Category Archives: Volume 2

The Man Who Wasn’t There


My Chinese students didn’t know that I was Japanese. They looked up at me as I wrote English words on the blackboard. They repeated after me as we practiced saying letters and numbers. They stayed after class to ask questions about homework.

“Pei laoshi, you look a little bit Asian. Are you really from America?” one asked.

“Yes, I’m from America. I came here from Pennsylvania,” I replied.

It was the truth. They just didn’t know that I was half-Japanese. I wasn’t ready to tell them. Nor did I think they were ready, either.

If I told them I was half-Japanese, I would inevitably have to tell them about my Japanese mother, which would lead to questions about my grandparents, which could well lead to questions about my great-grandfather. He was a problem. How much of a problem I did not yet know.

I had gone to China to teach English for two years. I was ready to do something after several years of studying dense moral philosophy texts in college. I had grown up in Tokyo and in the suburbs of London. I had spent two summers in China during college. These summers and my childhood in Japan had convinced me that China was important to understand. That realization had led me to Tea House village. I was 22 years old.

The village was remote. Three thousand people lived there and thirty-thousand people lived in the surrounding area. All around the village were terraced fields of rice and tobacco. Trucks rumbled up and down the dirt roads. Dogs barked incessantly. Chickens ran amok. There were a handful of places to eat. Two were owned by the same family. The school was at the center of the village. Everyone hated the Japanese.

Their grandparents had stories about the Japanese, even though the Japanese had never made it as far west as Yunnan. Yet here I was, in front of their classroom. Their teacher.

It was bad enough that I was Japanese. But when I arrived in the village, I did not yet know who my great-grandfather was, or what he had done.

That began with a Skype conversation with my grandmother.

I was grading quizzes at my desk in my village when I noticed my Japanese grandmother attempting to g-chat with me from her apartment in the suburbs of Tokyo. For the first time in years, we were in similar time zones. Every now and again I would see her username — Nagasaki Beauty — pop up in my list of contacts.

“Skype?” The message said in Japanese, followed by a row of cheerful emojis.

“Ok!” I said. After a few minutes we were face-to-face.

My grandmother has large, deep-set eyes and high cheekbones. Her hair is dark and wavy, and her skin is smooth. She wears a pair of thick oval glasses with a chain around her neck. She is thin and petite. In the morning, she drinks one cup of coffee, a habit she picked up from her father. She is 84.

She asked me how I was enjoying my time in rural China, and I described it to her — challenging work, in a poor village, with wonderful students.

“I was in China too, you know,” she reminded me.

Yes, I said, that was right — she had spent some time living in Shanghai as a girl. We had visited the city as a family, and she showed us her old elementary school, with its abandoned courtyard and concrete walls. It was just in time, as the school was about to be demolished and replaced by more sky-rise apartment complexes.

“What were you doing there?” I asked.

“My father was a police officer,” she said, “and we lived in the International Settlement in Shanghai. We had French bread and coffee every day. We lived in a beautiful apartment, with a Chinese maid.”

“I didn’t know he was a police officer.” I also didn’t know that my grandmother had lived so luxuriously in Shanghai.

“He worked for the Japanese police force in Shanghai,” she said. “He spoke English, so he worked with the British, too,” she said.

“What was his name?”

“Ninomiya Kenkichi,” she said.

Ninomiya Kenkichi. The alliterative consonants felt foreign on my tongue. Ninomiya was less common than my mother’s maiden name. I had never heard it before.

“At the end of the war, he was the highest-ranked Japanese police officer in Shanghai,” she added, a tinge of pride in her voice.

How did my great-grandfather become the highest-ranked Japanese police officer in Shanghai in 1945? How did he learn English? Where did he come from, and where did the Ninomiya family come from? Why were they in China to begin with? When did they leave?

But most of all, why did I know next to nothing about any of this?

On my American father’s side of the family, there is an almost obsessive preoccupation with genealogy. Extended family members have traced the family lineage back along its multiple branches — from Viking feudal lords millennia ago, to Jewish farmers and tradesmen in Ukraine, to the Armstrong clan of Scottish border raiders, and Norwegian farmers — and at every family reunion in Kansas, the uncles bring out the family tree, a sprawling network meticulously sketched out across a giant piece of poster paper.

But on my Japanese mother’s side of the family, the history was always a little murky. There was a war. Japan lost, and life was very, very difficult. “In post-war Japan, people were so poor they used rice for glue,” my mother would say when we would complain about the half-dry glue-sticks she refused to throw away, “and if they didn’t have scissors, they used their teeth.” Nobody ever spoke of my grandparents’ childhood, or how it came to be that they met in Nagasaki in the fifties. That history remained shrouded in silence. Nobody offered information, and nobody asked. I had never even bothered to ask for my grandmother’s maiden name. I had long attributed this silence to the language barrier. Although I had grown up in Japan and was fluent in Japanese, I had never felt comfortable enough with the language to casually broach a sensitive issue. But neither was anybody particularly forthcoming.

Arigato,” my grandmother said as our call came to an end.

“No. Thank you,” I said.

I closed the Skype window and gazed at the excel spreadsheet where I tracked my students’ academic progress. There was a towering pile of ungraded quizzes on the left side of my desk, and a meager pile of graded quizzes on the right. But my mind kept wandering to the story of Kenkichi. The more I thought about it, the more mysterious Kenkichi seemed.

An English-speaking, coffee-drinking, early 20th century Japanese man living in the International Settlement? Among the French, British, German, Chinese, and other Japanese who shared colonial Shanghai?

My great-grandfather didn’t seem like an ordinary Japanese man to me, although I wasn’t entirely sure what it meant to be ordinary at that time. Kenkichi seemed to have more in common with me, his great-granddaughter, than he did with people of his time who never left mainland Japan — and I was a half-Japanese woman who’d grown up in Japan and England, studied in the United States, and then gone off to work in China. He just didn’t fit into any of the easy categories I had in my head about who a Japanese man was supposed to be.

Just who, exactly, was this guy?




Yunnan is the southwest-most province of China, sharing a border with Laos, Vietnam, and Myanmar. It is mountainous and tropical, with terraced hills of rice and tobacco and fields of corn. Translated literally as “South of the Clouds,” Yunnan felt magical: I would wake up early in the morning to roosters crowing, step outside of my room in the middle school dorms, and look out at the mountains and fields around me through mist that shimmered with light. Although the village was poor, I often thought that the students were lucky to live in an area that was so beautiful.

Before I left for China, a few friends had asked me whether I was worried for my safety.

“Why would I be?” I scoffed.

“Because you’re Japanese,” was the response.

“Well, half,” I would say to myself.

I hadn’t thought about it that way, but they were right. I was Japanese — sort of — and relations between Japan and China were frosty. Every other day on the news, one prime minister or another would visit Yasukuni Shrine, or question the number of casualties from the “Rape of Nanking,” or do or say something to set back Japan-China relations by ten or more years.

During summer training before the teaching portion of the fellowship began, I considered whether to tell the administrators, teachers, and students at my school. I discussed this with a former teaching fellow whose judgment I respected.

“It’s up to you,” he said to me. “It’s completely up to you.”

My mind flew to the worst-case scenario.

I would be living essentially alone in a village, hours away from the nearest airport. And that airport was just one tarmac where one flight shuttled to and from an international airport in Kunming. If, heaven forbid, anything happened to me, it would be difficult to escape to safety. All it took was one angry person to hurt me: a student, a parent, a teacher, someone in the village.

But the more I thought about it, the more absurd this seemed. Regardless of whatever private ill-will anybody had towards me based on my heritage, nobody would actually act on it. The war had ended half a century earlier, and I had nothing to do with it.

Still, it might be distracting to my students if I presented myself as Japanese. Maybe they wouldn’t want to learn from me. Or, they might spend their time thinking about that in class, rather than the grammatical structure of the present simple tense.

In the end, I was only half-Japanese. That was to say, I didn’t look full Japanese, and I could easily pass as not Japanese at all. In some ways, I felt as though I had a secret. I was a secret Japanese person with an American name.

If it scared me to be exposed, or if I felt that the risks outweighed the benefits, then all the more reason not to share. Nobody needed to know at all.




My great-grandfather, on the other hand, was full Japanese — sort of. He was this multilingual, multicultural, cosmopolitan boot-strapping continent-hopper, and I couldn’t stop thinking about him. Kenkichi Ninomiya.

I googled him.

Within 0.27 seconds, I had 2 results, both irrelevant. I reversed the order of the first and last names and tried again. Within 0.22 seconds, I had 4 results, but these were also irrelevant.

Why did I expect to find anything there at all? It was highly unlikely that a person who was, objectively speaking, a random 20th century Japanese man, would be on a website on the English-speaking world wide web.

I removed the quotation marks and added the word “Shanghai.” 883 results, 0.42 seconds.

“Shanghai Municipal Policemen,” the top link read.

I scrolled down.

Random names. Dates. Words. Nothing rung a bell. Nothing jumped out at me.

Scroll. Scroll. Scroll. Nothing.

And then — there it was.

In the middle of several hundred rows of names and details was a simple entry for my great-grandfather:

Surname: Ninomiya

Forename:  Kenkichi

Joined: 1926

Previous Employment: Unknown

“Unknown.” Despite this inch of headway, my great-grandfather remained an enigma.

I scoured the rest of the site. It contained a directory of employees of the Shanghai Municipal Police on the website of a Robert Bickers, a history professor at the University of Bristol in England. An expert on Chinese history and British colonialism, Professor Bickers had created a database dedicated to the British police force that had policed the International Settlement in Shanghai. While there were hundreds of photos of police officers and of Shanghai in the 1930s, there was not a single further piece of information on my great-grandfather.

But I did find Professor Bickers’s contact information. I shot him an e-mail.
“The Shanghai Municipal Council annual report for 1931 lists him as a Sergeant in the Police,” Professor Bickers responded, “who joined 17 May 1926. He was a Sub-Inspector by 1937, and an Inspector by 1941.”

Professor Bickers didn’t have much more information about my great-grandfather — he was an expert on the British side more than the Japanese — but his e-mail was enough to make me optimistic. There could be more information about Kenkichi Ninomiya out there in the world. The main source, of course, would be my grandmother. But maybe there would be more out there — things that my grandmother didn’t understand about his life and his work in Shanghai, and things that he never told her.




My two-year fellowship began with a training program. Several hundred foreign and Chinese recent college graduates descended upon Lincang, a prefecture-level city in Yunnan. At the end of training, principals and vice principals from each host school came to meet the teachers they would host for the next two years. My principal, several administrators, and a friend of the principal took me out to a restaurant. When we arrived, the principal waved the others ahead and walked me to the restaurant.

“Teacher Pei, thank you for coming to our rural village,” the principal said. “Tea House is very backwards, too backwards.”

“No, no,” I stammered. “This area is beautiful.”

“Where in America are you from?”

“Oh, I’m not really from America.”

“You’re not? But you’re American?”

“I’m American, but I grew up in Japan.”

“Oh!” The principal looked at me more closely. “Oh, I see it now, you have Asian features. You’re hunxue, of mixed blood. I can see it now.”

When we got to the restaurant, the others were already seated. The table was set with plastic-wrapped tableware, cups of warm chrysanthemum tea, shot glasses, and bottles of baijiu. I slid into the booth next to one of the administrators.

Each gave a toast of baijiu to welcome me, and after each toast, we all had to take a shot.

“Teacher Pei, thank you for coming to Tea House!”

“Teacher Pei, welcome to Tea House!”

“Teacher Pei, welcome to Lincang!”

The conversation soon became loud and boisterous.

“Teacher Pei,” the principal’s friend said, looking at me. His cheeks were cherry red. The principal slapped him jovially on the back. “Teacher Pei, welcome to Yunnan!” He raised another glass of baijiu, and everyone followed. By that time, I had lost count of the number of baijiu shots we had taken.

“Drink!” he urged me. I hesitated. It was a little rude, but I didn’t want to be too sloppy on my first day meeting them.

“Drink!” He gestured for a server to fill my glass. I reluctantly threw back the shot.

“Where is Teacher Pei from?” The principal’s friend asked the principal.

“She just told me… was it… Taiwan?” The principal guessed.

“No, I’m from Japan.” The other politically sensitive country.

“Oh, Japan….” He frowned. “We don’t like Japan. We really don’t like Japan.”

“Yeah, we really don’t,” a couple other voices echoed.

“Your mother or your father’s Japanese?”

“My mother.”

“Well, you should be more like your father, and less like your mother,” the principal’s friend advised.

There were nods around the table.

I could feel my neck and face turning hot. I wondered if my cheeks looked as red as they felt.  “No,” I said stiffly. “I don’t think so.” The principal stared at me. “Anyways,” I continued quickly, “I’m here to help kids learn English — I’m not here for political reasons. History’s history, and it’s not relevant to what I’m doing here.”

“But Japan—,” the friend started, getting to his feet. His eyes bore into mine. “Japan…”

I couldn’t hear the rest of what he said, because the principal interjected.

“Yes, yes, ha ha ha ha!” he said loudly, forcing a laugh. “History is very important, but the education of children is more important, isn’t it? Yes, yes,” he nodded around the table, “Ha ha ha ha ha!”

His laughter cut the tension of the room, and soon we were talking about something else.




At the height of the Japanese empire, there were millions of Japanese people living across Asia. Farmers, industrialists, soldiers, policemen, teachers, families, artists — whether they had left pre-war Japan in search of opportunity, or had chosen to emigrate to a colony to support the imperial project, these expatriates left everything they had known to create pockets of Japanese life in the regions that Japan sought to lead, control, and exploit.

I can’t tell a story about Japanese people in Shanghai without also thinking about the legacy of Japanese imperialism in Asia. The “Rape of Nanking”, Unit 731, forced labor in China, forced labor and comfort women in Korea: the list is long and painful. The emotional and political repercussions of these actions have lingered and festered, never adequately addressed through political means. Again and again, Japanese politicians do or say things suggesting a reluctance to take responsibility for wartime atrocities.

With this history in the back of my mind, through months of conversations with my grandmother, I learned more and more about Kenkichi.

My great-grandfather was a young man who sought an opportunity to make his own life. He was born to a middle class family in Tokyo. His mother died when he was a teenager. His father then married a woman with a child from her first marriage. He and his new wife favored the new child and even sent him to college, something they would not do for Kenkichi. Kenkichi no longer believed he could be a member of that family, and he left. And not just to anywhere, but for Shanghai, that foreign-but-familiar city just across the sea.

In Japanese culture, the concept of the family, or ie, is fundamental to a person’s identity, determining not only one’s social status but oftentimes also one’s profession. To be expelled from, or to voluntarily leave, one’s family is drastic; for him to have done so had to mean that the conflict was exceptionally difficult or that he was extraordinarily headstrong.

Was he angry? Or bitter? Perhaps he believed that there was no longer a place for him in his family, town, or even his country.

“He was stubborn and confident, my father,” my grandmother said. “And brave.”

Shanghai was a destination for people like my great-grandfather. For ordinary people, it was a place to go if you didn’t feel that you had a place in Japan. But in Shanghai, Japanese settlers recreated the structures of Japanese life. Some settlers bemoaned that they had left Japan to find freedom in Shanghai, only to arrive and discover that they had returned to Japan.

When Kenkichi went to Shanghai, he did something that most Japanese didn’t do. He learned English. And that would prove to be very, very useful.

My grandmother remembered waking up in the middle of the night for a cup of water and seeing a dim light from underneath his closed door. Her father was still awake, squeezing hours out of the night, to do the one thing he knew he could do to alter the course of his future: learn.

“He would sit there for hours, studying and studying,” my grandmother said in another Skype chat. “He was a very dedicated student. His desk was lined with a thick set of legal books. He studied all the time for his advancement exams, so he could get promoted.”

Sergeant to sub-inspector to inspector. His hard work had paid off. I couldn’t help but admire my great-grandfather’s diligence. But the more I researched wartime Shanghai the more I realized that there was another, darker explanation lurking behind his hard work.

The year of my great-grandfather’s first promotion was also the year the Japanese Imperial Army launched its first major attack against the Chinese National Republican Army. The Battle of Shanghai lasted three months, and it was bloody and intense. By November, it was over, and Japan had taken control of the parts of Shanghai that were still run by the Chinese.

In December of 1937, a 23-year old man from Shandong province threw a bomb into a Japanese military parade along Nanjing Road in Shanghai. Three Japanese soldiers were wounded. Two Chinese constables were killed. This act convinced the British Shanghai Municipal Police and the Japanese Military Police to collaborate more closely and expand the police force. Two Japanese sergeants were promoted to sub-inspectors as a result. Perhaps one of them was my great-grandfather.

As Japan gained control of Shanghai, my great-grandfather’s star rose. What did he have to do to accomplish this? The Japanese Imperial Army was notorious for being ruthless and unmerciful, for even reveling in cruelty. But he wasn’t part of the army. He was a police officer. What did he do? The occupation of Shanghai by the Japanese has been described as a nightmare. As Professor Frederic Wakeman, Jr. describes in Shanghai Badlands, in Shanghai, “killing was in the air.”

By that time, Kenkichi had created a family of his own. His wife Shizuyo was from Nagasaki. Her parents had died when she was very young. It is unclear when she moved to Shanghai, how they met, or in what year they married. By the time of his promotion, they had four children — a fifth would be born later — and they lived well. Although a war was going on around them, Shizuyo created a safe world for her children. The family enjoyed privileges and comforts that would have been the envy of any Japanese.

“My mother, Shizuyo, always dressed me and my sister Kazuko in matching clothes,” my grandmother recalled. “A tailor would go to our home and measure us to make our matching outfits and hats to size.” She would make donuts at home, and knit sweaters for her daughters. While the children were at school, she would take typewriting lessons.

They had household help, who did most of the cleaning and laundry. Ama, their Chinese housekeeper, lived with them and went home once a week. She was a young woman whose room was near the front entrance of the home. She did most of the cleaning and laundry, and she made cloth shoes. There was also a boy who worked for the family. “We called him ‘Boy’,” my grandmother recalled. He was probably young, and unrelated to Ama. He likely drove the children to work, and was an integral part of their lives, but his real name is lost to history.

For a time, they lived in Hongkow, close to the Jewish Ghetto. “We had Jewish neighbors,” my grandmother remembered. “They were doll-makers. And whenever they would see me, they would say, ‘Hello, small girl!’”

My grandmother’s memories are selective, but the children were not completely shielded from what was happening around them.

“In Shanghai, my brothers and sisters went to school by bus, but I would sneak out early in the morning, and I would walk to school. I would walk across the garden bridge on my way to school. There were magnolia trees by the gate of the elementary school, which was guarded by an Indian man, a Sikh, who usually wore a turban. But in the morning, I would race to school before the gates opened because I wanted to collect as many magnolia petals as I could, before the other kids arrived. The petals were large and lovely, thick, a mixture of pink and white. Sometimes the guard wouldn’t have his turban on yet. And I could see his long hair that went all the way down to his back, tied in a very simple tail.

“I liked walking to school. I walked everywhere, with my mother. It wasn’t always safe, though. I remember a homeless beggar sawing out the tooth of a dead comrade using the jagged edge of a can. I saw him in Shanghai. I saw other corpses and near-corpses on the street on the way to school,” she adds. “I stepped over them.”

In 1941, the collaboration between the Japanese and British in Shanghai ended. After the Pearl Harbor attacks in December, the Japanese Imperial Army took over the parts of Shanghai controlled by the Europeans and Americans. Europeans and Americans in Shanghai were placed in work camps, some tortured and maltreated as badly as Chinese citizens had been throughout the war. That year, according to Professor Bickers, Kenkichi was promoted to inspector. What did he have to do as an inspector in the Shanghai Municipal Police? To the Chinese people who resisted them? To the Americans and Europeans who were rounded up?

My grandmother was a child, then. She did not know, and she could not tell me.

As time went on, even the Japanese children of Shanghai were mobilized for war. “We didn’t go to class anymore,” my grandmother recalled. “Instead, we made war supplies. We stuffed gunpowder into bullet casings and sewed bandages for wounded soldiers. We dug trenches and practiced hiding under our desks for aerial attacks.”

By early 1945, Kenkichi knew that Japan would lose the war. But instead of sending his family back to Japan as many officers did, he did something else. Perhaps he believed that Japan would not only lose the war, but also be completely destroyed. For instead of sending his family back to Japan, Kenkichi sent his wife, their four children, and the newborn to Dalian, in northwestern China. And he did not go with them. He stayed in Shanghai and then, when the war ended, returned to Japan. His family would pay dearly for his decision.




I was waiting for a meal at a restaurant in town when I noticed what the owners’ son was watching on the television hanging on the wall.

Soldiers were tearing through a village, breaking open wooden doors with their shoulders, and pointing bayonets at trembling women and children. The camera was angled from below, making the soldiers seem all the more formidable.

“Is this about the revolutionary war?” I asked the kid. His eyes stayed glued to the screen. His little brother sat at a table nearby, entertaining himself with a flyswatter while taking a break from practicing his characters.

“No,” the kid said flatly.

“Food’s ready,” his mother said. The restaurant was small and cramped and it served the best food in town. I would always get the same dishes. Eggs with tomato, spicy pork, beef jerky.

That same show was always on. One of the main characters was a child — a brave little boy who had the courage to stand up to the soldiers. I wondered if the kid saw himself in this boy.

“What’s that show that’s always on the TV?” I asked Sylvia, my friend and colleague.

“It’s a World War Two show,” she said, adding, a little apologetically. “It’s really popular.”

“So the soldiers are Japanese, then,” I said. “What’s the general story?”

“Japanese soldiers kill a boy’s grandmother for standing up to them. So the boy decides to join the fight against them, and he becomes a hero.”

“It’s always on TV at the Hui restaurant,” I said.

“People in Tea House and in all of these villages watch this show a lot,” she replied. “There aren’t a lot of shows anyways.”

As I learned more about my great-grandfather, the more I realized one thing. If the people around me knew who he was, and what he had to have done, they would surely hate me.




Dalian is a port city on the southern tip of the Liaoning peninsula in northeastern China in a region that has historically been known as Manchuria. And at the end of the war it was perhaps the worst possible place for my great-grandfather to have sent his wife and children. He likely sent them there because there was an established community of Japanese people who lived there. But the Imperial Japanese Army ordered Japanese people to evacuate Dalian on August 9, 1945. The soldiers fled with their families without completing the evacuation, leaving civilians to fend for themselves.

When Shizuyo and her five children arrived in Dalian, there were other Japanese people there. The family carried with them suitcases full of precious things: kimono silk, jewelry, watches, the trappings of wealth and privilege. Kenkichi would send them packages of food and goods from Shanghai, but when the war ended, the packages stopped coming. All of a sudden they were refugees, stuck in a region now owned by a people who hated them, soon to be raided by the fearsome soldiers of the Red Army.

“Dalian became chaotic, with violence on the part of the first wave of undisciplined Russian soldiers, and no way for people to earn a living other than selling their belongings on the street,” Professor Lori Watt writes in When Empire Comes Home. “The Russian prisoner troops were withdrawn and returned to Dalian. But then the regular Russian occupation troops came and turned the Japanese out of their homes. Moreover, groups of refugees — Japanese from the settlements — poured into Dalian, with nothing to eat and nowhere to live.”

When the packages stopped arriving, my great-grandmother began to sell their things on the street. First went the beautiful silk kimonos, then the jewelry and the watches; the family heirlooms, then her elegant Shanghai dresses. As fall became frigid winter, she would send my grandmother and her sister to the shed for coal.

“When the Soviets would come by,” my grandmother told me, with a tremble in her voice, “my sister and I would blacken ourselves with coal and hide.”

“Which sister?” I wondered. I had never met any of my grandmother’s sisters. I had met her younger brother and his daughter. He lived in the Philippines, and his daughter was multicultural and multilingual like I was.

“My older sister,” my grandmother said. “She was beautiful. But she died young.”

“Did she die in Dalian?”

“No, much later. In her thirties, in Japan.”

My grandmother had mentioned her to me once, when I was little. I had a headache, and I had asked my grandmother for medicine.

No, she had said. Never take aspirin, or any medicine when you just have a headache. It’s not natural, and it’s not safe. Her sister had taken medicine for a headache, and she fell asleep and never woke up. Aside from the headache she had been perfectly healthy beforehand. You should just drink some water and go to sleep, she had said.

As a child I thought it was sad that my grandmother’s sister had passed away, but she didn’t make much of it, and neither did I. Had something worse happened? I didn’t know. Nor would she say.

What should have been a temporary refuge in Dalian lengthened into a two-year nightmare, although my grandmother never describes it that way.

“I had to study Russian in school, but I sat in the back of auditorium,” she said. “And I would fall asleep! So I hardly learned a word of Russian. Although I can still say – Adeen! Dvah! Tree!

In 1947, they finally had a chance to escape Dalian. But it was a long march from Dalian to the port where they would board a boat to take them to Japan.

“It was cold. Maybe it was winter. My mother strapped the baby to her back, and sometimes she would slip on the ice, and fall backwards. And the other women would criticize her for falling, because the baby would hit his head. But there wasn’t anything she could do about it.”

The walk took a few days — or was it a few weeks? For my grandmother, who was 15, it was a miserable, endless hike. There was little to eat. There wasn’t much in the way of toilets. They stopped at the side of the road and used newspapers instead of toilet paper, and their bottoms and hands would turn black with ink.

When they arrived at the port, the ship that was waiting for them was American.

“It was called Liberty,” my grandmother recalled. “U.S.S. Liberty.” Covered with lice and rashes, the refugees were packed into those ships. “Like sardines,” she added. “We were filthy. Typhus, lice, all kinds of disease, rashes.” My grandmother doesn’t remember much from the ship, but her friend described it vividly to me: The hull of the ship was dark, cold and damp, with an acrid, metallic smell. People coughed in the night. Babies cried. Babies with fevers died and their bodies were thrown overboard. The wind was cold and unforgiving.

The sea itself presented dangers. There were mines in the water, leftover from the war. My grandmother’s ship crossed over to Japan, but others were not so lucky.

“There was a ship behind ours, a ship like ours. It blew apart. There was a huge spray of water, 20 meters into the air. The deck filled up with other passengers who heard the explosion and came out to ask what happened. ‘What happened?’ they asked. ‘Did you see it? Will it happen to us, too?’ I was frightened, but it wasn’t my first encounter with death,” my grandmother said.

When the ship arrived, the passengers disembarked and as they walked into a tented area, their clothes were pulled off and they were sprayed with white powder, which was rubbed into their skin, under their armpits, in-between their legs.

“It was DDT,” my grandmother said. “For the lice.”

Back in Nagasaki, they lived on the second floor of a relative’s house until, by luck, they were selected by lottery to receive temporary housing set up for repatriates. My grandmother was now 16.

As soon as Kenkichi heard that his family had returned, he rushed from Fukuoka to Nagasaki to meet them. The American government orchestrated much of the repatriation effort, which was on a massive scale — over six million people were repatriated from the dismantled Japanese empire between 1945 and 1950. In Fukuoka after the war, Kenkichi had worked for them. His English skills had once again been of use, and they continued to be of use in Nagasaki. There, Kenkichi began to work for the Atomic Bomb Casualty Commission.

The ABCC was an American government organization. The atomic bombs had never been used on humans before Hiroshima and Nagasaki, so scientists had didn’t know their immediate and long-term effects. The ABCC was formed to survey and medically examine survivors of the bombings to figure this out.

The organization was not popular among the Japanese, who regarded it an impersonal data collection agency that had no mandate to help them. Nevertheless, Kenkichi worked there. And he got his daughter, my grandmother, a job there, too. She interviewed atomic bomb survivors to record the extent of their injuries and their proximity to the bomb at the time of the explosion.

Compared to most people in post-war Japan, my grandmother and her family were fortunate. Working at the ABCC, she was paid more than most. Life simply went on.

“In those days, I loved going to the movies,” said my grandmother. “And I loved watching Western movies. There weren’t a lot of Japanese movies. My friend ran the theatre so sometimes I got to go see movies there for free.

“Many men approached me, wanting to marry me. I was a little plump. They would tell me the kind of work they were doing, their plans for a stable future, and I would consider them, but none of them felt right. In the end, my uncle introduced me to a young man who was a neighbor, who was industrious and decent, and I married him.”  She was 24, and two years later, she had her first daughter — my mother.




When I finally did decide to tell my students that I was half-Japanese, it was after months of teaching. My co-teacher Sylvia and I had launched the village’s first school newspaper. It was student-produced, and we were proud of it. I had developed a reputation for being hard-working, for tutoring students outside of class hours, for printing hundreds of quizzes and worksheets for my students to complete. I hoped I had developed enough of a relationship with my students that they wouldn’t associate me with the barbarous soldier on television who had thrust a bayonet through a defenseless grandmother.

I stood on the dais in front of my classroom of fifty students, took a deep breath, and told them.

They responded the way I think kids in most countries would respond to that kind of news.

“How do you say ‘idiot’” in Japanese?”

“Can we watch anime in class?”

“Do you read anime?”

I may have been the first Japanese person in the village, but Japanese culture had already made it there long before I did.

A month or so later I approached my class’s homeroom teacher about setting up a penpal exchange with a middle school class in Japan.

“I understand if you’d rather I didn’t,” I began, “but I thought it would be really interesting and educational for the students.”

“I approve of it,” he said. “The issues between Japan and China are political issues. They don’t matter here. This is about education, and it’s personal.”

Not everybody felt the same way. A couple of second-year teaching fellows in the Lincang area shared that, while drinking baijiu with some local teachers, one of them had said that if he were the leader of China, he would nuke Japan.

In late 2012, a Japanese governor threatened to purchase the Senkaku Islands, which were located just off of Japan. The Japanese government stepped in and purchased the islands instead. China bristled. It claimed that the Diaoyu islands were theirs. People across China rioted, breaking storefronts of Japanese brands and destroying Japanese cars. It was during my second year of teaching.

I walked in on the groundskeeper watching a video about it in the media room. I must have startled him; he jumped a little and turned around. He had a strange look on his face.

“What’s the matter?”

He pointed at the video screen. “I don’t like Japan,” he said.

The Diaoyu-Senkaku conflict truly touched a nerve across the country. Traveling north in Yunnan to Lijiang, a popular tourist destination, I passed by a clothing store with a sign: “No dogs or Japanese.” I walked into the store, almost to prove to myself that it wasn’t real. It goes without saying that the storekeepers likely had no idea I was Japanese.

During my second year, I was responsible for a whole new cohort of students. I told them as well, and they reacted similarly to my students from the first year. Delight. Curiosity. Mischief. A crowd of them would stay after class and ask me to show them how to write various words in Japanese script. I showed them the differences between Chinese and Japanese characters — Japanese characters, adopted almost wholesale from Chinese characters, are closest to Chinese traditional characters. I compared pronunciations of ideographic homonyms: tofu in Japanese, doufu in Chinese; denwa in Japanese, dianhua in Chinese.

When I left Tea House at the end of my second year, while I mostly hoped that I had done a good job of teaching them English, inspiring them, and expanding their horizons, I also hoped that whatever opinions they had or would come to have about Japan, they would remember that their 7th grade English teacher was from Japan, and that they liked her.

In the end, I couldn’t tell them, or anybody, about my great-grandfather, or what he had done. What he had to have done, to have been a police officer in Shanghai, to have been promoted several times, to have been useful. But perhaps they already knew, or assumed. After all, I was Japanese. And to the people in the village, that is largely what it meant to have been Japanese. 




My grandmother had never lived in Japan before the U.S.S Liberty carried her across the cold, dangerous sea. And the Japan she returned to was not the Japan she would have grown up in had her father never decided to leave Fukuoka decades earlier. A once-divine emperor had announced that Japan had lost the war, and that he was no longer divine. A small country mobilized for war had to face a new world order. As film director Akira Kurosawa depicts in “Stray Dog,” food was rationed, crime was rife, poverty was everywhere, and one stroke of bad luck could turn a good man into a desperado.

