The Futures of Farming

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From the towers of Wall Street to the dairy farms of New Jersey, a guided tour of the financialization of food.

Just off of Country Road 518 in Hopewell, New Jersey, sits Double Brook Farm. It’s run by a self-exiled New Yorker but it’s not one of those now-standard upstart farms, with roving bands of earnest college kids tending rocket and a hearty couple of ex-Brooklynites overseeing the whole grass-fed operation. Double Brook’s turn-of-the-century barn, its grazing cattle, and its hundreds of Rhode Island Reds clucking and strutting about all belong to Jon McConaughy, a 46-year-old with an all-American face, a football player’s build, and a beautiful wife. Last year, McConaughy exchanged a two-decade-long career as a commodities trader on Wall Street for these two hundred acres.

Double Brook, a small farm specializing in grass-fed meat, free-range poultry and sun-dried vegetables, symbolizes one of the most unexpected turns the American economy has taken in recent years.  For decades, banks have shied away from granting loans to farmers because, like restaurants, they are considered risky investments. But the tides might be turning as the price of nearly every commodity on the face of the earth is on the rise.

Jon McConaughy and wife Robin
Jon McConaughy and wife Robin

“Farming is the new ‘good investment,’” says McConaughy, who grew up in the dairy country of rural New Jersey, only five miles from Double Brook. “I always knew I was going to return to the farm. But I am not the only banker-turned-farmer—it’s a trend.”

Last month I met Dean Carlson, another member of the growing sect of Wall Streeters gone AWOL, at a TEDx talk in Phoenixville, Penn. Carlson’s seventeen-minute presentation was one of the most powerful I have ever witnessed. In it, he explained the Rule of Seventy, a method commonly used in finance to estimate the time it will take for an investment to double. Divide seventy by the projected annual growth rate and you get the number of years it will take for the growing thing to be twice as big. An economy with a ten percent growth rate, for instance, will double in seven years’ time. As with any exponential function, the base variable (the economy in this case,) must grow bigger and bigger at an ever-increasing rate. Two hundred years down the line, if that same economy keeps growing at ten percent per year, it will be five hundred times as big as it is today, and two hundred and seven years down the line it will be a thousand times its original size. When Carlson applied the Rule of Seventy to food production he became scared, if not paralyzed, with fear.

Like McConaughy, Carlson traded his three-piece suit for some dungarees and a whole bunch of cattle. He purchased Weybrook Farm, which rests in the verdant swath of land just northwest of Philadelphia known as Chester County, in 2009.

Carlson’s Weybrook Farm (Photo courtesy Dean Carlson)
Carlson’s Weybrook Farm (Photo courtesy Dean Carlson)

Carlson has a quiet way about him, a lip that turns slightly up at the corner, and a slow drawl that makes you think he has spent his entire life tending farm animals. When I asked Carlson, who is in his mid-forties, why he chose to invest in livestock and years of hard labor, his reasons were straightforward enough. “Exponential growth, the idea of having to consume more to keep our economy afloat, always bugged me,” he told me. “It can’t hold. I figured it out over time. Then I watched the 2009 bailout happen and saw the depth to which we would defend that very idea. Right around then I was reading The Omnivore’s Dilemma. I saw that food costs are going to go up, and how do you protect yourself against that? After twenty years on Wall Street I knew this much: an individual can’t get involved in the financial side of things because the game is rigged in favor of the banks. The only thing I came up with was to get involved in farming itself. ”

*   *   *

You may have heard it before: Food is the next bubble. Between 2002 and 2008, the price of wheat nearly quadrupled, rising from three to eleven dollars a bushel.  According to the senior economist for the U.N.’s Food and Agricultural Organization, the cost of food has increased, on average, fifty to sixty percent a year in recent years, forcing many in poor countries to spend half their take-home pay to put food on the table. With food prices doubling every two years in some places, a bag of rice that costs a dollar today will cost five and a half dollars in four years and $41 in 2022.

But what does this Food Bubble look like? In Egypt, food riots turned into the toppling of Murbarak in 2011, and in Bangladesh three years earlier, tens of thousands of textile workers demanded higher salaries to meet the skyrocketing cost of food. Here, however, in our own backyards, grain subsidies shield American consumers from feeling the crushing price of wheat. But the relative safe remove from which we view this crisis will not last forever.

Four years ago, Dr. Frederick Kaufman, a specialist in food systems and Americans’ historic habits of culinary consumption, asked a daunting question for any writer: “What’s next?” Kaufman, a longtime resident of Manhattan’s financial district, had spent decades writing about eating. He was ready for something new. The answer, according to Kaufman, was obvious. He would have to write about hunger, the ugly flipside of food.

“I was having a lunch meeting with my editor. When we decided on doing a story about hunger, silence descended on us. To be honest, we were afraid. We didn’t really want to go there,” Kaufman says, recalling that 2008 meeting with his editor at Harper’s Magazine.  “But it did have that newsiness that a good story needs. There were more people hungry on planet Earth than ever before in 2008, despite it being a bumper year for crops.” Kaufman scuffs his shoes along the granite slab sidewalk, tugging at the zipper of his fall leather coat. His flinty blue eyes catch mine, and he stops speaking, waiting for my note-taking to catch up with his rapid speech.

It is October and Kaufman and I are sitting outside the Federal Reserve in Lower Manhattan. A Hollywood Jew of the intellectual sort (his father was a screenwriter twice nominated for Academy Awards,) Kaufman has spent half of his career writing for Harper’s. He went on to write that article about hunger, and subsequently published a book, “BET THE FARM: How Food Stopped Being Food,” in 2012.

Kaufman, whose general enthusiasm is tempered by a sharp and yet non-aggrandizing intellect, and I are chatting in front  of a set of black wooden doors, the likes of which I haven’t seen since strolling down the Rue de Lille in Paris. At least forty feet high, they look like it would take a battering ram to make them budge. The grates covering the Fed’s windows are strangely thick—as though the iron has been placed in a microwave and puffed up like a marshmallow. The walls of the Federal Reserve are fashioned from stacked blocks of sandstone and limestone, mixed by York & Sawyer, famous across New England for their Florentine-inspired bank designs. Each stone block is roughly three by five feet. Underground, beneath this behemoth of a building, sits a vault that holds more than $194 billion in gold bricks.

The Federal Reserve (Photo by Elizabeth Rush)
The Federal Reserve (Photo by Elizabeth Rush)

“I brought you here for a reason,” Kaufman tells me. “This is 33 Liberty Street, where both money and debt are manufactured.” In 2009, the Federal Reserve printed an unprecedented one-and-a-quarter-trillion dollars of new money in a single day, he says. “Out of the bowels of the Fed, more bills magically appeared and they used it to purchase debt–home mortgages, business loans, school loans.” The Fed purchased about one-fifth of our county’s mortgage-backed securities. “That’s what Occupy Wall Street doesn’t quite understand,” Kaufman adds. “You can’t just get rid of debt, of student loans and the like, because money enters the market as debt. That’s what it is, at the core.”

From this moment forth, every step of my Kaufman-led tour of the increasingly securitized financial district is monitored. Five security guards walk past us while we sit, staring at the double doomsday doors. One cop car cruises by, slow and deliberate. Just across Liberty Street from the Federal Reserve is the corporate headquarters of JP Morgan Chase, recently splashed across headlines when Occupy Wall Streeters dumped five-gallon-buckets of human excrement over the bank’s public plaza. The culprits were caught, thanks to surveillance cameras, and in retaliation JP Morgan Chase closed the public plaza at the base of its sixty-story high headquarters.

Kaufman chose to meet me here, on Liberty Street, where the Federal Reserve and one of the biggest banks in the world meet, because he’d come to understand the significance of the interplay between these two entities. Such a relationship, he argues, explains why folks like McConaughy the farmer have given up the Wall Street game, and why people from Dhaka to Cairo are rioting for food.

