2009 24 Feb

First reaction to Daniel Bergner’s “The Other Side of Desire”

This post is a bit of teaser — I’ll own up to that at the start. I’m not going to review Daniel Bergner’s new book The Other Side of Desire yet … because I will be interviewing the man himself on this coming Thursday, before his 7PM reading at the Leather Archives and Museum. I’ll post that interview, along with my commentary and book review, next week. Exciting!

So if I’m not going to talk about my first reaction to reading the book, what am I talking about?

The Other Side of Desire has been generating a huge amount of buzz, and not just for sexuality geeks. I first heard about it when one of my sexuality geek friends grabbed me and said, “You have to read this ‘New York Times’ article.” We went through the whole thing with much commentary, then rushed to the computer to read excerpts from Mr. Bergner’s book.

I wasn’t sure how to read Daniel Bergner — the writer himself, that is, rather than his material. What does it mean that he compares profiling kinky people to investigating a Louisiana prison, or covering war in Sierra Leone? * What does it mean that he characterizes — or at least, has been reported as characterizing — the greatest benefit of feeling comfortable talking about sex as good cocktail party conversation? ** What does it mean that one of the editorial reviews chosen for the back of his book describes his subjects as “oddly winning”? ***

I mean … seriously? How much was he kidding about the party conversation thing? Did he choose that review himself, and did he himself consider his subjects “oddly winning” — as if it’s such a great big insight that fetishists can be nice people? Was Mr. Bergner making these statements because he was trying to make The Other Side of Desire more accessible to a wide, potentially intolerant audience … or because he, himself, sees conversations with sexual fetishists as analogous to reporting on a war zone in a foreign country?

I didn’t know. I knew already that I wanted to talk to him and hear his perspective, but I had no obvious channels to do so.

A little while later, someone emailed me the “Times” Magazine review of Mr. Bergner’s book. That review, by Lori Gottlieb, shifted me from slight unease to actual irritation — specifically, this quotation:

The only story about a woman — a celebrated clothing designer and sadist who’s in a conventional marriage — is also unfortunately the weakest. To be fair, Bergner doesn’t have a lot to work with. His subject, a narcissist who enjoys torturing and humiliating her underlings, is inherently unsympathetic. … While his other subjects struggle mightily with their unconventional cravings, the Baroness, as her victims call her, denies any inner conflict. In her mind, she’s happy, her victims are grateful, and she is their “beacon.”

Wait a minute, I thought. Why is Gottlieb describing the Baroness’s BDSM partners as “victims”, and what does this imply about how Daniel Bergner described the Baroness and her activities? Of course, it’s worth noting that at the article’s beginning, Gottlieb mentions that the one time a partner asked her for anything remotely untraditional in bed (specifically, he asked her to handcuff him), she flipped out and fled home to tell all her friends “what a freak this guy turned out to be”. (Really — that’s an actual quotation from her article.) I guess Lori Gottlieb has trouble understanding that it might be a good thing for a kinkster to feel sexually unashamed. For her, it’s only acceptable for people to explore their fetishes as long as they feel really horrible about it. Shame is what matters to Gottlieb, not consent. In fact, Gottlieb seems to have much more of a problem with the Baroness than she does with Roy — another subject of the book and a convicted child molester. ****

But even though her perspective is obviously kink-phobic, Gottlieb’s words gave me more questions. What was Daniel Bergner saying? I’d read excerpts from his book posted online; I knew I’d have to read more. Were his words being twisted, was I being too harsh in my assessment? What were his goals in writing this book?

I finally got my chance when I heard about the Leather Archives event. Daniel Bergner was going to be in Chicago, and he’d chosen to do his reading at the BDSM museum! Thrilled, I redoubled my efforts to get in touch. This culminated with me sending Bergner’s publicist an email introducing myself, describing my activist work and then holding my breath. Was this author really all about communicating with us “oddly winning” fetishists … or was this, for him, merely about making good conversation at parties? He’s been featured by the “New York Times” and NPR; I knew he had no reason to talk to me unless he really wants to engage with the BDSM community.

So it counts for a lot, I think, that Daniel Bergner agreed to be interviewed by lil ole me. And as I slowly cover my copy of The Other Side of Desire with underlines and margin notes, I find myself — yes, bothered by aspects of this book, but somewhat heartened as well. I’ll withhold complete judgment until I’ve actually spoken to Mr. Bergner; I’m definitely looking forward to it.

We come to the cliffhanger: watch this space ….

(And if you’re not in Chicago, check out the author’s site to see whether you might be able to catch him in your city.)

* “What,” the people I write about often ask, “are you doing here with me?” I heard the question in Angola Prison, Louisiana’s maximum security penitentiary, where I followed the lives of men sentenced to stay locked up until their deaths, with no chance of parole. I heard it in Sierra Leone, in West Africa, where I attached myself to missionaries and mercenaries and child soldiers amid the most brutal war in recent memory. And I heard it as a sought the stories — of eros, obsession, anarchy, love — that fill The Other Side of Desire. (from the book’s Introduction)

** “Well, it definitely deepened my sense of the power of the erotic,” he said. “And if I was always at least fairly comfortable talking about sex, now I’m very comfortable. That in itself has led to something good. It’s good for cocktail party conversation.” (from the “Times” article)

*** See the cover and read excerpts by clicking here.

**** And let’s not forget that to some people, Gottlieb comes across as a veritable “libertine”. Christ.