The Bloodiest Gangster in Beirut

Amid an endless war, a writer returns to the Middle East to find that his Syrian friend has escaped the bombs only to be trapped on the front line between fact and fantasy.

“This is an interview with the future gangster of one of the bloodiest gangs in Beirut,” says Habib, and laughs when I place the recorder in front of him. His phone rings. “Allo, eh? Kifak?” and I sit back in my chair.

It is the end of May 2014, and we are outside the Tomate Cerise café, shaded by a ficus tree from the late-morning sun. I can hardly recognize the man across the table as the friend I have known for two years, as if, while I was away from Lebanon, a vortex opened within him and he has been sucked into it.

Habib’s slender, twenty-seven-year-old frame has shrunk, skeletal beneath his T-shirt. His skin is bone pale, his cheeks sharp, and where once his jawline was clean, a thick black beard has sprouted. His short-cropped hair is longer and slicked back. A mutual friend says Habib has taken on the peculiar style of a Free Syrian Army (FSA) fighter from the Damascus countryside.

Habib was arrested along Beirut’s Mar Mikhael bar strip in April and spent a month locked up on drug charges. He was released after his father arrived from Syria and paid roughly $10,000 in bribes, nearly bankrupting the family.

All this would have left anyone in a bad spot, but Habib’s troubles had started well before his arrest.

* * *

“Habib,” which means “lover” in Arabic, is not his real name, but I use it here to protect his family, who would risk arrest, or worse, at regime checkpoints in Damascus if his real name was printed.

He and I met in August 2012 at an electronic music festival in a wooded valley in Lebanon’s Chouf Mountains. We happened to pitch tents in neighboring plots; he and his friends had come across the Syrian border for a break from the revolution and I’d taken an extended weekend off from the business magazine in Beirut where I was then editor. As psychedelic trance music thundered from the main stage downriver, I broke half a pill of MDMA into his palm. It sucks being dry at a festival, and this being his first, it was only proper to sort him out.

Habib would later say that the way we met didn’t just “break the ice” — it was as if there was no ice left at all. Even after the drugs and the festival, we could see something of ourselves in the other, like shared DNA. We had similar sensitivities to life: We felt things in the same way, we were just born on different sides of the world. His degree in English literature also let us communicate in the same language.

Habib and his friends told me how they had joined the protests against their government that began in the spring of 2011. Listening to their experiences from the uprising, I began to fathom how shallow my understanding of it was, and how much I had conceived of Syrians as two-dimensional caricatures.

Frankly, as a white Canadian it had been easier for me that way. When the conflict was good versus evil – those aspiring for freedom against a tyrannical regime – I could understand it; when I could place Syrians into clear-cut and well-known archetypes – a refugee, a fighter, an activist, a regime thug or a religious fanatic – I could understand them too.

Nuance, I realized, is the sinew that connects representations to reality, and in meeting Habib and his friends I began to see my own “understanding” as detached. I had been in Lebanon almost seven years by then and yet these were my first Syrian friends, and talking with them was like taking my own “red pill”; it located me within a new reality, one that I was going to have to figure out all over again.

Their stories opened my mind to the dark humor and incongruities of their country’s armed conflict – like the story they told me of a taxi driver in Damascus who sped away from a firefight only to jam on the breaks just in time for the speed camera. Then there was the one about the regime soldier in the eastern city of Deir ez-Zor who would walk through rebel-held areas every day on his way to the hill, where he would fire artillery back onto the town, only to be greeted and welcomed back through those areas he’d shelled on his way home from work at night. The catch was that in four months he’d only killed six people; he’d been firing shells into parks and abandoned lots. If he refused to shoot at all, residents knew he might be replaced with someone more malicious, and so they let him know every day that they appreciated his efforts.

On and on their stories came. This felt like a book. Soon after we met I suggested that I record our conversations. Habib agreed. What neither of us could have anticipated then, however, was how the writing of this story itself would later begin to weigh on its outcome.

* * *

In the months following the festival a series of car bombs, unclaimed by any particular group, began to rock Habib’s neighborhood of Jaramana, a regime stronghold in eastern Damascus. He himself nearly died in a double car bombing in late November 2012 that killed more than a hundred others.

Between December 2012 and March 2013, Habib saw one friend arrested by Air Force Intelligence and another kidnapped by an FSA brigade; broke his heart over one girl and fell in love with another; was unable to find steady work and had to say goodbye to his best friend in the world, who moved with his pregnant wife, an American, to New York.

“The fucking FSA is killing us,” Habib wrote me in March 2013, furious after a mortar landed by his girlfriend’s house. She was laughing when she told him. I said that it sounded as if they were all going insane.

“We are, indeed,” he replied.

Weeks later, I drove my motorcycle over the mountains from Beirut, across the Bekaa Valley to a quiet Lebanese village near the Syrian border where Habib and his family had sought solace at the house of an uncle. There he told me he thought the armed opposition is just as wicked as the regime, only weaker, and that in the balance of evils it would be better if the regime stayed.

In the summer of 2013, complications with my Lebanese visa forced me to leave the country. I worried for Habib. He could not afford Beirut and was wasting away in that Lebanese village, and when the days full of nothing became too much to bear, he eventually returned to Damascus.

“Life is kind of empty for me,” he wrote me that fall, but at least he was home, even if in war.

His limited choices made it hard for me not to feel undeserving of my own passport, which opens the world of possibilities to me. I wrote to him about my travels though, of how I went to find lost love in Vancouver – I thought I could offer him a window into another life, an escape for his mind from time to time. He was never begrudging, just said he was lucky to have a brother like me.

Communication was tough, and Habib and I lost track of each other often. The civil war was weakening the regime’s ability to supply power to the capital and Damascus was having electricity blackouts daily. Internet access was likewise intermittent.

I don’t know what happened to him before he left Syria again in February 2014, but in his wake the stories rolled out of Beirut. One mutual friend told me it was as if Habib would reach out for a favor with one hand and then slap you with the other. He hustled everyone we knew for money while constantly talking about the schemes that would imminently make him rich. He drank and he raged. He smoked hash like a lit fuse. Many of his friends from Damascus had preceded his move to Beirut – few had spent as much time in their city at war – but Habib burned through so many of his friendships that he began sleeping odd nights on the streets.

When word spread that he had been arrested this April, some of us hoped that a little time behind bars might do Habib some good, force him to slow down, cool off, get his wits back about him, until a friend pointed out that this is not jail in Finland – Lebanese incarceration is not about rehabilitation.

I arrive back in Lebanon nine days after he is released and meet him at the Tomate Cerise café the next morning.

* * *

Habib has sent his single espresso back for a triple, which sits steaming beside his vodka-and-apple-juice that drips cold condensation on the table. He tells me he hasn’t slept in three days.

I ask who it was on the phone.

Abbas. Our go-to hash dealer. The two of them arranged to meet.

“I covered his ass,” says Habib. “I didn’t call his name in the fucking interrogation. They told me one thing: ‘Either you sleep for five years, or you get the source to sleep five years.’ I told them ‘I’ll sleep instead of him.”

Abbas has already served six years in Roumieh prison, and Habib says that if Abbas is busted again he will go down for another five or have to pay $100,000.

“All his family would be fucked, he would be drained out of money — khalas [it’s over]. He would become the same as a cockroach again.” For taking the fall, Abbas owes him, has a duty to cover at least some of the money Habib’s father paid to have him released; Abbas, evidently, disagrees.

“In a nice way, I threatened him,” says Habib, recounting the last time he and Abbas met. “I told him, ‘Next time I’m stopped, I’ll call your name because you didn’t appreciate my favor, dude. I’m fucked-up, I’m drowning in debt from saving your ass and as a friend I’m calling you to help me now.’”

Abbas had replied in kind, saying that his tribe from the Bekaa Valley are not simple hash farmers and dealers but fighters and among the Lebanese who are crossing into Syria to fight with the regime against the revolution.

“You are a very small fish for me,” Abbas told Habib.

“I might look like a small fish, but I’m a whale, believe me,” Habib replied.

“He started laughing,” says Habib, “and I laughed too – you know, it’s a joke; but it’s real. If he tries to fuck around with me, I’m going to fuck his god.”

Eventually, I pay our bill inside and we walk. He asks for the money I can spare and I give him the lone bill in my wallet, 50,000 Lebanese Lira ($33). Before we part ways, he says he’ll have the money back to me tonight after he sees Abbas. Walking away, it is the first of several times over the next two months when I wonder if I’ll see him alive again.

* * *

The United Nations has declared Syria the biggest humanitarian emergency of our era. A country of roughly twenty-three million people before the uprising, “almost half of all Syrians have now been forced to abandon their homes and flee for their lives,” the UN reported this summer. Three million of those displaced fled to neighboring countries, with Lebanon taking in more than one million people.

By May 31, the war’s death toll had passed 160,000 and bombings and battles continued to rage in locations across the country. Amongst the litany of horrific videos to emerge online that day was one purportedly showing ISIS militants executing captured FSA soldiers north of Homs, a city in western Syria, and dumping their bodies in a well. Another showed a massive explosion near a market in the Old City of Aleppo that left dozens dead – another Islamist group claimed to have dug under a base housing pro-regime fighters and planted the bomb.

This same night in the Beirut neighborhood of Gemmayzeha, a two-and-a-half-hour drive northwest from Damascus, the war could almost be forgotten. Almost.

Inside Yukunkun, DJ Format is headlining the Beirut Groove Collective party. Habib and I are out on the stairs leading down to the bar and dance floor, having a smoke and chatting as people around us do the same.

He made $2,000 in commissions today, he says, by finding an investor for a local stock brokerage. This is his route to fortune within six months, he says. With that fortune he is going to start his gang, and with this gang he is going to go to war with Lebanese Intelligence, who he blames for his time in jail and his debt. He is going to kill the people “who fucked me.”

This is not the conversation people around us are having.

“Give me six months dude, and you’ll see,” says Habib. “In six months I will be drinking blood. Walla [by God], just wait. I will give you some good stories to write about.”

I tell him I’m on another life-tip these days, that I am more the striving-for-peace-love-and-harmony kind of guy.

“I know,” he acknowledges, and that seems to reach him, catch him for a moment. “I am furious,” he finally says.

He then asks to borrow $200 and I tell him, “I don’t have any money, dude.” He says he is spending 80,000LL ($50) per day on coffee and has stopped sleeping. He asks me if I want any drugs, saying that he has cocaine, meth and morphine, and that this comes from a friend who shoots up some liquefied cocaine blend at night while Habib snorts.

