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.

*   *   *

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?”

*   *   *

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.

In Most Schools, Gifted Students with Learning Disabilities Are Left Behind. Not Here.

Micaela Bracamonte was sick of seeing her sons struggle in settings that weren’t equipped for “twice exceptional” students. So she founded a school of her own.

A group of seven- and eight-year-old kids cluster around tables, solving math problems designed for students five grades ahead of them. They’re asked to add and subtract different amounts of minutes from a specific time, and are timed on how fast they can solve the problems. “So, if it’s 10:15 a.m. and you move 450 minutes into the future, what time is it? Then move 105 minutes back. What time is it now? Go!”

A tiny whiz kid tackles these problems with ease, which thrills him. Standing at about three-foot-eleven, his leg is as wide as some adults’ wrists. Unable to sit still, the invitation to show off his strategy on the board in the front of the room is met with a leap and a sprint.

“What’s the difference between this time and this number? You’ve got to subtract the fifteen minutes from 10:15 and then write the rest out as an equation,” he explains proudly. “I’m so good at this now I can see the equation in the first second! If you guys want to get fast at doing this, this is what you’ve got to do. You’ve got to use this strategy!”

The kids in this class are not just exceptionally smart. They’re “twice exceptional,” or “2e,” a term that refers to students who are academically gifted and also have learning disabilities.

A 6th-grade math class, where the students learn pre-algebra at the Lang School in Manhattan.

A co-teacher and a learning specialist accompany the head teacher in this classroom at the Lang School in Manhattan’s Financial District, an institution dedicated to twice exceptional kids. The learning specialist is consoling a girl in the corner who has been crying for over a half hour. This is a normal occurrence. She suffers from anxiety so debilitating she can’t function in a more conventional school.

Although the notion of being well above average in certain academic areas but an underperformer in others doesn’t seem too novel, twice exceptionality is rarely represented in academic literature. Compared to the amount of study and research devoted to special education and gifted education, twice exceptional education receives barely a peep. Many special and gifted education practitioners do not even know the term.

Children’s writing on the “graffiti wall” in the hallway at the Lang School. The graffiti walls are replaced each year, and the old ones are kept for posterity.

The federal government doesn’t track twice exceptionality, but, beginning in 2008, the state of Minnesota researched it during a five-year study of public primary school children. The study determined 14 percent of the gifted students studied were also learning-disabled. (The National Association for Gifted Children defines “gifted” children as having “outstanding levels of aptitude or competence in one or more domains” including math, music, language, painting, dance or sports.)

Some public-school students who are eligible for special education can have Individualized Education Programs (IEPs) developed, but many schools don’t have the resources to match twice exceptional students’ more complex requirements. Assistance may be needed for challenges with focus, organization, motivation, time management, anxiety, depression, motor skills, speech skills, memory, and socialization – as well as teaching designed for gifted students.

* * *

The Lang School was founded by Micaela Bracamonte, a 52-year-old mother who was concerned that her own twice exceptional children weren’t getting the attention and support they needed – and it’s one of just ten schools (all private) in the U.S. exclusively serving twice exceptional students.

As a twice exceptional student herself, Bracamonte’s own academic life, growing up in Bethesda, Maryland, was one of frustration, rebelliousness and conflict, fueled by a lack of support for her twice exceptionality. She could speak three languages by first grade, but was held back because she couldn’t recall the alphabet in order. By third grade, she’d read many of her school’s textbooks, but was still not allowed to advance.

As the anger from being misunderstood and alienated mixed with intellectual boredom, year after year, Bracamonte began to detest social convention and authority. She turned to athletics, pouring 30 hours a week into gymnastics and track and field training, but with bitterness. When she was about to get first, second, or third place in a race – when there was something at stake – she would stop just short of the finish line and walk off the track.

“I wanted to make a point,” she says. “I wanted my coaches and school to know I didn’t care about them, or the medals, or the accolades.”

