I’ve Spent Thirty Years Trying to Solve One Horrific Murder Case

In rural North Carolina, a Native American activist who investigated police involvement in the cocaine trade turned up dead. Will anyone help me find out why?

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This story is republished from MEL Magazine. MEL aims to challenge, inspire and encourage readers to drop any preconceived notions of who they’re supposed to be.

Charles Locklear and his brother Tony bounded up the back stoop of their cousin Julian Pierce’s brick ranch home. It was shortly after 7 a.m. on March 26, 1988, and the sun had just broken through the morning mist. The Locklears came to distribute “Julian Pierce for Superior Court Judge” lawn posters across the rural landscape of Robeson County, North Carolina. If Pierce — a 42-year-old Georgetown-educated lawyer who’d left behind a career in D.C. to advocate on behalf of Robeson’s poor and minority populations — won the election in early May, he would become the state’s first Native American Superior Court judge.

Pierce’s campaign literature made clear the disdain he felt for his opponent, District Attorney Joe Freeman Britt, “the very symbol of all that’s wrong with the most politically backward county in North Carolina.” Britt, a 6-foot, 6-inch anti-crime zealot, relied on “legal harassment, police brutality and voter intimidation to keep the white minority in control.” In 14 years in office, Britt had won more than 40 death penalty convictions, earning him the dubious title of “Deadliest Prosecutor in America” in The Guinness Book of World Records. Most of those facing execution were African American or Lumbee Indian — the tribe to which Pierce, along with more than a third of the county’s 110,000 residents, belonged.

Pierce’s work running a legal services office in Robeson helped shape his belief that the only way to clean up the county was through its judiciary. For months, he had conducted his own investigation into the widespread allegations of drug corruption within the Robeson County Sheriff’s Office, which he criticized Britt for ignoring. Cocaine trafficking was the county’s multimillion-dollar growth industry, tempting many Lumbees who were raised in poor sharecropping families like Pierce’s to reach for easy money.

In 1989, a young man speaking strictly on the condition of anonymity described driving to a field with a major dealer to pick up a kilo of cocaine from a sheriff’s deputy. Another told me of an arrangement where he paid $1,000 each month to a deputy sheriff in exchange for protection for his $10,000-per-month cocaine business. He said that one time, a group of narcotics deputies busted him, demanding to know which officer he’d been paying off, before divvying up his drug money among themselves. “‘If you mention anything about money it will be a worse punishment for you,’” he said they told him. “So I forgot about the money.”

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Julian Pierce (All photos courtesy MEL Magazine)

And while the Locklear brothers understood the risk in Pierce’s effort to investigate, they didn’t think much of the broken glass and blood smudges on the back door of his home as they let themselves in. “This asshole lost his keys and had to bust the glass to get in,” Charles remarked to Tony.

Charles pushed open the door as he shouted, “Don’t you know that anybody can walk in the house like this….”

The Locklears froze. There, in the kitchen, Pierce lay dead in a pool of blood. Two shotgun blasts had ripped through his chest and abdomen. A third shot entered just behind his ears, execution style, launching his brain and pieces of bone into the next room. A series of smallish, bloody footprints — “like the old-style tennis shoes a lady would wear,” recalled Charles — tracked across the kitchen floor, out the back door and into the carport.

“I can’t stand this,” Tony told his brother before rushing back outside. Charles pulled himself together and called the police. As the news of Pierce’s death spread, the Lumbees’ anguish eclipsed the brothers’ shock and grief. With his murder, the hope for justice in Robeson died, too.

* * *

When Pierce’s 17-year-old daughter Julia found out what had happened, “the first thing I did was go to my room, where I prayed for his soul.” In a daze, she, her mother and her twin brother Julian Jr. climbed into their van and began the 200-plus mile trek from their home in Virginia to Pierce’s in Robeson.

The last time the twins had traveled this route was three months earlier with their father at the wheel. The three of them barely spoke. The family had argued throughout Christmas about a letter their mother had sent Britt, in which she called Pierce an “egotistical, womanizing, hard drinking [man] … found guilty of adultery in court.” Should the letter spread among churchgoing Lumbee voters, it could harm Pierce’s political prospects.

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The Pierce family

But the mood changed over a fast-food lunch, when Pierce revealed there was something else on his mind. He told his children he suspected that Robeson County Sheriff Hubert Stone was “involved in drugs, and [he] was doing some work trying to prove it,” Julia remembers.

“Do you think you’re in danger?” she asked him. He paused for a minute and told her it was far more likely someone would attempt to discredit him by planting drugs.

Maybe you should back down — not run for judge, not investigate Stone.

The words ran through Julia’s mind, but she never said them. “It wouldn’t have stopped him anyway,” she said.

When Julia and her family arrived at her father’s house that afternoon, nearly 200 people, mostly Lumbees, had gathered on his front lawn. Some wept; others wore caps bearing his name or waved the campaign posters that hadn’t yet been distributed.

Stone, an affable, soft-spoken white man, greeted the family, informing them that forensic experts from the State Bureau of Investigation continued to scour for clues inside the house. As the afternoon wore on, Stone stepped before the crowd to ask for help. “We have very little on what we can go on,” he said. “We’re begging you to come forward.”

Instead, the group nearly revolted.

“You’re crooked as hell,” someone shouted, according to the Greensboro News & Record.

“Oh, God! Oh, God! How much longer do we have to take this?” cried a woman, collapsing to her knees on the grass.

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Lumbee tribeswoman waves a Pierce campaign sign. (Photo by Rob Amberg)

Stone was “shaking,” remembers Charles Locklear. “He was scared to death.”

“Is the killing political?” asked a reporter.

“It looks like he was assassinated,” Stone replied, according to newspaper reports. “I never thought anything like this would ever come to Robeson County, where somebody would kill somebody in their own home over an election.”

An older Lumbee farmer in denim coveralls drawled softly, “We need to go home and get our damn guns and start killing us some white people.”

Out of nowhere, the ambulance carrying Pierce’s body backfired. People on the lawn screamed and dropped for cover, believing shots were being fired.

Hardware stores had already sold out of shotgun shells earlier in the day. Religious leaders called for calm, and the governor put the National Guard on high alert.

The Lumbee community was terrified. If a prominent leader like Pierce could be murdered, then everyone in Robeson County was at risk.

* * *

People often spoke of Pierce’s opponent, District Attorney Britt, in a whisper, as though he were the Voldemort of Robeson County. Stories of Lumbees and African Americans being coerced to plead guilty in court were as common as the ramshackle tobacco barns that dotted the landscape.

“It’s hard to comprehend how unwholesome and suffocating the system was,” testified Maurice Geiger — an attorney and founder of a nonprofit that monitored Robeson’s courts — in 1991. In a review of thousands of cases from the 1980s, Geiger estimated that at least 1,000 innocent people were wrongfully convicted every year; he also found that Britt’s office used a range of aggressive ploys to force guilty pleas. The court calendar was manipulated to make defendants appear in court for days or weeks on end while they waited for their cases to be called. Others were tricked into signing forms that waived their right to counsel — often easy to do, given the county’s adult illiteracy rate of 30 percent.

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In 1987, the North Carolina Commission on Indian Affairs found the County’s record of disproportionately arresting and incarcerating Indians to be the worst in the state. “They’re going up against the Indian citizens almost with an army,” the commission’s head told the Charlotte Observer. “There is no justice there.”

Police killings of Lumbee men weren’t uncommon either. On November 1, 1986, Sheriff Stone’s 23-year-old son Kevin, a deputy sheriff, fatally shot Jimmy Cummings, an unarmed Indian, during a vehicle stop. But rather than call a grand jury to determine if criminal charges were warranted, Britt convened a coroner’s inquest — a hearing presided over by a funeral director with no legal training — to determine the cause of death. Kevin Stone offered no testimony, and after 12 minutes of deliberation, the coroner’s jury found his actions “an accident and/or self defense.”

Members of the Cummings family told federal authorities that Cummings had been dealing cocaine he said was stolen from the sheriff’s department evidence locker. Only two deputies had keys to the lockers — one of them Kevin Stone, according to The Robesonian. The family’s allegations, however, never resulted in fresh charges.

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The following year, Deputy Sheriff Mark Locklear shot and killed a Lumbee man named Edward Zabitosky after he gave chase during an attempted arrest. The coroner’s jury once again ruled self-defense. Months later, a TV station reported that a source had told Stone that Zabitosky was soliciting a hit on his son Kevin — an account Stone confirmed to reporters. Mark Locklear denies this possible motive, and it was never presented at any form of trial.

Outraged by the Cummings shooting and the hasty justice that followed, the Lumbee community launched a civil rights movement that climaxed in a protest march on April 20, 1987. To the beat of tom-tom drums, 1,500 Indians wended their way through the stately brick buildings of downtown Lumberton, the county seat, gathering on the courthouse steps with signs that read, “Fair Treatment in Courts, End Major Drug Trafficking, Stop Excess Force” and “Indian Hunting Open: Who’s Next?”

In this politically charged environment, Pierce began soliciting allies from the community of African-American and Indian lawyers to support his candidacy for the judgeship. Many residents, including Lumbee attorney Dexter Brooks, feared a backlash from the county’s elite. “There was a sense of danger,” says Brooks, who declined to offer Pierce his support at first. “[Pierce was] viewed as taking on the whole establishment.”

“There was a good old separatist history,” adds Rev. Sidney Locks, an African-American state assemblyman from Robeson who kept his support for Pierce private at first. “There were whites who didn’t want unity, blacks who didn’t want unity and Indians who didn’t want unity.”

(Photo by Rob Amberg)
(Photo by Rob Amberg)

Above all, Stone didn’t want unity among the area’s minorities, and he actively discouraged Pierce from running. “I approached him and asked him not to run for Superior Court Judge, and asked him to run for [a less powerful position instead],” Stone told me in a 1989 interview. “I said, ‘Joe Freeman Britt is going to run, and I’d rather not have a fight in an election over it.’”

But Pierce persevered. On January 8, 1988, he launched his campaign during a rare North Carolina snowstorm, which added to the sense that he was up against the impossible. Yet the following month Robeson’s political landscape transformed when Eddie Hatcher, a 30-year-old journalist, stormed the offices of The Robesonian and took 17 hostages — with the help of an associate and two sawed-off shotguns. His primary demand? For the governor to launch a probe into law-enforcement corruption in Robeson County, which over the course of the daylong hostage incident, the governor’s office agreed to do.

Like Pierce, Hatcher had been investigating local corruption, and he’d become terrified that his life was at risk because of what he knew. He’d obtained maps he said were given to him by a former police informant detailing players in Robeson’s drug trade, including Sheriff Stone, and he’d been sharing his leads with Pierce for months. “I told him about things I was learning,” Hatcher later told me through prison plexiglass in 1989. “Julian said, ‘I’m checking into things myself.’”

To Pierce’s surprise, the hostage-taking galvanized the community and turbocharged his campaign. “We felt it was worth a try to unite the African-American and Indian community,” despite the risks, explains Locks, who went public with his support for Pierce after the Hatcher incident. “We shook hands to that effect.” When a Pierce-backed school-merger referendum passed a few weeks later — putting an end to de facto segregation in Robeson’s schools — it signaled that Robeson’s minorities had come together for change, and that victory for Pierce was within reach.

