The Original San Francisco Eccentric

A nineteenth century gold rusher built a fortune, lost it all, then declared himself Emperor of the United States — and got all of San Francisco to play along.

‘The Emperor is Dead’ screamed the front-page headline of the San Francisco Chronicle on the morning of January 9, 1880. “On the reeking pavement,” the ensuing obituary lamented, “in the darkness of a moonless night under the dripping rain, Norton I, by the grace of God, Emperor of the United States, departed this life.”

If you were to believe the history books and the immigration records, Joshua Abraham Norton was born in 1818 in the London borough of Deptford to parents John and Sarah. Two years later, he and his young Jewish family disembarked from the vessel La Belle Alliance at the Cape of Good Hope in South Africa as part of the group now referred to as the “1820 Settlers” — Africa’s first British colonialists.

But if you were to instead believe the dubious final words of the man himself, Joshua Abraham Norton was a crown prince to the throne of France; the grandchild of royal refugees who had fled from the blood-soaked guillotines of the revolution; a descendant of King Henry IV and the great House of Bourbon. Norton claimed to have fled to Cape Town to escape certain assassination. Though there is no worldly proof that he had any blood running through his veins other than that of Jewish-British emigrants, Norton, through his sixty-one years of mortal existence, maintained a story of grandeur.

* * *

In the late afternoon of November 23, 1849, the Franzeska departed South Africa for San Francisco, with thirty-one-year-old Joshua Norton among the “forty-niners” heeding the call of fortune crammed inside its hull. Nine thousand miles away in the foothills of California’s Sierra Nevada Mountains, the gold rush was in full swing. Some 300,000 fortune hunters bolted for the Golden State.

Norton had a $40,000 inheritance in his portmanteau, left to him by his father as the sole heir following the death of his parents and two brothers from various causes.

As the ship neared its destination, Norton marveled at the glory of the Golden Gate: the herds of deer galloping through the fields near the edges of both shores; the huts, tents and small buildings at the base of the Gate mountain; and the beauty of the bay as it opened up before him. A forest of crooked masts cluttered the wharf. In “Norton I, Emperor of the United States,” biographer William Drury describes over four hundred ships, schooners and brigs all rusted at the anchor, abandoned by their crews and officers for the promised fortune of the gold rush. The ships bobbed up and down in the water like floating tombstones. The juxtaposition was jarring to Norton, the natural magnificence offset by the greed and the restlessness.

Norton wasn’t interested in panning for gold, however. Using some of his inheritance, he founded Joshua Norton & Company, General Merchants alongside a young shipping clerk from Baltimore named Peter Robertson. The two found a modest mud-brick cottage near the water in San Francisco and set up a shop selling panning equipment to other forty-niners. Norton also bought an old ship named Genessee that was anchored in Yerba Buena Cove and used it to house surplus merchandise.

Norton acquired parcels of land on the corners of Sansome and Jackson, where he opened a cigar factory, built a small wood-framed office building and opened the first rice mill on the Pacific coast, a primitive affair powered by a mule circling a ship wheel. He bought several lots by Rincon Point, where the value of land increased dramatically when the Pacific Mail Steamship Company built a passenger terminal and warehouse nearby. Norton was making good use of his father’s $40,000: He hobnobbed with San Francisco’s business and social elite and was a charter member of the Occidental Lodge #22 of the Freemasons. By 1852, only three short years since his arrival in San Francisco, his assets were estimated to be worth a quarter of a million dollars ($5 million today): a fortune fit for a Bourbon prince. But he still wanted more.

San Francisco, along with Norton’s mill, received the majority of their rice shipments from China. But when famine struck China late in 1852, the Chinese government put a strict ban on all rice exporting. In America, scarcity drove the price from four cents a pound up to thirty-six. Norton’s rice mill mule ceased to plod. There was no rice to be had. That’s when a merchant named Willy Sillem offered Norton an opportunity to corner the rice market once and for all. Sillem represented the Ruiz Brothers, who owned a ship called the Glyde, which had been sitting in the harbor, unable to dock because of bad weather, with 200,000 pounds of Peruvian rice in its hull. Sillem offered Norton the entire load for $25,000, a steep discount at about twelve cents per pound. Norton told his stockman on the Genessee to clear the deck of the ship to make room for the rice. The deal was done.

The next day, a rival ship came into port with 218 barrels full of Peruvian rice. The day after that, another ship arrived with 200,000 more pounds. Then a third sailed in with over 250,000 pounds of more Peruvian rice. The barrels just kept coming. When the dust had settled, the retail price of rice had plummeted to three cents per pound — even less than it was before the Chinese famine. A lengthy legal battle with the Ruiz Brothers over the purchase ate into whatever capital he had left in the bank. Norton was financially ruined. His investment lots were foreclosed and his businesses went bankrupt. He was suspended from the Masonic lodge because he failed to pay his dues. Over the course of the next few years, Norton flitted from failed business to failed business.

According to the SF Museum and Historical Society’s online encyclopedia, between 1857 and 1858, Norton placed advertisements in the Alta, a local California paper, for products he had been consigned to sell — some people still trusted him with their goods, it seemed, allowing him to eke out a meager living. One day it was barley. Another it was boots, or coffee or beans. The city directory shows an address change for Norton around this time. He moved to 255 Kearny Street, where a Mrs. Carswell operated a cheap, working-class lodging house. The advertisements in the Alta began to appear less frequently until they stopped appearing at all. Joshua Norton disappeared.

