Trash Comes Clean

A quest to comprehend the immensity of New York City’s waste takes a writer to the heart of the Fresh Kills landfill.

Salty mud, punctuated by plastic bottles and an oily sheen, sucked at our feet as Marie Lorenz and I walked her rowboat down to the Arthur Kill, a tidal straight separating Staten Island from Jersey. In front of us, about fifty feet from shore, sat the wrecked bodies of a dozen boats dropped in this inlet for metal salvaging in the 1950s. Just beyond them, on the western edge of Staten Island, rose the gentle slopes of Freshkills—their roundness built not by glacial rifts or tectonic plates but by man. The site was once home to the largest landfill in the country, which closed in 2001 after receiving New York City’s trash for over fifty years.

I’m a bit of a Freshkills junkie. I’ve read countless articles about “the fill”—probably the world’s most high profile landfill—perused old maps and project proposals, even trudged through Robert Moses’ bid to turn the then-small, by comparison, Fresh Kills dump into a park in 1951. Despite all my research, I felt that somehow I had not gotten to the heart of the matter. After half a decade of writing about art and infrastructure abroad, Freshkills had caught my attention as soon as I moved to New York in 2009. What did half a century of New-York-City-scale consumption look like? And what is Freshkills today: a nature preserve, a social sculpture, a toxic wasteland—perhaps all three?

A week had passed since Hurricane Sandy struck and, through all the never-ending news reports, I had heard nothing of the landfill. On the city’s zoned evacuation map, much of Staten Island’s coastline, Freshkills included, had been coded red. Had the infrastructure held up? Had Sandy peeled back the layers of soil, clay, gravel and plastic the city had laid atop our trash in an effort to hide just how much we had thrown away? Lorenz, a Brooklyn-based conceptual artist, and I had been planning to boat into the fill for a while, but checking in on it now, after the hundred-year-storm that it had been specifically engineered to withstand, lent our expedition an added air of urgency.

Marie Lorenz’s rowboat (Photo courtesy Marie Lorenz)
Marie Lorenz’s rowboat (Photo courtesy Marie Lorenz)

I’d run into Lorenz about six months earlier at the Frieze art fair on Randall’s Island where she was mounting an installation from her ongoing project “Tide and Current Taxi,” which she launched in 2005. A participatory experiment of sorts, the “taxi” is a rowboat Lorenz built almost entirely from discarded packing crates. The boat is light enough for her to carry on her own, fashioned almost entirely from eighth-inch plywood, and covered in slender black lines applied through silk screening. It makes about ten excursions per year, taking self-selecting passengers wherever they want to go as long as the trip fits the boat’s annual theme, which in the past has ranged from ”long journeys” to ”tidal cycles.” She decides on the themes herself and for the most part the excursions are her artwork. However, Lorenz does occasionally make prints that reference where she has been and what her boat has come in contact with. Over the years, the sprightly Lorenz has taken people on circumnavigations of Long Island, and journeyed up the Hutchison River in the Bronx. Initially, I had wanted only to pick her brain about whether the city’s Sanitation Department facilitated New York artists’ increasing appetite for garbage as a material resource. But then I found out Lorenz’s “Tide and Current Taxi” theme for 2012: trash. Finally, I would have the opportunity to venture into the bowels of the fill. Lorenz and I hatched a semi-illegal plan to explore Freshkills together.

*  *  *

Over the next thirty years, New York’s Sanitation and Parks Departments, along with Field Operations (the landscape architects responsible for the High Line) will convert Freshkills into a recreation area three times the size of Central Park. The transformation, a decade after the fill’s closing, is already underway to convert these heaps of used, and, perhaps most importantly, valueless materials into the second largest park in New York City. (Only Pelham Bay Park in the Bronx is bigger.). A tiny sliver of Freshkills Park opened last year, sporting a playground and soccer fields. Bird sanctuaries, bike paths, boardwalks, composting toilets, trails, bioswales (drainage courses that remove pollution from runoff water), solar panels and native species are all to follow.

On top of Freshkills, with the Manhattan skyline seen in the distance
On top of Freshkills, with the Manhattan skyline seen in the distance

Freshkills, which began its life as a salt marsh, has countless water-to-waste-to-wonderment predecessors across the city.  Queens’ marshlands, which at the turn of the twentieth century were the repository for the ashes of the city’s thousands of coal burning furnaces, became, as if by magic, the World’s Fair Grounds in 1939; and the coastal runways at LaGuardia were made by carting smoldering heaps of trash from Rikers Island (itself expanded by the city through active dumping on its way to housing the now famous prison complex) to the edge of the land, packing it down and paving it over. Throughout the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, as trade and population grew in New York, many of the marshlands and ponds vital to the city’s initial founding were filled with the detritus of industrialization­—coal, brick, dead farm animals, human waste—first turning ugly, then transforming, through human intervention, into something else entirely.

And yet, something about Freshkills is different. Once the largest man-made structure in the world at just over 2,200 acres, the landfill’s scale, and the half-century of consternation over the other boroughs’ flagrant offloading of garbage on Staten Island, set Freshkills apart. But more than the size and stature of this particular trash heap, I imagine it is we, the inhabitants of New York, who are the greatest differentiators. Our relationship to trash has changed dramatically over the past two hundred years. The British cultural anthropologist Mary Douglas, and many after her, argued that the removal of sewage and trash created the modern city—that the New Yorkers of today are defined by the disappearance of our waste.

Marie Lorenz off the coast of Staten Island
Marie Lorenz off the coast of Staten Island

So, in the blue light of dawn on a Sunday in early November, six days after Sandy made landfall in New York, Lorenz and I paddled out among the maws and ribs of rusted boats, trees sprouted on their decks, with worn plastic bags decorating their limbs. The boat was sturdy and the morning still. Lorenz, her wavy chestnut hair tucked up under a cap, her wind-blown skin a little like parchment, and her hands safely stashed away in rubber-palmed gardening gloves, had been this far before. She’d explored the Arthur Kill Boat Graveyard during a recent summer devoted to inaccessible places. As I looked back at her—chuckling as she recalled getting disastrously stuck in these very same mud flats—I wondered if exploring New York had made her perpetually young. There was something so unabashed about her curiosity. As the sun rose, we angled north toward the fill. As long as we kept to the waterways, our trip would remain perfectly kosher. Just offshore, surrounding the entire West Mound of Freshkills, was a twelve-foot-high barrier fence meant to catch all the trash that somehow migrates from the dump into the sea. But with Hurricane Sandy, a new high-water mark had been set, and this time the trash flowed in instead of out. Orange catchment buoys were stranded atop the fence. Bits of trash clung to the feathered tops of the invasive marsh weeds, all bent inland from the rush of the surge.

*  *  *

In New York City, trash’s great disappearing act creates a clean stage on which we can perfect the art of perpetual reinvention. We recycle, reuse, compost, and convert in a city relatively free from refuse. Not that New York is sparkling clean, but we have come a long way since sewage flowed in the streets, cholera ran rampant, ash piled up on every street corner, and dead fish floated down the Hudson. The bedside table made from found wood for sale in DUMBO for a mere eight hundred dollars wouldn’t seem so attractive if that found wood were piled up in an adjacent lot alongside rotting kitchen scraps and rats.

Our infatuation with recycled plastic park benches, vintage clothing stores and composting, as well as rusted architecture and our recasting of industrial flotsam as something beautiful, sublime even, is as old as the networked infrastructure that removes our undesirables from plain view. The “age of sanitation” began in the 1850’s as industrialization produced waste and biologists simultaneously began to connect contagious disease to waste. Networked waste removal quickly followed and poets and writers have been reworking and reinvigorating the leftovers of modernity ever since. What are T.S. Eliot’s The Waste Land, Walt Whitman’s This Compost, and Baudelaire’s The Flowers of Evil if not meditations on what modern cities strive to sanitize?

