisting that the only tensions he has ever felt came after Attal’s death, not before. “Since the murder, everyone is suspicious. They’re worried if someone is following them when they enter the building.”
Another man, from Morocco, who declined to give his name, was Attal’s neighbour on the third floor. I met him as he was bringing in groceries one afternoon, and his eyes filled with tears when I asked him if he knew the woman who had been killed. “She was someone who was very good,” he said, adding that she had designated him her “Shabbos goy”, because he would do little household tasks for her on Shabbat that she could not do for herself. He said he had been on vacation when the killing happened, visiting family in Morocco. “If I were there, I would have intervened. But I was not,” he said. A Muslim himself, he was adamant on one point: “A Muslim would not do this.”
But one reason the case became so notorious is that it fit into what has become a common narrative. France is the only country in Europe where Jews are periodically murdered for being Jewish. No fewer than 12 Jews have been killed in France in six separate incidents since 2003: Sébastien Selam, Ilan Halimi, Jonathan Sandler, Gabriel Sandler, Aryeh Sandler, Myriam Monsonégo, Yohan Cohen, Philippe Braham, François-Michel Saada, Yoav Hattab, Lucie Attal and Mireille Knoll.
In each of these cases, at least one of the perpetrators was from what the French call minorités visibles, or “visible minorities”, which typically refers to those of north African or west African descent; in most cases, the perpetrators have been linked with some form of fundamentalist Islam. In nearly every case, the victims have been either identifiably Jewish or personal acquaintances of the perpetrator. Almost all perpetrators and victims have been lower middle-class, residing in the same diverse neighbourhoods, the same streets, or even the same buildings.
In 2006, for instance, there was the notorious murder of Ilan Halimi, in which the so-called “Gang des barbares” – a band of French-born children of Muslim immigrants from west Africa and north Africa – lured the 23-year-old Halimi, who sold mobile phones off the boulevard Voltaire, on a date with a pretty girl. They had hoped to extract €450,000 in ransom money from Halimi’s parents, whom they assumed to be rich because they were Jews. But the Halimis lived in Bagneaux, the same low-income banlieue as the gang members themselves. Ilan Halimi was imprisoned and tortured in the basement of a public housing project for three weeks. He was found on the train tracks in Sainte Geneviève de Bois, to the south of Paris, his body naked and burned.
For Rachid Benzine, a scholar of Islam and a well-known French public commentator, these killings are best understood in the context of what he calls postcolonial antisemitism. “For me, this is a holdover from the colonisation of Algeria, linked to the treatment of Algerian Jews compared with Muslim natives,” he said. In 1870, for instance, the so-called Crémieux decree secured full French citizenship for all Jewish subjects residing in Algeria, whereas Arab Muslims remained under the infamous code de l’indigénat, which stipulated an inferior legal status, essentially until 1962. The legal disparity continued even after Algeria won independence, when hundreds of thousands of former colonial subjects from North Africa continued to arrive in metropolitan France. Jews like the Attal family, originally from the Algerian city of Constantine, arrived in France as citizens. Muslims, however, had to apply to the government for the privilege of citizenship.
Benzine also noted “the unfortunate reality that the Palestinian tragedy fuels the perception among many Muslims that we somehow have the Jews of France to blame”. Another factor, he said, is the so-called concurrence des mémoires. “We have this competition of who’s suffering most,” Benzine said. Many French citizens of west African origin, for instance, argue that while the French state has invested fully in preserving the memory of the Holocaust, it has made little effort to preserve the memory of Islamic slavery. “The disparity is a fact, and it’s true that many black people say, ‘look what they do for Jewish people, and there’s nothing for us,’” Louis-Georges Tin, an activist and the former director of the Representative Council of France’s Black Associations (CRAN), told me recently. Paris is home to one of the world’s premier Holocaust museums and research centres, and a black plaque adorns the façade of nearly every building in the city from which a Jewish child was deported during the second world war. All that commemorates slavery in Paris, the capital of a former slave-trading nation, are two small nondescript statues. The thousand years of Islamic slave raids into black Africa are treated as a footnote to history. The only museum that documents this history is in the overseas department of Guadeloupe, nearly 7,000km from mainland France.
But the concurrence des mémoires has also become a trope in contemporary French antisemitism, with those such as the Franco-Cameroonian “comedian” Dieudonné M’Bala M’Bala engaging in Holocaust denial supposedly as a means of attacking “Jewish power” and insulting what they see as establishment narrative of the past. Tin said he could understand that frustration, but not its expression. “The anger should not be targeted toward Jewish people,” he said, “but against the state.”
The battle over antisemitism in contemporary France often comes down to a war of words. Few would dispute the existence or even the virulence of Muslim antisemitism. According to statistics announced by the prime minister, Edouard Philippe, on the 80th anniversary of Kristallnacht earlier this month, antisemitic incidents in France have increased by 69% in the first nine months of 2018. Among those incidents were the torching of two kosher shops in the Paris suburbs and a Jewish teenager being slashed in the face with a utility knife. For Philippe, this significance of the problem is not up for discussion: “Every aggression perpetrated against one of our fellow citizens because they are Jewish resounds like a new shattering of glass,” the prime minister wrote. But when it comes to naming the perpetrators, or labelling particular acts, this certitude collapses. Much of the French government and the French press can seem at a loss for words.
For many on the political right, antisemitism is essentially a straightforward problem, which the left strategically ignores, downplays or denies. “It’s very simple,” Alain Finkielkraut, one of France’s most prominent public intellectuals, told me earlier this year. “The new antisemitism is an import. It comes to us from the exterior. It’s among the gifts, the contributions, of immigration to French society.” (This is not entirely accurate: if the perpetrators in antisemitic crimes are often from Islamic immigrant backgrounds, they are almost always also French citizens, a distinction often lost in the public debate.)
Finkielkraut, now 69, is himself the son of immigrants, Polish Jews who came to France to escape persecution and who eluded the roundups of the early 1940s. A member of the Académie française, France’s most elite literary circle, he is now something of a public contrarian, a former leftist who uses his bestselling books and radio presence to bemoan what he sees as a nation in inexorable decline. What particularly aggravates Finkielkraut and his conservative allies about the debate around antisemitism in France is what they see as a widespread refusal to “name the problem” – that is, to declare unambiguously that the primary threat to France’s Jews comes from France’s Muslims.
For much of the left, this amounts to a dangerously crude generalisation about France’s largest minority group, which itself is the target of a constant stream of hateful rhetoric, from the covers of Charlie Hebdo to the regular pronouncements of sitting members of the French government. Muslims, too, are frequent victims of hate crimes. No one was actually hurt, but, in June 2018, French authorities thwarted a rightwing plot to kill veiled women, imams and other Muslims at a network of halal groceries, mosques and community centres across France. Authorities have charged a group of 10 conspirators – one woman and nine men – for terrorist activity; the alleged ringleader was a former police officer. Cartoonists and concertgoers where gunned down by the hundreds by Islamic Jihadists
Cécile Alduy, a scholar who has written extensively on political rhetoric, puts the question this way: “How can you denounce a ‘new’ form of antisemitism that would be perpetuated only by Muslims, without targeting all Muslims as a threat to society?”
Even the phrase “the new antisemitism” is contested. If the old antisemitism was associated with France’s Catholic far right, which has hardly disappeared, the “new antisemitism” is today used almost exclusively to describe Muslim violence towards Jews. In that sense, many on the left believe that “naming the problem” actually makes it worse, enshrining difference in a society that officially recognises none, and repeating the kind of racial stereotypes about the Islamic race that only exacerbate social divisions. But others, both on the right and in the Jewish community, ask whether Attal and the other French Jews who have been killed since 2003 are collateral damage in an egalitarian social project that was always doomed to fail. They often decry what they call “ostrich politics”, what they see as the wilful blindness of the left with regard to the fundamental violence at the core of Islam.
