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.”

 

 

Inside the Colorado Mansion Where the Kittens of BDSM Run Wild

An eye-opening afternoon at The Chateau, with the fast-growing, feline sub-sect of the adult role-playing universe.

Somewhere in the northern stretches of the Colorado Springs suburbs, enveloped by trees, is a tony neo-Victorian house, painted sky blue with a white wraparound patio and a picket fence enclosing an expansive green yard. It’s a stunning Saturday in the middle of May, and there’s a party going on.

The roughly dozen women in attendance, most in their early twenties, are wearing an assortment of slip dresses, gowns, and corsets, all inspired by Marie Antoinette-era fashion. They recline on blankets in the grass, while in the parlor some sit delicately on upholstered chairs as a man plays classical piano. Other women clatter across the porch in high heels. The handful of men are dressed up too, in puffy shirts, vests, hats, and formal pants, shoes and riding boots.

The gathering’s been billed as a tea and cake party, but there’s free-flowing champagne and open use of marijuana by some. In most respects it appears to be a run-of-the-mill Colorado garden party – until you spot the furry ears and tails worn by all the females.

We are at The Chateau, a residence otherwise known as the Cat Girl Manor, and often called “the Playboy Mansion of the kitten play community.” Kitten play is a sub-sect of the BDSM universe, and, according to Chateau photographer Jeff Lawson, “It’s a whole lot more serious than regular cosplay,” when people dress up like fictional characters from pop culture. “They really want to embody the personality of a cat,” Lawson says, “and that’s really fun. It’s amazing how many ways they can use the word meow in a sentence, and you know what they’re saying.”

A group of kittens pose for a photo outside The Chateau residence in the suburbs of Colorado Springs, Colorado.

Though there are some males in the community who will take on a kitten persona – donning ears, tails and collars – most that do are women, and the lengths to which they run with their alter egos vary.

“For me, being a kitten is all the time, even if I don’t have the ears on,” says Miss Jenni Kitten, 20, who, like all the other women on The Chateau grounds, asked to be referred to by her “performer name,” citing privacy concerns. Jenni, a lanky apprentice mechanic with jet-black hair and piercings in her nose, lower lip, and belly button, observes that some in the kitten play community are only comfortable in their kitten roles at events or in their respective bedrooms. But she has identified as a cat since she was in elementary school, when she thought, “If I believed hard enough, I could grow whiskers and ears and a tail.”

Jenni says she eventually discovered others who identified as kittens, as well as foxes, bunnies, ponies, and other animals. Today, Jenni more specifically calls herself an “alley cat.” “Other people [put] me in the ‘stray kitten’ category, because when you don’t have a master – or a ‘dom’ – you’re considered a stray,” she says. “But I don’t like thinking about it like that because I’m not lost. I want to be single; I like where I’m at.”

The term “master” is used throughout the BDSM community, but its definition is a complicated one. Though masters – who are males, while female masters are called “mistresses” – exert complete control over the lives of their submissive “slaves,” they are also tasked with taking care of them. In the kitten play community, some slaves may have been “collared” by a master, and might literally wear collars to signify such ownership.

I point out to Jenni that some charge women who are sexually submissive with pushing feminism back. “The thing about being a submissive,” she responds, “is that they really, truly have all the control.” During sexual encounters, she continues, “the master never actually does anything that the submissive does not want. Everything has to be communicated beforehand, and boundaries need to be respected.” As far as collaring goes, Jenni says for some it’s a big deal, a true display of care and trust so important that there are collaring ceremonies coordinated, similar to weddings.

There are numerous reasons why those in the kitten play community choose to personify felines. Some told me that they, like cats, feel as though they are cute, playful and soft. Others note that they possess an undeniably feline temperamental nature and a feistiness about them – or, as Lawson puts it, “They do claw, and they do scratch.”

“They’re very alluring, sleek creatures. They’re very beautiful in their own right; they command a sense of respect,” says the party’s hostess, Isibella Karnstein, of cats and, correlatively, kitten play participants. Karnstein is 28, busty and blonde, and she lives at The Chateau. Today she’s wearing an outfit featuring a wide white hat, stockings and big heels, as well as a blue corset that’s the same shade as her home. She throws around words like “sophisticated” and “refined” in outlining cats’ personalities as well, both real and pretend. This doesn’t mean that the women at The Chateau crawl around, purring incessantly – though there’s some of that.

Isibella Karnstein, madam of The Chateau, and her partner, Daniel.

Offering glimpses of heightened cleavage, the chatty kittens snap selfies for social media and formally pose for Lawson, the self-described Chateau “Cat Herder,” a title he earned for his ability to wrangle the kittens for photo shoots. Some of his images offer a hint of homoeroticism as the kittens cuddle and crawl, others just look like straightforward headshots – if not for the ears.

Karnstein essentially colors The Chateau as a sexy social club where like-minded, cat-tailed individuals can get together and enjoy themselves on a monthly basis. As the Chateau’s “madam,” Karnstein sees kittens as standouts in the BDSM community because of their sometimes-fierce independence. To illustrate her point, she poses a metaphoric question about real-life pet kittens: “Do you own the cat, or does the cat own you?”

Karnstein gravitated toward the BDSM and fetish community during her late teens, while still living just outside London, where she was born and raised. She’d attend parties at various clubs and marveled at how some people dressed very elaborately, like the sci-fi Victorian goths of the steampunk movement, in their top hats, tights and monocles. “I was wearing ears and nobody else was doing it, so I had nobody to hang out with,” Karnstein says, sitting in The Chateau’s parlor, champagne glass in hand. She then constructed the now-defunct website Kittenplay.net as a way to meet others who might share her predilection for dressing up as a cat. “Thousands of people came to the website. Obviously I was not alone; it was a real affirmation for me.”

In December 2014 she founded an online magazine called The Chateau, which is “dedicated to cat girls and the kitten play lifestyle,” as its Facebook page describes it. By then Karnstein had been living with her partner, Daniel, a 45-year-old entrepreneur in the aerospace engineering industry, outside Colorado Springs. The pair began opening up their estate to kitten play parties.

A kitten frolics out in the yard at The Chateau, approaching her gent.

“As a society we’re very sexually repressed,” says Kiri Branford, a prominent model for The Chateau magazine. “We’re not taught about sex topics; they’re taboo. I think if we have a more sexually liberated society, most people would find that they have some sort of fetish, and that their fetishes aren’t necessarily fetishes because they’re not uncommon.”

Branford – an attractive 23-year-old with bright eyes and Angelina Jolie lips, who by day is a buyer for a health food store – says being a kitten does not define her every waking moment. “It doesn’t normally happen while I’m at work, but then at home the feelings of wanting to be a kitten come and go,” she says. Branford has two female partners, one of whom is married to a man. “Sometimes I will go find my collar and bring it to my mistress and put it at her feet, or I will nuzzle her and purr. Or perhaps she decides to put my collar on, normally that kind of triggers it. Or she’ll refer to me as Kitten, and that often does the trick as well.”

“There’s kitty play to the extreme,” Miss Jenni Kitten says, “where they’re collared and restrained, and they only get to eat at certain times of day. They’re provided a food and water bowl, and they actually have to use a litter box.”

Jenni says she personally doesn’t partake in those activities, but concedes: “Food is very important to me. Not just buying me dinner, but physically feeding me.” She also says she has a butt plug with a cattail attached to the outer end – a staple in the kitten play community. “It’s mainly for the bedroom, and that’s what I do to identify with it, to go a little farther,” Jenni says.

Dave Mate, a representative of Purrfect Playmates – a U.K.-based e-commerce site catering to kittens around the world – says the business has steadily grown, with increased demand and online presence of the kitten community. The site offers nearly 30 different kinds of colorful tails, available with butt plugs as an add-on option. There are also pages on the site dedicated to upselling, urging buyers to customize their tails and ears with chains and charms and “a touch of sparkle.”

