The Invisible Island

Nearly one million people are buried in mass graves off of the Bronx. But the city prefers you know nothing about it.

Hart Island is a hard place to get to if you’re alive, but an easy place to get lost if you’re dead. Technically part of the Bronx, it sits on the westernmost edge of Long Island Sound, crowding the entrance to the East River. Between its abandoned prisons slowly sinking into the forest, its spools of razor wire, and the rise at its northern end called “Cemetery Hill,” the island does a terrific job of looking spooky.

Simply going near Hart Island is dangerous. First, there is the shoreline, which is shallow most of the way around and studded with sharp, submerged rocks. Then there is the current, particularly strong off the northern tip; and the wind, which comes in from the sound so hard and raggedly that it occasionally catches experienced captains by surprise. A map drawn in 1777 by the British Navy warned captains to avoid Hart Island as they left New York on their frequent raids to shell and pillage the Connecticut coast: “You Muft obferve not to borrow towards the Eaft-fide” of Throggs Neck Peninsula, lest the King’s ships strike the mud flat off  “Heart Ifland.”

A map drawn by the British Navy in 1777 showing Hart Island

The place has bedeviled boaters pretty much ever since. The Brookville, a schooner that spent most of the 19th century hauling freight along the northern coast, ran so far aground on Hart Island during the winter of 1879 that her owners abandoned her as a total loss. The Montauk Steamship Line’s Shinnecock ferry was carrying 150 passengers on its regular route from Rhode Island to New York when it struck Hart Island on the morning of July 15, 1907, in fog. It took seven hours, two tugboats and high tide to pull her free.

Sonar helps, but only so much. Dominick Cerbone grew up boating near City Island, which sits a half-mile west of Hart Island. Four days a week he takes fishermen out on the “Apache,” a charter fishing boat with modern navigation equipment. Sometimes he stops near Hart Island to cast lines for fluke, which like to burrow into the black rocky bottom, but he rarely lingers. Sailing near Hart Island, “you’re taking your chances all the time,” says Cerbone, 81.

Some boats wind up on Hart Island by means more criminal than accidental. On the night of November 27, 1855, someone scuttled the freighter Eudora Imogen off Hart Island by boring four holes in her bow. The bodies of William Palmer and Gilbert Pratt, the Eudora’s captain and mate, were never found, although their shirts were discovered onboard the sunken ship, slit open by a knife and soaked in blood. The only survivor was George Wilson, an African-American and the ship’s cook, who was arrested by a mob of City Island fishermen.

What ensued was among America’s first murder trials cum racially charged media circuses. Despite Wilson’s claim of innocence and the lack of inculpatory evidence, the New York press joined rowdy crowds at the Westchester County Courthouse in denouncing “the murderous negro” and calling for his execution. “That [Wilson] should escape conviction altogether, because the bodies could not be found, was unanimously declared to be a monstrous outrage upon all justice,” read a news story in the New York Times, which suggested that Wilson should be suspended by his wrists until he starved to death. “Hanging, or even burning alive, was too expeditious an exit.” The 4,000 people who came to watch the execution on July 25, 1856 enjoyed a “jubilee” atmosphere, the Times reported, including vendors selling beer, cider, oysters, clams, cakes, pies and cigars. They did not have long to wait, however. Wilson was hanged.

*    *    *

The Eudora case was likely the last time a majority of New Yorkers knew where Hart Island was. In the century and a half since, the island has faded almost entirely from public view. But for those who do know it, Hart Island is a place synonymous with death, a place where New York can do the dark work of being a city.

A view of Hart Island today (Photo: Luke Rafferty)
A view of Hart Island today (Photo: Luke Rafferty)

Hart Island does not appear on the MTA’s subway map or the Department of Transportation’s bicycling maps. The AAA map in my car shows the blue dotted line of a public ferry from City Island to Hart Island, but the ferry closed to the public in 1976. Panorama, the room-sized Robert Moses-commissioned  sculpture at the Queens Museum of Art—which displays every street and nearly every building in New York City—excludes the island entirely.

From an airplane at night, Hart Island is invisible from the west. It can be seen only on clear nights, only from the east and by inference, when lights from the city bounce off the water of the Sound and leave the island backlit. It appears as negative space, the darkest ink spot on a page of black.

Hart Island can be found on Google Maps, which labels the northern half of the island “Potter’s Field,” a term commonly used to refer to a place where unknown or unclaimed bodies are buried. The location is no longer accurate, and the name never was. When the city bought Hart Island for $75,000 in 1868, the new potter’s field was set on 45 acres at the island’s northern tip. Administration was handed over to what was then called the Department of Charities and Correction, which operated a prison and a technical school for delinquent boys on the island. Inmates were given the job of burying the dead, a practice that continues to this day. The Department of Correction estimates that more than 850,000 people are now buried on Hart Island, noting that the actual number may be somewhere between 750,000 and a million, a standard deviation that is jarring when you think about it.

In the last few years the old cemetery filled up, so the burials moved to Hart Island’s south side. In 2010, there were 695 adults and 504 babies buried there. Four days a week, prisoners from Riker’s Island lay plain pine boxes into two mass graves. In the adult grave, coffins are stacked three high. It will be filled with between 150 and 165 bodies (depending on the number of extra-wide coffins), plus separate coffins for body parts, and covered with 36 inches of dirt. The other grave, for fetuses and stillborn babies, will be loaded with 1,000 miniature coffins buried five deep. Both trenches are already open, dug by a yellow Caterpillar backhoe.

In 1990, workers on Hart Island place coffins in a mass grave for babies, fetuses and amputated body parts     (© Claire Yaffa, 1990)
In 1990, workers on Hart Island place coffins in a mass grave for babies, fetuses and amputated body parts     (© Claire Yaffa, 1990)

And then there is the name. In Matthew 27:3-10, Judas cast the 30 silver pieces he received for betraying Jesus onto the temple floor, and then hung himself in shame. The priests, concerned that adding blood money to the temple’s treasury would violate church law, “bought with them the potter’s field to bury strangers. Therefore that field has been called the ‘Field of Blood’ to this very day.” We are lucky the name “potter’s field” stuck, since printing the alternative on maps would be rather purple.

Lots of unidentified people are buried on Hart Island, and lots of poor people, too. But not everyone interred there is unknown and destitute. The first person buried in the potter’s field died in Charity Hospital on Roosevelt Island—then called Blackwell’s Island—with no relatives or friends to claim her body, but we do know her name: Louisa Van Slyke, and she was 24. It’s reasonable to assume that Slyke was laid in the ground by inmates because the wife of Fred Bartels, the island’s first warden, recorded the burial on April 20, 1869. Since then, Hart Island’s dead have included victims of yellow and typhoid fever; veterans who died in Veterans Administration hospitals (whose names were known, and who should have been buried in individual graves in a national cemetery); and the first child to die of AIDS in New York, who received the field’s only private grave and the only personal gravestone, reading “SC B1 1985″ [Special Child, Baby 1, and the year of death]; well-known writers and actors including Bobby Driscoll, who played Peter Pan in the 1953 Disney movie; and Lewis Haggins, who founded an advocacy group calledPicture the Homeless. Haggins was buried as an unidentified body in 2004 even though he had received food stamps, spent time in prison, and lived in city shelters, which meant at least three government agencies held his fingerprints on file. His friends later had him disinterred and buried elsewhere.

“Sometimes people wind up in city cemetery when they shouldn’t be there at all,” says Amy Koplow, executive director of the Hebrew Free Burial Association, which works to arrange burials for indigent Jews and keep them out of the potter’s field. “They’re not indigent. They’re not unknown. Sometimes they just slip through the system.”

One person who is buried on Hart Island who should not be is Laurie Grant’s daughter. Grant was an obstetrician and gynecologist with a successful private practice in Westchester County. Her pregnancy in 1993 was hard. She felt nauseous for months, became dehydrated and malnourished, and required a feeding tube. At 33 weeks she was admitted to Lenox Hill Hospital. Tests on July 12, 1993 found the fetus had no heartbeat.

Laurie Grant at a Mass for babies buried on Hart Island (© Claire Yaffa/CHart Island Project, 2012)
Laurie Grant at a Mass for babies buried on Hart Island (© Claire Yaffa/CHart Island Project, 2012)

Grant’s stillborn baby was delivered by Caesarian section. Grant nearly died. The epidural numbed only one side of her body, leaving the other half in stabbing pain. A few days later, a nurse asked what she wanted to do with the body.

“The city can arrange it,” Grant remembers the nurse saying.

“How?” Grant asked.

The city could take care of the burial, the nurse said. Grant would be able to visit the grave, which would be marked with a number instead of a name. Grant was grieving, malnourished and delirious with pain. She was on so much medication she was barely conscious.

