The Superhero Saga of Brooklyn’s Weirdest Burger Joint

When a comic book fiend realizes his longtime dream of opening a superhero-themed eatery, a battle of epic proportions is only just beginning.

I. Call to Adventure

Steve Bala can remember the day back in 1982 when he unwrapped his first two “G.I. Joe” action figures. A few weeks later, “G.I. Joe: A Real American Hero” comic books premiered on shelves, and it felt like destiny. When the Saturday morning cartoon hit the airwaves, the battle cry “Yo Joe!” entered his heart through his eardrums.

Twenty-six years later, the trademark war whoop of the Joes still took Steve’s breath away. He made a pilgrimage every Wednesday to Midtown Comics near Times Square to browse the latest graphic novels and figurines — some “G.I. Joe,” some “Star Trek,” some from the world of Stan Lee or the D.C. universe. He had two “G.I. Joe” tattoos, one a back piece. Gainful employment as a grown man had become a means to fund his toy-buying habits. And his apartment boasted rows of warriors and spaceships. He’d broken up with a close girlfriend a few years earlier when she told him, “If we get married, this stuff has to go.” Steve had responded, “G.I Joe since 1982. You, just a couple of years.”

Yet all this nerd stuff had finally done something more than drain his paychecks and imperil his relationships.

The sign on Grand Street, in the heart of hipster Brooklyn, read “ACTION BURGER,” a graphic splash above glass double doors that seemed ripped from a comic book, a vector art explosion serving as a siren call to geeks: Enter a world of Adam West’s Batman and muscle-green Hulk and Wonder Woman deflecting bullets with her bodice. It was 2008, and these icons of the Baby Boom generation were long past their dusty stage. Inside the store was a dry erase board with a menu writ in markers — Hero Burgers, Action Fries, Action Rings. It was a comic nerd’s dream, a diner with greasy food and superhero décor fit for a caped crusader.

Standing outside his restaurant shortly before the March 1 opening, Steve shook his head, believing that Action Burger was his dream and fearing his dream wasn’t going to work. He’d spent two years planning and five months building this monument to his one true love: comic lore. Almost finished, the place pulsed with a kind of nerd power. Early press had revealed enthusiasm for Steve’s concept. “This place is going to vibe very well with the Williamsburg bed-head boys,” wrote one commenter on Eater, a website that obsessively chronicles restaurant openings. But the whole thing felt tenuous.

Steve exhaled, thinking back to the day he’d first conceived of Action Burger. It happened one afternoon in 2006 while he was slinging drinks — his favorite in a series of underachieving jobs — at a dive bar on East 6th Street in Manhattan called Cherry Tavern. “I love pop culture stuff,” he’d thought. “And I love food.” He froze, as if struck by a ball of energy. “Why not combine the two?” For Steve, it was a mystic brew of elements that rose up and glistened like a star, better than if the Justice League teamed with The Avengers to join the forces of Iron Man and the Green Lantern.

He’d found his business partners in Joseph Cortes, an original founder of a Manhattan burger chain called Lucky’s Famous, and Victoria “Irene” O’Neil, his cousin. It was them against the world — until it was them against each other.

The restaurant came to life backwards, in many ways. In their eagerness to open shop, Steve, Joseph and Irene rented a storefront at 513 Grand Street and spent two months rehabbing the space before filing the papers to form a company. “At the beginning, it was all very good,” Steve remembered. But as they neared their scheduled opening in March, the dynamics changed. According to Joseph, Irene “tried to push us out after we basically built the Grand Street location.” From Steve’s perspective, “She got it in her head that she didn’t want me as a partner, but I could manage the place.” Irene took a more practical point of view. “I was the sole investor,” she said. “You know what sole means? All my money was in that business.”

Her words echoed in Steve’s head as he stood before the store, admiring his creation but feeling like the hero who’d ridden his horse into quicksand. He’d poured his best ideas into this place…but Irene had ideas of her own. Their corporate documents, which had created 200 private shares of “Action Burger Corp.,” had named Irene as the sole shareholder — a bombshell to Steve and Joseph, who’d lost their legal standing as owners. Brightly lit and ready for business, Action Burger felt like an extension of Steve, but he realized that he soon might be Anakin Skywalker: a hero minus a few limbs.

They opened in the midst of the argument about ownership. Within days, Steve and Joseph had reached their thresholds and agreed, together, to abandon the project. “I took my name, which is Action Burger,” Steve said. “And I took all my stuff.” As customers entered the establishment expecting service, Joseph removed his recipes, and Steve removed his memorabilia, which gutted store and officially severed their involvement. Irene was shocked at her cousin’s abandonment, which left her alone to run the business. “That was my life savings,” she said. “And he took that from me.”

513 Grand remained closed intermittently for the next month, with “Under Renovation” signs posted while Irene struggled to revise the concept, invent new recipes and hire new staff. “She tried to continue it, but she didn’t have the passion for it,” said Steve. “She hired other people that she didn’t know to reopen.”

