Drilling, Dollars and Disease Down North

The discovery of oil-rich tar sands brought a modern-day gold rush to a remote stretch of Western Canada. But some locals fear that disaster may also loom beneath the surface.

Moose nose soup was not delicious. Needs salt, I thought, as I forced a swallow of the hot, fatty broth, but I was alone in my displeasure. The girl across the picnic table was slurping hers from its polystyrene bowl with concentrated enthusiasm. “What do you do here in Fort Chipewyan?” I asked, buying time, hoping no one would notice my slow soup consumption. “Mmf,” she said, and swallowed a large spoonful and cleared her throat. “I’m a nurse on the medevac helicopter.” Like just about everyone else, she was wearing sweats and a windbreaker, her long black hair tied up behind a pink visor in a loose ponytail. I peppered her with questions about her life — was she from here? Yes. Did she have a lot of family here? Yes, and a son. She looked like she was in her early twenties.

It was late August 2013, and I had just flown into Fort Chipewyan, a small and remote indigenous community in northeastern Alberta that has made international headlines for its often-contentious relationship to the heart of the region’s economy: the tar sands. The community is so far removed that its only link to the outside world in the warmer months is a thin airstrip; in the winter, a road hewed out of ice offers a temporary land route. I had flown in on a ten-seat plane.

A tailings pond, which holds wastewater left over from the mining process
A tailings pond, which holds wastewater left over from the mining process

The community sits on the edge of Lake Athabasca and at the end of the Mackenzie River basin, a system of looping waterways that once supported the massive fur-trading industry that first brought Europeans to this part of Canada. Today, the same river system provides freshwater to the massive oil mining industry that propels the local economy, and which has provoked protest around the world.

Fort Chipewyan (pronounced “chip-a-wan”) was originally established as a fur-trading post in the late eighteenth century, and it was the first permanent human settlement in Alberta. Today, the largely aboriginal community is home to the Athabasca Chipewyan First Nation and the Mikisew Cree First Nation — a Canadian First Nation is roughly equivalent to an American Indian tribe — as well as a Metís community. (In Canada, “aboriginal” is a preferred term for native or indigenous people.) There is also a smattering of non-indigenous residents. In total, about 1,200 people call Fort Chip home.

Several studies have shown that residents of Fort Chipewyan are suffering from high rates of cancer, particularly cervical cancer and a rare bile duct cancer, and many who live here believe their illnesses are a result of pollution from the tar sands’ strip mines, oil wells, tailings pond, and upgrading plants. A three-year study of ninety-four Fort Chipewyan residents published in 2014 found that twenty of its subjects had been diagnosed with twenty-three separate cases of cancer. Multiple studies have observed a high concentration of polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons, or PAHs —carcinogens associated with oil mining — and heavy metals in the wildlife, the air, the water, the ground, and the snow that covers the region for most of the year.

Terry prepares moose nose soup at Fort Chipewyan.
Terry prepares moose nose soup at Fort Chipewyan.

I chewed on some rubbery cartilage, delaying the next sip of the greasy broth. “If your teeth are strong enough,” Terry, the preparer of the moose nose, leaned in from my right and imparted, “you can eat the cartilage, too!” She grinned, displaying her teeth. “Mine are strong enough.” When I’d arrived at the campsite, Terry had been circling a rack constructed of large, roughly-hewn wooden sticks, from which strips of moose meat were suspended above a crackling fire. In one hand she held what I later learned was the moose nose — a Jello-like chunk of yellowish flesh — while with the other she scraped off a brown hide with a large metal knife in quick, whipping strokes. I was told that moose nose was a real delicacy — “one of the best parts!” — and we were lucky that a generous hunter had donated an entire moose carcass to the gathering.

The Mikisew Cree and Athabasca Chipewyan First Nations are small, and yet they are fighting a battle with colossal stakes. There are those in Fort Chipewyan who say they are sick, afraid, and even dying from the effects of the oil mining. They say they have watched critical species of fish and game that they once depended on for sustenance slowly disappear from the region. Yet the province of Alberta depends on the oil industry for the billions of dollars it pays in taxes and royalties, not to mention more than 100,000 high-paying jobs. With so much money at stake, how can this small community make itself heard?

* * *

Underneath the spongy, moss-coated earth on which Fort Chipewyan rests is one of the largest deposits of bituminous sands in the world. The thick, molasses-like bitumen — this low-grade form of petroleum has been also been characterized as “pitch,” “tar” and “asphalt” at various points in history — is combined with rough sand and clay to form the oil sands, or tar sands. This is the largest deposit of its kind on the planet, and the potential riches contained therein have been valued in the trillions.

This oil is controversial, to put it mildly. Because the petroleum contained in the sands is in a near-solid, low-grade form, a complex and carbon-intensive process is required in order to separate the bitumen from the sand and transform it into a state liquid enough that it can be pushed through pipelines to refineries and markets outside Canada — the resulting product is the infamous “dilbit” (diluted bitumen) that is so difficult to clean in the event of a spill.

Syncrude's Mildred Lake plant, north of Fort McMurray.
Syncrude’s Mildred Lake plant, north of Fort McMurray.

Mining the molasses-like oil sands was an endeavor only recently made profitable as a result of much-improved technology, the waning supply of easy-to-reach oil wells around the world, and the Middle East turmoil that has led the U.S. to seek out non-OPEC sources of imported crude in the name of “energy independence.” In 2013, almost two million barrels of oil were extracted from the sands each day — about ten percent of what the U.S. consumed daily. The laborious process by which bitumen is extracted from the soil and refined into crude emits several times more greenhouse gases into the atmosphere than does a standard oil well; this is why so many environmentalists fiercely oppose it. Former NASA climatologist turned climate activist James Hansen predicts that continued mining of the tar sands will mean “game over for the climate.”

In Alberta, the general mood toward the industry verges on celebratory. The high-paying on-site work has brought a long boom in wealth and population to what was once a scantly inhabited corner of the province. The population of the Regional Municipality of Wood Buffalo, which includes Fort Chipewyan as well as Fort McMurray, the industry’s urban epicenter, has doubled in size over the past decade — and about a third of its population of 116,000 are temporary laborers living in corporate dormitories built near the mining and upgrading operations. On-site work for oil sands giants is coveted: A starting salary for a heavy-equipment operator with just a high school education can land in the low six figures. A municipal report from 2011 lists the average disposable income in the region as $131,287. (All figures noted in this piece are in Canadian dollars.) The province is Canada’s wealthiest.

Alberta’s cities all support the industry: Corporate executives live in the shiny skyscrapers of Calgary, while the capital, Edmonton, provides a transportation and manufacturing hub, and Fort McMurray is home to the many on-site laborers who choose to settle in the region permanently. (Others are flown in by company plane from all around Canada, as demand for labor is so high.) The big cities are all south of the Athabasca oil sands, the mining of which occurs mostly to the north of Fort McMurray. The Athabasca River flows north, a rarity that has inspired the local colloquialism “down north.” Fort Chipewyan is Alberta’s northernmost community, and it is about 250 kilometers downstream from the majority of the mining activity.

Driving along Highway 63 to Fort McMurray.
Driving along Highway 63 to Fort McMurray.

A local doctor named John O’Connor made international headlines in 2006 after speaking to a CBC reporter about unusually high rates of an extremely rare bile duct cancer in the small community. Dr. O’Connor suspected that he had found six cases in a population of 1,200, when the expected rate for this particular cancer is 1 out of 100,000. Initially, the government responded by investigating him. The federal health agency, Health Canada, filed several charges against Dr. O’Connor in 2007, including causing “undue alarm” and promoting “a sense of mistrust” of government, charges which were eventually dismissed. A provincial health study was finally conducted in 2009, and found an unexpectedly high rate of cancer in the community. (The study also found that several of Dr. O’Connor’s suspected cases of bile duct cancer were misdiagnosed; it still confirmed that the rate of bile duct cancer and the overall cancer rate in the community was unusually high.) The Alberta Cancer Board, which authored the study, claimed that locating the cause of the cancers was not within the realm of the study, but hypothesized that “high risk behaviors” such as drinking, drug abuse and smoking could be to blame.

The community coordinator for the Athabasca Chipewyan First Nation, Eriel Deranger, told me that because Fort Chip has only one small medical clinic, people who become significantly ill often leave the community for the hospitals and doctors in Edmonton or Fort McMurray. Yet the study only included those who had a mailing address with the Fort Chipewyan postal code at the time of diagnosis. A scientist from the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC), Diane Bailey, also pointed this out as a limitation of the study — only counting those with both a cancer diagnosis and a Fort Chipewyan postal code meant that any former residents who were diagnosed with cancer after moving away were not included.

Alberta has promised to follow up with a large-scale baseline health study to determine the cause of the high cancer rate in Fort Chip. But several efforts to implement such a health study failed as a result of disagreements over the focus of the study, its parameters, and who would carry out the research. The most recent attempt fell apart in 2013 when the Mikisew Cree withdrew because they felt the province was excluding them from the process and the study wasn’t focusing specifically on the local cancer rate.

When asked whether the province was working on a study at this point in time, a spokesperson for Alberta Health wrote in an email: “Alberta Health is supportive of an independent study in the community. Before a study can happen, Alberta Health and the community need to meet to determine the focus and structure of the study and who will carry it out. In the meantime, we are working with our partners to create a plan to help prevent the known causes of cancer in this community.”

