Terrah Tillman and her husband had been trying to have a child for five years. After several miscarriages, they had all but given up on the prospect when Tillman unexpectedly became pregnant with a girl, Berlyn, due in early May of 2013.
“It was everything I dreamed of,” says Tillman, a 34-year-old child therapist from California. “I went to prenatal yoga classes. We got so involved; we wanted to do a natural childbirth, so I had a doula and we had a childbirth educator and tons of support.”
A few days after Berlyn’s original due date, Tillman went into labor and called her doula to her home, where she was ready with candlelight and music.
“It was all very pretty,” she says, gently recalling the scene. “Our family was coming in from out of town to see her. This little baby girl had been waited for, for five years, and we were so excited.”
But at the very last minute something went horribly wrong. Tillman felt no movement from the baby and ended up rushing to the hospital. Once there, doctors could no longer locate Berlyn’s heartbeat.
When Tillman and her husband were told Berlyn would be delivered stillborn, they were beyond devastated.
“A specialist came in and I just grabbed her,” recalls Tillman. “I yelled, ‘Please do something, please save her.’”
Before Tillman could get over her complete shock, she was suddenly confronted with new and painful decisions that she couldn’t yet bear to think about. When a nurse first mentioned Now I Lay Me Down To Sleep, she recalls that she hated the sound of the organization’s name.
This is how families usually first learn of Now I Lay Me Down to Sleep (NILMDTS), a national nonprofit organization that provides free remembrance photography of dying or already deceased babies.
NILMDTS was co-founded by Colorado-based Cheryl Haggard and Sandy Puc in 2005, after Haggard lost her own newborn. The group brings in volunteer photographers within hours of the infant’s passing, and the photographers complete post-production work at their own expense. While hospitals often provide their own services or bring in independent volunteers, many families and medical specialists report that the high-quality services provided by NILMDTS and a few similar organizations are invaluable.
As Sharon Nord, a perinatal nurse and the New York City area coordinator for the organization, explains, the moments surrounding an infant’s passing are typically hazy and disorienting for family members, and of course they will never have the lifetime of pictures people can rely on when an older person passes away.
“The families we assist will never have those pictures,” says Nord. Above all, NILMDTS provides a poignant memory of a child that might otherwise not be celebrated.
Tillman’s sister-in-law had the presence of mind to call NILMDTS and have a photographer meet them at the hospital. But by the time the photographer arrived, Tillman was hysterical and uncomfortable with the idea of having Berlyn photographed.
Tillman turned to a nurse and told her she had no idea what to expect, asking her what Berlyn would look like when she was delivered.
“The nurse said Berlyn would look beautiful,” recalls Tillman, “and just like she was asleep.”
Tillman eventually agreed to a portraiture session, but it was painful for her to witness.
When a baby passes, its skin quickly goes through changes that can be quite jarring to see. Oftentimes these sessions involve moving and positioning the baby, an act that takes great care and attentiveness. Some parents want to watch their babies photographed and some prefer not to. Similarly, some parents want to be in the photos while others turn that option down.
As the photographer did her work, Tillman chose to look away.
Several years ago, when Stacy Rader found out her son Caelan was not going to survive after taking a turn for the worse in the NICU, she immediately dismissed the idea of having him photographed.
“The doctor told me about Now I Lay Me Down to Sleep and I had no interest,” says Rader. “I thought, ‘You don’t take photos of these horrible moments in life.’”
But something changed when Rader’s nurse, Eugene, approached her in tears and urged her to have the pictures taken.
Rader, now 39 and Director of Communications at the Colorado League of Charter Schools, says Eugene, who himself had been present at the founding of NILMDTS, told her she would want those photos, that they would represent her legacy.
Rader was so out of it she recalls little of the experience and could barely remember the photographer or even the name of the group. But in time, she grew to be tremendously thankful for the memories.
“Even now I cherish [the photos] and I can remember details that have started to fade with time,” says Rader. “I can smell and even feel Caelan again. I’m so thankful I had the photos done; they’re all I have.”
Todd Hochberg, 57, a Chicago-based photographer with a background in medical photography, has been a near full-time bereavement photographer for the past eight years. He also teaches and lectures on the subject.
Hochberg is not affiliated with NILMDTS and considers himself a documentarian. He loves collecting vintage photographs, and compares his work to memorial photos made in Victorian times to capture the dead or dying. He believes each of those images and daguerreotypes, often of children and babies, tells an important story.
“I thought I would do what I had seen in the Victorian photographs—portraits or photos with family,” says Hochberg. “But what I discovered was this incredible story of love and loss and that’s why I brought the documentary approach to these images.”
Hochberg has received grants and donations to support the work he does, which is free of charge for families. In 1997, he founded his own organization, Touching Souls, as he knew of no other service like it at the time.
NILMDTS photographers typically spend between thirty minutes to an hour in their sessions. In cramped, busy hospital rooms, they balance professionalism and intimacy while assisting grieving families. Hochberg says he will spend anywhere from 45 minutes to five hours or more on a shoot. Sometimes he will even spend several days with a family, documenting the entire experience.
“I’m doing a documentary story,” says Hochberg. “I try to provide a full narrative, considering families’ needs and wishes.”
“There’s always a quintessential moment or image for me,” he adds. “It is often the same one for the family—the image that speaks most powerfully.”
On one particular occasion several years ago, Hochberg saw such an opportunity, but he also found himself struggling with issues of propriety.
At a graveside service, Brian, the five-year-old brother of a baby who had died, asked to help move soil over the grave.
“As the shovel handle passed between hands, I dropped to my left knee in a position from which I thought I’d have the best photographic vantage point, raised my camera to my eye and focused on what was sure to be a powerful moment,” explains Hochberg.
But as Brian began to slip the spade into the soil, the boy’s mother shouted out that it was too much to witness. Hochberg, poised to trip the shutter, decided not to photograph the scene.
Weeks later they discussed the incident, with the benefit of time and hindsight. Brian’s mother told Hochberg, “That would have been a nice photograph to have.”
One thing remains almost universally true: those who have these photos taken are ultimately grateful for the decision, regardless of the circumstances under which it is made.
Tillman says the photos help with remembrance, having only physically had Berlyn with her for a few hours. She adds that the hospital photos, which have a grimmer appearance, simply do not compare to the professional ones.
“Berlyn was perfect and beautiful,” she says. “The pictures were beautiful and now I wish I had more.”
Tillman included the photos in a slideshow of her pregnancy for the memorial, a slideshow she and other family members watch regularly.
“I watch it for comfort,” she says, “because it’s all I have.”
“I have her pictures everywhere,” she adds. “When you have a baby, that’s what you normally do, and people want to see your baby, but nobody asks to see pictures if the baby died.”
Tillman will be the first to offer to show people these pictures, and they are generally well-received.
Karla Helbert and her husband had nine months with their new son Theo, slightly more time to consider ways to memorialize him.
They had photos taken by a volunteer photographer at the hospice where Theo had been cared for, but they also chose to photograph him themselves after he passed away at home from a brain tumor. Helbert, a 43-year-old therapist based in Virginia, says the photos can be excruciatingly painful to look at, but they are also a reminder that Theo is now at peace and free of suffering.
“Some people may think about taking their own child’s photo after death, but feel that it would be seen by others as inappropriate or taboo,” says Helbert. “Those who do so should know that it is okay.”
Helbert now volunteers with the MISS Foundation, which supports families of newborns who have passed. She says those families overwhelmingly treasure the photographs they have of their children.
“The photos can be some of the only tangible, real ‘evidence’ that this actually happened—that their baby was born, that he or she was real,” she says.
Sometimes families stay in touch with their photographers, or reach out later to express their gratitude, and sometimes they do not. For Nord, the family’s remembrance of her presence is not important. She prefers to fade into the background during this delicate time.
In bereavement photography, the features and coloring of the skin are different than those of a healthy baby and the images require a post-production process which differs from that used on images of healthy children.
“People do consider it morbid when I first mention it,” notes Hochberg. “I generally say I do documentary work in the healthcare field and if they pursue it, then I say it’s around loss and grief.”
Hochberg says his job is merely to present an additional means of support, and not to interfere or force anything on families in terms of staging or posing.
“I’m there to make the humanity tangible and available,” he explains, “to later reflect on and use as touchstones.”
Despite the many tolls this volunteer work can take, Hochberg says he personally has no desire to ever stop.
“For me there’s something—as sad and tragic as these events are—affirming,” says Hochberg. “I am privileged to be a part of this very private and fragile time with these people. There are [sessions] when things are really rough emotionally, but I try to let those feelings pass through me.”
Wendy Williams, 30, a stay-at-home mother in Washington who lost her baby daughter Olivia in June, says NILMDTS has made a huge impact on her personal grieving process.
“On days when I miss her, I can flip through her photo book and remember the way I felt when holding her,” Williams says. “I can see the beauty in my child when I look at her tiny little feet and hands.”
“Some women choose not to have pictures taken and that’s perfectly fine,” she adds. “I’m so glad I said, yes.”
Under the scorching Texas sun, surrounded by hundreds of onlookers, on the first day of the 80th year of his life, Fred Renk stares down the horns of an angry bull one last time.
In his right hand, he holds a red bullfighting cape. In his left, he cradles a smoldering Marlboro cigarette between two fingers. In front of him, a bull begins its angry charge. It’s not the biggest one Renk’s ever faced, but that doesn’t matter now. At his age, any wrong move could send Renk to his grave.
It’s July 2, 2016, at the Santa Maria Bullring in La Gloria, Texas — a sleepy border town so small (estimated population: 70) you could drive by it if the sun got in your eyes. Once a year, though, the town swells as hundreds arrive to watch Renk’s “bloodless bullfights.”
Unlike their traditional counterparts, “bloodless bullfights” have the matador dodging and weaving around charging toros (bulls) in order to remove a flower attached to the animal’s back with Velcro. It’s a “symbolic kill,” according to Renk, meant to celebrate life rather than death.
But Renk isn’t the one who’s usually in the ring. In fact, Renk hasn’t fought a bull in quite some time, having retired decades earlier. Though time has eroded many memories, there are those that stand strong. Like the images of his son David as a young boy pretending to be a matador while wielding a dinner napkin like a cape. Or the indelible muscle memory that kicks in when a toro bravo charges his cape.
Or the old adages he heard when he was first learning how to wield the cape. “La sangre valiente fluye primero,” he says. “The brave blood flows first.”
Today, the bull’s blood won’t be spilled.
But Renk’s might.
Renk watched his first bullfight when he was 17, as an exchange student in Mexico. At the time, he was in seminary school training to become a priest.
Born in Iowa, he moved a lot during his childhood — more so after his father left the family when he was young. Eventually, Renk wound up in the seminary.
“My life really began in seminary,” he says, a cigarette dancing in his lips like a conductor’s baton. “That’s when I realized that, in this world, you’ve got to help people. When that sort of idea gets in your head early, you live your life for other people too.”
One day, he and another young seminarian heard about a bullfight in town. The pair followed the siren song of a good time to the town’s bullfighting arena, where they found a raucous party flowing with wine, loud music and tacos. It was the kind of event to make two priests-in-training forget about their vows.
