A Racist Runs Through It

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As the government-fighting Bundy brothers stand trial this month, supporters are quick to separate their anti-public lands crusade from their racist tirades. But a historical review finds that in the Wild West, privatization and hatred have always been intertwined.

When the neo-Nazi and his acolyte came to my high school, I dimly thought racism was just a history or geography lesson. I was born and raised in Missoula, Montana, a friendly college town cut through by great trout rivers and surrounded by mountainous national forests protected more than a century ago by President Theodore Roosevelt. I was also a white teen in the middle of one of the whitest regions in the country. To introduce my class to ideas outside our pine-fresh bubble, our teacher invited as guest speakers the late Richard Butler, who founded the Aryan Nations in Northern Idaho, and his onetime associate John Trochmann, co-founder of the Militia of Montana.

The men spoke on different days and they hammered on the threat public lands posed to white society. Our nation’s more than 600 million acres of national parks, forests, grasslands, wildlife refugees and Native American reservations held in trust by the federal government were, we heard, tools of the United Nations to keep whites from having a sanctuary…or something. We also heard that the swastika had been unfairly maligned because to some people it signifies a blessing. What surprised me most though, was the bile that welled up in my guts at our sex ed lesson. People with different skin tones having babies, we heard, was like different species of animals being mated. The example I remember is the old trope about donkeys and horses, but to check my memory after twenty years I reached out to others in the class and heard it might have been pintail and mallard ducks. (Another detail I just learned: the father of my only Jewish classmate went out and got a gun for protection because of these men.)

What seemed an unnatural pairing – attacks on public lands and racism – went on display for all the country to see in the summer of 2014 when Nevada rancher Cliven Bundy went on a racist rant in front of a New York Times reporter who visited his ranch and cantaloupe farm. Bundy had summoned a militia to brandish arms against employees of the Bureau of Land Management, who were trying to round up his illegal range cattle. The reporter had expected to hear Bundy’s reasons for wanting the federal government to sell off or transfer to state control some of those 600 million open acres of public land. Bundy unexpectedly reminisced about his impressions on driving past public housing in Las Vegas. Out flew a barrage of bigotry about how blacks today might be better off still locked in chains and picking cotton.

If there’s a worthy case against public lands, it ought to be made without a whiff of racism. Yet, at the beginning of 2016, there it came again. Two of Bundy’s sons led another militia on a caravan to the edge of the Great Basin Desert in Oregon and seized the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge, set aside for trumpeter swans in 1908 by Roosevelt (also near the spot where in 1897 cattle rancher Peter French was murdered for taking over lands that a court ruled were public). One of the Bundy brothers’ ransom demands was the Bureau of Land Management dispose of thousands, perhaps millions, of acres of public lands.

This was at a time when the nation was watching the rise of another BLM – Black Lives Matter. In cities and towns from coast-to-coast hordes of BLM marchers took to the streets and shouted their rallying cry, “Hands up, don’t shoot,” drawing attention to the disproportionate amount of violence meted out by police against people with black and brown skin.

Twenty-four days into the Malheur standoff, militant LaVoy Finicum, 54, ran a roadblock in his white pickup and was shot by Oregon State Police. His supporters took to the downtown strip of tiny, windblown Burns, Oregon and also chanted “hands up, don’t shoot.” That right there, to use a phrase making the rounds right now, is some white appropriation. The thirteen males and one woman ages twelve to 44 mourned by BLM to that point had been unarmed (with the exception of seventeen-year-old Chicagoan LaQuan McDonald who reportedly had a three-inch knife, and was shot sixteen times). Finicum was shot three times after he reached for the loaded nine-millimeter pistol strapped to his chest. Finicum’s family and friends had every right to call his death a great loss and sorrow – he was by many accounts a hardworking father and foster father to dozens of children. But racial parity in martyrdom it ain’t.

The national media seemed flummoxed by the racial messaging coming out of these anti-public lands events. There was the Washington Post simply noting the discordant spectacle of a mostly-white mob toting Black Lives Matter signs in Burns. There was Rolling Stone snarking at the start of the Bundy’s trial this month about how one of their lawyers compared them to civil rights protesters. There was liberal writer Jonathan Chait reasoning in New York magazine of the elder Bundy, “it is 100 percent possible to agree with his views on grazing rights without being racist.” And there was Sean Hannity of Fox News saying the story was only “proof that we have a government gone wild.”

Lacking was any historical perspective on the movement against public lands, particularly with regard to race. But as attacks on public lands now grow more overt, organized and well-funded, their history demands more scrutiny, and the racial slurs require a different lens. Because long before the late 1970s when the movement was dubbed the “Sagebrush Rebellion,” its forbearers had already molded it out of anti-semitism, xenophobia and abject racism.

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The Bundy family attacking the Bureau of Land Management is ironic, because the agency was created in 1946 to be weak and rancher-friendly – the “Bureau of Livestock and Mining,” environmentalist Edward Abbey sneered. The withering of the agency was primarily the doing of one Nevada Senator. Decades before anyone was called a “Sagebrush Rebel,” Patrick A. McCarran (D-NV) was known as the “Sagebrush Caesar.”

The Sagebrush Caesar hated Communists, and he suspected anybody Jewish was probably a Communist. He also saw creeping Communism in attempts by federal conservation agencies to protect natural resources from private exploitation. In his head, this meant Jewish conspiracy.

“The threats to our form of government are more likely to come from unworthy agencies,” he said in 1939. “The greatest enemies of our republic may not be foreign foes, but rather domestic termites.” A few years later he talked publicly about a “Trojan Horse” in America and privately, specified it was filled with people of, “one blood, one race, one religion. You know what that is without me telling you.”

Possessed of a cliff of white hair, a heavy chin, and V-shaped eyebrows, he took advantage of the world being distracted by WWII to slash away at conservation. Thirty percent of the West’s biggest cattle barons grazed public land in Nevada, and he wanted them to rule the range. During the war he formed an alliance with Wyoming Senator Frank Barrett, who advanced legislation to sell off tens of millions of acres of national forests and national grasslands as well as to destroy Grand Teton National Park. McCarran railed that “the swivel-chair oligarchy” in Washington, D.C. had too much environmental protection power. When he cursed them behind closed doors, anti-Semitic slurs dribbled from his lips.

In 1940, the Sagebrush Caesar stumped alongside aviation hero Charles Lindbergh, just back from Berlin where he had medals pinned to his jacket by Hermann Goring. Their cause? Appeasing Hitler’s Germany. The name of their campaign? “America First” – the original. After the war, McCarran became convinced that Communist Jews bent on destroying America had snuck in as war refugees and United Nations diplomats in order to join forces with secret traitors already in high office. In the Senate he appointed himself leader of the “McCarran Committee” to root them out. Many were hounded by the committee’s interrogations about potential Communist sympathies, and by extreme new probes regarding physical health and past associations, which McCarran forced Immigration and Naturalization Services to conduct. A man from the Ukraine sliced an artery in his leg and bled to death, a war orphan from Poland hanged himself, and Abraham H. Feller, a Jewish lawyer who helped found the United Nations, tore himself from the terrified grip of his wife and leapt out a twelve-story window. “If Feller’s conscience was clear he had no reason to suffer,” McCarran said hours after the suicide, as he left on a luxurious South American cruise. President Harry Truman compared the McCarran Committee to “an inquisition.”

The Sagebrush Caesar brought U.S. immigration to a standstill in the mid-twentieth century to keep out “unassimilable blocks of aliens with foreign ideologies” and he ratcheted up deportations of Jews. He even pushed past a presidential veto a law dictating suspected subversives be rounded up and put in concentration camps (though never used, it took twenty years for the concentration camp clause to be repealed). Late journalist Michael J. Ybarra made the case in his 2004 McCarran biography, “Washington Gone Crazy” that it was this “vindictive in the extreme” parliamentary craftsman who actually built the legal framework stood upon by his era’s more infamous demagogue, Senator Joseph McCarthy. “The rank and file people of America today are behind McCarthy,” McCarran had proclaimed. “Pat is one of the greatest senators we’ve ever had,” McCarthy return-fawned.

