The Brotherhood of Recovering Addicts

A year inside a pair of small-town boarding houses where a battered band of brothers are the only thing keeping each other alive.

Chester Biswick is a boulder of a man, standing not quite as tall as his nearly six-foot frame allows, his shoulders like the curve of a river stone pressed into the mud. Blue-jean eyes and hands like meat mallets. Decades ago, his hands pilfered plump moonshine-soaked cherries from the pickle jar at the neighbors’ house. Ten-year-old Chester drank because it made him feel tingly, special. Booze joined him in the treehouse, where he slept to escape the shouts between his parents. In another life, Chester’s hands mashed faces. There were the bar brawls. The knife fights. Later those same hands clutched whiskey bottles, shaking so badly it took a pint of the stuff to steady his grip. Drink, vomit, drink again. Sometimes all that would come up was stomach acid. In that life, he watched two marriages collapse. Got two DUIs. For a time, he slept under picnic benches.

“There was nothing there for me anymore. I was basically drinking to kill myself for the longest time, because I just didn’t want to live anymore,” he says.

Chester, who turned fifty this fall, has been clean for over three years. He’s the manager of a recovery home in Canonsburg, Pennsylvania. Another recovery home is across the street, and like Chester, everyone living in these houses is in active recovery from drug and alcohol addiction.

He is talkative after you get to know him, but when I first meet him in February 2014, Chester is shy. He smiles sheepishly when he describes his life in recovery, his mouth an unfolded paperclip that’s fragile along the contours of its former shape. In this life, Chester makes birdhouses and poems and drawings. He cooks cabbage rolls and beef stew for the guys. These guys are family, he says.

He doesn’t like to talk about how much booze he drank or how many pills he swallowed. That just glorifies his past.

“I was the crud on the bottom of your boot, that you wouldn’t even want to wash off. You’d throw the whole boot away,” he says. “And today, I like life.”

From the highway, it looks as if the single-family homes of Canonsburg were spread across its hills like thick, crunchy peanut butter. Home to about 9,000 people, Canonsburg is roughly twenty miles south of Pittsburgh, in countryside rich with arteries of coal and shale gas. It’s a town that lays claim to Bill Schmidt, America’s only javelin bronze medalist since 1972, and Sarris Candies, a phoenix of a factory that survived a 2012 fire that claimed 20,000 pounds of chocolate. Outside the borough building, Perry Como’s milky voice bellows from a statue of his likeness, welcoming visitors to town (at least those who go inside the building and ask to have the singing statue activated).

Blocks away, Pam Jones’s recovery homes are nestled along College Street. It’s a quiet, residential neighborhood bookended by a Dollar General and a cemetery, with a radioactive dump nearby. Her recovery homes are indistinguishable from the other buildings: vinyl siding, two stories, trees in the lawn. They are beloved by some, and a wellspring of concerns for others. Though the voices differ, the concerns are alike in every region of the nation: Living next to addicts will bring crime, make parking scarce and reduce home values. These places are unregulated and unsafe. Recovery homes shouldn’t be in our neighborhoods. Not near our children.

In 2013, roughly 8.2 percent of the U.S. population over age twelve reported substance abuse or dependence. That’s about 21.6 million people. Fatal overdoses now outpace motor vehicle fatalities as the leading cause of injury death among adults age twenty-five to sixty-four. Prescription drug abuse dwarfs previous numbers. Heroin alone grips an average of 40,000 children and adults in Pennsylvania, according to the state attorney general’s office, trailing only California and Illinois. Lawmakers have adopted the word “epidemic” to describe the problem.

Chester fiddles with a padlock on the shed behind one of the recovery homes. The sounds of the highway are faint but constant as the ocean. The winter sky is grey and bright. Near the shed, one of Chester’s birdhouses hangs from a tree. His garden lies dormant under the snow.

"If you're going to end up on College Street, if God wants you here, you'll get here," Pam Jones says. "And if you're meant to stay here, you'll do what it takes to stay here."
“If you’re going to end up on College Street, if God wants you here, you’ll get here,” Pam Jones says. “And if you’re meant to stay here, you’ll do what it takes to stay here.”

Inside, there’s stuff everywhere. A wooden sled he’s going to repaint, a curio to refinish, a drill press, dremels and screwdrivers. Lengths of wood lean against a wall. Jagged teeth of a two-man saw and an old horseshoe hang from the rafters. Everything in here is one of Chester’s projects, and most of this stuff he salvaged from the thrift store or hauled from the trash.

“My grandfather told me, ‘If it’s broken and it’s still broke when you’re done, don’t worry about it. It was broke. If you fix it you accomplish something,’ says Chester. “I was broke. I worked on it. I’m better. And I keep adding to it every day.”

Chester hands me a drawing of a tiny home, dwarfed against an open plain. A curl of smoke rises from its chimney. Three craggy hills are in the distance, the radiating sun nearly as large as the house. His pencil lines are neat, clean, careful.

* * *

Addiction treatment and recovery in America has an ugly past. In the 1800s, addicts could seek treatment at inebriate homes, colonies and asylums. Not everyone went there voluntarily. Some of these places were state-run facilities; others were religious institutions. Patients were treated with aversion therapy, as well as water-cure, electrical and moral therapies. They were blistered and bled, sterilized and lobotomized; fed diets of gold, mercury, salt and watermelon. One dependency was swapped for another — methamphetamine, cocaine and opium. There were home remedies, too. Magazines and catalogs were riddled with advertisements promising instant cures. An unhappy wife could secretly lace her sweetheart’s pork chops with White Star Secret Liquor Cure or The Boston Drug Cure for Drunkenness.

Fortunately, more nuanced approaches began creeping into to treatment practices (though chilling methods such as prefrontal lobotomy persisted until the 1950s). Addicts in the 1940s began learning how to live sober lives on farms and at retreats, which often employed the newly popularized 12-step program, Alcoholics Anonymous. Living among a community of peers was hailed as an increasingly important factor in recovery. By the 1960s, models of transitional, sober-living housing were blossoming.

Today the National Alliance for Recovery Residences (NARR), an advocacy organization, says there are thousands of recovery homes across the country. On YouTube you can watch celebrities scream at each other on the 2009 reality television show, “Celebrity Rehab Presents Sober House.” Tanned and earnest, Dr. Drew Pinsky counsels residents like Steven Adler of Guns N’ Roses, comedian Andy Dick and porn star Mary Carey. (Pinsky axed the show’s counterpart, “Celebrity Rehab with Dr. Drew,” after cast members fatally overdosed.)

"I know any time that door opens or closes, no matter how easy or how soft you close it," Chester says. Important house messages sometimes get written on the front door's wipe board, so there's no excuse for anyone to miss it, he adds.
“I know any time that door opens or closes, no matter how easy or how soft you close it,” Chester says. Important house messages sometimes get written on the front door’s wipe board, so there’s no excuse for anyone to miss it, he adds.

To understand recovery homes, know this first: basically anyone who owns a shack with four walls can run a recovery home. Unlike treatment centers such as rehab clinics and halfway houses, recovery homes are unregulated by the federal government. State and local laws vary; fire safety, licensing requirements and zoning codes are inconsistent. They can be called a multitude of names: sober houses, sober-living homes, recovery homes, recovery residences, three-quarter houses. (NARR uses “recovery residence” as a catchall term.) Owners can opt to follow NARR’s standards. Or they can opt not to.

At their core, recovery homes are supposed to offer safe and sober living spaces for recovering addicts. And there are many that do just that. Some are run democratically by the residents. Others have paid medical staff or are owned by nonprofit companies. Like Pam Jones’s houses on College Street, some are owned by recovering addicts.

