Brief Interviews with Hideous Men

Brief Interviews with Hideous Men
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,-rie-Interviews
w-thHIDeOUS
by,D.vid Foster W.II.ce'
B.!. #16
Rhode Island Bureau
of Corrections,
"
Department of'Behabilitation,
Sex-Offender Treatment
, Supervision Office, Pawtucket RI
",
, ,.
'm lik~thirteep., it's my birthday, and
we go toa like renowned Italianplace
in Cranston to· celebrate. I'm from
Cranston. My big sister is there, also,
who always wears a mood ring that's always
brown. I get thespinachmanicotti
Genovese,
which my dad-he always says it's real good here.
. But then he doesn't order it. But Ida. The waiter brings it out in this little like metal skillet
thing steaming all over the place. He puts it
down in-front of me. on a little like stand-up
trivet thing on the tablecloth. The tablecloth's
white. This is a story to answer your question.
The waiter says to me to ·be cautious and wait a
little bitwith this dish because it's hot and the
skillet thing is real hot so please be very cautious. My dad gets the pappardelle with sausage' .
and mushrooms and a side of baby calamari. My .
big sister tried a suicide attempt and always has
to wear long sleeves; my mom makes her. And I
take and like reach out one hand and touch the
skill~t thing to seeif it's really so hdt. It bums
my hand, and I yank it back and then sit there
holding my hand out for my mom to look' at.
She's concerned. But my dad, he's been watching the whole thing while he's eating his calamati, and he's almost choking with, laughter at
me touching the skillet. There's this thing with
hislip when he laughs. My sister always puts her
hands over her ears. 'Boy, that's a whole' little
.. character study of you right there,' he laughs.
''Bigred loud laugh. Myhand is red, also."
·B.L#14
St.. Davids: PA
, 'It's
cost me every sexual rela~ionship I
,
. ever had. I don't know why.I do it. I'm
'not
a political person, I don't consider
- .myself. I'm not oI).e of these America
First, read the newspaper, will Buchanan get the
nod people. I'll be doing. it with some girl, it
doesn't matter who: It's when I start to come.
That it happens. Tm not a Democrat. I don't
even vote. I freaked out about it one time and
called a radio show about it, doctor on the
radio, anonymously, and he diagnosed it as the
uncontrolled yelling
involuntary words or
~phrases, frequently insulting or scatological,
which-is coprolalia is the official term. Except
when I start to come and always start yellingtt
it's not insulting, it's not obscene, it's always the
same thing, and it's always so weird but I don't
, think insulting. I think it's just weird. And
uncontrolled. It'slike it comes out the same way
. the spooge comes 'out, it feels like that. I don't
a
of
. David Foster Wallac~ is a contributing editor of Harper's Magazine.
His second collection of short stories will be published by' Little, Brown next April. '
know what it's about and I can't help it."
bags all crammed in pouring sweat in the aisle
for five minutes just to be the-'"
"'Victory for the Forces of Democratic
R-: "Just wait and finally coming mit of the'
Freedom!' Only way louder. As in really shoutjetway thing and out into the you know gate
ing it: Uncontrollably. I'm not even thinking it
area greeting areas as usual thinking I'll just get
until it comes out and I hear it..'Victory for the
a cab out to-"
A-:
"Still but "always
depressing on these cold calls
to come out' into the gate'
It's the ones th8t'U act all
greeting area and see everybody getting met and with the
understandin,9 'like~hey don't clli're
squeals and the hugs and limo
and it's okay and it doesn't, mat~er
guys holding up all the names
on cardboard that aren't your
that embarrass me the worst
name and the 1-,·"
,
R-: "Just shut it for one.
fucking second will you
,because listen to this because except it's mostly
F6rcesof .Dernocratic Freedom!' Only louder
than that: 'VICTORY-'"
emptied out by the time I get out there."
Q.•
A-: "The people by that juncture are most"Well it totally freaks them out, what do you
ly all dispersed you're saying,"
think? And I just about rollover and die of the
R-: "Except for overthere's this one girl left
embarrassment. I don't ever' know what to say.
over by the rope looking in peering gazing in
Whatdo you say if you just shouted 'Victory for
down the jetway thing there as she sees it's me
the Forces of Democratic Freedom!' right when
as I'm looking at her as I come out because it's
you came?':
emptied out except for her, our eyes meet and
Q.
all that business like that there, and what does
"It wouldn't be so embarrassing if it wasn't so
she she up and goes down on her knees drops
totally fucking weird. If I had any clue about
crying and with the waterworks and all that
what it was about. You know?"
business, hitting slapping the carpet and
Q •... '
scratching at gouging little tufts and fibers out
"God, now I'm embarrassed as hell." .
of the cheap-ass product they buy where the
Q.
{ow-polymer glue starts the backing separating
"But all there is is the once. That's what I
almost right away and ends up, tripling their
mean .about it costing. r carl tell how bad it,
twenty-quarter M and R costs as I sure don't
freaks them out, and I get embarrassed and
have to tell you and all bent over slapping and
gouging at the product with the nails, bent over
never call them again. Even if I try to explain.
And it's the- ones that'll act all understanding
so you can you know just about see her, tits.
like they don't care and it's okay and they
Totally hysterical and with the waterworks and'
understand and it doesn't matter that embarrass
, all like that there."
A...,....,:
"Another cheery welcome to Dayton
, me the worst, because it's so fucking weird to
"'"
. yell' 'Victory for the Forces of Democratic
for your fucking cold calls, we're pleased to
wel-"
Freedom!' when you're shooting off that I can
always tell they're totally freaked out and just
R-: "No but the story it turns out the story
when I you know go over to say are you okay is
condescending down to me and pretending
anything the matter and like that and get a bet. they understand, and those are the ones where
ter shot of I have to tell you some pretty fuckactually I actually end up almost getting pissed
off and don't even feel embarrassed not calling
ing incredible tits under this like tight little top
like leotard top thing under this coat she's all
them or totally avoiding them, the ones that say
'I think I could love you anyway.'''
down and bent over in and like bitchslapping
herself in the head and still doing manual field
stresses on this gate area product where she says
B.I. #3
this guy that she was in love with. and all that
Trenton
[Overheard]
-business there that said he was in love with her
too except he was already engaged from priorly
R-: "So I'm last off again as usual and all
that business like that there."
when they meet and fall vehemently in love so
A~: "Yes'just wait and relax in your seat be
there's all this back and forth and storm and
the last off why everybody right away all the
drag business like that and I'm lending the ear
,to her .standing there but finally she says' but
time has to get up the minute it stops and' cram
into the aisle so you just stand there with your
finally the guy gets off the fence and finally says
Q.
,
NJ
"
f2
HARPER'S MAGAZINE
I OCTOBER
1998
'
how he's surrendering to his love for this girl
. here with the tits and commits to her and says
how he's going to go and tell this other girl in
, Tulsa where the guy lives that he's engaged to
about this girl here and break it off in Tulsa and
finally surrender and commit to this hysterical
girl with the tits that loves him more than, life
herself and felt a merger of/souls' with him and'
all that violin business .like that and felt like
finally for chrissakes after' all the one-track
shitheels she'd got the runaround from she
finallyshe felt like here at last she's met a guy
she could trust and love and merge' 'souls' with
the sort of violins and hearts and
fl-,'-"
A~: "And blah blah blah," .
