The Last Time New York Was Hardcore

Throughout the ’90s, one high-octane underground music scene desperately held on to its rebellious roots of power chords, slam dancing and stage diving. Whatever happened to hardcore?

More than three thousand people surround me in the packed Roxy nightclub on West 18th Street in Manhattan. It’s hot. We’ve been dancing for hours. But the wind-milling arms, roundhouse kicks, and javelin-like body tosses on this night in ’97 bear little resemblance to the more subdued moves once executed in Roxy’s early days as a roller disco. Still, we’re grateful the surface below our feet was custom designed to support hard falls.

Instead of short-shorts and go-go boots, the few females in attendance are wearing cargo shorts and Doc Martens. Many of the more buff men have relinquished their shirts, revealing glazed, inked skin and nipple piercings matching the ones in their septums.

The houselights darken. Piercing feedback drowns out the roar of the crowd. After four quick clicks of drumsticks, it’s chaos.

The lights blare again. The headlining band’s singer, Lou Koller of Sick of It All, is at the foot of the stage, a pile-on of fans mounting at his feet.

He screams his first lines of lyrics: “Thinking back on what we had!”

The audience handles the next part: “Wooooah-Oh!”

Distorted guitar parts are blasted out over a catchy groove. Crowd members defend themselves from possessed slam dancers. Koller offers the mic to a crowd surfer. Someone in the pit falls down, and three people quickly scoop him up.

“Hardcore was very real,” says Kevin Gill, a former co-manager of the underground hardcore record label Striving for Togetherness. “It was punching you in the face, where punk was shoving you and saying, What’s up, bro? Hardcore’s about ‘fuck the world,’ but it’s also about the opposite: respecting people.”

After a few minutes of near complete sensory overload, the band strikes the tune’s last note, the crowd cheers, and everyone readies themselves for the next song.

Intense, original and cultivating an infectious sense of community, hardcore music began its reign of underground terror nearly forty years ago. Though its fabric extends far beyond traditional sonic labels, when it emerged in the late ’70s hardcore was simply defined as a more rambunctious, faster-paced form of punk rock. Merging with thrash metal in the ’80s, it experienced both jumps and dips in popularity. But throughout the ’90s a slew of fresh faces officiating a polygamous marriage between punk, metal and hip-hop reignited the scene, making hardcore the biggest it’s ever been in and around New York City.

“The mid-90s was the best,” says Tim Williams, front man of the Long Island band Vision of Disorder. “There was no makeup. No facades. No laser-light shows. The music came from an honest place. And I know these people personally. They weren’t talking shit.”

* * *

In a 2015 New Yorker article about hardcore in New York, Kelefa Sanneh wrote that it “was born as a double-negative genre: a rebellion against a rebellion. The early punks were convinced that rock and roll had gone wrong … But when punk, too, came to seem lame, the hardcore kids arrived, eager to show up their elders. The idea was to out-punk the punks.”

Clusters of hardcore bands, primarily out of Los Angeles and Washington, D.C., emerged before a New York City scene germinated on the Lower East Side, circa 1981. Set on seedy Avenue A at the corner of Seventh Street, A7 was the first Manhattan club to regularly host hardcore shows. Local bands like Agnostic Front, Cause for Alarm, Murphy’s Law, Antidote, Kraut and others were welcomed into its tiny, kitchen tile-floored back room, inciting slam dancing and sing-alongs from their fans, which early on numbered no more than a few dozen – predominantly white males in their late teens and early twenties, with a low center of gravity, swinging their arms and banging into each other while carrying crowd surfers and absorbing stage divers. They looked like embattled rugby players in various states of worn-out uniform, with no ball or decipherable goal. A source in Tony Rettman’s oral history book covering ’80s New York hardcore (NYHC, as it’s known) half-joked that those early participants “all had mental problems and they all lived in the street.”

Fans of Agnostic Front slam dance and watch the band perform at A7 in Manhattan's Lower East Side on November 12, 1983. (Photo by Jessica Bard, courtesy Drew Stone)
Fans of Agnostic Front slam dance and watch the band perform at A7 in Manhattan’s Lower East Side on November 12, 1983. (Photo by Jessica Bard, courtesy Drew Stone)

The melee’s soundtrack featured songs faster than anything produced in rock before it, with anti-establishment lyrics preaching social consciousness and standing up for oneself. Sometimes the bands didn’t play their songs correctly. Guitar and vocal cords failed frequently. But none of that mattered. The aggression discharge within the tight space was so captivating that nobody stopped moving, or having a good time.

Out-of-towners and eventual storied hardcore groups such as Black Flag and Bad Brains were also fan favorites at A7. Before adopting a hip-hop sound, The Beastie Boys cut their teeth at the club too. As the ’80s progressed, CBGB on Bowery, The Ritz on East 11th Street, and a few other Manhattan clubs began booking hardcore shows.

At about that time, Kevin Gill, raised in Whitestone, Queens, “just dove headlong into it.”

“Hardcore is raw reality,” says the former record label manager, now 44. Intensely upbeat, and tall with a closely shaved head, he adds, “It’s regular people with regular problems.”

Like many NYHC fans – myself included – Gill first latched on to heavy metal. “From Anthrax and Metallica,” he says, “it’s a very short journey to Sick of It All, Killing Time, Merauder” and other ’80s hardcore bands he obsessed over after some high school friends provided him copies of their recordings.

Craig Setari, then of Agnostic Front, performs with the band in New Jersey, ca. 1988. (Photo courtesy Craig Setari)
Craig Setari, then of Agnostic Front, performs with the band in New Jersey, ca. 1988. (Photo courtesy Craig Setari)

But as the scene continued to swell, toward the end of the decade Downtown club managers became less willing to contend with increasing violence and injuries befalling audience members because of slam dancing, stage diving, and other unruly behavior, which could spur lawsuits. Lenny Bednarz, a member of noteworthy hardcore bands Without a Cause and Fahrenheit 451, remembers observing two concertgoers entering a mosh pit swinging a sock full of batteries during one show. He says there was also a brief “trend where people sprayed mace in the clubs.” Arthur Smilios, a member of Gorilla Biscuits back in the late ’80s, says he observed a “gang mentality” coagulating at the time, which caused such a frequency of large-scale fights at CBGB that the historic club suspended its weekly Sunday matinee hardcore shows. Smilios says that was New York hardcore’s “low point,” when many regulars disappeared from the scene. “It wasn’t fun anymore,” he adds. Smilios himself left Gorilla Biscuits, in part to pursue a college degree, but also because of the hardcore scene’s mangy turn.

Because small clubs were shuttering their doors to hardcore or had closed altogether – like A7 in 1984 – Gill says there was “no point of entry for bands to grow.” But by the mid-90s he and many other fans would get the chance to experience a new brand of hardcore, appealing to an even broader demographic.

