When Home Finds You

Transplants to the Big Apple reflect on their very different journeys toward becoming New Yorkers.

Before I moved to New York City in 2003, I dreamed often of exchanging my Somerville, Massachusetts, apartment for a creaky old farmhouse by the ocean, where I would spend my days writing, basking in the sounds of near silence.

Where I ended up a year later was a sunny two-bedroom apartment in the Bronx, on the second-to-last stop on the 6 train. Instead of ocean waves, the subway lulled me to sleep. The Italian-American neighborhood had an overabundance of bakeries, all-night diners and funeral homes. Once, when I was heading down to my neighbor Jimmy’s barbeque, I heard a fight break out in the alleyway, just below my living-room window. Above the clatter of trash cans, I heard Jimmy scream, “Your wife’s a crack whore. Where’s my five thousand dollars?” Then I heard the sound of a car peeling out. That night, I stayed in.

The strangest part of my new existence was that I liked it. In fact, I don’t even remember a transition period. Instant love, that’s what it was. I found myself talking to everyone: on the streets, on subways, in the park. Hunkering down into a writing routine felt natural; with the ever-present hum of the city, I was never alone.

So how did I move away from my fantasy of an idyllic rural setting to the reality of this noisy, gritty metropolis? Well, when I told Ted, my then-boyfriend of four years, that I needed an exit plan from Boston, a place I had never quite felt at home, he said reluctantly, “Okay. But the only place I’ll go is New York City.”

That’s funny, I remember thinking, because that’s the only place I don’t want to go. I shared with him my vision: the farmhouse, daily walks on the ocean’s edge, lots of time to make art. Ted, however, was firm: New York or bust.

With my desire to leave Boston outweighing all other concerns, I started researching graduate programs in the New York City metropolitan area. I applied to Sarah Lawrence, a school just north of the city with an exceptionally green campus. Commuting to the “magical Tudor world” (as an alum once described it) would take the edge off urban life.

When I received my acceptance letter, I turned to Ted and exclaimed, “We’re going!”

“That’s…awfully soon,” he said, drawing out his words. Explaining he wanted to apply to graduate schools and wrap up his music project. “I won’t be ready for the fall, but you should go ahead and I’ll join you next year.”

Before I knew it, I’d settled on the Bronx, for its proximity to school and Orchard Beach. And that is how I came to call this “glorious diva-bitch of a city,” as one friend labels it, home.

Ted and I ended our five-year relationship three weeks before he relocated. Nine years later, he’s still here, and I’m still here, too, grateful that he pointed me square in the direction of where I clearly needed to be.

My own story of landing in New York City is not unusual. Lots of transplants stumble upon this city by accident, and before they know it they are asking, how did I get here?Given the intensity of life here, part of living in New York is how one constantly confronts this notion of “home.” If the day-to-day existence in a city with nine million other inhabitants requires so much work, what brings people here? And why do they stay?

Last year I began polling strangers, acquaintances and friends, including Ted, wanting to know: What makes you feel at home? Why New York? And what about your physical home makes you feel rooted despite the sense in this city of endless possibility?

It’s my hope that the cumulative effect of these stories will nudge New Yorkers and non-New Yorkers alike to expand and refine their own conceptions of what it means to feel at home in the world, what it means to return to a favorite block or restaurant or apartment or person and feel a relief that runs bone-deep: This must be the place.

*   *   *

Name: Chloe Garcia, 37
Occupation: Buyer/seller of beautiful objects for Matta, Visual artist, Herbalist/healer www.nomadicsonglines.com
Neighborhood: Brooklyn Heights, Brooklyn
Item to Save in a Fire: Her childhood photos, especially those of her father, Luis Alberto, who passed away when she was eight.

Chloe Garcia (Photos by Jessica Bal)
Chloe Garcia (Photos by Jessica Bal)

When Chloe Garcia was growing up, she paid extra careful attention to the decoration of her bedroom. A trained dancer, having studied ballet at the Princess Grace Dance School in Monaco, Garcia meticulously lined pairs of her pink satin pointe shoes along the wall. Obsessed with Degas, she surrounded herself with the Impressionist painter’s soft images of tulle skirts, dancers with gracefully arched backs and airy, sun-stippled studios. These objects, they were home — and for Garcia, the stepdaughter of a Mexican ambassador, home mattered.

By the time she’d turned seventeen, Garcia had lived in three countries: her native Mexico, Switzerland and France. With every country, she and her two sisters would acclimate to a new home, a new language, a new school, a new culture. If she had no say over her family’s address, Garcia reasoned, she could at least control her environment.

But Garcia’s decorative urges preceded her life as an ambassador’s stepdaughter. When she was six, her father took a celebratory fishing trip after sealing a promising business deal and had a tragic accident, diving in the dark into a waterless pool, a move that would leave him paralyzed. Subsequently, the family could no longer live in their multi-level home in Mexico City, because it was too difficult for him to navigate with a wheelchair. “We had to change the space according to how he would live,” she says.

As he became progressively ill and spent more time in hospitals, “We got used to making the hospitals feel like home,” says Garcia. When Garcia was eight, her father passed away.

As time went on, she yearned more and more to put down roots. In 1993, after six years in Paris, Garcia, then a high school senior, came home one afternoon to a surprising announcement from her mother, who sat her and her sisters down and said, “Girls, our term here has ended.”

Though these words were familiar, Garcia didn’t take the news well; this time she’d have to leave her boyfriend, her first love, behind. She recalls the dramatic show of protest she and her sisters displayed. “We were screaming and crying. I was devastated,” she says, grinning as she recalls the “Mortified“-worthy adolescent angst. And thus began Garcia’s twenty-year (and counting) stint in New York City.

Her first address in Gotham was the Mexican embassy on tony East 72nd Street. She’d never been to New York and only knew it through Hollywood depictions. “I was scared,” she admits.  Despite the elegance of her stately brownstone, she missed the cafes, antique stores and flea markets of her Parisian years. By contrast, everything on the Upper East Side felt new and modern. “Money and status were the cultural statement,” she says. To feel at home, Garcia would frequently visit museums, such as the Met and the Frick, a tradition she sustains to this day.

Garcia’s home in Brooklyn
Garcia’s home in Brooklyn

Beyond whatever culture shock the Upper East Side held, the embassy still represented Mexican soil, which grounded Garcia. “We were with objects that had followed us through every city,” Garcia explains. “This is why I am attached to material things, because they bring me nourishment.”

The following year, Garcia enrolled as a painting student at New York University, in an area where she felt more at home, with its bohemian flair, cobblestone streets, beatnik history and community gardens.

The early ‘90s East Village offered her a lesson in New York’s unique sense of community. Often, Garcia would leave an extra set of keys to her apartment at the deli on the corner, which was owned by an Indian family. “They saw me grow up,” she says, recalling how, if she was short on cash, the owners would let her take a carton of milk or box of cigarettes and pay them the next day. “That’s the magical part of this city. You can form these relationships; people really do want to trust,” she says.

If she never thought deli owners could be like a second family, she really never thought she’d meet lifelong friends in bars, never mind her future fiancé. Twenty years ago, Garcia met Federico, a native Italian, at Buddha Bar, and the pair became instant best friends, traveling together and organizing dinners with their ever-widening social circle at places like Bar Pitti and Indochine. Ten years into their friendship, they went to an Erykah Badu concert, followed by a late night at Dezibel and Nublu, and decided to gamble their friendship for love. “We’ve been together since,” Garcia says, “for ten beautiful years. You never know when you are going to meet your soul mate. I met mine in a dark, smoky bar!”

New York gradually won Garcia over for the freedom it brings to her life. “I never feel confined to a single neighborhood or group of people,” she says. While a college student, if yearning for a taste of the posh life, she would occasionally leave the East Village to throw lavish parties at the Mexican embassy, complete with Mezcal and mariachi bands. As an artist, her first internship was at Sotheby’s, which provided an entrée into the world of auction houses — quite a distance from her downtown digs.

Today, as an herbalist and Reiki practitioner, Garcia taps into the city’s rich healing community by taking classes at the Open Center and Integral Yoga. She’s also been studying to become a curandera, or folk medicine woman — all while nurturing her career as a buyer and seller of beautiful objects (most recently for Matta, a home and apparel retailer). “In New York, I am not labeled as one thing, and that allows me greater creative expression,” she says. “I am a work in progress.”

In her role as a buyer, Garcia travels often, trekking off to places like the mountains of Chang Mai, Thailand; the lush archipelagos of Saco de Mamangua, Brazil; and the sprawling, urban landscape of Jaipur, India. She spends time at out-of-the-way markets and with indigenous tribes to find handcrafted work. Though her job is the pursuit of aesthetically-pleasing items, Garcia finds so much more in her interactions with weavers, healers and the elders.

Garcia shows off some of her collection
Garcia shows off some of her collection

“I’ll go to a tribe to buy objects and end up tapping into history and wisdom,” says Garcia, who values the non-verbal communications in these interactions, the kind that are spoken eye to eye. “Every piece is a prayer.”

Two years ago, Garcia and Federico moved to Boerum Hill, marking Garcia’s inaugural foray in an outer borough. Every time she returns home to their two-bedroom, high-ceiling apartment, Garcia brings something back from her trip. “The carpet, the photos, the textiles, they all have an emotional connotation.”

