As a conservative country’s LGBTQ community finally finds its voice, one athlete fights for the right to compete as his true self in a hyper-masculine sport.
It’s Sunday morning in Ho Chi Minh City. Blistering heat is vaporizing last night’s downpour on the streets of District 7, an upscale area southeast of the city center and popular with expats.
Under the unforgiving lights of a gym so polished it looks barely used, Kendy rehearses the poses that he hopes will win him gold at Vietnam’s national bodybuilding competition in November.
The 27-year-old bodybuilder and personal trainer turns to his side, lifting his front heel, and flexes his calf muscles. He inflates his chest and curls his arm, stretching the tree of life tattoo imprinted on his deltoid six months ago. The latest inked addition, a Polynesian turtle on the back of his hand, is three months old; “It means family,” he explains.
Turning away from his reflection, he squeezes his shoulder blades together and then swivels around, smiling back into the mirror. Concluding the routine, he pulls up his vest, flashing a washboard stomach, though he stops at the pecs. They’ll remain covered during the upcoming competition, too, but by a bikini top, since he will be part of the women’s division.
“I feel confident about the competition,” Kendy says through a translator. “I have to be confident. If I meet a strong opponent, I may lose, but what matters is that I see myself as a winner.”
Kendy claims the title of Vietnam’s first openly trans man bodybuilder. He’s 5’2”, all muscle, and could pass for a teen idol, despite trading his spiky hair for a crew cut a fortnight ago.
It’s one of the myriad changes to his image over the past decade, as he gradually aligns his body and his mind. The name on his ID card, Nguyen Thi Trang, indicates he was designated a woman at birth. (In Vietnamese culture the family name comes first; ‘Nguyen’ is the most common name in the country, and ‘Trang,’ his given name, is that of a female.) Since coming out as a trans man, he goes by just one name, ‘Kendy.’
With his position on the city’s bodybuilding team, Kendy has become a role model in the local LGBTQ community, which is facing a turning point in the fight for equality.
“Since I came out, some transgender people I know have been more open,” he says. “They don’t hide themselves anymore.”
On the first day of 2017, sexual reassignment surgery will be legal in Vietnam, and trans people will be permitted to change their ID documents to match their gender identity. There is a catch, however. Another law defining what conditions are needed to officially designate one’s gender, be it a simple declaration or an operation, has to be introduced and adopted first. Tung Tran, 43, director of ICS, Vietnam’s main LGBTQ advocacy organization, says the law will likely not be implemented until 2018.
Kendy stands at the crossroads of two Vietnamese communities – LGBTQ people and bodybuilders – in a patriarchal and conservative society where obedience is often expected of women above anything else, and homosexuality is discouraged.
Having taken some years to accept his true gender identity, Kendy’s family is still far more progressive than the Vietnam Bodybuilding Federation, which hasn’t even broached the subject yet, instead barring Kendy from competing in the men’s division.
“It doesn’t matter if I am a trans man or not,” he says with a smile. “What matters is my attempt at bodybuilding and that I put my effort into training.”
Kendy was born in the northern port city of Hai Phong. “When I was two or three, I knew that I was not like other girls,” he says. “I wanted to be a boy. I did everything like a boy and I hung out with boys.”
Being different at school did not make him a target for bullies, he says, perhaps because of his audacity. He was never shy of showing people he was a man. “So when I came out, people around me were not surprised.”
At the age of fifteen, he took up karate, but his training came to an abrupt halt three years later when he fractured his arm during a competition.
He moved to the more liberal southern metropolis with his parents, who had found hotel work on a fashionable downtown street, and his then eight-year-old brother.
He says it was about that time he wanted to begin living as a man, something his parents struggled with accepting. But first-time access to the internet in their new home exposed them to countless stories about people like Kendy all over the world.
“I have proved to my parents that I am a good person and I am living a good life,” he says. “Now they accept who I am. As long as I am happy, they always support me.”
His brother is “cool” with his gender swap, however Kendy admits that his mother prefers that he’d stayed a girl. “She usually teases me by telling me to get a husband and have kids.”
During his first three years after coming out as trans, Kendy worked as a hairdresser and receptionist. Wanting to build his physique, he joined a gym where his work ethic gained the admiration of bodybuilders. “I had short hair back then,” he recalls, “but I still looked feminine.”
One of the bodybuilders who’d gotten to know Kendy, aware of his desire to transition, asked Kendy if he would like to train professionally, as a male, sparking a keen “yes.”
Vietnam has enjoyed some moderate success in bodybuilding since the turn of the century. Pham Van Mach won the country’s first world title in 2001, and, most recently, four athletes won gold medals at the 2016 Asian Beach Games in September. Kendy attributes the swelling ranks of bodybuilders here to an abundance of online fitness tips, although he says fewer women have embraced the sport. Simultaneously, the trans community has become more prominent, joining pride marches and fighting for recognition.
Kendy has over five thousand Facebook followers who consume photo updates of his workouts, and ask him for exercise advice. His time is divided between the flashy gym in District 7, a worn, city-sponsored gym in District 11, and with his personal training clients at other gyms, many of whom, he says, are “trans men who want to change their appearance without having an operation.”
Trans people in Vietnam who want sex reassignment surgery currently have to travel, usually to Thailand, for the procedure. There are at least 270,000 trans people out of a population of ninety million in the country – fifty thousand of whom are trans men, according to the Institute of Society, Economy, and Environment (iSEE). These figures are based on data in comparable countries, social media groups, and its own networks, although the organization estimates the number may be much higher.
In a 2015 survey of 2, 363 people, iSEE found that trans people face more discrimination than any other LGBTQ group, particularly in their workplaces, schools and with their families. The report noted that some are forced into psychiatric treatment, and have little chance of work promotions, meaning they frequently occupy poorly paid, low level jobs.
“We love to see a role model in bodybuilding, and in different things as well,” says ICS director Tung Tran. ICS helps roughly 200,000 LGBTQ people every year through counseling and networking; Kendy is the only openly trans man bodybuilder on its radar. “I really appreciate somebody like Kendy who is open and comes out so society can understand more about the trans community,” Tran adds.
Tran backs Kendy’s dream of competing in the men’s division, which he has so far not been allowed to do. He currently competes in the women’s 52kg class, and needs to lose 3kgs more (6.6 pounds) to make weight for the national competition in November.
Kendy sweeps aside any suggestion as to whether other women competitors feel he has an unfair advantage, emphasizing that he has not undergone surgery. “Some women have trained for a long time and their muscles look very impressive, so they do not get jealous of me,” he says. “Physically I am still a woman. They treat me like a man but they understand that I compete in the women’s section.” (During a phone call, the national team’s senior coach, Huynh Anh, told me his job was to train athletes, not to answer questions from journalists. Nobody else in the federation would comment on whether a trans man might be allowed to compete in the men’s division.)
* * *
It’s 3:30 p.m., rainy season in Vietnam, and bruised clouds are rolling over Phu Tho Stadium in District 11, swallowing the shadows of boxers sparring near their motorbikes in the parking lot. Weightlifters nearly bursting out of their singlets raise iron plates over their heads and drop them to the ground, each thud jolting a nearby brood of chickens.
Kendy walks past the athletes to the city-sponsored gym where he completes half of his daily training routine – six hours, with one day’s rest every week.
Three months before a competition, he cuts out fatty, spicy and oily foods, and limits his amount of carbohydrates, leaving him with mostly fish, vegetables, chicken and egg whites.
“Sometimes I just cannot stand it and want to quit the diet,” he says. “I like ice cream, so I eat that and anything I want when I’m not in intensive training.”
The gym is a battered muscle-building factory crammed with equipment dating from the ’90s. Padding bleeds out of the benches and a few fans stir the aged stench of sweat and toil.
Wearing a diamond earring, shorts and t-shirt, Kendy takes a seat by the lockers and nods at two bodybuilders behind him.
Doping tests for the competition mean he has to stop taking weekly injections of testosterone for three months. They cost 300,000 Vietnamese Dong (about $14) each, and are imported from Europe. His family believes that sex reassignment surgery would ruin his health. Kendy has his own reservations as well. “If I wanted to do it, I would have to go to Thailand, and be forced to sign an agreement so I could not complain or sue if things went wrong.”
Contemplating the dangers, he begins describing the operation by tentatively pointing to his forearm and then his thigh. “They will take the skin from the thigh to make the body of the penis because that part has many nerves, and the skin from the forearm to make the top part. I am really scared of losing big pieces of skin so I don’t think I am ready for an operation.”
For now, he maintains his appearance with fat-eviscerating drills and testosterone injections. It seems to work. He says he’s had “many girlfriends.”
“I tell girls the truth after a few times hanging out with them. Some of them do not believe me. Sometimes gay men try to hit on me as well. They do not believe me until they’ve asked people around about me.”
The ring of clashing metal stops, and one of the bodybuilders working on his legs, Pham Ngoc Sy, 23, joins us.
“He’s my idol and inspiration in bodybuilding,” he says, beaming at Kendy. “He helps me a lot with almost all the exercises and with my diet.”
