As a consul in the U.S. Foreign Service in Nepal, I visited prisons regularly to talk with incarcerated Americans, most of whom were jailed because of drugs: Ben loved the local marijuana and, after his Mount Everest climb, bought fifty dollars’ worth to take home; they caught him at the airport. Joy took something laced with PCP, broke a shop window, and found herself booked as a thief. Dean was probably high when he ran up a restaurant bill that he couldn’t pay, which landed him behind bars. Visiting them, I also saw Nepalis who I surmised were imprisoned because they had run out of money to pay fines.
Later, when I worked in Abu Dhabi, I got involved with a group that tried to help foreign workers who were in prison there. In the United Arab Emirates four out of every five persons have come from someplace else — India, the Philippines, Somalia, Ethiopia — to work as salespeople, clerks, laborers, and domestics. It was all too common for Arab employers, as punishment for impudence or a minor mistake, to file a spurious charge of theft and send an employee to prison. Inu from India and Eva from the Philippines were both domestics jailed for a year for having broken household items: a lamp in one case and crockery in another. We brought them and others food and reading material, and sometimes we provided legal assistance.
Before I had those jobs, I had naively assumed that only bad people went to jail. That illusion was shattered whenever I went, even briefly, behind prison walls.
Abortion was illegal in the summer of 1969, when I made a clandestine trip from my family home in Missouri to the Little Havana section of Miami, Florida. I had located an abortionist there.
The day of the abortion I wore a cotton flower-print dress that slipped on over my head. I’d been told that Miami in early June is stifling, and I thought the dress would help me stay cool. I was nineteen years old.
My instructions were to wait on a bench beside a parking lot. At the appointed hour a green sedan pulled up next to where I sat. The driver, a balding middle-aged man with a thin black mustache, spoke little English but managed to politely ask me for the money. I handed over a white envelope with seven hundred dollars in it and got into the backseat. The man pointed to the floor and said, “Por favor, señorita.” I didn’t understand. He pantomimed lying on his side with his hands as a pillow. For a second I had the horrible impression that the abortion was going to take place in the backseat of the car. Then I understood he wanted me to lie down so I wouldn’t see where we were going.
He drove for a long while before he parked and escorted me into a bungalow in need of paint.
I didn’t have to undress, only remove my panties and put my legs into the homemade stirrups: two men’s neckties dangling from makeshift posts at the foot of the plastic-covered bed. The shades were pulled and secured at the edges with masking tape. The only light was from a bare-bulbed floor lamp.
I was trusting the stranger who had brought me here and the abortionist who came in drying his hands with a dish towel. He sat beside the bed and checked my blood pressure, pulse, and temperature. He didn’t look like a criminal. He looked like a pilot who was going to take me far away, to a place where I would no longer be pregnant.
I thought about my father, who had driven me to the airport in St. Louis. He believed I was going on a school-related trip. In the car he’d asked me the usual fatherly questions and told me to take care of myself.
Lying on the hard mattress, I realized that no one knew exactly where I was. Not even I knew.
The abortionist lifted my forearm and gave me an injection of sedative. I remember the pearl buttons on his shirt. When he told me to count backward from one hundred, I started to cry. Until that moment I’d thought that nothing could hurt me. I’d thought that I was too smart, too sharp, too lucky. I inhaled deeply and started to count: “One hundred, ninety-nine, ninety-eight . . .”
When I heard the siren and saw the red lights flash over the dunes, I knew the police had come for us. Jeff kept splashing in the waves, oblivious, while I knelt in the surf so that only my head — and not my naked breasts — showed above water. Seeing the officer’s crew cut and reflective shades, I prepared to go into obsequious mode — standard procedure for me in the presence of a potentially hostile authority figure. As a person of color, I had learned to do this early in life.
Jeff, who’d grown up in this all-white hamlet, got out of the water and casually strolled over to the cop, completely naked. They talked for a few minutes. Then Jeff motioned for me to join them. I shook my head. Hell, no, I wasn’t getting out of the water to be busted by a small-town cop in upper Michigan.
