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.”

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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.”

 

 

The Prison Where Inmates Help Each Other Die With Dignity

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More Americans are dying behind bars than ever before. At one correctional facility, volunteer death-doulas offer care and comfort to their fellow prisoners.

It’s six p.m. on a summer Wednesday, and Billy Canady Jr., 47, is beginning his shift as a hospice volunteer. His patient, Carl Stevens, is dying of cancer. A mermaid looks down on the bed  where Stevens is sleeping, part of an ocean-themed mural that sports his sentimental touch: photos of Stevens’ children and grandchildren by the bed. Canady taps the elderly man lightly on his shoulder to let him know he’s there.

“He just looked up, and it’s like you get this sense that he knows he’s safe,” says Canady, who is fourteen years into an eighteen-year sentence. It’s looks like this that make his volunteer work worth it, he says.

Canady has been looking after Stevens (whose name has been changed here because he did not agree to be interviewed for this piece) for a little over two weeks. At this point, caring for him means sitting by the bed to keep him company because Stevens is still largely self-sufficient. They have a few things in common: both love German shepherds and value family. And, most importantly, both are inmates at Osborn Correctional Institution, a medium-security prison in northern Connecticut.

The mantra of hospice is “death with dignity.” It is a comfort-oriented approach to death in which quality of life is deemed as important as the number of days the patient has left. Pain management is a priority, and unlike the sterile anonymity of a hospital, hospice patients die at home or in a place that feels like home, surrounded by family. Hospice care is meant to address not just the physical needs of the dying, but their mental and emotional needs as well.

Osborn’s hospice may not be as cozy as a living room, but it is a definite step up from a cell or the general medical ward down the hall. Many inmates don’t have family who are willing or able to spend their last weeks, or days, with them. So in addition to medical duties, the inmate volunteers serve as a stand-in family.

Osborn is among a relatively small number of U.S. prisons that have a hospice program. The most recent count, conducted ten years ago, found only 65 out of 1,800 correctional facilities had hospice programs. Able-bodied inmates play a key role in the prison model of hospice: They volunteer as part-time companions to the patients, and part-time assistants to staff nurses. They spend time talking with their patients, reading to them, and just being there for them. And if the patients need help, the volunteers feed, bathe, and take them to the bathroom.

There is no shortage of elderly inmates in need of hospice care, largely thanks to bloated sentences during the “tough-on-crime” ’80s and ’90s. In fact, they make up the fastest growing population in prisons today: In 2014, the most recent year for which data is available, the highest number of inmates on record died behind bars, with about 3,500 in state prison and about 450 in federal. Inmate volunteers provide free labor and save the prisons money, but proponents of prison hospice say that its greatest benefits are social rather than economic. For the patients, hospice offers them the prospect of a more humane death by allowing them to spend their final days with round-the-clock care by peers. And for the workers, the experience of caretaking can be profound. Plus, academics who study this type of program say that this goodwill is spread beyond prison medical wards.

After an inmate embraces the role of caretaker for his patients, “then it becomes more about their relationship to other people … their community,” says Kristin Cloyes, a professor of nursing at the University of Utah who has studied the prison hospice program at the maximum-security Louisiana State Penitentiary, also known as Angola. “They’ve actually transformed the culture,” she says. Cloyes speculates that the hospice program at Angola was a key factor in the dramatic decline in violence Angola has seen in the past three decades.

Jamey Boudreaux, executive director for the non-profit Louisiana and Mississippi Hospice and Palliative Care Organization (LMHPCO), has been visiting Angola to observe the hospice program since its early days in the late ’90s. He also recognized the cultural shift Cloyes cited. The hospice program created a “new emphasis on dignity of one person — no one dies alone,” he says. “The administration saw that when you start respecting human dignity, the violence dropped.”

Since the program started at Osborn ten years ago, the hospice has seen 37 patients. (This doesn’t represent all of the inmates who have died here over those years, as some chose to die in the medical ward alone or with a staff nurse, explained Colette Morin, a nurse at Osborn and the coordinator of the hospice program. Others are hesitant about signing the “Do Not Resuscitate” order — only offered when a patient is entering their last six months of life — required to enter hospice care. This is a barrier to some inmates, Morin says, who think, “If I’m signing into this program, I’m signing up to die.”)

Canady is one of twenty inmates currently trained to be an inmate volunteer. Over the past six years, he has guided fifteen patients to a peaceful death.

Morin describes the 45-hour hospice training, which covers practical skills as well as emotional, as a process that allows guarded men to break out of their hardened shells. It is important that trainees learn to be more in tune with their own emotions, so that they can be present for their patients. An early assignment is to write a letter of apology to their victims and read it to the group.

“The transformation, I feel, starts there, but it carries on to the rest of their life in prison,” Morin says.

But the intimate interaction — clothing, bathing, assisting in the bathroom, and so on — between inmates in hospice goes against standard prison code and concerns some correctional administrators, according to a 2002 survey of fourteen state and federal prison officials carried out by the GRACE Project, a now-defunct effort to increase the understanding of prison end-of-life programs. Putting able-bodied inmates in charge of weak ones also raised eyebrows because of the potential for victimization. It is concerns like this, perhaps, that explain why prison hospice is not more widespread.

At Osborn, staff is very selective about who they allow to be in the program. One of the longest serving volunteers at Osborn was put on probation, Morin says, because of a contraband infraction — unauthorized sneakers.

Canady was first introduced to hospice work while on temporary leave from prison to visit his dying grandmother in 2010. Hospice workers were caring for her at that point, and he was moved by their efforts. When he returned to Osborn, he decided to give the prison’s hospice program a try.

Alongside Narcotics Anonymous, which helped him kick his addiction to crack cocaine, Canady counts hospice work as among the most rehabilitative experiences that he has had in prison. “I can just be me, and be proud of the person who I am, the person who my mother and father wanted me to be,” he says.

Canady’s father, Billy Sr., is a Vietnam veteran and a retired school aide. His mother, Belva, worked on the production floor at a local factory in Waterbury, Connecticut, an industrial town about an hour and a half south of Osborn, making small screws. Of their three sons and one foster daughter, Billy Jr. is the only one who has been incarcerated. The parents describe Canady as a happy-go-lucky kid who fell in with the wrong crowd.

“Everyone out here speaks highly of him,” Billy Sr. says, “They’re surprised that he’s still incarcerated.”

Canady describes his wrongdoings as a spiral of addiction, and stealing to fuel his addiction, starting when he was in high school. Things got out of control, he says, when at 22, his best friend died after a fight with an armed neighbor. “I heard two shots,” he says, and “72 minutes later he died.” At that point, he says, he just stopped caring.

His addiction took hold of his life. He stole from his parents, and eventually — armed with a gun and knife, which he brandished but never used, he says — from a local gas station and two cab drivers. It was those robberies that landed him where he is today.

“Like they say in recovery, when you get desperate, you’ll go to extremes to get what you want,” he says.

Under different circumstances Canady doesn’t think he and Stevens would have crossed paths. Stevens was a journalist who lived in a rich part of Hartford, whereas Canady grew up in industrial Waterbury, and was “running the streets,” in his words, at a young age. Yet there he was, sitting by the man’s bed during his most vulnerable hours, caring for him as he neared the end of his life. Canady loved listening to Stevens’ travel stories — he visited New Mexico each year to meet his best friend, a place Canady had only seen pictures of — and never grew tired of hearing about his children and grandchildren.

Their transgressions brought them to Osborn, and hospice bound them together. About a month after Stevens entered hospice at the age of 73, dementia started to kick in. One afternoon, a staff nurse found him wandering the hallway talking to his daughter, who wasn’t there. She called Canady.

When he sat down by the bed, Stevens told him that he “finally made it to the office,” but became riled by an imagined deadline. Canady, playing the sympathetic editor, reassured him: “We’ve got plenty of time to get this done.”

