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

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Xu, who died in 2008, told his story in an unpublished manuscript that was discovered in 2012 by journalist Erling Hoh.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 Truth About New York’s Legendary ‘Mole People’

Two decades after NYC sought to relocate its infamous tunnel-dwelling denizens, a years-long investigation reveals a few hardy souls still toiling and thriving beneath the city.

The mouth of the tunnel is wide and dark, swallowing the light and all that breathes. Rubble is scattered along the train tracks, bordered by retaining walls covered in numerous layers of graffiti.

This is where it all started.

Here by the parkway with the blasting trucks and the roaring cars, near the filigree arches of the Riverside Drive viaduct, here with the gravel crunching under my feet as I run down the railroad into this hollow mouth.

This is where they live, deep into the depths of the city, way underground, lying in the dirt. Sure, you know about them. Of course you know about them. They’ve always been there, resting low below the rowdy streets and the carving avenues, gulping the air from inside the earth, crawling through holes and cracks, living off the grid and off the books.

Here in the tunnels.

You’ve heard the rumors. Their eyes have adapted to the constant night that cloaks them from the topside world. Don’t you know they’re eating rats and human flesh? Don’t you know they want us dead? And one day they will spill outside and burn us all alive, and they will reign over our flatscreen joys and our organic delights.

Of course you know about them. The lost ones, the hidden ones. The broken and the ill, the wandering, the gone. The Mole People.

“Jon,” I call, looking up. Jon has been homeless for more than fifteen years. Like many of the people interviewed for this article, he did not want to give his full name. He has been living here for a while now, in a small space between two support beams that can only be reached with a ladder. A plywood roof protects his hoarded belongings from seeping water. The place is crammed full. There is an old mattress on the floor, and cookware, blankets and electronics stacked on makeshift shelves.

“Jon,” I repeat, and he appears, his head cautiously peaking up from his house, a relieved smile on his face when he sees me.

“I thought it was the Amtrak police,” he later says while opening a beer, his legs dangling off the edge of the wall. “They been coming less, lately, but you never know. Regular police ain’t bothering me, but Amtrak, they can be nasty.”

Jon says he did prison time. He is bipolar and suffers from major substance dependence. He used to be a gang member in the Bronx. He used to be a family man until he got disowned. He was a furniture salesman. The FBI is looking for him. He used to know Donald Trump. It doesn’t matter which version is true. His real story has been buried long ago under thick layers of improvised memories that grew more detailed by the years, the man slowly becoming a collage of himself.

“I’m good here,” he says. “No taxes, no rent, no nothing. There’s no hassle compared to the streets, you know what I’m saying? Here I don’t get bugged by kids. It’s a safe place. I can do what I wanna and I don’t have to take nothing from nobody.”

Today is a good day for Jon, despite the rain and the cool weather.

“You’re the first person to visit this week,” he says. “People don’t want to speak to me when they come here. I don’t know, man. They’re scared or something. I can get why, it’s a spooky place when you don’t know it. But people, they like it when it’s scary. They like it when it’s dirty, right? It makes them feel alive. That’s why they make up these stories about cannibalism and stuff. Like alligators in the sewers.”

Jon offers me a sip of vodka. We drink together. He tells me to stay safe and to watch out for trains when I go back walking into the tunnel. I hear him talk to himself as I go away from the entrance and from the white sky.

The smell down here is the one of brake dust and mold. I can see rats scouring for food and drinking from brown puddles in the tracks ballast. EXISTENCE IS FLAWED, a graffiti inscription reads.

The city growls over my head — a distant growl muffled by the concrete, almost a snarl, like something cold and foul spreading over the long stretches of stained walls, like a dark and wild beast curling up around me and breathing on my neck. A dark and wild beast silently trailing me.

* * *

Stories about underground dwellers were already flourishing when the first New York City subway line opened in 1904. The expansion of extensive sewers and steam pipes systems had brought a newfound fascination with what laid below the streets. From Jules Verne’s 1864 novel “Journey to the Center of the Earth” to George Gissing’s 1889 book “The Nether World,” literature was brimming with tales of people living in isolation or trapped under the surface, peaking in 1895 with “The Time Machine,” in which H. G. Wells described a fictional subterranean species called the “Morlocks.”

But it was only in the 1990s that the first widespread depictions of real-world tunnel residents appeared in New York. A 1990 New York Times article by John Tierney was the earliest to outline the phenomenon, looking at people living in an abandoned train tunnel beneath Riverside Park, along the banks of the Hudson River.

Collective imagination took over quickly.

In 1993, Jennifer Toth published her essay “The Mole People,” documenting hidden communities residing in a network of forsaken caverns, holes and shafts across Manhattan. An instant hit, it chronicled the organization of those underground societies, describing compounds of several thousands where babies were born and regular lives were lived, with elected officials, hot water and even electricity.

However, the book was promptly criticized for its inconsistencies. Joseph Brennan, a New York rail buff, wrote an extensive and detailed critique in 1996, exposing many discrepancies in Toth’s reporting, such as places that couldn’t exist, exaggerated numbers and contradictory claims. According to Brennan, the whole notion of secret passages was implausible and “reminiscent of scenes in the TV series ‘Beauty and the Beast.’”

A 2004 article by Cecil Adams further demonstrated that many accounts were perhaps more sensationalism than truth. Adams pointed out unverifiable or incorrect facts in Toth’s work, and her skepticism peaked during her interview of Cindy Fletcher, a former tunnel dweller who challenged important points of the narration. “I’m not saying the book is not true, I just never experienced the things [she] said she saw,” Fletcher explained to Adams. I was unable to reach Toth for comment, but when Adams talked to her, the journalist said she couldn’t remember how to access certain places described in her essay — possibly not to disclose the whereabouts of trespassing squatters.

Still, while the essay might have been inflated or romanticized, it was nonetheless true that the homeless begging in the streets of New York were merely the tip of the iceberg. Photojournalists Margaret Morton and Andrea Star Reese have both extensively documented communities spread in underground hideouts since Toth’s book. Dutch anthropologist Teun Voeten’s 1996 diary “Tunnel People” provided an incredible account of the months he spent with the Riverside Park Amtrak tunnel inhabitants before they were evicted and moved to Section 8 housing units. In 2000, director Marc Singer released his acclaimed documentary “Dark Days,” filming the same people followed by Voeten and Toth in their respective books.

“There were definitely people living in tunnels, but not a lot,” Norman Diederich, a former MTA maintenance inspector, told me. “If there are still any, they’re very discreet. This period is gone.”

“There were talks that the moles were cannibals,” Diederich continued. “That they could see in the dark. That they spoke their own language. Creepy stuff, straight out of a horror movie… Most was made-up. I personally never witnessed unusual stuff. Santa Claus, the Boogeyman, the Mole People, it’s all the same. We need to label things we don’t understand. It’s human nature.”

“Just cause you can’t see don’t mean ain’t nothing there,” begins Anthony Horton’s 2008 graphic novel “Pitch Black,” relating the author’s own struggles as a homeless man. Written in an abandoned crew room of the F subway line, these words were the reason I ventured into the tunnels in the first place, looking for the invisible, guided by local dwellers along the years to seek foundations of humanity in the foundations of the city.

All the stories I had read about the Mole People before descending myself had two things in common.

They all showed simple human beings who were in no way comparable to the legends that had been told, and they all included a man named Bernard Isaac.

* * *

I met Bernard Isaac for the first time in 2009. “This is not a place of perdition,” he often said about the Riverside Park tunnel when we talked together during his shifts as a maintenance worker in Central Park. “This is a sanctuary. A place to find peace and take a break from the chaos.” He would then reminisce about his old life, his eyes would light up and there would be the crack of a smile, and whatever place we were in would be filled by his presence.

Isaac was at the very center of the Mole People legend. His BA in journalism and his studies in philosophy had somehow led him to work as a model, then as a TV crew member, then as a tour guide in the Caribbean where he began smuggling cocaine to the States. The father of two sons with two different women, he never cared much for family life, preferring to spend his smuggling profits on parties thrown at his Upper West Side penthouse. Soon he was broke, friendless and on his own. By the late 1980s, he was sleeping in the Riverside Park tunnel.

The tunnel was known by homeless people since its inception in the 1930s, when it was used by trains to bring cattle to the city before the freight operations ended. Its population, limited at first to about three or four individuals, quickly grew at the time Isaac settled in, evolving into small tribes of vagrants who built thriving shantytowns in the newly abandoned space.

Few risked getting down into the tunnel. “It often scared grown men easily,” recounted Isaac in 2010 as he showed me his old hangout places. But those who did go down called it home, and it became a haven for the destitute to unwind without fear of getting arrested or attacked like people on the streets often were.

One day, three men asked Isaac for a toll as he came by the 125th Street entrance to the tunnel. He laughed at them and said “Do you know who you’re talking to? I’m the fucking lord of this tunnel!” The three men never bothered him again, and Isaac’s nickname “The Lord of the Tunnel” was born.

Though there never was any real leader in the shantytown, Isaac became the community’s de facto spokesman, interacting with outreach groups and journalists to explain how living there was better than dealing with shelter curfews, senseless laws and indifferent social workers. Soon interest came from all around the world.

Ironically, the tunnel’s community support was in many ways more efficient than the one offered by municipal programs. In the encampment, the dwellers had a familiar place to be, watch TV, read or smoke. They had autonomy. Rules were simple but strictly enforced. Respect for privacy. No yelling. No stealing. No stupid behavior or you’d be kicked out. Some, like Isaac, were at home in the darkness, and would not have lived anywhere else. Most who lived here did not consider themselves homeless.

As word spread of the tunnel, a growing number of graffiti artists came to paint the seemingly endless walls that flanked the train tracks. One of them, Chris “Freedom” Pape, had known the place for quite a while before. He became friends with Isaac and his community, teaming up with local tagger Roger Smith — known to most as just “Smith” — to paint pieces narrating their stories. “I hadpainted in the tunnel for six years before the homeless moved in, so they were curious about me,” said Pape in a 2014 interview for “Untapped Cities.” “I became friendly with most of them and my visits to the tunnel were much safer and even relaxing.”

In a 1990 Los Angeles Times article, Isaac explained that the small community lived as well, if not better, than the average people “up top,” as they commonly refer to the streets. “I’ve had the opportunity to get jobs,” he said. “I don’t choose to be a robot within the system… We’ve done something that one out of every 1,000 men in creation in their lifetimes will do. We dared to be ourselves.”

Some residents were still eager to leave, only to come back later.

John Kovacs, one of Isaac’s neighbors in the tunnel, was once given a $50,000 offer to turn his story into a feature movie and left in 1991 after sixteen years in the tunnel. He was back less than seven months later, the $50,000 Hollywood deal gone sour and Kovacs unable to adjust to life in larger society.