But Jeff gesticulated until finally I walked over, eyes down. Jeff explained to me that there had been a complaint about public nudity, but he’d told the officer that the beach was private property, owned by Jeff’s family. We could do anything we wanted on it. Still, we needed to go back to the house to show the cop our IDs. The officer insisted on driving us even though the house was only a couple of hundred yards away.
“That’s fine, Officer. Anything you want,” I said, wrapping a towel around me. Jeff chose to carry his towel, remaining defiantly naked.
As we rode to the house, the cop asked Jeff, “Is your dad Henry Brinkman?”
“Yup,” Jeff answered. “And my mom is Mary Stackley. My grandfather used to own this whole peninsula.”
The cop, who looked to be just a few years older than we were, said a nearby Methodist summer camp had complained about the nudity, and he and Jeff recalled together how Jeff’s grandfather had donated the land to the Methodists to build their camp. It turned out Jeff’s father used to buy eggs at the officer’s family farm when Jeff was a boy.
By the time we got to the house and produced our IDs, Jeff and Tom — he and the cop were on a first-name basis by then — were trading childhood stories.
Tom let us off with a warning. Jeff called his dad and laughed with him about our “police encounter.” And I learned how things work when a rich white kid gets in trouble.
My older brother, Ritchie, says he wants my help after school. He’ll wait for me in the schoolyard at three o’clock.
I know better than to ask what he wants me to do. He might get mad and start hitting me. My brother often leaves black-and-blue marks on my arms and legs, but Mama doesn’t notice. When she comes home from work, she’s busy making meals and doing laundry. She barely looks at me as long as I’m quiet.
Ritchie is fifteen. He meets me outside my school, where I’m in fourth grade, takes my books, and hides them on a dirty shelf at the back of a nearby tenement building. I tell Ritchie I’m worried someone will steal my books, and the teacher will make me pay for them. I don’t have the money.
“No one’s going to take them,” he says.
My brother and I ride the subway to Park Row. I’ve been down here before with Ritchie, to get fish for the fancy tank he has in his room. He spends a lot of time cleaning the glass and arranging the plants. I wonder how he gets the money to buy fish. Mama’s always saying she can hardly pay the rent.
We turn away from the pet store, down an unfamiliar street, and stop outside a new Sam Goody record shop. We have a record player in our living room. My sister’s boyfriend bought it for her for Christmas.
Ritchie explains what I am to do, and then we step in, out of the frosty winter air. The store is huge. There’s even a second floor.
We walk around, and Ritchie points out albums he wants me to steal: Johnnie Ray, Nat King Cole, Frankie Laine. He gives me a brand-new Sam Goody bag to put them in. He has already placed a cardboard dummy album into the bag, so it looks as if I’ve bought something. My legs are shaking. I need to go to the bathroom.
“Don’t rush,” Ritchie says. “Just act like you’re looking at more records before you get to the door. I’ll be waiting outside for you.”
Ritchie slips away into the cold air again. I begin to sweat.
I pick up the Johnnie Ray record and hope Ritchie won’t play it while I’m home. I hate the singer’s whiny voice.
As Ritchie predicted, no one pays any attention to me while I move from rack to rack. I almost rip the bag putting the last of the albums inside. Then I walk out. No one follows.
It’s gotten dark. I don’t see my brother until he steps from around the corner. As we head for the subway, I complain about the weight of the records under my arm.
“Just hold on to them,” Ritchie says. “Don’t walk so close to me.”
At the subway turnstile we both squeeze through at once so we need to pay only one fare.
I’m relieved when Ritchie takes the records and boards a westbound train. I take the train east, find my books still in the tenement, and head home.
I never see those records again. I figure Ritchie sold them to get money. That’s probably how he can afford his fancy fish.
Five years later I learn he didn’t need the money for fish. He needed it for heroin.
When I became a midwife in 1972, midwifery was illegal in most states, including California, where I lived.
I’d begun attending births with a collective of lay midwives called the Santa Cruz Birth Center. We created an informal school and learned from pregnant women, each other, supportive doctors, and European midwives. Before long we were doing twenty home births a month.
