Healing Hasidic Masturbators and Adulterers — With Psychiatric Drugs

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These ultra-Orthodox Jews admitted to religious taboos ranging from same-sex attraction to extramarital affairs. The treatment they received was alarmingly severe.

Joseph, a thin man with a delicate bearing and soft gray eyes, has a mellifluous accent that is hard to place – evidence of growing up in the United States but in a world apart. Until 2009, he was living in a religious enclave of upstate New York as a Belzer Hasidic Jew. He worked as a travel agent, spending his days arranging flights to far flung places, often for people with more freedom than he could ever dream of.

Like many Hasidim, Joseph (who, like several of the people interviewed for this article, requested that his real name not be used here) married at twenty. His wife was the first woman he had ever touched, and she got pregnant soon after their wedding. But their sex life left much to be desired for both partners, and then petered out altogether. Joseph says his wife would sometimes decide not to go to the mikvah, the ritual bath required of Hasidic women after they menstruate to “purify” them, making them once again sexually available to their husbands. According to Jewish law, if Joseph’s wife had not gone to the baths, he was forbidden from touching her, much less having sex with her. After their fourth child was born, Joseph says she stopped going altogether.

Joseph grew desperate for intimacy. After two years of celibacy, he finally went to a strip club, Stiletto, on Route 59. A stripper asked him if he wanted a dance and a confused Joseph told her he didn’t know how to dance – was she going to teach him? “She meant a lap dance,” he told me when we met in his Brooklyn apartment, shaking his head with an embarrassed smile. “I had no clue.”

Joseph at home in Brooklyn, New York.
Joseph at home in Brooklyn, New York.

About once a month, Joseph would go back to the strip club. Sometimes there would be other Hasidic men there. Fearful of being recognized, he learned to ask the bouncer before entering if there were others like him inside, and if the bouncer said yes, Joseph would go to Lace Gentleman’s Club, on Route 303.

One day Joseph sold a ticket over email to a Hasidic woman planning a family trip. A mild flirtation developed when she got her ticket and made a throwaway comment about the airport code listed at the bottom of the itinerary – something most customers never noticed. Joseph remembered their first interaction fondly: “I was like, ‘Wow, a chassidishe woman, you know airport codes? You go, girl!’ And she was like, ‘You bet I know!’” The woman, who I’ll call Dini, managed a store. She had an open-mindedness and a brassy confidence that Joseph found intriguing; her curiosity about the world mirrored his own. “I liked her power,” he remembered, and for her part, Dini was drawn to Joseph’s gentleness.

After a week of email flirting, they arranged to meet at a movie theater. When Joseph saw Dini, he was very attracted to her. “Her face was a raving beauty, and still is,” he told me. But he was struck by something else, too. “There was a presence,” he remembered. “She’s not someone who gets lost in a crowd,” a unique quality in their little village. For someone like Joseph, who had always struggled to stand up for himself, struggled to identify his needs and desires, this quality of Dini’s was intoxicating. The two continued to see each other, and fell in love.

But two Hasidim married to other people don’t just get a divorce and start a new life together. The community got involved. A rabbi and what’s known as an askan, a person of influence in the Hasidic community, were given Joseph’s “case.” The role of an askan – collectively called askanim – is part politician, part good Samaritan, and part busybody. Together, Joseph’s rabbi and the askan appointed by the community to his case staged an intervention. Joseph says they got involved in every level of his life, in order to prevent him from leaving his family and starting a new one. They took away Joseph’s BlackBerry. The askan started monitoring Joseph’s computer, a mirror image of Joseph’s screen under surveillance at all times. Joseph’s brother-in-law started tracking Joseph’s car, where he went and whom he saw.

Joseph was faced with a choice: surrender to the will of his community’s leaders, or risk public shaming, and worse – losing his children and friends. He capitulated, and promised never to see Dini again. But that was not enough. The askan chose a psychologist to provide Joseph with talk therapy, and then a psychiatrist for medication, who started Joseph on a course of chemical treatment for sex addiction.

* * *

The Hasidic movement began in the eighteenth century in Western Ukraine. Legend has it that the founder, Rabbi Yisroel ben Eliezer, known as the Baal Shem Tov or Master of the Good Name, performed miracles – that he cured the incurable. He urged his disciples to develop a personal relationship with God through mystical teachings. Today, there are about a quarter of a million Hasidim in the U.S., up to 95 percent of whom live in the New York area, according to population consultant Jonathan Comenetz’s 2006 “Census-Based Estimation of the Hasidic Jewish Population.” There are nine major sects, each named for the town in Eastern Europe from which its adherents came – Satmar, Bobov, Belz, Munkatch. After the Holocaust, the remnants of these communities made their way to the United States, where they began to flourish, exhorted by their leaders to repopulate the Jewish people and to radically separate from the secular world that had caused them so much loss. Many of these communities are now all but self-sufficient; they have their own ambulances, police forces, businesses and Yiddish-speaking schools. They have internal economies based on deluges of charity that cascade from the richest to the poorest. In each sect, fealty is paid to the leader – the “Rebbe” – whose position is inherited.

The focus of these communities is on securing the collective good. Conformity is strictly enforced. There is also strict separation of the sexes: Men and women, who typically marry between eighteen and twenty, are kept apart before and after their arranged marriages. While sex is a taboo subject, masturbation is often discussed, absolutely verboten, and rigorously policed. A man from the Satmar community in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, told me that he knew of two rabbis with cabinets full of medications that they dispensed to boys who had been caught or confessed to masturbating, as well as to couples having marital difficulties. “Listen, a boy who masturbates is depressed,” he explained, “because he knows he’s not following God’s commandments.”

Religious deviation – especially of a philosophical or sexual nature – may be interpreted as a sign of mental illness, which, for many years, has carried a serious stigma among Hasidim. Perceived aberrations are punished in the arena that matters most – the marriage market. If word got out that someone were on medication, that information could hurt her chances of making a good match, and those of her immediate and even extended family members.

But recently, non-Hasidic psychologists and psychiatrists have been making inroads on topics like post-partum depression and trauma therapy through workshops and ultra-Orthodox publications. Dr. Ayala Fader, an anthropologist at Fordham University and author of Mitzvah Girls: Bringing Up the Next Generation of Hasidic Jews in Brooklyn, told me in an email, “Over the past fifteen years or so, there has been a shift in perceptions and uses of therapy among Hasidic Jews. When I did research in the 1990s, many were reluctant to go to therapists and prescription drugs were stigmatized. These days, therapy is more accepted. Therapists and rabbis may work together, and like for so many in the secular world as well, prescription drugs for certain diagnoses are not uncommon.”

With the increased acceptance of those subjects has come a recognition that psychiatric medications might have off-label uses that serve the community’s goals. Joseph is one of many Hasidic Jews in the United States and Israel who are taken by community operatives like askanim to see psychiatrists for what are essentially religious, rather than psychiatric, difficulties. I spoke to twenty individuals in the New York area who had all been sent to the same five or six psychiatrists (and all knew others who had been through the same thing, often cycling between them), where they say they were prescribed anti-psychotics, hormones, or anti-depressants for masturbating, questioning the tenets of the community’s faith principles, experimenting with or even fantasizing about same-sex partners, or displaying “too high” a sex drive. The “symptoms” that psychiatrists take as evidence of disorders can vary, according to their patients. One woman told me that, when she confessed to an askan and later to a psychiatrist that the strictures of her life made her feel stuck, she was prescribed anti-depressants. When that didn’t solve anything, her askan took her to a second psychiatrist, who told her that she was getting a sexual high from her job, where she interacted with men, and diagnosed her with bipolar disorder. She was prescribed Abilify, an anti-psychotic medication. Another young woman, who had kissed a girl at school, was compelled by the principal to see the same psychiatrist. She was prescribed anti-psychotic medications, “to make you feel better and to decrease your temptations,” the doctor told her. “You’re not going to want to misbehave as much.”

This may sound shocking. But taken in a different light, these off-label uses are consistent with a current American mentality that uses medical interventions as technologies for optimization. Think for example of the use of growth hormones to enhance height, or Ritalin to optimize concentration, or plastic surgery to enhance beauty, or even amputations to optimize expressions of sexual identity. Are the uses of psychiatric medications to enhance religious performance so different from these practices? And are they necessarily unethical?

“The very idea of what we call a psychiatric disorder is strongly influenced by different norms,” Dr. Jonathan M. Metzl, a professor of psychiatry and the director of the Center for Medicine, Health and Society at Vanderbilt University, told me. Doctors over-prescribe anti-anxiety medications to women, and they over-diagnose African-American males with schizophrenia, he explained, because doctors themselves live with cultural biases. “If the psychiatrists are Orthodox, they may share some of the same belief systems,” he went on. “Is the critique of the doctor, or is the critique of a culture that doesn’t have an outlet for talking about different kinds of sexuality and calls everything deviance?”

