A Deep South Cold Case Goes Frigid

A groundbreaking new law instructed the FBI to investigate more than 100 unsolved murders from the civil rights era. But one reporter’s story, seven years in the making, reveals the government has done shockingly little in the search for justice.

In Mississippi, tracking down the truth about a 1964 murder. (Video by Clarence Smith Jr.)

Near midnight on February 28, 1964, Clifton Earl Walker Sr., a thirty-seven-year-old black man, was ambushed by a white mob near the town of Woodville, Mississippi. He was driving home from the late shift at the International Paper plant, about thirty miles north in Natchez.

An impoverished lumber town somewhat eclipsed by Natchez’s industrial plants, strip malls and tourist economy, Woodville is best known as the birthplace of jazz legend Lester Young and home of the Woodville Republican, the oldest continuously running newspaper in the state. On the drive home, Walker took a shortcut he’d been warned to avoid off Highway 61 and onto the twisty, unpaved Poor House Road. Three hundred yards later, the attackers stopped his car, most likely by roadblock or ruse, and gathered around with shotguns.

They fired into his car at a close range. The shots blew Walker’s face apart. The next day, his body was found bled out in the car. All of the windows were shot out, multiple bullet holes were observed in at least one door, and part of the steering wheel was blasted off.

The Walker case is just one among thousands of violent, racially motivated acts from the civil rights era that remain unsolved. This one in particular illustrates the frustrations and lack of progress made since Congress directed the FBI to retroactively solve dozens of the most violent murders from this tumultuous chapter in American history.

The Woodville Republican reported news of Walker's murder a week after he was shot.
The Woodville Republican reported news of Walker’s murder a week after he was shot.

The Emmett Till Unsolved Civil Rights Crime Act of 2007, a groundbreaking bill sponsored by civil rights hero and Congressman John Lewis, directed the FBI to conduct a “timely and thorough” investigation of Walker’s murder and 109 other unsolved civil rights cold cases. But over the last six years, the FBI has quietly informed the vast majority of the families of these murder victims that they have come up cold. Four years after re-opening the Walker murder in 2009, the Department of Justice ended its search with little to show for its efforts — and shelving dozens of other cases once again.

“All individuals even remotely implicated in your father’s death are deceased,” the Department of Justice wrote to the victim’s daughter, Catherine Walker Jones. “There are no known surviving eyewitnesses and there is no available physical evidence to review. As such, there is no reasonable possibility that further investigation will lead to a prosecutable case.”

The letter was hand-delivered by an FBI agent to Catherine Walker Jones — who was fourteen years old at the time of her father’s murder — at her home in New Orleans this past November, one week before Thanksgiving.

Instead of finding answers to what happened that night, Catherine and her siblings have been privy to false starts by a succession of agents on the case, slow follow-through on known investigative leads, and a murky, unsatisfying summation of the bureau’s efforts.

“All these years we’ve been requesting to meet with the Justice Department or the FBI agents, and we got no response, just promises,” Catherine Walker Jones said. “And they’ve closed the case and they dispatch [an agent] to give me a Dear John letter.”

Clifton Walker, whose 1964 murder remains unsolved. (Photo courtesy Catherine Walker Jones)
Clifton Walker, whose 1964 murder remains unsolved. (Photo courtesy Catherine Walker Jones)

The last person to investigate the Walker case was special agent Bradley Hentschel, at least the third agent on the case since it was reopened. Hentschel was assigned to the case in the spring of 2011, when he was twenty-five years old and had been employed as a special agent for less than a year.

For its part, the FBI contends that decades-old cold cases are among the most difficult an agent can be assigned. As the Department of Justice has noted to Congress: “Subjects die; witnesses die or can no longer be located; memories become clouded; evidence is destroyed or cannot be located; and original investigations lacked the technical and scientific advances relied upon today.”

All true, surely — but it was hard for Hentschel to even get the authorization and resources needed in order to conduct the most basic investigative activities in the field.

“I do not want to close this case,” Hentschel said during a telephone interview in 2011, “but if I can’t develop any further leads…it’s going to be a hard sell to the DOJ, to even my supervisor, that I need to be running around two, two and a half hours away from the office with the gas budget the way that it is and everything else, beating down leads on this case or on any other case where we don’t have any active information coming in.”

*   *   *

One lead Special Agent Hentschel never explored was connections between this case and the attempted killing by hooded whites of Richard Joe Butler, a black man from Kingston, Mississippi, who was twenty-five years old in 1964.

Two weeks after the Walker murder, on March 11, 1964, two cars filled with white men attempted to run Butler and his wife, Money, off the Pretty Creek Bridge as they drove home from a local store in Kingston, about fifteen miles north of where Walker had been murdered.

The Mississippi Highway and Safety Patrol, which was investigating the Walker murder, interviewed Butler about the incident near the bridge. Whether Butler exposed himself to further violence by talking to investigators is unclear, but he soon faced a white mob himself.

On April 5, 1964, Butler was in Kingston again. As on other Sunday mornings, he was working as a farmhand for a white couple, Louisa and Hayward Benton Drane. As he got to work in their barn, he found he was looking down the barrels of shotguns wielded by hooded men. When Butler tried to flee, he was shot four times and badly wounded.

Louisa Drane heard Butler’s cries for help from inside her house and came out to find him bleeding on the ground, his assailants nowhere to be seen. She helped Butler onto the backseat of her car so he could stay out of sight as she drove him to the hospital in Natchez. He made his initial recovery under police guard.

Decades later, Butler — now seventy-five, slim, with a salt-and-pepper mustache and gold-rimmed glasses — still wonders why he was targeted. “They said they just wanted to kill a smart nigger,” Butler recalled about that day, speaking at his home in California.

The stories of Clifton Walker and Richard Joe Butler are intertwined in a number of ways, perhaps most notably that local Klansman Ed Fuller, a suspect in the Walker killing, was also indicted for the shooting of Butler. After Butler was released from the hospital, he finished his recovery in hiding and then fled Mississippi — initially to Tennessee, then to Indiana and finally California. The case against Fuller and two other alleged perpetrators fell apart.

Fuller was the central link between the Walker and Butler cases, and the FBI records that Special Agent Hentschel accessed for his investigation show that Fuller became an informant for the highway patrol by November 1964. The cases are so similar and involve so many of the same people that Fuller’s informant report on the Butler shooting is included in the 1964 FBI file on the unsolved Walker killing.

A page from the 1964 FBI file on the Clifton Walker murder, obtained by a Freedom of Information Act request. A Mississippi Highway and Safety Patrol investigator had identified two possible suspects for the District Attorney to arrest. FBI documents also show that the DA said he had "insufficient evidence" to charge the suspects.
A page from the 1964 FBI file on the Clifton Walker murder, obtained by a Freedom of Information Act request. A Mississippi Highway and Safety Patrol investigator had identified two possible suspects for the District Attorney to arrest. FBI documents also show that the DA said he had “insufficient evidence” to charge the suspects.

In the report, Fuller asserts a different set of suspects in the Butler shooting. But highway patrol investigator Rex Armistead, for whom Fuller had turned informant, “expressed doubt,” according to the 1964 FBI report, “that Fuller was telling the complete truth,” especially because another informant claimed Fuller was personally involved in the Butler shooting.

Six suspects were originally identified and questioned by the highway patrol in the Butler shooting. At least two are still living. A third was alive when the Walker case was re-opened by the FBI in 2009, but later died in 2012. According to the Department of Justice Notice to Close File, the official internal investigative summary and legal rationale for closing a case, the FBI did not interview any of the people who had been questioned in the Butler shooting.

At least two of the Butler shooting suspects were also co-workers of Walker’s at International Paper, where racial tensions over integration of accommodations and putting an end to segregated pay lines sowed fertile ground for recruiting Klansmen. More than forty of Walker’s co-workers were believed to have joined the Klan, according to a 1965 House of Representatives investigation. Yet the Notice to Close File reveals that the FBI never sought the House committee’s list of Klansmen as part of its investigation, throwing away the opportunity to methodically interview those remaining, who could easily include valuable sources, witnesses, or even suspects.

The FBI also did not interview a single member of Walker’s family about the murder — not Catherine, who viewed the blood-soaked car shortly after her father’s body was removed from it; not her older sister Rubystein, who was their mother Ruby’s closest support and confidante through the period of the murder and its aftermath; and not Clifton Walker’s living sisters- and brothers-in-law who experienced the events following the murder firsthand.

Spokespeople for the Department of Justice, FBI Headquarters and the Jackson, Mississippi, field office, which conducted the investigation, refused to answer questions about why agents did not pursue these documents and interviews.

“We are going to decline to comment on this,” said Department of Justice’s deputy director of public affairs, Emily Pierce. “If you so wish, you can file a FOIA request.” FBI spokespersons made the same refusal and also told me to file a FOIA request.

So if the FBI ignored all these leads after reopening the case, what exactly did they pursue?

In the letter to Catherine Walker Jones, the Justice Department included thin, secondhand testimony of a possible suspect, while failing to mention much harder evidence from another source.

The hearsay testimony included in the letter came from the nephew of a man named G.B. Sproles. The nephew said that when he was eleven or twelve years old, he remembered witnessing his uncle “saw off the barrel of the shotgun before asking him why he was doing that. Sproles responded that he had something to do, and then shooed the witness away. A couple of days later the witness heard about the murder of your father and thought that Sproles was probably involved.”

The Justice Department letter to Catherine Walker Jones continued: “The witness later heard talk between the adults that your father had been killed because he was going with a white woman. He also heard that the gun used was thrown off the Mississippi river bridge in Natchez. The witness further advised that Sproles was as sorry as the day was long, but did not elaborate further on this remark. The witness indicated that he would not be surprised if Sproles was involved in the murder. As noted above, G.B. Sproles died in 1996.”

It’s unclear why this anecdote is given relevance as a finding in the Walker case. Nothing specifically ties G.B. Sproles to the Walker murder besides his nephew’s assertion that G.B. “was probably involved.” Nothing substantiates the nephew’s childhood memory as having truly occurred so close in time to the Walker murder.

By the FBI’s own account of its efforts, Sproles was the last lead the bureau pursued with any energy, but in 2010 they determined he was dead and came up with little beyond his nephew’s speculation. It’s hard to say what else the FBI did over the next three years before it closed the case in 2013, besides determine other suspects were dead and wait for important witnesses to die.

Meanwhile, another potentially more fruitful lead appears to have been ignored. An October 1964 investigative report by the Mississippi Highway Safety Patrol, obtained by the Cold Case Project at Louisiana State University, includes testimony from Barbara Jean Pike — Ed Fuller’s former girlfriend, and a possible witness and accessory to the murder who was not sought by the FBI in the present-day investigation.

During the original 1964 investigation, highway patrol investigators Rex Armistead and H.T. Richardson located and met with Pike in Anniston, Alabama, where she had recently moved. According to their report, Pike and Fuller had lived together “as man and wife” between the fall of 1963 and spring of 1964 in Ferriday, Louisiana, just across the Mississippi River from Natchez.

Pike said that during this time she knew “Ed Fuller to be a member of the KKK and that he has on numerous occasions been called on by the Klan to do various jobs.” She recalled “on one particular occasion…she drove the car for Fuller to Mississippi and watched while he got out of the car and after walking a short distance turned a headlight on a Negro and then shot the Negro in the back with a shotgun.”

Poor House Road in Woodville, where Clifton Walker was shot to death.
Poor House Road in Woodville, where Clifton Walker was shot to death.

Pike’s recollection that “they traveled on the highway to Woodville and then turned off to the left, traveled a short distance down a log road before stopping” sounds like a description of driving south on Highway 61 and turning left onto Poor House Road, where Walker was ambushed and shot to death.

Pike lived with Fuller during the height of his Klan activities and was privy to much that he did. She also knew members of Fuller’s family, as well as other Klansmen who were close with Fuller and were implicated in some of the same crimes as he was. While the details of her report were spotty, Pike clearly showed knowledge of significant details in a number of cases and knew Fuller well enough that the FBI should have devoted considerable energy to finding and interviewing her.

In a 2009 telephone interview with Rex Armistead, who says he was the lead investigator on the Walker case for highway patrol back in 1964, he told me Pike was important to the investigation. “She’s got all the information,” he said. “She’s got all I think anybody would need.”

Twenty-one years old in 1964, Pike could easily be alive today, but the FBI has not established if she is living or dead. “I had reason to believe three or four years ago that she was alive somewhere over on the Louisiana coast,” Armistead added. He also said that the FBI had recently tried to locate Pike themselves, but “they couldn’t find her.” If Armistead is correct about FBI attempts to find Pike, why was the effort left out of the official record of investigation? Either the FBI’s efforts didn’t amount to much, or the bureau is hiding something. To date, my own searches for Pike have also come up empty. Fuller died at forty-eight in 1975.

I interviewed Armistead at least three times, starting in 2009, but the Department of Justice investigative summary in the Notice to Close File makes no record of outreach to Armistead by the FBI at all. He died on December 24, 2013 — two months after the Justice Department closed the Clifton Walker case.