Our work came to the attention of the Department of Consumer Affairs, which sent a pregnant undercover agent to enlist our services. In a sting operation in March 1974 police raided the Birth Center and arrested two other women and me on charges of practicing medicine without license. We were booked and released on our own recognizance — which was good, because we had dozens of pregnant women who were due to deliver soon with our help.
The case received lots of publicity, and donations poured in from around the world as it worked its way up to the Supreme Court of California. I was pregnant at the time and had more court dates than prenatal appointments. In December 1974 the California legislature passed the Nurse Midwifery Practice Act. Tired of press conferences and court dates with men in black robes, I returned to college and earned my nurse-midwifery degree.
Once I had my license, three obstetricians signed a contract saying they would provide my supervision. Of course, they were often too busy to do that. Seven years later the nurse-midwives practicing home birth in Santa Cruz all received letters from our supervising physicians saying that they were not our supervising physicians and never had been. They’d erased our history because their malpractice-insurance providers forbade them to supervise midwives doing home births.
Since then, forty-four states have removed the physician-supervision requirement — but not California. In the summer of 2016 the latest attempt to remove it was defeated in the state legislature. Nurse-midwives introduced another bill in March 2017 to remove the supervision clause.
I never set out to be a criminal. But over the four decades I have enjoyed a thriving practice, I have been breaking the law.
Santa Cruz, California
I am a revolutionary, I think, as I walk down the makeup aisle at Walmart, looking for something small and easily concealed. I’m wearing a hooded black sweat shirt with a big pocket on the front, but I don’t worry my outfit will attract attention. I’m a white teenager from suburban San Diego, and the hoodie has my swim-team logo on it.
I kneel to examine the nail polishes and search for a color that makes me feel strong. When a woman with a cart turns into the aisle, I stand and act natural.
My civics teacher is a revolutionary, too. He likes to spark debates in class. One day he mentioned an article that endorsed stealing from big-box stores as a way to hurt them economically. My teacher probably didn’t believe in shoplifting as activism and was just trying to get us to think about morality and economics. But my friends and I looked at each other with excitement. We wanted to change the world, and this would be our way to do it.
The woman with the cart leaves, and I bend down and pick the first polish I see: a deep-purple color. My heart beats quicker as I shove the glass bottle into my sweat-shirt pocket and feign interest in the shampoo.
It’s 2008. My friends and I say this year’s presidential election is the most important ever. We say big-box stores like Walmart should go out of business. We are sixteen, and we know these things. In journalism class we write articles about the Iraq War and the failings of the Bush presidency. We dream of protesting in the streets, chanting, “War is murder!” but we don’t know of any protests planned in our town.
I walk to the craft aisle, where bottles of neon paint are stacked in neat, straight lines, and I run my hand across the bottles, knocking them over. They fall to the ground in a jumble of colors.
“What if,” my friend Eleanor said, “we make a mess in Walmart? I’m thinking, the bigger mess we make, the more employees have to work, and the more pay Walmart has to give them.”
Eleanor and I have never had jobs. Still, I want to show solidarity with the underpaid Walmart employees.
For the workers! I think, looking at the scattered paint bottles. Then I head to the exit.
I have often tried to imagine myself at twenty-five. I picture a well-dressed, wealthy writer working for a magazine in New York City. In reality, at twenty-five I will be in an MFA program in Pittsburgh, drowning in student loans and working as a nanny to pay my rent. I’ll be so busy scrubbing a child’s poop from under my fingernails that I won’t have time to protest in the streets.
But at sixteen I don’t know this. I quicken my pace as I pass through the shoplifting detector at the exit, as if that will help. The alarm doesn’t go off, and I run to my car, feeling the thrill of revolution.
My third child was born in August 1977. My husband was an abusive alcoholic, but I was in denial about it. I’d deluded myself into thinking I could make the marriage work somehow, if only I tried harder, or was smarter, or prettier, or something. I pretended everything was fine. And then, that December, I couldn’t pretend anymore. I decided to get out, to save myself. The kids would be safe. He’d never hurt them, and members of his family could step into my role. Anyone would be a better mother than I was.