She believed school failed her, and that pain didn’t fade. Watching her children experience similar issues lit a fire in her.

Bracamonte’s older son, Julien, 18, began his academic career in public school, where his combination of ADHD and a high IQ forced his teachers to confront a challenge they were never trained to meet. Julien was always getting up and walking around the room, a thinking tool for him but a distraction for others in that particular environment.

“Sometimes I feel I need to move around,” Julien says. “I get how that can be disruptive but sometimes I need that.”

One year, his teacher placed a rocking chair in the back of the classroom and forced Julien to sit in it at all times. She dismissed him from school at noon every day, stating that he’d already absorbed the material anyway. It became clear “normal” school was just not a viable option for him.

Micaela Bracamonte, left, Founder and Head of the Lang School, with her sons Julien and Pascal and her husband and co-founder of the school, Andreas Olsson.

Bracamonte’s younger son, Pascal, 13, was in public school for kindergarten, where the math and reading were much too simple for him, but he too has ADHD. He was enrolled at Lang by first grade.

“The math is actually hard for me now,” Pascal says, “which is good because I do really enjoy math. I studied trigonometry all of last year.”

* * *

In 2007, Bracamonte decided she’d had enough of watching her sons repeat the miserable experiences she’d had in public school, so she decided to start a new school that would cater to both their gifts and their challenges.

“I found myself spending so much time jerry-rigging my two twice exceptional kids’ educations that I created a school setting in the basement of our house, started inviting other kids into it, hired teachers, trained them, and started getting trained myself as a teacher,” Bracamonte explains. “I realized I was doing a damn good job at it, actually. So I started an official school.”

Lang School students set up a giant Jenga game during gym class. Other gym class activities include karate, yoga, ping pong, and personal training at a local gym.

Bracamonte and her husband, Andreas Olsson, now Lang’s Director for Systems and Education, decided against having a third child or buying a house so they could personally finance the school’s creation. Bracamonte traded her career as a journalist for an obsession with creating the best twice exceptional school possible, crediting her journalistic inquiry – and severe ADHD – for her success.

After hiring an education attorney to assist with writing the school’s charter, applying for and receiving 501(c)(3) non-profit status, they found commercial real estate. The space had to meet legal guidelines for a school’s architecture, so the attorney recommended an architect to hire.

Bracamonte assembled a Board of Directors consisting of some of the Northeast’s most experienced twice exceptional experts, and hired the teachers who performed best in her home-school. She then called many child psychologists to pitch Lang as a resource for the appropriate patients. Exhausted, dejected parents of twice exceptional children were overjoyed.

“I couldn’t imagine what we would have done if Lang wasn’t an option,” Joel Brenner said, mother of Micah, nine, a fourth grader with Asperger syndrome who has been a Lang student since kindergarten. “They get him and have given him an incredible sense of ‘I can do this.’”

Classes filled up. By then, it was 2009.

Lang’s tuition for twice exceptional students is $60,000 per school year, with roughly 40 percent of the student body receiving a reduced rate whereby the school is compensated the difference by New York City’s Department of Education.

Under Bracamonte’s direction, a key focus of the Lang School is to find a student’s strengths and build as much of their curriculum around them. The goal is for the student to capitalize on these strengths so they are capable of specializing in a certain area, but also to feel intrinsic motivation to cultivate more compensatory skills in other areas.

4th- and 5th-grade students listen to their teacher read the book, “Ivan,” aloud during their ELA class.

Bracamonte taught a screenwriting class with two students where one always struggled with writing. He was known among the teachers and students more for his quantitative skillsets.

“So all we did was write dialogue, because he’s a hell of a talker, and I scribed for him,” Bracamonte explains. “In an hour, we wrote a seven-minute screenplay. I’ve convinced this kid he’s a writer. His language use is magical. Step by step, I can see this kid doing this for a living. He just can’t figure out how to get it on paper on his own yet. Our job is to build that bridge.”