When Special Agent Hentschel first contacted me on June 16, 2011, he tried, unsuccessfully, to pressure me into giving him unpublished research that would jumpstart his investigation. During that conversation, I asked Hentschel if he was speaking to Armistead. “He’s been contacted over the course of the investigation,” Hentschel said. Either FBI contact with Armistead was not meaningful enough to report, or the bureau did not follow through on his leads and suppressed the failure in the official record of investigation.

FBI investigators also ignored another important living witness, Milton Granger, a black truck driver from Louisiana. FBI documents from the time of the initial investigation showed an interest in Granger, who had been at the Nettles Truck Stop near Woodville on February 28, 1964. Multiple Woodville residents said Granger told them he had witnessed the planning of the Walker murder at the truck stop, which is why he fled to New Orleans soon after.

Around New Years of 2009, I found a phone listing for Milton Granger’s son, Milton Jr., in Baton Rouge. Milton Jr. was eager to help Clifton Walker’s family find answers to their questions about the murder — but he would not put me in touch with Milton Sr.

Later that month, when I was in Baton Rouge on a reporting trip, Milton Jr. met me at a CC’s Coffee House. He admitted that the reason he wouldn’t put me in touch with his father was because the two are not on speaking terms. But a year later, in February 2010, when I was back in New Orleans on another reporting trip, Milton Jr. confirmed his father’s location, near the Metairie Country Club in New Orleans.

Milton Granger, Sr. was at church when I arrived at his home with Catherine Walker Jones on Sunday morning, February 7, 2010. We waited in Walker Jones’s car in front of Granger’s off-white shotgun shack, lined with cream blue shutters, bright white window frames and unlit Christmas lights strung haphazardly around the door frame.

Milton Granger, Sr.
Milton Granger, Sr.

“I knew your daddy well,” Granger told Walker Jones out on his porch, but he denied firsthand knowledge of the murder or its planning.

Granger stood dapper and animated in his black church suit and small white soul patch that matched white tufts in his close-cropped grey hair. To our surprise, Granger recalled being visited by FBI agents in New Orleans in 1964. Attempting to break his reticence, the agents showed him autopsy photos of Walker.

Granger’s memory is still sharp. He recalled specific information from the autopsy photos — photos that are not part of the surviving FBI documents from fifty years ago. His story raises questions about whether the FBI is avoiding avenues of investigation that would involve disclosing that they’ve lost documents, or would shed light on the bureau’s past mishandling of the case.

“They had him naked, laying out on the table,” Granger recalled. His memory that “the right side of his face was shot off on a slant” comports with highway patrol investigators’ descriptions of Walker’s body in 1964. Granger also remembered seeing that Walker was shot six times on his right side — twice in the shoulder, twice in the thigh and twice in the lower leg — details not captured in any of the available highway patrol or FBI documents.

By the Department of Justice’s own account, the FBI had “minimal involvement” in the Walker murder investigation in 1964. “The FBI monitored the MHP [highway patrol] … investigation and ultimately closed its case in the winter of 1964” reads the Justice Department letter to Catherine Walker Jones.

If the FBI interviewed Granger in New Orleans in 1964, however, this would be evidence that the bureau played more than a monitoring role and conducted its own investigation. This indicates there was investigative activity and evidence that is not captured in the 1964 FBI documents released to me through a Freedom of Information Act request, and not reported to Walker Jones in the Department of Justice letter.

This discrepancy suggests two possibilities: Either the investigative activity and evidence was documented in 1964, but the documents have since been lost, or the FBI has documentation of the investigative activity and evidence but is withholding it from Freedom of Information Act responses — and from Clifton Walker’s family.

FBI spokesperson Christopher M. Allen would make no comment on why Milton Granger was not contacted by agents during the present-day investigation, nor on whether the bureau lost documents from its 1964 investigation.

*    *   *

When I first met Catherine Walker Jones in 2008, she was working for the Federal Emergency Management Agency in New Orleans, making sure that public applicants were in compliance with regulations for receiving post-Hurricane Katrina assistance. Before the hurricane, she taught biology in New Orleans public schools for thirty-four years. In her free time she rides with the Bayou City Road Runners, a black motorcycle club founded in 1975 by her college sweetheart and second husband, Danny Jones. Walker Jones has one daughter, age forty-four, and three sons, ages thirty-two, twenty-five, and twenty-three. She and Danny got back together in 2007.

Catherine Walker Jones was fourteen at the time of her father's murder.
Catherine Walker Jones was fourteen at the time of her father’s murder.

Gardening is Catherine’s other passion, outside of work, family and motorcycling. This season she is growing bell peppers, tomatoes, cucumbers, string beans, corn and okra, as well as herbs — oregano, Greek oregano, basil, rosemary — and peppers: habanero, jalapeno, sweet peppers, cayenne.

“That’s a tradition I will always keep up, because that’s what my mom did,” she said. Catherine’s mother, Ruby Phipps Walker, kept a garden behind the house they moved to in Zachary, Louisiana, near Baton Rouge, in 1965.

Before that, “She and Daddy used to raise vegetables and potatoes in the country” on the family land outside of Woodville, where they had lived, explained Catherine. They moved to Zachary because it was impossible to stay in Mississippi after the murder.

“After Daddy was killed and we were going to town, people were scared to even look in our direction,” Catherine recalled. “Do you know how that hurt me? No one stood up and cared and said what a good man my daddy was. They just turned their heads and walked, as if we didn’t exist. We became invisible. That psychologically did a lot of damage to us.

“At night after Daddy was killed, I remember the dogs barking on the hill and some old white man would come up there and turn around, and I just knew they were going to kill us. Because who was going to stop them? Can you imagine thinking like that as a kid? I knew it could happen because they had taken Daddy away.”

In 2009, Catherine, Clifton Jr. and their sister Shirley traveled back to Woodville and accompanied me to the crime scene on Poor House Road. Because Catherine saw the crime scene in 1964, she was able to help me identify the spot on the road, between high banks, where Walker’s car was stopped and the murder occurred.

“I’m not healed from that,” said Catherine. “How can you heal from growing up from fourteen to twenty-four to thirty-four to forty-four not having a daddy, not because he died from a natural cause. I wondered, how can there be a God to allow this man — that his five children and his wife depended upon for their whole existence — to be snatched prematurely?

Clifton Walker with baby Catherine. (Photo courtesy Catherine Walker Jones).
Clifton Walker with baby Catherine. (Photo courtesy Catherine Walker Jones).

“My baby sister—who was four years old—when she would say, ‘where’s Daddy?’ I would tell her, ‘oh Daddy is at work.’ Come on, you can’t work forever.”

Catherine started to resent her classmates. “Why should they have a daddy when mine was not there?” She also started wishing her uncles and other relatives would take revenge. “I couldn’t understand why they didn’t go pick their guns up and go retaliate.

“I made a promise to myself at that time. I would make the memory of my daddy a priority. I would make my daddy proud of everything I did in life. Even if it was not for myself, he would be my motivator. And that’s how I lived my life.”

“When that [FBI] cold case initiative came out, everyone was just so hopeful,” she remembered. “They were going to invest the time, and they were going to come up with something before all of the possible or all of the prospective witnesses actually died. But that just didn’t happen. No it didn’t.”

*   *   *

Part of Special Agent Hentschel’s investigation included gathering information from me about the case. I am a blogger and investigative reporter who has been covering civil rights cold cases since 2004. I’ve been investigating the Clifton Walker case since 2007.

Hentschel prodded me aggressively to give him anything I had developed that could advance the Walker case. He wanted my work pre-publication, but I couldn’t ethically provide that. “If there are other people we need to talk to who haven’t been talked to, I’m not sure how I’m going to know that other than you telling me that,” he said. The thing he wanted to know most was how to find a woman named Emma Beasley.

Walker’s nephew, Hayward Dixon, had heard allegations in 1964 that Beasley and someone known as “Cripple Armed” George, both African-American, were used by the lynch mob to get Clifton to stop his car on Poor House Road the night of the killing.

Cripple Armed George is reportedly dead, but it turned out Beasley was still alive.

I started trying to find Beasley in 2007 when I first obtained 1964 highway patrol reports on the Walker case. According to investigators, Beasley had “knowledge of certain facts that would aid greatly in breaking this case.”

A cook at the Nettles Truck Stop, where the murder was allegedly planned, Beasley “left Woodville immediately after Walker’s body was discovered,” said highway patrol investigators. She reportedly “returned to attend the funeral, and immediately after the funeral, left.”

“I know too much about this mess and I ain’t gonna get involved,” Beasley reportedly told her common-law husband, and “left in such a hurry that she took no clothes except those she was wearing.” Beasley took up residence in Amite, Louisiana, with a boyfriend she’d been seeing there off and on. Between her fear and her Mississippi partner’s existing, legal marriage to another woman, Beasley had little interest in returning to Wilkinson County.

For two years, neither Lexis Nexis, phone books or my network of local sources yielded any leads at all regarding the welfare or whereabouts of Emma Beasley.

I tried contacting Wilkinson County Sheriff Reginald Jackson. I figured that, as sheriff he would know who’s who in the county, and as the first African-American to hold the office — and as a relative of the Walkers — he was likely to help.

I called Sheriff Jackson many times — at the Wilkinson County Sheriff’s Office and on his cell phone — but never reached him and never received a call back.

“Reginald Jackson will not talk to anyone in the press,” said Andy Lewis, publisher of the local Woodville Republican newspaper. “He hides out there in his office. His secretarial staff protects him.”

There are two towns in Wilkinson County: Woodville, the county seat, bordered by Louisiana to the south and the west, and Centerville, fifteen miles east. After a failed attempt to catch Jackson at the Sheriff’s office in 2009, I decided to try Centerville Police Chief Jimmy Ray Reese. An available white police chief was better than the black sheriff who was avoiding me.

I called the Centerville Police Station. Reese’s secretary confirmed he was in, and I drove there from Woodville.

“Chief, the reporter’s here,” yelled out the black woman in her thirties from the glassed-in control room by the entrance.

“Come on back,” came a shout from down the wood-paneled hallway.

Centerville Police Chief Jimmy Ray Reese.
Centerville Police Chief Jimmy Ray Reese.

The police chief was at his desk when I came in. Heavyset, red-faced and informal in his navy blue polo shirt, Reese fit the stereotype of a white southern lawman.

“Jimmy Ray Reese,” he said, introducing himself with a resonant drawl. “What can I do for ya?”

A blue Ethernet cable hung from the ceiling down to the floor by the far wall and ran to the computer under Reese’s desk. The wood paneling behind him was covered with plaques and certificates.

“Would you like some coffee?” Reese asked with a hearty smile, tipping his Styrofoam cup in my direction, a cigarette smoldering in the ashtray on his desk.

Reese remembered the Walker murder. He was ten at the time, the same age as Clifton Walker Jr.

As an adult, Reese heard more about the murder from his former boss, Wilkinson County Sheriff Burnell McGraw, who served from 1960 to ’64 and again from ’68 to ’92. Reese first worked for McGraw in the early ’70s.

“It was over him either using the white restrooms or drinking out of the white water fountain” at International Paper, Reese had heard.

“Back in those days they had the signs,” Reese said. “He’d been told don’t do one or the other. And apparently he did and he was found shot with buckshot. Something like 250 holes were found in his car.”

Federal authorities suspected that McGraw, who was not sheriff at the time of the murder, was a Klansman, and according to Reese, the FBI picked up McGraw to see what he might know about the killing. “He told them he didn’t know more than what the people on the street know,” said Reese.

I explained I was looking for Emma Beasley. The rumor was that she had moved back to Mississippi twenty or twenty-five years ago and opened up a club called Emma’s Place.

“Her name was Beasley?” Reese asked. “I know her. Me and Emma always got along real good. Emma Sims. Mary Emma is her name. Mary Emma Sims.”

“She still around?” I asked.

The International Paper Plant where Clifton Walker worked was a hotbed of racial tensions.
The International Paper Plant where Clifton Walker worked was a hotbed of racial tensions.

“Yup,” he replied, “I talked to Emma last week. She was involved?”

“She’s mentioned in the documents as having knowledge,” I explained.

“I’ve been in law enforcement in this town thirty-three years, thirty-four years in January. She’s been here ever since then. She ran a big night club. I know her quite well, and we always got along good.”

“When she ran that juke, I was the deputy and we had a lot of dealings,” Reese continued. “A lot of them at these jukes don’t like to tell you who was fighting, but she’d always point ’em out to me and have ’em arrested and try to stop things. She tried to run a pretty good place. She had a lot of pull back in them days.”

“Never heard of that name, Beasley,” Reese said, picking up a phone book. “That’s gotta be her, I mean she ran a juke. It’s turned into a church,” he added, laughing.

Reading from the phonebook, “Mary Sims,” Reese said again. “I ain’t gonna tell her you’re comin’, she might get worried. Just gonna ask her.”

As he dialed the phone, Reese yelled, “Derrick! Bring the coffee pot!”

A black teenager, seventeen or eighteen years old, came in with a full pot of coffee.

“Emma. This is Jimmy,” Reese said into the phone while holding out his cup for Derrick to pour.

“Emma, what was your maiden name?…Thompson? You ever heard of a Beasley?…That was your first husband’s name?…And then you married Robert Sims…Alright, somebody just said Mary used to be a Beasley, and I was wonderin’ about that.

