These activists are harnessing the power of VR to tackle everything from abortion to workplace harassment.
In 2004, Cathy Hackl may have watched more violent videos than anyone in America. While working in video production at CNN, part of Hackl’s job was to watch the raw video coming in from the Iraq War and flag sensitive material so that the cable channel’s local partners could warn viewers before they saw something graphic. In order to put this protection in place for viewers, Hackl had to immerse herself in such images and scenes for hours at a time. She sifted through beheadings, the bodies of soldiers being dragged, anything that might set off cable’s red flags. It was exhausting and traumatizing, but Hackl was most disturbed by how it began to change her.
“When you do that kind of job, you kind of turn your humanity switch off a little bit,” she says. She became desensitized to these horrific images. Her ability to empathize took a backseat – it had to.
It wasn’t until two years ago – more than a decade after she began doing that work – that she had the visceral experience of feeling that switch turn back on. She had been experimenting with 360 video, a technique that allows the viewer to feel surrounded by whatever they’re watching. While attending a tech conference, she donned an HTC VIVE virtual reality headset and found herself in a solitary confinement cell.
“Within a couple of minutes, I was completely claustrophobic,” she says. The experience, called 6×9, was created by The Guardian. In 6×9, while wearing a VR headset, the viewer feels what it’s like to be in solitary confinement. They are transported to a tiny cell block and are completely immersed, for a time, in that lonely, frightening atmosphere.
Even those watching in an internet browser can manipulate the video as if they are moving around inside it. In journalistic endeavors, the goal is always to help people understand the experiences they’re learning about, and with empathy can come a host of other feelings and effects.
“When I took the headset off, something clicked,” says Hackl. “The humanity switch turned back on. I felt like I was actually walking in someone else’s shoes.”
Hackl says she didn’t just feel sorry for people in solitary confinement after this visceral experience, she wanted to do something for them. After she took the headset off, she decided she needed to be part of this VR movement. She is now a consultant for some of the top virtual reality and augmented reality studios making experiences with a social impact focus. She is on the board of Virtual Relief, a nonprofit that uses the technology to help distract, entertain and rehabilitate homebound seniors and hospitals patients, and she considers herself an evangelist for the power of this technology.
The experience Hackl described is what some social scientists call compassionate empathy, which moves a person to respond to another’s emotional state with some kind of action, as compared with cognitive empathy, also known as “perspective-taking,” which is simply understanding another person’s mental state. Scientists believe most people are born with the ability to empathize with others, but as we spend less and less time in face-to-face communication, the nuances can become lost. Researchers have worried for decades about what television, video games, cell phones, social media, and now augmented and virtual reality would do to our ability to connect with one another. While some studies have shown a correlation between excessive technology use and a decline in social connection, there is a growing movement recognizing that if it’s possible to decrease people’s capacity for empathy using technology, it must be possible to do the opposite as well.
VR technology has been evolving for decades, but until relatively recently it was considered too expensive and technically demanding for most uses outside of video games. It required a heavy and pricey collection of camera equipment, plus software, coding, and digital animation expertise. Not to mention the fact that anyone who wanted to experience VR needed to wear a heavy, clunky headset. In 2015, tech entrepreneur and artist Chris Milk gave a TED Talk in which he called virtual reality “the empathy machine” for its capacity to put people more directly in others’ shoes than any other kind of technology. At the time, many still saw this as hyperbole. There were still few companies outside the gaming world that felt comfortable investing in content or hardware that was so inaccessible. But now, as both headsets and the technology to produce VR experiences have become cheaper and easier to use, activists and nonprofits are starting to really test the empathy machine hypothesis. The United Nations has developed an experience that allows people to get a glimpse of life as Syrian refugees; multiple VR experiences give viewers the feeling of speaking directly to sexual assault or Holocaust survivors; nonprofits are using the Android app Withinto tell VR stories that raise awareness and sometimes money for social and environmental causes.
One question remaining is whether this can create change at scale. Hackl admits that a lot of what’s out there right now is gimmicky, showing off the bells and whistles. If you test out a VR experience now, it’s likely meant to wow you more than convey much serious information. The companies and organizations making content still need to convince you – and in some cases, themselves – to try another, and another. But that’s what happens when any new technology comes of age.
“The people who are actually spending a lot of time crafting these stories and creating experiences are really moving the needle,” Hackl says. “I can turn off my phone or television, or take off a headset, but what really matters is what stays with you.”
* * *
The thing that sticks with most people who experience the Planned Parenthood VR film “Across the Line” is the harsh, accusing voice of a man outside the clinic. “You’re a whore, shame on you, maybe your parents should have aborted you!” he screams. The viewer can’t see the man shouting it, but his voice is very real, and feels less than a foot away. “Across the Line” gives a sense of what it’s like to access abortion care at a clinic ringed by protesters. In recent years there has been an uptick in women telling their stories of being accosted by protesters outside clinics, but there’s something about feeling surrounded by them in VR that triggers a different level of empathy. Part of “Across the Line,” created with the help of immersive journalist Nonny de la Peña, is shot documentary-style with a 360-degree camera and actors playing patients and protesters. That part provides tension, but it’s when you get to the front of the clinic that things really start to feel visceral. The people around you become digital animations, but their voices are real – recorded outside an actual Planned Parenthood clinic as patients walked in. Their words are right in your ears and you can’t easily look away from their angry faces.
Many people are shaken when they take off their headsets. At the VR for Change Summit in New York in August, Planned Parenthood’s executive vice president and chief brand and experience officer, Dawn Laguens, shared the story of a conservative, anti-choice lawmaker who donned a headset, viewed “Across the Line,” and left in a fury about the way the protesters treated the patients. This is the most common way that people are moved by these experiences – few have immediate life-changing experiences, but instead feel themselves disturbed or inspired enough to start thinking about something a bit differently. It works for people who are already amenable to change as well, of course, but in sometimes surprising ways. Laguens also spoke of a man who had been a clinic escort for more than a decade who left the Across the Line experience in tears, realizing that he’d long since learned to block out the jeers and shouts and protesters, but that wasn’t possible for the women walking right beside him.
