He Defended the Woman Who Drowned Her Five Children — Then Dedicated His Life to Making Sure It Never Happens Again
The notorious case of Andrea Yates was the first time many people – including George Parnham – had ever heard of postpartum depression. Sixteen years later, he’s working to help other mothers get the help they so desperately need.
Sixteen years ago, Andrea Yates summoned police after systematically drowning her five children in the bathtub of her Clear Lake, Texas, home. The 36-year old mother had telephoned her husband Russell “Rusty” Yates at NASA, where he worked as an engineer. Although it was only about ten a.m., she insisted he return home. Then she called police. Two officers arrived. Chaos ensued.
Like almost everyone else in the United States, Houston-based attorney George Parnham heard the news about the Yates family shortly after it happened in 2001.
“I told [my wife] ‘I wonder who is going to get that case?’” says Parnham.
A few hours later, his answering service relayed an urgent message. “I didn’t return the call right away,” says Parnham. “I knew this case would change the lives of everyone involved.”
Now 77, Parnham sits behind the desk of his private office at his Houston law practice, dressed in an off-white suit and striped tie. He doesn’t look appreciably older than he did 16 years ago when his face appeared in news photos around the world. He still has the striking snow-white hair, closely-cropped white beard, and rimless glasses he occasionally peers over when making a serious point.
A framed newspaper clipping hangs on the wall not far from his desk. The photo shows a distressed and tearful Yates seated at the defense table, flanked by Parnham and his partner Wendell Odom, both leaning in to comfort her. Yates’ eyes are closed and she is tightly clutching Parnham’s hand.
Long before the Yates case, Parnham had built a national reputation as a go-to criminal defense attorney. He’s worked on high-profile murder cases, kidnappings, frauds, cases involving the estate of Howard Hughes, the widow of Lee Harvey Oswald, and countless others. He’s never had a client receive the death penalty, although over the years about six of his clients, including Yates, faced the possibility of that ultimate punishment.
“I truly believe in the oath we take to defend clients to the best of our ability, with truth and honesty,” he says, leaning back in his leather chair in an office filled with photos and memorabilia including some from household-name entertainers, celebrities and clients. “I have never turned down a case. Well, perhaps once when I was a very young attorney.”
He decided to answer the message requesting he defend Yates, and ended up doing much of the work pro bono. When he arrived at the jail the night of June 20, Yates’ family members and close friends greeted him, anxious to talk.
He tried to quickly absorb and unravel the tumble of words pelted at him by Rusty Yates, Andrea’s mother Karin Kennedy, Rusty’s mother Dora Yates, and others who had gathered.
He learned that overdoses, suicide attempts, postpartum depression (PPD) and psychotic incidents became commonplace after Yates married in 1993, had her five children in rapid succession, and lived an increasingly nomadic life. She joined her husband in following the teachings of a fire-and-brimstone street preacher who was said to have told her she was evil and her children were damned. Only killing them would keep them from burning in hell for eternity.
After Yates’ family left, Parnham went to the small booth where Plexiglas separated him from his client. He leaned down so she could hear him through the blue grillwork speaker.
“Is there anything else I can do for you tonight, Andrea?” he asked.
Her response: “Don’t leave me.”
Parnham sat down, making small talk for more than 30 minutes until Yates was calm enough to return to her cell.
That meeting would change not only Yates’ life, but Parnham’s as well. Today, 16 years after the children’s deaths, national media and attorneys often contact him, asking for his opinion on cases involving women with PPD. He’s a featured speaker at many PPD training sessions for health care professional, lawyers, emergency responders, and the public.
“When I got the call that night of June 20th, I really didn’t know anything about postpartum depression. Her case literally sparked an awareness of women’s mental health,” says Parnham.
Newspapers, magazines and television shows around the world delved into the details of the Yates case. For many readers and viewers, it was the first time they had ever heard of postpartum depression. In the years that followed, PPD received more coverage, and celebrities including Brooke Shields and Courteney Cox began to speak openly about their own experiences with PPD.
Parnham was particularly moved. Almost as soon as the first Yates trial ended, he began to travel throughout the U.S., speaking out about the need for more resources for women with PPD.
“George was speaking to groups all over the country about it, but we wanted to do more to make sure women had screenings, education and support,” says his wife Mary Parnham, who has joined her husband in his office. Dressed in an elegant tan dress, heels and understated gold jewelry, she takes a seat in one of the upholstered guest chairs in front of her husband’s desk.
Inspired by the Yates case, the Parnhams founded the Yates Children Memorial Fund (YCMF) three months after Yates’ conviction. Their main goal was to educate the public about warning signs and train professionals to screen women for postpartum depression so a Yates tragedy would not be repeated.
“Mental health issues – even today – have such a stigma,” says Mary Parnham, the current chair of the YCMF and a board member of the Postpartum Support International Board of Directors. “You combine that with five dead children and people didn’t want anything to do with it.”
The group’s lifeline came from Mental Health America (MHA) of Greater Houston. After talking to Mary Parnham by phone and repeatedly meeting with the couple, the group agreed to take the new nonprofit under its tent. Then things started to change.
In 2003, the Texas House of Representatives passed the Andrea Yates Bill that mandates new mothers receive information about postpartum depression and resources. The YCMF was involved in launching a collaborative program with the City of Houston Women, Infants and Children (WIC) program to screen low-income mothers for perinatal depression, and outreach to federally qualified health centers to receive perinatal mental health training.
Countless other informational sessions, screenings and fundraising events continually increase awareness and diagnosis of postpartum illnesses. At last count, the Fund had enabled the training of 3,000 health care professionals and distributed more than 600,000 informational brochures.
“What the Memorial Fund does has a huge impact,” says Tiffany Ross, director of Education and Outreach, MHA of Greater Houston, noting the organization’s work has helped spearhead legal and medical changes throughout the U.S. “It is a very, very big deal and has made a huge impact.”
Thanks to the Parnhams’ efforts front-line staff and community groups regularly come to the organization seeking information about PPD. “Mary and George are incredibly passionate about women’s mental health and postpartum depression,” said Ross. “They are the realest [advocates] I have ever met.”
Still, PPD remains a dire issue for many women. The Centers for Disease Control estimates between 11 and 20 percent of women who give birth have postpartum depression. Postpartum psychosis, which can follow PPD, as it did with Andrea Yates, impacts just over three percent of women, according to the Psychiatric Times.
Psychiatrist Rhoda Seplowitz, M.D. of Bellaire, Texas, says stereotypes keep people from taking postpartum depression seriously. Seplowitz talks about a recent case of a woman who told her physician she had thoughts of harming her child. A trip to the hospital, expedited by her physician, almost resulted in her commitment to a psychiatric hospital rather than needed treatment for postpartum illness.
“There is still work to be done but the YCMF has had an incredible impact,” she says. “There’s still a stereotype of who has postpartum issues. A lot of the residents don’t know much about Andrea because they were so young when it all occurred. It’s not until we mention she was a nurse at MD Andersen Cancer Center, right in Houston, that they really listen. She was a nurse. She had a good job. She led a full life. She wasn’t deranged.”
Yael Israel, a clinical social worker in Arlington, Virginia, was a new mother when Yates was originally sentenced to life in prison. She remembers following the case and later understanding that she, too, had postpartum depression. She now helps other mothers break out of the mindset that postpartum depression is unique to them through her work.
“There’s still such a stigma around postpartum depression. When you have a baby, you’re supposed to be happy. If you aren’t, you are pretending to be and not addressing your own needs,” says Israel. “There’s an element of self-care that is just not a priority.”
Four years after founding the YCMF, Parnham led the way to have Yates’ conviction overturned. A 2006 retrial found her not guilty by reason of insanity. She was remanded to a state mental hospital. Parnham expects her to remain there the rest of her life. It’s her home now, he says.
But Yates is far from abandoned. She meets with a select group of family and friends including the Parnhams. Yates spends some of her days creating greeting cards and sewing aprons that she sells anonymously to raise money she contributes to the Yates Children Memorial Fund. When she speaks to Parnham – who she always addresses as Mr. Parnham or Mr. P – she’s always interested in the news of the Fund.
“I drive past the cemetery where the children were laid to rest and I take flowers. I know Andrea would like that,” says Parnham. “It’s stunning to think that the children could have died in vain had Andrea been executed. Nothing positive could have come out of this tragedy. The positive results are not due to anything I have done, but due to so many people who want to prevent such a future tragedy.”
I walked past the stage and sat down at the bar, the neon lights illuminating my pink teddy, shadowed eyes, and crimson lips. I ordered my first drink of the night and took inventory of the club. There were a few listless customers scattered around, hunching over bar stools, and a dancer circling the pole.
I waved over a colleague, a transplant from Manchester with hair extensions that kissed her velvet garter belt. We grumbled about how slow business was until I spotted a paunchy man at the bar. He was short, with a tuft of gray hair and a slight smile that crinkled his eyes. He was also more animated than the others.
“Do you want to try?” I asked her out of a sense of politeness.
“You go,” she said, waving her hand.
I started off light, asking about his day and his job. His smile widened across his face as my eyes met his. I silently counted to 10 and reminded myself to look away for a second – best not to terrify him. After three minutes, I transitioned to more personal questions, moving steadily through the formula I’d perfected to curate conversation with customers.
He started complaining about his recent breakup, but it didn’t feel genuine, his eyes twinkling with eagerness. I switched my gaze to the top of his nose to put a boundary between us.
I could tell he was interested in spending money, but he’d be hard work. It was time to either close the sale or walk away. He’d take advantage of my time otherwise.
“Ready for fun?” I whispered in his ear to avoid his eyes.
I didn’t bother mentioning the private rooms. After two years in the industry, I knew which customers were worth investing in – not this guy. So, I led him into the corner, which opened up to the club like the bow of a ship, public and safe, for one quick dance.
* * *
Before working in strip clubs, I struggled to read people’s emotions through cues like facial expressions, postures, and tone of voice in real time. I processed events after the fact with tenuous evaluation, like peeling off layers of old wallpaper. At the time, it was not something I had words to explain, so I turned the blame on myself. Whenever I struggled to understand if someone was angry or bored, I went home and berated myself for being lazy, ditzy, and dumb as I obsessively evaluated the night. I just needed to try harder to be more present, I told myself.
One time, I went to a dinner party my sister hosted. A few of her colleagues and friends sat around her table while we snacked on hummus and bread, and someone asked about my recent trip to Europe. I rambled incessantly, illustrating the nightclubs, the hostels I stayed in, even how I bled through my powder-blue dress because I forgot to change my tampon. My voice was loud, a pitch you use at a concert, not inside. I can see their faces now, wide-eyed and uncomfortable, but at the time they coalesced into one indistinguishable figure, Dave Matthews playing in the background taking precedent. Their distaste didn’t register until my sister pulled me aside and asked as kindly as possible to keep to “lighter” topics.
After dinner, we dispersed to the living room and I attempted to talk to my sister’s colleague, but I forgot to break eye contact, continuously staring wide-eyed while she spoke.
“You’re certainly a character,” she remarked, exiting the conversation. I didn’t realize until later that I’d made her uncomfortable.
I didn’t know what slow processing was then, but I was aware I felt embarrassed a lot, and lonely. Facial expressions, body language, and eye contact are the bones of communication and it’s quite difficult to build and maintain relationships without the ability to read them.
