The Ins and The Outs

Along one of New York's most rapidly changing boulevards, a look below the surface exposes what—and who—is really driving gentrification in Crown Heights.

A hypothetical time-lapse video of Franklin Avenue in Crown Heights, Brooklyn, starting in the year 2000: The block is lined with dollar stores, bodegas and barbershops, a few hair-braiding salons, some humble restaurants. Many storefronts are shuttered; those open are kept afloat by local patrons, predominately African-Americans and West Indians. Crime is common in the neighborhood, the sound of gunshots familiar.

Over time, the scenery begins to change. Tree saplings take root in once-neglected sidewalk beds; foreboding iron doors morph into friendlier gates. At an increasing rate, young white faces begin to dot the screen, darting off to work in the morning and dashing back again at night. Boarded-up storefronts transform into fashionable bars, restaurants, and boutiques. Groups of cops suddenly appear, standing guard on street corners; more new businesses, and more whites faces follow, and follow.

This blurred process of change is known to urban dwellers across America, especially to those who move to Brooklyn, many of whom play a role in the process, tacitly or actively, including the authors of this story. In New York, few streets have changed quite so quickly or dramatically as Franklin Avenue has in recent years. When one speaks to those who do business and live, or have lived, in the neighborhood, a tapestry of stories emerges—some positive, others much less so—that is, at best, remarkably difficult to comprehend.

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Street scenes on a recent afternoon along Franklin Avenue
Street scenes on a recent afternoon along Franklin Avenue

Environmentally speaking, that Franklin Avenue gentrified at all should come as no surprise. The entire avenue runs for about three miles from the Brooklyn Navy Yard to Prospect Lefferts Gardens. The gentrified portion stretches from St. Marks Avenue to Eastern Parkway, and resonates east toward Nostrand Avenue and west toward Grand Army Plaza. It is exceedingly pedestrian-friendly, one of the rare strips in New York where there is more sidewalk than street. Crown Heights itself is rich with a gorgeous brownstone housing stock and lies a short distance from Prospect Park, one of the most popular outdoor spaces in New York City. It’s also served by a bevy of subway lines, providing convenient access to and from Manhattan.

Since 2008, fifty-two new businesses have opened along Franklin Avenue north of Eastern Parkway, with sixteen of them arriving in 2012, according to the popular neighborhood blog, I Love Franklin Avenue. In the same span of time, thirty establishments closed, with eleven going last year.

Today, the avenue bustles with economic and social activity. A strong sense of community reigns, one comprised of a wealth of residents from different generations and walks of life, which is apparent to anyone who takes the time to visit, grab a cup of coffee and watch the world go by for a couple minutes.

Franklin’s new business owners tend to be well-educated, in their thirties or forties, and proud of letting their personalities speak through their establishments. Many live in the neighborhood.

Michael De Zayas, thirty-eight, bought an apartment just off Franklin Avenue in 2012 and, shortly after, opened a Parisian-style café on Franklin, Little Zelda, named after his sixteen-month old daughter.

“One of the inspirations for me,” says De Zayas, “was that I love to read the newspaper and have a baguette every morning, and you couldn’t do that here before.”

De Zayas, who holds an MFA in poetry from Sarah Lawrence College, is not a career barista. He started out as a travel writer and then created a profitable custom t-shirt and sweatshirt company, which he recently sold. This fall, he also opened It Takes a Village, a non-profit community space for children to play and parents to congregate, across the street from Little Zelda. (He now has plans to relocate to a nearby building.)

Nearly one hundred families have already signed up, paying $35 dollars a month in membership fees. A majority of them are white, but De Zayas, whose father was born in Cuba, says he is working to bring in more families of different ethnicities. He hopes to purchase additional storefronts along Franklin and create other community spaces because, as he puts it, “I don’t want this to become Park Slope.”

“When I went into Park Slope with my stroller, I became invisible,” De Zayas says of his experience as a stay-at-home dad. “That isn’t the case here. People take the time to say ‘hi’ to each other. And a lot of my efforts are aimed at keeping that alive, at keeping the community engaged.”

Patrons outside Little Zelda, a cafe on Franklin Avenue in Crown Heights
Patrons outside Little Zelda, a cafe on Franklin Avenue in Crown Heights

That anyone could worry about Franklin Avenue turning into Park Slope, one of the wealthier, more undeniably gentrified neighborhoods in the entire city, is telling in and of itself. Not long ago, Crown Heights was considered a no-go zone for business.

“You know, two years ago if you told me, ‘Come to Franklin Avenue,’ I would say, ‘You must be crazy,’” says Atim Oton, co-chair of the Economic Development Committee for the local community board.

In 2004, Oton, a forty-three-year-old from Nigeria, left behind a successful career in architecture to found Calabar, a small chain of stores selling middle to high-end African, Asian and South American imports. Oton’s first store was on nearby Washington Avenue. In the spring of 2011, a fire destroyed a chunk of Oton’s merchandise and forced her to close until June. With time on her hands she looked east toward Franklin.

“I had known that this area was changing, but I didn’t quite know what kind of change it was going to be,” she says. “So I came down here and looked around and said, ‘OK, this is a shopping street.”

Oton leased a narrow storefront at 708 Franklin where she pays less than $2,000 a month, a steal compared to a neighborhood like Park Slope where she’d pay as much as $12,000. However, the cost of commercial real estate on Franklin Avenue is rising quickly.

Atim Oton in Calabar Imports, her Franklin Avenue shop specializing in fair-trade imports from West Africa and Asia
Atim Oton in Calabar Imports, her Franklin Avenue shop specializing in fair-trade imports from West Africa and Asia

“We signed our lease in March,” said Henry Carter, thirty-one, who opened Excelsior Bike Shop in a former storefront church at 694 Franklin Avenue last year. “A friend who’s a real estate agent basically told me that similar sized places on the block are now going for twenty to twenty-five percent more than what we signed for.”

Business owners say that rising commercial rent has played a roll in pushing out long-standing establishments, and even a few of the newer ones that tried to capitalize on the change.

For instance, Climax, a store selling urban clothing at 775 Franklin, is moving to Fulton Mall in Downtown Brooklyn, a popular shopping destination among minorities, which itself is undergoing a radical redevelopment. Similarly, the Franklin Avenue location of Mazon Discount, a small chain of dollar stores that has been in the neighborhood since the 1990s, has seen business lag, and is now bringing in goods it hopes newer residents will appreciate, like pet supplies.

