identity-culture

Why Would You Ever Want to Live in 2019?

You may remember Gabriel and Sarah Chrisman as the couple who went viral for living as if they were in Victorian times. Four years later, looking at their life – and the reaction to it – outlines our society's most pressing cultural battles.

by Harry Cheadle
07 October 2019, 1:04pm

Gabriel and Sarah Chrisman outside their home in Port Townsend, Washington. Photos by Jenny Riffle

This article originally appeared on VICE US.

Sooner or later, almost everyone realizes that the world in which we live is essentially intolerable. We then either learn to tolerate it after all, or spend our entire lives trying to change it.

Gabriel Chrisman, now 41, had such a moment two decades ago, when he was studying computer science as a University of Washington undergraduate. He had been homeschooled by parents who subscribed to the “unschooling” movement, which advocates letting children explore whatever topics they wish. He loved technology, especially computers, and remembers playing with his dad’s VAX terminal and acoustic modem; as a kid he bought a “case cracker” so he could take apart and put back together old Mac computers. At 13, he decided he wanted to go to a traditional high school and picked Seattle’s private Northwest School, not far from his parents’ two-acre property on Bainbridge Island; while a student, he built the school’s first website in 1993. “I knew what I liked about technology,” he recalls, decades later. “It was about understanding how to make things work in the real world and how to help people get to that same point.”

At UW, however, his coding assignments seemed less and less connected to that real world. He had previously been impressed with Apple founder Steve Jobs’s vision of making tech invisible and seamless, but he began to grasp how much labor was involved in hiding what a computer was actually doing from its users. The gulf of understanding between the technology’s creators and its customers—the “black box” quality of so much hardware and software—seemed alienating. Gabriel uses the bike he rode everyday to class as an analogy: If you ride a bike, you know basically how it works. “Everyone who rides a bike is potentially a bicycle mechanic,” he explains. “You’re encouraged to maintain and figure out how this thing works.” He started riding that bike past the university, skipping class, eventually dropping out and going to work in a bike shop.

That same impulse is what drives a much more radical rebellion against modernity Gabriel and his 39-year-old wife, Sarah, have been waging for the last decade. The pair live as much as possible as a couple in the late 19th century would. Sarah wears a corset and the flowing, formal skirts of the Victorian era; Gabriel, trousers that end above his ankles and a short tie when he goes for a bike ride, just as Victorians did. (His cycle collection includes a few big-wheel “ordinary” cycles.) They don’t have phones or a computer or a television. Sarah writes historical fiction by filling up notebooks in longhand using a fountain pen. They sleep on a mattress Sarah sewed, and read books by light from lamps or replicas of ancient light bulbs.

Their house, on an anonymous street in the rainy small town of Port Townsend, Washington, is a reminder that the Victorian era they've worked so hard to recreate wasn't a glamorous time. By modern standards it is small and dark and quiet. There are no screens anywhere. A huge iron wood-burning stove dominates the kitchen; tall bikes loom over the living room. At the center of their front room is a Wardian case, a small glass enclosure inside of which, during a visit this past June, a fern was struggling to survive. Their home is neat and full of books: genuinely old books, more modern volumes of nonfiction or sci-fi, magazines printed out from the Google Books archive and bound by hand so the couple can read 19th-century issues of Cosmopolitan without resorting to using a screen. (Google Books is one of several bits of modern tech they find extremely useful.) The house is both a sanctuary as well as a monument to two people's attempt to live outside of time, a revolution confined to several hundred square feet.

At left, sitting at a desk writing by hand; at right, fixing a phonograph
Left: Sarah in her writing room, where she composes her books in longhand. Right: Gabriel, surrounded by his bikes, adjusts a gramophone that is the only way for the Chrismans to listen to music in their home

They live this way because they genuinely enjoy it. They also hope to be an inspiration to people like them who want to break free of the constraints of 21st-century existence and live unconventional lives. As representatives of a diffuse movement seeking to claw back control from the phones and screens and algorithms that surround us, they are unusually passionate, driven by a zeal comparable to utopians of an earlier age. Like millions of people, they are unhappy with the way things are in 2019. And their solution is familiar: Why not claw back the hands of time to go back to 1980 or 1950 or 1890? Why can't we go back to when things were good, whenever that was?