In her bedroom, Garcia displays a beaded leather medicine pouch, a gift from her soon-to-be-mother-in-law. A painting of white doves, made of recycled materials, hangs on the wall, representing the Brazilian conception of Divine Spirit. In another image, there is a painted tiger, made of Sanskrit words. A pillow with a silkscreened image of Frida Kahlo rests on her couch. Of the Mexican surrealist artist, Garcia says, “Her art is tormented, but through her pain she found beauty. She reminds me that you can have struggle, but there is always something beautiful in it.” On her coffee table is a rare book, The Spiritual Significance of Flowers, which was given to Garcia by a friend who knows she loves plants. “That’s the thing about life,” she says, raising her index finger skyward. “You can’t always get everything on Amazon.”

Garcia is mindful of her space, right down to the aromas. She uses sage as an air-purifying agent, to protect the home. Other favorite scents include ginger, cinnamon, basil, rosemary, lavender, thyme, grandmother’s cedar and germanium. “Oh, and fruit,” Garcia says, explaining that fruit reminds her of her maternal grandfather, a Russian immigrant who built up a successful produce business in Texas. “He’d bring us boxes of strawberries, melons, raspberries. If I don’t have fruit, I don’t have my grandfather.”

The instinct to create a home-away-from-home has stayed with Garcia. Whenever she travels, she brings candles, sage and small statues of Buddha and Ganesh — peacemakers and removers of obstacles — to create makeshift altars in temporary rooms. “I always cover the televisions with fabric,” she says, “anything that could obstruct good energy.”

As much as physical objects can provide her with spiritual sustenance, when it comes to the most elemental foundation of a home, Garcia can’t help but think of her mother, Rhonda, who made an effort to entertain without pretension, welcoming guests into the embassy, a space which, fancy trappings or not, was always filled with laughter and the tight-knit closeness of family.

The most beautiful homes, Garcia has learned, are the ones full of happy people.

*   *   *

Name: Simon Alcantara, “Ageless”
Occupation: Jewelry designer, Founder of Simon Alcantara Jewelry
Neighborhood: Financial District
Item to Save in a Fire: A deep red abstract painting by Helen Laflamme, half of a set he bought while visiting Paris for a collaboration with Balmain Haute Couture. (His ex has the second painting.) “We always said if anything happened to one of us, the other could have the painting,” he explains.

Simon Alcantara (Photos by Sophie Butcher)
Simon Alcantara (Photos by Sophie Butcher)

You could say that Simon Alcantara landed in New York City by default: he was born here, to Dominican parents. But Alcantara grew up between two places: his mother’s apartment in Inwood and his father’s place in Providence, Rhode Island. (His parents divorced when he was young.) As a boarding student, he lived in Massachusetts; then, as a classical ballet dancer, lived out of suitcases while performing all over the world.

After stints dancing with companies in New York, Cincinnati, Orlando, Jacksonville and New Orleans, Alcantara settled in South Beach, where he joined the Miami Ballet. Following a period of going back and forth between New York and Miami, he stayed in Florida after he stopped dancing, living with his first long-term boyfriend, working as a personal stylist and focusing on his jewelry business. Alcantara had been making jewelry since he was a teenager, even selling pieces to his fellow students at ballet school, as well as ballerinas at the New York City Ballet and the American Ballet Theater. But it was only after a dance injury in the late 90’s that he got serious about creating fine jewelry. He collaborated with Oscar de la Renta, Balmain Haute Couture Paris and others, before launching his namesake line in 2002.

Although the water-loving, introspective Alcantara relished his daily morning swims in the ocean, he eventually felt New York beckoning him. Since work in South Beach was too seasonal, he and his then-boyfriend decided to move back north, settling in Riverdale, in the Bronx. Though they broke up two years later, Alcantara has lived here full-time ever since. That was nineteen years ago.

“You can be whoever you are,” he says of New York. “As a gay man, that is really important to me.”

An avid explorer of New York on foot, Alcantara appreciates just how much the city, block by block, can change over relatively short periods of time, as marked by construction, new restaurants and shuttered storefronts. Because he’s a native, the idea of this teeming city being foreign is, well, foreign: “I’ve always wondered what the city is like to people who weren’t born here, what it feels like,” he says.

Even after spending the bulk of his life here, Alcantara occasionally forgets how much sensory overload New Yorkers can experience in a single day. Recently, he returned from his friends’ peaceful home in the country and was struck by the bustle of Grand Central Station: the commuters rushing to and from their trains; vendors selling pretzels; people lined up to buy tickets; the unmistakable honking of horns and siren calls on 42nd Street.

Since he travels often for his jewelry business, Alcantara has been mindful about turning his apartment into a sanctuary.  Feeling at home, when at home, became all the more urgent when he first moved into a 615-square-foot Financial District studio, a change of residence prompted by the amicable dissolution of his thirteen-year relationship with his live-in boyfriend; the couple had lived in the same building, only in a much larger space. So, when it came to establishing his new home, Alcantara mapped the dwelling pre-move in date.

Alcantara’s apartment
Alcantara’s apartment

For inspiration, he pored over a book called The New Apartment: Smart Living in Small Spaces (a book that now sits on his coffee table.) Then, he studied feng shui techniques and laid out every inch of his new apartment accordingly. (“Even the printer blends into the wall,” he says.) His brightly lit bedroom space is the “money” area of the apartment. Above his bed hangs an orange, seventies-style (swirls included) painting of a pregnant woman, a symbol of fertility he bought from an eighty-year old artist in the Dominican Republic. “Some people hate this,” he notes. “But I love it. It reminds me of a Georgia O’Keefe.”

He worked to create the illusion of more space with mirrors and by hanging Photoshop-manipulated images of open landscapes: a photo he took in Telluride, where a store stocks his jewelry, and one he took of a temple in Kyoto, which he “mirrored” digitally and then set three of the resulting images side by side. Some of his biggest fashion covers are framed above his desk, including his first, an ELLE magazine with Christy Turlington donning one of his bold red designs around her neck. They serve as inspiration in his live/work space, “a reminder of what I have accomplished.”

Alcantara created nearly every piece of artwork in the apartment. As a child, he took art classes at the Cloisters. When he gave his mother a painting for Mother’s Day, her friends said they liked it, prompting the future entrepreneur to reply, “I’ll make one for you for ten dollars.” Before long, the young Alcantara had a mini-business going. “I’ve always been creative. Growing up, I didn’t know you could do that as a career,” he says. “As long as I am creative, I am happy.”

His first year in the apartment, Alcantara was traveling nearly every week. Egypt. Japan. Colorado. Although he says it helped him move past his break-up, now he is eager to nest.  Since his job often requires him to be out, meeting-and-greeting with editors and clients, Alcantara savors home entertaining. The most people he’s had around his dining room table is seven. That dinner, someone brought a Dominican chicken from uptown, and Alcantara made rice, lentils and salad. One of his friends, who lives in a significantly more spacious home, remarked, “Wow. You’ve managed to accomplish in limited space what I haven’t been able to do in a five-thousand-square-foot house.”

Alcantara concedes, “This is my life, in 615 square feet.”

*   *   *

Name: Poppy King, 40
Occupation: CEO of Lipstick Queen, Author of Lessons of a Lipstick Queen 
Neighborhood: Nolita
Item to Save in a Fire: The Bang and Olufsen stereo she received as payment for an ad she did for the company in Australia in the nineties.

Poppy King (Photos by Jessica Bal)
Poppy King (Photos by Jessica Bal)

When Melbourne native Poppy King is asked about the first time she recognized New York as home, she says, “The second the airplane wheels hit the tarmac at JFK.”

That moment was in 1991, when King was just eighteen. Though she’d visited Manhattan as a child with her mother, something clicked into place when she saw the city on her own, as a young adult.

She would soon visit often, thanks to the runaway success of her own lipstick brand, which she’d launched when she was eighteen, after a light bulb moment in a department store. At the time, shiny lips and crimped hair were in vogue, a look that didn’t suit the striking teenager, who’d always had a love of old Hollywood glamour (and looks as if she could have stepped off the set of a Golden Age 1940s film set herself.) When King asked a saleswoman at the makeup counter if she had any matte lipsticks (opaque colors, sans shine), the woman replied, “If I had a dollar for every time someone asked me that…”

Recognizing her cue, the young King, who’d been raised by a single mother and had no assets of her own, launched her own company six months out of high school. She found a manufacturer to blend her desired product, linked up with a business partner and started approaching stores. Poppy Industries was born. In 1992, she started traveling to New York regularly for business, one year before Barney’s, the Manhattan-based luxury retailer, started stocking her lipstick.

Ten years, innumerable trips to New York and many entrepreneurial lessons later — as detailed in her disarmingly candid memoir, Lessons of A Lipstick Queen — makeup conglomerate Estee Lauder bought King’s brand, which she had already sold at that point, and brought her on to develop others. As far as the transcontinental move, King’s new employer did all the heavy lifting, arranging for her visa, shipping her furniture and matching her with a broker.

Grounding her to the city, King found a tenth-floor one-bedroom apartment in Nolita with an open-sky view of the Puck Building, an 1885 landmark that has housed several printing companies and made appearances in pop culture, including regularly on the television show “Will and Grace.” (“New York is my roommate,” King says of her view.) While the vintage-loving King wasn’t crazy about the “cookie cutter” exterior of her new dwelling, she instantly felt settled in the apartment — partly because she’d brought a host of meaningful objects from her life in Australia. One such item, a dresser paper mached with fashion shots from Australian Vogue, had belonged to an employee of King’s mother, who worked in fashion. When the young King visited this family friend’s house, she would admire the dresser, covered with images of late ‘70s/early ‘80s models. “I thought it was the height of glamour,” she says of the dresser, which her family friend eventually gave her.

