A middle-class interloper spends an evening hobnobbing with billionaire philanthropists and B-list royalty at a benefit for an opulent European palace.
In the spring of 2011, my wife and I were invited to attend a fundraiser for a well-known European castle. We hadn’t donated any money to the group ourselves—we didn’t even know that castles had fundraisers. But a well to do colleague had given some money—a lot of money, really—and he was unable to attend this very intimate dinner for the big donors. So he sent us in his place. The benefit was attended by only about 25 people, among them various aristocrats, patrons of the arts, billionaires and us: a middle class couple from suburban New Jersey. It was, for lack of a better term, bananas.
Matthew Petrillo, who edited this piece, is a Philly-raised, NYC-based multimedia and radio journalist. He contributes to Free Speech Radio News, among other outlets.
Michael Schreiber is the Editor-in-Chief of Credit.com. He produces and develops television shows, and has worked on documentaries for Frontline, HBO, ABC News and others.
Noah Rosenberg, who interviewed and recorded Michael Schreiber for this piece, is Narratively’s founder, CEO and editor-in-chief. He is a regular contributor to The New York Times, and his writing, photography and documentary film work has also been published by The Wall Street Journal, GQ and New York magazine, among other outlets.
Larry Buchanan is a freelance illustrator, designer and journalist who lives in Brooklyn. He’s done work for ESPN, The Onion, ADWEEK and others.
Albert Okura lives and breathes the legend of Ray Kroc – he even bought the first McDonald’s location – and he won’t stop until his own franchise is a household name.
Albert Okura’s wardrobe seems to consist exclusively of polo shirts with the name of his fast food chain, Juan Pollo, embroidered over his heart. The shirt and a pair of sunglasses are his uniform. Okura, 65, wears a black version of the polo in photos posted to the Juan Pollo website; he sports a striped one for a photo in The San Bernardino Sun while holding a rotisserie spit stacked tight with whole chickens;another while standing in front of the dusty McDonald’s museum he opened in downtown San Bernardino, California.
Less than three miles from the museum, one of Okura’s Juan Pollo chicken restaurants is set on a dusty four-lane road with few trees, kitty-corner from one of San Bernardino’s many pawn shops. Though West Fifth Street was once part of historic Route 66, not much about it looks pull-off-the-road-and-read-a-plaque-worthy today. In July, the one-hundred-plus-degree days let off so much heat here that it looks like you’re driving into a mirage. Yet Okura has tried to turn this restaurant, the second location in a chain of more than two dozen, into a tourist destination of sorts. If Okura gets his way, someday people might visit the McDonald’s museum, then pop over to see the place where the grand chicken empire of Juan Pollo began.
Juan Pollo has all the hallmarks of a kitschy local chain. There are framed newspaper cutouts from the three decades Okura’s been in business, photos of Okura smiling with generations of Miss Juan Pollos in bikinis, heels and tight dresses, and Polaroids of guests with their testimonials written in Sharpie. (“I eat here all the time. I should be ½ owner,” reads one.) The tables are brightly painted with murals of a pastoral countryside. It’s the kind of roadside spot that travelers are tempted to stop at simply to see how a place so thoroughly un-Instagramable could have stayed in business for so long.
The secret is all in the chicken.
These birds aren’t fried or covered in batter. Each one is mopped with marinade then slow-cooked in a rotisserie for three hours. It was a process of trial and error to get the Juan Pollo recipe just right, after Okura’s brother-in-law Armando Parra took him to Mexico to taste chicken the way it is done south of the border.
Okura wasn’t a chef or a businessman before opening the first restaurant in 1984. He admits that he didn’t even like chicken growing up. But he has always loved fast food.
In 1961, ten-year-old Okura, who grew up in Wilmington, California, delivered the San Pedro News Pilot from his bicycle for a dollar a day and then rode to the best fast food restaurants, sometimes two or three miles away, where hamburgers were 29 cents each. Soon a McDonald’s opened up nearby. Their burgers were an unheard-of fifteen cents, and their marvelous golden fries cost only a dime. It was a pivotal point for young Okura. He says that he “ate every hamburger that ever was.” The fast food industry was exploding in Southern California and he was on the frontline. He drank it all in like a milkshake.
During college, he went to work for Burger King and stayed for eight years. Then he switched to Del Taco where he was a manager and training supervisor for three years.
It’s difficult to look at San Bernardino today and imagine it as a thriving city, much less the birthplace of modern, assembly-line style, fast-food franchising. In the 2010 census, it ranked as the second poorest large city in the nation – coming in behind only Detroit. Roughly 35 percent of residents live below the poverty line and crime rates are high.
But Okura has tied his destiny – and, in many ways, Juan Pollo’s – to the city that birthed the most famous fast food chain in history.
* * *
Before the global branding and the Happy Meal toys, before the franchise and before the Fish Filet, Dick and Mac McDonald built their “Speedee Service System” of fast food into a national phenomenon. Their first restaurant was a barbecue spot with the carhops and window-side service typical of fast food in the 1940s. But the brothers realized two things: most of their sales came from hamburgers, and the carhops attracted too much flirting and lingering. In 1948, they overhauled their entire business. American Restaurant Magazine put the McDonald brothers on their cover four years later with an article titled, “Twelve x Sixteen Foot Restaurant Space Sells One-Million Hamburgers and 160 Tons of French Fries a Year.”
Meanwhile, before Ray Kroc ever got out of his car in San Bernardino in 1954, he had spent seventeen years as a paper cup salesman and worked at sometimes seedy establishments as a piano player before acquiring rights to sell a six-spindled milkshake maker called the Multimixer. This product would lead Kroc on the path that changed his life.
“Danny Dreamer” was Kroc’s nickname as a child. He was always up in his head thinking, scheming about a new project. “I never considered my dreams wasted energy; they were invariably linked to some form of action,” Kroc wrote in his business memoir Grinding It Out. When he thought about a lemonade stand, it wasn’t long before he was running a successful one. He dreamed about starting a music store with his friends and opened one – though it didn’t do well. Dreams were part of Kroc’s DNA and, according to at least one prophetic phrenologist, food was too. In 1906, Kroc’s father took him to a man who read the bumps on young Ray’s head. The man predicted Kroc would one day become a chef or work in food service. McDonald’s was Kroc’s destiny through and through.
The day Kroc first visited the McDonald brothers’ restaurant in San Bernardino, he signed a contract that allowed him to franchise new locations throughout the United States. He’d charge each new franchise $950 per store and they’d pay 1.9 percent of profits as a service fee. Of this, 0.5 percent went to the McDonald brothers, the rest to Kroc.
* * *
Thirty years later, Okura, who had no entrepreneurial experience, opened the first Juan Pollo with help from his brother-in-law and an uncle by marriage, who owned a property in Ontario, California, one county over from Los Angeles.
Since Okura could no longer live with his parents and commute to the new restaurant, he purchased a small one-room trailer, which he set up in the parking lot behind Juan Pollo, and moved in. A few times a week, he was woken up at seven a.m. by the chicken delivery truck. After working until nearly midnight at the restaurant, Okura had to get out of the trailer to unload the truck and hoist box after box filled with whole chickens into the walk-in cooler. It was not glamorous work, but day after day Okura kept loading, marinating and cooking chickens. “When things start falling apart, I focus on chicken,” Okura says of his business strategy. Who cares about sides or bigger soda portions if the meat is dry, tough, greasy, or somehow all three? Other companies focus on margins and cost cutting. For me, it’s all about chicken.”
Okura had been running the first Juan Pollo in Ontario for a few years when the opportunity came up to open a restaurant in San Bernardino. The location had housed three unsuccessful chicken restaurants, giving Okura a rare chance to get a fully operational, permitted store for only $2,200, as well as a “real cheap lease.” It was in a low-income area and locals were mistrustful of outsiders. On the jacket of his book, The Chicken Man with the 50-Year Plan, Okura is wearing his trademark pair of sunglasses, which he says helps to hide the fact that he’s a Japanese-American running a chicken chain called “Juan Pollo.”
Seven months after it opened in 1986, sales were still mediocre when a food critic from the San Bernardino Sun happened to wander into Juan Pollo. There were no other customers. Looking around, writer Norman Baffrey wasn’t expecting much. But the chicken was heavenly. Baffrey returned the next day, just in case what he’d tasted had been a fluke. It wasn’t.
Though Baffrey didn’t usually review fast food chains, he made an exception for Juan Pollo, which he described as “the juiciest, tenderest, most succulent chicken I have ever eaten…Haven’t you always wished the rest of the chicken tasted as good as the first bite? Well, this one does.” Baffrey warned Okura to get ready for a surge of customers on August 3, 1986 when the article came out. That day they had waits of up to two hours and completely sold out of chicken by seven p.m. Their monthly sales doubled. Everything was falling into place.
Okura got to planning.
In 1993, he wrote out a fifty-year plan in decade-long increments. By 2050, he decreed, he would become the “#1 seller of chicken in the world.”
* * *
Back in the 1950s, Ray Kroc wasn’t the only one trying to franchise fast food. Burger King, A&W, Kentucky Fried Chicken, Dairy Queen, and many others had already started spreading their operations throughout the United States. But there was one thing that set McDonald’s apart: rather than cashing in quickly by giving a franchise to anyone who asked, Kroc demanded commitment, control and quality from his franchisees. These policies worked well for his franchisees, but left Kroc struggling. Many stores were making $200,000 or more in sales. Kroc was leveraged with debt he’d taken on to provide hands-on service to his new franchisees. As John Love wrote in Behind the Arches, a history of McDonald’s, “Everyone was making money on McDonald’s except Ray Kroc’s company.”
