A Place to Rest

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Exploring the convoluted and costly business of where to spend an afterlife in New York City.

If you want to make someone immediately uncomfortable, ask what he plans to do with his body, when his heart has stopped beating and his flesh has gone cold.

A few months ago, I received an envelope from the Pinelawn Memorial Park and Garden Mausoleum in Farmingdale, New York. Inside was a free booklet titled, “Let’s Face It Now” and a letter that explained how taking charge of your death—though the word “death” was never mentioned—offers a sense of accomplishment and peace of mind. I’m 31 years old. Other than mild asthma and the occasional cold, I am healthy. So I was unnerved and even offended that Pinelawn had targeted me as a potential customer.

But maybe the Pinelawn folks had chosen the right person after all. As an incurable procrastinator, one of the things that frightens me most about death is that I won’t be prepared. Death is not accommodating. Don’t I get one phone call? A final meal? One more paragraph in the novel I’m reading? I may never know how it ends.

What’s worse, I might not have achieved my legacy yet—a house with a backyard, grandchildren, a Pulitzer. And as the letter from Pinelawn reminded me, living in a city of eight million people, on the moment of my passing there just might not be room for me. With so many other variables out of my control, I decided it was time I found a place to rest when I’m dead. Feeling very adult—31 is not that young—as well as a touch morbid, I took the train to Green-Wood Cemetery in Brooklyn, in search of a place to begin my afterlife.

*   *   *

As the name Green-Wood suggests, the cemetery boasts lush grasses and hundred-year-old trees. Rustic signs indicating different paths—Blossom, Berry and Birch—curl around so many hills. On the Sunday after St. Patrick’s Day, I joined the “Eminent Irish Tour.” Green-Wood offers tours most Sunday afternoons and every Wednesday. At one stop, Ruth Edebohls, our tour guide, shared the story of a scrappy Irish immigrant who went from rags to riches, and at another she spoke of a courtesan, Lola Montez, who was famous for her seductive Spanish spider dance. Her admirers included Andre Dumas, Victor Hugo and Honoré de Balzac.

As we stepped sideways up certain inclines, Edebohls, who has been giving tours for the last fifteen years, explained that her “clomping” was due to two hip replacements and a knee replacement. Clearly, these two hours were a labor of love.

While I listened to her stories of the dead, I was also looking at the newer graves, taking notes on location, and searching for open space. I was looking for my place to rest.

*   *   *

America’s first pioneers kept burial simple—people were interred where they died. Friends of the deceased were unlikely to return to the spot and didn’t want to draw any strangers’ attention to it, so they left the grave unmarked. In time, people began marking the burial spot with wooden slabs carved with the initials of the deceased. In the 1700s, as frontier homes transformed into farming estates, isolated graves became clusters of graves, which were shared with neighbors. Then, for some families, churchyards replaced farm burial. As villages grew into bustling cities, church graveyards became more crowded, and less pleasant to visit; both factors led to the development of today’s rural cemeteries.

The Cemetery of the Evergreens in Bushwick
The Cemetery of the Evergreens in Bushwick

Green-Wood Cemetery was founded in 1838, predating both Central and Prospect Parks. It was built upon the terminal moraine—the rocky debris deposited by glaciers that stretches from Staten Island through Brooklyn and Queens. Rural cemeteries, like Green-Wood at the time, served not only as burial grounds but as garden retreats, following the model of Mount Auburn Cemetery in Massachusetts and Père Lachaise in Paris. In addition to the wealthy deceased residents, its gentle hills, glacial ponds and stunning view of  New York Harbor drew strollers, picnickers, and in the 1850s attracted as many as half-a-million tourists a year. Charles Dickens and the King of Hawaii were among them. As a U.S. travel destination in the 19th century, it was perhaps second only to Niagara Falls, says Jeff Richman, who authored a book about the culture and history of Green-Wood.

Easily one of the finest cemeteries in New York, securing a spot there in advance could cost between $12,000 and $22,000 today. In recent years, the cemetery has reclaimed old paths and a handful of ponds to create more space for graves; however, in ten years, there might not be any lots left to sell.

Edebohls, who has honey blonde hair, favors movie star make-up, and has a love for anything Victorian, is comfortable talking about death, even her own. “It’s just a matter of temperament,” she told me when we met a few weeks after her tour. She believes the dead watch over us. A medium once told Edebohls she could see spirits in the trees along every stretch of her walking tour. Edebohls was delighted.

On a pleasant Tuesday morning, she and I stopped at an open patch of grass, on a hill, backed by a copse of firs. This was the spot Edebohls has chosen for herself and her ex-husband. “It’s hard for a lot of people to understand why I’m so happy to have my burial spot,” she said. But she and her ex-husband are both glad to have that part of their future, or fate, settled. While they aren’t romantically involved, Edebohls said they’ve reconnected “spiritually” and now speak everyday.

A single grave generally holds two to three people. Coffins are stacked one on top of another with two to three feet of dirt in between. Edebohls, whose ex-husband is ten years older, expects she will be on top, but “you never know,” she said.

Edebohls’ pink cheeks sparkled beneath her sunglasses as she spoke about her future neighbor, an Irish woman. “She died in 2007. She gets lots of visitors,” she said, seeming oddly pleased.

Like Edebohls, my mother, an Irish-born Roman Catholic, is unfazed by death—her own or anyone else’s. When she first began her job as a hospice nurse, I was nine. It made me think of death all the time. I spent weeks staring at the ceiling, afraid that I might fall asleep and not wake up. At night, I listed the names of those who had died: my babysitter; my grandfathers and two teenage boys from my town, Yardley Pennsylvania. The list grew. Whether I was praying or deliberately giving myself nightmares I still don’t know.

Reminders of my mother’s former patients were everywhere in our home: A photographer left her a framed picture of the ocean; a woman we called Granny had gifted her a nativity scene entirely made of corn husks; a collector of rare books had given me a favorite novel. These keepsakes haunted me. It wasn’t until I was older, until I had lost friends myself, that I realized how special it was to have that one item—a T-shirt, a mix tape, a photograph—to remember them by.

*   *   *

I returned to Green-Wood several times, allowing myself to get lost inside, dwarfed and distracted by the elegant statues and the bedroom-sized mausoleums. I looked at the graves, read the epitaphs, slid cards to one side so I could better see a photograph. People left more than flowers. They left bracelets, pinwheels, balloons, prayer flags, paperweights, teddy bears, Barbie dolls and tiny bottles of liquor. In front of one headstone—engraved with an image of a young man in a backwards baseball cap—sat a giant birthday cake made of artificial flowers. The banner read “Happy Birthday in Heaven” and the card “love your heartbroken mother.”  As strange as I felt and as troubled as I might have looked to anyone who saw me, I was encouraged by something Edebohls had said about the dead appreciating their visitors. I counted the stones left by others—a Jewish tradition that has been adopted by other faiths—and sat in the chapel.

Historian Allan Smith at the grave of composer Leonard Bernstein in Green-Wood Cemetery
Historian Allan Smith at the grave of composer Leonard Bernstein in Green-Wood Cemetery

From the outside, the chapel in Green-Wood is an exquisite triple-domed terra cotta masterpiece. While it was designed by the same firm that built Grand Central, Warren and Wetmore, the chapel is more understated, more delicate, as if the building itself understood the need for restraint. Still, I envision a couple taking wedding photos on the front steps and I’m not wrong. The space is also available for weddings, book talks and gallery exhibits. Once emptied of people, it lends itself to quiet reflection.

I left through the main gates, passing under striking domes, Gothic spires, flying buttresses and a scene of Jesus and his apostles carved from stone. On the grey day I first visited, these gates were ominous, begging for a clash of thunder and spooky disembodied laughter. Gut on a bright spring day the scene is stunning, in just the opposite way—filled with bird song and squirrels, flowering gardens and towering oaks. I wished for more time there.

*   *   *

A few weeks later, I walk through a more modest entrance at The Cemetery of the Evergreens, which straddles Bushwick, Brooklyn, and Ridgewood, Queens. This time, I’m not alone.

“It’s Cemetery of the Evergreens. That is its legal name, not The Evergreens Cemetery,” Allan Smith, a former architect and local historian, tells me for the third time. Smith has written a book about one cemetery and helped restore another. I ignore both the brochure and the website, because the name matters to Smith and because it really does sound nicer. Smith, now in his early seventies, has been visiting this cemetery since the late 1940s. He carries a green bookbag and wears a sullen expression like a scolded eight-year-old boy. He’s not the type to force a smile to ease the strain of a conversation, but he isn’t unfriendly. And when he talks about cemeteries, he gets excited.

Allan Smith in Green-Wood Cemetery; Smith has written a book about Cypress Hills Cemetery, and much of his family is buried in the Cemetery of the Evergreens
Allan Smith in Green-Wood Cemetery; Smith has written a book about Cypress Hills Cemetery, and much of his family is buried in the Cemetery of the Evergreens

In the early 1800s, Smith explains, New York experienced a burial crisis. The population had nearly tripled and in addition to overcrowding, people worried about the spread of diseases such as smallpox. The water table was rising, or at least residents believed it was.

“They thought corpses were mixing with the water,” Smith says. Internments were banned in lower Manhattan, and in 1847 the Rural Cemetery Act was passed. This allowed investors to build commercial cemeteries in the boroughs beyond Manhattan. The Cemetery of the Evergreens was built two years later.

This talk of corpses mixing with water reminded me of the Sundays I spent as an altar server in our small-town church in Pennsylvania, braiding the tassels on my robe, and staring at a bronze plaque that hung between two stained glass windows and paid the following tribute: “Gwendolyn, daughter of Charles and Mary Spong, who died at sea April 27, 1903. Age nine months.”

I wondered whether Gwendolyn was buried under the church, or in the yard? Or if her parents had been pressured by other passengers to leave her body at sea. I pictured a swaddled Gwen, released from her mother’s hands, falling through strata of water, growing darker and colder. Batted about by sharks and dolphins, Gwen becomes an offering for the starfish, sea anemones and eyeless creatures who don’t even realize how dark it is on the ocean floor. At this point, a lay reader would nudge me and point with his chin to the cushions that needed to be laid at the altar gate or at the ushers waiting for communion plates. My daydream was over.

When Smith visited the Cemetery of the Evergreens as a teenager, families came for more than funerals. On weekends, they would promenade in their finery down Bushwick Avenue, which at the time was dotted with mansions—Brooklyn’s own Park Avenue. From there, they’d enter the cemetery.

“This is Brewer’s Row,” Smith says, leading me down a path just inside the cemetery gates, one plot named Hickory Knoll and another called simply The Lawn. These little white houses—some ornate, others simple Art Deco blocks with clean straight lines—are the resting places of some of Brooklyn’s wealthiest residents. The mausoleums line either side of an inclined driveway that curves to the right. Smith then points to a few short marble columns. He explains that a severed column symbolizes a life cut short, as does a broken flower bud or branch. A sculpture of a lamb or an angel often sits at the grave of a young child, representing innocence and purity.

Half of the lots in the Cemetery of the Evergeens are given names like Whispering Grove; the rest are Biblical, like Mount of Olives and Nazareth. Even though the Cemetery of the Evergreens is non-sectarian and non-denominational, groups tend to self-segregate. In an area populated by Chinese graves, families leave paper money and incense, as well as oranges and other food —all things some Chinese believe the dead will need on their journey to the afterlife.

When we reach a plot called Ascension, Smith crouches down before his maternal grandparents’ stone, picks up a tulip pot knocked on its side by the wind, and turns it upright, placing some stones inside. “Very few people visit. I can tell you,” he says. He repeats this process in North Mead, for his great-grandparents, his paternal grandparents and his parents. Along the way, we see only security guards and landscapers drive by. I ask Smith if he ever gets lonely visiting the cemetery.

“That’s why I’m thankful when that green truck goes by,” he says referring to the landscaping and maintenance workers that pass every half-hour or so and wave.

The Cemetery of the Evergreens; Donato P. Daddario has served as the cemetery’s historian for the past decade
The Cemetery of the Evergreens; Donato P. Daddario has served as the cemetery’s historian for the past decade

Unless you have a deed, a legal document to show you are related to another family member already buried here, you cannot reserve a plot at the Cemetery of the Evergreens. There isn’t room. The lots are first-come, first-served. Even if I wanted to be buried in this cemetery, I wouldn’t be allowed in.

Smith’s own burial is a matter of logistics. He will either lie with his parents or his grandparents, wherever there is still space, and as a result he won’t need his own headstone. It seems sad to me that Smith, a former architect, won’t get to design his own. As we sit on the L train, having left the cemetery behind, he cranes his neck and draws a grave for himself on the back of the cemetery map. If he weren’t planning to stay in one of the family graves, this is the headstone he would have chosen. It was a simple long rectangle within another slightly smaller rectangle and the name ‘ALLAN BOECHER SMITH’ in all capital letters. “Deep chiseled letters,” he says.

I don’t want Smith to be buried in this flat, desolate graveyard. It’s far too quiet. Of all of the cemeteries I’d visited, the Cemetery of the Evergreens felt the most like a cemetery—sad. While walking through it, even with Smith beside me, everything seemed too still. The graves felt forgotten. I would never expect to have even monthly visitors, but to know that just a few strangers might walk by occasionally would be a comfort. I crossed the Cemetery of the Evergreens off my list.

*   *   *

One Saturday morning in April, I visit Cypress Hills Cemetery in Brooklyn. There are at least six cars parked along the drive and several more pass as I walk. The graves are packed more tightly here than at Green-Wood or Cemetery of the Evergreens. The newer headstones are set closer to the driveway in rows, while the older graves lean against each other in the shadow of tall trees and shrubs. Smith had told me on my last visit that cemeteries often leave empty space at their front entrances, for aesthetic reasons. Cypress Hills ignores this convention.

Anthony Desmond, the office manager and family services counselor at Cypress Hills, sits behind his desk in a dark-wood-paneled office. He is thirty-something and bald with sympathetic eyes and a warm smile—which can’t hurt in his line of work. His customers are generally older—much older than me. “Some people feel like if they come in and prearrange for their burial then they’re going to die the next day,” he says.

Cypress Hills Cemetery is situated near East New York, a neighborhood known for high crime and violence. “It keeps us busy,” says Desmond. “Though not in the way that we would prefer.” Desmond went to law enforcement school, where he began training as a police officer, then changed his mind and joined his father in the family business. But his training has been useful; on at least three occasions he has helped catch criminals who had sought asylum in the cemetery.

