Healing Hasidic Masturbators and Adulterers — With Psychiatric Drugs

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.

 

 

The Housing Battle at the End of the World

When tourism boomed in Ushuaia, Argentina – the world’s southernmost city – displaced locals occupied land in the forest. As development continues to encroach, these renegade residents are more determined than ever to hold onto what they believe is rightfully theirs.

Perched on a wide bay along the southern coast of Argentina’s Tierra del Fuego province, Ushuaia is the southernmost city in the world. At one end of the city, a steep, unpaved road through the trees marks the entrance to the district known as Dos Banderas. The road takes a sharp turn, and suddenly, the chaotic town, known for its tourism, mountain gear shops, and expensive cruises, is left behind. If Ushuaia is at the end of the world, these woods make one feel as if the world has been left behind. If a visitor didn’t know where to look, they might think this was just another path in the woods; however, a careful eye reveals there’s much more than wilderness here. 

Ushuaia, founded in 1884, is bordered on the north by the foot of Andes mountain range, and on the south by the Beagle Channel, which connects the Pacific and Atlantic Oceans. The earliest-known inhabitants of the area were the Selk’nam, an indigenous group who lived here for thousands of years. When colonizers from Europe and America arrived in the region, the natives were systematically deported and exterminated – bounties were even paid to the most ruthless hunters. By the mid-20th century, their population was reduced to less than few hundred.

A home in the Dos Banderas district.
A home in the Dos Banderas district.

After existing as a penal colony for re-offenders from 1896 to 1947, Ushuaia now has about 60,000 permanent residents and attracts thousands of domestic and international tourists every year, all looking to experience the virtually untouched landscapes, and dreaming of Antarctica’s ice caps, as the town’s harbor serves as a launching place for Antarctic tour expeditions. 

Unknown to many of the tourists who have come and gone in search of adventure over the last 20 years, life for the residents of Ushuaia has been anything but stable. While Ushuaia has flourished into a proper urban center and tourist destination, there has been a growing problem with the uneven distribution of resources. Most of the money generated by tourism has ended up in the pockets of private companies, and many residents complain that there has been little re-allocation to services and infrastructure that would benefit them. In 1996, the local government shut down a public housing program, as well as the public registry for land, which had allowed families to purchase places to live.  

“All of a sudden, hundreds of pending families in that registry found themselves without the possibility of having a home. That was when people started looking for a place to live in this forest,” says Pao Minolfi, a local resident and young mother of three children. Previously, “People could sign up in the land registry, where points were assigned according to the amount of years a person lived in Ushuaia, if he or she was a Tierra del Fuego native, and many other factors. Then a waiting list was made, and top people could get a plot of land to build their own house.”  

Pao Minolfi with her three children outside the house she built in the Dos Banderas district.
Pao Minolfi with her three children outside the house she built in the Dos Banderas district.

Many local families, unable to afford rent in town, began to peacefully occupy plots of land outside of Ushuaia’s city center. Today, about 350 families live in these districts, on land they don’t officially own. Minolfi was one of the first people to build her own house in what is now known as Dos Banderas. “When I first got here, my house was one of the most isolated [homes in] the neighborhood,” she says. “Today, I have a lot of neighbors, and the community is much stronger.” Dos Banderas is now full of hand-built houses, playgrounds, and public squares, all of which were crafted with the aim of interfering with nature as little as possible.  

A children’s playground in the Dos Banderas district. Residents have built several community areas like this one, using recycled materials.
A children’s playground in the Dos Banderas district. Residents have built several community areas like this one, using recycled materials.

Not all of the land near these districts is public; some of it is owned by wealthy private citizens, who use the properties as vacation homes. The local government has used this as leverage to charge many of the occupiers with trespassing, and trying to evict them from the area. “Since the beginning, it has been all about fighting for our right to have a place to live,” says Minolfi.  

Then, in the early 2000s, the entire Dos Banderas area was designated as a site for a luxury hotel and golf courses. However, thanks to the activism and protests from district residents, construction was never completed. “During those years we all lived in a constant fear of losing everything we were trying to create here,” says Minolfi. “There were regular police raids, and it was very hard to bring inside the district all the material needed for construction. I had to cut all the wood I used [to build my house] in small little pieces so that I could easily hide it in my car. It was a constant drive back and forth from my sister’s house in town.  

“That’s why I’m so proud of what we achieved. What we have today is the result of a 20-year battle against the municipality and private investors, who would have been more than happy to use these lands as source of profits. These woods are beautiful, and [the] tourism industry has always been tempted to take advantage of it.  

“After all,” she adds, smiling proudly, “from here you have the perfect overlook of the Beagle’s Channel and the entire town, so it’s understandable.” 

A sightseeing ferry sails across the Beagle Channel.
A sightseeing ferry sails across the Beagle Channel.

“I feel lucky to be in this place, to live in harmony with the environment, to have all these natural beauties just in my backyard,” says Calos Villamontea good friend of Minolfi and a former employee of the Ushuaia municipalityVillamonte moved here from Buenos Aires 23 years ago and now lives in “Las Raices, an occupied district adjacent to Dos Banderas. “It makes me so angry to think that Ushuaia’s tourism industry always tries to take advantage of these incredible landscapes we have.” Because of the monopoly granted to tour companies, many natural sites in and around Ushuaia are off-limits without paying a feeVillamonte and several other local activists have taken it upon themselves to mark paths and trails through the woods, allowing hikers to discover the beauty the land has to offerfree of charge.

A five-star hotel called “The Arakur.” Located on a scenic point overlooking the entire city, the hotel was the subject of many controversies between local residents and multinational corporations who wanted to use the land for tourism.
A five-star hotel called “The Arakur.” Located on a scenic point overlooking the entire city, the hotel was the subject of many controversies between local residents and multinational corporations who wanted to use the land for tourism.
The heated outdoor pool at the Arakur hotel overlooks the Beagle Channel. The cost of a standard double room at the Arakur ranges from $350-500 U.S. per night depending on the season.
The heated outdoor pool at the Arakur hotel overlooks the Beagle Channel. The cost of a standard double room at the Arakur ranges from $350-500 U.S. per night depending on the season.

The land is a little rougher in Las Raices: the road is only accessible by car to a certain point; past that it is only possible to travel on foot. The path is often extremely muddy due to the weather, which is so unstable in Ushuaia that locals say it’s possible to experience the four seasons in as little as half an hour.  

“In wintertime, it becomes a real problem to move around, especially when snow arrives,” says Villamonte, indicating the woods behind his house. “Everything freezes, and when you have so little daylight, torchlights and caution become fundamental. But it’s worth it – we live in a place which is only 300 meters as the crow flies from the city center, and still we are in the middle of the nature.” 

The exterior of a house in the LasRaìces district.
The exterior of a house in the LasRaìces district.
Villamonte, left, his wife Veronica and their daughter Morena in front of their home in Las Raìces.
Villamonte, left, his wife Veronica and their daughter Morena in front of their home in Las Raìces.