Kroc’s resentment against the McDonald brothers began to grow. He found his contract stifling. But when Kroc asked them what price it would take to hand the full rights to McDonald’s over to him, the brothers’ answer was staggering: $2.7 million dollars, in cash – and the San Bernardino store with its annual profits of $100,000 wouldn’t be part of the deal. The McDonald brothers planned to give it to two of their longtime employees.
Kroc was furious. “I was so mad I wanted to throw a vase through the window. I hated their guts,” he recalled. While Kroc’s fledgling company managed to find investors willing to lend them the $2.7 million, Kroc didn’t forget this anger. The man now known as the founder of McDonald’s was happy to move through the world on handshake agreements, trust and a good feeling about someone’s potential, yet he was slow to forget what he perceived to be a betrayal. Kroc had given years of his life to the brothers and time and time again, he believed, they’d mistrusted and mistreated him.
Well, Kroc wasn’t above taking revenge.
The brothers may not have even cashed their checks before Kroc was on a plane to Los Angeles, driving from the airport to San Bernardino, and buying up property just a block away from the brothers’ famous store. He started construction on a new McDonald’s – soon to be the only one in town since the brothers had sold the rights to their own name. They had to take down their sign and rename the drive-in “The Big M.”
After five years of this competition, the drive-in that had once sold $400,000 a year in fifteen-cent hamburgers and ten-cent fries couldn’t even break $100,000 in sales. In 1968, the longtime employees sold it to a fast food chain specializing in hamburgers and tacos. That soon failed too. Meanwhile, the McDonald’s chain was booming. Had they not sold their stake, by the end of the 1970s Kroc would have been paying the brothers over $15 million a year for their 0.5-percent stake in franchise sales.
Residents of San Bernardino had more important things to worry about than maintaining their fast food legacy. Major employers like the steel plant and Norton Air Force Base closed. Downtown businesses shuttered. Federal and state courts moved to nearby Riverside, taking local law offices with them. The economy went into a drastic decline.
The McDonald brothers’ iconic building was bulldozed in the 1970s and turned into a music store. It too went out of business, and in 1998, the lot was in foreclosure when Albert Okura saw an article about it in the local paper.
* * *
Like any fast food empire hopeful, Okura knew the legend of Ray Kroc. When Behind the Golden Arches was published in 1986 he learned the famed chain had started a little more than two miles from his San Bernardino location. In The Chicken Man, Okura spends a chapter discussing the lessons he learned from the McDonald’s story. “Ray refused to take well-meaning advice from those in the restaurant business because he realized that they could only take him as far as they have been,” Okura wrote. He mentions that Kroc invested in people, promoted from within, and was a “visionary who saw the potential of McDonald’s.”
Okura knows that it was fate that pushed him to purchase a Sunday newspaper that weekend in 1998. The article reported that the lot, building and dregs of history were all for sale for the low price of $135,000. Okura was in escrow the next day. “I didn’t know what I was going to do with it,” he says. “I knew you couldn’t put a restaurant there, but I was based in San Bernardino and thought I’d turn it into the Juan Pollo office.”
When he closed on the building, local radio stations and newspapers jumped to cover the story. “I just kept talking and talking when people came to interview me,” Okura says. “The more you talk, the more they write.” Almost as an afterthought he adds, “I try not to be boring. Nobody wants that.” In the midst of all this talk, he mentioned that he was thinking about turning the building into a McDonald’s museum. The idea stuck.
Okura started buying old Happy Meal toys to fill the museum with and opened it on December 12, 1998 – the fiftieth anniversary of the original McDonald’s drive-in. One of his longtime employees, Jack Marcus, was quickly convinced to become a tour guide and curator for the museum. “Everything was fresh and new and we were just trying to figure out how to make everything work,” Marcus says. “Albert had all these ideas and I just followed his lead.”
Marcus has tracked down objects from the McDonald brothers’ original store. Through old photos, the local library, and some strategic phone calls, Marcus even found some carhops from the days before the McDonald brothers developed their Speedee Service System, back when they still sold barbecue and their female carhops wore uniforms that made them look like band majorettes. One day a woman in a wheelchair came in and told Marcus she had something for him. “It was an authentic straw from the barbeque era,” he says. Another elderly woman brought an unmarked old mug that she said she stole from the carhop when she was in high school. “I took this home with me but it belongs to the brothers,” she told Marcus.
The walls of the McDonald’s museum are filled with scrawled, cursive memories from employees and visitors of the original McDonald’s. The museum itself is covered in a mural depicting San Bernardino – past and present. Of course, Juan Pollo gets a mention, but no major signs announce, “Juan Pollo owns this.” Okura explains that people appreciate when branding stays in the background. “They’re not going to the museum for Juan Pollo; they’re going for McDonald’s. But every article that’s written about the McDonald’s museum has to include Juan Pollo because it’s part of the story.” He pauses, then adds, “Everything is working out the way it should work out.”
“To grow big, especially with social media, you need a backstory,” Okura says. Okura’s story is that of a nobody who simply followed opportunities as they presented themselves, worked hard, and built a reputation over thirty years. He’s worked every holiday and personally cooked over one million rotisserie chickens. “If I’m around Juan Pollo, people come in and want to shake my hand. They think more of me than I really am most of the time.”
It’s hard to say whether it’s Okura’s destiny to achieve world domination with his chicken. While McDonald’s quickly started adding one hundred stores a year once Kroc took over, the newest Juan Pollo opened up three years ago. In 2011, there were 32 Juan Pollo locations. Today there are 25. Of course, the fast food landscape is different now. Chains that do well are often the sustainability and health-conscious brands. Most doctors may still believe chicken is better for you than red meat but Juan Pollo’s food is comforting; it’s not something women would eat after a Pilates class.
But Albert Okura doesn’t care who believes in his destiny. He lives by a simple philosophy: “If it’s something you want, it’s true. Believe it.”
More Americans are dying behind bars than ever before. At one correctional facility, volunteer death-doulas offer care and comfort to their fellow prisoners.
It’s six p.m. on a summer Wednesday, and Billy Canady Jr., 47, is beginning his shift as a hospice volunteer. His patient, Carl Stevens, is dying of cancer. A mermaid looks down on the bed where Stevens is sleeping, part of an ocean-themed mural that sports his sentimental touch: photos of Stevens’ children and grandchildren by the bed. Canady taps the elderly man lightly on his shoulder to let him know he’s there.
“He just looked up, and it’s like you get this sense that he knows he’s safe,” says Canady, who is fourteen years into an eighteen-year sentence. It’s looks like this that make his volunteer work worth it, he says.
Canady has been looking after Stevens (whose name has been changed here because he did not agree to be interviewed for this piece) for a little over two weeks. At this point, caring for him means sitting by the bed to keep him company because Stevens is still largely self-sufficient. They have a few things in common: both love German shepherds and value family. And, most importantly, both are inmates at Osborn Correctional Institution, a medium-security prison in northern Connecticut.
The mantra of hospice is “death with dignity.” It is a comfort-oriented approach to death in which quality of life is deemed as important as the number of days the patient has left. Pain management is a priority, and unlike the sterile anonymity of a hospital, hospice patients die at home or in a place that feels like home, surrounded by family. Hospice care is meant to address not just the physical needs of the dying, but their mental and emotional needs as well.
Osborn’s hospice may not be as cozy as a living room, but it is a definite step up from a cell or the general medical ward down the hall. Many inmates don’t have family who are willing or able to spend their last weeks, or days, with them. So in addition to medical duties, the inmate volunteers serve as a stand-in family.
Osborn is among a relatively small number of U.S. prisons that have a hospice program. The most recent count, conducted ten years ago, found only 65 out of 1,800 correctional facilities had hospice programs. Able-bodied inmates play a key role in the prison model of hospice: They volunteer as part-time companions to the patients, and part-time assistants to staff nurses. They spend time talking with their patients, reading to them, and just being there for them. And if the patients need help, the volunteers feed, bathe, and take them to the bathroom.
There is no shortage of elderly inmates in need of hospice care, largely thanks to bloated sentences during the “tough-on-crime” ’80s and ’90s. In fact, they make up the fastest growing population in prisons today: In 2014, the most recent year for which data is available, the highest number of inmates on record died behind bars, with about 3,500 in state prison and about 450 in federal. Inmate volunteers provide free labor and save the prisons money, but proponents of prison hospice say that its greatest benefits are social rather than economic. For the patients, hospice offers them the prospect of a more humane death by allowing them to spend their final days with round-the-clock care by peers. And for the workers, the experience of caretaking can be profound. Plus, academics who study this type of program say that this goodwill is spread beyond prison medical wards.
After an inmate embraces the role of caretaker for his patients, “then it becomes more about their relationship to other people … their community,” says Kristin Cloyes, a professor of nursing at the University of Utah who has studied the prison hospice program at the maximum-security Louisiana State Penitentiary, also known as Angola. “They’ve actually transformed the culture,” she says. Cloyes speculates that the hospice program at Angola was a key factor in the dramatic decline in violence Angola has seen in the past three decades.
Jamey Boudreaux, executive director for the non-profit Louisiana and Mississippi Hospice and Palliative Care Organization (LMHPCO), has been visiting Angola to observe the hospice program since its early days in the late ’90s. He also recognized the cultural shift Cloyes cited. The hospice program created a “new emphasis on dignity of one person — no one dies alone,” he says. “The administration saw that when you start respecting human dignity, the violence dropped.”