Watching the fallout from a distance might have proven validating for Steve — evidence that he was a necessary ingredient — if only Irene hadn’t continued to use the name he created. Each misstep sullied the name “Action Burger” and closed the door on his hope that, someday, he’d try this again. By April 11, 2008, Irene reopened the restaurant, and Action Burger received its first review. The critic from Serious Eats began, “I’m not going to spend a lot of time dwelling…” and went on to describe the burger as having “an odd smokey flavor and a tough patty.”

Perhaps this reviewer should have waited a few more days to sample the wares. On April 17, food safety inspectors walked into the store and cited a dozen health code violations, from lacking a permit to operate to evidence of live mice and rats on the premises. The ensuing publicity led to Action Burger being placed on New York state senator Jeff Klein’s “Dirty Dozen New York City Restaurants of 2008.” It was this knockout that shuttered the business.

Game over? Not quite. Advertising at New York Comic Con, the massive fan convention that took place in April that year, had always been part of Steve’s grand plan. And now he watched as Irene’s marketing vendor distributed Action Burger fliers to convention-goers — attracting a crowd to the just-closed restaurant. Comic fanatics, some dressed in bulky superhero costumes, cabbed across town from the Javits Center over the Williamsburg Bridge, only to discover the restaurant shuttered. “We were all pretty pissed and wasted a bunch of time and money,” wrote one fan in a comment section. It hurt Steve to see his cousin bungle the tactic and upset the geeks who should have loved his idea.

Steve’s dream had been not only destroyed but dishonored. He couldn’t return to his previous life; the Cherry Tavern had already hired his replacement. Bala family gatherings were now torturous affairs, with Irene present and tensions still high. Steve kept telling himself that if he rode out the drama and made it to GIJoeCon, an annual “G.I. Joe” collectors’ convention he’d attended for seven years running, he’d find some peace. The convention began in Dallas on June 26, and he’d already booked a ticket and set aside the $500 he needed to purchase a box set of action figures only available to JoeCon attendees. Then, shortly before the trip, something exploded in his head.

He felt the shock of it, like a bang from a two by four, and the left side of his face went limp. He couldn’t walk. He slurred his words to the 911 operator. He was hospitalized at St. Vincent’s in Greenwich Village and diagnosed with a brain aneurysm. As he lay there, fully conscious but phasing in and out of cogent thought, he could focus on little else but the fact that he was missing JoeCon. “That is what I regret,” he said, much later.

Gradually, he regained his speech and relearned to walk. Since Steve and his family had no history of traumatic brain injuries, the root causes seemed a mystery, other than the fact that this happened when everything else went bad around him.

But at least Steve didn’t obsess over Action Burger any more. It’s as if the injury opened a window in his head, and the thought flew out. Steve didn’t dig for information as his cousin moved to reopen the restaurant. He didn’t observe when a profile appeared on Merchantcircle.com for a new business at 513 Grand called “Comic Burger.” He didn’t feel emotion when it became clear that Irene intended to realize Steve’s vision without him. She’d invested too much and couldn’t walk away.

Irene refinanced the mortgage on her residence in the Bronx to free up approximately $150,000 in additional equity. The restaurant reopened and passed health code inspections with a perfect score on November 20, 2008. An article entitled “Second Chances” appeared on Eater about the refurbished Comic Burger. The reporter, Amanda Kludt, noted that the décor looked “exactly the same” as before. With the restaurant reincarnated, unmistakable similarities between Action Burger and Comic Burger made it clear that Irene had been more than inspired by Steve’s idea; the concept, she believed, was hers.

One of the first customer reviews of Comic Burger posted to Yelp was a one-star rating dated April 12, 2009: “The waitress/lady who took our order was really creepy. I couldn’t tell if she’d just blown a bunch of Xanax or had a lobotomy.” Several reviews noted the lack of enthusiasm rubbing off into the customer experience: “what is up with these jokers”…“I really, really want to like this place”…“I felt really uncomfortable eating in there”…“misses the mark HORRIBLY!” The restaurant churned along for another year, and when Comic Burger gave its last gasp and shut for good in March 2010, few mourned its passing.

* * *

II. Crossing the Threshold

Steve hadn’t met anyone who could match his single-minded devotion to fictional characters in far-flung worlds until he met Vlane Carter.

Vlane, who was dating Steve’s sister at the time, was a sci-fi author and fanatic gamer who’d spent a decade perfecting his point-and-shoot skills playing the Xbox video game franchise “Halo.” Indeed, saving the future-world of “Halo” was almost a nightly ritual for Vlane. He’d even bulked up his upper body in subtle emulation of Master Chief, the game’s famous hero behind the golden visor. Through the strategic battlefields of “Halo,” Vlane explained, “I was able to develop my mind over the years.”

So when Steve pitched Vlane about his vision for happy superhero hamburger-land, the project had been on the backburner — almost four years after the Irene disaster. Steve told so many friends about the first Action Burger that it almost became a running joke. No one in his right mind would attempt the same idea again. To them, the possibility of reviving Action Burger was the lie Steve told himself so that he’d never have to leave his job at M&M/Mars, where he now stuffed candies into store displays as a product placement specialist. But something in Steve’s words, perhaps his trove of comic book knowledge, captured Vlane’s attention. And when an idea catches in Vlane’s mind, like besting a new game, it germinates and expands and becomes the only thing that matters. “I get these ideas man,” Vlane said. “So many ideas. But this was, like, the biggest.”

