Journey to a Promised Land

Through the deserts of Africa to the hallowed earth of Israel and Ground Zero, meet an Ethiopian Jew with a truly incredible life story.

Sipping chai among a sea of baby strollers and Times readers at the Hungarian Pastry Shop on a Sunday morning in spring, Avishai Mekonen is your prototypical Upper West Side dad, clad in a weathered baseball cap, crisp polo shirt and a five o’clock shadow. The only thing remotely unordinary about this slight, cheery 39-year-old emerges when he smiles—revealing an unusually-late-in-life set of shiny braces—and when he speaks, softly and carefully, with a faint accent that is difficult to place.

But the story of how Mekonen came to be a Manhattan father is not shared by many of his neighbors. It begins one quiet, pitch-black night in 1983 in a mountainous village of northern Ethiopia, when Mekonen’s parents woke him and his siblings suddenly, announcing that it was time to depart for the Holy Land.

Casually leaning back in his chair, Mekonen recounts his tale with a wide-eyed sense of wonder, as if he’s telling someone else’s story, not his own.

“That night I just remember running,” says Mekonen, who was ten at the time. “No time to catch your breath, just running, because you want to be gone from the village before the sun comes up.”

Unlike the millions of New York immigrants who have come here fleeing tragedy or persecution, though, Mekonen and his family weren’t running away; they were running toward something, making good on a promise to fulfill an age-old prophecy.

They were among a population of fewer than 100,000 black Jews living in Ethiopia’s remote Wegera region, in the country’s northwest, where their ancestors had resided since biblical times. While there is significant debate about how and when Jews first came to Ethiopia, the Beta Israel community, as it is known, dates to at least the early first millennium and has been genetically linked to Jews elsewhere in the Middle East.

Avishai Mekonen, age 10 (Photo courtesy Avishai Mekonen)
Avishai Mekonen, age 10 (Photo courtesy Avishai Mekonen)

Living alternately in conflict and coexistence with their Christian and Muslim neighbors, the Beta Israel in Ethiopia remained largely oblivious to most rabbinical updates of the last two thousand years, yet retained their own distinct, deeply devout brand of Judaism. By the 1970s there were seven or eight Jewish families still living peacefully in Sant Tacom, the village where Mekonen was born, and all followed the teachings of the Torah reverently; they kept Kosher and observed the Sabbath to the point where even tying one’s belt was considered too laborious. But above all, the Jews of Ethiopia, including generations of the Mekonen family, prayed for a return to the Holy Land. “They never stopped talking about Jerusalem,” Mekonen recalls of his family. “Every time we prayed they would mention Jerusalem. The honey, the milk, the gold—they talked about this place as if it didn’t actually exist in the world. To me it sounded like a magical place.”

Following World War II, a handful of Ethiopian Jews managed to emigrate to Israel. They began lobbying the government there to officially recognize the Beta Israel as Jews so that others could join them under Israel’s Law of Return, which allows anyone of Jewish ancestry to emigrate.

That right was granted by Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin’s government in 1975, and the news trickled toward Sant Tacom just as a new communist military-led government was making life for Ethiopian Jews increasingly difficult. Anti-Semitism was on the rise, a policy of forced cooperatives resulted in much of their farmland being confiscated, and many young boys were taken from their families and conscripted into the army. The government made it hard for anyone to leave the country at that time, and Arab allies compelled officials to prevent Jews from departing for Israel.

After considerable debate about the Ethiopians’ authenticity as Jews, Israel had finally laid out the welcome mat—and that was all the encouragement that scores of Beta Israel needed. In the late ’70s and early ’80s, thousands of families began moving in secret toward the Sudanese border—a rumored fast-track to the Promised Land. The journey to Sudan, though, was four hundred miles long. Entire families, like the Mekonens, covered that distance on foot, crossing through barren deserts, thick forests and over craggy unforgiving earth, silently slipping out of a land they were not permitted to leave.

*   *   *

Gleefully stuffing a pastry into his face, Mekonen talks about “my journey” with the enthusiasm of a child recounting a storybook tale. Grinning and gesticulating even while relating frightening details, it’s clear that for him this is not a story of horror, but adventure.

“If you ask me how the journey was, the only memory I have is the dark,” he says. “When I’m talking about dark, I mean you can’t see anything. It’s jungle and we had no lights. We came from the village; we didn’t know what flashlights were. You’re just walking by hearing.”

Mekonen’s father, his pregnant mother, three brothers, and grandparents traveled with a group of one hundred Jews from surrounding villages. Reminiscent of the Underground Railroad, they stopped at friendly homes by day and navigated the jungle by night, guided by rebel fighters who had an intimate knowledge of the land from their years-long battle with the government there.

The rebels, however, were working for financial incentive only, and had little tolerance for those who would slow them down or put the group at risk. As they navigated the treacherous terrain, walkers slowed and at times even fell from mountain cliffs.

“There’s no talking,” Mekonen remembers. “We can’t even ask what’s going on, we just have to listen to them. If there was a baby crying, they would stuff something in his mouth. If one of our animals made noise they would shoot it. Sometimes at night someone would fall and there’s no time for stopping. You hear people screaming; then you would just hear someone yell to stop the screaming—you don’t know which family. Each morning before we go to sleep, they would count the people, and we would see the number shrinking.”

By the time the diminished group approached the Sudanese border, after several months of walking, at least a quarter of them were gone and the excitement of heading to Jerusalem had devolved into disease and desperation.

“The rebels wanted to take advantage of us before we got to Sudan,” Mekonen remembers, explaining that the guides gradually fleeced the travelers of their remaining goods and money before leaving them at the border.

“They said, ‘You don’t have any choice. You go back to the village, you’re going to go to jail.’ So when we reached the Sudan border we had nothing, because the rebels took everything. They just said, ‘This is the border,’ and left. We were alone in the desert. We didn’t have a plan about Sudan—we just had the plan to get to the Holy Land.”

*   *   *

Today, there are fewer than a thousand Ethiopian Jews in New York, according to Beejhy Barhany, a friend of Mekonen’s and a fellow Beta Israel who emigrated to New York fourteen years ago. Barhany, who shares Mekonen’s cheery, casual demeanor, runs the Beta Israel of North America Cultural Foundation, a nonprofit that provides assistance to Ethiopian Jews in the U.S. and organizes cultural events to foster understanding of the community.

One thousand people may not sound insignificant, but when thought about on a New York scale, it’s miniscule. In a city of 160,000 Romanian-Americans, 53,000 Bangladeshis, and 40,000 Scots, there are precious few New Yorkers who can say they only share a background with a few hundred others here.

What’s more, for people with such a distinct story, there is no tight-knit community of Ethiopian Jews in New York. “We’re spread out across the five boroughs,” says Barhany, who left Ethiopia with her own family when she was four. “And most of the Ethiopian Jews who come here are young—they don’t have whole extended families here. In Israel, we are a very close, united community. When you have a wedding there, you’re not going to have a hundred or two hundred people show up—you’re going to have a thousand or even more.”

In fact, Ethiopian Jews like Mekonen and Barhany are accustomed to a community so insular that pre-wedding tradition among the Beta Israel holds that families must count back seven generations to ensure that the two parties aren’t related.

“I love New York, but it’s impossible not to miss that community,” admits Mekonen, who is married to a non-Ethiopian Jew and now has two young children.

Mekonen folds his tallis, the traditional Jewish prayer shawl; most Jews of European descent use white tallit, but Ethiopians often use brightly colored shawls with dramatic designs
Mekonen folds his tallis, the traditional Jewish prayer shawl; most Jews of European descent use white tallit, but Ethiopians often use brightly colored shawls with dramatic designs

Barhany’s foundation and a few others organize observations for holidays such as Sigd, an autumn festival that is unique to Ethiopian Jews. But for the most part, the Beta Israel here don’t enjoy the type of community support available to other immigrant New Yorkers.

For Mekonen that missing connection is just one more burden atop the constant struggle of getting by in New York.

*   *   *

The weary, diminished group of refugees waited and waited until, finally, a platoon of Sudanese soldiers arrived and herded them into a truck. Only about seventy of the original one hundred travelers in Mekonen’s group remained when they crossed the border into Sudan.

The young Mekonen, still mesmerized by the arduous journey, was delighted when he saw their destination slowly form on the horizon: a vast pool of blue water, drinkable and surely cool. But the lake, it turned out, was a mere hallucination, fueled by hunger, thirst and the unstoppable desert heat.

Instead, the Mekonens and other families were paraded into a Red Cross refugee camp, its sea of white tents already overcrowded with those from other parts of Ethiopia, Somalia and elsewhere in Sudan. Malaria, starvation and other disease were rampant. Unable to leave, the penniless Beta Israel began to wonder why they had abandoned their homes and relative comfort of life in Ethiopia in the first place.

Eventually, Mekonen’s father was able to sell some of the clothes the family had brought from Ethiopia and pay a truck driver to smuggle the family into a less squalid camp near the northern Sudanese city of Qadarif. There, a small network of Ethiopian Jews who had left the country earlier were now working secretly with Mossad, the Israeli intelligence force, to identify Jews in the camps and help transport them to Israel. Dressed in traditional Sudanese clothing, the Ethiopian-Israeli agents delivered medicine to the Jewish families under the cloak of darkness, promising that they would help them reach Jerusalem.

The Mekonen family’s ordeal in Sudan, however, was far from over. Of all the memories he shares, all the hardships he endured, there is one that finally wipes the boyish grin from Mekonen’s face. He speaks almost inaudibly as he explains the ordeal, an unresolved layer of anguish clearly evident on his suddenly somber face.

In an episode he does not fully remember, or perhaps one he chooses to forget, Mekonen was kidnapped and taken to another camp. He remains hazy on the details, likely because he was drugged by his mysterious captors, who seemed intent on selling Mekonen and the other children there as slaves. Mekonen remembers watching in horror from behind a gate as a young girl attempted to escape the camp but was caught and torn to pieces by guard dogs.

“I didn’t know where I was or who had taken us there,” recalls Mekonen, whose family later told him that he had been missing for three weeks.

“There were kids all around me crying,” he says. “There were boys and girls. Kids from all different countries. I thought my parents were dead, that everyone had died.”

“The only thing I had to think about was the village I grew up in,” he continues. “There was a prayer my grandfather used to say every morning, thanking God for keeping us peaceful all night. So I would say that prayer to remember who I was.”

To this day, Mekonen cannot remember how he escaped from the camp. What he does know is that one of the Mossad agents found him disoriented on the streets of Qadarif and reunited him with his family.

By this point, in November of 1984, Israel had secured the cooperation of the Sudanese government—in secret, so as not to antagonize their Arab allies—to begin Operation Moses. Eventually, eight thousand Ethiopian Jews were airlifted out of the refugee camps and delivered safely to Israel.

One night, the Mossad agents told the Mekonen family to leave the refugee camp and meet them out in the desert.

“It reminded me of that moment that we started the journey,” says Mekonen. “I thought we were going to do another journey of months. I said, ‘Oh my God, I need the power, because I don’t know what’s going to happen.’”

Instead, what followed was unlike anything Mekonen and his family could have imagined, as an Israeli-piloted passenger aircraft—the first plane most of the refugees had ever seen—lit up the sky and descended onto the desert floor.