I drank too much last night, I say; hard drugs now would put me in a bad place tomorrow.

* * *

When Habib was still festering in jail this spring, one of the inmates with whom he says he made friends was a man who used to kill people in Damascus for a monthly fee of 18,000 Syrian pounds – roughly $400 before the uprising, now less. Since his own release, Habib says he has been working with his lawyer to get the killer released as well. This is supposed to happen in a fortnight. As repayment, the killer told Habib, “The first three people you want dead, I’ll do for free. After that, you’ll have to pay me $100 each.”

And so one evening over another triple espresso by Sassine Square in Beirut, with headlights and horns streaming past us on the patio, Habib tells me he is going to have Abbas killed. Habib will give the killer Abbas’s number, then fly to Istanbul to have an alibi. The killer will arrange a deal with Abbas and go to his house to buy the hash. Once they have done the exchange the killer will pull out a gun, say “this is for Habib” and put seven pieces of lead in Abbas’s head. I will know that Abbas is dead, know that Habib is not bullshitting, when the killer calls me on Abbas’s phone.

“Do not give my number to anyone,” I say, “I want no part of any of this.”

But the gravity of Habib’s intentions smash my certainty that he is making this up. In his mix of lucid rationality and wild hyperbole I am losing track of where reality ends and fiction begins; everything he says seems to have blurred into distant plausibility. Habib has become the gangster of this indefinite space where it is unclear to me whether even he believes his own words.

It is getting harder for me to remember his humanity. The prospect that Habib has the intention and capacity to send someone to kill Abbas is terrifying. And then there is the most likely scenario, that Habib is sewing a personal mythology from the threads of trauma and imagination. I can not know for certain. People who kill people are still people. You may not believe what they say because it is so unbelievable, but that does not mean they are not going to do it. When Habib tells me he is going to have Abbas killed, he is calm, his pupils are black marbles and his irises cloudy. When he describes how Abbas will die, I can see Abbas dying.

In a different country, perhaps I could take Habib to a mental health facility, or call the police, but these are social controls for elsewhere. In Lebanon, institutions like these often magnify problems more than resolve them.

Later that week I take Habib for lunch. We eat lamb shawarmas and I give him a sheet of paper listing seventeen symptoms of mania – euphoria, grandiose thinking, aggressive and risky behavior, racing thoughts, careless use of drugs and alcohol, decreased need for sleep, etc. – and he hands it back the next week with check marks beside every one. I may have mania, he says, but that is what I need now to survive.

He tells me that he burned his emotions. One night after half a liter of vodka, he lay on a concrete plinth that became a pyre and, in his mind, placed his family and all his friends – “including you,” he says pointedly – into a pile and poured gasoline on us and cried as he watched us burn. He fell asleep and awoke in the morning feeling nothing.

“I can’t have emotions and survive on the street,” says Habib. “I’d be crying for my mother.”

Days later a street fight leaves him with a limp. Another day his body just seems to shut down and I find him passed out in a hospital bed. Nothing phases him. I feel my own mind slipping over a ledge. I ask him why he is doing this to himself; why he is making the people who love him suffer with worry. He replies that he knows what he’s doing and that if I knew him I wouldn’t worry.

“Journalistic standards” dictate that writers should normally never show their subjects the story before it is published, but at this point I don’t care; letting him read what I am proposing to write seems like the only option left to hold up a mirror for him, show him what he is doing to himself. Yes, I am actively trying to change the story I am writing, hoping that it can have a happy ending.

He agrees with my structure but says we need to work on many of the specifics with which he disagrees, and then I worry that writing about his life is only making it worse as he seeks to make manifest the stories by which he wants me to immortalize him.

“How can I trust anything you say?” I ask him.

“It might all be bullshit, everything,” he replies. “You can think whatever you want, but inside myself I know what is true and that is all that matters.”

What is alarming, however, is that hints of the reality he conceived seem to be pushing up through the water, on the cusp of breaking the surface.

* * *

“Where are you?”

It’s mid-June and I’m at a friend’s on the east side of Beirut. The way Habib is speaking on the phone is like there is some pressing reason we need to meet. My gut reflex is to wish to be as far away as possible.

An empty echo behind his voice makes me think he is in a cell. He tells me he has a suite by the beach and a car, to pack what I need to write and he will come by in an hour to get me. Just me and him, working on the book. If what he says is actually true, it might be nice, but I cannot bring myself to believe it is. And do I really want to be in car with Habib? No. I do not want to be his passenger. Maybe I can take my motorcycle and meet him there.

My paranoia sparks. Is this a setup? Has he gotten himself in trouble again? Is he with the police now, calling me, having told them I am some prize they would want that he can get for them? That is a terrible thought, one I have no right to. Habib would not betray me. But having witnessed his dive into criminality and how he has turned on others for perceived slights, my paranoia ignites.

Why am I seeing him at all? I don’t know anymore. Am I doing this for the friendship we once had? Still have? Am I seeking to bear witness to a tragedy just to write about it? I have no answers.

No beach. I’ll meet him, but I don’t recognize the name of the place he is at. His usual spot is Coffee Bean on Hamra Street on Beirut’s west side, and so I assume (correctly) that he got in a fight and was kicked out. We’ll meet at the beginning of Hamra and go from there.

Forty-five minutes later outside the café, Habib says to me: “You know the mafia gang I was talking about? I started it two days ago. I have a bodyguard now. He’s inside.”

Friends from prison have connected Habib with their friend on the outside, who also doubles as a driver, and for his protection and chauffeur services Habib is paying $100 per day.

This is the kind of statement I cannot believe, and so I don’t. Inside, the café seems empty save for a lone coffee drinker typing on his laptop by the window. All clear. And then we walk towards the back. Around a corner to the left by the bar Habib introduces me to a man sitting at a table – Abu Ali.

At first, I think him slim for a bodyguard until I notice his arms and shoulders cut with tight muscle, like someone in the special forces or a martial artist. Tattoos on both upper arms peek out from under the sleeves of his T-shirt, and around his neck on a thin gold chain hangs a dime-sized gold pendant of an open Koran. His beard is trimmed to afternoon shadow, short black hair sprinkled salt and pepper, slightly slicked back. I think he takes a photo of me with his smart phone as soon as I sit down, in the guise of typing a message.

They speak, or rather, Habib makes wide gestures with his arms and sounds verbose while Abu Ali, expressionless, nods occasionally and says nothing. I am thankful my Arabic is too poor to follow. I may think Habib spins fantasies, but this thug is real. I don’t know who he is. I don’t want to know who he is. More than that I don’t want him to know who I am.

Don’t run. Act normal. Order tea.

Habib asks if I want to work on the book.

“It doesn’t seem like the place,” I say, but in mentioning it in front of Abu Ali I am hit with a thought: I am not the only one crafting a story here. Just as I am using the people Habib tells me about to characterize him by association for you, the reader of this story, Habib is using me to characterize himself in the stories he is telling these people. I’m the writer documenting his deeds for a book. ‘Yeah right,’ they might balk – they must, as I do, doubt the veracity of many of his claims – except I’ve just shown up in real life.

In Abu Ali and I seeing that the other person actually exists, we have become enablers for everything else Habib weaves into the narrative he tells each of us. Me meeting Abu Ali is like a sliver of truth that shines in the haze and makes me question my conviction that the other things Habib says are untrue. I must be doing the same for Abu Ali.

I stand, a full cup of tea steaming in front of me.

“I got to go.”

“Where are you going?” asks Habib.

“I just have to go.”

Habib says he is going to see his family in the village but will call me in two hours, come by and take me to the suite on the beach. Tonight we will get fucked on coke but tomorrow morning we will work on the book. Sure, maybe, just give me a call. We slap hands and pound fists and I leave, saying nothing to Abu Ali.

I walk outside, mount my motorcycle, zip up my black riding jacket, slip my helmet on and draw down the sun visor. I speed away, not knowing where I am headed, just knowing I need to get away, knowing that he will not call me in two hours.

* * *

“This is my friend from Homs.”

Habib is introducing me to Tarik, who has stepped up to our table on the café terrace. Tarik is slim beneath his worn T-shirt, a child’s smile on his clean-shaven face with an absence in his eyes. They stand together and small-talk in Arabic about work, a mutual acquaintance and the asylum file Tarik has just submitted to the United Nations. Habib then clasps Tarik’s shoulder and excuses us, saying we’ll be another half hour.

“He’s been in jails, like me,” says Habib, as Tarik weaves his way back through the din of conversation hanging over the crowded tables, “but not as much as me.”

Tarik had been an activist in Homs, says Habib, video-documenting the peaceful months of the uprising. When peers began to die he got scared, quit, broke his SIM card and unplugged from the Internet. He could not turn the tide of events and so the horrors he saw stole his agency. Powerless and afraid, he isolated himself from reality.

“Like blinding yourself to the truth that you know in your heart,” says Habib, “but you can’t do anything to change it, so you make yourself blind.”

Last year Tarik lost his mind and recently has been talking about suicide. He’s surrendered this life. Game over.

“I’m trying to help him,” says Habib, trying to ignite a rage in Tarik to continue to fight, regardless. “I’m not telling him ‘this is your path,’ or ‘this is not.’ I’m trying to give him some advice to help him find his way out of his maze.”

The irony strikes me. “See, I’m trying to do that with you.”

“Yeah maybe, but somebody does good to you, you need to pass it over to someone else,” says Habib. “He’s in a maze, it’s too big for him to find his way out. I can see it from above. You’re seeing my maze from above too. It’s a chain.”

He speaks of the interconnection between all human beings. Directly or indirectly, the consequences of one person’s choices and what happens in their lives spreads through this web to people they will never meet. In the relationship between any two of these people there are two currents, with the contours of their exchange defined by the individuals.

“Between you and I,” says Habib, “I don’t know who is influencing the other more, but for sure we are influencing each other so much. What do you believe?”

* * *

Habib sends me a text message in mid-July saying that he is at the police station in Hamra. I later find out he failed a drug test, which had been ordered as a condition of his previous release, and will spend another month in jail as a result. I leave Beirut before Habib is released again in August.

There are obvious ethical considerations to take into account when writing about someone who is in a possible state of mania. By September, Habib – by both his account and the accounts of mutual friends – is much more calm and working at getting his life back on track. I send him this story to read and discuss before it is published. There are several things with which he takes exception and so I offer him space in this story to express what those things are, and he says, “I think you have a problem with understanding me.”

