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.”

The Daring Diplomat Who Proved One Person Can Thwart an Empire

A whistleblower puts his life on the line to defy Soviet aggression. Sixty years later, this forgotten story of subterfuge, smears and suspicious death has never felt more timely.

On October 23, 1956, waves of demonstrations rolled through the streets of the Hungarian capital. The citizens of Budapest converged on government buildings, protesting the influence of the Soviet Union on their elected officials and economy, and the presence of Soviet troops in their cities. What began with a few thousand university students swelled to include workers, soldiers, and men and women of all ages. Someone pulled down a Hungarian flag, emblazoned with the Communist sickle and hammer. They tore out the insignia, leaving a gaping hole in the middle. It became a symbol of the revolution.

The demonstrations escalated. Neighborhoods organized into militias. Overturned armored cars caught fire and buildings collapsed onto their first floors. The small country standing up to its Communist interlopers enraptured the Western world. Time magazine recognized “the Hungarian Freedom Fighter” as Man of the Year.

But it was a short-lived fight. On November 4, as tins were passed around to collect coins and jewelry to help with relief, and Budapest started to clear away broken glass and rubble, Soviet tanks trundled into the city. Miklos Toth, who was a boy at the time, remembers brutal street-to-street fighting, and World War II veterans firing out of their living rooms as plaster rained from the ceiling. The uprising was crushed. It would be more than three decades before an eastern bloc state revolted against Communism again.

During the Hungarian Revolution of 1956, Hungarian flags flew with holes cut out to remove the Soviet emblem. (Photo courtesy Fortepan)

Thousands of Hungarians were brought to trial by the new Soviet-backed government for their role in the uprising. Even more streamed out of Hungary as refugees. The United Nations launched an investigation into Soviet troops’ intervention in the Hungarian Revolution. A special committee interviewed 111 witnesses: diplomats, government officials, soldiers, journalists, and lawyers. An artist testified. So did an actress and several high school students. Fearing retaliation against friends and family back in Hungary, where the Soviet-backed government was carrying out executions, 81 of those witnesses appeared anonymously. On United Nations lists, they were marked as “AAA,” “BBB” and so on down the alphabet. Only one man knew their names. Soon, the name of Danish diplomat Povl Bang-Jensen, chief of logistics for the Hungarian testimony, would become embroiled in one of the most bewildering scandals in U.N. history.

* * *

Bang-Jensen had been a part of the U.N. since its early days. A dapper man whose widow’s peak and sweater vests called to mind Hollywood star James Mason, he acted on behalf of the anti-Nazi Danish underground in New York during World War II, negotiating treaties with the Allies on behalf of Scandinavia. He was well-rounded, self-confident, and stubborn. According to a Judiciary Report to the United States Congress, he had a “wide range of knowledge, and robust sense of humor and a warm heart that endeared him to his friends and … to the many Hungarian refugees who testified before the United Nations Commission on Hungary.”

Due to his meticulous focus on details, Bang-Jensen was charged with arranging the hotels and food per diems of the refugees in New York, Vienna, and Rome where the committee heard their testimony. When the committee asked him to make sure they didn’t hear repetitive testimony, he pre-interviewed refugees one-on-one, listening to their stories of the Soviet invasion.

“They took me to a prison, chained my right hand to my left foot, and left me,” ran a typical piece of testimony. “This was in the middle of the winter. … I could not move because, if I did so, my wrists and ankles bled.” The U.N. considered many of the stories Bang-Jensen heard unprintable. “The verbatim records of the Committee’s meetings contain appalling descriptions,” stated the final report, which “the Committee would have hesitated to publish in their entirety, even if the necessity of protecting the families of the witnesses had not been an obstacle.”

In a dark stone building at 6A Wallnerstrasse in Vienna where testimony was carried out, Bang-Jensen began to notice irregularities in procedure. He and his boss, William M. Jordan, argued over the translation of the testimony. Errors crept into the official record. A Russian U.N. staffer, according to Bang-Jensen’s later testimony, attempted to bribe one of his colleagues to let him take the transcripts of the hearings home overnight. In an era of global espionage, when the F.B.I. had just caught a U.N. staffer attempting to leak official documents to the Soviets, Bang-Jensen believed he saw clear evidence that the Russians were attempting to influence the committee’s findings and get access to the names of those who testified.

In June 1957, Bang-Jensen blew the whistle. In going over the final copy of the Hungarian Report, days before it was due to be presented, he found 40 errors and 20 omissions of key information. Many were minute, but others were crucial to the central point of the investigation: whether Russia had illegally violated Hungarian sovereignty. For example, an unreported date hid the fact that János Kádár, new head of the Soviet-backed Hungarian government, had invited Soviet intervention before he became Prime Minister, an action that some would call treasonous and was at odds with the Soviet Union’s claim to legal intervention. He wanted to bring the information to the ranking members of the committee, but Jordan warned him not to — telling him that the errors were not meaningful. So Bang-Jensen went over his head, arranging a meeting with the committee leaders in the Diplomats Lounge at U.N. headquarters.

