How Trump Seduced the White Working Class By Preying on Their Physical Pain

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Can an actual ache in their bones explain why so many Rust Belt voters flocked to the New York billionaire? A coalminer’s grandson digs deep to find out.

I once took a drive on the back roads from Brooklyn, New York to Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. Cruising 55mph from small town to small town, I couldn’t help but notice all the billboards advertising treatments for illnesses and ailments: back pain, fibromyalgia, asbestos exposure, cancer. This wasn’t the America I was used to. Bombed-out Main Streets, sad sack bars, Wal-Mart, and lots of pain pills. It was depressing.

I grew up privileged: private grade school, high school and college. I got a master’s degree from Columbia University. I have a trust fund. But I wasn’t totally unfamiliar with this other America. Somewhere deep inside, coal runs through my blood. When I think about where I come from, I don’t think of the suburbs of Washington, D.C. I think about my grandfather Angelo Rotondaro, an immigrant coalminer from Scranton, Pennsylvania.

The author’s grandparents on their wedding day (left) and with their children (right). (Photos courtesy Vinnie Rotondaro)
The author’s grandparents on their wedding day (left) and with their children (right). (Photos courtesy Vinnie Rotondaro)

Growing up, hearing stories of grandpop’s life – how he emigrated from Italy at the age of five, left school in fourth grade to become a breaker boy in the anthracite coal mines, where he worked his entire life to provide for his family – he became like a saint in my life. I loved and revered him, even though we never met. He died before I was born.

So it was always a little strange to visit family in Scranton for Easter as a child, peer out the backseat window and think: Grandpop’s city looks cloudy. Even when it was sunny, Scranton had a gloomy feel. It didn’t back when my dad was growing up nearby in Pittston, Pennsylvania. The area was hardworking and quintessentially American, populated with immigrants, jobs and optimism. These were communities built on the American Dream.

But now all that optimism is gone. Today Scranton is a “Rust Belt” town. Its residents are no longer “blue collar,” strong and proud. They’re “white working class,” almost a pejorative. What happened? There is something going on in this country that “deplorable” alone cannot explain.

In 2015, Angus Deaton, winner of that year’s Nobel Prize in Economics, and himself the grandson of a British coalminer, co-authored a study with Anne Case showing that middle-aged American working-class whites have been in the throes of an unprecedented 22 percent rise in death rate since 1999, largely attributable to alcohol, drug abuse and suicide. The change “reversed decades of progress in mortality and was unique to the United States; no other rich country saw a similar turnaround,” noted the study, explaining that “Self-reported declines in health, mental health, and ability to conduct activities of daily living, and increases in chronic pain and inability to work … all point to growing distress in this population.”

In attempting to understand the forces that the led to the election of Donald Trump, it is vital to understand the world of pain in which many white working class Americans live. It is a world in which “people are not proud of their jobs, not proud of their house, not proud of the future they see for their children,” as a relative of mine from Scranton put it; a world that drug makers continue to saturate with opiates even as overdoses surge. This is a world that too many other Americans do not seem interested in understanding.

Interviews with pain researchers and social critics – conducted in advance of the election – paint a picture of white working-class life that is riddled with pain, chronic and persistent, physical as well as emotional. If left untreated, pain roots itself into a person’s psyche, compounding or even creating somatic illness through stress and depression. What happens to a culture or a people that has been dealing with a painful socioeconomic reality – the pinched nerve of economic decline, social marginalization, offshoring, automation, globalization – for thirty-plus years with no end in sight? What happens to a group of Americans who, unlike others, were once fortunate enough to believe in the American Dream, only to see that dream shatter before their very eyes?

* * *

Earlier this year, a previously little-known author named JD Vance published the memoir Hillbilly Elegy, covering his Scotch-Irish ancestry and his childhood move from Jackson, Kentucky, to Middletown, Ohio. He writes about the struggles of his family; of his dysfunctional mother and distant father; of his “mamaw,” or grandmother, who provided the stability and safety that he credits with saving his life; of his rise through the Marines and out of the downward spiral that claimed so many he knew growing up; and of his unlikely cultural emigration into the ranks of the liberal elite, attending Yale Law and becoming a principal at an investment firm in San Francisco.

The book became a New York Times bestseller and now serves as a kind of Rosetta Stone for intellectuals who want to know about the white working class. Vance characterizes the white working class as people dealing with “bad circumstances in the worst possible way.” I asked him if it would be fair to characterize his book more generally as a story about pain.

“I definitely think there’s an element of that,” he said. “As I write in the book, my mom first turned to prescription opioids after my grandfather died … and in some ways, opioids, whether it’s heroin or the prescription stuff, it’s the way of coping with a variety of different problems that they have, whether that’s emotional pain, or whether that’s cynicism or hopelessness, which I guess is a form of pain.”

I brought up the concept of psychological pain, of pain as a state of mind. “Absolutely,” Vance responded. “What’s fundamentally going on in these communities, in my community, is a fear of the future. A sense that things are extraordinarily unstable, and that maybe tomorrow is going to be worse than today, and yesterday. That is a state of mind, and it sort of takes on a life of its own. It wants you to feel so pessimistic about the future that it starts to color everything you think and everything that you feel.”

According to the American Psychological Association, “people often think of pain as a purely physical sensation. However, pain has biological, psychological and emotional factors. Furthermore, chronic pain can cause feelings such as anger, hopelessness, sadness and anxiety.”

It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to see how Donald Trump exploited economic woe and cultural pain to fuel his presidential run. In a country where 51 percent of all American workers make less than $30,000, Trump dominated the “white inequality” vote. A recent Brookings Institution analysis found that the 2,600-plus counties Trump won combined to generate only 36 percent of the country’s economic activity last year, while the fewer-than-500 counties Clinton won combined to generate 64 percent.

Trump also won the “oxy vote.” A study out of Pennsylvania State University documented Trump’s strong support in counties where opiate overdoses are rife. Speaking to Business Insider, the study’s author, Shannon Monnat, explained: “I expected to see it because when you think about the underlying factors that lead to overdose or suicide, it’s depression, despair, distress, and anxiety. That was the message that Trump was appealing to… such a sense of hopelessness that it makes sense they would vote for massive change.”

Scores of traditionally blue counties that have been hit hard by the opiate epidemic flipped red, according to research conducted by historian Kathleen Frydl. In Pennsylvania, where fatal drug overdoses increased fourteen-fold between 1979 and 2014, “only four of 33 high-overdose counties” failed to flip from Democrat to Republican.

The day before the election, Trump held a rally in Scranton. He spoke in a manner that seemed designed to appeal to people in pain, and gave that pain an immediate sense of context. “Hillary has openly stated that she wants to shut down the mines and ban shale production,” he said to a chorus of boos (it was an oft-repeated campaign claim that fact-checkers ruled half-true at best). “You folks can’t be too happy about that.”

Scranton and the rest of Northeastern Pennsylvania, or NEPA, used to vote solidly blue. But around the time that the effects of globalization began to kick in, the party drifted away from blue-collar whites. Democratic leaders began targeting “professional” workers, like doctors and lawyers – many of whom previously voted Republican – and emphasized outreach to “minority” voters and women to provide a new base for the party. Working-class whites, once part of the in-crowd, were now out. Their votes were still wanted, of course, but the bloc brought baggage and was no longer essential, so the Democrats stopped knocking.

Trump exploited this to maximum effect. He took the truth and twisted it. He told his audience that they had been screwed. And in many ways, they have. The trade deals crafted in globalization’s wake have been anything but kind to the working class.

In 2015, the middle class ceased to be the country’s economic majority, representing a shift of historic proportions. In cities and states across the country, people were voting for increases in the minimum wage by huge margins and across party lines. Trump and Bernie Sanders emerged out of nowhere, drawing giant crowds and captivating swaths of the electorate. The writing was all over the wall. But in the end, only the Republicans picked an outsider with populist appeal.

At the rally in Scranton, Trump played with his audience’s emotions. He told them they had been duped and dumped by the Democrats. The chants of “lock her up” carried a quality of contempt that might otherwise be reserved for a cheating ex. He promised to unleash an “energy revolution” in Pennsylvania. “We will put our miners back to work and we will put our steelworkers back to work,” he said. Nevermind if any of it is possible. Cheers and cheap catharsis. He told the people what they wanted to hear. He eased the pain, if only momentarily, like a pill.

A billboard leading into the town of Shamokin, in Northumberland County, Pennsylvania. Since 1930 the town’s population has dropped by half as industry declined. In recent years the anthracite mines and associated businesses have closed, depressing the town further. Photographer Joel Anderson explores the coal mines near his Pennsylvania hometown for his project “Hard Coal.” “What I assumed were tough jobs of economic necessity revealed themselves as an intricate brotherhood going back generations, and deeply woven into the community,” he explains.
A billboard leading into the town of Shamokin, in Northumberland County, Pennsylvania. Since 1930 the town’s population has dropped by half as industry declined. In recent years the anthracite mines and associated businesses have closed, depressing the town further. Photographer Joel Anderson explores the coal mines near his Pennsylvania hometown for his project “Hard Coal.” “What I assumed were tough jobs of economic necessity revealed themselves as an intricate brotherhood going back generations, and deeply woven into the community,” he explains.

“You have one day to make every dream you’ve ever dreamed for your country and your family come true,” he said. “You have one magnificent chance to beat this corrupt system and deliver justice for every forgotten man, every forgotten women and every forgotten child in this nation.”

