The Joe + Heidi Show

From art studios to strip clubs and drug dens, a young woman sifts through handwritten letters and distant memories to trace the tumultuous path of her parents' marriage.

On May 14, 1987, the five-year anniversary of Cathy’s death, Joe and Mark walked into Billy’s Topless Bar on Sixth Avenue and 23rd Street, intent on distracting Joe, with booze and naked ladies, from the anniversary of losing his first true love. It was a Thursday. They had probably come from a construction job, covered in plaster and paint, as usual.

There was a woman on stage who looked like a comic book rendition of the stripper dream girl: simultaneously angular and voluptuous, innocent and mischievous, with cropped black hair and a reckless attitude that made it believable when she claimed, years later, that Mia Wallace from “Pulp Fiction” had been based on her. She also, as several people pointed out at the time and later, looked more than a little bit like Cathy.

The dancer, Heidi, wasn’t even supposed to be there that night. She was covering a shift for her best friend and roommate, Hannah, who wanted the night off. She had never danced at Billy’s before and was nervous and shy. She had been reluctant to take the shift, but she gave in to Hannah, who had been her best friend for twelve years, since they were nine years old.

Heidi had come to New York a few days earlier from Buffalo to visit Hannah on her way to a vacation in Hawaii. Hannah got her a few shifts stripping to save up for the next leg of the trip, to have money for frozen cocktails on the beach.

“I stepped out of the cab on First and First—which I was very confused by—and into a ridiculous world of experiences that completely altered the course of my life,” Heidi remembers, “I wasn’t a tough, jaded New York girl yet.” It didn’t take long for her to become one.

“As usual anything Hannah did was something I would do,” she said. “She had me stripping and doing heroin inside a week.” As of this writing, Heidi has still never been to Hawaii.

Heidi, my mother, remembers that night like it was a movie scene, everything in slow motion and glistening with romance. At the beginning of our interview, I asked for the story of how she met my father, and I got every detail. As she tells it, the guys walked in and Joe, my father, locked eyes with her on stage. He was a compact man with the face of a nice Jewish boy, terrible posture, and the leather jacket and black jeans uniform of the art scene he’d moved to New York for. Mark, standing behind him, not even able to see the look on Joe’s face, said, “There’s the girl for you.”

That night at Billy’s, for once, it wasn’t just the customer staring. She stared right back at him. “We saw each other right away,” she said. The dancers were supposed to spend every other half-hour off stage, talking to customers, and Heidi spent all of her time with Joe. Other customers noticed that she was giving all of her attention to “this one guy,” but she didn’t care.

He stayed for her whole shift, until four a.m, then took her back in a cab to Ludlow and Houston, where she and Hannah lived. They stood on the street, kissing and saying long goodbyes.

Heidi and Joe
Heidi and Joe

“He didn’t come inside, but we didn’t know how to leave each other,” she said. “It was weird since we had just met that night. We didn’t know if we would ever see each other again, but both knew we’d die if we didn’t”—acknowledging how dramatic and over-the-top they felt. But I believe her that it really was that intense, because even when they hated each other years later, neither ever denied for a minute the suffocating strength of the love they felt for each other. Mark and other friends confirmed that the obsession wasn’t one-sided, but that Joe was “head over heels immediately.”

“There was a visible change in him,” Chris, his good friend from art school, said. “He was in love. It was great to see.”

*   *   *

Heidi and Joe saw each other as often as possible that summer. They sat on park benches eating Klondike bars, even though the city was at its most disgusting, with a heat wave and a garbage strike overlapping, and even though Papa was still living with his girlfriend Tink.

A sculpture created by Joe, depicting Heidi as the Greek mythological character Daphne
A sculpture created by Joe, depicting Heidi as the Greek mythological character Daphne

After years of mostly dogs and deer, Papa’s sculptures and paintings began to feature the female form—more specifically, he started drawing and sculpting Heidi’s body. He had drawn women before, in figure drawing classes as a teenager, and then, when he and Cathy were together, she appeared in the murals they collaborated on. But in those paintings Cathy’s body was one of many parts of the graphic image, weighted equally with the drape of the Japanese kimonos she wore, the fans she held, the dogs she shared the canvas with. These new pieces were truly about my mother, her physicality, her sexuality, and the hold she had on him. He drew and sculpted her as Daphne—the Greek mythological character who changed into a tree to escape an overly aggressive suitor—the beautiful woman, not quite attainable.

A sculpture from Joe's "Bad Barbie" series
A sculpture from Joe’s “Bad Barbie” series

One of his many interpretations of his new obsession was the start of the “Bad Barbie” series, which continued, in various forms, until the end of his life. They range from two inches to about a foot tall, and are made out of lead, knife blades, broken glass, ball bearings, animal bones and other found objects. Their legs always meld, joining together in sharp points that are meant to stick into wooden stands. They have no arms or faces, but most have human hair, often my mother’s or her friends’. (I asked him when I was seven to make one with my hair, not understanding the dark and sexual themes of the Bad Barbies. He obliged, but made it tiny, out of clear silicone, the purest and most innocent one in the series.)

“They were these intense, sexy, dangerous creatures,” my mother said. “They were obviously pretty dark but they were also celebratory. I saw more mysterious sexual tension in them than just darkness. The Barbies couldn’t run, their legs were jammed into wood, but was it that they were trapped or was it that they were dangerous?”

The seriousness of his drug use at that early stage didn’t become clear until much later. My mother remembers him doing it with her a few times, casually, but so do at least three other people, separately.

His old friend Ken remembered Papa bringing him to a bombed out-looking tenement building in the East Village to score.

“What surprised me,” Ken said, “wasn’t that he’d asked if I wanted to do some heroin, but that he already knew where to find it.”

If Papa did heroin once in a while, but with at least four different people, separately, it means he was actually doing it pretty consistently without letting on that it was more than just a lark.

*   *   *

In late August or early September of 1987, Joe went to Mount Baldy in Mendocino County, California for a job insulating a tiny cabin—one of many small construction jobs he did on the side to finance his art. Heidi went with him. She refers to it as their love nest, the first time they got to see each other day after day and feel like they were really together, not just having an affair. There was no sneaking around, no dark side to it. Neither of them even did any drugs on the trip, just enjoyed being in nature and with each other. She has described this as the peak of their being in love. “Divine, and sweet as Hell,” she wrote in her diary at the time.

A few weeks after the trip was over, she called and told him that she was pregnant.

