When her best friend started chemo, Chaya wanted a way to make her monthly mikvah as special as possible. She ended up finding a new kind of holy cleansing—even though it broke all the traditional rules.
Before she can meet God, Rachell Goldberg needs to get rid of all the nail polish on her toes.
An immersion in a mikvah, or Jewish ritual bath, is supposed to be an encounter with the divine, she says.
Goldberg widens her eyes. “I mean, like, imagine!”
At its best, mikvah gets you so clean, body and soul, that God is right there with you. But first, you have to make sure there is nothing between you and the water. That means being vigilant for everything from belly button lint to a stuffed nose and going head to toe to ensure no crevice or fold is forgotten.
So, Goldberg sets to work on her toes. First, she lets acetone-soaked cotton balls rest on her nails. Now, she’s scraping away at what’s left of the polish with a pair of tweezers, chin on her knees.
Goldberg is crouched on a chair in a private room at Mikvah Chaim in Washington, D.C. It feels like a spa. The room is warm, smells like flowers, and is full of every conceivable cleaning implement: drawers of pink razors, glass jars stuffed with Q-tips, a comb floating in shockingly blue Barbicide.
This will be Goldberg’s first immersion since beginning chemotherapy and radiation seven months ago. Before that, she immersed every month for thirteen years, since becoming a married woman (aside from the months when she was pregnant with her five children). As of today, Goldberg is done with the worst of her treatment, and her immersion is laden with meaning. When Goldberg was first diagnosed with breast cancer last year, she thought she would never go to a mikvah again.
Jews are commanded in the Torah and Rabbinic commentaries to immerse for three reasons: conversion, marriage, and monthly menstruation. This last one is controversial. Some see it as an insult, the insinuation that a natural process makes a woman unclean or untouchable, and that before she reunites with her husband she must become pure. Others see monthly mikvah as a powerful way to mark a transition between two states of being. In fact, the mikvah waters are often kept at body temperature and can feel womb-like, like a spiritual rebirth. Either way, for many Orthodox women in the United States, monthly mikvah is a part of life.
But what happens when a woman stops menstruating? Is her decades-long relationship with mikvah suddenly over? This is not an idle question. For many women, Goldberg included, chemotherapy for breast cancer means the end of their period. Ashkenazi Jewish women are at unusually high risk for breast and ovarian cancer. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Ashkenazi Jews on the whole carry the BRCA gene mutation, which leads to both these cancers, at a rate ten times that of the general population.
At traditional mikvaot, the spotlight is on a woman’s fertility and sexuality. But for Jewish women with breast cancer, treatment means not only the end of their childbearing years, but also a deeply altered relationship to their physical and sexual selves. There is no formal place at a traditional mikvah for these women. Their bodies have changed, but the ritual hasn’t caught up.
Mikvah has traditionally been known as more of a utilitarian in-and-out chore than a personal or holy experience. Mikvaot are often built to be functional, not comfortable. Goldberg recalls immersing in an ultra-Orthodox mikvah in Israel, where she lived as a young adult and served in the military. The mikvah was small and crowded, and she recalls the process of being “checked” by the mikvah attendant to make sure the immersion was halachic, following the strictest interpretation of Jewish law.
“She was a stickler, looking at each one of my fingernails and just poking and prodding me,” Goldberg says. There was little dignity in being examined with such brusque efficiency.
These issues become more pronounced while a woman is being treated for breast cancer, or after she has finished treatment. She may have scars across her chest. As she combs her hair to get rid of tangles, as per the custom, it may fall out. She may be more concerned about the spread of infection through the communal waters of a busy mikvah. She may be feeling vulnerable and exposed in her new body. After breast cancer, many women choose to leave mikvah behind. Before her diagnosis, Goldberg immersed every month out of obligation. After her diagnosis, she had an out — but she didn’t take it.
The night before Goldberg began chemotherapy, her friend Chaya Topas invited her to Mikvah Chaim, one of a wave of new mikvaot reimagining immersion in the United States. This mikvah revolution centers around opening mikvah, allowing patrons to come to the mikvah for any occasion that is holy to them, Biblically-commanded or not. It’s also about empowering women once they’re there, says Lisa Berman, a director at Mayyim Hayyim, one of the hubs of modern mikvah. Mayyim Hayyim and its protégée mikvaot allow patrons to engage with the ritual in a way that feels right for them, whether that means asking that some body parts not be checked or reciting a poem after the Hebrew blessing. Today, Jews of all denominations are using mikvah to mark everything from miscarriages to gender transitions.
And according to Berman, it’s all still kosher. In the Rabbinic commentaries, non-commanded immersion actually gets plenty of discussion. For instance, some ancient Rabbis recommended immersing on the holiday of Yom Kippur. Even though Jews are not commanded to immerse on this occasion, the Rabbis thought that doing so might still be powerful and good.
In traditional communities today, however, few take the license to stray from commanded immersion. Rivkah Slonim, editor of Total Immersion: A Mikvah Anthology, says that there’s a “distinction between doing something because it’s Biblically mandated and engaging in a practice because you are moved to do so.” She poses the question — what if somebody felt moved to hold a Passover Seder on Thanksgiving? “Finite connects to the infinite on the infinite’s terms,” she says.
In addition to being open, progressive mikvaot also value comfort. Topas recalls a conversation between synagogue board members as they discussed building Mikvah Chaim. One member assured the others that, not to worry, the mikvah would be nothing like a spa. But that’s exactly what it should be like, Topas thinks. “It’s supposed to be wonderful,” she says. “It’s supposed to be a spa-like experience so women will want to come back.”
Goldberg and Topas met because their children go to school together, and for a while, they were both at home during the day. They would talk and laugh and snack on the kosher Parmesan cheese Topas always keeps in her fridge. Topas is a mikvah attendant, and she wanted to use the mikvah to bless her friend as she headed into treatment. Jews are encouraged to come to the mikvah with kavanah, or intention. Topas says her intention for Goldberg that night was simple: that the blessing of the mikvah would bring her perfect health.
Every time Goldberg had ever gone to the mikvah before, she had done it for her family. She had prayed for shalom bayit, peace in the home, and reveled in the care she brought to preparing each part of her body for her husband. The night that Topas brought her to Mikvah Chaim was the first time she had ever gone to the mikvah outside of her menstrual cycle. It was the first time she had gone just for herself.
“It was really empowering to be like, ‘I can do this? This is allowed? I guess it is.’”
Goldberg could barely undress. She was in pain from her recent double mastectomy. But her mother was there to help. Her mother was the only person, aside from her doctors, who had seen her scars, so she was the one who guided Goldberg into the water. Traditionally, an attendant would be present to judge the body and immersion kosher or not, but this mikvah gave Goldberg the option of privacy.
Having her mom there reminded Goldberg of her first immersion, the night before her wedding. She had no idea how her life was about to change. Water, both times, was a sacred force.
“You go into the water and it holds you and it gives you so much. I don’t know. It surrounds you completely,” she says. “You’re floating at the same time you’re also so grounded.”
Goldberg’s favorite part was when her mother had left the room and she was alone in the mikvah — for the first time in her life.
“I was swimming around and I was like, this is amazing!” she says. “What is it, did they not trust me before? I mean, the whole concept of having your own time in there by yourself is incredible. It felt like this is probably the way it used to be.”
Goldberg pictured Jewish women in the ancient mountaintop fortress of Masada. She imagined that they immersed just like this — no hovering attendant, just holiness. But soon she started feeling that she was breaking the rules.
“No woman should have that feeling,” she says. “Every woman should feel like, this is my time. I deserve to be in here alone.”
That night, Goldberg realized that she had found a mikvah where she could immerse and be held exactly as she was. She found herself looking forward to going back.
* * *
Now, Goldberg has returned to the mikvah for the first time since that night, and she’s nervous. So much has happened since her last immersion. Goldberg says if she had known what kind of suffering was ahead, “I would have booked a one-way ticket to I-don’t-know-where.”
She’s finally gotten the nail polish off of her toes and has begun to comb her new, short hair in quick strokes. “It’s going to be much easier,” she says lightly. “No worries about loose strands of hair on my back or anywhere.”
She moves on to her eyebrows and grabs the tweezers.
“You’re allowed to have, in general, the hairs on your body that you normally keep.” She grins. “So, if you’re normally getting a Brazilian wax, you need to go get one for mikvah night.”
Goldberg is happy that both her eyebrows and eyelashes grew back — she lost them completely and wasn’t sure what would happen to them. “I got some tough Middle Eastern genes here, so,” she says.
Goldberg’s family is from Morocco — she describes herself as “purebred Sephardi.” Her face, as she stares into the mirror, is made of swift angles and wide eyes that hold yours without blinking. According to Topas, all of their friends say that Goldberg has never looked better. According to Topas’s husband, she’s the only one who could pull off her buzz cut, and it may be true. She looks beautiful.
Goldberg begins to file her nails, which became brittle and thin during chemotherapy. Now, she notices, there are a few cracks, but they have mostly grown in strong and healthy.
“The body,” she says, “has such a strong will.”
Goldberg’s intention for this immersion, her kavanah, is different from the last time. She’s hoping for a new beginning. She feels that cancer wrought havoc in so many parts of her life, from her body to her marriage. She looks very alone, squinting at her nails in this big, clean room.
Goldberg softly traces her eyelashes and eyelids with makeup remover, a strikingly caring the gesture. A ritual that might have been demeaning now demands a sort of meticulous self-gentleness. Mikvah provides a time to lovingly attend to each part of one’s body, even — and especially — when one’s body has changed.
Goldberg opens drawers, looking for floss.
“I know my dentist tells me I should be flossing every day,” she says, “but I don’t. I actually don’t. But before the mikvah, I always do.”
Goldberg is ready to go. She ties her robe tight and presses a buzzer. After a few moments, Topas arrives at the door and leads the way to the pool.
It’s small, and tiled, and deep. Goldberg looks at it, and then looks at me, and pulls her robe tighter.
“Let’s see. I don’t have nipples,” she tells me. “Just so you know.”
She explains that her tumor was too close to the front of her breast for the doctors to preserve the nipple, so instead she has two scars on her chest, and she doesn’t want me to get freaked out. I turn my back as she walks down the steps into the mikvah. A mikvah attendant might cover her eyes with the patron’s robe at this time, until the patron is neck-deep in the water.
Goldberg floats a bit, and then pushes herself completely underwater, crossing her arms and legs. She does this three times, and says the b’racha, the blessing, out loud once: Baruch ata adonai eloheinu melech ha-olam asher kid-shanu b’mitzvo-tav v’tzi-vanu al ha-tevilah. Halfway through, her voice breaks and she cries.