The lure of Trump’s message was that of rolling back time: of erasing all the hurt, and going back – back before you were forgotten, back when you had something to believe in, back when you were strong.

* * *

By any account, my grandfather lived a very hard life. He and my grandmother Rose lost two children, one in infancy and one at the age of six. Grandpop himself died of black lung, which is a terrible way to go, a form of suffocation caused by a lifetime of exposure to coal dust.

“The life of a miner is brutal,” my father told me. “Brutal. But it was for him a way of providing for his family. So it was hard, but it was purposeful.”

Left: The author’s father graduating college. Right: His grandfather wearing a hat showing support for Jimmy Musto, a Democrat in Pennsylvania’s House of Representatives. (Photos courtesy Vinnie Rotondaro)
Left: The author’s father graduating college. Right: His grandfather wearing a hat showing support for Jimmy Musto, a Democrat in Pennsylvania’s House of Representatives. (Photos courtesy Vinnie Rotondaro)

My father was the second Rotondaro to go to college; he earned a master’s degree and PhD. We Rotondaros have done well for ourselves. We are journalists, researchers, doctors and lawyers. “We made it,” my dad said. For my grandfather, “having a hard life, that was how you provided well for your family,” he said. “It wasn’t just a matter of putting food on the table – that was part of it – it was also a question of, you could reach, you could aspire, you could move out.”

I asked my dad if Grandpop ever felt beaten down by life. Hardly, he said. “Here was a guy who had the most brutal job imaginable, a job that was as dangerous as virtually any job in America, and he would come home and he would garden roses.” The flowers, my dad told me, provided “that extra bit of beauty in his life that he needed.”

Grandpop believed in the American Dream. “People like my father believed that you come here, you work hard, and you can get ahead, or at least your kids can get ahead,” my dad said.

“I think that the sense of hopelessness that exists in some of the communities you’re talking about,” my dad added, “is there after so many years of being ignored, if you will, by the political parties, by the elites. We did not have that in my day… We felt powerful … We could take on any problems, any obstacles.”

“I think of pain for so many blue collars today as something like Greek tragedy,” he said. “It’s a fall from a high place to a lower place. With blue collars, with miners, with people who feel like they have no options, it’s like being in an abyss, and you can’t climb out. You’re not yourself anymore… To me, that would be a brutal kind of pain, one that would certainly have deep psychological effects, and one that, I imagine, would have physiological effects as well.”

* * *

I know how pain can affect your mind. When I was sixteen I had a major back operation: correctional surgery for scoliosis. My spine had wandered sixty degrees in the wrong direction and the docs said they needed to wrangle it back. I can still remember the anesthesiologist looking down, sticking me with the needle and counting back from three as the world spun away. The surgeon broke through my ribs, severed nerves, dislocated my spine, fused vertebrae and slapped an iron rod on top. I’ve been dealing with pain ever since.

Daily pain. Standing in line at the store pain. Sitting down to dinner pain. It’s just part of my life. For a long time it didn’t really bother me. I felt invincible in my twenties. I’d play basketball, lift weights and drink till I dropped, wake up and do it again. When I was 23, I pulled a muscle in my lower back, and didn’t take any time to let it heal. It nagged, but I just blasted through. I was able to. But things changed when I hit thirty. That muscle in my lower back was hurting more and more. I was living in New York City – fun enough – but all of a sudden it felt like the city was living on me. I proposed to the love of my life, Audrey. Two months later her father died, out of the blue. It was crushing. I felt like I had to be Atlas. I felt like I had to hold up the world, but my back was killing me and I didn’t want to admit it. Something inside me broke.

It wasn’t my spine. I saw my old surgeon and took some x-rays, and he assured me his work was solidly in place. But the pain was still there, relentless, growing; tension in my body, tension in my mind. Life wasn’t as fun anymore. The pain got in my brain.

I asked Kim Gorgens, a neuropsychologist specializing in brain injuries at the University of Denver, about how a person’s psychology can influence their experience of pain.

“It is really a false dichotomy to think that we can separate the psychological from the physiological,” she said. “There is a huge emotional or psychological component to the physical experience of pain. It can exaggerate the experience of pain … In psychology, we think of pain almost as an emotional state.”

When pain gets in your brain, you get negative. You stop seeing things clearly, and problems begin to multiply. “It is your physiology,” Gorgens says. It results in “higher levels of atherosclerosis [blocked arteries], the risk for stroke is much higher – and these are just a few examples out of a thousand.”

Could this explain the economist Deaton’s documented 22 percent death rate increase among the white working class? Gorgens thinks so. “Their occupational exposure is related to increased risk for disease,” she says, “but there is likely this other layer, which is that the experience of feeling helpless is related to the increased incidence of disease, and increased susceptibility to disease.”

Social isolation also plays a role. Think Trump’s appeal to the “forgotten man and woman.” As Emma Sepal, of Stanford University’s Center for Compassion and Altruism Research, has written, “…loneliness hurts. A brain imaging study showed that feeling ostracized actually activates our neural pain matrix.”

“Buck,” who only provided his first name, is a co-owner with his father of a mine that employs five people in Schuylkill County, Pennsylvania. The old mine had been worked for thirty years when the coal seam ran out. They moved equipment a quarter-mile away to dig exploratory trenches.
“Buck,” who only provided his first name, is a co-owner with his father of a mine that employs five people in Schuylkill County, Pennsylvania. The old mine had been worked for thirty years when the coal seam ran out. They moved equipment a quarter-mile away to dig exploratory trenches.

I reached out to Greg Hood, a Kentucky-based physician who’s been researching the role that loneliness plays in opioid addiction in Appalachia – which his findings suggest is home to the combined peak of opiate death and self-reported loneliness.

“We know that social isolation has become as potent a cause of death as smoking fifteen cigarettes a day,” he told me, “and not just depression and addiction, but dementia, hypertension and suicide, all of which are more prevalent among isolated, lonely people.”

“Appalachia in particular is geographically isolated and is increasingly economically isolated,” he said. “There are a lot of injuries from the mines, and now with the administration’s priority on not using coal, there have been massive job losses … and so you have these core, injured people without any new opportunities, and they’re stuck. They can’t go anywhere.”

So how do you break this cycle?

David Bresler, a pioneering researcher in the field of pain management, explained how chemicals in your brain can affect a patient’s tolerance for pain.

“In pain medicine, morphine is our reference standard,” said Bressler. “We compare everything to it. So Dilaudid, which is a pretty potent narcotic, is ten times stronger than morphine. Fentanyl, what killed Prince, is one hundred times as powerful as morphine… But what if I told you that inside your brain is a neuropeptide called Beta-endorphin and that that peptide is thousands of times more powerful than morphine?”
Bressler said this likely explains fluctuations in pain tolerance. “Why don’t soldiers who are injured in battle complain the same way that civilians with similar injuries do? Why does the football player break his arm and not know about it until he gets back into the locker room? Why are people given sugar pills and told they’re powerful pain medicine, and get pain relief? All of these things probably cause the brain to secrete endorphins, which raise their tolerance for pain.”

Bresler advocates techniques like meditation and guided imagery to raise tolerance for pain. (In my own experience, meditation and breathing exercises have proven key.) He said he has patients with horrific injuries who utilize these techniques and take no pain pills at all.

“If you think about it,” he said, “pain is telling you that something is wrong. It’s trying to get your attention, that something needs to change.

“And emotional pain, depression, it’s really the same thing. I see people who have no tolerance to even the slightest disappointment, and then people who have had tragedy after tragedy heaped upon them, and they’re still chugging away.”

“There’s probably the same amount of pain everywhere,” Bresler said, “but less tolerance to it in the areas that have all the drug mills and chiropractors and people promoting pain medicine.”

It makes me think of those billboards on the Pennsylvania backroads. “Whatever you give attention to grows,” he said.

* * *

I am convinced that my Grandpop was able to rise above pain that otherwise might have ruled his life not just because he was tough, but because he believed his work meant something – he believed in the American Dream. And I am convinced that the perceived death of that dream is what is driving the decline of working-class whites.

In Hillbilly Elegy, Vance writes about the development of his own sense of optimism as a young adult: “That feeling I had in college – that I had survived decades of chaos and heartbreak and finally come out on the other side – deepened. The incredible optimism I felt about my own life contrasted starkly with the pessimism of so many of my neighbors. Years of decline in the blue-collar economy manifested themselves in the material prospects of Middletown residents. The Great Recession, and the not-great recovery that followed, had hastened Middletown’s downward trajectory. But there was something almost spiritual about the cynicism of the community at large, something went much deeper than a short-term recession.

“To understand the significance of this cultural detachment you must appreciate that much of my family’s, my neighborhood’s, and my community’s identity derives from our love of country…If mamaw’s second God was the United States of America, then many people in my community were losing something akin to religion.”

Surveys show that working-class whites are the most pessimistic people in America. Is their Dream dead? It would hardly be the first time that a people’s dream has died in this country.

About a year ago I travelled to the Cheyenne River Indian Reservation in South Dakota – not too far from Standing Rock – to report on the present-day effects of “the Doctrine of Discovery,” a centuries-old justification for dominating native people and landscapes with origins in papal bulls.

Over the course of my reporting, I learned from a nun who works on the reservation as a social worker about the phenomenon of “intergenerational grief,” or the effect of the past on the present, and how trauma gets inherited. In Cheyenne River, I met a 65-year-old man named Zigmund Hollow Horn. As a child, Zigmund had been demoralized at a Catholic boarding school, where his language and religion were banished, and he received physical beatings. Friends received the same treatment at state-run, Protestant-inspired boarding schools.