When the children of the Japanese empire returned to the homeland, they were treated with suspicion. They weren’t ordinary Japanese. There was a name for them. They were hikiage-sha: repatriates.

The hikiage-sha were from the outer lands of the empire, the gaichi. People who had stayed in Japan were from the inner land or homeland of the empire, the naichi. The people of the naichi viewed the people of the gaichi with suspicion. They hadn’t suffered the same way. They were the ones out there, waging this war that led to Japan’s loss. They spoke differently. They dressed differently. They had different customs. Institutionally they didn’t belong. People tended to maintain lifelong friendships with their elementary school classmates, cherishing the ties from that innocent time in life. But the children of the empire had gone to school with others like herself. In Japan immediately after the war, the hikiagesha were an inconvenient group of people for the country to deal with as it rebuild itself. Before the war, Japan tried to create a pan-Asian empire. After the war, Japan was one thing: Japanese.

“Empires tend to facilitate multi-ethnic identities, but the nation-state really needs people to be one thing, at least at critical turning points. At least Japan from 1945-1989 needed people to be Japanese,” Professor Watt said to me. “Your grandmother’s family was part of this whole broader conversation about Asians and pan-Arianism that ceased when, all of a sudden, everybody was supposed to be part of a nation.”

But the hikiagesha were different from the rest. For some, the return to Japan was complicated. Many, like conductor Ozawa Seiji, went on to lead international lives.

“The colonial Japanese really were a more cosmopolitan group of people because they lived outside of metropolitan Japan. They had more, broader cosmopolitan experiences, and they interacted with a far greater number of people,” says Professor Watt. “[W]hen people came back to Japan, it was harder than they expected to re-integrate into Japan.”

Then there was the fact of Soviet occupation and the suspicion of tainted blood. The Soviets re-took Manchuria and raped Japanese women. Some Japanese men raped Japanese women. Any woman who returned to Japan from Manchuria was potentially suspect of being tainted. Some women had abortions upon arriving in Japan. Some had had multiple abortions while abroad. Some ended their lives later. But my grandmother was lucky. She returned to Japan unscathed.




After teaching in China, I lived with my grandmother in the suburbs of Tokyo.

That year was the 60th reunion for my grandmother’s elementary school classmates from Shanghai. The reunion was in Tokyo, at a restaurant in Chinatown. She asked me to accompany her to it and I agreed. She and I met a friend of hers and we walked from Yokohama-Chukagai station to the restaurant. At check-in, my grandmother and her friend picked up their name tags and several pieces of folded paper. I glanced at one of them. Song lyrics.

The reunion was in the restaurant’s banquet hall. When we arrived the room was filling up with people. Some used walkers and canes, others had daughters and sons escorting them. Some my grandmother knew personally from her class at the all-girls’ school in Shanghai; others were from different schools nearby, or in higher or lower grades. Most spoke Japanese; a few were fluent in English or Mandarin Chinese. My grandmother greeted those that she knew.

“This is Junko-chan,” my grandmother introduced me to a stout, cheerful woman who sat at the same table as us. “Junko-chan sat next to me in class. If you want, you can ask Junko-chan questions about her past, the way you’ve been asking me,” my grandmother offered. “Maybe she’ll remember things that I won’t. Junko-chan is impressive – she wrote her own book.”

Several people stood up and gave speeches. The food arrived, Chinese style, with a variety of shared dishes placed on a rotating platform in the middle of the table. It reminded me of the way I had eaten in China.

“There’s fewer and fewer people every year,” someone at the table said.

“So-and-so-san is sick, and couldn’t make it,” another said.

As the reunion came to a close, the organizer asked everyone to sing one of the songs they had learned in their childhoods. They all stood up, some with the lyrics in their hands and many without, and they sang.

Central Japanese elementary school, where the cherry saplings grow,

in great Shanghai, where all the cultures of the world gather.

The Yangtze River, which flows for three thousand kilometers without taking a breath,

is a friend of the heart as it progresses, polishing every day the intellectual virtues.

It is the pride of our campus to follow the path of teaching,

standing against the deepening clouds of war, amidst flying bullets.

The students and teachers have taken a firm vow, before the shrine in Shanghai,

not to bring dishonor to the name of the people of the empire, each in his own way.

After the reunion, we went home. It was the last time these children of the empire would meet, their last reunion. The organizers were getting too old, and they simply didn’t have the energy to gather anymore.


Mary Prager is a dual-degree candidate at Columbia Law School and Columbia Business School.

When Derora Died

In Italics: Excerpts from her book of poetry: “Black Bread and Tea”

Derora Bernstein’s second marriage, the wedding to Shaya Schultz, was to be the next day. She was 31 and a few weeks pregnant. It was supposed to be a bachelorette night, a girls night. Esther, my mother and Derora’s sister-in- law, as well as Atida, one of Derora’s younger twin sisters, were sleeping on the floor next to Derora’s bed. The other twin, Yedida, was sleeping in the living room.  My mom can’t remember who woke up first but they could not wake Derora.

They had called for a doctor to come to the house after Derora had refused to go to the Emergency Room, telling everyone she only had a virus. The doctor diagnosed her as “hysterical,” and gave her a sedative, Seconal. An insulin dependent diabetic, she fell asleep and unable to monitor her blood sugar slipped into a coma and was dead the next day.

Sweetsugar in the blood, feeds the brain to love, feeds the brain to think, feeds the brain to sin.
Sucrose, glucose, dextrose, Fructose, sugarsugarsugar
Eat thick chocolate layered wedding cakes frosted with caramel.
By the bloodsugarstream Ye shall overflow

My mother said, “People had come to Canarsie from all over the world for the wedding. They just stayed for the funeral.”

My parents don’t remember anything about the funeral.  Yedida remembers the Rabbi speaking about Derora, she remembers that there were a lot of people there and she just stood next to her father.  They all remember sitting Shiva at their brownstone in Brooklyn which was still being renovated– walls missing, ceilings half built and a curtain instead of a bathroom door. Everyone was stoned and they remember lots of laughter.

But this was not a happy family, my dad’s family.

In my family people tell stories and remember Derora with scattered memories. They remember the speed at which they drove, when a cop pulled them over, fun times in California, colors of cars and models of motorcycles but not the date, or year of a wedding and a devastating funeral. They remember moments that may or may not have followed or preceded other moments in their shared lives. Having a precise sense of how things evolved in my family’s story of Derora is a puzzle. Put four of them on the phone and they laugh and tell disconnected stories that sometimes contradict each other.  They will drift into moments where someone swears they paid $2 to paint a car yellow with outdoor deck paint.

Except for Derora. Derora, was the nucleus that they orbited around and who would have known the answers to all my questions.

Derora, dead 41 years, lives on, in life, poetry, memories, grief, guilt and in sorrow.


Derora had high cheekbones, hazel eyes like the rest of the four siblings with heavy eyeliner, sometimes bright red lipstick, and untamed jet, black hair down to her waist. She dressed like a hippie. She never wore a bra.  She always had long hanging earrings. She wore long skirts and Dr. Scholl’s sandals with just the strap at the front. She smoked Kool menthols.

Yedida remembers brushing her hair.

I paint my lips red. PUCKER
I paint my nails red. CLAW
I wear roughed wombs on my cheeks READY
Proud as the mane of my hair
She loved to dance.
Hip out, I am thrusting that hipbone is a calling
It is not swaying it is not flirting

People thought she and her brother, my father, Shalmon – or Shelly — were twins. He was only 14 months older than her. They shared an awareness of the world that always lead to heated debates. They were both extremely analytical, questioning people and the world around them.  Derora never let a chance go by to argue with Shelly and she never backed down.

Their father, Jacob, was one of the few survivors of the 1929 Hebron massacre, in which Arab gunmen killed 69 Jews. He had to identify the bodies of his young mutilated friends. He moved from Palestine to America to live with relatives. Soon afterward, he was matched with Rose, my grandmother. He was escaping “the whole orthodox thing,” says my father.

They had five children. They shared a three-bedroom apartment in the Breukelen Housing Projects in Canarsie, Brooklyn. It was a ghetto of sorts with much violence.

Jacob was an violent orthodox authoritarian in the style of, “Spare the rod, spoil the child.”

“We lived in the lowest income type of housing projects,” says my dad. “We didn’t have doors on the closets, where in the higher income housing projects they had.” Strict divisions of class were more rigid then and emphasized in many small ways by the New York City Housing Authority.  His father worked hard manual labor, but all he really wanted  to do was write.

My father Jacob, nomad and begetter of dreamers, taught me the route.
So, unrooted, I did not eat the fig.
Though my mane is feline,
I am no Lion of Judah,
No strong son of Jacob
Searching for figs
With the secrets of my naming.

All the children of the household left as soon as they could.

Derora went away to Oswego State College, where she graduated in 1965.  She then bought and moved to a farm in Carpenter, Ohio, with Mickey, her first husband. They had met working with the Youth Corps in New York, both Brooklynites.  He also enrolled in Ohio University to study photography. They lived on the farm while she got her MA at Ohio University in 1967.

Mickey was a Gentile and my grandfather perched himself on the window ledge of the apartment threatening to jump if she married him. He wanted Derora to come home, to help take care of the young twins and her mother. He was going to try to keep his control over the family even if it meant attempting suicide.

“He didn’t want Derora to marry a non-Jew,” my dad says. Yedida remembers him kissing their mother goodbye.  Yedida remembers calling her brother since he was “the older brother.” His teenage twin sisters called him that day to say their father was going to kill himself. Their mother was already in a wheelchair with MS and could not stop him. “I don’t think he actually would have done it, jumping out the window,” says my dad but still, my dad had to pull him back inside.

After the threatened suicide my father had my grandfather committed to a psychiatric hospital where he received shock therapy. “I think it was after this incident when your dad stopped engaging with his father,” says my mom. She says that my dad begged his father not to make him admit him, not to leave him with that as an only choice. “He wasn’t going to lose his control over the family.”

He got out of the hospital and saw the circumcision papers and conversion documentation.

Mickey was determined enough to marry Derora that he got himself circumcised. My dad told him, “Don’t do it, you’re crazy.” They were married in a basement synagogue.

They write of white Satin and Silver marriage vows
We (You and Me)
in a crumbing courthouse with an open door
paid our pennies on a tarnished afternoon
The senile judge misplaced the Bible
so pretend with a frayed pamphlet that
our pretensions would root the room to religion.

“It was radical at the time,” says my dad. It wasn’t an easy time for any woman to be doing what she was doing.  She was constantly trying to fight the battle of being a woman in the field she had entered.

Derora was happy to leave the city.  The Ohio Alumnus book of 1968 quoted her saying, “Moving to the country has been very exciting. I love the cows and the hills, the general store, the freedom and the stars.” My father remembers visiting the general store with Derora and took photographs of the old woman who ran the store, Mrs. Howry. At the farm Derora also had a garden and a black lab named Luba.

I fleck the ground with green.
I stare 
With soil upon my tail.
I see with simmer to earthlife.
Yes there is in me the Yiddishe Bubushka
Always asking
So vat does that mean for us?”

In 1968 they all moved to California, my parents, Derora and Mickey, along with his my dad’s college best friend George and his wife Valerie. They went because my mom’s first cousin Carol was living out there and they were all thinking of moving there, too. They traveled by car and by motorcycle sharing vehicles and speeding across the country. They remember that the motorcycle was a Triumph 650 and the car was 1955 blue and white Oldsmobile. They remember how the motorcycle chain broke when my dad was flying down the freeway at 85 miles an hour. They bike skidded but my dad stopped it.

My parents stayed in Santa Monica with Carol, in F. Scott Fitzgerald’s old apartment. Derora and Mickey stayed with George and Valerie in two little cabins, or “mini houses” in Topanga. They lived next to a man with two girlfriends that was against drinking liquids who also had an Orgone Box (a box said to have healing powers) and another neighbor who was a famous dermatologist who owned his own island.

They were four young couples, figuring out their lives.

All the women got summer jobs waitressing.  Derora got a job working at a restaurant called “The Broken Drum” in Santa Monica.

Because they wear their penis’ on their sleeve, they call me
Thatsagirl,” they mutter through tobaccoed teeth
When I deliver their black coffee.

The owners were constantly going on about Jews and Derora quit. They didn’t realize she was Jewish. “Derora definitely didn’t let it slide as she left,” said Carol.

The men didn’t have jobs. Mickey was doing nothing. George was experimenting with transistors and my father went to the Department of Employment and wrote down that he was a “Photographer with a B.A in Philosophy.” Carol remembers all the couples making jokes at my father’s expense, “whether he was, philosophical photographer or a photographer of the philosophical.”

This was the good summer.

It did not last. Mickey sold the bike in California and went back to Ohio with Derora. George can’t remember where he went and my parents travelled to Portland. My father stayed with a friend from his days in the projects and my mother flew home.

My mom says, “Your dad drove the car back to New York in three days, driving 14 hours a day, drinking coffee and smoking cigarettes, Lucky Strikes. He was stopped on the highway in North Dakota for speeding, 100 miles per hour.“

“I was generally going fast,” says my dad. “He had clocked me at 90 but I had just slowed down. I only got a warning. But driving through the night was fantastic.” He also spoke to truckers that same night who said they also couldn’t stop driving since the night was so beautiful.

Back in Brooklyn their mother Rose had a stroke and was in Kings County Hospital. “We didn’t tell him his mother was in the hospital when he was driving and we didn’t tell him until he got back in fear he would kill himself trying to get home faster,” says my mom.  Derora flew back home, too.

My mother is sitting in a chair and smiling.
My mother is sitting in a chair because she cannot walk
Behind the eyesockets when tears form and will not flow
The face hurts, The pain masks and there is not wetness.
My mother is smiling because she is euphoric
Emaciate and gray, she is young, she is my young mother,
She is euphorically dying.
She smiles
Holds my hand with no grip
I do not want her boney fingers to let go
The subtle suckle
From which I nourish on poem.

Mickey and Derora were separated after he was caught messing around with a student at Ohio University. It didn’t seem a surprise to anyone that he had been cheating.

She went to Santa Monica again in 1971 to visit my mom’s cousin Carol with her friend Soraya and then they went on a “chick road trip,” as Carol describes it, to San Francisco.

Derora then went back alone to Ohio to teach in the English Department and “Interpretation of Drama” class and Black Literature at Ohio University, in Athens, and started the Black Studies Program there. She earned her PhD in 1973 while teaching writing. Her thesis: “How Shall We Sing the Lord’s Song in a Strange Land: The Journey Back to Life in the Midrash of Elie Wiesel.

When Derora got her Ph.D the sisters and my mother went out to Ohio to celebrate.  My mom remembers them going out dancing “to a local joint.” It was a joyous time.

The cells exploding
With the undulation
Of careless waves
Which is direction in movement
Which is music for the urchin
The cells exploding

Yedida had just gotten her first apartment on the Upper West and she had a housewarming party. She had known Shaya, who when she met him was called Freddy, since she was 14 and she remembers going ice-skating with him.  Derora was in town and came to the party.

“There was a click between Derora and Shaya, not with me, not with Atida,” said Yedida.

Eight years younger, Shaya moved to San Francisco to be with Derora. “It was the most spiritual, sexual and intellectual relationship she had ever had,” Yedida said. Derora was more in love than ever before and wanted to have a baby.

Shaya was also the reason she came back to New York.  He didn’t want to live in California anymore.

They moved back to New York in the summer of 1974.  She had an apartment in the West Village, 815 Greenwich street. with Shaya. He was working downtown at J&R Music World and selling pot. They were planning to marry in the coming fall.  Derora, was smoking cigarettes and drinking coffee and writing her book.  She was excited for the wedding.  She was getting her life together and even after just getting her Ph.D she was waitressing with my mother and Atida at the Spotlight Delicatessen.

It wasn’t a long engagement with Shaya.  Derora knew he was bisexual but he agreed to be faithful to her.  She spent $175 on her wedding dress and planned to have an Orthodox Jewish a wedding.

Yedida remembers how full of life Derora before the wedding. Then came the party, and the doctor and the funeral.

They decided to sit Shiva since they thought Derora would have wanted that.
Everyone in the family says the doctor killed Derora.  No doctor should have ever sedated her.
Derora was buried in pine box in New Jersey next to her mother.

The roar of the trucks has overturned your gravestone
Sideways, you lay
In your diminutive Jewish Cemetery
Who maintains your Jewish green today?
All Ivy, so it need not be mowed.
Does an ageless Jew (perhaps a tzaddig) Visit at midnight
Pruning the lone tree, Blessing the bones, washing the stones, kissing the earth
Opening the gate

My father went after the doctor who had given Derora the Seconol. “I wanted him banished from his community like the ancient Greeks did,” says my dad. He decided to go after him legally. He wanted to sue him in what would have been the first malpractice case charging negligent homicide against a doctor. But no one could find the doctor for a few months. He died in a car crash on the FDR Drive.  My father says the autopsy reported he had overdosed on Demerol.

The family did not survive Derora’s death. “Derora,” says my mom, “Was the glue to this family.”

My mom believes that the twins Yedida and Atida might never have ended up the way  they did. Yedida went on a trip with their father to Israel and met her husband Avner and got married quickly and moved to Israel.  Atida’s downward spiral into using heroin would probably never have never happened and she never would have married Arnie, “her piece of work husband.” Derora may have been the only person Unum, the middle brother still actually spoke to. He is diagnosed with obsessive compulsive disorder but most of the family believes he suffers from schizophrenia.  After her death he went into a life of solitude in an Upper East Side apartment, speaking to no one in the family. My father, my mom says, became permanently sad. A few years later Shaya, after his bride-to-be’s death, started seeing men. He contracted AIDS and died.

Yedida says that sometimes a death makes a family closer but this was “like a bomb went off in the family.” The remnants were scattered.

Elie Wiesel dedicated a lecture to Derora, Yedida was the only one who went to the lecture. Derora’s friends in California got a grant from the National Endowment of the for the Arts in D.C., to publish a book of her poetry called “Black Bread and Tea” with an Introduction By Jack Hirschman, a poet and social activist. Derora was working on an anthology of writings of American Jewish women from colonial to modern times called, “The American Jewish Woman Speaks First Person.”

The word everyone uses to describe her is “alive.”

That they all agree on.

You, who wanted flame, burned
And the burning mane
Removes lipstick
Removes nailpolish
All cosmetics of perfumed scent
Unmanes her hair


Danielle Rose, 25, is a documentarian, journalist, photographer, writer, storyteller, listener, painter, fine artist, activist, daughter, sister, cousin, friend, Brooklynite (born & raised)
Twitter: @daniellerosebk
Instagram: daniellerosebk


Home Alone

Brooklyn, 1966

The wake was held at Clavin’s Funeral Home on Fourth Avenue and 78th Street in Brooklyn, and there were things that were not right everywhere. For one, Agnes Leddy’s coat was hanging on a rack in the back of the room with a brown paper bag full of her clothes, like she had just stepped into the funeral parlor before them and hung it there. There was also the wig. Some awful thing that they had put on her because her head was shaved. Aggie went hysterical when she saw it, and the manager called the cosmetologist back in to fix it.

“Don’t touch her,” Aggie shrieked when the woman approached the coffin. “She’s been through enough.”

They had arrived there before everyone else. Agnes’ five children. John, 18, Aggie, 17, Jimmy, 16, Eddie, 13, and Mary, 12. Aunt Anna Ronaldson, Agnes’ sister, had gotten them all dressed in black. Hair washed, suits ironed, new dresses pressed. Her husband Joe and six of their nine kids came from Staten Island. The other sisters and their families were there, Frances who lived in Queens, Dolly who was down from Connecticut. Eddie and Mary’s eighth and sixth grade classes left school midday to be there, in uniform, with the nuns. Their friends and their friends’ parents came. Slowly the room filled with people in black, there for them and there for Agnes, mother of five, sister to four, widow to one.

Between nodding to the guests and minding their children, the sisters talked in low tones. What would they do about the kids? Frances had eleven of her own already, and Anna had nine. Dolly lived all the way in Connecticut and she only had three, but her two boys were disabled and she worked full time. And there was Anna Gilhuley, the paternal aunt, her son was already grown, but her husband wanted his peace and they had his elderly mother living with them. Nobody could take all five, even if they’d wanted to. And what’s more, they were right in the middle of the school year.



“It’s neurological.”

The Leddys lived down at the tip of Brooklyn, at the nub called Bay Ridge, where the avenues ended along a high ridge, from which the land descended down into flat park and wide bay. The Verrazano bridge pinned their shore to Staten Island across the way, its suspension cables holding the road between the shores like great, shining asymptotes; ocean liners and freighters steaming below.

The house was on Marine Avenue, two blocks from the water. It was a small, flat-roofed house, brick with some art-deco detailing, windows with shutters. A skinny driveway separated it from the twin house beside it, and together number 208 and 210 huddled between two big apartment buildings. There was a little square of a front yard with tangle of ivy, a wide stoop, and a gate that the youngest girl Mary loved to swing back and forth on.

They rented out the top floor and lived on the first. There were two bedrooms: the boys had the big room in the back and the girls had the smaller room closer to the kitchen. Agnes slept on a pull-out love seat in the living room, whose window looked out onto the street. Every morning she would fold it back up and go about her day—setting out the little piles of money for each kid’s commute or lunch, washing and ironing the school uniforms and handkerchiefs, keeping the kitchen stocked, making lunch for Eddie and Mary when they walked home for the noon hour, getting dinner ready for when the younger boys were home from sports practice and Aggie and John were back from high school.

When the symptoms started to reappear, she began to slow down. She got a little unsteady on her feet. There was something funny with her foot; it dragged. And she was drained of energy. She might have felt how she had the first time, eight years earlier, when she knew before the doctors knew that she had a brain tumor. It might have been the same way she felt before they’d gone in and cut it out and given her a second chance.

But when John, the oldest, graduated high school, she was there. He had won the New York State Regents Award, which got him a full college scholarship. Agnes couldn’t have been more proud—she’d felt faint with excitement when she’d opened the envelope and read the words—her John, the scholar. She had her oldest daughter Aggie use her charge account at A&S in downtown Brooklyn to find her a dress for graduation. It was yellow with little flowers and she wore it as she proudly watched her oldest walk across the stage.

Her health kept sinking though. Eventually she stopped folding up the love seat in the morning. She’d stay lying down and before Aggie left for school she would drag the phone from the dining room into the living room, pulling at the cord so that it would reach. Agnes would stay there as the kids left for school, and when they’d come home she would sit in the kitchen and talk her daughter through how to make the meals: Set the pieces of chicken on the pan, peel and cut the onions, toss them on top, sprinkle a little paprika and salt, stick it in the oven.

She had appointments at Saint Vincent’s in Manhattan where she had gone to nursing school and where she’d had the tumor removed last time. The doctors thought maybe it was her carotid artery and they wanted to operate to clear it out. They scheduled her for surgery in late fall of 1965.

Agnes took a walk outside with John one day, before she went in for that surgery, leaning onto him for support. A neighbor stopped and asked what was wrong.

“It’s neurological,” she said, and nothing more, as the neighbor looked at her, puzzled.



“I don’t want him to know I’m not a natural blonde”

Agnes was the most beautiful of the four sisters. Or at least she was the one who stood out because she was the blonde. Blonde and very sweet. Never could see a bad thing about a person. “They must not have been thinking right that day,” she’d say when she heard someone had done something awful.

When her boys, John and Jimmy would go at it, fist-fighting in the house, denting the walls, she’d call her brother-in-law Joe—“I know they’re just being boys, but can you come by and talk to them?” She felt that they needed a male influence. Their father was dead.

They had loved each other so much, she and her husband John. Why is it always the happy couples that these things happen to? Agnes had thought aloud to Aggie—why do the couples who hate each other get to grow old together? She loved her husband, and he loved her, treated her like a queen, his Aggie.

When she got sick the first time in 1957, they’d shaved her head for the operation. When her hair started to grow back she called her sister Anna to come over during the day. She needed her help, it was urgent. She had to dye her hair—it was growing back in dark—“I don’t want him to know I’m not a natural blonde!”

John died on Father’s Day, 1959. He was sitting in the kitchen that morning, reading the newspaper in his white tee-shirt. Mary had been on his lap after breakfast. It was Sunday, relaxed. And all of a sudden, he dropped out of life. His heart gave out. They were hysterical, all of them.

After that, it was just Agnes and her children. She constructed her life around them. Left the house less. Was always making sure they had enough. Would get six pork chops and then eat hers slowly enough to give most of it to whichever one of them was still hungry at the end of the meal. John never thought much about it until the day he saw her nurses’ association newsletter on the table. He scanned over the updates from her classmates until he found his mother’s name. What she wrote changed how he saw her: “Since my husband died two years ago, my life has been devoted to caring for my five children.”



“What are youse guys doing?”

The kids stayed in their home after she went to the hospital. She’d gone in for the neck surgery in late fall, and then come back out. But she had to live at Anna’s then and slept in the bed with her sister while she tried to recover. But she didn’t, and they found the tumor, amassed beneath her skull, beneath her blonde hair.

Agnes was in the hospital at Christmastime. Jimmy went out and got them a tree. It was a huge ugly mass of a tree. A monstrosity. He rigged it up in the living room, using wire to attach it to two walls like their dad used to do, to keep it from being knocked over by one of the kids. Jimmy was good with stuff like that, even if in a previous year he’d also gone around the block taking down the neighbors’ Christmas lights while they were sleeping.

They were all home on Christmas Eve, John, Aggie, Jimmy, Eddie and Mary, when Aunt Anna called.

“What are youse guys doing?” she said into the phone to Aggie, who’d picked up. “You left your mother all alone on Christmas Eve? How come none of you are over there?”

Aggie didn’t know. They were all planning to go tomorrow. She’d gotten her mother a soft, blue sweater. And she, Aggie, was going over there all the time after school, running down the steps of Saint Joseph’s Commercial at the end of the day and taking the subway out of Brooklyn and over to Saint Vincent’s to spend a couple hours holding Mommy’s hand and reporting about what was going on at home and school before going back home to Bay Ridge. She’d even had her boyfriend Mike stop there on their way to his military ball so that she could show her mother her hair and dress. But for whatever reason, they didn’t think to go on Christmas Eve.



Home alone

Mostly they got along. John was the head of the house by virtue of being the oldest. A freshman at Manhattan College. He took three trains over two hours each day from the 95th Street stop in Bay Ridge, up through Brooklyn, under the river into Manhattan, over to the West Side, up all the way to Riverdale. So he wasn’t there that much. He did the big Friday night grocery shopping at Key Food, knew where everything in that store was, but he felt his main job was to keep Jimmy in line. He worried about Jimmy bullying Eddie. And he’d fight him when he needed to. Fists up, jabbing at each other while Aggie screamed for them to stop.

For Mary the problem was being home alone. It seemed to happen all the time. It wasn’t at night, but it was those hours after-school when Eddie and Jimmy were out playing sports and Aggie was getting out later, because she was in high school, and John was commuting back from Riverdale. Mary would walk home from Saint Patrick’s past the delis and the candy store and Vinny the butcher’s, through the gate and up the stoop to let herself in. She’d sit in the living room, doing her homework or reading. The back of the house near the basement door scared her when she was there alone. She stayed up front near the window, hoping no one would knock.

Jimmy had sports to play to keep him busy after school. Eddie was busy, too. After school he’d come home and change and go right back out. He didn’t play football that fall like Jimmy, but he’d be out with the boys in the neighborhood, riding bikes or playing roller hockey, or doing his paper route delivering a Catholic weekly after school on Fridays.

Aggie was the one who kept the house running. She didn’t think much about it. She just did it. Her mother had taught her how to write a check to pay the bills, and between John’s big grocery trips, she’d shop at the deli where they were always running out to get milk. Aggie would haul their dirty clothes downstairs and wash them. Instead of bringing them to dry on the clotheslines in the back like her mother would have done, she’d slap them over the lines that crisscrossed the basement where they’d dry stiff as cardboard. Aunt Anna Gilhuley, their father’s sister, would have her son Tom drive over and pick up their ironing. She’d send their uniforms back over to them neatly pressed on hangers. Sometimes she’d have Tom drop off a stew they could eat for a few nights too.



“Nobody’s going to school today.”

The brain surgery was in February. They all knew when it was about to happen. Across the bridge in Staten Island, Uncle Joe had his kids kneeling in the living room and praying the rosary for Aunt Agnes. The older ones, Leddys and Ronaldsons, remembered the last time she’d had surgery. Aggie was sure it would be like last time, when she’d gotten better.

When it was over, John went in to Saint Vincent’s to visit her. As he walked into the main entrance, past the blur of patients and nurses and doctors, he saw his brother Jimmy leaving. They looked at each other as they passed and said nothing. Jimmy was pale and shaking.

When John went into the room, he understood. There she was. Propped up on her pillows, bandaged head, blue eyes staring up at the ceiling. Catatonic. She didn’t look at him or say anything, or move at all.

When Jimmy got home that day he told Aggie that he couldn’t go back again. She’d never seen him so shaken. But she thought Mommy would get better and come home. Eddie and Mary thought so too. They didn’t think about the other option. It wasn’t even brought up until Aunt Anna was there in the room before school shaking Aggie awake, with Uncle Joe there too waking Jimmy and John. They sat them down in the living room and told them. It had happened in the middle of the night.

From the living room, they heard Eddie come flying out of his bedroom down the hall shouting, “Where is everybody, how come nobody woke me up? I’m gonna be late for school.” He went into the girls’ room to see if Mary was up.

Agnes walked back through the dining room to find him in her room with Mary. “Nobody’s going to school today,” she said. “Mommy died.”

She had to say the same to Loretta, her best friend who always came to pick her up on their way to school. Aggie stood in the doorway, in her pajamas, and told her, crying. Loretta hugged her, and she went back inside.

There were things that needed to be done. Aunt Anna told them to pull out the black clothes they had. She assessed who needed something new. She saw they had no shampoo in the house and gave Mary money to go down to the store to buy some. She and Aggie went to A&S to get the girls black dresses.

Uncle Joe had John call the stockbroker. They needed to sell Agnes’ utilities stocks before the probate courts froze her assets. On the phone, the broker asked John how his mom was doing. “She’s not doing good at all,” John said. “I’m sorry to hear that,” the broker said, and he made the sale. That would be their money to live on.



“They will survive without you.”

After the wake and the funeral at Saint Patrick’s and the burial out in Long Island, they went back home. The routines stayed the same. The piles of money still appeared on the counter each morning, Aggie had been doing that for some time now. Eddie and Mary still came home for lunch to an empty house. They ate baloney or liverwurst sandwiches and watched Donna Reed before walking back the three blocks to Saint Patrick’s Academy. At dinnertime Aggie was still cooking for them, copying what her mother did, keeping it simple. Hot dogs, spaghetti, hamburgers, meatloaf that half the time came out like a rock. The boys would complain and Mary would stick up for her. But mostly, they got along. They were alone, but they weren’t abandoned. Joe and Anna were still just a call away.

What was different was that they were orphans now. Things used to be bracketed by the fact that Mommy was alive, even if she wasn’t there. Now when the boys would fist-fight or Eddie dropped a bottle of Nivea and needed to be bandaged up after the shattered glass ripped a slice down his leg, or they were throwing shoes out the window at the wailing cats in the backyard, it was just them. There was no one who was on her way home to be with them. There wasn’t a plan of what would happen next, and they didn’t really talk about it.

At school Mary felt like there was spotlight on her. Everyone was careful and kind, sympathetic. They all knew she had no mother. A classmate’s mother had even offered to Aunt Anna to take Mary in. It was so nice, Mary thought, it wasn’t even someone she knew well. But she knew they had family and something would be worked out. They were just finishing the school year, and they wouldn’t be home alone forever.

Eddie worried about them being split up. He wondered where they would go next.

