Digital Darling

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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.

 

 

He Was Harassed for Wearing a Turban. Then He Built a Global Fashion Brand to Show the World What Sikh Pride Means.

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Harinder Singh’s cheeky clothing is making waves in India — and far beyond — by putting a hip new spin on his ancient and often misunderstood culture.

Harinder Singh will never forget his trip to Italy in 2002. Singh, then 33, and his wife, Kirandeep Kaur, 29, were eating ice cream as they explored the sights and sounds of Florence. The streets were crowded, a blur of people and textures and smells. At first glance, the couple blended in with the other tourists of the city: two people in love, eager to travel the world and appreciate a new culture. Then they heard the students’ jeers: “Bin Laden! Bin Laden!”

The group of around sixty school children were pointing at Singh, a white turban wrapped delicately around his head.

“Oh my God,” Singh said to his wife in shock. But instead of walking away, the couple approached the children. Singh told them that they were from India and practiced a religion called Sikhism.

“Me and my wife started talking about our first guru, the revolution, our faith, we touched on Punjabi music and they knew Punjabi music so we got a lead there,” Singh says with a laugh. “That very moment was an exam for us. We decided we should do something about our identity since there’s no awareness.”

Immediately after their visit, on the seven-and-a-half hour flight from Italy to India, Singh began the initial sketches for what he describes as the first Indian clothing brand dedicated solely to Sikhism and Punjabi culture. Fifteen years later, that concept – called 1469, in honor of the birth year of the first Sikh guru, Nanak Dev – has expanded into a million-dollar company with international reach. They have five stores in New Delhi and in Punjab, an Indian state bordering on Pakistan that is the heart of the Sikh community.

Almost 58 percent of the population of Punjab is made up of Sikhs, but in Delhi, Sikhs constitute less than four percent of the total population.

Standing in their 1469 shop in Delhi, the couple talk about the idea behind their business. “People in Delhi feel that if I speak Punjabi, I am backwards and not modern enough,” says Kaur, dressed in a light green sari, gold bracelets dangling off her arms. “To keep in touch with your roots, you need to know your mother tongue. I feel we are losing the pride.”

Artwork on the walls inside the shop. (Photo by Ana Singh)

Scarves and saris in turquoise, pink and yellow hues line the walls of the shop, located in Delhi’s Janpath Market, one of the city’s best-known shopping areas. Tables are scattered with metallic jewelry and small sculptures, patterned bags and calligraphy accessories. Upstairs, the walls are filled with various t-shirts, many of which display Punjabi phrases, musical instruments and Sikh symbols.

Mayur Sharma, a frequent 1469 customer and host of the Indian travel show “Highway on My Plate,” says his favorite products are the t-shirts, especially the ones with the phrases “Pure Panjabi” and “Trust me I’m Pendu,” – the word pendu meaning “villager” in Punjabi. Sharma came across the company a decade ago and, since then, has pretty much only worn their t-shirts, even on his television show.

“I admire Harinder and Kirandeep’s passion for the arts, culture and history of our beautiful state,” he says. “You can feel the love in everything they put out.”

T-shirts with the phrase, “Jab we met,” referring to the Indian film directed by Imtiaz Ali about a Punjabi girl who meets a Mumbai businessman on an overnight train to Delhi. (Photo courtesy of 1469workshop.com)

Punjabi culture is one of the oldest in India; the region has a rich legacy of poetry, music, food and art – in addition to being the birthplace of Sikhism. The Punjab was unified under the Sikh Empire in the nineteenth century, until the British annexed the region in 1849 after the Anglo-Sikh wars, administering the region as a province of its Indian empire until Partition in 1947, when the independent states of India and Pakistan were established. Punjab was divided, with Hindus and Sikhs fleeing to India while Muslims moved to Pakistan.

Kaur described the partition of 1947 as a shattering experience for the Punjab, creating social, religious and regional divides. She feels Punjabi art and culture took the biggest blow. Today, their brand aims to reinvigorate that rich culture.

Singh, dressed in a bright, turquoise turban and black v-neck with the word fateh – or “victory” in Hindi – emphasized 1469 is not a religious brand because he doesn’t believe in selling religion.

“Sikhism is a big part of it and we ourselves are Sikhs,” he says, “but, it’s a regional place because our artists are Muslim also, the music comes from Punjab, which is partly in Pakistan, and so are the handicrafts.”

Harinder Singh (Photo by Ana Singh)

Sharma says he is Punjabi, but not Sikh. He describes Singh’s passion for the culture as inspiring.

Singh’s clothing didn’t always center on Punjabi culture. He got his start in the world of fashion after graduating from the University of Delhi in 1988. He says he noticed that most t-shirts sold in India came from abroad – Thailand, Hong Kong, South Korea – and were of dubious quality.

“I took an oath to myself to make a nice t-shirt for my country,” Singh says.

Models pose wearing 1469 t-shirts. (Photo courtesy 1469, via Facebook)

A year later, Singh started his own clothing company, Uni Style Image. He claims it is one of the first t-shirt companies in India’s history, and over the years partnered with major clothing labels across the world. In 2002, after over a decade with the company, grueling hours and time spent away from his wife and three children, Singh decided to leave to pursue other endeavors.

At the time, he had no idea he would eventually return to the fashion world as a pioneer of a wholly new concept centered on Sikhism and Punjab. But Singh also asserts he wouldn’t have it any other way. He describes being born into a Sikh family as a blessing.

“Our religion is so beautiful, so transparent, so clear,” he says. “It’s musical, it’s simple, it’s modern and it’s very lightweight.”

Singh observes that while 60 percent of their merchandise is sold to Sikhs and those within the diaspora Punjabi community, around 40 percent of customers practice other faiths. The brand is especially popular in Japan, where many customers buy the t-shirts online and in bulk, according to Kaur.

