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.

Secrets and Nightmares of the Teenage Circumcision Circuit

In South Africa thousands of boys are initiated into manhood each year, but all too often they lose far more than they gain.

The sun is drooping in the December sky as cicadas weave ominous melodies into the summer air. Their shrill vibrato is the soundtrack to Azola Nkqinqa’s last day as a boy. It’s the time of year when Nkqinqa, 18, and about 50,000 other South African boys, come to one of the many remote initiation schools in order to learn how to be a man. This school is located in the Eastern Cape province — the country’s poorest. In the Xhosa culture, the transition into manhood is marked by a month of instruction from elders, who teach the teens how to be a father, a husband. The Xhosa boys are also circumcised during this time, and most years these schools make headlines because dozens of the boys die during the process.  

Nkqinqa is feeling particularly insecure. It is customary for the patriarch in a family to send a boy off, but Nkqinqa’s father has not been a part of his life for several years, and three of his uncles are dead. So a neighbor named Patrick Dakwa has agreed to take responsibility for him. Dakwa is a community volunteer who spends a lot of time trying to make circumcisions safer, running seminars near the Eastern Cape town of Flagstaff, teaching traditional surgeons how to safely dress wounds. However, since previous initiates are sworn to secrecy about the ritual’s details, as he lies in a hut with the other boys, rabid speculation is Nkqinqa’s only close companion. 

The next day, the 13 boys in his cohort consecutively go to see a surgeon. Using a blade about the size of a steak knife, he slices off each of their foreskins. Dakwa and his fellow health volunteers recommend in their seminars that separate, disposable razors be used for the circumcisions so as to eliminate the risk of HIV transmission. But this is an illegal initiation school that shows little regard for regulations. All boys go under the same knife here.  

The surgeon wraps Nkqinqa’s penis with a traditional dressing comprised of medicinal leaves. The pain is unremitting and debilitating, but Nkqinqa tries not to let his discomfort show. He doesn’t want to appear weak in front of the other emerging men.  

When Dakwa returns later for an inspection of all the boys’ progress, he observes that Nkqinqa is faint and unresponsive. The wound has changed shape and color. Urine no longer is discharged from his urethra, seeping instead out of other parts of the shaft. “This guy is beyond the control of the traditional nurse,” Dakwa thinks to himself.   

He brings Nkqinqa to Holy Cross hospital, about an hour away by car, on a Saturday evening at about six p.m. The next morning, Nkqinqa wakes up confused about where he is or how he got into this white and blue gown. He lifts up the sheets to look at his groin area and finds a devastating absence where his penis once was. He sobs bitterly.  

A visit from his best friend offers little consolation. Even though Nkqinqa explains that his penis is gone, his friend cannot metabolize the information. “I will explain when we are out of the hospital,” he says. Then, Nkqinqa begs his friend not to tell anyone about the situation. 

Nkqinqa’s case is not uncommon. Most amputations happen a few days after the actual circumcision, the result of unsanitary dressing practices which in turn lead to infections like gangrene. Once the flesh is necrotic, nothing can be done — though if the doctors can save any part of the flesh they will tend to opt for a partial amputation. 

Dakwa visits Nkqinqa too. Because Dakwa has counselled several amputees in the past, he knows how important it is to dispel the myths that are spread by some traditional nurses — the worst of which being that the penis would grow back. Dakwa addresses the misinformation head on. The penis is gone forever, he says sternly but tenderly, and Nkqinqa should not entertain false hope.  

* * * 

Driving into Flagstaff, the first thing one notices is how incredibly dense the traffic is. Cars must slow down to avoid pedestrians, as well as the occasional goat crisscrossing the main street. This part of the country is where most of the between 80 and 250 penis amputations in the country happen every year. The dire economic and social conditions in the province can be observed in the dilapidated storefronts and the treacherous roads. This state of affairs is inextricably tied up in the country’s past, going back to the decision by the government in 1913 to designate some of the land here a “homeland.” (This term was a disingenuous euphemism used to describe a small section of the country — just seven percent — in which black people could legally own land. The lion’s share was reserved for whites.) The extreme concentration of citizens trying to pursue subsistence farming here has perforated the landscape with divots, caused by rampant soil erosion. In 2015, only 31 percent of the local working-age population was employed.  