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African Americans join Native Americans in protest. “He told me he felt he was going to win,” says Julian, Jr. “It made me proud. I was thinking, Dad’s doing something. And he sounded real good about himself. You know, good that he was helping people and that he could stop the illegalness.” (Photo by Rob Amberg)

On the night of March 24, Pierce’s volunteers met to discuss bringing the campaign into its final stretch. “We thought we were in a very comfortable position,” recalls Curt Pierce, one of Julian’s cousins and a trusted campaign adviser. “It was a matter of just holding our ground. That’s what we were talking about — that and the security thing.”

The “security thing” was the increasing sense that Pierce was at risk. “I’m not sure how it got cranked up, but we decided that somebody needed to move in with Julian,” Curt Pierce says. “There was a general consensus among us that something was going to happen, and we thought it would get to the point where he needed to surround himself with some kind of security. I even suggested he carry a gun with him, but he wouldn’t hear of it.”

That night, across town, while Pierce glad-handed at a political dinner, Stone took him aside. “Him and I walked off by ourself and we discussed it all,” Stone recalled in 1989. “[Pierce] said, ‘I know you and Joe [Freeman Britt] are working on me.’ And I said, ‘I’m not going to hurt you.’”

Pierce returned home angrier than Curt had ever seen him. “For the first time, he was anxious for someone to stay with him,” Pierce’s girlfriend Ruth Locklear told me in 1990. The next day, while Curt and Julian assembled campaign posters at a cabinet-maker’s shop, Julian told Curt about a message he’d received that morning from a campaign volunteer: “He told me, ‘Be very careful. There’s a lot of people down at the courthouse in Lumberton who are very nervous. From now on, we don’t want you by yourself at any time.’”

Curt asked Julian if he would let Curt accompany him everywhere he went, but Julian refused. “We finally concluded he wanted me to stay at home that night and tape the Carolina basketball game for him. He just really wanted me not to follow him. I still don’t understand it.”

* * *

Less than three days after Pierce’s murder, Stone stepped before the press to make a startling announcement: Julian Pierce had been killed by Johnny Goins, a 24-year-old Lumbee. The motive, according to Stone, was revenge, not politics: Pierce’s girlfriend Ruth Locklear had told Goins to stay away from her 16-year-old daughter, who was Goins’ ex-girlfriend. “Two warrants were issued last week by the girlfriend’s mother, charging Goins with trespassing,” Stone explained. “Goins felt Pierce had something to do with it. He got mad and he killed him.” Stone added that Goins had been helped by his neighbor, a 24-year-old Lumbee named Sandy Chavis.

Chavis, who had a history of anger issues and addiction, was taken into custody and charged with murder. Meanwhile, authorities found Goins in a closet at his father’s house, the side of his head blown off with a shotgun. His death was immediately ruled a suicide, the desperate act of a guilty murderer.

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“I can assure the world that there was no political involvement,” Stone said — the exact opposite of what he had said the day Pierce’s body was found. “The people of Robeson County will understand that it’s just another murder.”

Except that many of them didn’t — including Pierce’s family, the Lumbee Tribe and the broader community, who struggled to make sense of clues that didn’t fit the official story. For instance, even though Goins left his own blood and fingerprints on Pierce’s back door, the footprints found at the scene were too small to belong to Goins or Chavis. Goins’ autopsy reported that he’d written a confessional suicide note, but law enforcement failed to produce the document. And the shotgun Goins allegedly used to kill himself lay across his lap, with its barrel inexplicably open, although it had just been fired. Moreover, the sheriff’s office dispatch tapes from the night of Pierce’s death had gone missing, as had Pierce’s briefcase, which he told associates contained information that would blow the county wide open. “It seemed way too neat that Johnny [Goins] killed him and then himself before anyone could talk to him,” Julia says.

“Do you think it was Johnny who shot him?” I asked Sheriff Stone during that same 1989 interview, on one of many trips to Robeson over the past three decades, as I worked to make a film about Pierce’s life and find out the truth about his death.

“I’d rather not answer that,” Stone told me, citing concerns that doing so might undermine Sandy Chavis’ murder trial.

“Was the gun open?” I asked Stone about the shotgun found next to Goins’s dead body. “No, it was closed. It had just been fired,” Stone replied with a purple blush, even though a crime scene photo shows otherwise.

But Chavis’s trial was never to be. On June 3, 1990, the night before the trial’s scheduled start date, James Coman, the special prosecutor assigned to the case, called a meeting to drop a bombshell: The key witnesses now refused to testify. There would be no murder trial.

A footprint left at the crime scene was smaller than the foot of either Sandy Chavis or Johnny Goins.
A footprint left at the crime scene was smaller than the foot of either Sandy Chavis or Johnny Goins.

“We would be in effect doing a dishonor to Julian to go forward with something in our hearts that we know we cannot prove,” the special prosecutor announced. “The evidence points to Chavis’ involvement after the death, and that is what we should pursue, and that Chavis will plead guilty to.” The next day, Chavis — who was left permanently disabled after a fall in a grain elevator while free on bail — limped to the bench, sobbed and entered an Alford plea (where one pleads guilty without admitting guilt) to accessory to murder after the fact.

Next, Coman read from Chavis’ statement. It said that on the evening of Pierce’s death, Goins and Chavis drove to Pierce’s house, where Goins got out of the car. Chavis heard three shots fired and Goins returned to the car with a gun belonging to Chavis’ brother and admitted to shooting Pierce. Chavis ended up with a five-year suspended sentence and left court a free man. The State officially closed its case, ignoring a motion by the Pierce family requesting a trial so that “the entire truth about the homicide of Julian Pierce be dealt with fully.”

But Chavis’ own story continued to evolve. When Geiger and I visited him in 1991, Chavis said his earlier statement had been fed to him by arresting officers. They pulled him out of bed after he’d been drinking heavily and interrogated him overnight without an attorney present. He said he hadn’t stopped at Pierce’s house; rather, he and Goins kept driving after noticing sheriff’s deputies near Pierce’s home and a red pickup truck in the driveway.

In 2009, I visited Chavis again, and his statement changed once more, further damaging his credibility. This time, he said he and Goins did, in fact, stop, and he remembers Goins approaching Pierce’s house with the murder weapon, in plain sight of a sheriff’s deputy, who Chavis said was parked on the edge of Pierce’s lawn. Afterwards, Chavis and Goins stopped at a gas station, where Goins’ cousin Dexter Earl Locklear showed up in a red pickup truck and told them that Pierce was dead.

“The only thing I heard was [Pierce] had been shot three times: once in the chest, once in the side, and once in the back of the head,” Chavis told me in 2009. “I asked Johnny [Goins], ‘I said what you talking about?’ And Johnny said, ‘Oh, you know Dexter Earl. He’s a liar.’ …I didn’t pay no attention to it.”

Dexter Earl, a drug addict and friend of Sheriff Stone and several deputies, had occasionally volunteered on Pierce’s campaign, and on the night of his murder, joined Pierce registering voters at a nightclub. At a campaign fund-raiser in early February, Dexter Earl told Curt Pierce, “‘Sheriff Stone has his hooks in me real bad. I can hardly get away from him.’”

In June 2013, Chavis gave me and the Pierce family full access to his legal files, which included notes from a conversation during pretrial discovery between Coman and Chavis’ lawyers. Coman relayed information from a source who said Chavis claimed to have entered Pierce’s house with a sheriff’s deputy at 4 a.m. — hours before Pierce’s body was discovered. When I confronted Chavis about this, he denied ever making such a statement. But the document indicates Coman knew of allegations that law enforcement was present at the murder scene and never investigated this possibility. Instead, the state relied entirely on selections of Chavis’ self-incriminating statements to charge him for a crime. Coman offers no explanation as to why, and hasn’t returned phone calls for clarification since I brought this to his attention in 2015.

In the years since the murder, at least one other witness has suggested law enforcement knew of Pierce’s death before his body was officially found. After years of staying silent out of fear for his safety, Jimmy Allen, who was a 17-year-old high school student in 1988, told me he overhead a sheriff’s deputy telling a cashier at a gas station, “Have you heard? They found Julian Pierce’s body,” about five hours before Pierce’s body was discovered by his cousins. Allen’s friend William Locklear was waiting in the car and confirmed he saw deputies in the gas station when Allen went inside.

Aerial map of Pierce’s property and the surrounding area.
Aerial map of Pierce’s property and the surrounding area.

Earlier that night, Pierce’s neighbor Lydia Bell and her boyfriend were pulled over by Deputy Sheriff Jerry Woods for no clear cause on a dirt road that leads to her house, across the highway from Pierce’s home. Bell’s brother told her he saw a sheriff’s vehicle and a red pickup heading toward Pierce’s house. Bell’s granddaughter saw a blue truck with two men inside parked in the woods with a clear view of Pierce’s home. Bell and her granddaughter reported these sightings to the SBI the following day, and in 1991 Coman confirmed that Woods made the stop. Woods ignored repeated requests to comment.

More curious still, in September 1990, several months after Chavis’ botched murder trial, an unnamed woman told the local paper that she and three friends had been camping half a mile behind Pierce’s residence when they witnessed a pair of men — dressed in hunting clothes and carrying shotguns — walk up a trail toward Pierce’s house close to the time of his slaying. About 15 minutes later, shots rang out. Shortly thereafter, I confirmed the story with her and one of the other campers, Kerry Dean Jones, who offered to come forward with his story in 2012. None of the campers ever reported the sighting to authorities.

There was also the story I heard in 2008 — that Dexter Earl Locklear was said to have broken down while smoking crack and confessed to killing Julian. In all my years of reporting on the case, I’d only had one conversation with him in the early 1990s and never gave what he told me much thought: Had I heard the rumor that he was involved in Julian’s murder?

In March 2009, 21 years after Julian Pierce’s death, I asked Julia Pierce to meet me in Robeson. I’d recently received a call informing me that Dexter Earl Locklear might be dying, so Julia and I went to the hospital to see him. After we slipped on hospital masks, Julia asked the nurse whether they were for Dexter Earl’s health or our own. “Yours,” the nurse responded. Dexter Earl was ill with hepatitis and contagious.

He smiled when we entered — two nice ladies stopping by — but then Julia lifted her mask. “I want you to see my face,” she said. “I’m Julia Pierce, the daughter of Julian Pierce.” His smile faded.

With no hesitation, Julia took her place in the chair adjacent to his bed and scooted it toward him, planting herself deep in his personal space.

He started by telling Julia he had loved her father “to death,” a turn of phrase that caused her to catch my eye. Her face stayed expressionless as he ranted, “Hubert Stone is as crooked as the goddamn mafia. He would kill you, lock you up or he could have a hit put on your ass.”

A feral life force animated him, an unexpected energy from someone supposedly so close to death. He slipped from his bed, wearing only boxer shorts, and dragged a rolling I.V. over to the sink to pee into the plastic urinal.

I pushed him on the rumors about his crack-inspired confession: “Me? I don’t know where you got your goddamn information. It’s fucked up. I don’t appreciate it. That’s a goddamn lie,” he screamed.

Dexter Earl described a longstanding favor-trading relationship with Stone and claimed that on at least 20 occasions, Stone fixed cases for Dexter Earl’s associates. He described a process of contacting deputies, in particular Deputy Mark Locklear (no relation to Dexter Earl), who in turn would instruct officers not to show up to court or otherwise obfuscate the truth. (Mark Locklear, for his part, said that none of this happened and that Dexter Earl made it all up.) Dexter Earl bragged that Stone directly helped him evade drug charges and wiped clean more that 50 driving offenses.

“He helped me stay out of jail, and I helped him,” he explained. “If people needed help, I would go see Hubert.”

