As a twelve-year-old trainee I hand-fed hippos, hugged orangutans and was even bit by a baby tiger. Now that I’m an adult I wonder if kids these days need a little more dangerous freedom.
Neighborhood children tumble from the school bus like crayons released from a box, bright and happy. Every day, I time my dog’s walks to the hiss of yellow bus breaks so I can silently shepherd them home. They are not mine, but I worry about them. I worry about their tiny, bubbly bodies. Children don’t always color in the lines and they don’t always stay on the pavement. Speeding cars roar down our street. I tell myself that my presence might be a danger deterrent. But then I remember a treasured part of my own childhood, and wonder if perhaps the children have been entrusted with the walk home for a reason.
* * *
I am twelve years old. A man decked in a uniform plonks a giant tray of wriggling worms under my nose.
“Pick these out,” he says, his hand disappearing into the mass of writhing beige bodies, pinching a beetle between thumb and forefinger. “Put them in here.” He plops the frantic black beetle into an empty red tray.
“Do I get a pair of gloves?” I ask, staring at penne pasta come to life.
He rolls his eyes, turning to monitor another tray of worms.
This is my first job — picking out darkling beetles from buckets of mealworms. My mother secured this job for me through her volunteer work for a zoo in Indonesia. It is noble work, and phenomenally tedious for a precocious tween. The beetles are the graduates, too advanced for their wriggling environment — a feeling I relate to. As a twelve-year-old professional animal devotee, I am clearly overqualified for this position. I wait until the keeper is distracted organizing worm buckets and sneak away into the belly of the zoo.
The zoo is draped in the tropical luscious emeralds of greedy vines, alive with a chorus of crickets, waxy-skinned frogs and the echoing howls of siamangs. I’ve walked it many times, but now, I plan to slip into the areas off limits to the public.
I stop by the hippopotamus enclosure, a collection of pools, wallowing mud, flitting mosquitos and rickety gates. A three-ton male hippo is waiting, his gargantuan head slumped on top of a bamboo gate. Sharp flicks of his wispy tail suggest impatience.
“Bisa saya bantu?” I ask the keeper, sidling up to him. Can I help?
He smiles at the pasty bule (the Indonesian slang for “foreigner”) in front of him with her pink knees, scarecrow hair and brush flick of freckles. Nodding, he gestures to a handwoven basket filled with whole corn and watermelon. He hands me the basket and the magic word.
“Buka!” I say, Open! like a secret password as the hippo’s jaws yawn wide to reveal a mass of sugar-pink gums, formidable yellow teeth and tusks. I lob the whole watermelon on top of its tongue — wrinkled, pink and slippery as a brain. The hippo closes his jaw and crushes the enormous fruit like a grape, seeds spilling from its lips, cold juice spraying onto the raised hair of my arms. I am permitted to touch the rubbery skin of his upper lip, feeling the sharp spike of wiry bristles. I knock my hand on enormous tusks that feel like hollow bamboo. The keeper hands me a broom and I brush the hippo’s bubblegum carpet of tongue, then we smile at one another in rapture, sharing the magic, a reverential love fizzing in our blood.
This zoological sneaking becomes routine. I tell my mother I’m going to sift through worms to feed the nursery animals, but instead I go on walkabouts. I am a liar and a mealworm defector, but my heart is as full as the belly of a hippopotamus.
I hand-feed the zoo’s Sumatran rhino. She’s smaller and more cherubic than her better-known African relatives, her species on the knife edge of extinction. I fall in love with her gentle, inquisitive expression straight from the pages of a children’s book, the way her lips gingerly gather leaves from my palm and chew them rhythmically. I wonder what would happen if other people got to touch the smoothness of her two mystical horns. Would they also spill tears at the thought of losing her kind?
On my day-to-day adventures, I hug orangutans, leaf-feed monkeys and fawn over the ailing animals at the nursery. I watch a snake handler slip behind the scenes to where they care for the reptiles — pythons and boas and cobras, oh my! It is an area that is strictly off limits, especially to twelve-year-old girls.
One day, I tell myself, One day.
The mother white tiger is separated from her cubs for a medical check and I am allowed to enter their enclosure. While I stick my head into the hollow log that a tiger cub hides in, admiring her icy blue eyes and alabaster fur with its trickling rivulets of darkening stripes, her larger brother sneaks up on me and bites me on the ass. The bite pierces through my t-shirt and shorts, puncturing skin in a tiny red dot. I squeal with delight. The keepers laugh. They understand my pride.
My greatest passion, however, is wrapped in the muscular grip of the snakes. I stalk the reptile handlers, convincing them to let me help feed juvenile snakes red-eyed mice, studying ball and blood pythons, boas and anacondas up close. I am fascinated by the peristaltic motion of their slender bodies, tile-smooth scales, hypnotized by the kaleidoscope of their sleek patterns. Shiny marble eyes captivate me, the flickering tickle of a tongue on my skin bringing me to life. I learn their names in English and Indonesian (reticulated python, ular sanca kembang) and how to care for them. Many of the snakes I spend time with greatly outweigh me.
Finally, I have proven my love for the reptiles and the keepers reward me for it.
“Ayo, sini,” says a keeper, beckoning me to follow. It is finally happening. I am infiltrating behind-the-scenes, where the snakes are cared for. They hand me snake after snake. I drape albino Burmese pythons around my neck, feed an Indian python a live chicken and am given recently shed skins that feel sacred, like the crisp tea-brown paper of ancient scrolls. They are mine to savor, I can’t wait to show them to my sister and display them in my bedroom. The keeper I spend the most time with (Pawang Ular – “Snake Charmer”) holds up his hand, his voice changing.
“Stay still. Don’t move.” He adjusts my palms skyward. “Don’t move,” he repeats. Silently, he places a long, glossy black body into my palms. I instinctively coil my fingers around a sinewy cylinder of muscle. I look down. In my hands is a cobra. Hood raised.
Stay still. Don’t move.
Fear seizes me by the neck. A cobra bite can be fatal. If I am bitten and manage to survive it, there will be no plausible way to convince my mother a mealworm was the culprit. But I don’t let the fear breathe, unwilling to let it suffocate me. It quickly loses its grip, slithering away. The cobra’s head sways rhythmically as a calm confidence spreads through me. Reverence. Connection. Pulsating power in my hands.
The keeper gently removes the cobra, smiling from his soul through teeth that don’t get along. He knows he’s given me something no one else ever has or ever will again. I ask him if the venom is still in the cobra. Of course, he tells me. Good, I respond.
Looking back now with hyperopic parental glasses, I realize I could have ended up a python burp in the ether. But I wasn’t naive about the power a snake wields. I pushed my way in, studying the risks with the last breath of every mouse, and I wouldn’t trade it for anything. I think of the neighborhood children and wonder, in our new world of constricted curfews and near constant supervision, are we robbing our children of independence and the gift of self-determined adventure? Have we forgotten the syrupy taste of early freedom? Perhaps we don’t have much of a choice. We live in a new world with fangs, where letting your child tackle the park alone may result in having the cops called on you. Stakes, across the board, seem so much higher. But a child raised in a cocoon will be devoid of the skills to navigate a dangerous world. We must still question if fear and the pulsing hangover of media horror stories should govern our choices, whether it’s worth the narrowing of a child’s world. In the battle of protection versus self-reliance, where is that murky line? I don’t have answers, but I cling to the hope of unstructured exploration and the whimsy of childhood adventure.
Members of the Muslim minority in Myanmar suffered unspeakable violence, then devastating rejection after fleeing to neighboring Bangladesh. Both countries’ governments would rather ignore these survivors, but they vow to have a voice.
This story originally appeared in Latterly, a new quarterly magazine for international reporting.We’ve partnered with Latterly to give Narratively readers a free download of the 2016 Latterly Anthology. Just sign up for their newsletter.
In January, while visiting a refugee settlement in Ukhiya Upazila, Bangladesh, I interviewed a woman whose daughter had been killed in front of her in Myanmar. Behind her, inside a hut, a group of ethnic Rohingyas – Muslims driven across the border by violence – were holding a meeting. They heard my questions and invited me in.
Several people were inside, some of them girls as young as fourteen. The meeting organizer asked them to show their hands if they had been assaulted. Three went up.
“He is a journalist,” she said, repeating the request. “Tell him.”
All the hands went up.