R---,:"Blah and says off the guy'
goes flying back to Tulsa to finally
break the engagement off with the
prior girl like, he committed he
would and.then fly right back to th~
arms -of, this girl, standing with the
Kleenex with the tits in Dayton
here in the gate 'area with the waterworks crying out her eyes to yours
truly;"
,
A-: "Oh like we can't see this
coming;" ,
R-: "Fuck you and that he puts,
his hand over his heart and all like
that there arid swears he's coming
back to her and he'll be on that
plane, there with the flight number
and time and, she swears she'll be
there with the tits to meet him, and
how sh~ tells all her friends she's
finally in love the real thing and
how he's breaking it off and coming
, right back and she cleans up her'
place for him to stay there when he
comes back and gets her hair done up all big
with spray like they do and dribbles perfume on
, her you know zones and all that business like
the usualstory and puts on her best pink jeans
did I mention she's got on these pink jeans and
.heels thatsay fuck me in like numerous major
world languages-e-"
A-: "Heh heh:'"
, R-': "By this juncture now we're in that little coffee shop thing just in from the USAii
gates that shitty one with no chairs that you
, have to with yourshitty two-dollar coffee stand
,up at the tables with your sample case and bag'
and all your shit on the low-end.rile not even
, thermoset of the float' they got that's already
starting to curl at the grout and keep handing
her Kleenexes and lend the ear and all that'
business there after she vacuums out the car and
, even replaces the little freshener thing hanging
off the rearview and hauls ass to be on time to
Photograph by W. Calabrese / Photonica
the airport to meet the flight number' this so;
.called trustable guy swore on his fucking mother's life he'd be on."
A-,: "Guy's a shitheel from the old school."
R~: "Shut up and 'that how she says how he
even called her she gets the call right as she's,
smearing the last drib of perfume on her zone
and gets her hair 'all sprayed out in directions
like they do to haul ass to, the airport it .rings
and it's this guy and there's all this hiss and static on the phone and she says he says how he's
calling from the sky is how romantically he puts
it calling her inflight on the flight on that little
intlight phone you're supposed to slide your
card through 'out of the back of the seat in front
ofyou and saving'how-s-" " ,
, A-: "The markup onthose things go six
bucks a minute it's a' racket' and all the surcharges rated out of the region you're flying over
right then with a double spread if the region
they say adjoins at the grid's desig-"
, R-::"':"Butthat's not the point do you want to
hear this how the point's this girl says she gets'
there early in the gate area greeting area and
already with some of the waterworks already
from love and violins of commitment finally
arid trust and stands she says all joy and trusting
like a pathetic fool-she says while it gets in finally the flight and we and they all start herding all
in their big rush out the jetway thing and he's
not in the first wave out ana he's not in the second wave how they come. out in theseIittle
waves clumps like the thing's taking somekind
FOLIO
of almost shit you know how-"
A-: "Jesus I ought to the amount of fucking
times I spend on jetw-s-"
R--:-:"And says like a pathetic a total fool her
faith never faltering she kept peering gazing'
over the octoweave rope maroon octoweave
with that nice faux-velvet finish the rope of the
area over at the side during all the hugging and
everybody meeting or going off to Baggage and
every, time expecting this guy in the next wave
out, clump, and then the next and next and like
that, waiting."
herself and rocking and slapping the shit out of
the table so bad you have to lift the coffee off to
keep it from knocking over and how men are
shits and don't trust them all her friends said
-and she finally she met one she thinks she can
finally trust to really give in and surrender and
commit to do the right thing and they're right,
she's a fool, men are just shit."
A-: "Men mostly are shit, you're right, heh
heh."
R-: "And I'm basically, I'm standing there
holding coffee I don't even it's too late I don't
want even decaf I'm lending the eat and my
heart I got to say it my heartgoingout a little bit to this girl for this heartbreak. I'swear
kid never but you have never seen anything ,
like this heartbreak on this girl with the tits,
and I start telling her how she's right the
guy's a shit and don't even deserve and how
it's, true most .guys are shit and how my
heart's going-out and all like that."
A-: "Heh heh. So then what happened?"
R-: "Heh heh."
A-: "Heh heh heh."
R-,: "You really got to ask?"
A-: "You bastard. You shitheel."
R-: "Well you know how it is I mean
what are you going to do."
,
A-: "You shitheel."
R-: "Well you know."
B:I.#4~
Peoria Heights IL
,'T
he soft plopping sounds. The
slight gassy sounds. The little
. involuntary, grunts. Th.e special,
sigh of an older man at a urinal,
the way he establishes himself there and
sets his feet and aims and then lets out a
, timeless sigh you know he's not aware of.
"This was his environment. Six days a week
he stood there. Saturdays a double shift. The
.needles-and-nails quality of urine into water,
The unseen rustle of newspapers on bare laps,
The odors."
,
A-: "Poor little muttski."
R-: "That then at the end there I come off
the last off as usual and nobody else after except
the crew pulling their 'little neat identical little ,
bags those neat little bags that always bug me
somehow and that's it I'm the last and she-"
A-: "So you're explaining it wasn't you that
she's screaming and hitting the floor it's just that
you're the last of them off and you're not this
shitheel guy. The bastard even must of faked
that call, the static if you run your Remington it
makes static that'll sound like a~"
R-: "AndI'm telling you you never saw anybody so the word heartbroken you think it's just
words blah blah but then you see this girl with'
her hand knocking herself in the head for being
such a foot crying so hard she can't mostly
breathe and all that business like that, hugging
44
HARPER'SMAGAZINE/OcrOBl:R
1998
Q.
'''Top-rated hist~ric hotel in the state. The
finest 'lobby, the single finest men's room
between the two coasts, surely. Marble shipped
from Italy. Stall doors of seasoned cherry. Since
1969 he's stood there. Rococo fixtures and scalloped basins.' Opulent and echoing. A large
opulent echoing room for men of business, substantial men, men with places to go and people
to see. The odors. Don't ask about the odors.
The difference between some men's odors, the ,
sameness in all men's odors. All sounds ampli-
Photograph by Tom Maday / Photo~iCa
· fied by tile and Florentine stone. The moans of
the prostatic. The hiss of the sinks. The ripping
extractions of deep-lying phlegm, the plosive
and porcelain splat. The sounds of fine shoes on
dolomite flooring. The inguinal rumbles. The
· hellacious ripping explosions of gas and the
sound of stuff hitting the water. Half-atomized
by pressures broughtto bear. Solid, liquid, gas.
All the odors. Odor as environment. All day.'
Nine hours a day. Standing there in GoodHumor white. All sounds magnified, reverberatingslightly. Men, coming' in, men going out.
Eight stalls, six urinals, sixteen
sinks .. Do . the math. What
were they thinking?"
Q~...
egestion, extrusion, dejection, purgation, voidance. The unmistakable rumble .of the toiletpaper dispensers. The occasional click of nail
. clippers or depilatory scissors: Effluence.
Emission. Orduration, micturition, transudation, emiction, feculence, catharsis-so many
synonyms-why? What are we trying to say to
ourselves in so many ways?"
Q •...
"The olfactory clash of different men's
colognes, deodorants, hair tonic, mustache
..wax. The rich smell of the foreign and
....
, swe.rkidnever
but you h.ve,'never
"It's what he stands in. In
seen .nything, like this he.•rtbre.k
the sonic center. Where the
this girl with the' tits,- .nd I st.rt
shine stand used to be. In the
crafted space between the end
telling her she's right the guy's ••
of the sinks and the start of
the stalls. The space designed
for him to stand. The vortex.