In the national competition, the bodybuilders can win five million Dong ($225) for gold, three million Dong ($135) for silver, and two million Dong ($90) for bronze. Kendy hopes to enter international tournaments next year and then leave bodybuilding to open up a café.
“I can’t do this forever because someday my health will not allow me to do intensive training anymore.” He smiles, offering a firm handshake, and says, “I’m just a normal man.”
In a life bookended by tragedy, Prince Nico Mbarga poured joy into his music, including the most popular song in African history. But his own story has never been told — until now.
Twenty years ago the man who recorded one of the most successful songs of all time was thrown off a motorbike by a car in Calabar, Nigeria. He hit his head on the road and was rushed to the hospital, where he lay for two weeks, in and out of consciousness, but deteriorating all the time. On June 24, 1997, Prince Nico Mbarga was pronounced dead.
“Sweet Mother,” his 1976 one-hit wonder, had sold at least thirteen million copies across the African continent – more than The Beatles’ bestseller “I Want to Hold Your Hand.” But no global media outlet thought to cover the life and death of the artist behind Africa’s most popular song.
Today, the only internet accounts of his life reach around four paragraphs and bookend Mbarga’s career with two big political events of the time: the Biafran War in 1967 that saw him, at 17, flee across the border to Cameroon, where he mastered the guitar; and the expulsion of undocumented migrants from Nigeria in 1983, with his band’s Cameroonian members among the two million West Africans forced to leave the country.
Politics, however, rarely frames lives quite so neatly.
Over the last few months, I have tried to piece together a more textured story: traveling to Mbarga’s hometown to talk to his childhood friend, his wife and his mistress; tracking down his former band members from Cameroon to France to the US; prodding the memory of his octogenarian producer; and reading rare transcripts of his interviews.
Twenty years after his death, this is the obituary that never was.
* * *
The first place Mbarga knew, the town of Ikom was the last stop on my journey. In a modest bungalow there I met Esame, his widow, and Ojong, his best friend, on a warm evening on the cusp of the wet season. On plastic chairs in the shadow of his mausoleum, they told me about Nico Mbarga and the place he called home.
The son of a Cameroonian father and a Nigerian mother, Nico Mbarga was born in nearby Abakaliki on April 8, 1950, but grew up in Ikom. In the 1950s it was little more than a series of administrative buildings, houses and farms clumped around Cross River, surrounded by tropical rainforest, right on Nigeria’s eastern border with Cameroon. Ojong remembers early mornings with young Nico on the river, fishing for tilapia and catfish, and days spent in the shade of the forests, setting traps for birds. Today Ikom is still fairly remote – the tarmac roads coming in and out quickly crumble into dirt – but back then it was positively isolated. The only way goods such as bicycles and sewing machines made their way to the village was by lighters on the river from Calabar, more than 100 miles to the south. But even in rural Ikom, all the flux of being in a British colony in Africa in the mid-twentieth century – and the trappings of modernity it entailed – had its effect.
Nico’s father drew a salary sawing timber, so Nico himself was able to go to primary school (perhaps fewer than one in five children did at the time). More exciting for Nico though, his music-loving father bought a Phillips radio. For if anything was to capture the mood of the new country emerging in Nigeria’s faraway and growing cities, it was the highlife music he could now hear from home. From Bobby Benson’s “Taxi Driver,” to EC Arinze’s “Saturday Night,” to Rex Lawson’s “Yellow Sisi,” highlife was a music of young men in big towns, marveling at cars, dancing at nightclubs, chasing single women. There was something, a new confidence, beyond the lyrics too. From miners’ football clubs in the Zambian Copperbelt to the newspapers of the intelligentsia on Ghana’s coast, Africans were making colonial tools their own. Highlife took western instruments – the trumpets and saxophones of big jazz bands – and set them to local, offbeat rhythms. It was a genre well-suited to a country preparing for independence, and its optimistic sound was to suffuse all the music young Nico would go on to create. (Even his later song “Oh Death,” with the opening line “Oh death, everybody hates you,” is impossibly cheery.)
His father, from a long line of xylophone players, taught him the instrument, a handheld version with metal tines plucked by the thumbs. But Nico wanted to make a sound more like the western instruments of highlife, so he built his own xylophone from dried-out plantain skins and scooped bark. “It was completely something that he innovated,” Ojong recalls.
Despite the celebratory mood of the country, however, Nico’s childhood was not easy. His father died of a sudden illness, and the family he left behind – his wife, three sons and a daughter – became reliant on Nico’s mother, a peasant farmer. They downsized, becoming tenants in a compound in the middle of the village, and though Ojong remembers a mother dearly trying her best – caregiver with one hand, breadwinner the other – things were difficult. As a teenager, Nico tried to do his bit, playing sets in nearby small villages, but there was little money in it.
Thus when the Biafran War broke out in 1967, Nico Mbarga wasn’t so much fleeing for his safety – the rest of his family stayed in Ikom – as pursuing his ambitions in music. The civil war put a sharp stop to eastern Nigeria’s vibrant music scene, but the hotel gig economy was still running over the border.
In Mamfe, Cameroon, he met Lucy, who today lives in a half-built mansion ringed by palm trees on the outskirts of Ikom. I had been slightly nervous about meeting Lucy myself, remembering my first call back in London with Esame, Mbarga’s wife: “And I’ve been told about someone called Lucy as well, who is that?”
“Oh that is his concubine,” she responded matter-of-factly, “I will take you to her.” My worries were eased by their laughing and hugging as they greeted each other. Then a smiling Lucy recounted the moment 50 years ago that she met Nico Mbarga: a charming, handsome, if slightly short and dirt-poor 17-year-old. “As I first see him, I love him, eh? Even my mother did no gree, she said, ‘He’s a small boy, he don’t have money,’ but I said, ‘No, that boy is my choice.’”
Indeed, despite the objections of her parents, and their own struggles to buy even “a money for pot” to boil water, she would soon have the first of her two children with Mbarga.
Working as a “band boy” for a Congolese cover group in Mamfe, carrying instruments for concerts at hotels in nearby towns, Mbarga came to learn and love Congolese rumba. With its staccato guitar, spontaneous spoken asides and high-pitched harmonies, it had the whole continent dancing the soukous and the kara-kara. Mbarga, always dedicated, taught himself the conga, the drums, the bass and, most importantly, the finger-picking style of Congolese electric guitar.
When the three hard years of the Biafran War came to an end, he looked to launch his career back in Nigeria. After one failed border-crossing by road, in which Lucy and Mbarga were arrested by officials and sent to prison for three days for not having passports, they successfully made it across a second time, going “the bush way” in 1970. They came to Onitsha, a trading town on the banks of the Niger River, with at its center one of the largest markets on the continent. And while the money this brought has always attracted writers and musicians – today there are shops stacked high with thousands of albums in paper covers, posters for studio rentals everywhere, and music filling the air – the 1970s was Onitsha’s heyday, fuelled by Nigeria’s petrol boom and the good mood of people just relieved to get on with their lives again. It was, as Chinua Achebe wrote, “the esoteric region from which creativity sallies forth at will to manifest itself,” and the home of some of Nigeria’s great highlife musicians.
“We loved the place,” Lucy almost shouts. “From there, God blessed him.”
Mbarga thrived. He formed his group, Rocafil Jazz, signed a contract to play every Sunday at Onitsha’s Plaza Hotel, and began to mix with stars like Stephen Osadebe and Bobby Benson. Then, in 1973 he was picked up by EMI and recorded his first hit “I No Go Marry My Papa,” about a daughter disagreeing with her parents over the choice of her husband, surely inspired by Mbarga’s brush with Lucy’s parents. It sold reasonably well – “I did not know that I would make such an amount in my life,” Mbarga said of the modest success – and in it you can hear the beginnings of something, a mix of influences, that would come to define his music.
Odion Iruoje, then a producer at EMI, recalls working with a 23-year-old Mbarga “who knew what he wanted,” very able at “directing his boys.” By all accounts the non-smoking, non-drinking Mbarga, who studied law on the side in Onitsha, was a man of real self-possession.
He was not to be deterred, therefore, by the stalling of his career after his first single. Mbarga was dropped by EMI for failing to create any other commercial hits. Instead, around 1974, tired of “I love you, you love me, my baby,” he wrote “Sweet Mother.”
It was a love song from a son to a mother that, in its old-fashioned way, never actually once says “I love you.” Instead, it’s a grateful son praising what his mother did for him as a child: drying his tears, putting him to bed, feeding him, praying when he’s ill:
When I dey hungry my mother go run up and down / she dey find me something when I go chop oh! / Sweet Mother a-aah / Sweet Mother oh-e-oh!
And if “Sweet Mother” was dedicated to all mothers and the things they do for children, it was inspired by the loving sacrifices Mbarga saw his own mother, a widowed farmer, make after his father died. The lyrics began, “Sweet Mother, I no go forget you, for dey suffer wey you suffer for me.”