“Alright then. I ain’t tryin’ to scare you. You ain’t never done nothin’. Alright, alright Emma.”

“Me and her are good friends. We really are,” Reese said, hanging up the phone. “I knew she had come from up there in Buffalo, which is about five miles north of where that road is you talked about, the Poor House Road.”

Emma’s place was just a couple of miles south of the police station, on Highway 33. “You’ll pass a John Deere tractor place,” Reese said, offering directions. “Then maybe a half-mile there be a nice brick home on the left, a little pond beside it.”

Reese’s cell phone rang. “Alright, feed your horse, and I’ll be there,” he said to the caller and hung up.

“After you pass that nice brick home,” he continued, “it be a cattle company on the right, where they haul a lot of cattle in. Straight across the road there, on the left, just past that brick house, will be a big white building and there’s a house straight up beside that big white building, a house trailer. Emma lives in that trailer.”

“You can call me anytime the day or night, and no time ever disturbs me,” Reese added. “If you need anything, just holler, and I’ll help you any way I can.”

Mary Emma Sims, also known as Emma Beasley.
Mary Emma Sims, also known as Emma Beasley.

I met Emma the next morning. She was eighty-one and tall, even as she bent to use her cane. She had small, braided pigtails pinned tightly behind her ears. She was getting over the flu and was wearing a white terrycloth robe. Her recollections closely tracked details in the 1964 highway patrol documents.

“They come down there and they questioned me,” she said. “They knocked on the door, I answered the door and they just pushed the door on over.”

Emma appeared still traumatized from her interview with the highway patrol’s Rex Armistead, who had discovered her in Louisiana, where she’d fled after the murder. During the interview in 1964, Armistead showed her crime scene photographs of Walker’s mutilated head.

“It was just his face and it was horrible. Horrible to look at,” she said. “That stayed on my mind a long, long time.”

The first time I interviewed Beasley, Emma firmly denied knowing Clifton Walker at all. This was despite the recollection of Hayward Dixon, Walker’s nephew, that Emma regularly visited the juke joint that his mother ran on the Walker family land. Hayward is adamant that Emma frequently hung out there with Clifton Walker and others.

Emma said she didn’t remember any of the people who stopped in at Nettles Truck Stop, where she worked — not Walker, not any of the members of his carpool, not the alleged conspirators who were seen there the night of the murder. She didn’t work at night, she explained. “I would cook dinner and then I would get off.”

But then Emma contradicted herself, saying, “All I remember is that he worked at the mill, in that line,” and then quickly added, nervously: “I didn’t know he worked at the mill until after this happened.”

In February 2010, I returned to interview Emma again, this time with Catherine Walker Jones accompanying me. On that occasion, Emma volunteered further, “I been to their house one time. One time.”

Emma said nothing about the murder itself, but she appeared deeply fearful.

A year after he first called me, Hentschel still had not contacted Emma Beasley, in July 2012. Reached on the phone, she told me she had gone blind from diabetes and her health was failing. She’d been hospitalized multiple times in recent months and was receiving regular home visits from nurses.

According to the Department of Justice letter to Catherine Walker Jones, the FBI finally located Emma Beasley on February 14, 2013. The letter carefully uses the word “located” rather than “contacted.”

Deborah Madden, spokesperson for the FBI’s Jackson, Mississippi field office, would not confirm or deny that Hentschel or any other FBI agent spoke to Emma Beasley.

The information reported in the Department of Justice letter to Catherine Walker Jones precisely reiterates Beasley’s claims to the highway patrol in 1964. Nothing reported reflects a present-day interaction — no new information about the case and no other information about Beasley.

Nor does the letter mention that Beasley died on June 25, 2013 — information that would surely be relevant to Catherine Walker Jones, who sat across from Beasley as she offered evasive denials in 2010.

*    *   *

In December 2013, we returned to Poor House Road. Al Jazeera English wanted to cover the closing of the Clifton Walker case and brought Catherine, Shirley and myself to Mississippi for on-location interviews. It was the sisters’ first time back at the crime scene since 2009. They were eager to speak on their father’s behalf and give voice to their disappointment with the Justice Department’s decision to close his case.

Clifton Walker Jr. stands in front of a portrait of his father.
Clifton Walker Jr. stands in front of a portrait of his father.

When we met up in Woodville, the Walker sisters seemed worn down and more subdued than in the other meetings we’d had over the six years I’ve known them. The family had been through a lot in the previous year. On November 1, 2012, Clifton Jr.’s son, Clifton Walker III, was murdered at age twenty-seven in an apparent robbery in Baker, Louisiana. His body was found in the trunk of his own vehicle. An arrest was made, and the case is still unfolding in court.

“It took him [Clifton Jr.] back in the moment when Daddy died,” Catherine said. “That was something we had to endure with Cliff.”

Then in June 2013, a small eight-passenger plane went out of control and crashed into Cliff Jr.’s home in Baker, Louisiana. “The wing clipped his house and spilled jet fuel onto his house,” explained Catherine. “He had to move out.”

And then the FBI agent arrived at Catherine’s home in New Orleans to deliver the dispiriting news. “To get that letter in November, on my mother’s birthday, November 21, 2013, to get that letter saying they closed the case, that was really a blow,” Catherine said. “They only reported what was already done. There was nothing new.”

Catherine stood on the unpaved gravel and earth between the high, tree-lined banks where, fifty years earlier, their father was found brutally murdered inside his car. She wore a black fringe leather jacket, red stencil cut flower on the lapel and a homburg hat similar to those her father wore. Shirley stood close by.

“We lost our father here. Our mother lost her husband here,” Catherine said, looking into the camera. “This place where Daddy was murdered has held all the secrets. Daddy, we are still seeking the truth. We want the world to know we will never stop.”

Shirley Walker Wright and Catherine Walker Jones at the site of their father's murder.
Shirley Walker Wright and Catherine Walker Jones at the site of their father’s murder.

While the sisters held a photo of their father for the camera, Catherine felt her legs going numb. They gave out from under her. Shirley and I caught her.

“I suffer from sciatic back pain. And a lot of stress aggravates the back,” Catherine later explained. “That’s frightening too, to realize you don’t feel your legs. I haven’t had an episode since then, matter of fact.”

In the letter to Catherine Walker Jones, the Department of Justice asserted that the FBI played a minimal role in the 1964 investigation and that highway patrol led “a disjointed investigation that failed to produce enough evidence to charge anyone in the murder.”

Yet the letter also shows that the 2009 to 2013 investigation was based almost entirely on retracing the steps of the 1964 investigation — the very investigation that the Justice Department themselves criticized. If the individuals implicated and the eyewitnesses identified in 1964 did not yield sufficient evidence for prosecution, it stands to reason that a rehash of the 1964 investigation would not lead to a prosecutable case.

Even when the FBI pursued remaining living subjects, the agents made only minimal contact. Eliciting information from a resistant source requires rapport building over time.

In other cold cases, the FBI seems to have essentially ignored sources who came forward with new information. Stanley Nelson, editor of the Concordia Sentinel in Ferriday, Louisiana, has reported extensively on two civil rights-era cold cases that were reopened under the Till Bill and closed in 2013 and 2014, respectively.

“I had individuals tell me that they contacted the FBI to tell what they knew about these cold cases, but that the bureau showed little or no interest in what they had to offer,” Nelson said. “In some cases, the caller was asked if he or she could provide ‘probative’ information — did they have evidence as to who killed who? That’s a ridiculous approach. You have to look for ‘pieces’ of the story rather than the one caller or witness who has all the answers.”

Nelson came to realize that the FBI agents could only do as much as their superiors in the Justice Department directed them to do. “Had a handful of agents working in the field been given the time and tools to do nothing but work on these cases, then they would have accomplished much more,” he said.

Rep. John Lewis, who authored the Till Bill, wishes more would be done to bring justice and peace to the victims. “The history of law enforcement in this country suggests that issues of transparency and the open admission of fault when errors have been made are a long-standing challenge,” said Lewis’s spokesperson, Brenda Jones. “The Congressman cannot presume to know what has stopped more thorough investigation, but demanding an answer to that question from the agency itself may help lead to more satisfactory progress.”

Clifton Walker's grave outside Morningstar Baptist Church, near Natchez, Mississippi.
Clifton Walker’s grave outside Morningstar Baptist Church, near Natchez, Mississippi.

“One bill will not bring a resolution to the deep-seated issues that have made these injustices possible and outstanding for decades,” Jones emphasized. “It is important for people inside and outside the government who are passionate about this issue to continue to push and pull, raise their voices, ask questions and demand answers.”

The handful of civil rights cold cases successfully prosecuted before the Till Bill were largely a matter of piecing together cases that were already there, based on investigations and court cases from the 1960s. Existing investigative documents and trial transcripts were roadmaps for establishing the cases against suspects in the more recent years.

But in the Walker case, the existing investigative work from 1964 is inconclusive. The investigative documents are rich with information that could be the basis of a fuller, more complete investigation. But that investigation was simply not undertaken.

*   *   *

Ben Greenberg is an investigative reporter and photographer based in Boston. He is a founding member of the Civil Rights Cold Case Project. His work has appeared in NPR Code Switch, USA Today, Colorlines, The American Prospect, The Clarion Ledger and elsewhere. Greenberg can be reached at minorjive@gmail.com. Follow Ben on Twitter.

Clarence Smith Jr. is a writer and visual storyteller living in New England. He is also the founder and editor-in-chief of BOLD Editiona “portfolio as publication” that explores The Bold motif through original journalistic storytelling. 

Some portions of the article are based on earlier blog posts published on Ben Greenberg’s blog, hungryblues.net.

 

 

In Most Schools, Gifted Students with Learning Disabilities Are Left Behind. Not Here.

Micaela Bracamonte was sick of seeing her sons struggle in settings that weren’t equipped for “twice exceptional” students. So she founded a school of her own.

A group of seven- and eight-year-old kids cluster around tables, solving math problems designed for students five grades ahead of them. They’re asked to add and subtract different amounts of minutes from a specific time, and are timed on how fast they can solve the problems. “So, if it’s 10:15 a.m. and you move 450 minutes into the future, what time is it? Then move 105 minutes back. What time is it now? Go!”

A tiny whiz kid tackles these problems with ease, which thrills him. Standing at about three-foot-eleven, his leg is as wide as some adults’ wrists. Unable to sit still, the invitation to show off his strategy on the board in the front of the room is met with a leap and a sprint.

“What’s the difference between this time and this number? You’ve got to subtract the fifteen minutes from 10:15 and then write the rest out as an equation,” he explains proudly. “I’m so good at this now I can see the equation in the first second! If you guys want to get fast at doing this, this is what you’ve got to do. You’ve got to use this strategy!”

The kids in this class are not just exceptionally smart. They’re “twice exceptional,” or “2e,” a term that refers to students who are academically gifted and also have learning disabilities.

A 6th-grade math class, where the students learn pre-algebra at the Lang School in Manhattan.

A co-teacher and a learning specialist accompany the head teacher in this classroom at the Lang School in Manhattan’s Financial District, an institution dedicated to twice exceptional kids. The learning specialist is consoling a girl in the corner who has been crying for over a half hour. This is a normal occurrence. She suffers from anxiety so debilitating she can’t function in a more conventional school.

Although the notion of being well above average in certain academic areas but an underperformer in others doesn’t seem too novel, twice exceptionality is rarely represented in academic literature. Compared to the amount of study and research devoted to special education and gifted education, twice exceptional education receives barely a peep. Many special and gifted education practitioners do not even know the term.

Children’s writing on the “graffiti wall” in the hallway at the Lang School. The graffiti walls are replaced each year, and the old ones are kept for posterity.

The federal government doesn’t track twice exceptionality, but, beginning in 2008, the state of Minnesota researched it during a five-year study of public primary school children. The study determined 14 percent of the gifted students studied were also learning-disabled. (The National Association for Gifted Children defines “gifted” children as having “outstanding levels of aptitude or competence in one or more domains” including math, music, language, painting, dance or sports.)

Some public-school students who are eligible for special education can have Individualized Education Programs (IEPs) developed, but many schools don’t have the resources to match twice exceptional students’ more complex requirements. Assistance may be needed for challenges with focus, organization, motivation, time management, anxiety, depression, motor skills, speech skills, memory, and socialization – as well as teaching designed for gifted students.

* * *

The Lang School was founded by Micaela Bracamonte, a 52-year-old mother who was concerned that her own twice exceptional children weren’t getting the attention and support they needed – and it’s one of just ten schools (all private) in the U.S. exclusively serving twice exceptional students.

As a twice exceptional student herself, Bracamonte’s own academic life, growing up in Bethesda, Maryland, was one of frustration, rebelliousness and conflict, fueled by a lack of support for her twice exceptionality. She could speak three languages by first grade, but was held back because she couldn’t recall the alphabet in order. By third grade, she’d read many of her school’s textbooks, but was still not allowed to advance.

