One Man’s Daring Escape from Mao’s Darkest Prison

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In 1958, thousands of Chinese citizens were sent to brutal labor camps where life was hell and leaving was impossible—but that didn't stop one man from trying. Half a century later, his long lost story is finally told.

In 1958, as part of China’s Anti-Rightist Campaign, 550,000 Chinese citizens were convicted of crimes against the state. One of them was Xu Hongci, a medical student arrested for speaking out against the Soviet Union, who was sentenced to a camp called White Grass Ridge. For eight months, Xu worked up to nineteen hours a day on a starvation ration, each day growing closer to death. Finally, he and his young friend Chen Xiangzai attempted the impossible: escape. More than one thousand miles from the nearest land border, in a country as tightly controlled as any prison, it was an impossible journey, and one they had no choice but to make.

Xu, who died in 2008, told his story in an unpublished manuscript that was discovered in 2012 by journalist Erling Hoh. This month, “No Wall Too High” was published in English by Sarah Crichton books. The following is an excerpt.

* * *

On December 14, 1958, before dawn, Xiangzai and I packed our knapsacks and dropped them through the small window behind his bunk, then washed ourselves and ate breakfast as usual.

When the team leader blew his whistle for the morning assembly, we exited the barrack first, turned to the rear of it, picked up our knapsacks, and ran as fast as our legs would carry us.

It took us two minutes to reach the farm’s tobacco-curing house. We continued sprinting toward the Ouyang Ford at Sand River. We crossed a bridge and came to a village where bent, famished peasants were queuing up for the day’s work. Keeping our heads down, we walked toward the main road from Hangzhou to Wuhu.

Xu Hongci as a young man. (Photo courtesy Xu Hongci’s family)
Xu Hongci as a young man. (Photo courtesy Xu Hongci’s family)

This was a dangerous move, because we hadn’t gotten far, and it would have been easy for the patrols dispatched by [camp commandant] Mao Kourong to catch us. But they didn’t, perhaps unable to imagine that we would take the easiest, straightest route.

According to our plan, we turned east on the main road and arrived at the county seat of Guangde, twenty miles southeast of the camp, by nightfall. There, we bought some food and rested for a while, before continuing our escape through the night by the light of the moon and stars, heading east over the border into Zhejiang Province.

Walking another twenty miles, we reached the town of Si’an at 5:00 a.m., took a bus to Jiaxing, and then boarded a train to Shanghai, arriving at the North Station in the evening. The escape had given us our strength back, and we felt no fatigue despite not having slept. From a general store on Baoshan Road, I made an operator-assisted telephone call to Mother and asked her to meet us at the North Station. She arrived there with my sister Hongming and took us to the Old Zhengxing restaurant on Zhejiang Middle Road.

“What are your plans?” she asked us.

I told her we had no future in China. Our only hope was to escape abroad. Mother and Hongming were worried. They wanted to tell us to give ourselves up but knew we wouldn’t listen. On the other hand, if they helped us with money and we were captured, we would be severely punished, and they would be implicated. It was already late, and the restaurant was otherwise empty. We had to speak quietly and make our decisions quickly.

“What route will you take?” Mother asked.

“We plan to go to India via Tibet and then make our way to Hong Kong and find Uncle Lu,” I replied.

Mother said it was a long journey, that our chances of success were slim, and hesitated whether or not to help us. Finally, she relented before our entreaties and gave me five hundred yuan, which in those days was a lot of money.

As we parted, she asked to see us one last time the next evening. Having said goodbye, we were suddenly overcome with fatigue. Because we didn’t have any papers, we couldn’t stay in a hostel and had no choice but to return to the train station, where we each found a bench to lie down on.

Before I had fallen asleep, a public security officer walked over and asked to see our documents. Unable to produce any, we were taken to the police office at the train station. There were many other people there, waiting to be questioned. Xiangzai and I were separated, but I could see him. The police had taken our knapsacks from us but not the money, which I had hidden in my pants. As soon as we were interrogated, the game would be over.

The road to Duomei is a stretch of Xu Hongci's final escape route in 1972. (Photo by Erling Hoh)
The road to Duomei is a stretch of Xu Hongci’s final escape route in 1972. (Photo by Erling Hoh)

At this moment, I was filled with a powerful determination and, taking advantage of a short lapse in the attention of the police, stood up and fled the station out to the road, disappearing among the pedestrians. I crossed Sichuan Road and came to the Bund. By this time, it was around midnight, and there were no police in sight. I walked back and forth, feeling bad about leaving Xiangzai behind. There was no way I could return and rescue him.

Suddenly I ran into Xiangzai at the corner of the Bund and Nanjing Road. We hugged each other with joy.

“How did you escape?”

“The police didn’t see you sneak out. I just followed you,” he said.

“But how did you know I was on the Bund?”

“I don’t know. I just had a feeling you would come here.”

It was a miracle, one of the strangest things in my life. The winter night was damp and cold, and we had nowhere to go. All we could do was saunter about on the Bund. In 1958, with Shanghai engulfed in the Great Leap Forward, this famous, elegant boulevard looked like a construction site. In front of the municipal building, there was a row of small blast furnaces, and the sidewalk was cluttered with piles of ore, pig iron, coke, and slag.

Of course, we should have left Shanghai right away. But I was young and ignorant in the ways of the Public Security Bureau and wanted to see Mother one last time.

That morning, I telephoned Father’s cousin Auntie Bai and asked her to go to my house and tell Mother to meet me at 6:00 p.m. at the Grand Theatre. At around 5:30 p.m., as dusk fell, Xiangzai and I sat down in the coffeehouse just west of the cinema and ordered some food. I told Xiangzai to stay put and went alone to meet Mother.

Because it was dark, I couldn’t see that she was shooting warning glances to me and rushed to greet her. A big sturdy man popped out of a corner and grabbed me. Several other men stepped forward. I realized they were plainclothes policemen and that I had walked straight into a trap. I will never forget the torment on Mother’s face. The policemen asked me where Xiangzai was.

“He won’t make it by himself. Return to the camp together!” Mother shouted.

I was about to accuse Mother of betraying us there and then but, tempering myself, realized that the problem probably lay with our arrest the previous evening. Without money, Xiangzai wouldn’t survive. Having decided to return to the camp and plan another escape, I brought the policemen with me to the coffeehouse.

“The game’s over; we have to go back,” I said to Xiangzai.

When he saw Mother surrounded by the plainclothes policemen, his face turned ashen white. The officers wanted to take us away immediately, but I protested, “We are hungry. Let us eat before we go.”

Mother also insisted on eating first, and the policemen relented. I told the waiter to bring another bowl and pair of chopsticks and asked Mother to sit down with us. The policemen sat down at another table, keeping an eye on us. I quickly slipped the five hundred yuan back to Mother.

With her head lowered to the rice bowl, she whispered, “There was a letter from me in your knapsack. The police at the train station knew that you had escaped and returned home. This morning, officers from the Public Security Bureau came to ask for you. In the afternoon, Auntie Bai came over, and they forced her to tell them where you were.”

A crowd had gathered at the entrance to the coffeehouse, and the waiters and guests thronged around our table, staring at us. It was chaotic. A few of the policemen stood up and dispersed the crowd and told us to finish our meal.

While the policemen were busy dealing with the onlookers, Mother gave me a few bills from the money I had returned to her and said in a low voice, “Take this. You’ll need it.”

I took the money and stuck it under the inner sole of my shoe. Xiangzai and I ate until we were stuffed. Mother followed us out of the coffeehouse and watched us as we boarded the police jeep.

“I’ll come and see you soon!” she shouted.

The jeep drove on with screaming sirens and shortly arrived at the infamous Tilanqiao Prison. After being body searched, Xiangzai and I were separated. In my cell, there were some thirty people locked up in a space of 160 square feet, fitted with a flush toilet. The prisoners were of all descriptions, but they were friendly and made space by the wall for me to lie down. We slept lying on our sides, head to foot, packed like sardines, the foul, moldy air reeking of urine and sweat.

We were given two meals a day: a bowl with three liang of rice with a spoonful of vegetables on top. For New Year’s Eve, everybody dreamed of a piece of meat—in vain. Our biggest problem were the fleas that hid in our underwear. The adult bugs were white and fat; the older ones turned black. When you squeezed them between your nails, there was a crisp popping sound as the blood squirted from their engorged bodies. With nothing else to do, we took off our clothes and scoured them for flea eggs, but you could never get rid of them.

Around New Year’s Day 1959, we heard on the radio that Castro had led his guerrilla troops into Havana and that the Cuban Revolution had been won. I was glad, because I had always thought Latin America was the best place for a revolution. “As soon as I get out of China, that’s where I’ll go,” I told myself. Looking back, I realize how unrealistic this idea was and how full of romantic illusions my head was in those days.

On January 6, a policeman arrived from the White Grass Ridge labor camp, shouted my name and Xiangzai’s, and handcuffed us together. The night we arrived back at the camp, we were denounced at a big douzhenghui. The other convicts shouted slogans at us, cursed us with the foulest language, and rained their spittle upon us. All we could do was keep our heads down and endure the humiliation in silence.

The struggle meeting continued for more than two hours. To our surprise, Mao Kourong was gone, replaced by Commandant Song, who gave a speech demanding our confession in return for leniency. Afterward, we were locked up in the storehouse together with two other convicts, Leng Xiaohua and Wu Miaoxin, and guarded by four militiamen from a neighboring village. The men worked in pairs in twelve-hour shifts, each of them armed with a rifle.

Used as a confinement cell for disciplinary punishment, the storehouse was made up of three rooms, with us convicts to the right and the guards in the middle. We slept on beds of hay, which were warm and comfortable, and used a latrine just beside the outer door.

We guessed that Mao Kourong had been blamed for our escape and transferred somewhere else. Commandant Song took a liking to Xiangzai; I had a feeling he would soon be let out of the storehouse. Sure enough, two days later, Xiangzai was sent back to work with our team. My fate was different. Considered the mastermind of our escape, I had to stay in the storehouse and was interrogated by a short, fat, dusky officer from Shandong.

“Tell me about your plans to escape abroad,” he demanded.

When I refused to confess, he told me, “We will have to let you taste the iron fist of the proletariat.”

By now, I was starving and never felt full no matter how much bulk I ate. In the evenings, we sat in the dark, eating from the mountain of raw peanuts in the storehouse. They tasted like raw fish in the beginning, but the more I ate, the better I liked them; however, as a result, all three of us suffered from chronic diarrhea. Night and day, we asked the guards for permission to go to the toilet, pestering them to the limit of their patience.

After two weeks, my case had still not been decided. I reckoned with four possibilities: arrest and a criminal conviction; transfer to another farm; transfer to another squadron; or confinement for three to six months, then further disciplinary action.

