Digital Darling

Susan Coffey is a shy girl from Jersey who seduced the Internet—but can she conquer the elite New York fashion world?

On an October evening in 2010, Brad from San Diego was online, looking for flesh.

He scanned through a picture-sharing forum, another repository of beauty, famed and anonymous. “This was not the first time I had looked at pretty girls on the Internet,” says Brad. “I flew through photos.”

Then, he stopped.

She wore a sleeveless gray top and black underwear with a hint of lace. The Greenwich Village sun cascaded on her mane of auburn hair. Her gaze was soft, otherworldly.

Her name was Susan Coffey.

One of the first photos of Susan Coffey that Brad came across (Photo courtesy Inush Yoon)
One of the first photos of Susan Coffey that Brad came across (Photo courtesy Inush Yoon)

“Wow.” Brad Googled her.

The results were unsatisfying, a smattering of social networks, but no central place of worship. On a whim, Brad registered the domain name SusanCoffey.net and began gushing, declaring her the “faerie queen of beauty” and “Miss Stunning.”

Two years later, Brad’s site is the first result when a Google user searches for Susan Coffey. With her blessing, he meticulously catalogs hundreds of photos, writes rapturous blog posts and even interviews Coffey’s collaborators. Yet, Brad lives three thousand miles from Coffey and has never met her in person.

“There’s something about Susan that makes you want to help her,” says Brad, who works in the healthcare industry and tries to remain semi-anonymous to protect his own privacy.

A banner image from susancoffey.net
A banner image from susancoffey.net

Brad’s site is the most visible example of the phenomenon that is Susan Coffey, a 22-year-old independent model from suburban New Jersey who has been propelled into digital ubiquity by thousands of strangers after first surfacing three years ago on the website ModelMayhem.

Roughly a hundred new people “like” Coffey’s Facebook page every day, and her total fan count recently exceeded 103,000. On DeviantArt, one of the largest online creative communities for sharing artwork, photos of Coffey have attracted over 29 million views, and the company flew her to last year’s San Diego Comic-Con as a representative.

“It’s incredible. She’s become the Internet redhead,” says Sito Alvina, a Toronto-based photographer who is Coffey’s most frequent collaborator. “Susan is like the Queen of DeviantArt.”

Beyond her control, Coffey’s image is plastered onto YouTube trance songs, consumed and repurposed for desktop wallpapers and drawn in tribute by fans in pencil, ink and paint. She is a fixture on the social news site Reddit, the anonymous image board 4chan, and virtually every forum that skews toward testosterone. Even her identity is up for grabs, with dozens of fake social media accounts leeching off her recognition, regurgitating her photos to steal a sliver of her adoration.

A sketch of Susan Coffey by Brad posted to DeviantArt, based on a photo by Sito Alvina
A sketch of Susan Coffey by Brad posted to DeviantArt, based on a photo by Sito Alvina

For Brad, promoting Coffey has become a mission, and she is his creative muse, prompting him to rediscover an interest in drawing. He doesn’t have any aspirations to enter the fashion industry and considers his site to be a one-time endeavor. He briefly added advertising to susancoffey.net, but found that it “cheapened” the site, so he removed it. Ultimately, Brad expects he’ll pass control on to another committed fan, and he tries to keep his subject in perspective, to remember that Susan Coffey is a real person.

“You start to form this image of her,” he says. “But she’s just a girl, with good points and bad points.”

Still, perceptions have begun to move reality. In August, Coffey was featured on the cover of Mexico’s Maxim en Espanol magazine, which approached her through Brad’s website. In July, she was on the cover of an independently published romance novel called “The Heart of Aces.”  Her face has appeared in advertisements on the PATH train for a 125-unit condo tower in Jersey City. She’s occasionally recognized by riders when she takes the train into New York for photo shoots.

*   *   *

There are thousands of attractive women on the Internet, many of whom pursue more sexually explicit paths. And there are the unknown faces, who surface for a few blog cycles, only to be buried by the next nubile thing. But no one has achieved Coffey’s prominence and longevity with so little context. She is an enigma, a tabula rasa for desire. She has no agent, no publicist and no outside financial support. “She’s not trying that hard,” says Brad.

In fairness, Coffey’s attention is captured by the mundane. She spends most of her time studying at Rutgers University, going to class and doing homework. Her modeling concerns are rudimentary: paying for gasoline or train tickets, obtaining outfits and filling her schedule.

But the “girl-next-door” persona has made her all the more appealing. In an age of disturbing diets and exotic workouts, Coffey appears effortless. She is lithe and long-limbed at five-foot-seven and 110 pounds, and says she never exercises, aside from the rare session of yoga. She has, however, been a vegetarian for nearly five years because of her love of animals; she has a fluffy white dog named Luna and a green frog, Potato.

Coffey’s only obvious unnatural enhancement is her hair, dyed L’Oreal Feria Rich Auburn True Red, which she settled on after trying blond and other shades to replace her natural brown. It has become her signature look, flowing seamlessly with her pale skin.

“Word of mouth is all about authenticity,” says Jonah Berger, an assistant professor of marketing at the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School, who has extensively studied online virality. “You feel like you are helping her by sharing her,” he adds.

After studying the sale of consumer goods, popular YouTube videos and The New York Times’ most-emailed articles list, Berger has concluded that sharing is tethered to human emotions, but that not all emotions are equal. Items that evoke sadness or contentment are unlikely to spur the clicks and conversations that lead to virality. In contrast, articles that induce indignation (think insensitive jokes about rape) or anxiety (bomb threats, anthrax attacks) create a “physiological arousal” and fuel sharing, according to Berger.

But the most effective emotion for transmission is “awe,” a revelation that transcends surprise. Or, close to what Brad was feeling two Octobers ago.

*   *   *

Coffey regards all this attention with a mixture of gratitude, unease and disbelief.

“I’m thankful for it, because otherwise I wouldn’t have anything right now, but it definitely does make me feel uncomfortable sometimes, she said in an August meeting at a café in her hometown, a leafy hamlet of around 13,000 residents in central New Jersey. “It goes both ways. Sometimes it’s a little creepy.”

In person, Coffey has a subtle spray of freckles, which are usually concealed by makeup. Her skin is tanned from a recent trip to the beach, richer than the alabaster of her images. Her hair is also darker, as her red dye has faded, and she’d recently gotten bangs, which cascade across her forehead. She is pretty, but approachable.

Susan Coffey in New Jersey (Photo by Roland Li)
Susan Coffey in New Jersey (Photo by Roland Li)

Coffey’s town, the name of which she’d rather not reveal, has one main street lined with small shops and trees, bisected by a railroad line that transports commuters to the bowels of Penn Station. She lives with her parents and fourteen-year-old brother, a natural redhead who just started high school. She’s lived in the same house her entire life, set on a quiet corner, with a big yard and a well. Her room is in the attic.

She regards her trips into the city for photo shoots as a necessary burden, with urban crowds and the sprawling subway system denying her the freedom of her Honda Civic, which she calls “possibly the most generic car ever, but it gets ridiculously good gas mileage.”

“I like to feel like I’m in control of where I’m going,” she adds.

The irony of Coffey’s ascent, and her image being plastered all over the Internet, is that she is far from an exhibitionist. Her perpetual self-description is “shy,” and she enjoys the solitude and quiet of her pastoral upbringing. She doesn’t hunger for fame, and her popularity still baffles her.

Coffey remembers taking the train into the city for her first New York photo shoot around three years ago. The dread is still palpable in her voice as she recalls being convinced that “something horrible was going to happen” as she strode up the stairs to meet a stranger at a photo studio. “I thought the guy was going to be crazy,” she says, but it was all in her head. Soon, the shoots became routine.

Months later, Coffey would work with a New York photographer named Brandon Herman, who runs a Meetup.com photography group called the New York Pinup Club. Coffey, wearing a Navy blue coat, posed among the lush, saturated colors of landmarks like Grand Central Terminal and the Brooklyn Bridge. In those photos, the fear is gone from her face.