“At first I thought, ‘This is the light in the darkness,’” says Mekonen. “But then it became a scary moment. I had never in my life seen something like this airplane. So much noise, so many different lights. And then they want us to go into this giant thing. People were screaming; people were running away. Nobody knew what was going on.”

The sight of other Mossad agents on board—and these ones white-skinned—didn’t do much to ease the pandemonium.

“In my village, we thought we were the only Jews left in the world,” Mekonen explains. “And we had never heard of people with white skin. I didn’t know who they were or why they wanted us to get inside this monster. I thought I was in a dream.”

Mekonen’s fears slowly subsided as the Israelis began handing out water and food, while a doctor attended to those in need of medical assistance.

Suddenly, someone announced in Amharic, the Beta Israel’s native tongue: “We are going to be in Jerusalem in ten minutes.”

Mekonen’s face lights up at the memory, the moment still seared in his mind, twenty-five years later.

“Ohhhh man,” he exclaims. “Then it was so amazing. People are crying and laughing, and they don’t stop singing.”

“When we got out of the airplane, that’s the moment that’s going to stay in my mind forever,” Mekonen says. “Nobody rushed. People took their time, and they opened their eyes and breathed in the air. I remember people bending down, kissing the land.”

Mekonen, though, was confused.

“Me, I’m standing there looking around and thinking, ‘Where is the gold they talk about? Where is the honey, the milk?’ But it’s just dark, with lots of little lights scattered around. First the white skin, and now the lights. I had never seen electric lights like this before. Then, there are people taking photos with flashbulbs. It’s shiny and we don’t know what’s going on. They start singing, the people welcoming us, singing “benu shalom aleichem”—“welcome in peace”—but we don’t know Hebrew and can’t understand.”

*   *   *

The Mekonens’ story of assimilation in Israel is similar to that of scores of immigrants around the globe. It was difficult for the adults, while the new language and culture came relatively easy to Avishai and his siblings.

Mekonen says he soon became “a typical Israeli,” despite the fact that many of his fellow Ethiopians felt segregated in an Israeli society that was often significantly less welcoming than those airport singers who had first greeted them.

He finished high school and joined the army, serving in the Special Forces in Lebanon during a time of repeated escalation between the two countries in the early ’90s.

Like most young Israelis, Mekonen followed his military service by traveling. But, understandably tired of long, meandering journeys, he skipped the backpacking routes many young Israelis choose, going only as far as London. It was there that Mekonen developed a love for American movies. He went on to film school—much to the chagrin of his mother, who was gunning for him to become a doctor—and moved to Tel Aviv, where he freelanced as a sound-man and camera operator. He also made a film of his own: a documentary about two Ethiopian-Israeli comedians that touches on the dichotomous feelings of assimilation and rejection that many Beta Israel of his generation share. Mekonen’s mother took to nicknaming him “Ashkenazi” because the friends and co-workers he brought home were all white, Israeli-born Jews.

One of them was Shari Rothfarb, a young American filmmaker who had come to Tel Aviv to work on a movie. Despite the language barrier—she spoke little Hebrew and he no English—the pair fell for each other quickly and Mekonen later visited her in New York.

After the initial shock of seeing snow, Mekonen’s first impression of the city was one that might surprise most New Yorkers.

“It was so calm. So very calm,” he recalls. “In Tel Aviv, we were in a time of war. The suicide bombings, the ambulances, the screaming, they don’t stop. Everything you read in the newspaper, everything you hear on the radio is about suicide bombings. When I came to New York, it was just so peaceful. Even in the subway. It was so calming, so quiet.”

The idea of leaving the land his ancestors had dreamed of for millennia—that same land that he had literally walked across a country to reach—had once seemed unthinkable to Mekonen. Now, the allure of a new love was enough to change his mind. He moved to New York in 2001, the couple married and Mekonen began piecing together a career as a freelance filmmaker, shooting projects for other people, and making low-budget films of his own.

As he struggled to learn English and adapt to American culture, Mekonen developed a newfound respect for the hardships his parents had gone through when immigrating.

“As children, we thought it was so easy. I used to complain to my parents for many years—‘Why you don’t speak Hebrew?’” he says defiantly, his voice rising as he mimics the obstinate teenager he once was.

“But now I understand them. My son is better at English than me. It’s so much harder as an adult. I realize that my parents in Israel had the most difficult life ever, but they didn’t complain. They’re heroes.”

Avishai and wife Shari with their two sons in Riverside Park
Avishai and wife Shari with their two sons in Riverside Park

New York’s immigrant fabric offered Mekonen comfort, as he found himself constantly gawking in amazement at the impossible array of ethnicities packed into a single subway car. But this diversity also served as a constant reminder of just how much of an oddity he remains here, even today. In a city where most people wouldn’t glance twice at a transvestite prostitute or a Muslim woman in full hijab, Mekonen’s existence here has been largely defined by his race and religion—by having to explain to people that, yes, there is such a thing as an African Jew.

*   *   *

Mekonen was on the subway, headed to a medical check-up in Lower Manhattan—another step in the lengthy immigration process—when the first plane hit the North Tower.

Exiting with a crush of confused passengers at Canal Street, he heard ambulance sirens louder than any he recalled from Tel Aviv. Black smoke swirled north from the World Trade Center, but Mekonen was still too uncomfortable in his English to ask anyone what was going on. Terrified of missing yet another important immigration appointment, he continued on toward the C.I.S. office.

“And then—boom—another one. I completely lost where I was going and what I was doing,” Mekonen recalls.

“At the moment that it went down, that’s the moment that I said, ‘My life is ending here, that’s it.’ I never said that before, not on my journey [to Sudan] or in Lebanon or in Tel Aviv. But when I saw those towers come down, I said, ‘My life is ending.’”

While most others were headed in the opposite direction, Mekonen found himself walking toward the World Trade Center, the beautiful sunny day instantly transformed into night.

“I didn’t know what time it was anymore or even where I was,” he remembers. “I didn’t even think it was New York City. I thought it was a different planet. It was so covered with dust and so dark.” Trained as a rescuer in the Israeli army, Mekonen spent close to four hours at Ground Zero, helping firefighters carry hoses and lift people out, bringing water and juice to rescue workers. At one point, he picked up a firefighter who had emerged from a smoking train station and passed out, and carried him toward an ambulance.

Working alongside two F.B.I. agents, Mekonen helped move rubble as they searched through Trinity Church Cemetery for bodies, all the while communicating through sign language and broken English. After several hours, one of the agents stopped and looked at Mekonen, demanding to know where he was from.

“I say, ‘Man-hat-ton,’” Mekonen says, mimicking his then-shaky English pronunciation. The agents became suspicious, repeatedly asking Mekonen where he was from and growing angry at his answer: “Man-hat-ton.”

“One of them comes over to me and starts holding me,” Mekonen recalls. “They look through my bag and find my passport. Then they ask why I have an Israeli passport. I’m explaining in sign language that I’m Israeli, that I came from Ethiopia on a plane, but then that’s confusing because of the plane that came into the World Trade Center.”

The agents continued to interrogate Mekonen, who eventually, in broken English, and frantic bits of Hebrew and sign language, was able to convince the agents that he wasn’t a terrorist.

“You have two seconds to leave,” one of the agents told him, not letting go of Mekonen’s passport.

“I wouldn’t leave,” Mekonen remembers. “Eventually I said ‘passport, passport, passport’ but he was just getting more angry at me. Finally he gave it back and I started running to get out of there.”

Mekonen walked all the way home to the Upper West Side, shaken and disturbed, but also angry with himself “for not having the language to explain who I am.” His wife, Shari, opened the door with tears in her eyes.

“I thought you were dead,” she told him, immediately questioning him about the smell of smoke that seemed to emanate from his skin.

But Mekonen could not talk about that day.  And he was still in a state of shock when he picked up a copy of  The New York Times later that week and saw himself in a photo on the cover. His short-sleeved shirt and flip-flops were covered in dust and ash as he surveyed an apocalyptic scene: the air thick with smoke, a fire truck turned half-white, emergency responders performing triage on a patient lying amid a street covered with garbage and debris.

A Time magazine article included the same photo of Mekonen that ran in The New York Times (Photo courtesy Avishai Mekonen)
A Time magazine article included the same photo of Mekonen that ran in The New York Times (Photo courtesy Avishai Mekonen)

“I’m shaking and I say, ‘Oh my God, that’s me.’ But I couldn’t understand because there were no cameras there. It was a dark place. There was no one there but the firemen and the rescue people. To this day I can’t understand how they got this photo.”

*   *  *

The following year was “one of the hardest I have ever had,” Mekonen says, his cheery face growing forlorn once again. He fell into a depression that lasted several years. The horrors he had witnessed at Ground Zero stayed with him, but he also couldn’t shake the offsetting incident with the suspicious agents.

It embodied Mekonen’s lifelong frustration of not being able to fully explain his identity. As a child in Ethiopia he was ostracized for his Jewishness, called a falasha, an outsider, and gawked at for looking different and worshiping differently. In Israel, his family found a prosperous life in the country they had risked everything to reach, but they were also regarded by many as not truly Jewish enough.

Then, Mekonen fell in love with both a New Yorker and the city of New York, but he found that here, too, people were unfamiliar with and skeptical about the existence of a dark-skinned Jew.

It was largely these questions of identity that led Mekonen to embark on a film project of a personal nature for the first time. His self-narrated documentary, “400 Miles to Freedom,” made with his wife, Shari, tells the story of his personal journey, from Ethiopia to Israel to New York, while also exploring the larger world of non-white Jews and their struggle for acceptance.

“It can’t be that I’m the only person in the world who is Jewish and has dark skin,” he says rhetorically. “So I started doing this documentary. It opened my eyes. I learned about Asian Jews, Latin Jews.”

But he didn’t stop there, crisscrossing the country as he interviewed African-American Jews, Nigerian Jews, Korean Jews and Indian Jews, helping him discover a new level of comfort with his own identity. Mekonen has found audiences, too, particularly Jewish-American ones, largely accepting of the idea of an Ethiopian Jew, even if they had never before heard of one.

“400 Miles to Freedom” premiered at the New York Jewish Film Festival this year, and continues to play the festival circuit. (It plays in Stamford, Connecticut on November 3.) During a recent screening at the Park Avenue Synagogue, the only condemnation from the visibly moved crowd was reserved for an orthodox rabbi who insinuates in the film that Mekonen may not be sufficiently Jewish. The film, shot on a low budget and devoid of any Hollywood flourish, has a resulting air of authenticity; which helps solidify Mekonen’s message that his personal journey is not unlike so many other real, complex stories of the Jewish Diaspora. “Five years ago I was confused myself when anyone would ask about what I was,” he says. “Today, if someone says, ‘How can you be both black and Jewish?’ I just laugh.”

Mekonen had not originally planned to discuss his kidnapping in Sudan as part of the film, but when he began investigating his own journey to Israel, he found this painful and incomplete memory unavoidable.

“I had never really talked to my wife about it,” he admits. “And my parents, I hadn’t talked to them about it for twenty years. I never got the details about what happened because I didn’t want to know. I was angry at my father, because I blamed him for letting me get kidnapped. I never knew that he had been looking for me the whole time, and working with the Israeli agents to try to find me.”

“I think it’s time for me to talk about what happened to me,” Mekonen goes on, “to talk about how I was a victim [of human trafficking], but only one of many, many children who are victims.”