*   *   *

Kaufman began his investigation into hunger with what he thought was a relatively easy question: Where does the price of food come from? His foodie friends had no idea. They were interested in slow food, and the traditional curing methods of Tibetan yak farmers. And Kaufman’s banker buddies didn’t want to go there because, he says, they were afraid of “holding the bag for 900 million starving people.” So Kaufman called Daryll E. Ray, director of the Agricultural Policy Analysis Center at the University of Tennessee, who advised him to investigate Commodity Index Funds.

Frederick Kaufman (Photo by Elizabeth Rush)
Frederick Kaufman (Photo by Elizabeth Rush)

Over the past twenty years, Wall Street has become increasingly invested in America’s food production. It started with the invention of the Commodity Index Fund (CIF) by Goldman Sachs in 1991, which allows bankers to buy and sell shares of wheat, soy, cottonseed, and corn oil futures (among countless others) as if they were Apple stock. Most of the big banks involved in the real estate bubble—JP Morgan Chase, Barclays, Morgan Stanley—have their own unique CIFs, which have provided them with billions of dollars in relatively risk-free investments that they hedge and move around to turn a profit.

“Commodities are a futures market,” Kaufman explained, noting that it took him “almost a year to figure out how futures work.” He broke it down for me into the four most basic components:

– “One, we have a need every day for products that only come out of the earth once, maybe twice a year. It’s feast or famine and the cost of these goods once was dependent upon where we are in the growing cycle.

– Two, civilization—philosophers, doctors, teachers, and all of us city-dwellers—we need easy access to food year-round.

– So we arrive at the third truth, which leads to a futures market—the need for price stabilization for all of us, farmers and city dwellers alike, to survive. If wheat costs one dollar a bushel in autumn and one hundred dollars a bushel in winter, no one is happy.”

Kaufman went on to describe the actual invention of a futures contract, which he compared to a promissory note that guarantees the future purchase of a select commodity at a set price, often a tiny bit lower than the current going rate.

“Everyone knows the risks involved,” he told me. “And everyone is buying and selling and trading, and traditionally the market itself is kosher, because everyone involved is playing by the rules. The purchases and the sales equal each other out, thus stabilizing the price.”

But over the past two decades, commodities markets have undergone a veritable sea-change. As with almost everything Goldman Sachs touches, their CIF was an overnight sensation, leading other banks to concoct their own unique CIF elixirs, each placing a slightly different weight on their chosen commodities. Thomson Reuters, for example, invests five percent of its fund in coffee, six percent in corn, six percent in live cattle, six percent in natural gas, one percent in orange juice, five percent in sugar, and so on.  Each fund’s dispersal of investments is unique. While commodities markets have traditionally had space for speculators who provide liquidity on which farmers rely to keep their businesses afloat, CIFs siphoned more money into commodities than ever before. By 2007, the CIF phenomenon was snowballing—some might say out of control.

*   *   *

Pick up the business section of the newspaper and you are bound to see a headline linking farmlands and Wall Street. The exponential association between the two began in 2007, when food prices skyrocketed. Jeremy Grantham, founder and chief strategist of the famed asset-management firm GMO and a “bubble” prediction specialist, titles his latest quarterly letter (followed by many with cult-like devotion) Welcome to Dystopia!  Entering a long-term and politically dangerous food crisis. In it, he paints a rather grim picture of rising commodity costs thanks to water shortages, erosion, climate change, depleted fertilizer stocks, and a slowing rate of grain productivity, which results in a state where “rising food prices will make food too expensive for hundred of millions.” Grantham’s solution: “For any reasonable investment group with a ten-year horizon or longer, one should move steadily to adopt a major holding of resource related investments…forestry, farms…and stuff in the ground.” In other words: The cost of food—i.e. “stuff in the ground”—is certain to rise; buy your stock now.

While many, even my favorite recipe writer Mark Bittman, laud Grantham’s insights into agricultural catastrophe and the work he does with his foundation— which pumps a meager ten million dollars (about 1/10,000th of the money he manages for GMO) into organic agricultural research every year—most fail to understand what a massive investment in “stuff in the ground” would do to those who can barely afford that stuff at its current going rate. “This commodities thing may turn out to be the most interesting call of my career,” Grantham recently told The New York Times.. While Grantham is right that commodities are a hot ticket item on Wall Street in a strange and completely unprecedented way, he refuses to acknowledge that treating “stuff in the ground” as stock is already a contributing factor to the ever-growing hunger epidemic he so aptly describes. No matter how shortsighted big banks may be about the relationship between their investment in commodities and the effects it might have on consumers, who are already spreading half of their annual income on food, one thing is for certain: Divorcing real food stuffs from the imaginary food-based futures trading is impossible. And betting the farm has historically been about as dumb as tossing the baby out with the bath water.

About a week after my Wall Street walking tour with Kaufman, McConaughy—the commodities trader turned farmer—explained to me that the common wisdom from financial advisors—to invest five to ten percent of a portfolio in agricultural commodities—will lead to a classic case of demand exceeding supply. While he was initially skeptical of blaming Wall Street, he eventually conceded, “I think you certainly can make the argument that if you get more people investing in commodities the price will go up.”

*   *   *

“My daughter recently had me into her tenth grade class to give a talk about the cost of food,” Kaufman says as we walk past the building where George Washington was inaugurated, past Brown Brothers Harriman, one of the oldest and largest investment banks in America, and past Zuccotti Park, home of the Occupy Wall Street movement. “I sat in front of the class and took a slow bite out of a chocolate glazed donut. It was 8:30 in the morning and the students were slack-jawed.”

Out of his bag Kaufman pulled a second, perfectly glazed donut. He asked a simple question. “What is the most someone will give me for this?” One kid offered five dollars, another offered ten. Everyone wanted the sole remaining donut in the room. Finally, Kaufman handed the pastry to the student who handed him a hundred dollar bill. (Only in New York City; the kid, it turned out, was the son of an Internet pioneer.) Then, Kaufman brought out an entire box of donuts from behind the desk. Suddenly the hot ticket item of the morning was free. Everyone got one, and no one wanted them quite as much.

On one hand, Kaufman was explaining supply and demand; on the other he was arguing for price transparency in commodities markets. When something is vital to human survival, the mechanisms that decide its price ought not only to be knowable to everyone but should also be organized in such a way that they serve the interests of the world’s population. Estimates show that there are now twelve times as many future investments in wheat than there is actual wheat in the ground. The cost of the commodity is rising and no one can tell why at first glance, but buying more wheat futures suddenly seems like a good idea, so its price rises more.

“The wheat market is relatively small,” explains McConaughy, of Double Brook Farm. “And it’s fragile—the people hedging are supposed to be farmers.” Traditionally, it took someone with deep knowledge of a particular commodity to successfully hedge in a commodities market—someone who, for example, could chew on a grain of wheat and decipher the quality of the product. But CIFs gave bankers a relatively safe way in, according to Kaufman. Banks only had to put a five-percent good faith deposit on any commodity they wanted to purchase, storing the remaining ninety-five percent in more familiar financial nooks and crannies. Over the past decade or so, banks have entered the food market full force, well beyond traditional buying and selling of physical, agricultural commodities over the past hundred years. And because of the small amounts of money they were required to actually invest in the commodity, even if it lost ground, the banks capitalized on the perpetual transaction fees that were associated with rolling their investment over. The recent overturn of the Dodd-Frank resolution to place position limits—that is, limits on how many wheat stocks, for example, a commodities trader is allowed to hold—huge banks are now able to buy up millions of contracts for future wheat production. When one bank does it, the rest often follow, and the price of food itself rises. Without position limits, the future looks bleak for those who need the cost of food to remain relatively stable, including you and me, and McConaughy and Kaufman, and more immediately those who are already spending half their take-home pay on food.