Because most of his customers live in the surrounding community, Desmond and his family try to engage them with activities unrelated to death care. Last year, they invited a high school marching band to perform on Memorial Day and this past Christmas more than 200 children came to see Santa. The kids were excited about the free gifts and didn’t seem bothered by the tombstones.

After comparing prices for urns and graves—a single burial lot at Cypress Hills costs between $5,000 and $8,000 and an urn costs around $300—I ask Desmond if working with so many grieving families depresses him. He says being able to help people makes him feel good. If a family is struggling Desmond will share a little of his own grief. While they walk through the cemetery he’ll point to the grave of his sister, who died five years ago. “You never fully heal,” he says. “You just try to let them know that things are going to get better.”

When I ask Desmond about his own arrangements, he pauses and for the first time looks uneasy. He says he tries not to think about them. “I would rather just be cremated and left with my family on the mantle. That’s fine by me. After I’m dead it doesn’t really make a difference.”

Desmond has a point. I could have my ashes scattered by the creek in my hometown or flushed down the toilet. I could squeeze into a burial plot at Cypress Hill or spend my life saving up for a $250,000 mausoleum in Green-Wood. And what would it matter?

I walk the grounds at Cypress Hills as a grandmother, mother and son gather beside a lawn pump, collecting water for one grave’s flowers. Across the driveway, an old man kisses his fingers lightly, then bends down, touching his hand to a headstone. While the graves may be crowded, at least there are more visitors. Perhaps it’s a consolation for them to see each other, to know that their pain is shared.

*   *   *

I meet Allan Smith again, when he and his co-author, Stephen Duer, present their book on Cypress Hills Cemetery to a gathering of New York’s death care professionals in Park Slope. At the reading, I discuss my research with Duer, casually listing the cemeteries I’ve visited.

“You have to go to Woodlawn,” he says. The man is adamant. The mausoleums at Green-Wood, he continues, are a joke compared to Woodlawn.

So, on a Tuesday morning, I meet Susan Olsen, the official historian for Woodlawn Cemetery, in the Bronx. She wears a cheery pink shirt under a black blazer but she isn’t happy. Her eyes are puffy from an allergic reaction, which she admits is making her grumpy. “Let’s get this over with,” she says, leading me to a tiny room inside the administrative building at the cemetery’s front entrance.  “I’ve got the History Channel coming this afternoon.”

She explains to me what makes Woodlawn unique—lists its selling points since I am, after all, a prospective client. It all comes down to  history, architecture and artistry, Olsen says. And then our conversation takes a detour as she explains the history of embalming. “The best advertising for embalming was Abraham Lincoln’s death,” she tells me. After Lincoln died, his body was taken on a two-week funeral tour before reaching Springfield, Illinois. It was viewed by strangers at every stop along the way. Until that point, embalming was considered experimental, but after that it caught on quickly. Soldiers who died in battle could now be transported for miles on trains and then buried with their families.

Historian Susan Olsen in Belmont Mausoleum, near the entrance of the 140-year-old Woodlawn Cemetery
Historian Susan Olsen in Belmont Mausoleum, near the entrance of the 140-year-old Woodlawn Cemetery

At the same time, the role of undertaker developed into that of funeral director. Instead of having to clean house and invite all of your guests over, Olsen explains, people would send them to funeral parlors. “For those who were rich, it made them look good, and if they were poor, it made them look even better.” Olsen is a born storyteller; she feigns apathy, but the more she talks the clearer it becomes that death care actually matters to her.

Asked what her own final wishes are, Olsen waves away the question. “Oh I don’t care,” she says. “Cremation, I guess.”

Olsen gives me an audio guide, a sleek black device that looks like a TV remote, and circles the most critical spots on the tour map: the graves of Duke Ellington and Miles Davis and a few more that she thinks will interest me.

There are 1,300 mausoleums in Woodlawn. “Possibly, more than any other cemetery in the country besides New Orleans,” says a voice from the audio player, not Olsen’s. And they are magnificent. The tallest is seventy feet tall and detailed with cherubs, flames and gargoyles. Many are the size of small chapels.

In any direction I look there are also sculptures—hundreds of them—usually of women with long hair in flowing robes with flower petals between their fingers. Alongside these graceful figures are statues of children and angels.

Woodlawn prides itself on “beauty before permanence,” allowing stones that other cemeteries forbid, such as white marble and limestone, because they erode more quickly in harsh weather. Up close, some of the faces of the sculptures appear to be melting; other sculptures are missing fingers and limbs; one is headless. A privately contracted gardener tells me a groundskeeper who was drunk one night knocked the head off with a shovel.

In the 19th and 20th centuries, bizarre tragedies were usually well documented on the deceased’s gravestone. At Woodlawn, fifteen-year-old George Spencer Millet’s stone reads:

“Lost life by stab in falling on ink eraser, evading six young women trying to give him birthday kisses in office of Metropolitan life building.”

At the Cemetery of the Evergreens, another monument describes how two sets of brothers died playing marbles when a gas tank exploded beside them.

Statues at the Cemetery of the Evergreens
Statues at the Cemetery of the Evergreens

If Green-Wood is a park, then Woodlawn is a sculpture garden. In a way, the statues and mausoleums at Woodlawn are stunning, something to ogle, and admire, but this art was man-made and quickly eroding. What felt special about Green-Wood wasn’t the monuments but the atmosphere. True, the chapel and entrance are breathtaking, but it was the winding paths, the hills and the layers upon layers of branches a hundred years away that held me there. On a warm, clear day, it’s paradise. And on a grey afternoon, that cemetery wrapped its sadness around me, making it hard to leave.

*   *   *

On a Thursday afternoon, I stop at a monument store called Century Memorials, on Fifth Avenue not far from Green-Wood, to ask about epitaphs. With its white siding and antiquated lettering, it looks like a post office from a country-western film. I peek in the door, half expecting to see a man in spurs, with a bandanna covering his mouth and nose. Instead, I find an older woman wearing a necklace that says “Grandma.” She smiles up at me from beneath blue eye shadow and painted eyebrows, invites me to sit and introduces herself as Monica Hakola. A banner celebrating the store’s 150th anniversary hangs from the ceiling. “It’s old,” she says. The office explodes with papers, files and pictures of gravestones. I ask her when epitaphs became so generic—so many graves repeat the same thing; “Beloved wife,” “Beloved Husband,” “Beloved Son”—and if she has seen any special ones. “Let’s ask John,” Hakola says. “JOHN!!” A man seated in a cubicle just behind the front desk, John Hakola unfolds himself from his chair and steps to his full height, around six-foot-three. He is nearly seventy with weary blue eyes, but still handsome. He seems less enthused about visitors than Mrs. Hakola, but he is willing to accommodate me to please his wife.

I ask John if he remembers seeing any epitaphs that were memorable. “Memorable or oddball?” he asks.

This wasn’t the first time I’d posed the question; I just hadn’t found an answer. Anthony Desmond of Cypress Hills had told me that his favorite epitaph belonged to Jackie Robinson: “A life is not important except on the impact it has on other’s lives.”  When I asked Olsen why she thought the final expressions on gravestones have gotten less creative, she answered flatly, “Because people have gotten less creative.”

“I know the one you’re thinking of,” says Monica Hakola. She rifles through a few files in a drawer, then hands me a photograph. “This one’s a real comedian,” she says.

The grey stone in the photo belongs to a man named Alfred. The top line reads, “It’s been a wonderful life.” Below that is his name, birth date and death date. Hakola points out that there is still space for two more names. And below the space, in small capital letters, Alfred closes with, “I love you all. Thanks for coming.” Even though I know Hakola called Alfred a comedian ironically, I still picture an old man standing behind a microphone, with a gleam in his eye, saying those last words before taking a bow. It was perfect.

*   *   *

By now, I was leaning towards both a grave and an epitaph, but there were still aspects of ground burial that needed to be resolved. So I asked Melissa Conrad, a friend and PhD candidate in biology at New York University, about decomposition. She told me that “while you’re alive, multiple mechanisms prevent your cells from breaking down.” But when your heart stops beating, your blood isn’t circulating or being cleaned. This causes a chemical change in those cells that are used to receiving clean blood, and these protective mechanisms fail. This chemical change triggers the release of enzymes, which cheat the body by breaking apart high-energy bonds and stealing from its energy stores.

Opportunistic feeders like worms, bacteria, fungus and even starfish—if you’re a body in water, like poor Gwendolyn Spong—speed up this process.  They’re called detritivores. “In the end what you have are the simple building blocks that become available again,” Conrad says. Simply put, the molecules that make up your body are ready to take a different form.

A species of flies called phoridae, but commonly known as  coffin flies, are an eighth of an inch long, brown or grey and drawn to moist, decaying material. They are picky eaters, I learn. Given the choice between steak and potatoes, they will choose the steak. I’m made queasy by the image of tiny monsters devouring my hair, skin and nails, and then laying eggs so their offspring can continue the process.  Cremation starts to look more attractive than before.

Gravestones of varying sizes at the Cemetery of the Evergreens
Gravestones of varying sizes at the Cemetery of the Evergreens

I return to Green-Wood to explore its crematorium. Santos Rivera, who works in sales, leads me through a room with a small raised garden and two cushioned backless benches. It could be the waiting room at a doctor’s office on the Upper East Side, if not for the glass cupboards lined with lidded ornamental vases made of stone, onyx, marble and colored glass. Others hold boxes of cast iron, engraved with names, dates and, frequently, Chinese symbols. Each shelf is lit from above.

Rivera leads me outside the main building to the Tranquility Garden, where the sound of rushing water conjures images of a spa. Urns can also be buried here. Rivera points out a small flat plaque in the grass. Somewhere under the dirt sit two urns. “One on the right and one on the left,” he says tapping a shiny black shoe in each spot.

Just beyond the grass, water swirls in a lily pond. Bamboo plants point skyward in giant pots on either side of a narrow path, which forms an asterisk with other paths crossing the pond. Each path leads to a single glass house, known as a columbarium, and together they form a semi-circle around the pond. Inside the houses are more waiting rooms, and more urns.

We return to the main building and I follow Rivera in his blue dress shirt and shiny shoes. He walks me past a chapel that looks like a giant home theater, with several sofa chairs that curve in view of a lectern. Families often hold a committal service in the chapel, before sending the casket to the crematorium. Services last only fifteen minutes, Rivera told me. “Otherwise, there’s a wait.”

In the back room, two empty biers—moveable frames used to transport caskets—wait in front of vast stainless steel cabinets. The biers look like hospital stretchers, only sturdier and missing the mattresses. The newer ones have built-in scales, so that bodies can be weighed and moved at once. The steel cabinets, I realize, are the ovens.

Two thousand degrees Fahrenheit is the right temperature at which to burn a body. “You put your heaviest bodies on in the morning,” says Rivera. Otherwise, the retorts, the ovens where bodies are sent, are overworked and will break down. Unlike the old models, which workers ran by hand, the newer models, Phoenixes, have timers, buttons to preheat and a light to indicate when the machine has cooled down. “I used to think of it as opening up the doors to hell,” Rivera admits. Now, he  sees things more practically. “Cremations are just a quick way to get ashes,” he says.

While bodies take two hours to be cremated, the retort needs another hour to cool down.  “Then you open it up and take out the handles,” says Rivera, referring to the knobs and bars used by pallbearers to carry coffins.  “Sometimes you get a fancy casket that might have a spring mattress in there, or you could get a cardboard box.”

When the brass and metal bits have been removed, an employee will sweep the ashes into a tray, where they cool for another half-hour. The remains, including larger bone fragments, are poured into a pulverizer, the size of a regular blender. It takes only a few seconds to reduce bone to ash, Rivera told me. The ashes are poured into a black bin, the size of a small book, lined with a plastic bag, and then finally into the urn. Depending on the receptacle, the whole process can last between four and five hours.

The final product, which comprises the corpse and the coffin, weighs between seven and twelve pounds. Sifting, the process of separating the ashes from the wood, used to be standard procedure, but it wasn’t foolproof. “In that process, you would lose some of the remains. So it was outlawed. Now, you give it all back,” says Rivera.

The demand for Rivera’s  services has doubled in the last decade, from 1,200 to nearly 2,500 cremations annually. Green-Wood is building a second chapel and another waiting room.  “This way we can handle two services at once,” he says.

The reason for cremation’s popularity is likely financial. The average funeral costs around $5,000, including a casket. Cremation generally costs around $350. A niche for an urn can cost as little as $700, whereas the average plot for a single burial at Green-Wood is $15,000.

In Green-Wood, a premium spot, which allows for a larger tombstone and plantings, is approximately $22,000, but a private mausoleum can cost as much as $300,000.  This sounds expensive until you compare it to Forest Hills Cemetery in California, where a family mausoleum with an ocean view costs more than $825,000.

Every funeral home has a closet full of unclaimed remains, or cremains, usually inside urns. Rivera confirmed this. “They are required by law to wait 120 days,” he said. Afterward, the homes are legally allowed to dispose of the remains, but they seldom do. Sometimes the families never come back. “They didn’t have a place to put them or couldn’t afford them, ”he says.

As elegant as the urns look, the concept of being made to fit into a smooth square box or vase seems too delicate, too sanitary. I don’t want to be kept like a china dish under an artificial light.

In Rivera’s office I notice a row of scattering urns sitting above his shelves, each one painted differently—with clouds, an American flag, army camouflage or a field of sunflowers. They work like salt shakers, letting a little ash out at a time. I picture my brother and sister, with their future children, and maybe mine, shaking out ashes over a favorite field by a creek back home in Pennsylvania.

Before I leave, Rivera hands me a few brochures about cremation. One is titled, “Explaining Cremation to a Child.” The image on the front shows two models in matching blue sweaters and khakis, looking up at a young girl who is for no apparent reason sitting in a window—which, upon closer examination, is not actually a window, but still has an ethereal light behind it. The brochure reads, “In explaining cremation to your child avoid words that may have a frightening connotation such as ‘fire’ and ‘burn.’” A few paragraphs later it adds, “Be sure to point out that a dead body feels no pain.”  Out of context, the brochure is laughable, but the concept of a parent having to rely on a brochure to explain death, and what happens to dead bodies, is less so.

*   *   *

While the prospect of worms and phoridae flies recycling my flesh still disgusts me, I’m less excited about cremation after seeing the pulverizer. I don’t want to be blended. And as charming as scattering your ashes seems, it’s also very final. Once you’re scattered, you’re gone. Forever.