“I’m a cancer patient,” Hollow Horn said, “I wear a heart pacer. I’ve got blood clots. I’m diabetic, and my kidneys are failing. That is where I am at today. And I just, I’ve been in pain ever since I can remember, since I was four or five. And today I’m emotionally disturbed, and physically in pain. Day in and day out. I go to bed with it.”

The American Dream never bothered to consult with the dreams of Native Americans. Instead, white America felt it needed to crush those dreams so its own could grow. “A people’s dream died” at the Battle of Wounded Knee, the Lakota holy man and prophet Black Elk said. “It was a beautiful dream.”

Today, Indian Country is beset with alcoholism, drug abuse and suicide, just like white working class America – and this is where the cognitive dissonance becomes deafening.

* * *

When my grandfather came to this country, he was called a “dago” and a “wop.” But because his skin was white and he played by the rules, he was able to advance up the economic ladder. But black people couldn’t, brown people couldn’t. They were denied, systematically stripped of their rights.

Many of my friends can’t see past the racism of Trump. And neither can I. Anyone who exploits the kinds of emotions he does should never become president. But simply saying, “Trump won because of racism,” misses the bigger point.

I asked my dad what relations were like between blacks and whites when he was growing up.

“We didn’t have any black people in Pittston,” he said. “Pittston, Dupont, Scranton, Wilkes-Barre. They were eastern and southern European heritage. Irish, Italian. They were immigrants. Sons of immigrants.”

I asked him about racism in Scranton, and he told me a story I had heard a thousand times.

“I had brought a colleague home for dinner one evening – a black professor at the University of Scranton. Lou Mitchell. A neighbor came in the next day and complained about bringing – I’m sure he used the term, a ‘nigger’ – into the community. And pop just threw him out of the house. Told him never to come back.”

Okay, so Grandpop wasn’t racist. But were others?

My dad told another story, one I hadn’t heard before. He and Lou went to an Italian bar in Dunmore, Pennsylvania, to have a bite. “When we got up to leave, the bartender called out my name, because he knew me. He picked up the glass that Lou had drank from, and he broke it to symbolize: I don’t want any black guys in my place. Well, that was the last time I ever went in there.”

Matt Golden, a 39-year-old second cousin of mine from Pittston, who has lived in Los Angeles and spent significant time in New York City and Denver, said that racism still exists today in NEPA, but not in the way one might expect. Rather than KKK white supremacy, it’s more a combination of holdover ethnic “ball busting,” in which Irish are drunks, Italians are hot-headed criminals, Poles are dumb and blacks are lazy, and misplaced or irrationally angry. He didn’t say that racism is why Trump won here. Instead, he characterized the Trump vote in NEPA as the, “Burn it down vote.”

“They want to see it burn. Political arson,” he said. “The system of special interests, corruption, globalization, corporate greed, you name it. They just want to see it burn. It is like rooting for the hurricane to slam into the coast.”

“Trump didn’t make a rational play,” he continued. “He was appealing to the emotional nature of people who are hurting.”

He likened Obama’s victory in 2008 to a “shot of B-12” that didn’t last. “And now Trump’s like a Big Mac on the day you have a hangover. You know it’s not good for you, but it’s sort of what you’re craving.” Culturally, he said that people in NEPA feel a “sense of change, and it’s foreign change, because it’s not something that you touch and feel. It’s this different version of America. All we see are jobs going away, and people getting poorer, and ‘now you’re changing our culture.’ We’re not seeing any of the benefits of globalization, you know?”

At the home of longtime miner David A. Lucas, a Trump campaign sign stands alongside a monument to coal miners who have died from the black lung in Hegins, Schuylkill County.
At the home of longtime miner David A. Lucas, a Trump campaign sign stands alongside a monument to coal miners who have died from the black lung in Hegins, Schuylkill County.

Vance expressed a similar sentiment – that economic pain, not racism, explains Trump’s support among most of the white working class. “Racial anxiety comes in many shapes and sizes,” he said. “There are the David Dukes of the world,” and then there are those “who don’t understand why people talk about the problems in black communities so much. Maybe they see a protest against police brutality and think, ‘Those thugs need to get back inside.’

“Do I think those people have the right views of the world? Are they the views that I have? No. But I also think that with better political dialogue, those sorts of people could be made to feel a little more sympathetic to other people in our society. And if anything, calling them a racist just pushes them further to the David Duke side of the world.”

“Look,” Vance said, “here’s the day in the life of a working-class white person in Southern Ohio. You wake up, you’re looking to find a job, you open up the newspaper and you see that another kid has died of a heroin overdose. You look down the street and you see that another house is dilapidated. You go to the local store, and it’s closed down and been replaced by a pawnshop. [These people] feel pretty ignored by pretty much everyone. They feel judged by everyone. And even this little spiel doesn’t capture all of the feelings and all of the complexity. And so, is there an element of racism that is part of this complexity? Yes, but there is a lot else going on.”

* * *

Folks in NEPA are “feeling vindicated right now,” my cousin Matt Golden told me. “They’re pretty fired up. I think there’s a probably a little sense of hope for people who haven’t had much.”

Will it last?

Far from draining the swamp, Trump is stacking his cabinet with corporate execs and Wall Street fat cats. Structurally speaking, he is inheriting an economy that has added millions of jobs since Obama took office, but one where nearly all the gains have passed the white working-class by.

Coalminer Bob Shingara taking a smoke break during the closing and decommissioning of the old Little Buck Mine. This building was soon torn down, and the miners hauled their huge equipment away to a new location. His family has been mining for three generations and most of his uncles, brothers and nephews are miners.
Coalminer Bob Shingara taking a smoke break during the closing and decommissioning of the old Little Buck Mine. This building was soon torn down, and the miners hauled their huge equipment away to a new location. His family has been mining for three generations and most of his uncles, brothers and nephews are miners.

As Edwardo Porter writes in the New York Times, “Many of the jobs created since the economy started recovering from recession were in service industries, located primarily in large metropolitan areas – not in small towns and rural areas where the factories that once provided steady good jobs were either shuttered or were retooled to replace workers with machines.”

“Can Mr. Trump do more for his supporters than previous presidents?” he writes. “It’s doubtful. Most of his promises are empty. No matter what he does, he cannot bring back the coal jobs of yore or the old labor-intensive manufacturing economy. Some of his proposals – walling off the country with protective tariffs, for example – would make things worse for the middle and working class, while tax cuts for the wealthy will exacerbate inequality rather than lessen it.”

If Trump won’t save them, is there any way for the white working class to dig itself out of this hole?

* * *

On the morning of January 22, 1959, my father was studying for an exam at the University of Scranton when a newsflash came over the radio announcing that there had been a flood-in at the mines.

My Grandpop and others had been working dangerously near the Susquehanna River – illegally near the river, ten higher-ups were eventually indicted, and six went to jail – when the roof of the mine shaft caved in. Hundreds of thousands of gallons of cold water began rushing through the galleries. Twelve miners died in the first flash of the flood. My grandfather, alongside 25 others, wandered in the dark for hours on end, searching for higher ground. Up above, railroad cars were being dumped into the whirlpool in a futile attempt to plug the riverbed. As night began to fall, my grandfather’s group happened upon a dim beam of light. It was a mineshaft shooting straight up to the outside. In an act of preternatural athleticism, one of the miners climbed it, and called for help.

“It was pitch dark at night,” my dad recalls, “and we heard that a group of men had been rescued. We went immediately to the Pittston hospital, because we didn’t know who had been rescued. We got there, and we found my father.”

He was worn-out but uninjured. It was the last day he ever worked in the mines.

Anyone who deals with chronic pain knows that there are times when it comes on so strong that it can feel like you are down in the mine, with the water coming in. There are times when it can feel like the world is caving in on you.

I asked the poet Thomas R. Smith about how the shared experience of pain influences white-working class life. He said, in essence, that pain is demeaning. “I myself come out of the white working class, northern Wisconsin division,” he wrote in an email to me. “So I have seen first-hand the decline that’s taken place…around my home town and environs as well as nation-wide. It must have been ten years ago that I first heard one of my brothers describe our family as ‘white trash,’ a term I never would have dreamt of applying to us.”

Like many, Smith pointed to economic woe as a cause of this downward trajectory. “What we probably need is to address the problem of income equality first of all, to reduce the material need and lack of opportunity that is driving so many families into poverty and shrinking their former providers’ self-esteem,” he wrote.

But he added, “part of the problem is certainly that there are a large number of our fellow citizens who simply cannot imagine a place for themselves in the world as it’s come to be in the 21st century. Imagination is important, and at this historical moment a failure of imagination can be fatal to our hopes for a just and equitable future.”

In my own experience dealing with pain, there were two things I needed to do before healing took hold. One, I needed to treat my body with more respect. I needed to ditch my hard-charging ways, which meant less alcohol, more sleep, healthier food, deeper breathing.

Two, I needed to tell myself new stories. I needed to shed my old skin, and evolve.

Simply admitting to myself that I was in pain was liberating. Letting down my guard, being vulnerable and open enough to admit that the pain hurts, that it makes you feel lonely, and then holding that opening – not letting let some other emotion rush in to fill the void – it opened a shaft of light in my own consciousness that I was able to climb. It took a few years, and there are still days when my back kills me, but I got the pain out of my brain.