There is something appealing about the way the Chrismans live. Many of us fantasize about turning off all the screens, throwing out our phones, and spending more time reading, writing, and studying history. But they haven't just rejected the technological plagues of the 21st century; they've embraced the late 19th century, including some mores of that time most people today find bemusingly archaic at best, and toxic at worst. Sarah has written fondly of a society where women, considered the “morally superior sex,” had more control over the “home and private sphere,” as she wrote for Refinery29 in 2015, a vision seems to dovetail somewhat with the anti-feminism of conservatives like Phyllis Schlafly, who idealized and weaponized visions of traditional womanhood. And Sarah seems to have reservations about modern feminism more broadly: “I think that in a lot of the efforts that women have made to try to prove they’re the same as men, a lot of the power that women used to have has gotten lost along the way,” she wrote in her first book.

Herbert Sussman, a professor at the New School who specializes in the Victorian era, is, like others, somewhat skeptical of the Chrismans’ project—to really live as a Victorian, he says, you would have to interact with Victorian society and culture in a way that is impossible. And yet the Chrismans aren't really a part of 21st-century society either. At one time, they went out looking for publicity in hopes that Sarah's writing and their ideas would prompt people to reconsider both their assumptions about the Victorian era and the desirability of things like social media and phones. Those ideas haven't been so much rejected as ignored—instead, people have just pointed and laughed.

They've been jeered at in person and online, partly for supposedly glorifying an era famous for its racism, sexism, and colonialism—a stereotype they argue is unfair, and it is certainly true that our time has plenty of its own outrageous cruelties. And while they aren't cosplayers, or historical reenactors, or steampunk enthusiasts—they’re something different—some people undoubtedly dislike them on sight because they associate the Chrismans with those unpopular twee subcultures. Are these two really serious?

"If you actually want to pursue a free and diverse society you have to equally tell people they shouldn’t discriminate on the basis of things people can choose."

But the impulses that drive them aren't so unfamiliar. Many of us have realized, as Gabriel did riding his bike to the UW, that technology intended to make our lives easier has hideous hidden costs. Former executives at social media companies have lamented the stress it has placed on society. Politicians have proposed "right to repair" laws and monopoly-busting measures to curtail the power of tech giants. Ordinary internet users have deleted Uber and boycotted Amazon for the inhumane way they treat their workers. We download apps that stop us from using our other apps, and go on luxury vacations for the express purpose of not being able to check our email. Some of us dream of a world where cars no longer fill cities with noise and pollution, where our politics is no longer driven by incomprehensible rage cycles fed by social media, cable news, and talk radio.

You might gaze upon all those problems and decide to dedicate yourself to the hard, incremental work of reforming the world we've built around ourselves. Or you might just want to abandon that world. The Chrismans aren't the only ones to have made that choice. Mo Lotman, the publisher of the Technoskeptic, a website that’s critical of modern tech, points out that there are plenty of people who have “unplugged” to some degree—who have gone entirely off the grid, or as far off the grid as possible. Technological developments like cell phones have clear benefits, especially in the developing world, but constant access to email and the internet can feel like a burden rather than a perk. First something is an innovation, then it's an obligation. When Lotman used to tell people he didn’t have a cell phone, “they were just confused. Now people are like, ‘Oh my God, that sounds amazing.”

“It’s not that we’re trying to convince people to live exactly as we do,” Gabriel said, meaning they don't want everyone to follow them back to 1889. Instead, Sarah said, they want people to realize "they don’t have to buy the latest flashiest thing because marketing people are telling them to."

At their most optimistic, the couple imagines a world more tolerant of difference, less distracted by novelty, more virtuous in an old-fashioned sense. It's taken herculean effort and discipline, but they've created a version of that world in their home. The problems have come when they've tried to expand it.

Giving a talk at a local library
Gabriel and Sarah give a presentation at the library where Gabriel works

Their transformation into would-be Victorians began slowly. Sarah had been drawn to the aesthetic of the Victorian era since she was a girl, and the pair became curious about how the citizens of the past lived after Gabriel went back to UW to study library science in the mid 2000s. They gave each other historical artifacts as gifts and began wearing Victorian-era clothes for fun. Then Gabriel bought Sarah a corset—necessary for a lot of Victorian ladies’ clothes—which made her nervous at first, but which she came to love so much she wrote a book about it. In Victorian Secrets: What a Corset Taught Me about the Past, the Present, and Myself, published in 2013, she argues that corsets aren’t instruments of sexist oppression as is popularly assumed, and credits her corset-wearing for improving her posture, appearance, and diet. (These claims, also made by other corset fans and celebrities, are derided by modern-day experts, though it is true that sometimes the dangers of corsets are overstated.)

These preoccupations might have been a hobby in other hands, but the Chrismans have turned them into an all-consuming passion. “We encouraged each other to be a little bit more complete about it, and to go further in the things we were interested in,” is how Gabriel puts it.