I worked as the manager of a health-food store in the mall. The day I made my escape, I left the kids with their paternal grandmother and went by the store to empty the safe. The cash got me from New York to Florida, where I rented a room, looked for a job, and, once more, pretended it would be fine.
It wasn’t. I returned to New York, retrieved my kids, and stayed for a while with my sister. One day a police detective came to talk to me. Five minutes into the conversation I confessed and was arrested. I’d stolen just enough money to be charged with grand larceny. I pleaded guilty to petty larceny as part of a plea bargain and was sentenced to probation and ordered to pay restitution.
Forty years later I work as a public-education administrator and am a success by all measures, with several advanced degrees and a good marriage to a different man. But that scared, lonely woman still lives inside me.
San Diego, California
I grew up in Alabama under segregation. Once, in the 1980s, an older white man in the community made a confession to me that I wish I hadn’t heard.
When he’d been a teenager in the 1940s, this man had gotten a job helping older white women carry their bagged groceries from the store to their cars. The stores downtown were one of the few places blacks and whites crossed paths. One day, while he was waiting for the cashier to bag someone’s groceries, he saw a black man push a white woman in line in front of him. She screamed for help, the man told me, so he jumped on the black man and beat him. The white woman was grateful. A police officer arrived and took a report.
The black man ended up dying from his injuries.
Several weeks later the police officer returned to the store to talk with the white man. The officer explained that the black man had been having an epileptic fit when he’d bumped into the white woman. But what happened wasn’t the white man’s fault, the officer said. He hadn’t known.
The old man rolled himself a cigarette and told me the policeman hadn’t arrested him. “I didn’t break no law by killing the n——,” he said.
I had come to Disneyland with my high-school friends to ride Splash Mountain and Pirates of the Caribbean, but the lines were so long that it took more than an hour to get through the first one. Hot and hungry, we went back to the car for our lunch — we’d brought sandwiches because the food inside the park was overpriced — and also to smoke a joint.
As we were finishing, a golf cart pulled up behind us, and two security guards got out. I couldn’t believe we were about to get busted by the Disneyland police.
The officers approached Trevor, who was standing outside the car. I watched as he nervously answered their questions. At one point they asked him to empty his pockets, and he looked at them earnestly and said, “What pockets?” He was pretty stoned.
The security guards made Jackie get out of the car. She stood up, visibly high and giggling. They asked where the “cigarette” she’d been smoking was. She looked down at the ground, stepped on the roach, and replied, “What cigarette?”
While my friends were being grilled, I realized that the marijuana was sitting on the seat next to me. I managed to sneak it out of view.
For thirty minutes we continued to deny everything. Finally the guards asked to search the car. Terrified they would find the evidence, I launched into a dramatic speech about the meaning of Disneyland, my childhood memories of the park, and how the “happiest place on earth” had apparently become a totalitarian state. By the time I’d finished, the Disney cops looked bored and tired. They let us off with a warning but told us we had to leave immediately and couldn’t reenter the park that day.
We headed to a nearby bar, where we used fake IDs to buy gin and tonics and sat recounting our daring escape. Some outlaws we were: we’d paid seventy-five dollars apiece for one ride.
My fiancé Bob and I pulled up to the address we’d been given in Austin, Texas, and knocked on the back door. A thin, bearded man opened it, looked around, and ushered us in. Seated at the kitchen table was a family from Guatemala: Joaquin, the young father; his wife, Maria, who was about eight months pregnant; and their children, ages four and two.
It was the 1980s, and several members of Joaquin’s family had been activists opposed to the murderous dictatorship in Guatemala. One afternoon the military had surrounded his father’s house and dragged off everyone inside, including Joaquin’s two young nieces and a baby stepsister. They were never seen again. After searching fruitlessly for them, Joaquin and his wife took their children and fled for their lives.