“I don’t remember signing any papers. I was really out of it,” says Grant, who is now 59.

As a doctor, Grant easily could have afforded private burial in the cemetery plot her family already owned in the Valhalla area of Westchester County, a few minutes’ drive from her current home. Grant was too sick to think if it, however, and hospital staff did not ask her relatives about other burial options. So the baby’s body was placed in a pine coffin and buried in a mass grave on Hart Island.

Melinda Hunt, founder, Hart Island Project (© Claire Yaffa/Hart Island Project, 2012)

Grant’s experience was typical, says Melinda Hunt, an artist who has been fascinated with Hart Island since the early 1990s, and went on to publish a book and produce a film about it. In 2011 she founded the Hart Island Project, a charity that helps families around the world search for relatives who went missing in New York, and who may be buried in the potter’s field. Many families were told by hospital nurses or social workers to “Let the city handle it,” Hunt says, maybe to smooth the ordeal’s jagged edges, and possibly to speed things along. Parents are commonly assured that the grave will be marked (which is sometimes true, but not always), and that parents will be allowed to visit the graves (which is almost never true).“It’s not explained that this is a mass grave and you can’t go visit it,” Hunt says. “If families were made aware of that, I think most would opt for a private burial.”

*    *    *

Sometimes it’s adults who get buried on Hart Island by mistake. The Office of the Chief Medical Examiner and the police department’s missing persons unit use personal records, prescription bottles and fingerprints to identify people who die in hospitals, nursing homes and on the street without identification. They do a good job. Of the nearly 1,200 people buried on Hart Island last year, only about fifteen were unidentified, says Dan Stevelman, deputy commissioner for operations at the medical examiner’s office.

But some advocates doubt whether officials are as diligent about tracking down next of kin as they are about identifying the deceased. Hunt regularly receives emails from family members who can easily afford an individual grave in a private cemetery, but who never received word that a loved one was dead. Leonard Melfi, an influential playwright in the 1960s, was buried on Hart Island by mistake when he died in 2001. His family had the body disinterred and re-buried in a private grave. Amy Koplow remembers a man who was buried on Hart Island despite his sizable pension from his career as a backstage technician at CBS television studios. The man had the misfortune of dying on Presidents’ Day weekend; that meant city employees responsible for locating his family did not get to his case until the man was already buried on Hart Island.

“His case got lost in the shuffle,” Koplow says. “There’s all kinds of rotten stuff that happens.”

Elaine Joseph’s daughter Tomika was born premature at Beth Israel Hospital during the blizzard of 1978. The baby suffered Tetralogy of Fallot, a heart deformation. Joseph was sent home to Brooklyn, and her baby was transferred to Mt. Sinai Hospital for surgery. There, the baby died. With the subways closed and all transportation to Manhattan shut down, Joseph called the hospital morgue for four days, getting no response. When someone finally answered, Joseph was told that she had signed papers allowing Tomika to be buried in the potter’s field.

Elaine Joseph, mother of a child who is buried on Hart Island (© Claire Yaffa/Hart Island Project, 2012)
Elaine Joseph, mother of a child who is buried on Hart Island (© Claire Yaffa/Hart Island Project, 2012)

This was impossible, since the storm had prevented Joseph from ever getting to the hospital.

“People say, ‘Who cares about the potter’s field? It’s just a bunch of bums,’” says Joseph, 58, who went on to serve 23 years in the Navy and retire as a lieutenant commander. “Well, I’m no bum. My daughter was not a bum.”

Even families who know their relatives are headed for the city cemetery may not discover what burial on Hart Island really means until it’s too late. Laurie Grant, the OB-GYN, first tried to find her baby’s remains in 1997. She called various government agencies, but no one knew where the potter’s field was, or what New York City does with stillborn babies. Finally, someone mentioned Hart Island. The details were sketchy. It was a public cemetery for the poor. The Department of Correction was involved somehow.

“When I first heard about it, I said, ‘What the hell is Hart Island? Why would my baby be buried in a potter’s field?”  says Grant.

She called the Correction Department about a dozen times, she says, but received no reply. Grant didn’t know that the department keeps a log of everyone buried on Hart Island. Even if she did, the logbooks were still closed to the public. The books were not released until 2008, after Melinda Hunt pressed the Department of Correction with a Freedom of Information Act request, years of pestering and threat of a lawsuit.

“Getting anything done with the D.O.C. is a pain in the ass. And yes, please quote me,” says David Rankin, an attorney who volunteers his time to help the Hart Island Project. “You basically need a lawyer and be willing to sue to get anything out of them.”

In 2011, Grant heard Hart Island mentioned on NPR. She went online, found the Hart Island Project’s website, and searched the database for her daughter. The baby was listed with the wrong death date, and the year of death was recorded as 1994 instead of 1993.

“They make a lot of mistakes,” Hunt says. “You would not believe how many times they misspell Bellevue Hospital.”

All it took was a short, garbled conversation under heavy sedation, and a few incorrect pen strokes in a secret book, for Grant’s daughter’s body to go missing on Hart Island. From death to burial, it took a matter of weeks.

Grant’s attempts to see the grave have taken significantly longer. To visit, she must obtain a copy of her daughter’s death certificate from the city’s health department. Grant requested the certificate in March; five months later, she had received no response. Once she gets it, she will file a formal request with the Correction Department to allow her access to the island.

The department’s decision process regarding who may visit Hart Island and who may not occurs in secret, and no written policy exists, Gregory McLaughlin, the city administrator in charge of Hart Island, told the City Council last October. After much consideration and lapsed time, most close relatives of the deceased are allowed to go. In addition, a delegation of Picture the Homeless members and clergy is allowed to conduct a prayer service on the island every month. Journalists are barred, and the department does its best to prevent visits by people its leaders perceive as critics, including Hunt. The Correction Department threatened to ban Picture the Homeless from Hart Island unless the group removed a reference to “mass graves” from its website. (The department prefers the term “communal burial plots.”)

“This is ludicrous,” says Owen Rogers, a Picture the Homeless member who helped lobby for visits to Hart Island after the organization’s founder was discovered buried there. “Who ever heard of a cemetery you can’t go to, guarded by armed guards? It should not be run like a prison.”

Even if Grant eventually gets permission to visit Hart Island, she will not be allowed anywhere near her daughter’s grave. Instead, prison guards will escort her to a wooden gazebo a few steps from the ferry dock, where the Department of Correction allows people to gather during “closure and spiritual solace” visits.

“It’s nice and restful there,” McLauglin told the City Council.

Hart Island is probably the quietest place in all of New York City, and among the most beautiful. Most of the time, the only sound is the waves flapping against the shore. Sailboats, tugs and barges glide past. To the west, the Throggs Neck and Whitestone Bridges arc gracefully over the water, and to the east the peninsulas and inlets of Long Island Sound slip into the foggy distance.

“You could do a lot worse than getting buried on Hart Island,” says Michael Miscione, Manhattan’s Borough Historian. “These people may be forgotten for the most part, but they’ve ended up in a peaceful, lovely grave.”

Some family members who visit the gazebo find the place deeply depressing, however. It is far from any of the graves, and surrounded by former prison buildings.

“It’s disgusting,” says Elaine Joseph, who visited in March to commemorate the death of her baby.. “The buildings are crumbling, there are feral cats running around, it’s strewn with garbage. And they expect you to find solace from that? Well, I didn’t.”

Left: Sharone Palmer with a photo of her granddaughter, Chloe Mckayla Bellevue Palmer; right: Jeanne Frey holds the dress of her sister, Angelina. Both were still-born and are believed to be buried on Hart Island (© Claire Yaffa/Hart Island Project, 2012)
Left: Sharone Palmer with a photo of her granddaughter, Chloe Mckayla Bellevue Palmer; right: Jeanne Frey holds the dress of her sister, Angelina. Both were still-born and are believed to be buried on Hart Island (© Claire Yaffa/Hart Island Project, 2012)

Laurie Grant is preparing to file a lawsuit against the Department of Correction to win permission to visit her baby’s grave. She will argue that in addition to being left alone, the dead’s right to sepulcher includes the right to visitation from family.

“What they’re doing is wrong,” says Grant, who is now a board member of the Hart Island Project. “I think it’s a basic human right for the family to go and see the grave and pay their respects.”

The Department of Correction has two good reasons for keeping people off Hart Island. First, walking around it is dangerous. The twenty or so buildings there have not been maintained in decades, and most are falling down. A three-story prison that later was converted into the Phoenix House drug rehabilitation center has a tree growing through a wide hole in its roof. The walls of what may be a Union Army stable from the Civil War appear solid, but looking up through the windows, one sees only sky.

