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.

 

 

He Was Harassed for Wearing a Turban. Then He Built a Global Fashion Brand to Show the World What Sikh Pride Means.

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Harinder Singh’s cheeky clothing is making waves in India — and far beyond — by putting a hip new spin on his ancient and often misunderstood culture.

Harinder Singh will never forget his trip to Italy in 2002. Singh, then 33, and his wife, Kirandeep Kaur, 29, were eating ice cream as they explored the sights and sounds of Florence. The streets were crowded, a blur of people and textures and smells. At first glance, the couple blended in with the other tourists of the city: two people in love, eager to travel the world and appreciate a new culture. Then they heard the students’ jeers: “Bin Laden! Bin Laden!”

The group of around sixty school children were pointing at Singh, a white turban wrapped delicately around his head.

“Oh my God,” Singh said to his wife in shock. But instead of walking away, the couple approached the children. Singh told them that they were from India and practiced a religion called Sikhism.

“Me and my wife started talking about our first guru, the revolution, our faith, we touched on Punjabi music and they knew Punjabi music so we got a lead there,” Singh says with a laugh. “That very moment was an exam for us. We decided we should do something about our identity since there’s no awareness.”

Immediately after their visit, on the seven-and-a-half hour flight from Italy to India, Singh began the initial sketches for what he describes as the first Indian clothing brand dedicated solely to Sikhism and Punjabi culture. Fifteen years later, that concept – called 1469, in honor of the birth year of the first Sikh guru, Nanak Dev – has expanded into a million-dollar company with international reach. They have five stores in New Delhi and in Punjab, an Indian state bordering on Pakistan that is the heart of the Sikh community.

Almost 58 percent of the population of Punjab is made up of Sikhs, but in Delhi, Sikhs constitute less than four percent of the total population.

Standing in their 1469 shop in Delhi, the couple talk about the idea behind their business. “People in Delhi feel that if I speak Punjabi, I am backwards and not modern enough,” says Kaur, dressed in a light green sari, gold bracelets dangling off her arms. “To keep in touch with your roots, you need to know your mother tongue. I feel we are losing the pride.”

Artwork on the walls inside the shop. (Photo by Ana Singh)

Scarves and saris in turquoise, pink and yellow hues line the walls of the shop, located in Delhi’s Janpath Market, one of the city’s best-known shopping areas. Tables are scattered with metallic jewelry and small sculptures, patterned bags and calligraphy accessories. Upstairs, the walls are filled with various t-shirts, many of which display Punjabi phrases, musical instruments and Sikh symbols.

Mayur Sharma, a frequent 1469 customer and host of the Indian travel show “Highway on My Plate,” says his favorite products are the t-shirts, especially the ones with the phrases “Pure Panjabi” and “Trust me I’m Pendu,” – the word pendu meaning “villager” in Punjabi. Sharma came across the company a decade ago and, since then, has pretty much only worn their t-shirts, even on his television show.

“I admire Harinder and Kirandeep’s passion for the arts, culture and history of our beautiful state,” he says. “You can feel the love in everything they put out.”

T-shirts with the phrase, “Jab we met,” referring to the Indian film directed by Imtiaz Ali about a Punjabi girl who meets a Mumbai businessman on an overnight train to Delhi. (Photo courtesy of 1469workshop.com)

Punjabi culture is one of the oldest in India; the region has a rich legacy of poetry, music, food and art – in addition to being the birthplace of Sikhism. The Punjab was unified under the Sikh Empire in the nineteenth century, until the British annexed the region in 1849 after the Anglo-Sikh wars, administering the region as a province of its Indian empire until Partition in 1947, when the independent states of India and Pakistan were established. Punjab was divided, with Hindus and Sikhs fleeing to India while Muslims moved to Pakistan.

Kaur described the partition of 1947 as a shattering experience for the Punjab, creating social, religious and regional divides. She feels Punjabi art and culture took the biggest blow. Today, their brand aims to reinvigorate that rich culture.

Singh, dressed in a bright, turquoise turban and black v-neck with the word fateh – or “victory” in Hindi – emphasized 1469 is not a religious brand because he doesn’t believe in selling religion.

“Sikhism is a big part of it and we ourselves are Sikhs,” he says, “but, it’s a regional place because our artists are Muslim also, the music comes from Punjab, which is partly in Pakistan, and so are the handicrafts.”

