Hazlitt Magazine

The Queer Appetites of Ismail Merchant

The late film producer’s cookbooks reveal a subtle, coded queer sensibility.

'There Was a Desire to Write Myself Back Into Existence': An Interview with Kate Zambreno

The author of Screen Tests on allowing for randomness, accusations of naïvety, and productive nap times.

Women Between the Wars

In Jean Rhys’s novels, women exhibit a particular kind of English suffering, a perfect illustration of the female condition in the interwar years.

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The Queer Appetites of Ismail Merchant

The late film producer’s cookbooks reveal a subtle, coded queer sensibility.

Though he was hoping to see Rock Hudson or Doris Day on the street, Ismail Noor Muhammad Abdul Rahman didn’t see any stars when he first arrived in New York in 1958. The 21-year-old Indian man lived in a drab room on the sixteenth floor of Martinique Hotel in Manhattan’s Herald Square. The neighborhood was nothing like he pictured. Given the number of movies he’d seen featuring New York City, he was a naïve believer in the cliché that each street was paved with gold, so he was spooked by the sight of the homeless people who clung to liquor bottles.  Animal desire drove him to the city. On August 11, he boarded a boat that snaked its way from his native Bombay to Genoa, hopped on a train to London, and then flew to New York. He had finished his degree in political science and English literature at Bombay’s St. Xavier’s College, where he spent his last year applying to American business schools. He was desperately hoping to gain admission to the University of Southern California, which would provide easy passage to Hollywood. Cinema was his great love in life, after all. The world would come to understand him in such terms when he re-christened himself Ismail Merchant, paired himself creatively and romantically with the Oregon-born James Ivory, and produced such films as A Room with a View (1986) and Howard’s End (1992) under the Merchant-Ivory label. These films trafficked in lush imagery, their moods carefully calibrated to convey the inner lives of characters who found themselves unmoored in the world and struggling to express their longings. Some films, like The Bostonians (1984) and Maurice (1987), came out in the thick of the AIDS epidemic and reckoned with queer desire.  He ended up going to New York University instead. It only took hours after arriving for the young man to wonder if he made a mistake in moving to the city. Most disorienting of all his new home had to offer was the food. He was puzzled by a place called Horn & Hardart, a clinical coin-operated food operation unlike anything he’d ever encountered. The sense of sterility extended to the grocery store, where all this food was sheathed in cellophane and he had to silence the impulse to touch and smell the food as he could in Bombay. He couldn’t make peace with the hot dogs and hamburgers in America. Not even the street food consoled him.  Maybe he should have foreseen this disappointment. The Bombay of his youth was a gastronomic wonderland, where bazaars felt like tactile museums: He could poke the poultry, sniff the melons, pinch the produce. He walked through Null Bazaar’s seafood stalls, made from marble slabs wobbling on wicker baskets. He gazed at the fruits and vegetables at Crawford Market as if they were jewels, filtered through forgiving skylights. He saw 20, sometimes 30 chickens cramped in straw baskets as they cawed and clucked, listening to their screams before slaughter. The absence of refrigeration in his Bombay home meant that any meat was cooked the same day his family bought it home from the bazaar. Merchant didn’t do any of the cooking, though. The men of his middle-class, Muslim family were discouraged from entering the kitchen, primarily the domain of women like his mother and six sisters, though the hired help tended to be men. Merchant relays these stories in two of his cookbooks, 1986’s Ismail Merchant’s Indian Cuisine and 1994’s Ismail Merchant’s Passionate Meals, both published well after he became an esteemed producer. America, Merchant explained in his cookbooks, was always the imagined destination. Once he had his business degree in hand, he found himself jobless, and he could only afford to eat meals from coffee shops like Chock Full O’Nuts. By then, he was trying to get financing for a short film, which would become 1961’s Oscar-nominated The Creation of a Woman. He needed a way to entertain his potential investors. The only way for him to survive was to learn how to cook. In New York, he had the latitude to perform all the kitchen tasks he couldn’t in Bombay: cooking, serving, entertaining. Cooking came naturally to him. As if by osmosis, he’d unknowingly absorbed the lessons of his family’s cooks. He could make a simple dal or a keema of minced lamb and peas. These skills always lived inside him, awaiting articulation. Cooking became a form of currency for Merchant, capital he used to ingratiate