Do Not Tease the Animals

“Let me ask you a dick question,” I said to my friend Smooth Operator. “As in, a question about your dick.”

“My particular dick?”

“Yes, your unique, individual dick.”

In the little FaceTime screen, he gave a quick go-ahead nod.

“I’m just curious,” I said. “Do you ever, you know, say to yourself…like, after a really rough day when nothing is going your way…do you ever say to yourself, ‘Well, at least I have a big dick‘?”

“My dick’s not massive.”

“It’s big,” I said, with a tone confirming its basic and objective truth.

He conceded. “It’s big.” He opened the refrigerator in his Manhattan kitchen and scanned the contents, which to me always looked excessively ordered. “Look, in reference to your question, have you met me?”

He spoke our shorthand, informed by the entirety of our friendship. What I knew about him, and he about me, and how that made us well-suited as comrades at arms. He meant our similar temperaments, quivering with neuroses, stumbling over ourselves to make life easier and more pleasant for other people, an exhausting and resentment-prone approach to life that provoked a mutual friend to say to us, in exasperation, You don’t have to set yourself on fire, you know, to make the other guy warm.

I try to avoid thinking about Smooth Operator’s dick. It had been a full year since he’d confirmed, following a brief, long-distance affair, that he did not have the same feelings for me that I had for him, something that 99% of me already sadly understood. But the 1% holdout was a wily, obsessive, fantasy-prone fuckwit that dragged us both through a too-long bout of my wistful denial.

So a year had passed since that excruciating, reality-based let-down talk, and during that year I’d tried to release my grip on those particular feelings while still clinging hard to the very real and crucial friendship that we’d built over near-nightly chats, a handful of visits, and one butt-cold winter weekend trip to Montreal. He’d propped me up during a rough stretch of road. Trying to be his friend while surrendering my more-than-friend feelings was like trying to separate two layers of paint in the middle of a hurricane.

What I’m trying to say is that reducing the frequency of times that I think about his penis is a beneficial plank in the construction of my overall mental health.

“Look,” he said, grabbing a blueberry yogurt from the fridge, “It doesn’t cheer me up on a bad day, but yeah, sometimes, if I fall into comparing myself unfavorably with another guy, sometimes, I’ll remind myself that at least I’m—

“—a top with a big cock,” we said in unison. A private joke he likes to trot out pretty much every week, mainly because he knows it contains a hint of bottom-shaming that he doesn’t actually buy into, but pokes me with, because he knows that it annoys me.

“Well,” he said. “You asked. Where’s this coming from, dawg?” (He calls me dawg. The D-A-W-G version, he’d once clarified.)

“I keep thinking about confidence,” I said.

“Is your finger covering your fucking speaker again?” he said.

“Oops.” I readjusted my grip. “I mean, we’ve talked about this. You know, when you see someone who exudes it and you find yourself wondering where it came from. When you see one of those people who act like they deserve to breathe the air they’re breathing and to take up every inch of space their body actually occupies on this earth.”

“Oh,” he said. “Those people.” Smooth Operator ate a spoonful of yogurt. “It’s okay that I eat in front of you, right?” he said with his mouth full. Rhetorical question, long ago approved.

I’d taken all those unrequited feelings to my shrink for months on end, complaining about the dull, stupid, ceaseless pain they put me through. “Why can’t I just reason my way out of this?” I asked him (rhetorically). “Why can’t I just decide not to like him?”

Then one day my shrink suggested that, instead of telling Smooth Operator every single thing about my daily life, I should start keeping some details to myself. Just a few. It sounded like a flyweight solution for a heavyweight heartache. And the strength of my friendship with S.O. felt fully informed by the all-access pass I’d given him to my internal life.

Still, I’d been so fucking desperate for relief that I’d given it a shot. Over the next couple of weeks I’d stopped talking to S.O. about a local dude I’d had a couple of dates with. And surprisingly, miraculously, within a few days I sensed a very small crack in the monument of my unrequited devotion widen just an inch, and then a few more. The obsession began to drain.

“You knew what you were talking about,” I told my shrink. I don’t often compliment him, but he refrained from pointing this out. I imagine he was close to crying from relief, that he didn’t have to hear about S.O. as often now.

“I’ve had a yogurt,” S.O. said. “Three tacos, Thai food, two smoothies, and a tuna fish sandwich already today. I’m still hungry.”