Left: United Nations General Assembly representatives voting in favor of the resolution on the situation in Hungarian on Nov. 5, 1956. Right: U.N. Secretary General Dag Hammarskjöld (left) Assembly President, Dr. Charles Malik (Lebanon), and Andrew W. Cordier, Executive Assistant to the Secretary General. (Photos courtesy the United Nations)

In a room heavy with cigarette smoke and decorated with ferns, Bang-Jensen made his case. Even if the details might not alter the Hungarian Report’s findings, the errors and omissions ran the risk of reducing public trust in the validity of the entire report. At stake was not just this document, but any future humanitarian investigation the U.N. carried out. Bang-Jensen was a powerful believer in accuracy and truth, and when he felt the committee wasn’t listening to him, according to members’ testimony, he grabbed one of them by his lapels and shook him to make the point heard.

The results were not as he had hoped. Bang-Jensen was told not to attend future committee meetings. He went anyway. As the final drafts of the report were handed out, Bang-Jensen asked to see a copy. Jordan told him all copies were in use. So, he went straight to the top, writing a letter to Secretary General Dag Hammarskjold.

The situation, he wrote, “is a methodical attempt to suppress certain essential facts and to insert erroneous facts and contradictions in the report.” It was, he believed, “sabotage.”

He appealed to Hammarskjold as a fellow Scandinavian, and reminded him of Bang-Jensen’s experience spotting duplicity in his own fight against the Nazis. He even offered to resign, if it would help the U.N. handle the situation more discreetly.

“I am at your disposal beyond, but not contrary to, my duties as an officer of the United Nations to straighten out everything,” he wrote. “My only condition … is honesty.”

“Since the person in question [Jordan] probably will realize that he hardly can make many believe I am a liar,” Bang-Jensen concluded, “he will no doubt insist that I am imagining things on account of overwork.”

He was correct.

“He was acting improperly, hysterically, and foolishly,” Jordan wrote to Hammarskjold’s executive secretary, Andrew Cordier, a future president of Columbia University. Jordan also disclosed that he didn’t believe Bang-Jensen was “quite himself,” and that the man’s allegations were “largely childish and without foundation.” “He should be required forthwith to take sick leave, since I have no doubt that Mr. Bang-Jensen is a very sick man,” Jordan added.

After several weeks of unanswered letters, Bang-Jensen finally got the call he’d been waiting for, but he had already left the office to catch the boat to Denmark for two months of home leave. The connection was bad and Bang-Jensen and Hammarskjold couldn’t hear each other. They would write, they promised. Bang-Jensen wondered why Hammarskjold had not asked him to cancel his home leave and return to the U.N.

Bang-Jensen spent the next several weeks in the little fishing town of Espergaerde, just south of Elsinore, where Shakespeare’s Hamlet was accused of madness after discovering an act of treason. Returning to New York, he was summarily removed from the Hungarian Committee.

Again, Bang-Jensen wrote to Hammarskjold.

“Sabotage has been carried out,” he wrote. “Allegedly, on your instructions … Am I now expected to forget this matter?”

Again, he was ignored.

* * *

In October 1957, a Hungarian refugee, facing deportation from the U.S. back to Hungary, asked for asylum on the grounds that he was one of the anonymous witnesses who had testified before the Hungarian Committee. When U.N. authorities went to check his name against the list of witnesses, they found they had no copy. Only one person had the complete list of names: Povl Bang-Jensen.

Asked to provide a copy of the list, Bang-Jensen refused. Since his desk at the U.N. had been broken into, he said, he had been keeping it off U.N. property, and he did not think the U.N. could be trusted to safeguard the list against a leak that would put the names of witnesses who had accused the Soviets of war crimes in the Kremlin’s hands. It did not help that the request came from Undersecretary Dr. Dragoslav Protitch, a Yugoslav national whose government had approved of the Soviet incursion during the revolution. A United States Senate investigation would later question the security wisdom of the decision to allow Protitch to access to the Hungarian investigation at all.

A destroyed tank at the Zsigmond Móricz circle in Budapest, Hungary, during the 1956 revolution. (Photo courtesy Fortepan)

“I would be grossly derelict in my duties as an international official and thoroughly dishonest if I agreed,” he wrote. It wasn’t just a matter of principle. Back in Hungary — according to a 1960 Senate Judiciary Report on the affair — if a refugee had committed treason, upon escaping his next relative could be executed in his place. Give up the names, and dozens might die.

Despite continued orders, Bang-Jensen refused to hand over the list. On December 4, the Director of Personnel called Bang-Jensen into his office and suspended him. In an unprecedented move, Bang-Jensen was escorted out by two U.N. guards, who were too embarrassed to tail him and instead walked beside him to his car.

Word of the menace to the 81 witnesses spread. Bang-Jensen was hailed as a modern-day Good Samaritan. Letters from international organizations, questions from the press, and pleas from Hungarian groups poured into the U.N. Only a month prior, President John F. Kennedy had called the Hungarian Revolution, “a day that will forever live in the annals of free men and free nations — a day of courage and of conscience and of triumph” and had rebuked the western world for not coming to revolutionaries’ aid. The world had failed to take decisive action during the uprising, but now at least, they could take a stand for these 81 witnesses.