. unbathed. Some of the stalls' shoes touching
Just outside the long mirror's frame; by the
their mate hesitantly, tentatively, as if sniffing.
sinks-a continuous sink of Florentine marble,
it. The damp lisp of buttocks shifting on
sixteen scalloped .basins, leaves of gold foil
padded seats. The tiny pulse of each bowl's
around the fixtures, mirror of good Danish
pool. The little dottles that survive flushing.
plate. In which men of substance drag material
The urinals' ceaseless purl and trickle. The
out of the corners of their eyes and squeeze
indole stink of putrefied food, the eccrine tang
their pores, blow their nose in the sinks and
to the jackets, the uremic breeze that follows
walk off without rinsing. He stood all day with
each flush. Men who flush toilets with their
his towels and small cases of personal-size toifeet. Men who will touch fixtures only with tis· letries. A trace of balsam in the three vents'
.sue, Men who trail paper mit of the stalls, their
whisper. The vents' threnody is inaudible
own comet's tail, the paper lodged in' their
unless the room is empty. He stands there when
aims. Anus. The word anus. The anuses of the
it's empty too. This is his occupation; this is his
well-to-do ranging above the bowls' water,
career. Dressed all in white like a masseur.
flexing, puckering, .distending. Soft faces
Plain white Hanes T and white pants and tensqueezed tight in effort. Old men who require
nis shoes he hadto throw out if so much as a
all kinds of ghastly help-s-lowering and arrangspot. He takes their cases and topcoats, guards
ing another man's shanks, wiping another
them,' remembers without asking whose is
man. Silent, wordless, impassive. Whisking
whose. Speakingas little as possible in all those
. -the shoulders of another man, shaking off
acoustics. Appearing at men's elbows to hand
another man, removing. a pubic hair from the
them towels. An impassivity that is effacepleat of- another man's slacks. For coins. The
ment. This is my father's career."
Q •...
sign says it all. Men who tip, men who do not
.tip. The effacement cannot be too complete or
"The stalls' fine doors end a foot from the
, floor-why is this? Why this tr~dition? Is it
they forger he is there when it comes time to
tip. The trick of his demeanor is to appear only
descended from animals' stalls? Is the word stall
related to" stable? Fine stalls that afford some
provisionally there, to exist all and only if
visual privacy and nothing else. If anything
needed. Aid without intrusion. Service withthey amplify the sounds inside, bullhorns on'
out servant. No man wants to know another
man can smell him. Millionaires who do not
encl. You hear it all. The balsam makes the
odors worse by sweetening them. The toes of
tip. Natty men who splatter the bowls and tip
a nickel. Heirs who steal towels. Tycoons who
dress shoes defiled! along the row of spaces
beneath the doors. The stalls full after lunch. A
pick their noses with their thumb. Philong rectangular box of shoes. Some tapping. .
lanthropists who throw cigar butts on the floor.
Some of them humming, speaking aloud to
Self-made men who spit in the sink. Wildly
themselves, forgetting they are not alone. The
rich men who do not flush and without a
flatus and tussis and' meaty splats, Defecation,
thought leave it. to someone else to flush
on
hit
FOLlO
45
I'
because this is literally what they are used to-the old saw Would you do this at home.
"He bleached his work Clothes himself,
ironed them. Never a word of complaint.
Impassive. The sort of man who stands in one
place all day. Sometimes the very sales of the
shoes visible under there, in the stalls, of vomiting men. The word vomit. The mere word.
a tip with. The" inaudible thank-you to the regulars. Sometimes a name. All those solids tumbling out of all those large soft warm fat moist
white anuses, flexing.' Imagine. To attend so
, much passage. To see men of substance at their
most elemental: His career. A career man."
Q.
"Because he brought his work home. The
face he wore in the men's
room. He couldn't take it off.
His skull conformed to fit it.
Do I despise him, you're wondering,
This expression or rather lack
of expression. Attendant and
'feel di~gust, contempt for, any man
no more. Alert, but absent.
who'd stand effaced in that miasma
His face. Beyond reserved. As
if forever conserving himself
and dispense towels for coins?·
for some ordeal to come."
Q •. ' ..
Men being ill in a room with acoustics. All the
mortal sound he stood in every day. Try to imagine. The soft expletives of constipated men,
men with colitis, ileus, irritable bowel, lientery,
dyspepsia, diverticulitis, ulcers, bloody flux.
Men with colostomies. handing him the bag to
dispose of. An equerry of the human.. Hearing
without hearing. Seeing only need. The slight
nod that in men's rooms is acknowledgment
and deferral at once. The ghastly metastasized
odors of continental breakfasts and business
dinners. A double shift when he could. Food on
the table, a roof, children to educate. His arches would swell from the standing. His bare feet
were blancmanges. He showered thrice daily
and scrubbed himself raw, but the job still follo~ed him. Never a word.
"The door tells the whole story. MEN. I
haven't seen him since 1978 and I know he's
still there, all in white, standing. Averting his
eyes to preserve their dignity. But his own? His
own five senses? What are those three monkeys'
names? His.task is to stand there as if he were
not the~e.· Not really, There's a trick to it. A
special nothing you look at."
Q.
"I didn't learn it in a men's room, I can tell
you that." ,
"
Q.
"Imagine not existing until a man needs you.
Being there and yet not there. A willed translucence. Provisionally there, contingently there.
The old saw Lives to' serve. His career.
Breadwinner. Every morning up at six, kiss us all
goodbye, a piece of toast for the bus. He could
eat for real on his break. A bellman would go to
the deli. The pressure produced by pressure.
The rich belches of expense-account lunches.
The 'mirrors' remains of sebum and pus and
sneezed detritus. Twenty-eight, no -nine years
at the same station. The grave nod he'd receive
46
HARPER'~ MAGi\ZINE
I OCTOBER
1998
"I own nothing white. Not
one white thing, I can tell you that much. I
eliminate in silence or not at all. I tip. 1 never
forget that someone is there.
'
"Yes and do I admire the fortitude of this
humblest of working men? The stoicism? The
, Old-World grit? To .stand there all those years,
never one sick day, serving? Or do I despise him,
you're wondering, feel disgust, contempt for any
man who'd stand effaced in that miasma and
dispense towels for coins?"
Q.
"
Q.
"What were the two choices again?"
B.I. #30
DruryUT
,,I
have to admit it was a big reason for
marrying her, thinking I wasn't likely
going to do better than this because of
,
the way she had a good body even
after she'd had, a kid. Trim and good and good'
legs-she'd had a kid but wasn't all blown out
and veiny and sagged. It probably sounds shallow, but it's the truth. I'd always had this major
dread of marrying some good-looking woman
arid then we have a kid and it blows her body
out but I still have to have sex with her
because this is who I've signed on to have sex
with the whole rest of my life. This probably
sounds awful, but in her case it was like she
was pre-tested-the
kid didn't blow her body
out, so I knew she'd be a good bet to sign on
and have kids with arid still try to have sex.
Does that sound shallow? Tell me what you
, think. Or does the real truth about this sort of
thing always' sound shallow, you know, everybody's real reasons? What do you think? How
does it sound?" -
i
'
B.I. #48
'
, Appleton WI
'-','1'
I
, -
t is on the third date that' I, will inv,it,e
them back to the apartment.' It is
,
important to understand that, for there
even to be a third date, there must
exist some sort of palpable affinitybetween
us, something by which I can sense that
they will go along, Perhaps go along [flexion
of upraised fingers to signify tone quotes] is
not a fortuitous phrase for it. I mean, perhaps, [flexion of upraised fingers to signify
tone quotes] play. Meaning join me in the
contract and subsequent activity." ,
Q. '
,
"Nor canIexplain how 1 sense thismysterious affinity. This sense that a willingness togo along would not, be out of the
question. Someone once told me of an
Australianprofession known as [flexion of
, upraised fingers}chicken-sexing, in'--,-"
Q.
, "Bear with me a moment now. Chicken-sexing.
Since hens have 'a far greater commercial value
than males, cocks, roosters, it is apparently vital'
to determine the sex of a newly hatched chick.
In order to know whether to expend capital on
raising it or not, you see. A cock is nearly worth'less, apparently, on the open market. The sex
characteristics of newly hatched chicks, howev-er, are entirely internal, and it is impossible with,
the naked eye to tell whether a given chick is a
hen or a cock. This is what I have been told, at
any rate. A professional chicken-sexer, however,
can nevertheless _tell. The sex. He can go through
a brood of freshly hatched chicks, examining
each one entirely by' eye, and, tell the poultry
farmer which chicks to keep and which are cocks.