While a baseline health study that might confirm or disprove a link between the tar sands and the cancer rate in Fort Chip hasn’t yet been conducted, recent environmental studies have produced worrying figures about the level of pollutants released into the local watershed by the mining activity. A recent NRDC report claims that “certain water bodies within the Athabasca watershed now exceed current Canadian standards for pollutants in sediment for seven PAHs, [carcinogenic pollutants], including benzo(a)pyrene, a chemical that has been linked to cancer, genetic damage, reproductive impacts including birth defects and organ damage.” Bailey, who authored that report, explains that the anecdotal evidence of a high illness rate is still worth noting. “We know that with elevated levels of some of these pollutants, you would expect to see increased illness rates,” Bailey said in a phone interview, “so the anecdotal evidence matches what we would expect.”

Flying over Fort McMurray.
Flying over Fort McMurray.

A recent health and environmental study conducted in the region — conducted independently of the province —was the first to find a link between local cancer incidences and industrial pollution. The authors of the 2014 study write, “our analysis showed that cancer occurrence was significantly higher for those who had worked in the Oil Sands and for those that frequently consumed traditional foods and locally caught fish contaminated by heavy metals and PAHs.”

The study’s authors also take note of other illnesses and health concerns in the community, a long list that includes “depression and stress; autoimmune diseases including lupus and rheumatoid arthritis; respiratory illnesses including allergies and asthma; diabetes; circulatory illnesses including hypertension and coronaries; and gastrointestinal illnesses including gallbladders, ulcers, and liver disease, among others.”

I discussed the question of a comprehensive health study via email with Joshua Axelrod, Policy Analyst for the NRDC’s Canada Project, and asked him why he thought it hasn’t yet happened. He wrote back, “it would be speculation to say definitively…the answer is likely political in nature, as development of the tar sands resource is the number one priority of both the provincial and federal governments at this point in time. A study showing a direct link between First Nations cancers and tar sands development would be extremely problematic for these political priorities.” When asked for a response, the spokesperson for Alberta Health said he could not comment on Axelrod’s statement “because of its political nature.”

The lack of a study is certainly not for lack of funds: According to the province’s own website, royalties collected from oil companies in 2013 totaled $4.4 billion, and the province expects royalties from the industry to cumulatively total $600 billion over the next twenty-five years.

* * *

To be in Fort Chipewyan is to feel startlingly isolated. When I arrived, I was driven from the tiny airport to the retreat on a long, wide gravel road, one of many that spiral out from the smattering of houses, businesses and community buildings (school, church, café, general store) gathered on the edge of Lake Athabasca. The ground on either side of the road and extending into the forest was coated in a thin layer of mint-green moss. Under the clouded sky of a northern summer afternoon, the blanketed earth seemed to gleam with its own private source of light. From the luminescent soil grew thin, evenly spaced trunks of jack pine trees, spindly and short, their coniferous branches wrapped in a delicate lace of white lichen.

At the end of the short road is Dore Lake, a local nickname for a small inlet of Lake Athabasca. When I first arrived at the campsite, I walked over a gravel road, through the pines and toward the water that shimmered through the trees. In the glassy lake, reeds swayed before a coterie of black loons, who sang to each other as they swam beatifically toward shore. Their haunting calls bounced from the silvery mirror of the lake to its ash-colored banks, and the echoes ran on, and on, and on. It was the wildest landscape I’d ever seen.

I was surprised by how untouched Fort Chipewyan felt. By the time I arrived, I’d read so much about pollution and cancers and dying-out species that I half-expected to witness a blighted place when I finally made it there. But while the area’s natural beauty remains striking, long-time residents and some of the First Nations’ elders believe they are already witnessing the environmental ramifications of industrial pollution.

Several months before I visited, I met with Deranger, the communications coordinator for the Athabasca Chipewyan First Nation and a well-known indigenous rights activist. Deranger sported a stylish, asymmetrical pixie cut and silver feather earrings when we met in a coffee shop near her home in Edmonton. “Until fifteen, twenty years ago, the community of Fort Chipewyan was about eighty percent subsistence,” Deranger said. “That means they got everything they needed from the world around them. But in the last twenty years what we’ve seen is massive industrial development in the Athabasca oil sands, or tar sands, and that has led to massive declines in the population of species that were critical to continuing subsistence lifestyles.”

Deranger spoke matter-of-factly as she described the decline of local species. She told me about the muskrat — “it was a staple, it was a food, plus they used the furs for making mittens, and stuff like that” — which has all but disappeared from the region as the oil industry’s development has spread. Deranger said that her cousin, only a few years older than she is, told her that the last time he saw a muskrat was ten years ago. And that time, he and his buddies pulled the muskrat “out of the water, and it was just swimming really slowly, and it was kind of sick. They pulled it out and he was bleeding from his nose, and bleeding from his mouth, and bleeding from his ears. After that, they never saw a muskrat in the rivers anymore. An entire species has basically disappeared from the region.”

* * *

The moose nose soup I ate was at a cultural retreat, an annual event organized by the Mikisew Cree First Nation and sponsored by Syncrude, a corporate giant in the region. (It was one of the first companies to mine the sticky soil for a profit.) The stated goal of the three-day retreat was the promotion of cross-cultural understanding between oil company workers and aboriginal people. The group of First Nations locals and corporate employees camped together among the jack pines and took part in traditional aboriginal activities: hand games, fishing, beading leather. In addition to moose nose soup there was dried moose meat, bannock — a kind of fried bread — and lessons in Cree syllabics. The retreat was in its eighth year.

The gathering was organized by the Mikisew Cree’s Government and Industry Relations office, the arm of the First Nations that is principally involved when oil companies, compelled by constitutional law, consult with local aboriginal people about developing the land on which their ancestors have hunted, fished and trapped for several thousand years. As the night wore on, I was surprised to find that on that day of the retreat, at least, almost every oil worker in attendance seemed to be aboriginal, albeit from other regions and tribes. I saw only three or four other white people, and two that I met were employees of the Mikisew Cree First Nation. I was one of the few for whom the cultural education was truly new.

And I couldn’t finish my moose nose soup. As my tablemates slurped happily, I looked down at the chunks of nose, nobbly bits of cartilage that I’d stripped of meat, floating in the gray-brown sheen of moose nose broth. I wished, guiltily, for a bowl of warmed canned chili — the alternative dinner option. Slowly, as I stirred at the broth with my plastic spoon, others moved from my table, until I was alone. And then I heard, “Someone didn’t finish their moose nose soup!” A young woman with long blonde curls cleared off the table, scooping the Styrofoam bowls and plastic utensils into a thick plastic garbage bag. She pursed her lips sympathetically, and I blushed with guilt. I handed her my bowl, and she tossed it wordlessly into the bag.

Jimmy Kaskamin, a member of the Mikisew Cree First Nation.
Jimmy Kaskamin, a member of the Mikisew Cree First Nation.

Within moments of the table being cleared, Jimmy Kaskamin sat down across from me. Kaskamin, a member of the Mikisew Cree First Nation, had long white hair that he had combed into a pompadour and slicked back atop a tanned, weathered face. He was seventy years old. His thick, circular glasses magnified his blue eyes, making him appear a bit frog-like when I looked at him straight on — although he exuded a kind of aged, weathered handsomeness. He had left Fort Chipewyan as a teenager, in 1964, and traveled across Canada working construction jobs until he finally returned in 2006. Kaskamin bluntly summarized what he believed to be the oil industry’s perspective: “We’re supplying the whole country with oil. You need oil. Sure, something happens, a bunch of people die” — here, he was referring to the community’s cancer rate — “well, that’s collateral damage. That’s it, see, that’s the way they explain it. Like it or not, that’s the way it is. If they wiped out this whole community it will be big news, but collateral damage. Progress has got to go.”

Joe Marcel, a member of Athabasca Chipewyan First Nation.
Joe Marcel, a member of Athabasca Chipewyan First Nation.

By that point, Joe Marcel, sixty, a member of the Athabasca Chipewyan First Nation, had seated himself next to Kaskamin. Marcel sported a stark-white mustache that shone bright against his sun-tanned skin before slowly fading into a dark gray and springy goatee. Underneath, his T-shirt demonstrated in pictures the “evolution of the fisherman,” in which a chimpanzee turns into a Neanderthal, which slowly stands upright in order to fly-fish. Marcel listened to Kaskamin and interjected, “With progress, there’s always diseases. We’ve got cancers of every sort. There’s a cancer here that they have to go for dialysis every week. Two times a week they have to go get dialysis in their blood…That’s a big heads up, and it’s scary.”

I asked Marcel for his personal feelings about the oil sands, and he stroked his goatee. After thinking for a second, he told me, “That question you ask, “What do you think about the oil?” I can’t say too much. I can’t brag them up, because I’ve got nothing to say. Nothing good. Sure, it’s good for my son, because he makes $140,000 a year.” Marcel explained that his son lives with him and works on-site for the industry. Kaskamin shook his head, “Like I say, a lot of people don’t like the oil companies. But it’s progress.” The way Kaskamin uses the word is to imply that this “progress” is inevitable — and so the rest of Fort Chipewyan might as well just accept it.