Then they took off their niqabs, declaring that their dignity had been taken by the Burmese army. They had been raped and tortured in front of their families and communities. Many had seen family members, including babies and young children, butchered in front of them. They saw no reason to hide their faces if it meant telling the world what happened to their homes and loved ones in Myanmar.
In early January, the government of Aung San Suu Kyi took unusual action against soldiers depicted on a viral video rounding up and beating people in a Rohingya village. She detained several officers and launched an investigation into that case. But there has never been a broad investigation into the scores of more serious allegations of murder, burnings and rape of Rohingya in Rakhine state. The U.N. in February released a report detailing “devastating cruelty,” and the researcher Azeem Ibrahim dubbed the violence in his 2016 book as “Myanmar’s Hidden Genocide.”
Now there’s a new dynamic as Rohingya flee across the border to Bangladesh, where the government refuses to grant them legal status. The women I spoke to here have been left to beg, dependent on humanitarian aid and at risk of trafficking. They will receive no psychological support for the trauma they experienced.
Worse, already a virulent anti-Rohingya sentiment has taken hold in parts of society in southern Bangladesh. The Rohingya, it is believed, are thieves, drug traffickers and terrorists. Rohingya cause environmental destruction, and they run off with Bangladeshi women. The list of warrantless allegations is long. I spoke with people who believe the Rohingya must have done something to bring the Burmese wrath on themselves.
Driving through Ukhiya, one can’t help but notice women, infants, children and elderly men sitting by the roadside. They stretch out their hands as vehicles drive past. But their presence has not engendered sympathy from the locals. Instead, it has resulted in an astonishing plan by the Bangladeshi government to relocate Rohingya refugees to a remote and uninhabitable island called Hatiya.
“It has to be assured by taking preventive measures,” the government declared, “that they cannot spread out and mix with the locals.”
Deep in the woods of the Pacific Northwest, a community of Druids is reviving Celtic rites. They might seem hokey or outlandish, but maybe, just maybe, they’re the ones who have it all figured out.
The priest raises his arms, palms upturned. “Lord Taranis, hear our prayer!” he bellows, voice bouncing off the stone pillars and into the darkening fields beyond. The fire’s crackle fills the stone circle. We stare through the flames, past the boundary of our sacred space, to the patina of white looming over the white sky – Mount Adams, close and huge.
It is high summer, and we are at White Mountain Druid Sanctuary in southern Washington State. Under the immensity of the mountain, a couple of ramshackle barns stick up from the hayfields. Our priest, a straight-backed, snow-haired man, is delivering a homily on the attributes of the thunder god. Taranis, a powerful thunderbolt-tossing deity, is being honored at today’s solstice celebration because of his association with light, weather and sky.
Arms raised, the priest pauses. We lean forward, breathless. The fire cracks again. The teenage girls on the edge of the circle, who might be high on mushrooms, giggle quietly to themselves. Finally the priest grins and lowers his arms.
“Well, I forgot that part, darn it.” With a shrug, he reaches into his white robes and pulls out a small piece of paper. His voice is wry, sing-songy, full of mirth. “I should have practiced more!”
Everyone laughs as the priest consults his paper. “Sorry, I’ve got it now,” he says, resuming the formal diction – few contractions, quick and clear consonant sounds – that he uses for his rituals. Throwing his arms into the air, he intones, “Lord Taranis…” and completes the rest of the homily uninterrupted.
To get to the Sanctuary in the foothills of Mount Adams, I rattled down a gravel road and parked beneath some prayer flags tacked to a barn. A sign on the building read “DRUIDS HERE.” There is a large wooden lodge with bed-and-breakfast facilities, meditation huts, and a stone circle straight out of Stonehenge, where, upon my arrival, about fifty people were pouring whiskey into deep wells and speaking Gaelic. They were blowing horns and beating drums and generally having a hell of a good time.
As this is my first Druid ritual, I have no idea how much of this to take seriously. It’s hard to tell how much the participants themselves take seriously; there’s a lot of laughter and self-deprecation. But when Kirk Thomas, the Arch-Druid of Ár nDraíocht Féin, asks the gates of the spirit world to open, creating a thin, traversable bridge across the red-gold evening breeze, we all grow tense.
I don’t know who Taranis is, let alone believe that he’s going to visit our circle, but I strain, listening for signs. Birds wheel in the sky. Somewhere on the other side of the property, a bell trickles into the wind.
“The gates are open,” Thomas says finally, and we begin.
* * *
Loosely overseen by a central office – set in a back room in Thomas’ old house in Santa Fe, New Mexico – Ár nDraíocht Féin (ADF) is a polytheistic neo-pagan religion that draws its inspiration from ancient Indo-European traditions. It’s organized into local groups, called groves, and was founded in 1983 by a charismatic man named Isaac Bonewits, who, after completing a self-study program at UC Berkeley, earned a bachelor’s degree in – yes, really – Magic and Thaumaturgy. Bonewits had dabbled in Satanism and witchcraft before founding Ár nDraíocht Féin, which in Gaelic means “our own fellowship” or “our own magic.”
Although nearly seventy groves worldwide are affiliated with ADF, each organizes its own tailored rituals. At annual pan-pagan festivals, camping trips, and ADF training workshops, as well as over the internet, ADF’s 1,500 members exchange ideas on what rituals should look like. Rather than including official liturgical script, the rituals they perform feature a netting of ideas and ideals, created and debated by poets, Roman legionnaires, mystics, nature lovers, proto-European language nerds, and all kinds of wanderers in search of a connection.
* * *
Long before he became a neo-pagan reverend, when Kirk Thomas was seven years old and visiting his aunt in Utah, he was left mostly to his own devices. During the day he wandered the acres behind her house, picking through the scrub brush, the rocky terrain, the bristling white fir. One day while he was out, the hair on the back of his neck began to stand up. Something was watching; he was sure of it.
He dashed back to the house and rummaged through the fridge, emerging with a bunch of grapes. The boy cautiously returned to the place where he had felt the presence and laid the grapes on the rock. He knew what was being asked of him. The next day, the grapes were gone, and so was the feeling of being watched. The boy thought, an animal took them. But some part of him wondered.
As a kid, Thomas read all about the Old Kingdom dynasties of ancient Egypt; the names of pharaohs like Akhenaten and Nefertiti rolled off his tongue. In middle school he got into supernatural stuff, reading Diary of a Witch – Sybil Leek’s popular 1969 memoir of growing up pagan, which inspired a generation of witches – and drawing pentacles on the garage floor. He studied theater in London and became a hot air balloonist, taking to the skies over the English countryside.
Later, around the year 2000, he read The Mists of Avalon, an Arthurian fantasy epic that he calls a “gateway drug” to Druidry. “What it did was remind me of how I had felt as a teenager, with all that wonder and magic and joy,” he says. He began to look for other neo-pagans online, in chat rooms and early internet sites. When he discovered ADF, he thought it wasn’t “quite as wacky” as other neo-pagan belief structures, and was more scholarly and organized than Wiccan covens.
He attended his first ADF ritual at a public park in Tucson, Arizona, during an electrical storm. A few people gathered at a concrete pavilion, stood in a circle and read a ritual one of them had pulled off the web. Lighting was flashing in the desert sky. “The thunder god was pretty obviously saying ‘hello’ to me,” he says.
But he felt the ritual was amateurish. He wanted to rewrite it and, lucky for him, he’d found a religion that embraced rewriting, remaking, revising. He had become a Druid.
* * *
More and more in America, religion is something people choose (or don’t), rather than inherit. According to a 2015 study by the Pew Research Center, “As the Millennial generation enters adulthood, its members display much lower levels of religious affiliation, including less connection with Christian churches, than older generations.” However, the report also finds that many millennials remain spiritual in a broad sense, expressing “wonder at the universe” and an overall feeling of “gratitude” and “well-being.” About 1.5% of the American population identifies as “other faiths,” including “Unitarians, those who identify with Native American religions, Pagans, Wiccans, New Agers, deists, Scientologists, pantheists, polytheists, Satanists and Druids, to name just a few.” Druids will appreciate being listed separately from Wiccans (self-described “benevolent witches”), but both fall under the umbrella of neo-paganism. Almost half of New Agers – a larger category that includes shamans, goddess-worshippers, and possibly your mom’s psychic – are of the millennial generation.