Mbarga sent a tape to Odion Iruoje at EMI, who remembers hearing the song for the first time and knowing that “it was the magic.” On the agreed date for recording, however, Odion had to fly to London to record at Abbey Road, and some other EMI officials told Mbarga that the song was “too childish” for them to record. Affronted, Mbarga did not come back. So it was only two years later when the small, Onitsha-based producer Rogers All Stars heard “Sweet Mother” at the Plaza Hotel, that the song found a label to release it.
Rogers All Stars is now in his 80s, slightly frail and very soft-spoken, still working in his Onitsha studio with which he now shares his name. And though his memories sometimes come to him in a slight haze, he still clearly recalls the day Nico Mbarga came to the producer’s house uninvited early one morning to introduce himself. They bonded over Rogers’s collection of Congolese records, and Mbarga invited the older man to come see him one day at the hotel. “I could see he was a star,” Rogers says.
For six months Mbarga – now calling himself Prince Nico Mbarga – Rocafil and Rogers All Stars worked on “Sweet Mother,” rehearsing daily from seven in the morning until one in the afternoon. It was, says Rocafil rhythm guitarist, Cameroonian Jean Duclair, “real every day work,” as they made change after change, turning it from a gentle “cha cha cha” to a more upbeat highlife sound, adding little dance breaks, and crafting a song marked more and more by the drive of Mbarga’s Congolese-style finger-picking lead guitar.
Finally satisfied, the band travelled across the country to record, and after a heavy night in a Lagos hotel, with all but Mbarga drinking and smoking, recorded it live at Decca Studios – hung over for sure, but they had practiced so much it hardly mattered.
It took a few months to really take off. Nigerian radio host Benson Idonije rates the fact that it eventually did as one of his finest achievements. At the time, he explains from his house in Lagos, he had just launched Radio Nigeria Two, the country’s FM station. After shows he would often drop into bars to wind down the night. On one of these evenings in late ’77, he remembers, there was a song released by an obscure label from Onitsha, that got everyone up to dance. With an inkling that his audience might like the song’s message, he found it, undiscovered, in Radio Nigeria’s gramophone library, and played it that evening. “I started getting calls from everywhere,” he says. From then on, for months nearly every request Radio Nigeria received was for “Sweet Mother.”
“You have hit jackpot,” Jean Duclair remembers being told by their producer, with the record suddenly selling out in the shops. On a 20-seater Mercedes bus bought by Rogers, Mbarga and his band toured the country, up north during the wet season, down south when the rains stopped. And though culturally Nigeria can be a divided place, Jean remembers Nigerians everywhere demanding “Sweet Mother” – “it was like a national anthem.”
Soon they were touring all across West Africa – Togo, Cameroon, Cote D’Ivoire, Ghana, Benin and Burkina Faso – and even as far east as Kenya. As Jean Duclair recalls, the band members were scared to leave the plane when they saw the crowds waiting for them at airports, wearing Rocafil Jazz t-shirts, screaming Mbarga’s name.
And what was the reason for its success? Certainly, with its Congolese guitar-picking, its West African highlife beat and its pidgin lyrics, “Sweet Mother” had something for people all over.
Yet even beyond that, perhaps what it really caught was differing shades of Africa at the time. For, by the 1970s, these were societies that – after the profound changes wrought first by colonialism, then by the liberation movements that challenged it, and finally by the mixed records of those same movements once in power – had reason to feel both excited and uneasy at the new continent these encounters had created. It was a creative tension at the heart of “Sweet Mother.” In its style, with its hybrid English and its electric guitars calling its listeners to dance, it was unquestionably modern; but in its content, with its heartfelt praise for the nurturing role of mothers, “Sweet Mother” nodded to a more traditional life. It was a contradiction that Mbarga embodied himself. He was a man who would later, in “Green Revolution,” bemoan the flight of the sons and daughters of the land for the lure of the city – singing, “let’s go farming, and be self-sufficient!” – while he himself performed on stage in Nigeria’s biggest towns in his famous three-inch platform shoes. As his best friend Ojong would say, “He’s a blender.”
Or perhaps it was just a great tune.
Regardless, Mbarga and Rocafil Jazz were completely unprepared for the popularity of “Sweet Mother.” While numerous online reports of Mbarga’s career have Rocafil Jazz falling apart when, in 1983, Nigeria’s President Shagari ordered the country’s two million undocumented migrants to leave – amongst them Rocafil’s Cameroonian musicians – no former band member I spoke with recognized that story. Instead, it was something much more mundane: money. On its release, they were a local band that practiced in a small compound in Onitsha, playing Sunday gigs at the Plaza Hotel with instruments that Rogers All Stars himself had bought for them, and with no contracts in place. It was always an issue with the potential to cause problems. After a loss-making and slightly demoralizing tour to London in ’79 – playing at venues like St. Pancras Town Hall and the African Centre to half-empty European crowds – the members of Rocafil Jazz complained to Mbarga that they were underpaid.
Mbarga was, according to Jean Duclair, unwilling to give an inch, and the mood soured. Before a scheduled trip to Japan, unable to agree on their percentages, Rocafil disbanded. Though they later re-formed, changed members, re-formed and disbanded again, the band never quite gained the same momentum – there was even an actual physical altercation, broken up by the police, after a New Year’s Eve hotel show in 1980. Meanwhile, convinced that Rogers All Stars hadn’t given him his share of the royalties, Mbarga unsuccessfully took his producer to court. (Everyone did eventually reconcile – Rogers refers to Mbarga as “like a son.”)
In the end, not much of the money made from “Sweet Mother” ever made it back to any of them. Royalty payments were limited by the hundreds of pirate recordings of the song, as economies across the continent began to suffer and record stores started to make their money by dubbing cassettes.
No one involved with “Sweet Mother” is now living a life that would suggest they were behind one of the top twenty bestselling songs in history. Mbarga’s family live in a pleasant but modest bungalow in Ikom; his former band members like Jean Duclair still struggle to raise funds for their musical projects; and his old producer, Rogers All Stars, though he owns a four-story building in Onitsha, admitted to many mistakes in trying to protect “Sweet Mother” from piracy. “You can see,” he says in his dusty office, exaggerating slightly in a room that still dwarfs his fragile frame, “you can see how poor we are.”
With the money he did receive from “Sweet Mother,” Mbarga moved back to Ikom, built and managed the Sweet Mother Hotel – where he would perform every Sunday – and married a local girl, Esame, the daughter of the owner of the only petrol station in town. He also built the house where she still lives today.
Lucy and their two children also moved to Ikom. Indeed, while Mbarga eulogized about mothers on stage, he did not quite show so much respect to the mothers of his own children. “His only weakness was temptation,” says Rogers. For alongside Esame, his wife, and Lucy, his first love, he had numerous other lovers. Even a track on his first album,
“Christiana,” two songs after “Sweet Mother,” is about a girl he was courting in Onitsha. It was an attitude he alluded to in “Sweet Mother” itself, asking before one of its many instrumental breaks: “You fit get another wife / you fit get another husband / but you fit get another mother? No!” Not that, when pressed on it all these years later, neither Lucy nor Esame seem to mind that much.
And if Mbarga disappeared from the music scene, it was not through lack of trying. Esame recalls that he would sing, play air guitar and compose songs even when they were eating. He would go on to produce 17 albums and records after “Sweet Mother,” all with the same highlife beat and Congolese style guitar. In fact, he didn’t even rate “Sweet Mother” as one of his best songs, preferring “Simplicity” instead.
But while the lives of some artists darken as the fame fades, there is no such twist here. Mbarga lived a satisfied life, caring for his own mother, supporting his two “wives” and spoiling his children with gifts. He was, on the accounts of both Lucy and Esame, a loving father, “too sweet” to punish his kids, always willing to dance with them. “He lived a happy life,” Esame says.
It was Mbarga’s desire to carry on his music that saw his end in Calabar 20 years ago. If his childhood witnessed the enthusiasm of early independence, his death seemed a cruel symbol of what the impoverished Nigeria of the 1990s had become. After a ten-year hiatus, the original band was back together for a 50-state tour of the U.S. and Mbarga was on his way to pick up visas. His car ran out of fuel – a scandalously common occurrence in one of the world’s largest oil exporters – so he hopped on an okada (motorbike taxi) to complete the journey and, once in Calabar, was thrown off by a car. In the hospital for two weeks, visited by his band members, his friends, his children and his first love Lucy – who held his hand as he drifted in and out of consciousness – he died with Esame at his side. Back home in Ikom, his elderly mother fell down when she heard the news, and did not get back up. She died too shortly afterwards.
It was a fitting end for the two of them. Mbarga never forgot all that his mother did for him when he was a boy – leaving their home every day before dawn to work on a rented plot, growing bananas and yams, trying to raise four children – and he spent his life paying her back for it. She was, by all accounts, delighted with “Sweet Mother,” his timeless dedication to her. When Rocafil Jazz were in Onitsha, she would come down every month to watch them practice, dancing with a broom in her hand, and inviting them all back to Ikom so she could feed them up. As she aged, he took care of her, as Lucy remembers, refusing to eat until she had, and talking to her morning and night. After all, he did say in his bestseller, “If you forget your mother, you’ve lost your life.”