Julia commented that Stone “had a lot to lose if Dad got into the courthouse,” and Dexter Earl agreed. “Everyone was afraid of your father — Stone, Joe Freeman Britt, the whole county was afraid because Julian would have tried to run it honest.”

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Dexter Earl advanced the idea that maybe someone had tried to make Pierce’s murder look like a drug setup, claiming that a friend had seen white powder on Pierce’s dead body at the crime scene. (In fact, the state collected a white powder, but never tested it, relying on the medical examiner’s opinion that it was buffer powder from the shotgun.) Though Dexter Earl denied seeing Goins or Chavis the night of the murder, he concedes he was with Goins the day after the warrants were issued in response to the complaints made by Pierce’s girlfriend.

When Julia mentioned Goins again, Dexter Earl fell into a reverie, talking to himself as if we weren’t there. “Now that was some shit. I don’t think he actually killed him. I think that shit happened after him. I just don’t see how Johnny could have killed him.”

Before we left, I poured Dexter Earl some juice. He was worn down, barely speaking above a whisper. As I readied the cup, Julia said, “I suspect you and Dad had a lot in common.”

“We did,” agreed Dexter Earl, who had worked toward a law degree, but never finished law school, unlike Pierce.

“I still think Stone ordered Dad’s killing,” Julia said.

“I was not aware. I was not aware.”

“But you know he would do something like that?”

“I take back what I said. I was totally scared of Hubert Stone. I was more fearful of Hubert Stone than anybody.”

“Because you knew he could do anything,” Julia offered.

“He would do anything.”

* * *

On the first day of October 2016, I was once again with the Pierces, this time at their annual family reunion. Picnic tables were set up under an overhang, and alongside them a feast: trays of BBQ, fried chicken, a plethora of sides and an emporium of baked goods and sweets. Julia, now an attorney with the federal government’s Indian Health Service, had come with her husband and three children, the youngest named for her father. Her brother Julian Jr., now a doctor, and his wife were there, too. The family is thriving in many ways, but life continues to be clouded by the pain of Julian’s murder, and their doubts about its legal resolution. Julia, in particular, remains determined to discover the truth.

“You just keep running at the windmill,” she said. “It’s in the hopes that there will be some enlightenment” — not vengeance. “Not knowing why someone would do something so horrendous is absolutely worse than them not being punished.”

It would be hard to punish anyone at this point, anyway; many of the key figures are now dead, including Stone, who never faced criminal charges for wrongdoing during his 16-year tenure as sheriff; Britt, who served an uneventful seven-year term as Superior Court Judge before entering private practice; and Dexter Earl Locklear, who died five years after we met him in the hospital.

Mark Locklear is no longer with the Sheriff’s office and says he remains troubled by a story that circulated at the time of Pierce’s death. “There was a rumor going around that I was one of Hubert Stone’s hit men,” Locklear told me in a phone call this December, in which he strenuously denied any involvement in the Pierce case. “I had already killed [Zabitosky] and [Stone] had me to take Julian out,” according to rumors. “That was even going around. And allegations of that nature really hurt. I mean, it really hurts.”

Scene from Pierce’s funeral. (Photo by Rob Amberg)
Scene from Pierce’s funeral. (Photo by Rob Amberg)

But the process to reopen the case still faces many hurdles. After the 2009 hospital encounter with Dexter Earl, I met with former sheriff Glenn Maynor, then imprisoned for perjury and theft of public funds. Along with 20-plus deputies from Robeson County, Maynor had been swept up in a multi-agency investigation known as Operation Tarnished Badge, which busted cops for everything from pirating satellite TV signals to money laundering, kidnapping, drug trafficking and armed robbery.

Though I’d first approached Maynor — who said he’d reopen Pierce’s case during his campaign for sheriff against Stone — in 1998, he turned me down at that time. But on this visit he told me he’d never looked into Pierce’s case because the murder file had gone missing from the sheriff’s office (a statement Mark Locklear and others in the department have contested). “My intention was to reopen it,” Maynor confirmed to me last year. “But when you do, you need something to start with, and there was nowhere to go.”

Efforts by the Pierce family, legal advocates and me to request that the Department of Justice investigate Pierce’s death in 2009 similarly failed. In 2011, Julia and I petitioned Roy Cooper, then the attorney general of North Carolina, to reopen the case. A spokesman informed us that the office was unwilling to meet with us and suggested we try again when James Coman retired. A year later, the Lumbee Tribe passed a resolution in support of the Pierce family’s efforts to reopen the case, and in the ensuing years, members of the North Carolina General Assembly also expressed incredulity that Pierce’s death resulted from a domestic dispute.

“His murder is still a mystery,” stated Charles Graham, a Democrat representing Robeson, during a June 2015 floor discussion about his resolution to honor Pierce’s life and legacy, which passed unanimously.

Around that same time, I met with Coman at a bagel shop in Raleigh. He scoffed at the story of the campers, calling it a publicity stunt orchestrated by a private investigator working with the Pierce and Chavis families. When I said I’d found them credible, his expression changed. “If you believe the story of the two men coming up the trail,” Coman reasoned, “then you need to believe that one of them also killed Johnny Goins.”

“Exactly,” I replied.

But after a moment, he once again rejected any broader theory: “[I’m] morally certain Goins was the killer.”

In 2014, the Southern Coalition for Social Justice’s staff attorney Ian Mance began investigating Pierce’s case, after Julia Pierce and I approached him with our evidence. Mance re-interviewed many of the 120 sources I’ve spoken to over the years, as well as new informants, and presented his findings to Cooper in December 2015. In April 2016, Mance and Julia Pierce were thrilled to hear that finally the State Bureau of Investigation had agreed to reinvestigate the murder out of its Fayetteville office. But when they met with officials there, “those agents reacted negatively to the assignment and effectively shut the new investigation down before it could begin,” said Mance. In late October, an SBI spokesman told me the agency “does not have an active investigation relating to the death of Julian Pierce.”

Children at a Robeson County protest for justice. Photo by Rob Amberg
Children at a Robeson County protest for justice. (Photo by Rob Amberg)

But the moment for progress could come soon. In November, Cooper was elected governor of North Carolina. The power to reopen the case now lies in his hands: As of 2014, the SBI reports directly to the governor’s office, instead of the attorney general, as in most states.

“I would personally encourage the governor to consider what’s possible and that which can be done to reopen the case,” says Rev. Sidney Locks. “There’s a population in eastern North Carolina that’s been waiting far too long for justice to be clarified and brought forth and uncovered by persons in positions who have intentionally caused the truth to be hidden.”

Julia is convinced her father “sealed his fate” when he refused to take Stone’s advice to withdraw his candidacy. She believes her father’s integrity and his commitment to justice precluded any choice other than staying in the race. I still think about what Pierce told his cousin Curt after telling Curt not to follow him around with a gun: “‘They can kill me, but they sure as hell can’t eat me.’” Though the meaning is vague, I’ve come to understand it as an expression of Pierce’s trust that even in death, his push for racial justice would live on.

“The last thing I said to him was, ‘Don’t you realize how dangerous this is?’” Julian’s brother Roy Pierce told me at the reunion. “He just told me, ‘Someone has to stand up and do something.’”

Robeson County residents campaign to elect Julian Pierce to office posthumously. Photo by Rob Amberg
Robeson County residents campaign to elect Julian Pierce to office posthumously. (Photo by Rob Amberg)

Indeed, five weeks after his murder, on May 3, 1988, the people of Robeson County elected Julian Pierce posthumously to the office of Superior Court judge, by nearly 2,000 votes.

 

 

Inside the Colorado Mansion Where the Kittens of BDSM Run Wild

An eye-opening afternoon at The Chateau, with the fast-growing, feline sub-sect of the adult role-playing universe.

Somewhere in the northern stretches of the Colorado Springs suburbs, enveloped by trees, is a tony neo-Victorian house, painted sky blue with a white wraparound patio and a picket fence enclosing an expansive green yard. It’s a stunning Saturday in the middle of May, and there’s a party going on.

The roughly dozen women in attendance, most in their early twenties, are wearing an assortment of slip dresses, gowns, and corsets, all inspired by Marie Antoinette-era fashion. They recline on blankets in the grass, while in the parlor some sit delicately on upholstered chairs as a man plays classical piano. Other women clatter across the porch in high heels. The handful of men are dressed up too, in puffy shirts, vests, hats, and formal pants, shoes and riding boots.

The gathering’s been billed as a tea and cake party, but there’s free-flowing champagne and open use of marijuana by some. In most respects it appears to be a run-of-the-mill Colorado garden party – until you spot the furry ears and tails worn by all the females.

We are at The Chateau, a residence otherwise known as the Cat Girl Manor, and often called “the Playboy Mansion of the kitten play community.” Kitten play is a sub-sect of the BDSM universe, and, according to Chateau photographer Jeff Lawson, “It’s a whole lot more serious than regular cosplay,” when people dress up like fictional characters from pop culture. “They really want to embody the personality of a cat,” Lawson says, “and that’s really fun. It’s amazing how many ways they can use the word meow in a sentence, and you know what they’re saying.”

A group of kittens pose for a photo outside The Chateau residence in the suburbs of Colorado Springs, Colorado.

Though there are some males in the community who will take on a kitten persona – donning ears, tails and collars – most that do are women, and the lengths to which they run with their alter egos vary.

“For me, being a kitten is all the time, even if I don’t have the ears on,” says Miss Jenni Kitten, 20, who, like all the other women on The Chateau grounds, asked to be referred to by her “performer name,” citing privacy concerns. Jenni, a lanky apprentice mechanic with jet-black hair and piercings in her nose, lower lip, and belly button, observes that some in the kitten play community are only comfortable in their kitten roles at events or in their respective bedrooms. But she has identified as a cat since she was in elementary school, when she thought, “If I believed hard enough, I could grow whiskers and ears and a tail.”

Jenni says she eventually discovered others who identified as kittens, as well as foxes, bunnies, ponies, and other animals. Today, Jenni more specifically calls herself an “alley cat.” “Other people [put] me in the ‘stray kitten’ category, because when you don’t have a master – or a ‘dom’ – you’re considered a stray,” she says. “But I don’t like thinking about it like that because I’m not lost. I want to be single; I like where I’m at.”

The term “master” is used throughout the BDSM community, but its definition is a complicated one. Though masters – who are males, while female masters are called “mistresses” – exert complete control over the lives of their submissive “slaves,” they are also tasked with taking care of them. In the kitten play community, some slaves may have been “collared” by a master, and might literally wear collars to signify such ownership.

I point out to Jenni that some charge women who are sexually submissive with pushing feminism back. “The thing about being a submissive,” she responds, “is that they really, truly have all the control.” During sexual encounters, she continues, “the master never actually does anything that the submissive does not want. Everything has to be communicated beforehand, and boundaries need to be respected.” As far as collaring goes, Jenni says for some it’s a big deal, a true display of care and trust so important that there are collaring ceremonies coordinated, similar to weddings.

There are numerous reasons why those in the kitten play community choose to personify felines. Some told me that they, like cats, feel as though they are cute, playful and soft. Others note that they possess an undeniably feline temperamental nature and a feistiness about them – or, as Lawson puts it, “They do claw, and they do scratch.”

