What Does a Therapist Do When She Has Turmoil of Her Own?

The fine art of patiently digesting the traumas and trials of others, when my brain has become a morbid minefield of abandonment and loss.

Today is my birthday.

I am “celebrating” by seeing nine patients. Boom, boom, boom – assuaging other people’s hurt while burying my own. It’s been decades since birthdays felt like firecrackers and shooting stars. But today is the first birthday since Dad died seven months ago. A heart attack four years prior carried off Mom, so I’m a newly minted, fifty-something orphan.

That’s not the tipping point making me quake at the prospect of sitting in my home office in Long Island City, Queens, a block from the East River, listening to nine patients from behind my hopefully wise-and-empathetic therapist mien. Recently, I’ve endured a new abandonment, this one from Janet, a friend who neglected to tell me over eleven years of serene communing that our bond had an expiration date. Last year, for my birthday she treated me to the biggest hit on Broadway; today, she hasn’t even sent a text.

I expect romantic relationships to go sour, and I’ve got the litany of exes, including the one I married, to prove it. Female friends are supposed to be like diamonds, Congressional deadlock and mother love: forever. Once again I’m learning the fallacy of that belief.

* * *

Mark slumps into my Manhattan office, dragging his worn briefcase. He fidgets on the leather chair, staring down at the blue industrial carpet. As always, he can’t look me in the eyes.

He picks up from where he left off last session: “I still haven’t heard from Tami after leaving three messages. Why do people keep leaving me?”

How I yearn to uncork a bottle of wine and commiserate. Instead, I dig the nails of my right hand into my left palm to snap myself back to therapist mode.

“It feels awful when people disappear—”

“People are awful,” he says flatly, decapitating his Dunkin’ Donuts cup with a vicious snap of its lid.

While dismissing his apologies for coffee spillage – “You got out some aggression. The rug can take it.” – I telepathically agree, People can be disgusting.

* * *

How could Janet, my apparently ex-friend, stop answering my calls without explanation?

We first met at a spiritual retreat, paired for an empowerment exercise aimed at eking out emotional closure from hurtful relationships. At the time, I was reeling from the disappearance of Sandra, a friend I’d regarded as my “sister of the soul.” Janet, standing in for Sandra, had patiently listened to my plaintive questions: “Why not tell me what I’ve done? Or at least say you’re done with the friendship?” In turn, I stood in for Janet’s ex-husband, who’d apparently taken advantage of her kind heart in myriad ways.

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Now, to my patient, Mark, I say, “People are wrapped up in themselves, not thinking about what effect their actions have on others. What was going on in Tami’s world that might have led to her tuning out?”

“Her mother is sick. I offered to help.” This last part is said with lifted gaze. The fear and loneliness I see mirror what I feel but rarely show.

* * *

I never showed all of myself to Janet, fearing her sweeter-than-cotton-candy personality would be repelled by my secret darkness.

Indeed my comfort with discomfort is what drew me to my profession. Most days listening to patients evokes a sacred trust and honor, much as it did listening to my parents’ stories of what they endured during the Holocaust.

Growing up I was too cowed to share my suffering – not being included by two girls at school in their chatter didn’t compare to what mom experienced being wrenched from home at fourteen.

To offset my pain sometimes I craved the company of someone perpetually sunny. Over the years Janet’s Soho apartment became a sanctuary. When I felt spiritually beaten down in my first career – editing articles such as “How to Lose 5 Pounds in a Week While Pigging Out” – and later, by the agonizing decline of my parents, Janet issued invitations for wine, foie gras and Scrabble. When she underwent chemo for thyroid cancer, I stayed overnight with her on several occasions.

Her need for quiet during that ordeal was easy for me. I’d already made my career switch and found the intensity of listening fifty-minute hour after fifty-minute hour to the traumas, rants and obsessions of others to be a personality game-changer. Being silent felt fine.

The effort not to interrupt patients’ narratives with tales from Sherryland makes it harder for me to engage in two-way conversations in my off hours. When I have a bad cold, it’s easier to post on Facebook than burden a friend. Easier, but isolating.

I became a therapist to help people better understand themselves but the one with the weaknesses pinned under the spotlight is me. I’m impatient, can be self-involved, sometimes harsh, oftentimes mildly depressed and guilty of self-criticisms I would flay my patients for indulging in. I guide them: “What do you like about yourself? Let’s build from there.”

I’m great at helping my patients; for my own gnarled psyche – call me a therapist without a clue.

“Mark, I know you want to help Tami but what do you think she wants?” I ask.

Hand limply encircling the coffee cup, he says, “I wanted to spend time with her mom so she could take a break.”

“What did she want?”

“She wanted to handle her problems by herself.”

“So one way to look at her radio silence is that it’s about her needs, not a rejection of you.”

He grants me a timorous, “Maybe.”

* * *

More than any other friend, Sandra ‘got’ me. We became pals twenty years ago, after I interviewed this Wall Street tycoon turned naturopath for a Cosmo article, “Young Women Who Made A Mint.” Accustomed to feeling out of focus to people, it was comforting to be with someone who totally accepted my weirdness.

Soon we were having Lucy and Ethel-style adventures – during a trip to Los Angeles convincing a Beverly Hills realtor to show us Pia Zadora’s home, and veering off from a back lot studio tour to crash an empty “Seinfeld” set. Don’t tell, but we snatched an engraved mug and VHS tape.

Sandra supervised my ‘fling’ with an Iraqi I met at a disco, counseling me to bring him to the suite we’d wrangled at the Chateau Marmont where she’d hide in her bedroom listening to loud music, ears cocked for a scream.

Five years after the start of our Technicolor twinship I persuaded Sandra to start a naturopathic beauty business. (She’d cured a huge zit with one application of her homemade concoction.) I also persuaded her to let me invest thousands of dollars.

Two years later the business and my live-in relationship with Jim, a comic to whom I’d lent money, failed within the same month. Sandra sobbed, “I can’t take the guilt of losing your money or that I encouraged you to be with Jim.”

I insisted she not be upset on my behalf. “I make my own decisions. Do not feel guilty.”

She squeaked, “Okay, honey. You know how much I love you.”

A month later she stopped returning my phone calls and I began years of self-torture: ransacking my brain to figure out what I’d done to lose her.

Back in the present, Mark asks, “So I should leave Tami alone?”

“Yes, and don’t let what she needs, does or doesn’t do rule your self-definition. Reactivity to someone else’s neurosis is a terrible way to live.

I repeat that line to myself intermittently over the next five hours. Therapist card trick: maintaining laser focus on a patient while retaining a corner of my brain. Sandra had a right to leave if my presence riddled her with guilt. I can let go while still missing her; along with missing the unfettered me who could frolic and have flings without weighing what there was to lose.

While intently listening to a litany of sadness and dysfunction – a battling couple, bipolar teen, and an alcoholic just out of rehab – I rub my minefield of bruises.