Tlie cocks are to beallowed to perish, 'Hen, hen,
cock, cock, hen,' and so on and so forth. This is
apparently in Australia. The profession. And
they are nearly alwaysright,'Correct. The fowl determined to be hens do in f(ic~grow up to be
hens and return the poultry farmer's investment.
, What the chick~n-sexer cannot do, however, is
explain howhe knows. The sex. It's apparently often a patrilineal profession,ha~ded down from father to son. Australia, New Zealand. Have him
'hold up anew-hatched chick, a young cock shall '
we say, and ask him how he can tell that it is a
cock, and the professional chicken-sexer will apparently shrug his shoulders and say 'Looks like
a cock to me.' Doubtlessadding 'mate,' much
the way You Of I would add 'my friend' .ortsir.?'
Q •..
haps. Nbt that I'm right 100 percent of the
time. But you would be surprised. We will be on
the ottoman, having a drink, enjoying some
music, light conversation. This, is,now on the
third date together, late in the evening, after
dinner and perhaps a film or a bit of dancing. I
do very much like tb dance. We are not seated
close together on the ottoman. Usually I am at
:'
,
"This is the apt~st analogy I can summon to
explain it. Some mysterious sixth sense, per-'
Photograph by Jen Fang
I Photonica
one end and she at th~!other. Though it is only
, a four-and-a-half-foot ottoman. It's not a terri;
bly long piece of furniture. However, the point
is that we are not in a posture of particular intimacy. Very casua] and -so on. A great deal of
complex body language is involved and has
taken place over all the prior time spent in one
another's company, which I will not bore you by
attempting to go into: So then. When I sense
the moment is right-on the ottoman; comfortable, with drinks, perhaps some Ligeti on the
audio system-s-l.. will SaY, without any .dis, cerniblecontext or lead-in that you could point
to 'as such,'Bow would you feel about my tying
.you up?' Those nine words. Just so. Some rebuff
me on the spot. But it is a small percentage.
Very small. .Perhaps shockingly
\
. small. I will
know whether it's going to happen the moment
I ask. I can nearly always tell. Again, I cannot
fully explain how. There will always be a
moment of complete silence, heavy. You are, of
course, aware that social silences have varied
textures, 'and they communicate a great deal.
This silence will occur whether I'm to be
. rebuffed or .not, whether I have been incorrect '
about the [flexion of upraised fingers to signify
tone quotes] hen or not. Her, silence, and the
, weight of it-a perfectly natural reaction to
such a shift in the texture of a hitherto casual
conversation. And it brings to a sudden head all
the 'romantic, tensions and cues and body language of. the first three dates. Initial or earlystage dates are fantasticallyrich from a psycho,
logical standpoint. Doubtless you are aware of'
this. Any sort of courtship ritual, game of sizing ,
one another, up, gauging. There is, afterward,
always that eight-beat silence. Uiey must allow
FOLIO
,47
the question to [finger flexion] sink in. This was
an expression of my mother's, by the way. To let,
such-and-such [finger flexion] sink in, and as it
happens it is nearly perfect as a descriptor of
what occurs."
Q.
,
I
"Alive and kicking. She lives with my sister
and her husband and their two small children.
Very much alive. Nor do-e-rest assured that I do
not delude myself that the low percentage of
rebuffs is due to any overwhelming allure on my
part. This is not how an activity like this works.
In fact, it is one reason why I propose the possibility in such a bold and apparently graceless
way. 1 withhold any attempt at charm or assuasion. Because I know fiill well that their
response to the proposal depends on factors
internal to them. Some will wish to play. A few
will not. That is all there is to it. The only real
[finger flexion] talent I profess is the ability to
gauge them, screen them, so that by,the-such
that a preponderance of the' third dates are, if
you will, [finger flexion] hens rather than [finger'
'flexion] cocks. I use these avian tropes, as
metaphors, not in any way to characterize the
subjects but rather to emphasize my own unan. alyzable ability to know, intuitively, as early as
the first date, whether they are, if you will, [f.f.]
ripe for the proposal. To tie them up. And that
is just howI put it. I do not dress it up or
attempt to make' it seem any more [sustained
f.f.] romantic or exotic than that. Now, as to the
rebuffs. The rebuffs are very rarely hostile, very
rarely, and then only if the subject in question
really in fact does wish to play but is conflicted
or emotionally unequipped to accept this wish
and so must use hostility to the proposal as a
means of assuring hers~lf that no such wish Or
affinity exists. This is sometimes known as [f.f.]
aversion coding. It is very easy to discern and,
48
HARPER'S MAGAZINE / OCTOBER 1998
decipher, and. as such it is nearly impossible to
take the hostilirypersonallv. The rare subjects
about whom I've simply been incorrect, on the
other hand; are often' amused, or sometimes
curious and thus interrogative, but in all events
in the end they simply decline, the proposal in
clear and forthright terms. These are the cocks
I have mistaken for' hens. It happens. As of my
last reckoning, I have been rebuffed just
over 15 percent of the time.. On the third
date. 'This figure is actually a bit high,
, because it includes the hostile, hysterical,
or 'affronted rebuffs, which do not result->
at least in my opinion-s-which do not
result from my misjudging a [f.f.]cock."
Q..
"Again, please note that I do not possess
or pretend to possess specialized knowledge
aboutpoultry or professional brood-management. I use the metaphors only to conve'y the apparent ineffability of my intuition about prospective players in, the [f.f.]
gaine I propose. Nor, please also note, do I
so much as touch them or in any way flirt
with them before the third date. Nor, on'
that third date, d9I launch myself at them
or move toward them in any way as Lhit
them with the proposal. I propose it bluntlybut unthreateningly from my end of a fourand-a-half-foot ottoman. I do not force .myself
on them in any way. I am not a Lothario. I
know what the contract is about, and it is' not
about seduction, conquest, intercourse, or algolagnia. What it is about is my desire symbolicallyto work out certain internal complexes consequent to my rather irregular childhood relationswith my mother and twin sister. It is npt
[H.] Sand M, and I am not a [f.f.] sadist, and 1
am not interested in subjects who wish to be "
[f.f.] hurt. My sister and I are fraternal twins, by
, the way, and now, in adulthood look scarcely
anything alike. What f am about, when L suddenly inquire, a propos nothing, whether I
might take them into the other room and tie
them up, is describable, at least in part, in the
phrase of Marchesani and Van Slyke's theory of
masochistic symbolism, as proposing a contractual scenario' [no f.f.]. The crucial factor here is
that I am every bit as interested in the contract
as in the scenario. Hence the blunt formality,
the mix of aggression and decorum in my pro-posal. They took her in after' she suffered a
series of small but not life-threatening strokes,
cerebral events, and simply could no longer get
around well enough to live on her own. She '
refused even to consider institutional care. This
was not even a possibility so far as she 'was concerned. My sister, of course, came immediately
to the rescue. Mummy now has her own room,
while my sister's two children must now share
Photograph by Bam~by
H~1l1 Photonica
,
one. The room is on the first floor to prevent
her having to negotiate the staircase, which is
steep and uncarpeted. I have to tell you, I know
precisely what the whole thing is about."
Q.