When I started building my house, I didn’t know anything about construction,” says Villamonte, laughingI had no clue how to build a drainage system, nor a solid foundation. It’s something you learn by experience, and by a regular exchange with people in your same situation. When they say that you learn by mistakes, it’s true.” 

A view of the Andorra district of Ushuaia, pictured in the foreground. Andorra is another occupied district neighboring Dos Banderas, which can be seen on the wooded slope in the background.
A view of the Andorra district of Ushuaia, pictured in the foreground. Andorra is another occupied district neighboring Dos Banderas, which can be seen on the wooded slope in the background.

Given the unstable relationship with the local municipality, the families living in these districts know they must rely on each other. Such cooperation is apparent in the collective administration boards: there is one for every district, and they are in charge of the many different aspects of everyday life, such as carrying on a dialogue with Ushuaia’s municipality, mediating any controversies that arise between local residents, and carrying out improvements to be made within the districts.   

Serving on such boards is almost a full-time job, as is apparent by Minolfi’s mobile phone. She is constantly receiving phone calls and Whatsapp notifications from people inquiring about land, neighbors complaining about the behavior of the nearby family, and so on. It’s a duty she performs with pride.

A hand-drawn map of the Dos Banderas district.
A hand-drawn map of the Dos Banderas district.

“Ushuaia is a city that is constantly growing, year after year,” says Minolfi. “With immigration from the north of Argentina and bordering countries, as well as high birth rates, the demand for land is increasing, and it’s something that needs some sort of regulation by the local administration. People have the right to have a place to live.”  

Ten years ago, the municipality began a process of urbanization and deforestation, clearing about 62 acres in the Andorra district, in an attempt to regulate the occupation phenomenon, and to improve the quality of life in the neighborhood.

Augustine works at one of the few kiosks in the Dos Banderas district selling food and other essentials. In the middle of the woods, his kiosk is probably the best-stocked kiosk in the area, and people from all over the district walk here to buy their essential needs.
Augustine works at one of the few kiosks in the Dos Banderas district selling food and other essentials. In the middle of the woods, his kiosk is probably the best-stocked kiosk in the area, and people from all over the district walk here to buy their essential needs.

“Andorra began to be urbanized in 2007, but still today many areas do not have water, sewer or gas. If, after ten years, there’s still a lack of basic services like these, it means that deforestation and urbanization aren’t the right way to solve the question.” says Minolfi “It’s becoming a real problem, and we don’t quite know what the municipality would like to do for districts like Dos Banderas or Las Raìces.

Residential buildings, built when the public housing system was still operational, stand in the district called “Barrio 640,” which is in the eastern part of Ushuaia, and is one of the oldest districts in the area.
Residential buildings, built when the public housing system was still operational, stand in the district called “Barrio 640,” which is in the eastern part of Ushuaia, and is one of the oldest districts in the area.

The residents in Ushuaia’s occupied districts have built a resolute community, and the ongoing conflict they have been struggling with for decades has led to a fragile agreement with the local administration. There are no more evictions like there were in the first years, and in 2016, mayor Walter Vuoto voted to re-open the public land registry; however, the authorities still work to avoid new settlers in the area, and residents feel they can’t let down their guard.   

Despite the precariousness of the situation in which they live, a strong sense of purpose is tangible among the residents of these forests at the end of the world. While they are cautiously optimistic about the future, they are determined to keep up their fight for as long as they have to, even if that means passing it on to future generations.

Marco, left, and Gabriel live in Barrio 640. “We have six horses,” says Marcos. When asked if the horses are used to work the fields, he replies, “Nah, just as pets. People have dogs, we have horses.”
Marco, left, and Gabriel live in Barrio 640. “We have six horses,” says Marcos. When asked if the horses are used to work the fields, he replies, “Nah, just as pets. People have dogs, we have horses.”
An isolated lookout in Ushuaia, with a southward-facing view of the Beagle Channel.
An isolated lookout in Ushuaia, with a southward-facing view of the Beagle Channel.

 

 

This Heavy Metal Band Is Hell-Bent on Saving an Endangered Language

As the Brazilian tribal language Tupi Guarani nears extinction, this hyper-aggressive group is raising awareness about the urgent need to save it – one power chord at a time.

While taking the stage at Gillian’s Inn – a bar, restaurant and performance space in northern São Paulo, Brazil – the band Arandu Arakuaa compels the crowd into a moment of silence, unusual during a heavy metal show. Soft notes from the guitar, drums, contrabass and maracas, played by four men in the dress and facepaint of indigenous Brazilians, places the audience under a spell. A few seconds later, a petite female singer, her face painted like the others, joins the musicians. She shouts, breaking the spell, and as she begins singing, the crowd starts to jump around, bouncing their heads to the hard-hitting music that’s also kicked into gear.

The band combines traditional metal sounds with indigenous Brazilian stylings executed on flutes, foot rattles, and other instruments. The two singers present lyrics completely in Tupi Guarani, an ancient language spoken by tribes throughout Brazil and other South American lands. Arandu Arakuaa, whose name translates in Tupi Guarani – or just “Tupi” for short – to “wisdom of the cosmos,” is the only contemporary band to sing in that language, and their colorful lyrics are about indigenous legends, rights, and the struggles facing native Brazilian tribes today. Some call Arandu Arakuaa the first “folk-metal” band in the history of Brazil.

“It’s something new and is the most original thing I’ve heard in years,” says one audience member, Marcos Simão. “Who could ever imagine that two things that seem so different as heavy metal and indigenous culture, would result in something so cool?”

Arandu Arakuaa.

The person who dared to imagine that combination is Zhândio Aquino, the group’s founder, second vocalist and lyricist. Aquino descended from a Tupi-speaking tribe in the northern Brazil state of Tocantins, where he lived until he was 24 years old. “I had a very close contact with indigenous culture because of my grandmother and classmates,” Aquino says. “When I [began] playing in bands, it just felt natural to put my background on it.” Now 37, Aquino’s first experience with music came from the tribes and quilombos – villages populated by descendants of slaves who ran away from the farms they worked on in the 19th century. His love for heavy metal began when he was a teenager, when he emulated the genre’s brutally honest, expressive artists.

When Aquino moved to Brasília, the national capital, in 2004, he performed in a few amateur bands and people always observed that his music had an indigenous touch. “It was not always said as a compliment,” Aquino quips, “and I faced some resistance from some people at first.”

Aquino started looking for like-minded musicians to form his own band. It took three years to put Arandu Arakuaa together, but they’re still going strong, and are beginning to make waves in Brazil with their unique musical approach.

 

Before colonization began in about the year 1500, there were over a thousand languages spoken across Brazil. Today there are 170 indigenous languages, 40 of them with fewer than 100 speakers. Some experts believe 30 percent of the remaining indigenous languages may disappear in just the next 15 years.

“It’s a dramatic situation,” José Levinho, director at the Indigenous Museum in Rio de Janeiro, recently told Agência Brasil. “Those languages are a patrimony, not only to Brazil, but to the whole world.” Levinho observes apathy among the youth of various tribes when it comes to learning their respective language.