Lang became a lab to test out both tried-and-true and the latest research-driven methods in special education and gifted education. But Bracamonte didn’t have formal teaching credentials such as a degree in education (and still doesn’t) or prior teaching experience.

“I think I’m very lucky to not have education credentials.” Bracamonte says. “I don’t feel I’m lacking something. I’m actively avoiding them, because I don’t want to get locked into that mindset. You learn by doing, working tirelessly, self-reflection, asking questions and taking things to the next level. I’m open to risk, very comfortable with it and I tend to confront challenges head on.”

But while self-taught Bracamonte improvised with the structure and vision for the Lang School’s curriculum, pulling in new research from gifted, special and general education, some of her board members – mainstays in the twice exceptional educator community who have those education credentials Bracamonte says she can do without – wanted to stick with more time-tested methods.

Bracamonte is quick to point out that most on her staff are highly credentialed but, despite that, constructing an expertized school wasn’t her way. She continued developing an institution that was experimental compared to other twice exceptional schools, and tensions with those members of the board flared – they are no longer affiliated with Lang.

Micaela Bracamonte reads in her office at the Lang School.

One former board member, who asked not to be identified because she did not want to jeopardize relationships in the community, said Bracamonte would not acknowledge consensus educational principles, and was overly distrustful of the rest of the twice exceptional community.

“Micaela’s brilliant, she’s a visionary, but she’s very unpredictable,” she said.

Bracamonte believes the twice exceptional community has an “old guard,” as she put it: “folks involved with other twice exceptional schools, folks on my original Board, folks who have an old-fashioned, not child-centric, not parent-centric, rather elitist view of education. So I feel our school is headed towards some new territory.”

She believes the twice exceptional model her school is building for its students is potentially paradigm shifting. By studying the New York City Department of Education’s data on test scores, gifted students and Individualized Education Programs, she estimates there are at least 50,000 twice exceptional students in New York City. This doesn’t count students unrecognized because of cultural, language or economic reasons. But she knows how hard it is to run a highly unconventional school that causes even some in her niche to be skeptical.

“I know the population is huge. I know the possibilities are great. I know the scale could be large. I will work hard and continue to work hard until I’m not working anymore. We’ll see where this goes.”

 

 

This Comedian in a Wheelchair Kept Crowds in Stitches…Until a Lack of Health Care Sidelined Her

Ally Bruener used comedy to express what it's like to live with muscular dystrophy. But now she spends all her time battling Medicaid just to take care of her basic needs.

Ally Bruener starts her set bluntly: with a joke about suicide.

“I’ve realized I’m the worst degree of disabled,” she says, “because I’m too crippled to kill myself but not crippled enough to convince someone else to do it for me.”

On stage, Bruener stands out from many other comics. She’s 29 and hasn’t walked since she was seven, due to congenital muscular dystrophy (CMD). She has a wheelchair that she stays in 24 hours each day. She uses comedy as an outlet, a chance to talk openly about what it’s like to live with a disability.

Bruener came to comedy at a difficult time; she’d just dropped out of college, and she was unsure where her life was headed. She took a stand-up class at a comedy club in Louisville, thinking it would be a short-lived indulgence. Five weeks later, the class held a graduation show, and she was hooked.

Audiences may come to her shows with preconceived ideas about disability, and Bruener’s aim is to challenge those perceptions. Whether it’s sex or dating or relationships with parents, her comedy sheds light on the richness of disabled people’s lives.

Bruener performing in 2016.
Bruener performing in 2016.

“It’s always been important to me to make a point to make sure people know I’m not who you would expect me to be, and I’m proud of that,” Bruener says. “So I like to use my comedy to make people a little bit uncomfortable, because I think you have to be a little bit uncomfortable to open your mind.”

