Something Fishy This Way Comes

Urban aquaponics is poised to be the next big thing in hip, big-city farming…but does anyone actually know what they’re doing?

Chistopher Toole starts up the inclined parking lot of his Riverdale, Bronx, apartment complex towards his “fish mobile,” a beat-up 2004 grey Dodge Sprinter van decorated with bright images of fish and ocean landscaping. The tall, bespectacled man reaches the van, unlocks it and energetically slides the door open to reveal dense clutter: four fifty-gallon plastic barrel tanks, crammed alongside stacks of empty boxes, air pumps, pails, plastic-wrapped packs of expanded shale, a “Say No To Frankenfish” postcard, and, yes, a six-person collapsible boat.

“I hope to have this five-cylinder turbo diesel van running on fish oil soon,” Toole says in hyper-caffeinated mode as an empty brown box tumbles down the heap and onto the ground.

It’s the spring of 2012, and forty-eight-year-old Toole is dressed for his stepson’s seventh birthday party: a pair of black pinstripe dress slacks mismatched with a neon yellow and purple polo shirt. His long, bushy salt-and-pepper beard is tied at the end with a red velvet bow. Covering his shaggy hair is a baggy jester cap in the shape of a fish—an odd look for someone hoping to save the world.

The equipment jammed in Toole’s van are the tools of this former corporate banker’s newest obsession—aquaponics, or growing fish and plants together in the same recirculating water system. Think soilless hydroponic farming, but with fish.

Inspired by Dr. Martin Schreibman, the Brooklyn College biologist who is helping spread the urban aquaponics movement nationwide, Toole quit his job in the fall of 2010 to become a full-time fish farmer and began siphoning funds from his 401(k) into his project. Before quitting his job, he knew nothing about rearing fish, but by mid-January of last year, he had drawn coverage from local and international news outlets like the New York Post, CBS and the BBC, which dubbed him the city’s new aquaponics pioneer.

In the back of the van, the aquaponics neophyte is showing off equipment as Eddison Romeo, his roommate, stares in amazement at the disorganized pile. The two then turn their attention to the family van, another Dodge Sprinter painted bright red. Toole points to the fully expanded wheelchair ramp sticking out of the back—an elongated “fish tail,” he calls it. Inside, the van is missing two rows of seats. He removed them so he could transport up to three 275-gallon containers.

Christopher Toole inspects his equipment under a shed while Anya Pozdeeva, his girlfriend, looks on at The Point in the Bronx.
Christopher Toole inspects his equipment under a shed while Anya Pozdeeva, his girlfriend, looks on at The Point in the Bronx.

“He’s like that scientist from ‘Back to the Future,’” says Romeo, arching his eyebrows. “Crazy, but a genius.” Standing near the back of the van, Toole flips a remote control rocker switch. The mechanical “fish tail” slowly retracts. His emphatic proclamation breaks the calmness of the quiet residential neighborhood: “We need to find a way to eat, live and shit in one place!”

Toole’s plan is simple, but ambitious: create an urban fish farm, sell his homegrown “Bronx Best Blue Tilapia” to community gardens, restaurants and local farmers, and eventually branch out to other aspects of sustainable urban farming (chickens, mushrooms, etc.). What Toole doesn’t know is that Dr. Schreibman, the man who has dedicated over a decade to consulting dozens of aquaponics ventures in New York City and abroad, is starting to become a bit skeptical and weary of overzealous fish farmers like him.

*   *   *

Twenty miles away, in a research lab at Brooklyn College, 1,800 purple-hued tilapias flip and flop along the gurgling surface of the water in large plastic tanks. Here, Dr. Schreibman, the seventy-seven-year-old aquaponics pioneer, has spent the last decade raising and studying these fish and answering dozens of weekly phone calls from a rapidly growing number of eager aquaponics acolytes like Toole. “They all speak the mantra, ‘I want to help,’ but they trip all over themselves,” says Schreibman. “The bottom line: it’s naiveté, youth and lack of experience. Most of these people have never seen fish before.”

On workdays, Dr. Schreibman, a short, grey-haired, gentle-faced man makes the twenty-minute drive from his beachfront Belle Harbor, Queens, home in the Rockaways to his lab. Inside his Aquatic Research and Environmental Assessment Center (AREAC), wooden beams and white PVC pipes connect state-of-the-art bio-filtration systems and pumps to long troughs, tanks and eight 250-gallon blue plastic tubs lined along what Shreibman calls “Tilapia Drive.” The soothing sound of trickling water mixes with the distinct stench of live fish.

Here, he spends hours studying the effects of water temperature, hormones and light on the reproductive systems of captive fish. Schreibman began studying aquaponics closely in the early 2000s and increasingly came to see it as a way to solve the world’s environmental problems. Aquaponics systems produce edible fish, are highly energy efficient, run on recycled water and theoretically can be built in basements, apartment buildings, rooftop gardens—almost anywhere you can imagine. “In the early years, I wasn’t able to convince people that we really needed to look for alternative forms of food production,” Schreibman says. “People are catching on nowadays.”

Dr. Martin Schreibman inspects a tub used in the aquaponics system he's set up in the greenhouse at Brooklyn College.
Dr. Martin Schreibman inspects a tub used in the aquaponics system he’s set up in the greenhouse at Brooklyn College.

Aquaponics systems work like this: Fish waste is pumped through a settling tank, where ammonia is broken down into harmless nitrogen products. The nutrient-rich water is consumed and cleaned by the plants, the water is pumped back to the fish, and the process repeats. Tilapia, which is native to North Africa, is the preferred species. It is high in protein and grows fast—in nine months a small tilapia fry can grow to one-and-a-half pounds. Since the founding of AREAC in 1999, Dr. Schreibman has appeared in many articles, blog posts, radio and video interviews to tout aquaponics as “the technology of the future,” one with the capacity to revolutionize food production and solve issues related to rising food prices and decreasing wild fish supplies.

In places like Wisconsin, Texas, Colorado, Florida, and Hawaii, aquaponics is indeed catching on as people become increasingly aware of the world’s likely grim environmental future and savvier about where their food comes from. The Recirculating Farms Coalition, a non-profit New Orleans-based organization made up of farmers, researchers and educators like Dr. Schreibman, has identified about 250 recirculating farms around the country, not including the thousands of individuals who are farming fish in their homes, basements and backyards.

In 2004, Dr. Schreibman co-authored a white paper with Cornell University outlining how aquaculture could transform New York into a $1.5-billion-a-year industry. “We all realized that New York State had tremendous potential if you got politicians on board and made them understand that you could provide food, put people to work and utilize facilities that were abandoned,” he says.

But while hydroponic farming and rooftop gardens have taken off in New York, Dr. Schreibman’s aquaponics revolution has not gone according to plan.