*   *   *

Mekonen was in front of the bathroom mirror on a recent weekday morning, brushing his teeth, when he was suddenly interrupted by his seven-year-old son, Kove. His son strode past him and shut off the running faucet, angrily reprimanding his father for wasting water. This innocent environmental activism—picked up, no doubt, from teachers or peers at his progressive public school in East Harlem—was, for Mekonen, a poignant reminder of how starkly different his son’s life is from his own upbringing at that age.

“Like any immigrant parent, my main dream is my kids’ success,” he says, proudly. “I was so worried when he started school. It reminded me of when I was the only black person in my class. I worried that he would be left out of things.”

Mekonen and his elder son, Kove, read from the Passover Haggadah in their living room
Mekonen and his elder son, Kove, read from the Passover Haggadah in their living room

In fact, when Mekonen talks about his greatest desire—that his children won’t have to endure what he went through—he’s not referring to refugee camps or abduction or a four-hundred-mile walk through the desert. He’s talking about the indignity of having other people question his identity.

“I don’t think he deserves to have to explain his identity, to defend his identity,” says Mekonen. “I’m scared that each year as he’s growing up, he’ll have to deal more with the question of who he is. People will say, ‘You’re a little bit dark skinned—you’re Jewish?’ It’s not fair that he should have to defend who he is.”

Mekonen loves picking up his son from school and seeing him playing with other kids, their own families from every corner of the world. He beams as he recalls visiting the school and helping the class make a hundred paper cranes to send to children in post-Tsunami Japan.

“It’s like the United Nations there!” Mekonen says of the school.

For now, Mekonen continues to pursue his passion for film. He’s currently teaching himself new editing software and is kept busy with video projects—most recently one about an 85-year-old native New Yorker and retired Merchant Marine.

One of the most striking things about him, after all of his dramatic adventures, is that he is such a classic New Yorker, alternating between the roles of marveling newcomer and wizened urban crank. On the subway recently, he slid close to two young women whom he noticed were speaking Hebrew.

“They were talking so loud!” he says. “One lady was complaining about smoking, about how you can’t smoke anywhere in New York. ‘Crazy Americans,’ she says.”

Mekonen sat there and listened, growing increasingly angry at the young Israelis’ insolent attitude, and also well aware that they would never assume he could understand them.

“When I hear someone speaking Hebrew, I get up close and just listen, quietly.”

He continues: “I sat down next to her and said, ‘My sister, you cannot think like that when you are in another country. Americans are welcoming you, but you sit here and complain.’

“Of course, 95 percent of what I said, she didn’t understand,” he adds, “because she was sitting there with her mouth open, shocked that I was talking to her in Hebrew.”

In Riverside Park, a New Yorker stops to chat with the Mekonen family
In Riverside Park, a New Yorker stops to chat with the Mekonen family

Mekonen’s parents still hope he’ll join them in Israel again some day. But while he misses the culture and community intensely, he is content here, in this giant city of immigrants, where he is just another New Yorker.

“Sometimes I can’t believe that I’m here,” he says. “I’ll be walking down the street and I’ll just stop and say, ‘I’m on Broadway. I’m in Times Square.’ All that time I was walking without shoes, and I was thinking of one place—Jerusalem. What am I doing here?’”

He looks up with bemusement, almost as if he’s shocked to remember that New York is indeed where he lives.

“I wish those one hundred people who we met that first night to start the journey could be here so I could say, ‘Can you believe it?’”

The Hidden Queer History Behind “A League of Their Own”

The All-American Girls Professional Baseball League did everything it could to keep lesbians off the diamond. Seventy-five years later, its gay stars are finally opening up.

Josephine “JoJo” D’Angelo was in a hotel lobby in 1944. An outfielder for the South Bend Blue Sox — a team in the All-American Girls Professional Baseball League (A.A.G.P.B.L.), founded the year prior — she had dark, curly hair. Even if you didn’t know her last name, her looks hinted at her Italian heritage.

The hotel was likely decorated with muted colors in the modernist style of the previous decade. Thanks to World War II, there were supply shortages and rations, which put a hold on new design in the early ’40s. All available supplies needed to go toward the war effort.

The story was similar in baseball. With most of the Major League Baseball players deployed, executives decided to fill the gap with female players, paving the way for the A.A.G.P.B.L.

But in the hotel that day, D’Angelo was approached by one league executive and told that she was being released from her contract. This was devastating for the right-hander who’d batted .200 in her two seasons with the Blue Sox. She’d been playing since she was a little girl, and had spent her days working in a steel mill in her hometown of Chicago while devoting evenings to playing ball, before attending a tryout for the league at Wrigley Field. That scene was made famous by the film “A League of Their Own,” with hundreds of women traveling from around the country to the brick ballpark with the ivy-covered outfield wall.

Why was D’Angelo being cut from the thing she loved most in the world? When she told the story later in her life, she gave the reason: “a butchy haircut.” It was a haircut she says she never even wanted, one she was pressured into getting by the hairstylist who assured her she would look lovely with her dark curls trimmed into a bob.

D’Angelo had broken one of the cardinal rules of the A.A.G.P.B.L.: “Play like a man, look like a lady.” But she wasn’t the only one. Connie Wisniewski was told she’d be kicked off her team if she chose to get a close-trimmed cut. Multiple recruits were immediately handed tickets home after they showed up to spring training with bobs, and “Dottie Ferguson was warned by her chaperon against wearing girls’ Oxford shoes, because they were excessively masculine-looking,” writes Lois Browne in her book Girls of Summer: In Their Own League.

Members of the Fort Wayne Daisies baseball team, 1948. (Photo courtesy State Archives of Florida)

Players had to attend charm school and wear lipstick on the field. Their uniforms had skirts instead of pants — not great for sliding, but deemed appropriately feminine by league owner Philip K. Wrigley. All of this was chronicled in “A League of Their Own.” But there was one thing the movie left out: the reason for these requirements.

Though it was never explicitly stated, historians and players alike say the rules were in place, in part, to prevent the women from being perceived as lesbians. Many of the women actually were gay, including D’Angelo, which is another part of the story the movie didn’t tell. By not including a gay character’s story in “A League of Their Own,” the film does to the history of the league what the owners tried to do its existence — erase lesbians from the narrative.

* * *

When Terry Donahue met Pat Henschel in 1947, Donahue was a 22-year-old catcher and utility infielder in the All-American Girls Professional Baseball League. She grew up playing ball with her younger brother, Tom, on their family’s farm in Saskatchewan, Canada. “She claimed that she was five-foot-two. She was about five-foot,” Henschel tells me over the phone from the home she shares with Donahue. “She had dark hair, blue eyes, and was very attractive, and she was wonderfully liked.”

Donahue was in Nova Scotia for the winter when she met Henschel, who was 19 at the time. The two women hit it off, keeping in touch when Donahue moved back to the U.S. to play for the Peoria Red Wings. “She was a utility player, and the catcher on her team broke her thumb or her finger,” Henschel says. “The manager came up to her and said, ‘Have you ever caught?’ And Terry said, ‘no.’ He said, ‘Well, you’re going in tonight.’” The first game Donahue ever caught ended up being a 19-inning game. The next day was her birthday.

“The only things [women] can’t do, we can’t hit as far and we can’t throw as hard, but we certainly can make all the plays that you see in the Cubs’ ballpark. Or the Sox,” Donahue told the Kane County Chronicle in 2010, referring to the Cubs and White Sox, Chicago’s two major-league squads.

Left, Terry Donahue’s baseball card. Right, Peoria Redwings team photo in 1947 – the year she met Pat Henschel. Donahue played in the team from 1946 to 1949. (Photos courtesy All American Girls Professional Baseball League Players Association)

Today, Donahue, who has Parkinson’s disease, is 92. Henschel is 89. For seven decades the two told almost everyone, aside from their inner circle, that they were best friends. The Chronicle story calls Henschel Donahue’s “cousin and roommate.” But the truth was much more than that. For 70 years theirs has been a love story, originating in a time when the only love stories we were allowed to tell were those between a man and a woman. Try to ask most former players about the issue and they clam up. “I don’t think it was really even talked about, frankly,” Henschel says.

In the ’40s and ’50s, homosexuality was not discussed much; it wasn’t until 1973 that the American Psychiatric Association removed it from the list of mental illnesses. The players could have lost more than just their baseball careers if they had been open about their queerness. They could have lost their families, occupations, and reputations, too. In those days, “you had to be very discreet, and we were,” says Henschel. “No one was even aware of it because we got so careful and no one would have even imagined anything at all.”

That stigma has carried on for decades. As Ila Borders, the first woman to play for a men’s professional baseball team since the Negro Leagues, wrote in her memoir, Making My Pitch, “I remain certain that my professional career would not have been possible had I come out.” In 1994, Borders, a left-handed pitcher, became the first woman to receive a college baseball scholarship. She was the first to start an N.C.A.A. baseball game and the first woman to get a win in collegiate baseball. She then played for the independent, otherwise all-male St. Paul Saints and Duluth-Superior Dukes.

“In 1994 few in baseball — or in the country — were ready to accept a gay player, male or female,” writes Borders. Indeed, that same year, the book SportsDykes: Stories From On and Off the Field was also published. In her essay, “The Lesbian Label Haunts Women Athletes,” Lynn Rosellini writes, “To most lesbian athletes … coming out is not yet worth it.”

“If a woman plays hardball, people figure she’s likely gay,” writes Borders. It’s why, during her baseball career, she constantly had to answer questions about whether she dated men, and had to reassure the public that, despite the fact that she played ball, she was not gay. She understands today that talking about being a gay athlete is a double-edged sword, in a way. There’s the stereotype that women athletes are all lesbians, which is both inaccurate and unfair. And yet, there’s also the truth that there are many athletes who are also lesbians.

“I was deeply ignorant of my small place in the history of women athletes and the whole gay rights movement,” Borders writes of her playing days as a closeted homosexual.

But this stereotype existed long before Borders was even born. Some A.A.G.P.B.L. players cited masculine clothing or appearances as tipping them off about a woman’s sexual orientation, a stereotype that still exists today and may or may not be accurate. “The lesbians, they dressed like men with those big pants and big shoes, most of them. … [T]hey had boyish bobs,” Dottie Green, a former A.A.G.P.B.L. player and chaperone told Susan K. Cahn in her book Coming on Strong: Gender and Sexuality in Twentieth Century Sports. Or, as Dottie Ferguson Key put it, “tomboyish girls” who “wanted to go with other girls” signaled it with their “mannish” shoes and clothing.

A.A.G.P.B.L. players (left to right) Daisy Junor, 27, South Bend; Dorice Reid, 19, Chicago club member; Dodie Healy, 19, Chicago club member; (top) Gene George, 20, Peoria club member, fraternizing in a bunk room over a sports magazine, 1948. (Photo courtesy State Archives of Florida)

It was this perception of female athletes as unfeminine and unfeminine women as lesbians that led Wrigley, a chewing gum manufacturer and president of the Chicago Cubs, to insist that his players be appropriately feminine in appearance.

