Attending a loved one’s funeral is among the most dreadful moments in life. But for some, attending a stranger’s funeral is as cathartic as it gets.
Attending a loved one’s funeral is among the most dreadful moments in life. But for some, attending a stranger’s funeral is as cathartic as it gets.
If you die near Wellington, New Zealand, there could be a pale young woman at your funeral, with raven hair and delicate, shadowed eyes. None of your mourners will know her or even recognize her, and some might suspect she’s a ghost. She never met you, either. Her name is Kat, and she’s at your funeral only because you were a person once, and now you’re dead.
It’s surprisingly easy to crash a stranger’s funeral. Families rarely orchestrate a private service, and nobody’s checking IDs. But once you’re inside, there are scores of social hazards: There’s the guest book — do you sign your real name? Jot down a somber “remembrance?” What if a loved one is guarding it? What if someone shoots you the evil eye? There’s the prospect of an awkward conversation: “How did you know my mother? Oh, you don’t know any of us? You’re here for the food, then?”
So why do it? Why go to a funeral for any reason other than loving obligation?
Some people may crash funerals for the free food or to land a coveted newly-available apartment, or even the chance to show off “funeral chic” black clothes. True obsessives are drawn to cemeteries or literally can’t stop grieving, like Brazilian Luis Squarisi, who reportedly quit his job to attend funerals full-time after losing his own father.
Harold and Maude, the unlikely couple from the 1971 cult flick, used funerals to escape from conformity (him) and trauma (her). For British granny Lyra Mollington, blogging about funeral-going gave her renewed purpose, and a devoted following, until her own death in 2012.
I went to a stranger’s funeral once, for a story I was writing, and the dead man was very young. Sadness hadn’t swamped me, so I was open to instruction – how to face death, or even transcend it. “Luca” (names of the deceased have been changed out of respect for their families) was smart and a natural prankster, and while I heard about his schoolhouse antics, I’ll never know what killed him or any of his chased dreams. His funeral was in a mortuary — people drifted through, a cell phone tweeted, and an anguished brother tore through tissues. I was largely unnoticed.
In the end, Luca left in an urn, a sanitized and tidy departure. In this sense he defied the shifting ground of today’s more intimate death culture, where the morbid-minded mingle in “death cafés,” and newspapers run photos of embalmed corpses (our generation’s memento mori).
I may have been the outsider, but it was Luca left alone, in the end. It’s like having a chronic illness and watching the world spin at a different speed. It’s what you’ll feel when you are dead, and the sun rises without you.
Artist Kat McBeath didn’t need a stranger’s funeral to become closer to death. It had stalked and found her already. For her, a stranger’s funeral has become the purest place to recognize grief. It’s where she processes her life’s sadness.
She crashed her first funeral in 2007 — then crashed three more in the past year alone.
* * *
McBeath actually thought she was crashing a wedding that first time; a beautiful diversion. Out for a city stroll in Wellington and in no hurry to return home, she’d turned a corner into St. Peter’s Church, where a mass of people flanked the gates. She knew the church, all high Gothic angles, and that she’d be invisible in the back row.
Someone handed her a leaflet, printed with the face of a white-haired woman followed by two dates, McBeath says. Family members were taking the pews, which were otherwise bare. Louisa had, it seemed, outlived most of the people she knew.
At first, McBeath stayed rooted in her seat simply because it was too awkward and obvious to leave. She feared being called out as a “rubbernecker,” just there for the spectacle, but she didn’t move, later blogging about such risky business: “I wish to keep you on the edge of your seat, by playing from the edge of mine.”
But McBeath was also curious. Since her very first funeral, at age eight, where she wanted to touch the “unusually pleasant-looking” body in an open casket, she’d been interested in how we say goodbye.
Watching Louisa’s relatives step up to speak, overcome, triggered a memory for McBeath. She was once again twelve years old and wailing after her father died suddenly of a heart attack. “I said extreme things and was very dramatic,” she says. Family members reacted with awkward, stiff sympathies, leaving her confused and feeling guilty for not expressing herself the way they wanted.
Swearing she’d never be in that position again, McBeath began to muzzle her emotions, which is problematic for an artist. After that, she’d only paint while talking with friends or listening to post-rock, trance music — anything to keep feeling from the point of her brush, to keep from being “alone with my brain,” as she wrote.
So when hymns entered Louisa’s service, McBeath began to sing along (she’s a soprano), giving voice to her own sadness: “Kyrie eleison. Lord have mercy.”
She floated on the litany, found comfort in ritual, examined grief in a dream state.
The outsider’s voice blended in with the others. “I feel a more pure connection with strangers,” she says. “There are no social expectations, so there’s a lot less going on in your head. You can focus on meaning.”
* * *
At one point during Henry’s funeral, the minister looked right at McBeath and said: “The floor’s open, if anyone wishes to speak.” Of course she had nothing to say. After all, Henry was a stranger, and she’d only just discovered that he’d killed himself.
“It was worded gently that he’d been having mental problems, and couldn’t take the pain anymore,” she says. The mood at his service was nearly happy, because he’d held on so long.
So who did the minister think she was? One of the teens Henry had mentored, maybe. “I was super nervous about being the strange woman in the back,” she says. “But his family might have liked that he’d had a secret woman.”
That’s one hazard to crashing a funeral home, where the rooms are tight — in Henry’s case, a generic space with friends and co-workers perched on stacking chairs, listening to recorded music. It was too clinical a setting for this sensitive man.
For McBeath, his suicide stirred dreams blunted by fear or distraction, the milestones that define us (and maybe shouldn’t). McBeath was raised and homeschooled as a fundamentalist Christian, a belief system that takes a dim view of suicide, but she felt only compassion for Henry.
“I didn’t get the impression that he died prematurely,” she says. “He left after doing everything he wanted.”
McBeath developed such pragmatism by studying neuroscience and psychology in college, and now works as a high school teachers’ assistant, mixing solutions and fixing lab equipment for science faculty. She supports teaching both evolution and creationism (albeit in philosophy class).
She lives in the hills above Wellington, which accounts for a certain fatalism, too – fierce gales are common (locals of “Windy Welly” know better than to carry an umbrella, which will never get vertical) and the city sits on active geological fault lines, so it’s prone to earthquakes.
“A large, damaging earthquake could occur at any time,” the government warns. Especially devastating was the Christchurch quake of 2011, which killed 181 people.
That same year, more Kiwis committed suicide than died in car accidents.
Then there was the Pike River tragedy, in which twenty-nine coal miners were lost, inspiring McBeath to write a song called “Canaries”: “Let our best men work into the ground…when canaries lose their song, the bravest know they don’t have long.” The New Zealand government recently postponed a decision on whether to re-enter the mine tunnel and recover the remains.
As a Christian mystic, McBeath doesn’t blame God or anyone else for the harsh facts of life. They can be overcome with love and harmony – and sometimes macabre humor. She’s a fan of swinger-Satan comics (“I don’t believe in hell, though it’s useful in jokes”) and she invites dead Facebook friends to parties.
* * *
Harrison had gone quickly, after a brief illness, and his funeral came on a bitter, windy day, in a grand chapel with soaring ceilings and balcony seating. His tween children recited the tribute poems they’d written. McBeath, who comes from an unsentimental family, found it odd. “For me,” she says, “grief was too complex to articulate at that age.”
Harrison was a minister and beloved in the community. His status, and sudden death, reminded McBeath of her own father.
The earliest memory she has of him was at the dinner table, when after studying his balding head she noted: “Dad, your head looks like an egg,” prompting shocked, amused laughter from the others.
She might be forgiven for calling him an egghead, because by then William McBeath was a well-respected doctor, descended from hardy Scots who had arrived on the Kiwi coast a century before. William met Kat’s future mother, Barbara, a nurse in the hospital where they both worked. After marrying they settled in Whangarei, a pastoral village in northern New Zealand carved out by long-ago volcanos.
Together they raised five rambunctious children in a gently structured home. Summers were spent in a nearby fishing village, with the kids riding in a little boat towed behind the family van. Similarly, in McBeath’s artwork, she shows friends’ children as cool little sprites, and not too precious.
Barbara was pregnant with their sixth child when William died suddenly. His service was held in a dynamic church, with powerhouse acoustics and spot-lit white walls.
Self-conscious, McBeath couldn’t bring herself to cry during his funeral. She was showered with annoying condolences, shoulder rubs, and probing questions—“Are you okay?”—to which she wanted to reply: “Why? Am I doing something wrong?”
She says she would have liked to see a stranger at his funeral: “I could have talked to them normally.”
* * *
Of all the strangers whose funerals she attended, McBeath most wished she could have met Stella, a humanitarian who’d devoted decades to working with the Maori, New Zealand’s indigenous people. Stella’s funeral came in a coastal, pocket-sized chapel, and she was buried in a raw wooden casket.
As a member of the choir, McBeath helped “dance Stella home,” shifting from being an observer to being part of the service, with a close view from the altar.
Too close, as it turned out — at one point McBeath’s choir robe brushed the candles flaming on the coffin’s lid. After drifting through other funerals, she’d nearly landed on the pyre herself.