* * *
As I traveled throughout Nigeria, I noticed Nico Mbarga moving from a human being who had lived here on earth to, on a small scale, an icon in the making. The things he touched and made in life were slowly fading away: the Ikom compound where he grew up with his mother had been knocked down, leaving just an empty plot; the multitrack records of his “Sweet Mother” studio session in Lagos had long been thrown away; his Sweet Mother hotel, under different ownership now, was completely rundown.
In their place, in Ikom, Mbarga is newly remembered by a statue erected early this year. It’s a golden Mbarga in his platform shoes, standing his guitar on a plinth, looking out over the traffic of “Mbarga Junction.” Nearby, shaded by Ikom’s many red-blossomed African tulip trees, is Sweet Mother Road. And if it is sad in a sense – Lucy cried the day the statue was put up, as if it were final confirmation of his death – it does at least constitute a well-earned recognition for Mbarga at last.
Which leaves just one final question: Why have Mbarga and “Sweet Mother” been so ignored elsewhere? While the continent’s cultural contributions are generally marginalized, some African music does make it outside, from Fela Kuti’s afrobeats, to Ali Farka Toure’s Malian blues, to Ethiopia’s otherworldly-sounding jazz. The music that makes it to western ears is usually tough and cool, if not explicitly political, reflective of what many perceive must be a dark political mood.
Yet none of this music, brilliant and rich as it is, has proved as popular with Africans themselves as Prince Nico Mbarga and Rocafil Jazz’s ten-minute ode to mothers. It is played at weddings, as newlywed brides about to leave their homes for the first time dance with their mums to say thank you, at birthday parties celebrating the long lives of family grandmothers, and at Mother’s Day church services, the only secular song amongst the hymns, with worshippers swinging in the aisles adding their own “hallelujah!” to Mbarga’s lyrics. The “Sweet Mother” ideal, the all-consuming mother, not eating until her children are fed, not sleeping until they sleep, crying when they are sick, might be a little conservative, but it has deep cultural roots.
The Cameroonian philosopher Achille Mbembe wrote that discovering the jubilance of Congolese rumba in the 1980s – a time of impoverishment, of brutal wars, of cruel leaders – taught him to look beyond the mere facts of political life. In Africa, he argued, “music has always been a celebration of the ineradicability of life.” More than anything, it was the genre that articulated “the practice of joy before death.” In the west perhaps, we have only wanted to hear music from the continent about the facts; in its joyful way, “Sweet Mother” captured something else: the suffering, the love, the human relationships between those facts.
Maybe we should listen harder.
* * *
For more on the story of Prince Nico’s life and legendary hit from Sami Kent, listen to the BBC radio documentary, Sweet Mother, here.
Children’s TV star Ricardo Medina claims the horrific stabbing was in self-defense; the victim’s family says it was murder. Here’s the inside story.
This story is republished from MEL Magazine, a new men’s digital magazine that understands there’s no playbook for how to be a guy. Sign up for their newsletter here.
It’s impossible to get a cell signal from inside the ranch in San Francisquito Canyon. The house on the property sits about 25 minutes off the main road, which isn’t much of a “main road” to begin with. It’s remote and secluded, set against the Angeles National Forest, with miles and miles of woods behind it.
The 911 call came from the landline. It was the afternoon of January 31, 2015. The caller was Ricardo Medina, an actor best known for his roles in the long-running Power Rangers TV series. He told the operator he had feared for his life. He claimed his roommate—Joshua Sutter—had attacked him, and in defense, he stabbed Sutter with a nearly three-foot sword that he kept by his bedroom door for protection, he later told police. But, in the background of the 911 call, Sutter was screaming to be heard. Bloodied on the floor, in his final moments of life, he cried out, “You came at me first!!”
Only three people know what happened in the canyon that day. Medina, Sutter and Medina’s girlfriend, who saw the whole thing. One is in prison. One is dead. One may be lying.
Medina is square-jawed, with dark hair and searing green eyes. He’s athletic, with the physique of someone who spends a lot of time in the gym. Beyond his two stints on the Power Rangers—starring as the Red Lion Wild Force Ranger in the 2002 series and then returning to play a villain in another iteration of the show ten years later—he made guest appearances on CSI: Miami and ER. But things had slowed down career-wise, and he was looking to take some time off.
It’s part of the reason he told Rachel Kennedy he wanted to move to the ranch—to get away from Hollywood. Kennedy ran a dog rescue in L.A., about an hour away, and leased the ranch property with the idea that she could expand her nonprofit operation there. Back in the 1970s, the land was a breeding ranch for Arabian horses. Dozens of her dogs were already living there. Her brother, Joshua Sutter, would later move up there to care for the animals, too. The two men were the same age—36—and according to Kennedy, both appreciated nature and loved solitude.
Kennedy had met Medina months earlier on an online dating site. Both were in the entertainment industry—Kennedy, a former model, Medina, an actor—and they both loved dogs. “The first meeting was great,” Kennedy remembers. “We just talked about dogs—dogs, dogs, dogs, dogs. He couldn’t have been more perfect for me.”
But halfway through their second date, she changed her mind. She says he made a comment about dating younger women—something she found inappropriate since she’s older than Medina—and she decided they weren’t a romantic match.
Not too long after, though, she thought of him when she was looking for help with the ranch. She needed someone on-site to take care of the dogs and fix up the place. It made sense. On their date, he’d told her he was a dog trainer. “I thought to myself, ‘This guy loves dogs as much as I do’—or so I thought,” she says. The agreement was that he would live there rent-free in exchange for taking care of the animals and providing handyman services. She put his name on the lease.
Kennedy is tall, with long, dark hair that cascades past her shoulders. She favors bright, cheery ensembles, high heels and flawless makeup. Her body is adorned with tattoos (on her forearm, shoulder and back), all of which are tributes to her late brother. “Always on my mind, forever in my heart,” reads one. “Wish you were here,” reads another. She has a warm, full smile, which brightens when she’s talking about her dogs or her brother—at least when she’s talking about the past, or “happier times” as she calls them.
The ranch was her lifelong dream. After working as a model since the age of 16, Kennedy, now in her early 40s, was at a place financially where she could finally make it a reality. For years, she owned the Lucky Puppy Rescue and retail shop, where she rescued and found homes for hundreds of dogs. The ranch would be a haven for what she calls the “unadoptables,” dogs with terminal illnesses or behavior problems that diminished their chances of finding a home. She was excited to surround herself with people like Medina, who shared her passion.
But from the moment Medina got to the ranch, she says, he was a problem. “There was a lot of work to be done and Rick did nothing; he wouldn’t lift a finger,” she says. Days when she drove up from L.A. to check on things, she says he’d be burrowed in his bedroom, either alone or with his girlfriend of a few months, Judith Chung, who came to the house frequently.
“He’s the kind of person you know not to cross the line with,” Kennedy says. “Even though he [seemed] super-sweet and kind, I knew better than to even knock on his door because I got this sense from him that he would just lose his mind.”
She says he butted heads with the landlord and different workers she hired to fix things around the ranch that Medina wasn’t fixing (despite their agreement). A couple months in, she says, she asked him to move out, but he refused. According to Kennedy, he became angry and threatened to release the dogs into the woods and let them be eaten by coyotes.
Concerned over the dogs’ welfare, Kennedy asked Sutter if he’d be willing to move to the ranch to keep an eye on things while she ran the day-to-day operations of her L.A. store. The two were close. Kennedy had actually encouraged him to move to L.A. a few years prior. Before that, Sutter had lived in Arizona and Minnesota and done odd jobs for a living—he’d just returned from working on a friend’s farm in Puerto Rico. Kennedy describes her brother as a “nature boy” and says that moving to the ranch to take care of the dogs was a dream job for him.
Medina, however, wasn’t going anywhere. “Rick told me on the phone the day before Josh moved in that I’ll never get rid of him,” she remembers. She started planning with the landlord to evict Medina. She shared emails with me from December 2014 in which the landlord offered to issue a 30-day notice to terminate the lease that lists Medina as a tenant. If he didn’t leave, they could take legal action. They planned to kick him out February 1, 2015.
It would turn out to be one day too late.
* * *
The afternoon of January 31, 2015, Sutter was on the phone with his dad in Minnesota. Donald Sutter tells me they were talking about organic gardening and Josh’s plans to plant vegetables to feed the dogs. They were just wrapping up when Chung arrived. Josh said hi to her at the door, according to her testimony in court. Medina went outside to help her get stuff out of her car and came back into the house with her.
Next, Donald Sutter heard raised voices through his end of the call—Medina and Chung. “They were arguing,” he tells me. “I asked Josh about it and he said, ‘They’re always fighting.’”
Donald Sutter says the call lasted 47 minutes and ended at 2:54 p.m Pacific time, according to his phone records.