Eleven days later, Canady packed Stevens’ bag, and helped him shower and change into a state-issued outfit for release: elastic-waist denim pants and a grey sweatshirt. He is only Canady’s second patient to have been granted medical parole.

“I told him he was going home,” Canady says. “I held his hand and told him how much I love him, and God bless him and stuff like that. I thanked him for allowing me to work with him and sit with him. He smiled and he squeezed my hand to let me know that he heard me.”

Stevens died a few days later. Reflecting on their relationship, Canady says: “He told me I was a good person. You don’t get that too much in here.”

This fall, Canady started his bachelor’s degree in human services at Osborn through a federally funded Pell Grant program. He’d like to do some sort of social service work when he’s released in four years, and wants to continue being a hospice volunteer. He realizes that his options will be limited because of his criminal record — most places are very careful with who they allow to work with elderly patients. But, he says, “I definitely want to stay connected however I can.”

* * *

“What we thought was interesting was that [becoming an inmate volunteer] went beyond personal transformation,” says Cloyes, who co-wrote a series of studies on the program at Angola. According to Cloyes and her co-authors, the work of caretaking creates a set of shared values among volunteers, a social contract that is distinct from mainstream prison cultural norms: ‘“real men’ who want to care for others and elevate themselves, their prison family, and the community,” the authors write in a recent article. These shared values create a culture among caretakers, one that is passed on from experienced volunteers to newbies.

Experienced and novice volunteers came together this Valentine’s Day, when roughly forty family members of inmates and a handful of prison administrators gathered in Osborn’s visiting room to celebrate the graduation of eleven new caretakers. They had been selected through a rigorous application process and completed the 45 hours of training. The graduates and a few senior volunteers, all wearing beige prison uniforms, sat on metal chairs with chipped white paint as the guests filed in. Three tables adorned by silver and blue plastic tablecloths lined one side of the room, topped with two large grocery-store-bought sheet cakes, a tub of single serving milks, and a large canister of coffee and Styrofoam cups for the post-ceremony celebration.

Following opening remarks by Morin, and a Christian prayer by a visiting reverend, Canady stepped to the podium to address the crowd. This was the first time he was the senior volunteer speaker. His mother and father sat in the middle of the room. Billy Sr. rested his elbows on the table, clutching his hands. Belva looked at her son intently.

Canady thanked everyone for being there. “Six years ago I decided to do something different with my life in prison,” he said. “I remember my father always used to ask me: ‘When are you going to grow up?’ That’s what I’m doing, I’m doing something I’m proud of,” he said, his voice cracking. Belva, too, wiped away tears. He told the graduating volunteers not to let the stigma that they won’t amount to anything dictate their lives, and to take this as an opportunity to step in that direction, as he did.

“I no longer have to walk these halls like a prisoner,” he says, “I can walk them like a man.”

 

 

Sorting Through a Hoarder’s Lifetime of Clutter, We Learned the Meaning of Love

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When my boyfriend took a job helping a widow clean out her house, among the urine-soaked rugs and years-old piles of laundry, I saw our relationship in a new light.

David Murphy rang the doorbell of a typical suburban house, set far back from a busy street amid trees and shrubs. An older woman opened the door, accompanied by a short, elderly dog and a tall, scruffy, younger one. “Come in, dear,” she said, leading him into a sitting room. Everywhere he looked, piles of clothes and bags of papers lined the walls. She’d used all the wall space and started hanging pictures from the bookshelves. Thick dust coated everything. And then, the smell hit him: dog urine.

Her name was Sandy Edgerly. Her gray hair twisted on each side of her head and met in a bun. Her shirt was buttoned to the neck, and she slid the house slippers from her feet the instant she sat down, pulling her legs up under her. As she explained the job – yard work, projects around the house, and some light housework – David surveyed the chaos surrounding them, considering the disconnect between what she was hiring him to do and what actually needed doing. She wanted someone for about ten hours a week and she could pay twelve dollars per hour.

David had just moved to Chapel Hill. In Fort Lauderdale, he’d worked at an eyeglass office for two years. He hated it. He hated wearing dress shirts and slacks and ties. He hated selling and managing and sitting in an overly air-conditioned office. So when he moved to North Carolina he wanted a different life.

This was exactly what he was looking for.

* * *

In the month between turning 25 and starting my first grown-up job as a middle school teacher, I met David. It was the end of a solitary year that followed four years of back-to-back relationships. When he pulled back from our first kiss on a windy Fort Lauderdale beach, he looked toward the dark sky and said, “I think I’m in trouble.”

I’d never experienced the luxury of being certain how much someone liked me. When David looked at me, I could feel interest emanating from him. He touched me as though I was the loveliest woman he’d ever come across. Nine months in I bought him a thrift-store hand-blown glass vase – a vase I liked so much that I couldn’t bear to part with it.

“Well,” I said, “I wouldn’t have to if you moved in.”

With him, I learned how to be in an adult relationship. We spent time together and time alone. Our stuff merged well and we had a room of our own in the apartment we shared. When we fought no one yelled. Instead we talked and worked to put us back together. I was happy, secure, safe.

I was also doubtful and afraid. Someone said to me, “We don’t go into relationships expecting them to end.” But, I did. They always had an expiration date. My parents divorced when I was seven and the only happy long-term couple I knew was supposedly a sham – the man was rumored to be gay.

With David, I went through phases. Unsure, especially in the face of his certainty. Then I’d focus on my desire to be with him for that day alone. The days added up and I forgot about my doubts for a while.

 * * *

On the second day, Sandy gave David a full tour of her seven-thousand-square-foot home. She’d dressed to work in a ball cap and noticed that he did, too, in shorts, a t-shirt, and sneakers. With evident embarrassment, she led him deeper into the house, where she never allowed anyone to go. They walked by laundry baskets that had been sitting beside the front door for six years as she talked about how she and her husband liked to collect things with a history. Over 41 years they’d amassed a large collection of books, figurines, art, furniture, dishes, and clothes. Art leaned against walls, lurked under beds, hid in closets. They’d been meaning to do a thorough cleaning when John was diagnosed with liver cancer in April 2006. By September he was gone. Friends washed her clothes and brought them back in those laundry baskets, but she hadn’t put the clothes away or even moved the baskets since the funeral.

Sandy and John on their wedding day, November 1965. (Photo courtesy of Sandy Edgerly)

She showed David the garage, so full they couldn’t walk into it. The basement and an accompanying apartment were cluttered with not only clothes and papers, but also archaic electronics, obsolete health care items, and old office supplies. David got to work without awaiting instruction, excavating walkways mid-tour.

Soon they were working forty hours a week. And they had some disagreements. He pulled up the oriental rugs that old Lucky had coated in urine and took them to the cleaners. He wanted Lucky confined to one room, but Sandy wanted him to roam. They compromised: the bedrooms were off limits and the clean rugs would remain in the basement until Lucky went to his heavenly reward. David sorted everything into categories: Keep and Put Away, Give to Charity, Throw Away.

Each day Sandy started off with David, telling him what pile each object belonged in. But she often got tired and had to go rest in the living room. Then he grew bolder, sorting on his own. She always checked the trash after he’d gone and if she saved anything – a piece of ribbon, a Halloween decoration – she jokingly chided him for getting rid of it the next day.

* * *

I heard about Sandy for months before I met her one October night. David and I sat on one side of a booth, with Sandy on the other, at a K&W Cafeteria. Fried chicken, mashed potatoes, green beans, spinach, macaroni and cheese, coconut pie, cornbread, and biscuits were arrayed on the table between us.