At midday on January 27, my cellmate Miaoxin returned from the kitchen and handed me a note from Xiangzai: “You go first. I’ll come after you. Go to my aunt in Hangtou. I’ll meet you there.”

I discussed the matter with Miaoxin. He agreed it would be dangerous to try another escape. If things went wrong, I would be shot dead on the spot. Miaoxin told me to think carefully. I was afraid, but the fear evaporated before the thought of spending the rest of my life in prison.

That night I put everything I needed into my knapsack and went to bed in my clothes, without taking my shoes off. The duty guards were playing chess in the outer room by the light of a kerosene lamp. At around 4:00 a.m., I threw off my blanket, stood up, and asked to go to the toilet. Having received the guard’s permission, I stepped out through the door, pulled down my pants, squatted over the latrine, and released my spluttering diarrhea. One minute later, I hastily cleaned myself, fastened my trousers, and then, under the cover of darkness, leaped down the terrace with long strides and ran toward the main road by the boiler room, darting from the cover of one manure pile to another. Luckily, there was no moon that night. Two minutes later, I was gone without a trace.

I followed the same route as in the previous escape, crossing the Ouyang Ford and continuing south. As the day broke, I walked toward a distant mountain in the southwest. Someone had told me I would find the town of Shijie in that direction, and to prevent the search patrols from intercepting me at Guangde, I decided to make a big detour fifty miles west to the river town of Wuhu and then catch a Yangtze ferry or a train to Shanghai.

I reached Shijie, twelve miles from the camp, at 8:00 a.m. This is a famous place, but at the time it was run-down, a scene of bleak desolation. I walked into a restaurant looking for breakfast. The attendant replied that he had nothing but Shaoxing rice wine and sugar. I was so hungry I could hardly move and asked for four liang of the wine and half a pound of sugar, washing the sugar down with the wine as the attendant looked on in disbelief.

I continued six miles west toward Shizipu, jumped on a bus, and arrived in Wuhu at five in the afternoon. The train to Shanghai had already left, and there were no more departures that day. At the pier, they told me the ferry to Shanghai would arrive at 2:00 a.m. I found a restaurant serving food, ate, and returned to the pier to wait for the ferry.

A map detailing the escapes. (Image courtesy Erling Hoh)
A map detailing the escapes. (Image courtesy Jeffrey Ward)

I was in a fourth-class cabin with eight other people. There was a restaurant at the stern of the ship, which actually served rice and hot dishes. I must have eaten too much and too fast, gulping the food down without even chewing, because when I went to the toilet, I shat undigested, discolored rice. The ferry chugged along the mighty Yangtze toward Shanghai, docking at Pier 16 at about midnight, January 30.

I walked north along the Bund toward my home on Xi’an Road. The iron gate in front of our house had been removed, probably to be melted down in one of the “backyard blast furnaces” for the Great Steel-Making Campaign. I entered the courtyard. The light in Mother’s room was on. I moved close to the window, stood on tiptoe, looked in, and saw Mother knitting in bed, Wang Ou sleeping by her side. I wanted to knock on the window and ask her to let me in. But reason overcame my emotions, and I drew my hand back.

I needed documents. Suddenly I had an idea and headed straight toward the medical college. It took me almost three hours to get there. I snuck in through a hole in the bamboo fence by the soccer field and made my way toward the library. There was an open window, protected by an iron grille. I managed to squeeze myself between the bars and entered the familiar old reading room.

Quickly, I found the desk where the book borrowers’ IDs were kept in a wooden box, put four of the IDs in my pocket, then lept through the open window. Walking north, I passed the party committee office, jumped over the campus wall, and hurried along East Temple Bridge Road.

The first rays of dawn appeared on the horizon. Without stopping, I walked to Beijing West Road and knocked on the door of my uncle Wang Bing’s mistress Xi Junfang. We didn’t know each other very well, but she knew that Uncle Wang thought highly of me. She was surprised to see me and closed the door behind me quickly so that her sister’s family next door wouldn’t hear us talking. I asked her to go see Mother and get the five hundred yuan I’d returned to her; I told Xi Junfang I would come back the next day to pick up the money. Having heard the story of my escape, she said she admired my courage and agreed to help.

After leaving her apartment, I crossed the Huangpu River and boarded a bus to Hangtou Town in Nanhui County, where Xiangzai’s aunt lived. A peasant, about fifty years old, she was cooking when I arrived at her house around noon. I told her I was Xiangzai’s friend and that he had asked me to wait for him there. She examined me, didn’t say anything, and gave me some food. The rice was steaming hot and fragrant, but there were no vegetables or meat.

She continued with her housework in silence. I sat by the table looking out through the door, hoping Xiangzai would arrive soon. I figured that if he didn’t show up by nightfall, he would have either lost faith or been arrested, and I would have to return to Shanghai alone. But at 2:00 p.m., Xiangzai appeared. I jumped to my feet with joy and gave him a big hug. His auntie, however, was very cool, as if she had something on her mind.

“The camp leadership sent search patrols to look for you everywhere, with orders to shoot you on sight,” Xiangzai said. “I escaped the same evening and took the same route as last time.”

February 1 was New Year’s Eve in the Chinese lunar calendar. [Editor’s note: In 1959, Chinese New Year’s Eve actually fell on February 7.] Early that morning, we returned to Shanghai. I asked Xiangzai to wait for me in the People’s Park while I went to Xi Junfang to pick up the money.

“Your mother asked you to meet her at 9:00 tomorrow morning at the secondhand shop on Huaihai Middle Road,” she said, handing me the five hundred yuan.

“It’s too dangerous. Tell her we can’t see each other this time.” 
To make the stolen IDs our own, Xiangzai and I had our pictures taken at a studio and asked to have them ready the next day. In the afternoon, we returned to Hangtou, where we helped Xiangzai’s auntie harvest turnips.

“She knows we have run away and told me we should give ourselves up and return to the camp,” Xiangzai said in a low voice.

“Do you think she’ll report us?”

“No. I’ll just tell her that we’re going back to the camp.”

There was no special food for New Year’s Eve. Xiangzai’s auntie simply asked him to catch a couple of fish in the river, and she prepared them for us. On the morning of February 2, we returned to Shanghai, picked up our photos, found a deserted room in a Western restaurant close to the Bund, and replaced the photos from the stolen IDs with our own.

The hardest part was to copy the seal embossed on the original photo. I showed Xiangzai how to create an embossment by pressing a blunt pencil against the back side of his photo. He was skillful and finished the job in a few minutes. When we had glued our photos to the IDs, you couldn’t tell the difference from the original. We then faded the owners’ names with bleach and replaced them with our new pseudonyms. In one of the student IDs, there was a special student discount travel card for the New Year’s holiday, which we used to buy tickets at half price to Chengdu in Sichuan Province. On February 3, we left Shanghai and set out to seek a new life.

Having learned a lesson from our arrest at the Grand Theatre, I gave Xiangzai half of my money in case we were separated or caught. We helped and trusted each other like brothers and, inspired by the lines of the Hungarian revolutionary poet Sándor Petőfi prepared to risk our lives for freedom:

All other things above


Are liberty and love;


Life I would gladly tender

For love: yet joyfully

Would love itself surrender

For liberty

[My girlfriend] Ximeng had cast me aside. [Xiangzai’s girlfriend] Zhou Xiaoying had left Xiangzai. Now our lives were on the line. Xiangzai probably never forgot the note I had written to him in confinement: “For freedom, we must not let the ‘law’ intimidate us. We must scorn it and be ready to struggle until death. Life is nothing but a brief episode in the endless recycling of matter. WE are eternal!”

We talked a lot on the train, about our families, studies, love, friendship, dreams, setbacks, and uncertain futures. We railed at the darkness of Chinese politics and the people’s ignorance and blindness and felt a great sadness regarding the future of our country. We criticized Mao harshly for his treachery, arrogance, and hypocrisy. Sometimes, when our discussions became particularly loud and heated, we left our seats and continued talking at the end of the wagon.

We arrived in Chengdu on February 5 and checked into the Shandong Hotel. The room was simple and clean. In a hurry to get to Tibet, I went straight to the bus station to make inquiries. There were no direct buses to Lhasa, and the route was divided into several sections, with a total price for the entire fourteen-hundred-mile journey of 110 yuan per person. With only a bit more than 400 yuan between us, we would have to be careful with our money and keep moving in order to minimize the cost of food and lodging.

But our two escapes in two months had taken their toll on Xiangzai, who said he needed a rest. He was like a little brother to me, and to make him feel better, I agreed to take it easy for a few days. We walked the streets of Chengdu, ate at restaurants, and went to several movies.

After three days, I told Xiangzai we had to get going, but he said he wanted to stay put a little bit longer. One week passed, and he still didn’t want to move. Even worse, he kept going to expensive restaurants and seemed determined to spend his last penny. I grew nervous and angry and insisted that we leave right away, unable to see that Xiangzai had somehow lost his will to fight.

“Honestly, Hongci,” he said, “you know we’ll never make it. The Communist Party is everywhere, and the people are its eyes and ears. There are only three choices left for us: suicide, [escape to far-away] Xinjiang, or surrender.”

“Have we come this far just to kill ourselves?” I said angrily. “Do you think we could find a place to hide in Xinjiang? You know Russian and want to escape to the Soviet Union, but do you know if the Soviets will take you in? And if we give ourselves up, the Public Security Bureau will send us straight back to [the labor camp at] White Grass Ridge. Do you think we can expect leniency from them?”

I was about to say that this escape had been his idea but bit my tongue. In any case, Xiangzai refused to move, and our separation became inevitable. I decided not to waste any more money on food and drink. I had already given him half of the five hundred yuan and didn’t know if the money I had left would be enough to get me to Tibet and India. From now on, I would have to save every last penny.

Each time Xiangzai stumbled into our room in a stupor of gluttony and drunkenness, I would boil inside with fury, but the friendship we had established in these past few months of adversity held me back, and I clung to the hope that he would regain his senses.

After twelve days, Xiangzai was still eating and drinking as if there were no tomorrow. Finally, I made the painful decision to proceed alone. At noon on February 19, when Xiangzai was napping, I left a goodbye note for him on the table and bought a bus ticket to the town of Ya’an in western Sichuan.

The six-hundred-mile journey to the Golden Sand River,* traversing a majestic landscape of soaring peaks and deep valleys, opened a new world for me. Just out of Chengdu, the bus entered the West Sichuan Plains, which resembled the fertile, abundant Jiangnan region back home. After the Qionglai Mountains, the terrain grew steeper. By the time we reached the ancient town of Mingshan, dusk was falling. That fairy-tale scene, with smoke rising wistfully from rows of black brick houses, will always remain with me. Continuing west, we entered a range of colossal mountains, and the bus wound its way along perpendicular cliffs and emerald-green creeks to our destination for the evening: Ya’an, the capital of the Xikang.