They took their seats in the stands, and soon the doors of the arena burst open. In walked the matador, wearing his traje de luces, or “suit of lights,” shimmering like a chandelier in the sun. Draped over his shoulder was an ornate, embroidered cape. After bowing to the crowd, the matador took his place behind a wooden barrier near the stands.
“Everyone seemed to be expecting something,” Renk recalls. “You could feel it in the air — like static.”
The doors opened again, and a Mexican fighting bull the size of a sedan cannonballed into the arena. The matador emerged from behind the barrier, his face set and focused like a sphinx.
“When the bull came in, he dropped to his knees, spread his cape on the sand, and yelled to challenge the bull,” Renk recalls. “And that bull came running right at him!”
It was all Renk could do not to tear his eyes away. Right before the bull could drive a horn into the man, the matador lifted the corner of his cape and swung it over his shoulder. As he did, the bull flew over his shoulder too, its horn almost grazing the matador’s face.
Later, as Renk and his friends made their way back to the seminary, his head glowed with the images of the matador and the bull. Though he didn’t know it then, Renk had caught the worm.
“They call it gusano,” Renk says. “Bullfighting, bulls, everything about it. It’s a worm that grows in your stomach and eats away at you until you give it what it wants: More.”
Renk left the seminary that year. After a stint in the Marine Corps, Renk found himself working as a salesman, traveling up and down the border of Texas and Mexico selling sewing machines for Singer.
All the while, he could feel the worm wriggle in his stomach, letting him know where he really wanted to be: in an arena, with a cape in his hands, a bull charging toward him.
Over the next two years, Renk traveled to different bullrings along the border the way pilgrims visit holy sites. Juárez, Tijuana, Nuevo Laredo. He began to train in bullfighting at each location, honing and perfecting his skills.
Renk fought his first fight at the Macarena Bullring in Acuña, Mexico, in 1961. He nearly missed it after sleeping too late, but he arrived as the parade into the arena began. All around him, trumpets blasted, accompanied by the steady beat of drums. The smell of cooked meats filled the air, just as they had when he saw his first bullfight as a seminarian. As he walked, Renk struggled to put the cape onto his trajes de luces.
The bullring was filled with thousands of cheering people. It seemed as though everyone in Mexico had come to see him.
“I shook the whole time I was getting dressed,” Renk says. “It felt like my guts were shaking.”
Soon, a trumpet blasted, the doors of the arena flew open, and a massive bull came out like a battering ram. Renk thought of that old bullfighting adage he’d learned while training:
La sangre valiente fluye primero. The brave blood flows first.
As the bull ran around the ring — charging at the stands and fruitlessly trying to burn off the adrenaline coursing through its body — Renk stepped out from behind the barrier and into the arena.
The hot sand beneath his bullfighting slippers warmed his feet. All around him, the air carried a potent mix of fear, anticipation — and tacos.
With a flick of his wrist, Renk caught the bull’s attention with his cape. The toro zeroed in on him, and the crowd silenced, waiting to see how this American would do.
The bull pushed off of the sand and began its charge as Renk walked toward it. Then he stopped and held the cape out to his side. He kept his eyes on the beast as it ran toward him.
As it came within goring distance, Renk moved his cape out just a hair, and the bull followed. Lowering its head, it moved with the cape before passing Renk by just a few inches. The crowd erupted with cheers. Renk had survived his first successful pass with a bull.
Renk kept at it, traveling from town to town to fight in local bullrings and arenas.
Eventually, he built a home in El Paso, which allowed him to easily travel across the border to Juárez to fight. He established himself as a bullfighter, meeting matadors, bull ranchers and organizers.
That’s also when he met the woman who would become his wife.
“I was at a fight in Juárez, and I looked up in the stands. I saw this pretty blonde sitting with a friend,” Renk recalls. “So I went up to her and invited her to go to lunch with me at noon the next day.”
Her name was Barbara, and it turned out she also lived in El Paso. Within a month, the pair was married. And as much as Renk had fallen in love with Barbara, it seemed he fell even harder for her 2-year-old son, David.
“The first time I met him, he just grabbed me for a hug,” Renk recalls. “And that was it, man.”
Renk took David to bullfights, ranches and even bars, where they met world-famous matadors and bullfighting aficionados. At each fight, the young boy focused on the action with the intensity of a chess master studying the board.
“We were at a bar after a fight, and there’d be matadors sitting and drinking,” Renk recalls. “Meanwhile, David is out on the floor holding a napkin like a cape and pretending to make passes with a bull!”
Though David wanted desperately to become a matador, he had been born with a genetic disorder known as Marfan syndrome. One symptom was a clubfoot that caused him to struggle to walk for the first six years of his life.
Renk perhaps took to David because he saw himself in the boy. Like David’s father, Renk’s father had also left his family when his son was young. Or perhaps it was because David, like Renk, had grit and determination to make something of himself in spite of the odds.
When David was 8, a doctor who noticed him at a bullfight offered to perform corrective surgery on his foot for free. After the surgery, David laid in bed or used a wheelchair for six months. After that, he began to train as a bullfighter in earnest.
“The gusano was born in him early,” Renk says about his son. “And so he started training early.”
Over the next few years, Renk watched David transform from a young boy playing with a napkin on a barroom floor to a bullfighter in training. He fought his first sanctioned bullfight at age 14, much to his mother’s chagrin.
“I’m very proud of what David is doing,” Renk retorted in the same article.
But both parents ultimately supported his passion, purchasing his outfits, capes and even bullfighting swords. At each fight, they watched from the stands the way other parents would at a child’s football or hockey game, nervous for their child.
David began to make a name for himself in the bullfighting world, gaining the nickname “El Texano.” He became a bullfighting wunderkind. Newspapers and magazines from the world over covered his talent in the arena. He even appeared in an issue of Sports Illustrated in 1981 after gaining full matador status — an honor so rare that there have been more people on the moon than Americans who have become matadors.
Meanwhile, Barbara had given birth to another son, John “Binker” Renk. This spurred the elder Renk to fully retire from bullfighting. After all, he was a family man now. He had responsibilities.
However, that didn’t mean he was going to stop being close to the bulls. In fact, Renk concocted a scheme to bring bullfighting closer to home.
To kill a bull, a matador must stab its heart with a sword, thrusting the point through a spot on the bull’s back, deep into its body. If the matador’s aim is true, the sword kills the bull immediately.
However, in traditional bullfighting, the bull doesn’t always have to die.
If the bull proves itself to be exceptionally brave during the fight, it can win over the crowd. When the crowd is won over, they’ll shout at the judge to spare the bull. If the judge concedes, the bull is taken out of the arena and has its wounds treated. Then, it’s sent to live the rest of its life as a stud in the fields of a ranch.
It’s rare — but when it happens, it’s wondrous. A throng of thousands shouting for a bull to be spared, to continue living in the face of death.
Renk wanted to bring a sense of that back home to the United States. His vision was simple: He would host mostly traditional bullfights, with a judge and all the fanfare. However, the bull would live. A flower would be attached to the spot on the bull’s back where the matador would usually stab it, and in Renk’s new version of a bullfight, the matador would have to grab the flower from the bull’s back as it charged at him.
It would be a bloodless bullfight.
“In Mexico, they call bullfighting the ballet of death,” Renk says. “Bloodless bullfighting is the ballet of life.”
And so Renk organized and hosted the first bloodless bullfight in 1986 at the Houston Astrodome, to great success. Then the family took the show on the road, traveling to New York City, Chicago and back to El Paso. For the next few years, they traveled and put on these bloodless bullfights. At each show, thousands showed up to watch the spectacle.
Then, in 1989, Barbara died due to complications from diabetes. And as David grew older, it became clear that he was past his prime. After a fight in which he was trampled and nearly killed by a bull, he decided to retire too.
Renk, looking for something to occupy himself and his boys, bought a ranch in La Gloria, Texas, where he could raise cows and bulls. Taking a cue from Field of Dreams, he decided to do something he knew would keep his sons busy, while still giving David an opportunity to be close to bullfighting. He built his own bullring.
In 2000, Renk opened the Santa Maria Bullring on his ranch and began to host bloodless bullfights each spring, inviting famous matadors from Central and South America to perform. Renk judged the fights, and his son Binker helped organize the shows and corral the bulls.
For a few years, things were looking up. Renk and David even opened a bullfighting school, where aspiring bullfighters could come learn from “El Texano.” Though students couldn’t hurt the bulls, they still learned how to wield a cape and make passes with an actual charging toro.
But in 2006, Binker got hurt while working with the bulls.
“He was bringing them into the corrals, and one bull bumped his horn against his chest,” Renk recalls. “We took him in to have him X-rayed, and they didn’t find anything. Six months later, he was gone.”
According to Renk, the bull’s horn damaged Binker’s heart in such a way that it didn’t appear on the X-ray.
“He was just 36 years old, man,” Renk says. “The bull got his heart.”
In 2018, David began to fall ill too. Due to the Marfan syndrome, David’s own heart grew weaker and weaker. Eventually, he ended up in hospice care, once again having to use a wheelchair or stay in bed, as he had all those years ago.
“He used to say, ‘Champions train, endure pain, and never complain,’ and he never did complain when he was younger. Even when he got trampled or gored by a bull,” Renk says. “But the day before he died, I came into his room and asked him how he felt. He said, ‘You want to know the truth? I feel like shit.’”
The next day, Renk got a phone call to come down to the facility where David lived. When he arrived, first responders were already on the scene. Before he could even get inside, someone he knew at the facility stopped him.
“David’s gone, Fred,” they said. “I’m so sorry.”
David died of congestive heart failure in September 2018, at the age of 55. The young boy Renk had taken in as his own and helped raise into a successful bullfighter, his business partner and co-organizer of the bloodless bullfights, was now gone.
Since then, Renk has had to manage the bloodless bullfights by himself — and though he still loves the bulls, he’s ready to move on too.
The Santa Maria Bullring is an impressive coliseum-esque structure in the middle of the Texas brushland. To get to it, though, one needs to walk through the ranch.
Now 83, Renk lives on the ranch with his wife, Lisa, whom he met after Barbara died. They married in 1991. On a typical morning, when he doesn’t have to host a bloodless bullfight, Renk wakes up at 6 a.m. and gets started with work at around 8 a.m. — tending to the cows, fixing broken equipment, and feeding the catfish he keeps stocked in the green ponds on his land.
When he finishes at around noon, he goes to his refrigerator, grabs a cold Tecate, and settles down at a table inside of a makeshift bar he built outside of his bullring.
“I have one more season [of bloodless bullfighting] left in me,” Renk says, as the can of cold beer sweats on the table in front of him. “But once that’s done, so am I.” He and Lisa plan to sell the bullring to someone willing to steward the tradition of bloodless bullfighting next to their ranch. Once that happens, they say they want to start enjoying bloodless bullfights instead of hosting them.
As Renk sits and relaxes, trading sips of his beer for drags from his cigarette, his eyes wander the walls of the bar. Adorning them, as well as the inside of his house, are posters of David’s fights, pictures of the family, and portraits of famous matadors who have performed here. There are trajes de luces and even a bull’s head mounted on the walls — all relics of a time that’s passed.
“I did this all for David,” Renk says. “And somebody told me once he did it all for me.” He pauses for a moment. “I don’t know if I believe that though.”