Many druid practitioners are reacting to a childhood religion they found inadequate or oppressive. They speak of their practice as inclusive and pluralistic, but also self-define as rejects, misfits and seekers, drawing a protective boundary around their own otherness. In one sense, Druidry is very old school – traditional and nostalgic for a way of relating to nature that most modern humans have lost. However, it is also willfully new. Druid rituals enact something not handed down or inherited, but deliberately created. “There just isn’t enough preserved out there to actually recreate Irish paganism,” Thomas explains. “One can do a nice superficial gloss, but we have no idea what any rituals actually looked like.”
Perhaps that sense of freshness and invention is why, after accidentally stumbling into the solstice celebration, I began to see them as a perfect example of America’s tangled, 21st-century relationship with faith.
* * *
I am holding a Dixie cup of wine. The woman who passed it to me called it “The Water of Life,” and she has lots of them on a tray, walking around our circle and handing them out to the motley group – girls with braided hair and brightly-colored leggings, women in long skirts and hand-knit sweaters, men with handmade leather fanny packs and KEEN sandals. The sun has set, and the sky is a blur of hazy bluish-black behind Mount Adams. Just outside the stone circle, there’s a cob shelter, on which is painted on one side with a triptych of ancient myths – deities Taranis and the Morrigan, the Celtic goddess of death, first engaged in a devastating war, and then having sort of graphic make-up sex. The woman smiles and moves on, and I hold the cup but do not raise it to my lips.
A Druid ritual can take place anywhere, although outdoors is preferable, because a hearth must burn at the center of the assembly. Stoking the fire is Reverend Thomas, who earlier shook our hands and asked us all to write an intention on a small piece of paper. We stuffed them into a straw man made of twigs and later burned him in the fire.
“We are fire priests if nothing else,” Thomas says. “The fire transmutes and transforms. It turns something into something else. It does it quickly.” Also present are a well or water – “the epitome of the powers of the earth and the underworld,” as Thomas explains – and a tree or pillar – “the pipeline of communication that allows you to communicate between this world and other worlds.”
After an opening potluck, with plenty of mac salad and mead and smiling folks who wore runes around their necks, we walked the gravel path to the stone circle. We asked for blessings; we burned our straw man. Now we are supposed to toast and drink the Water of Life.
It hits me that I am standing with a bunch of people I don’t know in the middle of a dark and remote farm being asked to drink unmarked liquid by a dude in a long white robe. The Water of Life shakes between my fingers.
I have little context for this rite. My own religious upbringing was hybrid and scattered. I wasn’t baptized, but I come from a long line of Irish Catholics, who attended schools taught by nuns and have names like John Michael Patrick and Mary Colleen and who drink their guilt from bottles of California chardonnay. From my mother’s side, I got a consciously a-religious Judaism. My grandfather’s first language was Yiddish, but his family eschewed things like temple and bat mitzvah, so when Jewish friends explain holidays to me, I usually just nod along, playing the more familiar role of the Irish girl. I am equally uncomfortable at Shabbat services and Sunday Mass, unsure of what to do with my hands, what to say, when to sing.
My family never offered me real entry into either of my birth religions, so instead, growing up I found faith in literature, storytelling, myth and nature – a budding neo-pagan if there ever was one.
At some level, I wanted to belong to organized religion. During sophomore year of high school, I tried to join a Christian youth group. Several of my friends attended, and they always got older boys from the group to go to school dances with them (I, on the other hand, took a blow-up doll to junior prom). I joined them in the basement of a neighborhood church where they sat on straight-backed chairs and did trust exercises and ate snacks and prayed.
The group leader was a pleasant guy with a fleece vest and a patient smile. He asked me if I believed in God, if I believed Jesus was the Son of God. Although he wasn’t unkind, he was looking for a specific answer to each question, and my answers were like fumbling through a giant keychain, jangling it awkwardly, trying to find the key that unlocked a kind of belonging I desperately wanted. I considered lying – I mean, the boys – and realized that I could perform being a good Christian. I searched for words that I thought would please him, like grace and grateful and community, placatory words that could take the place of certainty. I filled our conversation with placeholders, language itself becoming a kind of tenuous substitute for faith, because the truth was I had never really been drawn to a specific religion, but merely to the idea of religion. I could enter into this group and learn about Jesus and smile and hold hands with boys during prayers, and maybe no one would ever know that I didn’t believe what I was supposed to. But it was pretty clear that I didn’t have the right key, and I felt so ashamed that I never went back.
I look around at the Druid rite, and everyone else has already drained their cups. With a sigh, I take a deep breath, close my eyes, and chug my wine. It’s cheap stuff, and the smell of cedar smoke from the fire mingles with the sweetness on my tongue. I get a brief, heady rush, and then Reverend Thomas begins passing out musical instruments – tambourines and rattles, drums and shakers. People are grinning. We are alive on the base of a mountain, and we are going to dance.
* * *
“To me, Druidry is an experiential religion,” says Jonathan Levy, one of the founders of the Columbia Grove in Oregon. “Simply talking about it doesn’t do it justice.” Levy has a trimmed beard and a skittish, enthusiastic manner. He was a “hardcore atheist” when he came across some neo-pagan websites at the age of eighteen. He couldn’t have cared less about King Arthur legends, but he did love Roman history: Virgil and triremes and Mars. When he discovered an ADF ritual based on the Roman rite of Hilaria, it delighted him.
Levy realized that Druidry wasn’t asking him to believe; it was asking him to show up and be in community, to make offerings and to light fires. He moved to Oregon and started a meetup called “Druid Drinks,” a monthly gathering at a local pub, where he could chat socially with other curious-and-questioning Druids. Finally convinced, he traded in his atheism for an enthusiastic polytheism. In ADF, he says, “It comes down to doing something together. That part is appealing.”
Levy says many of the Columbia Grove’s members are ex-Catholics and are used to elaborate rituals. However, ADF avoids “churchy” language as much as possible because it “can be a very big turnoff for people … who were angry at their past religious affiliation.”
“It’s that rejection” that defines Druidry, explains Dr. Sarah Pike, a religious scholar at Cal-State Chico. Many Druids have “found a place where they belonged.” Pike adds that, for Druids, creating an identity out of what they’re rejecting is essential: it leads them to “embrace otherness,” and find meaning in being their own tribe.
* * *
Tall fir trees shade the lot; autumn sunlight drifts down. After almost a year away from the Druids, I have come back to visit them again, this time with Jonathan Levy’s Columbia Grove in Portland, Oregon. This is a celebration of Dionysos, the Greek deity of wine, held in a courtyard outside a Unitarian church. Around me, people drift in a loose, undulating circle on the stone. All of them are masked in foam cutouts and sequins and glitter glue: a chance to slip into a new face, and therefore avoid the madness that close contact with Dionysos can inspire.
Garbed in a toga and rust-and-orange fall garlands, Levy welcomes the crowd to autumn equinox. His pale legs are bound in high Roman sandals; his liturgy is broad-stroked and mythological, with syntax that deliberately invokes Christian liturgy: Let us pray with a good fire. Let us offer with a full heart. He and his fellow group leaders read from note cards. At one point they start to sing and realize they are doing different songs. They take a moment to shuffle through their papers, like actors who need to review the scripts.
The idea of reciprocity – of giving something in trade – holds particular importance in Druidic rite, according to Reverend Thomas: “Human relations are set up this way, and we in ADF do the same thing with the spirit world. We make offerings and hope for and ask for blessings in return.” So when Levy invites the audience to make offerings, one woman breaks apart a chocolate bar for Isis, an Egyptian goddess, and asks for good health in trade. The chocolate bubbles as it melts in the fire. Another pours out wine for Dionysos, making the flames hiss. A gender-nonconforming member burns a poem written to Thor. A young white man in a purple cape and Phantom-like half-mask invokes Hermes, the Greek messenger god, stalking the inside of our circle. The diverse pantheon doesn’t phase anyone.
After the offerings are burnt, a young woman with dyed red hair tells us to close our eyes and leads us through a visual meditation, into deep woods, into worlds of nymphs, toward Dionysos. Then, tipsy on the presence of the divine, we stand and begin to circulate, holding hands, and dance to a chant: Come on thy Bull’s Foot. I scratch my nose where the mask is slipping down. Hypnotic and repetitive, the chant pounds forward; people wriggle and writhe, close enough to each other that skin brushes skin. Come on thy Panther’s Paw. I feel a rush beneath me, like standing on ice and watching a current flowing and shifting beneath the frozen layer. Although I don’t have much invested in this rite emotionally, I am still doing it, moving my body among other bodies. Come on thy Snake’s Belly. It feels like when you’re upset and people tell you to smile. How just the action of faking it, of smiling through your pain, starts the flow of good hormones in your brain and makes you really feel better. Playing along is one way to access something real and physical. Dionysos come. Theater is not just a show; the act of the thing unlocks the reality of thing itself. I don’t really believe in what I am doing, but it is sort of working just the same.