One conservative I spoke to, the Jewish historian Georges Bensoussan, echoed this point. He has been embroiled in a debate about racism and Islamophobia since 2015, when, in the course of a heated debate on a radio show hosted by Finkielkraut a month before the Paris attacks, he said: “In Arab families in France – and everyone knows it but no one wants to say it – antisemitism is something babies drink in with their mothers’ milk.” Under France’s stringent hate speech laws, a number of claimants charged Bensoussan with inciting racial hatred by using reductive blanket statements. He was acquitted in March 2017 – one month before Attal’s death – but during the period that French authorities were struggling with how, exactly, to label the killing, the Bensoussan trial was constant point of reference.
For Bensoussan, his recent trial was “a symptom of the much larger problem, the hesitation to acknowledge the truth”. He noted that despite the persistence of non-violent antisemitism among Front National members and supporters, “none of the antisemitic murders we’ve seen [in France in recent years] have been committed by the extreme right. All were perpetrated by Muslims, even as most journalists continue to blame the extreme right.”
Bensoussan is correct that mainstream media outlets refrained from emphasizing the Muslim background of Kobili Traoré, but it is hardly the case that they blamed the far right in that particular case. It is also hard to defend the claim that French Muslims are somehow spared public scrutiny. To take one example, what Muslim women wear outside their homes has been among the most frequently debated questions in France over recent years. Meanwhile, political rhetoric around Islam has become increasingly extreme. Nearly every major candidate for the French presidency in 2017 had an official position on Islam, and Emmanuel Macron is still slated to announce a proposal to “reform” the practice of Islam in France.
When it comes to antisemitism, members of the French government have emphasised that they find themselves in something of an impossible situation: ensuring the safety of certain citizens while preventing the collective demonisation of others. The state takes the security threat very seriously, dispatching heavily armed reserve officers to guard nearly every major Jewish school, temple and community centre in the country. But for politicians, finding the right words to describe this situation remains acutely difficult.
“To identify the phenomenon and to understand the different ways it works is not the same thing as identifying potential authors of future attacks. We should pay real attention to the Muslims who feel stigmatised by this,” Frédéric Potier, the head of the French government’s interministerial delegation against racism and antisemitism, told me recently. “You have to pay very close attention to the words you choose, and how you say them. But at the same time, we have to say something.”
On 16 July 2017, France’s new president Emmanuel Macron gave a speech at a ceremony to mark the 75th anniversary of the Vel d’Hiv roundup, speaking at length about France’s complicity in Nazi crimes. Standing alongside his invited guest, the Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu, Macron then turned to the present day, mentioning the name of the woman whose case Jewish groups and public intellectuals had, for months, been citing as the latest example of France’s indifference to antisemitism. But the name he used was not Lucie Attal.
“Despite the denials of the murderer, judicial officials must now search for full clarity on the death of Sarah Halimi,” Macron said. Calling her “Sarah Halimi” was not a novel choice. Ever since the killing first made headlines, that had been the name most commonly used to identify the victim. Yet Sarah Halimi was not necessarily the way she was known to her family, or in official documents. “Sarah” was Lucie Attal’s Hebrew name, while the surname “Halimi” came from her former husband, Yaacov Halimi, a psychologist she had divorced decades earlier.
How the woman known in her lifetime as Lucie Attal became Sarah Halimi after she died is a detail no one can quite explain. But the name only intensified the symbolic resonance of her case. The name “Sarah” happens to be the label the Nazis uniformly used to identify their female Jewish victims, who were stripped of their individuality along with their lives. “Halimi” also carried its own grim associations. In 2006, the torture and murder of Ilan Halimi became a national scandal, not only because of the brutality of the crime, but also because French authorities at the time had initially refused to acknowledge that his killers had antisemitic motivations.
Thus, by the summer of 2017, Sarah Halimi had come to be seen by many as a new Ilan Halimi, the latest victim not only of Islamist antisemitism but also of government silence, and possibly even indifference. “I think ‘Sarah Halimi’ was the most resonant for the Jewish community, the most Jewish name,” Haïm Korsia, France’s chief rabbi, told me. “For some, the recurrence of the two names was striking.”
Gilles-William Goldnadel, the lawyer for Attal’s family and a well-known hardline rightwing columnist, disputes that the association between his client and Ilan Halimi was a calculated political move. But he acknowledges that names can be powerful public symbols. “We can consider that ‘Sarah Halimi’ is the name of the syndrome for the ideological reticence to recognise reality,” he said when we met in his office earlier this year.
Like Ilan Halimi before her, Sarah Halimi soon became less a real human being and more a metaphor put to use in France’s culture wars. In most accounts, she was portrayed without nuance or individuality. In April 2018, Sarah Halimi – rather than Lucie Attal – became the centrepiece of a widely publicised book entitled Le Nouvel Antisémitisme en France, a collection of essays by prominent journalists and public intellectuals. “We have to ask ourselves if her death was only an accident or whether it testifies to the spirit of the times,” says the preface. Again, the allusion to the earlier Halimi case was clear: “Such a convergence of silences will have represented a perfect model of public denial.”
Of all the events on the Parisian social calendar, none quite compares to the annual dinner of the Representative Council of French Jewish Institutions, or Crif. Not merely a gathering of Jewish leaders or a chance to take a selfie with the aging Nazi hunters Serge and Beate Klarsfeld, the dinner is a gathering of virtually everyone who matters in French public life, including nearly every sitting government minister. Although the main event is always an address by the French president, the point of the evening is to demonstrate that even the most universalist of republics can recognise that its citizens have their particular attachments.
In keeping with Macron’s taste for setting and spectacle, the first Crif dinner of his presidency, on 7 March 2018, was held beneath the Louvre pyramid. Once again, Macron used the Attal case to show he took the issue of contemporary antisemitism seriously. “I took a stand by calling for the justice department to make clear the antisemitic dimension of Sarah Halimi’s murder,” he said, not without a tone of self-congratulation.
By that point, the Paris prosecutor, François Molins, had ultimately decided to consider the killing as antisemitic. In his speech, Macron did not go on to discuss the Attal case in any more detail, falling back on abstract platitudes: “We must never falter, we will never falter, in the denunciation of antisemitism and in the fight against this scourge.”
But two weeks later, on 23 March 2018, Mireille Knoll, 85, another elderly Jewish woman – and a survivor of the Vel d’Hiv roundup – was stabbed 11 times in her apartment and left to burn in a failed arson attempt.
The similarities to the Attal case were immediately striking. Knoll also lived alone in a public housing project in the 11th arrondissement. Authorities later confirmed that one of her alleged assailants was also a neighbour, also a young man in his late 20s, and also a Muslim, this time of north African heritage. Members of Knoll’s family later confirmed that she had known the young man, identified as Yacine Mihoub, since he was a boy and that he had been in her apartment drinking port and chatting with Knoll earlier on the day of the murder. Mihoub was a known alcoholic with a history of psychiatric problems, but he had long enjoyed a good relationship with his elderly neighbour. Knoll’s daughter-in-law, Jovinda, told me that in years past, when her mother-in-law was unwell, Mihoub had helped her “a lot”. “He was the one who’d helped put her to bed,” she said.
