Before white settlers came, tribes revered those who embodied both genders. This year’s Miss International Two Spirit is bringing that reverence back.
Sage Chanell had always dreamed of playing the female role in her tribe’s stomp dance.
It’s a ceremony that women more or less run, using shells on their legs to keep time while men chant. Playing an opposite-gender role is not an option. As a not-yet-out transgender Shawnee woman in the 1990s, Chanell was too scared to challenge her tribe’s rules. Instead, she discreetly held shells in her hands and chanted along with the boys.
But this May, on a makeshift stage at a retreat center in Nacogdoches, Texas, her worries melted away. Wearing a fall-colored Seminole patchwork skirt, ruffled shirt, and moccasins, the thirty-year-old triumphantly stomped onto the stage at the Miss International Two Spirit competition, her legs covered in shells. In a headdress framed by ribbons, she moved her feet in an intricate pattern, in a rhythm she knows by heart.
Later, during the modern talent portion, she sang “I Am Changing” from “Dreamgirls” in a gold and black checkered dress with hair teased so high she calls it her “Oprah look.”
Chanell — who took home first prize — was one of four contestants at the competition, a yearly event that brings together the fourteen “two-spirit” societies. These groups, sprinkled along the southwest and extending up to Canada, are made up of Native American individuals who identify as gay, bisexual and transgender.
The term “two spirit” itself dates back to pre-colonial America, where homosexuals and transgender individuals were revered. In most tribes, Native Americans who identified as such were believed to possess both male and female spirits and acted as healers and leaders.
Each society contains people from various tribes and melds their traditions to host powwows and beauty pageants. Miss International is meant to be the biggest of them all, a time for two-spirit people to revel in a community where they’re safe and loved.
As Miss International Two Spirit 2016, Chanell is the newest addition to what is known as “two spirit royalty”— the individuals who win the titles at beauty pageants and powwows each year. The job of the royalty, of which there are roughly a dozen each year, is to repair the damage that was done with the arrival of Christians in America, who rendered two spirit individuals freaks.
In most tribes, discrimination against LGBT individuals is still pervasive. As a child, Chanell heard people whispering about her early on. While her three younger brothers played Indian football outside, she would stay in and watch her grandmother bake bread — prompting some of her aunts to say that Chanell “shouldn’t be acting like that.”
Her grandfather, the tribe’s chief, never explicitly told her to be more like a boy. He spent most of his days making jewelry in a wooden shed that his grandkids nicknamed the “cook shack.” Situated deep in the forest of Oklahoma in a town called Little Axe, he’d sometimes emerge to ask them to practice the stomp dance. Wearing shorts and t-shirts, dirtied from playing in the yard, they’d happily obey. Since there was no girl to do the rhythm, he’d allow Chanell to gently shake shells in her hands. But taking on the full female role, which requires double stepping on two feet while keeping time, was never allowed.
Her grandfather, she’d later decide, was probably showing his acceptance of her identity by letting her shake the shells. But at the time, because of his role at the head of a tribe with strict rules, she didn’t feel free to be herself. “I was too afraid to be feminine,” she says today, while getting ready for her job at a casino in Oklahoma City. “But I don’t have a masculine bone in my body.”
Despite her experience shaking shells, taking on the female role at the three-day stomp dance ceremonies each year was not an option. Instead, Chanell did what she had watched her grandmother do for years — cook. The first time her grandmother let her stir the stews, the women shot her looks. The activity, like shaking shells, is exclusively done by females. But over time, it became normal. No one ever told Chanell to leave the kitchen.
At school, classmates weren’t as accepting. Chanell’s brothers routinely fielded threatening statements about “what she was” from their peers. At football practice, teammates would taunt them, saying that Chanell was a “girl” and a “sissy.” When these comments got old, the bullies picked apart her brothers’ identities, calling them sissies and homosexuals, just for being related to her. One day, one of her brothers got fed up.
“He took it particularly hard. So he came up to me and said ‘I love you no matter what, but you need to come out and be who you are,’” Chanell remembers. “I told him I had nothing to hide, but he was tired of defending me.” So, inspired by his words, she decided to prove it.
At age fourteen, still unsure of her identity, she wore foundation to school. It was her grandmother’s, who — unlike her makeup-hating mom — “had the good stuff.” After years of trying it on in secret, she applied it flawlessly. Chanell liked the way it covered up her acne and smoothed out her face. She felt pretty and, exhilaratingly, herself.
No one noticed at first but over time she got braver, adding a subtle lip-gloss, and a faint touch of eyeliner. By junior year of high school, she began altering her clothes. “I let myself get into fashion. I started wearing gender-neutral things — tight jeans and fitted shirts,” she recalls. “I got a perm, tried out different asymmetrical haircuts, and joined show choir.”
Most people assumed the look to be confirmation that Chanell was gay, and suddenly taunting her became less exciting. Rather than being critical, her peers were now curious. “People were impressed,” she says. “They were always asking me how I learned to do my makeup, and who gave me that haircut. Even the boys. I told them I taught myself.”
Although she experimented with femininity in high school, it wasn’t until after she graduated that she stepped out in explicitly women’s clothing. She was nineteen at the time, getting ready for a Halloween party at a friend’s in Oklahoma City. Dressed in a white lace midriff, short shorts, and silver heels “fit for a prom,” she was about to head out the door when she got a call from her cousin. “She wanted me to take her kids out trick-or-treating with her,” says Chanell. “I told her, I’m in drag. My family had never seen me in it before, but she replied ‘I don’t care, come.’ So I thought, why not?”
In a town bordering her own, on a crisp October night, Chanell walked house to house collecting candy and feeling beautiful. “I thought I was hot shit, so I wasn’t nervous,” she says. “But my boyfriend at the time was with me and he said ‘You’re liking this too much.’” Confident in her look and euphoric about how it felt, she quickly broke it off with him.
She meddled in drag, but hadn’t yet committed when a few years later, she met her first transgender woman, an African-American with a beautiful face who instantly zeroed in on Chanell’s fascination with her new identity. “She asked me, ‘Do you ever feel like you’re more than [drag]? I said ‘Yes, I do,’” Chanell recalls. “I was hesitant to come out after that. I was scared. But thank God I found her. I don’t know where I’d be.”
With an effusive personality, talent for makeup, and eye for fashion, Chanell quickly became a force on the two-spirit beauty pageant scene and, after winning some local competitions, decided to try for Miss International. Friends and other two-spirit people expressed concern about putting her identity on display in such a big way. While most harassment within the tribe is just verbal, since 2001 there have been at least six murders of two-spirit individuals within their communities. “People are scared of their own tribes not accepting them,” she says.
It’s this cycle of fear that Chanell hopes to change, inspired by the 2015 Miss International, Spirit Wildcat. A Native American drag queen and active member of the Shoshone-Bannock Tribes, Wildcat traveled cross country over the past two years to attend two-spirit powwows and gatherings held by other societies.
In February she attended the BAAITS (Bay Area American Indian Two- Spirits) Powwow in San Francisco. A clip of the “Grand Entry” — the opening dance for two-spirit powwow — shows her proudly dancing in her crown behind a man in a beaded feather headdress and buckskin pants.
Chanell believes her story is a testament to the fact that hate can be unlearned. “My brothers now tell me they love who I have grown into, that I seem more comfortable, more confident, and happy,” she says. “Back then I was shy — and there’s nothing shy about me.”
But winning doesn’t completely eliminate the stigma that still lingers around the two spirit identity .
While Chanell has performed the female role in a stomp dance in front of others, she still hasn’t done it in front of her own tribe. Doing so requires getting approval from the chief, which she has yet to bring herself to do. “It’s the fear of rejection,” she says.
At the ceremonies, she continues in her grandmother’s footsteps and cooks. Twice a year at the Shawnee’s weekend-long stomp dance ceremonies she not only spends her time in the kitchen, she runs it. It’s a process that begins with buying $300 worth of groceries and ends with tearing down the tarp on the makeshift outdoor kitchen she builds around a fire pit. The women have fun together, and talk while they cook. The work is rewarding but grueling, preparing breakfast, lunch, and dinner, with a snack in between. If they are short on cooks, which — owing to the fact that those on their menstrual cycles aren’t allowed to participate, happens — Chanell will cook for 24 hours straight.
Although she enjoys baking bread, roasting squirrel and boiling corn, she hopes to someday swap her culinary tasks with musical ones. As two-spirit royalty, she’s on her way. “Now with this platform the leaders of my tribe are taking me seriously,” says Chanell. “They know that this is who I am and this is how I am living. Everyone is starting to accept me.”