“He wasn’t mean or awful about it,” she said, “but he hinted that I would have an abortion. I said I wasn’t.” Not sure even at the time whether she meant it, she told him that it didn’t matter if he was going to be there or not, that she would do it by herself if she had to. She wasn’t going to abort a baby she wanted just because it hadn’t arrived in the most convenient way or time.

“He was scared,” she said. “He never wanted to have kids. He always thought that he would be a very bad father.” He was worried that he might take after his own cold, domineering father if given the chance. His father had taught him how to draw, had taught him discipline and commitment to art, but had never been anything other than an authority figure, never warm, nurturing or encouraging.

Now that there was tangible, living evidence of their affair, Papa finally told Tink about Heidi.

“I was on stage at Billy’s one day and Tink came in,” my mother told me. “And sat. And cried.” The two women didn’t speak; Tink just came to see what she looked like and to believe that she was real. Tink told me she remembers thinking that Heidi looked a lot like Cathy, and not being surprised by that at all.

A few days later the three of them sat down to coffee at a diner. Nothing was settled or decided; Tink just needed to know what had happened, to get the whole story. He had cheated on her before, but it was clear that this time it was different; it was serious, even without the pregnancy. My mother doesn’t remember what was said, just the horribly uncomfortable feeling of sitting there, the guilt and heaviness of looking Tink in the eyes.

For some reason, Papa and Tink still didn’t break up. Not knowing whether or not he was going to be there for her and not willing to stay in New York, pregnant and alone while she waited for him to decide, Heidi went back to Buffalo to be near her mother, who was also pregnant at the time, with Heidi’s youngest brother, my uncle Jake.

My parents each visited the other once during the pregnancy. “When he saw me, when we were near each other, he was suddenly wonderful,” she said. “Then he’d leave and send me a terrible letter. Then he’d send me a nice letter. It was torturing me.” He was confused and had no idea what to do.

A lengthy letter from Heidi to Joe
A lengthy letter from Heidi to Joe

He would write things like,

“I can’t shake the feeling that it could all work out. I can’t. but, then, I have to open my eyes, open my ears, + see and hear you saying, ‘no, remember this? Remember that?’ And my gut says, ‘fuck that, remember the future?’”

But then he would follow that excitement and abandon with reservations and attempts at a rational approach.

“You asked me what I think of you ‘minus the baby,’ you,” he wrote.

“I understood your question and the need to ask it. But, it’s weird, because you are not and never will be ‘minus the baby.’ […] the baby is now a fact, a character in this for-shit narrative. But for you and I to continue as ‘lovers’ is to never be healthy for Jody [their placeholder name, a combination of ‘Joe’ and ‘Heidi’] I would always wonder, ‘Am I with Heidi just for the babies sake?’”

She had no pity for his fear. She was only twenty-one and about to have a child, the fact that he, a thirty-year-old man, would abandon her because he wasn’t sure how he felt about fatherhood was inexcusable to her. One letter, dated February 15, 1988, when she was five months pregnant, opens with:

“I think your one of the biggest cowards I’ve ever known—maybe the biggest. I hate you.”

She was angry and mistrustful, wanted to push him away, but was “still totally in love with him” and wanted him to make up his mind and come be a father.” On June 1, 1988, just two days before the due date, he finally did, and went to Buffalo. On June 20, seventeen days late, I was born.

*   *   *

The birth announcement
The birth announcement

“He fell in love with you right away,” she told me, and the conversation shifted from whether or not to build a life together to what exactly that life would look like. He made a woodcut birth announcement of a baby coming out of a lily flower, and looked truly hurt when I asked him years later why I was coming out of a banana.

When my mother was pregnant with me she dreamed of owls, and when I was born—with a bald head, big eyes and a cleft lip—I kind of looked like one. This earned me my middle name, Tylluan, the Welsh word for owl, and gave Papa a new image for his repertoire. There are several wooden owl sculptures from right around when I was born, and most of them have chubby legs, like a human baby.

Shortly after I was born, Papa went back to New York for work and ended up in the hospital for appendicitis. When they went to remove his appendix the surgeons found a huge tumor that required the removal of ten feet of his intestines. Heidi jumped on an Amtrak train with me and a suitcase and the family relocated to Williamsburg, Brooklyn.

Tink had moved out of the live-work loft space on Metropolitan Avenue where Papa and all his friends lived shortly after her boyfriend went to see another woman give birth to his child—that’s what it took to end their relationship once and for all. He kept his studio space there, but my mother insisted that they also get an apartment a few doors away. She told me that she didn’t want her baby learning to crawl in the cavernous art space littered with sawdust, metal scraps and other debris. Even he couldn’t argue that it was a reasonable place for a toddler to live.

Joe and Lilly
Joe and Lilly

Fatherhood threatened to bring his image of himself crashing down to earth—it’s impossible to be dedicated entirely and singularly to the artist’s life and also be a family man. When you have a child to feed, it’s no longer an option to choose to buy paint over food—it’s no longer the act of a noble, dedicated man of his craft, but of a selfish, neglectful man failing at his responsibility.

According to my mother, this sharp change in his relationship to the world, the creation of a new responsibility as big as his responsibility to his art, was an adjustment he never stopped negotiating.

“That was the first time it started to dawn on me that I was dealing with someone who had another wife,” she said. She also knew that in this competition for his love and attention, she and their baby were at a disadvantage to art; it had him first.

In an attempt to clarify their roles as co-parents, meaning that he couldn’t just come in and play with the baby when he felt like taking a break from his work, they got married at City Hall on May 19, 1989. It was a small ceremony. My mother wore a forest green dress-suit, and I wore a black floral print dress with white lace tights. I cried through the whole ceremony, even though the cake said “Congratulations Lilly” on it, Mark’s idea.

Joe, Heidi and Lilly at City Hall for the wedding cermeony
Joe, Heidi and Lilly at City Hall for the wedding cermeony

Hannah and Mark were at the ceremony, and the reception party was in the huge living room of the loft. They held their breath and jumped, hoping that the couple, who met at a strip bar on the anniversary of an ex-lover’s heroin-related death and carried on as an adulterous secret affair that resulted, after only a few months, in an accidental pregnancy, could somehow attain stable marital bliss.

*   *   *

What followed was the calmest, most wholesome period in our life together, the three of us. We lived in a cute little apartment in Williamsburg, upstairs from a butcher shop and around the corner from my favorite ice cream parlor.

From what my mother remembers, and from everything Papa said in the many long letters he wrote to her even when they lived together, he was determined to be a good husband and father. He expressed a frustrated desire to live up to his own standards, and to hers. In one letter he wrote,

“I have a house.