Across the nation, recovery homes have embroiled surrounding communities with remarkable similarities: Neighbors want these places somewhere else, legislators attempt to tighten the laws, recovery homeowners push back. Grisly media reports detail horrors at these places. There have been stories of unscrupulous landlords charging inflated rent or cashing in on residents who qualify for public housing; investigations revealing unsafe spaces with bed bugs, mice, mold and electrical violations. In the past few years, there have been fatal overdoses at recovery homes in New York, New Jersey, Connecticut and Wisconsin. A woman was fatally beaten, her body found inside a Boston recovery home where her ex-boyfriend, charged with her murder, was living. Here in Pennsylvania, there have been overdose deaths and other serious safety concerns, including a 2012 fire that left the residents of one recovery house homeless. A bill aimed at regulating homes that receive state funding is currently stalled in the Pennsylvania legislature; a state task force, which convened for the first time in September, is poised to draft safety recommendations and a certification process.

Pressure for increased oversight is mirrored among legislatures nationwide, while legal skirmishes over local ordinances — aimed at limiting things such as the number of residents or homes in a region — chug along. Because recovering addicts are protected under the Fair Housing and Americans with Disabilities acts, zoning ordinances are often at odds with federal law. An ongoing battle in Newport Beach, California, has cost the municipality about $3.6 million in lawsuits, according to press accounts. Its 2008 zoning ordinance, which closed more than twenty recovery homes, was ruled discriminatory by the U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals. In April of this year, the municipality hired attorney Theodore B. Olson — known for Bush v. Gore and Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission — to petition the U.S. Supreme Court to review the ruling. The municipality will reportedly pay Olson $280,000.

When Chester moved in, everything he owned fit in two bags and a box. Today much of what he owns is secondhand, including cookware, which he keeps in a locked cabinet. "I have no problem sharing," he says. "Except when it comes to my pots and pans."
When Chester moved in, everything he owned fit in two bags and a box. Today much of what he owns is secondhand, including cookware, which he keeps in a locked cabinet. “I have no problem sharing,” he says. “Except when it comes to my pots and pans.”

“In general, we want people that are different in a ghetto,” says Leonard A. Jason, the director of DePaul University’s Center for Community Research. If you really want to give addicts a second chance, you have to give them opportunities to live anywhere, Jason says.

Jason, who has contributed to reports for NARR, is among a cadre of researchers studying these places. He began researching recovery homes in Illinois during the early 1990s. His interest pricked when he saw J. Paul Molloy on “60 Minutes” discussing Oxford Houses, a model that Molloy began in the 1970s. (Today there are more than one thousand Oxford Houses in the U.S.; a defining characteristic is that the residents themselves enforce and define the house rules.)

One of Jason’s reports notes, “Among those interviewees who knew of the existence of the self-run recovery home, the values of their houses had actually increased over a mean of three years.” Other studies found landlords reported fewer noise and pet complaints caused by Oxford House tenants than other renters. Neighbors reported gaining friendships and a heightened sense of security after getting to know the recovering addicts. More tenants living together, not fewer, showed prolonged sobriety and lower rates of crime.

These findings suggest there may be similarly positive outcomes at other recovery homes. But words like suggest and may be are important to keep in mind. Oxford Houses may share similarities, but there are many differences when it comes to the thousands of recovery homes operating across country.

“I’ve worked over twenty years and I’ve just scratched the surface of what we need to learn in this area,” says Jason, the tone of his voice even, measured and humble. “I think there is good evidence that many of these houses are good for people, but not all. There’s a lot of variety out there and that’s part of the issue — how do you find one that is good for your needs?”

* * *

On College Street, Pam Jones is the rent collector, rulemaker, mother, sister and confidante. Part ironclad uncontested matriarch, part Wendy Darling, she has hair the color of the crude that once sprang from the Canonsburg soil, and a voice like a coffee grinder. Around here everyone knows her idiosyncrasies well, parroting her phrases, “Hey babe” and “Is that a want or a need?” There have been weddings, baby showers and funerals here. It’s like she gains a foster child every time someone moves in, says a former resident. This community is what keeps her sober, too. Now clean for twenty-five years, it was here on College Street that she quit using drugs and alcohol. If it weren’t for these homes, she would be dead.

“This disease wants to kill us — period,” she says. “And it will and it does.”

In the young guys’ living room, sofas form an altar around the television. Pam pulls deeply on her electronic cigarette, legs dangling over the side of her armchair. It’s a Monday night, a few days after Valentine’s Day. Another weekly house meeting begins.

"I always say I would not expect anyone to live in my recovery houses if I wouldn't live there myself. You know, they’re not the Taj Mahal," Pam Jones says. "But it's a clean environment. It's a safe environment. And we're proud of it.”
“I always say I would not expect anyone to live in my recovery houses if I wouldn’t live there myself. You know, they’re not the Taj Mahal,” Pam Jones says. “But it’s a clean environment. It’s a safe environment. And we’re proud of it.”

One by one, Curtis, Brian, Kace, Glenn, A.J. and Derrick tell Pam what’s going on in their lives. (Last names have been omitted for privacy.) Pam asks questions. Did you follow-up on that job application? How’s your baby girl? Did you make that appointment yet? You gotta take care of those wisdom teeth.

During these house meetings, Pam is mining for details. Many of the men transitioned from a rehab facility to a halfway house before coming here. (That’s why recovery homes are sometimes called three-quarter houses, because you’re said to be three-quarters of the way home.) Anyone who contacts Pam can get their name added to the waitlist as long as they’re clean. She interviews everyone and doesn’t advertise or have a website. Residents are often referred by word-of-mouth from local treatment centers. Some have come through the judicial system after undergoing court-ordered drug treatment programs. Occasionally the courts mandate a stay in a recovery home setting, but that doesn’t mean she lets them in. Others are voluntarily in recovery. All are free to live here as long as they want, and free to go whenever they want, though Pam suggests they stay at least six months to a year. A lot of life happens in that time, she likes to say. Relapse isn’t an event, it’s a process. Break-ups, losing jobs, a death in the family. Even the stresses of living a normal life can trigger thoughts about using.

A half-hour in — after the logistics of how much toilet paper Pam needs to buy — it’s time for ‘negotiations.’ A.J. begins, arguing the case that women should be allowed to visit the house. Boyish features match his somewhat cheeky but polite demeanor, often addressing Pam with a “yes ma’am.”

"We love and respect each other as recovering addicts because we don't want anybody to go back to the life of active addiction," Pam says.
“We love and respect each other as recovering addicts because we don’t want anybody to go back to the life of active addiction,” Pam says.

“You know what I want, so why can’t we just work something out?” A.J. says, and the others laugh. “We’re grown men. I’m lonely, who’s all lonely?” A few hands go up. More laughing and jokes.

“These are just lessons for you in rejection, O.K.? The answer is no,” Pam says. “No, we can’t have them hang out. No, we can’t have them spend the night.”

The topic shifts. Now Derrick takes the lead. “What about fish?” he asks.

“We tried the fish thing and they died because everybody fed it and no one cleaned it,” Pam says.

“I’ll be the one to solely take care of the seventeen piranhas,” offers Derrick.

“No, we don’t want seventeen piranhas. What kind of fish?”

Tiny ones like electric carp, he says. There’s a fish tank in the house; it won’t be a mess.

“Alright. Fish,” Pam relents. “Let’s try fish.”

The others smell blood in the water.

“Can my dog come for a weekend?”

“What about, like, a turtle?”

“Nope, no turtles. I said a fish.”

“Well a turtle kind of is a fish.”

“It is not a fish. A turtle is a reptile, it is not a fish.”

“A tarantula is kind of like a fish.”

Most of the guys in this house are in their twenties, a dogpile of jokes, rapping and tattoos. They’re quick to compare their looks and skills and choices of television programs against the older men in the recovery home across the street.

As the meeting dissolves, they migrate to the kitchen where there’s cold pizza and ribs in the slow cooker. Pam returns to her armchair with a helping of meat.

“Pam wouldn’t survive without us,” someone says from the kitchen. She returns the volley. “You can talk about me like I’m not here, I don’t give a fuck.”

A.J., the leader of the weekly plea for allowing women at the house, also returns to the sofa. Now his tone has changed, as he drops his mask. A.J. is from Latrobe, a town about an hour away in Westmoreland County, which tallied more than ninety overdose fatalities in 2013.