Still, she kept a respectful distance from the grieving family, preserving those boundaries not because of what other mourners might do — sadness is all they see — but because when the music stops and the family leaves with the coffin, she goes back to being an outsider. “You’re more aware of not feeling the same things as everyone else,” she says.
McBeath has always been drawn to the dark, driving hours to shoot video of a moonset, where the night orb seems to sit on the sea. Moons and night skies appear in her paintings, too, beacons for electric zebras, red dragons, lost Greek gods, seals and golden children.
At twenty-two, after graduating college, McBeath worked night shifts at a mental health clinic. She was awake when her friends were not, so there was nobody to see her vomiting, fatigued and ragged from chronic headaches. Finally she crossed paths with an insomniac roommate, who dragged her to the hospital. McBeath was on the brink of a coma.
The benign, inoperable brain tumor had been diagnosed when she was a toddler, but it hadn’t manifested symptoms until now. Doctors saw that it was orange-sized and planted above her brain stem. They placed a shunt in her head, which drains extra fluid from her brain. The shunt breaks sometimes, landing her in the hospital again.
She crashed her first funeral, Louisa’s, soon after getting the shunt implant. Her brain tumor hasn’t grown since then, and it probably won’t be what kills her. None of us know, of course. “There has to be uncertainty in the performance,” she wrote, “for it to fill you with wonder and elation.”
* * *
Anne Berry is a writer and photographer living in New Orleans. She was published in a Random House anthology, “Operation Homecoming,” and has written for The Daily Beast, SportsIllustrated.com, Maxim, Food & Wine’s FWx, OxfordAmerican.org and Hemispheres magazine, among others. Reach her on Twitter and Instagram @AnneBerryWrites.
Beth Walrondlives in Berlin and illustrates for magazines and newspapers internationally.
Harinder Singh’s cheeky clothing is making waves in India — and far beyond — by putting a hip new spin on his ancient and often misunderstood culture.
Harinder Singh will never forget his trip to Italy in 2002. Singh, then 33, and his wife, Kirandeep Kaur, 29, were eating ice cream as they explored the sights and sounds of Florence. The streets were crowded, a blur of people and textures and smells. At first glance, the couple blended in with the other tourists of the city: two people in love, eager to travel the world and appreciate a new culture. Then they heard the students’ jeers: “Bin Laden! Bin Laden!”
The group of around sixty school children were pointing at Singh, a white turban wrapped delicately around his head.
“Oh my God,” Singh said to his wife in shock. But instead of walking away, the couple approached the children. Singh told them that they were from India and practiced a religion called Sikhism.
“Me and my wife started talking about our first guru, the revolution, our faith, we touched on Punjabi music and they knew Punjabi music so we got a lead there,” Singh says with a laugh. “That very moment was an exam for us. We decided we should do something about our identity since there’s no awareness.”
Immediately after their visit, on the seven-and-a-half hour flight from Italy to India, Singh began the initial sketches for what he describes as the first Indian clothing brand dedicated solely to Sikhism and Punjabi culture. Fifteen years later, that concept – called 1469, in honor of the birth year of the first Sikh guru, Nanak Dev – has expanded into a million-dollar company with international reach. They have five stores in New Delhi and in Punjab, an Indian state bordering on Pakistan that is the heart of the Sikh community.
Almost 58 percent of the population of Punjab is made up of Sikhs, but in Delhi, Sikhs constitute less than four percent of the total population.
Standing in their 1469 shop in Delhi, the couple talk about the idea behind their business. “People in Delhi feel that if I speak Punjabi, I am backwards and not modern enough,” says Kaur, dressed in a light green sari, gold bracelets dangling off her arms. “To keep in touch with your roots, you need to know your mother tongue. I feel we are losing the pride.”
Scarves and saris in turquoise, pink and yellow hues line the walls of the shop, located in Delhi’s Janpath Market, one of the city’s best-known shopping areas. Tables are scattered with metallic jewelry and small sculptures, patterned bags and calligraphy accessories. Upstairs, the walls are filled with various t-shirts, many of which display Punjabi phrases, musical instruments and Sikh symbols.
Mayur Sharma, a frequent 1469 customer and host of the Indian travel show “Highway on My Plate,” says his favorite products are the t-shirts, especially the ones with the phrases “Pure Panjabi” and “Trust me I’m Pendu,” – the word pendu meaning “villager” in Punjabi. Sharma came across the company a decade ago and, since then, has pretty much only worn their t-shirts, even on his television show.
“I admire Harinder and Kirandeep’s passion for the arts, culture and history of our beautiful state,” he says. “You can feel the love in everything they put out.”
Punjabi culture is one of the oldest in India; the region has a rich legacy of poetry, music, food and art – in addition to being the birthplace of Sikhism. The Punjab was unified under the Sikh Empire in the nineteenth century, until the British annexed the region in 1849 after the Anglo-Sikh wars, administering the region as a province of its Indian empire until Partition in 1947, when the independent states of India and Pakistan were established. Punjab was divided, with Hindus and Sikhs fleeing to India while Muslims moved to Pakistan.
Kaur described the partition of 1947 as a shattering experience for the Punjab, creating social, religious and regional divides. She feels Punjabi art and culture took the biggest blow. Today, their brand aims to reinvigorate that rich culture.
Singh, dressed in a bright, turquoise turban and black v-neck with the word fateh – or “victory” in Hindi – emphasized 1469 is not a religious brand because he doesn’t believe in selling religion.
“Sikhism is a big part of it and we ourselves are Sikhs,” he says, “but, it’s a regional place because our artists are Muslim also, the music comes from Punjab, which is partly in Pakistan, and so are the handicrafts.”
Sharma says he is Punjabi, but not Sikh. He describes Singh’s passion for the culture as inspiring.
Singh’s clothing didn’t always center on Punjabi culture. He got his start in the world of fashion after graduating from the University of Delhi in 1988. He says he noticed that most t-shirts sold in India came from abroad – Thailand, Hong Kong, South Korea – and were of dubious quality.
“I took an oath to myself to make a nice t-shirt for my country,” Singh says.
A year later, Singh started his own clothing company, Uni Style Image. He claims it is one of the first t-shirt companies in India’s history, and over the years partnered with major clothing labels across the world. In 2002, after over a decade with the company, grueling hours and time spent away from his wife and three children, Singh decided to leave to pursue other endeavors.
At the time, he had no idea he would eventually return to the fashion world as a pioneer of a wholly new concept centered on Sikhism and Punjab. But Singh also asserts he wouldn’t have it any other way. He describes being born into a Sikh family as a blessing.
“Our religion is so beautiful, so transparent, so clear,” he says. “It’s musical, it’s simple, it’s modern and it’s very lightweight.”
Singh observes that while 60 percent of their merchandise is sold to Sikhs and those within the diaspora Punjabi community, around 40 percent of customers practice other faiths. The brand is especially popular in Japan, where many customers buy the t-shirts online and in bulk, according to Kaur.
Going forward, Singh and Kaur hope to continue educating people, especially youth, about their heritage and faith. Kaur says they are working to bolster their online presence and plan to open new stores domestically, in the cities of Mumbai and Bangalore, as well as abroad in Canada.
“The best part about Sikhism is,” Kaur says, “it doesn’t tell you that you write this or read it and then become Sikh. It’s about the way you live.”
These routes once snaked through the towering woods of Appalachia, before they were lost to history. Lamar Marshall has spent a decade painstakingly mapping them, and their rich history.
Lamar Marshall cannot make it over the log. It lays across a small creek somewhere in the Nantahala National Forest outside Cowee, western North Carolina, as a bridge. His problem is a bruised knee, caused by a bang against his home firewood cord. Standing in front of the thick trunk, seeking another way across, he explains that while this particular log was not laid by ancient Cherokees, it does resemble the way they would fell logs to get across creeks like this. “They called ‘em racoon bridges,” he explains. If anyone would know this, it’s Marshall.
The former land surveyor, electrical engineer, and Alabamian anti-logging activist (in that order), is the world’s foremost expert on ancient Cherokee trails. At 68 he’s stocky, with a soft, even face, like a meatier Billy Bob Thornton, and long eyelashes. He speaks softly, with a southern drawl. In this forest, on a warm late-winter day, he wears spectacles and a hearing aid, but also a camo jacket and pants, a waist-pack stuffed with surveying gear and a pistol. It is often in this appearance, a hunter’s getup, that Marshall has personally mapped well over one thousand miles of Cherokee trails across Appalachia, compiling the mappings into a vast database, complete with historical annotations and Cherokee place names. And his boots are waterproof, he notes, as he carefully fords the creek.
There are certain attributes which are common to Cherokee trails. They tend to follow rivers or ridge-lines. They are often steep. Brett Riggs, an archaeologist at Western Carolina University with a specialty in Cherokee landscapes, equates them with a modern highway system in the way that they linked population centers (some are even replicated in modern roads). Horses, introduced to the tribe in the 18th century, were sometimes used, but mostly Cherokees travelled by foot, in soft-soled moccasins. Inside Marshall’s home there are photographs of him as a young man wearing nothing but a loincloth and these moccasins; he used to sometimes explore the woods of his native Alabama dressed this way. “It was just kind of a fun thing to project myself back into time,” he explains. “I always admired the native lifestyle. Maybe I played cowboys and Indians too much when I was little. I was always the Indians, I know that.”