* * *

Attending her first Chateau party today is Belladonna, a 20-year-old with striking eyes that appear to change color – from light blue to gray to green – at various times of the day. She’s wearing a red and black corset with fishnet stockings that have holes throughout. “I wanted to portray the classic Victorian style, but with an edge,” she says, lightly laughing. There are also black-and-red ears puffing out atop her head, accessorized by a dainty, Romanesque gold-leaf crown, and she has a clip-on tail hanging from the back of her skirt.

A student at Western State Colorado University, where she’s studying graphic design and business, the Colorado Springs resident just had her online application to The Chateau community approved, allowing her to attend kitten play parties for free, have access to the corresponding Facebook group, and model for the magazine.

The kitten application to The Chateau requires four recent, professional-looking photos – selfies are not welcome – of the prospective model, who must be at least 18 years old. “We have no size or weight limit,” Karnstein asserts. “I do not believe in that. All I care about is how you are presenting yourself and if the look matches the magazine.”

There’s a written component to the model application as well, with a prompt that asks: “Why do you want to join The Chateau?” Karnstein says the response should highlight the kitten’s personality.

“I think there is an emphasis [in America] – at least for millenials and young girls – that being bitchy is a positive trait,” Karnstein says. “I’d really like to encourage a sisterhood that is actually friendly and, instead of bringing each other down, through gossip or whatever, we actually bring each other up.”

As Belladonna puts it: “You’re expected to uphold yourself as a member of The Chateau, which is all about elegance, grace, and, of course, kitten play.”

Karnstein says she receives an average of 900 applications per month, and of those she accepts about ten, who are awarded achievement collars for the number of parties they attend, the more they pose for the magazine, and for generally representing the brand favorably. By design, the models do not pose nude in The Chateau’s online magazine, which is released monthly and, according to Karnstein, has about 6,000 subscribers who pay for various tiers of access.

Sitting next to Karnstein in the parlor is “Sir Christopher,” a Denver-based artist who helps her organize events and who also writes for the magazine. “Playboy has been done, Penthouse has been done, Hustler has been done; what is there left when you expose everything?” he tells me. “What if you have a little more mystery? What if you have a little more elegance [and] make it more theatrical? That’s more appealing.”

Like each of the women I interview at the party, Belladonna speaks with noticeable self-assurance, and, like many in the BDSM community, she also has multiple romantic partners: a boyfriend, a girlfriend, and a master, each with a different relationship dynamic and “focus,” as she puts it. She tells me she’s invited a male friend today, someone she’s talked with about exploring a physical relationship.

“People ask, ‘How do you not get jealous?’ and of course [polyamorous people] get jealous,” she says. “It’s just like any other relationship; you’re going to have doubts, but if you’re communicating it will work out.”

Belladonna expresses frustration over the fact that polyamorous folk have “such a bad reputation,” saying, “It’s a bit of a sad truth, but our society does shame people who are more open with their sexuality, even though our media is saturated with sexual imagery. It’s very hypocritical.”

Body-shaming or “kink-shaming,” where a person puts down another for individualized sexual expression, is another concern for Karnstein and many others throughout the BDSM community. It can happen from within or be propagated by outsiders, especially on social media and in comments sections on the web.

“If anybody even throws around a word like ‘fat’ in the group, they’re gone,” Karnstein says. Like in any social construct, conflicts occur, and Karnstein says she’s sometimes played the part of peace negotiator with varying degrees of success. She’s also barred kittens from events and online community pages for – err – catty behavior. But Karnstein insists most of the kittens know bullying and all types of shaming are wrong, “and you get to see how empowering they are for each other,” she says.

For her part, Belladonna engages in activism work on her college campus, raising awareness about the LGBTQ community, and offering support to community members living throughout the small, surrounding city of Gunnison, Colorado, where such resources are scant.

* * *

The party at The Chateau begins to liven as more people arrive, and the music switches over to the industrial genre, pumped from a P.A. speaker on the porch.

Jerry, a tall, blue-eyed bald man with a narrow tuft of white hair between his lips and chin, arrives, draped completely in black. One by one almost all of the guests embrace the 53-year-old Colorado Springs native.

“I’ve known Isibella for six or seven years; we met at a steampunk ball, and eventually she invited me to a Chateau party,” recalls Jerry, who is soft spoken and works at a call center for the state’s health insurance marketplace. “I guess I did pretty well because I keep getting invited back.”

“Jerry” plays outside The Chateau with one of the kittens.

Jerry and the rest of the men at The Chateau are called “gents.” To have the pleasure of the kittens’ company, males are expected to provide the utmost respect toward them.

Sir Christopher, an avid reader of Gentleman’s Quarterly, says the types of men who should be part of the community are genteel, chivalrous, and trustworthy.

“We are extras,” Jerry says of the gents. “They have to not give off the creeper vibe.”

Karnstein says there’s a screening process for male guests at Chateau events. Gents are required to purchase tickets – there was a $100 fee for the Marie Antoinette tea and cake party. But if a model wishes to bring a boyfriend, Karnstein is “more than happy” to meet them and offer a kitten-plus-one. Other men can have a kitten vouch for them, or talk to Karnstein or Sir Christopher directly, sometimes in online chats or even in person over dinner. “I do pride myself on the safety of the girls,” Karnstein continues, “and creating a community where they can really be themselves and feel good about it. They can take off their clothes and run around, it’s not a problem.”

Jerry observes that he is “generally one of the older gentlemen who are invited,” and admits to being socially awkward, though the kittens help him “to get past that.”

“They know I’m a flirt,” he continues. “I am a bit of a dirty old man, obviously, but I know how to rein it in. I don’t ogle; I don’t stare. I try to be pleasant.” He says that he can also operate as a “safe person” for kittens who trust him, acting as a buffer between them and someone who is making them uncomfortable at a party.

Though Jerry doesn’t choose to identify as an all-out master, he has been a “daddy” to a kitten before, considering himself more of a “caregiver” to her than an overwhelmingly domineering figure. “Daddys,” or “Daddy Doms,” more strongly consider the emotional state of their submissives, and can act as a guide, confidant, and protector, as well as someone there to boost their confidence.

* * *

Aside from monthly parties at The Chateau, Karnstein also throws galas at clubs, mostly in Downtown Denver, some that are open to the public and others just for community members. From time to time she’ll host them at swinger clubs where sex might be on the menu. Such establishments are generally alcohol-free and require identification and completed club membership paperwork to gain entry. They’re also strictly for couples. All this keeps the swinger spots above legal foregrounds. A party at a private residence like The Chateau, on the other hand, can be an anything-goes affair.

But, Sir Christopher quickly chimes in, “It’s important to understand that we’re not an escort service or that we’re selling sex.”

“A lot of people perceive us as that,” Karnstein adds. “The look of [The Chateau] is in some ways very bordello-esque, with the corsets and all that stuff, but the majority of it is modeling, like Playboy.”

A kitten poses outside The Chateau during a kitten play party in May.

She recently formed a dance troupe that performs kitten-themed burlesque, or what they call “purrlesque.” Jeff Lawson, the “Cat Herder,” is the director. “I’m excited,” he says of the future of The Chateau. “Isibella’s events and parties are growing. I really want to get to a point where we can do a nationwide tour with the purrlesque and just have fun with it.”

“We do like to create an environment that is sexually positive for women, where they can express themselves however they want to,” Karnstein says, before adding: “I feel like a teacher sometimes, preaching safe sex and things like that. A lot of times girls don’t know about that.”