In 2010, Dr. Schreibman, along with business partner Kevin Ferry, launched Clear Water Aqua Farms two hours north of the city in Wassaic using $50,000 raised from friends and family. The 2,000-square-foot greenhouse was a place to rear steelhead rainbow trout, which the pair planned to sell to local restaurants and markets. But inclement weather took its toll. “It was one of the worst winters ever and we lacked funds,” Dr. Schreibman remembers.

Dr. Schreibman bowed out of the venture in the spring of 2011 and says he probably won’t try it again. “I’ve been a scientist for a long time. I’m an educator, remember?” The farm’s flop only contributed to his growing frustration with the industry. The aquaponics ideas he had for New York never really took off, and many of the ventures he consulted locally were helmed by farmers who hadn’t quite thought through their plans.

“Some guy recently called me, ‘So professor, I want to do fish farming, what do I need to know?’ Well, you need to know that you can’t do it,” he says with a chuckle. “He has no background. Where are you going to start? You realize how ridiculous the question is—‘What should I know?’”

After meeting Toole briefly at an elementary school talk in Forest Hills, Queens, Dr. Schreibman offered to show him around his lab and consult on Toole’s venture. “You know, he still hasn’t called me,” Dr. Schreibman says.

*   *   *

Before people knew him as the highly energetic “aquaponics man,” Toole was a New York City area manager at Sovereign Bank, and before that, a stockbroker for Morgan Stanley. So how does a former corporate banker shift gears to become a full-time fish farmer?

When Toole was four years old, his father moved the family from Melbourne to Boston to work as a cellular biologist at Harvard’s Massachusetts General Hospital. Summers were spent at the Woods Hole labs on the shores of Cape Cod. “Playtime was different for me,” Toole recalls. “I collected insects and spent my summers studying the ocean, observing tide pool organisms and being around fish.”

His enthusiasm for scientific discovery didn’t last long. “When it was time to attend college, I decided that I wasn’t into science,” he says. Instead, he studied business and engineering, eventually earning a degree in economics and spending the next seventeen years submersed in the corporate world.

In 2004, he stumbled upon a New York Times article about Dr. Schreibman. He had never heard of the aquaponics visionary, but the concept intrigued him. He continued working at the bank, but starting discussing aquaponics more with a childhood friend, and then a water expert at an Ohio fish farm, who told him that it’s much easier to learn about recirculating systems if you first learn how to properly and effectively grow plants in water without the fish. “He suggested that I first start with hydroponics,” says Toole. “Of course I ignored it. I just like my fish.”

In 2009, at “Fire on the Water,” a Manhattan business networking cruise, he met Anya Pozdeeva, a former botanist who would soon become his girlfriend. Pozdeeva was a Russian immigrant who worked as a financial advisor. Toole’s exuberance attracted her—he was an energetic man who told about his wild motorcycle adventures and sailing trips. He also spoke constantly about his fantasies of growing as much fish for food as he could.

“Chris was a bank manager, but he was talking about growing fish in the apartment all the time,” she says. “He would always ask, ‘Is it okay to put a big fish tank in here?’ No! Eventually, he did.”

In the fall of 2010, Toole, who had been suffering from retinal detachment, was recuperating from a series of laser eye surgeries that saved him from going blind. Pozdeeva, a model-esque blonde with deep-set blue eyes and a charismatic demeanor, could sense he was depressed. The “avalanche of passionate attention” that had attracted her to Toole was suddenly gone.

She recalls approaching him as he sat wallowing on the balcony of their fourteenth-floor apartment; views of the New Jersey Palisades stretched out before them. “You know, you don’t have to go back to the bank,” she said. “You can follow your dreams.”

“As soon as I said it, he jumped up and ran out the terrace door, free,” she says.

Toole ordered books on how to build DIY aquaponics systems instead of buying the $600 to $5,000 starter kits online. In their bedroom, he pieced PVC pipes bought at Home Depot together with air pumps and plant grow beds, creating what looked like a futuristic Bio-Dome science experiment. At a live fish market in Brooklyn, he purchased his first food fish: half a dozen full-grown White Nile tilapias, to test whether they’d survive in his newly created system.

Pozdeeva and Toole looking at one of the fish tanks from the couple's aquaponics system at The Point in the Bronx.
Pozdeeva and Toole looking at one of the fish tanks from the couple’s aquaponics system at The Point in the Bronx.

On the balcony he added a small pop-up greenhouse, a messy “man cave” of aquaponics experimentation. He tested the fish in various water temperatures and worked on perfecting methods of symbiotically growing fish along with beans, basil and red leaf lettuce. But he had no training, only a trove of online information, and kept no scientific logs. It was purely fingers-crossed, trial-and-error experimentation.

By the end of the year, neighbor complaints about the terrace greenhouse and accusations that he was running a commercial fish farm (which he denies) led him to seek space at The Point, a non-profit community development organization in the Bronx geared towards cultural and economic revitalization. Kellie Terry-Sepulveda, executive director at The Point, said she would allow Toole to use the small back room there if he and Pozdeeva agreed to teach after-school aquaponics and botany classes.

“Now that he finally decided to follow his passion, stability is what I crave the most. Life is very unstable,” Pozdeeva says. “Even Dr. Schreibman does a lot of work, but he gets paid. We don’t. The worst part is not knowing what’s going to happen tomorrow.”

*   *   *

It’s April 2012, and Dr. Schreibman is driving his gold Audi convertible in Sheepshead Bay, Brooklyn, down Emmons Avenue—the main waterfront street lined with seafood restaurants, fish markets and fishing charter boats docked at wooden piers. The Brooklyn native points to Il Fornetto, a cozy waterfront restaurant he had attempted to sell his farm-raised tilapia to in the early 2000s, before the practice was popular. “The chef said nobody wanted it, but three or four years later, he came running to me asking, ‘Professor, do you have any more of that tilapia?’”

In recent years, tilapia has become a popular choice among foodies and chefs. It’s high in protein and has a less “fishy” taste. “Brooklyn College was one of the early institutions in the states growing tilapia before people could spell tilapia,” Dr. Schreibman says.

According to the United States Department of Agriculture, the U.S. imports ninety-one percent of fish consumed in the country, half of which is raised in ocean cages in Asia and Latin America. Here in the city, practically all of the fish consumed is imported from abroad, despite the fact that fish are grown all over New York State.

Martin Schreibman inspects a tub used in the aquaponics system he's set up at Brooklyn College.
Martin Schreibman inspects a tub used in the aquaponics system he’s set up at Brooklyn College.