Once again, I used my fake ID to get a room at the People’s Hostel. The streets of Ya’an were lined with bustling markets, and the people appeared to be simple and honest. The next day, I boarded a bus to Kangding. Chugging up the dirt road, the bus stopped for a break at the highest vantage point. In the southwest, we could see Mount Gongga, twenty-five thousand feet, awesome in its grandeur. As the bus descended into the Dadu River valley, the river at the valley floor grew from a fluttering silver ribbon to a tempestuous beast.

Standing on the famous Luding Chain Bridge, I thought about the dreams and ideals of the Red Army in the early days of the revolution and the bleak, tyrannical country Mao had created. Having shed its blood to liberate the toiling, oppressed peasants of China, the Communist Party had immediately set about securing its grip on power and depriving its enemies, imaginary or not, of their freedom. Revolutions, it seems, are destined to devour themselves.

After Kangding, we climbed steadily to a vast, windswept high plateau, where the temperature fell far below freezing. Although I was wearing a cat-fur coat, I only had a pair of miserable PLA cloth shoes with no lining, and my feet were numb with cold. I had been told I would develop altitude sickness at thirteen thousand feet, but the Que’er mountain pass was eighteen thousand feet, and I was still feeling okay.

We made it to another plateau and shook our way to Garzê, the capital of the Garzê Tibetan Autonomous Region. The town itself was sparsely inhabited, but there were PLA camps everywhere, and the roads were filled with soldiers and army trucks.

I stayed in a hostel close to the bus station. An old man told me about the Tibetan uprising that had broken out recently and said it would be dangerous to proceed to Lhasa. This news both worried and encouraged me, because while the fighting posed a definite risk, the confusion would also provide cover and might improve my chances for a successful escape. Disregarding the old man’s advice, I decided to press forward.

Out of Garzê, the endless, glum high plateau was covered in deep snow, with only a few forsaken yaks huddling about here and there. At noon, the bus arrived in Manigango, where we were stopped by a group of party cadres.

A leader boarded the bus: “Last night, we were attacked by Tibetan bandits, and lost two comrades. We want to transport them to Dege on the roof of the bus. Okay?”

Naturally, we said nothing. The cadres hoisted the two corpses onto the roof and then squeezed themselves in among us. The atmosphere of war grew heavy, and I began to fear that the bus would come under attack.

Dege lay by a creek between two high mountains, with a few scattered houses on their slopes. The population was probably not even a thousand. I stayed at a hostel together with the others. One of the travelers told me the fighting up ahead was fierce and that the roads were blocked. He said the only open approach to Lhasa was from the north and that I would have to go to Dunhuang and enter Tibet through Qinghai Province.

The food was much more expensive than in Chengdu. A bowl of soup with tofu and vegetables cost seven jiao [ten Chinese cents]. I counted the money in my pocket and discovered that I only had a little bit more than one hundred yuan left. If things continued like this, I would soon be stone broke.

As I was deciding what to do, I met some people who had been stranded in Dege for a long time. They were getting ready to walk to Jomda on the other side of the Golden Sand River. I asked if I could join them. Many of them were road workers and knew the area well, and they agreed to help me.

One day, a convoy of trucks loaded with Tibetan POWs drove into town. I went to the Public Security Bureau’s detention center to see what was going on. Disheveled, haggard, and frightened, the POWs were brought down from the trucks and lined up. A policeman counted them. Two corpses were thrown down from a truck. I inspected the two young dead bodies carefully. Filing into their cells, the POWs bowed before them. In low spirits, I returned to the hostel to find out about our departure.

“The soldiers guarding the bridge say there is heavy fighting ahead and that we will be killed if we cross over. They won’t let us do it,” an older man said.

“Tomorrow, a truck carrying charcoal will return to Garzê together with the POW convoy,” a man from the hostel announced. “Anybody who wishes to go with them may do so.”

I had been stuck in Dege for a week and was running out of money. With no hope of making it to Lhasa, I decided to return to Chengdu, take stock of the situation, and make new plans. I took a seat on the charcoal truck, leaving Dege with the POW convoy. The Tibetan fighters were disciplined and seemed to have good relations with their captors. Some of the lamas even offered cigarettes to the guards, who accepted them gladly.

The People’s Liberation Army protected all Han Chinese, even the hoodlums and scoundrels. As long as you were a Han, you were a good person in their eyes, and they never asked you for any documents. I didn’t have to pay for the ride and sat inside the cabin protected from the wind, which was a lot better than what the POWs had to endure.

“These men are all murderers and will be severely punished,” a policeman said. “We are establishing a labor camp in Dawu and will send them to be reformed there.”

We passed through Garzê and returned to Kangding. There, I ran into Pan Changsheng, a student I had befriended on my last visit to the town. He took me to his friend Zhou Tianzhu, who gave me a place to sleep. Changsheng hadn’t been able to find work in Kangding and wanted to return to Chengdu but didn’t have money for the bus ticket. I thought that if I paid for his ticket, perhaps he would let me stay in his house in Chengdu.

At Zhou Tianzhu’s house, I drank Tibetan butter tea for the first time. After boiling pieces of brick tea in water for a long time, he poured the strong reddish-brown infusion into a bamboo churn, added butter and salt, pumped the handle rapidly until the butter had melted and been mixed with the tea, and poured us the milky white drink, which tasted delicious. They also treated me to tsampa, or roasted barley, the Tibetan staple food.

Because I needed to cut my expenses as much as possible, I said I wanted to take some butter and tsampa with me back home to Shanghai. They helped me buy fifteen jin of tsampa and five jin of butter and wrapped them into an oilcloth backpack.

Around March 10, Changsheng and I returned to his house in Chengdu. Changsheng told his parents I was a university student from Shanghai traveling around China and would be staying in their house for a while. I had only sixty yuan left. I considered several options but couldn’t make up my mind and spent my days walking around the city, killing time. Passing the Shandong Hotel, I had to peek through the entrance at the room where Xiangzai and I had stayed, even though I knew he was gone.

The fleas I had caught at the Tilanqiao Prison began breeding like crazy, and I had to clean my underwear in boiling water at Changsheng’s house. Although his family saw there was something amiss, they didn’t report me to the police. I realized I had to get going again and sent a telegram to Xi Junfang, asking her to tell Mother to telegram a hundred yuan to me at Changsheng’s address.

The money arrived the following day. To keep one step ahead of the Public Security Bureau, I bought a bus ticket to Kunming and then took Changsheng for a farewell meal at a Western restaurant in the Guanshengyuan Hotel. I was carrying Father’s pocket atlas of China.

Although small, it was detailed, and during my time at Changsheng’s house I studied it time and again, trying to find a new escape route.

Remembering the verdict I had seen posted in Si’an, Zhejiang Province, sentencing a man to twenty years of hard labor for attempting to escape to Hong Kong across the land border, I knew that route would be dangerous. The population in southern Yunnan Province was dense, and it would be easy to catch me there, too. The only alternative, it seemed, was to cross over the border into Burma from western Yunnan.

The journey from Chengdu to Zhanyi in Yunnan took three days. We spent the first night in Heishitou Township of Guizhou Province. Standing there at dusk, gazing at the distant peaks on the horizon, I was seized by a delusion that beyond these mountains lay a foreign land and that if only I could reach it, I would be free.

In Kunming, I bought a bus ticket to Xiaguan, two days’ journey west along the Burma Road. The lush, mountainous landscape was beautiful, and everything seemed at peace. When we reached Xiaguan, I counted my money and realized that I must have lost some of it along the way. I decided to walk, heading north along the western shore of Erhai Lake, enjoying the scenery. When I got hungry, I ate tsampa and butter, washing it down with spring water from the mountains.

My goal was Gongshan County, in the sparsely populated northwestern corner of Yunnan, where I planned to cross over the border into Burma. But when I reached the village of Shaxi, I was told there was no road leading where I wanted to go and that I would have to return to Xiaguan.

Once I was back there, I headed west. The road climbed sharply. Up ahead, I could see Black Dragon Mountain, its winding ridge covered in snow and ice. In Yangbi County, I walked into the local hostel. The receptionist, who was nursing a baby, put down her child, and as she raised her head, I saw the most beautiful woman I have ever met. I thought of Ximeng and wondered how she was. By now, [her fiancé] Bao Yougen had returned from East Germany. Perhaps they were already married. That night, I lay awake a long time, unable to fall asleep, my mind clouded with bitter memories.

The next day, I came to the famous Yaquan, “Dumb Spring,” which Zhuge Liang had drunk from in Romance of the Three Kingdoms. Dying of thirst, I didn’t have time to worry whether the water would make me lose my voice. I was young and strong and could walk forty miles from dawn to dusk. After Yongping, the road descended into the Lancang River valley, where the imposing Gongguo Chain Bridge appeared up ahead. As I passed the sentries, my heart pounded madly from fear that I would be stopped and questioned, but luckily they ignored me.

At Wayao, the road split, with the wider Burma Road continuing in a southwesterly direction and the other, narrower road heading northwest. There were many small blast furnaces around Wayao, and the place was busy. I continued on the narrow road. That night, I found a dry, flat place to lie down, but the shrieks of owls in the forest kept me awake. In the distance, I could hear other mysterious sounds, which unsettled me even more.

At the first glimpse of dawn, I got back on the road. That baffling sound kept growing until it was as loud as thunder. I felt a strange fear but pressed forward. After a sharp turn in the road, I stood before a wide, roaring, mighty, foaming, swirling river: the Nujiang, “Angry River.”

I washed my face in the ice-cold water. The road ran north along the river. After the village of Liuku, I reached a suspension bridge at about 9:00 a.m. It was even larger than the Gongguo Bridge, with sentry guards at both ends. Emboldened by my previous success, I passed them without batting an eye and continued north on the western side of the river.

The landscape grew menacing. The mountains here run in transversal ridges, with perpendicular cliffs thousands of feet high. I took out the atlas and studied it carefully. Gongshan County was 300 miles to the north, and the China-Burma border 125 miles to the west. If I continued north along the Angry River, I would be entering the Himalayas and have to start mountain climbing.

I decided to cross the border at Lushui instead and took a risk by asking some people I met along the road for directions. They told me I had walked too far and would have to head back toward the bridge. There, I found the mountain path leading to Lushui.

After walking uphill for about an hour, I came to a stretch of open land on the side of a mountain. There were some government buildings on the slope above the road. In the distance, I could see a path disappearing into the mountains. I said to myself, “That must be the way to Burma.”

According to Father’s pocket atlas, Lushui lay outside the restricted border zone, and I felt quite safe. Casually, I walked into the county government’s canteen and asked a cook if I could buy a meal. A brisk fellow, he gave me a big bowl of rice and a bowl of soup with salted meat for only two jiao. When I had eaten my fill and was leaving, I passed a wall pasted with verdicts from the local court but, having seen many such notices along the way, ignored them.

