Jessica Bruder ’00; Majors: English and French, author of Nomadland: Surviving America in the Twenty-First Century; photo by SwankieWheels

On May 14, 2013, Jessica Bruder ’00 came home to her Brooklyn apartment to find a box in front of her door. She knew that the sender’s name and return address, as well as the label that said the box held architectural materials, were likely false. What was actually inside? It was a secret, kept even from her. 

As she had been instructed months earlier, Bruder took the box, unopened, to the Manhattan apartment of Dale Maharidge, a close friend from her days at the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism. Maharidge, in turn, handed it over to documentary filmmaker Laura Poitras, who finally opened it. And out leaked one of the biggest news stories of the decade.

The box turned out to contain instructions and data from Edward Snowden, the former Central Intelligence Agency employee and government contractor who had decided it was time to reveal thousands of classified documents related to the National Security Agency’s many global surveillance programs. Starting in June 2013, Poitras and other journalists broke the story around the world. Snowden, who has since found asylum in Moscow, is condemned by some as a traitor and honored by others as a defender of citizens’ rights to privacy.

Our hope in telling this story is that it brings some huge, abstract issues down to earth.

Bruder and Maharidge opened up about their involvement in the NSA leaks in the May 2017 cover story for Harper’s magazine, titled “Snowden’s Box.”

“I’d never been so close to something I knew so little about,” Bruder wrote. “It was bewildering, like having a front-row seat to a play performed in a language I didn’t understand.” For the public to find out about this high-tech, high-stakes, international issue, she and a few others had to serve as physical links in a fragile human chain. This taught her “one of the great lessons of adulthood,” she wrote: “that most of the institutions and endeavors we regard as ironclad—from parenting to politics—are actually held together with chewing gum and duct tape.” She described this reality as both terrifying—“because it exposes the precariousness of the existing order”—and liberating, “because it encourages the individual to act, to defy the ominous mythology of competence and control.”

One of Bruder’s earlier articles went viral, won an award for social justice journalism and led to a deal for her second book. Photograph by Todd Gray

“Our hope in telling this story,” she says of the Harper’s piece, “is that it brings some huge, abstract issues—government surveillance, privacy activism—down to earth where ordinary people can more easily engage with them.” Readers have told her the article “reads like a movie,” and she and Maharidge plan to expand it into a book. 

“Snowden’s Box” is not Bruder’s first feature for Harper’s. Her 2014 feature “The End of Retirement: When You Can’t Afford to Stop Working” went viral, won a James Aronson Award for Social Justice Journalism and led to a deal for her second book (the first being 2007’s Burning Book: A Visual History of Burning Man). Bruder spent two years driving around the country in a van, getting the stories of aging Americans who are eking out livelihoods as itinerant workers. A longtime contributor to The New York Times, she was previously the editor of CNNMoney’s Innovation Nation column. She also teaches journalism at Columbia. 

Nomadland: Surviving America in the Twenty-First Century was published by Norton in September, and the author has spent this fall back out on the road, doing a series of readings. As I interviewed her by email for this article, the van broke down. Bruder blamed a fried battery and alternator, but I thought: Chewing gum and duct tape.