So, I meticulously designed a persona who nodded at the right time, rehearsed lines, smiled when appropriate, monitored personal space, spoke quietly. Before going out, I crafted notecards, scribbling how long to talk about acceptable topics and which to stay clear of altogether, like my period, in small talk. The persona was a mask that helped me appear to interact in the moment, but in reality I crept by, three paces behind everyone else.
* * *
I had just celebrated my 24th birthday in Australia when I started dancing. I settled temporarily in a bustling beach town at the edge of Melbourne and needed money to pay off my student debt. I considered a bar job, but decided to try stripping simply because it meant fewer hours.
When I walked into a club to ask for a job, to my surprise, I realized it was just a bar with the usual roles reversed: women approaching men. I was intrigued, but confused – how did they convince customers to spend money off-stage?
The manager looked at my petite frame and nervous smile, pointed her manicured hand to the dressing room and listed the rules: “Go get ready in there. You get one free drink. Don’t be late for stage. No sex. No drugs on the floor.” Simple enough, but nothing on how to monetize my time. I handed over my $40 house fee and walked into the sea of hairspray and naked bodies.
Hundreds of customers came and went during the 10-hour shift, sitting on plush couches and crowding around the bar. I approached 10 guys, mirroring my colleagues’ coy smiles, suggestive body language and light conversation starters, but I couldn’t tease out who wanted to spend. All but one dismissed me.
I sat at the bar to observe, sipping my free champagne. One dancer particularly stood out with her naturally frizzy curls and tattered black bra. She wasn’t the most glamorous, but every guy she spent more than a few minutes with agreed to get a lap dance, like she had sprinkled them with fairy dust. A few times, she walked away from customers within seconds, once even waving her hand in a man’s face to dismiss him.
From the bar, I saw her sitting alone on one of the upholstered couches that lined the back of the club. She was taking a moment’s respite after a dance to count her money before securing it around her wrist with an elastic band. I took a deep breath and approached her, brushing aside the fringe curtain separating the lap dance room from the bar. It was getting late, two hours before closing, and I was exhausted and frustrated. So far I’d brought in just $50, meaning a $10 profit after the house fee. I thought about packing up and never coming back, but I needed this to work out. My student loan wouldn’t magically go away.
She took one look at me and asked, “Your first time?”
“Yes. I’m struggling,” I said shyly.
She stared at me with a bored expression, so I got right to it.
“How do you know who wants to spend money?”
She turned around and outlined her lips with a beige pencil in the smudged mirror, advising in her Bulgarian accent: “I don’t always know, but here are a few things I’ve learned after five years in the industry: Don’t spend more than 10 minutes with them if they haven’t spent money. Five minutes if it’s busy. You’re not a free therapist. Make them pay big bucks if they want to dump their shit on you. Walk away from customers who want to get to know the ‘real you’ right away. They’re usually creeps.”
Before she left the lap dance area, she turned around and said, “And quit this nice girl bullshit. You sound like a child. Don’t try so hard to be someone you’re not, just be a hyped-up version of yourself.”
As she sauntered off, she looked back once more, “I’m Claire by the way.”
Her words wounded me, but I was impressed. She saw right through my mask. The rambling girl at my sister’s house was a distant memory, but, strangely, Claire must have seen who I was before I tried so hard to appear normal.
After we spoke, I didn’t reincarnate my older self, but I did carve another persona, Piper. I learned to showcase different parts of my persona based on the customer. It seemed practicing social skills paid off – I became a deft conversationalist, sometimes earning my night’s wage just from talking. I moved beyond the foundation I hid behind, laughing, smiling, and chatting more brazenly than before, enjoying eye contact with customers I trusted, dismissing ones I didn’t. Performing felt strangely comfortable, even though the job was foreign and challenging.
That conversation lasted minutes, but the advice made for a successful career. Slowly, Claire’s rules taught me how to read customers for signs of interest by attaching meaning to their words and actions, something most people learn unconsciously, but that I’d always struggled with.
The club gave me a controlled space to decipher the crinkle around people’s eyes for eagerness or raised eyebrow for arrogance, as if I was reading a script from a teleprompter. And when I was unsure, I had her original rules to catch me. Are they asking for my real name? Are they relaying problems in their life without buying a dance first? On the floor of the club, I spent hours practicing each weekend, and for the first time in my life, I learned how to cut through layers of language in real time, just like Claire, until it became effortless.
* * *
Eventually I moved back home to New York and started stripping full time. After two years of practicing by trial and error in the world’s most social job, the tricks I learned in the club seeped into my social life outside of work, and it got easier to notice social cues and use the same formula I used with customers to make small talk with anyone.
Most people I met outside of work told me I was a great listener, unaware of how much time I spent in my room practicing the correct reactions. I didn’t want anyone to know how much I struggled, so I let very few people get close to me – better than anyone finding out that I couldn’t really socialize, that I was a fake.
Nearly two years after I started dancing, my friend Sarah invited me to her birthday party. My least favorite social situation: a dinner party with unknown people. True, I was better at picking up more obvious cues like eagerness and anger, but group settings were strenuous – too many subtleties to keep track of. But I hadn’t seen my friend in a while and I missed her. I packed up my lace teddy and Red Bull into a discreet bag and headed over to the restaurant before work.
The hour and a half crawled by. There were six of us around a small table. I can’t remember the other people’s faces or even what anyone spoke about. I prayed no one would ask me personal questions.
“Sarah tells me you just got home from Amsterdam,” my friend’s brother said politely, turning in my direction. His words mixed in with the background conversation and it sounded like another language. I broke out in sweat.
“I am sorry, what?” I asked.
He repeated himself. A second later the words clicked. I smiled and looked at his nose instead of his eyes while chewing over my words and length of speech, trying to offer the version of my trip they wanted to hear.
Sarah got up to go to the bathroom. I quickly walked over to her and asked: “Were people bored when I spoke?”
“Not at all. What’s wrong?”
“Nothing, nothing. But I have to go. I’m sorry, I have work.”
She looked confused as I hurried out the door. I didn’t really have to go to the club. I’d made enough that week to warrant a night off with my friends, but work felt easier than this social performance. I let out a sigh of relief as the taxi plowed across the Williamsburg Bridge.
I walked under the familiar lights to the dressing room. I squirted a dollop of foundation on my hand and painted the dark circles under my eyes. For a brief second, I wondered, Is something wrong? Surely work shouldn’t be more comfortable than a night out? But then I swallowed those thoughts and walked onto the floor to escape from myself.
I sat down at the bar and ordered a Hennessy on the rocks. The birthday was successfully buried, and I was buzzing from the bliss of escape.
I spotted a man at the bar – alone, tall, bald with a kind smile and a glass of whiskey in his hand. I ran through the formula and we connected right away.
“Hennessy is a strong choice,” he commented.
“It’s an underrated drink.”
“I’ll take your word for it. Can I get you another one?”
Ten minutes passed. I suggested the private room and he agreed. The private rooms were where I connected with customers, sometimes in a way that was more intimate than my relationships outside the club.
There I massaged their shoulders, let them touch me, expressed vulnerability. I bantered for hours – something I was never able to do before. With fewer stimuli around, it was easier to focus and converse back and forth in a way that felt less strenuous than at the restaurant hours before.
“You have a strange rhythm about you,” he remarked, smiling as I cradled him. Customers who spent money like water didn’t care if I was odd; they wanted an experience. My weirdness was worth their paycheck.
After two hours, I excused myself for a moment to go to a bathroom where I got a message from Sarah: Miss you. Wish you didn’t have work. It’s not the same without you.
Below the message was a picture of the dinner crew, laughing with their arms wrapped around each other. I felt such a pang of loneliness and regret that I broke down in the doorless toilet stall, my eyeliner smearing like watercolor on canvas.
Why am I only alive at work? Why can I give so much of myself to my customers and so little to my friends? Maybe I was just being stupid because I was drunk, but I wanted to be an active participant in my life instead of walking around confused all the time, experiencing my days after they’ve happened, passive from the sidelines. I wanted connection.
Work was a temporary balm, but the interactions there were fleeting, not enough to sustain my longing for people. The force of my rotting loneliness hit like a tidal wave as the reality of how much I struggled to navigate social settings outside settled in.
I allowed myself just one sob before I fixed my face and performed for the last half hour. When I got home, I couldn’t get out of bed for days, my sheets disheveled with self-loathing.
Desperate for answers, I started scrolling through an online forum for women with ADHD, wondering if I might have an attention disorder, looking for an explanation. I started asking for advice, addressing some of my other issues first like getting lost in obsessive thought.
Within minutes, responses flooded that my symptoms resembled ASD.
“What is ASD?” I asked.
“Autism Spectrum Disorder.”
I scoffed, but after I read articles on how autism manifests in women, there wasn’t room for doubt – the evidence was clearly outlined in the bullet points on my laptop.
Central to autism is a difficulty experiencing life in real time. Many autistic people can’t filter out information, which makes it difficult to zone in and focus. All those years, I couldn’t read people’s cues because I struggled to cancel out the world around me. At my sister’s house, the background music, the forks scraping on plates, the blue walls, all swam in front of people’s facial expressions.
But in the private rooms at the club, there were no outside stimuli. The rules were clear, the distractions minimal, so I could focus and interact.
Women in the ADHD forum invited me to the group for autistic women and there I saw myself a hundred times over. Scrolling through were women like me: sex workers, performers, artists, writers, all struggling to make sense of our invisible differences in our own socially awkward, wacky, and beautiful way.
I gradually pulled the blame away from myself and labeled the things about me that were naturally different, not defective. I stopped punishing myself when I got overwhelmed in conversations, stopped beating myself up when bright lights blanched out facial expressions and background noise canceled out people’s words. I took a deep breath and resisted pretending to listen and asked: “Can you say that again?” without apology. I forgave myself when I slipped outside of social norms and said something weird.
No more being sorry for things I can’t help. People would love me or not – frankly I was okay with the risk.
* * *
A few months later, I stood outside the club with a cigarette in my hand, looking over the busy highway at the deserted factories.
“Piper, you leaving?” my bouncer nudged in his Queens accent.
“Yes. I made enough tonight. I’m going out,” I said, smiling back at him.
He waited outside with me until Sarah pulled up in a rideshare.
“This is where you work?” she asked incredulously, her mouth ajar in the window of the car.
I laughed. She knew I was a stripper but had never been to the club. From the outside, it looked grim: tattered brown building on the edge of town. But it was home to me.
“I never said stripping was glamorous.”
I kept the window open as the club disappeared, letting the cold air whip my face, feeling a mixture of relief and excitement. Forums for autistic women advised pulling off masks that many develop to pass as non-autistic. The effects of camouflaging are toxic, they warned. I wasn’t sure I could go back to who I was. The rambling autistic girl at my sister’s house was dead, buried under years of performance.
“Did you have a good night?” Sarah asked.
“Yeah. I’m ready for a night off though.”
Who could I have been if I didn’t try so hard to pass? I’ll never know, but stripping provided a portal to who I might be without fear of rejection – a rare glimpse of the affectionate, brash, and funky edges of personality. But I still had so much to learn. There was vast, dormant space to grow into beyond my work persona.
The twinkling lights opened the doors to Manhattan, my body still moving from the music of the club. The possibilities of the night unrolled in front of me and I intended to savor them.