“We’re not dead yet,” said Abraham, a twenty-seven-year-old employee, who like several people interviewed for this article preferred not to give his full name. But, he conceded, “business is down. Everything started changing.”

*   *   *

“Gentrification is here,” says Oton, the Calabar shops owner. “This is the avenue that is really dancing around it. We don’t want to talk about it. We’re afraid to have conversations about race and income and class. And that’s an American problem.”

popular local restaurant Chavella’s
popular local restaurant Chavella’s

Others are less concerned.

“I actually don’t have many feelings about it,” said one white newcomer, a twenty-eight-year-old woman who bought an apartment in the area last year. “I like my neighborhood because it’s nice and it has fancy coffee, but also because it’s still not totally white, so it’s a little less of a shopping mall.”

“Though,” she went on, “I’m looking forward to the Section 8 rentals in my building going condo as well,” so that property values will increase.

“But also because owners tend to respect the building more,” she said. “There’s been a shady police presence here, and a shooting next door that is somehow tied to one of the units.”

To be sure, white residents aren’t the only ones untroubled by the change.

Barboncino pizzeria and restaurant
Barboncino pizzeria and restaurant

“When I came here eight years ago the violence was calming down, but it was still there,” said Kathy, a younger African-American woman who pays $700 a month for a two-bedroom apartment on Franklin. “Now I would say it’s like a Little Manhattan over here. A lot of Caucasian people moved in—a lot. You saw one, then you saw three, then you saw a billion of them. And I think that’s what really changed the neighborhood.”

a corner deli
a corner deli

But that doesn’t really bother Kathy. “If it’s for you, it’s for you,” she said with a casual shrug and a drag off a cigarette, before adding that she now shops at the Fulton Mall for cheaper prices.

Meanwhile, many white residents seem torn between embracing the change and lamenting it. As Cory, a thirty-year-old white man who moved to the neighborhood in 2007, put it, “There’s a Haitian restaurant shitbox next door that I’d never dream of going into.”

“Where’s the thing in between that and Barboncino?” he said, referring to a trendy Neapolitan-style pizzeria that opened on Franklin two years ago to the unfettered delight of the foodie community.

“It’s just a little strange,” Cory explained. “You go from four-dollar Chinese food sold from behind bulletproof glass to a twenty-eight dollar pizza and a Lambrusco in half a block. What fills the gap between them?”

He thought for a moment and continued:

“But it’s weird because I really like Barboncino. They do something well. The food is terrific, it’s worth it. I just get the feeling that they were thinking about where the neighborhood was going rather than where it was when they opened.”

Often, these conversations come back to race. Some white women say they used to endure racially tinged catcalls from men in the neighborhood, but not so much any more. Conversely, some long-term black and West Indian residents say they continue to feel cold-shouldered by white newcomers.

“White people pass by here, and they’re talking, but they won’t talk to you,” said Edward, a Trinidadian-born property owner in his sixties who went on to perform a pantomime of a white person passing a black person—suddenly speeding up and averting eye contact.

“Ah come on!” he said, exasperated. “Let me tell you something. I’ve lived here thirty-seven years, and now I start to see white people moving in. And I’m telling you the truth now, I start to feel like…‘But why are all these people moving in? And I think to myself, ‘Ah shit!’ The changes around here’—the police start to change; all this other shit, all these bicycle things, bicycle stands. All these changes the last two or three years, and I say, ‘But why?”

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It would be a mistake to say that the change on Franklin came only from outside.

In the early 2000s, the avenue was still crime-ridden—”a hot, ugly, dirty, drug-infested street,” as once described by Evangeline Porter, the president of the Crow Hill Community Association.

Crow Hill, which was formed in 1984 and began attempting to revitalize Franklin Avenue in ’99, worked diligently to beautify the blocks, planting trees, removing graffiti, and asking homeowners to install gates instead of iron doors. They had no patience for the criminal element in the community or for those who littered and loitered on street corners. As one neighborhood observer put it, “If you look at the people who come to Crow Hill meetings, it’s not the guys who are getting stopped and frisked. It’s property-owning people, often women, often retirees, who’ve been here a long time, and who have very little nostalgia about what the neighborhood used to be.”

It wasn’t long after Crow Hill’s beatification blitz that white people began moving into the neighborhood. By 2008, the white population, though still a minority, had become a noticeable presence. Some got mugged, says resident Mike Fagan, a forty-three-year-old employee at a social service agency who is white and has lived in the neighborhood since 2003.

“There was a period,” Fagan said, “when the neighborhood attracted young, naïve white people who were mugged pretty frequently because they lacked street smarts and they couldn’t perceive risk. They brought an attention,” he added.

That “attention” was further heightened during the summer of 2009, when a string of fatal black-on-black shootings rattled the neighborhood. Concerned residents, local elected officials, and the Crow Hill Community Association (whose members declined requests to be interviewed for this story) made a vigorous, and successful, push to reapply an increased police presence, known in N.Y.P.D.-speak as an “Impact Zone.”

New York Police Department officers on a patrol shift at the Franklin Avenue subway station on a recent Saturday night.
New York Police Department officers on a patrol shift at the Franklin Avenue subway station on a recent Saturday night.

Impact Zones stem from “Broken-Windows” policing, a law enforcement practice that focuses on quality-of-life offenses like public urination, public drinking, graffiti and drug dealing in an effort to curtail the overall culture of street crime. The program was first launched by the NYPD in 2003.

Some in the neighborhood say that Franklin Avenue was targeted from the start. Others believe the Impact Zone has come and gone, and come back again. Nearly everyone interviewed for this story agreed that the community’s reaction to the muggings and shootings of 2009 had a re-energizing effect on it. Police officers became a regular presence on the avenue, standing at street corners and creating an environment in which criminal behavior could not go unnoticed. For some, the surge in cops seemed suspicious, as if it was designed to hasten the change.

“It’s kind of like, ‘Wow, you didn’t come before when we were calling, but now you’re here everyday,” said Craig, a forty-year-old black man who has lived in the neighborhood for seventeen years. “When out here was rough, if you called the police you was lucky if they came at all.”

Other residents reject the notion.

“A real cynic would say it’s about policing the street for development,” said Nick Juravich, a twenty-eight-year-old urban history PhD candidate at Columbia University. “But it’s more complex than that,” added Juravich, a neighborhood resident since 2008, who is white, and the author of the I Love Franklin Avenue blog. “It’s about who can speak to the police and who can navigate the channels of communication.”