Another who attempted to go to the surface was Bob Kalinski, a speed addict known as the fastest cook east of the Mississippi, who could fry twenty eggs at a time when on amphetamines. A heart attack forced him to try his luck with the public housing system in 1994. He too returned in the following months. The sense of belonging simply was too strong. The tunnel was a better place for him to be alone in freedom.

“After so many years in the streets, they kind of lose faith in humanity,” said Audrey Lombardi, a volunteer at the Holy Apostles soup kitchen in Manhattan.

“They can’t help it, it’s so deeply ingrained in their lives, it’s like they want to go back to the only thing they know,” she explained, noting that hurt and loneliness often became the steadiest part of a homeless person’s existence after hitting bottom and going further under.

“If I had to do it all over again?” Isaac said in a video interview, one of his last ones, a year before his death in 2014. “Unquestionably.”

* * *

I keep walking along the tracks. Jon must have passed out drunk, now, somewhere behind me. Every noise is threatening in the tunnel, and I find myself constantly looking over my shoulder, ready to face something too awful to name. Was that a train I heard? A cough? The metallic vibration of a dragged chain?

It smells like death here. The pungent stench of rotting meat.

“Anyone here?” I ask, stopping near an old KUMA tag.

The smell of death all over now. Are those eyes glowing nearby?

I lean against the wall and try to breathe calmly, reminding myself this place is only populated by old memories and the occasional homeless person looking for a safe place to be.

The rumbling feels closer. Something moves somewhere.

I see rats scurrying by, racing into the obscurity. Then I see the charred remains of an animal in the corner of an alcove — a raccoon maybe, a big rodent with liquefied flesh, burnt fur and missing limbs. Was it eaten? By what? By whom?

I walk away holding my breath.

The ground is littered with discarded books and magazines. A broken crack pipe has been left on a cinder block. There is a garden chair, and overturned crates and buckets. A mangled teddy bear. Death everywhere.

“Hey man, how you doing?” says a voice behind me, making me jump with fright. “I’m sorry,” the voice immediately adds. “I didn’t mean to startle you.”

I recognize Raúl, an undocumented Dominican immigrant of about thirty who has been living in the tunnel for a year. Raúl shaves every morning with great care. His clothes are spotless, regularly washed at a nearby laundromat. His badly decayed teeth and scrawny figure are the only hints he’s a drug addict.

“I didn’t hear you coming,” I say with my heart pounding like it wants out of my chest. “I came to see Bernard’s old place. Maybe talk to some people.”

“Brooklyn is there. She’s always singing out loud, it’s annoying.”

Raúl still has family out there. An ex-girlfriend and a kid. He rents an apartment from a friend when his kid comes to visit, a clean studio in a gray Washington Heights building.

“I don’t want him to think of me as a bum,” he says. “I won’t be here long enough anyway. You want coffee?”

I nod and he goes into an abandoned service room, returning with two mugs.

“I made a lot of bad choices in my life. I hurt a lot of people. That’s why I don’t ask for nothing, you feel me? I don’t blame anyone but myself. I collect cans, it keeps me busy. I do it all week long. It gets me $140 a week, more in summer.”

The coffee is nice and strong. It feels good in the tunnel’s cold.

Raúl uses a Fairway Market cart to bring empty soda and beer containers to various stores in the neighborhood, where he will redeem them for five cents each. The legal limit of returnable cans is 240 per person per day, so Raúl has to go to several supermarkets to earn more.

“You can actually make a good life here when you’re broke,” he says. “I never got a problem eating what I wanted. The streets are full of opportunities if you know where to look. I deal with what I have.” He shows me a box of cupcakes he found in a garbage can, almost untouched. His dessert tonight.

Finding drugs has never been a problem either for Raúl, who tells me he once spent $150 on crack each day to feed his “pizzo” — his pipe — with “cheap McDonald meals in-between the smokes, and hard fucks with Puerto Rican whores because crack makes me horny as shit.” Heroin prices have gone down lately, so that means Raúl’s consumption has gone up. It’s $10 for a deck of brown heroin, making it cheaper than most other drugs.

Raúl knows the risks. The worsening quality of the local drugs means accidents are now more frequent than ever, with 420 overdose-related deaths in 2013.

“It makes me feel good for a moment. As soon as I find a real job, I’ll stop, no doubt,” he says. In the buildings he helps maintain, he occasionally sells the tenants K2 — a form of synthetic marijuana that recently boomed across the city, especially in East Harlem where a homeless encampment was recently dismantled.

“I do what I got to do, you know what I’m saying? I’m just a normal guy who minds his own business. This is who I am. And I never ate no fucking rats,” he jokes.

Raúl insists we share the cupcakes he found. We both eat in silence.

* * *

New York’s homeless shelters are a lucrative business. The incentives paid by the Department of Homeless Services to landlords renting out shelter units far exceed the ones given for providing tenants with permanent single room occupancy lodging. In 2014, the average stay was 352 days at the Freedom House, a homeless shelter on West 95th Street managed by private company Aguila Inc. The city paid Aguila $3,735 per month for each 100-square-foot room occupied by a homeless person.

Conditions are appalling inside the Freedom House. Garbage piles up in the courtyard for rodents to feed on. Aggressive panhandling, drug dealing and violent outbursts are commonplace in the shelter’s vicinity. Sometimes a TV is hurled out a window, or the police close the street after someone is stabbed in a fight. The NYPD regularly raids the place looking for people with outstanding warrants, targeting domestic abusers and failing to arrest the major dealers or car thieves roaming the area. Aguila Inc. didn’t comment on the situation when I reached out to the company, but one of their security officers, who wished to remain anonymous because he feared reprisal from his employer, told me that the lack of resources, upkeep and care were the biggest issues in the facilities.

“Why would anyone want to stay [at Freedom House]?” asks Jessica, a former resident. “I can’t count the times my stuff was stolen from me. One day I was assaulted in my own room and the guards didn’t do anything!” she adds, sitting on a rug in her new spot, inside a man-made cave near the Lincoln Tunnel entrance.

Jessica was evicted from Freedom House in late 2014, after DHS came to an agreement with community boards and nonprofit organizations to cut the shelter’s capacity in two from 400 beds to 200 — a step toward its conversion to a meaningful permanent affordable housing facility.

The 23-year-old knows enough about shelters. She will never go back. She was sixteen when she got pregnant with her daughter Alyssa. She briefly lived with the baby’s father until he tired of dealing with a needy toddler, leaving never to be seen again. Jessica was then diagnosed with schizoaffective disorder and admitted to transitional housing in Brooklyn. She says that within a month, social services was badgering her to place her three-year-old in foster care.

“The thing is, single mothers who go to shelters with their kids never keep their kids for long,” she says. “I was devastated. I called my sister and begged her to take care of Alyssa until I found a place of my own. This was the most difficult thing I’ve ever done in my life, leaving my baby. But it was the right thing to do. At least she is with family. When she grows up I will explain it all to her.”

She looks away, tears rolling down her face.

Once her daughter was in the hands of her sister, Jessica was sent to the Freedom House where she stayed for seven months until Aguila notified her of her imminent relocation. She began sleeping in a subway tunnel after transit authorities made her leave her spot in the Herald Square station corridor on 34th Street, dragging her by her feet when she refused to stand up from her mat. “At first I was like ‘I’m never going down there.’ But then Hurricane Sandy came and I had no place to stay, and I didn’t want to go to a shelter again with all the crackheads.”

She spent about two months living in a recess by the subway tracks of a Midtown station, protected from the elements and from harassment. She wrote a long letter to her daughter there. She never sent it. “I hope you think of me sometimes in your dreams,” the letter ends. “You are the light of my life. I miss you everyday. I love you so much.”

Jessica then moved to her current place, closer to the McDonald’s restaurant where she works. The subterranean area she’s living in is part of the same railway system as the one going through the Riverside Park tunnel, and is home to a couple of other homeless people trying to avoid shelters.

“I obviously don’t tell my colleagues I stay here. But it’s better than anywhere I’ve been before. Here I can have my dog,” Jessica says, petting a small mutt snuggled on her lap. “Plus it’s a temporary situation. I’m eligible for Section 8 housing. In less than a year I’ll be in a real apartment and I’ll have my baby with me again.”

On the floor of her makeshift house is a plastic box full of donated kid’s clothes.

Soon she will give them to her daughter.

“I have to keep faith,” she says in the half-light.

* * *

Trash as far as the eye can see. Clothes, glass, bike parts and Styrofoam boxes, plastic toys and rotting food carpeting the dirt ground, all frozen in the tunnel’s perpetual dusk. Brooklyn’s voice echoes in the room as she starts singing Michael Jackson’s “Billie Jean.” I accompany her with a beatbox rhythm, hands cupped around my mouth. “You good, man!” she says enthusiastically, snapping her fingers along.

I catch myself wondering if Raúl can hear us from his place, cursing at us for breaking the no-noise rule of the premises.

Brooklyn might be the oldest resident of the Riverside Park tunnel. Now fifty-four, she has been living here since 1982, when she discovered the place by following feral cats. Like Bernard Isaac, she appeared in various films and documentaries. “I’m a celebrity, you know?” she says with a hint of pride in her voice.

She has perfected her story for journalists along the years. Everything she relates is recited like a school lesson. Her stint in the Marines. The death of her parents and the loss of her family house. The kids lighting her cardboard shack on fire in the park. Her boyfriend BK and their issues. The food bowls left at her door for the forty-nine cats she feeds.

She is a tough woman who speaks her mind, and she has the unyielding attitude of someone who has trudged through life. Her bandana and dreadlocks make her look younger than she is. People in the area know her, but she doesn’t socialize much anymore. She’s been lucky enough to avoid the Amtrak police. “I’ve been here all this time because I keep to myself,” she says. “The cops let me be. I don’t pose no threat!”

It’s already dinnertime. Tunnel stew today, a meal made of anything available — chicken soup, microwave mixes or thrown-away vegetables cooked over a crackling wood fire. “I wish I had a big kitchen with all kinds of cutlery and equipment,” she says.

“I’d cook all day long, man. That would be nice.” The food smells good and draws cats inside Brooklyn’s house. “You want some?” she asks, motioning at me to sit with her. The stew is surprisingly tasty.

“We’re just people,” she says after a while. “It’s hard, living here. You never get used to it. If you accept it, if you stop fighting, you’re done, okay? If you give up…you just die, you know what I’m saying?”

After she finishes eating, Brooklyn shows me a pile of recycling bags filled with countless Poland Spring water bottles collected at a nearby bodega. “This is my savings account for when I need extra money. You gotta be creative here,” she says as she gestures to the posters and pictures pinned on her walls.