But the United States government supported the Guatemalan dictator, so asylum here in Texas wouldn’t be possible. Bob and I had volunteered to drive the family to Fort Worth, their next stop on the “underground railroad” to Canada. We had rehearsed what we would say if we were pulled over, but ours turned out to be a short and easy leg of their journey. After we dropped them off, Bob said, “If that’s breaking the law, they’ll have to lock me up.”
The family eventually made it to Canada, were granted refugee status, and created a new life for themselves. Yesterday I saw photos online of Joaquin and Maria’s granddaughter.
Upper Marlboro, Maryland
Mouse and I, both eleven years old, paused on our bikes to watch a man in a van drive from door to door in our neighborhood and leave a plastic quart of soda on each stoop or porch. It was 1968, and the Coca-Cola Company was giving away its diet soft drink, Tab, as a promotion. One of us had the brilliant idea to follow the man and take as much soda as we could. After all, it was free, so how could it be stealing?
We returned to my house and grabbed two large pillowcases in which to haul our booty. As the man delivered Tab around the neighborhood, Mouse and I went behind him and gathered bottle after bottle, taking care not to be seen, and hiding the soda upstairs in a cabinet at my house. We must have swiped thirty or forty bottles before a vigilant neighbor caught sight of our activities and called the police. Seeing the powder-blue cruiser roaming the streets, we stashed the last of the bottles and watched from an upstairs window, hoping the officer would give up. Instead he came to my door. My mother wasn’t home, but my sister foolishly let him in and called for me. Mouse and I walked downstairs with an air of innocence.
Experts at lying to parents and teachers, we held up under the officer’s questioning. He knew we were guilty but had no way to prove it. Eventually the cop left in disgust, and we retired to count our loot.
The Tab tasted terrible, but it wasn’t about the soda. The real thrill lay in not getting caught.
Grass Valley, California
Between my third and fourth years of medical school, at the height of the military buildup under President Ronald Reagan, I took a year off to work for a nonprofit affiliated with the International Physicians for the Prevention of Nuclear War. The Soviet chapter of that organization invited another American medical student and me to visit their country.
Our hosts were part of the state-sanctioned Soviet peace movement, but there was also a nonsanctioned, underground peace movement whose activists were subject to government oppression. Once in Moscow I intended to visit some leaders of the underground.
My fellow delegate and I were carefully monitored the whole time we were there, and our student hosts packed our schedule to keep us busy, so I had to sneak out at night to make contact with the underground activists. As I walked from the hotel to the subway station, a man followed me and boarded the same subway car. At the next station I hopped off just as the doors were closing, leaving the man behind.
I rode another train to a neighborhood of cinder-block apartment complexes. For two hours I searched to no avail for the address I’d been given. Dejected, I returned to the subway but found the station empty. A guard informed me that the subway was closed for the night. I hailed a taxi and had the driver drop me off a few blocks from my hotel.
The next day I mentioned my failure to the other American student, who said he’d make his own attempt that night.
The following morning we were scheduled to have breakfast with our hosts. But an hour before breakfast, my companion still hadn’t returned. Worried his absence would arouse suspicion, I called our student interpreter to stall for time, and she immediately notified the authorities that my friend was missing.
Five minutes later he walked in. He had spent the entire night meeting with the underground peace-movement leaders, he said, and they had given him documents that they wanted us to smuggle out. I told him how I’d notified our interpreter of his absence, and we both realized he would be searched when he boarded the plane back to the States later that day. So he gave the documents to me.
I had purchased some souvenirs to bring back, including a teddy bear. I opened a seam on the bear and stuffed some of the folded documents inside. Then I hid the rest beneath the cardboard bottom of a tote bag.
After a press conference to mark the end of our visit, we were escorted to the airport. As soon as I presented my passport at the security check, two men in dark suits and sunglasses ushered me aside. I somehow kept my cool while they searched my carry-on luggage, even pulling out the teddy bear and peering into the depths of the tote bag. They didn’t find the documents.
It was only later that I really thought about what I’d done: smuggled secrets past Soviet guards in the middle of the Cold War.