It’s not a shithole, or a studio w/ a bed, it’s a house.

I have a daughter,

Who I love so much that I’m frightened, I feel like the more she becomes a full person, the more apparent my shortcomings will become; the more visible how unable I am to provide for her, will become.

I have a wife.

Wife is a word, + I never imagined it. It’s not accurate, because it’s you, Heidi. Heidi. I couldn’t want anyone else.”

“We were really into being a family. It was very, ‘go team’! We even did the Wonder Twins thing with our wedding rings,” my mother remembers, putting out her fist to demonstrate. They got excited about simple things like going to the grocery store together, as a family. It seemed to them that they had finally found where they were supposed to be, and somehow they were pulling it off.

I remember the most picturesque winter day when I was about four years old, going out into the thick layer of fresh snow in my snowsuit, holding Papa’s hand as we stopped on the sidewalk outside of our front door and waved up to my mother, looking down at us from our window. We were all smiling, all genuinely happy; a snow globe hanging in the air, suspended for a few seconds before it hits the ground and shatters.

*   *   *

Their occasional drug use quickly snowballed into a constant thing, as it has a tendency to do, and by 1992, when I was four, cocaine and heroin had become central to their lives. Any trace of the wariness he’d acquired after watching his first love Cathy kill herself with heroin went out the window and was replaced with the blind rationalization of addiction.

Chris remembers that once, around this time, Papa called him, sounding really grim, and said that they were having money problems and couldn’t make the rent. At the time, Chris was making good money doing art direction for MTV, so he wrote a check for $600 directly to the landlord. He said he was happy to help, and that it didn’t occur to him until years later that the reason they couldn’t make the rent was because they had spent all of their money on drugs.

In June of 1993 they moved to San Francisco to get away and start over.

“It’s called a geographical cure,” my mother said, snickering a little at their naive conviction that moving across the country would cure their addictions and the problems in their relationship. She claimed that their move had a lot to do with picking somewhere for me to go to kindergarten that wasn’t a “ghetto Brooklyn school,” but it was also largely to run away from their problems, hoping to leave them buried in New York while they rode into the promise of the Golden Coast.

They managed to successfully start over for a little while, and to stay clean for about a year. “But unfortunately, we ran across heroin,” she said. “It just kind of popped up one day. That’s what it does. And once it’s there it stays.”

Her sister’s husband, John, told them that he knew where he could get some for them, if they wanted.  “After that it was over,” she said. Their addiction went right back to being as bad as it was before they left New York, and then got worse. Their dreams of a bright, sunny future were quickly pushed aside in favor of drugs—finding drugs, getting drugs, doing drugs, and planning where to get more drugs.

“It just breeds a lot of anger and misery,” she said. “It’s hard to live in a way that embraces the future when you’re stuck like that.”

She was still stripping, and he had found a good, stable job at a company that made installations for natural history museums. There was enough money coming in, but there was never enough left. I remember hearing them yell at each other for spending money. At the time I figured they weren’t making enough to cover our rent and my school supplies and toys; I just thought we were poor. I didn’t know then how important money is to an addict, and how hard to hold onto.

They also struggled with each other over quitting. With two addicts it was that much harder—as if quitting heroin is ever easy—because every time they got on the right track one or the other would slip and inevitably drag the other down, too. I remember going with my mother to a methadone clinic when I was seven. I sat in the waiting room—alone, because that week my mother was trying to quit but my father was not—and made friends with a woman who was clutching her purse with both hands, waiting anxiously for her turn.

During the weeks when my father was doing better, he was indignant. He was condescending, arrogant. But then he would slip up and be right back at the bottom with her. When she tried to pull herself up, he would accuse her of the same cruelty that he had shown her the week before. When they weren’t yelling at each other they were making cold, sarcastic jabs in hushed tones.

Her stretches of staying clean tended to last longer than his, and started to be more frequent. She would still slip up once in a while, but her effort was continual. She tells me now that the desire to be a good mother pulled her through, and that without it she never would have made the effort she did. Once, when she was considering checking herself into rehab, she told me she was going away to learn how to be a better mommy. I didn’t really understand what she meant at the time, but looking back it was pretty close to the truth.

He tried to keep up, to get clean too, but always seemed to cave.

“I’ve tried to be the hero,” he wrote in a note to her. “And failed. I guess nothing on this planet has the look of failure quite like that of an unsuccessful hero.”

The snow globe of that winter day in Brooklyn had crashed and shattered, and they were both on the floor, trying to collect the shards, telling themselves and each other that maybe they could glue them back together.

A letter from Joe addressed to the whole family, including himself
A letter from Joe addressed to the whole family, including himself

It got so bad that Papa’s sister Amy, who he exchanged letters with regularly, mentioned it to their father, trying to get him to pay for rehab. He said he would, on the condition that Papa check himself into a clinic in Saint Louis, near the family home, where they could keep tabs on him. Papa refused, and his father disowned him, never answering another letter.

Papa wanted to get clean on his own terms, not his father’s. He wanted to prove to himself, and to my mother, that he could get it together and be the husband and father he wanted to be. Yet he saw how big the struggle to stay clean was, and wasn’t sure he was up to the challenge. And he considered failing in front of my mother and me worse than the failure itself.

“The basket with all of my eggs in it is: if I can get over the initial ‘big-sick,’ put 7 clean days together, I can come back + be prepared to step back into the winged sandals of a hero,” he wrote to her. “Trying and failing, over + over, in full view, is too destructive […] I don’t need you, or Lilly, to see me like this.”

The ‘big sick’ he mentioned—withdrawal—is every addict’s biggest fear. It must be at least as bad as people describe it, because no matter how badly they’ve screwed up their life, no matter how many people they’ve disappointed, an addict runs for a fix as soon as the sick starts; each time another failed step.

*   *   *

My parents’ resentment grew until they weren’t just fighting about heroin or cleanliness or money, but just fighting about fighting, snapping at each other constantly, about every little thing. A dish left in the sink, or a scrap of something that looked like trash but was meant to be sculpture material thrown in the garbage was cause for a screaming match. And then whoever was being yelled at would turn around and yell at the other one for being so irritable, judgmental and unforgiving. They became pettier and pettier.

I, who was being taught in first grade to settle disagreements calmly and without pushing or yelling, and to always consider how my actions made other people feel, wondered how my grown-up parents could have missed such important lessons. I scolded them for yelling at each other, which didn’t work. So I cried out of frustration, and I made sure that they saw me cry, and knew that it was because of them. The guilt didn’t work either though, because one of them would just blame the other for upsetting me.