I was in Yangon, Myanmar, in 2011, writing a story about underground performance art  when I first understood that waste removal is a key component in making trash desirable again. I will never forget showing some of my Burmese friends photos from New York street artist SWOON’s Miss Rockaway Armada project, in which she and about a dozen others floated down the Mississippi River on boats they built almost entirely from garbage. “Why make art out of something so dirty?” a young Burmese performance artist asked. Just over her left shoulder boys were descending into the sewers and tossing shit-laden clumps of god-knows-what onto the sidewalk. And beyond the teenage sewer-cleaners, three stray dogs rummaged through an empty-lot-turned-improv-garbage-heap. Their trash was everywhere; it was a part of life, so why would they go out of their way to turn it into an art project or a coffee table?

Thanks to the Department of Sanitation, and its networked approach to waste removal, we have the incredible luxury of living in a quasi-continual present, where everything we no longer desire is hastily removed. As Lorenz and I made our way inland among the trash mounds of Freshkills, I returned to a familiar train of thought: how does so much stuff become worthless, and is the process reversible? Artists like Lorenz have been asking themselves this question for a long time. Most who have sought garbage as a material resource work on a personal scale, making trash aesthetically pleasurable when purified by the individual touch. Today, trash turned high art is trendy. Chris Jordan’s soda-can-Seurats sell for tens of thousands of dollars and Vik Muniz’s trash-picker-sourced Caravaggios for hundreds of thousands. The creation of beautiful, aesthetically pleasing objects allows viewers to see trash differently and yet these paintings cannot convey trash as it actually exists—in astonishing quantities. New Yorkers throw away enough material to fill the Empire State Building every single day. By some estimates, Freshkills contains three hundred billion pounds of trash. And now that the dump is closed, our garbage is trucked upstate and beyond, to landfills as far afield as Pennsylvania, Ohio and Virginia.

Paddling along Fresh Kills Creek near the landfill
Paddling along Fresh Kills Creek near the landfill

We paddled up Fresh Kills Creek, from which the original dump took its name, under interstate 440 and into the heart of the fill. Past all of the abandoned equipment that was used when the fill was still operational, past the barges that once brought 29,000 tons of trash from Manhattan to these marshlands daily, past the old unloading cranes, guard towers and inspection houses. Lorenz spotted a pack of deer grazing on the North Mound. The morning was quiet and I noticed how pretty the water looked—deep and blue, the color of the open ocean in autumn. Three of Freshkills’ four mounds rolled into view, defining the horizon with their slow slope.  For now, those tawny humps, hundreds of feet high, shielded our little boat from the world beyond. When the wind died down, their reflection wavered on the surface of the water. Suddenly, I understood that Lorenz and I were floating in a man-made valley. As far as the eye could see everything was made of trash.

But you wouldn’t know it just by looking. Yes, the surge had reached this far and many of the banks were cluttered with debris. And yes, there were defensive fences wrapping around each of these grassy knolls. And yes, one of them looked “shaved” as Lorenz put it, the weeds and grasses all mowed down, exposing dozens of zit-like mini-mounds, hints of the infrastructure lying just beneath the surface. Despite knowing that we sat in the midst of a maelstrom of tunnels, leachate collectors, gas burn-off stations, and even a water treatment plant, we were also surrounded by some pretty basic elements. Earth, sky, sea.

*   *   *

Just before setting out on our excursion, I spoke with Mierle Laderman Ukeles, the first and only artist-in-residence of the New York City Department of Sanitation, a position that she has held for the past thirty-five years. Ukeles has a shock of white-blond hair and a neon smile that radiates her interest in all things waste-related. She has built countless sculptures out of recycled materials, choreographed garbage-truck ballets, and even spent a year and a half shaking the hands of every sanitation worker in New York. During her “TOUCH SANITATION” project, she discovered that most New Yorkers felt that once they brought their trash to the curb it suddenly belonged to the sanitation worker. “But when I spoke with sanitation workers they kept telling me, ‘It’s not my trash, it’s their garbage,’” Ukeles told me. “That’s when I realized that we had concocted this great social collusion where the responsibility for the trash we make is no longer our own.” That was more than thirty years ago, and while our tendency to stigmatize ‘garbage men,’ has subsided, according to Ukeles, our willingness to take ownership of our waste has not risen in equal and opposite proportions.

Mierle Laderman Ukeles talks with worker of the New York City Department of Sanitation as part of her TOUCH SANITATION performance, 1977-80 (Photo courtesy of the artist and Ronald Feldman Fine Arts, New York)
Mierle Laderman Ukeles talks with worker of the New York City Department of Sanitation as part of her TOUCH SANITATION performance, 1977-80 (Photo courtesy of the artist and Ronald Feldman Fine Arts, New York)

In 2002, Ukeles released “PENETRATION AND TRANSPARENCY MORPHED,” a six-channel video artwork installation, shown on half a dozen screens, that investigates the inner workings of the fill and attempts to open dialogues about the future of the park. In addition to her work with the Sanitation Department, Ukeles is also the Department of Sanitation Percent for Art Artist at Freshkills, a position awarded to her by the city’s Department of Cultural Affairs and the Percent For Art Foundation, one of the largest municipally funded art programs in the country.

A detail of Fresh Kills drainage system from Mierle Laderman Ukeles’ PENETRATION AND TRANSPARENCY: MORPHED, 2001-2002 (Photo courtesy of the artist and Ronald Feldman Fine Arts, New York)
A detail of Fresh Kills drainage system from Mierle Laderman Ukeles’ PENETRATION AND TRANSPARENCY: MORPHED, 2001-2002 (Photo courtesy of the artist and Ronald Feldman Fine Arts, New York)

“PENETRATION AND TRANSPARENCY MORPHED” is equal parts Werner Herzog film, visitor center informational video, and personal wonderment about the work that goes into maintaining the most complicated landfill in the country. “I wanted to turn my research into an artwork,” Ukeles, says of the film. “And I wanted people to know how Freshkills and this great transformation really could work.” The video is carried by an ensemble cast, ranging from Phillip J. Gleason, the Sanitation Department’s assistant commissioner of waste management engineering, to Dr. Niall Kirkwood, the director of the center for technology and the environment at Harvard. Alternating between dirt and rubble moonscapes, rolling bucolic fields, and plans that blend topography into infrastructure, the film gives a comprehensive portrait of Freshkills as a living, breathing, moving mound of junk that requires unprecedented infrastructure to keep environmental disaster at bay.

Having followed the waterway of Freshkills deep inland for three hours, the time had come to turn around. It had been one of those perfect fall mornings when the world is still and cloaked in the  glow of a slanting sun. I wasn’t scared or grossed out by the water, although some others may have been; instead, paddling in Lorenz’s little boat had reminded me of canoeing with my father in rural Maine as a child.

Our fear of being caught and kicked out diminished since we had seen only a single person fixing a busted traffic signal along the shore, so we decided to actually explore the fill on our way out. When Lorenz and I reached the line of double-parked rusted blue barges along the banks of the West Mound, we disembarked. We clambered up a giant tire and tied the rowboat off. After three hours in our little boat it took a minute for me to shake my sea legs. In the first barge, a striped plastic net held down heaps of office paper, milk cartons, cardboard boxes, ice cream containers, manila envelopes, and so on and so on. New York’s paper is still transported to Staten Island where it ends up at the Visy Paper Mill at the northern tip of Freshkills. Next to the paper-filled barge sat an empty one. Lorenz and I climbed up twin ladders along the port side and peered down. The sheer volume of the hold was astounding. It must have been twenty or 25 feet deep and hundreds of feet long—close to a football field in size. That’s when it really hit me: transporting all of New York’s garbage here, boat by boat, and then unloading, carting, and burying the stuff, was a phenomenally massive undertaking. The negative space of a single empty barge alongside hills so large they appear as though only the earth could have shaped them brought into sharp focus the scale of our daily ‘throwing away.’

Paper waste near Freshkills
Paper waste near Freshkills

A little over six years ago, Ukeles published a commissioned work titled “PROPOSAL FOR ONE MILLION PEOPLE TO PARTICIPATE IN FRESHKILLS PARK.” She presented the proposal to the City of New York, arguing that we might begin to heal the environmental and material degradation of the landfill and its contents only if we recognize the role we played in creating it.