* * *

As some dedicated NYHC bands trudged on and found places to play, they began to intertwine old-school punk-based hardcore with thrash metal and hip-hop, crafting fresh sounds that rang throughout the underground, most frequently at the Bond Street Café, located on the Lower East Side, just a few blocks from the former site of A7. “That was the place,” says Gill, who remembers it as “a crack in the wall.” “It was hardly a venue,” he continues, “but it was amazing. How many music venues in Manhattan at the time would let a bunch of maniacs stand in front, smoking and drinking before a show and then for three hours just let you lose your shit?”

“The energy at those Bond Street shows was electric,” says Mark Scondotto, former singer for Shutdown. At five-foot-two in his early teens, he’d accompany his older brothers to the club, who’d protect him from 150 other wily slam dancers and stage-diving ruffians. “You walked out of there feeling like you were on a roller coaster. The [mosh] pits were sick.”

Much of hardcore’s appeal was manifested not in the music, but in the atmosphere at a show, typically set in a tiny club with the band inches from fans’ faces.

“The idea of a singer handing the microphone out to people in the audience, people jumping on stage … It’s astounding,” says Frank Pavich, director of “N.Y.H.C.” – a film that documented hardcore’s mid-90s era. “It’s like taking that super-duper rock star and reducing it until they’re one of us and we’re one of them.”

“I have no musical ability whatsoever, but if someone’s going to hand me the microphone, it makes me feel like I do. It makes me feel like I’m a part of it,” says Virginia Kress, 44, one of a handful of females who were regulars at NYHC gigs back in her twenties. “It’s like an awakening.”

Kevin Gill channeling the wrestler Raven - pictured on his shirt - while at an NYHC show at the Lower East Side's Acme Underground venue in the late '90s. (Photo courtesy Kevin Gill)
Kevin Gill channeling the wrestler Raven – pictured on his shirt – while at an NYHC show at the Lower East Side’s Acme Underground venue in the late ’90s. (Photo courtesy Kevin Gill)

I too was tractor-beamed into the scene, an angst-ridden teen from Astoria, like so many others feeling as though I was suddenly immersed in a community, or even a movement, for the very first time. And all of this was available to us for the cover price of about eight dollars.

Gill says hardcore shows have “ruined regular stuff” for him. Now a San Francisco resident, he bemoans the prospect of paying $75 to see a more commercially successful metal band like Slayer perform at a venue like the 2,300-seat Warfield. “I almost wish I never went to hardcore shows,” he says.

By the end of 1992, several more clubs began providing space to hardcore promoters, including Brownies, also on the Lower East Side, and The Wetlands Preserve, directly across town in TriBeCa. CBGB ran Sunday NYHC matinee shows again, and though the Bond Street Café met an untimely demise in 1994, Coney Island High – located on St. Marks Place, with double the capacity of Bond Street – more than picked up the slack shortly thereafter.

Downtown Manhattan was hardcore’s epicenter in the ’90s, but the music’s allure spread throughout the outer boroughs, as well as Long Island, New Jersey, Upstate New York, Connecticut and beyond, birthing mini-scenes where more clubs could prosper. Castle Heights on Northern Boulevard in Corona, Queens – where I worked as a soundman for three years – was one such place. “We had our own scene,” says Kevin “Castle,” as he’s known throughout the community. Now 48, he is an older brother of Shutdown’s Mark Scondotto, and was a show booker at Castle Heights for ten years. “By ’94, ’95 we were doing three or four hardcore shows a week. We couldn’t do enough shows, there were so many bands.”

Record labels began to come around too. The Brooklyn hardcore band Biohazard released Urban Discipline in 1992 through Roadrunner Records, an independent label that went on to house a number of NYHC bands. Biohazard’s album would sell more than a million copies worldwide, and their video for “Punishment” – featuring many of the scene’s most recognizable faces rocking out behind the band as they performed the song – became the most-played video ever on MTV’s late-night program “Headbangers’ Ball.”

“Suddenly people look at that video and go, ‘Wow, what’s going on in New York?’” says Drew Stone, who produced the clip. “All the kids in New York that saw that video thought, ‘I gotta make a band.’”

In ’92 Kevin Gill became the American distributor of a tiny, German-based record label called Striving for Togetherness Records, or SFT for short. A couple years prior, he’d befriended the members of Without a Cause, a largely unknown, hard-hitting band from Manhattan’s Upper East Side. “They were playing the worst shows,” Gill says. “I remember they played like a Chinese restaurant or some shit.” He shopped the Without a Cause demo around for distribution, but “Two or three labels were like, ‘Thanks, but no thanks.’” Then, trying his best German accent on for size, Gill recalls the owner of SFT writing back to him: “Yah, this stuff is sah-lid. Maybe we can do a seven-inch.”

The members of No Redeeming Social Value pose for a photo, ca. 1992. Top row, l-r: Singer Mike Dixon, guitarist Kent Miller, and drummer Vinnie Value. Bottom row, l-r: Singer Dean Miller and bassist Mike "The Kid" Palmer. (Photo courtesy No Redeeming Social Value)
The members of No Redeeming Social Value pose for a photo, ca. 1992. Top row, l-r: Singer Mike Dixon, guitarist Kent Miller, and drummer Vinnie Value. Bottom row, l-r: Singer Dean Miller and bassist Mike “The Kid” Palmer. (Photo courtesy No Redeeming Social Value)

As the hardcore scene regenerated, Gill became the go-to guy for up-and-coming bands looking for a deal. There was Vision of Disorder (VOD) from Long Island, featuring Tim Williams, whose vocals oscillated between a lazy drawl and a primal scream. Fahrenheit 451 formed out of the ashes of the disbanded Without a Cause, mixing hip-hop and hardcore with an amiable rock bend. New York hardcore’s premier party band of the ’90s was No Redeeming Social Value, out of Queens, whose seven-inch record Hardcore Your Lousy Ass Off sported a copy of singer Dean Miller’s bare rear end with “HARDCORE” scrawled across its cheeks, written in black marker by his younger brother and guitarist, Kent.

“Playing good music is one thing, but making people laugh is a whole other thing,” says Kent Miller, now 39. With sing-alongs about the largest bottle of malt liquor imaginable – “New 64” – and watching the cutest girls in school date jerks – “Your Boyfriend’s a Guido” – he and his brother admit that No Redeeming Social Value, who still perform every so often, are not terribly talented musicians. But the band’s only real goal, they say, has always been to ensure “the audience has a good time.”

“We threw whatever we could get our hands on at the audience,” remembers Dean Miller, 45, spouting a list of projectiles that included confetti, money, bologna and lawn chairs. “One time we told the audience we’ve got seven-inches to give away, or fish,” recalls Kent. “‘What do you want?’ ‘FISH!’ So we gave it to them.” Dean says by the end of the night there were fish parts scattered throughout the club, some of which rotted overnight underneath arcade games and in other nooks.

He heard that “The Godfather of Hardcore” himself, Vinnie Stigma of Agnostic Front, performed at the same venue the next night and wondered aloud why he smelled such a foul odor. Dean recalls: “Someone told him, ‘No Redeeming Social Value played here last night, and threw fish at the crowd.’ He said, ‘Oh, well that figures.’”

The band also gained such a widespread reputation for performing naked that, when they traveled to Germany for a gig, the show’s organizer offered them a financial bonus if they did so again. “We would’ve done it for free,” says Dean, “but if you’re going to give us extra money to do it, we definitely will.”