Jon McConaughy, of Double Brook Farm (Photo courtesy Jon McConaughy)
Jon McConaughy, of Double Brook Farm (Photo courtesy Jon McConaughy)

“The problem is not going away,” Kaufman says as we walk through the vaulted arcade along the Barclay-Vesey Building—now home to the headquarters to Verizon Communications—so named because it sits between Barclay and Vesey Streets, the later home. Built in 1927, the Rafael Guastavino tile-covered walkway is a rarity in New York, and the building is widely considered the first Art Deco skyscraper. Barclay Street is named not after the banking institution, but after Reverend Henry Barclay, one of New York’s early settlers from the preeminent Barclay clan, among the first of New York’s ruling class. The other Barclays, the modern-day bank, has one of the largest CIFs of all, pulling in over three billion dollars in profits in a single year. Recently, a stream of headlines ran in international newspapers linking Barclays to the rising cost of wheat. “Barclays makes £500m betting on food crisis” read the UK’s Independent in September of this year.

*   *   *

Along the Hudson River, just a quarter-mile west of One World Trade Center and the Barclay-Vesey Building, and a stone’s throw from Goldman Sachs, sits the Irish Hunger Memorial. The raised plateau of grass holds a traditional Irish cottage, and rocks transplanted from the Emerald Isle, honoring the million people who died of starvation there between 1845 and 1852. When we get to the water and the memorial, Kaufman stops. The day is bright and sunny and the wind whips up whitecaps on the Hudson.

“During the famine there was an incredible amount of food in Ireland but the food was shipped to London because people in London could pay for it. And the people in Ireland could not,” Kaufman explains. He tells me that the memorial always reminds him of Amartya Sen, the 1998 winner of the Nobel Prize in economics, “who brought me to my first real watershed idea in my investigation of hunger: People don’t go hungry because there isn’t enough food; they go hungry because they can’t afford to eat.”

While the Irish Famine might seem far off, hundreds of millions of pounds of grain go uneaten in American grain silos because they are impossible to sell at their record high prices. In 2007, right when the price of commodities shot through the roof, a flip occurred. Thanks to a complicated set of circumstances ranging from drought to a sharp spike in the cost of crude oil, and, perhaps most presciently, to the fact that more and more speculators began investing in commodities themselves. Where America once had a grain deficit, we suddenly had a surplus, according to Doane, a nearly century-old firm specializing in agricultural analysis. Food prices shot up, thousands of tons of U.S. grain went un-purchased and uneaten, and food-related riots broke out in more than thirty different countries. What had happened? Were people actually being priced out of the ability to eat?

An estimated one in seven people on the planet are at risk of starving to death, and that number is on the rise. But that figure is hard to imagine when we rarely, if ever, see a starving person on the streets of New York. Visit Bangladesh, though, and you get a much sharper sense of what this scary ratio looks like. Loss of crops—thanks to increased salinity in the water table from rising sea levels—and a general movement away from failing farms toward the city where more westernized wheat-based diets reign, means that an ever increasing number of people are “food insecure.” Nearly half the global population is labeled as such, and if the price of food rises at the current rate this will lead to an increase in food insecurity by a factor of eight percent between now and 2016. Apply the Rule of Seventy, and you learn that in 35 years all of Bangladesh will be hungry.

Farmers in Bangladesh, where fluctuations in global food prices can be felt in real terms (Photos by Elizabeth Rush)
Farmers in Bangladesh, where fluctuations in global food prices can be felt in real terms (Photos by Elizabeth Rush)

Last year, when I was working on a story about India’s border fence, the longest geopolitical barrier in the world, I interviewed Bangladeshi farmers whose crops and soil had been ruined by an unprecedented flood the previous year. The villagers of Allatoli lamented the fact that they now had to walk miles over a dust desert just to get to arable land. And whether or not that land could produce enough to sustain the village was still very much up in the air. Faharul, a young boy who worked the lentil fields arduously with just a sickle, said, “I may try to cross the border and get to the city [Kolkata]; I think my chances for survival will be better there.” But with the loss of Faharul’s labor in the countryside, Bangladesh loses its ability to be self-sufficient in terms of food production, and its dependence on imported commodities rises commensurately.

*   *   *

Kaufman and I amble along the Hudson River to North End Avenue and the New York Mercantile building, bought by the Chicago Mercantile Exchange (CME) in 2009. A non-descript, if sleek, fifteen-story outpost on the northern edge of Battery Park City, the building is far less interesting than the previous incarnations of the commodities trading markets, which include the palladium-window-laden and red brick grand dame at 6 Hudson Street, and the copper-corniced and filigree-covered Mercantile Building on Broadway, whose ground floor houses an Urban Outfitters today. Commodities exchanges began in the nineteenth century to facilitate and regulate the buying and selling of life’s necessities as an increasing number of people moved from farms to cities. Founded in 1898, CME was first the Chicago Egg and Butter Board, expanding over the years to encompass everything from cattle to different classes of milk, and wheat, eventually privatizing in 2000. Like the CME, the New York Mercantile Exchange began as a place where dairy merchants got together and sold their product, growing over the years to include all different types of “stuff from the ground:” oil, dried fruits, gold, precious metals, potatoes, wheat and poultry.

A walking tour of the "Futures of Farming" locations (Map by Elizabeth Rush)
A walking tour of the “Futures of Farming” locations (Map by Elizabeth Rush)

But the once famous grain pits where traders gesticulated wildly and chomped on wheat to determine its quality have been replaced by the ability to trade online. The transaction age divorced those who buy and sell commodities from the commodity itself. Today, such trading is no longer about the actual quality and quantity of the product; it’s about numbers on a screen. McConaughy, who worked at Credit Suisse as a commodities trader from 2007 to 2011, said of his previous line of work, “I was just trying to get a return for the bank’s money. I looked at the relationship between products. It didn’t matter if it’s a stock or a bond or a commodity like oil, cotton, or wheat.” What we once treated like concrete items upon which our lives depended, are today treated like stock. The problem is that food isn’t Apple, or Facebook. When a high-tech company’s stock goes up that’s good, but when food stocks go up that’s not so good, because that means food costs more.

Critics who disagree with the argument that futures speculators are beginning to cause a new era of worldwide food shortages are quick to assert that speculators have long been important players in commodities markets, since their added capital partially facilitates the perpetual dance of buying and selling that is responsible for historic price stability. Both of the bankers-turned-farmers I interviewed were skeptical of the assertion that these Commodity Index Funds could actually impact the price of food in the long term. “There is always going to be a buyer and a seller,” Carlson, the Pennsylvania farmer and former banker, said when asked to explain how increasingly short-term volatility in prices could mean price stability in the future. “Often, the bank not only buys the future, they also sell the future contracts, kind of canceling itself out.” Carlson is right—that is exactly how these markets have historically worked. But traditionally, in order to make money trading a commodity you had to have some kind of intimate knowledge, and often dependence upon, the thing itself—inherently limiting the number of speculators who would want to get involved. By subverting masterful experience with reliable math, commodity indices have opened the floodgates for investment well above and beyond that which commodity markets have normally seen.

I asked Kaufman why the Chicago Mercantile Exchange had purchased the New York Mercantile in 2009.What had that meant for the future cost of food? Is New York the new epicenter of everything commodity related? “No, he replied. “It’s simpler than that, it doesn’t matter if you are in New York or Mumbai, or Jersey City. We don’t need to be close to or understand the thing we sell anymore; just find what you want and trade it in cyberspace.”

*   *   *

Farming is a complicated calculation, an intricate system of inputs to reach a single, universally desired goal: Good, healthy eating at a price that people can afford. It doesn’t happen in cyberspace—food flows from the ground. But the bigger that “Big Ag” grows and the more involved the financial institutions become in the price of food, the further we get from realizing just what it takes to feed the planet.