* * *

“Have We An Emperor Among Us?” inquired the headline of the evening issue of The San Francisco Bulletin on September 18, 1859. Beneath the headline, editor George Fitch wrote, “This forenoon, a well-dressed and serious-looking man entered our office and quietly left the following document, which he respectfully requested we would examine and insert in the Bulletin. Promising him to look at it, he politely retired without saying anything further. Here is the paper:

‘At the pre-emptory request of a large majority of the citizens of these United States, I Joshua Norton, formerly of Algoa Bay, Cape of Good Hope, and now for the last nine years and ten months past of San Francisco, California, declare and proclaim myself the Emperor of These United States, and in virtue of the authority thereby in me vested do hereby order and direct the representatives of the different States of the Union to assemble in Musical Hall of this city, on the 1st day of February next, then and there to make such alterations in the existing laws of the Union as may ameliorate the evils under which the country is laboring, and thereby cause confidence to exist, both at home and abroad, in our stability and integrity.

– Norton I, Emperor of the United States.’”

It came out of nowhere. Norton had no known psychiatric incapacities. As a child, he had been subject to flights of fancy, sure. As a young boy in Cape Town, he became enamored with a local eccentric known as Old Moses the Moneychanger. Old Moses had been an officer in the garrison and was Captain of the 60th Regiment. But Norton’s glory days were long gone. He had become a misfit. A bum. He sported a faded army uniform, a camel hair cloak and a strange, wide-brimmed hat. Whenever young Norton would pass Old Moses on the streets of Cape Town, he would salute the old nut. Old Moses always returned the salutation. Moses the Moneychanger wasn’t quite insane, but he wasn’t quite right, either. He was suspended, perhaps intentionally, in the gap between conventional and crazy.

But as an adult, Norton had grown up, matured. Among business associates and friends in San Francisco, he often voiced his opinion that America would be better served by an absolute monarchy. But it was idle talk. Just a few years prior to this royal declaration, Norton was a model of capitalist citizenry — a perfect fit for the cesspool of San Francisco during the time of the Gold Rush.

Yet by 1859, San Francisco, much like Norton, had been ruined. The gold rush had ended. The flow from the fields had been reduced to a trickle. The real estate market had collapsed. Businesses had closed up by the handful. Banks had failed and cargo shipments of all kinds rotted away on the wharf. The city had fallen with the man. Together, they nosedived into the abyss.

The “well-dressed” Norton, who Fitch described in the proclamation’s prologue, did not stick around for long. Shortly after the exile’s triumphant return as Emperor, he donned an outfit more fit for a monarch as mad as he: a blue Confederate uniform, supposedly given to him by officers of at the Presidio military base, enhanced with gold-plated epaulettes, a cavalry sword on his hip and a beaver hat on his head adorned with a peacock feather and a rosette. He would often amend his threadbare regalia with a cane or a tri-colored Chinese umbrella. And in this kingly fashion, His Majesty would stroll through the streets of San Francisco inspecting her great many sidewalks, cable cars, public buildings and officers of the law.

In her memoirs, San Francisco socialite Amelia Neville described Norton as a man about town. “During shopping hours,” she wrote, “one saw him in Kearny or Montgomery Street, walking toward some destination which I fancy was never reached, his old army uniform and military cap with its rakish feather worn with an air. A sword hung from his sword belt. The whole town knew him.” The benevolent reign of Emperor Norton, perhaps the only monarch in history to use his surname instead of his given name, had thus begun.

Early in his righteous rule, Norton carried out his first federal act as Emperor: He abolished Congress. The Bulletin was lucky enough to be granted the right to publish yet another proclamation penned by the ragamuffin ruler. “Congress Abolished! Take Notice, The World!” read the headline above the text:

“It is represented to us that the universal suffrage, as now existing throughout the Union, is abused; that fraud and corruption prevent a fair and proper expression of the public voice; that open violation of the laws are constantly occurring, caused by mobs, parties, factions and undue influence of political sects; that the citizen has not that protection of person and property which he is entitled to by paying his pro rata of the expense of government – in consequence of which, WE do hereby abolish congress, and it is therefore abolished; and We order and desire the representatives of all parties interested to appear at the Musical Hall of this city on the first of February next, and then and there take the most effective steps to remedy the evil complained of.”

– Norton I, Emperor of the United States.”

Congress convened early the following year, in flagrant defiance of its great monarch’s order to disband. The Emperor was furious. Proclamation after proclamation began gracing the pages of the Bulletin. Fitch was eager to publish Norton’s ramblings, as the Emperor’s flair for publicity did wonders for circulation.

Norton demanded the Commander-in-Chief of the Army to clear the Halls of Congress immediately. He formally abolished the Supreme Court of California. And in the summer of 1860, the Emperor took it upon himself to officially dissolve the Republican government and establish an absolute monarchy. “All laws made from here and after this date, either by the National Congress or any State Legislature, shall be null of no effect,” His Majesty stated in yet another stately proclamation — written, no doubt, on the desk in his royal palace: a small, dank room at a run-down hotel on Bush Street called The Metropolitan.

When His Majesty required new additions to his uniform, he would visit the tailor at Hueston & Hastings, a clothing store just east of Union Square. Norton didn’t have to pay, as long as the owners were permitted to enjoy the extra business they received thanks to a poster displayed on the front window that read, “Gentlemen’s Outfitters by Appointment to His Imperial Majesty.”

Lunch counters also took advantage of this form of royal marketing, as did Marcelin Aurignace, a flower vendor out front of City Hall, who pinned a slightly wilted boutonniere on Norton’s royal lapel every morning and nailed a sign to his cart that read, “By Appointment to Norton I.”

The Emperor was becoming a boon to business. Other local newspapers began running forged proclamations after witnessing The Chronicle’s circulation explode. Everyone wanted a piece of the woebegone sovereign.