“They’re very alluring, sleek creatures. They’re very beautiful in their own right; they command a sense of respect,” says the party’s hostess, Isibella Karnstein, of cats and, correlatively, kitten play participants. Karnstein is 28, busty and blonde, and she lives at The Chateau. Today she’s wearing an outfit featuring a wide white hat, stockings and big heels, as well as a blue corset that’s the same shade as her home. She throws around words like “sophisticated” and “refined” in outlining cats’ personalities as well, both real and pretend. This doesn’t mean that the women at The Chateau crawl around, purring incessantly – though there’s some of that.

Isibella Karnstein, madam of The Chateau, and her partner, Daniel.

Offering glimpses of heightened cleavage, the chatty kittens snap selfies for social media and formally pose for Lawson, the self-described Chateau “Cat Herder,” a title he earned for his ability to wrangle the kittens for photo shoots. Some of his images offer a hint of homoeroticism as the kittens cuddle and crawl, others just look like straightforward headshots – if not for the ears.

Karnstein essentially colors The Chateau as a sexy social club where like-minded, cat-tailed individuals can get together and enjoy themselves on a monthly basis. As the Chateau’s “madam,” Karnstein sees kittens as standouts in the BDSM community because of their sometimes-fierce independence. To illustrate her point, she poses a metaphoric question about real-life pet kittens: “Do you own the cat, or does the cat own you?”

Karnstein gravitated toward the BDSM and fetish community during her late teens, while still living just outside London, where she was born and raised. She’d attend parties at various clubs and marveled at how some people dressed very elaborately, like the sci-fi Victorian goths of the steampunk movement, in their top hats, tights and monocles. “I was wearing ears and nobody else was doing it, so I had nobody to hang out with,” Karnstein says, sitting in The Chateau’s parlor, champagne glass in hand. She then constructed the now-defunct website Kittenplay.net as a way to meet others who might share her predilection for dressing up as a cat. “Thousands of people came to the website. Obviously I was not alone; it was a real affirmation for me.”

In December 2014 she founded an online magazine called The Chateau, which is “dedicated to cat girls and the kitten play lifestyle,” as its Facebook page describes it. By then Karnstein had been living with her partner, Daniel, a 45-year-old entrepreneur in the aerospace engineering industry, outside Colorado Springs. The pair began opening up their estate to kitten play parties.

A kitten frolics out in the yard at The Chateau, approaching her gent.

“As a society we’re very sexually repressed,” says Kiri Branford, a prominent model for The Chateau magazine. “We’re not taught about sex topics; they’re taboo. I think if we have a more sexually liberated society, most people would find that they have some sort of fetish, and that their fetishes aren’t necessarily fetishes because they’re not uncommon.”

Branford – an attractive 23-year-old with bright eyes and Angelina Jolie lips, who by day is a buyer for a health food store – says being a kitten does not define her every waking moment. “It doesn’t normally happen while I’m at work, but then at home the feelings of wanting to be a kitten come and go,” she says. Branford has two female partners, one of whom is married to a man. “Sometimes I will go find my collar and bring it to my mistress and put it at her feet, or I will nuzzle her and purr. Or perhaps she decides to put my collar on, normally that kind of triggers it. Or she’ll refer to me as Kitten, and that often does the trick as well.”

“There’s kitty play to the extreme,” Miss Jenni Kitten says, “where they’re collared and restrained, and they only get to eat at certain times of day. They’re provided a food and water bowl, and they actually have to use a litter box.”

Jenni says she personally doesn’t partake in those activities, but concedes: “Food is very important to me. Not just buying me dinner, but physically feeding me.” She also says she has a butt plug with a cattail attached to the outer end – a staple in the kitten play community. “It’s mainly for the bedroom, and that’s what I do to identify with it, to go a little farther,” Jenni says.

Dave Mate, a representative of Purrfect Playmates – a U.K.-based e-commerce site catering to kittens around the world – says the business has steadily grown, with increased demand and online presence of the kitten community. The site offers nearly 30 different kinds of colorful tails, available with butt plugs as an add-on option. There are also pages on the site dedicated to upselling, urging buyers to customize their tails and ears with chains and charms and “a touch of sparkle.”

* * *

Attending her first Chateau party today is Belladonna, a 20-year-old with striking eyes that appear to change color – from light blue to gray to green – at various times of the day. She’s wearing a red and black corset with fishnet stockings that have holes throughout. “I wanted to portray the classic Victorian style, but with an edge,” she says, lightly laughing. There are also black-and-red ears puffing out atop her head, accessorized by a dainty, Romanesque gold-leaf crown, and she has a clip-on tail hanging from the back of her skirt.

A student at Western State Colorado University, where she’s studying graphic design and business, the Colorado Springs resident just had her online application to The Chateau community approved, allowing her to attend kitten play parties for free, have access to the corresponding Facebook group, and model for the magazine.

The kitten application to The Chateau requires four recent, professional-looking photos – selfies are not welcome – of the prospective model, who must be at least 18 years old. “We have no size or weight limit,” Karnstein asserts. “I do not believe in that. All I care about is how you are presenting yourself and if the look matches the magazine.”

There’s a written component to the model application as well, with a prompt that asks: “Why do you want to join The Chateau?” Karnstein says the response should highlight the kitten’s personality.

“I think there is an emphasis [in America] – at least for millenials and young girls – that being bitchy is a positive trait,” Karnstein says. “I’d really like to encourage a sisterhood that is actually friendly and, instead of bringing each other down, through gossip or whatever, we actually bring each other up.”

As Belladonna puts it: “You’re expected to uphold yourself as a member of The Chateau, which is all about elegance, grace, and, of course, kitten play.”

Karnstein says she receives an average of 900 applications per month, and of those she accepts about ten, who are awarded achievement collars for the number of parties they attend, the more they pose for the magazine, and for generally representing the brand favorably. By design, the models do not pose nude in The Chateau’s online magazine, which is released monthly and, according to Karnstein, has about 6,000 subscribers who pay for various tiers of access.

Sitting next to Karnstein in the parlor is “Sir Christopher,” a Denver-based artist who helps her organize events and who also writes for the magazine. “Playboy has been done, Penthouse has been done, Hustler has been done; what is there left when you expose everything?” he tells me. “What if you have a little more mystery? What if you have a little more elegance [and] make it more theatrical? That’s more appealing.”

Like each of the women I interview at the party, Belladonna speaks with noticeable self-assurance, and, like many in the BDSM community, she also has multiple romantic partners: a boyfriend, a girlfriend, and a master, each with a different relationship dynamic and “focus,” as she puts it. She tells me she’s invited a male friend today, someone she’s talked with about exploring a physical relationship.

“People ask, ‘How do you not get jealous?’ and of course [polyamorous people] get jealous,” she says. “It’s just like any other relationship; you’re going to have doubts, but if you’re communicating it will work out.”

Belladonna expresses frustration over the fact that polyamorous folk have “such a bad reputation,” saying, “It’s a bit of a sad truth, but our society does shame people who are more open with their sexuality, even though our media is saturated with sexual imagery. It’s very hypocritical.”

Body-shaming or “kink-shaming,” where a person puts down another for individualized sexual expression, is another concern for Karnstein and many others throughout the BDSM community. It can happen from within or be propagated by outsiders, especially on social media and in comments sections on the web.

“If anybody even throws around a word like ‘fat’ in the group, they’re gone,” Karnstein says. Like in any social construct, conflicts occur, and Karnstein says she’s sometimes played the part of peace negotiator with varying degrees of success. She’s also barred kittens from events and online community pages for – err – catty behavior. But Karnstein insists most of the kittens know bullying and all types of shaming are wrong, “and you get to see how empowering they are for each other,” she says.

For her part, Belladonna engages in activism work on her college campus, raising awareness about the LGBTQ community, and offering support to community members living throughout the small, surrounding city of Gunnison, Colorado, where such resources are scant.

* * *

The party at The Chateau begins to liven as more people arrive, and the music switches over to the industrial genre, pumped from a P.A. speaker on the porch.

Jerry, a tall, blue-eyed bald man with a narrow tuft of white hair between his lips and chin, arrives, draped completely in black. One by one almost all of the guests embrace the 53-year-old Colorado Springs native.

“I’ve known Isibella for six or seven years; we met at a steampunk ball, and eventually she invited me to a Chateau party,” recalls Jerry, who is soft spoken and works at a call center for the state’s health insurance marketplace. “I guess I did pretty well because I keep getting invited back.”

“Jerry” plays outside The Chateau with one of the kittens.

Jerry and the rest of the men at The Chateau are called “gents.” To have the pleasure of the kittens’ company, males are expected to provide the utmost respect toward them.

Sir Christopher, an avid reader of Gentleman’s Quarterly, says the types of men who should be part of the community are genteel, chivalrous, and trustworthy.

“We are extras,” Jerry says of the gents. “They have to not give off the creeper vibe.”

Karnstein says there’s a screening process for male guests at Chateau events. Gents are required to purchase tickets – there was a $100 fee for the Marie Antoinette tea and cake party. But if a model wishes to bring a boyfriend, Karnstein is “more than happy” to meet them and offer a kitten-plus-one. Other men can have a kitten vouch for them, or talk to Karnstein or Sir Christopher directly, sometimes in online chats or even in person over dinner. “I do pride myself on the safety of the girls,” Karnstein continues, “and creating a community where they can really be themselves and feel good about it. They can take off their clothes and run around, it’s not a problem.”

Jerry observes that he is “generally one of the older gentlemen who are invited,” and admits to being socially awkward, though the kittens help him “to get past that.”

“They know I’m a flirt,” he continues. “I am a bit of a dirty old man, obviously, but I know how to rein it in. I don’t ogle; I don’t stare. I try to be pleasant.” He says that he can also operate as a “safe person” for kittens who trust him, acting as a buffer between them and someone who is making them uncomfortable at a party.

Though Jerry doesn’t choose to identify as an all-out master, he has been a “daddy” to a kitten before, considering himself more of a “caregiver” to her than an overwhelmingly domineering figure. “Daddys,” or “Daddy Doms,” more strongly consider the emotional state of their submissives, and can act as a guide, confidant, and protector, as well as someone there to boost their confidence.

* * *

Aside from monthly parties at The Chateau, Karnstein also throws galas at clubs, mostly in Downtown Denver, some that are open to the public and others just for community members. From time to time she’ll host them at swinger clubs where sex might be on the menu. Such establishments are generally alcohol-free and require identification and completed club membership paperwork to gain entry. They’re also strictly for couples. All this keeps the swinger spots above legal foregrounds. A party at a private residence like The Chateau, on the other hand, can be an anything-goes affair.

But, Sir Christopher quickly chimes in, “It’s important to understand that we’re not an escort service or that we’re selling sex.”

“A lot of people perceive us as that,” Karnstein adds. “The look of [The Chateau] is in some ways very bordello-esque, with the corsets and all that stuff, but the majority of it is modeling, like Playboy.”

A kitten poses outside The Chateau during a kitten play party in May.

She recently formed a dance troupe that performs kitten-themed burlesque, or what they call “purrlesque.” Jeff Lawson, the “Cat Herder,” is the director. “I’m excited,” he says of the future of The Chateau. “Isibella’s events and parties are growing. I really want to get to a point where we can do a nationwide tour with the purrlesque and just have fun with it.”

“We do like to create an environment that is sexually positive for women, where they can express themselves however they want to,” Karnstein says, before adding: “I feel like a teacher sometimes, preaching safe sex and things like that. A lot of times girls don’t know about that.”

Karnstein says Chateau regulars will frequently get together – no ears or tails necessary – and do the same things as any other gaggle of friends: go out to eat or drink or see a movie. “There’s not just a sense of community,” she says, “there’s a bit of a sense of family, too.”