Carlson argues that for way too long oil has been our saving grace. Oil, he says, is the only way that American farmers, who account for just one to two percent of the national population, can feed the other 98 percent of us. But oil used to sew, reap and ship food, “is finite, and as oil goes away we are going to be at a loss for how to feed ourselves,” Carlson notes. He suggests that now is the time to start figuring out how to cut back on our agricultural reliance on oil. The idea seems simple at first, but it requires rethinking the agricultural system from the ground up—forgetting about government subsidies and the corporate farm entities that grow nearly eighty percent of our food supply and truck it around in eighteen wheelers.

Last year, Carlson planted traditionally fat-rich fruit trees like persimmon and mulberry to feed his pigs, and rotated his cattle to a fresh pasture each day, making their diet local and organic. He is working toward sustainability in the long term, which, in his definition, means food that is neither tied to economic futures nor to oil for production. But reinventing the modern agricultural wheel is full of misfires for a man who once turned a profit not by turning soil but by swapping stock. Last year, Carlson purchased dozens of handsome Scottish Highland cattle, which he had to sell after one of them horned his farm manager in the chest.  And the market that he runs on the premises where he sells handsome slabs of his grass-fed meat has yet to make him money, signaling the difficulty that most small farms face: Staying in business.

“I think it is close to impossible to begin a successful farm without a significant capital investment. And banks don’t lend to farms because they are seen as risky business,” says McConaughy. “I want to be the proof that opening a small farm is no longer as volatile as it once was. I am not the only one, although some are less ethically driven. There are loads of Wall Street people buying up farmland. Does that make us farmers or investors? I think it’s a little bit of both.”

I recently read about a single banker who bought up a considerable portion of the Canadian wilderness, betting that a warming planet will extend the length of the growing season, turning typically chilly Canada into a new grain belt. Sandy Lewis, an ex-broker whom I read about in Kaufman’s book, sunk millions of his Wall Street-derived capital into an expansive 12,000-arce plot of land in upstate New York, just west of Lake Champlain. As the price of farmland rises about twenty percent per year, the opportunity to buy large chunks of productive land is increasingly restricted to the few who have money enough to make the leap.

*   *   *

As the day begins to wane, Kaufman and I finally find ourselves at Goldman Sachs’ corporate headquarters, on West Street. It’s Sunday and still there is a line of limos waiting out front to whisk away the young bankers who have come in on the weekend to put in overtime hours. About ten guards circle the premises on foot, and two plain-clothes security men are propped on a bench in Goldman Alley. They look about as bored as humanly possible.  Nowhere on the building they are protecting does it say “Goldman Sachs.” To a layperson the high level of security would seem a bit outrageous.

Goldman Sachs headquarters (Photo by Elizabeth Rush)
Goldman Sachs headquarters (Photo by Elizabeth Rush)

Finished just two years ago, 200 West Street, as the building is known, has attracted a fair amount of controversy.  There was a public outcry over the $1.65 billion dollars it received in tax-exempt government bonds earmarked for stimulating economic development in the financial district after 9-11. Just to put that number in perspective, Goldman Sachs’ net earnings average about one billion per quarter, meaning that without government help it could have financed the new construction in less than half a year. According to Paul Golderberg, the longtime architectural columnist for The New Yorker, unlike many of Goldman’s financial institution predecessors, who built the tallest, most ostentatious buildings money could buy and then painted their names all over the things in bright neon lights (as with Chase Manhattan Bank’s skyscraper), Goldman has opted for understatement, if not invisibility.

As we circle the building, Kaufman’s hyper speech slows down for the first time all day. “It’s truly amazing how they got their hands around such big things,” he says, as he launches into a discussion of Goldman. One of the first to create and invest in CIFs, Goldman liquidated a large percentage of their holdings just before the first controversy surrounding CIFs broke in 2009. Commodities have rebounded nicely, and if investment bankers take the advice of Jeremy Grantham, the bubble-prediction specialist, as so many do, another rush to buy up wheat, corn, cattle and cotton seed oil, lies in wait.

Kaufman and I stroll past the Tribeca branch of Shake Shack, where youth soccer players have gathered with their families after a Sunday tournament. Bankers’ kids, writers’ kids and celebrities’ kids all co-mingle, slurping down “fair” milkshakes and hormone-free burgers. For the first time all afternoon, Kaufman runs into people he knows: A big-wig editor at Slate, a banker buddy, and the stay-at-home mom the neighborhood calls “the Queen of Lower Manhattan.” It occurs to me then, for the first time in my life, really, that the financial district is actually a neighborhood all its own. Kaufman has lived down here his entire adult life, since graduating from Yale in 1983. He even coached his daughters’ soccer teams on the same fields where these kids just played.

But the more Kaufman chats with his neighbors, the more I sense a subtle tension. Through his research and writing, he has exposed a not-so-attractive back alley of our wealth production and consumption machine, the epicenter of which is right here on these Astroturf fields in the shadow of Goldman Sachs. The price of food is determined in his friends’ and neighbors’ own backyard, where the twin towers fell and where their kids can pay a hundred dollars for a donut during a class presentation. Of course, they probably don’t think about the global ramifications of the financialization of food all that often, certainly not as often as Kaufman. Still, what they might not understand is that Kaufman is writing of a disaster that has already taken place elsewhere and that he is trying desperately to prevent that disaster from coming home.

On our way back to Wall Street we pass through City Hall Park, where a giant inflatable ketchup bottle jiggles in the wind. This tribute to America’s favorite condiment is just one of many art objects scattered across the grounds by the city’s Public Art Fund. The yellow label splashed across the bottle reads “Daddy’s,” in antiquated 1950’s-style script—a relic of a seemingly simpler time, before the invention of that first Commodity Index Fund, back in 1991, before food stopped being food, and its economic inflation became a practice too obtuse for most people to swallow.

Kaufman has seen what this future looks like, and he’s fearful. Out of earshot of his Wall Street friends and acquaintances, he turns to me. With the half-ironic tone of a man trying to cloak significance in humor he says, “When hamburger meat costs eighteen dollars a pound, and the middle class can’t afford this luxury anymore, it’s going to be the end of world.”

*   *   *

Elizabeth Rush’s work has appeared in Granta, Le Monde Diplomatique, Frieze, and Asian Geographic, among others. Her book, Still Lifes from a Vanishing City, about the re-appropriation of colonial city space in Yangon, Myanmar is forthcoming this winter. She is a founding member of Makoto Photographic, an alternative agency specializing in long-form photo journalism.

 

 

When Young Muslims Want to Stop Masturbating, They Turn to Reddit

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Inside the makeshift online support groups where devout men go to break their taboo sex habits.

This story is republished from MEL Magazine, a new men’s digital magazine that understands that there’s no playbook for how to be a guy. Sign up for their newsletter here.

On a Friday night a few weeks ago, Ibrahim “Ibby” Mamood was frantically typing on his laptop, shaking, with droplets of sweat dripping from his forehead. Every so often, he peered over his shoulder, just in case someone was still awake and could come into his room. “I did it again,” he typed to the members of a private Facebook group. “I lost control of myself. May Allah, the greatest, the most kind, the most merciful, forgive me.”

Mamood, 27, lives in Birmingham, one of Britain’s largest cities and home to the country’s largest Muslim population outside of London. He’s a practicing Muslim who prays five times a day and teaches children in madrassa (Islamic school). He lives in a neighborhood almost entirely filled with Muslim families, all of whom know each other, attend the same social events and congregate at the same mosque.

This makes what he calls an “addiction” to masturbation even harder to talk about. Calling me from a cafe in central Birmingham, far away from his home, he says that he started masturbating in his late teens “without really knowing what I was doing.”

“It started, like most boys, with wet dreams. I thought I was wetting the bed. And it really developed from there. Later, I looked at pornographic images. Not because of a sinful sexual attraction. I wanted to figure out what was happening to my body.”

Mamood tells me that as he grew older — and with Islamic marriage on his mind — he attempted to become a more devout Muslim. As he was doing so, however, he continued looking at pornography. “I knew what I was doing was wrong… I’ve always known that. But we live in a society where pornography is widespread, so even when I wasn’t looking for porn, it was just there.”