“In Downtown Latrobe they opened one [recovery home] and people went to the city council and were like, ‘Look, we don’t want these drug addicts in our neighborhoods.’ They don’t understand,” he says.

Chores are often part of the deal to live in a recovery home. "We don't have to live like that anymore," a phrase that's often repeated around here, is written near the list of chores in the the hallway.
Chores are often part of the deal to live in a recovery home. “We don’t have to live like that anymore,” a phrase that’s often repeated around here, is written near the list of chores in the the hallway.

This place, he says, has been a godsend.

“I’ve been in active addiction for a long time. I’ve been to treatment numerous times, but I would leave treatment and I just go home back to the same environment, hanging around with the same people. This was a nice getaway, I guess you could say. I’m surrounded by people with sobriety and clean time. I guess I couldn’t ask for anything else.”

A.J. has a little boy who turned three in December. It’s hard not to see him every day, he says. “I figure this will pay off in the long run, getting my life together.”

Pam finishes her last bite of meat, though the night isn’t over yet. There’s still the house meeting across the street. Before leaving, she revisits the debate from earlier in the evening.

“This needs to be your sanctuary without women,” she says. “Like us girls say, the men will kiss your ass and the women will save it. And it’s the other way around for you guys. The guys are gonna save your ass. The women will kiss whatever.”

* * *

Pajama-clad men cycle in and out of the common room, their banter as constant as the television. It’s a typical afternoon at the old guys’ house. (No one is shirtless because Chester warned them to be fully dressed when a reporter is in the house.) Floorboards wheeze as they lumber up and down the stairs; some to do laundry, microwave food, take another cup of coffee. As of February, there are eight men in their thirties, forties and fifties; one is twenty-five. Cans of energy drinks are a choice item, despite the house rules explicitly banning their consumption. (A few years ago, Pam caught residents playing drinking games with the energy drinks, which landed the “friendly beverages,” as the young guys call them, on the banned list. Still, even rule-enforcing Chester drinks them, and Pam acknowledged that the energy drinks aren’t much different than her daily Starbucks.)

“Accountability” is a big word around here, and urine tests are administered at any time. “We don’t call it snitching. It’s for the welfare of everybody in the house,” Chester says.

Making your bed means reclaiming a sliver of your humanity, spirited away by drugs and alcohol. The linoleum on the kitchen floor, though yellowed, shines.

The house rules are detailed in a two-page document, flagged with underlined phrases and exclamation points. The men have to be employed or actively looking for work. They have to pay rent. They have to be involved in a recovery program, like twelve-step meetings. No alcohol-based mouthwash, no vitamins, no medications, no violence, no gambling.

Having rules help addicts become productive members of society, Pam says, because when you’re using you could care less about accountability. “When addicts have no consequences, we’re in trouble.”

Chester has been house manager since January 2012. He and Pam have sources around town who tip them off when guys are on the streets using drugs or alcohol. At home, he watches for the signs of relapse, like a guy on the couch during the times he should be at work. Leaving early, coming home late. Lies and cover-ups and hedging. Getting too close with the guys and becoming their friends can make his role as house manager more difficult, he says.

Because he’s lived here the longest, seniority has earned him the most coveted perk in the house: a private room. But he opts to share the bedroom at the top of the stairs with another guy, trading privacy for strategy.

“I know any time that door opens or closes, no matter how easy or how soft you close it,” Chester says.

“I can't afford to let myself slip. Because I know what I used to be. And I don't want to be that,” Chester says.
“I can’t afford to let myself slip. Because I know what I used to be. And I don’t want to be that,” Chester says.

Late in the afternoon, the coffee machine is still on. Chester switches it off, irked that he hadn’t spotted it earlier.

Jake comes into the kitchen. He’s been here a few months, his bushy beard earning him the nickname “Duck Dynasty” after the reality television show about a family of religious, bearded, duck-hunting entrepreneurs.

“Do you have quarters? A dollar in quarters?” Jake asks.

“You’re lucky. I just went and got five dollars the other day,” Chester says, scooping a pawful of quarters from his jeans.

“Alright, I’ll hit you back. Thanks buddy.”

“You’re welcome bro.”

The guys never have quarters for laundry, he says. Sometimes it’s the small stuff about running this place that gnaws at him.

When the fan is left on in the basement “man cave” — the only place in the house where the guys can smoke cigarettes — Chester switches it off. He repairs the door handle on the back porch when the guys push it open again and again. He regulates bottles of liquid soap that clutter the shower. Today there are sixteen bottles of body wash in the shower, many with only an inch of soap left. Only eight guys live here. “Put it this way: at least I know they’re clean,” Chester says, chuckling.

There are days when all he wants is quiet, without the bickering over the television remote or laundry. Maybe he’ll find a place of his own soon, he says. “I don’t want to be alone, I just want my own freedom. I guess that’s the only way I can put it. I want my own freedom. And the only person I got to worry about that day is me.”

* * *

Derrick is twenty-two and among one of the newer ones in the pack, having moved into the young guys’ house a few months ago. During a house meeting, he hands his phone to the others to show them his daughter, Ava Marie, posing in a frilly dress at her birthday party. It wasn’t a great day, he says to the group. Some of his family and friends were angry there wasn’t a keg and beers to celebrate Ava’s first birthday.

This is the second time he’s tried to leave behind his life of drugs and alcohol. He started using heroin as a teenager. In another photo, he’s holding newborn Ava. He looks like another man, his arms lean and gaunt, like pipe cleaners cradling a tiny pink bundle. He looks nothing like that today.

Derrick holds a photograph of his daughter, Ava Marie. At her first birthday party, some of his family and friends were angry there wasn’t a keg. It wasn't a great day, he says.
Derrick holds a photograph of his daughter, Ava Marie. At her first birthday party, some of his family and friends were angry there wasn’t a keg. It wasn’t a great day, he says.

He went into treatment for the first time when Ava’s mother was pregnant, he says one afternoon in March. “I was there for twenty-one days. Got out, didn’t go to any meetings, got high that day. I didn’t want to get clean.”

Once he started using again things got worse. His sister kicked him out for having heroin in her house; Ava had already been born by then. Eventually he moved in with his dad.

“He’s an alcoholic. He drinks a half-gallon of whiskey every day, religiously. We just didn’t get along. We fought each other all the time. I got to the point where I’d rather sleep in a tent in the woods than live with my dad. So that’s what I did for about a month,” he says. “I just had a lot of time to think. I realized what I was doing to myself, what I was doing to my family. I decided, that was it. I didn’t have to live that way anymore. Went back to [treatment], July 10, 2013. I’ve been clean since.”

Later that afternoon, I ask Derrick to fact-check my flowchart of the recovery process. Instead of correcting it, he creates his own using the same elements: detox → halfway house → recovery home → home. His flowchart is simple, chilling even, as each step has choices, detailed with forked lines. There’s a box labeled “jail,” a gravestone marked R.I.P, and tiny syringes as options along the flowchart.

Kace, his name inked on his neck — a decorative K flanked by an Ace card — is in his early twenties, and one of the senior members of the house, two years clean. He surveys Derrick’s drawing.

“In every spot, there’s an option of needle,” says Kace as the two laugh. They turn toward me, explaining it’s not really funny, but true.

“There is always that option,” Derrick says.

* * *

“That’s how we keep track of relapses,” Pam says. “Because they usually end up getting arrested. And then they show up in Mugshot Mania.”

Mugshot Mania is available for a buck and a quarter at gas stations and other locations around the region. It’s a full-color publication of the week’s arrests in the region. There’s a stack of them in the living room of the old guys’ house.

“It’s kind of like our Facebook,” says Jake, gregarious as usual, but only half joking.

Many of the guys living in Pam’s recovery homes are seen by outsiders only as addicts and criminals. And there’s some truth to that. Some have felonies or other offenses on their records: burglary, drunk driving, disorderly conduct. They’re the first to call themselves junkies and liars. To pay the rent, some wash dishes or work as laborers on construction sites. A few of the older guys are doing what they went to school for; one repairs heating and cooling units, another sells electronics. Not everyone has a car, and those who do run carpools when they can. Dark humor is infused with hugging. Going through recovery together, many expressed how these are some of the strongest — or even the first — friendships they’ve ever had. And despite their age differences, addiction is now an indelible part of their lives.