He was always hungry. A full-blooded sensualist, that one. Most nights, looking at his face, I do a little internal check to confirm that I’m no longer in love with the dude. Which I’m not. But his handsome mug on my FaceTime screen reminds me that I still do have “feelings” of an enduring and bittersweet flavor that soften my heart one or ten degrees in his favor.

I didn’t tell him that night that I kept thinking about another shrink. Hank the Blank’s personal shrink. Way back in 1980, Hank had told his shrink that he’d molested me, and instead of doing his legal and professional duty, instead of reporting Hank the Blank to the authorities, his shrink merely made Hank promise never to do it again. (Hank would do it again, later, to someone else. )

I don’t know why I didn’t mention it to S.O. that night. He knew that story. Maybe, as I felt my brain inch down that dark and crooked path, I could sense the futility of it all. Wasting time, wondering how I might have turned out, had I received intervention at the age of nine. Would I have been spared firsthand knowledge of suicidal depression?

It’s a nice thought, but given the terrain of my childhood, hard to believe. The atom-splitting, hostile environment of my family’s ongoing physics experiment, which tore us apart and threw us together in different places and configurations, had too many cracks for trained professionals to fall through. I would have missed those appointments.

Would a different childhood have made a different man? A man with less self-doubt?

No doubt.

What about a bigger dick swinging between my legs?

“It’s a waste of time,” I told S.O., “all these what-ifs.”

“Admit it,” he said.

“Admit what?”

“You wouldn’t trade it. You wouldn’t be one of those clueless, confident douchebags for all the money in the world.”

“Well, I said. “Maybe for all the money.”

But he was right, of course. I’d worked too hard for the lens through which I look at everything. The glass—warped in spots, crystal-clear in others—that gave me my particular view.

I think about confidence, and the confident, but never for long. It’s like staring through the bars at caged zoo animals. A nice place to visit, but nowhere you’d want to live.

I’ve Been Goth Since Nine Years Old

The Boiler House, MASS MoCA

My pal Tiny Dancer drove up from Providence and stayed the weekend. Saturday morning, after corrupting him with the best breakfast sandwich on the planet from Small Oven (dangerously close to my apartment in the Pioneer aka Genocide Valley), Agnes hovering at our feet for the inevitable rain of crumbs, we cruised up 91 and over 2 on our way to MASS MoCA. October leaf peeping and cultural field trip—two bugs, one windshield.

He played some 80s tunes with his Sirius subscription. We’d met three years ago when I’d crashed for a few months in my sister’s basement in Boston—he was my first New England friend, and we’d regularly drive the 90 miles between my town and Providence for weekend visits. We shared a love of dogs and Saturday night episodes of Dateline.

I told him that my first concert, back in Minneapolis, was Thompson Twins with opening act Orchestral Maneuvers in the Dark, circa 1985. That year I grew long blond bangs over one eye, and wore grungy, black, thrift-store clothes that didn’t meld with the overall Benetton ad of my high school, so I spent lunch hours hiding away from the Darwinian cafeteria tribes, till sophomore year, when some cool chicks in leather jackets and torn black leggings rescued me. We called ourselves, only half-facetiously, the Rebel Posse.

Tiny Dancer snapped this shot at a hairpin turn on route 2. I think I look old, but I guess I am old, and people seem to like the pic, or they “like” the pic, and the colors are pretty cool, so here.

Wikipedia calls MASS MoCA the largest contemporary art museum in the country, a rusted, renovated factory complex, a postmodern outpost in the Berkshire hills, near the Vermont border. I spent some formative years working at the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis (even won my first poetry slam there, ha ha), so common museum elements—flickering video in dark exhibits, somnambulant security guards, gift shop t-shirts, catalogs heavy with artworld jargon—made the whole trip feel kind of homey.

The Boiler House

And fuck, I love October. I wish it would last six months. But I guess its brevity is what sharpens its bittersweet taste. I fell in love with October as a lonely, skinny kid in the suburbs of St Paul, a melancholiac drifting home solo from grade school, shuffling through leaves, smelling wood smoke, and finding a comforting warmth in preteen sadness. Shut up, I had my reasons.

The museum road trip was a bit of a symbolic gesture on my part. I’d landed in this valley at the long-sputtering tail end of a very long tailspin, and couldn’t quite pull myself out of the wreckage.

Instead, smoldering in its ashes, I’d taken daily inventory of all the ways I suffered here, compared to San Francisco.