One of the biggest challenges for Arandu Arakuaa fans is understanding the lyrics. Most translation websites do not include Tupi, and few people speak it. To solve the problem, the band has included Portuguese subtitles in their video clips on YouTube.

Arandu Arakuaa performing at Basement of Rock Festival 2014 in Brazil. (Photo courtesy Arandu Arakuaa)

The tribes of Brazil face other concerns on top of their dying languages. Many are in constant conflict with the government as they try to maintain control of their lands, which are valued as potential revenue streams to land developers. Tribal gods and ancient rituals are often labeled as evil by Brazilian society. “There is a stigma around the tribes,” Aquino says, “and a lot of prejudice around them since they are often labeled as lazy, which is not true.”

Arandu Arakuaa addresses these struggles in their lyrics. One song titled “Red People” includes lyrics that tranlate into English as:

Some of us ran away, we hide in the forest
We still fight
The red people still resisting, while there is land, while there is forest
Everything became different
Our spirits are called demons
Each day less trees, less animals, less histories, less songs…

Some heavy metal fans say Arandu Arakuaa isn’t “real metal.” The group’s brightly colored outfits certainly contrast with the leather and spikes of many old-school acts. But such critiques do not deter the band members from their collective vision.

“What I like about Arandu Arakuaa is that people are not indifferent to our music: they will love or hate it,” says Aquino. “Most people think it’s strange at first and then we have to prove that we are good.”

His band is not the first Brazilian metal group to include tribal affects. The most famous heavy metal act from Brazil, Sepultura, infused references to indigenous culture in their 1996 album Roots, although not to nearly the same degree as Arandu Arakuaa.

The band has now released two albums and garnered thousands of followers on social media.

“We always had the intention to bring up a discussion that goes beyond music,” says a proud Aquino, who has a degree in pedagogy. Arandu Arakauaa often receives invitations to play in schools and other tribal-centric events. They have even lectured at universities about the importance of preserving the culture and languages of Tupi and other tribes. In the near future, they hope to perform for an indigenous tribe on their grounds for the first time.

“When we started we just wanted to have fun and we never had the intention to be pioneers in anything,” Aquino says. “Our music aims to show who we really are and what we believe. It is really rewarding to see our work being recognized.”

 

 

When My Abusive Father Got Alzheimer’s, Spoon-Feeding Him Helped Me Forgive

I didn’t think I’d ever be able to face him without fear, but in his docile, vulnerable state, we forged a new dynamic.

I watch him pick up his burgundy cloth napkin, drape it over his spaghetti and meatballs, then fumble with his spoon before balancing it on top of the sealed Hoodsie cup. This isn’t unusual behavior for someone with Alzheimer’s. Still, I ask my 74-year-old father, “What are you doing?” He gives me a hollow stare, his blue eyes as dry as his memory. I unveil his plate, cut up a meatball, then scoop up a spoonful and hand him the spoon. He sets it back down on top of the Hoodsie. I pick up the spoon and offer it to him again, but he gives me that same hollow stare, and re-drapes the napkin over the plate. I feel compelled to feed him, but the aides here at the nursing home usually do that. Though I worked as a nurse for 20 years and fed lots of people, I don’t want to feed him. I consider my reluctance. Am I afraid of the final admission that the parent has become the child?

The truth is, I’m terrified of feeding my father. Sitting in the naturally-lit dining room beside him, close enough for his hand to strike my face, an image flies back to me from the past. I’m 13; my father chases me into my bedroom and grabs from the top of my dresser the skating scribe I use to carve patterns in the ice. I dart into a corner. He lunges toward me, and raises the sharp end of the scribe over my head, inches from my skull. Desperate to protect myself from his metallic rage, I curl into a ball, my face against my knees. My heart beats in stutters, in my ears, in my throat.

I don’t remember what I did wrong. Maybe I forgot to take out the trash, empty the dishwasher, neglected to walk the dog. There were other incidents of rage, but I don’t remember what my failures were that provoked my father. The most horrifying memoires are the ones that involved my siblings. I remember crying in my bedroom, listening to my father’s heavy footsteps as he chased my older sister through the house. I remember the time he bloodied my younger brother’s face with his fist. I can’t recall what they did wrong, either.

My thoughts spring back to the present. I’m almost fifty. It’s time I kick my fear of my father out of my mind’s bedroom.

He’s in a wheelchair, and hasn’t been able to walk for months. He certainly can’t chase me now. Alzheimer’s has also had a calming effect on him, or maybe it’s the medications, which are supposed to slow down the progression of the disease. Either way, he’s mostly gentle and quiet, displaying moments of delight like clapping when my husband walks into the dining room, or smiling and patting me on the shoulder when I lean down to kiss him on his mole-flecked forehead. He even shocked me once by speaking to a basket of bananas: “So beautiful.” My pre-Alzheimer’s father was a left-brain thinker, and never noticed the aesthetics of fruit. I don’t recall him ever regarding beauty at all.

In an attempt to overcome my fear and judgment, I tell myself that my grandfather is to blame for my father’s dysfunction. He verbally abused others around him. He once whipped an olive at a waitress for forgetting he had ordered his martini with no garnish. My father, who witnessed these kinds of tantrums as a child, inherited my grandfather’s intolerance and impatience.

So I take a chance. I lift the meatball-filled spoon from the Hoodsie and guide it towards him. “Here, Dad, doesn’t it look good?” He raises his hand from the table, and steadily reaches for the handle gripped between my pointer finger and thumb. My hand trembles as the tip of my finger meets the side of his finger, the spot once swollen with a knobby protrusion from his pen gripping days.

He clutches the spoon, and lifts it towards his mouth, pauses, raises it higher. It tilts to the left then to the right. I wring my hands. My teeth sink into my bottom lip. I want to help him; I don’t want to help him. His jaw juts forward, his neck veins pulsing. He eases the spoon closer to his mouth. I hold my breath. He bites down on the crumbled half meatball. He chews, swallows. I lean back. Breathe.

Again, he sets his spoon down on top of the Hoodsie and drapes his napkin over his plate. An aide with generous hips dances a little sashay over to our table. “Hey, Joe,” she says, rubbing my father’s back. “I thought Italian was your favorite. When you’re done, you can have all the ice cream you want.” He smiles at her. I smile at her too, comforted by her recognition of what he enjoys most: Italian food, back rubs, and ice cream.

“Come on, Joe. Here.” She sits beside him, and ties a clean napkin around his neck, as if he’s about to eat a lobster. “We like to keep his clothes as clean as possible,” she says, looking directly at me. I nod, but feel as if I’m being scolded for my oversight. She takes the spoon, shovels up another half a meatball and tenderly slips it into my father’s wide-open mouth.

“See, Joe. Isn’t that good?” After he swallows, she wipes the corners of his mouth with his napkin. “He’s okay,” she assures me. “Sometimes he just needs help. You can feed him.”

My stomach does a somersault. What would she think of me if I tell her I can’t, or won’t, feed my father? I’m embarrassed to tell her that I’m terrified of doing so. I could lie and say that I don’t feel qualified to feed him. But what kind of qualifications does one need to feed your own parent?

