Meet the Turtles That Hibernate in Mini-Fridges and Cruise in Barbie Jeeps—and the New Yorkers Who Can’t Live Without Them

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A 74-year-old classical music critic, a female priest from Staten Island and a handsome young Pilates instructor are all card-carrying members of the world’s most dedicated society of turtle aficionados.

In early June, on a busy Manhattan street, I bumped into Flash Rosenberg, a woman who freelanced for the art magazine I worked at a million years ago. Flash invited me up to her loft and gave me a cup of coffee. She still makes her living as a cartoonist and photographer, and her place was as jam-packed as you would expect a cartoonist/photographer’s loft to be. It was a fun 25 minutes of catch-up, but I had an appointment nearby. As I checked my phone for the time, she raised a finger and asked, “Do you want to meet my boys?”

Flash Rosenberg with one of her turtles (above) and covered in turtle swag (below).
Flash Rosenberg with one of her turtles (above) and covered in turtle swag (below).

The boys were two turtles floating in a large tank near the bathroom. They were the size of small throw pillows, with big fat necks; they looked like balding middle-aged men with patterns on their backs. “Aren’t they pretty?” Flash asked. And they were, as long as I concentrated on their shells and not on their Don Rickles faces.

Flash told me they were diamondback terrapins, the name for turtles that live in brackish water. Apparently there are some endangered wild terrapins in New York City, out by Jamaica Bay. “But I saved mine from becoming soup thirty years ago, at an open food stall in Philadelphia’s Chinatown,” Flash told me. “The seller kept saying, ‘Longevity! Longevity!’ I think he meant if you eat turtle soup you will live a long life, because diamondbacks can live past 50.

(Photos courtesy Flash Rosenberg)
(Photos courtesy Flash Rosenberg)

“I was horrified,” Flash continued. “I bought one and then went back later to get some company. I really took to them, but truthfully I’ve always been a bit of turtle person.”

She pointed to one of the floating boys. “You want to hold one?”

I didn’t really, but I nodded and she pulled one out of the tank.

“Meet O.O.T., for Ole Original Turtle. You should not fear O.O.T., for he is calm, sage and wise.” As I held a turtle for the first time in many years, Flash admitted she used to walk her pets in Bryant Park, tying brightly-colored helium balloons to them so she could find them as they ambled in the grass. Passersby were enchanted, but it was a short-lived idea. “I think they’re happier at home under their reptile light bulbs. It is less stressful here than being made a spectacle of.

Curious onlookers watch Flash Rosenberg's turtles in Manhattan's Bryant Park. (Photo courtesy Flash Rosenberg)
Curious onlookers watch Flash Rosenberg’s turtles in Manhattan’s Bryant Park. (Photo courtesy Flash Rosenberg)

“The other one in there is DoubleDill, an edgier dude named by my niece when she was five. She was calling him ‘Little Turtle’ which in her young voice sounded more like ‘Little Dildo,’ which was not something I wanted to call him. So I tried shortening his name to ‘LittleDill,’ which still sounded like “Little Dildo” — so finally he became “DoubleDill” — no space between letters.

“No matter how cool you are, if you hold up your turtle you will look like an eighth grade geek,” Flash went on. “It’s like owning a plant with much more personality. Plants don’t respond. But turtles do.” (At this moment, the turtles really seemed to be looking at her.) “Now I don’t know if they like me, per se; maybe it is my composite vibration — the way I walk and talk. I used to do radio spots in Philadelphia and when they would hear my voice they would look towards the radio, swear to God. You may think I’m nuts. I should show you my card for the turtle club.”

This South American red-footed tortoise, being held aloft by its owners, took top honors at the 2009 Turtle Show. (Photo by Anita Salzberg)
This South American red-footed tortoise, being held aloft by its owners, took top honors at the 2009 Turtle Show. (Photo by Anita Salzberg)

At that, I was hooked. As a writer with a fondness for subcultures, interesting humans and anything NYC, I had to know more. Flash explained that the New York Turtle & Tortoise Society has been around for 40 years. “We have a show in Greenwich Village where turtles and tortoises compete, with blue ribbons and Best in Show. It’s a scene. You should go.”

* * *

Two weeks later I entered the gates of the Village Community School on West 10th Street and headed toward a yard, where numerous tortoises were crawling on the asphalt. One turtle was being pulled in a hot pink Barbie jeep.

I chatted with the longest continuous member of the turtle society, 74-year-old Michael Sherwin, a charming and knowledgeable man in a crumpled suit. If this were a Christopher Guest film, Eugene Levy would be playing him. Michael used to be the Julliard bookstore manager and now reviews classical music concerts and releases. One of the turtle club members whispered to me afterwards, “There is an unwritten rule that we don’t start the judging until Sherwin shows up with the turtles, in his suit. He’s in that suit no matter what the weather is.” Michael had brought four turtles this day, including Snappy, an enormous 40-something common snapping turtle, probably the oldest four-legged competitor in the show.

Sara Ramos’s red-eared slider turtle, decked out for the day in a bow, travels around the 2015 Turtle Show in style. (Photo by Anita Salzberg)
Sara Ramos’s red-eared slider turtle, decked out for the day in a bow, travels around the 2015 Turtle Show in style. (Photo by Anita Salzberg)

Dr. Patrick Baker looked more like an all-American football player than a testudinologist, the proper name for a turtle and tortoise scientist. But this baby-faced man was indeed the judge of the competition, visiting from his research post in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, where he is studying the Nubian flapshell, a large softshell turtle found only in north central Africa. Dr. Baker took a long time to examine each contestant. Hours later, when Baker awarded the coveted blue ribbons, Michael and Snappy were called to the makeshift podium. Snappy was too large to carry, so Michael brought a younger, smaller turtle for the official photo.

Seven blue ribbons had been handed out, which left one prize remaining: the Best in Show at the 41st Annual New York Turtle and Tortoise Show. Humans craned their necks, turtlelike, to see who was left. Gasps could be heard when Dr. Baker announced a first-time entrant the winner, a 65-pound tortoise named Harry Houdini.

Michael Sherwin with Snappy. (Photo by Laurie Gwen Shapiro)
Michael Sherwin with Snappy. (Photo by Laurie Gwen Shapiro)

One shocked competitor whispered to me that Harry’s owner, Reverend Terry Troia of Staten Island, had arrived an hour late to last year’s turtle show but left the schoolyard determined to try again. This year, victory was hers.

* * *

In August of 2011 Rev. Troia was walking down Sharpe Avenue in Staten Island when she saw a large tortoise walking towards her. At first, the 56-year-old Reformed Church in America minister and citywide homeless advocate thought the animal was a large mechanical toy. She picked it up and realized her mistake when the tortoise started flailing. Rev. Troia brought it to her mother’s backyard, from which it promptly escaped. It was found grazing on a neighbor’s lawn.

Rev. Troia discovered the tortoise had belonged to a young boy who left him at a neighbor’s house and for unknown reasons never came back for him. The neighbor said Harry kept escaping from her yard. She had eight kids to feed and couldn’t afford to feed the tortoise. Rev. Troia agreed to hold on to him for the time being, naming him Harry Houdini because of his escape artistry.

Rev. Troia’s next order of business was identifying Harry’s species at the Staten Island Zoo, so she could learn what to feed him. It turned out that Harry is a northern African spurred-thighed tortoise, also called a sulcata, and a native of the sub-Saharan desert, probably smuggled into the country to be sold as a pet or food. One on-the-ball zoologist told her the sulcata is the third largest species after the Galapagos and Aldabra giant tortoises, and somewhat alarmingly, that he could grow to 260 pounds and live for over 150 years. Troia was not worried about how she was going to take care of him yet; her paramount concern was his health because it was clear to this specialist that he was very sick and needed immediate attention at the vet.

Splash, a turtle belonging to New York Turtle and Tortoise Society Member Lorri Cramer (Photo by Rose Cromwell)
Splash, a turtle belonging to New York Turtle and Tortoise Society Member Lorri Cramer (Photo by Rose Cromwell)

Rev. Troia drove to an emergency appointment with Dr. Michael Doolen, an especially active member of the Association of Reptilian and Amphibian Veterinarians based at NorthStar VETS in Trenton, New Jersey. Lead poisoning was the diagnosis, which corresponded with the later news that Harry had eaten through the wall of the apartment where he had lived with his former child owner. The only remedy was expensive chelation therapy, and Rev. Troia learned her rescue would have a better chance if he lived with her, rather than at an overcrowded sanctuary. Harry received shots in his neck and the kind minister learned how to administer them.

Terry Troia and “Harry Houdini,” her African spurred tortoise, pose next to the 2015 Best in Show trophy. Photo: Anita Salzberg. (Photo by Anita Salzberg)
Terry Troia and “Harry Houdini,” her African spurred tortoise, pose next to the 2015 Best in Show trophy. Photo: Anita Salzberg. (Photo by Anita Salzberg)

While Harry was recovering on a diet of hay, dandelion and fruit, Hurricane Sandy hit the shores of Staten Island hard in October of 2012. Troia’s home was without electricity and Harry without his special reptile lighting needed for recovery. By this time word of Harry’s situation had spread to animal lovers of Staten Island, and a kind old lady in Arrochar, a neighborhood still blessed with electricity, drove over to get him until power went back on in New Brighton.

After several more months of pricey treatment, Harry was finally well. Rabbi Gerald Sussman, Troia’s boss at the interfaith homeless outreach organization Project Hospitality, offered his yard for the summers. Harry continues to live as an interfaith tortoise, wandering the rabbi’s yard through the High Holidays, then coming back to Rev. Troia after Sukkos to spend his winters in her bedroom.

To teach empathy, Rev. Troia often brings Harry, approximately fifteen years old, to kindergartens of Staten Island, explaining to enraptured young audiences that “Harry was homeless and an undocumented African immigrant.” She explains the struggle and dangers of living with no papers, as well as the concept of adoption. “I tell kids that he doesn’t look like me but he is family.”

Rev. Troia yearns to meet other New York City sulcata owners. Harry had never met any other tortoises he until arrived at the New York Turtle and Tortoise Society show. “He was a big hit, with everyone,” said Rev. Troia. “For a vegetarian he is a big ham.”

I was on the scene when Harry met Bozo, a young small female sulcata, and had to ask Troia what the hell that grunting noise emanating from her pet was. “Ha!” she answered. “That was his first girl for sure.”

Competitors strut their stuff for admiring onlookers at the 41st annual New York Turtle and Tortoise Show. (Video by Laurie Gwen Shapiro)

The oldest turtles and tortoises in New York City are the two male Aldabra giant tortoises at the Bronx Zoo, which are believed to be over 100. Native to the Aldabra atoll in the Republic of Seychelles, they can live past 200. But even a house pet like a box turtle can live to be 100. Given that the possible sulcata lifespan is 150, Harry Houdini may still be crawling in Staten Island when every last person now reading this article is dead.