My friends and I used to climb fire towers in northern Wisconsin when we were teenagers. There was no better place to be on a hot summer night than high above the mosquitoes and the soupy humidity. From the top we could see past the forests and the rural roads and the hayfields and the dairy farms. A scattering of small towns were visible in the distance by their pale-orange glow.
On the Fourth of July we climbed the tower to watch the fireworks in all the nearby towns at once. As the sparkles and flares lit up the ink-black sky, our laughter and chatter subsided, and each of us was left to her thoughts. I believe we were all feeling something similar. Looking out from the tower upon the only world we knew, we were no longer just the daughters of alcoholic factory workers or divorced parents, no longer just girls whose brothers had landed in jail or died. We were no longer just kids with chores and 5 AM milking duties and no chance to eat breakfast before we rushed off to school, hoping we didn’t smell like cows. We weren’t just teens who got teased because we couldn’t afford the latest fashion trends and never would. In that silence on the tower, I think we all felt full of hope and possibility.
After the fireworks ended, we would climb down and make our way through the woods to the car we’d parked on the side of the road. And if we were lucky, there’d be no bored sheriff waiting there to give us a ticket for climbing a fire tower.
When people find out I once robbed a bank, the number-one question they ask is: What were you thinking? My answer is easy: I wasn’t. But it’s not the truth — or not the whole truth, anyway.
I was in kindergarten the first time I stole something, sliding a thick stack of colored construction paper into my backpack and zipping it up. Once safely on the school bus, I felt a shiver up and down my spine: I had gotten away with it.
Walking through the front door at home, I said to my brother, “Stephen, look at all the paper I got!”
At our house the arts-and-crafts supplies amounted to a coffee cup of dry pens and some yellow lined legal pads. Stephen and I quickly set up production on the floor, folding the paper into hats, boats, and airplanes. Our mom was busy in the kitchen and didn’t notice my brother and me rolling in our construction-paper windfall like cartoon billionaires.
Then the phone rang.
I could never figure out how my teacher — the smock-wearing Mrs. C. — figured out it was me.
“Susan Rachel!” my mother yelled. That’s how I knew I was in deep trouble: the dreaded middle name.
I was made to gather up the paper, and we all piled into the family minivan for the trip back to school. I sat between my brother-turned-unwitting-accomplice and my baby sister, who happily jabbered away, unaware she was seated next to a criminal. My mother was deathly silent the whole way and hit the brakes extra hard at every stop sign. Mrs. C. met us outside, and I handed over the stolen goods.
I recall nothing of the long lecture I’m sure I got from my parents that night. What I remember was the next day.
The first thing Mrs. C. did was tell the whole class, in her sweet, singsong voice, about my offense. I was then made to stand in front of the room as my classmates lined up to approach me one by one and say, “Shame on you, Susan.” Nineteen times.
The truth is, as I sat waiting to rob my first bank, I was thinking.
I was thinking: In and out, two minutes.
I was thinking: Clean, fast getaway.
I was thinking: Shame on you, Susan.
Before graduating from medical school in 1969, I worked as an intern on the medical wards. It was my first taste of authority: I could admit and discharge patients and write orders that, with few exceptions, did not require a doctor’s co-signature.
One patient discomfited me. She was a sixty-two-year-old woman who had suffered an intracerebral hemorrhage and was comatose. Her brain had stopped signaling her diaphragm to breathe, and for weeks she’d been kept alive by a respirator. Initially the family had stayed with her around the clock. Now only one daughter came twice a week to spend ninety minutes holding her mother’s hand, crying, and praying for a painless end. The family members couldn’t agree on whether to withdraw life support; the relatives who lived farthest away — and never appeared at the woman’s bedside — demanded that every measure be taken to keep her alive. “Only God can end a life,” said the family priest. The daughter thanked him and asked him not to return.
The neurologists said there was massive, irreversible brain damage. Neurosurgeons, normally eager to operate, advised that surgical intervention would be ineffective and could well worsen the patient’s condition. Our efforts had been reduced to preventing bedsores and delivering through tubes everything she needed to live. At the point of entry, each tube had caused skin erosions that oozed pink fluid.