Marshall’s project, a largely independent venture, has taken up nearly a decade of his life. It is no small feat. He has braved wasps, mosquitoes, ticks, chest-high nettles, rainstorms, hypothermia. Much of the routes are so steep that early Europeans avoided them. Though he has no academic credentials, he scours archives across the country for primary source materials that contain mention of the trails. It is an immense labor but he is nonchalant about his motivations. “I love the trails. I love walking on the trails, camping next to the trails. And feeling like right now: what did the first white people see when they came up here?”
Prior to his trails project, Marshall headed a conservation group in Alabama. He is an ardent environmentalist and near militant in his activism. But while his greenie cred would do well by any Greenpeace tree-hugger, Marshall is also a Republican, gun-owning, bear-hunting Creationist. But if the contrast seems odd, in Marshall’s mind protecting God’s work from the nefarious designs of the state might constitute the very essence of American patriotism. “Wilderness to me is the ultimate expression of freedom,” he says.
Those who benefit most from Marshall’s efforts are modern Cherokees. His work is funded by the Eastern Band tribe in western North Carolina, to whom all the mapping data will go. It will be used in schools. Riggs, the WCU archeologist, is helping Marshall make the maps interactive, with historical storylines and photos. “This is much more than just trails: it’s the ecology of the trails, the geography of the trails,” he says. “They don’t have this history. They just don’t have it.” Indeed, this is the first time that the trails have ever been compiled into a single source. Marshall also hopes to get some of them protected by the United States Forest Service, who he has collaborated with in the past – the North Carolina state is figuring his trail data into their upcoming forest management plan. Marshall plans to be finished with the whole enterprise in September, when he will hand everything over to the Eastern Band tribe. “This will help them maintain their cultural heritage,” he says. “They’re losing that.”
Tom Belt, a Cherokee language expert at WCU who is also Cherokee, describes the project’s impacts on the tribe as unprecedented. Like other native peoples, the Cherokees have long struggled to define their own historical identity and nothing is more crucial to that than landscapes. “It may be a town or a gas station to the United States or the state of North Carolina,” Belt says, “but at one time underneath it might have existed a very extensive culturally-based community that doesn’t exist now. That’s the kind of stuff we wanna know. What was the name of that place?”
Riggs, too, believes that compiling all of this data into a single source will prove empowering for the tribe, especially its young people. It is one thing to have a vague notion that some land was once yours; it’s wholly another to see it clearly laid out, and how ownership has changed over time. “When you take some place and you rename it you’ve asserted that, ‘This now belongs to us’,” he says. “If you can, even on paper, reverse that process so that you make it clear that there was a Cherokee landscape here, it gives Cherokee people a conceptual ownership that in many cases they are currently lacking.”
“We didn’t come into a blank howling wilderness,” he adds. “We took over this place.”
* * *
On May 28, 1830 the United States congress passed the Indian Removal Act. It granted permission to relocate Native Americans living in the east to the unsettled land west of the Mississippi. Some left willingly, but the Cherokee Nation – a collection of affiliated communities extending from Kentucky to Alabama – resisted. Conflict had existed for over a century between the Americans and the Cherokees and by now the federal government had grown strong enough to simply take them away. The eventual expulsion, which lasted from 1838-39, resulted in the death of over 4,000 Cherokees. The route over which they headed west is today called the Trail of Tears. Many perished in transit.
Today, Cherokees are found in three quasi-sovereign districts in Oklahoma and western North Carolina. But while most of their civilization was wiped out, burned down, built over or abandoned, it was not erased. Vestiges remain for those who know what to look for: graveyards, earthen mounds, houses, tree carvings; the imprints of a smudged-out, penciled-over peoples. Connecting all of these archeological sites is this vast network of trails, thousands of miles of footpaths trodden over centuries of travel.
And to flip through old maps of Appalachia is to witness the shrinking of a nation played out in faded ink. Treaties often followed conflict and, with each one, Cherokee land shrunk; the younger the map, the less territory is marked as theirs. Events are painfully clear in hindsight.
Marshall keeps these old maps in his home office in Cowee, where he moved eight years ago from Alabama. There is a small desk with four desktop computer screens squeezed between boxes of historical documents: traveler journals, survey plats, three-hundred-year-old land deeds. On the wall is a buck head and a sticker that reads, “I Am Not Ashamed Of The Gospel Of Christ.” Over time the maps get better, too. They are more clearly laid out, with properties divided into perfect squares. Text is less flowery and more legible. Topography is defined numerically. There are fewer and fewer Cherokee towns until there are virtually none at all.
Most of these maps were produced by the United States army. For Marshall’s purposes, they are critical. It is with these frail maps that he locates trails before setting out into the hard world to survey them. He brings one on every hike. He takes notes as he goes, looking to match his observations with any landmarks mentioned on the maps, and marks landmarks with GPS coordinates. When he gets home he plugs this data into his computer and, using GIS software, constructs digital versions. When a trail’s done, he moves to the next.
* * *
Marshall traces his fascination with the Cherokees to his childhood in Birmingham (“I hated the concrete, the development”). Survivalist books first exposed him to them. In his eyes, they seemed idyllic. “They didn’t have to go to school. They didn’t have to get a job in corporate America. They lived off the land. They were totally free.”
He joined the Boy Scouts. He excelled. At eighteen, “emulating Tom Sawyer and Huck Finn”, Marshall constructed a raft from oil drums. With two friends, he drifted down the Alabama River from Selma to the Gulf of Mexico. Later he would win a state championship for fur-trapping. His childhood Cherokee interest was reignited by an “old mountain man” named Garvin Sanford who, on occasional forays into the forest for edible herbs, would show him abandoned Indian villages. They would follow the trails to get there.
For much of early adulthood, Marshall worked as an electrical engineer and land surveyor. With his wife and three children, he built a 3,000-square-foot homestead in Blountsville, Alabama. Construction took nine months. Drinking water came from an outdoor aluminum tank; one day Marshall found a squirrel decomposing inside. They raised livestock, fished the river, grew produce. When his only son died at 18 from a heart complication, the family moved to a house in Alabama’s Bankhead National Forest. They had 100 acres. Marshall hung a sign that read, “Trespassers will be shot and survivors will be shot again.” And another: “You believe in life after death? Trespass here and find out.” It was a frontiersman’s existence. For the first five years, they had no electricity.
But living in the woods provided Marshall with an intimate view of Alabama’s dimly regulated logging industry, which “nauseated” the lifelong nature lover. He did some digging and discovered how the management plan drawn up by the Alabama Forest Service had been “developed in collusion with the timber industry.” The tipping point for him came when loggers clear-cut a Cherokee sacred site known as Indian Tomb Hollow, decimating a burial ground. In conjunction with a local clan of Cherokees, Marshall and others rallied against the Forest Service, staging protests, making noise.
Thus, the conservation group Wild Alabama was born (it has since expanded and become Wild South). For over a decade, Marshall’s conservation group wrote petitions, staged protests, filed lawsuits, delivered public speeches, and published excoriating cartoons in the local newspaper satirizing Forest Service officials. This was his “guerrilla warfare” against corporate “tree racists.”
Marshall describes this part of his life like a veteran remembering war. “I envisioned a band of eco-warriors fighting for the last wild places of Alabama. Native American descendants rose up and we kicked ass for over a decade,” he says (the “descendants” refer to the various tribal organizations which often collaborated with Wild Alabama; Marshall does, however, claim to have three percent Native American ancestry).
Wild Alabama’s member pool represented an odd union of hippies, Indians, and rednecks; with a thick beard, dirty clothes and Cherokee ornaments, Marshall appeared as a hybrid of all three. Outdoor Life magazine called the group “the conservation conscience of a state that has traditionally lacked one.” The group boasted that its members could drink harder and shoot straighter than any naturalists around. Marshall once told a journalist, “Rattlesnakes have got fangs, porcupines got quills, skunks got the sprayer, and God Almighty gave Man the ability to invent the Colt 45 as his defense.”
* * *
Marshall approaches a huge earthen mound. It is an ancient Cherokee construction which sits in the middle of a wide empty field. Birdsong rings out across it and in the distance are rounded sloping mountains that are powdered white with snow. At the top of the mound, Marshall points down at the grass and says, “This is where the council-house sat. Here’s a depression that they believe was a fire-pit.”
From up here it is easy to imagine an earlier Appalachia: wide savannas thick with buffalo, the skies crowded with passenger pigeons, dense groves of chestnut trees, the brilliant red-black flash of an ivory-billed woodpecker – all of these species are extinct or sequestered elsewhere in the country. Savannas are gone. Towns are built over. Words are forgotten. There is a new country here. Marshall, in his camo gear, clutching an old map, sounding wistful, says, “The mountains haven’t changed.”