She recommends that a million New Yorkers donate valuable personal items to be enshrined at the fill. “The project would link people whose garbage is sitting there—you know, whose garbage is making those hills be those hills—to the site,” Ukeles says of her proposal, which is still being negotiated. “It would help us say, ‘Yes I contributed to this’… If we don’t recognize Freshkills as our own, then it disappears just like how our garbage magically vanished from the curb in the first place.” Simply having someone else turn Freshkills into a park isn’t enough, Ukeles argues; we must actively choose to reinvest in the site with material worth.

Ukeles proposes to cast each donated item in a recycled glass block coded with the neighborhood where it originated and a barcode linking the object to the donor. The blocks would then be distributed throughout the park, reminding visitors of their hand in making, marring, and re-valuing the land. “Regardless of how beautiful a landscape Freshkills becomes on the surface,” Ukeles says, “I believe this site cannot be…transformed into something else unless many of us who made it actively and personally attempt to redeem and renew this land.”

“Handshake Ritual,” part of Mierle Laderman Ukeles’ TOUCH SANITATION performance, 1977-80 (Photo courtesy of the artist and Ronald Feldman Fine Arts, New York)
“Handshake Ritual,” part of Mierle Laderman Ukeles’ TOUCH SANITATION performance, 1977-80 (Photo courtesy of the artist and Ronald Feldman Fine Arts, New York)

When Ukeles presented the proposal to Freshkills Park’s two managing bodies—the Sanitation and Parks Departments—the responses were drastically different. Sanitation loved it. “When I said, ‘Pick up offerings from a million people,’ it didn’t faze them,” Ukeles practically gushes. “They organize trash pickup for eight million people every day. The commissioner even offered every garage as “cultural transfer stations” where people could leave their offering, so that the exchange process between valueless and valuable happens right there in DSNY space. But when I say ‘one million’ to the Parks Department their eyes roll up, as if it were inconceivable.”

The marriage of these two municipal organizations in stewardship of the largest park New York has built in over a century is both uncanny and unprecedented, speaking volumes about the ways in which a growing metropolis becomes increasingly entwined with the ecology it appears to have obliterated. Beyond the logistics of collecting items from a million participants, differences emerge over how this public space ought to be experienced. While the Parks Department aims to connect New Yorkers to the natural world, the Sanitation Department is, by definition, a man-made enterprise. Parks’ mission is to restore a sense of the pristine in the city, and I suspect recognizing the trashiness of Freshkills would ruin the “natural” environment they are taking great care to construct. According to the Parks Department, Freshkills Park “will turn around connotations of waste and excess associated with the landfill site by implementing technologies and land management practices aimed at reducing waste, minimizing gross energy expenditure, and nourishing the health and well-being of local ecology.” Build some bioswales, grass roofs, bird-watching boardwalks, and composting toilets and call it green. Slowing down and pondering how it was that Freshkills came into being—not just our amazing ability to salvage it, but also the depth to which our continual consumption made it so—isn’t in the plans.

*   *   *

Lorenz and I met in her studio in Bushwick weeks before our trip to discuss the necessary precautions and provisions. Her summer of tracking down trash in her boat had gone well. She’d paddled out to the dredging barges just off the southern tip of Manhattan where floating debris (mostly trees and giant limbs) big enough to be detrimental to boat traffic is temporarily stored; hunted for discarded lighters on Goose Island for the New York City Lighter Log, a yearlong effort to map our continual consumption by tracking down beached lighters on the city’s coastline; and explored “Manhattanhenge,” the twice-yearly alignment of the sun with the east-west street grid. By the middle of the summer, Lorenz was wearing a hat, sunglasses and flip-flops that she had found along the shore, and making prints from discarded bottles, weathered wood, and some small boats.

“The currents act as a giant centrifuge, depositing different types of trash, depending on the weight and shape, in different places throughout the city,” Lorenz told me while explaining the culmination of her summer of trash observation: a map that loosely illustrates the city currents as a garbage conveyor. “There is a traffic cone beach, a beach where lighters wash up, a beach of just plastic bottles,” Lorenz told me.  But I am kind of stalled on the visual part of this project; it’s not quite right,” she added, turning away from her work. Lorenz has tried making mockups of what the currents were doing at a particular moment on a particular day; she’s mimicked Polynesian wave charts, and even tried color-coding the shore depending on the size and shape of the detritus she’s found there, but nothing has felt quite right.

One of Lorenz’s depictions of trash in New York’s waters (Courtesy Marie Lorenz)
One of Lorenz’s depictions of trash in New York’s waters (Courtesy Marie Lorenz)

After rowing a while, against the wind, back toward the Arthur Kill, we pulled the boat ashore. Lorenz bushwhacked up the bank of the North Mound to try to track down the deer we had seen earlier that morning. The road encircling the base of the mound was blanketed in marsh weeds and bottles. Lorenz surveyed the scene for a moment before explaining: “Yesterday, I was out at Breezy Point and the place looked oddly clean. It wasn’t until I located a familiar outfall that I realized the whole beach had been rearranged and that the trash had simply been carried further inland. I was so dislocated I felt nauseous. The trash I’ve been following and trying to map wasn’t the result of the ongoing tides and currents, like I thought. All summer long I have been looking at a single event: Hurricane Irene.”

Everywhere she went she saw the effects of last year’s storm. We were trudging through heaps of discarded plastic as she spoke, awash in the evidence of the new high water mark Sandy had set. Garbage bags clung to the bare branches of what I imagined was a poplar, and I thought to myself: this is neither an emergency nor a disaster; it’s just the new state of things. The interval between new high-water marks will shrink and our garbage will creep farther and farther in until it adorns everything coastal—cattails, Freshkills, our homes, streetlights, the treetops.

*   *   *

Our journey wouldn’t be complete without a stop at Mound Four, the largest of the man-made hills of Freshkills and the place where the wreckage of the World Trade Center is buried. After closing in early 2001, Freshkills reopened briefly at the end of that year. No other place was large enough to accommodate the fallen towers.

Lorenz, on water and on land
Lorenz, on water and on land

Lorenz and I tied up alongside a derelict pier lined with industrial water hoses and shimmied under a chain-link fence. The hike up the hill was easy. A gravel road wound through the grassy fields of ragweed and phragmites, the invasive weeds taking over the fill. As far as we could tell, the storm had not caused the cap to slough or shift. The view from the top was spectacular. On every horizon sat another factor contributing to the very ground beneath our feet—the tip-tops of Manhattan’s skyline, the gas tanks of New Jersey, the shipping barges moving in and out of the harbor, the smoke stacks, churches, rows of houses, and a few fingers of fall landscape weaving through the city and the sprawl.

I meant to bring a precious object with me to leave at the fill as Ukeles’ project proposes but had forgotten my jade bracelet at home in the rush of predawn preparation. What could I leave instead? The scarf my godmother had knit? My driver’s license? Certainly not something so easily discarded as my gloves or backpack. Lorenz and I tossed ideas for potential sacrificial items back and forth as we ate our lunch of leftover pasta. The tide rolled out and the tip of the metropolis to the north remained dark. It would be days before power, post-Sandy, was finally restored to most of the city. Three ospreys circled above us. You can tell them apart from other sea birds, Lorenz explained, by their straight-as-board wings, recessed heads, and their graceful turns. The sunlight shone straight through their rosin-colored feathers, illuminating their silhouettes from behind. We lay atop our mound of trash for a while, marveling at the sky and the carrion birds.

*   *   *

Elizabeth Rush’s work has appeared in Granta, Le Monde Diplomatique, Frieze, and Asian Geographic, among others. Her book, Still Lifes from a Vanishing City, about the re-appropriation of colonial city space in Yangon, Myanmar is forthcoming this winter. She is a founding member of Makoto Photographic, an alternative agency specializing in long-form photo journalism.