Sandy talked about her childhood in Tennessee and about meeting her husband at college in Knoxville. It was an accident – she hadn’t even wanted to date. She was working full-time as the fashion coordinator at Sears and planned to stay in that world. She only went out with John as a favor to a friend. At dinner they had so much to say to one another that she decided they needed a lifetime to do it. From then on that’s the one thing she knew: she wanted to be with him.

When they discovered that their jobs were incompatible – his stable and needing roots, hers ever changing and requiring frequent moving – she gave up her career for him. When they couldn’t have children, she decided he was enough. When they ended up having a son anyway, she stayed home with him. When she was sad she wanted John; when her mom was sick she wanted John. She was proud of him. After he was gone her world fell apart.

A photo in Sandy’s den, of Sandy and John at their son Nate’s rehearsal dinner, in 2004. (Photo by Rachel Mabe)

Sandy talked so much that night she hardly touched her food. David picked up the conversation so that she had time to eat. I reached for his hand under the table and pressed my leg against his. I thought about our love. I was an anxious person who sometimes felt overwhelmed by the world. When we first started dating I tried to shield him from that. If I started “feeling funny” when we were together, I’d go home. But over time I came to rely upon his love. The way he’d just comfort without trying to fix me. I squeezed his hand. Hearing Sandy talk about John reminded me of the safety I felt with him.

I looked at him. He was dark-haired. Narrow, but not exactly slim, with rounded shoulders and a head that jutted forward slightly when he wasn’t thinking about it. The expression on his face was either obviously charmed by what he heard or his lips were slightly pursed in what looked like bewilderment, but was usually concentration. I thought about how we’d moved to Chapel Hill so that I could attend graduate school. I loved coming home to him in our old rented farmhouse and feeling his warm body against mine, but I also judged and questioned him. At a department party I worried about what he would say and do, what my new colleagues would think of him. It took him three or four sentences, punctuated by pauses, to answer a question. These slow and measured responses frustrated me. Was I ready for this to be the person I would choose?

* * *

Sandy and David spent most days together. Now the guy at the McDonald’s drive-through window knew not only her name, but his, too. They were parked in her minivan under a tree when she told him about the accident. One night after work seventeen years before she was standing at the post office counter, below the half-lowered metal door, rummaging through her purse when someone yelled “Ma’am!” She heard a terrifically loud noise and felt a blow that started in her head, traveled down her spine and into her feet. She thought, I’ve been shot.

She’d actually been hit on the head by the 884-pound metal door above her. After that everything changed. It marked the beginning of her second life. Her memory suffered. She couldn’t retain information that she read. She couldn’t drive because she couldn’t gauge the distance between her and the cars in front of her. Her body wouldn’t do what her mind told it to. She slept for twenty hours a day.

Sometimes she didn’t want to get out of bed. John called this “laying-a-bed” and would often take her to breakfast, to visit a friend, or to her favorite antique store as a remedy. By the time David met her, a lot had changed: she read all the time and she drove just fine. But she still slept a lot, had difficulty remembering and sorting things, and sometimes she didn’t want to get out of bed. Without John, she didn’t know what to do with herself when she felt this way. Her house was full of her and John and their life together. She didn’t know how to attack it, so she just moved around it – adding to it over the years until it was unbearable.

Sandy hosted Thanksgiving dinner that year. It was the first time in six years that the house teemed with people. Sandy and David had done so much work that Sandy’s granddaughter was allowed to roam free. Sandy told her son, “You can even look in the closets.”

* * *

After our dinner at K&W Cafeteria I started thinking about Sandy and the stories David told me. Her laying-a-bed reminded me of the way I felt sometimes and how David tried to cajole me out of it, just like John. But did I love David the same way that Sandy had loved John? With a devastating, messy, no-doubt-about-it love?

Sandy’s den, shortly after she and David made the house presentable, 2012. (Photo by Rachel Mabe)

One day while sitting next to her fireplace she told me about their wedding night. They’d gone to Gatlinburg for a weekend honeymoon and after John fell asleep she thought, “What in the world have I done?” She didn’t know how to be a wife. Before she met John, she had not even wanted to marry.

John woke in the middle of the night, and saw her packing a bag, preparing to leave him. He suggested she wait till morning, because it was snowing and they were both tired. At breakfast she said, “The best I can offer you is one day at a time.”

“I’ll take it,” he said.

At first this story relieved me. Her early uncertainty legitimized mine. She brought me into her bedroom and opened the closet. David had pushed her to get rid of John’s clothes, but a few items remained. She ran her fingers down the arm of a shirt. Sandy was aware of the importance she placed on belongings. She realized that her house and her stuff told the story of who she was not only to others, but also to herself. Her belongings reinforced her identity.

With David, through cleaning, sorting, and decluttering, Sandy renegotiated her identity. She didn’t need to keep everything in order for her to know who she was. Select items allowed her to hold on to a sense of her history, her accumulated identity, while also discovering a new version of herself. A version that put new wallpaper in the kitchen – wallpaper not for John, not for her son, but for herself. She decided that this marked the beginning of her third life.

The more I thought about it, though, the more I realized she had been sure of John. She’d doubted him that night, but she’d been sure from that first date when they had so much to say to one another, she decided they needed a lifetime to do it. With David and me, talking was something I worried about. Sometimes when we sat silently in a restaurant I thought it meant we weren’t right for each other, but David felt it was a sign of comfort and love.

Sandy gave up everything for John. And because of the life she got in return, she had few regrets. I was afraid to give up my alternate realties, the other versions of my life, of myself. David promised that I could hold onto his certainty, but I wasn’t convinced it was enough.

* * *

David helped Sandy over the next year and a half in a reduced capacity, which was more like the job as originally advertised. She still bought more stuff than most people – QVC boxes showed up on her doorstep weekly. Most of the time she was unapologetic about this, but sometimes she hid things from David. One day she placed the winning bid on an oil painting showing a harbor scene at an auction. When she picked it up afterward she realized it wasn’t painted as well as she thought. On the way home she decided she wouldn’t tell David. She’d touch it up with some paint herself and then hang it on the wall surrounded by other, better paintings. Then she’d show him. That way she could skip him giving her a hard time.

David now lives in Columbus. I live in Pittsburgh. Moving across state lines together again felt like marriage, like forever. And I couldn’t promise him forever. That glass vase I bought him sits on a bookshelf in the apartment he lives in alone. He spends Thanksgiving with Sandy every year. Her house is full, but she isn’t hoarding papers in bags. The aroma of dog piss cannot be detected. Her grandkids are allowed to wander and she’s not ashamed to have friends over. This house, that they put so much work into, holds all her selves: her childhood, her life with John, her son, the accident, John’s death, and her by herself. For the first time she’s living a solitary life, and she doesn’t hate it.

 

 

Inside the Surreal, Offensive Tradition of ‘Bavarian China’

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Each year this small German town has a 'Chinese' parade, complete with an emperor in yellow-face and paper dragons galore. As an outsider looking in – and one of Chinese heritage to boot – I didn't know what to think.

Dawn is just beginning to tinge the horizon blue when a cannon blast shatters the quiet of the small Bavarian town. I shuffle from my bed to the window, pushing aside the paper garlands of yellow Chinaman figures to gaze blearily at the wintry landscape. The tourism office has dubbed Dietfurt, population 6,084, “Bavarian China” and “Town of the Seven Valleys.” The apartment I’ve rented for the week looks out onto one of those valleys, an expanse of untrodden snow fading into a dark hollow cloaked with bone-chilling mist. Were it not for the town’s pride and joy, the annual Bavarian China parade taking place this afternoon, I can’t imagine any reason I’d ever come here.

Fifteen minutes and one coffee later I’m tiptoeing down the icy front steps, following my ears toward the booms. After a few turns, there they are: a motley crew of thirty bedraggled clowns shuffling toward me like zombies. Between them they’re heaving a noise cannon, a marching band’s worth of instruments, and a wagon of booze they’ve been nursing since two a.m.