If she’s able to find work as a fulltime model, Coffey would probably move to the city to cut down on her commute. But it’s a transition that sounds like a concession, rather than one sparkling with ambition. “I don’t really like it, to be honest,” says Coffey of New York. “I would accept it because I know it’s the fashion capital.”

When Coffey first expressed an interest in modeling, back in middle school, her parents were open to the idea. “They’re not the kind of parents that would tell me that I can’t do something,” she says, but they didn’t have the time to help her.

Susan Coffey on the New York City subway (Photo courtesy Brandon Herman)
Susan Coffey on the New York City subway (Photo courtesy Brandon Herman)

After high school, she enrolled in Montclair State University in hopes of working on the design or merchandising side of the fashion industry. But the small, suburban campus became too familiar. “I wanted something different,” she says. Coffey enrolled in Rutgers, after initially having balked at the idea because so many students from her high school class of 120 had chosen to go there. But with over 40,000 undergraduates, it was the new environment she had been seeking.

Coffey, who commutes to school for financial reasons, attempted to charter a community service sorority in the spring; it decided it didn’t want to be associated with her modeling career, and turned her down. So, she has stayed away from school organizations, but is kept busy majoring in communications and minoring in psychology—a route that is flexible but unfocused. “All the stuff I like couldn’t be a career. I’m just thinking typical office job, but when I think about it, it makes me kind of sad,” she says. “Monotony kind of scares me.”

*   *   *

Coffey has constructed a cocoon around her personal life. Although she checks her DeviantArt page every day, she rarely reveals more than an image. She abandoned Twitter after a short stint because she didn’t see a need for it. She keeps her online identity, particularly risqué lingerie shots, quarantined from her friends. If pictures spill over into her personal Facebook account, she untags herself. Although her friends are supportive, Coffey considers any social reminder of her second life to be “awkward.”

She has a boyfriend, whom she says is also supportive, but he bristles at the virtual advances of strangers, who regularly chime, “Let’s go out,” or “Let’s get married.” Coffey is not phased. “They’re so arbitrary,” she says. “I just take it as a compliment.”

Sometimes, Coffey wonders if she would have been better served using a pseudonym, rather than her real name. “I’m worried one day I’ll want to get a real job and that was kind of a mistake. But it’s too late to go back, so I’m not holding back,” she says.

After years of work that has drawn a loyal Internet following but only small financial paybacks, Coffey now seeks validation. In the coming months, she plans to submit her pictures to the major New York agencies and attend open casting calls. “I feel weird saying I’m a model, because I’m not with an agency,” she says. “I want to be official.”

At 22, Coffey is already old for high fashion, where models start as early as thirteen, and she’s a few inches short of the five-foot-ten ideal that struts the catwalks (there are rare exceptions: Kate Moss is also five-seven). Coffey’s massive fan base is a powerful tool, but one that might not impress the establishment.

Photo by Roland Li
Photo by Roland Li

“I think she does have a gorgeous face,” says Shae Cooper, director of new faces for BMG Worldwide, a boutique modeling agency. But Cooper swiftly adds, “It’s not just about being a pretty face. It’s about the whole package. It’s not just about a guy who thinks she’s hot and likes her on Facebook.” Cooper says that Coffey’s shyness c0uld be an obstacle, and she would have to deal with the whims of a client who could force her to make tough choices such as abandoning her signature red hair to conform to a job.

Although fashion is a gigantic global industry, with over $1 trillion in annual sales, models are often treated more like migrant laborers than movie stars. The industry has long been voracious, churning through an endless stream of anonymous waifs. But even those who get regular work can struggle to survive. There are no salaries, only one-off assignments, which provide compensation in the form of clothing, prestige and money, in often unfavorable ratios. Health insurance and 401ks are alien concepts. Nothing is permanent. It’s a testament to the powers of marketing and fantasy that drive so many to seek so little.

So far, Coffey has done all of her work independently, which means that she keeps all of her fees, but she finds it hard to get paid gigs. She is currently seeking another job, while she attends Rutgers, in order to fund her travels. In contrast, an agency will typically pay for a model’s initial portfolio, which is seen as a standard investment, and then take a commission fee of around twenty percent of future work. The agency is essentially a matchmaker that connects clients like corporations, publications and designers to hopeful young men and women.

“We tell our models, we can put you in front of any client. At the end of the day, it’s your job to book it,” says Cooper, of BMG.

But it’s hard to differentiate yourself enough to get to that point. “There’s so many people. It’s overwhelming sometimes,” says Coffey. “The online world is so different from being with an agency. I don’t think they’re comparable.”

Even with her popularity, Coffey’s life is a constant hustle, but she is not picky and says she is open to any type of work. When asked if there was a dream photographer or designer that she longs to work with, Coffey demurs. “It’s not something I could obtain right now. I’m so used to taking what I can get,” she says.

As Coffey was returning to Rutgers in September, thousands of models descended on New York’s Lincoln Center for Mercedes-Benz Fashion Week. The red carpet of the 2012 Style Awards was dominated by celebrities; the media assailed bold-faced names like Katie Holmes and Carolina Herrera with barrages of flashing cameras. Meanwhile, anonymous models, striking with their towering bare legs, strode behind the cameras, plucking wine glasses from stone-faced servers and disappearing in the crowd. On Fashion Week’s runways, it was Calvin Klein, Ralph Lauren and Michael Kors that provided the buzz, not the girls who wore the clothing. The key question always is, “Who are you wearing?” rather than, “Who are you?”

Scenes from 2012 Mercedes-Benz Fashion Week (Photos by Roland Li)
Scenes from 2012 Mercedes-Benz Fashion Week (Photos by Roland Li)

Ashley Mears, an assistant professor of sociology at Boston University and a former New York model herself, calls it a “winner-take-all” economy, where the few women at the top earn most of the spoils. But even that halo has dimmed. The days of the imperial supermodel are over, and magazines favor celebrities from film and music over chilly imports from the runways. Editorial work is also hardly a breadwinner; most models earn just a few hundred dollars for appearing in a holy tome like Vogue, and some publications will offer snacks instead of money.

The U.S. Department of Labor reported that the median model’s income was $33,000 in 2011, but typical salaries vary dramatically. Highly successful catalog models earn six figures, while the less fortunate may end their careers after just a few months with thousands in debt. To become a superstar with a million-dollar fragrance campaign “you still need the machine behind you,” says Loretta Volpe, acting associate chair of direct and interactive marketing at the Fashion Institute of Technology, who has worked with brands like CoverGirl, Clairol and Izod. There are a few Internet success stories, like Kate Upton, the bubbly insurgent who used her own YouTube fame to break into Vogue, defying the traditional look of high fashion, but she is definitely an exception to the rule.

But the prospect of a career is still alluring. For Coffey, modeling has not yet become lucrative but it has grown from a hobby into the most likely way of transcending her small town existence.

“There’s just not a lot of stuff that I can picture myself doing as a career. I know it’s so rare that you can do what you love for a living,” she says. “I have this opportunity and I don’t want to pass it up. I really want to give it all that I have. At least if it doesn’t work out, I know that I tried.”

At an impromptu photo shoot in her hometown in August, Coffey glows in front of the lens, angling her body precisely toward the camera and offering a crescent moon of a smile. She is looking less shy girl from Jersey, more ready for another magazine cover. Still, she’s realistic about her chances. “I dream about being a big model, but I know I need a backup,” she says.

Balancing between art and reality is nothing new for Coffey’s family. Her mother used to paint as a hobby and now works at a chemical company. Her father is employed by Sharp Electronics, the U.S. division of the Japanese television manufacturer, but Coffey remembers him playing guitar around the house when she was young. He tried, but failed, to get her into classic rock. Instead, like so many teenagers of the early 2000s, she fell for the emo scene. One of her early favorite bands was Something Corporate, a piano-laden rock quartet from southern California. Coffey took piano lessons for a couple of years at the end of high school and now loves covering pop songs. She would pounce at the chance to become a musician, but fears she doesn’t have the talent.