As we continued to talk, Kaskamin discovered that since my arrival earlier that day, I hadn’t been anywhere but the campground. He took it upon himself to show me the sights. It was about eight p.m., and the final rays of the setting sun, filtered through the ever-present clouds, set the gravel road aglitter. I piled into his blue pickup — “a real Indian truck,” he joked — and squinted through the thick cracks that spidered across the window shield. He drove over the crunchy gravel road to a newly paved one. We passed a clearing where a new center, funded by the Mikisew Cree, would be constructed to train its members in the welding trade. The pending construction, like most new buildings around there, would be funded by payments from oil companies. As part of the consultation process, corporations often agree to create community services and construct new buildings, as well as give the First Nations large sums of money.

As we drove, Kaskamin pointed out what he called “toys” — four-wheelers, or quads — and snowmobiles, which everyone there called skidoos, parked in people’s driveways. “See this guy here, with all the toys?” He pointed out his window at a white ranch house as we slowly cruised past and said, “He’s been with the oil companies for thirty-five years.” Two newly washed cars and two squat skidoos were parked at haphazard angles in the short driveway. Kaskamin seemed to loosen up without Marcel around. “Everybody’s got a different attitude, different way of thinking” about the oil companies, he told me. “For the people here it’s a benefit, and also a destruction.” He said that he doesn’t go to community meetings anymore, because people take his ambivalent perspective as a pro-oil one. He explained that he doesn’t consider himself pro-oil, just practical. Progress will never stop, and “everything is being polluted anyway.” He suspected the high local cancer rate might also be caused by Western medicine and processed food.

Going for a ride with Jimmy.
Going for a ride with Jimmy.

Kaskamin and I wended our way to a collection of cul-de-sacs occupied by colorful ranch houses — homes built by the First Nation and leased at low cost to its members — until we reached the shore of Lake Athabasca. He parked by a small dock jutting out into the lake. On either side of it, boats whose bright colors had long faded bobbed in the quiet breeze.

We strolled to the end of the jetty, where the gleaming waters of the vast lake stretched to the horizon. As the setting sun tinged the clouds a dark rose, Kaskamin pointed out the residential school that he — and Marcel, and most others in his generation from Fort Chip — had been made to attend by a federal government enforcing a policy of “aggressive assimilation” for indigenous children. Kaskamin gazed impassively at the former school, which was now just an unassuming, quaint church. The dormitory where he’d lived had been razed long ago. A silence settled as we both breathed the cool twilight air, and he turned and walked back to his car.

As we climbed back into the pickup, a black van pulled up next to us, a short, grinning, elderly man at the wheel. “Jimmy!” He shouted. “Oh,” Kaskamin exclaimed. “Marbles!” He was late for his weekly marbles game. “Give me a half an hour.” The man agreed and drove away, and Kaskamin left to buy cigarettes from a dusty vinyl-sided trailer that contained what he called a “little confectionary store.” He’s allowed two tax-free cartons of cigarettes a week by virtue of his Secure Status card.

“You know,” he said, on the way back, “the oil companies send girls like you into the community, into our meetings. We call them little spies. That’s what they’ll call you.” Then he taught me the word for “little white girl” in Cree, and when I confessed I had to leave the next morning — the daily flights fill up so fast, it had been the only one available — he said, “No, they’ll call you mosquito! In and out like that, they’ll call you a mosquito.”

By the time we returned to the campground, it had emptied out except for the various oil workers who were camping out for the night. A fire was blazing, sending white sparks into the air. Hunched shoulders, protected from the late-summer chill by bright polyester jackets, circled the campfire. Melody Lepine, the retreat organizer, pulled out a s’mores kit —“a kit, for s’mores?” someone asked, incredulous — and we passed the box around, along with a big bag of pre-made snack mix. Almost everyone was smoking a cigarette. “It’s a smoker culture up here,” a fellow retreat attendee confessed to me, “I was surprised by that.” Also aboriginal, he was an oil company employee from British Columbia. Where he was from, First Nations were making headlines for protesting the tar sands. B.C. and Alberta are linked by the industry’s rapid expansion, and its growing need for coastal access to ship its product to markets overseas.

Alberta’s current and previous premiers have both lobbied for the construction of a pipeline that would cross the Rockies and connect the tar sands to ports in B.C. The proposed Enbridge pipeline, known as Northern Gateway, would allow the oil to be shipped to markets in East Asia. The construction of Northern Gateway would ease pressure on the still-unapproved Keystone XL link to the United States’ refineries and ports in East Texas. While Northern Gateway was approved in June of last year, it had 209 conditions attached — and one was that local First Nations must be consulted. Enbridge and its allies, including most of Alberta’s provincial politicians, have been met with fierce resistance in B.C., particularly from First Nations, in the form of court challenges and public protests.

The desperation for new pipelines is a result of Alberta’s lack of refineries with the capacity to upgrade tar sands oil into a lighter liquid crude, as well as the fact that the mines are landlocked and thus dependent on pipelines for access to international shipping ports; with the pipelines stalled, a glut of oil has been trapped in the province. In December of 2014, Alberta’s premier Jim Prentice claimed that the province and federal government lost $6 billion in royalties and revenue from the immobilized oil that year alone. First Nations’ opposition to oil pipelines on or near their traditional territory has played a crucial role in helping to fuel popular resistance against them.

The shore of Lake Athabasca, in Fort Chipewyan.
The shore of Lake Athabasca, in Fort Chipewyan.

As the sky grew darker and night crept in, Lepine sat herself in the camping chair beside mine. As director of the Mikisew Cree’s Government and Industry Relations office, she leads the battle to convince oil corporations and the province of Alberta to listen to her First Nation’s concerns when it comes to granting oil corporations leases to mine near their traditional territory. This is no small task: She told me that her department of nine people is asked to process hundreds of applications every year, and a single application could require going through hundreds of boxes of documents. Lepine characterized the process as “like triage.”

It’s not only the amount of work asked of a small First Nation office that makes the consultation process in Alberta so byzantine. Consultation today is the current version of a relationship between white settlers and aboriginal inhabitants that has morphed continuously over the past 400 years, and the history of consultation is nearly as convoluted as the process itself. When I met with her in Edmonton, Deranger, the Athabasca Chipewyan First Nation’s communications coordinator, had argued that consultation should have been in place since the late June day in 1899 when her ancestors signed a treaty that granted a territory larger than France to the British Queen in exchange for reserves, yearly payments, hunting supplies and medicine, among other things. The treaty was signed after aboriginals were adamantly assured that their lifestyles would never be altered, and that they would be consulted before changes were made to the land they were signing over to the Crown. But it wasn’t until the late twentieth century that the promised consultation began to take place. After the Canadian constitution was amended in 1982 to include protection for aboriginal and treaty rights, and several subsequent court cases were decided in favor of aboriginal land claims, the political machinery began to slowly act.

Deranger said that in the 1990s, as the question of consultation was being raised more often in the courts, “Canada had a fiduciary obligation [to consult], but they didn’t have the manpower, the resources, to hire people to go to all the provinces, to consult with all the nations. So they said, ‘Hey provinces, you’re part of this country, you need to develop models that make sure that you fulfill the federal obligation. So here’s some frameworks on how to do consultation.’ They were piss-poor.”

In Alberta, in particular, the “government doesn’t want to spend the resources or the time or the money to do the type of consultation that’s necessary for all of the different resource projects, particularly in Alberta’s tar sands…what’s basically happened is that consultation has been handed to the corporations.”

Jessica Johnson, Director of Communications for the Government of Alberta’s Aboriginal Relations office, responded, “The Alberta government, in accordance with case law, is permitted to (and does) delegate procedural aspects of consultation to corporations, however it does not delegate the duty of consultation, which remains with the Crown.” Johnson further stressed that to improve Alberta’s First Nations consultation process, Aboriginal Relations is committed to reviewing the policy annually to encourage participation of First Nations, industry and other stakeholders.

Deranger went on to describe those early years of slap-dash, corporate-led consultation practices in the late 1990s. She explained, “It’s so psychotic to think that this was happening in the ’90s and the early 2000s still — but these corporations were going into communities, corporations, the government, and they would put up a little poster and say, ‘Exxon presentation at the community hall on Friday! Come, and you’ll get a cell phone!’ Or, ‘Come to our presentation, we’ll pay you $200!’ Whatever. Trinkets and baubles.

“And they’d come, people would show up — and it didn’t matter who showed up, by the way — and they’d go through their slideshow, and they’d say, ‘This is our project! This is going to bring you jobs, and all sorts of wonderful things!’ And the corporation would go, ‘Oh yes, we consulted with this nation. Check!’ And the government would go, ‘Oh, our corporation consulted. Check!’ And they’d pass it over to the federal government. Consultation done.” Deranger has a habit of sustaining eye contact, and it feels especially intense when she grows flushed with anger, as she did when she carefully enunciated: “No word of a lie.”

The aerial route to Fort Chipewyan.
The aerial route to Fort Chipewyan.

I later spoke on the phone with a Canadian expert in aboriginal legal rights, Monique Passelac-Ross, and she echoed Deranger’s frustration. “The consultation process is pretty broken in Alberta,” she said. She explained that legally the process should reflect the First Nations’ own desires and vision for how they would like to be consulted — essentially, the law requires that the aboriginal people play an equal part in designing the consultation process — but in practice, while First Nations are given the chance to provide input, Alberta has the final word on the design and implementation of its consultation policy. In other words, it’s not an equal partnership. Aboriginal people are asked to attend public hearings, should they wish their views to be heard by provincial officials, and the particular rights that they hold — their aboriginal and treaty rights — are rarely considered in such hearings. However, Passelac-Ross noted, “This consultation is an issue of rights, the rights that they hold under the treaties.”