He tried to keep up his routine as much as possible, sports and homework. Right before his mother’s surgery, he’d gotten the results of his high school placement test—he’d gotten into everywhere they’d wanted him to. But maybe none of that mattered if they weren’t staying in Brooklyn.

Aggie had her boyfriend Mike, and she would have dinner with his family every Friday night. He was her security, her support. But she knew she was her siblings’. That spring, her class had a mandatory school retreat. When they announced it in class, she immediately knew she couldn’t go—how would everybody get on if she wasn’t there for a whole weekend? After class she went down to the principal’s office to be excused. “Absolutely not,” was the principal’s reply, “They will survive without you.” Aggie was enraged.

John thought that they could go on forever like that, them just living on Marine Avenue and going about their routines. It all seemed to go smoothly, the five of them there together. It had been gradual anyway, he thought; they learned how to fend for themselves as their mother was pulled away over the course of months.

One weekend day he was walking in the backyard with Uncle Joe. It was a concrete yard, with the wooden garage where they kept their bicycles. Joe was asking him how things were going in the house, what they wanted to do next. “We want to keep the house,” John said. “We don’t want to sell it.” He was sure on this. Might be good to sell it and have you living with family, Uncle Joe had suggested. John was pretty sure they should keep the house.

“Well, think on it,” Uncle Joe said.



“It’ll be the life of me.”

Joe Ronaldson was the kind of man who saw the big picture. Maybe he wasn’t the best details guy, but he was creative and broad with his ideas—a fireman, the son of a bar-owner, with friends tucked into every corner of Brooklyn. Even before Aggie got sick, he was looking after her kids. Their father John had been his best friend before he’d even met Anna, and together they’d introduced John to her sister.

Joe was anxious about the situation. One weekend, he stopped by with his daughter, Joanne, who was Mary’s age. He’d noticed that some of the glass panes were broken on the front door window. He didn’t like that. As they drove back home over the Verrazano he talked to Joanne about those kids in a home all on their own. It was time enough to do something about it.

After Agnes’ death, the adults who surrounded the children staked out their opinions. Dolly, who lived in Connecticut, said she’d take the girls. She’d always wanted daughters and her one girl, Maureen, was the same age as Mary and they had always played together. Anna Gilhuley said she could take Mary and Eddie. Her son was already grown, but her husband wanted his peace in his home. Jimmy, who was a troublemaker, was too much for them, and certainly five kids were. Frances already had eleven and her husband was a cop and worked a night shift at the supermarket to meet ends, but they’d take in one or two. Anna said of course they would too.

Joe thought they were all crazy. “You want to break up these kids after all they’ve been through?” he asked his wife as they sat in their living room in Staten Island after dinner one night. He was incredulous. “They belong with us.”

“But Joe, that’s an awful lot of children,” said Anna.

“Anna, you’re home with nine now, well eight—Mary Ann’s married and Jody’s going off to school soon, so seven—what’s five more?” asked Joe. He stood up and started fixing her another Manhattan. “How could we pick two?”

“It’ll be the life of me,” Anna said. But eventually she agreed.



“Whatever you think you might want.”

On the morning of the move, Eddie, Mary and Jimmy were outside the little house that had been their home all their lives. The little house that their parents bought when they were newlyweds in 1946.

Jimmy was standing at the curb, with a cardboard box of his 45s next to him. He reached down into the box, took out a record and flung it, easy, like a Frisbee. It soared across the block, hurtling toward the brick apartment wall before arcing to the side and smashing on the street.

Eddie and Mary just watched as he reached down and pulled out another, and another, till the street was filled with tiny eruptions of shattering vinyl. Cars and people passed by, but he kept going and they kept watching, mesmerized.

Eventually Uncle Joe pulled up in a borrowed pick-up truck with a makeshift wooden railing around the sides. Aggie had been inside packing and she came out when he got there. She was horrified when she saw the thing, and watched, so upset, as Uncle Joe and his friend loaded up her desk and their bureaus, and the love seat Mommy used to sleep on onto the greasy, dirty truck.

They didn’t take all that much with them. Aunt Anna told Aggie to go through everything, and keep anything that she wanted to for herself. “You might be married in a few years,” she said. “Whatever you think you might want, pack it up good and put it in a box and we’ll keep it in the basement.” Aggie kept a couple of the crystal glasses that were in the small china closet. She took all the dresses and coats and blouses and skirts out of her mother’s closet and packed them into black garbage bags. Aunt Frances said she’d take all the clothes. Aggie kept the soft, blue sweater that she’d bought Mommy that past Christmas, and a single white knit winter glove with little flowers that she’d given her mother another year. Not to wear, just to have.

Everything else, well that would be cleared out when the house was sold.



“The Roneddys”

They had all watched the Verrazano as it was built. First the two massive frames, rooted down into the earth and water on each side of the bay. Then the suspension cables sloping down, and finally the road, built from the center outward to the two shores. Work on the bridge started the year their father died, and seven years later it was taking them to their new home, where Uncle Joe had made a sign and hung it for their welcome. It read “The Roneddys.”


Simone McCarthy grew up in four states and on two islands in the New York area, but only moved to the city of her family’s origins this past year. Working on this story allowed her to reconnect with a past that she knew little about and with relatives that she’s seen too little of. @simonelmc

The author's grandfather, M. A. Chacko.

The Momentary Revolutionary


My grandfather, my family jokes, was the “last Britisher in India.” He worked for that most British of industries, a tea brokerage, for nearly all of his life. He drank whisky in strict moderation – one, perhaps, in the evening, no more. He played bridge weekly at the Coonoor Club with my grandmother. He was a Mason.

He was a stoic and internal man when I knew him. He voiced his amusement with a dry “aha.” When my sister and I would tell him “I love you” as children, he’d pet our heads and give us a short “Mmm. Thank you.”

And once as a young student in 1940, he had been arrested for taking part in a student demonstration against the British colonial government.

It’s a story that most of the family had never heard. On the 50th anniversary of Indian independence, August 15, 1997, my grandfather’s company, Forbes & Co., gave him an award for more than 50 years of service, and for being arrested that day as part of the freedom struggle. I was visiting my grandparents then, in Coonoor, the small former British hill station in Tamil Nadu where my grandparents lived.

My grandmother phoned my mother in the United States that evening and told her the story gleefully. My mother had never heard the story before.

Coonoor is a small, misty town in the Nilgiris – the “blue hills” – of Tamil Nadu, where my grandparents spent the latter part of their lives. The hills are cloaked in tea estates. Tea is the primary industry, and the one in which my grandfather spent nearly his entire working life.

Coonoor was a hill station, like nearby Ooty, or Mussoorie in the north, where the British would retire to escape the summer heat for a misty and rainy climate. It’s ideal for growing tea. It’s a place tourists would describe as “quaint” for its still-tangible sense of British influence, for its English-style bungalows and its 19th century English park. My grandparents’ house was named “Fair Rose,” in British style, and featured an eponymous rose garden that my grandmother cultivated and improved.

Like the Gymkhana Club in Ooty or the Bangalore Club and many other still extant British colonial-era clubs across India, the Coonoor Club is one legacy from the colonial period.

In some ways, my grandfather was another.

When I returned to Coonoor after my grandparents’ deaths with my sister, my mother and my aunt, we went to the Coonoor Club, where my grandparents had spent many evenings, to have drinks and remember them. In the club’s entryway I stood and read the engraved wooden plaque that listed the presidents of the club from well before 1947, the date of Independence. I recall the list stretching back to the late 19th century. The names were all British, even after 1947. It took maybe a couple of decades after independence for the first Indian name to appear. Even then, the presidents were only sporadically Indian. My grandfather, as I recall, was president twice.

The family lore my mother told me from a young age about my grandfather was that after his father’s death in 1948, he went to work and supported his six sisters, helping pay their way through medical college. When I knew him, my grandfather was an obsessive worker, unable to enjoy leisure time unless it was preceded by a solid day’s work, often on behalf of family or friends he helped with accounting or other financial tasks. For years after my parents split up, my grandfather continued to manage my father’s accounts in India.

Why had this man, my mother’s father, whose dedication to family duty was so great, been arrested in 1940 in a student protest? The idea of my grandfather marching around with signs pleased my grandmother so much in its incongruity she laughed at the image over dinner after the award ceremony in 1997.

I have always been fascinated by this contradiction: my grandfather as a passionate student, swept into a political revolution, and jailed, like Gandhi, for protest, and then my grandfather as a young professional, working for most of his life for an intensely British company that traded an intensely British product, and becoming a lifelong member of an intensely British institution like the Coonoor Club.

I loved my grandfather deeply for his generosity, his quiet certitude and the intensity with which he approached all the tasks in his life, in his work and for his family. But I didn’t see him often. As a child, we visited Coonoor about every other year, and then after 1997, I didn’t see him for another 10 years.

Despite how I felt about him, he wasn’t demonstrative. He didn’t tell me stories about our family or himself, or about our shared cultural mythology.

My grandmother’s brother was the one who told me martial arts tales about Thacholi Othenan and the woman hero named Unniyarcha, the legendary Kerala martial artists who wore the urumi, a whiplike sword, as a belt and beheaded their opponents with a quickdraw flick of the wrist.

My grandfather left it to others to be family storytellers.

And yet I have always felt a profound connection with him. I knew he was always interested in me, and tried to understand me, although we were so thoroughly separated by age, emotional character, geography and upbringing. He knew the fact of my depression, a constant in my adult life, but I always thought it was alien to my grandfather’s character and understanding. I now realize I was wrong.

I saw him seldom, but I thought about him all the time. My mother told me unnumbered stories about him growing up – about his relentless work ethic, about how he bought her boxing gloves as a girl so she could learn to defend herself like Unniyarcha, about his dry humor that lives on in her brother, my grandfather’s only son. It was a powerful family mythology, and after my parents separated he was a constant presence in my mind, a Platonic ideal of manhood and fatherhood.

I thought that I knew him, but as I discovered that day in 1997, there were layers to him that I did not know.

My family is Christian, and dharma is a Hindu concept. But dharma describes what my grandfather chose. It’s a multivalent concept encompassing religious, social and familial duty, law and truth. I think that after his arrest he rediscovered and rededicated himself to his dharma.

How can I reconcile the people he had been – for one brief moment, a student revolutionary, but never again, and the later man, the last Britisher in India?

Why had he made that transformation?


I was there on the day my grandfather received his award. It was August 15, 1997, the 50th anniversary of Indian Independence. My sister and I had come to India by ourselves that summer, when I was 14, to visit my grandparents. The award was given at the Forbes & Co. offices, in a small packed room with folding chairs for the audience.

The day is hazy in my recollection: a speech, an award, my grandfather appearing vaguely embarrassed and saying little.

We had been at the Coonoor Club earlier that day for an Independence Day celebration, my sister said. Mallika remembers the day much better than I do. (She was asked to lead the national anthem at the club celebration and couldn’t remember all the words.)

“I remember Appacha being called up,” Mallika said, using our family name for my grandfather. “They gave him a freedom fighter award, and it was because he had protested and he had been sent to jail for civil disobedience. So they gave him an award for being a freedom fighter.”

According to my grand aunt Gracy, he was 15 at the time, in Puthencavu in southern Kerala with his mother’s family, a village with a late 18th century church nearby, attending high school.

I don’t remember my grandfather saying much at the ceremony, but my sister reminded me that he gave a speech, one in which she had time to get bored. He didn’t talk about his arrest, but only about Forbes & Co., and the people he’d worked with for more than 50 years.

The award was most likely for years of service to Forbes & Co., with the peculiar addition of the story of the arrest, thrown in possibly because the giver had heard the story and it was Independence Day.

At dinner that night, my grandmother dismissed the arrest as young men “running around waving signs,” Mallika said, though neither of us think it was as irrelevant as my grandmother made it sound.

It made us completely rewrite our impression of our grandfather, to try and cast our minds back to his youth and try to imagine him as a young man in Kerala, impassioned by the fervor of the freedom movement.

My mother said the first she ever heard the story was that day in 1997. My grandfather, characteristically reticent to talk about himself or to ever brag, never mentioned it. I’m not sure my grandmother even knew the story before August 15, 1997, but my mother thinks my grandfather must have told her, maybe years before.

“I remember the story as, he was one of a group of students who was then also one part of a large protest march comprised of many other people,” my mother said.

“If you remember things from the movie Gandhi, the police just came and beat up everybody as a way of discouraging them and chasing them out of there. If they didn’t run, they got pulled into jail,” my mother said of the independence protests.

Is she talking about my grandfather or about the movie?

“Because this was a non-violent movement, nobody ran. They were proud to go to jail,” she said. “They followed Gandhi’s example: if you were in jail, then you were demonstrating what you were standing for.

Sir Richard Attenborough’s movie, Gandhi, starring Ben Kingsley, came out in 1982, the year before I was born. My mother often tells me she first saw it in theaters when she was pregnant with me. Gandhi is a controversial figure in a modern Hindu nationalist India in which many people see him as irrelevant, an anti-Hindu figure or someone with too many Muslim symapthies. He’s simply forgotten by many.

Nathuram Godse, the man who assassinated Gandhi, was a member of the nascent Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, a fascist and Hindu nationalist organization that has only gained strength since the moment in 1948 when Godse shot Gandhi three times in the chest.

For people of my mother’s generation, whose parents lived through the independence movement, Gandhi is still Bapu, the father of the nation. The movie gave mythic dimension to the well-known stories of the freedom struggle: the Salt Satyagraha, the march to the sea, to protest the British salt tax. Making homespun clothing, to protest Indian cotton exports sold back to Indians as manufactured clothes at a premium from factories in England. The satyagraha marches, walking fearlessly into the batons of British government police to be beaten.

My mother said my grandmother grew up in a strongly Gandhian household. When I asked my grandmother, who was about 10 years younger than my grandfather, what she remembered of the time around independence, she said that she recalled reading the exploits of the freedom fighters in the newspaper daily, but she also gave me a misty recollection of British efficiency and industry – they gave us the rail system, she said, which is the next thing to saying they made the trains run on time.

Despite Gandhi’s reduction to a remote symbol today in India, it’s hard to overestimate the place he and other freedom activists held in the minds of my grandparents and great grandparents.


About three years ago in Berkeley, California, I took mushrooms with my then-girlfriend. It was the first time either of us had tried a hallucinogenic substance, although I’d read about clinical trials for treating depression with hallucinogens like mushrooms and I was curious about the effect it might have on my thinking.

To describe the four to six hour trip in detail would be pointless. I experienced many of the things that psychedelic users experience: auditory and slight visual hallucinations, the feeling of an expansion of mind…

I remember particularly my girlfriend being enthralled at how boyish I became, and me with how girlish she was. I remember her making popping sounds with her lips and laughing childishly, which was beautiful.

And as it proceeded I felt myself expand until I felt like I was traveling to the very horizon of human existence and my own, and I thought of my grandfather.

I was 29, nearly the age my grandfather had been when he had his first heart attack. By that point he had already helped send his sisters to college and was working for Forbes & Co. He had a second heart attack in 1990, but he managed to survive until age 83.

I experienced this revelation: I was grown. I knew everything there was to know about life and human existence. I knew how people worked, and how the world worked, and how life worked, and how a human lives, loves people, works and dies. I knew everything there was to know that my grandfather knew when he died in 2008.

Then I sailed past that horizon and my temporal life and fell into a deep depression. I looked at her and knew that I would have to let her go at some point, that the difference between us would lead her on, into her own channels, and that what we had was inevitably fated to end.

“My love for you is like an ocean,” I told her. I could feel it.

She too fell into a deep depression towards the end of the trip, she told me later.

“I felt like I would never be happy again,” she said.

I was a little glad, even though I only wanted her ever to be happy, because now she knew what it felt like to be clinically depressed.

Days after the trip, the intense pharmacologically-induced feelings faded and most of the revelations I experienced I knew to be wrong. But I had felt closely akin to my grandfather, and I realized he represented wisdom, knowledge and working manhood to me; that in some way, deep in the back of my head, he represented the apotheosis of what it is to be a man on this earth.

My grandfather, Mathilunkal Abraham Chacko, was born in Puthencavu in 1925, in the region that would eventually become part of the Indian state of Kerala. At that time and until 1956, it was the princely state of Travancore, one of several tributary states that were nominally separate from the rest of India, which was directly ruled by the British. The modern state of Kerala is largely composed of the princely states of Travancore and Cochin.

His father had been the manager of a British-owned rubber plantation, one of Kerala’s primary agricultural products, in Mundakayam. With a family of nine children, his mother took a strong hand in the economy of the household, farming both for family consumption and for sale for extra money.

“She was a great cultivator and agriculturalist,” Gracy told me, “and very good with economics and management.”

My great grandmother grew coconut and rice, buying paddy fields, with hired labor to do the work. She grew rubber trees to sell to build the family fund and in the groves around the family house, cashew trees.

As a young man, my grandfather went to work for Forbes, Ewart & Figgis, a tea brokerage set up by the tea export examiner he worked for as a fresh college graduate.

“All the bright young men in those days wanted to work in British companies,” my mother told me. “It was where the best jobs were.”

He worked for Forbes for the rest of his working life, until he reluctantly retired a few years before he died. As part of his work, he would taste tea from client sellers, determine its quality, set prices for auction, and then run the auction for buyers in the auctioneer’s rapid patter.

The last time I saw him, he took me to the auction house I’d been to as a child. A large digital display had been set up for an electronic auction, with bidders able to sign in and bid remotely. A handful of bidders were actually in the room, assiduously peering down at individual computer screens.

The whole arrangement made my grandfather unhappy – he said it was painfully slow and inefficient, compared to his auctioneering.

Tea played such a pivotal role in the colonial exploitation of India by the British. Before the establishment of the Raj, the East India Company directly ruled much of India, with tea as one of its primary exports.

The last time I saw my grandparents, I made an effort to talk to them about family history as much as possible. My grandfather was too private to tell me much. I think he had a deep aversion to talking about himself.


Mallika and I discussed in depth what it would mean for my grandfather to have been 15 at the time of the arrest, and why that might have affected his thinking.

Protesting that day and being arrested “would have been a very well thought out thing, a good decision, or something he thought was important,” my sister theorized. “That’s why I think it does deserve recognition.”

“He’s so forward looking. He saved his entire life, he never spent on anything of luxury. As soon as his sisters are done with medical school, he’s thinking about his kids, his grandkids and his sisters’ kids,” Mallika said. “What I know of the rest of his life, it’s hard to think that would be different at 15. It had to be something he decided was important enough to risk getting in trouble for.”

In photographs my mother sent me, my grandfather is a handsome young man, dressed in Western clothes. He was more gregarious then, my mother said, with a quick smile, always the center of attention. A photograph of my grandfather at a Rotary Club dinner, perhaps from around 1950, shows him in a white tuxedo and black bowtie, smiling easily.

His close friend, K. J. Herschel, my mother said, always wore Gandhian homespun rather than western clothes. Herschel had been closely involved in freedom struggle activities in Kerala. He had joined the Indian National Congress, the primary organization agitating for self-rule, in 1928, and had been imprisoned for eighteen months as part of the 1940s Quit India movement, during which the British imprisoned thousands of activists.

After independence, Herschel joined civic government in Cochin and the state legislature. His life is one my grandfather might have had, if he had clung to the ideals that had driven him to protest that day in 1940.

My mother suggests that one reason my grandfather never talked about his arrest was that friends of his, like K.J. Herschel, had sacrificed much more for their political activities and had been much more involved in both the freedom struggle and in government afterward.

Mallika argued that we should look at my grandfather as the “first Indian Britisher” rather than the “last Britisher in India.”

“Maybe there’s a point of pride in being the first Indian Britisher,” Mallika said, “of being the president of the Coonoor Club. It’s a quiet protest, I think. It doesn’t seem rebellious, but it is an overthrow.”

We spoke of the contradiction of being arrested for protest and spending your life working for a company founded by a group of Scotsmen.

“Maybe he looked back at the protest and being anti-British as childish,” Mallika said. “Maybe he wasn’t in a position” after his father’s death “to say, ‘fuck the British.’ He had to do what he had to do.”


As I dug into my grandfather’s early life, scouring newspaper archives for any mention of his arrest and reading a whole shelf of books on pre-independence Kerala, Mallika’s thought stayed with me.

The man my grandfather became, the one who helped pay for his sisters’ medical educations and never went to another protest, was shaped irrevocably by his father’s death.

On Easter Sunday, I took New Jersey Transit down the Trenton line to New Brunswick, where Gracy, my grand aunt, lives with her husband, Nayan. She’s my mother’s aunt, my maternal grandfather’s younger sister. Gracy’s daughter Anita picked us all up and we drove the couple of hours down to Merion, outside Philadelphia, for Easter dinner at Gracy’s son Anil’s house.

After dinner I sat Gracy Aunty down and asked about my grandfather. Where had he been arrested? It wasn’t a big deal, she told me. He was in Puthencavu, a small town in Kerala, where he had been going to high school. He was arrested as a student demonstrator, and she wasn’t sure if he even spent the night in jail.

I wanted to know more about my great grandfather. The story I heard, over and over, was that he got depressed, and then later died. I didn’t know how he died, or why.

I finally asked Gracy the question I had never voiced: how had my great grandfather died?

He hung himself from the cashew trees in the groves surrounding her family home in Thiruvalla. Gracy found him there.

My great grandfather, Gracy said, had been a kind and gentle man with a nobility of spirit that he passed on to my grandfather. And my great grandmother, who was economical to a fault, ambitious and driven, and intensely entrepreneurial. She used the family land to grow crops for the family’s subsistence and also crops like rubber and coconut for sale. She bought up foreclosed land at low prices, and bought paddy fields for more income, which could then be worked by hired labor and the crop sold.

She even bought more land and had another house built there for the family.

The British-owned rubber plantation where my great grandfather worked offered forest land for use, if it were cleared and cultivated, and my great grandmother took up that offer and did so. My grandfather, Gracy said, also inherited my great grandmother’s work ethic and her economic sense.

There were nine siblings: six sisters, and three brothers. My grandfather was the second-oldest, and the oldest son. After his father died, my grandfather and his older sister paid for my grand aunt Ruby’s medical college tuition. Then all three of them helped pay for seats for the next three youngest sisters. It was a collaborative and mutually supportive process.

“They could have just married us off,” Gracy Aunty said. But the family philosophy was that the girls should be able to stand on their own, and that made a good education the primary goal.

My great grandfather had been a manager at a British-owned rubber plantation in Mundakayam, Gracy told me and that in 1945 the company sent him to a doctor who said he should be relieved of his managerial responsibilities, essentially forcing him into retirement.

After that, his small pension wasn’t enough to support his large family. And my great grandfather was terribly depressed. He ghosted through the house, aloof, not speaking to anybody, wandering the rooms or sitting in a chair in the corner for hours.

My great grandmother was already managing much of the family’s income from farming, but after my great grandfather lost his job, she took over practically all of the family business.

Was he depressed before he lost his job? I asked Gracy.

He had shown some signs of paranoia, that the laborers on the plantation were stealing goods and that he would be blamed by the British owners.

He stayed depressed for years. A doctor prescribed shock treatments, which were ineffective. Meanwhile, he and my great grandmother had their third son, Bobby, who also eventually became a doctor (as did his three children).

In 1948, Gandhi was assassinated by Nathuram Godse. This sent my great grandfather further into depression and affected him profoundly, Gracy told me.

“He always had a paranoia that people were trying to harm him or his children,” Gracy said. “He always lived in fear.”

After Gandhi’s assassination, she added, he thought the whole country would devolve into chaos.

“There was so much violence and strife,” Gracy said. India and Pakistan had been partitioned in 1947, and the communal violence between Hindus and Muslims that followed had been bloody and brutal, with millions displaced and many estimates of the dead as high as one million.

One morning, her mother sent Gracy, then age 10, and the younger children into the groves surrounding the house to gather nuts fallen from the cashew trees growing there. They dispersed through the trees in different directions, and she raised her eyes from the nuts on the ground to see a pair of legs dangling before her.

At first, she assumed it was a laborer who had come to the family land to commit suicide as an accusation, she told me. When she realized it was her father, she started to scream.

My grandfather came home upon hearing of his father’s death. He was almost 23, already working in Cochin with the export examiner who would eventually set up Forbes & Co., the tea company where he would work the rest of his working life.

The whole family supported each other in grief, Gracy told me, but according to her many in the town treated them badly, ostracizing them and casting aspersions, starting rumors that my great grandmother had killed her husband.

I asked about depression in my family, and Gracy told me that her sister, Susie, suffered from it so badly that at one point she was hospitalized for a period. The way Gracy described Susie’s symptoms – fits and uncontrollable rage – may imply bipolar disorder or something a little afield from clinical depression.

I called my mother on the train home from New Jersey and asked her why she had never told me exactly what had happened to my great grandfather, and that Gracy, who I consider myself very close to, had found her father’s body.

“I told you that!” my mother said.

She never had. I was positive.

My mother said that when I had my second serious depressive episode, in 2003 at UC Berkeley, she had gone with me to see a psychiatrist and told him about our family history with depression.

But I am positive she did not mention the suicide, but simply referenced depression. She mentioned depression on my father’s side, but not that my great grandfather hung himself.

Then she told me a story: when she was a young girl, she used to go to my great grandmother’s house to spend summers. One day, at the Thiruvalla house, at age 9 or 10, she wandered through the family plot up to the road. There was a loud noise, and she said aloud, “What was that?”

“Must be the sound of someone hanging himself,” a passerby told her.

At age 10 she almost certainly hadn’t known how her grandfather (my great grandfather) had died. But she remembered the story long enough to connect it with the truth whenever it was that she learned it.

I called my father and asked him whether he had known about my great grandfather’s suicide.

“I was the one who told you about it!” he said.

“No, you didn’t,” I said. “You told me that when you were preparing to marry my mother your father had heard something about her family, something vague and troubling.”

“Oh,” he said. “I didn’t feel it was my place to tell you the whole story. But I knew. I’m not sure if my father knew or not, but he probably knew the story also.”

Learning about the suicide wasn’t wholly unexpected. Knowing that the details of his death were something of a mystery, and that my great grandfather had been depressed, I had a strong sense that suicide may have been his fate, a sense that grew stronger up until the moment I finally asked Gracy the question directly.

At one point in my 20s, I was afraid of becoming my father, who has had his own emotional struggles that may have had to do with undiagnosed depression, which led to an extended period of stasis and stagnation, not unlike my great grandfather. Back then, I may not have been able to handle the truth about my great grandfather’s suicide. I may have looked at it like a familial fate, as Hemingway apparently did.

Now learning the truth is a revelation and a catharsis. My own depression and periodic suicidal states did not drop from the sky to crush me. Depression has deep roots in my family, and the way I am has some kind of explanation.

And it provides an explanation for my grandfather’s choices. His brief revolutionary moment represents a possible life he never lead, a thread of fate severed when my great grandfather killed himself. Because of my great grandfather’s depression, my grandfather went to work for the family and had to put away childish things, like the risky business of rebellion.

My grand-aunt said that her father was profoundly affected by Gandhi’s assassination.

Knowing what I do about depression, I know that external events do not motivate suicide, but that you can read in the world what you feel about yourself, and the ugly events around you seem to echo your internal state of mind.

In the few years of therapy that I slogged through before returning to UC Berkeley to finish my undergraduate degree, I remember my lowest point, where I felt that Arab Spring protesters being gunned down in Yemen was proof that the world was ugly and doomed. It’s part of the essential narcissism of depression – because you feel as you do, you see in the world the way you feel about yourself.

So I don’t believe that Gandhi’s assassination drove my great grandfather to suicide. But I understand the way that he might have seen in that event external proof of the way he felt inside.

Why was my grandfather there in Puthencavu at a student demonstration on that day in 1940? The better question was why he never took to the streets again, as the freedom struggle heated up, and the British colonial government sent thousands of activists from the Quit India movement like K. J. Herschel to prison.

The answer lies in the parts of my grandfather’s character I found so compelling and admirable – his absolute dedication to his family and his generosity with his time and labor. After his father’s death, that dharma became undeniable.

Despite his English cultural markers, to me his presence at that demonstration leaves no doubt about his Indianness, the freedom that he, like his father, wanted for our nascent country. Ultimately, it does him a disservice to think of him as the “last Britisher in India.”

My great grandfather let his despair about Gandhi’s death and what it could mean for his family destroy him. My grandfather’s reaction to tragic death was to get to work.

In that sense, he was more like his friends in the freedom struggle who went into civic service. But his arena was his family, my mother’s family, rather than the state.

My mystical revelation about my grandfather was closer to the truth than I knew. It’s his response to the tragic destruction of his father’s depression and suicide that formed the manhood I so admired in him. Through his life, his labor – for a British company in a British industry – was transmuted into healing the fundamental wound of his father’s death.

Gautham Thomas was born in Coimbatore, Tamil Nadu, India, grew up in California and lives in New York City. He has written for the Daily Californian, the Las Vegas Sun, and the Los Angeles Daily Journal.

How I Knew

There are two pictures on top of my desk and my second daughter is in both of them. In the first, taken a few weeks after her birth, her sister, eighteen months older, is holding her in her arms.  In the second, she sits next to her first cousin, born exactly two weeks before her.  When I look at the pictures now, I realize I had to have known something was wrong. Maybe it was her nature, which at times seemed too calm, even for a newborn. Or maybe it was how she frequently held her hands tucked together, at the very top of her belly, while she pursed her lips, eyes tightly closed. Sometimes she would simply suck on her own tongue for hours on end.  In the first picture, she was almost four weeks old. She is laying on her sister’s lap, and seems to have fallen over to her right side. Her eyes are closed, her body seems lifeless, limp. Her head is fully tilted to the right side, and her left arm hangs loosely, as if it had no movement at all.

She was born on May 30th, 2003 at 6:22 am. She weighed eight pounds, thirteen ounces.   When you’ve already had one child, you can’t help but immediately begin comparing your second to your first. Camila, my first, had been totally bald, and at that time, was still bald. And here was this new baby, with a head filled with so much hair it startled me.

We named her Caterina. I found the name beautiful, but also strong, and of another time. It gave me the impression that it was a name for a person of some character. I did not choose traditional family names, the way most women in my family would have.

I remember staring at her for hours. Her eyes were big, brown, far apart from one another, leaving a flat space, a little too large, for her nose to emerge from. Her nostrils were wide and she had almost no nose bridge. Still, no matter how long I stared at her I could not find a resemblance to myself nor her father. She looked like no one in our family, and certainly not like her older sister.

She came home with us forty-eight hours later, eating and sleeping well, and doing everything a newborn was supposed to be doing. She was an easy baby, rarely fussed, slept six hours through the night early on, and latched on to breastfeeding with a hearty appetite.  A few weeks after we were home, I noticed that the right side of her head had been flattening out, and instead of the large, round head she had been born with, she now had a head that was shaped more like a large potato, with a dent on the right side. It looked as if someone had taken a cast iron pan and somehow flattened out part of her head.  By the time we went for her six-week visit, I was looking for answers. I wanted a professional to comfort me, tell me not to worry, tell me the fear I felt was simply a product of my imagination.

It would take another twelve months until Caterina was diagnosed with Hurler Syndrome, an extremely rare lysosomal storage disorder. Until the 1980s, Hurler syndrome was a death sentence. The story of her diagnosis and her treatment, the months and years and fears and the toll on my family, and my journey as her mother, is a story for another day.

This is the story of remembering how I knew. Or how I knew something was not right even when I was told it was.


I began by calling my sister.

She told me I was constantly asking questions about Caterina. From the time she was born I was looking at all her features and wondering if certain things were normal, like the hair on her back. I would call her all the time to ask her what her daughter was doing, even though I already had an eighteen month old at home. I would go back to Camila, my oldest’s, baby books and take note of all her firsts, and notice that Caterina was not close to meeting those.