Don’t think Margaret Atwood’s dystopian vision is realistic? I was raised in a conservative Christian cult where women were viewed as submissive birthing vessels.
This story is republished from The Establishment, a publication that believes conversation is much more interesting when everyone has a voice. Media funded and run by women, The Establishment features new content daily.
It was a cold morning on the campus of the little Christian college I attended in Western Pennsylvania. Along with about twenty other students, I’d trundled in and unwrapped my coat and scarf. Now we all sat there sipping our coffees, waiting for the hardest class of the year to get rolling.
Our literary criticism professor paused as he announced the optional reading titles on our list for the next week, a funny look on his face.
“This one,” he said, “you may not like. It was written in 1984, published in ’85 or ’86, and was a reaction against the rise of the religious right — against the values that places like our school stand for. It’s pro-feminist, and anti-complementarian — against traditional gender roles. It sort of parodies what we believe in, in an interesting way. I’m curious what you’ll make of it.”
The shade thrown by my usually soft-spoken professor caught my attention. I had to read this book.
And so I did, unwittingly cracking open the beginning of the end for meek, conservative Christian me.
* * *
The story of The Handmaid’s Tale is a fairly simple dystopian one: A young woman is re-educated by the new totalitarian (and Christian) government regime to be a childbearing surrogate for the wife of a high-ranking military official. She tells her story after the fact, a narrative recorded on audio tapes found years later in someone’s attic. Her name is Offred, literally of Fred, having no name of her own anymore in this new society. It takes place in the U.S., post-Constitution, post-democracy, post-liberal humanism. Women are chattel. Religion is god. Order comes above all else.
To the average American in 1985, it seemed pretty far out there, an unlikely vision of future written as a warning. It’s been controversial since it came out, making ALA’s one hundred most banned books list between 1990 and 1999, but that was because of the sex scenes in it and the way it depicted Christianity. It wasn’t really taken seriously as political foreshadowing.
But for me, when I read it for the first time, it felt like a prophecy that echoed rhythm of the world I had been raised in, reflecting the vision my church and community had for the future of American culture and politics.
I was raised in a fundamentalist Christian community — the church we attended could fairly be called a cult, and my parents took things a step further than even our church did, homeschooling and raising nine kids. I was the oldest. We were part of a larger movement now called “Quiverfull,” the term taken from a Psalm where the writer talks about God blessing the man whose “quiver is full of arrows.” The metaphor refers to children, and our community understood this to be a command: Have children and raise them in this aggressively conservative faith, and then there will be more “true” believer Christians in the world to bring about cultural revolution in the name of Jesus Christ. Children like me were raised to see life as apocalyptic, and ourselves as serving on the front lines of a culture war to make America Christian.
Women in this world were treated much like those in The Handmaid’s Tale — most, like my mom, didn’t have their own bank accounts, didn’t have their own email addresses, and couldn’t leave the home without permission from their husbands. They were called helpmeets, a word taken from the King James Version of the Bible, which refers to wives as created to meet the needs of their husbands and be helpers to them.
I even participated in a super-conservative worship church dance troupe for young women, called His Handmaids — again a term taken from the Bible, from the Virgin Mary’s response to the angel Gabriel telling her she’s going to be pregnant with the Messiah, which some translations open with “I am the Lord’s handmaiden, let it be unto me as you say.”
Just like Offred, women existed within the community to serve higher purposes than our own desires. Young girls who led the congregation wore white dresses and were stripped of identifying features — no jewelry, no nail polish, hair tied back and not in the face — while wives were submissive helpers to their husbands, with my mother used as the fertile ground for my father to breed a quiver full of Christian culture warriors.
And me, the oldest child in a family of nine? As was common in the movement, I was my mom’s right hand. She sometimes called me her strength, because I helped her co-parent my younger siblings and keep the household running. When she had twins shortly before my thirteenth birthday, it was me who got up with her during the nighttime feedings, not my dad. When things were too busy on Sunday nights, I took over doing all the family laundry and ironing. And I did the dinner dishes almost exclusively for about 10 years, foregoing activities with my peers at church and in the community because I had too many obligations to fulfill at home. Like Offred, my life’s purpose was subsumed into serving the “greater good” of my far-right Christian community.
* * *
We were not alone, either. My situation grew out of a larger movement in the conservative Christian community to be more invested in politics and cultural affairs on the national level. This push was led by the “Moral Majority,” a group of Christian leaders founded by Jerry Falwell in 1971, which sought to take on Washington to bring Christian ethics to bear on policy at a national level.
The Moral Majority focused on issues related to their priorities for promoting and protecting traditional family values. They celebrated Ronald Reagan’s presidency and encouraged his refusal to act on the HIV/AIDS epidemic, which was killing thousands, largely because they saw it as fundamentally a judgment from God on the “immoral” behavior of homosexuals. According to historian Rachel Coleman — a Ph.D. candidate at Indiana University, who is also a Quiverfull Daughter and whose research focuses on twentieth century history of childhood, children, and religion — it wasn’t until kids started getting affected and dying from infected blood in transfusions that the issue was seen as valid. As a result, President Reagan eventually did act, releasing a series of PSAs about the epidemic…but these were all focused on kids, the future of the religious crusade for a Christian United States.
Also part of this movement was the rise of Operation Rescue, a Christian group that encouraged protest (and, loosely, some terrorist-style) tactics against abortion practitioners and those receiving abortion services. In the wake of Roe v. Wade passing in 1973, the Moral Majority hit on abortion as the issue that would most viscerally and immediately grab the attention of their audience and rally support and action at the grassroots level. We still see this struggle impacting negotiations on the Hill today, as abortion remains an impossibly hot-button issue, regularly derailing policymaking. Shock-and-awe tactics with grisly photos of dead fetuses and terror of increased government oversight on family-related issues drummed up droves of supporters buying into the agenda of the Moral Majority.
This terror-based approach to protecting the “traditional family” and “family values” had a watershed affect, driving the Right to work against civil protections for sexual orientation and gender presentation, creating a fear frenzy that drove the War on Drugs to incarcerate an entire generation of young black men, while causing Christian universities (led by my alma mater) to seek legal exemption from being under Title IX if they would surrender access to federal funding.
This collective terror also allowed Phyllis Schlafly and the Moral Majority to lobby successfully against the ratification of the Equal Rights Amendment in 1982. The United States is one of the last remaining countries in the world without a constitutional clause that protects the rights of women as full and equal citizens with men, and this prevents us from participating in key international coalitions against gender discrimination (like CEDAW, which we haven’t ratified either). The Moral Majority effectively took the United States backwards a century policy-wise — and we still haven’t fully recovered.
It was during this rise of the Moral Majority that Atwood wrote The Handmaid’s Tale. I was born, the first of what would be nine kids, just about five years after the book was first published.
Atwood has given many interviews about the writing of The Handmaid’s Tale and her creative process for it, but the thing that stands out to me the most is her comment that she made a rule for herself not to include anything in the novel that hadn’t already been done by some society, somewhere. Nothing was new.
And so, as I read the book for the first time that cold morning in 2010, the fictional world sounded a whole lot like my real life.
* * *
My ex-husband, who I met at that same little Christian college and who had also grown up in the same group of churches, wanted nothing more than to be a father, to have 10 kids and to homeschool them. When our marriage was careening to an end, we were sitting in a car outside his family’s house when he asked me if I might consider having a baby with him to rekindle something.
We’d chosen to wait initially for a host of reasons, the strongest one for me being that I had been raising kids for the last ten to twelve years of my life and couldn’t see myself having the energy to plunge back into the world of poopy diapers and snotty noses. Two years into our marriage, I’d had a few pregnancy scares and each time as I waited for my period, I had had nightmares and panic attacks, unable to shake a deep-set terror of being trapped at home with a baby and no life outside the home. I would wake up crying and shaking from a dream about being pregnant, and the next morning he’d make me coffee and listen to my stories and try to assuage my fears.
So when he asked me to have a kid to save our marriage, I was stunned. “Are you serious?” I asked.
“Don’t be that way!” he responded. “I just think that I could love you again if you were a mother.”
Speechless, I told him to get out of the car. “I’m not discussing this,” I said. “There’s no way in hell I’d bring a kid into this mess if we can’t fix this on our own.”
It was our last big fight. We stopped communicating shortly thereafter, and the next time I had a real conversation was at the courthouse after our divorce hearing. He asked me to go to lunch, and I said no.
Because I was running late for my gynecologist appointment to get myself an IUD.
* * *
Offred learns early on that she is not the first Handmaid to be given to the Commander’s household to bear a child for him and his wife. The last one, she gathers from bits of gossip here and there, committed suicide.
In her room there is a little cupboard, and on the back wall of the cupboard is scratched nolite te bastardes carborundorum, which is bad Latin for “Don’t let the bastards grind you down.” Offred assumes this message is left for her by the last Handmaid, a hand of camaraderie offered to her from beyond the grave.