Suicide in particular became a personal challenge in her comedy. In 2009, she lost one of her best friends to it. Here was this topic that was suddenly not funny at all, she says, a test of her philosophy that humor could be found in anything. As long as suicide was untouchable, then that idea was false. So she started joking about her own suicide as a way to prove that anything can be funny.

Bruener poured herself into comedy in the years that followed that first class, traveling from her home in Alexandria, Kentucky, across the Midwest and as far as New York City to perform, with the help of her dad, Ron.

CMD is a degenerative disease that keeps muscles from rebuilding, primarily affecting the skeletal muscles. As a result, Bruener has severe scoliosis, diminished lung capacity, and can’t achieve basic tasks without support from another person. Ever since she was a kid, Bruener’s dad has helped her get up in the morning, use the bathroom, get dressed, and move about her daily life. For the past six years it’s just been the two of them, since her mother left.

“He’s probably the hardest working person I’ve ever met, I can definitely say that,” Bruener says. “He’s very dedicated to his family and his community; he always wants the best for everybody. He’s the kind of person that would give a stranger the shirt off his back. So if he’d do that for a stranger, imagine what lengths he’ll go to for his own kids.”

But last year, Ron started having knee problems, and he needed a hernia surgery, leaving him less capable of helping his daughter. He’s a maintenance worker at an apartment complex, and due to his own health problems, can only now work part-time. It became clear that just getting through the day-to-day would be a challenge for Bruener, let alone traveling for shows, which she put on hold.

* * *

Bruener decided it was time to apply for Medicaid-funded home health care. What followed was a long and still unfinished battle to receive even basic help, a process that has left her feeling helpless. While the country has debated loudly about health care in recent months – and repeated announcements from the Congressional Budget Office have shown that tens of millions of Americans would lose their health insurance under Republican plans to repeal Obamacare – Bruener’s story is indicative of what happens when funding is inadequate for even some of the most clearly established recipients of Medicaid.

Even as dramatic Senate scenes have played out, ultimately killing promises to repeal the Affordable Care Act, Medicaid beneficiaries like Bruener are already struggling with an underfunded system.

People with disabilities are clearly covered under Medicaid for home health care, but Bruener has run up against considerable problems in receiving basic assistance. She’s dealt with overly complicated applications, a lack of information, unreliable services from nursing agencies and a lack of options for caregivers. When Bruener calls the state, people taking the calls can’t even understand her well because of her breathing machine, which affects how she talks.

Lately, Bruener has been stuck at home while all of this plays out, unable to leave the house or even use the bathroom and shower regularly.

“My health is on the line because only peeing five times a week is going to result in internal infections, kidney disease, and probably pressure sores,” she says. “Beyond the medical issues, I am losing every sense of myself. I have no access to my community. I have no way to contribute to the greater good. I’ve invested so much of myself to building my comedy career and it’s feeling irrelevant. It’s left me questioning my value and purpose. If nothing changes, I will be in a nursing home before I turn 30. If it comes to that, I fear for my mental and emotional health.”

Her fight has been underscored by a lengthy political showdown in Kentucky over the state’s application of Medicaid, the government-subsidized program that supports health care for low-income people, pregnant mothers, elderly adults, children in foster care, and people with disabilities.

Months before President Donald Trump was elected to office and Congressional Republicans began a campaign to repeal the Affordable Care Act (ACA), Kentucky Governor Matt Bevin released a controversial Medicaid plan that would cut some entitlements and refocus the program around “personal responsibility.” At the time, Bevin, a Republican, was rolling back a Medicaid expansion that had been put in place through the ACA by his Democratic predecessor, Steve Beshear.

While Bevin has suggested that his plan is aimed at getting able-bodied adults to work, disabled people are losing access to care, as well, because home health agencies have seen a cut in their funding from the government.

When she began looking for help in the spring of 2016, Bruener couldn’t get straight answers on how to apply for the service.