* * *

Pilates instructor Erico Villanueva whispers goodbye to his tortoise Cynthia every year around Halloween, before he puts her in the refrigerator to hibernate. Cynthia is a marginated tortoise; native to Greece and Sardinia, the name comes from notably bent marginal tiles, also called scutes, in the back of their carapace, the upper shell of a turtle. Fourteen years ago, when Cynthia came here from Los Angeles via UPS, she was the size of a quarter. Now she is twenty inches long.

A former gymnast and Joffrey-trained dancer, Erico still dances in Broadway productions from time to time. This lithe man with a winning smile grew up on a farm outside Buenos Aires in the 1970s, where moderately-sized Chaco tortoises were plentiful. Homesick in New York, Erico looked into getting a Chaco into the United States, but was thwarted by legal restrictions and cost. More doable was a similar-size marginated tortoise of the Mediterranean. He looked into breeders and found one in California.

Before her yearly big goodbye, Erico winds down feeding Cynthia and she grows more lethargic until she is ready for the mini-fridge. He places her in a brown paper bag that his clients sometimes mistake for his lunch. He removes the bag from the shelf mid-April, give or take a week. “I wait for the warmth of spring, but I miss her and once a week I open the fridge door for a minute or two to recirculate the air inside and check on her. That helps the time pass.”

Is this a normal thing to do?

Erico Villanueva with Cynthia. (Photo courtesy Erico Villanueva)
Erico Villanueva with Cynthia. (Photo courtesy Erico Villanueva)

“In the wild, marginated tortoises hibernate,” explained Erico. “It is part of the biological natural cycle. You can do it with a healthy animal only, never a sick one. Some people don’t do this and it is okay too.”

During the rest of the year Cynthia spends a lot of time with Erico in his Chelsea studio. He joined the society a few years ago when he fortuitously walked past the gates of the Village Community School yard on the day of the annual show, and peeking in, realized he was not alone in New York.

This year was the second time Cynthia won a coveted NYTTS blue ribbon. I asked what a winning tortoise eats.

“Grass. I also give her dandelions and fruit, which is like candy to her. I will spoil her with strawberries and blueberries from Whole Foods. My boyfriend will too.”

At the show, Erico brought a likable young man he had just met that week, who looked mildly astounded to be surrounded by dozens of turtles and tortoises so soon after a hot date.

“Now he’s my boyfriend, John!” Erico exclaimed. “Did John mention to you he’s studying to be an Episcopalian priest? One of John’s new duties will be the blessing of animals. And he is excited to have Cynthia go to his parish so he can bless her.”

* * *

Allen Salzberg found his first turtle at a Jewish day camp called Funland in Oakland, New Jersey. “Funland was run by three rabbis,” Allen added, before detaching himself by telling the rest of story as if he were a character in someone’s novel. “I was ten and playing baseball next to a stream, waiting for my turn at bat. I saw a painted turtle that dove off a floating log and without thinking I dove in after it. Let’s put it this way: Everything blacked out until I realized I was holding the turtle and I was the center of attention.”

New York Turtle and Tortoise Society Member Lorri Cramer holds the first turtle she ever owned. (Photo by Rose Cromwell)
New York Turtle and Tortoise Society Member Lorri Cramer holds the first turtle she ever owned. (Photo by Rose Cromwell)

He looked up again, back in 2015. “It was not the perfect turtle to own; I let that turtle go. I don’t want to imply that kids should own turtles caught in the wild.”

When Allen and Anita Salzberg started dating in 1986, Anita, then a copyeditor, knew nothing about turtles. Soon after they met, Anita suggested a romantic outing to the Bronx Zoo. Allen, a Bronx High School of Science graduate who had been collecting turtles on and off for years, agreed, with a caveat: “Only if we can visit the reptile house.” There, they spotted a big sign announcing that a mysterious New York Turtle and Tortoise Society was looking for new members.

Anita, who would go on to author the 2005 memoir “Confessions of a Turtle Wife,” rolled her eyes. “That was the end.”

After joining the society, “two minutes later his was the adoption chair,” Anita added.

“I thought ‘adoption, turtles — hey, that would be fun!’” Allen said. “A minute later everybody getting rid of a turtle was at our newly shared apartment. Every time I got home the doorman would be there with a box. Often they would leave the turtle and run. My philosophy was, just take the animal — ask questions but the animal comes first. I tried places I know will take care, like The Queens Zoo.”

An unusual “carrying case” for a red-eared slider turtle, which is native to the southern United States. (Photo by Anita Salzberg)
An unusual “carrying case” for a red-eared slider turtle, which is native to the southern United States. (Photo by Anita Salzberg)

Allen, a PR writer and occasional science journalist, also volunteered to take on public relations for the NYTTS. Pre-Internet in 1987, he sent a spiffy press release to the pet columnist of Better Homes & Gardens, his first score. Then, with “Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles” mania in high gear, it was easy to place a small article in The New York Times, and sure enough there were huge throngs at the next turtle show, and briefly, a membership of 2,000. “Sadly, we are a shell of what were back in the late ’80s,” Allen admitted.

Allen enjoys aspects of the members he meets but thinks some of them anthropomorphize too much. What truly excites Allen, who edits a weekly online reptile newsletter HerpDigest, is recent microphone-based research in Brazil that led to a new discovery. “Apparently certain species and maybe all species talk, and send out signals to other turtles underwater and they respond,” he said. “I grew up thinking there was with no talking for turtles. If they are sentient beings on this level then that boggles my mind.”

Where were the Salzbergs’ own turtles?

“In the kitchen,” Allen said. “We’re down to three.”

Like any proper New Yorker I glanced at the Salzbergs’ overflowing bookshelves before I left. Caught out, I asked the 50-something bookworms for a few suggestions if I wanted to look at literary references on New York turtles.

“A judicious history of New York City would include Edith Wharton’s repeated mention of terrapin in ‘The Age of Innocence,’” Anita said.

“Don’t forget to mention Diamond Jim Brady, the great New York glutton who got his name from his love of green turtle soup,” Allen said.

I promised I wouldn’t.

“You know what you should really do?” Anita said suddenly. “You really should go to Lorri Cramer’s house.”

* * *

Who are you going to call when 652 illegal red-eared slider hatchlings are found in a warehouse in Chinatown? If you work for the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation you are going to call a 68-year-old woman on the Upper West Side named Lorri Cramer.

“I have eight of them of them left; I’ve found homes for the rest,” said Lorri. “You need to understand that freezing to death is bad enough with mammals, but it is worse with turtles; because of the way their neurological system is set up they stay very aware the whole time. How could I say no?”

Lorri Cramer along with one of the three cats and one of the 50 turtles currently living her home. (Photo by Rose Cromwell)
Lorri Cramer along with one of the three cats and one of the 50 turtles currently living her home. (Photo by Rose Cromwell)

Lorri steered me to an extra bathroom where eight tiny turtles scurried around in a container inside her tub. “Instead of a size of a quarter they are the size of a silver dollar now.”

Lorri’s apartment also contains three cats and a rescue springer spaniel, Molly. One of the cats, Lily, fond feral along the shoreline after Hurricane Sandy, is in charge of everyone in the house, including the dog.

But surely turtles are Lorri’s true passion?

“Not especially. Let’s just say I have an unusual affinity for all animals — I live in a New York apartment, otherwise God knows what else I would be tending to. But turtles work for me in a cramped space; they are not wandering all over the house.

“There are not that many now, in my opinion, since I found homes for most of the hatchlings from that Chinatown sting. Fifty isn’t that many to me these days.

“Every one you see I have licensed as a New York State wildlife rehabilitator. It isn’t an ideal life in a Manhattan apartment, but it’s safer for them here. After rehabilitation, many of the ones you see here will be released, unless they can’t be released; some have injuries in which a predator will get them. Sometime the animals came into the country illegally and we can’t get them back to their natural environment; I’m not about to release an African sideneck in New Jersey.

“They come in at all times. I got a call to rescue one tortoise native to Florida marching in the middle of Queens Boulevard in February.”

Do her neighbors think she is a hoarder?

“Well, I don’t. I’m looking to give as many away as I can. I didn’t go looking for any of these turtles. They were brought to me.”

Lorri then introduced me to two South American tortoises that were found in a false-bottom suitcase and confiscated 20 years ago at customs in Florida. The airline sent 350 baby tortoises direct from Florida to Lorri and she gave as many as she could to the Turtleback Zoo in New Jersey. “They couldn’t go back to South America because we had no idea where they were from originally. Think about it: They all have areas they are specifically from. They might have exposed other turtles to infection. These two tortoises are two of the lucky ones. The majority from that suitcase were very dehydrated — an evil thing wholesalers do all the time — they dehydrate the turtles and tortoises so they weigh less and cost them less.”

Lorri explained that many of her turtles come from Central Park — “some with legs bitten off. Snapping turtles are in every pond in Manhattan, all the ones in Central Park are stuffed with them. Most of them are unfortunately, red-eared sliders, which people get as tiny pets in Chinatown. The sliders are fast as hell when they get older; they are remarkably hardy turtles and people start dumping them because they are too quick for them.”

I couldn’t not mention the outlandish rumor I heard from several members at the turtle show: that at night Chinese restaurateurs are swooping in and getting turtles out of Central Park’s Turtle Pond for soup. This was not entirely dismissed. “That comes from a guest lecturer we had once who insisted people were stealing turtles. I can’t say for sure. On occasion this might be happening…But I’m not convinced.

“I’m not worried about who’s coming out, as much as who’s going in,” she added. “What I’m worried about the most are the Buddhists.”

Pardon?

Peeking out for a view at Lorri Cramer's House (Photo by Rose Cromwell)
Peeking out for a view at Lorri Cramer’s House (Photo by Rose Cromwell)

“I’m not anti-Buddhist; Buddhists are lovely people, but there’s many in New York City using an antiquated version of a beautiful ‘release life’ ceremony called fangsheng. Many Buddhists believe it’s good karma to release a captive animal. But in New York City, they’re actually giving these turtles even more miserable lives. Certain times of the year I get more than a dozen freshwater turtles found in saltwater, or turtles released in fountains. The Buddhists put them in the East River, in the Hudson River, everywhere there is water. The animals get really sick. If a freshwater turtle is in salt water too long its kidneys and liver suffer and it will die from it. Others starve to death.”

Every year Lorri wrote letters to different temples, begging leaders to spread the word not to release turtles and tortoises in this way. “No one responded. No one was going to talk to me in Chinatown because I’m not Chinese. But I did not give up hope, and kept this up for seven years. Finally, the Venerable Benkong from Grace Gratitude Buddhist Temple on East Broadway contacted me. He was worried about it too.”

Lorri took a drink of water. “Turns out Benkong’s an Italian from Jersey City — but he went as a teen to China to study, I think. He is not only a monk but before that he was one of the people who put together AIDS clinics in Africa. He married women a couple of times before he decided he was a monk and really gay. He is just an amazing monk.”