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To round out his prejudices, McCarran supported poll taxes that kept African-Americans from voting, and he exploited the segregation in early Las Vegas that earned it the nickname, “The Mississippi of the West.” Southern Democrats, wrote Ybarra, “followed McCarran as if he were Robert E. Lee.” He used crafty legislative moves to keep squatting cattle ranchers on the Pyramid Lake Indian Reservation, and charged those who criticized him for swindling the Paiute out of their lands with inciting, “class hatred between races.” Speaking in 2012 at Las Vegas’ McCarran International Airport, Senator Harry Reid, who in 1986 won McCarran’s old seat, called him, “one of the most anti-Semitic … one of the most anti-black, one of the most prejudiced people who ever served in the Senate.” McCarran is rumored to be the inspiration for the corrupt senator character in “The Godfather II.” (“I don’t like your kind of people, I don’t like to see you come out to this clean country … I have to leave these proceedings to preside over a very important committee, my own committee.”)

But as hard as McCarran was on the public, he was worse on the public’s land. To him, the only thing other than the free feeding of cows and sheep that federal land in Nevada was good for was testing nuclear bombs.

In 1934, President Franklin Delano Roosevelt signed into law an agency called Division of Grazing (later renamed Grazing Service) to help stop the Dust Bowl, at the time the worst manmade environmental disaster in the earth’s history. Parts of Texas, Oklahoma, Colorado, Nebraska, New Mexico and Kansas, some fifty million acres of land, were ruined, along with countless lives. The Dust Bowl was caused in large part by range-warring American stockgrowers and woolgrowers cramming too many domestic animals onto the shrinking public domain – acres deeded to the federal government via purchase (e.g. the Louisiana Purchase) and war (e.g. the Mexican-American War) – where the cows and sheep gnawed the native buffalo grass down to dust. In signing the Taylor Grazing Act, FDR organized the remaining unplowed grasslands into regulated districts where ranchers could rent public land at rates deeply subsidized by the federal government. Grazing Service re-seeded ranges and enjoyed populist support for stopping range wars. The land-renting system allowed family ranchers to continue working the range alongside the land barons and cattle kings with the wealth to outright buy the thousands of acres needed to make livestock-raising profitable in dry country.

But as the lease system put an end to ranchers taking free grass from the public domain, Western politicians like McCarran blamed it for, as historian Douglas Brinkley put it in his new biography of FDR, “Rightful Heritage,” “the closing of the West.” Publicly, McCarran railed that Grazing Service handed too much control of the West’s grasslands over to regulatory agencies based in Washington. The argument was similar to the one shouted a generation earlier when the other conservationist Roosevelt, Theodore, created the Forest Service – a model for Grazing Service.

In a private letter to his daughter, however, in which he perplexingly conflated the Taylor Grazing Act with land conflicts in the Middle East, McCarran voiced a different reason for wanting Grazing Service gone.

“Under the Taylor Grazing Act all grazing rights have been allotted to the Jews,” he fumed. “And all the Arabs can do is tend camp for the kikes so what’s the use.” While the Grazing Act had nothing to do with the Middle East, the sentiment McCarran expressed about Jews is loud and clear.

In 1946, The Sagebrush Caesar mortally slashed the budget for Grazing Service, and brought an end to the career of its conservationist co-founder, Secretary of the Interior Harold L. Ickes, also a staunch civil rights defender. “One can raise merry havoc with these departments by the control of their purse strings,” McCarran crowed to his daughter. The service was resurrected in far weaker form by Truman and with a new name – the Bureau of Land Management. Writing in 1947 for Harper’s magazine, historian Bernard DeVoto asserted that The Sagebrush Caesar’s goal was to get public lands away, “from federal officials who cannot be coerced, and into the hands of the states, that is officials who can be coerced.”

He continued, “Senator McCarran has been the ablest representative of cattle and sheep interests in Washington, against the West and the people of the United States.”

It was prejudice against certain people as much, or more than, principal against regulation that made McCarran kill one of America’s most important conservation agencies. With respect to DeVoto, McCarran’s attacks on public lands were motivated by his animus against some people of the United States more than others.

* * *

But McCarran was not even the first senator from Nevada to attack public lands for racist reasons. In the summer of 1912 Nevada senator Francis G. Newlands traveled to the contested Democratic Convention in Baltimore clutching a two-thousand-word autobiography in case he, a darling of southern newspapers, was picked as the nominee. While there, Newlands did something extreme even by the rank racial standards of the day. He tried to write a plank into the Democratic National Platform to strike the 15th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution – the one that gave African-American men the right to vote.

“The only sure development of the black race in this country,” Newlands said, as quoted in William D. Rowley’s biography “Reclaiming the Arid West,” “depends not upon the grant of political rights but their denial.”

Like the Sagebrush Caesar, Newlands attacked public lands, but he didn’t start out that way. As a young politician, he backed the creation of national forests in order to save trees, protect watersheds and end range wars. His support led to the eventual creation of Nevada’s 6.3-million-acre Humboldt-Toiyabe National Forest. Newlands also attached his name to a 1902 law creating the Federal Bureau of Reclamation to build dams on the great rivers of the west and redistribute water to homesteaders settled on dry lands. Supported by both presidents Roosevelt, the bureau was socialist in scope, humane in intent, and hell on native fish and the people who ate them. The first project, the Derby Dam east of Reno, near fields where a young McCarran grazed his sheep with itinerant herders who castrated the ram lambs with their teeth, swished Truckee River water south to new cantaloupe farmers and away from the piscivorous Paiute on the Pyramid Lake Indian Reservation. At its 1905 opening, the sagebrush-allergic Newlands ordered the dam christened by his second wife with a bottle of White Seal Champagne. Afterward, the Paiute downstream watched the Pyramid Lake strain of Lahontan cutthroat trout – the size of king salmon, possibly the biggest trout to ever evolve on earth – go extinct.

Later in life, as his jowls, aquiline nose and steepled eyebrows all drooped, Newlands turned against public lands. He became a vector for how the range wars shifted from the great outdoors to the halls of legislatures. Asked to back a bill to create national forests in the east, he refused. And he increasingly fell under the sway of lobbying by western stockgrower associations and mining companies who wanted greater control over the national forests – in their parlance, “local control.” By 1914, when pressed to support federal conservation of open public domain lands, Newlands pushed back. The federal ranges where sheepherders grazed should be, he said, transferred to “state control.” Never mind that in 1880, and again in 1926, Nevada lawmakers crying “state control” coerced the federal government into the unprecedented move of transferring over more than two million acres of public land – a Yellowstone National Park amount – and promptly turned around and sold off almost all of it, mainly to themselves.

(Nevada isn’t alone. A 2016 study by the Wilderness Society showed Idaho has also sold off close to two million acres of formerly federal public land that were transferred to state management. Of the 3.4 million acres transferred to Oregon, fewer than 800,000 remain.)

In 1914, Newlands had real reason to woo land-grabbing stockgrowers, woolgrowers, and mining corporations because he was in the re-election fight of his life, meaning his long-held white supremacist dreams were on the line. He sat on the Senate Committee for Washington, D.C., a body that acted as the municipal government for the federal city, and was widely regarded as a low-prestige appointment. Newlands wanted to return as a senior member so he would have increased power to segregate Washington, D.C., which since 1900 had the highest percentage of African-American families of any city in America. In particular, he wanted to gut educational opportunities for blacks. Under Newlands, African-American schoolchildren would not learn reading, math and history. He wanted them taught only menial manual labor – the stuff of servitude. “He believed African-Americans were an inferior race who should be educated to be hewers of wood and drawers of water,” historians Martin Ridge and Walter Nugent wrote.