Guys, I didn’t get cruised here for A WHOLE YEAR. I was an actual ghost. Humans walked through me. And when a guy on campus at UMass (where I worked for awhile) held my gaze and turned to watch me walk past, I was so startled that I smacked face-first into a door.

Jenny Holzer, Truisms

Between that, and the alienating, Christian-heavy leanings of local 12-step groups, and the long winters, and my inability to find work that would lift me above paycheck-to-paycheck existence, I resisted Genocide Valley. Like, picture me being dragged across the ground with my heels dug in.

Things began to shift when, instead of dropping local AA entirely, I supplemented it with a dose of Refuge Recovery, a program based on Buddhist principles. It’s currently caught up in some Me Too Movement fallout, and is quietly getting swapped throughout the country with other frameworks, but my long curiosity in Buddhism, and my increasing disbelief in an external, omnipotent god, found some solace and much food for thought there, as well as a place to practice some monkey-brained meditation every week in a room full of quiet, breathing, shoe-less folks.

I met a dude there I’ll call the Sinful Saint, a well-read, well-lived, intellectually voracious man who’d sit with me at meetings, drink coffee in Northampton, tea on my living room couch, and dig with me into our pasts, sitting in my car in his driveway as the frogs of the valley began to sing at night.

I told him the nickname was because he’d read through my blog and had texted me a line from a poem I’d forgotten I’d written:

The scattered collection of men have all had their hopes,

and, left alone, they have called themselves fools. Is that so

uncommon? Even saints dream of sin.

(In other words, I kind of made his nickname all about me. This is a recurring trait that is dawning uncomfortably on the horizon of my recent thoughts. I’m self-centered. Isn’t that what my father, Hank the Blank, once said? He could be both a narcissist and correct. That’s an entirely possible combination. In fact, they are probably connected. My excessive, self-referential introspection, which he hates, was my childhood strategy for survival. “Hello, Frankenstein,” I told him, once. “I’m your monster.” He was not amused.)

I’ve said here before that, following my split from the Manly Fireplug and my exile from San Francisco, my brain and body rife with fear, that the one thing I needed was the one thing I couldn’t sustain—human connection.

I’m a dude who wants to see himself as strong and solitary, but who desperately needs others to survive. It turns out that to endure Genocide Valley, I needed a pal.

The Sinful Saint took me to the top of a mountain. The mountain was next to my apartment. I’d lived in that apartment for three years, but that was my first journey to the summit. He began to chip away at my resistance to my locale, not through instructions but through companionship.

I left one job because it was a dead-end nightmare of bigoted dysfunction. I took a new job, my first job as a full-time professional writer, one that pays me a few dollars above paycheck-to-paycheck. Maybe someday I’ll have enough saved, for my vague plans to escape to an undecided city. Being a single gay dude here is like trekking with an empty stomach across a bleak and forlorn field to a hut built for one, leaning back in the howling wind.

Yeah, sue me—I’d like to be loved again.

But for now I have work—to squirm out of the wreckage and brush the ashes from my Adidas. To take a chihuahua for walks. To bench press steel plates. To calm the swinging monkey. To slip the armor of resistance and take scenic road trips to rural museums with good pals. To make the most of Genocide Valley, while I’m here.

That Time You Raised Racial Demographics at an All-Staff Meeting

Management at your new job holds an all-staff meeting to discuss office culture, and they ask everyone to write words on Post-its describing the culture anonymously.

So on one Post-it you write “homogeneous,” since the office is 100% white, and the surrounding small, regional city is not.

Everyone turns in their Post-its face-down, and Kimberly reads them one at a time, and your colleagues have written words like “fun” and “hardworking,” and she gets to yours and squints and says, “humongous?” and then Dwayne looks at it but also squints in confusion.

And there’s no way you’re going to draw attention to yourself — after six weeks on the job — by being the only one to describe the office as homogeneous, especially after your last job (your first real job in this valley) where Betsy — who once said that she could never vote for someone with the same genitalia as her own — sent texts about you to other co-workers, saying that she was sick of your bitchy gay shit.

Which stung because nobody in your entire life had ever described you as bitchy (though they’d sometimes described you as gay), and in a huff of indignation you went to HR, who launched an exhaustive investigation that led nowhere, and the weird thing is that when you look back on that job you feel guilty, which shouldn’t be right but is true, about going to HR, and now you think you never should have gone to HR, you should have just kept your mouth shut.