Morgen,” I mumble, and fall into step. We proceed down the road, trombones and trumpets ablaze, stopping a few minutes later in front of a tidy house on a cul-de-sac. The door swings open and out steps a rotund, sixty-something white man clad in a floor-length robe of gold lame. It’s Emperor Ko-Houang-Di, the star of today’s festivities.

“Come in, come in!” he cries. We pile into the kitchen, where his wife and daughters are passing around glasses of fizzy wine, coffee, and doughnuts. A stick of Chinese incense sends pungent curlicues into the air. It’s a well-deserved break for the clown wakeup crew, which is tasked with getting the town in partying spirit right from the crack of dawn on this most important day of the year. It’s Unsinniger Donnerstag – Nonsensical Thursday –, the beginning of Carnival Week.

In Dietfurt, the occasion is marked with a massive Bavarian China parade that draws fifteen thousand drunken, Chinese-costumed spectators. It’s a proud local tradition every Dietfurt native holds dear. It’s also the weirdest and most cringe-worthy thing I’ve ever witnessed. “What the hell am I doing here?” I think to myself as I, a writer of proud Chinese heritage, watch the jovial man next to me, an emperor of fake Chinese heritage, sweep aside the tassels on his chintzy headdress to take a bite of jelly doughnut.

* * *

I first met Emperor Ko-Houang-Di, a.k.a. Fritz Koller, the afternoon prior in the town’s one-room museum dedicated to Carnival, or Fasching. We sat under the gaze of his emperor predecessors whose portraits and gibberish names lined the walls. A display case held memorabilia from parades past, like a pin depicting a buck-toothed Chinaman caricature riding a panda like a bucking bronco. In one corner hung an embroidered robe of yellow silk, a gift to Emperor Boo-Dah-Washy (reign: 1976-1999) on a Chinese-government-sponsored visit to Beijing.

Being emperor is a big responsibility, Fritz told me. Behind his prim, rimless glasses, his eyes were weary. His parade float and costume took months of work. The bar has been set high: In 2000, he made his debut hatching out of a giant dragon’s egg. Here he paused and cast a studied glance at me.

“And where are you from?” he asked politely.

I knew what he was getting at. “My mother is Chinese.”

“Chinese roots, thought so,” he said placidly, and carried on. “So as you know, the dragon symbolizes good luck.”

I don’t know what I’d been expecting, but that reaction wasn’t it. Some enthusiasm at encountering some actual Chineseness, maybe, or a touch of humility about explaining Chinese symbolism to a Chinese person.

The parade’s “Dragon Troupe,” waving banners and mock kung fu swords.

It was strange to see my culture crudely caricatured and commodified into a hokey party gimmick and to keep my mouth shut. But I came out of curiosity – about what this ritual means for its believers, and how small towns can become incubators for the most oddball behavior. I’m in Dietfurt as an intrepid social anthropologist, I told myself, to observe the locals in their native habitat, withholding judgment.

And it was hard not to be impressed by Fritz’s dedication. He’ll ride in the parade drawn by a massive dragon, then climb up a towering pagoda for his grand finale. To an outsider it sounds purely absurd, but behind the shenanigans is a nostalgic reverence for tradition, even a sense of identity. “Some of my most wonderful childhood memories are of Fasching, Fritz said wistfully. “This is a tradition we grow up with. Bringing up the next generation of Bavarian Chinese is very important.”

Nobody can say for sure why, but Dietfurt has been nicknamed “Bavarian China” for centuries. The legend goes like this: During the Middle Ages, a bishop became angry the town wasn’t paying its feudal dues. When he sent over his treasurer, the townspeople shut all the gates to the little walled town. He reported that the Dietfurters had barricaded like the Chinese behind their Great Wall, and the reputation stuck.

Carnival is a big deal throughout the west and south of Germany. In Catholic Bavaria, it’s a chance for the straight-laced populace to let loose. But nowhere, as any Dietfurter will proudly tell you, does Carnival quite like they do – that is, in yellowface makeup and Confucius beards. It was back in 1928 that someone, no one remembers who, suggested the local brass band take inspiration from the town’s nickname and wear Chinese costumes in the Carnival parade. The idea caught on, and a tradition was born.

* * *

After parting ways with the clown crew, I soon find myself wedged onto a pub bench with the emperor and his entourage. Pia, the bubbly young blonde who runs the Dietfurt tourism office, invited me here for a press breakfast, but I seem to be the only journalist who showed. The emperor’s right-hand man, Kai-Ho-Gei, is decked out in a maroon velvet outfit that I can only describe as campy kung fu warrior. On his head is a gold-painted hardhat, dripping with tassels and topped with a red lampshade. Then there’s Kai-Ze-Mei, clad in Tibetan monks’ robes with a shaved head to match.

Breakfast is a pretzel, grainy mustard, and bulging weisswurst sausages. Tradition mandates eating these by biting a hole at one end and sucking out the filling like meat Jell-O, but I choose decorum over street cred and use knife and fork. Kai-Ho-Gei, the one with the lampshade on his head, nudges over his weissbier and insists I drink.

“I have to pace myself,” Fritz says. “A drunk emperor would not be tolerated.”

Kai-Ho-Gei, the Diefurt emperor’s right-hand man, has a beer with breakfast.

Here’s Pia, clad in a silky black top with a Mandarin collar. Swishes of makeup shape her eyes into almonds, and a rhinestone sparkles on one of her front teeth. The emperor has pre-ordered her a beer, which she throws back in a few gulps. I finish my sausage and decline more beer. Time to parade: T-minus three hours.

Back on the square, men are barricading the bank with planks. On the pavement, vendors are frying spring rolls and stacking doughnuts, each one daubed with chocolate icing to give it a slant-eyed Chinaman face. I spot a group of Chinese twenty-somethings and make a beeline for them, the first actual Chinese I’ve spotted since arriving in town.

“Those lions look weird,” Wang is saying, pointing at the papier-mâché animals flanking the square, which look like a preschool craft project. Along with his friend Qiling, I soon learn, Wang is studying for his master’s outside Nuremberg. They’ve come here with three friends after learning about the parade on Facebook. Unlike Yin, who’s darting around taking selfies with the Germans, Wang doesn’t seem to be having all that much fun.

“Why do they think this stuff looks Chinese?” he gripes to me in Mandarin. “They’ve mixed up stuff from the Qing and Ming dynasties. And why all the pointed hats? Nobody in China wears those anymore.”

“We have Oktoberfest in Shanghai,” Qiling reminds him.

“At least people there don’t dress up like Germans,” Wang retorts.

A couple walks by, she in Japanese geisha attire and he in a Genghis Khan getup, with a full face of yellow makeup.

“They think we have yellow skin,” Wang says, bemused. He points at his winter-chapped face. “But I’m more red than anything.”

We duck into a pub to escape the February chill, and before the door has even swung shut, the room falls silent and swivels to face us. It’s like a slow-motion scene from an old spaghetti western. “The Chinese are here!” a voice cries.

Servus!” Yin calls out cheerily, the informal Bavarian hello.

Servus,” responds a jovial chorus.

We scrounge seats in the back room, across from an oma and opa who stare in stunned rapture. Yin offers them a Prost, and they break into grins. Unlike me, my Chinese blood diluted with WASPy Canadian-Britishness from my dad, these “real” Chinese kids are the celebrities of the day.

As Wang plows through a currywurst sausage, he takes the opportunity to pick my brain. How did I learn Chinese, he wants to know, and what was it like growing up in Taiwan as a mixed-race kid, caught between cultures?

“Like, what if I marry a German woman?” he asks between bites. “And we had a kid? They wouldn’t really belong anywhere, not here in Germany or in China.”