This was at a crucial time in America because Washington, D.C., which drew black families because of its educational opportunities, was beginning to export black professionals. By 1903, historian and civil rights activist W.E.B. Du Bois wrote in The Souls of Black Folk that more than 2,500 black college graduates had become teachers, clergy, physicians, merchants, farmers, artists and civil service employees. Moreover, in the former Confederate states some thirty thousand black school teachers had driven illiteracy in the region below fifty percent. Du Bois believed this was the key to improving the lives of African-Americans.

“Is it possible,” Du Bois wrote, “that nine millions of men can make effective progress in economic lines if they are deprived of political rights, made a servile caste and allowed only the most meager chance of developing their exceptional men? If history and reason give any distinct answer to these questions, it is an emphatic no.

But Newlands had an ally in the White House, Woodrow Wilson, then re-segregating the federal government. Newlands wanted to squelch black education in Washington, D.C. so he could, he said, “furnish a model system to all the southern states for the training of colored children.”

Turning against public lands was crucial to Newlands’ political strategy: Stay in power and marginalize every American who wasn’t white. He said he wanted to “write the word white into our constitution” and round up all African-Americans for deportation to another country. He called to “prevent the immigration into this country of all peoples other than those of the white race,” and supported laws barring Chinese and Japanese people from owning homes out of fear they would “quickly settle up and take possession of our entire coast and intermountain region.”

When it came to homeownership, Newlands privately left his real mark on history. His first wife was the daughter of the monopoly owner of Nevada’s billion-dollar Comstock silver mine, so he was fabulously rich. Newlands bought farmland on the edge of Washington, D.C. and co-built the bedroom community of Chevy Chase, one of America’s first modern suburbs. Later in the twentieth century, the suburb and the planned community, based on Newlands’ Chevy Chase prototype, gave tens of millions of people an opportunity to own their own houses. Suburban home ownership provided the world’s greatest vehicle into – and mooring against slipping out of – the middle class.

Newlands set the precedent for making suburbs whites-only. In 1909, when he discovered that a parcel of land had been sold to a developer who intended to build housing for African-Americans, he sued for fraud and took the land back. By the 1920s deeds from his land company contained covenants that prohibited Chevy Chase homeowners from selling or leasing to Jews or “any person of Negro blood.”

Such legal and extralegal means of keeping blacks out of white neighborhoods is now known as “redlining.” Throughout the twentieth century it led to nonwhites concentrating in poor neighborhoods, primarily in cities, where public housing was constructed. In his 2014 Polk Award-winning investigation for The Atlantic, “The Case For Reparations,” journalist Ta-Nehisi Coates wrote that redlining “plundered” wealth from generations of African-American families, and the interest is still compounding.

Newlands was America’s original redliner. He held on to power by attacking public lands. Here are a few of the white supremacist statements he left behind:

“Under the old system of slavery, every plantation was a training school, in which discipline was maintained. The colored race has lost this training.”

“Blacks are a race of children requiring guidance, industrial training and development of self-control.”

“I want to tell you one more thing I know about the Negro … I’ve often wondered, are they better off as slaves?”

“They abort their young children, they put their young men in jail, because they never learned to pick cotton.”

Actually, those last two were uttered in 2014 by Cliven Bundy, the Stetson-topped flag-waving patriarch of the family leading the armed front of the modern movement against public lands. Which brings us to today.

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Atop the Republican ticket now, and leading by landslides in most of the inland western states, is a man who fuses Newlands’ housing construction sensibilities with McCarran’s taste for dealing with immigrants. Public lands supporters took heart in January 2016 during the Malheur standoff in Oregon when Donald J. Trump assured Field & Stream magazine that he did not agree with the movement to get rid of public lands. He wanted “to keep the lands great,” he said, for once, with appropriate lack of nuance. Read by millions of hunters and anglers who depend on public lands, Field & Stream had good reason to raise their concern with the Republican frontrunner. In 2012, the Republican National Platform called for the U.S. to gradually get rid of some public lands. In 2015, according to the advocacy group the Trust for Public Land, 228 representatives and 51 senators voted for measures that would weaken federal conservation. One of them was the man on his way to earning the second most Republican primary votes, Texas Senator Ted Cruz, who campaigned to dispose of hundreds of millions of acres of public lands across the west as fast as possible.

When Trump accepted the nomination for president at the Republican National Convention in Cleveland however – a campaign that saw him refuse to immediately disavow the Ku Klux Klan, share insults written by white supremacists with his legions of Twitter followers, propose a ban on Muslims entering the country, revoke sanctuary from war refugees for fear they constitute a “Trojan Horse,” insist that a U.S. judge from Indiana can’t do his job because his heritage is Mexican, and continuously propagate the conspiracy that the circumstances of Barack Obama’s birth make him illegitimate – there came another answer to the Field & Stream question. The 2016 Republican National Platform rolled out during Trump’s coronation as party leader contained even more extreme language than the 2012 platform regarding the disposal of public lands.

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Immediately after the convention, Trump began walking back the bold stance he voiced to Field & Stream. “I have some pretty strong opinions but I won’t talk about it right now,” Trump told a reporter in Colorado. Pressed on whether he thought the Bundys had gone “too far” Trump answered, “I’m not going to comment on who went too far.”

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In 2015 an advisor to Trump co-filed a lawsuit in Washington D.C. to stop the Confederated Salish and Kootenai tribes in Montana from operating a hydroelectric dam on the Flathead Indian Reservation. It made the bizarre claim that the tribes intended to sneak nuclear materials to Turkey. Native Americans make up the highest percentage of nonwhite residents across much of the western U.S., according to census data. Despite their mantra of “local control,” Sagebrush Rebels have consistently staked positions at odds with tribal councils in order to force open natural resources on reservations to exploitation by others. Members of the movement have fought for grazing, mining and easement terms that have benefitted outside corporations at the expense of the fabric of tribal communities. One example playing out right now is tribal protests on North Dakota’s Standing Rock Sioux Reservation against the construction of an oil pipeline by a corporation based in Dallas.

Opposed to tribal sovereignty efforts is a group called the Citizens Equal Rights Alliance. The alliance was condemned as “anti-Indian” by the Southern Poverty Law Center, and the Montana Human Rights Network named it “the most notorious organized anti-Indian group in the U.S.” In the fall of 2015, the Human Rights Network criticized Montana State Senator Jennifer Fielder because she gave a speech to the Citizens Equal Rights Alliance.

I wanted to talk to Fielder, rather than the overexposed Bundys, whose antics have garnered them a public platform far in excess of their actual political power, because she is an elected leader working within the system to further their goals. In addition to being Vice Chair of the Montana Republican Party, she is the CEO of the American Lands Council. Founded in 2012 and partially funded by an infusion of money from the Koch brothers, the ALC organizes western state and county governments to pressure the federal government into transferring western lands – the precursor to privatization. (Notably: the council opposes the proposed establishment of Bears Ears National Monument in Utah, though it is supported by leaders from five local tribes.)

Shortly before Fielder weathered the charge of racism, she wrote an op-ed piece for the Missoulian newspaper defending the motivations – though not the tactics – of the Bundys. She called for calm during the manhunt for the last Malheur fugitive, Jake Ryan, 27, whose family is one of Fielders’ constituents inside Sanders County (named for early vigilante Wilbur Sanders). Ryan eventually took a plea deal after he was charged with using heavy machinery to dig outhouses on an archaeological site held sacred by the local Paiute tribe. Imagine for a moment such a gesture being made at the Gettysburg Battlefield… The Eldridge Street Synagogue… The Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma…

Yet Fielder believes that to ask if racism is brewed into the movement is to sensationalize the issue, demonize its backers, and muddy hard questions. Questions about how we as a society should share our natural resources, and how livelihoods can be earned honestly and safely in rural communities that have traditionally counted on mining, logging and grazing. Her positions deserve consideration and sympathy from an economic perspective, the racial connotations deserve scrutiny from a human one.

“I’m the leader of the movement right now and there’s absolutely no racial animosity in any fiber of my being,” she told me by phone from Thompson Falls, Montana. “It’s just the opposition that’s trying to make it an issue constantly.”