Harinder Singh (Photo by Ana Singh)

Sharma says he is Punjabi, but not Sikh. He describes Singh’s passion for the culture as inspiring.

Singh’s clothing didn’t always center on Punjabi culture. He got his start in the world of fashion after graduating from the University of Delhi in 1988. He says he noticed that most t-shirts sold in India came from abroad – Thailand, Hong Kong, South Korea – and were of dubious quality.

“I took an oath to myself to make a nice t-shirt for my country,” Singh says.

Models pose wearing 1469 t-shirts. (Photo courtesy 1469, via Facebook)

A year later, Singh started his own clothing company, Uni Style Image. He claims it is one of the first t-shirt companies in India’s history, and over the years partnered with major clothing labels across the world. In 2002, after over a decade with the company, grueling hours and time spent away from his wife and three children, Singh decided to leave to pursue other endeavors.

At the time, he had no idea he would eventually return to the fashion world as a pioneer of a wholly new concept centered on Sikhism and Punjab. But Singh also asserts he wouldn’t have it any other way. He describes being born into a Sikh family as a blessing.

“Our religion is so beautiful, so transparent, so clear,” he says. “It’s musical, it’s simple, it’s modern and it’s very lightweight.”

Singh observes that while 60 percent of their merchandise is sold to Sikhs and those within the diaspora Punjabi community, around 40 percent of customers practice other faiths. The brand is especially popular in Japan, where many customers buy the t-shirts online and in bulk, according to Kaur.

Clothing for sale in the shop. (Photo by Nicole Einbinder)

Going forward, Singh and Kaur hope to continue educating people, especially youth, about their heritage and faith. Kaur says they are working to bolster their online presence and plan to open new stores domestically, in the cities of Mumbai and Bangalore, as well as abroad in Canada.

“The best part about Sikhism is,” Kaur says, “it doesn’t tell you that you write this or read it and then become Sikh. It’s about the way you live.”

 

 

White Settlers Wiped Thousands of Miles of Cherokee Trails Off the Map. This Man is Reclaiming Them — By Walking Each and Every One.

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These routes once snaked through the towering woods of Appalachia, before they were lost to history. Lamar Marshall has spent a decade painstakingly mapping them, and their rich history.

Lamar Marshall cannot make it over the log. It lays across a small creek somewhere in the Nantahala National Forest outside Cowee, western North Carolina, as a bridge. His problem is a bruised knee, caused by a bang against his home firewood cord. Standing in front of the thick trunk, seeking another way across, he explains that while this particular log was not laid by ancient Cherokees, it does resemble the way they would fell logs to get across creeks like this. “They called ‘em racoon bridges,” he explains. If anyone would know this, it’s Marshall.

The former land surveyor, electrical engineer, and Alabamian anti-logging activist (in that order), is the world’s foremost expert on ancient Cherokee trails. At 68 he’s stocky, with a soft, even face, like a meatier Billy Bob Thornton, and long eyelashes. He speaks softly, with a southern drawl. In this forest, on a warm late-winter day, he wears spectacles and a hearing aid, but also a camo jacket and pants, a waist-pack stuffed with surveying gear and a pistol. It is often in this appearance, a hunter’s getup, that Marshall has personally mapped well over one thousand miles of Cherokee trails across Appalachia, compiling the mappings into a vast database, complete with historical annotations and Cherokee place names. And his boots are waterproof, he notes, as he carefully fords the creek.

Lamar Marshall.

There are certain attributes which are common to Cherokee trails. They tend to follow rivers or ridge-lines. They are often steep. Brett Riggs, an archaeologist at Western Carolina University with a specialty in Cherokee landscapes, equates them with a modern highway system in the way that they linked population centers (some are even replicated in modern roads). Horses, introduced to the tribe in the 18th century, were sometimes used, but mostly Cherokees travelled by foot, in soft-soled moccasins. Inside Marshall’s home there are photographs of him as a young man wearing nothing but a loincloth and these moccasins; he used to sometimes explore the woods of his native Alabama dressed this way. “It was just kind of a fun thing to project myself back into time,” he explains. “I always admired the native lifestyle. Maybe I played cowboys and Indians too much when I was little. I was always the Indians, I know that.”