Karnstein says Chateau regulars will frequently get together – no ears or tails necessary – and do the same things as any other gaggle of friends: go out to eat or drink or see a movie. “There’s not just a sense of community,” she says, “there’s a bit of a sense of family, too.”

There have been incidents of stalking at The Chateau and other kitten play events, by both males and females. Karnstein says she’s had to ban such offenders from the social group, and says she even called the police on one man who was repeatedly asked not to show up at Chateau parties. Such incidents are quite unnerving, and in her mind ruin the party for, not only the target of the stalking, but also the friends obligated to console them.

* * *

The sun has set and The Chateau is crawling with kittens and gents. Belladonna’s guest puts on a fire-breathing show on the lawn. There are group toasts in the kitchen, one of which kitten Corinne Victoria, 24 and pregnant with her second child, observes, but does not partake in. Her husband walks up behind her and lightly scratches her upper back, as if to comfort her and say hello. She purrs back.

“Excuse me, Mr. Reporter,” is suddenly projected in my direction. It’s Chateau model Kitty Kameleon, whom I’d spoken to for a little while on the porch this afternoon. She told me she’s polyamorous and has three partners – two men and a woman. She has also been gifted miraculously large breasts by some wonderful god that has chosen to smile upon me at this moment. “Do you mind if I take off my corset?”

I assure her I have absolutely no issue with it, but a problem arises. In spite of her best efforts, she can’t release two final clips located just underneath her bust.

“Can you help me?” she asks.

I try, first pushing together the opposing sides of the corset, no different than she’d been doing a moment ago.

No luck.

I look her in the eyes and say, “Is it O.K. if I put my arm down the front and try and pull it together from the inside?” Apparently our candid talk a few hours ago helped formulate some trust for me, because she let me in. After a couple determined minutes – genuinely working to get the damn clips undone, and going out of my way to not betray her by groping her flesh – her boobs are freed. She scurries off, and carries about topless the rest of the time I’m in attendance. Later, I overhear her telling one gent that I was totally cool, and didn’t overstep my bounds.

“Belladonna” (center) sits with two gents in the parlor of The Chateau.

A few minutes later, hostess Isibella Karnstein appears, slowly walking down the winding staircase just to the right of The Chateau’s foyer. Many kittens and gents watch her in awe. She is a site to behold, now wearing a deep-red corset with criss-crossing, pink satin laces, garters, and thigh-high stockings. Her high heels are clear; her breasts are completely exposed save for pink pasties hiding her nipples.

She thanks me for coming to The Chateau and for my interest in the kitten play community.

She wishes me well, and, as a parting shot, says, “The party’s just beginning.”

 

 

Waging War On Rats in Sub-Antarctic South Georgia

A team of ambitious ecologists is trying to rid these freezing South Atlantic islands of vermin to save their rarest bird. But are they attempting the impossible?

We were expecting to see three red and yellow specks to come flying over the snow-covered mountains that surrounded the bay where we were sheltering, but there was only one. Something had gone wrong.

Two days earlier we’d left two helicopters tied down in a sheltered spot to see out a storm, but the powerful wind had spun one helicopter, digging it into the ground, and snapped the rotor blade of the other. Both were completely broken. Without the two working helicopters, we couldn’t continue – years of planning and two seasons of spreading bait across the sub-Antarctic island of South Georgia would have been for nothing.

One of the many highly crevassed glaciers of South Georgia – an impenetrable barrier to rats.
One of the many highly crevassed glaciers of South Georgia – an impenetrable barrier to rats.

A forgotten Eden, belonging only to albatrosses, penguins and seals, South Georgia is one of the most remote islands on the planet. The nearest permanent population is over 1,500 kilometers away and the only human residents are British Antarctic Survey staff. Vast snow-capped peaks stand at 3000 meters above the ocean, and rivers of ice flow down to water that teams with krill; an abundant food source for the millions of animal residents. South Georgia takes your breath away.

We were there for a simple purpose – to free South Georgia from the rats that had plagued the island for almost 200 years.  Elimination of the rats would ensure the survival of the most southerly songbird in the world, the endemic South Georgia Pipit, as well as bolstering populations of threatened seabirds.

The three helicopters landing at base camp.
The three helicopters landing at base camp.

If the purpose was simple, the operation, as is the case when attempting anything on South Georgia, was not. The success of ambitious projects like this rely on tenacity in the face of adversity – and the storm that put our helicopters out of action tested us to the limit. Through determination, hard graft and persistence in incredibly harsh conditions, however, the engineers had two helicopters flying by nightfall.

Captain Cook claimed South Georgia for Britain in 1775, returning with tales of vast numbers of seals that filled its shores. This was too much for sealers to resist; just a few years later the fur seals were being decimated and the vermin, stowed away on their boats, were feasting upon ground-nesting seabirds. These birds had evolved without any land-based predators, and it would be over 200 years until the song of the South Georgia Pipit would be heard on mainland South Georgia again.

A Norwegian brown rat finds the bait irresistible.
A Norwegian brown rat finds the bait irresistible.

The history of human influence on South Georgia is a recurring cycle of overexploitation and the eventual collapse of animal populations. In 2007 a small Scottish charity, the South Georgia Heritage Trust, decided the time had come to reverse some of the damage, and began planning the largest eradication project ever attempted.

We were also running out of time. Due to global warming, South Georgia’s glaciers are retreating at a rate of up to one meter a day. Soon beaches would become exposed, allowing rats to cross to previously inaccessible parts of the island and creating areas too extensive to bait. For the project to be a success we had to eliminate all of the rats. Ninety-nine percent wouldn’t be good enough; we had to get every last one.

Achieving this on an island 165 kilometers long, famed for its vicious winds and tempestuous seas, was a huge challenge. But by 2011 a team of eradication experts and individuals experienced in polar conditions had been handpicked to rid South Georgia of rats. It was a logistical nightmare, with three helicopters, 300 tons of bait, 900 drums of fuel, 10,000 teabags and 25 members of Team Rat to be shipped to the island. Resupply was not an option.

Some of the 900 drums of aviation fuel used in the project.
Some of the 900 drums of aviation fuel used in the project.

Field camps were erected across the island; we spent months camped amongst the ruins of an abandoned whaling station, with seals and penguins wandering past our tents.  Despite pressure to complete the baiting, we could only fly in calm conditions, which are infrequent at best on South Georgia. We’d spend days cooped up in our tents.

At night our breath formed icicles on the canopies of the tent, which often crashed down, soaking our sleeping bags. The nearby streams would freeze, forcing us to break through the ice to extract drinking water. Such tasks filled our days. The creature comforts of home seemed a long way away.

King penguin colony.
King penguin colony.

As soon as the wind dropped we’d spring in to action. The helicopters hovered expertly, dangling huge bait buckets, while loaders filled them with bag after bag of bait. Pilots flew along exact GPS lines, ensuring bait fell on every bit of potential rat habitat. If even a tiny area was missed, they did it again; no rat was safe from our skilled pilots.

It took three seasons to bait every last kilometer of the island; the helicopters flew the equivalent distance of three times around the world. Our success was under constant threat from poor flying conditions, mechanical failure, an inaccessible accident or simply a missed rat.

The daily commute across the vast, wild interior of South Georgia.
The daily commute across the vast, wild interior of South Georgia.

Poor weather nearly scuppered the second season. Winter came early and huge snow dumps buried our tents and made precision bait dropping impossible. The northern end of the island put up the greatest resistance, and after weeks of waiting to drop the final bait, it went right to the wire; on the last day the weather cleared and the pilots gave it a final push. Our chief pilot Peter Garden warned it would be a close call, and that if anyone felt uncomfortable we could abort. It was tense. Somehow, we dropped the last of the bait successfully and, after a long trying day, we left feeling immense elation.

