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.

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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.”

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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.”

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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.

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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.

40 Years Ago, an Alabama Jury Proved White Supremacists Could Be Brought to Justice

The long-delayed trial of the KKK bomber meant white southerners like me—and my aunt, who was on the jury—could no longer ignore the evil around us.

Uncle Bobby sat on my grandmother’s couch with a hangdog look and a brown paper sack. I wasn’t used to seeing him this way. Tall, lanky, bearded, and gruff, Uncle Bobby dispensed orders and opinions. On Monday, November 14, 1977, he delivered tampons.

His wife, my Aunt Nell, was sequestered for a jury. A bailiff called with her request: clothes, her Bible, and a large bag of feminine hygiene products.

Searching through the Birmingham Public Library archives 40 years later, I find a photograph of Aunt Nell, Juror 149, leaving the courtroom of the biggest case in the city’s civil rights history. I note first that Uncle Bobby brought her white slacks. Next, in her right hand, I see a crumpled tissue. She’s crying.

Jury members leave the courtroom. Aunt Nell wears white slacks, and in her right hand is a crumpled tissue. (Photo courtesy the Birmingham Public Library Department of Archives and Manuscripts)

At 16, I thought only of myself. Nell was the cool aunt, the party aunt who packed a large green Impala full of giggling teenage girls each Friday night and drove to football games, past cute boys’ houses, or to rock concerts. How long was this sequester? Would we miss KISS?

My cousin Tracy, 14, and I pestered her dad with questions. Could we ride downtown with him? Could he drive by Penny Pet Food billboard, so we could watch the dog’s tongue loll and its tail wag?

Maybe we could get on television!

“No!”

Uncle Bobby dashed our hopes with a bark. He wasn’t taking girls to any courthouse where Dynamite Bob was on trial.

* * *

On the morning of September 15, 1963, Addie Mae Collins, Carole Robertson, and Cynthia Wesley, each 14, and Denise McNair, 11, were busily primping in the basement ladies’ room of Birmingham’s Sixteenth Street Baptist Church for a special Youth Day program when a dynamite blast tore out the church’s east side. The explosion’s force blew off their frilly Sunday dresses and sent concrete fragments flying through their skulls. Relatives identified them by their ash-covered patent-leather shoes.

A local Ku Klux Klan faction targeted the church for its visible presence in the civil rights movement. Protestors had gathered at Sixteenth Street multiple times earlier that year for mass meetings of the Birmingham Campaign to confront one of segregation’s most violently defended bastions. In April, Martin Luther King, Jr. penned “Letter from a Birmingham Jail” after his arrest in a downtown march. In May, a protest called the “Children’s Crusade” left from the church to face Jim Crow. Birmingham’s Commissioner of Public Safety, Theophilus Eugene “Bull” Connor ordered police to attack the young demonstrators with dogs and firemen to hit them with water cannons. Photographs and video footage shocked the world. Embarrassed civic leaders agreed to hire black workers and desegregate downtown stores and businesses.

But the chaos was not yet over. In early September, not long after the March on Washington and King’s “I Have Dream” speech, a few city schools admitted the first black students. A violent backlash ensued. White students at three high schools rioted. Local civil rights activists’ homes were firebombed. Governor George Wallace did nothing to help. Earlier that summer, he famously blocked the way of two black students trying to integrate the University of Alabama, making good on words from his inaugural address, “segregation now, segregation tomorrow, segregation forever.”

On Tuesday, September 10th, President John F. Kennedy bypassed Wallace, federalizing the Alabama National Guard and sending the troops to schools to keep order.

On Friday the 13th, the city remained awash in hot-rods flying Confederate flags on their radio antennas and hanging signs from their windows that said “Keep Birmingham Schools White.”

On Sunday the church exploded.

The blast resonated across the nation. The “four little girls,” as the victims were collectively known, inspired poetry, fiction, visual art, and music. Their deaths galvanized support for the movement, leading to passage of the 1964 Civil Rights Act and the 1965 Voting Rights Act.

Back in Birmingham, the FBI and local police chased each other’s tails around a slipshod investigation that went nowhere. Fourteen years passed before Robert “Dynamite Bob” Chambliss, the Sixteenth Street bombing’s ringleader, was brought to trial.

