Fortunate One

A writer turned PR director turned stockbroker finds her calling among a deck of tarot cards.

There is no wall of beads. No headscarf. And absolutely no crystal ball. Just a set of stairs inside a boho-chic bistro spiraling up to a tiny alcove near the bathroom. Tucked in the corner is a woman, sitting, hands folded on a floral tablecloth, cards stacked and ready. The din of loud music and a packed house floats up from below. In spite of the noise and the constant traffic of diners, her table feels intimate.

The woman’s high cheekbones belie her 62 years. Her face feels familiar—a slender oval with deep-set brown eyes and cropped golden blonde hair, sort of Susan Sarandon meets Angela Lansbury. Her manicure, vintage rose-shaped earrings and the shirt beneath her open blue button-down are a perfectly matched powder pink.

Janet Horton at Raoul’s Restaurant
Janet Horton at Raoul’s Restaurant

Janet Horton tells me her story on a recent Friday evening at the crowded Raoul’s Restaurant, which has hosted psychics on Prince Street in SoHo for the past 24 years. Horton has been reading tarot cards professionally for some fifteen years, and at Raoul’s for the past three. Speaking in an animated, nonlinear narrative, stopping here and there to chat with an inquisitive passersby or to cater to a customer, Horton explains that she tapped into the “other side” long before she knew what it meant to be psychic.

“I’m five years old, and my mother takes me to go meet the woman who moved in down the street,” says Horton, who grew up in a quiet, lakeside Ohio suburb. “We’re sitting on the couch, and beyond this lady’s head,” she motions past me, “is a hall, and down the hall, there are bedrooms, and in that bedroom to the left, there’s an old German man who died there. He says to me, ‘Tell these filthy squatters to get out of my house.’”

The young Horton relayed the message from the deceased old man, and her mother bade the new neighbor a hasty goodbye.

Ever since, Horton hasn’t been afraid of ghosts. She says the unsettled—be they the wandering dead or the hostile living—bring out her maternal instincts. “To me, something evil and spooky is, you poor thing,” Horton explains. “I look for cause of pain or anger.”

Years later, Horton would find herself walking alone in the dark when a young man approached her with apparently negative intentions. “He hadn’t resolved to give me a hard time,” she recalls thinking. “Once he was near, I said, ‘I’m a psychic. Your mother is gone, but she wants you to know she’s so proud of you. I’ve got another five blocks to go—want to walk me?’” And so he escorted her safely to her destination.

Horton says she could tell he was “a really good man” and was able to see through the rough exterior of this would-be mugger by being “a motherly presence.” She expects that if she had acted afraid and “engaged in the negative energy,” she may have brought out the worst in him.

Other times, she and the spirits might even share a laugh. Horton launches, unprovoked, into a tale about “the spookiest thing that ever happened here.”

“So, I’m sitting here giving a reading and a man comes and sits nearby,” she tells me. “He’s talking so loudly he’s keeping me from giving a good reading. After the reading, I start to get ready to leave, and the phone on the wall behind him rings. There is no connection. It’s an antique. He looks at me and says, ‘The phone’s ringing!’ I said, ‘I know. Answer it.’ So, he picks up the phone.”

“‘There’s nobody there!’ he says, hanging up. ‘It just sounded like whoooeewhew. What do you think happened?’ I answer, ‘Well, this is a really spiritual place and you were talking loudly before. I’m really sorry but I was wishing that your energy would quiet down, so I think God and the spirits phoned.’

“And he just tears out of the restaurant. I think, ‘Oh, gee, I shouldn’t have told him, poor fellow.’ I finish up, go home, go to bed, and in the morning I wake up to the phone ringing. The machine usually picks up after four rings, but it keeps ringing. When I pick it up I hear a voice say, ‘It’s whooeewheew! And I didn’t even charge you for the call.’”

Horton gives a reading (Photo by Jaclyn Einis)
Horton gives a reading (Photo by Jaclyn Einis)

We jump back about fifty years, as I try not to stare at the antique payphone ten feet away. Horton tells me how she moved from Ohio to New Jersey with her parents and three brothers, and that her childhood was increasingly filled with floating Ouija boards, psychic dreams and premonitions. At fourteen, she awoke one morning, convinced from her dreams that her mother would get in a car accident that day. She warned her parents and told her mother, ‘I’m not getting in the car with you.’ Horton recalls her relief after her mother got in a harmless collision leaving the parking lot: “I was glad to get it out of the way!”

She did the occasional card reading for fun, using playing cards as instructed by her book on Gypsy-style tarot card readings, but she had never considered “going pro.” After high school, Horton set off to Swarthmore College, with dreams of becoming a novelist and journalist in New York. Eager to start her career, she dropped out of school in 1974, after two years, and headed to the big city. “What a young idiot,” she says, smiling.

No one in New York seemed to think so. Horton hopped right over the internship pond to a job in radio at NBC and got her journalist feet wet as a freelancer. She’d written just half a dozen articles—mostly publisher profiles—when the publisher of American Home, taken by Horton’s style, offered her a job as senior editor.

“I was 26, and I was confident, but I was sure that she would discover that I didn’t have the experience for the job and fire me,” remembers Horton, who ended up leaving American Home of her own volition after about year. She scored an interview with Us Weekly, at the time a new bi-monthly outlet for “classy little profiles” owned by the New York Times.  After learning that she had merely been granted a “courtesy interview,” she shifted into high gear and stayed up all night to finish the managing editor’s questionnaire, leaving her responses on his chair at 8:30 the next morning. Horton does her own version of “brushing her shoulders off” as she recalls knowing she’d just won herself the gig: hands curled, she brings her pink fingernails toward her mouth, gives each set of fingers a blow and brushes her fists on the front of each shoulder.

Just a few years later, feeling too green for her own shoes—“I wasn’t as fast, didn’t have the contacts that the other editors had”—and worried that she’d never find the time, money and energy to pursue her own writing if she stayed an editor, she accepted a high-salaried position as PR director of the New York State Olympic Committee in 1979, as the country prepared for the Lake Placid games. Contacts Horton made though committee fundraisers later set her up with several interviews on Wall Street, and soon enough, the college dropout-turned-editor-turned-publicist was a stockbroker. “I always got the job; always breezed through,” recalls Horton.

As her resume grew, Horton’s literary aspirations stayed top of mind, while her spiritual powers lay quiet in the back. “I knew I was psychic, but when you’re in the corporate world, you don’t go around telling people that,” she says. “They’ll think you’re a kook.”

Learning on the fly, Horton did not, she insists, use her psychic abilities to predict the markets. “I was an in-depth student. I studied my firms’ research and the newspapers. God and the spirits do not care about making people rich. Abundance is great, security is great, but greed is not a positive state of mind.” She spent seven years as a broker, and had soon accumulated the badges of big city success: a husband, a Manhattan apartment, a Connecticut house and a yacht.

All the while, though, Horton longed for nothing more than a private garret and the time to write. She left Wall Street shortly after the stock market crash of ’87. She and her husband divorced soon after. With enough savings on hand to finally focus on her writing, Horton moved from Manhattan to Hoboken in 1990, finally realizing the independent, lower-rent lifestyle she had long craved.

She had already crafted a concept for her first novel: a murder mystery about a fictional restaurant psychic named Madame Verushka. Horton threw herself into the story, learning how to write a novel as she went along. Two years later, she found herself with a rough draft that was “strong in beginning and end, but messy in the middle”—not nearly what she had hoped to show for her now dwindling savings.