Clothing for sale in the shop. (Photo by Nicole Einbinder)

Going forward, Singh and Kaur hope to continue educating people, especially youth, about their heritage and faith. Kaur says they are working to bolster their online presence and plan to open new stores domestically, in the cities of Mumbai and Bangalore, as well as abroad in Canada.

“The best part about Sikhism is,” Kaur says, “it doesn’t tell you that you write this or read it and then become Sikh. It’s about the way you live.”

 

 

White Settlers Wiped Thousands of Miles of Cherokee Trails Off the Map. This Man is Reclaiming Them — By Walking Each and Every One.

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These routes once snaked through the towering woods of Appalachia, before they were lost to history. Lamar Marshall has spent a decade painstakingly mapping them, and their rich history.

Lamar Marshall cannot make it over the log. It lays across a small creek somewhere in the Nantahala National Forest outside Cowee, western North Carolina, as a bridge. His problem is a bruised knee, caused by a bang against his home firewood cord. Standing in front of the thick trunk, seeking another way across, he explains that while this particular log was not laid by ancient Cherokees, it does resemble the way they would fell logs to get across creeks like this. “They called ‘em racoon bridges,” he explains. If anyone would know this, it’s Marshall.

The former land surveyor, electrical engineer, and Alabamian anti-logging activist (in that order), is the world’s foremost expert on ancient Cherokee trails. At 68 he’s stocky, with a soft, even face, like a meatier Billy Bob Thornton, and long eyelashes. He speaks softly, with a southern drawl. In this forest, on a warm late-winter day, he wears spectacles and a hearing aid, but also a camo jacket and pants, a waist-pack stuffed with surveying gear and a pistol. It is often in this appearance, a hunter’s getup, that Marshall has personally mapped well over one thousand miles of Cherokee trails across Appalachia, compiling the mappings into a vast database, complete with historical annotations and Cherokee place names. And his boots are waterproof, he notes, as he carefully fords the creek.

Lamar Marshall.

There are certain attributes which are common to Cherokee trails. They tend to follow rivers or ridge-lines. They are often steep. Brett Riggs, an archaeologist at Western Carolina University with a specialty in Cherokee landscapes, equates them with a modern highway system in the way that they linked population centers (some are even replicated in modern roads). Horses, introduced to the tribe in the 18th century, were sometimes used, but mostly Cherokees travelled by foot, in soft-soled moccasins. Inside Marshall’s home there are photographs of him as a young man wearing nothing but a loincloth and these moccasins; he used to sometimes explore the woods of his native Alabama dressed this way. “It was just kind of a fun thing to project myself back into time,” he explains. “I always admired the native lifestyle. Maybe I played cowboys and Indians too much when I was little. I was always the Indians, I know that.”

Marshall’s project, a largely independent venture, has taken up nearly a decade of his life. It is no small feat. He has braved wasps, mosquitoes, ticks, chest-high nettles, rainstorms, hypothermia. Much of the routes are so steep that early Europeans avoided them. Though he has no academic credentials, he scours archives across the country for primary source materials that contain mention of the trails. It is an immense labor but he is nonchalant about his motivations. “I love the trails. I love walking on the trails, camping next to the trails. And feeling like right now: what did the first white people see when they came up here?”

Prior to his trails project, Marshall headed a conservation group in Alabama. He is an ardent environmentalist and near militant in his activism. But while his greenie cred would do well by any Greenpeace tree-hugger, Marshall is also a Republican, gun-owning, bear-hunting Creationist. But if the contrast seems odd, in Marshall’s mind protecting God’s work from the nefarious designs of the state might constitute the very essence of American patriotism. “Wilderness to me is the ultimate expression of freedom,” he says.

Those who benefit most from Marshall’s efforts are modern Cherokees. His work is funded by the Eastern Band tribe in western North Carolina, to whom all the mapping data will go. It will be used in schools. Riggs, the WCU archeologist, is helping Marshall make the maps interactive, with historical storylines and photos. “This is much more than just trails: it’s the ecology of the trails, the geography of the trails,” he says. “They don’t have this history. They just don’t have it.” Indeed, this is the first time that the trails have ever been compiled into a single source. Marshall also hopes to get some of them protected by the United States Forest Service, who he has collaborated with in the past – the North Carolina state is figuring his trail data into their upcoming forest management plan. Marshall plans to be finished with the whole enterprise in September, when he will hand everything over to the Eastern Band tribe. “This will help them maintain their cultural heritage,” he says. “They’re losing that.”

Tom Belt, a Cherokee language expert at WCU who is also Cherokee, describes the project’s impacts on the tribe as unprecedented. Like other native peoples, the Cherokees have long struggled to define their own historical identity and nothing is more crucial to that than landscapes. “It may be a town or a gas station to the United States or the state of North Carolina,” Belt says, “but at one time underneath it might have existed a very extensive culturally-based community that doesn’t exist now. That’s the kind of stuff we wanna know. What was the name of that place?”

Marshall consulting a topographic map near the Cowee mound.

Riggs, too, believes that compiling all of this data into a single source will prove empowering for the tribe, especially its young people. It is one thing to have a vague notion that some land was once yours; it’s wholly another to see it clearly laid out, and how ownership has changed over time. “When you take some place and you rename it you’ve asserted that, ‘This now belongs to us’,” he says. “If you can, even on paper, reverse that process so that you make it clear that there was a Cherokee landscape here, it gives Cherokee people a conceptual ownership that in many cases they are currently lacking.”

“We didn’t come into a blank howling wilderness,” he adds. “We took over this place.”