* * *
When people come to Druid rites for the first time, they expect to see “us wearing all white, talking in thou and thy,” Jonathan Levy says. “We’re modern people. Our Druidry is modern. Our rituals are modern. Sometimes we dress in stuff just for the fun of it, but it’s not supposed to be the centerpiece. We use modern language; we use very little foreign language. People are not expecting that.”
Dr. Sabina Magliocco, a folklorist at Cal-State Northridge, says that ADF founder Isaac Bonewits “was looking for a tradition that was rooted in history,” but soon realized that resurrecting an ancient religion was impossible. Reverend Michael Dangler, a senior ADF priest in Ohio, agrees. “We have rejected the fantasy of ancient lineages,” he says. “They are just not important from our personal practice perspective. We come out of a skeptical time.”
For the average American, whose understanding of religion is synonymous with faith, Druidry can seem a bit artificial. But Dr. Sarah Pike says that Druids have “a different type of commitment” to their religion. Focusing on ritual action rather than creed can be “a relief” for people who have fled the constraints of orthodoxy, she says. “When belief becomes so important, you have sharper boundaries between insiders and outsiders.”
Still, there is tribalism in Druidry. Many of the practitioners I spoke with had the awkward, sharp, smart humor of the nerdy kids in middle school, which they wielded at me like little pikes, prodding and jabbing to see if I would laugh. Dr. Magliocco says this is partially constructed as a part of pagan identity. “Humor is a way that we mark insiders and outsiders,” she says. “A joke is a spell. Jokes clearly mark the boundaries. We can all laugh because we’re unusual, but we also draw a firm circle of who we are.”
* * *
Not everyone at the summer solstice ritual is a practicing Druid. The girls who are maybe on mushrooms are clearly not familiar with the rite. When Reverend Thomas hands out drums and rattles and shakers, so that we can all make a joyful noise together, parading around the fire and making music for the gods, one of them accidentally drops her tambourine. It shatters the silence with a flustered, lengthy banging. The girls sputter with silent laughter, their bodies shaking, as Thomas tries unsuccessfully to maintain a straight face.
On the other hand, we are all practicing Druids. We’ve shown up at the ritual, after all, and if being a Druid means making offerings of whiskey and beer, reciting a prayer to honor your ancestors, and drinking mead from a horn, then I, too, am a Druid.
“Get out there and do the stuff; that’s what counts,” Reverend Thomas says. “What you believe is kind of your business.” You step onto the stage, say the lines, block the actions. You do the work. Through recitation, the piece of yourself played that night has a chance, perhaps, to reconnect to something deep and missing within the modern psyche – nature, the changing of seasons, the deepening shadow behind a white mountain. There is a real American optimism buried in this: that if we show up ready to try, something in the universe will respond positively to us. That we can deal with it, negotiate our futures: a bit of chocolate for your blessings, a dram of rye for your luck.
When it doesn’t work, it looks like cheap theater. But when it does, something inside turns like a combination lock until it clicks, and then slides open. After all, there is nothing like watching the world respond to you. If it is a performance of the modern self to dress up in robes and ask your ancestors for blessings as bats snip and chatter in the summer dusk, then it is also deeply satisfying. Pouring good rye down the dark throat of a well, watching it drop fathoms deep: that act has its own, deeply human magic.
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?”
“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.”
“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 hottopic 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.”
Maybe I wanted to interview Lori about erotic transference in my therapy sessions for that same reason as well…to stand out as the most amazingly understanding patient ever.
* * *
“I want to be very clear that this was never about feeding my own ego,” Lori says about her approach to my treatment. “We were always doing this in your best interest.”
I’m in Lori’s office, a tape recorder rolling and a pad and pen in my hands.
“I felt I was doing a disservice to you if I didn’t ‘out’ what I felt was weighing on us, which, honestly, felt like a heavy secret,” she says, pointing out that she discussed my therapeutic process for many hours in her required supervision meetings.
In order for Lori to advance in her field as a social worker, she has to attend 3,000 conference hours with another professional to go over casework — kind of like therapy quality control.
We talk about all of this during one of my scheduled sessions, for the entire hour — and go over by a few minutes, too.
Lori says that when she began her career as a social worker, she decided she wasn’t going to shy away from any subjects. “It’s typical for a client to [have] a habitual desire to sweep things under the rug,” she observes, especially about taboo topics. It can become a cycle of behavior that Lori seeks to break.
I refer back to the time when, unprovoked, she brought up my attraction to her.
She says she mentioned it to avoid what therapists call “door-knobbing,” which is when a patient will purposely mention some huge reveal right at the end of a session so as to sidestep a lengthy conversation about it.
“My only question for you is, was I wrong for bringing it up?” she asks. “Only you can answer that.”
Lori’s great at forcing me to reflect.
“I guess when I said I was over it and could move on, that was an example of my strict black-and-white thinking,” I say, throwing back some language she’s used often to describe my challenge in accepting dualities. In my mind, I was either attracted to her and shouldn’t see her anymore, or I wasn’t attracted to her and could still have her be my therapist. There was no in between.
I realize now that she wasn’t wrong for mentioning my feelings for her, even when I didn’t want her to. Lori noticed that I was frustrated with myself and wanted me to know that an attraction to a therapist is so normal and happens so frequently that there are technical terms for it.
I turn my attention towards the presence of countertransference in our session. I’m trying to come up with an actual question here, but, really, I just want her to confirm her feelings for me are real. So I say, referring to her feelings, with a great degree of difficulty, “It’s funny that they seem genuine to this day.”
“They are genuine,” Lori says, adding a moment later: “I think it might be a good idea if we explore why our discussing it suggests a lack of authenticity.”
“It doesn’t, necessarily,” I begin, then stammer through a few sentences, worried I might offend her by implying she’s been dishonest. I finally settle on, “I guess it comes back to my self-esteem issues. Why would a beautiful woman think I’m attractive?”
Lying in bed with Shauna a few months into our relationship, I ask her what she thought about me the moment she first saw me. I’m fishing for a compliment. But we met on Tinder and I just hope that seeing me in person wasn’t some kind of letdown for her after swiping right on my hand-picked glamour shots. Obviously she isn’t going to say something so awful after having committed to me for so long. It’s a slam-dunk ego boost.
She says she liked the fact that I was wearing a blazer and a tie on a first date. She adds that I was a little shorter than she anticipated, but was content with the two of us at least being the same exact height.
“What did you think when you first saw me?” she asks, turning it around, naturally.
Staying committed to my honesty-at-all-costs policy, I say, “I thought you were really beautiful, but not to the point where I was intimidated by you, which was very important because if I was, you would have gotten a very unconfident version of me, and we probably wouldn’t have hit it off as well as we did.”
Shauna thinks about that for a second, and eventually nods “OK.”
I explain that my insecurity could often get the better of me in dating situations. It was easy to convince myself that I’d be rejected by the girl I was with, especially if I thought she was out of my league. I would then slip into a nervous and reserved state that isn’t at all reflective of my true self.
I’m essentially saying that I was so thrilled to not find Shauna so extraordinarily pretty that I couldn’t accept her being on a date with me. That thought made so much sense at the time I said it, but I’ve since come to realize it is as ridiculous as it is insulting. After ten months of being with Shauna, I’m still completely floored by her, on every level, including a physical one. It gives me great pride to walk into a room with her, and I don’t imagine that changing. Therefore, she actually did meet a confident “version of me.” The way people look doesn’t drastically change in ten months but a person’s perception of self can. It seems my emotional workouts in erotic transference were just beginning to produce results.
* * *
“People fuck up,” Lori informs me during one winter session. “Therapists have slept with clients before, just like politicians have had sex with their interns. But, so you have a full understanding of how this works, we can date.” She explains the parameters as outlined in the social worker’s code of ethics. One of the many stipulations is that we wouldn’t be able to see each other, under any circumstances, for at least two years before dating. She tells me she loves her job, and there’s no way she would ever sacrifice my safety or her career for anything, so she would strictly follow all the dictated rules. “If you truly want to date me, there is the option. But it’s ultimately up to you.”