* * *

In the course of their affair, Joseph and Dini never had intercourse. According to Jewish law, a woman who commits adultery is barred from marrying the man with whom she cheats on her husband, and Joseph and Dini wanted a future together. When a psychologist diagnosed Joseph with sex addiction, he tried to correct him. “I said, ‘It wasn’t just about sex! It was love, it was passion, it was fun, it was a different lifestyle, it was everything else,’” Joseph recalled. “But I was at the point of surrendering, so I said, ‘OK, I’m a sex addict.’”

The askan sent Joseph to Sexaholics Anonymous meetings in nearby White Plains every Wednesday and Sunday. His sponsor, a Christian, confessed to Joseph that he didn’t really see the manifestations of Joseph’s sexual addiction. The askan also made Joseph an appointment with a psychiatrist named Dr. Richard Price. Before they went to the appointment, Joseph says that the askan coached him in what to say and how to say it in order to procure the treatment that the askan thought was appropriate. According to Joseph, the plan in mind was that Dr. Price would prescribe Lupron Depot, a hormonal shot used to treat prostrate cancer by lowering the patient’s testosterone; it’s also a controversial treatment for sex offenders. Perhaps this would lower Joseph’s desire for Dini. (When I reached the askan by phone, and asked him if he had arranged for a man having an affair to get Lupron Depot shots, he interrupted me. “No, no, I don’t speak about such things,” he said. “No, no, it’s a mistake,” and he hung up.)

Dr. Richard Price in his Monsey, New York, office.
Dr. Richard Price in his Monsey, New York, office.

Joseph’s medical records name the askan who brought him to Dr. Price’s office, where Joseph told Dr. Price that he could not stop thinking about sex and running after women. Joseph said that he was “addicted” to his Blackberry and to the internet. He told Dr. Price that, since being married, he had had sex with five women, including prostitutes, and that he was seeking help “by all means necessary.” Dr. Price initially prescribed a small dose of Risperdal, an anti-psychotic medicine, and recommended that Joseph go back to talk therapy. After that, he prescribed Lupron Depot. Joseph got the shot four times over a period of three months. “Patient here Lupron injection,” read the nurse’s scrawled notes. “Administered R buttocks.”

“This askan took me to a psychiatrist and coerced me into saying that ‘yes, I am a sex addict,’ and that I need Lupron Depot,” Joseph told me, sitting hunched over on a couch in his Brooklyn apartment and staring at the floor. He paused, shook his head, and went on, “Thinking back on it now, it was very humiliating to me. I went to Refuah [Health] Center to have a nurse stick it up my ass. I had to drop my pants, turn around, and have her put it in.”

* * *

Dr. Price was eager to talk when I called to ask about his work as a psychiatrist catering to the Hasidic community. He invited me to his private practice, situated in the upstate New York town of Monsey, where there is a large Orthodox and Hasidic population. His office is in a two-story building at the edge of a strip mall that also houses a kosher restaurant, a kosher candy store, a Jewish bookstore, and a pharmacy. On his door was a plaque that read “Rabbi Richard Louis Price, M.D.”

Dr. Price is a tall man with a childlike, clean-shaven face and jet-black hair cut across his forehead in a straight line. He wore a black yarmulke and a crisp navy suit and tie. When I arrived, he told me excitedly about a treatment he had come up with for autism, which he said has high rates in ultra-Orthodox communities. Dr. Price determined that, in high enough doses, the chemical compound inositol could counteract “antisocial” symptoms. He had tried the treatment on his son, and is now having the powder baked into cookies at a local kosher factory. The cookies, called “Ostreicher’s Calmintol Cookies,” can be found on the shelves of Monsey’s supermarkets alongside the rugelach and babkas. He showed me a bag: it has a purple mountain landscape, with a blue stream flowing into two round cookies.

Dr. Price’s office.
Dr. Price’s office.

Dr. Price was raised as what he calls a “traditional” Jew – the family kept kosher and observed the Sabbath, and the young Dr. Price went to a Jewish day school. He played a lot of basketball, grew up listening to R&B, and enjoyed smelling Philly cheesesteaks, even if he was not allowed to eat them. After college and medical school, he earned his rabbinical ordination from Ohr Somayach, a non-Hasidic ultra-Orthodox institution. This gave him the cultural knowledge he needed to treat Hasidim, he says, though he is not himself Hasidic. He serves as the medical director of the Bikur Cholim of Rockland County, a mental health clinic that serves the ultra-Orthodox community. In addition to his private practice, he also works at clinics, and is an assistant professor of clinical psychiatry at the Weill Cornell Medical College in White Plains, where, last year, he was awarded the American Psychiatric Association’s highest honor for medical education, The Roeske.

Two thirds of Dr. Price’s Monsey practice is ultra-Orthodox. Most of those patients are being treated for symptoms that he attributes to “cultural issues,” as he calls them, from masturbation to homosexual desires to obsessive thoughts (“I do believe in God, I don’t believe in God,” they will think, day in, day out). Sometimes, he uses medication to treat the symptoms, if he determines that they are psychiatric in nature. Other times, he sends the patient to a rabbi for a dispensation to eliminate the religious cause. Psychiatric medication addresses symptoms, not root causes, Dr. Price told me; symptoms like anxiety, depression, paranoia, and overall distress can coincide with living a life of strict religious practice.

He sees many teenage boys struggling with the prohibition against masturbation, a challenge that is often accompanied by “a lot of anxiety and obsessive thoughts and compensatory compulsive rituals,” he said. He talks to them about what’s “normal.” To avoid masturbating, he recommends keeping their eyes cast downward; sometimes he’ll prescribe anti-depressants called selective serotonin re-uptake inhibitors, or SSRIs. “They might end up on medication, which is ostensibly used for the anxiety and the OCD, but all the SSRIs have the side effect of lowering the libido and making it difficult to ejaculate,” he explained. I asked whether he prescribes SSRIs to prevent masturbation. “I’m not going to say that,” he replied. “I’m saying, I’m prescribing it for the main intent of lessening their anxiety and lessening their OCD, but the side effect of all the SSRIs, some more than others, is that it reduces libido and delays ejaculation, which is really almost the primary benefit for what they seek, so it’s like an all in one!”

When he is treating kids, the school is involved. When he is seeing adults, he has the askans – “do-gooders,” as Dr. Price describes them. “You’re not working alone,” he explained. “People come in with an entourage, for good or for bad.” I wondered whether someone would feel uncomfortable being honest with a community operative in the examination room. “The askan is not the agent of anybody,” Dr. Price said. “The askan is kind of like the mentor, the buddy.” They play a valuable part in the treatment plan, he added. “Some of these askanim are very astute and savvy and well-trained, by myself or other professionals, and as cultural facilitators they can really help you not only refine the diagnosis but implement the plan.” Without askans, many Hasidim would not have access to medical care at all; adults are used to having their needs mediated through community channels, and children under the age of eighteen often don’t speak English, only Yiddish.

The first time I asked about Joseph, Dr. Price didn’t remember him by name. In general, when dealing with patients considering infidelity, he said, “It’s a catch-22. If you’re going to take away their libido for this woman, you’ll take away their libido for their wife.” To the contrary, helping couples maintain a healthy sex life requires supplementing, not suppressing, their libidos. He fondly patted a large and ornately embellished chest next to his chair. “In this box is a whole stash of Viagra.” He admitted to prescribing Lupron Depot, but “that’s a last resort,” he said, for people trying to avoid hurting others, or criminal behavior. In psychiatry, since so much of the discipline relies on the subjective experience of the patient’s pain, Dr. Price said, a psychiatrist can do very little to guard against a patient who may have been coached on what to say. “To not take their pain and their request seriously is to really minimize and be insensitive to their subjective distress,” he said.

Later, I returned to Dr. Price’s office with a signed medical release from Joseph, and he agreed to take out the chart. He read me the notes he had written neatly across a yellow paper. Joseph’s patient history also included sexual abuse; he had been molested by multiple people as a child and teenager, while hitchhiking in Monsey, while in the mikvah, in a grocery, and by a teacher. He blamed himself, and he never told his parents. The notes didn’t indicate if Joseph had asked for the Lupron Depot directly or merely consented to it. Dr. Price stood by the treatment. “I would never put it upon him without his consent,” he said of the Lupron Depot. “But if someone is asking for it,” – for help controlling their sexual desires by all means necessary – “that is all means necessary.”

Joseph at home.
Joseph at home.

When I told Joseph about my conversations with Dr. Price, he asked, “Which patient comes to a doctor with the most intimate stuff with another person in the room?” He sighed heavily. “There’s no medication for affairs.”

* * *

I met another patient of Dr. Price’s, who I’ll call Moishe. Moishe told me that he suffered from religious doubts, which he believed caused him to become manic. “I was yelling at everyone,” he recalled. “No one was able to talk to me, no matter what subject. I was completely off my rocker.” He considered leaving the Hasidic world, until he met an askan known for dealing with psychiatric illness. The askan took Moishe to see Dr. Price, who Moishe says put him on Lamictal, a bipolar medication, and Vyvanse, for ADHD. Moishe believes that Dr. Price saved him from a terrible fate. “It’s a valid treatment, in my opinion,” Moishe said. “If someone is stuck in a bad job and it’s making them depressed, the doctor won’t tell them to leave their job. He would give them medication.”