But now in the office culture meeting they’re trying to decipher your vocabulary and you think maybe Betsy was right, maybe you really are bitchy — after six weeks at a new job you’ve climb up on your perch of judgment to render verdict on organizational demographics.

“Homogenized?” asks Dwayne. Then he and Kimberly toss the Post-it aside and move on to the next one.

Because it hasn’t been that long since your own personal series of objective failures (divorce lawyers, zero balances, cheap whiskey) and you have the sinking feeling that yes, you’re the bitch, just pissed that you got yourself stuck in a valley where an entire company could be white and you could pass, on your morning commute, a deer who’d been hit by a truck, lying crumpled on the ground, and you’re still seeing the deer in the conference room with the Post-its cluttering the wall, the sides of its bloodied chest still rising and falling, gasping for breath, and you wish that as you’d driven past you’d looked the other way.

The Wayward Home for Flat Plush Toys

Jenny Holzer's "Protect Me From What I Want."
Jenny Holzer, 1982

Attention, fractured: modern condition. Default setting. After eight hours of copywriting/essay scrawling/texts/blogs/hookup apps my head’s swimming with words.

Red flags pop with the coupled rush of dopamine: someone’s thinking of/admiring/remarking on/updating/hating on/lusting after me. Little ol’ me.

Stop life, check phone.

In the balance of my happiness, what’s the ratio of external to internal validation? No wonder we Netflix and kill. Heads, deadened. End the night of a long hard day with a couch and a chihuahua.

I’m reminded, restoring those posts, of my long-held practice. Those close to me get nicknamed here. I can think of three who need immediate naming and the naming seems impossible. How do I sum up the whole of a multilayered pal? How do I top the Manly Fireplug? Truly inspired, that one.

Take several steps back to acknowledge one fact: three pals are good. Three pals are gifts. Three years ago when I came to this valley I had….not three.

One pal headed here for a weekend stay. A tour of autumn leaves (how middle-aged) and maybe a first visit, at last, to MASS MoCA. Jenny Holzer on exhibit! We are guileless in our dreams, she once wrote. I first found her in college in the library stacks. Abuse of power comes as no surprise.

Well, yes. Kurds now being killed, left swinging in the wind. Thanks, stable genius. Must be more of that 3D chess.

And my biggest problems? Vacuuming my apartment tonight and picking up hazelnut creamer for my unnamed pal.

Playing indoor fetch with Agnes. She has her pick of nicknamed pals: Mr. Monkeypants, Funny Bunny, Flatty Patty, and Chuckie Duckie. My home’s not aflame. Just a zoo.

Apocalypse Now, or Whenever You Might Have a Spare Moment

Loud in bed, loud in life.

photo from Pixabay

Note: This story also appeared on P.S. I Love You at Medium.

I’ve always been soft-spoken. Even in bed. “Are you having a good time?” is a question I’ve heard a dozen times by various men, always with discouraging timing, like right after a bout of what I think are obvious grunts of my approval. I go through life speaking, and groaning, at volume level nine, while the world hears me at three.

Enter Jake, a bold, big-mouthed braggart who’d moved to San Francisco from New York City. Talking and volume were never Jake’s problem. Even with his mouth shut, Jake communicated, like the first time I saw him, sitting across a crowded room from me, his biceps straining the sleeves of a t-shirt that read: “I Make Boys Cry.”

The t-shirt scared the hell out of me, and led me, in a burst of self-protection, to cross him out as candidate for My Next Husband. But still I found him, and the t-shirt, and what the t-shirt implied, compelling. My attraction ran hand-in-hand with my terror, skipping through the landscape of dirty daydreams. Some of us are cursed with bad boy hunger, God help us.

We started as pals. Two guys grabbing coffee after one of those meetings where ex-drunks gather for comic camaraderie. He’d listen to my latest woes, all the ways I’d let some guy treat me like a doormat. The broken promises, canceled plans, and hidden boyfriends. My mute reaction.

He’d listen for a while, then lean across the table and whisper, “You just need to get fucked. Really hard.”

It was a good set-up; I could flirt safely with him, (he had a boyfriend) till our coffee grew cold, then run back to my quiet, reserved, hopeful life. By “flirting,” I mean I’d turn red for a good hour, never breaking my guarded stance, never raising my voice loud enough to tell him all the things I pictured doing with another man, never saying what I wanted from life, because, well, that just wasn’t me.