* * *

My grandmother, a recent widow and a newly employed nurse, brought her children to Birmingham in the late 1940s from Alabama’s Appalachian foothills. Granny was excited to find a place to live near her job at Hillman Hospital downtown, in the city’s first housing project for whites. Elyton Village sat on Center Street, ten blocks south of an emerging civil rights showdown.

In 1947, a federal judge ruled Birmingham’s 1926 race-based zoning laws unconstitutional. Middle class black families began purchasing bungalows from white owners along north Center Street. Then their bungalows blew up. Between 1947 and 1965, more than 50 racially motivated bomb attacks occurred.

Neither Aunt Nell nor my mother remembered the explosions that gave Birmingham its nickname, “Bombingham,” although many took place close to where they lived. Perhaps to shield her girls, my grandmother said the rumbling came from “danny-mite,” as she pronounced it, in local coal and iron ore mines.

Down the road from what later became known as “Dynamite Hill,” my mother fought her own battle. One morning, a neighbor girl called her “poor.” After school, Mom waited for her behind a bush. When the girl roller-skated past, Mom jumped out and pummeled her face into the concrete. Not long afterward, my grandmother got a better job and moved her daughters from Elyton Village to East Lake, a working class community five miles east of downtown. Even though Mom got a spanking for her violence, she told the story proudly.

“We fought our way out of nothing,” she said. “Don’t let anyone try to drag you down to their level.”

A group of African Americans view the bomb-damanged home of Arthur Shores, an NAACP attorney in Birmingham, September 5, 1963. Explosions became so frequent that Birmingham earned the nickname, “Bombingham.” (Photo by Trikosko, Marion S., courtesy the U.S. Library of Congress)

I had been a civil rights educator for two decades when Aunt Nell mentioned the little black girl my late mother beat up.

I heard this story all my life and missed the obvious.

“Of course the girl was black, baby.”

Aunt Nell, now in her 70s, is the kind of Southern lady that calls everybody “baby.” The kind that cooks supper for her Baptist church on Wednesdays, prepares the programs for Sunday service on Thursdays, and visits shut-ins on Saturdays. Still the cool aunt, but no longer the party aunt, Nell has silver hair, which complements her steel blue eyes. Her walker, named “Mr. Walker,” goes with her everywhere after Uncle Bobby’s passing.

Aunt Nell and Mr. Walker have been through all Twelve Steps. She does not shy away from honest answers.

“Baby, your momma wouldn’t have hurt a white girl so bad for calling her poor.”

Flashing into my mind: the scene from Spike Lee’s 1997 documentary “4 Little Girls,” where Maxine McNair shows the director the piece of concrete that was embedded in her daughter Denise’s head.

* * *

The news media focused on shoes. The Associated Press circulated a photograph of Maxine McNair’s father, F.L. Pippen, and another man running from the church carrying Denise’s shoe. Pippen had just pulled Denise’s body from the rubble.

Eugene Patterson, editor of the Atlanta Constitution, published a column the next day that used the image to create a sense of empathy – and shame – in his white readership. “A Flower for the Graves,” read later that night on the CBS Evening News with Walter Cronkite, argued that the responsibility for the bombing did not lie only with the act’s perpetrators but with all white Southerners who, as Patterson stated, “created a climate for child-killing.” He described a grieving mother holding a shoe that belonged to her dead child. “Every one of us in the white South holds that small shoe in his hand,” Patterson stated. “Let us see it straight and look at the blood on it. Let us compare it with the unworthy speeches of Southern public men who have traduced the Negro; match it with the spectacle of shrilling children whose parents and teachers turned them free to spit epithets at small huddles of Negro school children for a week before this Sunday in Birmingham; hold up the shoes and look beyond it to the state house in Montgomery where the official attitudes of Alabama have been spoken in heat and anger.”

Patterson urged his readers to do better, to “plant a flower of nobler resolve” on the girls’ graves. “We created the day,” he said. “We bear the judgment.”

* * *

The FBI and local police knew who bombed Sixteenth Street, but the investigation dragged on for years with no prosecution.

Bob Chambliss topped everyone’s suspect list. A craggy faced drinking and fighting man, Chambliss learned the explosives trade in Birmingham’s iron ore mines. In 1963, the 59-year-old Chambliss officially worked in Birmingham’s city garage. Unofficially, he worked for Bull Connor setting fuses on Dynamite Hill.