“The terrain is overgrown; there are no cleared roads that are safe to walk; there is no infrastructure for the public (bathrooms, water fountains, benches, etc…),” Sharman Stein, the department’s longtime spokeswoman, said in an email.

The second problem is the prisoners. Most committed only misdemeanors, Stein says. Their sentences are correspondingly short, and most hope to keep it that way.

“There’s kind of an understanding between the prisoners and the guards,” says Pat Walsh, a retired Correction Department prison guard who supervised burials on Hart Island in the 1960s and ’70s. “It’s a sought-after job because they’re not in the prison, they’re outside all day. They don’t want to lose their spot.” Even so, Correction leaders worry about possible violence between visitors and prisoners. Visitors also could leave drugs on the island, or weapons, which inmates could use to escape.

This is not an idle fear. So many jailbreaks have happened on Hart Island it’s a wonder why anybody stayed put. Inmate John Cavanagh escaped to City Island in January 1893 by walking across the ice, the Times reported. Joseph “The Eel” Farrell bragged that he escaped Hart Island’s prison once in 1919 by swimming to Long Island, and again in 1921 by swimming to the Bronx.

Three men imprisoned on Hart Island for misdemeanors gave guards the slip by hiding behind a barn on Nov. 14, 1913. They sprinted to shore and climbed into a waiting motorboat. From her house on the hill above the potter’s field, Mrs. Breen, the assistant warden’s wife, saw the men running in their prison stripes and sounded the alarm. What ensued was one of the earliest police chases of the automobile age, and certainly the slowest. Guards aboard the prison’s steam-powered ferry chased the motorboat down and leveled their guns. Everyone surrendered except an escapee named Louis Miller, who pushed a rowboat overboard and started for Long Island. Out of fuel, the guards returned to Hart Island, gassed up, and launched again, landing minutes after Miller ran up the shore and jumped in a waiting car. The guards commandeered a touring car, caught up and fired their automatics at Miller, who jumped from the car and into some bushes. The triple recapture was described by the Times as a “feather in the cap” of Hart Island’s brand-new warden, John J. Murtha, who was fired three years later for drinking whiskey and firing a revolver in his office.

Prisoners who didn’t escape Hart Island lived in danger of fire, torture and poisoning. It took 150 prisoners to extinguish a fire in the workhouse in April 1918. Fire destroyed another building in 1925; an investigation by the state Commission of Prisons described two prison buildings on the island as “tinder boxes.”

Conditions were especially bad at the Hart Island reformatory for delinquent boys. A City Council investigation in 1915 found that the reformatory’s guards regularly ordered boys to beat each other with clubs, kneel for hours in a room called “the cooler,” and perform “stand-up,” in which they were roused from bed and forced to stand in line half the night, for weeks on end. James Meeney, a reformatory inmate, told the council, “Why, we haven’t got a chance on the island.”

A few months later, some boys broke into the infirmary by forcing open a skylight and climbing down a rope. They stole all the drugs they could, hoping for morphine and cocaine but taking instead bottles of Belladonna, an herbal muscle relaxer that is fatal in large doses. The boys distributed the bottles to their friends during a baseball game. Within minutes, 46 children keeled over on the grass, clutching their stomachs and kicking. Dr. Armister, the reformatory’s surgeon, administered enemas and stomach pumps right on the field.

The Correction Department’s mishandling of the potter’s field started at about the same time, and continued until quite recently. In 1917 a Bronx grand jury found the practice of burying people in mass graves “insanitary, unsightly and revolting,” and called for the city to build a crematorium on the island. The earliest grave markers were made of wood. They burned up in forest fires, and the graves were lost. Later markers were cast in concrete, which should have helped matters. But when Hunt, the artist and founder of the Hart Island Project, first visited Hart Island in the early 1990s she took pictures of gravestones toppled over in the grass or moved far from the graves, making it impossible to know where the dead are located.

Getting to Hart Island has many steps. Clockwise from top left: prisoners and guards enter a restricted dock on City Island; they board a ferry; cross the western Long Island Sound; and travel via bus from the dock to the graves. (Photos: Luke Rafferty)
Getting to Hart Island has many steps. Clockwise from top left: prisoners and guards enter a restricted dock on City Island; they board a ferry; cross the western Long Island Sound; and travel via bus from the dock to the graves. (Photos: Luke Rafferty)

Other graves were lost in the effort to defend New York City from Soviet nuclear bombers. From 1955 to 1961, the Department of Defense operated a battery of Nike Ajax missiles near the northern tip of Hart Island. The battery included two underground magazines that stored 10 missiles each. In an attack, missiles could be transported to the surface using missile elevators (commonly, and incorrectly, called silos), pushed by two soldiers along waist-high tracks to a launch pad, and fired. No one knows which graves were destroyed during the battery’s construction, or how many bodies were lost.

For the Department of Correction, destroying graves became something of a seasonal event. Prison employees would open old graves using a bulldozer. Because bodies buried on Hart Island are not embalmed, and because many graves were dug below the water table, water seeped in and destroyed most of the remains and all trace of coffins. Inmates climbed into the open pits, picked up the few scattered bones and moved them to one side, making room for fresh pine coffins.

“Oh yeah. We used to reuse the graves in the summertime,” says Pat Walsh, the retired guard, who worked on Hart Island from 1968 through 1971.

The Correction Department has since stopped the practice.

“While I’m in charge there, we have not done that,” McLaughlin told the City Council last October.

In a place so few people have ever seen, where extreme and tragic things are commonplace, precedents once established take deep root. Perhaps because Hart Island operates in such obscurity, however, those traditions sometimes break down.

Long-standing practice holds that every mass grave on Hart Island receives its own number. The grave number and the position of each coffin is recorded in a logbook. That way, even if each individual coffin is unmarked, someone can go back years later and find every person buried there (provided the grave is left intact).

But in 1989, something strange happened. Inmates filled mass grave No. 50 with 1,000 baby coffins, and on June 28, they moved on to the next grave. This new grave received the same number as the last one: 50. After about 700 miniature coffins were buried there, the grave number was switched to No. 100. That number also belonged to an existing grave, dug in the 1970s.

“So which people are buried where? There’s no way to tell. It’s not in sequence at all,” says Hunt, who discovered the error twenty years later while studying the Correction Department’s burial logbooks. “It’s not like they had a bad day. This was a long time, and a lot of babies.”

*   *   *

From 1869 to today, the Department of Correction has recorded each Hart Island burial in handwritten books. A fire on the island in 1977 destroyed the books from 1956 to 1960, plus most of the 1970s. No backup existed. About 25,000 people were lost, McLaughlin told the City Council. Also missing are two logbooks that tracked baby burials between 1977 and 1980, including the record of where Tomika Joseph is buried. For decades after the fire, the Correction Department continued to record all the burials in a single, handwritten logbook stored on Hart Island. Only in recent years did the department create a duplicate book, also written by hand, which is stored in the main prison complex on Riker’s Island.

“In 2011, the notion that we have any sort of handwritten logs for any city government-related” function, City Councilman James Oddo said at the Council hearing in October, “I don’t think it’s worthy of New York City.”

A handwritten log book of adults buried on Hart Island.
A handwritten log book of adults buried on Hart Island.

Recently, the Correction Department hired a private vendor to create a digital database of Hart Island burial records. The company started the work, but then stopped.

“What’s the difficulty?” Oddo asked.

“It’s money, frankly,” McLaughlin said. From its $1 billion annual budget, the department spends $500,000 to bury the dead on Hart Island, he told the City Council.

For the foreseeable future, then, Hunt’s database is the most complete  that exists, and the only one accessible to the public. It is based on copies made by Correction employees, who sometimes were not careful as they laid logbooks across the photocopier. Hunt stood over a desk in her office in downtown Peekskill recently, flipping through stacks of photocopied logbooks. On a page from April 1989, the left column of names is invisible because a Correction worker failed to fully fold the previous page. Thirty-six people wiped away by a staple. A book from the 1990s contains page after page of illegible handwriting. Poor penmanship has made thousands of names and grave numbers disappear. Other people are hard to find because guards printed the deceased’s first and last names with no space in between.

“Can you read that?” she asks, pointing at a photocopied book. “It’s chicken scratches.”

I asked Laurie Grant why she doesn’t avoid a protracted legal fight with the Department of Correction by simply requesting permission to get her baby disinterred by a funeral director, and then reburying the remains in her family’s private cemetery plot. The practice is quite common; about sixty to eighty disinterments happen on Hart Island annually, McLaughlin said.

Grant’s reason is that she knows too many of Hart Island’s secrets. With all the reused mass graves, disturbed grave markers and incorrect, missing or unreadable records, “I don’t trust their system,” she says. “They had the year and the date of death wrong. How could I know they found the right remains?”