He was a hometown hero who died at war days before I was born. He haunted my life, until I finally made the trip to see where he fell.
They say babies can hear in the womb. If so, then I have heard my father’s voice. Deep and resonant. I have photos of him and my mother from that time, together for one last week in Los Angeles. They laughed and played in the pool, squinted from beach chairs holding hands, stood arm in arm. Some of the photos are torn in places, clipped at odd angles. Army personnel are instructed to remove all signs of combat before a soldier’s belongings are sent home. If I heard my father’s voice at that time, then I heard more clearly my mother’s laugh, full and carefree. I never heard her laugh like that again.
My father and I share the same name: Hugh. He died five days before I was born. It’s not easy to be born to a woman in mourning – you have a job to do. I believe I did it well. We were two against the world and I grew to know her adoring gaze as both a son and all that was left of my father. It would take 48 years for me to learn I couldn’t undo anyone’s past; nobody told me I didn’t have to.
My mom remarried just before my fourth birthday. I had a new father. Soon I had a new brother and sister. I lived a happy childhood. But underneath the perfect family of five, white dog and half-acre plot on Millwood Lane laid a secret only my mom and I shared. I’d know it when I walked up the short walkway of my grandmother’s home, the house of my birth, the same walk Hugh had strolled as a teen, the same walk the two men in their finest military dress had strode somberly, at whom my mother had screamed, sobbing, to go away.
Bull, Hugh’s dad, who died when I was ten, was a grizzled ex-logger and machinist with massive forearms, who favored his corner armchair and white undershirts. Hugh’s mom, Maebelle, was a tough daughter of a farmer who spent her years as the wife of a drinking man. Their life was simple and small and hard. What I ended up in was entirely different.
We stayed in touch for a while with Hugh’s family but lost contact once my teen years hit. I adapted to a new life, and over time my past faded into a far-off story about a hometown hero lost, the adored son with the half-cocked grin, beloved athlete and student of Plymouth High. The youth I would come to know was affluent and pressured. I attended prep school, Duke University, went to Wall Street for my 20s, finally quitting it all to study art. The prevailing feeling I had at that point was one of not belonging. To any place.
Maebelle died when I was 31, and I was given two old suitcases of Hugh’s. They were a matching set, worn maroon leather and monogramed with his initials: H.S. He was the first in the family to go to college and the suitcases had been a gift from his parents to commemorate what a big deal that was.
Now they contained memories of his life. Military orders, old checkbooks, his letters home, a cracked Roy Smeck ukulele, funeral arrangements, stacks of newspaper spreads on the weekly local football results, and more carefully preserved clippings related to his death: “PHS Star Athlete Killed in Vietnam” and “Son Born to Slain Athlete.” I’d open them from time to time but couldn’t make sense of the contents. Somewhere along the line I realized my dad smelled like old paper.
The suitcases stayed in basements and attics, untouched for years, sometimes moved from place to place with my other belongings. The older I got, the stranger it all seemed. The story of my birth, the small-town romance between the homecoming queen and captain of the football team, was like a fairy tale. The place I had come from and the place I knew growing up were so at odds that they almost negated each other’s existence.
By my mid-40s I was newly married, raising my own stepchildren. We moved three times in four years, and as I boxed and unboxed the spare belongings of my life and scrawled “Hugh – Books” or “Hugh – Art,” I started to question who the name referenced. Hugh. Was it his, or mine? I could feel a chain to an invisible past but couldn’t grasp hold of it, nor understand exactly what it was hooked onto.
A couple of Hugh’s old buddies died. Then his older sister. The blind spot within me grew and I felt pressure for resolution. I began searching out people who knew him, hoping somebody would recognize something in me I couldn’t see for myself. Time was running out.
* * *
I found two of his best friends from high school. One, a former track star, still lived in Michigan. I visited him and heard stories of the glory days, about drinking beer and racing cars out on Shelton Drive, fights behind the drive-thru. How my dad was “the greatest guy,” the hard-hitting fullback, the strongest kid he’d ever seen, loved by all. It was an impossible standard to live up to. Hugh’s other buddy was retired in Alabama, and his stories had less glory, more humanity, though he too revered my father. He and Hugh had worked odd jobs together; they cleaned chicken coops, built rock walls, took turns riding on the fender of the family car collecting bottles for gas money to go out cruising on the weekend.
Neither man gave me what I was looking for, though I wasn’t quite sure what that was. I must have wanted them to say, “Hey Hugh, you’re just like your old man,” but they didn’t say it. It was defeating, trying to connect with the myth of a man. I wondered what would he have thought of me. I attempted to rationalize the misconnection – Hugh was just a kid, really, these were high school stories and I was now twice his age. But deep down I feared there was little of him in me and he had become an irrelevant detail of my past.
The suitcases were all that were left to turn to. Most of the contents were related to the Army. I never thought of Hugh as a soldier – he didn’t want to go to war, worried he wouldn’t be a proper hero, and doubted privately that he would make it home – but I sat down anyway to carefully catalog each item in the suitcases.
There were a lot of references to his platoon. I tracked down a list of surviving members of D Company, who called themselves the Angry Skipper Association. I began contacting guys who would have served with Hugh during 1969, but didn’t expect to find much – he had only been in-country for seven weeks when he died. Most men didn’t return my calls. Finally, someone directed me to the man who’d been in charge when Hugh was killed.
* * *
When I went to Lytle, Texas, to meet Clyde “Sgt. B.” Bonnelycke, I was more excited than anxious. By now, I had given up hope someone was going to give me any great insight into Hugh as a man, or myself. I was content just to pass through the lives of men who had known him, as if I could catch some residual energy like an old stone from a campfire might still be warm to the touch.
Sgt. B.’s home was on a quiet roundabout suburb in the flats not far from San Antonio. He greeted me with a loose handshake. His wife was chatty and brought me in. We sat at the small kitchen table and I brought out incidence reports, letters, news clippings, anything that could trigger his memory.
He’d snatch things out of my hands, “Let me see that,” and tilt his chin back, peering through his reading glasses. But Sgt. B. couldn’t remember anything specific about Hugh. This bothered him. He was a man who fought to save his men, and now I showed up to find out about a father I never knew, and he couldn’t come up with details. He paced the kitchen, hallways, bedrooms and back, returning with gift after gift: Army pen, Marines pen, a Turkish rug he’d gotten while stationed in Germany, wall calendars from his native Hawaii, and one with cuddly pets, “For the kids, you know.”
I didn’t know what he had to tell me, if anything. He relayed war story after war story and I was happy listening; he earned two silver stars with the Marines before joining the Army. But all the while there seemed to be an answer he was looking for that was just out of reach.
Dusk set in. Finally, Sgt. B. pushed away from the kitchen table and snatched a small, framed map off the wall. A thick border snaked through it, “CAMBODIA” written above. The map was faded green and hard to read. He waved it in front of me and pointed to a small black line.
“Here, here, you see this little line here?”
I peered close to the frame.
“Right here,” he rapped the glass, “this bend in the river. See it? That’s where it happened. That’s where the RPG hit that goddamn tree.”
The official incidence report had said Hugh was injured by a claymore mine. But Sgt. B. was certain it was an RPG. I didn’t argue. When I left Lytle, he gave me a copy of the map. I stuffed it in my bag along with everything else he’d given me, but didn’t think I’d do anything with it.
Several months later I attended the annual reunion of the Angry Skipper guys in Herndon, Virginia. Former cops, truckers, real estate brokers, salesmen, and lawyers gathered at a windowless conference room at the Marriott Courtyard, and I heard stories of lost buddies and warm beer, weeks in the jungle, nine-inch centipedes, firefights and rain. None of them remembered Hugh but one man remembered the incident. It wasn’t Hugh’s injury he remembered, it was the call the platoon received announcing my birth: a boy born to a dead man. Joe Villa, second platoon sergeant, covered his face and cried.
Up to that point there had always been a part of the story I couldn’t accept. I hadn’t been sure if I fully believed Sgt. B., or the stacks of official military correspondence in the suitcases, the banal lists of personal effects, the browned telegrams, the letters from Nixon, the Army Chief of Staff, even a state senator from Pennsylvania, who clearly bore such a moral burden of the war that he hand-wrote condolence letters to the family of every fallen service member. But the way the Skipper guys at the reunion accepted me, some with hope, others with sorrow, confirmed indeed that it all had in fact happened.
I decided then I would go to the bend in the river, not knowing exactly why. I made light of the trip to people who asked.
“Yeah, it will probably all be Nike factories now.”
But a piece of me worried I might peel back a bandage that had been laid over old wounds, possibly tinkering with the building blocks of who I understood myself to be. Still, I felt I needed to go.