Left: Lenny Bednarz holds up a vintage No Redeeming Social Value sticker from the '90s. Center: Singer Dean Miller poses with a vinyl recording of No Redeeming Social Value. Right: Dean looking through NYHC artifacts from Virginia Kress' collection. All photos were taken July 31, 2016 in front of the former site of the Bond Street Café on Manhattan's Lower East Side where Bednarz and Miller once performed and Kress attended shows. (Photos: Carlos Detres)
Left: Lenny Bednarz holds up a vintage No Redeeming Social Value sticker from the ’90s. Center: Singer Dean Miller poses with a vinyl recording by No Redeeming Social Value. Right: Dean looking through NYHC artifacts from Virginia Kress’ collection. The photos were taken last month in front of the former site of the Bond Street Café on Manhattan’s Lower East Side where Bednarz and Miller once performed and Kress attended shows. (All modern-day photos by Carlos Detres)

Hardcore also splintered into an impossible number of sub-genres, including “deathcore” (a combination of death metal and hardcore), “noisecore” (hardcore with screaming vocals and sizzling accompaniment so distorted that the melodies are virtually indecipherable), and the “post-hardcore” movement, which offered more mature and slightly less-aggressive songwriting. The Brooklyn band Candiria miraculously mixed several types of heavy metal, along with hip-hop, jazz, psychedelic rock and other styles, sometimes with Latin American or African backbeats. Dog Eat Dog earned international fame with straight rap lyrics over traditional rock accompaniment and a saxophone thrown in for good measure. Crown of Thornz, according to front man Danny Diablo, who in the ’90s went by the stage name Lord Ezec, was “like Black Sabbath meets Rush meets the Cro-Mags.” Meanwhile, old-schoolers Sick of It All released back-to-back records with a sign-of-the-times groove and, according to bassist Craig Setari, a “darker” edge. They even performed on a bill with legendary New York City M.C. KRS-One.

CIV, an NYHC super group comprised of three former members of Gorilla Biscuits – Anthony Civarelli, Sam Siegler, and Arthur Smilios – and Quicksand guitarist Charlie Garriga, formed almost accidentally in 1995. “CIV was an anomaly,” Smilios says, explaining that hardcore vet Walter Schreifels, then on tour with Quicksand, wrote a bouncy, fun-and-games song called “Can’t Wait One Minute More” and another titled “Et Tu Bruté,” hopeful that Civarelli would gather some troops to record and release the two tracks on seven-inch vinyl. Civarelli, who had settled into life on Long Island as a tattoo shop owner, took some convincing, but with assurances from Schreifels that the whole project wouldn’t last beyond the first recording, he eventually agreed.

After the single was pressed, an associate of the group, Marcos Siega – a young director looking to shoot a clip he could use as part of a résumé – sold the CIV members on the video concept for “Can’t Wait One Minute More.” In it, Civarelli lip-syncs to the song while posing as a talk-show host, à la Jerry Springer.

The video wound up in the hands of Quicksand’s manager who loved it and, as Smilios remembers, “all of a sudden a bidding war started between record labels over a band that didn’t exist.”

CIV recorded the album Set Your Goals for Atlantic Records’ Lava imprint, and the “Can’t Wait One Minute More” video was an MTV hit. “By the time CIV was doing shows, we had the record [and] were signed to a major label,” Smilios says. “It was weird.”

* * *

I went to my first NYHC show in 1996 after getting hooked on hardcore a year and a half prior. One of my favorite bands, Madball, was the headliner. I recall approaching the venue – the Wetlands Preserve on Hudson Street – with my pals, amazed to see the band’s singer, Freddy Cricien, standing on the sidewalk, a few feet away from me, talking to fans and his friends. That night was also my first glimpse into a true NYHC mosh pit, a far cry from what I’d seen on MTV when they covered grunge shows featuring bands like Soundgarden, Nirvana, and Pearl Jam. At those concerts fans seemed to mostly jump up and down, tamely. On the other hand, the hardcore “dancers,” as they’re called, appeared rather menacing at first, with an updated style of moshing comprised of shadowboxing and karate kicks thrown to the beat. But I soon realized nobody was getting hurt; all I saw were smiling faces and all I heard after each song was thunderous applause, for the bands and even for some of the more on-point mosh pit dancers. It wasn’t long before I became one of them, surprised at my own willingness to risk bodily harm.

“Hardcore’s not the best music, but it has an energy that isn’t like anything else,” says Danny Diablo, formerly of Crown of Thornz, another band I enjoyed back then. With so many tattoos they’re beginning to threaten his eyelids, Diablo is now a hip-hop artist and says hardcore’s roots stem from resilient city dwellers who “take everything head on.” He adds, “They don’t call it ‘softcore.’”

Left: Danny Diablo, aka Lord Ezec (center, holding microphone) performs with Crown of Thornz at Coney Island High, ca. mid-90s. (Photo courtesy Drew Stone) Right: Fahrenheit 451 with guitarist Lenny Bednarz (fourth from right) performs at Coney Island High in 1998. (Photo by Michele Lago, courtesy Lenny Bednarz)
Left: Danny Diablo, aka Lord Ezec (center, holding microphone) performs with Crown of Thornz at Coney Island High in the mid-90s. (Photo by Dan Peltz, courtesy Drew Stone) Right: Fahrenheit 451 with guitarist Lenny Bednarz (fourth from right) performs at Coney Island High in 1998. (Photo by Michele Lago, courtesy Lenny Bednarz)

Few can claim to have embodied this ethos as well as Frank Pavich did during the production of his “N.Y.H.C.” documentary. A native of Douglaston, Queens, known for its golf course and sprawling multi-million-dollar homes, Pavich, now 43, met “a strange, tall, lanky, hilarious guy” named Kevin Gill – who provided Pavich with NYHC mix tapes – during his senior year of high school in 1991. As Pavich puts it, Gill “opened up my eyes to a whole other world.”

Four years later, Pavich, a well-spoken, bespectacled son of Croatian parents, decided to shoot a documentary about the hardcore community that, according to him, “completely ripped off ‘The Decline of Western Civilization,’” a film about the Los Angeles punk scene of the early ’80s, directed by Penelope Spheeris.

Admitting now that he had no idea what he was doing, Pavich enlisted a forty-something-year-old cameraman, completely oblivious to the concept of hardcore, to capture the footage. What the cameraman lacked in New York underground music acumen he made up for with his equipment ownership, including a $100,000 Betacam, used primarily to film news stories. Pavich paid him with “credit, copy, and comps” – a credit in the film, a copy of it, and complimentary meals – and helped shield the camera from possessed crowd members and performers throwing themselves in every direction.