Some within the U.N. advocated simply burning the list, but to do so would be tantamount to admitting that the names would not be secure in U.N. files, jeopardizing the reputation of the body and its ability to carry out future anonymous hearings like the one for the Hungarian Report. And even if the names could be kept safe, what if the next Secretary-General was a Soviet, able to report the names to the Kremlin himself? How could an organization founded on globalism keep its staff from prioritizing national interests? They were questions that the United Nations, barely a decade old, had never faced.

Ernest Gross, chair of the investigation into the affair, suggested a solution.

At a few minutes before three p.m. on Friday, January 24, 1958, Bang-Jensen marched up the steps of the U.N. with his lawyer and a bank messenger who carried a sealed yellow envelope. The U.N. did not, Bang-Jensen later noted, offer him a security escort to bring the papers to headquarters. He made his way, first to an administrative office to meet several colleagues and security. The bank messenger handed over the envelope. Bundled in overcoats, they all climbed the stairs to the U.N. rooftop, where the temperature was just over freezing. A portable incinerator was blazing. Bang-Jensen fed the yellow envelope into it. Then, he removed another envelope from his briefcase and a third from his jacket pocket. The four men watched as the envelopes and their contents turned to ashes, then signed statements confirming their destruction.

Statement written and signed by Povl Bang-Jensen after he burned the papers relating to witnesses that testified in front of the Special Committee on the Problem with Hungary. (Image courtesy the U.N.)

But the affair was far from over. Hoping to end the case once and for all, Gross released his report on Bang-Jensen’s conduct, painting a picture of a paranoid, overly sensitive man. Gross claimed that Bang-Jensen had been negligent in safeguarding the papers, and suggested that he might have altered them himself. In a clunky solution to the question of the U.N.’s ability to safeguard documents, the report argued that, in Bang-Jensen’s keeping, the papers had been so insecure as to be rendered worthless — therefore the U.N. did not want them back. The report closed by recommending that Bang-Jensen seek medical help. The question of sabotage that Bang-Jensen had originally raised was largely glossed over.

“I think image of Bang-Jensen as heroic protector of papers will have been exploded,” Andrew Cordier wrote in a telegram to the Australian delegate, Sir Keith Charles Owen Shann, in Manila.

This portrait of Bang-Jensen as unstable and incompetent was a surprise, even to members who had contributed to the report. Alsing Andersen, who had recalled the incident of Bang-Jensen shaking a delegate by the lapels in the Diplomats Lounge to the Committee, asked that a new press release around the report be issued. Bang-Jensen launched into a judicial review process, aimed at reinstating his position and clearing his name. Meticulous as ever, he testified that the Gross Report contained 126 incorrect statements, including 76 that were simply misleading and 31 that were outright slanderous.

He never had a chance.

The judicial review board was stacked with the same men who had suggested Bang-Jensen was unstable. Bang-Jensen’s requests for key letters and memos, for the right to be represented by an outside attorney instead of a fellow staffer, were all denied. Unable to afford a secretary, he typed out his trial correspondence himself using two fingers, only to be told that the tribunal would only review evidence sent in triplicate. When he claimed that the labyrinthine procedures were a violation of due process and his human rights, U.N. officials grew exasperated.

“If there has been any violation of human rights,” wrote one, “it is most certainly not Bang-Jensen’s but those of many senior officials of the Secretariat, especially Andrew Cordier, who have spent the equivalent of many days — even weeks — of valuable time leaning over backwards to be fair to this impossible man!”

At the same time, according to Bang-Jensen, a smear campaign spread through the halls of the U.N. Stories reportedly circulated that Bang-Jensen was an alcoholic, a psychopath, that he was gay, or sexually deviant, that he was a McCarthyite. Meanwhile, newspaper articles told the heroic story of the man who dared to stand up to the Soviet Union and the corrupt U.N. Letters with stamps bearing the profiles of Lincoln and Washington poured in to Cordier and Hammarskjold’s office.

“Please excuse my handwriting, because I have a broken wrist and I have a cast on,” wrote Mary Alice Karl from Williston Park, New York, “I just had to write and tell you how I want to protest the dismissal of the Danish official, Povl Bang-Jensen. I think that this action was highly unfair and unreasonable.”

“Dear Sirs,” wrote Miss Marita Kane, from Long Island, “I have never before written a letter to the U.N., but this is justified because I never have been so upset by one of its actions … If you do this ostensibly unjust act of firing a hero, every patriotic American will sigh and say, ‘Oh well, it was a good idea — but the U.N. was just an idea, and can’t and didn’t work out in practice.’”

High schooler Judy Soles whipped her classmates into a fervor after learning about the case in her history class, and started a campaign to reinstate Bang-Jensen. The International League of the Rights of Man wrote in support of Bang-Jensen, citing the previous decade’s Nuremberg Trials of Nazi collaborators.

“Whenever there is a conflict between obedience or adherence to administrative rules or orders of superior officers,” the League wrote, “and a moral responsibility to safeguard life or liberty, the issue must be resolved in favor of the higher moral obligation.”

A predominantly American audience saw him as an anti-Communist hero — the tenacious and upstanding champion they had been looking for in the Cold War. Many saw the difficulties Bang-Jensen was experiencing as proof that Soviets were controlling the U.N. In response to every letter, Andrew Cordier sent a copy of the Gross Report — a clear message that their supposed hero was, in fact, deranged.

