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.

 

 

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Rachel Hope’s PTSD almost killed her.

After multiple severe traumas – including an abusive childhood, abduction by a pedophile, and getting hit by a truck – Hope’s early adulthood was, perhaps unsurprisingly, plagued with night terrors and panic attacks. She was in denial that anything was wrong, determined to not let her trauma define her. This worked for a while; she managed to run a successful real estate development company and start a family.

But without treatment she just got worse. She developed bleeding ulcers, irritable bowel syndrome, paranoia, and a hyper-sensitive startle reflex that kept her jumping and screaming at the slightest provocation, making it impossible to sleep. Her hair started falling out, and she couldn’t keep food down. She was in and out of hospitals, completely emaciated, bleeding from infected sores all over her body that she would compulsively pick at.

“I was dying,” she says. And there was little hope she’d ever get better. Hope remembers her therapist telling her: “You have serious PTSD. It’s not treatable. You can mask the symptoms with drugs, but this is something we don’t know how to treat.”

She went on a pharmacy’s worth of drugs: Klonopin to help her sleep, Xanax to take the edge off the panic attacks, creams to heal her scabs, a pill for the ulcers, another pill for the nausea. Each medication treated a different symptom, but none addressed the cause. She says she was just biding her time, trying to raise her son to an age when he would be O.K. if she died. “Then I would let go.” When she thought about suicide, it wasn’t out of self-hatred, but a desire for a “mercy killing.”

She hired an assistant to carry out her daily tasks, because she couldn’t manage on her own – couldn’t leave the house at all. Her assistant intervened, saying he would only continue if she tried to get some help – real help, beyond the medication that was just barely keeping her alive. He dropped off a big stack of clinical trial protocols, and told her to pick one and apply.

One stood out: Phase II of a trial being conducted by the Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies (MAPS) to test the efficacy of MDMA (commonly known as the street drug Ecstasy) to treat PTSD.

She was skeptical at first, as someone who never self-medicated with recreational drugs. “I have a hard time keeping aware of what is reality in itself,” she says. “I don’t want to fuck with my consciousness. So I was a teetotaler.”

But she also had nothing left to lose. She figured that she was going to die anyway, and by participating in the trial, at the very least she might be a helpful guinea pig. She fit every one of the study’s many strict parameters (at least 18 years old with no dual diagnosis – meaning no additional psychiatric issues besides PTSD – and no history of self-medicating or drug abuse).

“I was pretty much the perfect person to determine whether it was safe to study real people,” she says with a wry laugh. “Phase II was the rat phase – I was the lab rat.”

She was accepted into the study in 2005, and went in for her first treatment: one dose of MDMA and an eight-hour session with two therapists.

A video of one of her sessions shows Hope dressed in a pink sweatshirt, reclining against several pillows, with a blanket over her. She speaks in a breathy voice to the therapist, explaining that her fears are finally out in the open, saying, “Oh, thank you so much” with tears in her eyes.

“In the middle I said ‘I have no idea why anyone would call this Ecstasy or do this as a party-drug. This is fucking hard,’” she remembers. “Because it expands your awareness. With MDMA in a psychotherapy session I felt safe enough to address those things I’d been hiding for so long, and also fucking shocked to hear my voice say what actually went on. I was also scared that I was gonna come out of that session a raw-hamburger-meat, deconstructed person, but that was not what happened.”

The MDMA allowed her to access the memories that were plaguing her, without them overwhelming her. She could see her trauma clearly for the first time, and could articulate everything that had happened to her – something she had never done before. Once she was able to talk through all of her traumas with the help of MDMA and a therapist, suddenly they didn’t have so much power over her.

After just that first session, she says, her symptoms were reduced by 80 percent. The bleeding ulcers healed, the IBS went away, she stopped picking at her skin, and was even able to sleep through the night. The panic attacks stopped and didn’t come back. She had a second session two months later, then a third after a couple of years, and now says she’s completely cured.

“Yes, I had post-traumatic stress, yes I have my memories; they are not going away,” she asserts. “Do I have a disorder? No. Does it hijack my life and make my life impossible to live in a normal way? No. Does it hold me back? No.

“It was literally like being born again.”

The only thing left, she says, that still feels like one of her old symptoms, is anger. But her anger is focused now, directed at pharmaceutical companies and government regulators – anger that this treatment exists but is not widely available.

An estimated 7.8 percent of Americans suffer from PTSD, with approximately 5.2 million people experiencing symptoms during the course of a given year. As Hope’s therapist warned her when she was diagnosed, the treatments currently on the market merely mask symptoms of PTSD, if that. Nothing treated the root cause – until she joined the MAPS study.

“I was cured of post-traumatic stress in three eight-hour MDMA sessions,” she says, as if she still can’t quite believe it herself.

One man has been fighting for 45 years to make this cure available to everyone.

* * *

The clinical trial that saved Rachel Hope’s life was the result of a half-century of work by Rick Doblin, the founder of MAPS. Since he was 18, Doblin has hoped to open a psychedelic clinic, and estimates it’ll still take about another decade before he gets there.

“Maybe by the time I’m 70 I’ll be able to start my career,” he jokes.

Doblin works out of a home office in the attic of his house in the suburbs of Boston. The slanted ceiling is painted sky blue, with fluffy clouds; a window across from his desk looks out onto the real sky and treetops. The desk is piled high with stacks of books, paperwork for the FDA trial, research articles – and a green plastic bong. Doblin has a bald spot and unruly, curly gray hair on the sides of his head, framing a face with the permanent smile of someone who has done a lot of psychedelics, and kept their wits. Barefoot, he sits at his desk to tell the story of his life’s work, periodically jumping up to find some relevant documents – a book that influenced his early research, his framed PhD from Harvard, which is leaning against a wall near the floor.

Rick Doblin, 2017. (Photo by Gretchen Ertl)

It all started, he explains, with his deeply held objections to the Vietnam War, and the questions that it raised about what he calls “the psychological underpinnings of how people could demonize and dehumanize.” In 1972, Doblin was in the last round of the lottery for the draft, and he decided to be a resister by never signing up. He was prepared to go to jail for his beliefs, despite his father’s warnings that he would never be able to become a doctor or a lawyer with a criminal record. But the police never came, he got away with not going to war, and went instead to the New College of Florida, a liberal arts college that had an unofficial tradition of all-night parties with psychedelics at an Olympic-sized swimming pool where everyone – students and faculty included – was naked.

Growing up, Doblin believed the propaganda of the era around psychedelics: they would make you go crazy forever, or that you’d die jumping off a roof because the drugs made you believe you could fly. But he says, in the environment of the hippie-college nudist pool parties, he decided to give it a try. And it changed his life.

“My LSD trips were very difficult,” he says. He was experimenting not just for fun, but with focused intent to do the deep internal work to make himself a “sharper instrument” for the kind of change he wanted to see in the world. He manufactured sensory-deprivation settings for his trips, like lying in a dark room with gloves on, or floating in a bathtub, to try to get further into his subconscious mind.

“The LSD brought a sense of the power of emotions, but it was a challenge, because I wasn’t good with emotions; I was insecure and shy,” he says. He tripped several times, but always reached a point where he couldn’t delve any deeper, where a part of him was holding back.

He says this made him feel like a failure. During one trip he started to believe these mental blocks were causing his brain to overheat and melt. (He thought the post-nasal drip he experienced was bits of melted brain.) Eventually, he went to the school counselor for guidance navigating his trips – because that’s the kind of place the New College of Florida was – and the counselor presented him with an unpublished manuscript copy of Realms of the Human Unconscious by Stanislav Grof, still one of the seminal texts on LSD research. After reading Grof’s work, and experimenting with LSD and mescaline even more, Doblin came to the conclusion that psychedelics addressed all of the issues that preoccupied him as a draft resister. He’d been circling the idea for a few years now that human beings were emotionally and spiritually lagging behind while making rapid advances in technology. We’d invented the atom bomb, and were paranoid enough to use it. He believed that humanity was on a dangerous trajectory of self-destruction, guided by our tendency to think of others as the enemy, rather than thinking of ourselves as one big unit.

But he believed LSD could fix all of that. He compares the mental shift that takes place on LSD to the cultural shift precipitated by Galileo. “It used to be the Earth was the center of the universe,” he explains, just like each of us sees our own ego, our own self, as the center of our world. “Then we learned no, the Earth revolves around the sun. The Earth is not the center, and neither is any of us.”

“If you can help people go beyond the limited ways we identify ourselves – this religion, this gender, this nationality, this race,” Doblin says, “you’ll see we’re all in it together.”

He believed psychedelics offered a path toward more communal understanding and compassion, a way to stop people from demonizing each other and getting caught up in their own competitive egos – on personal and geopolitical levels. Doblin decided that LSD had the potential, basically, to cure the world’s deepest ills.

Convinced that he’d stumbled on a way to save humanity from itself, Doblin dropped out of school with the goal of dedicating his life to organizing the psychedelic community, to try to protect people’s access to what he believed were life-saving, crucial tools for personal development. “I dropped out in order to build myself up emotionally, to reach a certain kind of balance between emotions, spirituality, and intellectual development,” he says. “And get grounded and ready to figure out how to do this.”

