The Ways of Some Flesh

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Reviewed by Lisa Zeidner
Sunday, January 25, 2009


Four Journeys into the Far Realms of Lust and Longing

By Daniel Bergner

Ecco . 208 pp. $24.99

Journalist Daniel Bergner's past research has carried him to the grisly civil war in Sierra Leone, and to the dangerous maximum security prison in Angola, La. Here he takes an inward journey, burrowing into the minds of people who go weak at the knees when they see, for example, bare toes or, conversely, a lover with no toes at all -- with, in fact, a comely stump.

Structured as a series of elegant portraits, The Other Side of Desire considers four people possessed by paraphilias: sexual deviations that make "vanilla sex" distasteful or downright impossible. Jacob has been haunted by a foot fetish since his earliest erotic stirrings in the second grade. Roy destroys his marriage and life pursuing his 12-year-old stepdaughter: a sequel to Lolita, with instant messaging. Ron, an advertising man, pushes photos of bombshells for a living but secretly craves only limbless or disfigured women. And the Baroness -- in this case, her real name, or at least her real pseudonym -- is a designer of latex clothing whose East Village storefront helps her attract cadres of masochists. She scoffs at the standard S&M whip and stiletto-heeled boot in the face; she's legendary for the creativity and harshness of the pain she inflicts.

Bergner takes us into the "anarchy of lust" that consumes his subjects. He discusses their strategies for dealing with their obsessions, from the foot fetishist's tortured shame to the Baroness's flamboyant celebration of her talents. He also provides a layman's overview of current theories about paraphilia's causes and treatments. The old nature-vs.-nurture argument rears its head. Many researchers believe that once "technology [advances] to better illuminate the brain," desire will be proven to be genetically or prenatally determined. MRI's of pedophile's brains do indeed show some differences, suggesting that sexuality is hard-wired.

Other researchers, however, remain convinced that sexual deviations can almost always be traced to early abuse: The Baroness's sadism, for example, must be traceable to "some long-repressed cruelty in her childhood." Still others prefer a more evolutionary model. Animals, one sexologist notes, have virtually no sexual kinks. Humans' brains, more complex, are also given to complex malfunctions: "It's like with each new version of Windows we just end up with more problems." While some psychiatrists prescribe anti-androgens to eliminate desire and its pesky discontents, others don't discourage their patients from fantasizing with pornography and would hesitate to judge as "wrong" even the most extreme sexual tastes. Quips one New York psychiatrist, "perversion can be defined as the sex that you like and I don't."

Parts of The Other Side of Desire definitely require warning labels for the faint-of-heart. "Elvis," whose sexual gratification requires being trussed and roasted on a spit for three and a half hours, makes this reviewer particularly queasy. But the book can't be accused of sensationalism. Bergner insists that even the sadist -- even, for that matter, the "zoophile," who prefers mares to women -- thinks in terms of love.

The last portrait, "The Devotee," is most adamantly a romance. Laura, a woman who has lost both legs in a car accident, meets Ron, the photographer turned on by limbless women. No question that the pair, now married, finds real fulfillment, not only sexually but spiritually. Ron believes that Laura "was his muse, who brought life to his dreams, and he had brought life to hers." They are -- in the fullest sense -- the lids for each other's pots.

Bergner, a New York Times Magazine staff writer, keeps his prose simple and straightforward. He's the old-fashioned fly on the wall. Except for noting how "repelled" he is by the pedophile with a victim exactly the age of his own daughter, Bergner does not dwell on his own reactions and interactions. Given how much of paraphiliac experience involves the twin poles of mortification and exhibitionism, Bergner might have engaged in a little more metajournalistic revelation about his presence, as a witness, at a group session for sex offenders or at an S&M sex party.

Still, the book's strength lies in its attentive, carefully controlled tone. It would be easy enough to express outrage with the child sex-abuse educator who insists that pedophiles "are not monsters. They are us." Bergner hardly ratifies that view. But he does ask us to try to understand people who often feel like the Hunchback of Notre Dame or are driven to suicide, and to admire some of them for finding a harmless way to live outside the norm. His goal is empathy. He gives depth and shadow to his subjects' longing, never mocking, oversimplifying or vilifying. ยท

Lisa Zeidner's last novel was "Layover." She directs the MFA Program in Creative Writing at Rutgers University-Camden.

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