Like many Muslim men in Mamood’s situation — i.e., finding themselves unable to talk about sex, masturbation or porn in deeply religious communities, where such things are considered taboo — he turned to the internet for help. In addition to private groups on Facebook (Mamood’s has more than two hundred members) and WhatsApp, the biggest support network is on Reddit, where the MuslimNoFap subreddit has about two thousand followers.

On the surface, it might seem like the normal Reddit No Fap community, a group of men whose choice of abstinence is largely driven by a desire for self-improvement. But according to members of MuslimNoFap, who all wished to remain anonymous, their community is much different. As one told me, “The main NoFap community is largely aiming to somehow assert their masculinity through control of themselves, with the hope of sleeping with women outside of marriage.” Conversely, the MuslimNoFap community is designed to uphold the sanctity of Nikah (marriage), which also means that “any form of sexual activity is prohibited until made permissible by Allah.”

“All we’re trying to do is serve Allah, and to do what he commanded us to do,” the MuslimNoFapper adds.

While the men I spoke to had joined the group for different reasons — some wanted to stop watching porn; others used to the group to manage depression and anxiety — nearly all of them wanted to get married in a halal (Islamically permissible) way, and were worried that their affinity for porn and masturbation would nullify their marriages in the eyes of God. It also was clear that despite thinking about marriage for much of their lives, none of these men had been prepared for what would happen on their wedding nights.

“There’s no way we can talk about sex, or anything to do with sex inside a mosque. It’s impossible,” a Canadian man by the username Abu Khadeer says. “Most of the people in these groups had a strict Islamic upbringing. They didn’t learn about sex education in the madrassa, where they were prohibited from having girlfriends. Some date and have sex outside of marriage, but [most] other men are truly devoted to their religion. They end up giving into temptation … usually because they’re afraid they won’t be competent when they finally get married.”

“Most mentions of sex in the [mosque] are usually associated with sin,” he adds. The attitude that the imams take is that any sort of deliberate extramarital sex is a severe sin — one that results in punishment in the akhira [afterlife].”

Islamic scholars differ in their opinions of this interpretation. The mainstream view among some world-famous preachers, including Zakir Naik, is that anyone engaging in extramarital sexual activities without repentance (in the form of fasting and prayer) will be sent to hell on Judgment Day. Others say that because the Qu’ran doesn’t specifically call masturbation zina (a major sin), severe punishments don’t apply.

Still, most devout Muslim men grow up being told to stay away from any type of sexual activity until marriage. As Abu Khadeer says, “A lot of us are told to be celibate up to the point of marriage. And then when we get married, we’re just expected to know what to do. One of the guys on the forum had to divorce his wife because he couldn’t consummate his marriage. He literally didn’t know how to have sex with her on his wedding night.”

It’s difficult to quantify the problem, but most of the imams I spoke to recognized that this is an issue that is often kept secret. Imams from progressive Imams Online network say Islamic leaders hadn’t really dealt with situations involving men and sex education, beyond very extreme situations — ones where the men believed they’d been possessed by evil spirits, in which case, the imams recommend long periods of praying and fasting, or sometimes ruqyah, an Islamic exorcism ritual.

“Things like sexual etiquette aren’t taught in Islamic schools, because there’s an aversion by teachers who believe it’s a parent’s duty to teach their children about sex, but many parents don’t feel confident talking to their sons about sex either,” says London-based imam Muhammad Jafer. “As a result, you have young men who reach their 20s knowing next to nothing about intimacy, or worse, they’ve learned about it by looking at sinful websites or talking to people about sex in haram [forbidden] environments.”

Plus, as Mamood points out, “Most [imams] are older men, who grew up at a time when getting married young was something everyone did, so they don’t understand the world we’re in now. [They] don’t understand how much our society is sexualized now. To say that we should abstain from pornography is impossible.”

“The problem begins when you say abstinence is the only option,” adds Imtiaz Ayub, a social worker based in Derby, a small city in the north of England. Ayub isn’t an imam, but much of his work involves working with Muslim teenagers, including getting them to open up about sex. “There’s a wider problem here — one where in Muslim communities this idea of a very macho masculinity is imposed,” he explains. “More and more young Muslim men are obsessed with how they look, how muscular they are, as a way to prove they’re manly. But at the same time, they’re not encouraged to talk about their own sexuality. That can be very confusing for [them].”

In Ayub’s opinion, communities that have told young men to disregard their sexuality are “basically waiting for a volcano to erupt.”

“Muslim boys aren’t different to any other type of male — they’re going to be sexually curious when they reach a certain age, and if communities care about them, they need to provide spaces where they can openly talk about sex without the taboos. You can’t expect young Muslim boys to grow up and become men unless they’re able to manage the period when they grow up to become men.”

His attitude is shared by others who are trying to offer better resources for Muslim men to talk about sex. In the U.S., a website called “Purify Your Gaze” provides interactive sessions via Skype — usually involving a mentor — and other specially designed programs, consisting of physical activities and Islamic prayers, to aid men throughout their “healing” processes from porn and masturbation. Others, like U.K. imam Alyas Karmani, take a more modern approach — one that disregards notions of personal sexual gratification as a major sin, earning him the title of the “Muslim Sex Doctor.” Same for Mufti Abu Layth, another British imam who caused controversy when he used his weekly advice session on Facebook Live to say that masturbation wasn’t prohibited in Islam at all. Instead, he believes past Muslim scholars had suggested that masturbation could be used to safely manage one’s sexual desires.

To Ayub, Mufti Abu Layth’s statements were a positive first step. “The Mufti has a big public platform, and it was important for him to say that. Even if there are Muslim men who want to be celibate, who want to abstain until marriage, it’s still important for them to understand that masturbation is a natural human thing.”

A few days ago, I spoke to Mamood again. He was in better spirits. He’d put blocks on the porn sites he’d visited, and following the advice and encouragement of the other members of his anti-masturbation support group on Facebook, he’s trying to combat his sexual urges through studying Islamic books. That said: “I’m fine during the day, when I can control my temptations. It’s moments at night when I’m alone…,” he admits.

He takes a long pause, and then mutters a short prayer in Arabic asking for God’s forgiveness. “Those are the times I’m worried about. It’s at night time, when the devil likes to tempt us, especially on the internet.”

 

 

How Cleaning Out My Hoarder Mother-in-Law’s Junk Caused My Own Marriage to Crumble

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As we plowed through decades of her extreme clutter, I began to notice similar tendencies in my husband. And once I saw the hoarder in him, there was no turning back.

There’s a snapshot Aiden took of me a few days after our wedding on Christmas Eve, 2009. I’m standing outside his mother’s house wearing disposable coveralls, gloves, and a particulate mask. In the background is a dumpster. The ground is thick with dead, brown palm fronds. I am beaming at the camera.

I wished so much that I could have met Ruth, my mother in law. I knew she was a bright, adventurous woman who never found work to suit her lively intelligence. She was a 1960’s housewife fascinated by history and art and ideas. She loved dogs. She suffered from untreated depression and agoraphobia.

The day Ruth died, her family just locked up the house and walked away. Now, five years later, it’s still standing empty. Aiden worries about it. I worry about him. No one, I think, should have to clear out a parent’s house alone. His brothers are no help at all.

“You and I can do it together,” I say. “It’ll be our honeymoon. We’ll take a month and just get it done.”

And now we’re here.

The front door opens into the living room — an ironic name for such an uninhabitable place. I’ve never seen anything like this. There are LPs, stained mattresses, mountains of canned food, ripped cushions, dog crates, and hundreds upon hundreds of boxes. All fading back into the darkness. The smell is beyond staleness or rot. It’s the stench of sickness, of time lost.