His conviction was reinforced over and over by his own acid trips – one where he thought an atom bomb had been dropped a few miles from his house, and he was able to experience the elation of accepting the end of the world – and prophetic dreams, like one where he was brought back in time by an A Christmas-Carol-esque apparition that told him he had survived World War II so that Doblin could discover psychedelics and become a psychedelic therapist.

But there was one problem: psychedelics were associated with the counterculture of the ’60s, recently criminalized, and thoroughly demonized.

Former Nixon domestic policy chief John Ehrlichman recently made waves by admitting in an interview with Harper’s that what we know today as the War on Drugs began for political reasons. “The Nixon campaign in 1968, and the Nixon White House after that, had two enemies: the antiwar left and black people,” he said. “You understand what I’m saying? We knew we couldn’t make it illegal to be either against the war or black, but by getting the public to associate the hippies with marijuana and blacks with heroin, and then criminalizing both heavily, we could disrupt those communities. We could arrest their leaders, raid their homes, break up their meetings, and vilify them night after night on the evening news. Did we know we were lying about the drugs? Of course we did.”

Doblin has this quote memorized, and says it only confirmed what he and his colleagues have known for decades: drugs were not the enemy of the people, but of the powers that be.

* * *

Before the war on drugs, psychedelics were one of the hottest topics in psychological research. Swiss chemist Albert Hofmann accidentally discovered the psychedelic effects of lysergic acid diethylamide (LSD) in 1943. A few years later, the first experimental psychiatric use for LSD was to mimic psychosis, allowing doctors to explore the possibility of biochemical causes for psychosis and schizophrenia. It was then famously used in the 1953 CIA-backed experiment known as MK-ULTRA, tested as a possible “truth serum” that could potentially get captured enemy combatants to spill strategic secrets. The field took a sharp left turn after some dubious studies that included dosing people with LSD without their knowledge. This led to serious emotional trauma, and the suicide of an Army biochemist.

In the mid-50s, psychedelic research turned to therapeutic uses, with two paradigms emerging. The first was psycholytic therapy, in which patients were given low doses of LSD, often in tandem with psychoanalysis, over several therapy sessions, with the goal of making them more receptive to therapy in order to overcome neurosis and adjust their outlooks. The second, psychedelic therapy, was the predecessor to the MDMA-assisted therapy MAPS is currently conducting. Patients were given one large dose of LSD with the goal of one “overwhelming” experience creating rapid change in the psyche. Doblin expresses anger and sadness that this research was halted after being so far along so long ago – that we could be benefitting from generations of psychedelic therapy by now.

By the early ’60s, LSD had become more widespread, with unqualified therapists setting up unlicensed psychedelic practices, and then the recreational popularization that came with characters like Timothy Leary.

Rick Doblin and Timothy Leary sometime in the 1980s. (Photo courtesy Rick Doblin)

Then the backlash came, and with the introduction of the Controlled Substances Act of 1970 that made LSD illegal, the research dried up, in the mainstream at least. In the ’70s and ’80s there was a network of therapists who risked their licenses by incorporating the recently developed MDMA – a synthetic cousin of LSD and psilocybin – into their practices.

Doblin describes the difference between LSD and MDMA like this: “It’s like you’re looking through a dirty window of your ego: MDMA is like cleaning the window. LSD is like breaking the window. And we need both of those. MDMA doesn’t dissolve the ego because you’re still grounded in your biography and sense of who you are, but it relaxes your insecurities and fears so then you can see through to the bigger picture.”

Doblin estimates roughly half a million doses of MDMA were distributed through these underground therapeutic channels, without the DEA catching on and regulating the drug, “because you do these drugs at home and they don’t cause people to panic and run to the emergency room.” During that time, MDMA was still technically legal, though not approved for therapy.

In addition to the licensed therapists who surreptitiously folded MDMA into their practices, unlicensed novices experimented with MDMA-assisted therapy in less official capacities. Doblin was one of these novices, practicing for the job he hoped to someday bring above board. He also distributed the drug among friends who he thought could benefit from ‘cleaning the window’ of their ego.

In what would turn out to be a pivotal interaction, Doblin agreed to guide a young woman, who went by the name Marcella, through psychedelic therapy to cope with the suicidal thoughts and anxiety she was suffering because of a rape that had happened eight years earlier. Doblin says it’s clear now that she was suffering from PTSD, though it wasn’t diagnosed as such at the time.

The first MDMA session they did made some inroads, Doblin says, into dealing with Marcella’s trauma, but there were still parts of it that she was not able to face. So after a few weeks, they decided to do an LSD session, hoping to get at the emotions that were still locked deep in her subconscious. He gave her a substantial dose of LSD. It ended up being more than she could handle. She had visions of being on a foreign planet, being slowly burned by its two suns as she lay helpless on the ground. She was overwhelmed and afraid. “LSD is harder to control than MDMA,” Doblin says.

Not totally sure what to do, or how to help Marcella come out of her bad trip, he suggested adding a half-dose of MDMA, and she agreed.

“That ended up being the breakthrough,” he says. After she took the MDMA, she was able to connect the imagery of these two suns with being left out in the sun after she was raped and beaten. “With the MDMA, the imagery from the LSD became her own life, and then turned into processing her own feelings.”

“I started to feel the horror of that day and I started vomiting,” Marcella wrote in her account of this session for a 1985 anthology called Through the Gateway of the Heart: Accounts of Experiences with MDMA and other Empathogenic Substances. “Getting sick was more than just a physical illness. I was vomiting from my soul, getting rid of pain, of an evil that had been destroying me. I then felt the need to tell my friend what the rapist had done to me, having always kept it to myself because I thought that by not speaking about it that eventually it would be erased from reality.”

“For eight years, I have kept the most horrible aspects of that day hidden in the back of my mind,” she wrote, “and it was only then that I realized how the little details that I had wanted to ignore were eating at me like a cancer. The memories became very vivid in my mind and the suffering became more intense, but I still wanted to talk about it and I felt that I could deal with the pain, that this was a start to try to defeat the cancer.”

They talked through all of the ways that her trauma had impacted her thinking, and as she examined and articulated it, she was able to let it go. After that session, her PTSD was never as bad as it had been before, and she even went on to work with Doblin in his current research.

“In this remarkable way, the MDMA helped her to sort of review and process a whole lifetime of trauma,” Doblin says. “That was 33 years ago, so we have evidence that the effects are durable.”

After this experience, his commitment to the cause of psychedelics liberation was born all over again.

“It was one of the biggest turning points in my life,” he says. “It really showed me that MDMA can be good for PTSD.”

* * *

That early heyday of MDMA, when it was used therapeutically and recreationally without much regulation, came to an end when someone figured out they could make a bunch of money by distributing the drug at bars. When MDMA was renamed Ecstasy and turned into a club drug, the DEA had to crack down and outlaw it, adding it to the list of Schedule 1 drugs in 1985. But not without a fight from Doblin.

The same year the DEA took notice of MDMA, Doblin and two friends started Earth Metabolic Design Lab, a non-profit organization dedicated to protecting people’s right to psychedelic use, affiliated with Buckminster Fuller Institute, which funds scientists, entrepreneurs, and others to develop ideas that solve global challenges across disciplines. While the DEA was in the process of making MDMA officially illegal, Doblin went to Washington, D.C. and filed an official objection on behalf of Earth Metabolic Design Lab, setting in motion a lawsuit that they would make history by winning. The judge ruled in their favor, recommending that MDMA be made a Schedule 3 drug, meaning it would be legal for therapeutic use, just not recreational. When he tells the story of this victory, Doblin roots around in the stacks on his desk and finds a framed, three-decade-old photo of himself, grinning. “This was right after we won,” he says.

The DEA, however, did not head the judge’s recommendation, and proceeded with the full criminalization. Doblin sued again, in Appeals Court, and won again. The legal battle went on for two years, but, he says, “the DEA kept trying to figure out new rationales to keep it illegal and eventually they succeeded.”

Rick Doblin outside the DEA in 1985 just before submitting a lawsuit. (Photo courtesy Rick Doblin)

Doblin could have given up then, but instead he decided to switch tactics, and formed a new non-profit, MAPS, with the goal of working with the FDA to legitimize psychedelics as medicine. This was when he decided he could be more successful working within the system to legitimize psychedelics, as opposed to pushing against it, a philosophy he’s maintained for the last 30 years.

Doblin wanted to get his PhD in clinical psychology with a focus on psychedelics, but no such programs existed, and no school would admit him to develop the field of study. “That’s when I realized the politics was in the way of the science, so I should switch and study politics,” he says, planning to work on reforming the political system to free the way for the research he really wanted to do. He ended up getting his PhD in public policy from Harvard University’s Kennedy School in 2001, after returning to the New College of Florida to complete his undergraduate degree in psychology in 1988.

He tried to get a job at the FDA, but believes the DEA blocked his hire. “They knew who I was,” he says, “because they don’t get sued very often. And they don’t lose.”