King’s apartment
King’s apartment

Early on, King bumped up against that old New York cliché: there’s always someone more beautiful, more successful, wealthier, someone doing something more interesting. Maintaining a healthy self-esteem became very important for King, who found a good local therapist and got rooted into her yoga practice. As she puts it, “When I arrived, I felt like I could go one of two ways: I could get more invested in my problems or get more invested in solutions.”

As a result, she views her dwelling as a spiritual space, one that’s provided the container for her triumphs as well as losses, including leaving her job in 2006 (due to dissatisfaction with the corporate world and the distance it creates from the consumer).

Following her stint at Estee Lauder, King spent a year writing Lessons, a book that’s part-memoir and part-how-to manual. “I adored the year of working on my book,” King says. “I spent a lot of time staring out the window and writing.”

Even when she is woken in the middle of the night, King is excited to be in her place, listening to the ambient, urban landscape just ten stories below. “Sometimes, I hang out the window and see who’s walking by at three a.m.” she says. “I can feel the life outside, but still have my sanctuary at the same time.”

The year after she completed her book, King launched a new brand, Lipstick Queen. Now, her apartment is both live and work space, but that may change. As attached as she is to the apartment, after all the transitions she’s been through in this space, she is ready to start a new chapter by finding a new residence. She’ll likely stay downtown. In the ten years she’s lived here, she can count the number of times she’s gone out to dinner on the Upper East Side: three.

“I live my life in such a small area, a radius of ten blocks each way,” King says reflectively. “Everything, my whole life happens in such a small space from a physical sense, but in a psychological sense it’s much bigger than anything I’ve ever experienced.”

 *   *   *

Name: Steve Anthony, 49
Occupation: Programmer, Storyteller, Recovering Banker
Neighborhood: Lower East Side
Item to Save in a Fire: Unused $100 gift certificate from Peter Kump’s New York Cooking School, unredeemed since 2002.

Steve Anthony (Photos by Jessica Bal)
Steve Anthony (Photos by Jessica Bal)

Growing up, the bulk of Steve Anthony’s knowledge of Manhattan came from watching Kojak, the gritty mid-‘70s TV show in which Telly Savalas’s detective character braved the city’s dangerous streets, defusing bombs and uncovering bodies in the back of Rolls Royces, all while sucking on lollipops and throwing around his signature line, “Who loves ya, baby?” The crime-ridden New York City depicted on television wasn’t exactly appealing to a kid in a quiet Illinois suburb. “I had nightmares about it,” says Anthony, who certainly never saw himself living here.

Anthony’s hometown was more Caddyshack than Kojak. Oddly similar to Caddyshack, actually. During high school, he caddied at Indian Hill, the country club that inspired the eighties film, and then — just like Danny, the main character — Anthony, who wasn’t from a “college family,” won a scholarship to Northwestern, marking the beginning of the end of his life in the ‘burbs.

The lanky, brainy and occasionally scattered Anthony always planned to settle in the Chicago area after school, but his rapid career trajectory had other plans. By 1988, at age twenty-five, he had completed a doctorate in mathematical economics at Harvard and landed an interview with the Federal Reserve Bank of New York for the position of ‘Economist B.’ While Anthony had spent a previous summer in Manhattan, as an intern at General Motors, the tension of this particular visit was high. Taking a taxi to the Fed’s Financial District offices, Anthony felt utter stress as he watched the cab fare rising quickly. “Ever notice how the meter is always running in this city?” he recalls. “It wasn’t a place I felt I could ever really plant myself.”

But the job was too good to turn down, and by twenty-seven he was the Fed’s youngest department head, even spending a day with then-Chairman Alan Greenspan, an unusual opportunity for such a young employee. His first apartment — a fully-functioning SRO in the East Village, save for Anthony’s garden apartment, which had its own bathroom — wasn’t exactly a Wall Street tower of power, but he recalls it fondly. The SRO also had a backyard space, perfect for hosting parties, including one where he met the woman who would eventually become his fiancée. (Among his other memorable moments is the afternoon when, while digging to plant roses in the backyard, he came across hundreds of cat graves. “I tried to put boards over it to fill it,” he says. “But I couldn’t get enough dirt.”)

Anthony left the SRO for a rent-controlled place on 38th Street, which he ended up handing over to a friend after he landed a second rent-controlled spot on the Upper West Side. But things went awry in his friend’s apartment; while showering one day, a large piece of glass from the shower door fell and hit her on the head, breaking in two. She sued the building, and Anthony, feeling guilty for having sublet the substandard spot to her illegally, helped her move out. That experienced bonded them; soon they were dating, and not long after, engaged.

Hoping to gain private sector experience (“I had a five-year plan for greatness,” Anthony recalls) he transitioned to a job at JP Morgan, where he learned he didn’t like banking much. He found the company “overstaffed and pointless,” and took a side gig in a biology lab, just for fun. He began looking for a way out of banking. One of his coworkers, a hotshot named Kevin, told him about a woodworking business based out of Hawaii, run by Kevin’s father. Anthony trusted Kevin, perhaps a little too much. After Anthony made a few short jaunts to Hawaii and invested some money, Kevin’s father took off with everything, leaving him $700,000 in debt.

Now in a financial mess, Anthony took a job with Vanguard Mutual Fund, located in Philadelphia. His new boss, eager to keep him around, kept trying to set him up on dates with local women — an ineffective strategy, since Anthony was still dating his fiancée in New York, whom he traveled to see every weekend. (“I don’t think I ever woke up on a Sunday morning in Philadelphia,” he says.) The engagement didn’t last, but surprising himself, his attachment to New York did.

In 2005, after six years at Vanguard, Anthony’s debts were finally paid. He moved back to New York, where he found a basement apartment on West 22nd Street, formerly the building’s laundry room, with a wraparound moat-like courtyard — again, large enough to throw social gatherings. By now, Anthony’s linear life planning had given way to his more adventurous side. He started working in computer programming, creating artificial intelligence programs, which he still does. He also began competing in storytelling slams, telling humorous, first-person tales in front of live audiences at the Moth—and winning, a lot.

He soon traded up to a three-thousand-square-foot loft in Union Square, where he hosted after-parties for storytellers, stringing up paper lanterns on the roof and serving home-cooked food. Despite being the perennial host, Anthony never truly felt at home in the Union Square pad, mostly because it was just too big.

When it comes to his aesthetic, Anthony is a fan of the “Charlie Brown Christmas tree,” meaning places that have “some great romantic element that other people don’t necessarily see.” He often aims for faded beauty, buying furniture from second-hand shops and flea markets.

Anthony’s apartment
Anthony’s apartment

Four months ago he moved into a one-bedroom loft on the Lower East Side, close to Chinatown.  His landlords are artists who bought the building for $20,000 in the 1970s. This space has been an art gallery, a synagogue and a Vaudeville theater. As a veteran mover, he’s well aware of how much his life in the city changes based on his neighborhood. In Union Square, he cooked a lot. But now he eats out more frequently because the food options, including lots of Cantonese seafood restaurants, are copious.  But more notably — six New York apartments, three careers, one broken engagement, one disastrous investment and one aborted stint in Philadelphia later, the caddie from Illinois finally feels at home in New York.

“We’re spoiled here,” he says, referring to the wealth of cultural opportunities and the overall “energy.” And, he adds, “Someone has to say this: the women are a lot more interesting here than elsewhere.”

 *   *   *

Name: Ted Riederer, 42
Occupation: Art handler, artist, founder of Never Records — part love letter to record stores and part-art installation; www.secretshape.com.
Neighborhood: Long Island City, Queens
Item to save in a fire: An acrylic seascape with sharks in the foreground, painted by his grandfather in the early to mid-seventies. “My grandmother always used to say, ‘You’ll never be as good a painter as your grandfather,’” Riederer recalls. “I didn’t pay much attention to it then, but now, I love this painting.”

Ted Riederer (Photos by Sophie Butcher)
Ted Riederer (Photos by Sophie Butcher)

Technically speaking, Ted Riederer is not a New York City transplant. He grew up in Rockville, Maryland, but was born at St. Vincent’s and spent the first three years of his life in Manhattan with his parents and older sister. His father, a first-generation American born to German parents, was raised here, save for a handful of years in rural Germany during World War II. (Unable to find work here, his grandfather took the family back to his native country on what was supposed to be an extended vacation, but turned into a much longer trip.) The younger Riederer grew up visiting his father’s family in Long Island City, where his grandfather would pace the sidewalk waiting for his son’s family to arrive, a tradition Riederer’s own father continues to this day. Years before he finally decided to make his leap to the Big Apple at the age of thirty-four, Riederer would often say, “New York is home. 

Riederer took a circuitous route to return to his roots.  During the summer of ’86, when he was sixteen and his mother had been in the hospital for a year, he spent a summer here with his grandmother while attending a program at Parsons School of Art. Seeing the disruptive effect his mother’s absence had on him, his teachers had pooled their money together and invented a “scholarship” to send him to the city.

He remembers bringing his grandmother fresh bread from a bakery around the corner, and, on occasion, picking up flowers, too. His Uncle Alfred was also living in the family brownstone, and Riederer remembers sneaking into the living room and playfully pedaling backwards on Alfred’s stationary bike to change the number on the odometer.

Despite these ties, after graduating from high school, Riederer enrolled as a freshman at Tufts University and ended up weaving a strong network in Boston, with friends he met through music, art and his job as a bike courier, which sometimes required riding as many as thirty miles a day. During evenings Riederer would head to his band’s studio, located in a desolate area of Boston, sidestepping the “parking lot calamari” (leftover condoms from industrious prostitutes), to reach their second-floor studio. On weekends, he worked on his oil paintings, including a series of pop culture figures as religious icons, i.e. Don Knotts as San Sebastian. With sixteen years under his belt as a near-Bostonian, Riederer says, “I was ensconced in my life there.”