Xu Hongci's drawing of the Lushui prison. His original manuscript, which was handwritten, included many drawings. (Image courtesy Xu Hongci’s family)
Xu Hongci’s drawing of the Lushui prison. His original manuscript, which was handwritten, included many drawings. (Image courtesy Xu Hongci’s family)

From the canteen, I walked toward the walled compound on the slope below the road, saw a barbershop, and, stroking my hair and beard, decided to have a haircut. I stepped inside and put down my knapsack. While one of the barbers seated me in his chair, the other one left the shop. Just as we were finishing up, he returned with a group of men, who stood round me and asked to see my documents.

I showed them my fake ID and a forged certificate from my college, stamped with a chop I had carved from a bar of soap, which said that I was in western Yunnan to do epidemiological research. After examining my documents, they told me to come with them.

I was taken to a white two-story building. They asked me to sit down in an office, keeping a close eye on me. There were two cadres among them. The first one was thin and tall, in his twenties, dressed in a blue khaki Mao suit. His insidious smile unsettled me. The other cadre was shorter, about thirty, and dressed in a bleached gray Mao suit. After about half an hour, a leader entered the room.

“This is Secretary Shi of the Lushui County party committee, who has come to speak with you in person,” the shorter cadre introduced him.

Secretary Shi sat down in front of me, looked at my fake ID and forged certificate, and examined me from top to toe with suspicion.

“What is your real reason for coming to Lushui?” he asked.

Xu Hongci and his wife, Oyunbileg, on a return trip to Mongolia. (Photo courtesy Xu Hongci’s family)
Xu Hongci and his wife, Oyunbileg, on a return trip to Mongolia. (Photo courtesy Xu Hongci’s family)

I stuck to my story and requested his assistance in carrying out my scientific research. An old hand, Secretary Shi didn’t believe a word of my pretty lies. He insisted on detaining me in order to make further inquiries and said I would not be released until all matters had been clarified.

I was taken to the county prison. Except for an enamel mug and a steel spoon, all my possessions were confiscated, and I was locked into cell number ten at the northern end of the prison, with another prisoner assigned to guard me temporarily.

Later, I learned that Lushui actually lay inside the restricted border zone. Ever since the British army’s occupation of Pianma in 1900, the de facto border between China and Burma had been the Gaoligong Mountains, parallel to and just west of the Angry River. But because neither the Qing nor the KMT nor the Communist government had recognized this demarcation officially, all Chinese atlases drew the line at the Kachin Hills a hundred miles farther west. Unaware, I had walked into a restricted border town in broad daylight. It was April 10, nine weeks since I’d left Shanghai.

As the old saying goes, “A gambler who has lost his shirt will continue gambling, even if he has to bankrupt his whole family.” Risking my life, I had traversed half of China and made it to the Burmese border, only to be caught on the brink of freedom. How could I give up now? As the turnkey locked my cell, I was already making plans for another escape.

* * *

Excerpted from No Wall Too High: One Man’s Daring Escape From Mao’s Darkest Prison, translated from Chinese and edited by Erling Hoh. Published by Sarah Crichton Books, an imprint of Farrar, Straus and Giroux.  Copyright © 2008 by Sukh Oyunbileg, Oyunbileg Anjir, Oyunbileg Buyant, Oyunbileg Esenya. Translation and condensation copyright © 2017 by Erling Hoh. Map copyright © 2017 by Jeff rey L. Ward. All rights reserved.

Users are warned that the Work appearing herein is protected under copyright laws and reproduction of the text, in any form for distribution is strictly prohibited. The right to reproduce or transfer the Work via any medium must be secured with the copyright owner.

 

 

The Cocaine Kings of the Pittsburgh Pirates

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In the early ’80s, an A/C repairman, an unemployed photographer and a Major League mascot became the dealers of choice for the city’s sports stars – and changed baseball history along the way.

Whatever the price, by whatever name, cocaine is becoming the All-American Drug. . . .  A snort in each nostril and you’re up and away for 30 minutes or so. Alert, witty, and with it. No hangover. No physical addiction. No lung cancer . . . instead drive, sparkle, energy.

Time Magazine, 1981

“The butterflies have already started,” said Rod Scurry on April 18, 1981, in anticipation of his first major league start the following day in Houston. The season was almost two weeks old, and Scurry had yet to make an appearance on the mound. In fact, he hadn’t pitched more than four innings in a single outing in two years. He was only getting the break now because Pirates ace Jim Bibby was injured; still, Scurry was excited and was hoping not just to start but also to finish his own game. “I’ll be trying to go nine,” he said.

Growing up, Rod Scurry never doubted he would play in the majors, if not as a pitcher then as a hitter. In high school he once hit a five-hundred-foot home run. But despite his batting prowess, he had always been a pitcher at heart. In the 1960s, when he was just a child, he stacked mattresses against the wooden fence in the backyard of his Nevada home and hurled fastballs at them. He had always had power. But then there was the hook. He could sweep his curveball in at such an angle the ball would bend between a batter’s legs. Frequently compared to the preeminent lefty of all time, Sandy Koufax, Scurry drove himself to live up to the compliment. This desire propelled him out of bed at 5:30 a.m. to jog to school through high mountain air and sometimes freezing temperatures just so he could get extra pitching practice in at the Hug High gym before the opening bell rang. On game days, when his teachers believed him to be studiously tending to his work in the classroom he would in fact be poring over index cards he had made that listed the tendencies of the opposing team’s big hitters.

Scurry’s aspiration to pitch a complete game nearly came to fruition. He pitched seven strong innings, shutting out the Astros on four hits, while adding seven strikeouts. Lifted for a pinch hitter in the top half of the eighth in a scoreless game, Scurry was forced to pace the clubhouse floor, listening to the final innings on the radio, anxiously rooting for his club. His teammates cooperated, as the Pirates finally picked up a pair of runs to make the score 2–0. Reliever Eddie Solomon completed the shutout, going the final two innings to secure the victory.

A Rod Scurry baseball card for sale on comc.com.

Although he didn’t close the game, Scurry had made a superlative debut start that lived up to his pedigree and reminded many of the days when he struck out eighteen or nineteen per start back at Hug High. “I’m excited,” Scurry said. “My first big league win is a big thrill. I’ve dreamed about this day. Winning my first big league game is the highlight of my career. I never complained about relieving last year, but I’ve always wanted to be a starter.”

“Last year was frustrating,” Scurry admitted. “I understood the situation. They were world champions, and they had to go with the pitchers who won. I wasn’t thrilled too much with sitting around, but I didn’t get down on myself.”

Across the diamond, the Astros took notice of what they had seen thrown against them. “The kid has an outstanding curveball,” the opposing starter, Joe Niekro, commented. “Sometimes a pitcher has to wait a long time to get his chance. I know how it feels.” A poll of scouts echoed Niekro’s assessment, declaring that Scurry’s curveball was not just good but the finest in the major leagues.

“Scurry Can’t Sleep on Major Success,” read the Pittsburgh Press sports page the day after the game, playing off Scurry’s remark that he had been “too excited to sleep” the night before his start and had in fact slept little at all in the two days leading up to the outing. Pitching coach Harvey Haddix defended the young pitcher, saying, “You don’t need sleep to pitch. I did it many times in the days we rode trains between cities. In fact, it may help. You take it out on the other team’s hitters.”

What Scurry failed to mention to Haddix was that it wasn’t merely adrenaline keeping him up at night—it was cocaine, which he also used before the game. His memorable first big league start and win were accomplished while he was high.

* * *

By this time, Rod Scurry and Pirates mascot, the Pirate Parrot, Kevin Koch, had become friends. Soon, the circle soon expanded to include Koch’s high school buddy Dale Shiffman. It was a dream come true for the local boy Shiffman, who fit right in with the baseball crowd. He had always loved the game, but as he reached high school in the 1960s he didn’t have time for baseball anymore as his interests ran to “beers, cigs, and slicked-back hair.” In the army during the early 1970s Shiffman picked up baseball again and played at a high level while based at Fort Devin, Massachusetts. By the 1980s Shiffman had become a three-sport season ticket holder in the ’Burgh. He was the type of guy whose awareness of the four seasons was determined not by the temperature outside or the leaves on the trees but by the particular sport being played in his city. Fall was all about the Steelers, in the winter he followed the Penguins, and his summers were devoted to the Pirates. So when Koch started inviting Shiffman down to the stadium to hang out with the team before games, the outgoing Shiffman was in his element. When the invitation was extended for him to take to the field for batting practice and a chance to shag a few fly balls, Shiffman was in downright heaven. “I got to stand out there in right field with my heroes,” Shiffman said. “A few would even invite me to meet after the game to have a beer. Life could not have been better.”

Shiffman’s 1969 high school yearbook describes him as “a real car buff . . . enjoys a good laugh . . . dependable pal . . . carefree.” Shiffman stayed true to his character in the ensuing years, particularly to being “carefree” as he spent much of his time bowling, golfing, and playing softball. “Dale’s not interested in working,” a friend later told the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. “Dale doesn’t want to grow up. All he wants to do is have a good time.”

Shiffman was employed only sporadically in the photography business when he made his entrance on the major league scene. Without a full-time occupation, he felt a certain validation in being able to say he knew and spent time with prominent sports figures. Right or wrong, “hanging out with athletes made your pride go up,” Shiffman admits. Instead of being just another guy struggling to hold down a job, he now felt important. He was being invited to golf and barbecue outings with different players. When he took a date down to the ballpark, all the ushers would know his name, and a player or two might give him a shout-out following the night’s contest, which would duly impress his female companion, not to mention Shiffman himself. “It made you feel like a somebody even if you really were a nobody,” he says.

Shiffman and Koch, like so many others in the early 1980s, had recently discovered cocaine. The drug was making the rounds through their softball league, alongside the other party mainstays: beer, pot, and Percodan. “Everyone we hung out with at the bar and from our end of town—everyone was into [cocaine],” Koch says.

When Koch and Shiffman hit the city’s nightclubs and bars after Pirates’ games, they typically ran into some of the players. Inside Pittsburgh-area nightspots such as Heaven, the VIP, Sophie’s Saloon, or the Sunken Cork, things got interesting for the pair. Koch explains, “Berra or somebody would say, ‘Hey, do you guys party?’ Then one thing led to another, and the players found out that Dale [Shiffman] could get stuff, and that’s how it kind of snowballed from there.”

Kevin Koch as the Pittsburgh Pirate. (Photo via yinzster.com)

Koch says that the players, mostly Scurry and shortstop Dale Berra, began to call him prior to games to ask if he could pick some blow up from Shiffman and bring it down to the ballpark. Shiffman purchased the cocaine from various locals. He cut the coke, not to increase the weight but rather to replace the cocaine he was taking out for his own personal consumption. Shiffman says his motivation wasn’t to make money; it was to get his party favors without having to pay for them. He figured he was not only scoring free coke but also greatly expanding his social circle, now filled with local sports figures. He could have hardly asked for more.