As the anger from being misunderstood and alienated mixed with intellectual boredom, year after year, Bracamonte began to detest social convention and authority. She turned to athletics, pouring 30 hours a week into gymnastics and track and field training, but with bitterness. When she was about to get first, second, or third place in a race – when there was something at stake – she would stop just short of the finish line and walk off the track.

“I wanted to make a point,” she says. “I wanted my coaches and school to know I didn’t care about them, or the medals, or the accolades.”

She believed school failed her, and that pain didn’t fade. Watching her children experience similar issues lit a fire in her.

Bracamonte’s older son, Julien, 18, began his academic career in public school, where his combination of ADHD and a high IQ forced his teachers to confront a challenge they were never trained to meet. Julien was always getting up and walking around the room, a thinking tool for him but a distraction for others in that particular environment.

“Sometimes I feel I need to move around,” Julien says. “I get how that can be disruptive but sometimes I need that.”

One year, his teacher placed a rocking chair in the back of the classroom and forced Julien to sit in it at all times. She dismissed him from school at noon every day, stating that he’d already absorbed the material anyway. It became clear “normal” school was just not a viable option for him.

Micaela Bracamonte, left, Founder and Head of the Lang School, with her sons Julien and Pascal and her husband and co-founder of the school, Andreas Olsson.

Bracamonte’s younger son, Pascal, 13, was in public school for kindergarten, where the math and reading were much too simple for him, but he too has ADHD. He was enrolled at Lang by first grade.

“The math is actually hard for me now,” Pascal says, “which is good because I do really enjoy math. I studied trigonometry all of last year.”

* * *

In 2007, Bracamonte decided she’d had enough of watching her sons repeat the miserable experiences she’d had in public school, so she decided to start a new school that would cater to both their gifts and their challenges.

“I found myself spending so much time jerry-rigging my two twice exceptional kids’ educations that I created a school setting in the basement of our house, started inviting other kids into it, hired teachers, trained them, and started getting trained myself as a teacher,” Bracamonte explains. “I realized I was doing a damn good job at it, actually. So I started an official school.”

Lang School students set up a giant Jenga game during gym class. Other gym class activities include karate, yoga, ping pong, and personal training at a local gym.

Bracamonte and her husband, Andreas Olsson, now Lang’s Director for Systems and Education, decided against having a third child or buying a house so they could personally finance the school’s creation. Bracamonte traded her career as a journalist for an obsession with creating the best twice exceptional school possible, crediting her journalistic inquiry – and severe ADHD – for her success.

After hiring an education attorney to assist with writing the school’s charter, applying for and receiving 501(c)(3) non-profit status, they found commercial real estate. The space had to meet legal guidelines for a school’s architecture, so the attorney recommended an architect to hire.

Bracamonte assembled a Board of Directors consisting of some of the Northeast’s most experienced twice exceptional experts, and hired the teachers who performed best in her home-school. She then called many child psychologists to pitch Lang as a resource for the appropriate patients. Exhausted, dejected parents of twice exceptional children were overjoyed.

“I couldn’t imagine what we would have done if Lang wasn’t an option,” Joel Brenner said, mother of Micah, nine, a fourth grader with Asperger syndrome who has been a Lang student since kindergarten. “They get him and have given him an incredible sense of ‘I can do this.’”

Classes filled up. By then, it was 2009.

Lang’s tuition for twice exceptional students is $60,000 per school year, with roughly 40 percent of the student body receiving a reduced rate whereby the school is compensated the difference by New York City’s Department of Education.

Under Bracamonte’s direction, a key focus of the Lang School is to find a student’s strengths and build as much of their curriculum around them. The goal is for the student to capitalize on these strengths so they are capable of specializing in a certain area, but also to feel intrinsic motivation to cultivate more compensatory skills in other areas.

4th- and 5th-grade students listen to their teacher read the book, “Ivan,” aloud during their ELA class.

Bracamonte taught a screenwriting class with two students where one always struggled with writing. He was known among the teachers and students more for his quantitative skillsets.

“So all we did was write dialogue, because he’s a hell of a talker, and I scribed for him,” Bracamonte explains. “In an hour, we wrote a seven-minute screenplay. I’ve convinced this kid he’s a writer. His language use is magical. Step by step, I can see this kid doing this for a living. He just can’t figure out how to get it on paper on his own yet. Our job is to build that bridge.”

Lang became a lab to test out both tried-and-true and the latest research-driven methods in special education and gifted education. But Bracamonte didn’t have formal teaching credentials such as a degree in education (and still doesn’t) or prior teaching experience.

“I think I’m very lucky to not have education credentials.” Bracamonte says. “I don’t feel I’m lacking something. I’m actively avoiding them, because I don’t want to get locked into that mindset. You learn by doing, working tirelessly, self-reflection, asking questions and taking things to the next level. I’m open to risk, very comfortable with it and I tend to confront challenges head on.”

But while self-taught Bracamonte improvised with the structure and vision for the Lang School’s curriculum, pulling in new research from gifted, special and general education, some of her board members – mainstays in the twice exceptional educator community who have those education credentials Bracamonte says she can do without – wanted to stick with more time-tested methods.

Bracamonte is quick to point out that most on her staff are highly credentialed but, despite that, constructing an expertized school wasn’t her way. She continued developing an institution that was experimental compared to other twice exceptional schools, and tensions with those members of the board flared – they are no longer affiliated with Lang.

Micaela Bracamonte reads in her office at the Lang School.

One former board member, who asked not to be identified because she did not want to jeopardize relationships in the community, said Bracamonte would not acknowledge consensus educational principles, and was overly distrustful of the rest of the twice exceptional community.

“Micaela’s brilliant, she’s a visionary, but she’s very unpredictable,” she said.

Bracamonte believes the twice exceptional community has an “old guard,” as she put it: “folks involved with other twice exceptional schools, folks on my original Board, folks who have an old-fashioned, not child-centric, not parent-centric, rather elitist view of education. So I feel our school is headed towards some new territory.”

She believes the twice exceptional model her school is building for its students is potentially paradigm shifting. By studying the New York City Department of Education’s data on test scores, gifted students and Individualized Education Programs, she estimates there are at least 50,000 twice exceptional students in New York City. This doesn’t count students unrecognized because of cultural, language or economic reasons. But she knows how hard it is to run a highly unconventional school that causes even some in her niche to be skeptical.

“I know the population is huge. I know the possibilities are great. I know the scale could be large. I will work hard and continue to work hard until I’m not working anymore. We’ll see where this goes.”

 

 

This Comedian in a Wheelchair Kept Crowds in Stitches…Until a Lack of Health Care Sidelined Her

Ally Bruener used comedy to express what it's like to live with muscular dystrophy. But now she spends all her time battling Medicaid just to take care of her basic needs.

Ally Bruener starts her set bluntly: with a joke about suicide.

“I’ve realized I’m the worst degree of disabled,” she says, “because I’m too crippled to kill myself but not crippled enough to convince someone else to do it for me.”

On stage, Bruener stands out from many other comics. She’s 29 and hasn’t walked since she was seven, due to congenital muscular dystrophy (CMD). She has a wheelchair that she stays in 24 hours each day. She uses comedy as an outlet, a chance to talk openly about what it’s like to live with a disability.

Bruener came to comedy at a difficult time; she’d just dropped out of college, and she was unsure where her life was headed. She took a stand-up class at a comedy club in Louisville, thinking it would be a short-lived indulgence. Five weeks later, the class held a graduation show, and she was hooked.

Audiences may come to her shows with preconceived ideas about disability, and Bruener’s aim is to challenge those perceptions. Whether it’s sex or dating or relationships with parents, her comedy sheds light on the richness of disabled people’s lives.

Bruener performing in 2016.
Bruener performing in 2016.

“It’s always been important to me to make a point to make sure people know I’m not who you would expect me to be, and I’m proud of that,” Bruener says. “So I like to use my comedy to make people a little bit uncomfortable, because I think you have to be a little bit uncomfortable to open your mind.”

Suicide in particular became a personal challenge in her comedy. In 2009, she lost one of her best friends to it. Here was this topic that was suddenly not funny at all, she says, a test of her philosophy that humor could be found in anything. As long as suicide was untouchable, then that idea was false. So she started joking about her own suicide as a way to prove that anything can be funny.

Bruener poured herself into comedy in the years that followed that first class, traveling from her home in Alexandria, Kentucky, across the Midwest and as far as New York City to perform, with the help of her dad, Ron.

CMD is a degenerative disease that keeps muscles from rebuilding, primarily affecting the skeletal muscles. As a result, Bruener has severe scoliosis, diminished lung capacity, and can’t achieve basic tasks without support from another person. Ever since she was a kid, Bruener’s dad has helped her get up in the morning, use the bathroom, get dressed, and move about her daily life. For the past six years it’s just been the two of them, since her mother left.

“He’s probably the hardest working person I’ve ever met, I can definitely say that,” Bruener says. “He’s very dedicated to his family and his community; he always wants the best for everybody. He’s the kind of person that would give a stranger the shirt off his back. So if he’d do that for a stranger, imagine what lengths he’ll go to for his own kids.”

But last year, Ron started having knee problems, and he needed a hernia surgery, leaving him less capable of helping his daughter. He’s a maintenance worker at an apartment complex, and due to his own health problems, can only now work part-time. It became clear that just getting through the day-to-day would be a challenge for Bruener, let alone traveling for shows, which she put on hold.

* * *

Bruener decided it was time to apply for Medicaid-funded home health care. What followed was a long and still unfinished battle to receive even basic help, a process that has left her feeling helpless. While the country has debated loudly about health care in recent months – and repeated announcements from the Congressional Budget Office have shown that tens of millions of Americans would lose their health insurance under Republican plans to repeal Obamacare – Bruener’s story is indicative of what happens when funding is inadequate for even some of the most clearly established recipients of Medicaid.

Even as dramatic Senate scenes have played out, ultimately killing promises to repeal the Affordable Care Act, Medicaid beneficiaries like Bruener are already struggling with an underfunded system.

People with disabilities are clearly covered under Medicaid for home health care, but Bruener has run up against considerable problems in receiving basic assistance. She’s dealt with overly complicated applications, a lack of information, unreliable services from nursing agencies and a lack of options for caregivers. When Bruener calls the state, people taking the calls can’t even understand her well because of her breathing machine, which affects how she talks.

Lately, Bruener has been stuck at home while all of this plays out, unable to leave the house or even use the bathroom and shower regularly.

“My health is on the line because only peeing five times a week is going to result in internal infections, kidney disease, and probably pressure sores,” she says. “Beyond the medical issues, I am losing every sense of myself. I have no access to my community. I have no way to contribute to the greater good. I’ve invested so much of myself to building my comedy career and it’s feeling irrelevant. It’s left me questioning my value and purpose. If nothing changes, I will be in a nursing home before I turn 30. If it comes to that, I fear for my mental and emotional health.”

Her fight has been underscored by a lengthy political showdown in Kentucky over the state’s application of Medicaid, the government-subsidized program that supports health care for low-income people, pregnant mothers, elderly adults, children in foster care, and people with disabilities.

Months before President Donald Trump was elected to office and Congressional Republicans began a campaign to repeal the Affordable Care Act (ACA), Kentucky Governor Matt Bevin released a controversial Medicaid plan that would cut some entitlements and refocus the program around “personal responsibility.” At the time, Bevin, a Republican, was rolling back a Medicaid expansion that had been put in place through the ACA by his Democratic predecessor, Steve Beshear.

While Bevin has suggested that his plan is aimed at getting able-bodied adults to work, disabled people are losing access to care, as well, because home health agencies have seen a cut in their funding from the government.

When she began looking for help in the spring of 2016, Bruener couldn’t get straight answers on how to apply for the service.

“I’d call the numbers the state had listed online and would get transferred multiple times before ending up back at the person I had called initially,” she says. “I submitted my online application in mid-July and never got a response.”

A couple months later, she was told her application was effectively invalid because she hadn’t included newly required paperwork that no one had asked her for. Her application was eventually approved in October, and then she had to set about finding an agency to take her case. She waited for information from the state, but got none. But by that point, her dad needed surgery and couldn’t assist her anymore. She had to use her savings to pay strangers from social media to help her in home, and quickly ran out of money.

“It’s hell. It just is the closest to hell I’ve ever felt,” she says. “There’s no faster way to feeling like you don’t have control of your life than dealing with the government. When I started the process to try to get help, I was optimistic. I thought if I took a few bullets, it wouldn’t be this huge headache or this huge battle. And I wasn’t mentally prepared for what it turned into and what it’s still being.”

Ally Bruener in 2010.
Ally Bruener in 2010.

After talking to a network of people with disabilities, she found out how to receive care, but was told she only qualified for nine hours of care each week. When she signed up with a home care agency, she found that understaffing meant assistants were only available for about an hour each day. She’s since become eligible for up to twice as much assistance from her agency, but says it’s irrelevant because the nurses can only come when their schedules allow. But that covers only the most basic needs – as she puts it, enough just to not die. And as a person with a disability and no college degree, job prospects are limited. Comedy doesn’t pay that well, she says, unless you have a massive fan base.

“I mean, one thing is, I could decide to do porn. That’s not out of the question,” Bruener says somewhat jokingly, referencing GimpsGoneWild.com. “It could be kind of poetic, actually, if it came to that – in my mind, the handicapped girl who can’t get adequate health care doing porn just so she doesn’t die. That would be a good slap in the face to all the good Christians in our government.”