Ven. Benkong and Lorri Cramer teamed up and brainstormed ways to adjust the ceremony. Benkong distributed a plan to New York’s temples, in English and Chinese. The handout asked area Buddhists to stop and think. Instead of going to a store and spending money to buy sick animals and release them, he pleaded with those seeking good karma to join a group of likeminded compassionate people who will only release animals that are ready for the wilds of New York. Benkong will lead the blessing over animals that have been sick but healed and are going out to the environment. “There’s a beautiful blessing and chanting,” Lorri said. “The next one is this fall if anyone wants to go.”

As a 68-year-old who is a breast cancer survivor of two years, does Lorri worry about her charges when she is gone? She paused. “Well, the New York Turtle and Tortoise Society has a program where you can write into your will that if you die your animals can be given to them, and they will find a great home. I only keep about twelve of the animals as true pets, and only Lavinia can wander the house.

“Lavinia was my first rescue; he had four broken legs when he came into my life. I didn’t know I had a male turtle for six more years. You really can’t tell when they are young. But when they get older, depending on the species, you might see something that helps you identify the sex — the shape of the tail is always a good way. With land turtles, their bottom shell, called plastrons, are concave — wait, I’ll show you what I mean.” She grabbed a male turtle named Billy Idol who only had three legs. “We found him 25 years ago around when the real Billy Idol had a motorcycle accident and nearly lost his leg.” She flipped reptile Billy Idol over to show me his plastron. “With a boy, they are more faded inside.”

A rescued turtle swims freely in Lorri Cramer's aquarium. (Photo by Rose Cromwell)
A rescued turtle swims freely in Lorri Cramer’s aquarium. (Photo by Rose Cromwell)

Can’t you tell by…a penis?

“Can you ever! The first time I found out that Lavinia was a boy was the first time he displayed and I thought his whole insides were falling out. Who knew it comes out through the tail? Always a shock because it’s quite long.” (A later view on YouTube confirmed this big-time.)

Lorri hesitated for the first time when asked if her husband minds the menagerie. “Well, Mitchell doesn’t allow turtles in the bedroom. The dog and the cats can come in there but he wants one room in the house to be turtle- and tortoise-free. And he won’t do any cleaning — but he does buy their food. He’ll stop and get fresh greens for the tortoise.”

But does he like them?

“He’s come to like them.”

Her kids, meanwhile, go back and forth on their commitment level. “Growing up, they both loved turtles until they were teenagers and then it was embarrassing to take their friends into a house with dozens of turtles. My daughter Abby still has a special connection with the turtles though, although she lives in a no-pets building now.”

She led me to a large turtle near her front door. “This is Splash, who was my daughter’s turtle, and he stayed in a tank at the foot of her bed. When Abby woke up he would start splashing to get her attention. When Abby went to college, Splash was alone in her bedroom and stopped eating and was lethargic. I realized he needed attention, and that he was used to a lot of stuff going on. So now Splash is the meeter-and-greeter. I put him right by the door so he can see everything that’s happening. He likes to say goodbye too.”

Sure enough, a large turtle swam to the edge of the tank for a look, and started splashing and bobbing his head. Lorri smiled widely. “Oh, he’s happy right now. He’s a people turtle!”

As I turned to leave behind a curious world only weeks ago I had no idea existed in the wilds of New York City, I glanced back at Splash, who was floating with legs out. He looked toward me, or at least I projected that he looked toward me. I wondered if he knew that I liked him. I kind of doubted it. His old-man eyelids closed, he paddled away, and I said goodbye to his tail.

* * *

Laurie Gwen Shapiro is an Emmy-nominated documentary filmmaker as well as a novelist. She is currently working on her first non-fiction book, about a Lower East Side teen stowaway on Commander Byrd’s 1928 expedition to Antarctica. (Simon & Schuster, early 2017. Follow her @LaurieStories and on facebook at facebook.com/LaurieGwenShapiro)

Rose Marie Cromwell is a photographic and video artist currently living and working between New York and Panama. She is also a founder of Cambio Creativo, a Fulbright Scholar, and recent Light Work artist in residence.

 

 

The Prison Where Inmates Help Each Other Die With Dignity

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More Americans are dying behind bars than ever before. At one correctional facility, volunteer death-doulas offer care and comfort to their fellow prisoners.

It’s six p.m. on a summer Wednesday, and Billy Canady Jr., 47, is beginning his shift as a hospice volunteer. His patient, Carl Stevens, is dying of cancer. A mermaid looks down on the bed  where Stevens is sleeping, part of an ocean-themed mural that sports his sentimental touch: photos of Stevens’ children and grandchildren by the bed. Canady taps the elderly man lightly on his shoulder to let him know he’s there.

“He just looked up, and it’s like you get this sense that he knows he’s safe,” says Canady, who is fourteen years into an eighteen-year sentence. It’s looks like this that make his volunteer work worth it, he says.

Canady has been looking after Stevens (whose name has been changed here because he did not agree to be interviewed for this piece) for a little over two weeks. At this point, caring for him means sitting by the bed to keep him company because Stevens is still largely self-sufficient. They have a few things in common: both love German shepherds and value family. And, most importantly, both are inmates at Osborn Correctional Institution, a medium-security prison in northern Connecticut.

The mantra of hospice is “death with dignity.” It is a comfort-oriented approach to death in which quality of life is deemed as important as the number of days the patient has left. Pain management is a priority, and unlike the sterile anonymity of a hospital, hospice patients die at home or in a place that feels like home, surrounded by family. Hospice care is meant to address not just the physical needs of the dying, but their mental and emotional needs as well.

Osborn’s hospice may not be as cozy as a living room, but it is a definite step up from a cell or the general medical ward down the hall. Many inmates don’t have family who are willing or able to spend their last weeks, or days, with them. So in addition to medical duties, the inmate volunteers serve as a stand-in family.

Osborn is among a relatively small number of U.S. prisons that have a hospice program. The most recent count, conducted ten years ago, found only 65 out of 1,800 correctional facilities had hospice programs. Able-bodied inmates play a key role in the prison model of hospice: They volunteer as part-time companions to the patients, and part-time assistants to staff nurses. They spend time talking with their patients, reading to them, and just being there for them. And if the patients need help, the volunteers feed, bathe, and take them to the bathroom.

There is no shortage of elderly inmates in need of hospice care, largely thanks to bloated sentences during the “tough-on-crime” ’80s and ’90s. In fact, they make up the fastest growing population in prisons today: In 2014, the most recent year for which data is available, the highest number of inmates on record died behind bars, with about 3,500 in state prison and about 450 in federal. Inmate volunteers provide free labor and save the prisons money, but proponents of prison hospice say that its greatest benefits are social rather than economic. For the patients, hospice offers them the prospect of a more humane death by allowing them to spend their final days with round-the-clock care by peers. And for the workers, the experience of caretaking can be profound. Plus, academics who study this type of program say that this goodwill is spread beyond prison medical wards.

After an inmate embraces the role of caretaker for his patients, “then it becomes more about their relationship to other people … their community,” says Kristin Cloyes, a professor of nursing at the University of Utah who has studied the prison hospice program at the maximum-security Louisiana State Penitentiary, also known as Angola. “They’ve actually transformed the culture,” she says. Cloyes speculates that the hospice program at Angola was a key factor in the dramatic decline in violence Angola has seen in the past three decades.

Jamey Boudreaux, executive director for the non-profit Louisiana and Mississippi Hospice and Palliative Care Organization (LMHPCO), has been visiting Angola to observe the hospice program since its early days in the late ’90s. He also recognized the cultural shift Cloyes cited. The hospice program created a “new emphasis on dignity of one person — no one dies alone,” he says. “The administration saw that when you start respecting human dignity, the violence dropped.”

Since the program started at Osborn ten years ago, the hospice has seen 37 patients. (This doesn’t represent all of the inmates who have died here over those years, as some chose to die in the medical ward alone or with a staff nurse, explained Colette Morin, a nurse at Osborn and the coordinator of the hospice program. Others are hesitant about signing the “Do Not Resuscitate” order — only offered when a patient is entering their last six months of life — required to enter hospice care. This is a barrier to some inmates, Morin says, who think, “If I’m signing into this program, I’m signing up to die.”)

Canady is one of twenty inmates currently trained to be an inmate volunteer. Over the past six years, he has guided fifteen patients to a peaceful death.

Morin describes the 45-hour hospice training, which covers practical skills as well as emotional, as a process that allows guarded men to break out of their hardened shells. It is important that trainees learn to be more in tune with their own emotions, so that they can be present for their patients. An early assignment is to write a letter of apology to their victims and read it to the group.

“The transformation, I feel, starts there, but it carries on to the rest of their life in prison,” Morin says.

But the intimate interaction — clothing, bathing, assisting in the bathroom, and so on — between inmates in hospice goes against standard prison code and concerns some correctional administrators, according to a 2002 survey of fourteen state and federal prison officials carried out by the GRACE Project, a now-defunct effort to increase the understanding of prison end-of-life programs. Putting able-bodied inmates in charge of weak ones also raised eyebrows because of the potential for victimization. It is concerns like this, perhaps, that explain why prison hospice is not more widespread.

At Osborn, staff is very selective about who they allow to be in the program. One of the longest serving volunteers at Osborn was put on probation, Morin says, because of a contraband infraction — unauthorized sneakers.

Canady was first introduced to hospice work while on temporary leave from prison to visit his dying grandmother in 2010. Hospice workers were caring for her at that point, and he was moved by their efforts. When he returned to Osborn, he decided to give the prison’s hospice program a try.

Alongside Narcotics Anonymous, which helped him kick his addiction to crack cocaine, Canady counts hospice work as among the most rehabilitative experiences that he has had in prison. “I can just be me, and be proud of the person who I am, the person who my mother and father wanted me to be,” he says.

Canady’s father, Billy Sr., is a Vietnam veteran and a retired school aide. His mother, Belva, worked on the production floor at a local factory in Waterbury, Connecticut, an industrial town about an hour and a half south of Osborn, making small screws. Of their three sons and one foster daughter, Billy Jr. is the only one who has been incarcerated. The parents describe Canady as a happy-go-lucky kid who fell in with the wrong crowd.

“Everyone out here speaks highly of him,” Billy Sr. says, “They’re surprised that he’s still incarcerated.”

Canady describes his wrongdoings as a spiral of addiction, and stealing to fuel his addiction, starting when he was in high school. Things got out of control, he says, when at 22, his best friend died after a fight with an armed neighbor. “I heard two shots,” he says, and “72 minutes later he died.” At that point, he says, he just stopped caring.

His addiction took hold of his life. He stole from his parents, and eventually — armed with a gun and knife, which he brandished but never used, he says — from a local gas station and two cab drivers. It was those robberies that landed him where he is today.

“Like they say in recovery, when you get desperate, you’ll go to extremes to get what you want,” he says.

Under different circumstances Canady doesn’t think he and Stevens would have crossed paths. Stevens was a journalist who lived in a rich part of Hartford, whereas Canady grew up in industrial Waterbury, and was “running the streets,” in his words, at a young age. Yet there he was, sitting by the man’s bed during his most vulnerable hours, caring for him as he neared the end of his life. Canady loved listening to Stevens’ travel stories — he visited New Mexico each year to meet his best friend, a place Canady had only seen pictures of — and never grew tired of hearing about his children and grandchildren.