The turning point was an FDA advisory meeting in 1992, where the agency and a group of experts debated whether to reopen the doors to psychedelics research. The evening before the meeting, Doblin and Charles Grob, the researcher whose proposed study of MDMA was at the heart of the FDA’s debate, took a walk, collecting their thoughts and preparing to argue their case the next morning. They saw a rainbow rising up from behind a federal building. “Though we value rationality as much as the next person,” he wrote in his detailed account of the meeting for MAPS, “we were sorely tempted to consider it a favorable omen.”

Several of the leading researchers on psychedelics were present at the meeting, including Rick Strassman, whose research using DMT had made great strides toward proving that safe trials with mind-altering drugs were possible, and George Ricaurte, who led the charge against MDMA, arguing that it caused dangerous neurotoxicity. Ricaurte was instrumental in creating the longstanding societal perception of MDMA as deadly (including the urban legend that it creates holes in the brain – a distortion of research that showed that extreme overdoses of the drug can damage serotonin receptors). In recent years, much of Ricaurte’s influential work has been discredited, including a scandal around an expensive and highly publicized study that claimed to prove his theories about neurotoxicity and was later revealed to have used methamphetamine, not MDMA. The journal in which the study was published issued a retraction in 2003. Dr. Ricaurte did not respond to several requests for comment for this article.

When psychedelic-research advocates at the 1992 FDA committee meeting got into the details of the proposed protocol and doses for a particular study that wanted to pursue, they were able to convince even the staunch Ricaurte that there was little risk involved for the subjects. At that point, Doblin was convinced they would be successful. And they were. The FDA decided they would allow for psychedelic trials with human subjects, under strict limits.

It’s been legal for MAPS to do their research since then. But the biggest battle was the cultural one – it took the 25 years since that meeting to start to get society to let go of some of the bias against psychedelics that were set in motion in the late ’60s and ’70s.

* * *

There are several organizations in the U.S. that see MDMA as a dangerous party drug, and dedicate time and resources to keeping it off the streets.

“MDMA actually is quite harmful, we have issues with young people at electronic music festivals,” says Cindy Grant, Executive Director of the Hillsborough County Anti-Drug Alliance (HCADA), a Tampa-based nonprofit that focuses on teen substance abuse prevention, who was not aware that there was research being done into therapeutic uses for MDMA. “Why would you even want to go there when we have so much other medicine out there?”

One of the biggest challenges of Doblin’s work is getting society at large to understand that MDMA is more than a party drug – getting them to break the associations with raves and “Just Say No” commercials. Marijuana is paving the way for de-stigmatization. “It’s just incredible how versatile the cannabis plant is, and it’s also been suppressed against Mexicans, initially, then against hippies, then against blacks,” Doblin says. And now, it’s changing. “People are understanding and seeing the racist aspects of it. And there’s been this recognition of the medical use of marijuana, and the rest of the psychedelics are proving to be incredible tools for science and for therapy.”

He also points out that in the controlled settings of therapy, with patients who have been screened for heart health since MDMA can raise blood pressure, there hasn’t ever been a single death reported, “or anything even close.”

“It took 50 years to mature to the point where we can look at these things directly and see these aren’t tools of social destruction,” he says. “We have an opportunity now that we haven’t had in 50 years: to integrate psychedelics into our culture. We desperately need it.”

And there has been quite a shift. Ricaurte, the neurotoxicity expert who led the charge against MDMA and other “amphetamine analogs” for more than 20 years, was one of the last holdouts in the research community to argue that MDMA was unilaterally dangerous. His research was a touchstone of the widespread misconceptions about how dangerous the drug is (including the urban legend that it bores holes in the brain). In 2002, he published a very expensive study backed by Johns Hopkins, which showed that a single dose of MDMA could cause permanent brain damage (the neurotoxicity he’s been studying for decades), but the study was then debunked and retracted, amid much scandal. A New York Times article from 2003, “Research On Ecstasy Is Clouded By Errors,” reported “the consensus among many amphetamine researchers, Dr. Ricaurte included, is that there is no proof thus far that Ecstasy causes permanent human brain damage.”

Psychedelic therapy research is having a moment right now – what PBS called a “medical renaissance” or, in the more technical language of the Canadian Medical Association Journal, a “re-emerging therapeutic paradigm.” After years on the fringes, psychedelic research is suddenly everywhere. Ketamine is gaining popularity as an off-label treatment for severe depression, scientists are returning to pick up where LSD research left off decades ago, and outlets like Rolling Stone and CBS are covering this cultural shift as a therapeutic goldmine.

But medicine is just the entry point for Doblin. He believes in free access to psychedelics for any and everyone who wants them. Biding his time, he believes that getting these drugs approved for therapeutic use is the first step toward wider societal acceptance.

“The ideal is having the freedom to make the choices of how you want to do it,” he adds. “For many people, going to a Grateful Dead or Phish concert and dancing with people is ideal. So I don’t think the spiritual, therapeutic or recreational use of psychedelics is inherently the best – they all have their place.”

Of course, not everyone agrees. Even Rachel Hope, one of Doblin’s biggest cheerleaders, disagrees with some of his end goals of having MDMA widely available both medically and recreationally.

“I get really irritated when people go ‘I just want to look at sparkly lights and dance,’” she says. “What a waste! You could have rewired your brain. You could have challenged every aspect of you, your lower nature that holds you back. Every obstacle to you being the greatest self you could possibly be, the most loving you could possibly be, you could have healed that. But you choose to look at sparkling lights.”

But she also says that she’s decided to do her part of the work – sharing her story, being a public face for the effectiveness of the medicine – and let Doblin do his. Because whether or not she aligns with every aspect, she says, “The work of MAPS I think is sacred work.”

“He’s like the modern-day Buddha,” she says of Doblin. “He should win the Nobel Peace Prize.”

With the completion of Phase II of the clinical trial that saved Hope’s life by completely eliminating her crippling PTSD symptoms, MAPS is now ramping up for Phase III. Ingmar Gorman is one of dozens of therapists currently training to conduct these sessions during Phase III. He explains that in the four years he’s been a therapist (without using MDMA), he’s noticed how much time and energy is spent during therapy helping patients get to a place where they can help themselves, and recognize the roots of whatever issues they may be dealing with.

“It’s just absolutely incredible,” he says, “when you have someone go into a session and take MDMA and they are saying things about themselves and their history – for example, how they were so obsessed with being in control of their life because they were so afraid of anything related to the trauma or not being able to truly live their life – having the thoughts and awareness that comes with that, the MDMA helps them do it without too much help of the therapist.”

“The therapist plays an essential role in the therapy, for sure,” he adds, “but it’s really incredible how much work the participants are doing on their own.”

MDMA-assisted therapy is what’s known as “self-directed” therapy, where the patient really leads the discussion, and so they’re able to delve into whatever traumas or issues they’ve been unable to face in the past. “They spontaneously or intuitively bring up what they think is most important,” Gorman says – like how Marcella wrote that she “felt the need” to tell Doblin what had happened to her during her LSD and MDMA therapy session in 1984, and Doblin followed her lead, discussing each painful memory and revelation as they came to her.

The challenges of Phase III are largely logistical: They need at least 230 participants, and they need to train enough therapists to facilitate treatments for each of those patients. And they need to find locations; Phase III will take place in multiple sites in the United States, Canada, and Israel.

Finding patients, training therapists, and finding locations, all of this takes funding. Doblin estimates they’ll need about $30 million to complete Phase III, of which they have $10 million. But he’s hopeful, pointing out that billionaire Paul Allen donated $25 million to search for extra extraterrestrial life. “All we need is one person like that to say, ‘Let’s see if there’s any domestic intelligence. Let’s see if we can find any intelligence here on Earth,’” Doblin says. “Give me 25 million and we’ll make MDMA a medicine.”

If this next phase is successful, MDMA-assisted therapy could be available by prescription as soon as 2021.

 

 

The Housing Battle at the End of the World

When tourism boomed in Ushuaia, Argentina – the world’s southernmost city – displaced locals occupied land in the forest. As development continues to encroach, these renegade residents are more determined than ever to hold onto what they believe is rightfully theirs.

Perched on a wide bay along the southern coast of Argentina’s Tierra del Fuego province, Ushuaia is the southernmost city in the world. At one end of the city, a steep, unpaved road through the trees marks the entrance to the district known as Dos Banderas. The road takes a sharp turn, and suddenly, the chaotic town, known for its tourism, mountain gear shops, and expensive cruises, is left behind. If Ushuaia is at the end of the world, these woods make one feel as if the world has been left behind. If a visitor didn’t know where to look, they might think this was just another path in the woods; however, a careful eye reveals there’s much more than wilderness here. 

Ushuaia, founded in 1884, is bordered on the north by the foot of Andes mountain range, and on the south by the Beagle Channel, which connects the Pacific and Atlantic Oceans. The earliest-known inhabitants of the area were the Selk’nam, an indigenous group who lived here for thousands of years. When colonizers from Europe and America arrived in the region, the natives were systematically deported and exterminated – bounties were even paid to the most ruthless hunters. By the mid-20th century, their population was reduced to less than few hundred.

A home in the Dos Banderas district.
A home in the Dos Banderas district.