It was here that, five years ago, Patrick Dakwa founded one of the few support groups aimed at helping Xhosa men cope with the loss of their amputated penises. The 27-year-old’s bubbly demeanor and perennial smile are challenged as he thinks about the tragic cases he sees. Of the amputees, he says most “have a drinking problem and most of them, they use drugs. They tell me, ‘we’ve lost our penis so we feel like there’s no life, there’s nothing.’”  

Dakwa encourages them to talk about their problems and proudly reports that some have managed to become optimistic about their lives through exposure to the group. A few even manage to attend university.  

But amputation is just one of the possible consequences of a botched circumcision. At least 119 South African boys died between 2012 and 2014 after going to a traditional initiation school and getting circumcised.  

The summer of 2016 was the first season Dakwa can remember in which none of the 3,500 initiates died in or around Flagstaff. “December, last year, we experienced three deaths and four amputations,” Dakwa recounts. “June, last year, we also [had] two deaths and three partial amputations and one full amputation.”  

I ask him why amputations are still occurring, given that he, along with some NGOs, have put a lot of time into training traditional nurses in more sanitary methods. He says that there is resistance from the older, traditional nurses — they are not willing to accept instruction from the younger generations.  

Dakwa has clashed with traditional leaders several times during his campaign for safer circumcision protocol. They are opposed to him talking to the media about the matter. “They say I have no authority to speak. I want to preserve the culture, but if there’s nothing to preserve…” He trails off as anger flashes across his face. He talks about inept politicians who have not been able to secure lasting change. “They do nothing to show that they want to protect the culture.”  

Research looking into the causes of deaths and amputations in the Eastern Cape concurs with Dakwa’s experience. A 2015 study conducted by the Human Sciences Research Council found that conflicts between traditional leaders and medical personnel are a major contributing factor to the perpetuation of unsafe circumcision methods.  

In some cases the problem is that schools are not traditional enough — after all, the rite has been carried out safely on many boys for generations. “There’s been a development of charlatans taking the place of more traditional people who are supposed to be doing the circumcisions,” says Zoelle Horowitz, a doctor who spent many years treating initiates in the Eastern Cape. Many illegal schools have popped up, such as the one that Azola Nkqinqa went to, which charge exorbitant rates from boys who are sometimes under age — legally, initiates must be 18 to attend — and employ negligent practices. “So there [are] a variety of bush schools that one could go to, some being more careful and traditional and proper, and some being a bit careless and seeking money, really,” Horowitz says.   

Unfortunately, botched circumcisions aren’t the only thing taking the lives of young men at these schools. 

 * * * 

Because human rights advocate Johan De Waal’s office is located on Keerom Street, just a stone’s throw from Cape Town’s High Court, the area outside his building is always abuzz with robed figures rushing about like pensive clergymen. I have to brief a guard garrisoned behind an imposing desk and a team of secretaries on the details of my visit before I can see him.  

De Waal himself has graying hair and a gentle voice that conspire to give him an air of grandfatherly beneficence. Almost immediately, upon ushering me into his room, he mentions how intrigued he was to hear that a journalist was poking around a case he had handled almost four years ago. “It’s a total and utter travesty,” he starts. 

The case involved two males, aged about 20, who were attending an initiation school run by its chief, Isaac Monaheng. On November 25, 2013, the pair were brought to Stellenbosch Hospital, 40 minutes east of Cape Town. They were already dead when they arrived; the likely cause was dehydration — initiates are typically not permitted to drink water for up to eight days because it is believed that liquids would slow the recovery from a circumcision. But one of them also had abrasions on his back from an improvised whip known locally as a sjambok. 