But beyond being stuck at home, unable to move around and take care of errands, let alone take care of herself, Bruener is also having to forgo her main creative outlet. Without comedy, she can’t interact with her community or support friends who are chasing their dreams. She can’t vent through stories she tells on stage to turn hardship into humor.

“My voice isn’t one that gets heard all that much,” she says. “[Comedy] was a way of kind of coping with that fact of making myself heard, making myself be listened to by a bunch of strangers, just because I never really had a lot of normal human interaction… It was kind of a way for me to fill my quota of feeling like a part of the world.”

Most days she stays home and uses the computer, waiting for either one of the home care workers or her dad to help her achieve some basic chores. She uses Facebook and writes about her situation, shares articles about Bevin’s health care plans and tries to stay connected to her friends.

But until she can get back on stage, she’s stuck fighting to get the assistance she needs just to get through the day.

Recently, she was able to make a trip to the state capitol addressing expected changes to the home care program. Despite having limited mobility lately, she managed to travel the nearly two hours to Frankfort for a public meeting, where she said the government was acknowledging that the system is broken.

Bruener says they were taking their time with a decision, trying not to make mistakes with any new changes. At the meeting she attended, administrators simply listened to people’s stories. Kentucky is already plagued by a contentious health care debate as Bevin attempts to cut Medicaid for poor adults in the state.

She’s optimistic, but doesn’t expect changes to come any time soon or to improve her situation too much.

“It’s frustrating. It doesn’t have to be this way,” she says. “But society continues to allow this sort of behavior, and they don’t see the issues and therefore they don’t see the need to fix the issues. Even though there’s been a lot of back and forth about how society views people with disabilities, there’s still a long way to go. I’m still not seen as socially equal as an able-bodied person. That’s not saying there aren’t people who do see me as equal, but society as a whole still sees me very much as a second-class citizen.”

Bruener posted on Facebook recently that she’s decided to leave Kentucky in search of a state that will better meet her needs. She’s narrowed the list to six states, all of which have favorable Medicaid rules and more opportunity for her to get the help she needs and, hopefully, get back on stage.

 

 

Babies For Sale: The Secret Adoptions That Haunt One Georgia Town

In midcentury Appalachia, an intrepid doctor sold newborns to desperate couples. Today they’re all grown up, and seeking answers.

On a humid August day in the small mountain town of McCaysville, Georgia, Sandy Dearth stands in front of the building where, 53 years ago, a nurse secretly and illegally handed her out a back window to a pair of eager and nervous adoptive parents. Sandy, who has not been back here since that day in 1963, is holding her husband Bill’s hand tightly. A lifetime of searching has led her to this moment.

The building she faces is divided into several units: at one end rests a BBQ joint, at the other a pizza place. In between, poison ivy grows along the peeling painted brick walls and a faded FOR RENT sign hangs in the window. This forlorn space is where the Hicks Community Clinic once operated. In addition to providing standard healthcare for members of this declining mining town, the clinic offered clandestine abortions and adoptive services to desperate girls and young women. Sandy’s biological mother was one of them.

Sandy Dearth and her husband Bill view the former Hicks Community Clinic, the site of Sandy’s birth and illegal adoption.
Sandy Dearth and her husband Bill view the former Hicks Community Clinic, the site of Sandy’s birth and illegal adoption. (Photos by Matthew Steven Bruen)

“The person that bore me,” she says, her blue-green eyes shining, “how must they have felt? Were they scared? Did they have to? Did they want to? Were they forced to? Why didn’t they abort me? What happened? Are they alive?” She pauses, catches her breath. This is the closest she has ever come to this phantom woman. Despite a gulf of fifty-plus years, Sandy feels her presence here.

She walks around to the alley behind the building and pauses in front of the window where she was passed to her now deceased adoptive parents all those years ago. Tears again fall down her face. She breathes deeply, and steels herself.

“I can’t believe my parents actually came down here and did this.” She laughs. It is a light-hearted sound, one full of love. “Knowing that this was all illegal. I mean, I know my parents. My parents would not do this, OK? They wouldn’t even throw a piece of paper out the window of their car. No way. And they drove down in the middle of the night? Only had this many hours to come get a baby. Got me through a window! Holy cow. ‘And do not contact anyone,’ they said to them, ‘we’ll forge you a birth certificate.’ And they did this?”

Indeed they did, along with the adoptive parents of approximately 212 other children who have become known as the Hicks Babies, after Dr. Thomas Jugarthy Hicks.

Side door of the now abandoned Hicks Clinic.
Side door of the now abandoned Hicks Clinic.

Starting in 1955 and running through the early 1960s, Hicks offered secretive abortions and adoptions here. Eventually, in 1964, he was caught performing an abortion and was summarily stripped of his medical license. He died in 1972 and it took three decades before Hicks’ actions were brought to light. In 1997, news of the scandal broke, as several Hicks Babies began digging into their past. The story made national news, resurfacing again in 2014, when the Babies teamed up with Ancestry.com and ABC News to conduct DNA tests on themselves and members of the nearby community. The researchers made several matches, and the Babies met many long-lost cousins and siblings. A very small number were reconnected with their birth parents.

Although their search for their origins has been documented – some might even say exploited – what remains unseen is the powerful relationship the Hicks Babies share with each other and to the place that is and isn’t their hometown. It is a story punctuated by emotional reunions with individuals who have spent decades helping to undo the damage caused so many years ago. And it is a story of the unique and deep comradeship that has arisen amongst this most unusual of groups.

* * *

When Dr. Hicks began his illicit practice, abortions were illegal in the United States. The poverty here in the Copper Basin of southeast Tennessee and far north Georgia, which includes the town of McCaysville, often meant that pregnant women couldn’t ask a relative or friend to help raise their children. The extra mouths to feed were simply too expensive. Stories of young girls dying from botched abortions in the early ’50s still exist in the living memories of those from the region. It is possible that deaths like these convinced Dr. Hicks that something needed to be done.

Dr. Thomas Hicks. (Photo courtesy of Melinda Dawson)
Dr. Thomas Hicks. (Photo courtesy of Melinda Dawson)

“Hicks was providing a service,” says Ken Rush flatly. Rush is the director of the Ducktown Basin Museum, a small institution devoted to preserving the history of the area. He sits at a table with his hands resting calmly in front of him. Directly behind him is a display case filled with the various chemicals manufactured in the factories that once served as the area’s primary economic engines.

“If there was no demand for the service,” Rush continues, “Hicks would not have been doing it. He wasn’t going around knocking girls up and holding them hostage in his apartment until they delivered their babies so he could sell them.” Like many people who live and work in the Copper Basin, Rush is frustrated by sensationalist portrayals of Dr. Hicks.

“But people believe that.” His voice drops and he imitates a morally outraged newscaster: “‘He’s sellin’ babies!’ No, he did not keep records. Why would he keep records? The second the adoption was completed and the family took the child he got rid of any paper trail.” It is this gap that fuels the conspiracy theorists, according to Rush.

Rush rejects the rumors that Hicks intentionally impregnated young girls, put them up in his home, and then sold his own children for profit. He rejects the claim that Hicks became incredibly wealthy because of his actions. And he rejects the belief that Hicks hid his records somewhere and that they are out there, waiting to be found.

The barren landscape between Copperhill, Tennessee and McCaysville, Georgia. (Photo courtesy of Ducktown Basin Museum).
The barren landscape between Copperhill, Tennessee and McCaysville, Georgia. (Photo courtesy of Ducktown Basin Museum).

“Look,” he states, “it’s all very simple. Word got out. There’s a doctor in the mountains. Call him, he can help you. It’s not exciting. It’s not scandalous. And what do we like as a society? We like scandal. We like dirty laundry. We like it to be nefarious.”

* * *

After she pauses for photos in front of her birthplace, Sandy Dearth huddles with her daughter Crystal and two fellow Hicks Babies, Melinda Dawson and Cyndy Stapleton. They have returned here for Sandy, to show her where she came from. “There’s someone I think you should meet, Sandy,” Melinda says gently. “It’s just a short walk from here.”

Melinda, 53, is the de facto leader of the Hicks Babies. She is tall and redheaded, the product of an ancestry she does not fully know. Perhaps more than any other adoptee, her life has been marked by tragedy. Not only was she illegally adopted out of the Hicks Clinic, but her adoptive mother was murdered in 1998. Her husband at the time, Clarence Elkins, was falsely convicted of the slaying. But through the use of DNA evidence, Elkins was exonerated and the real perpetrator was ultimately discovered. Melinda has also survived a bout with cancer.

Melinda leads the way to a small white house that sits on the banks of the Toccoa River. She walks around to the back, where a southern-style screened porch is adorned with rocking chairs and vibrant plants. She rings a bell and waits. A graceful 88-year old named Doris Abernathy appears. Melinda’s presence on the porch comes as an unexpected but welcome surprise. As the visitors take seats on the porch, Melinda introduces Sandy. “She’s here for the first time since her birth, Doris,” Melinda says.

Doris’ thin body shakes with emotion. She embraces Sandy like she would a long-lost relative, clutching her tight, eyes brimming with tears. “I’ve seen your picture before,” she says. “I’m so glad you came.”

After releasing Sandy, Doris takes a seat and begins to hold court, telling the women, “I have enjoyed all of you. I am so proud of all you.” Doris explains that her kin were close with the Hicks family, that they were neighbors and friends. She is one of the only people still living who was a contemporary to Hicks and knew him well. She also knew some of the birth mothers who gave away their children at Hicks’ clinic.

Like Ken Rush, she expresses dismay at “newspaper people” who are only interested in “sleaze” and have misrepresented him. “He was a very generous person. He and Mrs. Hicks were so kind to so many people. I never knew anyone so generous. He did a lot for this town,” she pauses and looks up at the Hicks Babies. “I saw him do more good than I think he did harm. I’m not saying he was perfect. I’m saying I saw the man do a lot of good.”

The state line that divides Copperhill, Tennessee from McCaysville, Georgia.
The state line that divides Copperhill, Tennessee from McCaysville, Georgia.

Melinda speaks up, and softly pushes back: “I just wish he would have gave us a future to come back and be able to find our history.” Doris shakes her head and explains, “Honey, he would have been put in prison.” The answer does not sit well with the Hicks Babies. The lack of records is the most significant hindrance in their search for their origins. Either Hicks didn’t keep any records at all, or he destroyed them. To this day, none have been discovered. The only paper trail he left were the falsified birth certificates, which of course do not include the names of the babies’ biological parents.

“With us, we weren’t given a chance to find out who or where we’re from,” Melinda says.

“You go through life thinking, ‘who do I look like?’, ‘why do my kids have this disease?’” Cyndy says, echoing her sentiment. “The medical situation. It’s terrible. We are all getting to the age when this really starts to matter. And we don’t know what to expect.”

Sandy’s daughter Crystal, who has spent years working to uncover her family’s history, steers the discussion back to the birth mothers who came to McCaysville to have their babies – or to abort them.

“A lot of girls that came weren’t connected to the people in the town, were they?” Crystal asks.

Doris’s answer surprises her. “I’m sure there were people away from here that found out about Dr. Hicks,” she says. “But now, I’d say the majority were local people. From my experience. They were from around here.”

Sandy contemplates the notion that she is sitting in her mother’s hometown.

“Someone was kind enough to give me life,” she says, her voice choked with an amalgam of sadness and love and pain and hope. “And I want to thank her.”

“Think of it this way,” Doris says in response. “You had someone who didn’t have an abortion. They had their little baby. And you were fortunate someone came and got you. You have been loved twice. You’ve been doubly blessed.”

Doris Abernathy sits in a rocking chair on her back porch.
Doris Abernathy sits in a rocking chair on her back porch.

Doris Abernathy is not the only member of the Copper Basin community who expresses a positive opinion about Dr. Hicks and his actions – something that has seldom been explored by news coverage of the Hicks Babies.

“I liked him. He birthed me. I came into the world in his hands,” says Bill Dalton, who sits at a long table in the special collections of Young Harris College’s library, surrounded by rare volumes of books while he looks through old photographs of the institution from back when he was enrolled here.

“He made contributions to almost all of the charities in town. He was a leader,” explains Dalton, who grew up in Copperhill, the town adjacent to McCaysville. He goes on to offer words of encouragement and love toward the Hicks Babies: “I would never fault anyone for searching for their origins. I feel for them. I hope they are successful.”

* * *

“It’s not about Dr. Hicks anymore,” Melinda says, “it’s about us.” The Hicks Babies and their supporters sit around a table at a local restaurant. They are tired and hungry following their emotional return to McCaysville and need some time to recharge. “We have become our own family. We may have lost the ability to contact our birth parents, but we’ve gained each other.”

The entire group echoes her sentiment. “The connections I’ve formed to these women and the others who are not here today is one of the most unexpected and lovely outcomes of this horrible situation,” Cyndy declares. Unlike Sandy and Melinda, Cyndy was reunited with her birth mother. But instead of providing closure, the reunion opened up more questions than answers. “I did get to meet two of my birth brothers. But my mother didn’t give me the full story,” Cyndy says, “apparently, there are three other birth brothers out there. I never got the answers I was looking for.”