But the A.A.G.P.B.L. went even further than that, instituting a policy against fraternizing with other teams. The given reason was “to sustain the complete spirit of rivalry between clubs,” but Browne writes that the real reason that teams imposed stiff fines on players who violated this rule was the fear of lesbianism. When the affair was between teammates, chaperones would refuse to let the suspected couple room together and gauge the reaction of the players to confirm their hunch. In one case, the suspected lovers were so angry about being barred from becoming roommates that team manager Johnny Gottselig considered it proof of the affair. One manager released two of his players because he thought they were gay and was worried they would “contaminate” the rest of the team.

In another case, a married player was rumored to have fallen for one of her teammates. “That player converted this young married woman in just two weeks,” said Fred Leo, who was the League’s publicity director and, later, its president. Another time, Leo said that a married player was discovered to be in a relationship with a woman who was unassociated with the league. Leo claimed he notified her husband, who came and took her home.

“Knowledge of gay women in sport ranged from a hazy, unarticulated awareness to an informed familiarity or personal involvement,” writes Cahn. “Often an athlete’s initial awareness of lesbianism developed from seeing women ‘pairing off’ or getting ‘very clannish’ with each other.”

However, many of the players came to the league quite sheltered. They often arrived from small towns or rural areas and were quite young when they left home. As a result, it was not uncommon for new or younger players to be completely blindsided by the relationships between their teammates. Dorothy Hunter entered the League in 1943, when she was 27. Hunter, who was from Winnipeg, Canada, said she had “never heard of lesbianism,” so her teammates regaled her with tales of lesbian love affairs. “They told me they had wedding ceremonies. Well, I just thought they were giving me the gears because I was a green Canadian.”

But many of the players were unattached. If straight players were married, many of their husbands were off at war or were left back at home on farms or in factories. The players’ grueling schedule and constant travel made dating difficult. It was in many ways the perfect environment for gay women to become involved with each other. But in some cases, the near-inability to date was a welcome reality. It made staying in the closet easier, because there was no time for dating and so there was no need to make excuses. This was something that Borders discovered, too, when she was playing ball in the 1990s.

“Playing baseball allowed little time for dating,” she writes. “When people tried to set me up, it was easy to say, ‘No thanks, too busy.’”

These restrictions kept some women out of the league altogether. One of those women was Dot Wilkinson, often regarded as the greatest softball player of her time — and perhaps all time. Wilkinson was a hard-playing catcher for the Phoenix Ramblers. She joined the American Softball Association (A.S.A.) team in 1933, when she was just 11 years old.

“Softball has meant more to me than I can ever tell anybody,” Wilkinson says in the documentary film “Extra Innings.” “I love that game. I never thought about anything else.”

Wilkinson was recruited to play in the A.A.G.P.B.L. “They came to Arizona to offer us some contracts,” Wilkinson said. “They wanted to give me $85 a week [equivalent to $1,240 today] to catch. I didn’t want to leave the Ramblers and I don’t like being away from home so I didn’t go.”

But it was more than that. Wilkinson didn’t want any part of the curfews, the charm school, the chaperones, or the mandatory dresses. She played in Levi’s or her shiny satin uniform shorts, and she liked it that way. She also knew that the league was actively discouraging players from being perceived as exactly what Wilkinson was — gay.

“Softball was my first love and it still is,” said Wilkinson. But she had another love, too. In 1963, Estelle “Ricki” Caito, a star second baseman, joined the Ramblers. Wilkinson and Caito played together for two seasons, until the A.S.A. disbanded. But they also began a relationship that would last 48 years, until Caito’s death in 2011.

“We were born at a time when we were all in the closet and that was just the name of the game,” Wilkinson said. “And you had to live with it and that’s what we did.”

* * *

It is the obituaries that offer the most publicly available clues to some of the players who spent their lives with other women. The most telling evidence is often in veiled language or titles that are open to interpretation. In at least one case, a player had a “special friend.” In others, their relationships are more explicitly acknowledged.

Mabel Holle played third base for the South Bend Blue Sox, and like teammate JoJo D’Angelo hailed from Illinois. Holle’s father was a semi-professional pitcher and she grew up playing ball with her siblings. She attended the mass tryout at Wrigley Field, becoming one of the original members of the league in 1943. During the season, she was traded to the Kenosha Comets. Her contract was not renewed in 1944, forcing her to try out again. This time, she didn’t make the cut. After leaving the league, she became a physical education teacher. In Holle’s 2011 obituary, written after she died at 91, there’s this: “Holle is survived by her longtime partner, Linda Hoffman.”

Babe Ruth and Millie Deegan, 1938. (Photo courtesy The Diamond Angle, via Archive Today)

Mildred “Millie” Deegan played 10 seasons with the A.A.G.P.B.L., from 1943-1952. She is rumored to have impressed Babe Ruth with how far she could hit a softball, and it is said he squeezed the biceps on her arm when he posed with her for a photo. In 1944 the Brooklyn Dodgers invited Deegan and two other women to their spring training camp. Leo Durocher, the Dodgers manager, told the Daily Oklahoma in 1946, “Deegan spent a whole week training with the Brooklyn Dodgers at their Bear Mountain, NY camp. If she were a man, she no doubt would have been a Dodger.”

Deegan died of breast cancer in 2002 at the age of 82. Her obituary in the New York Times mentions Margaret Nusse, “Ms. Deegan’s companion and her only survivor.” Nusse, known as “Toots,” was a softball legend herself. According to the now-defunct NJ Divas Fastpitch site, Deegan and Nusse were partners for almost 50 years. The two shared their passion for softball: Deegan was the coach for the Linden, New Jersey, Arians and Nusse was the manager. Nusse passed away just six months after Deegan died, at age 85.

June Peppas was a pitcher and first baseman from Fort Wayne, Indiana, who played in the A.A.G.P.B.L. from 1948-1954. The player known as “Lefty” had spunk. Fort Wayne Daisies manager Harold Greiner relates a story in Browne’s book Girls of Summer: “Once there were some men out in the street, and some smart aleck said something. I didn’t hear what it was, they’d watched till I wasn’t nearby. Anyway, all of a sudden I hear ‘Wow!’ I turned around and saw that June Peppas had decked the guy — and I mean she really decked him. He crawled away.”

The A.A.G.P.B.L. meant a lot to Peppas. She was the first chairperson of the Players Association Board and two-time A.A.G.P.B.L. All-Star. Polly Huitt was Peppas’s partner for 46 years before she passed in 2007, nine years before Peppas died at the age of 86. The two operated a printing business in Allegan, Michigan, called PJ’s Printing, from 1975-1988. They sold the business and retired to Florida where, according to Peppas’s obituary, they enjoyed “golf and an active social life.”

Fort Wayne Daisies player Marie Wegman arguing with umpire Norris Ward, 1948. (Photo courtesy State Archives of Florida)

One of the best pitchers to ever play in the A.A.G.P.B.L. was Jean Cione. The girl from Rockford, Illinois, played 10 seasons in the league. In that time she threw three no hitters, had three 20-win seasons, and had an unassisted triple play — something that has only happened 15 times in Major League Baseball since 1909. Cione spent her rookie year in 1947 with the Rockford Peaches and finished with an astonishing 1.30 ERA. “She was a lot fun to be with,” Cione’s partner Ginny Hunt told the Bozeman Daily Chronicle after her death in 2010. “If you didn’t ever experience watching a baseball game with her, you really missed something. It was a treat to watch a game with her. She analyzed every play.”

Catcher Eunice Taylor and her partner of 45 years, Diana Walega, owned and operated a pet supply store for 40 years. Outfielder Barbara Sowers was with her “loving companion” Shirley Ann Weaver for 45 years. And there are many more, players with “longtime,” “beloved companions,” whose names I have chosen not to include here out of respect for the fact that they were likely still closeted during their lives. Their obituaries, which are historical documents, offer us glimpses into their lives and are open for us to interpret.

* * *

“Our relationship is one of the best,” Pat Henschel says of her partnership with Terry Donahue. “We’re very lucky and we know it.”

Photos of the women throughout the years give a glimpse of the life they’ve had together. In their younger days, they look like they could be sisters as they pose in front of a Christmas tree in a picture that might have been taken in the 1960s. They each sport short, dark hairstyles and wear sleeveless turtleneck shirts. In another, they are perhaps in their 60s and they dance together in front of a fireplace. They are both laughing. Their hairstyles have not changed in the decades between the two photos except to turn from brown to gray.

Members of the All-American Girls Professional Baseball League and an umpire, 1948. (Photo courtesy State Archives of Florida)

They are ready to tell the world the truth about their relationship. Donahue’s great nephew, Christopher Bolan, is working on a documentary about their life together. Another photo shows the two of them doing what they had only ever done behind closed doors: they hold hands, weathered and wrinkled by the years they’ve spent together, and they kiss each other on the lips. Their eyes are closed. It is sweet. It is intimate. But they hid this truth for as long as they did because, for most of their lives, they had too much to lose by coming out.

But today, Henschel says, “They either accept it or they don’t.”

* * *

Fifty years after the All-American Girls Professional Baseball League ended, Ila Borders was making history. She had ascended to a level that no woman ever had before. She was playing — and succeeding — in men’s professional baseball. And then, she quit.

We are sitting together in the stands at JetBlue Park, the Red Sox’s spring training facility in Fort Myers, Florida. We’re watching a group of women play the championship game at the team’s Women’s Fantasy Camp, where Borders is coaching. “It got to me,” Borders says about being in the closet. “It’s why I quit. It’s the worst thing on Earth to hide who you are.”

That, Borders says, is why she ultimately came out — for the next generation of girls who want to play ball, so they can be themselves, no matter who they are, and so history doesn’t have to repeat itself.

Borders looks out onto the field of women whose uniforms are streaked with dirt. “If you are a ballplayer, it’s O.K. to play hard and just be yourself,” she says. And she’s finally at a place in her life where she truly believes it.

How Running Ruined My Relationship, Killed My Faith…and Saved My Life

My high school boyfriend and I made a bet: he'd learn about my religion, Mormonism, if I took up his religion, running. Neither of us was ready for what came next.

The day my doctor released me from in-patient psych, he said, “Allison, I’ll make you a deal. You can go home on the following conditions: 1) You will take Prozac, the high dose, and you won’t even think about getting off it for an entire year, and 2) You will make yourself run, every day, for at least 20 minutes. Because your life depends on it.”

I agreed, and stood behind the Plexiglass window by the nursing station, waiting for the bin that held all the belongings I had been required to hand over the day I checked in: my wallet, my keys, and the laces from my running shoes. As I threaded my sneakers and prepared to keep my promise by jogging home to the apartment I shared with four other Yale grad students, I remembered another deal, the one that started this whole mess. The one I had made about a decade earlier with my high school boyfriend. A deal about sex, running and the Mormon Church.

I fell for my first boyfriend when I was 15, arriving home from church on one of those sticky, Upstate New York, summer afternoons. After a morning of trying to be a good Latter-day Saint by skipping breakfast, putting on a dress, and spending three hours reading scripture and singing songs about how my body is a temple (and the only person I should ever let inside it was my wedded husband), all I could think about was peeling off my sweaty pantyhose and stuffing my face with Cinnamon Toast Crunch. Then I saw him, running by my house. Up until that moment, I had ignored this boy, who had moved to our neighborhood the year before from Maine. But what I was seeing as I felt my stomach growl and my nylons riding down my crotch was a puberty miracle. He had transformed from a skinny, seemingly weak, invisible kid to a lithe, powerful athlete who ran with the joy and abandon of Pheidippides and the irresistible style and charisma of Prefontaine. I was a goner.