Then I left for grad school in New York City, a double-fisted smack-down, where my writing got torn apart in workshop, and my skin peeled back on unrelenting sidewalks teeming with hyper-opinionated blowhards.

I read four books and scrawled 20 pages of text a week, downloaded pirated Brian Eno tunes in my studio apartment, hid for relief in the dim library stacks.

Jake mailed me a selfie with his pit bull, and I stuck it on my fridge, where it hung the whole two years I lasted there. I’d crawl home down Broadway and stand in my kitchen, bruised from colleague feedback, or bolstered by a professor’s “atta boy,” and I’d look at Jake and think about sex, a thing I had no time for.

It took a while, but I grew a spine in Manhattan. I stuck up for my work in class, walked against stoplights, slept through car alarms and all-night construction. When bastards tried to push onto the train before letting passengers off, I’d shoulder through them and knock them off-balance.

But San Francisco was home, the only place on the planet where I’d ever felt comfortable, a fact that only solidified the longer I was away. I moved back when coursework was done, in the summer of 2006, when I was still single.

And now, so was Jake.

It didn’t take long. We hit the gym together several times a week, where we exchanged playful grins in the mirror over sweaty sets of military presses, the two of us hooked into a drawn-out foreplay with one inevitable end.

It came the night he swung by to take me out on our first official date. I let him in and he pushed me up against the wall and kissed me. We left shirts and shoes and jeans in a long trail to my bed. I can’t remember if we even left the house that night.

Over the coming weeks, we’d spend a lot of time in bed. One night he stopped kissing me long enough to ask, “What do you WANT?”

“Huh?” I said. “What? What do you mean?”

“What do you want?”

“What? When? Now?”

“Yeah”

“In sex?”

“Yeah.”

And for a moment I was speechless, couldn’t say what I wanted aloud. I hemmed and hawed. I blushed.

“This,” I finally said. “I want this.” Meaning he and I, together, and what we were doing.

“Good,” he said. “What else?”

Again I stalled. We already had our clothes off, but his questions, and the answers I couldn’t give, stripped away more of my cover. I don’t raise my voice. I don’t say certain things aloud.

“Fuck that,” he said. “Tell me something sick.”

I stammered, scarlet, for a second or two, before I revealed a long-held, deeply private fantasy. “Well,” I said. “Picture us on a boat. And I’m the cabin boy…”

And that seemed to work, for both of us.

But his challenge was not confined to sex. Later, after dinner, after the plates and silverware had been tucked into the dishwasher, we stood necking in his kitchen. And he asked the question again. “What do you want?”

“What?” I asked. “In sex?”

“In life.”

My eyes focused on his chest. I don’t share my ambitions. I was a Midwestern boy raised on humility, shame, and superstition. To say dreams out loud is to lose them.

“I want to make a living doing what I love,” I finally said, mumbling against his neck, guarded behind the rock of modesty.

“Fuck that,” he said. “You want to be famous.”

“Um…”

“You want to go on all of the talk shows.” He grabbed my chin and locked his eyes with mine.

“Um…”

“You want Matt Lauer to fawn.”

“Um,” I said. “Well…yeah.”

And in my head strange things happened; I heard my voice crack open walls, which crumbled to the ground.

He kissed me. “Good. Keep going.”

“I want to change people’s lives,” I said, before I had time to think. The sky darkened, and a hurricane swept through a city.

“Good.” Kiss.

“I want to matter.” A string of cars exploded.

“Good!” Kiss.

“I want people to say, Finally, someone put that into words!

“Yeah!” he growled.

“I want to make money.” Tornadoes tore through a stadium packed with the innocent.

“Yeah!”

“I want more money than those assholes who walk around the gym like they own the place.” Tsunami, thunder, terror.

“Fuck yeah!”

“I want to be invited to parties.”

“Yeah!”

“And say, No!

“Oh my God,” he said, and stuck his tongue down my throat.

I’d learn a lot over the coming months, just watching Jake, about confidence, and the heat one exudes when shedding shame.

But we wouldn’t last. Though he’d knocked me a few inches in his direction, the gulf between our temperaments made together forever unlikely. Are massive overhauls to personality even possible? Or do we change — if we change — in half degrees?