The Hicks Babies pose for a photograph with Doris Abernathy. From left to right: Sandy Dearth, Doris Abernathy, Melinda Dawson, and Cyndy Stapleton.
The Hicks Babies pose for a photograph with Doris Abernathy. From left to right: Sandy Dearth, Doris Abernathy, Melinda Dawson, and Cyndy Stapleton.

“Oh!” Cyndy exclaims, “Linda is going to make it. She’s only a few minutes away.” Sure enough, Linda Davis arrives shortly thereafter. She is a small, grey-haired woman who is vibrant and exceptionally witty. After doling out several hugs and smiles, she takes a seat at the table. Linda was the area’s probate judge when the Hicks Babies story first made national headlines in the 1990s, and she aided the Babies in their search. She has since maintained ties with them for over twenty years.

“Although I sometimes feel like I am not necessarily welcome in town,” Melinda says, “support from people like Linda shows us that a large segment of the community cares, that they accept us as their own. And we are.”

The subject changes to the group’s final destination: Crestlawn Cemetery. This is where Dr. Thomas Jugarthy Hicks is interred. “Is it true that authorities opened the Hicks mausoleum to search for records pertaining to the Hicks Babies?” asks Crystal. “Oh yes,” answers Linda. “I was there.”

“I was convinced something was in there,” Linda states. “It is so odd that Hicks himself is not in the mausoleum. He is buried right beside it, but not in it.” An empty tomb. Missing birth records. Decades of uncertainty. It is easy to understand why people believed something was behind those doors. “When they opened it up there was great excitement. But there was nothing in it. There’s nothing there,” Linda says definitively.

For her part, local resident Theresa Starnes offers a plausible explanation. “I heard that at the time of his death there was concern that in the future people would want to break in and either steal or desecrate his body. That could be why he isn’t in the tomb.”

As the group finishes lunch, Melinda says, “Are we ready to go to the cemetery?” Everyone nods and moves to their cars. Like a funeral procession, 44 years late, they all follow each other to the graveyard.

* * *

Crestlawn Cemetery rests on the top of a hill overlooking the blue-green peaks of the Blue Ridge Mountains. It is a stunning place, offering peaceful views to those who mourn their dead. Two mausoleums rise above the simpler graves. One of them is the empty tomb of Thomas Hicks. It is not lost on the women that the money Hicks made from selling them as babies might have contributed to the purchase of this unused place of repose.

The unoccupied Hicks tomb looms over Crestlawn Cemetery. Dr. Hicks’ grave is a few feet away.
The unoccupied Hicks tomb looms over Crestlawn Cemetery. Dr. Hicks’ grave is a few feet away.

Once the entire group has arrived, they congregate around the tomb. It shows signs of damage since their last visit. “It looks like someone tried to break in,” says Crystal. “Maybe teenagers, or maybe opportunists who still think it holds those records.” Despite their mixed feelings toward the man who guided them into the world, the Babies espouse disgust at this vandalism.

Sandy asks to see Hicks’ gravestone. Melinda points it out to her and brushes away grass clippings from the cemetery’s recent mowing.

THOMAS JUGARTHY HICKS, M.D.

OCT. 18, 1888     MARCH 5, 1972

WE LOVED THEE FOR THY ASTUTE MIND

BUT WE LOVED THEE BETTER FOR A HEART

THAT WAS GENTLE AND KIND.

GREEN SOD ABOVE LIE LIGHT, LIE LIGHT

GOOD NIGHT DEAD DAD, GOOD NIGHT GOOD NIGHT

It is telling that the stone describes Hicks as having an “astute mind” and a “heart that was gentle and kind.” To those standing around his grave on this hot August day, these lines are a subtle gesture to the actions that brought them into the world.

“I still don’t know,” Melinda says. “I owe my life to him, but he has also been the cause of so much pain and suffering. I don’t know. He let loose some real chaos into this world.”

* * *

If anyone has any information pertaining to the Hicks Babies and their continued search for their birth parents and related family, please visit their Facebook page for more information.

 

 

The Day My Therapist Dared Me to Have Sex With Her

My analyst and I grew more intimately connected each week of treatment...but I never saw this indecent proposal coming.

It’s the waning moments of my fourth session with a new therapist. I’m holding back — and she knows it. My entire body feels tense, not ideal for the setting. I try to relax, but the plush leather couch crumples under me when I shift, making the movements extraordinary. I’ve barely looked into my therapist’s blue eyes at all, and yet I think the hour has gone very well. Of course it has. On the surface, when the patient has been highly selective of the discussion topics, therapy always resembles a friendly get-together.

“Well,” my therapist, Lori, says, the millisecond after I become certain our time is up and I might be in the clear. “I don’t think I should let you go until we’ve at least touched on what was put out there at the end of last week’s session.”

I so supremely wanted this not to come up. My eyelids tighten, my mouth puckers to the left, and my head tilts, as though I’m asking her to clarify.

“When you said you’re attracted to me,” she continues.

“Oh, yeah,” I say. “That.”

Back in session three Lori was trying to build my self-esteem, the lack of which is one of the reasons I’m in treatment. Within the confines of my family, I’ve always been the biggest target of ridicule. We all throw verbal darts around as though we’re engaged in a massive, drunken tournament at a bar, but the most poisonous ones seem to hit me the most often, admittedly somewhat a consequence of my own sensitivity. I’ve been told it was historically all part of an effort to toughen me up, but instead I was filled with towering doubts about my own worth. And since 2012, when I gave up a stable, tenured teaching career for the wildly inconsistent life of a freelance writer, I’ve had great difficulty trusting my own instincts and capabilities. I told Lori that I wish I was better at dealing with life’s daily struggles instead of constantly wondering if I’ll be able to wade through the thick.

She quickly and convincingly pointed out that I work rather hard and am, ultimately, paying my bills on time, that I have friends, an appreciation for arts and culture, and so on. In short, I am, in fact, strong, responsible and “pretty good at life.”

Then Lori heightened the discussion a bit. “I also feel that it is your sensitivity that makes you a great catch out there in the dating world,” she said, to which I involuntarily smiled, blushed and quickly buried my chin in my chest. I was too insecure and too single to handle such a compliment from a beautiful woman.

“Why are you reacting that way?” Lori asked.

I shrugged my shoulders, only half looking up.

“Is it because you’re attracted to me?”

I laughed a little, uncomfortably. “How did you know?”

She gently explained she could tell the day I walked into her office for the first time, after I flashed a bright smile and casually asked where she was from.

Now, a week after dropping that bomb, Lori asks, “So, why haven’t we talked about it?”

“I was hoping to avoid it, I suppose.” I tell her the whole notion of having the hots for a therapist is such a sizable cliché that I was embarrassed to admit it. “For Christ’s sake,” I say, throwing my hands up, “Tony Soprano even fell in love with his therapist.”

Lori snorts, rolls her eyes. “I knew you were going to say that.”

I smile, shake my head and look around the room, denying acceptance of my own ridiculous reality.

“It’s OK,” Lori says, grinning. “We can talk about this in here.”

I look again at her stark blue eyes, prevalent under dark brown bangs, the rest of her hair reaching the top of her chest, which is hugged nicely by a fitted white tee under an open button-down. She jogs often, I’d come to find out, which explains her petite figure and ability to probably pull off just about any outfit of her choosing.

I still can’t speak, so she takes over.

“Do you think you’re the first client that’s been attracted to their therapist?” she asks rhetorically. “I’ve had other clients openly discuss their feelings, even their sexual fantasies involving me.”

“What?” I cackle, beginning to feel as though I’ve moseyed onto the set of a porno.

“It’s true,” she says, acknowledging her desk. “What’s yours? Do you bend me over and take me from behind?”

Nailed it.

“If that’s what you’re thinking, it’s OK,” she goes on, earnestly, explaining that she’s discussed sexual scenarios with her clients before so as to “normalize” the behavior and not have them feel their own thoughts are unnatural. By showing the patient a level of acceptance, she hopes to facilitate a more comfortable atmosphere for “the work” — her painfully accurate pseudonym for psychotherapy.

I take a second to let the red flow out of my face, and ponder what she said. I’m a little unsure about this whole technique, but the more I think about it, the more it makes sense. So I go home, incredibly turned on and completely unashamed.

* * *

One of the great breakthroughs I’ve had in the thirteen months since I began seeing Lori (who agreed to participate in this article, but requested that her full name not be published) is a new ability to accept the existence of dualities in life. For instance, I’ve always had a tremendous sense of pride that, if it doesn’t straddle the line of arrogance, certainly dives into that hemisphere from time to time. I’m great at seeing flaws in others and propping myself up above them by smugly observing my character strengths. I’ve never liked that about myself, but the harder concept to grasp is the fact that I can be so egotistical while also stricken with such vast quantities of insecurity.

In treatment I came to realize that all people have contradictions to their personalities. There’s the insanely smart guy who can’t remotely begin to navigate a common social situation, the charitable girl who devotes all her time to helping strangers, but won’t confront issues in her own personal relationships. In my case, my extreme sensitivity can make me feel fabulous about the aspects of myself that I somehow know are good (my artistic tastes) and cause deep hatred of those traits I happen to loathe (the thirty pounds I could stand to lose).

My next session with Lori is productive. We speak about relationships I’ve formed with friends and lovers, and how my family may have informed those interactions. One constant is that I put crudely high expectations on others, mirroring those thrown upon me as a kid. I’m angered when people don’t meet those expectations, and absolutely devastated when I don’t reach them. Lori points out that it must be “exhausting trying to be so perfect all the time.” I am much more comfortable than I was the week prior, and can feel myself being more candid. I’m relieved that the whole being-attracted-to-my-therapist thing doesn’t come up.

Then, a week later, Lori mentions it, and I become tense again.

“I thought I’d be able to move past it,” I say, adding, “We aired it out, and it’s fine.”

As definitive as I’m trying to sound, Lori is just as defiant.

“I’m glad you feel that way,” she begins, “but I think you owe yourself some kudos. This kind of therapy,” she shares, “isn’t something just anyone can take on.” Such honest discussion doesn’t simply happen, it takes tremendous guts, and Lori can see that I am dealing with it relatively well, so I should praise my own efforts.

“Shit, we both should be proud of ourselves,” she says. “It’s not easy on the therapist either, you know.”

“Why not?”

“Because talking openly about sex is risky at any time, much less with a client.” She explains that therapists are warned any semblance of intimacy can be easily misconstrued. “We learn in our training to not personally disclose, for example,” she says, but adds that, occasionally, transparency can be helpful.

“Still, with you,” she continues, “until I raised the question, I didn’t know for sure that you would go with it; for all I knew you’d run out of here and never come back to risk being so uncomfortable again.”

She’s building my confidence more, and I’m learning that I play a much bigger role in how my life is conducted than I often realize. My treatment wouldn’t be happening if I weren’t enabling it.

Then she says, “And don’t think it’s not nice for me to hear that a guy like you thinks I’m beautiful.”

Crippled by the eroticism of the moment, and combined with the prevailing notion that no woman this stunning could ever be romantically interested in me, I flounder through words that resemble, “Wait…what?”

“If we were somehow at a bar together, and you came over and talked to me,” she says, then flips her palms up innocently, “who knows?”

I laugh again and tell her there’d be almost no chance of me approaching her because I’d never feel like I had a shot in hell.

“Well, that’s not the circumstances we’re in,” she says. “But you might. Who knows?”

I’m confused — Is she really attracted to me or is this some psychotherapeutic ruse? I’m frustrated — I told her I didn’t really want to talk about it. Shouldn’t she be more sensitive to my wants here? I’m angry — Is she getting an ego boost out of this? Most of all, I don’t know what the next step is — Am I about to experience the hottest thing that’s ever happened to a straight male since the vagina was invented?

There were two ways to find out:

1) Discontinue the therapy, wait for her outside her office every day, follow her to a hypothetical happy hour and ask her out, or

2) Keep going to therapy.

* * *

A week later, I’m physically in the meeting room with Lori, but mentally I haven’t left the recesses of my mind.

“Where are you today?” she asks, probably noticing my eyes roving around the room.

“I don’t know.”

“Are you still grappling with the sexual tension between us?”

Here we go again.

“Yes,” I say, with a bit of an edge in my voice, “and I don’t know what to do about it.”

Lori, ever intently, peers into my eyes, wrinkles her mouth and slightly shakes her head.

“Do you want to have sex with me?” she asks.

We both know the answer to that question. All I can do is stare back.

“Let’s have sex,” she announces. “Right here, right now.”

“What?” I respond, flustered.

“Let’s go!” she says a little louder, opening up her arms and looking around as if to say the office is now our playground, and, oh, the rollicking fun we’d have mixing bodily fluids.

“No,” I tell her, “You don’t mean that.”

“What if I do?” she shoots back. “Would you have sex with me, now, in this office?”

“Of course not.”

“Why ‘of course not’? How do I know for sure that you won’t take me if I offer myself to you?”

“I wouldn’t do that.”