De Waal was contacted by the local municipality on December 1 because the authorities wanted him to make an urgent application to the High Court to gain access to the school for an inspection. He shows me an affidavit issued by the Stellenbosch mayor, Conrad Sidego, detailing the sequence of events that led to the court application. According to the document, Sidego and a doctor arrived on November 29 with the intention of investigating suspicions of misconduct precipitated by the deaths. “I am extremely concerned about the state of health of these initiates,” Sidego wrote.  

Many of the young men who die after attending initiation schools do so because of dehydration or septicemia that sets in after a botched circumcision gets infected. Often the boys do not seek medical attention. Consequently maladies which may have been treatable if identified early on, progress to a lethal point.  

Because the property belonged to Stellenbosch municipality, and had been rented out to a group that ran the initiation school, a formal investigation was launched to determine whether this arrangement could continue in light of the fatalities. The investigation eventually concluded that the school could resume operations provided that the municipality was allowed to conduct regular inspections and generally exercise more control over the site.  

No criminal charges were laid against the owners of the school or the immediate supervisors who oversaw the boys, including Monaheng. No civil case had been brought before the court either.  

“I don’t know why the family hasn’t laid charges,” De Waal says. “We cannot say we did not know why these kids were dying, if you look at all the evidence. It’s also embarrassing for all of us.”  

On a national level, the state had opened around a thousand criminal cases over a period of five years in response to deaths occurring at initiation schools. (There have also been numerous reports of kidnappings, dehydration and whippings.) Only ten of those cases were ever heard in court. Nomboniso Gasa, a gender activist and adjunct professor at the University of Cape Town, told the Daily Maverick newspaper: “Often people go to lay charges — those who are brave — and after they have laid the charge there is very little follow-up … Police don’t [act] because in many cases they don’t want to be seen to be going against dominant cultural practices, but also because they don’t see this as something which is urgent. So consequently they think after the outcry, it will go away.” 

De Waal goes a step further. “It is a case ultimately about whether we are serious about black lives,” he says, pointing out that the country’s response to initiation in black and white communities is still very different. De Waal, who is white, uses the example of Stellenbosch University — a historically white institution, which has a long tradition of demeaning hazing ceremonies. “You can imagine, if there’s one child at Stellenbosch University who got injured in a residence because of initiation, then you’d get front page newspaper day in and day out, parents jumping up and down. Here, two people died, other people sjamboked … and there’s nothing done.”  

De Waal is not alone in questioning whether the government truly does value black lives. Since 1994, several acts — presided over by the majority black government — suggest that violence done to people of color is tolerated more readily than in white communities. The most brutal instance of this was seen in the 2012 Marikana massacre, during which 34 striking miners were killed by police with levels of impunity last seen during apartheid. More recently, when student protests for free education broke out in 2015 and 2016, the police’s unequal treatment of white and black citizens became so blatant that the white students would stand in the front row to deter police brutality. It often worked. 

* * * 

I meet Isaac Monaheng, who runs the initiation school where those two 20-year-olds died in late 2013, at one of the swanky cafes that line Stellenbosch’s streets. The atmosphere is decidedly European, not only due to the mainly white residents who patronize the establishment; the tall exotic trees also conjure a genteel Germanic ambience. Though Monaheng, a black man, has spoken to the media many times about the incident, his gravelly tenor voice betrays his discomfort. He orders a hot chocolate that will go almost untouched as he explains his side of the story.  

He starts by going over the business aspects of traditional circumcision. Each year, beginning in November, the initiates typically spend about two months on the property, he says. The entire ritual, which involves the slaughtering of a sheep, costs each boy’s family roughly 4000 Rand, or about $280. All initiates need written consent from their legal guardian to participate. Monaheng belongs to the Basotho people, a group that, along with the Xhosa, practice this form of circumcision. Others, like the Zulu, have largely discontinued the traditional form of the ritual.  