Whatever the politics of the Impact Zone, it worked. Street corner drug handoffs and gunplay are now rare occurrences on Franklin Avenue. But many say its tactics have proved antagonistic. Some residents say the police officers bring a “war zone” mentality to their beat.

“These are often young cops who are strangers to the neighborhood,” said Juravich. “It’s an adversarial position.”

For young minority men, law-abiding and non-law-abiding alike, the specter of stop-and-frisk—an intensely controversial NYPD tactic that allows officers to search suspicious individuals for contraband or weapons—became a menace.

Abraham Paulos, a thirty-one-year-old of Eritrean descent who has lived in Crown Heights on and off for seven years, says he had no trouble with police before the Impact Zone came in. But in 2010 he was stopped and frisked twice, and wrongfully arrested once, spending a weekend in Rikers Island jail in the midst of midterm exams at The New School, where he was pursuing a master’s degree in—irony of ironies—human rights.

Paulos, who is now the executive director of Families for Freedom, the nonprofit group that supported him through his court case, first came to the U.S. from Sudan as part of an asylum program for stateless refugees. He still resides here on a Green Card status, so the arrest resulted in a threat of deportation before it was eventually overturned.

“If I was white I would be a gentrifier,” noted Paulos, who said he felt safer in pre-gentrified Crown Heights. “But I’m not, so I’m a threat.”

While no one in the neighborhood denies that the Impact Zone has made the streets safer, some wonder if it has actually stopped crime or merely pushed it away.

Henry Carter, owner of Excelsior Bicycles, likened it to “putting a drop of soap into a petri dish full of dirty water. All the dirt shoots out, but it’s nice and clean in the middle.” (Neither the 77th Precinct nor the NYPD’s press office responded to requests to learn more about the successes or failures of the Impact Zone.)

*   *   *

“These guys—right here,” Sharon says angrily, standing on Franklin Avenue and pointing up to a banner reading MySpace NYC. “These guys are changing the whole block.”

Sharon is a thirty-nine-year-old black woman, a former construction worker who has lived in the area for twenty-eight years. MySpace NYC is a real estate agency that arrived in 2008, and is perhaps the most controversial, notorious player in the entire Franklin Avenue saga.

By all accounts, MySpace, which is the most visible real estate firm in the neighborhood, does much more business as a brokerage firm working with landlords than it does as a landlord itself. But rumors abound about shell corporations that principals of the company create and then use to purchase property. A undated marketing letter from a group called IDG Holdings but signed by a principal of MySpace informs building owners: “We buy properties ‘As is’ and in any condition and price range. We pay Top Dollar, in Cash, without any Broker fees. We can close as fast as 7-10 days…”

“They try to harass you into selling,” said a West Indian man named Mike, who owns a building just off of Franklin on St. John’s Place. Two years ago, he put his building up for sale, but subsequently withdrew it from the market. He claims that MySpace NYC agents have been hounding him ever since.

“They call you at all kinds of hours,” said Mike. “They’ve come to my house and I have to chase them away…They make offers to you: ‘Oh, we’ve got lots of cash. Let’s do it right now,’ like you’re desperate…Every day the same thing. You tell them no, and no don’t mean nothing!”

The fact that many real estate agencies that do business in the neighborhood happen to be Jewish-owned injects another level of ugly ethnic animosity into the debate. “The Jews” was a phrase that slipped off of many peoples’ tongues in reporting on housing for this story—a kind of shorthand for “real estate” among many blacks and Latinos. (Just a few blocks off of Franklin lies one of the largest communities of Hasidic Jews outside of Israel.)

“I think it’s like the Jewish underground mob going on,” said Sharon. “From what I know of Jewish people, they all stick together…They try to handle their own business.”

But as for the ownership of MySpace NYC specifically, Sharon elaborated: “They’re not regular Jews who wear black. They wear the jeans, the designer labels.”

MySpace NYC refused to respond to multiple interview requests, including visits to its Crown Heights office. Sharon says she knows of instances in which MySpace offered renters buyouts—sometimes $5,000, sometimes $10,000 or more—to leave their apartments.

A MySpace real estate advertisement (Photo courtesy Newyorkshitty.com)
A MySpace real estate advertisement (Photo courtesy Newyorkshitty.com)

“My friend Charice,” Sharon said—“her and her mother were the only people I know of who came out on top. Myspace came with a $10,000 offer, and her husband was like ‘You better go back and do your math.’ She told me she got $35,000, her mother got $35,000. They put it together and got a house in Queens.”

Sharon’s friend Raquel Cruz had a harder time of it. Cruz is fifty-one and of Puerto Rican descent, a gregarious mother of five who still cares for a thirty-four-year-old daughter who suffered brain damaged at birth. She and her husband are diabetic. She works as a maid and also does odd jobs—cleaning, shoveling, painting, can collecting—anything to get by. “I’m a street hustler,” she says, “but a good one, you understand?”

In 2008, after having been bought out of an apartment in Brownsville and twice accused of owing $10,000 in back rent from a landlord on Franklin Avenue, Cruz moved with her husband and daughter into a six-unit apartment building at 724 Franklin, where the tenancy was mostly Dominican and the landlord was black.

The situation at 724 Franklin was a mess, said Cruz. The Dominican residents paid a mere $500 a month in rent, far under market value, when they paid at all.

“They had been there for forty and fifty years,” she said. “I was the only one who paid my rent.” According to Cruz, the landlord, with whom she sympathized, didn’t take non-paying tenants to court because “he didn’t have the money for the lawyer.”

The hallways were filthy, strewn with trash bags that attracted mice and rats. In the winter months, the landlord struggled to keep the units heated. “He couldn’t pay for the oil because no one paid rent,” Cruz recalled.

In early 2010, overwhelmed by violations, the landlord sold the building and fliers went up in the hallways informing the tenants of where rent was now to be paid: 722 Franklin Avenue, the address of MySpace NYC, which had approached the landlord with the purchasing offer, Cruz says.

“They didn’t say, ‘You have to leave,’” she said, “but I knew that was their purpose, because I’d already been evicted by the Jews. I knew what they’re capable of doing.”