Her other big hobby is “World of Warcraft,” the enormously popular online role-playing game, which has ten million active players. Coffey plays as a female Draenei Elemental Shaman, an earth disciple that flings arcs of lightning and jets of lava at her foes.

Coffey’s boyfriend introduced her to the game, although he was initially hesitant to disclose to her that he played at all. Then, about a year-and-a-half ago, he asked Coffey if she wanted to try. Reluctant at first, she soon had to get her own account because she was playing so often. Like many players, she was taken by the variety of rewards for tasks that vary from killing dragons to catching fish. “I get obsessed with achieving stuff,” she says.

However, Coffey tends to avoid the game’s largest dungeon expeditions, known as raids, which require a mixture of number-crunching keyboard gymnastics and often lead to volatile emotions. “It’s not a good community there. You suck, and they’re just like, ‘Get out,’” she says. “I like to help people out or just talk to them.”

Coffey rejects the notion that playing “Warcraft” satisfies a desire for a new identity, yet her modeling work shows that she understands the need for constant reinvention; she is keenly aware of her fans’ perpetual hunger for new and different images. “I feel pressure to post constantly,” she says. “I get anxious when I know I haven’t posted in a while.”

*   *   *

The mythology of many top models begins with a singular discovery, a chance encounter where an agent whisks an unknown away to gilded catwalks and the pages of glossy magazines. Coffey had no such revelation, but her ascent has been steady, thanks to the help of strangers, like Brad. It has been a journey, not merely physical, but a path that has built a web of fellow artists, who all cope with economic reality.

Shortly after college started, Coffey was working as a cashier at a local Victoria’s Secret, wondering how to begin modeling, when a customer directed her to Mike Kortoci, a photographer near Ridgewood, N.J., about an hour to the north.

She remembers arriving at Kortoci’s studio in October 2008,  filled with dread, and then being taken aback by his boisterous direction. And there was the camera.

“It kind of freaked me out at first,” she says. “You kind of expose yourself.”

Kortoci told her to mentally chant, “I’m so sexy, I’m so sexy,” turning perception into reality—and it seemed to work.

It’s been years since the shoot, but Coffey’s image has stayed with the photographer. “She’s one of the girls that I have a hard time forgetting,” says Kortoci, who calls her face “a polished diamond.”

He touts Coffey’s physical gifts, which require minimal makeup and postproduction, and he also underscores her willingness to learn and gain control of her body. “A girl that is just pretty is not enough,” says Kortoci, a former sculptor from Albania who speaks with a light Baltic accent. “You have to perform in front of the camera.”

Distinctive images still have undeniable value. Kortoci’s best-known photo of Coffey is heavy on sheen. He’s studded her eyelids with silver and transformed her into a windswept cover girl that ended up on Kortoci’s business card and the front door of his studio. “I want to look like her,” clients would tell him.

“She was worth not charging,” he says.

Photographer Mike Kortoci (Photo courtesy Mike Kortoci)
Photographer Mike Kortoci (Photo courtesy Mike Kortoci)

After creating a portfolio with Kortoci, Coffey was directed to ModelMayhem, an online social network that is a proving ground for aspiring models, photographers and stylists. Members create profiles showcasing their work and can send out solicitations or announce open calls to diversify their portfolios.

Coffey began working with unknowns, assembling a portfolio shoot-by-shoot and vetting references to ward off creeps, and fleeing in the rare uncomfortable situation. After toiling for a few months, Coffey was approached by Insuh Yoon, the first photographer who stood out to her, in the spring of 2009.

Yoon’s primary tools are simplicity and sunlight, a style which produces shots that have become quintessential Coffey, including the first photo that Brad saw, shot in a rented studio in Greenwich Village. Yoon, who was born in Seoul and grew up in Queens, is benign in person, exuding a serenity that’s a blessing when dealing with new models. “I don’t consider myself part of the industry,” says Yoon, who takes graduation photos by day to finance his more artistic pursuits.

Coffey and Yoon spent a scorching summer day in 2010 at Coney Island with Layla L’obatti, of lingerie and loungewear brand Between the Sheets. Coffey rotated through a dozen outfits, changing inside a makeshift cover of shower curtains and plastic piping.

Yoon has since moved in a more explicit direction. He recently launched an “Anonymous Erotica” series, where he photographs nude women without revealing their faces or names, allowing them to fully embrace their sexuality. In some shots, Yoon puts his left hand into the frame, appearing to fondle or even penetrate his subjects with his fingers. But as Yoon recalls from his first meeting with Coffey, she was always adamant about staying clothed. She had drawn a line.

That barrier likely stemmed from an incident at the dawn of Coffey’s career. In early 2009, she went on a photo shoot with Vincent Arthur, an amateur photographer in eastern New Jersey. In a forum post on ModelMayhem the following year, Arthur describes working with a new model on her first nude shoot, around the same time he shot Coffey, and paying her “modestly.”

Arthur writes that he’d been contacted by the model two months after the shoot, requesting that he remove her name from the nude photos. She was worried that they would cause “problems” in the future, he adds. Arthur complied, but kept the images in his portfolio, and a year later they began circulating around the Internet and were linked to Coffey. He notes that the model—whom he never named publicly—offered to buy back the photos for the price of the shoot, but he hesitated.

“The photos in question are special to me because they were the best I had ever taken at the time. Some might think they still are. Either way, they were a breakthrough to another level in my development,” Arthur says in the post.

When he realized that the photos were being spread widely without his consent, he resolved to take action to have them removed. Arthur also eventually agreed to delete the photos from his website in exchange for the original fee and another clothed shoot with the model. But despite his efforts, the photos are still out there, like a scar that’s impossible to remove.

Coffey initially denied she was in the photos, but no longer does. Still, her actions, seen as a deception, prompted a maelstrom of callousness from her online followers, upset at a lie that they saw as a betrayal. One user on Reddit was indignant, posting that “she could have easily benefited from it. A public desire to see certain content from a person can easily be turned into money for the performer, but she ruined that possibility, and at the same time, a lot of her credibility.” Other users scolded each other for considering her a “pure thing,” while simultaneously lusting after other girls.

“I’m just trying to never mention them again, and maybe it’ll just go away,” says Coffey now. “There’s nothing I can do.”

The incident reflects the duality of Coffey’s relationship with her audience. She is adored as a feminine ideal, yet she’s often treated like a commodity rather than a human being. Perhaps that isn’t so different than being a big-time model.

Although Coffey is determined to evolve, there’s pressure to be complacent and give the crowd what it wants, which is typically a natural look, preferably in lingerie. Coffey braces for complaints when she’s photographed with heavy makeup, or when she tries something different, like dressing up in latex and brandishing knives. Yet another complaint is that she appears expressionless or aloof. She seldom smiles on camera, and almost never with teeth.

“The problem is, if you’ve already branded a look and somebody’s shooting you, that’s the look they want,” says Coffey. “A lot of times I get stuck in that.”

Coffey’s greatest artistic leaps have been with Alvina, the Toronto-based photographer, who was born in the Phillipines and studied photography at Humber College in Toronto. He learned the techniques of a lost age, film processing and darkroom development, but went on hiatus as digital photography became dominant. A friend rekindled his interest, and he moved into glamour shots. In an age of quantity, Alvina stood out to Coffey for his selectivity. He is picky in choosing collaborators, and each shoot becomes part of his endless pursuit of perfection.

*   *   *

On Nov. 29, 2009, when Coffey was 19, she and Alvina drove to the Essex County Jail, an abandoned brick prison, overrun by vegetation and graffiti, in Newark, N.J.

Built in 1837 and closed in 1970, the jail has become a magnet for the curious. For Alvina, a science fiction buff, urban exploration is not merely a glimpse into the past, but a look into the decaying future. “In a million years from now, this is what the world will look like,” he says.

Coffey and Sito Alvina at the Essex County Jail site (Photo courtesy Sito Alvina)
Coffey and Sito Alvina at the Essex County Jail site (Photo courtesy Sito Alvina)

He documented the trip and posted a video on YouTube, which now has over 100,000 views. Coffey wears a red Rutgers hoodie, jeans and thick black books and carries a bag of clothing and a point-and-shoot camera. She squeezes through a gap between the stone and corroded bars.