Screenshots from Frank Pavich's "N.Y.H.C." documentary, filmed in Summer 1995. Clockwise from top-left: Cesar Ramirez of District 9; Kevin Gill of Striving for Togetherness Records; Danny Diablo, aka Lord Ezec of Crown of Thornz; and Freddy Cricien of Madball. (Images published with permission from Frank Pavich)
Screenshots from Frank Pavich’s “N.Y.H.C.” documentary, filmed in Summer 1995. Clockwise from top-left: Cesar Ramirez of District 9; Kevin Gill of Striving for Togetherness Records; Danny Diablo, aka Lord Ezec, of Crown of Thornz; and Freddy Cricien of Madball. (Images published with permission from Frank Pavich)

Pavich shot close to 44 hours of interviews and performances over the course of two weeks in the summer of ’95. “I’d never edited anything before, so it took forever,” he says. “It was old-school editing, from tape-to-tape.” It didn’t help that the aged editing machines broke down on a weekly basis either.

The complete ninety-minute film wouldn’t see a release until 1999. “The movie’s not for everybody,” he says, “but it’s there and I still love it. I still love those bands and everyone that was involved with it.”

Pavich learned “what to do and what not to do” in filmmaking, and his second feature-length documentary, “Jodorowsky’s Dune,” released in 2013, was short-listed for an Oscar.

One of the standout subjects in Pavich’s “N.Y.H.C.” is Virginia Kress, prominently quoted in the film’s trailer as saying, “I don’t want to be, like, forty, and have missed out on anything.” Then 23 years old with blonde hair and three facial piercings, she shyly stumbles over her words at times in her interview. After displaying a tattoo etched into the inside of her bottom lip that says ‘SUFFER,’ she coyly smiles and says, “It’s a VOD song. It’s my favorite.”

Today she is a friendly, stay-at-home mom who gave birth to her son six months prior to her fortieth birthday. “I don’t think I missed much,” she says confidently. “I feel like I lived through my twenties and thirties.”

Kress says she attended an average of three hardcore shows a week in the ’90s, attracted to the music itself, but also “the family atmosphere” at shows. “I knew pretty much everyone in the bands just from going all the time,” she says, adding that she decided to skip out of college so she could afford a car and travel to out-of-state shows.

“Looking back I probably made the wrong decision,” Kress says, before laughing. “Actually, no, I don’t regret it. I gotta be honest.”

Virginia Kress shows off her old tattoo in Manhattan's Lower East Side with her son in tow, July 31, 2016. (Photo: Carlos Detres)
Virginia Kress shows off her old tattoo recently on Manhattan’s Lower East Side with her son in tow.

When driving even as far as New Orleans or Detroit for gigs, Kress would bump – or slam – into friendly faces among the fray. She was always at home at a hardcore show.

“Once you found your little hardcore circle, they were your brothers,” says Cesar Ramirez, former guitarist of District 9, a band that emerged out of the socioeconomically challenged South Bronx. “You had each other’s back and you did everything together.”

Ramirez, 39, befriended the bass player for District 9 at a neighborhood music store. After a failed tryout, he obsessively studied his instrument, winning a spot in the lineup one year later, at the age of fifteen. Soon, District 9 became a standout act in the scene, in spite of their propensity to skip gigs and get high in the Bronx instead of lugging their instruments onto the subway to Downtown Manhattan and elsewhere. “We were trying to put soul into the shit,” Ramirez says about District 9’s musical style – a combination of metal and hardcore punk, with an occasional jazz break and rhyming lyrics that were virtually interchangeable with popular gangsta rap songs of the era.

Ramirez reminisces about one night when District 9 traveled ninety minutes north of the Bronx to perform in New Paltz, New York. He says everyone in his clique, including himself, was smoking marijuana and drinking beer throughout the evening. (His band’s singer, Myke Rivera, recalls them tripping on mushrooms as well.) But Ramirez was the only one who had to report to school the next day. “It was crazy shit, but it was fun,” he says.

Guitarist Cesar Ramirez, formerly of District 9, hanging out in front of the former site of Coney Island High on St. Marks Place, July 31, 2016. (Photo: Carlos Detres)
Guitarist Cesar Ramirez, formerly of District 9, hanging out in front of the former site of Coney Island High on St. Marks Place in July.

Like other eras in rock history, partying in the hardcore scene claimed its share of victims, including Ramirez’s chatty, stocky bandmate, Rivera, who, through laughter in “N.Y.H.C.,” told stories of his troubled South Bronx childhood. He says in one tale that his mother “beat him into a fever” with a broomstick topped with a wire hanger.

Last May I called Rivera for an interview. He agreed to it, telling me about his alcoholic father – “the kind who drank fifty-sent beers at seven in the morning” – and his mother – a “straight Puerto Rican Chihuahua savage” – whose last days Rivera missed because he was on a cocaine bender. Rivera had at first wished to postpone our chat because he wasn’t feeling well, blaming a chest cold. It turned out he had suffered a mild heart attack and spent a few days in the hospital. “My body’s telling me, ‘You fuckin’ up, dog,’” he said when he felt well enough to talk.

In July he told me he was on his way to Pasadena for a 30-day stint in drug rehab. Just this past weekend, he informed me that he’s moved back in with his wife and children – clean, sober and enrolled in the Twelve-Step Program.

* * *

It’s April 1997 at the Roxy and my friends and I are gathered near the back of the club as Sick of It All performs their encore. The vibe all night long has been one of revelry, passion and pride. It’s everything New York hardcore is supposed to be, but on the grandest scale we in the scene have ever witnessed. The band was interviewed that day by Kurt Loder for a spot on MTV News, and more than three thousand fans are in the house – “the high-water mark in Sick of It All’s career in New York,” as bassist Craig Setari told me this past spring.

But steps in front of me, an argument unfolds as a petite young woman in a white tank top screams at a muscle-bound dude, “You hit me, asshole!”

Looking left and right, palms up, at his two equally large, sweaty and shirtless male companions, he says, “What’d you call me?”

“An asshole!”

The man rares back his right fist and punches the girl in the middle of her face, dropping her with a thud.

As my friends and I flee the scene, it’s difficult to tell who’s fighting in the crowd and who’s trying to break the scuffle up.

As I tell Setari the story during our recent interview, a pained expression comes over his face.

“Why would anyone want to do that?” he says.

Though I wasn’t aware of it that night, the incident was a sign of things to come in hardcore.

* * *

“In any social movement there are ebbs and flows,” says Manhattan-based film producer Drew Stone, “and hardcore was no different.”

As the world celebrated the new millennium, “nu-metal” dominated the American rock charts. Many in the hardcore scene viewed it as a more vanilla version – or, as Frank Pavich put it, a “bastardized” brand – of the raw music they preferred. But while few listeners knew it, acts that soared during this time, like Korn, Limp Bizkit, Staind, Papa Roach and Linkin Park, were inspired by the same pioneering artists that lead to the underground hardcore sound of the ’90s.

“Bad Brains kicked down a lot of doors; Biohazard kicked down a lot of doors,” says Stone, who’s working on a new documentary film about hardcore. “But it’s the bands that walk through those doors that get the accolades.”