Marshall’s project, a largely independent venture, has taken up nearly a decade of his life. It is no small feat. He has braved wasps, mosquitoes, ticks, chest-high nettles, rainstorms, hypothermia. Much of the routes are so steep that early Europeans avoided them. Though he has no academic credentials, he scours archives across the country for primary source materials that contain mention of the trails. It is an immense labor but he is nonchalant about his motivations. “I love the trails. I love walking on the trails, camping next to the trails. And feeling like right now: what did the first white people see when they came up here?”

Prior to his trails project, Marshall headed a conservation group in Alabama. He is an ardent environmentalist and near militant in his activism. But while his greenie cred would do well by any Greenpeace tree-hugger, Marshall is also a Republican, gun-owning, bear-hunting Creationist. But if the contrast seems odd, in Marshall’s mind protecting God’s work from the nefarious designs of the state might constitute the very essence of American patriotism. “Wilderness to me is the ultimate expression of freedom,” he says.

Those who benefit most from Marshall’s efforts are modern Cherokees. His work is funded by the Eastern Band tribe in western North Carolina, to whom all the mapping data will go. It will be used in schools. Riggs, the WCU archeologist, is helping Marshall make the maps interactive, with historical storylines and photos. “This is much more than just trails: it’s the ecology of the trails, the geography of the trails,” he says. “They don’t have this history. They just don’t have it.” Indeed, this is the first time that the trails have ever been compiled into a single source. Marshall also hopes to get some of them protected by the United States Forest Service, who he has collaborated with in the past – the North Carolina state is figuring his trail data into their upcoming forest management plan. Marshall plans to be finished with the whole enterprise in September, when he will hand everything over to the Eastern Band tribe. “This will help them maintain their cultural heritage,” he says. “They’re losing that.”

Tom Belt, a Cherokee language expert at WCU who is also Cherokee, describes the project’s impacts on the tribe as unprecedented. Like other native peoples, the Cherokees have long struggled to define their own historical identity and nothing is more crucial to that than landscapes. “It may be a town or a gas station to the United States or the state of North Carolina,” Belt says, “but at one time underneath it might have existed a very extensive culturally-based community that doesn’t exist now. That’s the kind of stuff we wanna know. What was the name of that place?”

Marshall consulting a topographic map near the Cowee mound.

Riggs, too, believes that compiling all of this data into a single source will prove empowering for the tribe, especially its young people. It is one thing to have a vague notion that some land was once yours; it’s wholly another to see it clearly laid out, and how ownership has changed over time. “When you take some place and you rename it you’ve asserted that, ‘This now belongs to us’,” he says. “If you can, even on paper, reverse that process so that you make it clear that there was a Cherokee landscape here, it gives Cherokee people a conceptual ownership that in many cases they are currently lacking.”

“We didn’t come into a blank howling wilderness,” he adds. “We took over this place.”

* * *

On May 28, 1830 the United States congress passed the Indian Removal Act. It granted permission to relocate Native Americans living in the east to the unsettled land west of the Mississippi. Some left willingly, but the Cherokee Nation – a collection of affiliated communities extending from Kentucky to Alabama – resisted. Conflict had existed for over a century between the Americans and the Cherokees and by now the federal government had grown strong enough to simply take them away. The eventual expulsion, which lasted from 1838-39, resulted in the death of over 4,000 Cherokees. The route over which they headed west is today called the Trail of Tears. Many perished in transit.

Today, Cherokees are found in three quasi-sovereign districts in Oklahoma and western North Carolina. But while most of their civilization was wiped out, burned down, built over or abandoned, it was not erased. Vestiges remain for those who know what to look for: graveyards, earthen mounds, houses, tree carvings; the imprints of a smudged-out, penciled-over peoples. Connecting all of these archeological sites is this vast network of trails, thousands of miles of footpaths trodden over centuries of travel.

Marshall entering his “man cave” at his house in Cowee, North Carolina.

And to flip through old maps of Appalachia is to witness the shrinking of a nation played out in faded ink. Treaties often followed conflict and, with each one, Cherokee land shrunk; the younger the map, the less territory is marked as theirs. Events are painfully clear in hindsight.

Marshall keeps these old maps in his home office in Cowee, where he moved eight years ago from Alabama. There is a small desk with four desktop computer screens squeezed between boxes of historical documents: traveler journals, survey plats, three-hundred-year-old land deeds. On the wall is a buck head and a sticker that reads, “I Am Not Ashamed Of The Gospel Of Christ.” Over time the maps get better, too. They are more clearly laid out, with properties divided into perfect squares. Text is less flowery and more legible. Topography is defined numerically. There are fewer and fewer Cherokee towns until there are virtually none at all.