There are still challenges with VR. It’s hard to get 360 video and sound from an event to mesh together well in a VR experience, so they can sometimes feel a bit less than immersive. But Planned Parenthood conducted evaluations with the help of an outside organization and found that people were genuinely moved. They surveyed a group that was majority male, predominantly white, and mostly liberal, and even with that last demographic they found that the group that saw “Across the Line” disapproved of some types of harassment more than those who hadn’t seen it. Perhaps more significantly, the experience was linked to attitude changes in people who reported having moderate or slightly conservative political views. After the experience, many of those people shifted their views to believing that protesters should not share anti-abortion views outside clinics, and some even came to “strongly agree” with the statement that they would support a woman who had an abortion by driving her to an appointment, “even if I didn’t agree with her decision.”
Changing views about abortion is perhaps the gold standard for changing minds via social media, but the technology is being used to address more subtle harassment and discrimination as well.
* * *
Until a few years ago, Natalie Egan was living in a bubble. By her own admission, she was isolated from the way most people lived, working as a successful entrepreneur with highly coveted venture capital suitors. At the time she also presented as a man in an industry dominated by men.
“We’re naturally wired with empathy, but I think that particular dynamic can really isolate people from reality and the rest of the world,” she says.
Then she came out as a trans woman, began to physically transition, and the empathy gap became more clear than it had ever been. As she began to move through the world perceived as a woman instead of a man, the difference in how she was treated was stark. She was subject to disrespectful language and jokes, and during transactions related to both life and work she said some people refused to look her in the eye.
“I went from being in a privileged space to being on the outer edges of one of the most marginalized communities in the world,” Egan says.
She wanted her peers in the business world to understand just how divergent the experiences of men and women in the industry could be. In 2016 she launched Translator, which began as a social network for the transgender community, but soon morphed into a vehicle for technology-assisted diversity and inclusion experiences for organizations and corporations of all sizes. The company uses chat bots, apps, and customized virtual reality experiences to bring the largely white and male employee base of organizations like the New York City Department of Education and the digital consultancy Rain a little closer to understanding what the women, gender nonconforming people, people with disabilities and people of color around them experience on a daily basis.
One of the strongest tools is the ability to highlight individuals’ unconscious bias, even though it can be agitating for some people, says Egan.
We engage with people differently at a cocktail party than we do when we see them on the street, for example. Simulating these experiences can bring up some uncomfortable truths about unconscious bias. Translator doesn’t have stock VR experiences; instead, they make bespoke ones for each client. In one recent experience, participants donned a headset to find themselves in several different situations with the same people — a dark street, a cocktail party, a work meeting. They were then asked to anonymously log their gut feelings each time. Sometimes, those feelings don’t match up. It’s not a pleasant experience, but that’s the point. And it’s hard to deny that for people open to it, it works.
“It’s amazing, when you change the context, how much people’s attitude and behavior shifts,” says Egan.
Egan and her team are currently working on a custom VR unconscious bias experience for one of the largest media companies in the U.S. This technology can still be very expensive, but group experiences like those in an office setting can have a real impact.
In fact, that sometimes happens unintentionally. Andrew Daffy, an artist and technologist based in London, last year created a VR experience called HOLO DOODLE that allowed two people to play Pictionary together in a VR universe as pink monkeys. It was just for fun, but when people began talking about how it made them feel less inhibited and more able to communicate with the person they played with, Daffy and his team decided to make some changes. Last year at the annual computer graphics conference SIGGRAPH, they debuted a new version of the game, called I Am A Robot, that allowed groups of people to don headsets and become genderless robots at either a ballet recital, cocktail gathering, or dance party. The response from participants was surprising – men in suits who swore they wouldn’t dance became entirely different people when in the genderless VR world – but it was the experience of two volunteers that moved Daffy most: one had social anxiety and had struggled to enjoy herself at the conference until she put the headset on and, inhibitions gone, danced and laughed for the first time in days. Another said they felt comfortable being gender-free for the first time in their life.
“We didn’t make this to create social change, we just stumbled across it and thought, ‘holy shit, this is the area we should be going into. It doesn’t have to be a game,’” he says.
As technology continues to evolve, people are naturally concerned about what will happen to our ability to connect with one another as humans. While most technologists agree there are some concerns, they are also largely optimistic about the positive impact technology can have.
“It’s understandable to be worried about manipulation, and this kind of technology can seem so sci-fi and geeky and horrid,” Daffy says. “But there can also be such beauty.”
Countless couples have tackled the taboo subject of racy videos and illicit orgasms. What happens when it’s the woman who can’t stop watching?
This story features explicit situations that may not be suitable for all audiences.
It’s past two a.m. and my husband’s breathing has become long and even. An opportunity presents itself. I slip my right hand down my pajama pants and move slowly, careful not to bump my elbow into his side rib, or bring my hips into it. Too much movement or sound will wake him, and to be found out for something like this is not just embarrassing but potentially destructive. He’ll think he doesn’t satisfy me, and men do not like feeling inadequate, especially when it comes to matters of the bedroom. Or maybe he’ll feel sorry for me. And who wants to fuck someone they pity?
Even worse, maybe he’ll finally say the words I’ve been waiting for him to say since I first told him that I am a sex addict. That he’s bored with it. He’s disgusted. He’s had enough.
I lift my wrist away from my body. I’m careful to keep my breath from becoming a pant, even as my pulse quickens, but this takes much concentration. The body desires the convulsion the mind denies. There is no letting go here though. This orgasm is a controlled, measured, calculated experience.
I have masturbated in this way next to the sleeping bodies of all my serious, committed partners who came before my husband. In some cases, as expected, it was because I wanted more sex than they could give me. I’ve been called “insatiable” and “demanding” one too many times. But this has not always been the story. Yes, I have an incredibly high sex drive, but even in relationships where I have great sex multiple times a week my nighttime stealth for self-pleasure has persisted.
My college boyfriend, burgundy haired and tattooed, had the high sex drive typical of most nineteen-year-old males. We fucked all the time, but even still, I wanted more, something only I could give me. One afternoon, after he’d fallen into a deep post-sex slumber, I serviced myself with my second, third, and fourth orgasm beside him. That was the first time I’d experienced such a level of both secrecy and shame.