“I’d call the numbers the state had listed online and would get transferred multiple times before ending up back at the person I had called initially,” she says. “I submitted my online application in mid-July and never got a response.”

A couple months later, she was told her application was effectively invalid because she hadn’t included newly required paperwork that no one had asked her for. Her application was eventually approved in October, and then she had to set about finding an agency to take her case. She waited for information from the state, but got none. But by that point, her dad needed surgery and couldn’t assist her anymore. She had to use her savings to pay strangers from social media to help her in home, and quickly ran out of money.

“It’s hell. It just is the closest to hell I’ve ever felt,” she says. “There’s no faster way to feeling like you don’t have control of your life than dealing with the government. When I started the process to try to get help, I was optimistic. I thought if I took a few bullets, it wouldn’t be this huge headache or this huge battle. And I wasn’t mentally prepared for what it turned into and what it’s still being.”

Ally Bruener in 2010.
Ally Bruener in 2010.

After talking to a network of people with disabilities, she found out how to receive care, but was told she only qualified for nine hours of care each week. When she signed up with a home care agency, she found that understaffing meant assistants were only available for about an hour each day. She’s since become eligible for up to twice as much assistance from her agency, but says it’s irrelevant because the nurses can only come when their schedules allow. But that covers only the most basic needs – as she puts it, enough just to not die. And as a person with a disability and no college degree, job prospects are limited. Comedy doesn’t pay that well, she says, unless you have a massive fan base.

“I mean, one thing is, I could decide to do porn. That’s not out of the question,” Bruener says somewhat jokingly, referencing GimpsGoneWild.com. “It could be kind of poetic, actually, if it came to that – in my mind, the handicapped girl who can’t get adequate health care doing porn just so she doesn’t die. That would be a good slap in the face to all the good Christians in our government.”

But beyond being stuck at home, unable to move around and take care of errands, let alone take care of herself, Bruener is also having to forgo her main creative outlet. Without comedy, she can’t interact with her community or support friends who are chasing their dreams. She can’t vent through stories she tells on stage to turn hardship into humor.

“My voice isn’t one that gets heard all that much,” she says. “[Comedy] was a way of kind of coping with that fact of making myself heard, making myself be listened to by a bunch of strangers, just because I never really had a lot of normal human interaction… It was kind of a way for me to fill my quota of feeling like a part of the world.”

Most days she stays home and uses the computer, waiting for either one of the home care workers or her dad to help her achieve some basic chores. She uses Facebook and writes about her situation, shares articles about Bevin’s health care plans and tries to stay connected to her friends.

But until she can get back on stage, she’s stuck fighting to get the assistance she needs just to get through the day.

Recently, she was able to make a trip to the state capitol addressing expected changes to the home care program. Despite having limited mobility lately, she managed to travel the nearly two hours to Frankfort for a public meeting, where she said the government was acknowledging that the system is broken.

Bruener says they were taking their time with a decision, trying not to make mistakes with any new changes. At the meeting she attended, administrators simply listened to people’s stories. Kentucky is already plagued by a contentious health care debate as Bevin attempts to cut Medicaid for poor adults in the state.

She’s optimistic, but doesn’t expect changes to come any time soon or to improve her situation too much.

“It’s frustrating. It doesn’t have to be this way,” she says. “But society continues to allow this sort of behavior, and they don’t see the issues and therefore they don’t see the need to fix the issues. Even though there’s been a lot of back and forth about how society views people with disabilities, there’s still a long way to go. I’m still not seen as socially equal as an able-bodied person. That’s not saying there aren’t people who do see me as equal, but society as a whole still sees me very much as a second-class citizen.”

Bruener posted on Facebook recently that she’s decided to leave Kentucky in search of a state that will better meet her needs. She’s narrowed the list to six states, all of which have favorable Medicaid rules and more opportunity for her to get the help she needs and, hopefully, get back on stage.