Every day my anger at the situation grew. We were only prolonging this woman’s suffering and that of her family. What was a physician’s responsibility in such a situation? Did I have a duty to provide such futile care? At the time there were no legally accepted criteria for brain death in the state. Criminal charges could be brought for disconnecting a ventilator while a patient’s heart was still beating. I was observing a slow-motion tragedy, unable to intervene.
One night I was the only physician on the floor at 1 AM. The patient on life support was in an open ward with five others, their beds separated by white curtains. I drew hers and performed the neurological exam for the hundredth time, confirming that nothing had changed. Then I disabled the ventilator alarms and disconnected the tube from her airway. I stood for a full minute by her bedside, convinced I was doing the right thing, before I went to the on-call room down the hall for a nap. But I couldn’t sleep. I was doing the right thing, wasn’t I?
The sleep that finally came was fitful, and I awoke with a feeling of dread. What had I done? This was a person’s life. Who was I to decide when it should end?
My first morning task was to enter the patient’s room and confirm that she had “expired” during the night. Midway down the hall I stopped: I could hear the unmistakable rhythmic sound of air being forced in and out by a ventilator. When I entered the room, the machine was reattached. The patient appeared none the worse for my nighttime visit.
Had a nurse happened by? Had one of her roommates done it? It didn’t matter. I exhaled with relief. The idea of ending a life had been so different from the actual act of doing so.
Paul Gustman, MD
Just seventeen, I wouldn’t, couldn’t tell my parents I was pregnant. My sister found a place across the state line that would perform an abortion, which was illegal back then. We could stay with her boyfriend, George, who lived in a fraternity house.
So early in the morning it was still dark, I went into the clinic with my head bowed. I had never broken the law before. I remember a lot of pain and shame. Afterward George made us wait behind his frat house until he gave the all-clear signal and they whisked me up to the attic. I lay in that dark, hot attic for days, bleeding and hurting. My sister brought me food and water, but I didn’t have any appetite.
At one point my ex-boyfriend happened to call George — they were friends from high school — and George told him I was hiding out there, recovering from an abortion. My ex insisted George put me on the phone. What right did I have, my ex asked, to do that without giving him any say in the matter?
I had no answer. I was in too much pain, too tired, and too ashamed to tell him that I didn’t even know if it was his.
I quit my job to work for what I have since come to think of as a cult. In the three and a half years I was a member, I was not paid more than twelve thousand dollars a year for putting on events and writing copy for the group’s website. Then there were the unpaid duties members were required to perform: teaching yoga classes, making food to sell at the cafe, and assisting with weekend workshops on sexuality.
Believe it or not, the workshops were what appealed to me most. Our sexuality can validate or devalue who we are. It can provide intense pleasure or provoke a lifetime of pain. A lot of the workshop participants seemed to benefit from revealing the secrets they held inside. To my mind the workshops were a faster, more effective route to mental health than therapy.
Each session would start out with a talk. The leader of our community might pose a simple question: What do you want? This would often elicit a confession, sexual or not. I saw people laugh and cry and sigh with relief.
After that, the leader would talk about how easy it was for men to achieve sexual satisfaction. Her purpose in life, she said, was to teach men how to give women the same pleasure, and to teach women that they deserved pleasure, too.
Then came what the whole workshop had been building toward: instruction in a technique of hand-to-genital contact that the leader touted as a tool for spiritual enlightenment. The women in the group would lie on their backs, cushions beneath their heads, pants off, and legs bent at the knees and opened to reveal their genitals. Each woman was paired with a partner, usually a man, who would use his index finger to touch her in a manner that was both meditative and arousing.
There were always more men than women taking the course, so it was necessary for female staff members to stand in as participants. This was the part I worried about — not because I didn’t want to let a stranger touch me that way, but because I thought we might be breaking the law. My fear was that if the men paid money for the course, what we were doing could be considered prostitution.