After existing as a penal colony for re-offenders from 1896 to 1947, Ushuaia now has about 60,000 permanent residents and attracts thousands of domestic and international tourists every year, all looking to experience the virtually untouched landscapes, and dreaming of Antarctica’s ice caps, as the town’s harbor serves as a launching place for Antarctic tour expeditions. 

Unknown to many of the tourists who have come and gone in search of adventure over the last 20 years, life for the residents of Ushuaia has been anything but stable. While Ushuaia has flourished into a proper urban center and tourist destination, there has been a growing problem with the uneven distribution of resources. Most of the money generated by tourism has ended up in the pockets of private companies, and many residents complain that there has been little re-allocation to services and infrastructure that would benefit them. In 1996, the local government shut down a public housing program, as well as the public registry for land, which had allowed families to purchase places to live.  

“All of a sudden, hundreds of pending families in that registry found themselves without the possibility of having a home. That was when people started looking for a place to live in this forest,” says Pao Minolfi, a local resident and young mother of three children. Previously, “People could sign up in the land registry, where points were assigned according to the amount of years a person lived in Ushuaia, if he or she was a Tierra del Fuego native, and many other factors. Then a waiting list was made, and top people could get a plot of land to build their own house.”  

Pao Minolfi with her three children outside the house she built in the Dos Banderas district.
Pao Minolfi with her three children outside the house she built in the Dos Banderas district.

Many local families, unable to afford rent in town, began to peacefully occupy plots of land outside of Ushuaia’s city center. Today, about 350 families live in these districts, on land they don’t officially own. Minolfi was one of the first people to build her own house in what is now known as Dos Banderas. “When I first got here, my house was one of the most isolated [homes in] the neighborhood,” she says. “Today, I have a lot of neighbors, and the community is much stronger.” Dos Banderas is now full of hand-built houses, playgrounds, and public squares, all of which were crafted with the aim of interfering with nature as little as possible.  

A children’s playground in the Dos Banderas district. Residents have built several community areas like this one, using recycled materials.
A children’s playground in the Dos Banderas district. Residents have built several community areas like this one, using recycled materials.

Not all of the land near these districts is public; some of it is owned by wealthy private citizens, who use the properties as vacation homes. The local government has used this as leverage to charge many of the occupiers with trespassing, and trying to evict them from the area. “Since the beginning, it has been all about fighting for our right to have a place to live,” says Minolfi.  

Then, in the early 2000s, the entire Dos Banderas area was designated as a site for a luxury hotel and golf courses. However, thanks to the activism and protests from district residents, construction was never completed. “During those years we all lived in a constant fear of losing everything we were trying to create here,” says Minolfi. “There were regular police raids, and it was very hard to bring inside the district all the material needed for construction. I had to cut all the wood I used [to build my house] in small little pieces so that I could easily hide it in my car. It was a constant drive back and forth from my sister’s house in town.  

“That’s why I’m so proud of what we achieved. What we have today is the result of a 20-year battle against the municipality and private investors, who would have been more than happy to use these lands as source of profits. These woods are beautiful, and [the] tourism industry has always been tempted to take advantage of it.  

“After all,” she adds, smiling proudly, “from here you have the perfect overlook of the Beagle’s Channel and the entire town, so it’s understandable.” 

A sightseeing ferry sails across the Beagle Channel.
A sightseeing ferry sails across the Beagle Channel.

“I feel lucky to be in this place, to live in harmony with the environment, to have all these natural beauties just in my backyard,” says Calos Villamontea good friend of Minolfi and a former employee of the Ushuaia municipalityVillamonte moved here from Buenos Aires 23 years ago and now lives in “Las Raices, an occupied district adjacent to Dos Banderas. “It makes me so angry to think that Ushuaia’s tourism industry always tries to take advantage of these incredible landscapes we have.” Because of the monopoly granted to tour companies, many natural sites in and around Ushuaia are off-limits without paying a feeVillamonte and several other local activists have taken it upon themselves to mark paths and trails through the woods, allowing hikers to discover the beauty the land has to offerfree of charge.

A five-star hotel called “The Arakur.” Located on a scenic point overlooking the entire city, the hotel was the subject of many controversies between local residents and multinational corporations who wanted to use the land for tourism.
A five-star hotel called “The Arakur.” Located on a scenic point overlooking the entire city, the hotel was the subject of many controversies between local residents and multinational corporations who wanted to use the land for tourism.
The heated outdoor pool at the Arakur hotel overlooks the Beagle Channel. The cost of a standard double room at the Arakur ranges from $350-500 U.S. per night depending on the season.
The heated outdoor pool at the Arakur hotel overlooks the Beagle Channel. The cost of a standard double room at the Arakur ranges from $350-500 U.S. per night depending on the season.

The land is a little rougher in Las Raices: the road is only accessible by car to a certain point; past that it is only possible to travel on foot. The path is often extremely muddy due to the weather, which is so unstable in Ushuaia that locals say it’s possible to experience the four seasons in as little as half an hour.  

“In wintertime, it becomes a real problem to move around, especially when snow arrives,” says Villamonte, indicating the woods behind his house. “Everything freezes, and when you have so little daylight, torchlights and caution become fundamental. But it’s worth it – we live in a place which is only 300 meters as the crow flies from the city center, and still we are in the middle of the nature.” 

The exterior of a house in the LasRaìces district.
The exterior of a house in the LasRaìces district.
Villamonte, left, his wife Veronica and their daughter Morena in front of their home in Las Raìces.
Villamonte, left, his wife Veronica and their daughter Morena in front of their home in Las Raìces.

When I started building my house, I didn’t know anything about construction,” says Villamonte, laughingI had no clue how to build a drainage system, nor a solid foundation. It’s something you learn by experience, and by a regular exchange with people in your same situation. When they say that you learn by mistakes, it’s true.” 

A view of the Andorra district of Ushuaia, pictured in the foreground. Andorra is another occupied district neighboring Dos Banderas, which can be seen on the wooded slope in the background.
A view of the Andorra district of Ushuaia, pictured in the foreground. Andorra is another occupied district neighboring Dos Banderas, which can be seen on the wooded slope in the background.

Given the unstable relationship with the local municipality, the families living in these districts know they must rely on each other. Such cooperation is apparent in the collective administration boards: there is one for every district, and they are in charge of the many different aspects of everyday life, such as carrying on a dialogue with Ushuaia’s municipality, mediating any controversies that arise between local residents, and carrying out improvements to be made within the districts.   

Serving on such boards is almost a full-time job, as is apparent by Minolfi’s mobile phone. She is constantly receiving phone calls and Whatsapp notifications from people inquiring about land, neighbors complaining about the behavior of the nearby family, and so on. It’s a duty she performs with pride.

A hand-drawn map of the Dos Banderas district.
A hand-drawn map of the Dos Banderas district.

“Ushuaia is a city that is constantly growing, year after year,” says Minolfi. “With immigration from the north of Argentina and bordering countries, as well as high birth rates, the demand for land is increasing, and it’s something that needs some sort of regulation by the local administration. People have the right to have a place to live.”  

Ten years ago, the municipality began a process of urbanization and deforestation, clearing about 62 acres in the Andorra district, in an attempt to regulate the occupation phenomenon, and to improve the quality of life in the neighborhood.

Augustine works at one of the few kiosks in the Dos Banderas district selling food and other essentials. In the middle of the woods, his kiosk is probably the best-stocked kiosk in the area, and people from all over the district walk here to buy their essential needs.
Augustine works at one of the few kiosks in the Dos Banderas district selling food and other essentials. In the middle of the woods, his kiosk is probably the best-stocked kiosk in the area, and people from all over the district walk here to buy their essential needs.

“Andorra began to be urbanized in 2007, but still today many areas do not have water, sewer or gas. If, after ten years, there’s still a lack of basic services like these, it means that deforestation and urbanization aren’t the right way to solve the question.” says Minolfi “It’s becoming a real problem, and we don’t quite know what the municipality would like to do for districts like Dos Banderas or Las Raìces.

Residential buildings, built when the public housing system was still operational, stand in the district called “Barrio 640,” which is in the eastern part of Ushuaia, and is one of the oldest districts in the area.
Residential buildings, built when the public housing system was still operational, stand in the district called “Barrio 640,” which is in the eastern part of Ushuaia, and is one of the oldest districts in the area.

The residents in Ushuaia’s occupied districts have built a resolute community, and the ongoing conflict they have been struggling with for decades has led to a fragile agreement with the local administration. There are no more evictions like there were in the first years, and in 2016, mayor Walter Vuoto voted to re-open the public land registry; however, the authorities still work to avoid new settlers in the area, and residents feel they can’t let down their guard.   

Despite the precariousness of the situation in which they live, a strong sense of purpose is tangible among the residents of these forests at the end of the world. While they are cautiously optimistic about the future, they are determined to keep up their fight for as long as they have to, even if that means passing it on to future generations.

Marco, left, and Gabriel live in Barrio 640. “We have six horses,” says Marcos. When asked if the horses are used to work the fields, he replies, “Nah, just as pets. People have dogs, we have horses.”
Marco, left, and Gabriel live in Barrio 640. “We have six horses,” says Marcos. When asked if the horses are used to work the fields, he replies, “Nah, just as pets. People have dogs, we have horses.”
An isolated lookout in Ushuaia, with a southward-facing view of the Beagle Channel.
An isolated lookout in Ushuaia, with a southward-facing view of the Beagle Channel.