Brooklyn is disappointed when I tell her I have to go. She calls one of her cats as I keep walking to the south end of the tunnel.

I soon reach Bernard Isaac’s old den, where I will spend the night, as I sometimes do when I want to taste the solitude he liked so much. The whole place feels like a grave. A cathedral for the dead and the fallen. Nothing is left from the former shacks. Even the smallest pieces of debris are gone.

I try to imagine how it was sitting here with him, watching the flames dancing in front of Pape and Smith’s reproduction of Goya’s “The Third of May.” I realize there is a certain power of being nameless and buried. A raw, burning power that some, like Isaac, will seek their whole life.

“Modern society is guilty of intellectual terrorism,” he once said while talking about Nietzsche’s philosophy with graffiti artist David “Sane” Smith, the younger brother of Roger Smith. Sane immediately sprayed the quote on the wall.

It encompassed Isaac’s entire way of thinking.

A train rushes by, almost silent with its unbearably bright lights, the air swelling around me as the cars dash past.

I’m rolled in my blanket, quiet in my alcove. I’m not sure I exist anymore. This place is not for anyone to be, I think.

I wait for dreams to come. Sleeping in the tunnel is an alien experience, but the sight of rain falling down the ventilation grates and streaking the chiaroscuro light is worth it alone, definite proof that poetry can endure anywhere.

This is the final byproduct of the city. This is civilization pushed to its foremost edge, a harsh place if any, dangerous and unforgiving, but a peaceful place at the same time, welcoming in its grimness. This is a dark and wild beast inviting you to come closer because nothing will ever be all right, but she will always be at your side to keep you warm.

* * *

When Amtrak decided to reactivate the Riverside Park tunnel’s train tracks in 1991, about fifty residents were evicted from the shantytown and received vouchers for temporary housing. This first round of evictions wound up largely ineffective and the population quickly grew back to its initial size, as people from up top encampments went straight to the tunnel when they were swept up by police during Mayor Giuliani’s effort to clean up the streets.

The Empire Line trains rushing through didn’t stop them from coming down here.

Amtrak Police Captain Doris Comb started calling for more enforcement, effectively pushing the homeless out of the active railway. Different times were looming ahead. Safer times. Sterilized. Hygienic. “We try to offer the homeless a variety of social services,” Comb would explain in 1994. “The problem is that most homeless are completely isolated. They feel rejected and decline assistance.”

Bernard Isaac still held a grudge against Comb eighteen years later, for having seized the #102 universal key to the exit gates an Amtrak employee had given him. “It was clear in my head that I didn’t want to go,” he told me in 2012, sipping a tea on the Hudson River Greenway. “We were ready to brick up the entrances if needed. We knew that we would have to leave eventually, but we didn’t want to accept it just yet.”

The tunnel residents weren’t quick to fill the multitude of forms requested by the Social Security Administration. Some flatly refused to cooperate and gave up all hope of being granted Section 8 apartments.

In 1994, U.S. Secretary of Housing Henry Cisneros visited the dwellings and, realizing the urgency of the situation, released 250 housing subsidy vouchers and a $9 million grant to help the squatters move to appropriate accommodations. Unfortunately, Department of Housing Preservation and Development policies prevented this from happening immediately; the Mole People were not considered “housing-ready” even though they had already created homes from nothing, complete with furniture and decorations.

It wasn’t until Mary Brosnahan, director at the Coalition for the Homeless, negotiated with Amtrak to temporarily delay the evictions, that the vouchers were distributed to the tunnel community. The dwellers eventually received permanent housing, leaving the tunnel mostly empty for the first time since the mid-1970’s.

Margaret Morton would later write in a 1995 New York Times article that this solution had been by far the most economical for the city. “It costs more than $20,000 a year to keep a person in a cot on an armory floor,” she wrote. “It costs about $12,000 to keep that person in the kind of supported housing being made available to the tunnel people.”

As the photojournalist Teun Voeten would discover in 2010, some of the former squatters later achieved normal lives again. There would even be success stories. Ralph, one of the subjects of “Dark Days,” became manager of an Upstate New York hotel and owner of a cleaning company.

Then there were the others.

One would commit suicide, sitting in front of a running train. Another was found dead in his apartment. Another succumbed to AIDS. Another simply vanished. Isaac’s friend Bob Kalinski, the speed cook, moved to a 42nd Street SRO building where he still lives at this time, in a wheelchair and with a serious heart condition.

Bernard Isaac passed away in late 2014, closing a chapter of an old New York legend. His ashes were sprinkled across a creek in his native Florida.

The legend was gone, but homelessness was more real than ever.

According to Coalition for the Homeless, between 58,000 and 60,000 persons slept in NYC municipal shelters every month of 2015, an all-time record since the Great Depression, with numbers increasing for the sixth consecutive year.

“As liberal as New Yorkers want to be known, I think there’s a class war at work in this city,” Jeanne Newman, the founder of outreach group SHARE and a dear friend of Bernard Isaac, explained during a phone conversation.

Eighty percent of New York’s shelter population is currently made up of families — many working multiple jobs to make ends meet. There were 42,000 homeless children across the five boroughs in 2014.

“Do you know what the major cause of homelessness is in this country?” Newman asked. “It’s the lack of affordable housing. End of story. Everything else becomes a symptom. Drug issues, domestic violence issues, they’re all symptoms, as opposed to being a cause. The cause is lack of affordable housing.”

The median Manhattan rent jumped more than seven percent in August 2015 compared to the same period in 2014, while affordable housing placements fell sixty percent between 2013 and 2014.

“We’re the wealthiest country in the world, why are we not fixing this problem?” Newman asked.

“Amtrak Police Department now does inspections on a regular basis for signs of homeless persons and encampments,” Cliff Cole, Amtrak’s New York manager of media relations, told the Wall Street Journal in 2011. At the time of his declaration, only five people had been found living in the Riverside Park tunnel, but a different community was already growing on a nearby dead-end street dubbed the Batcave.

Today, Chris Pape’s murals are slowly vanishing, painted over in 2009 to discourage urban explorers from visiting the tunnel. His “Buy American” masterpiece, dedicated to the tunnel’s former residents and featuring portraits of Isaac and Kalinski, doesn’t exist anymore. His Goya reproduction has been damaged by water. In a few years from now, it will be completely gone, washed away by the elements.

* * *

Morning light is different in the tunnel — colder maybe, and whiter, casting long straight beams onto the rails. Wind gusts make dust rise up in whirlpools. A blue jay flies past a grate. I wake up and New York slowly comes to life.

“God will save me, and it will save you, and it will save all these people too. Soon, we will all be saved,” Carlos says later, as we watch a basketball game in Riverside Park, the overpass casting its shade over our heads.

Carlos lives holed up in an old sewer pipe of about six feet high by five feet wide near the south entrance to the Riverside Park tunnel. He is one of the few original dwellers who stayed. His house is small but very practical, entirely concealed by a metal lid he takes great care of pulling on every time he gets inside. “It’s a good hideout,” he explains in a thick Spanish accent.

His electricity is tapped from an outlet further down the tunnel, allowing him to store his food in a refrigerator and have heat during winter. “Insulation is pretty good. I’m comfortable and no one can see me. I’m used to it now. It’s good for reading. I read a lot. All kinds of books. I read them and I sell them.”

The increased police patrols make his life less simple than it was a few years ago, but he keeps an upbeat attitude about it. “They don’t give me trouble too much. Sometimes they try to make me leave. It’s my home, I tell them. Maybe I live like a mole, but I’m not an animal.” He just wants to be left alone.

Carlos shows me where a decomposing body was found by Amtrak workers in 2006, months after taggers had discovered it. Two femurs bundled in cargo pants, neatly laid into an old child stroller, with pieces of leathered skin still attached to them, and a skull standing on top of a nearby pole.

This was the tunnel’s way of saying hello.

We walk around together to go check on Terry, an older alcoholic man who has been staying here since his wife threw him out of their apartment in Harlem’s Lincoln Houses public housing complex. Carlos is concerned about Terry’s health.

“He’s been drinking too much,” he says. “Last week I had to call 911 on him again.”

We find the old man sleeping on a couch behind a safety wall. A copy of Steinbeck’s novel “Of Mice and Men” rests on the sofa. Inside, a sentence is underlined in blue ink. “Guys like us got nothing to look ahead to.”

We stay a moment at his side before I finally leave the tunnel, emerging from the wet ground behind a grove of trees. The streets seem slower than usual. The clouds heavier.

“What does not kill me makes me stronger,” Nietzsche wrote. But hurt doesn’t make us stronger. Hurt just makes us hurt. And hurt lives in the land of the lost, and unites them in missing love and broken homes, for five cents a can, 240 cans per day.

The few Mole People left today survive in hurt.

They are relics of a New York that was, and witnesses of a world so estranged that nobody truly remembers it anymore. Most are too late for the topside life.

How easy it would be to go away and never come back.

But this is their city. This is their home.

These are their minds wandering and their time slipping.

Their hopes and their thirsts until the sun goes down.

Away — to a place made of birches and wet leaves and blue afternoons and muddy clothes, a place where dark days would be foreign — a place for them and all the unseen, warm as liquor, where hurt would be sweet and love would be real.

The Hidden Queer History Behind “A League of Their Own”

The All-American Girls Professional Baseball League did everything it could to keep lesbians off the diamond. Seventy-five years later, its gay stars are finally opening up.

Josephine “JoJo” D’Angelo was in a hotel lobby in 1944. An outfielder for the South Bend Blue Sox — a team in the All-American Girls Professional Baseball League (A.A.G.P.B.L.), founded the year prior — she had dark, curly hair. Even if you didn’t know her last name, her looks hinted at her Italian heritage.

The hotel was likely decorated with muted colors in the modernist style of the previous decade. Thanks to World War II, there were supply shortages and rations, which put a hold on new design in the early ’40s. All available supplies needed to go toward the war effort.

The story was similar in baseball. With most of the Major League Baseball players deployed, executives decided to fill the gap with female players, paving the way for the A.A.G.P.B.L.

But in the hotel that day, D’Angelo was approached by one league executive and told that she was being released from her contract. This was devastating for the right-hander who’d batted .200 in her two seasons with the Blue Sox. She’d been playing since she was a little girl, and had spent her days working in a steel mill in her hometown of Chicago while devoting evenings to playing ball, before attending a tryout for the league at Wrigley Field. That scene was made famous by the film “A League of Their Own,” with hundreds of women traveling from around the country to the brick ballpark with the ivy-covered outfield wall.