South Georgia can’t be declared rat free until it has been checked next year, but early indications are promising. South Georgia Pipit song has been heard in some areas for the first time in living memory, and nests have already been located. Project leader Tony Martin was named Conservationist of the Year, and the success of this project paves the way for eradications on other afflicted islands. In an era of increasingly despondent environmental news, this is an example of how we can positively impact the natural world.

* * *

This story originally appeared in Avauntan award-winning journal dedicated to documenting and celebrating human endeavor, from the wildest, highest, deepest, coldest and hottest corners of the Earth and beyond.

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I Changed My Name After I Was Raped

After a serious trauma, some survivors find comfort and empowerment by creating a new identity.

As I heard my bank’s customer service representative repeat my first name over and over while trying to help me solve my minor issue, I hated the way the two syllables sounded. It almost hurt my ears.

“I’m going to put you on hold for a minute, okay, Lisa?” the representative asked me in a cheerful voice, hoping to reassure me that they were handling the situation. “I’m just going to speak to my supervisor and see what we can do about resolving this for you Lisa.”

“Yes, okay,” I said through gritted teeth, holding my cell away from my face and turning on the speaker function so I could grab a glass of milk and breathe a few times before she returned, hopefully with news that she could waive the newly implemented monthly checking fee. I wanted to call through the phone, “Can you stop using my name, please?”

People generally love having their first name used when they’re in a conversation, but I flinched when mine came up. When I hung up the phone, I opened up a Facebook tab and changed my first name from “Lisa” to “Alaina,” a name I’d recently joked to my girlfriend about taking as my own.

Once the change was finalized, I panicked. No one would understand what I’d done. How would they find me? Should I think about this first? Facebook’s policy wouldn’t allow me to change my name back to the old one, so I was stuck writing an explanatory post letting everyone in my life know that I’d be socially and legally changing my first name.

This wasn’t the first time I’d considered changing my name. I brought it up to my mom when I was around seven years old, and I explained to her that I didn’t like my first name and I wanted her to let me change it. I never ended up doing that. It wasn’t until I was a freshman in college, when I survived a rape at an on-campus college party, that the change felt necessary. It was no longer about feeling like my name didn’t fit or not liking the sound of its pronunciation – this was about survival.

Even though I was only semi-conscious during the assault, I remembered distinct parts of being raped: My rapist’s hands around my throat, looking up at the ceiling above her twin XL bed, the sound of “Save Tonight” by Eagle-Eye Cherry playing faintly in the background, the empty bottles of UV Blue and Captain Morgan on my rapist’s dresser, and her voice as she repeated my name in a low rumble, almost like she was trying to lull me into complacency.

After the rape, my name felt like a reminder of the assault, particularly when it was used in romantic and sexual contexts. Even professors calling on me in class and customer service representatives verifying my information sometimes made me dissociate; it felt almost like I’d left my own body and was watching myself through a camera lens or from underwater or in a hazy dream. I was never officially diagnosed, but my therapist in college and I talked about the possibility that I have PTSD from the assault. I had a panic attack at the first college house party I went to after it happened, because seeing my female friends drunk off cheap liquor in red cups with guys touching their butts without asking made me wish the world would open up and swallow me whole. When someone who looked like my rapist, all freckles and red hair, bumped into me on a city bus, I almost started crying. And I’d be in the midst of making love with my partner when the sound of her sensual voice crying out my name would leave me shaking, gripping her back tightly with my nails and trying to pretend I could fight the instinct to hide. We’d always been into role playing in bed, but I requested acting as someone else more times than I can count after my assault just because I didn’t want to hear my name said during sex.

Just over two years after I was raped, changing my name felt like a logical next step in overcoming my trauma. I’d made the conscious decision to work on my reactions to sensory impressions like sounds, noises, and imagery that I associated with the assault, and I could now blast “Save Tonight” in my 1998 dark green Buick Century to drown out the sound of Western Massachusetts potholes scraping my tires without even a brief nod to the March night when I was assaulted. I could drink UV Blue and Captain Morgan at any college party I went to without hesitation. I still wasn’t exactly comfortable with someone else’s hands on my neck, but that was a trigger I wasn’t eager to break. My name was the final frontier. No matter how much practice I had enjoying consensual romance with my girlfriend, who was respectful and looked to me for guidance, I couldn’t shake the feeling of dread that hearing my name brought.

Rachel Kazez, therapist and founder of All Along – a Chicago-based organization that helps patients find appropriate mental health care – says that a name change, whether legal or social or both, can be a powerful tool for survivors. “During a trauma, someone’s agency is very quickly taken from them. Getting that sense of control back is really important,” she says. “If there’s a trauma that occurs where the perpetrator was using the person’s name, they might want to go by a nickname or use a middle name instead.”

Kazez explains that survivors need to remember that a name change or another quick and dramatic change won’t fix the trauma or erase what happened. As long as the survivor is working on healing long-term, however, a name change can be an aspect of that process. “Our name is one of the first things we use to introduce ourselves to people,” she says. “It’s about control, choice, and reclaiming yourself.” Kazez also believes that the drastic shift involved in a name change – suddenly going by a new name – can mirror the suddenness of experiencing trauma, and might be particularly cathartic for some survivors.

When I first made the change, part of me hoped that adopting a new name would erase the night I was raped, and the memories associated with my rapist. “I think on some level I hoped the perfect name would unlock something for me, open a door away from myself into a safer place,” says Isobel O’Hare, a poet and essayist who changed her full name, first, middle, and last, during the middle of her MFA program after she survived childhood sexual abuse and adult abusive relationships. “I wondered what it would do to me to have this second name, whether I’d simply chosen another form of dissociation rather than dealing head-on with reality. Now I feel differently. I think choosing a name for myself gave me enough distance from the past to heal without becoming untethered. It was me claiming my own space and choosing my creative self over addiction and stagnation.”

Every time I did have to remind someone to call me Alaina, it was like asserting my consent in small daily situations: This is my name, and you’re going to call me by it. When my cousin and her husband visited from Texas, he struggled to get my name right at a family party at my aunt and uncle’s house. The first few times, I made eye contact and gently reminded him, “It’s Alaina.” He’d correct himself, use Alaina, and then a sentence later, make the mistake again. I started to teeter on the edge of panic, like I often did when people dead named me – used my former name without my consent – multiple times in a row. So I focused on the grandfather clock in the corner of the room and made minimal eye contact, nodding and saying, “Mhm” instead of further the conversation. For the first year or so after the change, I wore a bracelet with my name on it every single day. That was my reminder that, no matter what other people said, my name was my choice. I looked at that bracelet every time he slipped up. I wasn’t rude, but I didn’t give him any open opportunities to use the wrong name.

The next time he saw me, several months later, he started the conversation by calling me Alaina and didn’t make a single mistake.

The first few weeks and months of my social name change were the rockiest. As resolute as I felt – I sent in the required legal paperwork within a week of making the choice – it felt impossible to get people I’d known for years to break their habits. I was exhausted by constantly reminding people, “It’s Alaina now,” and re-introducing myself every time I ran into a former classmate, old friend of the family, or distant relative. My short explanation felt paltry in comparison to the magnitude of this decision: “I guess it’s been awhile since I’ve seen you, but just to let you know, I made the decision to change my name to Alaina in June of this year. I’ve never felt comfortable with my old name, and I would really appreciate it if you can call me Alaina going forward. I’m happy to remind you politely if you’d prefer.”

Sahar Dorani, a licensed clinical psychologist in the Bay Area of California, changed her last name after surviving family trauma when her father stole her identity and had an affair outside of his marriage. “I needed to emotionally and legally distance myself,” she says. She took her mother’s maiden name. “Even though it broke my father’s heart, I had to remain true to myself and carry a name that I was most proud of. I feel good about my choice.”