Parts of the building are shrouded in darkness, so Alvina switches to night vision, creating a sort of benign “Blair Witch Project” effect. Documents and debris are strewn across the floor.

Coffey gasps at deserted dining halls and grabs the files of an inmate for a souvenir. She punctuates her excitement with some profanity. The duo strides across a row of corroded prison bars and a mess hall, encountering a suspicious lump in a cell. The footage soon cuts to their departure.

Coffey in Essex County Hospital (Photo courtesy Sito Alvina)
Coffey in Essex County Hospital (Photo courtesy Sito Alvina)

In between, Coffey strips down to a striped shirt and underwear, braving the chill. She transforms from a giddy teenager into something more. It remains Alvina’s favorite shoot. “It was rewarding because she appreciated being there,” he says.

The following spring, Coffey and Alvina went to the nearby Essex County Hospital, an imposing brick complex in Cedar Grove, N.J., nicknamed Overbrook Asylum because it commands a view of the diminutive Peckman River. For decades, Overbrook served as a mental institution with a morbid history, before closing in 1975. The New York Times reported in December 1917 that its boilers failed, leading to the death of 24 patients.

Overbrook has had a restless afterlife. There have been various efforts over the years to convert the site into housing or parkland, and segments have been demolished. The Red Bank, N.J.-based developer Hovnanian Enterprises wants to erect new apartments, but remains locked in lawsuits with the township. A few buildings remain, stone ghosts in a world that has moved on.

The remains of the past—surgical masks, a broken scale and an out-of-tune piano—appear in another YouTube clip of Coffey’s photo shoot. On one wall, “Phantom” is spelled out in blue marker. Coffey wears a wedding dress, juxtaposing purity with the decay. Her hair is an elaborate tangle of maroon, courtesy of Selda Cortes, her favorite stylist, who accompanied the pair.

Cortes is a kindly hairdresser from Spain, who dreams of getting her work featured in Vogue and opening her own salon. When she was growing up, she would practice styling hair with her sister. “Girls always like to play with dolls. She was my doll. She was my sketch,” says Cortes. “I love people and making them feel comfortable.”

Cortes attended makeup school in Spain and began as a freelancer after moving to the U.S. She now works at a salon in Tribeca, but mixes in more artistic projects through online connections like ModelMayhem.

Like many, Cortes marvels at Coffey’s natural glow. “She has a unique look” Cortes says. “She transmits that.”

One of Coffey’s biggest gifts is that “she doesn’t need that much,” says Alvina. “What really charms me as a photographer is when I’m shooting someone, I don’t have to tell them what to do.” However, he hopes that she can become more assertive. As they moved around the hospital that day, he repeatedly adjusted her pose.

Selda Cortes and Coffey (Photo courtesy Sito Alvina)
Selda Cortes and Coffey (Photo courtesy Sito Alvina)

As the day faded, the trio prepared to depart, but they ran into one final obstacle. A policeman caught them as they returned to their car and began interrogating Alvina about why they were trespassing. He bluffed that he was practicing wedding photography outside and feigned ignorance about the hospital. They escaped.

Three years later, Coffey and Alvina have since collaborated in Toronto, where they shot the photos that appeared on the cover of  Maxim en Espanol. She’s crisscrossed the northeast and hopes for future trips to Europe and beyond. But most days, she wakes up at her parents’ house in suburban New Jersey and drives to classes at Rutgers that fail to excite her—at least compared to what she feels when modeling.

Coffey will graduate in January and faces a looming decision: build upon the fantasy or trudge into reality. “Am I going to pursue this?” she wonders. “Or am I going to get a job and accept my grown-up life?”

It’s clear which way her fans hope she goes. As one of them wrote recently on her Facebook wall, with no sense of hyperbole:

“Dear God, thank you for our Susan.”

*   *   *

Roland Li has written about business and culture for The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal and New York Observer. You can follow him on Twitter and see more of his photography here.

Meet the Merciless Champ of Congo’s Mystical Wrestling League

Even as he approaches old age and his sport falls into decline, this intestines-eating, sorcery-conjuring “Man of Great Power” still dominates the ring.

With a slow and assured swagger that defies his aging body, Edingwe Moto na Ngenge, the most decorated Congolese wrestler of all time, steps into the ring. At about six-foot-six and more than 220 pounds, with a prominent brow, deep-set eyes, a mohawk and a large dragon tattoo across the left side of his chest, he cuts an imposing figure. Edingwe, whose moniker, Moto na Ngenge, translates to Man of Great Power, struts back and forth across the ring with his shoulders thrown back, stamping his feet and contorting his face into grotesque expressions, toying with his opponent and whipping his loyal fans into a frenzy.

It’s January 2016 in Kinshasa, the pulsating capital city in the far west of the vast and volatile Democratic Republic of Congo. Just a year earlier, the radio-trottoir, or pavement radio, as the city’s incessant gossip mill is known, spread word that Edingwe was near death’s door, broke and unable to cover the hefty cost of his prolonged hospital stay, finally turning to God in a last-ditch effort to be saved.

Now, with thousands of spectators filling the lower-level stands of the Tata Raphaël stadium and local television crews set up around the wrestling ring erected in the middle of the soccer field, Edingwe’s got something to prove.

However, it’s his challenger, Mal à l’aise, which translates to Ill at Ease, who attacks first. He takes a dead snake from his trainer at the edge of the ring, wraps it around his neck for a moment, then holds it tight with one hand close to its head and the other at the end of its tail, thrusting it repeatedly and exaggeratedly in the direction of Edingwe. The great champion is momentarily stunned by this act of sorcery, and with his eyes wide in surprise he becomes rooted to the spot, rocking back and forth like a tall tree in the wind.

But Edingwe soon grows tired of this impetuous display, breaks the spell, and with a swift extension of his right arm and a raised, open palm, calls on the spirits of his ancestors. The magical powers they have so long bestowed on him send Mal à l’aise tumbling backward onto the mat, where he lies paralyzed. Edingwe kneels beside his hapless opponent, grasps at his midriff and appears to extract his intestines like long pieces of pink elastic. He holds them aloft and then lowers them into his gaping mouth; as he eats them, blood pours from the corners of his lips onto his chest. A government minister sitting near the ring faints. Mal à l’aise, also unconscious, is covered and carried away.

Edingwe is swiftly escorted from the arena by his entourage before his opponent’s angry supporters seek revenge for such a merciless performance. After just a few minutes, it’s all over.

* * *

The unique and wildly popular Congolese variety of wrestling, which bears some similarities to American professional wrestling, took off in the late 1960s and early ’70s. Around this time, a handsome young man named Kele Kele Lituka became Congo’s first professional wrestler and a household name, defeating European champion Claude Leron and celebrated American wrestler El Greco.

Lituka beat his Western opponents by drawing on wrestling techniques that in fact long preceded the influence of the American school. He incorporated elements of a traditional Congolese fighting style called libanda, which is said to have traveled to Brazil with slaves from the ancient Kingdom of Kongo centuries earlier and served as the genesis for the Brazilian martial art of capoeira. (While elements of the matches are clearly played up for dramatic effect, organizers here, like their American counterparts for a time, have long insisted that nothing is staged.)

Edingwe holds aloft what are ostensibly the intestines of his opponent at the Tata Raphael Stadium in Kinshasa in January 2016. (Photo courtesy Edingwe)

“Since the early days of urbanization, there have been public fights in Kinshasa,” says Katrien Pype, Ph.D., a professor of African cultural anthropology at the University of Birmingham in the United Kingdom and at KU Leuven University in Belgium. In the 1950s, when this sizable swath of Central Africa was still a Belgian colony, a style of fighting called mukumbusu emerged. Inspired by the movements of gorillas and incorporating both foreign and African fighting styles, mukumbusu was a “reaction to the other martial arts that were brought in by the colonialists,” Pype says.