His then-girlfriend of four years, however, wasn’t. Eager to leave Boston, she started talking about living somewhere else. (When asked why he moved, Riederer says, “Basically, my girlfriend gave me an ultimatum.”)

Since Riederer had previously felt the siren call to New York, the pair agreed to move to the tri-state area.  “I’d reached a point where I couldn’t deny the fact that I wanted to be a visual artist, and this city was the place to come,” he says.

Riederer’s girlfriend moved a year early to start her graduate program, while he stayed behind in Boston to apply to art schools. Though they tried to see one another every two or three weeks, less than a month before his scheduled move, in August 2004, he says of their relationship, “That thing blew up completely.”

Nevertheless, Riederer stayed true to his plan. “I packed all my shit in my rock-and-roll van and moved to New York City, completely heartbroken.”

He calls his first year, enrolled as an M.F.A. candidate at the School of Visual Arts, “the most amazing dark and light year I’ve ever had. I painted seventy hours a week. I painted myself cross-eyed.”

His first apartment was a share with a set dresser in Greenpoint. “We had machine-age furniture,” he recalls of the space, which he loved, despite its proximity to a schoolyard, where rambunctious kids started making noise as early as 7:30 a.m. “Even when I went to bed at 5:00 a.m.…”

His landlords, an older Polish couple, had just lost their son in a car accident and would often have him over for dinner. “The fact that I was a young man filled a void in their lives,” he explains. “That was the most loving place I ever lived.”

One year later, Riederer had recently finished helping his uncle Alfred refurbish the family brownstone, turning it from the single-family Alfred had lived in for years, into a rental-ready duplex, when he received an unexpected phone call from his father.

“I want you to live there,” his father said of the apartment, located just one block from MoMA P.S.1 in Queens.

Riederer had painted the walls and sanded every inch of the ceilings, thinking that “some lawyer would be moving in.” (The market rate for the two-story apartment, with a garden and high ceilings, exceeded his artist’s budget.) When his father said, “I’ll do whatever I can to get you in there,” Riederer held the phone away from his ear. I must be hearing things.

After his father agreed to put his share of the rent from one of their other buildings towards the family home, Riederer returned to his ancestral roots, relics of which are scattered throughout the apartment. The coffee table in the living room, for example, is the trunk his grandmother used to ship her belongings when they moved back to New York after the war in 1951.

Riederer found a black-and-white graduation photo of Alfred’s class, from when he attended P.S. 1, and immediately hung it by the front door.

“On my way to my art studio, I pass by PS1 (the art museum that now resides in the former public school),” says Riederer, and I think of my uncle’s short walk to school. This helped my feel instantly rooted in Long Island City.”

Aware of his good fortune, he says, “We were an immigrant family who moved to the only neighborhood they could afford, back in the early 1950s. They worked their asses off for decades, and now the next generation needs a refuge to make art and can really enjoy being here. You don’t hear about that very much. Most people are trying to move away from their roots.”

While Riederer uncovered a deeply personal sense of home in his physical dwelling, the city itself took more time. “It’s a very unforgiving place,” says. “There is a simultaneity of warmth and coldness here, because things turn over so rapidly.”

Nonetheless, Riederer forged friendships with his grad school colleagues and other art pals, helping found the Art Handling Olympics, a community event for the folks who haul art for gallery shows, and contributing to the underground Antagonist Art movement, a group that used to run a weekly night at Niagara, an East Village bar.

His community has grown larger since the 2010 launch of Never Records, an art exhibit held in the vacant Tower Records Building on Broadway and 4th Street, with more than forty artists and musicians. Riederer invites musicians to perform on site, records their sets and cuts them onto vinyl, giving one copy to the artists and keeping one record for his archives.

Since its inception, Riederer has traveled with the project to Derry, Ireland, Liverpool, London, Lisbon and most recently, New Orleans. His global travel makes his home, which he shares with his girlfriend Rose, and a roommate, all the sweeter.

When he’s in town, he sweeps his stoop only occasionally, as compared to his elderly neighbors, who perform the duty with an almost religious regularity. Riederer still likes that when he’s out there with the broom, the old German lady from down the block always comes by to chat. “It seems really natural that I am here,” he reflects. “Come on. I’ve been coming here for forty-two years.”

*   *   *

Name: Sheba Remy Kharbanda, 34
Occupation: Documentary filmmaker; astrologer and healer; www.shebaremy.com
Neighborhood: Cobble Hill, Brooklyn
Item to save in a fire: Daybed, one of the first pieces of furniture that Kharbanda bought, because it’s a favorite of her houseguests.

Sheba Remy Kharbanda (Photos by Sophie Butcher)
Sheba Remy Kharbanda (Photos by Sophie Butcher)

When Sheba Remy Kharbanda was twenty-three years old, she found herself unexpectedly contemplating a transatlantic move to New York City, the last place the Londoner ever thought she’d live. The reason for her change of heart? Well, this is where Charlie Moss, her soon-to-be husband and a committed New Yorker, lived. After a mutual pal had introduced the two in Cuba in 2000, Moss, a Rome, Georgia native, had doggedly pursued Kharbanda, eventually convincing her to meet him in Spain for New Year’s. Within months, the two realized they wanted to be together, a decision that took precedence over other factors, such as where they would live. After they decided to get married, Kharbanda said, “Well, I fucking hate New York, but let’s give it a go.”

The question of feeling “at home” is a serious one for Kharbanda, who’d always known London as an anchor, but not necessarily the place she’d stay forever, despite having been born and raised there. In contrast, her mother, who had been born in India, always had a strong conviction that London was her permanent home, and Kharbanda, for her part, envied her mother’s certainty. “That generation is so sure in a way that mine isn’t,” Kharbanda says.

Her first job in New York brought her into contact with other New York transplants, who, like her mother, had no qualms about where they belonged. Employed by Amnesty International USA, Kharbanda was responsible for monitoring U.S. government action in the wake of the 9/11 attacks. She interviewed post-9/11 detainees in jails and listened to stories from friends and family members of people who’d been caught up in immigration sweeps. From other immigrants, people who had built homes and invested time in this country but faced the prospect of deportation, she heard again and again, “But this is our home…

“I wished I could have that kind of confidence about where I belonged,” Kharbanda says.

During that initial period, when she felt increasingly out of place, the sensitive Kharbanda began sensing her grandparents’ ghosts around her, especially in the fraught aftermath of 9/11, a time when some South Asians in New York were distancing themselves from the Muslim community.

Both sets of her grandparents had been uprooted from their respective homes during the Partition of 1947. “Seeing South Asians distancing themselves from each other, adopting American symbols as protective measures, and reflecting on how different it is for our community in the UK had me reflecting on the loss of home and center my grandparents, and I guess my parents, too, must have experienced,” she says.

Her mother’s parents had moved from Pakistan to India; her father’s from Afghanistan to India. Her maternal grandfather wandered the globe looking for a new home, spending time in Chile as a farm laborer, before moving to England. Her maternal grandmother, for whom the displacement had taken a physical and emotional toll, died at the age of fifty “of a broken heart.”

“They stayed unsettled their whole lives,” says Kharbanda.

It wasn’t until two years later, during the blackout of 2003, that Kharbanda finally found what she’d been looking for in New York: a sense of community. “All of a sudden, everyone thought it was 9/11 all over again,” remembers Kharbanda, but when people realized that the blackout wasn’t terrorist-related, she sensed a collective sigh of relief on the streets. On Eighth Avenue, people barbequed, offering food and bottles of water to passersby. “Then I saw New Yorkers,” she says.

Kharbanda’s home
Kharbanda’s home

Kharbanda remembers going into her apartment that night, after walking home in a “sea of humanity” to Red Hook, lighting candles and “laughing my ass off” that this crisis was the key to her warming to New York City. She recalls thinking, “If this is New York, this is a place I want to belong to, where people say ‘We’re not dying? Alright, let’s party like we are.’”

In 2006, Kharbanda and Moss, who run a film company together, began looking to buy a home large enough to include an office for their newly established business. Two years later, they laid eyes on a three-story building on a side street in Cobble Hill. The asking price was too high, though. Although it needed a lot of work, Kharbanda remembers thinking, Wow, whoever gets this space is going to be so happy. This is a home.

Six months later, Kharbanda and Moss were still on the hunt, when a friend suggested they make a modest offer on the dream house. “We low-balled them,” says Kharbanda, who soon took off to London to celebrate her thirtieth birthday. When she was walking through the British Museum with her brother, Moss called and asked what she wanted for her birthday. “I want a fucking house,” she cracked. When Moss told her the owner had accepted their offer, she started shrieking.

Kharbanda and Moss experienced their fair share of bumps when they began renovations: unannounced inspections; issues with the contractors; never-ending piles of sawdust.  Other obstacles included a mortgage that fell through at the last minute. Kharbanda saw these challenges as a test. “For two wanderers to commit to home-owning, it was like we were being asked, How bad do you want this?

After returning from a trip to Georgia in 2009, the pair expected the space to be ready. The consummate hosts had even planned a party to inaugurate the home. But when they walked in, they saw that the construction wasn’t finished. Fed up, Kharbanda and Moss cleared the basement, strung up lights and cued up the salsa music. The party would go on.