The Alberta Energy Regulator, the government body that regulates development and mining on provincial land, boasts a board of directors, the majority of whom come from careers in resource extraction industries. When the regulator was created — the province passed a law consolidating several separate panels in late 2012 to streamline the lease application and environmental assessment processes for the oil industry — a section in the legislation mandating its creation stated that the board wouldn’t have jurisdiction to decide if consultation with aboriginal people is adequate.

Aboriginal rights, Passelac-Ross said, are “a very new concern in Canada.” She went on, “The governments have not really put two and two together and said, ‘We should make sure we accommodate the rights of aboriginal people.’”

While the government has been slow to recognize them, aboriginal rights are transforming Canada’s political landscape. With the indigenous opposition to the Gateway pipeline to the west and the activism against Keystone in the United States — much of it coming from American Indian tribes located in the states it will traverse — the rights of indigenous peoples are something few in power can continue to ignore.

The federal government, led by Prime Minister Stephen Harper, has noticed the trend. In 2014, The Guardian obtained reports written by the Ministry of Aboriginal Affairs that laid bare the Harper regime’s sentiments toward the rising tide of aboriginal activism: “‘There is a tension between the rights-based agenda of Aboriginal groups and the non-rights based policy approaches’ of the federal government,” the newspaper quoted. This statement confirmed many aboriginal suspicions about their dealings with the Canadian government: Politicians’ priorities seem to lie less with the rights of individual citizens than with securing the continued expansion of the private sector, particularly the energy sector. And the sector has certainly expanded. In a report published last November, the Canadian Energy Research Institute predicted that oil sands development would double in size by 2030, if all pending applications for leases were approved.

I asked Deranger, when we met, what the mood was like in Fort Chipewyan, and she told me, “People are sad. I don’t know how else to say it.” Deranger claimed that because hunting and fishing were so threatened by industry, people were becoming less active, staying at home and eating food loaded with preservatives. She left me with a story about the emotional aftermath of the cancer scare: “We were at this meeting once and we were talking about all these issues, and this Metís man, crying, said, ‘I come from a fishing and trapping family. That’s what I know, that’s what I do. That’s what my dad did, that’s what I do.’ He had a son who was eight at the time, and he said, ‘My little boy won’t eat meat that I hunt or fish that I catch. And when I put it on the table, he asks me where I got it from. And I said to him once, ‘Why do you want to know?’ And he said, ‘Because I don’t want to get cancer and die.’” Deranger clenched her fists and gave me a piercing look as she said, “When an eight-year-old has those fears in a community, you know that it runs deep.”

Back at the campfire, I asked Lepine how it felt to see all these projects approved, regardless of her community’s opposition to them. She said, “It makes it somewhat daunting but I enjoy the challenge — continuously trying to make a difference, whether or not it’s a small difference; getting the government to pursue, for example, the designing of a new water monitoring system, raising concerns…we’re a voice. I think they hear it, [the issue] is just how responsive they are.” She gazed into the fire. “It’s been very slow.”

Lepine didn’t particularly blame the oil companies; her beef was with Alberta. The province designed the lease application procedures; the companies merely followed the government’s rules. She said that lawyers she’s worked with have told her that of all the provinces where they’ve worked — B.C., Saskatchewan, the Yukon — they’d found that Alberta was the most hostile to aboriginal concerns. She continued, “It’s like talking to a wall — but even a wall isn’t that bad.”

Flames burn at a campfire in Fort Chipewyan.
Flames burn at a campfire in Fort Chipewyan.

The campfire was diminished, and the circle slowly dispersed. Before Lepine turned in for the night, I asked her how she hoped to see the oil sands industry change. She said, “I think it should slow down. It’s going too fast — science isn’t keeping up. Traditional knowledge is saying that the impacts are great. There are changes in the water, wildlife, people, and those impacts are not understood…We shouldn’t just keep going and think we’ll solve the problems in the future.” She continued to stare into the subdued fire as she went on, “The risk is too great when you have people, culture, lives depending on it.” Soon after, she stood up, turned to the inky blackness of the forest behind her, and walked to her tent.

* * *

A little more than eighteen months after that night in late August, the price of oil has sunk to a six-year low. Business journalists across North America speculate as to how detrimental this will be for the expensive, unpopular industry. But while many jobs have been cut and the construction of many new mines has been delayed, the tar sands have weathered crashes before — and the price of oil has always rebounded.

Some in Fort Chipewyan think that this price slump might provide the temporary slowdown in development — the chance for more study, evaluation and discussion of the industry’s environmental and health effects — for which they have long been asking.

* * *

Nika Knight is a writer and translator living in Portland, Maine. Once in a blue moon she can be caught tweeting @nikaknight.

Alex Nelson was born in 1989 in New York and raised in a small town in Maine. She received her BFA in photography from the Fashion Institute of Technology. Her work has been exhibited in New York, and featured and published internationally. She currently lives and works in New York.



In Most Schools, Gifted Students with Learning Disabilities Are Left Behind. Not Here.

Micaela Bracamonte was sick of seeing her sons struggle in settings that weren’t equipped for “twice exceptional” students. So she founded a school of her own.

A group of seven- and eight-year-old kids cluster around tables, solving math problems designed for students five grades ahead of them. They’re asked to add and subtract different amounts of minutes from a specific time, and are timed on how fast they can solve the problems. “So, if it’s 10:15 a.m. and you move 450 minutes into the future, what time is it? Then move 105 minutes back. What time is it now? Go!”

A tiny whiz kid tackles these problems with ease, which thrills him. Standing at about three-foot-eleven, his leg is as wide as some adults’ wrists. Unable to sit still, the invitation to show off his strategy on the board in the front of the room is met with a leap and a sprint.

“What’s the difference between this time and this number? You’ve got to subtract the fifteen minutes from 10:15 and then write the rest out as an equation,” he explains proudly. “I’m so good at this now I can see the equation in the first second! If you guys want to get fast at doing this, this is what you’ve got to do. You’ve got to use this strategy!”

The kids in this class are not just exceptionally smart. They’re “twice exceptional,” or “2e,” a term that refers to students who are academically gifted and also have learning disabilities.

A 6th-grade math class, where the students learn pre-algebra at the Lang School in Manhattan.

A co-teacher and a learning specialist accompany the head teacher in this classroom at the Lang School in Manhattan’s Financial District, an institution dedicated to twice exceptional kids. The learning specialist is consoling a girl in the corner who has been crying for over a half hour. This is a normal occurrence. She suffers from anxiety so debilitating she can’t function in a more conventional school.

Although the notion of being well above average in certain academic areas but an underperformer in others doesn’t seem too novel, twice exceptionality is rarely represented in academic literature. Compared to the amount of study and research devoted to special education and gifted education, twice exceptional education receives barely a peep. Many special and gifted education practitioners do not even know the term.

Children’s writing on the “graffiti wall” in the hallway at the Lang School. The graffiti walls are replaced each year, and the old ones are kept for posterity.

The federal government doesn’t track twice exceptionality, but, beginning in 2008, the state of Minnesota researched it during a five-year study of public primary school children. The study determined 14 percent of the gifted students studied were also learning-disabled. (The National Association for Gifted Children defines “gifted” children as having “outstanding levels of aptitude or competence in one or more domains” including math, music, language, painting, dance or sports.)

Some public-school students who are eligible for special education can have Individualized Education Programs (IEPs) developed, but many schools don’t have the resources to match twice exceptional students’ more complex requirements. Assistance may be needed for challenges with focus, organization, motivation, time management, anxiety, depression, motor skills, speech skills, memory, and socialization – as well as teaching designed for gifted students.

* * *

The Lang School was founded by Micaela Bracamonte, a 52-year-old mother who was concerned that her own twice exceptional children weren’t getting the attention and support they needed – and it’s one of just ten schools (all private) in the U.S. exclusively serving twice exceptional students.

As a twice exceptional student herself, Bracamonte’s own academic life, growing up in Bethesda, Maryland, was one of frustration, rebelliousness and conflict, fueled by a lack of support for her twice exceptionality. She could speak three languages by first grade, but was held back because she couldn’t recall the alphabet in order. By third grade, she’d read many of her school’s textbooks, but was still not allowed to advance.

As the anger from being misunderstood and alienated mixed with intellectual boredom, year after year, Bracamonte began to detest social convention and authority. She turned to athletics, pouring 30 hours a week into gymnastics and track and field training, but with bitterness. When she was about to get first, second, or third place in a race – when there was something at stake – she would stop just short of the finish line and walk off the track.

“I wanted to make a point,” she says. “I wanted my coaches and school to know I didn’t care about them, or the medals, or the accolades.”

She believed school failed her, and that pain didn’t fade. Watching her children experience similar issues lit a fire in her.

Bracamonte’s older son, Julien, 18, began his academic career in public school, where his combination of ADHD and a high IQ forced his teachers to confront a challenge they were never trained to meet. Julien was always getting up and walking around the room, a thinking tool for him but a distraction for others in that particular environment.

“Sometimes I feel I need to move around,” Julien says. “I get how that can be disruptive but sometimes I need that.”

One year, his teacher placed a rocking chair in the back of the classroom and forced Julien to sit in it at all times. She dismissed him from school at noon every day, stating that he’d already absorbed the material anyway. It became clear “normal” school was just not a viable option for him.

Micaela Bracamonte, left, Founder and Head of the Lang School, with her sons Julien and Pascal and her husband and co-founder of the school, Andreas Olsson.