'
tual activity that included my tying you 'up true
play is that it would be entirely different from
my somehow luring you home and once there
launching myself at you and overpowering you
and tying you up. There would be no play in
that. The .play is in your freely and autonomously submitting to being tied up. The purpose of the contractual nature of masochistic or
[f.f.] banded play-x-I propose, she accepts, I propose something further, she accepts-is to formalize the power structure Ritualize it. The
[f.f.] play is the submission to bondage, the giving up of power to another, but the [f.f.] con- '
tract-the [f.f.] r:ules, as it were, of the gamethe contract ensures that all abdications of
power are freely' chosen. In other words, an,
assertion that one is secure enough in one's
concept of orie's own personal power to ritualistically give up that power to another person-in this example, me-who will then proceed to take off your slacks and sweater and
"It is easy to know, there on the ottoman,
that it is going to happen. That I have gauged'
the affinity correctly. Ligeti, whose work, you
'are doubtless aware, is abstract nearly .to the
point of atonality, provides the ideal atmosphere in which to propose the contractual scenario. Over 85 percent of the time, the subject
accepts. There is no [f.f.] predatory thrill at the
subject's [f.f.] acquiescence, because it is not a
matter of acquiescence at all. Not at all. I will
ask how they feel about the idea of my tying
them up. There will be a dense and heavily
charged .silence, a gathering voltage in the air
above the ottoman. In that voltage the question
dwells until it has, comme on du, [f.f.] sunk in.
They will, in most cases, abruptly change' their
position on the ottoman so as
suddenly to straighten their
posture-this
is an uncon-'
ple.se not. th.t I do not
scious gesture designed to communicate strength and autonoposse.s or pretend to possess
, my, to assert that they alone
speci.li.ed knowledge .boutpoultry
have the power to decide how
; to respond to the proposal. It
or profession.1 brood-m.n.gement
stems, from an insecure fear
.that
something
ostensibly'
weak or pliable in their characunderthings andtie your wrists and ankles to
ter might have led me to view them as candidates for [sustained f.f.] domination or bondage.
my antique bedposts with satin thongs. I am, of
course; for the purposes of this conversation,'
People's psychological dynamics are fascinatmerely using you as an example. Do not think
ing-s-that a:subject's first, unconscious concern
is what it might be about her thatmightprompt
that. I am actually proposing any contractual
sucha proposal, might lead a man to think such
possibility with you. I scarcely know you. Not
a thing might' be possible. Reflexively conto mention the amount of-context and explacerned,in other words, about their self-presennation I am granting you here-this is not how
I operate. [Laughter.] No, my dear, you have
tation. You would almost have to be there in
the room with us to appreciate the very, very
nothing to fear from me."
Q.
complex and fascinating dynamics that accom"But of-course you are. My own mother was,'
pany this charged silence. In point of fact, in its
.naked assertion of personal power, the sudden
by all accounts, a magnificent individual, but of
improvement in posture in fact communicates a
somewhat, shall ~e' say, uneven temperament,
clear desire to submit. To accept. To 'phiy. In
Erratic and uneven in her domestic and day-to.other words, any assertion of [f.f.] power signiday affairs. Erratic in her dealings with, of her
fies, in this charged context, a hen. In the heavtwo, twin children, most specifically me. This
ily stylized formalism of [f.f.] masochistic play,
has bequeathed me certain psychological comyou see, the ritual .is contracted and organized,
plexes having to d~ with power and, perhaps,
in such a way that the apparent inequality in
trust. The regularity of the acquiescence-is nearpower is, in fact, fully empowered and
ly astounding. As the shoulders come up and
autonomous."
her overall posture becomes more erect, the
Q.
head is thrown back as well, such that she is
"Thank you. This shows me you really are
now sitting up very straight and appears almost
attending. That you are an acute and assertive
to be withdrawing from' the conversational
'listener. Nor have I put it very gracefully. What
space, still on the ottoman but withdrawing as
would render you and I, for example, going to
far' as she possibly can Within the strictures of ,
my apartment and entering into some contracthat space. This apparent withdrawal, while
A ~.in"
FOLlO
49
intended to communicate shock and surprise
and thus that she is most decidedly not the sort
of person to whom the possibility ever of being
invited to permit someone to tie her up would
ever even occur, actually signifies a profound
,ambivalence. A {finger flexion] conflict. By
which I mean that a possibility which had hitherto existed only internally, potentially,
abstractly, as a.part ~f the subject's unconscious
fantasies or repressed wishes, has now suddenly
been externalized and given conscious weight,
'Q.
"The true cocks, the rare ones I have' misjudged, will yield the briefest of these shocked
pauses. They will smile politely, or even laugh,
,and ,then will decline the proposal in very
direct and forthright terms. No harm, no foul.
[Laughter.] No pun intended-[f.f.] cock, foul.
These subjects' internal psychological maps
have ample room for the possibility of being
tied up, and they freely consider it and freely
reject it. They are simply not interested. I have
no problem with this, with
discovering I've mistaken a
cock for a hen. Again, I am
_Iw_ys propose it in _ blunt,
not interested in forcing or
cajoling or persuading any- '
undisguised w_y, _bjuring wit or
one against her will. I am cersegue or prep_r_tion or color_tur_ in
tainly not going to beg her.
That is not what this is
the pronunci_tion of the contr_ct'
about. I know what this is
, about. The-and force is not
what this is about: The oth, made [f.f.] real as an actual possibility. Hence
ers-the long, weighted, high-voltage pause,
the fascinating irony that body language
the postural and affective shock-whether
intended, to convey shock does indeed convey
they acquiesce or become offended, outraged,
shock but a very different sort of shock indeed.
these are the true hens, players, these are the
Namely the abreactive shock of repressed wishones whom I have not at all misjudged. As
their heads are thrown bac1<-':"'buttheir eyes
es bursting their strictures and penetrating consciousness, but from an external source, from a
are on me, fixed, looking at me, [f.f.] gazing and
concrete other who is also male and a partnerin
so on, with all the intensity one associates
with someone trying to decide whether or not,
the mating ritual and thus always ripe for transthey can [f.f.] trust you. With [f.f.] trust now
ference. The phrase [no f.f.] sink in is thus far
more appropriate than you might originally
connoting a great many different possible
have imagined. Such penetration, of course, ,
things-s-whether you are having them on,
requires time only when there is [f.f.]resistance.
whether you are serious but are pretending to '
Or for example doubtless you know the hoary ,
have them on 'in order to forestall embarrass;
cliche [f.f.] I can't believe my ears. Consider its
ment should they beoutraged or disgusted, or
, whether you are in earnest but mean the proimport."
posal abstractly, as a hypothetical question
Q •...
.such as [f.f.] What'would you do with a milUon
"My own experience indicates that the cliche'
dollars? meant to' elicit psychological informadoes not mean [sustained f.f.] I can't believe that
tion about their personality in possible deliberthis possibility now exists in my consciousness but
rather something more along the lines of [sus- ( ation as to a fourth date, 'And so on and so
tained and increasingly annoying f.f.] I cannot
forth. Or rather whether it is in fact a serious.
believe that this possibility is now originating from a
proposal. Even as-they are ,looking .at you
because they are trying to read you. To size you
point external to my consciousness. It is the same
up, as you have apparently sized them up, as the
sort of shock, the several-second delay in internalizing or processing, which accompanies sudproposal appears to imply. This is why I always
propose it in a blunt, undisguised way, abjuring
den bad news or a sudden, inexplicable betrayal
wit or segue or preparation or coloratura in the
by a hitherto trusted authority figure and so on
pronunciation of the contractual possibility. I
and so forth. This interval of shocked silence is
want to communicate to them as best I can
one during which entire psychological maps are
that the proposal is serious and concrete. That
being redrawn, and during this interval any gesI am opening my own consciousness up to them.
ture or affect on the subject's part will reveal a
and to the possibility of rejection or even disgreat deal more about her than any amount of
gust. This is why I answer their intense gaze
banal conversation or even clinical experimenwith a bland gaze of my own and say nothing to
tation ever would. Reveal."
'
Q.
embellish or complicate or color or interrupt
the processing of their, own internal psychic,
"I meant woman or young woman, not [f.f.]
~eaction. I force them to acknowledge to them- '
subject per se."
I
50
HARPER'S MAGAZINE
I OCTOBER
1998
selves that both I and the proposal are in deadly earnest."
Q•...