Habib accuses me of being unfair to him, of having taken things he said just after he was released from prison, when he was still “raging with anger,” as reflecting his true intentions. By doing so I have set up the dichotomy for you, the reader, in which you will wonder whether Habib followed through with the things he said he’d do – such as having Abbas killed – or he didn’t; in the first case, well, there are the obvious “problems,” as Habib put it, and in the latter case you would be forced to conclude that Habib is either “a liar, a dodger or I was having mental problems.”

The truth, he says, is beyond the structure I have imposed on this story: “When I get furious I say things that I don’t necessarily do in the future. What I threaten is something I surely can do, but I do not in the end because I know it is bad.”

Part of my confusion, he says, comes from my poor Arabic.

“Let’s take the scene where you met Abu Ali; him and I were talking and you were imagining stuff. This would not happen if you spoke Arabic.”

“But you should know that I’m not making up stories or lying to you,” he says. “The people I talk about are real, even if you did not meet them. I’m friends with a large number of gangsters here in Beirut and when I intend to do something bad I can – but I do not want to in the first place, because it is not me.”

* * *

Spencer Osberg is a freelance journalist and editor who has been based in Beirut since 2005. He is currently writing a book about friends from Damascus and their paths through the Syrian uprising.

Sage Barlow is a freelance illustrator living in San Francisco. Check out more of her illustrations and paintings at www.sagebarlow.com.

 

 

Inside the Colorado Mansion Where the Kittens of BDSM Run Wild

An eye-opening afternoon at The Chateau, with the fast-growing, feline sub-sect of the adult role-playing universe.

Somewhere in the northern stretches of the Colorado Springs suburbs, enveloped by trees, is a tony neo-Victorian house, painted sky blue with a white wraparound patio and a picket fence enclosing an expansive green yard. It’s a stunning Saturday in the middle of May, and there’s a party going on.

The roughly dozen women in attendance, most in their early twenties, are wearing an assortment of slip dresses, gowns, and corsets, all inspired by Marie Antoinette-era fashion. They recline on blankets in the grass, while in the parlor some sit delicately on upholstered chairs as a man plays classical piano. Other women clatter across the porch in high heels. The handful of men are dressed up too, in puffy shirts, vests, hats, and formal pants, shoes and riding boots.

The gathering’s been billed as a tea and cake party, but there’s free-flowing champagne and open use of marijuana by some. In most respects it appears to be a run-of-the-mill Colorado garden party – until you spot the furry ears and tails worn by all the females.

We are at The Chateau, a residence otherwise known as the Cat Girl Manor, and often called “the Playboy Mansion of the kitten play community.” Kitten play is a sub-sect of the BDSM universe, and, according to Chateau photographer Jeff Lawson, “It’s a whole lot more serious than regular cosplay,” when people dress up like fictional characters from pop culture. “They really want to embody the personality of a cat,” Lawson says, “and that’s really fun. It’s amazing how many ways they can use the word meow in a sentence, and you know what they’re saying.”

A group of kittens pose for a photo outside The Chateau residence in the suburbs of Colorado Springs, Colorado.

Though there are some males in the community who will take on a kitten persona – donning ears, tails and collars – most that do are women, and the lengths to which they run with their alter egos vary.

“For me, being a kitten is all the time, even if I don’t have the ears on,” says Miss Jenni Kitten, 20, who, like all the other women on The Chateau grounds, asked to be referred to by her “performer name,” citing privacy concerns. Jenni, a lanky apprentice mechanic with jet-black hair and piercings in her nose, lower lip, and belly button, observes that some in the kitten play community are only comfortable in their kitten roles at events or in their respective bedrooms. But she has identified as a cat since she was in elementary school, when she thought, “If I believed hard enough, I could grow whiskers and ears and a tail.”

Jenni says she eventually discovered others who identified as kittens, as well as foxes, bunnies, ponies, and other animals. Today, Jenni more specifically calls herself an “alley cat.” “Other people [put] me in the ‘stray kitten’ category, because when you don’t have a master – or a ‘dom’ – you’re considered a stray,” she says. “But I don’t like thinking about it like that because I’m not lost. I want to be single; I like where I’m at.”

The term “master” is used throughout the BDSM community, but its definition is a complicated one. Though masters – who are males, while female masters are called “mistresses” – exert complete control over the lives of their submissive “slaves,” they are also tasked with taking care of them. In the kitten play community, some slaves may have been “collared” by a master, and might literally wear collars to signify such ownership.

I point out to Jenni that some charge women who are sexually submissive with pushing feminism back. “The thing about being a submissive,” she responds, “is that they really, truly have all the control.” During sexual encounters, she continues, “the master never actually does anything that the submissive does not want. Everything has to be communicated beforehand, and boundaries need to be respected.” As far as collaring goes, Jenni says for some it’s a big deal, a true display of care and trust so important that there are collaring ceremonies coordinated, similar to weddings.

There are numerous reasons why those in the kitten play community choose to personify felines. Some told me that they, like cats, feel as though they are cute, playful and soft. Others note that they possess an undeniably feline temperamental nature and a feistiness about them – or, as Lawson puts it, “They do claw, and they do scratch.”

“They’re very alluring, sleek creatures. They’re very beautiful in their own right; they command a sense of respect,” says the party’s hostess, Isibella Karnstein, of cats and, correlatively, kitten play participants. Karnstein is 28, busty and blonde, and she lives at The Chateau. Today she’s wearing an outfit featuring a wide white hat, stockings and big heels, as well as a blue corset that’s the same shade as her home. She throws around words like “sophisticated” and “refined” in outlining cats’ personalities as well, both real and pretend. This doesn’t mean that the women at The Chateau crawl around, purring incessantly – though there’s some of that.

Isibella Karnstein, madam of The Chateau, and her partner, Daniel.

Offering glimpses of heightened cleavage, the chatty kittens snap selfies for social media and formally pose for Lawson, the self-described Chateau “Cat Herder,” a title he earned for his ability to wrangle the kittens for photo shoots. Some of his images offer a hint of homoeroticism as the kittens cuddle and crawl, others just look like straightforward headshots – if not for the ears.

Karnstein essentially colors The Chateau as a sexy social club where like-minded, cat-tailed individuals can get together and enjoy themselves on a monthly basis. As the Chateau’s “madam,” Karnstein sees kittens as standouts in the BDSM community because of their sometimes-fierce independence. To illustrate her point, she poses a metaphoric question about real-life pet kittens: “Do you own the cat, or does the cat own you?”

Karnstein gravitated toward the BDSM and fetish community during her late teens, while still living just outside London, where she was born and raised. She’d attend parties at various clubs and marveled at how some people dressed very elaborately, like the sci-fi Victorian goths of the steampunk movement, in their top hats, tights and monocles. “I was wearing ears and nobody else was doing it, so I had nobody to hang out with,” Karnstein says, sitting in The Chateau’s parlor, champagne glass in hand. She then constructed the now-defunct website Kittenplay.net as a way to meet others who might share her predilection for dressing up as a cat. “Thousands of people came to the website. Obviously I was not alone; it was a real affirmation for me.”

In December 2014 she founded an online magazine called The Chateau, which is “dedicated to cat girls and the kitten play lifestyle,” as its Facebook page describes it. By then Karnstein had been living with her partner, Daniel, a 45-year-old entrepreneur in the aerospace engineering industry, outside Colorado Springs. The pair began opening up their estate to kitten play parties.

A kitten frolics out in the yard at The Chateau, approaching her gent.

“As a society we’re very sexually repressed,” says Kiri Branford, a prominent model for The Chateau magazine. “We’re not taught about sex topics; they’re taboo. I think if we have a more sexually liberated society, most people would find that they have some sort of fetish, and that their fetishes aren’t necessarily fetishes because they’re not uncommon.”

Branford – an attractive 23-year-old with bright eyes and Angelina Jolie lips, who by day is a buyer for a health food store – says being a kitten does not define her every waking moment. “It doesn’t normally happen while I’m at work, but then at home the feelings of wanting to be a kitten come and go,” she says. Branford has two female partners, one of whom is married to a man. “Sometimes I will go find my collar and bring it to my mistress and put it at her feet, or I will nuzzle her and purr. Or perhaps she decides to put my collar on, normally that kind of triggers it. Or she’ll refer to me as Kitten, and that often does the trick as well.”

“There’s kitty play to the extreme,” Miss Jenni Kitten says, “where they’re collared and restrained, and they only get to eat at certain times of day. They’re provided a food and water bowl, and they actually have to use a litter box.”

Jenni says she personally doesn’t partake in those activities, but concedes: “Food is very important to me. Not just buying me dinner, but physically feeding me.” She also says she has a butt plug with a cattail attached to the outer end – a staple in the kitten play community. “It’s mainly for the bedroom, and that’s what I do to identify with it, to go a little farther,” Jenni says.

Dave Mate, a representative of Purrfect Playmates – a U.K.-based e-commerce site catering to kittens around the world – says the business has steadily grown, with increased demand and online presence of the kitten community. The site offers nearly 30 different kinds of colorful tails, available with butt plugs as an add-on option. There are also pages on the site dedicated to upselling, urging buyers to customize their tails and ears with chains and charms and “a touch of sparkle.”

* * *

Attending her first Chateau party today is Belladonna, a 20-year-old with striking eyes that appear to change color – from light blue to gray to green – at various times of the day. She’s wearing a red and black corset with fishnet stockings that have holes throughout. “I wanted to portray the classic Victorian style, but with an edge,” she says, lightly laughing. There are also black-and-red ears puffing out atop her head, accessorized by a dainty, Romanesque gold-leaf crown, and she has a clip-on tail hanging from the back of her skirt.

A student at Western State Colorado University, where she’s studying graphic design and business, the Colorado Springs resident just had her online application to The Chateau community approved, allowing her to attend kitten play parties for free, have access to the corresponding Facebook group, and model for the magazine.

The kitten application to The Chateau requires four recent, professional-looking photos – selfies are not welcome – of the prospective model, who must be at least 18 years old. “We have no size or weight limit,” Karnstein asserts. “I do not believe in that. All I care about is how you are presenting yourself and if the look matches the magazine.”

There’s a written component to the model application as well, with a prompt that asks: “Why do you want to join The Chateau?” Karnstein says the response should highlight the kitten’s personality.

“I think there is an emphasis [in America] – at least for millenials and young girls – that being bitchy is a positive trait,” Karnstein says. “I’d really like to encourage a sisterhood that is actually friendly and, instead of bringing each other down, through gossip or whatever, we actually bring each other up.”