I’d fantasized about meeting my mother in law. Now I’m getting my wish, but in the most macabre way. As I dig through her belongings, I feel I’m excavating Ruth herself. Every room in that house — every pile of garbage, every broken sofa, every packed closet — seems saturated with her spirit. Each stratum we uncover reveals more of the woman who raised my husband — a woman whom I will otherwise never know.

I haven’t yet heard of obsessive-compulsive hoarding. I have no idea that there’s a clinical name for what I’m looking at. I only know that Ruth’s house feels like a map of a disturbed mind.

Why, I wonder, is the floor of the den covered in newspapers three feet deep?

“That’s for the dogs,” Aiden explains, as if it makes perfect sense. We start hacking the newspaper out, a job that requires pickaxes and shovels. Clouds of powdered filth fill the air. The whole thing is a petrified matt of paper, urine and excrement. Decades ago, Ruth crammed her ever-growing collection of dogs — eighteen? twenty? — into this single modest-sized room and left them to do their thing. When the floor got bad, she simply added another layer of paper.

In another room, I find notebooks. Boxes of them, all densely crammed with faint, microscopic handwriting. They’re lists of words.

“Oh, Mom was always learning languages,” Aiden tells me. Some of the word-lists are in English. Others are in Spanish, German, Polish, Norwegian. Clearly the work of an intelligent and gifted person. The thing is, I can’t see anyone actually using them for anything. They’re barely legible. It’s as if Ruth was collecting words just for the sake of having them.

Further in, there’s a stack of maybe thirty cardboard boxes, wrapped in paper and swathed in packing tape. What was Ruth storing with such special care? Even with my mat knife, it takes a long time to get the first one open. I tear off the paper. Underneath there’s more tape. Then tissue paper. Gently, I turn back the layers.

Palm fronds. The box is full of dead palm fronds from the yard outside, carefully folded and packed.

I spend the next hour cutting open more boxes. They all contain more of the same. As I work, I keep twisting to glance behind me.

Back in the den I find Aiden crouched down, frowning at the heaps of crud that we’ve hacked out of the floor.

“We need to go through all this by hand,” he says earnestly.

I stare. “You mean the whole room? All of it?”

“There could be something important buried here,” he says. “Get a bag.”

I get a bag. As I start sifting, I try to think of something to say. We can’t do this. We’ll never get through it all. This is crazy.

I pry up a wad of rat-chewed newsprint. Underneath, gazing up at me, are Aiden’s eyes.

It’s a photograph, half buried in the muck. It can’t be Aiden, though.

The picture is old, taken maybe around 1920. But the resemblance is eerie. Same curly brown hair, same beautiful eyes. The guy is obviously a relative. Aiden has no idea who he is.

Later on, we show the picture to Aiden’s dad. “That’s your Great Uncle Norman,” he says. “He had some problems.” Problems? Apparently, Ruth’s uncle committed suicide sometime before the Second World War.

I’m sorry to hear it. But what really disturbs me is the vision of my sweetie buried under a pile of garbage in that house. Those eyes, hidden down there for decades. Sad eyes. A genetic heritage.

At the end of January, after about a month of excavation, we run out of time. The whole process has been traumatic for Aiden, and to what end? We’ve filled one corner of the dumpster, which means we’ve thrown away the equivalent of about one closet’s worth of stuff. The rest of the house we leave as it was, relocking the door behind us. I feel defeated. Aiden is silent.

Back in London, our cluttered apartment is starting to worry me.

“I’m remodeling, so everything’s kind of up in the air,” Aiden had told me months before, the first time I saw where he lived: before it became where we lived. I’d been impressed to learn that he was doing all the work himself. Naturally the place was messy now, I thought. I could see it was going to be beautiful when it was done.

But time passed, and the remodel began to seem like the labor of Sisyphus: a project that could absorb any amount of time and work without ever reaching completion.

Now we’ve returned from California and moved into a construction site. It’s uncomfortable. There’s no room for my stuff. Aiden urges patience as he keeps accumulating tools and crates and building materials salvaged from neighborhood trash cans. One night, I come home and am bewildered to see what looks like a pile of car parts in the living room.

I’m starting to understand that, for my husband, the chaos of the remodel is not a temporary stage on the way to a cozy shared living space. It’s the way he lives.

When I shake out a blanket, clouds of dust and mold fly up. We have fleabites. Without consulting me, Aiden adopts two dogs, which are never housebroken. Now I have to wear clogs all day, stepping over puddles on my way to the kitchen.

I offer to do all the cleaning myself. “This is not your project,” Aiden responds. I try to negotiate for one clutter-free room. For the first time, I see my husband truly furious. Once, I rearrange a couple of pictures on the wall. After that, Aiden doesn’t speak to me for a week. He feels that I’m a feckless control freak. I feel unwelcome and unvalued. Much as I love him, I’m sliding into chronic depression. Angry depression.

Through it all I can’t get Ruth, or her house, out of my mind.

Finally, two years later, our marriage ends. I’ve been fighting hard to clear away the obstacles — physical and emotional — that stand between us. To Aiden, I’ve realized at last, my efforts feel like an attack on the core of his being.

The hoarder crowds his life with rubbish in an effort to keep other things out of his life. Things like spontaneity, and the spiritual intimacy reflected in a shared living space. Love and friendship don’t stand a chance. The need to barricade oneself — literally and psychologically — overrides everything else.

I grieved our loss for a long time. But today I’m sitting in a tranquil room full of clean surfaces. There’s open space. There’s sunlight. I luxuriate in having exactly what I need and no more — my books, my teakwood desk, my glass pen jar. Best of all, my thoughts have room to spread and blossom.

 

 

This “Old Guy With a Sign” Protests Trump Every Single Day

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Gale McCray has never been politically active, but since the election he’s become a fixture at a Fort Worth, Texas, intersection.

Most days, 74-year-old Gale McCray putters around Fort Worth, Texas, doing odd jobs and errands – like delivering cookie bouquets – for extra cash. He also spends his time standing at a busy intersection with a homemade anti-Trump sign that simply says, “Trump, that boy don’t act right.”

For 21 years, McCray worked as a mailman for the United States Post Office. He admits he was just as the stereotype suggests: disgruntled. Unhappy and unfulfilled for the better part of his career, he finally quit and took out his entire retirement fund. After blowing through the money over a period of two years on marijuana and “craziness,” McCray was left with $500 to his name. It was then he realized he had a “problem” and he wanted to address it.

“The best thing about America is that you get multiple chances at life,” McCray chuckles. “So, I took another chance.”

McCray went back to school and got a degree at the age of 43, then worked for ten years as a recreation therapist, working with alcoholics and addicts – something he felt called to do. He would teach leisure education classes for patients in treatment centers, and talk to them about participating in activities and how to be out in the world, such as going to a movie or engaging in swimming exercises. Then he drove a school bus for six years before officially retiring in 2008. Over the past nine years, McCray has become more vocal about his political views though he says they aren’t based on politics, per se, but on common sense, human decency, and kindness.

Gale McCray poses with his sign.

Now, the sign he holds for at least two hours per day in front of passing cars and curious eyes is the result of a tipping point. One that McCray didn’t even know was coming. The downhome, country phrase written in big, black letters on the sign just popped into his head, McCray says. He heard it often while growing up in a working-class household in Oklahoma during the forties and fifties.

“It’s country talk, that’s all it is. The full phrase is, ‘That boy just don’t act right. God bless him,’” McCray explains. “Like, I’m a big baseball fan so I’d say this about a player: ‘That right there is a really good ball player, but the fact is that boy just don’t act right. God bless him.’”

Once he found a piece of cardboard large enough to fit his message, McCray focused on the destination. He says he didn’t put a whole lot of thought into it, but ideally had two specific requirements: within walking distance of his home, and a lot of traffic. So, he chose an intersection that fit the bill, with a four-way stop and an island off to the side for him to stand on.