"But again please note I am in no way aggres, sive or threatening about it: This is what I
meant by [f.f.] blarul gaze. I do not propose it in
a creepy or lascivious way, and I do not appearin
any way eager or hesitant or conflicted. Nor
aggressive or threatening. This is crucial. You're
doubtless aware, from your own experience"
that one's natural unconscious reaction"
when someone's body language suggests a
withdrawal or leaning-away from him, is
automatically to lean forward, or in, as a
way to compensate and preserve the original spatial relation. I consciously avoid this
reflex. This is extremely important. One
does not nervously shift or leah or lick one's
lips or straighten one's tie while a proposal
like this is sinking in. I once, on a third
date, found myself with one of those annoy- '
ing isolated jumping muscles or twitches in
my scalp which seized on and off throughOut the evening and, on the ottoman, made
it appear that I was raising and lowering
one eyebrow in a rapid and lascivious way, '
which in the psychically charged aftermath
of the sudden proposal simply torpedoed
the whole thing. And this subject was by no
stretch of the imagination a cock-this was
a hen or I've never inspected a hen-yet
one involuritary .twitch in one eyebrow '
decapitated the whole possibility, such that
, the subject not only left in such a frenzy of
conflicted disgust that she forgot her 'purse
and never returned for the purse but refused
even to return telephone messages in which
I phoned several times and offered simply to
return the purse to her at some neutral public
location. The disappointment nevertheless
drove home a valuable lesson as to just how del- '
icate a period of internal processing and cartography this post-proposal 'moment can be. My, ,
mother's problem was that toward me-her'
eldest child, the elder of the twins, significantly~her nurturing instincts ran to rather erratic
extremes of as it were [H.] hot and cold. She
could at one moment be very, very, very 'warm
, and maternal, and then in the flash of an instant
would become angry with me over some real or
imagined trifle and would completely withdraw
her affection. She became cold and rejecting,
rebuffing' any attempts as a small child' on my
part to receive reassurance and nurture, sometimes sending me alone to my bedroom and
refusing to let me out for some rigidly specified "
period while my twin sister continued to enjoy ,
unconfined freedom of movement, about the
house and also continued to receive warmth and
maternal affection. Then, after the rigid period
Photograph by Rieder & Walsh
I Photonica
of confinement was over-I mean to say the precise instant my [H] time-out was completed- ,
Mummy would open the door and embrace me
warmly and blot my tears away with her sleeve ,
and would claim that all was forgiven, all was
well again. This flood of reassurance and nurture
would once again seduce me into [H.] trusting
her' and revering her and ceding emotional
power to her, rendering me vulnerable to devas-
tation all over again whenever she might
choose again to turn cold and look at me as if I
were some sort of laboratory specimen she'd
never seen before. This cycle played itself out '
repeatedly throughout our childhood relation,']
am afraid."
Q.
"Yes, accentuated by the fact that-she was by
vocation a professional clinician, a psychiatric
caseworker who administered tests and' diag- ,
nos tic exercises at a sanitarium in the neighboring town. A career she recommenced the
moment my sister and I entered the school system, as barely toddlers. My mother's imago all
but rules my adult psychological life, I am
aware, forcing me again and again to propose
and negotiate contracted rituals where power is
freely given and taken and submission ritualized and control ceded and then returned of my
own free will. [Laughter.] Of the subject's,
rather. Will. It is also my mother's legacy that I
know precisely what myinterest in carefully'
,FOLIO
51
gauging a subject and on the third evening suddenly proposing that she allow me to immobilize her with satin restraints is, derives, comes
from. Much of the annoying, pedantic jargon I
use to describe the rituals also derives from my
mother, who, far more than did our kindly but
repressed and somewhat castrated father, modeled speech and behavior for us as children. My
mother possessed a [sustained f.f.] Master's
Degree in Clinical Social Work,one of the first
conferred upon a female diagnostician in the
upper Midwest. My sister is a housewife and
mother and aspires to be nothing more, at least
not consciously. For example, [f.f.] ottoman was
Mummy's term for both the sofa and the twin
love seats in our livingroom. My own apart, '
ment's sofa has a back and arms and is, of
course, technically a sofa or couch, but I seem
unconsciously to insist on referring to it as an
ottoman. This is an unconscious habit I seem
unable to modify. In fact I have ceased trying.
Some complexes are better accepted and simply yielded to rather than struggling,against the
imago by sheer force' of will. Mummy-who
was, of course; after all, you are aware, someone
whose profession involved keeping persons
confined and probing and testing them and'
breaking them and bending them to' the will of
'what' the state' authorities deemed mental
health-quite
hopelessly broke my own will
early on. I have accepted this and reached an
accord with it and have erected complex structures in 'which to come symbolically to terms
with it and redeem it. That is what this is
about. Neither my sister's husband nor my
father was'ever involved in poultry in any way.
My ..father,until his stroke, was a .low-level
executive in the insurance industry. Though of
course the term [f.f.] chick~n was often used in
our subdivision-by the children with whom I
played and acted out various primitive rituals'
of socialization-e-tc describe a weak, cowardly
individual, an individual whose will could eas-
52
HARPER'SMAGAZINE! OCTOBER 1998
ily be bent to the purposes of others.
Unconsciously, I may perhaps employ poultry
metaphors in describing the contractual rituals
as a symbolic way of asserting my own power
over those who, paradoxicallp.autonomouslv .
agree to submit. With little other fanfare we
will proceed into the other room, to the bed. I
am very excited. My manner has now changed,
somewhat, to a more commanding, authoritative demeanor. But not creepy and not threatening. Some subjects have professed to see it as
[f.f.] menacing, but I can assure you no menace
is intended. What is being communicated now
is a certain authoritative command based solelyon contractual experience as I inform the
subject that I am going to [no f.f.] instruct her. I
radiate an expertise that may, I admit, to someone of a particular psychological makeup,
appear menacing. All but the most hardened
fowl begin askingme what it is I want them to
do. I, on the other hand, very deliberately
exclude, the word [f.f.] want and its analogues
from my instructions. I am not about expressing wishes or asking or pleading or persuading
here, I inform them. That is not what this is
about. We are now in my bedroom, which is
small and dominated
by a king-sized
Edwardian-style four-poster bed. The bed itself,
which appears enormous and deceptively sturdy, might communicate a certain menace, conceivably, in view of the contract we have
entered into. I always phrase it as [no f.f.] This
is ~hat you are to do, You are t.odo such-and-such
and so on and so forth. I tell them how to stand
and when to tum and how to look at me.
Articles of clothing are to be remov~d ina certain very particular order."
.
Q.
"Yesbut the &der is less important than that
there is an order, and that they comply.
Underthings are always last. I am intensely but
unconventionally
excited. My manner is
brusque and commanding but not menacing. It
is no-nonsense. Some appear nervous, some
affect to appear nervous. A few roll their eyes or
make small dry jokes 'to reassure themselves that
they are merely [f.f.] playing along. They are to
'fold their clothes and place them at the foot of
the bed and to recline and lie supine and to
erase all vestige of affect or expression from
their face as 'I remove my own clothing."
Q~
"Sometimes, sometimes not. The excitement is intense but not specifically genital. My
own undressing has, been matter-of-fact.
Neither ceremonial nor hurried. I radiate coni,mand. A few chicken out part of the way
through, but very, very few. Those who wish to '
go, go. The confinement is very abstract. The
thongs are black satin! mail-order. You would,
Photograph by Barnaby Hall! Photonica
be surprised. As they comply with each request,
command, I utter little phrases of positive reinR.I. #~8
forcement, such as; for instance, Good' and
Ypsilanti MI [Simultaneous]
That's a good girL I tell them that the knots are
o "
K,: "What does today's woman want. That's,
double slips and will tighten, automatically if
the big one."
they struggle or resist., In fact' they are not. In'
. E-: 'iIagree. It's the big one all right. It's the
fact there' is no such thing as a double-slip'
what-do-you-call ... "
knot. The crucial moment occurs when they lie
,K-: "Or put another way, what do today's
nude before me, bound tightly 'at wrists and
women think they want versus what do they
ankles torhe bed's four posts. Unknown to,
, really deep down want."
them, the bedposts are decorative and not at all
E-: "Or what do they think they're s1"PPosed
sturdy and could 0.0 doubt be snapped by a
to want."
determined effort to free themselves. I say, You
Q.
are now entirely in my pow~r. Recall that she is
K-: "From a male."
nude and bound to the bedposts, spread-eagled.