Fast forward three months. Just before New Year’s Eve, Kharbanda and Moss returned home from another trip to Mexico City, only this time the house was quiet, no construction materials, no unfinished work. Instead of feting it as the fun-loving pair normally might, they lit some candles and cooked a low-key dinner in their new kitchen. After two years, their house was complete. Finally.

As she’s settled into her external space, Kharbanda has also become more at home with her metaphysical talents. Though the former law student is shy about this facet of her personality, she says her healing work calls to her more urgently now that she’s in a space conducive to it. “There’s a powerful energy in this building,” she notes.

She holds healing circles in their house to coincide with cosmological events, such as new and full moons, and also performs astrological and tarot readings. Though her office is in the basement, she gravitates toward the open living room and airy kitchen, the latter of which has a greenhouse-like glass ceiling. At night, Kharbanda and Moss can see the moon and stars from the comfort of their rustic kitchen table.

It comes as no surprise, then, that Kharbanda’s take on New York City has a distinct correlation to her metaphysical work.

“New York can’t expand,” she says. “Where are we going to go? Instead, the city is constantly transforming from within.”

*   *   *

Suzanne Guilette is the author of Much to Your Chagrin: A Memoir of Embarrassment (Atria, 2009) which chronicles the year she spent collecting embarrassing stories on New York City streets.

Jessica Bal hails from a two-stoplight town in Massachusetts and now resides in a city with too many lights to count, where she produces media for an arts education organization and looks for any excuse to write, photograph and film stories that she’s curious about.

Sophie Butcher is a freelance writer, photojournalist, illustrator and designer who lives in Brooklyn. She has exhibited work in The New York Public Library and The Museum of the City of New York, among other places. She is currently working in the photo department at TIME Magazine.

 

 

In Most Schools, Gifted Students with Learning Disabilities Are Left Behind. Not Here.

Micaela Bracamonte was sick of seeing her sons struggle in settings that weren’t equipped for “twice exceptional” students. So she founded a school of her own.

A group of seven- and eight-year-old kids cluster around tables, solving math problems designed for students five grades ahead of them. They’re asked to add and subtract different amounts of minutes from a specific time, and are timed on how fast they can solve the problems. “So, if it’s 10:15 a.m. and you move 450 minutes into the future, what time is it? Then move 105 minutes back. What time is it now? Go!”

A tiny whiz kid tackles these problems with ease, which thrills him. Standing at about three-foot-eleven, his leg is as wide as some adults’ wrists. Unable to sit still, the invitation to show off his strategy on the board in the front of the room is met with a leap and a sprint.

“What’s the difference between this time and this number? You’ve got to subtract the fifteen minutes from 10:15 and then write the rest out as an equation,” he explains proudly. “I’m so good at this now I can see the equation in the first second! If you guys want to get fast at doing this, this is what you’ve got to do. You’ve got to use this strategy!”

The kids in this class are not just exceptionally smart. They’re “twice exceptional,” or “2e,” a term that refers to students who are academically gifted and also have learning disabilities.

A 6th-grade math class, where the students learn pre-algebra at the Lang School in Manhattan.

A co-teacher and a learning specialist accompany the head teacher in this classroom at the Lang School in Manhattan’s Financial District, an institution dedicated to twice exceptional kids. The learning specialist is consoling a girl in the corner who has been crying for over a half hour. This is a normal occurrence. She suffers from anxiety so debilitating she can’t function in a more conventional school.

Although the notion of being well above average in certain academic areas but an underperformer in others doesn’t seem too novel, twice exceptionality is rarely represented in academic literature. Compared to the amount of study and research devoted to special education and gifted education, twice exceptional education receives barely a peep. Many special and gifted education practitioners do not even know the term.

Children’s writing on the “graffiti wall” in the hallway at the Lang School. The graffiti walls are replaced each year, and the old ones are kept for posterity.

The federal government doesn’t track twice exceptionality, but, beginning in 2008, the state of Minnesota researched it during a five-year study of public primary school children. The study determined 14 percent of the gifted students studied were also learning-disabled. (The National Association for Gifted Children defines “gifted” children as having “outstanding levels of aptitude or competence in one or more domains” including math, music, language, painting, dance or sports.)

Some public-school students who are eligible for special education can have Individualized Education Programs (IEPs) developed, but many schools don’t have the resources to match twice exceptional students’ more complex requirements. Assistance may be needed for challenges with focus, organization, motivation, time management, anxiety, depression, motor skills, speech skills, memory, and socialization – as well as teaching designed for gifted students.

* * *

The Lang School was founded by Micaela Bracamonte, a 52-year-old mother who was concerned that her own twice exceptional children weren’t getting the attention and support they needed – and it’s one of just ten schools (all private) in the U.S. exclusively serving twice exceptional students.

As a twice exceptional student herself, Bracamonte’s own academic life, growing up in Bethesda, Maryland, was one of frustration, rebelliousness and conflict, fueled by a lack of support for her twice exceptionality. She could speak three languages by first grade, but was held back because she couldn’t recall the alphabet in order. By third grade, she’d read many of her school’s textbooks, but was still not allowed to advance.

As the anger from being misunderstood and alienated mixed with intellectual boredom, year after year, Bracamonte began to detest social convention and authority. She turned to athletics, pouring 30 hours a week into gymnastics and track and field training, but with bitterness. When she was about to get first, second, or third place in a race – when there was something at stake – she would stop just short of the finish line and walk off the track.

“I wanted to make a point,” she says. “I wanted my coaches and school to know I didn’t care about them, or the medals, or the accolades.”

She believed school failed her, and that pain didn’t fade. Watching her children experience similar issues lit a fire in her.

Bracamonte’s older son, Julien, 18, began his academic career in public school, where his combination of ADHD and a high IQ forced his teachers to confront a challenge they were never trained to meet. Julien was always getting up and walking around the room, a thinking tool for him but a distraction for others in that particular environment.

“Sometimes I feel I need to move around,” Julien says. “I get how that can be disruptive but sometimes I need that.”

One year, his teacher placed a rocking chair in the back of the classroom and forced Julien to sit in it at all times. She dismissed him from school at noon every day, stating that he’d already absorbed the material anyway. It became clear “normal” school was just not a viable option for him.

Micaela Bracamonte, left, Founder and Head of the Lang School, with her sons Julien and Pascal and her husband and co-founder of the school, Andreas Olsson.

Bracamonte’s younger son, Pascal, 13, was in public school for kindergarten, where the math and reading were much too simple for him, but he too has ADHD. He was enrolled at Lang by first grade.

“The math is actually hard for me now,” Pascal says, “which is good because I do really enjoy math. I studied trigonometry all of last year.”

* * *

In 2007, Bracamonte decided she’d had enough of watching her sons repeat the miserable experiences she’d had in public school, so she decided to start a new school that would cater to both their gifts and their challenges.

“I found myself spending so much time jerry-rigging my two twice exceptional kids’ educations that I created a school setting in the basement of our house, started inviting other kids into it, hired teachers, trained them, and started getting trained myself as a teacher,” Bracamonte explains. “I realized I was doing a damn good job at it, actually. So I started an official school.”

Lang School students set up a giant Jenga game during gym class. Other gym class activities include karate, yoga, ping pong, and personal training at a local gym.

Bracamonte and her husband, Andreas Olsson, now Lang’s Director for Systems and Education, decided against having a third child or buying a house so they could personally finance the school’s creation. Bracamonte traded her career as a journalist for an obsession with creating the best twice exceptional school possible, crediting her journalistic inquiry – and severe ADHD – for her success.

After hiring an education attorney to assist with writing the school’s charter, applying for and receiving 501(c)(3) non-profit status, they found commercial real estate. The space had to meet legal guidelines for a school’s architecture, so the attorney recommended an architect to hire.

Bracamonte assembled a Board of Directors consisting of some of the Northeast’s most experienced twice exceptional experts, and hired the teachers who performed best in her home-school. She then called many child psychologists to pitch Lang as a resource for the appropriate patients. Exhausted, dejected parents of twice exceptional children were overjoyed.

“I couldn’t imagine what we would have done if Lang wasn’t an option,” Joel Brenner said, mother of Micah, nine, a fourth grader with Asperger syndrome who has been a Lang student since kindergarten. “They get him and have given him an incredible sense of ‘I can do this.’”

Classes filled up. By then, it was 2009.

Lang’s tuition for twice exceptional students is $60,000 per school year, with roughly 40 percent of the student body receiving a reduced rate whereby the school is compensated the difference by New York City’s Department of Education.

Under Bracamonte’s direction, a key focus of the Lang School is to find a student’s strengths and build as much of their curriculum around them. The goal is for the student to capitalize on these strengths so they are capable of specializing in a certain area, but also to feel intrinsic motivation to cultivate more compensatory skills in other areas.

4th- and 5th-grade students listen to their teacher read the book, “Ivan,” aloud during their ELA class.

Bracamonte taught a screenwriting class with two students where one always struggled with writing. He was known among the teachers and students more for his quantitative skillsets.

“So all we did was write dialogue, because he’s a hell of a talker, and I scribed for him,” Bracamonte explains. “In an hour, we wrote a seven-minute screenplay. I’ve convinced this kid he’s a writer. His language use is magical. Step by step, I can see this kid doing this for a living. He just can’t figure out how to get it on paper on his own yet. Our job is to build that bridge.”

Lang became a lab to test out both tried-and-true and the latest research-driven methods in special education and gifted education. But Bracamonte didn’t have formal teaching credentials such as a degree in education (and still doesn’t) or prior teaching experience.