That’s when things started getting Charlie Kaufmanesque. In 1998, Horton approached the owner of Gerrino’s, a local restaurant in Hoboken, to inquire about waiting tables. But she didn’t have a chance to ask about a waitress job. The owner, after learning of Horton’s novel, asked if she could be the Madame Verushka of Gerrino’s, reading cards and charging $25 for fifteen minutes of work. “Could I get customers in that seat? You better believe I can,” Horton exclaims. (Cue another blow of the fingers and brush of the shoulders).

Walking home that night, in February 1998, Horton recalls, “I was 47 and going, I just became my own character.” She scrambled to buy her first deck of tarot cards and learn its many complex symbols. There are typically 78 cards to a pack, though many readers use regular playing cards, as Horton once did. Most decks come with a booklet or book that explains the meanings of their symbols—images like a winged, robed woman with two goblets titled “Temperance;” a nude woman beneath bright shining stars called, fittingly, “The Star;” and a man in tights on the edge of a cliff known as “The Fool.” Each deck has unique imagery and its “own personality,” and every reader has his or her own way of interpreting a card in a given circumstance.

Horton didn’t have to go through the trouble of choosing a particular pack. As luck, or fate, would have it, there was only one left in the only store she knew of that stocked tarot cards.

A week later, when it was time for her first shift at Gerrino’s, she realized she’d spent so much time memorizing the cards’ symbols that she’d neglected to learn their layout, or “spread.” There are countless ways to arrange tarot cards for a reading, and in each one the position and orientation of the card will affect its meaning. The most popular layout is the eleven-card Celtic Cross. So, Horton fell back on the 24-card spread, a personal riff on the twelve-card ring she’d read about (she’d added a second ring, so that she had one for past and present and an outer ring for the future).

Unsure of how to fill up that first fifteen-minute session, Horton winged it, surprising herself as she brought customer No. 1 to tears when she aptly described the woman’s three children. Horton remembers every detail of that first reading: “Once I’d established my credibility, I could have more of a conversation with her. She told me she and her husband were fighting, because he wanted to have a motorcycle. I told her to let him have it. I saw that he was a protector—he’d be fine. Plus, it would sit in the garage after a few months, and—I saw the testosterone card—it would be great for their sex life.” When the customer’s husband learned that Horton had earned him a green light on the motorcycle, he gave her a tip, something she hadn’t even considered. After a night of accurate intuitions, Horton said she felt like a five-year-old prodigy playing Beethoven.

“I realized it was meant to be.”

From there, her readings got deeper. Though she mentioned that the owner at Gerrino’s had initially asked her about reading “cards and palms,” palm readings don’t hold much interest for her. “The cards give a much deeper reading,” she says.

Not every psychic is a medium (one who channels the dead), but spirits kept coming into play during Horton’s readings, seeking contact with her customers. After six months of psychic work, she resolved that if a man on a talk show could guess the names of the departed, then so could she. That night, as she got settled in her chair at Gerrino’s, she glanced behind her and saw something shocking in her periphery: “The legs of the dead, in line,” Horton remembers. “They were waiting to talk to the living who were going to come to my table.”

That night, when her first customer sat down, Horton picked up on a late mother, Katherine. Afraid of getting the name wrong and losing credibility off the bat, she asked if the woman’s mother’s name started with a “K.” Her mother’s name had been Katherine. Horton kept shying away from repeating aloud the names that came to her, thinking she was simply stuck on K’s.

“Next person sits down. Grandma’s gone. Her name was Karen. Third person sits down, and again I get a K. Her name was Kay.”  Horton did six readings that night and in every reading the name of the person on the other side began with a K. She says there will often be a “theme of the night;” she would come to think of this as “the Night of The Six K’s.”

What many might consider creepy, Horton considered validation—guiding others is something she was meant to do. Like most psychics, she will tell you her work wasn’t so much a choice as a calling.

“You can take courses,” explains Joan Carra, a psychic and medium who recently moved from New York to Greenwich, Conn. “But every psychic I know didn’t plan to do it or go to school for it. It becomes an obsession to counsel people.”

Money may have helped compel Horton and Carra to start reading professionally, but both insist on the motivating presence of something less tangible, that keeps them in the field— Carra calls it an “obsession.”

A self-portrait by Horton drawn on a sign that once hung in the window of Raoul’s Restaurant
A self-portrait by Horton drawn on a sign that once hung in the window of Raoul’s Restaurant

While there have been occasional media reports in recent years about fortune tellers who bilk their customers for everything they’re worth, tarot card readers like Horton seem to make an honest and modest living. Horton, who made the restaurant hop from Hoboken to Manhattan a few years ago, works one night a week at another restaurant, La Lanterna di Vittorio, in addition to her shifts at Raoul’s. She used to work at the West Village bar Employees Only, but stopped because of the noise level.

Readings at Raoul’s are $30 for fifteen minutes—a slight salary increase from her days at Gerrino’s— and customers often pay for double or triple sessions. Horton’s rate is higher for parties and private readings. She charges $250 an hour for the former and $120 for 45-minute-long readings in a customer’s home or in her own; an experience she says is tantamount to “your own personal séance.”

“It’s one night at a time,” Horton says. “Some nights I’m so busy, I can hardly cope. Other nights, utterly no one wants to have a reading. If you’re going to do this for a living, my advice is to do it for the spiritual joy, and keep your financial needs small.”

Nancy Stark, a vibrant woman who just turned 77 (she first told me 75, but after consulting her astrology chart she realized her mistake) has wispy grey hair, and a soft Chilean-New York lilt. She has worked the cards and the palms at Raoul’s for nearly a quarter century. With a voice and demeanor that exudes a gentle wisdom, Stark confirms the difficulty of making a living in the world of fortunes. “I know people who do it, but they’ve been doing it for a long time and they’re very good,” she says.

Nancy Stark at home
Nancy Stark at home

Stark, who has worked four nights a week at Raoul’s since she became their first palm and card reader, eschews the term “psychic” in favor of “getting in touch with your intuitions and inner knowing.” She, like Horton, also works the occasional event and sees clients at home, where she focuses on astrology, charging $175 for an hour-and-a-half appointment.

Still, it’s clear that these women don’t see their work as a straightforward monetary exchange. “Most people who have readings with me thank me profusely, and I wonder why, because they’re paying me for it!” says Stark. “It must mean something to them in a good way.”

Unlike the scam artists many associate with psychics, who prescribe weekly calls and visits to remove customers’ curses and to fix their problems—the price often rising with each visit—Horton, Carra and Stark each expressed that while yearly or bi-annual visits could be a healthy frequency for a reading, any legitimate psychic would discourage routine appointments. “That’s bad karma when you’re trying to control other people,” says Stark.

A portrait of Horton and “Paco” drawn on a napkin by artist Manuel Lopez-Torrecillas, who asked Horton to conduct a tarot reading for his dog
A portrait of Horton and “Paco” drawn on a napkin by artist Manuel Lopez-Torrecillas, who asked Horton to conduct a tarot reading for his dog

Horton also turns away customers who have the wrong intentions, such as businessmen seeking guidance on their every financial decision. “The stock market is not a spiritual realm,” she affirms, from experience.

When Horton looks back on the Night of the Six K’s, she remembers her thoughts on the walk home. “That’s when I truly grasped how aware the other side is of us. God and his spirits were making it clear to me: This is real.”

Horton speaks often of “God and the spirits.” Whether you call it religion or spirituality, belief in some sort of higher consciousness is inextricably bound in her world.

And Horton doesn’t find it odd in the least that she didn’t discover her calling until she was nearly fifty. In fact, you typically won’t find many revered psychics in their thirties. When discussing their work, Horton, Carra and Stark each continuously circle back to the idea that their insights have sharpened with time and life experience.