By opponents, she means not only environmental groups, but also the Montana Human Rights Network, whom she called “an anti-human group” that plays “the race card” and is “always trying to throw out” the fact that she served on a county council with Militia of Montana co-founder Trochmann (who spoke at my high school all those years ago). She cited the devastating wildfires sweeping the warming west as reason that federal lands need to be transferred to states. “Local control” will open forests up to more logging and cattle grazing as a way to reduce fuels and make them healthy – a position heartily agreed with by the logging and ranching industries, though not by most forest ecologists. Though she stridently supports federal lands being transferred to the states, she said she does not want the lands to become privatized, despite history showing the former is forerunner to the latter.

“People on both sides don’t want lands privatized,” she said. “We just want them managed better.”

Fiedler is an outspoken critic of federal management agencies, so I brought up the fact that the Bureau of Reclamation and the Bureau of Land Management came about, respectively, because of Newlands and McCarran. She didn’t respond. When I pointed out the senators’ racism, she bristled at me for “trying to bring up certain characters.” She volunteered that the historical figure she draws her inspiration from is Thomas Jefferson.

“He is accused of being by the left a racist because he owned slaves,” she said.

She continued that actually Jefferson was “angling towards” full emancipation, and on three different occasions “attempted to bring legislation to end slavery,” and even nearly condemned it in the Declaration of Independence.

“But it was illegal to set slaves free, those decisions were made by a distant government who weren’t allowing local people to have a voice,” she said. “That’s why those states revolted, against a distant government.”

It is true that Jefferson tentatively proposed a few laws and provisions that could have curbed the spread of slavery, and he considered adding to the Declaration a condemnation of the slave trade as a swipe at its monopolist, England – though not against the institution itself. But to divine that the man who upon death freed only five relatives of his mistress Sally Hemings, while sending nearly two hundred other human beings to auction, was actually a misunderstood abolitionist whose anger over the thwarting of his emancipationist works by distant government figures inspired him to foment revolt is far-fetched. “Seriously deluded,” is how Fielder’s thinking was put to me by Peter S. Onuf, who for years taught about Jefferson at the University of Virginia and wrote and co-wrote numerous books about him.

Fielder blamed the media for asking inappropriate questions.

“I think that’s digging for dirt to try and connect the movement to something dirty, that’s typical of today’s journalists,” she said in a measured tone. “You will pay for that eventually. You will be accountable to God for what you do.”

* * *

In 1889, Christ appeared in Nevada. He came in a vision to a Paiute spiritual leader named Wovoka. Christ taught Wovoka the Ghost Dance. By this year all the great buffalo herds that Plains Indians had depended on had been slaughtered, the native Lahontan cutthroat trout that the Paiute ate in the Great Basin were in deep decline, and almost all the surviving Native Americans in the west had been starved onto barren and remote reservations. If they danced the Ghost Dance, Wovoka proselytized, all their dead relatives would return, along with the wildlife, right after a great flood washed away all the new settlers. “Whites can’t hurt Indians then,” Wovoka said, according to Dee Brown in Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee.

Wovoka brought the Ghost Dance to the shores of Pyramid Lake. From that Nevada oasis, it shot out to other western reservations like lightning. Army soldiers feared it would spark revolts. In December 1890, on the Standing Rock Reservation in South Dakota, tribal police arrested and killed Hunkpapa Sioux Chief Sitting Bull in similar circumstances to the earlier death of his fellow Custer battle comrade, Crazy Horse. Two weeks later, jittery Army soldiers opened fire on some 300 unarmed members of the Sioux tribe. Their bodies, mostly very small, very wrinkled, or with breasts, froze solid on the Dakota tundra. Ten months later Chief Charlo, leader of the last band of Salish in Montana’s Bitterroot Valley, led his people on a tearful, forced march to a new reservation across the river bridge nearest the future site of Hellgate High School, where I would sit a century later and listen to a pair of neo-Nazis hold forth on misunderstood swastikas, miscegenation and what could be done with public lands were it not for federal conservation laws.

Could a movement that has displaced Native Americans, rejected regulation with scoffs that the benefits would fall to Jews, and mocked African-Americans not be called racist? Or has an implicit and inherent bigotry in the movement against public lands received a pass because the language used to discuss it is usually that of “resource management?”

It’s noteworthy that Ta-Nehisi Coates used the word “plunder” to describe what systematic racism has done to the bodies of African-Americans. Western writers from Bernard DeVoto to Wallace Stegner to Terry Tempest Williams have used the same piratical verb to describe what has been done to bodies of land. It’s not a coincidence. Race may not be the main motivation of the attacks on public lands, but there is virulent undercurrent of racism in it. From Newlands to McCarran to Bundy to Trump, bigotry has hitched its wagon to the movement.

The racially-tinged manias that cyclically sweep the west, promising to turn back the clock to some group’s Eden myth – be they Sagebrush Rebels or Ghost Dancers – never work, and tend to end in blood. However, had Wovoka lived to the 21st century, he would have seen part of his prophecy come true. Not from the supernatural, but from hard cooperation. The giant Lahontan cutthroat trout was returned to Pyramid Lake after a lost population was found alive on a high desert mountain. It took years of work from all levels of civic society to ready the restoration – private landowners, the states of Utah and Nevada and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. But it was the Paiute, who spent decades in court fighting for their water rights, who ultimately, when their voices were finally heard, made it possible. Today the region is experiencing an economic boom driven by the fact that people want to live near abundant, conserved and accessible natural resources. Right after the great trout returned, Tesla built a $5 billion electric car factory an hour’s drive from Pyramid Lake. What worker wouldn’t want an after-shift shot at catching a cutthroat trout bigger than the world record 41-pounder taken in the old days by tribe member John Skimmerhorn? I’m certainly grateful that every year around Christmas I can wade into the bracing waters of Pyramid Lake before dawn, think about Wovoka, and give it a cast. The movement against public lands isn’t just a land grab, it’s a people grab. “State control” or “local control” means segregating public lands from the bodies and voices of the great multicultural majority of the 322 million Americans alive today. Citizens who, along with their progeny, are the legal owners and rightful beneficiaries of those lands. (“Segregating” here is actually the legal term for cutting out sections of public lands.)

Justice requires more diverse voices have a say in our public lands, not fewer. It’s the only way to get old enemies past squinting at each other from across the range, wondering who’s walking like pintails, talking like mallards.

 

 

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Inside the makeshift online support groups where devout men go to break their taboo sex habits.

This story is republished from MEL Magazine. MEL aims to challenge, inspire and encourage readers to drop any preconceived notions of who they’re supposed to be.

On a Friday night a few weeks ago, Ibrahim “Ibby” Mamood was frantically typing on his laptop, shaking, with droplets of sweat dripping from his forehead. Every so often, he peered over his shoulder, just in case someone was still awake and could come into his room. “I did it again,” he typed to the members of a private Facebook group. “I lost control of myself. May Allah, the greatest, the most kind, the most merciful, forgive me.”

Mamood, 27, lives in Birmingham, one of Britain’s largest cities and home to the country’s largest Muslim population outside of London. He’s a practicing Muslim who prays five times a day and teaches children in madrassa (Islamic school). He lives in a neighborhood almost entirely filled with Muslim families, all of whom know each other, attend the same social events and congregate at the same mosque.

This makes what he calls an “addiction” to masturbation even harder to talk about. Calling me from a cafe in central Birmingham, far away from his home, he says that he started masturbating in his late teens “without really knowing what I was doing.”

“It started, like most boys, with wet dreams. I thought I was wetting the bed. And it really developed from there. Later, I looked at pornographic images. Not because of a sinful sexual attraction. I wanted to figure out what was happening to my body.”

Mamood tells me that as he grew older — and with Islamic marriage on his mind — he attempted to become a more devout Muslim. As he was doing so, however, he continued looking at pornography. “I knew what I was doing was wrong… I’ve always known that. But we live in a society where pornography is widespread, so even when I wasn’t looking for porn, it was just there.”