The New York State Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC) operates twelve hatcheries which produce one million pounds of fish like trout, salmon and lake sturgeon. But in late 2012, the DEC announced a monumental change to regulation that could alter how the state’s hatcheries are used. Third parties are now allowed to buy black bass from licensed state hatcheries and resell them as food, whereas before, only licensed hatchery operators could sell them. Opening the New York State fish market could potentially attract new food fish farmers, create more jobs in the state and encourage existing hatcheries to diversify their businesses, perhaps with commercial aquaponics in mind.

New York City did have an aquaponics fish farm once. Philson Warner, coordinator of science, technology and sustainable agriculture at the Cornell University Cooperative Extension, claims to have coined the term “aquaponics.” In 2001, he co-founded Inner City Oceans in an abandoned Bronx warehouse.

“It was successful, but the problem was we needed more space in the South Bronx to expand the farm and the city didn’t give us space they had promised us,” Warner says. “Overseas, they grow it in farms, use cheap labor, then import them here. I had to get to a level where I could compete with those guys.” To succeed, Warner said, he would have needed to produce ten million pounds of fish every year. His farm produced only one million pounds.

Even with the new regulation and an increased temptation for farmers to raise fish, there is still the reality of experience. Farmers looking to get into aquaponics lack the resources, money and insider research needed to make their venture less of a science experiment and more of a moneymaker. Dr. Schreibman is aware of this and urges commercial aquaponics venturers to go into it with experts on the team.

“When you’re a professor, as long as you’re funded—teaching and researching—you can always move ahead using fish as a model,” Dr. Schreibman says. “I’ve been a scientist for a long time. I can evaluate and look at data, and know what a dead fish or a sick plant looks like. Others can’t.”

*   *   *

The Point is a boxy brick building on Garrison Avenue decked out in bright mural art and graffiti. Since the organization’s founding in 1994, a bevy of youth development, arts and community education programs taught by dancers, actors and environmental do-gooders like Majora Carter have taken place here. None have preached and taught the benefits of aquaponics—until now.

Twice a week in the back room, Toole teaches elementary school students about the anatomy of fish and how to feed and harvest them. His loud voice booms through the building; his long grizzly beard makes him stand out immediately.

Christopher Toole's van parked in front of The Point.
Christopher Toole’s van parked in front of The Point.

When Toole installed two sixty-gallon aquaponics systems, the students—most of whom never imagined you could grow fish for food—were awestruck. Danny Peralta, director of arts and education at The Point, was also taken aback.

“I thought it was odd at first,” says Peralta. “Toole came in with a lot of ideas that were way over my head, but I think he’s humbled a bit since realizing what he wants to do is a process.” Toole’s over-enthusiastic ideas and zippy thinking can often be extremely hard to follow.

“We understand that we’re flawed,” Toole said, referring to himself and Pozdeeva. “We need to improve the level of professionalism, but we’re trying to figure it out.”

Regardless, Toole’s mountain-man looks, environmental ideas and eccentric approach have drawn attention. In early 2012, “Raising Trashcan Tilapia is Latest Trend in Urban Farming,” a DNAinfo.com article, piqued the interest of local and international media outlets. People were fascinated by how Toole had cleverly appropriated average household recycling bins, using them to raise food fish. Whether the resident expert was experienced enough in aquaponics to be treated as a regional spokesperson is another story.

Plastering the walls in The Point’s aquaponics room are butcher papers scribbled with terms like “orbicular” and “S.A.V.E.,” which refers to the Society for Aquaponic Values and Education—the educational organization Toole and Pozdeeva founded in 2010. The other side of their vision is Vertically Integrated Farms, a commercial business that sells aquaponic equipment, at-home mushroom growing kits and Blue and White Nile tilapia—six dollars to nine dollars for one- to two-inch fingerlings, thirty-five dollars for roughly six-inch breeders, or adults. Word-of-mouth drives most of their business. Toole and Pozdeeva don’t really keep track of the number of clients they have, but say they’ve bred about one thousand fish, not including the ones they’ve bought, eaten or given away to the kids at The Point.

Jonathan Boe, thirty-three, and Yemi Amu, thirty-one, two new Brooklyn aquaponics farmers, have worked together in the last few years to build a commercial aquaponics system at a community garden in Bushwick, Brooklyn. After finding Toole’s business online, they purchased twenty-five of his blue and white Nile tilapia fingerlings. “Toole was one of the only ones around here selling them,” says Boe.

Toole taught them how to properly introduce the fish into an aquaponics system, how to harvest them and monitor pH and ammonia levels. “He’s crazy, but so smart,” says Amu. “He’s also a few steps ahead of us.”

Toole has also tried to educate local chefs about aquaponics. At The Point Cafe, chef Kelston Bascom runs a catering company where he concocts gourmet Caribbean-inspired dishes for social events and clients like Patti Labelle and Jerry Seinfield. Until meeting Toole, the Trinidad native had vaguely heard of aquaponics, but had never seen a system or cooked with aquaponic fish.

Anya Pozdeeva shows off one of her tilapia.
Anya Pozdeeva shows off one of her tilapia.

“In 2011, Toole brought in a live tilapia to the kitchen, so I chopped its head off with a knife before pulling the guts out, scaling, battering and frying it for tempura,” he says. “It had a buttery, fresh flavor to it. I could tell it hadn’t been frozen.”

Usually, by the time a fish is caught and frozen, it takes roughly two weeks to get to Bascom’s kitchen. The shipment boxes his fish are packaged in come from all over: China, Argentina, Chile. Some fish farms in the Philippines occasionally overnight him a box of fresh fish on ice. But if Bascom paid nine dollars per pound for Toole’s fish, he would need to jack up the menu price for a fried, baked or grilled fillet to a whopping $30 just to turn a profit, he says.

Toole also showed Bascom how to harvest the fish by sticking it in the freezer for half an hour. This lowers its body temperature until it slips into a coma and eventually dies. One time, Bascom took the fish out of the freezer too soon. While the kids gathered around, excited to watch a fish demonstration session, the fish started to stir, slowly flapping its purply-grey fins until Bascom slammed the silver blade down.

“It’s not all love and kiss in the world. You make mistakes and move on,” says Toole.

*   *   *

Pozdeeva rests on a red picnic table near the playground of her quiet Riverdale apartment complex after her son’s birthday party. The tall, slender woman wears a brown and pink flowered velvet coat. She’s soft spoken, but her hand gestures give her an air of confidence as she points out a patch of wild garlic mustard. “People throw them away, but it’s food,” she says. “It’s also very good for the immune system.”

If Toole is the energetic fish man, Pozdeeva is the laid-back plant woman, savvy in the very necessary other half of their business, which Toole admits to knowing little about.

“When I was little, my grandmother and I used to walk in vast, beautiful, majestic forests in the Ural Mountains,” she says. “She would point to specific plants, name them and tell me what they do. This one’s good for liver disease, or heart disease, or colds.”