“Go ahead,” she urges. She hands me the spoon. And walks away.

I look at my father, who’s eyeing his hand resting on the table, the one with the knobby finger protrusion. He hasn’t gripped his pen in a year. As a savvy businessman, he filled his yellow pad with the latest land-for-sale deals, the highest bond interest rates, and upcoming foreclosures. I wonder if my father has forgotten about his pen – his blue, ballpoint Bic pen.

He slides his hand towards mine also resting on the table, and touches it. He squeezes, as if he’s trying to tell me something.

“Dad, you want more?”

He nods.

I gulp down my fear, and mix some sauce with crumbled meatball and spaghetti, scoop it up, then slowly raise the spoon to his mouth. He opens it for me, just as he did for the aide. Quickly, I slip the food off the spoon. He chews, swallows, rubs his belly.

“More?” I realize that I’m not asking him if he’s hungry; still wary, I’m asking for permission to feed him.

Again, he nods, and opens his mouth.

Again, he chews and swallows. I ask if he wants more, wait for him to nod, then feed him another spoonful. This exchange continues a few more times before he reaches for the Hoodsie, and slides it towards himself.

“You ready for ice-cream?” I ask.

A smile spreads across his face like a sunrise. In a matter of minutes, we have choreographed a new father-daughter dynamic.

I visit him again on Thanksgiving. As I walk into the dining room, I rehearse the steps in my head, hoping my tying of his napkin bib around his neck is enough of a cue that our dance is about to begin. But he’s having a good brain day, and he’s mostly able to feed himself the ground turkey and sweet potatoes. When he tires and doesn’t have the strength to lift his glass of milk, I lift it for him. “Here, Dad, you want some milk?” I bring it closer to him, and he grabs it. Slams it against the table. I startle, skid backwards in my chair. He’s over-stimulated, I think. Frustrated. He lets go of the glass and looks at me, his eyes wet and crinkled at the edges. Our faces, and bodies, are capable of saying “I’m sorry.”

Another piece of history comes flying back to me. It’s six months earlier, and my father is hospitalized for abdominal bleeding. I’m standing over his bed, holding his hands so he doesn’t yank out his IV. Completely out of context, he says, “It’s not your fault, Melissa.” I accepted this as an apology for all the times he hurt me. The language of genuine contrition is as diverse as each of our regrets.

I give up on the milk and try to feed him. He cooperates on the first bite. I try again – another spoonful of Thanksgiving. He chews, swallows. This time he burps. We giggle. When his eyes droop, I lead the next dance step. I untie the napkin, wipe his mouth clean – and rub his back. His head falls forward and he begins to doze. In a few seconds, he opens his eyes and lays his hand on top of mine. I massage the smooth spot on the side of his pointer finger until he falls into a slumber.

As I watch my father sleep, I know it is his utter helplessness that has made it easier for me to want to be with him, to deeply care about him, despite his past hurts. That’s exactly what I’ve needed for so long – a father I no longer fear, but one who unconditionally lets me into his vulnerable world and gives me the chance to begin to forgive him.

 

 

The Truth About New York’s Legendary ‘Mole People’

Two decades after NYC sought to relocate its infamous tunnel-dwelling denizens, a years-long investigation reveals a few hardy souls still toiling and thriving beneath the city streets. They insist they wouldn’t live anywhere else.

The mouth of the tunnel is wide and dark, swallowing the light and all that breathes. Rubble is scattered along the train tracks, bordered by retaining walls covered in numerous layers of graffiti.

This is where it all started.

Here by the parkway with the blasting trucks and the roaring cars, near the filigree arches of the Riverside Drive viaduct, here with the gravel crunching under my feet as I run down the railroad into this hollow mouth.

This is where they live, deep into the depths of the city, way underground, lying in the dirt. Sure, you know about them. Of course you know about them. They’ve always been there, resting low below the rowdy streets and the carving avenues, gulping the air from inside the earth, crawling through holes and cracks, living off the grid and off the books.

Here in the tunnels.

You’ve heard the rumors. Their eyes have adapted to the constant night that cloaks them from the topside world. Don’t you know they’re eating rats and human flesh? Don’t you know they want us dead? And one day they will spill outside and burn us all alive, and they will reign over our flatscreen joys and our organic delights.

Of course you know about them. The lost ones, the hidden ones. The broken and the ill, the wandering, the gone. The Mole People.

“Jon,” I call, looking up. Jon has been homeless for more than fifteen years. Like many of the people interviewed for this article, he did not want to give his full name. He has been living here for a while now, in a small space between two support beams that can only be reached with a ladder. A plywood roof protects his hoarded belongings from seeping water. The place is crammed full. There is an old mattress on the floor, and cookware, blankets and electronics stacked on makeshift shelves.

“Jon,” I repeat, and he appears, his head cautiously peaking up from his house, a relieved smile on his face when he sees me.

“I thought it was the Amtrak police,” he later says while opening a beer, his legs dangling off the edge of the wall. “They been coming less, lately, but you never know. Regular police ain’t bothering me, but Amtrak, they can be nasty.”

Jon says he did prison time. He is bipolar and suffers from major substance dependence. He used to be a gang member in the Bronx. He used to be a family man until he got disowned. He was a furniture salesman. The FBI is looking for him. He used to know Donald Trump. It doesn’t matter which version is true. His real story has been buried long ago under thick layers of improvised memories that grew more detailed by the years, the man slowly becoming a collage of himself.

“I’m good here,” he says. “No taxes, no rent, no nothing. There’s no hassle compared to the streets, you know what I’m saying? Here I don’t get bugged by kids. It’s a safe place. I can do what I wanna and I don’t have to take nothing from nobody.”

Today is a good day for Jon, despite the rain and the cool weather.

“You’re the first person to visit this week,” he says. “People don’t want to speak to me when they come here. I don’t know, man. They’re scared or something. I can get why, it’s a spooky place when you don’t know it. But people, they like it when it’s scary. They like it when it’s dirty, right? It makes them feel alive. That’s why they make up these stories about cannibalism and stuff. Like alligators in the sewers.”

Jon offers me a sip of vodka. We drink together. He tells me to stay safe and to watch out for trains when I go back walking into the tunnel. I hear him talk to himself as I go away from the entrance and from the white sky.

The smell down here is the one of brake dust and mold. I can see rats scouring for food and drinking from brown puddles in the tracks ballast. EXISTENCE IS FLAWED, a graffiti inscription reads.

The city growls over my head — a distant growl muffled by the concrete, almost a snarl, like something cold and foul spreading over the long stretches of stained walls, like a dark and wild beast curling up around me and breathing on my neck. A dark and wild beast silently trailing me.

* * *

Stories about underground dwellers were already flourishing when the first New York City subway line opened in 1904. The expansion of extensive sewers and steam pipes systems had brought a newfound fascination with what laid below the streets. From Jules Verne’s 1864 novel “Journey to the Center of the Earth” to George Gissing’s 1889 book “The Nether World,” literature was brimming with tales of people living in isolation or trapped under the surface, peaking in 1895 with “The Time Machine,” in which H. G. Wells described a fictional subterranean species called the “Morlocks.”