I made a promise to my husband and to myself, long before we were even wed, to be austerely honest. He knows I’ve been a compulsive masturbator since I was twelve years old. He knows about my extensive fluency in the hardcore categories of various porn sites. He knows about the bad habit I used to have of hooking up with not-so-nice men because they were available and I was bored — and that I rarely used protection with any of them. And that I believed, for a really long time, that my addiction made me a broken person, a disgusting person, a person unworthy of love. I told him these things from the start because I met him at a time in my life where I was ready and open for change. Because I liked him so much that I wanted to love him. Because I knew that the only way to love him, and be loved by him, was to be myself.
* * *
“What’s your favorite porn scene?”
The man who will become my husband in less than a year asks me this question as he lies naked and vulnerable beside me. We’ve just had sex and although I am naked too, it isn’t until this moment that I feel just as vulnerable as him. While it might seem absurd to some, I know immediately this is a moment of great significance for us. It is an opportunity to finally do things differently.
The possibilities run through my head.
I can describe something vanilla: This one where a busty blonde gets banged by her personal trainer. Or perhaps something a little more racy: These two hot teens swap their math teacher’s cum after he made them stay late in the classroom. Chances are he’ll get hard again and we’ll end up abandoning the conversation for a second round. These are harmless answers. Expected answers.
They’re also lies.
The possibility of revealing the actual truth not only makes me nervous, but also physically sick. I feel a constriction in the back of my throat, a flutter in my belly, a tremble in my extremities. After all, we’ve only been dating a couple of months and he doesn’t love me yet. If I tell him, will he ever?
“Why do you ask?” I reach for the sheet, damp with sweat, a tangle of 300-thread-count cotton across our limbs, and yank it up to cover my breasts.
“I don’t know,” he says. “Curiosity?” He turns over on his side and props his head up on his left hand. His green eyes are wide with wonder.
“Seems like a weird question.” I tuck the sheet into my armpits and scoot my body a little to the left so we’re no longer touching. The tone of my voice has become defensive and he can tell.
“It’s just that I usually pick the porn,” he explains. “Do you like what I choose?”
I see what he’s doing. He’s trying to be considerate since we just had sex while staring at the laptop screen after searching terms of his choosing: Latina, real tits, blow job, threesome.
Maybe he feels guilty for getting off to them instead of me, even though I’m the one who suggested we watch porn in the first place. Even though I’m always the one who suggests we watch porn while we have sex.
“Yeah, sure.” I look up at the ceiling. “They’re fine.”
“Are you sure?”
I wish he’d stop prying, but I realize something else is happening here. Not only is he trying to be considerate; he’s also trying to get to know me. The past couple of months has allowed us to cover most of the basics — what ended each of our most recent relationships, what our parents are like, what we hope to do with our lives in the next few years — but there’s still a longing for something deeper, and I can’t think of anything deeper than knowing a person’s favorite porn scene.
It can speak volumes. For one scene to stand out amongst the rest, when so many others are available, there has to be something below the surface. What maintains its appeal? What keeps a person returning in the deep, dark recesses of a lonely night? Perhaps the answers to these questions are a great source of shame. I never thought of revealing such answers to anybody, and especially not somebody like him, somebody I could really like. It seems far too risky, preposterous even.
It also seems necessary. Too many of my past relationships were doomed by my inability to tell the whole truth, to fully be myself. Now I have the opportunity to go there, and to say to a person, “This is who I am. Do you accept me?”
“Well, there’s this one gang bang,” I start, looking over at his face to see a reaction of surprise and interest register at once.
I take a deep breath and proceed to tell him, first slowly, then progressively faster about the scene. Like a busted dam, I can hardly hold back the rush of descriptors fumbling from my mouth: “Two women in a warehouse. One dangling from a harness. The other just below her. Both are waiting to take on fifty horny men…” and on and on.
I watch his face the whole time, not pausing when his smile becomes a frown and his eyes squint as if it hurts to look at me.
“Afterward, the women exit the warehouse through a back door while the men applaud.”
For a long moment after I’ve finished talking, there is silence between us, but there is also a sense of relief on my part. I have revealed something so dark, so upsetting, so impacted in shame, and he hasn’t immediately disappeared. He is still here beside me, propped up on his left hand, naked and vulnerable, and so am I. He sees me and I see him seeing me and we are in new territory.
But then he says, “I kind of wish I hadn’t asked.” It’s all I need to hear to send me into tears. Not just tiny, embarrassed sobs, but humiliated wails. I have myself a tantrum. He is confused now as he pulls me close to him, laughing nervously at my abrupt shift in disposition. I try to pull the sheet completely over my head, but he pulls it back down and covers my face with apologetic kisses. He can’t possibly understand why I’m crying. He can’t possibly know what I’ve just revealed to him. “What’s going on? Baby, what’s wrong?”
And so I tell him.
* * *
Addiction to porn and masturbation is often grouped under general sex addiction because they all have to do with escape via titillation, pursuit and orgasm, but I’ve always felt more pathetic about my predilections. Going out and fucking — even someone you don’t really like — is wild, dangerous, but essentially social and shared. Though I had periods of promiscuity throughout my twenties, my biggest issue has always been with what I do alone.
There’s something so sad and humiliating in imagining a person locked away in a dark room, hot laptop balanced on chest, turning the volume down low, scrolling, scrolling, choosing, watching, escaping, coming.
And then realizing that person is me.
But my proclivity for solo pleasure has strong, stubborn roots. I lost my virginity to a water faucet when I was twelve years old. I have Adam Corolla and Dr. Drew to thank for this life-shaking experience; it was their late-night radio show “Loveline” on L.A.’s KROQ that served as my primary means of sex ed during my pre-teen years. This technique is one of the many things I learned, but I had a whole other kind of education going on, which had long filled my head with other ideas — sex is something that happens between a man and woman who love each other; masturbation is a sin. You know, your typical run-of-the-mill Catholic guilt stuff.
Just as oppressive as the Catholic guilt was my femininity. Girls weren’t talking about masturbation and sex. I had no company with whom to share my new activities and interests. And so this silence morphed into shame. I became a pervert, a loser, a sinner.