On days when she’s not teaching botany classes at The Point or the New York Botanical Gardens, she’s at home, taking care of her and Toole’s two kids and cooking dinners from scratch each night for the whole family. She also juggles researching and writing blog posts about invasive plants and urban gardening for the Vertically Integrated Farms blog.

At one point, Pozdeeva and the kids were living in her mother’s one-bedroom apartment on the seventh floor of the Riverdale building so the couple could make money from renting a bedroom in the apartment on the fourteenth floor. Toole stayed upstairs, sleeping in the living room to monitor the small aquaponics tank he had set up there. “I miss normal family life. I don’t know when it’s going to be over because I’m getting tired,” Pozdeeva says as she looks towards the sky and gently rubs her neck.

Finances are a strain on the couple. “There’s a certain amount of stress that comes with taking your financial position and driving it into the ground, especially with two kids,” she says. “I have savings, but he’s emptied his credit cards. We’re living frugally.”

But she says she’s not scared, “because I know that letting him follow his dreams is the only way for Toole to survive.” After moving to the United States by herself at twenty years old, she worked as a live-in babysitter and a waitress, then graduated with an economics degree from Fordham University in 2003. She became a financial advisor, but liked being her own boss better. On the side, she secretly worked on developing her online chocolate business, ADEVI Chocolates, and studied aphrodisiac herbs. Early this year, Pozdeeva published her first e-book, Food Under Your Feet, about foraging invasive weeds and harnessing their edible properties.

“The biggest challenge for us now is being our own witnesses,” she says. “Sometimes Chris takes it easy when he doesn’t have a whip. He doesn’t have much discipline and can panic easily.”

She lightens up; her hand gestures become more exaggerated. “But when you’re inspired, you become your own whip and you become driven and passionate.”

Anya Pozdeeva and Christopher Toole
Anya Pozdeeva and Christopher Toole

Pozdeeva gets up from the picnic table and makes her way to the playground swings. She pumps her legs and flies higher into the sky, smiling at Toole, who has returned from putting their twenty-one-month-old son to bed upstairs. He walks towards Pozdeeva, a camera pointed at her. She makes faces at the camera, lighting up with a childlike exuberance. In this moment, it looks like everything—despite all the fish, the plants, the financial troubles—will be O.K.

In the fall of 2012, Toole and Pozdeeva moved into a two-bedroom live-work space in Bridgeport, Connecticut. “One of the biggest problems we have is our lack of access to sufficient space resources, so we’re not as productive as we want to be,” Toole says. “But,” he admits, “part of that problem is our own making because we’re not really settled.” From the outside, things look on the up. The couple recently started serving as consultants for eatmermaid.org, an organization dedicated to assisting community supported fisheries and bringing sustainable seafood, work and education to underserved communities. This summer, they’ll co-host a one-day benefit to raise money for a permanent aquaponic solar greenhouse at The Point. Toole and Pozdeeva have also started to think beyond fish, selling sustainable food products like invasive weeds pesto and wild-harvested herbs on their website. “It’s not just fish,” Toole says. “It’s about finding a business model that makes sense for you.”

*   *   *

Dr. Schreibman stands in his blue Crocs on a sandy beach in the Rockaways, admiring the scenery. “It’s another world,” he says appreciatively as the waves crash against the shore. The area is a natural escape for Dr. Schreibman; it’s seven miles from the lab where he spends most of his time. Before Hurricane Sandy devastated much of the Rockaways last fall, Dr. Schreibman would often swim a one-mile lap along the beach 200 yards from his home.

Driving back up busy Flatbush Avenue to his lab, Dr. Schreibman pauses for a moment when asked what he’s most proud of. “Being able to get the word out, show the feasibility and importance of aquaponics and call attention to it,” he says. “People didn’t pay attention to it or understand it before.”

Despite his frustrations, he is optimistic that his success story is still to come.

“I’m certainly a champion of it, a positive-thinking person, and I think it’s going to happen and it will happen soon,” he says. “Maybe when the economy loosens up, so will the hold on the people who have that fire in their belly, who think they can make it work and go for that leap.”

Of course, the number of people who are taking that leap continues to grow. As Toole puts it: “If the many people out there who are willing to do aquaponics are given the space, the results would be explosive. Dr. Schreibman would be very happy.”

*   *   *

Lani Conway is a Bay Area-based writer and editor whose work has appeared in The New York Times, San Francisco and New American Media. Follow @LaniConway.

Emon Hassan, Narratively’s Director of Video & Multimedia, is a New York-based filmmaker and photographer. He is also a contributor to The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal and The Atlantic. You can follow him on Twitter, Facebook & Google+.

When a Magician’s Curse Swung Boxing’s Biggest Bout

In 1939, Tiger Jack Fox got his first and only shot at the title, and lost it thanks to black magic, a woman with a razor blade, and a manager with a knack for hypnosis.

PART ONE: THE TIGER WAS A NIGHT OWL 

John Linwood Fox, a.k.a. Tiger Jack Fox, was a superstitious man. He was a late-night playboy. But before all else, he was as powerful a boxer that has ever fought. A light heavyweight who boxed professionally from 1926-1950, Fox is distinguished as one of Ring magazine’s Top 100 Punchers in history. His 24 first round knockouts rank him second all-time, behind only Jack Dempsey. He was a showy and unorthodox boxer who often fought with his hands down at his knees, sometimes sticking his chin out or making opened-mouthed gestures in a ploy to lure opponents into attack, at which time he’d open up, punching wildly. Journalists thought it was funny. His opponents did not. 

Fox fought often, and toward the end of 1938, he was closing in on 100 career victories, with his record sitting at 98-14-10. When National Boxing Association light-heavyweight champion John Henry Lewis decided to move up in weight and challenge Joe Louis for the heavyweight title (a fight John Henry lost in 93 seconds), the New York Athletic Commission stripped Lewis of his belt, and an elimination tournament was set up to determine a successor. Fox fought his way to a title shot; his opponent would be Melio Bettina, a young fighter from Beacon, New York. In 1939, Tiger Jack would get his big break, but first he’d have to make it out of 1938 alive.

John “Tiger” Linwood Fox, better known as Tiger Jack Fox.

Fox had long made a habit of staying out late and spending every dime he made. He hated working out; he hated preparing for fights, but it never seemed to hurt him. Trainer Al Morse told a story, recounted in the Spokane Daily Chronicle, about a time when he lost Tiger Jack prior to a 1936 bout at the Spokane Armory. As the night moved on and the undercard bouts were finishing up, Tiger Jack was still nowhere to be found. With mere minutes to go before the headline bout, Fox finally made an appearance. 

“Where in the —— have you been?” Morse asked, according to the Chronicle. 

“Well I got in a card game down the street and I was trying to win enough money for cab fare to the Armory.” 