* * *

These days I dread loss so much I rarely extend myself outside this room. There are patients I’ve come to love, several I’d want to join after a session for wine, one I’d date if he weren’t a patient. If my patients only knew sometimes I envy their lives, how they’re courageous enough to tear through the armor, layer by layer.

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I just want to finish this day, get through a birthday drink with my friend Dave, and crawl home.

Kendra, today’s final patient, 26 and unaware she’s pretty, makes Debbie Downer from “Saturday Night Live” look like Pollyanna on steroids. She hasn’t even hit the chair before proclaiming, “No one’s ever had a worse subway trip than I just did!”

“I’m sure it was awful but…worst ever? Once my train stopped for hours because someone had jumped onto the track just in front of us.”

A frown. “Okay, that’s worse…but all my subway rides are bad.”

“I’m sorry for your bad train karma. But I’ve noticed everything you go through is worse than what anyone else goes through. Why?”

Kendra’s face performs a variety of contortions until it lights with dawning certainty, “My parents never listened unless I complained.”

“Oh… Perhaps looking for sympathy has become a habit?”

She grabs a Kleenex. “Wish I’d just told them I needed attention.”

After Kendra leaves, I think: Wish I’d just told them.

I root through the canvas tote that holds my life. Finding my iPhone, I go to Contacts and tap Janet.

I’ve chosen a profession that doubles back to my childhood mode of being invisible while serving as the ‘chosen one’ to listen to Mom’s stories of unendurable suffering. Bearing witness made me shrink into myself. It’s appropriate in my work, but in off hours I should make my presence felt.

Janet, the last person not to have Caller ID, picks up. Her chirpy voice droops when she discovers the caller is me. “Ah, happy birthday, Sherry.”

“Thanks.” My stomach is in knots. “Janet, it’s obvious you don’t want our friendship to continue. That’s your right. But you know what I endured, being left in the dark with Sandra about why she ended the friendship. You and I have known each other eleven years. What happened?”

An icicle-drenched response, “People have dropped me and I haven’t asked questions.”

“Sorry if my pushiness upsets you but please tell me, did I do something?”

“My feelings changed. I wish you well but I don’t love you anymore.”

Cotton candy dipped in acid.

“I deserved an answer. Wish you well too.”

Good thing I have Kleenex. I made the effort. Nothing is assured, wrapped with pretty ribbons and a bow. Life is loose ends and dangling participles.

Just because I’m not a Holocaust survivor doesn’t mean it’s selfish to reach out for sympathy, praise, celebration… I tap Contacts on my iPhone. When Dave’s Voicemail answers, I announce, “Remember I said we didn’t have to do anything fancy for my birthday? I changed my mind.”

* * *

All names and identifying details of patients have been changed.

40 Years Ago, an Alabama Jury Proved White Supremacists Could Be Brought to Justice

The long-delayed trial of the KKK bomber meant white southerners like me—and my aunt, who was on the jury—could no longer ignore the evil around us.

Uncle Bobby sat on my grandmother’s couch with a hangdog look and a brown paper sack. I wasn’t used to seeing him this way. Tall, lanky, bearded, and gruff, Uncle Bobby dispensed orders and opinions. On Monday, November 14, 1977, he delivered tampons.

His wife, my Aunt Nell, was sequestered for a jury. A bailiff called with her request: clothes, her Bible, and a large bag of feminine hygiene products.

Searching through the Birmingham Public Library archives 40 years later, I find a photograph of Aunt Nell, Juror 149, leaving the courtroom of the biggest case in the city’s civil rights history. I note first that Uncle Bobby brought her white slacks. Next, in her right hand, I see a crumpled tissue. She’s crying.

Jury members leave the courtroom. Aunt Nell wears white slacks, and in her right hand is a crumpled tissue. (Photo courtesy the Birmingham Public Library Department of Archives and Manuscripts)

At 16, I thought only of myself. Nell was the cool aunt, the party aunt who packed a large green Impala full of giggling teenage girls each Friday night and drove to football games, past cute boys’ houses, or to rock concerts. How long was this sequester? Would we miss KISS?

My cousin Tracy, 14, and I pestered her dad with questions. Could we ride downtown with him? Could he drive by Penny Pet Food billboard, so we could watch the dog’s tongue loll and its tail wag?

Maybe we could get on television!

“No!”

Uncle Bobby dashed our hopes with a bark. He wasn’t taking girls to any courthouse where Dynamite Bob was on trial.

* * *

On the morning of September 15, 1963, Addie Mae Collins, Carole Robertson, and Cynthia Wesley, each 14, and Denise McNair, 11, were busily primping in the basement ladies’ room of Birmingham’s Sixteenth Street Baptist Church for a special Youth Day program when a dynamite blast tore out the church’s east side. The explosion’s force blew off their frilly Sunday dresses and sent concrete fragments flying through their skulls. Relatives identified them by their ash-covered patent-leather shoes.

A local Ku Klux Klan faction targeted the church for its visible presence in the civil rights movement. Protestors had gathered at Sixteenth Street multiple times earlier that year for mass meetings of the Birmingham Campaign to confront one of segregation’s most violently defended bastions. In April, Martin Luther King, Jr. penned “Letter from a Birmingham Jail” after his arrest in a downtown march. In May, a protest called the “Children’s Crusade” left from the church to face Jim Crow. Birmingham’s Commissioner of Public Safety, Theophilus Eugene “Bull” Connor ordered police to attack the young demonstrators with dogs and firemen to hit them with water cannons. Photographs and video footage shocked the world. Embarrassed civic leaders agreed to hire black workers and desegregate downtown stores and businesses.

But the chaos was not yet over. In early September, not long after the March on Washington and King’s “I Have Dream” speech, a few city schools admitted the first black students. A violent backlash ensued. White students at three high schools rioted. Local civil rights activists’ homes were firebombed. Governor George Wallace did nothing to help. Earlier that summer, he famously blocked the way of two black students trying to integrate the University of Alabama, making good on words from his inaugural address, “segregation now, segregation tomorrow, segregation forever.”

On Tuesday, September 10th, President John F. Kennedy bypassed Wallace, federalizing the Alabama National Guard and sending the troops to schools to keep order.

On Friday the 13th, the city remained awash in hot-rods flying Confederate flags on their radio antennas and hanging signs from their windows that said “Keep Birmingham Schools White.”

On Sunday the church exploded.

The blast resonated across the nation. The “four little girls,” as the victims were collectively known, inspired poetry, fiction, visual art, and music. Their deaths galvanized support for the movement, leading to passage of the 1964 Civil Rights Act and the 1965 Voting Rights Act.

Back in Birmingham, the FBI and local police chased each other’s tails around a slipshod investigation that went nowhere. Fourteen years passed before Robert “Dynamite Bob” Chambliss, the Sixteenth Street bombing’s ringleader, was brought to trial.

