The Underground Inferno that Created a Ghost Town

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Fifty years ago, this prosperous Pennsylvania coal town was ripped apart by a devastating subterranean mine fire. Today, the flames still burn in Centralia.

The road is dark, sharp and slippery, winding through naked trees and into the wintry Pennsylvanian mist. Thick layers of clouds are concealing the hills, black rocks and silver birches lingering in the morning’s dim blue haze. The stillness of the early hours hasn’t broken yet. Lonely headlights are striking the highway’s glassy surface when I enter the borough of Centralia.

Rusted street signs are the only hint that a city was ever here. Overgrown curbs run along decaying alleys. Dead shrubs and brown weeds have cracked the blacktop, with snow patches and litter scattered everywhere the eye can see.

Centralia is the ghost of a ghost town.

Almost nothing is left of this former community of 1,400. A few buildings remain, most of them old row houses deprived of their neighbors, needing brick retainers to help them stand up without adjoining structures. The total population here was six people in 2014. Everyone else left after a long-lasting mine fire rendered the place uninhabitable, resulting in a government-mandated evacuation.

I stop the car at the corner of Locust Avenue and South Street, near the Saint Ignatius Cemetery, steps from the landfill where it all started.

I walk to the end of the street in the damp and cold air. An acrid smell drifts with the slight breeze. Sulfurous, it comes from the bowels of the earth – the pungent smell of burning coal. Steam is rising over the bare ground, freezing the grass in thin layers of brittle ice. Smoke wafts are growing between small cracks in the bedrock and I can feel the heat under my feet when I climb up the rubble to get a better view of the place.

Discarded tires and metal parts are mixed with cinder blocks and charred branches, making for an eerie mood in the silent morning. I lift a small rock from the ground and it’s so hot I have to drop it. Heat waves from the fire are clearly noticeable. Vapor seems to stick to everything.

A sign for Savitski Brothers Coal Company in Mt. Carmel, near Centralia.
A sign for Savitski Brothers Coal Company in Mt. Carmel, near Centralia.

I soon head back east to what was once Centralia’s main avenue, taking a look at the house of the town’s last mayor, Carl Womer, who died in May 2014. The house still stands on a recessed side street, but with its deed held by the state since it was taken by eminent domain in 1992, the property is bound to be destroyed in the near future.

I think of the lost history and forgotten memories as I walk by a long-dead tree, a sign reading FIRE nailed to its bark, pointing at nowhere in particular, as if the FIRE had engulfed the whole land and the world along with it, leaving nothing behind but ashes.

* * *

Pennsylvania has always been a leading anthracite coal provider, with more than sixty-eight million tons mined in 2013. Despite the growth of natural gas and renewable power, coal has endured, still accounting for thirty-nine percent of national electricity production and representing one of the largest employment sources in Pennsylvania, with 49,100 jobs and more than $700 million netted in tax revenue last year – even while the industry had to comply with ever-stricter regulations promoting clean energy.

Pennsylvania is also the state that is most plagued by mine fires, with at least thirty-eight recorded cases. Whether sparked naturally or human-induced, those blazes are well-known for being virtually impossible to extinguish. Most of the landscapes of the American West are actually the result of large-scale, ancient underground coal fires. Some, like Australia’s Burning Mountain, are thought to have been burning for 6,000 years.

A home on Troutwine Street in Centralia.
A home on Troutwine Street in Centralia.

Coal consumption was already in decline when Centralia’s underground fire started back in 1962. Mining operators were struggling to keep profits up, fearing a looming economic crash and slowly downsizing their labor force. Small towns had been steadily shrinking for quite some time, their residents either moving to bigger cities or finding new jobs in different fields. In spite of this, Centralia was doing relatively well.

Then all hell broke loose.

* * *

It’s slightly past eight a.m. when I reach May’s Drive In Restaurant in Ashland, less than two miles south of Centralia. Ed Fuller is a seventy-four-year-old technician recently retired from the mining industry. He is also a former Centralian. He sees me first and waves at me from his table. We shake hands and I’m soon sipping a warm cup of coffee, the waitress scribbling my order on her notepad.

“You should try the French toast,” Fuller suggests.

I follow his advice and we quickly start eating, the windows fogging up as the room fills with regular customers – ladies with walkers, white-haired men in gym slacks, old couples sharing breakfast together.

“Every now and then I see people coming here after they’ve visited the town,” Fuller declares. “Most of them are disappointed. They’re expecting more of it.”

“Ghost towns are popular,” I say.

“I can understand why for some of them. Because you can still see the history. Like abandoned places in the West, with the gold rush and the river dams and whatnot. Those I can understand,” Fuller says. “But Centralia, I don’t. It’s just trees and empty roads.”

Ed Fuller is a man of few words. He gets straight to the point, a habit he acquired during his years in the Army. His stern look and tall build give him the stance of someone who’s lived enough not to care about being judged.

“I was twenty-two when the fire started. I was living with my parents on Park Street. My mother was growing vegetables in the garden — potatoes, cabbage and such.”

“How did everything happen?” I ask.

“You will hear different stories about it. Everyone has his own version. Kids played with fireworks. A truck unloaded live embers. The government secretly did it. But in the end, it probably all came down to one simple thing: The Borough Council didn’t want the town to stink for a Memorial Day ceremony.”

Even though many theories were brought up throughout the years to explain the disaster, the Department of Environmental Protection today officially admits the most likely cause was the willful lighting of the fire by local authorities.

A Plymouth Fury sits in front of an active body repair shop in Centralia.
A Plymouth Fury sits in front of an active body repair shop in Centralia.

“May 1962,” Fuller continues. “The dump had been nasty for a while and needed a good cleaning, so the Council hired firemen to set it on fire. Of course, dump fires were illegal in Pennsylvania and no one would ever agree to having anything to do with it, but it was how it went back then. All was fine until they tried to put the fire out. Nothing was working, even after flushing and dousing the place several times. The reason, you see, is that the dump was sitting on top of an old coal mine, and the fire had somehow spread to it.”

Outside, a fine rain has begun falling from the low rolling clouds. A delivery truck turns the corner and disappears in the fog.

“Nobody acted on it until the year after,” Ed continues. “Firefighters knew they wouldn’t be able to contain the fire so they asked the DMMI [Department of Mines and Mineral Industries] for help. The DMMI designed a trench to block the fire from expanding, but their administration was in bad shape at the time because of the recession and it took them a long time to dig the trench.”

The waitress fills our cups with fresh coffee. Fuller continues.

“In 1967 the USBM [United States Bureau of Mines] proposed a new trench design that would have worked far better than the first one…It was a good plan,” Ed states, his hands slowly clenching into fists. “It was a good plan.”

“Why didn’t it work?”

“Centralia was a small town. People had already started moving out, jobs were scarce, don’t you know. We were maybe 1,200 living there, almost all of us working in the mining industry. Not especially rich folks. The government had estimated the town’s value at $500,000. The whole town. The shops, the garages, the churches, the schools, all of it. $500,000. I’m not kidding. “The cost of the USBM trenches was $4.5 million. You can guess what happened next.”

E. 2nd and N. Oak Streets in Mt. Carmel, where many residents moved after the fire began.
E. 2nd and N. Oak Streets in Mt. Carmel, where many residents moved after the fire began.

Fuller pauses and looks at me, his eyes piercing mine like he wants to make sure I fully understand the implications of what he’s telling me.

“Do you know how much they ended up spending for the relocation of everyone after the town was evacuated?” he asks with a chuckle. “$42 million.”

We finish our plates, leave money on the table and walk outside. A storm has been forecasted in the afternoon and the air feels like it.

“How was it, living there?” I question.

“Before the fire, it was a quaint place,” Fuller replies, smiling. “Nothing special. Nothing fancy. Lots of Polish immigrants there. My mother herself was a Catholic Polish. There was a farmer’s market she dragged me at every Sunday after the mass at Saint Ignatius Church. I’d help her set the stand and she’d sold produce there. Sometimes I’d go up the hilltop to pick huckleberries with my younger sister…My father was a miner and we didn’t see him much, so families often helped us with our chores. The community was tight-knit. Everyone supported each other.”

Fuller greets a man watching us from his porch, his hands in his pockets and his gray hair flying in the wind.

“The hardest part is having nothing left to help me remember. People, when they get older, they like to reminisce…they go back to where they used to live and all. Me, I don’t have that anymore. There’s nothing left.”

The street dives down the hill, opening on the mountains. I stop a moment to glance around.

“What happened after the USBM decided to let the fire burn?” I ask.

“At this point things were becoming harder to ignore. Residents were having constant headaches and nausea from the fumes and the fire was getting close to their properties. Vegetables were burning in the gardens. Basements were warm enough to stop using heaters.

“Then in 1969 the government decided to build a fly ash barrier to seal the fire. Boreholes were drilled across town to monitor the underground temperatures and CO2 detectors were installed everywhere. That’s when people began moving out.

“In late 1979, ground temperature was measured at over 135 degrees near the mayor’s gas station,” Fuller continues. “It was so hot, steam was coming out, mind you. Obviously the gas was removed straight away from the tanks. The station became useless and got demolished shortly after. This was the first real casualty from the fire, come to think of it.”

Then Todd Domboski fell into a sinkhole.

Domboski was a twelve-year-old boy living on Wood Street, not far from the cemetery. As he was running toward a group of officials talking near the closed gas station, the boy’s attention was drawn by a wisp of smoke coming from a small hole at the feet of an ash tree. He got closer to the smoke. And the ground gave way.

Domboksi found himself crawling and pushing and yelling as he fell deeper into the 150-foot hole, clouds of foul-smelling steam spraying from below, the mud collapsing even further under him and the roaring sound of flames rising to his ears.

“The fire had weakened an old mine shaft structure and made the ground collapse where the kid was standing,” says Fuller. “The exhaust fumes and the heat would have killed him if his cousin hadn’t pulled him out.”

The swift reaction of Domboksi’s sixteen-year-old cousin, Eric Wolfgang, who ran to help him out of the hole, and the fortunate presence of tree roots, were the only things that prevented his death. One hundred and thirty-five degrees temperatures were later measured in the sinkhole, with enough CO2 concentration to kill anyone in mere minutes.

“This caught attention from television and newspapers and forced the governor to finally act on it,” says Fuller. “He came with a lousy buyout proposal to relocate the town elsewhere and offered owners as little as $25,000 for their houses. What can you buy for that sum of money? There were protests. We were all pissed because nobody was giving a damn.

“My wife Jodi and I had already purchased our home here in Ashland. You couldn’t have made her stay in Centralia for the world. She hated it. The smell alone made her sick.”

Fuller’s parents, however, were among those who opted to stay in Centralia.

Route 61 running through Ashland, another nearby town that former Centralia residents relocated to. The main streets of Centralia closely resembled these before the fire.
Route 61 running through Ashland, another nearby town that former Centralia residents relocated to. The main streets of Centralia closely resembled these before the fire.

“My wife didn’t understand my parents for staying there,” he says. “She often tried to reason with them to make them leave.

“My father had built this house with his hands, you see. It was something they had worked all their lives for. They were proud of living there in spite of all that happened. They belonged here and they couldn’t afford to move anyway.”

* * *

At Ed Fuller’s house in Ashland, I sit at the kitchen table while he pours me a glass of water. Photos of his granddaughters hang on the walls. There is a tangy smell of varnish emanating from the wood paneling of the entrance hall.

“Two solutions were submitted: either excavating the fire for more than $600 million, or evacuating the city at the government’s expense,” Fuller says. “The outcome of the vote was maybe 350 to 200 in favor of the buyout.

“My parents and the folks who stayed after the buyout believed it was all a plot from the state to get the coal for free. They believed the government had started the fire on purpose so they could expropriate everyone in Centralia and access the coal underground.”

Ed Fuller’s not one for conspiracy theories himself. “I just think the government left us to ourselves and did nothing to help. It’s worse than if they had tried to steal the coal from us, after all. It’s just they didn’t care.”

Fuller’s parents stayed until the state used eminent domain laws to take control of most of Centralia in 1992. “They were too old to keep fighting, so they eventually accepted the expropriation,” Ed says. “They got a little money from it and went straight to a nursing home. My father passed at seventy-seven, a month before our house got torn down. It killed him. It really did.

“I’m glad he wasn’t there to see the demolition. I watched the wrecker crush the roof and the walls. It was one of the saddest moments in my life, seeing the place I grew up in getting flattened in a matter of minutes.”

“My mother joined him in ’96. They both went through this ordeal to end up dying in a nursing home. It’s so damn cruel.” There is palpable sadness in Ed’s voice. Anger, too. A helpless anger lamenting all that could have been done to save a part of his existence from vanishing.

Sunset at Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary Ukrainian Greek-Catholic Church in Centralia. This is the only remaining church in the town, and it still has a congregation.
Sunset at Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary Ukrainian Greek-Catholic Church in Centralia. This is the only remaining church in the town, and it still has a congregation.

Fuller’s parents were not the last residents of Centralia. A few who still refused to leave, even after the eminent domain action, finally won a lawsuit in 2013, allowing them to stay in their homes now that the fire was no longer considered a threat.

“Centralia would still exist if politicians had handled things right in the beginning,” says Fuller. “The fire would have been contained. Nobody would have had to go. And I would probably still live there.”

* * *

On a sunny afternoon, the remains of Centralia look like an ordinary piece of countryside, with streams twisting through hilly woodlands and deer racing from trail to trail. But on a foggy morning like this one, the area becomes much more dramatic, frightening even, a lonely Orthodox church overlooking the valley like a godsend, holding tight before the apocalypse.

Cast in the Appalachian ridges and valleys, roughly in the middle of Pennsylvania and about eighty miles northwest of Philadelphia, the town was originally built on a grid plan, divided from east to west by Locust Avenue and north to south by Center Street. Classic miner’s houses were the most common type of dwellings, townhouses attached to each other, with front porches and pointy roofs.

Many urban legends have been inspired by the town’s story, even if you’d be ill-advised to call it haunted in front of its current residents. Yet, with the 1,500 graves spread among three cemeteries making up the largest part of the local population, Centralia’s withering grounds can certainly feel ghostly. This image wasn’t helped by the popular “Silent Hill” video game series and horror movie, loosely based on the local events and attracting lots of visitors in the past year— to the displeasure of the last six people living there. “If you’re a reporter, please hang up, we don’t do interviews,” a recorded phone message announced until recently when calling Bonnie Hynoski, a fifty-seven-year-old fourth-generation Centralian and the wife of the borough’s current Fire Chief.