I know what she’s doing here — putting the onus on me, just like last year when she said we could have sex. The difference this time is the answer I want to give is on par with all of my involuntary urges.
“I don’t want to stop the work we’re doing,” I say. “At this point, it’s far too valuable to me, and, really, I know very little about you.” She’s beautiful, exercises, is smart, funny, professional, enjoys good TV…and that’s about it. Aside from whether or not we’d even both be single in two years, and if we’d be in the correct mind frame to explore a relationship, there are several other things I’m considering here: Would Lori and I really be compatible in every way? Would she ever see me as a lover, a partner, an equal, and not a patient? Could I ever reveal a detail about myself, or even just a shitty day of work, without wondering if she was picking it apart and analyzing it?
Frankly, all those questions could be answered in the positive. But, even if I wasn’t in a happy relationship — Shauna makes this choice much easier, for sure — I wouldn’t go that route. I’d be out a therapist.
* * *
It’s a beautiful spring night in New York and only sidewalk seating will do. Shauna and I are out to dinner at a restaurant near her Queens apartment, and we’re both in good spirits. The weather and the alcohol consumption are partly to blame for that, but, on cue with the season’s change, I feel I’ve turned an emotional corner. Work payments that were past due are finally finding their way into my bank account. As it turns out, my short-term money troubles were not an indication that I had no business being a writer, or that my life changeup was as irresponsible as unprotected sex at fourteen years old.
I’d told Lori as much that afternoon. I took a mental step back from my current situation and realized that in spite of my recent hardships, I was succeeding. I summarize my session for Shauna, who nods in agreement, lovingly pointing out that she’s had the same challenging freelancer experiences as a dancer.
“You’re doing great, babe,” she says matter-of-factly.
“Thank you. That means a lot,” I respond. “I guess if I’m going to be a writer I just have to accept all this and have faith in myself. The way Lori put it was, ‘You just have to go all-in.’”
“Good,” Shauna says. “You should listen to the women in your life.”
* * *
Liked this story? Our editors did too, voting it one of our 20 best untold tales!
After years of avoiding love, I found a match that seemed almost too perfect. We were practically walking down the aisle before I realized it really was too good to be true.
“So let me get this right. You’re Italian but you’re a resident of India.”
“And your fiancé is Canadian. Resident of Canada.”
“Yes, but he lives in India.”
“And you’re having a Catholic wedding.”
“Yes. But he’s Jewish.”
“That doesn’t matter to us. It’s a parish matter, they take care of the paperwork. Did you discuss it with your Italian priest?”
“My parish is in Delhi because I am a resident here. Anyway yes, we have permission to have the ceremony in Italy. We still need the bishop’s permission for the mixed religion marriage, but that should arrive soon.”
“So all we need is a certificate that says your fiancé has never been married before. A nulla osta. And then we can process the documents.”
“See, that’s why I called. Canada doesn’t really have that certificate.”
“Did you check with the Canadian embassy in Rome?”
“Yeah. They say they have nothing to do with this.”
“Mmmh…I actually have no idea then.”
The lady at the Italian embassy in Delhi wasn’t able to help. She’d never seen this before. Our wedding was just like us: Unique, unconventional, and a little all over the place. It looked impossible. Four months from the day and nothing was confirmed.
“It’s not going to work. Nothing’s ready.” I called him in a panic as soon as he woke up, in Canada. In India, it was evening already.
“Amore mio, that’s not true,” he replied. “Everything’s set. We’ll get the paperwork done.”
He was right. We had a venue, a fairytale-like villa on the Amalfi Coast. I had a dress — an expensive affair that looked just understated enough: When I tried it on I teared up immediately, surprising my cynical self at the belief that it was “the one.” The invites, designed by a talented friend, were about to be printed. Save the dates were sent — all our favorite people couldn’t wait to be there.
We had even received our certificate from the church after a two-day intensive course instructing us on how to start a good Catholic family. Not that we were going to be a Catholic family, but the course was compulsory to get married in a church —which I wanted, not for religious reasons but because I liked the tradition — and he had accepted to do, to please me. The course was on the outskirts of Delhi, and for two days we stayed in a nunnery with other couples, sleeping on different floors (the men upstairs, the women below) and attending classes on family values and conjugal duties. A foreign couple wasn’t the norm, and we were the center of attention — particularly when questions about sex came up and everyone assumed, despite our amused protesting, that we knew more about it than the teachers.
“So, where does sperm come from? Maybe you know?” I was asked.
“Nope. No idea.” I’d reply as the class burst in laughter. “Maybe he does?”
He looked at me smiling, shaking his head. “Why would I know? I don’t know!”
We were warned that the Holy Spirit was not going to attend the ceremony since we weren’t both Catholic, but then his being Jewish — as opposed to Muslim or Hindu, which was the case for other mixed-religion couples there — gained the staff’s sympathies. He was labeled “almost Christian.” We joked that we didn’t have money to feed the Holy Spirit anyway.
I needed to calm down. It was all working out.
But we did need the papers. And we didn’t know how to get them.
“Maybe it’s a sign? Maybe this wedding thing is a bad idea?” I whined. I was tired, and insufferable.
He laughed. “Aaaamore,” he started, in a sing-songy way. His funny accent on the few Italian words he knew would lighten up the darkest rooms of my soul. “Listen. Getting married is the best idea we’ve ever had and we’re going to do it. It’s all going to work out. I promise.”
* * *
He was so certain about us. He had been unfailingly so since our engagement, which caught me by total surprise. We had been living together for a couple of years in India — where I had followed him looking to start a career, and finally be with the man I loved — when he proposed.
Before moving in together, ours was the erratic, long-distance relationship of two people who never seemed to be in the same place. We met in Italy, fell in love and spent the summer of our lives on intense weeks together and long stretches apart: He worked on a photography project that took him to Alaska, Japan, Congo; I went to Kosovo, volunteering and looking for stories, then moved to Paris to complete a master’s. His work took him there, too, and we spent a couple blissful months together. For the first time since I could remember, I felt beautiful; I was loved and desired. We’d dress up and walk out in the middle of the night to have French onion soup in 24-hour restaurants. We shared a studio that was too small for one, let alone two plus too many cameras.
Before I’d met him I kept joking that “love is overrated.” But it wasn’t; It was perfect. When he had to go back to India, where he’d been living for years before moving to Italy, I worried it’d be the end.
It wasn’t. We spoke whenever we had a free minute. It was never enough. We were so different that our attachment was a mystery to both of us: I loved studying, he had hardly finished high school; I was all about manners and rules, he recognized none; I worried about everything, he never did. At times, our love for each other seemed to be the only thing we had in common.
And it was all we needed.
On spring break I went to see him in India. I landed, terrified and drenched in mosquito repellent, in the fog of Delhi’s February nights. In the arrival hall, he was waiting for me in the neon light, holding a sign, just like the hotel chauffeurs. It read: Amore Mio. My love.
Everything in India frightened me. The smell. The noises. The light, so different from anything I had seen before. Even the peacocks, flying on the rooftop terrace from the park nearby, were wonderful but so foreign. I followed him to Calcutta on assignment. In the teeming backstreets, electrifying and overwhelming, I looked upon poverty and dirt, equally horrified. Once I cried a whole night about not being able to afford anything better than a filthy guesthouse. I returned to Paris relieved.
We managed to meet wherever and whenever possible. In Paris, London, Italy. In New York — where we both thought we’d eventually end up. We spent Christmas together, my family now his. He had been estranged from his parents for many years, and while on my insistence he had resumed contact with them, it didn’t look like there was real hope of saving their relationship. They had been demanding and cruel to him in his teens, kicking him out of home before the end of high school, and still refused to acknowledge it, let alone apologize for it. As someone who counted on her family for anything, it was impossible to even imagine how hard that must have been, so it filled my heart with joy hearing him call my mother “mamma.”
A year after my first visit, I moved to Delhi. I planned to stay a few months, but I began the adventure of a lifetime.
We got an apartment and decorated it with colorful fabrics. I struggled to keep the dust out of the house, struggled with everything that didn’t work, struggled with the scorching summer heat, struggled to get work. I struggled, struggled, struggled. I packed my bags at least twice, shouting at him that I was going back home. He’d been in India so long he could no longer remember the hardship of the beginning, and he was traveling so much for work that I was often on my own. I got mad at him — now that we could be together he was off to Africa or China or wherever, prey to a wanderlust I failed to understand.