* * *

On May 28, 1830 the United States congress passed the Indian Removal Act. It granted permission to relocate Native Americans living in the east to the unsettled land west of the Mississippi. Some left willingly, but the Cherokee Nation – a collection of affiliated communities extending from Kentucky to Alabama – resisted. Conflict had existed for over a century between the Americans and the Cherokees and by now the federal government had grown strong enough to simply take them away. The eventual expulsion, which lasted from 1838-39, resulted in the death of over 4,000 Cherokees. The route over which they headed west is today called the Trail of Tears. Many perished in transit.

Today, Cherokees are found in three quasi-sovereign districts in Oklahoma and western North Carolina. But while most of their civilization was wiped out, burned down, built over or abandoned, it was not erased. Vestiges remain for those who know what to look for: graveyards, earthen mounds, houses, tree carvings; the imprints of a smudged-out, penciled-over peoples. Connecting all of these archeological sites is this vast network of trails, thousands of miles of footpaths trodden over centuries of travel.

Marshall entering his “man cave” at his house in Cowee, North Carolina.

And to flip through old maps of Appalachia is to witness the shrinking of a nation played out in faded ink. Treaties often followed conflict and, with each one, Cherokee land shrunk; the younger the map, the less territory is marked as theirs. Events are painfully clear in hindsight.

Marshall keeps these old maps in his home office in Cowee, where he moved eight years ago from Alabama. There is a small desk with four desktop computer screens squeezed between boxes of historical documents: traveler journals, survey plats, three-hundred-year-old land deeds. On the wall is a buck head and a sticker that reads, “I Am Not Ashamed Of The Gospel Of Christ.” Over time the maps get better, too. They are more clearly laid out, with properties divided into perfect squares. Text is less flowery and more legible. Topography is defined numerically. There are fewer and fewer Cherokee towns until there are virtually none at all.

Most of these maps were produced by the United States army. For Marshall’s purposes, they are critical. It is with these frail maps that he locates trails before setting out into the hard world to survey them. He brings one on every hike. He takes notes as he goes, looking to match his observations with any landmarks mentioned on the maps, and marks landmarks with GPS coordinates. When he gets home he plugs this data into his computer and, using GIS software, constructs digital versions. When a trail’s done, he moves to the next.

* * *

Marshall traces his fascination with the Cherokees to his childhood in Birmingham (“I hated the concrete, the development”). Survivalist books first exposed him to them. In his eyes, they seemed idyllic. “They didn’t have to go to school. They didn’t have to get a job in corporate America. They lived off the land. They were totally free.”

A photo of Marshall in his twenties in Alabama, dressed in traditional Indian attire.

He joined the Boy Scouts. He excelled. At eighteen, “emulating Tom Sawyer and Huck Finn”, Marshall constructed a raft from oil drums. With two friends, he drifted down the Alabama River from Selma to the Gulf of Mexico. Later he would win a state championship for fur-trapping. His childhood Cherokee interest was reignited by an “old mountain man” named Garvin Sanford who, on occasional forays into the forest for edible herbs, would show him abandoned Indian villages. They would follow the trails to get there.

For much of early adulthood, Marshall worked as an electrical engineer and land surveyor. With his wife and three children, he built a 3,000-square-foot homestead in Blountsville, Alabama. Construction took nine months. Drinking water came from an outdoor aluminum tank; one day Marshall found a squirrel decomposing inside. They raised livestock, fished the river, grew produce. When his only son died at 18 from a heart complication, the family moved to a house in Alabama’s Bankhead National Forest. They had 100 acres. Marshall hung a sign that read, “Trespassers will be shot and survivors will be shot again.” And another: “You believe in life after death? Trespass here and find out.” It was a frontiersman’s existence. For the first five years, they had no electricity.

But living in the woods provided Marshall with an intimate view of Alabama’s dimly regulated logging industry, which “nauseated” the lifelong nature lover. He did some digging and discovered how the management plan drawn up by the Alabama Forest Service had been “developed in collusion with the timber industry.” The tipping point for him came when loggers clear-cut a Cherokee sacred site known as Indian Tomb Hollow, decimating a burial ground. In conjunction with a local clan of Cherokees, Marshall and others rallied against the Forest Service, staging protests, making noise.

Thus, the conservation group Wild Alabama was born (it has since expanded and become Wild South). For over a decade, Marshall’s conservation group wrote petitions, staged protests, filed lawsuits, delivered public speeches, and published excoriating cartoons in the local newspaper satirizing Forest Service officials. This was his “guerrilla warfare” against corporate “tree racists.”

Marshall attempting, unsuccessfully, to cross a log in the Nantahala National Forest.

Marshall describes this part of his life like a veteran remembering war. “I envisioned a band of eco-warriors fighting for the last wild places of Alabama. Native American descendants rose up and we kicked ass for over a decade,” he says (the “descendants” refer to the various tribal organizations which often collaborated with Wild Alabama; Marshall does, however, claim to have three percent Native American ancestry).

Wild Alabama’s member pool represented an odd union of hippies, Indians, and rednecks; with a thick beard, dirty clothes and Cherokee ornaments, Marshall appeared as a hybrid of all three. Outdoor Life magazine called the group “the conservation conscience of a state that has traditionally lacked one.” The group boasted that its members could drink harder and shoot straighter than any naturalists around. Marshall once told a journalist, “Rattlesnakes have got fangs, porcupines got quills, skunks got the sprayer, and God Almighty gave Man the ability to invent the Colt 45 as his defense.”

* * *

Marshall approaches a huge earthen mound. It is an ancient Cherokee construction which sits in the middle of a wide empty field. Birdsong rings out across it and in the distance are rounded sloping mountains that are powdered white with snow. At the top of the mound, Marshall points down at the grass and says, “This is where the council-house sat. Here’s a depression that they believe was a fire-pit.”