Since the program started at Osborn ten years ago, the hospice has seen 37 patients. (This doesn’t represent all of the inmates who have died here over those years, as some chose to die in the medical ward alone or with a staff nurse, explained Colette Morin, a nurse at Osborn and the coordinator of the hospice program. Others are hesitant about signing the “Do Not Resuscitate” order — only offered when a patient is entering their last six months of life — required to enter hospice care. This is a barrier to some inmates, Morin says, who think, “If I’m signing into this program, I’m signing up to die.”)
Canady is one of twenty inmates currently trained to be an inmate volunteer. Over the past six years, he has guided fifteen patients to a peaceful death.
Morin describes the 45-hour hospice training, which covers practical skills as well as emotional, as a process that allows guarded men to break out of their hardened shells. It is important that trainees learn to be more in tune with their own emotions, so that they can be present for their patients. An early assignment is to write a letter of apology to their victims and read it to the group.
“The transformation, I feel, starts there, but it carries on to the rest of their life in prison,” Morin says.
But the intimate interaction — clothing, bathing, assisting in the bathroom, and so on — between inmates in hospice goes against standard prison code and concerns some correctional administrators, according to a 2002 survey of fourteen state and federal prison officials carried out by the GRACE Project, a now-defunct effort to increase the understanding of prison end-of-life programs. Putting able-bodied inmates in charge of weak ones also raised eyebrows because of the potential for victimization. It is concerns like this, perhaps, that explain why prison hospice is not more widespread.
At Osborn, staff is very selective about who they allow to be in the program. One of the longest serving volunteers at Osborn was put on probation, Morin says, because of a contraband infraction — unauthorized sneakers.
Canady was first introduced to hospice work while on temporary leave from prison to visit his dying grandmother in 2010. Hospice workers were caring for her at that point, and he was moved by their efforts. When he returned to Osborn, he decided to give the prison’s hospice program a try.
Alongside Narcotics Anonymous, which helped him kick his addiction to crack cocaine, Canady counts hospice work as among the most rehabilitative experiences that he has had in prison. “I can just be me, and be proud of the person who I am, the person who my mother and father wanted me to be,” he says.
Canady’s father, Billy Sr., is a Vietnam veteran and a retired school aide. His mother, Belva, worked on the production floor at a local factory in Waterbury, Connecticut, an industrial town about an hour and a half south of Osborn, making small screws. Of their three sons and one foster daughter, Billy Jr. is the only one who has been incarcerated. The parents describe Canady as a happy-go-lucky kid who fell in with the wrong crowd.
“Everyone out here speaks highly of him,” Billy Sr. says, “They’re surprised that he’s still incarcerated.”
Canady describes his wrongdoings as a spiral of addiction, and stealing to fuel his addiction, starting when he was in high school. Things got out of control, he says, when at 22, his best friend died after a fight with an armed neighbor. “I heard two shots,” he says, and “72 minutes later he died.” At that point, he says, he just stopped caring.
His addiction took hold of his life. He stole from his parents, and eventually — armed with a gun and knife, which he brandished but never used, he says — from a local gas station and two cab drivers. It was those robberies that landed him where he is today.
“Like they say in recovery, when you get desperate, you’ll go to extremes to get what you want,” he says.
Under different circumstances Canady doesn’t think he and Stevens would have crossed paths. Stevens was a journalist who lived in a rich part of Hartford, whereas Canady grew up in industrial Waterbury, and was “running the streets,” in his words, at a young age. Yet there he was, sitting by the man’s bed during his most vulnerable hours, caring for him as he neared the end of his life. Canady loved listening to Stevens’ travel stories — he visited New Mexico each year to meet his best friend, a place Canady had only seen pictures of — and never grew tired of hearing about his children and grandchildren.
Their transgressions brought them to Osborn, and hospice bound them together. About a month after Stevens entered hospice at the age of 73, dementia started to kick in. One afternoon, a staff nurse found him wandering the hallway talking to his daughter, who wasn’t there. She called Canady.
When he sat down by the bed, Stevens told him that he “finally made it to the office,” but became riled by an imagined deadline. Canady, playing the sympathetic editor, reassured him: “We’ve got plenty of time to get this done.”
Eleven days later, Canady packed Stevens’ bag, and helped him shower and change into a state-issued outfit for release: elastic-waist denim pants and a grey sweatshirt. He is only Canady’s second patient to have been granted medical parole.
“I told him he was going home,” Canady says. “I held his hand and told him how much I love him, and God bless him and stuff like that. I thanked him for allowing me to work with him and sit with him. He smiled and he squeezed my hand to let me know that he heard me.”
Stevens died a few days later. Reflecting on their relationship, Canady says: “He told me I was a good person. You don’t get that too much in here.”
This fall, Canady started his bachelor’s degree in human services at Osborn through a federally funded Pell Grant program. He’d like to do some sort of social service work when he’s released in four years, and wants to continue being a hospice volunteer. He realizes that his options will be limited because of his criminal record — most places are very careful with who they allow to work with elderly patients. But, he says, “I definitely want to stay connected however I can.”
* * *
“What we thought was interesting was that [becoming an inmate volunteer] went beyond personal transformation,” says Cloyes, who co-wrote a series of studies on the program at Angola. According to Cloyes and her co-authors, the work of caretaking creates a set of shared values among volunteers, a social contract that is distinct from mainstream prison cultural norms: ‘“real men’ who want to care for others and elevate themselves, their prison family, and the community,” the authors write in a recent article. These shared values create a culture among caretakers, one that is passed on from experienced volunteers to newbies.
Experienced and novice volunteers came together this Valentine’s Day, when roughly forty family members of inmates and a handful of prison administrators gathered in Osborn’s visiting room to celebrate the graduation of eleven new caretakers. They had been selected through a rigorous application process and completed the 45 hours of training. The graduates and a few senior volunteers, all wearing beige prison uniforms, sat on metal chairs with chipped white paint as the guests filed in. Three tables adorned by silver and blue plastic tablecloths lined one side of the room, topped with two large grocery-store-bought sheet cakes, a tub of single serving milks, and a large canister of coffee and Styrofoam cups for the post-ceremony celebration.
Following opening remarks by Morin, and a Christian prayer by a visiting reverend, Canady stepped to the podium to address the crowd. This was the first time he was the senior volunteer speaker. His mother and father sat in the middle of the room. Billy Sr. rested his elbows on the table, clutching his hands. Belva looked at her son intently.
Canady thanked everyone for being there. “Six years ago I decided to do something different with my life in prison,” he said. “I remember my father always used to ask me: ‘When are you going to grow up?’ That’s what I’m doing, I’m doing something I’m proud of,” he said, his voice cracking. Belva, too, wiped away tears. He told the graduating volunteers not to let the stigma that they won’t amount to anything dictate their lives, and to take this as an opportunity to step in that direction, as he did.
“I no longer have to walk these halls like a prisoner,” he says, “I can walk them like a man.”
When a horrifying bacterial infection disfigured my newborn face, my parents abandoned me right there in my hospital bed. The only thing more painful than knowing they left me behind was finding them 38 years later.
Three days after his birth, a perfect baby, the carrier of his young parents’ dreams and ambitions, became what some might call a monster. Like ants on honey, a bacterial infection consumed his face, and as quickly as his face disappeared, so did his mother and father. The newborn that his parents had expected to take home and raise as their cherished son was no longer the child they had the courage to claim.
I was that baby.
Despite their valiant efforts, the doctors, with their arsenal of antibiotics, proved unable to push back the bacteria’s devastating aggression. When it had finally run its course, my nose, lower right eyelid, tear ducts, lips, and palate had been eaten away, leaving behind a gaping hole.
Abandoned by both parents and stripped of any family, I was made a ward of the state of New Jersey, identified for the next eighteen years of my life as case number XUG-905.
Perhaps my parents assumed or even prayed I would not survive. Or perhaps they believed that without a face, I had become something less than human, incapable of loving and being loved. Whatever the basis of their decision, I don’t know anything about it except that I was abandoned.
What I do know of those first years has been reconstructed in the manner of my face — bit by bit, stitch by stitch. I know that with my lips and mouth eaten away, I was unable to nurse so was fed intravenously. And I know, given the scores of operations I endured — ultimately perhaps as many as a hundred — that I was tethered for much of my childhood, my hands tied with strips of cloth to my hospital crib so I couldn’t tear at my bandages and stitches. But most damaging of all, the one person in the world I most wanted to reach out for had long gone.
* * *
The state of New Jersey, no doubt concerned over mounting medical costs and the ill effects I might suffer from long-term institutional living, placed me in a foster home when I was three. The family’s adjustment to having me in their midst must have been daunting; a scarred freak of a child with a stretch of patched-together depressed skin in lieu of a nose, no lower right eyelid or upper lip, a gaping palate, and behavior severely lacking in social skills.
The first time I can recall being part of a family I was sitting on a hardwood staircase and peering down through white banisters at the living room below, fascinated by how different the view was. This was a real house, in Morristown, New Jersey, and my new mom was tying my shoelaces while I looked down at the place I would come to call home. Obediently, I held out each foot in turn as she tugged on my laces and I scanned the puzzling scene.
I was now the Mackeys’ foster child. Big Ed; his wife, Shirl; their daughters Robin and Lisa; and their oldest, Frank, were my new family.