But it was only in the 1990s that the first widespread depictions of real-world tunnel residents appeared in New York. A 1990 New York Times article by John Tierney was the earliest to outline the phenomenon, looking at people living in an abandoned train tunnel beneath Riverside Park, along the banks of the Hudson River.

Collective imagination took over quickly.

In 1993, Jennifer Toth published her essay “The Mole People,” documenting hidden communities residing in a network of forsaken caverns, holes and shafts across Manhattan. An instant hit, it chronicled the organization of those underground societies, describing compounds of several thousands where babies were born and regular lives were lived, with elected officials, hot water and even electricity.

However, the book was promptly criticized for its inconsistencies. Joseph Brennan, a New York rail buff, wrote an extensive and detailed critique in 1996, exposing many discrepancies in Toth’s reporting, such as places that couldn’t exist, exaggerated numbers and contradictory claims. According to Brennan, the whole notion of secret passages was implausible and “reminiscent of scenes in the TV series ‘Beauty and the Beast.’”

A 2004 article by Cecil Adams further demonstrated that many accounts were perhaps more sensationalism than truth. Adams pointed out unverifiable or incorrect facts in Toth’s work, and her skepticism peaked during her interview of Cindy Fletcher, a former tunnel dweller who challenged important points of the narration. “I’m not saying the book is not true, I just never experienced the things [she] said she saw,” Fletcher explained to Adams. I was unable to reach Toth for comment, but when Adams talked to her, the journalist said she couldn’t remember how to access certain places described in her essay — possibly not to disclose the whereabouts of trespassing squatters.

Still, while the essay might have been inflated or romanticized, it was nonetheless true that the homeless begging in the streets of New York were merely the tip of the iceberg. Photojournalists Margaret Morton and Andrea Star Reese have both extensively documented communities spread in underground hideouts since Toth’s book. Dutch anthropologist Teun Voeten’s 1996 diary “Tunnel People” provided an incredible account of the months he spent with the Riverside Park Amtrak tunnel inhabitants before they were evicted and moved to Section 8 housing units. In 2000, director Marc Singer released his acclaimed documentary “Dark Days,” filming the same people followed by Voeten and Toth in their respective books.

“There were definitely people living in tunnels, but not a lot,” Norman Diederich, a former MTA maintenance inspector, told me. “If there are still any, they’re very discreet. This period is gone.”

“There were talks that the moles were cannibals,” Diederich continued. “That they could see in the dark. That they spoke their own language. Creepy stuff, straight out of a horror movie… Most was made-up. I personally never witnessed unusual stuff. Santa Claus, the Boogeyman, the Mole People, it’s all the same. We need to label things we don’t understand. It’s human nature.”

“Just cause you can’t see don’t mean ain’t nothing there,” begins Anthony Horton’s 2008 graphic novel “Pitch Black,” relating the author’s own struggles as a homeless man. Written in an abandoned crew room of the F subway line, these words were the reason I ventured into the tunnels in the first place, looking for the invisible, guided by local dwellers along the years to seek foundations of humanity in the foundations of the city.

All the stories I had read about the Mole People before descending myself had two things in common.

They all showed simple human beings who were in no way comparable to the legends that had been told, and they all included a man named Bernard Isaac.

* * *

I met Bernard Isaac for the first time in 2009. “This is not a place of perdition,” he often said about the Riverside Park tunnel when we talked together during his shifts as a maintenance worker in Central Park. “This is a sanctuary. A place to find peace and take a break from the chaos.” He would then reminisce about his old life, his eyes would light up and there would be the crack of a smile, and whatever place we were in would be filled by his presence.

Isaac was at the very center of the Mole People legend. His BA in journalism and his studies in philosophy had somehow led him to work as a model, then as a TV crew member, then as a tour guide in the Caribbean where he began smuggling cocaine to the States. The father of two sons with two different women, he never cared much for family life, preferring to spend his smuggling profits on parties thrown at his Upper West Side penthouse. Soon he was broke, friendless and on his own. By the late 1980s, he was sleeping in the Riverside Park tunnel.

The tunnel was known by homeless people since its inception in the 1930s, when it was used by trains to bring cattle to the city before the freight operations ended. Its population, limited at first to about three or four individuals, quickly grew at the time Isaac settled in, evolving into small tribes of vagrants who built thriving shantytowns in the newly abandoned space.

Few risked getting down into the tunnel. “It often scared grown men easily,” recounted Isaac in 2010 as he showed me his old hangout places. But those who did go down called it home, and it became a haven for the destitute to unwind without fear of getting arrested or attacked like people on the streets often were.

One day, three men asked Isaac for a toll as he came by the 125th Street entrance to the tunnel. He laughed at them and said “Do you know who you’re talking to? I’m the fucking lord of this tunnel!” The three men never bothered him again, and Isaac’s nickname “The Lord of the Tunnel” was born.

Though there never was any real leader in the shantytown, Isaac became the community’s de facto spokesman, interacting with outreach groups and journalists to explain how living there was better than dealing with shelter curfews, senseless laws and indifferent social workers. Soon interest came from all around the world.

Ironically, the tunnel’s community support was in many ways more efficient than the one offered by municipal programs. In the encampment, the dwellers had a familiar place to be, watch TV, read or smoke. They had autonomy. Rules were simple but strictly enforced. Respect for privacy. No yelling. No stealing. No stupid behavior or you’d be kicked out. Some, like Isaac, were at home in the darkness, and would not have lived anywhere else. Most who lived here did not consider themselves homeless.

As word spread of the tunnel, a growing number of graffiti artists came to paint the seemingly endless walls that flanked the train tracks. One of them, Chris “Freedom” Pape, had known the place for quite a while before. He became friends with Isaac and his community, teaming up with local tagger Roger Smith — known to most as just “Smith” — to paint pieces narrating their stories. “I hadpainted in the tunnel for six years before the homeless moved in, so they were curious about me,” said Pape in a 2014 interview for “Untapped Cities.” “I became friendly with most of them and my visits to the tunnel were much safer and even relaxing.”

In a 1990 Los Angeles Times article, Isaac explained that the small community lived as well, if not better, than the average people “up top,” as they commonly refer to the streets. “I’ve had the opportunity to get jobs,” he said. “I don’t choose to be a robot within the system… We’ve done something that one out of every 1,000 men in creation in their lifetimes will do. We dared to be ourselves.”

Some residents were still eager to leave, only to come back later.

John Kovacs, one of Isaac’s neighbors in the tunnel, was once given a $50,000 offer to turn his story into a feature movie and left in 1991 after sixteen years in the tunnel. He was back less than seven months later, the $50,000 Hollywood deal gone sour and Kovacs unable to adjust to life in larger society.