From up here it is easy to imagine an earlier Appalachia: wide savannas thick with buffalo, the skies crowded with passenger pigeons, dense groves of chestnut trees, the brilliant red-black flash of an ivory-billed woodpecker – all of these species are extinct or sequestered elsewhere in the country. Savannas are gone. Towns are built over. Words are forgotten. There is a new country here. Marshall, in his camo gear, clutching an old map, sounding wistful, says, “The mountains haven’t changed.”

 

 

I Grew Up In a Fundamentalist Cult  Like the One in  “The Handmaid’s Tale”

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Don’t think Margaret Atwood’s dystopian vision is realistic? I was raised in a conservative Christian cult where women were viewed as submissive birthing vessels.

This story is republished from The Establishment, a publication that believes conversation is much more interesting when everyone has a voice. Media funded and run by women, The Establishment features new content daily.

It was a cold morning on the campus of the little Christian college I attended in Western Pennsylvania. Along with about twenty other students, I’d trundled in and unwrapped my coat and scarf. Now we all sat there sipping our coffees, waiting for the hardest class of the year to get rolling.

Our literary criticism professor paused as he announced the optional reading titles on our list for the next week, a funny look on his face.

“This one,” he said, “you may not like. It was written in 1984, published in ’85 or ’86, and was a reaction against the rise of the religious right — against the values that places like our school stand for. It’s pro-feminist, and anti-complementarian — against traditional gender roles. It sort of parodies what we believe in, in an interesting way. I’m curious what you’ll make of it.”

The shade thrown by my usually soft-spoken professor caught my attention. I had to read this book.

And so I did, unwittingly cracking open the beginning of the end for meek, conservative Christian me.

* * *

The story of The Handmaid’s Tale is a fairly simple dystopian one: A young woman is re-educated by the new totalitarian (and Christian) government regime to be a childbearing surrogate for the wife of a high-ranking military official. She tells her story after the fact, a narrative recorded on audio tapes found years later in someone’s attic. Her name is Offred, literally of Fred, having no name of her own anymore in this new society. It takes place in the U.S., post-Constitution, post-democracy, post-liberal humanism. Women are chattel. Religion is god. Order comes above all else.

To the average American in 1985, it seemed pretty far out there, an unlikely vision of future written as a warning. It’s been controversial since it came out, making ALA’s one hundred most banned books list between 1990 and 1999, but that was because of the sex scenes in it and the way it depicted Christianity. It wasn’t really taken seriously as political foreshadowing.

But for me, when I read it for the first time, it felt like a prophecy that echoed rhythm of the world I had been raised in, reflecting the vision my church and community had for the future of American culture and politics.

I was raised in a fundamentalist Christian community — the church we attended could fairly be called a cult, and my parents took things a step further than even our church did, homeschooling and raising nine kids. I was the oldest. We were part of a larger movement now called “Quiverfull,” the term taken from a Psalm where the writer talks about God blessing the man whose “quiver is full of arrows.” The metaphor refers to children, and our community understood this to be a command: Have children and raise them in this aggressively conservative faith, and then there will be more “true” believer Christians in the world to bring about cultural revolution in the name of Jesus Christ. Children like me were raised to see life as apocalyptic, and ourselves as serving on the front lines of a culture war to make America Christian.

Women in this world were treated much like those in The Handmaid’s Tale — most, like my mom, didn’t have their own bank accounts, didn’t have their own email addresses, and couldn’t leave the home without permission from their husbands. They were called helpmeets, a word taken from the King James Version of the Bible, which refers to wives as created to meet the needs of their husbands and be helpers to them.

I even participated in a super-conservative worship church dance troupe for young women, called His Handmaids — again a term taken from the Bible, from the Virgin Mary’s response to the angel Gabriel telling her she’s going to be pregnant with the Messiah, which some translations open with “I am the Lord’s handmaiden, let it be unto me as you say.”

Just like Offred, women existed within the community to serve higher purposes than our own desires. Young girls who led the congregation wore white dresses and were stripped of identifying features — no jewelry, no nail polish, hair tied back and not in the face — while wives were submissive helpers to their husbands, with my mother used as the fertile ground for my father to breed a quiver full of Christian culture warriors.

And me, the oldest child in a family of nine? As was common in the movement, I was my mom’s right hand. She sometimes called me her strength, because I helped her co-parent my younger siblings and keep the household running. When she had twins shortly before my thirteenth birthday, it was me who got up with her during the nighttime feedings, not my dad. When things were too busy on Sunday nights, I took over doing all the family laundry and ironing. And I did the dinner dishes almost exclusively for about 10 years, foregoing activities with my peers at church and in the community because I had too many obligations to fulfill at home. Like Offred, my life’s purpose was subsumed into serving the “greater good” of my far-right Christian community.

* * *

We were not alone, either. My situation grew out of a larger movement in the conservative Christian community to be more invested in politics and cultural affairs on the national level. This push was led by the “Moral Majority,” a group of Christian leaders founded by Jerry Falwell in 1971, which sought to take on Washington to bring Christian ethics to bear on policy at a national level.

The Moral Majority focused on issues related to their priorities for promoting and protecting traditional family values. They celebrated Ronald Reagan’s presidency and encouraged his refusal to act on the HIV/AIDS epidemic, which was killing thousands, largely because they saw it as fundamentally a judgment from God on the “immoral” behavior of homosexuals. According to historian Rachel Coleman — a Ph.D. candidate at Indiana University, who is also a Quiverfull Daughter and whose research focuses on twentieth century history of childhood, children, and religion — it wasn’t until kids started getting affected and dying from infected blood in transfusions that the issue was seen as valid. As a result, President Reagan eventually did act, releasing a series of PSAs about the epidemic…but these were all focused on kids, the future of the religious crusade for a Christian United States.