His natural, fluid, effortless laps over the rolling hills surrounding our neighborhood awed me. At that point I was getting clobbered as a field hockey fullback, desperately defending the goal against an onslaught of veteran hoss players. I was in the lineup because the team was short-handed that year and took anyone who would wear a skirt and hold a stick. Unlike my new crush, who ran for love of the sport, I used athletics as an outlet — a way to deal with the teenage sexual energy I urgently needed to suppress. I was skinny, muscular and scrappy, but this never translated to excellence in any of my athletic pursuits. By my teen years, I had bounced around, a few seasons here and there, on every team imaginable: basketball, softball, soccer, gymnastics, volleyball, even one tragically desperate year in cheerleading. Though I’d tried, I still hadn’t found a sport at which I possessed even a moderate level of physical prowess.

The insta-crush I had on my neighbor was mutual, and we quickly became obsessed with each other. I learned that, aside from running, my new boyfriend loved jazz and kissing. He taught me to french while listening to hours and hours of John Lee Hooker records. One night he put “Boogie Chillen’” on a loop in the background while he told me to just open my mouth and let him figure out what I tasted like.

I remember lying on his bed, stiff and resistant, a hair-trigger of curiosity, puberty and guilty self-loathing. His first lick — barely touching the inside of my lips and the tip of my teeth — was infused with the knowledge, beyond his years, that his only job was to keep me from bolting, to stay, and want just a little more. It didn’t take long for John Lee Hooker’s lyrics to become my own mantra:

One night I was layin’ down…

I didn’t care what she didn’t allow

I would boogie-woogie anyhow

What a terrible, wonderful moment — to realize what I wanted was not to run away, but to stop and be still, to taste and be tasted, and to let someone know this secret about me that I was supposed to keep to myself for many virginal years to come. It wasn’t long before I wanted to lick his entire body, though it would take years of battling deeply entrenched sexual shame for that fantasy to come true. I settled for his armpits — the only other place, besides his mouth, I could possibly justify as not being explicitly forbidden, and the one spot I could reach without actually undressing him. Taking his shirt off felt too wrong, so I pulled and stretched the collar of his v-neck t-shirt down to access what I wanted, chafing his neck and strangling him a little in the process.

Our “Boogie Chillen’” nights repeated on an endless dreamy loop those first few months. When our lips got worn out, he’d tell me mine were so swollen I could pass for Steven Tyler or some other insulting dig that would get me mad enough to hit him or wrestle him to the floor — which is what he really wanted more than anything. We’d fall asleep spooned together, waking up just in time for me to scramble out of his room at dawn, and for him to drag himself to early morning practice. We swam in Lake Ontario every chance we got because it was the one permissible activity that allowed us to gaze at and lie next to each other with the least amount of clothing on our bodies as possible. John Lee’s refrain: “And it felt so good…It felt so good” populated the doodles I penned in the margins of my lecture notes. Though he continued to win races, and I aced my AP courses, we cared about little else than the next time we could wear our mouths out on each other. The two of us, together, mattered more than food. Sleep. School. Anything.

But what can matter more than sex? The first time my boyfriend tried to lift my shirt, asking me if he could just touch the places my modest one-piece bathing suit concealed, I shut him down and explained the rules governing my morality and chastity. I was the first Mormon he’d ever dated — and he was the first “non-member” (the term Latter-day Saints use to identify those not of their faith) I’d ever dared try out as a boyfriend. I had to explain that, as a true believer and follower of the faith, I was 100 percent committed to: no drinking, no smoking, no coffee, no tea, church for three hours every Sunday, and, of course, no premarital sex.

“And when I say no premarital sex, what I mean is…I think kissing is fine. But you can’t touch any of my body above my knee. Or below my collarbone.”

Making sure he understood me, he asked, “So, wait. That means you can’t touch me either? And are you saying like…even no…premarital fingering? Dry humping? No going down action at all?”

I blushed, and admitted I didn’t even know what those words meant; at that point in my life I hadn’t even watched an R-rated movie.

He was devastated and incredulous. The only rules about sex his hippie parents had taught him to live by were to always give a girl more pleasure first than he ever expected to get in return; never give her any reason to fear or distrust him; and, most importantly, take every means necessary to avoid STDs and pregnancy.

But my boyfriend somehow loved and cared about me more than he loved sex, so he respected my rules. He just could not confine his competitive streak to running — he wanted to win my body over so bad. He worked every angle, came up to the edge of every line I had designated as “off limits,” trying to turn me on as much as I would possibly let myself.

His creativity paid off. I began to cross my own boundaries, and try things my church had never explicitly stated were wrong, but felt so good I knew they must be. I was thrilled to discover dry humping — how had my bishop not thought to scream from the pulpit that this was basically sex and should be totally forbidden?! But these momentary, forbidden pleasures always morphed into aching guilt. My boyfriend started to see how tortured I was, getting excited, then disconnecting and withdrawing, over and over and over again.

We started to fight. He’d ask me, “Why? Why are you putting yourself through this suffering and denial of every urge and instinct? Why do you shut the juices down just as they are getting going?! What kind of crazy, dogmatic, cultish system would make you want to do such a thing?” Our worlds, up to that point, had been too different. I told him we should break up. That he would never understand.

But instead of breaking up, he made me a deal: He would learn about my religion, if I would learn about running. Running was his church, the dogma behind his discipline, self-sacrifice and denial. He promised to try to understand Mormonism if I would learn to run.

So began my relationship with running, and my boyfriend’s with organized religion. I’d like to say everything turned out as romantically as our high school love affair, but it did not.

* * *

I joined the track team for the first time as a high school senior. It was one of the few teams I had never tried; running was the hardest, least enjoyable part of every other sport I had played. An athletic activity consisting solely of running felt like suffering, distilled to its most concentrated form. And unlike the mostly mediocre-with-random-lucky-moments-of-stellar-performance I managed in other sports, I was a terrible runner. Practices were torture sessions. Unlike almost everyone else on my team who had been doing this crazy shit since junior high, I had never run for more than a mile in my entire life. During the usual seven-milers we cranked out each day after school, my heart beat so hard I thought it would explode. Though the girls on my team ran together in a tight unit, making sure to pace so that no one was left behind, my experience was not of comradery, but of loneliness. With my pulse rushing through my ears, my face splotchy and beet-red from the blood pounding in my head, I felt totally closed off, trapped, and almost deaf. My own sensory experience was so intense I couldn’t even hear my teammates chatting casually in the pack around me.

Meets were worse. When I raced, I always crossed the finish line at the end of the pack, usually dead last. I barfed afterward several times. It took me days to recover from each competition. The real deal I had made with my boyfriend was to be tortured and publicly humiliated by the worst sport ever invented.

Why didn’t I just quit? I had started running because of a boy, youthful naivety, and religious zeal — a self-torture trifecta. But running got into me, somehow, in a way I couldn’t shake; the understanding that my physical ability to finish the practice or the race didn’t really matter. Self-will and mental determination ruled this sport. If I believed I could put one foot in front of the other, just one more time, and one more time after that, I would.

Though I never experienced anything like my boyfriend’s rapture for the sport, I came to deeply believe in the power it held in my life — in a way I’d only ever previously experienced with religion.

Simultaneously, the Mormon church got into my boyfriend in a way that he couldn’t shake. Over a period of a few years, I watched his disdain and barely-masked tolerance of the woo-woo ways of Mormonism turn into tentative respect, and then full-fledged, brainwashed belief.

Many fateful stars aligned. Though he went to a Catholic university in the Midwest on a running scholarship, his academic mentor, the chair of the geology department, happened to be Mormon. My boyfriend was contacted by some amazingly handsome and charismatic Latter-day Saints missionaries. The local congregation surrounding his college became a welcoming and supportive family structure during the long, desolate Midwestern winters. Eventually, he got baptized and left his running prospects behind to go on a two-year proselytizing mission to Thailand. When he came back, he was a completely different person — a boring, judgmental, and self-righteous young man. He gave away all his jazz records. The parasites he got on his mission ruined him for running forever. Our relationship, which had transformed over the years from high-school infatuation to deep adult love, did not survive the years of separation. By the time he returned from his cloistered, celibate life, I didn’t know who he was anymore. He didn’t want to touch me. We had both changed too much. I was heartbroken.

While he was off baptizing in Thailand, I went to college in Utah and became very depressed. I knew that Mormonism made me deeply unhappy but I wasn’t quitting that race, to what I thought was heaven, anytime soon. The religion ran in me, and my family’s history, way too deep. What I didn’t know then was that leaving the church would not be a sprint, as it is for some who leave their faith, but an ultramarathon that would take my 20s and most of my 30s to finish. Running became my lifeline.

I ran alone in the foothills of the high Uinta Mountains as a physical means of out-running the psychic and spiritual crisis of my everyday existence. It was a way to stave off the pain and doubt underlying my efforts to keep believing the mantra I had been hearing my entire life: the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is the only true church upon the face of the Earth. Once, out of desperation to just get away from the crush of coeds who seemed so much happier living a life that was making me miserable, I signed up for a half-marathon, a day’s drive away from campus in southern Utah. The race course wove through the desert surrounding the majestic Colorado River, and seemed like the perfect place for a respite from the hordes of happy Mormons surrounding me on a daily basis. The vast, unpeopled landscape suggested a world into which I might escape. Someday.

The race was a disaster. I hadn’t really trained. In the weeks prior, I ran as far as I could make myself, every day thinking, “My best will be good enough, right?” Wrong. I felt like shit after the first five miles, and started to realize I was in real trouble about mile ten. I chafed between my thighs, which bled down my legs unabated until another runner threw me a jar of Vaseline as he jogged past yelling, “Honey, please help yourself. It’s just too pitiful to watch!” I drank almost no water, not understanding the toll the desert heat would take on my body. During the last few miles, I could feel my legs seizing up, but I was determined to finish. Apparently, my best was good enough to finish, but not without paying a price worse than the most embarrassing moment of my childhood — so excited as a kindergartener to be first in line for school-lunch, I hadn’t paid attention to the pressing ache of my five-year-old bladder. Twenty years later, I cried and peed through the entire last mile of the 1993 Moab Half Marathon; my chafed thighs burned more fiercely than the humiliation of urinating in front of my entire class while paying for tater-tots.

You’d think I’d be done with running after that. But somehow, I wasn’t.

Eventually, I managed to complete college in Utah, and pursue a master’s degree in public health at Yale University. Ironically, while trying to ace courses in how to protect the bodies and minds of everyone else on the planet, I failed to take care of my own. I cracked. I hadn’t anticipated how insanely fucking hard grad school at Yale would be — I felt like an imbecile compared to my classmates. I was also plagued by debilitating self-loathing: I had come to hate my body and the forbidden things it wanted. My high school boyfriend was just the tip (pun intended) of my sexual awakening; with each successive relationship, I pushed my Mormon boundaries into even more illicit territory, and was wracked with guilt about every erotic thing I’d ever done. I remember trying to run and literally stopping in my tracks after just a few steps — I couldn’t make myself do it. I hated myself for that weakness too. I knew it was time to check myself in when I realized I’d literally prefer death over being too stupid for Yale, and feeling so tortured and disgusted with myself, for even one more day.