A letter from Heidi to Joe
A letter from Heidi to Joe

But they didn’t want to admit to themselves, each other, or me that it was over. All that was left of their relationship was the fact that they shared a house and a daughter, and the few pleasant moments got shorter and further apart—but frequent enough to keep them hanging on, to remind them how deeply in love they had been, and could be again if they got their lives together.

“I know you try so damn hard + work work work,” she wrote in a note that started with an apology for hurtful things said the previous night. “I know you change and bend for us more than is comfortable. I worry about it. + probably even get mad about it.”

“Are we in the middle of a good groove? Are we?” He asked in a letter, left on the kitchen table in 1994, hoping for improvement but insecure in his hope, afraid to believe in the momentary oasis.

“I think we are. I think that if we are, a lot of it is because I’m relaxing. This is not a letter that signals a break or change in that relaxing. I still notice that I’m the one who says, ‘we’re doing better, aren’t we?’

Are you rolling your eyes?

Can you look me in the eyes + tell me honestly what you’re feeling about us? About yourself? About me? Can you? (could you? Would you? On a boat? On a train? With a goat?)

Can you tell me some day that you are happier?”

He shared with her openly how afraid he was of losing her, hoping for some reassurance. He was almost as afraid of losing her as he was of withdrawal.

Perhaps preoccupied with fragility, he made a lot of things out of glass during this time. My mother stopped asking him to wash dishes because he would “accidentally on purpose” break wine glasses and then use the stems and shards for Bad Barbies. And he did a series of pieces where he rolled thick black ink onto sheets of glass and then scraped images into it.

But none of the energy he put into letters and artwork telling her how he afraid he was of losing her went into changing any of the behavior that was driving her away.

A letter from Joe to Heidi
A letter from Joe to Heidi

“He had become an animal,” she told me. “He wasn’t taking care of himself at all. He wasn’t showering. He didn’t care if he had clean clothes on. He was living like a pig. He became really repulsive.”

Audrey Newell, a friend of his from Academy Studios, where he made fake rocks and trees for natural history museums, remembers how horrible he smelled, and how other people in the carpool used to push her to tell him he had to do something about it or stop riding with them. She said she brought it up with him a couple of times and he just mumbled and shrugged.

I have a shirt of his that still, after twelve years, smells like him. I know he was disgusting and filthy, but sometimes when I’m really missing him I put my face in it and take a deep breath. It smells great to me. Not like a junkie, but like my Papa.

*   *   *

When she really started making strides toward staying clean, going to the clinic regularly, my mom decided that she couldn’t handle living with him any more if he was going to keep doing heroin. She had to walk away from him for her own self-preservation.

A story Joe wrote for Heidi
A story Joe wrote for Heidi

“I told him that if he didn’t come with me to methadone it was over,” she said. “And he didn’t,” she said with a shrug that meant, ‘what else could I do?’

I’ve wondered if he thought then about the ultimatums he’d given to Cathy, that if she didn’t stop doing heroin he’d leave her, the pain it caused him to try to help her, to fail, and to have no choice in the end but to keep his promise and walk away, leaving her to destroy herself. But I imagine he may have been too far gone at that point for such self-awareness.

When he rejected the hand my mother reached back to help him out of the hole he was in, that she was climbing out of, their marriage was over. But despite everything she still couldn’t force herself out the door. Something drastic had to happen.

*   *   *

Papa and Brian had kept in touch since the Williamsburg loft days. We saw him once when we visited New York around ’94, and then he visited us in ’95. While his daughter Sabina, who was my age, and I played with dolls in the living room and my father was at work, Brian and my mother had sex.

I didn’t find out about it until about ten years later when my aunt Amy suggested that maybe we shouldn’t invite Brian to spread my father’s ashes.

We had the idea to go camping up in the Catskills, where the “Primitive Hunting Society” used to go—what my father and his friends called themselves on the weekends that they spent in the woods, drinking whiskey and making art—and spread his ashes in the woods; a place we all agreed he would enjoy staying forever. I just assumed that if such a trip were to be made, it would include his sister Amy, my mother, Brian, Mark and me.

“They didn’t part on the best of terms,” was all Amy would say, and told me I’d have to ask my mother for the whole story. I thought she must be blowing their fight out of proportion; that whatever it was it would be forgiven in death because in the grand scheme of things their almost twenty years of friendship would be more important than any argument.

The look on my mother’s face when I asked her why Papa and Brian had stopped speaking told me she’d been preparing herself for the day I would ask this question for a long time. She cringed and looked at me with almost the same fear and anguish as that moment, years earlier, when she was trying to figure out how to tell me that Papa was dead.

“Oh man,” she sighed. She explained that she and Papa had been fighting so much, that they were still living together but were barely speaking at the time, hated each other even, were practically broken up already. I sat in silence while I listened to her try to rationalize it.

When I asked Brian about it he said the two of them always had a sort of strange connection, but had never acted on it before; that once my parents’ relationship was in shambles, it kind of made sense. She had always been attracted to Brian, and there he was, a wedge she could drive between her and the hopeless addict husband that she just couldn’t bring herself to leave. Once she slept with Brian, Papa hated her as much as she already hated him for the depth of his addiction. Then she was able to leave.

“It was necessary,” Brian said of their brief affair. “Necessary but destructive. Your dad figured it out right away, and it was a disaster.”

*   *   *

A drawing Joe made for Heidi
A drawing Joe made for Heidi

After my parents’ final split in the fall of ‘95, I, then seven years old, lived most of the time with my mother in a one-bedroom apartment on Lexington Street, in the Mission. I got the bedroom and she slept on blankets in the large closet off of the living room. She went to the methadone clinic, and actually managed to get herself clean, eventually earning the privilege of taking her methadone home rather than having to take it in the clinic with the doctor watching. She took as much as she needed to stave off withdrawal, but hoarded the rest until she had enough to spend two weeks locked in the apartment, gradually weaning herself off of the methadone while I stayed with my grandmother.

“It was actually the most awful, awful thing in the world,” she said. For weeks after the withdrawal was over she was still too weak and sick to get down the stairs of our apartment building. Always a small woman, she weighed ninety-three pounds by the time she was really done detoxing.

Papa was living in the Donnely Hotel on Market Street, a sleazy place with carpets the color and texture of fungus, complete with dim lighting and peeling wallpaper.

“I was ready to fucking murder him,” my mother said, still fuming, fifteen years later, about the time that he left me alone in his room there. “It was a fucking crack hotel. Who knows what could have happened?”