* * *
Now that Goldberg has found Mikvah Chaim, she wants to keep coming back. But she’s not sure when. If she can’t follow her menstrual schedule, she’ll have to invent a new schedule. Maybe she’ll go on her birthday, and her children’s birthdays, and her anniversary, and also Yom Ha’atzmaut (Israeli Independence Day).
Goldberg’s period will soon be gone completely, and it’s up to her to reinvent her relationship to mikvah. To ask why, and for whom, she immerses now.
“I’m not necessarily going to run to a rabbi and say ‘what do I need to do?’ from a halachic standpoint,” she says. “Just personally, what do I want to do? How much do I want to make it a part of my life? Because I’m going to miss it.”
Goldberg also wants to keep coming to the mikvah for her daughters. She doesn’t want to break the chain between generations. She wants her daughters to love mikvah, and to see their mother love mikvah. She’s glad they will have options like Mikvah Chaim.
Goldberg doesn’t think she’s doing anything too heretical by immersing outside of her menstrual cycle. In fact, she believes that women have probably always done this, sought out the mikvah for ritual and sanctity when they were struggling. All of the rules, the counting of days and plucking of hairs, were probably added in later. Of her immersion, Goldberg says, “It felt right. So, I’m sure it was.”
As the Brazilian tribal language Tupi Guarani nears extinction, this hyper-aggressive group is raising awareness about the urgent need to save it – one power chord at a time.
While taking the stage at Gillian’s Inn – a bar, restaurant and performance space in northern São Paulo, Brazil – the band Arandu Arakuaa compels the crowd into a moment of silence, unusual during a heavy metal show. Soft notes from the guitar, drums, contrabass and maracas, played by four men in the dress and facepaint of indigenous Brazilians, places the audience under a spell. A few seconds later, a petite female singer, her face painted like the others, joins the musicians. She shouts, breaking the spell, and as she begins singing, the crowd starts to jump around, bouncing their heads to the hard-hitting music that’s also kicked into gear.
The band combines traditional metal sounds with indigenous Brazilian stylings executed on flutes, foot rattles, and other instruments. The two singers present lyrics completely in Tupi Guarani, an ancient language spoken by tribes throughout Brazil and other South American lands. Arandu Arakuaa, whose name translates in Tupi Guarani – or just “Tupi” for short – to “wisdom of the cosmos,” is the only contemporary band to sing in that language, and their colorful lyrics are about indigenous legends, rights, and the struggles facing native Brazilian tribes today. Some call Arandu Arakuaa the first “folk-metal” band in the history of Brazil.
“It’s something new and is the most original thing I’ve heard in years,” says one audience member, Marcos Simão. “Who could ever imagine that two things that seem so different as heavy metal and indigenous culture, would result in something so cool?”
The person who dared to imagine that combination is Zhândio Aquino, the group’s founder, second vocalist and lyricist. Aquino descended from a Tupi-speaking tribe in the northern Brazil state of Tocantins, where he lived until he was 24 years old. “I had a very close contact with indigenous culture because of my grandmother and classmates,” Aquino says. “When I [began] playing in bands, it just felt natural to put my background on it.” Now 37, Aquino’s first experience with music came from the tribes and quilombos – villages populated by descendants of slaves who ran away from the farms they worked on in the 19th century. His love for heavy metal began when he was a teenager, when he emulated the genre’s brutally honest, expressive artists.
When Aquino moved to Brasília, the national capital, in 2004, he performed in a few amateur bands and people always observed that his music had an indigenous touch. “It was not always said as a compliment,” Aquino quips, “and I faced some resistance from some people at first.”
Aquino started looking for like-minded musicians to form his own band. It took three years to put Arandu Arakuaa together, but they’re still going strong, and are beginning to make waves in Brazil with their unique musical approach.
Before colonization began in about the year 1500, there were over a thousand languages spoken across Brazil. Today there are 170 indigenous languages, 40 of them with fewer than 100 speakers. Some experts believe 30 percent of the remaining indigenous languages may disappear in just the next 15 years.
“It’s a dramatic situation,” José Levinho, director at the Indigenous Museum in Rio de Janeiro, recently told Agência Brasil. “Those languages are a patrimony, not only to Brazil, but to the whole world.” Levinho observes apathy among the youth of various tribes when it comes to learning their respective language.
One of the biggest challenges for Arandu Arakuaa fans is understanding the lyrics. Most translation websites do not include Tupi, and few people speak it. To solve the problem, the band has included Portuguese subtitles in their video clips on YouTube.
The tribes of Brazil face other concerns on top of their dying languages. Many are in constant conflictwiththe government as they try to maintain control of their lands, which are valued as potential revenue streams to land developers. Tribal gods and ancient rituals are often labeled as evil by Brazilian society. “There is a stigma around the tribes,” Aquino says, “and a lot of prejudice around them since they are often labeled as lazy, which is not true.”
Arandu Arakuaa addresses these struggles in their lyrics. One song titled “Red People” includes lyrics that tranlate into English as:
Some of us ran away, we hide in the forest We still fight The red people still resisting, while there is land, while there is forest Everything became different Our spirits are called demons Each day less trees, less animals, less histories, less songs…
Some heavy metal fans say Arandu Arakuaa isn’t “real metal.” The group’s brightly colored outfits certainly contrast with the leather and spikes of many old-school acts. But such critiques do not deter the band members from their collective vision.
“What I like about Arandu Arakuaa is that people are not indifferent to our music: they will love or hate it,” says Aquino. “Most people think it’s strange at first and then we have to prove that we are good.”
His band is not the first Brazilian metal group to include tribal affects. The most famous heavy metal act from Brazil, Sepultura, infused references to indigenous culture in their 1996 album Roots, although not to nearly the same degree as Arandu Arakuaa.
The band has now released two albums and garnered thousands of followers on social media.
“We always had the intention to bring up a discussion that goes beyond music,” says a proud Aquino, who has a degree in pedagogy. Arandu Arakauaa often receives invitations to play in schools and other tribal-centric events. They have even lectured at universities about the importance of preserving the culture and languages of Tupi and other tribes. In the near future, they hope to perform for an indigenous tribe on their grounds for the first time.
“When we started we just wanted to have fun and we never had the intention to be pioneers in anything,” Aquino says. “Our music aims to show who we really are and what we believe. It is really rewarding to see our work being recognized.”
I didn’t think I’d ever be able to face him without fear, but in his docile, vulnerable state, we forged a new dynamic.
I watch him pick up his burgundy cloth napkin, drape it over his spaghetti and meatballs, then fumble with his spoon before balancing it on top of the sealed Hoodsie cup. This isn’t unusual behavior for someone with Alzheimer’s. Still, I ask my 74-year-old father, “What are you doing?” He gives me a hollow stare, his blue eyes as dry as his memory. I unveil his plate, cut up a meatball, then scoop up a spoonful and hand him the spoon. He sets it back down on top of the Hoodsie. I pick up the spoon and offer it to him again, but he gives me that same hollow stare, and re-drapes the napkin over the plate. I feel compelled to feed him, but the aides here at the nursing home usually do that. Though I worked as a nurse for 20 years and fed lots of people, I don’t want to feed him. I consider my reluctance. Am I afraid of the final admission that the parent has become the child?
The truth is, I’m terrified of feeding my father. Sitting in the naturally-lit dining room beside him, close enough for his hand to strike my face, an image flies back to me from the past. I’m 13; my father chases me into my bedroom and grabs from the top of my dresser the skating scribe I use to carve patterns in the ice. I dart into a corner. He lunges toward me, and raises the sharp end of the scribe over my head, inches from my skull. Desperate to protect myself from his metallic rage, I curl into a ball, my face against my knees. My heart beats in stutters, in my ears, in my throat.
I don’t remember what I did wrong. Maybe I forgot to take out the trash, empty the dishwasher, neglected to walk the dog. There were other incidents of rage, but I don’t remember what my failures were that provoked my father. The most horrifying memoires are the ones that involved my siblings. I remember crying in my bedroom, listening to my father’s heavy footsteps as he chased my older sister through the house. I remember the time he bloodied my younger brother’s face with his fist. I can’t recall what they did wrong, either.
My thoughts spring back to the present. I’m almost fifty. It’s time I kick my fear of my father out of my mind’s bedroom.
He’s in a wheelchair, and hasn’t been able to walk for months. He certainly can’t chase me now. Alzheimer’s has also had a calming effect on him, or maybe it’s the medications, which are supposed to slow down the progression of the disease. Either way, he’s mostly gentle and quiet, displaying moments of delight like clapping when my husband walks into the dining room, or smiling and patting me on the shoulder when I lean down to kiss him on his mole-flecked forehead. He even shocked me once by speaking to a basket of bananas: “So beautiful.” My pre-Alzheimer’s father was a left-brain thinker, and never noticed the aesthetics of fruit. I don’t recall him ever regarding beauty at all.
In an attempt to overcome my fear and judgment, I tell myself that my grandfather is to blame for my father’s dysfunction. He verbally abused others around him. He once whipped an olive at a waitress for forgetting he had ordered his martini with no garnish. My father, who witnessed these kinds of tantrums as a child, inherited my grandfather’s intolerance and impatience.
So I take a chance. I lift the meatball-filled spoon from the Hoodsie and guide it towards him. “Here, Dad, doesn’t it look good?” He raises his hand from the table, and steadily reaches for the handle gripped between my pointer finger and thumb. My hand trembles as the tip of my finger meets the side of his finger, the spot once swollen with a knobby protrusion from his pen gripping days.
He clutches the spoon, and lifts it towards his mouth, pauses, raises it higher. It tilts to the left then to the right. I wring my hands. My teeth sink into my bottom lip. I want to help him; I don’t want to help him. His jaw juts forward, his neck veins pulsing. He eases the spoon closer to his mouth. I hold my breath. He bites down on the crumbled half meatball. He chews, swallows. I lean back. Breathe.
Again, he sets his spoon down on top of the Hoodsie and drapes his napkin over his plate. An aide with generous hips dances a little sashay over to our table. “Hey, Joe,” she says, rubbing my father’s back. “I thought Italian was your favorite. When you’re done, you can have all the ice cream you want.” He smiles at her. I smile at her too, comforted by her recognition of what he enjoys most: Italian food, back rubs, and ice cream.
“Come on, Joe. Here.” She sits beside him, and ties a clean napkin around his neck, as if he’s about to eat a lobster. “We like to keep his clothes as clean as possible,” she says, looking directly at me. I nod, but feel as if I’m being scolded for my oversight. She takes the spoon, shovels up another half a meatball and tenderly slips it into my father’s wide-open mouth.
“See, Joe. Isn’t that good?” After he swallows, she wipes the corners of his mouth with his napkin. “He’s okay,” she assures me. “Sometimes he just needs help. You can feed him.”