Like many Muslim men in Mamood’s situation — i.e., finding themselves unable to talk about sex, masturbation or porn in deeply religious communities, where such things are considered taboo — he turned to the internet for help. In addition to private groups on Facebook (Mamood’s has more than two hundred members) and WhatsApp, the biggest support network is on Reddit, where the MuslimNoFap subreddit has about two thousand followers.

On the surface, it might seem like the normal Reddit No Fap community, a group of men whose choice of abstinence is largely driven by a desire for self-improvement. But according to members of MuslimNoFap, who all wished to remain anonymous, their community is much different. As one told me, “The main NoFap community is largely aiming to somehow assert their masculinity through control of themselves, with the hope of sleeping with women outside of marriage.” Conversely, the MuslimNoFap community is designed to uphold the sanctity of Nikah (marriage), which also means that “any form of sexual activity is prohibited until made permissible by Allah.”

“All we’re trying to do is serve Allah, and to do what he commanded us to do,” the MuslimNoFapper adds.

While the men I spoke to had joined the group for different reasons — some wanted to stop watching porn; others used to the group to manage depression and anxiety — nearly all of them wanted to get married in a halal (Islamically permissible) way, and were worried that their affinity for porn and masturbation would nullify their marriages in the eyes of God. It also was clear that despite thinking about marriage for much of their lives, none of these men had been prepared for what would happen on their wedding nights.

“There’s no way we can talk about sex, or anything to do with sex inside a mosque. It’s impossible,” a Canadian man by the username Abu Khadeer says. “Most of the people in these groups had a strict Islamic upbringing. They didn’t learn about sex education in the madrassa, where they were prohibited from having girlfriends. Some date and have sex outside of marriage, but [most] other men are truly devoted to their religion. They end up giving into temptation … usually because they’re afraid they won’t be competent when they finally get married.”

“Most mentions of sex in the [mosque] are usually associated with sin,” he adds. The attitude that the imams take is that any sort of deliberate extramarital sex is a severe sin — one that results in punishment in the akhira [afterlife].”

Islamic scholars differ in their opinions of this interpretation. The mainstream view among some world-famous preachers, including Zakir Naik, is that anyone engaging in extramarital sexual activities without repentance (in the form of fasting and prayer) will be sent to hell on Judgment Day. Others say that because the Qu’ran doesn’t specifically call masturbation zina (a major sin), severe punishments don’t apply.

Still, most devout Muslim men grow up being told to stay away from any type of sexual activity until marriage. As Abu Khadeer says, “A lot of us are told to be celibate up to the point of marriage. And then when we get married, we’re just expected to know what to do. One of the guys on the forum had to divorce his wife because he couldn’t consummate his marriage. He literally didn’t know how to have sex with her on his wedding night.”

It’s difficult to quantify the problem, but most of the imams I spoke to recognized that this is an issue that is often kept secret. Imams from progressive Imams Online network say Islamic leaders hadn’t really dealt with situations involving men and sex education, beyond very extreme situations — ones where the men believed they’d been possessed by evil spirits, in which case, the imams recommend long periods of praying and fasting, or sometimes ruqyah, an Islamic exorcism ritual.

“Things like sexual etiquette aren’t taught in Islamic schools, because there’s an aversion by teachers who believe it’s a parent’s duty to teach their children about sex, but many parents don’t feel confident talking to their sons about sex either,” says London-based imam Muhammad Jafer. “As a result, you have young men who reach their 20s knowing next to nothing about intimacy, or worse, they’ve learned about it by looking at sinful websites or talking to people about sex in haram [forbidden] environments.”

Plus, as Mamood points out, “Most [imams] are older men, who grew up at a time when getting married young was something everyone did, so they don’t understand the world we’re in now. [They] don’t understand how much our society is sexualized now. To say that we should abstain from pornography is impossible.”

“The problem begins when you say abstinence is the only option,” adds Imtiaz Ayub, a social worker based in Derby, a small city in the north of England. Ayub isn’t an imam, but much of his work involves working with Muslim teenagers, including getting them to open up about sex. “There’s a wider problem here — one where in Muslim communities this idea of a very macho masculinity is imposed,” he explains. “More and more young Muslim men are obsessed with how they look, how muscular they are, as a way to prove they’re manly. But at the same time, they’re not encouraged to talk about their own sexuality. That can be very confusing for [them].”

In Ayub’s opinion, communities that have told young men to disregard their sexuality are “basically waiting for a volcano to erupt.”

“Muslim boys aren’t different to any other type of male — they’re going to be sexually curious when they reach a certain age, and if communities care about them, they need to provide spaces where they can openly talk about sex without the taboos. You can’t expect young Muslim boys to grow up and become men unless they’re able to manage the period when they grow up to become men.”

His attitude is shared by others who are trying to offer better resources for Muslim men to talk about sex. In the U.S., a website called “Purify Your Gaze” provides interactive sessions via Skype — usually involving a mentor — and other specially designed programs, consisting of physical activities and Islamic prayers, to aid men throughout their “healing” processes from porn and masturbation. Others, like U.K. imam Alyas Karmani, take a more modern approach — one that disregards notions of personal sexual gratification as a major sin, earning him the title of the “Muslim Sex Doctor.” Same for Mufti Abu Layth, another British imam who caused controversy when he used his weekly advice session on Facebook Live to say that masturbation wasn’t prohibited in Islam at all. Instead, he believes past Muslim scholars had suggested that masturbation could be used to safely manage one’s sexual desires.

To Ayub, Mufti Abu Layth’s statements were a positive first step. “The Mufti has a big public platform, and it was important for him to say that. Even if there are Muslim men who want to be celibate, who want to abstain until marriage, it’s still important for them to understand that masturbation is a natural human thing.”

A few days ago, I spoke to Mamood again. He was in better spirits. He’d put blocks on the porn sites he’d visited, and following the advice and encouragement of the other members of his anti-masturbation support group on Facebook, he’s trying to combat his sexual urges through studying Islamic books. That said: “I’m fine during the day, when I can control my temptations. It’s moments at night when I’m alone…,” he admits.

He takes a long pause, and then mutters a short prayer in Arabic asking for God’s forgiveness. “Those are the times I’m worried about. It’s at night time, when the devil likes to tempt us, especially on the internet.”

 

 

How Cleaning Out My Hoarder Mother-in-Law’s Junk Caused My Own Marriage to Crumble

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As we plowed through decades of her extreme clutter, I began to notice similar tendencies in my husband. And once I saw the hoarder in him, there was no turning back.

There’s a snapshot Aiden took of me a few days after our wedding on Christmas Eve, 2009. I’m standing outside his mother’s house wearing disposable coveralls, gloves, and a particulate mask. In the background is a dumpster. The ground is thick with dead, brown palm fronds. I am beaming at the camera.

I wished so much that I could have met Ruth, my mother in law. I knew she was a bright, adventurous woman who never found work to suit her lively intelligence. She was a 1960’s housewife fascinated by history and art and ideas. She loved dogs. She suffered from untreated depression and agoraphobia.

The day Ruth died, her family just locked up the house and walked away. Now, five years later, it’s still standing empty. Aiden worries about it. I worry about him. No one, I think, should have to clear out a parent’s house alone. His brothers are no help at all.

“You and I can do it together,” I say. “It’ll be our honeymoon. We’ll take a month and just get it done.”

And now we’re here.

The front door opens into the living room — an ironic name for such an uninhabitable place. I’ve never seen anything like this. There are LPs, stained mattresses, mountains of canned food, ripped cushions, dog crates, and hundreds upon hundreds of boxes. All fading back into the darkness. The smell is beyond staleness or rot. It’s the stench of sickness, of time lost.

I’d fantasized about meeting my mother in law. Now I’m getting my wish, but in the most macabre way. As I dig through her belongings, I feel I’m excavating Ruth herself. Every room in that house — every pile of garbage, every broken sofa, every packed closet — seems saturated with her spirit. Each stratum we uncover reveals more of the woman who raised my husband — a woman whom I will otherwise never know.