There have been incidents of stalking at The Chateau and other kitten play events, by both males and females. Karnstein says she’s had to ban such offenders from the social group, and says she even called the police on one man who was repeatedly asked not to show up at Chateau parties. Such incidents are quite unnerving, and in her mind ruin the party for, not only the target of the stalking, but also the friends obligated to console them.

* * *

The sun has set and The Chateau is crawling with kittens and gents. Belladonna’s guest puts on a fire-breathing show on the lawn. There are group toasts in the kitchen, one of which kitten Corinne Victoria, 24 and pregnant with her second child, observes, but does not partake in. Her husband walks up behind her and lightly scratches her upper back, as if to comfort her and say hello. She purrs back.

“Excuse me, Mr. Reporter,” is suddenly projected in my direction. It’s Chateau model Kitty Kameleon, whom I’d spoken to for a little while on the porch this afternoon. She told me she’s polyamorous and has three partners – two men and a woman. She has also been gifted miraculously large breasts by some wonderful god that has chosen to smile upon me at this moment. “Do you mind if I take off my corset?”

I assure her I have absolutely no issue with it, but a problem arises. In spite of her best efforts, she can’t release two final clips located just underneath her bust.

“Can you help me?” she asks.

I try, first pushing together the opposing sides of the corset, no different than she’d been doing a moment ago.

No luck.

I look her in the eyes and say, “Is it O.K. if I put my arm down the front and try and pull it together from the inside?” Apparently our candid talk a few hours ago helped formulate some trust for me, because she let me in. After a couple determined minutes – genuinely working to get the damn clips undone, and going out of my way to not betray her by groping her flesh – her boobs are freed. She scurries off, and carries about topless the rest of the time I’m in attendance. Later, I overhear her telling one gent that I was totally cool, and didn’t overstep my bounds.

“Belladonna” (center) sits with two gents in the parlor of The Chateau.

A few minutes later, hostess Isibella Karnstein appears, slowly walking down the winding staircase just to the right of The Chateau’s foyer. Many kittens and gents watch her in awe. She is a site to behold, now wearing a deep-red corset with criss-crossing, pink satin laces, garters, and thigh-high stockings. Her high heels are clear; her breasts are completely exposed save for pink pasties hiding her nipples.

She thanks me for coming to The Chateau and for my interest in the kitten play community.

She wishes me well, and, as a parting shot, says, “The party’s just beginning.”

 

 

Waging War On Rats in Sub-Antarctic South Georgia

A team of ambitious ecologists is trying to rid these freezing South Atlantic islands of vermin to save their rarest bird. But are they attempting the impossible?

We were expecting to see three red and yellow specks to come flying over the snow-covered mountains that surrounded the bay where we were sheltering, but there was only one. Something had gone wrong.

Two days earlier we’d left two helicopters tied down in a sheltered spot to see out a storm, but the powerful wind had spun one helicopter, digging it into the ground, and snapped the rotor blade of the other. Both were completely broken. Without the two working helicopters, we couldn’t continue – years of planning and two seasons of spreading bait across the sub-Antarctic island of South Georgia would have been for nothing.

One of the many highly crevassed glaciers of South Georgia – an impenetrable barrier to rats.
One of the many highly crevassed glaciers of South Georgia – an impenetrable barrier to rats.

A forgotten Eden, belonging only to albatrosses, penguins and seals, South Georgia is one of the most remote islands on the planet. The nearest permanent population is over 1,500 kilometers away and the only human residents are British Antarctic Survey staff. Vast snow-capped peaks stand at 3000 meters above the ocean, and rivers of ice flow down to water that teams with krill; an abundant food source for the millions of animal residents. South Georgia takes your breath away.

We were there for a simple purpose – to free South Georgia from the rats that had plagued the island for almost 200 years.  Elimination of the rats would ensure the survival of the most southerly songbird in the world, the endemic South Georgia Pipit, as well as bolstering populations of threatened seabirds.

The three helicopters landing at base camp.
The three helicopters landing at base camp.

If the purpose was simple, the operation, as is the case when attempting anything on South Georgia, was not. The success of ambitious projects like this rely on tenacity in the face of adversity – and the storm that put our helicopters out of action tested us to the limit. Through determination, hard graft and persistence in incredibly harsh conditions, however, the engineers had two helicopters flying by nightfall.

Captain Cook claimed South Georgia for Britain in 1775, returning with tales of vast numbers of seals that filled its shores. This was too much for sealers to resist; just a few years later the fur seals were being decimated and the vermin, stowed away on their boats, were feasting upon ground-nesting seabirds. These birds had evolved without any land-based predators, and it would be over 200 years until the song of the South Georgia Pipit would be heard on mainland South Georgia again.

A Norwegian brown rat finds the bait irresistible.
A Norwegian brown rat finds the bait irresistible.

The history of human influence on South Georgia is a recurring cycle of overexploitation and the eventual collapse of animal populations. In 2007 a small Scottish charity, the South Georgia Heritage Trust, decided the time had come to reverse some of the damage, and began planning the largest eradication project ever attempted.

We were also running out of time. Due to global warming, South Georgia’s glaciers are retreating at a rate of up to one meter a day. Soon beaches would become exposed, allowing rats to cross to previously inaccessible parts of the island and creating areas too extensive to bait. For the project to be a success we had to eliminate all of the rats. Ninety-nine percent wouldn’t be good enough; we had to get every last one.

Achieving this on an island 165 kilometers long, famed for its vicious winds and tempestuous seas, was a huge challenge. But by 2011 a team of eradication experts and individuals experienced in polar conditions had been handpicked to rid South Georgia of rats. It was a logistical nightmare, with three helicopters, 300 tons of bait, 900 drums of fuel, 10,000 teabags and 25 members of Team Rat to be shipped to the island. Resupply was not an option.

Some of the 900 drums of aviation fuel used in the project.
Some of the 900 drums of aviation fuel used in the project.

Field camps were erected across the island; we spent months camped amongst the ruins of an abandoned whaling station, with seals and penguins wandering past our tents.  Despite pressure to complete the baiting, we could only fly in calm conditions, which are infrequent at best on South Georgia. We’d spend days cooped up in our tents.

At night our breath formed icicles on the canopies of the tent, which often crashed down, soaking our sleeping bags. The nearby streams would freeze, forcing us to break through the ice to extract drinking water. Such tasks filled our days. The creature comforts of home seemed a long way away.

King penguin colony.
King penguin colony.

As soon as the wind dropped we’d spring in to action. The helicopters hovered expertly, dangling huge bait buckets, while loaders filled them with bag after bag of bait. Pilots flew along exact GPS lines, ensuring bait fell on every bit of potential rat habitat. If even a tiny area was missed, they did it again; no rat was safe from our skilled pilots.

It took three seasons to bait every last kilometer of the island; the helicopters flew the equivalent distance of three times around the world. Our success was under constant threat from poor flying conditions, mechanical failure, an inaccessible accident or simply a missed rat.

The daily commute across the vast, wild interior of South Georgia.
The daily commute across the vast, wild interior of South Georgia.

Poor weather nearly scuppered the second season. Winter came early and huge snow dumps buried our tents and made precision bait dropping impossible. The northern end of the island put up the greatest resistance, and after weeks of waiting to drop the final bait, it went right to the wire; on the last day the weather cleared and the pilots gave it a final push. Our chief pilot Peter Garden warned it would be a close call, and that if anyone felt uncomfortable we could abort. It was tense. Somehow, we dropped the last of the bait successfully and, after a long trying day, we left feeling immense elation.

South Georgia can’t be declared rat free until it has been checked next year, but early indications are promising. South Georgia Pipit song has been heard in some areas for the first time in living memory, and nests have already been located. Project leader Tony Martin was named Conservationist of the Year, and the success of this project paves the way for eradications on other afflicted islands. In an era of increasingly despondent environmental news, this is an example of how we can positively impact the natural world.

* * *

This story originally appeared in Avauntan award-winning journal dedicated to documenting and celebrating human endeavor, from the wildest, highest, deepest, coldest and hottest corners of the Earth and beyond.

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I Changed My Name After I Was Raped

After a serious trauma, some survivors find comfort and empowerment by creating a new identity.

As I heard my bank’s customer service representative repeat my first name over and over while trying to help me solve my minor issue, I hated the way the two syllables sounded. It almost hurt my ears.

“I’m going to put you on hold for a minute, okay, Lisa?” the representative asked me in a cheerful voice, hoping to reassure me that they were handling the situation. “I’m just going to speak to my supervisor and see what we can do about resolving this for you Lisa.”

“Yes, okay,” I said through gritted teeth, holding my cell away from my face and turning on the speaker function so I could grab a glass of milk and breathe a few times before she returned, hopefully with news that she could waive the newly implemented monthly checking fee. I wanted to call through the phone, “Can you stop using my name, please?”

People generally love having their first name used when they’re in a conversation, but I flinched when mine came up. When I hung up the phone, I opened up a Facebook tab and changed my first name from “Lisa” to “Alaina,” a name I’d recently joked to my girlfriend about taking as my own.

Once the change was finalized, I panicked. No one would understand what I’d done. How would they find me? Should I think about this first? Facebook’s policy wouldn’t allow me to change my name back to the old one, so I was stuck writing an explanatory post letting everyone in my life know that I’d be socially and legally changing my first name.

This wasn’t the first time I’d considered changing my name. I brought it up to my mom when I was around seven years old, and I explained to her that I didn’t like my first name and I wanted her to let me change it. I never ended up doing that. It wasn’t until I was a freshman in college, when I survived a rape at an on-campus college party, that the change felt necessary. It was no longer about feeling like my name didn’t fit or not liking the sound of its pronunciation – this was about survival.

Even though I was only semi-conscious during the assault, I remembered distinct parts of being raped: My rapist’s hands around my throat, looking up at the ceiling above her twin XL bed, the sound of “Save Tonight” by Eagle-Eye Cherry playing faintly in the background, the empty bottles of UV Blue and Captain Morgan on my rapist’s dresser, and her voice as she repeated my name in a low rumble, almost like she was trying to lull me into complacency.

After the rape, my name felt like a reminder of the assault, particularly when it was used in romantic and sexual contexts. Even professors calling on me in class and customer service representatives verifying my information sometimes made me dissociate; it felt almost like I’d left my own body and was watching myself through a camera lens or from underwater or in a hazy dream. I was never officially diagnosed, but my therapist in college and I talked about the possibility that I have PTSD from the assault. I had a panic attack at the first college house party I went to after it happened, because seeing my female friends drunk off cheap liquor in red cups with guys touching their butts without asking made me wish the world would open up and swallow me whole. When someone who looked like my rapist, all freckles and red hair, bumped into me on a city bus, I almost started crying. And I’d be in the midst of making love with my partner when the sound of her sensual voice crying out my name would leave me shaking, gripping her back tightly with my nails and trying to pretend I could fight the instinct to hide. We’d always been into role playing in bed, but I requested acting as someone else more times than I can count after my assault just because I didn’t want to hear my name said during sex.

Just over two years after I was raped, changing my name felt like a logical next step in overcoming my trauma. I’d made the conscious decision to work on my reactions to sensory impressions like sounds, noises, and imagery that I associated with the assault, and I could now blast “Save Tonight” in my 1998 dark green Buick Century to drown out the sound of Western Massachusetts potholes scraping my tires without even a brief nod to the March night when I was assaulted. I could drink UV Blue and Captain Morgan at any college party I went to without hesitation. I still wasn’t exactly comfortable with someone else’s hands on my neck, but that was a trigger I wasn’t eager to break. My name was the final frontier. No matter how much practice I had enjoying consensual romance with my girlfriend, who was respectful and looked to me for guidance, I couldn’t shake the feeling of dread that hearing my name brought.