I was also overly protective of her, in a way that seemed strange given that she was my second child. I wanted to protect her; from what, I did not know.

Her pediatrician. Dr. Jona Weiss, did not appear concerned. My mom never liked her but I did; she had cared for my elder daughter too. But my mom would say she looked too much like a hippie, with her long curly hair always worn down, sometimes covering part of her face. “She’s examining kids with hair all over the place. It even gets on the kids. How can she see anything?” I tried not to let that get to me.  Dr. Weiss was reassuring. She would highlight the things Caterina was doing right, the milestones she was meeting. She was patient with me, and asked lots of questions. I felt better every time I walked out of her office. The feeling would last a day or two.


After calling my sister, I went back to the medical journals. I found articles that were once over my head but no longer are.   In one article, titled “The Clinical Outcome of Hurler Syndrome after Stem Cell Transplantation,” published by the American Society for Blood and Marrow Transplantation in 2008, there is a section titled “Neurocognitive Function.” It explains that in untreated Hurler Syndrome patients, normal cognitive and motor developmental milestones are usually achieved until the age of six months. So most kids appear normal. No wonder a lot of kids don’t get diagnosed. They usually meet most of their milestones until that age. In another section, the paper says Hurler Syndrome patients usually have a normal appearance during the first six months of life, although certain, mostly non-specific symptoms are already there during this period.
Some of these symptoms are: mild facial dysmorphisms, persistent rhinitis, recurrent upper respiratory tract infections, hepato-splenomegaly, recurrent hernias, and mild thoracolumbular kyphoscoliosis. The names, once intimidating and scary, are all familiar to me now. Mild facial dysmorphism means abnormal facial features. I googled it, and went straight to the images. It is not a pleasant experience. But a lot of the kids in the pictures look like Caterina did. In the picture of her and her cousin, they are wearing the same outfit, a cute striped turtleneck and purple patchwork corduroy pants. Her cousin’s ears seem aligned normally. Caterina’s hang lower. I had forgotten, but I remember wondering why her ears were like that.  Once upon a time, Hurler Syndrome used to be referred to as gargoylism. I can’t think of a more horrifying image.

Persistent rhinitis. She never had that – something that typically causes sneezing and a blocked itchy and runny nose. But she did snore loudly on most nights. I remember wondering why that was. We took her to an ear nose and throat specialist and were told she had large adenoids and given a nose spray to use for two weeks. The snoring never went away.
Hepato-splenomegaly.  A liver and spleen that are swollen beyond their normal size. None of the doctors mentioned her liver being swollen. Apparently that can be due to something as simple as a viral infection, but it says clearly on Wikipedia “or it can be a sign of a serious and life-threatening lysosomal storage disorder.”  Recurrent Hernias. She had a hernia, but it did not develop until much later so that was not an obvious clue.  Mild thoracolumbar kyphoscoliosis. Basically an abnormal curvature of the spine. This I am intimately familiar with. It’s what finally got her diagnosed. An x-ray of her spine. Nine days after her first birthday.


I met with Dr. Weiss three weeks ago. I had called her on the phone in March, and explained to her that I was writing about my memory of the year Caterina was diagnosed. “My memory is pretty good, but I also have all of her files,” she said on the phone. “Do you like tea?” she asked me. “Yes.”
“Ok, when you come in I’ll make you some tea. We can talk.”  Before we hung up, she said “I remember hugging you goodbye when you left for Duke for her transplant. I also remember you asking to meet me and walking through Central Park after you guys came back.”

I had called her that summer of 2005, about a month after coming back home from a year at Duke Medical Center, where Caterina had her life-saving stem cell transplant. Everyone kept asking me if I was going to sue the pediatrician. I remember thinking people were crazy. My child had just survived a life-threatening transplant and they wanted me to spend energy on a lawsuit? Zero chance. I had called Dr. Weiss because I knew she felt heartbroken. I wanted her to know it was not her fault. Incidences of Hurler Syndrome happen approximately once in 150,000 births. She had never seen a case.

Dr. Weiss and I met on April 14th. She gave me a big hug and invited me into her office. “Do you have any pictures?” she asked me. I pulled out my computer to show her the most recent pictures of the kids. She called out to her secretary to pull out Caterina’s files. “How’s she doing?” she asked me.

“She’s almost thirteen. She goes to a school for kids with learning disabilities, but she’s very smart; she just needs extra help and a more contained environment.”   I told her she’s tiny for her age, only three feet, eight inches, and has limited vision in her left eye.

“She has a g-tube. But she’s a happy, well-adjusted, and surprisingly self-confident pre-teen. She does not seem emotionally impacted by her differences.” She listened intently. Her gaze was fixed on me. It almost made me uncomfortable. The office was quiet, not the typical frenzy of a pediatrician’s office – no sick kids, no ringing phones. I was the only one there.
“How did I act back then?” I asked her. “Was I paranoid? Did I act genuinely worried?”

“I remember you being incredibly caring. No, you did not seem paranoid,” she said.
“But, there is one specific memory I have. It was something your mother said and it was at one of the very first checkups.”
Something my mother said? Now I was really curious. My mother lost my brother to a childhood cancer when he was thirty-two months old. She was intimately acquainted with childhood illness.  “She said she did not look like anyone in your family. I remember her distinctly saying she must look like babies did in your ex-husband’s side of the family. She certainly did not believe she had your genes, she seemed fixated on that.”  We went through the kids’ pictures. She said she would love to see Caterina.

Dr. Weiss reminded me that I had decided to start early intervention at a young age. The secretary came in with the files. “You went to see Aida and Lucia at New York Hospital. They started physical therapy on her with some exercises at six weeks when her head was flattening out.” I had forgotten about Aida and Lucia. They were physical therapists I had been to see a few times to help me start repositioning exercises so that Caterina would learn to sleep on the other side of her head. Plagiocephaly. The medical term for head flattening. It’s typically common when kids sleep with the head to one side only. Now it should have seemed obvious. But back then it was simply the first red flag.
“You always took the aggressive route as opposed to the wait and see side. That I remember. I would give you the option – you could do some exercises yourself, and we could reassess at the next visit, or, you could intervene with help from professionals. You always took the intervention route.”

“You were kind to me,” she said. “Your husband seemed really angry.”  She opened up the files and started looking at some dates. She pointed to an entry dated December 3, 2003. Caterina would have been almost six months. “I think I wrote down ‘grandparents very upset about head size.’” I looked down at the file. She wrote GP for grandparents. Apparently I had not been the only one who thought something was not right.


I had another conversation with my sister.

On a trip to the Dominican Republic to visit family when Caterina was about ten months old, I took her to a pediatrician in a small beach town where we were staying. He suggested I see a geneticist (I was there for a fever/virus). I wondered what he meant. My sister said I came back to my parents’ home angry, blasting the doctor as some small town inexperienced guy, seeing as I was already taking her to top specialists at New York Hospital.

But his words sat with me. When I returned home I asked Dr. Weiss “should we see a geneticist?” and she replied “what’s a geneticist going to tell you. We are already having her see a top neurologist.”


Was I like other mother’s in my situation? Was it obvious to others in my shoes?  I reached out to Sue Wood, Caterina’s nurse practitioner at Duke, who became like family the year we lived down there. I wanted to find out if she could give me the name of other mothers who have kids around Caterina’s age who I could talk to. Did we have something in common? Was it mother’s instinct?

She gave me the name and number of Peggy Dennis, whose son Matthew is a few months older than Caterina. Peggy lives in Maryland.  Peggy told me she first suspected something was wrong with Matthew around six months of age. She could tell Matthew was developing differently from his twin brother, who is healthy, and was told by her pediatrician at the six-month checkup that they would be different, but that was normal.  But she kept suspecting something major was wrong.  Her own brother is a doctor, and he kept telling her “if the pediatrician said all is good, let it be.” She said both her mother and her sister kept getting into arguments with her brother because they kept saying something more was going on.  Peggy herself said “I knew more was going on, but with caring for three kids, working and trying to make doctors appointments, (which took months to get into place) it was overwhelming.”

Finally, when Matthew was 9 months, she refused to leave the doctor’s office. She said she would stay there until they found something. She wanted the doctor to spend more time with Matthew, and insisted that he needed to be seen by some type of specialist. She just didn’t know what kind.  The doctor eventually said Matthew’s eyes looked funny. But the doctor had never seen something like what he was seeing before. So he sent her to a specialist at John’s Hopkins eye center. The eye specialist ended up sending them to a geneticist at Hopkins, who finally diagnosed Matthew.

When I asked Peggy how she felt when the doctors confirmed her belief, she said “ I was so upset since I was told it was terminal by a team of Hopkins doctors.  They said they would help me get him to a comfortable death. All I could think of driving home from the hospital was the movie Lorenzo’s Oil and how I would find Matthew’s cure somehow.”  Eventually Peggy also found Duke hospital and was able to save Matthew’s life with a stem cell transplant.

They were there exactly nine months before Caterina and I.

“Have you trusted yourself and your intuition more after having the experience of being a mother to a child like Matthew?,” I asked Peggy over email.  “I believe I have been more forward. In the past, I would have put doctors at the highest level of knowing everything and recommending everything but now I trust myself more.  I gather more information and may see more than one doctor. I do this for myself as well as my kids.”


I had a hard time finding research on mother’s intuition. A few weeks ago the phone rang at home. It was Dr. Eileen Kennedy Moore, a psychologist and author, who happens to live in our new hometown of Princeton, NJ. I had found her name when trying to research “mother’s instinct” on Google. She had written an article on the subject. She told me she’s not an expert on mother’s intuition, she just happened to write that one blog post. She did say she knows one thing “you know your kid best. You are your kid’s best advocate.”

Just like Peggy, I’ve become more forward. The clues were all there from the very beginning. I didn’t need a doctor to tell me. I just needed to know what was happening to my girl.


Claudina Bonetti is writer and graduate student at Columbia University School of the Arts. She is pursuing her MFA in nonfiction writing, and is currently working on a memoir about her journey with Caterina.

I Hoped.


I was waiting for Suyi. Again.

The lights were dim inside Drop-Off Service and I was an hour early. At the bar, I ordered whatever beer had the highest alcohol content and took a seat along the oaken counter next to the windows, took a long gulp that cleaned out a fifth of the glass, and looked out onto the street, waiting.

I missed this place, and having not been there in over a year, it was a full forced sledgehammer of nostalgia. At the same time, I wanted to run away as fast as possible. But I couldn’t.

Suyi was my ex from college and former living companion with whom I spent almost all of my undergraduate life conjoined at the hip. While we were at New York University, I couldn’t separate myself from her, and she couldn’t separate herself from me. We broke up for a few months, got back together until she went to study abroad where she met someone else. It sucked. I didn’t see her for five months, maybe six, but I still thought about her every day—two or three times a day, even when I was with someone else—day in and day out. We never got back together and I couldn’t put her and me in the past. She was there, in my mind, right next to the hope we would get back together. We never did.

I wasn’t there to win her back though. I was there as a journalist, to ask her for the first time since we broke up what she thought had happened to us. Really though, I was there to figure out something about myself: Why did I stay when things had gotten so bad? Why did I try to convince myself otherwise of what I probably already knew deep down: It was never going to get any better.

She looked the same: geometric-patterned button-up, spandex-tight jeans, and a mangled blue beanie, neon blue-and-green dyed hair and eyebrow piercing that she got when we first met. Suyi was impossible to miss.

I stood up and Suyi practically leaped into my body hugging me so hard that I thought I heard my spine crack. She got a beer and I got another. I was going to need it.

I turned on the recorder but couldn’t ask questions straight. I rambled and flooded her with a stream of words and ideas.

“Slow down, dude,” she said. “You’re fucking nervous. Just chill the fuck out. This is going to be fun.”

I did not make it fun. I went straight for the hard stuff – the fights, the insults that cut to the insecurities, the mood swings, the cheating, the venom. The stuff that hurt.

“I was crazy,” Suyi told me up front, unabashedly. “You made me crazy.”

Had I? At my 20th birthday dinner a light conversation about school and work had quickly turned into no-holds match of verbal bareknuckle boxing, probably the twentieth time that week that we were fighting about her rage over the fact I wanted to go to law school. She promised to “make my life a living hell” because she really hated lawyers for reasons so deep and embryonic that the mere thought of my studying to become one filled her with disgust.

“What’s the point of us even continuing to date then?” I asked her. “Why don’t we just break up now?” That’s when her mascara started to run. I felt my cheeks burning red with frustration and concern as I got the check.

I promised not to go to law school.

Now, we stepped outside Drop Off Service to smoke, and for a brief moment, just leaned against the window together in silence. I thought of what she had just said, that I made her crazy and could not shake it. I made you crazy? Why was it my fault? Why are you blaming me?

I had not been happy. I wanted it to get better but it never got better. It went in cycles, from bad to complacent to cutting off all contact. I loved her and I hated her and here I was, wanting to ask her to help me understand why I stayed.

Suyi told me that she had loved me, which was nice to hear, I suppose. But she was not going to be able to tell me what was going on in my head, and worse, whether I was doomed to do the same fucking thing again.

Having had a pair of rose-tinted glasses super-glued to my face while I was dating Suyi, it was hard to pin down the rationale behind trying to stay together, even when it was evident that that wasn’t the smart option; really, it was the worst. The knee-jerk answer when looking for a justification for staying too long is “you were in love,” as well as the more plausible yet equally unsatisfying “people do stupid shit when they’re in love.”

This was not satisfying. I mean, love seems like part of it, but that seems too cheap. Besides, given that I was in the relationship, I never had the outsider’s perspective: Essentially, I never really saw whether or not I really was in love with her. And given I had been perceiving Suyi this entire time as the Virgin Mary, Gisele Bündchen, and Carrie Brownstein, all wrapped up into one, and even she was telling me she was crazy, I badly needed some outside perspective.

Was there something wrong with me, with my brain and it how it worked, being so dumb in love?

I went in search of answers, and for once, it did not take a long to find them.


This is the first thing I learned: people act like idiots. A lot. Especially when it comes to hope, and its psychological home, optimism.

This was made clear to me by Steven Hayes, a professor of psychology at the University of Nevada, Reno, who told that there really is no difference in terms of being optimistic about healthy things – like careers – and bad things, like shitty relationships.

In the right context, he said, any sort of emotion— including optimism—can lead to toxic outcomes. Known by academics as “experiential avoidance” or “psychological inflexibility,” people begin to develop habits in order to avoid particular emotions – as well as thoughts, feelings, and memories, thereby providing relief from the discomfort they were seeking to avoid. So, for example, by being overly optimistic about my relationship, Hayes told me, I was avoiding confronting the fact that the relationship was dead.

“You start denying the validity of your own emotions or thoughts,” he said. This means acting in ways that you – and everyone around you – know, and say is wrong, but which nonetheless you cannot help yourself from doing. “Building habits predicts bad outcomes as far as the eye can see.”

Loving Suyi, and believing that this love could succeed, had become a nasty habit that I was doing my best to sustain.

Beyond just hindering your social relations, creativity, mental stability and productivity, Hayes added that “experiential avoidance” actually takes a toll on your physical health. In a February 2016 study published in Mindfulness, researchers compared the telomere lengths of practitioners of Spanish Zen Buddhism practitioners with those of basic, stressed-out coffee drinking adults. Telomeres are the like the plastic ends of shoelaces, but for DNA strands, protein complexes that protect the DNA from being damaged or frayed. They can also be used to predict the onset of several diseases like cancer and hypertension: The shorter the telomere, the more likely you’re going to die. Age is the largest cause of telomere shortening, but can be shortened by such factors as stress. The study concludes that the Spanish Zen Buddhists, masters of chill towards undesirable thoughts, had longer telomeres than their non-Zen counterparts and will most likely live longer lives than their non-Zen-practicing counterparts.

In elucidating the behavioral aspect of being an extremely hopeful person, Hayes noted that “you can get addicted to anything from the sense of the patterns that you’re building, like addiction to exercise [or] addiction to pain,” and even optimism. It is one thing observing someone’s obsessive, and harmful behavior. It is another to know what is actually taking place on the neurophysical circuit board that cause these sorts of emotional addictions.


We love saying that the human brain is still a giant black hole of a mystery. Philosophers of the Mind may still argue that the consciousness is a floating, ethereal blob, even as neuroscientists try to understand whether everything from our thoughts to our emotions represents neurons and synapses firing in particular sequences.

Dr. Lucy Brown, a professor of neuroscience at Albert Einstein School of Medicine, has spent years in the lab with her colleagues trying to decipher and map out what exactly is going on inside our heads at the neurophysical level. In particular, they’ve conducted research to try and determine the biochemical factors that figure into our emotions and physical states during romantic relationships.

“It starts in this primitive brain system for reward and uses dopamine, which is also where you see activity when people are on a cocaine high,” Dr. Brown told me. “So all the areas in the brain we found in love are also found to be involved when people are abusing alcohol, cocaine, or heroin. So the way we look at it is that, really, romance—the attachment to another person or falling in love, so it’s not just the romance but then the attachment—it’s like hunger or thirst, and these are natural systems we were given, because you need to be addicted to food or water. You can’t just not pay attention if you’re thirsty.”

So essentially, this addictive-like property of love isn’t anything new; rather, it’s a common necessity is most of our loves. In her explanation, however, Dr. Brown mentioned one chemical that I’d heard quite a lot about: dopamine. Of course, when studying all the physiological aspects of the brain during relationships, there are many other important chemicals involved like oxytocin, or the “love” drug, and serotonin, which regulates moods. Still, when it comes to the survival of the relationship and the feel-goodness, in particular, the addictive factor that resonated for me in trying to keep the relationship alive, is linked to dopamine.

In the brain, dopamine functions as a neurotransmitter. This means that it’s a chemical messenger released by neurons, which then proceeds to pass through a gap known as a chemical synapse to a “target” neuron. Located on these “target” neurons are dopamine receptors, which the dopamine neurotransmitter will bind to and send the signal to the “target” neuron to produce the designated effect.

These neurophysical systems by which dopamine transmits information in the brain are known as dopaminergic pathways. So far, scientists know of eight of these different pathways. Depending on which pathway the dopamine neurotransmitter travels leads to different results. But I’m focusing on the pathway essential to my inquiry regarding hope and relationship addiction, which is the mesolimbic pathway, also known as the “reward pathway.” When dopamine is released by neurons located in the ventral tegmental area — a cluster of dopamine-producing neurons found in the midbrain section — it is transmitted through the mesolimbic pathway to the nucleus accumbens (essentially a mass comprised of spiny neurons).

This process is stimulated during rewarding experiences, particularly when it seems that your needs are going to be met. Contemporary research, however, points to evidence that dopamine isn’t directly related to the actual “pleasure,” but rather the desire of the pleasure. The firing of dopamine in the brain will occur when we expect a pleasurable outcome of an event, regardless of whether that event comes true or not. If this theory holds true, this means dopamine is our body’s way of training us to take notice of experiences that can be rewarding and, as a result, to repeat these behaviors. We want to anticipate being happy as much, if not more, than we want to be happy. Dopamine makes this possible.

This also can explain why such substances as cocaine, heroin, amphetamines, and marijuana—each of which produce some euphoria—can lead to addiction. The presence of these drugs flood the mesolimbic pathway with an unusually large amount of dopamine. Given the neurotransmitter’s reinforcement capability, dopamine teaches you that only these substances will produce that high. Unfortunately, constantly trying to hammer your brain with dopamine overload through drug abuse can cause the development of a “tolerance,” whereby you’ve actually destroyed your dopamine receptors, making you lust to consume an even greater amount of the drug to achieve the same level of a “high.”

So now I was beginning to see that I was a type of junkie — and that it’s not completely uncommon. But of course, we all go through break-ups, and yet for some reason, I couldn’t let go afterwards. When Suyi and I broke up, she moved on pretty quickly. At the bar, she said that she got over it by “having a lot and lot of sex.” For me, though, it wasn’t so quickly. Even months after we broke it off, I was still in withdrawal: There was still part of me hoping, yearning, wishing that the relationship would somehow work out. My dopamine system was at it again.

So, as Dr. Brown put it, we are all susceptible to addictive tendencies when it comes to love. But can it be possible for some of us to be more sensitive to a particular substance, or in my case, emotion? Isn’t that what makes you an addict?


Take a moment to think of cocaine users. Almost everyone that has lived in some urban environment has those friends who did blow every now and then at a house party or concert. On the other extreme are people who snort coke like it’s their coffee. Why the different responses?

Gabor Maté, a physician specializing in addiction and author of In the Realm of Hungry Ghosts, a book that analyzes the root causes of addiction, believes he has some answers. While he does not discount the likelihood that genetics come into play in determining our predilection towards addiction development, he believes that environmental factors during early childhood development—in particular, the mother-child relationship—play a tremendous role in addiction-prone personality development. His studies and research regarding addiction personality, along with those of several other experts in the field, has led to him conclude that the way children are raised by their mothers is one of the most important factors in influencing whether a child will develop an addiction-prone personality, and what your vice will be.

Maté writes that a mother can possibly impart her own anxiety onto her child by not providing the child with emotional stability, thereby preventing the circuits responsible for the brain’s ability to feel “love” from developing properly. The case study he cites is that of three mother-child pairs of monkeys, where each mother had to forage for food to feed her child. One mother was given an easy path to finding food; another had an extremely difficult time; and third mother’s paths fluctuated between easy and hard. The study confirmed Maté’s theory: it was the third mother, the inconsistent one, whose child wound up an addiction-prone basket case.

Maté also points to factors in early childhood that could have functioned as coping mechanisms for stress. For example, he writes that infants or children who are anxious or upset and are subsequently given human or plastic nipples as a form of comfort may develop an association between “emotional nourishment and oral feeding or soothing.”

When I interviewed Dr. Maté over Skype, I tried to ask him about the neurophysical aspects of addiction, namely, what in our DNA or genes makes us addicted to emotions. I also admitted that the story had begun with an analysis of my own turbulent relationship with Suyi and my curiosity as to why I seemed unable to leave her.

He resisted reducing addiction simply to neurobiology, and instead began asking me what my mother was like raising me, adding that whatever sort of social and emotional relationships I had with my mother would be associated with my addiction to hope.

“Some people, they get their dopamine flowing by being in a challenging relationship,” he said. “The template for that goes back to your early childhood. So you tell me about your relationship, and I’ll tell you about your relationship with your mother. It’s that simple.”

“Oh dear,” I thought to myself, “Freud has come back from the dead in the form of a Hungarian Jewish shrink.”

Hoping to find something here, I went along: I told him about my nervousness at her random aggression, the fear she would get mad at something I might say about law school or some girl, and the underlying optimism that it’d get better.

“So how far back do you remember that feeling?” he asked. After a moment of silence, he answered for me: “That’s the point. And whose love did you most want as a kid?”

You’ve gotta be fucking kidding me, I thought.

Skeptical snarkiness aside, looking back, I can see quite a bit of substance to Maté’s theory that child-rearing is partially to blame. There was an uneasiness that has been burned into my memory of the stress of my mother screaming at my father for his constant residency at his office and working Herculean hours. When they’d get into shouting matches during my toddler years, I recall running in between them and freaking out over for the fear that they were going to be getting a divorce (to this day that’s yet to happen, but for some reason, it was a deep-rooted fear for much of my youth, possibly due to the stigmatization of divorce at the time). As I grew older, I recall being more and more on my toes about whether something I would say could cause my mother to simply SNAP, suddenly switching the conversation from good to bad.

The phone interview I had with my mother, Debra, highlights such emotional instability, I think.

Debra probably hated Suyi deep down, and Suyi definitely made it clear she how much she hated Debra. More often than not, I found myself getting yanked back and forth between the two on what to do in life: law school or journalism grad school; go to a commodified Jewish deli in Midtown or a haute Asian fusion restaurant in the East Village; find an apartment to live in on my own, or move in with Suyi. As I learned through my father, you’re going to end up accommodating the person you end up sleeping next to at night, even if it’s not the preferred choice. Either way, I ended up hurting on the inside.

I called my mother to talk about Suyi. She had things to say, a lot of things to say actually. For all of the 40 minutes, her tone was aggressive, piercing, dominating, as if she were trying to reach through the phone to drive home her theories about my ex. Halfway through the conversation, it became questionable whether she wanted to hear what I really thought about the relationship, or just what she wanted to hear she thought about the relationship. She reminded me how miserable I seemed whenever I was around Suyi, how much the people we hung out with were burnouts, and, well, point blank asked me if I really was happy.

The more and more she spoke, the tighter I could feel myself clenching my jaw, mostly in confusion. At one moment, she was coming across as antagonistic; minutes later, she was breaking down into tears and telling me how proud she was of me. The emotional see-saw was stressing me out so much that midway through transcribing the conversation on my laptop, I had to step outside for a cigarette, which I puffed down to a nub.

“You’ve always had hope,” Debra said through her tears over the phone. “You’ve always tried to do better. You’ve always tried to learn. You’ve always tried to do good. You’ve always tried to be the best at something.”

It is true. In college I worked myself to what felt like death for an A, or for the praise. For Deb, when it comes to work, this is all great to have ingrained in one’s personality because, to her, this brain-melting drive is what’ll get you ahead in life. But, she said, “when you’re dealing with human relationships hope works in different ways, and I guess that’s what you have to learn: that it’s a different kind of hope.”

As difficult, maddening, infuriating and illuminating as the talk my mother was, I still had to question Maté’s theory that my mother is largely to blame. I’ve constantly felt her love, always doting and telling me that “I was the perfect son” or “I couldn’t have gotten a better kid.” Rather, it felt like I had an oversaturation of love. My mother was proud, so proud that she’d always brag about it. As I write this, it’s coming together. I felt good making my mother proud. It meant the world that’d she’d blab about me at dinner parties about being a son that she was “so damn proud of.” But therein lay the problem: I was scared to fail and disappoint her.

Despite Maté providing copious evidence showcasing that the mother-child relationship plays a major role in addictive personality development, I still didn’t feel satisfied by putting so much blame on Debra. With alcoholics, scientists have pointed to genetic hereditary traits as a causal explanation for why an offspring might develop alcoholism. But can addiction to emotions, material goods, drugs, and even alcohol, be based solely on how well mom raised you? I mean, we all have that one adrenaline junkie friend who gets his rocks off on BASE jumping or skydiving. And what about the neurosurgeons who only truly feel alive when they’re scrubbed up and a mere slip away from turning their patients into a couch potato and a medical malpractice lawsuit? Do we really just have an ongoing epidemic of less than ideal child rearing and these guys are all products of questionable parenting?

Maybe, but I don’t think it’s the whole picture. Addiction, according to several professionals in the field, is the result of several factors. Richard A. Friedman, a clinical professor of psychiatry, at the Weill Cornell Medical School, wrote an article noting the presence of dopamine “addiction” in kids with A.D.H.D. Essentially, people with A.D.H.D. and adrenaline junkies are likely to have less dopaminergic receptors for the neurotransmitter to bind to in comparison to your average human. This ends up making these lower-dopamine-receptor-individuals, at the baseline state, less sensitive to desire-reinforcement prompted by dopamine transmission. As a result, normal, repetitive activities like math homework and cleaning the dishes are perceived as, well, intolerably boring.

“The number of dopamine receptors in your reward pathway is plastic, meaning it’s susceptible to change,” Dr. Friedman told me. “There are lots of things that can change [your dopamine receptor count]: experience can change it, exposure to drugs can change it.” Then he added, “They’re not causal.”

But of all the neurosurgeons who experience a god-like high in the operating room, it’s almost certain that not every one of these guys has A.D.H.D. So how do adrenaline junkies develop their neurophysical addictions? There’s no firm evidence at the moment, but Shahram Heshmat, PhD, an Associate Professor Emeritus, University of Illinois at Springfield specializing in Health Economics of Addiction and Obesity, noted in an interview withe the blog Hopes & Fears that adrenaline junkies might have a neurochemical connection with drug-users that you’re probably all-too-familiar with now: dopamine.

“High sensation-seekers may be over-stimulated by novel experiences because their brains release more dopamine during these events than those of low sensation-seekers,” Dr. Heshmat said. “The feeling of pleasure and satisfaction leads to the sensation-seeker coming back for more.”

So if adrenaline junkies are in fact experiencing both the adrenaline rush along with the sort of euphoria associated with a flooding of dopamine, then a low level of dopamine receptors—as is the often case for people diagnosed with A.D.H.D. and drug-addicts—could explain why the speed-demons become junkies in the first place. Essentially, then, addictive personalities might not be wholly Mother Nature’s fault in terms of genetics, but a combination of what Mom and Dad gave us at birth along with influences from our surrounding environment.


Doctors and experts may spend their lives researching the neuroscience behind addiction—more specifically, drug addiction—looking at neurons firing and DNA to figure out what, at the micro-level, makes a person tick. But, in the end, there’s one thing that subject testing in the lab cannot replicate: the true sensation and experience of unmitigated addiction. Lisa Whittemore, the author of “Heroin: A Love Story” was an addict, and experienced the highs and the lows that came with being a junkie. She has been sober for 15 years.

When I called Whittemore, I had one goal in mind: to get inside her head and figure out what it’s like to be a junkie. Why, and how, does someone end up pursuing and ingesting a substance that they know will make them a slave to actual, physical cravings? And why do so few ever leave their addictions behind?

Luckily, Whittemore ended up being completely uncensored in telling me her life story. She was born into a well-off New England family in Boston (though her parents did divorce), who had no ties to drug culture and preferred their seemingly-perfect fancy dinner parties to anything at all linked to Skid Row. Whittemore, on the other hand, integrated herself into the local punk scene and became a devout follower of all things distorted. From there, she began experimenting with drugs, with her friends introducing her to weed, then cocaine, and finally, the shooting up heroin, and unable to stop. When I asked why—why she started, why she couldn’t put down the needle—all that she could say really was, well, it felt good. But more frightening was the fact that eventually it stops feeling good, but rather it just becomes a routine.

“You’re initially addicted to the feeling and you keep repeating the behavior in order to get that same feeling,” she said. “And then even when the feeling starts to dissipate because of overuse, overindulgence, you’re so addicted to the action of doing it that you just keep doing it, even when it doesn’t feel good anymore.”

Hearing Lisa say this—that her addiction eventually transformed from being a source of pleasure to a nightmare that ran her day-to-day thinking—resonated with my own situation. Like her, my family was not poor, and the only addictive model I saw was overwork. So like Whittemore and heroin, it felt good being with Suyi at first: we did enjoy each other’s company—eating dinner, watching movies, moving in together into an apartment—but eventually, it wasn’t so much “fun,” but rather the norm. We got dinner together all the time, so it became a question of how do I eat dinner and not wait for her if she’s home.

Whittemore even noted, as she did when writing the title for her story, that being an addict to drugs isn’t all that different to being in love, from a psychological standpoint. After a certain point you’re just going through the motions, too scared to go outside because when you first try being sober, she said, even the most basic, normal routine like getting groceries “is fucking terrifying.”

Both of us confessed to each other that, when we both started noticing that our relationships with our substances were turning toxic, neither one of could find the strength to pull the trigger. Lisa kept on calling herself a “pussy” and too scared to deal with the skin-ripping pain that is heroin withdrawal; I just couldn’t say “die” and handle the possible emotional trauma. Even at the points when I was high as Mr. Kite in the relationship trauma, I was fully aware that this cycle of highs and lows needed to end to save my sanity. So I’d plan it out.

Two, three times a week, I’d psych myself up like a football player up just before a game, thinking over and over “just call her and end it. You know you’ll feel better.” But even when I did try to end it, only hours later, she’d be calling me—completely confused and tearful—and dissolving any sort of value in the effort that went into my emotional steeling and readying my mind, and heart, to end it. I was a slave to my own addiction.