When I ended my relationship to my father shortly after I got divorced, it was because he and I reached a crossroads where he had to choose to treat me according to his religious ideology or to treat me like a human, his daughter, his firstborn. He chose his ideology, and continued to use it to manipulate and mistreat myself and my mother and my siblings. We stopped talking, and I got my first tattoo — a black armband with script, “N.T. B. C.” Don’t let the bastards grind you down. Don’t forget you are human. Don’t forget what you have overcome.
Offred never tells the reader her real name — she only says she had another one, once. Under the new regime, her name is that of the man for whom she exists as a birthing vessel. It’s not important, she doesn’t exist as an individual anymore, her life is not her own.
When I got divorced, I repudiated the worldview that had been imposed upon me, rejecting a life where I existed only according to my relationship to my father or my husband. I took a new last name, a family name from further back on my grandmother’s side, naming myself to own myself. That was also the year I got my own bedroom for the first time, coming full circle out of a universe where my identity could not exist on its own terms, and carving out for myself a place in the world, a home, a name, a future that was my own to direct.
* * *
Today, Donald Trump is President of the United States, and there is increasing “constitutional anxiety” on Capitol Hill — what will he do next? The 24-hour news cycle is high-strung and exhausted, shrilly reporting on his tweets and Melania’s whereabouts and Ivanka’s so-called feminism.
Mike Pence is second in line for the presidency, and if Trump is impeached, we will have instead of an incompetent egoist for a president, a calculating and careful man who leaves a legacy behind him of anti-women, anti-LGBTQ, anti-immigrant policy-making. VP Pence is exactly the kind of man the Moral Majority of 1985 would have hoped to elect, as is demonstrated by their rallying around anti-minority and anti-choice legislators and policies and foundations.
The Quiverfull movement was created for this kind of world. I was raised to be a helpmeet in a world like Offred’s, and watching (white, middle class) liberals around me be shocked and unnerved by the election results has been curious for me. Didn’t they know this has been in the works for decades? I didn’t come out of nowhere, and neither did Trump, and nor did The Handmaid’s Tale.
Atwood recently wrote about the book in theNew York Times, in anticipation of the new mini-series coming out on Hulu today, starring Elisabeth Moss and Alexis Bledel. In it she says:
Is ‘The Handmaid’s Tale’ a prediction? That is the third question I’m asked — increasingly, as forces within American society seize power and enact decrees that embody what they were saying they wanted to do, even back in 1984, when I was writing the novel. No, it isn’t a prediction, because predicting the future isn’t really possible: There are too many variables and unforeseen possibilities. Let’s say it’s an antiprediction: If this future can be described in detail, maybe it won’t happen. But such wishful thinking cannot be depended on either.
The publication of The Handmaid’s Tale during the time of the Reagan presidency and the Moral Majority was an apt collision of vision and fears expressed through fiction — the release of the new mini-series timed at the end of the first one hundred days of Donald Trump, U.S. President #45, is a powerful piece of foresight on the behalf of the studio which created it. Americans are more politically engaged than they have been in years, and we would all do well to pay attention to this “antiprediction” of a TV show in hopes that we can learn from it and resist the fruit of 1980s Christian conservative thinking running our government today, and save the future of our democracy.
We humans are far more complex than the news headlines and clickbait would have you believe. Let the Narratively newsletter be your guide.
That Time I Tried Topless House Cleaning
After years getting paid to bare my breasts at more clubs than I can count, when my funds hit an all-time low I pioneered a cleaner brand of sex work.
After years getting paid to bare my breasts at more clubs than I can count, when my funds hit an all-time low I pioneered a cleaner brand of sex work.
Topless Housecleaning + Lapdance Gentlemen, do you need a good, clean tease after a hard day’s work? I’ll clean your house and give you a(1) lapdance $100/hr – have your own cleaning supplies – no blocked numbers.
When I arrive at the house of the first viable person to respond to my Craigslist ad, I knock on the door and take a step back. He opens it right away. Jim or John, suddenly I can’t remember. He’s young to have such a nice mini-mansion with a swimming pool and younger than I normally like to deal with. I like his work jeans and dirty white t-shirt, though. They feel kind of homey.
I step in, a little flirty, but all-business to begin with. I get him to show me the whole house, which serves the double purpose of planning ahead for cleaning and making sure there’s no one else hiding, ready to pop out for a gang rape later. Just when the tour is complete my phone rings. It’s my security detail — Possum, the hillbilly witchdoctor I’ve befriended, following instructions to wait for me to clear the house and call to be sure everything’s okay.
“Hey,” I say. “It’s all good in here. Call me in like an hour.”
“Ayep,” Possum replies in his drawl.
I turn to JimJohn and start to pull my shirt off, then stop. “Business before pleasure, babe,” I say, making the little money sign with my fingers.
“Oh, of course.” He pulls a hundred out of his pocket and presses it into my hand. I shove it down one of my stockings as I take my pants off, because I have always believed that the safest place for my money is right against my skin.
* * *
I’d had eighty dollars left to my name when I drove into Greenville, South Carolina. Half a tank of gas and two blueberry smoothies later, it dwindled to sixteen dollars folded together in the bottom of my pocket. For some people, this might have been a problem, but not for me. I have the magical ability to walk into a strip club just about anywhere there is one and make a few hundred bucks just because I’m willing to get naked and smile at people.
Sex work is my trust fund. When I’ve been broke down on the side of the road with no money, when I’ve been a homeless teenager, when I’ve wanted to buy a house, a car, an education — sex work has always been there for me. I’ve done almost all the sex work: everything from street hustling to dancing in bejeweled gowns to foot fetish parties and erotic hypnosis. Whenever I discover a new form of sex work — the weirder or more interesting the better — I try to experience it.
I’m staying, with my dog, Spot, in my van down by the river next to Possum, who lives in a van that’s much bigger and nicer than mine. Possum drew me a map showing how to get to the two strip clubs he knows of: a big one, and a little one. Big strip clubs sometimes have things like rules and schedules and lots of competition and high house fees, which I don’t like. I decided to try the small one first.
The small one turned out to be a brothel with very little business, where I met some very beautiful, very southern women, including a 300-pound dancer named Hamhock who I wish I could introduce to every teenager worrying about their weight ever.
I was too fat for the big one, or the door guy was having a bad day.
I started to feel a little panic. That’s when the idea of topless housecleaning came to me — purely formed, rising sweetly out of my desperation — so I put up a Craigslist ad and here I am at Jim or John or whatever his name is’ house.
* * *
I do the kitchen first, like my friend Tania who actually grew up in a mansion and knows how to clean explained to me last night on the phone. I keep up a steady stream of flirting while I put his dishes in the dishwasher and move everything on the counter to one end so I can clean it. While I’m stacking his mail neatly I check out his name. Jim. The counter is dirty, covered in stains and puddles of dried-up food and glue and who knows what else. Scrubbing while bending over a counter in six-inch heels, back arched so that your ass sticks up pretty, is hard work. Especially while flirting the whole time with a man you hope is staring at your ass and not your sweaty face.
He asks about me, how I came to be a topless housecleaner. I don’t tell him that he’s my first, or that I’m broke, or that I live in a van. If you watch television you know what happens to broke homeless women: They give $20 blow jobs, not $100 counter scrubbings. Instead I make up a prissy story about finishing my Master’s degree and taking a year to drive around the country in an R.V. dancing. Of course I tried dancing here, I explain, but the clubs are just so dirty, and I’m way too classy to expose myself to such an environment. The crazy thing I’ve discovered is that the snobbier you seem, the more they will pay you.
Jim is amazingly empathetic about the nastiness of the local clubs. A classy woman like me obviously doesn’t belong in places like those. He follows me from kitchen to bathroom to bedroom to living room, staring while I wipe, mop, scrub and vacuum, all while trying to look like I’m not sweaty from doing this work in humid 90-degree weather. His story is interesting. All his time goes to his race-car business, which is like a dream, but lots of hard work. He bought this house two years ago, but hasn’t had the time or taste to furnish it yet, though he does find the time to indulge in the tradition of illicit hooch brewing down in the basement. Steely grey eyes and his young tough look contrast with his docile nature as he tamely follows me around his house. I’m beginning to think all men in the South must be gentlemen.
When I’m done cleaning I settle him on his couch, set my iPod to Depeche Mode, and tell him that he gets one free lap dance with his housecleaning and after that they are twenty dollars, just like in the club. He opens his wallet and peels off another hundred, right away, and tells me to just dance until that runs out.
“No touching,” I remind him as the song starts and I move in front of him. Soon I’m crawling all over him, undulating, brushing my ass across his hard penis through his jeans. He is begging me to let him touch me, and I’m reminding him that I’m not that kind of girl, although I make sure to sound a little confused.
“Come on,” he says, getting his wallet out. “What about for another hundred?”
I pretend to think hard, then: “Okay.” I take his hands and guide them over my body. “You can touch here — my ass, my thighs, my stomach, but no titties or pussy.”
“Two hundred?” he pulls two crisp $100 bills out of his wallet.
It’s not really a question for me. I’ve given this much contact for thirty dollars a song. I pretend to think long and hard, though. If I let on that I have no principles, I can’t pretend to sell them.
“Okay,” I finally say, pushing the bills down my stockings, “but keep your hands off the kitty! That is not for sale!”
