Survivor 45’s queer contestant Katurah Topps has been a quietly strategic player throughout this season, but she’s gotten louder in the last couple episodes. And we’re all better for it.
At the start of this week’s episode, we see the tribe returning from the Tribal Council in which Bruce Perrault was sent home with an idol in his pocket (a brutal way to go tbh). Everyone — and I mean everyone — seems giddy at his departure, with such total ubiquity that I actually kinda felt bad. The only person still in the game who has been gunning for Bruce for ages is Katurah. Needless to say, she’s thrilled.
For this whole game, Katurah’s been positioning herself as non-threatening, namely by lying about her age (she’s 35, saying she’s 29) and her profession (she’s a civil rights attorney, saying she’s an office manager). Now, 20 days into a 26 game, after eliminating her personal nemesis, Katurah is feeling proud of herself and like she wants to tell her story. Sitting on the beach with Jake O’Kane and Julie Alley, she does just that.
Telling her story doesn’t mean revealing her true age or profession; in this moment, it means describing her childhood. Katurah reveals she was in a religious cult growing up and as such was taken out of school to be homeschooled when she was in 5th grade. Her parents did not continue homeschooling for long, and shortly after leaving school, Katurah was working three or four jobs to help support her family.
My jaw absolutely dropped when Katurah opened up about her past. The editors interlaced Katurah on the beach with a confessional, perhaps because her story is so severe it could almost seem fabricated, something someone would say on a game like Survivor to endear themself to a competitor. But no, this isn’t a lie or a cover-up; it’s Katurah’s life.
We got a sense of Katurah’s past in the previous episode, when she was a recipient of Letters From Home — perhaps the most sought after reward season after season, because there’s nothing as powerful as hearing from the people you love who you haven’t been able to communicate with for weeks. At the reward meal, Katurah shares that one of the letters has her particularly shaken up, because it was from her mom, whom she cut off communication with about a year ago. Katurah was confused and overwhelmed, understandably. How do you respond to hearing from someone you’ve cut off, on national television, through a reward meant to motivate you to play your hardest for the rest of an already extremely psychologically and physically demanding game?
Somehow, Katurah manages to explain her feelings to the other women on the reward. To open up then and there, to me, showed tremendous strength. She seemed to know this was simply too much to process alone, and despite how vulnerable sharing might make her, she did it. She was clear-headed and honest in a game that constantly urges people to abandon their humanity in the name of gameplay. She can obfuscate her age and her profession in order to advance her position in the game of Survivor, but this isn’t like that. The emotional intensity of this moment goes way the confines of the game, and that’s all because Katurah decided to let people in — the women on the reward with her, and more broadly, all of us watching at home.
Despite Katurah’s valiant attempt to process this turn of events, it was clear the letter got to her head (and who the heck can blame her!!!). In the following challenge, she seemed to narrowly evade a panic attack while trying to compete. You could see the fear building in her whole body. It was hard to watch, and I honestly felt relieved and proud of her when she took herself out of the challenge. Afterward, she couldn’t explain what came over her; it wasn’t a fear of water. My interpretation, and this really is just my opinion, is that she didn’t have enough time to process the emotional intensity of receiving communication from her mom, and it manifested in this near panic attack. That energy had to go somewhere, and this is where it went.
Only an episode later, we learn more about Katurah’s relationship with her mom, not because Katurah is forced, or caught, or compelled to tell us, but because she chooses to. And her story goes beyond being taken out of school and working several jobs; Katurah goes on to explain that when she turned 13, the cult’s religious leader decided Katurah would be his next wife (I know, it’s wild). This seemed to wake Katurah’s mom up. They packed their belongings into two trash bags and ran away from the cult in the middle of the night.
After leaving the cult, Katurah was 14 and returned to school. The school placed her in high school, because of her age, despite the fact she hadn’t been educated for the last several years. Katurah then worked extremely hard to catch up with her classmates. I honestly cannot even fathom how the heck a person can do that. She hadn’t been in school for several crucial years, and she didn’t let that stop her. Instead, she excelled: She graduated high school, college, and law school, and then became a freaking CIVIL RIGHTS LAWYER!!! I’m not gonna lie, at this point in Katurah’s story I was fully crying.
Perhaps the most emotional part of Katurah’s narrative came when she shared what she realized once she reentered school, at 14:
I realized I was Black, and I was poor, and I was a woman, and I was gay. And that is when I said, at like 14, I’m gonna become a lawyer who advocates for Black people.
After surviving a literal cult, Katurah reckoned with her complex, multi-faceted identity. To me, what’s so powerful in how Katurah tells her story is its wholeness: Katurah neither shies away from the difficult and scary parts of her story, nor justifies them as necessary for character growth. She seems to resist narrativizing what could easily be framed as a I-became-great-because-of-great-difficulty story. Katurah seems to, simply but also not simply at all, just tell it like it is. It seems that she strives neither for martyrdom nor victimhood. No, she strives for something much more elusive: selfhood.
Katurah is who she is because of and also not because of her past. She is who she is because she chooses to be herself. And I think that’s the strongest choice of all: to claim your selfhood in all its contradictions, all its messiness, all its beauty and all its terror. Not as a rebellion, not as a victory or as a defeat, but just as a state of being. Katurah shows us that a person’s life might have narrative elements, but a person is not a story; a person is a person.
The rest of the episode almost passed me by, because I was still thinking about everything Katurah just shared, so openly and generously. Throughout the season, Katurah seems relatively unfazed by the game’s twists and turns. She was annoyed by Bruce, but she always seemed entertained rather than scared. Similarly, she’s been in the minority — one of the last members of an ever-decreasing Belo tribe up against a seemingly always united Reba core four — for so much of the game, but never seems too pressed. Now, in the fourth quarter of the game, she’s turning up the heat. She’s socializing with everyone, without ever painting herself as the target, rallying folks to vote out Julie (a brilliantly strategic move until a spectacularly not brilliant judgment call made by Austin Li Coon, sound off in the comments plz).
I worry for Katurah in the next episode, as folks seem to have decided to keep Jake around longer than her. That said, if there’s anything I’ve learned about Katurah so far, it’s that whatever life throws at her, she handles. And she handles it all while being her full, strategic, compassionate self, and sharing that self with others around her.