What I don’t say to him because it’s not the time or place, and because my Chinese skills are not quite up to the task, is that he’s right: Sometimes you end up not belonging anywhere, neither in the country where you were born or the ones your parents came from, and at some point you have to accept that your identity will be forever complicated. But then again, maybe it’s always complicated, as illustrated by Exhibit A, an all-white town in the Middle of Nowhere, Bavaria, where the people have built their identity upon pretending to be Chinese.

Instead of saying this, I tip back the last of my beer and reluctantly say goodbye. I’m due at a reception hosted by the mayor, which turns out to be a dud. I head back into the cold alone. The parade is about to start.

* * *

After a long morning of beer-swilling, I’m ready to get the show on the road. And then, with a sudden cacophony of cheers, we’re off. Here they come, the brass band in coolie hats trailing one long, faux braid each; the ninjas; and the “Chinese from Mars” wearing beer mugs on their heads. Here they come, the “Chinese Indians” in feathered headdresses. A dragon fills the air with belches of yellow smoke. A bevvy of blondes sashays along in dirndls fashioned from Chinese brocade. The spectators press in; they cheer and roar and swig beer. I spot the emperor’s daughters, grinning ear-to-ear as they twirl orange parasols.

The local soccer team and hip-hop dance group are in the parade, the bikers’ club and the youth gun club too, and the town kindergarten. They keep on marching past, one costumed group after another, though my ice-cold feet are aching by now for the parade to be over. I duck inside the town hall to warm up. A drunk couple makes out furiously next to me, smearing his Fu Manchu beard across his chin.

I’m back outside just in time to see another dragon peering around the bend, this one drawing a tall wagon on which the emperor rides, raising his arms benevolently like a pope in his popemobile. He looks beatific and even through the torrent of streamers dangling from his headdress, it’s clear he’s beaming with pride.

His wagon halts on the square, where he climbs the steps to his throne with great ceremony, heralded by oom-pah-pah music and flanked by the dirndled dancers. This is the parade’s climax, but rather than a regal speech, what comes next is a call-and-response performance, something like the chants I learned at summer camp when I was ten. The music swells, the emperor delivers a few rhymes, the crowd roars and drinks, and so it goes, one boozy verse after another. I want to feel the reverence for tradition that Fritz enthused about, but this is actually reminding me of a Halloween frat party. Wang, Qiling, and their Chinese crew are nowhere to be seen.

The crowd in the town’s main square awaits the emperor’s speech.

By the time nightfall descends, Dietfurt is absolutely heaving. Security guards frisk passersby, and an ambulance stands at the ready. Teenagers skulk down dark alleyways, emptying bottles of vodka down their gullets. At the entrance to one party, a sign announcing the entry fee, eintritt, spells out “eintlitt” instead, replaced the “r” with a big, mocking “L” in red marker to make sure no one misses the racist punchline. For the first time, I feel a hot surge of anger. This anthropological experiment is over.

Thankfully, there’s wine waiting in my apartment. As the people of Dietfurt drink their way into oblivion in their silk pajamas and pointy bamboo hats, I fall asleep on the couch, Merlot on my lips and Steve Urkel dubbed into German on the TV.

Next morning, I’m up early again. The town is dead quiet as I walk to the bus stop, treading on sodden confetti and sidestepping a Chinese takeout box, its noodle innards splayed out like greasy roadkill. Everyone is still in bed, nursing hangovers and dreams of next year’s parade.

I didn’t finish that bottle of wine, but I’ve got a different kind of hangover. Smiling gamely in the midst of madness takes a lot out of a person, and I’m more than ready to flee this Twilight Zone where cultural appropriation is a way of life. Still, I got what I came for: a culture-clash encounter like none other. Also, the confirmation that however complicated my mixed Chinese identity can sometimes feel, there are people out there – namely a town of 6,084 people in Bavaria – who are far more confused than I will ever be.

It takes two trains and a plane before I’m back home in Berlin, and throughout the journey, the refrain from the Dietfurt anthem repeats in my head like a broken record: Chinesen aus Bayern, wir wollen immer feiern… We Bavarian Chinese, we always want to party.

 

 

As My Face Disappeared So Did My Mother and Father

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When a horrifying bacterial infection disfigured my newborn face, my parents abandoned me right there in my hospital bed. The only thing more painful than knowing they left me behind was finding them 38 years later.

Three days after his birth, a perfect baby, the carrier of his young parents’ dreams and ambitions, became what some might call a monster. Like ants on honey, a bacterial infection consumed his face, and as quickly as his face disappeared, so did his mother and father. The newborn that his parents had expected to take home and raise as their cherished son was no longer the child they had the courage to claim.

I was that baby.

Despite their valiant efforts, the doctors, with their arsenal of antibiotics, proved unable to push back the bacteria’s devastating aggression. When it had finally run its course, my nose, lower right eyelid, tear ducts, lips, and palate had been eaten away, leaving behind a gaping hole.

Abandoned by both parents and stripped of any family, I was made a ward of the state of New Jersey, identified for the next eighteen years of my life as case number XUG-905.

Perhaps my parents assumed or even prayed I would not survive. Or perhaps they believed that without a face, I had become something less than human, incapable of loving and being loved. Whatever the basis of their decision, I don’t know anything about it except that I was abandoned.

What I do know of those first years has been reconstructed in the manner of my face — bit by bit, stitch by stitch. I know that with my lips and mouth eaten away, I was unable to nurse so was fed intravenously. And I know, given the scores of operations I endured — ultimately perhaps as many as a hundred — that I was tethered for much of my childhood, my hands tied with strips of cloth to my hospital crib so I couldn’t tear at my bandages and stitches. But most damaging of all, the one person in the world I most wanted to reach out for had long gone.

* * *

The state of New Jersey, no doubt concerned over mounting medical costs and the ill effects I might suffer from long-term institutional living, placed me in a foster home when I was three. The family’s adjustment to having me in their midst must have been daunting; a scarred freak of a child with a stretch of patched-together depressed skin in lieu of a nose, no lower right eyelid or upper lip, a gaping palate, and behavior severely lacking in social skills.

The first time I can recall being part of a family I was sitting on a hardwood staircase and peering down through white banisters at the living room below, fascinated by how different the view was. This was a real house, in Morristown, New Jersey, and my new mom was tying my shoelaces while I looked down at the place I would come to call home. Obediently, I held out each foot in turn as she tugged on my laces and I scanned the puzzling scene.

I was now the Mackeys’ foster child. Big Ed; his wife, Shirl; their daughters Robin and Lisa; and their oldest, Frank, were my new family.

For the most part it was a happy home in the suburbs — a white clapboard, two-story colonial with a large yard, lots of trees, and two cars: Shirl’s blue Valiant and the family car, a wood-paneled station wagon. Ed, who had to commute each day into the city, was ambitious and, knowing he wouldn’t get any unearned breaks, often worked evenings and weekends doing construction. Despite his habitual bitching about how rotten his day had been and his quick temper that could flare like a brush fire, all of us admired him.

Shirl, in an effort to help me make friends, convinced me to join Cub Scouts. That lasted one meeting, when I got booted out for punching a mean Scout who picked the wrong person to bully. Only rarely did I participate in group activities, except for occasions like trick-or-treating when everyone was caught up in the excitement of Halloween and had their attentions elsewhere. Masked, I could be forgiven my freakishness, but the irony was that my own face would have been a far more frightening costume. Still, for one short glorious night I could escape my reality.

* * *

“Howard,” Shirl announced one day, “Dr. Gratz thinks it’s time for you to have another skin graft for your nose — because you’re growing so fast,” she hastily added when she saw my face blanch with terror. I wasn’t one of those kids who love to hear about how tall they are getting, proudly stretching themselves to full height against the doorframe to measure how much they’ve grown. This was not one of those charts.