 

 

This Heavy Metal Band Is Hell-Bent on Saving an Endangered Language

As the Brazilian tribal language Tupi Guarani nears extinction, this hyper-aggressive group is raising awareness about the urgent need to save it – one power chord at a time.

While taking the stage at Gillian’s Inn – a bar, restaurant and performance space in northern São Paulo, Brazil – the band Arandu Arakuaa compels the crowd into a moment of silence, unusual during a heavy metal show. Soft notes from the guitar, drums, contrabass and maracas, played by four men in the dress and facepaint of indigenous Brazilians, places the audience under a spell. A few seconds later, a petite female singer, her face painted like the others, joins the musicians. She shouts, breaking the spell, and as she begins singing, the crowd starts to jump around, bouncing their heads to the hard-hitting music that’s also kicked into gear.

The band combines traditional metal sounds with indigenous Brazilian stylings executed on flutes, foot rattles, and other instruments. The two singers present lyrics completely in Tupi Guarani, an ancient language spoken by tribes throughout Brazil and other South American lands. Arandu Arakuaa, whose name translates in Tupi Guarani – or just “Tupi” for short – to “wisdom of the cosmos,” is the only contemporary band to sing in that language, and their colorful lyrics are about indigenous legends, rights, and the struggles facing native Brazilian tribes today. Some call Arandu Arakuaa the first “folk-metal” band in the history of Brazil.

“It’s something new and is the most original thing I’ve heard in years,” says one audience member, Marcos Simão. “Who could ever imagine that two things that seem so different as heavy metal and indigenous culture, would result in something so cool?”

Arandu Arakuaa.

The person who dared to imagine that combination is Zhândio Aquino, the group’s founder, second vocalist and lyricist. Aquino descended from a Tupi-speaking tribe in the northern Brazil state of Tocantins, where he lived until he was 24 years old. “I had a very close contact with indigenous culture because of my grandmother and classmates,” Aquino says. “When I [began] playing in bands, it just felt natural to put my background on it.” Now 37, Aquino’s first experience with music came from the tribes and quilombos – villages populated by descendants of slaves who ran away from the farms they worked on in the 19th century. His love for heavy metal began when he was a teenager, when he emulated the genre’s brutally honest, expressive artists.

When Aquino moved to Brasília, the national capital, in 2004, he performed in a few amateur bands and people always observed that his music had an indigenous touch. “It was not always said as a compliment,” Aquino quips, “and I faced some resistance from some people at first.”

Aquino started looking for like-minded musicians to form his own band. It took three years to put Arandu Arakuaa together, but they’re still going strong, and are beginning to make waves in Brazil with their unique musical approach.

 

Before colonization began in about the year 1500, there were over a thousand languages spoken across Brazil. Today there are 170 indigenous languages, 40 of them with fewer than 100 speakers. Some experts believe 30 percent of the remaining indigenous languages may disappear in just the next 15 years.

“It’s a dramatic situation,” José Levinho, director at the Indigenous Museum in Rio de Janeiro, recently told Agência Brasil. “Those languages are a patrimony, not only to Brazil, but to the whole world.” Levinho observes apathy among the youth of various tribes when it comes to learning their respective language.

One of the biggest challenges for Arandu Arakuaa fans is understanding the lyrics. Most translation websites do not include Tupi, and few people speak it. To solve the problem, the band has included Portuguese subtitles in their video clips on YouTube.

Arandu Arakuaa performing at Basement of Rock Festival 2014 in Brazil. (Photo courtesy Arandu Arakuaa)

The tribes of Brazil face other concerns on top of their dying languages. Many are in constant conflict with the government as they try to maintain control of their lands, which are valued as potential revenue streams to land developers. Tribal gods and ancient rituals are often labeled as evil by Brazilian society. “There is a stigma around the tribes,” Aquino says, “and a lot of prejudice around them since they are often labeled as lazy, which is not true.”

Arandu Arakuaa addresses these struggles in their lyrics. One song titled “Red People” includes lyrics that tranlate into English as:

Some of us ran away, we hide in the forest
We still fight
The red people still resisting, while there is land, while there is forest
Everything became different
Our spirits are called demons
Each day less trees, less animals, less histories, less songs…

Some heavy metal fans say Arandu Arakuaa isn’t “real metal.” The group’s brightly colored outfits certainly contrast with the leather and spikes of many old-school acts. But such critiques do not deter the band members from their collective vision.

“What I like about Arandu Arakuaa is that people are not indifferent to our music: they will love or hate it,” says Aquino. “Most people think it’s strange at first and then we have to prove that we are good.”

His band is not the first Brazilian metal group to include tribal affects. The most famous heavy metal act from Brazil, Sepultura, infused references to indigenous culture in their 1996 album Roots, although not to nearly the same degree as Arandu Arakuaa.

The band has now released two albums and garnered thousands of followers on social media.

“We always had the intention to bring up a discussion that goes beyond music,” says a proud Aquino, who has a degree in pedagogy. Arandu Arakauaa often receives invitations to play in schools and other tribal-centric events. They have even lectured at universities about the importance of preserving the culture and languages of Tupi and other tribes. In the near future, they hope to perform for an indigenous tribe on their grounds for the first time.

“When we started we just wanted to have fun and we never had the intention to be pioneers in anything,” Aquino says. “Our music aims to show who we really are and what we believe. It is really rewarding to see our work being recognized.”

 

 

The Truth About New York’s Legendary ‘Mole People’

Two decades after NYC sought to relocate its infamous tunnel-dwelling denizens, a years-long investigation reveals a few hardy souls still toiling and thriving beneath the city streets. They insist they wouldn’t live anywhere else.

The mouth of the tunnel is wide and dark, swallowing the light and all that breathes. Rubble is scattered along the train tracks, bordered by retaining walls covered in numerous layers of graffiti.

This is where it all started.

Here by the parkway with the blasting trucks and the roaring cars, near the filigree arches of the Riverside Drive viaduct, here with the gravel crunching under my feet as I run down the railroad into this hollow mouth.

This is where they live, deep into the depths of the city, way underground, lying in the dirt. Sure, you know about them. Of course you know about them. They’ve always been there, resting low below the rowdy streets and the carving avenues, gulping the air from inside the earth, crawling through holes and cracks, living off the grid and off the books.

Here in the tunnels.

You’ve heard the rumors. Their eyes have adapted to the constant night that cloaks them from the topside world. Don’t you know they’re eating rats and human flesh? Don’t you know they want us dead? And one day they will spill outside and burn us all alive, and they will reign over our flatscreen joys and our organic delights.

Of course you know about them. The lost ones, the hidden ones. The broken and the ill, the wandering, the gone. The Mole People.

“Jon,” I call, looking up. Jon has been homeless for more than fifteen years. Like many of the people interviewed for this article, he did not want to give his full name. He has been living here for a while now, in a small space between two support beams that can only be reached with a ladder. A plywood roof protects his hoarded belongings from seeping water. The place is crammed full. There is an old mattress on the floor, and cookware, blankets and electronics stacked on makeshift shelves.

“Jon,” I repeat, and he appears, his head cautiously peaking up from his house, a relieved smile on his face when he sees me.

“I thought it was the Amtrak police,” he later says while opening a beer, his legs dangling off the edge of the wall. “They been coming less, lately, but you never know. Regular police ain’t bothering me, but Amtrak, they can be nasty.”

Jon says he did prison time. He is bipolar and suffers from major substance dependence. He used to be a gang member in the Bronx. He used to be a family man until he got disowned. He was a furniture salesman. The FBI is looking for him. He used to know Donald Trump. It doesn’t matter which version is true. His real story has been buried long ago under thick layers of improvised memories that grew more detailed by the years, the man slowly becoming a collage of himself.

“I’m good here,” he says. “No taxes, no rent, no nothing. There’s no hassle compared to the streets, you know what I’m saying? Here I don’t get bugged by kids. It’s a safe place. I can do what I wanna and I don’t have to take nothing from nobody.”

Today is a good day for Jon, despite the rain and the cool weather.

“You’re the first person to visit this week,” he says. “People don’t want to speak to me when they come here. I don’t know, man. They’re scared or something. I can get why, it’s a spooky place when you don’t know it. But people, they like it when it’s scary. They like it when it’s dirty, right? It makes them feel alive. That’s why they make up these stories about cannibalism and stuff. Like alligators in the sewers.”

Jon offers me a sip of vodka. We drink together. He tells me to stay safe and to watch out for trains when I go back walking into the tunnel. I hear him talk to himself as I go away from the entrance and from the white sky.

The smell down here is the one of brake dust and mold. I can see rats scouring for food and drinking from brown puddles in the tracks ballast. EXISTENCE IS FLAWED, a graffiti inscription reads.

The city growls over my head — a distant growl muffled by the concrete, almost a snarl, like something cold and foul spreading over the long stretches of stained walls, like a dark and wild beast curling up around me and breathing on my neck. A dark and wild beast silently trailing me.

