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Lit Up (3/11/2009)
The Other Side of Desire: Four Journeys into the Far Realms of Lust and Longing
by Daniel Bergner
Ecco, $24.95, 224 pp.
In his new book, Daniel Bergner delves into five lives that few would be able to call less than extreme erotically, and in the most extreme of these, criminally disturbing.
There's Jacob Miller, a self-loathing fetishist, a man who's not fascinated but totally fixated on feet.
There's the Baroness, the supreme dominatrix, "an evangelical sadist," an artist of welts, cuts and commands with a veritable cult of subs.
There's the joint portrait of a Laura and Ron. She once dreamed of being a fashion model — and became a model for fetish photographers after a life-changing double-amputation. A "devotee" to women like her, he became one of her photographers, only to fall in love and marry her.
Most disturbing, there's Roy, the pedophile trying to right his life after sexually touching his 12-year-old stepdaughter and her best friend, then showing his stepdaughter porn and sending screen messages such as: "i just want to do something with you anything."
In each of these cases, Bergner, a New York Times Magazine writer whose past books have examined war-torn West Africa and Louisiana's infamous Angola Prison, goes down an erotic rabbit hole with his subjects. He's hardly alone in the descent. Bergner follows the lines connecting each subject to families, friends, lovers, followers and, in some cases, those who are indisputably victims. Ultimately, the lines lead to therapists and on to the researchers probing the nature of sexuality who are as much the subject of the book as the individuals who begin and conclude each of his four chapters.
Jacob Miller, for instance, seeks the aid of Baltimore psychiatrist Fred Berlin, who "liked to consider human erotic life from the vantage of a Martian scientist gazing down at Earth." And far beyond the foot-obsessed Miller, Berlin's other patients cannot seem but alien. Best-known is Jeffrey Dahmer, the cannibal necrophiliac, whose name is probably invoked these days more often as an uncomfortable punch line than as a human reality to be confronted. More telling, perhaps, is Michael Ross, another sadist and killer who, on Death Row, was finally freed of his desires through so-called chemical castration. Unable to endure what he'd done, he became an advocate for his own execution.
Then there are the scientists trying to figure out the obscure engines behind these "paraphilias" — "disorders of love" one expert calls them. All of the experts believe that to understand these is to understand how the rest of us are driven. How do nature, nurture and circumstance interact to create desire? What is the role of prenatal hormone balances? Are there "windows of susceptibility" so that the glimpse of bare ankle in a school coatroom can set one's course for life? Why are paraphiliacs overwhelmingly male? To what extent is that a function of gender or definition? Are there cures? And social context can't be dismissed. "A century ago, psychoanalysts were talking about fellatio and cunnilingus as perversions," notes the editor of a psychoanalytic journal in discussing the Baroness.
The researchers have their cock tubes to rate erections and photoelectric probes to survey vaginal blood flow; scanning devices correlate the sparking of synapses in various brain regions to these arousal meters and "visual stimuli." And, although Bergner never exactly says it, he suggests an almost-sexual thrill on the cusp of discovery. "Isn't that the hottest thing in the world?" exults one researcher, seeing his theory made manifest in a multicolored brain scan.
Throughout, Bergner strives to understand his subjects, to acknowledge their humanity — even when that's difficult. At times he seems more openly curious about his paraphiliacs than the professionals with their diagnostic schemas. Which isn't to say that he's all-accepting. He can wonder about his own hands-on play with his prepubescent daughter when writing about Roy, yet zero in when Roy turns evasive about his crimes. And if Bergner's compulsion to flesh out so many secondary characters sometimes seems rote, he mainly succeeds with populating his erotically charged world with people we can recognize — even if we'd rather not. —W. Kim Heron
Excerpt from The Other Side of Desire.
On a worktable one evening, a man lay on his back in a red latex bodysuit and a black hood whose only openings were a pair of grommets at the nostrils. Blue ropes, run through large metal eyes at the rim of the table, held him down while a small black machine sent an electrical charge to a conductive ring around the shaft of his penis. The Baroness set the machine to respond to voices, told the man to tell about himself, and closed the French doors on that section of the basement. Whenever the man or I spoke, the current surged, and when he groaned or screamed in pain, the voltage went even higher. She had made me complicit in his torture. ...
"It’s about surrendering your ego," he said, sounding as though he must be gritting his teeth behind the hood. "The first time, after forty-five minutes, I was in another world. It was like onion skins were being stripped off my psyche."
Jim Goad's Gigantic Book of Sex
by Jim Goad
Feral House, 224 pp., $22.95
This "gigantic" (well, it is, um, "oversized") tome is a jaunty compendium of more than 100 articles about sex from the noted satirist and former zinester Jim Goad. Offensive, hilarious and impolitic, this volume shows that the former convict has blossomed into the H.L. Mencken of the locker room. Goad has always been talented at laying bare his "chumpy immaturity" through his ginned-up, balls-to-the-wall gonzo satire, and many of the pieces here originally appeared in such notable periodicals as Hustler, Screw, High Society, and even that bastion of filth, The San Francisco Bay Guardian. The book comprises personal essays, opinion pieces, actual sexual facts and satire so fake it hardly needs the label. (One piece describes a sex act called "The Old Faithful," in which "While having sex, one partner delivers a sharp, unexpected punch to the other's stomach, causing them to vomit.")
Amazingly, the "real" stuff is often more disturbing: concrete enemas, "genital retraction syndrome," outrageous fetishes, death during sex, and even strange sex laws ("Detroit couples are only allowed to have sex in a car while parked on their own property"). Beyond the amusing rants, Goad also gets up-front and personal about his sex life, including his one-night stands, the mystique of "bad boys," how he got off in prison, and his penchant for cheating. But this book is so much more than 100 names for the vagina and 10 tips to keep it tighter. It's worth it just to hear the one about how he got out of prison after years "alongside violently muscular convicts," then went to a Portland hipster diner, looking speechlessly at inadequate male "brown-sweater-wearing, bespectacled alterna-ferrets with tousled hair." Go get 'em, Jim!—Michael Jackman