My stomach does a somersault. What would she think of me if I tell her I can’t, or won’t, feed my father? I’m embarrassed to tell her that I’m terrified of doing so. I could lie and say that I don’t feel qualified to feed him. But what kind of qualifications does one need to feed your own parent?
“Go ahead,” she urges. She hands me the spoon. And walks away.
I look at my father, who’s eyeing his hand resting on the table, the one with the knobby finger protrusion. He hasn’t gripped his pen in a year. As a savvy businessman, he filled his yellow pad with the latest land-for-sale deals, the highest bond interest rates, and upcoming foreclosures. I wonder if my father has forgotten about his pen – his blue, ballpoint Bic pen.
He slides his hand towards mine also resting on the table, and touches it. He squeezes, as if he’s trying to tell me something.
“Dad, you want more?”
I gulp down my fear, and mix some sauce with crumbled meatball and spaghetti, scoop it up, then slowly raise the spoon to his mouth. He opens it for me, just as he did for the aide. Quickly, I slip the food off the spoon. He chews, swallows, rubs his belly.
“More?” I realize that I’m not asking him if he’s hungry; still wary, I’m asking for permission to feed him.
Again, he nods, and opens his mouth.
Again, he chews and swallows. I ask if he wants more, wait for him to nod, then feed him another spoonful. This exchange continues a few more times before he reaches for the Hoodsie, and slides it towards himself.
“You ready for ice-cream?” I ask.
A smile spreads across his face like a sunrise. In a matter of minutes, we have choreographed a new father-daughter dynamic.
I visit him again on Thanksgiving. As I walk into the dining room, I rehearse the steps in my head, hoping my tying of his napkin bib around his neck is enough of a cue that our dance is about to begin. But he’s having a good brain day, and he’s mostly able to feed himself the ground turkey and sweet potatoes. When he tires and doesn’t have the strength to lift his glass of milk, I lift it for him. “Here, Dad, you want some milk?” I bring it closer to him, and he grabs it. Slams it against the table. I startle, skid backwards in my chair. He’s over-stimulated, I think. Frustrated. He lets go of the glass and looks at me, his eyes wet and crinkled at the edges. Our faces, and bodies, are capable of saying “I’m sorry.”
Another piece of history comes flying back to me. It’s six months earlier, and my father is hospitalized for abdominal bleeding. I’m standing over his bed, holding his hands so he doesn’t yank out his IV. Completely out of context, he says, “It’s not your fault, Melissa.” I accepted this as an apology for all the times he hurt me. The language of genuine contrition is as diverse as each of our regrets.
I give up on the milk and try to feed him. He cooperates on the first bite. I try again – another spoonful of Thanksgiving. He chews, swallows. This time he burps. We giggle. When his eyes droop, I lead the next dance step. I untie the napkin, wipe his mouth clean – and rub his back. His head falls forward and he begins to doze. In a few seconds, he opens his eyes and lays his hand on top of mine. I massage the smooth spot on the side of his pointer finger until he falls into a slumber.
As I watch my father sleep, I know it is his utter helplessness that has made it easier for me to want to be with him, to deeply care about him, despite his past hurts. That’s exactly what I’ve needed for so long – a father I no longer fear, but one who unconditionally lets me into his vulnerable world and gives me the chance to begin to forgive him.
During the Cold War, at a single facility, the British military covertly produced enough chemical weapons to kill every person on earth five times over – and in the process dozens of their own were left dead.
In May 1953, when Ronald Maddison volunteered for scientific tests conducted by the British armed forces, he was told the experiments were part of efforts to research the common cold.
He was lied to.
Instead, like many others, Maddison, a leading aircraftman in the Royal Air Force, became a guinea pig for chemical weapons tests. He entered Britain’s main chemical warfare lab and received, without his knowledge or informed consent, 200 milligrams of liquid sarin dripped directly onto his sleeve, which seeped through the fabric onto his skin.
Ministry of Defense (MOD) scientists used “volunteers” like Maddison to design protective equipment and improve their own sarin for potential offensive use. The doses weren’t intended to be lethal; everyone already knew sarin killed quickly. Maddison was given just enough to gather more data into how sarin worked and how it could be stopped – or so they thought.
Within minutes this “routine” experiment went horrendously wrong.
Years later, ambulance driver Alfred Thornhill described his trip to the hospital with Maddison: “His whole body was convulsing… I saw his leg rise up from the bed and I saw his skin begin turning blue. It started from the ankle and started spreading up his leg.” Thornhill said the effects seemed to mirror those of an electrocution.
Terry Alderson, who like Maddison was another “volunteer” around that same time, later furiously described the lies told to him: “It was Russian roulette. Reading between the lines they have got away with murder. Our health was never monitored afterwards and nobody knows how many died. This shows what liars [the MOD] were – nobody volunteered for these tests, we were sent in there like sheep.”
Forty-five minutes after being dosed, Maddison died. His death was immediately covered up. Home Secretary David Maxwell-Fyfe requested the coroner’s inquest remain secret, citing national security.
The sarin gas that killed Maddison was manufactured and tested at the “Chemical Defense Establishment,” which was set along a remote stretch of southwest England’s Cornish coast, an area of sparse employment, with a small population, far from prying eyes. Today Cornwall is best associated with stunning sunsets. Few know that it hides one of Britain’s darkest secrets.
* * *
The recent use of sarin by Syria’s President Bashar al-Assad has again brought chemical weapons into the spotlight. Western governments, including the U.K., condemn the “poor man’s atom bomb,” citing international law. But the British government itself hasn’t always been quite so ethical.
After the Second World War, Britain was nearly bankrupt; the Empire was collapsing. But with the Cold War in full swing, the British military was still developing weapons, including weapons of mass destruction.
During the war against the Axis powers, Prime Minister Winston Churchill had advocated using both biological and chemical weapons, which the military was experimenting with. (The Scottish island of Gruinard became so saturated with weaponized anthrax during World War II field tests that it remained uninhabitable for decades.) But they were never unleashed in battle, partly because Churchill’s cabinet feared equal retaliation from Hitler.
But if they were going to manufacture chemical weapons of their own, the Brits needed a safe, remote location to do so, someplace where, if the worst should happen, there would be the fewest possible casualties. Royal Air Force base Portreath – or RAF Portreath, for short –had opened in 1941, built on what locals called Nancekuke Common in Cornwall. It was as good a place as any. Mothballed after the war, RAF Portreath was secluded and close to the sea, which was convenient for waste disposal. The few locals weren’t bound to ask many questions either. Any potential whistle-blowers knew they faced prosecution under the Official Secrets Act. Being government property, the authorities also had “Crown Immunity” to use RAF Portreath as they pleased, almost entirely without public oversight.
Still, local farmer Ernest Landry didn’t share the government’s enthusiasm for the base’s choice location. The Ministry of Supply used a compulsory purchase order to requisition much of his land to form part of the new complex. Landry was compensated, but he’d lost his farm’s water supply, which came in the form of a pond on that surrendered plot.
In a short memoir, Memories of Nancekuke, Landry described his anger when a Ministry of Supply official forced him into selling:
He said that I had a perfect right to go to arbitration, but if I did he would knock a thousand pounds off the purchase price and he would see to it [that] it cost me another 500 in expenses. This was said to me in front of a witness. I asked the witness afterwards what he thought about it. He said, “It’s no good … he would say he never said anything like that.”
Churchill was one of Nancekuke’s biggest boosters. As a battalion commander in World War I, he knew the devastating power of chemical weapons. He’d once made sure the Soviets did too. In the summer of 1919, while Secretary of State for War, his British troops fought the Bolsheviks in the Russian Civil War. On Churchill’s orders they used large amounts of Lewisite. Numerous Bolshevik-held villages were bombed by British aircraft, and Churchill’s fondness for gas didn’t stop there. In 1919 he openly advocated gassing rebellious tribes in northern India. Furious at what he called “squeamishness” from cabinet colleagues who blocked the plan, Churchill unpleasantly asked, “Why is it not fair for a British artilleryman to fire a shell which makes the said native sneeze? It really is too silly.”
Come 1950, Churchill’s keen desire for an independent British chemical weapons capability was largely inspired by intelligence reports showing the Soviets were developing their own. If, he reasoned, the Russians had it, then so should the British. According to declassified British documents disclosed in a 2001 TV documentary, Nancekuke would, in Churchill’s mind, evolve from a small pilot facility into a mass producer of sarin.
RAF Portreath became the “Chemical Defense Establishment, Nancekuke.” The factory enabled scientists to improve their production process and technology, and between 1954 and 1956, Nancecuke’s pilot plant produced 20 tons of sarin. The plant also produced several other chemical weapons like VX, Soman and Cyclosarin. Prospective employees were vetted; former staff members were reminded of secrecy laws and penalties for breaking them. The government discussed Nancekuke only when forced to, continually restricting public and press knowledge.
In 1965, as the counterculture became increasingly vocal, and trust and deference to authorities rapidly eroded, the secret of Nancekuke was exposed. Peace News magazine ran a story in December of that year attacking Nancekuke’s safety record. The article summarized what were rather benign incidents, citing “two occasions poison gas [escaped] and gas masks [had] to be worn.”
Tom Griffiths narrowly survived one. On March 31, 1958, he was ordered to fix a pipe that ran throughout the Nancekuke factory. He immediately noticed a single drop of liquid hanging from a flange. Griffiths knew it wasn’t water; it could only be sarin.
Griffiths bellowed a warning, jumped down the ladder he’d scaled, and he and his trailing co-worker staggered away, suffering sarin poisoning through inhalation.
According to one account of the incident: “Outside in the fresh air, as their breathing returned to normal and objects stopped swimming before them, with the happy-go-lucky fatalism born of working at Nancekuke, the two men congratulated each other on an extremely lucky escape.”
They weren’t lucky for long. Griffiths became chronically ill. Secrecy laws prevented him from discussing Nancekuke, even with doctors, and in 1971 he applied for a disability pension. A medical tribunal rejected it.
* * *
It took decades for information about Nancekuke’s WMD production to emerge. Even today some files remain classified. Over the years there have been senior government ministers that were never told about the site. In 1969 it was reported that hundreds of animals died around Nancekuke without any explanation.
Nancekuke never employed more than 200 workers at any time. Between 1950 and 1969, nine died there, and numerous others like Tom Griffiths developed permanent health problems. Some were threatened with prosecution if they revealed anything.
But Griffiths did file a lawsuit. He claimed his medical records would have undoubtedly proved long-term poisoning. However, in the early stages of the proceedings, his filed records vanished. He settled out of court in 1976 for a mere £110, which at the time equated to roughly $60.
We humans are far more complex than the news headlines and clickbait would have you believe. Let the Narratively newsletter be your guide.