Raquel Cruz stands outside her former apartment building on Franklin Avenue
Raquel Cruz stands outside her former apartment building on Franklin Avenue

Across the street, Michael Kunitzky first caught wind of the sale when the owner of a deli he used to frequent in Cruz’s building told him he was packing up and moving to Florida. The deli has since turned into the Crown Inn, a popular neighborhood bar serving classic cocktails and pork belly sandwiches.

Kunitzky is thirty-seven years old and white. He moved into the neighborhood in 2005, and, soon after, opened LaunchPad, a free “community gathering place” that hosts screenwriting workshops and storytelling nights, and shares a space with It Takes a Village, directly across from Cruz’s old apartment.

The news of the deli’s closing piqued Kunitzky’s interest. “That was the first rumor,” he said. “A few months later they started getting people out of there.”

“It all happened so quick,” remembered Cruz, who had previously met Kunitzky at community events. “They relocated everybody.”

Most of the Dominican tenants had passed their apartments down from relative to relative and lacked leases, Cruz notes, so they were in no position to negotiate with MySpace NYC agents, whom Cruz says offered meager buyouts. “One went to Brownsville,” she said. “Another to Lincoln and Classon, another went to Union Ave.”

Concerned but unsure of what was happening, Kunitzky casually broached the subject with Guy Hochman, one of MySpace’s owners. “I don’t think he fully understood my feelings,” said Kunitzky. “He was complaining to me about the buyout payments. ‘Oh, you know, we’ve got to pay these people off, and it’s a pain in the ass.’ And I kind of gave him this strange look, like, ‘You’re crying to the wrong person, my sympathies don’t lie with you.’”

Cruz says she was offered $10,000 and three months paid rent at a two-bedroom apartment “with a little skinny kitchen” on Quincy Street in Bedford-Stuyvesant, with a rent of $1,300 a month, $400 more than she was paying on Franklin Avenue. MySpace also offered to pay for her moving costs and provide her with a permanent cleaning job. Cruz admits that MySpace also had done “nice things” for her in the past, such as offering her one-off cleaning gigs. “But they were nice to me because they had to be,” she says. “If they had treated me bad they wouldn’t have been able to get me out. They had to play me.”

She knew that she would struggle to afford the $1,300 a month rent, but she says she felt compelled to sign, pressured by the money and the fact that her neighbors were vacating.

“My husband said, ‘We’re not leaving,’” Cruz remembers. “He said, ‘Don’t go behind my back signing no papers.’ I said, ‘No, I’m not going to do it.” And boom! I went and signed the papers behind his back.”

By this point, Kunitzky had confirmed his suspicions and confronted MySpace’s ownership in their office. “They made mention again that there were people in the building who were willing to take payments,” said Kunitzky. “I told them, ‘You’re taking advantage of people who don’t understand the economics of what’s happening,’ which was not very well received.”

“The day that it really escalated,” however, “was when Raquel was getting forced out,” he said of Cruz.

It was late one spring morning in 2010 and there was a commotion in the street. Cruz and her husband were ordering moving men to bring all of their furniture, which had been brought onto Franklin Avenue, back into their apartment.

“I had a deadline to move out,” Cruz said, “and I went over, something like a couple hours. And then they were telling me that they weren’t going to give me my money!”

“That’s when I ran and got Mike.”

When Cruz showed Kunitzky her contract, he became enraged. “That was the last piece I needed to see,” he said. “Her contract stated that she had to be out by, like, noon, and it was about 1 PM, so they were trying not to pay her. I went over there and just said to them, ‘Look, she’s not fucking going anywhere.’”

Kunitzky threatened to take legal action. He says he was then confronted by a MySpace employee, “an ex-Marine,” and by a man believed to be a MySpace owner. Punches were almost thrown.

“Everybody wanted to hit somebody,” Cruz recalls. “Chaos.”

Eventually, things calmed down and Cruz was assured she would get her money. Kunitzky took her aside to talk.

“Look,” he remembers saying, “this is completely up to you. You don’t want to take the money? You don’t want to leave? Rip up this contract right now.”

But Cruz did want the money, and she did end up leaving, a decision she now realizes she didn’t have to make.

“They played me, they played me,” she says.

Soon after Cruz left, the last holdout gave in and the building flipped completely. The property was renovated and the new residents, as Kunizky puts it, “appear to be in a much different socio-economic class than the previous tenants.”

A sign on a vacant house in Crown Heights
A sign on a vacant house in Crown Heights

Jonathan Boe, a former MySpace broker told a City Limits reporter in June 2011 that although he wasn’t directly involved with 724 Franklin, the renovation scenario, to paraphrase the reporter, “sounds familiar.”

“They love gentrification,” Boe was quoted as saying. “It’s getting tenants who are willing to pay higher rent.”

Cruz’s own higher rent at her new apartment nearly drove her into financial ruin. She never got the permanent job MySpace had promised her, she said, and she began pawning her belongings to stay afloat. Then, one day, she recalls, “one of the beautiful parts of the story” of her life took place.

About four months after moving, she was walking past her old apartment on Franklin Avenue on the way to a cleaning gig.

“My husband is always asking me ‘Why do you always look down at the ground?’” she says. “I tell him, ‘Because I have found nice things on the ground. I’ve found nice earrings. One time I found a one hundred dollar bill.’” On this particular day, Cruz found a letter that was addressed to her, covered in footprints. It was from the New York City Housing Authority. When she opened it she learned she had been granted public disability housing, which she had applied for years earlier.

“I was screaming,” Cruz said. “I was jumping for joy.”

The housing authority had been trying to reach her for weeks, Cruz says, sending letters to her old address. She had only one day left to respond before losing the spot in the Albany Houses, a public housing project a mile east of Franklin Avenue, deeper into Crown Heights.

“That’s where I am today,” Cruz said.

She only pays $82 a month in rent.

*   *   *

It is important to dispel the myth that gentrification is a natural process, says twenty-two-year-old Crown Heights resident Nick Petrie, “because it so conveniently leaves out very important actors in the process.” Petrie, a community organizer who has lived in the neighborhood since September, is working in his free time to bring awareness to some of these actors—those who push gentrification for profit—through a group he helps administer called the Crown Heights Assembly. The year-old Occupy-inspired organization has a goal of bringing new and longtime residents together to organize against what they see as predatory housing practices. Specifically, the assembly is focused on exposing what they consider to be collusion between deadbeat landlords and real estate companies that do business with them, like MySpace NYC.