Robert E. Chambliss’s mugshot. (Photo courtesy the Birmingham Public Library Department of Archives and Manuscripts)

The FBI had been monitoring Chambliss and his KKK cronies through an informant, Gary Thomas Rowe. A black female eyewitness named Gertrude “Kirthus” Glenn reported seeing a 1957 Chevy (later traced to Chambliss’s friend Thomas Blanton, Jr.) near the church the night before the bombing, and a man matching the description of either Chambliss or another suspect, Bobby Frank Cherry, inside the car. But her testimony alone could not be the foundation for a trial against white men, especially considering that another potential eyewitness, the white police officer on duty that night was Floyd Garrett, Chambliss’s nephew. Chambliss and two other men, John Hall and Charles Cagle, were picked up for possessing and transporting dynamite. They paid a $100 fine and received a suspended sentence. No other arrests were made. In 1965, local authorities named Cherry, Blanton, and another man, Herman Cash, as primary suspects, with Chambliss as the ringleader. Yet in 1968, the FBI closed the case, and director J. Edgar Hoover sealed the files.

* * *

My grandmother told me that the Sunday of the church bombing, friends called her from the hospital where she worked, warning her not to come downtown. The dead and wounded had come there, and “they” – meaning black people – were rioting.

Granny said that she gathered me, a toddler, into her arms and headed to the hallway in the middle of her house, where we sheltered during tornadoes, singing hymns while waiting for the storms to pass.

Sixteenth Street Baptist’s minister, John Cross, tried to calm the unrest by reciting Psalms 23, the Lord’s Prayer, from a bullhorn in front of the church.

Two youths died in the day’s violence. A white police officer shot Johnny Robinson, 16, in the back. White teenagers shot Virgil Ware, 13, at random.

Younger activists such as Diane Nash and James Bevel grew so angry over the continuing miscarriage of justice that they challenged King’s stance on non-violence. After much soul-searching debate, a consensus emerged to fight for the right to vote and get men like Bull Connor out of office.

The strategy worked. The tangled emotions—the grief, the shame, the rage—that fueled Eugene Patterson to write “A Flower for the Graves” and thousands to converge on places like Mississippi in 1964 and Selma in 1965, manifested themselves in two pieces of civil rights legislation. Both put Dynamite Bob on a collision course with a Birmingham courtroom.

The 1965 Voting Rights Act changed who voted, which changed who served on juries, and who got elected to judge and prosecutor positions. A young white law student named Bill Baxley vowed in 1963 that he would one day do something about the church bombing. When he became the state’s Attorney General in 1970, he immediately started digging into the church bombing case.

The 1964 Civil Rights Act changed who had access to public space. The church bombing sent a message that black citizens had no rights to public facilities, no rights to stores, no rights to schools, no rights to the most sacred places. Voting shifted the city’s demographic from one that was majority white and dominated by Jim Crow violence to one that was primarily black and ready to tell a new movement story. That storytelling process would start with the 1977 Chambliss prosecution and reach its fruition in 2013 with a monument to the four girls on the fifty-year anniversary of their murder. “Four Spirits,” by locally born artist Elizabeth MacQueen, features bronze statues of each girl – one beckoning visitors, another releasing doves – and a bench for rest and reflection. The monument sits at the center of a large memorial complex that includes the church, the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute, a walking tour, and multiple works of public art in a park that used to be famous for police dogs and fire hoses. Such a space sends a very different message from that of 1963: that the story about the fight for justice, equality, and freedom will occupy a significant portion of the city’s newly defined civic identity.

* * *

The 1977 Chambliss case was shaky, but Baxley pushed ahead because the time was right. Old-guard civil rights warriors tired of justice too long delayed. New Birmingham looked forward to words like “closure” and “healing.”

The trial opened on November 14. The charge was the murder of Denise McNair. Baxley told me in an April 2013 interview, “you can murder someone without knowing them if you set a bomb intending to do harm.” The state made four separate murder indictments, one for each girl. The judge, Wallace Gibson, ruled that the trial would go forward on one indictment only, an odd decision that would prove decisive. The jury was made up of nine white and three black members. Aunt Nell was an unlikely choice. She went to high school with defending attorney Art Hanes, Jr., and Hanes’s secretary Suzy was my mother’s best friend. I asked him in a May 2013 interview about the selection. He said that because his father had been Birmingham’s mayor (from 1961 to 1963) it was hard to find jury members he didn’t know. I asked Baxley also. He did not remember Juror 149 specifically, but he had a definite trial strategy that Aunt Nell fit. She was a Christian, a homemaker, and a mom. Her daughter (my cousin Tracy) was in 1977 about the same age as Addie Mae, Cynthia, Carole, and Denise when they died.