“I wouldn’t wish addiction on my worst enemy,” says Holly Martin, a psychologist and the chief operating officer at Greenbriar Treatment Center, which has facilities throughout western Pennsylvania. Martin’s work with addicts spans three decades, and she knows many of these men because they went through Greenbriar. People think the compulsion to use is a moral weakness, says Martin, but quitting is not as simple as deciding to stop using.

“That’s like saying ‘don’t breathe anymore,’” she says.

With a chemical addiction, your brain is sending signals to every cell in your body. You need the drug to survive. The cravings and urges are tangible. Stopping cold turkey from an addiction to alcohol or a prescription medication like Xanax can trigger very real physical responses: shakes, a spike in blood pressure, seizures, death. (Though there are arguments that the disease concept is a myth, the government-run National Institute on Drug Abuse classifies addiction as a brain disease.)

Living among others who know what they’ve been through is vital, she says. “Having that support network will be the difference between sobriety and relapse. Period.”

* * *

Spring arrives and Pennsylvania thaws.

“I even have a sunburn,” Chester says, chuckling.

There have been so many projects to do. Refinishing a table and chairs, cleaning gutters. He built a new workbench for the shed. His garden is ready for another season of tomatoes, peppers, cabbage, zucchinis and sweet potatoes.

No one has relapsed but a few guys are moving out, Chester says. It will be chaos for a while as new residents move in, but things will settle. As for finding a place of his own, he’s still undecided.

Drawing is a new part of Chester's life since he got sober. He often draws farm houses or log cabins surrounded by nothing but nature. "I don't know why," he says.
Drawing is a new part of Chester’s life since he got sober. He often draws farm houses or log cabins surrounded by nothing but nature. “I don’t know why,” he says.

Months earlier, I asked Chester if he monitors his own signs of relapse.

“I can’t afford to let myself slip. Because I know what I used to be. And I don’t want to be that,” Chester says, speaking slowly, earnestly.

“Some days this is what keeps me grounded: this place, being around people just like me. People that have struggles day in day out on a daily basis. But also having people that care about you — being who you are, knowing who you are — and not thinking they’re better than you.”

* * *

It’s a few days after Thanksgiving and Butch is mixing batter for brownies. Nothing fancy, they’re made from a box, but he takes great care pouring the syrupy goo into the pan. Baking is something he likes to do whenever he has a day off, he says.

“Stop back,” he says, sliding the tray into the oven. “You can have one.”

It’s been nearly a year since I first visited College Street. Butch is one of many new faces around here. The houses are no longer as evenly split between old and young guys. Some have moved on, finding their own apartments, while others have been kicked out for using.

Derrick will have been living here for one year come Christmas. His daughter Ava just got her ears pierced with tiny pearl earrings; he saw her over the Thanksgiving holiday. The food was alright (though he was worried about the undercooked turkey), but there was too much fighting between his siblings, he says. Derrick now has a teal early nineties Honda, and he and Randy, another guy in his twenties, share the role of house manager.

Chester is still managing the house across the street. March of 2015 will mark four years clean.

There have been ups and downs — the cops came over the summer because Randy was riding his dirt bike down College Street; Kace is still sober, rapping and said to be engaged; A.J. relapsed, but is back in recovery. But everything is overshadowed by what happened on Labor Day weekend.

* * *

Chester takes me back to that Saturday morning when, he says, something didn’t seem right from the start.

When Chester wakes up on that Saturday, the bathroom door is closed. The shower isn’t running. Maybe someone is using the toilet. Downstairs it’s quiet but still early, around quarter to seven. One of the early risers is drinking coffee and smoking a cigarette.

He goes back to his bedroom to get ready for the day, reaching for his shoes. There’s that feeling again. Something is off. From his window Chester sees a vehicle pull in front of the house. On weekends it’s typical for some of the guys to go to a restaurant with family members. Today he sees a woman get out of the car, which is unusual. Now the woman is at the door asking about her son because she’s been calling and he’s not answering his phone. Right at that moment his stomach flips. Something ain’t right. The mother follows him inside, up the stairs. Chester knocks on her son’s bedroom door, opens it, but he’s not inside. Turns to the bathroom door. Still closed. Knocks. Silence. Now the mother is yelling her son’s name and Chester grabs a metal hanger and unhooks the latch, and she sees what he sees and screams, calling her son’s name while Chester is trying to help her from seeing what she has already seen.

There’s nothing the paramedics will be able to do for the body slumped against the wall.

An empty syringe lies on the floor.

“It was brutal,” Pam says. Always the straight talker, she doesn’t mince words. There had been overdoses before but never a death, she says.

“It is the reality of recovery, addiction and recovery houses. Sad but true. And we hope it never happens, but it does,” she says. “I’ve been to a lot of funerals. I’ve lost a lot of people I love.”

Later that day, near dusk, the scarlet stripe on Chester’s NASCAR jacket almost glows in receding light. The embers of his cigarette flare. Smoking is unusual for him.

It hit him hard, Pam says.

* * *

On a late November afternoon Chester is raking long, spindly needles from under the pines. It’s an unusually warm day, and the soil is spongy as we walk to the shed to see his latest projects. Inside, we hear a fluttering sound, like a moth trapped in paper bag. Chester moves toward a window that is partially obscured with debris. He peers behind the debris, reaching with gloved hands and speaking in a hushed voice, “Come on, come on.” Seconds later a flash of brown, no bigger than a salt shaker, disappears into the winter sky.

Back in the house it’s quiet at the kitchen table because many of the guys are at work. A yellow cake cools on the stovetop. I ask Chester what he was thinking when he realized a bird was trapped in the shed.

“Death, lately, has been a big thing on my mind,” he says. “And I hate to see anything happen to anybody or anything.”

“I’m running all the scenarios through my head. What I should’ve done, what I could’ve done. And the bottom line comes out to, there’s nothing more I could’ve done. He made his choice. He chose to do what he did. No matter if he was living here or living somewhere else, he made the choice,” Chester says.

“And the look on that poor lady’s face, I mean, every time I think about it, that’s the first thing I see. It’s just hard to explain. And that scream. It was just, it’s something that’s going to bug me for a while. And for a week after that, I couldn’t sleep worth crap because it stirred up memories from my past and the shit I used to do.”

Abruptly Chester begins listing home repair projects: laying new linoleum, replacing the toilet and painting the walls. The tone of his voice shifts, becoming slightly more mechanical. This is Chester’s coping mechanism at work.

“He just turned, like three days before, twenty-four years old. His therapist was like, ‘He was never late, always on time, never missed a session, talking about going back to school.’ Even his [parole officer] the day before piss-tested him. The day before that, I piss-tested him. He was clean,” he says.

“It caught everybody off guard. I mean, me and him talked the most because of his schedule. Most of the guys very seldomly seen him. I hung around with him and talked with him more, because I seen him more. I kind of had a little bit of an attachment to him, and knowing him, because we talked a lot.”

I ask Chester how he thinks people will react when they hear about the death.

“Personally I think the public’s going to judge it the way they normally always do, and think that it’s nothing but a bunch of addicts and alcoholics,” he says. “I see the attitudes from these people and how they look upon us. No matter what they hear and what you say to them, they’re going to form their own opinion. You know it’s gonna be, ‘Well, what do you expect? That goes on all the time. That’s how they are. That’s who they are.’ Not knowing that this is the first time this has happened since this place has been running.”

“It’s not like it’s something that goes on every day. And to try to convince people of that? I got a better chance of hitting the lottery and winning a million dollars.”

“When it comes to certain things, people have already formed their opinions of how we are and who we are,” he says. “It sounds selfish in a way, but I just can’t grasp some people’s opinion of us. To me, I think they’re no good. Because you’re judging me. You’re no better than me. What’s hidden in your closet? What goes on at your house? What do you do behind your closed doors?”