It’s the waning moments of my fourth session with a new therapist. I’m holding back — and she knows it. My entire body feels tense, not ideal for the setting. I try to relax, but the plush leather couch crumples under me when I shift, making the movements extraordinary. I’ve barely looked into my therapist’s blue eyes at all, and yet I think the hour has gone very well. Of course it has. On the surface, when the patient has been highly selective of the discussion topics, therapy always resembles a friendly get-together.
“Well,” my therapist, Lori, says, the millisecond after I become certain our time is up and I might be in the clear. “I don’t think I should let you go until we’ve at least touched on what was put out there at the end of last week’s session.”
I so supremely wanted this not to come up. My eyelids tighten, my mouth puckers to the left, and my head tilts, as though I’m asking her to clarify.
“When you said you’re attracted to me,” she continues.
“Oh, yeah,” I say. “That.”
Back in session three Lori was trying to build my self-esteem, the lack of which is one of the reasons I’m in treatment. Within the confines of my family, I’ve always been the biggest target of ridicule. We all throw verbal darts around as though we’re engaged in a massive, drunken tournament at a bar, but the most poisonous ones seem to hit me the most often, admittedly somewhat a consequence of my own sensitivity. I’ve been told it was historically all part of an effort to toughen me up, but instead I was filled with towering doubts about my own worth. And since 2012, when I gave up a stable, tenured teaching career for the wildly inconsistent life of a freelance writer, I’ve had great difficulty trusting my own instincts and capabilities. I told Lori that I wish I was better at dealing with life’s daily struggles instead of constantly wondering if I’ll be able to wade through the thick.
She quickly and convincingly pointed out that I work rather hard and am, ultimately, paying my bills on time, that I have friends, an appreciation for arts and culture, and so on. In short, I am, in fact, strong, responsible and “pretty good at life.”
Then Lori heightened the discussion a bit. “I also feel that it is your sensitivity that makes you a great catch out there in the dating world,” she said, to which I involuntarily smiled, blushed and quickly buried my chin in my chest. I was too insecure and too single to handle such a compliment from a beautiful woman.
“Why are you reacting that way?” Lori asked.
I shrugged my shoulders, only half looking up.
“Is it because you’re attracted to me?”
I laughed a little, uncomfortably. “How did you know?”
She gently explained she could tell the day I walked into her office for the first time, after I flashed a bright smile and casually asked where she was from.
Now, a week after dropping that bomb, Lori asks, “So, why haven’t we talked about it?”
“I was hoping to avoid it, I suppose.” I tell her the whole notion of having the hots for a therapist is such a sizable cliché that I was embarrassed to admit it. “For Christ’s sake,” I say, throwing my hands up, “Tony Soprano even fell in love with his therapist.”
Lori snorts, rolls her eyes. “I knew you were going to say that.”
I smile, shake my head and look around the room, denying acceptance of my own ridiculous reality.
“It’s OK,” Lori says, grinning. “We can talk about this in here.”
I look again at her stark blue eyes, prevalent under dark brown bangs, the rest of her hair reaching the top of her chest, which is hugged nicely by a fitted white tee under an open button-down. She jogs often, I’d come to find out, which explains her petite figure and ability to probably pull off just about any outfit of her choosing.
I still can’t speak, so she takes over.
“Do you think you’re the first client that’s been attracted to their therapist?” she asks rhetorically. “I’ve had other clients openly discuss their feelings, even their sexual fantasies involving me.”
“What?” I cackle, beginning to feel as though I’ve moseyed onto the set of a porno.
“It’s true,” she says, acknowledging her desk. “What’s yours? Do you bend me over and take me from behind?”
“If that’s what you’re thinking, it’s OK,” she goes on, earnestly, explaining that she’s discussed sexual scenarios with her clients before so as to “normalize” the behavior and not have them feel their own thoughts are unnatural. By showing the patient a level of acceptance, she hopes to facilitate a more comfortable atmosphere for “the work” — her painfully accurate pseudonym for psychotherapy.
I take a second to let the red flow out of my face, and ponder what she said. I’m a little unsure about this whole technique, but the more I think about it, the more it makes sense. So I go home, incredibly turned on and completely unashamed.
* * *
One of the great breakthroughs I’ve had in the thirteen months since I began seeing Lori (who agreed to participate in this article, but requested that her full name not be published) is a new ability to accept the existence of dualities in life. For instance, I’ve always had a tremendous sense of pride that, if it doesn’t straddle the line of arrogance, certainly dives into that hemisphere from time to time. I’m great at seeing flaws in others and propping myself up above them by smugly observing my character strengths. I’ve never liked that about myself, but the harder concept to grasp is the fact that I can be so egotistical while also stricken with such vast quantities of insecurity.
In treatment I came to realize that all people have contradictions to their personalities. There’s the insanely smart guy who can’t remotely begin to navigate a common social situation, the charitable girl who devotes all her time to helping strangers, but won’t confront issues in her own personal relationships. In my case, my extreme sensitivity can make me feel fabulous about the aspects of myself that I somehow know are good (my artistic tastes) and cause deep hatred of those traits I happen to loathe (the thirty pounds I could stand to lose).
My next session with Lori is productive. We speak about relationships I’ve formed with friends and lovers, and how my family may have informed those interactions. One constant is that I put crudely high expectations on others, mirroring those thrown upon me as a kid. I’m angered when people don’t meet those expectations, and absolutely devastated when I don’t reach them. Lori points out that it must be “exhausting trying to be so perfect all the time.” I am much more comfortable than I was the week prior, and can feel myself being more candid. I’m relieved that the whole being-attracted-to-my-therapist thing doesn’t come up.
Then, a week later, Lori mentions it, and I become tense again.
“I thought I’d be able to move past it,” I say, adding, “We aired it out, and it’s fine.”
As definitive as I’m trying to sound, Lori is just as defiant.
“I’m glad you feel that way,” she begins, “but I think you owe yourself some kudos. This kind of therapy,” she shares, “isn’t something just anyone can take on.” Such honest discussion doesn’t simply happen, it takes tremendous guts, and Lori can see that I am dealing with it relatively well, so I should praise my own efforts.
“Shit, we both should be proud of ourselves,” she says. “It’s not easy on the therapist either, you know.”
“Because talking openly about sex is risky at any time, much less with a client.” She explains that therapists are warned any semblance of intimacy can be easily misconstrued. “We learn in our training to not personally disclose, for example,” she says, but adds that, occasionally, transparency can be helpful.
“Still, with you,” she continues, “until I raised the question, I didn’t know for sure that you would go with it; for all I knew you’d run out of here and never come back to risk being so uncomfortable again.”
She’s building my confidence more, and I’m learning that I play a much bigger role in how my life is conducted than I often realize. My treatment wouldn’t be happening if I weren’t enabling it.
Then she says, “And don’t think it’s not nice for me to hear that a guy like you thinks I’m beautiful.”
Crippled by the eroticism of the moment, and combined with the prevailing notion that no woman this stunning could ever be romantically interested in me, I flounder through words that resemble, “Wait…what?”
“If we were somehow at a bar together, and you came over and talked to me,” she says, then flips her palms up innocently, “who knows?”
I laugh again and tell her there’d be almost no chance of me approaching her because I’d never feel like I had a shot in hell.
“Well, that’s not the circumstances we’re in,” she says. “But you might. Who knows?”
I’m confused — Is she really attracted to me or is this some psychotherapeutic ruse? I’m frustrated — I told her I didn’t really want to talk about it. Shouldn’t she be more sensitive to my wants here? I’m angry — Is she getting an ego boost out of this? Most of all, I don’t know what the next step is — Am I about to experience the hottest thing that’s ever happened to a straight male since the vagina was invented?
There were two ways to find out:
1) Discontinue the therapy, wait for her outside her office every day, follow her to a hypothetical happy hour and ask her out, or
2) Keep going to therapy.
* * *
A week later, I’m physically in the meeting room with Lori, but mentally I haven’t left the recesses of my mind.
“Where are you today?” she asks, probably noticing my eyes roving around the room.
“I don’t know.”
“Are you still grappling with the sexual tension between us?”
Here we go again.
“Yes,” I say, with a bit of an edge in my voice, “and I don’t know what to do about it.”
Lori, ever intently, peers into my eyes, wrinkles her mouth and slightly shakes her head.
“Do you want to have sex with me?” she asks.
We both know the answer to that question. All I can do is stare back.
“Let’s have sex,” she announces. “Right here, right now.”
“What?” I respond, flustered.
“Let’s go!” she says a little louder, opening up her arms and looking around as if to say the office is now our playground, and, oh, the rollicking fun we’d have mixing bodily fluids.
“No,” I tell her, “You don’t mean that.”
“What if I do?” she shoots back. “Would you have sex with me, now, in this office?”
“Of course not.”
“Why ‘of course not’? How do I know for sure that you won’t take me if I offer myself to you?”
“I wouldn’t do that.”
“That’s what I thought,” she says, and tension in the room decomposes. “Mike, I don’t feel that you would do something that you think is truly not in our best interest, which is exactly why I just gave you the choice.”
Her offer was a lesson in empowerment, helping me prove that I have an innate ability to make the right choices, even if I’d so desperately prefer to make the wrong one.
I see what she means. I’m awfully proud of myself, and it’s OK to be in this instance. I’m gaining trust in myself, and confidence to boot. But, as the dualities of life dictate, I’m successfully doing “the work” with a daring therapist, while at the same time not entirely convinced she isn’t in need of an ethical scrubbing.
* * *
I don’t have another session with Lori for nearly three months, because she took a personal leave from her place of employment. When our sessions finally resumed, I could not wait to tell her about my budding relationship with Shauna.
Ten minutes into my first date with Shauna — right about the time she got up from her bar stool and said she was “going to the can” — I knew she would, at the very least, be someone I was going to invest significant time in. She was as easy to talk to as any girl I’d ever been with, and I found myself at ease. Plans happened magically without anxiety-inducing, twenty-four-hour waits between texts. Her quick wit kept me entertained, and I could tell by the way she so seriously spoke about dancing, her chosen profession, that she is passionate about the art form and mighty talented too. Shauna is beautiful, with flawless hazel eyes and straight dark hair, spunky bangs and a bob that matches her always-upbeat character. She is a snazzy dresser and enjoys a glass of whiskey with a side of fried pickles and good conversation as much as I do.
Things escalated quickly, but very comfortably, and since we’d both been in our fair share of relationships, we knew the true power of honesty and openness. So upon the precipice of my return to therapy I told Shauna about Lori, and admitted to having mixed feelings about what I was getting back into. I told her I was at least moderately uncertain if my mental health was Lori’s number-one concern since she always seemed to find the time to mention my attraction to her.
The first two sessions of my therapeutic reboot had gone great. Lori appeared genuinely thrilled that I was dating Shauna and could see how happy I was. I wasn’t overwhelmed with sexual tension in the new meeting room, though it wasn’t actually spoken about, and in the back of my mind I knew it was just a matter of time before it would start to affect my ability to disclose my thoughts to Lori again.
Then, while attempting to ingratiate myself with my new girlfriend’s cat by spooning food onto his tiny dish on the kitchen floor, I hear my phone ding from inside the living room.
“You got a text, babe,” Shauna says. “It’s from Lori.”