Most of these maps were produced by the United States army. For Marshall’s purposes, they are critical. It is with these frail maps that he locates trails before setting out into the hard world to survey them. He brings one on every hike. He takes notes as he goes, looking to match his observations with any landmarks mentioned on the maps, and marks landmarks with GPS coordinates. When he gets home he plugs this data into his computer and, using GIS software, constructs digital versions. When a trail’s done, he moves to the next.

* * *

Marshall traces his fascination with the Cherokees to his childhood in Birmingham (“I hated the concrete, the development”). Survivalist books first exposed him to them. In his eyes, they seemed idyllic. “They didn’t have to go to school. They didn’t have to get a job in corporate America. They lived off the land. They were totally free.”

A photo of Marshall in his twenties in Alabama, dressed in traditional Indian attire.

He joined the Boy Scouts. He excelled. At eighteen, “emulating Tom Sawyer and Huck Finn”, Marshall constructed a raft from oil drums. With two friends, he drifted down the Alabama River from Selma to the Gulf of Mexico. Later he would win a state championship for fur-trapping. His childhood Cherokee interest was reignited by an “old mountain man” named Garvin Sanford who, on occasional forays into the forest for edible herbs, would show him abandoned Indian villages. They would follow the trails to get there.

For much of early adulthood, Marshall worked as an electrical engineer and land surveyor. With his wife and three children, he built a 3,000-square-foot homestead in Blountsville, Alabama. Construction took nine months. Drinking water came from an outdoor aluminum tank; one day Marshall found a squirrel decomposing inside. They raised livestock, fished the river, grew produce. When his only son died at 18 from a heart complication, the family moved to a house in Alabama’s Bankhead National Forest. They had 100 acres. Marshall hung a sign that read, “Trespassers will be shot and survivors will be shot again.” And another: “You believe in life after death? Trespass here and find out.” It was a frontiersman’s existence. For the first five years, they had no electricity.

But living in the woods provided Marshall with an intimate view of Alabama’s dimly regulated logging industry, which “nauseated” the lifelong nature lover. He did some digging and discovered how the management plan drawn up by the Alabama Forest Service had been “developed in collusion with the timber industry.” The tipping point for him came when loggers clear-cut a Cherokee sacred site known as Indian Tomb Hollow, decimating a burial ground. In conjunction with a local clan of Cherokees, Marshall and others rallied against the Forest Service, staging protests, making noise.

Thus, the conservation group Wild Alabama was born (it has since expanded and become Wild South). For over a decade, Marshall’s conservation group wrote petitions, staged protests, filed lawsuits, delivered public speeches, and published excoriating cartoons in the local newspaper satirizing Forest Service officials. This was his “guerrilla warfare” against corporate “tree racists.”

Marshall attempting, unsuccessfully, to cross a log in the Nantahala National Forest.

Marshall describes this part of his life like a veteran remembering war. “I envisioned a band of eco-warriors fighting for the last wild places of Alabama. Native American descendants rose up and we kicked ass for over a decade,” he says (the “descendants” refer to the various tribal organizations which often collaborated with Wild Alabama; Marshall does, however, claim to have three percent Native American ancestry).

Wild Alabama’s member pool represented an odd union of hippies, Indians, and rednecks; with a thick beard, dirty clothes and Cherokee ornaments, Marshall appeared as a hybrid of all three. Outdoor Life magazine called the group “the conservation conscience of a state that has traditionally lacked one.” The group boasted that its members could drink harder and shoot straighter than any naturalists around. Marshall once told a journalist, “Rattlesnakes have got fangs, porcupines got quills, skunks got the sprayer, and God Almighty gave Man the ability to invent the Colt 45 as his defense.”

* * *

Marshall approaches a huge earthen mound. It is an ancient Cherokee construction which sits in the middle of a wide empty field. Birdsong rings out across it and in the distance are rounded sloping mountains that are powdered white with snow. At the top of the mound, Marshall points down at the grass and says, “This is where the council-house sat. Here’s a depression that they believe was a fire-pit.”

From up here it is easy to imagine an earlier Appalachia: wide savannas thick with buffalo, the skies crowded with passenger pigeons, dense groves of chestnut trees, the brilliant red-black flash of an ivory-billed woodpecker – all of these species are extinct or sequestered elsewhere in the country. Savannas are gone. Towns are built over. Words are forgotten. There is a new country here. Marshall, in his camo gear, clutching an old map, sounding wistful, says, “The mountains haven’t changed.”