Calmly she assured me this surgery was necessary and gently broke the news that I would have to be hospitalized for a few days. Crestfallen, I slumped in my chair and stared at the floor, saying nothing. Shirl did her best to convince me that it would all be worth it. I understood full well that a stay in the hospital meant pain, lots of it.

A large nine-by-eight-inch patch of skin was excised from my chest and shoulder, the graft then rolled up and stitched along the seam to create a headless snake of raw, living flesh. One end was then attached under my chin and the other to the tip of my reconstructed nose. This appendage, left to dangle in front of my face for the next six weeks, constantly reminded me of what I had gone through but gave me no idea of where I was going.

With strict orders not to bathe or shower, and allowed only a careful wash in the sink, I gingerly padded to the small bathroom adjoining my hospital room to dutifully wash up. When I looked up and caught a glimpse of myself in the mirror, I froze. Staring back at me was a creature more gruesome than the late-night horror-movie monsters I watched on TV. That the alien in the reflection was me, Howard. It was too much. I felt my blood plummet to my feet and slid helplessly down the wall to the cold tile floor. “Why me? Why me?” I sobbed, over and over. God must hate me. What terrible thing did I do to deserve this? Bone weary when I returned home, I dragged myself into the den and collapsed on my beanbag chair to wait for Robin to come home. There, stuck to the vinyl with sweat and tears and cradled by thousands of beans molded to the shape of my body, I cried myself to sleep.

* * *

By the summer following my freshman year of high school, even Shirl was at her wit’s end. Both she and Ed decided for everyone’s sake it was time I try another foster home. “Howie, you’re not happy. Let’s just see how it goes for a while.”

On a sad June day just weeks before my sixteenth birthday, a state worker picked me up to deliver me to New Jersey, where I was temporarily placed in the home of a German woman, one whose feet were so swollen she could barely navigate her way around the house.

Next was a placement with a nice Jewish family who said blessings in Hebrew before each meal. That lasted a week.

Oddly enough, it was Dr. Gratz who intervened. During an examination he determined it was time for another skin graft. Realizing that I had better use the state’s medical funding while I still could, I went along with it.

When the state found a temporary placement for me close to the Albert Einstein Hospital in the Bronx where my operation was slated, I felt I’d come full circle, back to the very borough where all the pain and loneliness had started. With yet another new face in a long line of state social workers, I drove to my new home where I would stay for the duration of my surgery and recovery.

I became a bit concerned as we drove past abandoned warehouses and graffiti-covered walls, the smell of garbage rotting in the summer heat filling our car. We soon pulled up in front of a block of identical brick row houses. I hadn’t finished knocking when the door opened and Vito and Mary Signorelli stepped out to welcome me. My caseworker, anxious to get out of the neighborhood before the sun went down, hastily departed.

First-generation Italians, my new interim foster parents greeted me enthusiastically. Vito, gray haired and grizzly, appeared not to have shaved for a week and wore his baggy, black-and-white-checkered kitchen pants loosely cinched below his large belly. Over a stained white V-neck T-shirt hung an impressive collection of gold chains that made faint clanking noises whenever he moved. Mary, her black hair thick with ringlets, was short and stout like a tree trunk. On each of her short fingers she wore several inexpensive gold rings, outdoing Vito with his one pinkie ring.

Feeling awkward and out of place, I made my way into the living room. Everything was covered in plastic: the chairs, lamps, sofa — even the carpet was protected with plastic runners. Plaster statues of the Madonna, Jesus, St. Francis, and St. Christopher cluttered the room and decorated the turquoise walls. In the dining room, a velvet tapestry of the Last Supper hung opposite a giant crucifix.

“Anthony, get-a down here!” Jolted from my culture shock by Vito’s bellowing, which made Ed sound like a choirboy, I turned to see a slovenly dressed, overweight boy appear on the stairs. Scarcely bothering to lift his head of long, stringy hair when we were introduced, Anthony struck me as someone lost in his own home. Moving like a sleepwalker, he showed me to my tiny room with a daybed (over which hung another cross) that filled the space. In the time it took for me to throw my bags on the bed, Anthony was gone. All I heard was the door closing behind him, then the sound of rock music pulsating through our common wall.

I returned downstairs to rejoin Vito in the living room. Pensive, his head tilted as he studied my face, he asked, “Howard, you-a Jewish?”

“Yes,” I said, wanting to give him the satisfaction of thinking he had guessed correctly. In reality, I had no idea what my background was and always tried to avoid any such line of questioning.

“That’s-a okay. You-a hungry?”

I nodded, whiffing the tantalizing aroma that filled the house. “Good, Mary make-a lunch for us. I make-a fresh bread.”

* * *

Finally, the day for my surgery arrived. I was sixteen now, and though I understood the progression of each stage, I felt I was repeating the same old story but with a different body part. This would be another serious surgery, and to lower the chance of infection, my stay this time would be two weeks.

Dr. Gratz’s plan was to attach another headless snake of skin to my nose, only this time he’d take a twelve-by-fifteen-inch graft from my left thigh. It would be, I hoped, a stepping-stone toward the final act when the curtain would close on my resentful relationship with Dr. Gratz. After the surgery, I was overjoyed when Ed and Shirl, Robin, Frank and Lisa showed up to visit me. If only for a few hours, I was with my family again and didn’t feel quite so alone in the world. They seemed happy to see me, and their news of home helped ease my homesickness. Even Vito and Mary visited me, bringing me fresh cannoli when I was able to eat solid food again.

Discharged, I returned to the Signorellis, where everyone was taken aback at the sight of my bandages and swelling. It wasn’t a coincidence that they spoke more often in Italian than they had before my surgery. Ordered to stay out of the sun, I spent my entire summer indoors watching Yankee ball games or “Bowling for Dollars” while Vito yelled at the TV as though the contestants were with us in the living room. Attentive to my every need, they did everything in their power to help me.

Mary decided that food was what I needed. “Howard, manga, manga, you need-a strength.” Between her pastas, sausages, and minestrone, I gained back all the weight I had lost and then some. But their insistence that I not lift a finger left me with too much time on my hands. Vito, seeing me depressed and limping around the house with my leg still sore from the graft, tried to cheer me up with Italian ices he bought on the street.

When I returned to Dr. Gratz a few weeks later to have my bandages removed, I felt the old anxiety I always felt in his presence. Tense, I lay back on the rustling paper.

“Howard, relax. I will take this off, yes?”

I nodded, not the least concerned about so simple a procedure. In one fell swoop, he ripped the tape off my leg without even giving me time to scream. My whole body went into shock. In the moment it took my mind to register the pain, I didn’t cry, I screamed. “Fuuuuuuuck!”

Dr. Gratz’s head jerked back like a chicken’s, his eyes bulging like headlights. Furiously I glared at him, seething with contempt at how cavalierly he treated me, as if he were pulling a Band-Aid off a finger. “Howard, Howard, it’s fine, it’s over.”

It wasn’t fine. I looked down at the droplets of blood floating above a sticky yellow pebbling where the skin had been removed from my thigh and thought of the yellow fly strips dotted with insects that hung in my old neighborhood’s backyards. I wanted to jump up and smash his face in, not for what he had done, but for his complete lack of sensitivity. With great effort I resisted the urge, consoling myself with the fact that we would soon part ways.

My stay with the Signorellis was over, and though they had been kind and generous, it was time to move on.

“Howard, you are a wonderful boy!” Mary said as we hugged goodbye. “God bless-a you. I will-a pray for you.”

* * *

One night, some two decades later, after hours of trying to fall asleep, I turned on the TV and mindlessly watched From Here to Eternity. Just as I was drifting off, a commercial roused me: “Find your long lost loved ones! Call now! 1-800-SEARCH.”

Half asleep, I fumbled for the remote and turned up the sound as smiling men, women, and children ran toward each other across the screen. Radiant with joy, they embraced in a meadow of wildflowers, the empty void in their hearts filled. “Call now and find that special someone today!”