“‘I’m so impressed with you and the work you’re doing…’” Shauna reads off my phone from inside the living room, inquisitively, and not happily. I stuff the cat food back into the Tupperware and toss it into the refrigerator. I make my way into the living room, angry at myself for not changing the settings on my new iPhone to disallow text previews on the locked screen. Shauna’s walking too, and we meet near the kitchen door. “What’s this?” she says, holding up the phone. “Your therapist texts you?”
I take the phone from Shauna and say the most obvious, cliché-sounding thing: “It’s not what it seems.”
As I text back a curt “thanks,” Shauna tells me she’s going to ask her sister, a therapist herself, if it’s OK to text patients.
“Don’t do that.” I say, a little more emphatically. “I promise, this is nothing to be worried about. We’re not doing anything wrong.” I explain that Lori’s just trying to build my self-esteem.
“The only reason I’m even bringing this up is because you said you weren’t sure about her in the first place,” Shauna reminds me. I can tell she regrets looking at my phone without my permission, but I completely understand her feelings.
At my next session I tell Lori that Shauna saw her text and wasn’t thrilled about it.
“She probably feels cheated on to some degree,” Lori says. “A relationship between a therapist and a patient can oftentimes seem much more intimate than the one between a romantic couple.”
Lori goes on to point out that the reason she feels we can exchange texts, blurring the lines between patient/doctor boundaries — a hottopic in the psychotherapy world these days — is because she trusts that I’ll respect her space and privacy. “You’ve proven that much to me,” she says.
On my walk home, instead of being angry at Lori, I understand her thinking behind the text. But I’m also nervous about how Lori and Shauna can ever coexist in my life.
Isn’t therapy supposed to ameliorate my anxiety?
* * *
A week later, Lori begins our session by handing me a printout explaining the psychotherapeutic term “erotic transference” written by Raymond Lloyd Richmond, PhD. It says that erotic transference is the patient’s sense that love is being exchanged between him or herself and the therapist — the exact sensation I was experiencing with Lori, of which she was astutely aware.
According to Richmond, one of the primary reasons people seek therapy is because “something was lacking in their childhood family life,” perhaps “unconditional nurturing guidance and protection.” Upon feeling “noticed” and “understood” by a qualified therapist, sometimes a patient can be “intoxicated” by their therapist’s approval of them. A patient may in turn contemplate that a love is blossoming between them, and, in fact, it sort of is.
From an ethical standpoint, Richmond argues all therapists are “bound” to love their patients, for therapists are committed to willing “the good of all clients by ensuring that all actions within psychotherapy serve the client’s need to overcome the symptoms” which brought them into treatment. This takes genuine care and acceptance on their part. However, a patient can easily confuse the love they feel with simple “desire.” They’re not quite in love with their therapist, so much as they yearn for acceptance from someone, and in those sessions they just happen to be receiving it from their doctor.
Lori tells me that, all along, she has been “working with what I gave her” and that because I flirted with her a bit, she used that to her advantage in the treatment. In employing countertransference — indicating that she had feelings for me — she was keeping me from feeling rejected and despising my own thoughts and urges.
“There’s two people alone in a room together, and if they’re two attractive people, why wouldn’t they be attracted to each other?” says Dr. Galit Atlas. A psychoanalyst who’s had her own private practice for fifteen years, Dr. Atlas has an upcoming book titled The Enigma of Desire: Sex, Longing and Belonging in Psychoanalysis, and I sought her as an independent source for this essay to help me understand Lori’s therapeutic strategies.
Dr. Atlas explains that there are certain boundaries that cannot be crossed between therapist and patient under any circumstances — like having sex with them, obviously. But many other relationship borders can be mapped out depending on the comfort level of the therapist, as long as they stay within the scope of the profession’s ethics, which complicates the discussion surrounding erotic transference.
“As a therapist, I have a role,” Dr. Atlas says. “My role is to protect you.” She says it is incumbent on the therapist to not exploit the patient for the therapist’s own good, but admits that the presence of erotic transference in therapy brings about many challenges. “[Attraction] is part of the human condition,” she observes. In therapy, “the question then is: What do you do with that? Do you deny it? Do you talk about it? How do you talk about it without seducing the patient and with keeping your professional ability to think and to reflect?”
I ask her about the benefits of exploring intimacy in therapy, and Dr. Atlas quickly points out that emotional intimacy — though not necessarily that of the sexual brand — is almost inevitable and required. “An intimate relationship with a therapist can [be] a reparative experience — repairing childhood wounds — but mostly it’s about helping the patient to experience and tolerate emotional intimacy, analyzing the client’s anxieties about being vulnerable and every mechanism one uses in order to avoid being exposed.”
Dr. Atlas says this topic speaks to every facet of the therapeutic relationship, regardless of gender or even sexual orientation, because intimacy reveals emotional baggage that both the patient and therapist carry with them into the session. But this isn’t a symmetrical relationship, and the therapist is the one who holds the responsibility.
“Freud said that a healthy person should be able to work and to love,” she says. “In some ways therapy practices both, and in order to change the patient will have to be known by the therapist. That is intimacy. In order to be able to be vulnerable, both parties have to feel safe.”
After I briefly explain all that has gone on between me and Lori, Dr. Atlas steadfastly says she does not want to judge too harshly why and how everything came to pass in my therapy. “I don’t know your therapist, and I don’t know your history,” she says. But she offers that I should “explore the possibility” that I might have created and admitted my sexual adoration of Lori because one of my fears is to be ignored, not noticed.
Then I offer: “Maybe this essay is being written for the same reason.”
Maybe I wanted to interview Lori about erotic transference in my therapy sessions for that same reason as well…to stand out as the most amazingly understanding patient ever.
* * *
“I want to be very clear that this was never about feeding my own ego,” Lori says about her approach to my treatment. “We were always doing this in your best interest.”
I’m in Lori’s office, a tape recorder rolling and a pad and pen in my hands.
“I felt I was doing a disservice to you if I didn’t ‘out’ what I felt was weighing on us, which, honestly, felt like a heavy secret,” she says, pointing out that she discussed my therapeutic process for many hours in her required supervision meetings.
In order for Lori to advance in her field as a social worker, she has to attend 3,000 conference hours with another professional to go over casework — kind of like therapy quality control.
We talk about all of this during one of my scheduled sessions, for the entire hour — and go over by a few minutes, too.
Lori says that when she began her career as a social worker, she decided she wasn’t going to shy away from any subjects. “It’s typical for a client to [have] a habitual desire to sweep things under the rug,” she observes, especially about taboo topics. It can become a cycle of behavior that Lori seeks to break.
I refer back to the time when, unprovoked, she brought up my attraction to her.
She says she mentioned it to avoid what therapists call “door-knobbing,” which is when a patient will purposely mention some huge reveal right at the end of a session so as to sidestep a lengthy conversation about it.
“My only question for you is, was I wrong for bringing it up?” she asks. “Only you can answer that.”
Lori’s great at forcing me to reflect.
“I guess when I said I was over it and could move on, that was an example of my strict black-and-white thinking,” I say, throwing back some language she’s used often to describe my challenge in accepting dualities. In my mind, I was either attracted to her and shouldn’t see her anymore, or I wasn’t attracted to her and could still have her be my therapist. There was no in between.
I realize now that she wasn’t wrong for mentioning my feelings for her, even when I didn’t want her to. Lori noticed that I was frustrated with myself and wanted me to know that an attraction to a therapist is so normal and happens so frequently that there are technical terms for it.
I turn my attention towards the presence of countertransference in our session. I’m trying to come up with an actual question here, but, really, I just want her to confirm her feelings for me are real. So I say, referring to her feelings, with a great degree of difficulty, “It’s funny that they seem genuine to this day.”
“They are genuine,” Lori says, adding a moment later: “I think it might be a good idea if we explore why our discussing it suggests a lack of authenticity.”
“It doesn’t, necessarily,” I begin, then stammer through a few sentences, worried I might offend her by implying she’s been dishonest. I finally settle on, “I guess it comes back to my self-esteem issues. Why would a beautiful woman think I’m attractive?”
Lying in bed with Shauna a few months into our relationship, I ask her what she thought about me the moment she first saw me. I’m fishing for a compliment. But we met on Tinder and I just hope that seeing me in person wasn’t some kind of letdown for her after swiping right on my hand-picked glamour shots. Obviously she isn’t going to say something so awful after having committed to me for so long. It’s a slam-dunk ego boost.
She says she liked the fact that I was wearing a blazer and a tie on a first date. She adds that I was a little shorter than she anticipated, but was content with the two of us at least being the same exact height.
“What did you think when you first saw me?” she asks, turning it around, naturally.
Staying committed to my honesty-at-all-costs policy, I say, “I thought you were really beautiful, but not to the point where I was intimidated by you, which was very important because if I was, you would have gotten a very unconfident version of me, and we probably wouldn’t have hit it off as well as we did.”
Shauna thinks about that for a second, and eventually nods “OK.”
I explain that my insecurity could often get the better of me in dating situations. It was easy to convince myself that I’d be rejected by the girl I was with, especially if I thought she was out of my league. I would then slip into a nervous and reserved state that isn’t at all reflective of my true self.
I’m essentially saying that I was so thrilled to not find Shauna so extraordinarily pretty that I couldn’t accept her being on a date with me. That thought made so much sense at the time I said it, but I’ve since come to realize it is as ridiculous as it is insulting. After ten months of being with Shauna, I’m still completely floored by her, on every level, including a physical one. It gives me great pride to walk into a room with her, and I don’t imagine that changing. Therefore, she actually did meet a confident “version of me.” The way people look doesn’t drastically change in ten months but a person’s perception of self can. It seems my emotional workouts in erotic transference were just beginning to produce results.
* * *
“People fuck up,” Lori informs me during one winter session. “Therapists have slept with clients before, just like politicians have had sex with their interns. But, so you have a full understanding of how this works, we can date.” She explains the parameters as outlined in the social worker’s code of ethics. One of the many stipulations is that we wouldn’t be able to see each other, under any circumstances, for at least two years before dating. She tells me she loves her job, and there’s no way she would ever sacrifice my safety or her career for anything, so she would strictly follow all the dictated rules. “If you truly want to date me, there is the option. But it’s ultimately up to you.”
I know what she’s doing here — putting the onus on me, just like last year when she said we could have sex. The difference this time is the answer I want to give is on par with all of my involuntary urges.
“I don’t want to stop the work we’re doing,” I say. “At this point, it’s far too valuable to me, and, really, I know very little about you.” She’s beautiful, exercises, is smart, funny, professional, enjoys good TV…and that’s about it. Aside from whether or not we’d even both be single in two years, and if we’d be in the correct mind frame to explore a relationship, there are several other things I’m considering here: Would Lori and I really be compatible in every way? Would she ever see me as a lover, a partner, an equal, and not a patient? Could I ever reveal a detail about myself, or even just a shitty day of work, without wondering if she was picking it apart and analyzing it?
Frankly, all those questions could be answered in the positive. But, even if I wasn’t in a happy relationship — Shauna makes this choice much easier, for sure — I wouldn’t go that route. I’d be out a therapist.
* * *
It’s a beautiful spring night in New York and only sidewalk seating will do. Shauna and I are out to dinner at a restaurant near her Queens apartment, and we’re both in good spirits. The weather and the alcohol consumption are partly to blame for that, but, on cue with the season’s change, I feel I’ve turned an emotional corner. Work payments that were past due are finally finding their way into my bank account. As it turns out, my short-term money troubles were not an indication that I had no business being a writer, or that my life changeup was as irresponsible as unprotected sex at fourteen years old.