I was lucky that none of my friends or family members objected to my name change. It took my dad a few days to adjust, but after we had a discussion about how hearing my name was difficult for me, he was willing to try his best.

“I was worried that my classmates would think I was pretty self-absorbed to expect them to start calling me something completely different,” O’Hare says. “I was surprised when they not only adopted the new name, but did so with great joy like they were traveling with me on an important voyage.”

One of my best friends, Krista, is a soft-spoken introvert whose life is often defined by habits, such as how she leaves her house at exactly the same time every day in order to be “the right amount of early” to her obligations. “I’ve been practicing your name,” was one of the first things she told me when she saw me after my announcement. “If I slip up, I’m really sorry. I’ve been repeating it to myself for weeks.” She didn’t make a mistake once.

As the years passed, fewer and fewer people referred to me by the wrong name, and when it did happen, it was so occasional that it didn’t ignite a floodgate of panic exploding inside me, it didn’t make me dissociate to escape painful memories of my assault. Watching my friends and family get it right – and seeing them correct others, like when one of my best friends, Desiree, a future attorney who respected my legal decision the moment I announced it, would assertively remind her forgetful Portuguese mother that she can’t call me “Lisa” anymore because that’s not my name – made my heart sing.

Initially, I worried that my name change wouldn’t change my life, and in many ways, it didn’t. After a period of adjustment, my name no longer feels like a proclamation of reclaiming my consent or my identity, it just feels like who I am. And hearing my former name doesn’t often fill me with dread; instead, I’ll stare blankly and forget to respond because I hear “Lisa,” and think, “Who are they talking to?”

 

 

The U.S. Tested 67 Nuclear Bombs in Their Country. Now They’re Dying in Oklahoma.

After a series of military experiments devastated their homeland, Marshall Islands residents were permitted to immigrate to the U.S. But they didn’t know their American dream came with a catch.

This article is the winner of Narratively’s inaugural Untold Story Award contest. We scoured the world for important stories about under-the-radar people and communities, looking for pieces that deserved in-depth, long-term reporting. Our esteemed panel of judges chose to assign this story.

Lately, Terry Mote has been going to a lot of funerals. There were at least five in the early spring, sometimes on consecutive weekends. The elderly get sicker when the weather changes, he’s noticed – though the friends dying lately aren’t all that old, and they aren’t dying just because of the weather.

One breezy evening in April, on a weekend with no funeral, Mote’s kitchen filled with steam and the snapping sound of hot oil. He’d driven a hundred miles the previous day, to Oklahoma City, to buy bitter melon and small fish that he placed delicately into the frying pan with a pair of tongs. They were among the things he missed from the Marshall Islands, where he grew up. Fresh seafood is hard to find in the dry, windy city where he lives now – Enid, Oklahoma, a hunkered-down prairie town at the eastern edge of the Great Plains.

To Mote (pronounced “mo-tay”), a hundred miles isn’t so far. For some 2,000 years, his ancestors found their way in the 750,000 square miles of south Pacific Ocean punctuated by the narrow coral islets that make up the Marshall Islands. They navigated by the stars, charts made of sticks, and a mysterious technique for reading patterns in the water, known as wave piloting. In more recent years, about a third of all Marshallese – some 20,000 people – have made a further journey, across the Pacific to the United States. Mote is one of them.

Many leave the islands in search of the same things as other migrants – work, education, health care. But an unusual shadow trails the Marshallese. Following the Second World War, the United States used the islands as a testing ground for its nuclear weapons program, detonating more than 60 bombs over a dozen years. The largest, the “Castle Bravo” test, blew a crater 6,510 feet wide in the lagoon of Bikini Atoll and ignited a fireball visible from 250 miles away. Children on neighboring islands played in the ashy fallout, which fell like snow from the sky.

Today, thanks to a treaty signed when the Marshall Islands gained independence from the U.S. in 1986, Marshallese citizens are allowed to live and work in the States. Between 2000 and 2010, the number here grew by 237 percent. This mass migration is driven in part by poverty and lack of services in the islands. But it’s also a legacy of the U.S. occupation and the various damages it left behind. And it’s accelerated by climate change, which has started to drown the low-lying archipelago.

Momie Louis shows Terry Mote her passport in the Enid Public Library. Mote takes time off work to help Marshallese residents fill out applications for work permits and register for driver’s licenses.

Terry Mote arrived in Enid in 2007, after spending two nights at the airport in Honolulu, eating from vending machines while he waited for a standby spot on a flight east. Coming to the U.S. was just a matter of saving money for the plane ticket; the door was open. It was only once he arrived that he realized how many other doors lay between him and the life he’d imagined. It was as if he’d been locked in the hallway of a beautiful house: inside, but not really.

Mote and many other Marshallese in the U.S. live in a precarious state of in-between. Granted residency but not citizenship, the Marshallese have virtually no political influence and rank as the single poorest ethnic group in the U.S. In 1996, the Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act of 1996 (or welfare reform) eliminated federal health care funding for Marshallese by excluding them from the group of “qualified aliens” who are eligible for benefits. That means that Marshallese citizens who live, work and pay taxes in the U.S. are ineligible for Medicaid and Medicare unless states opt to provide it. Oklahoma has not done so.

Mote loves Enid, but life is more difficult than he anticipated. Rent and groceries are expensive, and there is the problem of the funerals. Few of the elderly Marshallese in the city live into their 70s, according to Mote and other residents I spoke with. Instead, they’re dying young – of diabetes, kidney failure and heart disease, illnesses they might have been able to manage under other circumstances. Often they leave behind families saddled with medical debt.

Mote described the struggle in his community as part of a legacy of broken promises made by the U.S. – promises that the islanders displaced by the nuclear program would be able to return; that those relocated or sickened would be provided for; that the testing was for “the good of mankind.” America tested 67 nuclear bombs in the islands, Mote reminded me. “Then they’re just going to let us die over here?”

* * *

The way Mote tells it, he chased an old car tire to Oklahoma. He grew up in a town called Arrack in Majuro Atoll, a ring of 64 volcanic islands. He and his 13 siblings lived packed into a small house made of wood scraps painted various colors and collected by his father, a construction worker. There was no electricity, and when it rained, water came through chinks in the walls. Mote’s father often drank away his paycheck. “If we were lucky, there was food,” Mote recalled.

Mote was close with his mother; she taught him to cook and to weave, tasks usually reserved for women. He walked to school, several miles one way down the skinny island’s single road. Sometimes he walked all the way home for lunch. When there was no food at home he climbed coconut trees. One day on his way to school he picked up a tire. He rolled it down the road, and ran after it. He did the same thing on the way home, and the day after, and the day after that, chasing the tire back and forth. Time flew quickly that way. Mote himself became faster, until he was the fastest runner in his school. Years later, he would represent the Marshall Islands at the Micronesian Olympic Games, and ran on the 4×400 relay team that still holds his country’s record.

Mote is 41 now, with a round face and a demeanor that shifts between earnestness and jest. He is one of nearly 3,000 Marshallese living in Enid, a town of 51,000 built on oil and wheat. Marshallese citizens’ special status in the U.S. is based on a treaty called the Compact of Free Association (COFA). In exchange for giving the U.S. military control of their territory, COFA allows citizens of the Marshall Islands (and of the Federated States of Micronesia and Palau; collectively they are known as the Freely Associated States) to move to the U.S. and work without visas or green cards. The thousands who have taken advantage of the treaty have formed tight-knit communities in Springdale, Arkansas; Costa Mesa, California; Spokane, Washington; Salem, Oregon; and elsewhere. In Enid, there’s work in meat processing plants and at big box stores.