Also part of this movement was the rise of Operation Rescue, a Christian group that encouraged protest (and, loosely, some terrorist-style) tactics against abortion practitioners and those receiving abortion services. In the wake of Roe v. Wade passing in 1973, the Moral Majority hit on abortion as the issue that would most viscerally and immediately grab the attention of their audience and rally support and action at the grassroots level. We still see this struggle impacting negotiations on the Hill today, as abortion remains an impossibly hot-button issue, regularly derailing policymaking. Shock-and-awe tactics with grisly photos of dead fetuses and terror of increased government oversight on family-related issues drummed up droves of supporters buying into the agenda of the Moral Majority.

This terror-based approach to protecting the “traditional family” and “family values” had a watershed affect, driving the Right to work against civil protections for sexual orientation and gender presentation, creating a fear frenzy that drove the War on Drugs to incarcerate an entire generation of young black men, while causing Christian universities (led by my alma mater) to seek legal exemption from being under Title IX if they would surrender access to federal funding.

This collective terror also allowed Phyllis Schlafly and the Moral Majority to lobby successfully against the ratification of the Equal Rights Amendment in 1982. The United States is one of the last remaining countries in the world without a constitutional clause that protects the rights of women as full and equal citizens with men, and this prevents us from participating in key international coalitions against gender discrimination (like CEDAW, which we haven’t ratified either). The Moral Majority effectively took the United States backwards a century policy-wise — and we still haven’t fully recovered.

It was during this rise of the Moral Majority that Atwood wrote The Handmaid’s Tale. I was born, the first of what would be nine kids, just about five years after the book was first published.

Atwood has given many interviews about the writing of The Handmaid’s Tale and her creative process for it, but the thing that stands out to me the most is her comment that she made a rule for herself not to include anything in the novel that hadn’t already been done by some society, somewhere. Nothing was new.

And so, as I read the book for the first time that cold morning in 2010, the fictional world sounded a whole lot like my real life.

* * *

My ex-husband, who I met at that same little Christian college and who had also grown up in the same group of churches, wanted nothing more than to be a father, to have 10 kids and to homeschool them. When our marriage was careening to an end, we were sitting in a car outside his family’s house when he asked me if I might consider having a baby with him to rekindle something.

We’d chosen to wait initially for a host of reasons, the strongest one for me being that I had been raising kids for the last ten to twelve years of my life and couldn’t see myself having the energy to plunge back into the world of poopy diapers and snotty noses. Two years into our marriage, I’d had a few pregnancy scares and each time as I waited for my period, I had had nightmares and panic attacks, unable to shake a deep-set terror of being trapped at home with a baby and no life outside the home. I would wake up crying and shaking from a dream about being pregnant, and the next morning he’d make me coffee and listen to my stories and try to assuage my fears.

So when he asked me to have a kid to save our marriage, I was stunned. “Are you serious?” I asked.

“Don’t be that way!” he responded. “I just think that I could love you again if you were a mother.”

Speechless, I told him to get out of the car. “I’m not discussing this,” I said. “There’s no way in hell I’d bring a kid into this mess if we can’t fix this on our own.”

It was our last big fight. We stopped communicating shortly thereafter, and the next time I had a real conversation was at the courthouse after our divorce hearing. He asked me to go to lunch, and I said no.

Because I was running late for my gynecologist appointment to get myself an IUD.

* * *

Offred learns early on that she is not the first Handmaid to be given to the Commander’s household to bear a child for him and his wife. The last one, she gathers from bits of gossip here and there, committed suicide.

In her room there is a little cupboard, and on the back wall of the cupboard is scratched nolite te bastardes carborundorum, which is bad Latin for “Don’t let the bastards grind you down.” Offred assumes this message is left for her by the last Handmaid, a hand of camaraderie offered to her from beyond the grave.

Promotional material from the “Handmaid’s Tale” Hulu series, via Facebook.

When I ended my relationship to my father shortly after I got divorced, it was because he and I reached a crossroads where he had to choose to treat me according to his religious ideology or to treat me like a human, his daughter, his firstborn. He chose his ideology, and continued to use it to manipulate and mistreat myself and my mother and my siblings. We stopped talking, and I got my first tattoo — a black armband with script, “N.T. B. C.” Don’t let the bastards grind you down. Don’t forget you are human. Don’t forget what you have overcome.

Offred never tells the reader her real name — she only says she had another one, once. Under the new regime, her name is that of the man for whom she exists as a birthing vessel. It’s not important, she doesn’t exist as an individual anymore, her life is not her own.

When I got divorced, I repudiated the worldview that had been imposed upon me, rejecting a life where I existed only according to my relationship to my father or my husband. I took a new last name, a family name from further back on my grandmother’s side, naming myself to own myself. That was also the year I got my own bedroom for the first time, coming full circle out of a universe where my identity could not exist on its own terms, and carving out for myself a place in the world, a home, a name, a future that was my own to direct.

* * *

Today, Donald Trump is President of the United States, and there is increasing “constitutional anxiety” on Capitol Hill — what will he do next? The 24-hour news cycle is high-strung and exhausted, shrilly reporting on his tweets and Melania’s whereabouts and Ivanka’s so-called feminism.

Promotional material from the “Handmaid’s Tale” Hulu series, via Facebook.

Mike Pence is second in line for the presidency, and if Trump is impeached, we will have instead of an incompetent egoist for a president, a calculating and careful man who leaves a legacy behind him of anti-women, anti-LGBTQ, anti-immigrant policy-making. VP Pence is exactly the kind of man the Moral Majority of 1985 would have hoped to elect, as is demonstrated by their rallying around anti-minority and anti-choice legislators and policies and foundations.