Shortly after Joshua Sutter hung up the phone with his dad, court documents say, he and Medina got into an argument in the kitchen. Medina’s story, according to police, was that Sutter was upset that Chung had come over and that when Medina went to get some utensils for takeout Chung had brought over, there was an altercation that turned physical. At some point, Medina went back into his bedroom—where he kept the 30-inch steel blade he described to police as his “Conan the Barbarian” sword—and locked the door.
Medina told police that Sutter stormed his way in. “He says the door is forced open, and then he stabbed the victim [with the sword],” explains Sergeant Troy Ewing, who led the investigation for the L.A. County Sheriff’s Homicide Bureau. “He admitted to doing it and basically was saying it was self-defense.”
That’s when Medina called 911.
“Why did you do this, man? Why did you make me do this?” Medina says on the call.
Paramedics were dispatched to the ranch at 3:50 p.m., according to the coroner’s report. Sutter was still alive when they arrived, lying on the floor of the hallway. He was drifting in and out of “an altered level of consciousness … [with] stab wounds to his abdomen, right flank and back,” according to the coroner investigator’s initial report. There was blood everywhere. He’d lost more than a half gallon after being stabbed a total of ten times, according to the autopsy. The ambulance took him to the emergency room, where he went into cardiac arrest and soon after, died.
Police arrested Medina when they arrived to the scene.
Detectives interviewed Medina and his girlfriend separately. “Her story was somewhat consistent with Medina’s, but there were some differences,” says Ewing. “That raised some red flags in our minds.”
According to Ewing, Medina told police that his back was to the door when it came open. Chung said Medina was facing the door. In other words: Was Medina taken by surprise with his back to the door? Or was he standing, sword in hand, facing the door, at the ready?
“There wasn’t much damage to the door either,” says Ewing. “There was some damage, but not a lot. If the door had been kicked open, we would think there’d be more damage.”
Still, Medina was steadfast: It was self-defense.
“He kept on pushing that,” says Ewing. “He didn’t want to tell us at the beginning that he was a Power Ranger either, because I think he felt that if we knew he was a Power Ranger, he should know defensive tactics.”
When Ewing presented the case to the L.A. District Attorney’s office, he says, they informed him there wasn’t enough evidence to file murder charges. In particular, the DA thought Medina’s self-defense argument might hold up. They asked Ewing and his partner to investigate further. Medina was released. (The DA declined multiple requests to be interviewed for this story.)
Medina spoke briefly to reporters outside the courthouse after he was released, saying he was “very, very sorry for what occurred,” and that he was happy to be out of jail. “My heart goes out to the Sutter family,” he said.
“That’s when I lost my shit,” Kennedy tells me. “I’ve never been the same since that day. I couldn’t believe it.”
She and her family had a lot of questions: Why was Medina released in the first place? Why wasn’t Chung arrested as an accessory? Why didn’t police take more evidence from the scene?
“I stayed away from the media for the first three days,” Kennedy says. “And then when I heard they were releasing Rick, I was like, ‘You know what? I’m going to talk to anybody and everybody that will listen to me.’”
Kennedy had photos of Medina’s bedroom door, which was intact, which she released to the media. She appeared on Good Morning America and the local news in L.A. Her goal was to put pressure on the police and to call into doubt Medina’s self-defense claim.
While investigators were waiting for results from the crime lab and the full coroner’s report, which can take months, Kennedy started pulling pieces together on her own. The crime scene cleanup company she hired took before-and-after photos. She shows me photos of the hallway where her brother was stabbed. But the blood isn’t contained to one area of the home—it’s everywhere, smeared on the floor of nearly every room. (Ewing points out that some of this is probably due to the fact that when the paramedics arrived, they moved him, bleeding, from the hallway to to a more open space in the home where they could work on him.) Kennedy also provides me with a photo of a bottle of some kind—a cleaning fluid—as if someone attempted to clean the floor. There was way too much blood, however, to even come close to making it disappear.
There’s another photo of the hall outside of her brother’s bedroom door, showing a hammer and cordless drill charger. Kennedy believes that in addition to the stabbing, Sutter was hit with the hammer—that’s why there was blood on it. When she talked to the police about it, however, she says they brushed her off.
Kennedy was developing a theory. She tells me that Medina’s stepfather is a retired law enforcement officer, and she believes he coached Medina after the killing. In fact, she says the stepfather is the one who called her the afternoon of the crime, telling her there had been an incident, that someone was hurt (not saying who) and asking for the address to the ranch.
She says the stepfather then told her to meet him at the hospital, so she headed there, still not knowing what happened. “It was just a big clusterfuck,” she says. “There’s no cell phone service [at the ranch]; communication that night was impossible for everybody.”
Medina did call his stepfather that day, but Ewing says police records show Medina called 911 first. “We were trying to prove that he did, but it didn’t look like he did. The call [to the stepfather] never went through.” Police tried to interview the stepfather the night of the killing when he came to the station for Medina, but he didn’t want to talk. Since he hadn’t witnessed the crime, Ewing tells me, “I didn’t think he was that important.”
Kennedy still believes Medina’s stepfather was involved, but Ewing says that to his knowledge, he wasn’t even at the ranch the day of the killing. If he had been, he explains, the deputies who first arrived to the scene wouldn’t have let him leave.
Instead, two key reports would give investigators a clearer picture of what happened that afternoon, and ultimately, enough evidence to re-arrest Medina. First, results from crime lab’s blood experts suggested the pattern of a struggle. “You try to re-create what happened,” Ewing says. “Anytime there’s a stabbing, they bleed a lot. So there was blood throughout the house.” Medina told police that he stabbed Sutter once in the abdomen. But the blood pattern suggested otherwise. “It appeared to be more of a struggle,” says Ewing. “Medina said it was one ‘poke’ with a sword. The expert said it was more than one.”
The coroner’s report supported the blood expert’s conclusion: ten sharp force injuries. There were slices to Sutter’s hands and fingers, too—some so deep that a few of his fingers were almost cut off. The path of the sword’s fatal cut went left to right, front to back and upward, puncturing the liver, diaphragm, right lung lobe, fracturing a rib and exiting Sutter’s back.
The position of Medina’s attorney, Stanley L. Friedman, who spoke to me on Medina’s behalf, is that the cuts to Sutter’s hands were the result of his trying to pull the sword out of his body after he was stabbed. In other words, the wounds were from grabbing the sword. As for the irregular cut into Sutter’s abdomen: “We believe the evidence would’ve shown that, at the time, there were basically three things that were moving: Mr. Sutter, Mr. Medina and then the sword. Just the fact that these three things were moving would account for an irregular wound in Mr. Sutter’s body,” Friedman says.
Given the evidence, Ewing didn’t dismiss Medina’s self-defense argument entirely. “I thought there was some type of struggle,” he says, “but I don’t think to the extent where he had to stab the guy to death.”
Ewing also notes there were three exits from Medina’s bedroom: the door to the hallway, another door to a bathroom and a sliding glass door to the backyard. “He had several escape routes where he could have exited if he felt threatened by the victim,” says Ewing.
Plus: “Medina’s a fit guy,” he says. “You can go on the internet and see pictures of him without his shirt—he’s a physical guy. He trains hard, and he mentions in a YouTube video that he had practiced martial arts since he was a young kid. So we knew he could defend himself.”
In January 2016, just under a year after Medina was arrested the first time, police arrested him again and the district attorney charged him with murder. If convicted, he faced 26 years to life in state prison.
At the preliminary hearing, Chung, now Medina’s ex-girlfriend, took the stand. Her testimony, which should have been valuable since she was the only other witness that afternoon, was instead a combination of “I don’t remember”’s and answers inconsistent with her initial statements to police.
According to court papers, Chung said that on the afternoon Sutter was killed, she arrived at the house and honked her car horn for Medina to come out. When he didn’t, she went to the door.
“I knocked on the door and Josh answered,” Chung explained. “I said ‘Is Ricky here?,’ and he said, ‘Maybe.’” She said she went back to her car to get food she’d brought and some of her belongings. Medina met her at her car, and the two walked back to the house. After which, according to her testimony, they went straight to Medina’s room and closed the door.
“Then Ricky went to go get plates and utensils for our food,” she said. She heard arguing. The prosecutor interrupted—Chung had told police that the first time Medina left the room, she didn’t hear anything. “That’s more correct, yeah,” she responded.
Medina returned to the bedroom and then left again, Chung said. This time, she heard noises. “Thundering,” she claimed, and court papers describe her taking both hands and slamming them on the desk in front of her. “It sounded like something was hitting something,” she relayed.
She testified that she went out into the kitchen. Medina had Sutter in a bear hug; Sutter’s hands were at his sides, and he was facing away from Medina. “They were both yelling,” she said in court. “I was telling them to stop.”
Chung said at one point Medina just let go, “and Josh started hitting him.” When the prosecutor pressed, Chung conceded it was one punch, which Medina blocked before it landed. According to court documents, when Chung initially talked to police, she told them that when Medina had Sutter in the bear hug, he repeatedly said, “Don’t you dare disrespect my girl.” In court, Chung couldn’t recall that bit of dialogue. “Like I said, I don’t remember,” she said. “It was over a year ago.”