 

 

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

 

 

Lessons Learned from a Childhood Spent Touching Myself

From the tender age of four, rampant masturbation was my secret shame. It took an awkward sex ed class at a Christian private school to inadvertently teach me I wasn’t alone.

I was watching a squirrel eating trash through a window one day in middle school when I learned what masturbation was. A school counselor handed out a piece of paper with a list of terms related to sex, and their most basic, textbook definitions — the best version of sex education they could muster at the Christian school I’d ended up attending due to a grand miscommunication with my parents. I started examining the list, which thus far was the most interesting part of the presentation. Herpes: “hmm, okay definitely want to avoid that one.” Condom: “yeah, I think I’ve heard of those.” Vagina: “got it.” And then I got to “Masturbation: The act of pleasuring oneself.” I read it three, four times. While the counselor went on rambling about chastity, purity, God and abstinence, I was gleefully reading the word “masturbation” over and over in my head thinking, “That’s what I’ve been doing!”

I started masturbating abnormally early, around the age of four.

I don’t remember how it began, just that it became a habit around preschool. I was constantly on the hunt for new techniques, new tools. My first was probably the bathtub. I would sit with what my parents had named my “petunia” underneath the faucet until the water was too deep for it to have an effect anymore. Occasionally, if I knew my mother was definitely preoccupied, I’d drain the whole thing and start over. I would slip my legs through the slats in my parents’ footboard, and casually hump a panel while I watched cartoons. I eventually discovered my mother’s neck massager, which became both my favorite, and most dangerous tool, as there was no hiding what I was up to with that one.

Whenever I was “playing alone” — which was the best I could think to call it, having no idea that the world had gone above and beyond with creative monikers for this activity — I wasn’t really thinking about anything in particular. I did not have orgasms. I never touched myself with my hands. I just liked the way it felt when I came in to contact with other things. Much like how if you give a kid sugar, I didn’t care if I wasn’t supposed to — I was going to sneak a goddamn cookie.

Rather than being blissfully unaware of what I was doing, I was acutely in tune with the fact that it should be a secret. I don’t really know how I knew that, but it consumed me nonetheless. My best guess is that since I was taught to keep my petunia covered, I probably knew I wasn’t supposed to be fiddling with it. I knew I shouldn’t whisper to my childhood best friend, “hey try this,” and I knew even better that to be caught by my parents would be an embarrassment I would not come back from, tarnishing the rest of my life with my perversion. I envisioned my future ballet and piano recitals ruined, my parents watching through cracked fingers in horror as their little weirdo gave “Ode To Joy” her best shot. I expected it would get around our condo complex, and the neighbors would stop inviting me over to pet the new kitten or have a piece of cake.

I was not exposed to any explicit forms of sexuality early in life. I didn’t know what sex was. No one had molested me or been inappropriate with me. In fact I didn’t even connect what I was doing with sex. As I grew older and started to get tidbits of very wrong information from other children about what your genitals might be for, where babies come from, etc., like we all did, I still never thought any of that had anything to do with my playing alone. And I still didn’t even have a word for it.

* * *

I had one of those bad-influence friends who was a couple of years older than me. Let’s call her Julia. Julia’s parents had gotten divorced when she was a baby, and she liked to act out, not that the two were explicitly related. Her confidence in everything from singing Spice Girls out loud to stealing snacks from the teacher’s cabinet made it so I never questioned her. Julia told me a story about “Mr. Dingy Dong,” one day at daycare after school. Commanding my attention like she was telling a ghost story at summer camp, I hung on every word about a serial killer who went around cutting off cheating men’s penises. Where in the world she got the story, I will never know. Regardless, I went home and told my parents, and that was the end of my friendship with Julia.

Similarly, one day in kindergarten during reading circle, the wily kid who was best known for his bad-word repertoire, pulled out his penis and showed it to me. Both incidents horrified me, but I never connected them with anything having to do with my petunia.