Another who attempted to go to the surface was Bob Kalinski, a speed addict known as the fastest cook east of the Mississippi, who could fry twenty eggs at a time when on amphetamines. A heart attack forced him to try his luck with the public housing system in 1994. He too returned in the following months. The sense of belonging simply was too strong. The tunnel was a better place for him to be alone in freedom.

“After so many years in the streets, they kind of lose faith in humanity,” said Audrey Lombardi, a volunteer at the Holy Apostles soup kitchen in Manhattan.

“They can’t help it, it’s so deeply ingrained in their lives, it’s like they want to go back to the only thing they know,” she explained, noting that hurt and loneliness often became the steadiest part of a homeless person’s existence after hitting bottom and going further under.

“If I had to do it all over again?” Isaac said in a video interview, one of his last ones, a year before his death in 2014. “Unquestionably.”

* * *

I keep walking along the tracks. Jon must have passed out drunk, now, somewhere behind me. Every noise is threatening in the tunnel, and I find myself constantly looking over my shoulder, ready to face something too awful to name. Was that a train I heard? A cough? The metallic vibration of a dragged chain?

It smells like death here. The pungent stench of rotting meat.

“Anyone here?” I ask, stopping near an old KUMA tag.

The smell of death all over now. Are those eyes glowing nearby?

I lean against the wall and try to breathe calmly, reminding myself this place is only populated by old memories and the occasional homeless person looking for a safe place to be.

The rumbling feels closer. Something moves somewhere.

I see rats scurrying by, racing into the obscurity. Then I see the charred remains of an animal in the corner of an alcove — a raccoon maybe, a big rodent with liquefied flesh, burnt fur and missing limbs. Was it eaten? By what? By whom?

I walk away holding my breath.

The ground is littered with discarded books and magazines. A broken crack pipe has been left on a cinder block. There is a garden chair, and overturned crates and buckets. A mangled teddy bear. Death everywhere.

“Hey man, how you doing?” says a voice behind me, making me jump with fright. “I’m sorry,” the voice immediately adds. “I didn’t mean to startle you.”

I recognize Raúl, an undocumented Dominican immigrant of about thirty who has been living in the tunnel for a year. Raúl shaves every morning with great care. His clothes are spotless, regularly washed at a nearby laundromat. His badly decayed teeth and scrawny figure are the only hints he’s a drug addict.

“I didn’t hear you coming,” I say with my heart pounding like it wants out of my chest. “I came to see Bernard’s old place. Maybe talk to some people.”

“Brooklyn is there. She’s always singing out loud, it’s annoying.”

Raúl still has family out there. An ex-girlfriend and a kid. He rents an apartment from a friend when his kid comes to visit, a clean studio in a gray Washington Heights building.

“I don’t want him to think of me as a bum,” he says. “I won’t be here long enough anyway. You want coffee?”

I nod and he goes into an abandoned service room, returning with two mugs.

“I made a lot of bad choices in my life. I hurt a lot of people. That’s why I don’t ask for nothing, you feel me? I don’t blame anyone but myself. I collect cans, it keeps me busy. I do it all week long. It gets me $140 a week, more in summer.”

The coffee is nice and strong. It feels good in the tunnel’s cold.

Raúl uses a Fairway Market cart to bring empty soda and beer containers to various stores in the neighborhood, where he will redeem them for five cents each. The legal limit of returnable cans is 240 per person per day, so Raúl has to go to several supermarkets to earn more.

“You can actually make a good life here when you’re broke,” he says. “I never got a problem eating what I wanted. The streets are full of opportunities if you know where to look. I deal with what I have.” He shows me a box of cupcakes he found in a garbage can, almost untouched. His dessert tonight.

Finding drugs has never been a problem either for Raúl, who tells me he once spent $150 on crack each day to feed his “pizzo” — his pipe — with “cheap McDonald meals in-between the smokes, and hard fucks with Puerto Rican whores because crack makes me horny as shit.” Heroin prices have gone down lately, so that means Raúl’s consumption has gone up. It’s $10 for a deck of brown heroin, making it cheaper than most other drugs.

Raúl knows the risks. The worsening quality of the local drugs means accidents are now more frequent than ever, with 420 overdose-related deaths in 2013.

“It makes me feel good for a moment. As soon as I find a real job, I’ll stop, no doubt,” he says. In the buildings he helps maintain, he occasionally sells the tenants K2 — a form of synthetic marijuana that recently boomed across the city, especially in East Harlem where a homeless encampment was recently dismantled.

“I do what I got to do, you know what I’m saying? I’m just a normal guy who minds his own business. This is who I am. And I never ate no fucking rats,” he jokes.

Raúl insists we share the cupcakes he found. We both eat in silence.

* * *

New York’s homeless shelters are a lucrative business. The incentives paid by the Department of Homeless Services to landlords renting out shelter units far exceed the ones given for providing tenants with permanent single room occupancy lodging. In 2014, the average stay was 352 days at the Freedom House, a homeless shelter on West 95th Street managed by private company Aguila Inc. The city paid Aguila $3,735 per month for each 100-square-foot room occupied by a homeless person.

Conditions are appalling inside the Freedom House. Garbage piles up in the courtyard for rodents to feed on. Aggressive panhandling, drug dealing and violent outbursts are commonplace in the shelter’s vicinity. Sometimes a TV is hurled out a window, or the police close the street after someone is stabbed in a fight. The NYPD regularly raids the place looking for people with outstanding warrants, targeting domestic abusers and failing to arrest the major dealers or car thieves roaming the area. Aguila Inc. didn’t comment on the situation when I reached out to the company, but one of their security officers, who wished to remain anonymous because he feared reprisal from his employer, told me that the lack of resources, upkeep and care were the biggest issues in the facilities.

“Why would anyone want to stay [at Freedom House]?” asks Jessica, a former resident. “I can’t count the times my stuff was stolen from me. One day I was assaulted in my own room and the guards didn’t do anything!” she adds, sitting on a rug in her new spot, inside a man-made cave near the Lincoln Tunnel entrance.

Jessica was evicted from Freedom House in late 2014, after DHS came to an agreement with community boards and nonprofit organizations to cut the shelter’s capacity in two from 400 beds to 200 — a step toward its conversion to a meaningful permanent affordable housing facility.

The 23-year-old knows enough about shelters. She will never go back. She was sixteen when she got pregnant with her daughter Alyssa. She briefly lived with the baby’s father until he tired of dealing with a needy toddler, leaving never to be seen again. Jessica was then diagnosed with schizoaffective disorder and admitted to transitional housing in Brooklyn. She says that within a month, social services was badgering her to place her three-year-old in foster care.

“The thing is, single mothers who go to shelters with their kids never keep their kids for long,” she says. “I was devastated. I called my sister and begged her to take care of Alyssa until I found a place of my own. This was the most difficult thing I’ve ever done in my life, leaving my baby. But it was the right thing to do. At least she is with family. When she grows up I will explain it all to her.”

She looks away, tears rolling down her face.