Once back in the bedroom, Chung told that court that Medina locked the door, “and then he just stayed at the knob.”
“I remember walking towards the other side of the bed. I was pacing around, and I told Ricky maybe we should get out of there,” she testified. She said Medina agreed, and she grabbed her purse.
Then, she said, she heard footsteps.
“Ricky went towards the door, and he grabbed the sword,” she claimed. “Josh kicked the locked door open with both his fists to his side. Ricky had the knife in one hand.” She demonstrated for the court, extending her hand forward.
“It felt like a dream,” Chung continued. “It didn’t seem real. … It looked like he poked [the sword]. Like, from where I was standing, it looked like a poke.”
That “poke,” of course, was the fatal wound that punctured organs, fractured a rib, and ultimately killed Sutter.
According to court papers, Chung told police that when Medina stabbed him, Sutter said, “What the fuck? Why the fuck did you do that to me?” Medina allegedly responded, “I don’t know. I’m sorry,” though Chung added that he said it “really angry.” (Testifying in court, Chung, at first, didn’t remember saying this to officers.)
“He started crawling down to his all fours after,” Chung said of Sutter. Medina, according to her testimony, pulled the sword out, and then dropped it. “He grabbed a towel from the bathroom. He put it on his (Sutter’s) wound,” she continued. Next, he called 911.
After the paramedics arrived, Medina stood outside the house in shock. “He kept saying, ‘Oh my God. My life is just changing before my eyes,’” Chung said in court.
* * *
Kennedy, who was in court that day, believes there’s a lot Chung left out, notably the bloody hammer at the scene. She points out the page in the coroner’s report documenting an abrasion on Sutter’s head. During the 911 call, “Josh was speaking very clearly,” she reminds me. “You can hear him in the background fighting for his life. I believe [someone] hit Josh with the hammer to either knock him out or shut him up.”
When I mention this hypothesis to Ewing, he stops me before I can finish the question—he’s heard this premise from Kennedy many times before. “[Kennedy] made this case more difficult for us than she realizes,” he tells me.
“I’m sure we don’t know exactly how everything transpired, but we have a pretty close idea,” Ewing says of that night in the canyon. “I’m thinking Medina minimizes what happens and probably the girlfriend too. I don’t think we’re one hundred percent accurate. Ninety percent of our cases are like that.”
Ewing says Medina told police he’d borrowed the tools and left them outside Sutter’s door to return them. He adds there’s no evidence the hammer was involved in the altercation. As to the head abrasion in the coroner’s report, “That injury on his head could’ve happened [when] they were fighting outside by the kitchen,” Ewing explains. “They fell to the ground, so that could’ve been from hitting the ground. There was no evidence that the hammer was used as a weapon. The weapon used was the sword.” (According to the coroner’s report, the head injury did not contribute to Sutter’s death, and there was no skull fracture.)
In the ensuing months, Kennedy went back to the ranch to collect the dogs. “I didn’t know what to do so I took them home to Studio City [where she lived], which isn’t kosher, I guess. Maybe I had a special, weird attachment to them because I know they saw Josh be killed.” She begins to tear up. “I just wanted to take care of them.” She stops and wipes her eyes with a tissue. “I did the wrong thing.”
Last May, someone reported Kennedy to animal control. She was cited for hoarding and 60 dogs were taken from her home and the small shelter she ran. She now faces animal abuse charges, which she plans to fight. “Could things get any worse?” she asks. “And I’ll never say that again because they did get worse. Right away, the social media thing started.”
It was mainly Medina’s fans and supporters. In their opinion, the roles were reversed—Sutter was an attempted murderer and Medina was the hero. They started fund-raising campaigns to send him money in jail. Further, they lashed out at Kennedy, creating fake social media pages for her, calling her an animal abuser and a porn star. (She tells me she posed for Playboy back in the day, but has never done porn.) Consequently, she pulled down her personal social media accounts and retreated from the world.
In March, Medina pleaded guilty to voluntary manslaughter and agreed to a six-year sentence. He’ll likely serve about four years in state prison with time already served and good behavior.
Friedman, Medina’s attorney, tells me that Medina was prepared to go to trial, and that he likely would’ve testified. “In his view, it was a matter of self-defense,” Friedman explains. “He’s a very positive individual and [was] actually looking forward to going to trial and proving his side of what happened.”
The guaranteed six-year sentence, however, was too good to pass up. “It was the numbers that drove his thinking,” says Friedman. “In California, if it’s 26 to life, it’s almost always life. If you’re lucky, perhaps you get out a little bit before you die. So the decision was, ‘Do I take this and be in custody for probably only another four years? Or [do I] risk spending the rest of my life in prison?’”
“I thought it was fair,” Ewing says. “He had no criminal record,” and the killing “wasn’t planned. It just happened.”
Also complicating matters: Sutter had a record which, Kennedy notes, could incline a jury against him. He had a DUI arrest from years before, and a battery charge that Kennedy herself brought against him. “It’s the biggest mistake I’ve ever made in my life,” she says. She tells me the story: She and her brother had an argument. He left the house and had her credit card in his wallet; she ran after him asking for it, and he threw the wallet at her. “Hits me in the face,” she says. “I’m bloody; my lip’s bleeding. He flung it. I’m like, ‘You know what? I’m going to teach him a lesson.’”
She called the police, and they arrested him, so he had a record for domestic violence against his own sister. “That was a big mistake. The DA said, ‘This doesn’t look good for Josh.’”
She shakes her head and looks down: “There’s no justice. There never would be.”
* * *
At the sentencing, I meet Kennedy outside the courthouse. It’s early morning, about 8 a.m., and she remarks how she thought it would be warmer since we’re in the desert. The courthouse is in Lancaster, about an hour northeast of L.A. She’s with her best friend and her father, who flew in from Minnesota to be here. They wrote victim impact statements to present in court. As we walk in, Kennedy laments that she’s forgotten to bring the crystal heart she had made from her brother’s ashes. “Maybe he didn’t want to be here,” she resolves. “Maybe he wanted to stay home.”
After a quick stop in the bathroom, Kennedy rushes out with a little shiver. “I just saw his mom in the bathroom,” she tells me, referring to Medina’s mother.
In the hallway, Kennedy greets her niece, Sutter’s 16-year-old daughter from a previous relationship, a delicate girl with a ballerina’s frame. She has come up from Arizona with her mother. “You’re so big!” Kennedy greets her with a hug. They haven’t seen each other in a while. “Dad, she’s almost as tall as you!”
Donald Sutter is quiet. (His wife, Josh’s mother, died of cancer in 2012.) He’s tall and lean, like his son, with thick, white hair. He looks tired. Kennedy tells me that no one really slept last night.
Sitting in the front row of the small courtroom, Donald wipes his eyes under his wire-rimmed glasses. Kennedy, her own eyes wet with tears, puts her arm around him. On the other side of the room are Medina’s friends and family. His mother is in the front row, weeping.
Medina enters from a side door, escorted by an officer. He’s bulked up in the year or so he’s been in custody. His hair is short, he has a dark goatee and wears a yellow prison uniform. He doesn’t look out into the gallery or make eye contact with anyone. He sits next to his lawyers, staring straight ahead.
Kennedy has brought childhood photos of her brother to court, and she and her father each give emotional victim impact statements through tears.
“He chose to kill, to take a life,” Kennedy says of Medina. She expressed empathy for Medina’s family, adding, “We have all lost so much.”
“We hope that everyone that looks at Ricardo from now on will never see him as a celebrity but as nothing more than a cold-blooded killer,” Sutter’s father told the court. Medina, seated, continues to stare straight ahead facing the judge, his back to Sutter.
Medina declines to make any statement.
Afterward, the family talks to the small group of reporters and local news cameras gathered outside the courthouse. “He deserves the rest of his life in general population, that’s where he deserves to be,” Sutter tells them. But his statement is brief. They’re eager to get home. To begin to put this behind them.
Kennedy now lives on a quiet street in suburban L.A. She welcomes me inside when I come to see her about a week after the sentencing. Her home is bright and airy and smells like candy. “Mandarin orange,” she says, indicating the diffuser that scents the air. Impeccably neat with matching furniture sets, the rooms are meticulously appointed, as though they’ve been staged by a realtor for an open house.
The one room that does look lived-in is Kennedy’s office. There are photos of her brother all over the walls, stacks of papers and a thick black briefcase where she keeps everything connected to her brother’s killing. Crime scene photos, phone records, the coroner’s report, printouts of emails. She has literature from police forums and the Department of Justice, research on how detectives conduct murder investigations. She and her family are convinced there were flaws in the investigation. “I don’t think Rick would be in jail if we hadn’t done what we had done,” she says.
Though she takes some comfort in that, it’s difficult to move forward, or even grieve. Kennedy has many regrets. She regrets moving Medina to the ranch. She regrets moving her brother to the ranch. She regrets ever having met Medina in the first place.
She walks me into the living room and shows me the crystal heart made from Josh’s ashes that she’d forgotten to bring to the sentencing. It’s three-dimensional, yellowish-gray, and about the size of a plum. “I bring him to every court thing,” she tells me.