The Quiverfull movement was created for this kind of world. I was raised to be a helpmeet in a world like Offred’s, and watching (white, middle class) liberals around me be shocked and unnerved by the election results has been curious for me. Didn’t they know this has been in the works for decades? I didn’t come out of nowhere, and neither did Trump, and nor did The Handmaid’s Tale.

Atwood recently wrote about the book in the New York Times, in anticipation of the new mini-series coming out on Hulu today, starring Elisabeth Moss and Alexis Bledel. In it she says:

Is ‘The Handmaid’s Tale’ a prediction? That is the third question I’m asked — increasingly, as forces within American society seize power and enact decrees that embody what they were saying they wanted to do, even back in 1984, when I was writing the novel. No, it isn’t a prediction, because predicting the future isn’t really possible: There are too many variables and unforeseen possibilities. Let’s say it’s an antiprediction: If this future can be described in detail, maybe it won’t happen. But such wishful thinking cannot be depended on either.

The publication of The Handmaid’s Tale during the time of the Reagan presidency and the Moral Majority was an apt collision of vision and fears expressed through fiction — the release of the new mini-series timed at the end of the first one hundred days of Donald Trump, U.S. President #45, is a powerful piece of foresight on the behalf of the studio which created it. Americans are more politically engaged than they have been in years, and we would all do well to pay attention to this “antiprediction” of a TV show in hopes that we can learn from it and resist the fruit of 1980s Christian conservative thinking running our government today, and save the future of our democracy.

 

 

The Day My Therapist Dared Me to Have Sex With Her

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

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

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

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

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

“Oh, yeah,” I say. “That.”

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

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

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

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

I shrugged my shoulders, only half looking up.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Nailed it.

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

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

* * *

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Why not?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

There were two ways to find out:

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

2) Keep going to therapy.

* * *

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

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

“I don’t know.”

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

Here we go again.

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

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

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

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

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

“What?” I respond, flustered.

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

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

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

“Of course not.”

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

“I wouldn’t do that.”

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

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

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

* * *

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Isn’t therapy supposed to ameliorate my anxiety?

* * *

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Exactly.”

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

* * *

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Lori’s great at forcing me to reflect.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

* * *

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

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

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

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

* * *

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

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

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

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

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

* * *

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

See the complete list of Editors’ Picks here. 

* *

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

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

 

 

Why I Answered My Dad’s Gay Sex Ad

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In the Christian parenting books my dad wrote, we were always the most perfect devout family. When I found out he was secretly trolling for gay sex online, I became obsessed with unmasking the truth.

My brothers started recording as soon as they hit the parking lot. The video camera focused on Dad’s car in the distance. I never noticed how dark his windows were tinted, but now it made sense. He flashed his headlights twice. Was that something you did when you were meeting a teenager for sex in the alley behind a sporting goods store? They drove closer, unsure of what would happen next.

Dad had sent the time and location for the meet-up, expecting a quickie. When he realized it was his two sons in the car, and not the guy who had responded to his personal ad, he hit the gas and his tires screeched as he took off in the opposite direction. They sped after him until he stopped just as abruptly as he’d taken off. They pulled up to him like they were waiting at a stoplight. The camera recorded its own reflection in the dark glass as they waited. After years of trying, we had finally caught my father soliciting sex from strangers.

This was not the way my father would have written our story. In the Christian parenting books he authored, we were always the perfect family. We had the big house in the country, five happy kids, and an American flag flying on the front porch. Mom had graduated with a degree in home economics and thought it was cruel when other families allowed their kids to eat dinner in front of the TV. She had a lot of opinions on how other people should raise their children and had been outraged when our church opened a daycare center. It was a symptom of feminism and put everyone in jeopardy by enabling women to go back to work.

Dad was equally passionate about promoting family values and lobbied against gay marriage at the state capitol. He also served as an elder at our Southern Baptist church while running the PR department of a Fortune 500 company. Most days he would be gone before we woke up and arrive home shortly before dinner. Mom would rush to greet him, tearing off her oven mitts so she could take his briefcase.

“Be quiet now,” she’d say. “Dad’s had a long day and he’s very tired.”

If we were too loud or demanding, he’d be quick to let us know.

“I should go back to work,” he’d say. “They know to respect me there.”

I’ve read the books he wrote about my early childhood and wondered who this man was that claimed to have held me on his lap. I don’t remember these touching moments, nor do I recall any of the stories about him tossing a football with my brothers in the front yard.

That’s why it was strange when he suddenly started paying attention to me. It was the mid-‘90s and the Internet was still something you had to access with dial-up and a shrink-wrapped CD from AOL. Any time I’d walk in while he was on the computer he’d immediately turn to face me.

“Hey there,” he’d say, “how was school?”

I could hear the telltale sound of the mouse clicking to minimize a screen.

Dad had a secret.

Once he finished, I pretended I wanted to get on Instant Messenger. Instead, I downloaded a hacker program that secretly logged all encrypted keystrokes on our family computer. By the end of the week I’d gathered the passwords for everyone’s email accounts, including several with names like “Porndog” and “Horny69.”

With an eye on the door, I logged in. There were hundreds of emails from men with equally sexual screen names. Addresses and photos were being exchanged. Some of the boys looked my age. I was completely out of my depth. “Gay” was an insult people hurled in the hallways of my middle school — I didn’t realize there were actually men who liked having sex with other men, and I’d never have imagined my father was one of them.

I couldn’t reconcile this information with what I believed to be true about my family. It wasn’t my own deception, but it made my life and my identity feel like a lie. I was sitting in our family room with sunlight streaming through the windows and my childhood artwork decorating the walls, but I felt like a dark part of myself had been exposed. I was no longer living in a world where some of us were entitled to wag a finger of judgment.