Nanging on a wall outside of the arena, there’s one picture that Renk seems especially proud of: It’s a large 11-by-14 photograph of himself on his 80th birthday.
“Fred’s last ‘Olé!’” reads a caption beneath the photo.
In it, he holds a cigarette in one hand and a red muleta in the other, as a bull charges at him. When Renk looks at the photo, a smile reaches his face and his eyes brighten.
And for a moment, he is the ghost of the man he once was — the man who wanted to bring the bullfights to America and celebrate life instead of death. The one who loved, lost, and lost again, but still managed to pick himself up to take his destiny by the horns.
Love this Narratively story? Sign up for our Newsletter
Love this Narratively story? Sign up for our Newsletter
I was standing on an overturned milk crate on Bourbon Street, in face paint and a ball gown. The world was a blur. My body was entirely still — one hand holding out my huge skirt and the other a paper fan, frozen mid-flutter.
A group of frat boys appeared from the milling crowd around me. They wore Mardi Gras striped polo shirts in purple, green and gold, though it was October. Plastic beads winked on their necks, and they all gripped neon novelty drinks known as Hand Grenades. Though they were just fuzzy swatches in my peripheral vision, I could identify the color-by-numbers attire of tourists in New Orleans.
The group remained a blur because, as usual while working, I gazed only at a softened middle distance, not focusing my eyes. One of the dudes approached, so close I could smell his sugary drunk breath. He clapped his hands a few inches from my face. His palms expelled a little gust of air, cool on my grease-painted nose and cheeks.
I didn’t react. I didn’t look at him, or speak.
For several years in my 20s, off and on, I was a professional statue. Statue was both a noun and a verb. I was a statue; statuing was what I did. My job was, basically, not to react. Unless one of the tourists gave me what I wanted — a tip in the plastic lemonade pitcher at my feet — I gave them nothing.
When I wasn’t statuing, I always gave people what they wanted. I made eye contact. I listened patiently. I was free with my thanks and my apologies. I forgave.
In particular I forgave Toby, my boyfriend of several years, whose name I’ve changed here to protect his privacy. I forgave him for not getting a job, for the long nights I spent listening to stories of his childhood pain, for throwing our bedroom lamp across the room in a temper. I used my statuing money to pay our rent, to buy our groceries. When we were too broke to go to the laundromat, I washed our clothes by hand in the bathtub and draped them over our chain-link fence to dry. Forgiving him was a daily act, a constant renewal.
And above all, I smiled, for Toby’s benefit and everyone’s.
Except here, now, on Bourbon Street. It didn’t matter that my legs ached, standing on the milk crate. That my arms ached, frozen mid-gesture with the fan. That my neck ached, under my huge, flowered hat. I statued as often as I could handle, though I also worked construction, at 10 bucks an hour, for an uptown slumlord. On a good statuing day, I made three times that, but I could only work three-hour shifts; physically, it was the harder of the two jobs.
I’d trained myself to smile in childhood after multiple grown-ups, seeing me frowning in thought, asked if something was wrong. Once I’d learned to make my face rest in a vague smile by default, the grown-ups stopped asking.
On Bourbon Street I didn’t smile, or flinch. Even my blinking was rare and deliberate, and the frat boys weren’t having it. They would not, could not, leave me alone. It was as if, by doing nothing, I had challenged them to a fight. My refusal became a battleground.
“Hey, Gorgeous, will you marry me?” tried the one who had clapped in my face a few seconds earlier.
I didn’t answer.
“She must be a lesbian!”
“Is it even a woman? Maybe it’s a man!”
“Is that a mustache? She needs to shave.”
Another one clapped in my face. I kept the fan still, the skirt still. I didn’t answer.
When a new blur approached — deferential, kneeling to drop a dollar in the pitcher at my feet, I focused my eyes and came to life.
It was a woman who’d tipped me. Her husband, with fat white legs and a bucket hat, stood diffidently behind her. I felt my humanness returning, collecting. I blinked and the world sharpened; I reinhabited my blank, white-painted face. I looked her in the eyes, mouthed “Thank you,” fanned myself, and curtsied. When I smiled at her, it felt like I was bestowing a gift.
“She moved, she moved!” the woman cried, in frank delight. “She looked at me!”
The frat crew hung back; I could see them without seeing them. Now that I’d been suddenly rendered human, they didn’t know what to make of me. One shuffled nearer, but was recalled by his friends, and they wandered uncertainly away. But later, one of those polo shirts bobbed into my vision again. A quick stoop to the tip jar, the rosy flash of a larger bill. A $5, a $10? I’d find out later; for now, finally, I looked the kid in the eye.
“Uh, thanks, uh, sorry about that,” he said. He was flushed under freckles and looked impossibly young. I gave him a curtsy, and, absolved, he was gone.
I usually dressed for work in the rickety house I shared with Toby and a roommate. Before doing my makeup, I’d shimmy into the blue satin ball gown, borrowed from the friend who’d gotten me into the statuing business to begin with.
After taking an indefinite leave from college, I’d washed up in New Orleans, working one underpaid drag of a job after another. Toby and I lived in a world where everyone patched together crummy little gigs to get by, where the kind of work you did was never the point. The point was everything else. We put on puppet shows at Mardi Gras parades together. We paddled around abandoned Civil War forts in the swamps outside town. We day-drank by the river, ate out of the dumpster, splurged on body-sized slabs of ice from a seafood company and rode them like sleds down the grassy slope of the levee. Only certain musicians among us could earn money by pursuing their art; the rest of us took and left jobs like breathing.
Statuing, though, became more permanent for me than most things because it was my eternal fallback, my safety net — I worked for myself, I worked when I chose, the overhead was low.
Besides the construction job, I’d also tried being a barista at failing coffee shops and a busgirl at hectic restaurants. Meanwhile, I’d watched my friend Libby come home from “work” as a statue — I would have put it in quotes, then, because it seemed so absurd — with a literal bucket of cash. I’d watched her, still in costume, counting tips at her kitchen table: mostly $1 bills, with a healthy smattering of $5s and $10s, sometimes a $20.
“How much did you make?” I’d say incredulously. “How long were you out there?” Libby was generous. It wasn’t like she was the only hustler in the French Quarter, where street performance for cash was legal and largely unregulated. That wilderness was open to anyone with the guts to try it. “I’ll even lend you this dress,” she said. “I have like a million. Use my face paint. Go for it.” And so I did.
On any given day, since he was unemployed, Toby might be napping as I put on the blue gown and got ready to go. His mane of strawberry-gold hair, which I loved, splayed on the pillow like a sea creature. While he slept, it was easy to remember why I wanted to take care of him.
I’d ended up in this house, in this relationship, by saying yes. Or at least, by not saying no. It was amazing how I’d fallen into it all simply by responding as I was expected to. As the world wanted me to. Toby asked for my number. If I wanted to get a drink. If he could bike me home. Could come inside. Toby entered my life, and all I had to do was say yes. Toby was depressed. He needed to talk. He needed me to listen. He needed dinner, sex, money, comfort. He needed to move in together. I became the negative space of his asking, and the negative space was always yes.
There’s a photo from this era, of us spooning, lying in the grass on a hot day. Toby is the big spoon, clinging. I, the little spoon, am staring into space with a frown he can’t see, the old frown from my childhood that I only wore if I thought no one was watching.
Dressed in Libby’s gown, I dabbed white foundation makeup on my face with a soft sponge. I didn’t paint the rest of my exposed skin, like the all-gold and all-silver statues who sometimes shared my block; the face paint and costume transformed me enough.
On the white background, I painted red lips, round red cheeks, peacock eye shadow. I caked on glitter salvaged from an abandoned primary school after Hurricane Katrina. I donned my hat, covered in faded fake flowers from the cemetery dumpster. I stuffed my pitcher and “Tips for photos” sign into the milk crate, left Toby sleeping, and walked through our house feeling like a stranger.
And, while statuing, I was a stranger. I was strange even to myself. A new person or a nonperson, either or both.
For a pleaser like me, statuing was a crash course in stubbornness. What sounds like the most passive trade imaginable — becoming an object, a literal living doll, refusing to move or speak — was, in fact, bizarrely, the opposite. It was exhausting, but it strengthened me. I left work aching and charged up. I learned, for the first time in my life, to refuse people. I learned that it felt good. That it got me somewhere.
If you refuse to move, speak or react when spoken to, you’re breaking the rules. It throws people off, sometimes badly. Because I was acting inappropriately — not responding as a person typically would — my audience acted inappropriately in turn.
People inevitably tried to touch me. Then, and only then, I moved without being tipped. I slapped them lightly, on whatever was closest — hand, face — still deadpan, not speaking, not meeting their eyes. A slap for the drunkard trying to stick his finger up my nose. A slap for everyone who moved to kiss me or lift my skirt, which happened almost daily. The one groper I didn’t slap was a woman my age, alone, who slowly and softly pressed her cupped hand first to my left breast, then my right. I was too surprised to move; she left without speaking.
I did not slap people for touching my hands, though sometimes they jumped back of their own accord, shocked to feel my warmth, my aliveness. “I thought she was a mannequin!” they would shout, horrified.
But often the strangeness spurred by my refusal was more innocent, a grab bag of unfiltered human reactions that fascinated me. I felt myself and my audience pulled together into deep space, a lost world where no one knew how to behave anymore.
One night, out of nowhere, a man tried to hand me his baby. (“What are you doing?” snapped his wife, when she noticed.) A Steelers fan, giddy from the bar where he’d just watched his team beat the Saints, asked me to marry him. “I’m rich,” he said. “You come to Pittsburgh, I’ll take care of you.” He gave me a $20 to prove it. A woman questioned me doggedly for 10 minutes, then turned away, sighing, “Poor thing, I think she’s deaf.” A roofer from Mississippi — according to the business card he left — crossed the street to the ATM and came back to drop crisp $20s, one by one, into my pitcher, cursing each time as if he was doing it against his will. I bought a steak that night, paid our rent, and never saw him again.
Years later, I left New Orleans, and left statuing, with relief. I don’t miss the strain — on my mind, on my body. It’s hard to keep still. It’s hard to consistently thwart what is asked of you.
But long before I left statuing, I left Toby.
He was out somewhere as I stood in our room for the last time, perfectly still, staring at the artifacts of our life together: tangled blankets, my clothes in optimistically stacked crates that mimicked a real dresser. His shirts tossed over the single chair, his shoes, his smell. I was the doll in the dollhouse, frozen in my own life. I’d denied myself motion for so long, I’d forgotten its utility.
When I statued, being still was my form of refusal; here, at home, stillness was acquiescence, another yes. I felt a new impulse kicking now. My refusal this time required motion. Stillness was not a way to get what I wanted anymore.
In our bedroom, where I usually did my makeup, I shoved clothes and some books into an old Army surplus backpack. I didn’t take everything I owned, but I took enough. I made some calls and found a couch to sleep on. For a while, as I biked down Columbus Street, the world was a blur. Houses crawled by in soft focus, men and women on their porches murmuring, “Arright, Arright,” the classic New Orleans greeting, as I passed.
“Arright,” I said, by reflex. All right. Am I all right? I am.