Their transgressions brought them to Osborn, and hospice bound them together. About a month after Stevens entered hospice at the age of 73, dementia started to kick in. One afternoon, a staff nurse found him wandering the hallway talking to his daughter, who wasn’t there. She called Canady.

When he sat down by the bed, Stevens told him that he “finally made it to the office,” but became riled by an imagined deadline. Canady, playing the sympathetic editor, reassured him: “We’ve got plenty of time to get this done.”

Eleven days later, Canady packed Stevens’ bag, and helped him shower and change into a state-issued outfit for release: elastic-waist denim pants and a grey sweatshirt. He is only Canady’s second patient to have been granted medical parole.

“I told him he was going home,” Canady says. “I held his hand and told him how much I love him, and God bless him and stuff like that. I thanked him for allowing me to work with him and sit with him. He smiled and he squeezed my hand to let me know that he heard me.”

Stevens died a few days later. Reflecting on their relationship, Canady says: “He told me I was a good person. You don’t get that too much in here.”

This fall, Canady started his bachelor’s degree in human services at Osborn through a federally funded Pell Grant program. He’d like to do some sort of social service work when he’s released in four years, and wants to continue being a hospice volunteer. He realizes that his options will be limited because of his criminal record — most places are very careful with who they allow to work with elderly patients. But, he says, “I definitely want to stay connected however I can.”

* * *

“What we thought was interesting was that [becoming an inmate volunteer] went beyond personal transformation,” says Cloyes, who co-wrote a series of studies on the program at Angola. According to Cloyes and her co-authors, the work of caretaking creates a set of shared values among volunteers, a social contract that is distinct from mainstream prison cultural norms: ‘“real men’ who want to care for others and elevate themselves, their prison family, and the community,” the authors write in a recent article. These shared values create a culture among caretakers, one that is passed on from experienced volunteers to newbies.

Experienced and novice volunteers came together this Valentine’s Day, when roughly forty family members of inmates and a handful of prison administrators gathered in Osborn’s visiting room to celebrate the graduation of eleven new caretakers. They had been selected through a rigorous application process and completed the 45 hours of training. The graduates and a few senior volunteers, all wearing beige prison uniforms, sat on metal chairs with chipped white paint as the guests filed in. Three tables adorned by silver and blue plastic tablecloths lined one side of the room, topped with two large grocery-store-bought sheet cakes, a tub of single serving milks, and a large canister of coffee and Styrofoam cups for the post-ceremony celebration.

Following opening remarks by Morin, and a Christian prayer by a visiting reverend, Canady stepped to the podium to address the crowd. This was the first time he was the senior volunteer speaker. His mother and father sat in the middle of the room. Billy Sr. rested his elbows on the table, clutching his hands. Belva looked at her son intently.

Canady thanked everyone for being there. “Six years ago I decided to do something different with my life in prison,” he said. “I remember my father always used to ask me: ‘When are you going to grow up?’ That’s what I’m doing, I’m doing something I’m proud of,” he said, his voice cracking. Belva, too, wiped away tears. He told the graduating volunteers not to let the stigma that they won’t amount to anything dictate their lives, and to take this as an opportunity to step in that direction, as he did.

“I no longer have to walk these halls like a prisoner,” he says, “I can walk them like a man.”

 

 

Sorting Through a Hoarder’s Lifetime of Clutter, We Learned the Meaning of Love

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When my boyfriend took a job helping a widow clean out her house, among the urine-soaked rugs and years-old piles of laundry, I saw our relationship in a new light.

David Murphy rang the doorbell of a typical suburban house, set far back from a busy street amid trees and shrubs. An older woman opened the door, accompanied by a short, elderly dog and a tall, scruffy, younger one. “Come in, dear,” she said, leading him into a sitting room. Everywhere he looked, piles of clothes and bags of papers lined the walls. She’d used all the wall space and started hanging pictures from the bookshelves. Thick dust coated everything. And then, the smell hit him: dog urine.

Her name was Sandy Edgerly. Her gray hair twisted on each side of her head and met in a bun. Her shirt was buttoned to the neck, and she slid the house slippers from her feet the instant she sat down, pulling her legs up under her. As she explained the job – yard work, projects around the house, and some light housework – David surveyed the chaos surrounding them, considering the disconnect between what she was hiring him to do and what actually needed doing. She wanted someone for about ten hours a week and she could pay twelve dollars per hour.

David had just moved to Chapel Hill. In Fort Lauderdale, he’d worked at an eyeglass office for two years. He hated it. He hated wearing dress shirts and slacks and ties. He hated selling and managing and sitting in an overly air-conditioned office. So when he moved to North Carolina he wanted a different life.

This was exactly what he was looking for.

* * *

In the month between turning 25 and starting my first grown-up job as a middle school teacher, I met David. It was the end of a solitary year that followed four years of back-to-back relationships. When he pulled back from our first kiss on a windy Fort Lauderdale beach, he looked toward the dark sky and said, “I think I’m in trouble.”

I’d never experienced the luxury of being certain how much someone liked me. When David looked at me, I could feel interest emanating from him. He touched me as though I was the loveliest woman he’d ever come across. Nine months in I bought him a thrift-store hand-blown glass vase – a vase I liked so much that I couldn’t bear to part with it.

“Well,” I said, “I wouldn’t have to if you moved in.”

With him, I learned how to be in an adult relationship. We spent time together and time alone. Our stuff merged well and we had a room of our own in the apartment we shared. When we fought no one yelled. Instead we talked and worked to put us back together. I was happy, secure, safe.

I was also doubtful and afraid. Someone said to me, “We don’t go into relationships expecting them to end.” But, I did. They always had an expiration date. My parents divorced when I was seven and the only happy long-term couple I knew was supposedly a sham – the man was rumored to be gay.

With David, I went through phases. Unsure, especially in the face of his certainty. Then I’d focus on my desire to be with him for that day alone. The days added up and I forgot about my doubts for a while.

 * * *

On the second day, Sandy gave David a full tour of her seven-thousand-square-foot home. She’d dressed to work in a ball cap and noticed that he did, too, in shorts, a t-shirt, and sneakers. With evident embarrassment, she led him deeper into the house, where she never allowed anyone to go. They walked by laundry baskets that had been sitting beside the front door for six years as she talked about how she and her husband liked to collect things with a history. Over 41 years they’d amassed a large collection of books, figurines, art, furniture, dishes, and clothes. Art leaned against walls, lurked under beds, hid in closets. They’d been meaning to do a thorough cleaning when John was diagnosed with liver cancer in April 2006. By September he was gone. Friends washed her clothes and brought them back in those laundry baskets, but she hadn’t put the clothes away or even moved the baskets since the funeral.

Sandy and John on their wedding day, November 1965. (Photo courtesy of Sandy Edgerly)

She showed David the garage, so full they couldn’t walk into it. The basement and an accompanying apartment were cluttered with not only clothes and papers, but also archaic electronics, obsolete health care items, and old office supplies. David got to work without awaiting instruction, excavating walkways mid-tour.

Soon they were working forty hours a week. And they had some disagreements. He pulled up the oriental rugs that old Lucky had coated in urine and took them to the cleaners. He wanted Lucky confined to one room, but Sandy wanted him to roam. They compromised: the bedrooms were off limits and the clean rugs would remain in the basement until Lucky went to his heavenly reward. David sorted everything into categories: Keep and Put Away, Give to Charity, Throw Away.

Each day Sandy started off with David, telling him what pile each object belonged in. But she often got tired and had to go rest in the living room. Then he grew bolder, sorting on his own. She always checked the trash after he’d gone and if she saved anything – a piece of ribbon, a Halloween decoration – she jokingly chided him for getting rid of it the next day.

* * *

I heard about Sandy for months before I met her one October night. David and I sat on one side of a booth, with Sandy on the other, at a K&W Cafeteria. Fried chicken, mashed potatoes, green beans, spinach, macaroni and cheese, coconut pie, cornbread, and biscuits were arrayed on the table between us.

Sandy talked about her childhood in Tennessee and about meeting her husband at college in Knoxville. It was an accident – she hadn’t even wanted to date. She was working full-time as the fashion coordinator at Sears and planned to stay in that world. She only went out with John as a favor to a friend. At dinner they had so much to say to one another that she decided they needed a lifetime to do it. From then on that’s the one thing she knew: she wanted to be with him.

When they discovered that their jobs were incompatible – his stable and needing roots, hers ever changing and requiring frequent moving – she gave up her career for him. When they couldn’t have children, she decided he was enough. When they ended up having a son anyway, she stayed home with him. When she was sad she wanted John; when her mom was sick she wanted John. She was proud of him. After he was gone her world fell apart.

A photo in Sandy’s den, of Sandy and John at their son Nate’s rehearsal dinner, in 2004. (Photo by Rachel Mabe)

Sandy talked so much that night she hardly touched her food. David picked up the conversation so that she had time to eat. I reached for his hand under the table and pressed my leg against his. I thought about our love. I was an anxious person who sometimes felt overwhelmed by the world. When we first started dating I tried to shield him from that. If I started “feeling funny” when we were together, I’d go home. But over time I came to rely upon his love. The way he’d just comfort without trying to fix me. I squeezed his hand. Hearing Sandy talk about John reminded me of the safety I felt with him.

I looked at him. He was dark-haired. Narrow, but not exactly slim, with rounded shoulders and a head that jutted forward slightly when he wasn’t thinking about it. The expression on his face was either obviously charmed by what he heard or his lips were slightly pursed in what looked like bewilderment, but was usually concentration. I thought about how we’d moved to Chapel Hill so that I could attend graduate school. I loved coming home to him in our old rented farmhouse and feeling his warm body against mine, but I also judged and questioned him. At a department party I worried about what he would say and do, what my new colleagues would think of him. It took him three or four sentences, punctuated by pauses, to answer a question. These slow and measured responses frustrated me. Was I ready for this to be the person I would choose?

* * *

Sandy and David spent most days together. Now the guy at the McDonald’s drive-through window knew not only her name, but his, too. They were parked in her minivan under a tree when she told him about the accident. One night after work seventeen years before she was standing at the post office counter, below the half-lowered metal door, rummaging through her purse when someone yelled “Ma’am!” She heard a terrifically loud noise and felt a blow that started in her head, traveled down her spine and into her feet. She thought, I’ve been shot.

She’d actually been hit on the head by the 884-pound metal door above her. After that everything changed. It marked the beginning of her second life. Her memory suffered. She couldn’t retain information that she read. She couldn’t drive because she couldn’t gauge the distance between her and the cars in front of her. Her body wouldn’t do what her mind told it to. She slept for twenty hours a day.

Sometimes she didn’t want to get out of bed. John called this “laying-a-bed” and would often take her to breakfast, to visit a friend, or to her favorite antique store as a remedy. By the time David met her, a lot had changed: she read all the time and she drove just fine. But she still slept a lot, had difficulty remembering and sorting things, and sometimes she didn’t want to get out of bed. Without John, she didn’t know what to do with herself when she felt this way. Her house was full of her and John and their life together. She didn’t know how to attack it, so she just moved around it – adding to it over the years until it was unbearable.