The evidence against Chambliss: he purchased a case of dynamite; he knew how to construct the specific, and rare, kind of fishing-bobber and metal bucket detonator used at Sixteenth Street; he was seen near the church the night before. But more important than any of that was Chambliss himself. Aunt Nell said she based her decision to convict on “his arrogance, his hatred, and his niece.”

For Aunt Nell, the niece Elizabeth Hood Cobbs’ testimony was the trial’s turning point. In 1963, Elizabeth Hood was in her early twenties. By 1977, she was divorced, a mother of one, and a Methodist minister named Elizabeth Cobbs. She stated under oath that she came to Chambliss’s house during the school riots and found him noticeably agitated, cursing, and using racial epithets. “Just wait till after Sunday morning,” he told her. “They will beg us to let them segregate.”He had enough dynamite “to flatten half of Birmingham,” he claimed. Cobbs was at the house after the bombing, when news reports stated that murder charges might possibly be filed. “It wasn’t meant to hurt anybody,” Chambliss told the television. “It didn’t go off when it was supposed to.”

On November 17, 1977, Baxley made his closing argument. He noted that the day would have been Denise McNair’s 26th birthday, and by then she likely would have been a mother herself. He told the jury that it was their “duty” to convict.

At 4:10 pm they went into the jury room to begin deliberations. Five hours went by with no verdict. The judge allowed them to retire for the evening so they could get some sleep and start fresh the next morning. What happened during those five hours?

Aunt Nell told me that she had no doubt how she would vote.

“Baby, that man was guilty as sin,” she says. “You could see it in his face the minute he strolled into that courtroom like he owned it. You could see it in the way he stared at his niece.”

Not all jury members saw what Aunt Nell did. They spent their five hours reviewing the evidence piece by piece: witness testimony, intricate details about bomb building, Chambliss’s whereabouts in September 1963, morgue photos. Then they voted: 11-1. One white man remained unconvinced. The deliberations were exhausting and painful, Aunt Nell remembers, but not acrimonious. The man needed more time. The jury ate dinner: something from room service that Aunt Nell doesn’t remember. She does recall marking her Bible. Jeremiah chapter 29, verse 11: “For I know the thoughts I think toward you, saith the Lord, thoughts of peace, not of evil, to give you an expected end.” Aunt Nell slept well trusting that her Lord had a plan. The jury started up the next day a little after eight a.m. Two hours later they voted again.

On November 18, 1977, at 10:40 a.m. the jury returned a guilty verdict and set the sentence at life in prison. Chambliss served his time in a solitary cell.

The conviction established a new precedent for civil rights era crimes. Cold case prosecutions became increasingly common over the next few decades. In 1994, a Jackson, Mississippi jury convicted Byron de la Beckwith for the 1963 murder of Medgar Evers. In 2005, another Mississippi jury found Edgar Ray Killen guilty for the murder of three voting rights activists during 1964’s Freedom Summer. Such “atonement trials,” as historian Jack Davis calls them, were important to people in places like Birmingham, who wanted to leave a violent past behind.

Some people have a different take on redemption. Chambliss died in 1985, still saying his Klan brothers did it, not him.

Ten years after Chambliss’s death, the F.B.I. reopened their investigation files. With new evidence unavailable to Baxley in 1977, Doug Jones, then the U.S. Attorney for Alabama’s Northern District (and now a candidate in the special election for Jeff Session’s vacated Senate seat) successfully prosecuted the co-conspirators who remained alive, Thomas Blanton in 2000, and Bobby Frank Cherry in 2002. The other suspect, Herman Cash, died in 1994. After Cherry’s conviction, news headlines nationally spoke of “healing” and “closure.”

* * *

In “A Flower for the Graves,” Eugene Patterson claimed that the moral responsibility for the church bombing lay not with men like Chambliss who planted the dynamite at Sixteenth Street but with white Southerners who, by their overt actions or their silence, created fertile ground for violence. Both Art Hanes and my Aunt Nell taught me a lot about justice and accountability.