 

 

I Grew Up In a Fundamentalist Cult  Like the One in  “The Handmaid’s Tale”

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Don’t think Margaret Atwood’s dystopian vision is realistic? I was raised in a conservative Christian cult where women were viewed as submissive birthing vessels.

This story is republished from The Establishment, a publication that believes conversation is much more interesting when everyone has a voice. Media funded and run by women, The Establishment features new content daily.

It was a cold morning on the campus of the little Christian college I attended in Western Pennsylvania. Along with about twenty other students, I’d trundled in and unwrapped my coat and scarf. Now we all sat there sipping our coffees, waiting for the hardest class of the year to get rolling.

Our literary criticism professor paused as he announced the optional reading titles on our list for the next week, a funny look on his face.

“This one,” he said, “you may not like. It was written in 1984, published in ’85 or ’86, and was a reaction against the rise of the religious right — against the values that places like our school stand for. It’s pro-feminist, and anti-complementarian — against traditional gender roles. It sort of parodies what we believe in, in an interesting way. I’m curious what you’ll make of it.”

The shade thrown by my usually soft-spoken professor caught my attention. I had to read this book.

And so I did, unwittingly cracking open the beginning of the end for meek, conservative Christian me.

* * *

The story of The Handmaid’s Tale is a fairly simple dystopian one: A young woman is re-educated by the new totalitarian (and Christian) government regime to be a childbearing surrogate for the wife of a high-ranking military official. She tells her story after the fact, a narrative recorded on audio tapes found years later in someone’s attic. Her name is Offred, literally of Fred, having no name of her own anymore in this new society. It takes place in the U.S., post-Constitution, post-democracy, post-liberal humanism. Women are chattel. Religion is god. Order comes above all else.

To the average American in 1985, it seemed pretty far out there, an unlikely vision of future written as a warning. It’s been controversial since it came out, making ALA’s one hundred most banned books list between 1990 and 1999, but that was because of the sex scenes in it and the way it depicted Christianity. It wasn’t really taken seriously as political foreshadowing.

But for me, when I read it for the first time, it felt like a prophecy that echoed rhythm of the world I had been raised in, reflecting the vision my church and community had for the future of American culture and politics.

I was raised in a fundamentalist Christian community — the church we attended could fairly be called a cult, and my parents took things a step further than even our church did, homeschooling and raising nine kids. I was the oldest. We were part of a larger movement now called “Quiverfull,” the term taken from a Psalm where the writer talks about God blessing the man whose “quiver is full of arrows.” The metaphor refers to children, and our community understood this to be a command: Have children and raise them in this aggressively conservative faith, and then there will be more “true” believer Christians in the world to bring about cultural revolution in the name of Jesus Christ. Children like me were raised to see life as apocalyptic, and ourselves as serving on the front lines of a culture war to make America Christian.

Women in this world were treated much like those in The Handmaid’s Tale — most, like my mom, didn’t have their own bank accounts, didn’t have their own email addresses, and couldn’t leave the home without permission from their husbands. They were called helpmeets, a word taken from the King James Version of the Bible, which refers to wives as created to meet the needs of their husbands and be helpers to them.

I even participated in a super-conservative worship church dance troupe for young women, called His Handmaids — again a term taken from the Bible, from the Virgin Mary’s response to the angel Gabriel telling her she’s going to be pregnant with the Messiah, which some translations open with “I am the Lord’s handmaiden, let it be unto me as you say.”

Just like Offred, women existed within the community to serve higher purposes than our own desires. Young girls who led the congregation wore white dresses and were stripped of identifying features — no jewelry, no nail polish, hair tied back and not in the face — while wives were submissive helpers to their husbands, with my mother used as the fertile ground for my father to breed a quiver full of Christian culture warriors.

And me, the oldest child in a family of nine? As was common in the movement, I was my mom’s right hand. She sometimes called me her strength, because I helped her co-parent my younger siblings and keep the household running. When she had twins shortly before my thirteenth birthday, it was me who got up with her during the nighttime feedings, not my dad. When things were too busy on Sunday nights, I took over doing all the family laundry and ironing. And I did the dinner dishes almost exclusively for about 10 years, foregoing activities with my peers at church and in the community because I had too many obligations to fulfill at home. Like Offred, my life’s purpose was subsumed into serving the “greater good” of my far-right Christian community.