I blinked, slowly and luxuriously. My life as a statue had almost imperceptibly strengthened this muscle in me — the muscle of refusal — and now with every push on the pedals, I felt it, somewhere deep in my gut.
The blurred-out world returned — the weathered houses, asphalt, palm fronds against bright sky. The street sharpened and every detail was clear again, was mine.
Love this Narratively story? Sign up for our Newsletter
Love this Narratively story? Sign up for our Newsletter
I was 6 when Don José surprised me with some cookies and milk before bed. I got so sleepy. The next day I woke up all bloody, with a cut on my ankle. Mami and my sister Valery washed me and bandaged my wound. It was not only my ankle that hurt. Everywhere, my body was sore. My back. Between my legs. But I couldn’t remember anything. Many years later, my therapist would explain.
This was in Tijuana, where I had moved with my mother and five sisters, in 1962, four years after I was born further south, in the Mexican state of Jalisco. Our neighborhood, Colonia Veinte de Noviembre, was a mishmash of wooden houses and shacks along the Tijuana River. Mami was a stout, resourceful woman who built a three-room house out of wood from discarded pallets. Our bathroom was a latrine behind the house with a blanket for a door. At first, we didn’t have electricity or running water, but Mami and my stepfather, Don José, greatly improved the property over the years.
Don José (whose name, like mine and others in this story, has been changed to protect my identity) was a middle-aged laborer whose distinguishing feature was his yellow teeth. What Mami saw in him, I don’t know, maybe simply that he was a hard worker, not a drunk like my father, and he provided a much-needed second income.
After the night he offered me cookies, Don José would often come get me from the bed I shared with my sister Lupe. Don José didn’t like Lupe because she was short and dark skinned, so even though I was younger, he took me back to his living quarters on the other side of the yard. Many mornings, I would wake up in his bed, my stomach knotted and lurching from the smell of his breath.
The abuse continued for three years until one day Don José tried to molest my younger sister, Berta. Mami caught him in the act. He said, “No, no. I was trying to put her to bed. I would never do anything wrong to the girls.”
That’s when I told Mami, “He does a lot of wrong things to me.” My sister Valery, who was older, and Mami asked me questions as they looked at my body.
Valery said, “Mami, she’s been raped for many years.” But they never took me to the hospital.
Although small in stature, Mami was strong. And violent. After she learned of his abuse, she began beating Don José so hard and so often that I thought she would kill him. When she didn’t, I thought maybe he would leave. But eventually, things got peaceful again, and Mami and Don José had a baby together — a girl they named Camila.
Only once more did Don José try to molest me. I was getting water from the well and he touched my chest from behind. I turned to him and said, “Don José, don’t ever touch me again! If you do, I will knock on the doors of all the neighbors and tell them what you do to me.” I had new confidence now that I was 9, and I felt strong as I shouted my threats.
In my mind, I was safe. Now that Don José knew I would shame him, I was free of his harassment and stalking.
Around this time, another older sister of mine, Rosa, announced she was pregnant. It was also about this time that a thin, pockmarked man named Eduardo insinuated himself into our lives. He was an itinerant farmworker who traveled between California and Guadalajara three times a year, and Mami rented him a room whenever he passed through Tijuana. When Eduardo learned that Rosa was pregnant, he asked her if he could help with the baby’s expenses in exchange for sex. Rosa initially agreed, but then she ran away with her baby. Next, Eduardo asked Valery if he could “help” her, but Valery refused.
A couple of visits later, Eduardo inquired after me, asking Mami if she needed help with my school expenses. Mami came to me and said, “You’ll never get married because you are not a virgin, so it’s better for everyone that you do what Eduardo wants.”
“No! I can work,” I told her.
“He will go slow,” Mami assured me. “He won’t be as rude and aggressive as Don José.”
“But Eduardo is old and ugly. And he already has a wife,” I protested.
“I know, but you’ve been spoiled by Don José and have no future. You must do what is best for the family.” This was Mami’s final word.
Mami built a room for Eduardo, on the far end of the house, where our meetings took place. I was his sex slave for three weeks out of the year. Everyone in the family except Mami and me thought that Eduardo was only a boarder. Looking back, my older sister Carmen must have also known, because although she never said a word to me, she would have found herself alone in bed on the nights I was taken by Eduardo.
Eduardo expected me to perform like an adult woman in bed. But I didn’t know anything about sex. All I knew was that after he violated me I felt like the dirtiest person in the world.
“When my wife dies, you will marry me,” Eduardo said. “With all the honors, with a white dress, and everything!” He promised me that. Like it was a big favor.
Things got worse after I graduated from elementary school. Like all of the graduates, I signed the backs of my school photos and handed them out to my friends. Eduardo got ahold of one of them and typed on it: I am Estela Salazar, and I am going to serve Eduardo like a wife, on my mother’s order. My signature was at the bottom. He showed me what he wrote on the photo. “With this photo that you’ve signed, I can put your mom in jail,” he said. “So now you must do whatever I say.”
Not long after, Eduardo took me to a photo studio and forced me to have a picture taken with my arms wrapped around his neck. Then he put the picture in a frame and left it in our home. Many years later, I asked Lupe to make the photo disappear.
When I started middle school, Eduardo began to get jealous. I was trying not to draw attention to myself, but he was paranoid that the older boys would notice my budding breasts and curves, so he would wait for me outside of school. When I saw him, I’d say to my friends, “Oh look, my uncle came for me!” I was certain everyone knew what was happening, and I felt the burning shame of someone walking naked down the middle of the street.
Valery’s husband, Fernando, was like the big brother I never had. He must have known something was amiss, because he offered to have the school where he was principal help to pay my $7 per month tuition. I was hopeful that this meant Mami wouldn’t need Eduardo’s money anymore. But it was too late. Eduardo used the photo with my signature to threaten Mami. He felt so empowered that he stopped giving Mami money altogether. Maybe if I was older, I would have understood that Eduardo was the villain, but at the time all I remember feeling was scared that Mami and I would go to jail.
Mami convinced Eduardo to bring her a gun to protect the family, and one day Eduardo arrived with a Beretta. Eduardo showed us the safety and how to load the gun and pull the trigger. Mami and I shot at the eucalyptus trees in our yard. Later, I watched as Mami hid the gun in her closet.
Emboldened by the power he wielded because of the photo, Eduardo became increasingly offensive, obscene and demeaning. “Act like a woman!” he demanded.
“How can I? I’m only 11!”
“How dare you disrespect me!” He slapped me across the face, grabbed me by the hair, and yanked me onto the bed. Eyes closed, my mind did as it always did — it flew away to my happiest memory, my sisters and me making tamales. While he forced himself on me, I was in the kitchen telling jokes with my sisters and laughing so hard we cried, as the radio played the music of my favorite composer, Vincente Villa.
Depression swallowed me whole. First Don José had stolen my innocence. Now Eduardo had stolen what was left of my childhood. Killing myself seemed like the only escape. I got the gun from Mami’s closet, unlocked the safety, and hid it underneath the pillow in Eduardo’s room. My plan was to shoot myself in front of Eduardo, so that he would have to live with the consequences of what he’d done to me.
The night before Eduardo’s next visit, I approached Mami as she stirred a pot of beans atop the propane stove. “Please, ask Eduardo to stop,” I begged her. “I’ll do anything you want, anything you need. Just please make him stop.”
“It doesn’t matter what you do, Estela. You have no future,” she said. “No one will believe your story, and no respectable Catholic man will ever marry a woman who’s not a virgin.”
Sobbing, I collapsed at her feet. “Mami, I can’t do this anymore!”
Mami patted the top of my head but said nothing for a long while. Finally, with resignation in her voice, she said, “I will talk to him.”
I threw my arms around her legs. “Oh thank you, Mami!”
The next day, when Eduardo arrived, Mami took him aside. He then departed. “He will not bother you again,” Mami assured me.
That night, the liquor on Eduardo’s breath entered my bedroom before he did. He grabbed me by the wrist and pulled me across the house to his room. He latched the door behind us, then shoved me onto the bed in the corner of the room. I watched as he dug into his knapsack and pulled out something long. “I will put this in your ass,” he said. “And you will like it.”
“No! You were supposed to go away and leave me alone!” I screamed.
He clasped his hand over my mouth. “This will be the last time,” he whispered. “I promise.”
As Eduardo turned away to place his knapsack on the chair, I slid my hand beneath the pillow, grabbed the Beretta and raised it to my temple, but as Eduardo turned to face me with the dildo in his hand, I turned the gun on Eduardo and fired one shot into his forehead.
I was deafened by the blast as Eduardo fell on top of me, his whole body shuddering in my arms.
“Que chingadera pasa!” Mami shouted, knocking loudly on the other side of the door. “What the fuck happened!” (My sisters slept on the opposite side of the house, and somehow the gunshot didn’t wake them.)
I rolled out from under Eduardo and let her in. Her worn hands gripped a candle. The light revealed a fine mist of blood splatter on three of the four walls.
“What have you done?”
“I killed him.”
“Estamos jodidos,” Mami sighed. “We’re screwed.”
We stood together looking at Eduardo’s dead body splayed across the bed.
“We will burn the body,” she said.
“No, Mami! A fire will smell and we cant’t draw attention.”
As we both came out of our shock, Mami got a pail of water and began cleaning Eduardo’s blood and brains from my face. “We must think of what to do with the body. We can’t let the others see it.”
“I will think of something,” I told her. “You go back to bed, and I will stay here with the door locked until morning.”
For the rest of the night, I huddled on the corner of the bed deciding what to do with the body.
It was light outside when Mami shook me awake. “What are you going to do?” she asked.
I wrapped Eduardo’s body in blankets, and as a cold rain began to fall I dragged the body to the nearby sandy riverbank. Mami took my sisters to town while Don José slept on the other side of the house. I often hauled trash down to the river to be burned and buried, and hoped the neighbors thought I was doing just that.
Just as I’d dug holes to play in as a child, and just as I’d dug holes for burning our garbage, I dug a long shallow grave for Eduardo’s body. I rolled him into the hole, covered the body with the silty earth, then packed the mound with the back of the shovel.
After I killed Eduardo, I was no longer a child. I was a soldier who had defended my family and my home. I even went so far as to order a police detective correspondence course in the mail, and after reading it cover to cover, I was convinced that I wouldn’t get caught for my crime.
Four uneventful years passed. Don José and Eduardo were no longer threats to me. I earned enough money to pay my tuition by tutoring first-grade students who were referred to me by Fernando. I converted the room where I killed Eduardo into a classroom.
Then one day, the authorities arrived. I thought they were there to arrest me, but it was for another reason. They explained that our colony needed to be evacuated because it was in a flood basin and the dam was beginning to crack. They offered Mami new land plus some money. Mami agreed without hesitation. She and Don José began to disassemble the house, so that we could take the wood with us and build again on the new land.
“Mami, we need to do something with the body. It can’t be here,” I said. “The authorities know whose property this is, and if they find the body here, we’ll go to jail.”
“What are you going to do?” Mami asked.
“We have to unbury him.”
“Who is we?” Mami asked.
“Me. I’ll do it,” I said.
Mami took my sisters to town while I dug up Eduardo’s partially decayed body. The first whiff of maggot-covered corpse nearly knocked me out. But I couldn’t stop, so I resorted to my old trick — my mind flew away to the kitchen, and the music on the radio.