Rachel Kazez, therapist and founder of All Along – a Chicago-based organization that helps patients find appropriate mental health care – says that a name change, whether legal or social or both, can be a powerful tool for survivors. “During a trauma, someone’s agency is very quickly taken from them. Getting that sense of control back is really important,” she says. “If there’s a trauma that occurs where the perpetrator was using the person’s name, they might want to go by a nickname or use a middle name instead.”

Kazez explains that survivors need to remember that a name change or another quick and dramatic change won’t fix the trauma or erase what happened. As long as the survivor is working on healing long-term, however, a name change can be an aspect of that process. “Our name is one of the first things we use to introduce ourselves to people,” she says. “It’s about control, choice, and reclaiming yourself.” Kazez also believes that the drastic shift involved in a name change – suddenly going by a new name – can mirror the suddenness of experiencing trauma, and might be particularly cathartic for some survivors.

When I first made the change, part of me hoped that adopting a new name would erase the night I was raped, and the memories associated with my rapist. “I think on some level I hoped the perfect name would unlock something for me, open a door away from myself into a safer place,” says Isobel O’Hare, a poet and essayist who changed her full name, first, middle, and last, during the middle of her MFA program after she survived childhood sexual abuse and adult abusive relationships. “I wondered what it would do to me to have this second name, whether I’d simply chosen another form of dissociation rather than dealing head-on with reality. Now I feel differently. I think choosing a name for myself gave me enough distance from the past to heal without becoming untethered. It was me claiming my own space and choosing my creative self over addiction and stagnation.”

Every time I did have to remind someone to call me Alaina, it was like asserting my consent in small daily situations: This is my name, and you’re going to call me by it. When my cousin and her husband visited from Texas, he struggled to get my name right at a family party at my aunt and uncle’s house. The first few times, I made eye contact and gently reminded him, “It’s Alaina.” He’d correct himself, use Alaina, and then a sentence later, make the mistake again. I started to teeter on the edge of panic, like I often did when people dead named me – used my former name without my consent – multiple times in a row. So I focused on the grandfather clock in the corner of the room and made minimal eye contact, nodding and saying, “Mhm” instead of further the conversation. For the first year or so after the change, I wore a bracelet with my name on it every single day. That was my reminder that, no matter what other people said, my name was my choice. I looked at that bracelet every time he slipped up. I wasn’t rude, but I didn’t give him any open opportunities to use the wrong name.

The next time he saw me, several months later, he started the conversation by calling me Alaina and didn’t make a single mistake.

The first few weeks and months of my social name change were the rockiest. As resolute as I felt – I sent in the required legal paperwork within a week of making the choice – it felt impossible to get people I’d known for years to break their habits. I was exhausted by constantly reminding people, “It’s Alaina now,” and re-introducing myself every time I ran into a former classmate, old friend of the family, or distant relative. My short explanation felt paltry in comparison to the magnitude of this decision: “I guess it’s been awhile since I’ve seen you, but just to let you know, I made the decision to change my name to Alaina in June of this year. I’ve never felt comfortable with my old name, and I would really appreciate it if you can call me Alaina going forward. I’m happy to remind you politely if you’d prefer.”

Sahar Dorani, a licensed clinical psychologist in the Bay Area of California, changed her last name after surviving family trauma when her father stole her identity and had an affair outside of his marriage. “I needed to emotionally and legally distance myself,” she says. She took her mother’s maiden name. “Even though it broke my father’s heart, I had to remain true to myself and carry a name that I was most proud of. I feel good about my choice.”

I was lucky that none of my friends or family members objected to my name change. It took my dad a few days to adjust, but after we had a discussion about how hearing my name was difficult for me, he was willing to try his best.

“I was worried that my classmates would think I was pretty self-absorbed to expect them to start calling me something completely different,” O’Hare says. “I was surprised when they not only adopted the new name, but did so with great joy like they were traveling with me on an important voyage.”

One of my best friends, Krista, is a soft-spoken introvert whose life is often defined by habits, such as how she leaves her house at exactly the same time every day in order to be “the right amount of early” to her obligations. “I’ve been practicing your name,” was one of the first things she told me when she saw me after my announcement. “If I slip up, I’m really sorry. I’ve been repeating it to myself for weeks.” She didn’t make a mistake once.

As the years passed, fewer and fewer people referred to me by the wrong name, and when it did happen, it was so occasional that it didn’t ignite a floodgate of panic exploding inside me, it didn’t make me dissociate to escape painful memories of my assault. Watching my friends and family get it right – and seeing them correct others, like when one of my best friends, Desiree, a future attorney who respected my legal decision the moment I announced it, would assertively remind her forgetful Portuguese mother that she can’t call me “Lisa” anymore because that’s not my name – made my heart sing.

Initially, I worried that my name change wouldn’t change my life, and in many ways, it didn’t. After a period of adjustment, my name no longer feels like a proclamation of reclaiming my consent or my identity, it just feels like who I am. And hearing my former name doesn’t often fill me with dread; instead, I’ll stare blankly and forget to respond because I hear “Lisa,” and think, “Who are they talking to?”

 

 

The U.S. Tested 67 Nuclear Bombs in Their Country. Now They’re Dying in Oklahoma.

After a series of military experiments devastated their homeland, Marshall Islands residents were permitted to immigrate to the U.S. But they didn’t know their American dream came with a catch.

This article is the winner of Narratively’s inaugural Untold Story Award contest. We scoured the world for important stories about under-the-radar people and communities, looking for pieces that deserved in-depth, long-term reporting. Our esteemed panel of judges chose to assign this story.

Lately, Terry Mote has been going to a lot of funerals. There were at least five in the early spring, sometimes on consecutive weekends. The elderly get sicker when the weather changes, he’s noticed – though the friends dying lately aren’t all that old, and they aren’t dying just because of the weather.

One breezy evening in April, on a weekend with no funeral, Mote’s kitchen filled with steam and the snapping sound of hot oil. He’d driven a hundred miles the previous day, to Oklahoma City, to buy bitter melon and small fish that he placed delicately into the frying pan with a pair of tongs. They were among the things he missed from the Marshall Islands, where he grew up. Fresh seafood is hard to find in the dry, windy city where he lives now – Enid, Oklahoma, a hunkered-down prairie town at the eastern edge of the Great Plains.

To Mote (pronounced “mo-tay”), a hundred miles isn’t so far. For some 2,000 years, his ancestors found their way in the 750,000 square miles of south Pacific Ocean punctuated by the narrow coral islets that make up the Marshall Islands. They navigated by the stars, charts made of sticks, and a mysterious technique for reading patterns in the water, known as wave piloting. In more recent years, about a third of all Marshallese – some 20,000 people – have made a further journey, across the Pacific to the United States. Mote is one of them.

Many leave the islands in search of the same things as other migrants – work, education, health care. But an unusual shadow trails the Marshallese. Following the Second World War, the United States used the islands as a testing ground for its nuclear weapons program, detonating more than 60 bombs over a dozen years. The largest, the “Castle Bravo” test, blew a crater 6,510 feet wide in the lagoon of Bikini Atoll and ignited a fireball visible from 250 miles away. Children on neighboring islands played in the ashy fallout, which fell like snow from the sky.

Today, thanks to a treaty signed when the Marshall Islands gained independence from the U.S. in 1986, Marshallese citizens are allowed to live and work in the States. Between 2000 and 2010, the number here grew by 237 percent. This mass migration is driven in part by poverty and lack of services in the islands. But it’s also a legacy of the U.S. occupation and the various damages it left behind. And it’s accelerated by climate change, which has started to drown the low-lying archipelago.

Momie Louis shows Terry Mote her passport in the Enid Public Library. Mote takes time off work to help Marshallese residents fill out applications for work permits and register for driver’s licenses.

Terry Mote arrived in Enid in 2007, after spending two nights at the airport in Honolulu, eating from vending machines while he waited for a standby spot on a flight east. Coming to the U.S. was just a matter of saving money for the plane ticket; the door was open. It was only once he arrived that he realized how many other doors lay between him and the life he’d imagined. It was as if he’d been locked in the hallway of a beautiful house: inside, but not really.

Mote and many other Marshallese in the U.S. live in a precarious state of in-between. Granted residency but not citizenship, the Marshallese have virtually no political influence and rank as the single poorest ethnic group in the U.S. In 1996, the Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act of 1996 (or welfare reform) eliminated federal health care funding for Marshallese by excluding them from the group of “qualified aliens” who are eligible for benefits. That means that Marshallese citizens who live, work and pay taxes in the U.S. are ineligible for Medicaid and Medicare unless states opt to provide it. Oklahoma has not done so.

Mote loves Enid, but life is more difficult than he anticipated. Rent and groceries are expensive, and there is the problem of the funerals. Few of the elderly Marshallese in the city live into their 70s, according to Mote and other residents I spoke with. Instead, they’re dying young – of diabetes, kidney failure and heart disease, illnesses they might have been able to manage under other circumstances. Often they leave behind families saddled with medical debt.

Mote described the struggle in his community as part of a legacy of broken promises made by the U.S. – promises that the islanders displaced by the nuclear program would be able to return; that those relocated or sickened would be provided for; that the testing was for “the good of mankind.” America tested 67 nuclear bombs in the islands, Mote reminded me. “Then they’re just going to let us die over here?”

* * *

The way Mote tells it, he chased an old car tire to Oklahoma. He grew up in a town called Arrack in Majuro Atoll, a ring of 64 volcanic islands. He and his 13 siblings lived packed into a small house made of wood scraps painted various colors and collected by his father, a construction worker. There was no electricity, and when it rained, water came through chinks in the walls. Mote’s father often drank away his paycheck. “If we were lucky, there was food,” Mote recalled.

Mote was close with his mother; she taught him to cook and to weave, tasks usually reserved for women. He walked to school, several miles one way down the skinny island’s single road. Sometimes he walked all the way home for lunch. When there was no food at home he climbed coconut trees. One day on his way to school he picked up a tire. He rolled it down the road, and ran after it. He did the same thing on the way home, and the day after, and the day after that, chasing the tire back and forth. Time flew quickly that way. Mote himself became faster, until he was the fastest runner in his school. Years later, he would represent the Marshall Islands at the Micronesian Olympic Games, and ran on the 4×400 relay team that still holds his country’s record.

Mote is 41 now, with a round face and a demeanor that shifts between earnestness and jest. He is one of nearly 3,000 Marshallese living in Enid, a town of 51,000 built on oil and wheat. Marshallese citizens’ special status in the U.S. is based on a treaty called the Compact of Free Association (COFA). In exchange for giving the U.S. military control of their territory, COFA allows citizens of the Marshall Islands (and of the Federated States of Micronesia and Palau; collectively they are known as the Freely Associated States) to move to the U.S. and work without visas or green cards. The thousands who have taken advantage of the treaty have formed tight-knit communities in Springdale, Arkansas; Costa Mesa, California; Spokane, Washington; Salem, Oregon; and elsewhere. In Enid, there’s work in meat processing plants and at big box stores.