I tried to stop myself from taking long baths, from late-night undercover activities, from being alone too long, but the more I obsessed about stopping, the more I could not. I joined shame, secrecy and pleasure in a daily orgy, whether I was tired, bored, angry or sad. Whether I was single or coupled, it didn’t matter. Getting off required all of these components and I needed new, more extreme methods to stay engaged — more hours sucked away watching progressively harder porn like the warehouse video, complemented with dabbles in strip clubs, peep shows and shady massage parlors. It became impossible to get off during sex without fantasy, my body over-stimulated to numbness. I was irritable unless I was fucking or masturbating or planning to do either of these things. Life revolved around orgasm to the detriment of any kind of real progress in my professional or social existence.
I was out of control.
* * *
Little did I know that describing my favorite porn scene would be the first of many future admissions that would help peel back, layer by layer, a long and exhausting history of self loathing. My future husband and I quickly learned that watching porn during sex wasn’t a harmless kink for us; it was a method I’d long used to remain disconnected from my partners. It took much discipline and patience for us to expel it from our relationship altogether, though every now and then we slip up.
Talking about my habits led me to examine them, which ultimately led to my desire for change. Holding a secret for too long is like being unable to take a full breath. I didn’t want to feel this way anymore. I needed to share — often and fully — what had for too long been silenced in order to reclaim who I was underneath my addiction. I needed to breathe again.
I found relief in Sex and Love Addicts Anonymous meetings, seeing a therapist I trusted, attending personal development courses like the Hoffman Process and writing about my journey. I’ve managed to move away from porn for the most part, but when it comes to this addiction — to something I don’t have to seek out or purchase — control is like a wayward horse and my ass is always slipping off the saddle.
I constantly struggle with whether or not I should give up porn completely, but until I find a way to have some moderation with it, I avoid it as best I can. I wish I could just watch it occasionally, as some sort of supplement to my active sex life, but the whole ritual of watching porn is tangled up in too many other negative emotions. Watching porn takes me back to being that little girl alone in her bedroom, feeling ashamed and helpless to stop it. I can’t just watch one clip without needing to watch another after that, and another, until hours have passed and I’m back to binging every night.
If my husband leaves me alone all day and idleness leads me to watching porn, it’s the first thing I confess upon his return. Sometimes I don’t even have to say it. He can tell by my downturned eyes and my noticeable exhaustion. He shakes his head and takes me in his arms as I make another promise to try to leave it alone. When I visited a peep show on a recent work trip out of town, he seemed more amused than upset about the whole thing.
Unfortunately, I have yet to be as generous. If I find he’s been watching porn without me, when I’ve struggled to abstain for a stretch of time, I react with what might seem like unjustified rage. This frustration is only rooted in envy.
* * *
Masturbating beside my husband while he sleeps is the last secret I’ve kept from him. Although I’m beginning to fear that it’s actually just the latest secret. My resistance in telling him only proves how fragile recovery is. This week it’s masturbation. But maybe next week it’s back to porn binging. Or obsessive scrolling through Craigslist personals. Or lying about my whereabouts. And so forth. Abstaining from these habits, when so readily available, without abstaining from sexual pleasure completely, or the shame I’ve long bound to it, is a challenge I face daily.
That’s why I need to tell my husband.
Not because I need his permission, his forgiveness or to offer him some act of contrition. But because I need him to see me. To witness. The act of telling the truth, especially about something that makes us ache, is often the only absolution we need.
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?”
“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.”
“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 hottopic 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.”
Maybe I wanted to interview Lori about erotic transference in my therapy sessions for that same reason as well…to stand out as the most amazingly understanding patient ever.
* * *
“I want to be very clear that this was never about feeding my own ego,” Lori says about her approach to my treatment. “We were always doing this in your best interest.”
I’m in Lori’s office, a tape recorder rolling and a pad and pen in my hands.
“I felt I was doing a disservice to you if I didn’t ‘out’ what I felt was weighing on us, which, honestly, felt like a heavy secret,” she says, pointing out that she discussed my therapeutic process for many hours in her required supervision meetings.
In order for Lori to advance in her field as a social worker, she has to attend 3,000 conference hours with another professional to go over casework — kind of like therapy quality control.
We talk about all of this during one of my scheduled sessions, for the entire hour — and go over by a few minutes, too.
Lori says that when she began her career as a social worker, she decided she wasn’t going to shy away from any subjects. “It’s typical for a client to [have] a habitual desire to sweep things under the rug,” she observes, especially about taboo topics. It can become a cycle of behavior that Lori seeks to break.
I refer back to the time when, unprovoked, she brought up my attraction to her.
She says she mentioned it to avoid what therapists call “door-knobbing,” which is when a patient will purposely mention some huge reveal right at the end of a session so as to sidestep a lengthy conversation about it.
“My only question for you is, was I wrong for bringing it up?” she asks. “Only you can answer that.”
Lori’s great at forcing me to reflect.
“I guess when I said I was over it and could move on, that was an example of my strict black-and-white thinking,” I say, throwing back some language she’s used often to describe my challenge in accepting dualities. In my mind, I was either attracted to her and shouldn’t see her anymore, or I wasn’t attracted to her and could still have her be my therapist. There was no in between.
I realize now that she wasn’t wrong for mentioning my feelings for her, even when I didn’t want her to. Lori noticed that I was frustrated with myself and wanted me to know that an attraction to a therapist is so normal and happens so frequently that there are technical terms for it.
I turn my attention towards the presence of countertransference in our session. I’m trying to come up with an actual question here, but, really, I just want her to confirm her feelings for me are real. So I say, referring to her feelings, with a great degree of difficulty, “It’s funny that they seem genuine to this day.”
“They are genuine,” Lori says, adding a moment later: “I think it might be a good idea if we explore why our discussing it suggests a lack of authenticity.”
“It doesn’t, necessarily,” I begin, then stammer through a few sentences, worried I might offend her by implying she’s been dishonest. I finally settle on, “I guess it comes back to my self-esteem issues. Why would a beautiful woman think I’m attractive?”