I’d told Lori as much that afternoon. I took a mental step back from my current situation and realized that in spite of my recent hardships, I was succeeding. I summarize my session for Shauna, who nods in agreement, lovingly pointing out that she’s had the same challenging freelancer experiences as a dancer.
“You’re doing great, babe,” she says matter-of-factly.
“Thank you. That means a lot,” I respond. “I guess if I’m going to be a writer I just have to accept all this and have faith in myself. The way Lori put it was, ‘You just have to go all-in.’”
“Good,” Shauna says. “You should listen to the women in your life.”
* * *
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It was late morning, and I was putting up a fresh pot of coffee when I heard the first meow. It sounded awfully close, as if from inside the apartment instead of the backyard one story down. Then I heard it again, and there was no doubt.
WTF?!! I texted my roommate. You got a cat?!
I’d made it clear when she moved in: no pets. “But I want a kitty so bad,” she said a couple weeks later. I suffer from allergies — through spring and summer I have a persistent itch in my nostrils, and the lightest bit of pollen or dander or even a freshly mowed lawn sets off sneezing spells that leave my entire body sore. I was also concerned about the smell. And besides, the landlord forbade pets.
It’s a friend’s, Jenny texted back. I’m only taking care of it for a few months.
Don’t give me that bullshit, I keyed my reply, then backspaced over it, reconsidering. I have a tendency to overreact, to exacerbate conflict. Instead I went for calm and firm, and maybe slightly paternal.
We need to talk.
Later that afternoon, in the kitchen between our bedrooms, we talked, leaning on opposite counters. Jenny (not her real name) kept her eyes downcast, and when I told her she was being inconsiderate and disrespectful and this was not the way grown-ups behaved, she said, “I know. I’m sorry.” I’d expected an argument, but her posture was one of submission, as if I was her dad, or a schoolteacher. But I wasn’t her dad, and she was an adult woman, even if I was twice her age. I was left somewhat unsettled.
In the end, I told her she could keep the cat, but she better take care of it properly.
“Thanks for not being hard on me,” she said, before disappearing back into her room. “I thought you were going to kick me out or something.”
That conversation was the longest we’d ever had. We were unlikely roommates, a Craigslist arrangement: I, a near-middle-aged man, several years divorced, with adolescent children of my own. She, a twenty-year-old recent college grad. We were living in Gravesend, an unremarkable neighborhood in a remote part of Brooklyn, where restaurants, bars and coffee shops are scarce, and when the friend I’d been living with moved out, finding a new roommate wasn’t easy.
At first, I had a parade of eccentrics, men who seemed to have something to hide, smelling of whiskey, with slurred speech, crooked teeth, telling me about jobs as investment bankers or corporate accountants, claims I found dubious. One man, a flashy young Georgian, took one look at the room and grew alarmingly aggressive as he tried to force his cash deposit into my hand, even after I explained that I wasn’t ready to make a decision just yet. He left just as I was about to call the cops.
So when Jenny showed up, I was inclined to like her. She looked like a typical post-college young woman: hair dyed reddish-blond, large earmuff headphones over her ears. She walked with a kind of childish languor, as if it hadn’t fully settled in that she was an adult. Her speech tended to the monosyllabic.
I showed her the room.
“Sweet,” she said.
I showed her the bathroom.
Then she asked what she needed for moving in, and I told her: proof of employment, credit report, rent plus security deposit.
“Sweet,” she said.
I assumed this meant she had all those things, and at first, it appeared that she did. She told me she worked two jobs, as a clerk in a stationary store in Midtown Manhattan and as an art-school model. Several days later, she brought documents attesting to her claims, and it all seemed to check out. She moved in a couple weeks later, with the help of her dad, whom I found affable in a way that put me further at ease. Some time after she moved in, I met her boyfriend, who seemed about my age. “He’s an artist,” she told me afterward, unsolicited, as if that explained something.
I did have some mild concerns. I wondered why she would choose to live here — a part of town where she had no friends or family — and with me, a man twice her age. But I needed a roommate, and for the most part, she matched my criteria: stable enough to pay rent, normal enough not to stab me with a kitchen knife or steal my meager possessions. She wanted to be a writer and filmmaker, she said, and was hoping to get into NYU’s film school for graduate studies. There was something familiar about her, almost bland, like an unremarkable extra who might appear repeatedly in so many movies, which meant she was safe and normal and predictable — exactly what I needed if I was to share my home with a stranger.
It was soon after the cat incident that I began to notice she was home more. In fact, she rarely seemed to leave her room. On days I worked from home, I’d hear her throughout the day, in short bursts of action — the turning of the microwave at ten, the fridge opening and closing at eleven, the doorbell with her lunch order at noon. It didn’t bother me; I barely caught glimpses of her. If she’d lost her jobs, it didn’t show so far: She was always on time with rent, and she appeared to have enough money to buy groceries and order in meals. But I wondered, if she wasn’t going to work, how was she supporting herself?
One afternoon, a couple weeks after Jenny took in the cat, I heard her voice and then a male voice I did not recognize. It was definitely not her boyfriend, whose voice was high-pitched; this one was deep, almost gruff. I was in my room, working, and I heard someone enter the bathroom, and then the toilet flush, and so I opened my door a crack for a glance. In the hallway, emerging from the bathroom, was a short, squat man, gray-haired with a bald temple. The man disappeared into Jenny’s room across the hall, and I felt a rush in my brain and gave an involuntary gasp.
There weren’t too many scenarios for why a young woman would be entertaining a vaguely Soviet-looking gentleman who looked to be about her father’s age. I felt a kind of indescribable rage, almost like a personal affront.
How dare she — in my home?!
An hour later, I watched her escort the man to the door. She was wearing blue suede pumps and a very short, ivory-colored dress, somewhat crumpled, as if she’d just removed it from under a pile of laundry. She appeared to be going for a sultry, long-legged look, but she looked instead like a little girl wearing her mother’s discarded clothes. I felt instantly sad for her, and part of me wondered if I shouldn’t offer to help her somehow. Another part of me was so angry I wanted to evict her immediately. The rest of the day, I wrestled with my thoughts, my mind feverish with indecision: Should I say something? Should I tell her boyfriend? Should I call her dad? Was it any of my business anyway?
I decided to wait, see if it happened again, and just a few days later, it did. This time, it was a tall black man wearing an ill-fitting suit and tie, like thrift-shop formalwear. He, too, emerged from the bathroom and disappeared into her room, and after an hour or so she escorted him to the door, again in the blue pumps and rumpled ivory dress.
I took to Google: What to do if my roommate is a prostitute?
More than what to do, I was seeking clarity on why it bothered me. Who was I to judge if Jenny chose an unorthodox profession? Why would I care if she used her room to ply her trade? Still, I couldn’t stomach the thought, and the Internet validated my discomfort. On Yahoo Answers and in Google Groups and various other forums people wrote about similar experiences, and the consensus was: Don’t let your roommate turn tricks within your home. It’s dangerous, it’s illegal, and it can bring nothing but trouble.
I wondered about the practical aspects of her work: Does she have a Backpage ad? Did she use Craigslist? Could I find her on The Erotic Review?
I imagined the conversation we’d have. “This isn’t a brothel!” I wanted to yell at her. “Where do you even find these guys?” Then I reconsidered, thinking I might speak to her in a more caring way. Sit her down for a talk. Maybe get some women’s organization involved. Point her in the right direction. Rescue her.
* * *
I didn’t do any of that. Instead, when we met in the kitchen the next afternoon, passing between the refrigerator and the trashcan by the sink, I decided to bring it up. I was washing a dish, the water running lightly, and she was behind me, waiting for something in the microwave.
“I’ve been seeing some strange men around here,” I said.
She turned slowly to face me, nonchalant, with a thin smile. “What?” she asked. I was certain she’d heard me.
“I’ve been seeing strange men around here,” I said again.
“Oh, yeah.” She had a self-satisfied look, as if she was taunting me: What are you going to do about it? This was not what I’d expected. She’d been remorseful about the cat, and so I’d imagined a repeat.
“Friends of yours?” I asked, hiding my indignation, though I hoped she’d pick up on my mocking tone.
“Yeah,” she said. After a pause, as if realizing something, she added, “I’m friends with some older guys.” She took a sip of water from a glass in her hand, without breaking eye contact. “They’re harmless.”
Harmless. Was that an acknowledgment that they were not, in fact, “friends?”
She offered no further explanations, and we both retreated to our rooms. If at first I’d thought to treat her kindly, I was no longer inclined to. I’d given her the chance to explain. I had offered: Let us, as adults, discuss this situation. In return, she took me for a fool. I’m friends with some older guys. The words infuriated me, and I began to plot her eviction.
Several days passed, however, and still I did nothing. Then, one evening, I was out with a woman I’d recently begun dating. We had just finished dinner at a SoHo restaurant, paid the check, and were about to head to her place when my phone rang. It was my landlord.
“Somebody call 911,” she said. “Police, ambulance. I don’t know what’s happen.” My landlord is Chinese, and I often have a hard time understanding her, but her tone told me all I needed to know. There was trouble at the apartment. “You come home now,” she commanded.
Was Jenny hurt? My thoughts went to the men. I knew this couldn’t end well.
My date raised an eyebrow to me. “Give me a sec,” I said. We were outside the restaurant, in the cool night air on a quiet street, a jittery yellow cab passing over the uneven cobblestone.
I texted Jenny: Everything ok? Landlord says someone called 911.
The response came a few seconds later.
this is kaylee shes dead
I stared at that text, uncomprehending. I didn’t know anyone named Kaylee.
Who’s dead? Who are you? Call me.
A few minutes later, my phone rang with Jenny’s number, and a young woman told me she was Jenny’s best friend. Jenny was dead. She had been dead, in fact, for the past twenty-four hours, in her bed, in our apartment. Kaylee, whose tone was so completely lacking in inflection she sounded almost robotic, told me she’d grown alarmed when Jenny didn’t respond to her texts and phone calls, and so she came by the apartment and convinced the landlord to let her in.
“Probably an overdose,” she said.
My thoughts in those moments would later seem incongruous with the event itself, but at the time they were automatic, a cascading stream of impolitic ponderings. Mostly I was relieved that I’d been spared the task of evicting her, and was now desperately hoping that my evening would not be spoiled any further.
I hung up the phone and looked at my date, who was gripping my arm and staring.
“My roommate’s dead,” I said.
My date reacted as I expected. “Oh, my god! Are you O.K.?”
Of course I was O.K. The fact that my roommate was dead was unsettling, and I was somewhat shaken, but I wasn’t sad, or feeling any grief-related emotions. Mostly I was just annoyed that her death was getting in the way of my evening plans. Jenny and I had lived together for four months, but I barely knew her. Kaylee? A friend? I didn’t know Jenny had friends. An overdose? An overdose of what?
I called my landlord, and told her what I had learned: roommate’s dead, body is still in the house. No, she need not worry about a thing. The police will take care of it all. I was out of town, I said — not a lie, although not entirely the truth either. I’d be back in the morning, and get a new roommate in the coming days. There’d be no problem with the rent.
My date gripped my arm tighter, as if the news of death created some erotic charge, at once frightening and gripping, and we went off together to her apartment a few blocks away.