In the late 1970s, a young, cocksure fighter from a poor family in Kinshasa’s ramshackle Matete neighborhood stepped into the ring for the first time. A notorious brawler at school who sometimes even came to blows with his teachers, Edingwe, whose real name is Edmond Ngwe Mapima, had already shown promise in the boxing ring. He would quickly leave an indelible mark on Congolese wrestling, introducing the sport to the aspect of magic and sorcery, known locally as fétiche, with its practitioners referred to as féticheurs.

Fétiche is the foundation on which the Congolese manifestation of contemporary wrestling has been built. Tapping into local superstitions and the widespread Congolese belief in traditional magic, mysticism and the spirit world, Edingwe’s mastery of fétiche gave him an insurmountable advantage over his opponents. As Caroline Six wrote in a 2015 article in the French press: “The success of a wrestler in Congo is often not founded on strength, technique or style, but on his capacity to make people believe in his powers of sorcery.” Edingwe is the perfect embodiment of this claim.

Mobutu Sese Seko, the flamboyant, corrupt and ruthless dictator who ruled Congo — which he renamed Zaire — for more than 30 years until his death in 1997, was a great wrestling aficionado. He used the sport as a focal point for what Pype calls his “authenticity politics,” whereby he shunned and in some cases banned cultural practices deemed to be Western and instead promoted a new, African vision of Congolese national belonging.

“During Mobutu’s time, wrestling was promoted as the national sport. There was a lot of financial support and massive state-organized and sponsored events and tournaments,” Pype says. For the first time, Congolese wrestling was also widely televised across the country. This helped Edingwe become the sport’s greatest icon, equal parts feared and revered. But those days were long ago.

* * *

When it rains hard in Matete, as it does most days during Congo’s wet season, the labyrinthine streets and alleyways — many of which are unpaved and untraversable by car — quickly become fast-flowing red-brown rivulets carrying trash and human waste between the buildings. At such times, this overcrowded and notoriously crime-ridden area is unusually quiet; small groups of young boys huddle outside kiosks that sell cigarettes, soft drinks and basic household essentials, seeking shelter beneath the jagged metal overhangs that jut out over the front stoops. Otherwise, the streets are deserted.

Behind a large red metal gate opposite one such kiosk, Edingwe sits silently with a few friends and family members on pink plastic chairs, while a few laborers in tattered overalls work noisily to cover exposed rafters on the roof with sheets of metal. A light breeze gusts through the empty window frame beside them. One day, Edingwe, who says he does not know his age but is likely somewhere in his late 50s, hopes this building will serve as both a new house for his family and a fitting testament to his long and illustrious wrestling career. In his deep, slow drawl, the great champion says, “My only regret is that my parents died poor while I was still too young. I wish they had still been alive to see this when it is complete.”

Left: Edingwe suddenly transforms once he is dressed in his wrestling attire, striking macho poses for the camera at his home in Matete, Kinshasa. Right: Edingwe demonstrates some of the grotesque facial expressions that he uses in the ring to strike fear into his opponents and whip his adoring fans into a frenzy. (All photos by Christopher Clark)

Edingwe has not had a fight since his famous disembowelment of Mal à l’aise more than a year ago. A few days after the fight, a wildly sensationalist Congolese news site reported that, thanks to a quick visit to both the clinic and a local temple, Mal à l’aise had miraculously survived. However, he complained that he was still experiencing some discomfort in his stomach. 

The pavement radio is buzzing with news that despite Edingwe’s now infamous comeback, he is still barely scraping by financially, paying his bills by doing occasional work as an informant for the police in Matete, where he uses his magical powers to pinpoint the location of alleged criminals.

Local journalist Francis Mbala says that wrestling has been hit hard by the political impasse that engulfed the Congolese capital when beleaguered president Joseph Kabila failed to step down at the end of his two-term presidential limit in December 2016. The impasse has thrust the city, and the country, into a new period of uncertainty, crippling the local economy. Sporadic political protests have been met by an increasingly violent state response, leaving scores of protesters dead. Meanwhile, rebel militias have resurfaced in the long-afflicted Kivu provinces in the east of the country, while a bloody guerilla war between the army and anti-government rebels has claimed at least 3,000 lives — with gross human rights abuses alleged on both sides — and forced more than a million people to flee their homes.

“With the current political and economic crisis, there is a severe lack of sponsors for wrestling,” Mbala says. Official wrestling institutions and federations “almost don’t exist in Kinshasa anymore,” he adds, and big wrestling events have inevitably become much less frequent.

But Pype says that the trials and tribulations of Congolese wrestling precede the current political impasse. “During Mobutu’s time, wrestling was the national sport,” she reiterates, “but unfortunately for the wrestlers, the current government hasn’t recognized what the sport and its practitioners could mean to them and to the creation of national cohesion and unity. Mobutu invested a lot more in the promotion of Congolese culture in general.”

Pype insists that wrestling remains an important part of daily life for the Kinois, as Kinshasa’s residents are known, especially for young men in working-class neighborhoods like Matete. For many of these men, wrestlers represent an ideal body image — and they are also emblematic of the possibility of transcending one’s impoverished circumstances.

Edingwe has a more straightforward take on why he hasn’t had a fight in so long: He says that no one is currently up to the challenge. He is not announcing his retirement just yet, but he is already pinning great hope on his eldest son, a 33-year-old who lives and fights in Belgium — and is known as Little Edingwe.

“The powers that I inherited from my grandfather, who was also a wrestler, will gradually be transferred to my son,” Edingwe says. “God has not given these powers to anyone else, so this is what I am counting on. When my son is strong enough, I will stop fighting.”

Other champions of Edingwe’s era agree that the next generation of greats is yet to announce itself in Kinshasa. Mwimba Makiese, who goes by the nickname Texas, shares the sense that the increasing lack of financial incentives has played a role, pushing young working-class men into Kinshasa’s violent street-fighting scene — where they can at least achieve a level of localized fame and notoriety — rather than the official wrestling circuit.

Like Edingwe, Makiese, who claims to have won an impressive 646 out 650 matches in his career, is looking to retire soon, potentially adding to the vacuum. Makiese has long been the leading proponent in Congo of the so-called “classical” American style of wrestling. He has often publicly denounced fétiche wrestling, which he claims has fueled a growing negative narrative that dismisses wrestlers as “brigands.” Makiese is currently training two young wrestlers in the hope that they will fill his considerable shoes and continue to build on his legacy of “clean, technical wrestling,” as he calls it.

Widely known both for his success in the ring and for being the first albino wrestler in Congo, Makiese is also a renowned philanthropist, having created a foundation for Kinshasa’s routinely persecuted and ostracized albino population. Money that Makiese earned from wrestling helped build the foundation, but in recent years he has had to find other means of sustaining it. To that end, he now runs a small shop with his wife.

“Before, I could live solely from wrestling. I built my house with money from wrestling. I educated my kids with money from wrestling. Now, things have changed,” Makiese says. “But I’m like a chameleon — I’ll always find a way to adapt,” he adds.

Back in Matete, Edingwe seems less willing to adapt. Wrestling, after all, is his calling. He believes it was preordained. He believes that only he can save Congolese wrestling from the slump it is currently experiencing.

As if to show his readiness to shoulder this considerable burden, Edingwe goes to get his wrestling attire — high socks, lace-up boots and tight black spandex shorts — from the small main house behind the unfinished outbuilding. When he returns, the short walk seems to have put considerable strain on his body. He struggles to get up the single step back into the outbuilding and has to use the wall for support. He breathes heavily as he slowly and laboriously lowers himself back into his chair, where a young male relative helps him lace up his boots. It’s hard to imagine that just over a year ago, Edingwe was proudly strutting back and forth across the ring like a peacock, in front of his adoring fans, as he prepared to disembowel Mal à l’aise.

A young relative of Edingwe helps the champion wrestler, who appears to be in ill health, lace up his boots before he poses for pictures at his home in Matete, Kinshasa.