Sandy hosted Thanksgiving dinner that year. It was the first time in six years that the house teemed with people. Sandy and David had done so much work that Sandy’s granddaughter was allowed to roam free. Sandy told her son, “You can even look in the closets.”

* * *

After our dinner at K&W Cafeteria I started thinking about Sandy and the stories David told me. Her laying-a-bed reminded me of the way I felt sometimes and how David tried to cajole me out of it, just like John. But did I love David the same way that Sandy had loved John? With a devastating, messy, no-doubt-about-it love?

Sandy’s den, shortly after she and David made the house presentable, 2012. (Photo by Rachel Mabe)

One day while sitting next to her fireplace she told me about their wedding night. They’d gone to Gatlinburg for a weekend honeymoon and after John fell asleep she thought, “What in the world have I done?” She didn’t know how to be a wife. Before she met John, she had not even wanted to marry.

John woke in the middle of the night, and saw her packing a bag, preparing to leave him. He suggested she wait till morning, because it was snowing and they were both tired. At breakfast she said, “The best I can offer you is one day at a time.”

“I’ll take it,” he said.

At first this story relieved me. Her early uncertainty legitimized mine. She brought me into her bedroom and opened the closet. David had pushed her to get rid of John’s clothes, but a few items remained. She ran her fingers down the arm of a shirt. Sandy was aware of the importance she placed on belongings. She realized that her house and her stuff told the story of who she was not only to others, but also to herself. Her belongings reinforced her identity.

With David, through cleaning, sorting, and decluttering, Sandy renegotiated her identity. She didn’t need to keep everything in order for her to know who she was. Select items allowed her to hold on to a sense of her history, her accumulated identity, while also discovering a new version of herself. A version that put new wallpaper in the kitchen – wallpaper not for John, not for her son, but for herself. She decided that this marked the beginning of her third life.

The more I thought about it, though, the more I realized she had been sure of John. She’d doubted him that night, but she’d been sure from that first date when they had so much to say to one another, she decided they needed a lifetime to do it. With David and me, talking was something I worried about. Sometimes when we sat silently in a restaurant I thought it meant we weren’t right for each other, but David felt it was a sign of comfort and love.

Sandy gave up everything for John. And because of the life she got in return, she had few regrets. I was afraid to give up my alternate realties, the other versions of my life, of myself. David promised that I could hold onto his certainty, but I wasn’t convinced it was enough.

* * *

David helped Sandy over the next year and a half in a reduced capacity, which was more like the job as originally advertised. She still bought more stuff than most people – QVC boxes showed up on her doorstep weekly. Most of the time she was unapologetic about this, but sometimes she hid things from David. One day she placed the winning bid on an oil painting showing a harbor scene at an auction. When she picked it up afterward she realized it wasn’t painted as well as she thought. On the way home she decided she wouldn’t tell David. She’d touch it up with some paint herself and then hang it on the wall surrounded by other, better paintings. Then she’d show him. That way she could skip him giving her a hard time.

David now lives in Columbus. I live in Pittsburgh. Moving across state lines together again felt like marriage, like forever. And I couldn’t promise him forever. That glass vase I bought him sits on a bookshelf in the apartment he lives in alone. He spends Thanksgiving with Sandy every year. Her house is full, but she isn’t hoarding papers in bags. The aroma of dog piss cannot be detected. Her grandkids are allowed to wander and she’s not ashamed to have friends over. This house, that they put so much work into, holds all her selves: her childhood, her life with John, her son, the accident, John’s death, and her by herself. For the first time she’s living a solitary life, and she doesn’t hate it.

 

 

Inside the Surreal, Offensive Tradition of ‘Bavarian China’

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Each year this small German town has a 'Chinese' parade, complete with an emperor in yellow-face and paper dragons galore. As an outsider looking in – and one of Chinese heritage to boot – I didn't know what to think.

Dawn is just beginning to tinge the horizon blue when a cannon blast shatters the quiet of the small Bavarian town. I shuffle from my bed to the window, pushing aside the paper garlands of yellow Chinaman figures to gaze blearily at the wintry landscape. The tourism office has dubbed Dietfurt, population 6,084, “Bavarian China” and “Town of the Seven Valleys.” The apartment I’ve rented for the week looks out onto one of those valleys, an expanse of untrodden snow fading into a dark hollow cloaked with bone-chilling mist. Were it not for the town’s pride and joy, the annual Bavarian China parade taking place this afternoon, I can’t imagine any reason I’d ever come here.

Fifteen minutes and one coffee later I’m tiptoeing down the icy front steps, following my ears toward the booms. After a few turns, there they are: a motley crew of thirty bedraggled clowns shuffling toward me like zombies. Between them they’re heaving a noise cannon, a marching band’s worth of instruments, and a wagon of booze they’ve been nursing since two a.m.

Morgen,” I mumble, and fall into step. We proceed down the road, trombones and trumpets ablaze, stopping a few minutes later in front of a tidy house on a cul-de-sac. The door swings open and out steps a rotund, sixty-something white man clad in a floor-length robe of gold lame. It’s Emperor Ko-Houang-Di, the star of today’s festivities.

“Come in, come in!” he cries. We pile into the kitchen, where his wife and daughters are passing around glasses of fizzy wine, coffee, and doughnuts. A stick of Chinese incense sends pungent curlicues into the air. It’s a well-deserved break for the clown wakeup crew, which is tasked with getting the town in partying spirit right from the crack of dawn on this most important day of the year. It’s Unsinniger Donnerstag – Nonsensical Thursday –, the beginning of Carnival Week.

In Dietfurt, the occasion is marked with a massive Bavarian China parade that draws fifteen thousand drunken, Chinese-costumed spectators. It’s a proud local tradition every Dietfurt native holds dear. It’s also the weirdest and most cringe-worthy thing I’ve ever witnessed. “What the hell am I doing here?” I think to myself as I, a writer of proud Chinese heritage, watch the jovial man next to me, an emperor of fake Chinese heritage, sweep aside the tassels on his chintzy headdress to take a bite of jelly doughnut.

* * *

I first met Emperor Ko-Houang-Di, a.k.a. Fritz Koller, the afternoon prior in the town’s one-room museum dedicated to Carnival, or Fasching. We sat under the gaze of his emperor predecessors whose portraits and gibberish names lined the walls. A display case held memorabilia from parades past, like a pin depicting a buck-toothed Chinaman caricature riding a panda like a bucking bronco. In one corner hung an embroidered robe of yellow silk, a gift to Emperor Boo-Dah-Washy (reign: 1976-1999) on a Chinese-government-sponsored visit to Beijing.

Being emperor is a big responsibility, Fritz told me. Behind his prim, rimless glasses, his eyes were weary. His parade float and costume took months of work. The bar has been set high: In 2000, he made his debut hatching out of a giant dragon’s egg. Here he paused and cast a studied glance at me.

“And where are you from?” he asked politely.

I knew what he was getting at. “My mother is Chinese.”

“Chinese roots, thought so,” he said placidly, and carried on. “So as you know, the dragon symbolizes good luck.”

I don’t know what I’d been expecting, but that reaction wasn’t it. Some enthusiasm at encountering some actual Chineseness, maybe, or a touch of humility about explaining Chinese symbolism to a Chinese person.

The parade’s “Dragon Troupe,” waving banners and mock kung fu swords.

It was strange to see my culture crudely caricatured and commodified into a hokey party gimmick and to keep my mouth shut. But I came out of curiosity – about what this ritual means for its believers, and how small towns can become incubators for the most oddball behavior. I’m in Dietfurt as an intrepid social anthropologist, I told myself, to observe the locals in their native habitat, withholding judgment.

And it was hard not to be impressed by Fritz’s dedication. He’ll ride in the parade drawn by a massive dragon, then climb up a towering pagoda for his grand finale. To an outsider it sounds purely absurd, but behind the shenanigans is a nostalgic reverence for tradition, even a sense of identity. “Some of my most wonderful childhood memories are of Fasching, Fritz said wistfully. “This is a tradition we grow up with. Bringing up the next generation of Bavarian Chinese is very important.”

Nobody can say for sure why, but Dietfurt has been nicknamed “Bavarian China” for centuries. The legend goes like this: During the Middle Ages, a bishop became angry the town wasn’t paying its feudal dues. When he sent over his treasurer, the townspeople shut all the gates to the little walled town. He reported that the Dietfurters had barricaded like the Chinese behind their Great Wall, and the reputation stuck.

Carnival is a big deal throughout the west and south of Germany. In Catholic Bavaria, it’s a chance for the straight-laced populace to let loose. But nowhere, as any Dietfurter will proudly tell you, does Carnival quite like they do – that is, in yellowface makeup and Confucius beards. It was back in 1928 that someone, no one remembers who, suggested the local brass band take inspiration from the town’s nickname and wear Chinese costumes in the Carnival parade. The idea caught on, and a tradition was born.

* * *

After parting ways with the clown crew, I soon find myself wedged onto a pub bench with the emperor and his entourage. Pia, the bubbly young blonde who runs the Dietfurt tourism office, invited me here for a press breakfast, but I seem to be the only journalist who showed. The emperor’s right-hand man, Kai-Ho-Gei, is decked out in a maroon velvet outfit that I can only describe as campy kung fu warrior. On his head is a gold-painted hardhat, dripping with tassels and topped with a red lampshade. Then there’s Kai-Ze-Mei, clad in Tibetan monks’ robes with a shaved head to match.

Breakfast is a pretzel, grainy mustard, and bulging weisswurst sausages. Tradition mandates eating these by biting a hole at one end and sucking out the filling like meat Jell-O, but I choose decorum over street cred and use knife and fork. Kai-Ho-Gei, the one with the lampshade on his head, nudges over his weissbier and insists I drink.

“I have to pace myself,” Fritz says. “A drunk emperor would not be tolerated.”

Kai-Ho-Gei, the Diefurt emperor’s right-hand man, has a beer with breakfast.

Here’s Pia, clad in a silky black top with a Mandarin collar. Swishes of makeup shape her eyes into almonds, and a rhinestone sparkles on one of her front teeth. The emperor has pre-ordered her a beer, which she throws back in a few gulps. I finish my sausage and decline more beer. Time to parade: T-minus three hours.

Back on the square, men are barricading the bank with planks. On the pavement, vendors are frying spring rolls and stacking doughnuts, each one daubed with chocolate icing to give it a slant-eyed Chinaman face. I spot a group of Chinese twenty-somethings and make a beeline for them, the first actual Chinese I’ve spotted since arriving in town.

“Those lions look weird,” Wang is saying, pointing at the papier-mâché animals flanking the square, which look like a preschool craft project. Along with his friend Qiling, I soon learn, Wang is studying for his master’s outside Nuremberg. They’ve come here with three friends after learning about the parade on Facebook. Unlike Yin, who’s darting around taking selfies with the Germans, Wang doesn’t seem to be having all that much fun.