Why was D’Angelo being cut from the thing she loved most in the world? When she told the story later in her life, she gave the reason: “a butchy haircut.” It was a haircut she says she never even wanted, one she was pressured into getting by the hairstylist who assured her she would look lovely with her dark curls trimmed into a bob.

D’Angelo had broken one of the cardinal rules of the A.A.G.P.B.L.: “Play like a man, look like a lady.” But she wasn’t the only one. Connie Wisniewski was told she’d be kicked off her team if she chose to get a close-trimmed cut. Multiple recruits were immediately handed tickets home after they showed up to spring training with bobs, and “Dottie Ferguson was warned by her chaperon against wearing girls’ Oxford shoes, because they were excessively masculine-looking,” writes Lois Browne in her book Girls of Summer: In Their Own League.

Members of the Fort Wayne Daisies baseball team, 1948. (Photo courtesy State Archives of Florida)

Players had to attend charm school and wear lipstick on the field. Their uniforms had skirts instead of pants — not great for sliding, but deemed appropriately feminine by league owner Philip K. Wrigley. All of this was chronicled in “A League of Their Own.” But there was one thing the movie left out: the reason for these requirements.

Though it was never explicitly stated, historians and players alike say the rules were in place, in part, to prevent the women from being perceived as lesbians. Many of the women actually were gay, including D’Angelo, which is another part of the story the movie didn’t tell. By not including a gay character’s story in “A League of Their Own,” the film does to the history of the league what the owners tried to do its existence — erase lesbians from the narrative.

* * *

When Terry Donahue met Pat Henschel in 1947, Donahue was a 22-year-old catcher and utility infielder in the All-American Girls Professional Baseball League. She grew up playing ball with her younger brother, Tom, on their family’s farm in Saskatchewan, Canada. “She claimed that she was five-foot-two. She was about five-foot,” Henschel tells me over the phone from the home she shares with Donahue. “She had dark hair, blue eyes, and was very attractive, and she was wonderfully liked.”

Donahue was in Nova Scotia for the winter when she met Henschel, who was 19 at the time. The two women hit it off, keeping in touch when Donahue moved back to the U.S. to play for the Peoria Red Wings. “She was a utility player, and the catcher on her team broke her thumb or her finger,” Henschel says. “The manager came up to her and said, ‘Have you ever caught?’ And Terry said, ‘no.’ He said, ‘Well, you’re going in tonight.’” The first game Donahue ever caught ended up being a 19-inning game. The next day was her birthday.

“The only things [women] can’t do, we can’t hit as far and we can’t throw as hard, but we certainly can make all the plays that you see in the Cubs’ ballpark. Or the Sox,” Donahue told the Kane County Chronicle in 2010, referring to the Cubs and White Sox, Chicago’s two major-league squads.

Left, Terry Donahue’s baseball card. Right, Peoria Redwings team photo in 1947 – the year she met Pat Henschel. Donahue played in the team from 1946 to 1949. (Photos courtesy All American Girls Professional Baseball League Players Association)

Today, Donahue, who has Parkinson’s disease, is 92. Henschel is 89. For seven decades the two told almost everyone, aside from their inner circle, that they were best friends. The Chronicle story calls Henschel Donahue’s “cousin and roommate.” But the truth was much more than that. For 70 years theirs has been a love story, originating in a time when the only love stories we were allowed to tell were those between a man and a woman. Try to ask most former players about the issue and they clam up. “I don’t think it was really even talked about, frankly,” Henschel says.

In the ’40s and ’50s, homosexuality was not discussed much; it wasn’t until 1973 that the American Psychiatric Association removed it from the list of mental illnesses. The players could have lost more than just their baseball careers if they had been open about their queerness. They could have lost their families, occupations, and reputations, too. In those days, “you had to be very discreet, and we were,” says Henschel. “No one was even aware of it because we got so careful and no one would have even imagined anything at all.”

That stigma has carried on for decades. As Ila Borders, the first woman to play for a men’s professional baseball team since the Negro Leagues, wrote in her memoir, Making My Pitch, “I remain certain that my professional career would not have been possible had I come out.” In 1994, Borders, a left-handed pitcher, became the first woman to receive a college baseball scholarship. She was the first to start an N.C.A.A. baseball game and the first woman to get a win in collegiate baseball. She then played for the independent, otherwise all-male St. Paul Saints and Duluth-Superior Dukes.

“In 1994 few in baseball — or in the country — were ready to accept a gay player, male or female,” writes Borders. Indeed, that same year, the book SportsDykes: Stories From On and Off the Field was also published. In her essay, “The Lesbian Label Haunts Women Athletes,” Lynn Rosellini writes, “To most lesbian athletes … coming out is not yet worth it.”

“If a woman plays hardball, people figure she’s likely gay,” writes Borders. It’s why, during her baseball career, she constantly had to answer questions about whether she dated men, and had to reassure the public that, despite the fact that she played ball, she was not gay. She understands today that talking about being a gay athlete is a double-edged sword, in a way. There’s the stereotype that women athletes are all lesbians, which is both inaccurate and unfair. And yet, there’s also the truth that there are many athletes who are also lesbians.

“I was deeply ignorant of my small place in the history of women athletes and the whole gay rights movement,” Borders writes of her playing days as a closeted homosexual.

But this stereotype existed long before Borders was even born. Some A.A.G.P.B.L. players cited masculine clothing or appearances as tipping them off about a woman’s sexual orientation, a stereotype that still exists today and may or may not be accurate. “The lesbians, they dressed like men with those big pants and big shoes, most of them. … [T]hey had boyish bobs,” Dottie Green, a former A.A.G.P.B.L. player and chaperone told Susan K. Cahn in her book Coming on Strong: Gender and Sexuality in Twentieth Century Sports. Or, as Dottie Ferguson Key put it, “tomboyish girls” who “wanted to go with other girls” signaled it with their “mannish” shoes and clothing.

A.A.G.P.B.L. players (left to right) Daisy Junor, 27, South Bend; Dorice Reid, 19, Chicago club member; Dodie Healy, 19, Chicago club member; (top) Gene George, 20, Peoria club member, fraternizing in a bunk room over a sports magazine, 1948. (Photo courtesy State Archives of Florida)

It was this perception of female athletes as unfeminine and unfeminine women as lesbians that led Wrigley, a chewing gum manufacturer and president of the Chicago Cubs, to insist that his players be appropriately feminine in appearance.

But the A.A.G.P.B.L. went even further than that, instituting a policy against fraternizing with other teams. The given reason was “to sustain the complete spirit of rivalry between clubs,” but Browne writes that the real reason that teams imposed stiff fines on players who violated this rule was the fear of lesbianism. When the affair was between teammates, chaperones would refuse to let the suspected couple room together and gauge the reaction of the players to confirm their hunch. In one case, the suspected lovers were so angry about being barred from becoming roommates that team manager Johnny Gottselig considered it proof of the affair. One manager released two of his players because he thought they were gay and was worried they would “contaminate” the rest of the team.

In another case, a married player was rumored to have fallen for one of her teammates. “That player converted this young married woman in just two weeks,” said Fred Leo, who was the League’s publicity director and, later, its president. Another time, Leo said that a married player was discovered to be in a relationship with a woman who was unassociated with the league. Leo claimed he notified her husband, who came and took her home.

“Knowledge of gay women in sport ranged from a hazy, unarticulated awareness to an informed familiarity or personal involvement,” writes Cahn. “Often an athlete’s initial awareness of lesbianism developed from seeing women ‘pairing off’ or getting ‘very clannish’ with each other.”

However, many of the players came to the league quite sheltered. They often arrived from small towns or rural areas and were quite young when they left home. As a result, it was not uncommon for new or younger players to be completely blindsided by the relationships between their teammates. Dorothy Hunter entered the League in 1943, when she was 27. Hunter, who was from Winnipeg, Canada, said she had “never heard of lesbianism,” so her teammates regaled her with tales of lesbian love affairs. “They told me they had wedding ceremonies. Well, I just thought they were giving me the gears because I was a green Canadian.”

But many of the players were unattached. If straight players were married, many of their husbands were off at war or were left back at home on farms or in factories. The players’ grueling schedule and constant travel made dating difficult. It was in many ways the perfect environment for gay women to become involved with each other. But in some cases, the near-inability to date was a welcome reality. It made staying in the closet easier, because there was no time for dating and so there was no need to make excuses. This was something that Borders discovered, too, when she was playing ball in the 1990s.

“Playing baseball allowed little time for dating,” she writes. “When people tried to set me up, it was easy to say, ‘No thanks, too busy.’”

These restrictions kept some women out of the league altogether. One of those women was Dot Wilkinson, often regarded as the greatest softball player of her time — and perhaps all time. Wilkinson was a hard-playing catcher for the Phoenix Ramblers. She joined the American Softball Association (A.S.A.) team in 1933, when she was just 11 years old.

“Softball has meant more to me than I can ever tell anybody,” Wilkinson says in the documentary film “Extra Innings.” “I love that game. I never thought about anything else.”

Wilkinson was recruited to play in the A.A.G.P.B.L. “They came to Arizona to offer us some contracts,” Wilkinson said. “They wanted to give me $85 a week [equivalent to $1,240 today] to catch. I didn’t want to leave the Ramblers and I don’t like being away from home so I didn’t go.”

But it was more than that. Wilkinson didn’t want any part of the curfews, the charm school, the chaperones, or the mandatory dresses. She played in Levi’s or her shiny satin uniform shorts, and she liked it that way. She also knew that the league was actively discouraging players from being perceived as exactly what Wilkinson was — gay.

“Softball was my first love and it still is,” said Wilkinson. But she had another love, too. In 1963, Estelle “Ricki” Caito, a star second baseman, joined the Ramblers. Wilkinson and Caito played together for two seasons, until the A.S.A. disbanded. But they also began a relationship that would last 48 years, until Caito’s death in 2011.

“We were born at a time when we were all in the closet and that was just the name of the game,” Wilkinson said. “And you had to live with it and that’s what we did.”

* * *

It is the obituaries that offer the most publicly available clues to some of the players who spent their lives with other women. The most telling evidence is often in veiled language or titles that are open to interpretation. In at least one case, a player had a “special friend.” In others, their relationships are more explicitly acknowledged.

Mabel Holle played third base for the South Bend Blue Sox, and like teammate JoJo D’Angelo hailed from Illinois. Holle’s father was a semi-professional pitcher and she grew up playing ball with her siblings. She attended the mass tryout at Wrigley Field, becoming one of the original members of the league in 1943. During the season, she was traded to the Kenosha Comets. Her contract was not renewed in 1944, forcing her to try out again. This time, she didn’t make the cut. After leaving the league, she became a physical education teacher. In Holle’s 2011 obituary, written after she died at 91, there’s this: “Holle is survived by her longtime partner, Linda Hoffman.”