But as soon as he is dressed, Edingwe transforms. His back straightens, his shoulders rise; legs slightly akimbo, he throws a few slow-motion air punches left and then right across his body while contorting his face into grimaces, the veins in his neck bulging. 

Two of Edingwe’s daughters can’t help giggling at this spectacle. In a mock-aggressive tone, he commands them to come and stand beside him, where he loops an arm over each of their shoulders. The girls grow suddenly shy beside Edingwe’s enormous frame and will not meet his eyes. Imperceptible to them, a slight smile crosses their father’s lips.

For the briefest of moments, he is defeated.

Edingwe smiles down on two of his daughters at home in Matete, Kinshasa.

“Coming Out” as Face Blind

What it’s like to live with a disorder that means sometimes I can’t even recognize my own family members—and why I’m not keeping it a secret any longer.

When there was a familiar knock on our front door around eight at night on a Friday, I knew it was my dad. But then my mom, in her oversized cat sweater and baggy jeans, removed the door chain from its lock and opened the door, revealing a tall, slender bald man with no facial hair.

Who’s that?” I asked, in my blunt six-year-old way.

“It’s Daddy?” My mom’s voice sounded uncertain for a minute, but then she laughed. “He shaved his head!”

I had never seen my dad without his full, wavy dark brown locks before. They were unlike my mom’s pin-straight light brown long bob with face framing bangs. I looked him over. My dad was still wearing a long-sleeved red plaid shirt, blue jeans with a belt, and heavy black boots. He had a pair of sunglasses sticking out of his pocket.

“Pumpkin, I shaved my hair.” That was my dad’s voice and he always called me pumpkin, so I started laughing, equal parts nervous and relieved. “Are you excited to spend the weekend together?” It took me a few moments to warm up to the idea that this was my dad, but then I launched into a list of things I wanted to do with him for the next two days, and watching both my parents smile at me reassured me that everything would be okay. My parents didn’t notice that my panic was unusual at the time, because it’s common for young kids to learn about permanence when someone drastically changes their hair. But although the panic subsided in the moment, I knew the feeling was probably related to how unsettled I felt when I was looking for my mom at the grocery store or when a neighborhood kid waved at me from the playground.

When I was around seven or eight, we learned that I have mild prosopagnosia, also known as “face blindness.” Prosopagnosia appears to be different from other neurological memory problems because it doesn’t cause any other issues with memory and isn’t always caused by brain damage — as in my case, it can be developmental and genetic. I’ve had difficulty recognizing almost everyone in my life from time to time, whether it’s someone famous, like Harrison Ford or Taylor Swift, or someone I know intimately, like my best friend or my own dad.

My face blindness comes with a set of challenges, including the surge of panic I feel when I have to search for someone I know in a large crowd. There’s a deep social stigma attached to not recognizing someone that you’re supposed to know, so I’m often too afraid to admit that I struggle with this, which leaves me vulnerable every time I’m not positive whether or not I recognize someone. 

Brad Duchaine, an associate professor in the department of psychological and brain sciences at Dartmouth College who is on staff at the Prosopagnosia Research Centers, says that face blindness can cause social difficulty, particularly because people are often offended when you don’t recognize them. He adds, “It also causes workplace difficulties. If you fail to recognize your boss in the elevator, it’s not going to be good for your career.” When I worked in a mid-sized office with about 150 coworkers, daily interactions like mornings, meetings, and passing people when I stood up from my desk in our open office were hell. When I was preparing my ahi tuna salad at lunchtime in the kitchen, trying not to stare at the redhead man next to me, a flash of panic washed over me when he looked my way. Did I know him? He wasn’t in the small social media and publicity department with me; I’d already memorized the clothing, hair, body language, posture, and voices of everyone on our team. When in doubt, I never explicitly introduce myself or say, “Hey, it’s nice to meet you.” Instead, I opened with, “That looks delicious,” when he removed his croissant from the microwave, searching for signs that he recognized me on his face. Other people’s eyes lit up and their expressions became more trusting when they recognized me, even more so when we were intimately familiar, and I look for those cues during interactions where I can’t recognize someone.

I silently begged that I hadn’t said the wrong thing, that he wasn’t a complete stranger who would find my comment off-putting. I never knew how conversational to be with people if I couldn’t recognize them. Asking someone about their weekend felt reserved for coworkers I had interacted with more than a handful of times, but I often wasn’t aware when I’d crossed that threshold.

Thanks, I got it from South End Buttery down the street. If you haven’t been yet, you should check it out,” he said. Sounds like we haven’t talked before, but he knows I’m fairly new here, I thought, trying to push away my fear. He wouldn’t realize I didn’t recognize him if I didn’t make it obvious.

I know how hard it can be to be open about your differences, both inside and outside the workplace. So I’ve kept my face blindness a secret with the help of some adaptive strategies I keep up my sleeve for moments of awkward interaction, like carefully picking my opening lines, and memorizing hairstyles. Technology has saved me on a regular basis since social media became popular in the mid-2000s, and even more so with smartphones. Before I meet up with someone, especially if I’m likely not to recognize them because they don’t have a unique identifier (like a red beard, a wheelchair, pink hair, or a mohawk), I can study photos of them saved to my phone or posted to their Facebook. I can look for the kind of clothes they might be wearing, how their hair is currently styled, if they tend to smile without teeth.

Duchaine says that most prosopagnosics have alternate systems for recognition. Many study Facebook and photos, while some are even hoping facial recognition apps like the one developed for Google Glass will become widespread. A common tactic (which I also use) is making sure to arrive at a meeting spot before anyone else so we won’t be the one picking out a singular face. People also tend to specialize in particular features. “One guy I worked with focused on people’s jeans,” says Duchaine. “In the town he grew up in, everyone wore the same jeans every day.”

I often rely on hair as my main recognition cue, which is why I’ve mistaken other tall, bald men wearing sunglasses for my own father (never enough to actually say, “Hey, Dad!” to them, thankfully, but I’ve walked up to quite a few bald strangers), and why I didn’t recognize him when he first went bald.

Hair, clothing, and other cues are also central to how I identify myself. I don’t always instantly recognize myself in a passing mirror or a photo, particularly if I’m wearing gym clothing or I’m wearing my hair up, since those are so far removed from my daily look. During my senior year of high school, when I cut eight inches off my hair to donate to Locks of Love, and chopped the rest into a pixie cut, seeing myself in the mirror or a selfie actually made me do a double-take. I hadn’t realized that my signature face-framing hair and blunt bangs were how I recognized myself, and I couldn’t see my reflection as me without them. And more than that, my hair is central to my identity. My mom, who died when I was a kid, wore her hair the same way I do — and without that hairstyle, when I look in the mirror, I don’t see what other people are always saying: “You look just like your mom.” I can’t remember my mom’s face, because I don’t remember anyone’s, but I don’t want to lose the little details I do remember about her, like her refusal to wear makeup, her jean jacket, her oversized green Melrose firefighters’ T-shirt, or her blunt brown bangs hanging above her light blue eyes.

I disliked the change so much that I eventually bought a wig and extensions, and resolved to never change my hair again.

* * *

When I was an undergrad in college, I met the only other person who has ever admitted to me that they have face blindness. We were talking about horror movies when my friend, who spends more time during our regular movie marathons making mile-a-minute jokes than analyzing the plot, said, “I can’t watch movies with a lot of characters because I can’t tell anyone apart. The villain will come on screen and I’ll be like, ‘Who’s that?’ and everyone else will be like, ‘That’s the killer, Jon!’” He and I laughed for almost 15 minutes until we had tears streaming down our cheeks.

A few years later, I came across Holding Up the Universe, by Jennifer Niven, and Bone Gap, by Laura Ruby, both novels with prosopagnosic main characters. After reading Holding Up the Universe, I told my girlfriend — who has never heard the inner monologues of panic whenever we’re out at a mall and I lose track of her — how close to reality the protagonist’s daily life is, with the exception that his face blindness is more severe than mine.