One of the most sacred outings I shared with my father was going to Blockbuster every weekend. I was allowed to get whatever I wanted, within reason, even if I wanted to rent “Charlie’s Angels” for the fifth time in a row. My dad was patient, never rushing me as I’d walk down every single aisle before I was confident I’d made the right choice. One trip, while rounding the corner of the classics, I came face to face with a homeless man furiously masturbating. He did not approach me, but he did not stop either. I ran to my dad, told him I was ready to go, clinging to what I was not yet sure was the right choice of movie, but this time I didn’t care. I sat cow-eyed, stiff and afraid to move the whole ride home, until my dad finally got out of me what was wrong. Enraged, we got home and he called the store. The man had already left, but my dad was still insistent they check the cameras and call the police, “for God’s sake, there are children in there.” I continued to be shaken up, but never correlated what that man was doing in public with what I was doing in private.

There were a few times that I got caught. Once my mom opened the door to the bathroom while I was in the middle of my bathtub ritual. She very calmly told me to “stop running water on your hoo-ha,” and proceeded to pretty much always leave the door open after that. I was mortified that my mom had seen me in my darkest of hours, but even more devastated that I’d lost a whole third of my resources. From that point on I became convinced that my mom knew everything, and was perpetually about to catch me. It seemed that the neck massager was always on a shelf higher up in the closet, or in a different part of the house. When I asked her recently about the whole charade though, she was baffled. She said she vaguely remembered the bathtub, but it wasn’t something that stuck out, because it seemed innocent enough. The neck massager was news to her. What I perceived as a hide and seek routine between us, was more likely the normal way anyone wouldn’t pay that much attention in putting something so innocuous back in the same place every time.

Because it was never directly addressed — And why would it be? No parent would eagerly have a sex talk with such a young child — I developed a deep, internalized guilt. I didn’t just think I was dirty, I knew it. There was something wrong with me, and I resigned myself to just living with it — until I accidentally ended up at a Christian school.

* * *

The public school I was supposed to attend through the sixth grade announced late in my fifth-grade year that from the next school year on they would be adopting the newer K-4 model. This left my parents in a last-minute dash to figure out where I would go next. The school I’d been attending was an anomaly of public schooling, with various forms of cultural enrichment and liberal families. The public middle school, however, was notorious for violence and ill-equipped teachers, so my parents decided it was time to go private.

Because children don’t typically have community juice mixers, my social circle had pretty much been exclusive to school. But I did have a small handful of friends I’d attended a couple of summers of YMCA camp with. I was not raised with religion. I wasn’t discouraged from participating in it, and if I’d come home and said I wanted to become Jewish or Hindu, I’m sure my parents would have embraced it. But as it was I set myself on a path towards atheism. The YMCA camp was of course a little Christian, with occasional “our god is an awesome god” sing-a-longs. But they had climbing towers and water skiing, so neither I, nor my working parents cared. But my few friends from the camp were very Christian, and went to a Christian private school. I insisted on going to school with them, and my parents said if I got in they would let me attend. By some grand miscommunication, I didn’t realize that it was a Christian school; I just knew that my friends went there. I think my parents assumed I knew, and didn’t want to shun the idea if it was what I wanted.

So there I was. Already set back by my buck teeth, scrawny limbs, and complete lack of understanding of private-school preppy-ness, I was now also surrounded by kids who deeply believed in a god that I didn’t. I quickly became an outcast. I got in trouble for bringing my Destiny’s Child CD to school. The principal, who was basically Ronald Reagan, said it was inappropriate, but I think what he meant was, “that black music scares us like the Devil.” I did not live in the ticky tacky suburbs, but the big, bad city. It was like if Cher from “Clueless” had to spend a day with Harriet from “Harriet The Spy,” but for a year.