Vlane, above all things, was an implementer, a man who brought business strategies into reality like Master Chief thwarted alien invasions. He ran a street marketing business placing magnetic vinyl posters onto vehicles. Calling his removable ads “truck tattoos,” he sold them with the line: “Turn your naked vehicle into an advertising machine.” Vlane had also MacGyver-ed a method of installing LED signs into the front and back windows of SUVs. That neither of these two concepts had blossomed into profitable ventures was immaterial. Failure was not to be feared but studied like game tape, an attitude that Vlane had developed perfecting his “Halo” gameplay.

Steve told Vlane about Action Burger in March 2012. So what if Vlane had no previous restaurant or food service experience? Steve had bartended at the Cherry Tavern, and that was experience enough for the both of them. Like “truck tattoos” or Vlane’s “BioSapien” comic series, Action Burger was now a go for launch. By June, they were scouting for places. By August 1, they’d found the location. By September 1, the site was theirs.

When keys traded fingers and they entered the premises, The Double Rose’s — corner café for the senior citizens of East Williamsburg — ceased to be, and the 800 square feet became Action Burger, back from the dead. Steve, once again, stood in command of his dream. Salivating at the door of this place, which had been closed for just a few days, Steve swore he could “taste the action” in the smells that remained.

Burger in hand, purchased from some unnamed competitor a few blocks down the way, Steve strode heroically across the tiles of his new domain. His body looked pre-molded like an action figure’s: squat and hefty, yet somehow sculpted in the upper body, with a rounded nose, sideburns like Wolverine and hair gelled in place permanently. He wore his trademark outfit: T-shirt and a pair of cargo shorts. Vlane donned the same uniform. Yet Vlane added polish with his weightlifter’s physique, trimmed mustache and clean-shaven head. Side by side, laughing and pushing one another, they resembled Bebop and Rocksteady from “The Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles.”

Steve and Vlane examined the guts of 292 Graham Avenue, which savings and credit and $100,000 of invested risk had bought. Nearly every asset in Vlane’s financial arsenal had been tied into the restaurant. He had sold his 2008 Cadillac Escalade for $26,000 and refinanced the mortgage on his Bronx home to free up $45,000 in additional equity. The rest of the $100,000 he’d pooled with Steve had come from credit cards and personal savings. It was a sum that covered their security deposit and a few months’ rent, plus menus, food supplies and cooking equipment. They each owned fifty percent of the business.

Together, Steve and Vlane were gambling men defying a national downswing in new business entrepreneurship that had reached a sixteen-year low in 2010, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. Contrary to the cultural mythos of the startup and near worship of charismatic founders like Elon Musk and Steve Jobs, fewer and fewer people were actually going into business for themselves, though many more were playacting by watching TED talks and using words like “disruptive.” As Steve and Vlane high-fived, small businesses around them were collapsing so frequently that the failure rate within three years was at eighty percent.

Surveying the fading navy-blue paint job, which would have to go, over the waist-high wooden paneling, which could stay, Steve could hardly believe all this action had sprung from an idea in his brain. He waltzed into the kitchen, a mash-up of industrial appliances crowding the smoke-stained walls, which must have been white at some point in the last century. The stainless steel of the deep fryer barely shone through the film on its surface, which, if it could speak, would speak of fifteen years of bubbling mozzarella sticks and chicken fingers. Steve lit the grill, the blue flames flickering and forming their gentle cones. The wide silvery surface, perfect for cooking bacon and burger patties, gathered warmth.

Then the grease pan ignited in the far back corner under the grill, and flames spread in waves, catching layers of backlogged grease from decades of diner cooking. Steve’s eyes grew wide as the fire spread from its molten base and danced up a pipe that led to the overhead exhaust system, which clearly hadn’t been cleaned recently. A blaze poured onto the grill like flames from a dragon’s throat.

Vlane smelled smoke and came running. He found Steve standing pensively, considering the situation — and still eating. “I’m a very relaxed person,” Steve explained later. “To overreact, to get paranoid about something, is to invite chaos.” But the kitchen was a firestorm. “What’s happening?” Vlane screamed. In his blitzkrieg effort to open the restaurant, Vlane was tapped out to the fullest extent of his credit. To see the kitchen ablaze, it was as if he’d soaked that money in kerosene. They’d just started paying on their insurance policy, which cost them a reasonable $3,000 per year; imagine what a fire the first day would do to premiums.

“Pull the Ansul!” Vlane shouted, which meant triggering the Ansul chemical fire suppression sprinklers that the previous owners had installed above the grill for emergencies — to avoid burning down the building. Heat made waves in the air that forced them to step back into the other room, but Steve could see, through the smoke, that the fire was contained to the fan and grill.

Steve shook his head no, vetoing the Ansul, and Vlane’s face filled with rage. The Master Chief didn’t appreciate defiance. “It’s only where the grease is,” said Steve. “The kitchen’s all metal and tile.” Steve understood that pulling the Ansul would drench the kitchen in flame-retardant foam that would cost their newborn business about $1,000 to refill. One grand seemed a stiff price to pay just to light the grill.

