Ever since seventeen-year-old Josie Wright can remember, writing has been her identity, the thing that grounds her when everything else is a garbage fire. So when she wins a contest to write a celebrity profile for Deep Focus magazine, she's equal parts excited and scared, but also ready. She's got this.
Soon Josie is jetting off on a multi-city tour, rubbing elbows with sparkly celebrities, frenetic handlers, stone-faced producers, and eccentric stylists. She even finds herself catching feelings for the subject of her profile, dazzling young newcomer Marius Canet. Josie's world is expanding so rapidly, she doesn't know whether she's flying or falling. But when a young actress lets her in on a terrible secret, the answer is clear: she's in over her head.
One woman's account leads to another and another. Josie wants to expose the man responsible, but she's reluctant to speak up, unsure if this is her story to tell. What if she lets down the women who have entrusted her with their stories? What if this ends her writing career before it even begins? There are so many reasons not to go ahead, but if Josie doesn't step up, who will?
From the author of Full Disclosure, this is a moving testament to the MeToo movement, and all the ways women stand up for each other.
"Brave, necessary, and unflinchingly real, Off the Record is an instant classic." Marieke Nijkamp, #1 New York Times Bestselling author of This Is Where It Ends
"A vulnerable and powerful pursuit of radical truth from a brave bold voice of this generation." —Kim Johnson, acclaimed author of This Is My America
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@JosieTheJournalist: help i forgot how to write
I’ve rewritten the same sentence five different times. No matter how I rearrange the words, they don’t sound good enough to be published.
Clearly, Black films only receive critical acclaim when they heavily feature Black suffering. Where are our happy movies? They exist, but you don’t see them winning Oscars.
I smack my keyboard. Nothing changes. I’m still on the living room couch, an episode of Real Housewives playing on the TV. My Word document stares back at me, cursor blinking as if daring me to rewrite the sentence for a sixth time. How am I supposed to end an op-ed like this? In conclusion, I’m sure most of the people reading this are white and don’t want to hear about race, but please don’t cancel your subscription.
I minimize the Word document, flipping to my email. My inbox is still empty. Still the same emails: one from Target, one from Spelman College confirming that I sent my application, a few from Instagram. Nothing from the contest. Nothing telling me whether I won or lost.
Ugh. I rub my forehead, staring up at the Deep Focus magazine covers hanging above our TV. The Obamas, Serena Williams, and Jimi Hendrix. They’ve been hanging there forever, some of the best covers of my favorite magazine ever. Normally, they inspire me.
They’re a little too in my face right now—while I’m waiting to hear back from the talent competition. If I win, I’ll get the chance to write an actual cover story for the magazine. Me writing a cover story for Deep Focus.
I take a shaky breath. It’s almost too much to think about.
I should be focusing on this op-ed I owe Monique. She enjoyed my last piece, and the one before it. That should make me feel better. But my anxiety doesn’t pay attention to how I should feel. According to my sisters, I worry about everything, even the pointless, but especially the very important.
I glance at the inbox again. Still no change. The winners are supposed to hear back by the end of today. But why are they taking so long? What if they didn’t like the samples I sent, or they thought my writing was too immature, or they got turned off by how much I write about race—
“Well, look here. Josie’s right where we left her.”
My head snaps up. Dad lumbers through the door, rolling a purple suitcase with one hand and holding his backpack strap with the other. I don’t know why Alice is bringing so much stuff when she’s just an hour away. She could come home every weekend, if she wanted.
Dad’s still in his accountant uniform—white shirt, black tie— the air of math and numbers swirling around him. He glances at the muted TV. Blond women in sparkly dresses lunge for each other across a gigantic table. I shrug.
“I leave it on for background noise,” I say.
Alice appears with an eye roll. She looks the same as she did when we dropped her off in August: ripped jeans, edges of her box braids tinged purple, her signature bored face. Looks like her first few months of college didn’t change a thing.
“What are you writing now?” she asks, swinging her backpack to the floor. “Another review of Real Housewives?”