Before moving to the U.S., Mote worked as a curator at a museum, traveling to outer islands to collect folktales. His first job in Enid was at the circulation desk of the public library. That’s where I first met him, on a warm March afternoon. He wore beige slacks, a red and white checked shirt, and wire-rimmed glasses. He carried his briefcase, in which he keeps copies of his family’s official documents. It was Saturday, and he was helping several young Marshallese men fill out applications for work permits. Mote works for the county health department as a translator and adviser. He also acts as an emissary between the Marshallese in Enid – many of whom don’t speak English – and the rest of the city. In effect, he’s become his community’s public representative.

By American standards, Enid is wholly ordinary: a quiet, sprawled city of single-story homes on grassy lots, with a modest stretch of shops and restaurants downtown. There’s a symphony orchestra, a local newspaper and a number of churches. Grain elevators, meatpacking plants, and strip malls border the town before it falls away into farmland; to the south lies Vance Air Force Base. Enid was once home to the now-closed Phillips University, a religious school responsible for drawing the first Marshallese to the town in the 1970s. To newcomers from the humid islands, however, landlocked Enid is plenty strange, starting with the weather. Several other residents told me, in varying tones of incredulity, about seeing Marshallese walking through the snow in flip-flops.

Most of the islanders in Enid live on the city’s eastern flank. On a wide thoroughfare there, sandwiched between a defunct pharmacy and a long-closed auto supply shop, is a squat brick building housing the Enid Community Clinic. The clinic provides limited care to the uninsured, free of charge, funded largely by an annual charity ball. The staff volunteer their time. Aside from emergency rooms and another charity clinic, it is the only source of care available to many in Enid’s Marshallese community.

Inside the clinic I met Daina Joseia, a 63-year-old woman wearing a loose, floral-print dress of a style worn by many Marshallese women. Joseia smiled easily, but she seemed frail and tired. She moved to Enid in 1999, seeking care for various physical ailments – too many for me to write down, she said. Once she arrived, she found she couldn’t afford insurance. She often feels scared or ashamed to see a doctor because she’s uninsured, but she’s sick enough that she can’t avoid it. She has a lot of bills to pay. The day we met, Joseia had a large sore on her back.

School nurse Karry Easterly checks on Jorine John, age five, who has come to school with rashes on her face and arms. Unless Marshallese children were born in the U.S., they are unable to receive Medicaid in Oklahoma.

Joseia believes her ill health might be connected to something she saw in the islands when she was a little girl: an enormous flash of light, she told me through an interpreter, “a real bright color, like a fire.” It wasn’t until she was an adult that she understood what she’d seen.

Between 1946 and 1958, the United States tested 67 nuclear bombs on or near two atolls at the northern end of the Marshall Islands – an area that became known as the Pacific Proving Grounds. The largest weapons test, a hydrogen bomb set off on Bikini Atoll in 1954, detonated with more than a thousand times the power of the bomb dropped on Hiroshima during World War II. Though Bikini Atoll had been evacuated, the wind blew radioactive fallout onto several inhabited islands, and perhaps much further away. (A few days later, a doctor in Tennessee reported that cattle in the state showed unusually high levels of radioactivity in their thyroids.) Officially, the U.S. claimed only three inhabited islands were seriously affected by fallout from Bravo. But an internal report declassified in the 1990s suggested that radiation from that and subsequent tests may have affected as many as 13 atolls.

On neighboring islands, many health effects were immediate: radiation burns, damage to stomach linings, low blood cell counts. Others surfaced gradually in the following months and years. Rates of leukemia, breast cancer, and thyroid cancer rose. Children were born deformed, or had their growth stunted.

“In a nation that lacks a single oncologist or cancer treatment facility, the Marshallese experience extremely high rates of cancer; degenerative conditions associated with radiation exposure; miscarriage and infertility; and, the birth of congenitally deformed children,” environmental anthropologist Barbara Rose Johnston wrote in a 2013 report on the legacy of the tests. According to a 2012 report by a special rapporteur for the U.N., those health issues were “exacerbated by near-irreversible environmental contamination,” which in turn led to “indefinite displacement” for many Marshallese.

According to Dr. Neal Palafox, a cancer specialist at the University of Hawaii who worked in the Marshall Islands for nearly a decade, the weapons testing damaged more than flesh and bone. It constituted a form of cultural trauma, too. Palafox believes the U.S. chose to conduct the testing where it did because residents had little power to push back. “Not for a second does anybody believe that there was any kind of informed consent,” Palafox said in an interview. There is some evidence the U.S. knew that the winds had shifted before the Bravo test in a direction that endangered inhabited islands, yet proceeded anyway. Afterward, many of the people most heavily exposed to the Bravo fallout became test subjects in Project 4.1, a classified medical study of radiation exposure run by the U.S. government. Later in 1954, the Congress of the Marshall Islands requested a halt to the testing, which the U.S. rejected on the grounds that the islanders “had no medical reason to expect any permanent after-effects on the general health of the inhabitants.”

Joseia remembers the sickness that followed the bright light. She remembers women giving birth to babies that “didn’t look like human beings.” One man I met in Enid described infants born looking “like jellyfish.” Another woman, Joelynn Karben, told me she remembered infants born after the nuclear tests as incoherent lumps of flesh, like bunches of grapes. Her own brother was born missing part of his skull, and her mother died from what she thinks was thyroid cancer.

The bombings are deeply etched in the islands’ collective memory, and some people I met in Enid blamed them for all manner of illnesses. It’s impossible to say which, if any, of Joseia’s health issues are directly related. The sore she had on her back the day we met was actually a symptom of her diabetes, a nurse told me later – though that, too, is linked to the U.S. military presence in the islands, specifically to the dietary changes that accompanied imports of processed, sugary foods.

More than 90 percent of the food in the Marshall Islands is imported from the U.S. now. Before the U.S. occupation, the Marshallese ate mostly fish, breadfruit, coconut, and pandanus, a knobby fruit resembling a large pinecone. World War II and the nuclear testing that followed damaged local crops and created a stigma around local foods, which residents of islands affected by fallout had been warned by the U.S. not to eat. Some people were forced to relocate to desolate islands where growing food was impossible. Imported white rice, canned meats, refined sugar, and other cheap, processed foods filled the gap. Diabetes rates soared.

* * *

In Enid, it seemed like almost everyone I met had diabetes. In fact, the Marshallese have the second highest rate of Type II diabetes in the world. While the illness can be controlled, it becomes gruesome if not properly managed. Complications can escalate to blindness, nerve damage, and serious infections, which can require amputation.

Joseia’s diabetes is acute. Her kidneys are failing, and she needs dialysis. But there’s nowhere for her to get it in Enid without insurance. When her condition gets bad enough she can be admitted to an emergency room – but only in a crisis.

The Marshallese diet is heavy on white rice, pasta, and canned meats. This is in part traced back to the fact that the bombings ruined the traditional island foods, and Marshallese grew up eating processed foods imported to the islands by the U.S. Today, they have one of the highest rates of type two diabetes in the world.

“If she drinks lots of water and takes care of her diabetes, she could be around for a while. But that may not happen,” said Janet Cordell, the nurse who runs the community clinic. Cordell is a frank, energetic woman of 69, with short-shorn gray hair and pale olive-green eyes. Besides Joseia, she has two other patients with failing kidneys and no access to dialysis.

Born and raised in Oklahoma, Cordell has worked with the Marshallese since the 1980s. At first, most of the Marshallese she met in Enid were young people who’d come for college or to start families in the U.S. Now the elderly are following, many hoping for more advanced medical care than what is offered in the islands. Without a way to pay for that care, what they’re really doing is “coming to die,” Cordell said.

With patients, Cordell exercises a practiced blend of patience and bossiness. Many doctors get frustrated with their Marshallese patients, and consider them “noncompliant,” she said. Cordell prefers to describe them as “non-interventional.” For both financial and cultural reasons, they’re unlikely to go to the doctor or take medicine unless they’re very ill, which makes preventative care and managing chronic conditions like diabetes particularly challenging. Many of the conditions Cordell’s Marshallese patients seek treatment for, including diabetes, are diseases associated with poverty. Though she’s seen a handful of cases of leprosy and tuberculosis, most of the illnesses she treats aren’t unusual – they’re just more severe, because treatment is often delayed or interrupted.

Janet Cordell visits Jorvain Aiden, age 70, in her home in Enid, Oklahoma. She regularly visits the homes of the Marshallese in Enid to assist with residents’ health issues.

But Marshallese also bear the rare burden of radiation-related illness. Cancer kills more Marshallese citizens than any other disease but diabetes, and according to a 2004 report by the U.S. National Cancer Institute, it is likely some radiation-related cancers have yet to develop or be diagnosed in people who lived on the islands between 1948 and 1970.

While Cordell and I were speaking, another elderly woman with diabetes came into the clinic. She didn’t speak English, but a man accompanying her explained that she’d moved to another city, and hadn’t seen a doctor in three years. She was starting to go blind. Cordell checked her charts. The woman had come to the clinic once before, in 2014, when she’d been diagnosed. According to the charts, she’d never returned for a follow-up appointment.

“It is very challenging, taking care of the Marshallese,” Cordell told me later, with a long sigh. She makes a lot of home visits, bringing patients their lab results or dropping off prescriptions – though sometimes it’s hard to find the person she’s looking for, because Marshallese families in Enid move frequently. Cordell doesn’t schedule appointments in the mornings, knowing that many operate on “island time,” meaning late. She maintains a small roster of doctors who will sometimes see uninsured patients with serious conditions for free. She is blunt with her patients about the risks of foregoing care. “I don’t sugarcoat it a lot,” she admitted. “I usually will just say, ‘If you don’t come back, or if you don’t go to wound care, they will have to cut your foot off.’ I know that sounds like scare tactics, but it isn’t. It’s just a fact.”

Cordell, while forgiving of her patients, reserves her frustration for America’s health care system. In the 1980s and early ’90s, Marshallese had access to Medicaid and Medicare through COFA, before losing it in the welfare reform package. The change in status was confusing, particularly for people who had and then lost coverage. Oklahoma legislators could “get off their butts,” Cordell said, and use state funds to insure low-income people who’ve migrated under COFA, as Oregon did in 2016. But Cordell finds that hard to imagine, since state legislators have refused to expand Medicaid even to citizens under the Affordable Care Act.

The insurance gap ripples out to the whole city. It increases the load on local emergency rooms, and makes it harder to contain contagious illnesses. “We’re one of the only civilized countries that doesn’t have [universal] health care. That’s ridiculous. It is ridiculous,” Cordell said flatly. “They don’t care down in Oklahoma City.”

* * *

Bringing Oklahoma’s growing Marshallese community to the attention of state lawmakers is one of Terry Mote’s projects. Marshallese living in the U.S. can’t vote (unless they go through the lengthy process to become citizens), and as a result they have no political representation. “We’ve been absent from community involvement for some years,” he said. “We’re quiet people.” In 2015, Mote founded the Micronesia Coalition – a group of more than two dozen Marshallese pastors, community leaders, schools, and health care experts, aimed at improving the health and wellbeing of Enid’s Marshallese. In 2016, Mote helped organize a trip to the state capitol to lobby for expanding insurance coverage. “It was a historical moment for the Marshallese community,” Mote told me proudly.

Mote had an ally in the state Senate: Republican Patrick Anderson, whose district included Enid. Anderson introduced bills in 2015 and 2016 to give COFA migrants state-funded insurance coverage, modeled on the legislation enacted in Oregon. But the bills languished, and never received a vote. Anderson retired last year.