I went to the shed and found a pair of work gloves and the old axe I used to cut up the chickens, ducks and rabbits that we ate for dinner. I decapitated the skull and then cut the torso into pieces. I put these parts in paper bags, then put the bags in the latrine of the abandoned house next door, knowing that the chemicals in the latrine would quickly disintegrate them.
Next, I cut up the bones and put them in smaller paper bags. I knew of a slum area with a lot of trash, so I carried the bags three at time and dropped one bag every couple of hundred yards or so. I then returned to the body and started out again with three more bags, until eventually the bones were scattered for a mile or more along the Tijuana River, sure to be swept away in the next flood.
There are moments of eternal sunshine and moments of eternal darkness in our lives. Killing Eduardo and disposing of his body were my moments of eternal darkness.
No one ever came looking for Eduardo. Perhaps no one missed him. But three months after I murdered him, Valery saw a picture of a young man in the local paper who bore a strong resemblance to Eduardo. Sure enough, this young man’s name was the same, only with a “junior” suffix. It turned out Eduardo’s son had been arrested for drug possession at the Guadalajara airport. That was the last news we ever heard about Eduardo or his family.
Even so, I continue to sleep with the lights on.
It wasn’t my plan to come to the United States. My plan had been to stay in my country and study to become a teacher. But I didn’t want to move to the new property with my family, and I no longer needed to be their soldier. So when a friend told me about a job caring for a doctor’s wife in Pasadena, California, I jumped at the opportunity. For the first time in my life, I lived in a nice house, working for nice people — like a normal person.
I met Diego in South Los Angeles, while visiting a sister who had followed me to the States. Diego was a shy man. I picked him for that reason, and also because he didn’t drink.
I got pregnant in late 1975, at the age of 17. I received a call from the clinic telling me I was pregnant and asking if I wanted to get an abortion.
“No,” I said. “I will marry the father.”
My daughter Bianca was born in September of 1976, and I married Diego that December. Both of us got our green cards in 1977, just before I had my second child, Noelle. After our third child, Dawn, was born in 1981, Diego and I became naturalized U.S. citizens.
Diego deduced that I wasn’t a virgin when I met him. He asked me again and again why not. I wouldn’t tell him my story, so he assumed the worst — that I’d slept around. He lacked the imagination to know that there are much worse things in life than a woman who has slept around. When he began referring to me as a puta, a whore, I knew our marriage would not last forever. However, in the meantime, he was a good father and a good provider. I bided my time until Bianca, Noelle and Dawn were grown. Then, finally, I divorced Diego.
I went to see the same Vincente Villa I’d listened to on the radio as a child at a concert in Los Angeles in 1990. When we were introduced backstage, he said, “The band played well tonight. You must be a lucky charm.” He then invited me to join him for an upcoming concert in Tijuana. Our eyes met throughout the Tijuana concert, and I felt confident that my strong attraction toward Vincente was reciprocal. After that night, he invited me to his next concert; however, the weeks that followed were some of the rainiest ever in Baja, and the remainder of his tour was canceled.
I did not see or speak to Vincente again until two years later. I was paging through a local magazine in Ontario, California, when I saw in an advertisement that Vincente was to perform at a Mexican restaurant near my home. I purchased my ticket immediately and surprised him. It was an emotional reunion — for him, because he didn’t expect to ever see me again; for me, because he did not look well.
“Why are you playing this small Mexican restaurant instead of a large venue?” I asked during intermission. He explained to me that he’d recently completed chemotherapy and radiation treatment for breast cancer, and he was easing his way back into work.
“I’ve often thought of you but did not think you would want me like this,” he said as he passed his hands over his body. During the second act of his show, Vincente looked directly at me and said, “I wrote this a few years back a beautiful stranger I met, and tonight I play it for the first time. It’s called ‘Mi Amuleto de la Suerte,’ or ‘My Lucky Charm.’” (In addition to Vincente’s name, I’ve changed the titles of his songs in this piece.)
From that day forward, we were a couple. The only two requests I made of Vincente were that he treated me with respect and not drink. “I hate drunks!” I told him. He accepted my conditions, and in 1994 I accepted his proposal of marriage. For the next 19 years, we bounced between Mexico and California, and lived for a brief spell in Chicago, but for much of the time we simply lived on the road, traveling from one concert venue to the next.
For my 55th birthday in 2013, Vincente surprised me with a party. But not long after the festivities began, he complained of feeling “un poco enfermo,” so we left the party for the hospital. I told him, “I will bring you to San Diego — to the university hospital.”
But he said, “No. If I die, I want to die in my Mexico!”
While Vincente slept, I passed time wandering down the garden path of my 20-year marriage to a man whom all of Mexico loved — and had loved — much longer than I. I revisited my favorite memory of all: the first time we spent the night together, at the Grand Hotel in Tijuana. I had never imagined such opulence. It was here that I first saw the look of a man in love. And it was here that Vincente first caressed me — beginning with his eyes, then with his warm, soft hands. I shuddered and felt my heart beating in parts of me I didn’t know a heart could beat. I flipped through the memories of our travels throughout Mexico and the United States, me managing the band, with the man often billed as something like “aging yet still charismatic crooner, Vincente Villa” performing romantic ballads night after night, for all those throngs of adoring fans.
Vincente opened his eyes and looked plaintively at me. I stood and gazed down at him. “I am here fighting along with you. With all my faith and hope,” I said. A weak smile crossed his lips before his eyes lolled in their sockets.
“I am with you forever, my love,” I told him. “For better and for worse.” And though he’d already fallen back asleep, I knew he heard me. You can’t cover the sun with a finger, or silence a truth as big as our love.
Vincente would not have a goodbye tour. After eight months in an intensive care unit, fighting renal failure and a brain tumor, Vincente died of a bacterial infection in a Mexico City hospital. All of our savings went toward his hospital stay, and in the end, I was left with only $160 to my name. Friends took up a collection for me and raised enough to pay for my flight back to Tijuana. I brought very few of Vincente’s belongings with me, but one thing I did keep was his polished patent leather band shoes. I gave them to my American grandson, Justin, before his first prom. “If Vincente were alive,” I told him, “He would want you to have these, and he would tell you that the secret to succeeding at love is to speak Spanish.”
Justin tied his new shoes, stood up, pulled down his cummerbund, and proclaimed, “I will learn Spanish in honor of Vincente Villa!”
I moved in with Mami, who had cancer, and commuted every day to San Diego to work for a cleaning service. I worked for $10 per hour cleaning homes, but I didn’t mind because the work at least took my mind off my bottomless grief.
I met Amy Roost, who I am telling this story to, when I cleaned her house. We formed a connection that I’ve never had with any other client. I told her I was newly widowed. And when she asked about my husband, I proudly shared that Vincente had been a very famous bandleader. I had never sent a client of mine a Facebook friend request, until Amy. I thought of her as my friend, and I felt confident she thought of me as her friend too. In 2017, when Amy shared her #MeToo story on Facebook — describing how she’d been sexually abused by her brother and raped as a teenager — I knew we were kindred spirits.
Eventually, Amy hired me away from the cleaning service and referred me to friends of hers. On my own, I earned $20 per hour, which allowed me to spend more time caring for Mami.
For all those years, Mami was still the only person who knew I’d killed Eduardo, and this secret was part of what bound us. So many times I’d wanted to share with Vincente and others what I’d done, but my shame would not allow me to. I also had to think of my three girls. I did not want their reputations tainted by having a mother who is a murderer. There were other practicalities to consider. For instance, who would ever hire a murderer to clean their house? And finally, the fear of going to prison, which had burrowed into me as a child, remained with me in adulthood.
Though she never forgave me for killing Eduardo, I forgave Mami. “What you did to me as a child is not your fault,” I told her. And it wasn’t. She’d suffered so much as a child at the hands of her own mother’s physical abuse and because she was expected to tend to her 14 brothers and sisters. Mami deserved another kind of life. But she wasn’t given the opportunity; she was too busy surviving. Even though she never went to school, she learned to sew, cook good food, build houses, construct fences and gates, and manage the family’s finances. How could I blame such a brave and intelligent woman?
My stepsister, Camila, had just given birth when Don José, her father, was hospitalized for prostate cancer in 1993. I offered to sit with him in the hospital, so that Camila could stay at home with her baby. After his surgery, Don José had three blood clots in his penis; the poetic justice was not lost on me. He screamed in pain over and over, so I called the nurse. “You must do something!” I said. “He’s in such agony.” The nurse left the room, then returned with a pump. While she worked on Don José, I prayed, “God, if it is your will, please forgive Don José. He gave me Camila, and she loves him. Please God, do not deny Don José his old age like he denied my innocence.” Just as I finished my prayer, the clots cleared.
Don José died in 2019, at age 98. Because his funeral was on a Saturday, when I was supposed to clean Amy’s home, I asked her if I could reschedule for the following weekend.
When I arrived at Amy’s, she asked, “Were you close to your stepdad?” I began to cry, which she mistook for a yes. I shook my head. “No! We were not close. He raped me!”
“Sit down,” she said. “It’s OK. You can talk to me.”
I sat next to her on the sofa, and for the first time, I told my story to someone outside of my family. Also for the first time, I told my story without feeling shame, because I knew that every tear on Amy’s face tasted the same as the tears on mine.
My name is Estela Salazar. I was once in the crosshairs of hunters, then I soared on the wings of love. Now I am a crystal vase covered in cracks. Not one has caused me to shatter.
Love this Narratively story? Sign up for our Newsletter
Love this Narratively story? Sign up for our Newsletter
Eric James had about a day before the dope sickness really kicked in. But he knew the opening bars of the overture well: In a few hours, the muscles in his lower back would start to spasm; his knees would rattle; his nose would run. But worst of all, the fog would set in, clouding his thoughts. He did not want to go through all of that again. So, on a Sunday morning in March 2019, with $150 in his pocket, he climbed into the backseat of a taxi, hoping that a 15-minute ride would bring him to the end of a 15-year habit.
The taxi stopped on a quiet side street in an Orthodox Jewish neighborhood in Brooklyn. James, a 35-year-old freelance graphic designer with warm brown eyes and buzzed hair, sat on a bench outside of a brown brick apartment building, his fingers sweeping across the screen of his phone as he waited. He had taken his last oxycodone at 6 o’clock the night before — about 15 pills, all in one go. The effects had worn off by morning and left him with his daily pre-dose feeling of lethargy and dread. The onset of physical withdrawal was still a few hours away, but he could feel the storm gathering. It would thunder in his brain and strike lightning through his bones, if he didn’t do something about it. (“Eric James” is a pseudonym; he asked not to use his real name for fear of repercussions at work.)
At another building in another neighborhood, the money in his pocket could get him well for a few hours. He could satiate himself with one last handful of the oblong yellow pills known on the street as “bananas.” Yet James hadn’t come for his usual medicine. This time, he was determined to quit opioids; this time James was after a chalky, bitter-tasting powder that would tickle his opioid receptors just enough to keep him from a full-blown withdrawal.