Between fifteen and fifty community members generally attend the group’s monthly meetings, and about two hundred people are on their email list, reports another organizer, Ryan Richardson. In November 2012, the assemby staged a small protest outside MySpace’s Franklin Avenue office, demanding the company provide prospective tenants a legal rent history and compel landlords to stop displacing residents.

At a recent Crown Heights Assembly meeting, Petrie sat beside his upstairs neighbor, Sonja Bent, fifty-two. Both live in an apartment building at 577 St. Johns Place. Petrie pays $1,800. Bent pays $1,033 for the same amount of space.

Petrie, who is white, says he found the apartment through Craigslist. “The first time I learned it was MySpace” representing it, he said, “was when the logos were on the papers.”

Within the first month of living in the apartment, Petrie had dealt with rats in the walls, spotty heating and a ceiling that had collapsed four times, due to a water leak in the apartment above his—Sonja Bent’s.

Bent, who has lived in the apartment for eighteen years, is one of three remaining long-term residents who have refused to give in to the pressures to leave by the building’s landlord, Elcorno Martin, whose 142 reported housing violations rank him among Brooklyn’s “50 Worst Landlords,” according to city Public Advocate Bill de Blasio.

Petrie says he had no idea of the battles he would face from Martin in trying to get repairs.

“He effectively could take the place of a cartoon villain,” says Petrie. “Where some people might say, ‘Oh, okay, I’ll fix it,’ and they never do, he just yells at you.” Petrie says his apartment’s neglect is connected, literally, to Bent’s. It was leaking pipes in Bent’s apartment that caused Petrie’s ceiling to collapse. Bent, for her part, says she has requested repairs for years, and filed numerous complaints with the housing authority, none of which have led to any improvement.

Leaky pipes, though, are just one item on the docket of repairs-to-be-done in Bent’s apartment. The front door, which looks like it has not been painted in decades, is attached by one hinge. In the kitchen, a large hole in the wall under the sink goes straight through to the bathroom, which provides rats and even raccoons with easy access to the apartment. (Bent once battled off a raccoon inside of her apartment. “They come up from the basement,” says her daughter, Harmony, sixteen.)

A hole beneath the kitchen sink in Sonja Bent’s apartment
A hole beneath the kitchen sink in Sonja Bent’s apartment

The bathroom ceiling is dotted with black mold. A long, thin crack runs through the living room wall. The master bedroom is lit by freestanding lamps because the overhead light fixture has been broken for years. The dim lights are just bright enough to illuminate large water stains in the bedroom.

Bent takes this all as a not-so-subtle message from Martin to get out. But she is determined to stay, she says, not because she loves the building or the neighborhood, but because she wants to teach her children, by example, to stand up for themselves.

“I have four children at home with me, two out of the home, and if I leave now, what am I teaching them—just walk away?” Bent explained. “I have to teach them that just because the odds are stacked up against you doesn’t give you an excuse to walk away. I have to teach them to stand up and fight for themselves.”

*   *   *

The Crown Heights Assembly believes, in the words of Richardson, the organizer, that “none of this stuff is inevitable.” Local businessman  Kevin Phillip, who has no involvement with the assembly, would agree—to a point.

Phillip, forty-one, was born in Trinidad and owns two successful businesses on Franklin—vintage-themed sweets shop Candy Rush and a sandwich spot called Taste Buds. He is well known and well liked in the neighborhood.

Kevin Phillip, owner of Taste Buds sandwich shop on Franklin Avenue, sits and waits for customers on a weekday afternoon
Kevin Phillip, owner of Taste Buds sandwich shop on Franklin Avenue, sits and waits for customers on a weekday afternoon

“The only person I can say who’s really helping fight for the neighborhood is Kevin,” said Sharon, the longtime resident and MySpace NYC hater.

Phillip is also one of the few pre-gentrification business owners who saw the change coming and capitalized on it. An electrician by trade, he owns four trademarks as well as a building on Franklin Avenue, which he bought eleven years ago and has run multiple businesses out of.

“In a neighborhood that’s changing like this one, you have to be quick on your feet,” he said.

On the question of change he is, by all accounts, a realist.

“Reality is, if building owners sit down with Real Estate, and Real Estate says, ‘Look, I’ve got all these people looking for apartments, and you have what I need,’ it’s Business 101, basic math,” Phillip says.

In discussing the wave of economic interest that has swept over Franklin Avenue with people like Phillip, an attitudinal divide begins to emerge. Some think it doesn’t have to be so cutthroat and profit-driven; others say, “Maybe it doesn’t, but it is, so get smart.”

Of the impression that exists among some blacks and Latinos that “the Jews” are out to get them, Phillip, whose business partner is Jewish, shakes his head: “They want to make it like that. But it’s the wrong idea,” he says. “It’s totally the wrong idea…No one’s out to get anyone. They’re out to get their money. That’s what they’re out to get. This is America. America was built like that.”

Similarly, Phillip says of buyouts: “If you’re taking one, it’s like going for fool’s gold.”

*   *   *

What would it look like, then, what would it take, for a street like Franklin to transition from impoverished and crime-ridden to safe and enjoyable in a way that doesn’t wash out those in the lower economic brackets?

“I think it would take an enormous amount of work and action at many different levels,” says Juravich, the urban history doctoral candidate. “It would take concerted legal action. It would take political action. It would take public consciousness. It would take outreach.”

“But it happens every now and then,” he says. “Or it could happen.”

Michael DeZayas, who’s working to ensure the neighborhood doesn’t “turn into Park Slope,” agrees that it’s possible. Others are less sanguine.

“Everything is going to become another Park Slope because that’s the way that this works,” said one neighborhood observer.

Another, a thirty-year-old white woman named Mindy who moved to the neighborhood in 2006, recalled an incident last summer when she was approached in front of her apartment by a white guy in his thirties. “His whole presence screamed yuppie,” Mindy remembers, “and he said, ‘Excuse me, Miss, did you hear the loud music playing last night?’

“I said, ‘Of course. Is this your first summer here? It happens every Saturday night. It’s no big deal once you get used to it. Just part of the neighborhood flavor.’

“And then he was like, ‘Hey, I’ve got a young baby. I can’t be having her kept awake all night. It’s unacceptable and the police need to shut it down.’

“I just wished him luck,” Mindy said, dismissively.