For the most part it was a happy home in the suburbs — a white clapboard, two-story colonial with a large yard, lots of trees, and two cars: Shirl’s blue Valiant and the family car, a wood-paneled station wagon. Ed, who had to commute each day into the city, was ambitious and, knowing he wouldn’t get any unearned breaks, often worked evenings and weekends doing construction. Despite his habitual bitching about how rotten his day had been and his quick temper that could flare like a brush fire, all of us admired him.
Shirl, in an effort to help me make friends, convinced me to join Cub Scouts. That lasted one meeting, when I got booted out for punching a mean Scout who picked the wrong person to bully. Only rarely did I participate in group activities, except for occasions like trick-or-treating when everyone was caught up in the excitement of Halloween and had their attentions elsewhere. Masked, I could be forgiven my freakishness, but the irony was that my own face would have been a far more frightening costume. Still, for one short glorious night I could escape my reality.
* * *
“Howard,” Shirl announced one day, “Dr. Gratz thinks it’s time for you to have another skin graft for your nose — because you’re growing so fast,” she hastily added when she saw my face blanch with terror. I wasn’t one of those kids who love to hear about how tall they are getting, proudly stretching themselves to full height against the doorframe to measure how much they’ve grown. This was not one of those charts.
Calmly she assured me this surgery was necessary and gently broke the news that I would have to be hospitalized for a few days. Crestfallen, I slumped in my chair and stared at the floor, saying nothing. Shirl did her best to convince me that it would all be worth it. I understood full well that a stay in the hospital meant pain, lots of it.
A large nine-by-eight-inch patch of skin was excised from my chest and shoulder, the graft then rolled up and stitched along the seam to create a headless snake of raw, living flesh. One end was then attached under my chin and the other to the tip of my reconstructed nose. This appendage, left to dangle in front of my face for the next six weeks, constantly reminded me of what I had gone through but gave me no idea of where I was going.
With strict orders not to bathe or shower, and allowed only a careful wash in the sink, I gingerly padded to the small bathroom adjoining my hospital room to dutifully wash up. When I looked up and caught a glimpse of myself in the mirror, I froze. Staring back at me was a creature more gruesome than the late-night horror-movie monsters I watched on TV. That the alien in the reflection was me, Howard. It was too much. I felt my blood plummet to my feet and slid helplessly down the wall to the cold tile floor. “Why me? Why me?” I sobbed, over and over. God must hate me. What terrible thing did I do to deserve this? Bone weary when I returned home, I dragged myself into the den and collapsed on my beanbag chair to wait for Robin to come home. There, stuck to the vinyl with sweat and tears and cradled by thousands of beans molded to the shape of my body, I cried myself to sleep.
* * *
By the summer following my freshman year of high school, even Shirl was at her wit’s end. Both she and Ed decided for everyone’s sake it was time I try another foster home. “Howie, you’re not happy. Let’s just see how it goes for a while.”
On a sad June day just weeks before my sixteenth birthday, a state worker picked me up to deliver me to New Jersey, where I was temporarily placed in the home of a German woman, one whose feet were so swollen she could barely navigate her way around the house.
Next was a placement with a nice Jewish family who said blessings in Hebrew before each meal. That lasted a week.
Oddly enough, it was Dr. Gratz who intervened. During an examination he determined it was time for another skin graft. Realizing that I had better use the state’s medical funding while I still could, I went along with it.
When the state found a temporary placement for me close to the Albert Einstein Hospital in the Bronx where my operation was slated, I felt I’d come full circle, back to the very borough where all the pain and loneliness had started. With yet another new face in a long line of state social workers, I drove to my new home where I would stay for the duration of my surgery and recovery.
I became a bit concerned as we drove past abandoned warehouses and graffiti-covered walls, the smell of garbage rotting in the summer heat filling our car. We soon pulled up in front of a block of identical brick row houses. I hadn’t finished knocking when the door opened and Vito and Mary Signorelli stepped out to welcome me. My caseworker, anxious to get out of the neighborhood before the sun went down, hastily departed.
First-generation Italians, my new interim foster parents greeted me enthusiastically. Vito, gray haired and grizzly, appeared not to have shaved for a week and wore his baggy, black-and-white-checkered kitchen pants loosely cinched below his large belly. Over a stained white V-neck T-shirt hung an impressive collection of gold chains that made faint clanking noises whenever he moved. Mary, her black hair thick with ringlets, was short and stout like a tree trunk. On each of her short fingers she wore several inexpensive gold rings, outdoing Vito with his one pinkie ring.
Feeling awkward and out of place, I made my way into the living room. Everything was covered in plastic: the chairs, lamps, sofa — even the carpet was protected with plastic runners. Plaster statues of the Madonna, Jesus, St. Francis, and St. Christopher cluttered the room and decorated the turquoise walls. In the dining room, a velvet tapestry of the Last Supper hung opposite a giant crucifix.
“Anthony, get-a down here!” Jolted from my culture shock by Vito’s bellowing, which made Ed sound like a choirboy, I turned to see a slovenly dressed, overweight boy appear on the stairs. Scarcely bothering to lift his head of long, stringy hair when we were introduced, Anthony struck me as someone lost in his own home. Moving like a sleepwalker, he showed me to my tiny room with a daybed (over which hung another cross) that filled the space. In the time it took for me to throw my bags on the bed, Anthony was gone. All I heard was the door closing behind him, then the sound of rock music pulsating through our common wall.
I returned downstairs to rejoin Vito in the living room. Pensive, his head tilted as he studied my face, he asked, “Howard, you-a Jewish?”
“Yes,” I said, wanting to give him the satisfaction of thinking he had guessed correctly. In reality, I had no idea what my background was and always tried to avoid any such line of questioning.
“That’s-a okay. You-a hungry?”
I nodded, whiffing the tantalizing aroma that filled the house. “Good, Mary make-a lunch for us. I make-a fresh bread.”
* * *
Finally, the day for my surgery arrived. I was sixteen now, and though I understood the progression of each stage, I felt I was repeating the same old story but with a different body part. This would be another serious surgery, and to lower the chance of infection, my stay this time would be two weeks.
Dr. Gratz’s plan was to attach another headless snake of skin to my nose, only this time he’d take a twelve-by-fifteen-inch graft from my left thigh. It would be, I hoped, a stepping-stone toward the final act when the curtain would close on my resentful relationship with Dr. Gratz. After the surgery, I was overjoyed when Ed and Shirl, Robin, Frank and Lisa showed up to visit me. If only for a few hours, I was with my family again and didn’t feel quite so alone in the world. They seemed happy to see me, and their news of home helped ease my homesickness. Even Vito and Mary visited me, bringing me fresh cannoli when I was able to eat solid food again.
Discharged, I returned to the Signorellis, where everyone was taken aback at the sight of my bandages and swelling. It wasn’t a coincidence that they spoke more often in Italian than they had before my surgery. Ordered to stay out of the sun, I spent my entire summer indoors watching Yankee ball games or “Bowling for Dollars” while Vito yelled at the TV as though the contestants were with us in the living room. Attentive to my every need, they did everything in their power to help me.
Mary decided that food was what I needed. “Howard, manga, manga, you need-a strength.” Between her pastas, sausages, and minestrone, I gained back all the weight I had lost and then some. But their insistence that I not lift a finger left me with too much time on my hands. Vito, seeing me depressed and limping around the house with my leg still sore from the graft, tried to cheer me up with Italian ices he bought on the street.
When I returned to Dr. Gratz a few weeks later to have my bandages removed, I felt the old anxiety I always felt in his presence. Tense, I lay back on the rustling paper.
“Howard, relax. I will take this off, yes?”
I nodded, not the least concerned about so simple a procedure. In one fell swoop, he ripped the tape off my leg without even giving me time to scream. My whole body went into shock. In the moment it took my mind to register the pain, I didn’t cry, I screamed. “Fuuuuuuuck!”
Dr. Gratz’s head jerked back like a chicken’s, his eyes bulging like headlights. Furiously I glared at him, seething with contempt at how cavalierly he treated me, as if he were pulling a Band-Aid off a finger. “Howard, Howard, it’s fine, it’s over.”
It wasn’t fine. I looked down at the droplets of blood floating above a sticky yellow pebbling where the skin had been removed from my thigh and thought of the yellow fly strips dotted with insects that hung in my old neighborhood’s backyards. I wanted to jump up and smash his face in, not for what he had done, but for his complete lack of sensitivity. With great effort I resisted the urge, consoling myself with the fact that we would soon part ways.
My stay with the Signorellis was over, and though they had been kind and generous, it was time to move on.
“Howard, you are a wonderful boy!” Mary said as we hugged goodbye. “God bless-a you. I will-a pray for you.”
* * *
One night, some two decades later, after hours of trying to fall asleep, I turned on the TV and mindlessly watched From Here to Eternity. Just as I was drifting off, a commercial roused me: “Find your long lost loved ones! Call now! 1-800-SEARCH.”
Half asleep, I fumbled for the remote and turned up the sound as smiling men, women, and children ran toward each other across the screen. Radiant with joy, they embraced in a meadow of wildflowers, the empty void in their hearts filled. “Call now and find that special someone today!”
I scrambled to find a pen and jotted down the number.
The next morning when I saw the number lying on the coffee table, I sat down and eyed it warily, as if it were some creature that might bite. My mind raced as I stared at it, wondering what I would do. Call? Toss it in the trash? Tuck it away and let it nag at me like a splinter? An unpleasant tightness in my chest made me realize I was holding my breath. Do it!