E-: "From a guy."
I am standing unclothed at, the foot of the bed.
K-: "Sexually."
I then consciously alter the expression on my
E-: "In terms of the old mating dance."
face and ask, Are you frightened? Depending on
'K-: "Whether it sounds Neanderthal Or not,
their own demeanor here, ,I sometimes alter
this to, Aren't you frightened?
This is the crucial mom~nt.
This is the moment of truth.
t.11 ·th.m that th.· knots' ar. doubl.
The entire ritual-perhaps
ceremony would be better,
slips aridwill tlght.n automatic.IIY if
more evocative, because weth.Y' struggl., but in fact ~h.r.is no
of course the whole thing from
proposal onward is about ceresuch thing as a doubl•...slipknot'
mony-and the climax is the
subject's response to 'this
prompt. To Are you frightened?
I'm still going to argue it's the big one, Because
What is required' is a twin acknowledgment; "
now the whole question today's become such a
, She is to acknowledge that she is wholly in my
mess."
power at this moment. And she must also say'
E-'--: "You can say that again."
she trusts me, She must acknowledge, that she
K-: "Because now the modem woman has,
is not afraid I will 'betray or, abuse the power
an unprecedented amount of contradictory stuff
I've been ceded" The excitement is at its
laid on her. about what it is she's supposed to
absolute peak during 'this interchange, reaching
want and how she's expected to conduct herself
a sustained climax which persists for exactly as
sexually."
long as it takes me to extract these assurances
from her,"
E-: "The modem woman's a mess of contraQ.
dictions that they lay on themselves that drives
them nuts.'"
•'
"Pardon me?"
K-: "It's what makes it so difficult to know
Q.
,
what they want. Difficult but not impossible."
"I've already told you, I weep. It is then that
E-: "Like take your classic Madonna-versusI weep.,Have you been paying even the slightwhore contradiction. Good girl versus slut. The
est attention, slouched there? I lie down beside
girl you respect and take home to meet Mom
them andweep and explainto them the psy-,
versus the girl you just fuck.'
chological origins of the game and the needs it
K~: "Yet iet's not forget that overlaid .atop
serves in me. I open my innermost psyche to
them and beg compassion.' Rai:eis the subject
this. is the ,new feminist-slash-postferninist
expectation that women are sexual agents, too,
who 'is not deeply, deeply moved. They comfort
, me as best they can, restricted as they are by the
just as men are. That it's okay to be sexual, that
bonds I've made."
,
,it's okay to whistle at a man's ass and be aggresQ~
sive and go after what you want; That it's okay
"Whether it ends in actual intercourse'
to fuck around. That for today's woman it's
almost mandatory to fuck around."
'
depends. It's unpredictable. There's simply no
way to tell:"
'
E,-: "With still, underneath, the, old
Q •. .,
, respectable-girl-versus-slut thing. It's okay to
"Sometimes one just has to go with the
fuck around if you're a feminist but it's also not
mood."
okay to fuck around because most guys aren't
I
FOLIO
53
feminists and won't respect you and won't call
you again if you fuck around."
, K-: "Do but don't. A double bind ."
E-: "A paradox. Damned either way. The
media perpetuates it:"
K-: "You can imagine the load of internal
. stress all this dumps on their psyches."
E-: "Come a long way baby, my ass."
K-: "That's why so many of them are nuts."
E-: "Out of their minds . with internal
stress."
K-'-: "It's not even really their fault."
,
T~e
bigger the feminist,
is mutuality and respect of their individual
autonomy. If sex is going to happen, they'll say,
it has to be by mutual consensus, and, desire
between two autonomous equals 'who are each
equally responsible for their own sexuality and
its expression."
E":-: "That's almost word for word what I've
heard them say:"
,
K-: "And it's total horseshit."
E-: "They all sure have the empowermentlingo down pat, that's for sure."
K-: "You can easily see what horseshit it is
if you start by recognizing the
, impossible double bind we've
already discussed."
the
E--':'-: "It's not all that hard
to see." ,
more g.r.teful, .nd dependent, s,he's'
going to be.fter
you've ridden in
Qn your white ch.r:ger
E-:"Who
wouldn't be nuts' with that kind
'of mess of contradictions laid on them all the
time in today's media culture?"
,
K-: "The point being that this is what
makes it so difficult, when for example you're
sexually interested in one, to figure out 'what
she really wants from a mare;'.' ,
E-: "It's a total mess. You can go nuts trying
to figure out what tack to take. She might go for
.it, she might not. Today's woman's a total crapshoot. It's like trying to figure out a ten koan,
Where what they want's concerned, you pretty
much have to just shut your eyes and leap."
K-:'''I disagree.':
E-: "I meant metaphorically."
K~: "i disagree that it's impossible to deduce
. what it is they really 'want."
E-:"1 don't think I said impossible,"
K-: "Though I do agree that in today's postfeminist era it's unprecedentedlv difficult and
takes some serious deductive firepower and
imagination." ,
E-: "I mean if it were really literally impossihle then where would we be as a species?"
K-: "And I do agree that you can't necessarily go just by what thevsuy they want."
E-: "Because are 'they only saying it because
they think they're supposed to?"
K-: '.'Myposition is that actually most.of the
time you can figure out what they want, I mean
almost logically deduce it, if you're willing to
make the effort to understand them and to
understand the impossible situ~tion they're in."
E--: "But you can't just go by what they say,
is the big thing."
K-: "There I'd have to agree. What modem
feminists-slash-postfeminists ~ill say they want
• 54
HARPER'S MAGAZINE I OCTOBER 1998
Q.
K'-:' "That she's expected
to be both sexually liberated
and autonomous and assertive,
and yet at the same time she's
still conscious of the old
respectable-girl-versus-slut
dichotomy, and
knows that some girls still let themselves be '
used sexually out of basic lack of self-respect,
and she still recoils at the idea of ever being
seen as this kind of pathetic roundheel sott of
woman."
E-: "Plus remember the postfeminist girl
now knows that' the male sexual paradigm and
the female's are fundamentally different-"
K-: "Mars and Venus."
E-: "Rightexactly, and she knows that as a
'woman she's. naturally programmed to be more
, high-minded and long-term about. sex and to be
thinking more in relationship terms than just
fucking terms, so if she just immediately breaks
down and' fucks you she's on some level still get.ting'taken advantage of, she thinks."
K-: "This-of course, is becausetoday's post, feminist era is also today's postmodern era, in
which supposedly everybody now knows everything about what's really going on underneath
all the semiotic codes and cultural conventions,
and everybody supposedly knows what paradigms everybody is operating out of, and so
we"re all as individuals held to be far more
responsible for o~r sexuality, since everything
we do is now unprecedentedly conscious and
informed."
'E-: "While at the same time she's still under
this incredible biological pressure to find a mate
and settle down and nest and, breed, for
instance go read this thing The Rules and try to
explain its popularity any other way."
K-: "Thepoint being that women today are
now expected to be responsible both to modernity and to history."
,
E-: "Not to mention sheer biology."
a
K-: "Biology's already included in the range
of what I mean by history."
,
E-: ':'So you're using' history more in a
Foucaultvian sense."
K-: "I'm talking about history being a set of
conscious intentional human responses to a.
whole range of forces of which biology and evolution are a part."