* * *
I arrived at the Tan Son Nhat International Airport on July 15, 2017, three days before Hugh had, 48 years prior. It was early in the monsoon season and I went to the Cu Chi region between Saigon and Tây Ninh where the Angry Skipper guys had humped through the jungle. Like most of my generation, I had grown up with the American mythology of the Vietnam War: napalm, burning bodies, fucked-up kids with M 16s, “Apocalypse Now.” What I found instead was peaceful and beatific. Bright rice paddies, the plowing farmer, stoic water buffalo – the only hint of danger was the grind of the daytime insects that dropped suddenly in the quiet.
Each day, I read Hugh’s letters and then biked out into the countryside. His words described much of what I saw. The letters were familiar territory – I admired his penmanship, imagined listening to his words, tried to identify with this stranger who occupied some place within me – but here I felt close to him for the first time. I began to separate the looming father from a young man who didn’t know much of the world beyond his small town. I was far more savvy now than he could have been then and I had a sudden urge to look out for him, a feeling I might have been able to protect him. I even came to the misjudged conclusion that if I had the opportunity to go back and serve with Hugh I would have taken it, to spend nights up pulling watch together and talking about life and back home, my mom, telling jokes, hearing to the croak of the frogs at dusk. Most importantly, to watch out for that RPG or tripwire that I might have been able to see coming.
A few days later, I found a ride north to the bend in the river, tucked deep in the Tây Ninh Province. During the war, Ho Chi Minh sent arms and supplies down through Laos and Cambodia and across the porous jungle around Tây Ninh, not far from Saigon. The Province became a hotspot for the Army. Helicopters ferried the platoons above the thick canopy, dropping the men into clearings to spend months living in the bush.
A young man named Minh drove me up. He had a boxy haircut and surprised eyes and didn’t look much older than fifteen. We had crouched by my bed and zoomed in on my computer, tracing the route on the map Sgt. B. had given me. My anticipation built around what I might find. The old map matched up quite well with the current road system. There were new roads, but the structure was there. One of the new roads ran directly to the bend in the river.
When we got in the car he said, “You father, bambambam?”
He nearly shouted certain words for emphasis.
My stomach gave a turn. The story had always been mine alone. When other people referenced it, I felt like a kid who had fallen and didn’t know he was hurt until he noticed the worried expressions on other people’s faces. Had something horrible happened to me? But Minh hadn’t meant anything by it and we didn’t talk about the war again.
We pulled out onto the road north and he flipped through Vietnamese club songs on the radio. I leafed through “A Pocket Guide to Vietnam,” also from the suitcases. It had been published by the Department of Defense in 1966 and was crinkled with water damage. I was now nervous about what I could discover in the jungle.
After an hour, we passed under a decorated archway. “Tây Ninh!” Minh said and gave me a thumbs up. I took a photo. We skirted Black Lady Mountain and continued toward Cambodia. Forty-five minutes later the river appeared on our right and we crossed at a low dam. Huge nets were slung between tall poles like dinosaurs wading in the shallows and the water was muddy and even.
The bend wasn’t far now. We crossed and headed back down river. The sky was stormy and we rode in silence. In just a few turns we were on the new dirt road headed to the water, just north of Landing Zone Ike, the dirt base where my father had slept the night before the ambush, just a few clicks from the place where Sgt. B. had knocked on the glass and said, “Here. Right here. That’s where it happened.”
We stopped where the dirt became soft. Cassava grew at the water’s edge. Behind it the jungle stretched anonymously. I passed through a rubber grove and found a worn path into the jungle and felt the uncertain space I had known my whole life.
I walked deeper into the foliage and noticed the shape of the trees, the gaps of tall grass. A thin snake sped across the path and wind rustled the leaves. I heard the putt-putt of an old engine and the faint bass of a local pop song. It was a peaceful place. Still, it seemed almost gimmicky to be here, to be searching for such a big answer on this random spit of land. I’d had a good life, a good man who raised me. Maybe this was self-indulgent.
I’d always had the feeling I had let Hugh down somehow. Maybe by not having my own children, or by not being able to easily settle down, always searching. But I didn’t have those thoughts now and the past was far away. As I followed along a path he might have walked, I could almost imagine him as a young man alongside me. I eyed the trees halfheartedly for signs of battle, tripwires, but of course found nothing after so much time. I walked a little further, then it started to rain. It was a fine rain that doesn’t really make you wet. The real rain was not far behind, so I stopped.
I knew I was supposed to feel something, but the moment was almost too grand. Should I say a prayer? Apologize for his life cut short? I’d cried for him before, for my mom, even for myself, though I couldn’t be sure why. But standing there now, no emotion came. I was neutral and present. I saw Hugh from afar – not as a part of me, but as separate and distinct, and from that distance I could see that he was both my father and not my father, a hero to some and a forgettable man to others. I took a long look around. A woman who knew nothing about me had once told me Hugh’s spirit has stuck around to watch over me. I pictured it there with me now, his spirit spread out like an invisible vast horizon. I was much further into life than he could have imagined.
The real rain started and I ran back to the car. Rubber sap was collecting in the red dirt in places, milky white. Minh was sleeping with his feet up; a Vietnamese crooner sang on the radio. Minh sat up blearily and turned his hands up. I shrugged. The rain pelted the roof and blurred the windows. I rested for a moment, seeing if it would stop. Minh waited patiently. It was late in the day and we were hungry; I signaled that we should eat. Minh started the car and we rolled forward.
I watched the jungle slip by in the rain. I didn’t want to forget this place, like I didn’t want to forget Hugh. But part of me knew in order to find myself I would have to let him go.
Hugh and I share the same name. That used to burden me, the pressure to live for two, and maybe that is something I will never be fully rid of. But in glimpsing the jungle from afar as we drove away, the clearest sense I had of him was that he was a young man who never had a chance to fulfill his dreams. I didn’t see my father. And in that separation, I began to finally see the part of him that is in me.
For now, I have left him back at the bend in the river. I haven’t abandoned him, we will know each other again. But I am traveling a little lighter. I must keep moving forward. As myself.
A whistleblower puts his life on the line to defy Soviet aggression. Sixty years later, this forgotten story of subterfuge, smears and suspicious death has never felt more timely.
On October 23, 1956, waves of demonstrations rolled through the streets of the Hungarian capital. The citizens of Budapest converged on government buildings, protesting the influence of the Soviet Union on their elected officials and economy, and the presence of Soviet troops in their cities. What began with a few thousand university students swelled to include workers, soldiers, and men and women of all ages. Someone pulled down a Hungarian flag, emblazoned with the Communist sickle and hammer. They tore out the insignia, leaving a gaping hole in the middle. It became a symbol of the revolution.
The demonstrations escalated. Neighborhoods organized into militias. Overturned armored cars caught fire and buildings collapsed onto their first floors. The small country standing up to its Communist interlopers enraptured the Western world. Time magazine recognized “the Hungarian Freedom Fighter” as Man of the Year.
But it was a short-lived fight. On November 4, as tins were passed around to collect coins and jewelry to help with relief, and Budapest started to clear away broken glass and rubble, Soviet tanks trundled into the city. Miklos Toth, who was a boy at the time, remembers brutal street-to-street fighting, and World War II veterans firing out of their living rooms as plaster rained from the ceiling. The uprising was crushed. It would be more than three decades before an eastern bloc state revolted against Communism again.
Thousands of Hungarians were brought to trial by the new Soviet-backed government for their role in the uprising. Even more streamed out of Hungary as refugees. The United Nations launched an investigation into Soviet troops’ intervention in the Hungarian Revolution. A special committee interviewed 111 witnesses: diplomats, government officials, soldiers, journalists, and lawyers. An artist testified. So did an actress and several high school students. Fearing retaliation against friends and family back in Hungary, where the Soviet-backed government was carrying out executions, 81 of those witnesses appeared anonymously. On United Nations lists, they were marked as “AAA,” “BBB” and so on down the alphabet. Only one man knew their names. Soon, the name of Danish diplomat Povl Bang-Jensen, chief of logistics for the Hungarian testimony, would become embroiled in one of the most bewildering scandals in U.N. history.
* * *
Bang-Jensen had been a part of the U.N. since its early days. A dapper man whose widow’s peak and sweater vests called to mind Hollywood star James Mason, he acted on behalf of the anti-Nazi Danish underground in New York during World War II, negotiating treaties with the Allies on behalf of Scandinavia. He was well-rounded, self-confident, and stubborn. According to a Judiciary Report to the United States Congress, he had a “wide range of knowledge, and robust sense of humor and a warm heart that endeared him to his friends and … to the many Hungarian refugees who testified before the United Nations Commission on Hungary.”