The abandoned stretch of Route 61 that used to lead to Centralia is today covered in graffiti, crude inscriptions and explicit drawings. WELCOME TO HELL, one reads at the southern entrance of the blocked-off highway, right in front of a large crack snaking through the asphalt in which it was at times possible to get a glimpse of the devouring red inferno below.

The road was found to be a safety concern in 1982 after it was determined that the fire burned directly under it. The coal pillars supporting its structure were gradually consumed by the heat, making the asphalt buckle and sink. In 1983, temperatures exceeding 850 degrees were measured in the crack that had opened between the traffic lanes and the DOT finally closed the road.

The warnings reminding that the ground is prone to sudden collapse don’t deter bikers and off roaders who come here to practice obstacle crossing or ramp jumping. “I pretend zombies are chasing me,” says Justin, twenty-five, a Geisinger Services clerk who rides his motorcycle in every weekend from Kulpmont.

The 4,000 feet of abandoned highway end on Locust Avenue near where John Coddington’s gas station once stood. A few months before the closing of the station, David Lamb, a motorcycle shop owner living on the same block as Coddington’s, learned his house’s cellar was the entrance of a bootleg mine shaft diving right to the bedrock, allowing toxic fumes to infiltrate everywhere in a 100-yard radius. The fire was moving south. This was the beginning of the end for Centralia.

A windmill farm is visible from the end of South Street in Centralia.
A windmill farm is visible from the end of South Street in Centralia.

I try to locate Lamb’s house but cannot find anything but rumble and weeds, so I decide to walk to the eastern side of Locust Avenue to see the Odd Fellows Cemetery. The grass is browned and the tombs hidden behind untrimmed hedges. I’m alone in the world, keeping company to the dead.

A toy horse is tangled between the branches of a tree. I cannot help shivering as the fog gets thicker in the woods. I stumble on a rusted borehole enclosed in wire netting, emerging straight from the ground, still and dark in the back of the cemetery.

More than 2,000 of those boreholes were drilled across the town to monitor the fire temperatures and let the pressure evacuate from underground tunnels, despite the indication that they could actually supply oxygen to the fire and worsen the air quality. Joan Girolami, an East Park Street resident and mother of two, had one drilled near her swimming pool in 1978. The temperature measured by the Bureau of Mines was 746 degrees. This was three years before the Centralia: HELL ON EARTH bumper stickers were made. Three years before Girolami asked “do we have to have a tragedy […] before we get any help?” during a General Assembly meeting.

I leave the cemetery to see where the tragedy almost did happen on Valentine’s Day, 1981. I look at the snowy ground where Todd Domboksi was almost swallowed. I try not to think too much about the void underneath me.

A few steps north on Park Street used to stand a green bench, set near a former war memorial adjoining Locust Avenue and enclosed by a dry stone wall. The bench, along with several lawns and vacant lots, was maintained by a resident named John Lokitis until 2009, when he received an eviction notice for his 108 West Park Street home. When the town’s ZIP code was revoked in 2002, Lokitis painted it on a bench at the corner of Railroad and Locust: 17927 in white stenciled letters. Lokitis took care of his birthplace. He didn’t want it gone.

Today, forty feet of concrete curb is all that’s left of his house, demolished in 2010. Lokitis has since moved to nearby Milton but still doesn’t understand why he had to leave his home, inherited from his grandfather and completely spared by the fire.

Even though almost nothing remains of Centralia, every street is steeped in history. Here is where the Welsh’s candy store was. Here a beauty shop. Here the Zimbo’s Hotel. This was the Speed Stop, the motorcycle shop owned by David Lamb.

When the fire was confirmed in 1983 to have spread so much that it was impossible to put out, the dead zone, as it was called, was already easily visible from the sky at the southern end of town. The forest here was completely burned out. Bleached white trees were frozen in brown foliage and scorched ground – a black and white trail in the middle of the greenery. The earth had cracked, opening long crevices through the scrubs.

A complete excavation would now cost a staggering $660 million when a similar plan proposed in 1963 would have only been $277,000. Since putting out the fire was out of the question, a government buyout program was presented as the only viable solution for Centralians. The market value of their homes was very low and the $42 million help from the local administration wasn’t enough to pay a fair price for everyone’s relocation. But in the August 8, 1983 referendum, residents voted in favor of a relocation, considered the safest and fastest way to deal with the situation.

Appraisers roamed the streets with notepads, knocking on doors and meeting with the owners, writing notes about the locations, in or out of the 300-degree zone, east or west, near or far from other amenities. Widespread demolitions started. Houses were boarded up and codes were painted on each one of them. Bulldozers came and wrecked everything as fire hoses poured water over the dust. The fog and the smokes were still there.

The Odd Fellows Cemetery in Centralia. The landfill that was ignited is located directly behind the cemetery – ground zero for the fire.
The Odd Fellows Cemetery in Centralia. The landfill that was ignited is located directly behind the cemetery – ground zero for the fire.

In 1986, only fifty households were remaining, all belonging to people who refused to let their homes be sold for a pittance.

When Governor Bob Casey invoked eminent domain in 1992, he made sure the legal system would leave the eviction order active, even after the land takeover dispute was brought to the Supreme Court.

The remaining Centralians were now essentially squatters in their own homes, their titles transferred to the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania. Authorities didn’t bother enforcing the evictions though. “That would [have been] very bad publicity,” explained eighty-nine-year-old Mayor Lamar Mervine in 2005 to the Smithsonian Magazine, adding that no one would have risked another Waco-like siege.

By this time, the only indication of the fire burning underneath was a light sulfurous odor from time to time when the wind blew right. The only indication that a thriving town had been there were the twenty or so houses standing in a desolate field made of yellowed grass, torn down sheds, dead trees and anthracite rocks.

All were lost in the mist.

* * *

Teens are slowly gathering in Mount Carmel’s Vine Street Sandwich Shop, talking of school and social network apps as I finish my cheesesteak. Mark Sawicki is waiting for me outside, finishing a phone call with his brother. Sawicki is fifty-seven. He used to work as a coal picker in the nearby Harmony Mine. until a few years ago when health issues prevented him from going underground anymore.

“I can’t say I was sad,” he says with a smile, opening the door to his townhouse down the street. “It was probably the best thing that happened to me back then.”

“My family left Centralia back in ’72,” Sawicki declares. “We were living on Center Street. I don’t remember much of it, to be fair. Just the basketball field.”

“Why did you leave so early on?” I ask.

“My dad was a miner. It runs in the family, as you can see. He knew about mine fires. He knew something was up from the moment we learned the DMMI had trouble with the trenches.”

“Had he experienced an underground fire before?”

“You could say that. He started bootlegging coal in the 1930s. He was there when the Bast Colliery exploded a mile or so from Centralia in 1932. The word was someone had pitched a lit butt into a tunnel and the whole drift had caught on fire. The mine was flooded and blasted shut, but my dad often told us he could still see glowing embers burning at night in the 1960s, thirty years later.”

“Was this fire related to the one in Centralia?”

“It could have been. The Bast fire could have moved under Centralia with the time. I believe so. The coal seams are all linked under there,” says Mark, kicking the floor with his foot. “It’s possible that the fire went from vein to vein until it reached Centralia. It’s too late to tell anyway. It would make sense, though.”

The Bast Colliery theory has been discarded several times during ecological assessments of the situation and is today mostly considered a local legend. However, many are the miners who still believe the legend has some truth in it, even if none of them can really prove it.

Snow is beginning to fall outside, quickly piling up against walls and hedges. Sawicki coughs a lot. I can hear him wheeze as he offers me a cup of coffee.

“Was it hard for your family to leave?” I ask.

“You know, people come and go in places like this one. It’s all about the mines. Every city around here works the same. If the mines do well, people stay. If the mines don’t do well, people leave.”

Sawicki’s rasping voice is echoing in the house, the surrounding silence only broken by the refrigerator’s compressor starting and stopping in the kitchen.

“Would you have wished to stay?” I inquire.

“Not really. It’s where I lived for a part of my life, but that’s all,” Mark replies, but then adds: “I guess that without Centralia I probably wouldn’t have worked in the mines. I found [the fire] fascinating, you know. The idea of a fire burning right under a city, right under my street. Everyone compared it to hell and I was very intrigued by this…I wanted to know more about that. I wanted to see it… to understand it.”

“So the fire made you follow your father’s steps?”

“In a way. I never wanted to be a coal picker. I was just curious. My dad got me hired, I passed my miner certificate and there I went…It paid well but if you ask me, the money isn’t worth the risks you take down there.”

“Were you ever injured?”

Sawicki laughs and coughs again.

“Sure I was,” he says. “Broke my leg when a rock fell on me. Got smashed by a chariot. I couldn’t even count the minor injuries. In ’94 one of the guys I was working with died. The roof collapsed on him and he was trapped under a boulder with no oxygen. Accidents are part of the deal. That’s why the money’s good.

“I see young folks like you trying themselves at it almost every week. They never last. They put a little money aside and get the hell out of there as soon as they can. They’re the smart ones. The ones who keep at it are those who don’t really have a choice. Until they’re fired because there ain’t no work anymore, that is.”

Mark Sawicki himself was laid off from the mines twice.

“The first time was in the early eighties. The boss just gave me a pink slip on his way to his locker like it was nothing. The second time the poor guy was half my age and I had to show him how to do it. Both times were for economic reasons. The company didn’t really have a choice. They eventually hired me back.”

We watch a neighbor brushing snow off his car. We chuckle when a draft blasts the snow right back where it was. The rest of the town is at a standstill.

“Traditional mining is dead,” Sawicki says as he turns to his side and clears his throat. “My dad picked for maybe forty years. Back when he started, coal was the main source of energy in America…They were providing electricity for the whole goddamn country. It was all thanks to them. The radios, the TVs, the lights of course, the heating, everything. It was them. Guys like my dad, they worked like crazies and risked their lives every single day for everyone else to get those things…And yet as soon as those guys weren’t needed anymore, they just got tossed away like nobodies.”

Sawicki finishes his coffee and grins.

“You would think that when your town catches on fire someone would help you. Especially if you’re one of the people who helped build this country. Right? Well, it turns out you’d be wrong! You’re a coal picker, what do you think? You’re not important. Your house ain’t important. Your life ain’t important. You just get to work and die like a rat.”

Cough, again. Cough and ache as he goes to the bathroom, with the snow still falling and the wind still howling outside.

“What did you do after you were laid off?” I ask when he comes back.

“I was drinking pretty heavily back then. Almost cost me a divorce.” Now eleven years sober, Sawicki goes to AA meetings every other Saturday.

“After so many years in the mines, you come to miss it,” he says. “There’s a real brotherhood. You practically live together. When you lose that you kind of lose everything. From the ten or eleven people I knew that got axed back then, three of them were dead in a year. One crashed his car in a tree after drinking a bottle of vodka. Another one went into a coma and never recovered. Another one got into a fight and was beaten to death.”

“Working in a mine is a one-way business,” he continues.” You go down there and you never really go out. Even in your free time you’re there underground with your face all black and limestone in your lungs. Drugs and alcohol make you skip that.”

I think of the burned cans and broken bottles piling up near the Odd Fellows cemetery, of the empty cellophane balls and the old campfire traces.

“Centralia hasn’t helped the world to see coal mining as a good thing,” Mark Sawicki declares. “Explosions and mine fires are pretty common, but this was a real ecological disaster… It showed that coal picking was an ugly business and that everyone was only concerned about profit. The people, the land, who cares?”

He pauses and pulls a gray oxygen bottle from behind his armchair, apologizing as he puts a mask on his face and takes long, deep breathes of air from it.

“Myself, I thought of moving away from here. Countless times,” Sawicki adds. “Florida, maybe. Never had the heart to do it, though. Everyone I know lives here. I was born in Columbia County. It’s my home. I know it doesn’t mean much, but it means something to me.”

“It’s too late for me anyways,” he continues. “Working in the mines takes a toll sooner or later. You know you’ll die young the moment you start on the job. When my doctor told me I had the black lung, I wasn’t even surprised. Sometimes I feel good and then I start coughing and it doesn’t stop until I’m in the ER.”

We finish the pot of coffee and comment on a recent Pittsburgh Penguins hockey game to lighten the mood. I listen to Mark recount the story of how he met his wife. There is so much pride in his eyes when he points out his youngest grandson has said his first word.

The valley is cold and cast in white when I leave Mount Carmel.

* * *

A couple is walking in front of Centralia’s Municipal Building, a brown-tiled warehouse still used to store a thirty-year-old fire truck and an ambulance in case an emergency occurs in nearby Aristes. “It’s so sad,” the man, a German tourist named Rudi, says. “It’s like the city never existed.” We take pictures of the garage doors and talk about what it must be to live here today before parting ways.

One of the original vents installed in the area surrounding Odd Fellows Cemetery. These vents were installed in hopes that dangerous gases would be released here, and not into the homes of nearby residents.
One of the original vents installed in the area surrounding Odd Fellows Cemetery. These vents were installed in hopes that dangerous gases would be released here, and not into the homes of nearby residents.

I climb the Paxton Street steep slope at the town’s northernmost point. Life seems to come back here, maybe because of the soothing presence of the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary Ukrainian Church. Weekly services are still held there under the church’s blue and golden roof. Flowers blossom in spring. People gather and walk up the steep stairs to listen to the local minister’s lectures.

Something moves between the trees and a deer shows his head, careful and alert, steadily watching me as I crouch to the ground. No sound around but the wind.

The deer crosses the road and disappears into the woods.

I think of persistence and stubbornness. The years it took before the remaining residents ended up having the last word when they won their lawsuit in 2013, receiving a cash payout of $349,500 and the permission to stay in their homes for as long as they lived.

I walk down empty Locust Avenue, as cars dash by with their fog lights and their wipers on. Everything has been removed and erased.

Not even the time capsule buried in 1966 for the centennial of the town and opened last year by a group of former Centralians subsisted. The items inside the vault were almost all ruined by water that had leaked into it. One of the only things that survived water damage was a miner’s helmet and lamp signed by the men living there at the time — a cruel reminder of the town’s origins and demise.

Centralia was bound to die like it was born.