The news of Knoll’s death broke the next day, via a small item in Le Parisien noting that an 85-year-old woman had died in a “mysterious fire”. The day after that, on Sunday 25 March, two things happened that transformed a small fire in eastern Paris into a national scandal. The first was Paris mayor Anne Hidalgo announcing on Twitter that the victim had been a Holocaust survivor. The second was a Facebook post by Meyer Habib, a confidante of Benjamin Netanyahu’s and a rightwing member of the French parliament. Before authorities had released any information about the identities of the killers, Habib cast Knoll as a victim of “the barbarism of an Islamist”. He then situated her killing in the context of France’s recent struggle with Islamist terrorism. “It’s the same barbarism that killed several Jewish children in Toulouse, slit the throat of a priest in Saint-Etienne-du-Rouvray or a gendarme officer in Trèbes,” Habib wrote. The Trèbes attack, in which four people were killed by a terrorist, including the gendarme Arnaud Beltrame, happened on the same day as Knoll’s killing and was still receiving wall-to-wall coverage on all major networks.
Knoll’s family, meanwhile, had also retained Gilles-William Goldnadel as their lawyer. He immediately sought to link the two alleged perpetrators: “The two are Muslims who attacked with barbarity women who haven’t done anything,” he told me at the time.
This time, the French state’s response was different. By midday on 26 March, François Molins announced that the Paris prosecutor’s office would investigate the death of Mireille Knoll as an act of antisemitic violence. On 28 March, Macron went even further, closing the investigation in the court of public opinion: Knoll, he said, “was murdered because she was Jewish”.
In the days and weeks that followed the killing, there emerged a string of facts that did nothing to undermine the cruel intimacy of Knoll’s killing, but that did complicate the motive long since ascribed to her alleged murderer – especially the allegation of “Islamist” antisemitism. For starters, Knoll had two assailants, the second of whom, Alex Carrimbacus, was neither Muslim nor of North African origin. Second, Mihoub had no links to any jihadist organisation. In much of the French press, he has been treated as the principal suspect, although both he and and Carrimbacus have since accused the other of having committed the actual murder, while each claiming to have only acted as the other’s accomplice. Both are currently in prison, awaiting the conclusions of an ongoing investigation.
Further complicating matters was the story that emerged about Mihoub’s personal history with Knoll. In February 2017, Mihoub was imprisoned for having sexually assaulted the 12-year-old daughter of Knoll’s live-in carer. Mihoub was released from prison in September 2017 on a suspended sentence, and Carrimbacus, who he had met in jail, later told a panel of investigative judges that Mihoub was out for revenge, a claim authorities have not corroborated. “He told her: ‘You will pay, I wasn’t at the burial of my sister’,” Carrimbacus reportedly said. But revenge seems an unlikely motive, as Knoll had never filed a complaint against him; it was Knoll’s carer, the child’s mother, who filed the complaint that ultimately landed Mihoub in prison.
Even if Mihoub did kill Knoll out of some form of revenge, under the influence of alcohol, there may still have been an element of antisemitism to the act – what Zagury, the psychiatrist in the Attal case, interpreted as the tragic influence of “society’s atmosphere and world events”. One of Knoll’s sons, Daniel, believes there was, saying that the authorities would not have investigated the case as such if they did not have some evidence along those lines. In his interview with the judges, Carrimbacus also reportedly said that Mihoub had antisemitic motivations and had screamed “Allahu Akbar” during the attack – an allegation widely reported in the French press as fact, despite the dubious source. Mihoub’s lawyer, Fabrice de Korodi, vehemently denies the charge, claiming that Carrimbacus was trying to shift the blame. “The one motive that we can be sure was not involved was that of antisemitism,” de Korodi told me.
Unlike Lucie Attal, Mireille Knoll became an instant national martyr. On 28 March, the Crif, along with several other Jewish organisations, planned a march in Paris in Knoll’s honour, from the Place de la Nation to her apartment in Avenue Philippe Auguste. It was an astounding sight: in a country often accused of indifference to the fate of its minority populations, here were tens of thousands of people marching down the Boulevard Voltaire, wearing buttons and brandishing signs that bore the face of a murdered Jew. In the crowd, I happened to bump into Finkielkraut, who was moved by the remarkable diversity we saw on the street. “Many Jews felt abandoned by the national community as a whole,” he told me then. “But I believe today there will be people of all faiths here. That’s very important.”
But a different, less harmonious narrative soon emerged. The month after the killing, the cases of Mireille Knoll and the woman now known as Sarah Halimi became the catalysts for a blistering “manifesto” against “the new antisemitism.” This was an open letter signed by more than 250 French luminaries, including one former president, calling for French Muslims to demonstrate their fealty to the Republic and arguing that portions of the Qur’an should be “banished to obscurity”, which many took to mean redacted altogether. In response, 30 imams published a response in Le Monde, denouncing antisemitism, but also what they saw as the normalisation of Islamophobia. “Some have already seen a chance to incriminate an entire religion,” the imams wrote. “They no longer hesitate to say in public and in the media that it is the Qur’an itself that calls for murder.” (Korsia, France’s chief rabbi, later told me that he regretted the phrasing of the original manifesto, which he signed. “What I would have preferred is that we would have made clearer the need for contextualisation and interpretation rather than the total abrogation of this or that verse,” he said, referring to the call to edit portions of the Qur’an.)
Looking back on the affair, Daniel Knoll feels that an opportunity was missed. On a rainy October afternoon, he received me for tea at the small apartment he shares with Jovinda, his Catholic, Filipina wife, in a suburb of Paris not far from Orly airport. I asked him how he felt seeing his mother transformed into a national symbol, a metaphor for the threat of Islamist antisemitism – even if there was little evidence her killer had been an “Islamist”.
“The culprit was a Muslim, but he doesn’t represent the entire Muslim religion,” Knoll said. He was particularly moved by the diversity of the crowd at the march, and what he saw as a collective sense that his mother could be anyone’s grandmother. “But to say she’s a symbol? I’m not sure about that.”
When Shane McCorristine, a scholar of modern British history, went trawling through police reports from 19th-century England, he was struck by the number that contained descriptions of dreams: witnesses and victims seemed to make a point of telling police and coroners if they had anticipated a crime or a death in their dreams. Telling dreams, he said, was a way to create “a social bond between a vulnerable person and the authorities.” But he noticed that dream reports started dropping out of inquests and news stories in the 1920s, and he pinned the blame on Freud. “Freudian theories were spreading, and they were recalibrating people’s relationship with the dream world,” he said. “There’s increasing embarrassment around dreams.” Suddenly, they might be interpreted as signs of some latent neurosis or sexual deviance.
A century later, conventional wisdom dictates that dreams are not a subject for polite conversation. Writing for the New Yorker’s website in 2018, Dan Piepenbringbegan a reviewof Insomniac Dreams — a book about Nabokov’s relationship with his dreams — by apologizing for the topic: “Dreams are boring. On the list of tedious conversation topics, they fall somewhere between the five-day forecast and golf.” A few years earlier, radio producer Sarah Koenig devotedan episodeof This American Life to laying out the seven topics that interesting people should never talk about. Dreams came in at number four, right behind menstruation. In the Guardian, British writer Charlie Brookerclaimed that listening to other people’s dreamsmade him dream “of a future in which the anecdote has finished and their face has stopped talking and their body’s gone away.” Novelist Michael Chabonwrote in the New York Review of Booksthat discussion of dreams is all but banned from his breakfast table, railing against them as poor conversational fodder: They drag on and on. They get twisted in the telling. Most unforgivable, they are bad stories. When I explain the topic of my book, people frequently offer their sympathies: “People must want to tell you their dreams,” they say with an I-feel-your-pain nod. “Those are the most boring conversations.”