* * *

My grandmother, a recent widow and a newly employed nurse, brought her children to Birmingham in the late 1940s from Alabama’s Appalachian foothills. Granny was excited to find a place to live near her job at Hillman Hospital downtown, in the city’s first housing project for whites. Elyton Village sat on Center Street, ten blocks south of an emerging civil rights showdown.

In 1947, a federal judge ruled Birmingham’s 1926 race-based zoning laws unconstitutional. Middle class black families began purchasing bungalows from white owners along north Center Street. Then their bungalows blew up. Between 1947 and 1965, more than 50 racially motivated bomb attacks occurred.

Neither Aunt Nell nor my mother remembered the explosions that gave Birmingham its nickname, “Bombingham,” although many took place close to where they lived. Perhaps to shield her girls, my grandmother said the rumbling came from “danny-mite,” as she pronounced it, in local coal and iron ore mines.

Down the road from what later became known as “Dynamite Hill,” my mother fought her own battle. One morning, a neighbor girl called her “poor.” After school, Mom waited for her behind a bush. When the girl roller-skated past, Mom jumped out and pummeled her face into the concrete. Not long afterward, my grandmother got a better job and moved her daughters from Elyton Village to East Lake, a working class community five miles east of downtown. Even though Mom got a spanking for her violence, she told the story proudly.

“We fought our way out of nothing,” she said. “Don’t let anyone try to drag you down to their level.”

A group of African Americans view the bomb-damanged home of Arthur Shores, an NAACP attorney in Birmingham, September 5, 1963. Explosions became so frequent that Birmingham earned the nickname, “Bombingham.” (Photo by Trikosko, Marion S., courtesy the U.S. Library of Congress)

I had been a civil rights educator for two decades when Aunt Nell mentioned the little black girl my late mother beat up.

I heard this story all my life and missed the obvious.

“Of course the girl was black, baby.”

Aunt Nell, now in her 70s, is the kind of Southern lady that calls everybody “baby.” The kind that cooks supper for her Baptist church on Wednesdays, prepares the programs for Sunday service on Thursdays, and visits shut-ins on Saturdays. Still the cool aunt, but no longer the party aunt, Nell has silver hair, which complements her steel blue eyes. Her walker, named “Mr. Walker,” goes with her everywhere after Uncle Bobby’s passing.

Aunt Nell and Mr. Walker have been through all Twelve Steps. She does not shy away from honest answers.

“Baby, your momma wouldn’t have hurt a white girl so bad for calling her poor.”

Flashing into my mind: the scene from Spike Lee’s 1997 documentary “4 Little Girls,” where Maxine McNair shows the director the piece of concrete that was embedded in her daughter Denise’s head.

* * *

The news media focused on shoes. The Associated Press circulated a photograph of Maxine McNair’s father, F.L. Pippen, and another man running from the church carrying Denise’s shoe. Pippen had just pulled Denise’s body from the rubble.

Eugene Patterson, editor of the Atlanta Constitution, published a column the next day that used the image to create a sense of empathy – and shame – in his white readership. “A Flower for the Graves,” read later that night on the CBS Evening News with Walter Cronkite, argued that the responsibility for the bombing did not lie only with the act’s perpetrators but with all white Southerners who, as Patterson stated, “created a climate for child-killing.” He described a grieving mother holding a shoe that belonged to her dead child. “Every one of us in the white South holds that small shoe in his hand,” Patterson stated. “Let us see it straight and look at the blood on it. Let us compare it with the unworthy speeches of Southern public men who have traduced the Negro; match it with the spectacle of shrilling children whose parents and teachers turned them free to spit epithets at small huddles of Negro school children for a week before this Sunday in Birmingham; hold up the shoes and look beyond it to the state house in Montgomery where the official attitudes of Alabama have been spoken in heat and anger.”

Patterson urged his readers to do better, to “plant a flower of nobler resolve” on the girls’ graves. “We created the day,” he said. “We bear the judgment.”

* * *

The FBI and local police knew who bombed Sixteenth Street, but the investigation dragged on for years with no prosecution.

Bob Chambliss topped everyone’s suspect list. A craggy faced drinking and fighting man, Chambliss learned the explosives trade in Birmingham’s iron ore mines. In 1963, the 59-year-old Chambliss officially worked in Birmingham’s city garage. Unofficially, he worked for Bull Connor setting fuses on Dynamite Hill.

Robert E. Chambliss’s mugshot. (Photo courtesy the Birmingham Public Library Department of Archives and Manuscripts)

The FBI had been monitoring Chambliss and his KKK cronies through an informant, Gary Thomas Rowe. A black female eyewitness named Gertrude “Kirthus” Glenn reported seeing a 1957 Chevy (later traced to Chambliss’s friend Thomas Blanton, Jr.) near the church the night before the bombing, and a man matching the description of either Chambliss or another suspect, Bobby Frank Cherry, inside the car. But her testimony alone could not be the foundation for a trial against white men, especially considering that another potential eyewitness, the white police officer on duty that night was Floyd Garrett, Chambliss’s nephew. Chambliss and two other men, John Hall and Charles Cagle, were picked up for possessing and transporting dynamite. They paid a $100 fine and received a suspended sentence. No other arrests were made. In 1965, local authorities named Cherry, Blanton, and another man, Herman Cash, as primary suspects, with Chambliss as the ringleader. Yet in 1968, the FBI closed the case, and director J. Edgar Hoover sealed the files.

* * *

My grandmother told me that the Sunday of the church bombing, friends called her from the hospital where she worked, warning her not to come downtown. The dead and wounded had come there, and “they” – meaning black people – were rioting.

Granny said that she gathered me, a toddler, into her arms and headed to the hallway in the middle of her house, where we sheltered during tornadoes, singing hymns while waiting for the storms to pass.

Sixteenth Street Baptist’s minister, John Cross, tried to calm the unrest by reciting Psalms 23, the Lord’s Prayer, from a bullhorn in front of the church.

Two youths died in the day’s violence. A white police officer shot Johnny Robinson, 16, in the back. White teenagers shot Virgil Ware, 13, at random.

Younger activists such as Diane Nash and James Bevel grew so angry over the continuing miscarriage of justice that they challenged King’s stance on non-violence. After much soul-searching debate, a consensus emerged to fight for the right to vote and get men like Bull Connor out of office.

The strategy worked. The tangled emotions—the grief, the shame, the rage—that fueled Eugene Patterson to write “A Flower for the Graves” and thousands to converge on places like Mississippi in 1964 and Selma in 1965, manifested themselves in two pieces of civil rights legislation. Both put Dynamite Bob on a collision course with a Birmingham courtroom.