Left: Antidote performs at the final NYHC show at the Grand Victory in Williamsburg, Brooklyn on July 31, 2016. Right: Antidote poses for a picture outside the Grand Victory before the show. (Photos: Carlos Detres)
Left: Antidote performs at the final NYHC show at the Grand Victory in Williamsburg, Brooklyn on July 31, 2016. Right: Antidote members (l-r) drummer REA, guitarist Nunzio, singer Drew Stone, and bassist Tristan Michael pose for a picture outside the Grand Victory before the show.

Meanwhile, the factors that generated momentum for the scene’s rebirth in the early ’90s proceeded in the exact opposite direction toward the end of the decade.

Coney Island High closed in 1999, after being in business for a little over four years, due to the owners’ inability to afford rent. A 677-square-foot renovated condo unit in the same building today runs $1.093 million.

A real estate developer purchased the building that housed The Wetlands Preserve, and, after the club’s last show in 2001, a high-end condo went up there. That building has since boasted tenants like Jon Stewart, actor Jeremy Piven, and Mike Piazza, former star catcher of the New York Mets. For years a designer bedding store was located on the ground floor where Wetlands Preserve stage divers and slam dancers once ruled.

The Bond Street Café is now BONDST restaurant, a chic sushi spot with $16 craft cocktails, and, in the building’s exclusive residential section above, the average rent for an apartment exceeds $11,000 a month.

Left: Cesar Ramirez and Lenny Bednarz hang out in front of the former site of the Bond Street Café. Right: Kent Miller (l) and older brother Dean (r) pose with a vinyl recording of their band also in front of the Bond Street Café. All of the subjects once performed at the venue, which has since been replaced by luxury condos and a high-end sushi restaurant. (Photos: Carlos Detres)
Left: Cesar Ramirez and Lenny Bednarz hang out in front of the former site of the Bond Street Café. Right: Kent Miller (l) and older brother Dean (r) pose with a vinyl recording of their band at the same location. They all performed at the venue in the ’90s, which has since been replaced by luxury condos and a high-end sushi restaurant.

A John Varvatos boutique sits where CBGB thrived for three decades. The owners of the high-end retailer have kept the club’s recognizable air ducts – with the patchwork of band stickers smacked onto them throughout the years – in place. There are framed collages of uncountable, partially shredded gig flyers on the walls too. Shoppers can ring up a Guns N’ Roses graphic tee at the original CBGB bar, now outfitted with cash registers, for $80.

Tramps, Roxy, Knitting Factory, Brownies, Roseland Ballroom and several other clubs that booked New York hardcore shows have also disappeared.

Provoked by the closing of Roseland Ballroom in 2014, the newspaper amNew York proclaimed that the city’s “once-storied live music scene” had altogether perished. “Condos have replaced clubs,” the column went on, “and European bankers rather than struggling artists are more likely to be seen on dance floors.” The Lower East Side, once home to the glut of venues that welcomed hardcore bands, has been among the most rapidly gentrifying sections of the city since 2000.

All photos taken July 31, 2016 at the John Varvatos boutique on the Bowery in Manhattan. The retail outlet is on the former site of CBGB. Left: Kent Miller of No Redeeming Social Value examines vintage NYHC and punk rock flyers advertising performances on display at the store. Center: The interior of the John Varvatos boutique on the Bowery. Right: Lenny Bednarz, Cesar Ramirez, and Kent Miller (l-r) reminisce about performing at CBGB inside the store. (Photos: Carlos Detres)
Recent photos taken at the John Varvatos boutique on the Bowery in Manhattan. The retail outlet is located on the former site of CBGB. Left: Kent Miller of No Redeeming Social Value examines vintage NYHC and punk rock flyers advertising performances on display at the store. Center: The interior of the John Varvatos boutique on the Bowery. Right: Lenny Bednarz, Cesar Ramirez, and Kent Miller (l-r) reminisce about performing at CBGB inside the store.

“Once New York hardcore lost its home, you didn’t see the same people every weekend,” says Dean Miller of No Redeeming Social Value. “Then, you’re not in communication with people, and what was once on solid ground becomes very shaky.”

Kevin Gill, for example, left the familiar tidings of Whitestone, Queens, for San Francisco fourteen years ago, and with that move ended his stint purveying over American operations for SFT Records. Since then he’s worked a couple of jobs in the video game industry, has been involved in independent wrestling leagues, primarily as a commentator, and hosts a podcast dedicated to those interests, as well as hardcore, of course.

Gill still sells some dusted-off hardcore merchandise left over from his SFT days. Last year he reissued VOD’s Still EP on its twentieth anniversary. “I’m not making a living, but making the rent,” he says.

Another force at work against hardcore was that, once others saw there was money to be made in the genre, an influx of imitators entered the fold. Many such acts wrote a simpler, yet more aggressive style of hardcore, which became exhaustingly common in the latter part of the ’90s. Kevin Castle, the former Castle Heights show booker, says, “There was a tough-guy-posturing thing going on to that type of music. I’m sure the majority of people at shows weren’t looking to hurt people, but there was definitely a contingency that were.”

Lenny Bednarz, formerly of Fahrenheit 451 agrees, noting that as the decade progressed, he saw “more cheap shots” in the form of slam dancers “going out of their way to hit others,” once again making hardcore fans think twice about attending shows.

Lenny Bednarz, former guitarist for Fahrenheit 451, pointing to his band's name on a vintage poster on display at the John Varvatos store. Located on the Bowery in Manhattan, the boutique is at the former site of CBGB where Bednarz once performed.
Lenny Bednarz, former guitarist for Fahrenheit 451, pointing to his band’s name on a vintage poster on display at the John Varvatos store. Located on the Bowery in Manhattan, the boutique is at the former site of CBGB where Bednarz once performed.

Similarly to New York hardcore’s formative years in the ’80s, many of those involved in the hyperactive ’90s scene were in their teens and early twenties. By the time the calendar flipped to 2000, band members and fans alike were experiencing sobering wake-up calls.

“Getting injured back then was a badge of honor,” Castle says of the ’90s, “but if you’re a mechanic or you work with your hands, and you’re 26, 27 years old, you can’t be out of work for two months because you got hurt at a show.”

Castle provides yet another perspective on the New York scene’s loss of luster. “I think when it really started to fall off was post-9/11,” he says. “There was just a depressed feeling throughout the city. People were scared to go out.” He adds that many shows were run as fundraisers for victims’ families, which were good causes, but served as reminders of the state of the city. In the months after the terror attack, Castle spoke with managers of clubs around the city that were suffering just as much as Castle Heights – which closed in November 2002 because the building’s owner refused to allow a club to operate out of the space any longer.

Though he considers himself one of the scene’s prime supporters and spokesmen, Sick of It All’s Craig Setari is candid when it comes to the long-term financial viability of the genre, and its community: “No matter what we talk about – violence, this wave and that – [hardcore] is not pretty; it’s not meant to be this commercially successful thing … But all in all it’s a great communication medium; I think the last great American subculture.”

Rather than mourn the loss of most of the bands and all of the clubs he filmed in ’95, Frank Pavich – now a resident of Geneva, Switzerland, currently working on a third feature-length documentary – opts to celebrate the genre’s resiliency and the connection it generates between people. “It’s really like the one thing that to this day has not been corrupted by mass media,” he says. “It hasn’t been co-opted [and] when you see someone walking down the street wearing a New York hardcore t-shirt, it’s like holy shit.”