“I think I’m very lucky to not have education credentials.” Bracamonte says. “I don’t feel I’m lacking something. I’m actively avoiding them, because I don’t want to get locked into that mindset. You learn by doing, working tirelessly, self-reflection, asking questions and taking things to the next level. I’m open to risk, very comfortable with it and I tend to confront challenges head on.”

But while self-taught Bracamonte improvised with the structure and vision for the Lang School’s curriculum, pulling in new research from gifted, special and general education, some of her board members – mainstays in the twice exceptional educator community who have those education credentials Bracamonte says she can do without – wanted to stick with more time-tested methods.

Bracamonte is quick to point out that most on her staff are highly credentialed but, despite that, constructing an expertized school wasn’t her way. She continued developing an institution that was experimental compared to other twice exceptional schools, and tensions with those members of the board flared – they are no longer affiliated with Lang.

Micaela Bracamonte reads in her office at the Lang School.

One former board member, who asked not to be identified because she did not want to jeopardize relationships in the community, said Bracamonte would not acknowledge consensus educational principles, and was overly distrustful of the rest of the twice exceptional community.

“Micaela’s brilliant, she’s a visionary, but she’s very unpredictable,” she said.

Bracamonte believes the twice exceptional community has an “old guard,” as she put it: “folks involved with other twice exceptional schools, folks on my original Board, folks who have an old-fashioned, not child-centric, not parent-centric, rather elitist view of education. So I feel our school is headed towards some new territory.”

She believes the twice exceptional model her school is building for its students is potentially paradigm shifting. By studying the New York City Department of Education’s data on test scores, gifted students and Individualized Education Programs, she estimates there are at least 50,000 twice exceptional students in New York City. This doesn’t count students unrecognized because of cultural, language or economic reasons. But she knows how hard it is to run a highly unconventional school that causes even some in her niche to be skeptical.

“I know the population is huge. I know the possibilities are great. I know the scale could be large. I will work hard and continue to work hard until I’m not working anymore. We’ll see where this goes.”

 

 

Babies For Sale: The Secret Adoptions That Haunt One Georgia Town

In midcentury Appalachia, an intrepid doctor sold newborns to desperate couples. Today they’re all grown up, and seeking answers.

On a humid August day in the small mountain town of McCaysville, Georgia, Sandy Dearth stands in front of the building where, 53 years ago, a nurse secretly and illegally handed her out a back window to a pair of eager and nervous adoptive parents. Sandy, who has not been back here since that day in 1963, is holding her husband Bill’s hand tightly. A lifetime of searching has led her to this moment.

The building she faces is divided into several units: at one end rests a BBQ joint, at the other a pizza place. In between, poison ivy grows along the peeling painted brick walls and a faded FOR RENT sign hangs in the window. This forlorn space is where the Hicks Community Clinic once operated. In addition to providing standard healthcare for members of this declining mining town, the clinic offered clandestine abortions and adoptive services to desperate girls and young women. Sandy’s biological mother was one of them.

Sandy Dearth and her husband Bill view the former Hicks Community Clinic, the site of Sandy’s birth and illegal adoption.
Sandy Dearth and her husband Bill view the former Hicks Community Clinic, the site of Sandy’s birth and illegal adoption. (Photos by Matthew Steven Bruen)

“The person that bore me,” she says, her blue-green eyes shining, “how must they have felt? Were they scared? Did they have to? Did they want to? Were they forced to? Why didn’t they abort me? What happened? Are they alive?” She pauses, catches her breath. This is the closest she has ever come to this phantom woman. Despite a gulf of fifty-plus years, Sandy feels her presence here.

She walks around to the alley behind the building and pauses in front of the window where she was passed to her now deceased adoptive parents all those years ago. Tears again fall down her face. She breathes deeply, and steels herself.

“I can’t believe my parents actually came down here and did this.” She laughs. It is a light-hearted sound, one full of love. “Knowing that this was all illegal. I mean, I know my parents. My parents would not do this, OK? They wouldn’t even throw a piece of paper out the window of their car. No way. And they drove down in the middle of the night? Only had this many hours to come get a baby. Got me through a window! Holy cow. ‘And do not contact anyone,’ they said to them, ‘we’ll forge you a birth certificate.’ And they did this?”

Indeed they did, along with the adoptive parents of approximately 212 other children who have become known as the Hicks Babies, after Dr. Thomas Jugarthy Hicks.

Side door of the now abandoned Hicks Clinic.
Side door of the now abandoned Hicks Clinic.

Starting in 1955 and running through the early 1960s, Hicks offered secretive abortions and adoptions here. Eventually, in 1964, he was caught performing an abortion and was summarily stripped of his medical license. He died in 1972 and it took three decades before Hicks’ actions were brought to light. In 1997, news of the scandal broke, as several Hicks Babies began digging into their past. The story made national news, resurfacing again in 2014, when the Babies teamed up with Ancestry.com and ABC News to conduct DNA tests on themselves and members of the nearby community. The researchers made several matches, and the Babies met many long-lost cousins and siblings. A very small number were reconnected with their birth parents.

Although their search for their origins has been documented – some might even say exploited – what remains unseen is the powerful relationship the Hicks Babies share with each other and to the place that is and isn’t their hometown. It is a story punctuated by emotional reunions with individuals who have spent decades helping to undo the damage caused so many years ago. And it is a story of the unique and deep comradeship that has arisen amongst this most unusual of groups.

* * *

When Dr. Hicks began his illicit practice, abortions were illegal in the United States. The poverty here in the Copper Basin of southeast Tennessee and far north Georgia, which includes the town of McCaysville, often meant that pregnant women couldn’t ask a relative or friend to help raise their children. The extra mouths to feed were simply too expensive. Stories of young girls dying from botched abortions in the early ’50s still exist in the living memories of those from the region. It is possible that deaths like these convinced Dr. Hicks that something needed to be done.

Dr. Thomas Hicks. (Photo courtesy of Melinda Dawson)
Dr. Thomas Hicks. (Photo courtesy of Melinda Dawson)

“Hicks was providing a service,” says Ken Rush flatly. Rush is the director of the Ducktown Basin Museum, a small institution devoted to preserving the history of the area. He sits at a table with his hands resting calmly in front of him. Directly behind him is a display case filled with the various chemicals manufactured in the factories that once served as the area’s primary economic engines.

“If there was no demand for the service,” Rush continues, “Hicks would not have been doing it. He wasn’t going around knocking girls up and holding them hostage in his apartment until they delivered their babies so he could sell them.” Like many people who live and work in the Copper Basin, Rush is frustrated by sensationalist portrayals of Dr. Hicks.

“But people believe that.” His voice drops and he imitates a morally outraged newscaster: “‘He’s sellin’ babies!’ No, he did not keep records. Why would he keep records? The second the adoption was completed and the family took the child he got rid of any paper trail.” It is this gap that fuels the conspiracy theorists, according to Rush.

Rush rejects the rumors that Hicks intentionally impregnated young girls, put them up in his home, and then sold his own children for profit. He rejects the claim that Hicks became incredibly wealthy because of his actions. And he rejects the belief that Hicks hid his records somewhere and that they are out there, waiting to be found.

The barren landscape between Copperhill, Tennessee and McCaysville, Georgia. (Photo courtesy of Ducktown Basin Museum).
The barren landscape between Copperhill, Tennessee and McCaysville, Georgia. (Photo courtesy of Ducktown Basin Museum).

“Look,” he states, “it’s all very simple. Word got out. There’s a doctor in the mountains. Call him, he can help you. It’s not exciting. It’s not scandalous. And what do we like as a society? We like scandal. We like dirty laundry. We like it to be nefarious.”

* * *

After she pauses for photos in front of her birthplace, Sandy Dearth huddles with her daughter Crystal and two fellow Hicks Babies, Melinda Dawson and Cyndy Stapleton. They have returned here for Sandy, to show her where she came from. “There’s someone I think you should meet, Sandy,” Melinda says gently. “It’s just a short walk from here.”

Melinda, 53, is the de facto leader of the Hicks Babies. She is tall and redheaded, the product of an ancestry she does not fully know. Perhaps more than any other adoptee, her life has been marked by tragedy. Not only was she illegally adopted out of the Hicks Clinic, but her adoptive mother was murdered in 1998. Her husband at the time, Clarence Elkins, was falsely convicted of the slaying. But through the use of DNA evidence, Elkins was exonerated and the real perpetrator was ultimately discovered. Melinda has also survived a bout with cancer.

Melinda leads the way to a small white house that sits on the banks of the Toccoa River. She walks around to the back, where a southern-style screened porch is adorned with rocking chairs and vibrant plants. She rings a bell and waits. A graceful 88-year old named Doris Abernathy appears. Melinda’s presence on the porch comes as an unexpected but welcome surprise. As the visitors take seats on the porch, Melinda introduces Sandy. “She’s here for the first time since her birth, Doris,” Melinda says.

Doris’ thin body shakes with emotion. She embraces Sandy like she would a long-lost relative, clutching her tight, eyes brimming with tears. “I’ve seen your picture before,” she says. “I’m so glad you came.”

After releasing Sandy, Doris takes a seat and begins to hold court, telling the women, “I have enjoyed all of you. I am so proud of all you.” Doris explains that her kin were close with the Hicks family, that they were neighbors and friends. She is one of the only people still living who was a contemporary to Hicks and knew him well. She also knew some of the birth mothers who gave away their children at Hicks’ clinic.