Grant, Melinda Hunt, and others who want to open Hart Island to the public agree with the Department of Correction that crumbling buildings, lack of infrastructure and the continued presence of inmates create some unique logistical challenges. Bathrooms would need to be built, roads maintained, falling-down buildings secured. Prisoners would require closer monitoring, perhaps inside a fence surrounding the open graves. But given the department’s decades of screw-ups and mismanagement, critics wonder whether the department has another reason for keeping people away from Hart Island.

“What they don’t want you to see is what a mess it is,” says Hunt.

*    *    *

It’s been 157 years since the Eudora Imogen sank, but Correction Department employees working on City Island still keep an eye to the east, looking for suspicious boats. Anyone caught on Hart Island without the department’s permission is officially trespassing on prison property, and can be sentenced to up to two years in prison. This creates an ironic feedback loop, since it is precisely such nonviolent prisoners who can volunteer to dig graves on Hart Island.

At seven o’clock on a recent Tuesday morning, I pushed off from City Island in a yellow canoe. With light wind from the north and no current, paddling to Hart Island took fifteen minutes. A few feet from the island, small waves threatened to push me onto shore. I used hard strokes and pressed the paddle blade into the rocky bottom to prevent the boat from touching land.

Hart Island as seen from a canoe paddled by the author and photographer (Photo by Luke Rafferty)
Hart Island as seen from a canoe paddled by the author and photographer (Photo by Luke Rafferty)

Even this close up, Hart Island’s west side reveals few secrets that aren’t visible from City Island with a good pair of binoculars. There are two docks, the southern of which is used as a ferry slip by the Department of Correction. Its headworks  are painted grey-blue, and its weathered wooden guideposts rock side to side in the waves. Large signs ring the shoreline, warning, “Restricted Area. No Trespassing. No Docking. No Anchorage.” A dozen small motorboats lie abandoned on the rocks, their red, blue and yellow hulls faded by the sun. In a clearing to the south sits a mound of loose dirt, a pile of plywood and two squat buildings, one with vines engulfing the walls and roof. On either side of the field, old prisons recede into the trees.

The view from Hart Island’s east side is quite different, resembling less an abandoned farm and more an abandoned town. Here is the building of rough grey stone that may be a former Union Army stable. A yellow brick smokestack rises a few hundred feet into the air, ventilation for the dynamo that once supplied electricity to Hart Island’s prisons, halfway houses and sanatoria. The last prison here closed in 1968, but its four-story, windowless concrete wall still dominates the shoreline; “PRISON KEEP OUT” is painted across it in fading white, each letter  about fifteen feet tall. The shore is a junkyard of truck engines, rusted pipes, blue boat insulation and chunks of walls with mortar still clinging to the broken bricks.

Then there are the graves. I couldn’t see much from the canoe because of the seawall, which is about seven feet tall, so I scrambled onto the taller rocks that line the shallows. Even there, I saw little because the prison guards had parked a white Correction Department bus parallel to shore, blocking the view. I saw four inmates dressed in white, one-piece jumpsuits. I saw two prison guards in blue collared shirts. I saw the yellow elbow of the backhoe’s arm, heard the machine’s diesel engine grunts, heard its alarm go beep-beep-beep when the operator drove in reverse. I heard men shouting over the machine, but I could not distinguish their words.

I was disappointed. To spend weeks talking to people and unearthing old maps and reading about Hart Island, to paddle a canoe into Long Island Sound, and then to see so little of the place itself felt like I had failed.

A view of Hart Island from the water (Photo by Luke Rafferty)
A view of Hart Island from the water (Photo by Luke Rafferty)

Then I realized that, actually, this was perhaps the perfect way to experience Hart Island, the genuine way. Melinda Hunt has spent two decades investigating Hart Island through photographs, film and public records, and she knows the island better than anybody. Yet there are still important things she can’t ever know, like how many people are buried there. Years after their babies died, Laurie Grant and Elaine Joseph don’t know if they have the legal right to visit the graves. Their children may be among the hundreds of thousands of people who have vanished into Hart Island’s ground.

“Nobody has filed a lawsuit like this before,” Grant says, “and we don’t know if we’ll win.”

So it seemed appropriate that even five feet from its shore, Hart Island remains a mystery, impenetrable. I bobbed in my canoe and strained to see anything through the trees and the rusted steel mesh covering the windows of the prison van. I worried the guards might spot me so close to shore, but they never looked up from their age-old task. In this place where past is present, nothing changed. The inmates continued laying coffins into a grave I could not see.

The Daring Diplomat Who Proved One Person Can Thwart an Empire

A whistleblower puts his life on the line to defy Soviet aggression. Sixty years later, this forgotten story of subterfuge, smears and suspicious death has never felt more timely.

On October 23, 1956, waves of demonstrations rolled through the streets of the Hungarian capital. The citizens of Budapest converged on government buildings, protesting the influence of the Soviet Union on their elected officials and economy, and the presence of Soviet troops in their cities. What began with a few thousand university students swelled to include workers, soldiers, and men and women of all ages. Someone pulled down a Hungarian flag, emblazoned with the Communist sickle and hammer. They tore out the insignia, leaving a gaping hole in the middle. It became a symbol of the revolution.

The demonstrations escalated. Neighborhoods organized into militias. Overturned armored cars caught fire and buildings collapsed onto their first floors. The small country standing up to its Communist interlopers enraptured the Western world. Time magazine recognized “the Hungarian Freedom Fighter” as Man of the Year.

But it was a short-lived fight. On November 4, as tins were passed around to collect coins and jewelry to help with relief, and Budapest started to clear away broken glass and rubble, Soviet tanks trundled into the city. Miklos Toth, who was a boy at the time, remembers brutal street-to-street fighting, and World War II veterans firing out of their living rooms as plaster rained from the ceiling. The uprising was crushed. It would be more than three decades before an eastern bloc state revolted against Communism again.

During the Hungarian Revolution of 1956, Hungarian flags flew with holes cut out to remove the Soviet emblem. (Photo courtesy Fortepan)

Thousands of Hungarians were brought to trial by the new Soviet-backed government for their role in the uprising. Even more streamed out of Hungary as refugees. The United Nations launched an investigation into Soviet troops’ intervention in the Hungarian Revolution. A special committee interviewed 111 witnesses: diplomats, government officials, soldiers, journalists, and lawyers. An artist testified. So did an actress and several high school students. Fearing retaliation against friends and family back in Hungary, where the Soviet-backed government was carrying out executions, 81 of those witnesses appeared anonymously. On United Nations lists, they were marked as “AAA,” “BBB” and so on down the alphabet. Only one man knew their names. Soon, the name of Danish diplomat Povl Bang-Jensen, chief of logistics for the Hungarian testimony, would become embroiled in one of the most bewildering scandals in U.N. history.

* * *

Bang-Jensen had been a part of the U.N. since its early days. A dapper man whose widow’s peak and sweater vests called to mind Hollywood star James Mason, he acted on behalf of the anti-Nazi Danish underground in New York during World War II, negotiating treaties with the Allies on behalf of Scandinavia. He was well-rounded, self-confident, and stubborn. According to a Judiciary Report to the United States Congress, he had a “wide range of knowledge, and robust sense of humor and a warm heart that endeared him to his friends and … to the many Hungarian refugees who testified before the United Nations Commission on Hungary.”

Due to his meticulous focus on details, Bang-Jensen was charged with arranging the hotels and food per diems of the refugees in New York, Vienna, and Rome where the committee heard their testimony. When the committee asked him to make sure they didn’t hear repetitive testimony, he pre-interviewed refugees one-on-one, listening to their stories of the Soviet invasion.

“They took me to a prison, chained my right hand to my left foot, and left me,” ran a typical piece of testimony. “This was in the middle of the winter. … I could not move because, if I did so, my wrists and ankles bled.” The U.N. considered many of the stories Bang-Jensen heard unprintable. “The verbatim records of the Committee’s meetings contain appalling descriptions,” stated the final report, which “the Committee would have hesitated to publish in their entirety, even if the necessity of protecting the families of the witnesses had not been an obstacle.”

In a dark stone building at 6A Wallnerstrasse in Vienna where testimony was carried out, Bang-Jensen began to notice irregularities in procedure. He and his boss, William M. Jordan, argued over the translation of the testimony. Errors crept into the official record. A Russian U.N. staffer, according to Bang-Jensen’s later testimony, attempted to bribe one of his colleagues to let him take the transcripts of the hearings home overnight. In an era of global espionage, when the F.B.I. had just caught a U.N. staffer attempting to leak official documents to the Soviets, Bang-Jensen believed he saw clear evidence that the Russians were attempting to influence the committee’s findings and get access to the names of those who testified.