Before moving to the U.S., Mote worked as a curator at a museum, traveling to outer islands to collect folktales. His first job in Enid was at the circulation desk of the public library. That’s where I first met him, on a warm March afternoon. He wore beige slacks, a red and white checked shirt, and wire-rimmed glasses. He carried his briefcase, in which he keeps copies of his family’s official documents. It was Saturday, and he was helping several young Marshallese men fill out applications for work permits. Mote works for the county health department as a translator and adviser. He also acts as an emissary between the Marshallese in Enid – many of whom don’t speak English – and the rest of the city. In effect, he’s become his community’s public representative.

By American standards, Enid is wholly ordinary: a quiet, sprawled city of single-story homes on grassy lots, with a modest stretch of shops and restaurants downtown. There’s a symphony orchestra, a local newspaper and a number of churches. Grain elevators, meatpacking plants, and strip malls border the town before it falls away into farmland; to the south lies Vance Air Force Base. Enid was once home to the now-closed Phillips University, a religious school responsible for drawing the first Marshallese to the town in the 1970s. To newcomers from the humid islands, however, landlocked Enid is plenty strange, starting with the weather. Several other residents told me, in varying tones of incredulity, about seeing Marshallese walking through the snow in flip-flops.

Most of the islanders in Enid live on the city’s eastern flank. On a wide thoroughfare there, sandwiched between a defunct pharmacy and a long-closed auto supply shop, is a squat brick building housing the Enid Community Clinic. The clinic provides limited care to the uninsured, free of charge, funded largely by an annual charity ball. The staff volunteer their time. Aside from emergency rooms and another charity clinic, it is the only source of care available to many in Enid’s Marshallese community.

Inside the clinic I met Daina Joseia, a 63-year-old woman wearing a loose, floral-print dress of a style worn by many Marshallese women. Joseia smiled easily, but she seemed frail and tired. She moved to Enid in 1999, seeking care for various physical ailments – too many for me to write down, she said. Once she arrived, she found she couldn’t afford insurance. She often feels scared or ashamed to see a doctor because she’s uninsured, but she’s sick enough that she can’t avoid it. She has a lot of bills to pay. The day we met, Joseia had a large sore on her back.

School nurse Karry Easterly checks on Jorine John, age five, who has come to school with rashes on her face and arms. Unless Marshallese children were born in the U.S., they are unable to receive Medicaid in Oklahoma.

Joseia believes her ill health might be connected to something she saw in the islands when she was a little girl: an enormous flash of light, she told me through an interpreter, “a real bright color, like a fire.” It wasn’t until she was an adult that she understood what she’d seen.

Between 1946 and 1958, the United States tested 67 nuclear bombs on or near two atolls at the northern end of the Marshall Islands – an area that became known as the Pacific Proving Grounds. The largest weapons test, a hydrogen bomb set off on Bikini Atoll in 1954, detonated with more than a thousand times the power of the bomb dropped on Hiroshima during World War II. Though Bikini Atoll had been evacuated, the wind blew radioactive fallout onto several inhabited islands, and perhaps much further away. (A few days later, a doctor in Tennessee reported that cattle in the state showed unusually high levels of radioactivity in their thyroids.) Officially, the U.S. claimed only three inhabited islands were seriously affected by fallout from Bravo. But an internal report declassified in the 1990s suggested that radiation from that and subsequent tests may have affected as many as 13 atolls.

On neighboring islands, many health effects were immediate: radiation burns, damage to stomach linings, low blood cell counts. Others surfaced gradually in the following months and years. Rates of leukemia, breast cancer, and thyroid cancer rose. Children were born deformed, or had their growth stunted.

“In a nation that lacks a single oncologist or cancer treatment facility, the Marshallese experience extremely high rates of cancer; degenerative conditions associated with radiation exposure; miscarriage and infertility; and, the birth of congenitally deformed children,” environmental anthropologist Barbara Rose Johnston wrote in a 2013 report on the legacy of the tests. According to a 2012 report by a special rapporteur for the U.N., those health issues were “exacerbated by near-irreversible environmental contamination,” which in turn led to “indefinite displacement” for many Marshallese.

According to Dr. Neal Palafox, a cancer specialist at the University of Hawaii who worked in the Marshall Islands for nearly a decade, the weapons testing damaged more than flesh and bone. It constituted a form of cultural trauma, too. Palafox believes the U.S. chose to conduct the testing where it did because residents had little power to push back. “Not for a second does anybody believe that there was any kind of informed consent,” Palafox said in an interview. There is some evidence the U.S. knew that the winds had shifted before the Bravo test in a direction that endangered inhabited islands, yet proceeded anyway. Afterward, many of the people most heavily exposed to the Bravo fallout became test subjects in Project 4.1, a classified medical study of radiation exposure run by the U.S. government. Later in 1954, the Congress of the Marshall Islands requested a halt to the testing, which the U.S. rejected on the grounds that the islanders “had no medical reason to expect any permanent after-effects on the general health of the inhabitants.”

Joseia remembers the sickness that followed the bright light. She remembers women giving birth to babies that “didn’t look like human beings.” One man I met in Enid described infants born looking “like jellyfish.” Another woman, Joelynn Karben, told me she remembered infants born after the nuclear tests as incoherent lumps of flesh, like bunches of grapes. Her own brother was born missing part of his skull, and her mother died from what she thinks was thyroid cancer.

The bombings are deeply etched in the islands’ collective memory, and some people I met in Enid blamed them for all manner of illnesses. It’s impossible to say which, if any, of Joseia’s health issues are directly related. The sore she had on her back the day we met was actually a symptom of her diabetes, a nurse told me later – though that, too, is linked to the U.S. military presence in the islands, specifically to the dietary changes that accompanied imports of processed, sugary foods.

More than 90 percent of the food in the Marshall Islands is imported from the U.S. now. Before the U.S. occupation, the Marshallese ate mostly fish, breadfruit, coconut, and pandanus, a knobby fruit resembling a large pinecone. World War II and the nuclear testing that followed damaged local crops and created a stigma around local foods, which residents of islands affected by fallout had been warned by the U.S. not to eat. Some people were forced to relocate to desolate islands where growing food was impossible. Imported white rice, canned meats, refined sugar, and other cheap, processed foods filled the gap. Diabetes rates soared.

* * *

In Enid, it seemed like almost everyone I met had diabetes. In fact, the Marshallese have the second highest rate of Type II diabetes in the world. While the illness can be controlled, it becomes gruesome if not properly managed. Complications can escalate to blindness, nerve damage, and serious infections, which can require amputation.

Joseia’s diabetes is acute. Her kidneys are failing, and she needs dialysis. But there’s nowhere for her to get it in Enid without insurance. When her condition gets bad enough she can be admitted to an emergency room – but only in a crisis.

The Marshallese diet is heavy on white rice, pasta, and canned meats. This is in part traced back to the fact that the bombings ruined the traditional island foods, and Marshallese grew up eating processed foods imported to the islands by the U.S. Today, they have one of the highest rates of type two diabetes in the world.

“If she drinks lots of water and takes care of her diabetes, she could be around for a while. But that may not happen,” said Janet Cordell, the nurse who runs the community clinic. Cordell is a frank, energetic woman of 69, with short-shorn gray hair and pale olive-green eyes. Besides Joseia, she has two other patients with failing kidneys and no access to dialysis.

Born and raised in Oklahoma, Cordell has worked with the Marshallese since the 1980s. At first, most of the Marshallese she met in Enid were young people who’d come for college or to start families in the U.S. Now the elderly are following, many hoping for more advanced medical care than what is offered in the islands. Without a way to pay for that care, what they’re really doing is “coming to die,” Cordell said.