I raised this concern with the group’s leader once. She frowned and told me my negativity was not welcome, and I never brought it up again. It was one of many warning signs I ignored.
As a teenager I attended a boarding school in South Africa. This was during the apartheid years, when that country was an oppressive and dangerous place for native Africans. Their only permissible contact with Europeans was as a servant or laborer. But I was a typical white girl, oblivious to the political realities around me. I played field hockey after school and sang in the school’s Gilbert and Sullivan shows.
One morning in my senior year I awoke with a sore throat and fever. The dorm matron took my temperature and confirmed it was high enough for me to stay in bed for the day. My roommate brought me some breakfast, which I could barely swallow, and then went to class. I was worried about falling behind — final exams were only four months away — and nauseated by the tepid orange juice. Feeling sorry for myself, I dozed off and woke to cheerful singing in the hallway.
It was Steeven, the nineteen-year-old African “boy” — he’d be called that for life, no matter his age — who polished our dorm floors, scrubbed our nasty washrooms, and waited on us in the cafeteria. He was currently sweeping the long corridor outside my room. Steeven knew each student by name and would greet and tease us when we crossed paths with him. After school, while the other African staff would retire to their shabby quarters, he would play rugby with the male students. He had been dubbed a “good kaffir” by the senior boys. (Kaffir is a racial slur.)
In my family I’d been taught that all Africans were good people. Perhaps Steeven had picked up on this, because he and I had enjoyed friendly chats over the years. While I lay sick in bed, he popped his head in to tell me, with a disarming grin, that he was bringing my lunch up soon.
As he walked down the hall to the kitchen, whistling, I combed my hair and tried to look less wretched. A few moments later he returned with a tray of beef stew, rice, and bread pudding, the food covered with white netting to keep off the flies. Steeven set the tray on my desk and dramatically whipped the netting off. I smiled, amused.
Then, to my surprise, he placed the netting on my head like a wedding veil. “You and me,” he said earnestly. “We will marry. I will ask the king of the Swazis for special permission. I will wait for you.”
We were the only two people in the dorm. Touched but scared, I sputtered, “Steeven, you know it’s against the law.”
“Yes, but we will get permission,” he said. “You are a good person, and our king will give me permission. I feel sure.”
I knew Steeven’s youthful optimism was in vain. The law in South Africa would not have allowed this marriage. Even this conversation, alone in my room, could have gotten him arrested.
I don’t know what happened to Steeven after I graduated. I hope he survived the tightening noose of apartheid and lived to enjoy a free South Africa.
In the fall of 1976, when I was nineteen, I found myself pregnant by my abusive boyfriend. In my Roman Catholic family the only possibilities were to give the child up for adoption or get married. Afraid to face the pregnancy alone, I married the father.
At seven months I delivered a stillborn baby. Unable to endure the shame of divorce on top of everything else, I decided to make a life with my seriously unstable husband.
He received a football scholarship to a university in Canada. The plan was for me to support him while he pursued his degree, but after we arrived, I learned that I could not legally work there. As our funds dwindled, I came across a want ad for a full-time position as a live-in nanny. I impressed the couple, who hired me to care for their four-year-old granddaughter. My under-the-table wages would include room and board for my husband and me.
My triumph was short-lived. The child in my care suffered severe allergies, which meant I had to clean the entire six-bedroom, five-bath house every day. I also had to cook and do laundry. Promised weekends off never materialized. My husband returned home less and less, and I became isolated and depressed. Anxious about my status as an illegal immigrant, I rarely left the family’s home. Then my husband had a car accident and used the insurance money for drugs and prostitutes. I called my parents to come and rescue me.
I got divorced and spent the years that followed healing from the relationship and obtaining my degree in accounting. I eventually remarried and raised two daughters. At the age of forty-five I returned to school and earned a master’s degree in social work.
I now manage a housing program for people with serious mental illnesses, many of whom have criminal backgrounds. The one gift I received from those difficult years is compassion for those who, like me, have made mistakes.
Hillsborough, New Jersey