When I look back on it, much of the pain stemmed from the shame I felt that I shouldn’t be having it at all. Grandpop suffered so I didn’t have to. I should have been stronger. I should have been more resilient. I needed to free myself from the guilt. The guilt was the pain. The guilt was depression.

I was able to climb my way out. But I have had every advantage. I have traveled the world, and attended the best schools; I was raised by wonderful, loving, wealthy parents. It’s not fair. I am the fruit of the American Dream, and the vine is dying. How do we breath new life into it?

My cousin Matt asked, “What do you think about the idea of a basic living income? What if, culturally, [the change] needs to be away from the sense that self-esteem is based on your job? What if we need to finally kill the puritan work ethic? Your sense of self worth shouldn’t be based on what you do for a living. We’re all running around, we’re pushing ourselves to work harder, and we’re being away from our kids more, marriages are falling apart… We’re not doing any of those other things that don’t have to do with work, and that maybe made us happier, or maybe gave us more self-satisfaction and a broader definition of who we are as people.”

What if, by trying to honor my Grandpop’s generation through imitation, the white working class forsakes the gift given by it? Those manufacturing jobs aren’t coming back. Those coalmines aren’t going to reopen. And even if they could, they shouldn’t. Climate change is real.

How will white working-class Americans transform their pain into something meaningful, the way my grandfather did?

It will take change from within and without, structural as well as spiritual. Maybe that will mean that we establish a basic income, with the haves giving back to the have-nots in this cruel “new” economy. Maybe it will mean that the Democrats get back to their roots, and embrace the white-working class, instead of ignoring them. Maybe it will mean better education on how to deal with pain – less pills and more mental tolerance. Maybe it will mean all of these things. Ultimately, it will take an act of imagination, both from the white working class as well as the rest of the country. Somehow we need to learn how to dream together, past our bubbles. Somehow, we need to find a way to transform our pain into hope.

 

 

He Was Harassed for Wearing a Turban. Then He Built a Global Fashion Brand to Show the World What Sikh Pride Means.

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Harinder Singh’s cheeky clothing is making waves in India — and far beyond — by putting a hip new spin on his ancient and often misunderstood culture.

Harinder Singh will never forget his trip to Italy in 2002. Singh, then 33, and his wife, Kirandeep Kaur, 29, were eating ice cream as they explored the sights and sounds of Florence. The streets were crowded, a blur of people and textures and smells. At first glance, the couple blended in with the other tourists of the city: two people in love, eager to travel the world and appreciate a new culture. Then they heard the students’ jeers: “Bin Laden! Bin Laden!”

The group of around sixty school children were pointing at Singh, a white turban wrapped delicately around his head.

“Oh my God,” Singh said to his wife in shock. But instead of walking away, the couple approached the children. Singh told them that they were from India and practiced a religion called Sikhism.

“Me and my wife started talking about our first guru, the revolution, our faith, we touched on Punjabi music and they knew Punjabi music so we got a lead there,” Singh says with a laugh. “That very moment was an exam for us. We decided we should do something about our identity since there’s no awareness.”

Immediately after their visit, on the seven-and-a-half hour flight from Italy to India, Singh began the initial sketches for what he describes as the first Indian clothing brand dedicated solely to Sikhism and Punjabi culture. Fifteen years later, that concept – called 1469, in honor of the birth year of the first Sikh guru, Nanak Dev – has expanded into a million-dollar company with international reach. They have five stores in New Delhi and in Punjab, an Indian state bordering on Pakistan that is the heart of the Sikh community.

Almost 58 percent of the population of Punjab is made up of Sikhs, but in Delhi, Sikhs constitute less than four percent of the total population.

Standing in their 1469 shop in Delhi, the couple talk about the idea behind their business. “People in Delhi feel that if I speak Punjabi, I am backwards and not modern enough,” says Kaur, dressed in a light green sari, gold bracelets dangling off her arms. “To keep in touch with your roots, you need to know your mother tongue. I feel we are losing the pride.”

Artwork on the walls inside the shop. (Photo by Ana Singh)

Scarves and saris in turquoise, pink and yellow hues line the walls of the shop, located in Delhi’s Janpath Market, one of the city’s best-known shopping areas. Tables are scattered with metallic jewelry and small sculptures, patterned bags and calligraphy accessories. Upstairs, the walls are filled with various t-shirts, many of which display Punjabi phrases, musical instruments and Sikh symbols.

Mayur Sharma, a frequent 1469 customer and host of the Indian travel show “Highway on My Plate,” says his favorite products are the t-shirts, especially the ones with the phrases “Pure Panjabi” and “Trust me I’m Pendu,” – the word pendu meaning “villager” in Punjabi. Sharma came across the company a decade ago and, since then, has pretty much only worn their t-shirts, even on his television show.

“I admire Harinder and Kirandeep’s passion for the arts, culture and history of our beautiful state,” he says. “You can feel the love in everything they put out.”

T-shirts with the phrase, “Jab we met,” referring to the Indian film directed by Imtiaz Ali about a Punjabi girl who meets a Mumbai businessman on an overnight train to Delhi. (Photo courtesy of 1469workshop.com)

Punjabi culture is one of the oldest in India; the region has a rich legacy of poetry, music, food and art – in addition to being the birthplace of Sikhism. The Punjab was unified under the Sikh Empire in the nineteenth century, until the British annexed the region in 1849 after the Anglo-Sikh wars, administering the region as a province of its Indian empire until Partition in 1947, when the independent states of India and Pakistan were established. Punjab was divided, with Hindus and Sikhs fleeing to India while Muslims moved to Pakistan.

Kaur described the partition of 1947 as a shattering experience for the Punjab, creating social, religious and regional divides. She feels Punjabi art and culture took the biggest blow. Today, their brand aims to reinvigorate that rich culture.

Singh, dressed in a bright, turquoise turban and black v-neck with the word fateh – or “victory” in Hindi – emphasized 1469 is not a religious brand because he doesn’t believe in selling religion.

“Sikhism is a big part of it and we ourselves are Sikhs,” he says, “but, it’s a regional place because our artists are Muslim also, the music comes from Punjab, which is partly in Pakistan, and so are the handicrafts.”

Harinder Singh (Photo by Ana Singh)

Sharma says he is Punjabi, but not Sikh. He describes Singh’s passion for the culture as inspiring.

Singh’s clothing didn’t always center on Punjabi culture. He got his start in the world of fashion after graduating from the University of Delhi in 1988. He says he noticed that most t-shirts sold in India came from abroad – Thailand, Hong Kong, South Korea – and were of dubious quality.

“I took an oath to myself to make a nice t-shirt for my country,” Singh says.

Models pose wearing 1469 t-shirts. (Photo courtesy 1469, via Facebook)

A year later, Singh started his own clothing company, Uni Style Image. He claims it is one of the first t-shirt companies in India’s history, and over the years partnered with major clothing labels across the world. In 2002, after over a decade with the company, grueling hours and time spent away from his wife and three children, Singh decided to leave to pursue other endeavors.

At the time, he had no idea he would eventually return to the fashion world as a pioneer of a wholly new concept centered on Sikhism and Punjab. But Singh also asserts he wouldn’t have it any other way. He describes being born into a Sikh family as a blessing.

“Our religion is so beautiful, so transparent, so clear,” he says. “It’s musical, it’s simple, it’s modern and it’s very lightweight.”

Singh observes that while 60 percent of their merchandise is sold to Sikhs and those within the diaspora Punjabi community, around 40 percent of customers practice other faiths. The brand is especially popular in Japan, where many customers buy the t-shirts online and in bulk, according to Kaur.

Clothing for sale in the shop. (Photo by Nicole Einbinder)

Going forward, Singh and Kaur hope to continue educating people, especially youth, about their heritage and faith. Kaur says they are working to bolster their online presence and plan to open new stores domestically, in the cities of Mumbai and Bangalore, as well as abroad in Canada.

“The best part about Sikhism is,” Kaur says, “it doesn’t tell you that you write this or read it and then become Sikh. It’s about the way you live.”

 

 

White Settlers Wiped Thousands of Miles of Cherokee Trails Off the Map. This Man is Reclaiming Them — By Walking Each and Every One.

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These routes once snaked through the towering woods of Appalachia, before they were lost to history. Lamar Marshall has spent a decade painstakingly mapping them, and their rich history.

Lamar Marshall cannot make it over the log. It lays across a small creek somewhere in the Nantahala National Forest outside Cowee, western North Carolina, as a bridge. His problem is a bruised knee, caused by a bang against his home firewood cord. Standing in front of the thick trunk, seeking another way across, he explains that while this particular log was not laid by ancient Cherokees, it does resemble the way they would fell logs to get across creeks like this. “They called ‘em racoon bridges,” he explains. If anyone would know this, it’s Marshall.

The former land surveyor, electrical engineer, and Alabamian anti-logging activist (in that order), is the world’s foremost expert on ancient Cherokee trails. At 68 he’s stocky, with a soft, even face, like a meatier Billy Bob Thornton, and long eyelashes. He speaks softly, with a southern drawl. In this forest, on a warm late-winter day, he wears spectacles and a hearing aid, but also a camo jacket and pants, a waist-pack stuffed with surveying gear and a pistol. It is often in this appearance, a hunter’s getup, that Marshall has personally mapped well over one thousand miles of Cherokee trails across Appalachia, compiling the mappings into a vast database, complete with historical annotations and Cherokee place names. And his boots are waterproof, he notes, as he carefully fords the creek.