While Pennsylvania recently unlocked $1.4 million to put out another mine fire threatening Pittsburgh’s main gas pipeline and airport operations, budgets have been completely cut in Centralia. A few volunteers will help clean the borough from trash on May 16th, 2015, led by the Eastern Pennsylvania Coalition for Abandoned Mine Reclamation. Windmills spinning on the horizon line, white and graceful, are a vivid sign that the region has moved on. Down below, the fire still burns.

I get back to my car and start the engine, warming my cold hands against the heat vents. A thin layer of ice is shining on the weeds, the ground sparkling like glitter.

This was a place where people lived.

This was a place people loved, loved so much that some would stay there in spite of the hell that burned below the earth and menaced to spill all over them.

This was a place people had to surrender.

The road is dark and sharp and slippery, streaming by the young twilight as music fills my ears in the coziness of the car. The mist fades away and with it the Borough of Centralia, the fires and the hills and the smokes and the doomed memories.

* * *

Anthony Taille is a freelance writer exploring untold tales of Americana. His stories have appeared on Medium, Vice Magazine and Thought Catalog. He is currently based in Montreal where he is finishing his first novel while trying to survive the local climate. You can read his latest work on Medium and follow him on Twitter @anthonytaille.

Dan Buczynski is the founder and Editor-in-Chief of STRONGBOX Magazine

 

 

These Vietnamese Girls Were Abducted and Sold in China. One Daring Group of Do-Gooders Kidnapped Them Back.

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When hundreds of young women were sent off to brothels, factories and eager husbands across the border, a local children’s foundation hatched a heroic rescue plan.

This story originally appeared in Latterly, a new quarterly magazine for international reporting. We've partnered with Latterly to give Narratively readers 10 percent off subscriptions. Just use the code narratively10.

This story originally appeared in Latterly, a new quarterly magazine for international reporting. We’ve partnered with Latterly to give Narratively readers 10 percent off subscriptions. Just use the code narratively10.

On the back wall of the classroom at Sapa O’Chau, a bootstrap operation in Sapa town, far northern Vietnam, where hill tribe children study to be tour guides, colored-pencil drawings depict young girls with tears streaming down their faces. Some are shackled with metal cuffs; others are trapped in cages or giant jars. The most common scene shows a girl in a forest, trailing a male figure grabbing her by the wrist. “They may pretend to be your friend so they can take you away,” a tiny scrawl reads. “You must be very careful.”

The students drew the pictures in May 2012, shortly before participating in a made-for-TV documentary by MTV Exit, an initiative that campaigns to end human trafficking. At one point during the program, the members of Canadian pop-punk band Simple Plan sit in a circle with the kids and ask if any of them knows someone who has been trafficked. One girl, Ly, raises her hand. About a year ago, she says, her cousin boarded the motorbike of a handsome boy whom she trusted. No one has seen her since.

“I dream of her a lot,” Ly says in front of the camera.

I watched the video with Sapa O’Chau’s then-general manager, Peter Gilbert, one evening at the organization’s shophouse office in town. Onscreen, none of the other students volunteered an answer. But three of their own classmates had vanished down the mountain. One girl had been taken in the same manner as Ly’s cousin. The other two, also girls, had gone on their own. They had wanted to be tour guides, but their lack of English made this unlikely. “I think they felt life would be tough here, and they didn’t see much hope,” Gilbert said. “I guess they decided to go together, or maybe one first made that decision and then worked on the other until she agreed as well. And then they just disappeared.”

The girls at Sapa O’Chau draw anti-human-trafficking pictures. (Philip Jacobson)
The girls at Sapa O’Chau draw anti-human-trafficking pictures. Photo by Philip Jacobson.

Outside on the veranda, Gilbert smoked a cigarette as I asked how the kidnappings worked. He stressed that he couldn’t be sure — no one I talked to is sure — but he ventured that it was usually someone the girl knows: a boy she meets, maybe one who has a nice motorbike, nice clothes, who takes her shopping, tells her nice things. The girl falls in love, comes to trust the boy.

“Then one day, maybe she gets on that motorbike, just for a little ride around the lake,” Gilbert said. “But suddenly he drives her miles away, and it’s not long before she’s lost, and she can’t get off the bike because she’ll hurt herself. The girl gets threatened, the boy takes her phone; maybe he takes her somewhere where it’s not just one boy but a group of them. And all of a sudden she’s helpless, trapped, captured.

“Then it seems to be they end up in a brothel, or married, forced marriage. I’ve heard a story that the girls prefer the brothel because it’s probably closer to the border, so it’s easier for them to get away; whereas, if they were married it’s probably thousands of miles away and they could disappear into the interior of China.”

China — that’s where they go, anyone in Sapa will tell you. The country is desperately bereft of women, the result of a cultural preference for boys amid the one-child policy. China shares a long, porous border with Vietnam across which traffickers can easily spirit girls like Ly’s cousin. They pluck them from all over the region, luring or simply seizing them with a range of methods, from pretend romances to promises of employment to forcing them in a car and driving off.

If trafficking happens in pockets, though, Sapa is unique, for in few places is the world changing so quickly as at this outpost of development in the Himalayas’ eastern extremities, the gateway to northern Vietnam’s hill tribe communities. While striking in variety and interest, not least for their famously vibrant traditional forms of dress, these groups are by and large impoverished, uneducated and disconnected from the protections of the state, heightening their vulnerability to predators. The Black Hmong and Red Dzao people who predominate here are no exception; Sapa’s tourism explosion has engendered a new normal of interacting with outsiders, leaving minorities perhaps even more exposed.

I caught wind of what was happening in Sapa in late 2012. There was a buzz about girls who “go to China” or “get stolen” that if you were paying attention was impossible to miss. One only needed to chat with the minority women hawking textiles in the street, shoot pool with the proprietor of a hotel or hang around Sapa O’Chau to begin to grasp the extent of the phenomenon.

It was hardly monolithic. Some girls were taken outright, but others went of their own volition, spurred by a bad home life, an abusive husband or some dreaded, inescapable fate. Phil Hoolihan, manager of the H’mong Sapa Hotel, told me how one of his staffers, a 16-year-old Black Hmong girl, tried to kill herself after her parents ordered her to marry someone she didn’t love. She already had a boyfriend, but he couldn’t afford the dowry — about $1,500, the price of a water buffalo — and the father said she had no choice. “So she ate the poison leaf,” Hoolihan said, and he meant it literally. She was still in the hospital. “It was her escape method.”

During the period in which Sapa O’Chau lost its three students, Gilbert had been running a tour guide class; the first two girls, the ones who set off together, were enrolled. One day they just stopped coming. “We still care about those kids a lot,” he said. “But it just seems like almost a part of life here that it’s not that shocking, not something people are still talking about today.”

Those two never returned. But the third girl, Thi, actually made it back to Sapa. No one could say exactly how. But everyone knew she had resumed her job as a tour guide, the one she had held before she left town about a year earlier.

Gilbert said he knew Thi — knew her well, in fact. Thi had attended his class, but she dropped out because she couldn’t deal with the rules or keep from fighting with the other kids. Gilbert hadn’t talked to her about China, though. He hadn’t talked to any of the ones who had returned about China. “I don’t want to talk to them, really,” he said. “I don’t want to stress them out.”

A student works at Sapa O’Chau, an organization that houses, teaches and inspires hill tribe children.
A student works at Sapa O’Chau, an organization that houses, teaches and inspires hill tribe children.

I met someone who offered to introduce me to Thi, and she and I sat down one afternoon in the town square. (The names of some of the girls have been changed.) It was a cool, clear October day, free of the dense flash fog that can sweep in so suddenly and obscure this place. Thi, who was 17 when we first spoke in late 2012, wore traditional Black Hmong clothes, colored indigo with patches of intricate, psychedelic patterns. Her fine black hair hung in a long ponytail over the back of her handmade outfit. On the concrete expanse before us, women sat on tapestries laden with handicrafts and tried to flag down tourists, some of whom bit — the stuff was cheap — some of whom just observed, often surreptitiously through their camera lenses.

Thi’s tale began one day at her room in town, when one of her girlfriends dropped by with a boy she’d just met. The boy, shy, hung around the door, then left for a few minutes and returned with another boy. The newcomer seemed nice enough, and after they departed Thi didn’t think much of it. Later that day, though, she noticed her phone had been used to call an unrecognized number. When she dialed to see who it was, the second boy picked up. “Now we know each other,” he said.

The next week, he called her, and they met again. He bought a shuttlecock, and they kicked it around the square with her friends. Then they went off on their own for a walk around the lake. When they settled on a bench, Thi texted with a girlfriend who teased her darkly. “Uh oh, first time, I don’t know if you go to China or not,” the friend said. Thi wrote back: “This time I go for sure!”

It was only a joke. But then the boy suggested they take a quick trip to Lào Cai, the lowland border town both an hour and a world away from Sapa. Just to walk around, check it out. Thi claims he slipped her a “medicine,” a special drug that made her like him. The next thing she knew, she was on the back of his bike, headed down, down, down the mountain…

A Hmong woman takes a rest in central Sapa after a visit to the local market.
A Hmong woman takes a rest in central Sapa after a visit to the local market.

Another Black Hmong girl who had reappeared recently, Zu, had also been whisked away on the back of someone’s motorbike, and she too had resumed guide work at one of the Kinh-operated hotels in town. Virtually every lucrative enterprise in Sapa belongs to a member of Vietnam’s ethnic majority, the Kinh. Even the Red Dao House, named after the minority, is managed and staffed by Kinh. Its servers dress as Red Dzao people and bequeath Vietnamese and Western fare to large tour groups.

Zu and I also sat down together in the town square, but she had to cut our conversation short because her parents didn’t like her staying out so late. It was already dark; the fog was rolling in. I asked if we could talk again. She said she would try.

A few days later I sent her a text. Could she meet? Her reply made me uneasy: sorry i don’t want to talking about my life much.

Usually there is some authority the journalist can consult with to add context to what’s on the ground. But no one at the international organizations in Hanoi, the capital, could tell me much about whether Vietnam’s ethnic minorities were being trafficked any more, any less or any differently from the rest. The picture is clearer in neighboring Thailand and Cambodia, where civil society is more developed and there are more anti-trafficking organizations. Here, state records almost never differentiate between minorities and Kinh. It seems a reflection of the uncertain esteem in which the government holds these people, isolated as they are at the fringes of a society that regards them as little more than cultural curios.

It isn’t just minorities: Little can be said definitively about any human trafficking in Vietnam. The data basically don’t exist; meager official statistics portray only the fraction of cases that surfaced in government shelters and courts. Some ministries kept figures like officially received victims, charges pressed and convictions, but trafficking usually goes undetected. Survivors, if they return at all, usually come back on their own. For fear of stigma and discrimination, many keep their stories to themselves.

Despite all this, there were some indications minorities might be unduly affected by the trade. Beginning in 2007, the International Organization for Migration, IOM, partnered with Vietnam to set up an assessment center for trafficking survivors in Lào Cai province, where Sapa is located. In a review of the project, the IOM stated that more than 90 percent of Lào Cai women entering the center hailed from minority groups, which comprise only 65 percent of the province’s population. Other women who passed through were also “largely from ethnic groups,” estimated at around 60 percent, the report said. “The evidence is anecdotal, but it does seem to be an emerging issue,” Florian Forster, the IOM’s then-local chief of mission, told me at his office in Hanoi. “We’ve been hearing a lot of stories.”

1*0BAJ0sE1MEJRe2BEsUECFQ

Diep Vuong’s nonprofit, Pacific Links Foundation, runs one of the only two survivors’ shelters in Lào Cai (the government operates the other). She said all 13 or 14 girls under her care were ethnic minorities and that she believed they were trafficked “disproportionately” overall. David Feingold, an anthropologist and filmmaker who has coordinated trafficking research for UNESCO, said that in Thailand and Myanmar, where he had experience, minorities were “disproportionately represented among trafficked people.”

I heard a similar appraisal from Michael Brosowski, an Australian whose Hanoi-based NGO, Blue Dragon Children’s Foundation, has directly rescued more than 400 trafficking victims. Their work pulling victims from the clutches of traffickers started in 2005 when Brosowski was sitting at a restaurant in Ho Chi Minh City. A 13-year-old boy named Ngoc tried to sell him a flower. Brosowski spoke just enough Vietnamese to chat with him — and hear that his accent was from distant Thừa Thiên-Huế province in central Vietnam. Two ladies at the end of the street were taking money every time he bagged a customer. “His hair was scruffy and his eyes were distant, like he simply had not had enough sleep,” Brosowski said.

Van Ta, a Vietnamese law student who was volunteering with Blue Dragon, called the women and demanded Ngoc’s release, saying he represented a big and powerful organization and would be going to the police if they didn’t send the boy home. That wasn’t exactly true — Brosowski had recently quit his job teaching English to start a foundation for street kids. But the ruse worked. In the process of bringing Ngoc back to his family, Blue Dragon learned there were other children trapped in the trafficking ring, so they rescued those, too. Soon they graduated to garment factories. It snowballed from there.

In late 2012, Brosowski wrote me that he had noticed a “massive shift” to remote ethnic communities. A year later at his office in the capital, I asked if that was still the case. “Even more so,” he said. “But it’s hard to be sure. Is that a trend, or is it just what we’re seeing?”

* * *

Over coffee in Hanoi, Van Ta, now Blue Dragon’s chief lawyer and a recipient of the U.S. State Department’s “Trafficking in Persons Hero” award, told me about the last girl he’d retrieved from China. “She didn’t know where she was,” he said. “How could we find her? So we just gave her instructions, over the phone. We said, ‘Now you have to be brave, find the right time to get out of the house, and run.’”

At the time, Ta, another Blue Dragon staffer and a Chinese-speaking companion had already spent a day scouring the rural outskirts of Nanjing, the densely populated capital of China’s Jiangsu province, looking for places that matched the girl’s descriptions: a house next to a river, a big stone bridge, a certain kind of tree. They knew she was somewhere in or around the city. The problem was language. She had only learned a bit of Chinese since her would-be husband purchased her a year earlier, and reading signs was still beyond her. Neither was she fluent in Vietnamese, making it difficult for Ta to understand what she was saying.

“She was from a minority,” Ta said. He found a picture on his phone and handed it to me. The image made my eyes widen.

The girl — it was Thi.

Somehow, this part of her account had been lost in translation.