With patients, Cordell exercises a practiced blend of patience and bossiness. Many doctors get frustrated with their Marshallese patients, and consider them “noncompliant,” she said. Cordell prefers to describe them as “non-interventional.” For both financial and cultural reasons, they’re unlikely to go to the doctor or take medicine unless they’re very ill, which makes preventative care and managing chronic conditions like diabetes particularly challenging. Many of the conditions Cordell’s Marshallese patients seek treatment for, including diabetes, are diseases associated with poverty. Though she’s seen a handful of cases of leprosy and tuberculosis, most of the illnesses she treats aren’t unusual – they’re just more severe, because treatment is often delayed or interrupted.

Janet Cordell visits Jorvain Aiden, age 70, in her home in Enid, Oklahoma. She regularly visits the homes of the Marshallese in Enid to assist with residents’ health issues.

But Marshallese also bear the rare burden of radiation-related illness. Cancer kills more Marshallese citizens than any other disease but diabetes, and according to a 2004 report by the U.S. National Cancer Institute, it is likely some radiation-related cancers have yet to develop or be diagnosed in people who lived on the islands between 1948 and 1970.

While Cordell and I were speaking, another elderly woman with diabetes came into the clinic. She didn’t speak English, but a man accompanying her explained that she’d moved to another city, and hadn’t seen a doctor in three years. She was starting to go blind. Cordell checked her charts. The woman had come to the clinic once before, in 2014, when she’d been diagnosed. According to the charts, she’d never returned for a follow-up appointment.

“It is very challenging, taking care of the Marshallese,” Cordell told me later, with a long sigh. She makes a lot of home visits, bringing patients their lab results or dropping off prescriptions – though sometimes it’s hard to find the person she’s looking for, because Marshallese families in Enid move frequently. Cordell doesn’t schedule appointments in the mornings, knowing that many operate on “island time,” meaning late. She maintains a small roster of doctors who will sometimes see uninsured patients with serious conditions for free. She is blunt with her patients about the risks of foregoing care. “I don’t sugarcoat it a lot,” she admitted. “I usually will just say, ‘If you don’t come back, or if you don’t go to wound care, they will have to cut your foot off.’ I know that sounds like scare tactics, but it isn’t. It’s just a fact.”

Cordell, while forgiving of her patients, reserves her frustration for America’s health care system. In the 1980s and early ’90s, Marshallese had access to Medicaid and Medicare through COFA, before losing it in the welfare reform package. The change in status was confusing, particularly for people who had and then lost coverage. Oklahoma legislators could “get off their butts,” Cordell said, and use state funds to insure low-income people who’ve migrated under COFA, as Oregon did in 2016. But Cordell finds that hard to imagine, since state legislators have refused to expand Medicaid even to citizens under the Affordable Care Act.

The insurance gap ripples out to the whole city. It increases the load on local emergency rooms, and makes it harder to contain contagious illnesses. “We’re one of the only civilized countries that doesn’t have [universal] health care. That’s ridiculous. It is ridiculous,” Cordell said flatly. “They don’t care down in Oklahoma City.”

* * *

Bringing Oklahoma’s growing Marshallese community to the attention of state lawmakers is one of Terry Mote’s projects. Marshallese living in the U.S. can’t vote (unless they go through the lengthy process to become citizens), and as a result they have no political representation. “We’ve been absent from community involvement for some years,” he said. “We’re quiet people.” In 2015, Mote founded the Micronesia Coalition – a group of more than two dozen Marshallese pastors, community leaders, schools, and health care experts, aimed at improving the health and wellbeing of Enid’s Marshallese. In 2016, Mote helped organize a trip to the state capitol to lobby for expanding insurance coverage. “It was a historical moment for the Marshallese community,” Mote told me proudly.

Mote had an ally in the state Senate: Republican Patrick Anderson, whose district included Enid. Anderson introduced bills in 2015 and 2016 to give COFA migrants state-funded insurance coverage, modeled on the legislation enacted in Oregon. But the bills languished, and never received a vote. Anderson retired last year.

His successor, Roland Pederson, told me he “wasn’t really aware of the situation” regarding Enid’s Marshallese population until recently. “I know they’re a vital part of the Enid community, and provide a huge workforce,” he said. “I would just say that I haven’t really reached out and connected with them.” Pederson added that he’s committed to learning more and being a representative for the community, and he sounded genuinely curious as he asked me a number of questions about the challenges they face. Pederson said he wasn’t opposed to extending health benefits to COFA migrants – but he thought the money should come from the federal government, since it was a federal law that originally cut off their benefits.

On June 21, Hawaii’s congressional delegation introduced legislation to restore Medicaid coverage for citizens of the Freely Associated States (FAS). “We have a moral obligation to provide FAS citizens living in Hawaii and across our country with access to medical care,” Senator Mazie Hirono said in a statement. The legislation is one of more than 20 similar bills introduced in Congress since 2001. The Republican congressional majority is not likely to embrace an expansion of the program anytime soon; instead, the GOP has proposed deep cuts to Medicaid as part of its rewrite of the Affordable Care Act.

According to a 2013 analysis by the Congressional Budget Office, covering COFA migrants through Medicaid would cost $20 million a year. That’s less than a twelfth of the cost of a single, $244 million weapons test conducted in May involving a simulated threat missile launched from the U.S. base on Kwajalein atoll in the Marshall Islands.

* * *

Mote spends a lot of time in the car. Two nights before he went to Oklahoma City in search of bitter melon, he drove an hour west of Enid to meet with a Marshallese couple who’d asked for help navigating a marital issue. The next morning, as he got back in the car to take me to meet other Marshallese families, his eyes were bloodshot from lack of sleep.

We spent the morning driving around town, criss-crossing railroad tracks, searching for people who’d moved since Mote last visited them. Enid’s enormous grain elevators slipped in and out of view on the horizon. All together, the pale concrete towers can hold more than 65 million bushels of wheat. “Where the wheat grows and the oil flows” is the town’s old tagline. But many of the elevators stand empty now, and the collapse of oil prices in late 2014 and 2015 hit the city hard.

After knocking on a number of doors we finally found the home of Stanley Jamor and his wife, Lorit. Jamor’s family was relocated from Bikini Atoll in anticipation of the nuclear testing, and split up on different islands. Some inhabitants of Bikini were sent first to Rongerik Atoll, a barren island so sparsely vegetated that they soon began to starve. Then they were moved to a tent camp beside a U.S. airstrip on another island. Many Bikinians, including Jamor’s parents, ultimately ended up on the small island of Kili.

In 1968, the U.S. government told the former residents of Bikini their island was safe to return to. “There’s virtually no radiation left and we can find no discernible effect on either plant or animal life,” declared the U.S. Atomic Energy Commission. About 150 people living on Kili returned to Bikini in the early 1970s – only to be re-evacuated in 1978 when testing revealed “incredible” concentrations (in the words of the U.S. Interior Department) of the radioactive element cesium 137 in their bodies.

Today, Kili is barely habitable for the 700 or so people who still live there. Unlike other atolls ringed around calm lagoons, Kili is a solitary island buffeted on both sides by waves that make fishing and sailing all but impossible in the stormy season. There is little space on the 200-acre island for farming, and so most food is shipped in.

Rising seas attributed to climate change pose a more vexing problem. Flooding has become a regular nuisance on Kili and throughout the Marshall Islands, where the average elevation is less than six feet above sea level. Saltwater seeps into the groundwater, already depleted by drought, and ruins crops. Majuro, the capital, has been alternately parched and drowned. In 2016, the capital had to ration water, and several times it’s been saturated by king tides – high, predictable tides that rarely touched Majuro in the past. On the narrow, flat islands, there’s no high ground to retreat to. The rising water is coming even for the dead. Graveyards near the coastline have eroded, headstones and bones washed out to sea. For people living on Kili and other islands, migration might one day be a necessity rather than a choice.

