A Place to Rest

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.

 

 

When My Abusive Father Got Alzheimer’s, Spoon-Feeding Him Helped Me Forgive

I didn’t think I’d ever be able to face him without fear, but in his docile, vulnerable state, we forged a new dynamic.

I watch him pick up his burgundy cloth napkin, drape it over his spaghetti and meatballs, then fumble with his spoon before balancing it on top of the sealed Hoodsie cup. This isn’t unusual behavior for someone with Alzheimer’s. Still, I ask my 74-year-old father, “What are you doing?” He gives me a hollow stare, his blue eyes as dry as his memory. I unveil his plate, cut up a meatball, then scoop up a spoonful and hand him the spoon. He sets it back down on top of the Hoodsie. I pick up the spoon and offer it to him again, but he gives me that same hollow stare, and re-drapes the napkin over the plate. I feel compelled to feed him, but the aides here at the nursing home usually do that. Though I worked as a nurse for 20 years and fed lots of people, I don’t want to feed him. I consider my reluctance. Am I afraid of the final admission that the parent has become the child?

The truth is, I’m terrified of feeding my father. Sitting in the naturally-lit dining room beside him, close enough for his hand to strike my face, an image flies back to me from the past. I’m 13; my father chases me into my bedroom and grabs from the top of my dresser the skating scribe I use to carve patterns in the ice. I dart into a corner. He lunges toward me, and raises the sharp end of the scribe over my head, inches from my skull. Desperate to protect myself from his metallic rage, I curl into a ball, my face against my knees. My heart beats in stutters, in my ears, in my throat.

I don’t remember what I did wrong. Maybe I forgot to take out the trash, empty the dishwasher, neglected to walk the dog. There were other incidents of rage, but I don’t remember what my failures were that provoked my father. The most horrifying memoires are the ones that involved my siblings. I remember crying in my bedroom, listening to my father’s heavy footsteps as he chased my older sister through the house. I remember the time he bloodied my younger brother’s face with his fist. I can’t recall what they did wrong, either.

My thoughts spring back to the present. I’m almost fifty. It’s time I kick my fear of my father out of my mind’s bedroom.

He’s in a wheelchair, and hasn’t been able to walk for months. He certainly can’t chase me now. Alzheimer’s has also had a calming effect on him, or maybe it’s the medications, which are supposed to slow down the progression of the disease. Either way, he’s mostly gentle and quiet, displaying moments of delight like clapping when my husband walks into the dining room, or smiling and patting me on the shoulder when I lean down to kiss him on his mole-flecked forehead. He even shocked me once by speaking to a basket of bananas: “So beautiful.” My pre-Alzheimer’s father was a left-brain thinker, and never noticed the aesthetics of fruit. I don’t recall him ever regarding beauty at all.

In an attempt to overcome my fear and judgment, I tell myself that my grandfather is to blame for my father’s dysfunction. He verbally abused others around him. He once whipped an olive at a waitress for forgetting he had ordered his martini with no garnish. My father, who witnessed these kinds of tantrums as a child, inherited my grandfather’s intolerance and impatience.

So I take a chance. I lift the meatball-filled spoon from the Hoodsie and guide it towards him. “Here, Dad, doesn’t it look good?” He raises his hand from the table, and steadily reaches for the handle gripped between my pointer finger and thumb. My hand trembles as the tip of my finger meets the side of his finger, the spot once swollen with a knobby protrusion from his pen gripping days.

He clutches the spoon, and lifts it towards his mouth, pauses, raises it higher. It tilts to the left then to the right. I wring my hands. My teeth sink into my bottom lip. I want to help him; I don’t want to help him. His jaw juts forward, his neck veins pulsing. He eases the spoon closer to his mouth. I hold my breath. He bites down on the crumbled half meatball. He chews, swallows. I lean back. Breathe.

Again, he sets his spoon down on top of the Hoodsie and drapes his napkin over his plate. An aide with generous hips dances a little sashay over to our table. “Hey, Joe,” she says, rubbing my father’s back. “I thought Italian was your favorite. When you’re done, you can have all the ice cream you want.” He smiles at her. I smile at her too, comforted by her recognition of what he enjoys most: Italian food, back rubs, and ice cream.

“Come on, Joe. Here.” She sits beside him, and ties a clean napkin around his neck, as if he’s about to eat a lobster. “We like to keep his clothes as clean as possible,” she says, looking directly at me. I nod, but feel as if I’m being scolded for my oversight. She takes the spoon, shovels up another half a meatball and tenderly slips it into my father’s wide-open mouth.

“See, Joe. Isn’t that good?” After he swallows, she wipes the corners of his mouth with his napkin. “He’s okay,” she assures me. “Sometimes he just needs help. You can feed him.”