Bracamonte’s younger son, Pascal, 13, was in public school for kindergarten, where the math and reading were much too simple for him, but he too has ADHD. He was enrolled at Lang by first grade.

“The math is actually hard for me now,” Pascal says, “which is good because I do really enjoy math. I studied trigonometry all of last year.”

* * *

In 2007, Bracamonte decided she’d had enough of watching her sons repeat the miserable experiences she’d had in public school, so she decided to start a new school that would cater to both their gifts and their challenges.

“I found myself spending so much time jerry-rigging my two twice exceptional kids’ educations that I created a school setting in the basement of our house, started inviting other kids into it, hired teachers, trained them, and started getting trained myself as a teacher,” Bracamonte explains. “I realized I was doing a damn good job at it, actually. So I started an official school.”

Lang School students set up a giant Jenga game during gym class. Other gym class activities include karate, yoga, ping pong, and personal training at a local gym.

Bracamonte and her husband, Andreas Olsson, now Lang’s Director for Systems and Education, decided against having a third child or buying a house so they could personally finance the school’s creation. Bracamonte traded her career as a journalist for an obsession with creating the best twice exceptional school possible, crediting her journalistic inquiry – and severe ADHD – for her success.

After hiring an education attorney to assist with writing the school’s charter, applying for and receiving 501(c)(3) non-profit status, they found commercial real estate. The space had to meet legal guidelines for a school’s architecture, so the attorney recommended an architect to hire.

Bracamonte assembled a Board of Directors consisting of some of the Northeast’s most experienced twice exceptional experts, and hired the teachers who performed best in her home-school. She then called many child psychologists to pitch Lang as a resource for the appropriate patients. Exhausted, dejected parents of twice exceptional children were overjoyed.

“I couldn’t imagine what we would have done if Lang wasn’t an option,” Joel Brenner said, mother of Micah, nine, a fourth grader with Asperger syndrome who has been a Lang student since kindergarten. “They get him and have given him an incredible sense of ‘I can do this.’”

Classes filled up. By then, it was 2009.

Lang’s tuition for twice exceptional students is $60,000 per school year, with roughly 40 percent of the student body receiving a reduced rate whereby the school is compensated the difference by New York City’s Department of Education.

Under Bracamonte’s direction, a key focus of the Lang School is to find a student’s strengths and build as much of their curriculum around them. The goal is for the student to capitalize on these strengths so they are capable of specializing in a certain area, but also to feel intrinsic motivation to cultivate more compensatory skills in other areas.

4th- and 5th-grade students listen to their teacher read the book, “Ivan,” aloud during their ELA class.

Bracamonte taught a screenwriting class with two students where one always struggled with writing. He was known among the teachers and students more for his quantitative skillsets.

“So all we did was write dialogue, because he’s a hell of a talker, and I scribed for him,” Bracamonte explains. “In an hour, we wrote a seven-minute screenplay. I’ve convinced this kid he’s a writer. His language use is magical. Step by step, I can see this kid doing this for a living. He just can’t figure out how to get it on paper on his own yet. Our job is to build that bridge.”

Lang became a lab to test out both tried-and-true and the latest research-driven methods in special education and gifted education. But Bracamonte didn’t have formal teaching credentials such as a degree in education (and still doesn’t) or prior teaching experience.

“I think I’m very lucky to not have education credentials.” Bracamonte says. “I don’t feel I’m lacking something. I’m actively avoiding them, because I don’t want to get locked into that mindset. You learn by doing, working tirelessly, self-reflection, asking questions and taking things to the next level. I’m open to risk, very comfortable with it and I tend to confront challenges head on.”

But while self-taught Bracamonte improvised with the structure and vision for the Lang School’s curriculum, pulling in new research from gifted, special and general education, some of her board members – mainstays in the twice exceptional educator community who have those education credentials Bracamonte says she can do without – wanted to stick with more time-tested methods.

Bracamonte is quick to point out that most on her staff are highly credentialed but, despite that, constructing an expertized school wasn’t her way. She continued developing an institution that was experimental compared to other twice exceptional schools, and tensions with those members of the board flared – they are no longer affiliated with Lang.

Micaela Bracamonte reads in her office at the Lang School.

One former board member, who asked not to be identified because she did not want to jeopardize relationships in the community, said Bracamonte would not acknowledge consensus educational principles, and was overly distrustful of the rest of the twice exceptional community.

“Micaela’s brilliant, she’s a visionary, but she’s very unpredictable,” she said.

Bracamonte believes the twice exceptional community has an “old guard,” as she put it: “folks involved with other twice exceptional schools, folks on my original Board, folks who have an old-fashioned, not child-centric, not parent-centric, rather elitist view of education. So I feel our school is headed towards some new territory.”

She believes the twice exceptional model her school is building for its students is potentially paradigm shifting. By studying the New York City Department of Education’s data on test scores, gifted students and Individualized Education Programs, she estimates there are at least 50,000 twice exceptional students in New York City. This doesn’t count students unrecognized because of cultural, language or economic reasons. But she knows how hard it is to run a highly unconventional school that causes even some in her niche to be skeptical.

“I know the population is huge. I know the possibilities are great. I know the scale could be large. I will work hard and continue to work hard until I’m not working anymore. We’ll see where this goes.”



This Comedian in a Wheelchair Kept Crowds in Stitches…Until a Lack of Health Care Sidelined Her

Ally Bruener used comedy to express what it's like to live with muscular dystrophy. But now she spends all her time battling Medicaid just to take care of her basic needs.

Ally Bruener starts her set bluntly: with a joke about suicide.

“I’ve realized I’m the worst degree of disabled,” she says, “because I’m too crippled to kill myself but not crippled enough to convince someone else to do it for me.”

On stage, Bruener stands out from many other comics. She’s 29 and hasn’t walked since she was seven, due to congenital muscular dystrophy (CMD). She has a wheelchair that she stays in 24 hours each day. She uses comedy as an outlet, a chance to talk openly about what it’s like to live with a disability.

Bruener came to comedy at a difficult time; she’d just dropped out of college, and she was unsure where her life was headed. She took a stand-up class at a comedy club in Louisville, thinking it would be a short-lived indulgence. Five weeks later, the class held a graduation show, and she was hooked.

Audiences may come to her shows with preconceived ideas about disability, and Bruener’s aim is to challenge those perceptions. Whether it’s sex or dating or relationships with parents, her comedy sheds light on the richness of disabled people’s lives.

Bruener performing in 2016.
Bruener performing in 2016.

“It’s always been important to me to make a point to make sure people know I’m not who you would expect me to be, and I’m proud of that,” Bruener says. “So I like to use my comedy to make people a little bit uncomfortable, because I think you have to be a little bit uncomfortable to open your mind.”

Suicide in particular became a personal challenge in her comedy. In 2009, she lost one of her best friends to it. Here was this topic that was suddenly not funny at all, she says, a test of her philosophy that humor could be found in anything. As long as suicide was untouchable, then that idea was false. So she started joking about her own suicide as a way to prove that anything can be funny.

Bruener poured herself into comedy in the years that followed that first class, traveling from her home in Alexandria, Kentucky, across the Midwest and as far as New York City to perform, with the help of her dad, Ron.

CMD is a degenerative disease that keeps muscles from rebuilding, primarily affecting the skeletal muscles. As a result, Bruener has severe scoliosis, diminished lung capacity, and can’t achieve basic tasks without support from another person. Ever since she was a kid, Bruener’s dad has helped her get up in the morning, use the bathroom, get dressed, and move about her daily life. For the past six years it’s just been the two of them, since her mother left.

“He’s probably the hardest working person I’ve ever met, I can definitely say that,” Bruener says. “He’s very dedicated to his family and his community; he always wants the best for everybody. He’s the kind of person that would give a stranger the shirt off his back. So if he’d do that for a stranger, imagine what lengths he’ll go to for his own kids.”

But last year, Ron started having knee problems, and he needed a hernia surgery, leaving him less capable of helping his daughter. He’s a maintenance worker at an apartment complex, and due to his own health problems, can only now work part-time. It became clear that just getting through the day-to-day would be a challenge for Bruener, let alone traveling for shows, which she put on hold.

* * *

Bruener decided it was time to apply for Medicaid-funded home health care. What followed was a long and still unfinished battle to receive even basic help, a process that has left her feeling helpless. While the country has debated loudly about health care in recent months – and repeated announcements from the Congressional Budget Office have shown that tens of millions of Americans would lose their health insurance under Republican plans to repeal Obamacare – Bruener’s story is indicative of what happens when funding is inadequate for even some of the most clearly established recipients of Medicaid.

Even as dramatic Senate scenes have played out, ultimately killing promises to repeal the Affordable Care Act, Medicaid beneficiaries like Bruener are already struggling with an underfunded system.

People with disabilities are clearly covered under Medicaid for home health care, but Bruener has run up against considerable problems in receiving basic assistance. She’s dealt with overly complicated applications, a lack of information, unreliable services from nursing agencies and a lack of options for caregivers. When Bruener calls the state, people taking the calls can’t even understand her well because of her breathing machine, which affects how she talks.

Lately, Bruener has been stuck at home while all of this plays out, unable to leave the house or even use the bathroom and shower regularly.