The 1965 Voting Rights Act changed who voted, which changed who served on juries, and who got elected to judge and prosecutor positions. A young white law student named Bill Baxley vowed in 1963 that he would one day do something about the church bombing. When he became the state’s Attorney General in 1970, he immediately started digging into the church bombing case.

The 1964 Civil Rights Act changed who had access to public space. The church bombing sent a message that black citizens had no rights to public facilities, no rights to stores, no rights to schools, no rights to the most sacred places. Voting shifted the city’s demographic from one that was majority white and dominated by Jim Crow violence to one that was primarily black and ready to tell a new movement story. That storytelling process would start with the 1977 Chambliss prosecution and reach its fruition in 2013 with a monument to the four girls on the fifty-year anniversary of their murder. “Four Spirits,” by locally born artist Elizabeth MacQueen, features bronze statues of each girl – one beckoning visitors, another releasing doves – and a bench for rest and reflection. The monument sits at the center of a large memorial complex that includes the church, the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute, a walking tour, and multiple works of public art in a park that used to be famous for police dogs and fire hoses. Such a space sends a very different message from that of 1963: that the story about the fight for justice, equality, and freedom will occupy a significant portion of the city’s newly defined civic identity.

* * *

The 1977 Chambliss case was shaky, but Baxley pushed ahead because the time was right. Old-guard civil rights warriors tired of justice too long delayed. New Birmingham looked forward to words like “closure” and “healing.”

The trial opened on November 14. The charge was the murder of Denise McNair. Baxley told me in an April 2013 interview, “you can murder someone without knowing them if you set a bomb intending to do harm.” The state made four separate murder indictments, one for each girl. The judge, Wallace Gibson, ruled that the trial would go forward on one indictment only, an odd decision that would prove decisive. The jury was made up of nine white and three black members. Aunt Nell was an unlikely choice. She went to high school with defending attorney Art Hanes, Jr., and Hanes’s secretary Suzy was my mother’s best friend. I asked him in a May 2013 interview about the selection. He said that because his father had been Birmingham’s mayor (from 1961 to 1963) it was hard to find jury members he didn’t know. I asked Baxley also. He did not remember Juror 149 specifically, but he had a definite trial strategy that Aunt Nell fit. She was a Christian, a homemaker, and a mom. Her daughter (my cousin Tracy) was in 1977 about the same age as Addie Mae, Cynthia, Carole, and Denise when they died.

The evidence against Chambliss: he purchased a case of dynamite; he knew how to construct the specific, and rare, kind of fishing-bobber and metal bucket detonator used at Sixteenth Street; he was seen near the church the night before. But more important than any of that was Chambliss himself. Aunt Nell said she based her decision to convict on “his arrogance, his hatred, and his niece.”

For Aunt Nell, the niece Elizabeth Hood Cobbs’ testimony was the trial’s turning point. In 1963, Elizabeth Hood was in her early twenties. By 1977, she was divorced, a mother of one, and a Methodist minister named Elizabeth Cobbs. She stated under oath that she came to Chambliss’s house during the school riots and found him noticeably agitated, cursing, and using racial epithets. “Just wait till after Sunday morning,” he told her. “They will beg us to let them segregate.”He had enough dynamite “to flatten half of Birmingham,” he claimed. Cobbs was at the house after the bombing, when news reports stated that murder charges might possibly be filed. “It wasn’t meant to hurt anybody,” Chambliss told the television. “It didn’t go off when it was supposed to.”

On November 17, 1977, Baxley made his closing argument. He noted that the day would have been Denise McNair’s 26th birthday, and by then she likely would have been a mother herself. He told the jury that it was their “duty” to convict.

At 4:10 pm they went into the jury room to begin deliberations. Five hours went by with no verdict. The judge allowed them to retire for the evening so they could get some sleep and start fresh the next morning. What happened during those five hours?

Aunt Nell told me that she had no doubt how she would vote.

“Baby, that man was guilty as sin,” she says. “You could see it in his face the minute he strolled into that courtroom like he owned it. You could see it in the way he stared at his niece.”

Not all jury members saw what Aunt Nell did. They spent their five hours reviewing the evidence piece by piece: witness testimony, intricate details about bomb building, Chambliss’s whereabouts in September 1963, morgue photos. Then they voted: 11-1. One white man remained unconvinced. The deliberations were exhausting and painful, Aunt Nell remembers, but not acrimonious. The man needed more time. The jury ate dinner: something from room service that Aunt Nell doesn’t remember. She does recall marking her Bible. Jeremiah chapter 29, verse 11: “For I know the thoughts I think toward you, saith the Lord, thoughts of peace, not of evil, to give you an expected end.” Aunt Nell slept well trusting that her Lord had a plan. The jury started up the next day a little after eight a.m. Two hours later they voted again.

On November 18, 1977, at 10:40 a.m. the jury returned a guilty verdict and set the sentence at life in prison. Chambliss served his time in a solitary cell.

The conviction established a new precedent for civil rights era crimes. Cold case prosecutions became increasingly common over the next few decades. In 1994, a Jackson, Mississippi jury convicted Byron de la Beckwith for the 1963 murder of Medgar Evers. In 2005, another Mississippi jury found Edgar Ray Killen guilty for the murder of three voting rights activists during 1964’s Freedom Summer. Such “atonement trials,” as historian Jack Davis calls them, were important to people in places like Birmingham, who wanted to leave a violent past behind.

Some people have a different take on redemption. Chambliss died in 1985, still saying his Klan brothers did it, not him.

Ten years after Chambliss’s death, the F.B.I. reopened their investigation files. With new evidence unavailable to Baxley in 1977, Doug Jones, then the U.S. Attorney for Alabama’s Northern District (and now a candidate in the special election for Jeff Session’s vacated Senate seat) successfully prosecuted the co-conspirators who remained alive, Thomas Blanton in 2000, and Bobby Frank Cherry in 2002. The other suspect, Herman Cash, died in 1994. After Cherry’s conviction, news headlines nationally spoke of “healing” and “closure.”

* * *

In “A Flower for the Graves,” Eugene Patterson claimed that the moral responsibility for the church bombing lay not with men like Chambliss who planted the dynamite at Sixteenth Street but with white Southerners who, by their overt actions or their silence, created fertile ground for violence. Both Art Hanes and my Aunt Nell taught me a lot about justice and accountability.

Hanes said that he lost the case in the defense. During the prosecution, Hanes was aggressive, objecting to anything related to the use of words such as “dynamite” or “bomb.” He even got the judge to cut those words out of the coroner’s report with a penknife. During the defense, as Hanes called up one motley character witness after another, his attitude shifted. He stopped pushing. He stopped objecting. He seemed resigned. I asked him what happened. He told me that he had planned to call only one witness: Chambliss himself. When it came time, Chambliss said, “I ain’t gettin’ up there.” Hanes said that was his epiphany.