The neighbor may not need it. In April, a group of investors led by Jonathan Butler, founder of the popular real estate blog Brownstoner as well as the artisanal Brooklyn Flea market, and including the Goldman Sachs Urban Investment Group, purchased the former Studebaker service station at 1000 Dean Street, just off of Franklin Avenue, for $11 million. They plan on turning the building into a mix of commercial and creative spaces that should be completed in the summer of 2013, and will likely receive another $20 million in investment–a level never before seen in Crown Heights.

A view of Franklin Avenue from above
A view of Franklin Avenue from above

“Until now, we’ve seen maybe local and borough-wide entrepreneurs,” said Juravich. “But when you have Goldman investing, those kinds of folks have different imperatives, they have different kinds of connections.”

Around the time of the 1000 Dean purchase, a Long Island group bought an empty lot at the corner of Franklin and Eastern Parkway for over eight million dollars. Sixty-three luxury condos and more then eight thousand square feet of street-level retail are in the works.

“These are not differences in degree,” Juravich said. “These are differences in kind.”

With luxury development of that scale already rising, even the most die-hard community activists admit this stretch of Crown Heights may not have a place for low-income residents much longer.

“It took a bit of wind out of my sails, watching what happened in this neighborhood, watching how it happened,” said Kunitzky, the resident who tangled with MySpace. “I don’t know how to beat this. I don’t know how anyone can beat this machine.”

“I can see the flip side of it,” he went on. “Everyone likes to say, ‘But the neighborhood is so much safer now. And it’s so much nicer for everyone. And there’s such a better quality of life here now.’ And that’s undeniable.

“But I still think there’s a better and more ethical way to get from a broken down, crime-ridden, drug-ridden neighborhood to a place that is safe and enjoyable for everyone while still maintaining a sense of community ownership.”

Others accept what has happened to Franklin Avenue as just another cold reality, one that plays out through each borough of this city, and others, time and time again.

“Given how wealth and income and education are currently distributed, very few neighborhoods stay diverse for very long,” said Fagan, the social service worker. “So the edge of gentrification will be mixed, but as time goes on, it won’t be.”

“It’s a blurry line,” Fagan concluded. “And we lived in the blur.”

* * *

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

See the complete list of Editors’ Picks here.

* * *

Vinnie Rotondaro is a contributing editor at Narratively. He lives and writes in Brooklyn.

Maura Ewing is a Brooklyn-based writer, and a student at The New School for Social Research where she is pursuing an MA in Liberal Studies. You can read more of her work here.

Mo Scarpelli is a Brooklyn-based filmmaker and multimedia journalist. She likes hanging out with people until they forget she’s there, and filming or photographing the whole damn thing. Her work has appeared on the BBC, The Wall Street Journal, Africa Review and The Huffington Post. Follow her on Twitter @moscarpelli.

These Gender-Nonconforming People Are Building a Safe Haven on an Appalachian Farm

Growing their own food and winning over their neighbors, they feel safer in rural West Virginia than they ever did in the big city.

Up the narrow, winding roads where the Appalachian Mountains cut through West Virginia, the countryside is dotted with squat one-story homes. Some are decorated with American flags and covered in slabs of cheap plywood; other homes are sturdier buildings painted with delicate country motifs. In each yard, animals wander freely, and golden sunlight bounces off the purple wildflowers and rolling meadows.

One small town here, a settlement established in the 1800s, has a Walmart, a gas station, a Wendy’s fast food restaurant, and a handful of churches. Down a forked road, half an hour outside town, the pavement turns to gravel and the landscape changes to deep forest. It’s here that Honeybee Williams’ new home comes into view, its sharp, modern angles contrasting with the softness of the countryside and her surrounding 65-acre-farm. On a summer afternoon, Williams, a 26-year-old transgender woman from Maryland, sits at a long, rectangular table in the garden in front of her new home, wearing a lacy pink dress and braiding a piece of grass, her dirty blonde hair tucked into a ponytail at the nape of her neck.

Williams and a small group of young transgender people are working to transform this Appalachian community, with its dwindling population and flailing economy, into a place where LGBTQ people can rebuild local ecosystems and fight for environmental justice and sustainability.

To some, this region, where trees outnumber people, might seem like a strange choice for a group of marginalized people looking for community and safety. Residents of Appalachia have a reputation for being wary of outsiders, and much of the region is politically and socially conservative. But Williams and the rest of the farm’s residents (whose names have been changed here to protect them from the violence, harassment, and discrimination transgender people regularly face), say Appalachia’s open spaces and sparse population offer an opportunity for LGBTQ people who feel isolated and alone.

* * *

It started with a death. Last year, when a local artist died, and left the 65-acre property and home he built to the West Virginia Regional Land Trust, the Trust’s board decided to give it to a group of people aiming to create an intentional community. The Trust launched a call for proposals and asked applicants to submit a one-page description of what they would do with the land. Williams, along with Sara Smith, an Indian-American transgender woman from Detroit, and Jamie Taylor, a gender-neutral Native American from North Carolina, both of whom are in their late twenties, jumped at the opportunity. Their six-page proposal included a five-year plan, a resource assessment, a fundraising campaign to build new infrastructure on the property, and a detailed framework for developing an intentional community for LGBTQ people with a particular emphasis on people of color.

Williams and her boyfriend, Heron, were living in their car with their two dogs when they heard about the call for proposals. Heron is 24 years old and grew up in rural Maine. In his free time he plays the fiddle, collects rocks, and classifies different types of moss. Today he lives with Williams on the farm and enjoys bluegrass music, whittling, and herb farming.

Honeybee Williams.

After facing constant harassment in big cities for the way she looked and dressed, Williams chose to drive up and down the East Coast doing seasonal work and taking on odd jobs, like picking blueberries in Maine or helping a friend with a construction project. For her, moving to Appalachia was a chance to have a fresh start and a permanent home again.

“I thought, this is the one chance I’m going to get,” Williams remembers. “I wanted to show these people who don’t know me that they could give this land to these trans kids and expect that we would take care of the place.”

Since then, the group has learned the history of West Virginia and how the economy has changed Appalachia’s landscape. They’ve made it their mission to remove the invasive plant autumn olive from their property, and they’ve started to forge relationships with their neighbors. The group has gotten particularly close with one of the women on the Trust’s board, a member of the Catholic Worker Movement (a group of autonomous Catholic communities) who moved to Appalachia several decades ago. Williams, Smith, and Taylor occasionally give tours of the area to groups of Catholic students visiting Appalachia to learn about conservation. One of their main goals is to promote community resiliency in the region, which has been impacted by flooding and pollution and has lost many of its traditional farming practices.