Outside, the weather is shifting. The wind is blowing harder.

“When I seen that bird, I knew it needed help,” says Chester. “And I had to help it. I didn’t want to see nothing bad happen to it…I knew there was an opportunity to save it, and to help it.”

He reflects again on the young man who died in the bathroom, just above where we sit.

“It’s something I wished that I’d never, ever have to see again. But it’s something I’ll never forget. It’s hard to explain, I mean, the pain in that lady’s face. I see it every day.”

* * *

Part of this story was reported while Em DeMarco was an investigative reporting fellow with PublicSource, an in-depth news outlet that covers issues across Pennsylvania.

40 Years Ago, an Alabama Jury Proved White Supremacists Could Be Brought to Justice

The long-delayed trial of the KKK bomber meant white southerners like me—and my aunt, who was on the jury—could no longer ignore the evil around us.

Uncle Bobby sat on my grandmother’s couch with a hangdog look and a brown paper sack. I wasn’t used to seeing him this way. Tall, lanky, bearded, and gruff, Uncle Bobby dispensed orders and opinions. On Monday, November 14, 1977, he delivered tampons.

His wife, my Aunt Nell, was sequestered for a jury. A bailiff called with her request: clothes, her Bible, and a large bag of feminine hygiene products.

Searching through the Birmingham Public Library archives 40 years later, I find a photograph of Aunt Nell, Juror 149, leaving the courtroom of the biggest case in the city’s civil rights history. I note first that Uncle Bobby brought her white slacks. Next, in her right hand, I see a crumpled tissue. She’s crying.

Jury members leave the courtroom. Aunt Nell wears white slacks, and in her right hand is a crumpled tissue. (Photo courtesy the Birmingham Public Library Department of Archives and Manuscripts)

At 16, I thought only of myself. Nell was the cool aunt, the party aunt who packed a large green Impala full of giggling teenage girls each Friday night and drove to football games, past cute boys’ houses, or to rock concerts. How long was this sequester? Would we miss KISS?

My cousin Tracy, 14, and I pestered her dad with questions. Could we ride downtown with him? Could he drive by Penny Pet Food billboard, so we could watch the dog’s tongue loll and its tail wag?

Maybe we could get on television!

“No!”

Uncle Bobby dashed our hopes with a bark. He wasn’t taking girls to any courthouse where Dynamite Bob was on trial.

* * *

On the morning of September 15, 1963, Addie Mae Collins, Carole Robertson, and Cynthia Wesley, each 14, and Denise McNair, 11, were busily primping in the basement ladies’ room of Birmingham’s Sixteenth Street Baptist Church for a special Youth Day program when a dynamite blast tore out the church’s east side. The explosion’s force blew off their frilly Sunday dresses and sent concrete fragments flying through their skulls. Relatives identified them by their ash-covered patent-leather shoes.

A local Ku Klux Klan faction targeted the church for its visible presence in the civil rights movement. Protestors had gathered at Sixteenth Street multiple times earlier that year for mass meetings of the Birmingham Campaign to confront one of segregation’s most violently defended bastions. In April, Martin Luther King, Jr. penned “Letter from a Birmingham Jail” after his arrest in a downtown march. In May, a protest called the “Children’s Crusade” left from the church to face Jim Crow. Birmingham’s Commissioner of Public Safety, Theophilus Eugene “Bull” Connor ordered police to attack the young demonstrators with dogs and firemen to hit them with water cannons. Photographs and video footage shocked the world. Embarrassed civic leaders agreed to hire black workers and desegregate downtown stores and businesses.

But the chaos was not yet over. In early September, not long after the March on Washington and King’s “I Have Dream” speech, a few city schools admitted the first black students. A violent backlash ensued. White students at three high schools rioted. Local civil rights activists’ homes were firebombed. Governor George Wallace did nothing to help. Earlier that summer, he famously blocked the way of two black students trying to integrate the University of Alabama, making good on words from his inaugural address, “segregation now, segregation tomorrow, segregation forever.”

On Tuesday, September 10th, President John F. Kennedy bypassed Wallace, federalizing the Alabama National Guard and sending the troops to schools to keep order.

On Friday the 13th, the city remained awash in hot-rods flying Confederate flags on their radio antennas and hanging signs from their windows that said “Keep Birmingham Schools White.”

On Sunday the church exploded.

The blast resonated across the nation. The “four little girls,” as the victims were collectively known, inspired poetry, fiction, visual art, and music. Their deaths galvanized support for the movement, leading to passage of the 1964 Civil Rights Act and the 1965 Voting Rights Act.

Back in Birmingham, the FBI and local police chased each other’s tails around a slipshod investigation that went nowhere. Fourteen years passed before Robert “Dynamite Bob” Chambliss, the Sixteenth Street bombing’s ringleader, was brought to trial.

* * *

My grandmother, a recent widow and a newly employed nurse, brought her children to Birmingham in the late 1940s from Alabama’s Appalachian foothills. Granny was excited to find a place to live near her job at Hillman Hospital downtown, in the city’s first housing project for whites. Elyton Village sat on Center Street, ten blocks south of an emerging civil rights showdown.

In 1947, a federal judge ruled Birmingham’s 1926 race-based zoning laws unconstitutional. Middle class black families began purchasing bungalows from white owners along north Center Street. Then their bungalows blew up. Between 1947 and 1965, more than 50 racially motivated bomb attacks occurred.

Neither Aunt Nell nor my mother remembered the explosions that gave Birmingham its nickname, “Bombingham,” although many took place close to where they lived. Perhaps to shield her girls, my grandmother said the rumbling came from “danny-mite,” as she pronounced it, in local coal and iron ore mines.

Down the road from what later became known as “Dynamite Hill,” my mother fought her own battle. One morning, a neighbor girl called her “poor.” After school, Mom waited for her behind a bush. When the girl roller-skated past, Mom jumped out and pummeled her face into the concrete. Not long afterward, my grandmother got a better job and moved her daughters from Elyton Village to East Lake, a working class community five miles east of downtown. Even though Mom got a spanking for her violence, she told the story proudly.

“We fought our way out of nothing,” she said. “Don’t let anyone try to drag you down to their level.”

A group of African Americans view the bomb-damanged home of Arthur Shores, an NAACP attorney in Birmingham, September 5, 1963. Explosions became so frequent that Birmingham earned the nickname, “Bombingham.” (Photo by Trikosko, Marion S., courtesy the U.S. Library of Congress)

I had been a civil rights educator for two decades when Aunt Nell mentioned the little black girl my late mother beat up.

I heard this story all my life and missed the obvious.

“Of course the girl was black, baby.”

Aunt Nell, now in her 70s, is the kind of Southern lady that calls everybody “baby.” The kind that cooks supper for her Baptist church on Wednesdays, prepares the programs for Sunday service on Thursdays, and visits shut-ins on Saturdays. Still the cool aunt, but no longer the party aunt, Nell has silver hair, which complements her steel blue eyes. Her walker, named “Mr. Walker,” goes with her everywhere after Uncle Bobby’s passing.

Aunt Nell and Mr. Walker have been through all Twelve Steps. She does not shy away from honest answers.

“Baby, your momma wouldn’t have hurt a white girl so bad for calling her poor.”

Flashing into my mind: the scene from Spike Lee’s 1997 documentary “4 Little Girls,” where Maxine McNair shows the director the piece of concrete that was embedded in her daughter Denise’s head.

* * *

The news media focused on shoes. The Associated Press circulated a photograph of Maxine McNair’s father, F.L. Pippen, and another man running from the church carrying Denise’s shoe. Pippen had just pulled Denise’s body from the rubble.