Lamar Marshall.

There are certain attributes which are common to Cherokee trails. They tend to follow rivers or ridge-lines. They are often steep. Brett Riggs, an archaeologist at Western Carolina University with a specialty in Cherokee landscapes, equates them with a modern highway system in the way that they linked population centers (some are even replicated in modern roads). Horses, introduced to the tribe in the 18th century, were sometimes used, but mostly Cherokees travelled by foot, in soft-soled moccasins. Inside Marshall’s home there are photographs of him as a young man wearing nothing but a loincloth and these moccasins; he used to sometimes explore the woods of his native Alabama dressed this way. “It was just kind of a fun thing to project myself back into time,” he explains. “I always admired the native lifestyle. Maybe I played cowboys and Indians too much when I was little. I was always the Indians, I know that.”

Marshall’s project, a largely independent venture, has taken up nearly a decade of his life. It is no small feat. He has braved wasps, mosquitoes, ticks, chest-high nettles, rainstorms, hypothermia. Much of the routes are so steep that early Europeans avoided them. Though he has no academic credentials, he scours archives across the country for primary source materials that contain mention of the trails. It is an immense labor but he is nonchalant about his motivations. “I love the trails. I love walking on the trails, camping next to the trails. And feeling like right now: what did the first white people see when they came up here?”

Prior to his trails project, Marshall headed a conservation group in Alabama. He is an ardent environmentalist and near militant in his activism. But while his greenie cred would do well by any Greenpeace tree-hugger, Marshall is also a Republican, gun-owning, bear-hunting Creationist. But if the contrast seems odd, in Marshall’s mind protecting God’s work from the nefarious designs of the state might constitute the very essence of American patriotism. “Wilderness to me is the ultimate expression of freedom,” he says.

Those who benefit most from Marshall’s efforts are modern Cherokees. His work is funded by the Eastern Band tribe in western North Carolina, to whom all the mapping data will go. It will be used in schools. Riggs, the WCU archeologist, is helping Marshall make the maps interactive, with historical storylines and photos. “This is much more than just trails: it’s the ecology of the trails, the geography of the trails,” he says. “They don’t have this history. They just don’t have it.” Indeed, this is the first time that the trails have ever been compiled into a single source. Marshall also hopes to get some of them protected by the United States Forest Service, who he has collaborated with in the past – the North Carolina state is figuring his trail data into their upcoming forest management plan. Marshall plans to be finished with the whole enterprise in September, when he will hand everything over to the Eastern Band tribe. “This will help them maintain their cultural heritage,” he says. “They’re losing that.”

Tom Belt, a Cherokee language expert at WCU who is also Cherokee, describes the project’s impacts on the tribe as unprecedented. Like other native peoples, the Cherokees have long struggled to define their own historical identity and nothing is more crucial to that than landscapes. “It may be a town or a gas station to the United States or the state of North Carolina,” Belt says, “but at one time underneath it might have existed a very extensive culturally-based community that doesn’t exist now. That’s the kind of stuff we wanna know. What was the name of that place?”

Marshall consulting a topographic map near the Cowee mound.

Riggs, too, believes that compiling all of this data into a single source will prove empowering for the tribe, especially its young people. It is one thing to have a vague notion that some land was once yours; it’s wholly another to see it clearly laid out, and how ownership has changed over time. “When you take some place and you rename it you’ve asserted that, ‘This now belongs to us’,” he says. “If you can, even on paper, reverse that process so that you make it clear that there was a Cherokee landscape here, it gives Cherokee people a conceptual ownership that in many cases they are currently lacking.”

“We didn’t come into a blank howling wilderness,” he adds. “We took over this place.”

* * *

On May 28, 1830 the United States congress passed the Indian Removal Act. It granted permission to relocate Native Americans living in the east to the unsettled land west of the Mississippi. Some left willingly, but the Cherokee Nation – a collection of affiliated communities extending from Kentucky to Alabama – resisted. Conflict had existed for over a century between the Americans and the Cherokees and by now the federal government had grown strong enough to simply take them away. The eventual expulsion, which lasted from 1838-39, resulted in the death of over 4,000 Cherokees. The route over which they headed west is today called the Trail of Tears. Many perished in transit.

Today, Cherokees are found in three quasi-sovereign districts in Oklahoma and western North Carolina. But while most of their civilization was wiped out, burned down, built over or abandoned, it was not erased. Vestiges remain for those who know what to look for: graveyards, earthen mounds, houses, tree carvings; the imprints of a smudged-out, penciled-over peoples. Connecting all of these archeological sites is this vast network of trails, thousands of miles of footpaths trodden over centuries of travel.

Marshall entering his “man cave” at his house in Cowee, North Carolina.

And to flip through old maps of Appalachia is to witness the shrinking of a nation played out in faded ink. Treaties often followed conflict and, with each one, Cherokee land shrunk; the younger the map, the less territory is marked as theirs. Events are painfully clear in hindsight.

Marshall keeps these old maps in his home office in Cowee, where he moved eight years ago from Alabama. There is a small desk with four desktop computer screens squeezed between boxes of historical documents: traveler journals, survey plats, three-hundred-year-old land deeds. On the wall is a buck head and a sticker that reads, “I Am Not Ashamed Of The Gospel Of Christ.” Over time the maps get better, too. They are more clearly laid out, with properties divided into perfect squares. Text is less flowery and more legible. Topography is defined numerically. There are fewer and fewer Cherokee towns until there are virtually none at all.

Most of these maps were produced by the United States army. For Marshall’s purposes, they are critical. It is with these frail maps that he locates trails before setting out into the hard world to survey them. He brings one on every hike. He takes notes as he goes, looking to match his observations with any landmarks mentioned on the maps, and marks landmarks with GPS coordinates. When he gets home he plugs this data into his computer and, using GIS software, constructs digital versions. When a trail’s done, he moves to the next.

* * *

Marshall traces his fascination with the Cherokees to his childhood in Birmingham (“I hated the concrete, the development”). Survivalist books first exposed him to them. In his eyes, they seemed idyllic. “They didn’t have to go to school. They didn’t have to get a job in corporate America. They lived off the land. They were totally free.”

A photo of Marshall in his twenties in Alabama, dressed in traditional Indian attire.

He joined the Boy Scouts. He excelled. At eighteen, “emulating Tom Sawyer and Huck Finn”, Marshall constructed a raft from oil drums. With two friends, he drifted down the Alabama River from Selma to the Gulf of Mexico. Later he would win a state championship for fur-trapping. His childhood Cherokee interest was reignited by an “old mountain man” named Garvin Sanford who, on occasional forays into the forest for edible herbs, would show him abandoned Indian villages. They would follow the trails to get there.

For much of early adulthood, Marshall worked as an electrical engineer and land surveyor. With his wife and three children, he built a 3,000-square-foot homestead in Blountsville, Alabama. Construction took nine months. Drinking water came from an outdoor aluminum tank; one day Marshall found a squirrel decomposing inside. They raised livestock, fished the river, grew produce. When his only son died at 18 from a heart complication, the family moved to a house in Alabama’s Bankhead National Forest. They had 100 acres. Marshall hung a sign that read, “Trespassers will be shot and survivors will be shot again.” And another: “You believe in life after death? Trespass here and find out.” It was a frontiersman’s existence. For the first five years, they had no electricity.

But living in the woods provided Marshall with an intimate view of Alabama’s dimly regulated logging industry, which “nauseated” the lifelong nature lover. He did some digging and discovered how the management plan drawn up by the Alabama Forest Service had been “developed in collusion with the timber industry.” The tipping point for him came when loggers clear-cut a Cherokee sacred site known as Indian Tomb Hollow, decimating a burial ground. In conjunction with a local clan of Cherokees, Marshall and others rallied against the Forest Service, staging protests, making noise.

Thus, the conservation group Wild Alabama was born (it has since expanded and become Wild South). For over a decade, Marshall’s conservation group wrote petitions, staged protests, filed lawsuits, delivered public speeches, and published excoriating cartoons in the local newspaper satirizing Forest Service officials. This was his “guerrilla warfare” against corporate “tree racists.”

Marshall attempting, unsuccessfully, to cross a log in the Nantahala National Forest.

Marshall describes this part of his life like a veteran remembering war. “I envisioned a band of eco-warriors fighting for the last wild places of Alabama. Native American descendants rose up and we kicked ass for over a decade,” he says (the “descendants” refer to the various tribal organizations which often collaborated with Wild Alabama; Marshall does, however, claim to have three percent Native American ancestry).

Wild Alabama’s member pool represented an odd union of hippies, Indians, and rednecks; with a thick beard, dirty clothes and Cherokee ornaments, Marshall appeared as a hybrid of all three. Outdoor Life magazine called the group “the conservation conscience of a state that has traditionally lacked one.” The group boasted that its members could drink harder and shoot straighter than any naturalists around. Marshall once told a journalist, “Rattlesnakes have got fangs, porcupines got quills, skunks got the sprayer, and God Almighty gave Man the ability to invent the Colt 45 as his defense.”

* * *

Marshall approaches a huge earthen mound. It is an ancient Cherokee construction which sits in the middle of a wide empty field. Birdsong rings out across it and in the distance are rounded sloping mountains that are powdered white with snow. At the top of the mound, Marshall points down at the grass and says, “This is where the council-house sat. Here’s a depression that they believe was a fire-pit.”