Babe Ruth and Millie Deegan, 1938. (Photo courtesy The Diamond Angle, via Archive Today)

Mildred “Millie” Deegan played 10 seasons with the A.A.G.P.B.L., from 1943-1952. She is rumored to have impressed Babe Ruth with how far she could hit a softball, and it is said he squeezed the biceps on her arm when he posed with her for a photo. In 1944 the Brooklyn Dodgers invited Deegan and two other women to their spring training camp. Leo Durocher, the Dodgers manager, told the Daily Oklahoma in 1946, “Deegan spent a whole week training with the Brooklyn Dodgers at their Bear Mountain, NY camp. If she were a man, she no doubt would have been a Dodger.”

Deegan died of breast cancer in 2002 at the age of 82. Her obituary in the New York Times mentions Margaret Nusse, “Ms. Deegan’s companion and her only survivor.” Nusse, known as “Toots,” was a softball legend herself. According to the now-defunct NJ Divas Fastpitch site, Deegan and Nusse were partners for almost 50 years. The two shared their passion for softball: Deegan was the coach for the Linden, New Jersey, Arians and Nusse was the manager. Nusse passed away just six months after Deegan died, at age 85.

June Peppas was a pitcher and first baseman from Fort Wayne, Indiana, who played in the A.A.G.P.B.L. from 1948-1954. The player known as “Lefty” had spunk. Fort Wayne Daisies manager Harold Greiner relates a story in Browne’s book Girls of Summer: “Once there were some men out in the street, and some smart aleck said something. I didn’t hear what it was, they’d watched till I wasn’t nearby. Anyway, all of a sudden I hear ‘Wow!’ I turned around and saw that June Peppas had decked the guy — and I mean she really decked him. He crawled away.”

The A.A.G.P.B.L. meant a lot to Peppas. She was the first chairperson of the Players Association Board and two-time A.A.G.P.B.L. All-Star. Polly Huitt was Peppas’s partner for 46 years before she passed in 2007, nine years before Peppas died at the age of 86. The two operated a printing business in Allegan, Michigan, called PJ’s Printing, from 1975-1988. They sold the business and retired to Florida where, according to Peppas’s obituary, they enjoyed “golf and an active social life.”

Fort Wayne Daisies player Marie Wegman arguing with umpire Norris Ward, 1948. (Photo courtesy State Archives of Florida)

One of the best pitchers to ever play in the A.A.G.P.B.L. was Jean Cione. The girl from Rockford, Illinois, played 10 seasons in the league. In that time she threw three no hitters, had three 20-win seasons, and had an unassisted triple play — something that has only happened 15 times in Major League Baseball since 1909. Cione spent her rookie year in 1947 with the Rockford Peaches and finished with an astonishing 1.30 ERA. “She was a lot fun to be with,” Cione’s partner Ginny Hunt told the Bozeman Daily Chronicle after her death in 2010. “If you didn’t ever experience watching a baseball game with her, you really missed something. It was a treat to watch a game with her. She analyzed every play.”

Catcher Eunice Taylor and her partner of 45 years, Diana Walega, owned and operated a pet supply store for 40 years. Outfielder Barbara Sowers was with her “loving companion” Shirley Ann Weaver for 45 years. And there are many more, players with “longtime,” “beloved companions,” whose names I have chosen not to include here out of respect for the fact that they were likely still closeted during their lives. Their obituaries, which are historical documents, offer us glimpses into their lives and are open for us to interpret.

* * *

“Our relationship is one of the best,” Pat Henschel says of her partnership with Terry Donahue. “We’re very lucky and we know it.”

Photos of the women throughout the years give a glimpse of the life they’ve had together. In their younger days, they look like they could be sisters as they pose in front of a Christmas tree in a picture that might have been taken in the 1960s. They each sport short, dark hairstyles and wear sleeveless turtleneck shirts. In another, they are perhaps in their 60s and they dance together in front of a fireplace. They are both laughing. Their hairstyles have not changed in the decades between the two photos except to turn from brown to gray.

Members of the All-American Girls Professional Baseball League and an umpire, 1948. (Photo courtesy State Archives of Florida)

They are ready to tell the world the truth about their relationship. Donahue’s great nephew, Christopher Bolan, is working on a documentary about their life together. Another photo shows the two of them doing what they had only ever done behind closed doors: they hold hands, weathered and wrinkled by the years they’ve spent together, and they kiss each other on the lips. Their eyes are closed. It is sweet. It is intimate. But they hid this truth for as long as they did because, for most of their lives, they had too much to lose by coming out.

But today, Henschel says, “They either accept it or they don’t.”

* * *

Fifty years after the All-American Girls Professional Baseball League ended, Ila Borders was making history. She had ascended to a level that no woman ever had before. She was playing — and succeeding — in men’s professional baseball. And then, she quit.

We are sitting together in the stands at JetBlue Park, the Red Sox’s spring training facility in Fort Myers, Florida. We’re watching a group of women play the championship game at the team’s Women’s Fantasy Camp, where Borders is coaching. “It got to me,” Borders says about being in the closet. “It’s why I quit. It’s the worst thing on Earth to hide who you are.”

That, Borders says, is why she ultimately came out — for the next generation of girls who want to play ball, so they can be themselves, no matter who they are, and so history doesn’t have to repeat itself.

Borders looks out onto the field of women whose uniforms are streaked with dirt. “If you are a ballplayer, it’s O.K. to play hard and just be yourself,” she says. And she’s finally at a place in her life where she truly believes it.

How Running Ruined My Relationship, Killed My Faith…and Saved My Life

My high school boyfriend and I made a bet: he'd learn about my religion, Mormonism, if I took up his religion, running. Neither of us was ready for what came next.

The day my doctor released me from in-patient psych, he said, “Allison, I’ll make you a deal. You can go home on the following conditions: 1) You will take Prozac, the high dose, and you won’t even think about getting off it for an entire year, and 2) You will make yourself run, every day, for at least 20 minutes. Because your life depends on it.”

I agreed, and stood behind the Plexiglass window by the nursing station, waiting for the bin that held all the belongings I had been required to hand over the day I checked in: my wallet, my keys, and the laces from my running shoes. As I threaded my sneakers and prepared to keep my promise by jogging home to the apartment I shared with four other Yale grad students, I remembered another deal, the one that started this whole mess. The one I had made about a decade earlier with my high school boyfriend. A deal about sex, running and the Mormon Church.

I fell for my first boyfriend when I was 15, arriving home from church on one of those sticky, Upstate New York, summer afternoons. After a morning of trying to be a good Latter-day Saint by skipping breakfast, putting on a dress, and spending three hours reading scripture and singing songs about how my body is a temple (and the only person I should ever let inside it was my wedded husband), all I could think about was peeling off my sweaty pantyhose and stuffing my face with Cinnamon Toast Crunch. Then I saw him, running by my house. Up until that moment, I had ignored this boy, who had moved to our neighborhood the year before from Maine. But what I was seeing as I felt my stomach growl and my nylons riding down my crotch was a puberty miracle. He had transformed from a skinny, seemingly weak, invisible kid to a lithe, powerful athlete who ran with the joy and abandon of Pheidippides and the irresistible style and charisma of Prefontaine. I was a goner.

His natural, fluid, effortless laps over the rolling hills surrounding our neighborhood awed me. At that point I was getting clobbered as a field hockey fullback, desperately defending the goal against an onslaught of veteran hoss players. I was in the lineup because the team was short-handed that year and took anyone who would wear a skirt and hold a stick. Unlike my new crush, who ran for love of the sport, I used athletics as an outlet — a way to deal with the teenage sexual energy I urgently needed to suppress. I was skinny, muscular and scrappy, but this never translated to excellence in any of my athletic pursuits. By my teen years, I had bounced around, a few seasons here and there, on every team imaginable: basketball, softball, soccer, gymnastics, volleyball, even one tragically desperate year in cheerleading. Though I’d tried, I still hadn’t found a sport at which I possessed even a moderate level of physical prowess.

The insta-crush I had on my neighbor was mutual, and we quickly became obsessed with each other. I learned that, aside from running, my new boyfriend loved jazz and kissing. He taught me to french while listening to hours and hours of John Lee Hooker records. One night he put “Boogie Chillen’” on a loop in the background while he told me to just open my mouth and let him figure out what I tasted like.

I remember lying on his bed, stiff and resistant, a hair-trigger of curiosity, puberty and guilty self-loathing. His first lick — barely touching the inside of my lips and the tip of my teeth — was infused with the knowledge, beyond his years, that his only job was to keep me from bolting, to stay, and want just a little more. It didn’t take long for John Lee Hooker’s lyrics to become my own mantra:

One night I was layin’ down…

I didn’t care what she didn’t allow

I would boogie-woogie anyhow

What a terrible, wonderful moment — to realize what I wanted was not to run away, but to stop and be still, to taste and be tasted, and to let someone know this secret about me that I was supposed to keep to myself for many virginal years to come. It wasn’t long before I wanted to lick his entire body, though it would take years of battling deeply entrenched sexual shame for that fantasy to come true. I settled for his armpits — the only other place, besides his mouth, I could possibly justify as not being explicitly forbidden, and the one spot I could reach without actually undressing him. Taking his shirt off felt too wrong, so I pulled and stretched the collar of his v-neck t-shirt down to access what I wanted, chafing his neck and strangling him a little in the process.

Our “Boogie Chillen’” nights repeated on an endless dreamy loop those first few months. When our lips got worn out, he’d tell me mine were so swollen I could pass for Steven Tyler or some other insulting dig that would get me mad enough to hit him or wrestle him to the floor — which is what he really wanted more than anything. We’d fall asleep spooned together, waking up just in time for me to scramble out of his room at dawn, and for him to drag himself to early morning practice. We swam in Lake Ontario every chance we got because it was the one permissible activity that allowed us to gaze at and lie next to each other with the least amount of clothing on our bodies as possible. John Lee’s refrain: “And it felt so good…It felt so good” populated the doodles I penned in the margins of my lecture notes. Though he continued to win races, and I aced my AP courses, we cared about little else than the next time we could wear our mouths out on each other. The two of us, together, mattered more than food. Sleep. School. Anything.

But what can matter more than sex? The first time my boyfriend tried to lift my shirt, asking me if he could just touch the places my modest one-piece bathing suit concealed, I shut him down and explained the rules governing my morality and chastity. I was the first Mormon he’d ever dated — and he was the first “non-member” (the term Latter-day Saints use to identify those not of their faith) I’d ever dared try out as a boyfriend. I had to explain that, as a true believer and follower of the faith, I was 100 percent committed to: no drinking, no smoking, no coffee, no tea, church for three hours every Sunday, and, of course, no premarital sex.