Eugene Patterson, editor of the Atlanta Constitution, published a column the next day that used the image to create a sense of empathy – and shame – in his white readership. “A Flower for the Graves,” read later that night on the CBS Evening News with Walter Cronkite, argued that the responsibility for the bombing did not lie only with the act’s perpetrators but with all white Southerners who, as Patterson stated, “created a climate for child-killing.” He described a grieving mother holding a shoe that belonged to her dead child. “Every one of us in the white South holds that small shoe in his hand,” Patterson stated. “Let us see it straight and look at the blood on it. Let us compare it with the unworthy speeches of Southern public men who have traduced the Negro; match it with the spectacle of shrilling children whose parents and teachers turned them free to spit epithets at small huddles of Negro school children for a week before this Sunday in Birmingham; hold up the shoes and look beyond it to the state house in Montgomery where the official attitudes of Alabama have been spoken in heat and anger.”

Patterson urged his readers to do better, to “plant a flower of nobler resolve” on the girls’ graves. “We created the day,” he said. “We bear the judgment.”

* * *

The FBI and local police knew who bombed Sixteenth Street, but the investigation dragged on for years with no prosecution.

Bob Chambliss topped everyone’s suspect list. A craggy faced drinking and fighting man, Chambliss learned the explosives trade in Birmingham’s iron ore mines. In 1963, the 59-year-old Chambliss officially worked in Birmingham’s city garage. Unofficially, he worked for Bull Connor setting fuses on Dynamite Hill.

Robert E. Chambliss’s mugshot. (Photo courtesy the Birmingham Public Library Department of Archives and Manuscripts)

The FBI had been monitoring Chambliss and his KKK cronies through an informant, Gary Thomas Rowe. A black female eyewitness named Gertrude “Kirthus” Glenn reported seeing a 1957 Chevy (later traced to Chambliss’s friend Thomas Blanton, Jr.) near the church the night before the bombing, and a man matching the description of either Chambliss or another suspect, Bobby Frank Cherry, inside the car. But her testimony alone could not be the foundation for a trial against white men, especially considering that another potential eyewitness, the white police officer on duty that night was Floyd Garrett, Chambliss’s nephew. Chambliss and two other men, John Hall and Charles Cagle, were picked up for possessing and transporting dynamite. They paid a $100 fine and received a suspended sentence. No other arrests were made. In 1965, local authorities named Cherry, Blanton, and another man, Herman Cash, as primary suspects, with Chambliss as the ringleader. Yet in 1968, the FBI closed the case, and director J. Edgar Hoover sealed the files.

* * *

My grandmother told me that the Sunday of the church bombing, friends called her from the hospital where she worked, warning her not to come downtown. The dead and wounded had come there, and “they” – meaning black people – were rioting.

Granny said that she gathered me, a toddler, into her arms and headed to the hallway in the middle of her house, where we sheltered during tornadoes, singing hymns while waiting for the storms to pass.

Sixteenth Street Baptist’s minister, John Cross, tried to calm the unrest by reciting Psalms 23, the Lord’s Prayer, from a bullhorn in front of the church.

Two youths died in the day’s violence. A white police officer shot Johnny Robinson, 16, in the back. White teenagers shot Virgil Ware, 13, at random.

Younger activists such as Diane Nash and James Bevel grew so angry over the continuing miscarriage of justice that they challenged King’s stance on non-violence. After much soul-searching debate, a consensus emerged to fight for the right to vote and get men like Bull Connor out of office.

The strategy worked. The tangled emotions—the grief, the shame, the rage—that fueled Eugene Patterson to write “A Flower for the Graves” and thousands to converge on places like Mississippi in 1964 and Selma in 1965, manifested themselves in two pieces of civil rights legislation. Both put Dynamite Bob on a collision course with a Birmingham courtroom.

The 1965 Voting Rights Act changed who voted, which changed who served on juries, and who got elected to judge and prosecutor positions. A young white law student named Bill Baxley vowed in 1963 that he would one day do something about the church bombing. When he became the state’s Attorney General in 1970, he immediately started digging into the church bombing case.

The 1964 Civil Rights Act changed who had access to public space. The church bombing sent a message that black citizens had no rights to public facilities, no rights to stores, no rights to schools, no rights to the most sacred places. Voting shifted the city’s demographic from one that was majority white and dominated by Jim Crow violence to one that was primarily black and ready to tell a new movement story. That storytelling process would start with the 1977 Chambliss prosecution and reach its fruition in 2013 with a monument to the four girls on the fifty-year anniversary of their murder. “Four Spirits,” by locally born artist Elizabeth MacQueen, features bronze statues of each girl – one beckoning visitors, another releasing doves – and a bench for rest and reflection. The monument sits at the center of a large memorial complex that includes the church, the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute, a walking tour, and multiple works of public art in a park that used to be famous for police dogs and fire hoses. Such a space sends a very different message from that of 1963: that the story about the fight for justice, equality, and freedom will occupy a significant portion of the city’s newly defined civic identity.

* * *

The 1977 Chambliss case was shaky, but Baxley pushed ahead because the time was right. Old-guard civil rights warriors tired of justice too long delayed. New Birmingham looked forward to words like “closure” and “healing.”

The trial opened on November 14. The charge was the murder of Denise McNair. Baxley told me in an April 2013 interview, “you can murder someone without knowing them if you set a bomb intending to do harm.” The state made four separate murder indictments, one for each girl. The judge, Wallace Gibson, ruled that the trial would go forward on one indictment only, an odd decision that would prove decisive. The jury was made up of nine white and three black members. Aunt Nell was an unlikely choice. She went to high school with defending attorney Art Hanes, Jr., and Hanes’s secretary Suzy was my mother’s best friend. I asked him in a May 2013 interview about the selection. He said that because his father had been Birmingham’s mayor (from 1961 to 1963) it was hard to find jury members he didn’t know. I asked Baxley also. He did not remember Juror 149 specifically, but he had a definite trial strategy that Aunt Nell fit. She was a Christian, a homemaker, and a mom. Her daughter (my cousin Tracy) was in 1977 about the same age as Addie Mae, Cynthia, Carole, and Denise when they died.

The evidence against Chambliss: he purchased a case of dynamite; he knew how to construct the specific, and rare, kind of fishing-bobber and metal bucket detonator used at Sixteenth Street; he was seen near the church the night before. But more important than any of that was Chambliss himself. Aunt Nell said she based her decision to convict on “his arrogance, his hatred, and his niece.”

For Aunt Nell, the niece Elizabeth Hood Cobbs’ testimony was the trial’s turning point. In 1963, Elizabeth Hood was in her early twenties. By 1977, she was divorced, a mother of one, and a Methodist minister named Elizabeth Cobbs. She stated under oath that she came to Chambliss’s house during the school riots and found him noticeably agitated, cursing, and using racial epithets. “Just wait till after Sunday morning,” he told her. “They will beg us to let them segregate.”He had enough dynamite “to flatten half of Birmingham,” he claimed. Cobbs was at the house after the bombing, when news reports stated that murder charges might possibly be filed. “It wasn’t meant to hurt anybody,” Chambliss told the television. “It didn’t go off when it was supposed to.”

On November 17, 1977, Baxley made his closing argument. He noted that the day would have been Denise McNair’s 26th birthday, and by then she likely would have been a mother herself. He told the jury that it was their “duty” to convict.

At 4:10 pm they went into the jury room to begin deliberations. Five hours went by with no verdict. The judge allowed them to retire for the evening so they could get some sleep and start fresh the next morning. What happened during those five hours?

Aunt Nell told me that she had no doubt how she would vote.

“Baby, that man was guilty as sin,” she says. “You could see it in his face the minute he strolled into that courtroom like he owned it. You could see it in the way he stared at his niece.”

Not all jury members saw what Aunt Nell did. They spent their five hours reviewing the evidence piece by piece: witness testimony, intricate details about bomb building, Chambliss’s whereabouts in September 1963, morgue photos. Then they voted: 11-1. One white man remained unconvinced. The deliberations were exhausting and painful, Aunt Nell remembers, but not acrimonious. The man needed more time. The jury ate dinner: something from room service that Aunt Nell doesn’t remember. She does recall marking her Bible. Jeremiah chapter 29, verse 11: “For I know the thoughts I think toward you, saith the Lord, thoughts of peace, not of evil, to give you an expected end.” Aunt Nell slept well trusting that her Lord had a plan. The jury started up the next day a little after eight a.m. Two hours later they voted again.