Hanes said that he lost the case in the defense. During the prosecution, Hanes was aggressive, objecting to anything related to the use of words such as “dynamite” or “bomb.” He even got the judge to cut those words out of the coroner’s report with a penknife. During the defense, as Hanes called up one motley character witness after another, his attitude shifted. He stopped pushing. He stopped objecting. He seemed resigned. I asked him what happened. He told me that he had planned to call only one witness: Chambliss himself. When it came time, Chambliss said, “I ain’t gettin’ up there.” Hanes said that was his epiphany.

One needs his backstory to understand. Art Hanes, Jr. was a Princeton educated partner in his father’s law firm. The firm defended the worst of the worst: Chambliss, the white men who killed Selma civil rights worker Viola Liuzzo, and, briefly, James Earl Ray for killing Martin Luther King, Jr. Hanes claimed that he came out of law school “idealistic.” He told me, “Jefferson says that, ‘You judge a society not by how it treats its privileged but how it treats its meanest wretch.’ I came out of law school saying, ‘I can represent the meanest wretch.’” But in that courtroom, he said that he changed his mind: “I was not going to spend the rest of my life bleeding on those counsel tables.” He still worked in murder trials, but when Medgar Evers’s murderer Byron de la Beckwith tried to hire him in 1994, Hanes said no. No more being “on the wrong side of history.”

I asked him if he thought Birmingham had redeemed itself from the wrong side of history. Not nearly enough, he said, despite the prosecutions and the memorials: “We can’t adjust to a new society until all of us who were raised in a segregated America are gone… To me, all those things are current events. You can’t put them behind you and think of them as past.”

* * *

Aunt Nell and I also talk a lot about the past and change. Sometimes we drive past the places she has lived since moving to Birmingham. In 2013, the county just south of Birmingham where much of the city’s white population took flight after integration, received word from the U.S. Supreme Court in its Shelby County v. Holder ruling. The court stated that federal election monitors were no longer necessary in places with a history of Jim Crow, even though voter discrimination might still persist. We could not help but notice the wealthy extravagance of the lavish malls and sprawling gated communities we saw in Shelby County’s northern suburbs compared to the fast food restaurants, pawnshops, and bail bondsmen in predominantly black East Lake and Elyton Village.

Who needs KKK dynamite when you can just turn your back?

Yet Birmingham’s civil rights memorial complex, just west of the city’s central business and shopping district, is lovely – all green space and public art. Aunt Nell and I visited near the church bombing’s 50th anniversary. I asked her what she was doing while the famous “dogs and fire hoses” incidents were taking place downtown. “I cared and I didn’t,” she said, “because it didn’t affect me. I was into my own life, doing my own things. I was a young mother. But when I sat on that jury, it really opened my eyes.”

We stood at the corner where “Four Spirits,” the memorial to Addie Mae, Cynthia, Carole, and Denise now stands, diagonally across from the church. Off to one side, the artist set a small pair of bronze shoes.

Maxine McNair kept the ash-covered patent leather shoe, along with the bloodstained piece of concrete that she showed to Spike Lee, in a box for decades after she lost eleven-year-old Denise.

My cousin Tracy and I survived our teens, went to plenty of rock concerts and football games, had children of our own, enjoying all the rights and privileges Birmingham daughters deserve.

Aunt Nell looked over at the church then out at Birmingham’s sleek skyline and sighed, “It makes you wonder how all that could go on and you just didn’t know. I guess you could call it ignorance.

“But it wasn’t.”

The Elizabeth MacQueen statue, “Four Spirits” statue at Kelly Ingram Park, across the street from the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church. (Photo by Ted Tucker, courtesy the Greater Birmingham Convention and Visitors Bureau)

The Merciless Champ of Congo’s Mystical Wrestling League

Even as he approaches old age and his sport falls into decline, this intestines-eating, sorcery-conjuring “Man of Great Power” still dominates the ring.

With a slow and assured swagger that defies his aging body, Edingwe Moto na Ngenge, the most decorated Congolese wrestler of all time, steps into the ring. At about six-foot-six and more than 220 pounds, with a prominent brow, deep-set eyes, a mohawk and a large dragon tattoo across the left side of his chest, he cuts an imposing figure. Edingwe, whose moniker, Moto na Ngenge, translates to Man of Great Power, struts back and forth across the ring with his shoulders thrown back, stamping his feet and contorting his face into grotesque expressions, toying with his opponent and whipping his loyal fans into a frenzy.