Lying in bed with Shauna a few months into our relationship, I ask her what she thought about me the moment she first saw me. I’m fishing for a compliment. But we met on Tinder and I just hope that seeing me in person wasn’t some kind of letdown for her after swiping right on my hand-picked glamour shots. Obviously she isn’t going to say something so awful after having committed to me for so long. It’s a slam-dunk ego boost.
She says she liked the fact that I was wearing a blazer and a tie on a first date. She adds that I was a little shorter than she anticipated, but was content with the two of us at least being the same exact height.
“What did you think when you first saw me?” she asks, turning it around, naturally.
Staying committed to my honesty-at-all-costs policy, I say, “I thought you were really beautiful, but not to the point where I was intimidated by you, which was very important because if I was, you would have gotten a very unconfident version of me, and we probably wouldn’t have hit it off as well as we did.”
Shauna thinks about that for a second, and eventually nods “OK.”
I explain that my insecurity could often get the better of me in dating situations. It was easy to convince myself that I’d be rejected by the girl I was with, especially if I thought she was out of my league. I would then slip into a nervous and reserved state that isn’t at all reflective of my true self.
I’m essentially saying that I was so thrilled to not find Shauna so extraordinarily pretty that I couldn’t accept her being on a date with me. That thought made so much sense at the time I said it, but I’ve since come to realize it is as ridiculous as it is insulting. After ten months of being with Shauna, I’m still completely floored by her, on every level, including a physical one. It gives me great pride to walk into a room with her, and I don’t imagine that changing. Therefore, she actually did meet a confident “version of me.” The way people look doesn’t drastically change in ten months but a person’s perception of self can. It seems my emotional workouts in erotic transference were just beginning to produce results.
* * *
“People fuck up,” Lori informs me during one winter session. “Therapists have slept with clients before, just like politicians have had sex with their interns. But, so you have a full understanding of how this works, we can date.” She explains the parameters as outlined in the social worker’s code of ethics. One of the many stipulations is that we wouldn’t be able to see each other, under any circumstances, for at least two years before dating. She tells me she loves her job, and there’s no way she would ever sacrifice my safety or her career for anything, so she would strictly follow all the dictated rules. “If you truly want to date me, there is the option. But it’s ultimately up to you.”
I know what she’s doing here — putting the onus on me, just like last year when she said we could have sex. The difference this time is the answer I want to give is on par with all of my involuntary urges.
“I don’t want to stop the work we’re doing,” I say. “At this point, it’s far too valuable to me, and, really, I know very little about you.” She’s beautiful, exercises, is smart, funny, professional, enjoys good TV…and that’s about it. Aside from whether or not we’d even both be single in two years, and if we’d be in the correct mind frame to explore a relationship, there are several other things I’m considering here: Would Lori and I really be compatible in every way? Would she ever see me as a lover, a partner, an equal, and not a patient? Could I ever reveal a detail about myself, or even just a shitty day of work, without wondering if she was picking it apart and analyzing it?
Frankly, all those questions could be answered in the positive. But, even if I wasn’t in a happy relationship — Shauna makes this choice much easier, for sure — I wouldn’t go that route. I’d be out a therapist.
* * *
It’s a beautiful spring night in New York and only sidewalk seating will do. Shauna and I are out to dinner at a restaurant near her Queens apartment, and we’re both in good spirits. The weather and the alcohol consumption are partly to blame for that, but, on cue with the season’s change, I feel I’ve turned an emotional corner. Work payments that were past due are finally finding their way into my bank account. As it turns out, my short-term money troubles were not an indication that I had no business being a writer, or that my life changeup was as irresponsible as unprotected sex at fourteen years old.
I’d told Lori as much that afternoon. I took a mental step back from my current situation and realized that in spite of my recent hardships, I was succeeding. I summarize my session for Shauna, who nods in agreement, lovingly pointing out that she’s had the same challenging freelancer experiences as a dancer.
“You’re doing great, babe,” she says matter-of-factly.
“Thank you. That means a lot,” I respond. “I guess if I’m going to be a writer I just have to accept all this and have faith in myself. The way Lori put it was, ‘You just have to go all-in.’”
“Good,” Shauna says. “You should listen to the women in your life.”
* * *
Liked this story? Our editors did too, voting it one of our 20 best untold tales!
Sometimes acting like a teenage rebel is the only way to feel in control.
On a hot and humid night last June, I steered my car over twisting country roads toward a small lakeside town for a romantic rendezvous. I had spent the day at a funeral, reflecting on the fact that at fifty, I had more miles behind me than ahead. Oddly, my paramour had also spent the day at a funeral, and as the summer sun disappeared we made plans to meet halfway between our towns for a drink.
It was nearly eleven when I turned my car onto Main Street, and James was growing impatient. We were speaking on the phone when I caught a glimpse of him. Strikingly handsome, he looked at least a decade younger than his 61 years. Running and doing chores on his rural property kept his body lean and muscular, and his face betrayed few traces of the anguish I knew lay in his heart.
James met me at my car, and as we walked toward the restaurant he put his arm around me. I felt a shudder of excitement run down my spine and I pushed in closer to feel his body. When we sat at the bar he swiveled his chair, pushed his knees against mine, and leaned in close to talk. Our faces were pressed within whispering distance and I inhaled his scent. The drinks we ordered were superfluous; this was all a graceful dance of foreplay.
The bar was teeming with a coarse-looking crowd of men and women who had deeply lined faces and leather jackets. The fact that we were completely out of place only heightened our excitement. We huddled and made witty comments about the antics of other patrons, parting only to fling our heads back in hysterics. We sat at the bar laughing and kissing, and before long James ran his hand up my leg and under my skirt. On previous dates he had teased me about being a Puritan in public, but X-rated in private, but that night I made no attempt to be discreet.
It felt mischievous to be strangers in a raucous tavern far from home in the middle of the night. We reveled in escaping the constricting bonds of our everyday lives – him a lawyer, me a divorced single mother. Our behavior was an unspoken act of defiance against the taunt of age, and the gloom of funerals that had become a common part of our lives.