The reader-customer interactions that they relay to me seem much closer to therapy than guesswork. They admit that while certain people come to them in search of entertainment, most are hoping for answers and comfort.

“I see it as healing and transforming lives,” Horton says.

As a result, psychics “take in a lot of people’s pain,” according to Carra, who admits that a sense of humor is also a job requirement since “there is a bit of absurdity in it—you’re in two worlds,” she tells me. “You’re moving between the past and future.”

It’s practically impossible for psychics to articulate exactly how their intuitions “feel” or “work.” I imagine it’s not unlike trying to explain the experience of color to a blind person. Horton likens it to simply having a conversation: “I just say what comes to me.” That said, some mediums, like Carra, report hearing voices; for Horton, the message is often visual, taking the form of a face or a letter. Stark tells me that while contacting the dead isn’t her forte, if a customer asks her about someone in particular, she can usually deliver.

“I know that it’s real when the hairs stand up on my arms,” Stark explains. “It’s not unpleasant, it’s just like, ‘Yeah, I’m here.’”

Nancy Stark in her bedroom
Nancy Stark in her bedroom

Likewise, she considers tarot card readings to be a channel of sorts, with readers intuitively interpreting, and straying from, the traditional meanings of the cards. “Sometimes I go completely opposite of what the card says because I feel that that’s the right thing,” Stark says.

*   *   *

Before meeting Horton, I myself wavered between skepticism and nervous belief when it came to psychic abilities. But on that recent Friday night when I shadow her at Raoul’s, it is hard to argue with her ability.  I witness Horton somehow pick up on the death of a young woman’s father. At 27, the woman was simply too young for such a loss to be “obvious.”

I decide to talk to a regular customer of Horton’s named Dahlia, who had a very powerful reading from Horton in 2008, when she was visiting from San Diego. “I’m a very logical person,” Dahlia assures me when we speak on the phone. “I think most psychics are a hoax. It’s an easy way to get money from gullible people who maybe have so much turmoil in their lives that they’re looking for answers. But somebody like Janet truly has a gift.”

Seeing a sign for tarot card readings, Dahlia and a few friends had wandered into La Lanterna di Vittoria, where Horton works Sunday evenings, on a whim. “She said, your father has gone on to the other side, and he must have gone when you were very small,” Dahlia recalls. “He’s very sorry that he was never there for you.” Dahlia’s father had died two months before she was born.

Horton remembers asking Dahlia if her father had drowned. “I was getting a boat, but not a storm,” Horton says. Indeed, Dahlia’s father had disappeared from a fishing boat one night, after deciding to sleep on deck.

“Then, she asked if my husband was sick,” Dahlia tells me. “He was in his eighties, but young for his age, healthy and vibrant, so I thought it was baloney. She said that he would have a short illness and wouldn’t make it, but didn’t give a date. Two years later, my husband became ill and passed away after five or six months. He’d had that tumor at least four years.” After I hung up with Dahlia, I wondered how profound it was to guess that a man in his eighties might be sick, or soon become sick. Then again, Dahlia was considerably younger than her husband, and who knows what other details Horton might have perceived but kept to herself.

Dahlia has had three more readings with Horton since then. “I’m not seeking advice or someone to tell me what to do,” she says. “She just offers things and she nails it all the time. She nailed the personalities of my two daughters-in-law, and that was amazing.”

*   *   *

Around 9 p.m. on the night I’m at Raoul’s, a man and woman on their first date have their cards read by Horton. They sit down for separate readings, each going downstairs to give the other privacy during their session. Like everyone else I see having their cards read that night, they each smile as they sit, his appearing slightly anxious. When I hang around to photograph the man’s reading, I’m surprised by his openness. I don’t hover close enough to hear every word, as Horton says my energy might get in the way of her reading.

The man, whom Horton expected to be a skeptic, tells me afterward that he was impressed. She could see that he had children, that he’d been divorced. Later, Horton tells me that the man’s father came through in the reading, that “he told his son to take things slow.”

Customers almost always ask for insights into their love lives, of course, but Horton doesn’t always tell them what they want to hear. She recalls at least one customer who stormed out after Horton implied that her relationship may not last, that the woman’s boyfriend wasn’t ready to commit. The woman came back a year later to tell Horton that she had been right. “I’ve learned to be diplomatic but truthful,” Horton says.

I wonder how diplomatic she’s being when she reads my cards.

I’m definitely on the nervous side of excited. I wonder if she’ll say something that gives me nightmares, if she’ll pick out my insecurities like a mind reader. And then a tiny part of me also hopes it’s not bullshit.

Horton tells me to pick 24 cards, and she arranges them in two concentric rings. I have no idea what I’m looking at, but she gives me the rundown: “Your layout’s on the table. I’m going to tell you what I see, and then when we finish with this part of the reading we’ll do questions and answers so you can ask whatever you want, but you can talk anytime you want.”

Part of it is conversational. “Is Grandma gone?” she asked off the bat, seeing a female figure. “No, but my great-grandmother is.” After describing her visions in the 24 cards, accurately noting certain characteristics that keep coming up for my grandfather, we move on to my future love life. I joke about picking up cards with cat symbols, sealing a fate of feline-loving singledom. “Your mind was not in the right place. Pick again,” she says, replacing the cards before I actually notice their symbols. I shrug, noting that this was the only time during the reading that I wasn’t paying attention to which cards I’d selected.

I pick again, and Horton says that my great-grandmother hijacked the cards. After we talk to Nanny, Horton asks me to pick once more. This time, she sees a ring symbolizing marriage in there somewhere, but she says the rest of her visions are about career. Horton, after all, never pushes a question for which the spirits aren’t providing her an answer. “It’s clear you have other things to focus on first,” she tells me.

When I talk to Horton a week later, I ask her if she was guarding me from what she saw in that first set of cards—one woman, four cats, perhaps? She assures me that she had me pick again because the cards weren’t relevant to romance. “God and the spirits were just not interested in giving you those details right now.”

Horton advises me, and anyone seeking insights, to take readings with a grain of salt. “Never give your personal power away,” she says. “Don’t take what they say so seriously that you start looking for the right man of that description in two years because the psychic said so. Each of us makes our own destiny. I learned that from going to psychics when I was younger.”

“People are looking to psychics to tell them the future,” Horton adds, “but the future is not fixed.”

I imagine that being a psychic it must be tempting to sneak a peek at your own future. Indeed, like restaurant-hopping chefs, psychics admit that they often try each other out after their own shifts are over. And sometimes, they can’t help but read themselves.

“I had a vision a long time ago that I was going to live to a very old age,” Stark casually divulges. “I’m not happy about it, to tell you the truth. I have a terrific life, but it’s not enough for me.”

Horton, too, has read her own cards a few times, back when she was practicing with her first deck.

After the third time, she says she got a message from God and the spirits instructing her to knock it off already.

“‘Stop it,’” she recalls them saying. “‘Just ask yourself what’s the next right thing to do.’” Horton explains that when you’re in tune with the greater consciousness, your intuition will lead you the right way.

Right now, that means following her calling, sharing her insights at Raoul’s, and using her experiences to help her finish up that novel.

“I had to live it first,” she says.

*   *   *

Jaclyn Einis is a journalist in New York, where she sees a thousand stories in every subway station. She’s curious about your past, present and future. And what you had for breakfast.

Sophie Butcher is a freelance illustrator, designer and photojournalist who lives in Brooklyn. She has exhibited work in The New York Public Library and The Museum of the City of New York, among other places.

Meet the Merciless Champ of Congo’s Mystical Wrestling League

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

* * *

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

* * *

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

For the briefest of moments, he is defeated.