* * *

On July 3, 1958, Bang-Jensen was fired for insubordination. He was given three months’ pay in lieu of notice. Ever tenacious, he claimed right of appeal. Once again, he lost. Up until this point, Bang-Jensen had, in his own words, “made every effort to have the case dealt with in as quiet and as orderly a manner as possible in order not to hurt the United Nations which, in the final analysis, is more important than any of the individuals involved.” He deeply loved the U.N., and was committed to both its systems and its mission. That he pled his case within its existing structures, and that he rarely spoke to the press, indicates a commitment to the institution that ran deep.

“I shall never regret that I kept my promise to the Hungarian witnesses that I should be the only person in the Secretariat to know their names,” he said in a rare public statement after his firing. “Either inside or outside the United Nations—I shall continue my efforts to obtain justice.”

The affair went quiet for a year. After his dismissal, Bang-Jensen got a job at CARE, the humanitarian relief agency, where his yearly salary dropped from $17,000 to $7,500. He attended PTA meetings for his five children, took them to Sunday school, and went to the movies with his wife, Helen. “North By Northwest” was one of the most popular films of 1959, but perhaps that story of subterfuge at the U.N. felt too close to home for a weekend date.

On the morning of Monday, November 21, 1959, Bang-Jensen kissed his wife goodbye and walked out the front door of their home in Long Island. He ran into a neighbor, Mr. Wetzler, who gave him a ride to the bus stop. Mr. Wetzler reported to the Senate Judiciary Committee that Bang-Jensen “behaved in a perfectly normal manner.” Then he hopped out at the corner of Northern Boulevard and Morgan Street and was never seen alive again.

He was found, two days later on the morning of Thanksgiving, laid out on a bridle path in Alley Pond Park, a seven-minute drive from his house. Two locals, walking their dogs through the gray fallen leaves, discovered the body. A bullet had gone through his right temple. In his right hand was a pearl-handled revolver. Even after his two-day disappearance, his face, under a mat of blood, was clean-shaven. The police found a note in Bang-Jensen’s handwriting. “Whatever faults I have,” it read, “I have been honest and wanted to do good, but I underestimated the forces I was up against.” The N.Y.P.D. ruled the death a suicide, and cremated the body, as the note requested.

“You and your family have our profound sympathy and sincere condolence on the passing of your husband,” wrote Hammarskjold to Helen.

“Please accept our heartfelt sympathy in your sorrow,” wrote Cordier.

“You have driven to his death a noble man, Mr. Bang-Jensen, for doing what was right,” wrote Mrs. A.G. Hunter to the United Nations. “Your conscience should hurt you all the rest of your life — if you have a conscience.”

Almost immediately, the question of foul play arose. Who were the hidden forces mentioned in the suicide note, people wondered? Where had Bang-Jensen been for the two days of his disappearance? If the diplomat was left-handed, why was the gun found in his right hand? Had Bang-Jensen really killed himself in a fit of depression over his ousting from the U.N. or were other and more malevolent forces at play? “Many persons and many forces, not exclusively Soviet, had reason to breathe easier at his passing,” hinted the National Review. “The strange circumstances of the case seem to warrant continued investigation,” the Washington Post wrote.

Letter written by Mrs. A.G. Hunter, a Bang-Jesen supporter, to the United Nations after the ex-diplomat was found dead. (Image courtesy the U.N.)

Congress thought so too. In 1960, they launched an investigation in the Bang-Jensen case, questioning both U.N. security procedures and the pipeline of information about Communist infiltration in the State Department and the C.I.A. The committee did not comment on the judicial procedures at the U.N. that led to Bang-Jensen’s termination, since that was inside the jurisdiction of the United Nations. But the committee was very interested in whether a political assassination had occurred on American soil. The investigation created as many mysteries as it solved.

The Senate report uncovered that Bang-Jensen had spoken of suicide as a way to get his family funds from his U.N. insurance policy — but that policy had run out by the time he died. Friends and family reported depression after his dismissal from the U.N., adding that it had increased to the point where they encouraged him to consult a psychiatrist. He visited Dr. Frederick Friedenborg six times. The doctor declared him “anti-suicidal” and in the weeks leading up to his death, Bang-Jensen had been markedly more active and cheerful. Dr. Friedenborg had prescribed Bang-Jensen sleeping pills, which Bang-Jensen did not make a practice of using. The pharmacist who filled the prescription testified that it was never refilled. Nonetheless, the coroner reported that Bang-Jensen was sedated at the time of his death.

Regarding his mental state, the Senate Committee surfaced another shocking document, a 1957 memo from Bang-Jensen to Helen discovered and published by the far-right, anti-Communist Alice Widener. Though incredible, none on the committee questioned that it might be real. It read:

“[My wife] fears, now that it is clear that I will not retreat, that the circle outside the Secretariat, ultimately responsible for the sabotage, might have decided that it is necessary to risk having me disappear out a window, or similarly in a fit of depression … My wife has, nevertheless, insisted that I should inform a few of my friends, that under no circumstances would I commit suicide … this would be contrary to my whole nature and to my religious convictions. If any note was found to the opposite effect in my hand-writing, it would be fake.”