I haven’t yet heard of obsessive-compulsive hoarding. I have no idea that there’s a clinical name for what I’m looking at. I only know that Ruth’s house feels like a map of a disturbed mind.

Why, I wonder, is the floor of the den covered in newspapers three feet deep?

“That’s for the dogs,” Aiden explains, as if it makes perfect sense. We start hacking the newspaper out, a job that requires pickaxes and shovels. Clouds of powdered filth fill the air. The whole thing is a petrified matt of paper, urine and excrement. Decades ago, Ruth crammed her ever-growing collection of dogs — eighteen? twenty? — into this single modest-sized room and left them to do their thing. When the floor got bad, she simply added another layer of paper.

In another room, I find notebooks. Boxes of them, all densely crammed with faint, microscopic handwriting. They’re lists of words.

“Oh, Mom was always learning languages,” Aiden tells me. Some of the word-lists are in English. Others are in Spanish, German, Polish, Norwegian. Clearly the work of an intelligent and gifted person. The thing is, I can’t see anyone actually using them for anything. They’re barely legible. It’s as if Ruth was collecting words just for the sake of having them.

Further in, there’s a stack of maybe thirty cardboard boxes, wrapped in paper and swathed in packing tape. What was Ruth storing with such special care? Even with my mat knife, it takes a long time to get the first one open. I tear off the paper. Underneath there’s more tape. Then tissue paper. Gently, I turn back the layers.

Palm fronds. The box is full of dead palm fronds from the yard outside, carefully folded and packed.

I spend the next hour cutting open more boxes. They all contain more of the same. As I work, I keep twisting to glance behind me.

Back in the den I find Aiden crouched down, frowning at the heaps of crud that we’ve hacked out of the floor.

“We need to go through all this by hand,” he says earnestly.

I stare. “You mean the whole room? All of it?”

“There could be something important buried here,” he says. “Get a bag.”

I get a bag. As I start sifting, I try to think of something to say. We can’t do this. We’ll never get through it all. This is crazy.

I pry up a wad of rat-chewed newsprint. Underneath, gazing up at me, are Aiden’s eyes.

It’s a photograph, half buried in the muck. It can’t be Aiden, though.

The picture is old, taken maybe around 1920. But the resemblance is eerie. Same curly brown hair, same beautiful eyes. The guy is obviously a relative. Aiden has no idea who he is.

Later on, we show the picture to Aiden’s dad. “That’s your Great Uncle Norman,” he says. “He had some problems.” Problems? Apparently, Ruth’s uncle committed suicide sometime before the Second World War.

I’m sorry to hear it. But what really disturbs me is the vision of my sweetie buried under a pile of garbage in that house. Those eyes, hidden down there for decades. Sad eyes. A genetic heritage.

At the end of January, after about a month of excavation, we run out of time. The whole process has been traumatic for Aiden, and to what end? We’ve filled one corner of the dumpster, which means we’ve thrown away the equivalent of about one closet’s worth of stuff. The rest of the house we leave as it was, relocking the door behind us. I feel defeated. Aiden is silent.

Back in London, our cluttered apartment is starting to worry me.

“I’m remodeling, so everything’s kind of up in the air,” Aiden had told me months before, the first time I saw where he lived: before it became where we lived. I’d been impressed to learn that he was doing all the work himself. Naturally the place was messy now, I thought. I could see it was going to be beautiful when it was done.

But time passed, and the remodel began to seem like the labor of Sisyphus: a project that could absorb any amount of time and work without ever reaching completion.

Now we’ve returned from California and moved into a construction site. It’s uncomfortable. There’s no room for my stuff. Aiden urges patience as he keeps accumulating tools and crates and building materials salvaged from neighborhood trash cans. One night, I come home and am bewildered to see what looks like a pile of car parts in the living room.

I’m starting to understand that, for my husband, the chaos of the remodel is not a temporary stage on the way to a cozy shared living space. It’s the way he lives.

When I shake out a blanket, clouds of dust and mold fly up. We have fleabites. Without consulting me, Aiden adopts two dogs, which are never housebroken. Now I have to wear clogs all day, stepping over puddles on my way to the kitchen.

I offer to do all the cleaning myself. “This is not your project,” Aiden responds. I try to negotiate for one clutter-free room. For the first time, I see my husband truly furious. Once, I rearrange a couple of pictures on the wall. After that, Aiden doesn’t speak to me for a week. He feels that I’m a feckless control freak. I feel unwelcome and unvalued. Much as I love him, I’m sliding into chronic depression. Angry depression.

Through it all I can’t get Ruth, or her house, out of my mind.

Finally, two years later, our marriage ends. I’ve been fighting hard to clear away the obstacles — physical and emotional — that stand between us. To Aiden, I’ve realized at last, my efforts feel like an attack on the core of his being.

The hoarder crowds his life with rubbish in an effort to keep other things out of his life. Things like spontaneity, and the spiritual intimacy reflected in a shared living space. Love and friendship don’t stand a chance. The need to barricade oneself — literally and psychologically — overrides everything else.

I grieved our loss for a long time. But today I’m sitting in a tranquil room full of clean surfaces. There’s open space. There’s sunlight. I luxuriate in having exactly what I need and no more — my books, my teakwood desk, my glass pen jar. Best of all, my thoughts have room to spread and blossom.

 

 

This “Old Guy With a Sign” Protests Trump Every Single Day

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Gale McCray has never been politically active, but since the election he’s become a fixture at a Fort Worth, Texas, intersection.

Most days, 74-year-old Gale McCray putters around Fort Worth, Texas, doing odd jobs and errands – like delivering cookie bouquets – for extra cash. He also spends his time standing at a busy intersection with a homemade anti-Trump sign that simply says, “Trump, that boy don’t act right.”

For 21 years, McCray worked as a mailman for the United States Post Office. He admits he was just as the stereotype suggests: disgruntled. Unhappy and unfulfilled for the better part of his career, he finally quit and took out his entire retirement fund. After blowing through the money over a period of two years on marijuana and “craziness,” McCray was left with $500 to his name. It was then he realized he had a “problem” and he wanted to address it.

“The best thing about America is that you get multiple chances at life,” McCray chuckles. “So, I took another chance.”

McCray went back to school and got a degree at the age of 43, then worked for ten years as a recreation therapist, working with alcoholics and addicts – something he felt called to do. He would teach leisure education classes for patients in treatment centers, and talk to them about participating in activities and how to be out in the world, such as going to a movie or engaging in swimming exercises. Then he drove a school bus for six years before officially retiring in 2008. Over the past nine years, McCray has become more vocal about his political views though he says they aren’t based on politics, per se, but on common sense, human decency, and kindness.

Gale McCray poses with his sign.

Now, the sign he holds for at least two hours per day in front of passing cars and curious eyes is the result of a tipping point. One that McCray didn’t even know was coming. The downhome, country phrase written in big, black letters on the sign just popped into his head, McCray says. He heard it often while growing up in a working-class household in Oklahoma during the forties and fifties.

“It’s country talk, that’s all it is. The full phrase is, ‘That boy just don’t act right. God bless him,’” McCray explains. “Like, I’m a big baseball fan so I’d say this about a player: ‘That right there is a really good ball player, but the fact is that boy just don’t act right. God bless him.’”

Once he found a piece of cardboard large enough to fit his message, McCray focused on the destination. He says he didn’t put a whole lot of thought into it, but ideally had two specific requirements: within walking distance of his home, and a lot of traffic. So, he chose an intersection that fit the bill, with a four-way stop and an island off to the side for him to stand on.

“A few years ago, I made a different sign,” McCray says. “It said, ‘Help, I watch too much Fox News. Can’t tell truth from lies. Need therapy.’ But I was just being silly. This right here is different.”

When asked why it was different, McCray pauses. He speaks in a heavier and much more somber tone than the lighthearted, jovial one he’s been using.

“After the election I was just amazed, I couldn’t believe [Donald Trump] got elected,” he says. “I remembered seeing a guy with a sign once shortly after Bush took us into Iraq. And he was a Middle Eastern guy. He had such resolve on his face, like he knew he wasn’t going to change anything but that he had to get out there and do something. And that’s kind of how I felt.”