“Shut up.” I only wrote those recaps to get my foot in the door and she knows it. “It’s a serious piece.”
“That’s what you said last time.”
I scowl, opening my email and sending the piece beforeclosing my laptop. This piece is fine. If Monique doesn’t like it, she’ll send me edits, same as usual. At least it’s better than a Real Housewives recap.
“Come on, girls,” Dad says. “Where’s Maggie?”
“She’s at work,” I say, closing my laptop. “And the library is having a pre-Thanksgiving playtime or something, so Mom took Cash with her. She’ll probably have to stay to clean everything up.”
“They work her too hard.” Dad shakes his head, but there’s no bite in his voice. “Always have.”
I stand up to hug him, but he pulls me in first. He always gives the best hugs. Eventually, I pull back to hug Alice, but she just scoffs and steps away. I don’t know why I even try.
By the time she and Dad have put away their stuff, Mom is back from work, and so is my oldest sister, Maggie. She’s still dressed in her apron and khakis. I hold up my phone.
“It’s the rare employee Maggie,” I say, opening my camera app. “Take a picture for good luck.”
Maggie’s eyes widen as she lunges for me. “Josie, I swear—”
“Mama,” Cash says, worming between the two of us. “No swearing.”
“You’re right, baby,” Maggie says, glancing down at him. “No swearing.”
When he heads into the kitchen, she sticks her tongue out at me. I snort.
We haven’t had a family dinner since the day before Alice left for school. It’s not that we don’t like each other. Our schedules just never line up. Dad works late, Maggie is always doing overtime, and Alice is usually at school. That leaves Mom, Cash, and me eating in front of the TV most nights. Cash looks a little startled to be sitting at the dinner table right now.
I tap my fingers against my side as everyone settles in, fighting the urge to go back on the computer and see if I’ve gotten a response from the contest yet. If Monique has replied to my email yet.
Maggie says all I ever do is search for things to keep myself anxious. I guess that’s what I’m doing now. My deadline isn’t until next week, and I’m pretty sure the piece is fine. It’s just that when I’m anxious about one thing, it tends to bleed over to everything else. I’m already worried about hearing back from the contest, and now I can’t stop myself from thinking about everything that might go wrong with the piece I wrote for Monique—the article deleting itself, Monique hating it and deciding she never wants to work with me again my words sounding too similar to someone else’s and me being accused of plagiarism, Monique calling me a racist (even though she’s also Black)—and wondering what I’m going to write about next. . . .
It never ends, not unless I’m actually writing. I don’t know what it is. Something about writing shuts off my brain for a little while.
“How are things at Spelman, Alice?” Mom asks, snapping me out of my thoughts. She always dresses like a hip librarian—Skechers, a T-shirt that reads “All the Cool Kids Are Reading,” a pair of pink reading glasses clipped to her sweater.
“Great,” Alice says, grabbing another slice of pizza from the open box. No homemade food until tomorrow, when the entire family comes over for Thanksgiving. I cringe just thinking about it. “I love the psychology department. All of my classes are interesting. And I joined a sorority, actually, and it’s really helping me feel like I’m part of a community.”
“You? A sorority?” I raise a brow. “That sounds fake.”
“Oh, come on,” Maggie says, cutting up Cash’s pizza. “She can try new things.”
Alice flashes a smug smile. I like it better when I have Maggie to myself.
“You’ll probably try a bunch of things when you head there next fall,” Maggie continues. “Who knows? Maybe you’ll join a sorority, too.”
Alice snorts. I glare at her.
“Yeah,” I say. “Maybe. I guess we’ll see.”
“There’s a lot to do at Spelman,” Alice says, rolling her eyes. “You can find something that I didn’t try first.”
I grip my cup extra hard. If Mom and Dad weren’t here, I’d tear into Alice, and she’d probably tear right back. But now I have to force myself to be civil, even though none of this is my fault.
I’ve wanted to go to Spelman ever since I was in middle school. It’s where Mom went, where Grandma went, where Auntie Denise went. It was always my thing, but Alice applied last year, completely out of the blue, and got in. I still applied early decision, the way I always planned to. But now, when I get in, I’ll have to share the campus with my sister.