I scrambled to find a pen and jotted down the number.

The next morning when I saw the number lying on the coffee table, I sat down and eyed it warily, as if it were some creature that might bite. My mind raced as I stared at it, wondering what I would do. Call? Toss it in the trash? Tuck it away and let it nag at me like a splinter? An unpleasant tightness in my chest made me realize I was holding my breath. Do it!

If only to end the suspense, I picked up the phone and dialed. Casually, I gave the information requested: social security number, place and date of birth, my biological parents’ full names as stated on my birth certificate, and my credit card number for the $50 service. After informing me that I would receive the results by mail within six weeks, the operator wished me luck. In a daze I hung up and began pacing my apartment, pausing every so often to stare blankly out at the city.

I had never intended to track down my birth parents. Apart from desperate times in childhood when I had ached for my birth mother, I had mentally banished her and my father from my life. My attitude was, if they didn’t care enough to seek me out, to hell with them. But now, with that one call, I began to imagine my parents. What would they be like? How would they react to my contacting them? Did my mother have an emotional breakdown over my disfigurement? Had it psychologically incapacitated her? Had my father forced the decision to abandon me? A “him or me” ultimatum?

Imagining one scenario after another consumed me, each playing out in my head until finally, overloaded with pointless speculation, I put it out of my mind.

Weeks later the envelope I’d been waiting for arrived. I anxiously tore it open and pulled out a short stack of computer printouts. It was an almost out-of-body experience to gaze down at columns of Shulmans listed in New Jersey, along with their phone numbers. I was thirty-eight years old and had never before met a Shulman, and now, somewhere among the names I held in my hand, there might be the ones I sought.

Ed and Shirl, from the time I was old enough to ask, had given me what information they had, which was little more than their names. Knowing that Leonard and Sarah were my parents’ names, I focused my search on the L. Shulmans and S. Shulmans. I began dialing the first L but abruptly hung up when it occurred to me that it would probably be best if I had an opening that didn’t make me come across as weak or needy.

“Hello?” I practiced, clearing my throat to find the right pitch, “Is Leonard or Sarah in? Please, may I — my name? It’s Howard, your biological son.” No, too contrived. “Excuse me, my name is Howard and I’m looking for my biological parents.” No, too abrupt. “Excuse me, my name is Howard. Did you by chance leave a baby in the hospital?” O.K. Again. “My name is Howard Shulman. I’m looking for a Sarah or Leonard Shulman. I was wondering if you might be my birth parents?” This was ridiculous!

On the first call that someone answered, angst set in. The woman said she knew of no such people. The relief I felt made me wonder if I was ready for this.

Determined, I took a deep breath and dialed the next number, and the next. With each call I made, I received the same reply. I expanded my questioning, asking if they might be related to anyone named Leonard or Sarah. “Sorry, no,” they each answered. After a series of dead-end calls, my anxiety began to subside. I was becoming resigned that my search would lead nowhere and was thinking I might just forget the whole thing, when a young woman answered.

“Who’s calling, please?”

I had to grope for words. “Um, well…my name is Howard Shulman. I, uh, got your number from a family search agency, and I was, well, put up for adoption, well, sort of, and now…”

“Hold on a minute, please.”

I held my breath. In the background I could hear voices, an exchange with another woman, which I strained to hear. An eternal moment passed.

“Hello?” a woman answered, her voice cautious.

“Is this Sarah Shulman?” I asked.

She knows who is on the phone. I can feel it. Suddenly I was wary.

“Yes?” she replied, holding her breath. “I’m Sarah.”

“I think you may be my birth mother,” I said, my voice quiet. Time slowed down as a deafening silence filled the connection between us. I waited, every fiber of my being tuned to the other end of the line. In my state of hyper-awareness I could hear her strained breathing and the unmistakable sound of tears choked back. Gently, I broke the silence.

“Are you O.K.?”

After a long pause she answered, “Yes, I’m fine.”

“Are you sure?”

“Yes, thank you.”

“I don’t want to disturb you.”

After a lull, I heard her whisper, “I always knew you would call.”

I was stunned. Unable to respond, I could only listen to her faint crying.

For the first time it fully dawned on me that this was more than just about me. I wanted to say that I hadn’t meant to upset her. How could I tell her I had never intended to make this call in the first place and was no more prepared than she?

Unprompted by me, she began talking of Leonard, who had passed away a few years earlier.

“I’m sorry, I would have liked to meet him.”

“He was a good man,” she said, her voice trailing off.

My mind raced full-throttle. How good of a man could he have been, being party to giving his own son away?

She regained her composure and opened a floodgate of questions about my life. “Are you married? Any children?”

“No, no. I’ve had wonderful women in my life, but no.” I needed her to know that I wasn’t a social outcast and functioned fully in the world. Suddenly, fearing she might hang up at any moment, I blurted out, “What’s my heritage?”

“Why, you’re a Russian Jew.”

“Russian Jew?”

“Yes, on both sides. Third generation. Your father’s side was in the garment trade.”

Well, I thought, at least my call has been worth something.

At her urging, I briefly touched on the main events of my life while conveniently omitting the nefarious details. More than anything, I thought it odd that she had not asked a single question concerning my health or medical status. Were the words “face” or “nose” taboo?

And then, without intending to, the question that had festered inside me my entire life blurted out of my mouth like a micro torpedo. “Why did you give me up?”

I heard her breath catch but she made no response. When she didn’t answer, I broke the tension by suggesting a reason. “I understand it was a different time, with all my medical issues.”

“No, it wasn’t that,” Sarah answered, retreat in her voice.

“What then?” I asked, desperate to understand.

“It was a very difficult decision. Please, don’t make me feel guilty.”

I decided it wise to back off if I didn’t want her hanging up on me. “Do I have any siblings?”

“Yes.” Relief and pride filled her voice as she began to speak at length on a subject obviously dear to her heart. “David, the oldest, is a lawyer. He’s married with children and …”

Her words became a blur I could hardly follow and made me begin to wonder what had been the point of initiating this surreal conversation. So that I could feel invisible? A nonentity? Are you that insensitive? Don’t you realize the more you praise your “true” children, the more you exclude me? Bewildered, I hardly knew how to respond. I could feel my anger rising but held my tongue.

“My daughter, Linda,” she continued, “is also married and is now expecting, and Joseph, my youngest, is a lawyer as well, still single.” Her voice trailed off, as if Joseph’s bachelorhood were the only thing that marred her contentment.

Struggling to disguise the hostility I felt, I asked, “So David is my older brother?”

“Yes, he’s always been aware of everything. The same with all the other children.”

Exasperated, I still needed answers and returned to the only question that mattered to me. “Why did you give me up?”

I thought I would crush the phone her pause was so long, my hand turning white as I waited for her to tell me the truth.

Finally, in a voice unsteady and barely audible, she answered. “We couldn’t handle it.”

Couldn’t handle it! What the hell was “it?” Social stigma? Financial? Medical? Family pressure? Maternal guilt? What? Was I even human to her? She couldn’t? Or wouldn’t?

I was shaking, enraged.

I had never cared before; survival had always been my focus for as long as I could remember, but now I had to know more. I closed my eyes and fought to calm myself. If I didn’t regain control, I knew what little headway I had made would evaporate. My next question was nothing I had intended, but just flew out of my mouth. “Can we meet sometime?”

She hesitated. “Perhaps. I’m quite busy right now.”

“I understand.” I didn’t, actually. Her dismissal felt like another abandonment. I let it go and thanked her for her time.

“Call me again if you wish,” she said. Then the line went dead.