“That’s what I thought,” she says, and tension in the room decomposes. “Mike, I don’t feel that you would do something that you think is truly not in our best interest, which is exactly why I just gave you the choice.”

Her offer was a lesson in empowerment, helping me prove that I have an innate ability to make the right choices, even if I’d so desperately prefer to make the wrong one.

I see what she means. I’m awfully proud of myself, and it’s OK to be in this instance. I’m gaining trust in myself, and confidence to boot. But, as the dualities of life dictate, I’m successfully doing “the work” with a daring therapist, while at the same time not entirely convinced she isn’t in need of an ethical scrubbing.

* * *

I don’t have another session with Lori for nearly three months, because she took a personal leave from her place of employment. When our sessions finally resumed, I could not wait to tell her about my budding relationship with Shauna.

Ten minutes into my first date with Shauna — right about the time she got up from her bar stool and said she was “going to the can” — I knew she would, at the very least, be someone I was going to invest significant time in. She was as easy to talk to as any girl I’d ever been with, and I found myself at ease. Plans happened magically without anxiety-inducing, twenty-four-hour waits between texts. Her quick wit kept me entertained, and I could tell by the way she so seriously spoke about dancing, her chosen profession, that she is passionate about the art form and mighty talented too. Shauna is beautiful, with flawless hazel eyes and straight dark hair, spunky bangs and a bob that matches her always-upbeat character. She is a snazzy dresser and enjoys a glass of whiskey with a side of fried pickles and good conversation as much as I do.

Things escalated quickly, but very comfortably, and since we’d both been in our fair share of relationships, we knew the true power of honesty and openness. So upon the precipice of my return to therapy I told Shauna about Lori, and admitted to having mixed feelings about what I was getting back into. I told her I was at least moderately uncertain if my mental health was Lori’s number-one concern since she always seemed to find the time to mention my attraction to her.

The first two sessions of my therapeutic reboot had gone great. Lori appeared genuinely thrilled that I was dating Shauna and could see how happy I was. I wasn’t overwhelmed with sexual tension in the new meeting room, though it wasn’t actually spoken about, and in the back of my mind I knew it was just a matter of time before it would start to affect my ability to disclose my thoughts to Lori again.

Then, while attempting to ingratiate myself with my new girlfriend’s cat by spooning food onto his tiny dish on the kitchen floor, I hear my phone ding from inside the living room.

“You got a text, babe,” Shauna says. “It’s from Lori.”

“‘I’m so impressed with you and the work you’re doing…’” Shauna reads off my phone from inside the living room, inquisitively, and not happily. I stuff the cat food back into the Tupperware and toss it into the refrigerator. I make my way into the living room, angry at myself for not changing the settings on my new iPhone to disallow text previews on the locked screen. Shauna’s walking too, and we meet near the kitchen door. “What’s this?” she says, holding up the phone. “Your therapist texts you?”

I take the phone from Shauna and say the most obvious, cliché-sounding thing: “It’s not what it seems.”

As I text back a curt “thanks,” Shauna tells me she’s going to ask her sister, a therapist herself, if it’s OK to text patients.

“Don’t do that.” I say, a little more emphatically. “I promise, this is nothing to be worried about. We’re not doing anything wrong.” I explain that Lori’s just trying to build my self-esteem.

“The only reason I’m even bringing this up is because you said you weren’t sure about her in the first place,” Shauna reminds me. I can tell she regrets looking at my phone without my permission, but I completely understand her feelings.

At my next session I tell Lori that Shauna saw her text and wasn’t thrilled about it.

“She probably feels cheated on to some degree,” Lori says. “A relationship between a therapist and a patient can oftentimes seem much more intimate than the one between a romantic couple.”

Lori goes on to point out that the reason she feels we can exchange texts, blurring the lines between patient/doctor boundaries — a hot topic in the psychotherapy world these days — is because she trusts that I’ll respect her space and privacy. “You’ve proven that much to me,” she says.

On my walk home, instead of being angry at Lori, I understand her thinking behind the text. But I’m also nervous about how Lori and Shauna can ever coexist in my life.

Isn’t therapy supposed to ameliorate my anxiety?

* * *

A week later, Lori begins our session by handing me a printout explaining the psychotherapeutic term “erotic transference” written by Raymond Lloyd Richmond, PhD. It says that erotic transference is the patient’s sense that love is being exchanged between him or herself and the therapist — the exact sensation I was experiencing with Lori, of which she was astutely aware.

According to Richmond, one of the primary reasons people seek therapy is because “something was lacking in their childhood family life,” perhaps “unconditional nurturing guidance and protection.” Upon feeling “noticed” and “understood” by a qualified therapist, sometimes a patient can be “intoxicated” by their therapist’s approval of them. A patient may in turn contemplate that a love is blossoming between them, and, in fact, it sort of is.

From an ethical standpoint, Richmond argues all therapists are “bound” to love their patients, for therapists are committed to willing “the good of all clients by ensuring that all actions within psychotherapy serve the client’s need to overcome the symptoms” which brought them into treatment. This takes genuine care and acceptance on their part. However, a patient can easily confuse the love they feel with simple “desire.” They’re not quite in love with their therapist, so much as they yearn for acceptance from someone, and in those sessions they just happen to be receiving it from their doctor.

Lori tells me that, all along, she has been “working with what I gave her” and that because I flirted with her a bit, she used that to her advantage in the treatment. In employing countertransference — indicating that she had feelings for me — she was keeping me from feeling rejected and despising my own thoughts and urges.

“There’s two people alone in a room together, and if they’re two attractive people, why wouldn’t they be attracted to each other?” says Dr. Galit Atlas. A psychoanalyst who’s had her own private practice for fifteen years, Dr. Atlas has an upcoming book titled The Enigma of Desire: Sex, Longing and Belonging in Psychoanalysis, and I sought her as an independent source for this essay to help me understand Lori’s therapeutic strategies.

Dr. Atlas explains that there are certain boundaries that cannot be crossed between therapist and patient under any circumstances — like having sex with them, obviously. But many other relationship borders can be mapped out depending on the comfort level of the therapist, as long as they stay within the scope of the profession’s ethics, which complicates the discussion surrounding erotic transference.

“As a therapist, I have a role,” Dr. Atlas says. “My role is to protect you.” She says it is incumbent on the therapist to not exploit the patient for the therapist’s own good, but admits that the presence of erotic transference in therapy brings about many challenges. “[Attraction] is part of the human condition,” she observes. In therapy, “the question then is: What do you do with that? Do you deny it? Do you talk about it? How do you talk about it without seducing the patient and with keeping your professional ability to think and to reflect?”

I ask her about the benefits of exploring intimacy in therapy, and Dr. Atlas quickly points out that emotional intimacy — though not necessarily that of the sexual brand — is almost inevitable and required. “An intimate relationship with a therapist can [be] a reparative experience — repairing childhood wounds — but mostly it’s about helping the patient to experience and tolerate emotional intimacy, analyzing the client’s anxieties about being vulnerable and every mechanism one uses in order to avoid being exposed.”

Dr. Atlas says this topic speaks to every facet of the therapeutic relationship, regardless of gender or even sexual orientation, because intimacy reveals emotional baggage that both the patient and therapist carry with them into the session. But this isn’t a symmetrical relationship, and the therapist is the one who holds the responsibility.

“Freud said that a healthy person should be able to work and to love,” she says. “In some ways therapy practices both, and in order to change the patient will have to be known by the therapist. That is intimacy. In order to be able to be vulnerable, both parties have to feel safe.”

After I briefly explain all that has gone on between me and Lori, Dr. Atlas steadfastly says she does not want to judge too harshly why and how everything came to pass in my therapy. “I don’t know your therapist, and I don’t know your history,” she says. But she offers that I should “explore the possibility” that I might have created and admitted my sexual adoration of Lori because one of my fears is to be ignored, not noticed.

Then I offer: “Maybe this essay is being written for the same reason.”

“Exactly.”

Maybe I wanted to interview Lori about erotic transference in my therapy sessions for that same reason as well…to stand out as the most amazingly understanding patient ever.

* * *

“I want to be very clear that this was never about feeding my own ego,” Lori says about her approach to my treatment. “We were always doing this in your best interest.”

I’m in Lori’s office, a tape recorder rolling and a pad and pen in my hands.

“I felt I was doing a disservice to you if I didn’t ‘out’ what I felt was weighing on us, which, honestly, felt like a heavy secret,” she says, pointing out that she discussed my therapeutic process for many hours in her required supervision meetings.

In order for Lori to advance in her field as a social worker, she has to attend 3,000 conference hours with another professional to go over casework — kind of like therapy quality control.

We talk about all of this during one of my scheduled sessions, for the entire hour — and go over by a few minutes, too.

Lori says that when she began her career as a social worker, she decided she wasn’t going to shy away from any subjects. “It’s typical for a client to [have] a habitual desire to sweep things under the rug,” she observes, especially about taboo topics. It can become a cycle of behavior that Lori seeks to break.

I refer back to the time when, unprovoked, she brought up my attraction to her.

She says she mentioned it to avoid what therapists call “door-knobbing,” which is when a patient will purposely mention some huge reveal right at the end of a session so as to sidestep a lengthy conversation about it.

“My only question for you is, was I wrong for bringing it up?” she asks. “Only you can answer that.”

Lori’s great at forcing me to reflect.

“I guess when I said I was over it and could move on, that was an example of my strict black-and-white thinking,” I say, throwing back some language she’s used often to describe my challenge in accepting dualities. In my mind, I was either attracted to her and shouldn’t see her anymore, or I wasn’t attracted to her and could still have her be my therapist. There was no in between.

I realize now that she wasn’t wrong for mentioning my feelings for her, even when I didn’t want her to. Lori noticed that I was frustrated with myself and wanted me to know that an attraction to a therapist is so normal and happens so frequently that there are technical terms for it.

I turn my attention towards the presence of countertransference in our session. I’m trying to come up with an actual question here, but, really, I just want her to confirm her feelings for me are real. So I say, referring to her feelings, with a great degree of difficulty, “It’s funny that they seem genuine to this day.”

“They are genuine,” Lori says, adding a moment later: “I think it might be a good idea if we explore why our discussing it suggests a lack of authenticity.”

“It doesn’t, necessarily,” I begin, then stammer through a few sentences, worried I might offend her by implying she’s been dishonest. I finally settle on, “I guess it comes back to my self-esteem issues. Why would a beautiful woman think I’m attractive?”

Lying in bed with Shauna a few months into our relationship, I ask her what she thought about me the moment she first saw me. I’m fishing for a compliment. But we met on Tinder and I just hope that seeing me in person wasn’t some kind of letdown for her after swiping right on my hand-picked glamour shots. Obviously she isn’t going to say something so awful after having committed to me for so long. It’s a slam-dunk ego boost.

She says she liked the fact that I was wearing a blazer and a tie on a first date. She adds that I was a little shorter than she anticipated, but was content with the two of us at least being the same exact height.

“What did you think when you first saw me?” she asks, turning it around, naturally.

Staying committed to my honesty-at-all-costs policy, I say, “I thought you were really beautiful, but not to the point where I was intimidated by you, which was very important because if I was, you would have gotten a very unconfident version of me, and we probably wouldn’t have hit it off as well as we did.”

Shauna thinks about that for a second, and eventually nods “OK.”

I explain that my insecurity could often get the better of me in dating situations. It was easy to convince myself that I’d be rejected by the girl I was with, especially if I thought she was out of my league. I would then slip into a nervous and reserved state that isn’t at all reflective of my true self.

I’m essentially saying that I was so thrilled to not find Shauna so extraordinarily pretty that I couldn’t accept her being on a date with me. That thought made so much sense at the time I said it, but I’ve since come to realize it is as ridiculous as it is insulting. After ten months of being with Shauna, I’m still completely floored by her, on every level, including a physical one. It gives me great pride to walk into a room with her, and I don’t imagine that changing. Therefore, she actually did meet a confident “version of me.” The way people look doesn’t drastically change in ten months but a person’s perception of self can. It seems my emotional workouts in erotic transference were just beginning to produce results.

* * *

“People fuck up,” Lori informs me during one winter session. “Therapists have slept with clients before, just like politicians have had sex with their interns. But, so you have a full understanding of how this works, we can date.” She explains the parameters as outlined in the social worker’s code of ethics. One of the many stipulations is that we wouldn’t be able to see each other, under any circumstances, for at least two years before dating. She tells me she loves her job, and there’s no way she would ever sacrifice my safety or her career for anything, so she would strictly follow all the dictated rules. “If you truly want to date me, there is the option. But it’s ultimately up to you.”

I know what she’s doing here — putting the onus on me, just like last year when she said we could have sex. The difference this time is the answer I want to give is on par with all of my involuntary urges.

“I don’t want to stop the work we’re doing,” I say. “At this point, it’s far too valuable to me, and, really, I know very little about you.” She’s beautiful, exercises, is smart, funny, professional, enjoys good TV…and that’s about it. Aside from whether or not we’d even both be single in two years, and if we’d be in the correct mind frame to explore a relationship, there are several other things I’m considering here: Would Lori and I really be compatible in every way? Would she ever see me as a lover, a partner, an equal, and not a patient? Could I ever reveal a detail about myself, or even just a shitty day of work, without wondering if she was picking it apart and analyzing it?