All I wanted was for him to be around for me, because when he was, things were pretty wonderful. We had so much hunger for time together that nothing seemed trivial: We’d explore the city on his motorcycle, go on holidays to remote places, turn any and every bit of daily life into an adventure.
But a couple of weeks here and there were not enough. I felt like all I did was wait for him. Finally, shortly after he came back from a long trip to visit a dear, sick uncle, I broke down. I felt horrible — this trip was not for fun, how could I get mad about it? — but I just couldn’t help it. I told him we’d better split up, that he had no space for me in his life. I screamed, he screamed more, the neighbors came to check if I was O.K. In a country where women are common victims of domestic abuse, it was hard to believe that it was me who always raised her voice first. We resolved that we should part.
* * *
I was on my way to work, late and unspeakably sad, when I realized I did not want to leave him. I wanted to stay. I loved him, and our life.
I went back to our apartment. He was sitting on the couch, exhausted as I was from so much fighting. I hugged him, sat on his lap.
“I’m sorry. This was terrible,” I apologized. “I don’t want to go away. Never.”
“I don’t want you to go away either. I want to be with you forever.”
“Yes. Forever,” I said, and I meant it. Yet I was shocked when I saw in his eyes the resolution of a question I didn’t know he had in him, and I wasn’t ever expecting him to ask.
“Then… Will you… will you marry me?”
“What… You don’t… You don’t have to — I’m not going anywhere. You need to think this through.”
“But I have! I have. Look—” he reached for his backpack, me still sitting on his lap, and took out a small box. “I even have a ring! I’ve been waiting for the right moment.”
“Well this is pretty right,” I joked. “So how did he propose? Well, we had a massive fight and nearly broke up, but got engaged instead.”
“So. Will you marry me, amore mio?” He was serious.
He was ready.
It was a gorgeous ring, an Art Deco family heirloom — Canadian, as guilt-free as diamonds can come — and hard not to notice. People did notice: the excitement about our engagement was so genuine and overwhelming, everyone pointing to what a romantic story we had.
It was, indeed, the most romantic story I had ever heard.
* * *
It was all unbelievably sweet, yet I couldn’t shake the looming sensation that something was going to go wrong. It came out in my dreams. The fear of losing everything would turn into nightmares, and cropped up at every big step we took.
I loved him, and the unexpected certainty that he, too, truly loved me gave me a happiness so enormous it frightened me. My father had died too early for me to believe happy endings were possible, let alone feeling that I was destined for one.
I looked everywhere for signs of an impending disappointment. We had to leave our apartment, and our landlady insisted we owed her several months of rent. He was in charge of making the deposit but couldn’t find the receipts to show we had paid — that was enough to infuriate me. He was irresponsible, I said – how could he be ready to be a husband? We should call the whole thing off.
We looked for a new place, and I cried like a spoiled child when faced with the reality that his priorities were different from mine — he wanted to save money on rent, and on everything really, to be able to invest in his work. I saw myself as shallow and materialistic for wanting a place that was nice and comfortable. Again told him, “See? This is why we should not do it.”
I would cast doubts over us and our future, which I so wanted and so feared.
But for all my questions, he had answers. “It’s us, amore,” he’d tell me, his voice always so calm and kind. “I’m not letting you get out of this.” His certainty seemed to grow as mine withered, and the way he dealt with my actions, minimizing my fears, showed me time and again the depth of his love.
We finally found a place that worked and bought new furniture. We didn’t have much money — I worked as the editor of a small online publication and had been supporting both of us on my Indian salary while his work was slow. He had a few personal projects to pursue, and I was determined to help him see them through. His assignments had always been sporadic, but a day of his work often paid ten of mine, and something always came through when our funds were nearly gone.
But this time seemed different — I was worried we wouldn’t be able to afford the fairytale wedding that I, who had never actually thought I’d get married, discovered I wanted. My mother was covering most of the costs, but I insisted we at least pay for a few things: The flowers, the invites, the favors. As the weeks, then the months, went by, I grew worried we wouldn’t have enough.
One thought, in particular, made me panic. If he didn’t get any work soon, I’d even have to pay for his suit and his ticket to Italy for the wedding. I’d have to pay for my own bouquet. Something about the image of me buying myself my own wedding flowers was unbearable to me: Was this the life I was signing up for? What if he never actually had a breakthrough? I looked up what would happen if we divorced, if I had to pay him alimony.
I was disgusted by my own thoughts.
I hesitantly suggested he look for assignments from publications less prestigious than the ones he usually worked for. He was hurt, and saw that as a lack of belief in him, pointing out that he could have gotten work in Africa had he been free to move there, but I didn’t want to leave my job to follow him around — that had its costs.
But my faith in his talent was blind — it was destiny I didn’t trust.
* * *
We were over the rough patches, though, when the issue with the papers came up. It appeared we were in a bureaucratic loophole and none of the puzzled officials I contacted were able to figure our situation out.
“That’s why we’re so special,” he said. It was a fact.
He had gone to Canada to renew his visa — his trip home drained my account, but some work had finally come through for him and he was going to be paid soon. We were back on our early-days routine of long-distance phone calls. For the first time in our many goodbyes, I hadn’t cried when he left. As he told me that he’d be right back, his happiness was so visible it gave me goose bumps, and a newfound feeling of safety.
But then, when I tried to reach him the day he was meant to go see about our documents, I couldn’t get through to him. He would not pick up his phone. He was not online — which he almost obsessively always was. I emailed him. No reply.
Something was wrong.
Whether it was some sort of sixth sense or just my constant fear of the worst, I started to worry. I called the friend he usually stayed with, trying not to sound paranoid; after all, it had only been a few hours since I had heard from him. He was not home. As the night became morning in India, a day was passing in Canada. I called, and called, and laid awake waiting. Sleeping was out of the question.
Finally, I got a two-line email. He said he loved me. And that he needed space.
I was paralyzed.
The following days were a game of waiting. I checked my phone and my email compulsively. I stared at the screen to see if he was logging onto Skype. No sign of him. I told myself I should not try to contact him, that he needed to be left alone, though I did write to him that we could postpone the wedding if he wanted to, and that whatever problem there was we were going to work it through. I knew we could.
I blamed myself for having so many doubts. Had I ruined everything? I kept going to work to be around people, but I was numb.
As the date of his return trip approached, I tried to be calm and focus on the fact that I was about to see him again. We had never been out of contact this long, and I missed him terribly. I tried to be patient, but when I saw his name go online on Skype in the middle of another sleepless night, I couldn’t resist.
“Amore mio,” I typed. “I am so happy you are coming back next week. We’ll make things right, I promise.”
“Yes,” he replied. “We have a lot of work to do but we can make things right. Things will be right.”
But he was not coming back. Not yet anyway. His birthday was coming up, and he didn’t want to spend it with me.
“I don’t want to resent you,” he typed.
He wasn’t going to discuss it further, but I convinced him that he owed me an explanation. He promised to get back online soon, and he did.
“You’re so beautiful,” he said, sweetly, when I answered the video call. “I missed you.”
He looked beautiful, too, in his light blue collared shirt, rolled-up sleeves and messy hair.
He started explaining what was going through his head: He needed to be free to travel and work, and I wanted security — we were just too different, there’s no way it was going to work.
As he was speaking, gently, his words started losing meaning to me — it all became white noise, and I interrupted him.
“Oh my god,” I said. “You cheated on me.”
Something in his gaze hardened. “Yes,” he replied.
“No, not again,” I begged. I knew it was true, again.
I hadn’t thought about it for years — the memory of betrayal buried deep under the illusion of the most wonderful story that had ever happened to me. I had found out about his infidelities before I moved to India, when we lived apart. Infidelities and lies: a girlfriend hidden from me when we first got together, who he moved back in with after he left Paris; an older woman he had even thought he was in love with; adventures around the world as he traveled for work.
But we had worked through it all. He had begged me to stay with him when I found out, told me I was the love of his life and the last chance he had of having a happy life, of changing. He had blamed distance and so had I, and it had worked for years — so well, too well. I had worked so hard to get past his infidelities that I had actually forgotten about them — the truth, of the past and the present, felt heavy on my burning sternum.
“Yes, again,” he said, suddenly cold. There was something in him, something in his voice I could not recognize. He was a stranger.
“But this time it’s different,” he continued. “I found her.”
I swear I heard my heart break.
He told me he’d just met her. A few days had been enough to know. He had given up thinking he could find the one. But there she was. They were going to travel together, see the world and be nomads, as he wanted. And she wanted. And I never did.