My stomach does a somersault. What would she think of me if I tell her I can’t, or won’t, feed my father? I’m embarrassed to tell her that I’m terrified of doing so. I could lie and say that I don’t feel qualified to feed him. But what kind of qualifications does one need to feed your own parent?

“Go ahead,” she urges. She hands me the spoon. And walks away.

I look at my father, who’s eyeing his hand resting on the table, the one with the knobby finger protrusion. He hasn’t gripped his pen in a year. As a savvy businessman, he filled his yellow pad with the latest land-for-sale deals, the highest bond interest rates, and upcoming foreclosures. I wonder if my father has forgotten about his pen – his blue, ballpoint Bic pen.

He slides his hand towards mine also resting on the table, and touches it. He squeezes, as if he’s trying to tell me something.

“Dad, you want more?”

He nods.

I gulp down my fear, and mix some sauce with crumbled meatball and spaghetti, scoop it up, then slowly raise the spoon to his mouth. He opens it for me, just as he did for the aide. Quickly, I slip the food off the spoon. He chews, swallows, rubs his belly.

“More?” I realize that I’m not asking him if he’s hungry; still wary, I’m asking for permission to feed him.

Again, he nods, and opens his mouth.

Again, he chews and swallows. I ask if he wants more, wait for him to nod, then feed him another spoonful. This exchange continues a few more times before he reaches for the Hoodsie, and slides it towards himself.

“You ready for ice-cream?” I ask.

A smile spreads across his face like a sunrise. In a matter of minutes, we have choreographed a new father-daughter dynamic.

I visit him again on Thanksgiving. As I walk into the dining room, I rehearse the steps in my head, hoping my tying of his napkin bib around his neck is enough of a cue that our dance is about to begin. But he’s having a good brain day, and he’s mostly able to feed himself the ground turkey and sweet potatoes. When he tires and doesn’t have the strength to lift his glass of milk, I lift it for him. “Here, Dad, you want some milk?” I bring it closer to him, and he grabs it. Slams it against the table. I startle, skid backwards in my chair. He’s over-stimulated, I think. Frustrated. He lets go of the glass and looks at me, his eyes wet and crinkled at the edges. Our faces, and bodies, are capable of saying “I’m sorry.”

Another piece of history comes flying back to me. It’s six months earlier, and my father is hospitalized for abdominal bleeding. I’m standing over his bed, holding his hands so he doesn’t yank out his IV. Completely out of context, he says, “It’s not your fault, Melissa.” I accepted this as an apology for all the times he hurt me. The language of genuine contrition is as diverse as each of our regrets.

I give up on the milk and try to feed him. He cooperates on the first bite. I try again – another spoonful of Thanksgiving. He chews, swallows. This time he burps. We giggle. When his eyes droop, I lead the next dance step. I untie the napkin, wipe his mouth clean – and rub his back. His head falls forward and he begins to doze. In a few seconds, he opens his eyes and lays his hand on top of mine. I massage the smooth spot on the side of his pointer finger until he falls into a slumber.

As I watch my father sleep, I know it is his utter helplessness that has made it easier for me to want to be with him, to deeply care about him, despite his past hurts. That’s exactly what I’ve needed for so long – a father I no longer fear, but one who unconditionally lets me into his vulnerable world and gives me the chance to begin to forgive him.

 

 

The Secret History Behind England’s Deadly Sarin Gas Plant

During the Cold War, at a single facility, the British military covertly produced enough chemical weapons to kill every person on earth five times over – and in the process dozens of their own were left dead.

In May 1953, when Ronald Maddison volunteered for scientific tests conducted by the British armed forces, he was told the experiments were part of efforts to research the common cold.

He was lied to.

Instead, like many others, Maddison, a leading aircraftman in the Royal Air Force, became a guinea pig for chemical weapons tests. He entered Britain’s main chemical warfare lab and received, without his knowledge or informed consent, 200 milligrams of liquid sarin dripped directly onto his sleeve, which seeped through the fabric onto his skin.

Ministry of Defense (MOD) scientists used “volunteers” like Maddison to design protective equipment and improve their own sarin for potential offensive use. The doses weren’t intended to be lethal; everyone already knew sarin killed quickly. Maddison was given just enough to gather more data into how sarin worked and how it could be stopped – or so they thought.

Within minutes this “routine” experiment went horrendously wrong.

Barrels of deadly Sarin.

Years later, ambulance driver Alfred Thornhill described his trip to the hospital with Maddison: “His whole body was convulsing… I saw his leg rise up from the bed and I saw his skin begin turning blue. It started from the ankle and started spreading up his leg.” Thornhill said the effects seemed to mirror those of an electrocution.