Members of the hardcore scene pose for a picture in XXXX. Top row, l-r: Craig Setari, bassist for Sick of It All; Freddy Cricien, singer for Madball; Drew Stone, filmmaker and singer for Antidote; XXX Bottom row, l-r: Evan Seinfeld, bassist and singer for Biohazard, and Hoya, bassist for Madball
Members of the hardcore scene pose for a picture in 1997. Top row, l-r: Craig Setari, bassist for Sick of It All; Freddy Cricien, singer for Madball; Drew Stone, filmmaker and singer for Antidote; Stickman of Fury of V. Bottom row, l-r: Evan Seinfeld, bassist and singer for Biohazard, and Hoya Roc, bassist for Madball. (Photo courtesy Drew Stone)

There were many such shirts, pulled down over bald heads and salt-and-pepper goatees, covering midsection excesses non-existent twenty years ago, at this spring’s Black N’ Blue Bowl. Formerly known as the “Super Bowl of Hardcore,” the event is an annual, all-day show at Webster Hall – the former site of The Ritz in the East Village. No longer the slender kid with a chain wallet and baggy skater jeans, I floated nostalgically through the dimly lit venue, bumping into performers I’d run sound for at Castle Heights more than fifteen years ago, and shaking hands with some of my biggest musical heroes.

Freddy Cricien, 40, front man of Madball, who first climbed a stage at the age of seven when his half-brother, Roger Miret of Agnostic Front, allowed him to sing for his fans, is an organizer of the Black N’ Blue Bowl. Kent Miller of No Redeeming Social Value, who attended “The Bowl” this year, says the gathering is “what’s keeping the scene alive.”

After a slow start, Webster Hall was rocking by the time acts like Leeway and Madball, both founded way back in the ’80s, hit the stage. A massive mosh pit opened up in the front of the house, though in between sets I couldn’t help but notice there were a couple of men doubled over, out of breath. (Admittedly, if I’d been among them, I would’ve been in the same condition.)

Cricien, who has two kids, four years and four months, says that when he was younger and touring with Madball, he never cared for the business side of music. But “being a hardcore kid alone doesn’t pay the bills,” he now knows, so after 33 years in the scene, Cricien has become a self-styled NYHC “representative” and “curator.”

“People are big on the nostalgia factor,” he says of hardcore these days, lamenting over the promoters never interested in the genre before who now look to capitalize on it. “I don’t want to sound bitter,” he continues, “I back anyone who backs me, but it’s become trendy.”

Virginia Kress holds up a vintage seven-inch vinyl NYHC recording from her collection in front of the former site of the Bond Street Café on Manhattan's Lower East Side, July 31, 2016. (Photo: Carlos Detres)
Virginia Kress holds up a vintage seven-inch vinyl NYHC recording from her collection in front of the former site of the Bond Street Café on Manhattan’s Lower East Side.

Virginia Kress still attends shows once in a while, recently witnessing No Redeeming Social Value and Madball share a bill. She says a few friends remarked that night, “It feels like ’95 again.”

“Those were the last wild days of New York,” says Cricien, when he and his comrades “got away with a lot of shit.” But there are signs that point to yet another possible rebirth.

Three years ago Ben Ratliff wrote in the New York Times, “I haven’t seen so much energy around the hardcore scene in New York in a long while.” Chris Wynne, publisher of In Effect magazine – a top hardcore fanzine he used to hand-deliver to record stores before re-launching it on the web – says, “New York has tons of bands.” He points to A Breed Apart, Manipulate, Ache, Regulate, Out. Live. Death., and Enziguri as some of the more notable new acts that have released demos, but not yet earned record deals. Still, they are attracting a younger set of fans to the community, plenty of who came out to this year’s Black N’ Blue Bowl.

Wynne notes that Brooklyn is now home to more venues open to hardcore shows than Manhattan. Of the potential for a long-delayed fourth wave of New York hardcore, he says, “Time will tell … The lifers are always going to be there.”

For Dean Miller of No Redeeming Social Value, time and place doesn’t matter at all when it comes to the reverence he has for the community he’s been a part of for nearly thirty years. “If everything went away tomorrow, all the bands, all the venues, hardcore was banned from the world, the guys in my band would still be getting together in my basement to play tunes,” he says. “We never joined a dart league, a bowling league. That’s what hardcore is for us.”

 

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

* * *

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

* * *

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Classes filled up. By then, it was 2009.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Micaela Bracamonte reads in her office at the Lang School.

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

Babies For Sale: The Secret Adoptions That Haunt One Georgia Town

In midcentury Appalachia, an intrepid doctor sold newborns to desperate couples. Today they’re all grown up, and seeking answers.

On a humid August day in the small mountain town of McCaysville, Georgia, Sandy Dearth stands in front of the building where, 53 years ago, a nurse secretly and illegally handed her out a back window to a pair of eager and nervous adoptive parents. Sandy, who has not been back here since that day in 1963, is holding her husband Bill’s hand tightly. A lifetime of searching has led her to this moment.

The building she faces is divided into several units: at one end rests a BBQ joint, at the other a pizza place. In between, poison ivy grows along the peeling painted brick walls and a faded FOR RENT sign hangs in the window. This forlorn space is where the Hicks Community Clinic once operated. In addition to providing standard healthcare for members of this declining mining town, the clinic offered clandestine abortions and adoptive services to desperate girls and young women. Sandy’s biological mother was one of them.

Sandy Dearth and her husband Bill view the former Hicks Community Clinic, the site of Sandy’s birth and illegal adoption.
Sandy Dearth and her husband Bill view the former Hicks Community Clinic, the site of Sandy’s birth and illegal adoption. (Photos by Matthew Steven Bruen)

“The person that bore me,” she says, her blue-green eyes shining, “how must they have felt? Were they scared? Did they have to? Did they want to? Were they forced to? Why didn’t they abort me? What happened? Are they alive?” She pauses, catches her breath. This is the closest she has ever come to this phantom woman. Despite a gulf of fifty-plus years, Sandy feels her presence here.

She walks around to the alley behind the building and pauses in front of the window where she was passed to her now deceased adoptive parents all those years ago. Tears again fall down her face. She breathes deeply, and steels herself.

“I can’t believe my parents actually came down here and did this.” She laughs. It is a light-hearted sound, one full of love. “Knowing that this was all illegal. I mean, I know my parents. My parents would not do this, OK? They wouldn’t even throw a piece of paper out the window of their car. No way. And they drove down in the middle of the night? Only had this many hours to come get a baby. Got me through a window! Holy cow. ‘And do not contact anyone,’ they said to them, ‘we’ll forge you a birth certificate.’ And they did this?”

Indeed they did, along with the adoptive parents of approximately 212 other children who have become known as the Hicks Babies, after Dr. Thomas Jugarthy Hicks.

Side door of the now abandoned Hicks Clinic.
Side door of the now abandoned Hicks Clinic.