Looking out the window of the ambulance that drove me straight from the student counseling center to in-patient psych, I watched students on the sidewalk walking briskly, some breaking out in a trot, anxious to get somewhere they wanted to be, on time. I remember thinking I’d never have the will to do that — to put one foot in front of the other — for any reason, ever again.

* * *

The week I spent at Yale Psychiatric Institute was one of the longest of my entire life. It was the place I started to realize that I didn’t want to be Mormon anymore. The running deal I struck almost a decade before with my boyfriend had left me a triple-loser: 1) It had ruined, what I thought, was the greatest love of my life; 2) I was losing my entire belief system; and 3) I was so far down in the bell jar I couldn’t will myself to walk down the hospital hallway to eat lunch, much less run, ever again.

My only consolation was that my roommate had some brain chemistry problems that were actually worse than mine. Afflicted with Munchausen syndrome, she was in there because she pretended, or was possibly convinced, that she literally couldn’t walk. Laying in my bed, day-in and day-out, listening to her threaten anyone who walked past our open door, “I swear I will shit this bed unless somebody brings me a wheelchair!” I knew I had to find some way to will myself back out there, even if there wasn’t a heaven anymore, no finish line to cross, no reward to be won from all that self-denial and sacrifice to live a “good” life. Anything was better than watching a hospital orderly hand my roommate a diaper, and trying not to watch what was going to happen next.

And so, when they discharged me from the psych ward, a very wise but somewhat manipulative therapist preyed on my tenacious respect for God and promises, making me swear to take my Prozac and run every day. I agreed to the Prozac because I was desperate, but I balked at the idea that 20 minutes of running would do anything at all for me.

“You don’t know how much I hate running,” I said. “I don’t think I can do it. I can take a pill but I don’t think I can torture myself with running ever again.”

He took off his glasses, rubbed his eyes, and considered me. It seemed like he was trying to decide if he should scare me, appeal to my sense of reason, or maybe lie to me about why I should do what he was asking. He had bigger problems, like my diaper-wearing roommate, to deal with. I was surprised when he said, “I predict you’re the kind of person who won’t like how life feels on Prozac…that something about you is a little addicted to suffering. I think if you need to suffer, you might as well try to get some adrenaline and endorphins into your brain while you’re doing it. I’m telling you to run because I’m thinking I’ll be lucky if I can get you to stay on Prozac for a year. And I’m hoping that running will carry you through after that. And I’m saying 20 minutes because I hope that number will stick in your brain as something you’ll feel really pathetic trying to talk yourself out of.”

I ran home in the freezing rain. I ran all winter in that wet, stinging, snow that Connecticut winters spit down. Sometimes I jogged in my jeans and Birkenstocks, too depressed to muster the strength to change into workout gear. But I did it. I took the pills. I ran the daily 20. My brain chemistry slowly recovered. The prescription healed me.

I have been running, 20 minutes every day, for over 15 years because that therapist was right: I made it 11 months and three days before I felt like I needed to feel the suffering of real life again. But like anyone who has reached the edge and gone over it, I live with a nagging, constant fear that my next breakdown is never far away. This desperation to titrate the delicate balance of serotonin, endorphins, dopamine and glutamate that my brain needs keeps me putting on my shoes and hitting the pavement or the treadmill. I never get the legendary runner’s high. I never manage a Zen-like meditative state, not even for a few seconds. It’s purely a time of tedious physical discomfort and what’s probably worse: racing, unhealthy inner-thoughts. I set my stopwatch for 20:00 and my mind immediately takes over in a self-destructive process something like this: “O.K., don’t look at the watch. Fuck. I looked. 19 minutes and 58 seconds left. Jesus Fucking Christ Allison, don’t look again for at least five minutes. O.K.? O.K. I really need a bikini wax. But I shouldn’t do it. I should stop getting them altogether. It’s so anti-feminist. But so is feeling disgusting when I put on a bathing suit. Why can’t I be one of those women that sprouts out of my bikini bottoms like I’ve got a worn-out Brillo Pad stuck in there and be O.K. with it? It also hurts like a MOTHERFUCKER. I could go right after this, but I think I am getting my period, like right now. And those poor Asian ladies have seen my bloody underpants too many times. They are probably so grossed out by me at this point they will lie and say they can’t squeeze me in. FUCK! 19 minutes, 40 seconds left!? UGH!!!”

Sometimes I run in street clothes. There are days I just know that if I go into my bedroom after work to find a sports bra, change into sweatpants, and sit on my bed, just for a few minutes, I might not make it up and out again. As I trot down the street, wearing my linen dress pants, a button-up shirt and sneakers, I don’t look like I’m running, I look like I’m late for work or trying to catch the bus.

Before I die, I’d like to run another race where I don’t cry, or pee, or bleed across the finish line, or come in dead last. But now the only race that really counts is this one I’m running, every day, 20 minutes at a time, as people shout from their porches, with a hint of concern, “Hey! You late for something? Need a ride?” I smile, wave, and keep shuffling along. And try to tell myself, as I realize I’m sweating through my silk blouse, and still have 18 minutes and 2 seconds to go, that this might be my personal best.

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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The Great Unsolved Mystery of Missing Marjorie West

Eighty years ago today, a four-year-old girl vanished into the Pennsylvania woods. The search captivated people across the nation — and some have never stopped looking.

On a damp Thursday morning in May 1938, hundreds of workers from Western Pennsylvania oil fields, given the day off to look for a missing girl, walked through the Allegheny Forest at arms’ length. They traversed the tangled underbrush alongside police with bloodhounds, World War I veterans, Cornplanter Indians, coal miners, and assorted others who’d responded to the local mayor’s call for 1,000 volunteers. They killed rattlesnakes and were careful not to drop a foot down into one of the hundreds of oil wells dug during the area’s petroleum boom in the 1870s.

But by nightfall, the “haggard, sleep-robbed faces of scores of men,” as the Bradford Era newspaper described them, told onlookers the grim truth: another day had passed without finding the little red-haired four-year-old, Marjorie West.

Newspaper report on Marjorie West’s disappearance. (Photo courtesy Danville Morning News)

Eighty years ago today, Marjorie vanished while at a Mother’s Day picnic in the forest with her family. To this day she is the subject of one of the oldest unsolved cases recorded by the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children. Her search was one of the largest for a child since the Lindbergh Baby kidnapping six years earlier. Residents of Western Pennsylvania and Marjorie’s surviving relatives still hold out hope she’s alive. If she is, she may yet celebrate her 85th birthday next month.

“She could still be living,” said Marjorie’s cousin, Jack Covert, in an interview shortly before he passed away in March. “But she’s probably not around here.”

Marjorie was lost four decades before the nationwide “stranger danger” panic over kidnappings, set off when the son of eventual “America’s Most Wanted” host John Walsh disappeared from a Florida mall in 1981. After the much-publicized Adam Walsh abduction, parents became more fearful about where their children went and who they were with, and government agencies instituted safety programs including taking fingerprints of kids to keep on file. More recently, the hit Netflix series “Stranger Things,” about a fictional 12-year-old named Will Byers who’s snatched into another dimension, prompted renewed discussion about the idyllic times when children roamed free and parents rarely worried. In a New York Times op-ed, Ana North wrote, “‘Stranger Things’ is a reminder of a kind of unstructured childhood wandering that [now] seems less possible.”

But the Marjorie West case reminds us that decades before mass media coverage of child kidnappings, there were hazards that terrified parents. The dangers (Depression-era vagrants, illicit adoption rings) were just different. How free children should be to roam, and how cautious parents should be about young children’s activities, is a debate that still rages today.

* * *

On Sunday, May 8, 1938, the West family – father Shirley; mother Cecilia; and children Dorothea, 11, Allan, 7, and Marjorie – attended church in Bradford, a small city 90 minutes south of Buffalo, New York, and 90 minutes east of Titusville, Pennsylvania, the site of the country’s first oil boom in 1859. Bradford enjoyed its own rush for liquid gold a dozen years later, providing a steady living for families like the Wests – Shirley was an assistant engineer at Kendall Refining, located just a few blocks from his home.

After church, the Wests drove 13 miles along Highway 219 to a clearing in the Allegheny Forest that was popular with hunters and fishermen. They joined family friends, Mr. and Mrs. Lloyd Akerlind.

Around three p.m. Cecilia headed to the road to rest in the car. Her husband, Shirley, prepared to go trout fishing in the stream with Lloyd. The girls, Dorothea and Marjorie, wanted to pick wildflowers. Shirley warned them to watch for rattlesnakes behind the boulder nearby.

The girls gathered a bouquet of violets. Dorothea headed to the car to deliver them to their mother. When she turned around, her sister was gone.

The family drove to the nearest phone seven miles away to contact police in the town of Kane.

What followed was a grueling search that spanned months and saw more than 3,000 local people hunting for Marjorie, with countless others locked into the national newspaper coverage.

When police couldn’t find Marjorie that Sunday afternoon, 200 men joined in, including the Citizen Conservation Corps and the Moose and Elks lodges. As darkness fell, oilmen brought headlamps. “All available flash-lights in the city were pressed into service,” noted the Era. The effort slowed when a cold rain fell at one a.m.

On Monday, the search party grew to 500. They waded through the stream and stood 25 yards apart in a mile-long line, ultimately combing four square miles. Police interviewed motorists across an area spanning 300 square miles.

By Tuesday, May 10, police brought bloodhounds from New York State. That evening, they found clues, but accounts vary.

Two newspaper articles say the dogs followed Marjorie’s trail “half a mile up a mountain” to a cabin with its door nailed shut. Nothing of interest was found inside. Other media accounts, as well as those from Marjorie’s descendants in online blogs and discussion threads, say the dogs followed Marjorie’s scent to the road alongside the clearing.

“The searches found the crushed bouquet of violets, picked for her mother for Mother’s Day, lying on the ground not far from the rock,” close to where the flowers were pulled, wrote Catherine, the daughter of Marjorie’s cousin Joyce, on her genealogy blog in 2006.

Many people believed in 1938, as they do now, that Marjorie was picked up at the road. Witnesses told police of three cars that had passed through the area around three p.m. The drivers of two were identified by Tuesday night. The third – whom witnesses said was a man – was seen fleeing in his Plymouth sedan so fast an oncoming motorist told police he had to pull into a ditch.

On Wednesday afternoon, Bradford’s mayor Hugh Ryan issued his plea for 1,000 volunteers for the next day’s search. He got 2,500.

Newspaper clipping from the Bradford Era on May 11, 1938, showing the search for West. (Photo courtesy the Bradford Era)

The search was praised for its organization, thanks in part to the men who, like Shirley, had served in the Great War. At 5:30 a.m., surveyors mapped out the land, and by eight a.m. a “line of men, standing shoulder to shoulder several miles long, grew impatient in the Chappel Fork road until leaders gave the [bugle] signal for them to enter the forest,” recounted the Era. “Refinery workers rubbed elbows with professional men.” Women doled out 1,600 cups of coffee, prepared in “wash boilers” for hot laundry.

By the end of the week, the search had covered 35 square miles with Marjorie still out of sight. There were discoveries: a swath of lace near the boulder, and a fresh hole a few miles away. But Marjorie’s aunt told police she hadn’t worn lace that day, and two men admitted using the hole to hide casks of cherry wine.

Engineers pumped out a muddy well and Native Americans tracked “she bears” – mother bears they believed were prone to carrying off small children – to no avail.