On November 18, 1977, at 10:40 a.m. the jury returned a guilty verdict and set the sentence at life in prison. Chambliss served his time in a solitary cell.

The conviction established a new precedent for civil rights era crimes. Cold case prosecutions became increasingly common over the next few decades. In 1994, a Jackson, Mississippi jury convicted Byron de la Beckwith for the 1963 murder of Medgar Evers. In 2005, another Mississippi jury found Edgar Ray Killen guilty for the murder of three voting rights activists during 1964’s Freedom Summer. Such “atonement trials,” as historian Jack Davis calls them, were important to people in places like Birmingham, who wanted to leave a violent past behind.

Some people have a different take on redemption. Chambliss died in 1985, still saying his Klan brothers did it, not him.

Ten years after Chambliss’s death, the F.B.I. reopened their investigation files. With new evidence unavailable to Baxley in 1977, Doug Jones, then the U.S. Attorney for Alabama’s Northern District (and now a candidate in the special election for Jeff Session’s vacated Senate seat) successfully prosecuted the co-conspirators who remained alive, Thomas Blanton in 2000, and Bobby Frank Cherry in 2002. The other suspect, Herman Cash, died in 1994. After Cherry’s conviction, news headlines nationally spoke of “healing” and “closure.”

* * *

In “A Flower for the Graves,” Eugene Patterson claimed that the moral responsibility for the church bombing lay not with men like Chambliss who planted the dynamite at Sixteenth Street but with white Southerners who, by their overt actions or their silence, created fertile ground for violence. Both Art Hanes and my Aunt Nell taught me a lot about justice and accountability.

Hanes said that he lost the case in the defense. During the prosecution, Hanes was aggressive, objecting to anything related to the use of words such as “dynamite” or “bomb.” He even got the judge to cut those words out of the coroner’s report with a penknife. During the defense, as Hanes called up one motley character witness after another, his attitude shifted. He stopped pushing. He stopped objecting. He seemed resigned. I asked him what happened. He told me that he had planned to call only one witness: Chambliss himself. When it came time, Chambliss said, “I ain’t gettin’ up there.” Hanes said that was his epiphany.

One needs his backstory to understand. Art Hanes, Jr. was a Princeton educated partner in his father’s law firm. The firm defended the worst of the worst: Chambliss, the white men who killed Selma civil rights worker Viola Liuzzo, and, briefly, James Earl Ray for killing Martin Luther King, Jr. Hanes claimed that he came out of law school “idealistic.” He told me, “Jefferson says that, ‘You judge a society not by how it treats its privileged but how it treats its meanest wretch.’ I came out of law school saying, ‘I can represent the meanest wretch.’” But in that courtroom, he said that he changed his mind: “I was not going to spend the rest of my life bleeding on those counsel tables.” He still worked in murder trials, but when Medgar Evers’s murderer Byron de la Beckwith tried to hire him in 1994, Hanes said no. No more being “on the wrong side of history.”

I asked him if he thought Birmingham had redeemed itself from the wrong side of history. Not nearly enough, he said, despite the prosecutions and the memorials: “We can’t adjust to a new society until all of us who were raised in a segregated America are gone… To me, all those things are current events. You can’t put them behind you and think of them as past.”

* * *

Aunt Nell and I also talk a lot about the past and change. Sometimes we drive past the places she has lived since moving to Birmingham. In 2013, the county just south of Birmingham where much of the city’s white population took flight after integration, received word from the U.S. Supreme Court in its Shelby County v. Holder ruling. The court stated that federal election monitors were no longer necessary in places with a history of Jim Crow, even though voter discrimination might still persist. We could not help but notice the wealthy extravagance of the lavish malls and sprawling gated communities we saw in Shelby County’s northern suburbs compared to the fast food restaurants, pawnshops, and bail bondsmen in predominantly black East Lake and Elyton Village.

Who needs KKK dynamite when you can just turn your back?

Yet Birmingham’s civil rights memorial complex, just west of the city’s central business and shopping district, is lovely – all green space and public art. Aunt Nell and I visited near the church bombing’s 50th anniversary. I asked her what she was doing while the famous “dogs and fire hoses” incidents were taking place downtown. “I cared and I didn’t,” she said, “because it didn’t affect me. I was into my own life, doing my own things. I was a young mother. But when I sat on that jury, it really opened my eyes.”

We stood at the corner where “Four Spirits,” the memorial to Addie Mae, Cynthia, Carole, and Denise now stands, diagonally across from the church. Off to one side, the artist set a small pair of bronze shoes.

Maxine McNair kept the ash-covered patent leather shoe, along with the bloodstained piece of concrete that she showed to Spike Lee, in a box for decades after she lost eleven-year-old Denise.

My cousin Tracy and I survived our teens, went to plenty of rock concerts and football games, had children of our own, enjoying all the rights and privileges Birmingham daughters deserve.

Aunt Nell looked over at the church then out at Birmingham’s sleek skyline and sighed, “It makes you wonder how all that could go on and you just didn’t know. I guess you could call it ignorance.

“But it wasn’t.”

The Elizabeth MacQueen statue, “Four Spirits” statue at Kelly Ingram Park, across the street from the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church. (Photo by Ted Tucker, courtesy the Greater Birmingham Convention and Visitors Bureau)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

* * *

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

* * *

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

That Time I Tried Topless House Cleaning

After years getting paid to bare my breasts at more clubs than I can count, when my funds hit an all-time low I pioneered a cleaner brand of sex work.

Topless Housecleaning + Lapdance
Gentlemen, do you need a good, clean tease after a hard day’s work? I’ll clean your house and give you a (1) lapdance
$100/hr – have your own cleaning supplies – no blocked numbers.

When I arrive at the house of the first viable person to respond to my Craigslist ad, I knock on the door and take a step back. He opens it right away. Jim or John, suddenly I can’t remember. He’s young to have such a nice mini-mansion with a swimming pool and younger than I normally like to deal with. I like his work jeans and dirty white t-shirt, though. They feel kind of homey.

I step in, a little flirty, but all-business to begin with. I get him to show me the whole house, which serves the double purpose of planning ahead for cleaning and making sure there’s no one else hiding, ready to pop out for a gang rape later. Just when the tour is complete my phone rings. It’s my security detail — Possum, the hillbilly witchdoctor I’ve befriended, following instructions to wait for me to clear the house and call to be sure everything’s okay.

“Hey,” I say. “It’s all good in here. Call me in like an hour.”

Ayep,” Possum replies in his drawl.

I turn to JimJohn and start to pull my shirt off, then stop. “Business before pleasure, babe,” I say, making the little money sign with my fingers.

“Oh, of course.” He pulls a hundred out of his pocket and presses it into my hand. I shove it down one of my stockings as I take my pants off, because I have always believed that the safest place for my money is right against my skin.

* * *

I’d had eighty dollars left to my name when I drove into Greenville, South Carolina. Half a tank of gas and two blueberry smoothies later, it dwindled to sixteen dollars folded together in the bottom of my pocket. For some people, this might have been a problem, but not for me. I have the magical ability to walk into a strip club just about anywhere there is one and make a few hundred bucks just because I’m willing to get naked and smile at people.

Sex work is my trust fund. When I’ve been broke down on the side of the road with no money, when I’ve been a homeless teenager, when I’ve wanted to buy a house, a car, an education — sex work has always been there for me. I’ve done almost all the sex work: everything from street hustling to dancing in bejeweled gowns to foot fetish parties and erotic hypnosis. Whenever I discover a new form of sex work — the weirder or more interesting the better — I try to experience it.

I’m staying, with my dog, Spot, in my van down by the river next to Possum, who lives in a van that’s much bigger and nicer than mine. Possum drew me a map showing how to get to the two strip clubs he knows of: a big one, and a little one. Big strip clubs sometimes have things like rules and schedules and lots of competition and high house fees, which I don’t like. I decided to try the small one first.

The small one turned out to be a brothel with very little business, where I met some very beautiful, very southern women, including a 300-pound dancer named Hamhock who I wish I could introduce to every teenager worrying about their weight ever.