Steve finished the last bites of his burger as Vlane ran outside in a panic. To Vlane’s relief, no signs of smoke could be seen from the street. Vlane’s instinct was to call the fire department, but Steve told him to quit it. Tossing his wrappers into a wastebasket, Steve noticed a fire extinguisher beneath the register. Luckily for Action Burger, the tank still had pressure. Steve grabbed it like a soldier and stepped, literally, into the line of fire. He wielded the nozzle like A Real American Hero and snuffed out the monster.

Later, as Vlane cleaned the white flakes from the grill and out of the exhaust fan, Steve papered the windows with old comics that he’d found in boxes at his parents’ place. Using faded pages from “The Incredible Hulk” and “Wonder Woman,” he wrapped Action Burger like a gift and steadied himself for a few weeks of gut-and-build renovation.

* * *

III. The Road of Trials

When the doors opened on September 19, 2012, walking inside Action Burger felt like walking into the bedroom of a ten-year-old boy named Steve in 1985. His dream was unleashed. Walls were painted the fluorescent yellow of Wolverine’s spandex. G.I. Joe figurines stared from behind plastic toy displays. Covers of “Robin” and “Justice League” comics masked the building’s old wooden panels. They were emblazoned as wallpaper beside a sign bearing the restaurant’s official new tagline: “Taste The Action.”

To place their orders, Action Burger customers advanced to a counter the color of Captain America’s body suit. The menu was its own branded adventure. Customers chose between “Villain Food” (burgers, crispy chicken or anything fried) and “Hero Food” (turkey burgers, veggie burgers or anything grilled). “This was my way to try to teach kids to eat better,” Steve said. “Hero is the healthier food, and anything villain is the worst food.”

Trading cards and toys that had previously overflowed in boxes and piled up in the corners of Steve’s apartment…and his storage unit…and his old room at his parents’ place….gained a second life on the shiny tables. “It’s my house brought here,” he said. “And this is only the smallest fraction of what I’ve got.”

Three arcade games, sourced from some corner of Vlane’s garage, dominated the front windows. Vlane, ever the competitor, offered customers a deal to battle him in the 1990s classic “Street Fighter.” Beat him in three games and you got a free order of fries. Days into their opening, Vlane remained unvanquished. “I could play any character except for Zangief,” he bragged. “But I specialize in Ryu.”

As rabid fans displaying their memorabilia, Steve and Vlane had innocently sidestepped U.S. copyright restrictions, which otherwise required written permissions from Marvel, Hasbro and countless other entities whose characters were displayed throughout the store. Several copyright precedents existed to shelter guys like Steve, including his right to display his own memorabilia so long as he wasn’t charging for admission. The core franchise featured in Action Burger was, in fact, their own intellectual property: Vlane’s “BioSapien” comic series.

Front and center on the menu were “BIO-Action” food creations — all based on characters from Vlane’s sci-fi universe. Self-published, the “BioSapien” series features Jaden Marino, a teenager who is bioengineered to stop an alien invasion. The crowning achievement on the “BIO-Action” menu was “The Jaden” burger, a culinary interpretation of Jaden Marino’s good and evil natures. The fifteen-ounce foodstuff contained two turkey burger “Hero Food” patties, plus a three-ounce “Villain Food” beef patty placed in the center.

This phantasmagoria of sight and taste and touch may have seemed like play for Steve and Vlane, but Action Burger was not their hobby; it was a business with a federal tax ID number, and the financial risks were very real. The livelihood of the restaurant depended on $500 in daily sales, which was reachable only by achieving a pace of fifty orders per day. Anything less meant going out of business within six months, which meant Steve and Vlane sitting in bankruptcy court.

Although Steve and Vlane had founded a geek oasis that they considered to be “kitsch,” many of the young professionals patrolling East Williamsburg considered Action Burger to be garish. Accustomed to the more subtle design aesthetic of bistros and boutiques that lined Bedford Avenue, some local residents were jarred by the liberal use of secondary colors and Comic Sans.

When Gideon Kalischer, a Williamsburg resident who worked for Google, first saw Action Burger, he became so distracted by the signage that he got into a fender bender; the red-and-yellow awning of the store held his eye long enough for him to plow his 1998 Toyota Camry into another sedan. No one was hurt, and, fortunately for Gideon, the accident went unreported. Nonetheless, the incident sparked a fan-like obsession with Action Burger — an interest, like so many passions of his generation, at once mocking but also sincere. “I’m always ready to talk Action Burger,” said Gideon. “But it’s really difficult,” he continued, “because you have to go into the backstory about how the burgers are based off the comic book that the owner wrote himself.”

Sampling the food and going on Internet adventures to research the “BioSapien” world, Gideon became perplexed as to what an obscure graphic novel series had to do with a pit stop for hamburgers. (Vlane had invested $25,000 into “BioSapien” but, by his own estimates, he’d sold just 600 issues.)