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

“Coming Out” as Face Blind

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

* * *

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A Father Defends His Empty Nest

After a broken engagement, my daughter was just one more millennial moving back into her childhood bedroom. And I was one more aging parent feeling guilty for wanting my humble home to myself.

When I saw my daughter’s car in our driveway I wanted to run the other way — away from my peaceful home, our empty nest that was about to be invaded.

Instead, I braced for her entrance. Rachel, 32, the oldest of Julia’s and my three children, had moved out long ago, like her two brothers. But hours earlier, she had broke off her engagement with her boyfriend of two years. Now, here she was with a car full of boxes stuffed with books, kitchenware, potted plants and suitcases.

She walked in to the kitchen, erupting into sobs. I wrapped my arms around her, unsure how else to console her. I wanted to say that everything would be okay, but knew from past stumbles she would cry harder, as if to ask how I could be so clueless. Didn’t I get what she was going through? I stood quietly, holding her, as she cried on.

“I’m sorry,” I finally said.

She cried some more, like when she was a little kid, longer than I expected, long enough that I felt my patience being tested.

“Can you help empty my car?” she finally asked.

“Sure,” I said, in my most comforting voice, relieved, though dying to learn what the hell had happened. But I knew she would tell Julia and me soon enough, so I kept my mouth shut. Rachel opened the back of her Subaru station wagon. My eyes bulged, stunned at how much stuff she’d crammed in.

This is going to kill my back, I thought as she pulled boxes out, dropping them haphazardly in the middle of the driveway, on the lawn, anywhere. I lifted a suitcase out. It was so heavy; did she stuff it with kettle bells?

“Don’t worry. I’ll bring them up to my room,” she said matter-of-factly, surveying the mounds of accumulations.

When? I thought sarcastically. I know my daughter. If I didn’t bring them in, all this stuff would languish outside for days. What if it rains tonight? Has she thought of that? But another voice reminded me that my job was to welcome her home with an open heart, without judgment, no matter what the circumstances.

I worried it was too late for that. Resentment was already filtering down my gut: My daughter was moving back with no checkout date on the calendar. Over the past several years since our youngest moved out, I’d grown to relish being an empty nester. Life was simpler, a new brand of fun with just Julia and me.

Not that we didn’t love our kids, their visits, or ours to wherever they were calling home. We did. We just also believed that at a certain age, our kids needed to grow up and move out, no matter how much we’d cherished our years all together under one roof.

* * *

Like her brothers, Rachel always appreciated my humor. “Don’t egg him on,” Julia would say, annoyed when I got going with my shtick, riffing on everyday incidents. We watched reruns of “Seinfeld” together, and Rachel and I loved playing with words. She laughed and laughed once when I pointed out that the word “ridiculous” ought to be “redunkulis.”

“Now that’s ridiculous,” I improvised.

And we shared the emotions a good out-loud read can deliver. “Are you crying or laughing?” she asked once when I could barely finish reading a poignant newspaper column to her.

“Both,” I laughed, wiping tears from my eyes.

I also tried to impress on my kids the sacred moments in everyday life. After too much partying in the dorms her freshman year of college, Rachel lived alone off campus the next year, a growing experience though a lonely one. That spring, I flew out to help her move out of her apartment. Before we drove off, I told her to go back into the empty apartment one last time.

“Spend a few minutes. Reflect on what you’ve learned. What it’s been like. Go room to room. Take your time,” I said. “Then we’ll leave.”

She returned a few minutes later, teary-eyed and grateful for the ritual.

Rachel’s move home felt like one step backwards, compounded by how her healing process rubbed me. She lived not only out of her old bedroom her first month home, but also her brother’s, because she wouldn’t sleep in her bed, which she and her now-ex-fiancé, Noah, had slept in when they’d stay over.

At night, she burned Palo Santo incense sticks to help “purify the energy.” The scent seeped into the hall, annoying me as I passed her closed door, feeling like the vanguard of Burning Man had moved into the neighborhood.

Rachel sought out all kinds of healers to help her process the breakup and her future. She saw a life coach, a shaman, a psychic, a tarot-card reader and an astrologist. She did somatic experiencing and neuro-feedback.

Through high school and even in college, Rachel never dated; instead she clung to the safety of a group of friends. After college, she tried online-dating services like OkCupid and JDate, but none of those encounters jelled. When I heard she was seeing Noah, a guy she’d known since middle school, I was surprised. I hardly knew him, but hadn’t she dismissed him as too flaky? Was she settling too easily?

A year after their first date, they moved in together. I had to admit they seemed great together. They got each other’s idiosyncrasies. He was kind to her, and to Julia and me. He was charming, passionate about his work, and often told me about cool innovations, foods or social movements he’d read about. But he didn’t want kids.

* * *

Rachel and I were hiking our favorite trail, past stands of red maples, oaks and hickories, a glistening reservoir to our left, a blue sky above. Mostly she talked; I commented. Big topics: their career plans, where they would live, finances, if and when they might get a dog.

“What about when you have kids?” I asked at a moment when the question felt relevant.

“Noah doesn’t want them,” she said, like it was a closed case, a tone that surprised me.

“Whoa! Really?” I asked, stunned.

“Well,” she said pausing, without a trace of regret in her voice, “if it means not being with Noah, well, I guess it’s no kids,” she said. I felt sadness rubbing against my heart. Was she so willing to give up that desire? It didn’t compute. She loved playing with kids, had always talked about one day having them.

I let it go as we hiked on, but later I felt regret. I’m at that age when friends are having grandchildren. “There’s nothing like it,” they say, brimming. When I think about it, I get this image of lifting a little one onto my lap, reading a picture book together, feeling the warmth of a snuggle. I imagine I’d be a great grandfather.

But it was out of my control, I told myself. So what if my vision failed to mesh with her reality. Life takes twists and turns. Hadn’t I disappointed my father by not going into the family business he so wanted me to join? She had to make her own decisions.

More importantly, Rachel looked happy. We’d meet them for dinner, have them over. Noah would stop by if he was in the neighborhood. We’d hug hellos and goodbyes. He came for Thanksgiving along with his parents. And when we took a big family vacation with our three kids, including our middle son’s fiancée, we invited Noah to join us. He was becoming part of the family.

Then he surprised us, and Rachel, by proposing to her during that vacation on the beach — swept away, I thought, with all the love our family imbued. When he made the announcement that night over drinks, everyone leapt out of their chairs and hugged. Except me. I couldn’t get out of my low-slung beach chair, as if a gravitational truth was holding me down. No one noticed by the time I managed to stand, toast and hug the newly-engaged couple. Nine months later, they nailed down venue details for a wedding a year off, but they didn’t sign a contract.

Then one early weekday morning, after getting my blood drawn for a routine cholesterol screening, I climbed up the stairs to check on Julia, sitting in bed, reading the paper, drinking her coffee, and waiting for me.

“Sit down,” she said. “Rachel just called.” Those were ominous words, I thought. What was wrong? Rachel never called this early. Had their apartment been broken into? I had no idea, but I felt dread.

“She and Noah broke up,” Julia said, a stunner I had not seen coming. “She’s packing her stuff and coming home.”

“What! Are you kidding me?”

Over the next few days and weeks, Rachel leaked information about what happened. Yes, they often were the happy couple they looked like, but each had deep concerns too painful to admit to one another. Until they finally felt compelled to share them, forcing the realization that they weren’t meant for each other. It had been bubbling, she told us. That morning of the breakup had started early. Neither of them could sleep. So they got up and started talking and talking in the morning darkness. By daybreak, it had hit them both. They weren’t getting married. She returned his engagement ring, and over the course of several hours, moved out of their apartment and returned home.