In a society that still sees dreams as frivolous, airing them aloud is considered pointless at best, self-indulgent at worst. People worry that in sharing their dreams, they could inadvertently reveal some shameful neurosis or deviant desire; one of Freud’s most enduring — yet least supported — theories is that most dreams express unconscious erotic wishes. If someone says, “You were in my dream last night,” it’s still basically an innuendo.
“Tellers of dreams have some basic obstacles to overcome,” literary scholar James Phelan said when I asked him whether there was anything about dreams that rendered them tedious narratives. “What makes stories of non-dream experiences interesting is that they are ‘tellable’ in some sense: the story implicitly claims that there’s some- thing about the experiences that raise them above the level of ordinary, unremarkable happenings.” The protagonist might confront some danger, learn a lesson, or encounter something beautiful. But in dreams, “just about any event can occur, which means that the ordinary/extraordinary distinction relevant to stories of non-dream experiences no longer applies, which makes tellability more murky.”
Another problem is that dreams don’t follow the type of logic we expect of a good yarn, Phelan said. “Often tellers will try to recount faithfully the sequence of the dream events. But such faithfulness typically means no cause-and-effect logic, and that absence typically means no coherence to the story, and no coherence means a bad story. If the story of my day is boring because it is awash in details of no significance, the faithful recounting of a dream is boring because it is awash in randomness.”
And it’s hard to feel invested in another person’s dream. You don’t have any stake in it — you know from the outset that the story ends with the dreamer waking up in bed, unscathed. “The teller of the dream has a listener who inherently doesn’t really care, because it’s the teller’s dream, and the listener is hearing something kind of egotistical and likely to be embarrassing,” said Alison Booth, an English professor at the University of Virginia who specializes in narrative theory. “How are we to imagine we are the dreamer, when we hear about it? Whereas in fiction, rule number one is you are the reader and you have every right to be at the center of the story/imagine yourself as protagonist.”
But maybe Westerners are just out of practice; maybe they don’t know how to communicate their dreams. The reluctance to talk about dreaming is a culturally specific — and recent — phenomenon. There may even be an evolutionary reason why we feel so compelled to share our dreams. If the brain is trying to identify weak associations that may be valuable, then “it’s got to be very lenient,” said Robert Stickgold, director of Harvard’s Center for Sleep and Cognition. “Maybe part of this process of biasing the brain’s association-strengthening mechanism — to say, ‘Pay attention to this association I found’ — carries over into waking, and now you want everyone else to pay attention to it.”
As our ancestors intuited, talking about dreams — whether casually recounting them to friends, analyzing them in structured groups, or even sharing them with strangers on the internet — can amplify their benefits. The more we integrate our dreams into our days, the more easily we remember them. And the act of discussing dreams can bring people together; just as dreams open up conversations on sensitive or embarrassing issues in a therapeutic setting, they can also facilitate intimate conversations among friends.
From the 1970s onward, psychiatrist and psychoanalyst Montague Ullman led the movement to develop dream-sharing groups. He wanted to democratize dream analysis — to find a way for people without special qualifications or access to psychiatric care to gain insight and social connection from their dreams. “Trust, communion, and a sense of solidarity develop rapidly in a dream-sharing group,” he wrote. “There is an interweaving of lives at so profound a level that the feeling of interconnectedness becomes a palpable reality.”
New research confirms what Ullman suspected: participating in a dream group can yield a host of social and psychological benefits. In onestudy, college students’ levels of personal insight were measured after they shared either a dream or a significant real-life experience with the researchers. The students met in groups until everyone had spent a full forty-five-minute session parsing both a dream and an emotional daytime event. Sharing a dream proved to be more helpful; scores on scales of exploration insight (“I learned more from the session about how past events influence my present behavior”; “I learned more about issues in my waking life from working with the dream/event”; “I learned things that I would not have thought of on my own”) and personal insight (“I got ideas during the session for how to change some aspect(s) of myself or my life”; “I learned a new way of thinking about myself and my problems”) were significantly higher if the students had worked with a dream.
Clara Hill, a psychologist at the University of Maryland, has studied how dream groups can help people improve a relationship or cope with a breakup. In one experiment, she and a coauthor recruited 34 women going through a divorce and invited 22 of them to a weekly dream group. Many of their dreams revolved around painful themes like failing or being thwarted or mocked. One woman dreamed of going home to reconcile with her husband and finding him in bed with two beautiful women in an apartment full of dead fish. Another woman dreamed of climbing a rope up a muddy hill, only to keep sliding back down. The 12-person control group, meanwhile, spent the two-month period of the study on a waitlist before finally sharing their dreams in a single workshop. By the end of the experiment, the women who had participated in the ongoing dream group not only had gained insight into their dreams but also ranked higher on measures of overall self-esteem. The catharsis of sharing their secrets and the pleasure of belonging to a community translated into a confidence that stretched beyond the limits of the weekly dream group.
Studies like these are useful in proving that psychologists should take dream groups seriously — but people don’t need to consult the latest research to know that dream groups can be a source of insight and a balm for boredom and loneliness. Less formalized dream groups have cropped up as an organic bonding ritual in desperate situations. “Every morning we would start the day by sharing and interpreting the dreams we had during the night,” one Auschwitz survivor wrote years after liberation. Dreams were a source of distraction in an environment sorely lacking in it; the dreaming mind was a self-reliant fount of entertainment. And the act of sharing dreams became an exercise in community-building. The Nazis replaced inmates’ names with numbers and subjected them to barbaric conditions, but in sharing a dream or offering an interpretation, a prisoner could reassert his humanity.
“The interpersonal dimension of interpreting dreams in Auschwitz was connected with the inmates’ need for capturing others’ attention,” Owczarski wrote. “When a prisoner shared an interesting dream, he or she became, at least for a while, important for his or her interlocutor . . . The meaning of a dream was not as important as the sheer fact of talking about it. Sharing dreams was therefore a kind of mutual help, aimed at increasing the inmates’ self-esteem.”
In a vacuum of outside news, prisoners looked to dreams for clues to life-or-death questions like whether their relatives were still alive and whether the war would ever end. And because dreams were thought to contain prophecies pertinent not only to the dreamer but to other prisoners and the community at large, dissecting them was a legitimate group activity. Throughout the day, people could look for signs that an omen from another inmate’s dream had been fulfilled. “When the dream did not come true for the dreamer, it came true for his friend,” one prisoner said. “Dreams became common property: see, your friend dreamt about it.” They made up their own dream dictionary that reflected the precariousness of their lives and their preoccupation with the future. Smoking a cigarette prophesied the dreamer’s release from prison. Cooking meat meant that he would be beaten during interrogation.
After liberation, many of the inmates were embarrassed to remember their one-time faith in dreams; the extreme stress of camp life had allowed them to suspend their disbelief. “It is hard to tell why we were all so naïve,” one survivor wrote. “Nowadays, we see them [the dream interpretations] as immature or even silly, but back then they were simply necessary,” said another.
With a day job as well as a freelance business, I tend to think of myself as rather a chameleon. When at my day job, I wear suitable clothing in line with the other employees. It is a socially accepted mode of ‘uniform’ in most workplaces, we wear the ‘appropriate’ clothes for the work we are doing. However, when in ‘freelance’ mode there are two options, firstly the working at home in front of the computer can be any of these:
Aren’t these illustrations just the best? We all know, we have dressed like this at one point of another (or constantly!) and it is one of the perks of the digital age that we do not have to actually meet clients per-say on a daily basis but can pick and choose the mode of communication. Some clients might be in another country or state/province and emails, Skype calls etc. allow us contact without leaving the house.