I liked the Donnely Hotel. We played catch in the hallway and made up stories about the people we could see out the window, walking down Market Street. I wanted to at least spend weekends with Papa if I couldn’t live with him anymore, which was an injustice beyond the scope of my comprehension.

My mother was so angry with him for bringing me to the hotel that she threatened to never let him see me again. I overheard her and turned around with the response that she was the one who would never see me again if she tried to keep me from Papa. I had clearly taken sides.

I didn’t care what her reasons were for not wanting me to stay there. I didn’t care that the light bulbs in the hallways buzzed and the room smelled funny.

Something Audrey said, after I was done interviewing her and we were just talking, stuck with me:

“I hope you have some positive memories of him.”

It struck me as strange because I have almost entirely positive memories of him.

I knew that he had a problem with drugs, and that it was a really bad thing, but it never translated in my mind to him being a bad person. In fact, I remember indignantly explaining as much to the D.A.R.E. representative who came to speak to my fourth grade class in stark black-and-white terms that I knew were insufficient to describe drug addiction and addicts.

In a letter written shortly after their breakup he wrote,

“I’m trying to ‘act’ a little nicer when we see each other. Not for your sake, for Lilly’s.

“I’m trying to ‘act’ a little nicer when we see each other. Not for your sake, for Lilly’s. I’m thoroughly bitter + angry at you….But, for Lilly’s sake I have to let it go when I see you. I’m not good @ hiding any of my feelings. I want Lilly to have the chance to live + think that a real + lasting love between 2 people is possible. She has that w/ you. She has it w/ me. But, I’m afraid her memories of you and me together will be memories of anger and bitterness, + hurt. Someday, somehow, I’ll have to let her know just how deeply I loved you. […] I don’t ever want to fight with you in front of her. I wish we could see each other, you + I, as little as possible. As absolutely little as possible. +, it should be, @ least calm. I don’t want your friendship, we’re not friends, but we are co-parents. I only want to not hurt or poison Lilly’s view of the world.”

It took another several years for them to pull off even the appearance of politeness, dropping me off at one house or another resulted in screaming matches, or at best, cold, awkward silence.

Once he was late dropping me off and she started yelling, telling him he was selfish and inconsiderate. He hurled back that she just liked to be mad at him. I decided to teach them a lesson, and slowly and quietly walked away. They were so absorbed in hating each other that they didn’t notice I was no longer standing between them, my head bouncing back and forth like I was watching tennis; which was exactly my point. When they came running around the corner, together, breathless, I was completely unharmed, looking at the chip selection in a corner store. But for a few terrified minutes I had gotten them to stop fighting.

They remained hateful, bitter and spiteful for a long time, but after the initial threats of smear campaigns, divorce was never seriously considered. They talked about it briefly, in terms of who could make the other look worse in a custody battle, and once they had each shown their hand the subject was set aside.

“We attacked each other with the worst possible scenario and then couldn’t do anything,” she said. “We never even talked about it again after that.”

They were still legally married three years later when Papa went to sleep one night and didn’t wake up. The coroner never figured out what killed him, but there was no heroin in his system at the time.

When we were talking about their breakup for this project, my mother confided in me for the first time that she’d always held onto hope that they’d get back together someday; that they’d both get clean, and that somehow, after everything that had happened, they’d still manage to stake out their little corner of happiness. This was harder for me to hear than anything about how awful they were to each other during the worst of it, how far gone into addiction he was, how disgusted she was by him. The idea that they might have gotten back together someday, that somehow, after everything, they could have had a happy ending, was just one more reason to hate his death.

* * *

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

See the complete list of Editors’ Picks here. 

* *

Lilly O’Donnell (@lillyodonnell) is a freelance writer in New York City. This piece is excerpted and adapted from a book-length work in progress—the story of her father and his artwork, and of her experience getting to know him a decade after his death.

Secret Life of a Search and Rescue Volunteer

When someone goes missing on a frozen mountaintop or in a wildfire, my team heads out to help when no one else can — even if all we can do is bring back their bodies.

Three kids are missing on the mountain. They missed their check in, and search and rescue (SAR) has been tasked with finding them. It’s what we do. We track down the lost and injured and bring them home. I’ve been a member of this unit, primarily based around Mount Hood, Oregon, but working wherever we are needed in the Pacific Northwest, for about three years. Given my profound lack of experience at the onset, I’ve only actually been useful for about a year, maybe two.

We have a general idea of where the three kids are, or at least where they are supposed to be. At the base of the mountain, where most climbs start, is a climbers’ register where parties write down their intended route, expected return date, and what equipment they have – vital information in just this type of situation.

It’s cold and windy. Visibility is low. No one wants to be in the field on days like this. But, as Rocky, a veteran member once told me, only half joking, “We’re mountaineers. We suffer. It’s what we do.” That suffering is accepted because this is what we volunteered for (and almost all of us are truly volunteers – only the sheriff and a few others are paid). It’s made tolerable knowing that there is someone worse off, someone who needs us.

We will trace the most likely path and hopefully find them hunkered down in a snow cave or some other shelter, but alive. Bringing a victim home alive is why I go up. The satisfaction is like no other. After more than a decade in medicine, as an EMT initially and now as a physician assistant in a busy urban ER, I have revived cardiac arrests, treated trauma and dealt with just about every other medical calamity, but mountain rescue is different. People get injured in the mountains and back country, we get them when no one else can or will. Even if all we can do is bring back their bodies.

And I know how important that can be.

On the night of my first high school dance, the police showed up bearing somber news to my mother. She took me into the back room of the house. “There’s been an accident. Dad’s dead,” my mother told me, barely a quiver in her voice. She was trying to hold it together, but saying that out loud, she couldn’t. My brother, mother and me stood in that back room, with the lights off, and hugged and cried and lost track of time.

He fell while out hiking two states over. Local SAR was bringing the body out of the canyon. They couldn’t save him, but they could return his body to his family. We grieved while we waited for his return, which would take a day or two. It didn’t become concrete or tangible until we had the body. A tremendous service was done for my family by strangers.

Now it is my turn.

I will do for others what had been done for us. I will bring them home, do what I can to prevent further backroom suffering. Paying a debt to the universe makes the insufferable tolerable.

* * *

We are a team of 15 – physicians, general contractors, business executives and even an animal chiropractor, with personalities as varied as the professions. But there is a core tenet among us all: to help those in need.

A resort at the base of the mountain provides a Sno-Cat that transports us up through the groomed ski fields. National forest regulations prohibit mechanized travel beyond certain boundaries, but occasionally, we get permission to ignore them, to save a life. The driver takes us up as far as we can go before the Cat starts to backslide.