The Truth About New York’s Legendary ‘Mole People’
Two decades after NYC sought to relocate its infamous tunnel-dwelling denizens, a years-long investigation reveals a few hardy souls still toiling and thriving beneath the city streets. They insist they wouldn’t live anywhere else.
Two decades after NYC sought to relocate its infamous tunnel-dwelling denizens, a years-long investigation reveals a few hardy souls still toiling and thriving beneath the city streets. They insist they wouldn’t live anywhere else.
The mouth of the tunnel is wide and dark, swallowing the light and all that breathes. Rubble is scattered along the train tracks, bordered by retaining walls covered in numerous layers of graffiti.
This is where it all started.
Here by the parkway with the blasting trucks and the roaring cars, near the filigree arches of the Riverside Drive viaduct, here with the gravel crunching under my feet as I run down the railroad into this hollow mouth.
This is where they live, deep into the depths of the city, way underground, lying in the dirt. Sure, you know about them. Of course you know about them. They’ve always been there, resting low below the rowdy streets and the carving avenues, gulping the air from inside the earth, crawling through holes and cracks, living off the grid and off the books.
Here in the tunnels.
You’ve heard the rumors. Their eyes have adapted to the constant night that cloaks them from the topside world. Don’t you know they’re eating rats and human flesh? Don’t you know they want us dead? And one day they will spill outside and burn us all alive, and they will reign over our flatscreen joys and our organic delights.
Of course you know about them. The lost ones, the hidden ones. The broken and the ill, the wandering, the gone. The Mole People.
“Jon,” I call, looking up. Jon has been homeless for more than fifteen years. Like many of the people interviewed for this article, he did not want to give his full name. He has been living here for a while now, in a small space between two support beams that can only be reached with a ladder. A plywood roof protects his hoarded belongings from seeping water. The place is crammed full. There is an old mattress on the floor, and cookware, blankets and electronics stacked on makeshift shelves.
“Jon,” I repeat, and he appears, his head cautiously peaking up from his house, a relieved smile on his face when he sees me.
“I thought it was the Amtrak police,” he later says while opening a beer, his legs dangling off the edge of the wall. “They been coming less, lately, but you never know. Regular police ain’t bothering me, but Amtrak, they can be nasty.”
Jon says he did prison time. He is bipolar and suffers from major substance dependence. He used to be a gang member in the Bronx. He used to be a family man until he got disowned. He was a furniture salesman. The FBI is looking for him. He used to know Donald Trump. It doesn’t matter which version is true. His real story has been buried long ago under thick layers of improvised memories that grew more detailed by the years, the man slowly becoming a collage of himself.
“I’m good here,” he says. “No taxes, no rent, no nothing. There’s no hassle compared to the streets, you know what I’m saying? Here I don’t get bugged by kids. It’s a safe place. I can do what I wanna and I don’t have to take nothing from nobody.”
Today is a good day for Jon, despite the rain and the cool weather.
“You’re the first person to visit this week,” he says. “People don’t want to speak to me when they come here. I don’t know, man. They’re scared or something. I can get why, it’s a spooky place when you don’t know it. But people, they like it when it’s scary. They like it when it’s dirty, right? It makes them feel alive. That’s why they make up these stories about cannibalism and stuff. Like alligators in the sewers.”
Jon offers me a sip of vodka. We drink together. He tells me to stay safe and to watch out for trains when I go back walking into the tunnel. I hear him talk to himself as I go away from the entrance and from the white sky.
The smell down here is the one of brake dust and mold. I can see rats scouring for food and drinking from brown puddles in the tracks ballast. EXISTENCE IS FLAWED, a graffiti inscription reads.
The city growls over my head — a distant growl muffled by the concrete, almost a snarl, like something cold and foul spreading over the long stretches of stained walls, like a dark and wild beast curling up around me and breathing on my neck. A dark and wild beast silently trailing me.
* * *
Stories about underground dwellers were already flourishing when the first New York City subway line opened in 1904. The expansion of extensive sewers and steam pipes systems had brought a newfound fascination with what laid below the streets. From Jules Verne’s 1864 novel “Journey to the Center of the Earth” to George Gissing’s 1889 book “The Nether World,” literature was brimming with tales of people living in isolation or trapped under the surface, peaking in 1895 with “The Time Machine,” in which H. G. Wells described a fictional subterranean species called the “Morlocks.”
But it was only in the 1990s that the first widespread depictions of real-world tunnel residents appeared in New York. A 1990 New York Timesarticle by John Tierney was the earliest to outline the phenomenon, looking at people living in an abandoned train tunnel beneath Riverside Park, along the banks of the Hudson River.
Collective imagination took over quickly.
In 1993, Jennifer Toth published her essay “The Mole People,” documenting hidden communities residing in a network of forsaken caverns, holes and shafts across Manhattan. An instant hit, it chronicled the organization of those underground societies, describing compounds of several thousands where babies were born and regular lives were lived, with elected officials, hot water and even electricity.
However, the book was promptly criticized for its inconsistencies. Joseph Brennan, a New York rail buff, wrote an extensive and detailed critique in 1996, exposing many discrepancies in Toth’s reporting, such as places that couldn’t exist, exaggerated numbers and contradictory claims. According to Brennan, the whole notion of secret passages was implausible and “reminiscent of scenes in the TV series ‘Beauty and the Beast.’”
A 2004 article by Cecil Adams further demonstrated that many accounts were perhaps more sensationalism than truth. Adams pointed out unverifiable or incorrect facts in Toth’s work, and her skepticism peaked during her interview of Cindy Fletcher, a former tunnel dweller who challenged important points of the narration. “I’m not saying the book is not true, I just never experienced the things [she] said she saw,” Fletcher explained to Adams. I was unable to reach Toth for comment, but when Adams talked to her, the journalist said she couldn’t remember how to access certain places described in her essay — possibly not to disclose the whereabouts of trespassing squatters.
Still, while the essay might have been inflated or romanticized, it was nonetheless true that the homeless begging in the streets of New York were merely the tip of the iceberg. Photojournalists Margaret Morton and Andrea Star Reese have both extensively documented communities spread in underground hideouts since Toth’s book. Dutch anthropologist Teun Voeten’s 1996 diary “Tunnel People” provided an incredible account of the months he spent with the Riverside Park Amtrak tunnel inhabitants before they were evicted and moved to Section 8 housing units. In 2000, director Marc Singer released his acclaimed documentary “Dark Days,” filming the same people followed by Voeten and Toth in their respective books.
“There were definitely people living in tunnels, but not a lot,” Norman Diederich, a former MTA maintenance inspector, told me. “If there are still any, they’re very discreet. This period is gone.”
“There were talks that the moles were cannibals,” Diederich continued. “That they could see in the dark. That they spoke their own language. Creepy stuff, straight out of a horror movie… Most was made-up. I personally never witnessed unusual stuff. Santa Claus, the Boogeyman, the Mole People, it’s all the same. We need to label things we don’t understand. It’s human nature.”
“Just cause you can’t see don’t mean ain’t nothing there,” begins Anthony Horton’s 2008 graphic novel “Pitch Black,” relating the author’s own struggles as a homeless man. Written in an abandoned crew room of the F subway line, these words were the reason I ventured into the tunnels in the first place, looking for the invisible, guided by local dwellers along the years to seek foundations of humanity in the foundations of the city.
All the stories I had read about the Mole People before descending myself had two things in common.
They all showed simple human beings who were in no way comparable to the legends that had been told, and they all included a man named Bernard Isaac.
* * *
I met Bernard Isaac for the first time in 2009. “This is not a place of perdition,” he often said about the Riverside Park tunnel when we talked together during his shifts as a maintenance worker in Central Park. “This is a sanctuary. A place to find peace and take a break from the chaos.” He would then reminisce about his old life, his eyes would light up and there would be the crack of a smile, and whatever place we were in would be filled by his presence.
Isaac was at the very center of the Mole People legend. His BA in journalism and his studies in philosophy had somehow led him to work as a model, then as a TV crew member, then as a tour guide in the Caribbean where he began smuggling cocaine to the States. The father of two sons with two different women, he never cared much for family life, preferring to spend his smuggling profits on parties thrown at his Upper West Side penthouse. Soon he was broke, friendless and on his own. By the late 1980s, he was sleeping in the Riverside Park tunnel.
The tunnel was known by homeless people since its inception in the 1930s, when it was used by trains to bring cattle to the city before the freight operations ended. Its population, limited at first to about three or four individuals, quickly grew at the time Isaac settled in, evolving into small tribes of vagrants who built thriving shantytowns in the newly abandoned space.
Few risked getting down into the tunnel. “It often scared grown men easily,” recounted Isaac in 2010 as he showed me his old hangout places. But those who did go down called it home, and it became a haven for the destitute to unwind without fear of getting arrested or attacked like people on the streets often were.
One day, three men asked Isaac for a toll as he came by the 125th Street entrance to the tunnel. He laughed at them and said “Do you know who you’re talking to? I’m the fucking lord of this tunnel!” The three men never bothered him again, and Isaac’s nickname “The Lord of the Tunnel” was born.
Though there never was any real leader in the shantytown, Isaac became the community’s de facto spokesman, interacting with outreach groups and journalists to explain how living there was better than dealing with shelter curfews, senseless laws and indifferent social workers. Soon interest came from all around the world.
Ironically, the tunnel’s community support was in many ways more efficient than the one offered by municipal programs. In the encampment, the dwellers had a familiar place to be, watch TV, read or smoke. They had autonomy. Rules were simple but strictly enforced. Respect for privacy. No yelling. No stealing. No stupid behavior or you’d be kicked out. Some, like Isaac, were at home in the darkness, and would not have lived anywhere else. Most who lived here did not consider themselves homeless.
As word spread of the tunnel, a growing number of graffiti artists came to paint the seemingly endless walls that flanked the train tracks. One of them, Chris “Freedom” Pape, had known the place for quite a while before. He became friends with Isaac and his community, teaming up with local tagger Roger Smith — known to most as just “Smith” — to paint pieces narrating their stories. “I hadpainted in the tunnel for six years before the homeless moved in, so they were curious about me,” said Pape in a 2014 interview for “Untapped Cities.” “I became friendly with most of them and my visits to the tunnel were much safer and even relaxing.”
In a 1990 Los Angeles Times article, Isaac explained that the small community lived as well, if not better, than the average people “up top,” as they commonly refer to the streets. “I’ve had the opportunity to get jobs,” he said. “I don’t choose to be a robot within the system… We’ve done something that one out of every 1,000 men in creation in their lifetimes will do. We dared to be ourselves.”
Some residents were still eager to leave, only to come back later.
John Kovacs, one of Isaac’s neighbors in the tunnel, was once given a $50,000 offer to turn his story into a feature movie and left in 1991 after sixteen years in the tunnel. He was back less than seven months later, the $50,000 Hollywood deal gone sour and Kovacs unable to adjust to life in larger society.