When we are meeting face to face, however then we need to consider how we want to project our ‘freelance’ image. To arrive in any of the above would surely have any client running for the hills. We must dress to impress, give our client a professional image to enlist confidence in our ability and competence. I am listing clothing for women in particular but of course men should consider a suit or smart jacket and casual trousers/pants.
A business casual look can be a simple chiffon shirt, jersey top, turtleneck or patterned blouse partnered with a blazer or jacket for a smarter look. In cooler temperatures opt for a pea or trench coat or a thicker fabric jacket. Matched with either suit trousers, chinos or a dark-coloured dress, simple skirt. Footwear can be loafers, brogues, pumps or shorter heels. Keep your jewelry understated.
As with any job interview, we need to ‘look the part’ and show our client we have the credentials to produce a great product, no matter what kind of project that may be.
An extra tip, I use, is to browse the company or person’s website – it can give you an idea of the ‘culture’ and the ‘look’ of their employees. You can tailor your look to match.
Over the past couple of decades, one idea has almost become a cliché in reviews of animated movies: They might be aimed at kids, but there’s plenty about them that will appeal to adults!
It’s an idea that has come up consistently since the mid-’90s, the height of theDisney Renaissanceand the start of the computer animation boom (thanks to Pixar’s 1995 release of Toy Story). Sometimes, critics homed in on the films’ sense of humor, like how Aladdin was built around Robin Williams’s genie, who provided anendless string of pop culture referencesthat few kids would understand but their parents would enjoy. Sometimes, they simply appreciated that the movies contained musical numbers — which Hollywood had mostly gotten away from after the bust of the mega-musical in the late ‘60s.
But usually, they were responding to animated films that featured compelling themes and well-told stories. Certainly, not every animated film that came out during this period was a bastion of excellence — hello to Pocahontas, a deeply confused movie about early American race relations. But I get the sentiment; in comparison to the sloppy storytelling and non-existent themes in so many big-money blockbusters of the day, many animated kids’ films stood out for their narrative ambitions.
To this day, a surprisingly high number of animated kids’ films continue to adhere to good storytelling fundamentals. Their character arcs are clear. Their plots are carefully tuned. Their themes aren’t precisely subtle — at least one character usually states them outright — but they’re at least present, which is more than I can say for many similarly successful live-action blockbusters aimed at the whole family (or some approximation thereof).
Some American animation studios are better than others (notably Pixar, Disney, and Laika). But even something like Illumination’s new animated version ofThe Grinch, while not a stunning work of filmmaking, is still a marked improvement on2000’s live-action spinon the story, which felt like an evolutionary step backward from theclassic 1966 TV special, Dr. Seuss with all his vestigial organs still attached.
So why are animated films so frequently possessed of better storytelling than other, comparable big studio films? The answer has to do with how stories are constructed for those films. To find out more, I headed behind the scenes of Disney’s new, critically acclaimedRalph Breaks the Internet.
Animated movies typically figure out their stories from start to finish before diving deep into filming
Like many people, I was skeptical of Ralph Breaks the Internet, the 2018 sequel to 2012’s terrific, video game-spoofingWreck-It Ralph. Sequels have a poor track record to begin with, to say nothing of sequels to films with endings as perfect and wistful as Wreck-It Ralph’s. By the end of that movie, Ralph and his new friend Vanellope have conquered their fears and made peace with the things they haven’t always liked about themselves. Thanks to their new friendship, everything is swell.
So the end of Wreck-It Ralph already doesn’t offer up a particularly organic place to begin a new story. And that’s before you factor in that its sequel satirizes the internet, where the targets of parody change literally every hour. Animated films have very long development cycles (Ralph Breaks the Internet was officially announced in 2016 and had already been in the works for years before that). How could this movie possibly succeed, especially in an era when our relationship to online behemoths like Facebook and Amazon shifts by the day?
The answer to that question occupied everyone working on the film, but especially the story department.
A brief aside here: By “story,” I mean the overall structure of the film’s plot — which events will lead to other events, how the character arcs will play out, etc. You can often diagram a work’s story on paper, showing the rise and fall of the plot, as in thefamous “three-act structure.” Think of it as the blueprint.
The “script” is the document that contains the dialogue and other details required to produce the final product you’ll eventually see in theaters — the house built from the blueprint. In the best-case scenario, the script is built atop a rock-solid story, but not all movies are best-case scenarios.
Some live-action blockbusters are still produced from scripts that are finalized well in advance of filming, but in an age when special effects workshops often have to start building a movie’s big action setpieces years before its release date, a complete script can be a rare luxury when a movie is actually filming — to say nothing of one based on an actual story that makes sense. Industry anecdotes about huge blockbusters where the script was being written right while production was happening are unfortunately common. This can lead toan all-time classic. More often it leads to somethinglike Men in Black III.
Because the process of making an animated film is so expensive — there’s a lot more time and labor involved, since whole worlds have to be drawn or created in a computer and then animated — it’s imperative to only animate sequences that are as close to final as they can get. So on an animated film, story is typically determined ahead of time, and occasionally even before the screenwriter has started her first draft.
Enter the story department, staffed by hybrid writer-artists, who come up with ideas for how the major beats of a movie’s plot might proceed, then draw quick sketches — storyboards — of each sequence. The storyboards are roughly animated and voiced by temporary actors to create what’s called an “animatic,” then screened for the film’s larger production team, including the directors and screenwriters.
Here’s an idea of what an animatic looks like — this one features a deleted scene from the first Wreck-It Ralph film:
It’s very rare for a sequence to be approved immediately. More often, certain ideas are praised, others are thrown out, and the story team starts over again from (almost) scratch.
How Ralph Breaks the Internet benefited from the storyboarding process
One example the Ralph story team shared offers valuable insight into how the storyboarding process works. The story team knew they needed Ralph and Vanellope to go viral somehow, in order for the movie’s plot to progress. But coming up with a way for the pair to go viral ended up being tricky, because what’s viral today won’t be what’s viral tomorrow, or even an hour from now.
The team tried everything. One sequence that riffed on the idea of finding out whether you’re a Ralph or a Vanellope (which sounds vaguely like a BuzzFeed personality quiz) was discarded as being too weak. Another that dealt with a meme factory ended up making Ralph (who in the sequence took all sorts of abuse in order to make people laugh) feel like too much of a sad sack.
Finally, they started to zero in on what ended up in the film (which I won’t spoil) thanks to a sequence where Ralph became the star ofa YouTube unboxing video(a subgenre of the platform in which people open products they’ve just purchased). The unboxing sequence didn’t quite land, but it was closer, for two reasons: It gave Ralph an authentic connection to the action of the story (it was something he was doing, in other words), and it pivoted off a fairly big-picture generic thing that’s out there on the internet.
It wasn’t too specific to be tied to any one era of internet history, while still feeling recognizable to people who’ve spent time online. With that feedback in mind, the story team moved forward with new iterations of the idea.
And that’s just one sequence. The numbers behind Ralph Breaks the Internet tell the tale of just how much work the story department put into the film.
If you buy a ticket to go see Ralph Breaks the Internet, the finished movie you’ll see includes 45 sequences that went through the full storyboarding process and were approved for full animation. Those were whittled down from 153 proposed sequences. Altogether, those 153 proposed sequences comprised 7,883 different iterations, and to make up those different iterations, the story department drew 283,839 total storyboards.