This made it impossible for them to blend in, which became especially clear when they moved to Washington, D.C. in 2008 so Gabriel could work as an archivist. One day, they say, when they were walking near the National Mall dressed like they were Victorians, a stranger told them, “You do not belong here in our nation’s capital.”

Deciding that they were incompatible with the East Coast, they moved to Port Townsend, a small town on the edge of Washington State’s Olympic Peninsula. In the late 19th century, it was a major West Coast port, and the town is now notable mainly for its Victorian architecture. The house they live in now, built in 1889, is far from the largest or fanciest Victorian home in the neighborhood. When they moved in during the winter of 2009, it was in such a state of neglect that the pipes had frozen.

The Chrismans reading together
Without TV, internet, phones, or any other kind of screens, the Chrismans spend a great deal of their time reading

It’s still a work in progress 10 years later. They want to put up wallpaper throughout the house (right now, Sarah’s study is the only room decorated in it) and make better use of the back garden, where they’ve struggled to protect their roses from the deer that roam through town. Some items are reproductions or approximations of what Victorians might have used; living out this experiment on a shoestring budget has meant that they don’t live by the hard and fast rules some people imagine they do. (Appropriately, a disused DeLorean car sits in the driveway.) Gabriel drives his pickup truck when he needs to—when transporting ice or firewood, mostly—and uses computers at his job at a local library, while Sarah types up her prose and sells her books on Amazon and her website.

“We don’t look at it as a process of trying to get back exactly to a cultural way of life,” Gabiel said. “It’s not a hairshirt. We’re not trying to deny ourselves things that we otherwise want.” Neither has ever owned a cell phone and Sarah has never learned to drive. The Chrismans say they don't have many friends, that their lifestyle sets them apart from the community around them; as a couple, they seem introverted and self-contained, mild-mannered people made more cautious by the attention they get whenever they go outside. Some of that attention is innocent: Passersby want selfies, or assume they are tour guides of some sort and ask for directions. But they also get more aggressive reactions. Strangers have told Sarah that the corset she wears is unhealthy or tried to grab her. “We have been called ‘freaks,’ ‘bizarre,’ and an endless slew of far worse insults. We've received hate mail telling us to get out of town and repeating the word ‘kill ... kill ... kill,’” Sarah wrote in a 2015 essay about their lives for Vox, that (somewhat ironically) went viral, bringing them a level of attention few, least of all them, would be prepared for.

The largest helping of negative media attention she's gotten was for that Vox piece. People were quick to point out the many forms of misery common in the Victorian era, mock Sarah for using the internet, and roll their eyes at the idea that the couple deserved pity for any bullying they had received. Deadspin called them “wealthy, intentionally self-marginalized whites.” GQ was slightly kinder, saying, “No one should harass these people just because they're harmless weirdos,” but added, “they are super annoying.” Not being frequent internet users, the Chrismans could ignore the online venom, but by then they were used to hearing the same things from people on the street.

The Chrismans hate that Victorian progressives are referred to as “ahead of their time”—they were completely of their time, just as everyone always is.

Though Victorian Secrets got a mention in the New York Times and earned Sarah a spot on The View (meeting Whoopi Goldberg “was like meeting the Queen,” she said), most of the attention has been on the outward quirkiness of their lives: the way they dress and the bikes with the big front wheels and the gramophone in their front room. They’ve given presentations at museums and historical societies, answered questions from countless journalists, been filmed riding their antique bikes too many times to count. At one point they hoped these things would boost Sarah's book sales and “debunk myths” about the Victorian era. “I wanted to help people understand that it’s just a different culture,” Sarah said. “People of the past, especially women of the past, were perfectly happy living in their culture. They were perfectly happy being themselves. And it wasn’t that they were brainwashed."

This message hasn't broken through, to say the least. Even the nonfiction Sarah has written herself, she feels, has been shaped by editors into not exactly what she wanted to say; for instance, she said that editors at Vox pushed her to focus on the mundane details of her life and “fetishistic descriptions of my house,” rather than the Victorian philosophy and thought she wanted to discuss. (Vox declined to comment; Sarah is now focused on fiction that she publishes herself.) They have been contacted by “dozens” of producers for reality TV, but all of them seemed to want an artificial level of conflict and drama that doesn’t exist in their lives. They came close to agreeing to a Victorian-themed cooking show, but that fell apart as well.