This is where the hard work starts. From here on out, we will be on foot. Once over the ridge and onto the next glacier, we break into smaller teams of three or four and separate to search different areas. Bob, a tall, slender guy who made some wise business decisions and retired early, is my team lead. He is tasked with interacting with the other team leads and Incident Command, as well as making sure all of us come home alive. Then there’s Keith, an engineer who makes dad jokes without being a dad; Christopher, an occasional school teacher who’s fond of instigating shenanigans and watching his work unfold; and me, the newest member of the team – the low-man on the totem pole.

The winds are up. The temperatures are down. Visibility is minimal. Freezing fog deposits a thin layer of ice on clothing. Beards freeze and develop icicles. Any exposed skin quickly turns red and raw. The moisture from my breath freezes my goggles. Periodically, I use the rubber handle of my ski pole to scrape the ice out of the goggles. This only provides a brief window of clear vision.

We follow the kids’ intended route up the mountain, up the gentle snow slope, bearing west. It’s a short distance, but it takes us an hour in these conditions. We come up into a bowl, relatively protected from the wind. The route travels up from the bowl and over a ridge. Once on the other side we must be hyper-vigilant. We will be travelling across a large crevasse field, hidden in dense fog. The route leads up a snow and ice gully from the far end of this crevasse field. This is one of the two more common routes for teams to take after they have previously completed the standard route. It represents a step up in technical difficulty, presents complicated route finding, and is an overall longer route. Most of us on the rescue team have climbed this route before, individually or as a team, but not in these conditions.

A fall from their route could have spit the kids out onto this crevasse field. We must search it exhaustively. First, we rope up – tying ourselves together so that if one of us falls into an unseen crevasse, theoretically, the rest of the small team can arrest the fall and retrieve the teammate. A rescuer becomes a liability if he is dead. As the newest, least-experienced member, I’m in the middle of the rope. Bob, on point, has to choose a path around the crevasses. The man in the back is the last hope if the first team members can’t arrest their own fall. Bob scans the snow for signs of weakness indicating a crevasse. I follow the footsteps exactly.

Slowly, methodically, we spread out to search the area. Ice axes are at the ready in the event a rope mate goes into a crevasse. My eyes strain to look for clues through fogged-up goggles. Even a light snow can cover vital clues. We move westward toward the terminus of the route the three kids were attempting.

“I need to search that area down by the big crevasse. Keep eyes on me,” Bob says. Rather than continue with our roped travel, Bob will move more cautiously down towards the crevasse on his own. I head up a ridge and plant myself in a vantage point where I can maintain constant visual contact. The area looks lousy with crevasses, with more likely hidden. Bob is belayed down into the field by Keith, who is anchored to the snow. Any fall should be terminated quickly. Should be. Our gloves have a layer of icy grime, so holding the rope during a fall would require more effort than in more pristine conditions.

He goes out, searches, and returns. No incident, but no evidence found of our three kids either. We’re preparing to keep moving when our radios start crackling and we hear someone from one of the other teams say, “I think I’ve found something.” We all stop and put lift our radios to our ears.

“Should we head up to you?”

Silence. Crackle. “…Yeah.”

My team was searching the lower end of the glacier, so we are some of the last to get to the scene. As we approach, I see the other teams standing around a body. If it weren’t for the people standing around him, I might have walked right by; he was nearly invisible in the waning day, under a fresh layer of snow. I see that no one is frantic. No one is pulling a medical kit out. Our kid must be dead. His mouth is open, in the shape of an “O” and full of snow. I get to him and place my hands on his body. He is stiff and frozen. His base-layer shirt and soft shell jacket are unzipped. There is blood on his thigh, though no obvious deformity or injury. I see no grossly apparent signs of blunt trauma. Some distance away, there is climbing gear strewn at the bottom of the route. One of the other teams had continued searching and found it. It looks like he walked some distance away from the debris field.

Maria, a newly minted ER doctor, digs a little bit of the snow out of his mouth. Not much, just a little. I’m not sure why. It is an image that will stick with me.

“Hey, why don’t I package the body? Not everybody needs to see this,” I offer to the overall rescue leader. Some of the team members have never seen a dead body before.

He pauses for a moment. “Yeah, do it.”

I’m new to mountain rescue, but seasoned to life’s grim realities. The body must be packaged for extrication. He will be covered with a protective plastic tarp and placed into a litter. The litter is like a backboard with small walls and rails. It proves difficult to package him. He is frozen and did not have the foresight to die in a position conducive to packaging. But, I make it work. I have to.

Looking at what’s in front of me, I know what is ahead for the family. I know the sound. I know the dark, backroom scene, huddled in a private anguish that comes after the authorities deliver the news. There’s a wail that comes with unexpected death. It comes from the gut. It’s a sound I heard time and again in those first few days after my father died. I lost a parent, but they have lost a child. I package him as gently as I can. We will get him back to his family. The importance of our task is visceral. I cannot fathom what mourning without the body is. This family will not have to try.

* * *

The radio crackles again. The sheriff is thinking that we should package the body, anchor it someplace safe, and mark the location on GPS. This would allow us to keep searching for the other two. The freezing fog has turned to heavy snow. It was early afternoon, a time in the Pacific Northwest when the sun begins to set, and we are worn. We wouldn’t have more than a few hours of daylight left and still had to get off the mountain.

This is a dilemma. He’s dead, but the other two kids may not be. Until we find them, there’s no way to know. The weather forecast calls for continued lousy conditions for the rest of today and the next few days. Extrication is a lengthy process. Under the best conditions, in more easily accessed terrain, extrication by foot takes half a day. Do we begin the extrication of the body and leave our other two kids to try to survive another night? Do we try to place our first kid somewhere we can find him later and keep searching? In these conditions, among the crevasses, with the accumulating snowfall, it’s unlikely we would be able to find him again. Even anchored in a corner somewhere, location marked on GPS, any manner of event could prevent us from retrieving him. Avalanches could change the landscape of the entire field. There is the risk of continued snowfall and burial. An anchor could fail, leaving the body free to slip into one of the crevasses below.

It’s unbearable, in my mind, to leave him to keep searching. The thought of having to tell the family that we found the body, but left him on the mountain, is crushing. It seems inhumane. But then what would we tell the families of the other two kids if we left the mountain without knowing whether they were alive or dead?

I’m supremely thankful not to have to make that call. There are benefits to being a rookie.