As Belladonna puts it: “You’re expected to uphold yourself as a member of The Chateau, which is all about elegance, grace, and, of course, kitten play.”

Karnstein says she receives an average of 900 applications per month, and of those she accepts about ten, who are awarded achievement collars for the number of parties they attend, the more they pose for the magazine, and for generally representing the brand favorably. By design, the models do not pose nude in The Chateau’s online magazine, which is released monthly and, according to Karnstein, has about 6,000 subscribers who pay for various tiers of access.

Sitting next to Karnstein in the parlor is “Sir Christopher,” a Denver-based artist who helps her organize events and who also writes for the magazine. “Playboy has been done, Penthouse has been done, Hustler has been done; what is there left when you expose everything?” he tells me. “What if you have a little more mystery? What if you have a little more elegance [and] make it more theatrical? That’s more appealing.”

Like each of the women I interview at the party, Belladonna speaks with noticeable self-assurance, and, like many in the BDSM community, she also has multiple romantic partners: a boyfriend, a girlfriend, and a master, each with a different relationship dynamic and “focus,” as she puts it. She tells me she’s invited a male friend today, someone she’s talked with about exploring a physical relationship.

“People ask, ‘How do you not get jealous?’ and of course [polyamorous people] get jealous,” she says. “It’s just like any other relationship; you’re going to have doubts, but if you’re communicating it will work out.”

Belladonna expresses frustration over the fact that polyamorous folk have “such a bad reputation,” saying, “It’s a bit of a sad truth, but our society does shame people who are more open with their sexuality, even though our media is saturated with sexual imagery. It’s very hypocritical.”

Body-shaming or “kink-shaming,” where a person puts down another for individualized sexual expression, is another concern for Karnstein and many others throughout the BDSM community. It can happen from within or be propagated by outsiders, especially on social media and in comments sections on the web.

“If anybody even throws around a word like ‘fat’ in the group, they’re gone,” Karnstein says. Like in any social construct, conflicts occur, and Karnstein says she’s sometimes played the part of peace negotiator with varying degrees of success. She’s also barred kittens from events and online community pages for – err – catty behavior. But Karnstein insists most of the kittens know bullying and all types of shaming are wrong, “and you get to see how empowering they are for each other,” she says.

For her part, Belladonna engages in activism work on her college campus, raising awareness about the LGBTQ community, and offering support to community members living throughout the small, surrounding city of Gunnison, Colorado, where such resources are scant.

* * *

The party at The Chateau begins to liven as more people arrive, and the music switches over to the industrial genre, pumped from a P.A. speaker on the porch.

Jerry, a tall, blue-eyed bald man with a narrow tuft of white hair between his lips and chin, arrives, draped completely in black. One by one almost all of the guests embrace the 53-year-old Colorado Springs native.

“I’ve known Isibella for six or seven years; we met at a steampunk ball, and eventually she invited me to a Chateau party,” recalls Jerry, who is soft spoken and works at a call center for the state’s health insurance marketplace. “I guess I did pretty well because I keep getting invited back.”

“Jerry” plays outside The Chateau with one of the kittens.

Jerry and the rest of the men at The Chateau are called “gents.” To have the pleasure of the kittens’ company, males are expected to provide the utmost respect toward them.

Sir Christopher, an avid reader of Gentleman’s Quarterly, says the types of men who should be part of the community are genteel, chivalrous, and trustworthy.

“We are extras,” Jerry says of the gents. “They have to not give off the creeper vibe.”

Karnstein says there’s a screening process for male guests at Chateau events. Gents are required to purchase tickets – there was a $100 fee for the Marie Antoinette tea and cake party. But if a model wishes to bring a boyfriend, Karnstein is “more than happy” to meet them and offer a kitten-plus-one. Other men can have a kitten vouch for them, or talk to Karnstein or Sir Christopher directly, sometimes in online chats or even in person over dinner. “I do pride myself on the safety of the girls,” Karnstein continues, “and creating a community where they can really be themselves and feel good about it. They can take off their clothes and run around, it’s not a problem.”

Jerry observes that he is “generally one of the older gentlemen who are invited,” and admits to being socially awkward, though the kittens help him “to get past that.”

“They know I’m a flirt,” he continues. “I am a bit of a dirty old man, obviously, but I know how to rein it in. I don’t ogle; I don’t stare. I try to be pleasant.” He says that he can also operate as a “safe person” for kittens who trust him, acting as a buffer between them and someone who is making them uncomfortable at a party.

Though Jerry doesn’t choose to identify as an all-out master, he has been a “daddy” to a kitten before, considering himself more of a “caregiver” to her than an overwhelmingly domineering figure. “Daddys,” or “Daddy Doms,” more strongly consider the emotional state of their submissives, and can act as a guide, confidant, and protector, as well as someone there to boost their confidence.

* * *

Aside from monthly parties at The Chateau, Karnstein also throws galas at clubs, mostly in Downtown Denver, some that are open to the public and others just for community members. From time to time she’ll host them at swinger clubs where sex might be on the menu. Such establishments are generally alcohol-free and require identification and completed club membership paperwork to gain entry. They’re also strictly for couples. All this keeps the swinger spots above legal foregrounds. A party at a private residence like The Chateau, on the other hand, can be an anything-goes affair.

But, Sir Christopher quickly chimes in, “It’s important to understand that we’re not an escort service or that we’re selling sex.”

“A lot of people perceive us as that,” Karnstein adds. “The look of [The Chateau] is in some ways very bordello-esque, with the corsets and all that stuff, but the majority of it is modeling, like Playboy.”

A kitten poses outside The Chateau during a kitten play party in May.

She recently formed a dance troupe that performs kitten-themed burlesque, or what they call “purrlesque.” Jeff Lawson, the “Cat Herder,” is the director. “I’m excited,” he says of the future of The Chateau. “Isibella’s events and parties are growing. I really want to get to a point where we can do a nationwide tour with the purrlesque and just have fun with it.”

“We do like to create an environment that is sexually positive for women, where they can express themselves however they want to,” Karnstein says, before adding: “I feel like a teacher sometimes, preaching safe sex and things like that. A lot of times girls don’t know about that.”

Karnstein says Chateau regulars will frequently get together – no ears or tails necessary – and do the same things as any other gaggle of friends: go out to eat or drink or see a movie. “There’s not just a sense of community,” she says, “there’s a bit of a sense of family, too.”

There have been incidents of stalking at The Chateau and other kitten play events, by both males and females. Karnstein says she’s had to ban such offenders from the social group, and says she even called the police on one man who was repeatedly asked not to show up at Chateau parties. Such incidents are quite unnerving, and in her mind ruin the party for, not only the target of the stalking, but also the friends obligated to console them.

* * *

The sun has set and The Chateau is crawling with kittens and gents. Belladonna’s guest puts on a fire-breathing show on the lawn. There are group toasts in the kitchen, one of which kitten Corinne Victoria, 24 and pregnant with her second child, observes, but does not partake in. Her husband walks up behind her and lightly scratches her upper back, as if to comfort her and say hello. She purrs back.

“Excuse me, Mr. Reporter,” is suddenly projected in my direction. It’s Chateau model Kitty Kameleon, whom I’d spoken to for a little while on the porch this afternoon. She told me she’s polyamorous and has three partners – two men and a woman. She has also been gifted miraculously large breasts by some wonderful god that has chosen to smile upon me at this moment. “Do you mind if I take off my corset?”

I assure her I have absolutely no issue with it, but a problem arises. In spite of her best efforts, she can’t release two final clips located just underneath her bust.

“Can you help me?” she asks.

I try, first pushing together the opposing sides of the corset, no different than she’d been doing a moment ago.

No luck.

I look her in the eyes and say, “Is it O.K. if I put my arm down the front and try and pull it together from the inside?” Apparently our candid talk a few hours ago helped formulate some trust for me, because she let me in. After a couple determined minutes – genuinely working to get the damn clips undone, and going out of my way to not betray her by groping her flesh – her boobs are freed. She scurries off, and carries about topless the rest of the time I’m in attendance. Later, I overhear her telling one gent that I was totally cool, and didn’t overstep my bounds.

“Belladonna” (center) sits with two gents in the parlor of The Chateau.

A few minutes later, hostess Isibella Karnstein appears, slowly walking down the winding staircase just to the right of The Chateau’s foyer. Many kittens and gents watch her in awe. She is a site to behold, now wearing a deep-red corset with criss-crossing, pink satin laces, garters, and thigh-high stockings. Her high heels are clear; her breasts are completely exposed save for pink pasties hiding her nipples.

She thanks me for coming to The Chateau and for my interest in the kitten play community.

She wishes me well, and, as a parting shot, says, “The party’s just beginning.”

 

 

Waging War On Rats in Sub-Antarctic South Georgia

A team of ambitious ecologists is trying to rid these freezing South Atlantic islands of vermin to save their rarest bird. But are they attempting the impossible?

We were expecting to see three red and yellow specks to come flying over the snow-covered mountains that surrounded the bay where we were sheltering, but there was only one. Something had gone wrong.

Two days earlier we’d left two helicopters tied down in a sheltered spot to see out a storm, but the powerful wind had spun one helicopter, digging it into the ground, and snapped the rotor blade of the other. Both were completely broken. Without the two working helicopters, we couldn’t continue – years of planning and two seasons of spreading bait across the sub-Antarctic island of South Georgia would have been for nothing.

One of the many highly crevassed glaciers of South Georgia – an impenetrable barrier to rats.
One of the many highly crevassed glaciers of South Georgia – an impenetrable barrier to rats.

A forgotten Eden, belonging only to albatrosses, penguins and seals, South Georgia is one of the most remote islands on the planet. The nearest permanent population is over 1,500 kilometers away and the only human residents are British Antarctic Survey staff. Vast snow-capped peaks stand at 3000 meters above the ocean, and rivers of ice flow down to water that teams with krill; an abundant food source for the millions of animal residents. South Georgia takes your breath away.

We were there for a simple purpose – to free South Georgia from the rats that had plagued the island for almost 200 years.  Elimination of the rats would ensure the survival of the most southerly songbird in the world, the endemic South Georgia Pipit, as well as bolstering populations of threatened seabirds.

The three helicopters landing at base camp.
The three helicopters landing at base camp.