Terry Alderson, who like Maddison was another “volunteer” around that same time, later furiously described the lies told to him: “It was Russian roulette. Reading between the lines they have got away with murder. Our health was never monitored afterwards and nobody knows how many died. This shows what liars [the MOD] were – nobody volunteered for these tests, we were sent in there like sheep.”

Forty-five minutes after being dosed, Maddison died. His death was immediately covered up. Home Secretary David Maxwell-Fyfe requested the coroner’s inquest remain secret, citing national security.

The sarin gas that killed Maddison was manufactured and tested at the “Chemical Defense Establishment,” which was set along a remote stretch of southwest England’s Cornish coast, an area of sparse employment, with a small population, far from prying eyes. Today Cornwall is best associated with stunning sunsets. Few know that it hides one of Britain’s darkest secrets.

* * *

The recent use of sarin by Syria’s President Bashar al-Assad has again brought chemical weapons into the spotlight. Western governments, including the U.K., condemn the “poor man’s atom bomb,” citing international law. But the British government itself hasn’t always been quite so ethical.

After the Second World War, Britain was nearly bankrupt; the Empire was collapsing. But with the Cold War in full swing, the British military was still developing weapons, including weapons of mass destruction.

During the war against the Axis powers, Prime Minister Winston Churchill had advocated using both biological and chemical weapons, which the military was experimenting with. (The Scottish island of Gruinard became so saturated with weaponized anthrax during World War II field tests that it remained uninhabitable for decades.) But they were never unleashed in battle, partly because Churchill’s cabinet feared equal retaliation from Hitler.

After defeating Der Führer, British experts toured the former Nazi Germany, confiscating equipment and data used to develop chemical weapons, including sarin.

But if they were going to manufacture chemical weapons of their own, the Brits needed a safe, remote location to do so, someplace where, if the worst should happen, there would be the fewest possible casualties. Royal Air Force base Portreath – or RAF Portreath, for short –had opened in 1941, built on what locals called Nancekuke Common in Cornwall. It was as good a place as any. Mothballed after the war, RAF Portreath was secluded and close to the sea, which was convenient for waste disposal. The few locals weren’t bound to ask many questions either. Any potential whistle-blowers knew they faced prosecution under the Official Secrets Act. Being government property, the authorities also had “Crown Immunity” to use RAF Portreath as they pleased, almost entirely without public oversight.

A scientist at Nancekuke measures out chemicals.

Still, local farmer Ernest Landry didn’t share the government’s enthusiasm for the base’s choice location. The Ministry of Supply used a compulsory purchase order to requisition much of his land to form part of the new complex. Landry was compensated, but he’d lost his farm’s water supply, which came in the form of a pond on that surrendered plot.

In a short memoir, Memories of Nancekuke, Landry described his anger when a Ministry of Supply official forced him into selling:

He said that I had a perfect right to go to arbitration, but if I did he would knock a thousand pounds off the purchase price and he would see to it [that] it cost me another 500 in expenses. This was said to me in front of a witness. I asked the witness afterwards what he thought about it. He said, “It’s no good … he would say he never said anything like that.”

Churchill was one of Nancekuke’s biggest boosters. As a battalion commander in World War I, he knew the devastating power of chemical weapons. He’d once made sure the Soviets did too. In the summer of 1919, while Secretary of State for War, his British troops fought the Bolsheviks in the Russian Civil War. On Churchill’s orders they used large amounts of Lewisite. Numerous Bolshevik-held villages were bombed by British aircraft, and Churchill’s fondness for gas didn’t stop there. In 1919 he openly advocated gassing rebellious tribes in northern India. Furious at what he called “squeamishness” from cabinet colleagues who blocked the plan, Churchill unpleasantly asked, “Why is it not fair for a British artilleryman to fire a shell which makes the said native sneeze? It really is too silly.”

Come 1950, Churchill’s keen desire for an independent British chemical weapons capability was largely inspired by intelligence reports showing the Soviets were developing their own. If, he reasoned, the Russians had it, then so should the British. According to declassified British documents disclosed in a 2001 TV documentary, Nancekuke would, in Churchill’s mind, evolve from a small pilot facility into a mass producer of sarin.

RAF Portreath became the “Chemical Defense Establishment, Nancekuke.” The factory enabled scientists to improve their production process and technology, and between 1954 and 1956, Nancecuke’s pilot plant produced 20 tons of sarin. The plant also produced several other chemical weapons like VX, Soman and Cyclosarin. Prospective employees were vetted; former staff members were reminded of secrecy laws and penalties for breaking them. The government discussed Nancekuke only when forced to, continually restricting public and press knowledge.

A range of chemicals were produced during Nancekuke’s history like VX, Soman and Cyclosarin.