Due to his meticulous focus on details, Bang-Jensen was charged with arranging the hotels and food per diems of the refugees in New York, Vienna, and Rome where the committee heard their testimony. When the committee asked him to make sure they didn’t hear repetitive testimony, he pre-interviewed refugees one-on-one, listening to their stories of the Soviet invasion.
“They took me to a prison, chained my right hand to my left foot, and left me,” ran a typical piece of testimony. “This was in the middle of the winter. … I could not move because, if I did so, my wrists and ankles bled.” The U.N. considered many of the stories Bang-Jensen heard unprintable. “The verbatim records of the Committee’s meetings contain appalling descriptions,” stated the final report, which “the Committee would have hesitated to publish in their entirety, even if the necessity of protecting the families of the witnesses had not been an obstacle.”
In a dark stone building at 6A Wallnerstrasse in Vienna where testimony was carried out, Bang-Jensen began to notice irregularities in procedure. He and his boss, William M. Jordan, argued over the translation of the testimony. Errors crept into the official record. A Russian U.N. staffer, according to Bang-Jensen’s later testimony, attempted to bribe one of his colleagues to let him take the transcripts of the hearings home overnight. In an era of global espionage, when the F.B.I. had just caught a U.N. staffer attempting to leak official documents to the Soviets, Bang-Jensen believed he saw clear evidence that the Russians were attempting to influence the committee’s findings and get access to the names of those who testified.
In June 1957, Bang-Jensen blew the whistle. In going over the final copy of the Hungarian Report, days before it was due to be presented, he found 40 errors and 20 omissions of key information. Many were minute, but others were crucial to the central point of the investigation: whether Russia had illegally violated Hungarian sovereignty. For example, an unreported date hid the fact that János Kádár, new head of the Soviet-backed Hungarian government, had invited Soviet intervention before he became Prime Minister, an action that some would call treasonous and was at odds with the Soviet Union’s claim to legal intervention. He wanted to bring the information to the ranking members of the committee, but Jordan warned him not to — telling him that the errors were not meaningful. So Bang-Jensen went over his head, arranging a meeting with the committee leaders in the Diplomats Lounge at U.N. headquarters.
In a room heavy with cigarette smoke and decorated with ferns, Bang-Jensen made his case. Even if the details might not alter the Hungarian Report’s findings, the errors and omissions ran the risk of reducing public trust in the validity of the entire report. At stake was not just this document, but any future humanitarian investigation the U.N. carried out. Bang-Jensen was a powerful believer in accuracy and truth, and when he felt the committee wasn’t listening to him, according to members’ testimony, he grabbed one of them by his lapels and shook him to make the point heard.
The results were not as he had hoped. Bang-Jensen was told not to attend future committee meetings. He went anyway. As the final drafts of the report were handed out, Bang-Jensen asked to see a copy. Jordan told him all copies were in use. So, he went straight to the top, writing a letter to Secretary General Dag Hammarskjold.
The situation, he wrote, “is a methodical attempt to suppress certain essential facts and to insert erroneous facts and contradictions in the report.” It was, he believed, “sabotage.”
He appealed to Hammarskjold as a fellow Scandinavian, and reminded him of Bang-Jensen’s experience spotting duplicity in his own fight against the Nazis. He even offered to resign, if it would help the U.N. handle the situation more discreetly.
“I am at your disposal beyond, but not contrary to, my duties as an officer of the United Nations to straighten out everything,” he wrote. “My only condition … is honesty.”
“Since the person in question [Jordan] probably will realize that he hardly can make many believe I am a liar,” Bang-Jensen concluded, “he will no doubt insist that I am imagining things on account of overwork.”
He was correct.
“He was acting improperly, hysterically, and foolishly,” Jordan wrote to Hammarskjold’s executive secretary, Andrew Cordier, a future president of Columbia University. Jordan also disclosed that he didn’t believe Bang-Jensen was “quite himself,” and that the man’s allegations were “largely childish and without foundation.” “He should be required forthwith to take sick leave, since I have no doubt that Mr. Bang-Jensen is a very sick man,” Jordan added.
After several weeks of unanswered letters, Bang-Jensen finally got the call he’d been waiting for, but he had already left the office to catch the boat to Denmark for two months of home leave. The connection was bad and Bang-Jensen and Hammarskjold couldn’t hear each other. They would write, they promised. Bang-Jensen wondered why Hammarskjold had not asked him to cancel his home leave and return to the U.N.
Bang-Jensen spent the next several weeks in the little fishing town of Espergaerde, just south of Elsinore, where Shakespeare’s Hamlet was accused of madness after discovering an act of treason. Returning to New York, he was summarily removed from the Hungarian Committee.
Again, Bang-Jensen wrote to Hammarskjold.
“Sabotage has been carried out,” he wrote. “Allegedly, on your instructions … Am I now expected to forget this matter?”
Again, he was ignored.
* * *
In October 1957, a Hungarian refugee, facing deportation from the U.S. back to Hungary, asked for asylum on the grounds that he was one of the anonymous witnesses who had testified before the Hungarian Committee. When U.N. authorities went to check his name against the list of witnesses, they found they had no copy. Only one person had the complete list of names: Povl Bang-Jensen.
Asked to provide a copy of the list, Bang-Jensen refused. Since his desk at the U.N. had been broken into, he said, he had been keeping it off U.N. property, and he did not think the U.N. could be trusted to safeguard the list against a leak that would put the names of witnesses who had accused the Soviets of war crimes in the Kremlin’s hands. It did not help that the request came from Undersecretary Dr. Dragoslav Protitch, a Yugoslav national whose government had approved of the Soviet incursion during the revolution. A United States Senate investigation would later question the security wisdom of the decision to allow Protitch to access to the Hungarian investigation at all.
“I would be grossly derelict in my duties as an international official and thoroughly dishonest if I agreed,” he wrote. It wasn’t just a matter of principle. Back in Hungary — according to a 1960 Senate Judiciary Report on the affair — if a refugee had committed treason, upon escaping his next relative could be executed in his place. Give up the names, and dozens might die.
Despite continued orders, Bang-Jensen refused to hand over the list. On December 4, the Director of Personnel called Bang-Jensen into his office and suspended him. In an unprecedented move, Bang-Jensen was escorted out by two U.N. guards, who were too embarrassed to tail him and instead walked beside him to his car.
Word of the menace to the 81 witnesses spread. Bang-Jensen was hailed as a modern-day Good Samaritan. Letters from international organizations, questions from the press, and pleas from Hungarian groups poured into the U.N. Only a month prior, President John F. Kennedy had called the Hungarian Revolution, “a day that will forever live in the annals of free men and free nations — a day of courage and of conscience and of triumph” and had rebuked the western world for not coming to revolutionaries’ aid. The world had failed to take decisive action during the uprising, but now at least, they could take a stand for these 81 witnesses.
Some within the U.N. advocated simply burning the list, but to do so would be tantamount to admitting that the names would not be secure in U.N. files, jeopardizing the reputation of the body and its ability to carry out future anonymous hearings like the one for the Hungarian Report. And even if the names could be kept safe, what if the next Secretary-General was a Soviet, able to report the names to the Kremlin himself? How could an organization founded on globalism keep its staff from prioritizing national interests? They were questions that the United Nations, barely a decade old, had never faced.
Ernest Gross, chair of the investigation into the affair, suggested a solution.
At a few minutes before three p.m. on Friday, January 24, 1958, Bang-Jensen marched up the steps of the U.N. with his lawyer and a bank messenger who carried a sealed yellow envelope. The U.N. did not, Bang-Jensen later noted, offer him a security escort to bring the papers to headquarters. He made his way, first to an administrative office to meet several colleagues and security. The bank messenger handed over the envelope. Bundled in overcoats, they all climbed the stairs to the U.N. rooftop, where the temperature was just over freezing. A portable incinerator was blazing. Bang-Jensen fed the yellow envelope into it. Then, he removed another envelope from his briefcase and a third from his jacket pocket. The four men watched as the envelopes and their contents turned to ashes, then signed statements confirming their destruction.
But the affair was far from over. Hoping to end the case once and for all, Gross released his report on Bang-Jensen’s conduct, painting a picture of a paranoid, overly sensitive man. Gross claimed that Bang-Jensen had been negligent in safeguarding the papers, and suggested that he might have altered them himself. In a clunky solution to the question of the U.N.’s ability to safeguard documents, the report argued that, in Bang-Jensen’s keeping, the papers had been so insecure as to be rendered worthless — therefore the U.N. did not want them back. The report closed by recommending that Bang-Jensen seek medical help. The question of sabotage that Bang-Jensen had originally raised was largely glossed over.