Starting in 1955 and running through the early 1960s, Hicks offered secretive abortions and adoptions here. Eventually, in 1964, he was caught performing an abortion and was summarily stripped of his medical license. He died in 1972 and it took three decades before Hicks’ actions were brought to light. In 1997, news of the scandal broke, as several Hicks Babies began digging into their past. The story made national news, resurfacing again in 2014, when the Babies teamed up with Ancestry.com and ABC News to conduct DNA tests on themselves and members of the nearby community. The researchers made several matches, and the Babies met many long-lost cousins and siblings. A very small number were reconnected with their birth parents.

Although their search for their origins has been documented – some might even say exploited – what remains unseen is the powerful relationship the Hicks Babies share with each other and to the place that is and isn’t their hometown. It is a story punctuated by emotional reunions with individuals who have spent decades helping to undo the damage caused so many years ago. And it is a story of the unique and deep comradeship that has arisen amongst this most unusual of groups.

* * *

When Dr. Hicks began his illicit practice, abortions were illegal in the United States. The poverty here in the Copper Basin of southeast Tennessee and far north Georgia, which includes the town of McCaysville, often meant that pregnant women couldn’t ask a relative or friend to help raise their children. The extra mouths to feed were simply too expensive. Stories of young girls dying from botched abortions in the early ’50s still exist in the living memories of those from the region. It is possible that deaths like these convinced Dr. Hicks that something needed to be done.

Dr. Thomas Hicks. (Photo courtesy of Melinda Dawson)
Dr. Thomas Hicks. (Photo courtesy of Melinda Dawson)

“Hicks was providing a service,” says Ken Rush flatly. Rush is the director of the Ducktown Basin Museum, a small institution devoted to preserving the history of the area. He sits at a table with his hands resting calmly in front of him. Directly behind him is a display case filled with the various chemicals manufactured in the factories that once served as the area’s primary economic engines.

“If there was no demand for the service,” Rush continues, “Hicks would not have been doing it. He wasn’t going around knocking girls up and holding them hostage in his apartment until they delivered their babies so he could sell them.” Like many people who live and work in the Copper Basin, Rush is frustrated by sensationalist portrayals of Dr. Hicks.

“But people believe that.” His voice drops and he imitates a morally outraged newscaster: “‘He’s sellin’ babies!’ No, he did not keep records. Why would he keep records? The second the adoption was completed and the family took the child he got rid of any paper trail.” It is this gap that fuels the conspiracy theorists, according to Rush.

Rush rejects the rumors that Hicks intentionally impregnated young girls, put them up in his home, and then sold his own children for profit. He rejects the claim that Hicks became incredibly wealthy because of his actions. And he rejects the belief that Hicks hid his records somewhere and that they are out there, waiting to be found.

The barren landscape between Copperhill, Tennessee and McCaysville, Georgia. (Photo courtesy of Ducktown Basin Museum).
The barren landscape between Copperhill, Tennessee and McCaysville, Georgia. (Photo courtesy of Ducktown Basin Museum).

“Look,” he states, “it’s all very simple. Word got out. There’s a doctor in the mountains. Call him, he can help you. It’s not exciting. It’s not scandalous. And what do we like as a society? We like scandal. We like dirty laundry. We like it to be nefarious.”

* * *

After she pauses for photos in front of her birthplace, Sandy Dearth huddles with her daughter Crystal and two fellow Hicks Babies, Melinda Dawson and Cyndy Stapleton. They have returned here for Sandy, to show her where she came from. “There’s someone I think you should meet, Sandy,” Melinda says gently. “It’s just a short walk from here.”

Melinda, 53, is the de facto leader of the Hicks Babies. She is tall and redheaded, the product of an ancestry she does not fully know. Perhaps more than any other adoptee, her life has been marked by tragedy. Not only was she illegally adopted out of the Hicks Clinic, but her adoptive mother was murdered in 1998. Her husband at the time, Clarence Elkins, was falsely convicted of the slaying. But through the use of DNA evidence, Elkins was exonerated and the real perpetrator was ultimately discovered. Melinda has also survived a bout with cancer.

Melinda leads the way to a small white house that sits on the banks of the Toccoa River. She walks around to the back, where a southern-style screened porch is adorned with rocking chairs and vibrant plants. She rings a bell and waits. A graceful 88-year old named Doris Abernathy appears. Melinda’s presence on the porch comes as an unexpected but welcome surprise. As the visitors take seats on the porch, Melinda introduces Sandy. “She’s here for the first time since her birth, Doris,” Melinda says.

Doris’ thin body shakes with emotion. She embraces Sandy like she would a long-lost relative, clutching her tight, eyes brimming with tears. “I’ve seen your picture before,” she says. “I’m so glad you came.”

After releasing Sandy, Doris takes a seat and begins to hold court, telling the women, “I have enjoyed all of you. I am so proud of all you.” Doris explains that her kin were close with the Hicks family, that they were neighbors and friends. She is one of the only people still living who was a contemporary to Hicks and knew him well. She also knew some of the birth mothers who gave away their children at Hicks’ clinic.

Like Ken Rush, she expresses dismay at “newspaper people” who are only interested in “sleaze” and have misrepresented him. “He was a very generous person. He and Mrs. Hicks were so kind to so many people. I never knew anyone so generous. He did a lot for this town,” she pauses and looks up at the Hicks Babies. “I saw him do more good than I think he did harm. I’m not saying he was perfect. I’m saying I saw the man do a lot of good.”

The state line that divides Copperhill, Tennessee from McCaysville, Georgia.
The state line that divides Copperhill, Tennessee from McCaysville, Georgia.

Melinda speaks up, and softly pushes back: “I just wish he would have gave us a future to come back and be able to find our history.” Doris shakes her head and explains, “Honey, he would have been put in prison.” The answer does not sit well with the Hicks Babies. The lack of records is the most significant hindrance in their search for their origins. Either Hicks didn’t keep any records at all, or he destroyed them. To this day, none have been discovered. The only paper trail he left were the falsified birth certificates, which of course do not include the names of the babies’ biological parents.

“With us, we weren’t given a chance to find out who or where we’re from,” Melinda says.

“You go through life thinking, ‘who do I look like?’, ‘why do my kids have this disease?’” Cyndy says, echoing her sentiment. “The medical situation. It’s terrible. We are all getting to the age when this really starts to matter. And we don’t know what to expect.”

Sandy’s daughter Crystal, who has spent years working to uncover her family’s history, steers the discussion back to the birth mothers who came to McCaysville to have their babies – or to abort them.

“A lot of girls that came weren’t connected to the people in the town, were they?” Crystal asks.

Doris’s answer surprises her. “I’m sure there were people away from here that found out about Dr. Hicks,” she says. “But now, I’d say the majority were local people. From my experience. They were from around here.”

Sandy contemplates the notion that she is sitting in her mother’s hometown.

“Someone was kind enough to give me life,” she says, her voice choked with an amalgam of sadness and love and pain and hope. “And I want to thank her.”

“Think of it this way,” Doris says in response. “You had someone who didn’t have an abortion. They had their little baby. And you were fortunate someone came and got you. You have been loved twice. You’ve been doubly blessed.”