“Why do they think this stuff looks Chinese?” he gripes to me in Mandarin. “They’ve mixed up stuff from the Qing and Ming dynasties. And why all the pointed hats? Nobody in China wears those anymore.”

“We have Oktoberfest in Shanghai,” Qiling reminds him.

“At least people there don’t dress up like Germans,” Wang retorts.

A couple walks by, she in Japanese geisha attire and he in a Genghis Khan getup, with a full face of yellow makeup.

“They think we have yellow skin,” Wang says, bemused. He points at his winter-chapped face. “But I’m more red than anything.”

We duck into a pub to escape the February chill, and before the door has even swung shut, the room falls silent and swivels to face us. It’s like a slow-motion scene from an old spaghetti western. “The Chinese are here!” a voice cries.

Servus!” Yin calls out cheerily, the informal Bavarian hello.

Servus,” responds a jovial chorus.

We scrounge seats in the back room, across from an oma and opa who stare in stunned rapture. Yin offers them a Prost, and they break into grins. Unlike me, my Chinese blood diluted with WASPy Canadian-Britishness from my dad, these “real” Chinese kids are the celebrities of the day.

As Wang plows through a currywurst sausage, he takes the opportunity to pick my brain. How did I learn Chinese, he wants to know, and what was it like growing up in Taiwan as a mixed-race kid, caught between cultures?

“Like, what if I marry a German woman?” he asks between bites. “And we had a kid? They wouldn’t really belong anywhere, not here in Germany or in China.”

What I don’t say to him because it’s not the time or place, and because my Chinese skills are not quite up to the task, is that he’s right: Sometimes you end up not belonging anywhere, neither in the country where you were born or the ones your parents came from, and at some point you have to accept that your identity will be forever complicated. But then again, maybe it’s always complicated, as illustrated by Exhibit A, an all-white town in the Middle of Nowhere, Bavaria, where the people have built their identity upon pretending to be Chinese.

Instead of saying this, I tip back the last of my beer and reluctantly say goodbye. I’m due at a reception hosted by the mayor, which turns out to be a dud. I head back into the cold alone. The parade is about to start.

* * *

After a long morning of beer-swilling, I’m ready to get the show on the road. And then, with a sudden cacophony of cheers, we’re off. Here they come, the brass band in coolie hats trailing one long, faux braid each; the ninjas; and the “Chinese from Mars” wearing beer mugs on their heads. Here they come, the “Chinese Indians” in feathered headdresses. A dragon fills the air with belches of yellow smoke. A bevvy of blondes sashays along in dirndls fashioned from Chinese brocade. The spectators press in; they cheer and roar and swig beer. I spot the emperor’s daughters, grinning ear-to-ear as they twirl orange parasols.

The local soccer team and hip-hop dance group are in the parade, the bikers’ club and the youth gun club too, and the town kindergarten. They keep on marching past, one costumed group after another, though my ice-cold feet are aching by now for the parade to be over. I duck inside the town hall to warm up. A drunk couple makes out furiously next to me, smearing his Fu Manchu beard across his chin.

I’m back outside just in time to see another dragon peering around the bend, this one drawing a tall wagon on which the emperor rides, raising his arms benevolently like a pope in his popemobile. He looks beatific and even through the torrent of streamers dangling from his headdress, it’s clear he’s beaming with pride.

His wagon halts on the square, where he climbs the steps to his throne with great ceremony, heralded by oom-pah-pah music and flanked by the dirndled dancers. This is the parade’s climax, but rather than a regal speech, what comes next is a call-and-response performance, something like the chants I learned at summer camp when I was ten. The music swells, the emperor delivers a few rhymes, the crowd roars and drinks, and so it goes, one boozy verse after another. I want to feel the reverence for tradition that Fritz enthused about, but this is actually reminding me of a Halloween frat party. Wang, Qiling, and their Chinese crew are nowhere to be seen.

The crowd in the town’s main square awaits the emperor’s speech.

By the time nightfall descends, Dietfurt is absolutely heaving. Security guards frisk passersby, and an ambulance stands at the ready. Teenagers skulk down dark alleyways, emptying bottles of vodka down their gullets. At the entrance to one party, a sign announcing the entry fee, eintritt, spells out “eintlitt” instead, replaced the “r” with a big, mocking “L” in red marker to make sure no one misses the racist punchline. For the first time, I feel a hot surge of anger. This anthropological experiment is over.

Thankfully, there’s wine waiting in my apartment. As the people of Dietfurt drink their way into oblivion in their silk pajamas and pointy bamboo hats, I fall asleep on the couch, Merlot on my lips and Steve Urkel dubbed into German on the TV.

Next morning, I’m up early again. The town is dead quiet as I walk to the bus stop, treading on sodden confetti and sidestepping a Chinese takeout box, its noodle innards splayed out like greasy roadkill. Everyone is still in bed, nursing hangovers and dreams of next year’s parade.

I didn’t finish that bottle of wine, but I’ve got a different kind of hangover. Smiling gamely in the midst of madness takes a lot out of a person, and I’m more than ready to flee this Twilight Zone where cultural appropriation is a way of life. Still, I got what I came for: a culture-clash encounter like none other. Also, the confirmation that however complicated my mixed Chinese identity can sometimes feel, there are people out there – namely a town of 6,084 people in Bavaria – who are far more confused than I will ever be.

It takes two trains and a plane before I’m back home in Berlin, and throughout the journey, the refrain from the Dietfurt anthem repeats in my head like a broken record: Chinesen aus Bayern, wir wollen immer feiern… We Bavarian Chinese, we always want to party.

 

 

As My Face Disappeared So Did My Mother and Father

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When a horrifying bacterial infection disfigured my newborn face, my parents abandoned me right there in my hospital bed. The only thing more painful than knowing they left me behind was finding them 38 years later.

Three days after his birth, a perfect baby, the carrier of his young parents’ dreams and ambitions, became what some might call a monster. Like ants on honey, a bacterial infection consumed his face, and as quickly as his face disappeared, so did his mother and father. The newborn that his parents had expected to take home and raise as their cherished son was no longer the child they had the courage to claim.

I was that baby.

Despite their valiant efforts, the doctors, with their arsenal of antibiotics, proved unable to push back the bacteria’s devastating aggression. When it had finally run its course, my nose, lower right eyelid, tear ducts, lips, and palate had been eaten away, leaving behind a gaping hole.

Abandoned by both parents and stripped of any family, I was made a ward of the state of New Jersey, identified for the next eighteen years of my life as case number XUG-905.

Perhaps my parents assumed or even prayed I would not survive. Or perhaps they believed that without a face, I had become something less than human, incapable of loving and being loved. Whatever the basis of their decision, I don’t know anything about it except that I was abandoned.

What I do know of those first years has been reconstructed in the manner of my face — bit by bit, stitch by stitch. I know that with my lips and mouth eaten away, I was unable to nurse so was fed intravenously. And I know, given the scores of operations I endured — ultimately perhaps as many as a hundred — that I was tethered for much of my childhood, my hands tied with strips of cloth to my hospital crib so I couldn’t tear at my bandages and stitches. But most damaging of all, the one person in the world I most wanted to reach out for had long gone.

* * *

The state of New Jersey, no doubt concerned over mounting medical costs and the ill effects I might suffer from long-term institutional living, placed me in a foster home when I was three. The family’s adjustment to having me in their midst must have been daunting; a scarred freak of a child with a stretch of patched-together depressed skin in lieu of a nose, no lower right eyelid or upper lip, a gaping palate, and behavior severely lacking in social skills.

The first time I can recall being part of a family I was sitting on a hardwood staircase and peering down through white banisters at the living room below, fascinated by how different the view was. This was a real house, in Morristown, New Jersey, and my new mom was tying my shoelaces while I looked down at the place I would come to call home. Obediently, I held out each foot in turn as she tugged on my laces and I scanned the puzzling scene.

I was now the Mackeys’ foster child. Big Ed; his wife, Shirl; their daughters Robin and Lisa; and their oldest, Frank, were my new family.

For the most part it was a happy home in the suburbs — a white clapboard, two-story colonial with a large yard, lots of trees, and two cars: Shirl’s blue Valiant and the family car, a wood-paneled station wagon. Ed, who had to commute each day into the city, was ambitious and, knowing he wouldn’t get any unearned breaks, often worked evenings and weekends doing construction. Despite his habitual bitching about how rotten his day had been and his quick temper that could flare like a brush fire, all of us admired him.

Shirl, in an effort to help me make friends, convinced me to join Cub Scouts. That lasted one meeting, when I got booted out for punching a mean Scout who picked the wrong person to bully. Only rarely did I participate in group activities, except for occasions like trick-or-treating when everyone was caught up in the excitement of Halloween and had their attentions elsewhere. Masked, I could be forgiven my freakishness, but the irony was that my own face would have been a far more frightening costume. Still, for one short glorious night I could escape my reality.

* * *

“Howard,” Shirl announced one day, “Dr. Gratz thinks it’s time for you to have another skin graft for your nose — because you’re growing so fast,” she hastily added when she saw my face blanch with terror. I wasn’t one of those kids who love to hear about how tall they are getting, proudly stretching themselves to full height against the doorframe to measure how much they’ve grown. This was not one of those charts.

Calmly she assured me this surgery was necessary and gently broke the news that I would have to be hospitalized for a few days. Crestfallen, I slumped in my chair and stared at the floor, saying nothing. Shirl did her best to convince me that it would all be worth it. I understood full well that a stay in the hospital meant pain, lots of it.

A large nine-by-eight-inch patch of skin was excised from my chest and shoulder, the graft then rolled up and stitched along the seam to create a headless snake of raw, living flesh. One end was then attached under my chin and the other to the tip of my reconstructed nose. This appendage, left to dangle in front of my face for the next six weeks, constantly reminded me of what I had gone through but gave me no idea of where I was going.

With strict orders not to bathe or shower, and allowed only a careful wash in the sink, I gingerly padded to the small bathroom adjoining my hospital room to dutifully wash up. When I looked up and caught a glimpse of myself in the mirror, I froze. Staring back at me was a creature more gruesome than the late-night horror-movie monsters I watched on TV. That the alien in the reflection was me, Howard. It was too much. I felt my blood plummet to my feet and slid helplessly down the wall to the cold tile floor. “Why me? Why me?” I sobbed, over and over. God must hate me. What terrible thing did I do to deserve this? Bone weary when I returned home, I dragged myself into the den and collapsed on my beanbag chair to wait for Robin to come home. There, stuck to the vinyl with sweat and tears and cradled by thousands of beans molded to the shape of my body, I cried myself to sleep.

* * *

By the summer following my freshman year of high school, even Shirl was at her wit’s end. Both she and Ed decided for everyone’s sake it was time I try another foster home. “Howie, you’re not happy. Let’s just see how it goes for a while.”

On a sad June day just weeks before my sixteenth birthday, a state worker picked me up to deliver me to New Jersey, where I was temporarily placed in the home of a German woman, one whose feet were so swollen she could barely navigate her way around the house.

Next was a placement with a nice Jewish family who said blessings in Hebrew before each meal. That lasted a week.