When you’re loaded you think ‘I can get clean,’” Whittemore said, recalling numerous points during her addiction where she had this grandiose conception of going through a full-blown heroin cleanse—like Ewan McGregor in Trainspotting, tomato soup cans and all—only to wind up getting high the next day, and the next day; eventually giving up the idea as a whole. “And all I can say is I guess it gives you like a false sense of courage.”

“I’m not an expert, scientist, doctor, just a drug addict speaking my own personal experiences,” Whittemore said, repeatedly. Rather, everything was based on what she had lived through. For her, there was no defining checklist that determined what could have prompted her addiction. She just knew that it happened, and somehow, eventually she fought and defeated her addiction.


At Drop Off Service, after an hour and a half of testimony, reminiscing, and plenty of drinking, I finally hit “stop” on the iPhone recorder. I exhaled a huge sigh and checked the time. Suyi asked me if I had a date, and I told her I was going to go see a girl. She squealed with excitement and went 20 questions in on her and her background; I did the same about her guy. It felt odd, finally being able to talk to my ex about us—more so, who we were dating. I hugged her goodbye after closing the tab and headed to the L Train subway. The plinking xylophone beats of “(I Know) There’s Gonna Be Good Times” by Jamie xx flooded my eardrums through the headphones I was wearing, with Young Thug squelching “Good times, ther’s gonna be some good times”. Honestly, that couldn’t have been more the opposite of the case.

I realized in that moment—and even more so now after digging down the neuropsychological rabbit hole—that to a large degree I’m probably fucked in my future relationships. If anything, I have merely figured out the explanation to why I stayed with Suyi and confirmed a hypothesis that, innately, I probably knew all along: I’m always going to stay in relationships that keep me on the insecure edge; I’m not going to leave when all the signs are right there in my face telling me I’d be better off in the long-run. I’m an addict. That tension, that hope for love, in a weird masochistic way, feels really, really good.

But, I guess, junkies can get clean. At least that’ll allow for some foresight of how to handle these things in the future.

If I really am a hope junkie, all I can do is hope for the best.

Matthew Sedacca is a graduate of the Columbia Journalism School and a freelance writer. Originally from Houston, Texas, he has written for publications like Eater, VICE, and the Diplomat.

Elephants, or The Man in the Room

It was only two years into dating my first serious boyfriend that I learned about my mom’s first love. It dawned on me then that, in my solipsism, I had been unquestioning of my mom’s road to her marriage, to creating our family. I had assumed it was a straight path.

Mom’s five-year romance had concluded sadly, and I had hoped that my story would be different. Unfortunately, hope had little power against the whims of youthful love: Two years after I heard my mom’s story, my relationship also devolved into a pitiable end, a shock that hit me harder than I or anyone else had expected.

As I was spiraling down the throes of heartbreak, Mom—in an effort to ease my pain—told me another story of lost love. This time, it was her mother’s.

Grandma’s was not a story of caprice or suspended interest, but of family, status, prejudice. Her parents refused to accept the man she loved as her partner, and as the eldest of five children, she was in no position to rebel. Telling this story was Mom’s way of showing me that people have endured and survived pain more severe than my own.

That most of Grandma’s early life remains unknown to me is not surprising—it’s what you can expect if you are born several decades into someone’s life. But this story about her first love was special in that it was not just any episode from her past. It was in some ways a secret, but only in the sense that its reveal was unexpected and selective. My mother knew the story, but not my father, uncle, or aunt. If I had not experienced the heartbreak, would I have ever known?

Once that door cracked open, I wanted desperately to peer in. What happened to that lost love, and for how long did the pain linger?

*       *       *

The first thing people notice when they see me with my grandmother is that we have identical noses. In many ways, I resemble my grandmother more than I do my mom or dad.

“Oh, that’s no good. I’m sorry,” my grandmother says, whenever I point out to her how similar we look. She then remarks, only half in jest, how she wishes she could have left me with a prettier face, a prettier nose. While I know she’s joking, her self-deprecating comment is an honest reflection of her frustration with the parts of family lineage she cannot regulate, the things we inherit that are outside of her control.

Grandma, as the household mediator, is a master of containing and disseminating information. She is careful about sharing stories from her past: When I try to pry into her youth, she gently shuts me down, saying, “Let’s talk about you. How is school?”

But just like looks, stories—and pain—percolate through generations, sometimes in ways that are impossible to contain. Even when that pain is given no contours, and no matter how strong the desire is to leave it undefined, its existence is evident and powerful.

Back when I lived in Seoul, I used to frequent my grandmother’s apartment. Only ten minutes from my house by bus, I would stop by sometimes after school, or on weekends with my family. Grandma would call me her “talk buddy,” the one grandchild with whom she can have an extended conversation. That was probably because I was the elder of the two grandchildren who could speak Korean fluently; regardless, I felt a strong, unspoken connection with her.

The first thing I noticed every time I entered the house, before I was distracted by my grandmother’s greeting, was the door immediately to the right of the entrance that opened to a small but well-lit room. I only knew this because there was always a ray of sunlight leaking out of the small crack in the doorway. Otherwise, I knew little about the room. To this day, I have never entered it; its doors have always remained just slightly ajar, open enough for me to recognize the room’s existence, and sense the life within it, but closed enough so that I’m unable to see inside.

Most of what I knew about the room was through the sounds. I heard the radio playing, or the voices of newscasters coming from the television set. And sometimes, I heard a man talking.

*       *       *

The stories of my mom’s and grandmother’s first loves were unusual partly because, ever since I can remember, anything that bears deep emotional weight was so seldom discussed and so collectively avoided in my home, especially when it involved an uncomfortable confrontation.

In my house, instead of there being a single elephant in the room from time to time, there are always multiple elephants roaming around, that have been lodging for many years.

For twenty years, no one spoke about the room. I was a curious child, never hesitant to blurt out awkward questions. But for some reason, when I stood in front of that corner room at my grandmother’s house, I felt a weight I could not describe. I could have swung the door open and found out—no one had explicitly forbidden me to enter. Why I did not, I cannot say; I can only attest to the fact that my thoughts about the room lingered perpetually in my mind, but never left the tip of my tongue. It didn’t occur to me then that I might be unknowingly mirroring everyone else in the family.

When Mom told me about Grandma’s heartbreak, we were traveling on a ferry from Macao to Hong Kong. The boat was rocking on the waves, up and down, against the quiet hum of the engine—and in the wake of this revelation about my grandmother’s past, I suddenly felt the need to ask Mom about the room. Is someone living in it, and who can it be? Why has he been hidden from us all these years?

She was taken aback, but only for a moment.

“I have an older brother,” she said, and I was confused. I already knew I had an uncle. He lived in New Jersey with my aunt and two cousins. I visited him for Thanksgiving and Christmas.

“Before your grandmother gave birth to your uncle in the States, she had another child, a boy. He is the one who is living in that room.”

She was the youngest of three, not of two.

For a brief moment, an indescribable wave of relief calmed me. I had secretly wondered whether my grandparents had committed some dark crime during the war and had to hide the victim in their home all these years.

But that moment was quickly over, and I immediately felt a pang of panic, a sense of piercing thrust and disbelief. It was like the gut-churning waves that would jerk our ferry down every now and then. Questions swarmed inside my head, rapid, startled, even angry: How could she be so indifferent? Did it not matter to her whether my uncle knew life outside of that room? How could she go on for twenty years without telling me about him?

The question about the timing of the unexpected reveal again loomed over me, but this time with greater stake and urgency. Would I have ever known, had I not asked?

So an elephant had existed for a long time, one I perceived but could not make out. When that known but amorphous secret suddenly gained definition, familiar places and people struck me as foreign—at least until the details fell back into place, ready to be digested, and maybe even understood.

*       *       *

Grandma was born during the Japanese occupation as the eldest of five, and the family struggled to keep afloat. Taking care of her four younger siblings, and seeing that her parents clearly could not afford to give all five children what they each wanted, she thought to herself: I will never give birth to more than two children.

She resented the myth of the large happy family, as she understood it as applying only to those who are wealthy. While she didn’t complain about her duty as the first child, she increasingly began to consider young children a burden—each head to her meant additional need for investment. When her youngest sibling was born, she was puzzled and upset. What were her parents thinking? How could they be so irresponsible?

She can’t remember ever liking children. She has never walked by babies on the street and lingered. She doesn’t think they are cute, and when she hears that someone is expecting a child, she thinks about whether that’s appropriate given their financial standing. The decision to have a baby, she says, must not be on a whim or without practical considerations.

Being a good filial daughter, she was patient with her siblings. But she swore to herself, again and again: I will have no more than two children.

As not only the eldest but also a girl, the only means through which she knew she could escape her destitution was to study and earn a scholarship to college. She excelled in middle school and was selected to attend a prestigious foreign language high school for women. There, her grades at school ranked nationally and she was able to get into the top private college in Korea even before she took the national exam. She studied business and economics, because she wanted to be able to earn a decent wage as soon as possible; she wanted to leave home.

She eventually did leave home, and in several years, married a man with a stable and respectable job. He was one of the most honest and incorruptible people she had ever met. Being a government-employed professor at a national university, he was quiet, respectful, and compliant. She again took up the duties of a good wife: She was a smart and diligent provider and companion.

And then she had her first child.

She realized almost immediately after giving birth that there was something wrong with the child, and soon, he was diagnosed with polio. She decided to go to a fortune-teller and see what should be done with the baby. The fortune-teller told her that the baby would die young. She began raising the child, but thinking he would soon die, she also gave birth to two more.

Fifty years later, the first child is still alive. The third child, her only daughter, who would never have been born had her first not been ill—is the one who now takes on the burden of caring for her dad, who has dementia, her brother, who cannot move, and her mother, who is exhausted.

Grandma finds herself speaking every day to my mom about everything that passes her mind. Her daughter is her only real confidant, her only respite.

Some might say her plans simply changed mid-way. But she tells her daughter: Plan and children just don’t go hand in hand.

Her husband and son are ill, but she is not struggling financially. She has been the sole breadwinner of the family for two decades, and divides her time between managing her stocks and serving as the manager of a residential building.

She does not consult fortune-tellers anymore.

*       *       *

When Grandma talks about her childhood, she keeps on repeating the phrase, “Those were unhappy times. We were poor.” She describes even her wartime experiences with flat affect: “Things dropping from the sky, corpses lying around on the ground, it was all an unhappy sight. Unhappy memories. Those were difficult times, we were poor.”

Has she ever been happy?

She doesn’t answer me, but she later tells Mom that her hope for happiness left her the moment she gave birth to her first child.

Both Mom and my uncle—the one who lives in New Jersey—describe Grandma’s most characteristic trait as “responsible.” She always remains accountable, no matter how burdensome, even for events outside of her control. Worries of the entire family weigh down on her, as she goes about trying to fix everything. I remember one time, when I casually mentioned that the zipper on my bag had fallen out, she left the house and did not return home until she found a new zipper. If something goes wrong, she takes it upon herself to remedy it. Uncle recalls the first time he got into a car accident; to his dismay, she came to the police station to cover for him, to say it was her fault.

The stories my parents each tell about my eldest uncle differ. Mom speaks to how upon giving birth, Grandma had the option of giving her son a blood transfusion, which, if done quickly in the moments after birth, could have prevented the polio. Apparently, she chose not to go through with the procedure because of her father-in-law’s opposition. Dad tells a different story: Namely, that Grandma had taken some pills during her pregnancy without yet knowing that she was pregnant.

One truth that binds these accounts is that they have both originated from Grandma. Even if neither account is accurate, what is striking is the extent to which both of Grandma’s stories—or at least the versions my parents remember—are shaped by a marked sense of wrongdoing and guilt. As if the child’s contracting a viral disease was the result of her own mishap.

What Grandma could not do for my uncle in birth, she wants to provide for him materially. This, according to Mom, is part of her continued obsession with earning money into her late seventies.

The stories she told herself, and to her children, are perhaps testament to Grandma’s struggle to understand, to survive: In order to live with the inalterable, she created a means by which she could bind herself to the duty to compensate.

*       *       *

Forgetting for Grandma, or for my uncle or mom, would be impossible. They talk about and with my eldest uncle daily; they for decades have fed him, bathed him, and kept him company.

But forgetting trauma, an extraordinarily difficult task, becomes somewhat more feasible when applied to posterity—to the family as a larger unit. Forgetting in a larger community is akin to erasure, or selective omission: To make sure that a certain memory is not inherited, one could simply stop the chain of information by secrecy.

Except children are born, and they rattle things out of order. I was one of those unexpected surprises. My entire family calls me an outlier: My parents joke that my sister, quiet and reserved, is verifiably “their child,” but that they are not sure about me. To them, my obsession with record-keeping and memories, my candid expressions of emotion, and my love of inquiring into other people’s lives are all incomprehensible, nosy, even juvenile.

Even this naïve impulse and curiosity, though, would not have been enough to push the story out into the open.

The fact is, someone had always left the door just slightly ajar. Maybe to give my uncle some air, or to allow him some tenuous connection with the world outside. Whether intentionally, subconsciously, or by mistake, the secrets were imperfectly contained.

*       *       *

When I ask Grandma about her first love, the first thing she says is that he is now dead.

“He was not, strictly, my first love,” she says, though she does not deny that it was an important one. She was not young, the love was not youthful; they were five years apart, and she had met him at work. She dated him for about three years until he left to study in the States. “He was poor and built his life up himself in the States. Trying to get a Ph.D., studying hard. He only married when he was 38.”

She had heard about him, or inquired about him after the break up; either way, he had been on her mind.

The primary flaw of her boyfriend was his origin. Regional-based divisions, rivalries, and stereotypes govern domestic and political attitudes in Korea, and the most heavily targeted area happens to be the Jeolla province in the south. The boyfriend was from Jeolla.

The historical, abstract, and superstitious animosity against the Jeolla people, while still persisting, was heightened around the time of the Korean War, and especially in its aftermath, when Grandma was in her teens and early 20s.

The popular notion was that the Jeolla people were stubborn, macho, and most of all, deceptive. This made them terrible matches for marriage: There are newspaper quotes from the time that read, “If someone were to marry a Jeolla man, I would follow that person around to prevent them from making the wrong decision.” The stereotype was so strong that in TV series, thieves, mob gangsters, or fraudulent tricksters were often portrayed as coming from Jeolla—the most characteristic marker being their dialect.

Grandma’s parents were no exception in harboring these thoughts, or they were at least wary of the level of truth rumors can sometimes carry. The boyfriend had to go to the United States to study, and had told Grandma that he would be back to bring her with him to the States once he earned his degree. Her family members told her that she was sure to be disappointed—that he would not come back—that he would change there. At a time when letters were the only viable means of communication, her parents worried that a lot would go unknown and unsaid. Once the man left Korea, the relationship ended.

Grandma only passively verifies the fact that her parents opposed her match with him because of his being from Jeolla. “Don’t even talk about it,” she says. “It’s embarrassing. That’s what the people back then were like.”

She doesn’t deny the fact that she remembers him, though. “As long as you live and can remember, you think about people from your past from time to time,” she says.

“But we were incompatible,” she continues. “It was not a practical match.”

I once asked Mom why she felt compelled to tell me about her own heartbreak. “You make me remember,” she said. “And I wanted to let you know that you’re not alone—in your pain or in your experiences.” After all, it was during her own breakup that she had first learned about Grandma’s first love.

To be able to recall memory is an indication that the remembrance is at least intermittent, not constant. In a way, it’s evidence that the memory has somewhat faded, maybe even lost its power on you—that it needs an external stimulus to be brought back to your consciousness.

But certain painful memories, like that of my uncle’s birth, do not need recall. The lingering presence of guilt and sorrow need not be reminded: Time, which normally adds distance, only extends the lived experience and the heartache that accompanies it.

One night, my mom called me to express her frustration with my need to know more about my eldest uncle. “It’s much better not to see the things that are sad, tiring, and difficult, because almost none of these things are solvable,” she said. “Not much good comes from digging out painful memories of the past. The past is not a friend.”

She had spent the entire day tending to her ailing parents and her brother. She was exhausted. I listened in silence; I could tell that she, too, was swallowing her tears.

*       *       *

Grandma remains silent about my uncle. I have yet to speak of him in her presence, and perhaps never will. All that I know about him, and her feelings towards him, have come from my mom and uncle.

Her silence, though, is loud.

Both my dad and aunt—my uncle’s wife—are surprised to learn that I have only now heard about my eldest uncle. They both expected that someone would have told me, given how close I am to Grandma, and given how often I visit her home. While both of them were told about my eldest uncle before marriage, neither of them has spoken about it since—to anyone, even their spouses. Dad chose not to tell his own parents, and Aunt made the same decision, for fear of misunderstanding.

I do not doubt that Grandma loves her first child as much as she does the second and third. After all, she has been closest to him all these years. And I cannot judge her decision to keep him from the rest of the world; I will not pretend to understand what she has had to undergo.

But I have the advantage of generational distance, of not having been part of the trauma—and to me, my uncle’s presence is not pain, but a blessing like any other. A life to be acknowledged.

*       *       *

Containment of information, small or big, still operates daily. Both of my parents had to undergo invasive surgeries this year, and neither told me about it until the week before. They made a point to be completely nonchalant in tone, likely knowing how much it would stir my world but wanting to minimize detailed discussion. My mom said, indifferently: “These checkups are the root of all problems. Everything was fine when concealed; these checkups force issues to be revealed.”

But no matter how much these issues seem concealed, they are barer than we expect. For Mom, it was incessant pain and a recognizable lump in her abdomen. For me, it was the unspoken but palpable heaviness of the room, and the apparent caution and sorrow in my grandma’s eyes whenever I caught her walking out of the corner room.

A few weeks ago, Mom was talking to me about faith in God and her reasoning behind why I don’t seem to have it yet.

“That’s because you’re not desperate. I don’t think one can persuade another person to have faith. You need to feel the desperation yourself.”

I wondered if she was speaking from experience.

“Desperate? Were you ever desperate in life?”

Silence. I could tell I caught her off-guard.

“What was the most desperate moment in your life?” I repeated.

She laughed and stalled, and I instantly felt the force of the unsaid.

“You aren’t going to tell me, are you?”

“… No, there wasn’t a moment like that.”

“I don’t believe you.”

“I’ll tell you later.”


Youjin Jenny Jang is a junior at Columbia College studying English and comparative literature. On campus, she edits The Eye, the weekly magazine of the Columbia Daily Spectator. Raised in Seoul, South Korea, she is deeply interested in narratives of loss and illness, especially the ways in which different cultures or age groups process grief.

The Limited Virtue

We’d always hung out in J’s dorm room, but this time was different. I liked J. I thought he liked me, too. I wanted to tell him and for him to tell me.

Our dynamic had never been clear – we were someplace between friends and more. But now we found ourselves in slow dancing in his dorm room with the lights off as N.E.R.D’s “Love Bomb” played in the background. I rested my head on his shoulder. We said nothing as we moved to the beat while we made small circles in the middle of his floor.

I played out multiple scenarios in which we’d reveal our feelings. I wasn’t afraid to tell him. I was 17 and had never been rejected and didn’t understand just how difficult vulnerability could be. J would bring me flowers that he picked on the way to my room. He’d surprised me with mangoes. I’d re-twist his locs, which he’d taught me how to do. We’d spend hours going over the catalogs of Duke Ellington and Amy Winehouse and now we were moving in unison to a song about a love bomb knocking down the walls between people. Surely, this all meant something.

J put the song on repeat. We laid down on his bed, side by side. He put his hand around my body and hugged me close.

“Isn’t crazy how we are exactly what he’s describing?” J said of the words in the song.

Usually, I was the one asking things. I was the one whose questions left guys quiet.

“I like you.” I said.

I said it but felt I didn’t know what I was doing.

“We don’t have to say it out loud,” J said, as hugged me closer. “That ruins it.”

I thought he liked me. But now I was not sure. I thought I knew him, that I was the type of person he liked. I also understood his not wanting to tell me what I wanted to hear. I was empathic. That was the problem.

“Wow what an asshole!” J said about himself after being reminded about the details of the night.

He was taken aback that I even remembered the dance in the dark. He didn’t recall anything about the night except that “Love Bomb” was on repeat. We both remembered that he had smoked some weed while I was in his room.

We laughed at the irony. I was 17 and not yet jaded. I had internalized the elusiveness of a guy who 9 times out of 10 wasn’t invested in the moment because in 2009, he was high all the time. I was okay with us just being friends. Months and years went by and we were, just friends. I didn’t carry or believe in the notion that we would ever be together but he became an immovable figure in my life. Even when he went away, he wouldn’t stay gone.

“It was like an emotional tug of war between us,” he said. “Looking back, if I’d told someone that I liked them and they brushed me off the way that I did, I see how that could manifest into being weary about being honest.”

Aside from the differences in our approach to expressing our emotions, we connected on so many things, which is why it was easy for me to bend in this limbo of being friends who often stepped outside of those boundaries of a platonic relationship.

Empathy is a good thing, or I thought. Its power, I have to learn, comes only in reciprocity – when one person’s understanding of another is appreciated and welcome. I thought I knew J and at that moment I saw that I did not. This would not be the last time this happened to me.

“Empathy is feeling what another feels,” writes Marianna Noble, the author of “Limit of Empathy. ”It is a neural, immediate, and automatic response to another person. The limits are that you can think that you understand the other person when you don’t.”

And I didn’t. Perhaps, I thought, because I was such a good friend to J he would see me as I wanted to be seen – that he would feel that empathy for me. So I did not push. I liked to feel that I could be myself, and so assumed, naively, that J would appreciate this, too. I wanted to be understanding.

I called Katrina Hanson, who does research on empathy at Baylor, and asked her why a virtue like empathy is not always appreciated.

Often, she explained, empathic people try “to fix things or others.” Sometimes, the object of empathy may not recognize when someone is being empathic – perhaps, she said, because they’ve never experienced themselves.

I felt connected to J. But then things hit a wall. I thought I could access his feelings and if I could I get what I wanted. Each time it happened in the years since – each time I undermined a romance — I now saw the same pattern: I will give this person what he needs, and he will appreciate it, as I would, and then he will appreciate me.

“I don’t think it’s rejection,” said Hanson. “I think it’s timing. Connection is what fuels empathy. You have to have a connection in order for it to be received.”

Now, eight years later, I called J and asked him about that night. He remembered the song but not the conversation. I reminded him of what we said, to which he replied, “Wow, what an asshole.”

But he did remember something completely unrelated: his watching my pet turtle, which died in his care. He remembered how upset I was at the turtle’s death but not at him, for somehow letting the turtle die.

So there was a connection between J and me. Friends. Almost, but not quite, an empathic bond.

Lakin is a music and culture journalist in Harlem.

An Impostor’s Confession

I have a blog, with over 8,000 followers, which almost ruined my life.

I built that blog a year ago on Wechat, China’s most popular social network with over six hundred million users. At that time, most of my close friends had graduated from college, gone to different places, and settled into their new lives. Simply wanting to share my life with them, I created an account, and started to post some random things on it – my internship, my travel, or just some daydreams – all private stuff. I used the childhood nickname my parents gave me as the blog’s name, and for the following six months, my readership remained below 30.

Then I came to New York, to Columbia, to the Journalism School.

“The city is like poetry: it compresses all life, all races and breeds, into a small island and adds music and the accompaniment of internal engines,” wrote E.B. White. New York City didn’t disappoint me. Dazzled by its diversity and energy, I went to great lengths to record whatever I saw and experienced, and was filled with the desire to share it with others. I took pictures of every street performer I met, talked to the homeless for hours and hours, took notes of some random jokes people told each other, and could even write hundreds of words about the gorgeous Manhattan sunsets. As I started my graduate program in early August, I posted my first weekly entry on my blog, and made a bet with a friend that I would continue writing weekly posts throughout the whole year, documenting my life in this amazing place.

That post article was liked, and for the first time, shared, and re-shared.

Then things changed, seemingly overnight.

In the weeks that followed, hundreds of strangers came to my page, read, liked, commented, and shared.

I wrote the next week and the next. I tried to maintain my usual tone, as if I were talking to my closest friends. But this was less and less possible; I couldn’t ignore the fact that my inbox was already filled with words from complete strangers. Before, when I mentioned someone all my friends knew. I would simply write his or her nickname. But now I had to use parenthesis to briefly explain who this person was. Consciously or not, I began talking to the public, instead of to my friends.

My growing number of new readers were mostly college students who had never been abroad, or who had great fantasies of being journalists. I was a 23-year-old woman enrolled in the world’s best journalism school, in the world’s most amazing city, who had changed her major from economics and taken a gap year interning. I began to see that my life somehow captured their idea of an idealistic young journalist.

“Looking forward to more stories!” many wrote to me.

“What an amazing life you have and what a success you are,” wrote others.

I started to check my blog and inbox several times a day, in order to give my readers immediate responses. My readership surpassed a thousand and my vanity was flattered in that virtual world.

But the fourth week turned out to be a nightmare.



I hadn’t imagined how abruptly my honeymoon with the city would end.

Only after three weekly posts pushed, seemingly all of a sudden, I felt immersed in enormous anxiety and depression.

It was when Valentina, my reporting classmate quit.

She was not the first one. Tara from Iran stopped coming after the second week, before she became acquainted with anyone else in the class.

But Valentina was different. We went to the same class every day. We hung out drinking afterwards. Even on what turned out to be her last day in J-School, I was still worried about competing with her in choosing a beat for class assignment – both of us showed interest in the Lower East Side – and she seemed much more competent. I loved her photos, her story ideas, her words and sentences. I could tell she was talented and experienced.

The following Monday I came to school; my imaginary “opponent” did not. She had quit. I have not seen her since.

“I don’t think it fits me,” Valentina texted me. She questioned her capability, and her personality.

The text message triggered an explosion in my heart. It revealed a truth that I deliberately ignored, something I wouldn’t want to let anybody know, including even myself – fear, a deeply implanted fear: that I didn’t fit in. Not in the program. The school. The city. The country.

Like the emperor’s new clothes, once my hidden fear was exposed, I couldn’t ignore it anymore. What I hadn’t included in my weekly posts were in fact major parts of life. None of my readers knew how day after day I couldn’t manage to come up with a story idea, get any potential source to talk to me, or write a sentence that didn’t require heavy editing. With scant knowledge about the place where I lived and worked I felt as if I were a toddler, while most of my classmates were adults.

What they also didn’t know, and what I didn’t tell them, was something even worse: I didn’t see myself fitting in journalism.

I was not a success at all, and my life was by no means amazing. It was in tatters.

The day after Valentina left, another student with experience burst out into tears in my class under great pressure. I stared at her quietly, with both empathy and sympathy.

My anxiety and depression worsened. Even sleep had become a great nightmare to me. “The fear of going to bed is haunting me,” my diary read, “I know what awaits me is another four hours of insomnia, and deeper depression when the clock points six.”

I was reluctant to attend classes, feared answering phone calls, and could not summon the nerve to walk out of my dorm. I emailed my professor two minutes before class asking for a leave since I was ill. I wasn’t. I felt a headache from lack of sleep. But I still couldn’t sleep. I was not physically ill, though I was very, very sick.

There must be something wrong.

And I had the answer: the admissions committee had made a mistake when they offered me a place.


They were deceived. I deceived them with my seemingly sincere and passionate words in all the application essays, just as I had deceived my readers in my blog posts.

I skipped the fourth week, without posting anything.



Am I a fraud?


The idea struck me as I thought of a movie I had seen, Gone Girl. Amy Dunne, the heroine, was the inspiration for her parents’ popular “Amazing Amy” children’s books. All the problems in the real Amy’s life could be fixed in “Amazing Amy.” All that Amy hadn’t achieved in real life were easily achieved by the amazing one. Though Amy Dunne was not bad, she was not perfect. But Amazing Amy was. People came to recognize Dunne as the Amazing Amy, and she was expected to show what the amazing one was like. She had to be perfect, too.

But she was not Amazing Amy. She was a fraud.

Was I also a fraud? Did I make my blog another version of “Amazing Amy?” What was I expected to be? Who and what was I?

Those questions started to plague me; I began questioning my English ability. With almost full marks in the TOEFL test and years of part-time English teaching experience in China, I had always viewed English as my strength. In China, my peers always complimented me as a “native English speaker.”

To be honest, I never watched English-language TV series, and seldom read English books. I watched English-language movies with my eyes glued to the Chinese subtitles, and as a journalism student I never read the papers or turned on the radio unless it was a class assignment. I could feel the huge gap between me and native speakers, though it was hard for many in China to tell.

But what I had once viewed as a strength was now a weakness. I could no longer deceive myself. I could barely understand what my professor was talking about in class. I couldn’t tell or understand jokes with my classmates, not with all those different accents around.

The happy life I was depicting in my blog posts was over. I felt alienated.

“You had a strong feeling that you were ‘found out’ when you were sitting in class with no idea what others were talking about,” said Shu Xu, one of my friends in China. I called him a lot those days — “like between four and six you kept talking and crying,” he said, “but sometimes between 4 and 6 in the early morning, while sometimes in the late afternoon.”

I found it too hard to catch up, and after several tries, I just gave up and went about absent-mindedly, still feeling enormously uneasy and anxious. When it was my turn to join a discussion, I could only say something really vague, or even pretend that I had a sore throat.

Soon I had to turn in my first story. I can still recall my professor’s comments on that piece. “You need to work on simplifying your language and making things more understandable for readers and listeners,” he wrote, “I also want to suggest that you should consider getting some help from the writing program.”

Boom! Finally I was found out. Those smart people could easily tell that I was not qualified for the group and needed extra “help.” I was frozen when reading these comments, like a thief caught while sneaking out of a house with something in his pocket – no way to run, and no excuse to make. I must have disappointed my professor, I thought. How can I face him another day? What if he let others discuss my story? Then everybody would find out?

It was the first time I skipped class. I couldn’t get rid of the “being found out” feeling. English had been a strength and now I had nothing.

Things kept getting worse. I became ever more self-conscious in speaking and writing in English. I loathed my non-native accent and awkward sentence making. For every word I spoke out I kept telling myself: “wrong again! You shouldn’t say this!”

I became silent in class, and refused to conduct interviews, especially over the phone. I knew it was not professional to do interviews using text messages or emails, but the mere thought of picking up a phone and talking in English petrified me. When I had to conduct long interviews I spent hours commuting to do them face to face; at least when we met in person, I could just smile.

But then came a phone call that I had to pick up, a call that I had hoped that I would not get.



It was from my parents.

“Why don’t you write your blogs anymore?” my mother asked.

“I was … I was just too tired,” I said, hoping to tell her I was struggling a lot and was feeling “found out,” but for some reason I didn’t. “Too much school work.”

“Well then find some time for writing. Many of my colleagues follow your blog. We are all waiting for you. It won’t take you much time,” she said, and then added: “you love writing, don’t you?”

I love writing. Don’t I?

She had no idea that at that time I couldn’t even write a complete sentence or have a normal five-minute-conversation with others. My mind was filled up with fear and self-consciousness. I thought I should tell her that her daughter wasn’t feeling good and didn’t want to write anything. But I didn’t.

“Ok,” I simply answered, and then hung up the phone.

I checked my blog inbox and found several messages from all those kind strangers and from my uncle asking what happened to me.

I felt I had no choice. I was expected to write. I had to write.

The impostor feeling became even stronger. I could secretly blame the admissions officers for having made the wrong decision in accepting me — they had put me in the position of being an impostor. But for my blog, I had no excuse. I knew how bad my situation was, but also knew exactly what my readers expected to hear.

I chose to satisfy them. I turned my diaries into a fiction, a beautiful picture of an idealistic young reporter fighting and making progress in a great city. I betrayed myself and ruined my diary. As time went by, I could not remember which parts were true and which details I had made up. I would never be able to trust myself. What a pitiful one.

I seized on the cliché “Fake it until you make it,” and tried to console myself. Maybe it wasn’t such a bad thing that I faked something. Maybe that could inspire me to be as good as I appeared. I desperately needed something to comfort my guilty and fear.