If the purpose was simple, the operation, as is the case when attempting anything on South Georgia, was not. The success of ambitious projects like this rely on tenacity in the face of adversity – and the storm that put our helicopters out of action tested us to the limit. Through determination, hard graft and persistence in incredibly harsh conditions, however, the engineers had two helicopters flying by nightfall.

Captain Cook claimed South Georgia for Britain in 1775, returning with tales of vast numbers of seals that filled its shores. This was too much for sealers to resist; just a few years later the fur seals were being decimated and the vermin, stowed away on their boats, were feasting upon ground-nesting seabirds. These birds had evolved without any land-based predators, and it would be over 200 years until the song of the South Georgia Pipit would be heard on mainland South Georgia again.

A Norwegian brown rat finds the bait irresistible.
A Norwegian brown rat finds the bait irresistible.

The history of human influence on South Georgia is a recurring cycle of overexploitation and the eventual collapse of animal populations. In 2007 a small Scottish charity, the South Georgia Heritage Trust, decided the time had come to reverse some of the damage, and began planning the largest eradication project ever attempted.

We were also running out of time. Due to global warming, South Georgia’s glaciers are retreating at a rate of up to one meter a day. Soon beaches would become exposed, allowing rats to cross to previously inaccessible parts of the island and creating areas too extensive to bait. For the project to be a success we had to eliminate all of the rats. Ninety-nine percent wouldn’t be good enough; we had to get every last one.

Achieving this on an island 165 kilometers long, famed for its vicious winds and tempestuous seas, was a huge challenge. But by 2011 a team of eradication experts and individuals experienced in polar conditions had been handpicked to rid South Georgia of rats. It was a logistical nightmare, with three helicopters, 300 tons of bait, 900 drums of fuel, 10,000 teabags and 25 members of Team Rat to be shipped to the island. Resupply was not an option.

Some of the 900 drums of aviation fuel used in the project.
Some of the 900 drums of aviation fuel used in the project.

Field camps were erected across the island; we spent months camped amongst the ruins of an abandoned whaling station, with seals and penguins wandering past our tents.  Despite pressure to complete the baiting, we could only fly in calm conditions, which are infrequent at best on South Georgia. We’d spend days cooped up in our tents.

At night our breath formed icicles on the canopies of the tent, which often crashed down, soaking our sleeping bags. The nearby streams would freeze, forcing us to break through the ice to extract drinking water. Such tasks filled our days. The creature comforts of home seemed a long way away.

King penguin colony.
King penguin colony.

As soon as the wind dropped we’d spring in to action. The helicopters hovered expertly, dangling huge bait buckets, while loaders filled them with bag after bag of bait. Pilots flew along exact GPS lines, ensuring bait fell on every bit of potential rat habitat. If even a tiny area was missed, they did it again; no rat was safe from our skilled pilots.

It took three seasons to bait every last kilometer of the island; the helicopters flew the equivalent distance of three times around the world. Our success was under constant threat from poor flying conditions, mechanical failure, an inaccessible accident or simply a missed rat.

The daily commute across the vast, wild interior of South Georgia.
The daily commute across the vast, wild interior of South Georgia.

Poor weather nearly scuppered the second season. Winter came early and huge snow dumps buried our tents and made precision bait dropping impossible. The northern end of the island put up the greatest resistance, and after weeks of waiting to drop the final bait, it went right to the wire; on the last day the weather cleared and the pilots gave it a final push. Our chief pilot Peter Garden warned it would be a close call, and that if anyone felt uncomfortable we could abort. It was tense. Somehow, we dropped the last of the bait successfully and, after a long trying day, we left feeling immense elation.

South Georgia can’t be declared rat free until it has been checked next year, but early indications are promising. South Georgia Pipit song has been heard in some areas for the first time in living memory, and nests have already been located. Project leader Tony Martin was named Conservationist of the Year, and the success of this project paves the way for eradications on other afflicted islands. In an era of increasingly despondent environmental news, this is an example of how we can positively impact the natural world.

* * *

This story originally appeared in Avauntan award-winning journal dedicated to documenting and celebrating human endeavor, from the wildest, highest, deepest, coldest and hottest corners of the Earth and beyond.

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I Changed My Name After I Was Raped

After a serious trauma, some survivors find comfort and empowerment by creating a new identity.

As I heard my bank’s customer service representative repeat my first name over and over while trying to help me solve my minor issue, I hated the way the two syllables sounded. It almost hurt my ears.

“I’m going to put you on hold for a minute, okay, Lisa?” the representative asked me in a cheerful voice, hoping to reassure me that they were handling the situation. “I’m just going to speak to my supervisor and see what we can do about resolving this for you Lisa.”

“Yes, okay,” I said through gritted teeth, holding my cell away from my face and turning on the speaker function so I could grab a glass of milk and breathe a few times before she returned, hopefully with news that she could waive the newly implemented monthly checking fee. I wanted to call through the phone, “Can you stop using my name, please?”

People generally love having their first name used when they’re in a conversation, but I flinched when mine came up. When I hung up the phone, I opened up a Facebook tab and changed my first name from “Lisa” to “Alaina,” a name I’d recently joked to my girlfriend about taking as my own.

Once the change was finalized, I panicked. No one would understand what I’d done. How would they find me? Should I think about this first? Facebook’s policy wouldn’t allow me to change my name back to the old one, so I was stuck writing an explanatory post letting everyone in my life know that I’d be socially and legally changing my first name.

This wasn’t the first time I’d considered changing my name. I brought it up to my mom when I was around seven years old, and I explained to her that I didn’t like my first name and I wanted her to let me change it. I never ended up doing that. It wasn’t until I was a freshman in college, when I survived a rape at an on-campus college party, that the change felt necessary. It was no longer about feeling like my name didn’t fit or not liking the sound of its pronunciation – this was about survival.

Even though I was only semi-conscious during the assault, I remembered distinct parts of being raped: My rapist’s hands around my throat, looking up at the ceiling above her twin XL bed, the sound of “Save Tonight” by Eagle-Eye Cherry playing faintly in the background, the empty bottles of UV Blue and Captain Morgan on my rapist’s dresser, and her voice as she repeated my name in a low rumble, almost like she was trying to lull me into complacency.

After the rape, my name felt like a reminder of the assault, particularly when it was used in romantic and sexual contexts. Even professors calling on me in class and customer service representatives verifying my information sometimes made me dissociate; it felt almost like I’d left my own body and was watching myself through a camera lens or from underwater or in a hazy dream. I was never officially diagnosed, but my therapist in college and I talked about the possibility that I have PTSD from the assault. I had a panic attack at the first college house party I went to after it happened, because seeing my female friends drunk off cheap liquor in red cups with guys touching their butts without asking made me wish the world would open up and swallow me whole. When someone who looked like my rapist, all freckles and red hair, bumped into me on a city bus, I almost started crying. And I’d be in the midst of making love with my partner when the sound of her sensual voice crying out my name would leave me shaking, gripping her back tightly with my nails and trying to pretend I could fight the instinct to hide. We’d always been into role playing in bed, but I requested acting as someone else more times than I can count after my assault just because I didn’t want to hear my name said during sex.

Just over two years after I was raped, changing my name felt like a logical next step in overcoming my trauma. I’d made the conscious decision to work on my reactions to sensory impressions like sounds, noises, and imagery that I associated with the assault, and I could now blast “Save Tonight” in my 1998 dark green Buick Century to drown out the sound of Western Massachusetts potholes scraping my tires without even a brief nod to the March night when I was assaulted. I could drink UV Blue and Captain Morgan at any college party I went to without hesitation. I still wasn’t exactly comfortable with someone else’s hands on my neck, but that was a trigger I wasn’t eager to break. My name was the final frontier. No matter how much practice I had enjoying consensual romance with my girlfriend, who was respectful and looked to me for guidance, I couldn’t shake the feeling of dread that hearing my name brought.

Rachel Kazez, therapist and founder of All Along – a Chicago-based organization that helps patients find appropriate mental health care – says that a name change, whether legal or social or both, can be a powerful tool for survivors. “During a trauma, someone’s agency is very quickly taken from them. Getting that sense of control back is really important,” she says. “If there’s a trauma that occurs where the perpetrator was using the person’s name, they might want to go by a nickname or use a middle name instead.”

Kazez explains that survivors need to remember that a name change or another quick and dramatic change won’t fix the trauma or erase what happened. As long as the survivor is working on healing long-term, however, a name change can be an aspect of that process. “Our name is one of the first things we use to introduce ourselves to people,” she says. “It’s about control, choice, and reclaiming yourself.” Kazez also believes that the drastic shift involved in a name change – suddenly going by a new name – can mirror the suddenness of experiencing trauma, and might be particularly cathartic for some survivors.

When I first made the change, part of me hoped that adopting a new name would erase the night I was raped, and the memories associated with my rapist. “I think on some level I hoped the perfect name would unlock something for me, open a door away from myself into a safer place,” says Isobel O’Hare, a poet and essayist who changed her full name, first, middle, and last, during the middle of her MFA program after she survived childhood sexual abuse and adult abusive relationships. “I wondered what it would do to me to have this second name, whether I’d simply chosen another form of dissociation rather than dealing head-on with reality. Now I feel differently. I think choosing a name for myself gave me enough distance from the past to heal without becoming untethered. It was me claiming my own space and choosing my creative self over addiction and stagnation.”

Every time I did have to remind someone to call me Alaina, it was like asserting my consent in small daily situations: This is my name, and you’re going to call me by it. When my cousin and her husband visited from Texas, he struggled to get my name right at a family party at my aunt and uncle’s house. The first few times, I made eye contact and gently reminded him, “It’s Alaina.” He’d correct himself, use Alaina, and then a sentence later, make the mistake again. I started to teeter on the edge of panic, like I often did when people dead named me – used my former name without my consent – multiple times in a row. So I focused on the grandfather clock in the corner of the room and made minimal eye contact, nodding and saying, “Mhm” instead of further the conversation. For the first year or so after the change, I wore a bracelet with my name on it every single day. That was my reminder that, no matter what other people said, my name was my choice. I looked at that bracelet every time he slipped up. I wasn’t rude, but I didn’t give him any open opportunities to use the wrong name.

The next time he saw me, several months later, he started the conversation by calling me Alaina and didn’t make a single mistake.