“Last time I saw him, in the mortuary, I looked at him and I didn’t realize his eyelashes were so long.” She begins to weep. “Why didn’t I see that before?”
Sutter’s daughter may file a civil suit against Medina. If she does, Kennedy will help. For now, she wants people to know the man her brother was—that he’s more than a victim. He was quiet, loyal and protective. He loved nature and animals and was happiest at the ranch with the dogs.
“When he was born, he was a bubble baby,” she tells me. “He had to have open-heart surgery two or three times. He lived in an incubator for the first year of his life. That’s why he had a scar here.” With her finger, she draws a line over her own heart. “He was such a sick, sick baby,” she begins to weep again, having trouble speaking. “I think that people don’t think that he’s real.”
“People ask me, ‘Is this closure for you?’ and I feel like maybe something’s wrong with me because this is absolutely no closure whatsoever,” Kennedy continues. “What am I going to do when [Medina] is out [in four years]? I have to prevent him from having a life. He stole a life. Joshua suffered greatly. I have to make sure that he’s not going to be able to walk down the street without everyone knowing that he’s a killer. That’s my job. And that’s what I’ll keep doing.”
Harinder Singh’s cheeky clothing is making waves in India — and far beyond — by putting a hip new spin on his ancient and often misunderstood culture.
Harinder Singh will never forget his trip to Italy in 2002. Singh, then 33, and his wife, Kirandeep Kaur, 29, were eating ice cream as they explored the sights and sounds of Florence. The streets were crowded, a blur of people and textures and smells. At first glance, the couple blended in with the other tourists of the city: two people in love, eager to travel the world and appreciate a new culture. Then they heard the students’ jeers: “Bin Laden! Bin Laden!”
The group of around sixty school children were pointing at Singh, a white turban wrapped delicately around his head.
“Oh my God,” Singh said to his wife in shock. But instead of walking away, the couple approached the children. Singh told them that they were from India and practiced a religion called Sikhism.
“Me and my wife started talking about our first guru, the revolution, our faith, we touched on Punjabi music and they knew Punjabi music so we got a lead there,” Singh says with a laugh. “That very moment was an exam for us. We decided we should do something about our identity since there’s no awareness.”
Immediately after their visit, on the seven-and-a-half hour flight from Italy to India, Singh began the initial sketches for what he describes as the first Indian clothing brand dedicated solely to Sikhism and Punjabi culture. Fifteen years later, that concept – called 1469, in honor of the birth year of the first Sikh guru, Nanak Dev – has expanded into a million-dollar company with international reach. They have five stores in New Delhi and in Punjab, an Indian state bordering on Pakistan that is the heart of the Sikh community.
Almost 58 percent of the population of Punjab is made up of Sikhs, but in Delhi, Sikhs constitute less than four percent of the total population.
Standing in their 1469 shop in Delhi, the couple talk about the idea behind their business. “People in Delhi feel that if I speak Punjabi, I am backwards and not modern enough,” says Kaur, dressed in a light green sari, gold bracelets dangling off her arms. “To keep in touch with your roots, you need to know your mother tongue. I feel we are losing the pride.”
Scarves and saris in turquoise, pink and yellow hues line the walls of the shop, located in Delhi’s Janpath Market, one of the city’s best-known shopping areas. Tables are scattered with metallic jewelry and small sculptures, patterned bags and calligraphy accessories. Upstairs, the walls are filled with various t-shirts, many of which display Punjabi phrases, musical instruments and Sikh symbols.
Mayur Sharma, a frequent 1469 customer and host of the Indian travel show “Highway on My Plate,” says his favorite products are the t-shirts, especially the ones with the phrases “Pure Panjabi” and “Trust me I’m Pendu,” – the word pendu meaning “villager” in Punjabi. Sharma came across the company a decade ago and, since then, has pretty much only worn their t-shirts, even on his television show.
“I admire Harinder and Kirandeep’s passion for the arts, culture and history of our beautiful state,” he says. “You can feel the love in everything they put out.”
Punjabi culture is one of the oldest in India; the region has a rich legacy of poetry, music, food and art – in addition to being the birthplace of Sikhism. The Punjab was unified under the Sikh Empire in the nineteenth century, until the British annexed the region in 1849 after the Anglo-Sikh wars, administering the region as a province of its Indian empire until Partition in 1947, when the independent states of India and Pakistan were established. Punjab was divided, with Hindus and Sikhs fleeing to India while Muslims moved to Pakistan.
Kaur described the partition of 1947 as a shattering experience for the Punjab, creating social, religious and regional divides. She feels Punjabi art and culture took the biggest blow. Today, their brand aims to reinvigorate that rich culture.
Singh, dressed in a bright, turquoise turban and black v-neck with the word fateh – or “victory” in Hindi – emphasized 1469 is not a religious brand because he doesn’t believe in selling religion.
“Sikhism is a big part of it and we ourselves are Sikhs,” he says, “but, it’s a regional place because our artists are Muslim also, the music comes from Punjab, which is partly in Pakistan, and so are the handicrafts.”
Sharma says he is Punjabi, but not Sikh. He describes Singh’s passion for the culture as inspiring.
Singh’s clothing didn’t always center on Punjabi culture. He got his start in the world of fashion after graduating from the University of Delhi in 1988. He says he noticed that most t-shirts sold in India came from abroad – Thailand, Hong Kong, South Korea – and were of dubious quality.
“I took an oath to myself to make a nice t-shirt for my country,” Singh says.
A year later, Singh started his own clothing company, Uni Style Image. He claims it is one of the first t-shirt companies in India’s history, and over the years partnered with major clothing labels across the world. In 2002, after over a decade with the company, grueling hours and time spent away from his wife and three children, Singh decided to leave to pursue other endeavors.
At the time, he had no idea he would eventually return to the fashion world as a pioneer of a wholly new concept centered on Sikhism and Punjab. But Singh also asserts he wouldn’t have it any other way. He describes being born into a Sikh family as a blessing.
“Our religion is so beautiful, so transparent, so clear,” he says. “It’s musical, it’s simple, it’s modern and it’s very lightweight.”
Singh observes that while 60 percent of their merchandise is sold to Sikhs and those within the diaspora Punjabi community, around 40 percent of customers practice other faiths. The brand is especially popular in Japan, where many customers buy the t-shirts online and in bulk, according to Kaur.
Going forward, Singh and Kaur hope to continue educating people, especially youth, about their heritage and faith. Kaur says they are working to bolster their online presence and plan to open new stores domestically, in the cities of Mumbai and Bangalore, as well as abroad in Canada.
“The best part about Sikhism is,” Kaur says, “it doesn’t tell you that you write this or read it and then become Sikh. It’s about the way you live.”
When the nurse first told me, mid-labor, that there were methamphetamines in my system, I cracked up laughing at the absurdity. When child services showed up, it stopped being funny.
It’s the birth of my first child, and I’m seven, maybe eight hours into labor. Whatever time it is, I’m well past the point of caring about modesty, so I don’t even think it’s strange when a nurse follows me into the bathroom.
“Just so you know, you’ve tested positive…” The nurse pauses there, and shifts her eyes to the floor. My anxiety fills the silence. I expect she’s going to say something about the whirring machines that have been measuring the baby’s heartbeat, my contractions, my blood pressure, any of those things.
Relief floods me, and I explode with laughter. Meth? I didn’t even take Tylenol during my pregnancy.
“Well, I’ve always been a positive person,” I say, because cracking awful jokes is what I do to pave over uncomfortable situations. I smile, and the nurse seems relieved. Clearly, this is a mistake. I offer to give another sample.
The nurse crosses her arms in front of her chest while I squat over the toilet, one hand hoisting my hospital gown up toward my enormous belly, the other dangling the plastic cup in an area I can’t even see. Remarkably, my aim is true.
If there’s one thing I’ve mastered during pregnancy, it’s peeing into cups. My obstetrician’s office required a urine sample at most every visit to check hormone levels. At this point I’m 42 weeks, so I’ve peed into dozens, maybe scores, of sample cups. That’s probably why I wasn’t even aware the hospital administered a drug test when I checked in to give birth. My everyday routine as a pregnant lady involves peeing on demand.
The nurse sends the sample to the hospital’s lab.
When I imagined labor, I expected to pass the time by stretching on an exercise ball or pacing the hospital’s long white hallways. But my doctor is concerned about the baby’s heartbeat – it drops dramatically every time I have a contraction – and so I am confined to a labor bed, an IV of fluids in my arm, an oxygen mask on my face, and belts stretched across my belly to monitor the baby.
So I make do. My doula rubs lavender essential oil on my temples, and my husband plays “Push It,” the Spotify playlist I created for labor and delivery. I have a photo of Beyoncé propped up on the over-bed table, because if anything can inspire me, it’s Queen Bey. Also on the table is my birth plan, which is kind of like a wish list for delivery. That includes modest requests, like keeping the door to my room closed, as well as more imperative things, like, “Please delay all routine procedures on the baby until after the bonding and breastfeeding period.”