Bone Gap was a book club pick at my workplace, and when a coworker brought up how interesting the condition was and that she’d never heard of it, I was itching to say, “Actually, I have it. I wouldn’t recognize any of you outside this office.” I was dying to tell someone that the reason I avoid office jobs with a large staff is how stressful it is trying to figure out if I’ve introduced myself to someone (unless it’s the one guy with a long black pony tail or the woman who wears printed hijabs). But as my coworkers talked about how hard it must be for someone to live with face blindness, I clammed up and kept my mouth shut, not wanting to cross the line from professional into too personal and risk alienating myself.

I sat alone at lunch for half of eighth grade after the school circulated that I was bisexual, and what I love most about my adult life is that it seems I’ve finally escaped that. Every time I’ve revealed something that makes me different — my queerness, the physical disability that I use a lavender cane for — people use it as grounds to harass and ostracize me, or turn me into a sideshow with deeply personal questions aimed at their own consumption and not my comfort. How do I have sex with my partner? What were some ways I was left out as a kid with a disability? Could I play with other kids on the playground? I know people would ask these kinds of questions about my face blindness; they would poke and prod it until they were satisfied. So I’ve always kept it to myself.

I hit my breaking point a couple of weeks ago when my cousin visited from Texas. We’re closely related, since her mom was my mom’s sister and her dad was my dad’s brother, and we look alike. But when she asked me to get dinner with her friends and her at Hooters, I panicked. I got to the restaurant right at seven, wondering: Was she inside yet? Would I see her if I walked around the restaurant, or would I be caught stopping at each individual table, studying its occupants as they awkwardly chowed down on chicken wings? I called her three times to no avail before finally asking my girlfriend if she could take a quick walk around inside, where she quickly spotted Nicole.

“You didn’t answer your phone,” I said to my cousin with a slight hard edge to my voice, looking around the noisy, packed restaurant. There was no way I would have spotted her in this crowd. I thought that I had plans for every contingency, like calling someone on the phone to discern their location — but I had failed. What if my girlfriend wasn’t there to check for Nicole for me? Would I have gotten in my car and driven home, hungry and missing out on a night of her company? Would I, as an adult, have gone to the wait staff and asked them to announce Nicole’s name over the loudspeaker like she was my five-year-old child, embarrassing myself in the process? “I’m not mad at you, but you should have at least told me you were here.”

“I’m so sorry, my phone is in my bag.” Nicole pulled it out to demonstrate and waved in the direction of her other friends at the table. “We were talking and I didn’t hear it ringing. It’s loud in here. You could have just come in and looked for me. I’ve been here since seven.” This wasn’t a big deal to her. She couldn’t see how frantic I felt at the thought of scanning faces to try and determine if I knew someone. That was how the world looked in my eyes, like a sea of blank faces, each ready to condemn me if I couldn’t distinguish them from what looked like an identical face next to theirs.

“You should have just texted me at least once to say, ‘I’m here.’” I was frustrated; not at Nicole, although I wished she’d had the forethought to realize it was past seven and check to see if I’d called her.

As we were moving to a bigger table to accommodate our late arrival, Nicole continued apologizing for not checking her phone. She shouldn’t apologize without knowing what the real problem was, I thought.

“I have face blindness,” I admitted to her, and this was the first she’d heard of it. My heart raced in my chest. I was still afraid she would ask me detailed personal questions or simply not believe me. I was also born without a sense of smell, and throughout my life, I’ve been met with immediate disbelief when I tell people; they think it’s impossible that I can taste and enjoy food but I can’t smell anything at all, whether it’s savory or disarming.

As I explained what face blindness is to my cousin, my heart stopped pumping so fast. She was asking polite follow-up questions because she wanted to understand, not to mock me or put me on trial for experiencing life differently. “I don’t think I would have found you in here unless you texted me to say, ‘I’m in the back of the restaurant, booth near the window.’” I recounted all the times I’d asked her where she was sitting if we were meeting in public, and she instantly remembered telling me exactly what table number she was sitting at so I could approach wait staff and be directed to her.

“I had no idea,” Nicole said. “I swear I’ll check my phone next time so you won’t have to worry.” She’ll never know what it feels like to wander through the tables and booths at a restaurant, searching for a familiar face and making eye contact with parties who want to remain undisturbed, but she’s willing to accept that I know that feeling.   

The next day, she wore a bright lime green skirt and printed shirt with swans on it when we met at the Boston seaport. “My phone is going to die,” she texted me thoughtfully, as she described her outfit in detail. “I’ll be at the docks around 6:30.”

Sure enough, as soon as I noticed a flash of lime green among the crowd, I screamed her name and she turned.

I had admitted my biggest weakness, and the world didn’t fall apart. My cousin accommodated me. She wore something noticeable and made sure to meet me somewhere visible. She didn’t prod me for a diagnosis or medical details, and it was obvious she believed me, even though our abilities differ.

Her lime green tennis skirt told me something I should have known years ago: It’s okay to “come out” as face blind. So what if I thought Daenerys from “Game of Thrones” and Legolas from “The Lord of the Rings” were the same character? That just gives me dozens of inside jokes with the people who know I have a facial recognition deficit, but love me anyway.

That Time I Tried Topless House Cleaning

After years getting paid to bare my breasts at more clubs than I can count, when my funds hit an all-time low I pioneered a cleaner brand of sex work.

Topless Housecleaning + Lapdance
Gentlemen, do you need a good, clean tease after a hard day’s work? I’ll clean your house and give you a (1) lapdance
$100/hr – have your own cleaning supplies – no blocked numbers.

When I arrive at the house of the first viable person to respond to my Craigslist ad, I knock on the door and take a step back. He opens it right away. Jim or John, suddenly I can’t remember. He’s young to have such a nice mini-mansion with a swimming pool and younger than I normally like to deal with. I like his work jeans and dirty white t-shirt, though. They feel kind of homey.

I step in, a little flirty, but all-business to begin with. I get him to show me the whole house, which serves the double purpose of planning ahead for cleaning and making sure there’s no one else hiding, ready to pop out for a gang rape later. Just when the tour is complete my phone rings. It’s my security detail — Possum, the hillbilly witchdoctor I’ve befriended, following instructions to wait for me to clear the house and call to be sure everything’s okay.

“Hey,” I say. “It’s all good in here. Call me in like an hour.”

Ayep,” Possum replies in his drawl.

I turn to JimJohn and start to pull my shirt off, then stop. “Business before pleasure, babe,” I say, making the little money sign with my fingers.

“Oh, of course.” He pulls a hundred out of his pocket and presses it into my hand. I shove it down one of my stockings as I take my pants off, because I have always believed that the safest place for my money is right against my skin.

* * *

I’d had eighty dollars left to my name when I drove into Greenville, South Carolina. Half a tank of gas and two blueberry smoothies later, it dwindled to sixteen dollars folded together in the bottom of my pocket. For some people, this might have been a problem, but not for me. I have the magical ability to walk into a strip club just about anywhere there is one and make a few hundred bucks just because I’m willing to get naked and smile at people.

Sex work is my trust fund. When I’ve been broke down on the side of the road with no money, when I’ve been a homeless teenager, when I’ve wanted to buy a house, a car, an education — sex work has always been there for me. I’ve done almost all the sex work: everything from street hustling to dancing in bejeweled gowns to foot fetish parties and erotic hypnosis. Whenever I discover a new form of sex work — the weirder or more interesting the better — I try to experience it.

I’m staying, with my dog, Spot, in my van down by the river next to Possum, who lives in a van that’s much bigger and nicer than mine. Possum drew me a map showing how to get to the two strip clubs he knows of: a big one, and a little one. Big strip clubs sometimes have things like rules and schedules and lots of competition and high house fees, which I don’t like. I decided to try the small one first.

The small one turned out to be a brothel with very little business, where I met some very beautiful, very southern women, including a 300-pound dancer named Hamhock who I wish I could introduce to every teenager worrying about their weight ever.

I was too fat for the big one, or the door guy was having a bad day.