Metzl, the psychiatrist at Vanderbilt, told me that evaluating the ethics of this kind of treatment – when medications are being prescribed for off-label uses – depends on the patient’s relationship with the “deviant” behavior. There are “egosyntonic” behaviors, he explained, which the patient views as acceptable within his own value system, and there are “egodystonic” behaviors, which the patient finds shameful. In the latter situation, like Moishe’s, the patient may experience mental anguish over their inability to stop. “In the case of an egodystonic behavior, you could conceivably say, these acts are causing these people to feel depressed or worthless,” Metzl said. “From a textbook perspective, it would fall under the guidelines of the kinds of things psychiatrists would ethically treat.” As to establishing red lines in terms of treatment, Metzl said it’s all about context. “Is the problem a chemical imbalance in someone’s brain that’s amenable to psychiatric medications? Or is the problem with the religious context? I think it’s very difficult for psychiatrists because you don’t want to get into a situation where you are treating the individual when the problem is the context. I see it as a very, very complicated problem. It really takes an exploration of broader contextual issues.”

According to the Food and Drug Administration, physicians may administer a drug for purposes not approved in the label; it’s the doctor’s responsibility to make sure that the usage is based on sound scientific rationale and to maintain the appropriate records. “Off-label medications can help patients when current FDA approved treatments aren’t working,” Dr. Renée Binder, former President of the American Psychiatric Association, told me.

“A huge percentage of what physicians do is done off-label,” said Paul S. Appelbaum, a professor of psychiatry, medicine, and law at Columbia University and a past president of the APA. In fact, most physicians would not do a very good job of distinguishing on-label and off-label uses of medications they prescribe regularly, says Appelbaum. The real issue, he explained, is not whether the treatment is on- or off-label, but rather, what are the limits of medical intervention? Should doctors be restricted to correcting acknowledged pathologies? May they help patients deal with difficult life situations that would not be classified as illnesses? Can they aid in one’s personal enhancement? “It’s a tough question to answer because the lines are pretty blurry,” Appelbaum said. “We’re in this somewhat unchartered territory of trying to figure out where the boundaries are.”

I asked Dr. Appelbaum about treating young men who masturbate with SSRIs. “It is a decision that is neither ipso facto right to do, or wrong to do,” he said. “One has to take into consideration a lot of factors particular to any given context and to the person who’s sitting in front of you. In principle, if you have a young man who’s distressed about excessive – or what he thinks is excessive – masturbation in a community that discourages that, it’s not really easy to see a distinction between treating that with a cognitive behavioral therapeutic approach and treating that with medication. The question is more: Is intervention appropriate?”

To others I spoke to, like Dr. Dinesh Bhugra, president-elect of the World Psychiatric Association and a professor of mental health and diversity at the Institute of Psychiatry at King’s College London, the APA’s approach represents a tendency to over-diagnose. “We should not be medicalizing normal human reactions and normal human emotions,” Bhugra said. “I understand and take into account the role religion plays, but from a psychiatric point of view, there is no clinical indication to be able to treat masturbation with anti-depressants.”

The APA does draw a clear line on so-called conversion therapy, or the “treatment” of same-sex attraction, which can involve nausea-inducing drugs and electroshock. In 2009, the organization adopted its “Resolution on Appropriate Affirmative Responses to Sexual Orientation Distress and Change Efforts,” which condemns stigmatization and states that attempting to change someone’s sexual preference is unlikely to work. Conversion therapy for minors has been outlawed in five states and the District of Columbia; in February, New York Governor Andrew Cuomo announced regulations to restrict its use on minors.

But doctors tend to make a distinction between gay conversion therapy on the one hand, and treating patients for anxiety or depression that comes from not fitting the right religious mold on the other.

“For people who are distressed about their sexual orientation and seeking relief from depression and anxiety, it is perfectly appropriate for a psychiatrist to provide treatment to alleviate those symptoms,” explained Dr. Appelbaum in an email. “That’s very different than suggesting to a person that a psychiatrist can help them change their sexual orientation, when there’s no evidence that’s true. By analogy, a psychiatrist may not be able to change the behavior of a mean boss or a difficult spouse, but can help relieve the symptoms that ensue from that situation, hopefully rendering the patient able to deal with the situation on his or her own.”

* * *

I went to visit Dr. Alfredo Nudman, who, like Dr. Price, has built his career treating Hasidic and Orthodox Jews. His office is on Madison Avenue in Manhattan. When we met, he wore a gray suit and a blue shirt open at the collar; a black velvet yarmulke covered a balding head. He was tall and thin and confident. Nudman, who is from Chile, was raised in a family that was “very Jewishly identified” but not very religious, he said, and he became Orthodox in college. His Hasidic patients found him after he became the Unit Chief of inpatient psychiatric services at the Weill Cornell Medical College, which, he explained, was the destination hospital in Hasidic circles. “I ended up being the go-to doctor,” he said.

Now, Nudman says, eighty percent of his practice is Hasidic. (A sign on the door to the women’s bathroom warns, “Bathroom is for WOMEN ONLY” in English, Hebrew and Yiddish.) Most of Dr. Nudman’s patients don’t have the money to see him, so their bills are paid by community charities. “Most of the rabbis know me really well and trust me,” Nudman said. He speaks their language, literally and culturally. “I don’t just decide what’s necessary medically,” he explained. “I take into consideration their particular needs.”

Dr. Price speaks with a colleague in his office.
Dr. Price speaks with a colleague in his office.

As for the ban on conversion therapy, Nudman is skeptical. “I happen to think that’s insane, because who is the State or the American Psychological Society or anyone for that matter to dictate to a person what that person wants to do with their life?” He allows that they are trying to prevent abuse. “But to say that it’s illegal to try to help somebody who wants that?” He shook his head. “The decision to take homosexually out of the list of psychiatric illnesses was by vote, not by science.”

“Is homosexuality an illness?” He went on. “I don’t know. It’s not for me to decide, it’s not my specialty. But if someone comes to me and tells me they come from a Hasidic background and they’re married and they have three kids and they have severe same-sex attraction and this is killing them and all they want is to be happily married with their wife and have sex with their wife and be a father and an upstanding member of the community and this thing is not letting them, I’m going to help them.” If there are psychiatric symptoms, Nudman will treat them. If there’s anxiety, depression, insomnia, he’ll treat it. But it’s not conversion therapy, he says. Nudman admits that there’s no medication to make someone straight.

At the same time, Nudman told me that he faces pressure from Hasidic leaders to do things he is unwilling to do. When I asked whether he had a business interest in complying with the requests of askanim, he said, “I do!” But he added, “I probably just lost another askan today because I yelled at him.” He says he doesn’t let the business incentive influence his treatment. “There are psychiatrists who will do whatever they are told,” Nudman says. He says he isn’t one of them. “My responsibility is to the patient – morally, ethically, medically, legally.”

Nudman insisted that the motivations of the askuns are honorable – they believe that the only way a person could wish to deviate from the religious mores of their community is because such a person is unwell. In his opinion, while not everyone who leaves an ultra-Orthodox community does so for a psychiatric reason, “It’s always a personal issue.” He added, “I’m still waiting to see one person that ran away from the Hasidic world and they come from a loving, caring family.”

* * *

Luzer Twersky joined the Satmar sect in upstate New York in his teens. He told me of an askan who dispensed medication to a house full of “problem” children from around the community to whom he gave pills and coached through doctors’ visits. Twersky was raised in a Hasidic home in Monsey, where he’d had a difficult childhood. When he was eight, he’d been the class clown; he was always in trouble at school. He also shoplifted, and stole from his parents. He worried that no one liked him, and feared that his parents didn’t love him. He joined Satmar because he wanted to “be better” than his parents, who he felt weren’t religious enough, and he was married before his twentieth birthday.

But a year in, he wasn’t happy. Twersky was plagued with religious doubt, and his marriage wasn’t satisfying his sexual desires; in violation of religious law, he masturbated and went to strip clubs. The rabbis he consulted told him that he was depressed, that these were emotional problems, not religious ones. They said he would not be happier if he got divorced and left the strict religious life.

A Hasidic counselor recommended that he go see Dr. Nudman, and Twersky made an appointment. (According to Twersky’s chart, which he signed a release to allow me access to, the counselor told Dr. Nudman that Twersky had mood swings, and that he was angry, depressed, and dysphoric.) When Twersky met with Dr. Nudman, he told him about his unhappy childhood and his religious doubts, about his unfulfilling sex life and his high sex drive.