Once again, I was able to bury some truth under that inspiring idea. Finally I could sit back down at my desk and start writing: “Sorry to skip the last week but I was too busy in this amazing place. I came to find my place, and kept exploring in journalism …”

It was the end of the fifth week.



Life continued as if nothing had happened. I resumed my weekly posts, satisfying all my readers with an imaginary New York life. My terror and anxiety seemed to gradually fade away. I didn’t give any thought to the impostor idea anymore, and my readership remained at around 3,300.

I still felt nervous about making phone calls, and was unable to write beautiful English. My stories were still returned with full-page critiques. I was asked to let the language tutor proof read my stories before I handed them in. I went to the tutoring every week, and I was much more used to the fact that I was lagging behind – I even lost interest in the idea of catching up. I felt numb.

My blog became a totally different place about another person, amazing me. I seemed to have little attachment to my posts, and wrote as if fabricating a novel. I imagined the lovable person I would love to be, and made her alive with my words.

If life went on like this, with everything covered up and taken care of, my life might be more peaceful.

But it wasn’t.

It got worse. In December, I was selected to be one of China’s first group of Rhodes Scholars.

Me, an imposter, a fraud, at Oxford.

I had no idea what a Rhodes scholarship was before. My college advisor happened to visit New York in September and encouraged me to apply for it. “It’s a great chance,” he said, “and even if you don’t get it, you won’t be losing anything”

Always listening to my advisor, I submitted the application. I didn’t give it any thought – I didn’t have the luxury for day-dreaming – until the first week of December. I was back home on break, standing by my bedroom window, looking at some children playing on the grass when I got a call telling me I’d been selected. I felt no excitement, no relief. It did not seem real.

I couldn’t recall many details of the phone call. I turned around and saw my father standing by the door, looking at me with expectation.

“I got in,” I said.

“Really?” He widened his eyes.

I nodded.

“I’m gonna call your mother,” he turned around. Suddenly I felt extremely tired, and just wanted to find a place to rest. I went to the couch and sat down slowly.



On the flight back to New York the following day I could not eat or sleep. I was afraid of being called a “Rhodes Scholar.” It made me feel all the more like an imposter.

I took out my computer, looked at the application criteria and wondered how they could have chosen me.

All the judges must have been deceived. I, again, had cheated them.

I did not know how I passed the customs in JFK Airport. All I felt was nervousness and dizziness. I turned on my cell phone, and was freaked out – hundreds of messages and tens of new friend requests on my social network; most of them were Chinese journalists requesting an interview. .

On the way back to school, I began sweating and felt extremely afraid. What should I tell the reporters? How would others find out that I was not as good as they thought? And for those people re-posting the news on the page, we actually knew each other, and they knew how common I was – I always procrastinated, I cut classes, I did very badly in some courses. Yes for sure they all knew that! They just pretended to praise me while secretly teasing me. And for my Columbia colleagues? They did not know what a hard time I was having, but they all saw how bad my work was. What would they think of me? What would my professors expect from me? Would I disappoint everybody?

Those thoughts overwhelmed me, and as I arrived in school, I collapsed. I wanted to escape.

I sent a message to my boyfriend asking him to pick me up after my evening class, and then turned off my cellphone.

I only finished half of the class and asked to leave. I couldn’t focus on what we were learning and felt like vomiting. I rushed out of the classroom and went to an Asian restaurant on Broadway with my boyfriend.

We ordered some sake, and I started drinking, without saying anything. The sake was heated up before being sent to the table, and I drank very fast. I was not good at drinking. Even before I finished my first bottle, I started to cry.

“I’m scared,” I cried, “I just want to write. I have no idea what the so-called ‘future world leader’ means. I simply love writing.”

My boyfriend looked at me quietly, as if he were looking at a frightened kitten.

“But they think I am … I must have cheated them …” I said vaguely, with liquor and tears in my mouth.

I logged on my blog to check my number of followers. It was now over 8,000. The newcomers had rushed in to read, like, and comment on my previous weekly posts.

I am a fraud. This time I am for sure.

My boyfriend finished his drink and laughed, “I should take pictures of you. It’s good news, right? Why are you crying?”

I was irritated, clenching the bottleneck and was about to shout. But I didn’t. I just kept crying and drinking, and babbling. I didn’t know what I wanted to say. I just repeated the same words — scared, tired. And tired.

I kept asking for more alcohol until the waitress stopped me. The owner of the restaurant had told her not to give me anymore to drink.

“She must think that I would be so drunk that I would smash everything here. Why don’t we begin doing that now?” I laughed, and turned to my boyfriend, like a mischievous kid.

I didn’t remember when he sent me back to my dorm. My head felt so heavy that I threw myself into bed and decided to sleep for at least 20 hours. But the fire alarm rang at around 8 am the next day and I was forced out.

I sobered up in the cold wind, and started vomiting.



I knew there was something wrong with me. But I didn’t realize that I was not alone. The world is filled with imposters.

I Googled “impostor syndrome.” There it was – an actual syndrome.I quickly learned that imposters can experience three feelings:

1) Feeling like a fake

2) Attributing success to luck

3) Discounting Success.

I felt all three.

The term itself was coined in 1978 by two American psychologists, Pauline Clance and Suzanne Imes. They described it as a feeling of “phoniness in people who believe that they are not intelligent, capable or creative despite evidence of high achievement.” While these people “are highly motivated to achieve,” they also “live in fear of being ‘found out’ or exposed as frauds.”

They also pointed out the following behaviors commonly found in high-achieving women with impostor syndrome:

1) Diligence. In order to prevent people from discovering that they are “impostors,” gifted people often work hard, which leads to more praise and success, and in fact perpetuates the impostor feelings and fears of being “found out.”

2) Feeling like a phony. Those “impostors” often attempt to give supervisors the answers that they believe they want, which only intensifies their feeling of “being a fake.”

3) Use of charm. Connected to this, gifted women often use their intuitive perceptiveness and charm to gain approval and praise from others. However, when others praise or recognize them, they feel the praise is based on charm, instead of ability.

4) Avoiding displays of confidence: A person dealing with impostor feelings may believe that if they actually believe in their intelligence and abilities they may be rejected by others. Therefore, to avoid this, they may convince themselves that they are not intelligent or do not deserve success.

I tried to match my situation with those descriptions one by one – based on my self-diagnosis, I was definitely trapped in this syndrome, which is particularly common among people like me – women who have achieved. .

I soon found out that I was not alone in J-School. “I don’t know why I came so far to learn journalism here,” said Xinyu Jing, a fellow Chinese., “I don’t feel it a match, and my English writing is so poor that I keep thinking about dropping out.”

Her worst days, coincidentally, were the same days as mine – starting from the end of the first month. Same as me, she chose to be silent and struggle on her own, without telling anyone else at school. I had no idea about her days back then, just as nobody knew about mine.

Many people suffered in silence, Professor Imes had written. “Most people don’t talk about it. Part of the experience is that they’re afraid they’re going to be found out.”

I began searching for fellow imposters. One of them was William Somerville, a PhD student in clinical psychology at The New School in New York City, whom I found on a psychology forum. He described his feelings of being a fraud vividly. “There’s a sense of being thrown into the deep end of the pool and needing to learn to swim,” he said. “But I wasn’t just questioning whether I could survive. In a fundamental way, I was asking, ‘am I a swimmer?’”

Though not an official diagnosis listed in the DSM, the impostor syndrome is more and more widely acknowledged by psychologists as a very real and specific form of intellectual self-doubt, usually accompanied with anxiety and depression. Higher educational institutions including Caltech have established special services in their counseling centers for those suffering from the impostor syndrome, with particular concern about “gifted women.”

So, was I really a fraud?

Maybe not?



I could not afford counseling, not with the inexpensive health plan I had signed up for, not thinking that I might one day need the help.

I would have to treat myself.

I first tried a popular therapy for the syndrome: writing therapy, which aims to allow the person to organize their thoughts in writing. I tried to write down my objective accomplishments, hoping to associate those accomplishments with reality, rather than, as a psychology textbook I found put it, “simply dismissing them internally.”

It was a terrible idea for a writer. After all, we play with words.

In fact, my syndrome was deeply rooted in what I had written — my shabby news stories, and my semi-phony blog posts. I didn’t believe anything I wrote down – including those seemingly therapeutic words. After writing too many personal stories and posting them to the public, I couldn’t tell which were true and which were fabricated. The more I wrote, the more I disbelieved.

If my problem was about writing, I wondered, what would happen if I stopped writing?

I stopped posting to my blog. Nervous and excited, I thought I had found a great way forward for myself.

I counted the days, every day. Three days after I was due to publish my weekly post, I got a message from my mother:

“Why did you stop again?” she asked.

I was suddenly hit by a feeling that was a mix of relief and grief. I knew exactly why I felt so badly about being an imposter, about trying to be perfect. Her message, in her usual tone, reminded me of something obvious but which I had long neglected:

I was not writing to those thousands of strange followers. I was writing to them. My parents.

I remembered the fifth week when I was struggling with whether to continue portraying myself as a happy, successful young woman on my blog. My mother phoned me and said: “Many of my colleagues follow your blog. We are all waiting for you.”

She was the authority in my family when I was only a child. Even as I tried my best to be a good girl, she seemed never to be satisfied. She is not a bad person, but she has a bad temper – a typical Chinese tiger mom. When I grew up and read Amy Chua’s memoir on the subject, I had great understanding and sympathy for her daughters.

I tried harder and harder, under great fear that I might irritate my mother, and as a result I pushed myself to accomplish more and more. That confirmed her idea that my education was a great success. “If I hadn’t treated you well, how could you be such a success?” once she said to me proudly.

My father, a traditional Chinese intellectual, feels things deeply but seldom shares those feelings.  He used to be a joyful man. But that ended after his father’s death. My dad became more silent and melancholy. He almost never smiled or laughed. Every time I wanted to talk to him, he was like an iceberg.

“I realize one thing after your grandpa’s death,” he told me one summer evening. “Why are we living in the world? The only answer is to make our parents happy. If they are not here, all the things you do will be meaningless.”

Though I understood that he was so sad because of my grandpa’s death, I told him I did not agree with his opinion. I think children should serve themselves first, and not simply live to sacrifice for their parents. “Selfish,” my father said, and walked away.

My parents and I share a social network. One Chinese New Year’s Eve I posted a picture of myself when I was perhaps six years old. My father texted me immediately: “Delete it.”

“Why?” I asked.

“I don’t like it,” he wrote. “Delete it.”

Such exchanges continue. Photos they don’t like, “Delete it;” Posts they don’t like, “Delete it;” complaints or such sad words as “I feel tired and stressed – too much to do,” “Delete it.”

“You shouldn’t post the stuff with a negative profile,” my father said. “it is selfish to radiate your bad mood to others.”

Last summer, when I was back home and, at 23 still single, he frowned at me: “You posted too many photos on your social network, some with your male friends. Those pictures will freak other boys out and no one will ask you for a date because they’ll think you are cheap.”

His demands that I delete a post always came with the words, “I was disappointed.” I cannot recall his ever praising me. Instead, he would say, “Do not let me down.” I tried so hard not to let him down. Even illness revealed to my father is prohibited – he told me, “You couldn’t take care of yourself and that’s your weakness. I AM SO DISAPPOINTED.”

I am so afraid to hear the word: “disappointed.” As time went by, I became afraid to hear this word not only from my dad, but from everyone. I am so afraid to let others down. Even now, every time I feel I let my boyfriend down, I ask, “Did I disappoint you? Did you tell me your true feeling?”

Only good kids deserve to be loved. That’s what I learned from my parents. I have to work really, really hard, and be really, really good. Otherwise no one will love me, even parental love, it is CONDITIONAL.

I made a mistake that difficult fall in New York. I told my parents I was depressed. I told them that I didn’t feel well and didn’t want to go to school.

“You are so fragile and that is your weakness,” said my father. “I am disappointed that you couldn’t be stronger.”

“It is you who made the choice to go to Columbia and learn journalism,” said my mother. “Don’t ever try to blame us. You should take responsibility.”

Now things became much clearer: I am not trying to cheat others. I am trying to please my parents.

Whether I’m a fraud or not seemed not that important anymore.



“Did I disappoint you?” once again I asked my boyfriend worriedly after I failed to answer a random question he asked. It had become my habit.

“Of course you might disappoint me, and you might continue to do so,” he replied, this time seriously. “But what’s the matter? It is a super normal thing to not live up to other’s expectations. You have to allow yourself to be normal.”

“I just have a higher standard for myself, you see, I never demand anything from you,” I said.

“You didn’t demand anything so far, but you will. You want yourself to be perfect and to never disappoint your parents, but soon you’ll understand to be perfect means you have a perfect educational background, a perfect job, and, of course, a perfect boyfriend.”

For the first time I realized that the intention to “show others I am perfect” not only hurts me, but may hurt others, especially those closest to me.

It was the first time someone actually told me that I might disappoint him, and that it was normal.

Then I got a welcome gift, from Oxford. Notifcation that I had failed. I had already been accepted to the Contemporary Chinese Studies program at Oxford for the Rhodes Scholarship. But I had also applied for another program – Evidence-Based Social Intervention and Policy Evaluation

I was turned down. Rejected.

I was thrilled.

I felt relieved, and a bit excited. In truth I found myself less and less interested in policy-related studies. I had applied for the program because I had promised the committee that I would, even as I secretly hoped I would not get in.

I don’t know why, but when I thought of this I sensed a bit of the excitement of revenge.

I published a short statement on my blog and used vague language: “I checked my email and found a rejection from Oxford EBSIPE. Honestly I felt happy, and my best friend said she could understand the ‘relief of being rejected.’ For one who always swings back and forth between choices, no choice is the best choice.” I hadn’t told others that I did get a back-up major, just hoping to spread the news that I WAS REJECTED.

No surprise. My parents started messaging within minutes. “Why are you doing this? It’s meaningless! Other people will think that you are not qualified and the whole Rhodes Scholarship is a joke!” my mother scolded me.

“I AM not qualified,” I said. “At least for the program, otherwise it would not reject me.”

My father was as direct as he had always been. “Delete it,” he said, as usual.

“Why?” I asked. “It’s your private stuff, you don’t need to let others know,” he said.

I don’t think so. I had been writing weekly blogs for over six months, all about my private life and feelings – some true, some not.

“I don’t think it’s a problem, dad,” I replied. “I have written so much stuff like this before, but you even encouraged me to write. I thought it was because this time it was a ‘bad thing’ to you.”

For the first time I was not that obedient. Deep in my mind, I had a firm idea – if I couldn’t be able to say “no” to my parents, I would never get rid of the impostor feeling, and might keep looking good and feeling rotten inside.

His reaction was even beyond my imagination. “You think you can outwit me? This action is childish and boring. Do you think that all your achievements were to fulfill my vanity? You are absolutely wrong! I am extremely, extremely disappointed. You want to do this, okay, do what you want, and don’t ever talk to me.”

This time for sure, I disappointed him. I knew if I had apologized or deleted the blog as he wished, he would not be mad at me, he would “forgive” me, and I would go back to the “amazing daughter.”

At the same time, my readers began to write me. I deleted them all. I didn’t really care about what those strangers thought about me, this time I acknowledged, I was only performing in front of my parents.

Maybe at the end of the day what we struggle with is in fact how we face our closest ones, our parents. I am not perfect, but I am not a fraud either. I have my limits, which I have to admit.

But as I might secretly want my boyfriend to be perfect, I might also secretly think my parents are perfect. All what they say or do should be right, and if it is not right, it should nonetheless be good for me. I had written flattering things about my parents — my father, an idealistic, intellectual engineer with profound knowledge in arts, and my mother, a beautiful woman who loves to sing and dance.

Those images were actually polished, or distorted by me. What makes this painful is not merely the fact that I am not perfect, but that neither, I had finally come to see, are they.


Lillian Zhang

Born in China. Based in New York. Heading for Oxford.

Voracious reader. Passionate storyteller. Rookie journalist.



I did not get on the train.

On the evening of July 11, 2006 – a series of seven powerful bombs ripped through the backbone of my city. It was the evening rush hour when the first of near-simultaneous blasts went off in the suburbs of the heart of Mumbai – a city that embodies India’s global ambitions, leaving more than 200 dead and countless people injured. The city was paralyzed. I could not sleep that night. I felt helpless. I did not know what to do next. I scanned through the list of names of the people who died. And two of my friends were on that list. I checked multiple times hoping I was wrong.

I could have been on the same ill-fated train and it could have been me, had I not been late to the train station. We were supposed to travel together that evening. A news report spoke about the spirit of Mumbai and how we will bounce back from this tragedy.

But my spirit was broken.

My life had been going well all along. I had great friends, a beautiful relationship and a dream job. But now two of my friends were dead. I was alive. And I was lost.

I remember just going to the train station the next day. Just sitting there for a couple of hours with a blank stare into nothing. Why me? I questioned. There are two outcomes when life challenges you: sometimes you get stopped dead in your tracks, and sometimes you change. And it is funny how fast things can change.

It would be wrong to say that I always had it easy in my life. But I had been brought up to feel myself a winner, an attitude that did not prepare me when things began to go wrong. But now everything was different. I lost more than my friends. Soon I would lose any direction. How can someone prepare for an event like this?

My relationship with my girlfriend began fraying. I became possessive of her. I was afraid of losing her. Perhaps, subconsciously. I was scared, scared that I would lose her tragically. She was ambitious, driven, and beautiful. We had always gotten along so well. She had moved to another city for her further studies and we would not meet as frequently. I became extra caring and needlessly obsessive about her. Somewhere I was not letting her live her life. She knew what I was going through, but she was clear it was not working out between us. The thing I was trying to avoid hit straight back at me. The heartbreaking memory of the smile on her face when she said the final good bye flashes in my mind.

She had to tell me that there is no future between us.

I felt an irrepressible urge to slam my fist into the nearest wall. I had not seen this coming. I could only imagine alternatives where there could have been no hurt, no bitterness.

I lost my friends. I lost my girlfriend who meant the world to me. Why me? I kept asking this question to myself. But there was no clear answer. Why did I miss the train that evening? Why had my relationship went downhill after the bombing?

At work, I was lost in thoughts about the past, the future and everything that was happening around me. One day I had blanked out during a presentation to a client. “Deepak, can we move forward?” said one of the partners of my firm. I was beginning to question everything that had made me happy. The turn of events in the past few months had turned my world upside down. I had always seen myself as a success, an achiever, a winner. But my performance at work was heading towards a total failure.

Maybe I was accepting defeat or I had no solution in mind. I wanted to run away. I needed some time to work things out, but had no idea how. As it happened, my friends planned a snowboarding trip to Gulmarg, Kashmir – one of the most beautiful places in India. The most unlikely of trips.

“Snowboarding in India?” I replied, astonished. I was not sure if I had my mind in the right place. But I kept my voice strong to show my excitement.

My friends knew what I was going through. They thought this trip might help me clear my head. Maybe in trying to learn and even master a completely unknown sport, might help me re-focus. I could focus on winning. Little did I know that this trip would have exactly the opposite effect.

So it was that I found myself that first day on the mountain, miserable. I just wanted to focus on learning how to snowboard not think of anything else. My friends seemed to be doing well. I was not. I started to think I was just not cut out for this sport and maybe life in general.

Just then I took a bad tumble. I fell flat on my face. Blood started flowing across my face through the cut above my eyes. I could not feel my legs. I could hear some sounds in the background.

All my problems started coming back.

Why did I miss that train that day? Why did it affect me the way it did? Why could I not overcome this?  And why was I feeling lost? And why couldn’t I even learn this sport?

There was a reason I did not take the train that day. There was a reason why my relationship ended the way it did.

I was being challenged as never before. I was not going to do it by running away. There was no one else in this world who could change this. At that very moment, I felt a strange sense of calm. Laying in the snow. Cold. With blood running down my face.

And then I got up.

About the Author

Deepak is a 1st year MBA student at the Columbia Business School and he would like to become a writer someday. He is originally from India and recently moved to US.

Hostage on Bleecker Street


We were blazed, having passed around several joints. I was sitting with Dana, Leticia, Evan, and Dr. Ken. It was after 8 PM when two armed men, whom I had never before seen, came stealthily up the stairs and entered the second floor of 9 Bleecker Street. “Nobody move!” one of them shouted. Only one of them had his gun drawn, but it didn’t matter. One gun was enough.

They canvased the space smoothly, without the slightest hesitation. They had done this before, I thought. As they circled the room, they continued to yell and the one with the gun scanned the room pointing his gun at each of us, while the other searched the premises. “Where is the money? We know there’s money here. Give it to us or someone’s going to get hurt!” I remember one of them yelling, his gun pointed in Dana’s direction. They seemed to know who was in charge, because most of their attention seemed directed at him. They began to tear through cabinets and file drawers, throwing their contents to the floor.

Dana, who by nature is wholly resistant to authority, started laughing wildly, jeering through his white handlebar moustache, telling them they had come to the wrong place and there was no money to be found. His mocking tone set off the one with the gun, who gracefully moved across the floor towards him and pistol whipped him across the face. Dana fell out of his chair, his nose broken and blood running down his face and on to his shirt.

He held his gun steady, pointed at Dana on the floor, and threatened to shoot him in the head if he didn’t give them the money. We all sat dead still. The gunman took whatever cash Dana had on him. The other robber continued to tear through drawers until he landed on a plastic garbage bag filled with weed (that Dana had planted specifically for people to steal, so they’d leave the good stuff alone. “Absolute dreck,” he called it). The robbers were clearly not satisfied with this find. If there is money, why doesn’t Dana just give it to them, I thought?

The robbers marched us single file up the stairs to the third floor. I had never been up there before, as few people were ever allowed or invited. The smell of cat piss was overwhelming. Alice, a prickly woman who talked to cats like they were people and people like they were garbage, lived there.

Alice tried to make a run for it, but one of the robbers grabbed her by her hair, dragging her back into the room. The rest of us were forced to sit on tattered chairs and couches. After much screaming and some resistance, she coughed up the thousand dollars cash she had stashed in her room. The man who had her by the hair shoved her roughly. Then as quickly and quietly as they had entered, they were gone.

The assault lasted close to an hour. For some time afterward, I sat in shock. Many questions were spinning around my head. Why had this happened? 9 Bleecker didn’t exactly attract people with money, so why had it been targeted? The robbers had clearly known who the owners were, but how? The robbers had moved through the space with surgical precision. They knew the layout and did not hesitate for a moment. They seemed sure of themselves. It didn’t feel random, but almost as if it wasn’t money they had come for at all.

It was no secret that Dana had made himself more than his share of enemies over the years, among his shady “colleagues” as well as in law enforcement. Had this been about retribution of some kind? A warning? Something political?

And most worrying, there was a strict rule at 9 Bleecker: whenever someone arrived, whoever was leaving or volunteered had to go down and make sure that the door was locked. If the robbers had broken in by force, we would have heard it. So, how had they gotten in? Or: who had let them in?


The robbery happened in the Summer of 2005, during a stretch of time, from 2003 to 2008, when I spent a lot of my evenings on the second floor of 9 Bleecker Street (or ‘Number 9’ as we referred to it), sitting around talking about god knows what, with some strange and interesting people. What we all had in common is that we smoked pot and knew the proprietor, Dana Beal. The building was, and had been since 1973, the headquarters of the Youth International Party, also known as the Yippies. Dana was an original member of the Yippies, along with the likes of Abbie Hoffman, Jerry Ruben and Stu Albert.

The Yippies came to prominence as a result of their involvement in the 1968 Democratic National Convention, when Chicago police clashed violently with peaceful protestors. The Chicago 7 (originally 8), as the group of activists that was arrested came to be called, were charged with conspiracy to incite a riot. Among the 7 were three prominent Yippies: Hoffman, Ruben and Lee Weiner. Their conspiracy convictions were overturned on appeal and the incident was termed a police riot by the National Commission on the Causes and Prevention of Violence.

Amidst the concentration of anti-movement activities being conducted by FBI’s COINTELPRO (counterintelligence) program, the Yippies were likely targets of the government’s strategy to ‘disrupt and neutralize’ Civil Rights and anti-war activists. As Abbie Hoffman and other Yippies became popular figures whose political voices resonated beyond the counterculture. Given that the FBI never discontinued its surveillance of activists, the possibility existed, however unlikely, that the robbery at Number 9 was a continuation of this harassment. This was the tense political landscape within which the Youth International Party operated, and so, understandably would earn the ire of law enforcement for decades to come.

We never reported the incident to the police, as that would have drawn unwanted attention to the goings-on at Number 9. So there was never an investigation and no official record of it. While several suspects and theories emerged, there was never a conclusive answer as to what had happened.


I can’t remember the first time I went to Number 9. I imagine my initial reaction was like most newcomers – a mixture of fascination and disgust.

Fascination, for precisely the reason that when you walked into Number 9, it felt like you’d traveled back in time. Not much in the way of renovation or redecorating had taken place since the 70s. Rally posters from decades past were peeling off the walls, and haphazardly balanced stacks of flyers sat on top of boxes filled with copies of the New York Times (Dana had been collecting every single one since the late 1960s.) As a young activist eager to understand the history of the Civil Rights, anti-war and Black Power movements, this was an education that I couldn’t get sitting in a class at NYU.

Disgust, because the place was always filthy; wrappers and other trash strewn about; ashtrays overflowing with cigarette butts and joint clips, and the ever present smell of cat piss. And because, while Number 9 attracted an incredible diversity of people, naturally some of those people were unsavory. Loudmouthed bigots, with selfish libertarian ideologies, halitosis and/or body odor.

Entrance to the 2nd floor was by invitation only. Activists, artists, journalists, writers, musicians, potheads, junkies, punks, anarchists and other personalities ranging from the awe-inspiring to the cautionary would stop by, most often to partake in one of Dana’s oversized joints.

The Yippies, who had once championed street theater and outlandish political pranks (throwing pies at politicians, dumping cash on the New York Stock Exchange), had since the early 1990s turned their attention to the legalization of marijuana and ibogaine for medical use. Ibogaine is a psychoactive plant substance that has been used to treat heroin addiction and has its roots in spiritual traditions of the Bwiti people of West Africa. Dana had established Cures Not Wars as a label for this new phase of activism.

Originally from Ohio, Dana spent his early organizing years in middle America, eventually migrating to the East Coast and settling in New York City. In 1963, he spent a short time in a mental institution due to this erratic personality, but was able to avoid being drafted to Vietnam. Dana gained recognition for organizing smoke-ins at Tompkin’s Square Park. In 1967, he was arrested for drug possession. Three thousand people marched from a Fugs concert across town to the federal holding pen. This was the beginning of Dana’s status as a figure in the movement.

Dana could be a paranoid and garrulous man, who would routinely yell, stomp and bray at people he suspected of being “narcs” or “infiltrators.” Or, people who just didn’t agree with him. I remember several instances early on, of Dana pointing his old, weathered finger at me, demanding to know: “You’re not a NARC!! Are you?” But there were moments of softness and humility. Dana, with his thinning white hair and matching handlebar mustache could at times project a grandfather-like quality. It took me some time to realize that it wasn’t personal, that it was just the way he was, and had always been.

Leticia had been going to Number 9 since the late 90s, and worked closely with Dana. She was one of the few visitors at Number 9 who kept Dana in check, and had earned his trust and respect as a result. I met Leticia working at a community center in Chinatown/Lower East Side called Project Reach. Leticia and I became close quickly, because we shared a low tolerance for bullshit, the same political sentiments and a deep appreciation of weed. She brought me to Number 9 to recruit me to help with the Million Marijuana March, which she was instrumental in organizing.

Evan had a quiet way about him, always standing off to the side by the radiator smoking a blunt. He had wire framed glasses and his hair was cropped close, save for an exceptionally long rat-tail dangling from the back. Evan was smart, well read and unlike many people at Number 9, easy to talk to. We’d talk for hours about art, history, music, social movements, women, and New York. Evan would eventually be disillusioned by the movement, and in particular by Alice who sat atop the second floor, descending from time to time to order people around and talk to the cats. He cut himself off from Dana and the Yippies. I remember catching Evan’s gaze during the robbery: trustworthy and calming.

Dr. Ken is another key figure in the ibogaine legalization agenda. I knew him the least of those present during the robbery. Dr. Ken is a clinical psychologist and lent his legitimacy to the ibogaine debate. At the time, it seemed to me that I wasn’t worth talking to. Just another one of the stoner kids who hung around waiting for Dana to throw them a clip. I remember, I caught Dr. Ken scanning the exit to the stairwell during the robbery. I imagined he was evaluating the possibility of a mad dash for it and thought, “If this guy runs someone is going to get killed.”


Before the incident, I remember 9 Bleecker having an anachronistic feel to it. A little cross section of a time past that I had heard and read much about but unfortunately was too young to have experienced personally. The stories of 9 Bleecker were the stuff of legend. John Lennon smoking a joint on the roof, Allen Ginsberg reading poems in the very same loft I was sitting in, the Yippies preparing their next outrageous prank. It was sometimes hard to tell for certain which stories were real and which were folklore, but this is what had drawn me to the place: its dense history, coupled with it being a safe place to get high and talk about politics, religion, art and changing the world.

But things changed after the robbery. Security became tighter. Dana and others who were mainstays at Number 9 became paranoid and would randomly accuse people of being spies and enemies. It was hard to tell when they were being high or being serious. This coalesced with the pressure to hold on to the building while the owners were trying to get the old crusty activists out, so they could raise the rent and bring in the newest trust fund hobby project. Maybe a boutique clothes shop, or an overpriced tapas bar? I came to see the robbery as a turning point. 9 Bleecker would never be the same safe space again. A last flailing bastion of a New York that was fading fast in the shadow of gentrification.


In order to stay afloat, the first floor of Number 9, which was in exponentially worse shape than the second floor, was renovated and the Yippie Museum Café opened. There was a moment of possibility and excitement for the prospect of reviving the space, and the counterculture. By this time, CBGB’s was gone, and the Bowery was undergoing a rapid transformation. Early on, I made attempts to contribute, but quickly realized that the problem was not gentrification but a movement (if at this point you could call it that) that was rotten to the core.

Walking into the Yippie Museum Café, the first thing you’d see was the “Pieman,” Aron Kay, behind the reception desk. Aron gained notoriety for throwing pies at political targets, including Senator Daniel Monyihan and former director of CIA, William Colby.  But, Aron, like Dana, was surly and demanding. That was the least of it, though. Aaron had over the course of the years, and as a result of health issues, become something of an obnoxious blob. An obese, drooling, immobile guard dog.

Once you got past Aron, you had to pass through the gauntlet of degenerates, who all felt entitled to official titles. The problem is no one did any real work, and whenever they got the chance they skimmed off the top, or just fucked off. In Dana’s absence, Number 9 took on a grotesque quality, a caricature of itself desperately struggling to maintain a foothold while being encroached on from either direction by the new New York.

As Dana sees it, the downfall of Number 9 was the result of “a series of betrayals, thefts and one major arrest.”

In June 2008, Dana and a loud, skittish woman named Carlotta, were arrested in Illinois for money laundering. They were caught with $153,000 in cash, money that would have secured ownership of Number 9. Dana said it was actually $156,000, but the cops took $3,000 for themselves. Though the charges didn’t stick, it led to a lot of bad press, which compromised the bank loan that Dana needed to keep the building.

In 2009 and again in 2011, Dana was arrested charged and convicted, in Nebraska and Wisconsin respectively, for trafficking marijuana across state lines. The weed was supplying an underground buyers club that primarily served people living with illnesses, and was one way that Dana made the money to pay the rent at Number 9.

Dana had spent years coordinating these clandestine trips, and I know he took care to cover his tracks, change routes, use different drivers. Is it possible that some cop out in the middle of nowhere smelled something fishy about this aging hippies and made a lucky collar? Maybe. Is it equally possible that they were caught as a result of an informant? The robbers hadn’t tried to get any money from the rest of us, only Dana. In fact, they reassured us that we were safe and that they hadn’t come for us.