I started to feel a little panic. That’s when the idea of topless housecleaning came to me — purely formed, rising sweetly out of my desperation — so I put up a Craigslist ad and here I am at Jim or John or whatever his name is’ house.

* * *

I do the kitchen first, like my friend Tania who actually grew up in a mansion and knows how to clean explained to me last night on the phone. I keep up a steady stream of flirting while I put his dishes in the dishwasher and move everything on the counter to one end so I can clean it. While I’m stacking his mail neatly I check out his name. Jim. The counter is dirty, covered in stains and puddles of dried-up food and glue and who knows what else. Scrubbing while bending over a counter in six-inch heels, back arched so that your ass sticks up pretty, is hard work. Especially while flirting the whole time with a man you hope is staring at your ass and not your sweaty face.

He asks about me, how I came to be a topless housecleaner. I don’t tell him that he’s my first, or that I’m broke, or that I live in a van. If you watch television you know what happens to broke homeless women: They give $20 blow jobs, not $100 counter scrubbings. Instead I make up a prissy story about finishing my Master’s degree and taking a year to drive around the country in an R.V. dancing. Of course I tried dancing here, I explain, but the clubs are just so dirty, and I’m way too classy to expose myself to such an environment. The crazy thing I’ve discovered is that the snobbier you seem, the more they will pay you.

Jim is amazingly empathetic about the nastiness of the local clubs. A classy woman like me obviously doesn’t belong in places like those. He follows me from kitchen to bathroom to bedroom to living room, staring while I wipe, mop, scrub and vacuum, all while trying to look like I’m not sweaty from doing this work in humid 90-degree weather. His story is interesting. All his time goes to his race-car business, which is like a dream, but lots of hard work. He bought this house two years ago, but hasn’t had the time or taste to furnish it yet, though he does find the time to indulge in the tradition of illicit hooch brewing down in the basement. Steely grey eyes and his young tough look contrast with his docile nature as he tamely follows me around his house. I’m beginning to think all men in the South must be gentlemen.

When I’m done cleaning I settle him on his couch, set my iPod to Depeche Mode, and tell him that he gets one free lap dance with his housecleaning and after that they are twenty dollars, just like in the club. He opens his wallet and peels off another hundred, right away, and tells me to just dance until that runs out.

“No touching,” I remind him as the song starts and I move in front of him. Soon I’m crawling all over him, undulating, brushing my ass across his hard penis through his jeans. He is begging me to let him touch me, and I’m reminding him that I’m not that kind of girl, although I make sure to sound a little confused.

“Come on,” he says, getting his wallet out. “What about for another hundred?”

I pretend to think hard, then: “Okay.” I take his hands and guide them over my body. “You can touch here — my ass, my thighs, my stomach, but no titties or pussy.”

“Two hundred?” he pulls two crisp $100 bills out of his wallet.

It’s not really a question for me. I’ve given this much contact for thirty dollars a song. I pretend to think long and hard, though. If I let on that I have no principles, I can’t pretend to sell them.

“Okay,” I finally say, pushing the bills down my stockings, “but keep your hands off the kitty! That is not for sale!”

He has gentle, well-practiced hands that he swirls around my nipples and brushes softly over my ass. I arch my back and gasp in pretend ecstasy. Soon he wants more again — a hand job, a hundred dollars.

I insist that I’m not that kind of dancer while I consider this through to its logical conclusion. A couple hundred more for a hand job, a couple hundred more for a blow job, a lot more for sex. It could be a grand, easily. But do I want to have sex with this guy? The thing is, I’m a lesbian. The other thing is, sometimes I think I could be bisexual, and every year or two I have a man sex experiment. I can get into men, and right now on this guy’s lap, I’m turned on.

My phone rings again. It’s Possum. “It’s been an hour,” he says, “are you okay in there?”

“Yeah,” I giggle, “I’m having a great time. I’ll be just another fifteen minutes or so.”

Awright.” He hangs up.

“Will you touch it?” Jim asks.

Do I look like that kind of girl? I’m a very classy stripper, I remind him.

“Oh, of course, of course. I’m sorry,” he says. “I hope you’re not offended.”

“No…” I cock my head. “Actually… I’ve always kind of wondered what it would be like to do something like that for money.”

“Well, here’s your chance to find out.”

“Hmm…I dunno. I couldn’t. Well…how much?”

“A hundred?”

“Oh, no. I couldn’t.”

“Two hundred?” He’s got his wallet out, two crisp hundreds in his hand.

“Okay.” I grab them and shove them into my stocking. In my mind I’m counting and calculating miles. This makes 600, or is it 800? That’s, like, 5,000 miles of gas money! Or 2,000 miles and a month or two of groceries and stuff while I explore desert canyons and sky islands. What more could a girl need?

I slide down between his legs and he unzips his jeans eagerly. It is small, with a nice curve and for a second I love it and want to fuck him. Smiling, I bring my face close, admiring it like I’m about to lick it. He gasps and wiggles a little, and I take his cock in my hand. It’s already throbbing, and I just run my hand up it lightly, swirl some of the pre-cum back down it, run my fingers over the whole thing. He moans and half thrusts his hips. I love this. When I finally grab his cock, two-handed, and give it a couple strong, twisting strokes, he explodes right away. Perfect.

“Oh my god,” he says.

I giggle. “No, goddess.”

“Oh my goddess.” He smiles.

“Stay right there, I’m going to get you a washcloth.” I run to the bathroom.

While he cleans up, I pull my jeans and tank top back on over my fishnets and thong. I’m ecstatic and high from the rush of going from six dollars to 800 dollars in an hour with my hustling skills, but I know I won’t have really pulled it off until I’m in the van, driving away. I make myself look totally calm while I throw my iPod and cleaning stuff in the bag I came with, give him a goodbye hug, and tell him he should really call me again to clean the rest of the house.

I don’t start laughing until I’m in the van and Possum is driving us away. Then I fold over in my seat, laughing and clapping my hands with excitement.

“Possum,” I exclaim, “I love having a vagina!

Leaning back, I push my hips up to pull my jeans down and start fishing the hundreds out of my fishnets.

Possum looks over at me with my legs up on the bed, pulling eight $100 bills out of my thigh highs. “Holy shit,” he says, “I do believe I wish I had a vagina too.”

Checking “topless housecleaning” off my to-try list of sex-work gigs makes me enough money to get back on the road. The next day Spot and I get in the van and drive across the country until I find a beautiful desert-sky island in northern Arizona. I stay for a couple weeks, playing in a creek and tracking coyote, before I get low on money again and start over.

* * *

Tara Burns is the author of the Whore Diaries series. She lives in a little cabin in a big boreal forest and she is working on a memoir. Follow her @THEecowhore

The Day My Therapist Dared Me to Have Sex With Her

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

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

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

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

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

“Oh, yeah,” I say. “That.”

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

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

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

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

I shrugged my shoulders, only half looking up.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Nailed it.

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

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

* * *

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Why not?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

There were two ways to find out:

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

2) Keep going to therapy.

* * *

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

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

“I don’t know.”

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

Here we go again.

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

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

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

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

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

“What?” I respond, flustered.

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

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

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

“Of course not.”

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

“I wouldn’t do that.”

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

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

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

* * *

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Isn’t therapy supposed to ameliorate my anxiety?

* * *

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Exactly.”

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

* * *

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Lori’s great at forcing me to reflect.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

* * *

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

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

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

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

* * *

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

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

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

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

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

* * *

Liked this story? Our editors did too, voting it one of our 20 best untold tales!

See the complete list of Editors’ Picks here. 

* *

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

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

I’m Married. I’m a Woman. I’m Addicted to Porn.

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.

“Go on.”

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.

* * *

Erica Garza is a writer from Los Angeles. Her essays have appeared in Salon, Substance, LA Observed, The Manifest Station and HelloGiggles. She is also a staff writer at Luna Luna Mag. Read more at ericagarza.com and follow her on Twitter @ericadgarza.

Iris Yan is a Brazilian-born Chinese cartoonist who completed a one-year certificate at The Center for Cartoon Studies in Vermont.