During the consultation, Dr. Nudman found no evidence of a mood disorder or a psychiatric condition. But, he told me later, as he looked over Twersky’s chart, “there was a vast history of severe personality disorder symptoms, starting at a very young age.” According to the notes Dr. Nudman had taken during their consultation, Twersky had been married for a year when he started “sabotaging” himself and his marriage, by not coming home or engaging with his wife. Twersky told Dr. Nudman that he felt he was acting out a self-fulfilling prophecy: if he can’t be perfect, he’d rather ruin everything. Dr. Nudman prescribed a small dose of Prozac, and a small dose of Risperdal, which “technically is an anti-psychotic,” he told me, “but at very low doses like that, we use it to control mood swings and anger and impulsivity in patients with personality disorders.”

Twersky hid the medications in his locker at synagogue so his wife wouldn’t find them. But they made him feel numb; his libido was so diminished that he couldn’t have sex with her anymore. After two months, he gave up on the pills, and a year later, he went OTD, or Off the Derech – off the path – and on to a secular life.

Twersky moved to Los Angeles, where he is now enjoying success as a film and TV actor. He’s on no medication. “I don’t think OTD is in the DSM,” he said, referring to the American Psychiatric Association’s Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders. “I’ve had rough times, sure. I’ve been depressed. I lived in a tent in Bushwick. I was a transient trying to be an actor. But I haven’t needed psychiatric drugs to get by.” Recently, he has appeared in the film “Felix and Meira,” and the show “Transparent.”

When I spoke with Twersky about what went into Dr. Nudman’s treatment plan, he told me, “It’s hard to say where does weird end and personality disorder begin. Are the things he’s saying about the way I behaved true? Of course. But how much of that was because I was in a marriage I wasn’t happy about, or a religion I wasn’t happy about, and how much is about my troubled childhood? Once I left the community and once I left my wife, I’m doing very well.”

* * *

Joseph eventually gave up the hormone treatment when Dini, who he had not seen for nine months, called to tell him that she and her husband were expecting a child. Joseph told her about the Lupron Depot shots, and Dini was shocked and outraged. She told him to stop taking them immediately, which he did. She wanted to keep talking, but Joseph was unwilling to maintain contact with her. Dini, who missed Joseph terribly, persisted. As her pregnancy wore on, Dini’s husband finally relented. “I don’t want to keep you hostage,” Dini remembers him saying. The next day, Joseph and Dini were on a flight to the Bahamas, and soon after, they got divorced from their respective spouses.

They have now been married for five years. They live in Brooklyn and Joseph calls himself “neo-Hasidic.” He is on a spiritual journey, one facilitated by his relationship with Dini.

Nearly every single one of his previous friends has stopped talking to him. Recently, his entire extended family got together; Joseph was invited but only if he came without Dini, so he stayed home. “The book was written and I was excluded,” he said sadly. He gets to see his children once a week, and talks to them on the phone every day. The oldest is currently in the marriage market, having trouble finding a good match because of his father’s choices.

To this day, Joseph struggles to understand how he let himself be talked into the hormone treatment. He also is dealing with erectile dysfunction, which he believes to be the result of the Lupron Depot shots. “I did not have any idea when I was in that place that there is a notion that you have the power of change,” he says. This was the reason he wanted to share his story, to empower others in the same position. “They can make a decision, they can decide what to do, they can make their own research, they can go to their own doctors. They shouldn’t be, I don’t know the right word, katzon latevach – like a sheep to the slaughter,” he said. He seemed both defeated and hopeful.

Joseph with his old journal.
Joseph with his old journal.

When I first met Joseph, he and Dini were living in an apartment in Borough Park, a Hasidic enclave in Brooklyn. Walking from the train to their home, the men I saw on the street all wore hats and side curls, the women stiff wigs and traditional mustard-colored stockings. As I mounted the stairs to the apartment on one of the occasions I visited, their upstairs neighbors, ultra-Orthodox Jews who disapproved of the couple, called me a prostitute.

But the last two times I visited, I went to see Joseph and Dini at their new home, a spacious house on a leafy, tree-lined street in a gentrified, more diverse neighborhood. On the door hung a sign with Joseph’s last name, over which was embossed the message: “The heart of a happy home is family.” A neighbor in a black yarmulke and a plaid shirt and jeans bid me a nice day when I left.

The couple’s new home is a hub for a community of seekers, where Dini and Joseph host Shabbat meals for up to forty people at a time, each guest at a different stage of religious observance. Almost every night, people drop by for support, or just to talk. “For the first time, I feel I can breathe,” Joseph said. “I couldn’t foresee how life is going to be.” He was still walking through the rooms of his new home with a look of amazement and a big smile on his face. Even his posture seemed to have changed.

I remembered my first conversation with Joseph, after which he had dug up a journal he kept during his treatment. He hadn’t opened it in years.

“Hello, addict,” he had written across the top of the first page in block letters. “Today I took the shot for the first time,” he wrote in one entry. And then, on a later date, “I’m being forced to do it. I’m not sick.”

On the last page, he wrote, “Decision: I am no addict.”

Joseph turned the pages slowly, reading out the entries with amazement, as though they had been written by someone else.

We Were Raped and Tortured. We Refuse to Hide Our Faces.

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Members of the Muslim minority in Myanmar suffered unspeakable violence, then devastating rejection after fleeing to neighboring Bangladesh. Both countries’ governments would rather ignore these survivors, but they vow to have a voice.

This story originally appeared in Latterly, a new quarterly magazine for international reporting.We’ve partnered with Latterly to give Narratively readers a free download of the 2016 Latterly Anthology. Just sign up for their newsletter.

In January, while visiting a refugee settlement in Ukhiya Upazila, Bangladesh, I interviewed a woman whose daughter had been killed in front of her in Myanmar. Behind her, inside a hut, a group of ethnic Rohingyas – Muslims driven across the border by violence – were holding a meeting. They heard my questions and invited me in.

Several people were inside, some of them girls as young as fourteen. The meeting organizer asked them to show their hands if they had been assaulted. Three went up.

“He is a journalist,” she said, repeating the request. “Tell him.”

All the hands went up.

Then they took off their niqabs, declaring that their dignity had been taken by the Burmese army. They had been raped and tortured in front of their families and communities. Many had seen family members, including babies and young children, butchered in front of them. They saw no reason to hide their faces if it meant telling the world what happened to their homes and loved ones in Myanmar.

Anwara: “They kept me as long as they wanted to. Those who came at eight p.m. raped me till twelve a.m., and those who came at twelve a.m. stayed till one a.m. In this way, they did whatever they wanted.”

In early January, the government of Aung San Suu Kyi took unusual action against soldiers depicted on a viral video rounding up and beating people in a Rohingya village. She detained several officers and launched an investigation into that case. But there has never been a broad investigation into the scores of more serious allegations of murder, burnings and rape of Rohingya in Rakhine state. The U.N. in February released a report detailing “devastating cruelty,” and the researcher Azeem Ibrahim dubbed the violence in his 2016 book as “Myanmar’s Hidden Genocide.”

Now there’s a new dynamic as Rohingya flee across the border to Bangladesh, where the government refuses to grant them legal status. The women I spoke to here have been left to beg, dependent on humanitarian aid and at risk of trafficking. They will receive no psychological support for the trauma they experienced.

Worse, already a virulent anti-Rohingya sentiment has taken hold in parts of society in southern Bangladesh. The Rohingya, it is believed, are thieves, drug traffickers and terrorists. Rohingya cause environmental destruction, and they run off with Bangladeshi women. The list of warrantless allegations is long. I spoke with people who believe the Rohingya must have done something to bring the Burmese wrath on themselves.

Tasmina: “After burning our house and slaughtering my father, they were trying to take me away. My mother yanked at me. Soon afterwards, they slaughtered my mother, too. Then, they took me into an empty house. About ten to fifteen of them abused me.”

Driving through Ukhiya, one can’t help but notice women, infants, children and elderly men sitting by the roadside. They stretch out their hands as vehicles drive past. But their presence has not engendered sympathy from the locals. Instead, it has resulted in an astonishing plan by the Bangladeshi government to relocate Rohingya refugees to a remote and uninhabitable island called Hatiya.

“It has to be assured by taking preventive measures,” the government declared, “that they cannot spread out and mix with the locals.”

Doulu: “They beat my husband so hard that he couldn’t move. We all carried him, but we had to leave him on the other side. I couldn’t locate my little one. I found the other three children.”
Rashida: “They hauled my husband away. I don’t know if he was killed or where they’d taken him. They took my young daughter and slaughtered her in front of me. I saw this. At night, the child’s body was covered with clothes and secretly buried by the people.”
Nur Qaida: “They taunted me and tortured me. They put the video of my rape on the internet. They put me up as a daughter of poor parents being abused by the Mog [the predominant ethnic group in Rakhine state, mainly Buddhist] and the military.”

Meet the Modern-Day Pagans Who Celebrate the Ancient Gods

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Deep in the woods of the Pacific Northwest, a community of Druids is reviving Celtic rites. They might seem hokey or outlandish, but maybe, just maybe, they’re the ones who have it all figured out.

The priest raises his arms, palms upturned. “Lord Taranis, hear our prayer!” he bellows, voice bouncing off the stone pillars and into the darkening fields beyond. The fire’s crackle fills the stone circle. We stare through the flames, past the boundary of our sacred space, to the patina of white looming over the white sky – Mount Adams, close and huge.