The Daring Diplomat Who Proved One Person Can Thwart an Empire

A whistleblower puts his life on the line to defy Soviet aggression. Sixty years later, this forgotten story of subterfuge, smears and suspicious death has never felt more timely.

On October 23, 1956, waves of demonstrations rolled through the streets of the Hungarian capital. The citizens of Budapest converged on government buildings, protesting the influence of the Soviet Union on their elected officials and economy, and the presence of Soviet troops in their cities. What began with a few thousand university students swelled to include workers, soldiers, and men and women of all ages. Someone pulled down a Hungarian flag, emblazoned with the Communist sickle and hammer. They tore out the insignia, leaving a gaping hole in the middle. It became a symbol of the revolution.

The demonstrations escalated. Neighborhoods organized into militias. Overturned armored cars caught fire and buildings collapsed onto their first floors. The small country standing up to its Communist interlopers enraptured the Western world. Time magazine recognized “the Hungarian Freedom Fighter” as Man of the Year.

But it was a short-lived fight. On November 4, as tins were passed around to collect coins and jewelry to help with relief, and Budapest started to clear away broken glass and rubble, Soviet tanks trundled into the city. Miklos Toth, who was a boy at the time, remembers brutal street-to-street fighting, and World War II veterans firing out of their living rooms as plaster rained from the ceiling. The uprising was crushed. It would be more than three decades before an eastern bloc state revolted against Communism again.

During the Hungarian Revolution of 1956, Hungarian flags flew with holes cut out to remove the Soviet emblem. (Photo courtesy Fortepan)

Thousands of Hungarians were brought to trial by the new Soviet-backed government for their role in the uprising. Even more streamed out of Hungary as refugees. The United Nations launched an investigation into Soviet troops’ intervention in the Hungarian Revolution. A special committee interviewed 111 witnesses: diplomats, government officials, soldiers, journalists, and lawyers. An artist testified. So did an actress and several high school students. Fearing retaliation against friends and family back in Hungary, where the Soviet-backed government was carrying out executions, 81 of those witnesses appeared anonymously. On United Nations lists, they were marked as “AAA,” “BBB” and so on down the alphabet. Only one man knew their names. Soon, the name of Danish diplomat Povl Bang-Jensen, chief of logistics for the Hungarian testimony, would become embroiled in one of the most bewildering scandals in U.N. history.

* * *

Bang-Jensen had been a part of the U.N. since its early days. A dapper man whose widow’s peak and sweater vests called to mind Hollywood star James Mason, he acted on behalf of the anti-Nazi Danish underground in New York during World War II, negotiating treaties with the Allies on behalf of Scandinavia. He was well-rounded, self-confident, and stubborn. According to a Judiciary Report to the United States Congress, he had a “wide range of knowledge, and robust sense of humor and a warm heart that endeared him to his friends and … to the many Hungarian refugees who testified before the United Nations Commission on Hungary.”

Due to his meticulous focus on details, Bang-Jensen was charged with arranging the hotels and food per diems of the refugees in New York, Vienna, and Rome where the committee heard their testimony. When the committee asked him to make sure they didn’t hear repetitive testimony, he pre-interviewed refugees one-on-one, listening to their stories of the Soviet invasion.

“They took me to a prison, chained my right hand to my left foot, and left me,” ran a typical piece of testimony. “This was in the middle of the winter. … I could not move because, if I did so, my wrists and ankles bled.” The U.N. considered many of the stories Bang-Jensen heard unprintable. “The verbatim records of the Committee’s meetings contain appalling descriptions,” stated the final report, which “the Committee would have hesitated to publish in their entirety, even if the necessity of protecting the families of the witnesses had not been an obstacle.”

In a dark stone building at 6A Wallnerstrasse in Vienna where testimony was carried out, Bang-Jensen began to notice irregularities in procedure. He and his boss, William M. Jordan, argued over the translation of the testimony. Errors crept into the official record. A Russian U.N. staffer, according to Bang-Jensen’s later testimony, attempted to bribe one of his colleagues to let him take the transcripts of the hearings home overnight. In an era of global espionage, when the F.B.I. had just caught a U.N. staffer attempting to leak official documents to the Soviets, Bang-Jensen believed he saw clear evidence that the Russians were attempting to influence the committee’s findings and get access to the names of those who testified.

In June 1957, Bang-Jensen blew the whistle. In going over the final copy of the Hungarian Report, days before it was due to be presented, he found 40 errors and 20 omissions of key information. Many were minute, but others were crucial to the central point of the investigation: whether Russia had illegally violated Hungarian sovereignty. For example, an unreported date hid the fact that János Kádár, new head of the Soviet-backed Hungarian government, had invited Soviet intervention before he became Prime Minister, an action that some would call treasonous and was at odds with the Soviet Union’s claim to legal intervention. He wanted to bring the information to the ranking members of the committee, but Jordan warned him not to — telling him that the errors were not meaningful. So Bang-Jensen went over his head, arranging a meeting with the committee leaders in the Diplomats Lounge at U.N. headquarters.

Left: United Nations General Assembly representatives voting in favor of the resolution on the situation in Hungarian on Nov. 5, 1956. Right: U.N. Secretary General Dag Hammarskjöld (left) Assembly President, Dr. Charles Malik (Lebanon), and Andrew W. Cordier, Executive Assistant to the Secretary General. (Photos courtesy the United Nations)

In a room heavy with cigarette smoke and decorated with ferns, Bang-Jensen made his case. Even if the details might not alter the Hungarian Report’s findings, the errors and omissions ran the risk of reducing public trust in the validity of the entire report. At stake was not just this document, but any future humanitarian investigation the U.N. carried out. Bang-Jensen was a powerful believer in accuracy and truth, and when he felt the committee wasn’t listening to him, according to members’ testimony, he grabbed one of them by his lapels and shook him to make the point heard.

The results were not as he had hoped. Bang-Jensen was told not to attend future committee meetings. He went anyway. As the final drafts of the report were handed out, Bang-Jensen asked to see a copy. Jordan told him all copies were in use. So, he went straight to the top, writing a letter to Secretary General Dag Hammarskjold.

The situation, he wrote, “is a methodical attempt to suppress certain essential facts and to insert erroneous facts and contradictions in the report.” It was, he believed, “sabotage.”

He appealed to Hammarskjold as a fellow Scandinavian, and reminded him of Bang-Jensen’s experience spotting duplicity in his own fight against the Nazis. He even offered to resign, if it would help the U.N. handle the situation more discreetly.

“I am at your disposal beyond, but not contrary to, my duties as an officer of the United Nations to straighten out everything,” he wrote. “My only condition … is honesty.”

“Since the person in question [Jordan] probably will realize that he hardly can make many believe I am a liar,” Bang-Jensen concluded, “he will no doubt insist that I am imagining things on account of overwork.”

He was correct.

“He was acting improperly, hysterically, and foolishly,” Jordan wrote to Hammarskjold’s executive secretary, Andrew Cordier, a future president of Columbia University. Jordan also disclosed that he didn’t believe Bang-Jensen was “quite himself,” and that the man’s allegations were “largely childish and without foundation.” “He should be required forthwith to take sick leave, since I have no doubt that Mr. Bang-Jensen is a very sick man,” Jordan added.

After several weeks of unanswered letters, Bang-Jensen finally got the call he’d been waiting for, but he had already left the office to catch the boat to Denmark for two months of home leave. The connection was bad and Bang-Jensen and Hammarskjold couldn’t hear each other. They would write, they promised. Bang-Jensen wondered why Hammarskjold had not asked him to cancel his home leave and return to the U.N.

Bang-Jensen spent the next several weeks in the little fishing town of Espergaerde, just south of Elsinore, where Shakespeare’s Hamlet was accused of madness after discovering an act of treason. Returning to New York, he was summarily removed from the Hungarian Committee.

Again, Bang-Jensen wrote to Hammarskjold.

“Sabotage has been carried out,” he wrote. “Allegedly, on your instructions … Am I now expected to forget this matter?”

Again, he was ignored.