It’s January 2016 in Kinshasa, the pulsating capital city in the far west of the vast and volatile Democratic Republic of Congo. Just a year earlier, the radio-trottoir, or pavement radio, as the city’s incessant gossip mill is known, spread word that Edingwe was near death’s door, broke and unable to cover the hefty cost of his prolonged hospital stay, finally turning to God in a last-ditch effort to be saved.

Now, with thousands of spectators filling the lower-level stands of the Tata Raphaël stadium and local television crews set up around the wrestling ring erected in the middle of the soccer field, Edingwe’s got something to prove.

However, it’s his challenger, Mal à l’aise, which translates to Ill at Ease, who attacks first. He takes a dead snake from his trainer at the edge of the ring, wraps it around his neck for a moment, then holds it tight with one hand close to its head and the other at the end of its tail, thrusting it repeatedly and exaggeratedly in the direction of Edingwe. The great champion is momentarily stunned by this act of sorcery, and with his eyes wide in surprise he becomes rooted to the spot, rocking back and forth like a tall tree in the wind.

But Edingwe soon grows tired of this impetuous display, breaks the spell, and with a swift extension of his right arm and a raised, open palm, calls on the spirits of his ancestors. The magical powers they have so long bestowed on him send Mal à l’aise tumbling backward onto the mat, where he lies paralyzed. Edingwe kneels beside his hapless opponent, grasps at his midriff and appears to extract his intestines like long pieces of pink elastic. He holds them aloft and then lowers them into his gaping mouth; as he eats them, blood pours from the corners of his lips onto his chest. A government minister sitting near the ring faints. Mal à l’aise, also unconscious, is covered and carried away.

Edingwe is swiftly escorted from the arena by his entourage before his opponent’s angry supporters seek revenge for such a merciless performance. After just a few minutes, it’s all over.

* * *

The unique and wildly popular Congolese variety of wrestling, which bears some similarities to American professional wrestling, took off in the late 1960s and early ’70s. Around this time, a handsome young man named Kele Kele Lituka became Congo’s first professional wrestler and a household name, defeating European champion Claude Leron and celebrated American wrestler El Greco.

Lituka beat his Western opponents by drawing on wrestling techniques that in fact long preceded the influence of the American school. He incorporated elements of a traditional Congolese fighting style called libanda, which is said to have traveled to Brazil with slaves from the ancient Kingdom of Kongo centuries earlier and served as the genesis for the Brazilian martial art of capoeira. (While elements of the matches are clearly played up for dramatic effect, organizers here, like their American counterparts for a time, have long insisted that nothing is staged.)

Edingwe holds aloft what are ostensibly the intestines of his opponent at the Tata Raphael Stadium in Kinshasa in January 2016. (Photo courtesy Edingwe)

“Since the early days of urbanization, there have been public fights in Kinshasa,” says Katrien Pype, Ph.D., a professor of African cultural anthropology at the University of Birmingham in the United Kingdom and at KU Leuven University in Belgium. In the 1950s, when this sizable swath of Central Africa was still a Belgian colony, a style of fighting called mukumbusu emerged. Inspired by the movements of gorillas and incorporating both foreign and African fighting styles, mukumbusu was a “reaction to the other martial arts that were brought in by the colonialists,” Pype says.

In the late 1970s, a young, cocksure fighter from a poor family in Kinshasa’s ramshackle Matete neighborhood stepped into the ring for the first time. A notorious brawler at school who sometimes even came to blows with his teachers, Edingwe, whose real name is Edmond Ngwe Mapima, had already shown promise in the boxing ring. He would quickly leave an indelible mark on Congolese wrestling, introducing the sport to the aspect of magic and sorcery, known locally as fétiche, with its practitioners referred to as féticheurs.

Fétiche is the foundation on which the Congolese manifestation of contemporary wrestling has been built. Tapping into local superstitions and the widespread Congolese belief in traditional magic, mysticism and the spirit world, Edingwe’s mastery of fétiche gave him an insurmountable advantage over his opponents. As Caroline Six wrote in a 2015 article in the French press: “The success of a wrestler in Congo is often not founded on strength, technique or style, but on his capacity to make people believe in his powers of sorcery.” Edingwe is the perfect embodiment of this claim.

Mobutu Sese Seko, the flamboyant, corrupt and ruthless dictator who ruled Congo — which he renamed Zaire — for more than 30 years until his death in 1997, was a great wrestling aficionado. He used the sport as a focal point for what Pype calls his “authenticity politics,” whereby he shunned and in some cases banned cultural practices deemed to be Western and instead promoted a new, African vision of Congolese national belonging.