If only to end the suspense, I picked up the phone and dialed. Casually, I gave the information requested: social security number, place and date of birth, my biological parents’ full names as stated on my birth certificate, and my credit card number for the $50 service. After informing me that I would receive the results by mail within six weeks, the operator wished me luck. In a daze I hung up and began pacing my apartment, pausing every so often to stare blankly out at the city.
I had never intended to track down my birth parents. Apart from desperate times in childhood when I had ached for my birth mother, I had mentally banished her and my father from my life. My attitude was, if they didn’t care enough to seek me out, to hell with them. But now, with that one call, I began to imagine my parents. What would they be like? How would they react to my contacting them? Did my mother have an emotional breakdown over my disfigurement? Had it psychologically incapacitated her? Had my father forced the decision to abandon me? A “him or me” ultimatum?
Imagining one scenario after another consumed me, each playing out in my head until finally, overloaded with pointless speculation, I put it out of my mind.
Weeks later the envelope I’d been waiting for arrived. I anxiously tore it open and pulled out a short stack of computer printouts. It was an almost out-of-body experience to gaze down at columns of Shulmans listed in New Jersey, along with their phone numbers. I was thirty-eight years old and had never before met a Shulman, and now, somewhere among the names I held in my hand, there might be the ones I sought.
Ed and Shirl, from the time I was old enough to ask, had given me what information they had, which was little more than their names. Knowing that Leonard and Sarah were my parents’ names, I focused my search on the L. Shulmans and S. Shulmans. I began dialing the first L but abruptly hung up when it occurred to me that it would probably be best if I had an opening that didn’t make me come across as weak or needy.
“Hello?” I practiced, clearing my throat to find the right pitch, “Is Leonard or Sarah in? Please, may I — my name? It’s Howard, your biological son.” No, too contrived. “Excuse me, my name is Howard and I’m looking for my biological parents.” No, too abrupt. “Excuse me, my name is Howard. Did you by chance leave a baby in the hospital?” O.K. Again. “My name is Howard Shulman. I’m looking for a Sarah or Leonard Shulman. I was wondering if you might be my birth parents?” This was ridiculous!
On the first call that someone answered, angst set in. The woman said she knew of no such people. The relief I felt made me wonder if I was ready for this.
Determined, I took a deep breath and dialed the next number, and the next. With each call I made, I received the same reply. I expanded my questioning, asking if they might be related to anyone named Leonard or Sarah. “Sorry, no,” they each answered. After a series of dead-end calls, my anxiety began to subside. I was becoming resigned that my search would lead nowhere and was thinking I might just forget the whole thing, when a young woman answered.
“Who’s calling, please?”
I had to grope for words. “Um, well…my name is Howard Shulman. I, uh, got your number from a family search agency, and I was, well, put up for adoption, well, sort of, and now…”
“Hold on a minute, please.”
I held my breath. In the background I could hear voices, an exchange with another woman, which I strained to hear. An eternal moment passed.
“Hello?” a woman answered, her voice cautious.
“Is this Sarah Shulman?” I asked.
She knows who is on the phone. I can feel it. Suddenly I was wary.
“Yes?” she replied, holding her breath. “I’m Sarah.”
“I think you may be my birth mother,” I said, my voice quiet. Time slowed down as a deafening silence filled the connection between us. I waited, every fiber of my being tuned to the other end of the line. In my state of hyper-awareness I could hear her strained breathing and the unmistakable sound of tears choked back. Gently, I broke the silence.
“Are you O.K.?”
After a long pause she answered, “Yes, I’m fine.”
“Are you sure?”
“Yes, thank you.”
“I don’t want to disturb you.”
After a lull, I heard her whisper, “I always knew you would call.”
I was stunned. Unable to respond, I could only listen to her faint crying.
For the first time it fully dawned on me that this was more than just about me. I wanted to say that I hadn’t meant to upset her. How could I tell her I had never intended to make this call in the first place and was no more prepared than she?
Unprompted by me, she began talking of Leonard, who had passed away a few years earlier.
“I’m sorry, I would have liked to meet him.”
“He was a good man,” she said, her voice trailing off.
My mind raced full-throttle. How good of a man could he have been, being party to giving his own son away?
She regained her composure and opened a floodgate of questions about my life. “Are you married? Any children?”
“No, no. I’ve had wonderful women in my life, but no.” I needed her to know that I wasn’t a social outcast and functioned fully in the world. Suddenly, fearing she might hang up at any moment, I blurted out, “What’s my heritage?”
“Why, you’re a Russian Jew.”
“Yes, on both sides. Third generation. Your father’s side was in the garment trade.”
Well, I thought, at least my call has been worth something.
At her urging, I briefly touched on the main events of my life while conveniently omitting the nefarious details. More than anything, I thought it odd that she had not asked a single question concerning my health or medical status. Were the words “face” or “nose” taboo?
And then, without intending to, the question that had festered inside me my entire life blurted out of my mouth like a micro torpedo. “Why did you give me up?”
I heard her breath catch but she made no response. When she didn’t answer, I broke the tension by suggesting a reason. “I understand it was a different time, with all my medical issues.”
“No, it wasn’t that,” Sarah answered, retreat in her voice.
“What then?” I asked, desperate to understand.
“It was a very difficult decision. Please, don’t make me feel guilty.”
I decided it wise to back off if I didn’t want her hanging up on me. “Do I have any siblings?”
“Yes.” Relief and pride filled her voice as she began to speak at length on a subject obviously dear to her heart. “David, the oldest, is a lawyer. He’s married with children and …”
Her words became a blur I could hardly follow and made me begin to wonder what had been the point of initiating this surreal conversation. So that I could feel invisible? A nonentity? Are you that insensitive? Don’t you realize the more you praise your “true” children, the more you exclude me? Bewildered, I hardly knew how to respond. I could feel my anger rising but held my tongue.
“My daughter, Linda,” she continued, “is also married and is now expecting, and Joseph, my youngest, is a lawyer as well, still single.” Her voice trailed off, as if Joseph’s bachelorhood were the only thing that marred her contentment.
Struggling to disguise the hostility I felt, I asked, “So David is my older brother?”
“Yes, he’s always been aware of everything. The same with all the other children.”
Exasperated, I still needed answers and returned to the only question that mattered to me. “Why did you give me up?”
I thought I would crush the phone her pause was so long, my hand turning white as I waited for her to tell me the truth.
Finally, in a voice unsteady and barely audible, she answered. “We couldn’t handle it.”
Couldn’t handle it! What the hell was “it?” Social stigma? Financial? Medical? Family pressure? Maternal guilt? What? Was I even human to her? She couldn’t? Or wouldn’t?
I was shaking, enraged.
I had never cared before; survival had always been my focus for as long as I could remember, but now I had to know more. I closed my eyes and fought to calm myself. If I didn’t regain control, I knew what little headway I had made would evaporate. My next question was nothing I had intended, but just flew out of my mouth. “Can we meet sometime?”
She hesitated. “Perhaps. I’m quite busy right now.”
“I understand.” I didn’t, actually. Her dismissal felt like another abandonment. I let it go and thanked her for her time.
“Call me again if you wish,” she said. Then the line went dead.
* * *
By the time we pulled up in front of the deli, my heart felt as if it would leap out of my chest. I took my time paying the fare and, as calm as I could be under the circumstances, stopped to peer into the chrome interior, my misshapen nose all but pressed to the window. Seeing no one that fitted her description, I took a deep breath and entered. Inside, I scanned the diners and immediately settled on a petite woman halfway down the aisle, seated alone and facing the entrance. Without looking at her clothes, I knew in my heart she was Sarah.
As I approached her I was startled to see she was older than I had imagined. What had I expected? Sitting straight, her shoulders back, she sat stiffly waiting for me, her face tense. Noting her tailored light-brown jacket and white satin blouse, I immediately thought that she shopped at Saks or Ann Taylor. Almost four decades since the day my fate was sealed, the day when I was made a ward of the state of New Jersey, and I’m critiquing her wardrobe? My attention shifted to her dark coiffed hair streaked with gray, and at that moment realized that she, too, had spent time preparing herself for the occasion. “Sarah?” I heard myself ask.
“Yes, I know.”
How could she not? With her eyes absorbing my face, I could barely follow what she was saying. We tentatively shook hands.
Facing Sarah, I settled myself in the booth and took measure of the stranger sitting across from me. Tired and drawn, with deep shadows under her eyes, she betrayed her studied composure by nervously fidgeting with her coffee cup.
“You look good,” she said, her voice quavering.
I’m sure I do, compared to the last time you saw me — bandaged, hooked up to tubes, fluids, and God knows what else. “Well, I’m still here,” I retorted, immediately on the defense.
She sighed but kept her eyes on me, then acknowledged my cutting attempt at humor with a wistful smile. As she searched my face I got the distinct impression she was evaluating my surgical alterations, comparing what she saw seated before her against what she remembered of me at birth. Her expression hovered somewhere between stoic and vulnerable, like hot and cold water running into a plugged sink—a lukewarm mix that could go either way.
She took the plunge. “I want you to know I never hid anything from my children.”
At “my children,” I sucked in air, cut to the quick.
I changed the subject and launched into bits of my history she’d already heard from our phone conversations. But the burning question of why she had abandoned me refused to stay bottled up and was making my stomach churn. Before I even knew I was forming the question, it slipped off my tongue. “Why did you give me up?” I asked again, the urgency I felt evident in the force of my question.
She dropped her head and stared unseeing into her untouched coffee.
“Why didn’t you ever try to contact me?” I asked. “Why, since your family knew about me?” Saying “your family” to the woman who gave birth to me was surreal in itself.