Customer traffic was light in those first few weeks, with Steve reduced to standing on Graham Avenue in his cook’s apron and giving away comics to attract interest. A young cartoonist named Sahve Greef, eighteen, who’d just graduated from high school, passed by and recognized him from a previous Comic Con. She asked about displaying her artwork in the store.

Sahve stood diminutive, almost elfish before him, with an emo-style hairdo that swept over her left eye. Talented and shy, he sensed that she was of his ilk, one of the comic book crowd. “What are you doing with yourself?” he asked. “Do you need a job?” Sahve began working for tips as a delivery person. Within weeks, she was ringing in orders for $8 an hour behind the register. Steve proudly displayed her artwork beside his “G.I. Joe” memorabilia. “She is the son I never had,” he told people.

Steve and Vlane had, in fact, rushed the opening of Action Burger so that they could troubleshoot on the fly and perfect the restaurant by October 11, the first day of New York Comic Con 2012. 100,000 comic fans were expected to swarm the streets of New York. Despite the 2008 fiasco, Steve knew the convention could be their springboard.

To draw pedestrians to their booth, Vlane hired three models to dress as Bellona, the female love interest of “BioSapien,” donning scarlet wigs and silvery jumpsuits. (This gimmick, known as using “booth babes,” is largely opposed by gender rights advocates and has been banned at several conventions. But New York Comic Con hadn’t prohibited the practice, and Vlane couldn’t argue with the results.) Prowling the convention floor, they handed out 20,000 flyers in three days, and, when the doors of Comic Con 2012 closed on October 14, forlorn fans jumped in cabs and headed straight for Action Burger. More than thirty-five people descended on the store and sold Action Burger out of most items. Four groups of people came from Comic Con who hadn’t known each other beforehand. But, by the end of their meals, they were friends and compatriots. For Steve, that Sunday was confirmation of everything Action Burger could be: “A community unto itself.” October 14 also represented the first profitable day for the restaurant.

Reviews started pouring in. “Best. Burger. Joint. Ever,” wrote Thrillist. “Great food, great burgers and comics,” said Tony Tantillo from CBS 2 News. Orders surged. Traffic on Action Burger’s Facebook page spiked, with the total number of “likes” rising from 15 to 380 in days. Negative feedback was confined to mostly Yelp rants, where Vlane posted essay-long responses to customer complaints. “Seriously, you’re leaving drunk reviews on yelp?” Vlane wrote to one customer. “That is so low (like Lex Luther low).”

Following the Comic Con boom, Action Burger averaged fifty-four orders per day. They hired a second fulltime cook and a dishwasher/prep cleaner. Though Steve and Vlane were still treating themselves like free labor, forgoing salaries to invest the maximum back into the business, their gamble appeared to be paying off. They were tasting the action, and it tasted good.

* * *

IV. Apotheosis

By November 2012, Action Burger had emerged as a full-on novelty in Williamsburg — a destination restaurant for both tourists and locals. A geek in London listed traveling to New York and eating at Action Burger on his bucket list. Sahve had been promoted from delivery person to all-around helper: cashier, cook and custodian. Steve and Vlane each continued to give the restaurant eighty to ninety hours per week, but the pace made them proud. Steve could work any job, from food prep to delivery, and so could his partner, although Vlane avoided the grill following his trauma with the grease fire. Through a combination of online orders and in-store traffic, Action Burger posted two consecutive months of profit. The business seemed on solid enough ground for Vlane to lease a new Cadillac Escalade, which he nicknamed the “Action Truck.”

Business crested as Action Burger headed towards the New Year. Confident in their outlook, Steve and Vlane closed the store for Christmas, the first day off since their opening in September. Never ceding to the weather or exhaustion or birthdays or holidays, they’d stayed open even on October 29, 2012, the day of Hurricane Sandy.

Then traffic became scarce, and online orders dropped in the month of January, right as they’d hired a new delivery person and a second short order cook. “We had too many employees and not enough customers,” Vlane said.

As Steve tells it, so long as the money was flowing, the Master Chief could tolerate Steve in charge. “He was supposed to be the back end,” said Steve. “Taking care of paperwork. Taking care of the licenses. Promoting his book through the store.” But when the money slowed to a trickle, Vlane couldn’t let the business flounder. “I had to jump in and change everything,” Vlane said. To float the business through the winter, Vlane invested a sum that he’d received in a recent settlement from a lawsuit.

The Master Chief expanded the menu in January and again in February and again in March — always adding new creations, never taking away. He blazed ahead like Thor with his hammer, ignoring studies that advised restaurateurs never to exceed seven appetizers and ten main courses. Those who contradicted him were “stuck in an old way of thinking.” The most expensive new burger was the $17 “Dark Energy Knight,” which, Vlane admitted, few ordered. Their top seller continued to be the standby: Action Burger and fries, which cost $8.

This empire-like offensive of more Action Burger, and more stuff inside Action Burger, contradicted Steve’s approach to running a restaurant. “You can always add to a business,” said Steve. “You can never subtract.”