Another who attempted to go to the surface was Bob Kalinski, a speed addict known as the fastest cook east of the Mississippi, who could fry twenty eggs at a time when on amphetamines. A heart attack forced him to try his luck with the public housing system in 1994. He too returned in the following months. The sense of belonging simply was too strong. The tunnel was a better place for him to be alone in freedom.
“After so many years in the streets, they kind of lose faith in humanity,” said Audrey Lombardi, a volunteer at the Holy Apostles soup kitchen in Manhattan.
“They can’t help it, it’s so deeply ingrained in their lives, it’s like they want to go back to the only thing they know,” she explained, noting that hurt and loneliness often became the steadiest part of a homeless person’s existence after hitting bottom and going further under.
“If I had to do it all over again?” Isaac said in a video interview, one of his last ones, a year before his death in 2014. “Unquestionably.”
* * *
I keep walking along the tracks. Jon must have passed out drunk, now, somewhere behind me. Every noise is threatening in the tunnel, and I find myself constantly looking over my shoulder, ready to face something too awful to name. Was that a train I heard? A cough? The metallic vibration of a dragged chain?
It smells like death here. The pungent stench of rotting meat.
“Anyone here?” I ask, stopping near an old KUMA tag.
The smell of death all over now. Are those eyes glowing nearby?
I lean against the wall and try to breathe calmly, reminding myself this place is only populated by old memories and the occasional homeless person looking for a safe place to be.
The rumbling feels closer. Something moves somewhere.
I see rats scurrying by, racing into the obscurity. Then I see the charred remains of an animal in the corner of an alcove — a raccoon maybe, a big rodent with liquefied flesh, burnt fur and missing limbs. Was it eaten? By what? By whom?
I walk away holding my breath.
The ground is littered with discarded books and magazines. A broken crack pipe has been left on a cinder block. There is a garden chair, and overturned crates and buckets. A mangled teddy bear. Death everywhere.
“Hey man, how you doing?” says a voice behind me, making me jump with fright. “I’m sorry,” the voice immediately adds. “I didn’t mean to startle you.”
I recognize Raúl, an undocumented Dominican immigrant of about thirty who has been living in the tunnel for a year. Raúl shaves every morning with great care. His clothes are spotless, regularly washed at a nearby laundromat. His badly decayed teeth and scrawny figure are the only hints he’s a drug addict.
“I didn’t hear you coming,” I say with my heart pounding like it wants out of my chest. “I came to see Bernard’s old place. Maybe talk to some people.”
“Brooklyn is there. She’s always singing out loud, it’s annoying.”
Raúl still has family out there. An ex-girlfriend and a kid. He rents an apartment from a friend when his kid comes to visit, a clean studio in a gray Washington Heights building.
“I don’t want him to think of me as a bum,” he says. “I won’t be here long enough anyway. You want coffee?”
I nod and he goes into an abandoned service room, returning with two mugs.
“I made a lot of bad choices in my life. I hurt a lot of people. That’s why I don’t ask for nothing, you feel me? I don’t blame anyone but myself. I collect cans, it keeps me busy. I do it all week long. It gets me $140 a week, more in summer.”
The coffee is nice and strong. It feels good in the tunnel’s cold.
Raúl uses a Fairway Market cart to bring empty soda and beer containers to various stores in the neighborhood, where he will redeem them for five cents each. The legal limit of returnable cans is 240 per person per day, so Raúl has to go to several supermarkets to earn more.
“You can actually make a good life here when you’re broke,” he says. “I never got a problem eating what I wanted. The streets are full of opportunities if you know where to look. I deal with what I have.” He shows me a box of cupcakes he found in a garbage can, almost untouched. His dessert tonight.
Finding drugs has never been a problem either for Raúl, who tells me he once spent $150 on crack each day to feed his “pizzo” — his pipe — with “cheap McDonald meals in-between the smokes, and hard fucks with Puerto Rican whores because crack makes me horny as shit.” Heroin prices have gone down lately, so that means Raúl’s consumption has gone up. It’s $10 for a deck of brown heroin, making it cheaper than most other drugs.
“It makes me feel good for a moment. As soon as I find a real job, I’ll stop, no doubt,” he says. In the buildings he helps maintain, he occasionally sells the tenants K2 — a form of synthetic marijuana that recently boomed across the city, especially in East Harlem where a homeless encampment was recently dismantled.
“I do what I got to do, you know what I’m saying? I’m just a normal guy who minds his own business. This is who I am. And I never ate no fucking rats,” he jokes.
Raúl insists we share the cupcakes he found. We both eat in silence.
* * *
New York’s homeless shelters are a lucrative business. The incentives paid by the Department of Homeless Services to landlords renting out shelter units far exceed the ones given for providing tenants with permanent single room occupancy lodging. In 2014, the average stay was 352 days at the Freedom House, a homeless shelter on West 95th Street managed by private company Aguila Inc. The city paid Aguila $3,735 per month for each 100-square-foot room occupied by a homeless person.
Conditions are appalling inside the Freedom House. Garbage piles up in the courtyard for rodents to feed on. Aggressive panhandling, drug dealing and violent outbursts are commonplace in the shelter’s vicinity. Sometimes a TV is hurled out a window, or the police close the street after someone is stabbed in a fight. The NYPD regularly raids the place looking for people with outstanding warrants, targeting domestic abusers and failing to arrest the major dealers or car thieves roaming the area. Aguila Inc. didn’t comment on the situation when I reached out to the company, but one of their security officers, who wished to remain anonymous because he feared reprisal from his employer, told me that the lack of resources, upkeep and care were the biggest issues in the facilities.
“Why would anyone want to stay [at Freedom House]?” asks Jessica, a former resident. “I can’t count the times my stuff was stolen from me. One day I was assaulted in my own room and the guards didn’t do anything!” she adds, sitting on a rug in her new spot, inside a man-made cave near the Lincoln Tunnel entrance.
Jessica was evicted from Freedom House in late 2014, after DHS came to an agreement with community boards and nonprofit organizations to cut the shelter’s capacity in two from 400 beds to 200 — a step toward its conversion to a meaningful permanent affordable housing facility.
The 23-year-old knows enough about shelters. She will never go back. She was sixteen when she got pregnant with her daughter Alyssa. She briefly lived with the baby’s father until he tired of dealing with a needy toddler, leaving never to be seen again. Jessica was then diagnosed with schizoaffective disorder and admitted to transitional housing in Brooklyn. She says that within a month, social services was badgering her to place her three-year-old in foster care.
“The thing is, single mothers who go to shelters with their kids never keep their kids for long,” she says. “I was devastated. I called my sister and begged her to take care of Alyssa until I found a place of my own. This was the most difficult thing I’ve ever done in my life, leaving my baby. But it was the right thing to do. At least she is with family. When she grows up I will explain it all to her.”
She looks away, tears rolling down her face.
Once her daughter was in the hands of her sister, Jessica was sent to the Freedom House where she stayed for seven months until Aguila notified her of her imminent relocation. She began sleeping in a subway tunnel after transit authorities made her leave her spot in the Herald Square station corridor on 34th Street, dragging her by her feet when she refused to stand up from her mat. “At first I was like ‘I’m never going down there.’ But then Hurricane Sandy came and I had no place to stay, and I didn’t want to go to a shelter again with all the crackheads.”
She spent about two months living in a recess by the subway tracks of a Midtown station, protected from the elements and from harassment. She wrote a long letter to her daughter there. She never sent it. “I hope you think of me sometimes in your dreams,” the letter ends. “You are the light of my life. I miss you everyday. I love you so much.”
Jessica then moved to her current place, closer to the McDonald’s restaurant where she works. The subterranean area she’s living in is part of the same railway system as the one going through the Riverside Park tunnel, and is home to a couple of other homeless people trying to avoid shelters.
“I obviously don’t tell my colleagues I stay here. But it’s better than anywhere I’ve been before. Here I can have my dog,” Jessica says, petting a small mutt snuggled on her lap. “Plus it’s a temporary situation. I’m eligible for Section 8 housing. In less than a year I’ll be in a real apartment and I’ll have my baby with me again.”
On the floor of her makeshift house is a plastic box full of donated kid’s clothes.
Soon she will give them to her daughter.
“I have to keep faith,” she says in the half-light.
* * *
Trash as far as the eye can see. Clothes, glass, bike parts and Styrofoam boxes, plastic toys and rotting food carpeting the dirt ground, all frozen in the tunnel’s perpetual dusk. Brooklyn’s voice echoes in the room as she starts singing Michael Jackson’s “Billie Jean.” I accompany her with a beatbox rhythm, hands cupped around my mouth. “You good, man!” she says enthusiastically, snapping her fingers along.
I catch myself wondering if Raúl can hear us from his place, cursing at us for breaking the no-noise rule of the premises.
Brooklyn might be the oldest resident of the Riverside Park tunnel. Now fifty-four, she has been living here since 1982, when she discovered the place by following feral cats. Like Bernard Isaac, she appeared in various films and documentaries. “I’m a celebrity, you know?” she says with a hint of pride in her voice.
She has perfected her story for journalists along the years. Everything she relates is recited like a school lesson. Her stint in the Marines. The death of her parents and the loss of her family house. The kids lighting her cardboard shack on fire in the park. Her boyfriend BK and their issues. The food bowls left at her door for the forty-nine cats she feeds.
She is a tough woman who speaks her mind, and she has the unyielding attitude of someone who has trudged through life. Her bandana and dreadlocks make her look younger than she is. People in the area know her, but she doesn’t socialize much anymore. She’s been lucky enough to avoid the Amtrak police. “I’ve been here all this time because I keep to myself,” she says. “The cops let me be. I don’t pose no threat!”
It’s already dinnertime. Tunnel stew today, a meal made of anything available — chicken soup, microwave mixes or thrown-away vegetables cooked over a crackling wood fire. “I wish I had a big kitchen with all kinds of cutlery and equipment,” she says.
“I’d cook all day long, man. That would be nice.” The food smells good and draws cats inside Brooklyn’s house. “You want some?” she asks, motioning at me to sit with her. The stew is surprisingly tasty.
“We’re just people,” she says after a while. “It’s hard, living here. You never get used to it. If you accept it, if you stop fighting, you’re done, okay? If you give up…you just die, you know what I’m saying?”
After she finishes eating, Brooklyn shows me a pile of recycling bags filled with countless Poland Spring water bottles collected at a nearby bodega. “This is my savings account for when I need extra money. You gotta be creative here,” she says as she gestures to the posters and pictures pinned on her walls.
Brooklyn is disappointed when I tell her I have to go. She calls one of her cats as I keep walking to the south end of the tunnel.