One needs his backstory to understand. Art Hanes, Jr. was a Princeton educated partner in his father’s law firm. The firm defended the worst of the worst: Chambliss, the white men who killed Selma civil rights worker Viola Liuzzo, and, briefly, James Earl Ray for killing Martin Luther King, Jr. Hanes claimed that he came out of law school “idealistic.” He told me, “Jefferson says that, ‘You judge a society not by how it treats its privileged but how it treats its meanest wretch.’ I came out of law school saying, ‘I can represent the meanest wretch.’” But in that courtroom, he said that he changed his mind: “I was not going to spend the rest of my life bleeding on those counsel tables.” He still worked in murder trials, but when Medgar Evers’s murderer Byron de la Beckwith tried to hire him in 1994, Hanes said no. No more being “on the wrong side of history.”

I asked him if he thought Birmingham had redeemed itself from the wrong side of history. Not nearly enough, he said, despite the prosecutions and the memorials: “We can’t adjust to a new society until all of us who were raised in a segregated America are gone… To me, all those things are current events. You can’t put them behind you and think of them as past.”

* * *

Aunt Nell and I also talk a lot about the past and change. Sometimes we drive past the places she has lived since moving to Birmingham. In 2013, the county just south of Birmingham where much of the city’s white population took flight after integration, received word from the U.S. Supreme Court in its Shelby County v. Holder ruling. The court stated that federal election monitors were no longer necessary in places with a history of Jim Crow, even though voter discrimination might still persist. We could not help but notice the wealthy extravagance of the lavish malls and sprawling gated communities we saw in Shelby County’s northern suburbs compared to the fast food restaurants, pawnshops, and bail bondsmen in predominantly black East Lake and Elyton Village.

Who needs KKK dynamite when you can just turn your back?

Yet Birmingham’s civil rights memorial complex, just west of the city’s central business and shopping district, is lovely – all green space and public art. Aunt Nell and I visited near the church bombing’s 50th anniversary. I asked her what she was doing while the famous “dogs and fire hoses” incidents were taking place downtown. “I cared and I didn’t,” she said, “because it didn’t affect me. I was into my own life, doing my own things. I was a young mother. But when I sat on that jury, it really opened my eyes.”

We stood at the corner where “Four Spirits,” the memorial to Addie Mae, Cynthia, Carole, and Denise now stands, diagonally across from the church. Off to one side, the artist set a small pair of bronze shoes.

Maxine McNair kept the ash-covered patent leather shoe, along with the bloodstained piece of concrete that she showed to Spike Lee, in a box for decades after she lost eleven-year-old Denise.

My cousin Tracy and I survived our teens, went to plenty of rock concerts and football games, had children of our own, enjoying all the rights and privileges Birmingham daughters deserve.

Aunt Nell looked over at the church then out at Birmingham’s sleek skyline and sighed, “It makes you wonder how all that could go on and you just didn’t know. I guess you could call it ignorance.

“But it wasn’t.”

The Elizabeth MacQueen statue, “Four Spirits” statue at Kelly Ingram Park, across the street from the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church. (Photo by Ted Tucker, courtesy the Greater Birmingham Convention and Visitors Bureau)

The Merciless Champ of Congo’s Mystical Wrestling League

Even as he approaches old age and his sport falls into decline, this intestines-eating, sorcery-conjuring “Man of Great Power” still dominates the ring.

With a slow and assured swagger that defies his aging body, Edingwe Moto na Ngenge, the most decorated Congolese wrestler of all time, steps into the ring. At about six-foot-six and more than 220 pounds, with a prominent brow, deep-set eyes, a mohawk and a large dragon tattoo across the left side of his chest, he cuts an imposing figure. Edingwe, whose moniker, Moto na Ngenge, translates to Man of Great Power, struts back and forth across the ring with his shoulders thrown back, stamping his feet and contorting his face into grotesque expressions, toying with his opponent and whipping his loyal fans into a frenzy.

It’s January 2016 in Kinshasa, the pulsating capital city in the far west of the vast and volatile Democratic Republic of Congo. Just a year earlier, the radio-trottoir, or pavement radio, as the city’s incessant gossip mill is known, spread word that Edingwe was near death’s door, broke and unable to cover the hefty cost of his prolonged hospital stay, finally turning to God in a last-ditch effort to be saved.

Now, with thousands of spectators filling the lower-level stands of the Tata Raphaël stadium and local television crews set up around the wrestling ring erected in the middle of the soccer field, Edingwe’s got something to prove.

However, it’s his challenger, Mal à l’aise, which translates to Ill at Ease, who attacks first. He takes a dead snake from his trainer at the edge of the ring, wraps it around his neck for a moment, then holds it tight with one hand close to its head and the other at the end of its tail, thrusting it repeatedly and exaggeratedly in the direction of Edingwe. The great champion is momentarily stunned by this act of sorcery, and with his eyes wide in surprise he becomes rooted to the spot, rocking back and forth like a tall tree in the wind.

But Edingwe soon grows tired of this impetuous display, breaks the spell, and with a swift extension of his right arm and a raised, open palm, calls on the spirits of his ancestors. The magical powers they have so long bestowed on him send Mal à l’aise tumbling backward onto the mat, where he lies paralyzed. Edingwe kneels beside his hapless opponent, grasps at his midriff and appears to extract his intestines like long pieces of pink elastic. He holds them aloft and then lowers them into his gaping mouth; as he eats them, blood pours from the corners of his lips onto his chest. A government minister sitting near the ring faints. Mal à l’aise, also unconscious, is covered and carried away.

Edingwe is swiftly escorted from the arena by his entourage before his opponent’s angry supporters seek revenge for such a merciless performance. After just a few minutes, it’s all over.

* * *

The unique and wildly popular Congolese variety of wrestling, which bears some similarities to American professional wrestling, took off in the late 1960s and early ’70s. Around this time, a handsome young man named Kele Kele Lituka became Congo’s first professional wrestler and a household name, defeating European champion Claude Leron and celebrated American wrestler El Greco.

Lituka beat his Western opponents by drawing on wrestling techniques that in fact long preceded the influence of the American school. He incorporated elements of a traditional Congolese fighting style called libanda, which is said to have traveled to Brazil with slaves from the ancient Kingdom of Kongo centuries earlier and served as the genesis for the Brazilian martial art of capoeira. (While elements of the matches are clearly played up for dramatic effect, organizers here, like their American counterparts for a time, have long insisted that nothing is staged.)

Edingwe holds aloft what are ostensibly the intestines of his opponent at the Tata Raphael Stadium in Kinshasa in January 2016. (Photo courtesy Edingwe)

“Since the early days of urbanization, there have been public fights in Kinshasa,” says Katrien Pype, Ph.D., a professor of African cultural anthropology at the University of Birmingham in the United Kingdom and at KU Leuven University in Belgium. In the 1950s, when this sizable swath of Central Africa was still a Belgian colony, a style of fighting called mukumbusu emerged. Inspired by the movements of gorillas and incorporating both foreign and African fighting styles, mukumbusu was a “reaction to the other martial arts that were brought in by the colonialists,” Pype says.