With the new movie “G.I. Joe: Retaliation,” starring Dwayne Johnson, set to premiere in March 2013, Steve shifted his focus into making March a themed month at Action Burger for “G.I. Joe.” Steve envisioned the store going through novel iterations in its décor with the release of new movies, like “Star Trek: Into Darkness” in May and “Man of Steel” in June. Sahve posted original Joe artwork on the walls, including an ink print of the ninja warrior Snake Eyes. Steve dusted off his “G.I. Joe” decals and put up his Cobra banners. He dug out his old Joe comics and refreshed the toys in the display cases. “Oh, it was beautiful,” said Steve. “People loved it or hated it. But they came in, and they talked about it.” Announcing his entrance in the store with a loud “Yo Joe!” for a month was enough to distract Steve from the reality that Vlane was now manning the guns on every level of the enterprise.

Master Chief now stalked his menu like a hunter; his passion for reconceiving its entrees, its arrangement, verged on obsession. Putting his self-taught art direction skills to work, Vlane personally designed each menu to capture the attention of any individual who glanced at the Action Burger logo twice. Vlane believed so deeply in his methods that he put the new menus on his credit card and hiked around Williamsburg in ten- to fifteen-degree weather distributing them for eight to ten hours per day.

Concurrently, Vlane launched a street marketing campaign with his Action Truck. He covered his white Escalade top to tail with magnetic decals that screamed the latest updates on Action Burger and “BioSapien.”

“I’ve never seen a restaurant with a moving billboard like that,” said Gideon. Two LED signs blinked and scrolled accompanying messages, which were sometimes hard to read behind the glass. Several of these “truck tattoos” featured artwork from his sci-fi series but many more consisted of pixelated shots of Action Burger entrees. “They looked horrible, the pictures of the food,” said Steve. “And I knew professional photographers who wouldn’t even charge. He just wants to take them all with his cellphone.”

Vlane suction-cupped a dispenser to the Action Truck and filled it with menus. He parked the SUV at strategic locations and counted the number of menus remaining at the end of each day. He documented a dozen spots around Williamsburg where his “hit rate” was highest. The Action Truck gave out, according to Vlane, fifteen to thirty flyers per day, with the most active spots being the street parking areas in front of neighboring businesses like Barcade, a video-game-themed bar.

Owners of these businesses, nonplussed by Vlane’s cleverness, wrote him heated emails asking him not to market directly to their customers. Barcade, by a long shot on a sniper rifle, was the most effective place for Master Chief to park. Patrons of the bar, on average, took more than sixty of his menus in six hours — until Barcade employees expressed a conflict with Action Burger and Barcade both having arcade games. “They just kind of threatened and left hints that they don’t want me parking there anymore or something could happen,” said Vlane. “It became very aggressive in terms of the email conversations,” he continued. (The ownership of Barcade offered no comment on these accusations despite repeated requests.)

Charging headlong, blasting through pessimism, Vlane saw Action Burger franchises in his future. His dream was to get the store featured on the ABC show “Shark Tank,” where aspiring entrepreneurs pitch their ideas to venture capitalists. Vlane felt that his restaurant, his truck tattoos and the “BioSapien” series constituted a triple threat. Legally, he tied “BioSapien” into Action Burger with a 70,000-year contract — in the series, 70,000 represents the number of years that aliens are advanced beyond the human race — mandating that every Action Burger franchisee in the future use his series and its characters. “If the restaurant does well, the books do well; if the books do well, the restaurant does well,” Vlane opined.

Vlane developed a genuine gift for muting outside opinions when, he felt, they constrained his creativity. “He has ideas that really can’t be,” said Sahve. “It’s insane, and Steve kept pushing for practical.” The roof in the basement of Action Burger leaked from the old pipes each day as water backed up from the street. Steve, wary of the health code history of the original Action Burger, wanted to fix the potential hazard. But Vlane preferred more and better menus, additional entrees and new marketing tactics.

By May 2013, their conversations became shouting matches in the leaky basement. Vlane and Steve drew battle lines for their competing visions, and each recruited allies to their sides. Sahve aligned with Steve. Vlane’s new girlfriend sided with Vlane, obviously. And Steve and Vlane both angled for the allegiance of Wilson, the restaurant’s primary cook. “There is no Action Burger without Wilson,” Sahve explained. Steve encouraged Wilson to begin a work stoppage to force Vlane’s hand in rehabbing the basement. Vlane encouraged Wilson to develop a new line of rice dishes and enjoy freer reign in his dominion.

The final battle occurred in the basement on the day that Wilson finally sided with Vlane. Steve sat thunderstruck, stunned like Thor when he discovered Loki (his own brother) behind the plot to steal the Casket of Ancient Winters. It was July, not one year from the day they opened, and Steve had lost control of Action Burger. He threw down his apron and left.

Sahve now stood vulnerable, having fought on the losing side of the Game of Thrones. Vlane resented her friendship with Steve and treated her for what he believed her to be: a spy. But Vlane had his own network of intelligence. He had installed an app on his smartphone that pulled a direct video feed from the store security cameras, which gave him eyes on every square inch of Action Burger. To test her loyalty, Vlane told Sahve to text him immediately if Steve returned to Action Burger.