* * *
In the morning I took the subway home, and remembered: My roommate was dead. It felt surreal, and I found myself ruminating on the nature of death, and youth, and the way we often know so little about the people living just several feet away from us. I thought back to what I’d done the day before: got myself breakfast, worked, then lunch, then anticipated my date in the evening. I’d been annoyed that Jenny had left dirty dishes in the sink and a half-eaten chocolate bar on the kitchen counter for two days straight.
When I got home, the door to Jenny’s room was sealed with a strip of police tape. I also discovered that in addition to the cat, she’d had two large white rats, which I found sitting in tall mesh cages in another room, probably moved there by the cops. It appeared that someone had taken the cat.
Later in the afternoon, my phone rang.
“Hi Shulem, it’s Steve.” There was a pause. “Jenny’s dad.”
I felt momentarily caught off balance. Until that moment, I had imagined that Jenny’s death would affect very few people. She had seemed like a rootless child, unattached, unaffected. I knew she had parents, a little sister, extended family somewhere, but I knew so little about them they were almost unreal to me. Her entire life seemed confined to her room across the hallway, as if she mattered to no one but herself.
“I am so sorry, I am so terribly sorry.” The words tumbled out clumsily, lame and ineffectual. “I was so shocked. I can’t imagine what it’s like for you. I am so, so terribly sorry. This must be so devastating.”
I could hear him sniffling on the other end of the line. “She was a sad girl, Shulem.”
A sad girl? There were the signs, of course. And yet, she’d always seemed vaguely chipper, even after I’d started seeing the men come by.
It was heroin, Steve told me. Her boyfriend, who was an addict, had introduced it to her. Steve thought she must’ve been using for only a couple weeks. He asked if I’d noticed any changes recently, and I told him that I hadn’t.
“Jenny’s aunt will come by to collect some of her things,” he said. “We know Jenny wrote some poetry, so maybe we can find it on her computer.” He paused, then said: “I’m really sorry you have to deal with this.”
When I hung up, I felt guilty for feeling as unmoved as I did. I sat at the desk in my room, a blast of cold air from the air conditioning hitting my face, and thought about Jenny’s death, disturbed that I didn’t feel something more. This was a young woman, just beginning adult life, who’d lived with me for four months, and when I had heard she was dead, my strongest emotion was annoyance. Her father, at the same time, seemed to expect exactly that. I’m sorry you have to deal with this. As if he knew that someone like me would be affected only by the trouble of it all.
* * *
Over the next few days, I checked Jenny’s Facebook page, and was surprised by the outpouring of grief from friends — dozens and dozens of them — who’d tagged her name and wrote messages on her “wall,” in the language of tweeting, text-messaging millennials.
rip jenny (tear-face smiley)
cant believe shes gone i loved that girl
Here were people reminiscing about her, friends writing about the time she helped someone with a college essay, or about high school adventures, or that time they got passed-out drunk and high on that crazy spring break trip.
Two days later, her aunt came.
“This is the biggest nightmare of our lives,” she said, and then she, too, apologized that I’ve had to deal with it all. The aunt packed up some of Jenny’s things — her computer and a handful of personal items. She packed some of her clothes into a few large trash bags. “I think I’ll take these to the Salvation Army,” she said.
Still, out of the entire collection of Jenny’s possessions, she left most of it, a room full of belongings, and told me to throw it all in the trash. I stood in the room afterward, looking around at the things that make up a person’s life, but now no longer mattered. The bed that was ordered online just four months ago. The easy chair Jenny had brought from her childhood home in Westchester. A bunch of keys on a key ring, a bracelet of blue beads, a MetroCard, a bag of cosmetics. Things that, just three days ago, Jenny might’ve thought important, but now, poof — so inconsequential.
Later, I stood in the middle of her empty room, after I’d emptied the closets, swept and mopped the floor, and cleared out all her things. It looked just like it had before she moved in: bare, clean, uninhabited but inviting. I closed the door to look behind it, and noticed a taped-up card, from HashtagThePlanet.com: it hurts now. but it will get better. i promise.
It amazed me how quickly a person’s life could be dismantled, all these concrete physical objects discarded or recycled. I thought about how our physical possessions are like phantom lives: You can go into a person’s room and look at her bed, her desk, the flip-flops in the corner, the little trashcan with the empty coffee cup and dirty tissues, and almost see a living being, by the effects of one. But then, these things are collected, dispersed, in a kind of parallel death — three days, and a healthy young woman’s presence is scraped clean off the planet.
I left the note on the door, and kept a few of Jenny’s things for myself: a small hammer, a pack of AAA batteries. A lamp. Her easy chair. It made me sad, but I had little use for the rest, and ended up putting most of it out with the trash. There it all lay, right by the curb, plastic storage bins and large trash bags filled with the effects of Jenny’s everyday life; the contents of her drawers and closets, whatever her aunt had left — bed linen, hair accessories, underwear, a blanket and some pillows, a bright red blow dryer. The stuff sat on the edge of the sidewalk for a day or two, and through the window I watched as people passed, glancing at the items. Some stopped to pick through them, holding up items for inspection, taking what they pleased, until the pile was about half the original size. Then the trash collectors came and tossed it all into the monster-mouth of their truck, until nothing was left but a shattered light bulb that slipped out of one of the bags, now spread in tiny bits of glass among the fallen leaves of a nearby honeysuckle tree.
On a rainy September morning in 1950, jazz pianist Hazel Scott stood in front of the House Un-American Activities Committee hoping to clear her name.
The publication “Red Channels” had accused Scott — along with 150 other cultural figures — of communist sympathies. Failure to respond would be seen as an admission of guilt. But her appearance at HUAC had a greater purpose than personal exoneration. She believed she had a responsibility to stem the tide of paranoia that gained momentum by the day.
She told the committee’s members, “Mudslinging and unverified charges are just the wrong ways to handle this problem.” With the same poise she brought to the stage as a musician, she testified that “what happens to me happens to others and it is part of a pattern which could spread and really damage our national morale and security.”
Chin up, shoulders back, she warned against “profiteers in patriotism who seek easy money and notoriety at the expense of the nation’s security and peace of mind,” and that continuing down this road would transform America’s artists from a “loyal troupe of patriotic, energetic citizens ready to give their all for America” into a “wronged group whose creative value has been destroyed.”
Speaking with a voice that simultaneously conveyed clarity and nuance, strength and warmth, she knew what she was doing. She had been rehearsing for this moment her entire life.
* * *
Born in Trinidad, Scott was raised on music. Her whole family played and her mother, Alma, an aspiring concert pianist, taught music to help make ends meet. Unbeknownst to her family, Hazel Scott absorbed everything she heard until one day she woke her grandmother from a nap by playing a familiar hymn on the piano, two-handed and with perfect pitch. Her grandmother woke thinking, not wrongly, that she was witnessing a miracle.
Scott’s arc was fixed in the stars from that moment on. At three years old, she played parties, churches, and gatherings. But economic opportunity was hard to come by, and when her parents’ marriage fell apart in 1923, her mother decided she and Scott would emigrate to New York City.
Scott grocery shopped, prepared meals, and handled the household’s money. When word got around that, in her house, a child paid the bills, a gang of white teenagers broke in and demanded money. Scott refused to give them any. They beat her black and blue, and Scott still refused to turn over the cash. Finally, as police sirens grew nearer, the boys ran off with her blood on their hands.
Another time, Scott was playing near the trench being dug for the subway line that would become the A train when, according to Scott, a white girl from the neighborhood who she had been playing with told her to “Turn around so that I can brush you off and send you to school.” When she did, the girl pushed her into the trench.
The workmen who rescued Scott had the unmistakable look of “fear and guilt” in their eyes. “They, too, were white,” Scott later wrote in her journal. “They had witnessed the horrible act. They were involved and they resented it and me.”
Scott resolved never to be so naïve again — nor did she allow the incident to dictate her life.
She kept playing piano, kept stunning audiences, and impressed one person in particular. The story sounds more like legend than fact, but several sources, including Scott’s journal and the accounts of the parties involved, confirm it.
German-born, wearing a meticulous goatee and a pocket watch, and steeped in the traditions of European classical music, Juilliard founder Frank Damrosch was the very model of high culture in New York City. As such, his blood began to boil when he heard someone in the audition room improvising over Rachmaninoff’s “Prelude in C Sharp Major.” Marching down the hall to confront the blasphemer brash enough to attempt such a thing, he heard the ninths being substituted with the sixths. It was sacrilege, he thought, until he saw who was playing.
Since eight-year-old Scott’s hands couldn’t reach the piece’s intervals, she played the sixths to make it sound the way she intuitively knew it should. No one taught her how to do this. She wrote: “I was only reaching for the closest thing that sounded like it, not even knowing what a sixth was at that age.”
When she finished, the auditions director whispered, “I am in the presence of a genius.” Damrosch agreed and Scott was admitted to Juilliard. But her real education wasn’t in the classroom. It was in her living room.
In New York, Alma quickly became a successful jazz musician and befriended some of the Harlem Renaissance’s brightest stars in the process. In turn, they shone on young Hazel. She sat beside ragtime legend Fats Waller — whom she called “Uncle” — at the piano, while his hands strode syncopated rhythms across the keys. Piano legend Art Tatum became a close family friend and mentor to Hazel, advising her to dive deep into the blues.
Meanwhile Hazel’s mother, Alma, bought a brownstone on West 118th Street, opened a Chinese restaurant on the ground floor, and taught herself to play tenor sax. Her circle widened. Lester Young and Billie Holiday came over after hours. Young and Alma traded turns playing sax in the living room when she and Holiday weren’t gossiping in the kitchen. Holiday became like a big sister to Hazel, taking her under her wing as Hazel ventured out into the life of a working musician. In an article she wrote for Ebony, Hazel Scott recalled how, once, when “wondering where I was going and what I was doing, I began to cry.” Holiday then “stopped, gripped my arm and dragged me to a back room.” She told Scott, “Never let them see you cry” — a piece of advice Scott followed forever.
While still a child, Hazel Scott played piano for dance classes and churches. At 13 she joined her mother’s jazz band, Alma Long Scott’s American Creolians. When she outgrew the gig, her mother secured her a spot playing piano after the Count Basie Orchestra at the posh Roseland Ballroom. Watching Basie bring the house down, Hazel turned to Alma and said, “You expect me to follow this?” Stage fright or no, she played what would become her signature boogie-woogie style. The crowd adored her. From there, she took flight.
* * *
At the time, the majority of jazz clubs were segregated. Even the famed Cotton Club in Harlem, where Duke Ellington and Cab Calloway headlined, had a “colored” section. Blacks and whites almost never shared the stage. But in 1938, a shoe clerk from Trenton, New Jersey, opened a different kind of club.
Cafe Society was “the wrong place for the Right people” according to founder Barney Josephson. He once said, “I wanted a club where blacks and whites worked together behind the footlights and sat together out front.” It was there that Holiday performed “Strange Fruit” for the first time and became a legend, and it was there that Holiday got Scott her first steady engagement.
When Holiday canceled a standing engagement three weeks early, she insisted Scott take her place. By the end of the run, Scott was Cafe Society’s new headliner. Only 19 years old, she inherited the bench previously occupied by piano greats like Meade Lux Lewis, Albert Ammons, and Pete Johnson. But as The New York Amsterdam News reported, “Hazel more than holds her own, and demonstrates a style all her own.”