I definitely never dreamed about that.
“Auntie Josie?” Cash’s little hands reach for me. “What’s a sorority?”
“It’s a sort of club,” Dad says before I can. “But for people at college.”
“Make sure you’re eating your vegetables, Josephine,” Mom says, shoveling some salad onto my plate. “It’s better to eat some salad than to have more than one slice of pizza. You have to remember that we have diabetes in our family.”
Alice and Maggie share a look. I force myself to stare at my plate, but I doubt Mom notices. She makes comments like that all of the time, as if I don’t already second-guess everything I put in my mouth.
“Grandpa?” Cash turns to Dad. “Will you tell me a story?”
“After dinner, buddy.”
I poke at my salad with my fork. Maggie always says I should tell Mom how I feel in the moment, before she forgets what she’s said, but I can’t now. Cash is right there. Plus, we’d get into an argument, since she’d say she’s only thinking about my health. How do I respond to that without sounding like a brat?
Instead of responding, I get up and start clearing the table before anyone can ask. I want to get this over with as fast as possible.
“Josie, don’t go,” Dad calls from his seat. “Your mother and I want to talk to you. Alone.”
Maggie scoops Cash up and disappears. Alice jogs up the stairs. Traitors.
Normally, Mom and Dad don’t announce this sort of thing. They just start talking. The only time they make my sisters leave is when we talk about my anxiety. I actually stare longingly at the empty hallway. I’d rather babysit Cash than have a private talk with Mom and Dad.
I rack my brain to figure out what we could be talking about. I’m not pregnant. I don’t do drugs or drink. I’m boring. All I do is go to school, write freelance articles for different magazines, and work at Cora’s Chicken Stand, a dingy restaurant a few minutes away. I don’t even really have a lot of friends. Everyone has school friends, kids you see in class and sit with at lunch and partner up with in gym. But it’s almost December, which means it’s almost Capstone Month, when none of us seniors have to physically show up for school. I haven’t seen the girls I hang out with at lunch, Jordan and Sadie, since yesterday, and besides the two days of school we have next week, I doubt I’ll see them again until the new year.
“What is it?” I ask, standing near the door. I fist my hand in my shirt. “The Spelman application?”
I did it mostly myself, but Mom and Dad had to fill out the financial stuff and pay the application fees. Oh God. Are we having money problems? What if they don’t have money for college? I always knew I’d have to pitch in—my parents get a discount on my private school because Auntie Denise is an administrator, but with three daughters and relatively normal jobs, I doubt they can pay for college, too—except, what if it’s so bad that my money from writing and working at Cora’s isn’t enough? We applied for financial aid, but what if it doesn’t work out?
I want to take a deep breath, but all my air is caught in my chest.
“No, not that.” Mom grabs my hand, pulling me back toward the table. I’m still irritated about the pizza thing, but it’s hard to stay mad at her for long, with her warm hands and tender smile. “We’ve just been worried about you, Josephine. That’s all.”
“Worried about me?” My eyebrows shoot up. I shift my gaze to Dad. I don’t think he’s blinked once since this conversation began. “Why?”
“Well,” Dad says, “you barely act like a teenager.”
“Oh.” I smack my thighs. “This again?”
I’ve had this conversation with them almost monthly, ever since I started high school. I guess I’ve never been normal to them. I’ve always been shy, but they used to say I’d grow out of it, until I started locking myself in school bathroom stalls for entire periods. That ship sailed a long time ago.
“It’s just,” Mom says, glancing at Dad, “since the hard time you had in middle school—”
“I’m fine,” I say, sitting in the closest chair. “Really, I promise. That was years ago.”
The lines in Dad’s forehead crease.
“Seriously,” I say. “I’ve just been busy with my senior project and everything.”