It is high summer, and we are at White Mountain Druid Sanctuary in southern Washington State. Under the immensity of the mountain, a couple of ramshackle barns stick up from the hayfields. Our priest, a straight-backed, snow-haired man, is delivering a homily on the attributes of the thunder god. Taranis, a powerful thunderbolt-tossing deity, is being honored at today’s solstice celebration because of his association with light, weather and sky.

Arms raised, the priest pauses. We lean forward, breathless. The fire cracks again. The teenage girls on the edge of the circle, who might be high on mushrooms, giggle quietly to themselves. Finally the priest grins and lowers his arms.

“Well, I forgot that part, darn it.” With a shrug, he reaches into his white robes and pulls out a small piece of paper. His voice is wry, sing-songy, full of mirth. “I should have practiced more!”

Everyone laughs as the priest consults his paper. “Sorry, I’ve got it now,” he says, resuming the formal diction – few contractions, quick and clear consonant sounds – that he uses for his rituals. Throwing his arms into the air, he intones, “Lord Taranis…” and completes the rest of the homily uninterrupted.

To get to the Sanctuary in the foothills of Mount Adams, I rattled down a gravel road and parked beneath some prayer flags tacked to a barn. A sign on the building read “DRUIDS HERE.” There is a large wooden lodge with bed-and-breakfast facilities, meditation huts, and a stone circle straight out of Stonehenge, where, upon my arrival, about fifty people were pouring whiskey into deep wells and speaking Gaelic. They were blowing horns and beating drums and generally having a hell of a good time.

Ember Miller, Chief Druid and Oracle, holds a wooden devotional plaque depicting Hermes. “He is patron god of travelers, commerce, writing, athletes, messages, and he’s a bit of a trickster,” says Miller. “Some folks like to see him akin to modern-day Han Solo or Captain Malcolm Reynolds.”

As this is my first Druid ritual, I have no idea how much of this to take seriously. It’s hard to tell how much the participants themselves take seriously; there’s a lot of laughter and self-deprecation. But when Kirk Thomas, the Arch-Druid of Ár nDraíocht Féin, asks the gates of the spirit world to open, creating a thin, traversable bridge across the red-gold evening breeze, we all grow tense.

I don’t know who Taranis is, let alone believe that he’s going to visit our circle, but I strain, listening for signs. Birds wheel in the sky. Somewhere on the other side of the property, a bell trickles into the wind.

“The gates are open,” Thomas says finally, and we begin.

* * *

Loosely overseen by a central office – set in a back room in Thomas’ old house in Santa Fe, New Mexico – Ár nDraíocht Féin (ADF) is a polytheistic neo-pagan religion that draws its inspiration from ancient Indo-European traditions. It’s organized into local groups, called groves, and was founded in 1983 by a charismatic man named Isaac Bonewits, who, after completing a self-study program at UC Berkeley, earned a bachelor’s degree in – yes, really – Magic and Thaumaturgy. Bonewits had dabbled in Satanism and witchcraft before founding Ár nDraíocht Féin, which in Gaelic means “our own fellowship” or “our own magic.”

Although nearly seventy groves worldwide are affiliated with ADF, each organizes its own tailored rituals. At annual pan-pagan festivals, camping trips, and ADF training workshops, as well as over the internet, ADF’s 1,500 members exchange ideas on what rituals should look like. Rather than including official liturgical script, the rituals they perform feature a netting of ideas and ideals, created and debated by poets, Roman legionnaires, mystics, nature lovers, proto-European language nerds, and all kinds of wanderers in search of a connection.

* * *

Long before he became a neo-pagan reverend, when Kirk Thomas was seven years old and visiting his aunt in Utah, he was left mostly to his own devices. During the day he wandered the acres behind her house, picking through the scrub brush, the rocky terrain, the bristling white fir. One day while he was out, the hair on the back of his neck began to stand up. Something was watching; he was sure of it.

He dashed back to the house and rummaged through the fridge, emerging with a bunch of grapes. The boy cautiously returned to the place where he had felt the presence and laid the grapes on the rock. He knew what was being asked of him. The next day, the grapes were gone, and so was the feeling of being watched. The boy thought, an animal took them. But some part of him wondered.

Jonathan Levy, right, and Arin H. recite a passage to ward off any spirits that might seek to challenge or question their practices before participants cleanse themselves at the start of the Fortuna ritual. Fortuna is the Roman goddess of fortune and could bring good or bad luck.

As a kid, Thomas read all about the Old Kingdom dynasties of ancient Egypt; the names of pharaohs like Akhenaten and Nefertiti rolled off his tongue. In middle school he got into supernatural stuff, reading Diary of a Witch – Sybil Leek’s popular 1969 memoir of growing up pagan, which inspired a generation of witches – and drawing pentacles on the garage floor. He studied theater in London and became a hot air balloonist, taking to the skies over the English countryside.

Later, around the year 2000, he read The Mists of Avalon, an Arthurian fantasy epic that he calls a “gateway drug” to Druidry. “What it did was remind me of how I had felt as a teenager, with all that wonder and magic and joy,” he says. He began to look for other neo-pagans online, in chat rooms and early internet sites. When he discovered ADF, he thought it wasn’t “quite as wacky” as other neo-pagan belief structures, and was more scholarly and organized than Wiccan covens.

Ember Miller, Chief Druid and Oracle, portrayed Fortuna during the Fortuna Ritual.

He attended his first ADF ritual at a public park in Tucson, Arizona, during an electrical storm. A few people gathered at a concrete pavilion, stood in a circle and read a ritual one of them had pulled off the web. Lighting was flashing in the desert sky. “The thunder god was pretty obviously saying ‘hello’ to me,” he says.

But he felt the ritual was amateurish. He wanted to rewrite it and, lucky for him, he’d found a religion that embraced rewriting, remaking, revising. He had become a Druid.

* * *

More and more in America, religion is something people choose (or don’t), rather than inherit. According to a 2015 study by the Pew Research Center, “As the Millennial generation enters adulthood, its members display much lower levels of religious affiliation, including less connection with Christian churches, than older generations.” However, the report also finds that many millennials remain spiritual in a broad sense, expressing “wonder at the universe” and an overall feeling of “gratitude” and “well-being.” About 1.5% of the American population identifies as “other faiths,” including “Unitarians, those who identify with Native American religions, Pagans, Wiccans, New Agers, deists, Scientologists, pantheists, polytheists, Satanists and Druids, to name just a few.” Druids will appreciate being listed separately from Wiccans (self-described “benevolent witches”), but both fall under the umbrella of neo-paganism. Almost half of New Agers – a larger category that includes shamans, goddess-worshippers, and possibly your mom’s psychic – are of the millennial generation.

Many druid practitioners are reacting to a childhood religion they found inadequate or oppressive. They speak of their practice as inclusive and pluralistic, but also self-define as rejects, misfits and seekers, drawing a protective boundary around their own otherness. In one sense, Druidry is very old school – traditional and nostalgic for a way of relating to nature that most modern humans have lost. However, it is also willfully new. Druid rituals enact something not handed down or inherited, but deliberately created. “There just isn’t enough preserved out there to actually recreate Irish paganism,” Thomas explains. “One can do a nice superficial gloss, but we have no idea what any rituals actually looked like.”

Reverend Kirk Thomas. (Photo by Caitlin Dwyer)

Perhaps that sense of freshness and invention is why, after accidentally stumbling into the solstice celebration, I began to see them as a perfect example of America’s tangled, 21st-century relationship with faith.

* * *

I am holding a Dixie cup of wine. The woman who passed it to me called it “The Water of Life,” and she has lots of them on a tray, walking around our circle and handing them out to the motley group – girls with braided hair and brightly-colored leggings, women in long skirts and hand-knit sweaters, men with handmade leather fanny packs and KEEN sandals. The sun has set, and the sky is a blur of hazy bluish-black behind Mount Adams. Just outside the stone circle, there’s a cob shelter, on which is painted on one side with a triptych of ancient myths – deities Taranis and the Morrigan, the Celtic goddess of death, first engaged in a devastating war, and then having sort of graphic make-up sex. The woman smiles and moves on, and I hold the cup but do not raise it to my lips.

A Druid ritual can take place anywhere, although outdoors is preferable, because a hearth must burn at the center of the assembly. Stoking the fire is Reverend Thomas, who earlier shook our hands and asked us all to write an intention on a small piece of paper. We stuffed them into a straw man made of twigs and later burned him in the fire.

“We are fire priests if nothing else,” Thomas says. “The fire transmutes and transforms. It turns something into something else. It does it quickly.” Also present are a well or water – “the epitome of the powers of the earth and the underworld,” as Thomas explains – and a tree or pillar – “the pipeline of communication that allows you to communicate between this world and other worlds.”

After an opening potluck, with plenty of mac salad and mead and smiling folks who wore runes around their necks, we walked the gravel path to the stone circle. We asked for blessings; we burned our straw man. Now we are supposed to toast and drink the Water of Life.