* * *

We were not alone, either. My situation grew out of a larger movement in the conservative Christian community to be more invested in politics and cultural affairs on the national level. This push was led by the “Moral Majority,” a group of Christian leaders founded by Jerry Falwell in 1971, which sought to take on Washington to bring Christian ethics to bear on policy at a national level.

The Moral Majority focused on issues related to their priorities for promoting and protecting traditional family values. They celebrated Ronald Reagan’s presidency and encouraged his refusal to act on the HIV/AIDS epidemic, which was killing thousands, largely because they saw it as fundamentally a judgment from God on the “immoral” behavior of homosexuals. According to historian Rachel Coleman — a Ph.D. candidate at Indiana University, who is also a Quiverfull Daughter and whose research focuses on twentieth century history of childhood, children, and religion — it wasn’t until kids started getting affected and dying from infected blood in transfusions that the issue was seen as valid. As a result, President Reagan eventually did act, releasing a series of PSAs about the epidemic…but these were all focused on kids, the future of the religious crusade for a Christian United States.

Also part of this movement was the rise of Operation Rescue, a Christian group that encouraged protest (and, loosely, some terrorist-style) tactics against abortion practitioners and those receiving abortion services. In the wake of Roe v. Wade passing in 1973, the Moral Majority hit on abortion as the issue that would most viscerally and immediately grab the attention of their audience and rally support and action at the grassroots level. We still see this struggle impacting negotiations on the Hill today, as abortion remains an impossibly hot-button issue, regularly derailing policymaking. Shock-and-awe tactics with grisly photos of dead fetuses and terror of increased government oversight on family-related issues drummed up droves of supporters buying into the agenda of the Moral Majority.

This terror-based approach to protecting the “traditional family” and “family values” had a watershed affect, driving the Right to work against civil protections for sexual orientation and gender presentation, creating a fear frenzy that drove the War on Drugs to incarcerate an entire generation of young black men, while causing Christian universities (led by my alma mater) to seek legal exemption from being under Title IX if they would surrender access to federal funding.

This collective terror also allowed Phyllis Schlafly and the Moral Majority to lobby successfully against the ratification of the Equal Rights Amendment in 1982. The United States is one of the last remaining countries in the world without a constitutional clause that protects the rights of women as full and equal citizens with men, and this prevents us from participating in key international coalitions against gender discrimination (like CEDAW, which we haven’t ratified either). The Moral Majority effectively took the United States backwards a century policy-wise — and we still haven’t fully recovered.

It was during this rise of the Moral Majority that Atwood wrote The Handmaid’s Tale. I was born, the first of what would be nine kids, just about five years after the book was first published.

Atwood has given many interviews about the writing of The Handmaid’s Tale and her creative process for it, but the thing that stands out to me the most is her comment that she made a rule for herself not to include anything in the novel that hadn’t already been done by some society, somewhere. Nothing was new.

And so, as I read the book for the first time that cold morning in 2010, the fictional world sounded a whole lot like my real life.

* * *

My ex-husband, who I met at that same little Christian college and who had also grown up in the same group of churches, wanted nothing more than to be a father, to have 10 kids and to homeschool them. When our marriage was careening to an end, we were sitting in a car outside his family’s house when he asked me if I might consider having a baby with him to rekindle something.

We’d chosen to wait initially for a host of reasons, the strongest one for me being that I had been raising kids for the last ten to twelve years of my life and couldn’t see myself having the energy to plunge back into the world of poopy diapers and snotty noses. Two years into our marriage, I’d had a few pregnancy scares and each time as I waited for my period, I had had nightmares and panic attacks, unable to shake a deep-set terror of being trapped at home with a baby and no life outside the home. I would wake up crying and shaking from a dream about being pregnant, and the next morning he’d make me coffee and listen to my stories and try to assuage my fears.

So when he asked me to have a kid to save our marriage, I was stunned. “Are you serious?” I asked.

“Don’t be that way!” he responded. “I just think that I could love you again if you were a mother.”

Speechless, I told him to get out of the car. “I’m not discussing this,” I said. “There’s no way in hell I’d bring a kid into this mess if we can’t fix this on our own.”

It was our last big fight. We stopped communicating shortly thereafter, and the next time I had a real conversation was at the courthouse after our divorce hearing. He asked me to go to lunch, and I said no.

Because I was running late for my gynecologist appointment to get myself an IUD.