* * *

By the time we pulled up in front of the deli, my heart felt as if it would leap out of my chest. I took my time paying the fare and, as calm as I could be under the circumstances, stopped to peer into the chrome interior, my misshapen nose all but pressed to the window. Seeing no one that fitted her description, I took a deep breath and entered. Inside, I scanned the diners and immediately settled on a petite woman halfway down the aisle, seated alone and facing the entrance. Without looking at her clothes, I knew in my heart she was Sarah.

As I approached her I was startled to see she was older than I had imagined. What had I expected? Sitting straight, her shoulders back, she sat stiffly waiting for me, her face tense. Noting her tailored light-brown jacket and white satin blouse, I immediately thought that she shopped at Saks or Ann Taylor. Almost four decades since the day my fate was sealed, the day when I was made a ward of the state of New Jersey, and I’m critiquing her wardrobe? My attention shifted to her dark coiffed hair streaked with gray, and at that moment realized that she, too, had spent time preparing herself for the occasion. “Sarah?” I heard myself ask.

“Yes?”

“I’m Howard.”

“Yes, I know.”

How could she not? With her eyes absorbing my face, I could barely follow what she was saying. We tentatively shook hands.

Facing Sarah, I settled myself in the booth and took measure of the stranger sitting across from me. Tired and drawn, with deep shadows under her eyes, she betrayed her studied composure by nervously fidgeting with her coffee cup.

“You look good,” she said, her voice quavering.

I’m sure I do, compared to the last time you saw me — bandaged, hooked up to tubes, fluids, and God knows what else. “Well, I’m still here,” I retorted, immediately on the defense.

She sighed but kept her eyes on me, then acknowledged my cutting attempt at humor with a wistful smile. As she searched my face I got the distinct impression she was evaluating my surgical alterations, comparing what she saw seated before her against what she remembered of me at birth. Her expression hovered somewhere between stoic and vulnerable, like hot and cold water running into a plugged sink—a lukewarm mix that could go either way.

She took the plunge. “I want you to know I never hid anything from my children.”

At “my children,” I sucked in air, cut to the quick.

I changed the subject and launched into bits of my history she’d already heard from our phone conversations. But the burning question of why she had abandoned me refused to stay bottled up and was making my stomach churn. Before I even knew I was forming the question, it slipped off my tongue. “Why did you give me up?” I asked again, the urgency I felt evident in the force of my question.

She dropped her head and stared unseeing into her untouched coffee.

“Why didn’t you ever try to contact me?” I asked. “Why, since your family knew about me?” Saying “your family” to the woman who gave birth to me was surreal in itself.

“I thought it would be best for you that you start over with a new family,” she said, her shoulders sagging.

“My new family? I don’t understand.”

She looked confused. “You were adopted, right?” she asked, leaning in toward me, holding my eyes in hers.

“No,” I answered haltingly, “never formally.”

A shocked look came over her face. “But . . . but they told us you were adopted!”

“They? Who’s ‘they’?”

“The lawyer.”

“Lawyer?” Now I was totally confused.

Sarah’s hands lay still, as if what held her up had deflated. Shaking her head, she finally continued. “Leonard and I hired an attorney to look after you,” she explained. “He told us you had been adopted by a nurse, a nice family in the Midwest.”

“Midwest?” I had to laugh out loud. “No, the family I was placed with was in New Jersey.”

“Where?”

“I lived in Morristown, Summit, Randolph.”

Her eyes widened. It was too much for her and she slumped back against the booth. In some detail I told her of my childhood, growing up in the Garden State.

“You lived in Summit and worked at the Office restaurant?”

“Yes.”

She covered her face with her hands, her fingers splayed so I could see her eyes tearing up as she stared at me in disbelief.

“You know it?” I asked.

After some time she lowered her hands and placed them palms-down on the table. When she spoke her words were tremulous and distant. “We…sometimes Leonard and I would eat there on occasion.”

Her words trailed off.

It was my turn to lean back and catch my breath. I saw my dishwasher self, washing their dirty dishes, the closest I would ever be to them since the day I became an “it” to her. The irony of my scraping their discards in the back room, bussing their table, or redoing an order they might have sent back to the kitchen — just like they sent me back for failing to be good enough — made me sick to my stomach. I wanted to walk out then and there, leave her like she did me. Instead, I resolved to finish what I had started.

We sat some moments in silence, each pondering our likely crossing of paths, when she began to speak of Leonard, how he was a self-made man who owned a clothing store with his brother, and what a hard worker and honorable man he was. More than ever I wanted to meet him so I could ask him just how honorable he was that he could abandon his second-born son.

When Sarah told me how she and Leonard had started a program to help Jewish children in need, I was dumbstruck by her callousness — cruelty, really. Proud of her charity, she prattled on. My body temperature soaring, I abruptly rose and excused myself to go to the men’s room. Reeling, I dropped my forearms to the rim of the sink and cradled my head in my hands, utter disbelief at what I had just learned sucking the wind out of me.

Get a grip, I told myself. This was her guilt, trying to save thousands when she turned her back on saving one. Little good it had done me. My jaw clenched, I returned to our booth for round two. I needed to rise above her insensitivity and regain my composure. How could I fight with an elderly woman? But sadly, my anger got the better of me. “Do you have any regrets?” I asked, my voice steely.

Without emotion or hesitation she answered, “No, I don’t. I did what I had to.”

Oddly, that was the only thing she’d said since I laid eyes on her that I could relate to. But that she could see herself as a proud mother, benefactor, and devoted wife and still look me in the eye, refusing to give me any real explanation for her decision to walk away from me, her baby, her blood, and expect I’d be satisfied, incensed me.

Her lips quivered as tears resurfaced and streamed down her cheeks. “Howard, I can’t do it anymore,” she cried. Tears, Sarah? You have no idea the tears I cried for you when I was a child. Suddenly indignant, she straightened up and declared, “I will not relive this again. What’s done is done.” I nodded in complete agreement.

Having now exhausted any lingering shred of mercy, I was incapable of holding my peace after so many years of pent-up anger, and pressed on. “How could you have done that to a baby? Forget me — any baby?”

“Howard, I’ve punished myself enough. No more.” She was now in full retreat.

I felt no satisfaction in seeing her cry. The woman who had been in control was gone, and in her place sat a pathetically guilt-ridden one, burdened by a lifetime of crushing denial. At that moment the depth of her distress suddenly struck me, and I apologized over and over, swearing to her that it had not been my intention to hurt her. My quest had gone from curiosity to attack — with an aging woman who could never defend her actions and could never dare to revisit the past.

The table between us seemed to broaden as the distance between us grew, the air suddenly as stifling as our conversation. I made a feeble attempt to reach out to her. “I’m having a hard time understanding this, you know.”

Like the stranger she was, I thanked her for her time and escorted her outside, where I flagged down a taxi for her. There was no feeling between us — nothing. The ties of blood were evidently not enough to bridge the gap. Drained, we could do nothing more than shake hands and say our good-byes. Alone on the sidewalk, I watched her taxi pull away.

Our meeting replaying in my head, I struck out towards home. I had poured my heart out, venting frustrations buried so deep I didn’t believe anything could ever have awakened them. I had barely refrained from lashing out that she was a God-fearing, synagogue-attending, do-gooder, Jewish hypocrite, all of which would have served no purpose and would have done nothing for the anger I felt. Emotionally and physically spent, I arrived at my apartment exhausted, taking no comfort from the thought that blocks away she was probably experiencing similar emotions. Sarah, too, I realized, had suffered her own torment. How had she always known I would call?

* * *

Howard Shulman is the author of Running from the Mirror, a memoir to be released by Sandra Jonas Publishing House on October 5, 2015. This story is a condensed excerpt from that book. Preorder the book now and receive a 25% discount: http://bit.ly/1L4mcCE. Goodreads members can enter to win an advance reading copy.

Lee Lai is from Melbourne and other places. She makes comics and illustrations.

 

 

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