In 1965, as the counterculture became increasingly vocal, and trust and deference to authorities rapidly eroded, the secret of Nancekuke was exposed. Peace News magazine ran a story in December of that year attacking Nancekuke’s safety record. The article summarized what were rather benign incidents, citing “two occasions poison gas [escaped] and gas masks [had] to be worn.”

Tom Griffiths narrowly survived one. On March 31, 1958, he was ordered to fix a pipe that ran throughout the Nancekuke factory. He immediately noticed a single drop of liquid hanging from a flange. Griffiths knew it wasn’t water; it could only be sarin.

Griffiths bellowed a warning, jumped down the ladder he’d scaled, and he and his trailing co-worker staggered away, suffering sarin poisoning through inhalation.

According to one account of the incident: “Outside in the fresh air, as their breathing returned to normal and objects stopped swimming before them, with the happy-go-lucky fatalism born of working at Nancekuke, the two men congratulated each other on an extremely lucky escape.”

They weren’t lucky for long. Griffiths became chronically ill. Secrecy laws prevented him from discussing Nancekuke, even with doctors, and in 1971 he applied for a disability pension. A medical tribunal rejected it.

* * *

It took decades for information about Nancekuke’s WMD production to emerge. Even today some files remain classified. Over the years there have been senior government ministers that were never told about the site. In 1969 it was reported that hundreds of animals died around Nancekuke without any explanation.

As Nancekuke became increasingly exposed, pressure to close it grew, and it was shut down in 1980. The lab was virtually demolished; some equipment was buried onsite, and the rest dumped in mineshafts.

Nancekuke never employed more than 200 workers at any time. Between 1950 and 1969, nine died there, and numerous others like Tom Griffiths developed permanent health problems. Some were threatened with prosecution if they revealed anything.

But Griffiths did file a lawsuit. He claimed his medical records would have undoubtedly proved long-term poisoning. However, in the early stages of the proceedings, his filed records vanished. He settled out of court in 1976 for a mere £110, which at the time equated to roughly $60.

 

 

For Decades, Shame Kept My Dad’s Schizophrenia Secret from our Pakistani Immigrant Community

Now my concern for the mental health of my children is making me finally face my family’s past.

Daddy sat in the rickety metal folding chair, his eyes hidden by the dark sunglasses he had taken to wearing day and night. During the day, I would tell myself it was to shield himself from the uneven sunlight that would shine into the living room. At night, however, the sunglasses protected us. He wasn’t violent. There were no flying fists or abusive shouts coming from our two-bedroom apartment. Not like some of the Pakistani immigrant families we knew in our community, in which the fathers would assuage their sorrows and humiliations by leaving a trail of tears and cowered silences where their children once played. No, the sunglasses shielded us from his stare, unrelenting, shadowed, looking out into space as if he was seeing another life play out. His cigarette made a slow glowing arc from the glass ashtray on the folding table to his mouth, hidden behind the curling gray smoke. 

“I think it’s pretty, the way Daddy’s hands glow and the smoke climbs in to the sky,” I said to my older brother. “It’s not pretty,” Kamran replied curtly, only ten years old but already aged beyond his years, the unfortunate side effect of being the only boy sandwiched between two sisters, the unwitting man of the house when my father sat with his thoughts. “It just means he’s sick. You can always tell when he’s sick. He stops talking, smokes all day and then it gets bad. We don’t talk about it. But he’s so sick that he can’t be our Daddy right now.”  

Schizophrenia is a word I learned even before I could speak properly. I don’t know when I heard it. We never said it out loud. Not in our family. Not within our Pakistani immigrant community in New York. In the world I grew up in, mental illness was a taboo topic. But I knew the word I could barely pronounce was attached to Daddy. Only when he was sick, though. Really, really sick. And only within the walls of our Borough Park apartment. Outside of our little apartment, for the outside world, for the aunties clad in satiny salwar kameez or cheap wool pants and ill-fitting sweaters, who would take the train down to the Fort Hamilton Parkway subway stop to visit my mother, for them the diagnosis was simply depression.

“He lost his job and we have all of these bills, of course, of course he’s depressed,” Mummy said. “He’ll be better soon. Inshallah.” 

Inshallah. God willing. It became the prayer and the demand we based our lives on. God wouldn’t have brought my parents and my brother and sister from Pakistan to New York, only to leave them in darkness. He wouldn’t have brought me into the world just as Daddy’s mental illness began to spiral out of control, when he was still a young man, not even 40 yet. God wouldn’t have done all of that if he didn’t plan on making it better. We just had to wait. And hope. And pray. He would get better and then we would carry on with the hopes and dreams that my parents had originally imagined in their little North Nazimabad house, in the humid coastal city of Karachi. Daddy’s depression simply hit the pause button on those dreams. Inshallah. 