In the late 1970s, a young, cocksure fighter from a poor family in Kinshasa’s ramshackle Matete neighborhood stepped into the ring for the first time. A notorious brawler at school who sometimes even came to blows with his teachers, Edingwe, whose real name is Edmond Ngwe Mapima, had already shown promise in the boxing ring. He would quickly leave an indelible mark on Congolese wrestling, introducing the sport to the aspect of magic and sorcery, known locally as fétiche, with its practitioners referred to as féticheurs.

Fétiche is the foundation on which the Congolese manifestation of contemporary wrestling has been built. Tapping into local superstitions and the widespread Congolese belief in traditional magic, mysticism and the spirit world, Edingwe’s mastery of fétiche gave him an insurmountable advantage over his opponents. As Caroline Six wrote in a 2015 article in the French press: “The success of a wrestler in Congo is often not founded on strength, technique or style, but on his capacity to make people believe in his powers of sorcery.” Edingwe is the perfect embodiment of this claim.

Mobutu Sese Seko, the flamboyant, corrupt and ruthless dictator who ruled Congo — which he renamed Zaire — for more than 30 years until his death in 1997, was a great wrestling aficionado. He used the sport as a focal point for what Pype calls his “authenticity politics,” whereby he shunned and in some cases banned cultural practices deemed to be Western and instead promoted a new, African vision of Congolese national belonging.

“During Mobutu’s time, wrestling was promoted as the national sport. There was a lot of financial support and massive state-organized and sponsored events and tournaments,” Pype says. For the first time, Congolese wrestling was also widely televised across the country. This helped Edingwe become the sport’s greatest icon, equal parts feared and revered. But those days were long ago.

* * *

When it rains hard in Matete, as it does most days during Congo’s wet season, the labyrinthine streets and alleyways — many of which are unpaved and untraversable by car — quickly become fast-flowing red-brown rivulets carrying trash and human waste between the buildings. At such times, this overcrowded and notoriously crime-ridden area is unusually quiet; small groups of young boys huddle outside kiosks that sell cigarettes, soft drinks and basic household essentials, seeking shelter beneath the jagged metal overhangs that jut out over the front stoops. Otherwise, the streets are deserted.

Behind a large red metal gate opposite one such kiosk, Edingwe sits silently with a few friends and family members on pink plastic chairs, while a few laborers in tattered overalls work noisily to cover exposed rafters on the roof with sheets of metal. A light breeze gusts through the empty window frame beside them. One day, Edingwe, who says he does not know his age but is likely somewhere in his late 50s, hopes this building will serve as both a new house for his family and a fitting testament to his long and illustrious wrestling career. In his deep, slow drawl, the great champion says, “My only regret is that my parents died poor while I was still too young. I wish they had still been alive to see this when it is complete.”

Left: Edingwe suddenly transforms once he is dressed in his wrestling attire, striking macho poses for the camera at his home in Matete, Kinshasa. Right: Edingwe demonstrates some of the grotesque facial expressions that he uses in the ring to strike fear into his opponents and whip his adoring fans into a frenzy. (All photos by Christopher Clark)

Edingwe has not had a fight since his famous disembowelment of Mal à l’aise more than a year ago. A few days after the fight, a wildly sensationalist Congolese news site reported that, thanks to a quick visit to both the clinic and a local temple, Mal à l’aise had miraculously survived. However, he complained that he was still experiencing some discomfort in his stomach. 

The pavement radio is buzzing with news that despite Edingwe’s now infamous comeback, he is still barely scraping by financially, paying his bills by doing occasional work as an informant for the police in Matete, where he uses his magical powers to pinpoint the location of alleged criminals.

Local journalist Francis Mbala says that wrestling has been hit hard by the political impasse that engulfed the Congolese capital when beleaguered president Joseph Kabila failed to step down at the end of his two-term presidential limit in December 2016. The impasse has thrust the city, and the country, into a new period of uncertainty, crippling the local economy. Sporadic political protests have been met by an increasingly violent state response, leaving scores of protesters dead. Meanwhile, rebel militias have resurfaced in the long-afflicted Kivu provinces in the east of the country, while a bloody guerilla war between the army and anti-government rebels has claimed at least 3,000 lives — with gross human rights abuses alleged on both sides — and forced more than a million people to flee their homes.

“With the current political and economic crisis, there is a severe lack of sponsors for wrestling,” Mbala says. Official wrestling institutions and federations “almost don’t exist in Kinshasa anymore,” he adds, and big wrestling events have inevitably become much less frequent.

But Pype says that the trials and tribulations of Congolese wrestling precede the current political impasse. “During Mobutu’s time, wrestling was the national sport,” she reiterates, “but unfortunately for the wrestlers, the current government hasn’t recognized what the sport and its practitioners could mean to them and to the creation of national cohesion and unity. Mobutu invested a lot more in the promotion of Congolese culture in general.”

Pype insists that wrestling remains an important part of daily life for the Kinois, as Kinshasa’s residents are known, especially for young men in working-class neighborhoods like Matete. For many of these men, wrestlers represent an ideal body image — and they are also emblematic of the possibility of transcending one’s impoverished circumstances.

Edingwe has a more straightforward take on why he hasn’t had a fight in so long: He says that no one is currently up to the challenge. He is not announcing his retirement just yet, but he is already pinning great hope on his eldest son, a 33-year-old who lives and fights in Belgium — and is known as Little Edingwe.

“The powers that I inherited from my grandfather, who was also a wrestler, will gradually be transferred to my son,” Edingwe says. “God has not given these powers to anyone else, so this is what I am counting on. When my son is strong enough, I will stop fighting.”

Other champions of Edingwe’s era agree that the next generation of greats is yet to announce itself in Kinshasa. Mwimba Makiese, who goes by the nickname Texas, shares the sense that the increasing lack of financial incentives has played a role, pushing young working-class men into Kinshasa’s violent street-fighting scene — where they can at least achieve a level of localized fame and notoriety — rather than the official wrestling circuit.

Like Edingwe, Makiese, who claims to have won an impressive 646 out 650 matches in his career, is looking to retire soon, potentially adding to the vacuum. Makiese has long been the leading proponent in Congo of the so-called “classical” American style of wrestling. He has often publicly denounced fétiche wrestling, which he claims has fueled a growing negative narrative that dismisses wrestlers as “brigands.” Makiese is currently training two young wrestlers in the hope that they will fill his considerable shoes and continue to build on his legacy of “clean, technical wrestling,” as he calls it.