I soon reach Bernard Isaac’s old den, where I will spend the night, as I sometimes do when I want to taste the solitude he liked so much. The whole place feels like a grave. A cathedral for the dead and the fallen. Nothing is left from the former shacks. Even the smallest pieces of debris are gone.
I try to imagine how it was sitting here with him, watching the flames dancing in front of Pape and Smith’s reproduction of Goya’s “The Third of May.” I realize there is a certain power of being nameless and buried. A raw, burning power that some, like Isaac, will seek their whole life.
“Modern society is guilty of intellectual terrorism,” he once said while talking about Nietzsche’s philosophy with graffiti artist David “Sane” Smith, the younger brother of Roger Smith. Sane immediately sprayed the quote on the wall.
It encompassed Isaac’s entire way of thinking.
A train rushes by, almost silent with its unbearably bright lights, the air swelling around me as the cars dash past.
I’m rolled in my blanket, quiet in my alcove. I’m not sure I exist anymore. This place is not for anyone to be, I think.
I wait for dreams to come. Sleeping in the tunnel is an alien experience, but the sight of rain falling down the ventilation grates and streaking the chiaroscuro light is worth it alone, definite proof that poetry can endure anywhere.
This is the final byproduct of the city. This is civilization pushed to its foremost edge, a harsh place if any, dangerous and unforgiving, but a peaceful place at the same time, welcoming in its grimness. This is a dark and wild beast inviting you to come closer because nothing will ever be all right, but she will always be at your side to keep you warm.
* * *
When Amtrak decided to reactivate the Riverside Park tunnel’s train tracks in 1991, about fifty residents were evicted from the shantytown and received vouchers for temporary housing. This first round of evictions wound up largely ineffective and the population quickly grew back to its initial size, as people from up top encampments went straight to the tunnel when they were swept up by police during Mayor Giuliani’s effort to clean up the streets.
The Empire Line trains rushing through didn’t stop them from coming down here.
Amtrak Police Captain Doris Comb started calling for more enforcement, effectively pushing the homeless out of the active railway. Different times were looming ahead. Safer times. Sterilized. Hygienic. “We try to offer the homeless a variety of social services,” Comb would explain in 1994. “The problem is that most homeless are completely isolated. They feel rejected and decline assistance.”
Bernard Isaac still held a grudge against Comb eighteen years later, for having seized the #102 universal key to the exit gates an Amtrak employee had given him. “It was clear in my head that I didn’t want to go,” he told me in 2012, sipping a tea on the Hudson River Greenway. “We were ready to brick up the entrances if needed. We knew that we would have to leave eventually, but we didn’t want to accept it just yet.”
The tunnel residents weren’t quick to fill the multitude of forms requested by the Social Security Administration. Some flatly refused to cooperate and gave up all hope of being granted Section 8 apartments.
It wasn’t until Mary Brosnahan, director at the Coalition for the Homeless, negotiated with Amtrak to temporarily delay the evictions, that the vouchers were distributed to the tunnel community. The dwellers eventually received permanent housing, leaving the tunnel mostly empty for the first time since the mid-1970’s.
Margaret Morton would later write in a 1995 New York Times article that this solution had been by far the most economical for the city. “It costs more than $20,000 a year to keep a person in a cot on an armory floor,” she wrote. “It costs about $12,000 to keep that person in the kind of supported housing being made available to the tunnel people.”
As the photojournalist Teun Voeten would discover in 2010, some of the former squatters later achieved normal lives again. There would even be success stories. Ralph, one of the subjects of “Dark Days,” became manager of an Upstate New York hotel and owner of a cleaning company.
Then there were the others.
One would commit suicide, sitting in front of a running train. Another was found dead in his apartment. Another succumbed to AIDS. Another simply vanished. Isaac’s friend Bob Kalinski, the speed cook, moved to a 42nd Street SRO building where he still lives at this time, in a wheelchair and with a serious heart condition.
Bernard Isaac passed away in late 2014, closing a chapter of an old New York legend. His ashes were sprinkled across a creek in his native Florida.
The legend was gone, but homelessness was more real than ever.
“As liberal as New Yorkers want to be known, I think there’s a class war at work in this city,” Jeanne Newman, the founder of outreach group SHARE and a dear friend of Bernard Isaac, explained during a phone conversation.
Eighty percent of New York’s shelter population is currently made up of families — many working multiple jobs to make ends meet. There were 42,000 homeless children across the five boroughs in 2014.
“Do you know what the major cause of homelessness is in this country?” Newman asked. “It’s the lack of affordable housing. End of story. Everything else becomes a symptom. Drug issues, domestic violence issues, they’re all symptoms, as opposed to being a cause. The cause is lack of affordable housing.”
“We’re the wealthiest country in the world, why are we not fixing this problem?” Newman asked.
“Amtrak Police Department now does inspections on a regular basis for signs of homeless persons and encampments,” Cliff Cole, Amtrak’s New York manager of media relations, told the Wall Street Journal in 2011. At the time of his declaration, only five people had been found living in the Riverside Park tunnel, but a different community was already growing on a nearby dead-end street dubbed the Batcave.
Today, Chris Pape’s murals are slowly vanishing, painted over in 2009 to discourage urban explorers from visiting the tunnel. His “Buy American” masterpiece, dedicated to the tunnel’s former residents and featuring portraits of Isaac and Kalinski, doesn’t exist anymore. His Goya reproduction has been damaged by water. In a few years from now, it will be completely gone, washed away by the elements.
* * *
Morning light is different in the tunnel — colder maybe, and whiter, casting long straight beams onto the rails. Wind gusts make dust rise up in whirlpools. A blue jay flies past a grate. I wake up and New York slowly comes to life.
“God will save me, and it will save you, and it will save all these people too. Soon, we will all be saved,” Carlos says later, as we watch a basketball game in Riverside Park, the overpass casting its shade over our heads.
Carlos lives holed up in an old sewer pipe of about six feet high by five feet wide near the south entrance to the Riverside Park tunnel. He is one of the few original dwellers who stayed. His house is small but very practical, entirely concealed by a metal lid he takes great care of pulling on every time he gets inside. “It’s a good hideout,” he explains in a thick Spanish accent.
His electricity is tapped from an outlet further down the tunnel, allowing him to store his food in a refrigerator and have heat during winter. “Insulation is pretty good. I’m comfortable and no one can see me. I’m used to it now. It’s good for reading. I read a lot. All kinds of books. I read them and I sell them.”
The increased police patrols make his life less simple than it was a few years ago, but he keeps an upbeat attitude about it. “They don’t give me trouble too much. Sometimes they try to make me leave. It’s my home, I tell them. Maybe I live like a mole, but I’m not an animal.” He just wants to be left alone.
Carlos shows me where a decomposing body was found by Amtrak workers in 2006, months after taggers had discovered it. Two femurs bundled in cargo pants, neatly laid into an old child stroller, with pieces of leathered skin still attached to them, and a skull standing on top of a nearby pole.
This was the tunnel’s way of saying hello.
We walk around together to go check on Terry, an older alcoholic man who has been staying here since his wife threw him out of their apartment in Harlem’s Lincoln Houses public housing complex. Carlos is concerned about Terry’s health.
“He’s been drinking too much,” he says. “Last week I had to call 911 on him again.”
We find the old man sleeping on a couch behind a safety wall. A copy of Steinbeck’s novel “Of Mice and Men” rests on the sofa. Inside, a sentence is underlined in blue ink. “Guys like us got nothing to look ahead to.”
We stay a moment at his side before I finally leave the tunnel, emerging from the wet ground behind a grove of trees. The streets seem slower than usual. The clouds heavier.
“What does not kill me makes me stronger,” Nietzsche wrote. But hurt doesn’t make us stronger. Hurt just makes us hurt. And hurt lives in the land of the lost, and unites them in missing love and broken homes, for five cents a can, 240 cans per day.
The few Mole People left today survive in hurt.
They are relics of a New York that was, and witnesses of a world so estranged that nobody truly remembers it anymore. Most are too late for the topside life.
How easy it would be to go away and never come back.
But this is their city. This is their home.
These are their minds wandering and their time slipping.
Their hopes and their thirsts until the sun goes down.
Away — to a place made of birches and wet leaves and blue afternoons and muddy clothes, a place where dark days would be foreign — a place for them and all the unseen, warm as liquor, where hurt would be sweet and love would be real.
* * *
Anthony Taille is a freelance writer exploring untold tales of Americana. His stories have appeared on Medium, Narratively, Vice Magazine and Thought Catalog. He is currently based in Montreal with his wife and daughter and is finishing his first novel while trying to survive the local climate. You can read his latest work on Medium and follow him on Twitter @anthonytaille.
My analyst and I grew more intimately connected each week of treatment...but I never saw this indecent proposal coming.
It’s the waning moments of my fourth session with a new therapist. I’m holding back — and she knows it. My entire body feels tense, not ideal for the setting. I try to relax, but the plush leather couch crumples under me when I shift, making the movements extraordinary. I’ve barely looked into my therapist’s blue eyes at all, and yet I think the hour has gone very well. Of course it has. On the surface, when the patient has been highly selective of the discussion topics, therapy always resembles a friendly get-together.
“Well,” my therapist, Lori, says, the millisecond after I become certain our time is up and I might be in the clear. “I don’t think I should let you go until we’ve at least touched on what was put out there at the end of last week’s session.”
I so supremely wanted this not to come up. My eyelids tighten, my mouth puckers to the left, and my head tilts, as though I’m asking her to clarify.
“When you said you’re attracted to me,” she continues.
“Oh, yeah,” I say. “That.”
Back in session three Lori was trying to build my self-esteem, the lack of which is one of the reasons I’m in treatment. Within the confines of my family, I’ve always been the biggest target of ridicule. We all throw verbal darts around as though we’re engaged in a massive, drunken tournament at a bar, but the most poisonous ones seem to hit me the most often, admittedly somewhat a consequence of my own sensitivity. I’ve been told it was historically all part of an effort to toughen me up, but instead I was filled with towering doubts about my own worth. And since 2012, when I gave up a stable, tenured teaching career for the wildly inconsistent life of a freelance writer, I’ve had great difficulty trusting my own instincts and capabilities. I told Lori that I wish I was better at dealing with life’s daily struggles instead of constantly wondering if I’ll be able to wade through the thick.
She quickly and convincingly pointed out that I work rather hard and am, ultimately, paying my bills on time, that I have friends, an appreciation for arts and culture, and so on. In short, I am, in fact, strong, responsible and “pretty good at life.”
Then Lori heightened the discussion a bit. “I also feel that it is your sensitivity that makes you a great catch out there in the dating world,” she said, to which I involuntarily smiled, blushed and quickly buried my chin in my chest. I was too insecure and too single to handle such a compliment from a beautiful woman.