The first few weeks and months of my social name change were the rockiest. As resolute as I felt – I sent in the required legal paperwork within a week of making the choice – it felt impossible to get people I’d known for years to break their habits. I was exhausted by constantly reminding people, “It’s Alaina now,” and re-introducing myself every time I ran into a former classmate, old friend of the family, or distant relative. My short explanation felt paltry in comparison to the magnitude of this decision: “I guess it’s been awhile since I’ve seen you, but just to let you know, I made the decision to change my name to Alaina in June of this year. I’ve never felt comfortable with my old name, and I would really appreciate it if you can call me Alaina going forward. I’m happy to remind you politely if you’d prefer.”

Sahar Dorani, a licensed clinical psychologist in the Bay Area of California, changed her last name after surviving family trauma when her father stole her identity and had an affair outside of his marriage. “I needed to emotionally and legally distance myself,” she says. She took her mother’s maiden name. “Even though it broke my father’s heart, I had to remain true to myself and carry a name that I was most proud of. I feel good about my choice.”

I was lucky that none of my friends or family members objected to my name change. It took my dad a few days to adjust, but after we had a discussion about how hearing my name was difficult for me, he was willing to try his best.

“I was worried that my classmates would think I was pretty self-absorbed to expect them to start calling me something completely different,” O’Hare says. “I was surprised when they not only adopted the new name, but did so with great joy like they were traveling with me on an important voyage.”

One of my best friends, Krista, is a soft-spoken introvert whose life is often defined by habits, such as how she leaves her house at exactly the same time every day in order to be “the right amount of early” to her obligations. “I’ve been practicing your name,” was one of the first things she told me when she saw me after my announcement. “If I slip up, I’m really sorry. I’ve been repeating it to myself for weeks.” She didn’t make a mistake once.

As the years passed, fewer and fewer people referred to me by the wrong name, and when it did happen, it was so occasional that it didn’t ignite a floodgate of panic exploding inside me, it didn’t make me dissociate to escape painful memories of my assault. Watching my friends and family get it right – and seeing them correct others, like when one of my best friends, Desiree, a future attorney who respected my legal decision the moment I announced it, would assertively remind her forgetful Portuguese mother that she can’t call me “Lisa” anymore because that’s not my name – made my heart sing.

Initially, I worried that my name change wouldn’t change my life, and in many ways, it didn’t. After a period of adjustment, my name no longer feels like a proclamation of reclaiming my consent or my identity, it just feels like who I am. And hearing my former name doesn’t often fill me with dread; instead, I’ll stare blankly and forget to respond because I hear “Lisa,” and think, “Who are they talking to?”

 

 

The U.S. Tested 67 Nuclear Bombs in Their Country. Now They’re Dying in Oklahoma.

After a series of military experiments devastated their homeland, Marshall Islands residents were permitted to immigrate to the U.S. But they didn’t know their American dream came with a catch.

This article is the winner of Narratively’s inaugural Untold Story Award contest. We scoured the world for important stories about under-the-radar people and communities, looking for pieces that deserved in-depth, long-term reporting. Our esteemed panel of judges chose to assign this story.

Lately, Terry Mote has been going to a lot of funerals. There were at least five in the early spring, sometimes on consecutive weekends. The elderly get sicker when the weather changes, he’s noticed – though the friends dying lately aren’t all that old, and they aren’t dying just because of the weather.

One breezy evening in April, on a weekend with no funeral, Mote’s kitchen filled with steam and the snapping sound of hot oil. He’d driven a hundred miles the previous day, to Oklahoma City, to buy bitter melon and small fish that he placed delicately into the frying pan with a pair of tongs. They were among the things he missed from the Marshall Islands, where he grew up. Fresh seafood is hard to find in the dry, windy city where he lives now – Enid, Oklahoma, a hunkered-down prairie town at the eastern edge of the Great Plains.

To Mote (pronounced “mo-tay”), a hundred miles isn’t so far. For some 2,000 years, his ancestors found their way in the 750,000 square miles of south Pacific Ocean punctuated by the narrow coral islets that make up the Marshall Islands. They navigated by the stars, charts made of sticks, and a mysterious technique for reading patterns in the water, known as wave piloting. In more recent years, about a third of all Marshallese – some 20,000 people – have made a further journey, across the Pacific to the United States. Mote is one of them.

Many leave the islands in search of the same things as other migrants – work, education, health care. But an unusual shadow trails the Marshallese. Following the Second World War, the United States used the islands as a testing ground for its nuclear weapons program, detonating more than 60 bombs over a dozen years. The largest, the “Castle Bravo” test, blew a crater 6,510 feet wide in the lagoon of Bikini Atoll and ignited a fireball visible from 250 miles away. Children on neighboring islands played in the ashy fallout, which fell like snow from the sky.

Today, thanks to a treaty signed when the Marshall Islands gained independence from the U.S. in 1986, Marshallese citizens are allowed to live and work in the States. Between 2000 and 2010, the number here grew by 237 percent. This mass migration is driven in part by poverty and lack of services in the islands. But it’s also a legacy of the U.S. occupation and the various damages it left behind. And it’s accelerated by climate change, which has started to drown the low-lying archipelago.

Momie Louis shows Terry Mote her passport in the Enid Public Library. Mote takes time off work to help Marshallese residents fill out applications for work permits and register for driver’s licenses.

Terry Mote arrived in Enid in 2007, after spending two nights at the airport in Honolulu, eating from vending machines while he waited for a standby spot on a flight east. Coming to the U.S. was just a matter of saving money for the plane ticket; the door was open. It was only once he arrived that he realized how many other doors lay between him and the life he’d imagined. It was as if he’d been locked in the hallway of a beautiful house: inside, but not really.

Mote and many other Marshallese in the U.S. live in a precarious state of in-between. Granted residency but not citizenship, the Marshallese have virtually no political influence and rank as the single poorest ethnic group in the U.S. In 1996, the Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act of 1996 (or welfare reform) eliminated federal health care funding for Marshallese by excluding them from the group of “qualified aliens” who are eligible for benefits. That means that Marshallese citizens who live, work and pay taxes in the U.S. are ineligible for Medicaid and Medicare unless states opt to provide it. Oklahoma has not done so.

Mote loves Enid, but life is more difficult than he anticipated. Rent and groceries are expensive, and there is the problem of the funerals. Few of the elderly Marshallese in the city live into their 70s, according to Mote and other residents I spoke with. Instead, they’re dying young – of diabetes, kidney failure and heart disease, illnesses they might have been able to manage under other circumstances. Often they leave behind families saddled with medical debt.

Mote described the struggle in his community as part of a legacy of broken promises made by the U.S. – promises that the islanders displaced by the nuclear program would be able to return; that those relocated or sickened would be provided for; that the testing was for “the good of mankind.” America tested 67 nuclear bombs in the islands, Mote reminded me. “Then they’re just going to let us die over here?”

* * *

The way Mote tells it, he chased an old car tire to Oklahoma. He grew up in a town called Arrack in Majuro Atoll, a ring of 64 volcanic islands. He and his 13 siblings lived packed into a small house made of wood scraps painted various colors and collected by his father, a construction worker. There was no electricity, and when it rained, water came through chinks in the walls. Mote’s father often drank away his paycheck. “If we were lucky, there was food,” Mote recalled.

Mote was close with his mother; she taught him to cook and to weave, tasks usually reserved for women. He walked to school, several miles one way down the skinny island’s single road. Sometimes he walked all the way home for lunch. When there was no food at home he climbed coconut trees. One day on his way to school he picked up a tire. He rolled it down the road, and ran after it. He did the same thing on the way home, and the day after, and the day after that, chasing the tire back and forth. Time flew quickly that way. Mote himself became faster, until he was the fastest runner in his school. Years later, he would represent the Marshall Islands at the Micronesian Olympic Games, and ran on the 4×400 relay team that still holds his country’s record.

Mote is 41 now, with a round face and a demeanor that shifts between earnestness and jest. He is one of nearly 3,000 Marshallese living in Enid, a town of 51,000 built on oil and wheat. Marshallese citizens’ special status in the U.S. is based on a treaty called the Compact of Free Association (COFA). In exchange for giving the U.S. military control of their territory, COFA allows citizens of the Marshall Islands (and of the Federated States of Micronesia and Palau; collectively they are known as the Freely Associated States) to move to the U.S. and work without visas or green cards. The thousands who have taken advantage of the treaty have formed tight-knit communities in Springdale, Arkansas; Costa Mesa, California; Spokane, Washington; Salem, Oregon; and elsewhere. In Enid, there’s work in meat processing plants and at big box stores.

Before moving to the U.S., Mote worked as a curator at a museum, traveling to outer islands to collect folktales. His first job in Enid was at the circulation desk of the public library. That’s where I first met him, on a warm March afternoon. He wore beige slacks, a red and white checked shirt, and wire-rimmed glasses. He carried his briefcase, in which he keeps copies of his family’s official documents. It was Saturday, and he was helping several young Marshallese men fill out applications for work permits. Mote works for the county health department as a translator and adviser. He also acts as an emissary between the Marshallese in Enid – many of whom don’t speak English – and the rest of the city. In effect, he’s become his community’s public representative.

By American standards, Enid is wholly ordinary: a quiet, sprawled city of single-story homes on grassy lots, with a modest stretch of shops and restaurants downtown. There’s a symphony orchestra, a local newspaper and a number of churches. Grain elevators, meatpacking plants, and strip malls border the town before it falls away into farmland; to the south lies Vance Air Force Base. Enid was once home to the now-closed Phillips University, a religious school responsible for drawing the first Marshallese to the town in the 1970s. To newcomers from the humid islands, however, landlocked Enid is plenty strange, starting with the weather. Several other residents told me, in varying tones of incredulity, about seeing Marshallese walking through the snow in flip-flops.

Most of the islanders in Enid live on the city’s eastern flank. On a wide thoroughfare there, sandwiched between a defunct pharmacy and a long-closed auto supply shop, is a squat brick building housing the Enid Community Clinic. The clinic provides limited care to the uninsured, free of charge, funded largely by an annual charity ball. The staff volunteer their time. Aside from emergency rooms and another charity clinic, it is the only source of care available to many in Enid’s Marshallese community.

Inside the clinic I met Daina Joseia, a 63-year-old woman wearing a loose, floral-print dress of a style worn by many Marshallese women. Joseia smiled easily, but she seemed frail and tired. She moved to Enid in 1999, seeking care for various physical ailments – too many for me to write down, she said. Once she arrived, she found she couldn’t afford insurance. She often feels scared or ashamed to see a doctor because she’s uninsured, but she’s sick enough that she can’t avoid it. She has a lot of bills to pay. The day we met, Joseia had a large sore on her back.