Typically Shiffman wrapped up a gram or two, or sometimes an eight ball, then Koch swung by and picked up the drugs on his way to work. The transactions between Koch and the players usually took place deep within the corridors of the stadium, such as in the runway outside the clubhouse or sometimes in the parking lots. The men never had any run-ins with Pirates officials; in fact, as cocaine use became more prevalent, Koch even suspected that those in charge had to know what was going on.

“It seemed like no one really cared,” Koch says. “I mean, I think Major League Baseball even knew itself that it had problems, like, years before, when they had alcohol problems with a lot of guys.”

After a while Koch realized that with Shiffman frequenting the games, maybe his own role in these transactions was superfluous. Beyond that, despite the fact that he was in a drug- and alcohol-induced haze much of the time, Koch could still see the precarious position he was putting himself in. Something in the back of his mind wouldn’t let him rest. “When you’re raised by a mom and dad that care about you, you start to put one and one together,” he says.

Growing up, Koch had been described as the typical “nice, regular all-American boy.” As he grew into adulthood, local papers painted a similar portrait, albeit one with a bit more edge. As the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette put it, he was “the sort a mom would like her daughter to bring home, an earnest yes-ma’am kind of guy with a bit of the devil in him.”

Koch tried to distance himself from his middleman position, telling the guys that they had one another’s phone numbers and could set things up for themselves. A few of the players began to call Shiffman’s house directly, or Shiffman met them outside the clubhouse after the games, where they made their exchanges. These callers were usually Scurry and Berra, although Shiffman was also becoming close with the Pirates reliever Eddie “Buddy J.” Solomon. A pretty low-key guy, Solomon sometimes invited Shiffman over to his apartment, where they would do a couple lines and just hang out. Occasionally Shiffman received calls to bring some blow to a downtown hotel room for some of the visiting National League teams’ players.

“I remember some of the other teams all of a sudden started to get involved,” Koch says. “They’d say, ‘Hey, can you get your buddy to do this or that?’ And I’d call Dale, and he’d come down, and we’d party with just about everybody; it was pretty bizarre. It was pretty out of control in the eighties.”

Yet Koch insists it wasn’t all about the cocaine all the time. More often, he says, it was just a bunch of guys getting together, and if someone had some on them, then sure, they would all do a line. “Now, we would be in the clubs every night drinking and stuff,” Koch admits, “but it wasn’t like ‘Hey, let’s all get together because of cocaine.’”

Whenever there were requests made of Koch, however, he found it very hard to decline them. “Imagine guys that are making that much money, and now you’re partying with them. After a while you don’t think anything about it. You almost think you’re untouchable,” Koch says. If players were looking to hook up, and Shiffman wasn’t going down to the game that night, Shiffman called Koch. They both lived in the South Hills, so Koch could easily swing by Shiffman’s residence and pick up a couple grams for the boys that night. Other times the players would ask Koch to call Shiffman for them. Koch says he would think about the job that had opened up a whole new world to him, a job he cherished. He would think about how the people within the organization treated him so well. He had been welcomed into the family; he was well liked and appreciated.

He knew he wasn’t doing the team any favors by bringing drugs to the stadium, but in the end, he always agreed.

“I’d say all right,” Koch says. “I couldn’t say no. What are you gonna do? It’s almost impossible to say no. These were your heroes. Guys from when you were a kid. I remember sitting down with Willie [Stargell] going, ‘I remember your first game, Willie. It was in ’63 at Forbes Field. I was like nine or ten years old.’ And with other guys, we’d talk sports together, and I would tell them this or that; and they’d say, ‘Man, you were there that night?’ Like Gene Garber, I said, ‘I remember you pitching your first game against the Chicago Cubs. You had three perfect innings going at Forbes Field, then in the fourth Billy Williams jacked that ball.’ And Garber would be like, ‘Oh my God!’”

Koch wasn’t a mere fan. Baseball was a game he loved. And whether Dale Berra or Rod Scurry were stars or not, it didn’t matter to him. Or to Dale Shiffman. It was the name on the front of the jersey, not the back, that was important. For guys raised in the South Hills who grew up with baseball in their blood, anyone who donned the black and gold sat on a pedestal and was worthy of reverence, and it would be damn hard to say no to them.

Koch’s baseball memories are part of who he is, and more often than not his stories always come back to the Pirates previous home at Forbes Field in Pittsburgh, otherwise known as the House of Thrills. “What a ballpark to go to. Ah, that was the park. That was heaven to me. When that ball was hit at Forbes Field in a night game, it would literally disappear into the darkness. There were no stands to see it bounce around in or people to grab it. It went straight into Schenley Park. You would see it going, and then once it went past the lights, it was gone; it was into the night.”

* * *

Scurry made six subsequent starts following his debut victory. The youngster pitched well, but as a member of the pitching-heavy Pirates, it wasn’t long before he was back in the bullpen. By 1982 his role as a full-time member of the Pirates bullpen was cemented. His starting days were behind him.

For somebody who was quiet to begin with, Scurry talked even less when using cocaine at the ballpark. He feared his mouth would betray him. He had begun living his life in secret. By his own account he became a con artist of sorts and “got to be pretty good at it.” He couldn’t let the outside world know that his life was now controlled by cocaine, and he became even more introverted. His future wife, Laura, later described to the Associated Press how tough it was for Scurry to deal with stress. “He had a hard time with pressure, and I think that’s why he started doing what he was doing,” she said. “It was the pressure of waiting and not knowing. The drugs made him quiet, shy, and scared. When he wasn’t on them, he was normal and fun and happy.”

In 1982 cocaine use had become routine for many major league ballplayers. The Pirates’ John Milner would later say that he, Parker, Scurry, Berra, and outfielder Lee Lacy shared up to seven grams a week with one another during this time. “If I had it, I shared it; if they had it, they shared it,” he said. In fact, it was so common that the first thing Scurry and Berra thought about prior to the season’s home opener was making sure someone had called Shiffman for easy home game delivery. Nothing said opening day like the sound of Pirates organist Vince Lascheid banging out a few notes of “Let’s Go Bucs,” the smell of hot dogs wafting through the stadium, or the prospect of an eight ball of cocaine to take it all up a notch.

* * *

The neighborhood of Garfield was settled on the hills above the Allegheny River in Pittsburgh’s East End. Up until the 1960s Garfield was home to predominately Catholic, working-class families. Its earliest inhabitants worked the mills along the Allegheny River and shopped locally from the merchants along Penn Avenue. Neighborhood activist Aggie Brose recalled to the Post-Gazette that Garfield was once a place where “you sponsored each other’s kids, you went to all the weddings and funerals, you never wanted for a babysitter…. When you put the kids to bed, the women went out on the stoops.”

In the latter half of the 1960s and early 1970s, Garfield’s citizens moved to nearby suburbs. Soon, the small businesses in the community were boarded up, and public housing projects sprouted up in the area. As more and more residents continued to flee, twenty-four-year-old heating and cooling repairman Kevin Connolly and his family remained.

Connolly was an all-state baseball player at the sports powerhouse Central Catholic High School, the alma mater of Hall of Fame quarterback Dan Marino. Connolly himself later played semipro football as a member of the Pittsburgh Tri-Ward Rebels.

If anyone could attest to what a slippery slope cocaine use could be, it was Connolly. Early during the 1982 baseball season, he was introduced to Pittsburgh Pirates pitcher Rod Scurry on a double date arranged by the pair’s girlfriends. During the evening the talk turned to cocaine. Up until this point Connolly had only tried the drug a few times. “That night we all pitched in and got some,” Connolly says. “Then we went out again the next Friday.”

Before long the foursome was hitting the town three nights a week, when Scurry wasn’t out of town with the Pirates. Doing coke became an integral part of the evenings, with Connolly struggling to match funds with the well-to-do pitcher. From fifty dollars on the first occasion, the price of admission seemed to grow with each ensuing outing as the group’s drug consumption increased. After a month or two the evenings were costing the young repairman a minimum of $100 or $150. “I couldn’t afford that,” he says. “After going out three nights a week and pitching in every time, I couldn’t do it, you know. Then I got this brilliant idea.”

Connolly was having the time of his life hanging out with Scurry and the girls, and he had to find a way to make things work. He had to “find somebody that had [cocaine], get it at cost, then sell it.” That was the key to staying in the game.

Initially, he didn’t know exactly how or where to go about enacting his plan, but it didn’t take him long to figure out. The East End was Connolly’s turf. His business, Budget Air Conditioning and Heating, was located on Penn Avenue. He also played softball in the neighborhood. He knew people there, and he knew people who knew people. If he was going to find cocaine, the East End would be where he would find it.

Connolly began to regularly buy a quarter ounce of cocaine, which he would usually split, keeping half for himself and selling the other half to Scurry or sometimes a few other acquaintances or contacts. His new enterprise yielded hardly enough to make a profit. But he was doing free cocaine, and that was the whole point, anyway. On top of that, he was introduced to another Pirates ballplayer, shortstop Dale Berra, around this time, which was even cooler to the young sports fan. “Early on we didn’t hang out that much,” Connolly says, but he remembers it being a big deal whenever Berra did come around.

Connolly soon realized that his quarter-ounce purchase wasn’t sufficient to keep up with the group’s growing appetite for cocaine. It was time to up the ante. His next purchase was for a quarter kilogram. However, once initiated into the world of cocaine, it didn’t take him long to realize the extent of the money-making opportunities now open to him. A quarter kilogram wasn’t going to cut it either. The demand around him necessitated yet another increase in weight.

* * *

Nineteen eighty-two was Rod Scurry’s career year. If the switch to the bullpen bothered Scurry, he didn’t let it show on the mound. He had the season of his life, saving fourteen games as a reliever and posting a minuscule 1.74 earned run average, the lowest in the league of anyone with at least twenty appearances. The Pirates finished the season in fourth place, eight games off the pace.

Despite the fact that Connolly was emerging as a new supplier for Scurry, Dale Shiffman continued to receive calls from the pitcher throughout the season. Even on the road Scurry managed to hook up. He had a connection in Philadelphia and elsewhere it was far from a challenge to score. He snorted a gram before a game against Houston, and then went on to hold the Astros scoreless. From that point on, he figured drug use wouldn’t hurt him when he pitched. Scurry’s career ascent brought him an abundance of money and with it an abundance of cocaine. “Finally,” he would later tell the Pittsburgh Press, “it got to the point where I couldn’t quit.”

Come opening day 1983, scoring coke had become paramount to Scurry. Personal matters were arranged first, before any baseball would be played. Once more the season began with a call to Shiffman.