Shirley did not leave the forest for a week until, according to the May 16th Era, he “consented to come to Bradford. He ate his evening meal at home and then returned.”

Police began circulating a poster describing Marjorie’s “curley” red hair, freckles, red Shirley Temple hat, and patent leather shoes. Cecilia West stayed at home so as not to miss a phone call.

On May 13, 1938, State Police Commissioner P.W. Foote told the Associated Press that West’s disappearance probably began with her liking to “play hide and seek.”

A detail of four police searched the area for five months.

* * *

Snakes and “she bears” were not the only dangers in the woods.

Newspapers covering the disappearance linked it with a 1910 mystery in which two boys vanished near the forest within a few hours of each other. On April 16 of that year, Edward Adams, nine, was fishing with buddies near Lamont, Pennsylvania, and heard a “wild man” cursing in the woods. The boys ran, but when the group stopped, Eddie was gone. Thirteen miles away, in the town of Ludlow, Michael Steffan, seven, fished with a friend. Walking home, the other boy looked back and Michael had vanished. Newspapers at the time reported that a Mr. Arrowsmith said his “mentally unbalanced” son, Harry, 32, had wandered off the same day, near Lamont. But Harry returned a week later with no knowledge of the boys, police said. Thirteen days after the disappearances, a mail carrier discovered a handwritten note on a Lamont railroad trestle: “Will return boy for $10,000.” That was the last clue found.

Two years later, Buffalo police captured the “Postcard Killer,” J. Frank Hickey, who admitted to murdering two other boys in Buffalo and Manhattan, nine years apart. Many suspected he’d killed other boys in the region, and Edward Adams’s mother wrote to Buffalo police to ask whether Hickey ever mentioned her son. When Mrs. Adams passed away in 1933, the Associated Press reported that she’d kept a light in her window for 23 years, waiting for Eddie.

Those disappearances were 11 and 19 miles from Marjorie’s picnic, respectively. It’s hard to believe the same “wildman” could have been lurking in the woods 28 years later, but the cases were a testament to the fact that anyone could have been in the forest. In fact, The Era reported on Sept. 14, 1938 that a 55-year-old “woodsman” was arrested for assaulting another man “with a double-bladed ax during an argument while they were working on a woods operation in the Chappel Fork area,” near where Marjorie disappeared. The story said the woodsman had been questioned about Marjorie at one point, but was released.

If Marjorie was snatched, it could have been for profit. During the Great Depression, child kidnappings became a popular, low-tech way to make a buck. “Kidnapping wave sweeps the nation,” blared a New York Times headline on March 3, 1932, two days after the abduction of the son of aviator Charles Lindbergh. At the time, some feared that cars, still a relatively new technology, were going to cause an increase in kidnappings, and they weren’t wrong. Abductions did increase with the use of automobiles and with greater highway usage. Still, many of those who believed Marjorie was abducted thought it was not for ransom, but for a different type of moneymaking enterprise.

Reward poster for any information on the disappearance of West. (Photo courtesy McKean County Cold Cases)

On Sept. 12, 1950, Tennessee authorities announced allegations that Georgia Tann, executive director of the Memphis branch of the Tennessee Children’s Home Society, had adopted out more than 1,000 babies for $1 million since the 1930s, tricking poor couples into giving them up. Tann died three days after the investigation became public. Many of the children never knew their birth parents (including famed professional wrestler Ric Flair, born in 1949, who wrote of the circumstance in his autobiography). And presumably, the wealthy clients who adopted through Tann’s agency (including actress Joan “Mommie Dearest” Crawford) never knew of her methods.

The Tann theory was bolstered by a clue. A few days after Marjorie disappeared, a taxi driver in Thomas, West Virginia, told police that late at night on Mother’s Day, a man and weeping young girl checked into the town’s Imperial Hotel. Could they have been stopping midway to Tennessee?

But news stories from five months later render the Tann theory unlikely. In October 1938, Pennsylvania state police tracked down merchant Conrad Fridley of Ridgely, West Virginia. He said that on that evening, he and daughter Lois, five, were returning home from a visit to Parsons, West Virginia, and had to stop because of fog. Lois became frustrated and cried. They left the hotel early the next morning to open his shop.

Census records from 1940 show a Conrad Fridley, 31, of Ridgeley, who in 1940 had a daughter, eight.

As spring turned to summer, national media focused on Hitler’s annexation of Austria and the suffering United States economy. But Western Pennsylvania press continued following Marjorie’s case.

“The state police investigation continued off and on for six years,” reported the Era in 1955, noting that Shirley and Cecilia West had separated around 1953.

Family members say Marjorie’s closest relatives went to their grave believing she was alive.

* * *

Tammy Dittman, a longtime teacher in Bradford, took a class of hers to the Allegheny Forest in 2008 to learn about archeology. During the trip, two men from the Civil Conservation Corps discussed their search, as youths, for Marjorie.

“They talked about how hard they searched,” Dittman says. “They searched shoulder to shoulder constantly.”

The class undertook a project to research the case and speak with young kids about safety.

After the Olean, New York, Times Herald covered the project, Dittman got a call from another elderly man, now blind, who had searched as well.

The man told Dittman, “‘There was no way the little girl could have been in the woods,’” she says. “The fact that he contacted me practically on his deathbed shows how sad it was. Maybe he had a little hope we’d find out more.”

Dittman, who has hiked near Chappel Fork, acknowledged the hazards nearby, including hundreds of old wells that are hard to notice. “You can step right into them and go down,” she says. Yet she believes the most likely explanation is that Marjorie was kidnapped.

“I hope she was at least in a good family,” Dittman says.

* * *

Two of Marjorie’s descendants have written online about the case.

Catherine, the daughter of Marjorie’s first cousin, Joyce, explained on her family genealogy blog: “My grandfather searched for weeks, long after the manhunt was called off, returning home late into the night. Three small children sat on the porch steps waiting for him, but they knew each night from the slope of his shoulders, he didn’t find the little girl with the bouncing red curls.”

The granddaughter of Dorothea West, Angel, wrote in 2009: “I remember listening to my grandmother tell me stories about Marjorie and the sadness she felt for leaving her sister alone for those few moments. My grandmother held on to her feeling of responsibility until her passing two years ago.”

These three descendants of Marjorie did not respond to requests for interviews, so out of respect for their privacy we’ve opted to only use their first names. However, they did reach out to authorities back in 2010, compelling the state police, unable to find old records, to start a new case file. State Police Corporal Mary Gausman says that in 2012 police took cheek swabs for DNA from two cousins in Bradford, sending them to the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children. Unfortunately, they produced no clues.

But both agencies get tips. Gausman says that in 2014, an employee of a hospital in Rochester, New York, read about the case online and called to say they had a patient named Marjorie who rarely had visitors. But the woman’s niece had seen immigration records and confirmed she’d been born in 1922.

However, one Bradford native believes he knows the answer to the mystery.

* * *

Harold Thomas “Bud” Beck, a writer, raconteur, and college professor with a Ph.D. in linguistics, researched the case after he heard about it in a bar he used to run. Around 1998, when internet access was becoming more widespread, he posted a $10,000 reward for information about Marjorie. He included up-to-date photos of Dorothea, figuring Marjorie would resemble her.

One woman contacted him to say she’d worked at a company in Florida with a nurse who looked similar.

Beck took a trip south to meet several people about whom he’d gotten tips. The nurse did look like Dorothea, but denied being Marjorie.

Around 2005, Beck says, he heard from her again and went to meet her. By then she had returned to her childhood farm in North Carolina.

When he caught up with her there, she related a story that her mother told her when she was nearing the end of her life: In 1938, the nurse’s father left that very farm and drove north to work in Bradford’s refineries for the winter. Come spring, it was time to return to his crops. Driving south past the Allegheny Forest on Mother’s Day, he hit a little girl.

“There wasn’t anybody there,” Beck recounts. “He was going to take her to the hospital in Kane. He was afraid she was dead.”

But as he was driving with the unconscious girl in the car, she woke up, seemingly unharmed. He and his wife had lost their only daughter that winter. The delivery had been difficult and they didn’t think they could have more children.

The man brought Marjorie to the farm and raised her there.

A few years later, he lost an arm on board an aircraft carrier in World War II, Beck says. The man told his wife he thought it was “God’s way of punishing him for what he’d done.”

The nurse used to tell her parents that she remembered another family, but they dismissed it. She also remembered a place with “snow way over her head,” Beck says.

After World War II, her parents had four more children, according to Beck.

The nurse only told Beck the story after he made two promises: one, he couldn’t tell anyone about her identity – except for Dorothea, whom she wanted to meet – and two, Beck could only publish her story after she died.

By that time, Dorothea was in ill health and couldn’t meet “Marjorie,” Beck says.

The nurse died about a decade ago. Beck kept his promise and self-published Finding Marjorie West in 2010.

“There’s no question” it’s her, Beck says.

Portrait of 4-year-old Marjorie West. (Photo courtesy McKean County Cold Cases)

People have pressed him to notify the authorities, Beck adds, but he ponders, “What is it going to accomplish? One family is dead, and the other has been living under a set of circumstances they believe to be true. The mother and father were considered good people in the community.”

Locals who’ve read the book have debated its conclusions on Facebook. Marjorie’s cousin’s daughter Catherine discounted the story on a 2012 discussion thread on Websleuths.com, a site on which people try to solve missing persons cases. Catherine wrote that the state trooper she talked to didn’t take Beck’s narrative seriously.

Beck says he understands why people are frustrated, particularly those involved in the search. But he won’t betray a confidence.

Bob Lowery, a vice president at the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children, hadn’t heard of Beck’s book, but says Beck or anyone else with information about Marjorie should come forward. He notes the case is the third-oldest in their files. “I would think that anyone alive today who was living at that time would have vivid memories of this,” he says. “When something happens to a child of four, there’s a need to have the truth shared so that everyone knows.”

If Beck’s tale is true, it would explain how Marjorie disappeared so quickly and without a trace, as well as the speeding Plymouth. But the story begs questions: How were two people able to keep the secret so long? Did the sorrow they felt on Mother’s Day drive them to rationalize the act?

Perhaps the tale is just too good to be true. In Beck’s book, the nurse claims she was the sobbing girl spotted in West Virginia on Mother’s Day night. But according to an article from October 1938, the police and Wests went to meet Conrad Fridley, the merchant who said he was there. Police told the press that his daughter resembled Marjorie, but wasn’t her, and the girl spotted that night had different clothes than Marjorie.

Beck dismissed the newspaper accounts, saying he stands by his story.

Relatives remain wary. In 2015, an anonymous reviewer on Amazon, presumably a member of the family, wrote that she was shocked Beck was selling the book after “making false promises and leading my grandmother on wild goose chases for YEARS.”

So what if the nurse wasn’t Marjorie? Where did she go?

One cannot discount the rough terrain in the woods. In 1962, two boys died while exploring an abandoned clay mine in Western Pennsylvania, prompting Bradford officials to finally start closing all old mines, caves, and wells.

* * *

“The effects of that day,” Catherine wrote on her blog, “lasted long into mom’s adulthood, and when she had children, made her extra cautious about where we were and who we were with.”