In June 1957, Bang-Jensen blew the whistle. In going over the final copy of the Hungarian Report, days before it was due to be presented, he found 40 errors and 20 omissions of key information. Many were minute, but others were crucial to the central point of the investigation: whether Russia had illegally violated Hungarian sovereignty. For example, an unreported date hid the fact that János Kádár, new head of the Soviet-backed Hungarian government, had invited Soviet intervention before he became Prime Minister, an action that some would call treasonous and was at odds with the Soviet Union’s claim to legal intervention. He wanted to bring the information to the ranking members of the committee, but Jordan warned him not to — telling him that the errors were not meaningful. So Bang-Jensen went over his head, arranging a meeting with the committee leaders in the Diplomats Lounge at U.N. headquarters.

Left: United Nations General Assembly representatives voting in favor of the resolution on the situation in Hungarian on Nov. 5, 1956. Right: U.N. Secretary General Dag Hammarskjöld (left) Assembly President, Dr. Charles Malik (Lebanon), and Andrew W. Cordier, Executive Assistant to the Secretary General. (Photos courtesy the United Nations)

In a room heavy with cigarette smoke and decorated with ferns, Bang-Jensen made his case. Even if the details might not alter the Hungarian Report’s findings, the errors and omissions ran the risk of reducing public trust in the validity of the entire report. At stake was not just this document, but any future humanitarian investigation the U.N. carried out. Bang-Jensen was a powerful believer in accuracy and truth, and when he felt the committee wasn’t listening to him, according to members’ testimony, he grabbed one of them by his lapels and shook him to make the point heard.

The results were not as he had hoped. Bang-Jensen was told not to attend future committee meetings. He went anyway. As the final drafts of the report were handed out, Bang-Jensen asked to see a copy. Jordan told him all copies were in use. So, he went straight to the top, writing a letter to Secretary General Dag Hammarskjold.

The situation, he wrote, “is a methodical attempt to suppress certain essential facts and to insert erroneous facts and contradictions in the report.” It was, he believed, “sabotage.”

He appealed to Hammarskjold as a fellow Scandinavian, and reminded him of Bang-Jensen’s experience spotting duplicity in his own fight against the Nazis. He even offered to resign, if it would help the U.N. handle the situation more discreetly.

“I am at your disposal beyond, but not contrary to, my duties as an officer of the United Nations to straighten out everything,” he wrote. “My only condition … is honesty.”

“Since the person in question [Jordan] probably will realize that he hardly can make many believe I am a liar,” Bang-Jensen concluded, “he will no doubt insist that I am imagining things on account of overwork.”

He was correct.

“He was acting improperly, hysterically, and foolishly,” Jordan wrote to Hammarskjold’s executive secretary, Andrew Cordier, a future president of Columbia University. Jordan also disclosed that he didn’t believe Bang-Jensen was “quite himself,” and that the man’s allegations were “largely childish and without foundation.” “He should be required forthwith to take sick leave, since I have no doubt that Mr. Bang-Jensen is a very sick man,” Jordan added.

After several weeks of unanswered letters, Bang-Jensen finally got the call he’d been waiting for, but he had already left the office to catch the boat to Denmark for two months of home leave. The connection was bad and Bang-Jensen and Hammarskjold couldn’t hear each other. They would write, they promised. Bang-Jensen wondered why Hammarskjold had not asked him to cancel his home leave and return to the U.N.

Bang-Jensen spent the next several weeks in the little fishing town of Espergaerde, just south of Elsinore, where Shakespeare’s Hamlet was accused of madness after discovering an act of treason. Returning to New York, he was summarily removed from the Hungarian Committee.

Again, Bang-Jensen wrote to Hammarskjold.

“Sabotage has been carried out,” he wrote. “Allegedly, on your instructions … Am I now expected to forget this matter?”

Again, he was ignored.

* * *

In October 1957, a Hungarian refugee, facing deportation from the U.S. back to Hungary, asked for asylum on the grounds that he was one of the anonymous witnesses who had testified before the Hungarian Committee. When U.N. authorities went to check his name against the list of witnesses, they found they had no copy. Only one person had the complete list of names: Povl Bang-Jensen.

Asked to provide a copy of the list, Bang-Jensen refused. Since his desk at the U.N. had been broken into, he said, he had been keeping it off U.N. property, and he did not think the U.N. could be trusted to safeguard the list against a leak that would put the names of witnesses who had accused the Soviets of war crimes in the Kremlin’s hands. It did not help that the request came from Undersecretary Dr. Dragoslav Protitch, a Yugoslav national whose government had approved of the Soviet incursion during the revolution. A United States Senate investigation would later question the security wisdom of the decision to allow Protitch to access to the Hungarian investigation at all.

A destroyed tank at the Zsigmond Móricz circle in Budapest, Hungary, during the 1956 revolution. (Photo courtesy Fortepan)

“I would be grossly derelict in my duties as an international official and thoroughly dishonest if I agreed,” he wrote. It wasn’t just a matter of principle. Back in Hungary — according to a 1960 Senate Judiciary Report on the affair — if a refugee had committed treason, upon escaping his next relative could be executed in his place. Give up the names, and dozens might die.

Despite continued orders, Bang-Jensen refused to hand over the list. On December 4, the Director of Personnel called Bang-Jensen into his office and suspended him. In an unprecedented move, Bang-Jensen was escorted out by two U.N. guards, who were too embarrassed to tail him and instead walked beside him to his car.

Word of the menace to the 81 witnesses spread. Bang-Jensen was hailed as a modern-day Good Samaritan. Letters from international organizations, questions from the press, and pleas from Hungarian groups poured into the U.N. Only a month prior, President John F. Kennedy had called the Hungarian Revolution, “a day that will forever live in the annals of free men and free nations — a day of courage and of conscience and of triumph” and had rebuked the western world for not coming to revolutionaries’ aid. The world had failed to take decisive action during the uprising, but now at least, they could take a stand for these 81 witnesses.

Some within the U.N. advocated simply burning the list, but to do so would be tantamount to admitting that the names would not be secure in U.N. files, jeopardizing the reputation of the body and its ability to carry out future anonymous hearings like the one for the Hungarian Report. And even if the names could be kept safe, what if the next Secretary-General was a Soviet, able to report the names to the Kremlin himself? How could an organization founded on globalism keep its staff from prioritizing national interests? They were questions that the United Nations, barely a decade old, had never faced.

Ernest Gross, chair of the investigation into the affair, suggested a solution.

At a few minutes before three p.m. on Friday, January 24, 1958, Bang-Jensen marched up the steps of the U.N. with his lawyer and a bank messenger who carried a sealed yellow envelope. The U.N. did not, Bang-Jensen later noted, offer him a security escort to bring the papers to headquarters. He made his way, first to an administrative office to meet several colleagues and security. The bank messenger handed over the envelope. Bundled in overcoats, they all climbed the stairs to the U.N. rooftop, where the temperature was just over freezing. A portable incinerator was blazing. Bang-Jensen fed the yellow envelope into it. Then, he removed another envelope from his briefcase and a third from his jacket pocket. The four men watched as the envelopes and their contents turned to ashes, then signed statements confirming their destruction.

Statement written and signed by Povl Bang-Jensen after he burned the papers relating to witnesses that testified in front of the Special Committee on the Problem with Hungary. (Image courtesy the U.N.)

But the affair was far from over. Hoping to end the case once and for all, Gross released his report on Bang-Jensen’s conduct, painting a picture of a paranoid, overly sensitive man. Gross claimed that Bang-Jensen had been negligent in safeguarding the papers, and suggested that he might have altered them himself. In a clunky solution to the question of the U.N.’s ability to safeguard documents, the report argued that, in Bang-Jensen’s keeping, the papers had been so insecure as to be rendered worthless — therefore the U.N. did not want them back. The report closed by recommending that Bang-Jensen seek medical help. The question of sabotage that Bang-Jensen had originally raised was largely glossed over.

“I think image of Bang-Jensen as heroic protector of papers will have been exploded,” Andrew Cordier wrote in a telegram to the Australian delegate, Sir Keith Charles Owen Shann, in Manila.

This portrait of Bang-Jensen as unstable and incompetent was a surprise, even to members who had contributed to the report. Alsing Andersen, who had recalled the incident of Bang-Jensen shaking a delegate by the lapels in the Diplomats Lounge to the Committee, asked that a new press release around the report be issued. Bang-Jensen launched into a judicial review process, aimed at reinstating his position and clearing his name. Meticulous as ever, he testified that the Gross Report contained 126 incorrect statements, including 76 that were simply misleading and 31 that were outright slanderous.

He never had a chance.