“I think image of Bang-Jensen as heroic protector of papers will have been exploded,” Andrew Cordier wrote in a telegram to the Australian delegate, Sir Keith Charles Owen Shann, in Manila.
This portrait of Bang-Jensen as unstable and incompetent was a surprise, even to members who had contributed to the report. Alsing Andersen, who had recalled the incident of Bang-Jensen shaking a delegate by the lapels in the Diplomats Lounge to the Committee, asked that a new press release around the report be issued. Bang-Jensen launched into a judicial review process, aimed at reinstating his position and clearing his name. Meticulous as ever, he testified that the Gross Report contained 126 incorrect statements, including 76 that were simply misleading and 31 that were outright slanderous.
He never had a chance.
The judicial review board was stacked with the same men who had suggested Bang-Jensen was unstable. Bang-Jensen’s requests for key letters and memos, for the right to be represented by an outside attorney instead of a fellow staffer, were all denied. Unable to afford a secretary, he typed out his trial correspondence himself using two fingers, only to be told that the tribunal would only review evidence sent in triplicate. When he claimed that the labyrinthine procedures were a violation of due process and his human rights, U.N. officials grew exasperated.
“If there has been any violation of human rights,” wrote one, “it is most certainly not Bang-Jensen’s but those of many senior officials of the Secretariat, especially Andrew Cordier, who have spent the equivalent of many days — even weeks — of valuable time leaning over backwards to be fair to this impossible man!”
At the same time, according to Bang-Jensen, a smear campaign spread through the halls of the U.N. Stories reportedly circulated that Bang-Jensen was an alcoholic, a psychopath, that he was gay, or sexually deviant, that he was a McCarthyite. Meanwhile, newspaper articles told the heroic story of the man who dared to stand up to the Soviet Union and the corrupt U.N. Letters with stamps bearing the profiles of Lincoln and Washington poured in to Cordier and Hammarskjold’s office.
“Please excuse my handwriting, because I have a broken wrist and I have a cast on,” wrote Mary Alice Karl from Williston Park, New York, “I just had to write and tell you how I want to protest the dismissal of the Danish official, Povl Bang-Jensen. I think that this action was highly unfair and unreasonable.”
“Dear Sirs,” wrote Miss Marita Kane, from Long Island, “I have never before written a letter to the U.N., but this is justified because I never have been so upset by one of its actions … If you do this ostensibly unjust act of firing a hero, every patriotic American will sigh and say, ‘Oh well, it was a good idea — but the U.N. was just an idea, and can’t and didn’t work out in practice.’”
High schooler Judy Soles whipped her classmates into a fervor after learning about the case in her history class, and started a campaign to reinstate Bang-Jensen. The International League of the Rights of Man wrote in support of Bang-Jensen, citing the previous decade’s Nuremberg Trials of Nazi collaborators.
“Whenever there is a conflict between obedience or adherence to administrative rules or orders of superior officers,” the League wrote, “and a moral responsibility to safeguard life or liberty, the issue must be resolved in favor of the higher moral obligation.”
A predominantly American audience saw him as an anti-Communist hero — the tenacious and upstanding champion they had been looking for in the Cold War. Many saw the difficulties Bang-Jensen was experiencing as proof that Soviets were controlling the U.N. In response to every letter, Andrew Cordier sent a copy of the Gross Report — a clear message that their supposed hero was, in fact, deranged.
* * *
On July 3, 1958, Bang-Jensen was fired for insubordination. He was given three months’ pay in lieu of notice. Ever tenacious, he claimed right of appeal. Once again, he lost. Up until this point, Bang-Jensen had, in his own words, “made every effort to have the case dealt with in as quiet and as orderly a manner as possible in order not to hurt the United Nations which, in the final analysis, is more important than any of the individuals involved.” He deeply loved the U.N., and was committed to both its systems and its mission. That he pled his case within its existing structures, and that he rarely spoke to the press, indicates a commitment to the institution that ran deep.
“I shall never regret that I kept my promise to the Hungarian witnesses that I should be the only person in the Secretariat to know their names,” he said in a rare public statement after his firing. “Either inside or outside the United Nations—I shall continue my efforts to obtain justice.”
The affair went quiet for a year. After his dismissal, Bang-Jensen got a job at CARE, the humanitarian relief agency, where his yearly salary dropped from $17,000 to $7,500. He attended PTA meetings for his five children, took them to Sunday school, and went to the movies with his wife, Helen. “North By Northwest” was one of the most popular films of 1959, but perhaps that story of subterfuge at the U.N. felt too close to home for a weekend date.
On the morning of Monday, November 21, 1959, Bang-Jensen kissed his wife goodbye and walked out the front door of their home in Long Island. He ran into a neighbor, Mr. Wetzler, who gave him a ride to the bus stop. Mr. Wetzler reported to the Senate Judiciary Committee that Bang-Jensen “behaved in a perfectly normal manner.” Then he hopped out at the corner of Northern Boulevard and Morgan Street and was never seen alive again.
He was found, two days later on the morning of Thanksgiving, laid out on a bridle path in Alley Pond Park, a seven-minute drive from his house. Two locals, walking their dogs through the gray fallen leaves, discovered the body. A bullet had gone through his right temple. In his right hand was a pearl-handled revolver. Even after his two-day disappearance, his face, under a mat of blood, was clean-shaven. The police found a note in Bang-Jensen’s handwriting. “Whatever faults I have,” it read, “I have been honest and wanted to do good, but I underestimated the forces I was up against.” The N.Y.P.D. ruled the death a suicide, and cremated the body, as the note requested.
“You and your family have our profound sympathy and sincere condolence on the passing of your husband,” wrote Hammarskjold to Helen.
“Please accept our heartfelt sympathy in your sorrow,” wrote Cordier.
“You have driven to his death a noble man, Mr. Bang-Jensen, for doing what was right,” wrote Mrs. A.G. Hunter to the United Nations. “Your conscience should hurt you all the rest of your life — if you have a conscience.”
Almost immediately, the question of foul play arose. Who were the hidden forces mentioned in the suicide note, people wondered? Where had Bang-Jensen been for the two days of his disappearance? If the diplomat was left-handed, why was the gun found in his right hand? Had Bang-Jensen really killed himself in a fit of depression over his ousting from the U.N. or were other and more malevolent forces at play? “Many persons and many forces, not exclusively Soviet, had reason to breathe easier at his passing,” hinted the National Review. “The strange circumstances of the case seem to warrant continued investigation,” the Washington Post wrote.
Congress thought so too. In 1960, they launched an investigation in the Bang-Jensen case, questioning both U.N. security procedures and the pipeline of information about Communist infiltration in the State Department and the C.I.A. The committee did not comment on the judicial procedures at the U.N. that led to Bang-Jensen’s termination, since that was inside the jurisdiction of the United Nations. But the committee was very interested in whether a political assassination had occurred on American soil. The investigation created as many mysteries as it solved.
The Senate report uncovered that Bang-Jensen had spoken of suicide as a way to get his family funds from his U.N. insurance policy — but that policy had run out by the time he died. Friends and family reported depression after his dismissal from the U.N., adding that it had increased to the point where they encouraged him to consult a psychiatrist. He visited Dr. Frederick Friedenborg six times. The doctor declared him “anti-suicidal” and in the weeks leading up to his death, Bang-Jensen had been markedly more active and cheerful. Dr. Friedenborg had prescribed Bang-Jensen sleeping pills, which Bang-Jensen did not make a practice of using. The pharmacist who filled the prescription testified that it was never refilled. Nonetheless, the coroner reported that Bang-Jensen was sedated at the time of his death.
Regarding his mental state, the Senate Committee surfaced another shocking document, a 1957 memo from Bang-Jensen to Helen discovered and published by the far-right, anti-Communist Alice Widener. Though incredible, none on the committee questioned that it might be real. It read:
“[My wife] fears, now that it is clear that I will not retreat, that the circle outside the Secretariat, ultimately responsible for the sabotage, might have decided that it is necessary to risk having me disappear out a window, or similarly in a fit of depression … My wife has, nevertheless, insisted that I should inform a few of my friends, that under no circumstances would I commit suicide … this would be contrary to my whole nature and to my religious convictions. If any note was found to the opposite effect in my hand-writing, it would be fake.”
The letter was dated November 30, 1957. It was the habit of the meticulous Bang-Jensen to date all his correspondence to the day. The only exception the Senate committee could find in all Bang-Jensen’s writing was the suicide note.