Outside the restaurant James kissed me deeply and with a new fervency. We were passionately entangled while patrons passed by, and I whispered that we needed to go somewhere private. James began walking me to my car, and I assumed I would follow him to the adjacent hotel, or to his house an hour away.
When we got to my car he told me to get in the back seat. I refused, saying that my kids had left a mess in my car. James took my hand and led me across the lot to his immaculately clean Mercedes.
“Get in,” he said again.
“I’m not having sex with you in a car,” I replied laughing, while thinking of how improper it would be for a middle-aged mother to do so.
“Just get in,” he repeated, smiling mischievously as he opened the rear door.
There was no point in arguing; I knew I’d get in, so I slid onto the back seat. James was right behind, and before I heard the click of the door closing he was kissing me. It was futile to fight the longing we had been feeling for the past hours. Soon, all thoughts of motherhood and what was proper disappeared. We had been together many times before, but that night we devoured each other.
“I can’t believe I just had sex in a car in a public parking lot,” I said afterward, as I searched for my bra in the front seat.
“It was exciting, like in high school,” James replied, looking flushed and exhilarated.
As I drove home in the wee hours of the morning I felt furtive pride that James and I had taken a rebellious stand against the inevitability of age, and society’s expectation that we go gently into the night. In the days and weeks that followed we frequently reminisced about our romp in the car, and how it brought us back to our adolescence; a time of freedom and endless promise, a time before responsibilities and painful regrets.
My bedroom is completely ransacked – clothes are thrown everywhere, purses piled high on my bed. I’m frantically throwing nearly all of my clothes into large plastic bags. Some are still wrapped in the plastic they came in, hanging from metal hangers, as if embalmed and exempt from the passing of time. First to go are the tight designer t-shirts, then the dresses – so many dresses. The black satin cocktail number that once made me feel sexy, but that I could never zip up now. The turquoise one with animal print from Century 21 and the red flowered dress that knocked everyone’s socks off at the company party ten years ago. I used to be so audacious with my wardrobe. Now, I want fewer eyes on me.
I planned on walking, but the load becomes more than I can carry. Instead, I throw the clothes in my car and take off, headed for my first ever clothing swap – where women get together to trade things they no longer want. I’ve been invited by my new friend Sarah to participate in this feminine ritual. This is more than the usual spring cleaning for me; I need to get rid of these painful reminders of the woman I outgrew, literally and figuratively. I no longer want to feel body-shamed by my closet, which is stuffed with clothes that are literally six sizes too small, some that have hung there, unworn, for over a decade while I tried to convince myself I could be someone else.
As I schlep my bags of clothes up to Sarah’s pre-war walk-up, I start to worry that, as a size 12, I’ll be the biggest woman there and nobody will want my offerings. But there’s no turning back now.
* * *
My obsession with fashion started when I was a teenager, when adolescence brought with it a horizontal growth spurt. I didn’t object to my new breasts and butt, but the rapid increase in my thighs and belly made me want to buy every piece of fabric ever made just to cover them up. I was convinced that buying the tightest jeans possible could stymie my out-of-control thighs and shrink them back to their original size. If my clothes were cool enough, stylish enough, expensive enough, everyone would just focus on them and not the fact that I had blown up underneath them.
By the time I was 14, I was a size 12, and no fashionable clothing could hide the discomfort I felt. It wasn’t enough to have nice clothes, I still wanted to be thin like the other girls. To be what I thought was normal. Through my teens and 20s, I tried every trend: cleanses, the lemonade diet, the cabbage soup diet, no carbs, low carbs. I tried taking diet pills, Dexatrim every morning with endless glasses of water, but it only gave me headaches and constant trips to the bathroom. Nothing worked.
Finally, I spent one full year when I was in my thirties eating pre-portioned frozen food out of a box and getting up every day at 5:30 in the morning to work out. It worked. I dropped to a size six; in certain styles I was even a four.
I had always hated dressing rooms – the bright lights zooming in on my imperfections, the dread of nothing fitting right. But then, the first time I went shopping after the weight loss was a revelation. Almost everything fit. I remember the moment I pulled a red cotton Brooklyn Industries dress over my head and caught sight of my new self in the mirror; it was as if it was made for me, and I looked incredible. Even though I was thinner, I still had feminine curves, and this dress brought out every one. The cleavage, the thin waist. I wore it out of the store, crumpling up my old clothes and having the cashier cut the price tag off of me at the register. I felt taller, sexier. I bought a whole new wardrobe for my new start. At 38, for the first time, I began to love the warmer months, when dress season was in full bloom.
But the sacrifices I made to get into those dresses meant, ironically, that I rarely went out to dinner or parties because I was afraid of gaining weight. It’s amazing how often people commented about me not drinking or eating, often making me more self-conscious. When I did give in and go out I’d gain weight instantly. Every single time. It was a total Catch-22. The whole purpose of those clothes was to show myself off, to push me to socialize more, but in reality, they kept me in my studio apartment, away from the world, afraid to live.
Eventually I tired of the restrictions and disappointments and took a break from a life of deprivation. The weight crept back on and then some. Most of my favorite clothing no longer fit, regardless of how many pairs of Spanx I wore. Still, I held onto them for over ten years, hoping to someday return to that size, that woman. I had tried to stick to discipline, but eventually being a certain size just wasn’t worth how hard I had to work. It was one thing to say no to dessert or put the bread basket away, but to constantly be hungry and depleted felt at odds with my energetic personality. I wanted to go out, socialize, travel and taste different foods, have different experiences. Being thin without enjoyment defeated the purpose of trying so hard to look the part. I wanted to be part of my own life.
Now, at 47 I’m packing up all of these dresses that belonged to a woman I’m no longer trying to force myself to be. A woman who needed to give up everything for how others might see her. A woman whose biology was never destined for the petite rack. I still miss how I looked in those years of denial, but I don’t miss how I felt.
* * *
I carry three large bags filled to capacity; the plastic handles digging into my skin, turning my fingers red. I walk up four flights of stairs to Sarah’s apartment, where there are tall green plants in every corner and books falling off the shelves. Sarah comes to greet me, her brown hair flowing down to her shoulders, bouncing as she cheerily introduces me to her friends. My heart sinks as I realize most of the women here are in the size six range, a zone I hit just once, and briefly, in my life. I doubt there’s going to be anything here for me.