“I thought it would be best for you that you start over with a new family,” she said, her shoulders sagging.
“My new family? I don’t understand.”
She looked confused. “You were adopted, right?” she asked, leaning in toward me, holding my eyes in hers.
“No,” I answered haltingly, “never formally.”
A shocked look came over her face. “But . . . but they told us you were adopted!”
“They? Who’s ‘they’?”
“Lawyer?” Now I was totally confused.
Sarah’s hands lay still, as if what held her up had deflated. Shaking her head, she finally continued. “Leonard and I hired an attorney to look after you,” she explained. “He told us you had been adopted by a nurse, a nice family in the Midwest.”
“Midwest?” I had to laugh out loud. “No, the family I was placed with was in New Jersey.”
“I lived in Morristown, Summit, Randolph.”
Her eyes widened. It was too much for her and she slumped back against the booth. In some detail I told her of my childhood, growing up in the Garden State.
“You lived in Summit and worked at the Office restaurant?”
She covered her face with her hands, her fingers splayed so I could see her eyes tearing up as she stared at me in disbelief.
“You know it?” I asked.
After some time she lowered her hands and placed them palms-down on the table. When she spoke her words were tremulous and distant. “We…sometimes Leonard and I would eat there on occasion.”
Her words trailed off.
It was my turn to lean back and catch my breath. I saw my dishwasher self, washing their dirty dishes, the closest I would ever be to them since the day I became an “it” to her. The irony of my scraping their discards in the back room, bussing their table, or redoing an order they might have sent back to the kitchen — just like they sent me back for failing to be good enough — made me sick to my stomach. I wanted to walk out then and there, leave her like she did me. Instead, I resolved to finish what I had started.
We sat some moments in silence, each pondering our likely crossing of paths, when she began to speak of Leonard, how he was a self-made man who owned a clothing store with his brother, and what a hard worker and honorable man he was. More than ever I wanted to meet him so I could ask him just how honorable he was that he could abandon his second-born son.
When Sarah told me how she and Leonard had started a program to help Jewish children in need, I was dumbstruck by her callousness — cruelty, really. Proud of her charity, she prattled on. My body temperature soaring, I abruptly rose and excused myself to go to the men’s room. Reeling, I dropped my forearms to the rim of the sink and cradled my head in my hands, utter disbelief at what I had just learned sucking the wind out of me.
Get a grip, I told myself. This was her guilt, trying to save thousands when she turned her back on saving one. Little good it had done me. My jaw clenched, I returned to our booth for round two. I needed to rise above her insensitivity and regain my composure. How could I fight with an elderly woman? But sadly, my anger got the better of me. “Do you have any regrets?” I asked, my voice steely.
Without emotion or hesitation she answered, “No, I don’t. I did what I had to.”
Oddly, that was the only thing she’d said since I laid eyes on her that I could relate to. But that she could see herself as a proud mother, benefactor, and devoted wife and still look me in the eye, refusing to give me any real explanation for her decision to walk away from me, her baby, her blood, and expect I’d be satisfied, incensed me.
Her lips quivered as tears resurfaced and streamed down her cheeks. “Howard, I can’t do it anymore,” she cried. Tears, Sarah? You have no idea the tears I cried for you when I was a child. Suddenly indignant, she straightened up and declared, “I will not relive this again. What’s done is done.” I nodded in complete agreement.
Having now exhausted any lingering shred of mercy, I was incapable of holding my peace after so many years of pent-up anger, and pressed on. “How could you have done that to a baby? Forget me — any baby?”
“Howard, I’ve punished myself enough. No more.” She was now in full retreat.
I felt no satisfaction in seeing her cry. The woman who had been in control was gone, and in her place sat a pathetically guilt-ridden one, burdened by a lifetime of crushing denial. At that moment the depth of her distress suddenly struck me, and I apologized over and over, swearing to her that it had not been my intention to hurt her. My quest had gone from curiosity to attack — with an aging woman who could never defend her actions and could never dare to revisit the past.
The table between us seemed to broaden as the distance between us grew, the air suddenly as stifling as our conversation. I made a feeble attempt to reach out to her. “I’m having a hard time understanding this, you know.”
Like the stranger she was, I thanked her for her time and escorted her outside, where I flagged down a taxi for her. There was no feeling between us — nothing. The ties of blood were evidently not enough to bridge the gap. Drained, we could do nothing more than shake hands and say our good-byes. Alone on the sidewalk, I watched her taxi pull away.
Our meeting replaying in my head, I struck out towards home. I had poured my heart out, venting frustrations buried so deep I didn’t believe anything could ever have awakened them. I had barely refrained from lashing out that she was a God-fearing, synagogue-attending, do-gooder, Jewish hypocrite, all of which would have served no purpose and would have done nothing for the anger I felt. Emotionally and physically spent, I arrived at my apartment exhausted, taking no comfort from the thought that blocks away she was probably experiencing similar emotions. Sarah, too, I realized, had suffered her own torment. How had she always known I would call?
My analyst and I grew more intimately connected each week of treatment...but I never saw this indecent proposal coming.
It’s the waning moments of my fourth session with a new therapist. I’m holding back — and she knows it. My entire body feels tense, not ideal for the setting. I try to relax, but the plush leather couch crumples under me when I shift, making the movements extraordinary. I’ve barely looked into my therapist’s blue eyes at all, and yet I think the hour has gone very well. Of course it has. On the surface, when the patient has been highly selective of the discussion topics, therapy always resembles a friendly get-together.
“Well,” my therapist, Lori, says, the millisecond after I become certain our time is up and I might be in the clear. “I don’t think I should let you go until we’ve at least touched on what was put out there at the end of last week’s session.”
I so supremely wanted this not to come up. My eyelids tighten, my mouth puckers to the left, and my head tilts, as though I’m asking her to clarify.
“When you said you’re attracted to me,” she continues.
“Oh, yeah,” I say. “That.”
Back in session three Lori was trying to build my self-esteem, the lack of which is one of the reasons I’m in treatment. Within the confines of my family, I’ve always been the biggest target of ridicule. We all throw verbal darts around as though we’re engaged in a massive, drunken tournament at a bar, but the most poisonous ones seem to hit me the most often, admittedly somewhat a consequence of my own sensitivity. I’ve been told it was historically all part of an effort to toughen me up, but instead I was filled with towering doubts about my own worth. And since 2012, when I gave up a stable, tenured teaching career for the wildly inconsistent life of a freelance writer, I’ve had great difficulty trusting my own instincts and capabilities. I told Lori that I wish I was better at dealing with life’s daily struggles instead of constantly wondering if I’ll be able to wade through the thick.
She quickly and convincingly pointed out that I work rather hard and am, ultimately, paying my bills on time, that I have friends, an appreciation for arts and culture, and so on. In short, I am, in fact, strong, responsible and “pretty good at life.”
Then Lori heightened the discussion a bit. “I also feel that it is your sensitivity that makes you a great catch out there in the dating world,” she said, to which I involuntarily smiled, blushed and quickly buried my chin in my chest. I was too insecure and too single to handle such a compliment from a beautiful woman.
“Why are you reacting that way?” Lori asked.
I shrugged my shoulders, only half looking up.
“Is it because you’re attracted to me?”
I laughed a little, uncomfortably. “How did you know?”
She gently explained she could tell the day I walked into her office for the first time, after I flashed a bright smile and casually asked where she was from.
Now, a week after dropping that bomb, Lori asks, “So, why haven’t we talked about it?”
“I was hoping to avoid it, I suppose.” I tell her the whole notion of having the hots for a therapist is such a sizable cliché that I was embarrassed to admit it. “For Christ’s sake,” I say, throwing my hands up, “Tony Soprano even fell in love with his therapist.”
Lori snorts, rolls her eyes. “I knew you were going to say that.”
I smile, shake my head and look around the room, denying acceptance of my own ridiculous reality.
“It’s OK,” Lori says, grinning. “We can talk about this in here.”
I look again at her stark blue eyes, prevalent under dark brown bangs, the rest of her hair reaching the top of her chest, which is hugged nicely by a fitted white tee under an open button-down. She jogs often, I’d come to find out, which explains her petite figure and ability to probably pull off just about any outfit of her choosing.
I still can’t speak, so she takes over.
“Do you think you’re the first client that’s been attracted to their therapist?” she asks rhetorically. “I’ve had other clients openly discuss their feelings, even their sexual fantasies involving me.”
“What?” I cackle, beginning to feel as though I’ve moseyed onto the set of a porno.
“It’s true,” she says, acknowledging her desk. “What’s yours? Do you bend me over and take me from behind?”
“If that’s what you’re thinking, it’s OK,” she goes on, earnestly, explaining that she’s discussed sexual scenarios with her clients before so as to “normalize” the behavior and not have them feel their own thoughts are unnatural. By showing the patient a level of acceptance, she hopes to facilitate a more comfortable atmosphere for “the work” — her painfully accurate pseudonym for psychotherapy.
I take a second to let the red flow out of my face, and ponder what she said. I’m a little unsure about this whole technique, but the more I think about it, the more it makes sense. So I go home, incredibly turned on and completely unashamed.
* * *
One of the great breakthroughs I’ve had in the thirteen months since I began seeing Lori (who agreed to participate in this article, but requested that her full name not be published) is a new ability to accept the existence of dualities in life. For instance, I’ve always had a tremendous sense of pride that, if it doesn’t straddle the line of arrogance, certainly dives into that hemisphere from time to time. I’m great at seeing flaws in others and propping myself up above them by smugly observing my character strengths. I’ve never liked that about myself, but the harder concept to grasp is the fact that I can be so egotistical while also stricken with such vast quantities of insecurity.