Spiral, left, waits in line to cleanse before entering the sacred space created for the Fortuna ritual. Participants put their hands in a bowl of water, and gently hold their hands over their heads, heart and legs to purify them from the outside world.

It hits me that I am standing with a bunch of people I don’t know in the middle of a dark and remote farm being asked to drink unmarked liquid by a dude in a long white robe. The Water of Life shakes between my fingers.

I have little context for this rite. My own religious upbringing was hybrid and scattered. I wasn’t baptized, but I come from a long line of Irish Catholics, who attended schools taught by nuns and have names like John Michael Patrick and Mary Colleen and who drink their guilt from bottles of California chardonnay. From my mother’s side, I got a consciously a-religious Judaism. My grandfather’s first language was Yiddish, but his family eschewed things like temple and bat mitzvah, so when Jewish friends explain holidays to me, I usually just nod along, playing the more familiar role of the Irish girl. I am equally uncomfortable at Shabbat services and Sunday Mass, unsure of what to do with my hands, what to say, when to sing.

My family never offered me real entry into either of my birth religions, so instead, growing up I found faith in literature, storytelling, myth and nature – a budding neo-pagan if there ever was one.

At some level, I wanted to belong to organized religion. During sophomore year of high school, I tried to join a Christian youth group. Several of my friends attended, and they always got older boys from the group to go to school dances with them (I, on the other hand, took a blow-up doll to junior prom). I joined them in the basement of a neighborhood church where they sat on straight-backed chairs and did trust exercises and ate snacks and prayed.

The group leader was a pleasant guy with a fleece vest and a patient smile. He asked me if I believed in God, if I believed Jesus was the Son of God. Although he wasn’t unkind, he was looking for a specific answer to each question, and my answers were like fumbling through a giant keychain, jangling it awkwardly, trying to find the key that unlocked a kind of belonging I desperately wanted. I considered lying – I mean, the boys – and realized that I could perform being a good Christian. I searched for words that I thought would please him, like grace and grateful and community, placatory words that could take the place of certainty. I filled our conversation with placeholders, language itself becoming a kind of tenuous substitute for faith, because the truth was I had never really been drawn to a specific religion, but merely to the idea of religion. I could enter into this group and learn about Jesus and smile and hold hands with boys during prayers, and maybe no one would ever know that I didn’t believe what I was supposed to. But it was pretty clear that I didn’t have the right key, and I felt so ashamed that I never went back.

I look around at the Druid rite, and everyone else has already drained their cups. With a sigh, I take a deep breath, close my eyes, and chug my wine. It’s cheap stuff, and the smell of cedar smoke from the fire mingles with the sweetness on my tongue. I get a brief, heady rush, and then Reverend Thomas begins passing out musical instruments – tambourines and rattles, drums and shakers. People are grinning. We are alive on the base of a mountain, and we are going to dance.

* * *

“To me, Druidry is an experiential religion,” says Jonathan Levy, one of the founders of the Columbia Grove in Oregon. “Simply talking about it doesn’t do it justice.” Levy has a trimmed beard and a skittish, enthusiastic manner. He was a “hardcore atheist” when he came across some neo-pagan websites at the age of eighteen. He couldn’t have cared less about King Arthur legends, but he did love Roman history: Virgil and triremes and Mars. When he discovered an ADF ritual based on the Roman rite of Hilaria, it delighted him.

Levy realized that Druidry wasn’t asking him to believe; it was asking him to show up and be in community, to make offerings and to light fires. He moved to Oregon and started a meetup called “Druid Drinks,” a monthly gathering at a local pub, where he could chat socially with other curious-and-questioning Druids. Finally convinced, he traded in his atheism for an enthusiastic polytheism. In ADF, he says, “It comes down to doing something together. That part is appealing.”

Levy says many of the Columbia Grove’s members are ex-Catholics and are used to elaborate rituals. However, ADF avoids “churchy” language as much as possible because it “can be a very big turnoff for people … who were angry at their past religious affiliation.”

“It’s that rejection” that defines Druidry, explains Dr. Sarah Pike, a religious scholar at Cal-State Chico. Many Druids have “found a place where they belonged.” Pike adds that, for Druids, creating an identity out of what they’re rejecting is essential: it leads them to “embrace otherness,” and find meaning in being their own tribe.

* * *

Tall fir trees shade the lot; autumn sunlight drifts down. After almost a year away from the Druids, I have come back to visit them again, this time with Jonathan Levy’s Columbia Grove in Portland, Oregon. This is a celebration of Dionysos, the Greek deity of wine, held in a courtyard outside a Unitarian church. Around me, people drift in a loose, undulating circle on the stone. All of them are masked in foam cutouts and sequins and glitter glue: a chance to slip into a new face, and therefore avoid the madness that close contact with Dionysos can inspire.

Garbed in a toga and rust-and-orange fall garlands, Levy welcomes the crowd to autumn equinox. His pale legs are bound in high Roman sandals; his liturgy is broad-stroked and mythological, with syntax that deliberately invokes Christian liturgy: Let us pray with a good fire. Let us offer with a full heart. He and his fellow group leaders read from note cards. At one point they start to sing and realize they are doing different songs. They take a moment to shuffle through their papers, like actors who need to review the scripts.

Kirt W. kneels before Fortuna, as portrayed by Ember Miller. Many participants approach Fortuna, made offerings of flowers, incense or cookies, whisper in her ear, and are given a gold coin and a blessing.

The idea of reciprocity – of giving something in trade – holds particular importance in Druidic rite, according to Reverend Thomas: “Human relations are set up this way, and we in ADF do the same thing with the spirit world. We make offerings and hope for and ask for blessings in return.” So when Levy invites the audience to make offerings, one woman breaks apart a chocolate bar for Isis, an Egyptian goddess, and asks for good health in trade. The chocolate bubbles as it melts in the fire. Another pours out wine for Dionysos, making the flames hiss. A gender-nonconforming member burns a poem written to Thor. A young white man in a purple cape and Phantom-like half-mask invokes Hermes, the Greek messenger god, stalking the inside of our circle. The diverse pantheon doesn’t phase anyone.

After the offerings are burnt, a young woman with dyed red hair tells us to close our eyes and leads us through a visual meditation, into deep woods, into worlds of nymphs, toward Dionysos. Then, tipsy on the presence of the divine, we stand and begin to circulate, holding hands, and dance to a chant: Come on thy Bull’s Foot. I scratch my nose where the mask is slipping down. Hypnotic and repetitive, the chant pounds forward; people wriggle and writhe, close enough to each other that skin brushes skin. Come on thy Panther’s Paw. I feel a rush beneath me, like standing on ice and watching a current flowing and shifting beneath the frozen layer. Although I don’t have much invested in this rite emotionally, I am still doing it, moving my body among other bodies. Come on thy Snake’s Belly. It feels like when you’re upset and people tell you to smile. How just the action of faking it, of smiling through your pain, starts the flow of good hormones in your brain and makes you really feel better. Playing along is one way to access something real and physical. Dionysos come. Theater is not just a show; the act of the thing unlocks the reality of thing itself. I don’t really believe in what I am doing, but it is sort of working just the same.

* * *

When people come to Druid rites for the first time, they expect to see “us wearing all white, talking in thou and thy,” Jonathan Levy says. “We’re modern people. Our Druidry is modern. Our rituals are modern. Sometimes we dress in stuff just for the fun of it, but it’s not supposed to be the centerpiece. We use modern language; we use very little foreign language. People are not expecting that.”

Dr. Sabina Magliocco, a folklorist at Cal-State Northridge, says that ADF founder Isaac Bonewits “was looking for a tradition that was rooted in history,” but soon realized that resurrecting an ancient religion was impossible. Reverend Michael Dangler, a senior ADF priest in Ohio, agrees. “We have rejected the fantasy of ancient lineages,” he says. “They are just not important from our personal practice perspective. We come out of a skeptical time.”

For the average American, whose understanding of religion is synonymous with faith, Druidry can seem a bit artificial. But Dr. Sarah Pike says that Druids have “a different type of commitment” to their religion. Focusing on ritual action rather than creed can be “a relief” for people who have fled the constraints of orthodoxy, she says. “When belief becomes so important, you have sharper boundaries between insiders and outsiders.”

Still, there is tribalism in Druidry. Many of the practitioners I spoke with had the awkward, sharp, smart humor of the nerdy kids in middle school, which they wielded at me like little pikes, prodding and jabbing to see if I would laugh. Dr. Magliocco says this is partially constructed as a part of pagan identity. “Humor is a way that we mark insiders and outsiders,” she says. “A joke is a spell. Jokes clearly mark the boundaries. We can all laugh because we’re unusual, but we also draw a firm circle of who we are.”

* * *

Not everyone at the summer solstice ritual is a practicing Druid. The girls who are maybe on mushrooms are clearly not familiar with the rite. When Reverend Thomas hands out drums and rattles and shakers, so that we can all make a joyful noise together, parading around the fire and making music for the gods, one of them accidentally drops her tambourine. It shatters the silence with a flustered, lengthy banging. The girls sputter with silent laughter, their bodies shaking, as Thomas tries unsuccessfully to maintain a straight face.