I knew I needed to act the role of a father whose daughter has undergone loss, but my default position was too farsighted. All I saw was her move encroaching on my empty-nester life.

I loved my new relationship with the woman I married thirty-five years earlier, now without the demands of raising kids. We would get dinner out; catch a movie or play, knowing our children could handle the challenges of growing into adulthood. We talked openly about how we felt, without being on guard. And with no kids in the bedrooms next door, we didn’t have to be discreet about our own amorous adventures.

It took months to get over my resentment of Rachel’s move home — until one night when I noticed the hard-edged feeling softening when she arrived home after a few days away. When work required her to be out of town, she would stay with friends. Earlier that day, she texted us to say she would be home for dinner. I felt delight, like company dropping by, as I rushed to whip up a meal I knew she would love. More than that, I looked forward to catching up on her insights. And that’s when I got that this was her way of moving forward: talking with friends on the phone for hours, her New Age therapies, even the mindfulness-meditation course she was taking. Far from moping or feeling victimized about the circumstances she was dealt, she was handling them.

To my relief, she moved her boxes, suitcases and plants out of the dining room, hallway, mudroom and kitchen and into her room and the attic, though I still bumped into signs of the breakup now and then. Up in the attic, her unworn wedding dress, zipped in a garment bag, hung like unclaimed luggage. She had bought it at a sample sale, too good to pass up. Another time, I happened on a Shutterfly picture-book our kids had made of that big family vacation. It included photos of the then-newly engaged couple.

Eventually, she made a plan with a move-out date, still several months away. And we gradually found ourselves cultivating a nourishing routine. Rachel would arrive home, join us in our basement den, where Julia and I were catching up on recorded television shows. We’d hit pause, and an hour would go by as we talked. Or I’d be up in the kitchen, chopping vegetables or grilling chicken. Rachel would come in and join me for a glass of wine as she shared reflections or thoughts about life. By then, months into life with our adult daughter, I finally hit my stride with my current role: to be there for her, to listen to the inevitable plot-twists of her life, challenges and triumphs; in short, to continue to love her unconditionally. I did so the way it came naturally as in times past: playing music cuts I thought she’d like, sharing great reads with her, passing on emails I knew would touch her.

As head family cook, I made sure plenty of meals were at the ready for my gluten-free daughter. But mostly, I grew to appreciate her time at home, knowing she’d be gone before we knew it.

* * *

Leonard Felson is a Hartford, Connecticut-based freelance journalist who writes personal essays and features about the struggles of change in the lives of people and communities. Follow him at leonardfelson.com or on Twitter @leonardfelson.

Kassia Rico is an illustrator currently based in Los Angeles. She earned her BFA at the Rhode Island School of Design (RISD) where she found her interest investigating the links between the human and non-human, especially their interdependencies. Follow her on Instagram @kassiarico.

The Day My Therapist Dared Me to Have Sex With Her

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

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

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

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

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

“Oh, yeah,” I say. “That.”

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

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

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

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

I shrugged my shoulders, only half looking up.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Nailed it.

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

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

* * *

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Why not?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

There were two ways to find out:

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

2) Keep going to therapy.

* * *

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

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

“I don’t know.”

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

Here we go again.

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

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

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

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

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

“What?” I respond, flustered.

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

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

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

“Of course not.”

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

“I wouldn’t do that.”

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

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

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

* * *

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Isn’t therapy supposed to ameliorate my anxiety?

* * *

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Exactly.”

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

* * *

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Lori’s great at forcing me to reflect.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

* * *

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

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

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

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

* * *

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

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

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

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

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

* * *

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

See the complete list of Editors’ Picks here. 

* *

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

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

Secret Life of a Crime Scene Cleaner

How a transgender Australian found her niche cleaning up after murders, suicides, and unimaginable filth of endless variation.

The back of Sandra Pankhurst’s business card reads:

“Excellence is no Accident”

* Hoarding and Pet Hoarding Clean up * Squalor/ Trashed Properties * Preparing the Home, for Home Help Agencies to Attend * Odor Control * Homicide, Suicide and Death Scenes * Deceased Estates * Mold, Flood and Fire Remediation * Methamphetamine Lab Clean Up * Industrial Accidents * Cell Cleaning

If the places we inhabit are like lungs, rhythmically drawing us in and breathing us out, Sandra Pankhurst’s job as founder of Specializing Trauma Cleaning (STC) Services Pty Ltd. leads her somewhere in between — homes with the lights still on where death, sickness and madness have abruptly abbreviated lives.

I first saw Sandra at a conference for forensic support services. Everyone had just poured out of a session on offenders with acquired brain injuries to descend on urns of watered-down coffee and plates of sweating cheese. On my way to the bathroom, I passed a table in the lobby where STC Services brochures were fanned out next to a sign inviting you to drop your business card into a fishbowl for a chance to win a bottle of Shiraz. A small TV played scenes of before-and-after trauma clean-up jobs. A very tall woman, perfectly coiffed and tethered to an oxygen tank, invited me to leave my business card. Hypnotized by the images on the TV (one of which brought to mind the words “feces” and “cartwheels”), I haltingly explained that I don’t have business cards. I did, however, pick up one of her brochures, which I read compulsively for the remainder of the day.

I was surprised to learn from the brochure that the police do not do trauma clean-up. Neither do firefighters or ambulance crews or emergency services. Instead, hired hands like Sandra handle the clean-up at crime scenes, deaths, floods and fires. Local and state governments, real estate agents, executors of deceased estates and charitable organizations all call on Sandra to deal with issues like long-term property neglect, where homes have “fallen into disrepute” due to the occupier’s drug or alcohol addiction, mental illness, aging or physical disability. Grieving families also hire Sandra to help them sort through their loved one’s belongings.

Performing a public service as vital as it is gruesome, Sandra is one of Australia’s unofficial experts on the living aspects of death.

“People do not understand about body fluids,” the brochure reads. “Bodily fluids are like acids. They have all the same enzymes that break down our food. When these powerful enzymes come into contact with furnishing and the like, deterioration is rapid.

“I have known enzymes to soak through a sofa and to eat at the springs, mould growing throughout a piece of furniture and I have witnessed the rapid deterioration of a contaminated mattress.”

The Shiraz and the oxygen tank and the coiffure were gone by the time the last conference session finished. But I still had the brochure, which, by then, had grabbed me by the neck and was dragging me in search of the woman herself.

* * *

“Hi Sarah, it’s Sandra. I believe you contacted me for an interview. If you could call me back it would be appreciated, but possibly not today as I’m just inundated at the moment and I’m on my way to a suicide. So if you could just call me back tomorrow…”

When I return her call, I learn that Sandra has a warm laugh and that she needs a lung transplant. She asks me in a deep, rich voice when I would like to meet. I tell her I can work around her schedule. “Okey dokey,” she says, and I can hear her flip open her diary. “How about the cafe at the Alfred Hospital?” She has a couple of hours before she sees her lung doctor.

It struck me then that, for Sandra Pankhurst, death and sickness are part of life. Not in a quote book sort of way, but in a voicemail and lunch meeting sort of way. Over time, I learned that this outlook was fundamental to her character. My other first impression of this striking woman, however, would turn out to be wrong.

* * *

“I was an adopted child. At the age of seven, I was told that I would no longer be wanted by this family and I had to live in a room they’d built out the back,” says Pankhurst. “I weren’t [sic] allowed by the family to associate with them after 4:30 p.m. and I had to fend for myself and organize my own food.”