From up here it is easy to imagine an earlier Appalachia: wide savannas thick with buffalo, the skies crowded with passenger pigeons, dense groves of chestnut trees, the brilliant red-black flash of an ivory-billed woodpecker – all of these species are extinct or sequestered elsewhere in the country. Savannas are gone. Towns are built over. Words are forgotten. There is a new country here. Marshall, in his camo gear, clutching an old map, sounding wistful, says, “The mountains haven’t changed.”

 

 

I Grew Up In a Fundamentalist Cult  Like the One in  “The Handmaid’s Tale”

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Don’t think Margaret Atwood’s dystopian vision is realistic? I was raised in a conservative Christian cult where women were viewed as submissive birthing vessels.

This story is republished from The Establishment, a publication that believes conversation is much more interesting when everyone has a voice. Media funded and run by women, The Establishment features new content daily.

It was a cold morning on the campus of the little Christian college I attended in Western Pennsylvania. Along with about twenty other students, I’d trundled in and unwrapped my coat and scarf. Now we all sat there sipping our coffees, waiting for the hardest class of the year to get rolling.

Our literary criticism professor paused as he announced the optional reading titles on our list for the next week, a funny look on his face.

“This one,” he said, “you may not like. It was written in 1984, published in ’85 or ’86, and was a reaction against the rise of the religious right — against the values that places like our school stand for. It’s pro-feminist, and anti-complementarian — against traditional gender roles. It sort of parodies what we believe in, in an interesting way. I’m curious what you’ll make of it.”

The shade thrown by my usually soft-spoken professor caught my attention. I had to read this book.

And so I did, unwittingly cracking open the beginning of the end for meek, conservative Christian me.

* * *

The story of The Handmaid’s Tale is a fairly simple dystopian one: A young woman is re-educated by the new totalitarian (and Christian) government regime to be a childbearing surrogate for the wife of a high-ranking military official. She tells her story after the fact, a narrative recorded on audio tapes found years later in someone’s attic. Her name is Offred, literally of Fred, having no name of her own anymore in this new society. It takes place in the U.S., post-Constitution, post-democracy, post-liberal humanism. Women are chattel. Religion is god. Order comes above all else.

To the average American in 1985, it seemed pretty far out there, an unlikely vision of future written as a warning. It’s been controversial since it came out, making ALA’s one hundred most banned books list between 1990 and 1999, but that was because of the sex scenes in it and the way it depicted Christianity. It wasn’t really taken seriously as political foreshadowing.

But for me, when I read it for the first time, it felt like a prophecy that echoed rhythm of the world I had been raised in, reflecting the vision my church and community had for the future of American culture and politics.

I was raised in a fundamentalist Christian community — the church we attended could fairly be called a cult, and my parents took things a step further than even our church did, homeschooling and raising nine kids. I was the oldest. We were part of a larger movement now called “Quiverfull,” the term taken from a Psalm where the writer talks about God blessing the man whose “quiver is full of arrows.” The metaphor refers to children, and our community understood this to be a command: Have children and raise them in this aggressively conservative faith, and then there will be more “true” believer Christians in the world to bring about cultural revolution in the name of Jesus Christ. Children like me were raised to see life as apocalyptic, and ourselves as serving on the front lines of a culture war to make America Christian.

Women in this world were treated much like those in The Handmaid’s Tale — most, like my mom, didn’t have their own bank accounts, didn’t have their own email addresses, and couldn’t leave the home without permission from their husbands. They were called helpmeets, a word taken from the King James Version of the Bible, which refers to wives as created to meet the needs of their husbands and be helpers to them.

I even participated in a super-conservative worship church dance troupe for young women, called His Handmaids — again a term taken from the Bible, from the Virgin Mary’s response to the angel Gabriel telling her she’s going to be pregnant with the Messiah, which some translations open with “I am the Lord’s handmaiden, let it be unto me as you say.”

Just like Offred, women existed within the community to serve higher purposes than our own desires. Young girls who led the congregation wore white dresses and were stripped of identifying features — no jewelry, no nail polish, hair tied back and not in the face — while wives were submissive helpers to their husbands, with my mother used as the fertile ground for my father to breed a quiver full of Christian culture warriors.

And me, the oldest child in a family of nine? As was common in the movement, I was my mom’s right hand. She sometimes called me her strength, because I helped her co-parent my younger siblings and keep the household running. When she had twins shortly before my thirteenth birthday, it was me who got up with her during the nighttime feedings, not my dad. When things were too busy on Sunday nights, I took over doing all the family laundry and ironing. And I did the dinner dishes almost exclusively for about 10 years, foregoing activities with my peers at church and in the community because I had too many obligations to fulfill at home. Like Offred, my life’s purpose was subsumed into serving the “greater good” of my far-right Christian community.

* * *

We were not alone, either. My situation grew out of a larger movement in the conservative Christian community to be more invested in politics and cultural affairs on the national level. This push was led by the “Moral Majority,” a group of Christian leaders founded by Jerry Falwell in 1971, which sought to take on Washington to bring Christian ethics to bear on policy at a national level.

The Moral Majority focused on issues related to their priorities for promoting and protecting traditional family values. They celebrated Ronald Reagan’s presidency and encouraged his refusal to act on the HIV/AIDS epidemic, which was killing thousands, largely because they saw it as fundamentally a judgment from God on the “immoral” behavior of homosexuals. According to historian Rachel Coleman — a Ph.D. candidate at Indiana University, who is also a Quiverfull Daughter and whose research focuses on twentieth century history of childhood, children, and religion — it wasn’t until kids started getting affected and dying from infected blood in transfusions that the issue was seen as valid. As a result, President Reagan eventually did act, releasing a series of PSAs about the epidemic…but these were all focused on kids, the future of the religious crusade for a Christian United States.

Also part of this movement was the rise of Operation Rescue, a Christian group that encouraged protest (and, loosely, some terrorist-style) tactics against abortion practitioners and those receiving abortion services. In the wake of Roe v. Wade passing in 1973, the Moral Majority hit on abortion as the issue that would most viscerally and immediately grab the attention of their audience and rally support and action at the grassroots level. We still see this struggle impacting negotiations on the Hill today, as abortion remains an impossibly hot-button issue, regularly derailing policymaking. Shock-and-awe tactics with grisly photos of dead fetuses and terror of increased government oversight on family-related issues drummed up droves of supporters buying into the agenda of the Moral Majority.

This terror-based approach to protecting the “traditional family” and “family values” had a watershed affect, driving the Right to work against civil protections for sexual orientation and gender presentation, creating a fear frenzy that drove the War on Drugs to incarcerate an entire generation of young black men, while causing Christian universities (led by my alma mater) to seek legal exemption from being under Title IX if they would surrender access to federal funding.

This collective terror also allowed Phyllis Schlafly and the Moral Majority to lobby successfully against the ratification of the Equal Rights Amendment in 1982. The United States is one of the last remaining countries in the world without a constitutional clause that protects the rights of women as full and equal citizens with men, and this prevents us from participating in key international coalitions against gender discrimination (like CEDAW, which we haven’t ratified either). The Moral Majority effectively took the United States backwards a century policy-wise — and we still haven’t fully recovered.

It was during this rise of the Moral Majority that Atwood wrote The Handmaid’s Tale. I was born, the first of what would be nine kids, just about five years after the book was first published.

Atwood has given many interviews about the writing of The Handmaid’s Tale and her creative process for it, but the thing that stands out to me the most is her comment that she made a rule for herself not to include anything in the novel that hadn’t already been done by some society, somewhere. Nothing was new.

And so, as I read the book for the first time that cold morning in 2010, the fictional world sounded a whole lot like my real life.

* * *

My ex-husband, who I met at that same little Christian college and who had also grown up in the same group of churches, wanted nothing more than to be a father, to have 10 kids and to homeschool them. When our marriage was careening to an end, we were sitting in a car outside his family’s house when he asked me if I might consider having a baby with him to rekindle something.

We’d chosen to wait initially for a host of reasons, the strongest one for me being that I had been raising kids for the last ten to twelve years of my life and couldn’t see myself having the energy to plunge back into the world of poopy diapers and snotty noses. Two years into our marriage, I’d had a few pregnancy scares and each time as I waited for my period, I had had nightmares and panic attacks, unable to shake a deep-set terror of being trapped at home with a baby and no life outside the home. I would wake up crying and shaking from a dream about being pregnant, and the next morning he’d make me coffee and listen to my stories and try to assuage my fears.

So when he asked me to have a kid to save our marriage, I was stunned. “Are you serious?” I asked.

“Don’t be that way!” he responded. “I just think that I could love you again if you were a mother.”

Speechless, I told him to get out of the car. “I’m not discussing this,” I said. “There’s no way in hell I’d bring a kid into this mess if we can’t fix this on our own.”

It was our last big fight. We stopped communicating shortly thereafter, and the next time I had a real conversation was at the courthouse after our divorce hearing. He asked me to go to lunch, and I said no.

Because I was running late for my gynecologist appointment to get myself an IUD.

* * *

Offred learns early on that she is not the first Handmaid to be given to the Commander’s household to bear a child for him and his wife. The last one, she gathers from bits of gossip here and there, committed suicide.

In her room there is a little cupboard, and on the back wall of the cupboard is scratched nolite te bastardes carborundorum, which is bad Latin for “Don’t let the bastards grind you down.” Offred assumes this message is left for her by the last Handmaid, a hand of camaraderie offered to her from beyond the grave.

Promotional material from the “Handmaid’s Tale” Hulu series, via Facebook.