Monaheng says that initiation is an opportunity for men to pass on cultural insight about manhood to the next generation. But also, beyond the verbal tuition, the rite is seen as a test of endurance — in addition to withstanding pain and going without water for days, boys go through a period of eating austere, unsalted food. Surviving the test serves as proof of one’s worth as a man. It remains a highly valued tradition. Even Nelson Mandela went through the Xhosa version of the ritual, an event which he writes about in his autobiography, Long Walk to Freedom 

When I ask about the two boys who died under his care, Monaheng’s countenance stiffens. “I was in and out of courts, trying to tell these people, ‘We are not taking the boys there to kill them. No. That is not our intention.’ It’s also not nice for us; it was also very very bitter,” he says.  

He leans forward on the table as he recalls the incident. It was very hot, and though it goes against custom, Monaheng says he instructed the caretakers to give a boy water on the third day when he reported feeling weak. The minders followed the instructions and soon the boy began to look a little better. He even got up to go urinate. But the next thing they knew, he suddenly collapsed. As the caretakers were tending to him, the second boy fell to the ground as well.  

Monaheng appears remorseful about the incident. He says that more water should have been given to the boys earlier and he has since built what he calls a halfway house on the property so that initiates can get water without having to leave the school — to depart the initiation process early would be to court stigma. But when it comes to culpability he seems to hold many different views.  

When asked who should be held responsible, he says, “The caretakers, the person who’s been granted permission to do that [circumcision] … of course me as well, as I am the overseer; I should be there very often to avoid these kinds of mistakes.” 

When I ask about the sjambok wounds he says, “That was a mistake.” The caretaker who inflicted the wounds has since run away. But then he goes on to downplay role of the abrasions in the outcome, saying, “I don’t think that is what could kill a boy.” 

Institutions like Monaheng’s are regularly monitored by various stakeholders, and in the almost three decades that the school has been running, no other fatalities have been recorded. Across the country most of the deaths occur in illegal and unregistered schools. In June 2015 alone, 11 boys were rescued from such schools by police. In the same year over 150 unregistered schools were shut down 

Monaheng fiddles with his hot chocolate. “I think I’m doing very good work,” he responds when I ask him if there is anything else he would like to say. “Nobody can stop the culture.”  

 * * * 

Three years have passed since Azola Nkqinqa’s penis amputation. In the intervening years South African doctors at the University of Stellenbosch have twice successfully performed penis transplants — the initial one, in 2014, being the first such procedure in history. The two recipients’ donated penises function completely normally. One transplantee even had his first child in 2015. But as impressive as such innovations are, it will be a long time before they become accessible to rural amputees like Nkqinqa. 

Until that time, booze continues to be the medication of choice for a lot of them. Nkqinqa confirms that he too started drinking heavily, and that he dropped out of school for two years immediately after the amputation. “I gave up on life, once I saw that this thing is no longer there,” he says.  

His anxiety was exacerbated by the ridicule he endured when the other kids at school found out. Girls would giggle when they saw him, boys would mock and jeer. But with the help of the support group Nkqinqa says he managed to adopt a positive attitude. Now he accompanies his mentor, Dakwa, to public events where he has become a kind of spokesperson, encouraging amputees to reintegrate into society. He says too that he doesn’t harbor any ill feelings for those responsible for the loss of his penis.  

I ask him what value he sees in the ritual engaged in by so many Xhosa boys at the many initiation schools across South Africa.  

“They will call you a man,” he says. “And you like that word because it means everything to you.” 

I Met My Long-Lost Brother…And I Was Overcome With Lust

I was 34 years old and it was a primal attraction I couldn’t control. But this was before I discovered Johnny’s dark predilections.

My brother Johnny had just been paroled from the Georgia state prison system when I found my birth family. When the train taking me to the reunion pulled into the Savannah station, Johnny was waiting on the platform with my sister Belinda and my brother Mike. Already in tears, I went for my sister first, and then Mike, while Johnny stood quietly and waited his turn to hug me.