Sandra is telling me about growing up on the mean streets of Melbourne’s West Footscray while calmly fielding calls on her cell. We are in the cafe, a place where the sick and dying, and those attending to them, can grab a latte or a cheese sandwich. Everyone is eating except for us. Sandra has to fast for four hours before her doctor’s appointment.

In her sixties, Sandra is very tall and graceful and immaculately groomed. I feel short and frumpy next to her. “I used to suffer a lot with boils and things because I weren’t [sic] really nurtured and looked after,” she says, explaining that the way a starving seven-year-old feeds themselves, if they are smart, is by stealing cans of food from the house when their alcoholic adopted father isn’t looking. And that will work until – petrified of being “bashed with a cobbler stick” – they accidentally burn part of the house down.

“One of my jobs was to light the hot water service and I had forgotten and I panicked,” Sandra says. “I put some petrol mower fuel in and it went and burned down the laundry room.”

She didn’t get beaten for the fire. She got beaten for stealing the cans of food which were discovered – empty, crushed and hidden – when the walls burned down.

“It was like an imprisonment sort of lifestyle. So hence, now I have this need for compassion,” she says.

Kicked out at seventeen, she moved in with another family she found through her church. She could stay with them only for six months but they organized a job for her at a steel works under Melbourne’s West Gate Bridge, the second longest in Australia, which was then two years into construction.

“I was working there when the Bridge fell down,” she says before describing the 1970 collapse that killed thirty-five construction workers and could be heard from over twelve miles away. She explains how the light bulbs popped out of their sockets, how she felt the earth shudder, how her first sight of death was over the back fence, watching police throw body parts out of public view.

A doctor sits down at the table next to us and squirts ketchup on a hot dog. The café is noisy but Sandra’s voice is clear above the chaos. When she speaks, she is mostly professional and deliberate. But there is also a cheekiness, a playful flirtiness, which she is beginning to fan out like a peacock’s tail. When she does this, her eyes gleam and she is very beautiful.

She skips over her twenties (which I note is strange, given her candor about everything else) and slips into her thirties, when she became one of the first female funeral directors in the state of Victoria.

“I absolutely adored the job. I loved it with a passion. It was a chance to give back and help people when they needed it most.

“I used to make every member of the funeral party become involved in it so that they would become very emotional. To me, a funeral should be like a play: You get it up to a crescendo,” she says, her long red nail drawing a hill in the air.

“You get everyone’s emotions there,” she says while poking the top of the hill, “they bubble over, then they boil down, and they get on with their life. Otherwise they’re up and down trying to deal with it for years. So, it’s just like conducting a play and getting everyone involved in the scenario.”

Through that work, she realized there was a need for trauma cleaning. “You realize the fire brigade and ambulance really had no time to deal with this. But never in my wildest dreams did I think I would be doing it.”

The path to her new career began with her husband of fifteen years, who she met when Sandra, as she puts it “buried his wife.”

Sandra gave up work to travel with him on his business trips. “But I got restless and bored after a while. So I said to him, ‘We need to buy a business,’” Sandra tells me.

She was thinking a boutique. Instead, they bought a hardware store in Brighton, a moneyed seaside suburb, which eventually folded. When the store went under, “We lost everything. We didn’t know what to do, ’cause we’d both been quite independent and strong. We had to start again,” she says.

She started doing odd jobs – a bit of gardening and interior design and house cleaning. But there wasn’t enough money coming in. “So, I stressed over this, and I thought ‘I know what I’ll do. I’ll just start trauma cleaning.’”

Their first job, cleaning up the rental property left by a deceased hoarder, came though her funeral industry contacts.

“It was a disaster. Seventy-two hours after two of us working nonstop, we were almost psychotic. We couldn’t believe that people could live like this. It was more of a squalor situation, even though the gentleman had died in the house. It was absolutely disgusting. It was just putrid. We had to take off three layers of flooring, and there was another contaminated layer of flooring underneath. But what happened was, the last layer was not only glued down, but it was stapled down. We’d slice the linoleum and put boiling water on it to try to break down the glue, and then we had to put spades underneath to get it up. Well, our hands swelled up like massive watermelons.”

“We completed it, and they were happy with the job, but we were severely depressed,” she says. “It took three months to come to terms with whether or not I could ever do this again. But as money was tight, and things were not good, I had to grin and bear it, and get up and go for it. And twenty years later, here I am. Still psychotic.”

* * *

In the context of talking about her husband, who passed away ten years ago, Pankhurst tells me in passing that she was not born female and that, finally, she’s not ashamed to talk about it.

She worked up the courage to tell him after they’d been dating for a little while.

“I’m transgender,” Sandra said, expecting a punch in the mouth.

“Does that mean you like women?” he said.

Sandra Pankhurst, trauma cleaning service provider. (Photo courtesy Sandra Pankhurst)
Sandra Pankhurst, trauma cleaning service provider. (Photo courtesy Sandra Pankhurst)

“It means…I wasn’t born Sandra. I had to make Sandra,” she said.

“Well,” he said, “I fell in love with Sandra.” And that was that.

“He gave me the confidence to be who I am,” Sandra says. Her story of grinning and bearing it, and getting up and going for it, suddenly becomes exponentially more meaningful. “And then he died and everything went to shit for a while.”

After his death, his two grown children had their fifteen-year marriage annulled in the process of contesting his will. Thus ended Sandra’s second marriage – erased because she had been born a man. Her first marriage, which she had entered into as a heterosexual, twenty-year-old male, had ended because her wife found out that she was a man who liked men. At that time, divorce on the grounds of homosexuality meant losing access to their two sons. For a lost decade, Christmas was too painful for Sandra to celebrate.

Two hours have gone past in the café and we need to wrap up. “My life is a movie,” Sandra says, promising to tell me about her twenties another time, if I’m still interested.

I am still interested.

As we leave the café, I ask if I could come along on some jobs and see her at work.

“I’ll call you when a trauma comes up,” she says, and tells me to get some Vicks to rub on my upper lip to help with “the smells.”

“Get ready to turn on a dime.”

* * *

I pull up in front of a complex of Soviet-style apartments and meet Sandra at her van, which is an immaculate traveling hardware store. I’m welcomed and handed a disposable white jumpsuit.

Four of her crew members are there. Jess is a cheery young woman in her early twenties. She stands next to a tall blond guy named Chris who may still be a teenager and who reminds me of a large teddy bear. Jackie and Sharon, both of whom are older, appear sullen and say nothing to me and little to each other. Everyone has been reduced to a small face sticking out of a disposable white hood. Chris hands me two flat white things that I think are chef’s hats but that can’t be right.

“What are these?” I whisper, embarrassed that I don’t know.

“Shoe covers,” he smiles. I sneak a glance at the others to figure out how to put them on.

With our hoods up and our blue gloves on, we all stand there looking like something in between Smurfs and astronauts. Sandra is wearing a slimline purple parka, jeans and white canvas sneakers. She looks like she should be enjoying a Pimm’s after a walk around the park. Instead she leads us through the gates, into an elevator and up one floor to an apartment where a 34-year-old woman died of a heroin overdose and lay undiscovered for two and a half weeks.

Sandra will collect the deceased’s personal items for the family and appraise what needs to be done to rent out the apartment again.

A man on the ground floor looks up at us, asks what we are doing.

“Just some maintenance, darl,” Sandra reassures him, which, in its way, is the truth.

One of the Smurfs unlocks the door. Sandra has a quick look inside.

“Ugh. Stinks,” she says coming back out.

“Right. Masks on, breathe through your mouth!” she says, warning us to look out for syringes while she helps Jess tighten her face mask. “You may never breathe again, but don’t worry about it, “ she says to her wryly.

I tighten my own, forcing myself to learn how to do it.