The letter was dated November 30, 1957. It was the habit of the meticulous Bang-Jensen to date all his correspondence to the day. The only exception the Senate committee could find in all Bang-Jensen’s writing was the suicide note.

The committee did not come to a conclusion on the Bang-Jensen mystery. But it did publish a report on the facts of the case, including facts that pointed to suicide and others that pointed to murder. Inserted in the report was a list of corrections to factual errors that were discovered after the report was bound and printed. Bang-Jensen would, no doubt, have found more.

* * *

On the 60th anniversary of the Hungarian Revolution, the Hungarian Mission to the U.N. celebrated the sacrifice of Bang-Jensen. The event included a generation who had lived through revolution themselves, the children of refugees who had built new lives, and Bang-Jensen’s own children, now grown. They accepted a statue in token of their father’s heroism in safeguarding the names of the 81 anonymous witnesses — a sculpture of the Hungarian uprising flag, with a hole where the Soviet hammer and sickle had been torn out.

Ferenc Miszlivetz, Director of Hungary’s Institute of Advanced Studies Kőszeg, which published A Cry for Freedom: Reflections on the 1956 Hungarian Revolution at the UN and Beyond, likens Bang-Jensen’s story to the Hungarian uprising itself.

“Sometimes relatively insignificant players,” he says, “could make a big difference in a real way in peculiar moments in history.”

Ultimately, he argues, far from jeopardizing the long-term legitimacy of the United Nations, Bang Jensen safeguarded it. In his rebellion, he had carried on U.N. values.

Bang-Jensen in Copenhagen to discuss his situation with the Danish government and Parliament. (Photo courtesy Scanpix Denmark/Sipa USA)

“Bang-Jensen saved the reputation of the United Nations,” Miszlivetz says, “We have institutions based on values and those are sometime not realized. But unexpected individuals can realize them.”

Even when the arc of progress swings ethical institutions into being, individuals must continue to carry those ethics forward in their individual actions, particularly when those institutions falter.

The Bang-Jensen case may be a story of a man experiencing post-war stress, tormenting his colleagues with paranoia, depression and ultimately suicide. Or, it may be the tale of a coordinated campaign to silence a whistleblower. Ultimately, it is a story of a man who believed entirely in the importance of truth and facts, in promises, and in resisting the very institutions we love when they fall short of their moral mandate.

Bang-Jensen’s wife eventually moved upstate to Chappaqua, New York. She worked as a guide at the local Union Church, leading tour groups through the history and stories of the Chagall and Matisse stained glass windows that a Rockefeller had commissioned for the church. The prized centerpiece of the luminous collection, the one Helen must have often paused at during her tours to relate the story of its subject, was the Good Samaritan.

These WWII Veterans Came Home and Launched an Insurrection Against Corrupt Politicians

Fed up with the crooked local machine, GIs took to the streets with rifles and ran them out of town.

Deputy C.M. Wise had a problem. He was about to lose his job, and he had to watch it happen. Wise had been posted at the city waterworks office on North Madison Street in Athens, Tennessee, since before nine a.m. All morning and into the humid afternoon of August 1, 1946, “Windy” Wise watched folks from across the county cast their ballots with hard looks that spelled the end of an era for Windy, along with his fellow deputies, Sheriff Pat Mansfield, and State Senator Paul Cantrell. Wise and the others had allegedly pilfered money from the citizens of McMinn County for more than a decade. They had also allegedly murdered two GIs during the war. But now the town had finally had enough. A group of veterans fresh from World War II were making a play for control of McMinn County and they were winning. The glares made Windy scared and angry. Someone needed to do something, he thought. Now.

Tom Gillespie, a black farmer, stepped inside the waterworks to cast his vote. He came in strong and confident. He worked for a beloved Quaker family, and like them, Gillespie was a proud and peaceful man. He produced his poll tax receipt to the election officials and received a ballot. As he stepped up to cast his vote the sweat-soaked Windy blocked his path with a wild look in his eyes, like an animal cornered by its own hubris.

“You can’t vote,” Windy said.

“He can, too!” said a former GI serving as poll watcher. He was one of dozens scattered across the county to ensure the political machine didn’t steal the election. Everything in the room seemed to cease motion. The room was hot and stuffy. After a moment, Gillespie spoke. “Why’s that, Mr. Wise?” he asked.

Windy was a thug, a bully; to back down would be tantamount to defeat. All he knew was to plow forward.

“Nigger, you can’t vote here today!” he bellowed, and in a flare of rage he bared a pair of brass knuckles and smashed his fist into the black voter. Tom Gillespie turned and fled, spurred along with a hard shove.

But Gillespie was determined to vote. It was his right, and no corrupt, racist deputy was going to stop him. He collected himself, opened the door to the precinct, and walked back into the waterworks. He leaned against a wall with his arms folded defiantly and glared. When Windy saw him he flew into a rage.

“Damn you! I told that you were not voting in this damn precinct today,” he bellowed. Then he jerked his pistol from its holster and fired a bullet into Tom Gillespie.

The Battle of Athens had begun.