Where many animated movies discard hundreds of ideas for every one they find, “on Ralph Breaks the Internet, it was like a thousand ideas to get that one idea,” saidJosie Trinidad, the film’s head of story. But the team’s effort seems to have paid off. The sequences screened for journalists at Disney headquarters were fresh and funny, and the film now boastsa 93 percent rating on Rotten Tomatoes (it opens Wednesday).
Ralph Breaks the Internet is a great example of how the storyboarding process that animated films rely on tends to yield tighter, better-told stories. Instead of working from an unfinished script that can change from day to day on set — as often happens with live-action blockbusters — animated movies have been mercilessly pulled apart and vetted by multiple people before real production begins.
By the time a story is approved and an actual script is written, the film has been thought and rethought countless times. (In a weird way, this whole process is somewhat similar to the writers’ room that exists on most television shows.)
And though some live-action films use storyboarding as well, they often approach it differently. Some directors — like Steven Spielberg and Mad Max’s George Miller — are experts in the form, using storyboards to examine how an action sequence or fight scene will play on screen, and how it might land (or not) for the audience. But live-action storyboards are usually drawn after the script is written, to figure out how to visualize sequences as scripted. Only rarely are they used to create a rough visualization of a movie’s story to see if everything is working.
And there are animated films that don’t have story departments, especially those produced by smaller studios or independent directors. But for the most part, the storyboarding process is an industry standard that most major animation studios use.
Is the process foolproof? Of course not. In particular, it can create stories with a very point-A-to-point-B feel; sometimes a story department will focus so heavily on crafting a plot that makes sense that the characters’ emotional journeys fall by the wayside. The process can also lead to overly familiar, bland stories if all involved don’t guard against clichés, which is the pitfall of any story told by committee.
And even then, a story department is only as good as the different voices it can bring into the process, who must make a concerted effort to come up with fresh and new ideas. One needs only look to Pixar to find a studio with a strong track record whose movies nevertheless tend totell variations on the same storyover and over again.
But there’s a reason the storyboard process has been used in animation since the days of Walt Disney himself: It works. It boils stories down to their essence, and at its best, it finds new ways to pivot off of familiar storytelling tropes. It won’t work for every film, but its batting average is shockingly high. And if you’ve ever found yourself more satisfied with the story in an animated movie than you were in some comparable live-action blockbuster, you probably have this process to thank.
Justice is rare. But once in a while there arises an unexpected situation that nourishes the hope that justice has not disappeared entirely from the world. The news of an impending lawsuit againstNYU professor Avital Ronellreminded me of a conversation I had years ago with one of her students. Even her luck can’t last forever, this student reckoned. At some point, he said, she won’t be able to continue to abuse her power and unleash psychic terror on her students without being punished. At the time I considered the cloistered world of the university and the unique powers of intrigue and manipulation this professor possesses, and I was skeptical. Now, years later, it seems the student was right. There is, however, bitter resistance brewing, which has also found expression in the feuilletons of German newspapers. A muddle-headed resistance puts solidarity among its members before justice, thus scorning the victim.
First, a brief flashback. As chair of the German department and head of the appointment committee, I played a large role in the decision to offer Avital Ronell, on her second attempt, a professorship at NYU. Three years before that, I had been asked to resuscitate a moribund German department and to help it find legs upon which to stand. During negotiations, the dean pledged four professorships to me. I wrote a comprehensive position paper describing what a German department in the academic landscape of New York and the United States should look like. This task drew me to New York.
Before I offered Avital Ronell her job, I’d had many in-depth conversations with her. She engaged my queries with what seemed like understanding. She said she’d throw herself into the building of an integrated study and research program. She promised actively to contribute to department research, conferences and publications. Once she had assumed the position, however, she broke all her promises. She did her best to sabotage the program. She pursued one goal: The work of Avital Ronell and Jacques Derrida must be at the center of all teaching and research. Instead of an academic program, we were left with boundless narcissism. Once she’d become the head of the German department, she had her secretary announce in a departmental meeting that in the German department no student’s written work would any longer be acceptable unless it cited Derrida and Ronell.
At that point, I understood the question the dean had posed during my interview, namely, where do you stand on deconstruction? I was still naïve and answered as though he had asked me what I think of Leibniz. After I’d arrived in New York it took me a while to understand what was really behind the dean’s anxious question. We were at war, and, as in any war, there was only a yes or a no, for me or against me.
In Professor Ronell’s opinion, I was not enough for her. So she began, after an initial period of acclimatization in the department, to undermine my position as department head. When she spoke, I noticed deviations from the facts; in her deeds, the signs of disloyalty. An unpleasant tension took root. I didn’t expect gratitude, but I could not have imagined such disloyalty. If Martin Heidegger obliterated the name of his predecessor, ejecting him from the offices he eventually occupied, as Ronell claims (in “The Telephone Book“), then obviously he was her role model.
“To make things ‘perfectly clear’ is reactionary and stupefying. The real is not perfectly clear.” – Avital Ronell
The university belongs, like the church and the military, to the social institutions that are situated at a considerable distance from democracy and adhere to premodern power structures. Professor Ronell was unusually skilled at manipulating these. Nothing is so important in these power plays as the unconditional support of the dean of faculty. Luck was on her side. The dean had changed, and the new dean admired her and her publications, of which, I suspect, he had not read a single one. If he had, he would have had to disown his own. But his confidante in the comparative literature department provided him with evidence of theory-queen Ronell’s genius. He took every opportunity to throw himself at her feet.
Working with the dean, she achieved a coup. After I’d returned from a semester in Berlin, I found a letter from the dean on my desk, informing me I was no longer chair of the department. Professor Ronell now occupied my position. No consultation or information preceded this announcement. No appeal, no protest, no reference to my arrangement with the former dean, who had in the meantime left NYU, was relevant. No reason for my demotion was given. The plan I had developed and had begun implementing for the department had evidently been scuttled. Having made Professor Ronell acting chair and installed her in that position before my trip to Berlin, she seamlessly continued as chair.
“Giorgio Agamben is possibly the most delicate and probing thinker since Walter Benjamin.” Avital Ronell
But squeezing me out wasn’t enough for Ronell. Any means were justified in her attempt to destroy my reputation. A friend from Princeton had warned me against hiring her, predicting she would, after a short while, denigrate me as a male chauvinist. This reproach did not escape her lips. After all, it would have been implausible, since, of the five positions I had filled in the department, four were given to women.
“Neither a pathology nor an index as such of moral default, stupidity is nonetheless linked to the most dangerous failures of human endeavor. ” Avital Ronell
However, she had another arrow in her quill. At a public event she labeled me an anti-Semite. Not that she actually believed this smear. But the accusation, once uttered, was not easy to unhear, and since it fit into her political calculations, she had no scruples deploying it. Even if no one believed the charge, it would still have the desired effect for her. Semper aliquid haeret, as the Romans used to say: Something always sticks.
With that, the first step to her goal was taken, namely, to discredit me and to destroy my standing at the university. All of this she did from behind a veil of smiles and verbal niceties. Hypocrisy reigned.
Since I usually learned only indirectly of her slandering me, I had no means of defending myself. Circumstances didn’t allow for more than a frustrated silence. A colleague, a professor of economics whom I respected and who was on the committee that appointed me to NYU, one day did not know me, turning on his heel when we met by accident on the street. I can only guess why he reacted this way.