The label of depression made complete sense to our immigrant community. How many of our uncles and aunties, having left behind good jobs and respectable homes in Pakistan, grew depressed and disheartened when the American Dream did not embrace them right away. It was easy to understand depression. In our case, it was also a lie. 

Lying became ingrained in my DNA for almost 40 years. It became a comfortable shawl that I wrapped myself in even though I had no rational reason to do so. I was educated and knew the medical reasons behind schizophrenia, how it was an unfortunate gamble involving genetics and environmental stress factors in which the loser had to pay with his sanity. I knew that the sick man who filled up notebooks with grandiose ideas and inventions in cramped illegible handwriting was not the same man who sang Bollywood songs from the 1950s and 1960s, his angelic voice rising clear and deep, when he was well. I knew that celebrities, such as Brian Wilson of the Beach Boys and Syd Barrett of Pink Floyd, had been geniuses that struggled with the disease. It was out in the open. The world had definitely changed since I was a child growing up in the eighties. 

Just not in my community. Within the Pakistani-Muslim community in the United States, the attitudes towards mental illness have remained as negative as ever. Among the uneducated or superstitious, mental illness is a supernatural affliction, possibly from djinn possession. Wear a blessed taweez from a sheikh and pray salat, sister, and the mind will be all clear! 

For the educated, mental disorders are considered a real illness but nonetheless shameful, indicating a feebleness of mind and self-control. Bad blood. We don’t want to marry into that family, their genes are bad. The word paagal, which means crazy in Urdu, still cuts through me like a knife. As a child, the world sounded like a sneer made audible. We weren’t allowed to use the words paagal, or its English translation, for any reason in our house. It’s a tradition I’ve carried on within my only family.  

After my father passed away in his sleep almost seven years ago, part of me thought we were finally free of the stigma, finally free of fear, finally free of the isolation we often felt. After all, he had died as the proud owner of a beautiful little house with a lemon tree in the backyard. His children had grown and embarked on successful careers and marriages. He had grandchildren to spoil who loved their Nanoo completely with the untarnished innocence of childhood. All in all, it was a peaceful culmination to a tumultuous life. The lies should have ended. But upon his death, we found ourselves continuing to pretend that schizophrenia had never touched our lives. We all but erased any discussion of his so-called depression in an effort to honor his memory – as if the shame of mental illness could follow him into the afterlife. For us, the stigma didn’t end with his death. It simply passed on to the rest of the family. 

And that family now includes my three children and my two nephews. When my children were born, I worried about what I would say to them. How I would explain that within their DNA lived a hidden disease, dormant in some, rearing its ugly head in others. The rational side of me, the one that was Westernized and educated, said there was no grand explanation needed. It was an illness like cancer or heart disease, part of their genetic makeup but one that may never emerge. But there was another side of me, born of culture, bred in secrets that held on to the stigma that mental illness retained in my society. The fear that asks “what will people say?” 

So I watched them covertly, looking for signs, overanalyzing every misplaced laugh or spacey stare out the car window. One day my daughter came home and excitedly told me that there were voices in her head. “I like Joy a lot, Mom, because she makes me happy. She tells me about all the wonderful things in the world,” she said. “I don’t like Anger, though. He makes me see red.” 

My heart suddenly stopped as I looked up from my book. “You hear voices?” I asked her, attempting to keep my own voice neutral even as a dull thudding sensation began to spread from my temples to the back of my neck. My husband, who came in behind her, quickly walked over to me. “Relax, she’s talking about the Pixar movie “Inside Out,” he said, putting his hand on my arm. “The main character’s emotions are portrayed as voices in her head. We just came from seeing the movie. It’s not what you think.” 

I nodded and managed a smile at my daughter as she ran upstairs to listen to her iPod. I felt a sudden, dizzying rush of emotions: gratitude, fear, but most of all, love. I was shaken but I knew that no matter what may come, I would accept her and love her. I would never hide from anything that made her who she was. It was an acceptance that I had never really been able to give my own father. And I was deeply ashamed, not of him but of myself. 

At that moment, I realized that the specter of schizophrenia would always hang over me because it is in everything I am today. It is the corrosive suspicion in my heart that makes me question not only the innocuous actions of my loved ones but also myself for any signs of illness. It is the source of the anxiety attacks that have plagued me since I was a teenager. It is the source of the self-doubt that haunts me whenever I am about to embark on a new challenge – the mocking voice in my own head that wonders whether my ambitions are really just delusions of grandeur. It is the lie I maintain to the world to hide the fragility I feel every morning when I open my eyes.  