Johnny was dark, like me and our mother, who’d died the previous year. His eyes were my eyes, his lips were my lips. He had a dimple on one cheek that appeared when he smiled, just like me. He was a good-looking man, as were all my brothers. He’d just been released from prison; his body was meaty and well-nourished.

Learning I was related to someone with felony convictions didn’t bother me; I was no saint, for one thing, and I’d also been a criminal defense lawyer for ten years by then. Nothing could shock me, I thought.

Riding that train for twenty hours, I swung wildly between worries and hopes about what life inside a new family would mean to me. My mother had been fifteen when I was born, and just three months later she married the man who would be the father of the rest of her children, a daughter and five sons. I’d been adopted as an infant by a family up North. My siblings grew up with my mother and their father. This would be my first time meeting them. Would they be so different from me that I’d be repelled? Or would I snap into place with them? I’d learned a little about them all from letters and phone calls. It sounded like most of my five brothers were a lot like my clients. Unlike some defense lawyers I knew, I liked my clients – and I liked the no-frills, no-bullshit, blue-collar culture of people who were poor and struggling. I liked rule-breakers.

At the train station, and all during the week of my first visit to Savannah, Johnny and I spent long minutes staring into each other’s eyes. I was under a spell of fascination with the resemblance I’d been missing my whole life as an adopted person, and although I looked like all of my siblings in some way, the resemblance was strongest between Johnny and me. He was the sort of man who wouldn’t look away from another person’s gaze; probably, I thought, a habit picked up in prison, where to look away meant weakness. I was 34 then, and he was six years younger than me. I wanted to be literally in touch, as if separating from him physically would tear off a piece of my skin.

A book I’d read before getting on the train, The Adoption Triangle, had prepared me for those sorts of feelings. Of the many stories of adoption reunions, there were a few of brothers and sisters, and mothers and sons, who fell headlong in love, intoxicated by “deep, unrestrained love” and “intense, incestual feelings.” This didn’t surprise or disgust me when I read about it, or even when I experienced it myself. After all, it’s easy to confuse love with sex and sex with love.

I’d devoured stories of brother-sister incest all of my life: Wuthering Heights, Ada, The God of Small Things, Game of Thrones. It wasn’t me who’d turned those stories into bestsellers and critically-acclaimed classics. The attraction I felt wasn’t a sign of deviance, but I didn’t plan to act on it.

* * *

Soon after I got back to New England from that first visit to Savannah, Johnny was arrested on a burglary charge. Confined in the local jail, he charmed the female relative of an employee into helping him escape. He was picked up again within days. A few months later, I traveled to Savannah again, this time with one of my courtroom outfits packed away.

I dressed up like a lawyer to visit my brother in jail, and brought the maximum number of boxes of Marlboros allowed. We sat in an open visitation area at one of fifty tables. We held hands, the only contact allowed. Rules meant to prevent revealing attire were enforced against female visitors. In spite of that, the women visiting their men turned up the heat with the arch of their spines, the curves of their lips. Their heat spread to me, and I caught myself looking down at my breasts, which swelled against the silk blouse I wore, and I felt the same heat from Johnny.

Psychologists will say we repeat our families’ pathologies because we try, as adults, to rebuild the patterns we know. I’d always been attracted to reckless men like my brothers, even though I didn’t grow up with men like that. Once I met my brothers, I decided my desire was simpler and deeper than trying to replicate a childhood pattern; it was blood calling to blood.illo_2 For the next few years, Johnny and I communicated through letters while he was locked up. I learned, partly through his letters from prison, and partly through what others told me, that he’d been institutionalized at seven years old and given shock treatments and anti-psychotic medications. He’d been sexually abused by staff at that institution, and later in juvenile offender facilities and foster homes, where he was called “hyperactive.”

By sixteen, he was living on the streets, and he’d survived by stealing and prostituting himself. “If the price was right,” he wrote in one of his letters, “but as I got older and wiser, I started just robbing them kind of people.” By the time he reached his twenties, he’d spent half of his life incarcerated.