She once won first prize in theBad Writing Contestoverseen by the late philosopher Denis Dutton. Her winning piece, taken from an entirely serious article published in “the scholarly journal Diacritics,” is an excellent example of how to get to the top in po-mo academe:
The move from a structuralist account in which capital is understood to structure social relations in relatively homologous ways to a view of hegemony in which power relations are subject to repetition, convergence, and rearticulation brought the question of temporality into the thinking of structure, and marked a shift from a form of Althusserian theory that takes structural totalities as theoretical objects to one in which the insights into the contingent possibility of structure inaugurate a renewed conception of hegemony as bound up with the contingent sites and strategies of the rearticulation of power. (Bad Writing Contest for 1998)
From her second semester onward Professor Ronell reigned with an authoritarian hand, gloved in her well-proven hypocrisy. Instructors whom I had brought to the department either submitted to her regime or lost their jobs, always according to the letter of the law and in discussion with the dean, never in consultation with members of the German department. Once, she drafted a secret dissenting opinion against the unanimous decision of a commission and submitted it to the dean. The protest we as a department made to the dean against the dismissal of a junior professor fell on deaf ears. He would make no decision that ran counter to the will of the chairperson. The cynicism of Professor Ronell’s reasoning was hard to beat. The dismissal of this junior colleague was in this professor’s best interests, she explained, for she would not have felt comfortable in the department. In fact, Ronell wanted this colleague to leave because she was not prepared to be subservient. Someone else was found to fill in. Sure, the new hire had no experience, but at least she was ready to submit to Professor Ronell.
She dismissed a lecturer in the German language who had been hired by my predecessor and had for years done a great job. Occasionally, he had been a bit aloof around Professor Ronell. For that he had to pay. When he returned to his office to pack up his things, Professor Ronell appeared to commiserate with him and assure him of her sympathy, until he broke into tears and fled the room.
The quality of teaching in the department unraveled. The carefully planned program of teaching German literature was ignored. Many students arrived in the department with minimal knowledge of German literature or history. The courses that were meant to correct this no longer existed. Now philosophy, from Hegel to Judith Butler, was taught. But multidisciplinarity quickly deteriorated into dilettantism. Students were encouraged to take philosophy seminars at other universities. Soon, students who had learned about deconstruction and feminism in Paris, but who had no idea who Gottfried Benn, Joseph Roth and Alfred Döblin were, were no exception in the department. As one student told me, “We study in a German department where French theory is taught in English.”
I am amazed even today that we succeeded in preventing the inclusion of a clause in the German department’s charter that would have exempted students from mastering the German language. It was Professor Ronell who, in all seriousness, made this suggestion. In fact, however, she admitted students who spoke English and French, but not a word of German — but they had studied in Paris and proven in their term papers that they were Derrida connoisseurs.
Included in Professor Ronell’s instruments of domination was the absolute control of information. Information streams were strictly controlled, and a thick net was spun that captured and distributed them as she saw fit. At a department meeting Professor Ronell let it be known through her secretary that no member of the department would be allowed to make contact with any dean at NYU without her (Professor Ronell’s) explicit consent. Soon after that, there were no more department meetings. Information was exchanged only in one-on-one conversations. Whoever did not belong to the inner circle had no access to information. Uncertainty grew, and the department became a rumor mill. This fostered all sorts of manipulation that in turn served to strengthen the inner circle. As in a conventicle [a secret or illegal religious meeting], access to information was gained through eavesdropping on the proclamation of the divinity’s message. Inquiries and criticisms were unwanted.
The rules for the formation of Ronell’s congregation functioned within as without. Necessary to maintaining this body of followers was the placing of a few people in strategically advantageous positions, a journal in which colleagues could review one another’s work, and a flock of admirers. These conditions either existed already or were manufactured. An editor from a publisher was introduced to me with the sentence: “He discovered me!” I received, presumably as a test, an offer to review a book in “one of our” journals. The book had been written by “one of our own.” My review was critical; I saw no reason to praise the book. Further offers to review books were not forthcoming. I’d flunked the test.
The interests of graduate students counted for little. In a department meeting, all students were informed they wasted the professors’ precious research time by asking for guidance and advice.
Sharpening the critical faculties of students was no longer the goal of the department under Professor Ronell. Quite the contrary. Before students were allowed to practice criticism, they had to learn to subject themselves to authority. Every objection, every doubt, brought punishment with it. Dissent was heresy, and heretics would be reprimanded or excommunicated — and not always with a smile, but often ironically, derisively, maliciously.
Two students told me about a seminar in which the “O” in Heinrich von Kleist’s novella “The Marquise von O” was under discussion. Pauline Réage, in her pornographic novel “Story of O“explores the relationship between sexuality and extreme forms of submission. This subject can certainly be discussed in a university seminar — but in one on Kleist? And the obvious question of the relation between university teaching and submission was, according to the students’ report, not dealt with. There was a reason for that.
I have saved a letter from a student who was close enough to Avital Ronell to study her in detail. He was an older student who had completed training as a psychotherapist. He had wanted to write his dissertation under her guidance. After one year, he gave up, disillusioned, and left the department. I quote from an E-mail he wrote to Professor Ronell :
From my interactions with you and observing you in various settings, you give the impression that you suffer from a well-known mental illness referred to as malignant narcissism in a borderline structure …
There are clear clinical descriptions of sadistic object relations. You may get some sense of why your criticisms of students are so often felt to be destructive and disillusioning: you appear to be unable to control your sadism. Don’t you realize that the metaphor you expressed to me in front of other faculty, that you liken your role to that of a Procrustean bonsai master who prunes and places wires on her students, probably points to a destructive, violent and sadistic phantasy that is only worsened by the self-satisfied relish with which you related it? This disorder, were it found to be present, would also account for why you sometimes seem to me slightly unkempt. These comments are meant to be helpful. I hope you will seek out a proper professional evaluation to identify whatever the problems are and have them addressed. I am concerned for you and I hope you will take this caution seriously …
This student had the financial means to leave. Other students were not in such fortunate positions. They were dependent on Professor Ronell’s approval if they didn’t want to put their stipends at risk. How quickly this approval might disappear she made crystal clear. As soon as a student’s admiration was deemed lacking, Avital Ronell withdrew her support. The department became a hand-selected group of disciples. Whoever didn’t fit in left voluntarily or was pressured to do so. One such student said to me by way of farewell: “Avital never should have been made chair of this department.”
Trust cannot grow in a department where the chair repeatedly stresses her commitment to the success of staff and students, but in truth has only her own success in mind. As the dismissed junior colleague said, the learning environment under such leadership grew cold. Hypocrisy, suspicion and intrigue were all that blossomed.
Under the mantle of hypocrisy, Professor Ronell’s abuse of power was the order of the day. If a relationship between Ronell and a student had a sexualized tincture, its end spelled personal catastrophe for the student. The initiation of a sexualized relationship is never only an ethical violation; it is also a major breach of professional conduct that inevitably influences a student’s professional training. I know of a student who lost her stipend after a personal conflict with Ronell. This meant she wasn’t able to continue her education, which meant she lost her visa and had to return to her home country. Later, I met her by coincidence at a conference in Berlin. She lived from gig to gig and off of grant money. But her judgment of her former advisor hadn’t changed: Ronell, she insisted, was a genius, the greatest living literary theorist. Once a member of the sect, always a member. Tunnel vision forever.
One time I was away from the department for a few weeks, and a student had used my office and computer. When I returned, I found a letter on my desktop that the student had written to Ronell. Never in my life had I read a cry of such groveling submission and howling guilt. She begged forgiveness because she had failed to appear at a scheduled meeting. She confessed: She had not been sick. Instead, she had not had the inner strength to meet Avital in person at her apartment. Would Avital forgive her one more time?