Every morning we’d go to our assigned homeroom for prayer. The teacher would take requests, and the kids would excitedly pipe up complaints about paper cuts, or making sure the soccer team got a parking spot close to the field for the bus before the game. I got in trouble for doodling during prayer time so often they told me to leave my notebook and pens in my locker. The bright side was that at least they didn’t expect me to write that shit down. Occasionally the teacher would prod me, “Chloe is there anything you’d like to pray for?” I’d just let out a big sigh. Eventually I started putting my head down on my desk, hoping they would just think I was praying extra hard.

One day around mid-year, if anyone had been unsure, I finally gave them what they needed to cement my reputation as the biggest freak in school. I’d spent the past semester going home in tears. I didn’t have friends, and it was as if the kids learned their bullying tactics from an episode of “Prison Break.” One girl told me that her mother checked her backpack every day for makeup. I responded with a casual, “oh, you have strict parents.” To me it was the same as “oh, your mom drives a Toyota,” a casual comparison of our living conditions. Apparently calling her parents “strict” was the same as if I’d called her mother the Whore of Babylon, and this girl saw to it that I was punished. Her pièce de résistance came on picture day. Because the school was so conservative, it wasn’t the ‘show up and smile’ event it had been in public school. Everyone came in quite literally their Sunday best. Before my class had our photos taken, we had gym class, where of course we wore uniforms. My tormentor took the opportunity to pretend to be sick, retreat to the locker room and hide my nice clothes. No administrator seemed to care, and so I took the picture, and spent the rest of the day crying, in my gym clothes.

My parents were already applying to move me to a liberal private school, the same one they’d initially suggested, and the one that I would ultimately graduate from. They were disgusted with the administration’s lack of reaction to any of the bullying I went through, and just tried to help me hang in there through the end of the year when it would all be over. So on that day, I had nothing left to lose. The prayer requests were flooding in, for crushes, for summer vacation to come quicker, for pizza at lunch. I snapped. I raised my hand and stood up. I proceeded to go on a rant about how five thousand children under the age of five died every day in Africa; how people were starving; how many children never had new things. I pleaded that they please end this useless pageantry of praying for meaningless things. I was swiftly sent to the principal’s office for the rest of the day.

* * *

Then hope came one day that spring in the form of their version of sex education. In true faith-based fashion, there was no science involved. We were separated by gender and a counselor came to address us. Let’s call her Cindy. Cindy was one of those younger school administrators who managed to come off as cool. She wore faith-inspired jewelry like the rest of them, but hers was always the chunky, edgy kind. She wasn’t afraid of heels and a flared hip-hugger pant. She looked like the main demographic at a Creed concert. But she was just like the rest of them underneath her Christian-chic wardrobe. She wrote “abstinence” on the board, and underlined it. She explained to the class that you should not have sex before you were married, because it was not what God wanted. God did not want you to think about it. God did not want you to almost do it. She then wrote the word “chastity” on the board and said, “get it?”

The last five minutes of class were reserved for private inquiries about any of the terms on that fated list that finally gave me a word for my secret. The rest of the girls, in true middle school fashion ran out, balking at the idea of engaging with the topic further. Hindsight is 20/20 though, and from the intel social media has afforded me, those girls really should have taken a second to inquire further about condoms and chlamydia. As for me, my questions had been answered. I’m sure if I’d said anything to Cindy she would have found a way to turn it into a miracle. My deviance was being divinely intervened, and I’d learn the name for my demon for the express purpose of expelling it from me like they’d thrown away my CD. But her lesson had the opposite of the intended effect. She had shown me that my sexual exploration was actually normal; something other people did, too. Maybe it was some kind of miracle, because for the first and only time in my tenure there, I sat and quietly thanked God.

* * *

Chloe Stillwell has a degree in nonfiction from The New School. She is a culture columnist for Spin Entertainment, and previously worked as a humorist at 20th Century Fox. She is currently working on her first book of essays.

Molly Walsh is a freelance illustrator and surface designer living on the East Coast. mollywalshillustration.tumblr.com  @wollymulch

 

 

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.