But Norton’s rule was not always easy. There was, of course, the matter of the Imperial Treasury. The proprietors of The Metropolitan demanded rent from even their most noble of tenants. As a result, the good Emperor implemented a system of somewhat casual taxation. During his daily inspections, Norton would stop the more affluent passersby and “tax” each of them fifty cents, but did so fastidiously, recording each loyal subject’s name and the amount of tax paid. His subjects paid the tax, of course. But why exactly they paid is anyone’s guess. Perhaps they got a kick out of having an Emperor on the streets of San Francisco. Or perhaps it was just pity. It was rumored that in addition to this tax revenue, Norton was also receiving a monthly stipend from his former Masonic brethren at the Occidental Lodge — although they found a way to help without bruising His Majesty’s highborn pride.

Cities far and wide attempted to lure the Emperor away from San Francisco, begging that he make his Realm’s Capital elsewhere. They tried to bribe him by sending him opulent walking canes. William Drury wrote that even the state of Oregon sent Norton a grapevine walking stick “richly ornamented with a gold head ferule… and with a head of mahogany.” He didn’t oblige them, of course. Perhaps he knew, deep down, that he was in the only city that would really tolerate his quirks. A contributor to Scribner’s Monthly described Norton’s San Francisco as the “Elysium of bummers.” Albert Evans, a writer for the Alta, bragged about San Francisco’s affinity for crackpots. “Probably no town of the same size in the world has so many public individuals who have become noted for their peculiarities,” he boasted. “Among some of its leading notorieties we may claim as first on the list the Emperor, Norton I.”

The nearby towns of Marysville, Oroville and Petaluma all pledged their allegiance to the counterfeit Crown. Small plaster statuettes of His Highness were sold in souvenir shops all over San Francisco. A comic opera entitled “An Emperor For A Day” was even staged at the local Tucker’s Hall playhouse. The show, based on the realm’s mad monarch, played nightly to roars of irrepressible laughter. As The Golden Era, a literary journal at the time, reported, “Walter Bray enacts Norton I, making up his part very effectively and clothing the character with is inexhaustible fund of comicalities.” Though front row seats were reserved for the Emperor (as they were in every other theater in town) he did not grace Tucker’s Hall with his presence during the show’s run.

One night, His Royal Highness’s subjects failed to show due deference. Norton had wandered into the Palace Hotel looking for a chair and a newspaper and was ordered off the premises by the naïve proprietor. Norton refused to leave. It was his royal prerogative. Armand Barbier, a local police officer who was somewhat new to town, was ordered to remove the shabby tramp and book him for vagrancy. In the police station at City Hall, a sergeant found a room key and $4.75 in Norton’s pockets, thus proving he was no vagrant. Instead of releasing the Emperor before any further damage was done, the sergeant booked Norton for lunacy.

The following morning, a rather scathing editorial was published by Fitch in The Chronicle. “In what can only be described as the most dastardly of errors, Joshua A. Norton was arrested today,” wrote Fitch. “He is being held on the ludicrous charge of ‘Lunacy.’ Known and loved by all true San Franciscans as Emperor Norton, this kindly Monarch of Montgomery Street is less a lunatic than those who have engineered these trumped up charges. As they will learn, His Majesty’s loyal subjects are fully apprised of this outrage.” The Alta wrote, “The Emperor Norton has never shed blood. He has robbed no one, and despoiled no country. And that, gentlemen, is a hell of a lot more than can be said for anyone else in the king line.”

Before the Emperor could even be judged by the commissioner of lunacy, the chief of police, Patrick Crowley, released the monarch with his sincerest apology and ordered that from then on, all police officers would be required to salute His Majesty when he passed them on the street. Norton forgave young Barbier, granting him a royal pardon. The Emperor was, after all, a kind, God-fearing citizen. He attended church every Sunday at either St. Mary’s or the First Unitarian Church, as well as synagogue every Saturday at Temple Emanu-El. “I think it my duty to encourage religion and morality by showing myself at church,” he once said to Rev. O.P. Fitzgerald, a Methodist minister, “and to avoid jealousy I attend them all in turn.”

Mark Twain, who at the time was a working reporter in San Francisco by the name of Samuel Clemens, recalled one Sunday morning when Norton failed to attend mass. “The nobility were represented by his Grace the Duke of Benicia, the Countess of San Jose, Lord Bless you, Lord Geeminy, and many others whose titles and whose faces have passed from my memory,” the famously cynical Twain wrote, adding, “Owing to a pressure of imperial business, the Emperor Norton was unable to come.”

In 1872, thirteen glorious years into his reign, Emperor Norton began working to upgrade the capital of his vast realm. He ordered that “a suspension bridge be built from Oakland Point to Goat Island, and thence to Telegraph Hill.” According to, he “correctly predicted that only a suspension span bridge would have the strength to span such a large stretch.”

That same year, he also issued a decree ordering the citizens of San Francisco and Oakland to appropriate funds for the survey of an underwater tunnel connecting the two cities. The suspension bridge and the tunnel were feats of engineering so ambitious at the time that engineers, contractors and respected inventors deemed it laughable. The following century, long after the Emperor’s death, his two visions came into fruition with the Bay Bridge and the Transbay Tube. In fact, in 1936, when the Bay Bridge was completed, it followed the exact route that Norton had proposed some sixty-four years before. (In 2013, a local San Franciscan launched a petition to have the Bay Bridge officially renamed “The Emperor Norton Bridge” in light of its loopy visionary.)