When I ended my relationship to my father shortly after I got divorced, it was because he and I reached a crossroads where he had to choose to treat me according to his religious ideology or to treat me like a human, his daughter, his firstborn. He chose his ideology, and continued to use it to manipulate and mistreat myself and my mother and my siblings. We stopped talking, and I got my first tattoo — a black armband with script, “N.T. B. C.” Don’t let the bastards grind you down. Don’t forget you are human. Don’t forget what you have overcome.

Offred never tells the reader her real name — she only says she had another one, once. Under the new regime, her name is that of the man for whom she exists as a birthing vessel. It’s not important, she doesn’t exist as an individual anymore, her life is not her own.

When I got divorced, I repudiated the worldview that had been imposed upon me, rejecting a life where I existed only according to my relationship to my father or my husband. I took a new last name, a family name from further back on my grandmother’s side, naming myself to own myself. That was also the year I got my own bedroom for the first time, coming full circle out of a universe where my identity could not exist on its own terms, and carving out for myself a place in the world, a home, a name, a future that was my own to direct.

* * *

Today, Donald Trump is President of the United States, and there is increasing “constitutional anxiety” on Capitol Hill — what will he do next? The 24-hour news cycle is high-strung and exhausted, shrilly reporting on his tweets and Melania’s whereabouts and Ivanka’s so-called feminism.

Promotional material from the “Handmaid’s Tale” Hulu series, via Facebook.

Mike Pence is second in line for the presidency, and if Trump is impeached, we will have instead of an incompetent egoist for a president, a calculating and careful man who leaves a legacy behind him of anti-women, anti-LGBTQ, anti-immigrant policy-making. VP Pence is exactly the kind of man the Moral Majority of 1985 would have hoped to elect, as is demonstrated by their rallying around anti-minority and anti-choice legislators and policies and foundations.

The Quiverfull movement was created for this kind of world. I was raised to be a helpmeet in a world like Offred’s, and watching (white, middle class) liberals around me be shocked and unnerved by the election results has been curious for me. Didn’t they know this has been in the works for decades? I didn’t come out of nowhere, and neither did Trump, and nor did The Handmaid’s Tale.

Atwood recently wrote about the book in the New York Times, in anticipation of the new mini-series coming out on Hulu today, starring Elisabeth Moss and Alexis Bledel. In it she says:

Is ‘The Handmaid’s Tale’ a prediction? That is the third question I’m asked — increasingly, as forces within American society seize power and enact decrees that embody what they were saying they wanted to do, even back in 1984, when I was writing the novel. No, it isn’t a prediction, because predicting the future isn’t really possible: There are too many variables and unforeseen possibilities. Let’s say it’s an antiprediction: If this future can be described in detail, maybe it won’t happen. But such wishful thinking cannot be depended on either.

The publication of The Handmaid’s Tale during the time of the Reagan presidency and the Moral Majority was an apt collision of vision and fears expressed through fiction — the release of the new mini-series timed at the end of the first one hundred days of Donald Trump, U.S. President #45, is a powerful piece of foresight on the behalf of the studio which created it. Americans are more politically engaged than they have been in years, and we would all do well to pay attention to this “antiprediction” of a TV show in hopes that we can learn from it and resist the fruit of 1980s Christian conservative thinking running our government today, and save the future of our democracy.

 

 

The Day My Therapist Dared Me to Have Sex With Her

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

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

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

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

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

“Oh, yeah,” I say. “That.”

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

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

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

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

I shrugged my shoulders, only half looking up.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Nailed it.

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

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

* * *

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Why not?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

There were two ways to find out:

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

2) Keep going to therapy.

* * *

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

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

“I don’t know.”

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

Here we go again.

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

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

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

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

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

“What?” I respond, flustered.

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

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

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

“Of course not.”

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

“I wouldn’t do that.”

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

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

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

* * *

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Isn’t therapy supposed to ameliorate my anxiety?

* * *

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Exactly.”

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

* * *

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Lori’s great at forcing me to reflect.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

* * *

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

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

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

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

* * *

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

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

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

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

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

* * *

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

 

 

Why I Answered My Dad’s Gay Sex Ad

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In the Christian parenting books my dad wrote, we were always the most perfect devout family. When I found out he was secretly trolling for gay sex online, I became obsessed with unmasking the truth.

My brothers started recording as soon as they hit the parking lot. The video camera focused on Dad’s car in the distance. I never noticed how dark his windows were tinted, but now it made sense. He flashed his headlights twice. Was that something you did when you were meeting a teenager for sex in the alley behind a sporting goods store? They drove closer, unsure of what would happen next.

Dad had sent the time and location for the meet-up, expecting a quickie. When he realized it was his two sons in the car, and not the guy who had responded to his personal ad, he hit the gas and his tires screeched as he took off in the opposite direction. They sped after him until he stopped just as abruptly as he’d taken off. They pulled up to him like they were waiting at a stoplight. The camera recorded its own reflection in the dark glass as they waited. After years of trying, we had finally caught my father soliciting sex from strangers.

This was not the way my father would have written our story. In the Christian parenting books he authored, we were always the perfect family. We had the big house in the country, five happy kids, and an American flag flying on the front porch. Mom had graduated with a degree in home economics and thought it was cruel when other families allowed their kids to eat dinner in front of the TV. She had a lot of opinions on how other people should raise their children and had been outraged when our church opened a daycare center. It was a symptom of feminism and put everyone in jeopardy by enabling women to go back to work.

Dad was equally passionate about promoting family values and lobbied against gay marriage at the state capitol. He also served as an elder at our Southern Baptist church while running the PR department of a Fortune 500 company. Most days he would be gone before we woke up and arrive home shortly before dinner. Mom would rush to greet him, tearing off her oven mitts so she could take his briefcase.

“Be quiet now,” she’d say. “Dad’s had a long day and he’s very tired.”

If we were too loud or demanding, he’d be quick to let us know.

“I should go back to work,” he’d say. “They know to respect me there.”

I’ve read the books he wrote about my early childhood and wondered who this man was that claimed to have held me on his lap. I don’t remember these touching moments, nor do I recall any of the stories about him tossing a football with my brothers in the front yard.

That’s why it was strange when he suddenly started paying attention to me. It was the mid-‘90s and the Internet was still something you had to access with dial-up and a shrink-wrapped CD from AOL. Any time I’d walk in while he was on the computer he’d immediately turn to face me.

“Hey there,” he’d say, “how was school?”

I could hear the telltale sound of the mouse clicking to minimize a screen.

Dad had a secret.

Once he finished, I pretended I wanted to get on Instant Messenger. Instead, I downloaded a hacker program that secretly logged all encrypted keystrokes on our family computer. By the end of the week I’d gathered the passwords for everyone’s email accounts, including several with names like “Porndog” and “Horny69.”

With an eye on the door, I logged in. There were hundreds of emails from men with equally sexual screen names. Addresses and photos were being exchanged. Some of the boys looked my age. I was completely out of my depth. “Gay” was an insult people hurled in the hallways of my middle school — I didn’t realize there were actually men who liked having sex with other men, and I’d never have imagined my father was one of them.

I couldn’t reconcile this information with what I believed to be true about my family. It wasn’t my own deception, but it made my life and my identity feel like a lie. I was sitting in our family room with sunlight streaming through the windows and my childhood artwork decorating the walls, but I felt like a dark part of myself had been exposed. I was no longer living in a world where some of us were entitled to wag a finger of judgment.

It took hours, but I read every single email. When I was done I logged out of the account, deleted the hacker program and decided to pretend like it had never happened. I needed to believe the lie and continue being the smiling daughter of a godly man. To accept the truth was to lose everything I’d ever known and I was afraid of what I would be left with.

The years passed and I never said a word. I hid the secret inside of me but it began to take a toll. First there were blinding headaches so intense I’d be curled up on the bathroom floor, hugging the toilet. Mom took me to a doctor and he told me I had migraines. The next year I began to suffer from excruciating stomach pain that left me unable to eat. Mom took me to a doctor and he told me I had ulcers. After that, my hair began to fall out. My body turned against me and refused to give me my period. Every month my Mom would buy more tampons and I’d hide them in the bathroom cabinet with a year’s worth of unopened boxes. She eventually took me to another doctor and he told me I had depression. We stopped going to doctors.

* * *

Two days before I started my freshman year of college my car broke down on the side of the road. Mom was busy at a church fundraiser so Dad came to rescue me. We were rarely alone together but he was in a good mood and told jokes as we followed the tow truck. I remember feeling confused by how easily I could laugh aloud while simultaneously despising him. Until then I’d never acknowledged the source of these feelings, but the looming freedom of adulthood lured me into thinking it was finally safe. I decided I would tell my Mom that night.

I was the only one of my siblings still living at home. My brothers were either engaged or married, and starting their own families. I ate dinner with my parents, then they sat down to watch an episode of “24.” I knelt at the edge of the couch where my mom sat.

“I need to talk to you.”

“Wait for a commercial,” she said without looking up.

I told her it would take longer than a commercial.

“Then wait till the show is over.”

“Please,” I said. “It’s important.”

She finally looked away from the TV and a brief flicker of alarm crossed her face. Then she laughed.

“It can wait.”

I told her it couldn’t. I told her it was something that would ruin her life.

“You can ruin my life when this show is over.”

I went to my room and waited. Half an hour later she walked in and sat on my bed.

“Okay,” she said. “Ruin my life.”