Sarah pours wine into small glass jars and spreads out homemade pesto sandwiches with brie and bacon marmalade. As we sip our wine and scoop up the melted cheese, the swap begins. Each woman takes a turn presenting her items to the group. Even though everything is being donated, you still want to make sure someone takes home your once-treasured goods with a little pitch. Great color but I have outgrown it. Perfect for summer but too revealing for me. It says, “Love me I’m a Vegetarian,” but I eat meat now so…
A thin brunette with a lot of energy bolts up to the front of the room. As she begins to describe her clothes, all the attention is on her. People start raising their hands and laughing, this is actually kind of fun. “This is the one I got when going to the holiday party last year,” she explains. “And this one my mother-in-law got me but is clearly not my style.” Some of the women talk of ex-boyfriends as they explain the stories behind their clothes. Some of their new jobs. Everyone here wants to get rid of their pasts too. Hearing each story – vignettes about their items, their lives, brings me closer to the women. I feel connected. While they physically appear different than I, they too have stories of wanting to move on in their lives and away from a time that has passed. The clothing swap allows us all the opportunity to release our nostalgia.
I’m surprised at how comfortable these women are in their own bodies. One short woman with a black long bob actually takes off her blouse and begins to try on the clothes right in front of us, her white cotton bra bright like neon lights. She throws on blouses, sweaters and even dresses as if no one is watching. Some of the women know her and her fashion show just blends into the background for them. But I can’t stop staring. I am no prude, but how can she take off her clothes in front of all of these people like she’s in a Loehman’s dressing room? What is that like, to be confident enough in your body to strip down in front of strangers like it’s no big deal?
Eventually it’s my turn to present. My palms begin to sweat. I want the ladies to love my clothes as much as I once did, to realize how important these items were to me in my life – my nostalgia, my years of trying to change myself, and this final moment of release as I let all of that pressure go. Each garment on display represents my sense of self when I bought them. I almost feel like if they reject my clothes, they will be rejecting a part of me. I’m afraid they might ignore me because of my current size, like some men do when we meet for the first time.
I take a deep breath and go to the front of the living room. I open up my shopping bags and begin with an apology. “I used to be a variety of sizes from six to 12, so hopefully you will find something you like,” I say, as I start to pull out one meaning-laden item after another. I take out long flowy dresses that I wore when I first lost considerable weight in my 30s, when friends had asked if I had an eating disorder, but it was a combination of Jenny Craig and 5:30 a.m. workouts. I pull out my favorite red dress and it’s snatched up immediately. I feel much better about being here. Then I pull out a black strapless dress I never even wore. It was my “just in case I get invited” dress for parties I never went to, wanting to be someone’s plus one but often being passed over for a younger, more petite date. Someone takes this one, too, and I can feel the load lighten, all of those years of watching and wishing, falling away as I give away one too-small dress after another.
It’s a bittersweet feeling to let them go, knowing that I bought these clothes hoping for a different type of life. Now I am saying goodbye to the woman who wore them, or hoped to. Maybe wisdom really does come with age, but whatever finally let me let go of the insecurities of my youth, I’m no longer willing to base my self-worth on an arbitrary standard that I’m biologically incapable of attaining. All of my old insecurity isn’t going to disappear overnight, but passing along my clothes, my past, and my younger self feels noble, graceful, and it leaves room in my life for me, the real me.
Major Robert Lawrence was trained by the Air Force in an elite Cold War-era program. This is why you've never heard of him.
On December 8, 1967, a specially modified F-104 Starfighter rolled down the runway at Edwards Air Force Base in California. The weather was cool and crisp, around 50 degrees. The wind speed was eight miles an hour from the south-southwest, and visibility was 20 miles. The mid-afternoon weather, in short, was perfect for flying.
According to an account by former NBC News reporter Jim Oberg, Major John Royer piloted the fighter, which had been modified to fly like a rocket plane such as the X-15. Royer was being taught a new landing technique by Major Robert Lawrence, age 32, who flew as copilot in the rear seat. Lawrence, an African-American Air Force pilot with 2,500 hours of flight experience, had helped develop the novel maneuver, called “flaring,” which involved bringing up the nose of the aircraft as it made a final approach to the runway. The technique would enable the pilot to decrease speed quickly before touch down, an important consideration for a vehicle that might one day return from low Earth orbit.
As the F-104 taxied along the runway, Lawrence was at the pinnacle of his profession: a test pilot and, since June, an Air Force astronaut. He had every expectation of one day flying into space, doing his part in his country’s race to the stars. Meanwhile, he was doing one of the things he loved best: imparting hard-won flying knowledge to another pilot. He had led a good life, but Major Robert Lawrence had just a few minutes left to live.
Royer piloted the aircraft to 25,000 feet, and made the first of several planned approaches to the airstrip, coming in hard to simulate the speed of an aerospace vehicle like the X-15. On one of these approaches, something went wrong. It is not recorded if either of the two pilots realized that the aircraft was coming in too hard, or whether they had time to react. The official accident report states that the F-104 hit the runway 2,200 feet from the approach end. Royer and Lawrence likely felt the two main gears collapse under them as the plane landed left of the centerline of the runway. The canopy shattered, exposing the two men to the outside desert air. They may have smelled the smoke from the underside of the plane’s flaming fuselage. After skidding 214 feet the aircraft became airborne briefly and then crashed back onto the runway, skidding off the tarmac and into the dirt. As the plane began to break apart and roll over, both men ejected.
The ejection system launched Royer more or less vertically. He survived the crash, albeit with horrible injuries. Lawrence was not so lucky. When he departed the F-104 the plane had already rolled, so the ejection seat launched him horizontally, slamming him into the ground. His death was likely instantaneous. Thus died the first African-American astronaut before he had the chance to fly in space.
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Lawrence was buried in his native Chicago with full military honors, with eight of his fellow military astronauts in attendance, as well as the Mayor Richard Daley. The flags on public buildings were lowered to half-staff in mourning. His funeral was a public event, as much as it was a chance for his family to say farewell.