* * *

Before the battle, there was the parade. On a cool Saturday in November 1945, ten months before Windy Wise shot Tom Gillespie for participating in democracy, the folks of McMinn County celebrated the end of a world war against fascism. Some 3,000 young men, ten percent of the county, had enlisted in the armed forces and fought across Europe and the Pacific, participating in heavy combat in places like Guadalcanal and Normandy. More than 100 had been killed. But the war was over. “Now it was time to celebrate in McMinn County,” wrote University of Tennessee professor of history C. Stephen Byrum. “The ‘boys’ were back!” They had won the war for McMinn County, for Tennessee, and for the United States. They were heroes. Flags snapped and shuddered in the autumn wind as the crowd cheered with an uncommon roar.

Workmen, under the direction of an interim government, replacing windows shot out at the McMinn County jail during a gun battle between GIs and the sheriff and his deputies.

But the mood amongst some of the GIs as they marched down North Jackson Street was somewhat less than jovial. Trouble had long been brewing at home. While they battled the Nazis and the Japanese they had received word from across the county of malfeasance and outright criminal behavior by the sheriff’s deputies.

Sherriff Mansfield, a transplant from Georgia, had come into the office on the coattails of newly elected State Senator Paul Cantrell. Mansfield quickly turned the county into a veritable cash register for himself and the deputies. In a later interview, Marine veteran and Athens native Bill White said, “Mansfield had complete control of everything — schools and everything else. You couldn’t even get hired as a schoolteacher without their okay, or any other job.” There were endless instances of shakedowns and fee grabbing — a policing policy whereby deputies were paid solely by arrest. The more arrests they made, the more money they earned.

All this came to a low boil during the war when two service members on leave were killed by deputies while at a pair of nearby roadhouses, according to a 1946 article by Theodore H. White in Harper’s. While McMinn County GIs were fighting to preserve democracy, they were hearing about their friends and neighbors — even fellow GIs — getting shaken down, beaten, and murdered by “draft dodgers,” as one veteran called them. In the same article, veteran Ralph Duggan explained he “thought a lot more about McMinn County than he did about the Japs. If democracy was good enough to put on the Germans and the Japs, it was good enough for McMinn County, too!”

The problems in the county only compounded once the GIs returned home flush with savings. “When I got off the bus there was four deputies standing there flipping over all the service members,” remembered Bill White. “A lot of boys getting discharged were getting the mustering out pay. Well, deputies running around four or five at a time grabbing up every GI they could find and trying to get that money off of them… They were kind of making a racket out of it. When these things happened, the GIs got madder — the more GIs they arrested, the more they beat up, the madder we got.”

When the veterans organized the GI Non-Partisan League in early 1946 to oust Mansfield and his deputized goons, they weren’t just fighting corrupt local politicians existing in a state-wide political vacuum. The corruption in McMinn County was, at least in shades, part-and-parcel for the state, which was under the influence of a political machine run by old-school Democratic boss E.H. “Boss” Crump. The veterans had an uphill battle. In an early meeting with veterans, Otto Kennedy, a Republican adviser to the fledgling party, made it plain that the establishment party would cook the books unless they deployed poll watchers on Election Day. Kennedy recommended 50 armed men placed at each voting precinct. Yet the veterans were reluctant to surround polling precincts with weapons.

According to White, other veterans in the room groaned and deflected.

“You better do it or you’re wasting your time,” White replied. After a moment, fellow veteran and campaign manager Jim Buttrum stood up from his seat and spoke calmly, “Well Bill, I’ll recommend you to be the GI leader. Organize to keep them from taking the election.”

“That was right down my alley,” White explained years later. “I liked that. So I got out and started organizing with a bunch of GIs. I learned that you get the poor boys out of poor families, and the ones that was frontline warriors that’s done fighting and didn’t care to bust a cap on you. So that’s what I picked. I had 30 men and… I took what mustering out pay I got and bought pistols.”

* * *

The county was up early on Election Day, August 1, 1946. It was a Thursday. As early as 7:30 a.m., the streets around the polling precincts all across McMinn County were packed. Tensions between the deputies and the GIs were high. Veterans patrolled the polling stations with guns strapped to their waists. The GIs had learned from old party members all the tricks used to cook the vote. One method involved killing the power to the polling station and swapping rigged ballot boxes in the darkness. Another involved simply miscounting the votes — one opposition vote counted for a half-dozen or so incumbent votes, according to Byrum. Once the polls opened, the GIs would monitor them to make sure Mansfield’s boys didn’t play any games.

The problems began almost immediately. When a GI poll watcher asked that a ballot box be opened to verify it as empty, he was promptly arrested. In Etowah, on the east side of the county, a GI election judge was tossed out of a precinct and hauled off by police when he demanded a ballot box be inspected. According to Byrum, voters David and Thelma Miller were told by Democratic representatives not to vote, because “we voted for you this morning.”

No matter who won, people on both sides would have to live together once the election was over. They’d see each other at church, out in the neighborhood. Folks on each side wondered about the repercussions of losing, whether their children would be ostracized or whether they’d face violence. This wasn’t an election simply to see who controlled the municipal structures of government. This was an election that would define the social landscape of a rural county in a region baked with grudges and feuds that were as old as the hills. The old guard felt change in the air — change they could not stop. That’s what drove “Windy” Wise to shoot Tom Gillespie.