* * *

In October 1957, a Hungarian refugee, facing deportation from the U.S. back to Hungary, asked for asylum on the grounds that he was one of the anonymous witnesses who had testified before the Hungarian Committee. When U.N. authorities went to check his name against the list of witnesses, they found they had no copy. Only one person had the complete list of names: Povl Bang-Jensen.

Asked to provide a copy of the list, Bang-Jensen refused. Since his desk at the U.N. had been broken into, he said, he had been keeping it off U.N. property, and he did not think the U.N. could be trusted to safeguard the list against a leak that would put the names of witnesses who had accused the Soviets of war crimes in the Kremlin’s hands. It did not help that the request came from Undersecretary Dr. Dragoslav Protitch, a Yugoslav national whose government had approved of the Soviet incursion during the revolution. A United States Senate investigation would later question the security wisdom of the decision to allow Protitch to access to the Hungarian investigation at all.

A destroyed tank at the Zsigmond Móricz circle in Budapest, Hungary, during the 1956 revolution. (Photo courtesy Fortepan)

“I would be grossly derelict in my duties as an international official and thoroughly dishonest if I agreed,” he wrote. It wasn’t just a matter of principle. Back in Hungary — according to a 1960 Senate Judiciary Report on the affair — if a refugee had committed treason, upon escaping his next relative could be executed in his place. Give up the names, and dozens might die.

Despite continued orders, Bang-Jensen refused to hand over the list. On December 4, the Director of Personnel called Bang-Jensen into his office and suspended him. In an unprecedented move, Bang-Jensen was escorted out by two U.N. guards, who were too embarrassed to tail him and instead walked beside him to his car.

Word of the menace to the 81 witnesses spread. Bang-Jensen was hailed as a modern-day Good Samaritan. Letters from international organizations, questions from the press, and pleas from Hungarian groups poured into the U.N. Only a month prior, President John F. Kennedy had called the Hungarian Revolution, “a day that will forever live in the annals of free men and free nations — a day of courage and of conscience and of triumph” and had rebuked the western world for not coming to revolutionaries’ aid. The world had failed to take decisive action during the uprising, but now at least, they could take a stand for these 81 witnesses.

Some within the U.N. advocated simply burning the list, but to do so would be tantamount to admitting that the names would not be secure in U.N. files, jeopardizing the reputation of the body and its ability to carry out future anonymous hearings like the one for the Hungarian Report. And even if the names could be kept safe, what if the next Secretary-General was a Soviet, able to report the names to the Kremlin himself? How could an organization founded on globalism keep its staff from prioritizing national interests? They were questions that the United Nations, barely a decade old, had never faced.

Ernest Gross, chair of the investigation into the affair, suggested a solution.

At a few minutes before three p.m. on Friday, January 24, 1958, Bang-Jensen marched up the steps of the U.N. with his lawyer and a bank messenger who carried a sealed yellow envelope. The U.N. did not, Bang-Jensen later noted, offer him a security escort to bring the papers to headquarters. He made his way, first to an administrative office to meet several colleagues and security. The bank messenger handed over the envelope. Bundled in overcoats, they all climbed the stairs to the U.N. rooftop, where the temperature was just over freezing. A portable incinerator was blazing. Bang-Jensen fed the yellow envelope into it. Then, he removed another envelope from his briefcase and a third from his jacket pocket. The four men watched as the envelopes and their contents turned to ashes, then signed statements confirming their destruction.

Statement written and signed by Povl Bang-Jensen after he burned the papers relating to witnesses that testified in front of the Special Committee on the Problem with Hungary. (Image courtesy the U.N.)

But the affair was far from over. Hoping to end the case once and for all, Gross released his report on Bang-Jensen’s conduct, painting a picture of a paranoid, overly sensitive man. Gross claimed that Bang-Jensen had been negligent in safeguarding the papers, and suggested that he might have altered them himself. In a clunky solution to the question of the U.N.’s ability to safeguard documents, the report argued that, in Bang-Jensen’s keeping, the papers had been so insecure as to be rendered worthless — therefore the U.N. did not want them back. The report closed by recommending that Bang-Jensen seek medical help. The question of sabotage that Bang-Jensen had originally raised was largely glossed over.

“I think image of Bang-Jensen as heroic protector of papers will have been exploded,” Andrew Cordier wrote in a telegram to the Australian delegate, Sir Keith Charles Owen Shann, in Manila.

This portrait of Bang-Jensen as unstable and incompetent was a surprise, even to members who had contributed to the report. Alsing Andersen, who had recalled the incident of Bang-Jensen shaking a delegate by the lapels in the Diplomats Lounge to the Committee, asked that a new press release around the report be issued. Bang-Jensen launched into a judicial review process, aimed at reinstating his position and clearing his name. Meticulous as ever, he testified that the Gross Report contained 126 incorrect statements, including 76 that were simply misleading and 31 that were outright slanderous.

He never had a chance.

The judicial review board was stacked with the same men who had suggested Bang-Jensen was unstable. Bang-Jensen’s requests for key letters and memos, for the right to be represented by an outside attorney instead of a fellow staffer, were all denied. Unable to afford a secretary, he typed out his trial correspondence himself using two fingers, only to be told that the tribunal would only review evidence sent in triplicate. When he claimed that the labyrinthine procedures were a violation of due process and his human rights, U.N. officials grew exasperated.

“If there has been any violation of human rights,” wrote one, “it is most certainly not Bang-Jensen’s but those of many senior officials of the Secretariat, especially Andrew Cordier, who have spent the equivalent of many days — even weeks — of valuable time leaning over backwards to be fair to this impossible man!”

At the same time, according to Bang-Jensen, a smear campaign spread through the halls of the U.N. Stories reportedly circulated that Bang-Jensen was an alcoholic, a psychopath, that he was gay, or sexually deviant, that he was a McCarthyite. Meanwhile, newspaper articles told the heroic story of the man who dared to stand up to the Soviet Union and the corrupt U.N. Letters with stamps bearing the profiles of Lincoln and Washington poured in to Cordier and Hammarskjold’s office.

“Please excuse my handwriting, because I have a broken wrist and I have a cast on,” wrote Mary Alice Karl from Williston Park, New York, “I just had to write and tell you how I want to protest the dismissal of the Danish official, Povl Bang-Jensen. I think that this action was highly unfair and unreasonable.”

“Dear Sirs,” wrote Miss Marita Kane, from Long Island, “I have never before written a letter to the U.N., but this is justified because I never have been so upset by one of its actions … If you do this ostensibly unjust act of firing a hero, every patriotic American will sigh and say, ‘Oh well, it was a good idea — but the U.N. was just an idea, and can’t and didn’t work out in practice.’”

High schooler Judy Soles whipped her classmates into a fervor after learning about the case in her history class, and started a campaign to reinstate Bang-Jensen. The International League of the Rights of Man wrote in support of Bang-Jensen, citing the previous decade’s Nuremberg Trials of Nazi collaborators.

“Whenever there is a conflict between obedience or adherence to administrative rules or orders of superior officers,” the League wrote, “and a moral responsibility to safeguard life or liberty, the issue must be resolved in favor of the higher moral obligation.”

A predominantly American audience saw him as an anti-Communist hero — the tenacious and upstanding champion they had been looking for in the Cold War. Many saw the difficulties Bang-Jensen was experiencing as proof that Soviets were controlling the U.N. In response to every letter, Andrew Cordier sent a copy of the Gross Report — a clear message that their supposed hero was, in fact, deranged.

* * *

On July 3, 1958, Bang-Jensen was fired for insubordination. He was given three months’ pay in lieu of notice. Ever tenacious, he claimed right of appeal. Once again, he lost. Up until this point, Bang-Jensen had, in his own words, “made every effort to have the case dealt with in as quiet and as orderly a manner as possible in order not to hurt the United Nations which, in the final analysis, is more important than any of the individuals involved.” He deeply loved the U.N., and was committed to both its systems and its mission. That he pled his case within its existing structures, and that he rarely spoke to the press, indicates a commitment to the institution that ran deep.