“Why are you reacting that way?” Lori asked.
I shrugged my shoulders, only half looking up.
“Is it because you’re attracted to me?”
I laughed a little, uncomfortably. “How did you know?”
She gently explained she could tell the day I walked into her office for the first time, after I flashed a bright smile and casually asked where she was from.
Now, a week after dropping that bomb, Lori asks, “So, why haven’t we talked about it?”
“I was hoping to avoid it, I suppose.” I tell her the whole notion of having the hots for a therapist is such a sizable cliché that I was embarrassed to admit it. “For Christ’s sake,” I say, throwing my hands up, “Tony Soprano even fell in love with his therapist.”
Lori snorts, rolls her eyes. “I knew you were going to say that.”
I smile, shake my head and look around the room, denying acceptance of my own ridiculous reality.
“It’s OK,” Lori says, grinning. “We can talk about this in here.”
I look again at her stark blue eyes, prevalent under dark brown bangs, the rest of her hair reaching the top of her chest, which is hugged nicely by a fitted white tee under an open button-down. She jogs often, I’d come to find out, which explains her petite figure and ability to probably pull off just about any outfit of her choosing.
I still can’t speak, so she takes over.
“Do you think you’re the first client that’s been attracted to their therapist?” she asks rhetorically. “I’ve had other clients openly discuss their feelings, even their sexual fantasies involving me.”
“What?” I cackle, beginning to feel as though I’ve moseyed onto the set of a porno.
“It’s true,” she says, acknowledging her desk. “What’s yours? Do you bend me over and take me from behind?”
“If that’s what you’re thinking, it’s OK,” she goes on, earnestly, explaining that she’s discussed sexual scenarios with her clients before so as to “normalize” the behavior and not have them feel their own thoughts are unnatural. By showing the patient a level of acceptance, she hopes to facilitate a more comfortable atmosphere for “the work” — her painfully accurate pseudonym for psychotherapy.
I take a second to let the red flow out of my face, and ponder what she said. I’m a little unsure about this whole technique, but the more I think about it, the more it makes sense. So I go home, incredibly turned on and completely unashamed.
* * *
One of the great breakthroughs I’ve had in the thirteen months since I began seeing Lori (who agreed to participate in this article, but requested that her full name not be published) is a new ability to accept the existence of dualities in life. For instance, I’ve always had a tremendous sense of pride that, if it doesn’t straddle the line of arrogance, certainly dives into that hemisphere from time to time. I’m great at seeing flaws in others and propping myself up above them by smugly observing my character strengths. I’ve never liked that about myself, but the harder concept to grasp is the fact that I can be so egotistical while also stricken with such vast quantities of insecurity.
In treatment I came to realize that all people have contradictions to their personalities. There’s the insanely smart guy who can’t remotely begin to navigate a common social situation, the charitable girl who devotes all her time to helping strangers, but won’t confront issues in her own personal relationships. In my case, my extreme sensitivity can make me feel fabulous about the aspects of myself that I somehow know are good (my artistic tastes) and cause deep hatred of those traits I happen to loathe (the thirty pounds I could stand to lose).
My next session with Lori is productive. We speak about relationships I’ve formed with friends and lovers, and how my family may have informed those interactions. One constant is that I put crudely high expectations on others, mirroring those thrown upon me as a kid. I’m angered when people don’t meet those expectations, and absolutely devastated when I don’t reach them. Lori points out that it must be “exhausting trying to be so perfect all the time.” I am much more comfortable than I was the week prior, and can feel myself being more candid. I’m relieved that the whole being-attracted-to-my-therapist thing doesn’t come up.
Then, a week later, Lori mentions it, and I become tense again.
“I thought I’d be able to move past it,” I say, adding, “We aired it out, and it’s fine.”
As definitive as I’m trying to sound, Lori is just as defiant.
“I’m glad you feel that way,” she begins, “but I think you owe yourself some kudos. This kind of therapy,” she shares, “isn’t something just anyone can take on.” Such honest discussion doesn’t simply happen, it takes tremendous guts, and Lori can see that I am dealing with it relatively well, so I should praise my own efforts.
“Shit, we both should be proud of ourselves,” she says. “It’s not easy on the therapist either, you know.”
“Because talking openly about sex is risky at any time, much less with a client.” She explains that therapists are warned any semblance of intimacy can be easily misconstrued. “We learn in our training to not personally disclose, for example,” she says, but adds that, occasionally, transparency can be helpful.
“Still, with you,” she continues, “until I raised the question, I didn’t know for sure that you would go with it; for all I knew you’d run out of here and never come back to risk being so uncomfortable again.”
She’s building my confidence more, and I’m learning that I play a much bigger role in how my life is conducted than I often realize. My treatment wouldn’t be happening if I weren’t enabling it.
Then she says, “And don’t think it’s not nice for me to hear that a guy like you thinks I’m beautiful.”
Crippled by the eroticism of the moment, and combined with the prevailing notion that no woman this stunning could ever be romantically interested in me, I flounder through words that resemble, “Wait…what?”
“If we were somehow at a bar together, and you came over and talked to me,” she says, then flips her palms up innocently, “who knows?”
I laugh again and tell her there’d be almost no chance of me approaching her because I’d never feel like I had a shot in hell.
“Well, that’s not the circumstances we’re in,” she says. “But you might. Who knows?”
I’m confused — Is she really attracted to me or is this some psychotherapeutic ruse? I’m frustrated — I told her I didn’t really want to talk about it. Shouldn’t she be more sensitive to my wants here? I’m angry — Is she getting an ego boost out of this? Most of all, I don’t know what the next step is — Am I about to experience the hottest thing that’s ever happened to a straight male since the vagina was invented?
There were two ways to find out:
1) Discontinue the therapy, wait for her outside her office every day, follow her to a hypothetical happy hour and ask her out, or
2) Keep going to therapy.
* * *
A week later, I’m physically in the meeting room with Lori, but mentally I haven’t left the recesses of my mind.
“Where are you today?” she asks, probably noticing my eyes roving around the room.
“I don’t know.”
“Are you still grappling with the sexual tension between us?”
Here we go again.
“Yes,” I say, with a bit of an edge in my voice, “and I don’t know what to do about it.”
Lori, ever intently, peers into my eyes, wrinkles her mouth and slightly shakes her head.
“Do you want to have sex with me?” she asks.
We both know the answer to that question. All I can do is stare back.
“Let’s have sex,” she announces. “Right here, right now.”
“What?” I respond, flustered.
“Let’s go!” she says a little louder, opening up her arms and looking around as if to say the office is now our playground, and, oh, the rollicking fun we’d have mixing bodily fluids.
“No,” I tell her, “You don’t mean that.”
“What if I do?” she shoots back. “Would you have sex with me, now, in this office?”
“Of course not.”
“Why ‘of course not’? How do I know for sure that you won’t take me if I offer myself to you?”
“I wouldn’t do that.”
“That’s what I thought,” she says, and tension in the room decomposes. “Mike, I don’t feel that you would do something that you think is truly not in our best interest, which is exactly why I just gave you the choice.”
Her offer was a lesson in empowerment, helping me prove that I have an innate ability to make the right choices, even if I’d so desperately prefer to make the wrong one.
I see what she means. I’m awfully proud of myself, and it’s OK to be in this instance. I’m gaining trust in myself, and confidence to boot. But, as the dualities of life dictate, I’m successfully doing “the work” with a daring therapist, while at the same time not entirely convinced she isn’t in need of an ethical scrubbing.
* * *
I don’t have another session with Lori for nearly three months, because she took a personal leave from her place of employment. When our sessions finally resumed, I could not wait to tell her about my budding relationship with Shauna.
Ten minutes into my first date with Shauna — right about the time she got up from her bar stool and said she was “going to the can” — I knew she would, at the very least, be someone I was going to invest significant time in. She was as easy to talk to as any girl I’d ever been with, and I found myself at ease. Plans happened magically without anxiety-inducing, twenty-four-hour waits between texts. Her quick wit kept me entertained, and I could tell by the way she so seriously spoke about dancing, her chosen profession, that she is passionate about the art form and mighty talented too. Shauna is beautiful, with flawless hazel eyes and straight dark hair, spunky bangs and a bob that matches her always-upbeat character. She is a snazzy dresser and enjoys a glass of whiskey with a side of fried pickles and good conversation as much as I do.
Things escalated quickly, but very comfortably, and since we’d both been in our fair share of relationships, we knew the true power of honesty and openness. So upon the precipice of my return to therapy I told Shauna about Lori, and admitted to having mixed feelings about what I was getting back into. I told her I was at least moderately uncertain if my mental health was Lori’s number-one concern since she always seemed to find the time to mention my attraction to her.
The first two sessions of my therapeutic reboot had gone great. Lori appeared genuinely thrilled that I was dating Shauna and could see how happy I was. I wasn’t overwhelmed with sexual tension in the new meeting room, though it wasn’t actually spoken about, and in the back of my mind I knew it was just a matter of time before it would start to affect my ability to disclose my thoughts to Lori again.
Then, while attempting to ingratiate myself with my new girlfriend’s cat by spooning food onto his tiny dish on the kitchen floor, I hear my phone ding from inside the living room.
“You got a text, babe,” Shauna says. “It’s from Lori.”
“‘I’m so impressed with you and the work you’re doing…’” Shauna reads off my phone from inside the living room, inquisitively, and not happily. I stuff the cat food back into the Tupperware and toss it into the refrigerator. I make my way into the living room, angry at myself for not changing the settings on my new iPhone to disallow text previews on the locked screen. Shauna’s walking too, and we meet near the kitchen door. “What’s this?” she says, holding up the phone. “Your therapist texts you?”
I take the phone from Shauna and say the most obvious, cliché-sounding thing: “It’s not what it seems.”
As I text back a curt “thanks,” Shauna tells me she’s going to ask her sister, a therapist herself, if it’s OK to text patients.
“Don’t do that.” I say, a little more emphatically. “I promise, this is nothing to be worried about. We’re not doing anything wrong.” I explain that Lori’s just trying to build my self-esteem.
“The only reason I’m even bringing this up is because you said you weren’t sure about her in the first place,” Shauna reminds me. I can tell she regrets looking at my phone without my permission, but I completely understand her feelings.
At my next session I tell Lori that Shauna saw her text and wasn’t thrilled about it.
“She probably feels cheated on to some degree,” Lori says. “A relationship between a therapist and a patient can oftentimes seem much more intimate than the one between a romantic couple.”
Lori goes on to point out that the reason she feels we can exchange texts, blurring the lines between patient/doctor boundaries — a hottopic in the psychotherapy world these days — is because she trusts that I’ll respect her space and privacy. “You’ve proven that much to me,” she says.