As it turned out, not only was Scott a brilliant pianist, she also had a hell of a voice: deep and sonorous, comforting yet provocative — the sort of singing style that makes you want to embrace the sublime melancholy that is love and life and whiskey on a midwinter’s night.
And, she was beautiful. She wore floor-length ball gowns on stage and gazed out into the audience with almond-shaped eyes that seemed to communicate a deep knowledge of everyone they fixed upon. Like watching a painter paint or a sculptor sculpt, when Scott sang, you saw the song traveling through her, taking shape before emerging from her lips. And when she played her boogie-woogie, she grinned ear to ear, looking like self-possessed joy manifested. She was, in a word, irresistible.
Audiences flocked to see her. Fan mail flooded in. Josephson decided to open a second Cafe Society location, uptown for a swankier audience, with Scott as the marquee performer. New York’s finest showed up in droves, including First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt, who dropped in one evening for “some entertainment and relaxation,” as one reporter wrote. After the show, Mrs. Roosevelt asked Scott to join her for a late supper. Because she had already changed from her evening wear to streetwear, Scott begged off the invitation.
“I’m inviting you,” said Mrs. Roosevelt, “not your clothes.”
How could Scott refuse?
She was the reigning queen of jazz, a friend to some of the most famous names in the country, and all at just 22 years old.
Hazel Scott had conquered New York. Hollywood was next. But in a motion picture industry where people of color were usually restricted to playing maids, cannibals, or buffoons, was there room for Hazel Scott?
* * *
Nine black soldiers march down a hill to the sound of piano and drum. They are upright, dignified, ready to fight and die. Their sweethearts line the road, waving handkerchiefs and bidding their fellows goodbye. It’s 1943, and the question on the backlot is, “What should these women wear?”
The scene is from “The Heat’s On,” a patriotic 1943 musical. Scott is performing a rah-rah number called “The Caissons Go Rolling Along.” In conceptualizing the scene, the director intended to dress the women in what Hollywood assumed all black women would wear: dirty aprons.
Scott wasn’t having it. Her contract always included final script and wardrobe approval, ensuring she’d never play or look the fool. She told the choreographer she wanted that protection extended to the extras who shared her stage.
“What do you care?” said the choreographer. “You’re beautifully dressed.”
“The next thing I knew,” wrote Scott, “we were screaming at each other and all work had stopped. … I insisted that no scene in which I was involved would display Black women wearing dirty aprons to send their men to die for their country.”
Neither side relented, so Scott went on strike. For three days, the studio begged and pleaded for her to return to set. But Scott would not be moved. The more the clock ticked, the more money it cost, a fact of which Scott was well aware. Finally, the studio caved to Scott’s demands, and the women appear in the film wearing particularly fetching floral dresses.
Though she won the battle, Columbia Pictures was far from conceding the war. In the minds of producers who were used to dictating to African-Americans — particularly to African-American women — Scott’s public victory was more than they could stand. In the next two years, she was given small parts in two more second-rate movies. After that, she was finished with motion pictures.
“I had antagonized the head of Columbia Pictures,” wrote Scott in her journal. “In short, committed suicide!”
She packed her bags and headed back east — where love was about to sweep her off her feet.
* * *
Scott was once again wowing crowds at Cafe Society, when she caught the eye of a young politician. Adam Clayton Powell, Jr., soon to become New York’s first African-American congressman, pulled Josephson aside, and asked for an introduction.
“Are you really interested in Hazel,” said Josephson, who considered Scott a daughter, “or are you just screwing around?”
Powell assured him of his sincerity, Josephson made the introduction, and their romance caught fire — despite the fact that Powell had been married to nightclub singer Isabel Washington since 1933. For the next year, Scott and Powell pursued their love with reckless abandon, damned be the consequences. In 1945, he married Scott 11 short days after his divorce was finalized.
Her career in Hollywood dead, Scott started touring, winning rave reviews at concerts across the country and fighting discrimination throughout. In November 1948, she refused to play a sold-out show at the University of Texas because the audience was segregated, despite the anti-Jim Crow clause in her contract, which allowed her to cancel the booking without forfeiting her pay. And in February 1949, she sued a restaurant in the tiny town of Pasco, Washington, after she and a companion were refused service because, as the proprietor put it, “We don’t serve coloreds.” Scott won $250 in the suit, and donated the proceeds to the NAACP.
Scott was making around $75,000 a year during this time — making her one of the most successful musicians in the country, black or white. After five years’ continued success, Hollywood could ignore her no longer. In 1950, she came to break the color barrier on the small screen.
* * *
Scott sits at the keys of a grand piano in an elegant white gown. With a backdrop of Manhattan behind her, she looks like the urban empress she had become.
“Hello,” she coos, “I’m Hazel Scott.”
Broadcast on the DuMont Network, The Hazel Scott Show was the first television program to have an African-American woman as its solo host. Three nights a week, Scott played her signature mix of boogie-woogie, classics, and jazz standards in living rooms across America. It was a landmark moment. As a passionate civil and women’s rights activist, the show symbolized a triumphant accomplishment. As a career musician, her program took her to professional heights known by few, assuring her place in the pantheon of America’s greatest performers. To be sure, Scott had arrived at the success she had sought since playing that first simple tune in Trinidad as a three-year-old.
And then, just like that, it all came tumbling down. “Red Channels.” HUAC. Another star tainted by a whiff of Communism.
When she stood in front of HUAC, it only made sense to speak truth to power, to stand up for what she believed in. She believed herself the embodiment of the American dream, and she spoke in its defense. In an unwavering voice she told the committee, “the entertainment profession has done its part for America, in war and peace, and it must not be dragged through the mud of hysterical name-calling at a moment when we need to enrich and project the American way of life to the world. There is no better, more effective, more easily understood medium for telling and selling the American way of life than our entertainers, creative artists, and performers, for they are the real voice of America.”
But they did not hear her, did not believe her. And she in turn underestimated the power of fear, never having bent to it herself.
One week after her testimony, DuMont canceled The Hazel Scott Show. Concert appearances became few and far between. Even nightclub gigs were hard to come by.
Exhausted and unraveled, Scott went to Paris on what was to be a three-week vacation. Her sojourn extended to three years. To her, Paris became “the magic of looking up the Champs-Élysées from the Place de la Concorde and being warmed by the merry madness of the lights.” It was also “a much needed rest, not from work, but from racial tension.”
She played across Europe and in North Africa and the Middle East. Crowds still loved her, still swooned over her swinging classics. But it was not the same. Her spotlight had dimmed, and would never again shine on her the way it had in her halcyon days.
Eventually, Scott returned to America and slipped further into obscurity. In 1981 she passed away at 61 from cancer. Her albums are hard to come by now and her name never appears where it should, beside Ella Fitzgerald, Billie Holiday, Louis Armstrong, and others who we think of when we think of jazz. But for a while, she led them all, until a country twisted by fear pushed her past the point from which even she, the force of nature that she was, could return.
On Wednesday, March 4, 2015, Teofil Brank and Etienne Yim traveled from San Diego to Los Angeles in a Ford Focus hatchback, picking up a .357 Colt revolver on the way. They drove through the palm-lined business district on Sepulveda Boulevard and parked opposite a terra-cotta Starbucks close to Los Angeles International Airport, where Brank was about to pick up $1 million in cash.
Obtaining the gun from Yim’s friend Benjamin Williams was simple enough. He also gave them yellow-tinted goggles, earmuffs, a shooting bag and ammo. At Brank’s Koreatown apartment in L.A., they transferred the wooden-handled gun to a backpack.
Brank remembers doing a bump of coke before they pulled up at Starbucks. He told Yim that if anyone shot at him, he should shoot back. It was a cold night, and as Brank crossed the parking lot he had his hood up. He believed it was a necessary precaution.
“I don’t know if he’s out there with a sniper or something … if he’s going to shoot me,” he recalls.
* * *
Two weeks earlier, Brank had arrived at Yim’s San Diego apartment in a sleek black Audi R8 sports car and calmly told his French-born friend over beers that he was about to collect half a million dollars. He said he was blackmailing Donald Burns, a wealthy tech tycoon he met while escorting.
Soon after, Brank and Yim tore through the desert in the sports car to Las Vegas, where they would do cocaine and hang out in strip clubs, celebrating the coming payday. On February 17, Burns wired Brank $500,000 from a Goldman Sachs account. After Vegas, the two friends stopped briefly in San Diego, then continued to Brank’s old stomping ground, Sacramento, where he gave his brother $10,000, according to Yim. In a whirlwind of debauchery, they continued to San Francisco and then back down to L.A. Yim said Brank blew about $20,000 on hotels, clothes and bottle service. With heaps of cash and a $180,000 sports car, Brank could have stopped there, but he had sunk his teeth into Burns and didn’t want to let go. He wanted more. Much more.
At that time, Brank, or “Teo” to his friends, was one of the most famous actors in gay porn, despite being heterosexual. Although married to one woman and in a tumultuous relationship with another, the rugged, hawkishly handsome 25-year-old had found a niche in gay-for-pay porn, performing as Jarec Wentworth.
Born in Romania, Brank came to America as a toddler and grew up near Nashville and then Sacramento. He was the seventh of 10 children and, according to court records, lived in a physically and emotionally abusive household.
After graduating from high school in 2007, he worked in construction and as a residential painter. He married his girlfriend in Reno soon thereafter. By that time, he was already facing domestic abuse charges. After a drunken argument had turned violent, he assaulted her, leaving injuries on her head, back and neck. In March 2009, he was convicted and sentenced to four months in jail.
At 20, he responded to a Craigslist ad and began doing porn. He appeared in 31 scenes for the studio, Sean Cody, then moved on to Randy Blue, before landing an exclusive contract at Men.com. He also started working as an occasional escort, a common side hustle for gay porn actors. Indeed, for many actors, porn is just a shop window for their escorting services.
Brank was making a name for himself, but he had ambitions behind the camera. He wanted to start producing porn, or even mainstream movies, and settle down.
“Eventually, the money came through, and boom, I was starting to have my crew together,” Brank says. “I wanted to have my own studio.”
But even in porn, there are few shortcuts. Those who step out of its shady glamour to find mainstream success are entrepreneurs with an acute sense of how to promote themselves for maximum profit. Brank had always wanted to make money. But he wanted it now, and Burns was his ticket to success.
* * *
A few weeks after the road trip, Yim was asleep in his apartment when Brank texted, “I need your help.” It was Wednesday, March 4, the day of their fateful ride to Starbucks.
Brank was going to collect the $1 million and wanted Yim to drive. Both men feared for their lives. Burns was rich and powerful. He rubbed shoulders with diplomats, business executives and politicians, including wealthy publisher Christopher Forbes and Rudy Giuliani.
During the drive from San Diego to Los Angeles, when Burns called Brank, he sounded anything but intimidating. He told the actor he was sending a courier, “Sean,” to deliver the cash. Brank wondered if “Sean” was really a contract killer.
“I’ve never broken a deal with you, and I’m in a really fucking bad spot now,” Burns said. “I’m trying to work the situation, but I’m getting fucked by my own side here.”
Brank arrived at the coffee shop and clocked Sean at the bar, dressed in a black jacket and jeans. Sean had been there for two hours, parking in the back corner of the lot and stopping to grab a sandwich from the Jersey Mike’s next door. He handed Brank the title to the Audi R8.