Occasionally I convince the staff to unhook the machines and let me move around the room for a few minutes. It’s better that way. Movement helps distract from the contractions, allowing my body to muscle through each wicked snap. But when I’m in bed, I’m hit with the full force of every punch, my vision blurring and sparkling along the edges. It’s like a migraine, but rippling through the entirety of me, and I just have to lie there and take it.
I’ve just done a few stretches and heaved myself back into bed when another nurse enters the room. I snap the oxygen mask back on my face as she delivers her news.
My drug sample is positive for meth. Again. The nurse ticks off a list of everything that’s about to happen: The baby will be tested for drugs. The hospital social worker will meet with me before I can be discharged. Child Protective Services will be contacted to evaluate my fitness as a parent.
“And of course, you cannot breastfeed the baby,” the nurse finishes.
I rip the oxygen mask away. This isn’t a joke anymore.
“Can they do that?” I ask my doula.
“I don’t know.” She looks grim.
“This isn’t right!” My husband is angry. He knows me, he’s seen the way I’ve nurtured and cared for the fragile bud inside me. His voice deepens into a growl as he stabs a finger toward the nurse. “You tell them. I don’t care who you have to call. The lab, the social worker, the doctors. You tell them they’re wrong.”
The nurse only shrugs and leaves the room.
My husband and I have experienced loss through miscarriage, so I’ve been especially careful this pregnancy, almost to the point of superstition. No alcohol, no deli foods, nothing raw, undercooked or smoked. The bulk of my produce was organic, my drinking water purified through a reverse-osmosis system. I used clove oil on a persistent toothache instead of visiting the dentist, because I didn’t want any anesthetic to pass through my body and into the placenta. During all 42 weeks, the hardest drugs that entered my body were prenatal vitamins and puffs from my prescription asthma inhaler.
“My inhaler,” I say. My hands shake.
The contractions are furious. I am furious. I am scared. My husband and my doula both hunch over their smartphones, searching for facts about asthma inhalers and drug tests. In the background, my labor mix plays “I’m Coming Out” by Diana Ross. My birth plan is on the floor, wrinkled, footprints stamped onto the white paper. I want to run away, but I’m belted down to a labor bed and attached to a bunch of machinery, caught somewhere between a sob and a scream.
The nurses, who begin to look alike, are no longer friendly, and we have a lot of conversations that don’t make sense. It’s four, possibly five a.m., but who’s to say? Labor runs on Salvador Dalí time, and I’ve hit that point of sleeplessness where the world doesn’t feel real anymore.
My husband scrolls through pages of information about albuterol inhalers and drug tests. He shows his phone to every nurse who steps foot in the room.
“See,” he points at a page from Drugs.com, then flips to CBS News stories about false positives, archives of reports, message boards with anecdotal evidence.
“Just give me one more test,” I plead. “I’ll prove it.”
I realize how much we sound like the prisoners who argue their innocence or patients in a mental institution who say they’re not crazy. The more I insist I’m not on drugs, the more I sound like I am.
“You can take this up with CPS,” a stone-faced nurse says.
Child Protective Services. A bolt of dread shoots through me as I remember the pregnancy announcement I sent to my loved ones and posted on Facebook six months ago. It seemed innocent enough. Bryan Cranston, the star of “Breaking Bad,” owns a movie theater in my town. When I ran into him at a film screening, I thought a photo with him would be the perfect way to announce my pregnancy and declare my love for the show, which is about a teacher-turned-methamphetamine dealer.
On the announcement, Bryan Cranston has one hand on my belly. “Breaking Baby,” the card reads in the style of the show’s logo, like elements in the periodic table. The bottom of the card modifies a memorable quote from the show: “I am the one who knocks up.”
In the shadow of my failed drug tests, a card celebrating a morally questionable meth cooker has become one of my most misguided ideas. If the folks at CPS want proof I’m an unfit parent, I’m handing it to them on quality card stock, stuffed inside a pretty envelope.
Eventually the long desert night becomes a smoldering July morning. The baby’s heartbeat drops until it almost stops, and my doctor is summoned. My son is born via emergency C-section at 9:56 a.m. He is whisked away to another room, my husband follows, and for the first time in ten months, I am alone.
* * *
When I change my son’s diaper for the very first time, there is a plastic bag covering his genitals, a band of tape cinching it tight. It doesn’t strike me as abnormal until the nurse peering over my shoulder shakes her head no.
“I don’t think that’s enough urine for a sample,” she says. “We’ll have to do it again.”
Of course. They have to test my child for drugs, and this is how it’s done. It’s one of the saddest things I’ve ever seen, this tiny baby part wrapped in plastic, this uncomfortable, squawking child. His skin is so silky and new, the plastic so crinkly and manufactured.
Three days pass with me in the hospital bed, recovering from surgery. For three days I nestle my son in my arms, and I encourage him to breastfeed. All three days, the nurses are reluctant to hand over the baby, saying my actions are irresponsible. I feel like a wounded dog. I fight the urge to bark and snap at their hands.
Every shift change, two nurses stand by my bed and inform another two nurses of my status as a combative patient. “This woman tested positive for methamphetamine,” they say. “She has been briefed on the risks associated with breastfeeding, and she refused our advice. She is breastfeeding at her own risk.”
On my last day in the hospital, the social worker makes a visit. He is the first person to offer me a sliver of kindness and the benefit of doubt.
“I don’t think you’re on meth,” he says. “But my hands are tied.”
He says my son’s drug test was negative. Mine, however, has been sent to an outside lab for additional testing. I should receive the results in two to three weeks. In the meantime, he will try to hold off on contacting CPS.
“Just expect them to show up at any moment, is all I’m saying,” he adds.
A part of me recognizes the hospital is acting in the interests of my child. But even if I were a drug user, does that justify turning delivery into something criminal? At what point do the rights of my child outweigh my own?
As soon as I signed a waiver and checked in to the labor ward, this birth belonged to the hospital. All sense of agency was stolen from me – from how I was forced to labor in an unnatural position, flat on my back, to the way I was treated like a drug addict when I was at my most vulnerable. Now my future feels like it’s in their hands too.
We live in the desert, where the only things that thrive are rugged and prickly, and it’s 112 degrees the day I bring my child home. Prior to giving birth, I pictured this as my Hallmark moment – sitting in the rocking chair that belonged to my mother, a cooing baby in my arms, the soft, yeasty smell of his skin. Instead, my son hollers until he’s purple, and I exhaust myself trying to make him stop. Every time the clanky air conditioner kicks on, my son cries with renewed energy. We are sweaty and sticky and unhappy. I finally place him in a bassinet next to the couch, where I collapse. Let him scream.
Lemon, my blind and deaf dachshund, settles in by the bassinet, as though she’s guarding it. Every so often Lemon leaps to her feet and pokes her nose into the bassinet, sniffs the baby, then curls up on the floor again. After a little while of this, my son calms. My dog is already proving to be a better mother than I am.
The weeks that follow are dark. I don’t know if I would have experienced the same level of postpartum depression without failing those drug tests. But I do know most other mothers don’t spend their first few weeks with baby the way I do – the shades drawn, peeking out from behind the blinds, examining each car that drives past. Every phone call, every knock at the door, every pop of gravel in the driveway sets my heart racing. Every night shreds me to pieces, wondering if my son will be whisked away by morning. I am suddenly a stickler for housework. What if CPS comes and sees all the laundry? What will they think of our dishes in the sink? It seems insane to think someone could take my child away, yet testing positive for meth once seemed insane too.
Sometimes while my son sleeps, I curl up on the floor of his yellow nursery, too afraid to be separated by a room or a wall. I am tired, but I don’t sleep. This isn’t how it was supposed to be, I think. This child was so wanted, so desired, but now that he’s here, I’m unable to protect him. I fall short.
I stay awake long enough to hear the coyotes scream in the empty lot next to my house. Out there is a desert, a place of harsh conditions and vast unknowns, and our home isn’t an oasis anymore. That’s when I mentally plot the route from Palm Springs to Mexico and imagine our lives in a seaside town. We could start over. We could be happy.
The days pass, and the air conditioner continues to chug. The blinds are drawn, and the house is gloomy despite the burning sun outside. I don’t run off to Mexico, of course. I’m still hopped up on painkillers for my angry C-section incision, and I’m fuzzy from insomnia. I can’t even make it to the mailbox.
Three weeks after I give birth, the hospital social worker phones and speaks to my husband. The results are in. I’m not on drugs. The call lasts less than a minute; it only takes a few seconds to apologize.
After the call, I suppress the urge to cry.
“What do we do now?” I ask my husband.
He shrugs. He looks sad and scared and relieved, and I’m all of those things too. I don’t quite believe it’s over, that we can just be parents who love and laugh and enjoy the comfort that comes from being in a safe space. But here we are.
My son is asleep against my shoulder, and I don’t want to disrupt him. Instead I walk over to the patio door, pull open the blinds, and for the first time in weeks, let the light in.
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.”
* * *
Liked this story? Our editors did too, voting it one of our 20 best untold tales!