After Gillespie had been carted away, Pat Mansfield motored from the county jail with a carload of deputies and sealed off the waterworks. Inside, the vote counting had begun. The deputies pushed out the GI poll watchers. The counters, with deputies lording over them, tallied five Democratic votes for every one non-partisan vote. Once finished, the deputies absconded with the boxes to what they presumed was a safe place to dispose of the true ballots — the county jail.

H.E. Gunther looking over a pile of smashed slot machines and punch boards, which were confiscated by ex-GI forces during raids on gambling houses in Athens following election mob violence the previous week.

After word went out that the count had been corrupted, Athens boiled into a rage. “They’ve stolen our election,” was the cry that rang out, and the veterans went into action. Byrum recalled one young man stated, “I served in the Army, but I ain’t never seen nothing like this. I got a gun at home and if I have to walk six miles to get it and come back, I’m goin’.” Hundreds of veterans, far more than just the armed poll watchers enlisted by Bill White, began appearing with old shotguns and pistols. For those who showed up unarmed, White and his cadre of veterans raided the nearby National Guard armory for rifles.

Bill White was a rugged brawler. He loved to fight. He had been through some of the toughest campaigns in the early part of the Pacific campaign. He led 60 armed veterans near the campus of Tennessee Wesleyan College, not far from the jail, where he split them into two groups, which took up positions that largely surrounded the jail. But they left the rear uncovered.

“We’ve come for the ballot boxes! Give up the ballot boxes!” a veteran yelled out, according to Byrum.

“Are you the law in McMinn County?” a deputy yelled from inside the jail.

A voice rang out from amongst the guns aimed at the jail: “There ain’t no damn law in McMinn County!”

When veterans Harold Powers and Edgar Miller tried to cross the street, a deputy fired a shotgun from inside the jail, wounding them in the neck and shoulder. A pistol shot and a burst from a submachine gun followed it.

Byrum speculates the shot might have been designed not to wound, but simply to scare off the crowd of veterans. If so, it failed. The veterans opened fire, which was returned by the deputies. For a good 30 minutes both sides snapped at each other, then the fire settled into pace according to mood and whim — sometimes rising, other times falling. Windows were shot out; streetlights, shingles, pebbles and whole chunks of masonry and brick were chipped from the thick jail walls. According to Byrum, a radio used to monitor the battle four blocks away was shot out by a stray bullet. Occasionally a Molotov cocktail sailed out from the veterans’ side and doused the streets in fire, but all they managed to do was torch a few parked cars.

The fighting continued off-and-on for the rest of the evening and into the early morning, with both sides refusing to budge. The veterans had a great position and the spiritual weight of the town in their corner. Mansfield and his deputies had the jail as a fortress and the weighty preponderance and presumption of law and order in theirs. Who would break first was simply a matter of time and logistics, unless some convening force intervened.

The answer came in the form of nitroglycerin.

Around 1:30 a.m, a few veterans using a loudspeaker mounted on a nearby radio station put a demand to the deputies.

“Come out with your hands up or we will use dynamite!”

Crowd gathered at jail the in Athens where the GIs overturned an automobile with explosives.

No one is sure where the veterans found the dynamite. Byrum suggested it came from a nearby hardware store, but other sources claim that men from another county brought it after hearing reports of the fighting on the radio. It’s agreed that it was thrown from a Jeep speeding down White Street. The first stick rolled under a nearby car, flipping it upside down with the explosion. The second blew up in the grass. The third time, however, men taped together a few sticks of dynamite into one large charge. This is where the story splits. According to Byrum, the dynamite was tossed from the Jeep like the first time. Bill White, however, said, “I crawled up and put a charge on the jailhouse porch. Crawled back behind the building there and it went off and blew the porch up. I had this other big charge so I went up and laid it right up against the jail. When it went off it jarred that jail. Woo!”

Whatever the case, white flags and handkerchiefs began to poke out the jailhouse windows followed by cries of “We give up!” and “Stop firing and we’ll come out!” After some quick words, the disheveled deputies filed from the battered jail into the dark streets with their pistols dancing from their fingertips.

The Battle of Athens had ended.

* * *

The political situation in McMinn County quieted down once the deputies surrendered and the ballots could be counted without interference. By August 5, the vote tally showed the GI candidate for sheriff, a veteran named Knox Henry, along with their candidates for trustee, circuit court clerk, and register of deeds, had all won handily. Later that day, Paul Cantrell conceded the election. A few days later Mansfield, under pressure from Governor Jim McCord, resigned as sheriff. He left McMinn County and never returned. Meanwhile, the veterans took control of the county in the sudden absence of Mansfield’s deputies, who were either jailed or run off into hiding.

Former GI and newly elected sheriff Knox Henry (middle) being congratulated on his victory at the polls after a battle with deputies in McMinn County elections at Athens.

In the end, according to a New York Times article, the veterans found that armed insurrection simply wasn’t worth it. The veterans, for all their good intentions, had violated something that had been a tenant of American politics since the Whiskey Rebellion: in a democracy, battles are to be fought with votes, not guns. Many of them could have been arrested and tried under an assortment of federal charges, even if they were in the right. Yet no charges were ever brought down on any veteran or organizer. Only Deputy C.M. “Windy” Wise was ever convicted of a crime. He was sentenced to a stunningly light one- to three-year prison stretch for shooting Tom Gillespie, who made a full recovery.