Widely known both for his success in the ring and for being the first albino wrestler in Congo, Makiese is also a renowned philanthropist, having created a foundation for Kinshasa’s routinely persecuted and ostracized albino population. Money that Makiese earned from wrestling helped build the foundation, but in recent years he has had to find other means of sustaining it. To that end, he now runs a small shop with his wife.

“Before, I could live solely from wrestling. I built my house with money from wrestling. I educated my kids with money from wrestling. Now, things have changed,” Makiese says. “But I’m like a chameleon — I’ll always find a way to adapt,” he adds.

Back in Matete, Edingwe seems less willing to adapt. Wrestling, after all, is his calling. He believes it was preordained. He believes that only he can save Congolese wrestling from the slump it is currently experiencing.

As if to show his readiness to shoulder this considerable burden, Edingwe goes to get his wrestling attire — high socks, lace-up boots and tight black spandex shorts — from the small main house behind the unfinished outbuilding. When he returns, the short walk seems to have put considerable strain on his body. He struggles to get up the single step back into the outbuilding and has to use the wall for support. He breathes heavily as he slowly and laboriously lowers himself back into his chair, where a young male relative helps him lace up his boots. It’s hard to imagine that just over a year ago, Edingwe was proudly strutting back and forth across the ring like a peacock, in front of his adoring fans, as he prepared to disembowel Mal à l’aise.

A young relative of Edingwe helps the champion wrestler, who appears to be in ill health, lace up his boots before he poses for pictures at his home in Matete, Kinshasa.

But as soon as he is dressed, Edingwe transforms. His back straightens, his shoulders rise; legs slightly akimbo, he throws a few slow-motion air punches left and then right across his body while contorting his face into grimaces, the veins in his neck bulging. 

Two of Edingwe’s daughters can’t help giggling at this spectacle. In a mock-aggressive tone, he commands them to come and stand beside him, where he loops an arm over each of their shoulders. The girls grow suddenly shy beside Edingwe’s enormous frame and will not meet his eyes. Imperceptible to them, a slight smile crosses their father’s lips.

For the briefest of moments, he is defeated.

Edingwe smiles down on two of his daughters at home in Matete, Kinshasa.

I Met My Long-Lost Brother…And I Was Overcome With Lust

I was 34 years old and it was a primal attraction I couldn’t control. But this was before I discovered Johnny’s dark predilections.

My brother Johnny had just been paroled from the Georgia state prison system when I found my birth family. When the train taking me to the reunion pulled into the Savannah station, Johnny was waiting on the platform with my sister Belinda and my brother Mike. Already in tears, I went for my sister first, and then Mike, while Johnny stood quietly and waited his turn to hug me.

Johnny was dark, like me and our mother, who’d died the previous year. His eyes were my eyes, his lips were my lips. He had a dimple on one cheek that appeared when he smiled, just like me. He was a good-looking man, as were all my brothers. He’d just been released from prison; his body was meaty and well-nourished.

Learning I was related to someone with felony convictions didn’t bother me; I was no saint, for one thing, and I’d also been a criminal defense lawyer for ten years by then. Nothing could shock me, I thought.

Riding that train for twenty hours, I swung wildly between worries and hopes about what life inside a new family would mean to me. My mother had been fifteen when I was born, and just three months later she married the man who would be the father of the rest of her children, a daughter and five sons. I’d been adopted as an infant by a family up North. My siblings grew up with my mother and their father. This would be my first time meeting them. Would they be so different from me that I’d be repelled? Or would I snap into place with them? I’d learned a little about them all from letters and phone calls. It sounded like most of my five brothers were a lot like my clients. Unlike some defense lawyers I knew, I liked my clients – and I liked the no-frills, no-bullshit, blue-collar culture of people who were poor and struggling. I liked rule-breakers.

At the train station, and all during the week of my first visit to Savannah, Johnny and I spent long minutes staring into each other’s eyes. I was under a spell of fascination with the resemblance I’d been missing my whole life as an adopted person, and although I looked like all of my siblings in some way, the resemblance was strongest between Johnny and me. He was the sort of man who wouldn’t look away from another person’s gaze; probably, I thought, a habit picked up in prison, where to look away meant weakness. I was 34 then, and he was six years younger than me. I wanted to be literally in touch, as if separating from him physically would tear off a piece of my skin.

A book I’d read before getting on the train, The Adoption Triangle, had prepared me for those sorts of feelings. Of the many stories of adoption reunions, there were a few of brothers and sisters, and mothers and sons, who fell headlong in love, intoxicated by “deep, unrestrained love” and “intense, incestual feelings.” This didn’t surprise or disgust me when I read about it, or even when I experienced it myself. After all, it’s easy to confuse love with sex and sex with love.

I’d devoured stories of brother-sister incest all of my life: Wuthering Heights, Ada, The God of Small Things, Game of Thrones. It wasn’t me who’d turned those stories into bestsellers and critically-acclaimed classics. The attraction I felt wasn’t a sign of deviance, but I didn’t plan to act on it.

* * *

Soon after I got back to New England from that first visit to Savannah, Johnny was arrested on a burglary charge. Confined in the local jail, he charmed the female relative of an employee into helping him escape. He was picked up again within days. A few months later, I traveled to Savannah again, this time with one of my courtroom outfits packed away.

I dressed up like a lawyer to visit my brother in jail, and brought the maximum number of boxes of Marlboros allowed. We sat in an open visitation area at one of fifty tables. We held hands, the only contact allowed. Rules meant to prevent revealing attire were enforced against female visitors. In spite of that, the women visiting their men turned up the heat with the arch of their spines, the curves of their lips. Their heat spread to me, and I caught myself looking down at my breasts, which swelled against the silk blouse I wore, and I felt the same heat from Johnny.

Psychologists will say we repeat our families’ pathologies because we try, as adults, to rebuild the patterns we know. I’d always been attracted to reckless men like my brothers, even though I didn’t grow up with men like that. Once I met my brothers, I decided my desire was simpler and deeper than trying to replicate a childhood pattern; it was blood calling to blood.illo_2 For the next few years, Johnny and I communicated through letters while he was locked up. I learned, partly through his letters from prison, and partly through what others told me, that he’d been institutionalized at seven years old and given shock treatments and anti-psychotic medications. He’d been sexually abused by staff at that institution, and later in juvenile offender facilities and foster homes, where he was called “hyperactive.”

By sixteen, he was living on the streets, and he’d survived by stealing and prostituting himself. “If the price was right,” he wrote in one of his letters, “but as I got older and wiser, I started just robbing them kind of people.” By the time he reached his twenties, he’d spent half of his life incarcerated.

Johnny’s prison terms and deep dives into heavy drug use kept him away from all but one of the series of beach-house reunions I staged in the first ten years after I found my family. I was fixated on having everyone under one roof at the same time, trying to recreate the family-that-would-have-been if my mother hadn’t given me up, and I was oblivious to reasons why that might not be a good idea.