A year after meeting Rod Scurry for the first time, Kevin Connolly came to a realization: This shit is everywhere. Going out to clubs or parties with his new Pirates buddies, he saw cocaine use so out in the open, so common, that he looked around and quipped, “Cocaine is legal, isn’t it?” This pervasiveness made him feel like he wasn’t doing anything wrong by partaking, but now he was going to get in on the real action. By 1983, Garfield’s Kevin Connolly was heading to Miami to trade forty thousand dollars for two kilos of cocaine.

The deal was arranged through a girl he knew from the Pittsburgh area who was dating a supplier in Florida. From there a regular hook-up would be cemented. The suppliers taught Connolly the ropes, including how to pack his product for safe airline travel. The cocaine, which came in a large chunk, was placed in a plastic bag. The bag was then placed inside another bag and dipped in mustard. This package was placed into “another bag that had coffee grinds in it,” Connolly explains. “So we had three bags going. . . . Then we just sewed it into my jacket, and I’d walk through the airport.”

The experience tested Connolly’s mettle as his heart raced with fear; oddly enough, he found it to be an enjoyable fear. Transporting drugs gave him a rush he would come to love more than using the drug itself. He always stayed straight for the transactions and the transport. But that didn’t stop him from getting high. These deals became Connolly’s new source of adrenaline, and physiologically they took him places cocaine never did. If, for instance, a group of police dogs stood ahead of him, Connolly would not change his course; instead, he would walk straight toward the dogs, pushing the thrill as far as it could take him.

The scene in South Florida was like something out of a movie for the novice drug trader. Deals went down anywhere, from inside beautiful yet bullet hole-riddled houses to aboard Miami Vice-style cigarette boats. Other times, if his connection happened to fall through, he could score kilos in the parking lots of Miami’s or Ft. Lauderdale’s after-hours clubs.

“There was like ten or twelve people there who all had kilos in their car,” he recalls, “and they’d say ‘Try my stuff.’” One person’s loss was another man’s gain, and somebody was always more than happy to help out an out-of-towner.

“It was just a joke,” Connolly says. “There was just so much down there. I’d go out to the car, and they’d open up the trunk and they’d have like five keys [kilos] in it. Then another guy would say, ‘Hey, look at my stuff, man; I’ll give it to you for a hundred cheaper.’… It was like how you could get ounces in Pittsburgh, you could buy keys down there.” He could walk into a bar “knowing nobody,” and kilogram transactions were still guaranteed. “What a joke,” Connolly repeats.

Back home up north, Connolly couldn’t help but walk with a bit more of a strut. When darkness fell Connolly felt like the king of Pittsburgh. When he walked into a club and hung out with his new Pirates buddies, people turned to look. But it wasn’t just to check out their local sports heroes anymore. Connolly was making his own mark. He could hear the whispers—Hey that’s Kevin Connolly—and see the patrons gawk. Connolly says the club Heaven was where the in-crowd gathered. It was Pittsburgh’s answer to Studio 54 or the like—the club everyone talked about and went to be seen. Known for its grand marble staircase and white interior, Heaven also had private lounges and held events such as beach night or hot tub night. Connolly often joined a number of the Pirates and Steelers there. “[Lynn] Swann was there all the time, Mel Blount, Franco [Harris] too. It was the only place in Pittsburgh where everyone went,” Connolly says.

Despite making his own name for himself, Connolly could not deny the benefits that came with hanging out with athletes. Rod Scurry, for example, was known to attract a particular crowd. “Yeah, all the girls would know who he was,” Connolly says. This was a definite bonus for the lighthearted and good-natured Connolly, who was also not dumb to the allure that the little white powder he carried possessed. Right or wrong, he employed this magnetism to his advantage. Let me buy you a drink, he would say while reaching into the “wrong” pocket for his money. He religiously kept his coke in one pocket and his money in the other, always the same ones so that he would never make a mistake in front of the wrong people, such as law enforcement. Pulling out his abundant supply of blow, which was obviously much larger than most, he would make his female companions weak in the knees. Whoops, he would innocently declare, finger on his lip like a schoolboy. Needless to say, Connolly and his buddies were not short of company most evenings.

An Associated Press story after Scurry’s time in rehab.

One thing Connolly’s baseball acquaintances weren’t doing for him was making him any richer. Ballplayers are notoriously slow to their wallets. While some of them had voracious appetites for cocaine, this hunger did not translate to much money for those supplying it. There was a sense of privilege embedded in the athletes, as if they thought it should be enough for others to merely be around them. Other times they would adopt the stance, What’s the problem? You know I’m good for it! I’ll get you later.

“We never got paid,” Connolly remarks. Berra always seemed to be broke and even had his own particular excuse at the ready. “I get my check next week,” he would say.

“His checks were like $6,200, and he couldn’t even pay me,” says Connolly. Nor did Scurry. “You couldn’t get it off him, either.” Particularly if Scurry happened to already be holding; then it was an absolute certainty “you’d never see your money.”

It was inside Pittsburgh’s after-hours clubs, selling to patrons rather than ballplayers, where Connolly was truly making his money.

“We had a nice little round,” Connolly explains. “There was like five of them, and we’d hit them all starting at 2:30 a.m. The Allegheny Club was our first hit. Then we’d go dahntahn to Joyce’s, or JJ’s. After that we’d go up to Brookline, to the BYM Club [Brookline Young Men’s Club], a little higher class, nicer place. From there we’d go to the Perry Social in East Liberty, and our last stop would be at the BBC down in Bloomfield.”

All told the late-night rounds brought in around $2,800 on both Fridays and Saturdays. Add another thousand dollars or so during the day, and the weekends netted Connolly over seven thousand dollars. He puts his weekly gross profit at an estimated $13,000 at its peak. He would store the twenties and hundred-dollar bills in a shoe box and spend the rest. He blew through cash on women and partying as well as by charging the players less than he should have. For instance, many times he asked only two hundred dollars for five hundred dollars worth of coke. Connolly wasn’t exactly maximizing his profits. He knew the money was dirty, that it wasn’t really earned, so he felt no obligation to hold on to it. Still, he was having a damn good time.

Likewise, Dale Shiffman, the self-described “nobody,” was now living the high life as well. His life revolved around the Pittsburgh sports scene, from the green diamond of summer with the Pirates to the white ice of winter with the Penguins. “Dale’s a great guy. He was always at the games,” Penguins forward Kevin McClelland said. Added team captain Mike Bullard, “I think he more or less knew a bunch of us—ten of us. He probably knew everybody on the team to say hi.”

Shiffman wasn’t getting rich as a result of his role as a supplier. But it wasn’t about the money for him anyway; it was about hanging out with his heroes and having fun. He didn’t need much. He split his rent with a roommate or two, and when he needed money he found a freelance photography gig. Whatever money he was making from blow tended to go right back up his nose.

While there were some in the medical community who were still arguing in the 1980s that cocaine was “a safe, nonaddicting euphoriant,” Shiffman probably should have known he was headed for trouble the first time he tried the drug, an experience he describes as “love at first sight.” He slowly became addicted. The days of a little fun, in-control partying were long gone. He was now firmly in cocaine’s grip and wanting more, more, more.

* * *

This story is an excerpt from The Pittsburgh Cocaine Seven, now out in paperback.

 

 

How I Fell Face First for an Epic IRS Scam

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As an Ivy League-educated journalist who has reported on scams and their victims, I certainly never thought I’d fall for one myself. I couldn’t have been more wrong.

I received a call on my home phone recently from someone who identified himself as Officer Jason Dean with the Investigative Bureau of the Department of Treasury. He said an arrest warrant had been issued in my name for failure to respond to IRS Notice CP503 — a third reminder — informing me that I owed $5,347 in back taxes. He said my home and cell phones were being traced and I should not attempt to leave the city.

“That’s ridiculous,” I said, “I never received any notices.”

“That is not my concern,” he replied. “We’re only calling you as a courtesy to inform you that you will be arrested and charged with failure to meet federal taxation requirements, malicious conduct, and theft by deception. You will be arrested within the next two hours and held in custody for six months pending an investigation.”

And just like that, I was caught in what has become the biggest tax scam in American history.

I called upstairs to my teenage son and told him to call his other mother and tell her to come home. Then I got back on the phone and asked for more details, trying to prove to myself I could dismiss this as a hoax. I asked for the address they had for me. (He had it right.) I asked for the tax year this issue allegedly stemmed from. (2011.) I asked for my Social Security number. (He said he was not permitted to give this over the phone.)

I usually do my own taxes, and I am never completely confident that I get it right. Just a few months ago, I had received notice that I owed about $700 in back taxes for income I’d forgotten to include on my 2013 return. More recently, I filed my 2014 taxes, hoping I’d done them right. But 2011? I couldn’t even remember what I’d reported.

But the man on the phone was done talking. He repeated that I must not leave the area, or I would be charged with evading the police. Then he prepared to hang up.

“Wait,” I said. “This has to be a mistake. If I owed back taxes, I would pay back taxes.”

He paused and asked, “Can you tell me truthfully you have the intention to pay any taxes you owe?”

“Yes, of course,” I said.

He said he could transfer me to another unit that might be able to help. But, he warned, they don’t have to. (It sounded ridiculous but I wasn’t quibbling.)

A moment later, another man came on the line, identifying himself as Investigator Duane Maguire. He repeated that I would be held in custody for six months while a lien was put on my property.

Thinking this all bizarre but also thinking that things do go terribly wrong for people every day, I asked what I could do.

“The payment options are closed,” he said. “This is a criminal tax fraud case.”

“There must be something,” I said, adding, “Look, I have children.”

“Let me ask you,” he said, “Have you ever been arrested before?”

Assured I had not been, he said there was one possibility — if he could obtain a 1099C form for out-of-court restitution for cancellation of debt. But this would be difficult to secure, and there was not much time.

Just then, my cell phone rang. The caller ID read 911.

I told the man on the phone the police were calling me. “911? Already?” he said. “Don’t pick it up. They are trying to trace your location to make the arrest. I will try to call them off. Just don’t pick it up.”

He then explained what I would have to do to avoid being arrested. “I cannot take any personal information from you,” he said. “But if you obtain an Instant Tax Payment voucher at the bank and give me the code on it, I can obtain the 1099C form.” This, he said, would give me 48 hours to visit an IRS office and clear things up. But, he insisted, you must stay on the phone with me at all times until the process is completed. This made no sense. But I didn’t question it.

I looked at the kitchen clock. It was 5:10 p.m. I told him I had to pick up my son from baseball practice.

“I can call you on your cell phone but you have to stay on with me while you pick up your son and go to the bank,” he said, adding: “This is a federally monitored and recorded line, and you must not discuss what is happening with anyone or you will be in violation of federal law.” I raced upstairs and told my son what was happening and that he should relay it all to his other mother, Kate.