“And?” Brank said.
“It’s your lucky day,” Sean replied. “Ready to get paid?”
Brank wanted to do the handoff near the patio outside. Sean left and returned in his black Tesla. The trunk popped to reveal a locked backpack. Sean rummaged around for the key. Brank never got a chance to find out what was inside, as he was quickly surrounded.
“What the fuck’s going on?” Brank remembers thinking.
The yellow letters on the back of the agents’ blue jackets gave him the answer.
This was no hit. It was a takedown.
* * *
When law enforcement ensnared Brank, Donald Burns was a 51-year-old business executive worth $138 million. He chaired internet communications company MagicJack VocalTec and was active on the political scene. The Republican, who did not respond to requests for comment on this story, had donated between $1,000 and $2,000 to Rudy Giuliani and to the group that attacked John Kerry’s war record, the Swift Boat Veterans for Truth. He had also occasionally donated to Democrats, including Barack Obama and John Edwards.
With his varnished public persona, pinched face, silvery brown hair and pinkish tan, Burns had floated on the edges of the porn industry for a few years now, pursuing actors at Sean Cody, which catered to subscribers with a fetish for straight men. He even invited the studio to shoot at The Razor House, his glass mansion in the wealthy San Diego suburb of La Jolla. He also owned properties in Palm Beach, Florida, and Nantucket, Massachusetts.
Burns met Brank in 2013. The actor told him he had the powers of persuasion and industry connections to help him. Burns in turn created a shopping list of men he wanted to solicit for sex.
“These are the guys that nobody has ever cracked,” Burns wrote in a September 27, 2014, email to Brank (subject line: “Recruiting $22,000 of potential, lol”), in which he listed 11 Sean Cody actors. Burns offered his new de facto pimp between $1,500 and $2,500 for each actor he could deliver for sex parties. He would fly the escorts out to his residences or hotels and then send them away with envelopes full of cash.
Porn actor Billy Santoro remembers Brank as a “very quiet, sweet guy.” Gay performer Jay Austin recalls that he was “really pleasant, professional and polite.” Zachary Sire, who broke the news of Brank’s arrest on the website Str8UpGayPorn, says he was well-regarded among actors and directors.
Veteran actor and producer Michael Lucas notes, however, that many straight men enter the industry when they run out of other options.
“That’s why I think that often these people can be dangerous,” Lucas says. “Can’t you do something else than engage in some sort of homosexual activity? I think it’s desperate, and nothing good can come out of it.”
As a working actor, Brank was making between $30,000 and $50,000 a year, according to a close friend, and the lower amount was more typical. The shelf life of most actors is five to six years, and those with longevity, such as actor Colby Keller, have a keen business sense, says retired actor Devon Hunter.
Although some observers believed that Brank, buoyed by drugs and his minor celebrity, had simply gotten in over his head, others knew how quickly he could turn venomous, lashing out at friends and advocates if he felt wronged or slighted.
Brank’s Men.com profile distills his approach to life. He likes burgers, hiking and driving across town. Best thing about him? “I’m a nice guy.” The worst? “I can be very mean if you get on my bad side.”
* * *
After Brank delivered four men, a fifth date cancelled at the last minute. Burns asked Brank to return his referral fee. When the actor refused, Burns concluded Brank could not be trusted and decided it was time to dissolve their partnership.
In mid-February, about three weeks before the sting and subsequent arrest, Brank was sitting in his Mustang outside an LA Fitness in Hollywood when he got back in touch with the tycoon via text message. Brank says he was high but not too emotional: “Obviously, you can’t get really angry on weed.”
At that moment, Burns was on business at a shipyard in Vancouver, Washington. He read back Brank’s message. “So another month has passed, and you broke your word again. Tisk tisk.”
Burns had no idea what the actor was talking about and texted back a question mark. Brank replied with “the car” and added, “How can we work if trust is broken?” During the course of the conversation, Brank claimed that Burns had promised to let him drive the Audi R8.
“The $2,000 advance is an outstanding issue,” Burns typed. “You’re right that I’m not making a big deal out of it, but I’m not comfortable working together after that.”
“I can bring your house down, Don,” Brank typed back. “Don’t get me mad. I do have a Twitter and your photos. Lies can be made, or maybe it’s the truth.”
Burns’ reputation was his most prized asset. Brank tugged at its frayed edges and wound the thread tightly around Burns’ throat, posting a cryptic message through his Jarec Wentworth Twitter account to thousands of followers.
“Do any porn stars know a guy named Don? Yes, Don.”
Burns’ iPhone shook in his hands. An overwhelming sense of dread settled in his stomach.
“The truth that he knew about me that was so embarrassing and shameful was that I had been paying for sex,” Burns testified during Brank’s criminal trial. “I was afraid that he would post that truthful information to his Twitter account and that information would spread like wildfire.”
“I want a new car, motorcycle, and both hands full of cash,” Brank typed. “Then I will erase it and you.”
* * *
Within days, Burns hired a criminal attorney and forensic investigators. On March 3, 2015, at the FBI’s towering office building in Westwood, Burns handed over his iPhone messages and proof of the $500,000 wire to Brank’s Wells Fargo account.
Brank had erased the tweet after collecting the money and the Audi. “Like we promised. Done.” Then he asked for car insurance and another $500,000. To stall the actor, Burns offered him $50,000 a year, over five years, for the rights to his stage name and Twitter account. FBI agents Joe Brine and Sean Sterle watched as messages arrived on Burns’ phone, and as Brank rejected the proposal.
“I want a condo here in L.A.,” Brank typed. “A bachelor pad. You have taste I like. Two bedroom max. Prefer one. I want $300,000 cash. I want this over ASAP like yesterday so you can be at peace.”
“Condo plus $300,000 or $300,000 and you buy your own?” Burns typed.
“They go for more though … 1 mill cash,” Brank replied.
Agent Sterle posed as Burns’ fixer, “Sean.” It made sense that he would own a luxury car, a Tesla. Sterle thought Brank would feel more at ease at a Starbucks.
“A million dollars and an expensive car … I mean, people have been killed for less,” Sterle testified.
After the sting, Brank was cuffed, booked and charged with extortion and making criminal threats. Yim was arrested and agreed to testify against his friend. Brank was denied bail and rejected a plea deal. From his jail cell, he wrote a rambling email, accusing Burns of raping him in a hotel room during a tryst with another actor (who Brank declined to name). In the same email, he said Burns had framed him and paid him hush money. He claimed the government had doctored his phone calls and erased key text messages.
This was a business dispute, Brank said. He was just claiming what he was owed.
* * *
When Brank’s trial began in July 2015 in a packed, stuffy courtroom inside the federal building on Spring Street in downtown Los Angeles, he was confident he would get off.
Brank’s attorney, Seema Ahmad, gave an impassioned plea to the jurors. Burns had groomed Brank for a life outside of pornography as a model. He had never feared for his reputation because his dalliances were one of the worst-kept secrets in gay porn. He had even taken a former Sean Cody actor on a jaunt to Paris and showed him off to his high-society friends, helping him through college and paying his living expenses. He had mentored Brank, who in Ahmad’s retelling was more like a spurned lover than a criminal. This case was not about extortion. It was about broken promises.
“Donald Burns doesn’t get to decide that once Mr. Brank asks for a million dollars that all of a sudden now it’s extortion,” Ahmad said. “I understand that it sounds like a lot to us. A million dollars is pennies to Donald Burns.”
Brank watched from the defense table. He was emaciated, and worn down by stress and sleepless jailhouse nights. His brown hair brushed the collar of his shirt, buttoned to the top. He wore no tie and his dress pants were beltless.
On the first day of trial, Burns walked through the double doors at the back of the courtroom, strutted toward the witness box, and was sworn in. Brank followed his every move, but Burns did not make eye contact. The only time the businessman acknowledged the porn star was when he had to identify him for the court.
Dressed in a blazer with a handkerchief in his top pocket, Burns was well rehearsed, and he glanced at the jurors just enough to make a connection, despite his vaguely pompous air. His fear of Brank felt real, and as much as the defense wanted to paint him as a cold, calculating businessman who had indulged his most sordid fantasies, he came across as a victim, not an exploiter.
Brank felt that his defense team did not ask the right questions of Burns and other witnesses, and that they were ignoring his suggestions. He came to believe that the public defenders were in cahoots with the government prosecutors. Ahmad admitted that she did not have the “smoothest relationship” with her client. Brank says that he butted heads with everyone in her office too. He wanted to take the stand to plead his case, but after a mock interrogation, his attorneys shot the idea down.
“They wanted me to sit there like a damn trained dog,” Brank says.
That gave prosecutors free rein to portray Brank in whatever manner they chose. They filled the screens in the courtroom with a blurry surveillance image of the porn star, his sharp eyes peering at the jury zombie-like from beneath his gray hoodie.
“One of the girls is like some fake-ass Christian or religious chick dating some dude that works at a church,” Brank remembers. “I’m like, ‘I’m fucked on this.’”
The defense rested on the second day of the trial, after calling three witnesses, including Sean Cody executives Jason Bumpus and Matthew Power. As the jurors shuffled out of the courtroom on Thursday, July 9, the outcome seemed inevitable, the weight of the evidence too much to bear. By lunch, they had found Brank guilty on all counts.
As the clerk read out the verdict, Brank crumpled, pressing his head to the table. He buried his flushed face in his hands and held back tears.
“They took me back to the cage. I was just like, ‘This isn’t real. It couldn’t have happened.’ But it happened,” Brank says.
At his sentencing hearing in the fall, Brank wore a white jail uniform, his voice breaking as he apologized to Burns.
“I do regret my actions, and I don’t give any excuses for it. I did what I did,” Brank said.
Ahmad asked for leniency. She said Brank’s father had beaten him, sometimes chaining young Teo to his bed with nothing but a bucket to piss in. His mother had thrown knives at Brank and his siblings and given them sleeping pills to pacify them when there wasn’t enough food to go around, she said. After his mom tried to hang herself in the family garage, Brank had watched as his father cut her down. He had abused steroids, which can cause aggressive, manic behavior, the attorney added.
Even taking that into account, U.S. District Judge John Walter was still convinced Brank was “motivated by plain, old-fashioned greed.” He sentenced him to five years and 10 months in federal prison and, with Burns watching from the back of the courtroom, ordered him to pay the victim $500,000 in restitution.
For Jarec Wentworth, the show had been over for months. Now the curtain came down on Teofil Brank.
* * *
Under different circumstances, Brank might have gone on to greater things. Sire, who covered the trial for Str8UpGayPorn, believes the actor could yet make a comeback.
“He was a good actor,” Sire says. “Some of these guys, they show up on set and they can’t get hard, they can’t get a boner. They can’t have sex. They just aren’t good at having sex. But he was really good at having sex, and he did everything too.”
Speaking from prison in Victorville, California, Brank is no longer remorseful. Though vague about his plans on the outside, he says he intends to hire a forensic analyst to review the audio recordings and text messages used at trial.
“I’m not the kind of guy that rolls over. I’m not the kind of guy that fucking gives up and turns the other cheek. You cross the fucking line, you’re done. You’re my fucking number one enemy,” Brank says. “The truth will come out, and that’s how it is.”
The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit dismissed Brank’s appeal in February 2018, and the U.S. Supreme Court declined Brank’s petition for review on October 1. He is scheduled for release in April 2020.