On the night of January 8, 1880, His Highness was on the way to a Hastings Society Debate at The Academy of Natural Sciences on the corner of California and Dupont. He rarely missed the monthly discussions. The rain was driving hard, but he had raised his Chinese umbrella to block the sheet of downpour. Two doors down from the Academy, Emperor Norton stumbled and collapsed into a heap on the sidewalk. A cable car stopped at the intersection and passengers filtered out and formed a crowd around the breathless Monarch. After nineteen years of rule over the great United States, Norton exited this life and left his loyal subjects to mourn.

Joshua Norton, for all intents and purposes, should have spent the rest of eternity in a cheap pine box in a pauper’s grave in Potter’s Field. But he was an Emperor, a King. Surely he deserved better.

Joseph Eastland agreed. Eastland was the president of the Pacific Club and a charter member of the Freemasons Occidental Lodge #22, the same lodge that Norton belonged to before his fall from grace. Eastman drew up a subscription paper to procure a fund for Norton’s funeral arrangements. The men at the Pacific Club enriched the fund handsomely.

And so, on January 10, Joshua Norton, Emperor of the United States, was laid to rest in the Masonic Cemetery wearing Victorian black-tie, laid peacefully in a fine rosewood casket ordained with silver detailing. A throng of 10,000 loyal subjects, admirers and devotees filled the sidewalks, windows and porches of every single house in town. The funeral cortege that followed the Emperor’s body was two miles long.

It is odd though, that on the night of His Majesty’s death, while he lay inert on the coroner’s slab, morgue employees found a peculiar French franc dated 1828 among the clatter in his purse. The coin bore the face of King Charles X, the last of the French rulers from the House of Bourbon — the house from which Joshua Norton claimed to be descended. Valuable coins tend not to last long in the pockets of paupers. Indeed, a franc is a strange item for a hungry tramp to hold onto so dearly. Then again, it is strange only if you believe the history books and not the Emperor himself.

Going to Vietnam to Face My Father’s Ghost

He was a hometown hero who died at war days before I was born. He haunted my life, until I finally made the trip to see where he fell.

They say babies can hear in the womb. If so, then I have heard my father’s voice. Deep and resonant. I have photos of him and my mother from that time, together for one last week in Los Angeles. They laughed and played in the pool, squinted from beach chairs holding hands, stood arm in arm. Some of the photos are torn in places, clipped at odd angles. Army personnel are instructed to remove all signs of combat before a soldier’s belongings are sent home. If I heard my father’s voice at that time, then I heard more clearly my mother’s laugh, full and carefree. I never heard her laugh like that again.

My father and I share the same name: Hugh. He died five days before I was born. It’s not easy to be born to a woman in mourning – you have a job to do. I believe I did it well. We were two against the world and I grew to know her adoring gaze as both a son and all that was left of my father. It would take 48 years for me to learn I couldn’t undo anyone’s past; nobody told me I didn’t have to.

My mother and father at the airport before he shipped out.

My mom remarried just before my fourth birthday. I had a new father. Soon I had a new brother and sister. I lived a happy childhood. But underneath the perfect family of five, white dog and half-acre plot on Millwood Lane laid a secret only my mom and I shared. I’d know it when I walked up the short walkway of my grandmother’s home, the house of my birth, the same walk Hugh had strolled as a teen, the same walk the two men in their finest military dress had strode somberly, at whom my mother had screamed, sobbing, to go away.

Bull, Hugh’s dad, who died when I was ten, was a grizzled ex-logger and machinist with massive forearms, who favored his corner armchair and white undershirts. Hugh’s mom, Maebelle, was a tough daughter of a farmer who spent her years as the wife of a drinking man. Their life was simple and small and hard. What I ended up in was entirely different.

We stayed in touch for a while with Hugh’s family but lost contact once my teen years hit. I adapted to a new life, and over time my past faded into a far-off story about a hometown hero lost, the adored son with the half-cocked grin, beloved athlete and student of Plymouth High. The youth I would come to know was affluent and pressured. I attended prep school, Duke University, went to Wall Street for my 20s, finally quitting it all to study art. The prevailing feeling I had at that point was one of not belonging. To any place.

Maebelle died when I was 31, and I was given two old suitcases of Hugh’s. They were a matching set, worn maroon leather and monogramed with his initials: H.S. He was the first in the family to go to college and the suitcases had been a gift from his parents to commemorate what a big deal that was.

Now they contained memories of his life. Military orders, old checkbooks, his letters home, a cracked Roy Smeck ukulele, funeral arrangements, stacks of newspaper spreads on the weekly local football results, and more carefully preserved clippings related to his death: “PHS Star Athlete Killed in Vietnam” and “Son Born to Slain Athlete.” I’d open them from time to time but couldn’t make sense of the contents. Somewhere along the line I realized my dad smelled like old paper.

Left, mom and dad in their cap and gowns with my grandmother in what would be my first home. Right, my folks as prom king and queen.

The suitcases stayed in basements and attics, untouched for years, sometimes moved from place to place with my other belongings. The older I got, the stranger it all seemed. The story of my birth, the small-town romance between the homecoming queen and captain of the football team, was like a fairy tale. The place I had come from and the place I knew growing up were so at odds that they almost negated each other’s existence.

By my mid-40s I was newly married, raising my own stepchildren. We moved three times in four years, and as I boxed and unboxed the spare belongings of my life and scrawled “Hugh – Books” or “Hugh – Art,” I started to question who the name referenced. Hugh. Was it his, or mine? I could feel a chain to an invisible past but couldn’t grasp hold of it, nor understand exactly what it was hooked onto.

Contents of my father’s suitcases, including the folded American flag.