Reverend Kirk Thomas performs a summer solstice rite at White Mountain Druid Sanctuary in Trout Lake, Washington. (Photo by Caitlin Dwyer)

On the other hand, we are all practicing Druids. We’ve shown up at the ritual, after all, and if being a Druid means making offerings of whiskey and beer, reciting a prayer to honor your ancestors, and drinking mead from a horn, then I, too, am a Druid.

“Get out there and do the stuff; that’s what counts,” Reverend Thomas says. “What you believe is kind of your business.” You step onto the stage, say the lines, block the actions. You do the work. Through recitation, the piece of yourself played that night has a chance, perhaps, to reconnect to something deep and missing within the modern psyche – nature, the changing of seasons, the deepening shadow behind a white mountain. There is a real American optimism buried in this: that if we show up ready to try, something in the universe will respond positively to us. That we can deal with it, negotiate our futures: a bit of chocolate for your blessings, a dram of rye for your luck.

When it doesn’t work, it looks like cheap theater. But when it does, something inside turns like a combination lock until it clicks, and then slides open. After all, there is nothing like watching the world respond to you. If it is a performance of the modern self to dress up in robes and ask your ancestors for blessings as bats snip and chatter in the summer dusk, then it is also deeply satisfying. Pouring good rye down the dark throat of a well, watching it drop fathoms deep: that act has its own, deeply human magic.

My Grandma’s Hidden Holocaust Heroics

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We grew up idolizing grandpa for surviving death marches and beating up Germans, but grandma was always just, well...a sweet old lady. We couldn’t have been more wrong.

Noiach, a crumb!” my brother shouted. He was wearing Grandma’s blue muumuu.

“A crumb,” I concurred, draped in her yellow housedress.

We attacked the matzoh flake in the rug with our hands and the carpet sweeper. The family applauded our skit. But Grandma stood there with her arms crossed; her Auschwitz tattoo — all five numbers — pressed against her belly.

“This is what you think of Grandma?” she asked.

It was.

We harassed her constantly, lovingly. We’d always compress her brand-new perms, or jiggle her hanging tricep skin, exposed when she stirred the soup. All my life, she had lived like a stereotype — a neurotic cartoon character who had embedded herself into my reality.

Grandma censured us a bit more for the mockery, then kissed our faces, and ran off to the kitchen, panicking about a pot unattended on the stove.

To us, she was an old Jewish woman who had somehow survived the Holocaust. Poppy, on the other hand, had fought in the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising, and survived death marches and concentration camps. Grandma had too, but for whatever reason she didn’t seem like the same survivor. Perhaps I was just a blinkered boy, who could only turn men into my heroes. Or maybe it was because the stories that I had overheard — “He beat up some Germans,” my father told company — always featured Poppy.

Poppy could make muscles that I could not crush; Grandma only ever cooked and cleaned and kvetched.

I had always wanted my grandparents’ Holocaust stories. More accurately, I had wanted Poppy’s. But because my grandparents had greatly troubled their kids by recounting Holocaust memories, they were silent about the 1940s around the grandchildren.

“Poppy, what was it like in Auschwitz?” I’d ask.

“Poppy loves you,” he’d say, defending secrets with non-sequiturs. He’d raise the television’s volume; the violent charade of wrestling played louder than the violence of memory.

When I was eighteen, Poppy died. Grandma stopped cooking and cleaning, shrinking her life’s work down to a more detrimental form of kvetching. (Really, it was severe depression). For half a decade, she mourned relentlessly.

Even though he had barred me from his Holocaust stories, I had held on to the hope that he’d share them someday with me. Now that he was gone, those memories were buried forever.

But a few years later, I traveled to Poland and stood on Poppy’s street. More than ever, I wanted to dig up those stories. I did everything I could, from viewing the VHS tapes with his testimony, which he had given to the Shoah Foundation a decade earlier, to interviewing those who knew him.

I learned that Poppy had been a sewer rat – one of the boys who traveled through Warsaw’s sewers to help secure guns and potatoes for the uprising; he had been a gravedigger in his hometown, forced by the Nazis to bury four thousand of his Jewish neighbors who had been murdered in the woods; he had been a fugitive, cutting the bars on the cattle car and jumping from a train heading for the death camp Treblinka; he had been a slave in six different camps; and he had been a righteous killer, running a pitchfork through some Nazi’s throat, leaving the German dead in a barn.

I knew he had been tough, but never this tough. Even from the grave, he found a way to surprise me.

“I was thinking about writing a book about Poppy,” I said to Grandma, as we sat at her kitchen table, where she used to serve Poppy and me soup, interrupting our card games.

“Write a book. Who’s stopping you?” she said.

“I need your help though.”

“I don’t want to talk about Poppy.”

Her statement was incredible. In Grandma’s lonely apartment, Poppy, in absentia, had become a god. Around her neck, she wore an image of him — his saintliness laser-printed into gold — and she chanted his name to his photograph, which stood at center table, but also traveled with her around the apartment. This woman who still kept a kosher home and fasted on Yom Kippur — a time she reserved for remembering her mother, who had been murdered in front of her in 1942 — no longer had qualms about breaking the commandment against false idols.

“Remember Poppy?” she always asked, as if he had been a ’90s cult television show.

Now, it seemed, Grandma was choosing to not remember.

I trudged forward with the questions; we were going to talk about Poppy.

“Tell me about Poppy as a sewer rat.”

“He wasn’t a rat,” she chastised. She took offense to the term “sewer,” too.

I clarified what I had thought was survivor jargon.

“What should I know about this?” she said.

Grandma did tell me what she remembered about Warsaw’s sewers, but it tunneled us somewhere else. When the Nazis were sending thousands of Jews from the ghetto to the camps, where they would work or more likely be marched into the gas chambers, a group from Grandma’s bunker had attempted to escape. Grandma waded with them through the piss and excrement beneath Warsaw. When her group reached an exit, the leader lifted the manhole cover.

“They shoot him and his body falls into the shit,” she told me. “We run and I get this sewage splash in my face. But I’m not thinking about this because I know they gonna throw a grenade.”

I watched the fear of this near-death return to her eyes. I felt a chill.

The Nazis or Poles who killed the group leader didn’t throw a grenade after all, and Grandma made it back to the safety of the murderous ghetto.

Grandma offered me more store-bought gefilte fish.

When I asked about Poppy in the camps, Grandma swatted the air: What should I know about this?

“The Nazis made us move boulders.”

“Who: you or Poppy?”

“Who? Who? I should know of Poppy? Me. I did this. And the next day we return them to the same spot.”

This was in Majdanek, a concentration camp that was the setting for many more of the horrors she still lived with so many years later. Majdanek: where she had tossed her youngest brother bread, only to have a Nazi witness him reach for it and beat him to within inches of death. Majdanek: where she had pushed a wheelbarrow filled with potatoes, allowed a few spuds to fall, and took a beating that left her unconscious. Majdanek: where she picked poison ivy for the nightly soup.

“What do you mean poison ivy for the soup?” I asked. “You can’t eat poison ivy.”

“What should I tell you, Noiach? We were sent to the fields to pick poison ivy. We had to, so we ate.”

She told me about Auschwitz, when the barbed wire had ruined her foot (just before the fifty-mile, winter death march); the run-ins with Josef Mengele (twice); the girls she had saved (by risking her life); her luck (the little bit that went a long way); and the countless murders (of the boy who only wanted to enter the ghetto, of the girl in the blue dress at Auschwitz, of the dead woman she sat on in Bergen Belsen because the ground was completely covered with corpses, of the child who hid with her in the barracks, of all the others). These were the horrors that she had survived and the stories that remained with her in the empty apartment after my visits ended.

“There was another Nazi from Warsaw that I remember,” Grandma said after taking a pill to calm her. “He finds me in the street and tells me to follow him.”

She did so, and when they turned the corner, Grandma felt the heat: the Nazis had started a bonfire, where they were burning books.

“The Nazi told me to go up into the apartments. To throw down the books. He tells to me ‘If I see one book left up there, I’ll throw you into the fire.’ This is what he said.”

Grandma climbed the staircase, opened the door to the apartment, and entered the empty room. On a small wooden mantelpiece stood a modest collection of religious texts. She lifted the Siddur, Humash, and Gemara and flipped through them, noting God’s name on each page.

“I could not throw the books from the window, Noiach.”

Instead, she found a string, stacked the books, and made a tight bundle.

“The German who tells to me to go up into the building sees me. He says throw down your…” Grandma paused and looked at the imaginary pile. “He said ‘shit books,’ Noiach. He says this about sacred books.”

She turned from the window, defying the Nazi, and walked down the stairs.

When she reached the Nazi, he screamed at her for not obeying. He put his hands on his rifle; Grandma closed her eyes. She was prepared to die for the God who had allowed all of her relatives to perish.

Who was this woman?

The German ripped the books from her hand and she ran off.