Plant life thrives among the dead at the Cemetery of the Evergreens
Plant life thrives among the dead at the Cemetery of the Evergreens

But not every part of death care has to be so unromantic. Women who work in the funerary business have a less than conventional approach to dying. Ruth Edebohls, the tour guide at Green-Wood, has thought about the dress she’ll be buried in. It’s a long-sleeved turtleneck and it’s velvet. “That would be perfect if it were in the winter,” she said. Although it doesn’t have a zipper, she added, and might be difficult to pull over a corpse. Angela Ragusa, a 21-year-old who grew up in the memorial business, said she wants “something plain” for her gravestone. She chose a black stone with rosary beads on top; even though it’s less natural, it’s trendier. “Everyone wants the black,” she said.

I’ve wrestled with the nightmare of decay, the grotesque sucking of flies and tunneling of worms and the gnawing of rodents, and decided it’s still preferable to cremation. There is something clean, even spiritual, about burial that’s missing from the very sterile and modern process of cremation. Through burial, you are intimately, inextricably part of nature, with a community both living and dead. To me, it’s a way of forever belonging.

I’ve decided I’ll wear a short-sleeved navy dress at my funeral, and earrings that are small and timeless. Choosing an epitaph was much harder. For the moment, I think a quote from Albert Schweitzer comes closest to expressing what I’ve learned in 31 years.  “Sometimes our light goes out, but is blown again into instant flame by an encounter with another human being.” Put simply, people need other people. It’s both a thank you to friends and strangers and a reminder.

A simple gravestone at Cemetery of the Evergreens
A simple gravestone at Cemetery of the Evergreens

As for my grave, I chose Green-Wood. I found a spot up a series of winding roads and under a canopy of oaks and maples. It’s far enough from civilization to be peaceful, but it’s $22,000—a premium lot. This is my dream plot. Ten years from now it seems possible, but when I ask about the feasibility of my claiming it, I’m told that Green-Wood could actually fill up in five years, not ten. (I’m assured this is not the case with its urn gardens.) So it seems I’ll need a fallback plan.

Fortunately, I know another place that does have room. Half a mile inside the dreary brown gates and packed front lawn of Cypress Hills Cemetery, I leave the driveway and follow a path that’s cracked and partially embedded in the earth. I eventually abandon that path and cross through a field of graves and up a hill. This cemetery is much more exposed than Green-Wood, with fewer serpentine paths, smaller hills, and none of the man-made ponds and fountains, but it, too, has peaceful corners.

I’m drawn up the hill by a massive, sprawling tree, an elm or an oak, I can’t be sure. Beneath its tremendous shadow stands a brownstone obelisk topped with a cloaked urn; beside it a limestone statue of a woman holding lilies with her one remaining arm.

I look out over the graves in the field below, imagining them through the seasons, speckled with leaves in the fall, draped in snow in the winter and then swirling with muddy puddles in spring. I picture them crisp with dew in the morning, beads of water glistening across epitaphs, and I imagine how cold the air is on a winter night.

Of course, there are crickets, cicadas and birds. A cemetery is never fully quiet. The tree leaves rustle like seashells under water. In the distance, I can hear the purr of cars on the Jackie Robinson Parkway. I sit down and lean my back against my tree—no tour guides, no visitors, no strangers in sight. It’s just me, alone in my sanctuary.

*   *   *

Shannon Firth is a journalist who lives in Brooklyn. She has written about authors, running, and the elusive nature of women’s friendship. Her work has been published by The Independent, The Local, Nerve and findingDulcinea.

Julie Turkewitz writes for publications that include The Atlantic and The New York Times. She also likes to take pictures.

 

 

These Vietnamese Girls Were Abducted and Sold in China. One Daring Group of Do-Gooders Kidnapped Them Back.

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When hundreds of young women were sent off to brothels, factories and eager husbands across the border, a local children’s foundation hatched a heroic rescue plan.

This story originally appeared in Latterly, a new quarterly magazine for international reporting. We've partnered with Latterly to give Narratively readers 10 percent off subscriptions. Just use the code narratively10.

This story originally appeared in Latterly, a new quarterly magazine for international reporting. We’ve partnered with Latterly to give Narratively readers 10 percent off subscriptions. Just use the code narratively10.

On the back wall of the classroom at Sapa O’Chau, a bootstrap operation in Sapa town, far northern Vietnam, where hill tribe children study to be tour guides, colored-pencil drawings depict young girls with tears streaming down their faces. Some are shackled with metal cuffs; others are trapped in cages or giant jars. The most common scene shows a girl in a forest, trailing a male figure grabbing her by the wrist. “They may pretend to be your friend so they can take you away,” a tiny scrawl reads. “You must be very careful.”

The students drew the pictures in May 2012, shortly before participating in a made-for-TV documentary by MTV Exit, an initiative that campaigns to end human trafficking. At one point during the program, the members of Canadian pop-punk band Simple Plan sit in a circle with the kids and ask if any of them knows someone who has been trafficked. One girl, Ly, raises her hand. About a year ago, she says, her cousin boarded the motorbike of a handsome boy whom she trusted. No one has seen her since.

“I dream of her a lot,” Ly says in front of the camera.

I watched the video with Sapa O’Chau’s then-general manager, Peter Gilbert, one evening at the organization’s shophouse office in town. Onscreen, none of the other students volunteered an answer. But three of their own classmates had vanished down the mountain. One girl had been taken in the same manner as Ly’s cousin. The other two, also girls, had gone on their own. They had wanted to be tour guides, but their lack of English made this unlikely. “I think they felt life would be tough here, and they didn’t see much hope,” Gilbert said. “I guess they decided to go together, or maybe one first made that decision and then worked on the other until she agreed as well. And then they just disappeared.”

The girls at Sapa O’Chau draw anti-human-trafficking pictures. (Philip Jacobson)
The girls at Sapa O’Chau draw anti-human-trafficking pictures. Photo by Philip Jacobson.

Outside on the veranda, Gilbert smoked a cigarette as I asked how the kidnappings worked. He stressed that he couldn’t be sure — no one I talked to is sure — but he ventured that it was usually someone the girl knows: a boy she meets, maybe one who has a nice motorbike, nice clothes, who takes her shopping, tells her nice things. The girl falls in love, comes to trust the boy.

“Then one day, maybe she gets on that motorbike, just for a little ride around the lake,” Gilbert said. “But suddenly he drives her miles away, and it’s not long before she’s lost, and she can’t get off the bike because she’ll hurt herself. The girl gets threatened, the boy takes her phone; maybe he takes her somewhere where it’s not just one boy but a group of them. And all of a sudden she’s helpless, trapped, captured.

“Then it seems to be they end up in a brothel, or married, forced marriage. I’ve heard a story that the girls prefer the brothel because it’s probably closer to the border, so it’s easier for them to get away; whereas, if they were married it’s probably thousands of miles away and they could disappear into the interior of China.”

China — that’s where they go, anyone in Sapa will tell you. The country is desperately bereft of women, the result of a cultural preference for boys amid the one-child policy. China shares a long, porous border with Vietnam across which traffickers can easily spirit girls like Ly’s cousin. They pluck them from all over the region, luring or simply seizing them with a range of methods, from pretend romances to promises of employment to forcing them in a car and driving off.

If trafficking happens in pockets, though, Sapa is unique, for in few places is the world changing so quickly as at this outpost of development in the Himalayas’ eastern extremities, the gateway to northern Vietnam’s hill tribe communities. While striking in variety and interest, not least for their famously vibrant traditional forms of dress, these groups are by and large impoverished, uneducated and disconnected from the protections of the state, heightening their vulnerability to predators. The Black Hmong and Red Dzao people who predominate here are no exception; Sapa’s tourism explosion has engendered a new normal of interacting with outsiders, leaving minorities perhaps even more exposed.

I caught wind of what was happening in Sapa in late 2012. There was a buzz about girls who “go to China” or “get stolen” that if you were paying attention was impossible to miss. One only needed to chat with the minority women hawking textiles in the street, shoot pool with the proprietor of a hotel or hang around Sapa O’Chau to begin to grasp the extent of the phenomenon.

It was hardly monolithic. Some girls were taken outright, but others went of their own volition, spurred by a bad home life, an abusive husband or some dreaded, inescapable fate. Phil Hoolihan, manager of the H’mong Sapa Hotel, told me how one of his staffers, a 16-year-old Black Hmong girl, tried to kill herself after her parents ordered her to marry someone she didn’t love. She already had a boyfriend, but he couldn’t afford the dowry — about $1,500, the price of a water buffalo — and the father said she had no choice. “So she ate the poison leaf,” Hoolihan said, and he meant it literally. She was still in the hospital. “It was her escape method.”

During the period in which Sapa O’Chau lost its three students, Gilbert had been running a tour guide class; the first two girls, the ones who set off together, were enrolled. One day they just stopped coming. “We still care about those kids a lot,” he said. “But it just seems like almost a part of life here that it’s not that shocking, not something people are still talking about today.”

Those two never returned. But the third girl, Thi, actually made it back to Sapa. No one could say exactly how. But everyone knew she had resumed her job as a tour guide, the one she had held before she left town about a year earlier.

Gilbert said he knew Thi — knew her well, in fact. Thi had attended his class, but she dropped out because she couldn’t deal with the rules or keep from fighting with the other kids. Gilbert hadn’t talked to her about China, though. He hadn’t talked to any of the ones who had returned about China. “I don’t want to talk to them, really,” he said. “I don’t want to stress them out.”

A student works at Sapa O’Chau, an organization that houses, teaches and inspires hill tribe children.
A student works at Sapa O’Chau, an organization that houses, teaches and inspires hill tribe children.

I met someone who offered to introduce me to Thi, and she and I sat down one afternoon in the town square. (The names of some of the girls have been changed.) It was a cool, clear October day, free of the dense flash fog that can sweep in so suddenly and obscure this place. Thi, who was 17 when we first spoke in late 2012, wore traditional Black Hmong clothes, colored indigo with patches of intricate, psychedelic patterns. Her fine black hair hung in a long ponytail over the back of her handmade outfit. On the concrete expanse before us, women sat on tapestries laden with handicrafts and tried to flag down tourists, some of whom bit — the stuff was cheap — some of whom just observed, often surreptitiously through their camera lenses.

Thi’s tale began one day at her room in town, when one of her girlfriends dropped by with a boy she’d just met. The boy, shy, hung around the door, then left for a few minutes and returned with another boy. The newcomer seemed nice enough, and after they departed Thi didn’t think much of it. Later that day, though, she noticed her phone had been used to call an unrecognized number. When she dialed to see who it was, the second boy picked up. “Now we know each other,” he said.

The next week, he called her, and they met again. He bought a shuttlecock, and they kicked it around the square with her friends. Then they went off on their own for a walk around the lake. When they settled on a bench, Thi texted with a girlfriend who teased her darkly. “Uh oh, first time, I don’t know if you go to China or not,” the friend said. Thi wrote back: “This time I go for sure!”

It was only a joke. But then the boy suggested they take a quick trip to Lào Cai, the lowland border town both an hour and a world away from Sapa. Just to walk around, check it out. Thi claims he slipped her a “medicine,” a special drug that made her like him. The next thing she knew, she was on the back of his bike, headed down, down, down the mountain…

A Hmong woman takes a rest in central Sapa after a visit to the local market.
A Hmong woman takes a rest in central Sapa after a visit to the local market.

Another Black Hmong girl who had reappeared recently, Zu, had also been whisked away on the back of someone’s motorbike, and she too had resumed guide work at one of the Kinh-operated hotels in town. Virtually every lucrative enterprise in Sapa belongs to a member of Vietnam’s ethnic majority, the Kinh. Even the Red Dao House, named after the minority, is managed and staffed by Kinh. Its servers dress as Red Dzao people and bequeath Vietnamese and Western fare to large tour groups.

Zu and I also sat down together in the town square, but she had to cut our conversation short because her parents didn’t like her staying out so late. It was already dark; the fog was rolling in. I asked if we could talk again. She said she would try.

A few days later I sent her a text. Could she meet? Her reply made me uneasy: sorry i don’t want to talking about my life much.

Usually there is some authority the journalist can consult with to add context to what’s on the ground. But no one at the international organizations in Hanoi, the capital, could tell me much about whether Vietnam’s ethnic minorities were being trafficked any more, any less or any differently from the rest. The picture is clearer in neighboring Thailand and Cambodia, where civil society is more developed and there are more anti-trafficking organizations. Here, state records almost never differentiate between minorities and Kinh. It seems a reflection of the uncertain esteem in which the government holds these people, isolated as they are at the fringes of a society that regards them as little more than cultural curios.

It isn’t just minorities: Little can be said definitively about any human trafficking in Vietnam. The data basically don’t exist; meager official statistics portray only the fraction of cases that surfaced in government shelters and courts. Some ministries kept figures like officially received victims, charges pressed and convictions, but trafficking usually goes undetected. Survivors, if they return at all, usually come back on their own. For fear of stigma and discrimination, many keep their stories to themselves.

Despite all this, there were some indications minorities might be unduly affected by the trade. Beginning in 2007, the International Organization for Migration, IOM, partnered with Vietnam to set up an assessment center for trafficking survivors in Lào Cai province, where Sapa is located. In a review of the project, the IOM stated that more than 90 percent of Lào Cai women entering the center hailed from minority groups, which comprise only 65 percent of the province’s population. Other women who passed through were also “largely from ethnic groups,” estimated at around 60 percent, the report said. “The evidence is anecdotal, but it does seem to be an emerging issue,” Florian Forster, the IOM’s then-local chief of mission, told me at his office in Hanoi. “We’ve been hearing a lot of stories.”

1*0BAJ0sE1MEJRe2BEsUECFQ

Diep Vuong’s nonprofit, Pacific Links Foundation, runs one of the only two survivors’ shelters in Lào Cai (the government operates the other). She said all 13 or 14 girls under her care were ethnic minorities and that she believed they were trafficked “disproportionately” overall. David Feingold, an anthropologist and filmmaker who has coordinated trafficking research for UNESCO, said that in Thailand and Myanmar, where he had experience, minorities were “disproportionately represented among trafficked people.”

I heard a similar appraisal from Michael Brosowski, an Australian whose Hanoi-based NGO, Blue Dragon Children’s Foundation, has directly rescued more than 400 trafficking victims. Their work pulling victims from the clutches of traffickers started in 2005 when Brosowski was sitting at a restaurant in Ho Chi Minh City. A 13-year-old boy named Ngoc tried to sell him a flower. Brosowski spoke just enough Vietnamese to chat with him — and hear that his accent was from distant Thừa Thiên-Huế province in central Vietnam. Two ladies at the end of the street were taking money every time he bagged a customer. “His hair was scruffy and his eyes were distant, like he simply had not had enough sleep,” Brosowski said.