He has gentle, well-practiced hands that he swirls around my nipples and brushes softly over my ass. I arch my back and gasp in pretend ecstasy. Soon he wants more again — a hand job, a hundred dollars.
I insist that I’m not that kind of dancer while I consider this through to its logical conclusion. A couple hundred more for a hand job, a couple hundred more for a blow job, a lot more for sex. It could be a grand, easily. But do I want to have sex with this guy? The thing is, I’m a lesbian. The other thing is, sometimes I think I could be bisexual, and every year or two I have a man sex experiment. I can get into men, and right now on this guy’s lap, I’m turned on.
My phone rings again. It’s Possum. “It’s been an hour,” he says, “are you okay in there?”
“Yeah,” I giggle, “I’m having a great time. I’ll be just another fifteen minutes or so.”
“Awright.” He hangs up.
“Will you touch it?” Jim asks.
Do I look like that kind of girl? I’m a very classy stripper, I remind him.
“Oh, of course, of course. I’m sorry,” he says. “I hope you’re not offended.”
“No…” I cock my head. “Actually… I’ve always kind of wondered what it would be like to do something like that for money.”
“Well, here’s your chance to find out.”
“Hmm…I dunno. I couldn’t. Well…how much?”
“Oh, no. I couldn’t.”
“Two hundred?” He’s got his wallet out, two crisp hundreds in his hand.
“Okay.” I grab them and shove them into my stocking. In my mind I’m counting and calculating miles. This makes 600, or is it 800? That’s, like, 5,000 miles of gas money! Or 2,000 miles and a month or two of groceries and stuff while I explore desert canyons and sky islands. What more could a girl need?
I slide down between his legs and he unzips his jeans eagerly. It is small, with a nice curve and for a second I love it and want to fuck him. Smiling, I bring my face close, admiring it like I’m about to lick it. He gasps and wiggles a little, and I take his cock in my hand. It’s already throbbing, and I just run my hand up it lightly, swirl some of the pre-cum back down it, run my fingers over the whole thing. He moans and half thrusts his hips. I love this. When I finally grab his cock, two-handed, and give it a couple strong, twisting strokes, he explodes right away. Perfect.
“Oh my god,” he says.
I giggle. “No, goddess.”
“Oh my goddess.” He smiles.
“Stay right there, I’m going to get you a washcloth.” I run to the bathroom.
While he cleans up, I pull my jeans and tank top back on over my fishnets and thong. I’m ecstatic and high from the rush of going from six dollars to 800 dollars in an hour with my hustling skills, but I know I won’t have really pulled it off until I’m in the van, driving away. I make myself look totally calm while I throw my iPod and cleaning stuff in the bag I came with, give him a goodbye hug, and tell him he should really call me again to clean the rest of the house.
I don’t start laughing until I’m in the van and Possum is driving us away. Then I fold over in my seat, laughing and clapping my hands with excitement.
“Possum,” I exclaim, “I love having a vagina!
Leaning back, I push my hips up to pull my jeans down and start fishing the hundreds out of my fishnets.
Possum looks over at me with my legs up on the bed, pulling eight $100 bills out of my thigh highs. “Holy shit,” he says, “I do believe I wish I had a vagina too.”
Checking “topless housecleaning” off my to-try list of sex-work gigs makes me enough money to get back on the road. The next day Spot and I get in the van and drive across the country until I find a beautiful desert-sky island in northern Arizona. I stay for a couple weeks, playing in a creek and tracking coyote, before I get low on money again and start over.
* * *
Tara Burns is the author of the Whore Diaries series. She lives in a little cabin in a big boreal forest and she is working on a memoir. Follow her@THEecowhore
My analyst and I grew more intimately connected each week of treatment...but I never saw this indecent proposal coming.
It’s the waning moments of my fourth session with a new therapist. I’m holding back — and she knows it. My entire body feels tense, not ideal for the setting. I try to relax, but the plush leather couch crumples under me when I shift, making the movements extraordinary. I’ve barely looked into my therapist’s blue eyes at all, and yet I think the hour has gone very well. Of course it has. On the surface, when the patient has been highly selective of the discussion topics, therapy always resembles a friendly get-together.
“Well,” my therapist, Lori, says, the millisecond after I become certain our time is up and I might be in the clear. “I don’t think I should let you go until we’ve at least touched on what was put out there at the end of last week’s session.”
I so supremely wanted this not to come up. My eyelids tighten, my mouth puckers to the left, and my head tilts, as though I’m asking her to clarify.
“When you said you’re attracted to me,” she continues.
“Oh, yeah,” I say. “That.”
Back in session three Lori was trying to build my self-esteem, the lack of which is one of the reasons I’m in treatment. Within the confines of my family, I’ve always been the biggest target of ridicule. We all throw verbal darts around as though we’re engaged in a massive, drunken tournament at a bar, but the most poisonous ones seem to hit me the most often, admittedly somewhat a consequence of my own sensitivity. I’ve been told it was historically all part of an effort to toughen me up, but instead I was filled with towering doubts about my own worth. And since 2012, when I gave up a stable, tenured teaching career for the wildly inconsistent life of a freelance writer, I’ve had great difficulty trusting my own instincts and capabilities. I told Lori that I wish I was better at dealing with life’s daily struggles instead of constantly wondering if I’ll be able to wade through the thick.
She quickly and convincingly pointed out that I work rather hard and am, ultimately, paying my bills on time, that I have friends, an appreciation for arts and culture, and so on. In short, I am, in fact, strong, responsible and “pretty good at life.”
Then Lori heightened the discussion a bit. “I also feel that it is your sensitivity that makes you a great catch out there in the dating world,” she said, to which I involuntarily smiled, blushed and quickly buried my chin in my chest. I was too insecure and too single to handle such a compliment from a beautiful woman.
“Why are you reacting that way?” Lori asked.
I shrugged my shoulders, only half looking up.
“Is it because you’re attracted to me?”
I laughed a little, uncomfortably. “How did you know?”
She gently explained she could tell the day I walked into her office for the first time, after I flashed a bright smile and casually asked where she was from.
Now, a week after dropping that bomb, Lori asks, “So, why haven’t we talked about it?”
“I was hoping to avoid it, I suppose.” I tell her the whole notion of having the hots for a therapist is such a sizable cliché that I was embarrassed to admit it. “For Christ’s sake,” I say, throwing my hands up, “Tony Soprano even fell in love with his therapist.”
Lori snorts, rolls her eyes. “I knew you were going to say that.”
I smile, shake my head and look around the room, denying acceptance of my own ridiculous reality.
“It’s OK,” Lori says, grinning. “We can talk about this in here.”
I look again at her stark blue eyes, prevalent under dark brown bangs, the rest of her hair reaching the top of her chest, which is hugged nicely by a fitted white tee under an open button-down. She jogs often, I’d come to find out, which explains her petite figure and ability to probably pull off just about any outfit of her choosing.
I still can’t speak, so she takes over.
“Do you think you’re the first client that’s been attracted to their therapist?” she asks rhetorically. “I’ve had other clients openly discuss their feelings, even their sexual fantasies involving me.”
“What?” I cackle, beginning to feel as though I’ve moseyed onto the set of a porno.
“It’s true,” she says, acknowledging her desk. “What’s yours? Do you bend me over and take me from behind?”
“If that’s what you’re thinking, it’s OK,” she goes on, earnestly, explaining that she’s discussed sexual scenarios with her clients before so as to “normalize” the behavior and not have them feel their own thoughts are unnatural. By showing the patient a level of acceptance, she hopes to facilitate a more comfortable atmosphere for “the work” — her painfully accurate pseudonym for psychotherapy.
I take a second to let the red flow out of my face, and ponder what she said. I’m a little unsure about this whole technique, but the more I think about it, the more it makes sense. So I go home, incredibly turned on and completely unashamed.
* * *
One of the great breakthroughs I’ve had in the thirteen months since I began seeing Lori (who agreed to participate in this article, but requested that her full name not be published) is a new ability to accept the existence of dualities in life. For instance, I’ve always had a tremendous sense of pride that, if it doesn’t straddle the line of arrogance, certainly dives into that hemisphere from time to time. I’m great at seeing flaws in others and propping myself up above them by smugly observing my character strengths. I’ve never liked that about myself, but the harder concept to grasp is the fact that I can be so egotistical while also stricken with such vast quantities of insecurity.
In treatment I came to realize that all people have contradictions to their personalities. There’s the insanely smart guy who can’t remotely begin to navigate a common social situation, the charitable girl who devotes all her time to helping strangers, but won’t confront issues in her own personal relationships. In my case, my extreme sensitivity can make me feel fabulous about the aspects of myself that I somehow know are good (my artistic tastes) and cause deep hatred of those traits I happen to loathe (the thirty pounds I could stand to lose).
My next session with Lori is productive. We speak about relationships I’ve formed with friends and lovers, and how my family may have informed those interactions. One constant is that I put crudely high expectations on others, mirroring those thrown upon me as a kid. I’m angered when people don’t meet those expectations, and absolutely devastated when I don’t reach them. Lori points out that it must be “exhausting trying to be so perfect all the time.” I am much more comfortable than I was the week prior, and can feel myself being more candid. I’m relieved that the whole being-attracted-to-my-therapist thing doesn’t come up.