McCray stands with his sign at his preferred intersection in Fort Worth.

McCray maintains that he isn’t political. He isn’t angry and he isn’t trying to make a grandiose statement. He’s just “an old guy with a sign.” But the motivation seems deeper than that. After the recent election, McCray became politically active for the first time. He called Congresswoman Kay Grange, visited her office and spoke with one of her representatives about the travel ban. But it just didn’t feel like enough. Then protests broke out all over the country, including the Dallas Fort Worth Airport. And it affected him deeply.

“I saw mothers and grandparents on the news getting separated from their families and I got kind of emotional thinking about it and thinking about my own family,” he says. “There just wasn’t any compassion as to how it was implemented. So, I don’t know. It was all of that, really. I mean, this isn’t the America that I know.”

While standing alone on the cement-lined, grassy island, McCray has heard it all – boos, car horns, cheers and, of course, his fair share of ‘fuck you.’” According to the New York Times, 51.7 percent of Forth Worth residents voted for Donald Trump, which isn’t an overwhelming number, but enough to garner some unpleasant reactions to his sign.

Some people have called the cops on him, others hold up the peace sign. One person shouted at him to “get a job” while another asked, “Who’s paying you to do that?” An older woman even slowed down traffic just enough to roll down her window and tell McCray with all sincerity, “You’re stupid.”

“What I notice the most is how a lot of the people are just so angry,” he says. “It makes me sad to see them get so angry at me. I don’t feel anger towards them. And they look like they’re going to have a heart attack over this. You can’t take it so seriously. If I took what people said seriously, I wouldn’t be able to do this.”

McCray waves at passersby.

McCray says he often thinks back to that Middle Eastern man that he saw with a sign all those years ago. No one beeped at him. No one slowed down. They just saw him standing there and wondered what he was doing out there with that sign.

“That man had a big effect on me,” McCray says. “I made up my own story about him, about who he was and why he was doing what he was doing, and how he had to get out there and just do something – anything. It has stuck with me. I imagine people are doing the same with me. And maybe it will stick with them.”

McCray has since started taking the sign with him on his travels. He’s recently been to Oklahoma, Florida and South Carolina. A musician he met in Oklahoma even wrote a song based on the sign’s catchphrase. It’s called, you guessed it: “That Boy Don’t Act Right.” And on more than a few occasions, McCray has struck up conversations with people just to hear their thoughts and views no matter who they voted for. He’s not trying to change anyone’s mind, he says, or convert political beliefs. But he hopes that some people will feel motivated to go out and do something – anything – to make them feel as if they are doing their part. Maybe they’ll see the sign and think about voting or taking their own course of action. In the end, that’s really what McCray says he’s trying to do – inspire action.

“I still don’t feel like I’m doing enough,” he says. “Like I said, I’m just an old man with a sign. But at least, for me, it’s something. At least I’m doing something.”

 

 

I Went to the Hospital to Give Birth…And Tested Positive for Meth

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When the nurse first told me, mid-labor, that there were methamphetamines in my system, I cracked up laughing at the absurdity. When child services showed up, it stopped being funny.

It’s the birth of my first child, and I’m seven, maybe eight hours into labor. Whatever time it is, I’m well past the point of caring about modesty, so I don’t even think it’s strange when a nurse follows me into the bathroom.

“Just so you know, you’ve tested positive…” The nurse pauses there, and shifts her eyes to the floor. My anxiety fills the silence. I expect she’s going to say something about the whirring machines that have been measuring the baby’s heartbeat, my contractions, my blood pressure, any of those things.

“For methamphetamine.”

Relief floods me, and I explode with laughter. Meth? I didn’t even take Tylenol during my pregnancy.

“Well, I’ve always been a positive person,” I say, because cracking awful jokes is what I do to pave over uncomfortable situations. I smile, and the nurse seems relieved. Clearly, this is a mistake. I offer to give another sample.

The nurse crosses her arms in front of her chest while I squat over the toilet, one hand hoisting my hospital gown up toward my enormous belly, the other dangling the plastic cup in an area I can’t even see. Remarkably, my aim is true.

If there’s one thing I’ve mastered during pregnancy, it’s peeing into cups. My obstetrician’s office required a urine sample at most every visit to check hormone levels. At this point I’m 42 weeks, so I’ve peed into dozens, maybe scores, of sample cups. That’s probably why I wasn’t even aware the hospital administered a drug test when I checked in to give birth. My everyday routine as a pregnant lady involves peeing on demand.

The nurse sends the sample to the hospital’s lab.

When I imagined labor, I expected to pass the time by stretching on an exercise ball or pacing the hospital’s long white hallways. But my doctor is concerned about the baby’s heartbeat – it drops dramatically every time I have a contraction – and so I am confined to a labor bed, an IV of fluids in my arm, an oxygen mask on my face, and belts stretched across my belly to monitor the baby.

So I make do. My doula rubs lavender essential oil on my temples, and my husband plays “Push It,” the Spotify playlist I created for labor and delivery. I have a photo of Beyoncé propped up on the over-bed table, because if anything can inspire me, it’s Queen Bey. Also on the table is my birth plan, which is kind of like a wish list for delivery. That includes modest requests, like keeping the door to my room closed, as well as more imperative things, like, “Please delay all routine procedures on the baby until after the bonding and breastfeeding period.”

Occasionally I convince the staff to unhook the machines and let me move around the room for a few minutes. It’s better that way. Movement helps distract from the contractions, allowing my body to muscle through each wicked snap. But when I’m in bed, I’m hit with the full force of every punch, my vision blurring and sparkling along the edges. It’s like a migraine, but rippling through the entirety of me, and I just have to lie there and take it.

I’ve just done a few stretches and heaved myself back into bed when another nurse enters the room. I snap the oxygen mask back on my face as she delivers her news.

My drug sample is positive for meth. Again. The nurse ticks off a list of everything that’s about to happen: The baby will be tested for drugs. The hospital social worker will meet with me before I can be discharged. Child Protective Services will be contacted to evaluate my fitness as a parent.

“And of course, you cannot breastfeed the baby,” the nurse finishes.

I rip the oxygen mask away. This isn’t a joke anymore.

“Can they do that?” I ask my doula.

“I don’t know.” She looks grim.

“This isn’t right!” My husband is angry. He knows me, he’s seen the way I’ve nurtured and cared for the fragile bud inside me. His voice deepens into a growl as he stabs a finger toward the nurse. “You tell them. I don’t care who you have to call. The lab, the social worker, the doctors. You tell them they’re wrong.”

The nurse only shrugs and leaves the room.

My husband and I have experienced loss through miscarriage, so I’ve been especially careful this pregnancy, almost to the point of superstition. No alcohol, no deli foods, nothing raw, undercooked or smoked. The bulk of my produce was organic, my drinking water purified through a reverse-osmosis system. I used clove oil on a persistent toothache instead of visiting the dentist, because I didn’t want any anesthetic to pass through my body and into the placenta. During all 42 weeks, the hardest drugs that entered my body were prenatal vitamins and puffs from my prescription asthma inhaler.

“My inhaler,” I say. My hands shake.

“Your inhaler.”

The contractions are furious. I am furious. I am scared. My husband and my doula both hunch over their smartphones, searching for facts about asthma inhalers and drug tests. In the background, my labor mix plays “I’m Coming Out” by Diana Ross. My birth plan is on the floor, wrinkled, footprints stamped onto the white paper. I want to run away, but I’m belted down to a labor bed and attached to a bunch of machinery, caught somewhere between a sob and a scream.

The nurses, who begin to look alike, are no longer friendly, and we have a lot of conversations that don’t make sense. It’s four, possibly five a.m., but who’s to say? Labor runs on Salvador Dalí time, and I’ve hit that point of sleeplessness where the world doesn’t feel real anymore.

My husband scrolls through pages of information about albuterol inhalers and drug tests. He shows his phone to every nurse who steps foot in the room.