In a strange way, Robert Lawrence’s entire life was preparation for something he never got to do: go into space.
“He was scholarly and serious,” said Lawrence’s father, the elder Robert Lawrence, in an interview with Ebony. “As a small boy the expression on his face reflected a kind of dedication. But I didn’t consider him a precocious child.”
Every year for Christmas, young Robert asked for a newer, more elaborate chemistry set. The future astronaut had a love of science that began in his early childhood and lasted his entire life, and he had the discipline to see his dreams through.
“This may sound unbelievable,” said Lawrence’s mother, Gwendolyn Duncan, “but I don’t know of any occasion when I had to discipline either of my children. They had a discipline that must have come from within.”
When he was a child, Duncan told Ebony, the family purchased a piano that came with eight discounted lessons. The instrument was a great expense for the family, and Duncan “emphasized to Bob the importance of his making all the lessons.” Crossing the street on his way to one of the lessons, Lawrence was hit by a truck. The driver leapt out and offered to take Lawrence to the hospital, but Lawrence refused. He had a piano lesson to get to.
Lawrence graduated at 16 from Englewood High School, located on the South Side of Chicago, in 1952 in the top ten percent of his class. He went on to graduate from Bradley University, located in Peoria, Illinois, at age 20 with a bachelor’s degree in chemistry. He was a member of the ROTC and was the corps commander of that organization at Bradley. Lawrence received his commission as lieutenant in the Air Force upon graduation.
After undergoing flight training at Malden Air Force Base in Missouri, Lawrence spent the next several years posted at Fürstenfeldbruck Air Force Base near Munich, teaching flying to West German pilots. While he was stationed there he married Barbara Cress, whom he’d met several years before. They had one son, Tracey Lawrence, and returned to the United States in 1961.
Lawrence was on course for a lifelong career as a flight instructor, but he wanted more. He enrolled at Ohio State University’s graduate program in physical chemistry. By the time he achieved his Ph.D. in 1965, he had accrued 2,500 hours of flight time — giving him the unique characteristics necessary to become an astronaut.
“He was probably the best graduate student I’ve ever advised,” said Dr. Richard Firestone, his graduate advisor, in an interview with Jet. “He [was] very intelligent, and he worked very hard. In fact, he worked as hard as a grad student should, which is unusual…. Also [he had] a lot of courage… not the kind of courage one needs to fly a jet air craft, but intellectual courage. He was quite a resourceful student, the kind who thinks for himself.”
According to several accounts of Lawrence’s life, he applied to NASA twice and was turned down both times. Although NASA refuses to confirm this, it wouldn’t be unusual. Many talented pilots failed to make the cut. But in 1967, NASA wasn’t the only game in town. Although it is little remembered today, the Air Force had a space program of its own: a vision of military space exploration far different from the peaceful ideal promoted by NASA.
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The Air Force’s manned space program started with the Dyna Soar, a rocket plane meant to be boosted into Earth orbit atop a launch vehicle. The military envisioned the Dyna Soar as a platform for carrying out real-time reconnaissance, to inspect and interfere with enemy satellites. In case of emergency, it was designed to perform space rescues. The cost of the project soared, and that — along with lingering doubts about whether or not the Air Force should even have astronauts — caused the program to be cancelled in 1963. The military shifted its manned space efforts to something even more ambitious: the Manned Orbiting Laboratory program.
The MOL was to be a small space station in polar orbit, crewed by two Air Force astronauts whose missions would last about a month. The MOL would be equipped with a photographic system called Dorian, which had a higher resolution than cameras then available on unmanned satellites. The two astronauts would photograph targets on Earth as part of an ongoing reconnaissance program. Other duties for the MOL crew might include operating a radar system, testing electronic intelligence-gathering devices, assembling other orbital space stations, and inspecting enemy satellites. They would, in effect, be spies in outer space. Six months before he died, Lawrence was chosen to join their ranks.
When he was tapped for the project, the MOL was still just an idea, so Lawrence’s duties were strictly ground-based, such as traveling to visit contractors that were involved in the project. These trips were done under the radar, with officers like Lawrence wearing civilian clothing and even using assumed names. This arrangement proved to be a problem for Lawrence, as he had already achieved some measure of fame in the media as the “first black astronaut,” even though the program he was a part of was considered secret.
Lawrence was often accompanied on these trips by fellow MOL astronaut Donald Peterson, a white officer who hailed from Mississippi. At the time, young white men and young black men traveling together was rare. Often restaurants would not serve them, even though the practice had been made illegal under the Civil Rights Act that had been passed a few years before. Peterson, though born in the segregated south, was boundless in his admiration of Lawrence, referring to him as a “real super guy” decades after his death, according to NASA’s oral history. Many of Lawrence’s friends remember his good humor with fondness. Peterson went on to join NASA and fly on a space shuttle mission.
Major Lawrence was well aware of his status as a role model for African Americans and of the difficulties he and other black people faced in the turbulent 1960s, but he tried to avoid relating his career to the civil rights struggle. At a press conference with the other MOL astronauts, Lawrence was peppered with questions about his race. He avoided addressing such questions directly, declaring, according to Jet, that he was “a scientist, not a sociologist.” Self-effacing, he refused to compare his selection as an astronaut to the then pending nomination of Thurgood Marshall to be a justice of the Supreme Court. Having a black man chosen as an astronaut, he said, was “just another of the things we look forward to in the normal progression of civil rights in this country.”
If he had a cause, according to a profile published in Ebony shortly after his death, it was for more black youth to enter STEM fields. He believed that his success was due to the encouragement of his family, and his luck in attending a remarkable public high school that turned out an exceptional number of engineers, scientists, doctors and lawyers.
When Robert Lawrence walked out to the flight line at Edwards Air Force Base for the last time, he had a future that was boundless as the heavens.
A year after Lawrence’s death, President Nixon cancelled the MOL project, calling it too expensive, and no longer necessary thanks to advances in satellite technology and NASA’s plans for Skylab. If Lawrence had survived, he probably would have joined the other Air Force astronauts, and been transferred to NASA. He likely would have flown on the space shuttle, and become the first black man in space. It was not to be.