The door to the building swung open, and a man emerged whom James only knew by his thick Brooklyn accent and pseudonym, John Dee. His face seemed to James not 40 years old but 40 years besieged. Dee had spent about a third of his life copping prescription painkillers and heroin at Brooklyn housing projects. A diamond-shaped white patch showed where his curly black hair started to recede, as if death had been coming but beat a quick retreat. Dee’s skin, carved by several sharp wrinkles, seemed tightly stretched over his facial bones. His black, square-framed glasses and furrowed forehead gave him a hawkish look.
Dee’s lips melted into a smile when he saw James, for whom he had prepared a carefully curated withdrawal kit. It came in the form of two sandwich bags full of greenish powder — and a big, warm hug.
Oren Levy found a new identity as John Dee, a sort of shadowy do-gooder who helps opiate addicts kick drugs. He does it by using a largely unregulated plant called kratom, a coffee-relative that can grow up to 100 feet high in the jungles of Indonesia, where much of the kratom sold in the U.S. comes from. Kratom has long been used in Southeast Asia for its pain-killing and mood-boosting properties, but the plant has only become popular in the U.S. over the last decade. Addicts are turning to it as a non-narcotic alternative to classic opiate-replacement drugs like methadone or buprenorphine, in the hopes that it is safer and less addictive. The main alkaloids in kratom reach the mu-opiate receptors, quieting the withdrawal symptoms that make opioids so hard to quit. Chronic pain patients and recreational users also take kratom for the subtle euphoric effects it provides. Users mix kratom with juice, brew a tea, or simply do the “toss and wash” method of choking down a spoonful of the powder and chasing it with a drink.
Between 3 and 5 million people in the U.S. use kratom, according to the American Kratom Association (AKA), an advocacy organization. But Kratom is having something of an identity crisis. Overpriced, low-quality commercial stuff is silently marketed as a legal high in gas stations and smoke shops, where it often sits next to things such as glass pipes and amyl nitrites (poppers). Online vendors like Dee, however, import high-quality kratom straight from Indonesia and sell it at a lower price than store-bought brands.
Kratom is in the crosshairs of regulation and may not be legal for long. Critics who want kratom banned say teenagers can easily get their hands on it. It’s already been banned in six states, the District of Columbia, and a handful of cities and counties. Legislation is under review elsewhere. For now, kratom entrepreneurs like Dee are hustling for a piece of an unregulated industry that, by some estimates, generates over $1 billion a year.
For the last six years, Dee has been running a one-man kratom operation out of his three-room Brooklyn apartment. He has improvised a makeshift packaging center inside, with each room serving a dedicated purpose for his business, Red Devil Kratom.
For Dee’s customers who hope kratom will help wean them off of drugs, the journey to recovery starts in his bedroom, where a printer spits out order forms and packaging labels for parcels that will travel across the city and state. Scales, bags, and various-sized scoops caked with kratom soot sit upon a worktable in the middle of a spare room, where Dee handles packaging. A stack of labels bears the words “Red Devil Kratom,” along with the company mascot: a diaper-clad red baby devil with a coquettish smirk and a trident. Two plastic bins beneath the table contain Dee’s immediate supply. A nearby storage unit houses several hundred pounds more.
Dee organizes his supply by color. Reds provide a body buzz and are typically called “slow” strains for their relaxing effects. Whites are “fast.” Greens are in the middle, offering both euphoria and stimulation.
An earthy smell not unlike green tea escapes when Dee opens the bins and scoops up some powder to weigh on the scale. Dee typically charges $18 for an ounce of kratom and about $25 for his super potent, enhanced blend. He also sells cannabidiol (CBD), an unregulated, nonpsychoactive hemp compound that has been heralded as a cure for everything from epilepsy to overly active pets.
Dee scribbles the name of the strain and customer on each label, adding “You rock!” to each one before readying the bags for shipping, all from his living room.
“I run my company from A to Z; there’s no help,” he says. “Sometimes I’m up till 4 o’clock in the morning.”
Dee came to the kratom industry after years of abusing opiates himself. About 10 years ago, he went cold turkey following what he calls a “spiritual awakening.“
“Something in my head just clicked, and I said, ‘What is this shit?’” Dee says.
At the time, he owned a nightclub where he worked full-time, and drugs and alcohol remained a constant during his early recovery. The party scene wore him down. In 2012, Dee quit the nightclub business to figure out his next career step. He had always wanted to work in the recovery sphere. A friend who directed a rehabilitation center suggested he try recovery coaching. Unlike therapy or counseling, which is clinical in nature, a recovery coach acts more as a motivator, confidant, and role model — helping clients focus on their future, rather than on their past. Dee went to school and became a certified recovery coach in 2013. But like the nightclubs, Dee soon found recovery coaching toxic. The job required him to live among those he coached, with their families, at their homes, and many of his clients still used drugs.
While he was already off of opiates himself, Dee wanted to help others kick the habit, and he pursued a growing interest in alternatives to mainstream treatments for opioid dependence. An internet search led him to a kratom vendor, from whom he bought $80 worth. At first, Dee used the plant for research, offering it to people via his Facebook group “Kratom Free Giveaway” in return for a report on how it affected them.
He received glowing reviews from recovering addicts. It boosted users’ mood and lessened the cravings after the acute withdrawal phase, a time when physical discomfort gives way to depression and longing for drugs. To Dee, the anecdotal evidence made an overwhelming case for kratom’s effectiveness in fighting opiate withdrawal.
The first kratom went quickly, and Dee bought another $80 batch. He gave most of it away again, but this time he sold a little bit to make his money back. He started the “Red Devil Free Giveaway” Facebook group, named after his own first blend of red strains. The name stuck, and he became known as the “Red Devil Kratom guy.”
Dee still juggled several part-time jobs while building his kratom business, working security at big nightclubs and doing recovery coaching. He says he never mixed kratom with his coaching, despite a growing belief in the power of the plant. (Recovery coaches are strictly forbidden from offering their own diagnoses or recommendations, although they can provide feedback and research on different holistic treatments if the clients bring up the idea first.)
Dee began devoting more time to Red Devil Kratom between 2013 and 2014, gradually building up clientele in New York City, and, at a high point, grossing $60,000 in a single month. He boasts of a seemingly endless list of mothers, sons, friends, and relatives — all of whom, he claims, owe their sobriety to him and Red Devil Kratom.
Eric James pocketed $110 of Dee’s kratom. The whole thing felt familiar: getting “the goods” from a stranger in a strange place.
Dee nodded as James told of a 15-year pill addiction, hard drinking, and a growing distance from his boyfriend, who thought that he had kicked the habit. While New York City has not been hit as hard by the opioid epidemic as the rest of the state (and the country), James, a 35-year-old white male, is the likeliest type of person to overdose and die, according to New York’s annual opioid report.
Dee told James to wait for mild withdrawals before taking the first dose. The energizing green strain would put some pep into James’s morning; the red would help him sleep at night. To supplement the kratom, Dee stressed the importance of 12-step programs.
James headed home with several ounces of kratom in his pocket. He couldn’t afford another taxi, so he took the subway. The following morning, he started the regimen, gulping down the kratom with a glass of juice. He drank the concoction a few times a day, per Dee’s recommendation. Symptoms of opiate withdrawal were “virtually nonexistent,” he says, at least in comparison to the past. Just a bit of cold sweats and some gastrointestinal discomfort.
“It blew my mind,” James says. “I thought, this is amazing. How does this happen?”
He still didn’t know a whole lot about why kratom does what it does. But it didn’t really matter. By Thursday, James had shattered his record of pill abstinence. It was the first time he’d been able to string together four opioid-free days in eight years.
Then Friday rolled around.
“Oh God, just being alone at home, my boyfriend was off at work. That’s when I would normally text my drug dealers again,” James says.
James began composing a message to his dealer while looking up Alcoholics Anonymous meetings, his heart hammering in his chest. Somehow, the 12-step meeting won out. James went to his first later that night and found comfort in the support network. Fellow addicts texted and called him to check up on his recovery. James had several numbers to call when cravings struck. Dee, who regularly attends Narcotics Anonymous meetings, was one of them.
Having passed the acute phase of withdrawal, James found that kratom relieved the back pain caused by years of working at a desk. The few negative side effects he experienced included constipation and the occasional bout of the “wobbles,” a common kratom side effect so named for the eye-twitching and dizziness that occurs if too much is taken.
The mood boost and relaxing warmth of kratom tempts James to redose more often than he thinks he should. He knows that kratom can be habit-forming, especially for a former addict, and he doesn’t want to take it forever. James views kratom as a step-down substance: something strong enough to keep cravings in check but not strong enough to provide a true high. But like other opiate-replacement treatments, it’s hard to know when or how to stop.
“Am I really sober?” James has asked himself. “Do I feel sober if I take it?”
Some within the recovery community frown upon kratom, believing that true sobriety requires abstinence from all mind-altering substances. Whether kratom is such a substance is hotly debated. But for people like James, the semantics of that argument and the nuances of the term “sobriety” don’t matter half as much as staying away from opiates. Anything is better than that.
Kratom is a murky business. Because it is relatively new to the American market, there is little scientific information about the effects of long-term kratom use for the treatment of opioid-use disorder. Much of the information online has been produced by those who have skin in the game — vendors, users, pro-kratom groups — or by government organizations and lawmakers that tend to portray kratom as a dangerous drug with potential for abuse.
While kratom remains legal in most of the country, the Food and Drug Administration warns consumers that the plant carries a risk of addiction, and in 2018, the Department of Health and Human Services recommended a ban on the chemicals in kratom, which would make it as illegal as heroin and LSD. Ultimately, the power to make a final decision about the scheduling of drugs lies with the Drug Enforcement Agency, which planned to place a temporary ban on kratom in 2016 but backpedaled after an outcry from kratom supporters.
Within the medical community, there are conflicting views on kratom’s potential for treating opioid abuse. Dr. Joel Nathan, a fellow at the American Society on Addiction Medicine, warns of the addictive potential of kratom, saying that those dependent on opioids “may stay on kratom longer than expected and may increase their intake.” Nathan adds that patients who use the plant for longer than intended would need a detox.
Online forums such as Reddit, whose kratom community includes over 75,000 members, contain a wealth of user reports. Some people claim to have used kratom for years and then stopped without significant withdrawal; others report withdrawal symptoms on par with opioids: sweating, headaches, gastrointestinal issues, depression and intense cravings. The “r/quittingkratom” subreddit, which has more than 9,000 members, features posts about the agonies of kratom addiction. Many users say a lack of information led them to believe that kratom was benign.
Addiction specialist Dr. Mohamed Elsamra, who runs a medical detox in Westport, Connecticut, says that he has seen a slight increase in the number of patients using the plant over the last few years. Although he notes the similarities between opiate and kratom withdrawals, he says that few people have come to him to detox from kratom. Ultimately, Elsamra is open to the idea of it as an opioid replacement.
“The thought of replacing one with another is very good … if it works,” Elsamra says. “I use all medications available (except methadone) to help to fight this, so I am open to the idea [of replacing] opioids with a nonregulated plant.”
Kratom’s lack of regulation worries Dr. Erik Fisher, an assistant professor of clinical psychiatry at Columbia University. He makes an analogy to CBD, referencing a 2017 report published in the Journal of the American Medical Association, which reported on labeling inaccuracies in products containing CBD, suggesting that the same could happen to kratom.