My cell phone rang. It was 911. It rang again. It was Kate. It rang again. It was 911. It rang again. It was the alleged Investigator Maguire. Bringing the phone with me, I rushed out of the house, telling my son to come with me to drive and refusing him a moment to change out of his pajamas.

In the car, the call came over the speaker, and when the caller put me on hold a few minutes later, I used my son’s cell to call Kate.

Within twenty seconds, he came back on and asked, “Who are you talking to? I told you this is a federally monitored phone, and you cannot speak about this with anyone. You are breaking federal law.”

I kept my son’s cell line open so Kate could hear.

“Is anyone else with you?” he asked.

“No,” I said, signaling my son not to say anything.

When we arrived at the ball field, I found my eleven-year-old in the dugout and told him something had happened and there would be a voice on the car phone as we drove home but he was not to say anything. He complied until the man asked how far I was from the bank.

“What did you do?” my younger son asked. “Rob a bank or something?”

I signaled for him to be quiet, dropped my kids off at home, and drove to Wells Fargo. It was 5:40 p.m. and the bank closed at six.

I had made no decision to withdraw the $5,347. But I was definitely operating on the premise that I needed to get to the bank before it closed to keep my options open. If it was a scam, I thought, they would tell me. If it was real, I would have to access the funds that would keep me out of jail.

At a stoplight, I glanced at the texts that had come in from Kate:

“Do not take money from the bank!!! Pls call the police instead.”

“Pls speak with Marcus at the Wells Fargo before withdrawing any money.”

A moment later, I was standing before Marcus. The IRS, presumably, was still on hold.

“Kate talked to the police and is 100 percent sure this is a scam,” Marcus said. “So is my manager.”

“100 percent?” I asked.

“100 percent,” he repeated.

He walked me over to the bank manager who explained: It used to be about lottery winnings. Now it is about alleged threats from the IRS.

As I sipped a glass of water, and my rushing adrenalin began to subside, the whole thing suddenly seemed so obviously ridiculous. And it was no surprise that when I got back on the phone, the alleged Investigator Maguire, who must have sensed this fish getting away, was no longer there.

Throughout my hour-long ordeal I was very aware that it could be a scam, and that there were many things that didn’t make sense. Yet I was also deeply afraid that it could be true — that I could have made a mistake on my tax forms; that IRS forms could have been sent but never arrived; and that events could get out of control and go terribly wrong. And this combination of plausibility, fear and confusion soon drove most rational thoughts from my head.

Since the IRS-Impersonation Telephone Scam began in 2013, it has targeted more than 400,000 Americans. More than 3,000 have been successfully conned out of thousands of dollars and more, according to Congressional testimony by Timothy P. Camus, Deputy Inspector General for Investigations and Treasury Inspector General for Tax Administration. The total take: approximately $15.5 million.

If anyone should have known better, it was me. I’m a somewhat experienced adult, with more than one degree from an Ivy League university. In my career as a journalist, I’ve researched the ways our minds fall for tricks like this. I’ve even reported on scams that cheated people out of big down payments on houses and tricked others into buying previously wrecked cars. But the truth is that I fell for this scam — almost completely.

And if you think that you wouldn’t, you might consider what Stanford University scam expert Martha Deevy, Director of the Financial Security Division at the University’s Center on Longevity, has to say. Contrary to popular opinion, Deevy and her colleagues have found that no one type of person tends to be vulnerable to a financial scam but, rather, certain types of people are vulnerable to certain types of scams.

For example, older women who live alone tend to be more vulnerable to confidence scams in which someone promises a large sum of money for a small fee (a fee that grows as the target is drawn in). Educated middle-aged Caucasian men who identify as financially literate tend to be vulnerable to investment frauds. And while the IRS scam is too new for researchers to have identified a typical victim profile, Deevy suggests that it is likely to be “law-abiding citizens who are confused by the IRS” — which, she adds, represents a very large number of us. In fact, when Deevy received a voicemail from an IRS scammer herself, she said she had to listen to it four times before concluding it was not real.

“These guys,” she says, “are very good.”

Unlike most scams that attempt to trigger the desire for gain, the IRS scam rests on something more deeply hardwired in the brain — the fear of loss, which Nobel Laureate Daniel Kahneman and others have found, is a twice as powerful motivator. And fear of the loss of personal freedom is one of the most powerful fears there is. For me, it made the chance of losing $5,347 seem a trivial risk in comparison to the possibility that I had unwittingly brought trouble on myself that could land me in jail. So I kept taking this call seriously until it was absolutely clear to me it was not.

This quality of uncertainty, says Stanford’s Deevy, is precisely what these scammers prey on. “The IRS, in particular, even in a law-abiding person, is such a mystery. You think, ‘Did I miss something? Did I screw something up? They have seven years to come after me.’ It’s not indisputable that you could have done something incorrect. It’s plausible — and that’s why people get hooked. You might know it doesn’t sound right but you also think if you are wrong about that, the stakes are so high.”

Couple all this with the seeming urgency of the threat (the police will be there in two hours), the creation of isolation (you must not talk to anyone about this), and the apparent external affirmation (repeated 911 calls), and you have the ingredients for a scam that can get to people who should know better. Indeed, for me, it almost entirely stopped me from doing what is second nature: Google it. Talk to other people. And think.

If I had done any of those things, I would have known that the IRS never calls to demand immediate payment without giving you the opportunity to question it or discuss an appeal. Nor does it threaten law enforcement. Nor does a call from 911 appear as 911 on your phone. But fear put me in an altered space that, by the following day, made the whole experience feel like a dream.

Once back to my senses, I hesitated to share my story because it is embarrassing to say one fell, or almost fell, for a scam. People are quick to judge in these situations — if only because one does not want to imagine oneself being similarly vulnerable. But in the end, I decided to swallow my pride in the hope that sharing the story might help someone else recognize this scam for what it is, before their fear triggers are similarly activated, at the risk of overwhelming usually more rational minds.

* * *

Lisa Bennett is coauthor of Ecoliterate and a contributor to The Compassionate Instinct and other books. She is currently writing a memoir about how the most challenging issues of our times help teach us the most important things about being human. She is on Twitter @LisaPBennett.

Marley Allen-Ash is an illustrator from Toronto creating work through printmaking and digital media. Follow her on Instagram at @marleyallenash and see more of her work on her website www.marleyallenash.com.

 

 

The Day My Therapist Dared Me to Have Sex With Her

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

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

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

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

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

“Oh, yeah,” I say. “That.”

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

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

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

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

I shrugged my shoulders, only half looking up.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Nailed it.

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

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

* * *

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Why not?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

There were two ways to find out:

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

2) Keep going to therapy.

* * *

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

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

“I don’t know.”

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

Here we go again.

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

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

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

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

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

“What?” I respond, flustered.

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

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

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

“Of course not.”

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

“I wouldn’t do that.”

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

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

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

* * *

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Isn’t therapy supposed to ameliorate my anxiety?

* * *

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Exactly.”

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

* * *

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Lori’s great at forcing me to reflect.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

* * *

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

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

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

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

* * *

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

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

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

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

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

* * *

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

See the complete list of Editors’ Picks here. 

* *

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

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

 

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

* * *

“What’s your favorite porn scene?”

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

The possibilities run through my head.

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

They’re also lies.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Are you sure?”

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

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

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

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

“Go on.”

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

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

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

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

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

And so I tell him.

* * *

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

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

And then realizing that person is me.

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

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

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

I was out of control.

* * *

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

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

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

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

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

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

* * *

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

That’s why I need to tell my husband.

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

* * *

Erica Garza is 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.

 

 

Saying I Do, And Saying Farewell

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Eleven days after marrying the love of my life, I stared at his lifeless body and said goodbye.

Eleven days after my wedding, two men from the crematorium arrived to take my husband’s body away.

“Do you want his ring?” they asked, pointing to the black titanium band on his left hand.

“No, he should wear his ring,” I said. He should wear it into the afterlife.

A quick look passed between them. “Are you sure?”

“Yes,” I replied, and turned to my mother-in-law Linda for approval.

“Honey, you should keep his ring,” Linda said gently.

I gave the crematorium men a slight nod. They slipped the ring off his finger and handed it to me.

*   *   *

Kaz and I once made up a story of how we met. “You fell on your bike and I stopped to help you,” he said in his baritone voice. This actually happened on our second date. “Sounds good to me,” I said. But we never told the made-up version. Whenever people asked us how we met, we would look at each other, shrug and tell the truth: we met on Match.com. My profile advertised “Curves and Curls – what more do you want?!” His moniker was “Nerdy4Music.”

After years of dating more men than I care to mention, in April 2007 I received an email from Kenneth Allen Smith. “My name is Ken, but everyone calls me KAZ,” he wrote. He was an employed, never married, childless, bald, badass, bespectacled black man, born and raised in Washington D.C. by a single mother. He had equal parts swagger, sensitivity and sweetness, had traveled the world, had real rock stars for friends, was witty, funny, charming, pragmatic, Scorpion sexy, so smart he beat his own computer at chess, and he rode a Honda RC51 sportbike. To quote a female colleague (who once yelled this at a party), Kaz was the coolest motherfucker on the planet.

At the time, I didn’t understand why such a cool guy was dating me, a somewhat neurotic, struggling filmmaker who was not thin. “I like spending time with you,” he explained. “You’re smart, funny, beautiful, good in the kitchen and good in the sack, and you’re sexy as fuck.” I still didn’t buy it.

In 2010, after two years together as a couple, during which we almost broke up once, we learned that the headaches and blurry vision he’d been experiencing were the result of a terminal brain tumor. Neither of us could believe it. Why would a healthy, physically active, forty-two-year-old man get the same disease that killed Ted Kennedy? It was too random to be true.

And yet, for me at least, it felt strangely inevitable. My mother had been ill for much of my childhood and died when she was fifty-six (I was twenty-two). Now, the man I loved more than anything, the best man I’d ever known and probably would ever know, was going to die young, too.

Within days of the diagnosis, he proposed. Kaz didn’t make rash decisions. It had taken nine months for him to say “I love you,” and after two years he was still reluctant to move in together (a source of frustration for me — at thirty-nine, dragging a backpack around every weekend was getting old). But the tumor changed things.

“I don’t know how much time I have left,” he said. “But I know I want to spend it with you.” He bent to one knee. “If you’ll have me.”

As I looked down at him, I was more afraid than I had ever been. Commit to someone with a terminal illness? “Yes,” I answered. I, too, wanted to be with him as long as possible. Deep down, I also might have thought we could beat this cancer bitch, statistics be damned.

Life moved forward. We moved in together, a huge transition for any couple but especially for one dealing with cancer. We supported each other through two resection surgeries, three clinical trials, dozens of MRI’s and doctors’ appointments. We tried to marry, but various factors kept getting in the way. He wanted to do it quick and easy at a courthouse. I wanted our friends and family around. Both of our families had money and debt concerns. Plus, I’d never planned on changing my name if/when I got married, and Kaz was old school. “You can keep your name professionally if you want, but I’d be really disappointed if you didn’t take my name,” he told me.