Jamor, who is 41, left Kili so his children could get a better education – the island doesn’t have a high school – and for better medical care. Theirs was one of the families that lost Medicaid coverage when it was stripped from the Marshallese in the 1996 welfare reform act. Jamor is still frustrated and angry about the loss. Like other Marshallese who work in the U.S., he’s paid taxes – and he believes that the U.S. owes his family and others for the damage and disruption of the nuclear testing. “The promise is broken,” he said, matter-of-factly. “America promised the people of Bikini they would take care of them.”

(A Nuclear Claims Tribunal, funded by Congress and overseen by Marshallese judges, was established in 1988 to compensate victims of the nuclear testing. But as of 2009, with more than $45 million still owed, the fund had been depleted. Even if fully funded, it’s not clear families like Jamors’ would qualify.)

Jamor used to work for the meat-processing company AdvancePierre, cleaning machines in the middle of the night. But when we spoke he was struggling to find a full-time job with health benefits. He and his wife were living with their three children and several grandchildren. One of his sons works at Advance, as the family calls it, and is the sole earner in the household.

Meatpacking, which provides some of the most readily available jobs for the Marshallese in Enid, is brutal work. “It’s cold, cold, cold,” said a woman named Joelynn Karben whose first job in Enid was at one of the refrigerated processing facilities. The job required her to stand for hours, and sometimes her hands got so stiff that she went to the bathroom and held them under hot water. She worked for four months before quitting. “I’ll never go back there again,” she vowed.

* * *

Fellow Marshallese started asking for Mote’s help years ago, while he was serving as a pastor at his church. He fielded a steady stream of requests for help paying for groceries, rent, medical care, and with navigating bureaucratic hurdles in the way of driver’s licenses or work permits. Because he was a pastor, people shared troubles with him that they were too ashamed to confide in their friends.

His family had their own difficulties. Mote worked for years to bring his mother, wife and kids to Enid, skipping lunches to save money for their airfare. His mother is diabetic, and she had to be hospitalized once for severe respiratory problems. She was also uninsured. Soon Mote began receiving collection notices for thousands of dollars. He was shocked. “My family, we never had anything. And we never owed anything to anyone,” he said.

Health care in the Marshall Islands is limited, but it is provided by the government. Mote hadn’t understood that higher-quality care in the U.S. came at such a price. He was working as an interpreter for the Enid police, helping the department communicate with Marshallese families, many of whom didn’t speak English. He was living paycheck to paycheck. There was no way he could pay his mother’s bills. At night he was afraid to fall asleep, because he thought someone might come to arrest him.

The realization that seemingly all of the Marshallese families in Enid had the same struggles as his own family was, for Mote, “emotional.” The community bore its burdens in silence. Who was there to complain to?

The Marshallese and the white community in Enid run like railroad tracks, parallel to one another. Religion glues each together, but for the most part they worship at separate churches. There are few Marshallese-owned businesses in town, save for one beauty parlor. “We do our own thing. We don’t really get out,” said a 28-year-old woman named Nerum who I met at the community clinic.

A residential street in Enid, Oklahoma.

The separateness leads to stereotyping, and even wild speculation. When I asked a bartender in Enid if she ever interacted with people from the islands, she laughed. “They live with, like, 20 people to a house. The women have hair down to their waists, and they wear flip-flops in the snow,” she offered. A man whose family has been in Enid for generations told me he’s heard rumors that Marshallese couples are polygamous, because it’s hard to tell who’s married to whom in households where a number of relatives live under the same roof. Quickly, he added, “I’m not saying it’s true, or that I believe it.” (While polygamy was once practiced on the islands, it’s no longer condoned.)

“Some people don’t know who we are,” Joelynn Karben said simply when I asked her about the relationship between the Marshallese community and other Enid residents. If one person makes a mistake, everyone is blamed for it, she told me. She referred to a drunk driving incident in February, in which a young Marshallese man hit and killed a local teacher while fleeing from police; online comments she saw later made her feel that the whole community had been indicted. Similar finger pointing occurred during an outbreak of typhoid fever in 2015.

But the tracks do cross, particularly in Enid’s schools. One morning I listened to Enid High School’s “Multi-Cultural Choir,” composed mainly of Marshallese students, rehearse. They sang the national anthem of the Marshall Islands and a few other songs. Later, during a lull in class, a few boys clustered together and sang Marshallese songs in perfect three- and four-part harmonies, led by one boy with a ukelele.

Later, I met Joan McIntyre, the high school’s head nurse. She reckons she’s the primary source of medical care for many of the Marshallese students. They get sick with the same things other kids do, she said, but their symptoms are worse, and they take longer to recover. McIntyre treats a lot of infections: cuts and boils that go untreated, and fester. While we were speaking she received a note about a student with a “lemon-sized” swelling under her eye, which she deemed “pretty typical.”

“Not necessarily Marshallese, but anybody who doesn’t have access to medical care, they let things go,” McIntyre said. “These people are very, very poor, and so they don’t have access to insurance, and they don’t have the money to go to a doctor. Or if they do go to a doctor they don’t have the money to get the prescription.” She believes the U.S. has a responsibility to provide care to the Marshallese: “I feel very strongly about that, because the issues they have are not going to go away.”

* * *

Mote is an optimistic guy, and a relentless jokester. He claims that “tired” is not part of his vocabulary. He hesitates to speak badly about anyone.

But watching Enid’s Marshallese families get sick so often, listening to them fret about coming up with rent money, going to all the funerals – it does wear on him. He constantly fields requests for help, but there’s only so much he can do; his toehold in the city bureaucracy is still tenuous. He’d like to run for a seat on the city council, but without citizenship he’s ineligible. Mote believes that if Oklahomans understood more about the history and culture of the islands, they might be more sympathetic to the plight of their people. But he also acknowledges that Enid, which is more than 80 percent white, “has a lot of issues with race” to overcome first.

“I don’t want to blame someone,” Mote said, when I asked what he thought the U.S. owed the Marshallese. “But yes, I feel frustrated sometimes, to see all these people getting sick every day, dying every day… If the state is not going to help us, and the government is not listening to us, who will help us?” He went on, “Do we just scatter our stuff and leave Oklahoma?”

Terry Mote prays at the beginning of a class he teaches to the youth group at the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints in Enid, Oklahoma.

The day after picking up melon and fish from Oklahoma City, Mote invited me over for dinner, and to meet his family. When I arrived, sunlight was raking the grass of his front lawn. His mother sat in the kitchen peeling oranges; his wife stood at the sink, cleaning the fish. His son, Oakie – named for the state he was born in – confirmed that his father does a fair share of the cooking, adding that he’d made corned beef hash the previous night.

As the fish sizzled, Mote told me a Marshallese legend, about how his people learned to sail. One day, long ago, the twelve sons of a woman named Loktanur decided to race their canoes to determine who would be the next chief. As the young men prepared their boats for the race, Loktanur approached with a large bundle in her arms. She asked her eldest son, Timur, to carry her with him. But Timur worried that her heavy load would slow him down, and he refused. So did the next-eldest, and the next, and so on, until she got to her youngest son, Jebro, who agreed to take her in his boat.

The brothers took off, paddling furiously. Loktanur unwrapped her bundle. It was a sail. She helped Jebro to hoist it, and taught him to tack, and the wind pushed his canoe far ahead of his brothers’. So it was that Jebro became the chief – and, later, took up residence in the night sky as the constellation some know as the Pleiades, where he guides other sailors of the Marshall Islands.

I asked Mote what the story meant to him. He looked at me in surprise. I expected him to say something about generosity, about kindness. Instead, he said simply, “Take care of your mother.”

 

 

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.”

* * *

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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