Doris Abernathy sits in a rocking chair on her back porch.
Doris Abernathy sits in a rocking chair on her back porch.

Doris Abernathy is not the only member of the Copper Basin community who expresses a positive opinion about Dr. Hicks and his actions – something that has seldom been explored by news coverage of the Hicks Babies.

“I liked him. He birthed me. I came into the world in his hands,” says Bill Dalton, who sits at a long table in the special collections of Young Harris College’s library, surrounded by rare volumes of books while he looks through old photographs of the institution from back when he was enrolled here.

“He made contributions to almost all of the charities in town. He was a leader,” explains Dalton, who grew up in Copperhill, the town adjacent to McCaysville. He goes on to offer words of encouragement and love toward the Hicks Babies: “I would never fault anyone for searching for their origins. I feel for them. I hope they are successful.”

* * *

“It’s not about Dr. Hicks anymore,” Melinda says, “it’s about us.” The Hicks Babies and their supporters sit around a table at a local restaurant. They are tired and hungry following their emotional return to McCaysville and need some time to recharge. “We have become our own family. We may have lost the ability to contact our birth parents, but we’ve gained each other.”

The entire group echoes her sentiment. “The connections I’ve formed to these women and the others who are not here today is one of the most unexpected and lovely outcomes of this horrible situation,” Cyndy declares. Unlike Sandy and Melinda, Cyndy was reunited with her birth mother. But instead of providing closure, the reunion opened up more questions than answers. “I did get to meet two of my birth brothers. But my mother didn’t give me the full story,” Cyndy says, “apparently, there are three other birth brothers out there. I never got the answers I was looking for.”

The Hicks Babies pose for a photograph with Doris Abernathy. From left to right: Sandy Dearth, Doris Abernathy, Melinda Dawson, and Cyndy Stapleton.
The Hicks Babies pose for a photograph with Doris Abernathy. From left to right: Sandy Dearth, Doris Abernathy, Melinda Dawson, and Cyndy Stapleton.

“Oh!” Cyndy exclaims, “Linda is going to make it. She’s only a few minutes away.” Sure enough, Linda Davis arrives shortly thereafter. She is a small, grey-haired woman who is vibrant and exceptionally witty. After doling out several hugs and smiles, she takes a seat at the table. Linda was the area’s probate judge when the Hicks Babies story first made national headlines in the 1990s, and she aided the Babies in their search. She has since maintained ties with them for over twenty years.

“Although I sometimes feel like I am not necessarily welcome in town,” Melinda says, “support from people like Linda shows us that a large segment of the community cares, that they accept us as their own. And we are.”

The subject changes to the group’s final destination: Crestlawn Cemetery. This is where Dr. Thomas Jugarthy Hicks is interred. “Is it true that authorities opened the Hicks mausoleum to search for records pertaining to the Hicks Babies?” asks Crystal. “Oh yes,” answers Linda. “I was there.”

“I was convinced something was in there,” Linda states. “It is so odd that Hicks himself is not in the mausoleum. He is buried right beside it, but not in it.” An empty tomb. Missing birth records. Decades of uncertainty. It is easy to understand why people believed something was behind those doors. “When they opened it up there was great excitement. But there was nothing in it. There’s nothing there,” Linda says definitively.

For her part, local resident Theresa Starnes offers a plausible explanation. “I heard that at the time of his death there was concern that in the future people would want to break in and either steal or desecrate his body. That could be why he isn’t in the tomb.”

As the group finishes lunch, Melinda says, “Are we ready to go to the cemetery?” Everyone nods and moves to their cars. Like a funeral procession, 44 years late, they all follow each other to the graveyard.

* * *

Crestlawn Cemetery rests on the top of a hill overlooking the blue-green peaks of the Blue Ridge Mountains. It is a stunning place, offering peaceful views to those who mourn their dead. Two mausoleums rise above the simpler graves. One of them is the empty tomb of Thomas Hicks. It is not lost on the women that the money Hicks made from selling them as babies might have contributed to the purchase of this unused place of repose.

The unoccupied Hicks tomb looms over Crestlawn Cemetery. Dr. Hicks’ grave is a few feet away.
The unoccupied Hicks tomb looms over Crestlawn Cemetery. Dr. Hicks’ grave is a few feet away.

Once the entire group has arrived, they congregate around the tomb. It shows signs of damage since their last visit. “It looks like someone tried to break in,” says Crystal. “Maybe teenagers, or maybe opportunists who still think it holds those records.” Despite their mixed feelings toward the man who guided them into the world, the Babies espouse disgust at this vandalism.

Sandy asks to see Hicks’ gravestone. Melinda points it out to her and brushes away grass clippings from the cemetery’s recent mowing.

THOMAS JUGARTHY HICKS, M.D.

OCT. 18, 1888     MARCH 5, 1972

WE LOVED THEE FOR THY ASTUTE MIND

BUT WE LOVED THEE BETTER FOR A HEART

THAT WAS GENTLE AND KIND.

GREEN SOD ABOVE LIE LIGHT, LIE LIGHT

GOOD NIGHT DEAD DAD, GOOD NIGHT GOOD NIGHT

It is telling that the stone describes Hicks as having an “astute mind” and a “heart that was gentle and kind.” To those standing around his grave on this hot August day, these lines are a subtle gesture to the actions that brought them into the world.

“I still don’t know,” Melinda says. “I owe my life to him, but he has also been the cause of so much pain and suffering. I don’t know. He let loose some real chaos into this world.”

* * *

If anyone has any information pertaining to the Hicks Babies and their continued search for their birth parents and related family, please visit their Facebook page for more information.

 

 

The Day My Therapist Dared Me to Have Sex With Her

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

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

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

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

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

“Oh, yeah,” I say. “That.”

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

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

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

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

I shrugged my shoulders, only half looking up.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Nailed it.

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

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

* * *

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Why not?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

There were two ways to find out:

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

2) Keep going to therapy.

* * *

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

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

“I don’t know.”

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

Here we go again.

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

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

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

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

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

“What?” I respond, flustered.

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

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

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

“Of course not.”

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

“I wouldn’t do that.”

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

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

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

* * *

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Isn’t therapy supposed to ameliorate my anxiety?

* * *

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Exactly.”

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

* * *

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Lori’s great at forcing me to reflect.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

* * *

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

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

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

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

* * *

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

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

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

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

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

* * *

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

See the complete list of Editors’ Picks here. 

* *

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

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

 

 

Lessons Learned from a Childhood Spent Touching Myself

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

* * *

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

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

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

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

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

* * *

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

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

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

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

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

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

* * *

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

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

* * *

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

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

 

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

* * *

“What’s your favorite porn scene?”

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

The possibilities run through my head.

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

They’re also lies.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Are you sure?”

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

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

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

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

“Go on.”

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

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

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

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

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

And so I tell him.

* * *

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

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

And then realizing that person is me.

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

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

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

I was out of control.

* * *

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

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

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

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

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

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

* * *

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

That’s why I need to tell my husband.

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

* * *

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

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