“A few years ago, I made a different sign,” McCray says. “It said, ‘Help, I watch too much Fox News. Can’t tell truth from lies. Need therapy.’ But I was just being silly. This right here is different.”

When asked why it was different, McCray pauses. He speaks in a heavier and much more somber tone than the lighthearted, jovial one he’s been using.

“After the election I was just amazed, I couldn’t believe [Donald Trump] got elected,” he says. “I remembered seeing a guy with a sign once shortly after Bush took us into Iraq. And he was a Middle Eastern guy. He had such resolve on his face, like he knew he wasn’t going to change anything but that he had to get out there and do something. And that’s kind of how I felt.”

McCray stands with his sign at his preferred intersection in Fort Worth.

McCray maintains that he isn’t political. He isn’t angry and he isn’t trying to make a grandiose statement. He’s just “an old guy with a sign.” But the motivation seems deeper than that. After the recent election, McCray became politically active for the first time. He called Congresswoman Kay Grange, visited her office and spoke with one of her representatives about the travel ban. But it just didn’t feel like enough. Then protests broke out all over the country, including the Dallas Fort Worth Airport. And it affected him deeply.

“I saw mothers and grandparents on the news getting separated from their families and I got kind of emotional thinking about it and thinking about my own family,” he says. “There just wasn’t any compassion as to how it was implemented. So, I don’t know. It was all of that, really. I mean, this isn’t the America that I know.”

While standing alone on the cement-lined, grassy island, McCray has heard it all – boos, car horns, cheers and, of course, his fair share of ‘fuck you.’” According to the New York Times, 51.7 percent of Forth Worth residents voted for Donald Trump, which isn’t an overwhelming number, but enough to garner some unpleasant reactions to his sign.

Some people have called the cops on him, others hold up the peace sign. One person shouted at him to “get a job” while another asked, “Who’s paying you to do that?” An older woman even slowed down traffic just enough to roll down her window and tell McCray with all sincerity, “You’re stupid.”

“What I notice the most is how a lot of the people are just so angry,” he says. “It makes me sad to see them get so angry at me. I don’t feel anger towards them. And they look like they’re going to have a heart attack over this. You can’t take it so seriously. If I took what people said seriously, I wouldn’t be able to do this.”

McCray waves at passersby.

McCray says he often thinks back to that Middle Eastern man that he saw with a sign all those years ago. No one beeped at him. No one slowed down. They just saw him standing there and wondered what he was doing out there with that sign.

“That man had a big effect on me,” McCray says. “I made up my own story about him, about who he was and why he was doing what he was doing, and how he had to get out there and just do something – anything. It has stuck with me. I imagine people are doing the same with me. And maybe it will stick with them.”

McCray has since started taking the sign with him on his travels. He’s recently been to Oklahoma, Florida and South Carolina. A musician he met in Oklahoma even wrote a song based on the sign’s catchphrase. It’s called, you guessed it: “That Boy Don’t Act Right.” And on more than a few occasions, McCray has struck up conversations with people just to hear their thoughts and views no matter who they voted for. He’s not trying to change anyone’s mind, he says, or convert political beliefs. But he hopes that some people will feel motivated to go out and do something – anything – to make them feel as if they are doing their part. Maybe they’ll see the sign and think about voting or taking their own course of action. In the end, that’s really what McCray says he’s trying to do – inspire action.

“I still don’t feel like I’m doing enough,” he says. “Like I said, I’m just an old man with a sign. But at least, for me, it’s something. At least I’m doing something.”

 

 

I Went to the Hospital to Give Birth…And Tested Positive for Meth

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When the nurse first told me, mid-labor, that there were methamphetamines in my system, I cracked up laughing at the absurdity. When child services showed up, it stopped being funny.

It’s the birth of my first child, and I’m seven, maybe eight hours into labor. Whatever time it is, I’m well past the point of caring about modesty, so I don’t even think it’s strange when a nurse follows me into the bathroom.

“Just so you know, you’ve tested positive…” The nurse pauses there, and shifts her eyes to the floor. My anxiety fills the silence. I expect she’s going to say something about the whirring machines that have been measuring the baby’s heartbeat, my contractions, my blood pressure, any of those things.

“For methamphetamine.”

Relief floods me, and I explode with laughter. Meth? I didn’t even take Tylenol during my pregnancy.

“Well, I’ve always been a positive person,” I say, because cracking awful jokes is what I do to pave over uncomfortable situations. I smile, and the nurse seems relieved. Clearly, this is a mistake. I offer to give another sample.

The nurse crosses her arms in front of her chest while I squat over the toilet, one hand hoisting my hospital gown up toward my enormous belly, the other dangling the plastic cup in an area I can’t even see. Remarkably, my aim is true.

If there’s one thing I’ve mastered during pregnancy, it’s peeing into cups. My obstetrician’s office required a urine sample at most every visit to check hormone levels. At this point I’m 42 weeks, so I’ve peed into dozens, maybe scores, of sample cups. That’s probably why I wasn’t even aware the hospital administered a drug test when I checked in to give birth. My everyday routine as a pregnant lady involves peeing on demand.

The nurse sends the sample to the hospital’s lab.

When I imagined labor, I expected to pass the time by stretching on an exercise ball or pacing the hospital’s long white hallways. But my doctor is concerned about the baby’s heartbeat – it drops dramatically every time I have a contraction – and so I am confined to a labor bed, an IV of fluids in my arm, an oxygen mask on my face, and belts stretched across my belly to monitor the baby.

So I make do. My doula rubs lavender essential oil on my temples, and my husband plays “Push It,” the Spotify playlist I created for labor and delivery. I have a photo of Beyoncé propped up on the over-bed table, because if anything can inspire me, it’s Queen Bey. Also on the table is my birth plan, which is kind of like a wish list for delivery. That includes modest requests, like keeping the door to my room closed, as well as more imperative things, like, “Please delay all routine procedures on the baby until after the bonding and breastfeeding period.”

Occasionally I convince the staff to unhook the machines and let me move around the room for a few minutes. It’s better that way. Movement helps distract from the contractions, allowing my body to muscle through each wicked snap. But when I’m in bed, I’m hit with the full force of every punch, my vision blurring and sparkling along the edges. It’s like a migraine, but rippling through the entirety of me, and I just have to lie there and take it.

I’ve just done a few stretches and heaved myself back into bed when another nurse enters the room. I snap the oxygen mask back on my face as she delivers her news.

My drug sample is positive for meth. Again. The nurse ticks off a list of everything that’s about to happen: The baby will be tested for drugs. The hospital social worker will meet with me before I can be discharged. Child Protective Services will be contacted to evaluate my fitness as a parent.

“And of course, you cannot breastfeed the baby,” the nurse finishes.

I rip the oxygen mask away. This isn’t a joke anymore.

“Can they do that?” I ask my doula.

“I don’t know.” She looks grim.

“This isn’t right!” My husband is angry. He knows me, he’s seen the way I’ve nurtured and cared for the fragile bud inside me. His voice deepens into a growl as he stabs a finger toward the nurse. “You tell them. I don’t care who you have to call. The lab, the social worker, the doctors. You tell them they’re wrong.”

The nurse only shrugs and leaves the room.

My husband and I have experienced loss through miscarriage, so I’ve been especially careful this pregnancy, almost to the point of superstition. No alcohol, no deli foods, nothing raw, undercooked or smoked. The bulk of my produce was organic, my drinking water purified through a reverse-osmosis system. I used clove oil on a persistent toothache instead of visiting the dentist, because I didn’t want any anesthetic to pass through my body and into the placenta. During all 42 weeks, the hardest drugs that entered my body were prenatal vitamins and puffs from my prescription asthma inhaler.

“My inhaler,” I say. My hands shake.

“Your inhaler.”