The judicial review board was stacked with the same men who had suggested Bang-Jensen was unstable. Bang-Jensen’s requests for key letters and memos, for the right to be represented by an outside attorney instead of a fellow staffer, were all denied. Unable to afford a secretary, he typed out his trial correspondence himself using two fingers, only to be told that the tribunal would only review evidence sent in triplicate. When he claimed that the labyrinthine procedures were a violation of due process and his human rights, U.N. officials grew exasperated.

“If there has been any violation of human rights,” wrote one, “it is most certainly not Bang-Jensen’s but those of many senior officials of the Secretariat, especially Andrew Cordier, who have spent the equivalent of many days — even weeks — of valuable time leaning over backwards to be fair to this impossible man!”

At the same time, according to Bang-Jensen, a smear campaign spread through the halls of the U.N. Stories reportedly circulated that Bang-Jensen was an alcoholic, a psychopath, that he was gay, or sexually deviant, that he was a McCarthyite. Meanwhile, newspaper articles told the heroic story of the man who dared to stand up to the Soviet Union and the corrupt U.N. Letters with stamps bearing the profiles of Lincoln and Washington poured in to Cordier and Hammarskjold’s office.

“Please excuse my handwriting, because I have a broken wrist and I have a cast on,” wrote Mary Alice Karl from Williston Park, New York, “I just had to write and tell you how I want to protest the dismissal of the Danish official, Povl Bang-Jensen. I think that this action was highly unfair and unreasonable.”

“Dear Sirs,” wrote Miss Marita Kane, from Long Island, “I have never before written a letter to the U.N., but this is justified because I never have been so upset by one of its actions … If you do this ostensibly unjust act of firing a hero, every patriotic American will sigh and say, ‘Oh well, it was a good idea — but the U.N. was just an idea, and can’t and didn’t work out in practice.’”

High schooler Judy Soles whipped her classmates into a fervor after learning about the case in her history class, and started a campaign to reinstate Bang-Jensen. The International League of the Rights of Man wrote in support of Bang-Jensen, citing the previous decade’s Nuremberg Trials of Nazi collaborators.

“Whenever there is a conflict between obedience or adherence to administrative rules or orders of superior officers,” the League wrote, “and a moral responsibility to safeguard life or liberty, the issue must be resolved in favor of the higher moral obligation.”

A predominantly American audience saw him as an anti-Communist hero — the tenacious and upstanding champion they had been looking for in the Cold War. Many saw the difficulties Bang-Jensen was experiencing as proof that Soviets were controlling the U.N. In response to every letter, Andrew Cordier sent a copy of the Gross Report — a clear message that their supposed hero was, in fact, deranged.

* * *

On July 3, 1958, Bang-Jensen was fired for insubordination. He was given three months’ pay in lieu of notice. Ever tenacious, he claimed right of appeal. Once again, he lost. Up until this point, Bang-Jensen had, in his own words, “made every effort to have the case dealt with in as quiet and as orderly a manner as possible in order not to hurt the United Nations which, in the final analysis, is more important than any of the individuals involved.” He deeply loved the U.N., and was committed to both its systems and its mission. That he pled his case within its existing structures, and that he rarely spoke to the press, indicates a commitment to the institution that ran deep.

“I shall never regret that I kept my promise to the Hungarian witnesses that I should be the only person in the Secretariat to know their names,” he said in a rare public statement after his firing. “Either inside or outside the United Nations—I shall continue my efforts to obtain justice.”

The affair went quiet for a year. After his dismissal, Bang-Jensen got a job at CARE, the humanitarian relief agency, where his yearly salary dropped from $17,000 to $7,500. He attended PTA meetings for his five children, took them to Sunday school, and went to the movies with his wife, Helen. “North By Northwest” was one of the most popular films of 1959, but perhaps that story of subterfuge at the U.N. felt too close to home for a weekend date.

On the morning of Monday, November 21, 1959, Bang-Jensen kissed his wife goodbye and walked out the front door of their home in Long Island. He ran into a neighbor, Mr. Wetzler, who gave him a ride to the bus stop. Mr. Wetzler reported to the Senate Judiciary Committee that Bang-Jensen “behaved in a perfectly normal manner.” Then he hopped out at the corner of Northern Boulevard and Morgan Street and was never seen alive again.

He was found, two days later on the morning of Thanksgiving, laid out on a bridle path in Alley Pond Park, a seven-minute drive from his house. Two locals, walking their dogs through the gray fallen leaves, discovered the body. A bullet had gone through his right temple. In his right hand was a pearl-handled revolver. Even after his two-day disappearance, his face, under a mat of blood, was clean-shaven. The police found a note in Bang-Jensen’s handwriting. “Whatever faults I have,” it read, “I have been honest and wanted to do good, but I underestimated the forces I was up against.” The N.Y.P.D. ruled the death a suicide, and cremated the body, as the note requested.

“You and your family have our profound sympathy and sincere condolence on the passing of your husband,” wrote Hammarskjold to Helen.

“Please accept our heartfelt sympathy in your sorrow,” wrote Cordier.

“You have driven to his death a noble man, Mr. Bang-Jensen, for doing what was right,” wrote Mrs. A.G. Hunter to the United Nations. “Your conscience should hurt you all the rest of your life — if you have a conscience.”

Almost immediately, the question of foul play arose. Who were the hidden forces mentioned in the suicide note, people wondered? Where had Bang-Jensen been for the two days of his disappearance? If the diplomat was left-handed, why was the gun found in his right hand? Had Bang-Jensen really killed himself in a fit of depression over his ousting from the U.N. or were other and more malevolent forces at play? “Many persons and many forces, not exclusively Soviet, had reason to breathe easier at his passing,” hinted the National Review. “The strange circumstances of the case seem to warrant continued investigation,” the Washington Post wrote.

Letter written by Mrs. A.G. Hunter, a Bang-Jesen supporter, to the United Nations after the ex-diplomat was found dead. (Image courtesy the U.N.)

Congress thought so too. In 1960, they launched an investigation in the Bang-Jensen case, questioning both U.N. security procedures and the pipeline of information about Communist infiltration in the State Department and the C.I.A. The committee did not comment on the judicial procedures at the U.N. that led to Bang-Jensen’s termination, since that was inside the jurisdiction of the United Nations. But the committee was very interested in whether a political assassination had occurred on American soil. The investigation created as many mysteries as it solved.

The Senate report uncovered that Bang-Jensen had spoken of suicide as a way to get his family funds from his U.N. insurance policy — but that policy had run out by the time he died. Friends and family reported depression after his dismissal from the U.N., adding that it had increased to the point where they encouraged him to consult a psychiatrist. He visited Dr. Frederick Friedenborg six times. The doctor declared him “anti-suicidal” and in the weeks leading up to his death, Bang-Jensen had been markedly more active and cheerful. Dr. Friedenborg had prescribed Bang-Jensen sleeping pills, which Bang-Jensen did not make a practice of using. The pharmacist who filled the prescription testified that it was never refilled. Nonetheless, the coroner reported that Bang-Jensen was sedated at the time of his death.

Regarding his mental state, the Senate Committee surfaced another shocking document, a 1957 memo from Bang-Jensen to Helen discovered and published by the far-right, anti-Communist Alice Widener. Though incredible, none on the committee questioned that it might be real. It read:

“[My wife] fears, now that it is clear that I will not retreat, that the circle outside the Secretariat, ultimately responsible for the sabotage, might have decided that it is necessary to risk having me disappear out a window, or similarly in a fit of depression … My wife has, nevertheless, insisted that I should inform a few of my friends, that under no circumstances would I commit suicide … this would be contrary to my whole nature and to my religious convictions. If any note was found to the opposite effect in my hand-writing, it would be fake.”

The letter was dated November 30, 1957. It was the habit of the meticulous Bang-Jensen to date all his correspondence to the day. The only exception the Senate committee could find in all Bang-Jensen’s writing was the suicide note.

The committee did not come to a conclusion on the Bang-Jensen mystery. But it did publish a report on the facts of the case, including facts that pointed to suicide and others that pointed to murder. Inserted in the report was a list of corrections to factual errors that were discovered after the report was bound and printed. Bang-Jensen would, no doubt, have found more.

* * *

On the 60th anniversary of the Hungarian Revolution, the Hungarian Mission to the U.N. celebrated the sacrifice of Bang-Jensen. The event included a generation who had lived through revolution themselves, the children of refugees who had built new lives, and Bang-Jensen’s own children, now grown. They accepted a statue in token of their father’s heroism in safeguarding the names of the 81 anonymous witnesses — a sculpture of the Hungarian uprising flag, with a hole where the Soviet hammer and sickle had been torn out.

Ferenc Miszlivetz, Director of Hungary’s Institute of Advanced Studies Kőszeg, which published A Cry for Freedom: Reflections on the 1956 Hungarian Revolution at the UN and Beyond, likens Bang-Jensen’s story to the Hungarian uprising itself.