A couple of Hugh’s old buddies died. Then his older sister. The blind spot within me grew and I felt pressure for resolution. I began searching out people who knew him, hoping somebody would recognize something in me I couldn’t see for myself. Time was running out.

* * *

I found two of his best friends from high school. One, a former track star, still lived in Michigan. I visited him and heard stories of the glory days, about drinking beer and racing cars out on Shelton Drive, fights behind the drive-thru. How my dad was “the greatest guy,” the hard-hitting fullback, the strongest kid he’d ever seen, loved by all. It was an impossible standard to live up to. Hugh’s other buddy was retired in Alabama, and his stories had less glory, more humanity, though he too revered my father. He and Hugh had worked odd jobs together; they cleaned chicken coops, built rock walls, took turns riding on the fender of the family car collecting bottles for gas money to go out cruising on the weekend.

Neither man gave me what I was looking for, though I wasn’t quite sure what that was. I must have wanted them to say, “Hey Hugh, you’re just like your old man,” but they didn’t say it. It was defeating, trying to connect with the myth of a man. I wondered what would he have thought of me. I attempted to rationalize the misconnection – Hugh was just a kid, really, these were high school stories and I was now twice his age. But deep down I feared there was little of him in me and he had become an irrelevant detail of my past.

Condolence letter from President Nixon.

The suitcases were all that were left to turn to. Most of the contents were related to the Army. I never thought of Hugh as a soldier – he didn’t want to go to war, worried he wouldn’t be a proper hero, and doubted privately that he would make it home – but I sat down anyway to carefully catalog each item in the suitcases.

There were a lot of references to his platoon. I tracked down a list of surviving members of D Company, who called themselves the Angry Skipper Association. I began contacting guys who would have served with Hugh during 1969, but didn’t expect to find much – he had only been in-country for seven weeks when he died. Most men didn’t return my calls. Finally, someone directed me to the man who’d been in charge when Hugh was killed.

* * *

When I went to Lytle, Texas, to meet Clyde “Sgt. B.” Bonnelycke, I was more excited than anxious. By now, I had given up hope someone was going to give me any great insight into Hugh as a man, or myself. I was content just to pass through the lives of men who had known him, as if I could catch some residual energy like an old stone from a campfire might still be warm to the touch.

Sgt. B.’s home was on a quiet roundabout suburb in the flats not far from San Antonio. He greeted me with a loose handshake. His wife was chatty and brought me in. We sat at the small kitchen table and I brought out incidence reports, letters, news clippings, anything that could trigger his memory.

He’d snatch things out of my hands, “Let me see that,” and tilt his chin back, peering through his reading glasses. But Sgt. B. couldn’t remember anything specific about Hugh. This bothered him. He was a man who fought to save his men, and now I showed up to find out about a father I never knew, and he couldn’t come up with details. He paced the kitchen, hallways, bedrooms and back, returning with gift after gift: Army pen, Marines pen, a Turkish rug he’d gotten while stationed in Germany, wall calendars from his native Hawaii, and one with cuddly pets, “For the kids, you know.”

Left, last letter from my father. Right, local news article announcing my birth.

I didn’t know what he had to tell me, if anything. He relayed war story after war story and I was happy listening; he earned two silver stars with the Marines before joining the Army. But all the while there seemed to be an answer he was looking for that was just out of reach.

Dusk set in. Finally, Sgt. B. pushed away from the kitchen table and snatched a small, framed map off the wall. A thick border snaked through it, “CAMBODIA” written above. The map was faded green and hard to read. He waved it in front of me and pointed to a small black line.

“Here, here, you see this little line here?”

I peered close to the frame.

“Right here,” he rapped the glass, “this bend in the river. See it? That’s where it happened. That’s where the RPG hit that goddamn tree.”

The official incidence report had said Hugh was injured by a claymore mine. But Sgt. B. was certain it was an RPG. I didn’t argue. When I left Lytle, he gave me a copy of the map. I stuffed it in my bag along with everything else he’d given me, but didn’t think I’d do anything with it.

Detail of the map given to me by Sgt. B.

Several months later I attended the annual reunion of the Angry Skipper guys in Herndon, Virginia. Former cops, truckers, real estate brokers, salesmen, and lawyers gathered at a windowless conference room at the Marriott Courtyard, and I heard stories of lost buddies and warm beer, weeks in the jungle, nine-inch centipedes, firefights and rain. None of them remembered Hugh but one man remembered the incident. It wasn’t Hugh’s injury he remembered, it was the call the platoon received announcing my birth: a boy born to a dead man. Joe Villa, second platoon sergeant, covered his face and cried.

Up to that point there had always been a part of the story I couldn’t accept. I hadn’t been sure if I fully believed Sgt. B., or the stacks of official military correspondence in the suitcases, the banal lists of personal effects, the browned telegrams, the letters from Nixon, the Army Chief of Staff, even a state senator from Pennsylvania, who clearly bore such a moral burden of the war that he hand-wrote condolence letters to the family of every fallen service member. But the way the Skipper guys at the reunion accepted me, some with hope, others with sorrow, confirmed indeed that it all had in fact happened.

I decided then I would go to the bend in the river, not knowing exactly why. I made light of the trip to people who asked.

“Yeah, it will probably all be Nike factories now.”

But a piece of me worried I might peel back a bandage that had been laid over old wounds, possibly tinkering with the building blocks of who I understood myself to be. Still, I felt I needed to go.