Then, a week later, Lori mentions it, and I become tense again.
“I thought I’d be able to move past it,” I say, adding, “We aired it out, and it’s fine.”
As definitive as I’m trying to sound, Lori is just as defiant.
“I’m glad you feel that way,” she begins, “but I think you owe yourself some kudos. This kind of therapy,” she shares, “isn’t something just anyone can take on.” Such honest discussion doesn’t simply happen, it takes tremendous guts, and Lori can see that I am dealing with it relatively well, so I should praise my own efforts.
“Shit, we both should be proud of ourselves,” she says. “It’s not easy on the therapist either, you know.”
“Because talking openly about sex is risky at any time, much less with a client.” She explains that therapists are warned any semblance of intimacy can be easily misconstrued. “We learn in our training to not personally disclose, for example,” she says, but adds that, occasionally, transparency can be helpful.
“Still, with you,” she continues, “until I raised the question, I didn’t know for sure that you would go with it; for all I knew you’d run out of here and never come back to risk being so uncomfortable again.”
She’s building my confidence more, and I’m learning that I play a much bigger role in how my life is conducted than I often realize. My treatment wouldn’t be happening if I weren’t enabling it.
Then she says, “And don’t think it’s not nice for me to hear that a guy like you thinks I’m beautiful.”
Crippled by the eroticism of the moment, and combined with the prevailing notion that no woman this stunning could ever be romantically interested in me, I flounder through words that resemble, “Wait…what?”
“If we were somehow at a bar together, and you came over and talked to me,” she says, then flips her palms up innocently, “who knows?”
I laugh again and tell her there’d be almost no chance of me approaching her because I’d never feel like I had a shot in hell.
“Well, that’s not the circumstances we’re in,” she says. “But you might. Who knows?”
I’m confused — Is she really attracted to me or is this some psychotherapeutic ruse? I’m frustrated — I told her I didn’t really want to talk about it. Shouldn’t she be more sensitive to my wants here? I’m angry — Is she getting an ego boost out of this? Most of all, I don’t know what the next step is — Am I about to experience the hottest thing that’s ever happened to a straight male since the vagina was invented?
There were two ways to find out:
1) Discontinue the therapy, wait for her outside her office every day, follow her to a hypothetical happy hour and ask her out, or
2) Keep going to therapy.
* * *
A week later, I’m physically in the meeting room with Lori, but mentally I haven’t left the recesses of my mind.
“Where are you today?” she asks, probably noticing my eyes roving around the room.
“I don’t know.”
“Are you still grappling with the sexual tension between us?”
Here we go again.
“Yes,” I say, with a bit of an edge in my voice, “and I don’t know what to do about it.”
Lori, ever intently, peers into my eyes, wrinkles her mouth and slightly shakes her head.
“Do you want to have sex with me?” she asks.
We both know the answer to that question. All I can do is stare back.
“Let’s have sex,” she announces. “Right here, right now.”
“What?” I respond, flustered.
“Let’s go!” she says a little louder, opening up her arms and looking around as if to say the office is now our playground, and, oh, the rollicking fun we’d have mixing bodily fluids.
“No,” I tell her, “You don’t mean that.”
“What if I do?” she shoots back. “Would you have sex with me, now, in this office?”
“Of course not.”
“Why ‘of course not’? How do I know for sure that you won’t take me if I offer myself to you?”
“I wouldn’t do that.”
“That’s what I thought,” she says, and tension in the room decomposes. “Mike, I don’t feel that you would do something that you think is truly not in our best interest, which is exactly why I just gave you the choice.”
Her offer was a lesson in empowerment, helping me prove that I have an innate ability to make the right choices, even if I’d so desperately prefer to make the wrong one.
I see what she means. I’m awfully proud of myself, and it’s OK to be in this instance. I’m gaining trust in myself, and confidence to boot. But, as the dualities of life dictate, I’m successfully doing “the work” with a daring therapist, while at the same time not entirely convinced she isn’t in need of an ethical scrubbing.
* * *
I don’t have another session with Lori for nearly three months, because she took a personal leave from her place of employment. When our sessions finally resumed, I could not wait to tell her about my budding relationship with Shauna.
Ten minutes into my first date with Shauna — right about the time she got up from her bar stool and said she was “going to the can” — I knew she would, at the very least, be someone I was going to invest significant time in. She was as easy to talk to as any girl I’d ever been with, and I found myself at ease. Plans happened magically without anxiety-inducing, twenty-four-hour waits between texts. Her quick wit kept me entertained, and I could tell by the way she so seriously spoke about dancing, her chosen profession, that she is passionate about the art form and mighty talented too. Shauna is beautiful, with flawless hazel eyes and straight dark hair, spunky bangs and a bob that matches her always-upbeat character. She is a snazzy dresser and enjoys a glass of whiskey with a side of fried pickles and good conversation as much as I do.
Things escalated quickly, but very comfortably, and since we’d both been in our fair share of relationships, we knew the true power of honesty and openness. So upon the precipice of my return to therapy I told Shauna about Lori, and admitted to having mixed feelings about what I was getting back into. I told her I was at least moderately uncertain if my mental health was Lori’s number-one concern since she always seemed to find the time to mention my attraction to her.
The first two sessions of my therapeutic reboot had gone great. Lori appeared genuinely thrilled that I was dating Shauna and could see how happy I was. I wasn’t overwhelmed with sexual tension in the new meeting room, though it wasn’t actually spoken about, and in the back of my mind I knew it was just a matter of time before it would start to affect my ability to disclose my thoughts to Lori again.
Then, while attempting to ingratiate myself with my new girlfriend’s cat by spooning food onto his tiny dish on the kitchen floor, I hear my phone ding from inside the living room.
“You got a text, babe,” Shauna says. “It’s from Lori.”
“‘I’m so impressed with you and the work you’re doing…’” Shauna reads off my phone from inside the living room, inquisitively, and not happily. I stuff the cat food back into the Tupperware and toss it into the refrigerator. I make my way into the living room, angry at myself for not changing the settings on my new iPhone to disallow text previews on the locked screen. Shauna’s walking too, and we meet near the kitchen door. “What’s this?” she says, holding up the phone. “Your therapist texts you?”
I take the phone from Shauna and say the most obvious, cliché-sounding thing: “It’s not what it seems.”
As I text back a curt “thanks,” Shauna tells me she’s going to ask her sister, a therapist herself, if it’s OK to text patients.
“Don’t do that.” I say, a little more emphatically. “I promise, this is nothing to be worried about. We’re not doing anything wrong.” I explain that Lori’s just trying to build my self-esteem.
“The only reason I’m even bringing this up is because you said you weren’t sure about her in the first place,” Shauna reminds me. I can tell she regrets looking at my phone without my permission, but I completely understand her feelings.
At my next session I tell Lori that Shauna saw her text and wasn’t thrilled about it.
“She probably feels cheated on to some degree,” Lori says. “A relationship between a therapist and a patient can oftentimes seem much more intimate than the one between a romantic couple.”
Lori goes on to point out that the reason she feels we can exchange texts, blurring the lines between patient/doctor boundaries — a hottopic in the psychotherapy world these days — is because she trusts that I’ll respect her space and privacy. “You’ve proven that much to me,” she says.
On my walk home, instead of being angry at Lori, I understand her thinking behind the text. But I’m also nervous about how Lori and Shauna can ever coexist in my life.
Isn’t therapy supposed to ameliorate my anxiety?
* * *
A week later, Lori begins our session by handing me a printout explaining the psychotherapeutic term “erotic transference” written by Raymond Lloyd Richmond, PhD. It says that erotic transference is the patient’s sense that love is being exchanged between him or herself and the therapist — the exact sensation I was experiencing with Lori, of which she was astutely aware.
According to Richmond, one of the primary reasons people seek therapy is because “something was lacking in their childhood family life,” perhaps “unconditional nurturing guidance and protection.” Upon feeling “noticed” and “understood” by a qualified therapist, sometimes a patient can be “intoxicated” by their therapist’s approval of them. A patient may in turn contemplate that a love is blossoming between them, and, in fact, it sort of is.
From an ethical standpoint, Richmond argues all therapists are “bound” to love their patients, for therapists are committed to willing “the good of all clients by ensuring that all actions within psychotherapy serve the client’s need to overcome the symptoms” which brought them into treatment. This takes genuine care and acceptance on their part. However, a patient can easily confuse the love they feel with simple “desire.” They’re not quite in love with their therapist, so much as they yearn for acceptance from someone, and in those sessions they just happen to be receiving it from their doctor.
Lori tells me that, all along, she has been “working with what I gave her” and that because I flirted with her a bit, she used that to her advantage in the treatment. In employing countertransference — indicating that she had feelings for me — she was keeping me from feeling rejected and despising my own thoughts and urges.