* * *

Offred learns early on that she is not the first Handmaid to be given to the Commander’s household to bear a child for him and his wife. The last one, she gathers from bits of gossip here and there, committed suicide.

In her room there is a little cupboard, and on the back wall of the cupboard is scratched nolite te bastardes carborundorum, which is bad Latin for “Don’t let the bastards grind you down.” Offred assumes this message is left for her by the last Handmaid, a hand of camaraderie offered to her from beyond the grave.

Promotional material from the “Handmaid’s Tale” Hulu series, via Facebook.

When I ended my relationship to my father shortly after I got divorced, it was because he and I reached a crossroads where he had to choose to treat me according to his religious ideology or to treat me like a human, his daughter, his firstborn. He chose his ideology, and continued to use it to manipulate and mistreat myself and my mother and my siblings. We stopped talking, and I got my first tattoo — a black armband with script, “N.T. B. C.” Don’t let the bastards grind you down. Don’t forget you are human. Don’t forget what you have overcome.

Offred never tells the reader her real name — she only says she had another one, once. Under the new regime, her name is that of the man for whom she exists as a birthing vessel. It’s not important, she doesn’t exist as an individual anymore, her life is not her own.

When I got divorced, I repudiated the worldview that had been imposed upon me, rejecting a life where I existed only according to my relationship to my father or my husband. I took a new last name, a family name from further back on my grandmother’s side, naming myself to own myself. That was also the year I got my own bedroom for the first time, coming full circle out of a universe where my identity could not exist on its own terms, and carving out for myself a place in the world, a home, a name, a future that was my own to direct.

* * *

Today, Donald Trump is President of the United States, and there is increasing “constitutional anxiety” on Capitol Hill — what will he do next? The 24-hour news cycle is high-strung and exhausted, shrilly reporting on his tweets and Melania’s whereabouts and Ivanka’s so-called feminism.

Promotional material from the “Handmaid’s Tale” Hulu series, via Facebook.

Mike Pence is second in line for the presidency, and if Trump is impeached, we will have instead of an incompetent egoist for a president, a calculating and careful man who leaves a legacy behind him of anti-women, anti-LGBTQ, anti-immigrant policy-making. VP Pence is exactly the kind of man the Moral Majority of 1985 would have hoped to elect, as is demonstrated by their rallying around anti-minority and anti-choice legislators and policies and foundations.

The Quiverfull movement was created for this kind of world. I was raised to be a helpmeet in a world like Offred’s, and watching (white, middle class) liberals around me be shocked and unnerved by the election results has been curious for me. Didn’t they know this has been in the works for decades? I didn’t come out of nowhere, and neither did Trump, and nor did The Handmaid’s Tale.

Atwood recently wrote about the book in the New York Times, in anticipation of the new mini-series coming out on Hulu today, starring Elisabeth Moss and Alexis Bledel. In it she says:

Is ‘The Handmaid’s Tale’ a prediction? That is the third question I’m asked — increasingly, as forces within American society seize power and enact decrees that embody what they were saying they wanted to do, even back in 1984, when I was writing the novel. No, it isn’t a prediction, because predicting the future isn’t really possible: There are too many variables and unforeseen possibilities. Let’s say it’s an antiprediction: If this future can be described in detail, maybe it won’t happen. But such wishful thinking cannot be depended on either.

The publication of The Handmaid’s Tale during the time of the Reagan presidency and the Moral Majority was an apt collision of vision and fears expressed through fiction — the release of the new mini-series timed at the end of the first one hundred days of Donald Trump, U.S. President #45, is a powerful piece of foresight on the behalf of the studio which created it. Americans are more politically engaged than they have been in years, and we would all do well to pay attention to this “antiprediction” of a TV show in hopes that we can learn from it and resist the fruit of 1980s Christian conservative thinking running our government today, and save the future of our democracy.

 

 

That Time I Tried Topless House Cleaning

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

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

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

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

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

Ayep,” Possum replies in his drawl.

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

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

* * *

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

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

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

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

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

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

* * *

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Awright.” He hangs up.

“Will you touch it?” Jim asks.

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

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

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

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

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

“A hundred?”

“Oh, no. I couldn’t.”

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

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

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

“Oh my god,” he says.

I giggle. “No, goddess.”

“Oh my goddess.” He smiles.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

* * *

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

 

 

The Day My Therapist Dared Me to Have Sex With Her

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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