“I shall never regret that I kept my promise to the Hungarian witnesses that I should be the only person in the Secretariat to know their names,” he said in a rare public statement after his firing. “Either inside or outside the United Nations—I shall continue my efforts to obtain justice.”

The affair went quiet for a year. After his dismissal, Bang-Jensen got a job at CARE, the humanitarian relief agency, where his yearly salary dropped from $17,000 to $7,500. He attended PTA meetings for his five children, took them to Sunday school, and went to the movies with his wife, Helen. “North By Northwest” was one of the most popular films of 1959, but perhaps that story of subterfuge at the U.N. felt too close to home for a weekend date.

On the morning of Monday, November 21, 1959, Bang-Jensen kissed his wife goodbye and walked out the front door of their home in Long Island. He ran into a neighbor, Mr. Wetzler, who gave him a ride to the bus stop. Mr. Wetzler reported to the Senate Judiciary Committee that Bang-Jensen “behaved in a perfectly normal manner.” Then he hopped out at the corner of Northern Boulevard and Morgan Street and was never seen alive again.

He was found, two days later on the morning of Thanksgiving, laid out on a bridle path in Alley Pond Park, a seven-minute drive from his house. Two locals, walking their dogs through the gray fallen leaves, discovered the body. A bullet had gone through his right temple. In his right hand was a pearl-handled revolver. Even after his two-day disappearance, his face, under a mat of blood, was clean-shaven. The police found a note in Bang-Jensen’s handwriting. “Whatever faults I have,” it read, “I have been honest and wanted to do good, but I underestimated the forces I was up against.” The N.Y.P.D. ruled the death a suicide, and cremated the body, as the note requested.

“You and your family have our profound sympathy and sincere condolence on the passing of your husband,” wrote Hammarskjold to Helen.

“Please accept our heartfelt sympathy in your sorrow,” wrote Cordier.

“You have driven to his death a noble man, Mr. Bang-Jensen, for doing what was right,” wrote Mrs. A.G. Hunter to the United Nations. “Your conscience should hurt you all the rest of your life — if you have a conscience.”

Almost immediately, the question of foul play arose. Who were the hidden forces mentioned in the suicide note, people wondered? Where had Bang-Jensen been for the two days of his disappearance? If the diplomat was left-handed, why was the gun found in his right hand? Had Bang-Jensen really killed himself in a fit of depression over his ousting from the U.N. or were other and more malevolent forces at play? “Many persons and many forces, not exclusively Soviet, had reason to breathe easier at his passing,” hinted the National Review. “The strange circumstances of the case seem to warrant continued investigation,” the Washington Post wrote.

Letter written by Mrs. A.G. Hunter, a Bang-Jesen supporter, to the United Nations after the ex-diplomat was found dead. (Image courtesy the U.N.)

Congress thought so too. In 1960, they launched an investigation in the Bang-Jensen case, questioning both U.N. security procedures and the pipeline of information about Communist infiltration in the State Department and the C.I.A. The committee did not comment on the judicial procedures at the U.N. that led to Bang-Jensen’s termination, since that was inside the jurisdiction of the United Nations. But the committee was very interested in whether a political assassination had occurred on American soil. The investigation created as many mysteries as it solved.

The Senate report uncovered that Bang-Jensen had spoken of suicide as a way to get his family funds from his U.N. insurance policy — but that policy had run out by the time he died. Friends and family reported depression after his dismissal from the U.N., adding that it had increased to the point where they encouraged him to consult a psychiatrist. He visited Dr. Frederick Friedenborg six times. The doctor declared him “anti-suicidal” and in the weeks leading up to his death, Bang-Jensen had been markedly more active and cheerful. Dr. Friedenborg had prescribed Bang-Jensen sleeping pills, which Bang-Jensen did not make a practice of using. The pharmacist who filled the prescription testified that it was never refilled. Nonetheless, the coroner reported that Bang-Jensen was sedated at the time of his death.

Regarding his mental state, the Senate Committee surfaced another shocking document, a 1957 memo from Bang-Jensen to Helen discovered and published by the far-right, anti-Communist Alice Widener. Though incredible, none on the committee questioned that it might be real. It read:

“[My wife] fears, now that it is clear that I will not retreat, that the circle outside the Secretariat, ultimately responsible for the sabotage, might have decided that it is necessary to risk having me disappear out a window, or similarly in a fit of depression … My wife has, nevertheless, insisted that I should inform a few of my friends, that under no circumstances would I commit suicide … this would be contrary to my whole nature and to my religious convictions. If any note was found to the opposite effect in my hand-writing, it would be fake.”

The letter was dated November 30, 1957. It was the habit of the meticulous Bang-Jensen to date all his correspondence to the day. The only exception the Senate committee could find in all Bang-Jensen’s writing was the suicide note.

The committee did not come to a conclusion on the Bang-Jensen mystery. But it did publish a report on the facts of the case, including facts that pointed to suicide and others that pointed to murder. Inserted in the report was a list of corrections to factual errors that were discovered after the report was bound and printed. Bang-Jensen would, no doubt, have found more.

* * *

On the 60th anniversary of the Hungarian Revolution, the Hungarian Mission to the U.N. celebrated the sacrifice of Bang-Jensen. The event included a generation who had lived through revolution themselves, the children of refugees who had built new lives, and Bang-Jensen’s own children, now grown. They accepted a statue in token of their father’s heroism in safeguarding the names of the 81 anonymous witnesses — a sculpture of the Hungarian uprising flag, with a hole where the Soviet hammer and sickle had been torn out.

Ferenc Miszlivetz, Director of Hungary’s Institute of Advanced Studies Kőszeg, which published A Cry for Freedom: Reflections on the 1956 Hungarian Revolution at the UN and Beyond, likens Bang-Jensen’s story to the Hungarian uprising itself.

“Sometimes relatively insignificant players,” he says, “could make a big difference in a real way in peculiar moments in history.”

Ultimately, he argues, far from jeopardizing the long-term legitimacy of the United Nations, Bang Jensen safeguarded it. In his rebellion, he had carried on U.N. values.

Bang-Jensen in Copenhagen to discuss his situation with the Danish government and Parliament. (Photo courtesy Scanpix Denmark/Sipa USA)

“Bang-Jensen saved the reputation of the United Nations,” Miszlivetz says, “We have institutions based on values and those are sometime not realized. But unexpected individuals can realize them.”

Even when the arc of progress swings ethical institutions into being, individuals must continue to carry those ethics forward in their individual actions, particularly when those institutions falter.

The Bang-Jensen case may be a story of a man experiencing post-war stress, tormenting his colleagues with paranoia, depression and ultimately suicide. Or, it may be the tale of a coordinated campaign to silence a whistleblower. Ultimately, it is a story of a man who believed entirely in the importance of truth and facts, in promises, and in resisting the very institutions we love when they fall short of their moral mandate.

Bang-Jensen’s wife eventually moved upstate to Chappaqua, New York. She worked as a guide at the local Union Church, leading tour groups through the history and stories of the Chagall and Matisse stained glass windows that a Rockefeller had commissioned for the church. The prized centerpiece of the luminous collection, the one Helen must have often paused at during her tours to relate the story of its subject, was the Good Samaritan.

My Teenage Life After Leaving a Cult

I spent my childhood waiting for the apocalypse. When it never came, I grasped at anything I could to feel in control, from binge drinking to suicide.

I stood eyeing myself in the mirror before my second day of public high school. At 15 years old, I was determined not to get kicked out of class again.

“Do I look okay?” I asked my twin sister, Tamar. I was wearing a bomber jacket, Dickies, and Converse All Star tennis shoes. The day before, I had been dismissed from class for showing too much cleavage, and I didn’t want to make the same mistake again.

“Looks fine to me,” Tamar said.

I tucked an issue of Seventeen magazine inside my jacket. In that magazine was the secret I had just discovered and shared with my siblings: we had grown up in a cult. This was the reason we felt out of place and unable to fit in after moving to California. The day before, I’d read an article about a girl who had escaped a cult and an accompanying quiz consisting of five questions. If I answered “yes” to at least three, it said, I might have grown up in a cult. I answered “yes” to all five.