. E;:,.-:"The point is it's an intolerable burden
on women."
K-: "The real point is that' in fact they're
just logically incompatible, these tworesponsibilities."
.
E-: "Even if modernity itself is a historical .
phenomenon, Foucault would say." ,
"K-: "I'm just pointing out that nobody can
honor two logically incompatible sets of perceived responsibilities. This has nothing to do
with history, this is pure logic:"
E---;-:"Personally, I blame the media,"
'K-: "So what's the solution." ,
E-: "Schizophrenic media discourse exemplified by like for example Cosmo-c-on one
hand be .liberated, on the other .make sure you
.get a husband."
.
K-: "The solution is to realize that today's
women are in an impossible situation in terms
of what their perceived sexual responsibilities
are, "
E-: "I can bring home the bacon mm mm
'mm tnm fry it up in a pan mm mm mm mrn.'
K-: "And that, as such, they're naturally
going to want what any human being faced with
two irresolvably conflicting sets of responsibilities is going to want. Meaning that what they're
really going to want is some way out of these
responsibilities."
,
E---::"An escape hatch."
K-:' "Psychologically speaking."
E-: "A back door."
K-: "Hence the timeless importance of: passion."
J
"
E-: "They want to be both responsible and
passionate,"
.K-: "No, what they want is to experience a
passion so huge, overwhelming, powerful, and
irresistible that it obliterates any guilt or tension or culpability they might feel about betraying their perceived responsibilities."
.E:-: "In other words what they want from a
guy is passion."
.
K-: "They want to be swept off their feet.
Blown away. Carried off on the wings of. The
logical 'conflict between their responsibilities
can't be resolved, but. their postmodern awareness of this conflict can be."
E-: "Escaped. Denied."
K-:"M()aning that, deep down, they want a
man who's going to be so overwhelmingly passionate and powerful that they'll feel that they
Photograph by.Brad Wilson I Photonica
have no choice, that this thing is bigger than
both of them, that-they can forget there's even
such a thing as postferninist responsibilities."
E-: "Deep down, they want to be irresponsible."
K-: "I suppose in a way I agree, though I
don't think they can really be faulted fOJ;it,
· because I don't think it's conscious."
- E-: "It dwells 'asa Lacanian cry in the infantile unconscious, 'the lingo would say."
K-: "I mean it's understandable, isn't it? The
more these logically incompatible responsibili· ties 'are forced on today's females, the stronger
their unconscious desire for an overwhelmingly
powerful, passionate male who can render the
whole double bind irrelevant by so totally-overwhelming them with passion that they can
allow themselves to believe they couldn't help
it, .that the sex wasn't a matter of conscious
choice that they cal). beheld responsible .for,
that ultimately if anyone was responsible it was
· the male."
E-: "Which explains why the bigger the socalled feminist, the more she'll hang on you and
follow you around after you sleep 'with her."
K-: "I'm not sure I'd go along with that."
E-: "But it follows that the bigger the feminist, the more grateful and dependent 'she's
going to be after you've ridden in on your white
charger and relieved her of responsibility."
K-: i'What I disagree with is E-'s scornful
use of so-called. I just don't think that today's
feminists are being consciously insincere in all
their talk about autonomy. Just as I don't think
they're strictly to blame for the terrible bind
they've found 'themselves in. Though deep
down I do have to agree that women are histor-
FOLIO
55
, ically ill-equipped for taking genuine responsibility for themselves."
Q.
E-: "I don't suppose either of you saw where
the Little Wranglers' room was in this place."
K-: "I don't mean that in any kind 'of justanother- N eanderthal-rnale-grad-studentpu tting -down -women -because- he 's-too- inse'cure- to-countenance- their-sexual-subjec ti vity
way. And I'd go to the wall to defend them
against scorn or culpability for a situation that
is clearly not their fault."
E-:, "Because it's getting to be time to
, answer nature's page, if you know what-I mean."
K-: "I mean, even looking at the evolutionary aspect, you have to agree that a certain lack
. of autonomv-slash-responsibilitv was an obvious genetic advantage as far as primitive human
females went, since a weak sense of autonomy
would drive a primitive female toward a primitive male' to provide food and protection.':
E-: "While your more autonomous, butchtype female would be out hunting on her own,
actually competing with the males for food."
K-:-: "But the point is that itwas the less selfsufficient less autonomous, females who found
mates and bred."
E-: "And raised offspring."
K-: "And, thus perpetuated the species."
E-: "Natural selection favored the ones who
foimdmates instead of going out hunting. I
mean, how many cave paintings of female
, hunters do you ever see?" ~
,
K-:"H~storically, we should probably note
that once the quote-unquote weak female has
mated and bred, she shows an often spectacular,
sense of responsibility where her offspring are
concerned. It's not that females have no capacity for responsibility. That's not what I'm talk, .ing about."
E-: "They do make great morns."
K-: "What we're talking about here is single
adult preprimipara females, their genetic-slashhistorical capacity for autonomy, for as it were
self-responsibility, in their dealings with males."
E-: "Evolution has bred it out of them. Look
at themagazines. Look at romance novels.'"
K"":":"What today's woman wants, in short, is
a male with both the passionate sensitivity and
the' logical firepower to discern that all her pro.nouncernents about autonomy are actuallvdesperate cries in the wilderness of the double bind."
E-: "They all want it. They just can't say it."
K-: "Putting you, today's interested male, in
the paradoxical role of almost their therapist or
priest."
E-: "They want absolution."
K-: "When they say, 'I am my own. person,'>
'I do not need a man,' 'I am responsible for my
own sexuality,' they are actually telling you pre-
56
HARPER'S MAGAZINE/OcrOBER 1998
cisely what they want you to make them
forget."
E-: "They want to be rescued."
K-: "They want you on one level wholeheartedly to agree and respect what they're saying and on another, deeper level to recognize
that it's all complete horseshit and to gallop in
on your white charger and 'overwhelm them
with passion, just as males have been doing
since time irnrnemorial."
E-: "That's why you can't take what they
say at face value or it'll drive you nuts."
K-: "Basically it's all still an elaborate semiotic code, with the new postmodern semions of
autonomy and responsibility replacing the old
premodern semions of chivalry and courtship."
E-: "I really do have to see a man about a
prancing pony."
K-: "The only way not to get lost in the
code is to approach the whole issue logically.
What is.she really saying?"
E-: "No doesn't 'mean yes, but, it doesn't
mean no, either."
.
K-: "I mean, the capacity for logic is what
distinguished us from animals to begin with."
E-: "Which, no offense, but logic's not
exactly a woman's strong suit."
K-: "Although if the whole sexual situation is
, illogical, it hardly makes sense to blame today's
woman for being weak on logic odor giving off
a constant barrage ,of paradoxical signals."
, .E---'::"In otherwords, they're not responsible
for not being responsible, K-'s saying."
.
K-: "I'm saying it's tricky and difficult but
that if you use your head it's not impossible."
E-: "Because thi~k about it: if it was really
impossible; where would the species be?"
K-: "Life always finds a way."
B.!. #51
./
,Fort Dodge IA
, , ,always think, 'W~at if ~ can't?' Then I
always think, 'Oh shit, don't think
,
that.' Because thinking about it can
make it happen. Not like it's happened
that often. But I get scared about it. We all do'.
Anybody tells you they don't, they're full of it.
They're scared it might happen ..Then I' always
think,"I wouldn't even be worried about it if she
wasn't here.' Then I get pissed, off. It's like I
think she's expecting something. That if she
wasn't lying there expecting it and wondering
and, like" evaluating, it wouldn't have' even
occurred to me. Then I get almost kind of pissed
off. I'll get so pissed off, I'll stop even giving a
shit about can I or not. It's like I want to show
her up. It's like, 'Okay, bitch, you asked for it.'
Then everything goes fine."
_
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