Then, in November 2010, he was in a motorcycle accident that left him unable to work. Even more devastating, he could no longer ride the motorcycle, or walk without assistance. He sank into a deep depression. As his illness progressed more rapidly, my caregiver responsibilities and the pressure of dwindling time intensified. We started arguing. Whereas before I had always been the one waiting for him to catch up, now he rounded the corner of acceptance before me. I still refused to accept it, like a ship captain who keeps trying to steer a sinking vessel. At one point, I thought I would surely have a nervous breakdown if I didn’t leave.

Instead, I got a cold.

One day in late March 2011, my job sent me home because I was feverish. I walked into the apartment early and was surprised to find Kaz sitting on the couch fully dressed.

“Are you okay?” I asked.

“I feel weird,” he said.

His body was shaking like a leaf. I grabbed a blanket and draped it around his shoulders. “I’m so pissed we never get to hang out anymore,” he said. “Something always happens and we can’t just hang out. It hurts, it really hurts.” His gaze drifted up to the corner of the room. “I’m sorry, babe,” he whispered. “I’m so sorry…” his voice trailed off.

The doctors later told us if I hadn’t come home early, the seizures would have killed him. They still almost killed him, but the doctors worked hard to keep him alive, while I sat by his bed and prayed. Please don’t take him right now. Please let him wake up. Please don’t let it end like this. Please give us another chance. Please let us say goodbye.

Forty-eight hours later, he finally opened his eyes. I had never been so happy in my life.

“When are you going to be Mrs. Smith?” he asked in front of his team of doctors and his mother, who had just flown in from D.C. “Are you going to hyphen or not hyphen? I’m okay with second billing,” he continued.

My face flushed as everyone turned to look at me. “Let’s talk about it later,” I said quietly.

The next day, I was sitting on his bed massaging his hands with lotion while a young nurse changed the bags on his IV drip. Kaz looked at me intensely.

“Do you have any idea how much I love you?”

“I think so,” I smiled.

“I have never loved anyone as much as I love you. I have never wanted to marry someone as much as I want to marry you. I didn’t think it was possible.”

I heard the nurse sniffle behind me.

“I want you to be Mrs. Smith,” he said, ignoring the nurse.

“Then you have to get better,” I said.

*   *   *

On Good Friday, April 22, 2011, we stood on the Griffith Observatory veranda overlooking the Hollywood Hills, surrounded by several protective rings of our closest friends (we didn’t have a location permit). I wore a sleeveless blue cotton dress that I had purchased that morning. Kaz wore a black suit, shirt and shoes, and a blue and purple-flowered tie. Our officiator and friend, Chandra, read the vows:

“Do you, Kaz, choose Niva as your wife? Do you promise to share in all life offers and suffers, to be a constant friend, a faithful partner, and true love from this day forward?”

“Hell to the yes!” Kaz said loudly. Everyone laughed.

“Do you, Niva, choose Kaz as your husband? Do you promise to share in all life offers and suffers, to be a constant friend, a faithful partner, and true love from this day forward?”

“I do.” I smiled.

Chandra pronounced us man and wife. I bent to kiss Kaz in his wheelchair, and then leaned back to look at him. We had done it. Mr. and Mrs. Smith.

“Wifey,” he whispered the next morning.

*   *   *

Three weeks later, I stood in a large warehouse, watching two men push a gurney towards me with a large cardboard casket on top. I wanted to see Kaz one more time. They wheeled the gurney before me, so I could see the word “Smith” written on top. Then they removed the cover.

I stared at him for a long time. His eyes were closed, and he was wearing the clothes I had given the men who picked him up ten days earlier, on May 3, 2011. He had all the same tattoos. Yet I couldn’t shake the feeling that I was looking at someone else. The Kaz I knew and loved was not in that box. I didn’t know where he was.

“Goodbye, babe. I love you.”

The men replaced the cover, opened the furnace door with gloved hands, and pushed him inside. The room suddenly felt warmer, and I sat down, lightheaded.

*   *   *

A month earlier, when he was in the hospital, he had told me he wanted to be cremated, with his ashes spread out on Angeles Crest Highway, the mountain road where he had ridden his motorcycle every weekend. He told me who should receive his things, how to divide his money and what songs to play at his memorials. I wrote everything down in a list, fifty words to sum up a life.

As I added the last item, he said, “I miss us.”

I looked up from the list, my heart in my throat. “I miss us too.”

“I’m so glad we stuck it out,” he said. “I know we both thought about leaving.”

“I’m honored to be here with you, babe.” I leaned forward to kiss his hands.

Afterwards, I referred to that list like a bible, using it to guide me through the memorials, the obituary notices, the giving away of possessions, the canceling of credit cards and all the other tasks that must be handled after someone dies. The day I showed up at his bank, a heavily made-up teller kept looking between the death certificate and the marriage certificate. “I don’t understand,” she said. “You married eleven days before he died?”

“Yes.”

“Why? How did he die?”

I didn’t explain it to her. It was none of her business.

“I’ll need a court order to switch over his accounts,” she said, shaking her head. “This just doesn’t make any sense.” I wanted to scream. He died at forty-three years old. Nothing made fucking sense. Instead, I looked squarely at her and tried to keep my voice steady. “I have all the proper forms, signed and notarized. If you don’t help me transfer the accounts, I’ll close them and go to another bank. Do you understand?”

“I have to speak to my manager,” she mumbled and rose from her desk. As she walked away, I stared outside at the traffic on Vine Street and thought about throwing myself in front of a double-decker tourist bus.

*   *   *

When we moved in together, Kaz and I had talked about making some changes to the apartment. After he died, I decided to go ahead with those plans. I asked Chandra, an interior decorator, to help redesign the space with Kaz in mind. We chose furniture in grey tones with chrome details and black-and-white checkered tiles for the kitchen, an ode to his old racing flags and love of chess. We hung his favorite rock posters, African masks and Chris Cooper lithographs. We put pictures of him on every bookshelf.

Several weeks later, Chandra and I sat on the patio drinking beers. “How do you feel about all the changes?” she asked.

“I don’t know,” I said. “I hope he approves.”

“I think he does. I can feel him here really strongly.”

“I thought it was only me.”

“No, dude, he’s totally here.”

I nodded. So I’m not going crazy.

I often felt his body pressed against my backside and his arms around my waist when I was in bed. Other times, I felt his hands cupping my breasts from behind. Sometimes the lights would dim, and I felt him as a breeze against my face. Most cherished were the times he visited me in dreams. In one dream, as we were getting undressed, he said, “I’m afraid if I keep coming to you like this, you won’t be able to move on.”

“That’s okay,” I said, already half naked. “I don’t want to move on.”

When he was alive we used to write each other emails throughout the day. Now I wrote him letters. I told him about the long process of legally changing my name, first going to the Social Security office, then the DMV, my bank, and human resources. I told him how I was still getting used to being called “Mrs. Smith” and saying “my husband,” let alone saying “my late husband.”

During the day, I left the television on the channel that broadcasts the AMA, MotoGP and World Superbike races. After work, I watched all the same shows we used to watch together, still sitting on my side of the couch and directing my comments, jokes and questions to him. I got used to having one-sided conversations. I started telling close friends that Kaz was actually still in the apartment; he was just invisible.

One night, a former lover came to visit. I started crying and the man held me, which felt good. It had been so long since real arms held me. But as the man’s hands moved down my back, and his lips found my neck, I went limp. I didn’t have the energy to refuse him, but didn’t fully engage either. I kept looking over his shoulder, wondering if Kaz was in the room, or if this made him leave. Afterward, I couldn’t sleep.

I wrote to Kaz: “I don’t know if you saw what happened the other night, but I’m sorry. It won’t happen again. Honestly, being with him just made me miss you more.”

*   *   *

Around our first wedding anniversary, I took my wedding ring off at the gym and forgot to put it back on. When I realized my finger was bare the next day, I felt naked. I spent the rest of the day praying that the ring was where I thought it was, and that I hadn’t somehow lost it. I rushed into the bathroom when I got home and found it in the side pocket of my gym bag, which I had left on the counter. I slipped it back on and vowed to never take it off again.

But as time went on, Kaz’s presence seemed to recede, like an echo, and the emotional limbo between newlywed and widow in which I’d been living began to fade as well. One day I did take the ring off. At first I wore it around my neck along with his ring. Then I started leaving both rings at home in a jewelry case, a decision fraught with angst and guilt. I recognized that losing the feeling of being married was part of the healing process, but it was also painful, like we were “breaking up” on some cosmic level.

Then I realized that it wasn’t as much of a break-up as it was a shift. I still felt him inside and around me, but in a different way than before. I could feel him encouraging me to move forward with my dreams and desires.

When he was in the hospital, we once had a conversation about my career. For years, I had bounced between writing and directing small projects and working all kinds of day jobs. “What do you think I should focus on?” I asked him.

He thought about it for a moment. “I think you should focus on writing.”

“How would you feel if I wrote about us?”

“I hope you do write about us,” he smiled.

Today, three years later, I am starting to envision my future. I see film festivals and book signings; a house with land, animals and a fireplace; African plains, Parisian boulevards and Jerusalem sunsets; and a community of artists dedicated to the pursuit of personal expression.

A while back, I spent time in Vermont on a writer’s residency and was drawn to the quiet, open sky and the no-nonsense atmosphere of the rural Northeast. Shortly after the third anniversary of his death on May 3, I felt an overwhelming urge to leave Los Angeles, to breathe fresh air, meet new people and experience seasons again. A few weeks later, I gave notice at my day job. Soon, I’ll be driving across the country with my dog to live and write in the Catskills, about two and half hours outside of New York City.

What I’m less clear about is who (if anyone) will be with me in the future. I’ve been on a few dates in the past couple of years, but nothing major. As I told a friend recently, my current love life is “an empty beach.” The truth is, I’m not the same person I was when I married Kaz, nor am I the same person I was after he died. At some point, I became bi-curious, something I would never have had the courage to admit if it weren’t for Kaz and everything we went through together. I don’t know when I’ll be ready to love again, but I credit Kaz for teaching me how to love and be loved. I know he would want me to be happy.

*   *   *

Niva Dorell Smith is a filmmaker and freelance writer currently based in Los Angeles. She is working on a memoir titled The History of Us and writes regularly about grief, writing and her dog at www.ridingbitchblog.com

Sophie Goldstein is a 2013 graduate of the Center for Cartoon Studies. Her work has appeared various publications including The Pitchfork Review, Seven Days, Irene 3, Sleep of Reason, Suspect Device 3 and Best American Comics 2013. Check out more of her illustration and comics at redinkradio.com