Oddly enough, it was Dr. Gratz who intervened. During an examination he determined it was time for another skin graft. Realizing that I had better use the state’s medical funding while I still could, I went along with it.

When the state found a temporary placement for me close to the Albert Einstein Hospital in the Bronx where my operation was slated, I felt I’d come full circle, back to the very borough where all the pain and loneliness had started. With yet another new face in a long line of state social workers, I drove to my new home where I would stay for the duration of my surgery and recovery.

I became a bit concerned as we drove past abandoned warehouses and graffiti-covered walls, the smell of garbage rotting in the summer heat filling our car. We soon pulled up in front of a block of identical brick row houses. I hadn’t finished knocking when the door opened and Vito and Mary Signorelli stepped out to welcome me. My caseworker, anxious to get out of the neighborhood before the sun went down, hastily departed.

First-generation Italians, my new interim foster parents greeted me enthusiastically. Vito, gray haired and grizzly, appeared not to have shaved for a week and wore his baggy, black-and-white-checkered kitchen pants loosely cinched below his large belly. Over a stained white V-neck T-shirt hung an impressive collection of gold chains that made faint clanking noises whenever he moved. Mary, her black hair thick with ringlets, was short and stout like a tree trunk. On each of her short fingers she wore several inexpensive gold rings, outdoing Vito with his one pinkie ring.

Feeling awkward and out of place, I made my way into the living room. Everything was covered in plastic: the chairs, lamps, sofa — even the carpet was protected with plastic runners. Plaster statues of the Madonna, Jesus, St. Francis, and St. Christopher cluttered the room and decorated the turquoise walls. In the dining room, a velvet tapestry of the Last Supper hung opposite a giant crucifix.

“Anthony, get-a down here!” Jolted from my culture shock by Vito’s bellowing, which made Ed sound like a choirboy, I turned to see a slovenly dressed, overweight boy appear on the stairs. Scarcely bothering to lift his head of long, stringy hair when we were introduced, Anthony struck me as someone lost in his own home. Moving like a sleepwalker, he showed me to my tiny room with a daybed (over which hung another cross) that filled the space. In the time it took for me to throw my bags on the bed, Anthony was gone. All I heard was the door closing behind him, then the sound of rock music pulsating through our common wall.

I returned downstairs to rejoin Vito in the living room. Pensive, his head tilted as he studied my face, he asked, “Howard, you-a Jewish?”

“Yes,” I said, wanting to give him the satisfaction of thinking he had guessed correctly. In reality, I had no idea what my background was and always tried to avoid any such line of questioning.

“That’s-a okay. You-a hungry?”

I nodded, whiffing the tantalizing aroma that filled the house. “Good, Mary make-a lunch for us. I make-a fresh bread.”

* * *

Finally, the day for my surgery arrived. I was sixteen now, and though I understood the progression of each stage, I felt I was repeating the same old story but with a different body part. This would be another serious surgery, and to lower the chance of infection, my stay this time would be two weeks.

Dr. Gratz’s plan was to attach another headless snake of skin to my nose, only this time he’d take a twelve-by-fifteen-inch graft from my left thigh. It would be, I hoped, a stepping-stone toward the final act when the curtain would close on my resentful relationship with Dr. Gratz. After the surgery, I was overjoyed when Ed and Shirl, Robin, Frank and Lisa showed up to visit me. If only for a few hours, I was with my family again and didn’t feel quite so alone in the world. They seemed happy to see me, and their news of home helped ease my homesickness. Even Vito and Mary visited me, bringing me fresh cannoli when I was able to eat solid food again.

Discharged, I returned to the Signorellis, where everyone was taken aback at the sight of my bandages and swelling. It wasn’t a coincidence that they spoke more often in Italian than they had before my surgery. Ordered to stay out of the sun, I spent my entire summer indoors watching Yankee ball games or “Bowling for Dollars” while Vito yelled at the TV as though the contestants were with us in the living room. Attentive to my every need, they did everything in their power to help me.

Mary decided that food was what I needed. “Howard, manga, manga, you need-a strength.” Between her pastas, sausages, and minestrone, I gained back all the weight I had lost and then some. But their insistence that I not lift a finger left me with too much time on my hands. Vito, seeing me depressed and limping around the house with my leg still sore from the graft, tried to cheer me up with Italian ices he bought on the street.

When I returned to Dr. Gratz a few weeks later to have my bandages removed, I felt the old anxiety I always felt in his presence. Tense, I lay back on the rustling paper.

“Howard, relax. I will take this off, yes?”

I nodded, not the least concerned about so simple a procedure. In one fell swoop, he ripped the tape off my leg without even giving me time to scream. My whole body went into shock. In the moment it took my mind to register the pain, I didn’t cry, I screamed. “Fuuuuuuuck!”

Dr. Gratz’s head jerked back like a chicken’s, his eyes bulging like headlights. Furiously I glared at him, seething with contempt at how cavalierly he treated me, as if he were pulling a Band-Aid off a finger. “Howard, Howard, it’s fine, it’s over.”

It wasn’t fine. I looked down at the droplets of blood floating above a sticky yellow pebbling where the skin had been removed from my thigh and thought of the yellow fly strips dotted with insects that hung in my old neighborhood’s backyards. I wanted to jump up and smash his face in, not for what he had done, but for his complete lack of sensitivity. With great effort I resisted the urge, consoling myself with the fact that we would soon part ways.

My stay with the Signorellis was over, and though they had been kind and generous, it was time to move on.

“Howard, you are a wonderful boy!” Mary said as we hugged goodbye. “God bless-a you. I will-a pray for you.”

* * *

One night, some two decades later, after hours of trying to fall asleep, I turned on the TV and mindlessly watched From Here to Eternity. Just as I was drifting off, a commercial roused me: “Find your long lost loved ones! Call now! 1-800-SEARCH.”

Half asleep, I fumbled for the remote and turned up the sound as smiling men, women, and children ran toward each other across the screen. Radiant with joy, they embraced in a meadow of wildflowers, the empty void in their hearts filled. “Call now and find that special someone today!”

I scrambled to find a pen and jotted down the number.

The next morning when I saw the number lying on the coffee table, I sat down and eyed it warily, as if it were some creature that might bite. My mind raced as I stared at it, wondering what I would do. Call? Toss it in the trash? Tuck it away and let it nag at me like a splinter? An unpleasant tightness in my chest made me realize I was holding my breath. Do it!

If only to end the suspense, I picked up the phone and dialed. Casually, I gave the information requested: social security number, place and date of birth, my biological parents’ full names as stated on my birth certificate, and my credit card number for the $50 service. After informing me that I would receive the results by mail within six weeks, the operator wished me luck. In a daze I hung up and began pacing my apartment, pausing every so often to stare blankly out at the city.

I had never intended to track down my birth parents. Apart from desperate times in childhood when I had ached for my birth mother, I had mentally banished her and my father from my life. My attitude was, if they didn’t care enough to seek me out, to hell with them. But now, with that one call, I began to imagine my parents. What would they be like? How would they react to my contacting them? Did my mother have an emotional breakdown over my disfigurement? Had it psychologically incapacitated her? Had my father forced the decision to abandon me? A “him or me” ultimatum?

Imagining one scenario after another consumed me, each playing out in my head until finally, overloaded with pointless speculation, I put it out of my mind.

Weeks later the envelope I’d been waiting for arrived. I anxiously tore it open and pulled out a short stack of computer printouts. It was an almost out-of-body experience to gaze down at columns of Shulmans listed in New Jersey, along with their phone numbers. I was thirty-eight years old and had never before met a Shulman, and now, somewhere among the names I held in my hand, there might be the ones I sought.

Ed and Shirl, from the time I was old enough to ask, had given me what information they had, which was little more than their names. Knowing that Leonard and Sarah were my parents’ names, I focused my search on the L. Shulmans and S. Shulmans. I began dialing the first L but abruptly hung up when it occurred to me that it would probably be best if I had an opening that didn’t make me come across as weak or needy.

“Hello?” I practiced, clearing my throat to find the right pitch, “Is Leonard or Sarah in? Please, may I — my name? It’s Howard, your biological son.” No, too contrived. “Excuse me, my name is Howard and I’m looking for my biological parents.” No, too abrupt. “Excuse me, my name is Howard. Did you by chance leave a baby in the hospital?” O.K. Again. “My name is Howard Shulman. I’m looking for a Sarah or Leonard Shulman. I was wondering if you might be my birth parents?” This was ridiculous!

On the first call that someone answered, angst set in. The woman said she knew of no such people. The relief I felt made me wonder if I was ready for this.

Determined, I took a deep breath and dialed the next number, and the next. With each call I made, I received the same reply. I expanded my questioning, asking if they might be related to anyone named Leonard or Sarah. “Sorry, no,” they each answered. After a series of dead-end calls, my anxiety began to subside. I was becoming resigned that my search would lead nowhere and was thinking I might just forget the whole thing, when a young woman answered.

“Who’s calling, please?”

I had to grope for words. “Um, well…my name is Howard Shulman. I, uh, got your number from a family search agency, and I was, well, put up for adoption, well, sort of, and now…”

“Hold on a minute, please.”

I held my breath. In the background I could hear voices, an exchange with another woman, which I strained to hear. An eternal moment passed.

“Hello?” a woman answered, her voice cautious.

“Is this Sarah Shulman?” I asked.

She knows who is on the phone. I can feel it. Suddenly I was wary.

“Yes?” she replied, holding her breath. “I’m Sarah.”

“I think you may be my birth mother,” I said, my voice quiet. Time slowed down as a deafening silence filled the connection between us. I waited, every fiber of my being tuned to the other end of the line. In my state of hyper-awareness I could hear her strained breathing and the unmistakable sound of tears choked back. Gently, I broke the silence.

“Are you O.K.?”

After a long pause she answered, “Yes, I’m fine.”

“Are you sure?”

“Yes, thank you.”

“I don’t want to disturb you.”

After a lull, I heard her whisper, “I always knew you would call.”

I was stunned. Unable to respond, I could only listen to her faint crying.

For the first time it fully dawned on me that this was more than just about me. I wanted to say that I hadn’t meant to upset her. How could I tell her I had never intended to make this call in the first place and was no more prepared than she?

Unprompted by me, she began talking of Leonard, who had passed away a few years earlier.

“I’m sorry, I would have liked to meet him.”

“He was a good man,” she said, her voice trailing off.

My mind raced full-throttle. How good of a man could he have been, being party to giving his own son away?

She regained her composure and opened a floodgate of questions about my life. “Are you married? Any children?”

“No, no. I’ve had wonderful women in my life, but no.” I needed her to know that I wasn’t a social outcast and functioned fully in the world. Suddenly, fearing she might hang up at any moment, I blurted out, “What’s my heritage?”

“Why, you’re a Russian Jew.”

“Russian Jew?”

“Yes, on both sides. Third generation. Your father’s side was in the garment trade.”

Well, I thought, at least my call has been worth something.

At her urging, I briefly touched on the main events of my life while conveniently omitting the nefarious details. More than anything, I thought it odd that she had not asked a single question concerning my health or medical status. Were the words “face” or “nose” taboo?