Some GIs wanted blood, revenge for old wrongs, scores settled in old South ways — eye for an eye, tooth for a tooth. Bill White explained further that after the battle, “they put me in as a deputy. They wanted me to control the GIs. And I did. I had 16 fights in one weekend. Fighting GIs, keeping them from shooting them people’s houses and beating up people. My fists got so sore I couldn’t stick them in my pocket.”

White stated that the profit-based policing, which launched so much grief prior to the election, remained in play for another four years. Aside from a wave of initial press reporting and a few minor copycats, the Battle of Athens was inevitably buried in the soil of the town and pressed into lore. Over the next few months, the GI Non-Partisan League squandered its gains with infighting. The old party loyalties in the county resurfaced as if hard-wired into the psyche of the region. “Meet the new boss, same as the old boss,” as Pete Townsend once sang.

According to a New York Times article from early 1947, disillusioned with the direction of the party, the GI Non-Partisan League published an open letter that announced its end, stating “We abolished one machine only to replace it with another and more powerful one in the making.”

I’m a Fifty-Year-Old Mom. I Just Had Sex in the Back Seat of a Car.

Sometimes acting like a teenage rebel is the only way to feel in control.

On a hot and humid night last June, I steered my car over twisting country roads toward a small lakeside town for a romantic rendezvous. I had spent the day at a funeral, reflecting on the fact that at fifty, I had more miles behind me than ahead. Oddly, my paramour had also spent the day at a funeral, and as the summer sun disappeared we made plans to meet halfway between our towns for a drink.

It was nearly eleven when I turned my car onto Main Street, and James was growing impatient. We were speaking on the phone when I caught a glimpse of him. Strikingly handsome, he looked at least a decade younger than his 61 years. Running and doing chores on his rural property kept his body lean and muscular, and his face betrayed few traces of the anguish I knew lay in his heart.

James met me at my car, and as we walked toward the restaurant he put his arm around me. I felt a shudder of excitement run down my spine and I pushed in closer to feel his body. When we sat at the bar he swiveled his chair, pushed his knees against mine, and leaned in close to talk. Our faces were pressed within whispering distance and I inhaled his scent. The drinks we ordered were superfluous; this was all a graceful dance of foreplay.

The bar was teeming with a coarse-looking crowd of men and women who had deeply lined faces and leather jackets. The fact that we were completely out of place only heightened our excitement. We huddled and made witty comments about the antics of other patrons, parting only to fling our heads back in hysterics. We sat at the bar laughing and kissing, and before long James ran his hand up my leg and under my skirt. On previous dates he had teased me about being a Puritan in public, but X-rated in private, but that night I made no attempt to be discreet.

It felt mischievous to be strangers in a raucous tavern far from home in the middle of the night. We reveled in escaping the constricting bonds of our everyday lives – him a lawyer, me a divorced single mother. Our behavior was an unspoken act of defiance against the taunt of age, and the gloom of funerals that had become a common part of our lives.

Outside the restaurant James kissed me deeply and with a new fervency. We were passionately entangled while patrons passed by, and I whispered that we needed to go somewhere private. James began walking me to my car, and I assumed I would follow him to the adjacent hotel, or to his house an hour away.

When we got to my car he told me to get in the back seat. I refused, saying that my kids had left a mess in my car. James took my hand and led me across the lot to his immaculately clean Mercedes.

“Get in,” he said again.

“I’m not having sex with you in a car,” I replied laughing, while thinking of how improper it would be for a middle-aged mother to do so.

“Just get in,” he repeated, smiling mischievously as he opened the rear door.

There was no point in arguing; I knew I’d get in, so I slid onto the back seat. James was right behind, and before I heard the click of the door closing he was kissing me. It was futile to fight the longing we had been feeling for the past hours. Soon, all thoughts of motherhood and what was proper disappeared. We had been together many times before, but that night we devoured each other.

“I can’t believe I just had sex in a car in a public parking lot,” I said afterward, as I searched for my bra in the front seat.

“It was exciting, like in high school,” James replied, looking flushed and exhilarated.

As I drove home in the wee hours of the morning I felt furtive pride that James and I had taken a rebellious stand against the inevitability of age, and society’s expectation that we go gently into the night. In the days and weeks that followed we frequently reminisced about our romp in the car, and how it brought us back to our adolescence; a time of freedom and endless promise, a time before responsibilities and painful regrets.

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.”


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

* * *

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Lori’s great at forcing me to reflect.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

* * *

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

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

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

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

* * *

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

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

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

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

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

* * *

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

* * *

“What’s your favorite porn scene?”

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

The possibilities run through my head.

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

They’re also lies.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Are you sure?”

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

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

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

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

“Go on.”

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

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

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

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

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

And so I tell him.

* * *

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

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

And then realizing that person is me.

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

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

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

I was out of control.

* * *

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

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

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

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

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

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

* * *

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

That’s why I need to tell my husband.

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

Want to know more? Check out our behind-the-scenes interview with Erica Garza on Continuing the Narrative.

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