Grandma shivered and limped toward the kitchen, shuffling off from the conflagration she had reignited at the table.

I couldn’t believe I had ever laughed at Grandma.

With each new story, I felt more foolish for how I had begun this project: I want to write a story about Poppy. What had I expected now and in my youth? That she had survived Hitler under a rock?

Grandma popped open her pillbox again and took another horse-sized tranquilizer. “You have more questions about Poppy?”

I shook my head.

Every EMT Has One Day That Changed Their Life. This Was Mine.

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The city bus was soaked with blood, the patient was fading fast, and the first cop who showed up turned around and puked.

“Mark my words, there is going to be that one call. That one call is going to change your life. It’s going to change how you see the world, if you can even walk away from it to begin with. Consider it your rite of passage.”

—My EMT/Paramedic Instructor, September 2013

October 2014 — “I’m scared,” she said. Scared was an understatement. The woman looked downright terrified.

“I’m scared too.” The words were out of my mouth before I could stop them.

I cursed myself. We weren’t supposed to let them see our emotions. That was rule number one of working on the ambulance rig. It didn’t matter if you were angry or terrified; you had to keep it together for your patients. My hands were trembling as I tightened the tourniquet around her left leg. Her dialysis port was squirting thick, dark arterial blood from her thigh.

“I don’t want to die,” the woman said faintly, dropping her gaze to her leg. “Please don’t let me die.”

“Hey,” I said. “Hey look at me.”

I waited for her to look into my eyes again, partly because I didn’t want her to see that I, my partner, and the entire floor of the bus were now covered in her blood.

A few minutes earlier, she had left a dialysis center and stepped onto a city bus. Her dialysis port caught on one of the seats and ripped out of her leg, cutting into her femoral artery and spraying blood everywhere. The driver spotted my partner and me – we work as EMTs at the hospital where the dialysis center is located and happened to be nearby – and we followed him back onto the bus, armed with nothing but a few gauze pads. We didn’t have the code to open the door to the dialysis center. As EMTs, we only had the code for the ER on the other side of the building, which might as well have been ten miles away. If we couldn’t get her there, she was going to die.

“I’m scared,” I said. “You must be terrified, but I will not let you die. Not here, not now.”

She slowly nodded her head, tears streaming down her face.

The blood dripped down the steps of the bus and onto the street, melting the snow where it fell. You could almost taste the iron in the air. My boots and uniform were covered in blood.

The woman slowly faded into unconsciousness. My hands were now covered in blood. They felt slippery, and my upper arms were beginning to get sticky as the blood started to freeze. My partner intubated her and began bagging her; the bleeding hadn’t stopped. I tightened the tourniquet.

* * *

March 2014, seven months earlier — “Now twist… There you go, Rodocker. You’ve got it.”onfire_final

I was the last person in line to use the commercial tourniquet. We were halfway through an EMT class that ran from nine a.m. to nine p.m., a twelve-hour shift designed to simulate actually being on the job. That’s one thing that I valued about my college’s EMT program. They kept things realistic. The first day of class our instructor had showed us gruesome videos of car accidents. He showed us videos of people assaulting EMTs and paramedics. He told us exactly how much we would be making: minimum wage for the average EMT, $12 an hour for paramedics, if they were lucky. We lost eight students that day.

“Now… I’m going to tell you this,” he said about the tourniquet. “The first time you have to use one of these will haunt you for the rest of your life. If someone is bleeding that much, their odds are not that good.”

* * *

“We have to get her to the ER,” said my partner. “Now.”

“We need backup.” I said.

“I think it’s time to call X.”

“Call X… Are you sure?”

Calling X over the radio meant shit just hit the fan. The last time X had been called over the radio was because an ambulance crew had gotten into a car accident. Both EMTs had been in critical condition. The time before that, a crew was being held at gunpoint. It would broadcast our location to every available police, firefighter and EMS agency in the area, and help would arrive within seconds. At least, that’s what we hoped. There weren’t that many cops, or firefighters around.

I reached for my mic.

“Bravo 011,” I said. “X.”

“Bravo 011, please repeat, did you just say X?” said the dispatcher, audibly distraught.

“Bravo 011 to center, repeat X.”

“Bravo 011, I have your location via your rig, is that accurate?”

“Copy, center. Hurry.”

My skin was crawling. Chills were running down my spine.

The call went out immediately.

“All emergency personnel able to respond, please respond. Bravo 011 is in need of assistance.”

“She’s not breathing,” I shouted, moving my hands from the tourniquet to her chest to start compressions.

I shouted simply because I had no control over my body anymore. My body was pumping so much adrenaline into my veins that I felt like I was on fire.

* * *

January 2014 — Chest compressions are hard to do. Sure, the mannequins that we all practice CPR on are a nice rubber texture. Nothing cracks, nothing breaks. Real CPR is terrifying. You’re pumping on someone’s chest and suddenly you break all of their ribs and their chest doesn’t rise back up after you’ve been pushing on it for so long. There is a blank, empty look in the person’s eyes and you can see that there is no soul in that body anymore.

On my very first clinical, a call went out over the PA for all students to report to the resuscitation room. This was a hospital in downtown Detroit, where people don’t go into the res. room unless they are dead or very close to it. They brought in an older man, a man who was very much dead. They stopped CPR long enough to register that there was no shockable heart rhythm on the cardiac monitor, and then the students stepped in, each of us getting our chance to practice on the corpse. I was excited and afraid at the same time. When it was my turn, I stepped onto the stool, placed my hands and pushed. It was nothing like pushing on the mannequin. I had to work so hard to press down that I couldn’t get into a rhythm.

“OK kid,” said a nurse. “Push hard, push fast, get a good rhythm going. Think of a song that you like, like an upbeat song. Sing it in your head, and your compressions should line up with that.”

From that moment on, I have been complimented many times on how good my chest compressions are.

* * *

“Oh my god,” said the first police officer to step onto the bus. She promptly turned around and vomited all over the sidewalk. Another officer got onto the bus, his movements causing the blood to ripple like a wave. He stood frozen for a moment, then sprang into action.

“What needs to be done?” he asked.

“We need our stretcher out of the rig, now!” I was still shouting, there wasn’t anything I could do about it.

“Where do you want it?”

“Put it by the wheelchair ramp,” said my partner, beginning to look green. “We will wheel her onto it and lower it to the ground, then we can move her to the ambulance.”

I kept pumping as they lifted the woman and moved her down the aisle of the bus, out the door and onto the stretcher.

“Let’s move through the building instead,” said the cop. “It will be faster.”

“Do you have the codes?” I said.

“Shit, no,” she said. She turned to her partner. “Run into the dialysis facility and find a nurse. They should have the codes.”

The other cop ran off. We strapped the woman onto the stretcher, and the smallest medic that I have ever seen jumped onto the cot with the patient, straddled her, and began some excellent chest compressions. She stayed like that throughout the bumpy ride through the building and into the ER doors. Doctors and nurses rushed to our aide. We went into the trauma room, transferred her to a bed, and stepped back.

bloodyboot_final“She’s in hemodialytic shock,” yelled a doctor. “Start blood transfusions! Get the trauma surgeon in here now!”

There was nothing more that we could do. My partner and I left the room. We walked back to our ambulance, following the trail of our bloody boot prints. I was in shock, hoping that I had imagined all the blood. Our supervisor arrived shortly afterward, and told us to go back to HQ, take showers, change into scrubs, go back to the hospital for a quick round of antibiotics, just in case, and to go home.

For the next month, I woke up screaming. I was terrified of closing my eyes. I didn’t want to see that haunted look that she had on her face. I didn’t want to hear those rattling, labored breaths that she took. At work, we had group counseling sessions. We talked about every aspect of the call. We explained our fears. The counselor said we had done everything that we could. We reacted to the situation immediately, he said, and we had done very well.

During one of these sessions, he did something I will never forget.

He got up from his chair, opened the door, and wheeled the woman into the room.

She left the hospital with six broken ribs, a broken sternum and a new dialysis port. It had been a long time since I had cried, but as she wrapped us in her arms, tears of relief streamed down my face.

It was at that moment that I knew that I could walk away from my one call. My instructor was right  it had changed my life. I have paid my dues to the EMS gods and they are appeased. I have earned my passage.

The Day My Therapist Dared Me to Have Sex With Her

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

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

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

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

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

“Oh, yeah,” I say. “That.”

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

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

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

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

I shrugged my shoulders, only half looking up.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Nailed it.

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

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

* * *

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Why not?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

There were two ways to find out:

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

2) Keep going to therapy.

* * *

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

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

“I don’t know.”

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

Here we go again.

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

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

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

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

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

“What?” I respond, flustered.

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

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

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

“Of course not.”

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

“I wouldn’t do that.”

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

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

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

* * *

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Isn’t therapy supposed to ameliorate my anxiety?

* * *

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Exactly.”

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

* * *

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Lori’s great at forcing me to reflect.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

* * *

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

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

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

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

* * *

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

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

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

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

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

* * *

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

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