“And when I say no premarital sex, what I mean is…I think kissing is fine. But you can’t touch any of my body above my knee. Or below my collarbone.”

Making sure he understood me, he asked, “So, wait. That means you can’t touch me either? And are you saying like…even no…premarital fingering? Dry humping? No going down action at all?”

I blushed, and admitted I didn’t even know what those words meant; at that point in my life I hadn’t even watched an R-rated movie.

He was devastated and incredulous. The only rules about sex his hippie parents had taught him to live by were to always give a girl more pleasure first than he ever expected to get in return; never give her any reason to fear or distrust him; and, most importantly, take every means necessary to avoid STDs and pregnancy.

But my boyfriend somehow loved and cared about me more than he loved sex, so he respected my rules. He just could not confine his competitive streak to running — he wanted to win my body over so bad. He worked every angle, came up to the edge of every line I had designated as “off limits,” trying to turn me on as much as I would possibly let myself.

His creativity paid off. I began to cross my own boundaries, and try things my church had never explicitly stated were wrong, but felt so good I knew they must be. I was thrilled to discover dry humping — how had my bishop not thought to scream from the pulpit that this was basically sex and should be totally forbidden?! But these momentary, forbidden pleasures always morphed into aching guilt. My boyfriend started to see how tortured I was, getting excited, then disconnecting and withdrawing, over and over and over again.

We started to fight. He’d ask me, “Why? Why are you putting yourself through this suffering and denial of every urge and instinct? Why do you shut the juices down just as they are getting going?! What kind of crazy, dogmatic, cultish system would make you want to do such a thing?” Our worlds, up to that point, had been too different. I told him we should break up. That he would never understand.

But instead of breaking up, he made me a deal: He would learn about my religion, if I would learn about running. Running was his church, the dogma behind his discipline, self-sacrifice and denial. He promised to try to understand Mormonism if I would learn to run.

So began my relationship with running, and my boyfriend’s with organized religion. I’d like to say everything turned out as romantically as our high school love affair, but it did not.

* * *

I joined the track team for the first time as a high school senior. It was one of the few teams I had never tried; running was the hardest, least enjoyable part of every other sport I had played. An athletic activity consisting solely of running felt like suffering, distilled to its most concentrated form. And unlike the mostly mediocre-with-random-lucky-moments-of-stellar-performance I managed in other sports, I was a terrible runner. Practices were torture sessions. Unlike almost everyone else on my team who had been doing this crazy shit since junior high, I had never run for more than a mile in my entire life. During the usual seven-milers we cranked out each day after school, my heart beat so hard I thought it would explode. Though the girls on my team ran together in a tight unit, making sure to pace so that no one was left behind, my experience was not of comradery, but of loneliness. With my pulse rushing through my ears, my face splotchy and beet-red from the blood pounding in my head, I felt totally closed off, trapped, and almost deaf. My own sensory experience was so intense I couldn’t even hear my teammates chatting casually in the pack around me.

Meets were worse. When I raced, I always crossed the finish line at the end of the pack, usually dead last. I barfed afterward several times. It took me days to recover from each competition. The real deal I had made with my boyfriend was to be tortured and publicly humiliated by the worst sport ever invented.

Why didn’t I just quit? I had started running because of a boy, youthful naivety, and religious zeal — a self-torture trifecta. But running got into me, somehow, in a way I couldn’t shake; the understanding that my physical ability to finish the practice or the race didn’t really matter. Self-will and mental determination ruled this sport. If I believed I could put one foot in front of the other, just one more time, and one more time after that, I would.

Though I never experienced anything like my boyfriend’s rapture for the sport, I came to deeply believe in the power it held in my life — in a way I’d only ever previously experienced with religion.

Simultaneously, the Mormon church got into my boyfriend in a way that he couldn’t shake. Over a period of a few years, I watched his disdain and barely-masked tolerance of the woo-woo ways of Mormonism turn into tentative respect, and then full-fledged, brainwashed belief.

Many fateful stars aligned. Though he went to a Catholic university in the Midwest on a running scholarship, his academic mentor, the chair of the geology department, happened to be Mormon. My boyfriend was contacted by some amazingly handsome and charismatic Latter-day Saints missionaries. The local congregation surrounding his college became a welcoming and supportive family structure during the long, desolate Midwestern winters. Eventually, he got baptized and left his running prospects behind to go on a two-year proselytizing mission to Thailand. When he came back, he was a completely different person — a boring, judgmental, and self-righteous young man. He gave away all his jazz records. The parasites he got on his mission ruined him for running forever. Our relationship, which had transformed over the years from high-school infatuation to deep adult love, did not survive the years of separation. By the time he returned from his cloistered, celibate life, I didn’t know who he was anymore. He didn’t want to touch me. We had both changed too much. I was heartbroken.

While he was off baptizing in Thailand, I went to college in Utah and became very depressed. I knew that Mormonism made me deeply unhappy but I wasn’t quitting that race, to what I thought was heaven, anytime soon. The religion ran in me, and my family’s history, way too deep. What I didn’t know then was that leaving the church would not be a sprint, as it is for some who leave their faith, but an ultramarathon that would take my 20s and most of my 30s to finish. Running became my lifeline.

I ran alone in the foothills of the high Uinta Mountains as a physical means of out-running the psychic and spiritual crisis of my everyday existence. It was a way to stave off the pain and doubt underlying my efforts to keep believing the mantra I had been hearing my entire life: the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is the only true church upon the face of the Earth. Once, out of desperation to just get away from the crush of coeds who seemed so much happier living a life that was making me miserable, I signed up for a half-marathon, a day’s drive away from campus in southern Utah. The race course wove through the desert surrounding the majestic Colorado River, and seemed like the perfect place for a respite from the hordes of happy Mormons surrounding me on a daily basis. The vast, unpeopled landscape suggested a world into which I might escape. Someday.

The race was a disaster. I hadn’t really trained. In the weeks prior, I ran as far as I could make myself, every day thinking, “My best will be good enough, right?” Wrong. I felt like shit after the first five miles, and started to realize I was in real trouble about mile ten. I chafed between my thighs, which bled down my legs unabated until another runner threw me a jar of Vaseline as he jogged past yelling, “Honey, please help yourself. It’s just too pitiful to watch!” I drank almost no water, not understanding the toll the desert heat would take on my body. During the last few miles, I could feel my legs seizing up, but I was determined to finish. Apparently, my best was good enough to finish, but not without paying a price worse than the most embarrassing moment of my childhood — so excited as a kindergartener to be first in line for school-lunch, I hadn’t paid attention to the pressing ache of my five-year-old bladder. Twenty years later, I cried and peed through the entire last mile of the 1993 Moab Half Marathon; my chafed thighs burned more fiercely than the humiliation of urinating in front of my entire class while paying for tater-tots.

You’d think I’d be done with running after that. But somehow, I wasn’t.

Eventually, I managed to complete college in Utah, and pursue a master’s degree in public health at Yale University. Ironically, while trying to ace courses in how to protect the bodies and minds of everyone else on the planet, I failed to take care of my own. I cracked. I hadn’t anticipated how insanely fucking hard grad school at Yale would be — I felt like an imbecile compared to my classmates. I was also plagued by debilitating self-loathing: I had come to hate my body and the forbidden things it wanted. My high school boyfriend was just the tip (pun intended) of my sexual awakening; with each successive relationship, I pushed my Mormon boundaries into even more illicit territory, and was wracked with guilt about every erotic thing I’d ever done. I remember trying to run and literally stopping in my tracks after just a few steps — I couldn’t make myself do it. I hated myself for that weakness too. I knew it was time to check myself in when I realized I’d literally prefer death over being too stupid for Yale, and feeling so tortured and disgusted with myself, for even one more day.

Looking out the window of the ambulance that drove me straight from the student counseling center to in-patient psych, I watched students on the sidewalk walking briskly, some breaking out in a trot, anxious to get somewhere they wanted to be, on time. I remember thinking I’d never have the will to do that — to put one foot in front of the other — for any reason, ever again.

* * *

The week I spent at Yale Psychiatric Institute was one of the longest of my entire life. It was the place I started to realize that I didn’t want to be Mormon anymore. The running deal I struck almost a decade before with my boyfriend had left me a triple-loser: 1) It had ruined, what I thought, was the greatest love of my life; 2) I was losing my entire belief system; and 3) I was so far down in the bell jar I couldn’t will myself to walk down the hospital hallway to eat lunch, much less run, ever again.

My only consolation was that my roommate had some brain chemistry problems that were actually worse than mine. Afflicted with Munchausen syndrome, she was in there because she pretended, or was possibly convinced, that she literally couldn’t walk. Laying in my bed, day-in and day-out, listening to her threaten anyone who walked past our open door, “I swear I will shit this bed unless somebody brings me a wheelchair!” I knew I had to find some way to will myself back out there, even if there wasn’t a heaven anymore, no finish line to cross, no reward to be won from all that self-denial and sacrifice to live a “good” life. Anything was better than watching a hospital orderly hand my roommate a diaper, and trying not to watch what was going to happen next.

And so, when they discharged me from the psych ward, a very wise but somewhat manipulative therapist preyed on my tenacious respect for God and promises, making me swear to take my Prozac and run every day. I agreed to the Prozac because I was desperate, but I balked at the idea that 20 minutes of running would do anything at all for me.

“You don’t know how much I hate running,” I said. “I don’t think I can do it. I can take a pill but I don’t think I can torture myself with running ever again.”

He took off his glasses, rubbed his eyes, and considered me. It seemed like he was trying to decide if he should scare me, appeal to my sense of reason, or maybe lie to me about why I should do what he was asking. He had bigger problems, like my diaper-wearing roommate, to deal with. I was surprised when he said, “I predict you’re the kind of person who won’t like how life feels on Prozac…that something about you is a little addicted to suffering. I think if you need to suffer, you might as well try to get some adrenaline and endorphins into your brain while you’re doing it. I’m telling you to run because I’m thinking I’ll be lucky if I can get you to stay on Prozac for a year. And I’m hoping that running will carry you through after that. And I’m saying 20 minutes because I hope that number will stick in your brain as something you’ll feel really pathetic trying to talk yourself out of.”

I ran home in the freezing rain. I ran all winter in that wet, stinging, snow that Connecticut winters spit down. Sometimes I jogged in my jeans and Birkenstocks, too depressed to muster the strength to change into workout gear. But I did it. I took the pills. I ran the daily 20. My brain chemistry slowly recovered. The prescription healed me.