“During Mobutu’s time, wrestling was promoted as the national sport. There was a lot of financial support and massive state-organized and sponsored events and tournaments,” Pype says. For the first time, Congolese wrestling was also widely televised across the country. This helped Edingwe become the sport’s greatest icon, equal parts feared and revered. But those days were long ago.

* * *

When it rains hard in Matete, as it does most days during Congo’s wet season, the labyrinthine streets and alleyways — many of which are unpaved and untraversable by car — quickly become fast-flowing red-brown rivulets carrying trash and human waste between the buildings. At such times, this overcrowded and notoriously crime-ridden area is unusually quiet; small groups of young boys huddle outside kiosks that sell cigarettes, soft drinks and basic household essentials, seeking shelter beneath the jagged metal overhangs that jut out over the front stoops. Otherwise, the streets are deserted.

Behind a large red metal gate opposite one such kiosk, Edingwe sits silently with a few friends and family members on pink plastic chairs, while a few laborers in tattered overalls work noisily to cover exposed rafters on the roof with sheets of metal. A light breeze gusts through the empty window frame beside them. One day, Edingwe, who says he does not know his age but is likely somewhere in his late 50s, hopes this building will serve as both a new house for his family and a fitting testament to his long and illustrious wrestling career. In his deep, slow drawl, the great champion says, “My only regret is that my parents died poor while I was still too young. I wish they had still been alive to see this when it is complete.”

Left: Edingwe suddenly transforms once he is dressed in his wrestling attire, striking macho poses for the camera at his home in Matete, Kinshasa. Right: Edingwe demonstrates some of the grotesque facial expressions that he uses in the ring to strike fear into his opponents and whip his adoring fans into a frenzy. (All photos by Christopher Clark)

Edingwe has not had a fight since his famous disembowelment of Mal à l’aise more than a year ago. A few days after the fight, a wildly sensationalist Congolese news site reported that, thanks to a quick visit to both the clinic and a local temple, Mal à l’aise had miraculously survived. However, he complained that he was still experiencing some discomfort in his stomach. 

The pavement radio is buzzing with news that despite Edingwe’s now infamous comeback, he is still barely scraping by financially, paying his bills by doing occasional work as an informant for the police in Matete, where he uses his magical powers to pinpoint the location of alleged criminals.

Local journalist Francis Mbala says that wrestling has been hit hard by the political impasse that engulfed the Congolese capital when beleaguered president Joseph Kabila failed to step down at the end of his two-term presidential limit in December 2016. The impasse has thrust the city, and the country, into a new period of uncertainty, crippling the local economy. Sporadic political protests have been met by an increasingly violent state response, leaving scores of protesters dead. Meanwhile, rebel militias have resurfaced in the long-afflicted Kivu provinces in the east of the country, while a bloody guerilla war between the army and anti-government rebels has claimed at least 3,000 lives — with gross human rights abuses alleged on both sides — and forced more than a million people to flee their homes.

“With the current political and economic crisis, there is a severe lack of sponsors for wrestling,” Mbala says. Official wrestling institutions and federations “almost don’t exist in Kinshasa anymore,” he adds, and big wrestling events have inevitably become much less frequent.

But Pype says that the trials and tribulations of Congolese wrestling precede the current political impasse. “During Mobutu’s time, wrestling was the national sport,” she reiterates, “but unfortunately for the wrestlers, the current government hasn’t recognized what the sport and its practitioners could mean to them and to the creation of national cohesion and unity. Mobutu invested a lot more in the promotion of Congolese culture in general.”

Pype insists that wrestling remains an important part of daily life for the Kinois, as Kinshasa’s residents are known, especially for young men in working-class neighborhoods like Matete. For many of these men, wrestlers represent an ideal body image — and they are also emblematic of the possibility of transcending one’s impoverished circumstances.

Edingwe has a more straightforward take on why he hasn’t had a fight in so long: He says that no one is currently up to the challenge. He is not announcing his retirement just yet, but he is already pinning great hope on his eldest son, a 33-year-old who lives and fights in Belgium — and is known as Little Edingwe.

“The powers that I inherited from my grandfather, who was also a wrestler, will gradually be transferred to my son,” Edingwe says. “God has not given these powers to anyone else, so this is what I am counting on. When my son is strong enough, I will stop fighting.”