The committee did not come to a conclusion on the Bang-Jensen mystery. But it did publish a report on the facts of the case, including facts that pointed to suicide and others that pointed to murder. Inserted in the report was a list of corrections to factual errors that were discovered after the report was bound and printed. Bang-Jensen would, no doubt, have found more.
* * *
On the 60th anniversary of the Hungarian Revolution, the Hungarian Mission to the U.N. celebrated the sacrifice of Bang-Jensen. The event included a generation who had lived through revolution themselves, the children of refugees who had built new lives, and Bang-Jensen’s own children, now grown. They accepted a statue in token of their father’s heroism in safeguarding the names of the 81 anonymous witnesses — a sculpture of the Hungarian uprising flag, with a hole where the Soviet hammer and sickle had been torn out.
Ferenc Miszlivetz, Director of Hungary’s Institute of Advanced Studies Kőszeg, which published A Cry for Freedom: Reflections on the 1956 Hungarian Revolution at the UN and Beyond, likens Bang-Jensen’s story to the Hungarian uprising itself.
“Sometimes relatively insignificant players,” he says, “could make a big difference in a real way in peculiar moments in history.”
Ultimately, he argues, far from jeopardizing the long-term legitimacy of the United Nations, Bang Jensen safeguarded it. In his rebellion, he had carried on U.N. values.
“Bang-Jensen saved the reputation of the United Nations,” Miszlivetz says, “We have institutions based on values and those are sometime not realized. But unexpected individuals can realize them.”
Even when the arc of progress swings ethical institutions into being, individuals must continue to carry those ethics forward in their individual actions, particularly when those institutions falter.
The Bang-Jensen case may be a story of a man experiencing post-war stress, tormenting his colleagues with paranoia, depression and ultimately suicide. Or, it may be the tale of a coordinated campaign to silence a whistleblower. Ultimately, it is a story of a man who believed entirely in the importance of truth and facts, in promises, and in resisting the very institutions we love when they fall short of their moral mandate.
Bang-Jensen’s wife eventually moved upstate to Chappaqua, New York. She worked as a guide at the local Union Church, leading tour groups through the history and stories of the Chagall and Matisse stained glass windows that a Rockefeller had commissioned for the church. The prized centerpiece of the luminous collection, the one Helen must have often paused at during her tours to relate the story of its subject, was the Good Samaritan.
Sometimes acting like a teenage rebel is the only way to feel in control.
On a hot and humid night last June, I steered my car over twisting country roads toward a small lakeside town for a romantic rendezvous. I had spent the day at a funeral, reflecting on the fact that at fifty, I had more miles behind me than ahead. Oddly, my paramour had also spent the day at a funeral, and as the summer sun disappeared we made plans to meet halfway between our towns for a drink.
It was nearly eleven when I turned my car onto Main Street, and James was growing impatient. We were speaking on the phone when I caught a glimpse of him. Strikingly handsome, he looked at least a decade younger than his 61 years. Running and doing chores on his rural property kept his body lean and muscular, and his face betrayed few traces of the anguish I knew lay in his heart.
James met me at my car, and as we walked toward the restaurant he put his arm around me. I felt a shudder of excitement run down my spine and I pushed in closer to feel his body. When we sat at the bar he swiveled his chair, pushed his knees against mine, and leaned in close to talk. Our faces were pressed within whispering distance and I inhaled his scent. The drinks we ordered were superfluous; this was all a graceful dance of foreplay.
The bar was teeming with a coarse-looking crowd of men and women who had deeply lined faces and leather jackets. The fact that we were completely out of place only heightened our excitement. We huddled and made witty comments about the antics of other patrons, parting only to fling our heads back in hysterics. We sat at the bar laughing and kissing, and before long James ran his hand up my leg and under my skirt. On previous dates he had teased me about being a Puritan in public, but X-rated in private, but that night I made no attempt to be discreet.
It felt mischievous to be strangers in a raucous tavern far from home in the middle of the night. We reveled in escaping the constricting bonds of our everyday lives – him a lawyer, me a divorced single mother. Our behavior was an unspoken act of defiance against the taunt of age, and the gloom of funerals that had become a common part of our lives.
Outside the restaurant James kissed me deeply and with a new fervency. We were passionately entangled while patrons passed by, and I whispered that we needed to go somewhere private. James began walking me to my car, and I assumed I would follow him to the adjacent hotel, or to his house an hour away.
When we got to my car he told me to get in the back seat. I refused, saying that my kids had left a mess in my car. James took my hand and led me across the lot to his immaculately clean Mercedes.
“Get in,” he said again.
“I’m not having sex with you in a car,” I replied laughing, while thinking of how improper it would be for a middle-aged mother to do so.
“Just get in,” he repeated, smiling mischievously as he opened the rear door.
There was no point in arguing; I knew I’d get in, so I slid onto the back seat. James was right behind, and before I heard the click of the door closing he was kissing me. It was futile to fight the longing we had been feeling for the past hours. Soon, all thoughts of motherhood and what was proper disappeared. We had been together many times before, but that night we devoured each other.
“I can’t believe I just had sex in a car in a public parking lot,” I said afterward, as I searched for my bra in the front seat.
“It was exciting, like in high school,” James replied, looking flushed and exhilarated.
As I drove home in the wee hours of the morning I felt furtive pride that James and I had taken a rebellious stand against the inevitability of age, and society’s expectation that we go gently into the night. In the days and weeks that followed we frequently reminisced about our romp in the car, and how it brought us back to our adolescence; a time of freedom and endless promise, a time before responsibilities and painful regrets.
After years getting paid to bare my breasts at more clubs than I can count, when my funds hit an all-time low I pioneered a cleaner brand of sex work.
Topless Housecleaning + Lapdance Gentlemen, do you need a good, clean tease after a hard day’s work? I’ll clean your house and give you a(1) lapdance $100/hr – have your own cleaning supplies – no blocked numbers.
When I arrive at the house of the first viable person to respond to my Craigslist ad, I knock on the door and take a step back. He opens it right away. Jim or John, suddenly I can’t remember. He’s young to have such a nice mini-mansion with a swimming pool and younger than I normally like to deal with. I like his work jeans and dirty white t-shirt, though. They feel kind of homey.
I step in, a little flirty, but all-business to begin with. I get him to show me the whole house, which serves the double purpose of planning ahead for cleaning and making sure there’s no one else hiding, ready to pop out for a gang rape later. Just when the tour is complete my phone rings. It’s my security detail — Possum, the hillbilly witchdoctor I’ve befriended, following instructions to wait for me to clear the house and call to be sure everything’s okay.
“Hey,” I say. “It’s all good in here. Call me in like an hour.”
“Ayep,” Possum replies in his drawl.
I turn to JimJohn and start to pull my shirt off, then stop. “Business before pleasure, babe,” I say, making the little money sign with my fingers.
“Oh, of course.” He pulls a hundred out of his pocket and presses it into my hand. I shove it down one of my stockings as I take my pants off, because I have always believed that the safest place for my money is right against my skin.
* * *
I’d had eighty dollars left to my name when I drove into Greenville, South Carolina. Half a tank of gas and two blueberry smoothies later, it dwindled to sixteen dollars folded together in the bottom of my pocket. For some people, this might have been a problem, but not for me. I have the magical ability to walk into a strip club just about anywhere there is one and make a few hundred bucks just because I’m willing to get naked and smile at people.
Sex work is my trust fund. When I’ve been broke down on the side of the road with no money, when I’ve been a homeless teenager, when I’ve wanted to buy a house, a car, an education — sex work has always been there for me. I’ve done almost all the sex work: everything from street hustling to dancing in bejeweled gowns to foot fetish parties and erotic hypnosis. Whenever I discover a new form of sex work — the weirder or more interesting the better — I try to experience it.
I’m staying, with my dog, Spot, in my van down by the river next to Possum, who lives in a van that’s much bigger and nicer than mine. Possum drew me a map showing how to get to the two strip clubs he knows of: a big one, and a little one. Big strip clubs sometimes have things like rules and schedules and lots of competition and high house fees, which I don’t like. I decided to try the small one first.
The small one turned out to be a brothel with very little business, where I met some very beautiful, very southern women, including a 300-pound dancer named Hamhock who I wish I could introduce to every teenager worrying about their weight ever.
I was too fat for the big one, or the door guy was having a bad day.
I started to feel a little panic. That’s when the idea of topless housecleaning came to me — purely formed, rising sweetly out of my desperation — so I put up a Craigslist ad and here I am at Jim or John or whatever his name is’ house.
