Wrestling with Women, Part III

The name she gave me

Once I was back in my parents’ home, Laura became more available. She let me make love to her once or twice and again urged me to leave home. She’d started seeing a Sullivanian therapist named Ralph Klein and said I should get into therapy as well. I don’t remember why I agreed to do so, but soon I was seeing Ann Keill.

Klein and Keill—and the rest of the Sullivanian therapists, a group I eventually came to understand was a cult—clustered in the Upper West Side of NYC. They and their patients partied together and rented vacation homes in the same part of the Hamptons. Patients were encouraged to leave their parents’ homes or divorce their spouses. We were pressured to be non-monogamous, which meant being sexually available to other group members. One former member informed me later that Saul Newton, the head of the Sullivan Institute, had female patients give him blow jobs. All of these cults function in the same way. Money and sex flow upward to the Great Male Leader.

Patients who were gay were encouraged to be bisexual. Dr. Keill told me that I was “cutting half the world out of my dating pool.” This was considered very liberal, at a time when the psychiatrists labeled gay people as intrinsically disordered. At 19, I was too young and unsure of myself to reply that I didn’t need a dating pool of 3+ billion people. But I noticed that she was married to a man, never showed up at the Sullivanian parties, and wasn’t known to be sleeping with anyone other than her husband. On the positive side, she recommended a book that had just come out, and that would change the lives of millions of women: The Feminine Mystique.

I began to frequent the parties, and soon had the social support that I lacked during my first attempt to live on my own. Also—and I have to give them credit for this—the Sullivanians were against the Vietnam War, and I joined their contingent when we marched on the Pentagon.

In the spring of 1963 I left home for good, on the day my mother rummaged through my dresser and found a diaphragm. Rather than tell her I hadn’t used it since breaking off with Patrick and starting a relationship with Laura, I packed a bag and walked to the subway station. Then I trudged up and down the side streets of northern Manhattan until I found a tiny room in a welfare hotel for $13.95/week. It had a single bed and a sink. The bathroom was down the hall. Later I hauled in a couple boxes of books and stored them under the bed, tacked a Gauguin poster on the wall, and rode my bicycle down from the Bronx and chained it up in the lobby.

My net income from a part-time job was $60/week. Two sessions per week with Dr. Keill cost $30. When I questioned my giving her half my income, she said that our needs were different. She explained that she needed to own a house in the city and another in the Hamptons, in addition to supporting her two small children and paying for the nanny, while I needed to be in therapy, go to school, and work. Another sign that something wasn’t quite right: Although Dr. Keill was an MD who should have known better, she chain-smoked constantly.

Laura was another heavy smoker. Fairly soon I had the habit as well, though I did manage to quit a few years later.

At the end of the spring semester I took a full-time job and switched to full-time night school, attending four nights a week. That meant no time for judo, but I was determined to graduate as soon as possible and move on to better jobs. I did get the BA—it just took one extra year of college.

I don’t know if Laura ever got her degree. She and I spent those three years at one soul-killing clerical job after another. Occasionally she would let me make love to her. More often she would tell me about her crush on some man, her therapist at one point, or at another, a guy who beat her, and how exciting that was. Needless to say, I found these confessions—or boasts—painful. Following Sullivanian guidance, I did sleep with a lot of men during that period. Sometimes the sex was good, other times it was wretched, but love certainly had nothing to do with it.

Laura changed jobs frequently, quitting or getting fired. Once she lost her apartment and asked to stay with me. She arrived that night with a boyfriend, who apparently wanted a threesome. We all slept in my bed, the guy on one side, Laura in the middle, and me on the other side, furious. When she put her hand on me I froze. They left in the morning.

A year or so later I encountered her on the street. She offered me the opportunity for one-way sex again. I walked off without a word. I never saw her again.

*          *          *

I ran into Patrick on the subway once. We didn’t say much, but I could tell he was still angry with me. I don’t know what direction his life took.

Years later, a mutual friend told me that Ann Keill had died of lung cancer at a relatively young age, and within a few weeks of diagnosis.

Our judo instructor retired to Florida, where she taught self defense to the elderly, and lived to be 91.

In 2003, wondering what had happened to Laura, I searched for her and learned that she had had a brief career in documentary films, and had died very recently. In 2005 my wife and I traveled to NYC and I went out to Brooklyn to meet Robert, a gay man who’d been Laura’s best friend during the last years of her life. They had quite a bit in common, both coming from abusive families and having interests in metaphysics and astrology. They fought and made up a lot. Robert learned to stop her when she transgressed on his boundaries, and that was good for him. It must have been good for her to have a friend who didn’t give up on her.

Robert told me that Laura had never quit smoking. She had no medical insurance, saw a psychic rather than a doctor, and collected information on arcane methods of healing from different cultures. Robert was into that as well. When Laura was dying—most likely from lung cancer—he even built her an orgone box.

Robert said that Laura should have been in galleries, that she was a talented artist but didn’t know how to play the game. She would get into fights with people who could have helped her. He took photos of her art for a portfolio, but “she never pursued it.” The paintings had vanished, except for one that he owned. I asked if I could see it. He showed me a small watercolor of small blue and pink splotches, without a particular focus. I was surprised. I told Robert that I would have expected something as dramatic as Laura was, with big splashes of color and hard edges. “She expressed her softer side in the paintings,” he replied.

During that trip Sylvia and I also visited the YWCA where I’d taken judo lessons. The building had been sold to developers, and no one was there except a receptionist and a security guard. We talked our way in, but if we had waited another week, it would have been too late. The gym on the fifth floor still had judo mats hanging on the walls. Above those were HVAC ducts with torn fiberglass insulation hanging down in rags, which reminded me of giant versions of the spider webs in Miss Havisham’s room in Great Expectations.

What remains to me of those days, of that first love with Laura? Some martial arts techniques, which I’ve passed on to the little girls next door. The knowledge of my passion for women. Memories bitter and sweet. And my name. In a previous post I said that I wrote slushy poetry to Laura. Because of the poetry, she gave me a nickname—Shelley. I forgot about it until 1967, when I joined the Daughters of Bilitis. The closeted lesbian running the NY chapter told me to use a pseudonym for the mailing list (postal, of course—this was long before email lists), to avoid being persecuted by the FBI. I wrote Martha Shelley, c/o Martha Altman (my birth name), and then my address, thinking, This is ridiculous. If the FBI wants to find me, they’ll know where to look. But in any case, that’s who I became, first in our little lesbian society and then in the larger world: Martha Altman Shelley. It’s on my passport.

2 Responses to Wrestling with Women, Part III

  1. Ellen Shumsky March 8, 2020 at 8:56 am #

    Great to get the back story. Looking
    forward to next installment .

  2. Richard Koob March 9, 2020 at 4:31 pm #

    Mahalo Martha! Someone just gave me John Irving’s “In One Person” a fictionalized memoir, concurrent with our evolution in liberation, about a bi guy author endeared to and reared somewhat by a transgender wrestler. Some parallels. I look forward to your Part IV.

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