Fox pulled his gloves on, went into the ring, and won the fight in three easy rounds. 

On December 6, 1938, Tiger Jack’s late nights caught up to him. It was three a.m. in Harlem when he met a woman, Edna Boyd, on his way back to the Woodside Hotel. Not long after, guests heard screams coming from Tiger Jack’s room. The hotel detective broke down the door, and found a room covered in blood. Boyd had stabbed Tiger Jack with a ten-inch blade, just below the heart. He was bleeding still. Fox was rushed to the hospital, and Boyd was arrested claiming self-defense. She showed the patrolman the cuts on her fingers as proof. 

Fox’s injuries were critical. He had lost a great deal of blood, and one reporter predicted that his fight career was finished, “even if he recovers.” But on December 17, Fox invited reporters to his hospital room, where he lounged in his bed reading a Wild West story, to show them that he was “not as bad off as they say.” 

When asked to give his account of the events, Fox disputed Boyd’s account that they had met on the street, and gave no explanation of the incident, saying that she had stabbed him in his sleep. 

“I was on a party with a couple of guys and girls,” he said. “The others left before the cutting. I was lying across the bed when she stabbed me.” 

Details would remain murky. When reached at the Women’s Detention Home for a statement after being charged with felonious assault, Boyd, a hotel maid, replied only “No, no, no. I will say nothing.” 

Tiger Jack promised that he’d take his shot at the title, facing Bettina on February 3, just two months after the stabbing. Edna Boyd and her knife would not, as it happened, be the only things standing in his way. 

PART TWO: “THE MAD MAGICIAN OF MAUL”  

Superstitious athletes have a way of attracting eccentrics. Characters like five foot nine Jimmy Grippo, a boxing manager fond of suit and tie, and who sported thick black glasses, which matched his penetrating black eyes and thick, curly, black hair.  

The 40-year-old Grippo lived in Melio Bettina’s hometown of Beacon, New York. He had managed Bettina since the start of his career, but that was only a side gig. Really, he was a magician and hypnotist who would one day be credited by the Las Vegas Sun as an expert in, “clairaudience, clairvoyance, dream interpretation, extrasensory perception, handwriting analysis, magic and sleight of hand, palmistry, precognition, pupilmetrics, telekinesis and telepathy.”  

Grippo’s biography is, fittingly, a bit of a mystery. The story goes that he was born in Venosa, Italy, in January of 1888, the oldest of nine children. There, he first learned of hypnotism from a local elder. When Grippo was around 12 his family immigrated to America, settling in Beacon. He caught Harry Blackstone Sr.’s show once when the magician barnstormed through upstate New York and the Great Blackstone’s performance captivated Grippo. By 18 years old he was versed in the art of legerdemain (defined as the “skillful use of one’s hands when performing conjuring tricks”). Hypnotism was also an early specialty, and Grippo’s work in this discipline gradually became highly respected and had him partnering with doctors to use hypnotism as an alternative to anesthetics. (Grippo was a pioneering advocate of hypnosis for mothers during childbirth.) In 1932, Grippo was summoned to a New York hospital to perform hypnotism on the King of Siam, to calm the nervous King prior to eye surgery. Following the successful operation, the King presented Grippo with a large diamond and ruby ring shaped like a sheik’s head. 

Jimmy Grippo

In the years to come, Grippo would become the first house magician at Caesar’s Palace when it opened in Las Vegas in 1966. There, according to present-day magician and preeminent coin manipulator, David Roth, Grippo’s specialty was sleight of hand magic with rings and coins. Roth met him some 40 years ago, but one thing stands out above all else: “Jimmy was a showman.”  

In Beacon, Grippo lived down the street from the Bettinas. When shy, skinny young Melio was bullied in school, it was to Grippo that his mother came for help. The magician got him started in boxing, managing him when the boy turned pro, and using hypnotism and auto-suggestion to bolster the young prizefighter’s confidence. When they came to New York City to train at the legendary Stillman’s Gym on Eighth Avenue, Grippo hypnotized Bettina twice a week.  

“Hypnosis can be a tremendous help to an athlete, but you use it in training, not combat,” he later told the Miami News. “I’d drill into his subconscious mind that he was going to retain the knowledge he would pick up in the gym, that he would have good reflexes, that he would be able to absorb punishment, that he was going to win. In a wakeful state he now had greater confidence. It was the power of suggestion at work.” 

It was hard to argue with the results. Bettina grew husky and strong, a rough-and-tumble fighter who was a far cry from the reserved kid who first showed up at the gym. He stuck with the sport through the Great Depression, earning more in the ring than he could anywhere else. By 1938, Bettina was rolling, having not lost a fight in nearly two years, his record sitting at 43-6-2. He was 23-years-old and ready to fight for the championship of the world. 

Tiger Jack, meanwhile, was not.  

“He doesn’t look at all ready,” wrote Carl Beckwith of the Washington Afro-American just days prior to the Bettina fight. “We noticed that when he shook hands, he kept his arm as close to his side as possible, and in climbing in and out of the ring, he definitely favored his right side.” But Tiger Jack didn’t care. This was his chance, and he wasn’t going to miss it.  

As the bout approached, the bookies made Fox a 3-1 favorite. On fight day, the New York Times declared, “Fox is the choice to turn back his youthful rival… He is a sturdy, well-rounded boxer, who can stand up well under a punch.”  

But could he stand up to a hex? 

“Jimmy Grippo, who manages Melio, is a magician and a hypnotist,” wrote Harry Ferguson of the United Press. “He is planning, it seems, to send his man into the ring in a trance which will make him impervious to a smack on the kisser… Manager Grippo, who never has objected when anyone referred to him as ‘the Svengali of Pugilism,’ intends to make his hypnotism work both ways by putting a hex on Fox. He explains that if he can come face to face with Fox before the gladiators begin gladiating he can send Fox into a trance that will make him helpless against a left to the belly.”  

PART THREE: “YOU WILL NOT QUAIL”  

Madison Square Garden. February 3, 1939. Tickets ranged from $18 all the way up to $189. A snowstorm battered the region, and only 7,947 showed up for the fight. The weather hardly slowed the Beacon battalion, as an estimated 1,500 fans trekked the 65 miles south from the Hudson Valley. Some called Bettina a country boy, others a farm boy, but up in Beacon the kid was a star. 

Before the bell rang, Grippo gave Bettina his marching orders.  

“You will be courageous,” quoted Red Smith in the New York Times. “You will not quail. You will feel no pain and you will conquer. He will not hurt you. You will attack, attack, attack. And you shall prevail.” 

Then Grippo set his eyes on Tiger Jack. Fox was ready for him. At the weigh-in, he’d worn sunglasses to protect himself from Grippo’s gaze, and now he did everything he could to avoid making eye contact with the magician.  