Van Ta, a Vietnamese law student who was volunteering with Blue Dragon, called the women and demanded Ngoc’s release, saying he represented a big and powerful organization and would be going to the police if they didn’t send the boy home. That wasn’t exactly true — Brosowski had recently quit his job teaching English to start a foundation for street kids. But the ruse worked. In the process of bringing Ngoc back to his family, Blue Dragon learned there were other children trapped in the trafficking ring, so they rescued those, too. Soon they graduated to garment factories. It snowballed from there.

In late 2012, Brosowski wrote me that he had noticed a “massive shift” to remote ethnic communities. A year later at his office in the capital, I asked if that was still the case. “Even more so,” he said. “But it’s hard to be sure. Is that a trend, or is it just what we’re seeing?”

* * *

Over coffee in Hanoi, Van Ta, now Blue Dragon’s chief lawyer and a recipient of the U.S. State Department’s “Trafficking in Persons Hero” award, told me about the last girl he’d retrieved from China. “She didn’t know where she was,” he said. “How could we find her? So we just gave her instructions, over the phone. We said, ‘Now you have to be brave, find the right time to get out of the house, and run.’”

At the time, Ta, another Blue Dragon staffer and a Chinese-speaking companion had already spent a day scouring the rural outskirts of Nanjing, the densely populated capital of China’s Jiangsu province, looking for places that matched the girl’s descriptions: a house next to a river, a big stone bridge, a certain kind of tree. They knew she was somewhere in or around the city. The problem was language. She had only learned a bit of Chinese since her would-be husband purchased her a year earlier, and reading signs was still beyond her. Neither was she fluent in Vietnamese, making it difficult for Ta to understand what she was saying.

“She was from a minority,” Ta said. He found a picture on his phone and handed it to me. The image made my eyes widen.

The girl — it was Thi.

Somehow, this part of her account had been lost in translation.

“How did you learn she was there in the first place?” I asked.

“It’s a long and complicated story.”

1*o7-8CP7ap8l7WCfB8GU3HQFrom China, Thi had been able to contact Malcolm Duckett, an English teacher from Australia who was living in Hanoi. They’d met a year or so earlier when Duckett traveled to Sapa and signed up for a tour with her company. Thi had wanted to improve her English, so she asked Duckett for his email, and they struck up a correspondence. When Thi told him she was in China, he spread the news, and eventually it reached Blue Dragon. Ta got Thi’s phone number from relatives in Sapa she’d called from abroad.

“Did the husband know she was talking to her family?” I asked.

“Personally, I think he knew,” Ta said. “Because no one thought anyone could bring her back. The ethnic minority family has no money and doesn’t know where she is in China. Even if they know, it’s very far away, and they don’t speak Chinese. So that’s why the husband is confident to give her the phone.”

Ta talked and texted with Thi for five days, trying to learn more about her location. Blue Dragon and Duckett had each managed to trace the internet protocol, or IP, address of a computer she was using to Nanjing, but only to some unspecified location in the city’s vicinity. Finally, Blue Dragon decided just to go. Ta and the other staffer — a driver who had only been on the job a week — flew 1,800 kilometers, checked into a hotel and got on the phone with Thi. They rented a taxi to search for her place, but it was no use. Plan B would have to do.

“You have to take a deep breath,” Ta told Thi. “Don’t take anything, just go.” Her husband was sleeping; her mother-in-law had gone out. “Run!” Ta implored. “Run, run, run!”

So she did. For two hours she ran, looking for some crowded, plausible place — a hotel, a supermarket — where she could hand someone the phone for Ta’s Chinese-speaking friend to explain that he and his daughter had gotten separated on their trip from another province and could the person please tell him where she was? Finally she found a taxi and put the friend on with the driver. The driver brought her to Ta. He tried to act normal, paid for the taxi and didn’t say anything. Neither did she.

* * *

Earlier, when Malcolm Duckett, the English teacher, found Thi’s name in his inbox, it had come as a pleasant surprise. He hadn’t heard from her in about a year. She was writing in response to some group email he’d sent, saying she didn’t understand.

“Don’t worry, it’s fine,” he replied. “How are you?”

“Not so good,” came the next message. “I’ve been sold to a husband in China.”

What? Really? Duckett was floored. He knew he had to act — but something also troubled him. If the typical kidnapping victim might have pleaded for help or demanded to be saved, Thi issued no such entreaties. “She was using language like, ‘I don’t like it so much here, I’d like to come home’,” Duckett said. “She didn’t say ‘Please rescue me’. So it makes me think that perhaps this happens so often they don’t consider it their right to complain, or such a terrible fate. And I guess she didn’t know what she could do to get back.”

Duckett wasn’t so sure about her options himself, but whatever unease he felt he put aside and began spreading the word about her plight. Soon he identified some people in Sapa who knew of her abduction, though none were aware she had an email address; so Duckett took the lead, initiating an intense correspondence with Thi. If he could get her to perform a simple computing operation, he could pinpoint her location for someone to bring her home.

That proved extremely difficult. Thi was no computer whiz, nor was she the clearest writer. Her limited English and Duckett’s inability to speak Hmong made Vietnamese their best shot, but he wasn’t completely fluent in Vietnamese, she even less so. Although he eventually engineered a way to obtain her IP address, and with it her approximate location, he ached to get her to do something more specific with the computer. If he could just have her type in some commands, Duckett could have known exactly where she was. He sent her screenshots of how to do it, explained in multiple languages, even put her on chat with a Vietnamese person. In the end, the chasm was too wide. “We tried and we tried and we tried and we tried, but I couldn’t communicate it to her,” Duckett said. “It was really frustrating. Because it was so close; all you have to do is press these buttons and we can have a solution.”

The landscape surrounding Fansipan, the largest mountain in IndoChina.
The landscape surrounding Fansipan, the largest mountain in IndoChina.

The buttons weren’t Duckett’s only problem. Even if Thi had pulled off the IP traceback, none of the international organizations he reached out to could actually go to China and rescue her. They could only provide support upon repatriation. Bringing her home was supposed to be the police’s job, but Duckett learned the cost and effort usually meant they would not. Only Blue Dragon was willing and able to make the trip.

Brosowski, the Blue Dragon founder, is aware his organization navigates a gray area. On one hand, China is sovereign territory, and even in Vietnam the authorities hold sway. “On the other hand, we’re just going on behalf of a private citizen, just to look for someone’s daughter who’s missing,” he reasoned. “It’s not against the law to look for a missing person.”

Ta and Thi traveled three days overland from Nanjing to Hekou in China’s southernmost Yunnan province, just across the Red and Nanxi Rivers from Lào Cai. In a formal ceremony at the border, Chinese officers escorted Thi halfway down the short bridge linking the two cities, saluted their Vietnamese counterparts and handed her off. Then they walked her through the border gate and into Vietnam.

“Wow!” Thi exclaimed of the moment. “Vietnamese policemen from this side coming, and China coming, they say ‘Nice to meet you,’ very scary. After that the Chinese policeman gave me to them. Then the Vietnamese policeman take me in, and he say, ‘How old are you?’ I say, ‘17!’ ‘Which year you born?’ ‘I born 1995!’”

Thi crosses the border back into Vietnam in 2012. Photo by Blue Dragon.
Thi crosses the border back into Vietnam in 2012. Photo by Blue Dragon.

Thi could be a difficult person to read, and if the experience had shaken her, it didn’t show. Duckett felt the same way, and he struggled with it. “I wonder how it’s affected her,” he said. “She was happy to be brought back, but it seemed like a situation like, ‘I prefer it, I prefer it — I prefer it here it Vietnam. I didn’t like it in China.’”

Maybe, Duckett conceded, he needed to understand the Hmong better to understand Thi’s mindset. Or maybe Thi was just very good at accepting her situation.

“It just really struck me,” he said finally, “how it seemed like she wasn’t — like she wasn’t trying as hard as she could have to, to get back.

“Did you get the feeling when you talked to Thi that she had a strong desire to come back?”

* * *

One girl I interviewed had plunged from a fourth-floor window to evade her captors. Another had walked out on her new husband while pregnant with his child. Zu, with whom I eventually reconvened, had convinced her Chinese mother-in-law to let her work in a factory to earn money for the family. When she had pilfered enough, she made a break for it with two other brides, both of them Hmong.

Brosowski told a story about a trio of Kinh girls from southern Vietnam whose traffickers lured them across the border, locked them in a room, went out to find buyers for their virginity and came back to an empty house. The girls had kicked down the door and escaped. They ran until they were out of breath, and by some miracle the residence they approached for help was inhabited by a couple who had lived in Vietnam and remembered the language. The couple offered to hide the girls in their attic until someone could get them. One of the girls called mom, mom called the police and the police called Blue Dragon, which quickly picked them up.

When the trio was safely back in Hanoi, they stayed at a government shelter. One day Blue Dragon asked if they were ready to go home. The girls said they were scared because other residents of the shelter had been rejected by their families, or their neighbors had criticized them. Some had actually returned to the shelter.

Blue Dragon’s response was to organize a big party in the girls’ village to welcome home “the heroes who beat the traffickers.” “Because they did,” Brosowski said. “The traffickers spent all that money to drive them to China, and I can just imagine the look on their faces when they came back and their house was empty. These girls won. So let’s tell everyone in the village, these girls are heroes, not victims. And it worked. They never had a problem. One of them is working as an accountant or a bookkeeper in a big company now. She got her tertiary degree. I think she’s actually married.”

He added, “I guess they were lucky in some ways, because they did escape.”

A Hmong woman crosses a bridge in a village near Sapa.
A Hmong woman crosses a bridge in a village near Sapa.

In Hmong tradition, if a boy wants to marry, he kidnaps his bride. The practice fascinates the Vietnamese, and it has been stereotyped and romanticized in the national media. In 2009, the Hanoi-based rock band Ngũ Cung scored a hit with the song “Wife-Stealing: A Hmong Practice.” The custom almost always comes up in conversations about trafficking in Sapa. Some argue the normalization of kidnapping puts young women at a higher risk of falling victim to the trade, and videos posted to YouTube make clear it can be a harrowing experience.

Others think it’s largely overblown. Tam Ngo, an anthropologist who has studied the Hmong, said the “abductions” are usually symbolic, consensual affairs. “I think it’s a very sweet, beautiful little custom,” she said.

When I met Thi on that clear October day, she lingered on the memory of her wedding in China. She recalled the compliments, how everyone told her mother-in-law how lucky her son was to marry such a beautiful young girl. She remembered watching the DVD of the ceremony and where in the house the pictures had been placed: four or five on the table, a small one downstairs, a big one hanging on the wall. She said she had dreamed of getting married, and that when the moment finally arrived, it struck her that it would never come again.

More than a year later, I returned to Sapa and sat down in the square with Thi a second time. She wore a bright pink jacket and pants over her Black Hmong clothes and appeared taller than before, and her English seemed better. The previous week it had snowed, an extreme event here, and Thi showed pictures of the frost on her phone. As we chatted I told her about the other survivors I had interviewed, and it took us a while to ascertain that one of them was Thi’s aunt.

Duckett had told me Thi had married again. I asked her about it, and she said she had already divorced him. I asked about China, if she had ever tried to escape before making contact with Duckett. “No,” she said, “because I never going outside, only close to the house. I never go far away. So it’s very difficult for me to go out. But right now he calling me every day.”

Who, Duckett?

“No. The husband in China. He calling me, try to make me going back.”

I asked how she responded.

“I speak with him say, ‘If he want to love me and marry me for sure he have to coming here.’ He have to coming here and we can make the paper for marry each other and then I can go back with him. If he not then I not going back.”

But did she want to go?

“If of course when he coming here he make the paper for marry in the policeman, and after that we can go and coming back, of course I going back with him. But if he just coming here and asking I go back with him, I never going back.”

That was interesting, I said, because none of the other girls said they would ever go back.

“If he want to love and marry me for sure, he just coming here. If he say I just coming back by myself, I say no.”

I asked if she thought he would come and fetch her. She said she didn’t hope so.

Would she really go back to China?

“Maybe not.”

Maybe not.

“I’m not sure.”

 

 

She Killed Her Abuser Before He Could Kill Her—Then Served 17 Years. Now She’s Taking on the System.

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A proposed New York State law could offer justice to women who fight back against abusive partners. Kim Dadou is doing everything she can to make it a reality.

On the night of December 17, 1991, Kim Dadou’s boyfriend, Darnell Sanders, drove up to her mother’s house. He waited for her in his car, parked on the street. It was around midnight and there was snow everywhere from a storm that had hit Rochester, New York, hard. Dadou was happy to see him even though he was high. The car reeked from the fumes of weed laced with cocaine. Her dark wavy hair bounced as she quickly ran back into the house to get air freshener to spray in the car.

She was hopeful that things were finally going to get better. All she wanted was his love. For four years, Dadou had received beatings and death threats from Sanders, the six-foot tall, 250-pound man who said he loved her.

When she returned, the two 25-year-olds started kissing. Then he told her to perform oral sex on him. She refused. “Bitch, who are you giving my ass to?” he yelled incessantly. Dadou has maintained since then that Sanders often raped her if she didn’t comply with his demands for sex.

This time, she pushed him off. He hit her in the face and thigh before grabbing her throat. He used his left hand to choke her and his right to push her head down. The last thing she heard was “This is it, bitch!” She recalls his entire upper body leaning over on her and pressing her down and forward. Sanders outweighed Dadou by about fifty pounds, and was much taller and stronger than her.

She tried to yank the door handle, but realized that the power locks were on. He was too heavy to push off. “I couldn’t breathe and I started to panic for my life,” she says. She reached for the gun Sanders kept under the passenger seat.

Kim Dadou in Seneca Park, New York.
Kim Dadou in Seneca Park, New York.

The police found Sanders’s frozen body collapsed in a snow bank. He had been shot six times.

Dadou was charged with manslaughter in the first degree and sentenced to eight to 25 years. She was denied early release five times by a parole board even though she stayed out of trouble while incarcerated, and spent seventeen years behind bars before her release in 2008.

Dadou, now fifty, has been out of prison for seven years. She’s actively lobbying for a bill that could have potentially saved her from incarceration. The Domestic Violence Survivors Justice Act (DJSJA) — sponsored by New York State Senator Ruth Hassell-Thompson and Assemblyman Jeffrion Aubry — has been inching its way into state law since 2011. “Sending survivors of domestic violence who act to protect themselves to prison for long sentences is incompatible with modern notions of fairness and humanity,” Hassell-Thompson wrote in a 2013 press release.