And it’s the judgment that I unwittingly still held against my father, the man who would try to smile at me no matter how many voices assailed him. The man who loved me completely even when he couldn’t love himself. By denying his illness for years, I denied the strength and perseverance of the man who suffered from it. I held him accountable for my shame. I blamed him for a crime he had no part in committing. And by hiding from it, I hoped that maybe I could rewrite our history. But that would rewrite the man that my father truly was. Brilliant, soft spoken, ambitious, proud, complicated, troubled, bitter, schizophrenic. 

I still tell myself every day that if I pray hard enough, maybe my children will never suffer from it. Maybe they will never feel the shame that we felt growing up when people, hearing idle gossip about my dad, would avoid us at parties as if his illness was either contagious or dangerous.  Maybe they will never have to look at themselves in the mirror and see themselves as pariahs.  

Maybe. But I won’t hide from the word schizophrenia anymore. My children will know their grandfather in all of his glory and messiness. And they will be proud of him for everything he suffered and sacrificed and endured. I will join them in that sense of pride. I just wish it hadn’t taken me so long to feel it.  

 

 

In 1913, She Walked Down the Aisle Disguised as a Man

Colorado’s first same-sex marriage happened more than a century ago, when a lovable rogue named Helen Hilsher — posing as "Jack Hill" — married her sweetheart.

In the winter of 1911, a handsome young man arrived in Meeker, Colorado. He wore a smart suit and introduced himself to the residents as John Hill – or Jack, as he preferred to be called. No one in that small White River Valley town had ever seen him before. He was in his early twenties, and had come from the east, he said, to be revived by the bracing western winds.  

His first job in the town, however, was not out on the plains, but at the local saloon owned by one John Davitt. Handsome and well-mannered, Jack was instantly popular with the Davitt House’s patrons, working his way up from dishwasher to barroom porter, before finally achieving the status of bartender. Though he did not join the town’s men in their drinking – a quirk which soon earned him the title of “Davitt’s teetotaller” – the men did not begrudge him his temperance. Jack was adept at minding his own business, turning his attention to a dirty glass or unswept floor when their profanities drifted across the bar towards him. If he heard them at all, or disapproved of their risqué talk, he did not show it, and for this he earned their unspoken respect. 

Jack’s stoical charm was not only popular with the men of the town. Enamoured by his thick curls and smooth face, tanned from his work on the ranches, the local girls looked with interest upon their newcomer. Within a week of his arrival, they had rechristened him “Handsome Jack,” and within three they had collectively voted him “the most handsome and captivating” man in town, according to the Herald Democrat. 

Popular, hardworking, attractive – Jack Hill was, to all appearances, a very successful Meeker man.  

The people of Meeker weren’t to know – at least not yet – that this quiet youth who mixed their drinks with sober care and politely returned their blushing glances in the town’s streets had, only six years previously, been living under a very different name in nearby Coal Creek, Colorado. Indeed, as recently as 1907, “Jack Hill” had been known not as a barman but as a teacher – a young woman by the name of Helen A. Hilsher.  

* * *

Where Helen Hilsher was born or what her life was like before she arrived in Meeker it is, for the most part, difficult to say. Births were not required to be recorded by the state of Colorado until after the turn of the century, but if the age she gave when living as Jack Hill is to be believed, Hilsher was born in 1891. She lived for a while working as a teacher in Coal Creek, a town about 200 miles from Meeker and where, according to her landlady Mrs. J.J. Ross, she had been “unusually popular.” Despite this popularity, however, Coal Creek was too small an arena to play adequate host to Helen Hilsher’s ambitions. Sixteen years old, evidently intelligent and charismatic, but with little or no family or money behind her, Helen was already itching for a way out, searching the stores of her considerable ingenuity for an answer to the problem of her situation.  

In 1909, Helen found the answer she was looking for. She donned a suit and cut her hair, and made the journey 90 miles east – to the nearby town of Wiggins, Colorado.  

It was in Wiggins that “Jack Hill,” according to the newspaper records, first came to life. He arrived without great incident, and immediately took up residence on a 160-acre homestead 12 miles southwest of the town. He was as popular in Wiggins as he would later be in Meeker. Known affectionately among his fellow ranchers as “little Jack” due to his slight physique, he also prolifically courted the town’s women. He even developed a close relationship with one young woman, though her name unfortunately escapes the written record. They were frequently seen out riding together in the Sunday dusk, two slight forms trotting side by side in the dying light. For two years, Jack Hill lived happily in Wiggins. 

In September 1911 Hill went to Denver with a group of young male friends, brought to serve as witnesses in a legal matter. Hill was there to prove that he was the rightful owner of land bought under the name of Helen Hilsher, and he took it as an opportunity to reveal his past identity to his new friends.  