My parents switched my schools after my hard time in middle school. Maggie had already graduated by then and Alice didn’t want to leave her friends, so I’m the only one who went to Oak Grove, a private school full of kids with bougie parents. It’s weird and artsy; I get to take classes with a real journalist, and we have an actual newsroom that students are allowed to use. Capstone Month is another positive. Every senior looks forward to it because we basically get all of December off. Technically, it’s for a big senior capstone project; you have to volunteer, do a big project, or work in a field you’re interested in. All of the kids love it, but my parents weren’t exactly thrilled with the idea of me being home until the new year.
I glance between the two of them. Dad looks kind of constipated.
“It’s not that,” Dad says. “You’ve been doing a great job. But that’s not what we’re worried about, Josie.”
“We find it difficult not to worry about you,” Mom says, as if they practiced this. “Maggie was a little wild, but she was involved, and Alice flourished. I know you’ve been hard at work getting started on your project, but—”
“You don’t have any friends,” Dad interrupts. “It’s just not normal for a girl your age.”
Mom gives me the look, which means Watch your tone before I make you regret opening your mouth, so I shut up. But what am I supposed to say? Just because I’m not president of every club, like Alice was, or don’t have a ton of friends, the way Maggie did, doesn’t mean there’s something wrong with me.
Sure, I might not have any best friends from school, but how many people do? And really, how many of these people are going to keep talking to each other once May comes around and we all graduate? Most of them don’t even like each other. That’s why everyone subtweets or gossips or fights in our class group chat. I want to be around people who care. If I can’t, I’d rather be alone.
“Well,” I say, shrugging, “I’ve been busy with my writing, like I said. And the holiday rush at Cora’s.”
There’s a bit of a reaction then—the tightening of Mom’s mouth, the glance Dad gives her. But they can’t blame me. Writing is the only thing that helps.
“We’re proud of your writing,” Dad says, patting my shoulder. “But you can’t put all of your eggs in one basket. You need to make some friends.”
“I have friends,” I say, sticking out my hand. “My Twitter mutuals are my friends. Jordan and Sadie are my friends. Monique is my friend.”
Mom throws back her head and sighs. Dad presses his lips together.
“Isn’t Monique your editor?” Dad asks. “She doesn’t count.”
“And neither do strangers online,” Mom snaps. “You don’t know them.”
“Monique is literally my mentor for my senior project,” I say, cocking my head to the side. “Principal O’Conner had to approve of her, remember? She’s an actual person and she’s, like, impressed by me. She only started taking my pieces because she followed me on Twitter! It leads to quality relationships.”
“That’s not what we mean,” Mom says. “It’s not normal for you to have adults as friends. You should be spending time with kids your own age.”
It’s impossible to understand my parents. One minute they’re talking about college, and the next minute they’re telling me I don’t fool around enough. I’m not sure what they expect me to do. Sure, sometimes I scroll through Instagram and get jealous when I see everyone at parties or going into Atlanta together. On the other hand, I don’t know what I would do if I actually hung out with them. I hear Jordan and Sadie talk about sports and dances and how much weight people need to lose all the time at lunch. I’m lost about sixty percent of the time, and I have no desire to catch up.
“It’s not that simple,” I say. “I spend a lot of time with kids my own age. Lots of other kids work at Cora’s, remember? Lots of kids I see in school, like Josh Sandler and Liv Carroll. You remember them?”
I leave out the fact that Josh is annoying as hell and I spend most of my shifts staring at Liv and her super-tight uniform shirt while she waits on customers, but I figure they don’t need to know that.
“But you never go out,” Dad says. “You don’t go to school dances or clubs. You don’t bring anyone home. We aren’t trying to corner you. But maybe it’s something we should discuss up with Laura.”
I press my lips together. My therapist and I have had many conversations about the kids at school and around town. I don’t need Mom and Dad to take up a chunk of our time with whatever this is. We have more important things to talk about.
I’ve accepted that I probably won’t have close friends in high school. I’m just glad I’m almost done. But there’s no way to explain that to Mom and Dad without them worrying more. I don’t even want to try it.
“I think I need to clear my head,” I say, resting my hands on the table. “Can I go out for a drive?”