“My health is on the line because only peeing five times a week is going to result in internal infections, kidney disease, and probably pressure sores,” she says. “Beyond the medical issues, I am losing every sense of myself. I have no access to my community. I have no way to contribute to the greater good. I’ve invested so much of myself to building my comedy career and it’s feeling irrelevant. It’s left me questioning my value and purpose. If nothing changes, I will be in a nursing home before I turn 30. If it comes to that, I fear for my mental and emotional health.”

Her fight has been underscored by a lengthy political showdown in Kentucky over the state’s application of Medicaid, the government-subsidized program that supports health care for low-income people, pregnant mothers, elderly adults, children in foster care, and people with disabilities.

Months before President Donald Trump was elected to office and Congressional Republicans began a campaign to repeal the Affordable Care Act (ACA), Kentucky Governor Matt Bevin released a controversial Medicaid plan that would cut some entitlements and refocus the program around “personal responsibility.” At the time, Bevin, a Republican, was rolling back a Medicaid expansion that had been put in place through the ACA by his Democratic predecessor, Steve Beshear.

While Bevin has suggested that his plan is aimed at getting able-bodied adults to work, disabled people are losing access to care, as well, because home health agencies have seen a cut in their funding from the government.

When she began looking for help in the spring of 2016, Bruener couldn’t get straight answers on how to apply for the service.

“I’d call the numbers the state had listed online and would get transferred multiple times before ending up back at the person I had called initially,” she says. “I submitted my online application in mid-July and never got a response.”

A couple months later, she was told her application was effectively invalid because she hadn’t included newly required paperwork that no one had asked her for. Her application was eventually approved in October, and then she had to set about finding an agency to take her case. She waited for information from the state, but got none. But by that point, her dad needed surgery and couldn’t assist her anymore. She had to use her savings to pay strangers from social media to help her in home, and quickly ran out of money.

“It’s hell. It just is the closest to hell I’ve ever felt,” she says. “There’s no faster way to feeling like you don’t have control of your life than dealing with the government. When I started the process to try to get help, I was optimistic. I thought if I took a few bullets, it wouldn’t be this huge headache or this huge battle. And I wasn’t mentally prepared for what it turned into and what it’s still being.”

Ally Bruener in 2010.
Ally Bruener in 2010.

After talking to a network of people with disabilities, she found out how to receive care, but was told she only qualified for nine hours of care each week. When she signed up with a home care agency, she found that understaffing meant assistants were only available for about an hour each day. She’s since become eligible for up to twice as much assistance from her agency, but says it’s irrelevant because the nurses can only come when their schedules allow. But that covers only the most basic needs – as she puts it, enough just to not die. And as a person with a disability and no college degree, job prospects are limited. Comedy doesn’t pay that well, she says, unless you have a massive fan base.

“I mean, one thing is, I could decide to do porn. That’s not out of the question,” Bruener says somewhat jokingly, referencing GimpsGoneWild.com. “It could be kind of poetic, actually, if it came to that – in my mind, the handicapped girl who can’t get adequate health care doing porn just so she doesn’t die. That would be a good slap in the face to all the good Christians in our government.”

But beyond being stuck at home, unable to move around and take care of errands, let alone take care of herself, Bruener is also having to forgo her main creative outlet. Without comedy, she can’t interact with her community or support friends who are chasing their dreams. She can’t vent through stories she tells on stage to turn hardship into humor.

“My voice isn’t one that gets heard all that much,” she says. “[Comedy] was a way of kind of coping with that fact of making myself heard, making myself be listened to by a bunch of strangers, just because I never really had a lot of normal human interaction… It was kind of a way for me to fill my quota of feeling like a part of the world.”

Most days she stays home and uses the computer, waiting for either one of the home care workers or her dad to help her achieve some basic chores. She uses Facebook and writes about her situation, shares articles about Bevin’s health care plans and tries to stay connected to her friends.

But until she can get back on stage, she’s stuck fighting to get the assistance she needs just to get through the day.

Recently, she was able to make a trip to the state capitol addressing expected changes to the home care program. Despite having limited mobility lately, she managed to travel the nearly two hours to Frankfort for a public meeting, where she said the government was acknowledging that the system is broken.

Bruener says they were taking their time with a decision, trying not to make mistakes with any new changes. At the meeting she attended, administrators simply listened to people’s stories. Kentucky is already plagued by a contentious health care debate as Bevin attempts to cut Medicaid for poor adults in the state.

She’s optimistic, but doesn’t expect changes to come any time soon or to improve her situation too much.

“It’s frustrating. It doesn’t have to be this way,” she says. “But society continues to allow this sort of behavior, and they don’t see the issues and therefore they don’t see the need to fix the issues. Even though there’s been a lot of back and forth about how society views people with disabilities, there’s still a long way to go. I’m still not seen as socially equal as an able-bodied person. That’s not saying there aren’t people who do see me as equal, but society as a whole still sees me very much as a second-class citizen.”

Bruener posted on Facebook recently that she’s decided to leave Kentucky in search of a state that will better meet her needs. She’s narrowed the list to six states, all of which have favorable Medicaid rules and more opportunity for her to get the help she needs and, hopefully, get back on stage.



The Day My Therapist Dared Me to Have Sex With Her

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

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

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

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

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

“Oh, yeah,” I say. “That.”

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

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

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

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

I shrugged my shoulders, only half looking up.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Nailed it.

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

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

* * *

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Why not?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

There were two ways to find out:

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

2) Keep going to therapy.

* * *

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

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

“I don’t know.”

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

Here we go again.

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

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

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

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

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

“What?” I respond, flustered.

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

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

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

“Of course not.”

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

“I wouldn’t do that.”

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

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

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

* * *

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Isn’t therapy supposed to ameliorate my anxiety?

* * *

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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



Lessons Learned from a Childhood Spent Touching Myself

From the tender age of four, rampant masturbation was my secret shame. It took an awkward sex ed class at a Christian private school to inadvertently teach me I wasn’t alone.

I was watching a squirrel eating trash through a window one day in middle school when I learned what masturbation was. A school counselor handed out a piece of paper with a list of terms related to sex, and their most basic, textbook definitions — the best version of sex education they could muster at the Christian school I’d ended up attending due to a grand miscommunication with my parents. I started examining the list, which thus far was the most interesting part of the presentation. Herpes: “hmm, okay definitely want to avoid that one.” Condom: “yeah, I think I’ve heard of those.” Vagina: “got it.” And then I got to “Masturbation: The act of pleasuring oneself.” I read it three, four times. While the counselor went on rambling about chastity, purity, God and abstinence, I was gleefully reading the word “masturbation” over and over in my head thinking, “That’s what I’ve been doing!”

I started masturbating abnormally early, around the age of four.

I don’t remember how it began, just that it became a habit around preschool. I was constantly on the hunt for new techniques, new tools. My first was probably the bathtub. I would sit with what my parents had named my “petunia” underneath the faucet until the water was too deep for it to have an effect anymore. Occasionally, if I knew my mother was definitely preoccupied, I’d drain the whole thing and start over. I would slip my legs through the slats in my parents’ footboard, and casually hump a panel while I watched cartoons. I eventually discovered my mother’s neck massager, which became both my favorite, and most dangerous tool, as there was no hiding what I was up to with that one.

Whenever I was “playing alone” — which was the best I could think to call it, having no idea that the world had gone above and beyond with creative monikers for this activity — I wasn’t really thinking about anything in particular. I did not have orgasms. I never touched myself with my hands. I just liked the way it felt when I came in to contact with other things. Much like how if you give a kid sugar, I didn’t care if I wasn’t supposed to — I was going to sneak a goddamn cookie.

Rather than being blissfully unaware of what I was doing, I was acutely in tune with the fact that it should be a secret. I don’t really know how I knew that, but it consumed me nonetheless. My best guess is that since I was taught to keep my petunia covered, I probably knew I wasn’t supposed to be fiddling with it. I knew I shouldn’t whisper to my childhood best friend, “hey try this,” and I knew even better that to be caught by my parents would be an embarrassment I would not come back from, tarnishing the rest of my life with my perversion. I envisioned my future ballet and piano recitals ruined, my parents watching through cracked fingers in horror as their little weirdo gave “Ode To Joy” her best shot. I expected it would get around our condo complex, and the neighbors would stop inviting me over to pet the new kitten or have a piece of cake.

I was not exposed to any explicit forms of sexuality early in life. I didn’t know what sex was. No one had molested me or been inappropriate with me. In fact I didn’t even connect what I was doing with sex. As I grew older and started to get tidbits of very wrong information from other children about what your genitals might be for, where babies come from, etc., like we all did, I still never thought any of that had anything to do with my playing alone. And I still didn’t even have a word for it.

* * *

I had one of those bad-influence friends who was a couple of years older than me. Let’s call her Julia. Julia’s parents had gotten divorced when she was a baby, and she liked to act out, not that the two were explicitly related. Her confidence in everything from singing Spice Girls out loud to stealing snacks from the teacher’s cabinet made it so I never questioned her. Julia told me a story about “Mr. Dingy Dong,” one day at daycare after school. Commanding my attention like she was telling a ghost story at summer camp, I hung on every word about a serial killer who went around cutting off cheating men’s penises. Where in the world she got the story, I will never know. Regardless, I went home and told my parents, and that was the end of my friendship with Julia.

Similarly, one day in kindergarten during reading circle, the wily kid who was best known for his bad-word repertoire, pulled out his penis and showed it to me. Both incidents horrified me, but I never connected them with anything having to do with my petunia.