As expected, Steve stepped back into the restaurant about a week after the blowout, and Sahve undermined Vlane’s command. She waited until Steve had left to text the Master Chief. Vlane rewound the security footage to confirm that Sahve had, indeed, defied him — and fired her. “Just to get back at me,” Steve said. “That’s the only reason he fired her.” When Steve returned to hammer out an agreement with Vlane, Steve rehired his protégé. Although she was grateful to have a job again, she sensed something temporary in the arrangement. Slyly, piece by piece, she brought her artwork home.

Steve made Vlane an offer to buy out his shares in Action Burger. When Vlane refused, needing Action Burger to boost “BioSapien,” Steve’s journey as an owner had reached its terminus. Vlane bought out Steve’s shares instead. Clearing out his toys with tears in his eyes, Steve hugged Sahve and walked past the original hero/villain menu placard. “It’s still a beautiful dream,” Steve said. “But it turned into a nightmare.” Parked on Powers Street, the Action Truck flashed its text at no one as Steve turned the corner.

That month, Action Burger received approval from the State of New York for a liquor license. Vlane fired Sahve and moved forward with a new line of liquor milkshakes and infused smoothies. Gideon and his friends gathered to read this roster of new releases in the new menu, of course, which Vlane devoted weeks to fine-tuning. “Just as soon as we forget about Action Burger,” said Gideon, “a new menu comes out or a new item comes out or there’s a new decal on the Escalade.” The milkshake madness, which filled two pages, boasted drinks like the “Gravity Tide,” a thirty-two-ounce blend of Amaretto, butterscotch schnapps and an “action shot” for $24, or the thirty-two-ounce “Ten-Miles-On-Treadmill,” a blend of vanilla ice cream, oatmeal cream pie, strawberry short cake, chocolate chip cookies, Oreos, vanilla cookies, granola bars, pecan pie, butter crunch cookies and Butterfinger candy bars for the price of $19.

* * *

V. The Ultimate Boon

On the evening of June 20, 2014, pulsing fluorescent lights lit Graham Avenue an alien blue. The concrete shook with a bass beat, and one could barely see through the Action Burger windows, which were bedecked with four-color graphic signs advertising the Pretzel Burger Frenzy, the Pizza Burger Parmigiana and the Toragon crispy chicken beef burger extravaganza.

Inside was what Vlane called a “lounge atmosphere,” or a mash-up of battle sounds, projector screens and cords snaking underneath tables to four video game consoles being played simultaneously. He branded this concept “Action Burger After Dark.” Gone was Sahve’s art on the walls. Gone was the comic kitsch, aside from a lone poster featuring a roundup of “X-Men” villains. In their place was a smorgasbord of current and obsolete game systems.

With Steve’s departure, Vlane had developed a new customer base. Dry-eyed gamers had pushed out the former crowd of comic buffs. “His strong point was comics, and my strong points were video games,” said Vlane. “I had to do what’s natural in me.”

In a surprise turn of events, Vlane described how he’d trained himself to cook in the kitchen by pretending it was a video game. “You have to look at it like that, or it’s just an annoying job,” he said. When an order for the Toragon came in, he threw a crispy chicken patty in the fryer like a timed mine and set two beef patties on the side of the grill as ammunition. He’d multitask, careful to never let things burn because burning is losing.

By Vlane’s admission, his vision for Action Burger hadn’t moved past the experimental stage. “Profit is…I don’t know when the profit is going to come,” he said. “It’s just kind of balancing off the big mess from last year. Everything is still at a loss.” Though Vlane’s tactics could certainly grab attention, they didn’t always inspire the intended reaction.

“I don’t want to mock him,” said Gideon. “I don’t wish him bad. I hope he succeeds in business. But it’s just so bizarre.” Where customers like Gideon saw absurdity, Vlane saw his competitive advantage. “I’m about new ideas and new concepts that no one’s trying yet,” he said. Vlane could brainstorm like a virtuoso, but he was also loathe to self-edit, as if editing symbolized an old form of thinking. He piled up his mind like Legos: one idea on top of the next.

In trying every tack, he saw some of his methods succeed. By partnering with Seamless.com and Grubhub.com to create a more competitive pricing model, online orders rose 60 percent between 2013 and 2014. Local hip-hop artists packed his restaurant once a month for the “Saturday Morning Music Live” events, where flows about Superman were met with cheers in the cramped quarters — bodies on laps — as “Star Trek” played in the background. On a Thursday night ritual called “Action Game Night,” Vlane bated customers with the promise of a free round of shots if they beat him in any of the “Halo” multiplayer scenarios. Stacking the teams four players to two in the customers’ favor, Vlane still crushed his rivals.

Action Burger had achieved what Steve once called impossible — lasting a year without him. “That was his mindset,” said Vlane. “And that’s what he believed, and it was like religion or something.” No Steve Bala, no Action Burger; Steve had internalized that conviction through his experience with Irene. He continued to live just two blocks away and sometimes walked past the store. One time, Vlane caught him on the security cameras checking the health department grade in the window. “He just stared at the ‘A’ like he couldn’t believe it,” said Vlane, “like it was a ghost.” According to Sahve, Steve had “kind of called the fire department and the health department” after he left the business to report violations. (Steve wouldn’t confirm or deny this claim: “I’m not allowed to discuss these things due to the agreement Vlane and I signed.”) Vlane ended up paying fines and shelling out the money to fix the pipes in the basement.