“See,” he points at a page from Drugs.com, then flips to CBS News stories about false positives, archives of reports, message boards with anecdotal evidence.

“Just give me one more test,” I plead. “I’ll prove it.”

I realize how much we sound like the prisoners who argue their innocence or patients in a mental institution who say they’re not crazy. The more I insist I’m not on drugs, the more I sound like I am.

“You can take this up with CPS,” a stone-faced nurse says.

Child Protective Services. A bolt of dread shoots through me as I remember the pregnancy announcement I sent to my loved ones and posted on Facebook six months ago. It seemed innocent enough. Bryan Cranston, the star of “Breaking Bad,” owns a movie theater in my town. When I ran into him at a film screening, I thought a photo with him would be the perfect way to announce my pregnancy and declare my love for the show, which is about a teacher-turned-methamphetamine dealer.

On the announcement, Bryan Cranston has one hand on my belly. “Breaking Baby,” the card reads in the style of the show’s logo, like elements in the periodic table. The bottom of the card modifies a memorable quote from the show: “I am the one who knocks up.”

The author's pregnancy announcement card featuring actor Bryan Cranston (left). (Image courtesy Maggie Downs)
The author’s pregnancy announcement card featuring actor Bryan Cranston (left). (Image courtesy Maggie Downs)

In the shadow of my failed drug tests, a card celebrating a morally questionable meth cooker has become one of my most misguided ideas. If the folks at CPS want proof I’m an unfit parent, I’m handing it to them on quality card stock, stuffed inside a pretty envelope.

Eventually the long desert night becomes a smoldering July morning. The baby’s heartbeat drops until it almost stops, and my doctor is summoned. My son is born via emergency C-section at 9:56 a.m. He is whisked away to another room, my husband follows, and for the first time in ten months, I am alone.

* * *

When I change my son’s diaper for the very first time, there is a plastic bag covering his genitals, a band of tape cinching it tight. It doesn’t strike me as abnormal until the nurse peering over my shoulder shakes her head no.

“I don’t think that’s enough urine for a sample,” she says. “We’ll have to do it again.”

Of course. They have to test my child for drugs, and this is how it’s done. It’s one of the saddest things I’ve ever seen, this tiny baby part wrapped in plastic, this uncomfortable, squawking child. His skin is so silky and new, the plastic so crinkly and manufactured.

Three days pass with me in the hospital bed, recovering from surgery. For three days I nestle my son in my arms, and I encourage him to breastfeed. All three days, the nurses are reluctant to hand over the baby, saying my actions are irresponsible. I feel like a wounded dog. I fight the urge to bark and snap at their hands.

Every shift change, two nurses stand by my bed and inform another two nurses of my status as a combative patient. “This woman tested positive for methamphetamine,” they say. “She has been briefed on the risks associated with breastfeeding, and she refused our advice. She is breastfeeding at her own risk.”

On my last day in the hospital, the social worker makes a visit. He is the first person to offer me a sliver of kindness and the benefit of doubt.

“I don’t think you’re on meth,” he says. “But my hands are tied.”

He says my son’s drug test was negative. Mine, however, has been sent to an outside lab for additional testing. I should receive the results in two to three weeks. In the meantime, he will try to hold off on contacting CPS.

“Just expect them to show up at any moment, is all I’m saying,” he adds.

spot-1

A part of me recognizes the hospital is acting in the interests of my child. But even if I were a drug user, does that justify turning delivery into something criminal? At what point do the rights of my child outweigh my own?

As soon as I signed a waiver and checked in to the labor ward, this birth belonged to the hospital. All sense of agency was stolen from me – from how I was forced to labor in an unnatural position, flat on my back, to the way I was treated like a drug addict when I was at my most vulnerable. Now my future feels like it’s in their hands too.

We live in the desert, where the only things that thrive are rugged and prickly, and it’s 112 degrees the day I bring my child home. Prior to giving birth, I pictured this as my Hallmark moment – sitting in the rocking chair that belonged to my mother, a cooing baby in my arms, the soft, yeasty smell of his skin. Instead, my son hollers until he’s purple, and I exhaust myself trying to make him stop. Every time the clanky air conditioner kicks on, my son cries with renewed energy. We are sweaty and sticky and unhappy. I finally place him in a bassinet next to the couch, where I collapse. Let him scream.

Lemon, my blind and deaf dachshund, settles in by the bassinet, as though she’s guarding it. Every so often Lemon leaps to her feet and pokes her nose into the bassinet, sniffs the baby, then curls up on the floor again. After a little while of this, my son calms. My dog is already proving to be a better mother than I am.

The weeks that follow are dark. I don’t know if I would have experienced the same level of postpartum depression without failing those drug tests. But I do know most other mothers don’t spend their first few weeks with baby the way I do – the shades drawn, peeking out from behind the blinds, examining each car that drives past. Every phone call, every knock at the door, every pop of gravel in the driveway sets my heart racing. Every night shreds me to pieces, wondering if my son will be whisked away by morning. I am suddenly a stickler for housework. What if CPS comes and sees all the laundry? What will they think of our dishes in the sink? It seems insane to think someone could take my child away, yet testing positive for meth once seemed insane too.

Sometimes while my son sleeps, I curl up on the floor of his yellow nursery, too afraid to be separated by a room or a wall. I am tired, but I don’t sleep. This isn’t how it was supposed to be, I think. This child was so wanted, so desired, but now that he’s here, I’m unable to protect him. I fall short.

I stay awake long enough to hear the coyotes scream in the empty lot next to my house. Out there is a desert, a place of harsh conditions and vast unknowns, and our home isn’t an oasis anymore. That’s when I mentally plot the route from Palm Springs to Mexico and imagine our lives in a seaside town. We could start over. We could be happy.

spot-2The days pass, and the air conditioner continues to chug. The blinds are drawn, and the house is gloomy despite the burning sun outside. I don’t run off to Mexico, of course. I’m still hopped up on painkillers for my angry C-section incision, and I’m fuzzy from insomnia. I can’t even make it to the mailbox.

Three weeks after I give birth, the hospital social worker phones and speaks to my husband. The results are in. I’m not on drugs. The call lasts less than a minute; it only takes a few seconds to apologize.

After the call, I suppress the urge to cry.

“What do we do now?” I ask my husband.

He shrugs. He looks sad and scared and relieved, and I’m all of those things too. I don’t quite believe it’s over, that we can just be parents who love and laugh and enjoy the comfort that comes from being in a safe space. But here we are.

My son is asleep against my shoulder, and I don’t want to disrupt him. Instead I walk over to the patio door, pull open the blinds, and for the first time in weeks, let the light in.

* * *

Maggie Downs Answers Your Questions: For more on what really happened at the hospital, read a Q&A with the author on Narratively’s Facebook page.

Maggie Downs is a writer, mother, and adventurer based in Palm Springs, California. Her work has appeared in the Washington Post, the Los Angeles Times, Today.com, and Racked, among other publications. She holds an MFA in creative nonfiction from the University of California Riverside-Palm Desert. Find her on Twitter @downsanddirty.

Cornelia Li is an illustrator based in Toronto. Her works often explore human emotions via storytelling. See her more experimental scribbles on Instagram @cornelia_illo.

 

 

The Day My Therapist Dared Me to Have Sex With Her

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

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

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

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

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

“Oh, yeah,” I say. “That.”

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

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

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

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

I shrugged my shoulders, only half looking up.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Nailed it.

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

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

* * *

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Why not?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

There were two ways to find out:

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

2) Keep going to therapy.

* * *

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

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

“I don’t know.”

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

Here we go again.

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

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

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

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

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

“What?” I respond, flustered.

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

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

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

“Of course not.”

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

“I wouldn’t do that.”

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

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

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

* * *

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Isn’t therapy supposed to ameliorate my anxiety?

* * *

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Exactly.”

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

* * *

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Lori’s great at forcing me to reflect.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

* * *

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

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

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

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

* * *

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

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

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

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

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

* * *

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

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