Dadou wants to change the system that failed to protect her. “I don’t get paid money to do this, but I want to prevent survivors from losing years of their life like I did,” she says. “So anything to make sure this bill gets passed, I’m happy to volunteer with.” She’s been telling her story to legislators, legal experts, and advocacy groups for five years.

In 1989, the National Coalition Against Domestic Violence found that while the average prison sentence for men who kill their female partners was two to six years, the average sentence for women who killed their male partners was fifteen years. This, despite the fact that, as stated by NCADV’s findings, “most women who kill their partners do so to protect themselves from violence initiated by their partners.”

Dadou says she had Sanders arrested for physical assault five times during the four and a half years they were together, but that didn’t stop him. According to The National Hotline for Domestic Violence, it’s common for victims of trauma to go back to their abusers because while they want the violence to stop, they don’t want the relationship to end.

Their relationship wasn’t violent in the beginning. The trouble started with a marriage proposal. She and Sanders knew each other in high school, but didn’t date until they were 21. After two months, he proposed. He wanted her to have his grandmother’s wedding ring. She was in love with Sanders, but wasn’t ready for marriage, she explains. After yelling at her for being ungrateful, he smacked her in the face.

Another evening, Sanders accused Dadou of flirting with one of his cousins while they were at a party. She told him she hadn’t, and tried to comfort Sanders for feeling ignored. But he didn’t listen. They got in the car and she started driving away from the apartment complex. He slapped her and shoved her into the car door until she begged him to let her pull over so she could use a restroom.

She knew Genesee Hospital was nearby and speedily turned into the emergency room entrance. Sanders told her to park close to a window so he could watch her. “If I see you talk to anybody, I’m going to burn your car to the ground,” he warned her while holding up a bottle of whiskey and his lighter. She walked into the emergency room with her face swelling and the taste of blood in her mouth. On-duty police officers were standing in the emergency room triage area. As soon as she saw a nurse, she asked for directions to a bathroom.

When the nurse asked about her face, she told her, “I just need a bathroom. He’s in the car. He’s going to kill me if you do anything. Help me, please.” While the nurse treated the injuries on her face, the two officers came over. “I kept trying to explain to them that Darnell was very dangerous,” she says. Dadou said the officers asked her to settle down then handed her a warrant to sign so they could arrest Sanders. Sanders was released from jail the very next day. Dadou woke up to him standing over her at her home.

A few years later, on that winter night in 1991, Dadou knew Sanders kept a gun under his passenger seat because she always feared it would accidentally go off and shoot her in the ankle. She felt the butt of his gun while her head was down. “I had just wanted him to see it,” she says. “I thought if he saw the gun he would get off me. I grabbed the gun, and in one second, the gun was going off and bullets were coming out.” She thought she had shot into the roof of the car.

Sanders turned to his side and suddenly stopped choking her. As soon as he let her go, she unlocked the car door and opened it to flee. While running back into her mom’s house, she says she heard him scream, “Bitch, get back here.”

As she ran from Sanders, she heard the car pull away. He managed to drive away even while wounded. Not realizing her shot had hit him, she was worried that he would be out looking for her. “I thought to myself, I’m glad I didn’t shoot him, but I was so scared he would find me and kill me,” she says.

* * *

If passed into law, the Domestic Violence Survivors Justice Act would allow judges to sentence domestic violence survivors, like Dadou, to fewer years behind bars or to alternative-to-incarceration programs. The legislation could also lessen the sentences of survivors who were forced into criminal activity by abusive partners. In 2012, California passed similar legislation, called The Sin by Silence Bills and championed by Assemblywoman Fiona Ma.

"I don’t get paid money to do this, but I want to prevent survivors from losing years oftheir life like I did,dz says Dadou.
“I don’t get paid money to do this, but I want to prevent survivors from losing years oftheir life like I did,” says Dadou.

Gail Smith, director of the Women in Prison Project at the Correctional Association of New York, a criminal justice advocacy group, says that this proposed legislation is in no way a “get out of jail free card.” She says the criteria for a survivor to be eligible for resentencing or alternative sentencing is stringent, emphasizing the fact that there are safeguards in place to make sure individuals don’t falsely claim abuse to excuse violent behavior. Smith explains that past abuse during childhood would not make someone eligible; the individual would have to be a victim of domestic violence at the time of the offense. The abuse would have to be a “significant contributing factor” in the defendant’s participation of the offense, and the judge would have to find that sentencing the survivor under current law would be “unduly harsh.”

Currently incarcerated domestic violence survivors could apply for resentencing, but they would be obligated to provide hospital records or police reports to prove they were reacting to a life-or-death situation when they killed their abuser.

Research by the Alliance for Rational Parole Policies has shown that survivors who kill their abusers in self-defense typically have no criminal record or violent past. In fact, they are highly unlikely to pose any threat to society after fighting for their lives against their abusers. The recidivism is extremely low — nearly nonexistent — when survivors are released after serving time, says Saima Anjam, director of public policy at the New York State Coalition Against Domestic Violence, demonstrating that they were acting out of desperation, not malicious, violent intent.

“This is not for someone who decides one day that they’re going to kill their partner,” Smith says. “These women aren’t violent unless someone is choking them or trying to kill them.”

If the Domestic Violence Survivors Justice Act had been law when the investigators arrived at Dadou’s mother’s house the day after her altercation with Sanders, the next twenty years of her life could’ve been drastically different. Instead, when the officers told Dadou that Sanders had been killed in a car accident, they were starting to build a case against her. Sanders’s red 1982 Chrysler Fifth Avenue crashed into a home just two blocks away from Dadou’s mother’s driveway. The police found his frozen body about twelve hours after Dadou shot him.

The police escorted her to the precinct to identify the car. She recalls being in shock when she went with the officers. She believed the investigators when they told her that he died in an accident. “It made sense since he was so high on base joints [weed laced with cocaine] and there was a heavy snowstorm,” she says. “I had no idea I had shot him.”

While at the precinct, the officers interrogated her for about twelve hours. When she told them about Sanders’ violent nature, the police said she would not be convicted if she confessed. She gave them an eight-page statement about the fight along with a history of the physical, mental and psychological abuse she endured while with Sanders.

Shortly after, Dadou — who had never before been in legal trouble — was arrested and charged with second-degree murder. She had no lawyer present. She says that it wasn’t until the statement was processed that she was allowed to make phone calls.

In June of 1992, about six months after Dadou’s arrest, Metro Justice, a non-profit social justice organization based in Rochester, raised $15,000 and posted Dadou’s bail. In a fund-raising letter Metro Justice wrote that: “Kim is not a danger to society! She acted in self-defense! She was emotionally traumatized and physically brutalized.”

When Dadou’s hearing came in October, Dadou says that, her attorney told her not to testify because she would be crucified by the prosecutor. Instead, he advised her to find an expert witness to testify that she was in fact abused while with Sanders. Hiring Thea DuBow — who worked at My Sister’s Place, an agency that runs a shelter for abused women and their children in Yonkers — cost Dadou an additional $500. She wanted the well-known expert, Lenore Walker, but she says that would’ve cost her just shy of $10,000. “Would that have saved me from prison?” she still wonders.

Dadou (far right) and fellow advocates for The Domestic Violence Survivors Justice Act in Albany. Five out of six of the women had been incarcerated. (Photo courtesy of Kim Dadou)
Dadou (far right) and fellow advocates for The Domestic Violence Survivors Justice Act in Albany. Five out of six of the women have been incarcerated. (Photo courtesy of Kim Dadou)

Angela Reyes, Monroe County’s assistant district attorney at the time, prosecuted Dadou’s case. In a statement made on June 29, 1992 to Democrat and Chronicle, Rochester’s local newspaper, Reyes said that Dadou harassed Sanders and that she refused to accept that their relationship was over. “Everyone said they fought like cats and dogs,” she maintained in a recent interview. Reyes says that they didn’t have police records corroborating that Dadou had harassed Sanders; investigators and the District Attorney’s office concluded the nature of the relationship after interviewing neighbors and family members.

Dadou’s diary, according to Reyes, proved that she couldn’t be a victim of partner abuse. In it, she says, Dadou wrote explicitly about having a sexual relationship with a man who wasn’t Sanders. “That’s why she wouldn’t take the stand, because she didn’t want that information from the diary to come out,” Reyes explains during a phone interview. Reyes says the diary had no written entries about any abuse Dadou might have endured during her on-and-off relationship with Sanders.

Patricia Marks, Monroe County’s Judge during Dadou’s trial, says she didn’t allow the diary to be admitted as evidence in court because it was too “prejudicial” to Dadou. “It wasn’t probative or relevant to the case,” Marks explains. But Reyes says that Judge Marks’s decision didn’t stop her from keeping the diary visibly on her desk during the trials. “I wanted Kim to know that I had it with me every single day of that hearing,” she explains. “That’s why she never took the stand.”

Since Dadou didn’t testify, the judge refused to admit all of the police reports, hospital records, battered women’s shelter reports and witness statements attesting to the abuse. Dadou says that Judge Marks allowed some evidence about battered woman syndrome, but it wasn’t enough to convince the jury.

To this day, Dadou finds it difficult to understand why no one took note of the fact that she had Sanders arrested five times. She says that Reyes presented her as a calculated killer. “So put me in prison for seventeen years because I wrote in my diary about seeking comfort in a former lover while Darnell was beating me up,” she says. “That makes the abuse go away?”

During her sentencing, protestors stood outside the courthouse with signs reading “Bring justice to battered women: Free Kim Dadou.” In October 1992, Dadou was found guilty. She spent more than six thousand days waking up in prison.

* * *

In the next legislative session, which starts in January, advocates hope that New York State Senators will finally cast their votes on the bill that could save abuse survivors who are in same position as Dadou was 25 years ago from harsh prison sentences.

New York Senate Democratic Leader Andrea Stewart-Cousins says she’s hoping that her colleagues will keep in mind that “those who have suffered due to domestic abusers deserve to have our laws reformed to recognize the uniqueness of their situations.” She said that “common sense legislation which would address this situation has been stuck in committee and denied a vote by the Senate Republican Majority.” In May, the bill gained some momentum and was passed by the State assembly with bipartisan support. It remains uncertain if the bill will reach the full Senate for a vote during the upcoming session. John Flanagan, temporary president and majority leader of the New York State Senate, didn’t respond to multiple attempts for his comment on the bill.

The only significant opposition to the legislation has come from the District Attorneys Association of the State of New York who in 2012 wrote that the bill “denies jurisdiction to prosecutors who are otherwise empowered to bring cases that impact their counties; it disrupts well-established criminal procedures; and it fails to achieve its purported goal of providing cost savings.”

Saima Anjam, the New York State Coalition Against Domestic Violence director, disagrees. In fact, she says that if the bill passes, it’s proven that New York will reap significant savings every year. In New York, it costs up to $55,000 per year to send one adult to prison, but sentencing to an alternative-to-incarceration program would cost $11,000, according to a report from NYC Reentry Coalition Services. “We’re in a time when legislators everywhere are seeing very evidently the economical and social costs of mass incarceration,” she says.

Since Senator Hassell-Thompson left the Senate to join the Governor’s office in July, Senator Roxanne Persaud of Brooklyn is stepping up as lead sponsor. “Too often in these cases where victims defend themselves, the domestic violence is discounted,” she says. Persaud is educating legislators and community members about what domestic violence victims like Dadou face when they are fighting for their lives.

When Dadou was behind bars, Jaya Vasandani and Tamar Kraft-Stolar from the Correctional Association in New York visited her and other incarcerated women frequently to assess and report on the quality of living conditions in state prisons. In 2011, Vasandani and Kraft-Stolar asked Dadou to be a survivor advocate for DVSJA.

“It helps me heal knowing that I can raise awareness about domestic violence and what this bill can do for survivors who acted out in self-defense,” Dadou explains. “Prison is not a place for survivors of abuse who have been through extreme trauma – they deserve rehabilitation and support.”

Dadou and her wife, Annie-Bell Brown, in Seneca Park, New York.
Dadou and her wife, Annie-Bell Brown, in Seneca Park, New York.

Now, Dadou works as a customer representative for the Association for the Blind and Visually Impaired in Rochester and spends her free time with her wife, Annie Bell Brown. The couple met in prison about 25 years ago and fell in love.

Dadou tells her story – alongside fellow survivors, legal advocates, and families of currently incarcerated victims – to legislators at public education events and DVSJA lobby days in cities like New York City and Albany.

“If there was a bill like Domestic Violence Survivors Justice Act over twenty years ago, it probably would’ve given me back ten years of my life,” Dadou says. “Maybe I would have had kids.”

 

 

The Day My Therapist Dared Me to Have Sex With Her

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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

 

 

My Roommate the Prostitute

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At first, the quiet girl from Craigslist seemed like a great match—we had just the occasional tangle over cats and cleanup. And then the men started coming over.

It was late morning, and I was putting up a fresh pot of coffee when I heard the first meow. It sounded awfully close, as if from inside the apartment instead of the backyard one story down. Then I heard it again, and there was no doubt.

WTF?!! I texted my roommate. You got a cat?!

I’d made it clear when she moved in: no pets. “But I want a kitty so bad,” she said a couple weeks later. I suffer from allergies — through spring and summer I have a persistent itch in my nostrils, and the lightest bit of pollen or dander or even a freshly mowed lawn sets off sneezing spells that leave my entire body sore. I was also concerned about the smell. And besides, the landlord forbade pets.

It’s a friend’s, Jenny texted back. I’m only taking care of it for a few months.

Don’t give me that bullshit, I keyed my reply, then backspaced over it, reconsidering. I have a tendency to overreact, to exacerbate conflict. Instead I went for calm and firm, and maybe slightly paternal.

We need to talk.

Later that afternoon, in the kitchen between our bedrooms, we talked, leaning on opposite counters. Jenny (not her real name) kept her eyes downcast, and when I told her she was being inconsiderate and disrespectful and this was not the way grown-ups behaved, she said, “I know. I’m sorry.” I’d expected an argument, but her posture was one of submission, as if I was her dad, or a schoolteacher. But I wasn’t her dad, and she was an adult woman, even if I was twice her age. I was left somewhat unsettled.

In the end, I told her she could keep the cat, but she better take care of it properly.

“Thanks for not being hard on me,” she said, before disappearing back into her room. “I thought you were going to kick me out or something.”

That conversation was the longest we’d ever had. We were unlikely roommates, a Craigslist arrangement: I, a near-middle-aged man, several years divorced, with adolescent children of my own. She, a twenty-year-old recent college grad. We were living in Gravesend, an unremarkable neighborhood in a remote part of Brooklyn, where restaurants, bars and coffee shops are scarce, and when the friend I’d been living with moved out, finding a new roommate wasn’t easy.