Once her daughter was in the hands of her sister, Jessica was sent to the Freedom House where she stayed for seven months until Aguila notified her of her imminent relocation. She began sleeping in a subway tunnel after transit authorities made her leave her spot in the Herald Square station corridor on 34th Street, dragging her by her feet when she refused to stand up from her mat. “At first I was like ‘I’m never going down there.’ But then Hurricane Sandy came and I had no place to stay, and I didn’t want to go to a shelter again with all the crackheads.”

She spent about two months living in a recess by the subway tracks of a Midtown station, protected from the elements and from harassment. She wrote a long letter to her daughter there. She never sent it. “I hope you think of me sometimes in your dreams,” the letter ends. “You are the light of my life. I miss you everyday. I love you so much.”

Jessica then moved to her current place, closer to the McDonald’s restaurant where she works. The subterranean area she’s living in is part of the same railway system as the one going through the Riverside Park tunnel, and is home to a couple of other homeless people trying to avoid shelters.

“I obviously don’t tell my colleagues I stay here. But it’s better than anywhere I’ve been before. Here I can have my dog,” Jessica says, petting a small mutt snuggled on her lap. “Plus it’s a temporary situation. I’m eligible for Section 8 housing. In less than a year I’ll be in a real apartment and I’ll have my baby with me again.”

On the floor of her makeshift house is a plastic box full of donated kid’s clothes.

Soon she will give them to her daughter.

“I have to keep faith,” she says in the half-light.

* * *

Trash as far as the eye can see. Clothes, glass, bike parts and Styrofoam boxes, plastic toys and rotting food carpeting the dirt ground, all frozen in the tunnel’s perpetual dusk. Brooklyn’s voice echoes in the room as she starts singing Michael Jackson’s “Billie Jean.” I accompany her with a beatbox rhythm, hands cupped around my mouth. “You good, man!” she says enthusiastically, snapping her fingers along.

I catch myself wondering if Raúl can hear us from his place, cursing at us for breaking the no-noise rule of the premises.

Brooklyn might be the oldest resident of the Riverside Park tunnel. Now fifty-four, she has been living here since 1982, when she discovered the place by following feral cats. Like Bernard Isaac, she appeared in various films and documentaries. “I’m a celebrity, you know?” she says with a hint of pride in her voice.

She has perfected her story for journalists along the years. Everything she relates is recited like a school lesson. Her stint in the Marines. The death of her parents and the loss of her family house. The kids lighting her cardboard shack on fire in the park. Her boyfriend BK and their issues. The food bowls left at her door for the forty-nine cats she feeds.

She is a tough woman who speaks her mind, and she has the unyielding attitude of someone who has trudged through life. Her bandana and dreadlocks make her look younger than she is. People in the area know her, but she doesn’t socialize much anymore. She’s been lucky enough to avoid the Amtrak police. “I’ve been here all this time because I keep to myself,” she says. “The cops let me be. I don’t pose no threat!”

It’s already dinnertime. Tunnel stew today, a meal made of anything available — chicken soup, microwave mixes or thrown-away vegetables cooked over a crackling wood fire. “I wish I had a big kitchen with all kinds of cutlery and equipment,” she says.

“I’d cook all day long, man. That would be nice.” The food smells good and draws cats inside Brooklyn’s house. “You want some?” she asks, motioning at me to sit with her. The stew is surprisingly tasty.

“We’re just people,” she says after a while. “It’s hard, living here. You never get used to it. If you accept it, if you stop fighting, you’re done, okay? If you give up…you just die, you know what I’m saying?”

After she finishes eating, Brooklyn shows me a pile of recycling bags filled with countless Poland Spring water bottles collected at a nearby bodega. “This is my savings account for when I need extra money. You gotta be creative here,” she says as she gestures to the posters and pictures pinned on her walls.

Brooklyn is disappointed when I tell her I have to go. She calls one of her cats as I keep walking to the south end of the tunnel.

I soon reach Bernard Isaac’s old den, where I will spend the night, as I sometimes do when I want to taste the solitude he liked so much. The whole place feels like a grave. A cathedral for the dead and the fallen. Nothing is left from the former shacks. Even the smallest pieces of debris are gone.

I try to imagine how it was sitting here with him, watching the flames dancing in front of Pape and Smith’s reproduction of Goya’s “The Third of May.” I realize there is a certain power of being nameless and buried. A raw, burning power that some, like Isaac, will seek their whole life.

“Modern society is guilty of intellectual terrorism,” he once said while talking about Nietzsche’s philosophy with graffiti artist David “Sane” Smith, the younger brother of Roger Smith. Sane immediately sprayed the quote on the wall.

It encompassed Isaac’s entire way of thinking.

A train rushes by, almost silent with its unbearably bright lights, the air swelling around me as the cars dash past.

I’m rolled in my blanket, quiet in my alcove. I’m not sure I exist anymore. This place is not for anyone to be, I think.

I wait for dreams to come. Sleeping in the tunnel is an alien experience, but the sight of rain falling down the ventilation grates and streaking the chiaroscuro light is worth it alone, definite proof that poetry can endure anywhere.

This is the final byproduct of the city. This is civilization pushed to its foremost edge, a harsh place if any, dangerous and unforgiving, but a peaceful place at the same time, welcoming in its grimness. This is a dark and wild beast inviting you to come closer because nothing will ever be all right, but she will always be at your side to keep you warm.

* * *

When Amtrak decided to reactivate the Riverside Park tunnel’s train tracks in 1991, about fifty residents were evicted from the shantytown and received vouchers for temporary housing. This first round of evictions wound up largely ineffective and the population quickly grew back to its initial size, as people from up top encampments went straight to the tunnel when they were swept up by police during Mayor Giuliani’s effort to clean up the streets.

The Empire Line trains rushing through didn’t stop them from coming down here.

Amtrak Police Captain Doris Comb started calling for more enforcement, effectively pushing the homeless out of the active railway. Different times were looming ahead. Safer times. Sterilized. Hygienic. “We try to offer the homeless a variety of social services,” Comb would explain in 1994. “The problem is that most homeless are completely isolated. They feel rejected and decline assistance.”

Bernard Isaac still held a grudge against Comb eighteen years later, for having seized the #102 universal key to the exit gates an Amtrak employee had given him. “It was clear in my head that I didn’t want to go,” he told me in 2012, sipping a tea on the Hudson River Greenway. “We were ready to brick up the entrances if needed. We knew that we would have to leave eventually, but we didn’t want to accept it just yet.”

The tunnel residents weren’t quick to fill the multitude of forms requested by the Social Security Administration. Some flatly refused to cooperate and gave up all hope of being granted Section 8 apartments.

In 1994, U.S. Secretary of Housing Henry Cisneros visited the dwellings and, realizing the urgency of the situation, released 250 housing subsidy vouchers and a $9 million grant to help the squatters move to appropriate accommodations. Unfortunately, Department of Housing Preservation and Development policies prevented this from happening immediately; the Mole People were not considered “housing-ready” even though they had already created homes from nothing, complete with furniture and decorations.