Johnny’s prison terms and deep dives into heavy drug use kept him away from all but one of the series of beach-house reunions I staged in the first ten years after I found my family. I was fixated on having everyone under one roof at the same time, trying to recreate the family-that-would-have-been if my mother hadn’t given me up, and I was oblivious to reasons why that might not be a good idea.

That one he made it to was in the fifth year of my reunion with my family, after I’d left my first husband and sold my law practice, after I’d started teaching college classes. That year, I began drinking with my brothers, and drinking hard, as I had in my teenage years and early twenties.

My uncle’s redheaded wife was the person in our family who most often told it like it was. When Johnny was released, and it looked like he would make it to the fifth beach-house reunion, she took me aside to tell me to watch him around children, and to explain why her husband – my uncle – didn’t want to be around my brother. When their daughter was three years old, they’d left her in then fourteen-year-old Johnny’s care and had come home to him with his pants down, his penis in the little girl’s mouth, and him saying “Just suck on it like it’s a bottle.”

I wondered why my other brothers, or my sister, hadn’t told me Johnny had molested our cousin. Maybe they believed it wasn’t necessary because he was safely locked away so soon after I met him. Maybe they saw that I loved Johnny, and they knew love had been in short supply in his life. Maybe they wanted me to love him, and they were afraid I’d recoil in disgust. But I didn’t.

In that fifth year, in a crowded two-bedroom beach house on holding over a dozen people, where I was hell-bent on recreating the family dynamic I never had, I lay down on the Berber carpet in the room where four of my little nieces were sleeping in a bed. Johnny lay down a few feet away from me. He and I were the last ones up after a night of full-throttle drinking. Other than the time I visited him in jail, this was the first time we’d been together since my first trip to Savannah. I’d been watching him around the children, the youngest of whom at that time were four-year-old Brandon, who was sleeping on a couch with his mother, and six-year-old Candi, who was one of the little girls in the bed. I hadn’t seen anything amiss.

I punched a pillow down under my neck to make the floor more comfortable, and then I reached back and pulled Johnny to me. It was the familial love, the call of blood to blood, and it was sexual.

“Don’t do that, Michele,” he said. “Please, don’t do that.”

I stopped, realizing the wrongness of what I’d just done, and realizing I couldn’t get away with it. I’d just turned forty, and I was informed enough to know better. And then I passed out.

When I woke at dawn, Johnny was a few feet away from me on the floor, snoring heavily. The girls were all still asleep in the bed. Nothing had happened. But what if? And even drunk, how could I have made that move with the children sleeping in the room? In a life full of bad acts, that move is the act I’m most ashamed of, even though it didn’t go any further than a gesture, even though my brother, the convicted felon, stopped me cold and saved me from myself.

* * *

His final conviction was for armed robbery. By that time, I was of two minds about him being in prison: it was violent, dangerous and dehumanizing, but safer than the street, where there was nothing at all to protect him.

At forty, he was no longer young and strong enough to rebound from privations and beatings, no longer quick enough to evade the rage of people he stole from, and on his way to becoming the homeless man who creeps around the edges of a campfire, snatching at scraps, and getting kicked for it.illo_3

He was in prison in 2004 when my brother Rudy and his wife, who were addicts, signed the papers to give me guardianship of their daughter, my niece Candi. She’d just turned thirteen, and over Cherry Coke slushies, she told me Johnny had molested her, too, when she was about three years old. Her parents had gone out to score some drugs and had left him in charge of her and some other children. He brought her into a bedroom and started licking her private parts. He was an adult, not a confused fourteen-year-old kid. His assault on my little cousin wasn’t an isolated incident. I had to admit my brother had a predilection for molesting little girls.

I wrote to tell Johnny I knew what he’d done to Candi, that she was living with me, that I still loved him, and that the next time he got out, I’d try to see him on his own, away from the kids.