His successor, Roland Pederson, told me he “wasn’t really aware of the situation” regarding Enid’s Marshallese population until recently. “I know they’re a vital part of the Enid community, and provide a huge workforce,” he said. “I would just say that I haven’t really reached out and connected with them.” Pederson added that he’s committed to learning more and being a representative for the community, and he sounded genuinely curious as he asked me a number of questions about the challenges they face. Pederson said he wasn’t opposed to extending health benefits to COFA migrants – but he thought the money should come from the federal government, since it was a federal law that originally cut off their benefits.

On June 21, Hawaii’s congressional delegation introduced legislation to restore Medicaid coverage for citizens of the Freely Associated States (FAS). “We have a moral obligation to provide FAS citizens living in Hawaii and across our country with access to medical care,” Senator Mazie Hirono said in a statement. The legislation is one of more than 20 similar bills introduced in Congress since 2001. The Republican congressional majority is not likely to embrace an expansion of the program anytime soon; instead, the GOP has proposed deep cuts to Medicaid as part of its rewrite of the Affordable Care Act.

According to a 2013 analysis by the Congressional Budget Office, covering COFA migrants through Medicaid would cost $20 million a year. That’s less than a twelfth of the cost of a single, $244 million weapons test conducted in May involving a simulated threat missile launched from the U.S. base on Kwajalein atoll in the Marshall Islands.

* * *

Mote spends a lot of time in the car. Two nights before he went to Oklahoma City in search of bitter melon, he drove an hour west of Enid to meet with a Marshallese couple who’d asked for help navigating a marital issue. The next morning, as he got back in the car to take me to meet other Marshallese families, his eyes were bloodshot from lack of sleep.

We spent the morning driving around town, criss-crossing railroad tracks, searching for people who’d moved since Mote last visited them. Enid’s enormous grain elevators slipped in and out of view on the horizon. All together, the pale concrete towers can hold more than 65 million bushels of wheat. “Where the wheat grows and the oil flows” is the town’s old tagline. But many of the elevators stand empty now, and the collapse of oil prices in late 2014 and 2015 hit the city hard.

After knocking on a number of doors we finally found the home of Stanley Jamor and his wife, Lorit. Jamor’s family was relocated from Bikini Atoll in anticipation of the nuclear testing, and split up on different islands. Some inhabitants of Bikini were sent first to Rongerik Atoll, a barren island so sparsely vegetated that they soon began to starve. Then they were moved to a tent camp beside a U.S. airstrip on another island. Many Bikinians, including Jamor’s parents, ultimately ended up on the small island of Kili.

In 1968, the U.S. government told the former residents of Bikini their island was safe to return to. “There’s virtually no radiation left and we can find no discernible effect on either plant or animal life,” declared the U.S. Atomic Energy Commission. About 150 people living on Kili returned to Bikini in the early 1970s – only to be re-evacuated in 1978 when testing revealed “incredible” concentrations (in the words of the U.S. Interior Department) of the radioactive element cesium 137 in their bodies.

Today, Kili is barely habitable for the 700 or so people who still live there. Unlike other atolls ringed around calm lagoons, Kili is a solitary island buffeted on both sides by waves that make fishing and sailing all but impossible in the stormy season. There is little space on the 200-acre island for farming, and so most food is shipped in.

Rising seas attributed to climate change pose a more vexing problem. Flooding has become a regular nuisance on Kili and throughout the Marshall Islands, where the average elevation is less than six feet above sea level. Saltwater seeps into the groundwater, already depleted by drought, and ruins crops. Majuro, the capital, has been alternately parched and drowned. In 2016, the capital had to ration water, and several times it’s been saturated by king tides – high, predictable tides that rarely touched Majuro in the past. On the narrow, flat islands, there’s no high ground to retreat to. The rising water is coming even for the dead. Graveyards near the coastline have eroded, headstones and bones washed out to sea. For people living on Kili and other islands, migration might one day be a necessity rather than a choice.

Jamor, who is 41, left Kili so his children could get a better education – the island doesn’t have a high school – and for better medical care. Theirs was one of the families that lost Medicaid coverage when it was stripped from the Marshallese in the 1996 welfare reform act. Jamor is still frustrated and angry about the loss. Like other Marshallese who work in the U.S., he’s paid taxes – and he believes that the U.S. owes his family and others for the damage and disruption of the nuclear testing. “The promise is broken,” he said, matter-of-factly. “America promised the people of Bikini they would take care of them.”

(A Nuclear Claims Tribunal, funded by Congress and overseen by Marshallese judges, was established in 1988 to compensate victims of the nuclear testing. But as of 2009, with more than $45 million still owed, the fund had been depleted. Even if fully funded, it’s not clear families like Jamors’ would qualify.)

Jamor used to work for the meat-processing company AdvancePierre, cleaning machines in the middle of the night. But when we spoke he was struggling to find a full-time job with health benefits. He and his wife were living with their three children and several grandchildren. One of his sons works at Advance, as the family calls it, and is the sole earner in the household.

Meatpacking, which provides some of the most readily available jobs for the Marshallese in Enid, is brutal work. “It’s cold, cold, cold,” said a woman named Joelynn Karben whose first job in Enid was at one of the refrigerated processing facilities. The job required her to stand for hours, and sometimes her hands got so stiff that she went to the bathroom and held them under hot water. She worked for four months before quitting. “I’ll never go back there again,” she vowed.

* * *

Fellow Marshallese started asking for Mote’s help years ago, while he was serving as a pastor at his church. He fielded a steady stream of requests for help paying for groceries, rent, medical care, and with navigating bureaucratic hurdles in the way of driver’s licenses or work permits. Because he was a pastor, people shared troubles with him that they were too ashamed to confide in their friends.

His family had their own difficulties. Mote worked for years to bring his mother, wife and kids to Enid, skipping lunches to save money for their airfare. His mother is diabetic, and she had to be hospitalized once for severe respiratory problems. She was also uninsured. Soon Mote began receiving collection notices for thousands of dollars. He was shocked. “My family, we never had anything. And we never owed anything to anyone,” he said.

Health care in the Marshall Islands is limited, but it is provided by the government. Mote hadn’t understood that higher-quality care in the U.S. came at such a price. He was working as an interpreter for the Enid police, helping the department communicate with Marshallese families, many of whom didn’t speak English. He was living paycheck to paycheck. There was no way he could pay his mother’s bills. At night he was afraid to fall asleep, because he thought someone might come to arrest him.

The realization that seemingly all of the Marshallese families in Enid had the same struggles as his own family was, for Mote, “emotional.” The community bore its burdens in silence. Who was there to complain to?

The Marshallese and the white community in Enid run like railroad tracks, parallel to one another. Religion glues each together, but for the most part they worship at separate churches. There are few Marshallese-owned businesses in town, save for one beauty parlor. “We do our own thing. We don’t really get out,” said a 28-year-old woman named Nerum who I met at the community clinic.

A residential street in Enid, Oklahoma.

The separateness leads to stereotyping, and even wild speculation. When I asked a bartender in Enid if she ever interacted with people from the islands, she laughed. “They live with, like, 20 people to a house. The women have hair down to their waists, and they wear flip-flops in the snow,” she offered. A man whose family has been in Enid for generations told me he’s heard rumors that Marshallese couples are polygamous, because it’s hard to tell who’s married to whom in households where a number of relatives live under the same roof. Quickly, he added, “I’m not saying it’s true, or that I believe it.” (While polygamy was once practiced on the islands, it’s no longer condoned.)

“Some people don’t know who we are,” Joelynn Karben said simply when I asked her about the relationship between the Marshallese community and other Enid residents. If one person makes a mistake, everyone is blamed for it, she told me. She referred to a drunk driving incident in February, in which a young Marshallese man hit and killed a local teacher while fleeing from police; online comments she saw later made her feel that the whole community had been indicted. Similar finger pointing occurred during an outbreak of typhoid fever in 2015.

But the tracks do cross, particularly in Enid’s schools. One morning I listened to Enid High School’s “Multi-Cultural Choir,” composed mainly of Marshallese students, rehearse. They sang the national anthem of the Marshall Islands and a few other songs. Later, during a lull in class, a few boys clustered together and sang Marshallese songs in perfect three- and four-part harmonies, led by one boy with a ukelele.

Later, I met Joan McIntyre, the high school’s head nurse. She reckons she’s the primary source of medical care for many of the Marshallese students. They get sick with the same things other kids do, she said, but their symptoms are worse, and they take longer to recover. McIntyre treats a lot of infections: cuts and boils that go untreated, and fester. While we were speaking she received a note about a student with a “lemon-sized” swelling under her eye, which she deemed “pretty typical.”

“Not necessarily Marshallese, but anybody who doesn’t have access to medical care, they let things go,” McIntyre said. “These people are very, very poor, and so they don’t have access to insurance, and they don’t have the money to go to a doctor. Or if they do go to a doctor they don’t have the money to get the prescription.” She believes the U.S. has a responsibility to provide care to the Marshallese: “I feel very strongly about that, because the issues they have are not going to go away.”

* * *

Mote is an optimistic guy, and a relentless jokester. He claims that “tired” is not part of his vocabulary. He hesitates to speak badly about anyone.

But watching Enid’s Marshallese families get sick so often, listening to them fret about coming up with rent money, going to all the funerals – it does wear on him. He constantly fields requests for help, but there’s only so much he can do; his toehold in the city bureaucracy is still tenuous. He’d like to run for a seat on the city council, but without citizenship he’s ineligible. Mote believes that if Oklahomans understood more about the history and culture of the islands, they might be more sympathetic to the plight of their people. But he also acknowledges that Enid, which is more than 80 percent white, “has a lot of issues with race” to overcome first.

“I don’t want to blame someone,” Mote said, when I asked what he thought the U.S. owed the Marshallese. “But yes, I feel frustrated sometimes, to see all these people getting sick every day, dying every day… If the state is not going to help us, and the government is not listening to us, who will help us?” He went on, “Do we just scatter our stuff and leave Oklahoma?”

Terry Mote prays at the beginning of a class he teaches to the youth group at the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints in Enid, Oklahoma.

The day after picking up melon and fish from Oklahoma City, Mote invited me over for dinner, and to meet his family. When I arrived, sunlight was raking the grass of his front lawn. His mother sat in the kitchen peeling oranges; his wife stood at the sink, cleaning the fish. His son, Oakie – named for the state he was born in – confirmed that his father does a fair share of the cooking, adding that he’d made corned beef hash the previous night.

As the fish sizzled, Mote told me a Marshallese legend, about how his people learned to sail. One day, long ago, the twelve sons of a woman named Loktanur decided to race their canoes to determine who would be the next chief. As the young men prepared their boats for the race, Loktanur approached with a large bundle in her arms. She asked her eldest son, Timur, to carry her with him. But Timur worried that her heavy load would slow him down, and he refused. So did the next-eldest, and the next, and so on, until she got to her youngest son, Jebro, who agreed to take her in his boat.

The brothers took off, paddling furiously. Loktanur unwrapped her bundle. It was a sail. She helped Jebro to hoist it, and taught him to tack, and the wind pushed his canoe far ahead of his brothers’. So it was that Jebro became the chief – and, later, took up residence in the night sky as the constellation some know as the Pleiades, where he guides other sailors of the Marshall Islands.

I asked Mote what the story meant to him. He looked at me in surprise. I expected him to say something about generosity, about kindness. Instead, he said simply, “Take care of your mother.”

 

 

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.”

* * *

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

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