“This hollow used to produce so much of its food, and people have gotten away from those ways,” says Williams, as she sits in the property’s serene garden, surrounded by edible plants. “Community resiliency is about us being in it together and building something sustainable for generations to come. We want to live in a place where we can make connections with our neighbors, where we can grow grains that we know are going to grow in this region.”

The property contains the small house where the group lives, several gardens for growing vegetables, fields of grass the residents hope to convert into farmland, a pen where their 14 ducks live, and acres of wooded hills. Deep in the woods is a dilapidated WWII-era cabin and a dried-up ditch where a small pond used to be. The group lives in quiet intimacy on the property, telling jokes and engaging in long conversations when they want company, or writing, playing music, gardening, and doing housework in solitude. Each person uses their unique talents to turn the place into a home.

Williams and her boyfriend were the first people to move onto the land, and she has taken a lead role in building and mending the house. Arriving in December of 2016, her first major project was to fix their only source of heating, a stove that was falling apart after years of disuse. It was snowing on the day she moved in, and Williams surveyed the wood stove with its missing stovepipe.

“I was like, I’m going to the hardware store and buying a stovepipe and attaching it to the roof so we don’t freeze,” she says, laughing.

Williams, Smith and Taylor launch into a jovial assessment of her handiwork, giggling as they point to the spots where the stovepipe jutting from their roof is still lopsided.

Smith is a slender, 28-year-old transgender woman of Indian descent. Her sleek black hair is fasted in a ponytail that hangs coquettishly at the side of her head, and she is wearing a loose turquoise shirt and long black maxi skirt decorated with sequins. She and Taylor tease Williams, but Williams appears confident about her work.

Taylor looks over the garden.

“I knew the stovepipe had to be higher than the roof to create a draw and pull all of the air out,” she explains. “I’m the builder, I’ve never grown a tomato in my life, you can’t expect me to keep anything alive, but I can fix a window and put in a door, I can put up a stovepipe or dig a hole.”

The group is now focusing on making the property as hospitable as possible so other people will be tempted to join them here. Williams constructed a homemade toilet from a deep hole in the ground and a plastic bucket with a toilet seat fastened on top. Slabs of wood surrounding the toilet offer a semblance of privacy. But the property has no electricity for now, and there are wild animals. One day, Williams was sitting in a wheelbarrow reading a book when a bobcat walked down the road. Her boyfriend was almost attacked by a bobcat when he was singing in the garden another day; Williams is convinced that his subpar singing voice was what attracted the beast. The area is also known to have mountain lions, and bears and deer regularly visit the property’s garden to eat the kale and squash.

* * *

For Williams, the threat of wild animals is far less perilous than the threat she faced from other humans before moving to Appalachia. When she lived in cities like Baltimore and Washington D.C., Williams was physically threatened and harassed more times than she can count. All of the farm’s inhabitants share memories of the trauma and discrimination they faced in more populated urban centers as a result of their gender identity. Everyone living at the farm had trouble talking about their gender with their families, were physically attacked or threatened while living in cities, and faced persistent homelessness. In D.C. and Baltimore, Williams and her friends were regularly grabbed or groped by passing cyclists, and people often screamed insults at them from passing cars. Street harassment was an everyday occurrence.

Last year, at least 23 transgender people died in the United States due to violence, the highest number ever recorded, according to the Human Rights Campaign. The group also reports that fatal violence disproportionately affects transgender women of color, and that the intersections of racism, sexism, homophobia, and transphobia often deprive these women of employment, housing and healthcare, making them especially vulnerable.

Williams was working as a labor organizer in Baltimore when she decided to go “full-time,” a term for when transgender people begin to represent their true gender identity all of the time. The shift was incremental. First, she started wearing dresses every day, then she began fixing her eyebrows, wearing makeup, and growing her hair long. Now her dirty blonde hair reaches past her shoulders. But this transition was far from easy. She says the community organizers she worked with, people who claimed to be radical and progressive, were not comfortable interacting with and supporting transgender people.

“I was facing huge amounts of street harassment and violence that I’d never experienced before,” says Williams, remembering the time when she began identifying as a woman. “Doing it sometimes in controlled environments is different from doing it every day and needing to get on this bus and go to work.”

As time went on, her mental health began to deteriorate. Terrified of being attacked, she stopped leaving the house and seeing her friends. When she did go out, she carried a baton for self-defense. Williams was yelled at, catcalled, and harassed every day on the streets of Baltimore, and she was physically attacked so many times she was sure one day someone would kill her.

She feels safer now that she’s living in Appalachia. The fact that she knows all of her neighbors, and that there aren’t very many of them, is preferable to being stared and yelled at by strangers in the city each day. There are several families living up the gravel road near their property, a man who lives alone, and one gay man who lives in the town and works at a restaurant. The group has made contact with all of them with varying degrees of success, but they spend most of their time at home working on the property. One of the farm’s neighbors, another man who lives by himself, brings them fresh eggs and tomatoes sometimes.

“In the city you can have the anonymity to be any terrible human being that you want to be without any repercussion, but here you know who everyone is,” she says. “Everyone who has a Confederate flag out here, we know their names, we interact with them on a regular basis. There is a sense of community that you don’t have in the city.”

Smith wanders over to the table carrying a plate of salad greens freshly picked from the garden. The array of herbs and leaves is richer and tastier than the produce found in most supermarkets.

“Oh, it’s a friendly little kale bug,” she coos, picking the insect off of the leaf and flicking it onto the ground. A few minutes later she lobs a piece of apple into the nearby compost pile.

“There is kale, there is something called shiso, which is strongly antibacterial, there is amaranth, chickweed, arugula, buckwheat, so it’s half grown and half wild… I can talk for hours about microgreens,” she continues, gesturing towards the salad on her plate. “You should try shiso, it’s like basil meets mint.”

Smith is the group’s permaculture expert. She began learning about farming after leaving her job as an engineer with an automobile company in Michigan when she was in her early twenties. Her decision to leave home was fueled by the feeling that she couldn’t fully express herself with her family and co-workers. Her parents, who had immigrated to the U.S. from India a few years before her birth, had a hard time accepting that their child was transgender.