Changing into feminine clothing on arrival at the Denver town hall, Hill presented himself to the group as “Helen” for the first time. Perhaps predictably, the men were disbelieving. According to one report, Helen was forced to remove the wig she had donned for the occasion, and to resume her masculine gait and tone of voice before her friends would finally believe that she was indeed their friend “little” Jack. 

“It was the only thing to do,” said Hilsher afterwards, speaking to a reporter from the Yuma Pioneer who visited her at her home in Denver. “A woman would not have felt safe out there alone, and I just had to do it. Now that it is all over I feel awful about it – but, I am glad I won.” 

This declaration of victorious and satisfied retreat from the masculine world may have been palatable to local newspapers and their readers, but the story wasn’t picked up in Denver or nationally. It had the air of a completed sideshow, a party trick. As far as the papers were concerned, Hilsher had packed away the circus and costume and settled back into the life proper to her as a young woman in that early phase of the twentieth century. Her jaunt in Wiggins was merely a flight of feminine fancy: a local gossip piece.  

This was a false impression. 

Within months of Helen’s departure from Wiggins, Jack Hill arrived in Meeker. 

* * *

During his time working for John Davitt, Jack socialised with the women of the town. As a newcomer, and a handsome young bachelor at that, he was no doubt assailed by introductions from his very first morning. He nodded politely as he greeted each of the eligible young ladies who stopped him as he went about his business, watching with a wry glint in his eye as they walked away, or whispered in the shades of doorways as he passed them in the street. He held his secret close to him like a gleaming talisman, but these girls must have caught flashes of it sometimes – in the way he smirked mischievously at them in full view of their mothers, or the pleasing firmness of his hand as it pressed into each of theirs.  

It did not take him long to find a co-conspirator. Within a few months of arriving in Meeker, Jack Hill was observed to have taken an intense interest in one Miss Anna Slifka, a young woman considered by many to be “the prettiest girl in the White River country.” An electric current of unspoken recognition had passed between them at their first meeting: the understanding that in each other they had found an equal to their own ambition, a mirror-image – a partner in crime. Born in Czechoslovakia, the daughter of a well-to-do rancher and sister of the local cobbler, Slifka enjoyed much the same popularity amongst the town’s men as Jack had found among the women, and by the autumn of 1912 they had become firm friends. Speaking about their friendship and apparent courtship in 1913, the two maintained that they had bonded over their mutual experience of pursuit. 

“The girls just wouldn’t let me alone,” said Hilsher to the Montrose Daily Press, smiling wanly, “and they worried me to death with hints to take them to parties and other social events. I got tired of it all and I found I just had to tell someone, and confided my secret to Miss Slifka.”  

Anna reported the same experience with matching exasperation: “The boys were always chasing me. I didn’t care for any of them. I wanted peace.”  

Together, they concocted a solution to their mutual quandary. “We decided together that we would get married to save me from being annoyed by young women,” Hilsher stated to the Lincoln County News. “Also so that both of us could later on appear as men and earn more wages than we ever could hope to earn as girls.”  

So it happened that on November 14, 1912, Reverend Robert L. Nuckolls married Anna E. Slifka to John C. Hill at the town church in Meeker.  

Did the pair know then that what they had accomplished was a radical act? A historic one? Did they wink at each other from either side of the altar, thrilled with their achievement? We cannot say. Even with all that came afterwards, it is impossible to tell whether their marriage was an act of rebellion, or of rebellious love. We have only their marriage license, and what was reported later on in newspapers.  

The couple, newly married, took up residence on their own homestead out at Flag Creek. They were married for ten months before anyone found out their secret.  

* * *

On September 19, 1913, a man named W.B. Thompson arrived in Meeker from Denver. What his business was there we cannot be sure, but we do know that he was passing through Victor Slifka’s shoe shop when the slight young man conversing with its owner caught his eye. According to the Lincoln County News, as Jack Hill turned to leave his brother-in-law’s shop, Thompson stopped him at the door.  

“You are Helen Hilsher of Denver, are you not?” he inquired, looking into the tanned face, flushing darkly now beneath its crown of shining curls.  

Jack denied the name, avoiding the man’s gaze and pushing past him out into the street. His heart was beating like a fist against the inside of his ribs, sweat gathering under the collar of his suit despite the mildness of the September day. Every eye seemed to flash with suspicion as he passed, and his steps seemed unusually loud as he sped towards the end of the street. 

Looking back as he reached the corner, Jack Hill broke into a run.  

Things began to unravel quickly after that.  