That one he made it to was in the fifth year of my reunion with my family, after I’d left my first husband and sold my law practice, after I’d started teaching college classes. That year, I began drinking with my brothers, and drinking hard, as I had in my teenage years and early twenties.

My uncle’s redheaded wife was the person in our family who most often told it like it was. When Johnny was released, and it looked like he would make it to the fifth beach-house reunion, she took me aside to tell me to watch him around children, and to explain why her husband – my uncle – didn’t want to be around my brother. When their daughter was three years old, they’d left her in then fourteen-year-old Johnny’s care and had come home to him with his pants down, his penis in the little girl’s mouth, and him saying “Just suck on it like it’s a bottle.”

I wondered why my other brothers, or my sister, hadn’t told me Johnny had molested our cousin. Maybe they believed it wasn’t necessary because he was safely locked away so soon after I met him. Maybe they saw that I loved Johnny, and they knew love had been in short supply in his life. Maybe they wanted me to love him, and they were afraid I’d recoil in disgust. But I didn’t.

In that fifth year, in a crowded two-bedroom beach house on holding over a dozen people, where I was hell-bent on recreating the family dynamic I never had, I lay down on the Berber carpet in the room where four of my little nieces were sleeping in a bed. Johnny lay down a few feet away from me. He and I were the last ones up after a night of full-throttle drinking. Other than the time I visited him in jail, this was the first time we’d been together since my first trip to Savannah. I’d been watching him around the children, the youngest of whom at that time were four-year-old Brandon, who was sleeping on a couch with his mother, and six-year-old Candi, who was one of the little girls in the bed. I hadn’t seen anything amiss.

I punched a pillow down under my neck to make the floor more comfortable, and then I reached back and pulled Johnny to me. It was the familial love, the call of blood to blood, and it was sexual.

“Don’t do that, Michele,” he said. “Please, don’t do that.”

I stopped, realizing the wrongness of what I’d just done, and realizing I couldn’t get away with it. I’d just turned forty, and I was informed enough to know better. And then I passed out.

When I woke at dawn, Johnny was a few feet away from me on the floor, snoring heavily. The girls were all still asleep in the bed. Nothing had happened. But what if? And even drunk, how could I have made that move with the children sleeping in the room? In a life full of bad acts, that move is the act I’m most ashamed of, even though it didn’t go any further than a gesture, even though my brother, the convicted felon, stopped me cold and saved me from myself.

* * *

His final conviction was for armed robbery. By that time, I was of two minds about him being in prison: it was violent, dangerous and dehumanizing, but safer than the street, where there was nothing at all to protect him.

At forty, he was no longer young and strong enough to rebound from privations and beatings, no longer quick enough to evade the rage of people he stole from, and on his way to becoming the homeless man who creeps around the edges of a campfire, snatching at scraps, and getting kicked for it.illo_3

He was in prison in 2004 when my brother Rudy and his wife, who were addicts, signed the papers to give me guardianship of their daughter, my niece Candi. She’d just turned thirteen, and over Cherry Coke slushies, she told me Johnny had molested her, too, when she was about three years old. Her parents had gone out to score some drugs and had left him in charge of her and some other children. He brought her into a bedroom and started licking her private parts. He was an adult, not a confused fourteen-year-old kid. His assault on my little cousin wasn’t an isolated incident. I had to admit my brother had a predilection for molesting little girls.

I wrote to tell Johnny I knew what he’d done to Candi, that she was living with me, that I still loved him, and that the next time he got out, I’d try to see him on his own, away from the kids.

Current research leans toward the conclusion that pedophilia is hardwired, a sexual preference like heterosexuality or homosexuality that emerges in adolescence and is pretty much exclusive to men. But only about fifty percent of the men who molest children are actually pedophiles; the other fifty percent are men with histories of violence or personality disorders. Those men tend to molest family members. I wondered which category my brother fell into, and whether it mattered.

Candi is twenty-five now. I messaged her, told her what I was writing about, and asked, does it matter to her? She told me no, the why didn’t matter, but knowing Johnny was also abused helped her to let go of wondering why. And then she added: “Some of the worst things can become our biggest blessings. I’ve decided to heal and to not let that control me, so I don’t mind talking about it. I’m not hiding anymore.” I was reminded of my little cousin, who is now forty years old, and a conversation she and Candi had about Johnny, how my cousin said, “There can’t be any dark secrets if you don’t keep them in the dark.”

One dark afternoon, Candi and I went to the boardwalk near the pier at Jacksonville Beach to see the ocean after a hurricane. The air was still tropical, and the waves still curled like rows of fists, ready to pound the sand. The wind blew her long blond hair around her shoulders, and we both spread our arms wide to feel the uplift, to pretend we could rise up at any moment and fly.

She didn’t notice the man sitting next to the Coast Guard station, the dark man with wild hair and a wild beard and the ruddy look of someone who’d been outdoors and drunk for months. But I saw him. How could I not? He stared back at me with my own eyes. We held each other’s gaze for a few long moments. I tried to figure out a way to distract Candi so I could go over to Johnny and tell him I loved him. But the boardwalk was empty, and the shops were shuttered closed. I turned my face from his, and hustled Candi into the car with the promise of a stop for Chinese food. I looked back, and he was still staring at me. I did not reach out to him. My brother, who’d had so little love in his life, was not my heart. Candi was my heart.

Back at our apartment, the door closed behind us with a little push from the wind. Inside, the air was cool, the lights were bright, and the dining room table was waiting for us, clear except for a bowl of flowers we’d arranged together earlier that day.

The next day, after Candi left for school, I drove back down to the beach, parked my car, and wandered around where the homeless people hung out. Johnny was gone, like a mirage that disappears once you look away, or once you stop believing in it. I never saw him. I never saw him again.

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.”

“Exactly.”

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

* * *

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Lori’s great at forcing me to reflect.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

* * *

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

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

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

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

* * *

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

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

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

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

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

* * *

Liked this story? Our editors did too, voting it one of our 20 best untold tales!

See the complete list of Editors’ Picks here. 

* *

Michael Stahl is a freelance writer, journalist and editor living in Astoria, New York. He serves as a Narratively features editor as well. Follow him on Twitter @MichaelRStahl.

Casey Roonan is a cartoonist and cat person from Connecticut. Follow Casey on Instagram: @caseyroonan

I’m Married. I’m a Woman. I’m Addicted to Porn.

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.

* * *

Erica Garza is a writer from Los Angeles. Her essays have appeared in Salon, Substance, LA Observed, The Manifest Station and HelloGiggles. She is also a staff writer at Luna Luna Mag. Read more at ericagarza.com and follow her on Twitter @ericadgarza.

Iris Yan is a Brazilian-born Chinese cartoonist who completed a one-year certificate at The Center for Cartoon Studies in Vermont.