Growing up in the Children of God I hadn’t been allowed to make any decisions for myself. Father David dictated how we lived and where we lived. From the clothes I wore to the food I ate to the friends I had – everything had been decided for me. After the death of Father David, our leader on the compounds in Southeast Asia, the cult slowly disbanded. Now, we were living in Dad’s home state of California after growing up hearing that America was a forbidden land, the epicenter of evil, and would be the first to burn in hell in God’s judgment during Armageddon before the Great Apocalypse that would come in 1993. It was now 1996.

High school was my first chance at normalcy, and I wanted nothing more than to be normal after living a life over which I had no control. I cut my hair and dyed it an awful carrot color, and I complemented my new hairstyle by wearing jeans, jewelry, tennis shoes – anything that had been forbidden.

On the way out the door, I passed Mom in the kitchen getting our six younger siblings ready for school. A few months earlier she had found out she had advanced cervical cancer and was now getting daily radiation treatment. Even after 12 children and two stillbirths, Mom rarely went to see a doctor in the cult. Father David did not encourage modern medicine and would have disapproved of her decision to seek medical care even though her cancer was life-threatening. Dad had enrolled in college to try to get a job, something he wasn’t allowed to do before even though he had excelled as a geology student right before joining the Children of God.

My parents were too busy trying to make ends meet to worry too much about us older kids and our adjustment, but when they did try to control us, Dad was stern and Mom was unforgiving as if we kids were the ones who had done something wrong when we all knew we hadn’t; they were the ones who joined a cult and we were born into it. My siblings and I reacted to the newfound revelation from Seventeen magazine about our childhood in different ways.

John, my oldest brother, was holding down multiple jobs and after work stayed out all night with his friends, partying in the rave scene. Mary Ann, my older sister, had frequent breakdowns and started acting strange, dressing in colorful clothes and telling her friends to “eat dirt” (for a while that was all she said to anyone). Heidi, my younger sister, spent much of her time away from home with new friends who lived down the street and dressed in black, wore smeared eye makeup, and chain-smoked cigarettes. She started listening to bands like Nirvana and Rage Against the Machine. One day she came home with a neat row of razor slits on the insides of her wrists. When Dad drilled her about it, she said, “Shut up. How dare you tell me what to do? You raised us in a cult!” Soon this was our response to our parents’ every feeble attempt to manage us, or perhaps step into their role as parents for the first time. In the cult, we were constantly watched by other people we called our “shepherds.” Now, for the first time, we were trying to be a family.

* * *

Halfway down the hill that led to the main road, Tamar lit up a bowl of pot. Even before discovering the quiz, we older kids had known something was off, and to cope we had taken to drinking alcohol, smoking pot, and hanging out with friends who took drugs we had never heard of.

School became our haven from the confusing realities of home, and every day after school Tamar and I made it a point to stay out for as long as we could.

After second period class, Tamar and I noticed a Thai girl named Diana. We eagerly made friends and let her know right away that we had grown up in Thailand. It was the only common ground we had and we wanted desperately to make a normal friend. However, we hadn’t had a conversation to decide what we would say if someone asked us about our past.

“So, why’d you guys grow up in Thailand?” Diana asked when we met up for lunch.

“Our dad was an English teacher,” Tamar said triumphantly, like she actually meant it.

“So, what does your dad do for a living now?” Diana asked.

Tamar looked at me. We both looked down at the concrete. There was an awkward silence, then a gurgle from Tamar’s throat.

“Well, our dad was an English teacher in Thailand,” she said. Sometimes we told people he was in the military. Both were half-truths since some of the adults in the cult did take up English- teaching jobs at military base camps to obtain visas and make some extra cash.

“Yeah, but what does he do now?” Diana persisted. Tamar’s face turned red. I felt my cheeks flush. I decided to keep quiet.

“Um, I don’t know,” Tamar said. “I’ll have to ask him.”

Diana gave us a long, hard look. She never met us for lunch after that.

I couldn’t acknowledge where I had come from or accept the fact that this moment was all there was. Growing up in the Children of God, an apocalyptic cult, I had been told that I was chosen, that the end was near, but now there was no end in sight – no utopia, no heaven to look forward to. And in this new life in California, I was far from chosen or special; I was an outcast. I didn’t fit in anywhere, and I needed nothing more than to be normal and cool.

America had held the promise of “cool” and glamour, of acceptance and happiness. But now, that too seemed to be slipping away. To cope with the this new “normal” that I so desperately wanted to escape, I’d get as drunk as I possibly could and turn my mind into a spinning cycle of forgetfulness, a carefree void.

I would sometimes come home from school drunk, shouting at Mom and Dad, “You raised us in a cult! How could you? I hate you! How dare you! I should’ve never been born! You should’ve never had any of us!” My parents responded with a reminder of how difficult life was for them now with Mom’s cancer treatment, Dad starting school from scratch, and limited financial income. Their response always made me feel guilty.

I played a game with myself in which I attempted to see how much I could drink and still maintain my sanity, even when the world around me started to spin. Since I had control over nothing else in my life growing up in a cult, at least I could control my wild drinking.

Drunken rages at Rowland Heights Park, located down the street from our high school, became an after-school routine. One day we were there with our new best friend Crayola, a wild girl who dressed in bright colors and pulled us into the girls’ room at school to share the bottles of liquor she always carried in the metal lunchbox that looked like a box of crayons (hence the name). Her boyfriend Thomas, who was older and hadn’t graduated because he had been expelled for being drunk on campus, was there, and the rest of their circle of friends. These kids skated in places they weren’t supposed to skate and tagged graffiti on the sides of freeway overpasses. Thomas retrieved a bottle of vodka from his backpack. We drank it straight. It felt like fire down my throat and made my ears burn. We drank it like it was medicine that would erase our childhood wounds with each desperate sip. We were walking away from the park when Thomas, drunk as usual, mentioned that he would have kissed me if he weren’t with Crayola. Hearing this, Crayola approached me from behind and hit me on the head with her lunch box. I fell to the ground, partly from the vodka, and she started yanking my hair by its roots, shouting, “You fucking bitch!”

Since she was much smaller than me, I pulled myself out of her grasp. Tamar and I walked home together, crying, to the sound of Crayola still yelling.

* * *

Everything was spinning when I got home. I felt like a failure. Triggered by the fight with Crayola and distraught over my family whom I could tell was far from normal, I recalled the stories of other kids who couldn’t cope after leaving the Children of God and attempted to take their own lives. I decided to look for a way to end it all.

I searched the house for anything that could cause death by ingestion – bleach, pills, a combination of cleaning products. I wanted it to be quick and painless, but I didn’t want to mangle my body. I found a nearly full bottle of aspirin in Mom’s cupboard. I decided that, on top of all the vodka I had drunk, it would do the trick nicely. I grabbed a piece of paper and a pen and headed off to my favorite hideout, tucked on a hill behind a farmhouse. There, before taking the pills, I found a sort of peace.

I had grown up in a world where I was prohibited from making decisions. But if there’s one freedom we have as humans, it’s the will to live or die. I recalled a scene from the 1993 version of “The Three Musketeers,” one of the first movies we watched after moving to the U.S. Milady de Winter is sentenced to beheading for treason. Moments before her execution, clad in a flowing white gown, she jumps off a rocky cliff to her death in the ocean below.

In the Children of God, we never talked about suicide, but the “End” was always on the horizon. When you’ve lived a life where death is an arm’s reach away, the prospect is enticing and feasible. Because I had thought of heaven so much as a child, I’d always felt connected to the afterlife in a way most people weren’t, almost like I belonged there instead of here. It wasn’t a way out; it was a way in. Life – even in all its magic and beauty – is a slow journey to death, so why not end it now? Why not meet the “light”?

Before heading to the hill, I had written Mom and Dad a suicide note. It said I was unable to handle the world. I was sorry and I loved them and would miss them. And I loved and would miss Tamar. I would miss her the most. But I didn’t want them to miss me. I would be fine. And Tamar would be fine. Death is just a journey and one that I’d prepared for my whole life.