“I’m not aware of similar studies on products labeled as kratom but can only assume that there’s a lot of variability in what is in the product,” Fisher says. “I think it is better to know that you’re getting what’s advertised.”
Perhaps most alarming, in April 2018 the FDA ordered a mandatory recall of at least 26 different kratom-containing goods from Las Vegas–based company Triangle Pharmanaturals, after salmonella was found in some of its products. Around the same time, the FDA also confirmed salmonella contamination in kratom products distributed by several other companies across the country. It is difficult to know to what extent such a contamination affected kratom sold by small online vendors; Fisher doesn’t think that this alone warrants a ban.
“Narrowly, one could take that as an argument to avoid kratom, but big picture, one could take that as an argument for better oversight and testing, especially given that people are going to use it anyway.”
Even without a ban, kratom’s legal limbo has created trouble for vendors like Dee. More than once, U.S. Customs and Border Protection has seized Dee’s shipments under the pretense that they contain “research chemicals,” unscheduled chemical variations of illegal drugs. Credit and debit card payments present problems because domestic banks don’t allow customers to use their cards to purchase kratom (vendors often open offshore accounts to process card transactions, or misrepresent their products to skirt credit card regulations). Dee claims that a Google algorithm change bumped his website down 800 places in the search results. As a result, his online business has slumped, and he laments that he now barely makes enough to sustain the operation.
“They play games and fuck me over,” Dee says. “I would’ve been a millionaire.”
In April, Dee and other kratom vendors felt renewed pressure when the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) released an ominous report about kratom. Titled, “Notes from the Field: Unintentional Drug Overdose Deaths with Kratom Detected,” the CDC presented data from approximately 27,000 overdose deaths collected from across the country between July 2016 and December 2017. The CDC analyzed the number of deaths in which kratom was detected in postmortem toxicology testing or determined, by a medical professional, to be a cause of death. Of those who died and were kratom-positive, multiple substances were present in almost all cases. Fentanyl and fentanyl analogs were listed as a cause of death in more than half of the cases; . after fentanyl, heroin was the most commonly found substance. Then benzodiazepines, prescription opioids, and cocaine. Kratom was found to be the sole cause of death in just seven cases, although the CDC stated that other substances “cannot be ruled out.” In total, kratom-positive deaths accounted for roughly half of 1 percent of the overdose deaths; yet the report caused a tidal wave of media coverage about kratom overdose deaths being on the rise.
Kratom users took to platforms like Reddit to fume about the report and its coverage. Dee agrees with many others in the pro-kratom community that the media serves as an echo chamber for government-produced misinformation. He believes it is all part of a conspiracy, orchestrated by the pharmaceutical industry, to keep people like James on long-term opioid maintenance drugs such as buprenorphine or methadone, a drug nicknamed “liquid handcuffs.”
“People don’t go to kratom to get high,” he says, “they go to get off of something.”
While taking Dee’s kratom and attending AA meetings, James gained a newfound optimism about surmounting his 15-year addiction. But a month into recovery, he faced one of the most difficult tests of his sobriety: His parents were coming for a visit.
“I haven’t done a lot of things sober,” James says, “and one of them is being around family.”
The relationship was fraught. He was closest to his mother, but that wasn’t saying much. His father had worked in a factory in Michigan for 35 years and only spoke to James about mountain biking and other athletic hobbies.
“He doesn’t try or can’t relate to me,” James says. “He’s kinda selfish.”
James hadn’t spoken to either of his parents in 14 months, right up until the day they arrived in New York from Michigan. A text message suggesting where to meet for dinner was the first he’d sent to his mom in over a year. The urge to use again began creeping into his mind.
“I had it set in my head — it seemed like fact,” James says. “I figured it would be easier to deal with them under the influence.” He could get high one last time, he told himself. In a way, he thought he deserved it.
The night before his parents arrived, James told his boyfriend that he was going to a cafe to catch up on some reading. He had arranged to meet his old dealer, who lived six blocks away in a family neighborhood with brownstone buildings and a police station at the end of the street. James’s hands trembled as the dealer handed him 30 yellow 10-milligram pills. His tolerance demanded 15 at a time to get high.
The pills lasted just one night; James had taken all 30 by the time his parents arrived the next day. He didn’t tell his boyfriend, who had shared his excitement in counting sober days. He has never told his parents about his opiate addiction. The relapse remained his secret. Even though acceptance of past misdeeds is integral to recovery programs, there was still something too embarrassing about the ease with which all of the self-improvement could be undone.
James did open up to his parents about attending AA. Over dinner the night after his relapse, he exaggerated his alcohol problem, telling his mom that he wanted to try something new to cut down on his drinking. There was this unregulated plant that helped curb cravings, he told her. It was legal and didn’t get you high, but it killed the desire to drink. It also helped soothe the back pain that had long bothered him. His mom asked whether the plant was safe. James assured her that it was.
“That was an interesting conversation,” he says.
His mom gave him money for the kratom. After dinner, mom, dad, boyfriend, and James piled into a car and drove to Dee’s place. On the way, James chatted, mostly to his mom, about the AA program, how he’d made new friends and was hopeful for the future. His dad sat silently.
The car pulled up to the familiar brown brick apartment building in Brooklyn. James hopped out and jogged over to Dee, who was standing about 20 feet away. Smiling, Dee waved to James’s family, who remained in the minivan. When James came over, Dee gave him the usual stuff: bags of kratom and a hug. Since then, James has managed not to relapse. But a round of crippling blows befell Dee’s business about a month later, in early June. Google struck down Red Devil Kratom’s business listing, which had amassed several thousand five-star reviews since the company began over six years ago. The reason, Dee was told, was that Red Devil Kratom was a “poor-quality shop.”
Instagram then shuttered the Red Devil Kratom page, which had over 5,000 followers; Facebook followed suit. Both were flagged for selling illicit items. Twitter suspended Red Devil Kratom’s account. Then came Dee’s PayPal, Venmo, Cash App, and personal Facebook page. He says that even his account on Tinder was canceled because it was linked to a blacklisted credit card.
To supplement the dwindling kratom business, Dee has been focused lately on promoting CBD, a substance that is not without its own regulatory challenges. He hopes that the business will take off now that it’s entered the mainstream. Dee’s CBD social media accounts remain active, even though, in theory, there is little legal distinction between the cannabis derivative and kratom.
For now, Dee and his Red Devil Kratom remain at the mercy of the regulatory agencies and tech giants. With the ever-evolving legal complications of kratom, Dee has no idea whether he will be in business next year.
“I’m lucky if I make any money now. My company has gone to shit,” he says. “I’ve been feeling kind of down about it. I question, ‘Do I really want to do this? Is it really worth all these problems?’”
Dee still believes it is. Kratom has given substance to his life, which was once fueled only by the pursuit of chemical bliss. The plant allows him to both serve and be needed.
“My mailman’s on kratom; my super’s on kratom,” he says. “Twenty years ago, no one asked me for anything.”
In the early hours of one morning in May of 1749, Gabrielle Emilie le Tonnelier de Breteuil, the Marquise du Châtelet, worked furiously at her desk in an ornate three-storied Parisian house. Piles of books on mathematics and scientific instruments littered her desktop and spilled over onto the floor, the bureau, the shelves. The marquise’s fingers were stained dark with ink, but she didn’t care. No one important was going to see her anytime soon. She had long given up the pleasures of society life.
Splayed out next to the marquise was a red, morocco-bound copy of Sir Isaac Newton’s Philosophiæ Naturalis Principia Mathematica (Mathematical Principles of Natural Philosophy), the 510-page, three-volume masterpiece that had revolutionized the scientific world and helped usher in the European Enlightenment. What had started as a basic translation from Latin into French had now morphed into a full-blown commentary. The work had proven much more difficult than anticipated, even for someone as educated and intellectual as du Châtelet. But she had come too far to give up now. This book, the first of its kind, was to be her legacy.
The marquise was exhausted. She was 42 years old and six months pregnant with her fourth child. The father was not her husband, but her much younger lover, a poet-soldier named Jean François de Saint-Lambert. Taking lovers outside of marriage was acceptable in the social circles in which du Châtelet moved, but physical evidence of them was not. Others at court had already begun talking and making jokes behind her back. But the marquise had bigger concerns than her reputation. At such an advanced age, she suspected her pregnancy would also be her end. In a time when overall life expectancy was short enough, having a child in your 40s posed considerable health risks. But she was determined to finish her commentary, to which she had devoted the last five years of her life, before she died. She had sequestered herself inside her Paris home and forced herself to work around the clock.
In one of her letters to Saint-Lambert from this period, she informed him of her daily routine. She rose at 9 a.m., sometimes 8, and worked until 3 p.m., when she allowed herself a one-hour break for coffee. At 4, she began work again, and didn’t stop until 10, when she had dinner alone. After dinner, around midnight, she started writing again, only stopping when she collapsed into bed around 5 a.m. She got three or four hours of sleep before waking up and doing it all over again the next day. Such had been her schedule for the last several months.
Her new regimen was grueling but effective, and she blamed herself for not adopting it sooner. “Had I led this life since I came to Paris, I would have finished by now,” she wrote Saint-Lambert. “But I began by having many engagements; I gave myself up to society in the evenings. I believed that the day would suffice.”
As her pregnancy continued, however, du Châtelet became increasingly aware that she was running out of time. “I felt that the only way to avoid all these intersecting inconveniences and to make the most of my trip to Paris…was to sequester myself absolutely, to stake my all, and to devote all my time to my book.”
Her commitment eventually paid off. Sometime in the first three days of September, du Châtelet finished her commentary. On September 4, she gave birth to a daughter. Six days later, du Châtelet was dead.
It was an abrupt end to an unpredictable life. The marquise never got to see her commentary published. It remained buried until 1759, when the return of Halley’s Comet to Earth’s atmosphere reignited interest in Newtonian mechanics and prompted one of du Châtelet’s mentors, Alexis-Claude Clairut, to publish it. To this day, it remains the only full translation of the Principia in French.
Perhaps most tragically, although the marquise accomplished a feat few could have, most of history has relegated her to a footnote. She has been remembered as merely the assistant to “greater” men, most notably Voltaire, France’s pre-eminent writer and philosopher, with whom she had a passionate, decade-long affair. Yet du Châtelet’s impressive body of work shows a fiercely independent and intellectual mind, one that is long overdue for its own place in history.
In Emilie du Châtelet: Daring Genius of the Enlightenment, historian Judith P. Zinsser suggests that the idea for translating the Principia likely first came to du Châtelet in the summer of 1744. The marquise was entertaining the French Franciscan friar and mathematician Father François Jacquier at her husband’s country château in Cirey. Jacquier was a great admirer of the marquise. He and a colleague had recently completed an annotated edition of the Principia in Latin, and it was most likely during their conversations that du Châtelet thought of attempting a translation. She was an accomplished translator, fluent in Latin and acquainted with Spanish and Italian. The Principia appealed to her since no version existed in French. The only non-Latin edition had been published in English 15 years earlier. If she could accomplish a French translation, she had a real chance to create something lasting.