School nurse Karry Easterly checks on Jorine John, age five, who has come to school with rashes on her face and arms. Unless Marshallese children were born in the U.S., they are unable to receive Medicaid in Oklahoma.

Joseia believes her ill health might be connected to something she saw in the islands when she was a little girl: an enormous flash of light, she told me through an interpreter, “a real bright color, like a fire.” It wasn’t until she was an adult that she understood what she’d seen.

Between 1946 and 1958, the United States tested 67 nuclear bombs on or near two atolls at the northern end of the Marshall Islands – an area that became known as the Pacific Proving Grounds. The largest weapons test, a hydrogen bomb set off on Bikini Atoll in 1954, detonated with more than a thousand times the power of the bomb dropped on Hiroshima during World War II. Though Bikini Atoll had been evacuated, the wind blew radioactive fallout onto several inhabited islands, and perhaps much further away. (A few days later, a doctor in Tennessee reported that cattle in the state showed unusually high levels of radioactivity in their thyroids.) Officially, the U.S. claimed only three inhabited islands were seriously affected by fallout from Bravo. But an internal report declassified in the 1990s suggested that radiation from that and subsequent tests may have affected as many as 13 atolls.

On neighboring islands, many health effects were immediate: radiation burns, damage to stomach linings, low blood cell counts. Others surfaced gradually in the following months and years. Rates of leukemia, breast cancer, and thyroid cancer rose. Children were born deformed, or had their growth stunted.

“In a nation that lacks a single oncologist or cancer treatment facility, the Marshallese experience extremely high rates of cancer; degenerative conditions associated with radiation exposure; miscarriage and infertility; and, the birth of congenitally deformed children,” environmental anthropologist Barbara Rose Johnston wrote in a 2013 report on the legacy of the tests. According to a 2012 report by a special rapporteur for the U.N., those health issues were “exacerbated by near-irreversible environmental contamination,” which in turn led to “indefinite displacement” for many Marshallese.

According to Dr. Neal Palafox, a cancer specialist at the University of Hawaii who worked in the Marshall Islands for nearly a decade, the weapons testing damaged more than flesh and bone. It constituted a form of cultural trauma, too. Palafox believes the U.S. chose to conduct the testing where it did because residents had little power to push back. “Not for a second does anybody believe that there was any kind of informed consent,” Palafox said in an interview. There is some evidence the U.S. knew that the winds had shifted before the Bravo test in a direction that endangered inhabited islands, yet proceeded anyway. Afterward, many of the people most heavily exposed to the Bravo fallout became test subjects in Project 4.1, a classified medical study of radiation exposure run by the U.S. government. Later in 1954, the Congress of the Marshall Islands requested a halt to the testing, which the U.S. rejected on the grounds that the islanders “had no medical reason to expect any permanent after-effects on the general health of the inhabitants.”

Joseia remembers the sickness that followed the bright light. She remembers women giving birth to babies that “didn’t look like human beings.” One man I met in Enid described infants born looking “like jellyfish.” Another woman, Joelynn Karben, told me she remembered infants born after the nuclear tests as incoherent lumps of flesh, like bunches of grapes. Her own brother was born missing part of his skull, and her mother died from what she thinks was thyroid cancer.

The bombings are deeply etched in the islands’ collective memory, and some people I met in Enid blamed them for all manner of illnesses. It’s impossible to say which, if any, of Joseia’s health issues are directly related. The sore she had on her back the day we met was actually a symptom of her diabetes, a nurse told me later – though that, too, is linked to the U.S. military presence in the islands, specifically to the dietary changes that accompanied imports of processed, sugary foods.

More than 90 percent of the food in the Marshall Islands is imported from the U.S. now. Before the U.S. occupation, the Marshallese ate mostly fish, breadfruit, coconut, and pandanus, a knobby fruit resembling a large pinecone. World War II and the nuclear testing that followed damaged local crops and created a stigma around local foods, which residents of islands affected by fallout had been warned by the U.S. not to eat. Some people were forced to relocate to desolate islands where growing food was impossible. Imported white rice, canned meats, refined sugar, and other cheap, processed foods filled the gap. Diabetes rates soared.

* * *

In Enid, it seemed like almost everyone I met had diabetes. In fact, the Marshallese have the second highest rate of Type II diabetes in the world. While the illness can be controlled, it becomes gruesome if not properly managed. Complications can escalate to blindness, nerve damage, and serious infections, which can require amputation.

Joseia’s diabetes is acute. Her kidneys are failing, and she needs dialysis. But there’s nowhere for her to get it in Enid without insurance. When her condition gets bad enough she can be admitted to an emergency room – but only in a crisis.

The Marshallese diet is heavy on white rice, pasta, and canned meats. This is in part traced back to the fact that the bombings ruined the traditional island foods, and Marshallese grew up eating processed foods imported to the islands by the U.S. Today, they have one of the highest rates of type two diabetes in the world.

“If she drinks lots of water and takes care of her diabetes, she could be around for a while. But that may not happen,” said Janet Cordell, the nurse who runs the community clinic. Cordell is a frank, energetic woman of 69, with short-shorn gray hair and pale olive-green eyes. Besides Joseia, she has two other patients with failing kidneys and no access to dialysis.

Born and raised in Oklahoma, Cordell has worked with the Marshallese since the 1980s. At first, most of the Marshallese she met in Enid were young people who’d come for college or to start families in the U.S. Now the elderly are following, many hoping for more advanced medical care than what is offered in the islands. Without a way to pay for that care, what they’re really doing is “coming to die,” Cordell said.

With patients, Cordell exercises a practiced blend of patience and bossiness. Many doctors get frustrated with their Marshallese patients, and consider them “noncompliant,” she said. Cordell prefers to describe them as “non-interventional.” For both financial and cultural reasons, they’re unlikely to go to the doctor or take medicine unless they’re very ill, which makes preventative care and managing chronic conditions like diabetes particularly challenging. Many of the conditions Cordell’s Marshallese patients seek treatment for, including diabetes, are diseases associated with poverty. Though she’s seen a handful of cases of leprosy and tuberculosis, most of the illnesses she treats aren’t unusual – they’re just more severe, because treatment is often delayed or interrupted.

Janet Cordell visits Jorvain Aiden, age 70, in her home in Enid, Oklahoma. She regularly visits the homes of the Marshallese in Enid to assist with residents’ health issues.

But Marshallese also bear the rare burden of radiation-related illness. Cancer kills more Marshallese citizens than any other disease but diabetes, and according to a 2004 report by the U.S. National Cancer Institute, it is likely some radiation-related cancers have yet to develop or be diagnosed in people who lived on the islands between 1948 and 1970.

While Cordell and I were speaking, another elderly woman with diabetes came into the clinic. She didn’t speak English, but a man accompanying her explained that she’d moved to another city, and hadn’t seen a doctor in three years. She was starting to go blind. Cordell checked her charts. The woman had come to the clinic once before, in 2014, when she’d been diagnosed. According to the charts, she’d never returned for a follow-up appointment.

“It is very challenging, taking care of the Marshallese,” Cordell told me later, with a long sigh. She makes a lot of home visits, bringing patients their lab results or dropping off prescriptions – though sometimes it’s hard to find the person she’s looking for, because Marshallese families in Enid move frequently. Cordell doesn’t schedule appointments in the mornings, knowing that many operate on “island time,” meaning late. She maintains a small roster of doctors who will sometimes see uninsured patients with serious conditions for free. She is blunt with her patients about the risks of foregoing care. “I don’t sugarcoat it a lot,” she admitted. “I usually will just say, ‘If you don’t come back, or if you don’t go to wound care, they will have to cut your foot off.’ I know that sounds like scare tactics, but it isn’t. It’s just a fact.”

Cordell, while forgiving of her patients, reserves her frustration for America’s health care system. In the 1980s and early ’90s, Marshallese had access to Medicaid and Medicare through COFA, before losing it in the welfare reform package. The change in status was confusing, particularly for people who had and then lost coverage. Oklahoma legislators could “get off their butts,” Cordell said, and use state funds to insure low-income people who’ve migrated under COFA, as Oregon did in 2016. But Cordell finds that hard to imagine, since state legislators have refused to expand Medicaid even to citizens under the Affordable Care Act.

The insurance gap ripples out to the whole city. It increases the load on local emergency rooms, and makes it harder to contain contagious illnesses. “We’re one of the only civilized countries that doesn’t have [universal] health care. That’s ridiculous. It is ridiculous,” Cordell said flatly. “They don’t care down in Oklahoma City.”

* * *

Bringing Oklahoma’s growing Marshallese community to the attention of state lawmakers is one of Terry Mote’s projects. Marshallese living in the U.S. can’t vote (unless they go through the lengthy process to become citizens), and as a result they have no political representation. “We’ve been absent from community involvement for some years,” he said. “We’re quiet people.” In 2015, Mote founded the Micronesia Coalition – a group of more than two dozen Marshallese pastors, community leaders, schools, and health care experts, aimed at improving the health and wellbeing of Enid’s Marshallese. In 2016, Mote helped organize a trip to the state capitol to lobby for expanding insurance coverage. “It was a historical moment for the Marshallese community,” Mote told me proudly.

Mote had an ally in the state Senate: Republican Patrick Anderson, whose district included Enid. Anderson introduced bills in 2015 and 2016 to give COFA migrants state-funded insurance coverage, modeled on the legislation enacted in Oregon. But the bills languished, and never received a vote. Anderson retired last year.

His successor, Roland Pederson, told me he “wasn’t really aware of the situation” regarding Enid’s Marshallese population until recently. “I know they’re a vital part of the Enid community, and provide a huge workforce,” he said. “I would just say that I haven’t really reached out and connected with them.” Pederson added that he’s committed to learning more and being a representative for the community, and he sounded genuinely curious as he asked me a number of questions about the challenges they face. Pederson said he wasn’t opposed to extending health benefits to COFA migrants – but he thought the money should come from the federal government, since it was a federal law that originally cut off their benefits.

On June 21, Hawaii’s congressional delegation introduced legislation to restore Medicaid coverage for citizens of the Freely Associated States (FAS). “We have a moral obligation to provide FAS citizens living in Hawaii and across our country with access to medical care,” Senator Mazie Hirono said in a statement. The legislation is one of more than 20 similar bills introduced in Congress since 2001. The Republican congressional majority is not likely to embrace an expansion of the program anytime soon; instead, the GOP has proposed deep cuts to Medicaid as part of its rewrite of the Affordable Care Act.