“There’s two people alone in a room together, and if they’re two attractive people, why wouldn’t they be attracted to each other?” says Dr. Galit Atlas. A psychoanalyst who’s had her own private practice for fifteen years, Dr. Atlas has an upcoming book titled The Enigma of Desire: Sex, Longing and Belonging in Psychoanalysis, and I sought her as an independent source for this essay to help me understand Lori’s therapeutic strategies.
Dr. Atlas explains that there are certain boundaries that cannot be crossed between therapist and patient under any circumstances — like having sex with them, obviously. But many other relationship borders can be mapped out depending on the comfort level of the therapist, as long as they stay within the scope of the profession’s ethics, which complicates the discussion surrounding erotic transference.
“As a therapist, I have a role,” Dr. Atlas says. “My role is to protect you.” She says it is incumbent on the therapist to not exploit the patient for the therapist’s own good, but admits that the presence of erotic transference in therapy brings about many challenges. “[Attraction] is part of the human condition,” she observes. In therapy, “the question then is: What do you do with that? Do you deny it? Do you talk about it? How do you talk about it without seducing the patient and with keeping your professional ability to think and to reflect?”
I ask her about the benefits of exploring intimacy in therapy, and Dr. Atlas quickly points out that emotional intimacy — though not necessarily that of the sexual brand — is almost inevitable and required. “An intimate relationship with a therapist can [be] a reparative experience — repairing childhood wounds — but mostly it’s about helping the patient to experience and tolerate emotional intimacy, analyzing the client’s anxieties about being vulnerable and every mechanism one uses in order to avoid being exposed.”
Dr. Atlas says this topic speaks to every facet of the therapeutic relationship, regardless of gender or even sexual orientation, because intimacy reveals emotional baggage that both the patient and therapist carry with them into the session. But this isn’t a symmetrical relationship, and the therapist is the one who holds the responsibility.
“Freud said that a healthy person should be able to work and to love,” she says. “In some ways therapy practices both, and in order to change the patient will have to be known by the therapist. That is intimacy. In order to be able to be vulnerable, both parties have to feel safe.”
After I briefly explain all that has gone on between me and Lori, Dr. Atlas steadfastly says she does not want to judge too harshly why and how everything came to pass in my therapy. “I don’t know your therapist, and I don’t know your history,” she says. But she offers that I should “explore the possibility” that I might have created and admitted my sexual adoration of Lori because one of my fears is to be ignored, not noticed.
Then I offer: “Maybe this essay is being written for the same reason.”
Maybe I wanted to interview Lori about erotic transference in my therapy sessions for that same reason as well…to stand out as the most amazingly understanding patient ever.
* * *
“I want to be very clear that this was never about feeding my own ego,” Lori says about her approach to my treatment. “We were always doing this in your best interest.”
I’m in Lori’s office, a tape recorder rolling and a pad and pen in my hands.
“I felt I was doing a disservice to you if I didn’t ‘out’ what I felt was weighing on us, which, honestly, felt like a heavy secret,” she says, pointing out that she discussed my therapeutic process for many hours in her required supervision meetings.
In order for Lori to advance in her field as a social worker, she has to attend 3,000 conference hours with another professional to go over casework — kind of like therapy quality control.
We talk about all of this during one of my scheduled sessions, for the entire hour — and go over by a few minutes, too.
Lori says that when she began her career as a social worker, she decided she wasn’t going to shy away from any subjects. “It’s typical for a client to [have] a habitual desire to sweep things under the rug,” she observes, especially about taboo topics. It can become a cycle of behavior that Lori seeks to break.
I refer back to the time when, unprovoked, she brought up my attraction to her.
She says she mentioned it to avoid what therapists call “door-knobbing,” which is when a patient will purposely mention some huge reveal right at the end of a session so as to sidestep a lengthy conversation about it.
“My only question for you is, was I wrong for bringing it up?” she asks. “Only you can answer that.”
Lori’s great at forcing me to reflect.
“I guess when I said I was over it and could move on, that was an example of my strict black-and-white thinking,” I say, throwing back some language she’s used often to describe my challenge in accepting dualities. In my mind, I was either attracted to her and shouldn’t see her anymore, or I wasn’t attracted to her and could still have her be my therapist. There was no in between.
I realize now that she wasn’t wrong for mentioning my feelings for her, even when I didn’t want her to. Lori noticed that I was frustrated with myself and wanted me to know that an attraction to a therapist is so normal and happens so frequently that there are technical terms for it.
I turn my attention towards the presence of countertransference in our session. I’m trying to come up with an actual question here, but, really, I just want her to confirm her feelings for me are real. So I say, referring to her feelings, with a great degree of difficulty, “It’s funny that they seem genuine to this day.”
“They are genuine,” Lori says, adding a moment later: “I think it might be a good idea if we explore why our discussing it suggests a lack of authenticity.”
“It doesn’t, necessarily,” I begin, then stammer through a few sentences, worried I might offend her by implying she’s been dishonest. I finally settle on, “I guess it comes back to my self-esteem issues. Why would a beautiful woman think I’m attractive?”
Lying in bed with Shauna a few months into our relationship, I ask her what she thought about me the moment she first saw me. I’m fishing for a compliment. But we met on Tinder and I just hope that seeing me in person wasn’t some kind of letdown for her after swiping right on my hand-picked glamour shots. Obviously she isn’t going to say something so awful after having committed to me for so long. It’s a slam-dunk ego boost.
She says she liked the fact that I was wearing a blazer and a tie on a first date. She adds that I was a little shorter than she anticipated, but was content with the two of us at least being the same exact height.
“What did you think when you first saw me?” she asks, turning it around, naturally.
Staying committed to my honesty-at-all-costs policy, I say, “I thought you were really beautiful, but not to the point where I was intimidated by you, which was very important because if I was, you would have gotten a very unconfident version of me, and we probably wouldn’t have hit it off as well as we did.”
Shauna thinks about that for a second, and eventually nods “OK.”
I explain that my insecurity could often get the better of me in dating situations. It was easy to convince myself that I’d be rejected by the girl I was with, especially if I thought she was out of my league. I would then slip into a nervous and reserved state that isn’t at all reflective of my true self.
I’m essentially saying that I was so thrilled to not find Shauna so extraordinarily pretty that I couldn’t accept her being on a date with me. That thought made so much sense at the time I said it, but I’ve since come to realize it is as ridiculous as it is insulting. After ten months of being with Shauna, I’m still completely floored by her, on every level, including a physical one. It gives me great pride to walk into a room with her, and I don’t imagine that changing. Therefore, she actually did meet a confident “version of me.” The way people look doesn’t drastically change in ten months but a person’s perception of self can. It seems my emotional workouts in erotic transference were just beginning to produce results.
* * *
“People fuck up,” Lori informs me during one winter session. “Therapists have slept with clients before, just like politicians have had sex with their interns. But, so you have a full understanding of how this works, we can date.” She explains the parameters as outlined in the social worker’s code of ethics. One of the many stipulations is that we wouldn’t be able to see each other, under any circumstances, for at least two years before dating. She tells me she loves her job, and there’s no way she would ever sacrifice my safety or her career for anything, so she would strictly follow all the dictated rules. “If you truly want to date me, there is the option. But it’s ultimately up to you.”
I know what she’s doing here — putting the onus on me, just like last year when she said we could have sex. The difference this time is the answer I want to give is on par with all of my involuntary urges.
“I don’t want to stop the work we’re doing,” I say. “At this point, it’s far too valuable to me, and, really, I know very little about you.” She’s beautiful, exercises, is smart, funny, professional, enjoys good TV…and that’s about it. Aside from whether or not we’d even both be single in two years, and if we’d be in the correct mind frame to explore a relationship, there are several other things I’m considering here: Would Lori and I really be compatible in every way? Would she ever see me as a lover, a partner, an equal, and not a patient? Could I ever reveal a detail about myself, or even just a shitty day of work, without wondering if she was picking it apart and analyzing it?
Frankly, all those questions could be answered in the positive. But, even if I wasn’t in a happy relationship — Shauna makes this choice much easier, for sure — I wouldn’t go that route. I’d be out a therapist.
* * *
It’s a beautiful spring night in New York and only sidewalk seating will do. Shauna and I are out to dinner at a restaurant near her Queens apartment, and we’re both in good spirits. The weather and the alcohol consumption are partly to blame for that, but, on cue with the season’s change, I feel I’ve turned an emotional corner. Work payments that were past due are finally finding their way into my bank account. As it turns out, my short-term money troubles were not an indication that I had no business being a writer, or that my life changeup was as irresponsible as unprotected sex at fourteen years old.
I’d told Lori as much that afternoon. I took a mental step back from my current situation and realized that in spite of my recent hardships, I was succeeding. I summarize my session for Shauna, who nods in agreement, lovingly pointing out that she’s had the same challenging freelancer experiences as a dancer.
“You’re doing great, babe,” she says matter-of-factly.
“Thank you. That means a lot,” I respond. “I guess if I’m going to be a writer I just have to accept all this and have faith in myself. The way Lori put it was, ‘You just have to go all-in.’”
“Good,” Shauna says. “You should listen to the women in your life.”
* * *
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