* * *

Stories about underground dwellers were already flourishing when the first New York City subway line opened in 1904. The expansion of extensive sewers and steam pipes systems had brought a newfound fascination with what laid below the streets. From Jules Verne’s 1864 novel “Journey to the Center of the Earth” to George Gissing’s 1889 book “The Nether World,” literature was brimming with tales of people living in isolation or trapped under the surface, peaking in 1895 with “The Time Machine,” in which H. G. Wells described a fictional subterranean species called the “Morlocks.”

But it was only in the 1990s that the first widespread depictions of real-world tunnel residents appeared in New York. A 1990 New York Times article by John Tierney was the earliest to outline the phenomenon, looking at people living in an abandoned train tunnel beneath Riverside Park, along the banks of the Hudson River.

Collective imagination took over quickly.

In 1993, Jennifer Toth published her essay “The Mole People,” documenting hidden communities residing in a network of forsaken caverns, holes and shafts across Manhattan. An instant hit, it chronicled the organization of those underground societies, describing compounds of several thousands where babies were born and regular lives were lived, with elected officials, hot water and even electricity.

However, the book was promptly criticized for its inconsistencies. Joseph Brennan, a New York rail buff, wrote an extensive and detailed critique in 1996, exposing many discrepancies in Toth’s reporting, such as places that couldn’t exist, exaggerated numbers and contradictory claims. According to Brennan, the whole notion of secret passages was implausible and “reminiscent of scenes in the TV series ‘Beauty and the Beast.’”

A 2004 article by Cecil Adams further demonstrated that many accounts were perhaps more sensationalism than truth. Adams pointed out unverifiable or incorrect facts in Toth’s work, and her skepticism peaked during her interview of Cindy Fletcher, a former tunnel dweller who challenged important points of the narration. “I’m not saying the book is not true, I just never experienced the things [she] said she saw,” Fletcher explained to Adams. I was unable to reach Toth for comment, but when Adams talked to her, the journalist said she couldn’t remember how to access certain places described in her essay — possibly not to disclose the whereabouts of trespassing squatters.

Still, while the essay might have been inflated or romanticized, it was nonetheless true that the homeless begging in the streets of New York were merely the tip of the iceberg. Photojournalists Margaret Morton and Andrea Star Reese have both extensively documented communities spread in underground hideouts since Toth’s book. Dutch anthropologist Teun Voeten’s 1996 diary “Tunnel People” provided an incredible account of the months he spent with the Riverside Park Amtrak tunnel inhabitants before they were evicted and moved to Section 8 housing units. In 2000, director Marc Singer released his acclaimed documentary “Dark Days,” filming the same people followed by Voeten and Toth in their respective books.

“There were definitely people living in tunnels, but not a lot,” Norman Diederich, a former MTA maintenance inspector, told me. “If there are still any, they’re very discreet. This period is gone.”

“There were talks that the moles were cannibals,” Diederich continued. “That they could see in the dark. That they spoke their own language. Creepy stuff, straight out of a horror movie… Most was made-up. I personally never witnessed unusual stuff. Santa Claus, the Boogeyman, the Mole People, it’s all the same. We need to label things we don’t understand. It’s human nature.”

“Just cause you can’t see don’t mean ain’t nothing there,” begins Anthony Horton’s 2008 graphic novel “Pitch Black,” relating the author’s own struggles as a homeless man. Written in an abandoned crew room of the F subway line, these words were the reason I ventured into the tunnels in the first place, looking for the invisible, guided by local dwellers along the years to seek foundations of humanity in the foundations of the city.

All the stories I had read about the Mole People before descending myself had two things in common.

They all showed simple human beings who were in no way comparable to the legends that had been told, and they all included a man named Bernard Isaac.

* * *

I met Bernard Isaac for the first time in 2009. “This is not a place of perdition,” he often said about the Riverside Park tunnel when we talked together during his shifts as a maintenance worker in Central Park. “This is a sanctuary. A place to find peace and take a break from the chaos.” He would then reminisce about his old life, his eyes would light up and there would be the crack of a smile, and whatever place we were in would be filled by his presence.

Isaac was at the very center of the Mole People legend. His BA in journalism and his studies in philosophy had somehow led him to work as a model, then as a TV crew member, then as a tour guide in the Caribbean where he began smuggling cocaine to the States. The father of two sons with two different women, he never cared much for family life, preferring to spend his smuggling profits on parties thrown at his Upper West Side penthouse. Soon he was broke, friendless and on his own. By the late 1980s, he was sleeping in the Riverside Park tunnel.

The tunnel was known by homeless people since its inception in the 1930s, when it was used by trains to bring cattle to the city before the freight operations ended. Its population, limited at first to about three or four individuals, quickly grew at the time Isaac settled in, evolving into small tribes of vagrants who built thriving shantytowns in the newly abandoned space.

Few risked getting down into the tunnel. “It often scared grown men easily,” recounted Isaac in 2010 as he showed me his old hangout places. But those who did go down called it home, and it became a haven for the destitute to unwind without fear of getting arrested or attacked like people on the streets often were.

One day, three men asked Isaac for a toll as he came by the 125th Street entrance to the tunnel. He laughed at them and said “Do you know who you’re talking to? I’m the fucking lord of this tunnel!” The three men never bothered him again, and Isaac’s nickname “The Lord of the Tunnel” was born.

Though there never was any real leader in the shantytown, Isaac became the community’s de facto spokesman, interacting with outreach groups and journalists to explain how living there was better than dealing with shelter curfews, senseless laws and indifferent social workers. Soon interest came from all around the world.

Ironically, the tunnel’s community support was in many ways more efficient than the one offered by municipal programs. In the encampment, the dwellers had a familiar place to be, watch TV, read or smoke. They had autonomy. Rules were simple but strictly enforced. Respect for privacy. No yelling. No stealing. No stupid behavior or you’d be kicked out. Some, like Isaac, were at home in the darkness, and would not have lived anywhere else. Most who lived here did not consider themselves homeless.

As word spread of the tunnel, a growing number of graffiti artists came to paint the seemingly endless walls that flanked the train tracks. One of them, Chris “Freedom” Pape, had known the place for quite a while before. He became friends with Isaac and his community, teaming up with local tagger Roger Smith — known to most as just “Smith” — to paint pieces narrating their stories. “I hadpainted in the tunnel for six years before the homeless moved in, so they were curious about me,” said Pape in a 2014 interview for “Untapped Cities.” “I became friendly with most of them and my visits to the tunnel were much safer and even relaxing.”

In a 1990 Los Angeles Times article, Isaac explained that the small community lived as well, if not better, than the average people “up top,” as they commonly refer to the streets. “I’ve had the opportunity to get jobs,” he said. “I don’t choose to be a robot within the system… We’ve done something that one out of every 1,000 men in creation in their lifetimes will do. We dared to be ourselves.”

Some residents were still eager to leave, only to come back later.

John Kovacs, one of Isaac’s neighbors in the tunnel, was once given a $50,000 offer to turn his story into a feature movie and left in 1991 after sixteen years in the tunnel. He was back less than seven months later, the $50,000 Hollywood deal gone sour and Kovacs unable to adjust to life in larger society.

Another who attempted to go to the surface was Bob Kalinski, a speed addict known as the fastest cook east of the Mississippi, who could fry twenty eggs at a time when on amphetamines. A heart attack forced him to try his luck with the public housing system in 1994. He too returned in the following months. The sense of belonging simply was too strong. The tunnel was a better place for him to be alone in freedom.

“After so many years in the streets, they kind of lose faith in humanity,” said Audrey Lombardi, a volunteer at the Holy Apostles soup kitchen in Manhattan.

“They can’t help it, it’s so deeply ingrained in their lives, it’s like they want to go back to the only thing they know,” she explained, noting that hurt and loneliness often became the steadiest part of a homeless person’s existence after hitting bottom and going further under.

“If I had to do it all over again?” Isaac said in a video interview, one of his last ones, a year before his death in 2014. “Unquestionably.”

* * *

I keep walking along the tracks. Jon must have passed out drunk, now, somewhere behind me. Every noise is threatening in the tunnel, and I find myself constantly looking over my shoulder, ready to face something too awful to name. Was that a train I heard? A cough? The metallic vibration of a dragged chain?

It smells like death here. The pungent stench of rotting meat.

“Anyone here?” I ask, stopping near an old KUMA tag.

The smell of death all over now. Are those eyes glowing nearby?

I lean against the wall and try to breathe calmly, reminding myself this place is only populated by old memories and the occasional homeless person looking for a safe place to be.

The rumbling feels closer. Something moves somewhere.

I see rats scurrying by, racing into the obscurity. Then I see the charred remains of an animal in the corner of an alcove — a raccoon maybe, a big rodent with liquefied flesh, burnt fur and missing limbs. Was it eaten? By what? By whom?

I walk away holding my breath.

The ground is littered with discarded books and magazines. A broken crack pipe has been left on a cinder block. There is a garden chair, and overturned crates and buckets. A mangled teddy bear. Death everywhere.

“Hey man, how you doing?” says a voice behind me, making me jump with fright. “I’m sorry,” the voice immediately adds. “I didn’t mean to startle you.”