“How did you learn she was there in the first place?” I asked.

“It’s a long and complicated story.”

1*o7-8CP7ap8l7WCfB8GU3HQFrom China, Thi had been able to contact Malcolm Duckett, an English teacher from Australia who was living in Hanoi. They’d met a year or so earlier when Duckett traveled to Sapa and signed up for a tour with her company. Thi had wanted to improve her English, so she asked Duckett for his email, and they struck up a correspondence. When Thi told him she was in China, he spread the news, and eventually it reached Blue Dragon. Ta got Thi’s phone number from relatives in Sapa she’d called from abroad.

“Did the husband know she was talking to her family?” I asked.

“Personally, I think he knew,” Ta said. “Because no one thought anyone could bring her back. The ethnic minority family has no money and doesn’t know where she is in China. Even if they know, it’s very far away, and they don’t speak Chinese. So that’s why the husband is confident to give her the phone.”

Ta talked and texted with Thi for five days, trying to learn more about her location. Blue Dragon and Duckett had each managed to trace the internet protocol, or IP, address of a computer she was using to Nanjing, but only to some unspecified location in the city’s vicinity. Finally, Blue Dragon decided just to go. Ta and the other staffer — a driver who had only been on the job a week — flew 1,800 kilometers, checked into a hotel and got on the phone with Thi. They rented a taxi to search for her place, but it was no use. Plan B would have to do.

“You have to take a deep breath,” Ta told Thi. “Don’t take anything, just go.” Her husband was sleeping; her mother-in-law had gone out. “Run!” Ta implored. “Run, run, run!”

So she did. For two hours she ran, looking for some crowded, plausible place — a hotel, a supermarket — where she could hand someone the phone for Ta’s Chinese-speaking friend to explain that he and his daughter had gotten separated on their trip from another province and could the person please tell him where she was? Finally she found a taxi and put the friend on with the driver. The driver brought her to Ta. He tried to act normal, paid for the taxi and didn’t say anything. Neither did she.

* * *

Earlier, when Malcolm Duckett, the English teacher, found Thi’s name in his inbox, it had come as a pleasant surprise. He hadn’t heard from her in about a year. She was writing in response to some group email he’d sent, saying she didn’t understand.

“Don’t worry, it’s fine,” he replied. “How are you?”

“Not so good,” came the next message. “I’ve been sold to a husband in China.”

What? Really? Duckett was floored. He knew he had to act — but something also troubled him. If the typical kidnapping victim might have pleaded for help or demanded to be saved, Thi issued no such entreaties. “She was using language like, ‘I don’t like it so much here, I’d like to come home’,” Duckett said. “She didn’t say ‘Please rescue me’. So it makes me think that perhaps this happens so often they don’t consider it their right to complain, or such a terrible fate. And I guess she didn’t know what she could do to get back.”

Duckett wasn’t so sure about her options himself, but whatever unease he felt he put aside and began spreading the word about her plight. Soon he identified some people in Sapa who knew of her abduction, though none were aware she had an email address; so Duckett took the lead, initiating an intense correspondence with Thi. If he could get her to perform a simple computing operation, he could pinpoint her location for someone to bring her home.

That proved extremely difficult. Thi was no computer whiz, nor was she the clearest writer. Her limited English and Duckett’s inability to speak Hmong made Vietnamese their best shot, but he wasn’t completely fluent in Vietnamese, she even less so. Although he eventually engineered a way to obtain her IP address, and with it her approximate location, he ached to get her to do something more specific with the computer. If he could just have her type in some commands, Duckett could have known exactly where she was. He sent her screenshots of how to do it, explained in multiple languages, even put her on chat with a Vietnamese person. In the end, the chasm was too wide. “We tried and we tried and we tried and we tried, but I couldn’t communicate it to her,” Duckett said. “It was really frustrating. Because it was so close; all you have to do is press these buttons and we can have a solution.”

The landscape surrounding Fansipan, the largest mountain in IndoChina.
The landscape surrounding Fansipan, the largest mountain in IndoChina.

The buttons weren’t Duckett’s only problem. Even if Thi had pulled off the IP traceback, none of the international organizations he reached out to could actually go to China and rescue her. They could only provide support upon repatriation. Bringing her home was supposed to be the police’s job, but Duckett learned the cost and effort usually meant they would not. Only Blue Dragon was willing and able to make the trip.

Brosowski, the Blue Dragon founder, is aware his organization navigates a gray area. On one hand, China is sovereign territory, and even in Vietnam the authorities hold sway. “On the other hand, we’re just going on behalf of a private citizen, just to look for someone’s daughter who’s missing,” he reasoned. “It’s not against the law to look for a missing person.”

Ta and Thi traveled three days overland from Nanjing to Hekou in China’s southernmost Yunnan province, just across the Red and Nanxi Rivers from Lào Cai. In a formal ceremony at the border, Chinese officers escorted Thi halfway down the short bridge linking the two cities, saluted their Vietnamese counterparts and handed her off. Then they walked her through the border gate and into Vietnam.

“Wow!” Thi exclaimed of the moment. “Vietnamese policemen from this side coming, and China coming, they say ‘Nice to meet you,’ very scary. After that the Chinese policeman gave me to them. Then the Vietnamese policeman take me in, and he say, ‘How old are you?’ I say, ‘17!’ ‘Which year you born?’ ‘I born 1995!’”

Thi crosses the border back into Vietnam in 2012. Photo by Blue Dragon.
Thi crosses the border back into Vietnam in 2012. Photo by Blue Dragon.

Thi could be a difficult person to read, and if the experience had shaken her, it didn’t show. Duckett felt the same way, and he struggled with it. “I wonder how it’s affected her,” he said. “She was happy to be brought back, but it seemed like a situation like, ‘I prefer it, I prefer it — I prefer it here it Vietnam. I didn’t like it in China.’”

Maybe, Duckett conceded, he needed to understand the Hmong better to understand Thi’s mindset. Or maybe Thi was just very good at accepting her situation.

“It just really struck me,” he said finally, “how it seemed like she wasn’t — like she wasn’t trying as hard as she could have to, to get back.

“Did you get the feeling when you talked to Thi that she had a strong desire to come back?”

* * *

One girl I interviewed had plunged from a fourth-floor window to evade her captors. Another had walked out on her new husband while pregnant with his child. Zu, with whom I eventually reconvened, had convinced her Chinese mother-in-law to let her work in a factory to earn money for the family. When she had pilfered enough, she made a break for it with two other brides, both of them Hmong.

Brosowski told a story about a trio of Kinh girls from southern Vietnam whose traffickers lured them across the border, locked them in a room, went out to find buyers for their virginity and came back to an empty house. The girls had kicked down the door and escaped. They ran until they were out of breath, and by some miracle the residence they approached for help was inhabited by a couple who had lived in Vietnam and remembered the language. The couple offered to hide the girls in their attic until someone could get them. One of the girls called mom, mom called the police and the police called Blue Dragon, which quickly picked them up.

When the trio was safely back in Hanoi, they stayed at a government shelter. One day Blue Dragon asked if they were ready to go home. The girls said they were scared because other residents of the shelter had been rejected by their families, or their neighbors had criticized them. Some had actually returned to the shelter.

Blue Dragon’s response was to organize a big party in the girls’ village to welcome home “the heroes who beat the traffickers.” “Because they did,” Brosowski said. “The traffickers spent all that money to drive them to China, and I can just imagine the look on their faces when they came back and their house was empty. These girls won. So let’s tell everyone in the village, these girls are heroes, not victims. And it worked. They never had a problem. One of them is working as an accountant or a bookkeeper in a big company now. She got her tertiary degree. I think she’s actually married.”

He added, “I guess they were lucky in some ways, because they did escape.”

A Hmong woman crosses a bridge in a village near Sapa.
A Hmong woman crosses a bridge in a village near Sapa.

In Hmong tradition, if a boy wants to marry, he kidnaps his bride. The practice fascinates the Vietnamese, and it has been stereotyped and romanticized in the national media. In 2009, the Hanoi-based rock band Ngũ Cung scored a hit with the song “Wife-Stealing: A Hmong Practice.” The custom almost always comes up in conversations about trafficking in Sapa. Some argue the normalization of kidnapping puts young women at a higher risk of falling victim to the trade, and videos posted to YouTube make clear it can be a harrowing experience.

Others think it’s largely overblown. Tam Ngo, an anthropologist who has studied the Hmong, said the “abductions” are usually symbolic, consensual affairs. “I think it’s a very sweet, beautiful little custom,” she said.

When I met Thi on that clear October day, she lingered on the memory of her wedding in China. She recalled the compliments, how everyone told her mother-in-law how lucky her son was to marry such a beautiful young girl. She remembered watching the DVD of the ceremony and where in the house the pictures had been placed: four or five on the table, a small one downstairs, a big one hanging on the wall. She said she had dreamed of getting married, and that when the moment finally arrived, it struck her that it would never come again.

More than a year later, I returned to Sapa and sat down in the square with Thi a second time. She wore a bright pink jacket and pants over her Black Hmong clothes and appeared taller than before, and her English seemed better. The previous week it had snowed, an extreme event here, and Thi showed pictures of the frost on her phone. As we chatted I told her about the other survivors I had interviewed, and it took us a while to ascertain that one of them was Thi’s aunt.

Duckett had told me Thi had married again. I asked her about it, and she said she had already divorced him. I asked about China, if she had ever tried to escape before making contact with Duckett. “No,” she said, “because I never going outside, only close to the house. I never go far away. So it’s very difficult for me to go out. But right now he calling me every day.”

Who, Duckett?

“No. The husband in China. He calling me, try to make me going back.”

I asked how she responded.

“I speak with him say, ‘If he want to love me and marry me for sure he have to coming here.’ He have to coming here and we can make the paper for marry each other and then I can go back with him. If he not then I not going back.”

But did she want to go?

“If of course when he coming here he make the paper for marry in the policeman, and after that we can go and coming back, of course I going back with him. But if he just coming here and asking I go back with him, I never going back.”

That was interesting, I said, because none of the other girls said they would ever go back.

“If he want to love and marry me for sure, he just coming here. If he say I just coming back by myself, I say no.”

I asked if she thought he would come and fetch her. She said she didn’t hope so.

Would she really go back to China?

“Maybe not.”

Maybe not.

“I’m not sure.”

 

 

She Killed Her Abuser Before He Could Kill Her—Then Served 17 Years. Now She’s Taking on the System.

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A proposed New York State law could offer justice to women who fight back against abusive partners. Kim Dadou is doing everything she can to make it a reality.

On the night of December 17, 1991, Kim Dadou’s boyfriend, Darnell Sanders, drove up to her mother’s house. He waited for her in his car, parked on the street. It was around midnight and there was snow everywhere from a storm that had hit Rochester, New York, hard. Dadou was happy to see him even though he was high. The car reeked from the fumes of weed laced with cocaine. Her dark wavy hair bounced as she quickly ran back into the house to get air freshener to spray in the car.

She was hopeful that things were finally going to get better. All she wanted was his love. For four years, Dadou had received beatings and death threats from Sanders, the six-foot tall, 250-pound man who said he loved her.

When she returned, the two 25-year-olds started kissing. Then he told her to perform oral sex on him. She refused. “Bitch, who are you giving my ass to?” he yelled incessantly. Dadou has maintained since then that Sanders often raped her if she didn’t comply with his demands for sex.

This time, she pushed him off. He hit her in the face and thigh before grabbing her throat. He used his left hand to choke her and his right to push her head down. The last thing she heard was “This is it, bitch!” She recalls his entire upper body leaning over on her and pressing her down and forward. Sanders outweighed Dadou by about fifty pounds, and was much taller and stronger than her.

She tried to yank the door handle, but realized that the power locks were on. He was too heavy to push off. “I couldn’t breathe and I started to panic for my life,” she says. She reached for the gun Sanders kept under the passenger seat.

Kim Dadou in Seneca Park, New York.
Kim Dadou in Seneca Park, New York.

The police found Sanders’s frozen body collapsed in a snow bank. He had been shot six times.

Dadou was charged with manslaughter in the first degree and sentenced to eight to 25 years. She was denied early release five times by a parole board even though she stayed out of trouble while incarcerated, and spent seventeen years behind bars before her release in 2008.

Dadou, now fifty, has been out of prison for seven years. She’s actively lobbying for a bill that could have potentially saved her from incarceration. The Domestic Violence Survivors Justice Act (DJSJA) — sponsored by New York State Senator Ruth Hassell-Thompson and Assemblyman Jeffrion Aubry — has been inching its way into state law since 2011. “Sending survivors of domestic violence who act to protect themselves to prison for long sentences is incompatible with modern notions of fairness and humanity,” Hassell-Thompson wrote in a 2013 press release.

Dadou wants to change the system that failed to protect her. “I don’t get paid money to do this, but I want to prevent survivors from losing years of their life like I did,” she says. “So anything to make sure this bill gets passed, I’m happy to volunteer with.” She’s been telling her story to legislators, legal experts, and advocacy groups for five years.

In 1989, the National Coalition Against Domestic Violence found that while the average prison sentence for men who kill their female partners was two to six years, the average sentence for women who killed their male partners was fifteen years. This, despite the fact that, as stated by NCADV’s findings, “most women who kill their partners do so to protect themselves from violence initiated by their partners.”

Dadou says she had Sanders arrested for physical assault five times during the four and a half years they were together, but that didn’t stop him. According to The National Hotline for Domestic Violence, it’s common for victims of trauma to go back to their abusers because while they want the violence to stop, they don’t want the relationship to end.

Their relationship wasn’t violent in the beginning. The trouble started with a marriage proposal. She and Sanders knew each other in high school, but didn’t date until they were 21. After two months, he proposed. He wanted her to have his grandmother’s wedding ring. She was in love with Sanders, but wasn’t ready for marriage, she explains. After yelling at her for being ungrateful, he smacked her in the face.

Another evening, Sanders accused Dadou of flirting with one of his cousins while they were at a party. She told him she hadn’t, and tried to comfort Sanders for feeling ignored. But he didn’t listen. They got in the car and she started driving away from the apartment complex. He slapped her and shoved her into the car door until she begged him to let her pull over so she could use a restroom.