In treatment I came to realize that all people have contradictions to their personalities. There’s the insanely smart guy who can’t remotely begin to navigate a common social situation, the charitable girl who devotes all her time to helping strangers, but won’t confront issues in her own personal relationships. In my case, my extreme sensitivity can make me feel fabulous about the aspects of myself that I somehow know are good (my artistic tastes) and cause deep hatred of those traits I happen to loathe (the thirty pounds I could stand to lose).
My next session with Lori is productive. We speak about relationships I’ve formed with friends and lovers, and how my family may have informed those interactions. One constant is that I put crudely high expectations on others, mirroring those thrown upon me as a kid. I’m angered when people don’t meet those expectations, and absolutely devastated when I don’t reach them. Lori points out that it must be “exhausting trying to be so perfect all the time.” I am much more comfortable than I was the week prior, and can feel myself being more candid. I’m relieved that the whole being-attracted-to-my-therapist thing doesn’t come up.
Then, a week later, Lori mentions it, and I become tense again.
“I thought I’d be able to move past it,” I say, adding, “We aired it out, and it’s fine.”
As definitive as I’m trying to sound, Lori is just as defiant.
“I’m glad you feel that way,” she begins, “but I think you owe yourself some kudos. This kind of therapy,” she shares, “isn’t something just anyone can take on.” Such honest discussion doesn’t simply happen, it takes tremendous guts, and Lori can see that I am dealing with it relatively well, so I should praise my own efforts.
“Shit, we both should be proud of ourselves,” she says. “It’s not easy on the therapist either, you know.”
“Because talking openly about sex is risky at any time, much less with a client.” She explains that therapists are warned any semblance of intimacy can be easily misconstrued. “We learn in our training to not personally disclose, for example,” she says, but adds that, occasionally, transparency can be helpful.
“Still, with you,” she continues, “until I raised the question, I didn’t know for sure that you would go with it; for all I knew you’d run out of here and never come back to risk being so uncomfortable again.”
She’s building my confidence more, and I’m learning that I play a much bigger role in how my life is conducted than I often realize. My treatment wouldn’t be happening if I weren’t enabling it.
Then she says, “And don’t think it’s not nice for me to hear that a guy like you thinks I’m beautiful.”
Crippled by the eroticism of the moment, and combined with the prevailing notion that no woman this stunning could ever be romantically interested in me, I flounder through words that resemble, “Wait…what?”
“If we were somehow at a bar together, and you came over and talked to me,” she says, then flips her palms up innocently, “who knows?”
I laugh again and tell her there’d be almost no chance of me approaching her because I’d never feel like I had a shot in hell.
“Well, that’s not the circumstances we’re in,” she says. “But you might. Who knows?”
I’m confused — Is she really attracted to me or is this some psychotherapeutic ruse? I’m frustrated — I told her I didn’t really want to talk about it. Shouldn’t she be more sensitive to my wants here? I’m angry — Is she getting an ego boost out of this? Most of all, I don’t know what the next step is — Am I about to experience the hottest thing that’s ever happened to a straight male since the vagina was invented?
There were two ways to find out:
1) Discontinue the therapy, wait for her outside her office every day, follow her to a hypothetical happy hour and ask her out, or
2) Keep going to therapy.
* * *
A week later, I’m physically in the meeting room with Lori, but mentally I haven’t left the recesses of my mind.
“Where are you today?” she asks, probably noticing my eyes roving around the room.
“I don’t know.”
“Are you still grappling with the sexual tension between us?”
Here we go again.
“Yes,” I say, with a bit of an edge in my voice, “and I don’t know what to do about it.”
Lori, ever intently, peers into my eyes, wrinkles her mouth and slightly shakes her head.
“Do you want to have sex with me?” she asks.
We both know the answer to that question. All I can do is stare back.
“Let’s have sex,” she announces. “Right here, right now.”
“What?” I respond, flustered.
“Let’s go!” she says a little louder, opening up her arms and looking around as if to say the office is now our playground, and, oh, the rollicking fun we’d have mixing bodily fluids.
“No,” I tell her, “You don’t mean that.”
“What if I do?” she shoots back. “Would you have sex with me, now, in this office?”
“Of course not.”
“Why ‘of course not’? How do I know for sure that you won’t take me if I offer myself to you?”
“I wouldn’t do that.”
“That’s what I thought,” she says, and tension in the room decomposes. “Mike, I don’t feel that you would do something that you think is truly not in our best interest, which is exactly why I just gave you the choice.”
Her offer was a lesson in empowerment, helping me prove that I have an innate ability to make the right choices, even if I’d so desperately prefer to make the wrong one.
I see what she means. I’m awfully proud of myself, and it’s OK to be in this instance. I’m gaining trust in myself, and confidence to boot. But, as the dualities of life dictate, I’m successfully doing “the work” with a daring therapist, while at the same time not entirely convinced she isn’t in need of an ethical scrubbing.
* * *
I don’t have another session with Lori for nearly three months, because she took a personal leave from her place of employment. When our sessions finally resumed, I could not wait to tell her about my budding relationship with Shauna.
Ten minutes into my first date with Shauna — right about the time she got up from her bar stool and said she was “going to the can” — I knew she would, at the very least, be someone I was going to invest significant time in. She was as easy to talk to as any girl I’d ever been with, and I found myself at ease. Plans happened magically without anxiety-inducing, twenty-four-hour waits between texts. Her quick wit kept me entertained, and I could tell by the way she so seriously spoke about dancing, her chosen profession, that she is passionate about the art form and mighty talented too. Shauna is beautiful, with flawless hazel eyes and straight dark hair, spunky bangs and a bob that matches her always-upbeat character. She is a snazzy dresser and enjoys a glass of whiskey with a side of fried pickles and good conversation as much as I do.
Things escalated quickly, but very comfortably, and since we’d both been in our fair share of relationships, we knew the true power of honesty and openness. So upon the precipice of my return to therapy I told Shauna about Lori, and admitted to having mixed feelings about what I was getting back into. I told her I was at least moderately uncertain if my mental health was Lori’s number-one concern since she always seemed to find the time to mention my attraction to her.
The first two sessions of my therapeutic reboot had gone great. Lori appeared genuinely thrilled that I was dating Shauna and could see how happy I was. I wasn’t overwhelmed with sexual tension in the new meeting room, though it wasn’t actually spoken about, and in the back of my mind I knew it was just a matter of time before it would start to affect my ability to disclose my thoughts to Lori again.
Then, while attempting to ingratiate myself with my new girlfriend’s cat by spooning food onto his tiny dish on the kitchen floor, I hear my phone ding from inside the living room.
“You got a text, babe,” Shauna says. “It’s from Lori.”
“‘I’m so impressed with you and the work you’re doing…’” Shauna reads off my phone from inside the living room, inquisitively, and not happily. I stuff the cat food back into the Tupperware and toss it into the refrigerator. I make my way into the living room, angry at myself for not changing the settings on my new iPhone to disallow text previews on the locked screen. Shauna’s walking too, and we meet near the kitchen door. “What’s this?” she says, holding up the phone. “Your therapist texts you?”
I take the phone from Shauna and say the most obvious, cliché-sounding thing: “It’s not what it seems.”
As I text back a curt “thanks,” Shauna tells me she’s going to ask her sister, a therapist herself, if it’s OK to text patients.
“Don’t do that.” I say, a little more emphatically. “I promise, this is nothing to be worried about. We’re not doing anything wrong.” I explain that Lori’s just trying to build my self-esteem.
“The only reason I’m even bringing this up is because you said you weren’t sure about her in the first place,” Shauna reminds me. I can tell she regrets looking at my phone without my permission, but I completely understand her feelings.
At my next session I tell Lori that Shauna saw her text and wasn’t thrilled about it.
“She probably feels cheated on to some degree,” Lori says. “A relationship between a therapist and a patient can oftentimes seem much more intimate than the one between a romantic couple.”
Lori goes on to point out that the reason she feels we can exchange texts, blurring the lines between patient/doctor boundaries — a hottopic in the psychotherapy world these days — is because she trusts that I’ll respect her space and privacy. “You’ve proven that much to me,” she says.
On my walk home, instead of being angry at Lori, I understand her thinking behind the text. But I’m also nervous about how Lori and Shauna can ever coexist in my life.
Isn’t therapy supposed to ameliorate my anxiety?
* * *
A week later, Lori begins our session by handing me a printout explaining the psychotherapeutic term “erotic transference” written by Raymond Lloyd Richmond, PhD. It says that erotic transference is the patient’s sense that love is being exchanged between him or herself and the therapist — the exact sensation I was experiencing with Lori, of which she was astutely aware.
According to Richmond, one of the primary reasons people seek therapy is because “something was lacking in their childhood family life,” perhaps “unconditional nurturing guidance and protection.” Upon feeling “noticed” and “understood” by a qualified therapist, sometimes a patient can be “intoxicated” by their therapist’s approval of them. A patient may in turn contemplate that a love is blossoming between them, and, in fact, it sort of is.
From an ethical standpoint, Richmond argues all therapists are “bound” to love their patients, for therapists are committed to willing “the good of all clients by ensuring that all actions within psychotherapy serve the client’s need to overcome the symptoms” which brought them into treatment. This takes genuine care and acceptance on their part. However, a patient can easily confuse the love they feel with simple “desire.” They’re not quite in love with their therapist, so much as they yearn for acceptance from someone, and in those sessions they just happen to be receiving it from their doctor.