I recognize Raúl, an undocumented Dominican immigrant of about thirty who has been living in the tunnel for a year. Raúl shaves every morning with great care. His clothes are spotless, regularly washed at a nearby laundromat. His badly decayed teeth and scrawny figure are the only hints he’s a drug addict.

“I didn’t hear you coming,” I say with my heart pounding like it wants out of my chest. “I came to see Bernard’s old place. Maybe talk to some people.”

“Brooklyn is there. She’s always singing out loud, it’s annoying.”

Raúl still has family out there. An ex-girlfriend and a kid. He rents an apartment from a friend when his kid comes to visit, a clean studio in a gray Washington Heights building.

“I don’t want him to think of me as a bum,” he says. “I won’t be here long enough anyway. You want coffee?”

I nod and he goes into an abandoned service room, returning with two mugs.

“I made a lot of bad choices in my life. I hurt a lot of people. That’s why I don’t ask for nothing, you feel me? I don’t blame anyone but myself. I collect cans, it keeps me busy. I do it all week long. It gets me $140 a week, more in summer.”

The coffee is nice and strong. It feels good in the tunnel’s cold.

Raúl uses a Fairway Market cart to bring empty soda and beer containers to various stores in the neighborhood, where he will redeem them for five cents each. The legal limit of returnable cans is 240 per person per day, so Raúl has to go to several supermarkets to earn more.

“You can actually make a good life here when you’re broke,” he says. “I never got a problem eating what I wanted. The streets are full of opportunities if you know where to look. I deal with what I have.” He shows me a box of cupcakes he found in a garbage can, almost untouched. His dessert tonight.

Finding drugs has never been a problem either for Raúl, who tells me he once spent $150 on crack each day to feed his “pizzo” — his pipe — with “cheap McDonald meals in-between the smokes, and hard fucks with Puerto Rican whores because crack makes me horny as shit.” Heroin prices have gone down lately, so that means Raúl’s consumption has gone up. It’s $10 for a deck of brown heroin, making it cheaper than most other drugs.

Raúl knows the risks. The worsening quality of the local drugs means accidents are now more frequent than ever, with 420 overdose-related deaths in 2013.

“It makes me feel good for a moment. As soon as I find a real job, I’ll stop, no doubt,” he says. In the buildings he helps maintain, he occasionally sells the tenants K2 — a form of synthetic marijuana that recently boomed across the city, especially in East Harlem where a homeless encampment was recently dismantled.

“I do what I got to do, you know what I’m saying? I’m just a normal guy who minds his own business. This is who I am. And I never ate no fucking rats,” he jokes.

Raúl insists we share the cupcakes he found. We both eat in silence.

* * *

New York’s homeless shelters are a lucrative business. The incentives paid by the Department of Homeless Services to landlords renting out shelter units far exceed the ones given for providing tenants with permanent single room occupancy lodging. In 2014, the average stay was 352 days at the Freedom House, a homeless shelter on West 95th Street managed by private company Aguila Inc. The city paid Aguila $3,735 per month for each 100-square-foot room occupied by a homeless person.

Conditions are appalling inside the Freedom House. Garbage piles up in the courtyard for rodents to feed on. Aggressive panhandling, drug dealing and violent outbursts are commonplace in the shelter’s vicinity. Sometimes a TV is hurled out a window, or the police close the street after someone is stabbed in a fight. The NYPD regularly raids the place looking for people with outstanding warrants, targeting domestic abusers and failing to arrest the major dealers or car thieves roaming the area. Aguila Inc. didn’t comment on the situation when I reached out to the company, but one of their security officers, who wished to remain anonymous because he feared reprisal from his employer, told me that the lack of resources, upkeep and care were the biggest issues in the facilities.

“Why would anyone want to stay [at Freedom House]?” asks Jessica, a former resident. “I can’t count the times my stuff was stolen from me. One day I was assaulted in my own room and the guards didn’t do anything!” she adds, sitting on a rug in her new spot, inside a man-made cave near the Lincoln Tunnel entrance.

Jessica was evicted from Freedom House in late 2014, after DHS came to an agreement with community boards and nonprofit organizations to cut the shelter’s capacity in two from 400 beds to 200 — a step toward its conversion to a meaningful permanent affordable housing facility.

The 23-year-old knows enough about shelters. She will never go back. She was sixteen when she got pregnant with her daughter Alyssa. She briefly lived with the baby’s father until he tired of dealing with a needy toddler, leaving never to be seen again. Jessica was then diagnosed with schizoaffective disorder and admitted to transitional housing in Brooklyn. She says that within a month, social services was badgering her to place her three-year-old in foster care.

“The thing is, single mothers who go to shelters with their kids never keep their kids for long,” she says. “I was devastated. I called my sister and begged her to take care of Alyssa until I found a place of my own. This was the most difficult thing I’ve ever done in my life, leaving my baby. But it was the right thing to do. At least she is with family. When she grows up I will explain it all to her.”

She looks away, tears rolling down her face.

Once her daughter was in the hands of her sister, Jessica was sent to the Freedom House where she stayed for seven months until Aguila notified her of her imminent relocation. She began sleeping in a subway tunnel after transit authorities made her leave her spot in the Herald Square station corridor on 34th Street, dragging her by her feet when she refused to stand up from her mat. “At first I was like ‘I’m never going down there.’ But then Hurricane Sandy came and I had no place to stay, and I didn’t want to go to a shelter again with all the crackheads.”

She spent about two months living in a recess by the subway tracks of a Midtown station, protected from the elements and from harassment. She wrote a long letter to her daughter there. She never sent it. “I hope you think of me sometimes in your dreams,” the letter ends. “You are the light of my life. I miss you everyday. I love you so much.”

Jessica then moved to her current place, closer to the McDonald’s restaurant where she works. The subterranean area she’s living in is part of the same railway system as the one going through the Riverside Park tunnel, and is home to a couple of other homeless people trying to avoid shelters.

“I obviously don’t tell my colleagues I stay here. But it’s better than anywhere I’ve been before. Here I can have my dog,” Jessica says, petting a small mutt snuggled on her lap. “Plus it’s a temporary situation. I’m eligible for Section 8 housing. In less than a year I’ll be in a real apartment and I’ll have my baby with me again.”

On the floor of her makeshift house is a plastic box full of donated kid’s clothes.

Soon she will give them to her daughter.

“I have to keep faith,” she says in the half-light.

* * *

Trash as far as the eye can see. Clothes, glass, bike parts and Styrofoam boxes, plastic toys and rotting food carpeting the dirt ground, all frozen in the tunnel’s perpetual dusk. Brooklyn’s voice echoes in the room as she starts singing Michael Jackson’s “Billie Jean.” I accompany her with a beatbox rhythm, hands cupped around my mouth. “You good, man!” she says enthusiastically, snapping her fingers along.

I catch myself wondering if Raúl can hear us from his place, cursing at us for breaking the no-noise rule of the premises.

Brooklyn might be the oldest resident of the Riverside Park tunnel. Now fifty-four, she has been living here since 1982, when she discovered the place by following feral cats. Like Bernard Isaac, she appeared in various films and documentaries. “I’m a celebrity, you know?” she says with a hint of pride in her voice.

She has perfected her story for journalists along the years. Everything she relates is recited like a school lesson. Her stint in the Marines. The death of her parents and the loss of her family house. The kids lighting her cardboard shack on fire in the park. Her boyfriend BK and their issues. The food bowls left at her door for the forty-nine cats she feeds.

She is a tough woman who speaks her mind, and she has the unyielding attitude of someone who has trudged through life. Her bandana and dreadlocks make her look younger than she is. People in the area know her, but she doesn’t socialize much anymore. She’s been lucky enough to avoid the Amtrak police. “I’ve been here all this time because I keep to myself,” she says. “The cops let me be. I don’t pose no threat!”

It’s already dinnertime. Tunnel stew today, a meal made of anything available — chicken soup, microwave mixes or thrown-away vegetables cooked over a crackling wood fire. “I wish I had a big kitchen with all kinds of cutlery and equipment,” she says.

“I’d cook all day long, man. That would be nice.” The food smells good and draws cats inside Brooklyn’s house. “You want some?” she asks, motioning at me to sit with her. The stew is surprisingly tasty.

“We’re just people,” she says after a while. “It’s hard, living here. You never get used to it. If you accept it, if you stop fighting, you’re done, okay? If you give up…you just die, you know what I’m saying?”

After she finishes eating, Brooklyn shows me a pile of recycling bags filled with countless Poland Spring water bottles collected at a nearby bodega. “This is my savings account for when I need extra money. You gotta be creative here,” she says as she gestures to the posters and pictures pinned on her walls.

Brooklyn is disappointed when I tell her I have to go. She calls one of her cats as I keep walking to the south end of the tunnel.

I soon reach Bernard Isaac’s old den, where I will spend the night, as I sometimes do when I want to taste the solitude he liked so much. The whole place feels like a grave. A cathedral for the dead and the fallen. Nothing is left from the former shacks. Even the smallest pieces of debris are gone.