I swallowed the pills in handfuls until the bottle was almost empty. I took the last pills one by one.

Once the sun had set I stumbled to my room and went to bed expecting, like I did most nights as a child, that I wouldn’t wake up. I prayed I would die in my sleep, painlessly, my body still intact.

I was awake all night, throwing up a poisonous combination of vodka and remnants of over-the-counter painkillers. Every time I looked at myself in the mirror, I couldn’t bear what I saw. How could I live with myself?

Tamar came into the bathroom, and I told her what I had done. She hugged me and said she sometimes thought about ending her life too.

I mustered up my best outfit, walked onto the school campus, and held my head high. As I headed to first-period science class, I resolved I was going to have to keep looking up. I was going to have to find a way – any way – to keep hope alive. Because if death doesn’t accept you when you knock at its door, I sure as hell didn’t know what would.

In class my stomach ached from the overdose of pills and my throat burned from the rancid taste of bile and vodka. But I couldn’t stop thinking, Why am I alive? Why am I here? A new life I never owned was slipping away from me, fading into an abyss. Even in my darkest hour, death wouldn’t take me. Now where was I to turn?

Mom and Dad found my suicide note and took me to lunch at Subway to talk about it. I had never been out alone with just my parents. There’s an embarrassment that comes with a failed attempt at suicide, and there’s no real way to explain it to anyone, much less to the people who gave you life. The day was grey and overcast.

“So, do you want to talk?” Dad said, unwrapping his sub. Dad looked different now. He wore khakis and a collared shirt. His appearance was more professional than in the cult when he and all the adult men mostly wore t-shirts and shorts as Father David ordered them not to be “worldly.” I sat across from them with my arms folded across my chest and didn’t say a word. I didn’t know how to address the topic with my parents.

“Flor, you know we love you, don’t you?” Mom said. She put her hand on mine. Her skin was rough and her fingers wrinkled. “We would never do anything to hurt you or any of your brothers and sisters,” she said.

“I know,” I said. I looked down at the pile of chips I had dumped on my napkin, but I wasn’t hungry. I knew it was much more complicated than love.

“And we tried our best,” Mom said. “We raised you the best way we knew how.”

“I know you did,” I said. “I know you love us. It’s just…” I looked away and felt hot tears welling up. I blinked them back and wiped my face with the cuff of my jacket. They would never understand.

“Is Tamar okay?” Mom asked. “Tamar’s fine,” I said. I didn’t want to talk about it anymore. They never asked why I did it or addressed the suicide question directly, and as hard as I tried I couldn’t find the words to tell them. Nor did I bring up the topic of the Children of God. They would never understand the connection, if indeed there was one. It was an awkward lunch with lots of silence and unexplained tears over a dry tuna salad sandwich.

My parents were adults when they made the decision to join the Children of God. It had been their choice to bring their kids into the fold. But as the cult progressed and changed, the adults – not just the children – were abandoned and cheated and manipulated and lied to. Maybe my parents never wanted to be in a cult. Maybe, like me, they just couldn’t get out. They would never understand my experience, I reasoned. They were still figuring out theirs, and it would be years before I could begin to take control of my life and make sense of my own.

This story was adapted from Flor Edwards’s new book “Apocalypse Child: A Life in End Times” from Turner Publishing, © 2018.

If you liked this piece, check out Flor’s first Narratively contribution, “My Childhood in an Apocalyptic Cult,” voted the site’s best story from our first 200 weeks by our editors. 

I’m a Fifty-Year-Old Mom. I Just Had Sex in the Back Seat of a Car.

Sometimes acting like a teenage rebel is the only way to feel in control.

On a hot and humid night last June, I steered my car over twisting country roads toward a small lakeside town for a romantic rendezvous. I had spent the day at a funeral, reflecting on the fact that at fifty, I had more miles behind me than ahead. Oddly, my paramour had also spent the day at a funeral, and as the summer sun disappeared we made plans to meet halfway between our towns for a drink.

It was nearly eleven when I turned my car onto Main Street, and James was growing impatient. We were speaking on the phone when I caught a glimpse of him. Strikingly handsome, he looked at least a decade younger than his 61 years. Running and doing chores on his rural property kept his body lean and muscular, and his face betrayed few traces of the anguish I knew lay in his heart.

James met me at my car, and as we walked toward the restaurant he put his arm around me. I felt a shudder of excitement run down my spine and I pushed in closer to feel his body. When we sat at the bar he swiveled his chair, pushed his knees against mine, and leaned in close to talk. Our faces were pressed within whispering distance and I inhaled his scent. The drinks we ordered were superfluous; this was all a graceful dance of foreplay.

The bar was teeming with a coarse-looking crowd of men and women who had deeply lined faces and leather jackets. The fact that we were completely out of place only heightened our excitement. We huddled and made witty comments about the antics of other patrons, parting only to fling our heads back in hysterics. We sat at the bar laughing and kissing, and before long James ran his hand up my leg and under my skirt. On previous dates he had teased me about being a Puritan in public, but X-rated in private, but that night I made no attempt to be discreet.

It felt mischievous to be strangers in a raucous tavern far from home in the middle of the night. We reveled in escaping the constricting bonds of our everyday lives – him a lawyer, me a divorced single mother. Our behavior was an unspoken act of defiance against the taunt of age, and the gloom of funerals that had become a common part of our lives.

Outside the restaurant James kissed me deeply and with a new fervency. We were passionately entangled while patrons passed by, and I whispered that we needed to go somewhere private. James began walking me to my car, and I assumed I would follow him to the adjacent hotel, or to his house an hour away.

When we got to my car he told me to get in the back seat. I refused, saying that my kids had left a mess in my car. James took my hand and led me across the lot to his immaculately clean Mercedes.

“Get in,” he said again.

“I’m not having sex with you in a car,” I replied laughing, while thinking of how improper it would be for a middle-aged mother to do so.

“Just get in,” he repeated, smiling mischievously as he opened the rear door.

There was no point in arguing; I knew I’d get in, so I slid onto the back seat. James was right behind, and before I heard the click of the door closing he was kissing me. It was futile to fight the longing we had been feeling for the past hours. Soon, all thoughts of motherhood and what was proper disappeared. We had been together many times before, but that night we devoured each other.

“I can’t believe I just had sex in a car in a public parking lot,” I said afterward, as I searched for my bra in the front seat.

“It was exciting, like in high school,” James replied, looking flushed and exhilarated.

As I drove home in the wee hours of the morning I felt furtive pride that James and I had taken a rebellious stand against the inevitability of age, and society’s expectation that we go gently into the night. In the days and weeks that followed we frequently reminisced about our romp in the car, and how it brought us back to our adolescence; a time of freedom and endless promise, a time before responsibilities and painful regrets.

The Day My Therapist Dared Me to Have Sex With Her

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

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

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

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

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

“Oh, yeah,” I say. “That.”

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

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

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

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

I shrugged my shoulders, only half looking up.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Nailed it.

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

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

* * *

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Why not?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

There were two ways to find out:

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

2) Keep going to therapy.

* * *

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

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

“I don’t know.”

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

Here we go again.

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

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

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

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

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

“What?” I respond, flustered.

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

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

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

“Of course not.”

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

“I wouldn’t do that.”

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

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

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

* * *

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Isn’t therapy supposed to ameliorate my anxiety?

* * *

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

* * *

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Lori’s great at forcing me to reflect.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

* * *

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

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

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

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

* * *

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

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

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

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

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

* * *

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

* * *

“What’s your favorite porn scene?”

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

The possibilities run through my head.

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

They’re also lies.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Are you sure?”

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

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

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

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

“Go on.”

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

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

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

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

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

And so I tell him.

* * *

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

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

And then realizing that person is me.

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

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

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

I was out of control.

* * *

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

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

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

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

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

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

* * *

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

That’s why I need to tell my husband.

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

Want to know more? Check out our behind-the-scenes interview with Erica Garza on Continuing the Narrative.

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