On my walk home, instead of being angry at Lori, I understand her thinking behind the text. But I’m also nervous about how Lori and Shauna can ever coexist in my life.
Isn’t therapy supposed to ameliorate my anxiety?
* * *
A week later, Lori begins our session by handing me a printout explaining the psychotherapeutic term “erotic transference” written by Raymond Lloyd Richmond, PhD. It says that erotic transference is the patient’s sense that love is being exchanged between him or herself and the therapist — the exact sensation I was experiencing with Lori, of which she was astutely aware.
According to Richmond, one of the primary reasons people seek therapy is because “something was lacking in their childhood family life,” perhaps “unconditional nurturing guidance and protection.” Upon feeling “noticed” and “understood” by a qualified therapist, sometimes a patient can be “intoxicated” by their therapist’s approval of them. A patient may in turn contemplate that a love is blossoming between them, and, in fact, it sort of is.
From an ethical standpoint, Richmond argues all therapists are “bound” to love their patients, for therapists are committed to willing “the good of all clients by ensuring that all actions within psychotherapy serve the client’s need to overcome the symptoms” which brought them into treatment. This takes genuine care and acceptance on their part. However, a patient can easily confuse the love they feel with simple “desire.” They’re not quite in love with their therapist, so much as they yearn for acceptance from someone, and in those sessions they just happen to be receiving it from their doctor.
Lori tells me that, all along, she has been “working with what I gave her” and that because I flirted with her a bit, she used that to her advantage in the treatment. In employing countertransference — indicating that she had feelings for me — she was keeping me from feeling rejected and despising my own thoughts and urges.
“There’s two people alone in a room together, and if they’re two attractive people, why wouldn’t they be attracted to each other?” says Dr. Galit Atlas. A psychoanalyst who’s had her own private practice for fifteen years, Dr. Atlas has an upcoming book titled The Enigma of Desire: Sex, Longing and Belonging in Psychoanalysis, and I sought her as an independent source for this essay to help me understand Lori’s therapeutic strategies.
Dr. Atlas explains that there are certain boundaries that cannot be crossed between therapist and patient under any circumstances — like having sex with them, obviously. But many other relationship borders can be mapped out depending on the comfort level of the therapist, as long as they stay within the scope of the profession’s ethics, which complicates the discussion surrounding erotic transference.
“As a therapist, I have a role,” Dr. Atlas says. “My role is to protect you.” She says it is incumbent on the therapist to not exploit the patient for the therapist’s own good, but admits that the presence of erotic transference in therapy brings about many challenges. “[Attraction] is part of the human condition,” she observes. In therapy, “the question then is: What do you do with that? Do you deny it? Do you talk about it? How do you talk about it without seducing the patient and with keeping your professional ability to think and to reflect?”
I ask her about the benefits of exploring intimacy in therapy, and Dr. Atlas quickly points out that emotional intimacy — though not necessarily that of the sexual brand — is almost inevitable and required. “An intimate relationship with a therapist can [be] a reparative experience — repairing childhood wounds — but mostly it’s about helping the patient to experience and tolerate emotional intimacy, analyzing the client’s anxieties about being vulnerable and every mechanism one uses in order to avoid being exposed.”
Dr. Atlas says this topic speaks to every facet of the therapeutic relationship, regardless of gender or even sexual orientation, because intimacy reveals emotional baggage that both the patient and therapist carry with them into the session. But this isn’t a symmetrical relationship, and the therapist is the one who holds the responsibility.
“Freud said that a healthy person should be able to work and to love,” she says. “In some ways therapy practices both, and in order to change the patient will have to be known by the therapist. That is intimacy. In order to be able to be vulnerable, both parties have to feel safe.”
After I briefly explain all that has gone on between me and Lori, Dr. Atlas steadfastly says she does not want to judge too harshly why and how everything came to pass in my therapy. “I don’t know your therapist, and I don’t know your history,” she says. But she offers that I should “explore the possibility” that I might have created and admitted my sexual adoration of Lori because one of my fears is to be ignored, not noticed.
Then I offer: “Maybe this essay is being written for the same reason.”
Maybe I wanted to interview Lori about erotic transference in my therapy sessions for that same reason as well…to stand out as the most amazingly understanding patient ever.
* * *
“I want to be very clear that this was never about feeding my own ego,” Lori says about her approach to my treatment. “We were always doing this in your best interest.”
I’m in Lori’s office, a tape recorder rolling and a pad and pen in my hands.
“I felt I was doing a disservice to you if I didn’t ‘out’ what I felt was weighing on us, which, honestly, felt like a heavy secret,” she says, pointing out that she discussed my therapeutic process for many hours in her required supervision meetings.
In order for Lori to advance in her field as a social worker, she has to attend 3,000 conference hours with another professional to go over casework — kind of like therapy quality control.
We talk about all of this during one of my scheduled sessions, for the entire hour — and go over by a few minutes, too.
Lori says that when she began her career as a social worker, she decided she wasn’t going to shy away from any subjects. “It’s typical for a client to [have] a habitual desire to sweep things under the rug,” she observes, especially about taboo topics. It can become a cycle of behavior that Lori seeks to break.
I refer back to the time when, unprovoked, she brought up my attraction to her.
She says she mentioned it to avoid what therapists call “door-knobbing,” which is when a patient will purposely mention some huge reveal right at the end of a session so as to sidestep a lengthy conversation about it.
“My only question for you is, was I wrong for bringing it up?” she asks. “Only you can answer that.”
Lori’s great at forcing me to reflect.
“I guess when I said I was over it and could move on, that was an example of my strict black-and-white thinking,” I say, throwing back some language she’s used often to describe my challenge in accepting dualities. In my mind, I was either attracted to her and shouldn’t see her anymore, or I wasn’t attracted to her and could still have her be my therapist. There was no in between.
I realize now that she wasn’t wrong for mentioning my feelings for her, even when I didn’t want her to. Lori noticed that I was frustrated with myself and wanted me to know that an attraction to a therapist is so normal and happens so frequently that there are technical terms for it.
I turn my attention towards the presence of countertransference in our session. I’m trying to come up with an actual question here, but, really, I just want her to confirm her feelings for me are real. So I say, referring to her feelings, with a great degree of difficulty, “It’s funny that they seem genuine to this day.”
“They are genuine,” Lori says, adding a moment later: “I think it might be a good idea if we explore why our discussing it suggests a lack of authenticity.”
“It doesn’t, necessarily,” I begin, then stammer through a few sentences, worried I might offend her by implying she’s been dishonest. I finally settle on, “I guess it comes back to my self-esteem issues. Why would a beautiful woman think I’m attractive?”
Lying in bed with Shauna a few months into our relationship, I ask her what she thought about me the moment she first saw me. I’m fishing for a compliment. But we met on Tinder and I just hope that seeing me in person wasn’t some kind of letdown for her after swiping right on my hand-picked glamour shots. Obviously she isn’t going to say something so awful after having committed to me for so long. It’s a slam-dunk ego boost.
She says she liked the fact that I was wearing a blazer and a tie on a first date. She adds that I was a little shorter than she anticipated, but was content with the two of us at least being the same exact height.
“What did you think when you first saw me?” she asks, turning it around, naturally.
Staying committed to my honesty-at-all-costs policy, I say, “I thought you were really beautiful, but not to the point where I was intimidated by you, which was very important because if I was, you would have gotten a very unconfident version of me, and we probably wouldn’t have hit it off as well as we did.”
Shauna thinks about that for a second, and eventually nods “OK.”
I explain that my insecurity could often get the better of me in dating situations. It was easy to convince myself that I’d be rejected by the girl I was with, especially if I thought she was out of my league. I would then slip into a nervous and reserved state that isn’t at all reflective of my true self.
I’m essentially saying that I was so thrilled to not find Shauna so extraordinarily pretty that I couldn’t accept her being on a date with me. That thought made so much sense at the time I said it, but I’ve since come to realize it is as ridiculous as it is insulting. After ten months of being with Shauna, I’m still completely floored by her, on every level, including a physical one. It gives me great pride to walk into a room with her, and I don’t imagine that changing. Therefore, she actually did meet a confident “version of me.” The way people look doesn’t drastically change in ten months but a person’s perception of self can. It seems my emotional workouts in erotic transference were just beginning to produce results.
* * *
“People fuck up,” Lori informs me during one winter session. “Therapists have slept with clients before, just like politicians have had sex with their interns. But, so you have a full understanding of how this works, we can date.” She explains the parameters as outlined in the social worker’s code of ethics. One of the many stipulations is that we wouldn’t be able to see each other, under any circumstances, for at least two years before dating. She tells me she loves her job, and there’s no way she would ever sacrifice my safety or her career for anything, so she would strictly follow all the dictated rules. “If you truly want to date me, there is the option. But it’s ultimately up to you.”
I know what she’s doing here — putting the onus on me, just like last year when she said we could have sex. The difference this time is the answer I want to give is on par with all of my involuntary urges.
“I don’t want to stop the work we’re doing,” I say. “At this point, it’s far too valuable to me, and, really, I know very little about you.” She’s beautiful, exercises, is smart, funny, professional, enjoys good TV…and that’s about it. Aside from whether or not we’d even both be single in two years, and if we’d be in the correct mind frame to explore a relationship, there are several other things I’m considering here: Would Lori and I really be compatible in every way? Would she ever see me as a lover, a partner, an equal, and not a patient? Could I ever reveal a detail about myself, or even just a shitty day of work, without wondering if she was picking it apart and analyzing it?
Frankly, all those questions could be answered in the positive. But, even if I wasn’t in a happy relationship — Shauna makes this choice much easier, for sure — I wouldn’t go that route. I’d be out a therapist.
* * *
It’s a beautiful spring night in New York and only sidewalk seating will do. Shauna and I are out to dinner at a restaurant near her Queens apartment, and we’re both in good spirits. The weather and the alcohol consumption are partly to blame for that, but, on cue with the season’s change, I feel I’ve turned an emotional corner. Work payments that were past due are finally finding their way into my bank account. As it turns out, my short-term money troubles were not an indication that I had no business being a writer, or that my life changeup was as irresponsible as unprotected sex at fourteen years old.
I’d told Lori as much that afternoon. I took a mental step back from my current situation and realized that in spite of my recent hardships, I was succeeding. I summarize my session for Shauna, who nods in agreement, lovingly pointing out that she’s had the same challenging freelancer experiences as a dancer.
“You’re doing great, babe,” she says matter-of-factly.
“Thank you. That means a lot,” I respond. “I guess if I’m going to be a writer I just have to accept all this and have faith in myself. The way Lori put it was, ‘You just have to go all-in.’”
“Good,” Shauna says. “You should listen to the women in your life.”
* * *
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