Back in the shop, Thompson had already alerted Victor to his brother-in-law’s “true” identity. Enraged, Slifka hurried to his sister and brother-in-law’s homestead, a doctor in tow, finding the couple making frantic arrangements to escape to California. After attempting to bribe the doctor to protect her identity, Hilsher was led to the town jail, where she gave another false name – that of Helen Halstead – to the police. As for Slifka, she was marched back to her family home by her brother, forbidden from seeing anyone but her close relations.  

Later, in court, the two spouses explained repeatedly that the scheme had been in aid of saving for college tuition at an eastern school. “A working girl hasn’t any chance in the east and I thought I could dress like a man and get work on a ranch in the west where I could earn enough by drawing a man’s wages to start me in a good school,” Hilsher explained, as reported in the Des Moines News. She added to the Oakland Tribune that “Everything was going lovely when I was arrested. We had moved to our homestead and were getting along happily. We were not doing anything wrong or bothering anybody and both of us were saving nicely. I cannot see yet what I have done to deserve arrest.”  

The judge opted to postpone the full trial of Helen Hilsher until September 1914. Helen returned to the home of her foster mother in Denver, and one newspaper reported that she had moved from there to Chicago. Anna Slifka remained at home with her family. Their story was seized upon by the press, eventually being connected to Jack Hill’s previous appearance in Wiggins. In her testimony in 1913, reported in a Denver newspaper, Hilsher declared before the court, “I still love Anna.” 

* * *

Helen’s story is a challenging one for many reasons – first of all, for its willing complication of the norms of its own time and ours. It would not be unreasonable to look at this story as a piece of transgender history, to take Jack Hill as a trans man. It may also be a queer love story – the tale of a marriage for love and not merely, as the couple claimed at the time, money. It may equally be read as a story of women working together in service of their ambition, turning an insolent and androgynous face to the gendered systems that confined them. Or, perhaps, the truth of Helen-or-Jack’s gender and sexuality lies in the shades between all of these things, in their extraordinary Tiresian quality, the daring magnetism that, by all accounts, drew others towards it like a brilliant light. 

Equal to the challenge of telling this story is knowing how to end it. I have so far been unable to find any news of the trial that was scheduled for September of 1914. What we do know is that after Helen – or, indeed, Jack – left Meeker for Denver and possibly Chicago, Anna Slifka remained, marrying a man named Fredrick E. Peaslee, 15 years her senior, on June 14, 1918. The records that remain of Anna after that are almost exclusively bound up with the records of the men in her life: her brother Victor’s World War II registration card, the censuses that note the births of her four sons. She lived out the rest of her life in the small town, and died on November 1, 1979, having been a widow for thirty years. She is buried under the same stone as her husband at Highland Cemetery in Meeker. 

As to her ex-spouse, it has proven impossible to find any records of a Helen Hilsher, Helen Halstead, or a Jack or John Hill that can be definitively linked to the charming wo/man who had so shaken up small-town Colorado in the early part of the century. Efforts to locate the various people connected with the trial – Dr. Helen or Nina Jones, E. P. Osborne, even John Davitt – have either yielded nothing at all, or only information that is useless to the establishment of Helen’s movements after 1913. It is possible that she is simply camouflaged within the sporadic catalogues of marriages, births and deaths in the era; that she returned to society in traditional feminine garb and lived out her days quite conventionally, marrying (a man this time), perhaps producing unknowing heirs to her curious history. Maybe she, too, lies beneath a shared headstone somewhere in a cemetery on the prairie.  

This end for Helen Hilsher, however, seems unlikely.  

When questioned by the Oakland Tribune after her arrest, Helen declared of her time as Jack Hill that “I would not go through with it again for a million dollars. It is all a horrible nightmare to me now that it’s over and I am glad to be wearing dresses again like other girls.” We know what happened the last time she gave such an answer.  

It is not so impossible that, as the dust settled back over Meeker, a slight, handsome stranger walked into a distant town. He wore a halo of dark curls and a broad grin, and beneath the breast of his smart suit a roguish heart beat irrepressibly, irresistibly – ready for a new adventure.

 

 

The Day My Therapist Dared Me to Have Sex With Her

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

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

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

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

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

“Oh, yeah,” I say. “That.”

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

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

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

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

I shrugged my shoulders, only half looking up.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Nailed it.

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

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

* * *

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Why not?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

There were two ways to find out:

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

2) Keep going to therapy.

* * *

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

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

“I don’t know.”

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

Here we go again.

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

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

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

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

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

“What?” I respond, flustered.

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

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

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

“Of course not.”

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

“I wouldn’t do that.”

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

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

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

* * *

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Isn’t therapy supposed to ameliorate my anxiety?

* * *

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Exactly.”

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

* * *

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Lori’s great at forcing me to reflect.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

* * *

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

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

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

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

* * *

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

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

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

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

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

* * *

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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