I try to imagine how it was sitting here with him, watching the flames dancing in front of Pape and Smith’s reproduction of Goya’s “The Third of May.” I realize there is a certain power of being nameless and buried. A raw, burning power that some, like Isaac, will seek their whole life.

“Modern society is guilty of intellectual terrorism,” he once said while talking about Nietzsche’s philosophy with graffiti artist David “Sane” Smith, the younger brother of Roger Smith. Sane immediately sprayed the quote on the wall.

It encompassed Isaac’s entire way of thinking.

A train rushes by, almost silent with its unbearably bright lights, the air swelling around me as the cars dash past.

I’m rolled in my blanket, quiet in my alcove. I’m not sure I exist anymore. This place is not for anyone to be, I think.

I wait for dreams to come. Sleeping in the tunnel is an alien experience, but the sight of rain falling down the ventilation grates and streaking the chiaroscuro light is worth it alone, definite proof that poetry can endure anywhere.

This is the final byproduct of the city. This is civilization pushed to its foremost edge, a harsh place if any, dangerous and unforgiving, but a peaceful place at the same time, welcoming in its grimness. This is a dark and wild beast inviting you to come closer because nothing will ever be all right, but she will always be at your side to keep you warm.

* * *

When Amtrak decided to reactivate the Riverside Park tunnel’s train tracks in 1991, about fifty residents were evicted from the shantytown and received vouchers for temporary housing. This first round of evictions wound up largely ineffective and the population quickly grew back to its initial size, as people from up top encampments went straight to the tunnel when they were swept up by police during Mayor Giuliani’s effort to clean up the streets.

The Empire Line trains rushing through didn’t stop them from coming down here.

Amtrak Police Captain Doris Comb started calling for more enforcement, effectively pushing the homeless out of the active railway. Different times were looming ahead. Safer times. Sterilized. Hygienic. “We try to offer the homeless a variety of social services,” Comb would explain in 1994. “The problem is that most homeless are completely isolated. They feel rejected and decline assistance.”

Bernard Isaac still held a grudge against Comb eighteen years later, for having seized the #102 universal key to the exit gates an Amtrak employee had given him. “It was clear in my head that I didn’t want to go,” he told me in 2012, sipping a tea on the Hudson River Greenway. “We were ready to brick up the entrances if needed. We knew that we would have to leave eventually, but we didn’t want to accept it just yet.”

The tunnel residents weren’t quick to fill the multitude of forms requested by the Social Security Administration. Some flatly refused to cooperate and gave up all hope of being granted Section 8 apartments.

In 1994, U.S. Secretary of Housing Henry Cisneros visited the dwellings and, realizing the urgency of the situation, released 250 housing subsidy vouchers and a $9 million grant to help the squatters move to appropriate accommodations. Unfortunately, Department of Housing Preservation and Development policies prevented this from happening immediately; the Mole People were not considered “housing-ready” even though they had already created homes from nothing, complete with furniture and decorations.

It wasn’t until Mary Brosnahan, director at the Coalition for the Homeless, negotiated with Amtrak to temporarily delay the evictions, that the vouchers were distributed to the tunnel community. The dwellers eventually received permanent housing, leaving the tunnel mostly empty for the first time since the mid-1970’s.

Margaret Morton would later write in a 1995 New York Times article that this solution had been by far the most economical for the city. “It costs more than $20,000 a year to keep a person in a cot on an armory floor,” she wrote. “It costs about $12,000 to keep that person in the kind of supported housing being made available to the tunnel people.”

As the photojournalist Teun Voeten would discover in 2010, some of the former squatters later achieved normal lives again. There would even be success stories. Ralph, one of the subjects of “Dark Days,” became manager of an Upstate New York hotel and owner of a cleaning company.

Then there were the others.

One would commit suicide, sitting in front of a running train. Another was found dead in his apartment. Another succumbed to AIDS. Another simply vanished. Isaac’s friend Bob Kalinski, the speed cook, moved to a 42nd Street SRO building where he still lives at this time, in a wheelchair and with a serious heart condition.

Bernard Isaac passed away in late 2014, closing a chapter of an old New York legend. His ashes were sprinkled across a creek in his native Florida.

The legend was gone, but homelessness was more real than ever.

According to Coalition for the Homeless, between 58,000 and 60,000 persons slept in NYC municipal shelters every month of 2015, an all-time record since the Great Depression, with numbers increasing for the sixth consecutive year.

“As liberal as New Yorkers want to be known, I think there’s a class war at work in this city,” Jeanne Newman, the founder of outreach group SHARE and a dear friend of Bernard Isaac, explained during a phone conversation.

Eighty percent of New York’s shelter population is currently made up of families — many working multiple jobs to make ends meet. There were 42,000 homeless children across the five boroughs in 2014.

“Do you know what the major cause of homelessness is in this country?” Newman asked. “It’s the lack of affordable housing. End of story. Everything else becomes a symptom. Drug issues, domestic violence issues, they’re all symptoms, as opposed to being a cause. The cause is lack of affordable housing.”

The median Manhattan rent jumped more than seven percent in August 2015 compared to the same period in 2014, while affordable housing placements fell sixty percent between 2013 and 2014.

“We’re the wealthiest country in the world, why are we not fixing this problem?” Newman asked.

“Amtrak Police Department now does inspections on a regular basis for signs of homeless persons and encampments,” Cliff Cole, Amtrak’s New York manager of media relations, told the Wall Street Journal in 2011. At the time of his declaration, only five people had been found living in the Riverside Park tunnel, but a different community was already growing on a nearby dead-end street dubbed the Batcave.

Today, Chris Pape’s murals are slowly vanishing, painted over in 2009 to discourage urban explorers from visiting the tunnel. His “Buy American” masterpiece, dedicated to the tunnel’s former residents and featuring portraits of Isaac and Kalinski, doesn’t exist anymore. His Goya reproduction has been damaged by water. In a few years from now, it will be completely gone, washed away by the elements.

* * *

Morning light is different in the tunnel — colder maybe, and whiter, casting long straight beams onto the rails. Wind gusts make dust rise up in whirlpools. A blue jay flies past a grate. I wake up and New York slowly comes to life.

“God will save me, and it will save you, and it will save all these people too. Soon, we will all be saved,” Carlos says later, as we watch a basketball game in Riverside Park, the overpass casting its shade over our heads.

Carlos lives holed up in an old sewer pipe of about six feet high by five feet wide near the south entrance to the Riverside Park tunnel. He is one of the few original dwellers who stayed. His house is small but very practical, entirely concealed by a metal lid he takes great care of pulling on every time he gets inside. “It’s a good hideout,” he explains in a thick Spanish accent.

His electricity is tapped from an outlet further down the tunnel, allowing him to store his food in a refrigerator and have heat during winter. “Insulation is pretty good. I’m comfortable and no one can see me. I’m used to it now. It’s good for reading. I read a lot. All kinds of books. I read them and I sell them.”

The increased police patrols make his life less simple than it was a few years ago, but he keeps an upbeat attitude about it. “They don’t give me trouble too much. Sometimes they try to make me leave. It’s my home, I tell them. Maybe I live like a mole, but I’m not an animal.” He just wants to be left alone.

Carlos shows me where a decomposing body was found by Amtrak workers in 2006, months after taggers had discovered it. Two femurs bundled in cargo pants, neatly laid into an old child stroller, with pieces of leathered skin still attached to them, and a skull standing on top of a nearby pole.

This was the tunnel’s way of saying hello.

We walk around together to go check on Terry, an older alcoholic man who has been staying here since his wife threw him out of their apartment in Harlem’s Lincoln Houses public housing complex. Carlos is concerned about Terry’s health.

“He’s been drinking too much,” he says. “Last week I had to call 911 on him again.”

We find the old man sleeping on a couch behind a safety wall. A copy of Steinbeck’s novel “Of Mice and Men” rests on the sofa. Inside, a sentence is underlined in blue ink. “Guys like us got nothing to look ahead to.”

We stay a moment at his side before I finally leave the tunnel, emerging from the wet ground behind a grove of trees. The streets seem slower than usual. The clouds heavier.

“What does not kill me makes me stronger,” Nietzsche wrote. But hurt doesn’t make us stronger. Hurt just makes us hurt. And hurt lives in the land of the lost, and unites them in missing love and broken homes, for five cents a can, 240 cans per day.

The few Mole People left today survive in hurt.

They are relics of a New York that was, and witnesses of a world so estranged that nobody truly remembers it anymore. Most are too late for the topside life.

How easy it would be to go away and never come back.

But this is their city. This is their home.

These are their minds wandering and their time slipping.

Their hopes and their thirsts until the sun goes down.

Away — to a place made of birches and wet leaves and blue afternoons and muddy clothes, a place where dark days would be foreign — a place for them and all the unseen, warm as liquor, where hurt would be sweet and love would be real.

* * *

Anthony Taille is a freelance writer exploring untold tales of Americana. His stories have appeared on Medium, Narratively, Vice Magazine and Thought Catalog. He is currently based in Montreal with his wife and daughter and is finishing his first novel while trying to survive the local climate. You can read his latest work on Medium and follow him on Twitter @anthonytaille.

 

 

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!

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

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