She knew Genesee Hospital was nearby and speedily turned into the emergency room entrance. Sanders told her to park close to a window so he could watch her. “If I see you talk to anybody, I’m going to burn your car to the ground,” he warned her while holding up a bottle of whiskey and his lighter. She walked into the emergency room with her face swelling and the taste of blood in her mouth. On-duty police officers were standing in the emergency room triage area. As soon as she saw a nurse, she asked for directions to a bathroom.

When the nurse asked about her face, she told her, “I just need a bathroom. He’s in the car. He’s going to kill me if you do anything. Help me, please.” While the nurse treated the injuries on her face, the two officers came over. “I kept trying to explain to them that Darnell was very dangerous,” she says. Dadou said the officers asked her to settle down then handed her a warrant to sign so they could arrest Sanders. Sanders was released from jail the very next day. Dadou woke up to him standing over her at her home.

A few years later, on that winter night in 1991, Dadou knew Sanders kept a gun under his passenger seat because she always feared it would accidentally go off and shoot her in the ankle. She felt the butt of his gun while her head was down. “I had just wanted him to see it,” she says. “I thought if he saw the gun he would get off me. I grabbed the gun, and in one second, the gun was going off and bullets were coming out.” She thought she had shot into the roof of the car.

Sanders turned to his side and suddenly stopped choking her. As soon as he let her go, she unlocked the car door and opened it to flee. While running back into her mom’s house, she says she heard him scream, “Bitch, get back here.”

As she ran from Sanders, she heard the car pull away. He managed to drive away even while wounded. Not realizing her shot had hit him, she was worried that he would be out looking for her. “I thought to myself, I’m glad I didn’t shoot him, but I was so scared he would find me and kill me,” she says.

* * *

If passed into law, the Domestic Violence Survivors Justice Act would allow judges to sentence domestic violence survivors, like Dadou, to fewer years behind bars or to alternative-to-incarceration programs. The legislation could also lessen the sentences of survivors who were forced into criminal activity by abusive partners. In 2012, California passed similar legislation, called The Sin by Silence Bills and championed by Assemblywoman Fiona Ma.

"I don’t get paid money to do this, but I want to prevent survivors from losing years oftheir life like I did,dz says Dadou.
“I don’t get paid money to do this, but I want to prevent survivors from losing years oftheir life like I did,” says Dadou.

Gail Smith, director of the Women in Prison Project at the Correctional Association of New York, a criminal justice advocacy group, says that this proposed legislation is in no way a “get out of jail free card.” She says the criteria for a survivor to be eligible for resentencing or alternative sentencing is stringent, emphasizing the fact that there are safeguards in place to make sure individuals don’t falsely claim abuse to excuse violent behavior. Smith explains that past abuse during childhood would not make someone eligible; the individual would have to be a victim of domestic violence at the time of the offense. The abuse would have to be a “significant contributing factor” in the defendant’s participation of the offense, and the judge would have to find that sentencing the survivor under current law would be “unduly harsh.”

Currently incarcerated domestic violence survivors could apply for resentencing, but they would be obligated to provide hospital records or police reports to prove they were reacting to a life-or-death situation when they killed their abuser.

Research by the Alliance for Rational Parole Policies has shown that survivors who kill their abusers in self-defense typically have no criminal record or violent past. In fact, they are highly unlikely to pose any threat to society after fighting for their lives against their abusers. The recidivism is extremely low — nearly nonexistent — when survivors are released after serving time, says Saima Anjam, director of public policy at the New York State Coalition Against Domestic Violence, demonstrating that they were acting out of desperation, not malicious, violent intent.

“This is not for someone who decides one day that they’re going to kill their partner,” Smith says. “These women aren’t violent unless someone is choking them or trying to kill them.”

If the Domestic Violence Survivors Justice Act had been law when the investigators arrived at Dadou’s mother’s house the day after her altercation with Sanders, the next twenty years of her life could’ve been drastically different. Instead, when the officers told Dadou that Sanders had been killed in a car accident, they were starting to build a case against her. Sanders’s red 1982 Chrysler Fifth Avenue crashed into a home just two blocks away from Dadou’s mother’s driveway. The police found his frozen body about twelve hours after Dadou shot him.

The police escorted her to the precinct to identify the car. She recalls being in shock when she went with the officers. She believed the investigators when they told her that he died in an accident. “It made sense since he was so high on base joints [weed laced with cocaine] and there was a heavy snowstorm,” she says. “I had no idea I had shot him.”

While at the precinct, the officers interrogated her for about twelve hours. When she told them about Sanders’ violent nature, the police said she would not be convicted if she confessed. She gave them an eight-page statement about the fight along with a history of the physical, mental and psychological abuse she endured while with Sanders.

Shortly after, Dadou — who had never before been in legal trouble — was arrested and charged with second-degree murder. She had no lawyer present. She says that it wasn’t until the statement was processed that she was allowed to make phone calls.

In June of 1992, about six months after Dadou’s arrest, Metro Justice, a non-profit social justice organization based in Rochester, raised $15,000 and posted Dadou’s bail. In a fund-raising letter Metro Justice wrote that: “Kim is not a danger to society! She acted in self-defense! She was emotionally traumatized and physically brutalized.”

When Dadou’s hearing came in October, Dadou says that, her attorney told her not to testify because she would be crucified by the prosecutor. Instead, he advised her to find an expert witness to testify that she was in fact abused while with Sanders. Hiring Thea DuBow — who worked at My Sister’s Place, an agency that runs a shelter for abused women and their children in Yonkers — cost Dadou an additional $500. She wanted the well-known expert, Lenore Walker, but she says that would’ve cost her just shy of $10,000. “Would that have saved me from prison?” she still wonders.

Dadou (far right) and fellow advocates for The Domestic Violence Survivors Justice Act in Albany. Five out of six of the women had been incarcerated. (Photo courtesy of Kim Dadou)
Dadou (far right) and fellow advocates for The Domestic Violence Survivors Justice Act in Albany. Five out of six of the women have been incarcerated. (Photo courtesy of Kim Dadou)

Angela Reyes, Monroe County’s assistant district attorney at the time, prosecuted Dadou’s case. In a statement made on June 29, 1992 to Democrat and Chronicle, Rochester’s local newspaper, Reyes said that Dadou harassed Sanders and that she refused to accept that their relationship was over. “Everyone said they fought like cats and dogs,” she maintained in a recent interview. Reyes says that they didn’t have police records corroborating that Dadou had harassed Sanders; investigators and the District Attorney’s office concluded the nature of the relationship after interviewing neighbors and family members.

Dadou’s diary, according to Reyes, proved that she couldn’t be a victim of partner abuse. In it, she says, Dadou wrote explicitly about having a sexual relationship with a man who wasn’t Sanders. “That’s why she wouldn’t take the stand, because she didn’t want that information from the diary to come out,” Reyes explains during a phone interview. Reyes says the diary had no written entries about any abuse Dadou might have endured during her on-and-off relationship with Sanders.

Patricia Marks, Monroe County’s Judge during Dadou’s trial, says she didn’t allow the diary to be admitted as evidence in court because it was too “prejudicial” to Dadou. “It wasn’t probative or relevant to the case,” Marks explains. But Reyes says that Judge Marks’s decision didn’t stop her from keeping the diary visibly on her desk during the trials. “I wanted Kim to know that I had it with me every single day of that hearing,” she explains. “That’s why she never took the stand.”

Since Dadou didn’t testify, the judge refused to admit all of the police reports, hospital records, battered women’s shelter reports and witness statements attesting to the abuse. Dadou says that Judge Marks allowed some evidence about battered woman syndrome, but it wasn’t enough to convince the jury.

To this day, Dadou finds it difficult to understand why no one took note of the fact that she had Sanders arrested five times. She says that Reyes presented her as a calculated killer. “So put me in prison for seventeen years because I wrote in my diary about seeking comfort in a former lover while Darnell was beating me up,” she says. “That makes the abuse go away?”

During her sentencing, protestors stood outside the courthouse with signs reading “Bring justice to battered women: Free Kim Dadou.” In October 1992, Dadou was found guilty. She spent more than six thousand days waking up in prison.

* * *

In the next legislative session, which starts in January, advocates hope that New York State Senators will finally cast their votes on the bill that could save abuse survivors who are in same position as Dadou was 25 years ago from harsh prison sentences.

New York Senate Democratic Leader Andrea Stewart-Cousins says she’s hoping that her colleagues will keep in mind that “those who have suffered due to domestic abusers deserve to have our laws reformed to recognize the uniqueness of their situations.” She said that “common sense legislation which would address this situation has been stuck in committee and denied a vote by the Senate Republican Majority.” In May, the bill gained some momentum and was passed by the State assembly with bipartisan support. It remains uncertain if the bill will reach the full Senate for a vote during the upcoming session. John Flanagan, temporary president and majority leader of the New York State Senate, didn’t respond to multiple attempts for his comment on the bill.

The only significant opposition to the legislation has come from the District Attorneys Association of the State of New York who in 2012 wrote that the bill “denies jurisdiction to prosecutors who are otherwise empowered to bring cases that impact their counties; it disrupts well-established criminal procedures; and it fails to achieve its purported goal of providing cost savings.”

Saima Anjam, the New York State Coalition Against Domestic Violence director, disagrees. In fact, she says that if the bill passes, it’s proven that New York will reap significant savings every year. In New York, it costs up to $55,000 per year to send one adult to prison, but sentencing to an alternative-to-incarceration program would cost $11,000, according to a report from NYC Reentry Coalition Services. “We’re in a time when legislators everywhere are seeing very evidently the economical and social costs of mass incarceration,” she says.

Since Senator Hassell-Thompson left the Senate to join the Governor’s office in July, Senator Roxanne Persaud of Brooklyn is stepping up as lead sponsor. “Too often in these cases where victims defend themselves, the domestic violence is discounted,” she says. Persaud is educating legislators and community members about what domestic violence victims like Dadou face when they are fighting for their lives.

When Dadou was behind bars, Jaya Vasandani and Tamar Kraft-Stolar from the Correctional Association in New York visited her and other incarcerated women frequently to assess and report on the quality of living conditions in state prisons. In 2011, Vasandani and Kraft-Stolar asked Dadou to be a survivor advocate for DVSJA.

“It helps me heal knowing that I can raise awareness about domestic violence and what this bill can do for survivors who acted out in self-defense,” Dadou explains. “Prison is not a place for survivors of abuse who have been through extreme trauma – they deserve rehabilitation and support.”

Dadou and her wife, Annie-Bell Brown, in Seneca Park, New York.
Dadou and her wife, Annie-Bell Brown, in Seneca Park, New York.

Now, Dadou works as a customer representative for the Association for the Blind and Visually Impaired in Rochester and spends her free time with her wife, Annie Bell Brown. The couple met in prison about 25 years ago and fell in love.

Dadou tells her story – alongside fellow survivors, legal advocates, and families of currently incarcerated victims – to legislators at public education events and DVSJA lobby days in cities like New York City and Albany.

“If there was a bill like Domestic Violence Survivors Justice Act over twenty years ago, it probably would’ve given me back ten years of my life,” Dadou says. “Maybe I would have had kids.”

 

 

The Day My Therapist Dared Me to Have Sex With Her

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

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

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

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

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

“Oh, yeah,” I say. “That.”

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

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

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

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

I shrugged my shoulders, only half looking up.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Nailed it.

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

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

* * *

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Why not?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

There were two ways to find out:

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

2) Keep going to therapy.

* * *

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

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

“I don’t know.”

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

Here we go again.

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

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

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

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

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

“What?” I respond, flustered.

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

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

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

“Of course not.”

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

“I wouldn’t do that.”

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

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

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

* * *

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Isn’t therapy supposed to ameliorate my anxiety?

* * *

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Exactly.”

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

* * *

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Lori’s great at forcing me to reflect.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

* * *

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

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

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

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

* * *

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

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

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

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

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

* * *

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

See the complete list of Editors’ Picks here. 

* *

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

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

 

 

My Roommate the Prostitute

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At first, the quiet girl from Craigslist seemed like a great match—we had just the occasional tangle over cats and cleanup. And then the men started coming over.

It was late morning, and I was putting up a fresh pot of coffee when I heard the first meow. It sounded awfully close, as if from inside the apartment instead of the backyard one story down. Then I heard it again, and there was no doubt.

WTF?!! I texted my roommate. You got a cat?!

I’d made it clear when she moved in: no pets. “But I want a kitty so bad,” she said a couple weeks later. I suffer from allergies — through spring and summer I have a persistent itch in my nostrils, and the lightest bit of pollen or dander or even a freshly mowed lawn sets off sneezing spells that leave my entire body sore. I was also concerned about the smell. And besides, the landlord forbade pets.

It’s a friend’s, Jenny texted back. I’m only taking care of it for a few months.

Don’t give me that bullshit, I keyed my reply, then backspaced over it, reconsidering. I have a tendency to overreact, to exacerbate conflict. Instead I went for calm and firm, and maybe slightly paternal.

We need to talk.

Later that afternoon, in the kitchen between our bedrooms, we talked, leaning on opposite counters. Jenny (not her real name) kept her eyes downcast, and when I told her she was being inconsiderate and disrespectful and this was not the way grown-ups behaved, she said, “I know. I’m sorry.” I’d expected an argument, but her posture was one of submission, as if I was her dad, or a schoolteacher. But I wasn’t her dad, and she was an adult woman, even if I was twice her age. I was left somewhat unsettled.

In the end, I told her she could keep the cat, but she better take care of it properly.

“Thanks for not being hard on me,” she said, before disappearing back into her room. “I thought you were going to kick me out or something.”

That conversation was the longest we’d ever had. We were unlikely roommates, a Craigslist arrangement: I, a near-middle-aged man, several years divorced, with adolescent children of my own. She, a twenty-year-old recent college grad. We were living in Gravesend, an unremarkable neighborhood in a remote part of Brooklyn, where restaurants, bars and coffee shops are scarce, and when the friend I’d been living with moved out, finding a new roommate wasn’t easy.

At first, I had a parade of eccentrics, men who seemed to have something to hide, smelling of whiskey, with slurred speech, crooked teeth, telling me about jobs as investment bankers or corporate accountants, claims I found dubious. One man, a flashy young Georgian, took one look at the room and grew alarmingly aggressive as he tried to force his cash deposit into my hand, even after I explained that I wasn’t ready to make a decision just yet. He left just as I was about to call the cops.