“I bet she dresses terribly,” I said, heart yolk leaking from my smashed chest, making an ugly mess already.
I became a monster; I could barely speak, filled with anger as I told him, shocking myself with the violence of my own words, hissing at him, shaking, that it was not true that he felt sorry — that he felt good and not sorry, that while fucking this woman he didn’t know, in and out and in and out of her, he did not think of me.
“You want to make me feel guilty because I am in love.”
He was moving in with her.
“Are you going to marry her?” I was crazy. It was crazy.
“We’re not planning to get married at the moment.” He was crazy, too.
The conversation lasted through the night, through bouts of anger, tears, words of love. At the end, I asked him if this was the first time that he’d be unfaithful since we’d been living together.
“Is it because I was not enough?” Isn’t that what every rejected lover dreads?
“Yeah. I was always looking for something better.”
“Something or someone?” I couldn’t stop digging.
“Something, someone, I didn’t know. I thought it was as good as it got, with you. Now I know it wasn’t true.”
“What do you mean?”
“I am not in love with you. I don’t think I ever was.”
Outside, it was dawn. The sounds of India waking up were a loud sign the conversation had to end. We — “us” — had to end.
“I will miss you so much,” I muttered before I hung up. I wanted him desperately. But he was unrecognizable, someone else. Happiness and love were a dark force in his gaze. They were pulling him away from me, taking him some place frightening and far, a place my arms couldn’t stretch to.
I couldn’t cry. I couldn’t sleep. I didn’t feel anything other than terror. Who was he?
* * *
When I landed in Milan I was a ghost. I hadn’t eaten in days; I had no feelings other than sorrow. My sister picked me up from the airport, and as she hugged me, without saying a word, I cried. I cried when I saw my mother. My grandma was visiting — usually the simple sight of her would be enough to put me in a good mood, but I just kept crying, incapable of anything else.
“I’m sorry. I’m sorry.” It was all I could say, whisper really. I was sorry I had trusted him, that I had followed him, that I had brought him home. I was sorry I was so embarrassingly heartbroken. I was sorry I messed up, sorry I failed, sorry about the embarrassment of a wedding to cancel. That he had not only lied to me, but to my family, caused me unbearable pain. I blamed it on myself — all of it.
I was infinitely sorry. And so sore.
I walked straight into my mother’s bed and laid there crying for days, getting up only to check my emails for signs of him, and sit at the table for lunch and dinner, unable to touch my food.
As I stared into my plate, the Italian mothers of my life — my own, and my mother’s — discussed me, and him, as if I weren’t there.
“She isn’t eating.” “I can see that.” “What are we going to do about this one?” “I don’t know, I can’t force her.” “Look at that. Not one bite.” “I know, Ma. She doesn’t feel like it.”
My belligerent grandma had been through a lot — her father dying as a kid, the war as a teenager, her husband leaving her a widow in her early thirties, an earthquake destroying her home and her town in her late forties — far too much to concede to a romantic heartbreak.
“That guy had always been a bit strange,” she offered. “Remember how he stopped eating meat?” She had always treated his vegetarianism as an exotic disease.
When I finally had the strength to leave my bed, I started trying to put together the pieces. I was obsessed with understanding, and the more I obsessed, the more it all seemed terrifying.
I went back to Delhi, leaving behind a family worried sick about me, determined to save the salvageable: A job I loved in a country that was going to save my life.
My pain was enormous, kept alive and stinging by a succession of small new wounds.
I had to cancel the wedding, let all the guests know on my own, as he was far too busy with his new life to even tell his own family — who called me seeking explanations, unable to track him down.
* * *
In all of this, and despite my rational self, I still madly loved him. I hoped he would come back. Once I woke up convinced I heard him ring the bell in the middle of the night. It was a dream.
A recovering patient, I put one day in front of the other, waiting for my love to go away. Like a famous Italian poem says, it was like quitting a vice. Come smettere un vizio. It was a daily exercise in abstinence — from calling him, wanting him, loving him.
Before I knew it, it had been a month since I had last seen his face, on a computer screen. Then two, then a whole summer.
On August 26, when our wedding was meant to be, the sun was shining over the Amalfi Coast, but I spent the day in rainy Kathmandu, Nepal, on my own, hanging out with the monkeys at Pashupatinath Temple — the Temple of Shiva.
I was glad there was a god I could thank for destruction.
For a long time afterward, I was obsessed with this story. Obsessed with his lies. I uncovered countless more: about his family, his past, our relationship. The more I found out, the more the hurt gave way to relief.
I wrote to the woman he had left for me way back when — to let her know it didn’t work out with us. Somehow, I felt it was right for her to know, that I would have wanted to know, if I were her. She was understanding, forgiving, and helpful — knowing far too well what I was going through, she repeated to me countless times I had not lost someone worth keeping.
Years later, that’s what I told his wife, when it was she who wrote to me.
Annalisa Merelli is an Italian writer living in New York. She is a reporter with Quartz and tweets at @missanabeem.
Ayun Halliday is the Chief Primatologist of the award-winning East Village Inky and author of seven books, including “Peanut” and “No Touch Monkey! And Other Lessons Learned Too Late.” Follow her @AyunHalliday.
Countless couples have tackled the taboo subject of racy videos and illicit orgasms. What happens when it’s the woman who can’t stop watching?
This story features explicit situations that may not be suitable for all audiences.
It’s past two a.m. and my husband’s breathing has become long and even. An opportunity presents itself. I slip my right hand down my pajama pants and move slowly, careful not to bump my elbow into his side rib, or bring my hips into it. Too much movement or sound will wake him, and to be found out for something like this is not just embarrassing but potentially destructive. He’ll think he doesn’t satisfy me, and men do not like feeling inadequate, especially when it comes to matters of the bedroom. Or maybe he’ll feel sorry for me. And who wants to fuck someone they pity?
Even worse, maybe he’ll finally say the words I’ve been waiting for him to say since I first told him that I am a sex addict. That he’s bored with it. He’s disgusted. He’s had enough.
I lift my wrist away from my body. I’m careful to keep my breath from becoming a pant, even as my pulse quickens, but this takes much concentration. The body desires the convulsion the mind denies. There is no letting go here though. This orgasm is a controlled, measured, calculated experience.
I have masturbated in this way next to the sleeping bodies of all my serious, committed partners who came before my husband. In some cases, as expected, it was because I wanted more sex than they could give me. I’ve been called “insatiable” and “demanding” one too many times. But this has not always been the story. Yes, I have an incredibly high sex drive, but even in relationships where I have great sex multiple times a week my nighttime stealth for self-pleasure has persisted.
My college boyfriend, burgundy haired and tattooed, had the high sex drive typical of most nineteen-year-old males. We fucked all the time, but even still, I wanted more, something only I could give me. One afternoon, after he’d fallen into a deep post-sex slumber, I serviced myself with my second, third, and fourth orgasm beside him. That was the first time I’d experienced such a level of both secrecy and shame.
I made a promise to my husband and to myself, long before we were even wed, to be austerely honest. He knows I’ve been a compulsive masturbator since I was twelve years old. He knows about my extensive fluency in the hardcore categories of various porn sites. He knows about the bad habit I used to have of hooking up with not-so-nice men because they were available and I was bored — and that I rarely used protection with any of them. And that I believed, for a really long time, that my addiction made me a broken person, a disgusting person, a person unworthy of love. I told him these things from the start because I met him at a time in my life where I was ready and open for change. Because I liked him so much that I wanted to love him. Because I knew that the only way to love him, and be loved by him, was to be myself.
* * *
“What’s your favorite porn scene?”
The man who will become my husband in less than a year asks me this question as he lies naked and vulnerable beside me. We’ve just had sex and although I am naked too, it isn’t until this moment that I feel just as vulnerable as him. While it might seem absurd to some, I know immediately this is a moment of great significance for us. It is an opportunity to finally do things differently.
The possibilities run through my head.
I can describe something vanilla: This one where a busty blonde gets banged by her personal trainer. Or perhaps something a little more racy: These two hot teens swap their math teacher’s cum after he made them stay late in the classroom. Chances are he’ll get hard again and we’ll end up abandoning the conversation for a second round. These are harmless answers. Expected answers.
They’re also lies.
The possibility of revealing the actual truth not only makes me nervous, but also physically sick. I feel a constriction in the back of my throat, a flutter in my belly, a tremble in my extremities. After all, we’ve only been dating a couple of months and he doesn’t love me yet. If I tell him, will he ever?