Jackie takes out a small jar of tiger balm and rubs it into each nostril before slipping on her mask.

“Been doing it for so long, I don’t bother…Grin and bear it!” Sandra sings.

“Is it beer o’clock yet?” someone asks.

“Yes” is the general consensus.

Sandra tells them that she can’t drink because she needs a lung transplant. Jess asks if it is because of smoking. Sandra tells her it’s from this work, early on, breathing in the cleaning chemicals in the days before they knew better.

“But I can’t sue myself!” she chirps as we follow her into the apartment. “Breathe through your mouth! Concentrate on it!”

The first thing I notice is the flies. Black mounds of dead flies are pooled in the light fixtures. Their papery corpses are scattered over the floor. I wouldn’t say that the place is carpeted with flies, but there is a pretty consistent cover of them on the tiles.

Instantly everyone goes to work and I am alone getting my bearings. Small apartment. Laundry cupboard in the tiny foyer, the dryer door opened wide. I walk past the bathroom, two bedrooms and into a living room/kitchen area with a nook for the woman’s bookshelf. There is a balcony off the living room. The TV is on Channel 11, playing cartoons. A breeze blows in through the open sliding door and over the sofa in front of the TV, which has been stripped of its cover but not the person-shaped brown blood stain spread across the seat nearest the window. The stain is gross and scary but not as scary as the tableau of life suddenly interrupted.

Sharon is in the bedroom guessing about the face of the woman whose underwear drawer she is emptying.

Jess is making an inventory of the kitchen. She opens drawers and cupboards and takes photos. The top drawer has the full complement of cooking utensils owned by high-functioning adults. The cupboard has a big box of cereal and a jar of Gatorade powder. A gray grocery bag of garbage is suspended from the handle of the cupboard below the sink.

“Everything has to go,” Sandra says, striding through.

“The fridge comes with the apartment,” Jackie says.

“Ah,” Sandra responds, dismayed. I can see her mind flipping through her library of disinfectants in the van. “What else comes with the apartment? We need to be clear or else we’ll throw everything else out.”

The lone magnet on the fridge reads: “If your doctor is closed, we’re open. After hours medical helpline…”

Jess is photographing a drawer full of grey plastic grocery bags.

The workers are efficient, they are quick and respectful. They remind me of nurses.

Next to the kitchen sink, on the counter, is a pile of clean syringes. On the other side is an unopened box of organic cotton tampons, tossed there like they were bought an hour ago and are waiting for the milk to go into the fridge before they are taken to the bathroom cupboard.

Sandra instructs them to take the clean syringes and seal up the yellow bottle of dirty ones on the coffee table for the police “as evidence of drug activity.”

Everyone has gathered around a framed photo of the deceased woman.

“What a waste,” someone says.

“Pretty girl,” another says. I wonder if that’s what she looked like when she died or if that’s what she looked like at the time in her life that she would forever try to return to.

I scan her bookshelf. “Narcotics Anonymous.” “The Secret of Attraction.” “Taking Care of Yourself and Your Family,” and also “When Everything Changes, Change Everything.” There are DVDs. “Bridesmaids.” I love that movie.

An ad for Big Hugs Elmo, the toy that hugs back, comes on the TV. I go to her bedroom. There are bottles of Ralph Lauren perfume and a pink salt lamp and an organic lip balm.

“Anything that’s personalized, anything that’s got her handwriting, her name…” Sharon reminds Jackie to set aside as they go through the desk at the foot of the bed. They are winding up her phone charger and putting her handbag near the door.

Sandra places a birthday card with a sassy cat on it into a plastic bag of personal items and tells Chris to look carefully through all the books to see if there are any photos kept between the pages. The family wants anything that’s personalized. It’s important.

I cross the hall. The bathroom cupboards are open. There are the usual assorted creams and appliances. Fake tan. The exfoliator I use.

I go back into the living room and force myself to look around slowly. I see two bed pillows covered with the same kind of brown blood stain on the couch. I see a viscous smear of human shit on the floor under the couch. I see a big bottle of Pepsi Max, still full, and a pack of cigarettes on the table.

The apartment is so full and so empty at the same time; absence is a presence like dark matter and black holes.

A few of us take the elevator down to the basement parking lot to the woman’s chain link storage cage. It is empty except for a saggy mattress and a mound of plastic baby toys lying on the gunmetal cement.

The four small rooms, plus basement storage cage, are an encyclopedia of striving and struggle. The basket of clean laundry. The elliptical machine painted thick with dust. The clean syringes. The smell of death unnoticed for two and a half weeks that is seeping in through my mask and into my mouth.

We step outside for a moment. Sharon is holding the camera. There is blood on her gloves.

Someone asks Sandra where the blood comes from if the house was locked up.

“Maggots,” Sandra says dryly. “Cycle of life. It’s quite amazing.”

Sandra directs Chris how to double-bag the personal items so that they don’t smell. How to wrap the tape around the top so that it is easy for the family to open.

I stare across into the windows of the other apartments surrounding us on all sides. This is how it ends, sometimes, with strangers in gloves looking at your blood and your too many bottles of shampoo and your ironic “Make Positive Changes” Krishna postcard and the last TV channel you flipped to on the night that you died and the way the sun hits the tree outside your bedroom window.

This is how it ends if you are unlucky but lucky enough to have someone like Sandra remember to flip through your books for pieces of you to save before strangers move their furniture into the spots where yours used to stand.

* * *

At our next meeting, I ask Sandra if some deaths are worse than others.

“There are a few jobs that stick in your mind. Like there was a guy, for example … it was more the way he went about killing himself. It was with tree cutters and bricks…And you surmise, ’cause you don’t know everything about the case, but you figure: Has he cut his toes off? Has he cut his cock off? ‘Cause you’ve got this slash of blood all over the room. And then he’s walked around the house as well.”

Male suicides are generally bigger jobs than females.

“It’s the way they do it…you’ll always find that men are dirty killers whereas the women are very tidy in the way they do it,” Sandra says.

“Like cooking,” I offer.

“Yeah,” Sandra says, and we are quiet for a moment.

“By the same token,” Sandra adds, “there was one guy who blew his head off, and he put plastic up in the bathroom, just so it’d keep it quite clean. It all went way over. But the thought was there.”

Speaking about her employees she says, “It can be quite transient. It’s a difficult job and I’m probably problematic to a degree because I’m anal. You know, like I say to them, “Look, I’m two or three times your age. I need glasses to read and I can spot a cobweb at a thousand paces. Why can’t you see what I can?”

I ask her what qualities the work requires.

“Compassion. Great compassion, great dignity and a good sense of humor ’cause you’re gonna need it. And a really good sense of not being able to take the smell in, cause they stink. Putrid.”

* * *

The next job I go on with her is the home of a hoarder. Glenda is in danger of being thrown out of her home, which was intended as temporary housing for women in crisis, after packing it full of debris during her five-year stay. Hired by the housing authority against Glenda’s wishes, Sandra and two other workers will clean it out, one day a week for six weeks.

“Slowly, slowly. Going through all her crap, sorting it out. What is rubbish, what is to be kept,” Sandra explains.

“First they’re embarrassed, the anxiety and everything,” she explains.

“We reconstruct the house so they’re living in a different situation, it’s cleaner, and they’re more amenable to continue that. You planted a seed for them, they thought it was insurmountable, then they’re going, ‘Ah, this isn’t so bad after all.’

“I do come home exhausted from a day of hoarding, I am absolutely wrung out,” Sandra admits. “Because there’s constant bartering and getting them to agree but trying to turn it so that it’s their idea.”