“My dad grew up in the 1980s in India and everyone was really fearful of AIDS, so I think there was a lot of propaganda against gay men and how they are evil; although, if you look back in Hinduism there is actually a tradition of gender non-conforming people, and you can find it in the scriptures that being trans is powerful,” she says, adjusting her flowing black skirt with a manicured hand.

Smith’s parents were angry when she explained her gender identity to them. They yelled and screamed and mentioned that she played with boys’ toys as a child.

After leaving home and quitting her job, she bounced between farming projects in New Hampshire, Colorado, New Mexico and California for a few years, and eventually began working for a solar energy company in D.C. It was there that she connected with Williams and several of the farm’s other residents. The women were involved in organizing grassroots activities and charity events for the LGBTQ community in Washington. But Smith also experienced violence while living in the city.

“Violence of all kinds comes hand-in-hand with being gender non-conforming. There is a big relationship between violence and gender,” she explains. “I felt pretty unsafe in D.C.”

People regularly threatened Smith’s physical safety, and she had weapons pulled on her on numerous occasions while living in the city. Like Williams, she feels safer now that she’s living in Appalachia, but being a person of color in a majority white community has added an extra challenge. When Smith and Williams visited a local government office to request food stamps, Williams, who is white, was given the food stamps right away, while Smith, who is of Indian descent, was asked to prove that she is a citizen. She often has to modify her real name because people don’t know how to pronounce it.

“I’m very aware of being different through multiple layers,” she says. “I told [neighbors] the name of the town where I was born, and they were like, ‘In America?’ I said, yeah, I was born in Detroit, and they were like, ‘Detroit, America?’”

* * *

Today, the group is working to build the relationships of mutual support and trust that are the pillar of Appalachian society. Down the narrow gravel road where they live, they are slowly reaching out to their closest neighbors. Williams, who is a trained medic, has informed the neighbors that their house has Narcan, a prescription medicine that blocks the effects of opioids and reverses a drug overdose.

West Virginia has the highest rate of overdose deaths in a country plagued by an opioid epidemic. In 2015, the state’s drug overdose death rate was 41.5 cases per 100,000 residents, nearly three times the national average, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Williams thinks a big part of the reason so many people die in West Virginia is because they are too far from a hospital when they overdose. Offering Narcan might make people feel awkward at first, but she thinks it’s better in the long run that they know the drug is available nearby.

Despite their efforts, sometimes neighbors can be standoffish. Many aren’t accustomed to having outsiders move in. In the nearest town, the population fell by around seven percent between 2010 and 2016.

Meanwhile, the farm’s isolation can lead to something the group nicknamed the “hollow ramble.”

“We’ll see people in town who we know and we’ll just start rambling on about a lot of stuff people don’t even care about,” explains Jamie Taylor, 28, who met Williams and Smith in Washington D.C. and later joined them in Appalachia.

Taylor, one of five siblings, grew up in an impoverished North Carolina fishing village. As a teenager, they began reading blogs on Tumblr and learning the terminology needed to self-identify as transgender. But when they came out at the age of 15, their religious stepfather attacked them viciously. After leaving North Carolina at the age of 25, Taylor experienced homelessness on numerous occasions.

Honeybee, Sara and Taylor walk through their garden.

Today, Taylor sits basking in the sun at the long rectangular table, wearing jean shorts over their slender legs and a shiny headband to hold back their chin-length blonde hair. Taylor often catches themself talking to the farm’s 14 ducks, and sometimes Taylor even hand-feeds them and cradles them on their lap.

Williams, too, has examples of her hollow ramble.

“The weeds are this tall now, we need to cut the grass, maybe it’ll rain next week, the deer ate my squash, you won’t believe what this duck did, I put a couple of screws in that piece of wood,” she describes, laughing. “And you just ramble and ramble, because other than each other we haven’t seen other human beings in like four days.”

Still, all of the farm’s residents are excited about transforming the community into a safe and sustainable place that can accommodate more LGBTQ people. Smith is especially excited about promoting anti-racism, environmental justice, and justice for transgender people, and she wants the farm to be a place for people to do different iterations of that work without too many rules.

“LGBTQ folks in rural areas don’t have community, but there are issues we can tangibly address by offering residency, among other things,” Smith explains.

In the quiet atmosphere of the garden, surrounded by sorghum and pumpkin plants, the group discusses their numerous projects and plans for collaborative farming and community resiliency. Raising ducks, planting seeds, building beehives, and milling wheat are all on the agenda, as is planting fruit and nut trees.

They temper their excitement about the new project by remembering how much hard work is needed to create a sustainable project that people will be interested in joining.

“Here we have steep hills, but there is a lot of potential to grow a huge percentage of the food we eat,” Williams says as she continues to braid the long piece of grass.

She pauses and looks around.

“This is better than anything else I’ve ever had.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

* * *

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

* * *

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

That Time I Tried Topless House Cleaning

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

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

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

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

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

Ayep,” Possum replies in his drawl.

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

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

* * *

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

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

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

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

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

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

* * *

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Awright.” He hangs up.

“Will you touch it?” Jim asks.

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

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

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

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

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

“A hundred?”

“Oh, no. I couldn’t.”

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

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

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

“Oh my god,” he says.

I giggle. “No, goddess.”

“Oh my goddess.” He smiles.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

* * *

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

The Day My Therapist Dared Me to Have Sex With Her

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

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

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

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

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

“Oh, yeah,” I say. “That.”

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

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

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

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

I shrugged my shoulders, only half looking up.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Nailed it.

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

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

* * *

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Why not?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

There were two ways to find out:

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

2) Keep going to therapy.

* * *

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

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

“I don’t know.”

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

Here we go again.

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

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

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

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

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

“What?” I respond, flustered.

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

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

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

“Of course not.”

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

“I wouldn’t do that.”

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

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

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

* * *

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Isn’t therapy supposed to ameliorate my anxiety?

* * *

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Exactly.”

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

* * *

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Lori’s great at forcing me to reflect.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

* * *

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

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

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

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

* * *

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

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

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

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

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

* * *

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

See the complete list of Editors’ Picks here. 

* *

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

* * *

“What’s your favorite porn scene?”

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

The possibilities run through my head.

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

They’re also lies.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Are you sure?”

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

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

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

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

“Go on.”

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

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

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

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

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

And so I tell him.

* * *

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

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

And then realizing that person is me.

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

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

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

I was out of control.

* * *

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

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

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

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

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

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

* * *

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

That’s why I need to tell my husband.

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

* * *

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

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