My days as doormat are over. I push back when struck. I tell sex partners what I want. But my voice remains measured, people refer to me as “sweet,” and I only let slip a dream or two, shielding the planet from their powers of destruction.

Copied, Pasted, Back for More

Spent most of the weekend restoring a ton of blog posts that I’d lost a couple of years ago when, fueled by technical stupidity and impatience, I’d attempted an amateurish update to the template.

Guys, it was a lot of work. I’ve been blogging (admittedly off and on) for 18 years. EIGHTEEN YEARS. I am prehistoric. A dinosaur of vanity. Delusional in thinking that anybody would care about my thoughts on life, let alone 18 years’ worth.

And yet here I am. I don’t quite know how to do this, or why I’m doing it, despite 18 years of experience. I kept my mouth shut the past few years because life came at me hard and left me like a wounded deer limping through a Darwinian woods, my life razed to the ground and me, shoved down a hole with the depth and distortions of Wonderland.

(I haven’t lost my taste for melodrama.)

All of my thoughts were bleak and I couldn’t stick them on the internet. Someone would have called the authorities.

A guy I know, after scanning a couple of my posts last week, asked if I tended towards melancholia, and I spit out my coffee. Dude, that’s my default setting.

I look back at those posts—after hunkering all weekend in their moody climate—and I see a guy upon whom life hung a little heavy. 18 years of posts reveal patterns. Loneliness, addiction, terminal illnesses. Embarrassing—in retrospect—to see how I fawned over a Fireplug. How I still fall prey to unrequited blah blah.

Old patterns worn into the wood. Men and dogs. Dogs and men.

God, I wanted to delete half this blog. Sometimes for content. Sometimes for clumsy, pedestrian writing. Mostly for the unvarnished earnestness. But it’s like I struck this deal 18 years ago— a deal that nobody demanded—to keep it all up. A social experiment in voluntary humiliation. A Dear-Diary-I-think-he-likes-me-back for public consumption.

It’s a Monday in western Massachusetts. I hit the snooze button four or five times at dawn, dragged myself out of bed, made coffee, walked and fed Agnes. Showered, dressed, and packed a lunch. I drove 26 minutes through relatively light traffic to Springfield, to the job I’ve held for six months, where I wield words for a living. It’s my first professional writing job, and they seem to like me enough.

I still don’t quite know how I got here.

It’s been four and a half years since I left my life in San Francisco. And it’s only now that I’ve pulled myself out of the hole. Half-blind, unsteady. My beard turned gray.

And here I am again. Not sure what to do or what to say. A more guarded man than the 30-year-old boy who first strung the words “dog” and “poet” together on nothing more than instinct. Trying to build my world up again with words. Hanging them on the line for all to see.

Hello, I think. I think I’m here.

True Crime Saved My Life

How murder and mayhem eased my PTSD.

Photo: Joël in ‘t Veld/Unsplash

Note: This story also appeared on Human Parts at Medium.

A few years ago, life came at me in a batshit series of events.

Worn down by a lifetime of suicidal depression, I finally got the guts to hire a therapist to help me confront the sexual abuse and neglect I’d gone through as a kid.

At the same time, I found a site online for dudes with similar childhoods, and I sought solace in my chats with distant strangers. I picked up a bit of their lingo, too; they called their therapists “my T” and their abusers “my perp,” as an indication of their ubiquity. Each of us had one of both.

As if on cue, later that year, my perp cornered me in his two-car garage during a family Thanksgiving to tell me about some stories he’d posted online. He had thousands of new fans and hundreds of emails from people who really “respected” and “connected” with his writing. He figured I might be interested in his success, being that I’m a writer and all.

He must have seen something on my face because he stepped aside and let me go.


Several weeks later and against my better instincts, I poked around online, looking for his posts during a late night at the office.

My mom had died a few years before and I’d spent those years attempting, despite the childhood abuse, to be a “good person” and to bridge the estrangement that had calcified between me and the perp through frequent visits to his house. It had been a challenge, as he’d spent most of those years questioning my life choices (my career, retirement plan, and city). I’d left every visit feeling irritable and defensive.

I found his posts and discovered that during those same years, around the time of my visits, he’d written and posted to the internet dozens of erotic stories about incest. They were all stories of jerk porn with familiar scenes — acts that had seared my nerves for the past 30 years. I knew without reading the ending where each tale ended up: a man, a boy, a bathroom filled with steam, and clothes in a trampled pile. They were lightly fictionalized versions of straight-up nonfictional events that I’d worked for three decades to forget.