I have been running, 20 minutes every day, for over 15 years because that therapist was right: I made it 11 months and three days before I felt like I needed to feel the suffering of real life again. But like anyone who has reached the edge and gone over it, I live with a nagging, constant fear that my next breakdown is never far away. This desperation to titrate the delicate balance of serotonin, endorphins, dopamine and glutamate that my brain needs keeps me putting on my shoes and hitting the pavement or the treadmill. I never get the legendary runner’s high. I never manage a Zen-like meditative state, not even for a few seconds. It’s purely a time of tedious physical discomfort and what’s probably worse: racing, unhealthy inner-thoughts. I set my stopwatch for 20:00 and my mind immediately takes over in a self-destructive process something like this: “O.K., don’t look at the watch. Fuck. I looked. 19 minutes and 58 seconds left. Jesus Fucking Christ Allison, don’t look again for at least five minutes. O.K.? O.K. I really need a bikini wax. But I shouldn’t do it. I should stop getting them altogether. It’s so anti-feminist. But so is feeling disgusting when I put on a bathing suit. Why can’t I be one of those women that sprouts out of my bikini bottoms like I’ve got a worn-out Brillo Pad stuck in there and be O.K. with it? It also hurts like a MOTHERFUCKER. I could go right after this, but I think I am getting my period, like right now. And those poor Asian ladies have seen my bloody underpants too many times. They are probably so grossed out by me at this point they will lie and say they can’t squeeze me in. FUCK! 19 minutes, 40 seconds left!? UGH!!!”

Sometimes I run in street clothes. There are days I just know that if I go into my bedroom after work to find a sports bra, change into sweatpants, and sit on my bed, just for a few minutes, I might not make it up and out again. As I trot down the street, wearing my linen dress pants, a button-up shirt and sneakers, I don’t look like I’m running, I look like I’m late for work or trying to catch the bus.

Before I die, I’d like to run another race where I don’t cry, or pee, or bleed across the finish line, or come in dead last. But now the only race that really counts is this one I’m running, every day, 20 minutes at a time, as people shout from their porches, with a hint of concern, “Hey! You late for something? Need a ride?” I smile, wave, and keep shuffling along. And try to tell myself, as I realize I’m sweating through my silk blouse, and still have 18 minutes and 2 seconds to go, that this might be my personal best.

The Day My Therapist Dared Me to Have Sex With Her

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

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

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

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

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

“Oh, yeah,” I say. “That.”

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

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

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

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

I shrugged my shoulders, only half looking up.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Nailed it.

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

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

* * *

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Why not?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

There were two ways to find out:

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

2) Keep going to therapy.

* * *

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

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

“I don’t know.”

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

Here we go again.

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

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

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

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

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

“What?” I respond, flustered.

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

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

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

“Of course not.”

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

“I wouldn’t do that.”

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

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

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

* * *

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Isn’t therapy supposed to ameliorate my anxiety?

* * *

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Exactly.”

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

* * *

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Lori’s great at forcing me to reflect.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

* * *

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

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

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

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

* * *

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

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

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

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

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

* * *

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The Great Unsolved Mystery of Missing Marjorie West

Eighty years ago today, a four-year-old girl vanished into the Pennsylvania woods. The search captivated people across the nation — and some have never stopped looking.

On a damp Thursday morning in May 1938, hundreds of workers from Western Pennsylvania oil fields, given the day off to look for a missing girl, walked through the Allegheny Forest at arms’ length. They traversed the tangled underbrush alongside police with bloodhounds, World War I veterans, Cornplanter Indians, coal miners, and assorted others who’d responded to the local mayor’s call for 1,000 volunteers. They killed rattlesnakes and were careful not to drop a foot down into one of the hundreds of oil wells dug during the area’s petroleum boom in the 1870s.

But by nightfall, the “haggard, sleep-robbed faces of scores of men,” as the Bradford Era newspaper described them, told onlookers the grim truth: another day had passed without finding the little red-haired four-year-old, Marjorie West.

Newspaper report on Marjorie West’s disappearance. (Photo courtesy Danville Morning News)

Eighty years ago today, Marjorie vanished while at a Mother’s Day picnic in the forest with her family. To this day she is the subject of one of the oldest unsolved cases recorded by the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children. Her search was one of the largest for a child since the Lindbergh Baby kidnapping six years earlier. Residents of Western Pennsylvania and Marjorie’s surviving relatives still hold out hope she’s alive. If she is, she may yet celebrate her 85th birthday next month.

“She could still be living,” said Marjorie’s cousin, Jack Covert, in an interview shortly before he passed away in March. “But she’s probably not around here.”

Marjorie was lost four decades before the nationwide “stranger danger” panic over kidnappings, set off when the son of eventual “America’s Most Wanted” host John Walsh disappeared from a Florida mall in 1981. After the much-publicized Adam Walsh abduction, parents became more fearful about where their children went and who they were with, and government agencies instituted safety programs including taking fingerprints of kids to keep on file. More recently, the hit Netflix series “Stranger Things,” about a fictional 12-year-old named Will Byers who’s snatched into another dimension, prompted renewed discussion about the idyllic times when children roamed free and parents rarely worried. In a New York Times op-ed, Ana North wrote, “‘Stranger Things’ is a reminder of a kind of unstructured childhood wandering that [now] seems less possible.”

But the Marjorie West case reminds us that decades before mass media coverage of child kidnappings, there were hazards that terrified parents. The dangers (Depression-era vagrants, illicit adoption rings) were just different. How free children should be to roam, and how cautious parents should be about young children’s activities, is a debate that still rages today.

* * *

On Sunday, May 8, 1938, the West family – father Shirley; mother Cecilia; and children Dorothea, 11, Allan, 7, and Marjorie – attended church in Bradford, a small city 90 minutes south of Buffalo, New York, and 90 minutes east of Titusville, Pennsylvania, the site of the country’s first oil boom in 1859. Bradford enjoyed its own rush for liquid gold a dozen years later, providing a steady living for families like the Wests – Shirley was an assistant engineer at Kendall Refining, located just a few blocks from his home.

After church, the Wests drove 13 miles along Highway 219 to a clearing in the Allegheny Forest that was popular with hunters and fishermen. They joined family friends, Mr. and Mrs. Lloyd Akerlind.

Around three p.m. Cecilia headed to the road to rest in the car. Her husband, Shirley, prepared to go trout fishing in the stream with Lloyd. The girls, Dorothea and Marjorie, wanted to pick wildflowers. Shirley warned them to watch for rattlesnakes behind the boulder nearby.

The girls gathered a bouquet of violets. Dorothea headed to the car to deliver them to their mother. When she turned around, her sister was gone.

The family drove to the nearest phone seven miles away to contact police in the town of Kane.

What followed was a grueling search that spanned months and saw more than 3,000 local people hunting for Marjorie, with countless others locked into the national newspaper coverage.

When police couldn’t find Marjorie that Sunday afternoon, 200 men joined in, including the Citizen Conservation Corps and the Moose and Elks lodges. As darkness fell, oilmen brought headlamps. “All available flash-lights in the city were pressed into service,” noted the Era. The effort slowed when a cold rain fell at one a.m.

On Monday, the search party grew to 500. They waded through the stream and stood 25 yards apart in a mile-long line, ultimately combing four square miles. Police interviewed motorists across an area spanning 300 square miles.

By Tuesday, May 10, police brought bloodhounds from New York State. That evening, they found clues, but accounts vary.

Two newspaper articles say the dogs followed Marjorie’s trail “half a mile up a mountain” to a cabin with its door nailed shut. Nothing of interest was found inside. Other media accounts, as well as those from Marjorie’s descendants in online blogs and discussion threads, say the dogs followed Marjorie’s scent to the road alongside the clearing.

“The searches found the crushed bouquet of violets, picked for her mother for Mother’s Day, lying on the ground not far from the rock,” close to where the flowers were pulled, wrote Catherine, the daughter of Marjorie’s cousin Joyce, on her genealogy blog in 2006.

Many people believed in 1938, as they do now, that Marjorie was picked up at the road. Witnesses told police of three cars that had passed through the area around three p.m. The drivers of two were identified by Tuesday night. The third – whom witnesses said was a man – was seen fleeing in his Plymouth sedan so fast an oncoming motorist told police he had to pull into a ditch.

On Wednesday afternoon, Bradford’s mayor Hugh Ryan issued his plea for 1,000 volunteers for the next day’s search. He got 2,500.

Newspaper clipping from the Bradford Era on May 11, 1938, showing the search for West. (Photo courtesy the Bradford Era)

The search was praised for its organization, thanks in part to the men who, like Shirley, had served in the Great War. At 5:30 a.m., surveyors mapped out the land, and by eight a.m. a “line of men, standing shoulder to shoulder several miles long, grew impatient in the Chappel Fork road until leaders gave the [bugle] signal for them to enter the forest,” recounted the Era. “Refinery workers rubbed elbows with professional men.” Women doled out 1,600 cups of coffee, prepared in “wash boilers” for hot laundry.

By the end of the week, the search had covered 35 square miles with Marjorie still out of sight. There were discoveries: a swath of lace near the boulder, and a fresh hole a few miles away. But Marjorie’s aunt told police she hadn’t worn lace that day, and two men admitted using the hole to hide casks of cherry wine.

Engineers pumped out a muddy well and Native Americans tracked “she bears” – mother bears they believed were prone to carrying off small children – to no avail.

Shirley did not leave the forest for a week until, according to the May 16th Era, he “consented to come to Bradford. He ate his evening meal at home and then returned.”

Police began circulating a poster describing Marjorie’s “curley” red hair, freckles, red Shirley Temple hat, and patent leather shoes. Cecilia West stayed at home so as not to miss a phone call.

On May 13, 1938, State Police Commissioner P.W. Foote told the Associated Press that West’s disappearance probably began with her liking to “play hide and seek.”

A detail of four police searched the area for five months.

* * *

Snakes and “she bears” were not the only dangers in the woods.

Newspapers covering the disappearance linked it with a 1910 mystery in which two boys vanished near the forest within a few hours of each other. On April 16 of that year, Edward Adams, nine, was fishing with buddies near Lamont, Pennsylvania, and heard a “wild man” cursing in the woods. The boys ran, but when the group stopped, Eddie was gone. Thirteen miles away, in the town of Ludlow, Michael Steffan, seven, fished with a friend. Walking home, the other boy looked back and Michael had vanished. Newspapers at the time reported that a Mr. Arrowsmith said his “mentally unbalanced” son, Harry, 32, had wandered off the same day, near Lamont. But Harry returned a week later with no knowledge of the boys, police said. Thirteen days after the disappearances, a mail carrier discovered a handwritten note on a Lamont railroad trestle: “Will return boy for $10,000.” That was the last clue found.