“He wouldn’t look me in the eye,” Grippo later related. “When we started to put on the gloves I went to his corner but he kept his head down.” 

Another tactic was required. Grippo looked back at his own corner and yelled, “Don’t forget to put the stuff in the gloves.” Tiger Jack’s seconds ran to Bettina’s corner to make sure that they weren’t putting weights in his gloves, and Tiger Jack’s head snapped up in the commotion. Grippo got his eye contact. The hex was in. 

“What you doin’ to me?” moaned Tiger Jack, according to Grippo. 

Finally, it was time to box. Things got off to a slow start, the fighters sizing one another up, exchanging punches and maneuvering for position. Bettina was not only green, but also a plodder, moving at his opponent straight ahead, punching from a low crouch. He pressed Fox into the ropes. Fox countered, throwing rights and lefts, catching Bettina with a thundering blow to the head, opening a cut above Bettina’s left eye.  

Bettina bounced back to take the second and third rounds, pacing the action. In the fourth, Fox connected with a vicious right hand that staggered Bettina. The belt looked like it was within Fox’s reach. Fox attacked with a flurry of punches, while Bettina looked to crowd him, bullying Fox into the ropes to stem the onslaught. It was toe-to-toe action in the fifth, with Bettina getting the better of it with short, stiff combinations to the head. He won the sixth round as well. In the seventh the two fighters banged heads, then Fox went in for the kill, landing a solid left, but just missed with a right uppercut. Bettina’s face was red and his left eye was cut. The seventh ended with a flurry, bringing the crowd to its feet.

Jimmy Grippo, manager of Melio Bettina, shows Tiger Jack Fox some sleight-of-hand tricks at Boxing Commisison offices on February 1st, 1939, two days before the match with Bettina. (Photo by New York Daily News via Getty Images)

In the eighth, Bettina came alive, charging ahead and striking with three consecutive shots to the jaw. Fox countered with a left to the body, then just missed with a wild right and nearly tumbled to the canvass in the process. Bettina saw his opening. He struck with a big left hook, sending Fox down for a nine-count. Back on his feet, Fox was wobbly and Bettina continued punching unceasingly until the bell. Fox held on, barely, and stumbled to his corner. The Beacon faithful roared with approval, eager for more of the same in the ninth round.  

PART FOUR: THE GREAT MANERO AND A CAVE IN ALBANIA 

A magician’s audience walks away buzzing about the climax of a trick, but the voila is not always the most important part. For a magician like James V. Grippo, a showman, it’s what comes before the trick that matters most of all. 

When asked where he first learned the power of hypnotism, Jimmy would take his listeners on a journey back to verdant Italy, where he lived an idyllic childhood eating figs and grapes and olives, until the day he met a 114-year-old mystic named Manero. The two traveled across the sea to Albania, to a cave lit by an olive-oil lamp, where Manero spent nine years imparting the secrets of hypnotism.   

“He hypnotised me four of five times a day, an hour at a time,” Jimmy later told Las Vegas Today. “From these sessions I learned how to hypnotise others and the unique power of self-hypnosis, which in turn had taught me how to be the master of my body and not a slave to it.”  

Grippo would regularly tell such stories. This was the groundwork. The trick before the trick. Tell enough reporters, like old Harry Ferguson, and Jimmy’s stories got around. Never mind that his Manero story would have had him learning hypnotism as a three-year old if he indeed made it to America when he was 12 — Jimmy’s trick was the story of the cave. It didn’t matter if it was true or not, you believed he absolutely could have been a boy apprentice in Albania. If nothing else, he possessed the power to make you consider — could he be a sorcerer, a magic man, a spellbinder — and the answer was always “yes, he very well could have been.” So before the ninth round, before the first bell, before he looked into Tiger Jack’s eyes, the groundwork was already laid. Not even the sunglasses could have saved Fox. 

Prior to the ninth round Fox’s trainers worked feverishly to patch him up. But as soon as the bell rang, Bettina had him against the ropes and was pounding away. Here was Tiger Jack Fox, who according to Red Smith “could hit like the wrecker’s big iron ball.” Tiger Jack Fox, a savvy veteran of more than 100 fights, getting sleighed by a farm boy. Pummeled by a plodder. How could it be? Was it as simple as Bettina absorbing his manager’s words? You will not quail…he will not hurt you….attack, attack, attack…And you shall… 

Again, Bettina backed Fox into the ropes. A right, then a left, back and forth. Fox was gasping for air, but would not go down. Bettina trapped Fox in a neutral corner and battered away. And sure enough, it really was just as Grippo had told him. And you shall prevail. Referee Eddie Josephs called it at the 1:22 mark.  

Bettina’s supporters kicked up the brass band.  

Bettina had won the title.

Tiger Jack Fox and Melio Bettina weigh in at the Garden, February 3rd, 1939. (Photo by New York Daily News via Getty Images)

A week after the championship tilt, Newsweek and Ring Lardner’s coverage of the bout was focused almost solely on the manager, referring to Fox as “Grippo’s victim,” and pointing to the eighth round as the moment when the magic kicked in. Grippo’s hypnotic stare remained “undefeated.”  

Fox, meanwhile, had no other recourse but to get back out there. He was back in the ring, and the win column, by March. He would fight a total of 11 matches in 1939, winning seven with a draw and a no contest thrown in.  

Bettina’s winning streak did not last much longer. Five months later he fought Billy Conn, whose team attempted to bar Grippo from participating in the official weigh-in. They failed, but Grippo earned a rebuke from the New York Boxing Commission, warning of “no monkey business,” and Conn took the title from Bettina in July of 1939 by unanimous decision. 

Moving forward, Grippo was the story, not Bettina. Here was Harry Ferguson again, obviously enamored with Grippo’s hocus pocus, writing before Bettina took on Red Burman at Ebbets Field in 1941: 

“If it were strictly a fight between Burman and Bettina, your agent would be inclined to pick Burman. But there is a third person involved in this conflict — Bettina’s manager who has the glittering eye of Svengali, who is a better magician than Berlin and who can put people under a Hypnotic spell. Grippo is the name — Jimmy Grippo — but whenever the scholars assemble in leatherfist lane to discuss such erudite subjects as the super-natural and hypnotism they refer to him in hushed voices as ‘Grippo the Great.’” 

EPILOGUE: “WHO HAS CAST THE EVIL EYE ON YOU?”  

Melio Bettina retired in 1948 with a career record of 83-14-3, losing his only other title shot to Anton Christoforidis in 1941. Tiger Jack bounced back, boxing all over the northwest, then Canada, then Alaska, where he became the Alaskan Heavyweight Champion at the age of 46. Fox’s last official fight came in December of 1950 in Twin Falls, Idaho. A sad affair at the Radio Rondevoo, Fox was called in as a last minute replacement after the original opponent found himself in stir. Old man Fox suffered a hernia in the bout before falling in the second round.  

