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

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.

The First Black Astronaut and America’s Secret Outer-Space Spy Program

Major Robert Lawrence was trained by the Air Force in an elite Cold War-era program. This is why you've never heard of him.

On December 8, 1967, a specially modified F-104 Starfighter rolled down the runway at Edwards Air Force Base in California. The weather was cool and crisp, around 50 degrees. The wind speed was eight miles an hour from the south-southwest, and visibility was 20 miles. The mid-afternoon weather, in short, was perfect for flying.

According to an account by former NBC News reporter Jim Oberg, Major John Royer piloted the fighter, which had been modified to fly like a rocket plane such as the X-15. Royer was being taught a new landing technique by Major Robert Lawrence, age 32, who flew as copilot in the rear seat. Lawrence, an African-American Air Force pilot with 2,500 hours of flight experience, had helped develop the novel maneuver, called “flaring,” which involved bringing up the nose of the aircraft as it made a final approach to the runway. The technique would enable the pilot to decrease speed quickly before touch down, an important consideration for a vehicle that might one day return from low Earth orbit.

As the F-104 taxied along the runway, Lawrence was at the pinnacle of his profession: a test pilot and, since June, an Air Force astronaut. He had every expectation of one day flying into space, doing his part in his country’s race to the stars. Meanwhile, he was doing one of the things he loved best: imparting hard-won flying knowledge to another pilot. He had led a good life, but Major Robert Lawrence had just a few minutes left to live.

Major Robert H. Lawrence, Jr. in front of an F-104 Starfighter, 1967. (Photo courtesy U.S. Air Force)

Royer piloted the aircraft to 25,000 feet, and made the first of several planned approaches to the airstrip, coming in hard to simulate the speed of an aerospace vehicle like the X-15. On one of these approaches, something went wrong. It is not recorded if either of the two pilots realized that the aircraft was coming in too hard, or whether they had time to react. The official accident report states that the F-104 hit the runway 2,200 feet from the approach end. Royer and Lawrence likely felt the two main gears collapse under them as the plane landed left of the centerline of the runway. The canopy shattered, exposing the two men to the outside desert air. They may have smelled the smoke from the underside of the plane’s flaming fuselage. After skidding 214 feet the aircraft became airborne briefly and then crashed back onto the runway, skidding off the tarmac and into the dirt. As the plane began to break apart and roll over, both men ejected.

The ejection system launched Royer more or less vertically. He survived the crash, albeit with horrible injuries. Lawrence was not so lucky. When he departed the F-104 the plane had already rolled, so the ejection seat launched him horizontally, slamming him into the ground. His death was likely instantaneous. Thus died the first African-American astronaut before he had the chance to fly in space.

* * *

Lawrence was buried in his native Chicago with full military honors, with eight of his fellow military astronauts in attendance, as well as the Mayor Richard Daley. The flags on public buildings were lowered to half-staff in mourning. His funeral was a public event, as much as it was a chance for his family to say farewell.

In a strange way, Robert Lawrence’s entire life was preparation for something he never got to do: go into space.

Portrait of Major Robert H. Lawrence, Jr., 1967. (Photo courtesy U.S. Air Force)

“He was scholarly and serious,” said Lawrence’s father, the elder Robert Lawrence, in an interview with Ebony. “As a small boy the expression on his face reflected a kind of dedication. But I didn’t consider him a precocious child.”

Every year for Christmas, young Robert asked for a newer, more elaborate chemistry set. The future astronaut had a love of science that began in his early childhood and lasted his entire life, and he had the discipline to see his dreams through.

“This may sound unbelievable,” said Lawrence’s mother, Gwendolyn Duncan, “but I don’t know of any occasion when I had to discipline either of my children. They had a discipline that must have come from within.”

When he was a child, Duncan told Ebony, the family purchased a piano that came with eight discounted lessons. The instrument was a great expense for the family, and Duncan “emphasized to Bob the importance of his making all the lessons.” Crossing the street on his way to one of the lessons, Lawrence was hit by a truck. The driver leapt out and offered to take Lawrence to the hospital, but Lawrence refused. He had a piano lesson to get to.

Lawrence graduated at 16 from Englewood High School, located on the South Side of Chicago, in 1952 in the top ten percent of his class. He went on to graduate from Bradley University, located in Peoria, Illinois, at age 20 with a bachelor’s degree in chemistry. He was a member of the ROTC and was the corps commander of that organization at Bradley. Lawrence received his commission as lieutenant in the Air Force upon graduation.

After undergoing flight training at Malden Air Force Base in Missouri, Lawrence spent the next several years posted at Fürstenfeldbruck Air Force Base near Munich, teaching flying to West German pilots. While he was stationed there he married Barbara Cress, whom he’d met several years before. They had one son, Tracey Lawrence, and returned to the United States in 1961.

Lawrence was on course for a lifelong career as a flight instructor, but he wanted more. He enrolled at Ohio State University’s graduate program in physical chemistry. By the time he achieved his Ph.D. in 1965, he had accrued 2,500 hours of flight time — giving him the unique characteristics necessary to become an astronaut.

“He was probably the best graduate student I’ve ever advised,” said Dr. Richard Firestone, his graduate advisor, in an interview with Jet. “He [was] very intelligent, and he worked very hard. In fact, he worked as hard as a grad student should, which is unusual…. Also [he had] a lot of courage… not the kind of courage one needs to fly a jet air craft, but intellectual courage. He was quite a resourceful student, the kind who thinks for himself.”

According to several accounts of Lawrence’s life, he applied to NASA twice and was turned down both times. Although NASA refuses to confirm this, it wouldn’t be unusual. Many talented pilots failed to make the cut. But in 1967, NASA wasn’t the only game in town. Although it is little remembered today, the Air Force had a space program of its own: a vision of military space exploration far different from the peaceful ideal promoted by NASA.