Dana had hired a cadre of incompetents, thieves, and low-level hand-to-mouth con operators to run the café in his absence. After over three years in county jail, Dana was released a month after Number 9 was shuttered in 2014, rendered defunct by a gaggle of opportunists who stole from the register, botched orders, failed to pay bills, insulted customers and everything else short of just burning the place to the ground. Dana was effectively homeless by the time he came home, with his possessions in storage.

It was around this time, that I started visiting Number 9 less and less frequently. The spell had been broken, and the realization fully landed: activists could be, despite their political expressions and calls for change, just as disorganized, narrow-minded, petty, and corrupt as anyone else.


Immediately after it happened, possible suspects and theories of how and why the robbery had occurred began to circulate around Number 9. The three prime suspects were all acquaintances of Dana’s who had at one point or another had a falling out of some kind: a conman and career criminal, a former Black Panther and the publisher of an underground counterculture newspaper. I’ve chosen not to identify the men in question, because they were never charged with a crime and their involvement has never been fully substantiated.

According to Dana, he received a call from one of the aforementioned suspects who had been helping him negotiate a deal with landlord, a month prior to the robbery. He was allegedly upset about payment he felt he was owed and gave Dana “one last chance” to settle up. Dana refused, and as usual slammed the phone down stomping his cowboy boots on the hard wood floor.

Dana believes without a doubt that the robbery was set in motion by the caller, “a fabulous conman…who sent in the vultures,” the robbery that would eventually lead to the unravelling of Number 9. But as it stands, there is no conclusive evidence whether the robbery was an inside job, government infiltration or a random occurrence. Regardless, it was the first in a series of inevitable events that would capsize the Youth International Party once and for all. In the spirit of tolerance and inclusivity, the counterculture had allowed itself to be infiltrated by self-interest and greed.


Since the Yippies lost 9 Bleecker Street in 2014, the building has been taken over by the Overthrow Boxing Club. It is run by a group of young tattooed models and boxers. Overthrow was the name of the underground newspaper Alice published out of Number 9. A tribute? Or just a way to commodify a piece of counterculture history? Who really cares, right?

Dana says the club had promised to pay for the rights to use the name but never did.


Dana now lives on the second floor of a dilapidated synagogue on 6th Avenue. When I walked in, it felt like I was back at Number 9. A laptop sitting on a desk amidst piles of paper, a bookshelf stocked with sci-fi books and pill boxes (Dana suffered a heart attack while in jail and has been on medication since), someone passed out on a mattress in the corner and an ashtray with a half smoked joint.

He is more melancholy and subdued that I remembered him being ten years ago. He speaks more frankly, without the bravado. He regrets: letting the Yipster Times fall apart in the 1970s, not writing the breaking article on phone phreaking, the blue box and the origins of Apple in the 1980s, not refinancing 9 Bleecker at the right time in the 1990s, trusting the untrustworthy for far too long.

He becomes quiet and pensive when he remembers Alice. “Alice was alienated from me, lost forever,’ he says, ‘but we had a long, long sunset.” At the age of 69, he seems clearer than ever about his objectives and maintains a rare belief in people and the possibility of positive change.

When I asked Dana how he maintained his idealism, given decades of betrayal, he paused for a full minute before answering. “Do you know how much four milligrams is?” I shrugged, not sure what he was getting at. “Four milligrams is a speck! A speck of ibogaine two times a day reverses Parkinson’s. We’re at a breakthrough moment.” His face lit up, and he started explaining his plans for shipping ibogaine pills to people with Parkinson’s around the world. The deflated relic instantly replaced by the indefatigable activist.

“You can’t allow any disaster, no matter how large, to paralyze you for the rest of your life,” he concluded.

As I got up to leave, Dana asked me for a dollar. I stuck my hand in my pocket, and pulled out the change I had and handed it to him.

“You’re partially paying for my New York Times,” he said.

“Do you still save every issue?” I asked.

“No, not really anymore,” he replied. “I’m digital now.”


Sidd Joag is a New York City based journalist and visual artist. 

A Topography of Her Abortion

Lilu is my only friend who has openly talked to me about her abortion. I know other friends have had them, I know family members have had them, I know 30 percent of women under the age of 45 in the United States have had them, but we don’t talk about it. At the time of her abortion, Lilu only told a few close friends. She didn’t tell her parents until years later. It felt like something she needed to keep a secret. Lilu had wanted to write about her abortion years ago, but a friend told her it would be a bad idea to have this story linked to her name, that it might affect her employability. Even now, she is not entirely comfortable publicly sharing her story, and so we have changed her name to Lilu. Later, she would say to me, The whole pregnancy proves that you don’t have power. You don’t have power if you have to keep it quiet.

Lilu has heard many personal stories of terminated pregnancies. Once people know about her experience, they reach out. Friends, acquaintances, and older women will tell her their memories. A story becomes a gift, a way to transmit comfort, wisdom, warning. Lilu describes these connections as an underground bond, a network of solidarity. Around us, everywhere in the world, there exists this secret shared history, a network of women, connected by the stories of their terminated pregnancies.


On her last day in New Orleans, Lilu got a phone call from her boyfriend telling her he had a premonition. She was on a school trip and her assignment was to collect narratives of the devastation left in the wake of Katrina. She had been spending her days walking through the Broadmoor neighborhood surveying the hurricane’s aftermath. Some houses had been redone and had fancy alarm systems, while others were left blighted. The effect, she said, was “like a mouth full of rotting teeth:” the resurrected houses didn’t quite make up for the jarring gaps in between. People were kind to her. They would offer her a Coke and answer questions about what they would like to see improved even though everyone knew her survey would not lead to tangible change. In between interviews, she would eat. The little sandwiches she was provided with weren’t enough. She would eat one sandwich and be ready for a second lunch. She craved French fries. She laughed about her hunger, cracking jokes about her growing body and how her bra no longer fit. She didn’t think much of it until the phone call from her boyfriend.

He called to tell her he had a premonition she was pregnant. They occasionally had unprotected sex and she wasn’t on birth control, but it had never been an issue. The thought that she might get pregnant hadn’t really crossed her mind. Yet when he had a hunch, Lilu listened. He had an intuition that could be a bit uncanny at times: he was a dealer, and always seemed to know when the police were going to pull him over before it happened, and he was always right. So when he told Lilu he just had a feeling and it was urgent, she immediately went to the pharmacy and bought a pregnancy test.

Lilu came from the kind of family where anti-war protests were a regular activity, where her demands to be a vegetarian at age 5 did not seem outrageous, and where being pro-choice was pretty much assumed. She had recently turned 20, was in college, and was leaving to study abroad in just over a week. Her boyfriend was what a mutual friend described as having “a wild energy.” He was younger and on the verge of being kicked out of school. She had been working at a cute local bakery making minimum wage plus tips. She knew that if the test came back positive, she would get an abortion.

She went to the bathroom, holding the tip of the test stick in her urine stream. She waited to read the results on the mini screen, but even before the requisite three minutes were up, she could see the plus sign.

The test was positive.

Shit, she thought. I fucked up.

I wasn’t supposed to get pregnant. That’s one of the things you’re not supposed to do.


My introduction to Lilu’s pregnancy also began with a phone call. She called me once she left New Orleans, and I remember the drama of that conversation. I got very quiet and I went to sit outside on the steps so my mother couldn’t overhear us talk. Lilu and I had been friends for years. We called each other when big things happened, and we called each other when nothing happened. We would spend hours glued to our phones planning how we might run away to China together and rent a two-bedroom apartment; we analyzed our parents, our friends, and our romances; we pondered the possibility of lesbian animals. This felt more intense. I could feel her fear as she panicked about how to organize an abortion in a limited time-frame. She was leaving for India in a week and a half. Woven between the terror and stress of the logistics of an abortion was a kind of wonder that she had something alive inside her body at that very moment. It seemed fantastical.

I remember her describing how even just a few weeks in, being pregnant made her senses so sharp she felt like she had superpowers. She went into a deli and could smell every ingredient in a man’s sandwich from across the room. She could smell chips through the bag. She felt alert and alive.

Now, six years later, I find myself returning to this moment in her life. I went back through our Facebook messages in the hopes of finding clues to what this experience was really like for her. We mostly spoke on the phone, so there is hardly anything about her abortion, but there is a lot about our friendship. What I found most revealing was a comment from just weeks before her pregnancy about the nature of memory and our relationship. She wrote to me:

I lam drunk. Its weird how we have other peoples stories in our own memories. Like I remember the time when you were in the temple of heaven and at inauguration. Oh oh ohohohohohohohohdfk;sdf;laisdjfilsdjflas;fdijsdfijsfjisejfisjfeifjaiefjisdfjaeijrawljfslddjfeijfskajdfeijfksdjfeiwjfsajfeiwj I am making a beat on the keyboard.

Her message speaks to how, at that time, we almost viewed each other as extensions of ourselves. I remember when she got pregnant. I remember when she got an abortion. I can feel how she felt — drunk and nostalgic, tapping out a rhythm on her keyboard. Her experiences became my memories, not just in the sense that I remember what it was like to be me while she was experiencing this, but also in that because I felt so close to her it is almost as if I lived a second, vicarious life through her. I remember her experience through my memories of that time. But the story feels incomplete.

I know my own memories- they are dense and full and I can access other dimensions of them at will. I can pull out colors and feelings, impressions, and sometimes, even smells. I also have Lilu’s memories, but they are fragmented: I can piece together bits from stories, Facebook messages, photos and questions. But there are infinite details I cannot access. She and I have always been different and we cannot fully hold each others’ memories or truly know what happened to the other. This tension and distance is something we desperately tried to fill with our friendship, and my desire to investigate her story is another attempt to bridge this gap, to bring us closer. Her memory is at once within my reach and a mystery. The challenge of writing about Lilu’s abortion lies in how fully I can remember something that I never experienced.


Scheduling an abortion in the United States is not easy, especially when it is urgent. Lilu was leaving in just 10 days for a study abroad semester that would take her all over the world. Her imminent departure meant she needed an appointment, immediately. She worked up her courage and dialed the number for Planned Parenthood. She explained the situation and was told there were no openings within her timeframe. So she called another clinic. She was turned away. Again, and again. This happened seven times. Seven different clinics could not accommodate her. After the third clinic told her they had no spaces within the next two weeks, she started to panic. She called clinics in other cities. By the sixth phone call, she was frantic. Finally, on her eighth phone call, a clinic in New York had an opening. Lilu had her appointment.

On the day of her procedure, Lilu waited outside the clinic with her boyfriend for her cousin to join them. Her cousin would describe them both as looking unhappy. The boyfriend seemed, “nice enough, but awkward, and unhappily in this emotionally difficult situation.” Lilu told me she wasn’t unhappy; mostly she remembers just feeling disconnected and aloof, and also wanting to put her cousin and boyfriend at ease. Her biggest fear had been that she wouldn’t be able to undo her pregnancy, that she “wouldn’t be able to fix her fuck-up,” and she was grateful and relieved she had finally found a place she could get a safe medical abortion.

She entered the clinic, and paid $420 upfront, in cash. She didn’t want it to show up on her family insurance plan, so she and her boyfriend had scraped their bank accounts just that morning. It felt expensive. Passing over wads of bills made the procedure feel illicit.


The waiting room was a microcosm of New York women. It was diverse and chatty and overcrowded. Some women came with partners, some with friends. Lilu was the youngest. She observed how the women interacted with their partners, and to her, the room pulsed with “baby mama drama.” Her cousin surveyed the room and was struck by the normalcy of the situation: it felt like any other waiting room, but with more tension.

Sitting there, Lilu began to feel afraid. She didn’t know much about the procedure. She didn’t know how much it would hurt. Her cousin tried to comfort her with stories of other women in the family who had had similar experiences.

One by one, women were called to come to the back room. The women all received treatment at the same time; an assembly line abortion. They all got their fingers pricked, and then all got their blood taken, and then all got ultrasounds. They were dressed in little smocks and sent back to the waiting room. A myriad of women sat arranged in identical chairs, dressed in identical little gowns. Their shoes were different. Their situations were different.

They waited for two hours.

Lilu sat in one of the sterile gray chairs, dressed in her little hospital smock and combat boots, and observed the carefully curated fertility art that decorated the walls: a ballerina slipper balanced on an egg, flowers that looked like vaginas, a curvy indigenous woman resting in some sort of nature scene. The 40-year-old Virgin was playing on the TV. The nervous energy of the waiting room was amplified by a loud slapstick scene where Steve Carell frantically struggles to put on a condom. The ludicrousness of movie choice was not lost on anyone.

Someone commented that she was hungry, that she wanted a burger. This was met with murmurs of agreement.

Lilu chimed in, saying she wanted French fries.

This provoked a strong reaction. All the women started cheering for French fries.

French fries, French fries, French fries, chanted the pregnant women.

A nurse came to take Lilu back, and she left amid the cries for fries.

In the back room, she slid her feet into the cold metal stirrups. An anesthesiologist searched for a vein. He instructed her to count to 10. 1, 2, 3, she began, and then everything went dark.

Lilu would leave her appointment groggy and nauseous. She would gingerly step out onto the street, weighed down by an enormous pad, and buoyed up by the procedure which had lifted a heavy burden from her uterus.


Vacuum aspiration abortions are common in the United States. A tube in inserted through the cervix into the uterus. A machine pulls away the uterine tissue, sucking the area empty, and success rates are 99 percent. Very occasionally, complications occur. This normally happens if the patient is in the earliest weeks of her pregnancy. Lilu was in the earliest weeks of her pregnancy. The less than one percent who experience complications can easily be assessed and treated during a follow-up appointment.

But Lilu was going to India, and would not be able to attend her follow-up appointment.


I’ve spent a lot of time in the last few weeks pushing Lilu to explain how her abortion affected her. On one hand, it is vivid; it is alive with details, dramatic twists, and bizarre synchronicities. On the other hand, there is something about her experience that remains ephemeral and hard to grasp. I desperately want to know, Did it change you? What did it end up meaning for you?

Abortion is often significant not so much for what happened, but for what didn’t happen. Lilu didn’t have a baby. A baby would have changed her. But I think her abortion had impact beyond what it prevented. To me, the event felt pivotal, and I’m trying to understand how.

I asked her cousin Lea what she thought. Lea was understandably reluctant to ascribe meaning to somebody else’s experience, and I understood; it felt wrong imposing my own interpretations onto something so deeply personal to an experience that was not my own. I think about Lilu telling me, I felt angry about people trying to control me: politically, old white men trying to control my body. I wonder if my writing about this somehow imposes upon Lilu’s memories and story my own agenda, an action that inadvertently echoes the behavior of those who take moral and political issue with abortion. I push Lea to tell me her thoughts, and she muses that perhaps it was a kind of personal test for Lilu.

Talking to Lea, I was reminded of the greater context around Lilu’s abortion. Lilu was not having an easy time. Her parents were going through the kind of divorce that surfaced difficult and painful truths. She was in a relationship with a boy who was in an unstable period himself and hungry for all her energy. Everyone was demanding something from her, and what they were asking for never seemed to be small. In the midst of all this turmoil, Lilu was able to be strong for herself. As Lea put it, “she was able to assert herself in a moment when other people were needing so much.” To Lea, the clinic visit felt like “a defining experience for Lilu as a woman. It was this moment of autonomous decision making, sexuality, reproductive health politics — it felt like she was a grown person in the world dealing with stuff grown people in the world deal with.”


Two days after her procedure, Lilu boards a plane to Delhi. She mingles with her new classmates, students she will spend the next few months travelling around the world with. She keeps her recent experience a secret. She doesn’t know them yet.

The first time she throws up, she is stepping out of a motorized rickshaw. She is by a temple orange with marigolds and decorated with monkey life, their quick feet lending movement to the static structure. She inhales the thick stench of exhaust and incense, and then vomits spiced peas and roti. She wipes her faced with lined scratch paper because she doesn’t have a napkin. The second time she throws up, she is hovering over a pile of trash in a back alley. Two skinny white cows watch her and eat from the trash pile. She also throws up in the school bathroom, hovering over the squat toilet, and on her way to the Taj Mahal. She thinks it might be the food. And then she gets worried.

Weeks pass. She doesn’t feel well. She isn’t getting her period. She decides she needs to see a doctor, and asks the program director to arrange an appointment with a woman’s doctor — she is vague on the purpose, saying she needs a check-up. She does not know the politics of abortion in India and isn’t sure how open she ought to be about her situation. She doesn’t want her teachers to know.

Abortion is legal in India, and safe in most city centers.

Her program arranges for her to see a gynecologist and sends a translator with her. She and her translator bundle themselves in a colorful rickshaw and head to the hospital. They meet with a doctor who does an ultrasound. The screen is faced away from Lilu so she can’t witness what is happening inside her. Behind the doctor is a sign which says that showing the results of an ultrasound is illegal; the government, afraid of female foeticide, attempts to discourage any knowledge of the sex of a fetus.

The translator and doctor have a conversation in Hindi.

Lilu is nervous.

The translator speaks. The baby is not gone. They left something in there. You had an abortion.

It sounds like an accusation.

Do women in India have abortions? Lilu asks.

We try not to. The judgment of the translator is obvious, something Lilu can feel, a tangible accusation left hanging in the air.

People everywhere try not to, Lilu thinks.

The translator announces that she must leave for a party and abandons Lilu, even though the doctor has not yet finished explaining what went wrong, even though there are still steps Lilu will need to be guided through: she must go to the hospital pharmacy to pick up a prescription and she still needs the medication instructions translated. But the translator leaves.

Lilu wanders around the hospital complex, lost until an 8-year-old boy comes and offers to help. He takes 20 minutes out of his day to shepherd her around the maze of buildings, bringing her to the pharmacy and helping her pick up her medication. And then she leaves, making her way back to her Indian host family.

In their home, she breaks down for the first time.

I can’t do this.

She looks at the pills. One is a medication she is supposed to put inside her which will kill any bacteria. The other pill will empty her uterus.

Shit, she thinks, I’m still pregnant.


I recently spoke with the clinic that performed Lilu’s abortion in New York and with an ob/gyn. Lilu was not still pregnant. A vacuum abortion would have cleared out the fetus. Occasionally, however, in less than one percent of cases a vacuum abortion may leave behind “retained product.” A follow-up appointment is essential to determining the best way to resolve any issues, and a pill can easily induce the uterus to shed this placental tissue, though it may involve cramping.

Lilu had already taken the first pills when she sought out one of her teachers. A beautiful Jain woman, elegant in a rich sari with matching bindi, her teacher makes some phone calls on Lilu’s behalf. She calls to find out about the pill Lilu has been prescribed, and in the process of translating, figures out what happened. Why didn’t you tell me? She chides. We are all women here. She says. She translates instructions for how to take the pill, and shares one of her own experiences. And like that, Lilu has an ally.


Lilu left for Senegal. Flying in she could see through the window the shadow of the plane miles below. No clouds, no haze to obstruct the view, just the dark silhouette of their 747, clear and tiny.

In Senegal, she jumped on a trampoline by the ocean, her pink patterned skirt flying up. She rode a horse. She sat in traffic and made eye contact with a ram, casually perched on the roof of a car ahead. She took a pill, likely medroxyprogesterone, designed to induce her period. She played Terminator Salvation in an arcade, pulling the trigger of her fake gun, aiming at the characters running across the flickering screen. Finally she was able to flush her body of whatever the doctors had left behind in her uterus. She shopped for fabric, picking her way between the boldly outlined geometric patterns of blues, oranges, and vibrant greens. She had minor cramps. She snapped photos of graffiti, taking note of the “G Unit” tag messily scrawled on a fading yellow wall. Her uterus was slowly evacuated.

Eventually, the students found themselves on a bumpy bus ride, making their way to a village several hours away. Lilu had only a vague sense of their location, and later, she would be unable to pinpoint it on a map. The village was small, roughly half the size of a college campus. They had never seen white people before, or Asians, or Latinos. There was a striking absence of men. The locals were polygamous, and the male to female ratio heavily favored women not only within the family unit, but also in the village. Most men had migrated, looking for work elsewhere. Left behind was a community of women, the very young, and the very old.

Every female above the age of 14 had a child. Mothers gazed at her, babies stacked on their hips and clinging to their shins. Four children seemed to be about the average. The women appeared joyful. Laughing and smiling, they made constant jokes about babies and motherhood. They playfully jibed the program leader, Why don’t you have children? What are you waiting for? How can you be 30 and childless? The program leader was conspicuously silent the rest of the stay.

Lilu was introduced to her host family and found her way inside her home for the evening. The walls were teal, the roof thatched and leaking sunlight, and she sat on the edge of a brightly patterned bedspread. A girl climbed into her lap. She had tightly woven braids and wore a blue t-shirt tied around her neck like a scarf and matching blue shorts. She had 18 colorful plastic bangles adorning her small wrist.

Lilu felt nauseous.

Why wasn’t she having a child? Lilu looked at these women, leading lives so different from her own. She thought about her recent choice. How could she be so mechanical and technical? She told me she felt shaped by her industrialized society, and wondered if her choice had somehow failed to consider a critical element.

“I started feeling very dark about it,” she said.

That night, she had the worst sleeping experience of her life. She lay awake on the large bed, babies sprawled out on either side of her. She felt mice scurry across the sheets, and thought about her abortion. She thought about the village women, about everyone raising each others’ children. It was beautiful and uncomfortable.


It is difficult for me to pin Lilu down on the meaning her abortion had in her life. I don’t know where a single experience ends and begins in your life narrative, she says. It’s not a tidy thing. It was both traumatic and empowering.

And then she begins listing how this experience had impact.

It taught me that I’m ruthlessly independent, like, I will not ask for help for better or for worse. It taught me something about myself that I probably knew, but it was a very strong proof of my character with myself, with my flaws included.

It encouraged me to get birth control. And now I’m sort of afraid of sex.

There’s a lot of emotional baggage that gets stirred up. You start noticing babies and the technologies in having babies. And your interest and disinterest. You don’t say, oh if I was pregnant now, I would have the baby. I know I would not have the baby. It comes back so hard and hits you. It makes you a little more of a realist.

I feel like I can participate in the conversation around abortion. I ended up studying to be a doula.

I own a part of myself from that experience that I like, which is that I’m not weak, and I’m not needy.

I was so lucky.


You’re not pitiful in an abortion story because you had a choice, Lilu tells me. Lilu is not pitiful in this story, at least not to me. In fact, I am moved by her strength. The first time she tells me her narrative from start to finish, I am stunned, quiet. There is something about this unfiltered story that leaves me with a deep respect for my good friend. I have heard pieces of this story over the years, but when I hear her tell it from start to finish with no interruptions and in full detail, it’s like she’s dropped a shield and I see her exposed in all her bravery and determination. She is funny, bright, and modest, and these decorations sometimes have a way of masking her substance. When I hear this story, it is her fierce courage that catches me.


Just before she boards her plane out of Senegal, Lilu gets a phone call. Her grandfather has just died.

It hits me like… I just get put into Jello. I can’t see or feel anything… everything is just shut off… all my senses felt shut off.

Lilu was close with her grandfather. Very close. On the plane, she watches the moon for the entire ride. It is balancing on the tip of the plane wing.

She thinks about her grandfather’s death. This baby was supposed to be my grandfather. If I had given birth to this baby, it would have been his spirit.

She feels a sudden painful regret that she gave up this opportunity to see him again.

When she tells her boyfriend, he says she is crazy.

I just had a lot of spiritual balancing questions in my head. I know it’s ridiculous to think about reincarnation, but I still can’t separate it.


On one of their last nights in Senegal, two of Lilu’s classmates decide to hold a ceremony. It is night, and it is warm out. Everyone sits in a circle. They light a candle and begin storytelling. The candle is passed from person to person, and whoever cradles the little flame is asked to share the deepest place in their emotional history. Lilu is surprised by how fully people open up. One person describes her battle with anorexia. Another speaks about her mother doing crack. Everyone is sobbing.

The candle is passed to Lilu.

When else do you have the opportunity to tell a story that’s really cutting to the bone? She thinks. I want to do this whole trip 100 percent. I could talk about something distant, or I could talk about this, what’s happening right now. It just came out.

She tells her story, but in very few words.

It goes, “I was dating this boy before I came and we thought that me coming on this trip would be the end, but then I got pregnant, and then I had an abortion, and it didn’t go well, so I had to go to the doctors in India.”

After telling her story, Lilu feels a palpable difference in how the group relates to her. Everyone’s mood toward me changed. They just treated me with so much respect. It was this thing I felt very secretive about, and they were silenced by it. It just became this sort of woah component.


When I first wrote this story, I didn’t include this ceremony. And then I realized that perhaps I had cut out something crucial. I hadn’t understood why Lilu ended her account of her abortion with this anecdote. I had heard her talk about the ceremony before. Many times, in fact. She told me about it shortly after it happened, and she talked about it occasionally in the years since. She would describe it as a bizarre, almost-mystical encounter. It was intensely emotional, and created a moment of bonding and connection in a way she had never quite experienced before.

I believed her. I thought I understood. But I didn’t give it much thought. It seemed irrelevant, like an add-on: at that point, her abortion was already over. She had her period, a new endometrium was building up inside her, the process was complete. So I cut it out, excluding this bit of her narrative from my account.

And then, it hit me. She kept telling me about this experience because it was significant to her. Sharing her story with her classmates had meaning. And of course it did. Underneath her entire account, their lies a sub-narrative of shame and silencing. Six years ago, when thinking about her approach to her situation, she thought I’m going to keep quiet about it. I’m going to pretend like nothing happened. She was afraid to tell certain people. She was afraid to tell her parents. She didn’t want her classmates to know what she was going through. She was afraid to tell her program leaders, even when she needed a follow-up gynecology appointment. She didn’t tell her doctor in India, waiting for him to understand when he looked at her ultrasound. Later, she considered writing about her experience, and was advised by a good friend to keep silent. After her clinic visit, she sent me a message saying she wished she could change how abortion is treated, she wished she could “make it not shameful.”

Lilu’s quiet cracked when she opened up in that circle and spoke about her experience. Telling her story allowed her to share herself in her authenticity, to defy the shame imposed by others, to defy the shame imposed by herself, and to defy the shame implicit in silence.




I send Lilu a copy of this story, and she responds, it feels heavy and foreign even though it is accurate. There was a lot of dark comedy in the actual experience. Moments that in retrospect were ridiculous more than painful.

As I finish writing her story, I realize I told my own. I originally wanted to tell a story about a time I was sexually assaulted. I would tell people what I was thinking of writing about, and they would respond, are you sure? The implicit message was, don’t. And so I decided to tell Lilu’s story. She is my friend, I felt she had a powerful memory. But after writing her story, I’ve realized I unconsciously made it my own. Though the details, experiences, actions, and quotes come from her, the tone has been warped by the teller, by me, and the layer of melodrama and darkness is not hers. As I ascribe, even impose, my lens onto her actions, I realize I cannot help but understand her life through the filter of my own experiences.

I tell Lilu what I have done, and she says, I imagine our two stories layered on top of one another in varying opacities. That is ok. I think this space we are creating on the page is just the physical manifestation of our relationship. A safe space where we can blend opinions and emotions and, conversations where the manuscript is fluidly ours, not rigidly mine or yours.

I am drawn back to thinking about the nature of our friendship. About the parallel processes that we have undergone with each other. About the parallel processes we have undergone with everyone. The parallel processes, you, the reader, have undergone with Lilu, and the parallel process you have undergone with me, the writer. I think about stories. When we tell the stories of others, are we really just telling are own? When we listen to the stories of others, are we really listening for our own? Perhaps this is why we use share as the verb for storytelling. Can we inhale the lessons, the meaning, the substance of what happened to someone else? Does sharing a story, a friend’s story, also mean sharing the burden?


Allegra Chen-Carrel is completing a master’s in Global Thought at Columbia University. 


Inside Out

I face the first of what will turn out to be many ethical dilemmas on the subway on my first day of work. I had moved to New York less than twelve hours before and would not sleep in a real bed for another four weeks. I leave two hours before I have to report to work, not out of necessity but of nervousness. I am so early that the train is not crowded, a rare phenomenon I should appreciate in the moment. I do not. Instead, I alternate between reassuring myself that they will not fire me on the first day and trying to determine how many different shades of black I am wearing.

A girl steps onto the train. She is not particularly remarkable in any way, and I am struck by the similarities. She could be me. She doesn’t quite look like she belongs in New York either. She wears leggings, a nondescript t-shirt, her hair tossed up in a ponytail. A sweater hangs on her frame at an odd angle, half off one shoulder—the same look I often catch on myself and hate for its sloppy effect. The sweater is this shade of green that I would call moss. My sister has a sweater this color. This girl could be me, I think again. Then, I notice.

Her sweater is inside out. You have to tell her, something inside of me urges. I feel a familiar anxiety creeping up, this phantom paralysis of my vocal cords. The once sleepy silence of the early morning train is cut with escalating sound, this inescapable, maddening rushing in my ears that always envelops me when I stay quiet instead of speaking up. The longer I say nothing, the louder it becomes and the dumber I feel. Just say something, you idiot, the voice implores, but I can’t do anything. I know that I cannot beat whatever this force is, the one that all too often leaves me mute when I most want to speak. As always, the words seem stuck somewhere in my larynx.

The silence on the train is growing louder and it feels as if I’ve been debating this for hours. It’s really just been a few stops, but I can’t stand it any longer. I take a sweaty palm off the pole, ready to extend a finger to tap her on the shoulder when a terrifying thought runs through my head. What if she meant to put her sweater on that way? What if she consciously decided to wear it like that? This possibility—ridiculous, ridiculous, ridiculous as it is—stops me dead in my tracks. My hand is slightly outstretched, awkward, still in the air. The tag on the sweater—LOFT—hangs out in plain sight, mocking me.

A computer-generated voice jolts me back onto the subway. Where did she say the next stop was? I’m panicking now, rushing off the train in fear of accidentally going to Brooklyn. I squint into the sunlight as I exit, knowing both that I am lost and that I still have enough time to get to where I am supposed to be.

It is not until later that I realize I never did tell the girl about her sweater, and that I will never know what happened to her. I will never know if she found out, if some braver person told her, or if she took off her sweater at the end of the day and felt that mild embarrassment that comes occasionally with being human and fallible. I’ve come to know that feeling well in the moments of my life that have involved sweaters and subways and standing struck with silence, each with its varying degree of consequence. But on this first day in New York, it is comforting to know that I can fix a sweater or walk the few extra blocks easily enough, and that as far as the rest goes, I still have enough time to get to where I am supposed to be. I do not know what happened to this girl who could be me, but I hope she feels the same.

Coming Out in Boot Camp

“So you are a lady who stepped into the men’s bathhouse,” shouted a psychological examiner who worked for the South Korean army to Private Kim, a 19-year-old freshly drafted conscript. Private Kim had just declared to the examiner that he was a gay person.

The examiner’s reaction was crude, but any objection or complaint by Kim was unimaginable. His head shaved, Kim was one of those conscripts who, like every other South Korean male, was sent to a South Korean draft camp located 25 miles from the North Korean border. In two days, the privates were to be assigned to one of several boot camps along the border.

“Why are you here then?” asked the examiner, breaking the awkward silence between the two. The examiner seemed to be bothered by and skeptical of this homosexual private. As a psychological examiner working for the South Korean army, his job was to filter out any possible troublemakers who craved an exemption.

“Why am I here?” Private Kim asked himself when he was woken up 6 AM in the in his barracks by a trumpet blowing reveille. Kim was sharing the room with other 20 other young men lying on the floor wrapped in their sleeping bags.