Marjorie West’s case, like other child disappearances of the time, had a ripple effect on families long before mass media attention was ever trained on Adam Walsh. Responding to recent newspaper essays in the last few years about parents becoming overprotective due to modern media coverage of tragedies, senior citizens have responded that their parents became more protective after the Lindbergh Baby case. There was a similar effect in Western Pennsylvania in 1938. “This [West case] was the very very sad object lesson of my childhood…not to wander away, not to go anywhere with ‘strangers,’” recalled an elderly woman on a Bradford community Facebook group.

Regardless of the statistics of “stranger danger,” parents will always have to negotiate their own comfort level about being protective.

Tammy Dittman, the Bradford teacher, says kids should be wary and vigilant.

“Some [children] need to be scared,” says Dittman. “They think nothing can happen to them.”

My Life as a Public Health Crisis

As a fat woman working in food justice, I see firsthand how even those trying to help continue to spread dangerous stereotypes about obesity and poverty.

We’re at a coffee shop in a “transitional” neighborhood. The shop is new, an ultra-modern storefront that brags about $7 pour-overs. I hate pour-over coffee because it takes forever and if I cared about nuanced flavor I wouldn’t start my day with the most bitter drink imaginable. I reflect on that, and on how much the neighborhood has changed since I grew up here, and how I used to see possums the size of poodles on the roof of this place back before the professional folks sitting around and sipping their lattes showed up.

My mind is whirling because if I let it dwell on the words coming out of this woman’s mouth I might punch her in the face. That wouldn’t do anybody any good.

Probably.

We were discussing the neighborhood, and how we could help people here get healthier food. Creating access to healthy food is my job, but it’s also my passion. It’s how I pay my bills and find an outlet for my frustration with a society that allows the poor to suffer. I was hoping to hear some optimism. Instead I got this:

“Nobody would eat it. Everyone around here is just so… fat.”

I felt the folds of my belly pushing against the table. I felt familiar shame burn the back of my throat, bitter as a $7 coffee.

She went on, “The kids always eat fast food. It’s like nobody loves them.”

I wondered how she could know what the kids around here always eat, and what that has to do with how loved they are.

Growing up here never made me question my family’s love, but it did make me aware of the tension between what we were “supposed” to eat and what was actually available to us. It wasn’t all junk, of course. We had a huge garden in our backyard. We grew so many tomatoes we would beg neighbors to take them off our hands, and I was probably the only eight-year-old hillbilly in Ohio who loved gazpacho. But you can only harvest a garden so many times a year, and you can’t grow milk and meat in the backyard. A food budget is more flexible than a set cost like rent, so it’s often the first place a family looks when trying to save money. Junk food is cheap, it doesn’t spoil quickly, and it’s easy to prepare. Combine pragmatism with a lack of time and money, and the high-calorie, low-nutrition diets of poor people make a lot more sense.

The first meal I ever learned to make wasn’t gazpacho, but “chicken parmesan” — spaghetti covered with a slice of American cheese and a processed hockey puck of chicken that could be heated up in the microwave. We loved that awful chicken, and it was $2 a box at the Save-a-Lot, so we ate it often.

I learned to make it when I was nine years old. One day our sitter left early, called in to cover a shift at her second job. I called Mom to let her know what had happened. Mom was working as a paid hourly intern, trying to meet a practicum requirement for her social worker’s license. She couldn’t afford to leave work, so my two sisters and I would need to feed ourselves. She reminded me to read the instructions on the boxes and said to call her if the smoke detector went off. I set about preparing the meal with grim determination, hoping not to let her down.

When Mom came home, dinner was done. She was pleased until she entered the kitchen. Not only had I made an incredible mess, but I had left the box of chicken pucks on the counter, where they’d melted into a brownish mush.

She dragged me by my wrist into the carnage I had wrought, my heels dragging on the linoleum. She pointed at the box.

“We do NOT waste food. You ruined a week of dinners. Be more careful next time.”

I nodded, trying not to cry. Wasted food was wasted money, and neither of those were things we could afford. Lesson learned.

There were resources to help us, like the government’s SNAP and WIC food-assistance programs that many still refer to as “food stamps.” Dad recently told me how much using WIC embarrassed him. He described taking us to the WIC office as babies, where we were weighed each month before he received our benefits.

“They wanted proof I was feeding you.” I flinched at the anger in his voice, even after all these years. “Nobody trusts poor people. They treat you like a criminal just for trying to feed your kids.”

If you get judged no matter what, eventually you stop listening to the judges. Poverty undeniably affected my childhood – everything we owned was second-hand, all my clothes were hand-me-downs from my cousins, and I once punched a boy in the face for a quarter – but my parents would never deprive us of any happiness they were able to provide. Our diet was a mix of whatever healthy stuff was available and the junk food we loved: the chicken pucks, the Bigfoot pizzas at birthday parties, the $10 meal deal at KFC. When we did well in school, Dad would spring for Old Country Buffet, and we’d eat our weight in ice cream and roast beef you had to soak in ketchup to chew.

In the reality of feeding a struggling family, the food pyramid is irrelevant. Keeping us fed was a source of pride, junk food was a source of joy, and so our diets endured.

I don’t remember parents who didn’t love me. If anything, they loved me too much, and their love language came deep-fried. It may have hurt me in the long run, but that’s never been a sign that something wasn’t borne from love.

A public health expert would draw a line between my childhood and my current size. I am on the “morbid” side of obese, and have been for as long as I can remember. I’ve spent a long time learning to love my body in a world that isn’t kind to it. I can handle the stink eye at the gym, the whispers and giggles at restaurants, the catcalls from passing cars full of (always) young white men. I eat a healthy diet these days and I exercise regularly, but if science is to be believed, it’s unlikely that my body will ever be smaller than it is. And so what? My fat body is still a good body. It’s the body of someone who is loved and worthy of self-esteem, regardless of how much space it takes up.

* * *

Unfortunately, I can’t avoid how my size intersects with my chosen career. I work with some of the most compassionate and dedicated people in the world, but I still struggle with my body and how colleagues perceive it. Whatever else I achieve, I’m still a fat person who grew up in poverty. I’m a walking, talking example of a public health crisis, working to eradicate myself with government funding. It gets awkward.

In every meeting I go to, at every panel I sit on, eventually the conversation turns to obesity. People notice me, because they’re trained to see me as a problem. And so their eyes turn to me, and then I have to breathe through my feelings or I might beat someone to death with my iPad.

Not that I’d feel bad about it, depending on the person. Everybody’s got their limits.

Speaking of limits: One of mine is definitely saying that fat children are unloved. I look my coffee companion right in the eye.

“You’re being unfair. I’m fat, and I grew up here too.”

She tries to jump in, to explain herself. I speak over her.

“I’m not fat because nobody cared about me. People make the best choices they can with what they have. If we can’t give them better options, we can’t blame them for working with what they’ve got.”

We both sense an impasse. What’s professional for her is personal for me.

She shrugs. “I get it. I just feel like something needs to be done.”

And so we change the subject, relaxing as we talk about the thing that must be done. Throughout the rest of the conversation she can’t look me in the eye. And later, when I email a “thank you” for the meeting, I’m not surprised to receive no reply.

It’s frustrating, but these conversations happen far too often for me to ignore. I’ve seen too many well-meaning efforts to help people access healthy food couched in toxic narratives about what a disgusting burden fat people are on society. Conversations about food access are so often tinged with judgment about personal responsibility and time management, as if every poor fat person is spending their time napping and eating Twinkies when they could be preparing quinoa from scratch. And of course, there’s the endless dwelling on the societal expense of obesity. You would think that fat people were Fabergé eggs for how difficult and costly we are to insure.

The fact is that most low-income people don’t have a lot of control over their diets to begin with, and the resources available to them tend to offer little in the way of assistance with the barriers that stand between them and health. I got a first-hand look at this when I got my first job as a task rabbit at a food pantry. I naively imagined smiling faces, neat boxes of food, and good feelings all around. My illusions were shattered when I was asked to sift through boxes of moldy cake and cookies, castoffs from a local grocery chain. I asked where the produce was, and I was met with a sigh. This was what was donated, so this was what we could provide.

Once I finished that, I had to hand out the go-bags. Go-bags were shopping bags full of food for people living in “unstable circumstances” – i.e., homeless. They consisted of anything that could be eaten on the go. They usually had a piece of fruit, but they were also full of slimy restaurant leftovers and cast-off pastries from the donation boxes. Bad food that fills you up and makes you happy, and a healthy snack when available. My family’s food pyramid, packaged to go.

I handed the first go-bag to a man my own age, a guy in a ratty coat who wouldn’t look me in the eye. He may have been ashamed of his situation, but I was ashamed that I couldn’t give him something better than leftover pizza and a cookie I wouldn’t feed my dog.

What angered me then – and angers me still – is that we didn’t have anything to be ashamed of. We weren’t the ones who made fresh food a luxury and junk food an easily obtained comfort. We didn’t chase the grocery store out of his neighborhood, and we didn’t ask the grocery stores in the suburbs to fill the pantry with their uneaten pastries in lieu of real food. We weren’t responsible for the poverty that was eating the neighborhood like a cancer, leaving a generation of people exhausted and malnourished. We weren’t the ones who had broken the systems that punished us. All he’d done was fallen on hard times, and all I’d done was try to help him. Our shame wasn’t earned. It wasn’t fair.

That was when I decided to work my way up to a position where I could help people like him get something they would be proud to eat.

Food justice is complex work. We want to give people healthy food that is relevant to their tastes and needs, but we work in neighborhoods where it hasn’t been readily available in decades. What they want, what they need, and what they know how to prepare varies wildly. Programs based on stereotypes or one-size-fits-all approaches are doomed to fail.

Just a week ago I was at a corner store that was trying to sell healthy food. We set up out front to demonstrate recipes and offer samples to anyone who was willing to stop by. We stood outside for hours, making tiny cups of vegetable stir-fry and offering them to passersby. Residents trickled over from the abandoned houses, the bus stop, anywhere that they could smell the food and get curious about where it came from.

A small boy wandered up. He eyed me suspiciously. He was right to do so. Free stuff in this neighborhood? Unlikely.

But I saw the way he bit his lip when he looked at the food. You can tell when a kid is hungry. I held a cup of stir-fry out to him, smiling encouragingly.

“What’s in it?” he asked in a whisper.

“It’s stir-fry. Like, Chinese food.” I chirped. “Rice and vegetables. It’s good!”

His face collapsed.

“Nah. I don’t fuck with vegetables.”

Fair enough. When I was his age, I didn’t fuck with vegetables either. Food justice is not about forcing people to eat food they don’t want. It’s about changing the world they live in so they can make choices about what they eat, and believing that those choices will lead them to a healthier and more enjoyable diet. It’s measuring success not in shrinking bodies, but in growing appetites for the food that keeps people happy and healthy. It’s trusting people to know what’s best for them and making sure they can access it. It’s the long game, not the quick fix.

I believe that this is the only way we are going to build communities where food isn’t a source of judgement or shame for low-income people, but a human right. So as part of this work I accept that awkward conversations about my past and my size will continue. There will always be another coffee, another would-be ally, another moment of discomfort that I have the option of ignoring or turning into a confrontation. I have climbed my fat ass up this mountain with my past on my back and the world I want to see just out of my reach. I’m not stopping now. I will do what I can to build communities where choice and dignity are a part of the food access picture, and take the chances I get to stand up for people who deserve better. Myself included.

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