Like a tub with a leak, Action Burger was still being drained of funds. But, at the present rate of decline, it would take several years before the death stroke. Vlane had capitalized well, and the cushion bought him time — and a chance to get the enterprise locked and loaded in the style of Master Chief.

* * *

VI. Master of Two Worlds

Steve lives a few minutes from Action Burger in a building that looks like a little red schoolhouse. He answers the door and leads me up the stairs to his Batcave. Here is the stimulus behind Action Burger, the source of personal inspiration that he’s tried, and failed, to recreate elsewhere. His living room stands as a shrine to American gods, with comic books ringing the walls, “Star Trek” figurines and a Cobra banner, the red snake flaring its hood. “It’s still a major part of my life,” Steve told me on the phone a few weeks earlier. “I’m still collecting comics every Wednesday. I’m still going to movies that are based on comics. I just saw ‘Transformers,’ and I completely hated it.”

He opens another door, and it’s like Dorothy entering the land of Technicolor. More than 300 figures, still “carded” in their plastic bubbles, stare back. Toys line every surface of his room like a fresco, floor to ceiling — twenty-fifth anniversary figures on the left; “G.I. Joe” A.R.A.H. (A Real American Hero) sets from 2001 and 2003 in the middle; and original Joes from 1982 to 1984 on the far side behind boxes and boxes of comics.

“There’s not a Joe that is up here that I actually don’t have also loose,” says Steve. He knows their backstories. He knows their favorite weapons. He knows their real names and the origins of their Joe affiliations. “They’re O-ring,” he says. “That means there’s still a rubber band inside, holding them together.” He’s seen it happen, the O-rings burst, and the figures, still mint condition, fall into a mound of limbs. The idea hurts, for some reason. We fill these dolls up with more than we care to admit. On Steve’s futon is a “G.I. Joe” bedspread, and I know without asking that this was his childhood blanket.

His complete sets of “G.I. Joe” figurines could fetch upwards of $600 each. If this entire room burns to the ground, he’ll lose almost $20,000 in tangible assets, mostly stored in those intricately painted statues made of PVC plastic. “I actually want to play with my figures all the time,” he says, “but it’s hard for me to do it.” Being an adult curtails his ability to imagine.

“I would eventually, down the line, like to do it again,” Steve says, bringing it back to the restaurant. “But it’s something I’ll have to do on my own.”

* * *

Robert W. Fieseler is a journalist and essayist who graduated co-valedictorian from the Columbia Journalism School and is a recipient of the Pulitzer Traveling Fellowship and the Lynton Fellowship in Book Writing. His work has appeared in The Big Roundtable, The Brooklyn Ink and THE WEEK.

Aaron Renier is a cartoonist living in Chicago, Illinois. He has written two books and is finishing his third. He helped start theinfinitecorpse.com, a growing online comic always open to new submissions.

 

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

* * *

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

* * *

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Classes filled up. By then, it was 2009.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Micaela Bracamonte reads in her office at the Lang School.

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

* * *

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

* * *

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

* * *

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

* * *

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

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

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

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

THOMAS JUGARTHY HICKS, M.D.

OCT. 18, 1888     MARCH 5, 1972

WE LOVED THEE FOR THY ASTUTE MIND

BUT WE LOVED THEE BETTER FOR A HEART

THAT WAS GENTLE AND KIND.

GREEN SOD ABOVE LIE LIGHT, LIE LIGHT

GOOD NIGHT DEAD DAD, GOOD NIGHT GOOD NIGHT

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

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

* * *

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

The Day My Therapist Dared Me to Have Sex With Her

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

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

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

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

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

“Oh, yeah,” I say. “That.”

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

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

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

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

I shrugged my shoulders, only half looking up.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Nailed it.

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

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

* * *

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Why not?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

There were two ways to find out:

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

2) Keep going to therapy.

* * *

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

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

“I don’t know.”

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

Here we go again.

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

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

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

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

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

“What?” I respond, flustered.

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

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

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

“Of course not.”

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

“I wouldn’t do that.”

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

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

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

* * *

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Isn’t therapy supposed to ameliorate my anxiety?

* * *

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Exactly.”

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

* * *

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Lori’s great at forcing me to reflect.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

* * *

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

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

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

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

* * *

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

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

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

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

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

* * *

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

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* *

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

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

Lessons Learned from a Childhood Spent Touching Myself

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

* * *

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

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

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

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

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

* * *

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

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

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

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

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

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

* * *

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

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

* * *

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

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

 

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

* * *

“What’s your favorite porn scene?”

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

The possibilities run through my head.

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

They’re also lies.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Are you sure?”

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

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

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

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

“Go on.”

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

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

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

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

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

And so I tell him.

* * *

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

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

And then realizing that person is me.

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

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

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

I was out of control.

* * *

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

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

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

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

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

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

* * *

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

That’s why I need to tell my husband.

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

* * *

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

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