“Why do you ask?” I reach for the sheet, damp with sweat, a tangle of 300-thread-count cotton across our limbs, and yank it up to cover my breasts.
“I don’t know,” he says. “Curiosity?” He turns over on his side and props his head up on his left hand. His green eyes are wide with wonder.
“Seems like a weird question.” I tuck the sheet into my armpits and scoot my body a little to the left so we’re no longer touching. The tone of my voice has become defensive and he can tell.
“It’s just that I usually pick the porn,” he explains. “Do you like what I choose?”
I see what he’s doing. He’s trying to be considerate since we just had sex while staring at the laptop screen after searching terms of his choosing: Latina, real tits, blow job, threesome.
Maybe he feels guilty for getting off to them instead of me, even though I’m the one who suggested we watch porn in the first place. Even though I’m always the one who suggests we watch porn while we have sex.
“Yeah, sure.” I look up at the ceiling. “They’re fine.”
“Are you sure?”
I wish he’d stop prying, but I realize something else is happening here. Not only is he trying to be considerate; he’s also trying to get to know me. The past couple of months has allowed us to cover most of the basics — what ended each of our most recent relationships, what our parents are like, what we hope to do with our lives in the next few years — but there’s still a longing for something deeper, and I can’t think of anything deeper than knowing a person’s favorite porn scene.
It can speak volumes. For one scene to stand out amongst the rest, when so many others are available, there has to be something below the surface. What maintains its appeal? What keeps a person returning in the deep, dark recesses of a lonely night? Perhaps the answers to these questions are a great source of shame. I never thought of revealing such answers to anybody, and especially not somebody like him, somebody I could really like. It seems far too risky, preposterous even.
It also seems necessary. Too many of my past relationships were doomed by my inability to tell the whole truth, to fully be myself. Now I have the opportunity to go there, and to say to a person, “This is who I am. Do you accept me?”
“Well, there’s this one gang bang,” I start, looking over at his face to see a reaction of surprise and interest register at once.
I take a deep breath and proceed to tell him, first slowly, then progressively faster about the scene. Like a busted dam, I can hardly hold back the rush of descriptors fumbling from my mouth: “Two women in a warehouse. One dangling from a harness. The other just below her. Both are waiting to take on fifty horny men…” and on and on.
I watch his face the whole time, not pausing when his smile becomes a frown and his eyes squint as if it hurts to look at me.
“Afterward, the women exit the warehouse through a back door while the men applaud.”
For a long moment after I’ve finished talking, there is silence between us, but there is also a sense of relief on my part. I have revealed something so dark, so upsetting, so impacted in shame, and he hasn’t immediately disappeared. He is still here beside me, propped up on his left hand, naked and vulnerable, and so am I. He sees me and I see him seeing me and we are in new territory.
But then he says, “I kind of wish I hadn’t asked.” It’s all I need to hear to send me into tears. Not just tiny, embarrassed sobs, but humiliated wails. I have myself a tantrum. He is confused now as he pulls me close to him, laughing nervously at my abrupt shift in disposition. I try to pull the sheet completely over my head, but he pulls it back down and covers my face with apologetic kisses. He can’t possibly understand why I’m crying. He can’t possibly know what I’ve just revealed to him. “What’s going on? Baby, what’s wrong?”
And so I tell him.
* * *
Addiction to porn and masturbation is often grouped under general sex addiction because they all have to do with escape via titillation, pursuit and orgasm, but I’ve always felt more pathetic about my predilections. Going out and fucking — even someone you don’t really like — is wild, dangerous, but essentially social and shared. Though I had periods of promiscuity throughout my twenties, my biggest issue has always been with what I do alone.
There’s something so sad and humiliating in imagining a person locked away in a dark room, hot laptop balanced on chest, turning the volume down low, scrolling, scrolling, choosing, watching, escaping, coming.
And then realizing that person is me.
But my proclivity for solo pleasure has strong, stubborn roots. I lost my virginity to a water faucet when I was twelve years old. I have Adam Corolla and Dr. Drew to thank for this life-shaking experience; it was their late-night radio show “Loveline” on L.A.’s KROQ that served as my primary means of sex ed during my pre-teen years. This technique is one of the many things I learned, but I had a whole other kind of education going on, which had long filled my head with other ideas — sex is something that happens between a man and woman who love each other; masturbation is a sin. You know, your typical run-of-the-mill Catholic guilt stuff.
Just as oppressive as the Catholic guilt was my femininity. Girls weren’t talking about masturbation and sex. I had no company with whom to share my new activities and interests. And so this silence morphed into shame. I became a pervert, a loser, a sinner.
I tried to stop myself from taking long baths, from late-night undercover activities, from being alone too long, but the more I obsessed about stopping, the more I could not. I joined shame, secrecy and pleasure in a daily orgy, whether I was tired, bored, angry or sad. Whether I was single or coupled, it didn’t matter. Getting off required all of these components and I needed new, more extreme methods to stay engaged — more hours sucked away watching progressively harder porn like the warehouse video, complemented with dabbles in strip clubs, peep shows and shady massage parlors. It became impossible to get off during sex without fantasy, my body over-stimulated to numbness. I was irritable unless I was fucking or masturbating or planning to do either of these things. Life revolved around orgasm to the detriment of any kind of real progress in my professional or social existence.
I was out of control.
* * *
Little did I know that describing my favorite porn scene would be the first of many future admissions that would help peel back, layer by layer, a long and exhausting history of self loathing. My future husband and I quickly learned that watching porn during sex wasn’t a harmless kink for us; it was a method I’d long used to remain disconnected from my partners. It took much discipline and patience for us to expel it from our relationship altogether, though every now and then we slip up.
Talking about my habits led me to examine them, which ultimately led to my desire for change. Holding a secret for too long is like being unable to take a full breath. I didn’t want to feel this way anymore. I needed to share — often and fully — what had for too long been silenced in order to reclaim who I was underneath my addiction. I needed to breathe again.
I found relief in Sex and Love Addicts Anonymous meetings, seeing a therapist I trusted, attending personal development courses like the Hoffman Process and writing about my journey. I’ve managed to move away from porn for the most part, but when it comes to this addiction — to something I don’t have to seek out or purchase — control is like a wayward horse and my ass is always slipping off the saddle.
I constantly struggle with whether or not I should give up porn completely, but until I find a way to have some moderation with it, I avoid it as best I can. I wish I could just watch it occasionally, as some sort of supplement to my active sex life, but the whole ritual of watching porn is tangled up in too many other negative emotions. Watching porn takes me back to being that little girl alone in her bedroom, feeling ashamed and helpless to stop it. I can’t just watch one clip without needing to watch another after that, and another, until hours have passed and I’m back to binging every night.
If my husband leaves me alone all day and idleness leads me to watching porn, it’s the first thing I confess upon his return. Sometimes I don’t even have to say it. He can tell by my downturned eyes and my noticeable exhaustion. He shakes his head and takes me in his arms as I make another promise to try to leave it alone. When I visited a peep show on a recent work trip out of town, he seemed more amused than upset about the whole thing.
Unfortunately, I have yet to be as generous. If I find he’s been watching porn without me, when I’ve struggled to abstain for a stretch of time, I react with what might seem like unjustified rage. This frustration is only rooted in envy.
* * *
Masturbating beside my husband while he sleeps is the last secret I’ve kept from him. Although I’m beginning to fear that it’s actually just the latest secret. My resistance in telling him only proves how fragile recovery is. This week it’s masturbation. But maybe next week it’s back to porn binging. Or obsessive scrolling through Craigslist personals. Or lying about my whereabouts. And so forth. Abstaining from these habits, when so readily available, without abstaining from sexual pleasure completely, or the shame I’ve long bound to it, is a challenge I face daily.
That’s why I need to tell my husband.
Not because I need his permission, his forgiveness or to offer him some act of contrition. But because I need him to see me. To witness. The act of telling the truth, especially about something that makes us ache, is often the only absolution we need.
* * *
Erica Garzais a writer from Los Angeles. Her essays have appeared in Salon, Substance,LA Observed, The Manifest Station and HelloGiggles. She is also a staff writer at Luna Luna Mag. Read more at ericagarza.com and follow her on Twitter @ericadgarza.
Iris Yan is a Brazilian-born Chinese cartoonist who completed a one-year certificate at The Center for Cartoon Studies in Vermont.