It took hours, but I read every single email. When I was done I logged out of the account, deleted the hacker program and decided to pretend like it had never happened. I needed to believe the lie and continue being the smiling daughter of a godly man. To accept the truth was to lose everything I’d ever known and I was afraid of what I would be left with.

The years passed and I never said a word. I hid the secret inside of me but it began to take a toll. First there were blinding headaches so intense I’d be curled up on the bathroom floor, hugging the toilet. Mom took me to a doctor and he told me I had migraines. The next year I began to suffer from excruciating stomach pain that left me unable to eat. Mom took me to a doctor and he told me I had ulcers. After that, my hair began to fall out. My body turned against me and refused to give me my period. Every month my Mom would buy more tampons and I’d hide them in the bathroom cabinet with a year’s worth of unopened boxes. She eventually took me to another doctor and he told me I had depression. We stopped going to doctors.

* * *

Two days before I started my freshman year of college my car broke down on the side of the road. Mom was busy at a church fundraiser so Dad came to rescue me. We were rarely alone together but he was in a good mood and told jokes as we followed the tow truck. I remember feeling confused by how easily I could laugh aloud while simultaneously despising him. Until then I’d never acknowledged the source of these feelings, but the looming freedom of adulthood lured me into thinking it was finally safe. I decided I would tell my Mom that night.

I was the only one of my siblings still living at home. My brothers were either engaged or married, and starting their own families. I ate dinner with my parents, then they sat down to watch an episode of “24.” I knelt at the edge of the couch where my mom sat.

“I need to talk to you.”

“Wait for a commercial,” she said without looking up.

I told her it would take longer than a commercial.

“Then wait till the show is over.”

“Please,” I said. “It’s important.”

She finally looked away from the TV and a brief flicker of alarm crossed her face. Then she laughed.

“It can wait.”

I told her it couldn’t. I told her it was something that would ruin her life.

“You can ruin my life when this show is over.”

I went to my room and waited. Half an hour later she walked in and sat on my bed.

“Okay,” she said. “Ruin my life.”

I’d never seen my mom cry, but she was sobbing when I finished. I knew so little about this woman who’d spent the last eighteen years seeing to my every need. I had no understanding of who she’d been before she met my father. I worried I’d shattered her world and stolen her happiness, but it turned out she’d known he was gay since the second year of their marriage. She said she’d stayed “for the kids” and apologized that I’d found out the truth. She swore she hated him and planned to leave after my brother got married in a few months.

Then she told me I could never tell anyone about it.

“I will do whatever it takes to make you okay,” she said.

She suggested I delay my college enrollment and go stay with her cousin in Seattle. I was too numb to even think about it. I couldn’t believe I’d spent so many years keeping a secret when my Mom had known about it all along. That next day I packed everything into my repaired Honda Civic and moved into the college dorms.

When a week passed and I didn’t show up for family lunch on Sunday, Dad became suspicious. Mom told him everything and he demanded to speak with me. My phone would not stop ringing.

“Come home,” Mom pleaded. “We need to talk.”

I agreed to meet them at a local ice cream parlor where softball teams went after practice and small children smeared mint chocolate chip all over their faces. We sat on opposite sides of a vinyl booth while my Dad explained it all away.

“I hate myself for having done this to you,” he said with a practiced mix of shame and humility. “I should have killed myself a long time ago. I still pray for the courage to go through with it.”

His words were shocking and his eyes misty, but I could see a calculated coldness in them. He stayed quiet until I told him what he wanted to hear.

“No,” I said, “I don’t want you to kill yourself.”

His performance was so impressive I almost missed the part where he denied everything.

“You have to understand, it was only a passing thing. I’ve never acted on any of those thoughts. I am not…that way.”

He couldn’t even say it.

“Gay?” I asked.

Both my parents flinched.

“That’s a choice I would never make,” he snapped.

My Mom leaned forward like a Girl Scout closing a cookie sale.

“Does that answer everything for you?”

I nodded, not nearly as convincing a liar as my father. But apparently he wasn’t done.

“Only God in heaven knows why you saw what you did, but I’m sure he will use it for his good purpose, to bring the family closer to him.”

I turned to look out the window, saying nothing.

“So we’ll see you at family lunch next Sunday,” he finished.

When I didn’t show up as instructed, he launched a campaign of prayer against me.

“Dear Heavenly Father, our daughter is in such a rebellious phase…”

My brothers and sisters-in-law came to me on the sly, confused about why I’d become so “selfish.”

“I don’t know what more we could do for her,” my dad said. “We’ve given her everything. Perhaps we’ve spoiled her.”

Secretly, my mom continued telling me she planned to leave him after my brother’s wedding. Then autumn passed and a miracle occurred.

“He’s healed now,” she said. “He no longer struggles with…that.”

I tried to use the word “gay” again but she shushed me. I asked what word better described a man who snuck off to have sex with men while his wife and kids thought he was at work. This only made her angry.

“Your lack of forgiveness is very ugly.”

* * *

I decided I would prove it to her. Surely if she saw what I’d seen, she would have to face the truth. I began coming home to sleep in my old bed. I claimed I didn’t like living in the dorms when in reality I was sneaking into my dad’s office to go through his computer every night. I’d pore over his Internet history, documenting every sex chat room and adult hookup site. I was always careful to charge the laptop back to the same percentage it had been before I slid it back into his briefcase. After several weeks I’d compiled a spreadsheet full of recent activity. I showed it to my Mom, confident she would finally believe me.

“I don’t really understand how all of this works,” she said, puzzling over the timestamps and URLs. “I’ll ask your father about it later.”

He told her it was a misunderstanding, that I was clearly on a path of destruction. They decided to change the locks to their house.

* * *

A few months later my mom invited me over for lunch while Dad was on a business trip. I spent the entire afternoon listening to her lecture me on the importance of forgiveness. She said their marriage was stronger than ever. While she was in the bathroom I snuck into my old bedroom and cracked a window. It was just enough to keep it from latching but not enough for her to notice.