One of the most sacred outings I shared with my father was going to Blockbuster every weekend. I was allowed to get whatever I wanted, within reason, even if I wanted to rent “Charlie’s Angels” for the fifth time in a row. My dad was patient, never rushing me as I’d walk down every single aisle before I was confident I’d made the right choice. One trip, while rounding the corner of the classics, I came face to face with a homeless man furiously masturbating. He did not approach me, but he did not stop either. I ran to my dad, told him I was ready to go, clinging to what I was not yet sure was the right choice of movie, but this time I didn’t care. I sat cow-eyed, stiff and afraid to move the whole ride home, until my dad finally got out of me what was wrong. Enraged, we got home and he called the store. The man had already left, but my dad was still insistent they check the cameras and call the police, “for God’s sake, there are children in there.” I continued to be shaken up, but never correlated what that man was doing in public with what I was doing in private.

There were a few times that I got caught. Once my mom opened the door to the bathroom while I was in the middle of my bathtub ritual. She very calmly told me to “stop running water on your hoo-ha,” and proceeded to pretty much always leave the door open after that. I was mortified that my mom had seen me in my darkest of hours, but even more devastated that I’d lost a whole third of my resources. From that point on I became convinced that my mom knew everything, and was perpetually about to catch me. It seemed that the neck massager was always on a shelf higher up in the closet, or in a different part of the house. When I asked her recently about the whole charade though, she was baffled. She said she vaguely remembered the bathtub, but it wasn’t something that stuck out, because it seemed innocent enough. The neck massager was news to her. What I perceived as a hide and seek routine between us, was more likely the normal way anyone wouldn’t pay that much attention in putting something so innocuous back in the same place every time.

Because it was never directly addressed — And why would it be? No parent would eagerly have a sex talk with such a young child — I developed a deep, internalized guilt. I didn’t just think I was dirty, I knew it. There was something wrong with me, and I resigned myself to just living with it — until I accidentally ended up at a Christian school.

* * *

The public school I was supposed to attend through the sixth grade announced late in my fifth-grade year that from the next school year on they would be adopting the newer K-4 model. This left my parents in a last-minute dash to figure out where I would go next. The school I’d been attending was an anomaly of public schooling, with various forms of cultural enrichment and liberal families. The public middle school, however, was notorious for violence and ill-equipped teachers, so my parents decided it was time to go private.

Because children don’t typically have community juice mixers, my social circle had pretty much been exclusive to school. But I did have a small handful of friends I’d attended a couple of summers of YMCA camp with. I was not raised with religion. I wasn’t discouraged from participating in it, and if I’d come home and said I wanted to become Jewish or Hindu, I’m sure my parents would have embraced it. But as it was I set myself on a path towards atheism. The YMCA camp was of course a little Christian, with occasional “our god is an awesome god” sing-a-longs. But they had climbing towers and water skiing, so neither I, nor my working parents cared. But my few friends from the camp were very Christian, and went to a Christian private school. I insisted on going to school with them, and my parents said if I got in they would let me attend. By some grand miscommunication, I didn’t realize that it was a Christian school; I just knew that my friends went there. I think my parents assumed I knew, and didn’t want to shun the idea if it was what I wanted.

So there I was. Already set back by my buck teeth, scrawny limbs, and complete lack of understanding of private-school preppy-ness, I was now also surrounded by kids who deeply believed in a god that I didn’t. I quickly became an outcast. I got in trouble for bringing my Destiny’s Child CD to school. The principal, who was basically Ronald Reagan, said it was inappropriate, but I think what he meant was, “that black music scares us like the Devil.” I did not live in the ticky tacky suburbs, but the big, bad city. It was like if Cher from “Clueless” had to spend a day with Harriet from “Harriet The Spy,” but for a year.

Every morning we’d go to our assigned homeroom for prayer. The teacher would take requests, and the kids would excitedly pipe up complaints about paper cuts, or making sure the soccer team got a parking spot close to the field for the bus before the game. I got in trouble for doodling during prayer time so often they told me to leave my notebook and pens in my locker. The bright side was that at least they didn’t expect me to write that shit down. Occasionally the teacher would prod me, “Chloe is there anything you’d like to pray for?” I’d just let out a big sigh. Eventually I started putting my head down on my desk, hoping they would just think I was praying extra hard.

One day around mid-year, if anyone had been unsure, I finally gave them what they needed to cement my reputation as the biggest freak in school. I’d spent the past semester going home in tears. I didn’t have friends, and it was as if the kids learned their bullying tactics from an episode of “Prison Break.” One girl told me that her mother checked her backpack every day for makeup. I responded with a casual, “oh, you have strict parents.” To me it was the same as “oh, your mom drives a Toyota,” a casual comparison of our living conditions. Apparently calling her parents “strict” was the same as if I’d called her mother the Whore of Babylon, and this girl saw to it that I was punished. Her pièce de résistance came on picture day. Because the school was so conservative, it wasn’t the ‘show up and smile’ event it had been in public school. Everyone came in quite literally their Sunday best. Before my class had our photos taken, we had gym class, where of course we wore uniforms. My tormentor took the opportunity to pretend to be sick, retreat to the locker room and hide my nice clothes. No administrator seemed to care, and so I took the picture, and spent the rest of the day crying, in my gym clothes.

My parents were already applying to move me to a liberal private school, the same one they’d initially suggested, and the one that I would ultimately graduate from. They were disgusted with the administration’s lack of reaction to any of the bullying I went through, and just tried to help me hang in there through the end of the year when it would all be over. So on that day, I had nothing left to lose. The prayer requests were flooding in, for crushes, for summer vacation to come quicker, for pizza at lunch. I snapped. I raised my hand and stood up. I proceeded to go on a rant about how five thousand children under the age of five died every day in Africa; how people were starving; how many children never had new things. I pleaded that they please end this useless pageantry of praying for meaningless things. I was swiftly sent to the principal’s office for the rest of the day.

* * *

Then hope came one day that spring in the form of their version of sex education. In true faith-based fashion, there was no science involved. We were separated by gender and a counselor came to address us. Let’s call her Cindy. Cindy was one of those younger school administrators who managed to come off as cool. She wore faith-inspired jewelry like the rest of them, but hers was always the chunky, edgy kind. She wasn’t afraid of heels and a flared hip-hugger pant. She looked like the main demographic at a Creed concert. But she was just like the rest of them underneath her Christian-chic wardrobe. She wrote “abstinence” on the board, and underlined it. She explained to the class that you should not have sex before you were married, because it was not what God wanted. God did not want you to think about it. God did not want you to almost do it. She then wrote the word “chastity” on the board and said, “get it?”

The last five minutes of class were reserved for private inquiries about any of the terms on that fated list that finally gave me a word for my secret. The rest of the girls, in true middle school fashion ran out, balking at the idea of engaging with the topic further. Hindsight is 20/20 though, and from the intel social media has afforded me, those girls really should have taken a second to inquire further about condoms and chlamydia. As for me, my questions had been answered. I’m sure if I’d said anything to Cindy she would have found a way to turn it into a miracle. My deviance was being divinely intervened, and I’d learn the name for my demon for the express purpose of expelling it from me like they’d thrown away my CD. But her lesson had the opposite of the intended effect. She had shown me that my sexual exploration was actually normal; something other people did, too. Maybe it was some kind of miracle, because for the first and only time in my tenure there, I sat and quietly thanked God.

* * *

Chloe Stillwell has a degree in nonfiction from The New School. She is a culture columnist for Spin Entertainment, and previously worked as a humorist at 20th Century Fox. She is currently working on her first book of essays.

Molly Walsh is a freelance illustrator and surface designer living on the East Coast. mollywalshillustration.tumblr.com  @wollymulch



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

Countless couples have tackled the taboo subject of racy videos and illicit orgasms. What happens when it’s the woman who can’t stop watching?

This story features explicit situations that may not be suitable for all audiences.

It’s past two a.m. and my husband’s breathing has become long and even. An opportunity presents itself. I slip my right hand down my pajama pants and move slowly, careful not to bump my elbow into his side rib, or bring my hips into it. Too much movement or sound will wake him, and to be found out for something like this is not just embarrassing but potentially destructive. He’ll think he doesn’t satisfy me, and men do not like feeling inadequate, especially when it comes to matters of the bedroom. Or maybe he’ll feel sorry for me. And who wants to fuck someone they pity?

Even worse, maybe he’ll finally say the words I’ve been waiting for him to say since I first told him that I am a sex addict. That he’s bored with it. He’s disgusted. He’s had enough.

I lift my wrist away from my body. I’m careful to keep my breath from becoming a pant, even as my pulse quickens, but this takes much concentration. The body desires the convulsion the mind denies. There is no letting go here though. This orgasm is a controlled, measured, calculated experience.

I have masturbated in this way next to the sleeping bodies of all my serious, committed partners who came before my husband. In some cases, as expected, it was because I wanted more sex than they could give me. I’ve been called “insatiable” and “demanding” one too many times. But this has not always been the story. Yes, I have an incredibly high sex drive, but even in relationships where I have great sex multiple times a week my nighttime stealth for self-pleasure has persisted.

My college boyfriend, burgundy haired and tattooed, had the high sex drive typical of most nineteen-year-old males. We fucked all the time, but even still, I wanted more, something only I could give me. One afternoon, after he’d fallen into a deep post-sex slumber, I serviced myself with my second, third, and fourth orgasm beside him. That was the first time I’d experienced such a level of both secrecy and shame.