According to a 2013 analysis by the Congressional Budget Office, covering COFA migrants through Medicaid would cost $20 million a year. That’s less than a twelfth of the cost of a single, $244 million weapons test conducted in May involving a simulated threat missile launched from the U.S. base on Kwajalein atoll in the Marshall Islands.

* * *

Mote spends a lot of time in the car. Two nights before he went to Oklahoma City in search of bitter melon, he drove an hour west of Enid to meet with a Marshallese couple who’d asked for help navigating a marital issue. The next morning, as he got back in the car to take me to meet other Marshallese families, his eyes were bloodshot from lack of sleep.

We spent the morning driving around town, criss-crossing railroad tracks, searching for people who’d moved since Mote last visited them. Enid’s enormous grain elevators slipped in and out of view on the horizon. All together, the pale concrete towers can hold more than 65 million bushels of wheat. “Where the wheat grows and the oil flows” is the town’s old tagline. But many of the elevators stand empty now, and the collapse of oil prices in late 2014 and 2015 hit the city hard.

After knocking on a number of doors we finally found the home of Stanley Jamor and his wife, Lorit. Jamor’s family was relocated from Bikini Atoll in anticipation of the nuclear testing, and split up on different islands. Some inhabitants of Bikini were sent first to Rongerik Atoll, a barren island so sparsely vegetated that they soon began to starve. Then they were moved to a tent camp beside a U.S. airstrip on another island. Many Bikinians, including Jamor’s parents, ultimately ended up on the small island of Kili.

In 1968, the U.S. government told the former residents of Bikini their island was safe to return to. “There’s virtually no radiation left and we can find no discernible effect on either plant or animal life,” declared the U.S. Atomic Energy Commission. About 150 people living on Kili returned to Bikini in the early 1970s – only to be re-evacuated in 1978 when testing revealed “incredible” concentrations (in the words of the U.S. Interior Department) of the radioactive element cesium 137 in their bodies.

Today, Kili is barely habitable for the 700 or so people who still live there. Unlike other atolls ringed around calm lagoons, Kili is a solitary island buffeted on both sides by waves that make fishing and sailing all but impossible in the stormy season. There is little space on the 200-acre island for farming, and so most food is shipped in.

Rising seas attributed to climate change pose a more vexing problem. Flooding has become a regular nuisance on Kili and throughout the Marshall Islands, where the average elevation is less than six feet above sea level. Saltwater seeps into the groundwater, already depleted by drought, and ruins crops. Majuro, the capital, has been alternately parched and drowned. In 2016, the capital had to ration water, and several times it’s been saturated by king tides – high, predictable tides that rarely touched Majuro in the past. On the narrow, flat islands, there’s no high ground to retreat to. The rising water is coming even for the dead. Graveyards near the coastline have eroded, headstones and bones washed out to sea. For people living on Kili and other islands, migration might one day be a necessity rather than a choice.

Jamor, who is 41, left Kili so his children could get a better education – the island doesn’t have a high school – and for better medical care. Theirs was one of the families that lost Medicaid coverage when it was stripped from the Marshallese in the 1996 welfare reform act. Jamor is still frustrated and angry about the loss. Like other Marshallese who work in the U.S., he’s paid taxes – and he believes that the U.S. owes his family and others for the damage and disruption of the nuclear testing. “The promise is broken,” he said, matter-of-factly. “America promised the people of Bikini they would take care of them.”

(A Nuclear Claims Tribunal, funded by Congress and overseen by Marshallese judges, was established in 1988 to compensate victims of the nuclear testing. But as of 2009, with more than $45 million still owed, the fund had been depleted. Even if fully funded, it’s not clear families like Jamors’ would qualify.)

Jamor used to work for the meat-processing company AdvancePierre, cleaning machines in the middle of the night. But when we spoke he was struggling to find a full-time job with health benefits. He and his wife were living with their three children and several grandchildren. One of his sons works at Advance, as the family calls it, and is the sole earner in the household.

Meatpacking, which provides some of the most readily available jobs for the Marshallese in Enid, is brutal work. “It’s cold, cold, cold,” said a woman named Joelynn Karben whose first job in Enid was at one of the refrigerated processing facilities. The job required her to stand for hours, and sometimes her hands got so stiff that she went to the bathroom and held them under hot water. She worked for four months before quitting. “I’ll never go back there again,” she vowed.

* * *

Fellow Marshallese started asking for Mote’s help years ago, while he was serving as a pastor at his church. He fielded a steady stream of requests for help paying for groceries, rent, medical care, and with navigating bureaucratic hurdles in the way of driver’s licenses or work permits. Because he was a pastor, people shared troubles with him that they were too ashamed to confide in their friends.

His family had their own difficulties. Mote worked for years to bring his mother, wife and kids to Enid, skipping lunches to save money for their airfare. His mother is diabetic, and she had to be hospitalized once for severe respiratory problems. She was also uninsured. Soon Mote began receiving collection notices for thousands of dollars. He was shocked. “My family, we never had anything. And we never owed anything to anyone,” he said.

Health care in the Marshall Islands is limited, but it is provided by the government. Mote hadn’t understood that higher-quality care in the U.S. came at such a price. He was working as an interpreter for the Enid police, helping the department communicate with Marshallese families, many of whom didn’t speak English. He was living paycheck to paycheck. There was no way he could pay his mother’s bills. At night he was afraid to fall asleep, because he thought someone might come to arrest him.

The realization that seemingly all of the Marshallese families in Enid had the same struggles as his own family was, for Mote, “emotional.” The community bore its burdens in silence. Who was there to complain to?

The Marshallese and the white community in Enid run like railroad tracks, parallel to one another. Religion glues each together, but for the most part they worship at separate churches. There are few Marshallese-owned businesses in town, save for one beauty parlor. “We do our own thing. We don’t really get out,” said a 28-year-old woman named Nerum who I met at the community clinic.

A residential street in Enid, Oklahoma.

The separateness leads to stereotyping, and even wild speculation. When I asked a bartender in Enid if she ever interacted with people from the islands, she laughed. “They live with, like, 20 people to a house. The women have hair down to their waists, and they wear flip-flops in the snow,” she offered. A man whose family has been in Enid for generations told me he’s heard rumors that Marshallese couples are polygamous, because it’s hard to tell who’s married to whom in households where a number of relatives live under the same roof. Quickly, he added, “I’m not saying it’s true, or that I believe it.” (While polygamy was once practiced on the islands, it’s no longer condoned.)

“Some people don’t know who we are,” Joelynn Karben said simply when I asked her about the relationship between the Marshallese community and other Enid residents. If one person makes a mistake, everyone is blamed for it, she told me. She referred to a drunk driving incident in February, in which a young Marshallese man hit and killed a local teacher while fleeing from police; online comments she saw later made her feel that the whole community had been indicted. Similar finger pointing occurred during an outbreak of typhoid fever in 2015.

But the tracks do cross, particularly in Enid’s schools. One morning I listened to Enid High School’s “Multi-Cultural Choir,” composed mainly of Marshallese students, rehearse. They sang the national anthem of the Marshall Islands and a few other songs. Later, during a lull in class, a few boys clustered together and sang Marshallese songs in perfect three- and four-part harmonies, led by one boy with a ukelele.

Later, I met Joan McIntyre, the high school’s head nurse. She reckons she’s the primary source of medical care for many of the Marshallese students. They get sick with the same things other kids do, she said, but their symptoms are worse, and they take longer to recover. McIntyre treats a lot of infections: cuts and boils that go untreated, and fester. While we were speaking she received a note about a student with a “lemon-sized” swelling under her eye, which she deemed “pretty typical.”

“Not necessarily Marshallese, but anybody who doesn’t have access to medical care, they let things go,” McIntyre said. “These people are very, very poor, and so they don’t have access to insurance, and they don’t have the money to go to a doctor. Or if they do go to a doctor they don’t have the money to get the prescription.” She believes the U.S. has a responsibility to provide care to the Marshallese: “I feel very strongly about that, because the issues they have are not going to go away.”

* * *

Mote is an optimistic guy, and a relentless jokester. He claims that “tired” is not part of his vocabulary. He hesitates to speak badly about anyone.

But watching Enid’s Marshallese families get sick so often, listening to them fret about coming up with rent money, going to all the funerals – it does wear on him. He constantly fields requests for help, but there’s only so much he can do; his toehold in the city bureaucracy is still tenuous. He’d like to run for a seat on the city council, but without citizenship he’s ineligible. Mote believes that if Oklahomans understood more about the history and culture of the islands, they might be more sympathetic to the plight of their people. But he also acknowledges that Enid, which is more than 80 percent white, “has a lot of issues with race” to overcome first.

“I don’t want to blame someone,” Mote said, when I asked what he thought the U.S. owed the Marshallese. “But yes, I feel frustrated sometimes, to see all these people getting sick every day, dying every day… If the state is not going to help us, and the government is not listening to us, who will help us?” He went on, “Do we just scatter our stuff and leave Oklahoma?”

Terry Mote prays at the beginning of a class he teaches to the youth group at the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints in Enid, Oklahoma.

The day after picking up melon and fish from Oklahoma City, Mote invited me over for dinner, and to meet his family. When I arrived, sunlight was raking the grass of his front lawn. His mother sat in the kitchen peeling oranges; his wife stood at the sink, cleaning the fish. His son, Oakie – named for the state he was born in – confirmed that his father does a fair share of the cooking, adding that he’d made corned beef hash the previous night.

As the fish sizzled, Mote told me a Marshallese legend, about how his people learned to sail. One day, long ago, the twelve sons of a woman named Loktanur decided to race their canoes to determine who would be the next chief. As the young men prepared their boats for the race, Loktanur approached with a large bundle in her arms. She asked her eldest son, Timur, to carry her with him. But Timur worried that her heavy load would slow him down, and he refused. So did the next-eldest, and the next, and so on, until she got to her youngest son, Jebro, who agreed to take her in his boat.

The brothers took off, paddling furiously. Loktanur unwrapped her bundle. It was a sail. She helped Jebro to hoist it, and taught him to tack, and the wind pushed his canoe far ahead of his brothers’. So it was that Jebro became the chief – and, later, took up residence in the night sky as the constellation some know as the Pleiades, where he guides other sailors of the Marshall Islands.

I asked Mote what the story meant to him. He looked at me in surprise. I expected him to say something about generosity, about kindness. Instead, he said simply, “Take care of your mother.”

 

 

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