At first, I had a parade of eccentrics, men who seemed to have something to hide, smelling of whiskey, with slurred speech, crooked teeth, telling me about jobs as investment bankers or corporate accountants, claims I found dubious. One man, a flashy young Georgian, took one look at the room and grew alarmingly aggressive as he tried to force his cash deposit into my hand, even after I explained that I wasn’t ready to make a decision just yet. He left just as I was about to call the cops.

So when Jenny showed up, I was inclined to like her. She looked like a typical post-college young woman: hair dyed reddish-blond, large earmuff headphones over her ears. She walked with a kind of childish languor, as if it hadn’t fully settled in that she was an adult. Her speech tended to the monosyllabic.

I showed her the room.

“Sweet,” she said.

I showed her the bathroom.

“Sweet.”

Then she asked what she needed for moving in, and I told her: proof of employment, credit report, rent plus security deposit.

“Sweet,” she said.

I assumed this meant she had all those things, and at first, it appeared that she did. She told me she worked two jobs, as a clerk in a stationary store in Midtown Manhattan and as an art-school model. Several days later, she brought documents attesting to her claims, and it all seemed to check out. She moved in a couple weeks later, with the help of her dad, whom I found affable in a way that put me further at ease. Some time after she moved in, I met her boyfriend, who seemed about my age. “He’s an artist,” she told me afterward, unsolicited, as if that explained something.

I did have some mild concerns. I wondered why she would choose to live here — a part of town where she had no friends or family — and with me, a man twice her age. But I needed a roommate, and for the most part, she matched my criteria: stable enough to pay rent, normal enough not to stab me with a kitchen knife or steal my meager possessions. She wanted to be a writer and filmmaker, she said, and was hoping to get into NYU’s film school for graduate studies. There was something familiar about her, almost bland, like an unremarkable extra who might appear repeatedly in so many movies, which meant she was safe and normal and predictable — exactly what I needed if I was to share my home with a stranger.

It was soon after the cat incident that I began to notice she was home more. In fact, she rarely seemed to leave her room. On days I worked from home, I’d hear her throughout the day, in short bursts of action — the turning of the microwave at ten, the fridge opening and closing at eleven, the doorbell with her lunch order at noon. It didn’t bother me; I barely caught glimpses of her. If she’d lost her jobs, it didn’t show so far: She was always on time with rent, and she appeared to have enough money to buy groceries and order in meals. But I wondered, if she wasn’t going to work, how was she supporting herself?

One afternoon, a couple weeks after Jenny took in the cat, I heard her voice and then a male voice I did not recognize. It was definitely not her boyfriend, whose voice was high-pitched; this one was deep, almost gruff. I was in my room, working, and I heard someone enter the bathroom, and then the toilet flush, and so I opened my door a crack for a glance. In the hallway, emerging from the bathroom, was a short, squat man, gray-haired with a bald temple. The man disappeared into Jenny’s room across the hall, and I felt a rush in my brain and gave an involuntary gasp.

There weren’t too many scenarios for why a young woman would be entertaining a vaguely Soviet-looking gentleman who looked to be about her father’s age. I felt a kind of indescribable rage, almost like a personal affront.

How dare she — in my home?!

An hour later, I watched her escort the man to the door. She was wearing blue suede pumps and a very short, ivory-colored dress, somewhat crumpled, as if she’d just removed it from under a pile of laundry. She appeared to be going for a sultry, long-legged look, but she looked instead like a little girl wearing her mother’s discarded clothes. I felt instantly sad for her, and part of me wondered if I shouldn’t offer to help her somehow. Another part of me was so angry I wanted to evict her immediately. The rest of the day, I wrestled with my thoughts, my mind feverish with indecision: Should I say something? Should I tell her boyfriend? Should I call her dad? Was it any of my business anyway?

I decided to wait, see if it happened again, and just a few days later, it did. This time, it was a tall black man wearing an ill-fitting suit and tie, like thrift-shop formalwear. He, too, emerged from the bathroom and disappeared into her room, and after an hour or so she escorted him to the door, again in the blue pumps and rumpled ivory dress.

I took to Google: What to do if my roommate is a prostitute?

More than what to do, I was seeking clarity on why it bothered me. Who was I to judge if Jenny chose an unorthodox profession? Why would I care if she used her room to ply her trade? Still, I couldn’t stomach the thought, and the Internet validated my discomfort. On Yahoo Answers and in Google Groups and various other forums people wrote about similar experiences, and the consensus was: Don’t let your roommate turn tricks within your home. It’s dangerous, it’s illegal, and it can bring nothing but trouble.

I wondered about the practical aspects of her work: Does she have a Backpage ad? Did she use Craigslist? Could I find her on The Erotic Review?

I imagined the conversation we’d have. “This isn’t a brothel!” I wanted to yell at her. “Where do you even find these guys?” Then I reconsidered, thinking I might speak to her in a more caring way. Sit her down for a talk. Maybe get some women’s organization involved. Point her in the right direction. Rescue her.

* * *

I didn’t do any of that. Instead, when we met in the kitchen the next afternoon, passing between the refrigerator and the trashcan by the sink, I decided to bring it up. I was washing a dish, the water running lightly, and she was behind me, waiting for something in the microwave.

“I’ve been seeing some strange men around here,” I said.

She turned slowly to face me, nonchalant, with a thin smile. “What?” she asked. I was certain she’d heard me.

“I’ve been seeing strange men around here,” I said again.

“Oh, yeah.” She had a self-satisfied look, as if she was taunting me: What are you going to do about it? This was not what I’d expected. She’d been remorseful about the cat, and so I’d imagined a repeat.

“Friends of yours?” I asked, hiding my indignation, though I hoped she’d pick up on my mocking tone.

“Yeah,” she said. After a pause, as if realizing something, she added, “I’m friends with some older guys.” She took a sip of water from a glass in her hand, without breaking eye contact. “They’re harmless.”

Harmless. Was that an acknowledgment that they were not, in fact, “friends?”

She offered no further explanations, and we both retreated to our rooms. If at first I’d thought to treat her kindly, I was no longer inclined to. I’d given her the chance to explain. I had offered: Let us, as adults, discuss this situation. In return, she took me for a fool. I’m friends with some older guys. The words infuriated me, and I began to plot her eviction.

Several days passed, however, and still I did nothing. Then, one evening, I was out with a woman I’d recently begun dating. We had just finished dinner at a SoHo restaurant, paid the check, and were about to head to her place when my phone rang. It was my landlord.

“Somebody call 911,” she said. “Police, ambulance. I don’t know what’s happen.” My landlord is Chinese, and I often have a hard time understanding her, but her tone told me all I needed to know. There was trouble at the apartment. “You come home now,” she commanded.

Was Jenny hurt? My thoughts went to the men. I knew this couldn’t end well.

My date raised an eyebrow to me. “Give me a sec,” I said. We were outside the restaurant, in the cool night air on a quiet street, a jittery yellow cab passing over the uneven cobblestone.

I texted Jenny: Everything ok? Landlord says someone called 911.

The response came a few seconds later.

this is kaylee shes dead

I stared at that text, uncomprehending. I didn’t know anyone named Kaylee.

Who’s dead? Who are you? Call me.

A few minutes later, my phone rang with Jenny’s number, and a young woman told me she was Jenny’s best friend. Jenny was dead. She had been dead, in fact, for the past twenty-four hours, in her bed, in our apartment. Kaylee, whose tone was so completely lacking in inflection she sounded almost robotic, told me she’d grown alarmed when Jenny didn’t respond to her texts and phone calls, and so she came by the apartment and convinced the landlord to let her in.

“Probably an overdose,” she said.

My thoughts in those moments would later seem incongruous with the event itself, but at the time they were automatic, a cascading stream of impolitic ponderings. Mostly I was relieved that I’d been spared the task of evicting her, and was now desperately hoping that my evening would not be spoiled any further.

I hung up the phone and looked at my date, who was gripping my arm and staring.

“My roommate’s dead,” I said.

My date reacted as I expected. “Oh, my god! Are you O.K.?”

Of course I was O.K. The fact that my roommate was dead was unsettling, and I was somewhat shaken, but I wasn’t sad, or feeling any grief-related emotions. Mostly I was just annoyed that her death was getting in the way of my evening plans. Jenny and I had lived together for four months, but I barely knew her. Kaylee? A friend? I didn’t know Jenny had friends. An overdose? An overdose of what?

I called my landlord, and told her what I had learned: roommate’s dead, body is still in the house. No, she need not worry about a thing. The police will take care of it all. I was out of town, I said — not a lie, although not entirely the truth either. I’d be back in the morning, and get a new roommate in the coming days. There’d be no problem with the rent.

My date gripped my arm tighter, as if the news of death created some erotic charge, at once frightening and gripping, and we went off together to her apartment a few blocks away.

* * *

In the morning I took the subway home, and remembered: My roommate was dead. It felt surreal, and I found myself ruminating on the nature of death, and youth, and the way we often know so little about the people living just several feet away from us. I thought back to what I’d done the day before: got myself breakfast, worked, then lunch, then anticipated my date in the evening. I’d been annoyed that Jenny had left dirty dishes in the sink and a half-eaten chocolate bar on the kitchen counter for two days straight.

When I got home, the door to Jenny’s room was sealed with a strip of police tape. I also discovered that in addition to the cat, she’d had two large white rats, which I found sitting in tall mesh cages in another room, probably moved there by the cops. It appeared that someone had taken the cat.

Later in the afternoon, my phone rang.

“Hi Shulem, it’s Steve.” There was a pause. “Jenny’s dad.”

I felt momentarily caught off balance. Until that moment, I had imagined that Jenny’s death would affect very few people. She had seemed like a rootless child, unattached, unaffected. I knew she had parents, a little sister, extended family somewhere, but I knew so little about them they were almost unreal to me. Her entire life seemed confined to her room across the hallway, as if she mattered to no one but herself.

“I am so sorry, I am so terribly sorry.” The words tumbled out clumsily, lame and ineffectual. “I was so shocked. I can’t imagine what it’s like for you. I am so, so terribly sorry. This must be so devastating.”

I could hear him sniffling on the other end of the line. “She was a sad girl, Shulem.”

A sad girl? There were the signs, of course. And yet, she’d always seemed vaguely chipper, even after I’d started seeing the men come by.

It was heroin, Steve told me. Her boyfriend, who was an addict, had introduced it to her. Steve thought she must’ve been using for only a couple weeks. He asked if I’d noticed any changes recently, and I told him that I hadn’t.

“Jenny’s aunt will come by to collect some of her things,” he said. “We know Jenny wrote some poetry, so maybe we can find it on her computer.” He paused, then said: “I’m really sorry you have to deal with this.”

When I hung up, I felt guilty for feeling as unmoved as I did. I sat at the desk in my room, a blast of cold air from the air conditioning hitting my face, and thought about Jenny’s death, disturbed that I didn’t feel something more. This was a young woman, just beginning adult life, who’d lived with me for four months, and when I had heard she was dead, my strongest emotion was annoyance. Her father, at the same time, seemed to expect exactly that. I’m sorry you have to deal with this. As if he knew that someone like me would be affected only by the trouble of it all.

* * *

Over the next few days, I checked Jenny’s Facebook page, and was surprised by the outpouring of grief from friends — dozens and dozens of them — who’d tagged her name and wrote messages on her “wall,” in the language of tweeting, text-messaging millennials.

rip jenny (tear-face smiley)

cant believe shes gone i loved that girl

omg why???????

Here were people reminiscing about her, friends writing about the time she helped someone with a college essay, or about high school adventures, or that time they got passed-out drunk and high on that crazy spring break trip.

Two days later, her aunt came.

“This is the biggest nightmare of our lives,” she said, and then she, too, apologized that I’ve had to deal with it all. The aunt packed up some of Jenny’s things — her computer and a handful of personal items. She packed some of her clothes into a few large trash bags. “I think I’ll take these to the Salvation Army,” she said.

Still, out of the entire collection of Jenny’s possessions, she left most of it, a room full of belongings, and told me to throw it all in the trash. I stood in the room afterward, looking around at the things that make up a person’s life, but now no longer mattered. The bed that was ordered online just four months ago. The easy chair Jenny had brought from her childhood home in Westchester. A bunch of keys on a key ring, a bracelet of blue beads, a MetroCard, a bag of cosmetics. Things that, just three days ago, Jenny might’ve thought important, but now, poof — so inconsequential.

Later, I stood in the middle of her empty room, after I’d emptied the closets, swept and mopped the floor, and cleared out all her things. It looked just like it had before she moved in: bare, clean, uninhabited but inviting. I closed the door to look behind it, and noticed a taped-up card, from HashtagThePlanet.com: it hurts now. but it will get better. i promise.

It amazed me how quickly a person’s life could be dismantled, all these concrete physical objects discarded or recycled. I thought about how our physical possessions are like phantom lives: You can go into a person’s room and look at her bed, her desk, the flip-flops in the corner, the little trashcan with the empty coffee cup and dirty tissues, and almost see a living being, by the effects of one. But then, these things are collected, dispersed, in a kind of parallel death — three days, and a healthy young woman’s presence is scraped clean off the planet.

I left the note on the door, and kept a few of Jenny’s things for myself: a small hammer, a pack of AAA batteries. A lamp. Her easy chair. It made me sad, but I had little use for the rest, and ended up putting most of it out with the trash. There it all lay, right by the curb, plastic storage bins and large trash bags filled with the effects of Jenny’s everyday life; the contents of her drawers and closets, whatever her aunt had left — bed linen, hair accessories, underwear, a blanket and some pillows, a bright red blow dryer. The stuff sat on the edge of the sidewalk for a day or two, and through the window I watched as people passed, glancing at the items. Some stopped to pick through them, holding up items for inspection, taking what they pleased, until the pile was about half the original size. Then the trash collectors came and tossed it all into the monster-mouth of their truck, until nothing was left but a shattered light bulb that slipped out of one of the bags, now spread in tiny bits of glass among the fallen leaves of a nearby honeysuckle tree.

* * *

Shulem Deen is the founding editor of Unpious, a journal for voices on the Hasidic fringe. His memoir, “All Who Go Do Not Return,” will be out in March from Graywolf Press. Follow him @shdeen.

Jesse Lucas lives in Louisville, Kentucky. With the help of his wife and trusty dog Fox, he’s able to avoid sleep and make comics instead.