Lori tells me that, all along, she has been “working with what I gave her” and that because I flirted with her a bit, she used that to her advantage in the treatment. In employing countertransference — indicating that she had feelings for me — she was keeping me from feeling rejected and despising my own thoughts and urges.
“There’s two people alone in a room together, and if they’re two attractive people, why wouldn’t they be attracted to each other?” says Dr. Galit Atlas. A psychoanalyst who’s had her own private practice for fifteen years, Dr. Atlas has an upcoming book titled The Enigma of Desire: Sex, Longing and Belonging in Psychoanalysis, and I sought her as an independent source for this essay to help me understand Lori’s therapeutic strategies.
Dr. Atlas explains that there are certain boundaries that cannot be crossed between therapist and patient under any circumstances — like having sex with them, obviously. But many other relationship borders can be mapped out depending on the comfort level of the therapist, as long as they stay within the scope of the profession’s ethics, which complicates the discussion surrounding erotic transference.
“As a therapist, I have a role,” Dr. Atlas says. “My role is to protect you.” She says it is incumbent on the therapist to not exploit the patient for the therapist’s own good, but admits that the presence of erotic transference in therapy brings about many challenges. “[Attraction] is part of the human condition,” she observes. In therapy, “the question then is: What do you do with that? Do you deny it? Do you talk about it? How do you talk about it without seducing the patient and with keeping your professional ability to think and to reflect?”
I ask her about the benefits of exploring intimacy in therapy, and Dr. Atlas quickly points out that emotional intimacy — though not necessarily that of the sexual brand — is almost inevitable and required. “An intimate relationship with a therapist can [be] a reparative experience — repairing childhood wounds — but mostly it’s about helping the patient to experience and tolerate emotional intimacy, analyzing the client’s anxieties about being vulnerable and every mechanism one uses in order to avoid being exposed.”
Dr. Atlas says this topic speaks to every facet of the therapeutic relationship, regardless of gender or even sexual orientation, because intimacy reveals emotional baggage that both the patient and therapist carry with them into the session. But this isn’t a symmetrical relationship, and the therapist is the one who holds the responsibility.
“Freud said that a healthy person should be able to work and to love,” she says. “In some ways therapy practices both, and in order to change the patient will have to be known by the therapist. That is intimacy. In order to be able to be vulnerable, both parties have to feel safe.”
After I briefly explain all that has gone on between me and Lori, Dr. Atlas steadfastly says she does not want to judge too harshly why and how everything came to pass in my therapy. “I don’t know your therapist, and I don’t know your history,” she says. But she offers that I should “explore the possibility” that I might have created and admitted my sexual adoration of Lori because one of my fears is to be ignored, not noticed.
Then I offer: “Maybe this essay is being written for the same reason.”
Maybe I wanted to interview Lori about erotic transference in my therapy sessions for that same reason as well…to stand out as the most amazingly understanding patient ever.
* * *
“I want to be very clear that this was never about feeding my own ego,” Lori says about her approach to my treatment. “We were always doing this in your best interest.”
I’m in Lori’s office, a tape recorder rolling and a pad and pen in my hands.
“I felt I was doing a disservice to you if I didn’t ‘out’ what I felt was weighing on us, which, honestly, felt like a heavy secret,” she says, pointing out that she discussed my therapeutic process for many hours in her required supervision meetings.
In order for Lori to advance in her field as a social worker, she has to attend 3,000 conference hours with another professional to go over casework — kind of like therapy quality control.
We talk about all of this during one of my scheduled sessions, for the entire hour — and go over by a few minutes, too.
Lori says that when she began her career as a social worker, she decided she wasn’t going to shy away from any subjects. “It’s typical for a client to [have] a habitual desire to sweep things under the rug,” she observes, especially about taboo topics. It can become a cycle of behavior that Lori seeks to break.
I refer back to the time when, unprovoked, she brought up my attraction to her.
She says she mentioned it to avoid what therapists call “door-knobbing,” which is when a patient will purposely mention some huge reveal right at the end of a session so as to sidestep a lengthy conversation about it.
“My only question for you is, was I wrong for bringing it up?” she asks. “Only you can answer that.”
Lori’s great at forcing me to reflect.
“I guess when I said I was over it and could move on, that was an example of my strict black-and-white thinking,” I say, throwing back some language she’s used often to describe my challenge in accepting dualities. In my mind, I was either attracted to her and shouldn’t see her anymore, or I wasn’t attracted to her and could still have her be my therapist. There was no in between.
I realize now that she wasn’t wrong for mentioning my feelings for her, even when I didn’t want her to. Lori noticed that I was frustrated with myself and wanted me to know that an attraction to a therapist is so normal and happens so frequently that there are technical terms for it.
I turn my attention towards the presence of countertransference in our session. I’m trying to come up with an actual question here, but, really, I just want her to confirm her feelings for me are real. So I say, referring to her feelings, with a great degree of difficulty, “It’s funny that they seem genuine to this day.”
“They are genuine,” Lori says, adding a moment later: “I think it might be a good idea if we explore why our discussing it suggests a lack of authenticity.”
“It doesn’t, necessarily,” I begin, then stammer through a few sentences, worried I might offend her by implying she’s been dishonest. I finally settle on, “I guess it comes back to my self-esteem issues. Why would a beautiful woman think I’m attractive?”
Lying in bed with Shauna a few months into our relationship, I ask her what she thought about me the moment she first saw me. I’m fishing for a compliment. But we met on Tinder and I just hope that seeing me in person wasn’t some kind of letdown for her after swiping right on my hand-picked glamour shots. Obviously she isn’t going to say something so awful after having committed to me for so long. It’s a slam-dunk ego boost.
She says she liked the fact that I was wearing a blazer and a tie on a first date. She adds that I was a little shorter than she anticipated, but was content with the two of us at least being the same exact height.
“What did you think when you first saw me?” she asks, turning it around, naturally.
Staying committed to my honesty-at-all-costs policy, I say, “I thought you were really beautiful, but not to the point where I was intimidated by you, which was very important because if I was, you would have gotten a very unconfident version of me, and we probably wouldn’t have hit it off as well as we did.”
Shauna thinks about that for a second, and eventually nods “OK.”
I explain that my insecurity could often get the better of me in dating situations. It was easy to convince myself that I’d be rejected by the girl I was with, especially if I thought she was out of my league. I would then slip into a nervous and reserved state that isn’t at all reflective of my true self.
I’m essentially saying that I was so thrilled to not find Shauna so extraordinarily pretty that I couldn’t accept her being on a date with me. That thought made so much sense at the time I said it, but I’ve since come to realize it is as ridiculous as it is insulting. After ten months of being with Shauna, I’m still completely floored by her, on every level, including a physical one. It gives me great pride to walk into a room with her, and I don’t imagine that changing. Therefore, she actually did meet a confident “version of me.” The way people look doesn’t drastically change in ten months but a person’s perception of self can. It seems my emotional workouts in erotic transference were just beginning to produce results.
* * *
“People fuck up,” Lori informs me during one winter session. “Therapists have slept with clients before, just like politicians have had sex with their interns. But, so you have a full understanding of how this works, we can date.” She explains the parameters as outlined in the social worker’s code of ethics. One of the many stipulations is that we wouldn’t be able to see each other, under any circumstances, for at least two years before dating. She tells me she loves her job, and there’s no way she would ever sacrifice my safety or her career for anything, so she would strictly follow all the dictated rules. “If you truly want to date me, there is the option. But it’s ultimately up to you.”
I know what she’s doing here — putting the onus on me, just like last year when she said we could have sex. The difference this time is the answer I want to give is on par with all of my involuntary urges.
“I don’t want to stop the work we’re doing,” I say. “At this point, it’s far too valuable to me, and, really, I know very little about you.” She’s beautiful, exercises, is smart, funny, professional, enjoys good TV…and that’s about it. Aside from whether or not we’d even both be single in two years, and if we’d be in the correct mind frame to explore a relationship, there are several other things I’m considering here: Would Lori and I really be compatible in every way? Would she ever see me as a lover, a partner, an equal, and not a patient? Could I ever reveal a detail about myself, or even just a shitty day of work, without wondering if she was picking it apart and analyzing it?
Frankly, all those questions could be answered in the positive. But, even if I wasn’t in a happy relationship — Shauna makes this choice much easier, for sure — I wouldn’t go that route. I’d be out a therapist.
* * *
It’s a beautiful spring night in New York and only sidewalk seating will do. Shauna and I are out to dinner at a restaurant near her Queens apartment, and we’re both in good spirits. The weather and the alcohol consumption are partly to blame for that, but, on cue with the season’s change, I feel I’ve turned an emotional corner. Work payments that were past due are finally finding their way into my bank account. As it turns out, my short-term money troubles were not an indication that I had no business being a writer, or that my life changeup was as irresponsible as unprotected sex at fourteen years old.
I’d told Lori as much that afternoon. I took a mental step back from my current situation and realized that in spite of my recent hardships, I was succeeding. I summarize my session for Shauna, who nods in agreement, lovingly pointing out that she’s had the same challenging freelancer experiences as a dancer.
“You’re doing great, babe,” she says matter-of-factly.
“Thank you. That means a lot,” I respond. “I guess if I’m going to be a writer I just have to accept all this and have faith in myself. The way Lori put it was, ‘You just have to go all-in.’”
“Good,” Shauna says. “You should listen to the women in your life.”
* * *
Liked this story? Our editors did too, voting it one of our 20 best untold tales!