Fox suffered a stroke in 1951 that nearly paralyzed him, but he got off the canvas as usual, recovered and became an ever-present figure around Spokane, walking with a cane, taking in the fights, and buying 25-cent movie tickets to spend the day at a triple feature. He fell one last time in April of 1954, suffering a heart attack while entering the El Rancho Theatre on Main Street. His final record in the ring stands at 140-23-12 — an astonishing number of fights, considering that most of today’s greats average between 50 and 70 fights in a career — and a remarkable 91 KO’s.  

Fox’s obituary made note of his nocturnal nature. “The Tiger never believed in letting his ring career interfere with his good times.” The write-up also mentioned that the stabbing “undoubtedly cost him the world title.” Perhaps. But when anyone asked, he always pointed the blame at his opponent’s manager. Fox never doubted Grippo’s hex. 

Long after Tiger Jack and Bettina were forgotten, Grippo stayed in the game, offering his services to boxers looking for a magical edge. His name pops up all the way into the ’60s and ’70s, in bouts involving Liston, Patterson, Ali, Norton, Holmes, and so on. He worked into his 90s as the self-appointed greeter at Caesar’s Palace, wowing guests fresh from the airport with magic and coin tricks, and he performed for every president from Eisenhower to Carter. His quintessential performance, however, came just after World War II, when he was summoned to 10 Downing Street, to perform for Winston Churchill.  

Grippo approached the Prime Minister, according to the Los Angeles Herald Examiner, with no fireworks, no assistants — just a solitary pack of cards.  

“Pick a card,” asked Grippo, instructing the Prime Minister to make his selection mentally, without touching the deck. Once Churchill chose, AlakazamGrippo forcefully flung the cards against a window across the room. The cards scattered. Outside it rained. At the base of the window the cards were counted. Fifty-one. Jimmy pointed to the window where the 52nd card — Churchill’s card — was stuck to it… The outside of the window. The card was streaked with rain.  

I Met My Long-Lost Brother…And I Was Overcome With Lust

I was 34 years old and it was a primal attraction I couldn’t control. But this was before I discovered Johnny’s dark predilections.

My brother Johnny had just been paroled from the Georgia state prison system when I found my birth family. When the train taking me to the reunion pulled into the Savannah station, Johnny was waiting on the platform with my sister Belinda and my brother Mike. Already in tears, I went for my sister first, and then Mike, while Johnny stood quietly and waited his turn to hug me.

Johnny was dark, like me and our mother, who’d died the previous year. His eyes were my eyes, his lips were my lips. He had a dimple on one cheek that appeared when he smiled, just like me. He was a good-looking man, as were all my brothers. He’d just been released from prison; his body was meaty and well-nourished.

Learning I was related to someone with felony convictions didn’t bother me; I was no saint, for one thing, and I’d also been a criminal defense lawyer for ten years by then. Nothing could shock me, I thought.

Riding that train for twenty hours, I swung wildly between worries and hopes about what life inside a new family would mean to me. My mother had been fifteen when I was born, and just three months later she married the man who would be the father of the rest of her children, a daughter and five sons. I’d been adopted as an infant by a family up North. My siblings grew up with my mother and their father. This would be my first time meeting them. Would they be so different from me that I’d be repelled? Or would I snap into place with them? I’d learned a little about them all from letters and phone calls. It sounded like most of my five brothers were a lot like my clients. Unlike some defense lawyers I knew, I liked my clients – and I liked the no-frills, no-bullshit, blue-collar culture of people who were poor and struggling. I liked rule-breakers.

At the train station, and all during the week of my first visit to Savannah, Johnny and I spent long minutes staring into each other’s eyes. I was under a spell of fascination with the resemblance I’d been missing my whole life as an adopted person, and although I looked like all of my siblings in some way, the resemblance was strongest between Johnny and me. He was the sort of man who wouldn’t look away from another person’s gaze; probably, I thought, a habit picked up in prison, where to look away meant weakness. I was 34 then, and he was six years younger than me. I wanted to be literally in touch, as if separating from him physically would tear off a piece of my skin.

A book I’d read before getting on the train, The Adoption Triangle, had prepared me for those sorts of feelings. Of the many stories of adoption reunions, there were a few of brothers and sisters, and mothers and sons, who fell headlong in love, intoxicated by “deep, unrestrained love” and “intense, incestual feelings.” This didn’t surprise or disgust me when I read about it, or even when I experienced it myself. After all, it’s easy to confuse love with sex and sex with love.

I’d devoured stories of brother-sister incest all of my life: Wuthering Heights, Ada, The God of Small Things, Game of Thrones. It wasn’t me who’d turned those stories into bestsellers and critically-acclaimed classics. The attraction I felt wasn’t a sign of deviance, but I didn’t plan to act on it.

* * *

Soon after I got back to New England from that first visit to Savannah, Johnny was arrested on a burglary charge. Confined in the local jail, he charmed the female relative of an employee into helping him escape. He was picked up again within days. A few months later, I traveled to Savannah again, this time with one of my courtroom outfits packed away.

I dressed up like a lawyer to visit my brother in jail, and brought the maximum number of boxes of Marlboros allowed. We sat in an open visitation area at one of fifty tables. We held hands, the only contact allowed. Rules meant to prevent revealing attire were enforced against female visitors. In spite of that, the women visiting their men turned up the heat with the arch of their spines, the curves of their lips. Their heat spread to me, and I caught myself looking down at my breasts, which swelled against the silk blouse I wore, and I felt the same heat from Johnny.

Psychologists will say we repeat our families’ pathologies because we try, as adults, to rebuild the patterns we know. I’d always been attracted to reckless men like my brothers, even though I didn’t grow up with men like that. Once I met my brothers, I decided my desire was simpler and deeper than trying to replicate a childhood pattern; it was blood calling to blood.illo_2 For the next few years, Johnny and I communicated through letters while he was locked up. I learned, partly through his letters from prison, and partly through what others told me, that he’d been institutionalized at seven years old and given shock treatments and anti-psychotic medications. He’d been sexually abused by staff at that institution, and later in juvenile offender facilities and foster homes, where he was called “hyperactive.”

By sixteen, he was living on the streets, and he’d survived by stealing and prostituting himself. “If the price was right,” he wrote in one of his letters, “but as I got older and wiser, I started just robbing them kind of people.” By the time he reached his twenties, he’d spent half of his life incarcerated.

Johnny’s prison terms and deep dives into heavy drug use kept him away from all but one of the series of beach-house reunions I staged in the first ten years after I found my family. I was fixated on having everyone under one roof at the same time, trying to recreate the family-that-would-have-been if my mother hadn’t given me up, and I was oblivious to reasons why that might not be a good idea.