 

 

My Childhood in an Apocalyptic Cult

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A clandestine cult with twenty children to a room, no outside music, movies or books, and no contact beyond the compound. For the first fifteen years of my life, this was my normal.

“Miss Edwards, do you have another shirt in your locker?” my second period Spanish teacher, Mrs. Buck, asked me on my first day of high school, making sure the whole class could clearly hear my dilemma.

I looked down at my breasts, their little white mounds pushing up and slightly out of a shirt that was low-cut and tight-fitting, but not too provocative, at least I thought.

Mrs. Buck’s orders to return to class the next day only if I had appropriate clothing came as a shock for two reasons: Firstly, I didn’t own a lot of clothes. Secondly, I grew up in a community where boys and girls spent a lot of time naked together. I did not understand the proper rules of dress code. Showing a little cleavage was no big deal to my teenage mind.

All my life I had been taught that constantly moving was part of our family’s duty to God. I had lost count of how many places we had lived. I wanted to be normal, so I convinced my parents to let me enroll in Rowland High School, in Southern California’s San Gabriel Valley. Earlier that morning I had been thrilled to start classes. At fifteen years old, it was my first day at any school, anywhere, ever.

On my way home I cried profusely for being ostracized for reasons I didn’t understand. I stopped at the local library, where I often went to read glossy women’s magazines. An issue of Seventeen caught my eye. I flipped through it. In a side bar, black bold letters read, “Did you grow up in a cult? Take this quiz and find out now.”

I had heard the word “cult” when I was younger and had been trained to answer that, “No, I had not grown up in a cult” or “What’s a cult?” if anyone ever asked me.

Intrigued, I flipped to the story. In a sidebar black bold letters read, “Did You Grow Up in a Cult? Take this quiz and find out now.”

I stopped crying. Maybe there was a reason for my being ostracized. I turned to the quiz. I had to know the truth.

First question: “Did you grow up in a secluded environment?”

I thought about my early childhood in Thailand, before we moved back to the States. Every home I lived in there was required to have walls at least eight feet high, topped with loops of barbed wire or jagged glass sealed into the cement. The gates were boarded with plywood. I lived with my family and thirty to forty other people. I was told they were my “family in the Lord.”

We called ourselves “The Children of God.” I wasn’t allowed to leave without permission. If I did, I would be banned from ever returning and doomed to eternal hell and condemnation in the afterlife. My parents and the other adults I lived with told me that I was allowed to leave, but if I did I’d be giving up my birthright as one of God’s 144,000 chosen and would forfeit my spot in heaven come the apocalypse in 1993.

“Were you under the influence of a charismatic leader?”

I thought about David Brandt Berg. He lived in hiding. My parents followed him but were never allowed to see him. I never knew what he looked like. In photos he would white out his face and draw a picture of a lion head. He called himself “Father David,” but we kids were required to call him “Grandpa.”

“Were you coerced to recruit members to your group?”

I thought about the trips I’d go on, during which I was taught to tell people about Jesus and his love. We called it “witnessing.” These recruiting trips were the only times I could go beyond our compound.

“Were you taught that the outside world was a forbidden place, and did you feel guilty for wanting to leave?”

The world outside was referred to as “the system.” It was a scary place filled with evil, corruption and devilish temptations and desires. Father David referred to anyone who was not part of the Children of God as “systemites.” He sent out comic books with illustrations of what these systemites looked like—ultra-cool boys with slicked-back hair and baggy pants, girls with dyed hair, dangling jewelry, painted fingernails and lots of make-up. They were lost and it was our job to save them. We were taught to be natural and wear our hair long with minimal fuss. Make-up and jewelry was forbidden. Boys kept their hair short and men were not allowed to grow facial hair. Father David shunned any attention to fashion or outer appearance. “Worldliness,” he called it, was a device of the Devil. I was told I was special because I was born into the Children of God. Over time, I learned to believe it.

Until I picked up that issue of Seventeen, I thought we were just part of a religious missionary group with strict rules. I followed my family and trusted them.

All of our lives, we had never been allowed to choose where to live, what clothes to wear or what food to eat. Everything had been decided for us.

For the next few weeks after taking the Seventeen quiz, the words ran like a manta through my mind: Oh my God…I grew up in a cult…Where do I go from here?

*   *   *

The Children of God was founded on the shores of Huntington Beach, California, in 1968. David Berg was the youngest child of evangelist Virginia Lee Brandt and Hjalmer Berg. After several attempts at following his famous mother’s nationwide evangelical mission, Berg was kicked out of the Christian Missionary Alliance, a group his parents belonged to, for alleged sexual misconduct, although Berg claims he was expelled for trying to preach to Native Americans who came into the parish, as he put it, “dirty and barefoot,” eager to hear the gospel.

Berg partnered up with Fred Jordan, a television evangelist and founder of the American Soul Clinic in Los Angeles, an organization dedicated to training missionaries for the foreign field. Together they promoted a television program called “Church in the Home,” which broadcast sermons to people’s homes via a weekly television program. Their partnership lasted for fifteen years. During that time, Berg developed a philosophy that any action was justified as long as it was done in the name of God’s work. This philosophy would be a founding principle of the Children of God.

Berg, along with his wife and four children, began offering assistance to a small group called Teen Challenge at the Light Club, a Christian coffeehouse near the Huntington Beach pier. Soon they were running the mission full time, keeping it open and alive seven days a week with songs about Jesus and a message of the end times.

The word “church” was never mentioned. Father David detested the church. His group of followers began to grow, as did his prophecies and revelations, which included apocalyptic visions, claims against the established church and a plethora of “laws” condoning sexual freedom.

In the 1970s he began vigilant protests against the established church. His protests were called “Woe the Church Ministry” and members dressed in sackcloth, held thick wooden staves, smeared ashes on their foreheads and stormed into Sunday morning church sermons to warn the congregation of the end of the world.

In a practice called “flirty-fishing,” Father David instructed the women to use sex to entice new members to the group and gather donations. He appointed a woman named Karen Zerby as his chosen prophetess. He called her his “first wife,” but he was known to sleep with any woman who had the privilege of meeting him. We learned to call Karen Zerby “Mama Maria.” She headed the flirty-fishing movement, which, along with the Woe the Church Ministry, attracted attention from the media, often landing the Children of God on the front page of newspapers. As the group grew to hundreds and then thousands, it was time to organize, and according to Father David’s orders, flee from the western world that would be the first to burn in hell come God’s judgment and the apocalypse.

*   *   *

My mom was born and raised in Malmo, Sweden, to an alcoholic father and a harsh, distant mother. As a child her parents dropped her and her younger sister, Eva, off at a Lutheran church every week. Mom loved the sermons and excelled in church activities, eventually becoming a scout leader. In high school she became a full-time babysitter for one of her teachers, then quit her babysitting job to travel to Tunisia. As a young woman she was a traveler full of adventure. She told stories of traversing the Swedish slopes, getting caught in a blizzard while skiing and bravely crossing a narrow bridge swinging high above a Norwegian fjord.

On her way to buy a ticket to Tunisia, Mom met Thomas, a member of the Children of God who she described as “having eyes that were full of light.” She said he was glowing with an aura she had never seen. He sat on a street corner strumming a guitar. She sat down next to him and he told her about Jesus. He invited her to come to their house that night for dinner. Fish soup was on the menu. Mom was a strict vegetarian.

When she told them about her dietary restrictions, one of the members told her, “It’s O.K. Just put the fish on the side.”

She was ready to either hear or deliver a lecture about conflicting dietary beliefs. To her surprise, they didn’t judge her for being vegetarian, nor did they try to convince her that she should change her habits. It was then, she said, that she felt an acceptance she had never felt before. She was part of a community. She had found her family. She dropped everything she had, including a fiancé back home in Sweden, to join the Children of God. She was just one of thousands to “forsake all” and follow Father David Berg.

Shortly afterward, Mom and Dad met in Spain in 1978. Dad, a promising geology student, had dropped out of UC Davis two weeks before he would have graduated at the top of his class to follow his five older siblings into the Children of God. The McNally family lived across the street from him in South Pasadena and most of their kids also joined.

When people ask me what compelled them to join, I think back to the times in which they were living: the 1960s. It was a time of protest, political turbulence and school rebellion. Baby boomers were coming of age, exploring sex and lowering their inhibitions. Hippies on the streets of California were looking for answers and Father David believed he had them. He incorporated the movements of the ’60s into his evangelical mission, even writing a letter called, “C’mon Ma! Burn Your Bra” and a series of letters on “revolutionary sex.” Father David believed that we could return humanity back to the Garden of Eden, the way God intended, a world of peace with humans living close to nature and serving God. He understood that the youth of the generation were ready to believe anything.

Members were required to forsake all, cut off all ties with their families and devote their lives in service to the Lord. Father David was God’s mouthpiece and claimed to be his prophet. He offered young people the promise of freedom within the confines of his leadership. If there is such a thing as a modern-day prophet, Father David fit all the requirements. He had the charisma that would lead one of the most infamous cults of all time.

The Children of God outlasted most cults formed at that time. We kids had the burden to bear. It was our job to save the world and return the pagans, all other beings outside of the group, back to God’s natural state.

My family’s move to Thailand in 1985 was based on a prophecy that Father David received. My family was living in Los Angeles at the time. One day Aunty Mary, who was also part of the Children of God, came running into the living room to tell us of the latest news Father David had received from God. Her hair was tied back in a little bun and she held a freshly printed magazine. She flipped through the pages and landed on a picture of a woman wearing the same spiky crown that rests atop the head of the Statue of Liberty. The woman’s legs were spread open wide and she was holding a globe of the world in one hand. In her other hand rested the fate of the world, symbolized by a handful of poverty-stricken, third-world folk at the mercy of her wrath. In between her legs were the Pentagon, the White House and other buildings representing lust, sloth and greed. Father David was ordering all of his followers to move out of western civilization. The west was evil, he’d say, and would be the first to burn in hell. He’d had a revelation from God that the world was going to end in 1993 and it was our job to warn everybody. We were part of the 144,000 with spots in heaven and we could take whoever was willing with us.

*   *   *

I missed the eighties entirely. I had a minimal education that included learning fractions and geography, reading portions of the King James Bible, and memorizing chapters upon chapters of scripture and reciting them on command. I was forbidden from reading outside books, watching movies, listening to music or talking to anyone outside of the group.

Our days were spent taking care of the compound, raking leaves and caring for children who weren’t much younger than me. We were cut off completely from family and friends who were not part of the Children of God. I never knew my grandparents. We learned to call the adults in our community “Uncle” and “Aunty.”

We woke up every morning at seven a.m. By 7:30 our rooms were immaculate and spotless, the bed sheets unwrinkled and firm. We slept in rooms sometimes filled with fifteen to twenty children on bunk beds, trundle beds and rollaway beds. One adult was assigned to watch us kids during the night. With little water supply and limited space, we kids showered communally and slept in tight quarters. Having to take our clothes off in the humid tropical afternoons or during nap time was not uncommon.

After morning prayer, we gathered ourselves into neat rows and stood at attention, each line containing eight to twelve children determined by age. Mom had been giving birth to a new baby every year and was now pregnant with her eighth child. We stood shortest to tallest. I was usually somewhere in the back with my twin sister, Tamar, close behind. Our sister Mary Ann, who was older than us but a bit shorter, stood in front of me. I liked being sandwiched between my two sisters. We marched in single file, quoting a verse or shouting a quote in sync with our steps.

Hup-two-three-four. God is not a fan of war.

We marched like soldiers. We slept like soldiers. We stood like soldiers.

On queue we’d file down the stairs and through the hall. We arrived at our designated tables for breakfast. We sat at our assigned seats and ate thick rice porridge or curdled powdered eggs and steamed rice sopped with soy sauce. The food was bland and tasteless. During lunch we slapped the slabs of boiled tofu under the table, where they stuck like gum or splattered to the floor. We balled up the rice in snowballs and had food fights when the adults weren’t looking, until someone got hauled off to the bathroom for a spanking and we all laughed like hyenas.

The Children of God had grown to include 12,000 members spread mostly across third-world countries, and an official campus was established in Japan called The Heavenly City School. It housed up to 300 members, consisted of multiple compounds spanning a whole block and was fully equipped with a studio where they produced religious tapes, posters and videos for distribution. In Thailand, we began distributing the media they produced for a suggested donation. Father David said that since we were on a mission to save the world, people would offer us gifts and we should accept them readily. Once some of the Thai aunties talked the colonel of Southern Thailand into letting us stay in his island property on Phuket for reduced rent. We enthusiastically agreed.

*   *   *

It was at this home in Phuket that I began to think about the reality of my situation. I was five years old and 1993 was just seven years away. I would be twelve when the world ended. Father David said we would be God’s martyrs. It was the price we had to pay for being God’s chosen ones. Most of my childhood was spent fantasizing about the details of my death.

It only recently occurred to me how often I was forced to think about death as a child. When children are forced to think about death they don’t think about what will happen in the afterlife. No. When a child thinks about death they think about the exact moment of death. What must happen in order for a person to die? Will it hurt? Will I be able to handle the pain? How will it happen? How will I die?

I knew for sure that I was going to heaven since I was one of God’s children, but the threshold to get there seemed insurmountable. I began to think about all the possible ways that I could die—primitive ways that I’d heard about, mostly from the Bible stories we’d read at night or from movies that we were allowed to watch on weekends like “The Ten Commandments” or “Jesus of Nazareth.” I formulated elaborate images of my mind of being burned at the stake like Joan of Arc; being crucified upside down, where the head fills with blood and slowly bursts; being beheaded like John the Baptist; or stoned to death like the prostitutes in the Bible stories or movies we’d watch.

We had imitation attacks where some of the men dressed up in black uniforms and carried broomsticks for guns. They’d burst through the front doors close to bedtime. We’d all hide under the stairs and prepare to stay as still and quiet as possible until they’d tell us to come out and we’d sing songs in a state of euphoria, raising our arms in the air and pretending that we were flying up to heaven to meet Jesus at the pearly gates. How did nobody understand that I was terrified about what would have to happen in order for us to go to heaven? Did they not understand that death comes before resurrection?

I was prepared for a real invasion, an army of men dressed in heavy black jumpsuits with helmets and batons and guns. The guns were my salvation. I figured that death by a gunshot wound was probably the least painful way to die.

I felt sorry for these men I imagined, because I knew that they were human too. I thought that maybe I could convert them to our side. I convinced myself that if I could look into their eyes, I could persuade them that I wasn’t guilty of anything and I didn’t think that they were bad either. They were just doing their job. They were soldiers like me; they didn’t have a choice.