* * *

I arrived at the Tan Son Nhat International Airport on July 15, 2017, three days before Hugh had, 48 years prior. It was early in the monsoon season and I went to the Cu Chi region between Saigon and Tây Ninh where the Angry Skipper guys had humped through the jungle. Like most of my generation, I had grown up with the American mythology of the Vietnam War: napalm, burning bodies, fucked-up kids with M 16s, “Apocalypse Now.” What I found instead was peaceful and beatific. Bright rice paddies, the plowing farmer, stoic water buffalo – the only hint of danger was the grind of the daytime insects that dropped suddenly in the quiet.

Each day, I read Hugh’s letters and then biked out into the countryside. His words described much of what I saw. The letters were familiar territory – I admired his penmanship, imagined listening to his words, tried to identify with this stranger who occupied some place within me – but here I felt close to him for the first time. I began to separate the looming father from a young man who didn’t know much of the world beyond his small town. I was far more savvy now than he could have been then and I had a sudden urge to look out for him, a feeling I might have been able to protect him. I even came to the misjudged conclusion that if I had the opportunity to go back and serve with Hugh I would have taken it, to spend nights up pulling watch together and talking about life and back home, my mom, telling jokes, hearing to the croak of the frogs at dusk. Most importantly, to watch out for that RPG or tripwire that I might have been able to see coming.

A few days later, I found a ride north to the bend in the river, tucked deep in the Tây Ninh Province. During the war, Ho Chi Minh sent arms and supplies down through Laos and Cambodia and across the porous jungle around Tây Ninh, not far from Saigon. The Province became a hotspot for the Army. Helicopters ferried the platoons above the thick canopy, dropping the men into clearings to spend months living in the bush.

A young man named Minh drove me up. He had a boxy haircut and surprised eyes and didn’t look much older than fifteen. We had crouched by my bed and zoomed in on my computer, tracing the route on the map Sgt. B. had given me. My anticipation built around what I might find. The old map matched up quite well with the current road system. There were new roads, but the structure was there. One of the new roads ran directly to the bend in the river.

When we got in the car he said, “You father, bambambam?”

He nearly shouted certain words for emphasis.


“You, bambambam?”


My stomach gave a turn. The story had always been mine alone. When other people referenced it, I felt like a kid who had fallen and didn’t know he was hurt until he noticed the worried expressions on other people’s faces. Had something horrible happened to me? But Minh hadn’t meant anything by it and we didn’t talk about the war again.

We pulled out onto the road north and he flipped through Vietnamese club songs on the radio. I leafed through “A Pocket Guide to Vietnam,” also from the suitcases. It had been published by the Department of Defense in 1966 and was crinkled with water damage. I was now nervous about what I could discover in the jungle.

After an hour, we passed under a decorated archway. “Tây Ninh!” Minh said and gave me a thumbs up. I took a photo. We skirted Black Lady Mountain and continued toward Cambodia. Forty-five minutes later the river appeared on our right and we crossed at a low dam. Huge nets were slung between tall poles like dinosaurs wading in the shallows and the water was muddy and even.

The bend wasn’t far now. We crossed and headed back down river. The sky was stormy and we rode in silence. In just a few turns we were on the new dirt road headed to the water, just north of Landing Zone Ike, the dirt base where my father had slept the night before the ambush, just a few clicks from the place where Sgt. B. had knocked on the glass and said, “Here. Right here. That’s where it happened.”

We stopped where the dirt became soft. Cassava grew at the water’s edge. Behind it the jungle stretched anonymously. I passed through a rubber grove and found a worn path into the jungle and felt the uncertain space I had known my whole life.

The bend in the river where my father was mortally wounded; or where Sgt. B. told me the RPG “hit that tree.”

I walked deeper into the foliage and noticed the shape of the trees, the gaps of tall grass. A thin snake sped across the path and wind rustled the leaves. I heard the putt-putt of an old engine and the faint bass of a local pop song. It was a peaceful place. Still, it seemed almost gimmicky to be here, to be searching for such a big answer on this random spit of land. I’d had a good life, a good man who raised me. Maybe this was self-indulgent.

I’d always had the feeling I had let Hugh down somehow. Maybe by not having my own children, or by not being able to easily settle down, always searching. But I didn’t have those thoughts now and the past was far away. As I followed along a path he might have walked, I could almost imagine him as a young man alongside me. I eyed the trees halfheartedly for signs of battle, tripwires, but of course found nothing after so much time. I walked a little further, then it started to rain. It was a fine rain that doesn’t really make you wet. The real rain was not far behind, so I stopped.

I knew I was supposed to feel something, but the moment was almost too grand. Should I say a prayer? Apologize for his life cut short? I’d cried for him before, for my mom, even for myself, though I couldn’t be sure why. But standing there now, no emotion came. I was neutral and present. I saw Hugh from afar – not as a part of me, but as separate and distinct, and from that distance I could see that he was both my father and not my father, a hero to some and a forgettable man to others. I took a long look around. A woman who knew nothing about me had once told me Hugh’s spirit has stuck around to watch over me. I pictured it there with me now, his spirit spread out like an invisible vast horizon. I was much further into life than he could have imagined.

The real rain started and I ran back to the car. Rubber sap was collecting in the red dirt in places, milky white. Minh was sleeping with his feet up; a Vietnamese crooner sang on the radio. Minh sat up blearily and turned his hands up. I shrugged. The rain pelted the roof and blurred the windows. I rested for a moment, seeing if it would stop. Minh waited patiently. It was late in the day and we were hungry; I signaled that we should eat. Minh started the car and we rolled forward.

I watched the jungle slip by in the rain. I didn’t want to forget this place, like I didn’t want to forget Hugh. But part of me knew in order to find myself I would have to let him go.