With a bicycle near the ferry
To get to work at the library on a nearby island, Gabriel rides his bike—a reproduction of a 19th-century machine—onto a ferry at Port Townsend

They no longer have a landline phone because of how many journalists rang them up; they avoid sharing their address publicly because people would appear at their house expecting to be shown around like it was a museum. In 2016, they were kicked out of Butchart Gardens, a tourist attraction on Vancouver Island, Canada, because of the way they were dressed. (The location prohibits “costumes,” a term the Chrismans take offense to.)

These days, the Chrismans are more careful about talking to the media, and only agreed to be interviewed for this piece after a monthslong exchange of letters. They’re tired of people making assumptions about them (that they’re rich, for instance, or that they’re paid to live this way) and about the era they love. Both are quick to point out that contrary to stereotypes about repressed and oppressive Victorian culture, people of that era held a wide variety of political views. “There were people who were perfectly good, there were people who were perfectly tolerant, and there were people who weren’t,” Sarah said. The Chrismans hate that Victorian progressives are referred to as “ahead of their time”—they were completely of their time, just as everyone always is.

The Chrismans' blend of motivations and desires seem contradictory at times. They complain about the media, but rely on it for publicity. They eschew services like Instagram, YouTube, and Patreon that might give them an actual audience, but they also haven't quite retreated into full-on 19th-century anonymity. They want to change the world, but refuse to be drawn into politics: Sarah is fond of a Victorian quotation that reads, “You can make no nation virtuous by act of Parliament.”

They sometimes compare the hostility they encounter in their day-to-day lives to discrimination faced by minority groups. They point out that even in progressive Western Washington, where prejudice against LGBTQ people and other minorities is widely condemned, people feel free to lob insults and abuse at them just because of their unusual dress. “It’s become politically fashionable to allow certain brands of difference and encourage certain brands of difference, but only within certain specifications,” Sarah said.

Taking a photo on the ferry with an interested bystander
The Chrismans attract a lot of attention in public, like this selfie seeker, even if no one is really sure who they are or why they are dressed like that

“We like to be able to put things into little boxes, and if anything falls outside those boxes, it’s something that is still not very tolerated,” Gabriel added.

They feel that the ugly impulses that drive racism and xenophobia and homophobia are the same impulses that lead people to say hateful things about them. “Any discrimination, no matter what it’s targeting, is really linked to that primitive, pre-human instinct to attack difference,” Sarah said. Politics, in her view, is an insufficient way to confront this kind of hatred. “You will never get anywhere by just dealing with one aspect of it. You’ll never get anywhere by just passing a law against discrimination for sexual orientation or race or religion or any one of those single things. The place you can really make progress is by dealing with the root of the problem and the inclination to hate.”

“It’s giving up the main point of the fight to just say, ‘Let’s just protect the things people can’t change because they can’t help that,’” added Gabriel. “To me, if you actually want to pursue a free and diverse society you have to equally tell people they shouldn’t discriminate on the basis of things people can choose.”

Making humanity more tolerant certainly sounds like a progressive goal. But it's also a massive, perhaps impossible, project. Reforms aimed at combatting prejudice that have been enacted since the Victorian age were aimed not at changing hearts and minds but reforming the institutions that collectively deprive minorities of jobs, places to live, their freedom, and their lives. Laws may not make a nation virtuous, but they can attempt to protect vulnerable populations from having their rights violated. If you feel that preserving those protections is the goal of politics, day-to-day political battles might naturally be your top concern.

On the other hand, if you are not part of a minority group—or if your minority group is the size of a single household in the Pacific Northwest—there isn’t any legal or political remedy that will shield you from the prejudice you face. You could reasonably argue the technology you avoid has polarized those around you. All you’re left with is the hope that society will someday shift in your favor.

Maybe the Chrismans aren't as unique as they first appear. There might be others who feel drawn to the Victorian era, or some other slice of the past, and feel trapped by the unlovely time they were born into. They’ve met one man Gabriel says wanted to dress in historically accurate Victorian clothing because “it connected with something in him.” The Chrismans have been in touch with him for over a year, and Gabriel said that after changing the way he dresses, “he feels better. He’s expressing himself in a way he wasn’t able to before.” They speak fondly of a little girl they ran across during a trip to Hermitage—the plantation once owned by President Andrew Jackson—last year, who looked at them and asked, “Are you allowed to dress that way?”

If other people can, like the Chrismans, identify the era they would like to burrow back inside, they’re in one sense lucky. They've found a way to live that satisfies them, even if it doesn't work for anyone else. The rest of us will have to attempt something even harder and less practical: Making the future world more tolerable, bit by bit, change by change. Maybe someday, the Chrismans will want to come back into it.

Follow Harry Cheadle on Twitter.