I was too fat for the big one, or the door guy was having a bad day.

I started to feel a little panic. That’s when the idea of topless housecleaning came to me — purely formed, rising sweetly out of my desperation — so I put up a Craigslist ad and here I am at Jim or John or whatever his name is’ house.

* * *

I do the kitchen first, like my friend Tania who actually grew up in a mansion and knows how to clean explained to me last night on the phone. I keep up a steady stream of flirting while I put his dishes in the dishwasher and move everything on the counter to one end so I can clean it. While I’m stacking his mail neatly I check out his name. Jim. The counter is dirty, covered in stains and puddles of dried-up food and glue and who knows what else. Scrubbing while bending over a counter in six-inch heels, back arched so that your ass sticks up pretty, is hard work. Especially while flirting the whole time with a man you hope is staring at your ass and not your sweaty face.

He asks about me, how I came to be a topless housecleaner. I don’t tell him that he’s my first, or that I’m broke, or that I live in a van. If you watch television you know what happens to broke homeless women: They give $20 blow jobs, not $100 counter scrubbings. Instead I make up a prissy story about finishing my Master’s degree and taking a year to drive around the country in an R.V. dancing. Of course I tried dancing here, I explain, but the clubs are just so dirty, and I’m way too classy to expose myself to such an environment. The crazy thing I’ve discovered is that the snobbier you seem, the more they will pay you.

Jim is amazingly empathetic about the nastiness of the local clubs. A classy woman like me obviously doesn’t belong in places like those. He follows me from kitchen to bathroom to bedroom to living room, staring while I wipe, mop, scrub and vacuum, all while trying to look like I’m not sweaty from doing this work in humid 90-degree weather. His story is interesting. All his time goes to his race-car business, which is like a dream, but lots of hard work. He bought this house two years ago, but hasn’t had the time or taste to furnish it yet, though he does find the time to indulge in the tradition of illicit hooch brewing down in the basement. Steely grey eyes and his young tough look contrast with his docile nature as he tamely follows me around his house. I’m beginning to think all men in the South must be gentlemen.

When I’m done cleaning I settle him on his couch, set my iPod to Depeche Mode, and tell him that he gets one free lap dance with his housecleaning and after that they are twenty dollars, just like in the club. He opens his wallet and peels off another hundred, right away, and tells me to just dance until that runs out.

“No touching,” I remind him as the song starts and I move in front of him. Soon I’m crawling all over him, undulating, brushing my ass across his hard penis through his jeans. He is begging me to let him touch me, and I’m reminding him that I’m not that kind of girl, although I make sure to sound a little confused.

“Come on,” he says, getting his wallet out. “What about for another hundred?”

I pretend to think hard, then: “Okay.” I take his hands and guide them over my body. “You can touch here — my ass, my thighs, my stomach, but no titties or pussy.”

“Two hundred?” he pulls two crisp $100 bills out of his wallet.

It’s not really a question for me. I’ve given this much contact for thirty dollars a song. I pretend to think long and hard, though. If I let on that I have no principles, I can’t pretend to sell them.

“Okay,” I finally say, pushing the bills down my stockings, “but keep your hands off the kitty! That is not for sale!”

He has gentle, well-practiced hands that he swirls around my nipples and brushes softly over my ass. I arch my back and gasp in pretend ecstasy. Soon he wants more again — a hand job, a hundred dollars.

I insist that I’m not that kind of dancer while I consider this through to its logical conclusion. A couple hundred more for a hand job, a couple hundred more for a blow job, a lot more for sex. It could be a grand, easily. But do I want to have sex with this guy? The thing is, I’m a lesbian. The other thing is, sometimes I think I could be bisexual, and every year or two I have a man sex experiment. I can get into men, and right now on this guy’s lap, I’m turned on.

My phone rings again. It’s Possum. “It’s been an hour,” he says, “are you okay in there?”

“Yeah,” I giggle, “I’m having a great time. I’ll be just another fifteen minutes or so.”

Awright.” He hangs up.

“Will you touch it?” Jim asks.

Do I look like that kind of girl? I’m a very classy stripper, I remind him.

“Oh, of course, of course. I’m sorry,” he says. “I hope you’re not offended.”

“No…” I cock my head. “Actually… I’ve always kind of wondered what it would be like to do something like that for money.”

“Well, here’s your chance to find out.”

“Hmm…I dunno. I couldn’t. Well…how much?”

“A hundred?”

“Oh, no. I couldn’t.”

“Two hundred?” He’s got his wallet out, two crisp hundreds in his hand.

“Okay.” I grab them and shove them into my stocking. In my mind I’m counting and calculating miles. This makes 600, or is it 800? That’s, like, 5,000 miles of gas money! Or 2,000 miles and a month or two of groceries and stuff while I explore desert canyons and sky islands. What more could a girl need?

I slide down between his legs and he unzips his jeans eagerly. It is small, with a nice curve and for a second I love it and want to fuck him. Smiling, I bring my face close, admiring it like I’m about to lick it. He gasps and wiggles a little, and I take his cock in my hand. It’s already throbbing, and I just run my hand up it lightly, swirl some of the pre-cum back down it, run my fingers over the whole thing. He moans and half thrusts his hips. I love this. When I finally grab his cock, two-handed, and give it a couple strong, twisting strokes, he explodes right away. Perfect.

“Oh my god,” he says.

I giggle. “No, goddess.”

“Oh my goddess.” He smiles.

“Stay right there, I’m going to get you a washcloth.” I run to the bathroom.

While he cleans up, I pull my jeans and tank top back on over my fishnets and thong. I’m ecstatic and high from the rush of going from six dollars to 800 dollars in an hour with my hustling skills, but I know I won’t have really pulled it off until I’m in the van, driving away. I make myself look totally calm while I throw my iPod and cleaning stuff in the bag I came with, give him a goodbye hug, and tell him he should really call me again to clean the rest of the house.

I don’t start laughing until I’m in the van and Possum is driving us away. Then I fold over in my seat, laughing and clapping my hands with excitement.

“Possum,” I exclaim, “I love having a vagina!

Leaning back, I push my hips up to pull my jeans down and start fishing the hundreds out of my fishnets.

Possum looks over at me with my legs up on the bed, pulling eight $100 bills out of my thigh highs. “Holy shit,” he says, “I do believe I wish I had a vagina too.”

Checking “topless housecleaning” off my to-try list of sex-work gigs makes me enough money to get back on the road. The next day Spot and I get in the van and drive across the country until I find a beautiful desert-sky island in northern Arizona. I stay for a couple weeks, playing in a creek and tracking coyote, before I get low on money again and start over.

* * *

Tara Burns is the author of the Whore Diaries series. She lives in a little cabin in a big boreal forest and she is working on a memoir. Follow her @THEecowhore

The Day My Therapist Dared Me to Have Sex With Her

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

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

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

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

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

“Oh, yeah,” I say. “That.”

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

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

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

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

I shrugged my shoulders, only half looking up.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Nailed it.

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

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

* * *

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Why not?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

There were two ways to find out:

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

2) Keep going to therapy.

* * *

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

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

“I don’t know.”

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

Here we go again.

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

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

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

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

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

“What?” I respond, flustered.

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

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

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

“Of course not.”

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

“I wouldn’t do that.”

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

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

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

* * *

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Isn’t therapy supposed to ameliorate my anxiety?

* * *

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Exactly.”

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

* * *

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Lori’s great at forcing me to reflect.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

* * *

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

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

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

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

* * *

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

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

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

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

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

* * *

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

See the complete list of Editors’ Picks here. 

* *

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

* * *

“What’s your favorite porn scene?”

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

The possibilities run through my head.

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

They’re also lies.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Are you sure?”

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

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

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

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

“Go on.”

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

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

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

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

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

And so I tell him.

* * *

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

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

And then realizing that person is me.

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

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

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

I was out of control.

* * *

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

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

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

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

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

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

* * *

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

That’s why I need to tell my husband.

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

* * *

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

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