Later that night I parked at the end of their gravel road and walked the rest of the way in darkness. The house was silent as I slid the screen off the window and climbed through. I wasn’t sure when I’d have my next opportunity so I took screenshots of his entire image library and downloaded his emails to a flash drive. My friends texted me about going to a party but I didn’t have time to meet them — I was too busy guessing my dad’s password to Adult Friend Finder.

I took everything I’d found and finally told my brothers.

“Whoa,” one of them said. “I remember when I was nine and I said sailboats were gay. I wonder if that offended him.”

With my brothers and me on the same side, we called a big TV-style family meeting. I brought another spreadsheet I’d made to contrast his various trysts and online sexcapades with things like “this was the night we watched ‘White Christmas’” or “this was when he emailed me a Bible verse about the hardness of my heart.”

I thought I could persuade my mom by charting his exchange of dick pics next to her housework schedule. But it didn’t work.

“You are blinded by your own sin,” she said.

My father’s responses were even worse.

“I’ve touched the robe of Jesus. It doesn’t matter what you say, I’m healed. All you’re doing is trying to tempt me, but I’m stronger than that.”

He sent me long emails about how I was a tool of the devil. I pictured him with two computer screens open — one for looking up scripture, and another to Mapquest the location of his next bathroom rendezvous.

We were never going to have the cool kind of gay dad.

* * *

I stopped speaking to both of my parents, but I didn’t stop trying to expose him. Every time he denied my accusations, I became more motivated to dig deeper. It angered me that a man like him could so easily hide within the walls of a church or a seemingly happy home.

My mom informed me they would no longer pay my tuition so I took out a semester’s worth of student loans. I promptly failed my classes because I was too busy scouring homosexual hookup sites in search of my father. I decided to drop out of college but I was too ashamed to tell my roommates, so I kept leaving my house at the same time every day. They thought I was going to class but I was really parked outside my dad’s office, trying to catch him in the act.

I became obsessed. I was afraid I’d only ever existed as part of his cover story, but I no longer feared what I’d be left with when his lie was exposed. I decided my new reason for existing was so I could rescue my mom.

I’d almost given up hope when I stumbled across an online persona known as “Kyle Big Guy.” There was no photo, but I could tell it was him by the way he wrote and his preference for younger men. His generous Christianity came across in his willingness to give blowjobs without need for reciprocity. To prove it was him, I responded to the ad. I told him I was a seventeen-year-old named Rex who was looking to hook up with an older man.

He responded almost immediately. I wondered whether he was e-mailing from the couch while my Mom folded his laundry. Either way, I was going to bust him. This was going to be my smoking gun.

The next afternoon I purchased a prepaid cell phone and asked a male friend to record a voicemail message I’d written out on a sticky note.

“Hey this is Rex, sorry I missed your call. Leave a message and I’ll get right back to you.”

He sounded nervous and confused. It was perfect.

I e-mailed the number to “Kyle” and told him to give me a call. Shortly after five p.m. the prepaid phone began to ring. I shrunk back on the couch, watching it vibrate on my coffee table. My Dad’s number lit up the caller ID as it rang six… seven…eight times.

The room was painfully silent until the phone buzzed with a notification. He’d left a voicemail.

“Hi Rex, this is Kyle. You don’t need to be nervous, I’ll make sure you have a good time.”

His voice sounded the same as when he led Bible studies or repeatedly proclaimed, hand over heart, “I’ve only ever had sex with your mother.”

He left instructions to meet him behind a sporting goods store at two p.m. the next day. I was scheduled to work so I called my two oldest brothers. They decided to show up and record everything. He bolted, they followed him, and he finally stopped, ready for the confrontation.

The camera rolled as they waited for something to happen. The low rumble of their car engines filled the silence until my dad finally rolled his window down. His face was calm and smug.

“I knew it was you,” he said with a smirk.

My brother reminded him he was there to have sex with a minor.

“Why does it give you such joy to believe I’m a monster?” my dad asked. “I came here because I knew you were trying to trap me. I would never actually do anything like this.”

They tried to tell him how stupid he sounded, but he held up his hand like a martyr.

“I’m not going to listen to all of this hatred. I’ve been forgiven and healed. You need to deal with your own sin.”

Later that night, we called my mom. She answered on the second ring, her voice cheerful and happy to hear from us. We told her what had happened.

“It must have been a misunderstanding,” she said.

I began to cry, I was so frustrated. There was no way she could explain away the voicemail and the video of her husband in that parking lot.

“You need to learn to forgive,” she said between long airy sighs.

“Please,” my brother said. “Just leave him. We can take care of you. You can see your grandkids again.”

The phone was silent for a moment, and then I heard the sound of the refrigerator opening.

“Listen,” she finally said. “Your father will be home soon and I need to get this bread in the oven.”

This was the last time I ever tried to convince my mom of anything. I’d become so obsessed with trying to save her that I’d almost lost myself.

Several years later my father was arrested for trying to have sex with an undercover police officer in a local park. The news ran his mug shot and he was forced to retire from his high-powered job. Only then was he willing to admit he “struggled with same sex attraction,” promptly leveraging it into a new platform for book sales. Mom continued to run his PR campaign and still smiles happily on the jacket cover next to the line that describes him as a proud father of five.

* * *

Aussa Lorens is author of the blog Hacker.Ninja.Hooker.Spy. where some mistakes are too good not to share. Her writing has been featured on Cosmopolitan, Thought Catalog, The Huffington Post, and Scary Mommy. You can find her on Twitter @AussaLorens.

Eric Palma is a freelance illustrator living in New York City. His work has appeared in The New Yorker, The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal and the Smithsonian.