At night I prayed that I would get shot. It seemed a quick and painless way to die. I wanted to be shot with a machine gun, so that I would die as quickly as possible. And I wanted to be shot in the heart. I was terrified of pistols and the idea of a wound that might leave me bleeding to death for hours.

I slept on a mattress on the floor and positioned myself close to a wooden bed structure so I could slide under at a moment’s notice.

I was special, I told myself as I cried myself to sleep.

*   *   *

One night when I was five, my thoughts were interrupted by the flash of fluorescent lights and Mom’s urgent command: “Hurry and get your things together. We don’t have much time.” She told us to be as quiet as possible. Outside the sky was still dark. Mattresses bound with baby blue sheets were stretched across the floor. We had ten minutes to pack up our things and vacate. We called it evacuation. Father David taught us to have “fleebags” packed at all times with toiletries, socks, underwear and a few pairs of light clothing in the case of a raid, natural disaster or the end time. We were trained to disappear at the snap of a finger.

“Hurry kids! Before the officials get here.” Her voice was pressing but calm.

This time I wasn’t dreaming.

I had heard stories of raids before in homes thousands of miles away in Argentina and other parts of the world. These homes were called “jumbos” and housed up to three hundred members at a time. We knew that they were raided during the wee hours just before dawn, similar to the raid on the Branch Davidians in Waco; the only difference is we didn’t have guns or firearms.

After being interrupted from their sleep and snatched out of bed, the children were ordered by officials to board a bus and then taken to social services, where they remained until their parents were proven innocent of child abuse and molestation charges. After being interrogated into exhaustion, the girls were then taken to the doctor to be examined. Social services wanted to determine whether or not they were still virgins. Although I was never sexually abused, I’ve heard many stories throughout the years of girls in Children of God who were physically and sexually abused.

Although I was horrified by the graphic procedure involving a cold speculum and metal braces, I secretly wondered what it would be like to be taken away and placed in a new home, even if only temporarily. Guiltily, I wondered what it would be like to live in a fancy house with high glass cupboards filled with delicate china sets.

Nothing much was said during the raid. Whenever we were ordered to do something, we simply listened and obeyed. There were no questions. We lived every day on the verge of martyrdom, thankful for another privilege, another chance to save the world.

We packed our things and loaded into a Song-Taow, a Thai open-air taxi, which was waiting for us outside the gates. We positioned ourselves to fit on the benches, our fleebags under the seats and all of our possessions bound in large black trash bags. The sky was shifting from black to gray and if Dad was worried he never showed it.

Mom was holding Becky, still a newborn, in her arms. She looked at Dad, who was loading the last of our belongings.

“Are they all here?” She began to count us kids the way she did when she didn’t have a free hand, using her head to nod off the numbers one-by-one.

“One. Two…Where’s William?”

William was sitting behind Heidi with her fire-red hair, sucking on her pacifier.

“Three… four…” Tamar and I always stuck together.

“Five… six… seven…” She counted the rest of us. Becky was cradled in her arms. We were present and quiet, never uttering a word.

I didn’t ask where we were going but I knew we had no destination. We were fleeing and I was thrilled by the idea of it.

We drove off into the early morning hours, leaving behind a trail of dust. For the next seven years, every six months we would move to a new home in another part of Thailand.

*   *   *

When you grow up in an apocalyptic cult and the due date for the end of the world rolls around and nothing happens, it’s rather anticlimactic. There are no pre-apocalyptic ceremonial rituals. No gathering in huddles to pray in tongues and speak to the spirit world. No public apologies about why the world didn’t end the way it had been revealed. Life goes on as usual. Breakfast is still served at 7:30 a.m. Recess is still late in the afternoon. Dinner is served at six. Lights out is at eight.

When the world didn’t end as he had predicted, Father David had a revelation that it was time to move back west. He said God was pleased with our work so he decided to give us an extension. Every year after 1993 a letter came out entitled, “It Could Happen This Year.” I was beginning to have my suspicions. Was there any truth to anything Father David said?

One day, Mom and Dad pulled us kids aside and told us that we would be moving back to America. A home in Chicago had room for us. I didn’t know whether Chicago was a city or a state. Mom cleared up the confusion and soon I was able to locate the Windy City on any map, even a large circular globe.

John and Dad spent a year selling Children of God media at the harbor to save enough money for our flight to the U.S., where we moved into a five-bedroom house in suburban Berwyn with about thirty other members. It was there that I began to see the world I had been warned against.

The rules weren’t as strict as they had been in Thailand, and the first thing I noticed was that we were allowed to eat even if we weren’t hungry. The eggs were fried in adequate amounts of oil and, unlike powdered eggs, I enjoyed these enough to ask for seconds—which, to my delight, I was allowed. The bagels, soft and fluffy with melted butter, filled me with my first experience of white flour delight. For the first time in my life I wasn’t just full. I was satisfied.

After breakfast we were allowed to watch TV. The Winter Olympics were on. The Nancy Kerrigan and Tonya Harding scandal was making headline news. It was my first time watching TV, ever.

“See what happens when people get into sports,” Mom said. Father David had taught us that all sports were evil and of the Devil.

I watched the clip over and over of Nancy Kerrigan wailing in pain as she held her knee. I couldn’t help but also notice the beauty of the sport. When the skaters glided across the ice they looked happy and free. They moved effortlessly and wore costumes fit for ballerinas. They were beautiful. I watched as sixteen-year-old Oksana Baiul collapsed in tears when it was announced that she had won gold. I wanted to rejoice with her. I wanted to be her. I couldn’t help thinking sports can’t be evil.

Father David died on October 1, 1994, one year after his predicted apocalypse. I was twelve and the world hadn’t ended. My thoughts of death were beginning to subside as my worries shifted to my developing body, specifically my breasts. They were beautiful, I thought, and I didn’t want them to sag like Mom’s did, should I live to see adulthood. I developed impeccable posture, slept with a training bra on at night and taught the other girls to sit up straight, often slapping them on the back when we sat for hours listening to Father David’s letters. Since I had control over nothing else, I figured at least I could control the two new protrusions on my chest.

After Father David’s death, we were still required by the leaders in the home to abide by his rules. Following his death we spent three days fasting and reading a burgundy book titled “The Charter.” In it was a complete set of rules on how members could now live their lives, including sexual limits and boundaries (at what age people could have sex and with whom), weekly allowances on alcohol (a quarter of a cup of wine per week), and rules on what constituted a “home” (members needed four consenting adults, also members, living in the same building in order to be part of the Children of God). This meant members had their freedom; we were no longer required to live in a compound. Four consenting adults and a commitment to tithing and proselytizing was what all members needed to still be considered part of the group.

I woke up one morning after the fast was over and looked out the window. Everyone was scattered on the lawn, with their belongings packed in large black plastic trash bags. I knew what this meant. Because of the new requirements on what constituted a home, everyone was dispersing. I thought about my family. There were now eleven of us kids, all under the age of fourteen.

“Who’s gonna want to live with us?” I whispered to Tamar on the lawn the morning after Father David’s death.

“We’re so big,” she agreed.

A few days later the leaders gave my family a van. We had nowhere to go and no relatives to take us in. We started going to Sunday services at a Thai Lutheran church on the South Side of Chicago. One of the members, Mr. Tessalee, a Thai-Chinese man with eyes the shape of crescent moons, who always wore a crisp dark suit and skinny tie with his hair neatly combed, had heard we needed a place to stay. He had an empty building in the South Side and he offered to let us stay in it rent-free. It was a tall brick building with a small front yard surrounded by a chain link fence. We agreed. Mom was pregnant. Dad had no job. On our first night there we heard gunshots echoing from the alley. We would continue to hear these on a weekly basis. We were on our own.

*   *    *

I’ve heard many stories about kids who grew up like me and killed themselves because they didn’t how to make it in the world. Some were my friends, others distant acquaintances. They’d blame their parents for not teaching them how to write checks, or fill out applications, or hold their own in a normal social setting. There are girls who became strippers because all they knew how to do was give a powerful “look of love,” as taught by Father David during the flirty-fishing movement. They had no skills for working or making money, so they used their sexuality, just like their mothers did in the early days.

One day John flew out to California to visit our Aunt Mary, who had recently left the Children of God. When he came back I noticed something was different. His hair was slicked back like the systemites in Father David’s comic books. He wore store-bought clothes and sometimes I noticed that he had headphones on. He was listening to system music. Was he becoming a systemite?

He brought good news. Aunt Mary had invited us to come live near her in California. She lived in a house surrounded by bougainvillea and English ivy crawling up brick walls. She had found a house for us near her in the San Gabriel Valley. The Chicago winters were too cold, and California, John said, boasted perfect weather and endless summers.

In April, we piled ourselves into the van as Dad loaded the last of our belongings. He hitched a wooden wagon to the back and we loaded it with foam mattresses. Dad and John took turns driving. Tamar made white-bread tuna salad sandwiches that we would stop to eat along the way. Bobby was a baby and we passed him from person to person. We didn’t have much food after moving to the house in the South Side. Mary Ann sat behind me looking gaunt. The rest of the kids shuffled in their seats. Mom lay sprawled across the front row, her stomach bulging with child number twelve. I could tell it wasn’t just because she was pregnant; something was definitely wrong.

Following the death of Father David, the cult was slowly beginning to disintegrate. We no longer lived in communes. We no longer had his “law.” We no longer functioned like an army. The Children of God was becoming a loose group of families scattered across the world, struggling to make it in a society that they knew little about.

In the summer of 1996, after we had moved to California, the leaders planned a road trip to Lake Tahoe for preteen members to convince us that the Children of God was fun and that there was no place we’d rather be. “Uncle Tim,” one of the leaders, drove a school bus that had been painted multiple shades of blue. On the way to Lake Tahoe, the bus broke down on the side of the freeway and we sat in our built-in beds sweating until Uncle Tim figured out how to get it working again.

I was fourteen years old. Before we left, mom and dad had given us an ultimatum: Decide if we wanted to stay in the group or leave. I never asked what compelled them to make this decision, but I think there came a point when they realized they had to put their family first. It was clear that John was becoming a systemite. Mom and Dad decided that if we wanted out too, then they would leave with us. For that decision, I later chose to forgive them for raising us in a cult.

John was now working two jobs: at a bagel shop during the day and a coffee shop in the evening. He made tips and was earning real hard cash, something we had never seen growing up. He drove a midnight blue Volkswagen Beetle and had systemite friends.

One day in the campground as we ate blueberry pie filling from tin cans, Mary Ann, a year older than me, started the conversation that would determine our future.

“Can’t you see what these guys are doing?” she asked, referring to Uncle Tim and all the other adults who had punished us when we were children. “This is not right.”

“Well, what should we do about it?” I asked. High school seemed our only option. Plus, the idea of learning appealed to me.

It was there, among the crackling pines and under a clear blue sky, that we decided to tell my parents. We called home from a pay phone and told them we wanted out. In the same conversation, Mom told us she had just got the results back from a doctor’s check-up. There was a reason why she had been in so much pain on our drive to California and had to lie down across the row of seats. She had been diagnosed with cancer and had a ten-percent prognosis. Although not quite sure what a ten-percent prognosis meant, I knew it couldn’t be good news.

Mom later told me that the doctors had told her something was abnormal back when she was pregnant with us twins. However, since the world would be ending soon, Father David did not encourage visits to the doctor.

I had little capacity to feel sorry for my mother at the time, as I was in my own state of survival, trying to figure out how I was going to make it as a teenager in a world I knew little about. After all that we’d been through she was going to have to fend for herself.

And that’s what we all had to do: learn how to make it on our own.

When we got home, dad enrolled us in a home-schooling program because he said that after the sheltered life we’d lived, throwing us into public high school would be like throwing lambs to the slaughter. He was right, but soon we wanted the real deal. We wanted a normal social experience. We enrolled in Rowland High School.

I wanted nothing more than to look cool. The night before I laid out my options. I had two shirts. One was fluorescent green with a short collar and buttons. The other had red, white and blue stripes. It fit me snugly and had a low v-cut, showing a little cleavage. I looked cool, I thought. I was ready to face the world.

Being ostracized by Mrs. Buck on my first day was not the only obstacle I’d face. High school turned into a disaster, with both Tamar and I getting kicked out twice each for having alcohol and weed. Numbing our minds became our way of dealing with the world. We found ourselves in community day schools, where we were the only white girls and often witnesses to bloody fights or unfamiliar gang-speak.

Tamar came home one day with the news of a college that boasted the promise of a stewardess degree.

“Four years, Flor,” she told me excitedly. “Four years is all it takes.”

Her mouth parched from excitement; she told me about a campus that sat high in the Malibu Hills called Pepperdine University. It was beautiful and looked like a palace, with Mediterranean Revival architecture. For the first time in my life I thought about going to college. We could apply to any school we wanted, she said. I was thrilled.

Since neither of us had a high school degree or GED, we enrolled in classes at Mt. San Antonio Community College to start. There were courses in English and history and electives in everything from Spanish to horticulture to dance. I was able to choose what I wanted to major in. This was a novel idea for me. I had never even heard about college growing up. Father David said education was evil. Institutions were places of sin and corruption.

I was beginning to see that for the first time in my life I had a future.

In an honors business class our professor announced that there would be an all-expense paid field trip to UC Berkeley. I raised my hand.

“What’s UC Berkeley?” I asked.

Looking back now, I can see how naïve my question was but I also quickly learned that curiosity was going to be my greatest and only ally. I would have to forfeit seeming dumb for my own survival.

Dad had returned to college to work on a degree, figuring that the best job he could get was a high school P.E. teacher. Instead he rekindled a love for academics, this time for mathematics. I remember waking up at two in the morning and watching him working under the amber light of a desk lamp, poring over a problem that seemed unsolvable. He was working on his master’s. I told myself that one day I would do the same.

Mom began taking weekly trips to the hospital for radiation treatments and was soon cleared of cancer. The doctors called her a “miracle case.”

A year later I received my acceptance letter to UC Berkeley.

My friends congratulated me and made it a point to let us know how jealous they were and how lucky we were — both of us getting a spot in of the best schools in America. They could never get in, they said, no matter how hard they tried or how good their grades were.

“It wasn’t just the grades,” I said. I bit my lower lip and thought hard about it for a minute. “I think my personal statement had something to do with it.”

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Flor Edwards received her MFA in nonfiction from the University of California, Riverside. She has a BA in journalism and is working on a memoir.

Jesse Lucas lives in Louisville, Kentucky. With the help of his wife and trusty dog ‘Fox’ he’s able to avoid sleep and make comics instead.