Hugh and I share the same name. That used to burden me, the pressure to live for two, and maybe that is something I will never be fully rid of. But in glimpsing the jungle from afar as we drove away, the clearest sense I had of him was that he was a young man who never had a chance to fulfill his dreams. I didn’t see my father. And in that separation, I began to finally see the part of him that is in me.

For now, I have left him back at the bend in the river. I haven’t abandoned him, we will know each other again. But I am traveling a little lighter. I must keep moving forward. As myself.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Get in,” he said again.

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

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

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

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

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

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

That Time I Tried Topless House Cleaning

After years getting paid to bare my breasts at more clubs than I can count, when my funds hit an all-time low I pioneered a cleaner brand of sex work.

Topless Housecleaning + Lapdance
Gentlemen, do you need a good, clean tease after a hard day’s work? I’ll clean your house and give you a (1) lapdance
$100/hr – have your own cleaning supplies – no blocked numbers.

When I arrive at the house of the first viable person to respond to my Craigslist ad, I knock on the door and take a step back. He opens it right away. Jim or John, suddenly I can’t remember. He’s young to have such a nice mini-mansion with a swimming pool and younger than I normally like to deal with. I like his work jeans and dirty white t-shirt, though. They feel kind of homey.

I step in, a little flirty, but all-business to begin with. I get him to show me the whole house, which serves the double purpose of planning ahead for cleaning and making sure there’s no one else hiding, ready to pop out for a gang rape later. Just when the tour is complete my phone rings. It’s my security detail — Possum, the hillbilly witchdoctor I’ve befriended, following instructions to wait for me to clear the house and call to be sure everything’s okay.

“Hey,” I say. “It’s all good in here. Call me in like an hour.”

Ayep,” Possum replies in his drawl.

I turn to JimJohn and start to pull my shirt off, then stop. “Business before pleasure, babe,” I say, making the little money sign with my fingers.

“Oh, of course.” He pulls a hundred out of his pocket and presses it into my hand. I shove it down one of my stockings as I take my pants off, because I have always believed that the safest place for my money is right against my skin.

* * *

I’d had eighty dollars left to my name when I drove into Greenville, South Carolina. Half a tank of gas and two blueberry smoothies later, it dwindled to sixteen dollars folded together in the bottom of my pocket. For some people, this might have been a problem, but not for me. I have the magical ability to walk into a strip club just about anywhere there is one and make a few hundred bucks just because I’m willing to get naked and smile at people.

Sex work is my trust fund. When I’ve been broke down on the side of the road with no money, when I’ve been a homeless teenager, when I’ve wanted to buy a house, a car, an education — sex work has always been there for me. I’ve done almost all the sex work: everything from street hustling to dancing in bejeweled gowns to foot fetish parties and erotic hypnosis. Whenever I discover a new form of sex work — the weirder or more interesting the better — I try to experience it.

I’m staying, with my dog, Spot, in my van down by the river next to Possum, who lives in a van that’s much bigger and nicer than mine. Possum drew me a map showing how to get to the two strip clubs he knows of: a big one, and a little one. Big strip clubs sometimes have things like rules and schedules and lots of competition and high house fees, which I don’t like. I decided to try the small one first.

The small one turned out to be a brothel with very little business, where I met some very beautiful, very southern women, including a 300-pound dancer named Hamhock who I wish I could introduce to every teenager worrying about their weight ever.

I was too fat for the big one, or the door guy was having a bad day.

I started to feel a little panic. That’s when the idea of topless housecleaning came to me — purely formed, rising sweetly out of my desperation — so I put up a Craigslist ad and here I am at Jim or John or whatever his name is’ house.

* * *

I do the kitchen first, like my friend Tania who actually grew up in a mansion and knows how to clean explained to me last night on the phone. I keep up a steady stream of flirting while I put his dishes in the dishwasher and move everything on the counter to one end so I can clean it. While I’m stacking his mail neatly I check out his name. Jim. The counter is dirty, covered in stains and puddles of dried-up food and glue and who knows what else. Scrubbing while bending over a counter in six-inch heels, back arched so that your ass sticks up pretty, is hard work. Especially while flirting the whole time with a man you hope is staring at your ass and not your sweaty face.

He asks about me, how I came to be a topless housecleaner. I don’t tell him that he’s my first, or that I’m broke, or that I live in a van. If you watch television you know what happens to broke homeless women: They give $20 blow jobs, not $100 counter scrubbings. Instead I make up a prissy story about finishing my Master’s degree and taking a year to drive around the country in an R.V. dancing. Of course I tried dancing here, I explain, but the clubs are just so dirty, and I’m way too classy to expose myself to such an environment. The crazy thing I’ve discovered is that the snobbier you seem, the more they will pay you.

Jim is amazingly empathetic about the nastiness of the local clubs. A classy woman like me obviously doesn’t belong in places like those. He follows me from kitchen to bathroom to bedroom to living room, staring while I wipe, mop, scrub and vacuum, all while trying to look like I’m not sweaty from doing this work in humid 90-degree weather. His story is interesting. All his time goes to his race-car business, which is like a dream, but lots of hard work. He bought this house two years ago, but hasn’t had the time or taste to furnish it yet, though he does find the time to indulge in the tradition of illicit hooch brewing down in the basement. Steely grey eyes and his young tough look contrast with his docile nature as he tamely follows me around his house. I’m beginning to think all men in the South must be gentlemen.

When I’m done cleaning I settle him on his couch, set my iPod to Depeche Mode, and tell him that he gets one free lap dance with his housecleaning and after that they are twenty dollars, just like in the club. He opens his wallet and peels off another hundred, right away, and tells me to just dance until that runs out.