The contractions are furious. I am furious. I am scared. My husband and my doula both hunch over their smartphones, searching for facts about asthma inhalers and drug tests. In the background, my labor mix plays “I’m Coming Out” by Diana Ross. My birth plan is on the floor, wrinkled, footprints stamped onto the white paper. I want to run away, but I’m belted down to a labor bed and attached to a bunch of machinery, caught somewhere between a sob and a scream.

The nurses, who begin to look alike, are no longer friendly, and we have a lot of conversations that don’t make sense. It’s four, possibly five a.m., but who’s to say? Labor runs on Salvador Dalí time, and I’ve hit that point of sleeplessness where the world doesn’t feel real anymore.

My husband scrolls through pages of information about albuterol inhalers and drug tests. He shows his phone to every nurse who steps foot in the room.

“See,” he points at a page from Drugs.com, then flips to CBS News stories about false positives, archives of reports, message boards with anecdotal evidence.

“Just give me one more test,” I plead. “I’ll prove it.”

I realize how much we sound like the prisoners who argue their innocence or patients in a mental institution who say they’re not crazy. The more I insist I’m not on drugs, the more I sound like I am.

“You can take this up with CPS,” a stone-faced nurse says.

Child Protective Services. A bolt of dread shoots through me as I remember the pregnancy announcement I sent to my loved ones and posted on Facebook six months ago. It seemed innocent enough. Bryan Cranston, the star of “Breaking Bad,” owns a movie theater in my town. When I ran into him at a film screening, I thought a photo with him would be the perfect way to announce my pregnancy and declare my love for the show, which is about a teacher-turned-methamphetamine dealer.

On the announcement, Bryan Cranston has one hand on my belly. “Breaking Baby,” the card reads in the style of the show’s logo, like elements in the periodic table. The bottom of the card modifies a memorable quote from the show: “I am the one who knocks up.”

The author's pregnancy announcement card featuring actor Bryan Cranston (left). (Image courtesy Maggie Downs)
The author’s pregnancy announcement card featuring actor Bryan Cranston (left). (Image courtesy Maggie Downs)

In the shadow of my failed drug tests, a card celebrating a morally questionable meth cooker has become one of my most misguided ideas. If the folks at CPS want proof I’m an unfit parent, I’m handing it to them on quality card stock, stuffed inside a pretty envelope.

Eventually the long desert night becomes a smoldering July morning. The baby’s heartbeat drops until it almost stops, and my doctor is summoned. My son is born via emergency C-section at 9:56 a.m. He is whisked away to another room, my husband follows, and for the first time in ten months, I am alone.

* * *

When I change my son’s diaper for the very first time, there is a plastic bag covering his genitals, a band of tape cinching it tight. It doesn’t strike me as abnormal until the nurse peering over my shoulder shakes her head no.

“I don’t think that’s enough urine for a sample,” she says. “We’ll have to do it again.”

Of course. They have to test my child for drugs, and this is how it’s done. It’s one of the saddest things I’ve ever seen, this tiny baby part wrapped in plastic, this uncomfortable, squawking child. His skin is so silky and new, the plastic so crinkly and manufactured.

Three days pass with me in the hospital bed, recovering from surgery. For three days I nestle my son in my arms, and I encourage him to breastfeed. All three days, the nurses are reluctant to hand over the baby, saying my actions are irresponsible. I feel like a wounded dog. I fight the urge to bark and snap at their hands.

Every shift change, two nurses stand by my bed and inform another two nurses of my status as a combative patient. “This woman tested positive for methamphetamine,” they say. “She has been briefed on the risks associated with breastfeeding, and she refused our advice. She is breastfeeding at her own risk.”

On my last day in the hospital, the social worker makes a visit. He is the first person to offer me a sliver of kindness and the benefit of doubt.

“I don’t think you’re on meth,” he says. “But my hands are tied.”

He says my son’s drug test was negative. Mine, however, has been sent to an outside lab for additional testing. I should receive the results in two to three weeks. In the meantime, he will try to hold off on contacting CPS.

“Just expect them to show up at any moment, is all I’m saying,” he adds.

spot-1

A part of me recognizes the hospital is acting in the interests of my child. But even if I were a drug user, does that justify turning delivery into something criminal? At what point do the rights of my child outweigh my own?

As soon as I signed a waiver and checked in to the labor ward, this birth belonged to the hospital. All sense of agency was stolen from me – from how I was forced to labor in an unnatural position, flat on my back, to the way I was treated like a drug addict when I was at my most vulnerable. Now my future feels like it’s in their hands too.

We live in the desert, where the only things that thrive are rugged and prickly, and it’s 112 degrees the day I bring my child home. Prior to giving birth, I pictured this as my Hallmark moment – sitting in the rocking chair that belonged to my mother, a cooing baby in my arms, the soft, yeasty smell of his skin. Instead, my son hollers until he’s purple, and I exhaust myself trying to make him stop. Every time the clanky air conditioner kicks on, my son cries with renewed energy. We are sweaty and sticky and unhappy. I finally place him in a bassinet next to the couch, where I collapse. Let him scream.

Lemon, my blind and deaf dachshund, settles in by the bassinet, as though she’s guarding it. Every so often Lemon leaps to her feet and pokes her nose into the bassinet, sniffs the baby, then curls up on the floor again. After a little while of this, my son calms. My dog is already proving to be a better mother than I am.

The weeks that follow are dark. I don’t know if I would have experienced the same level of postpartum depression without failing those drug tests. But I do know most other mothers don’t spend their first few weeks with baby the way I do – the shades drawn, peeking out from behind the blinds, examining each car that drives past. Every phone call, every knock at the door, every pop of gravel in the driveway sets my heart racing. Every night shreds me to pieces, wondering if my son will be whisked away by morning. I am suddenly a stickler for housework. What if CPS comes and sees all the laundry? What will they think of our dishes in the sink? It seems insane to think someone could take my child away, yet testing positive for meth once seemed insane too.

Sometimes while my son sleeps, I curl up on the floor of his yellow nursery, too afraid to be separated by a room or a wall. I am tired, but I don’t sleep. This isn’t how it was supposed to be, I think. This child was so wanted, so desired, but now that he’s here, I’m unable to protect him. I fall short.

I stay awake long enough to hear the coyotes scream in the empty lot next to my house. Out there is a desert, a place of harsh conditions and vast unknowns, and our home isn’t an oasis anymore. That’s when I mentally plot the route from Palm Springs to Mexico and imagine our lives in a seaside town. We could start over. We could be happy.

spot-2The days pass, and the air conditioner continues to chug. The blinds are drawn, and the house is gloomy despite the burning sun outside. I don’t run off to Mexico, of course. I’m still hopped up on painkillers for my angry C-section incision, and I’m fuzzy from insomnia. I can’t even make it to the mailbox.

Three weeks after I give birth, the hospital social worker phones and speaks to my husband. The results are in. I’m not on drugs. The call lasts less than a minute; it only takes a few seconds to apologize.

After the call, I suppress the urge to cry.

“What do we do now?” I ask my husband.

He shrugs. He looks sad and scared and relieved, and I’m all of those things too. I don’t quite believe it’s over, that we can just be parents who love and laugh and enjoy the comfort that comes from being in a safe space. But here we are.

My son is asleep against my shoulder, and I don’t want to disrupt him. Instead I walk over to the patio door, pull open the blinds, and for the first time in weeks, let the light in.

* * *

Maggie Downs Answers Your Questions: For more on what really happened at the hospital, read a Q&A with the author on Narratively’s Facebook page.

Maggie Downs is a writer, mother, and adventurer based in Palm Springs, California. Her work has appeared in the Washington Post, the Los Angeles Times, Today.com, and Racked, among other publications. She holds an MFA in creative nonfiction from the University of California Riverside-Palm Desert. Find her on Twitter @downsanddirty.

Cornelia Li is an illustrator based in Toronto. Her works often explore human emotions via storytelling. See her more experimental scribbles on Instagram @cornelia_illo.

 

 

The Day My Therapist Dared Me to Have Sex With Her

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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.”

* * *

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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