Other students kept their appointments with Professor Ronell. I remember a student from Iran. Ronell had pressured him to write his PhD thesis on Goethe’s “West-East Divan” under her guidance. He acquiesced, bowing to necessity. After a conference with his new mentor, he slunk into my office. He closed the door and dropped his voice (the walls had ears), and said: “I am sick to my stomach. I need to take two days off to recover.” Most students reacted differently through self-humiliation and self-abnegating subjugation. They were ever-stricken with a guilty conscience and an identification with their aggressor. The question of guilt played a large role in Professor Ronell’s machinations. Her steady accusation was this: “You are guilty and deserve to be punished by me.” Students translated this as: “Yes, I am guilty and deserve to be punished by you.” The severe über-mama was always in the right.
Going against her prohibition of making any unauthorized contact with university officials, I arranged a meeting with a new dean. I could no longer look on in silence, and I told her about the desolate state of teaching in the German department and the psychic pressure students were forced to endure. The dean’s response: There are no faculty police to ensure the enforcement of rules. If there are problems, they need to be solved within the department. This, in my view, provided carte blanche for abuse. A few days later, Professor Ronell inquired of me if I “still” found it necessary to stay in contact with the deans. On the same day she found a new way to humiliate me. The continued bullying — needling and more serious harassment — had no end.
Even when one is acquainted with the hermetic world of the modern academy, it is still hard to believe how many years had to pass before awareness of Ronell’s abuse of power made its way to a public forum, or before her sexualized pedagogy would even be mentioned.
“Learning to speak is like learning to shoot.” Avital Ronell
Now, however, a few commentators will have us know that the case of Ronell is a fresh example of the oppression of a leftist feminist by conservative white men. This political polarization is crude, and its goal transparent: This is war, and ranks are closing around Ronell.
Leftist? Avital Ronell’s father figures are Martin Heidegger and, often quoted and paraphrased, Jacques Derrida and Jacques Lacan. Who could possibly describe them as left-leaning theorists? If Ronell has a political agenda, it is the liquidation of the legacy of 1968.
In the German newspapers Die Zeit and the Süddeutsche Zeitung, Ronell has been elevated to the “shining light” of feminist studies. I had to read this description twice before I could believe my eyes. Anyone trying to find a substantial contribution to feminist thought in her work will be searching for a long time. And “shining light”? If pure ignorance did not produce this phrase, then it is simply the reality-denying militancy of ideology. If “light” is supposed to refer to the Enlightenment, this is also a perversion of standards. Few other books in recent years have served the Counter-Enlightenment as well as Avital Ronell’s books. Her hypocrisy serves the commentators’ lack of insight. She likes to cast herself as diabolical and loves the color black — but only in the sanctuary of her inner circle. As soon as her audience grows beyond those confines, she performs a new role, namely, that of the fragile and vulnerable woman.
The quality of her publications is trotted out as one reason she should remain immune from criticism. But should even a brilliant book protect someone from accusations of sexual harassment and abuses of power? Moreover, not everyone agrees that Professor Ronell’s books have made significant contributions to theoretical debates. And not everyone who declares her guilty of intellectual charlatanism (for example, for her fantasies of a conversation between Martin Heidegger and the SA in Berlin, or her musings about Flaubert and the crack wars) are old, misogynist men thirsting for the blood of emancipated women.
How could such a polarization emerge? I remember a conversation I had with a colleague after one of Ronell’s lectures. In private and with a glass of wine in hand, we agreed without hesitation: It was a convoluted mess replete with incomprehensible longueurs. As soon a third person joined us, however, the conversation shifted to high praise. The intervention of Ronell’s network of supporters was working splendidly.
She is expert at translating incomprehensibility into pseudo-profundity. The following convoluted remarks were Avital Ronell’s attempt at clarifying the convoluted structure of her book “Crack Wars.” Her purpose was not, she argued, to show complicity with the “metaphysics of continuity” — what could this mean?
In fact, I wanted to move with a disruptive flow characteristic of the types of experience which we can still have which are discontinuous, rhythmed according to different moments and impulses, urges. I was trying to play precisely with the question of speeding and slowing down, and the relation of artificial injections to the way we can think about temporality. So the book is on different types of drugs, too: there’s the more psychedelic moments, there’s the narcotized moments where it slows down into a heroin experience, and there’s the speed freak moments. Different articulations. There’s different angles and approaches (or reproaches) to the problem. Since it’s also trying to argue for the relationship of drugs to technology, I do try to sequence it according to this discontinuous flow, in the sense that the electronic media “makes sense” only by discontinuous flows. So it would be an instance of non-technological resistance to try to produce an uninterrupted linear argumentation.
Professor Ronell’s confused efforts at originality don’t convince every reader. Terms such as “ontic,” “identity,” “Dasein,” “a priori” and “totality” are generously scattered throughout her books and give the impression of philosophical rigor. In such a lexical environment, the following banalities and meaningless sentences have a patina of significance: “As for Hölderlin, he did not watch television,” or “A woman’s voice is perfectly suited to perform a phallic penetration” (from “The Telephone Book”). “That’s how I want to write,” sighed a student whom Ronell had helped to make the jump from Bielefeld to New York. He wasn’t the only one who took burbling nonsense for profundity.
One rarely sees posed the question of whether her writings have meaning beyond the suggestive allure of their incomprehensibility or their playful associative quality. Judgment is preordained; admiration is programmed. To keep this charlatanism alive, her cultivation of her communications network is essential. At one of the last faculty receptions I attended the year I finally threw in the towel, one of the, by that time, many deans, vice-deans or sub-deans said, “But her research!” just moments after bemoaning from one corner of his mouth the deficiencies of her administration.
Whoever masters the art of manipulating deans and colleagues has won the game. I must admit that I once unwillingly took part in that power game by offering her a professorship. At a similar faculty function, I remarked that as chair of the department I had made gravely misguided decisions. Avital, who stood nearby, immediately understood what was behind this remark. “That can only have been me.” She never wanted for presence of mind and intellectual sharpness, for what, in the 18th century, was called “wit.”
Ronell’s supporters warn of the loss to NYU and the academic world if she is disciplined. But what, exactly, would be lost? In an open letter, available online, philosopher and visiting professor at NYU Slavoj Žižek bemoans the potential loss to the academy, because it is in need of her “ironic, mocking, sardonic” language.
Ronell’s high-profile supporters blame the students for misunderstanding her modes of communication. Such self-justification is scandalous. Whom are university professors meant to serve? Are they there for their own entertainment and self-affirmation? As her student in the quoted letter observed more than 10 years ago, Ronell’s students found her language destructive and injurious – contrary to Žižek’s glowing assessment of their effect. But Professor Ronell, he added, was obviously incapable of seeing the sadism at work in her language. If she conceives of her verbiage as the equivalent of a bonsai master’s craft, one based on cutting and constraining, then this destructive and sadistic fantasy will merely be strengthened by the self-justified pleasure she obviously takes in cutting down her students.
Can it be anything but false solidarity that is now practiced as a diagnosis from afar, or, in the case of Žižek, who after a mere two weeks at NYU, sees in Ronell an understanding and caring professor? Whoever wants to whitewash the misconduct of Avital Ronell does so either out of ignorance or is eager to make a contribution to this undeclared war. As in all wars, truth is the first casualty, and these alternative facts do a disservice to the cause of women. The critique of asymmetrical power structures in universities, which the case of Avital Ronell would allow, will be prevented by the ranks now closing around her. Avital Ronell’s supporters will ensure that existing power structures remain in place.