That one he made it to was in the fifth year of my reunion with my family, after I’d left my first husband and sold my law practice, after I’d started teaching college classes. That year, I began drinking with my brothers, and drinking hard, as I had in my teenage years and early twenties.

My uncle’s redheaded wife was the person in our family who most often told it like it was. When Johnny was released, and it looked like he would make it to the fifth beach-house reunion, she took me aside to tell me to watch him around children, and to explain why her husband – my uncle – didn’t want to be around my brother. When their daughter was three years old, they’d left her in then fourteen-year-old Johnny’s care and had come home to him with his pants down, his penis in the little girl’s mouth, and him saying “Just suck on it like it’s a bottle.”

I wondered why my other brothers, or my sister, hadn’t told me Johnny had molested our cousin. Maybe they believed it wasn’t necessary because he was safely locked away so soon after I met him. Maybe they saw that I loved Johnny, and they knew love had been in short supply in his life. Maybe they wanted me to love him, and they were afraid I’d recoil in disgust. But I didn’t.

In that fifth year, in a crowded two-bedroom beach house on holding over a dozen people, where I was hell-bent on recreating the family dynamic I never had, I lay down on the Berber carpet in the room where four of my little nieces were sleeping in a bed. Johnny lay down a few feet away from me. He and I were the last ones up after a night of full-throttle drinking. Other than the time I visited him in jail, this was the first time we’d been together since my first trip to Savannah. I’d been watching him around the children, the youngest of whom at that time were four-year-old Brandon, who was sleeping on a couch with his mother, and six-year-old Candi, who was one of the little girls in the bed. I hadn’t seen anything amiss.

I punched a pillow down under my neck to make the floor more comfortable, and then I reached back and pulled Johnny to me. It was the familial love, the call of blood to blood, and it was sexual.

“Don’t do that, Michele,” he said. “Please, don’t do that.”

I stopped, realizing the wrongness of what I’d just done, and realizing I couldn’t get away with it. I’d just turned forty, and I was informed enough to know better. And then I passed out.

When I woke at dawn, Johnny was a few feet away from me on the floor, snoring heavily. The girls were all still asleep in the bed. Nothing had happened. But what if? And even drunk, how could I have made that move with the children sleeping in the room? In a life full of bad acts, that move is the act I’m most ashamed of, even though it didn’t go any further than a gesture, even though my brother, the convicted felon, stopped me cold and saved me from myself.

* * *

His final conviction was for armed robbery. By that time, I was of two minds about him being in prison: it was violent, dangerous and dehumanizing, but safer than the street, where there was nothing at all to protect him.

At forty, he was no longer young and strong enough to rebound from privations and beatings, no longer quick enough to evade the rage of people he stole from, and on his way to becoming the homeless man who creeps around the edges of a campfire, snatching at scraps, and getting kicked for it.illo_3

He was in prison in 2004 when my brother Rudy and his wife, who were addicts, signed the papers to give me guardianship of their daughter, my niece Candi. She’d just turned thirteen, and over Cherry Coke slushies, she told me Johnny had molested her, too, when she was about three years old. Her parents had gone out to score some drugs and had left him in charge of her and some other children. He brought her into a bedroom and started licking her private parts. He was an adult, not a confused fourteen-year-old kid. His assault on my little cousin wasn’t an isolated incident. I had to admit my brother had a predilection for molesting little girls.

I wrote to tell Johnny I knew what he’d done to Candi, that she was living with me, that I still loved him, and that the next time he got out, I’d try to see him on his own, away from the kids.

Current research leans toward the conclusion that pedophilia is hardwired, a sexual preference like heterosexuality or homosexuality that emerges in adolescence and is pretty much exclusive to men. But only about fifty percent of the men who molest children are actually pedophiles; the other fifty percent are men with histories of violence or personality disorders. Those men tend to molest family members. I wondered which category my brother fell into, and whether it mattered.

Candi is twenty-five now. I messaged her, told her what I was writing about, and asked, does it matter to her? She told me no, the why didn’t matter, but knowing Johnny was also abused helped her to let go of wondering why. And then she added: “Some of the worst things can become our biggest blessings. I’ve decided to heal and to not let that control me, so I don’t mind talking about it. I’m not hiding anymore.” I was reminded of my little cousin, who is now forty years old, and a conversation she and Candi had about Johnny, how my cousin said, “There can’t be any dark secrets if you don’t keep them in the dark.”

One dark afternoon, Candi and I went to the boardwalk near the pier at Jacksonville Beach to see the ocean after a hurricane. The air was still tropical, and the waves still curled like rows of fists, ready to pound the sand. The wind blew her long blond hair around her shoulders, and we both spread our arms wide to feel the uplift, to pretend we could rise up at any moment and fly.

She didn’t notice the man sitting next to the Coast Guard station, the dark man with wild hair and a wild beard and the ruddy look of someone who’d been outdoors and drunk for months. But I saw him. How could I not? He stared back at me with my own eyes. We held each other’s gaze for a few long moments. I tried to figure out a way to distract Candi so I could go over to Johnny and tell him I loved him. But the boardwalk was empty, and the shops were shuttered closed. I turned my face from his, and hustled Candi into the car with the promise of a stop for Chinese food. I looked back, and he was still staring at me. I did not reach out to him. My brother, who’d had so little love in his life, was not my heart. Candi was my heart.

Back at our apartment, the door closed behind us with a little push from the wind. Inside, the air was cool, the lights were bright, and the dining room table was waiting for us, clear except for a bowl of flowers we’d arranged together earlier that day.

The next day, after Candi left for school, I drove back down to the beach, parked my car, and wandered around where the homeless people hung out. Johnny was gone, like a mirage that disappears once you look away, or once you stop believing in it. I never saw him. I never saw him again.

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.

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?”

“A hundred?”

“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

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.”

* * *

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

See the complete list of Editors’ Picks here. 

* *

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

* * *

“What’s your favorite porn scene?”

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

The possibilities run through my head.

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

They’re also lies.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Are you sure?”

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

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

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

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

“Go on.”

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

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

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

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

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

And so I tell him.

* * *

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

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

And then realizing that person is me.

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

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

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

I was out of control.

* * *

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

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

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

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

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

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

* * *

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

That’s why I need to tell my husband.

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

* * *

Erica Garza is a writer from Los Angeles. Her essays have appeared in Salon, Substance, LA Observed, The Manifest Station and HelloGiggles. She is also a staff writer at Luna Luna Mag. Read more at ericagarza.com and follow her on Twitter @ericadgarza.

Iris Yan is a Brazilian-born Chinese cartoonist who completed a one-year certificate at The Center for Cartoon Studies in Vermont.