I made a promise to my husband and to myself, long before we were even wed, to be austerely honest. He knows I’ve been a compulsive masturbator since I was twelve years old. He knows about my extensive fluency in the hardcore categories of various porn sites. He knows about the bad habit I used to have of hooking up with not-so-nice men because they were available and I was bored — and that I rarely used protection with any of them. And that I believed, for a really long time, that my addiction made me a broken person, a disgusting person, a person unworthy of love. I told him these things from the start because I met him at a time in my life where I was ready and open for change. Because I liked him so much that I wanted to love him. Because I knew that the only way to love him, and be loved by him, was to be myself.

* * *

“What’s your favorite porn scene?”

The man who will become my husband in less than a year asks me this question as he lies naked and vulnerable beside me. We’ve just had sex and although I am naked too, it isn’t until this moment that I feel just as vulnerable as him. While it might seem absurd to some, I know immediately this is a moment of great significance for us. It is an opportunity to finally do things differently.

The possibilities run through my head.

I can describe something vanilla: This one where a busty blonde gets banged by her personal trainer. Or perhaps something a little more racy: These two hot teens swap their math teacher’s cum after he made them stay late in the classroom. Chances are he’ll get hard again and we’ll end up abandoning the conversation for a second round. These are harmless answers. Expected answers.

They’re also lies.

The possibility of revealing the actual truth not only makes me nervous, but also physically sick. I feel a constriction in the back of my throat, a flutter in my belly, a tremble in my extremities. After all, we’ve only been dating a couple of months and he doesn’t love me yet. If I tell him, will he ever?

“Why do you ask?” I reach for the sheet, damp with sweat, a tangle of 300-thread-count cotton across our limbs, and yank it up to cover my breasts.

“I don’t know,” he says. “Curiosity?” He turns over on his side and props his head up on his left hand. His green eyes are wide with wonder.

“Seems like a weird question.” I tuck the sheet into my armpits and scoot my body a little to the left so we’re no longer touching. The tone of my voice has become defensive and he can tell.

“It’s just that I usually pick the porn,” he explains. “Do you like what I choose?”

I see what he’s doing. He’s trying to be considerate since we just had sex while staring at the laptop screen after searching terms of his choosing: Latina, real tits, blow job, threesome.

Maybe he feels guilty for getting off to them instead of me, even though I’m the one who suggested we watch porn in the first place. Even though I’m always the one who suggests we watch porn while we have sex.

“Yeah, sure.” I look up at the ceiling. “They’re fine.”

“Are you sure?”

I wish he’d stop prying, but I realize something else is happening here. Not only is he trying to be considerate; he’s also trying to get to know me. The past couple of months has allowed us to cover most of the basics — what ended each of our most recent relationships, what our parents are like, what we hope to do with our lives in the next few years — but there’s still a longing for something deeper, and I can’t think of anything deeper than knowing a person’s favorite porn scene.

It can speak volumes. For one scene to stand out amongst the rest, when so many others are available, there has to be something below the surface. What maintains its appeal? What keeps a person returning in the deep, dark recesses of a lonely night? Perhaps the answers to these questions are a great source of shame. I never thought of revealing such answers to anybody, and especially not somebody like him, somebody I could really like. It seems far too risky, preposterous even.

It also seems necessary. Too many of my past relationships were doomed by my inability to tell the whole truth, to fully be myself. Now I have the opportunity to go there, and to say to a person, “This is who I am. Do you accept me?”

“Well, there’s this one gang bang,” I start, looking over at his face to see a reaction of surprise and interest register at once.

“Go on.”

I take a deep breath and proceed to tell him, first slowly, then progressively faster about the scene. Like a busted dam, I can hardly hold back the rush of descriptors fumbling from my mouth: “Two women in a warehouse. One dangling from a harness. The other just below her. Both are waiting to take on fifty horny men…” and on and on.

I watch his face the whole time, not pausing when his smile becomes a frown and his eyes squint as if it hurts to look at me.

“Afterward, the women exit the warehouse through a back door while the men applaud.”

For a long moment after I’ve finished talking, there is silence between us, but there is also a sense of relief on my part. I have revealed something so dark, so upsetting, so impacted in shame, and he hasn’t immediately disappeared. He is still here beside me, propped up on his left hand, naked and vulnerable, and so am I. He sees me and I see him seeing me and we are in new territory.

But then he says, “I kind of wish I hadn’t asked.” It’s all I need to hear to send me into tears. Not just tiny, embarrassed sobs, but humiliated wails. I have myself a tantrum. He is confused now as he pulls me close to him, laughing nervously at my abrupt shift in disposition. I try to pull the sheet completely over my head, but he pulls it back down and covers my face with apologetic kisses. He can’t possibly understand why I’m crying. He can’t possibly know what I’ve just revealed to him. “What’s going on? Baby, what’s wrong?”

And so I tell him.

* * *

Addiction to porn and masturbation is often grouped under general sex addiction because they all have to do with escape via titillation, pursuit and orgasm, but I’ve always felt more pathetic about my predilections. Going out and fucking — even someone you don’t really like — is wild, dangerous, but essentially social and shared. Though I had periods of promiscuity throughout my twenties, my biggest issue has always been with what I do alone.

There’s something so sad and humiliating in imagining a person locked away in a dark room, hot laptop balanced on chest, turning the volume down low, scrolling, scrolling, choosing, watching, escaping, coming.

And then realizing that person is me.

But my proclivity for solo pleasure has strong, stubborn roots. I lost my virginity to a water faucet when I was twelve years old. I have Adam Corolla and Dr. Drew to thank for this life-shaking experience; it was their late-night radio show “Loveline” on L.A.’s KROQ that served as my primary means of sex ed during my pre-teen years. This technique is one of the many things I learned, but I had a whole other kind of education going on, which had long filled my head with other ideas — sex is something that happens between a man and woman who love each other; masturbation is a sin. You know, your typical run-of-the-mill Catholic guilt stuff.

Just as oppressive as the Catholic guilt was my femininity. Girls weren’t talking about masturbation and sex. I had no company with whom to share my new activities and interests. And so this silence morphed into shame. I became a pervert, a loser, a sinner.

I tried to stop myself from taking long baths, from late-night undercover activities, from being alone too long, but the more I obsessed about stopping, the more I could not. I joined shame, secrecy and pleasure in a daily orgy, whether I was tired, bored, angry or sad. Whether I was single or coupled, it didn’t matter. Getting off required all of these components and I needed new, more extreme methods to stay engaged — more hours sucked away watching progressively harder porn like the warehouse video, complemented with dabbles in strip clubs, peep shows and shady massage parlors. It became impossible to get off during sex without fantasy, my body over-stimulated to numbness. I was irritable unless I was fucking or masturbating or planning to do either of these things. Life revolved around orgasm to the detriment of any kind of real progress in my professional or social existence.

I was out of control.

* * *

Little did I know that describing my favorite porn scene would be the first of many future admissions that would help peel back, layer by layer, a long and exhausting history of self loathing. My future husband and I quickly learned that watching porn during sex wasn’t a harmless kink for us; it was a method I’d long used to remain disconnected from my partners. It took much discipline and patience for us to expel it from our relationship altogether, though every now and then we slip up.

Talking about my habits led me to examine them, which ultimately led to my desire for change. Holding a secret for too long is like being unable to take a full breath. I didn’t want to feel this way anymore. I needed to share — often and fully — what had for too long been silenced in order to reclaim who I was underneath my addiction. I needed to breathe again.

I found relief in Sex and Love Addicts Anonymous meetings, seeing a therapist I trusted, attending personal development courses like the Hoffman Process and writing about my journey. I’ve managed to move away from porn for the most part, but when it comes to this addiction — to something I don’t have to seek out or purchase — control is like a wayward horse and my ass is always slipping off the saddle.

I constantly struggle with whether or not I should give up porn completely, but until I find a way to have some moderation with it, I avoid it as best I can. I wish I could just watch it occasionally, as some sort of supplement to my active sex life, but the whole ritual of watching porn is tangled up in too many other negative emotions. Watching porn takes me back to being that little girl alone in her bedroom, feeling ashamed and helpless to stop it. I can’t just watch one clip without needing to watch another after that, and another, until hours have passed and I’m back to binging every night.

If my husband leaves me alone all day and idleness leads me to watching porn, it’s the first thing I confess upon his return. Sometimes I don’t even have to say it. He can tell by my downturned eyes and my noticeable exhaustion. He shakes his head and takes me in his arms as I make another promise to try to leave it alone. When I visited a peep show on a recent work trip out of town, he seemed more amused than upset about the whole thing.

Unfortunately, I have yet to be as generous. If I find he’s been watching porn without me, when I’ve struggled to abstain for a stretch of time, I react with what might seem like unjustified rage. This frustration is only rooted in envy.

* * *

Masturbating beside my husband while he sleeps is the last secret I’ve kept from him. Although I’m beginning to fear that it’s actually just the latest secret. My resistance in telling him only proves how fragile recovery is. This week it’s masturbation. But maybe next week it’s back to porn binging. Or obsessive scrolling through Craigslist personals. Or lying about my whereabouts. And so forth. Abstaining from these habits, when so readily available, without abstaining from sexual pleasure completely, or the shame I’ve long bound to it, is a challenge I face daily.

That’s why I need to tell my husband.

Not because I need his permission, his forgiveness or to offer him some act of contrition. But because I need him to see me. To witness. The act of telling the truth, especially about something that makes us ache, is often the only absolution we need.

* * *

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

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