The subject matter, too, must have greatly intrigued her. From a young age, du Châtelet was enamored with math and science. Born on December 17, 1706, to a wealthy aristocratic family in Paris, she was the only girl among six children. Her father was a high-ranking baron in the court of Louis XIV. His wealth and status afforded him some of the best tutors for his children. Emilie’s mother also encouraged her intellectual curiosity. In Robyn Arianrhod’s book Seduced by Logic, Emilie’s cousin is cited as remembering how the young Emilie was allowed to argue with her parents and express her own opinions. This was virtually unheard of at a time in which children, especially girls, were expected to be docile and obedient. From the age of 10, Emilie had the freedom to freely explore the family library, which “usurped” three rooms.
Emilie took full advantage of all her education afforded her. According to a later recollection by Voltaire, as a young woman, Emilie could recite entire passages from Horace, Virgil, and Lucretius, and was acquainted with the philosophy of Cicero. In addition to her language acumen, she was a skilled musician and sang beautifully. Yet nothing thrilled her quite like math and science. “Her inclinations were more strongly bent towards mathematics and metaphysics than any other studies,” remembered Voltaire.
Of course, because she was a woman, Emilie’s access to these disciplines was stunted. She could not join the French Academy of Sciences and could not even join the male philosophes and géomètres as they sat at the Café Gradot and discussed Newton and Galileo. Women were meant to pursue domesticity and society, not math and science. Those were the domain of men.
These barriers frustrated her to no end. “I feel the full weight of prejudice that excludes [women] so universally from the sciences,” she wrote in the preface to her first full translated work, The Fable of the Bees, around 1735. “This being one of the contradictions of this world, which has always astonished me, as there are great countries whose laws allow us to decide their destiny, but none where we are brought up to think…Why do these creatures whose understanding appears in all things equal to that of men, seem, for all that, to be stopped by an invincible force on this side of a barrier; let someone give me some explanation, if there is one.”
For a time, Emilie even tried to do what was expected of her. At 19, she married Florent-Claude, the Marquis du Châtelet-Lomont. Eleven years her senior, Florent-Claude was a colonel in the king’s army and a member of a very old, powerful noble family. Neither had any illusions about the political necessity of their marriage. For several years, Emilie played the dutiful society wife. She bore three children, attended the theater and the opera, gambled at court, and enjoyed all the fine food Paris had to offer.
But by the time she was 26, it was clear du Châtelet was looking for more. The constant entertainment, which she later referred to as “les choses frivoles” (frivolous things), was not enough. “Since I began to live with myself,” she wrote in Fable, “and to pay attention to the price of time, to the brevity of life, to the uselessness of the things one spends one’s time with in the world, I have wondered at my former behavior: at taking extreme care of my teeth, of my hair and at neglecting my mind and my understanding.”
The marquise began to yearn for the intellectual excitement of her childhood studies. In the spring of 1733, she asked Pierre Louis Moreau de Maupertuis, fast becoming the country’s leading scientist, to tutor her in advanced mathematics. Around this time she also met Voltaire. Her choice to take Voltaire as a lover was unusual, since he was of lower rank. But du Châtelet found something in him that she couldn’t find in the “frivolous things” of Paris. Perhaps even more telling, the country’s most famous writer and philosopher found in her a woman who could match him, wit for wit. “There is a lady in Paris, named Emilie, who, in imagination and in reason, surpasses the men who like to think they know a lot about the one and the other,” the poet wrote to a colleague.
Since du Châtelet could not join the scientific community of Paris, she and Voltaire created their own. Both disciples of Newton, they turned their backs on society life and retreated to Cirey to pursue science. They shuttered rooms with curtains to conduct experiments with light beams, and lit massive forges in the forest to study the effects of heat on metal.
As she sharpened her scientific knowledge, du Châtelet proved herself more than capable of the same — and in some cases superior — analysis as her male counterparts. In the summer of 1737, she and Voltaire both entered the Royal Academy’s annual competition. The subject was the nature of fire. Neither won, but du Châtelet became the first woman ever published by the Academy. In passing along du Châtelet’s paper to a colleague, Maupertuis wrote: “Its author is a young woman, of the highest merit, who’s worked on science for several years now, leaving the pleasures of the city and court behind….when you read it, you will find it hard to believe they gave the prize to anyone else.”
As she sat down to translate the Principia in 1744, du Châtelet had no illusions about how challenging a task she had set for herself. The Principia was notoriously difficult to read, much less translate. In it, Newton had changed the very way the world thought about science.
“Newton set out his approach in the Preface to the Principia: the use of mathematics to develop and explore theories, plus the essential interplay between theory and experiment,” writes Colin Pask in Magnificent Principia. Simply put, it was the first time anyone had tried to apply mathematical theory to all of nature, backed by experimentation and observation.
The Principia contained revolutionary ideas about the nature of gravity, centripetal force and planetary movement. As Arianrhod points out in Seduced by Logic, Newton also stretched the limits of known mathematics, using geometric constructions in place of algebraic equations when discussing geometric shapes. The proofs for such formulas were idiosyncratic and often required the proof of several more propositions, each nested within one another. There were very few mathematicians in the world that could follow it. Du Châtelet struggled through it, but she completed her translation in a year without sacrificing any of her duties as a courtier at Versailles.
Yet, according to Zinsser, something bothered du Châtelet as she worked through the Principia. In several sections, the data wasn’t as clearly corroborated as she would have liked. What’s more, much had been written and published about Newton’s theories in the 62 years since the Principia first appeared, challenging some of its conclusions. Du Châtelet realized that in order to have a proper translation, she had to at least acknowledge the recent advances in the field. In November 1745, she wrote to Jacquier that she had decided to expand the scope of her project. She would now add a commentary, pulling together the last six decades of scientific memoir, as well as many of her own conclusions and observations from her experiments with Voltaire.
Less than a month later, however, the marquise’s project stalled. She discovered that Voltaire had been carrying on a sexual relationship with his niece. Even more painful than the betrayal was the fact that he had hidden it from her for so long. The revelation made du Châtelet sick enough that she put her commentary aside for nearly a year. She later wrote that she had suffered “terrible shocks” which cost her “many tears.”
Eventually, there was nowhere to turn but back to “her Newton,” as she affectionately started calling it. She found the proofs “very boring” and the commentary “very difficult,” as she told Jacquier. But by 1748, the project was taking on a clear shape. By the end of that year, du Châtelet had created a unique, three-part commentary.
The first section was an “abridged Exposition” on Newton’s work, in which she summarized the history of astronomy from the Babylonians to the modern period, and laid out many of the key terms and principles in the Principia. From there, across seven chapters, du Châtelet expanded the scope of Newton’s three proofs of attraction. Among many other propositions, this included her commentary on the “three-body problem,” or the irregularities in the orbits of the sun, moon, and the Earth, as well as the phenomenon of comets returning to Earth’s orbit.
The latter especially excited her as verifiable proof of Newton’s laws of attraction. “The comet of 1680 having so considerable a time of duration, its return that is to take place toward the year 2255, is of little interest,” she wrote. “But there is another comet whose return is so near that it promises a very agreeable spectacle for the astronomers of our time. It is the comet that appeared in 1682, in circumstances so similar to those of the comet that appeared in 1607 that it is difficult not to believe it is not one and the same planet, making its revolution in seventy-five years around the Sun. If this conjecture is found verified, the same comet will reappear in 1758, and this will be a very pleasing moment for the partisans of M. Newton.”
The third and final section of her commentary was the hardest. du Châtelet took the idiosyncratic mathematical proofs relating to the laws of attraction that had been most scrutinized by Newton’s critics and recast his geometrical equations into integral calculus. “This became for her, as it would have been for most géomètres of the day, the most difficult aspect of her project,” writes Zinsser. “When complete, her Commentaire would present Newton’s great work on a number of levels, in addition to the translation itself.”
Very little stood in the way of her completing it. That is, until 1748, when she met Saint-Lambert at a dinner party. The next year, she discovered she was pregnant. Aside from the social scandal, du Châtelet recognized the pregnancy for what it was: a death sentence. As word spread around Versailles, du Châtelet put all of her energies toward finishing her commentary. But it started to exact a toll. “I do not love Newton,” she wrote Saint-Lambert. “At the least I finish it out of a sense of duty and of honor, but I only love you and what relates to you.” Still, it had taken her five years, and she was determined to see it done. She sequestered herself from everyone and everything, except Clairut, who checked her math, and occasionally Voltaire, with whom she still shared a home.
Before giving birth, the marquise was transferred to the palace at Lunéville, in northeastern France, where she and Voltaire regularly stayed with Stanislas Leszczyński, the deposed king of Poland, and his court. Voltaire, her husband and Saint-Lambert all attended her there. At four in the morning on September 4, after a relatively easy labor, du Châtelet gave birth to a daughter, christened Stanislas-Adélaïde. For a few days afterward, du Châtelet seemed to be fine. But unbeknownst to anyone, a pulmonary embolism had formed in her lung. The marquise was slowly suffocating.
On September 10, du Châtelet took an unexpected turn for the worse. A violent headache gave way to difficulty breathing. The king’s doctor was concerned enough that he sent for two more physicians. After some opiates, she calmed down, and everyone except Saint-Lambert and two servants went to dinner across the courtyard. Saint-Lambert had just stepped outside her room when she started gasping for breath. By the time he burst back in, she was already gone.
“When the others arrived, in tears, they found a ghostly Saint-Lambert paralyzed with shock,” writes Arianrhod. “The marquis du Châtelet was so upset he could not stand up, while Voltaire sobbed uncontrollably. A little later, he raged at Saint-Lambert like a madman, accusing him of killing his beloved Emilie.”
Eighteen months later, Stanislas-Adélaïde also died. With the king’s permission, both mother and daughter were buried together at Lunéville, in a grave marked by a blank marble slab at the entrance to the king’s new church of Saint-Jacques.
Had things gone differently, du Châtelet would have lived to see her Principia commentary published, as well as witness the return of Halley’s Comet to Earth’s atmosphere herself. In 1759, Clairut calculated the comet’s arrival within a month of its actual appearance in March. It was he who arranged the marquise’s commentary for publication and dissemination. When he did, as Zinsser notes, “du Châtelet’s ‘Newton,’ with its unique three-tiered commentary, became for a whole generation of French physiciens and géomètres their principal means of access to the Principia.”
Emilie du Châtelet defied the conventions of her time. She recast what it meant to be both a woman and a mathematician in an era that strictly defined each. While her Principia remains her greatest and most lasting work, she left behind an entire body of writing filled with wit, wisdom and a desire to see women rise to a status that she herself could only dream of.
One of her final essays, Discourse on Happiness, was written during her messy break with Voltaire and finished sometime around 1748 as a gift to Saint-Lambert. In it, she extols the value of study for women, especially those who wish to be independent: “Women are excluded, by definition, from every kind of glory, and when, by chance, one is born with a rather superior soul, only study remains to console her for all the exclusions and all the dependencies to which she finds herself condemned by her place in society.”
The same essay concludes: “Above all, let us be certain of what we want to be; let us choose for ourselves our path in life, and let us try to strew that path with flowers.”
Support Our Storytellers During This Challenging Time
For the months of March and April, 100% of all reader contributions will go directly to our storytellers. Click on the contribute widget at the end of any story. Do some good in this unprecedented time — it only takes a little.