The medical team, my other team, has setup nearby, in an area safe from crevasses or avalanches. There is a tent to escape the wind and warm drinks are being brewed. The medical team is solely concerned with the living. In the absence of proof of life of the other two, the medical team bears watch over the rescuers. The tent is for the rescuers. The warm drinks are for us. Periodically, people have to take a breather, to warm up and mentally recharge. It’s amazing how beneficial something as simple as a warm cup of tea can be in these situations. As one of the new guys, I still feel like I have to prove myself. I stay in the crevasse field and suffer.

Conversations between the rescue leaders in the field and the sheriff’s SAR deputies have been ongoing since we packaged the body. I haven’t been listening. I have no input to offer. Just feet to carry me to wherever I can be useful.

“The sheriff wants us to keep searching.” Word is spreading. My heart sinks into my stomach. I am exhausted. There is no good decision to be reached. I look at my teammates and can tell many are feeling the same. We don’t want to keep searching, but we will.

“SAR base from Team One.”

“Go ahead Team One.”

“Yeah, hey it’s Rocky. We’re not going to do that. It’s cold, it’s late. We’ll never find the body again. We’re bringing the teams in.”

A respected member and veteran of decades of mountain rescue has shut down the sheriff’s plan. Ultimately, it’s the sheriff’s call, but a good leader knows when to listen to experienced heads.

“O.K. Team’s coming in.”

We re-cross the crevassed glacier, this time with a sled with a body in it. Once at the eastern end of the glacier, we raise the whole package up and over the ridge, which is accomplished with ropes, pulleys and brute force. Eventually, we reach the waiting Sno-Cat. The packaged body lies between two rows of bench seats. The seats are full of rescuers. The layers of ice that had been our constant companions begin to melt. Steam rises off each living person’s head. Some people are looking through the camera we found among the scattered belongings. Perhaps a clue will be found to lead us to the other two kids. Perhaps there will be some indication as to what went wrong.

We reach the familiar transition point at the base of the glacier. We get out of the Sno-Cat and unload the package. A short distance below, snow meets parking lot. Rescuers meet sheriff. I head inside. There is to be a debrief. We are reminded of the resources available to us, should we need them, if anyone is experiencing grief or stress from recovering a body.

The body is brought inside the lodge. I can hear the family. By the end of the debrief, the family of our first kid should be well on their way to the city with the deceased. They are not. Word is traveling. The family of our first kid is staying on the mountain to support the families of our other two kids. I can’t imagine how they came to that decision. Their boy is dead. Yet, they remain with the other two families, while the body of their boy travels back to the city.

When I hear this, I remember that the ache I’m feeling all over is just physical pain. It is temporary.

* * *

I return to my warm apartment. The two kids are still up on the mountain. I’m mentally preparing for a return to the cold and misery tomorrow when the page comes through. We are grounded. No searchers will be deployed tomorrow on account of the horrendous conditions. Officially, this is still a “rescue.” The longer our other two kids are out there, the less likely they are to survive, if they are still alive at all. But they are up there, somewhere. I have little faith that this is going to be a rescue.

I feel utterly helpless, sitting in my kitchen, in a worn-out old chair, head back, staring at the ceiling. The debt I set out to pay remains. I am unable to provide the service that was done for my family. Logically, I understand it is out of my hands. The dangers and risks are real. This is a rational decision. In my gut, though, I have failed. This was my task. Bring the bodies home. Yet they remain on the mountain. There is only failure now.

So, I get drunk, the only solution I can think of.

Over the next few days conditions continue to deteriorate and eventually I have to go back to work. Finally, the search gets called off completely.

The following summer, I’m returning from a wildfire when the text comes through from my good friend Bob G., a member of the medical rescue team.

“multiagency effort. found the other 2.” He gives me no context. He doesn’t need to.

There is a great deal of discussion and speculation as to what happened. It doesn’t matter to me. I don’t particularly care how they got there, just where they end up – back with their families.

‘Truthers’ Insist My Photos of Sandy Hook Were Faked. They Can Go to Hell.

Covering the school shooting was the most important work I’ve done as a journalist. My photos are the furthest thing from fake news.

In some corners of America, a conspiracy theory floats about asserting that the Newtown Elementary School massacre never happened. So-called “Sandy Hook truthers” have threatened victims’ relatives; they’ve accused them of lying, and claimed that Gene Rosen – a man who lived next to the school, and in whose home survivors of the shooting found refuge – is a “crisis actor” who made his story up. Some have also speculated that my photographs – the only ones in the public domain – of a victim being taken out of the school in a body bag were fabricated.

Unlike these so-called truthers, I was actually there, in Connecticut, twelve hours after the massacre, observing and taking photographs of the school for the New York Daily News. I know for a fact that the shooting really happened, that my photographs are not fabricated, and that Gene Rosen, who I found broken and sobbing in the bathroom of the town’s diner three days after the killings, speaks the truth. Fuck anyone who says otherwise.

* * *

I was fairly sure there wasn’t a cop sitting in the darkened Connecticut State Police car I crept past, but I still half expected that a big, angry trooper would come out and tackle me at any moment. But that didn’t happen. Instead, I clutched my camera as I walked swiftly past the police car, then I vanished into the woods at the back of the parking lot.

I climbed a steep hill and gained the top of a small ridge. As I made my way slowly in the dark, frozen leaves crunched beneath my boots. I was headed toward a point of the ridge that I hoped would overlook the Sandy Hook Elementary School, where I could get a photograph.

It was December 14, 2012, near midnight, and I was in the semi-rural town of Newtown, Connecticut. Earlier that day, at 9:34 a.m., twenty-year-old Adam Lanza had shot his way into the school, where he himself had once been a student, and killed twenty children and six adults before taking his own life.

All day, police had blocked the press from photographing the school and the scene in front of it, including the removal of victims’ bodies. A few photographers, I heard, had tried to get through the woods to the school, but were caught and thrown out. Veteran news photographer Richard Harbus remembers being stopped in the woods by three plain-clothed cops with assault rifles. “They pointed their guns at me and yelled at me to turn around and get on my knees,” he told me.

Newtown, CT: Dec. 14, 2012, in front of the Sandy Hook elementary school, police process the scene after Adam Lanza, 20, killed 20 children, six adults and himself. PHOTO CREDIT: JB NICHOLAS
In front of the Sandy Hook elementary school, police process the scene after Adam Lanza, twenty, killed twenty children, six adults and himself.

In the woods near the school, after getting past the police, I moved under cover of darkness – a decisive advantage Harbus had lacked. I was guided by the glow of portable klieg lights police had set up in the parking lot in front of the school. Besides guiding my way, the roar of the gas-powered generators that powered the lights conveniently concealed the crunching sounds the fallen leaves made as I moved through the forest.