My vision blurred and I clicked off the computer with a trembling hand. I left the office and took the train home, my body shuddering so much that the people near me moved away. When the doors opened and I hit the sidewalk, weird animal noises came out of me.

Why the fuck, I thought, did my perp want me to read those stories? I pictured thousands of his fans reading the stories with one hand wrapped around their pricks, jerking off to the things that had been done to me. I wondered if I knew any of those fans in real life. Within me, in a place past reach or reason, fear cracked open.

Later, I let out an hour-long, guttural scream of indictments at my perp as he hid in the privacy of his two-car garage. I pierced him with words, with three decades of pent-up grudge and rage. I screamed and swore and then I hung up for good. My shirt clung to me wetly. The screen of my phone was flecked with spit. My husband sat on the couch beside me, his face streaked in tears. I was a burnt out match.


I wasn’t afraid of my perp. After years at the gym, I’d grown much bigger than him. And anyway, he was an old man now. So I can’t tell you why during this time, my fear spread out past him, out into the world. It was primal, bone-deep terror that couldn’t be talked away. I can’t tell you why, exactly, I bought a combat knife online — delivered to me within two days, free of charge — and carried it with me on the train to work every day.

If a member of my own family could do that to me, then what could a complete stranger do?

I can’t tell you why I’d eke out a half day at work only to lock myself in an empty office, turn out the lights, remove my shoes and belt, lay on the floor, and rock back and forth for an hour. I can’t tell you why I had to take a medical leave of absence and wound up diagnosed with chronic PTSD, or why I shut out everyone in my life, including my friends, because nobody in the world felt safe. I can’t even tell you why I moved out of the bedroom I shared with my husband and slept in the spare room, why I couldn’t trace my steps back into my old life.

I guess the plainest way of putting it is this: If a member of my own family could do that to me, then what could a complete stranger do?


Over time, I became a recluse. I coped with the help of true crime. My mild, lifelong interest in the genre now turned to compulsion. It was the only thing I could tolerate, the one thing that fed me a grain of relief.

I consumed marathon stretches of shows on the Investigative Discovery channel. I watched massive, jaw-dropping amounts of true crime television. I inhaled shows with titles like Sinister MinistersSouthern Fried Homicide, and Fear Thy Neighbor.

Whatever your career, location, or income, these shows promised that you, too, could fall prey to something terrible. Thus, I gorged on crime in my bunker (locked bedroom, shades drawn) while playing Candy Crush on my phone, my dog curled beside me, trying to shut down my brain.

Here’s the thing: It worked. The shows held me back from the threshold of that abandoned amusement park in my head, where perps and knife-wielding clowns crouched in wait.


That year, while everyone was watching Downton Abbey. I’d grown nauseated by the show’s depiction of a family that stayed steadfastly loyal through multiple hardships.

Bullshit, I thought. Utter bullshit. I lost my stomach for comedies, laugh tracks, tearjerkers, and poignant celebrity bios. It was all crap for delusional suckers. The world was full of horrible people doing horrible things to other people, and anyone pretending otherwise was peddling drivel.

You could argue that watching so much crime only reinforced my trauma. Maybe you’re right. But after hundreds of hours of crime shows, I understood that I watched for the victims and their loved ones. I watched for the survivors who’d brushed death. Their tears, I bought. They made me feel less alone. They knew the wolf at the door. And more often than not, the wounds from their crimes dwarfed mine.

Of course, there’s a problem with true crime: Exploitation is inherent in the genre. Strangers’ tragedies broadcast for our entertainment. Some shows were shameless, with clumsy reenactments and pun-heavy, oily narration that made roadkill out of victims, deified the killer, and inspired the urge to shower.

Still, I watched.

I watched so much Investigative Discovery that I knew every commercial by heart. After watching constant ads for treatment centers, feminine hygiene, and adult undergarments, I wondered what that said about me, demographically speaking.

But watching live cable tied me tenuously to the world; other people watched those same shows and those same ads for rehabs, at the exact same moment. I wasn’t utterly alone. I was an astronaut tethered with one thin cord, oxygen depleting and deep space pulling me out to where, according to the tagline of my favorite movie, “no one could hear you scream.”


I left the house only for therapy. For weeks I arrived at my therapist’s office certain that this time, my T would have me committed for my own good. But he didn’t, I lived, and I kept watching true crime.