I’d never seen my mom cry, but she was sobbing when I finished. I knew so little about this woman who’d spent the last eighteen years seeing to my every need. I had no understanding of who she’d been before she met my father. I worried I’d shattered her world and stolen her happiness, but it turned out she’d known he was gay since the second year of their marriage. She said she’d stayed “for the kids” and apologized that I’d found out the truth. She swore she hated him and planned to leave after my brother got married in a few months.

Then she told me I could never tell anyone about it.

“I will do whatever it takes to make you okay,” she said.

She suggested I delay my college enrollment and go stay with her cousin in Seattle. I was too numb to even think about it. I couldn’t believe I’d spent so many years keeping a secret when my Mom had known about it all along. That next day I packed everything into my repaired Honda Civic and moved into the college dorms.

When a week passed and I didn’t show up for family lunch on Sunday, Dad became suspicious. Mom told him everything and he demanded to speak with me. My phone would not stop ringing.

“Come home,” Mom pleaded. “We need to talk.”

I agreed to meet them at a local ice cream parlor where softball teams went after practice and small children smeared mint chocolate chip all over their faces. We sat on opposite sides of a vinyl booth while my Dad explained it all away.

“I hate myself for having done this to you,” he said with a practiced mix of shame and humility. “I should have killed myself a long time ago. I still pray for the courage to go through with it.”

His words were shocking and his eyes misty, but I could see a calculated coldness in them. He stayed quiet until I told him what he wanted to hear.

“No,” I said, “I don’t want you to kill yourself.”

His performance was so impressive I almost missed the part where he denied everything.

“You have to understand, it was only a passing thing. I’ve never acted on any of those thoughts. I am not…that way.”

He couldn’t even say it.

“Gay?” I asked.

Both my parents flinched.

“That’s a choice I would never make,” he snapped.

My Mom leaned forward like a Girl Scout closing a cookie sale.

“Does that answer everything for you?”

I nodded, not nearly as convincing a liar as my father. But apparently he wasn’t done.

“Only God in heaven knows why you saw what you did, but I’m sure he will use it for his good purpose, to bring the family closer to him.”

I turned to look out the window, saying nothing.

“So we’ll see you at family lunch next Sunday,” he finished.

When I didn’t show up as instructed, he launched a campaign of prayer against me.

“Dear Heavenly Father, our daughter is in such a rebellious phase…”

My brothers and sisters-in-law came to me on the sly, confused about why I’d become so “selfish.”

“I don’t know what more we could do for her,” my dad said. “We’ve given her everything. Perhaps we’ve spoiled her.”

Secretly, my mom continued telling me she planned to leave him after my brother’s wedding. Then autumn passed and a miracle occurred.

“He’s healed now,” she said. “He no longer struggles with…that.”

I tried to use the word “gay” again but she shushed me. I asked what word better described a man who snuck off to have sex with men while his wife and kids thought he was at work. This only made her angry.

“Your lack of forgiveness is very ugly.”

* * *

I decided I would prove it to her. Surely if she saw what I’d seen, she would have to face the truth. I began coming home to sleep in my old bed. I claimed I didn’t like living in the dorms when in reality I was sneaking into my dad’s office to go through his computer every night. I’d pore over his Internet history, documenting every sex chat room and adult hookup site. I was always careful to charge the laptop back to the same percentage it had been before I slid it back into his briefcase. After several weeks I’d compiled a spreadsheet full of recent activity. I showed it to my Mom, confident she would finally believe me.

“I don’t really understand how all of this works,” she said, puzzling over the timestamps and URLs. “I’ll ask your father about it later.”

He told her it was a misunderstanding, that I was clearly on a path of destruction. They decided to change the locks to their house.

* * *

A few months later my mom invited me over for lunch while Dad was on a business trip. I spent the entire afternoon listening to her lecture me on the importance of forgiveness. She said their marriage was stronger than ever. While she was in the bathroom I snuck into my old bedroom and cracked a window. It was just enough to keep it from latching but not enough for her to notice.

Later that night I parked at the end of their gravel road and walked the rest of the way in darkness. The house was silent as I slid the screen off the window and climbed through. I wasn’t sure when I’d have my next opportunity so I took screenshots of his entire image library and downloaded his emails to a flash drive. My friends texted me about going to a party but I didn’t have time to meet them — I was too busy guessing my dad’s password to Adult Friend Finder.

I took everything I’d found and finally told my brothers.

“Whoa,” one of them said. “I remember when I was nine and I said sailboats were gay. I wonder if that offended him.”

With my brothers and me on the same side, we called a big TV-style family meeting. I brought another spreadsheet I’d made to contrast his various trysts and online sexcapades with things like “this was the night we watched ‘White Christmas’” or “this was when he emailed me a Bible verse about the hardness of my heart.”

I thought I could persuade my mom by charting his exchange of dick pics next to her housework schedule. But it didn’t work.

“You are blinded by your own sin,” she said.

My father’s responses were even worse.

“I’ve touched the robe of Jesus. It doesn’t matter what you say, I’m healed. All you’re doing is trying to tempt me, but I’m stronger than that.”

He sent me long emails about how I was a tool of the devil. I pictured him with two computer screens open — one for looking up scripture, and another to Mapquest the location of his next bathroom rendezvous.

We were never going to have the cool kind of gay dad.

* * *

I stopped speaking to both of my parents, but I didn’t stop trying to expose him. Every time he denied my accusations, I became more motivated to dig deeper. It angered me that a man like him could so easily hide within the walls of a church or a seemingly happy home.

My mom informed me they would no longer pay my tuition so I took out a semester’s worth of student loans. I promptly failed my classes because I was too busy scouring homosexual hookup sites in search of my father. I decided to drop out of college but I was too ashamed to tell my roommates, so I kept leaving my house at the same time every day. They thought I was going to class but I was really parked outside my dad’s office, trying to catch him in the act.

I became obsessed. I was afraid I’d only ever existed as part of his cover story, but I no longer feared what I’d be left with when his lie was exposed. I decided my new reason for existing was so I could rescue my mom.

I’d almost given up hope when I stumbled across an online persona known as “Kyle Big Guy.” There was no photo, but I could tell it was him by the way he wrote and his preference for younger men. His generous Christianity came across in his willingness to give blowjobs without need for reciprocity. To prove it was him, I responded to the ad. I told him I was a seventeen-year-old named Rex who was looking to hook up with an older man.

He responded almost immediately. I wondered whether he was e-mailing from the couch while my Mom folded his laundry. Either way, I was going to bust him. This was going to be my smoking gun.

The next afternoon I purchased a prepaid cell phone and asked a male friend to record a voicemail message I’d written out on a sticky note.

“Hey this is Rex, sorry I missed your call. Leave a message and I’ll get right back to you.”

He sounded nervous and confused. It was perfect.

I e-mailed the number to “Kyle” and told him to give me a call. Shortly after five p.m. the prepaid phone began to ring. I shrunk back on the couch, watching it vibrate on my coffee table. My Dad’s number lit up the caller ID as it rang six… seven…eight times.

The room was painfully silent until the phone buzzed with a notification. He’d left a voicemail.

“Hi Rex, this is Kyle. You don’t need to be nervous, I’ll make sure you have a good time.”

His voice sounded the same as when he led Bible studies or repeatedly proclaimed, hand over heart, “I’ve only ever had sex with your mother.”

He left instructions to meet him behind a sporting goods store at two p.m. the next day. I was scheduled to work so I called my two oldest brothers. They decided to show up and record everything. He bolted, they followed him, and he finally stopped, ready for the confrontation.

The camera rolled as they waited for something to happen. The low rumble of their car engines filled the silence until my dad finally rolled his window down. His face was calm and smug.

“I knew it was you,” he said with a smirk.

My brother reminded him he was there to have sex with a minor.

“Why does it give you such joy to believe I’m a monster?” my dad asked. “I came here because I knew you were trying to trap me. I would never actually do anything like this.”

They tried to tell him how stupid he sounded, but he held up his hand like a martyr.

“I’m not going to listen to all of this hatred. I’ve been forgiven and healed. You need to deal with your own sin.”

Later that night, we called my mom. She answered on the second ring, her voice cheerful and happy to hear from us. We told her what had happened.

“It must have been a misunderstanding,” she said.

I began to cry, I was so frustrated. There was no way she could explain away the voicemail and the video of her husband in that parking lot.

“You need to learn to forgive,” she said between long airy sighs.

“Please,” my brother said. “Just leave him. We can take care of you. You can see your grandkids again.”

The phone was silent for a moment, and then I heard the sound of the refrigerator opening.

“Listen,” she finally said. “Your father will be home soon and I need to get this bread in the oven.”

This was the last time I ever tried to convince my mom of anything. I’d become so obsessed with trying to save her that I’d almost lost myself.

Several years later my father was arrested for trying to have sex with an undercover police officer in a local park. The news ran his mug shot and he was forced to retire from his high-powered job. Only then was he willing to admit he “struggled with same sex attraction,” promptly leveraging it into a new platform for book sales. Mom continued to run his PR campaign and still smiles happily on the jacket cover next to the line that describes him as a proud father of five.

* * *

Aussa Lorens is author of the blog Hacker.Ninja.Hooker.Spy. where some mistakes are too good not to share. Her writing has been featured on Cosmopolitan, Thought Catalog, The Huffington Post, and Scary Mommy. You can find her on Twitter @AussaLorens.

Eric Palma is a freelance illustrator living in New York City. His work has appeared in The New Yorker, The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal and the Smithsonian.