“Sometimes relatively insignificant players,” he says, “could make a big difference in a real way in peculiar moments in history.”

Ultimately, he argues, far from jeopardizing the long-term legitimacy of the United Nations, Bang Jensen safeguarded it. In his rebellion, he had carried on U.N. values.

Bang-Jensen in Copenhagen to discuss his situation with the Danish government and Parliament. (Photo courtesy Scanpix Denmark/Sipa USA)

“Bang-Jensen saved the reputation of the United Nations,” Miszlivetz says, “We have institutions based on values and those are sometime not realized. But unexpected individuals can realize them.”

Even when the arc of progress swings ethical institutions into being, individuals must continue to carry those ethics forward in their individual actions, particularly when those institutions falter.

The Bang-Jensen case may be a story of a man experiencing post-war stress, tormenting his colleagues with paranoia, depression and ultimately suicide. Or, it may be the tale of a coordinated campaign to silence a whistleblower. Ultimately, it is a story of a man who believed entirely in the importance of truth and facts, in promises, and in resisting the very institutions we love when they fall short of their moral mandate.

Bang-Jensen’s wife eventually moved upstate to Chappaqua, New York. She worked as a guide at the local Union Church, leading tour groups through the history and stories of the Chagall and Matisse stained glass windows that a Rockefeller had commissioned for the church. The prized centerpiece of the luminous collection, the one Helen must have often paused at during her tours to relate the story of its subject, was the Good Samaritan.

My Teenage Life After Leaving a Cult

I spent my childhood waiting for the apocalypse. When it never came, I grasped at anything I could to feel in control, from binge drinking to suicide.

I stood eyeing myself in the mirror before my second day of public high school. At 15 years old, I was determined not to get kicked out of class again.

“Do I look okay?” I asked my twin sister, Tamar. I was wearing a bomber jacket, Dickies, and Converse All Star tennis shoes. The day before, I had been dismissed from class for showing too much cleavage, and I didn’t want to make the same mistake again.

“Looks fine to me,” Tamar said.

I tucked an issue of Seventeen magazine inside my jacket. In that magazine was the secret I had just discovered and shared with my siblings: we had grown up in a cult. This was the reason we felt out of place and unable to fit in after moving to California. The day before, I’d read an article about a girl who had escaped a cult and an accompanying quiz consisting of five questions. If I answered “yes” to at least three, it said, I might have grown up in a cult. I answered “yes” to all five.

Growing up in the Children of God I hadn’t been allowed to make any decisions for myself. Father David dictated how we lived and where we lived. From the clothes I wore to the food I ate to the friends I had – everything had been decided for me. After the death of Father David, our leader on the compounds in Southeast Asia, the cult slowly disbanded. Now, we were living in Dad’s home state of California after growing up hearing that America was a forbidden land, the epicenter of evil, and would be the first to burn in hell in God’s judgment during Armageddon before the Great Apocalypse that would come in 1993. It was now 1996.

High school was my first chance at normalcy, and I wanted nothing more than to be normal after living a life over which I had no control. I cut my hair and dyed it an awful carrot color, and I complemented my new hairstyle by wearing jeans, jewelry, tennis shoes – anything that had been forbidden.

On the way out the door, I passed Mom in the kitchen getting our six younger siblings ready for school. A few months earlier she had found out she had advanced cervical cancer and was now getting daily radiation treatment. Even after 12 children and two stillbirths, Mom rarely went to see a doctor in the cult. Father David did not encourage modern medicine and would have disapproved of her decision to seek medical care even though her cancer was life-threatening. Dad had enrolled in college to try to get a job, something he wasn’t allowed to do before even though he had excelled as a geology student right before joining the Children of God.

My parents were too busy trying to make ends meet to worry too much about us older kids and our adjustment, but when they did try to control us, Dad was stern and Mom was unforgiving as if we kids were the ones who had done something wrong when we all knew we hadn’t; they were the ones who joined a cult and we were born into it. My siblings and I reacted to the newfound revelation from Seventeen magazine about our childhood in different ways.

John, my oldest brother, was holding down multiple jobs and after work stayed out all night with his friends, partying in the rave scene. Mary Ann, my older sister, had frequent breakdowns and started acting strange, dressing in colorful clothes and telling her friends to “eat dirt” (for a while that was all she said to anyone). Heidi, my younger sister, spent much of her time away from home with new friends who lived down the street and dressed in black, wore smeared eye makeup, and chain-smoked cigarettes. She started listening to bands like Nirvana and Rage Against the Machine. One day she came home with a neat row of razor slits on the insides of her wrists. When Dad drilled her about it, she said, “Shut up. How dare you tell me what to do? You raised us in a cult!” Soon this was our response to our parents’ every feeble attempt to manage us, or perhaps step into their role as parents for the first time. In the cult, we were constantly watched by other people we called our “shepherds.” Now, for the first time, we were trying to be a family.

* * *

Halfway down the hill that led to the main road, Tamar lit up a bowl of pot. Even before discovering the quiz, we older kids had known something was off, and to cope we had taken to drinking alcohol, smoking pot, and hanging out with friends who took drugs we had never heard of.

School became our haven from the confusing realities of home, and every day after school Tamar and I made it a point to stay out for as long as we could.

After second period class, Tamar and I noticed a Thai girl named Diana. We eagerly made friends and let her know right away that we had grown up in Thailand. It was the only common ground we had and we wanted desperately to make a normal friend. However, we hadn’t had a conversation to decide what we would say if someone asked us about our past.

“So, why’d you guys grow up in Thailand?” Diana asked when we met up for lunch.

“Our dad was an English teacher,” Tamar said triumphantly, like she actually meant it.

“So, what does your dad do for a living now?” Diana asked.

Tamar looked at me. We both looked down at the concrete. There was an awkward silence, then a gurgle from Tamar’s throat.

“Well, our dad was an English teacher in Thailand,” she said. Sometimes we told people he was in the military. Both were half-truths since some of the adults in the cult did take up English- teaching jobs at military base camps to obtain visas and make some extra cash.

“Yeah, but what does he do now?” Diana persisted. Tamar’s face turned red. I felt my cheeks flush. I decided to keep quiet.

“Um, I don’t know,” Tamar said. “I’ll have to ask him.”

Diana gave us a long, hard look. She never met us for lunch after that.

I couldn’t acknowledge where I had come from or accept the fact that this moment was all there was. Growing up in the Children of God, an apocalyptic cult, I had been told that I was chosen, that the end was near, but now there was no end in sight – no utopia, no heaven to look forward to. And in this new life in California, I was far from chosen or special; I was an outcast. I didn’t fit in anywhere, and I needed nothing more than to be normal and cool.

America had held the promise of “cool” and glamour, of acceptance and happiness. But now, that too seemed to be slipping away. To cope with the this new “normal” that I so desperately wanted to escape, I’d get as drunk as I possibly could and turn my mind into a spinning cycle of forgetfulness, a carefree void.

I would sometimes come home from school drunk, shouting at Mom and Dad, “You raised us in a cult! How could you? I hate you! How dare you! I should’ve never been born! You should’ve never had any of us!” My parents responded with a reminder of how difficult life was for them now with Mom’s cancer treatment, Dad starting school from scratch, and limited financial income. Their response always made me feel guilty.

I played a game with myself in which I attempted to see how much I could drink and still maintain my sanity, even when the world around me started to spin. Since I had control over nothing else in my life growing up in a cult, at least I could control my wild drinking.

Drunken rages at Rowland Heights Park, located down the street from our high school, became an after-school routine. One day we were there with our new best friend Crayola, a wild girl who dressed in bright colors and pulled us into the girls’ room at school to share the bottles of liquor she always carried in the metal lunchbox that looked like a box of crayons (hence the name). Her boyfriend Thomas, who was older and hadn’t graduated because he had been expelled for being drunk on campus, was there, and the rest of their circle of friends. These kids skated in places they weren’t supposed to skate and tagged graffiti on the sides of freeway overpasses. Thomas retrieved a bottle of vodka from his backpack. We drank it straight. It felt like fire down my throat and made my ears burn. We drank it like it was medicine that would erase our childhood wounds with each desperate sip. We were walking away from the park when Thomas, drunk as usual, mentioned that he would have kissed me if he weren’t with Crayola. Hearing this, Crayola approached me from behind and hit me on the head with her lunch box. I fell to the ground, partly from the vodka, and she started yanking my hair by its roots, shouting, “You fucking bitch!”

Since she was much smaller than me, I pulled myself out of her grasp. Tamar and I walked home together, crying, to the sound of Crayola still yelling.