So when Jenny showed up, I was inclined to like her. She looked like a typical post-college young woman: hair dyed reddish-blond, large earmuff headphones over her ears. She walked with a kind of childish languor, as if it hadn’t fully settled in that she was an adult. Her speech tended to the monosyllabic.

I showed her the room.

“Sweet,” she said.

I showed her the bathroom.

“Sweet.”

Then she asked what she needed for moving in, and I told her: proof of employment, credit report, rent plus security deposit.

“Sweet,” she said.

I assumed this meant she had all those things, and at first, it appeared that she did. She told me she worked two jobs, as a clerk in a stationary store in Midtown Manhattan and as an art-school model. Several days later, she brought documents attesting to her claims, and it all seemed to check out. She moved in a couple weeks later, with the help of her dad, whom I found affable in a way that put me further at ease. Some time after she moved in, I met her boyfriend, who seemed about my age. “He’s an artist,” she told me afterward, unsolicited, as if that explained something.

I did have some mild concerns. I wondered why she would choose to live here — a part of town where she had no friends or family — and with me, a man twice her age. But I needed a roommate, and for the most part, she matched my criteria: stable enough to pay rent, normal enough not to stab me with a kitchen knife or steal my meager possessions. She wanted to be a writer and filmmaker, she said, and was hoping to get into NYU’s film school for graduate studies. There was something familiar about her, almost bland, like an unremarkable extra who might appear repeatedly in so many movies, which meant she was safe and normal and predictable — exactly what I needed if I was to share my home with a stranger.

It was soon after the cat incident that I began to notice she was home more. In fact, she rarely seemed to leave her room. On days I worked from home, I’d hear her throughout the day, in short bursts of action — the turning of the microwave at ten, the fridge opening and closing at eleven, the doorbell with her lunch order at noon. It didn’t bother me; I barely caught glimpses of her. If she’d lost her jobs, it didn’t show so far: She was always on time with rent, and she appeared to have enough money to buy groceries and order in meals. But I wondered, if she wasn’t going to work, how was she supporting herself?

One afternoon, a couple weeks after Jenny took in the cat, I heard her voice and then a male voice I did not recognize. It was definitely not her boyfriend, whose voice was high-pitched; this one was deep, almost gruff. I was in my room, working, and I heard someone enter the bathroom, and then the toilet flush, and so I opened my door a crack for a glance. In the hallway, emerging from the bathroom, was a short, squat man, gray-haired with a bald temple. The man disappeared into Jenny’s room across the hall, and I felt a rush in my brain and gave an involuntary gasp.

There weren’t too many scenarios for why a young woman would be entertaining a vaguely Soviet-looking gentleman who looked to be about her father’s age. I felt a kind of indescribable rage, almost like a personal affront.

How dare she — in my home?!

An hour later, I watched her escort the man to the door. She was wearing blue suede pumps and a very short, ivory-colored dress, somewhat crumpled, as if she’d just removed it from under a pile of laundry. She appeared to be going for a sultry, long-legged look, but she looked instead like a little girl wearing her mother’s discarded clothes. I felt instantly sad for her, and part of me wondered if I shouldn’t offer to help her somehow. Another part of me was so angry I wanted to evict her immediately. The rest of the day, I wrestled with my thoughts, my mind feverish with indecision: Should I say something? Should I tell her boyfriend? Should I call her dad? Was it any of my business anyway?

I decided to wait, see if it happened again, and just a few days later, it did. This time, it was a tall black man wearing an ill-fitting suit and tie, like thrift-shop formalwear. He, too, emerged from the bathroom and disappeared into her room, and after an hour or so she escorted him to the door, again in the blue pumps and rumpled ivory dress.

I took to Google: What to do if my roommate is a prostitute?

More than what to do, I was seeking clarity on why it bothered me. Who was I to judge if Jenny chose an unorthodox profession? Why would I care if she used her room to ply her trade? Still, I couldn’t stomach the thought, and the Internet validated my discomfort. On Yahoo Answers and in Google Groups and various other forums people wrote about similar experiences, and the consensus was: Don’t let your roommate turn tricks within your home. It’s dangerous, it’s illegal, and it can bring nothing but trouble.

I wondered about the practical aspects of her work: Does she have a Backpage ad? Did she use Craigslist? Could I find her on The Erotic Review?

I imagined the conversation we’d have. “This isn’t a brothel!” I wanted to yell at her. “Where do you even find these guys?” Then I reconsidered, thinking I might speak to her in a more caring way. Sit her down for a talk. Maybe get some women’s organization involved. Point her in the right direction. Rescue her.

* * *

I didn’t do any of that. Instead, when we met in the kitchen the next afternoon, passing between the refrigerator and the trashcan by the sink, I decided to bring it up. I was washing a dish, the water running lightly, and she was behind me, waiting for something in the microwave.

“I’ve been seeing some strange men around here,” I said.

She turned slowly to face me, nonchalant, with a thin smile. “What?” she asked. I was certain she’d heard me.

“I’ve been seeing strange men around here,” I said again.

“Oh, yeah.” She had a self-satisfied look, as if she was taunting me: What are you going to do about it? This was not what I’d expected. She’d been remorseful about the cat, and so I’d imagined a repeat.

“Friends of yours?” I asked, hiding my indignation, though I hoped she’d pick up on my mocking tone.

“Yeah,” she said. After a pause, as if realizing something, she added, “I’m friends with some older guys.” She took a sip of water from a glass in her hand, without breaking eye contact. “They’re harmless.”

Harmless. Was that an acknowledgment that they were not, in fact, “friends?”

She offered no further explanations, and we both retreated to our rooms. If at first I’d thought to treat her kindly, I was no longer inclined to. I’d given her the chance to explain. I had offered: Let us, as adults, discuss this situation. In return, she took me for a fool. I’m friends with some older guys. The words infuriated me, and I began to plot her eviction.

Several days passed, however, and still I did nothing. Then, one evening, I was out with a woman I’d recently begun dating. We had just finished dinner at a SoHo restaurant, paid the check, and were about to head to her place when my phone rang. It was my landlord.

“Somebody call 911,” she said. “Police, ambulance. I don’t know what’s happen.” My landlord is Chinese, and I often have a hard time understanding her, but her tone told me all I needed to know. There was trouble at the apartment. “You come home now,” she commanded.

Was Jenny hurt? My thoughts went to the men. I knew this couldn’t end well.

My date raised an eyebrow to me. “Give me a sec,” I said. We were outside the restaurant, in the cool night air on a quiet street, a jittery yellow cab passing over the uneven cobblestone.

I texted Jenny: Everything ok? Landlord says someone called 911.

The response came a few seconds later.

this is kaylee shes dead

I stared at that text, uncomprehending. I didn’t know anyone named Kaylee.

Who’s dead? Who are you? Call me.

A few minutes later, my phone rang with Jenny’s number, and a young woman told me she was Jenny’s best friend. Jenny was dead. She had been dead, in fact, for the past twenty-four hours, in her bed, in our apartment. Kaylee, whose tone was so completely lacking in inflection she sounded almost robotic, told me she’d grown alarmed when Jenny didn’t respond to her texts and phone calls, and so she came by the apartment and convinced the landlord to let her in.

“Probably an overdose,” she said.

My thoughts in those moments would later seem incongruous with the event itself, but at the time they were automatic, a cascading stream of impolitic ponderings. Mostly I was relieved that I’d been spared the task of evicting her, and was now desperately hoping that my evening would not be spoiled any further.

I hung up the phone and looked at my date, who was gripping my arm and staring.

“My roommate’s dead,” I said.

My date reacted as I expected. “Oh, my god! Are you O.K.?”

Of course I was O.K. The fact that my roommate was dead was unsettling, and I was somewhat shaken, but I wasn’t sad, or feeling any grief-related emotions. Mostly I was just annoyed that her death was getting in the way of my evening plans. Jenny and I had lived together for four months, but I barely knew her. Kaylee? A friend? I didn’t know Jenny had friends. An overdose? An overdose of what?

I called my landlord, and told her what I had learned: roommate’s dead, body is still in the house. No, she need not worry about a thing. The police will take care of it all. I was out of town, I said — not a lie, although not entirely the truth either. I’d be back in the morning, and get a new roommate in the coming days. There’d be no problem with the rent.

My date gripped my arm tighter, as if the news of death created some erotic charge, at once frightening and gripping, and we went off together to her apartment a few blocks away.

* * *

In the morning I took the subway home, and remembered: My roommate was dead. It felt surreal, and I found myself ruminating on the nature of death, and youth, and the way we often know so little about the people living just several feet away from us. I thought back to what I’d done the day before: got myself breakfast, worked, then lunch, then anticipated my date in the evening. I’d been annoyed that Jenny had left dirty dishes in the sink and a half-eaten chocolate bar on the kitchen counter for two days straight.

When I got home, the door to Jenny’s room was sealed with a strip of police tape. I also discovered that in addition to the cat, she’d had two large white rats, which I found sitting in tall mesh cages in another room, probably moved there by the cops. It appeared that someone had taken the cat.

Later in the afternoon, my phone rang.

“Hi Shulem, it’s Steve.” There was a pause. “Jenny’s dad.”

I felt momentarily caught off balance. Until that moment, I had imagined that Jenny’s death would affect very few people. She had seemed like a rootless child, unattached, unaffected. I knew she had parents, a little sister, extended family somewhere, but I knew so little about them they were almost unreal to me. Her entire life seemed confined to her room across the hallway, as if she mattered to no one but herself.

“I am so sorry, I am so terribly sorry.” The words tumbled out clumsily, lame and ineffectual. “I was so shocked. I can’t imagine what it’s like for you. I am so, so terribly sorry. This must be so devastating.”

I could hear him sniffling on the other end of the line. “She was a sad girl, Shulem.”

A sad girl? There were the signs, of course. And yet, she’d always seemed vaguely chipper, even after I’d started seeing the men come by.

It was heroin, Steve told me. Her boyfriend, who was an addict, had introduced it to her. Steve thought she must’ve been using for only a couple weeks. He asked if I’d noticed any changes recently, and I told him that I hadn’t.

“Jenny’s aunt will come by to collect some of her things,” he said. “We know Jenny wrote some poetry, so maybe we can find it on her computer.” He paused, then said: “I’m really sorry you have to deal with this.”

When I hung up, I felt guilty for feeling as unmoved as I did. I sat at the desk in my room, a blast of cold air from the air conditioning hitting my face, and thought about Jenny’s death, disturbed that I didn’t feel something more. This was a young woman, just beginning adult life, who’d lived with me for four months, and when I had heard she was dead, my strongest emotion was annoyance. Her father, at the same time, seemed to expect exactly that. I’m sorry you have to deal with this. As if he knew that someone like me would be affected only by the trouble of it all.

* * *

Over the next few days, I checked Jenny’s Facebook page, and was surprised by the outpouring of grief from friends — dozens and dozens of them — who’d tagged her name and wrote messages on her “wall,” in the language of tweeting, text-messaging millennials.

rip jenny (tear-face smiley)

cant believe shes gone i loved that girl

omg why???????

Here were people reminiscing about her, friends writing about the time she helped someone with a college essay, or about high school adventures, or that time they got passed-out drunk and high on that crazy spring break trip.

Two days later, her aunt came.

“This is the biggest nightmare of our lives,” she said, and then she, too, apologized that I’ve had to deal with it all. The aunt packed up some of Jenny’s things — her computer and a handful of personal items. She packed some of her clothes into a few large trash bags. “I think I’ll take these to the Salvation Army,” she said.

Still, out of the entire collection of Jenny’s possessions, she left most of it, a room full of belongings, and told me to throw it all in the trash. I stood in the room afterward, looking around at the things that make up a person’s life, but now no longer mattered. The bed that was ordered online just four months ago. The easy chair Jenny had brought from her childhood home in Westchester. A bunch of keys on a key ring, a bracelet of blue beads, a MetroCard, a bag of cosmetics. Things that, just three days ago, Jenny might’ve thought important, but now, poof — so inconsequential.

Later, I stood in the middle of her empty room, after I’d emptied the closets, swept and mopped the floor, and cleared out all her things. It looked just like it had before she moved in: bare, clean, uninhabited but inviting. I closed the door to look behind it, and noticed a taped-up card, from HashtagThePlanet.com: it hurts now. but it will get better. i promise.

It amazed me how quickly a person’s life could be dismantled, all these concrete physical objects discarded or recycled. I thought about how our physical possessions are like phantom lives: You can go into a person’s room and look at her bed, her desk, the flip-flops in the corner, the little trashcan with the empty coffee cup and dirty tissues, and almost see a living being, by the effects of one. But then, these things are collected, dispersed, in a kind of parallel death — three days, and a healthy young woman’s presence is scraped clean off the planet.

I left the note on the door, and kept a few of Jenny’s things for myself: a small hammer, a pack of AAA batteries. A lamp. Her easy chair. It made me sad, but I had little use for the rest, and ended up putting most of it out with the trash. There it all lay, right by the curb, plastic storage bins and large trash bags filled with the effects of Jenny’s everyday life; the contents of her drawers and closets, whatever her aunt had left — bed linen, hair accessories, underwear, a blanket and some pillows, a bright red blow dryer. The stuff sat on the edge of the sidewalk for a day or two, and through the window I watched as people passed, glancing at the items. Some stopped to pick through them, holding up items for inspection, taking what they pleased, until the pile was about half the original size. Then the trash collectors came and tossed it all into the monster-mouth of their truck, until nothing was left but a shattered light bulb that slipped out of one of the bags, now spread in tiny bits of glass among the fallen leaves of a nearby honeysuckle tree.

* * *

Shulem Deen is the founding editor of Unpious, a journal for voices on the Hasidic fringe. His memoir, “All Who Go Do Not Return,” will be out in March from Graywolf Press. Follow him @shdeen.

Jesse Lucas lives in Louisville, Kentucky. With the help of his wife and trusty dog Fox, he’s able to avoid sleep and make comics instead.

 

 

My Childhood in an Apocalyptic Cult

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A clandestine cult with twenty children to a room, no outside music, movies or books, and no contact beyond the compound. For the first fifteen years of my life, this was my normal.

“Miss Edwards, do you have another shirt in your locker?” my second period Spanish teacher, Mrs. Buck, asked me on my first day of high school, making sure the whole class could clearly hear my dilemma.

I looked down at my breasts, their little white mounds pushing up and slightly out of a shirt that was low-cut and tight-fitting, but not too provocative, at least I thought.