* * *

The Air Force’s manned space program started with the Dyna Soar, a rocket plane meant to be boosted into Earth orbit atop a launch vehicle. The military envisioned the Dyna Soar as a platform for carrying out real-time reconnaissance, to inspect and interfere with enemy satellites. In case of emergency, it was designed to perform space rescues. The cost of the project soared, and that — along with lingering doubts about whether or not the Air Force should even have astronauts — caused the program to be cancelled in 1963. The military shifted its manned space efforts to something even more ambitious: the Manned Orbiting Laboratory program.

The MOL was to be a small space station in polar orbit, crewed by two Air Force astronauts whose missions would last about a month. The MOL would be equipped with a photographic system called Dorian, which had a higher resolution than cameras then available on unmanned satellites. The two astronauts would photograph targets on Earth as part of an ongoing reconnaissance program. Other duties for the MOL crew might include operating a radar system, testing electronic intelligence-gathering devices, assembling other orbital space stations, and inspecting enemy satellites. They would, in effect, be spies in outer space. Six months before he died, Lawrence was chosen to join their ranks.

Major Robert H. Lawrence Jr. and members of the Manned Orbiting Laboratory Group 3, L-R: Robert T. Herres, Robert H. Lawrence, Jr., Dr. Donald H. Peterson and James A. Abrahamson, 1967. (Photo courtesy U.S. Air Force)

When he was tapped for the project, the MOL was still just an idea, so Lawrence’s duties were strictly ground-based, such as traveling to visit contractors that were involved in the project. These trips were done under the radar, with officers like Lawrence wearing civilian clothing and even using assumed names. This arrangement proved to be a problem for Lawrence, as he had already achieved some measure of fame in the media as the “first black astronaut,” even though the program he was a part of was considered secret.

Lawrence was often accompanied on these trips by fellow MOL astronaut Donald Peterson, a white officer who hailed from Mississippi. At the time, young white men and young black men traveling together was rare. Often restaurants would not serve them, even though the practice had been made illegal under the Civil Rights Act that had been passed a few years before. Peterson, though born in the segregated south, was boundless in his admiration of Lawrence, referring to him as a “real super guy” decades after his death, according to NASA’s oral history. Many of Lawrence’s friends remember his good humor with fondness. Peterson went on to join NASA and fly on a space shuttle mission.

Major Robert H. Lawrence, Jr. and his team, 1967. (Photo courtesy Astronauts Memorial Foundation)

Major Lawrence was well aware of his status as a role model for African Americans and of the difficulties he and other black people faced in the turbulent 1960s, but he tried to avoid relating his career to the civil rights struggle. At a press conference with the other MOL astronauts, Lawrence was peppered with questions about his race. He avoided addressing such questions directly, declaring, according to Jet, that he was “a scientist, not a sociologist.” Self-effacing, he refused to compare his selection as an astronaut to the then pending nomination of Thurgood Marshall to be a justice of the Supreme Court. Having a black man chosen as an astronaut, he said, was “just another of the things we look forward to in the normal progression of civil rights in this country.”

If he had a cause, according to a profile published in Ebony shortly after his death, it was for more black youth to enter STEM fields. He believed that his success was due to the encouragement of his family, and his luck in attending a remarkable public high school that turned out an exceptional number of engineers, scientists, doctors and lawyers.

When Robert Lawrence walked out to the flight line at Edwards Air Force Base for the last time, he had a future that was boundless as the heavens.

A year after Lawrence’s death, President Nixon cancelled the MOL project, calling it too expensive, and no longer necessary thanks to advances in satellite technology and NASA’s plans for Skylab. If Lawrence had survived, he probably would have joined the other Air Force astronauts, and been transferred to NASA. He likely would have flown on the space shuttle, and become the first black man in space. It was not to be.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

* * *

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

* * *

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

That Time I Tried Topless House Cleaning

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

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

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

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

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

Ayep,” Possum replies in his drawl.

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

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

* * *

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

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

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

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

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

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

* * *

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Awright.” He hangs up.

“Will you touch it?” Jim asks.

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

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

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

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

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

“A hundred?”

“Oh, no. I couldn’t.”

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

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

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

“Oh my god,” he says.

I giggle. “No, goddess.”

“Oh my goddess.” He smiles.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

* * *

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

The Day My Therapist Dared Me to Have Sex With Her

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

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

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

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

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

“Oh, yeah,” I say. “That.”

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

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

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

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

I shrugged my shoulders, only half looking up.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Nailed it.

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

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

* * *

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Why not?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

There were two ways to find out:

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

2) Keep going to therapy.

* * *

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

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

“I don’t know.”

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

Here we go again.

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

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

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

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

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

“What?” I respond, flustered.

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

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

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

“Of course not.”

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

“I wouldn’t do that.”

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

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

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

* * *

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Isn’t therapy supposed to ameliorate my anxiety?

* * *

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Exactly.”

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

* * *

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Lori’s great at forcing me to reflect.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

* * *

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

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

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

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

* * *

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

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

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

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

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

* * *

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

* * *

“What’s your favorite porn scene?”

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

The possibilities run through my head.

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

They’re also lies.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Are you sure?”

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

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

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

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

“Go on.”

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

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

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

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

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

And so I tell him.

* * *

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

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

And then realizing that person is me.

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

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

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

I was out of control.

* * *

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

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

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

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

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

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

* * *

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

That’s why I need to tell my husband.

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

Check out our behind-the-scenes interview with Erica Garza on Continuing the Narrative, a Narratively members-only series featuring Q&As with the authors of our most popular pieces.