And then, without intending to, the question that had festered inside me my entire life blurted out of my mouth like a micro torpedo. “Why did you give me up?”

I heard her breath catch but she made no response. When she didn’t answer, I broke the tension by suggesting a reason. “I understand it was a different time, with all my medical issues.”

“No, it wasn’t that,” Sarah answered, retreat in her voice.

“What then?” I asked, desperate to understand.

“It was a very difficult decision. Please, don’t make me feel guilty.”

I decided it wise to back off if I didn’t want her hanging up on me. “Do I have any siblings?”

“Yes.” Relief and pride filled her voice as she began to speak at length on a subject obviously dear to her heart. “David, the oldest, is a lawyer. He’s married with children and …”

Her words became a blur I could hardly follow and made me begin to wonder what had been the point of initiating this surreal conversation. So that I could feel invisible? A nonentity? Are you that insensitive? Don’t you realize the more you praise your “true” children, the more you exclude me? Bewildered, I hardly knew how to respond. I could feel my anger rising but held my tongue.

“My daughter, Linda,” she continued, “is also married and is now expecting, and Joseph, my youngest, is a lawyer as well, still single.” Her voice trailed off, as if Joseph’s bachelorhood were the only thing that marred her contentment.

Struggling to disguise the hostility I felt, I asked, “So David is my older brother?”

“Yes, he’s always been aware of everything. The same with all the other children.”

Exasperated, I still needed answers and returned to the only question that mattered to me. “Why did you give me up?”

I thought I would crush the phone her pause was so long, my hand turning white as I waited for her to tell me the truth.

Finally, in a voice unsteady and barely audible, she answered. “We couldn’t handle it.”

Couldn’t handle it! What the hell was “it?” Social stigma? Financial? Medical? Family pressure? Maternal guilt? What? Was I even human to her? She couldn’t? Or wouldn’t?

I was shaking, enraged.

I had never cared before; survival had always been my focus for as long as I could remember, but now I had to know more. I closed my eyes and fought to calm myself. If I didn’t regain control, I knew what little headway I had made would evaporate. My next question was nothing I had intended, but just flew out of my mouth. “Can we meet sometime?”

She hesitated. “Perhaps. I’m quite busy right now.”

“I understand.” I didn’t, actually. Her dismissal felt like another abandonment. I let it go and thanked her for her time.

“Call me again if you wish,” she said. Then the line went dead.

* * *

By the time we pulled up in front of the deli, my heart felt as if it would leap out of my chest. I took my time paying the fare and, as calm as I could be under the circumstances, stopped to peer into the chrome interior, my misshapen nose all but pressed to the window. Seeing no one that fitted her description, I took a deep breath and entered. Inside, I scanned the diners and immediately settled on a petite woman halfway down the aisle, seated alone and facing the entrance. Without looking at her clothes, I knew in my heart she was Sarah.

As I approached her I was startled to see she was older than I had imagined. What had I expected? Sitting straight, her shoulders back, she sat stiffly waiting for me, her face tense. Noting her tailored light-brown jacket and white satin blouse, I immediately thought that she shopped at Saks or Ann Taylor. Almost four decades since the day my fate was sealed, the day when I was made a ward of the state of New Jersey, and I’m critiquing her wardrobe? My attention shifted to her dark coiffed hair streaked with gray, and at that moment realized that she, too, had spent time preparing herself for the occasion. “Sarah?” I heard myself ask.

“Yes?”

“I’m Howard.”

“Yes, I know.”

How could she not? With her eyes absorbing my face, I could barely follow what she was saying. We tentatively shook hands.

Facing Sarah, I settled myself in the booth and took measure of the stranger sitting across from me. Tired and drawn, with deep shadows under her eyes, she betrayed her studied composure by nervously fidgeting with her coffee cup.

“You look good,” she said, her voice quavering.

I’m sure I do, compared to the last time you saw me — bandaged, hooked up to tubes, fluids, and God knows what else. “Well, I’m still here,” I retorted, immediately on the defense.

She sighed but kept her eyes on me, then acknowledged my cutting attempt at humor with a wistful smile. As she searched my face I got the distinct impression she was evaluating my surgical alterations, comparing what she saw seated before her against what she remembered of me at birth. Her expression hovered somewhere between stoic and vulnerable, like hot and cold water running into a plugged sink—a lukewarm mix that could go either way.

She took the plunge. “I want you to know I never hid anything from my children.”

At “my children,” I sucked in air, cut to the quick.

I changed the subject and launched into bits of my history she’d already heard from our phone conversations. But the burning question of why she had abandoned me refused to stay bottled up and was making my stomach churn. Before I even knew I was forming the question, it slipped off my tongue. “Why did you give me up?” I asked again, the urgency I felt evident in the force of my question.

She dropped her head and stared unseeing into her untouched coffee.

“Why didn’t you ever try to contact me?” I asked. “Why, since your family knew about me?” Saying “your family” to the woman who gave birth to me was surreal in itself.

“I thought it would be best for you that you start over with a new family,” she said, her shoulders sagging.

“My new family? I don’t understand.”

She looked confused. “You were adopted, right?” she asked, leaning in toward me, holding my eyes in hers.

“No,” I answered haltingly, “never formally.”

A shocked look came over her face. “But . . . but they told us you were adopted!”

“They? Who’s ‘they’?”

“The lawyer.”

“Lawyer?” Now I was totally confused.

Sarah’s hands lay still, as if what held her up had deflated. Shaking her head, she finally continued. “Leonard and I hired an attorney to look after you,” she explained. “He told us you had been adopted by a nurse, a nice family in the Midwest.”

“Midwest?” I had to laugh out loud. “No, the family I was placed with was in New Jersey.”

“Where?”

“I lived in Morristown, Summit, Randolph.”

Her eyes widened. It was too much for her and she slumped back against the booth. In some detail I told her of my childhood, growing up in the Garden State.

“You lived in Summit and worked at the Office restaurant?”

“Yes.”

She covered her face with her hands, her fingers splayed so I could see her eyes tearing up as she stared at me in disbelief.

“You know it?” I asked.

After some time she lowered her hands and placed them palms-down on the table. When she spoke her words were tremulous and distant. “We…sometimes Leonard and I would eat there on occasion.”

Her words trailed off.

It was my turn to lean back and catch my breath. I saw my dishwasher self, washing their dirty dishes, the closest I would ever be to them since the day I became an “it” to her. The irony of my scraping their discards in the back room, bussing their table, or redoing an order they might have sent back to the kitchen — just like they sent me back for failing to be good enough — made me sick to my stomach. I wanted to walk out then and there, leave her like she did me. Instead, I resolved to finish what I had started.

We sat some moments in silence, each pondering our likely crossing of paths, when she began to speak of Leonard, how he was a self-made man who owned a clothing store with his brother, and what a hard worker and honorable man he was. More than ever I wanted to meet him so I could ask him just how honorable he was that he could abandon his second-born son.

When Sarah told me how she and Leonard had started a program to help Jewish children in need, I was dumbstruck by her callousness — cruelty, really. Proud of her charity, she prattled on. My body temperature soaring, I abruptly rose and excused myself to go to the men’s room. Reeling, I dropped my forearms to the rim of the sink and cradled my head in my hands, utter disbelief at what I had just learned sucking the wind out of me.

Get a grip, I told myself. This was her guilt, trying to save thousands when she turned her back on saving one. Little good it had done me. My jaw clenched, I returned to our booth for round two. I needed to rise above her insensitivity and regain my composure. How could I fight with an elderly woman? But sadly, my anger got the better of me. “Do you have any regrets?” I asked, my voice steely.

Without emotion or hesitation she answered, “No, I don’t. I did what I had to.”

Oddly, that was the only thing she’d said since I laid eyes on her that I could relate to. But that she could see herself as a proud mother, benefactor, and devoted wife and still look me in the eye, refusing to give me any real explanation for her decision to walk away from me, her baby, her blood, and expect I’d be satisfied, incensed me.

Her lips quivered as tears resurfaced and streamed down her cheeks. “Howard, I can’t do it anymore,” she cried. Tears, Sarah? You have no idea the tears I cried for you when I was a child. Suddenly indignant, she straightened up and declared, “I will not relive this again. What’s done is done.” I nodded in complete agreement.

Having now exhausted any lingering shred of mercy, I was incapable of holding my peace after so many years of pent-up anger, and pressed on. “How could you have done that to a baby? Forget me — any baby?”

“Howard, I’ve punished myself enough. No more.” She was now in full retreat.

I felt no satisfaction in seeing her cry. The woman who had been in control was gone, and in her place sat a pathetically guilt-ridden one, burdened by a lifetime of crushing denial. At that moment the depth of her distress suddenly struck me, and I apologized over and over, swearing to her that it had not been my intention to hurt her. My quest had gone from curiosity to attack — with an aging woman who could never defend her actions and could never dare to revisit the past.

The table between us seemed to broaden as the distance between us grew, the air suddenly as stifling as our conversation. I made a feeble attempt to reach out to her. “I’m having a hard time understanding this, you know.”

Like the stranger she was, I thanked her for her time and escorted her outside, where I flagged down a taxi for her. There was no feeling between us — nothing. The ties of blood were evidently not enough to bridge the gap. Drained, we could do nothing more than shake hands and say our good-byes. Alone on the sidewalk, I watched her taxi pull away.

Our meeting replaying in my head, I struck out towards home. I had poured my heart out, venting frustrations buried so deep I didn’t believe anything could ever have awakened them. I had barely refrained from lashing out that she was a God-fearing, synagogue-attending, do-gooder, Jewish hypocrite, all of which would have served no purpose and would have done nothing for the anger I felt. Emotionally and physically spent, I arrived at my apartment exhausted, taking no comfort from the thought that blocks away she was probably experiencing similar emotions. Sarah, too, I realized, had suffered her own torment. How had she always known I would call?

* * *

Howard Shulman is the author of Running from the Mirror, a memoir to be released by Sandra Jonas Publishing House on October 5, 2015. This story is a condensed excerpt from that book. Preorder the book now and receive a 25% discount: http://bit.ly/1L4mcCE. Goodreads members can enter to win an advance reading copy.

Lee Lai is from Melbourne and other places. She makes comics and illustrations.

 

 

The Day My Therapist Dared Me to Have Sex With Her

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

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

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

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

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

“Oh, yeah,” I say. “That.”

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

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

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

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

I shrugged my shoulders, only half looking up.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Nailed it.

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

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

* * *

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Why not?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

There were two ways to find out:

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

2) Keep going to therapy.

* * *

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

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

“I don’t know.”

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

Here we go again.

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

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

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

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

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

“What?” I respond, flustered.

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

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

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

“Of course not.”

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

“I wouldn’t do that.”

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

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

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

* * *

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Isn’t therapy supposed to ameliorate my anxiety?

* * *

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Exactly.”

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

* * *

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Lori’s great at forcing me to reflect.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

* * *

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

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

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

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

* * *

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

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

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

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

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

* * *

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

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