“So, it’s actually the people who are alive that are more problematic?” I ask.

“Bingo,” Sandra says “I’d rather a dead body any time.”

Glenda is short, maybe sixty. Her hair is white at the roots. The rest of it is the same neon pink as her T-shirt. She is welcoming and we shake hands.

Sandra is ostensibly on the enemy side. However, Glenda has willingly let her inside and is working with her. Kind of.

“If I cry, I’ll try not to upset you,’ Glenda tells Sandra.

“If you cry, I’m bound to cry. So don’t,” Sandra says. “But if you do, we’ll cry together.’

Glenda’s accent reminds me of one of my relatives, who smells like powder and greets our visits by stuffing me and my family full of cake. But instead, Glenda is alone and living in a house full of yellowed newspapers and cats and their shit, which she is unable to clean or unwilling to acknowledge, so she presses newspaper on top like a layer cake.

“Her name is Cleopatra,” Glenda tells me as we stare down at a cat carrier.

Behind us, on a busted navy sofa, four other carriers holding four other cats are lined up in a row.

After a quick negotiation with Glenda in which the laundry room and bathroom are deemed off-limits (photos will later show me that these areas were painted thick with cat feces), Sandra shows me the area they’re currently working on in the kitchen/living room. It’s full of books, office supplies, appliance boxes, newspapers and other miscellanea, such as a child’s polka dot suitcase. The room appears to be undulating; everything is floating on top of everything else like flotsam on a roiling sea. The smell of cat shit is so strong my eyes water.

At the threshold of Glenda’s dark bedroom I am immediately confronted by a wall of stuff that reaches to the ceiling. There is only room to peer around the door and down at Glenda’s nest: a tiny mattress on the floor not long enough for her to stretch out on. There is a stack of books and periodicals next to it, with a pair of gold-rimmed spectacles folded neatly on top. Everything is in danger of being subsumed, any minute, by the great wall of debris, which looks like it is swaying on failing foundations.

Sandra’s negotiations with Glenda continue. She walks up holding the latest basket full of Glenda’s debris: A shower cap. A free anti-virus CD. A contraption to give a dog a pill.

“I’ve made an executive decision,” Sandra announces. “This is shit.”

We all giggle.

“But some of them are not shit,” Glenda says, still laughing.

“Oh, tell me what!” says Sandra.

Glenda holds up the CD.

“Are you gonna use it, really?” Sandra coaxes.

Glenda nods. “Yes, tonight.”

“Oh, you liar,” Sandra says, causing Glenda to break out into giggles again. “This thing’s going to the shithouse. I’m telling you now, this is going to buggery.”

Glenda moved to Melbourne twenty years ago, leaving her husband behind. She didn’t explain why. But she returned to him when he was dying in the hospital. She tells me how for three months after his death she couldn’t cry. “I became wooden,” she says.

Eventually Glenda gave herself permission to grieve. “I got a little kitten, she’s twelve years now, and I put it next to me. I slept, I woke up, I started crying, I’d stretch out and there was her warm, purring body and I’d fall asleep again.”

That cat now has ten siblings, some of whom are in the carriers around us.

I learn that Glenda is a qualified dentist. That she has a psychology degree with honours. And worked for years as a grief counsellor.

In addition to a plethora of short courses and certificates, she has completed a professional writing and editing class and part of a Master’s in law. We know some of the same people, have gone to the same university.

In a dream I sometimes have, I’m always saving something from my childhood home before it is lost forever in a flood, maybe, or the urgency of war – photo albums, candlesticks, books. I cannot part with the dented pot that I remember my mother putting on the stove each week before she left us for good. Or a shopping list on an envelope in her handwriting. In a world that changes so quickly, and where everyone eventually leaves, our stuff is the one thing we can trust, and it testifies, through the mute medium of Things, that we were a part of something greater than ourselves. Glenda’s house is more than a question of homey clutter, of tiny shelves and the things we place there. Pain is a lunatic landscape, where every piece, however misshapen, fits perfectly. In the context of facing life alone, her fortress of shit makes sense.

Coming over to take a break, Sandra is panting from the strain that any walking places on her lungs. Hoarding doesn’t discriminate on the basis of income, she explains. It can happen to anyone.

“You look on the wall – “Director of the Hospital” or “Head of This Company” – and you think ‘What incident happened in your life? Or did someone leave you and leave you emotionally scarred, and you couldn’t deal with it?’ Like, there’s so many fragile things can just twist you and turn you. And I say, by the grace of God, it could be me. So I’m not going to judge anyone. None of us know what tomorrow’s got in store”

I nod, looking at the wall of garbage bags surrounding us on Glenda’s lawn.

“Like, I was supposed to have this lung transplant in 2011, but I had a series of things go wrong. I got sick and sick and sick and sick…I’m not ready to go out to die yet. And I’m definitely not going downstairs.”

I have a thought which is confirmed a couple of months later, when I am sitting in Sandra’s sun-drenched living room, looking at a framed photo of the two sons she last saw forty years ago, and listening to her calmly explain how she survived a violent rape, the killing of her fiancé at a nightclub in 1980, and what sex work was like in the isolated Western Australian mining town of Kalgoorlie in the years when she had to conceal the fact that she was a pre-op transsexual.

Life can break you like a wave on a prow. It seems to have broken Glenda. But that is not how Sandra is going out.

As Sandra walks me to my car, Chris hurries after her. Glenda has started opening the bags she agreed to throw out. The smell made Sharon vomit – Sharon, who was fine last week at the dead woman’s apartment. Glenda has started to get upset. Sandra returns to the necessary business of cauterizing.

“That’s what happens when you open the bags that you agreed to throw out,” she sighs.

* * *

The next time I speak to Sandra she is angry. It’s the week before Christmas, and a housing organization is pressuring her to work faster so that they can move their client, another hoarder, this time a schizophrenic young woman living alone, to new accommodation. Sandra finds the timing gratuitously cruel to the woman. In recounting her standoff with the organization (which she won), her use of expletives is beautiful; listening to her swear is like watching Michelangelo paint the Sistine Chapel.

You could say that Sandra knows her clients as well as they know themselves. She airs out their smells. She throws out their weird porn and the last of their DNA entombed in soaps. She does not, however, erase these people. She couldn’t, because she has experienced their same sorrows.

The distance between where Sandra grew up and where she lives now is about an hour’s drive but further than walking to the moon. She has arrived where she is now through an epic amount of internal fortitude, which she lavishes on those who have lost their own. Despite having experienced worse blows than many of her clients, Sandra is the one who steps in to make order out of their chaos.

“I feel quite successful in my life,” Sandra says. “I’m not financially successful, but I’m successful in my life. I’m not a prostitute or a drug addict…I have a healthy, normal lifestyle. I have fantastic neighbors who treat me like gold. You know, I’m very blessed in life. But it’s my attitude I think.”

Despite seeing the same old shit each day for the past twenty-one years, she treats each client as unique in their circumstance and equal in their dignity. The reason why she doesn’t get suited up like her workers is actually not because she has been doing the job for so long.

“It’s because I’m meeting someone there — quite often a family member — I don’t want them to go into shock, like this person from out of space has come here. I grin and bear it and I go in.”

I ask her how she maintains that level of compassion.

“Everyone deserves it — because I deserve it as well,” she says.

This is, for all of us, the importance of being Sandra Pankhurst.

* * *

Sarah Krasnostein is an American-Australian writer and legal academic. She is currently working on a creative non-fiction book about Ms. Pankhurst. Follow her on Twitter @delasarah

Sage Barlow is a freelance illustrator living in San Francisco. Check out more of her illustrations and paintings at www.sagebarlow.com.