Mrs. Buck’s orders to return to class the next day only if I had appropriate clothing came as a shock for two reasons: Firstly, I didn’t own a lot of clothes. Secondly, I grew up in a community where boys and girls spent a lot of time naked together. I did not understand the proper rules of dress code. Showing a little cleavage was no big deal to my teenage mind.

All my life I had been taught that constantly moving was part of our family’s duty to God. I had lost count of how many places we had lived. I wanted to be normal, so I convinced my parents to let me enroll in Rowland High School, in Southern California’s San Gabriel Valley. Earlier that morning I had been thrilled to start classes. At fifteen years old, it was my first day at any school, anywhere, ever.

On my way home I cried profusely for being ostracized for reasons I didn’t understand. I stopped at the local library, where I often went to read glossy women’s magazines. An issue of Seventeen caught my eye. I flipped through it. In a side bar, black bold letters read, “Did you grow up in a cult? Take this quiz and find out now.”

I had heard the word “cult” when I was younger and had been trained to answer that, “No, I had not grown up in a cult” or “What’s a cult?” if anyone ever asked me.

Intrigued, I flipped to the story. In a sidebar black bold letters read, “Did You Grow Up in a Cult? Take this quiz and find out now.”

I stopped crying. Maybe there was a reason for my being ostracized. I turned to the quiz. I had to know the truth.

First question: “Did you grow up in a secluded environment?”

I thought about my early childhood in Thailand, before we moved back to the States. Every home I lived in there was required to have walls at least eight feet high, topped with loops of barbed wire or jagged glass sealed into the cement. The gates were boarded with plywood. I lived with my family and thirty to forty other people. I was told they were my “family in the Lord.”

We called ourselves “The Children of God.” I wasn’t allowed to leave without permission. If I did, I would be banned from ever returning and doomed to eternal hell and condemnation in the afterlife. My parents and the other adults I lived with told me that I was allowed to leave, but if I did I’d be giving up my birthright as one of God’s 144,000 chosen and would forfeit my spot in heaven come the apocalypse in 1993.

“Were you under the influence of a charismatic leader?”

I thought about David Brandt Berg. He lived in hiding. My parents followed him but were never allowed to see him. I never knew what he looked like. In photos he would white out his face and draw a picture of a lion head. He called himself “Father David,” but we kids were required to call him “Grandpa.”

“Were you coerced to recruit members to your group?”

I thought about the trips I’d go on, during which I was taught to tell people about Jesus and his love. We called it “witnessing.” These recruiting trips were the only times I could go beyond our compound.

“Were you taught that the outside world was a forbidden place, and did you feel guilty for wanting to leave?”

The world outside was referred to as “the system.” It was a scary place filled with evil, corruption and devilish temptations and desires. Father David referred to anyone who was not part of the Children of God as “systemites.” He sent out comic books with illustrations of what these systemites looked like—ultra-cool boys with slicked-back hair and baggy pants, girls with dyed hair, dangling jewelry, painted fingernails and lots of make-up. They were lost and it was our job to save them. We were taught to be natural and wear our hair long with minimal fuss. Make-up and jewelry was forbidden. Boys kept their hair short and men were not allowed to grow facial hair. Father David shunned any attention to fashion or outer appearance. “Worldliness,” he called it, was a device of the Devil. I was told I was special because I was born into the Children of God. Over time, I learned to believe it.

Until I picked up that issue of Seventeen, I thought we were just part of a religious missionary group with strict rules. I followed my family and trusted them.

All of our lives, we had never been allowed to choose where to live, what clothes to wear or what food to eat. Everything had been decided for us.

For the next few weeks after taking the Seventeen quiz, the words ran like a manta through my mind: Oh my God…I grew up in a cult…Where do I go from here?

*   *   *

The Children of God was founded on the shores of Huntington Beach, California, in 1968. David Berg was the youngest child of evangelist Virginia Lee Brandt and Hjalmer Berg. After several attempts at following his famous mother’s nationwide evangelical mission, Berg was kicked out of the Christian Missionary Alliance, a group his parents belonged to, for alleged sexual misconduct, although Berg claims he was expelled for trying to preach to Native Americans who came into the parish, as he put it, “dirty and barefoot,” eager to hear the gospel.

Berg partnered up with Fred Jordan, a television evangelist and founder of the American Soul Clinic in Los Angeles, an organization dedicated to training missionaries for the foreign field. Together they promoted a television program called “Church in the Home,” which broadcast sermons to people’s homes via a weekly television program. Their partnership lasted for fifteen years. During that time, Berg developed a philosophy that any action was justified as long as it was done in the name of God’s work. This philosophy would be a founding principle of the Children of God.

Berg, along with his wife and four children, began offering assistance to a small group called Teen Challenge at the Light Club, a Christian coffeehouse near the Huntington Beach pier. Soon they were running the mission full time, keeping it open and alive seven days a week with songs about Jesus and a message of the end times.

The word “church” was never mentioned. Father David detested the church. His group of followers began to grow, as did his prophecies and revelations, which included apocalyptic visions, claims against the established church and a plethora of “laws” condoning sexual freedom.

In the 1970s he began vigilant protests against the established church. His protests were called “Woe the Church Ministry” and members dressed in sackcloth, held thick wooden staves, smeared ashes on their foreheads and stormed into Sunday morning church sermons to warn the congregation of the end of the world.

In a practice called “flirty-fishing,” Father David instructed the women to use sex to entice new members to the group and gather donations. He appointed a woman named Karen Zerby as his chosen prophetess. He called her his “first wife,” but he was known to sleep with any woman who had the privilege of meeting him. We learned to call Karen Zerby “Mama Maria.” She headed the flirty-fishing movement, which, along with the Woe the Church Ministry, attracted attention from the media, often landing the Children of God on the front page of newspapers. As the group grew to hundreds and then thousands, it was time to organize, and according to Father David’s orders, flee from the western world that would be the first to burn in hell come God’s judgment and the apocalypse.

*   *   *

My mom was born and raised in Malmo, Sweden, to an alcoholic father and a harsh, distant mother. As a child her parents dropped her and her younger sister, Eva, off at a Lutheran church every week. Mom loved the sermons and excelled in church activities, eventually becoming a scout leader. In high school she became a full-time babysitter for one of her teachers, then quit her babysitting job to travel to Tunisia. As a young woman she was a traveler full of adventure. She told stories of traversing the Swedish slopes, getting caught in a blizzard while skiing and bravely crossing a narrow bridge swinging high above a Norwegian fjord.

On her way to buy a ticket to Tunisia, Mom met Thomas, a member of the Children of God who she described as “having eyes that were full of light.” She said he was glowing with an aura she had never seen. He sat on a street corner strumming a guitar. She sat down next to him and he told her about Jesus. He invited her to come to their house that night for dinner. Fish soup was on the menu. Mom was a strict vegetarian.

When she told them about her dietary restrictions, one of the members told her, “It’s O.K. Just put the fish on the side.”

She was ready to either hear or deliver a lecture about conflicting dietary beliefs. To her surprise, they didn’t judge her for being vegetarian, nor did they try to convince her that she should change her habits. It was then, she said, that she felt an acceptance she had never felt before. She was part of a community. She had found her family. She dropped everything she had, including a fiancé back home in Sweden, to join the Children of God. She was just one of thousands to “forsake all” and follow Father David Berg.

Shortly afterward, Mom and Dad met in Spain in 1978. Dad, a promising geology student, had dropped out of UC Davis two weeks before he would have graduated at the top of his class to follow his five older siblings into the Children of God. The McNally family lived across the street from him in South Pasadena and most of their kids also joined.

When people ask me what compelled them to join, I think back to the times in which they were living: the 1960s. It was a time of protest, political turbulence and school rebellion. Baby boomers were coming of age, exploring sex and lowering their inhibitions. Hippies on the streets of California were looking for answers and Father David believed he had them. He incorporated the movements of the ’60s into his evangelical mission, even writing a letter called, “C’mon Ma! Burn Your Bra” and a series of letters on “revolutionary sex.” Father David believed that we could return humanity back to the Garden of Eden, the way God intended, a world of peace with humans living close to nature and serving God. He understood that the youth of the generation were ready to believe anything.

Members were required to forsake all, cut off all ties with their families and devote their lives in service to the Lord. Father David was God’s mouthpiece and claimed to be his prophet. He offered young people the promise of freedom within the confines of his leadership. If there is such a thing as a modern-day prophet, Father David fit all the requirements. He had the charisma that would lead one of the most infamous cults of all time.

The Children of God outlasted most cults formed at that time. We kids had the burden to bear. It was our job to save the world and return the pagans, all other beings outside of the group, back to God’s natural state.

My family’s move to Thailand in 1985 was based on a prophecy that Father David received. My family was living in Los Angeles at the time. One day Aunty Mary, who was also part of the Children of God, came running into the living room to tell us of the latest news Father David had received from God. Her hair was tied back in a little bun and she held a freshly printed magazine. She flipped through the pages and landed on a picture of a woman wearing the same spiky crown that rests atop the head of the Statue of Liberty. The woman’s legs were spread open wide and she was holding a globe of the world in one hand. In her other hand rested the fate of the world, symbolized by a handful of poverty-stricken, third-world folk at the mercy of her wrath. In between her legs were the Pentagon, the White House and other buildings representing lust, sloth and greed. Father David was ordering all of his followers to move out of western civilization. The west was evil, he’d say, and would be the first to burn in hell. He’d had a revelation from God that the world was going to end in 1993 and it was our job to warn everybody. We were part of the 144,000 with spots in heaven and we could take whoever was willing with us.

*   *   *

I missed the eighties entirely. I had a minimal education that included learning fractions and geography, reading portions of the King James Bible, and memorizing chapters upon chapters of scripture and reciting them on command. I was forbidden from reading outside books, watching movies, listening to music or talking to anyone outside of the group.

Our days were spent taking care of the compound, raking leaves and caring for children who weren’t much younger than me. We were cut off completely from family and friends who were not part of the Children of God. I never knew my grandparents. We learned to call the adults in our community “Uncle” and “Aunty.”

We woke up every morning at seven a.m. By 7:30 our rooms were immaculate and spotless, the bed sheets unwrinkled and firm. We slept in rooms sometimes filled with fifteen to twenty children on bunk beds, trundle beds and rollaway beds. One adult was assigned to watch us kids during the night. With little water supply and limited space, we kids showered communally and slept in tight quarters. Having to take our clothes off in the humid tropical afternoons or during nap time was not uncommon.

After morning prayer, we gathered ourselves into neat rows and stood at attention, each line containing eight to twelve children determined by age. Mom had been giving birth to a new baby every year and was now pregnant with her eighth child. We stood shortest to tallest. I was usually somewhere in the back with my twin sister, Tamar, close behind. Our sister Mary Ann, who was older than us but a bit shorter, stood in front of me. I liked being sandwiched between my two sisters. We marched in single file, quoting a verse or shouting a quote in sync with our steps.

Hup-two-three-four. God is not a fan of war.

We marched like soldiers. We slept like soldiers. We stood like soldiers.

On queue we’d file down the stairs and through the hall. We arrived at our designated tables for breakfast. We sat at our assigned seats and ate thick rice porridge or curdled powdered eggs and steamed rice sopped with soy sauce. The food was bland and tasteless. During lunch we slapped the slabs of boiled tofu under the table, where they stuck like gum or splattered to the floor. We balled up the rice in snowballs and had food fights when the adults weren’t looking, until someone got hauled off to the bathroom for a spanking and we all laughed like hyenas.

The Children of God had grown to include 12,000 members spread mostly across third-world countries, and an official campus was established in Japan called The Heavenly City School. It housed up to 300 members, consisted of multiple compounds spanning a whole block and was fully equipped with a studio where they produced religious tapes, posters and videos for distribution. In Thailand, we began distributing the media they produced for a suggested donation. Father David said that since we were on a mission to save the world, people would offer us gifts and we should accept them readily. Once some of the Thai aunties talked the colonel of Southern Thailand into letting us stay in his island property on Phuket for reduced rent. We enthusiastically agreed.

*   *   *

It was at this home in Phuket that I began to think about the reality of my situation. I was five years old and 1993 was just seven years away. I would be twelve when the world ended. Father David said we would be God’s martyrs. It was the price we had to pay for being God’s chosen ones. Most of my childhood was spent fantasizing about the details of my death.

It only recently occurred to me how often I was forced to think about death as a child. When children are forced to think about death they don’t think about what will happen in the afterlife. No. When a child thinks about death they think about the exact moment of death. What must happen in order for a person to die? Will it hurt? Will I be able to handle the pain? How will it happen? How will I die?

I knew for sure that I was going to heaven since I was one of God’s children, but the threshold to get there seemed insurmountable. I began to think about all the possible ways that I could die—primitive ways that I’d heard about, mostly from the Bible stories we’d read at night or from movies that we were allowed to watch on weekends like “The Ten Commandments” or “Jesus of Nazareth.” I formulated elaborate images of my mind of being burned at the stake like Joan of Arc; being crucified upside down, where the head fills with blood and slowly bursts; being beheaded like John the Baptist; or stoned to death like the prostitutes in the Bible stories or movies we’d watch.

We had imitation attacks where some of the men dressed up in black uniforms and carried broomsticks for guns. They’d burst through the front doors close to bedtime. We’d all hide under the stairs and prepare to stay as still and quiet as possible until they’d tell us to come out and we’d sing songs in a state of euphoria, raising our arms in the air and pretending that we were flying up to heaven to meet Jesus at the pearly gates. How did nobody understand that I was terrified about what would have to happen in order for us to go to heaven? Did they not understand that death comes before resurrection?

I was prepared for a real invasion, an army of men dressed in heavy black jumpsuits with helmets and batons and guns. The guns were my salvation. I figured that death by a gunshot wound was probably the least painful way to die.

I felt sorry for these men I imagined, because I knew that they were human too. I thought that maybe I could convert them to our side. I convinced myself that if I could look into their eyes, I could persuade them that I wasn’t guilty of anything and I didn’t think that they were bad either. They were just doing their job. They were soldiers like me; they didn’t have a choice.

At night I prayed that I would get shot. It seemed a quick and painless way to die. I wanted to be shot with a machine gun, so that I would die as quickly as possible. And I wanted to be shot in the heart. I was terrified of pistols and the idea of a wound that might leave me bleeding to death for hours.