A month before his conscription, Kim had finished his first college year in Tokyo. His new friends gathered and drank beer to say their farewells. Kim returned to Korea few days after Valentine’s Day in 2009 for the conscription. His father registered him six months earlier when the Japanese Yen skyrocketed due to the subprime mortgage crisis in Wall Street. The family had to wait until the price of the Yen dropped down to pay his college tuition.

On the afternoon of the third day, the conscripts were l gathered and seated in the camp’s outdoor amphitheater. Down on the stage were signs for the conscripts who need specialized medical checkups for such problems as dentistry, orthopedics and ophthalmology.

While virtually all young Korean men are subject to two years of military, fewer then eight percent of them are granted an alternative choice called “Public Service Personnel,” such as working in a local governmental office, if their physical condition makes them unfit to serve in the army. Fewer than two percent with serious deficits or illnesses receive exemptions.

All Korean males, including Private Kim, are required to get a basic medical check-up at the age of 18 at the local draft office. Private Kim was judged physically fit to serve his country for two years. Kim did not reveal then that he was a gay person, which would have required psychological examinations at a big hospital.

Now, as they gathered in the amphitheater, the conscripts were told there would be additional medical check-ups for those needed one. Kim thought this could be the last opportunity to save his youth and freedom from being sucked into a black hole and wasted.

In front of other hundreds of his healthy peers, Kim and 40 others stepped down to the stage. Kim and four others sat in front of the sign “psychology.” They were brought to the medical office building.

“So you like men, heh?” continued the examiner, a middle aged man wearing glasses and an old military uniform. “So why are you telling this to me? Are you sure you are a homosexual?”

“While I was in my high school, I fell in love with a guy who was my best friend,” replied the private, “and I want to ask you what will happen if I fall in love with a soldier here.”

The initial conversation did not last long; the examiner seemed rather irritated. Kim was ordered to sit in the corridor and consider whether this would be his final answer, which would mean going through the army’s legal processes. He was given 20 minutes to make up his mind.

Kim stepped out to the corridor and sat on the cold cement floor. He had to calculate all the factors and risks he would carry for the rest of his life.

Declaring oneself as a gay person in the Korean army was a risky thing. Since the details would be documented in official military records, future employers or governmental agencies would find out that Private Kim was a “sexually challenged person.” Gay or not, a nail that stands out will be hammered down in Korea.

The bigger yet imminent challenge for Kim was how to explain what had happened in the draft camp to his parents. While his close friends knew, Kim had not told his parents that he was a gay person. His parents had never said a word about homosexuality while raising Kim. They did not even teach Kim and his brother how men and women conceive children.

Kim raised his head and saw three young men sitting before him. One was a thin man who seemed to be depressed. Another man talked to himself and then spoke rudely to another shy man sitting between him and Kim.

“So I am like one of them?” thought Kim. “What is so special about me? Who am I to ask for medical check-ups while my other friends and peers go into the army without any complaints?”

When Kim realized that he was the only person left waiting in the row, he knew that he did not have much time left. He was still sitting on the cold floor, figuring what kind of hardships and humiliations he would face for the rest of his life. He decided that if he received an exemption, he would go back to Japan and leave his country forever.

He reflected on his life as if he were watching a short collage film. He remembered when he made a first friend in college and learned basic Japanese by drinking beer with his colleagues. Kim also remembered how he was forced by his parents to undergo facial plastic surgery a few months before he graduated from high school to enhance his appearance before entering college to survive any competition.

He also recalled his suicidal thoughts immediately after taking a TOEFL test when he was writing university applications. Finally, he remembered the pain when he fell in love with his best friend in high school, a heterosexual guy; the friendship ended when Private Kim failed to reveal his sexuality to his friend and started pretending as if they had never been friends.

As memories became more vivid, Kim felt determined and ready. He realized that this was the moment when he was given a chance to decide his future by himself, and not a future dictated by his parents. He did not want to waste this opportunity.

“I have to tell my parents anyway,” thought Private Kim, rather amused how the army and prompted his dramatic coming-out. “My own happiness is the ultimate filial piety.”

“To be free, one must sacrifice give up a little part of oneself,” was the phrase Private Kim tried to remember as justification for his decision. The phrase was from the musical “Hedwig and the Angry Inch” by a fictional transgender character who castrated himself to escape from East Berlin. Kim realized that he had nothing to lose.

When his number was called again, Kim walked into the office and sat on the chair in front of the examiner’s desk. Kim declared that he was a homosexual person. This was to be recorded in official papers. The officer silently and slowly filled out the document and scheduled the next appointment in a hospital, where Kim’s “mental illness” would be confirmed.

When Kim and his peers marched back to their barracks, the drill master ordered the conscripts to sing marching songs like “Torches of Red Hunt,” a song urging soldiers to seek revenge against North Korean Communists.

It was only his third day in boot camp, but Kim was craving music so much. He tried to image Beethoven’s string quartet Opus 135, for he never heard the music before. He remembered the music from Milán Kundera’s “The Unbearable Lightness of Being,” one of his favorite novels that he had read in high school student.

“Muss es sein? Es muss sein! (Must it be? It must be!)” Kim whispered to himself.
As Kim returned to the barracks, his 20 peers surrounded him and asked what had happened.

“I actually have a brain tumor. I was dropped on my head when I was a toddler,” explained Kim. His peers stared at Private Kim with both sympathy and envy.

Even though it was his first day as an official gay person in the eyes of his nation, Private Kim still had to make up some lies to get by.

Unpacked and Alone, In Botswana

As I walked through the pre-dawn darkness past the mongooses dotting the fields of my new home, I remember thinking that it was cold. In my imagination Africa was not supposed to be this cold.

Forty-eight hours earlier I had been in New York, sweating through the late-June heat, packing up as much of my life as I could fit into three suitcases. The city had been home for four years, and though it and I were not quite done with each other, I felt that we needed a break. On the plane ride across the Atlantic I read Joan Didion, which was a terrible idea, and lamented the life and city I was leaving behind. Like her, I could remember, with a clarity that still makes something in my chest constrict, the moment New York began for me, but couldn’t figure out when exactly it ended. Like her, I fell in love with the city in summer and decided to leave several Aprils later to decamp for a warmer locale.

Looking back now, over three years filled with friendships and familiarities in a sleepy city that never offered the extremes of New York love and depression but did provide stability and a sense of belonging, I struggle to find the person that I was in those early days. Unsure of myself, dazed by my surroundings, desperately longing for the life I left, chilly mornings and dusty afternoons blend together leaving me mostly with snapshot memories: sitting on a bench beneath an acacia tree at 3 AM, staring up at the southern sky while talking to a girl eight thousand miles away; hiking a rocky trail to the top of a mountain on the outskirts of town and returning to the car parked in a nearby supermarket parking lot to find our phones stolen; standing in front of a classroom of students and feeling very out of place.

I wasn’t sure what I expected Africa to provide; it was enough at first that it was simply not New York. My first full day in Botswana was also my first day of work, teaching history at a high school in the middle of Gaborone, the country’s capital city. Arriving the afternoon before, while the students were away on holiday, meant that my first hours were solitary ones. I wandered the dirt paths of the campus, overwhelmed by trees I didn’t recognize and trying to adjust to air lighter, dryer, and dustier than what I was used to. I lay awake late into the night, unsettled by the time shift and the silence outside my window.

As I struggled through my transition and spent too much time alone, solace came, as I expect it does for many teachers, in the form of students. The great and terrible thing about teaching is that no matter what happens in your own life, the kids will always be there waiting for you. This was true for me in New York, and I found it true again in Botswana.

I had expected some sort of orientation period, a chance to get acclimated to the school and perhaps a slow handover of classes from the previous teacher. Upon arriving for my first morning staff meeting, however, I was handed a schedule and pointed in the direction of my first period class. I hesitated and asked what I was supposed to teach. “Didn’t you get the package we sent?” asked Abdul, the gregarious South African head of the history department. The blank look on my face must have been answer enough because he quickly continued, “Eish, damn BotswanaPost. It’s okay, we’ll get you caught up this afternoon. Don’t worry, hey? The kids are great.”

On the last point he was absolutely correct. As I stumbled through the first few days trying to get caught up, they were understanding, accommodating, and – as I came to know over the next three years – hilarious.

When I recently asked several of those students what they remembered about the beginning of my time in Botswana, I received a variety of answers with one common thread: my apparently hyper-American appearance. “The first couple of days you really looked like a tourist when you walked around campus. The wide-brimmed hat and the backpack and the red sunburnt skin didn’t help you fit in very much,” Nicole said. Onalenna went even further: “Ask every African about the American starter pack and they will give you the exact same answer. It involves a 1.5-liter water bottle, sun glasses, a pair of shorts, an old sports team shirt, and takkies (sneakers). They always look like they are going to go on some wilderness survival hike for twelve days. That’s how you dressed every time you weren’t working. So my initial impression was: Oh no, another one.”

In hindsight, their impressions cut deeper than they probably knew. For a long while, I did feel like a visitor there, and apparently didn’t hide it as well as I thought I had. One of the students I came to know the best said, “Your first few weeks I could tell that you really missed home. You often talked about how you couldn’t wait to go back.” Perhaps she was especially perceptive, but she was right. I had left New York, but hadn’t yet given up the idea of the city as home. It would take several lonely months for me to accept the decision I had already made.

Botswana does not compel immediate reaction. My love for the country began far more subtly than my experience with New York. The early days were rougher, slower, dimmer, than that first summer in the city. The beginning of my time in Botswana is filled with memories of dark, lonely evenings, balanced by brief moments of light in the classroom. At the end of one of my lessons that first day, three girls came up at the end of class as I was packing my things. “We just wanted to say welcome,” Saira said as her friends nodded. “We’re happy to have you here.” They seemed so gratuitously kind that I glanced around to see if they were being sent up by other students to sarcastically mess with the new teacher. But they were sincere. And, for a moment, I was happy to be there, too.

Day 73

We left on day 73. The familiar hallway, quiet and sterile was lined with nurses, doctors, social workers, other families. I felt a pang of guilt when I saw some of the other mothers and fathers clinging to their children, hooked up to the pumps that ran IV lines to their chests.

Still, a feeling of triumph filled the place that for the 72 preceding days had been serene, hushed, and respectful of the delicate state of all its patients. Unit 5200 at Duke University Medical Center – sixteen bedrooms total, each with children undergoing stem cell transplants. Everyone at the hospital knew it by number. The mention of those four numbers elicited a look of sympathy reminiscent of one extended at a funeral home.

She had survived this part. I looked around her room, 5205, and the walls were bare. The hundreds of cards that had been plastered across them just the day before were now neatly organized in a bag. The IV pump was turned off and the toys packed in a small suitcase. The sign on the door, drawn by my sister “shhh…Caterina is sleeping” was folded and tucked away.

I turned to look once last time. Part of me wanted to bolt out the double doors back into normalcy. Part of me was paralyzed with fear. My feet felt too heavy to move forward. We had been waiting for this day since July. It was now October. The seasons had changed but we had lost sight of all that. The large square window next to the caregiver’s bed I had slept in for most of these 72 nights was the only trace of connection to the outside world.

I had sat for days staring out at the one large tree visible from the window. I read “Siddharta,” “The Power of Now,” “The Gnostic Gospels,” “When Things Fall Apart,” some CS Lewis, and a dozen other books on adversity, suffering, and grief. I meditated, I called psychics. I had an energy healer come to our room. I drowned my grief in the sounds of merengue and salsa, Celia Cruz chanting “no, no hay que llorar, que la vida es un carnival, y las penas se van cantando!” You don’t have to cry. Life is a carnival. Singing will drown our pains.

We did not know whether she would survive the stem cell transplant she needed to save her life from the disease that would otherwise kill her most likely by age 10, Hurler Syndrome.

We checked into the hospital on July 27th, 2004. Caterina, my daughter, was 14 months old. Two months earlier she had been given a diagnosis that would alter the course of all of our lives. Ten days of chemotherapy would destroy her entire immune system in preparation for the infusion of stem cells from an unknown donor’s umbilical cord blood.

The transplant took place on what was coined “Day Zero,” August 6th. A small bag, the size of a Ziploc, containing the equivalent of half a cup of blood, held the key to her future, and mine. We then waited for 21 days to see whether her body had accepted the donor’s cells, a process known as engraftment. It was a waiting game to see whether she would she start making her own blood cells, whether her immune system would recover.

She would need to start making the enzyme I had never imagined I would need to know about: alpha-L-iduronidase. Chemistry had been my least favorite science class. I loved biology. I could comprehend red and white blood cells. This mysterious missing enzyme, I could not. She would die without it. Her organs would slowly shut down. Her eyesight would begin to fail, her liver would enlarge, her cognitive abilities would decrease over time. Her bones were abnormally shaped. There was some fluid surrounding her heart. The lack of the enzyme made her body slowly screech to a halt. The only hope was a stem cell transplant.

Who was there on that day? Who was with me? I went back to my journals. My mother was there. So was my aunt. This was all too close for my mom, who had lost a 31-month old son to cancer.

Now, I adjusted the small blue mask around Caterina’s face. Her round face had grown fuller from the steroids. Her hair had fallen out, but she was beginning to grow some hair on her face, a side effect of the anti-rejection medication. Her body seemed sturdy. She was quiet, calm, happy. I grabbed the bag with her belongings. We had dressed her in cheerful clothes: striped leggings and a bright top.

“We’re leaving now,” my mom said.

“Ready,” I replied.

I looked at Andre, Caterina’s head nurse, the only male nurse on the unit. We had grown close over the past two months. He gave each of us a huge hug. How would I survive without him and all the other nurses?

Out there, in the rental unit where we would live for the next few months it would just be me filling syringes, administering intravenous medication, drawing blood. Daunting as it was, it was better than being in the hospital.

My aunt stepped behind my mother and me.

“Let’s do it, ” someone said.

We stopped by the door to the room to take a picture. And then we heard the cheering, and the clapping, accompanied by a rain of confetti. The entire unit marched up to us to bid us farewell. It felt like a victory parade. Everyone was crying. I clung to Caterina as the double doors to the main hallway flung open. The world was waiting.

“Please, I prayed as I held my daughter’s hand, “let us never have to come back.”

Cross Country

My family moved from Mankato, Minnesota to New York City in the summer of 1989. The four of us drove in a gray Pontiac 6000 station wagon that my parents had bought used. My dad had picked the neighborhood, Bayside, because it was considered safe, at a time when New York City wasn’t the safest place to be. In Mankato, we had never locked the house or car doors. In New York, we had to form new habits.

The house we moved into was the standard Queens immigrant apartment. But it had three bedrooms, which meant for the first time in my life, I had my own room! We lived on the top floor with two apartments on the 2nd floor, and a washer and dryer in the basement. At the time, it felt luxurious. Our living room was large, with a row of windows facing the street. My mom would peek out the window to keep an eye on us when we played outside.

In Mankato, we would wander around the apartment complex, dashing into the wooded backyard and down to the ravine, where my sister and I would spend hours playing by ourselves. In New York City, the new rule was: stay in front of the house and stay in sight at all times. New York City was not Mankato, my mom would remind us, here people went missing, got attacked and killed, on the regular.

A few months after we moved in, my mother’s mother, came to visit. Gran spent six months with us. That spring we went to see the Statue of Liberty. We parked the Pontiac 6000 at a lot in Flushing, and took the train into the city.

After a day in the city, we returned to Flushing exhausted and ready to go home. But the gray Pontiac 6000 was gone.

My father had picked Queens because it was considered safe. And it was safe, for people, just not for cars. In the late 1980s and early 1990s, Queens boasted the highest rates of car theft in the country. Bayside in particular was a preferred hunting ground for car thieves, given its proximity to the Whitestone and Throgs Neck bridge, leading out of the city, and the wasteland of chop shops in Willets Point.

My parents filed a report with the police, who let them know that it was unlikely their car would be found, and even if it was, was likely to be squashed for recycling, or in pieces to be sold. So, with the same determined spirit that brought my parents from India to the United States, they went out in search of their car. My parents employed the help of their friend Kalelkar, a father of two, who, like them had immigrated to Queens from India. Having lived in NYC a few years longer than my family, Kalelkar knew the lay of the land and where to begin the search.

They spent several hours patrolling different neighborhoods Kalelkar had suggested. Finally, they spotted the gray Pontiac 6000 station wagon parked outside an auto body shop in Willets Point. After finding an appropriate vantage point, my dad called the police from a payphone. My parents and Kalelkar waited. After fifteen to twenty minutes, the thieves started to make a move. My father and Kalelkar decided to follow them. My mother waited at the payphone in case the police showed up. Every twenty minutes or so, my mother called home to give us an update. My Gran would jump up and grab the receiver each time, “What’s happening Seraphine?” she’d ask. An hour and a half passed, no police officer showed.

The gray Pontiac 6000 pulled out of the scrap yard with two passengers inside, down some back roads and onto the Grand Central Parkway. My dad and Kalelkar followed a safe distance behind, leaving two or three cars between them and the thieves.

After tailing the thieves for awhile, they hit heavy traffic on the off ramp to the Long Island Expressway. My dad seeing his opportunity, jumped out of Kalelkar’s car, and ran up past the Pontiac 6000. Waving frantically, he informed the drivers of the cars in front that the car behind them was his, and had been stolen. He asked them not to move. They agreed.

As traffic started to move, the thieves realized they were stuck and panicked. They tried to drive up the embankment on the side of the highway, but the car couldn’t make the climb. The thieves jumped out of the car, and scrambled up the embankment, leaving the keys in the ignition, along with a copper pen knife they’d clipped to the ring.

My dad got in his car, and drove home, triumphantly. My dad had always been my hero, this solidified that.

Only years later, would I realize how dangerous my father’s escapade had been, and how badly it could have played out. But for him, it wasn’t just about getting his car back, it was about conquering a place.

An Afternoon at the Aquarium

The beluga whale show was so good that this man had traveled all the way from Singapore here, to Harbin, a desolate and frost-bitten city in the Northeastern-most corner of China, to see it. He convinced us that we couldn’t leave the city without catching the show, a beautiful encounter with nature. We were there to be marveled—our itinerary so far included massive snow sculptures, ice palaces, underground Russian clubs, and a tiger sanctuary with a literal herd of tigers (and one liger)—we felt it should be worked in, if possible.

We were a group of five friends, Allen, Mark, Sofia, Prerna, and me. We’d come from various parts of China, besides Prerna who lived in the U.S., and convened in this winter city, which hovers about 470 miles north of Pyongyang, to attend the Harbin Ice Festival. The festival runs for two months each winter and draws huge numbers of tourists, mostly from China and Russia.

On our last full day in town, we looked up the beluga show times before we left our apartment and then set out by cab. We could see the aquarium long before we were anywhere close to it. It rose off a stretch of flat, undeveloped land on the city limits, looking like an igloo mansion: several large white, circular structures with sloping roofs combined into one structure. As we joined the stream of taxis delivering visitors to the aquarium, we saw that the outside walls were covered with huge murals of killer whales and harp seals and penguins.

Large speakers flooded the parking lot and ticket area with ear-grinding, upbeat electro-pop. Allen, Prerna and Mark went over to the ticket stand that looked like some port of call ticketing booth. When they met Sofia and me by the entrance, they had news: the next beluga show wasn’t for an hour.

“So we’re seeing the sea-lions now,” said Allen, “and then the belugas!”

Inside there was no aquatic life in sight besides the stuffed dolphins and whales being sold by salesgirls with overdone make-up. Huge cartoony arrows led us through a maze of food we could buy, from fruit smoothies in plastic dolphin cups with crazy straws to meat dumplings or fish sticks.

We were ushered by the general flow of the crowd toward the auditorium where the show was about to start. I dipped out of the line to get a juice at the stand. “Oh, uh, I’ll wait with you,” said Sofia, stopping too. I mangled some Chinese fruit words and waited as the blender sounded off behind the counter. “Do you think this is going to be like Sea World shows?” she asked. I shrugged. I’d never been to Sea World.

By the time we got inside the auditorium, the host was already center stage, dressed in a toy soldier’s uniform, with oversized gold buttons and exaggerated epaulets. He was speaking emphatically into a headset, using sweeping hand gestures. The room was low-ceiled and packed, with people seated on tiered steps that surrounded the stage and the small in-ground pool that stretched in front of it. The whole place smelled like dank pool water.

By the time, Sofia and I had found our friends and sat, a tall, slender girl with a long blonde braid had also appeared onstage, and the ringleader was pointing the crowd’s attention over to her. She was wearing a girl-version of the cartoony soldier outfit and spoke a few words in Russian into her headset and waved to the audience.

Trumpets blared from somewhere off-stage and out of a back pool six black, leathery seals came bounding onto stage, one after the other. Techno-carnival music started and a wet-suited trainer came out from the wings and began tossing rings at the seals, who each caught them on their snouts and then dove into the front pool, becoming a black streak for a moment before peaking out of the water again, ready to catch another ring or bounce an inflatable beach ball. The ringleader didn’t seem to take a breath as he continued to talk and clap and wave his hands wildly. Mark, who was seated to my left was cheering loudly with the rest of the audience. Allen was laughing and grabbing swigs of the baijiu liquor that Mark had pulled out of his coat pocket.

I clapped for the seals, but found myself distracted by the pretty Russian girl, who stood watching the seals off to the side with a stiff smile. We’d met a lot of Russians the night before at a club. Like us, they’d left their country to soak up some of China’s excess. But this girl, getting lightly splattered by smelly aquarium water kicked up by seal flippers— Who had she been in Russia that this was better?

The seals were making their final lap, their black heads raised in synchrony out of the water. They hopped back up onto the stage with grace and slid back into the other pool. More trumpets sounded; the ringleader was practically screaming in excitement.

From the wings, the sea lion appeared, his blubber rippling as he shimmed his massive body across to center stage. The ringleader went over to him and they high-fived. The crowd burst with applause and laughter. Then, in a moment of surprising agility, the animal pulled himself upright, so nearly his entire body was erect, and his fleshy pink penis poked out from his blubber. “Oh my god, look at its cock,” Mark said loudly into my ear, laughing.

The ringleader let out a long groan into the microphone and then began shaking his head at the sea lion and pointing to the exposed organ. The lion bent his head down, like he was looking at his body and then raised his flippers up to cover his face in embarrassment. Waves of laughter were shaking the crowd.

Sofia made a slight movement next to me, and I looked over at her. There were tears streaming down her face. “Sofia?” I touched her arm. She shook me off and said she’d wait outside. She turned around and grabbed her jacket, stood up and walked out.

Mark was still cheering next to me. I sat there, unsure if I should follow her or just let her be. The rest of them hadn’t really noticed. The sea lion was in the pool now, doing a swim routine to a new track of pounding music.

Finally the intermission came. “Where’d Sofia go?” asked Allen. “She left,” I said. “I think she’s upset.” Nobody wondered why.

Outside we found her sitting in the closest seat to the exit. When she saw us coming she gave us a little, weak smile and stood up. We all walked out together, silent. Nobody mentioned the tickets in our pockets to the beluga show.

The New Year Solution

New Years Eve, 2014 I was lying in my bed. I could hear the street laughter, the “Happy New Year!” shouts and horns as if they were marching through the window.

Earplugs did nothing. My hearing had amplified, what felt like ten times the normal.

After the festivities ended I listened the rest of the night as my mom snored next to me.

Instead of a resolution I came up with a solution.

I had laid there shaking. Every day for 3 weeks.  It’s not even right to call it shaking, it was more like convulsing. I slept an hour a night. I woke up every morning tasting my gums juicing blood into my mouth. My hair fell out in clumps in the shower which I would place on the tiles in a pile.

Everyday, I couldn’t do anything.

My mind raced with thoughts: my parents were going to die within the next 10 to 20 years, or even sooner. They are older than most parents and I am an only child. Would they see me married? Would they be grandparents? They would be great grandparents. Then I realized I was afraid of their deaths when all those fears didn’t even matter since I would probably die before them.

I hadn’t and couldn’t even cry.

Focusing on anything else was impossible. I couldn’t eat. I had lost 30 pounds. I became agoraphobic. I had multiple sweaty panic attacks a day.

It was the same thing every day.

When the clock hit 5 PM, I knew I had made it one more day. I would wait for the one hour of sleep and the next day to come, even though it would be all the same, again.

My mom was preparing to retire and was working during the day. My dad sat by my side throughout each day and my mom slept in my bed at night.

They had their shifts.

It had become our everyday.

I kept my new bamboo lamp from Ikea on, as if the light would keep me alive throughout the night.

New Year’s morning, 2015 wrapped in multiples of blankets I sat with my parents in the kitchen. My mom and dad would periodically yell at me to “stop shaking.” I tried, but I couldn’t.  I would attempt to hold my legs down with my elbows with the little strength I had.

“Lay on the floor,” said my dad, who thought the yoga “corpse pose” would cure me. Sit-ups became the only way to stop my muscles, for just one second, a moment of steady peace.

They, my parents, bundled me in layers and took me for a walk around the block. Every person we passed only made me wonder how people were “so normal.” I was not even close to normal anymore.

The three of us had stopped talking to friends and family.

I was sure this was my last New Years.  I didn’t know what was wrong but I knew I was dying and this is how it felt. I told my parents.  I told the doctors. I knew this is how it felt to die, and I had accepted it and was ready.  Any past fear of death didn’t seem so scary anymore.

I lay in bed and watched multiple TEDTalks.  I watched one where Sam Berns sat on stage deformed, surviving a disease called Progeria. He discussed his “Philosophy for a happy life.” Till H. Grob discussed “How to become more confident,” explaining the benefits, relief and freedom after laying down in the street for 30 seconds. Nick Vujicic, with no arms or legs, paced, discussing his suicide attempts and how to “Give up or keep going.” He learned to keep going.  I watched as Karina Hollekim talked about “Life beyond fear,” after her near death experience ski jumping and being told she could never walk again. She stood on the stage pregnant and strong.

But they were able to control their fates.  I wanted to govern mine.

I had planned my suicide a few days before the New Year.  I didn’t want to die rather in the one hour I slept a night.   The Ted Talks helped, but none of the speakers were about to die. They were living. They had found ways to live. They were inspiring but they weren’t me.

I was deteriorating before my own eyes.  I didn’t want to wait to die. I had accepted my coming demise, I wasn’t scared and I was ready.

I hoped my parents could be as strong as the Ted Talk speakers after I was gone.  I hoped they would even look through my chrome history. I told my parents my plan. They made me call the suicide hotline. No one answered the phone.  I was put on hold and a half hour later hung up. My parents were the angriest I had ever seen them. They yelled but they didn’t understand; nothing they said made sense. Their voices were amplified even filtered through the ear plugs I had been wearing.  I felt sorry, apologized, yet I made my decision.

I wanted to leave notes on my hard drive on how to finish my documentary, write letters of love and appreciation and say good bye.  I wanted to control my own death.

I realized how alone I had become. For the first time in my life I was okay with that feeling. No matter how many days my dad sat next to me in bed or my mom slept with me at night, I had never been so alone. I was the only one who understood I was dying. I was the only one who could feel it and could handle it as a plain fact.

After the end of an toxic two year relationship I had been put on a high dose of Klonopin, a benzodiazepine, 4 milligrams a day. It was “just to take the edge off.”  I was diagnosed with being bi-polar, anxious and depressed. Three months later, I was taken off of the Klonopin and put on two other antidepressants, again “just to take the edge off.” That’s when the shaking began. But I didn’t realize this is why I was dying.

I would later find out I had been expiring from a benzodiazepine withdrawal.

My Mom now says, “I didn’t know if it was psychological, I didn’t know. But I never thought it was what it was, a withdrawal. I think, I kept thinking you would wake up the next day and it would just be over.”

My dad remembers me only being sick for one week. He also blames my ex for all of it.

They were surviving.

“In retrospect, it all seems clear,” says my mom. “But when something like that is happening, you just try to figure out each moment, in the moment.”

My dad says, “The doctors should have known. They should have known even just by looking at you, the mistake they had made.”

On the last visit the doctor’s supervisor tried to justify the treatment and why they called him a doctor when he was really a, P.A, a physician’s assistant.  They knew nothing about me.  My files had not been monitored. They appeared nervous and threw out excuses, ones I can’t even remember since their voices were blurred and my shaking was overwhelming. My dad told them he had experience with malpractice but that we weren’t there about malpractice. He just wanted me fixed.

Two days after New Years I saw a new psychiatrist who put me back on the Klonopin.  She couldn’t believe I was still alive. “You maybe had two to four more days,” she said.

She saved my life.

A year and a half later I still take Klonopin only because my body needs it. I still can’t sleep without the help of five pills at night and two to wake me up in the morning.

The Ikea lamp is soothing but I sleep in the dark. I “corpse pose” at yoga classes. I feel content instead of confused when I take a moment to people watch.

I still get billed for the $35 copay for my last office visit at that clinic.

; – “The semicolon symbolizes that the difficulties people face are not the end but a new begging.” (semicolon project)

If you are worried that you or someone you know may be at risk for suicide, please call your local authorities (911), contact a mental health professional, or call and talk to someone at The Suicide Prevention Lifeline 1-800-273-TALK(8255).

If you would like to contact the author about the memory please use the form below or via:
Twitter: daniellerosebk
Instagram: daniellerosebk

After the Crash

“The two assholes were racing each other,” said L. “I heard they were on drugs or something.”

He was standing in the non-Euclidian circle we had created, incessantly tapping his right thumb on the filter end of the cigarette. L. was one of P.’s closest friends. I had to like him because he was dating one of my closest friends.

“I heard he was still alive when the ambulances arrived,” said F. “They were all still alive, but the ambulances took too long to get there.”

F. came to be known as “the one who hadn’t cried.” He was always the confident, borderline cocky one, with his blond hair and angel voice. He was fervently texting when he spoke those words. In that field of stones and graves, it seemed that P.’s death had left F. unmoved.

I, on the other hand, was shaking. My legs trembled. My fists clenched. My body was fighting the urge to pour out my lunch – if there was any. I wanted them to stop talking about it. I couldn’t understand why they were even talking about it, why they were looking for a culprit, for someone to blame.

“Who the fuck cares?” I whispered. “It’s not like it’s going to change anything.”

I stood up and began to walk away. When I realized what I had said, it was too late. Things were not going to change. There wasn’t any magic time-turner or machine in a police box.

P. was dead. He died. He is dead. A collision, a moment, an instant and, then, boom – gone.

Police disabused us of what we thought had happened. The drivers weren’t racing. Of the three cars involved in the accident, only one was speeding.

In the Alfa Romeo 147, there were two friends, both in their 20s.

In the other Alfa Romeo 147, there was a couple of newly wedded Swiss tourists, driving down the coast.

In the red Renault Clio, there was a family of four.

When the driver of the first Alfa Romeo decided to pass the honeymooners just to prove that he could, he probably wasn’t thinking about how a family of four could turn into a family of two in a split second. Or could stop being a family at all.

“What can I do? It’s not like I can bring them back from the dead,” the guy said when he woke up from a coma in the ICU of a small town hospital.

And he was right. What could he do? What could we do? What could I do?

On August 19, 2013, the day we were gathered in the cemetery, I thought about a lot of things. I remember thinking about the last time I had seen P., a day before the accident. I remember thinking about the sound of his voice and the way he would call my name loudly in the street. I remember thinking about our first kiss and our last one. I remember thinking about all his talents and his potential. I remember thinking about the promises we had made to each other and the ones we had broken. I remember thinking about how alone he must have felt, lying down in that field of olive trees, his blood rusting under the afternoon sun.

On August 19, 2013, I don’t remember ever asking myself how it had happened. I don’t remember ever wondering the technicalities of it all – when the cars had crashed, why the cars had crashed, who had made the cars crash. I don’t remember feeling angry at whoever was responsible for it – that came later. I don’t remember even caring about the person responsible for it. Because what could he do now? What could we do? What could I do?

On August 19, 2013, I walked toward the exit of the cemetery with cold sweat dripping fast down my forehead.

It was the first day of the rest of my life.