“No touching,” I remind him as the song starts and I move in front of him. Soon I’m crawling all over him, undulating, brushing my ass across his hard penis through his jeans. He is begging me to let him touch me, and I’m reminding him that I’m not that kind of girl, although I make sure to sound a little confused.

“Come on,” he says, getting his wallet out. “What about for another hundred?”

I pretend to think hard, then: “Okay.” I take his hands and guide them over my body. “You can touch here — my ass, my thighs, my stomach, but no titties or pussy.”

“Two hundred?” he pulls two crisp $100 bills out of his wallet.

It’s not really a question for me. I’ve given this much contact for thirty dollars a song. I pretend to think long and hard, though. If I let on that I have no principles, I can’t pretend to sell them.

“Okay,” I finally say, pushing the bills down my stockings, “but keep your hands off the kitty! That is not for sale!”

He has gentle, well-practiced hands that he swirls around my nipples and brushes softly over my ass. I arch my back and gasp in pretend ecstasy. Soon he wants more again — a hand job, a hundred dollars.

I insist that I’m not that kind of dancer while I consider this through to its logical conclusion. A couple hundred more for a hand job, a couple hundred more for a blow job, a lot more for sex. It could be a grand, easily. But do I want to have sex with this guy? The thing is, I’m a lesbian. The other thing is, sometimes I think I could be bisexual, and every year or two I have a man sex experiment. I can get into men, and right now on this guy’s lap, I’m turned on.

My phone rings again. It’s Possum. “It’s been an hour,” he says, “are you okay in there?”

“Yeah,” I giggle, “I’m having a great time. I’ll be just another fifteen minutes or so.”

Awright.” He hangs up.

“Will you touch it?” Jim asks.

Do I look like that kind of girl? I’m a very classy stripper, I remind him.

“Oh, of course, of course. I’m sorry,” he says. “I hope you’re not offended.”

“No…” I cock my head. “Actually… I’ve always kind of wondered what it would be like to do something like that for money.”

“Well, here’s your chance to find out.”

“Hmm…I dunno. I couldn’t. Well…how much?”

“A hundred?”

“Oh, no. I couldn’t.”

“Two hundred?” He’s got his wallet out, two crisp hundreds in his hand.

“Okay.” I grab them and shove them into my stocking. In my mind I’m counting and calculating miles. This makes 600, or is it 800? That’s, like, 5,000 miles of gas money! Or 2,000 miles and a month or two of groceries and stuff while I explore desert canyons and sky islands. What more could a girl need?

I slide down between his legs and he unzips his jeans eagerly. It is small, with a nice curve and for a second I love it and want to fuck him. Smiling, I bring my face close, admiring it like I’m about to lick it. He gasps and wiggles a little, and I take his cock in my hand. It’s already throbbing, and I just run my hand up it lightly, swirl some of the pre-cum back down it, run my fingers over the whole thing. He moans and half thrusts his hips. I love this. When I finally grab his cock, two-handed, and give it a couple strong, twisting strokes, he explodes right away. Perfect.

“Oh my god,” he says.

I giggle. “No, goddess.”

“Oh my goddess.” He smiles.

“Stay right there, I’m going to get you a washcloth.” I run to the bathroom.

While he cleans up, I pull my jeans and tank top back on over my fishnets and thong. I’m ecstatic and high from the rush of going from six dollars to 800 dollars in an hour with my hustling skills, but I know I won’t have really pulled it off until I’m in the van, driving away. I make myself look totally calm while I throw my iPod and cleaning stuff in the bag I came with, give him a goodbye hug, and tell him he should really call me again to clean the rest of the house.

I don’t start laughing until I’m in the van and Possum is driving us away. Then I fold over in my seat, laughing and clapping my hands with excitement.

“Possum,” I exclaim, “I love having a vagina!

Leaning back, I push my hips up to pull my jeans down and start fishing the hundreds out of my fishnets.

Possum looks over at me with my legs up on the bed, pulling eight $100 bills out of my thigh highs. “Holy shit,” he says, “I do believe I wish I had a vagina too.”

Checking “topless housecleaning” off my to-try list of sex-work gigs makes me enough money to get back on the road. The next day Spot and I get in the van and drive across the country until I find a beautiful desert-sky island in northern Arizona. I stay for a couple weeks, playing in a creek and tracking coyote, before I get low on money again and start over.

* * *

Tara Burns is the author of the Whore Diaries series. She lives in a little cabin in a big boreal forest and she is working on a memoir. Follow her @THEecowhore

The Day My Therapist Dared Me to Have Sex With Her

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

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

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

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

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

“Oh, yeah,” I say. “That.”

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

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

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

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

I shrugged my shoulders, only half looking up.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Nailed it.

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

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

* * *

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Why not?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

There were two ways to find out:

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

2) Keep going to therapy.

* * *

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

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

“I don’t know.”

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

Here we go again.

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

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

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

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

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

“What?” I respond, flustered.

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

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

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

“Of course not.”

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

“I wouldn’t do that.”

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

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

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

* * *

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Isn’t therapy supposed to ameliorate my anxiety?

* * *

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

* * *

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Lori’s great at forcing me to reflect.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

* * *

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

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

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

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

* * *

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

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

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

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

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

* * *

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

* * *

“What’s your favorite porn scene?”

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

The possibilities run through my head.

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

They’re also lies.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Are you sure?”

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

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

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

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

“Go on.”

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

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

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

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

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

And so I tell him.

* * *

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

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

And then realizing that person is me.

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

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

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

I was out of control.

* * *

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

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

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

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

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

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

* * *

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

That’s why I need to tell my husband.

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

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

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