Current research leans toward the conclusion that pedophilia is hardwired, a sexual preference like heterosexuality or homosexuality that emerges in adolescence and is pretty much exclusive to men. But only about fifty percent of the men who molest children are actually pedophiles; the other fifty percent are men with histories of violence or personality disorders. Those men tend to molest family members. I wondered which category my brother fell into, and whether it mattered.

Candi is twenty-five now. I messaged her, told her what I was writing about, and asked, does it matter to her? She told me no, the why didn’t matter, but knowing Johnny was also abused helped her to let go of wondering why. And then she added: “Some of the worst things can become our biggest blessings. I’ve decided to heal and to not let that control me, so I don’t mind talking about it. I’m not hiding anymore.” I was reminded of my little cousin, who is now forty years old, and a conversation she and Candi had about Johnny, how my cousin said, “There can’t be any dark secrets if you don’t keep them in the dark.”

One dark afternoon, Candi and I went to the boardwalk near the pier at Jacksonville Beach to see the ocean after a hurricane. The air was still tropical, and the waves still curled like rows of fists, ready to pound the sand. The wind blew her long blond hair around her shoulders, and we both spread our arms wide to feel the uplift, to pretend we could rise up at any moment and fly.

She didn’t notice the man sitting next to the Coast Guard station, the dark man with wild hair and a wild beard and the ruddy look of someone who’d been outdoors and drunk for months. But I saw him. How could I not? He stared back at me with my own eyes. We held each other’s gaze for a few long moments. I tried to figure out a way to distract Candi so I could go over to Johnny and tell him I loved him. But the boardwalk was empty, and the shops were shuttered closed. I turned my face from his, and hustled Candi into the car with the promise of a stop for Chinese food. I looked back, and he was still staring at me. I did not reach out to him. My brother, who’d had so little love in his life, was not my heart. Candi was my heart.

Back at our apartment, the door closed behind us with a little push from the wind. Inside, the air was cool, the lights were bright, and the dining room table was waiting for us, clear except for a bowl of flowers we’d arranged together earlier that day.

The next day, after Candi left for school, I drove back down to the beach, parked my car, and wandered around where the homeless people hung out. Johnny was gone, like a mirage that disappears once you look away, or once you stop believing in it. I never saw him. I never saw him again.

That Time I Tried Topless House Cleaning

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

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

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

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

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

Ayep,” Possum replies in his drawl.

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

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

* * *

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

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

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

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

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

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

* * *

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Awright.” He hangs up.

“Will you touch it?” Jim asks.

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

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

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

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

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

“A hundred?”

“Oh, no. I couldn’t.”

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

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

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

“Oh my god,” he says.

I giggle. “No, goddess.”

“Oh my goddess.” He smiles.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

* * *

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

The Day My Therapist Dared Me to Have Sex With Her

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

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

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

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

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

“Oh, yeah,” I say. “That.”

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

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

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

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

I shrugged my shoulders, only half looking up.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Nailed it.

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

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

* * *

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Why not?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

There were two ways to find out:

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

2) Keep going to therapy.

* * *

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

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

“I don’t know.”

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

Here we go again.

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

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

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

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

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

“What?” I respond, flustered.

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

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

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

“Of course not.”

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

“I wouldn’t do that.”

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

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

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

* * *

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Isn’t therapy supposed to ameliorate my anxiety?

* * *

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Exactly.”

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

* * *

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Lori’s great at forcing me to reflect.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

* * *

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

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

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

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

* * *

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

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

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

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

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

* * *

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

See the complete list of Editors’ Picks here. 

* *

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

* * *

“What’s your favorite porn scene?”

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

The possibilities run through my head.

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

They’re also lies.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Are you sure?”

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

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

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

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

“Go on.”

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

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

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

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

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

And so I tell him.

* * *

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

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

And then realizing that person is me.

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

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

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

I was out of control.

* * *

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

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

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

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

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

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

* * *

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

That’s why I need to tell my husband.

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

* * *

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

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