Like Ken Rush, she expresses dismay at “newspaper people” who are only interested in “sleaze” and have misrepresented him. “He was a very generous person. He and Mrs. Hicks were so kind to so many people. I never knew anyone so generous. He did a lot for this town,” she pauses and looks up at the Hicks Babies. “I saw him do more good than I think he did harm. I’m not saying he was perfect. I’m saying I saw the man do a lot of good.”

The state line that divides Copperhill, Tennessee from McCaysville, Georgia.
The state line that divides Copperhill, Tennessee from McCaysville, Georgia.

Melinda speaks up, and softly pushes back: “I just wish he would have gave us a future to come back and be able to find our history.” Doris shakes her head and explains, “Honey, he would have been put in prison.” The answer does not sit well with the Hicks Babies. The lack of records is the most significant hindrance in their search for their origins. Either Hicks didn’t keep any records at all, or he destroyed them. To this day, none have been discovered. The only paper trail he left were the falsified birth certificates, which of course do not include the names of the babies’ biological parents.

“With us, we weren’t given a chance to find out who or where we’re from,” Melinda says.

“You go through life thinking, ‘who do I look like?’, ‘why do my kids have this disease?’” Cyndy says, echoing her sentiment. “The medical situation. It’s terrible. We are all getting to the age when this really starts to matter. And we don’t know what to expect.”

Sandy’s daughter Crystal, who has spent years working to uncover her family’s history, steers the discussion back to the birth mothers who came to McCaysville to have their babies – or to abort them.

“A lot of girls that came weren’t connected to the people in the town, were they?” Crystal asks.

Doris’s answer surprises her. “I’m sure there were people away from here that found out about Dr. Hicks,” she says. “But now, I’d say the majority were local people. From my experience. They were from around here.”

Sandy contemplates the notion that she is sitting in her mother’s hometown.

“Someone was kind enough to give me life,” she says, her voice choked with an amalgam of sadness and love and pain and hope. “And I want to thank her.”

“Think of it this way,” Doris says in response. “You had someone who didn’t have an abortion. They had their little baby. And you were fortunate someone came and got you. You have been loved twice. You’ve been doubly blessed.”

Doris Abernathy sits in a rocking chair on her back porch.
Doris Abernathy sits in a rocking chair on her back porch.

Doris Abernathy is not the only member of the Copper Basin community who expresses a positive opinion about Dr. Hicks and his actions – something that has seldom been explored by news coverage of the Hicks Babies.

“I liked him. He birthed me. I came into the world in his hands,” says Bill Dalton, who sits at a long table in the special collections of Young Harris College’s library, surrounded by rare volumes of books while he looks through old photographs of the institution from back when he was enrolled here.

“He made contributions to almost all of the charities in town. He was a leader,” explains Dalton, who grew up in Copperhill, the town adjacent to McCaysville. He goes on to offer words of encouragement and love toward the Hicks Babies: “I would never fault anyone for searching for their origins. I feel for them. I hope they are successful.”

* * *

“It’s not about Dr. Hicks anymore,” Melinda says, “it’s about us.” The Hicks Babies and their supporters sit around a table at a local restaurant. They are tired and hungry following their emotional return to McCaysville and need some time to recharge. “We have become our own family. We may have lost the ability to contact our birth parents, but we’ve gained each other.”

The entire group echoes her sentiment. “The connections I’ve formed to these women and the others who are not here today is one of the most unexpected and lovely outcomes of this horrible situation,” Cyndy declares. Unlike Sandy and Melinda, Cyndy was reunited with her birth mother. But instead of providing closure, the reunion opened up more questions than answers. “I did get to meet two of my birth brothers. But my mother didn’t give me the full story,” Cyndy says, “apparently, there are three other birth brothers out there. I never got the answers I was looking for.”

The Hicks Babies pose for a photograph with Doris Abernathy. From left to right: Sandy Dearth, Doris Abernathy, Melinda Dawson, and Cyndy Stapleton.
The Hicks Babies pose for a photograph with Doris Abernathy. From left to right: Sandy Dearth, Doris Abernathy, Melinda Dawson, and Cyndy Stapleton.

“Oh!” Cyndy exclaims, “Linda is going to make it. She’s only a few minutes away.” Sure enough, Linda Davis arrives shortly thereafter. She is a small, grey-haired woman who is vibrant and exceptionally witty. After doling out several hugs and smiles, she takes a seat at the table. Linda was the area’s probate judge when the Hicks Babies story first made national headlines in the 1990s, and she aided the Babies in their search. She has since maintained ties with them for over twenty years.

“Although I sometimes feel like I am not necessarily welcome in town,” Melinda says, “support from people like Linda shows us that a large segment of the community cares, that they accept us as their own. And we are.”

The subject changes to the group’s final destination: Crestlawn Cemetery. This is where Dr. Thomas Jugarthy Hicks is interred. “Is it true that authorities opened the Hicks mausoleum to search for records pertaining to the Hicks Babies?” asks Crystal. “Oh yes,” answers Linda. “I was there.”

“I was convinced something was in there,” Linda states. “It is so odd that Hicks himself is not in the mausoleum. He is buried right beside it, but not in it.” An empty tomb. Missing birth records. Decades of uncertainty. It is easy to understand why people believed something was behind those doors. “When they opened it up there was great excitement. But there was nothing in it. There’s nothing there,” Linda says definitively.

For her part, local resident Theresa Starnes offers a plausible explanation. “I heard that at the time of his death there was concern that in the future people would want to break in and either steal or desecrate his body. That could be why he isn’t in the tomb.”

As the group finishes lunch, Melinda says, “Are we ready to go to the cemetery?” Everyone nods and moves to their cars. Like a funeral procession, 44 years late, they all follow each other to the graveyard.

* * *

Crestlawn Cemetery rests on the top of a hill overlooking the blue-green peaks of the Blue Ridge Mountains. It is a stunning place, offering peaceful views to those who mourn their dead. Two mausoleums rise above the simpler graves. One of them is the empty tomb of Thomas Hicks. It is not lost on the women that the money Hicks made from selling them as babies might have contributed to the purchase of this unused place of repose.

The unoccupied Hicks tomb looms over Crestlawn Cemetery. Dr. Hicks’ grave is a few feet away.
The unoccupied Hicks tomb looms over Crestlawn Cemetery. Dr. Hicks’ grave is a few feet away.

Once the entire group has arrived, they congregate around the tomb. It shows signs of damage since their last visit. “It looks like someone tried to break in,” says Crystal. “Maybe teenagers, or maybe opportunists who still think it holds those records.” Despite their mixed feelings toward the man who guided them into the world, the Babies espouse disgust at this vandalism.

Sandy asks to see Hicks’ gravestone. Melinda points it out to her and brushes away grass clippings from the cemetery’s recent mowing.

THOMAS JUGARTHY HICKS, M.D.

OCT. 18, 1888     MARCH 5, 1972

WE LOVED THEE FOR THY ASTUTE MIND

BUT WE LOVED THEE BETTER FOR A HEART

THAT WAS GENTLE AND KIND.

GREEN SOD ABOVE LIE LIGHT, LIE LIGHT

GOOD NIGHT DEAD DAD, GOOD NIGHT GOOD NIGHT

It is telling that the stone describes Hicks as having an “astute mind” and a “heart that was gentle and kind.” To those standing around his grave on this hot August day, these lines are a subtle gesture to the actions that brought them into the world.

“I still don’t know,” Melinda says. “I owe my life to him, but he has also been the cause of so much pain and suffering. I don’t know. He let loose some real chaos into this world.”

* * *

If anyone has any information pertaining to the Hicks Babies and their continued search for their birth parents and related family, please visit their Facebook page for more information.

 

 

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

 

 

Lessons Learned from a Childhood Spent Touching Myself

From the tender age of four, rampant masturbation was my secret shame. It took an awkward sex ed class at a Christian private school to inadvertently teach me I wasn’t alone.

I was watching a squirrel eating trash through a window one day in middle school when I learned what masturbation was. A school counselor handed out a piece of paper with a list of terms related to sex, and their most basic, textbook definitions — the best version of sex education they could muster at the Christian school I’d ended up attending due to a grand miscommunication with my parents. I started examining the list, which thus far was the most interesting part of the presentation. Herpes: “hmm, okay definitely want to avoid that one.” Condom: “yeah, I think I’ve heard of those.” Vagina: “got it.” And then I got to “Masturbation: The act of pleasuring oneself.” I read it three, four times. While the counselor went on rambling about chastity, purity, God and abstinence, I was gleefully reading the word “masturbation” over and over in my head thinking, “That’s what I’ve been doing!”

I started masturbating abnormally early, around the age of four.

I don’t remember how it began, just that it became a habit around preschool. I was constantly on the hunt for new techniques, new tools. My first was probably the bathtub. I would sit with what my parents had named my “petunia” underneath the faucet until the water was too deep for it to have an effect anymore. Occasionally, if I knew my mother was definitely preoccupied, I’d drain the whole thing and start over. I would slip my legs through the slats in my parents’ footboard, and casually hump a panel while I watched cartoons. I eventually discovered my mother’s neck massager, which became both my favorite, and most dangerous tool, as there was no hiding what I was up to with that one.

Whenever I was “playing alone” — which was the best I could think to call it, having no idea that the world had gone above and beyond with creative monikers for this activity — I wasn’t really thinking about anything in particular. I did not have orgasms. I never touched myself with my hands. I just liked the way it felt when I came in to contact with other things. Much like how if you give a kid sugar, I didn’t care if I wasn’t supposed to — I was going to sneak a goddamn cookie.