It wasn’t until Mary Brosnahan, director at the Coalition for the Homeless, negotiated with Amtrak to temporarily delay the evictions, that the vouchers were distributed to the tunnel community. The dwellers eventually received permanent housing, leaving the tunnel mostly empty for the first time since the mid-1970’s.

Margaret Morton would later write in a 1995 New York Times article that this solution had been by far the most economical for the city. “It costs more than $20,000 a year to keep a person in a cot on an armory floor,” she wrote. “It costs about $12,000 to keep that person in the kind of supported housing being made available to the tunnel people.”

As the photojournalist Teun Voeten would discover in 2010, some of the former squatters later achieved normal lives again. There would even be success stories. Ralph, one of the subjects of “Dark Days,” became manager of an Upstate New York hotel and owner of a cleaning company.

Then there were the others.

One would commit suicide, sitting in front of a running train. Another was found dead in his apartment. Another succumbed to AIDS. Another simply vanished. Isaac’s friend Bob Kalinski, the speed cook, moved to a 42nd Street SRO building where he still lives at this time, in a wheelchair and with a serious heart condition.

Bernard Isaac passed away in late 2014, closing a chapter of an old New York legend. His ashes were sprinkled across a creek in his native Florida.

The legend was gone, but homelessness was more real than ever.

According to Coalition for the Homeless, between 58,000 and 60,000 persons slept in NYC municipal shelters every month of 2015, an all-time record since the Great Depression, with numbers increasing for the sixth consecutive year.

“As liberal as New Yorkers want to be known, I think there’s a class war at work in this city,” Jeanne Newman, the founder of outreach group SHARE and a dear friend of Bernard Isaac, explained during a phone conversation.

Eighty percent of New York’s shelter population is currently made up of families — many working multiple jobs to make ends meet. There were 42,000 homeless children across the five boroughs in 2014.

“Do you know what the major cause of homelessness is in this country?” Newman asked. “It’s the lack of affordable housing. End of story. Everything else becomes a symptom. Drug issues, domestic violence issues, they’re all symptoms, as opposed to being a cause. The cause is lack of affordable housing.”

The median Manhattan rent jumped more than seven percent in August 2015 compared to the same period in 2014, while affordable housing placements fell sixty percent between 2013 and 2014.

“We’re the wealthiest country in the world, why are we not fixing this problem?” Newman asked.

“Amtrak Police Department now does inspections on a regular basis for signs of homeless persons and encampments,” Cliff Cole, Amtrak’s New York manager of media relations, told the Wall Street Journal in 2011. At the time of his declaration, only five people had been found living in the Riverside Park tunnel, but a different community was already growing on a nearby dead-end street dubbed the Batcave.

Today, Chris Pape’s murals are slowly vanishing, painted over in 2009 to discourage urban explorers from visiting the tunnel. His “Buy American” masterpiece, dedicated to the tunnel’s former residents and featuring portraits of Isaac and Kalinski, doesn’t exist anymore. His Goya reproduction has been damaged by water. In a few years from now, it will be completely gone, washed away by the elements.

* * *

Morning light is different in the tunnel — colder maybe, and whiter, casting long straight beams onto the rails. Wind gusts make dust rise up in whirlpools. A blue jay flies past a grate. I wake up and New York slowly comes to life.

“God will save me, and it will save you, and it will save all these people too. Soon, we will all be saved,” Carlos says later, as we watch a basketball game in Riverside Park, the overpass casting its shade over our heads.

Carlos lives holed up in an old sewer pipe of about six feet high by five feet wide near the south entrance to the Riverside Park tunnel. He is one of the few original dwellers who stayed. His house is small but very practical, entirely concealed by a metal lid he takes great care of pulling on every time he gets inside. “It’s a good hideout,” he explains in a thick Spanish accent.

His electricity is tapped from an outlet further down the tunnel, allowing him to store his food in a refrigerator and have heat during winter. “Insulation is pretty good. I’m comfortable and no one can see me. I’m used to it now. It’s good for reading. I read a lot. All kinds of books. I read them and I sell them.”

The increased police patrols make his life less simple than it was a few years ago, but he keeps an upbeat attitude about it. “They don’t give me trouble too much. Sometimes they try to make me leave. It’s my home, I tell them. Maybe I live like a mole, but I’m not an animal.” He just wants to be left alone.

Carlos shows me where a decomposing body was found by Amtrak workers in 2006, months after taggers had discovered it. Two femurs bundled in cargo pants, neatly laid into an old child stroller, with pieces of leathered skin still attached to them, and a skull standing on top of a nearby pole.

This was the tunnel’s way of saying hello.

We walk around together to go check on Terry, an older alcoholic man who has been staying here since his wife threw him out of their apartment in Harlem’s Lincoln Houses public housing complex. Carlos is concerned about Terry’s health.

“He’s been drinking too much,” he says. “Last week I had to call 911 on him again.”

We find the old man sleeping on a couch behind a safety wall. A copy of Steinbeck’s novel “Of Mice and Men” rests on the sofa. Inside, a sentence is underlined in blue ink. “Guys like us got nothing to look ahead to.”

We stay a moment at his side before I finally leave the tunnel, emerging from the wet ground behind a grove of trees. The streets seem slower than usual. The clouds heavier.

“What does not kill me makes me stronger,” Nietzsche wrote. But hurt doesn’t make us stronger. Hurt just makes us hurt. And hurt lives in the land of the lost, and unites them in missing love and broken homes, for five cents a can, 240 cans per day.

The few Mole People left today survive in hurt.

They are relics of a New York that was, and witnesses of a world so estranged that nobody truly remembers it anymore. Most are too late for the topside life.

How easy it would be to go away and never come back.

But this is their city. This is their home.

These are their minds wandering and their time slipping.

Their hopes and their thirsts until the sun goes down.

Away — to a place made of birches and wet leaves and blue afternoons and muddy clothes, a place where dark days would be foreign — a place for them and all the unseen, warm as liquor, where hurt would be sweet and love would be real.

* * *

Anthony Taille is a freelance writer exploring untold tales of Americana. His stories have appeared on Medium, Narratively, Vice Magazine and Thought Catalog. He is currently based in Montreal with his wife and daughter and is finishing his first novel while trying to survive the local climate. You can read his latest work on Medium and follow him on Twitter @anthonytaille.

 

 

The Day My Therapist Dared Me to Have Sex With Her

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

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

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

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

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

“Oh, yeah,” I say. “That.”

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

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

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

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

I shrugged my shoulders, only half looking up.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Nailed it.

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

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

* * *

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Why not?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

There were two ways to find out:

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

2) Keep going to therapy.

* * *

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

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

“I don’t know.”

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

Here we go again.

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

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

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

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

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

“What?” I respond, flustered.

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

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

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

“Of course not.”

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

“I wouldn’t do that.”

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

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

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

* * *

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Isn’t therapy supposed to ameliorate my anxiety?

* * *

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Exactly.”

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

* * *

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Lori’s great at forcing me to reflect.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

* * *

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

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

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

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

* * *

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

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

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

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

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

* * *

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

See the complete list of Editors’ Picks here. 

* *

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

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