* * *
I do the kitchen first, like my friend Tania who actually grew up in a mansion and knows how to clean explained to me last night on the phone. I keep up a steady stream of flirting while I put his dishes in the dishwasher and move everything on the counter to one end so I can clean it. While I’m stacking his mail neatly I check out his name. Jim. The counter is dirty, covered in stains and puddles of dried-up food and glue and who knows what else. Scrubbing while bending over a counter in six-inch heels, back arched so that your ass sticks up pretty, is hard work. Especially while flirting the whole time with a man you hope is staring at your ass and not your sweaty face.
He asks about me, how I came to be a topless housecleaner. I don’t tell him that he’s my first, or that I’m broke, or that I live in a van. If you watch television you know what happens to broke homeless women: They give $20 blow jobs, not $100 counter scrubbings. Instead I make up a prissy story about finishing my Master’s degree and taking a year to drive around the country in an R.V. dancing. Of course I tried dancing here, I explain, but the clubs are just so dirty, and I’m way too classy to expose myself to such an environment. The crazy thing I’ve discovered is that the snobbier you seem, the more they will pay you.
Jim is amazingly empathetic about the nastiness of the local clubs. A classy woman like me obviously doesn’t belong in places like those. He follows me from kitchen to bathroom to bedroom to living room, staring while I wipe, mop, scrub and vacuum, all while trying to look like I’m not sweaty from doing this work in humid 90-degree weather. His story is interesting. All his time goes to his race-car business, which is like a dream, but lots of hard work. He bought this house two years ago, but hasn’t had the time or taste to furnish it yet, though he does find the time to indulge in the tradition of illicit hooch brewing down in the basement. Steely grey eyes and his young tough look contrast with his docile nature as he tamely follows me around his house. I’m beginning to think all men in the South must be gentlemen.
When I’m done cleaning I settle him on his couch, set my iPod to Depeche Mode, and tell him that he gets one free lap dance with his housecleaning and after that they are twenty dollars, just like in the club. He opens his wallet and peels off another hundred, right away, and tells me to just dance until that runs out.
“No touching,” I remind him as the song starts and I move in front of him. Soon I’m crawling all over him, undulating, brushing my ass across his hard penis through his jeans. He is begging me to let him touch me, and I’m reminding him that I’m not that kind of girl, although I make sure to sound a little confused.
“Come on,” he says, getting his wallet out. “What about for another hundred?”
I pretend to think hard, then: “Okay.” I take his hands and guide them over my body. “You can touch here — my ass, my thighs, my stomach, but no titties or pussy.”
“Two hundred?” he pulls two crisp $100 bills out of his wallet.
It’s not really a question for me. I’ve given this much contact for thirty dollars a song. I pretend to think long and hard, though. If I let on that I have no principles, I can’t pretend to sell them.
“Okay,” I finally say, pushing the bills down my stockings, “but keep your hands off the kitty! That is not for sale!”
He has gentle, well-practiced hands that he swirls around my nipples and brushes softly over my ass. I arch my back and gasp in pretend ecstasy. Soon he wants more again — a hand job, a hundred dollars.
I insist that I’m not that kind of dancer while I consider this through to its logical conclusion. A couple hundred more for a hand job, a couple hundred more for a blow job, a lot more for sex. It could be a grand, easily. But do I want to have sex with this guy? The thing is, I’m a lesbian. The other thing is, sometimes I think I could be bisexual, and every year or two I have a man sex experiment. I can get into men, and right now on this guy’s lap, I’m turned on.
My phone rings again. It’s Possum. “It’s been an hour,” he says, “are you okay in there?”
“Yeah,” I giggle, “I’m having a great time. I’ll be just another fifteen minutes or so.”
“Awright.” He hangs up.
“Will you touch it?” Jim asks.
Do I look like that kind of girl? I’m a very classy stripper, I remind him.
“Oh, of course, of course. I’m sorry,” he says. “I hope you’re not offended.”
“No…” I cock my head. “Actually… I’ve always kind of wondered what it would be like to do something like that for money.”
“Well, here’s your chance to find out.”
“Hmm…I dunno. I couldn’t. Well…how much?”
“Oh, no. I couldn’t.”
“Two hundred?” He’s got his wallet out, two crisp hundreds in his hand.
“Okay.” I grab them and shove them into my stocking. In my mind I’m counting and calculating miles. This makes 600, or is it 800? That’s, like, 5,000 miles of gas money! Or 2,000 miles and a month or two of groceries and stuff while I explore desert canyons and sky islands. What more could a girl need?
I slide down between his legs and he unzips his jeans eagerly. It is small, with a nice curve and for a second I love it and want to fuck him. Smiling, I bring my face close, admiring it like I’m about to lick it. He gasps and wiggles a little, and I take his cock in my hand. It’s already throbbing, and I just run my hand up it lightly, swirl some of the pre-cum back down it, run my fingers over the whole thing. He moans and half thrusts his hips. I love this. When I finally grab his cock, two-handed, and give it a couple strong, twisting strokes, he explodes right away. Perfect.
“Oh my god,” he says.
I giggle. “No, goddess.”
“Oh my goddess.” He smiles.
“Stay right there, I’m going to get you a washcloth.” I run to the bathroom.
While he cleans up, I pull my jeans and tank top back on over my fishnets and thong. I’m ecstatic and high from the rush of going from six dollars to 800 dollars in an hour with my hustling skills, but I know I won’t have really pulled it off until I’m in the van, driving away. I make myself look totally calm while I throw my iPod and cleaning stuff in the bag I came with, give him a goodbye hug, and tell him he should really call me again to clean the rest of the house.
I don’t start laughing until I’m in the van and Possum is driving us away. Then I fold over in my seat, laughing and clapping my hands with excitement.
“Possum,” I exclaim, “I love having a vagina!
Leaning back, I push my hips up to pull my jeans down and start fishing the hundreds out of my fishnets.
Possum looks over at me with my legs up on the bed, pulling eight $100 bills out of my thigh highs. “Holy shit,” he says, “I do believe I wish I had a vagina too.”
Checking “topless housecleaning” off my to-try list of sex-work gigs makes me enough money to get back on the road. The next day Spot and I get in the van and drive across the country until I find a beautiful desert-sky island in northern Arizona. I stay for a couple weeks, playing in a creek and tracking coyote, before I get low on money again and start over.
* * *
Tara Burns is the author of the Whore Diaries series. She lives in a little cabin in a big boreal forest and she is working on a memoir. Follow her@THEecowhore
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?”
“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.”
“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 hottopic in the psychotherapy world these days — is because she trusts that I’ll respect her space and privacy. “You’ve proven that much to me,” she says.
On my walk home, instead of being angry at Lori, I understand her thinking behind the text. But I’m also nervous about how Lori and Shauna can ever coexist in my life.
Isn’t therapy supposed to ameliorate my anxiety?
* * *
A week later, Lori begins our session by handing me a printout explaining the psychotherapeutic term “erotic transference” written by Raymond Lloyd Richmond, PhD. It says that erotic transference is the patient’s sense that love is being exchanged between him or herself and the therapist — the exact sensation I was experiencing with Lori, of which she was astutely aware.
According to Richmond, one of the primary reasons people seek therapy is because “something was lacking in their childhood family life,” perhaps “unconditional nurturing guidance and protection.” Upon feeling “noticed” and “understood” by a qualified therapist, sometimes a patient can be “intoxicated” by their therapist’s approval of them. A patient may in turn contemplate that a love is blossoming between them, and, in fact, it sort of is.
From an ethical standpoint, Richmond argues all therapists are “bound” to love their patients, for therapists are committed to willing “the good of all clients by ensuring that all actions within psychotherapy serve the client’s need to overcome the symptoms” which brought them into treatment. This takes genuine care and acceptance on their part. However, a patient can easily confuse the love they feel with simple “desire.” They’re not quite in love with their therapist, so much as they yearn for acceptance from someone, and in those sessions they just happen to be receiving it from their doctor.
Lori tells me that, all along, she has been “working with what I gave her” and that because I flirted with her a bit, she used that to her advantage in the treatment. In employing countertransference — indicating that she had feelings for me — she was keeping me from feeling rejected and despising my own thoughts and urges.
“There’s two people alone in a room together, and if they’re two attractive people, why wouldn’t they be attracted to each other?” says Dr. Galit Atlas. A psychoanalyst who’s had her own private practice for fifteen years, Dr. Atlas has an upcoming book titled The Enigma of Desire: Sex, Longing and Belonging in Psychoanalysis, and I sought her as an independent source for this essay to help me understand Lori’s therapeutic strategies.
Dr. Atlas explains that there are certain boundaries that cannot be crossed between therapist and patient under any circumstances — like having sex with them, obviously. But many other relationship borders can be mapped out depending on the comfort level of the therapist, as long as they stay within the scope of the profession’s ethics, which complicates the discussion surrounding erotic transference.