Rather than being blissfully unaware of what I was doing, I was acutely in tune with the fact that it should be a secret. I don’t really know how I knew that, but it consumed me nonetheless. My best guess is that since I was taught to keep my petunia covered, I probably knew I wasn’t supposed to be fiddling with it. I knew I shouldn’t whisper to my childhood best friend, “hey try this,” and I knew even better that to be caught by my parents would be an embarrassment I would not come back from, tarnishing the rest of my life with my perversion. I envisioned my future ballet and piano recitals ruined, my parents watching through cracked fingers in horror as their little weirdo gave “Ode To Joy” her best shot. I expected it would get around our condo complex, and the neighbors would stop inviting me over to pet the new kitten or have a piece of cake.

I was not exposed to any explicit forms of sexuality early in life. I didn’t know what sex was. No one had molested me or been inappropriate with me. In fact I didn’t even connect what I was doing with sex. As I grew older and started to get tidbits of very wrong information from other children about what your genitals might be for, where babies come from, etc., like we all did, I still never thought any of that had anything to do with my playing alone. And I still didn’t even have a word for it.

* * *

I had one of those bad-influence friends who was a couple of years older than me. Let’s call her Julia. Julia’s parents had gotten divorced when she was a baby, and she liked to act out, not that the two were explicitly related. Her confidence in everything from singing Spice Girls out loud to stealing snacks from the teacher’s cabinet made it so I never questioned her. Julia told me a story about “Mr. Dingy Dong,” one day at daycare after school. Commanding my attention like she was telling a ghost story at summer camp, I hung on every word about a serial killer who went around cutting off cheating men’s penises. Where in the world she got the story, I will never know. Regardless, I went home and told my parents, and that was the end of my friendship with Julia.

Similarly, one day in kindergarten during reading circle, the wily kid who was best known for his bad-word repertoire, pulled out his penis and showed it to me. Both incidents horrified me, but I never connected them with anything having to do with my petunia.

One of the most sacred outings I shared with my father was going to Blockbuster every weekend. I was allowed to get whatever I wanted, within reason, even if I wanted to rent “Charlie’s Angels” for the fifth time in a row. My dad was patient, never rushing me as I’d walk down every single aisle before I was confident I’d made the right choice. One trip, while rounding the corner of the classics, I came face to face with a homeless man furiously masturbating. He did not approach me, but he did not stop either. I ran to my dad, told him I was ready to go, clinging to what I was not yet sure was the right choice of movie, but this time I didn’t care. I sat cow-eyed, stiff and afraid to move the whole ride home, until my dad finally got out of me what was wrong. Enraged, we got home and he called the store. The man had already left, but my dad was still insistent they check the cameras and call the police, “for God’s sake, there are children in there.” I continued to be shaken up, but never correlated what that man was doing in public with what I was doing in private.

There were a few times that I got caught. Once my mom opened the door to the bathroom while I was in the middle of my bathtub ritual. She very calmly told me to “stop running water on your hoo-ha,” and proceeded to pretty much always leave the door open after that. I was mortified that my mom had seen me in my darkest of hours, but even more devastated that I’d lost a whole third of my resources. From that point on I became convinced that my mom knew everything, and was perpetually about to catch me. It seemed that the neck massager was always on a shelf higher up in the closet, or in a different part of the house. When I asked her recently about the whole charade though, she was baffled. She said she vaguely remembered the bathtub, but it wasn’t something that stuck out, because it seemed innocent enough. The neck massager was news to her. What I perceived as a hide and seek routine between us, was more likely the normal way anyone wouldn’t pay that much attention in putting something so innocuous back in the same place every time.

Because it was never directly addressed — And why would it be? No parent would eagerly have a sex talk with such a young child — I developed a deep, internalized guilt. I didn’t just think I was dirty, I knew it. There was something wrong with me, and I resigned myself to just living with it — until I accidentally ended up at a Christian school.

* * *

The public school I was supposed to attend through the sixth grade announced late in my fifth-grade year that from the next school year on they would be adopting the newer K-4 model. This left my parents in a last-minute dash to figure out where I would go next. The school I’d been attending was an anomaly of public schooling, with various forms of cultural enrichment and liberal families. The public middle school, however, was notorious for violence and ill-equipped teachers, so my parents decided it was time to go private.

Because children don’t typically have community juice mixers, my social circle had pretty much been exclusive to school. But I did have a small handful of friends I’d attended a couple of summers of YMCA camp with. I was not raised with religion. I wasn’t discouraged from participating in it, and if I’d come home and said I wanted to become Jewish or Hindu, I’m sure my parents would have embraced it. But as it was I set myself on a path towards atheism. The YMCA camp was of course a little Christian, with occasional “our god is an awesome god” sing-a-longs. But they had climbing towers and water skiing, so neither I, nor my working parents cared. But my few friends from the camp were very Christian, and went to a Christian private school. I insisted on going to school with them, and my parents said if I got in they would let me attend. By some grand miscommunication, I didn’t realize that it was a Christian school; I just knew that my friends went there. I think my parents assumed I knew, and didn’t want to shun the idea if it was what I wanted.

So there I was. Already set back by my buck teeth, scrawny limbs, and complete lack of understanding of private-school preppy-ness, I was now also surrounded by kids who deeply believed in a god that I didn’t. I quickly became an outcast. I got in trouble for bringing my Destiny’s Child CD to school. The principal, who was basically Ronald Reagan, said it was inappropriate, but I think what he meant was, “that black music scares us like the Devil.” I did not live in the ticky tacky suburbs, but the big, bad city. It was like if Cher from “Clueless” had to spend a day with Harriet from “Harriet The Spy,” but for a year.

Every morning we’d go to our assigned homeroom for prayer. The teacher would take requests, and the kids would excitedly pipe up complaints about paper cuts, or making sure the soccer team got a parking spot close to the field for the bus before the game. I got in trouble for doodling during prayer time so often they told me to leave my notebook and pens in my locker. The bright side was that at least they didn’t expect me to write that shit down. Occasionally the teacher would prod me, “Chloe is there anything you’d like to pray for?” I’d just let out a big sigh. Eventually I started putting my head down on my desk, hoping they would just think I was praying extra hard.

One day around mid-year, if anyone had been unsure, I finally gave them what they needed to cement my reputation as the biggest freak in school. I’d spent the past semester going home in tears. I didn’t have friends, and it was as if the kids learned their bullying tactics from an episode of “Prison Break.” One girl told me that her mother checked her backpack every day for makeup. I responded with a casual, “oh, you have strict parents.” To me it was the same as “oh, your mom drives a Toyota,” a casual comparison of our living conditions. Apparently calling her parents “strict” was the same as if I’d called her mother the Whore of Babylon, and this girl saw to it that I was punished. Her pièce de résistance came on picture day. Because the school was so conservative, it wasn’t the ‘show up and smile’ event it had been in public school. Everyone came in quite literally their Sunday best. Before my class had our photos taken, we had gym class, where of course we wore uniforms. My tormentor took the opportunity to pretend to be sick, retreat to the locker room and hide my nice clothes. No administrator seemed to care, and so I took the picture, and spent the rest of the day crying, in my gym clothes.

My parents were already applying to move me to a liberal private school, the same one they’d initially suggested, and the one that I would ultimately graduate from. They were disgusted with the administration’s lack of reaction to any of the bullying I went through, and just tried to help me hang in there through the end of the year when it would all be over. So on that day, I had nothing left to lose. The prayer requests were flooding in, for crushes, for summer vacation to come quicker, for pizza at lunch. I snapped. I raised my hand and stood up. I proceeded to go on a rant about how five thousand children under the age of five died every day in Africa; how people were starving; how many children never had new things. I pleaded that they please end this useless pageantry of praying for meaningless things. I was swiftly sent to the principal’s office for the rest of the day.

* * *

Then hope came one day that spring in the form of their version of sex education. In true faith-based fashion, there was no science involved. We were separated by gender and a counselor came to address us. Let’s call her Cindy. Cindy was one of those younger school administrators who managed to come off as cool. She wore faith-inspired jewelry like the rest of them, but hers was always the chunky, edgy kind. She wasn’t afraid of heels and a flared hip-hugger pant. She looked like the main demographic at a Creed concert. But she was just like the rest of them underneath her Christian-chic wardrobe. She wrote “abstinence” on the board, and underlined it. She explained to the class that you should not have sex before you were married, because it was not what God wanted. God did not want you to think about it. God did not want you to almost do it. She then wrote the word “chastity” on the board and said, “get it?”

The last five minutes of class were reserved for private inquiries about any of the terms on that fated list that finally gave me a word for my secret. The rest of the girls, in true middle school fashion ran out, balking at the idea of engaging with the topic further. Hindsight is 20/20 though, and from the intel social media has afforded me, those girls really should have taken a second to inquire further about condoms and chlamydia. As for me, my questions had been answered. I’m sure if I’d said anything to Cindy she would have found a way to turn it into a miracle. My deviance was being divinely intervened, and I’d learn the name for my demon for the express purpose of expelling it from me like they’d thrown away my CD. But her lesson had the opposite of the intended effect. She had shown me that my sexual exploration was actually normal; something other people did, too. Maybe it was some kind of miracle, because for the first and only time in my tenure there, I sat and quietly thanked God.

* * *

Chloe Stillwell has a degree in nonfiction from The New School. She is a culture columnist for Spin Entertainment, and previously worked as a humorist at 20th Century Fox. She is currently working on her first book of essays.

Molly Walsh is a freelance illustrator and surface designer living on the East Coast. mollywalshillustration.tumblr.com  @wollymulch

 

 

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.