The Other Side of Desire
Four Journeys Into the Far Realms of Lust and Longing
Ecco: 208 pp., $24.99
Aptly, journalist Daniel Bergner's exploration of erotic yearnings -- with their ineluctable pull and often startling manifestations -- raises more questions than it answers. "How do we come to have the particular desires that drive us, how do we become who we are sexually, whether our lusts are common or improbable?" he writes in "The Other Side of Desire."
Through telling the stories of four paraphiliacs -- a psychiatric term denoting those who fall outside the "normal" zones of desire -- Bergner seeks a greater understanding of how we live and struggle with our sexual feelings, however prosaic or peculiar they might seem. Jacob, married with an 8-year-old son, is fixated on women's feet, a fact that provokes shame and self-loathing. For him, the feet are "the breasts, the legs, the buttocks, the genitals" that arouse most other men.
A British latex-clad dominatrix known as The Baroness operates an S&M dungeon in New York, where her "slaves" come to be cut, burned, gagged and beaten. ("Is this a weird way to deal with life?" one of her acolytes asks rhetorically. "Consider the man who bought Mark McGwire's seventieth home-run ball for three million dollars. Who's weirder?"
Ron (many of the names have been changed), an advertising art director, is attracted only to amputees and photographs them obsessively; he finds love with Laura, a woman who lost both her legs in a car accident. And the most disturbing section follows Roy, a convicted child molester whose victims included his stepdaughter. Each story is fascinating, and just when you seem able to cast a moral judgment, the author complicates the narrative in some way, drawing out empathy instead.
Readers expecting a lurid exposé on pathology, or a Diane Arbus-like parade of freaks and misfits, will be disappointed. The author uses his subjects to illuminate what he describes as "the anarchy of lust" -- issues of alienation, surrender and self-control, and how much (or little) our compulsions define us. Above all, he shows how tricky it can be to locate deviance or normality along the continuum of sexuality. Roy's desire is clearly destructive (he's traumatized others with his behavior), but when acts are consensual, who's to judge? Our desires seem to choose us, rather than the other way around, and as a psychoanalyst interviewed by Bergner jokes, "Perversion can be defined as the sex that you like and I don't."
Ciuraru is a critic and the editor of poetry anthologies, including, most recently, "Poems About Horses."