Other champions of Edingwe’s era agree that the next generation of greats is yet to announce itself in Kinshasa. Mwimba Makiese, who goes by the nickname Texas, shares the sense that the increasing lack of financial incentives has played a role, pushing young working-class men into Kinshasa’s violent street-fighting scene — where they can at least achieve a level of localized fame and notoriety — rather than the official wrestling circuit.

Like Edingwe, Makiese, who claims to have won an impressive 646 out 650 matches in his career, is looking to retire soon, potentially adding to the vacuum. Makiese has long been the leading proponent in Congo of the so-called “classical” American style of wrestling. He has often publicly denounced fétiche wrestling, which he claims has fueled a growing negative narrative that dismisses wrestlers as “brigands.” Makiese is currently training two young wrestlers in the hope that they will fill his considerable shoes and continue to build on his legacy of “clean, technical wrestling,” as he calls it.

Widely known both for his success in the ring and for being the first albino wrestler in Congo, Makiese is also a renowned philanthropist, having created a foundation for Kinshasa’s routinely persecuted and ostracized albino population. Money that Makiese earned from wrestling helped build the foundation, but in recent years he has had to find other means of sustaining it. To that end, he now runs a small shop with his wife.

“Before, I could live solely from wrestling. I built my house with money from wrestling. I educated my kids with money from wrestling. Now, things have changed,” Makiese says. “But I’m like a chameleon — I’ll always find a way to adapt,” he adds.

Back in Matete, Edingwe seems less willing to adapt. Wrestling, after all, is his calling. He believes it was preordained. He believes that only he can save Congolese wrestling from the slump it is currently experiencing.

As if to show his readiness to shoulder this considerable burden, Edingwe goes to get his wrestling attire — high socks, lace-up boots and tight black spandex shorts — from the small main house behind the unfinished outbuilding. When he returns, the short walk seems to have put considerable strain on his body. He struggles to get up the single step back into the outbuilding and has to use the wall for support. He breathes heavily as he slowly and laboriously lowers himself back into his chair, where a young male relative helps him lace up his boots. It’s hard to imagine that just over a year ago, Edingwe was proudly strutting back and forth across the ring like a peacock, in front of his adoring fans, as he prepared to disembowel Mal à l’aise.

A young relative of Edingwe helps the champion wrestler, who appears to be in ill health, lace up his boots before he poses for pictures at his home in Matete, Kinshasa.

But as soon as he is dressed, Edingwe transforms. His back straightens, his shoulders rise; legs slightly akimbo, he throws a few slow-motion air punches left and then right across his body while contorting his face into grimaces, the veins in his neck bulging. 

Two of Edingwe’s daughters can’t help giggling at this spectacle. In a mock-aggressive tone, he commands them to come and stand beside him, where he loops an arm over each of their shoulders. The girls grow suddenly shy beside Edingwe’s enormous frame and will not meet his eyes. Imperceptible to them, a slight smile crosses their father’s lips.

For the briefest of moments, he is defeated.

Edingwe smiles down on two of his daughters at home in Matete, Kinshasa.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

* * *

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

* * *

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Day My Therapist Dared Me to Have Sex With Her

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

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

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

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

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

“Oh, yeah,” I say. “That.”

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

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

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

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

I shrugged my shoulders, only half looking up.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Nailed it.

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

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

* * *

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Why not?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

There were two ways to find out:

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

2) Keep going to therapy.

* * *

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

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

“I don’t know.”

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

Here we go again.

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

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

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

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

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

“What?” I respond, flustered.

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

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

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

“Of course not.”

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

“I wouldn’t do that.”

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

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

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

* * *

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Isn’t therapy supposed to ameliorate my anxiety?

* * *

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Exactly.”

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

* * *

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Lori’s great at forcing me to reflect.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

* * *

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

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

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

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

* * *

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

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

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

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

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

* * *

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

See the complete list of Editors’ Picks here. 

* *

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

* * *

“What’s your favorite porn scene?”

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

The possibilities run through my head.

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

They’re also lies.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Are you sure?”

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

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

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

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

“Go on.”

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

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

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

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

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

And so I tell him.

* * *

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

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

And then realizing that person is me.

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

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

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

I was out of control.

* * *

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

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

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

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

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

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

* * *

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

That’s why I need to tell my husband.

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

* * *

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

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