“As a therapist, I have a role,” Dr. Atlas says. “My role is to protect you.” She says it is incumbent on the therapist to not exploit the patient for the therapist’s own good, but admits that the presence of erotic transference in therapy brings about many challenges. “[Attraction] is part of the human condition,” she observes. In therapy, “the question then is: What do you do with that? Do you deny it? Do you talk about it? How do you talk about it without seducing the patient and with keeping your professional ability to think and to reflect?”
I ask her about the benefits of exploring intimacy in therapy, and Dr. Atlas quickly points out that emotional intimacy — though not necessarily that of the sexual brand — is almost inevitable and required. “An intimate relationship with a therapist can [be] a reparative experience — repairing childhood wounds — but mostly it’s about helping the patient to experience and tolerate emotional intimacy, analyzing the client’s anxieties about being vulnerable and every mechanism one uses in order to avoid being exposed.”
Dr. Atlas says this topic speaks to every facet of the therapeutic relationship, regardless of gender or even sexual orientation, because intimacy reveals emotional baggage that both the patient and therapist carry with them into the session. But this isn’t a symmetrical relationship, and the therapist is the one who holds the responsibility.
“Freud said that a healthy person should be able to work and to love,” she says. “In some ways therapy practices both, and in order to change the patient will have to be known by the therapist. That is intimacy. In order to be able to be vulnerable, both parties have to feel safe.”
After I briefly explain all that has gone on between me and Lori, Dr. Atlas steadfastly says she does not want to judge too harshly why and how everything came to pass in my therapy. “I don’t know your therapist, and I don’t know your history,” she says. But she offers that I should “explore the possibility” that I might have created and admitted my sexual adoration of Lori because one of my fears is to be ignored, not noticed.
Then I offer: “Maybe this essay is being written for the same reason.”
Maybe I wanted to interview Lori about erotic transference in my therapy sessions for that same reason as well…to stand out as the most amazingly understanding patient ever.
* * *
“I want to be very clear that this was never about feeding my own ego,” Lori says about her approach to my treatment. “We were always doing this in your best interest.”
I’m in Lori’s office, a tape recorder rolling and a pad and pen in my hands.
“I felt I was doing a disservice to you if I didn’t ‘out’ what I felt was weighing on us, which, honestly, felt like a heavy secret,” she says, pointing out that she discussed my therapeutic process for many hours in her required supervision meetings.
In order for Lori to advance in her field as a social worker, she has to attend 3,000 conference hours with another professional to go over casework — kind of like therapy quality control.
We talk about all of this during one of my scheduled sessions, for the entire hour — and go over by a few minutes, too.
Lori says that when she began her career as a social worker, she decided she wasn’t going to shy away from any subjects. “It’s typical for a client to [have] a habitual desire to sweep things under the rug,” she observes, especially about taboo topics. It can become a cycle of behavior that Lori seeks to break.
I refer back to the time when, unprovoked, she brought up my attraction to her.
She says she mentioned it to avoid what therapists call “door-knobbing,” which is when a patient will purposely mention some huge reveal right at the end of a session so as to sidestep a lengthy conversation about it.
“My only question for you is, was I wrong for bringing it up?” she asks. “Only you can answer that.”
Lori’s great at forcing me to reflect.
“I guess when I said I was over it and could move on, that was an example of my strict black-and-white thinking,” I say, throwing back some language she’s used often to describe my challenge in accepting dualities. In my mind, I was either attracted to her and shouldn’t see her anymore, or I wasn’t attracted to her and could still have her be my therapist. There was no in between.
I realize now that she wasn’t wrong for mentioning my feelings for her, even when I didn’t want her to. Lori noticed that I was frustrated with myself and wanted me to know that an attraction to a therapist is so normal and happens so frequently that there are technical terms for it.
I turn my attention towards the presence of countertransference in our session. I’m trying to come up with an actual question here, but, really, I just want her to confirm her feelings for me are real. So I say, referring to her feelings, with a great degree of difficulty, “It’s funny that they seem genuine to this day.”
“They are genuine,” Lori says, adding a moment later: “I think it might be a good idea if we explore why our discussing it suggests a lack of authenticity.”
“It doesn’t, necessarily,” I begin, then stammer through a few sentences, worried I might offend her by implying she’s been dishonest. I finally settle on, “I guess it comes back to my self-esteem issues. Why would a beautiful woman think I’m attractive?”
Lying in bed with Shauna a few months into our relationship, I ask her what she thought about me the moment she first saw me. I’m fishing for a compliment. But we met on Tinder and I just hope that seeing me in person wasn’t some kind of letdown for her after swiping right on my hand-picked glamour shots. Obviously she isn’t going to say something so awful after having committed to me for so long. It’s a slam-dunk ego boost.
She says she liked the fact that I was wearing a blazer and a tie on a first date. She adds that I was a little shorter than she anticipated, but was content with the two of us at least being the same exact height.
“What did you think when you first saw me?” she asks, turning it around, naturally.
Staying committed to my honesty-at-all-costs policy, I say, “I thought you were really beautiful, but not to the point where I was intimidated by you, which was very important because if I was, you would have gotten a very unconfident version of me, and we probably wouldn’t have hit it off as well as we did.”
Shauna thinks about that for a second, and eventually nods “OK.”
I explain that my insecurity could often get the better of me in dating situations. It was easy to convince myself that I’d be rejected by the girl I was with, especially if I thought she was out of my league. I would then slip into a nervous and reserved state that isn’t at all reflective of my true self.
I’m essentially saying that I was so thrilled to not find Shauna so extraordinarily pretty that I couldn’t accept her being on a date with me. That thought made so much sense at the time I said it, but I’ve since come to realize it is as ridiculous as it is insulting. After ten months of being with Shauna, I’m still completely floored by her, on every level, including a physical one. It gives me great pride to walk into a room with her, and I don’t imagine that changing. Therefore, she actually did meet a confident “version of me.” The way people look doesn’t drastically change in ten months but a person’s perception of self can. It seems my emotional workouts in erotic transference were just beginning to produce results.
* * *
“People fuck up,” Lori informs me during one winter session. “Therapists have slept with clients before, just like politicians have had sex with their interns. But, so you have a full understanding of how this works, we can date.” She explains the parameters as outlined in the social worker’s code of ethics. One of the many stipulations is that we wouldn’t be able to see each other, under any circumstances, for at least two years before dating. She tells me she loves her job, and there’s no way she would ever sacrifice my safety or her career for anything, so she would strictly follow all the dictated rules. “If you truly want to date me, there is the option. But it’s ultimately up to you.”
I know what she’s doing here — putting the onus on me, just like last year when she said we could have sex. The difference this time is the answer I want to give is on par with all of my involuntary urges.
“I don’t want to stop the work we’re doing,” I say. “At this point, it’s far too valuable to me, and, really, I know very little about you.” She’s beautiful, exercises, is smart, funny, professional, enjoys good TV…and that’s about it. Aside from whether or not we’d even both be single in two years, and if we’d be in the correct mind frame to explore a relationship, there are several other things I’m considering here: Would Lori and I really be compatible in every way? Would she ever see me as a lover, a partner, an equal, and not a patient? Could I ever reveal a detail about myself, or even just a shitty day of work, without wondering if she was picking it apart and analyzing it?
Frankly, all those questions could be answered in the positive. But, even if I wasn’t in a happy relationship — Shauna makes this choice much easier, for sure — I wouldn’t go that route. I’d be out a therapist.
* * *
It’s a beautiful spring night in New York and only sidewalk seating will do. Shauna and I are out to dinner at a restaurant near her Queens apartment, and we’re both in good spirits. The weather and the alcohol consumption are partly to blame for that, but, on cue with the season’s change, I feel I’ve turned an emotional corner. Work payments that were past due are finally finding their way into my bank account. As it turns out, my short-term money troubles were not an indication that I had no business being a writer, or that my life changeup was as irresponsible as unprotected sex at fourteen years old.
I’d told Lori as much that afternoon. I took a mental step back from my current situation and realized that in spite of my recent hardships, I was succeeding. I summarize my session for Shauna, who nods in agreement, lovingly pointing out that she’s had the same challenging freelancer experiences as a dancer.
“You’re doing great, babe,” she says matter-of-factly.
“Thank you. That means a lot,” I respond. “I guess if I’m going to be a writer I just have to accept all this and have faith in myself. The way Lori put it was, ‘You just have to go all-in.’”
“Good,” Shauna says. “You should listen to the women in your life.”
* * *
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