Frankly, all those questions could be answered in the positive. But, even if I wasn’t in a happy relationship — Shauna makes this choice much easier, for sure — I wouldn’t go that route. I’d be out a therapist.

* * *

It’s a beautiful spring night in New York and only sidewalk seating will do. Shauna and I are out to dinner at a restaurant near her Queens apartment, and we’re both in good spirits. The weather and the alcohol consumption are partly to blame for that, but, on cue with the season’s change, I feel I’ve turned an emotional corner. Work payments that were past due are finally finding their way into my bank account. As it turns out, my short-term money troubles were not an indication that I had no business being a writer, or that my life changeup was as irresponsible as unprotected sex at fourteen years old.

I’d told Lori as much that afternoon. I took a mental step back from my current situation and realized that in spite of my recent hardships, I was succeeding. I summarize my session for Shauna, who nods in agreement, lovingly pointing out that she’s had the same challenging freelancer experiences as a dancer.

“You’re doing great, babe,” she says matter-of-factly.

“Thank you. That means a lot,” I respond. “I guess if I’m going to be a writer I just have to accept all this and have faith in myself. The way Lori put it was, ‘You just have to go all-in.’”

“Good,” Shauna says. “You should listen to the women in your life.”

* * *

Liked this story? Our editors did too, voting it one of our 20 best untold tales!

See the complete list of Editors’ Picks here. 

* *

Michael Stahl is a freelance writer, journalist and editor living in Astoria, New York. He serves as a Narratively features editor as well. Follow him on Twitter @MichaelRStahl.

Casey Roonan is a cartoonist and cat person from Connecticut. Follow Casey on Instagram: @caseyroonan

 

 

Lessons Learned from a Childhood Spent Touching Myself

From the tender age of four, rampant masturbation was my secret shame. It took an awkward sex ed class at a Christian private school to inadvertently teach me I wasn’t alone.

I was watching a squirrel eating trash through a window one day in middle school when I learned what masturbation was. A school counselor handed out a piece of paper with a list of terms related to sex, and their most basic, textbook definitions — the best version of sex education they could muster at the Christian school I’d ended up attending due to a grand miscommunication with my parents. I started examining the list, which thus far was the most interesting part of the presentation. Herpes: “hmm, okay definitely want to avoid that one.” Condom: “yeah, I think I’ve heard of those.” Vagina: “got it.” And then I got to “Masturbation: The act of pleasuring oneself.” I read it three, four times. While the counselor went on rambling about chastity, purity, God and abstinence, I was gleefully reading the word “masturbation” over and over in my head thinking, “That’s what I’ve been doing!”

I started masturbating abnormally early, around the age of four.

I don’t remember how it began, just that it became a habit around preschool. I was constantly on the hunt for new techniques, new tools. My first was probably the bathtub. I would sit with what my parents had named my “petunia” underneath the faucet until the water was too deep for it to have an effect anymore. Occasionally, if I knew my mother was definitely preoccupied, I’d drain the whole thing and start over. I would slip my legs through the slats in my parents’ footboard, and casually hump a panel while I watched cartoons. I eventually discovered my mother’s neck massager, which became both my favorite, and most dangerous tool, as there was no hiding what I was up to with that one.

Whenever I was “playing alone” — which was the best I could think to call it, having no idea that the world had gone above and beyond with creative monikers for this activity — I wasn’t really thinking about anything in particular. I did not have orgasms. I never touched myself with my hands. I just liked the way it felt when I came in to contact with other things. Much like how if you give a kid sugar, I didn’t care if I wasn’t supposed to — I was going to sneak a goddamn cookie.

Rather than being blissfully unaware of what I was doing, I was acutely in tune with the fact that it should be a secret. I don’t really know how I knew that, but it consumed me nonetheless. My best guess is that since I was taught to keep my petunia covered, I probably knew I wasn’t supposed to be fiddling with it. I knew I shouldn’t whisper to my childhood best friend, “hey try this,” and I knew even better that to be caught by my parents would be an embarrassment I would not come back from, tarnishing the rest of my life with my perversion. I envisioned my future ballet and piano recitals ruined, my parents watching through cracked fingers in horror as their little weirdo gave “Ode To Joy” her best shot. I expected it would get around our condo complex, and the neighbors would stop inviting me over to pet the new kitten or have a piece of cake.

I was not exposed to any explicit forms of sexuality early in life. I didn’t know what sex was. No one had molested me or been inappropriate with me. In fact I didn’t even connect what I was doing with sex. As I grew older and started to get tidbits of very wrong information from other children about what your genitals might be for, where babies come from, etc., like we all did, I still never thought any of that had anything to do with my playing alone. And I still didn’t even have a word for it.

* * *

I had one of those bad-influence friends who was a couple of years older than me. Let’s call her Julia. Julia’s parents had gotten divorced when she was a baby, and she liked to act out, not that the two were explicitly related. Her confidence in everything from singing Spice Girls out loud to stealing snacks from the teacher’s cabinet made it so I never questioned her. Julia told me a story about “Mr. Dingy Dong,” one day at daycare after school. Commanding my attention like she was telling a ghost story at summer camp, I hung on every word about a serial killer who went around cutting off cheating men’s penises. Where in the world she got the story, I will never know. Regardless, I went home and told my parents, and that was the end of my friendship with Julia.

Similarly, one day in kindergarten during reading circle, the wily kid who was best known for his bad-word repertoire, pulled out his penis and showed it to me. Both incidents horrified me, but I never connected them with anything having to do with my petunia.

One of the most sacred outings I shared with my father was going to Blockbuster every weekend. I was allowed to get whatever I wanted, within reason, even if I wanted to rent “Charlie’s Angels” for the fifth time in a row. My dad was patient, never rushing me as I’d walk down every single aisle before I was confident I’d made the right choice. One trip, while rounding the corner of the classics, I came face to face with a homeless man furiously masturbating. He did not approach me, but he did not stop either. I ran to my dad, told him I was ready to go, clinging to what I was not yet sure was the right choice of movie, but this time I didn’t care. I sat cow-eyed, stiff and afraid to move the whole ride home, until my dad finally got out of me what was wrong. Enraged, we got home and he called the store. The man had already left, but my dad was still insistent they check the cameras and call the police, “for God’s sake, there are children in there.” I continued to be shaken up, but never correlated what that man was doing in public with what I was doing in private.

There were a few times that I got caught. Once my mom opened the door to the bathroom while I was in the middle of my bathtub ritual. She very calmly told me to “stop running water on your hoo-ha,” and proceeded to pretty much always leave the door open after that. I was mortified that my mom had seen me in my darkest of hours, but even more devastated that I’d lost a whole third of my resources. From that point on I became convinced that my mom knew everything, and was perpetually about to catch me. It seemed that the neck massager was always on a shelf higher up in the closet, or in a different part of the house. When I asked her recently about the whole charade though, she was baffled. She said she vaguely remembered the bathtub, but it wasn’t something that stuck out, because it seemed innocent enough. The neck massager was news to her. What I perceived as a hide and seek routine between us, was more likely the normal way anyone wouldn’t pay that much attention in putting something so innocuous back in the same place every time.

Because it was never directly addressed — And why would it be? No parent would eagerly have a sex talk with such a young child — I developed a deep, internalized guilt. I didn’t just think I was dirty, I knew it. There was something wrong with me, and I resigned myself to just living with it — until I accidentally ended up at a Christian school.

* * *

The public school I was supposed to attend through the sixth grade announced late in my fifth-grade year that from the next school year on they would be adopting the newer K-4 model. This left my parents in a last-minute dash to figure out where I would go next. The school I’d been attending was an anomaly of public schooling, with various forms of cultural enrichment and liberal families. The public middle school, however, was notorious for violence and ill-equipped teachers, so my parents decided it was time to go private.

Because children don’t typically have community juice mixers, my social circle had pretty much been exclusive to school. But I did have a small handful of friends I’d attended a couple of summers of YMCA camp with. I was not raised with religion. I wasn’t discouraged from participating in it, and if I’d come home and said I wanted to become Jewish or Hindu, I’m sure my parents would have embraced it. But as it was I set myself on a path towards atheism. The YMCA camp was of course a little Christian, with occasional “our god is an awesome god” sing-a-longs. But they had climbing towers and water skiing, so neither I, nor my working parents cared. But my few friends from the camp were very Christian, and went to a Christian private school. I insisted on going to school with them, and my parents said if I got in they would let me attend. By some grand miscommunication, I didn’t realize that it was a Christian school; I just knew that my friends went there. I think my parents assumed I knew, and didn’t want to shun the idea if it was what I wanted.

So there I was. Already set back by my buck teeth, scrawny limbs, and complete lack of understanding of private-school preppy-ness, I was now also surrounded by kids who deeply believed in a god that I didn’t. I quickly became an outcast. I got in trouble for bringing my Destiny’s Child CD to school. The principal, who was basically Ronald Reagan, said it was inappropriate, but I think what he meant was, “that black music scares us like the Devil.” I did not live in the ticky tacky suburbs, but the big, bad city. It was like if Cher from “Clueless” had to spend a day with Harriet from “Harriet The Spy,” but for a year.

Every morning we’d go to our assigned homeroom for prayer. The teacher would take requests, and the kids would excitedly pipe up complaints about paper cuts, or making sure the soccer team got a parking spot close to the field for the bus before the game. I got in trouble for doodling during prayer time so often they told me to leave my notebook and pens in my locker. The bright side was that at least they didn’t expect me to write that shit down. Occasionally the teacher would prod me, “Chloe is there anything you’d like to pray for?” I’d just let out a big sigh. Eventually I started putting my head down on my desk, hoping they would just think I was praying extra hard.

One day around mid-year, if anyone had been unsure, I finally gave them what they needed to cement my reputation as the biggest freak in school. I’d spent the past semester going home in tears. I didn’t have friends, and it was as if the kids learned their bullying tactics from an episode of “Prison Break.” One girl told me that her mother checked her backpack every day for makeup. I responded with a casual, “oh, you have strict parents.” To me it was the same as “oh, your mom drives a Toyota,” a casual comparison of our living conditions. Apparently calling her parents “strict” was the same as if I’d called her mother the Whore of Babylon, and this girl saw to it that I was punished. Her pièce de résistance came on picture day. Because the school was so conservative, it wasn’t the ‘show up and smile’ event it had been in public school. Everyone came in quite literally their Sunday best. Before my class had our photos taken, we had gym class, where of course we wore uniforms. My tormentor took the opportunity to pretend to be sick, retreat to the locker room and hide my nice clothes. No administrator seemed to care, and so I took the picture, and spent the rest of the day crying, in my gym clothes.

My parents were already applying to move me to a liberal private school, the same one they’d initially suggested, and the one that I would ultimately graduate from. They were disgusted with the administration’s lack of reaction to any of the bullying I went through, and just tried to help me hang in there through the end of the year when it would all be over. So on that day, I had nothing left to lose. The prayer requests were flooding in, for crushes, for summer vacation to come quicker, for pizza at lunch. I snapped. I raised my hand and stood up. I proceeded to go on a rant about how five thousand children under the age of five died every day in Africa; how people were starving; how many children never had new things. I pleaded that they please end this useless pageantry of praying for meaningless things. I was swiftly sent to the principal’s office for the rest of the day.

* * *

Then hope came one day that spring in the form of their version of sex education. In true faith-based fashion, there was no science involved. We were separated by gender and a counselor came to address us. Let’s call her Cindy. Cindy was one of those younger school administrators who managed to come off as cool. She wore faith-inspired jewelry like the rest of them, but hers was always the chunky, edgy kind. She wasn’t afraid of heels and a flared hip-hugger pant. She looked like the main demographic at a Creed concert. But she was just like the rest of them underneath her Christian-chic wardrobe. She wrote “abstinence” on the board, and underlined it. She explained to the class that you should not have sex before you were married, because it was not what God wanted. God did not want you to think about it. God did not want you to almost do it. She then wrote the word “chastity” on the board and said, “get it?”

The last five minutes of class were reserved for private inquiries about any of the terms on that fated list that finally gave me a word for my secret. The rest of the girls, in true middle school fashion ran out, balking at the idea of engaging with the topic further. Hindsight is 20/20 though, and from the intel social media has afforded me, those girls really should have taken a second to inquire further about condoms and chlamydia. As for me, my questions had been answered. I’m sure if I’d said anything to Cindy she would have found a way to turn it into a miracle. My deviance was being divinely intervened, and I’d learn the name for my demon for the express purpose of expelling it from me like they’d thrown away my CD. But her lesson had the opposite of the intended effect. She had shown me that my sexual exploration was actually normal; something other people did, too. Maybe it was some kind of miracle, because for the first and only time in my tenure there, I sat and quietly thanked God.

* * *

Chloe Stillwell has a degree in nonfiction from The New School. She is a culture columnist for Spin Entertainment, and previously worked as a humorist at 20th Century Fox. She is currently working on her first book of essays.

Molly Walsh is a freelance illustrator and surface designer living on the East Coast. mollywalshillustration.tumblr.com  @wollymulch