Two years later, Buffalo police captured the “Postcard Killer,” J. Frank Hickey, who admitted to murdering two other boys in Buffalo and Manhattan, nine years apart. Many suspected he’d killed other boys in the region, and Edward Adams’s mother wrote to Buffalo police to ask whether Hickey ever mentioned her son. When Mrs. Adams passed away in 1933, the Associated Press reported that she’d kept a light in her window for 23 years, waiting for Eddie.

Those disappearances were 11 and 19 miles from Marjorie’s picnic, respectively. It’s hard to believe the same “wildman” could have been lurking in the woods 28 years later, but the cases were a testament to the fact that anyone could have been in the forest. In fact, The Era reported on Sept. 14, 1938 that a 55-year-old “woodsman” was arrested for assaulting another man “with a double-bladed ax during an argument while they were working on a woods operation in the Chappel Fork area,” near where Marjorie disappeared. The story said the woodsman had been questioned about Marjorie at one point, but was released.

If Marjorie was snatched, it could have been for profit. During the Great Depression, child kidnappings became a popular, low-tech way to make a buck. “Kidnapping wave sweeps the nation,” blared a New York Times headline on March 3, 1932, two days after the abduction of the son of aviator Charles Lindbergh. At the time, some feared that cars, still a relatively new technology, were going to cause an increase in kidnappings, and they weren’t wrong. Abductions did increase with the use of automobiles and with greater highway usage. Still, many of those who believed Marjorie was abducted thought it was not for ransom, but for a different type of moneymaking enterprise.

Reward poster for any information on the disappearance of West. (Photo courtesy McKean County Cold Cases)

On Sept. 12, 1950, Tennessee authorities announced allegations that Georgia Tann, executive director of the Memphis branch of the Tennessee Children’s Home Society, had adopted out more than 1,000 babies for $1 million since the 1930s, tricking poor couples into giving them up. Tann died three days after the investigation became public. Many of the children never knew their birth parents (including famed professional wrestler Ric Flair, born in 1949, who wrote of the circumstance in his autobiography). And presumably, the wealthy clients who adopted through Tann’s agency (including actress Joan “Mommie Dearest” Crawford) never knew of her methods.

The Tann theory was bolstered by a clue. A few days after Marjorie disappeared, a taxi driver in Thomas, West Virginia, told police that late at night on Mother’s Day, a man and weeping young girl checked into the town’s Imperial Hotel. Could they have been stopping midway to Tennessee?

But news stories from five months later render the Tann theory unlikely. In October 1938, Pennsylvania state police tracked down merchant Conrad Fridley of Ridgely, West Virginia. He said that on that evening, he and daughter Lois, five, were returning home from a visit to Parsons, West Virginia, and had to stop because of fog. Lois became frustrated and cried. They left the hotel early the next morning to open his shop.

Census records from 1940 show a Conrad Fridley, 31, of Ridgeley, who in 1940 had a daughter, eight.

As spring turned to summer, national media focused on Hitler’s annexation of Austria and the suffering United States economy. But Western Pennsylvania press continued following Marjorie’s case.

“The state police investigation continued off and on for six years,” reported the Era in 1955, noting that Shirley and Cecilia West had separated around 1953.

Family members say Marjorie’s closest relatives went to their grave believing she was alive.

* * *

Tammy Dittman, a longtime teacher in Bradford, took a class of hers to the Allegheny Forest in 2008 to learn about archeology. During the trip, two men from the Civil Conservation Corps discussed their search, as youths, for Marjorie.

“They talked about how hard they searched,” Dittman says. “They searched shoulder to shoulder constantly.”

The class undertook a project to research the case and speak with young kids about safety.

After the Olean, New York, Times Herald covered the project, Dittman got a call from another elderly man, now blind, who had searched as well.

The man told Dittman, “‘There was no way the little girl could have been in the woods,’” she says. “The fact that he contacted me practically on his deathbed shows how sad it was. Maybe he had a little hope we’d find out more.”

Dittman, who has hiked near Chappel Fork, acknowledged the hazards nearby, including hundreds of old wells that are hard to notice. “You can step right into them and go down,” she says. Yet she believes the most likely explanation is that Marjorie was kidnapped.

“I hope she was at least in a good family,” Dittman says.

* * *

Two of Marjorie’s descendants have written online about the case.

Catherine, the daughter of Marjorie’s first cousin, Joyce, explained on her family genealogy blog: “My grandfather searched for weeks, long after the manhunt was called off, returning home late into the night. Three small children sat on the porch steps waiting for him, but they knew each night from the slope of his shoulders, he didn’t find the little girl with the bouncing red curls.”

The granddaughter of Dorothea West, Angel, wrote in 2009: “I remember listening to my grandmother tell me stories about Marjorie and the sadness she felt for leaving her sister alone for those few moments. My grandmother held on to her feeling of responsibility until her passing two years ago.”

These three descendants of Marjorie did not respond to requests for interviews, so out of respect for their privacy we’ve opted to only use their first names. However, they did reach out to authorities back in 2010, compelling the state police, unable to find old records, to start a new case file. State Police Corporal Mary Gausman says that in 2012 police took cheek swabs for DNA from two cousins in Bradford, sending them to the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children. Unfortunately, they produced no clues.

But both agencies get tips. Gausman says that in 2014, an employee of a hospital in Rochester, New York, read about the case online and called to say they had a patient named Marjorie who rarely had visitors. But the woman’s niece had seen immigration records and confirmed she’d been born in 1922.

However, one Bradford native believes he knows the answer to the mystery.

* * *

Harold Thomas “Bud” Beck, a writer, raconteur, and college professor with a Ph.D. in linguistics, researched the case after he heard about it in a bar he used to run. Around 1998, when internet access was becoming more widespread, he posted a $10,000 reward for information about Marjorie. He included up-to-date photos of Dorothea, figuring Marjorie would resemble her.

One woman contacted him to say she’d worked at a company in Florida with a nurse who looked similar.

Beck took a trip south to meet several people about whom he’d gotten tips. The nurse did look like Dorothea, but denied being Marjorie.

Around 2005, Beck says, he heard from her again and went to meet her. By then she had returned to her childhood farm in North Carolina.

When he caught up with her there, she related a story that her mother told her when she was nearing the end of her life: In 1938, the nurse’s father left that very farm and drove north to work in Bradford’s refineries for the winter. Come spring, it was time to return to his crops. Driving south past the Allegheny Forest on Mother’s Day, he hit a little girl.

“There wasn’t anybody there,” Beck recounts. “He was going to take her to the hospital in Kane. He was afraid she was dead.”

But as he was driving with the unconscious girl in the car, she woke up, seemingly unharmed. He and his wife had lost their only daughter that winter. The delivery had been difficult and they didn’t think they could have more children.

The man brought Marjorie to the farm and raised her there.

A few years later, he lost an arm on board an aircraft carrier in World War II, Beck says. The man told his wife he thought it was “God’s way of punishing him for what he’d done.”

The nurse used to tell her parents that she remembered another family, but they dismissed it. She also remembered a place with “snow way over her head,” Beck says.

After World War II, her parents had four more children, according to Beck.

The nurse only told Beck the story after he made two promises: one, he couldn’t tell anyone about her identity – except for Dorothea, whom she wanted to meet – and two, Beck could only publish her story after she died.

By that time, Dorothea was in ill health and couldn’t meet “Marjorie,” Beck says.

The nurse died about a decade ago. Beck kept his promise and self-published Finding Marjorie West in 2010.

“There’s no question” it’s her, Beck says.

Portrait of 4-year-old Marjorie West. (Photo courtesy McKean County Cold Cases)

People have pressed him to notify the authorities, Beck adds, but he ponders, “What is it going to accomplish? One family is dead, and the other has been living under a set of circumstances they believe to be true. The mother and father were considered good people in the community.”

Locals who’ve read the book have debated its conclusions on Facebook. Marjorie’s cousin’s daughter Catherine discounted the story on a 2012 discussion thread on Websleuths.com, a site on which people try to solve missing persons cases. Catherine wrote that the state trooper she talked to didn’t take Beck’s narrative seriously.

Beck says he understands why people are frustrated, particularly those involved in the search. But he won’t betray a confidence.

Bob Lowery, a vice president at the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children, hadn’t heard of Beck’s book, but says Beck or anyone else with information about Marjorie should come forward. He notes the case is the third-oldest in their files. “I would think that anyone alive today who was living at that time would have vivid memories of this,” he says. “When something happens to a child of four, there’s a need to have the truth shared so that everyone knows.”

If Beck’s tale is true, it would explain how Marjorie disappeared so quickly and without a trace, as well as the speeding Plymouth. But the story begs questions: How were two people able to keep the secret so long? Did the sorrow they felt on Mother’s Day drive them to rationalize the act?

Perhaps the tale is just too good to be true. In Beck’s book, the nurse claims she was the sobbing girl spotted in West Virginia on Mother’s Day night. But according to an article from October 1938, the police and Wests went to meet Conrad Fridley, the merchant who said he was there. Police told the press that his daughter resembled Marjorie, but wasn’t her, and the girl spotted that night had different clothes than Marjorie.

Beck dismissed the newspaper accounts, saying he stands by his story.

Relatives remain wary. In 2015, an anonymous reviewer on Amazon, presumably a member of the family, wrote that she was shocked Beck was selling the book after “making false promises and leading my grandmother on wild goose chases for YEARS.”

So what if the nurse wasn’t Marjorie? Where did she go?

One cannot discount the rough terrain in the woods. In 1962, two boys died while exploring an abandoned clay mine in Western Pennsylvania, prompting Bradford officials to finally start closing all old mines, caves, and wells.

* * *

“The effects of that day,” Catherine wrote on her blog, “lasted long into mom’s adulthood, and when she had children, made her extra cautious about where we were and who we were with.”

Marjorie West’s case, like other child disappearances of the time, had a ripple effect on families long before mass media attention was ever trained on Adam Walsh. Responding to recent newspaper essays in the last few years about parents becoming overprotective due to modern media coverage of tragedies, senior citizens have responded that their parents became more protective after the Lindbergh Baby case. There was a similar effect in Western Pennsylvania in 1938. “This [West case] was the very very sad object lesson of my childhood…not to wander away, not to go anywhere with ‘strangers,’” recalled an elderly woman on a Bradford community Facebook group.

Regardless of the statistics of “stranger danger,” parents will always have to negotiate their own comfort level about being protective.

Tammy Dittman, the Bradford teacher, says kids should be wary and vigilant.

“Some [children] need to be scared,” says Dittman. “They think nothing can happen to them.”

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