* * *

Everything was spinning when I got home. I felt like a failure. Triggered by the fight with Crayola and distraught over my family whom I could tell was far from normal, I recalled the stories of other kids who couldn’t cope after leaving the Children of God and attempted to take their own lives. I decided to look for a way to end it all.

I searched the house for anything that could cause death by ingestion – bleach, pills, a combination of cleaning products. I wanted it to be quick and painless, but I didn’t want to mangle my body. I found a nearly full bottle of aspirin in Mom’s cupboard. I decided that, on top of all the vodka I had drunk, it would do the trick nicely. I grabbed a piece of paper and a pen and headed off to my favorite hideout, tucked on a hill behind a farmhouse. There, before taking the pills, I found a sort of peace.

I had grown up in a world where I was prohibited from making decisions. But if there’s one freedom we have as humans, it’s the will to live or die. I recalled a scene from the 1993 version of “The Three Musketeers,” one of the first movies we watched after moving to the U.S. Milady de Winter is sentenced to beheading for treason. Moments before her execution, clad in a flowing white gown, she jumps off a rocky cliff to her death in the ocean below.

In the Children of God, we never talked about suicide, but the “End” was always on the horizon. When you’ve lived a life where death is an arm’s reach away, the prospect is enticing and feasible. Because I had thought of heaven so much as a child, I’d always felt connected to the afterlife in a way most people weren’t, almost like I belonged there instead of here. It wasn’t a way out; it was a way in. Life – even in all its magic and beauty – is a slow journey to death, so why not end it now? Why not meet the “light”?

Before heading to the hill, I had written Mom and Dad a suicide note. It said I was unable to handle the world. I was sorry and I loved them and would miss them. And I loved and would miss Tamar. I would miss her the most. But I didn’t want them to miss me. I would be fine. And Tamar would be fine. Death is just a journey and one that I’d prepared for my whole life.

I swallowed the pills in handfuls until the bottle was almost empty. I took the last pills one by one.

Once the sun had set I stumbled to my room and went to bed expecting, like I did most nights as a child, that I wouldn’t wake up. I prayed I would die in my sleep, painlessly, my body still intact.

I was awake all night, throwing up a poisonous combination of vodka and remnants of over-the-counter painkillers. Every time I looked at myself in the mirror, I couldn’t bear what I saw. How could I live with myself?

Tamar came into the bathroom, and I told her what I had done. She hugged me and said she sometimes thought about ending her life too.

I mustered up my best outfit, walked onto the school campus, and held my head high. As I headed to first-period science class, I resolved I was going to have to keep looking up. I was going to have to find a way – any way – to keep hope alive. Because if death doesn’t accept you when you knock at its door, I sure as hell didn’t know what would.

In class my stomach ached from the overdose of pills and my throat burned from the rancid taste of bile and vodka. But I couldn’t stop thinking, Why am I alive? Why am I here? A new life I never owned was slipping away from me, fading into an abyss. Even in my darkest hour, death wouldn’t take me. Now where was I to turn?

Mom and Dad found my suicide note and took me to lunch at Subway to talk about it. I had never been out alone with just my parents. There’s an embarrassment that comes with a failed attempt at suicide, and there’s no real way to explain it to anyone, much less to the people who gave you life. The day was grey and overcast.

“So, do you want to talk?” Dad said, unwrapping his sub. Dad looked different now. He wore khakis and a collared shirt. His appearance was more professional than in the cult when he and all the adult men mostly wore t-shirts and shorts as Father David ordered them not to be “worldly.” I sat across from them with my arms folded across my chest and didn’t say a word. I didn’t know how to address the topic with my parents.

“Flor, you know we love you, don’t you?” Mom said. She put her hand on mine. Her skin was rough and her fingers wrinkled. “We would never do anything to hurt you or any of your brothers and sisters,” she said.

“I know,” I said. I looked down at the pile of chips I had dumped on my napkin, but I wasn’t hungry. I knew it was much more complicated than love.

“And we tried our best,” Mom said. “We raised you the best way we knew how.”

“I know you did,” I said. “I know you love us. It’s just…” I looked away and felt hot tears welling up. I blinked them back and wiped my face with the cuff of my jacket. They would never understand.

“Is Tamar okay?” Mom asked. “Tamar’s fine,” I said. I didn’t want to talk about it anymore. They never asked why I did it or addressed the suicide question directly, and as hard as I tried I couldn’t find the words to tell them. Nor did I bring up the topic of the Children of God. They would never understand the connection, if indeed there was one. It was an awkward lunch with lots of silence and unexplained tears over a dry tuna salad sandwich.

My parents were adults when they made the decision to join the Children of God. It had been their choice to bring their kids into the fold. But as the cult progressed and changed, the adults – not just the children – were abandoned and cheated and manipulated and lied to. Maybe my parents never wanted to be in a cult. Maybe, like me, they just couldn’t get out. They would never understand my experience, I reasoned. They were still figuring out theirs, and it would be years before I could begin to take control of my life and make sense of my own.

This story was adapted from Flor Edwards’s new book “Apocalypse Child: A Life in End Times” from Turner Publishing, © 2018.

If you liked this piece, check out Flor’s first Narratively contribution, “My Childhood in an Apocalyptic Cult,” voted the site’s best story from our first 200 weeks by our editors. 

I’m a Fifty-Year-Old Mom. I Just Had Sex in the Back Seat of a Car.

Sometimes acting like a teenage rebel is the only way to feel in control.

On a hot and humid night last June, I steered my car over twisting country roads toward a small lakeside town for a romantic rendezvous. I had spent the day at a funeral, reflecting on the fact that at fifty, I had more miles behind me than ahead. Oddly, my paramour had also spent the day at a funeral, and as the summer sun disappeared we made plans to meet halfway between our towns for a drink.

It was nearly eleven when I turned my car onto Main Street, and James was growing impatient. We were speaking on the phone when I caught a glimpse of him. Strikingly handsome, he looked at least a decade younger than his 61 years. Running and doing chores on his rural property kept his body lean and muscular, and his face betrayed few traces of the anguish I knew lay in his heart.

James met me at my car, and as we walked toward the restaurant he put his arm around me. I felt a shudder of excitement run down my spine and I pushed in closer to feel his body. When we sat at the bar he swiveled his chair, pushed his knees against mine, and leaned in close to talk. Our faces were pressed within whispering distance and I inhaled his scent. The drinks we ordered were superfluous; this was all a graceful dance of foreplay.

The bar was teeming with a coarse-looking crowd of men and women who had deeply lined faces and leather jackets. The fact that we were completely out of place only heightened our excitement. We huddled and made witty comments about the antics of other patrons, parting only to fling our heads back in hysterics. We sat at the bar laughing and kissing, and before long James ran his hand up my leg and under my skirt. On previous dates he had teased me about being a Puritan in public, but X-rated in private, but that night I made no attempt to be discreet.

It felt mischievous to be strangers in a raucous tavern far from home in the middle of the night. We reveled in escaping the constricting bonds of our everyday lives – him a lawyer, me a divorced single mother. Our behavior was an unspoken act of defiance against the taunt of age, and the gloom of funerals that had become a common part of our lives.

Outside the restaurant James kissed me deeply and with a new fervency. We were passionately entangled while patrons passed by, and I whispered that we needed to go somewhere private. James began walking me to my car, and I assumed I would follow him to the adjacent hotel, or to his house an hour away.

When we got to my car he told me to get in the back seat. I refused, saying that my kids had left a mess in my car. James took my hand and led me across the lot to his immaculately clean Mercedes.

“Get in,” he said again.

“I’m not having sex with you in a car,” I replied laughing, while thinking of how improper it would be for a middle-aged mother to do so.

“Just get in,” he repeated, smiling mischievously as he opened the rear door.

There was no point in arguing; I knew I’d get in, so I slid onto the back seat. James was right behind, and before I heard the click of the door closing he was kissing me. It was futile to fight the longing we had been feeling for the past hours. Soon, all thoughts of motherhood and what was proper disappeared. We had been together many times before, but that night we devoured each other.

“I can’t believe I just had sex in a car in a public parking lot,” I said afterward, as I searched for my bra in the front seat.

“It was exciting, like in high school,” James replied, looking flushed and exhilarated.

As I drove home in the wee hours of the morning I felt furtive pride that James and I had taken a rebellious stand against the inevitability of age, and society’s expectation that we go gently into the night. In the days and weeks that followed we frequently reminisced about our romp in the car, and how it brought us back to our adolescence; a time of freedom and endless promise, a time before responsibilities and painful regrets.

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.”


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. 

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.

Want to know more? Check out our behind-the-scenes interview with Erica Garza on Continuing the Narrative.

Be a Hero. Narratively needs your help to help to tell more great stories.

Join today for as little as $2/month. ×