When I reached the edge of the ridge, I saw, laid out below me, the front of the school, as well as the parking lot. As good a position as it was, I had to get a little closer to make a workable picture, because there were still two tree limbs between my camera lens and the school. So I lowered myself to the ground, and crawled forward the last hundred-or-so feet to a place where I had a clear enough shot.

Using a fallen tree as a rest, I peeked over the top and took aim on the front of the school with my long-distance 300mm lens. I saw the front of the school, with rectangular windows in shiny, boxy aluminum frames. Through the windows, I could see into a classroom, where the shades were only half-drawn and the lights were on inside. I saw colored construction paper on one wall, and small boxes containing school supplies. I’ve always wondered if that was the classroom where most of the killings took place – it appeared to be the classroom closest to the front door, where Lanza entered the school.

Newtown, CT: Dec. 14, 2012, in front of the Sandy Hook elementary school, police process the scene after Adam Lanza, 20, killed 20 children, six adults and himself. PHOTO CREDIT: JB NICHOLAS

Then I saw the portable morgue, a long, rectangular, canvas-colored tent erected in the middle of the parking lot. Law enforcement officials worked around it, including Connecticut State Police, Newtown Police, FBI agents, and workers from New York City’s Office of the Chief Medical Examiner, who had responded to a request for assistance from Connecticut officials.

I watched as police removed a victim from the school, in a white body bag on a stretcher. They rolled it out of the front door of the school, into the parking lot. Beside a light, they paused and huddled, before rolling the stretcher into the tent.

Then I noticed a small black car surrounded by yellow crime scene tape. Later, I learned this was the car Lanza had driven to the school, after killing the car’s owner – his mother.

Newtown, CT: Dec. 14, 2012, in front of the Sandy Hook elementary school, police process the scene after Adam Lanza, 20, killed 20 children, six adults and himself. PHOTO CREDIT: JB NICHOLAS

After photographing the car, I left the woods the same way I’d entered. A clock was ticking in my head. I had minutes to get my photographs to the Daily News, otherwise all my effort might be for naught. Out of the woods, I used my laptop with an internet hotspot to transmit my photos minutes past the midnight deadline. It was too late for the front page, so they ended up on page two or three instead.

Marc A. Hermann was working as the night photo editor. He was about to leave for the day when, he remembers, “Three photos come across my screen. Suddenly, I’m looking at body bags being wheeled out of Sandy Hook. I couldn’t believe it.

“To this day, when I hear people make far-out claims that this was all a staged incident, I immediately think of [those] photos. This wasn’t something that the authorities quietly ‘allowed’ us to surreptitiously witness and document. This wasn’t being done for our benefit. This was reality, gruesome reality. That Saturday edition of the Daily News was a historic document.”

The newspaper got me a hotel room nearby and let me stay on assignment in Connecticut for as long as there was something to cover. I didn’t have a car, but I knew all the news photographers from New York who were staying in the same hotel. Mary Altaffer from the Associated Press let me ride with her from the hotel to Newtown every morning and, every morning, we went to the Sandy Hook Diner for breakfast.

Three days after the shooting, on December 17, Mary and I were in the diner when I got up to go to the bathroom. The diner was tiny, and ancient, with a bathroom in a back corner. I tried the door but it was locked, so I stood there and waited. As I waited, someone began crying on the other side of the door.

Newtown, CT: Dec. 14, 2012, in front of the Sandy Hook elementary school, police process the scene after Adam Lanza, 20, killed 20 children, six adults and himself. PHOTO CREDIT: JB NICHOLAS

Then, in waves, sobs came, and before I knew it I was tethered to this crying stranger on the other side of a door, by a torrent of sorrow.

Finally, I knocked softly on the door, and asked if there was anything I could do. The door opened, and a man in glasses and a blue puffy coat appeared. I didn’t ask him why he was crying, I simply invited him to join Mary and me at our table. He accepted, and over coffee and more tears he told us what he had witnessed on the morning of December 14, when a school bus driver and six children whose teacher had been murdered sought safety in his home.

The man was Gene Rosen. An hour later, Rosen repeated what he had told Mary and me in front of an Associated Press video camera: “I thought I heard some gunshots. Sometimes I hear a deer hunter shooting. And it’s boom-boom. These were very staccato shots. They were very quick. Boom-boom-boom-boom. And I thought, ‘How obnoxious, why would a hunter do that?’ But I didn’t think much of it. I really didn’t. I didn’t think much of it.


“And I walked outside right there. And I looked down here,” he said, pointing down his driveway to the street in front of his house, which leads to the school. “Six children. They were sitting there. They were sitting there. And I had no idea why they were there. And there was that school-bus driver and she said ‘There’s been an incident.’ And I said, ‘well just come in the house.’ That’s how it started.

“I brought them in the house. And then over the next thirty minutes they just described what happened. Little by little. And these two boys kept saying, ‘We can’t go back to school. We can’t go back to school. Our teacher’s dead. Ms. Soto – we don’t have a teacher.’ And I couldn’t believe it. I couldn’t take that in.”

I stayed in Newtown for two weeks, and covered the first funerals, with their little coffins, before returning to New York City in time for Christmas. Then I drank every night for a month, maybe more.

My work in Newtown was among the most important I have ever done as a journalist.  It was raw and real – and the absolute truth.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Get in,” he said again.

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Day My Therapist Dared Me to Have Sex With Her

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

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

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

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

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

“Oh, yeah,” I say. “That.”

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

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

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

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

I shrugged my shoulders, only half looking up.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Nailed it.

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

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

* * *

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Why not?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

There were two ways to find out:

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

2) Keep going to therapy.

* * *

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

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

“I don’t know.”

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

Here we go again.

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

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

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

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

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

“What?” I respond, flustered.

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

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

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

“Of course not.”

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

“I wouldn’t do that.”

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

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

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

* * *

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Isn’t therapy supposed to ameliorate my anxiety?

* * *

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

* * *

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Lori’s great at forcing me to reflect.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

* * *

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

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

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

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

* * *

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

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

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

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

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

* * *

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

* * *

“What’s your favorite porn scene?”

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

The possibilities run through my head.

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

They’re also lies.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Are you sure?”

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

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

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

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

“Go on.”

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

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

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

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

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

And so I tell him.

* * *

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

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

And then realizing that person is me.

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

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

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

I was out of control.

* * *

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

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

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

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

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

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

* * *

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

That’s why I need to tell my husband.

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

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