I slept on a mattress on the floor and positioned myself close to a wooden bed structure so I could slide under at a moment’s notice.

I was special, I told myself as I cried myself to sleep.

*   *   *

One night when I was five, my thoughts were interrupted by the flash of fluorescent lights and Mom’s urgent command: “Hurry and get your things together. We don’t have much time.” She told us to be as quiet as possible. Outside the sky was still dark. Mattresses bound with baby blue sheets were stretched across the floor. We had ten minutes to pack up our things and vacate. We called it evacuation. Father David taught us to have “fleebags” packed at all times with toiletries, socks, underwear and a few pairs of light clothing in the case of a raid, natural disaster or the end time. We were trained to disappear at the snap of a finger.

“Hurry kids! Before the officials get here.” Her voice was pressing but calm.

This time I wasn’t dreaming.

I had heard stories of raids before in homes thousands of miles away in Argentina and other parts of the world. These homes were called “jumbos” and housed up to three hundred members at a time. We knew that they were raided during the wee hours just before dawn, similar to the raid on the Branch Davidians in Waco; the only difference is we didn’t have guns or firearms.

After being interrupted from their sleep and snatched out of bed, the children were ordered by officials to board a bus and then taken to social services, where they remained until their parents were proven innocent of child abuse and molestation charges. After being interrogated into exhaustion, the girls were then taken to the doctor to be examined. Social services wanted to determine whether or not they were still virgins. Although I was never sexually abused, I’ve heard many stories throughout the years of girls in Children of God who were physically and sexually abused.

Although I was horrified by the graphic procedure involving a cold speculum and metal braces, I secretly wondered what it would be like to be taken away and placed in a new home, even if only temporarily. Guiltily, I wondered what it would be like to live in a fancy house with high glass cupboards filled with delicate china sets.

Nothing much was said during the raid. Whenever we were ordered to do something, we simply listened and obeyed. There were no questions. We lived every day on the verge of martyrdom, thankful for another privilege, another chance to save the world.

We packed our things and loaded into a Song-Taow, a Thai open-air taxi, which was waiting for us outside the gates. We positioned ourselves to fit on the benches, our fleebags under the seats and all of our possessions bound in large black trash bags. The sky was shifting from black to gray and if Dad was worried he never showed it.

Mom was holding Becky, still a newborn, in her arms. She looked at Dad, who was loading the last of our belongings.

“Are they all here?” She began to count us kids the way she did when she didn’t have a free hand, using her head to nod off the numbers one-by-one.

“One. Two…Where’s William?”

William was sitting behind Heidi with her fire-red hair, sucking on her pacifier.

“Three… four…” Tamar and I always stuck together.

“Five… six… seven…” She counted the rest of us. Becky was cradled in her arms. We were present and quiet, never uttering a word.

I didn’t ask where we were going but I knew we had no destination. We were fleeing and I was thrilled by the idea of it.

We drove off into the early morning hours, leaving behind a trail of dust. For the next seven years, every six months we would move to a new home in another part of Thailand.

*   *   *

When you grow up in an apocalyptic cult and the due date for the end of the world rolls around and nothing happens, it’s rather anticlimactic. There are no pre-apocalyptic ceremonial rituals. No gathering in huddles to pray in tongues and speak to the spirit world. No public apologies about why the world didn’t end the way it had been revealed. Life goes on as usual. Breakfast is still served at 7:30 a.m. Recess is still late in the afternoon. Dinner is served at six. Lights out is at eight.

When the world didn’t end as he had predicted, Father David had a revelation that it was time to move back west. He said God was pleased with our work so he decided to give us an extension. Every year after 1993 a letter came out entitled, “It Could Happen This Year.” I was beginning to have my suspicions. Was there any truth to anything Father David said?

One day, Mom and Dad pulled us kids aside and told us that we would be moving back to America. A home in Chicago had room for us. I didn’t know whether Chicago was a city or a state. Mom cleared up the confusion and soon I was able to locate the Windy City on any map, even a large circular globe.

John and Dad spent a year selling Children of God media at the harbor to save enough money for our flight to the U.S., where we moved into a five-bedroom house in suburban Berwyn with about thirty other members. It was there that I began to see the world I had been warned against.

The rules weren’t as strict as they had been in Thailand, and the first thing I noticed was that we were allowed to eat even if we weren’t hungry. The eggs were fried in adequate amounts of oil and, unlike powdered eggs, I enjoyed these enough to ask for seconds—which, to my delight, I was allowed. The bagels, soft and fluffy with melted butter, filled me with my first experience of white flour delight. For the first time in my life I wasn’t just full. I was satisfied.

After breakfast we were allowed to watch TV. The Winter Olympics were on. The Nancy Kerrigan and Tonya Harding scandal was making headline news. It was my first time watching TV, ever.

“See what happens when people get into sports,” Mom said. Father David had taught us that all sports were evil and of the Devil.

I watched the clip over and over of Nancy Kerrigan wailing in pain as she held her knee. I couldn’t help but also notice the beauty of the sport. When the skaters glided across the ice they looked happy and free. They moved effortlessly and wore costumes fit for ballerinas. They were beautiful. I watched as sixteen-year-old Oksana Baiul collapsed in tears when it was announced that she had won gold. I wanted to rejoice with her. I wanted to be her. I couldn’t help thinking sports can’t be evil.

Father David died on October 1, 1994, one year after his predicted apocalypse. I was twelve and the world hadn’t ended. My thoughts of death were beginning to subside as my worries shifted to my developing body, specifically my breasts. They were beautiful, I thought, and I didn’t want them to sag like Mom’s did, should I live to see adulthood. I developed impeccable posture, slept with a training bra on at night and taught the other girls to sit up straight, often slapping them on the back when we sat for hours listening to Father David’s letters. Since I had control over nothing else, I figured at least I could control the two new protrusions on my chest.

After Father David’s death, we were still required by the leaders in the home to abide by his rules. Following his death we spent three days fasting and reading a burgundy book titled “The Charter.” In it was a complete set of rules on how members could now live their lives, including sexual limits and boundaries (at what age people could have sex and with whom), weekly allowances on alcohol (a quarter of a cup of wine per week), and rules on what constituted a “home” (members needed four consenting adults, also members, living in the same building in order to be part of the Children of God). This meant members had their freedom; we were no longer required to live in a compound. Four consenting adults and a commitment to tithing and proselytizing was what all members needed to still be considered part of the group.

I woke up one morning after the fast was over and looked out the window. Everyone was scattered on the lawn, with their belongings packed in large black plastic trash bags. I knew what this meant. Because of the new requirements on what constituted a home, everyone was dispersing. I thought about my family. There were now eleven of us kids, all under the age of fourteen.

“Who’s gonna want to live with us?” I whispered to Tamar on the lawn the morning after Father David’s death.

“We’re so big,” she agreed.

A few days later the leaders gave my family a van. We had nowhere to go and no relatives to take us in. We started going to Sunday services at a Thai Lutheran church on the South Side of Chicago. One of the members, Mr. Tessalee, a Thai-Chinese man with eyes the shape of crescent moons, who always wore a crisp dark suit and skinny tie with his hair neatly combed, had heard we needed a place to stay. He had an empty building in the South Side and he offered to let us stay in it rent-free. It was a tall brick building with a small front yard surrounded by a chain link fence. We agreed. Mom was pregnant. Dad had no job. On our first night there we heard gunshots echoing from the alley. We would continue to hear these on a weekly basis. We were on our own.

*   *    *

I’ve heard many stories about kids who grew up like me and killed themselves because they didn’t how to make it in the world. Some were my friends, others distant acquaintances. They’d blame their parents for not teaching them how to write checks, or fill out applications, or hold their own in a normal social setting. There are girls who became strippers because all they knew how to do was give a powerful “look of love,” as taught by Father David during the flirty-fishing movement. They had no skills for working or making money, so they used their sexuality, just like their mothers did in the early days.

One day John flew out to California to visit our Aunt Mary, who had recently left the Children of God. When he came back I noticed something was different. His hair was slicked back like the systemites in Father David’s comic books. He wore store-bought clothes and sometimes I noticed that he had headphones on. He was listening to system music. Was he becoming a systemite?

He brought good news. Aunt Mary had invited us to come live near her in California. She lived in a house surrounded by bougainvillea and English ivy crawling up brick walls. She had found a house for us near her in the San Gabriel Valley. The Chicago winters were too cold, and California, John said, boasted perfect weather and endless summers.

In April, we piled ourselves into the van as Dad loaded the last of our belongings. He hitched a wooden wagon to the back and we loaded it with foam mattresses. Dad and John took turns driving. Tamar made white-bread tuna salad sandwiches that we would stop to eat along the way. Bobby was a baby and we passed him from person to person. We didn’t have much food after moving to the house in the South Side. Mary Ann sat behind me looking gaunt. The rest of the kids shuffled in their seats. Mom lay sprawled across the front row, her stomach bulging with child number twelve. I could tell it wasn’t just because she was pregnant; something was definitely wrong.

Following the death of Father David, the cult was slowly beginning to disintegrate. We no longer lived in communes. We no longer had his “law.” We no longer functioned like an army. The Children of God was becoming a loose group of families scattered across the world, struggling to make it in a society that they knew little about.

In the summer of 1996, after we had moved to California, the leaders planned a road trip to Lake Tahoe for preteen members to convince us that the Children of God was fun and that there was no place we’d rather be. “Uncle Tim,” one of the leaders, drove a school bus that had been painted multiple shades of blue. On the way to Lake Tahoe, the bus broke down on the side of the freeway and we sat in our built-in beds sweating until Uncle Tim figured out how to get it working again.

I was fourteen years old. Before we left, mom and dad had given us an ultimatum: Decide if we wanted to stay in the group or leave. I never asked what compelled them to make this decision, but I think there came a point when they realized they had to put their family first. It was clear that John was becoming a systemite. Mom and Dad decided that if we wanted out too, then they would leave with us. For that decision, I later chose to forgive them for raising us in a cult.

John was now working two jobs: at a bagel shop during the day and a coffee shop in the evening. He made tips and was earning real hard cash, something we had never seen growing up. He drove a midnight blue Volkswagen Beetle and had systemite friends.

One day in the campground as we ate blueberry pie filling from tin cans, Mary Ann, a year older than me, started the conversation that would determine our future.

“Can’t you see what these guys are doing?” she asked, referring to Uncle Tim and all the other adults who had punished us when we were children. “This is not right.”

“Well, what should we do about it?” I asked. High school seemed our only option. Plus, the idea of learning appealed to me.

It was there, among the crackling pines and under a clear blue sky, that we decided to tell my parents. We called home from a pay phone and told them we wanted out. In the same conversation, Mom told us she had just got the results back from a doctor’s check-up. There was a reason why she had been in so much pain on our drive to California and had to lie down across the row of seats. She had been diagnosed with cancer and had a ten-percent prognosis. Although not quite sure what a ten-percent prognosis meant, I knew it couldn’t be good news.

Mom later told me that the doctors had told her something was abnormal back when she was pregnant with us twins. However, since the world would be ending soon, Father David did not encourage visits to the doctor.

I had little capacity to feel sorry for my mother at the time, as I was in my own state of survival, trying to figure out how I was going to make it as a teenager in a world I knew little about. After all that we’d been through she was going to have to fend for herself.

And that’s what we all had to do: learn how to make it on our own.

When we got home, dad enrolled us in a home-schooling program because he said that after the sheltered life we’d lived, throwing us into public high school would be like throwing lambs to the slaughter. He was right, but soon we wanted the real deal. We wanted a normal social experience. We enrolled in Rowland High School.

I wanted nothing more than to look cool. The night before I laid out my options. I had two shirts. One was fluorescent green with a short collar and buttons. The other had red, white and blue stripes. It fit me snugly and had a low v-cut, showing a little cleavage. I looked cool, I thought. I was ready to face the world.

Being ostracized by Mrs. Buck on my first day was not the only obstacle I’d face. High school turned into a disaster, with both Tamar and I getting kicked out twice each for having alcohol and weed. Numbing our minds became our way of dealing with the world. We found ourselves in community day schools, where we were the only white girls and often witnesses to bloody fights or unfamiliar gang-speak.

Tamar came home one day with the news of a college that boasted the promise of a stewardess degree.

“Four years, Flor,” she told me excitedly. “Four years is all it takes.”

Her mouth parched from excitement; she told me about a campus that sat high in the Malibu Hills called Pepperdine University. It was beautiful and looked like a palace, with Mediterranean Revival architecture. For the first time in my life I thought about going to college. We could apply to any school we wanted, she said. I was thrilled.

Since neither of us had a high school degree or GED, we enrolled in classes at Mt. San Antonio Community College to start. There were courses in English and history and electives in everything from Spanish to horticulture to dance. I was able to choose what I wanted to major in. This was a novel idea for me. I had never even heard about college growing up. Father David said education was evil. Institutions were places of sin and corruption.

I was beginning to see that for the first time in my life I had a future.

In an honors business class our professor announced that there would be an all-expense paid field trip to UC Berkeley. I raised my hand.

“What’s UC Berkeley?” I asked.

Looking back now, I can see how naïve my question was but I also quickly learned that curiosity was going to be my greatest and only ally. I would have to forfeit seeming dumb for my own survival.

Dad had returned to college to work on a degree, figuring that the best job he could get was a high school P.E. teacher. Instead he rekindled a love for academics, this time for mathematics. I remember waking up at two in the morning and watching him working under the amber light of a desk lamp, poring over a problem that seemed unsolvable. He was working on his master’s. I told myself that one day I would do the same.

Mom began taking weekly trips to the hospital for radiation treatments and was soon cleared of cancer. The doctors called her a “miracle case.”

A year later I received my acceptance letter to UC Berkeley.

My friends congratulated me and made it a point to let us know how jealous they were and how lucky we were — both of us getting a spot in of the best schools in America. They could never get in, they said, no matter how hard they tried or how good their grades were.

“It wasn’t just the grades,” I said. I bit my lower lip and thought hard about it for a minute. “I think my personal statement had something to do with it.”

* * *

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

See the complete list of Editors’ Picks here.

* * *

Flor Edwards received her MFA in nonfiction from the University of California, Riverside. She has a BA in journalism and is working on a memoir.

Jesse Lucas lives in Louisville, Kentucky. With the help of his wife and trusty dog ‘Fox’ he’s able to avoid sleep and make comics instead.