I chatted with more dudes on the abuse recovery site and read books on trauma, enough to see how much we had in common. Many of the dudes with our kind of childhoods had built elaborately constructed, impressively defended fortresses that could stand for decades. But those fortresses fell apart in our thirties and forties. We worked (if we worked) in stockrooms and empty warehouses. Some of us cashed our disability checks on the third of the month, budgeting for an Uber to our T and for smokes, booze, and Netflix.

And still, life kept coming. I suffered a divorce, poverty, and an unwilling exit from San Francisco, my home for 18 years that I could no longer afford. But as I bounced around the country in the coming months, my rocks were true crime and a chihuahua. I kept close to both, and I built new bunkers wherever I landed. I found new Ts, shut out my perp, and took jobs that kept me out of reach of the general public.

The one thing that would save me — human connection — was the one thing I couldn’t sustain.


I listened to Serial while trimming trees at a cousin’s house in Oregon. I bonded with My Favorite Murder on my three-train commute through Boston. I even smiled once or twice while driving home in western Massachusetts, as the dudes from Last Podcast on the Left broke down the tale of the Hillside Strangler.

I liked the solved cases. I craved the mysteries unknotted, the perps collared and convicted. I wanted a shot of a prison yard wreathed in razor wire, detective offering a hard-won grin, and someone saying “closure” without much faith. True crime was a fairy tale I wanted to believe.

After hundreds (thousands?) of hours, I grew familiar with the patterns of psychopaths and narcissists. Now I’d see them coming, strewing charm and butchery in their wakes. Now I’d steer clear.

I consumed so much true crime that I saw the full spectrum of people who’d lost loved ones to murder. I saw those who’d gotten stuck at the death, those who still looked like ghosts — like they were just existing, gutted by the loss of their only kid, sitting with open bottles at gray kitchen tables in the fading light of dusk. And who could fucking blame them?

True crime was a fairytale I wanted to believe.

But there were others, broken in places that would never heal but still limping forward. They wore scars and shed tears but the inner light hadn’t been snuffed out. They’d found a way. I wasn’t sure how but I doubted it involved slumping on a couch after work, gazing at crime every night. It was like they’d made a decision.


Eventually, I snuck out into the world for an hour or two at a time. I let my dog take me on longer walks. I ordered takeout from across the street. I slipped into the back row of meetings where fellow whiskey-thirsty folks gathered in blackly comic camaraderie. I made one friend in my new, strange town and he took me to the top of a nearby mountain.

I got better. Dating, in my small town, was an insurmountable challenge. So with the help of some iPhone apps I tried it long-distance, which kept dudes at a safe distance. I met a couple guys in what is called “real life.” I made mistakes, and I hurt some feelings. I mishandled my own anger — an emotion I’d squelched my whole life, which now came out of me sideways and bigger than any situation required.

Though nothing romantic lasted, I ended up with some good friends. I’d drive to Providence to visit one and we’d watch Friday night episodes of Dateline, with Keith Morrison gravely narrating how the husband did it but — through hubris and the dogged determination of gumshoes — didn’t get away with it.

Another friend in NYC would FaceTime me and we’d trash-talk certain loathsome and moronic serial killers (BTK), roll our eyes when people gushed over the “handsome” and “charming” Ted Bundy, tip each other off via texts about Dahmer documentaries, and scan our family trees to recall the narcissists who’d raised us. Within the rigid boundaries of the true crime genre, our childhood demons could be exorcised — or at any rate, diminished.

Through crime I made human connections, for the first time in years.


These days, I’m tethered to the world again. I’m bold — at times — online. I work in an office where the treacherous political waters require skillful navigation. I lift weights at a large, boisterous national gym chain. I see my T every Tuesday. I chat with my neighbors while walking the dog, no knife in my pocket.

I still love true crime. I play the podcasts during my commute. I binge old seasons of Investigative Discovery shows on Hulu. But for a couple of years, I’ve inched into crime’s close cousins of horror and mystery. Now I can even sip comedy in small doses.

I’m grateful for the company of true crime. It kept me, one hour at a time, one crime at a time, from wandering the amusement park in my head where the perps and the clowns lurked. They’re still there, now, but they’re smaller, gaunt from hunger, and hiding from the lights of the Midway, with their charms faded and their greasepaint melting in the rain.