potential investors who could help finance his career in films. He knew it was odd for a would-be producer to feed investors himself rather than take them out to restaurants. But his food was a great equalizer. “I like to think that my cooking and the occasion softened some of them up a bit,” he wrote of his guests. Merchant went on to achieve greatness in the culinary realm, making meals that had become legendary in their own right, particularly amongst the artists in his orbit. Actress and cookbook author Madhur Jaffrey called him “a shrewd horse-trader” in the foreword to his 1994 cookbook, a man who could “inject a sense of easy camaraderie between those high up in the entertainment establishment and those barely on the rise” through food. (Jaffrey, one of America’s doyennes of Indian food, has credited Merchant with kickstarting her culinary fame. He persuaded Craig Claiborne of the New York Times to write a 1966 piece on Jaffrey’s culinary talents in a bid to generate publicity for 1965’s Shakespeare Wallah, a film Merchant and Jaffrey worked on together.) “In India we say that the ability to create flavor is in the hands,” Jaffrey wrote. “Some people just have it. Ismail certainly does.” In the kitchen, Merchant was a creature of instinct. Cooking was not a merely iterative process oriented towards producing a favorable result for him; it was an opportunity to experiment with abandon. Merchant’s greatest fear, he wrote in his second cookbook, was boring his guests with a static repertoire. “I disobey all the conventions and laws of cooking, preferring to improvise and make new discoveries all the time,” he wrote. His recipes flaunted the rules he knew in Bombay. He tossed leftover lemons that were sitting in his refrigerator into his masoor dal. He cooked fresh ginger root and green chili into his burgers. He cooked shrimp in Dijon. The food was sly, giving convention a knowing glance before tilting it ever so slightly.  When Merchant wrote of his distaste for the rules that guarded cooking, he was, of course, referencing blind devotion to ingredients and techniques. Implicit in this statement of culinary rebellion, though, was his skirting of the rules of a world that told him that a cook must be a certain kind of person, must be a certain gender. On trips back to India, he tried his best to keep his culinary inclinations a secret from the women in his family, until he couldn’t hide it any longer. His mother became too sick to cook one day, so he prepared a meal of large prawns in mustard sauce in fewer than fifteen minutes. His mother and sisters never quite got used to the idea of the family’s only son inhabiting the kitchen, though. It was as if he was committing an act of transgression, a man who took on a feminized trait and performed it. There are codings in Merchant’s food writing that remind one of the unavoidable fact that Merchant himself was a gay man who was never publicly out, moving through spaces that could have very well been inhospitable to him had he been an openly gay man. Merchant died in 2005, at age 68, following surgery for abdominal ulcers. His widower, James Ivory, has recently stated in unambiguous terms what was once unspoken: The two men were in love.  In a 2018 interview with The Guardian, when pressed as to why he and Merchant dodged questions about the nature of their relationship, Ivory suggested that keeping them both in the closet was a shrewd way of protecting Merchant. “That is not something that an Indian Muslim would ever say publicly or in print. Ever!” Ivory told the paper of Merchant’s sexuality. “You have to remember that Ismail was an Indian citizen living in Bombay, with a deeply conservative Muslim family there. It’s not the sort of thing he was going to broadcast. Since we were so close and lived most of our lives together, I wasn’t about to undermine him.”  Understanding that Merchant maintained his public life in the closet shades his food writing with notes of queer desire, as if the kitchen gave him a chance to fulfill yearnings he had theretofore repressed. In these cookbooks, Merchant conjured a fantasy world, the kind some may associate with the prototypical domestic goddess. Merchant became the impresario who spun wonder out of groceries from Gristedes in the stuffy confines of 5 ½-by-8-foot kitchen equipped only with a four-ring gas stove and oven. “A great cook should be able to do something well with the snap of a finger rather to toil over it,” he wrote in the introduction for his first cookbook. “He or she should be inventive, be someone who can whip up something from nothing.” A culinary wizard, to his mind, could practically assemble a salad from two strands of straw. Tucked in his recipe headnotes were the names of people most of us have only seen on celluloid: Maggie Smith, Christopher Reeve, Raquel Welch, Vanessa Redgrave. He summoned an existence a casual reader may dream of when standing inside their own kitchen.  The brand of domestic performance that Merchant perfected has long been coded as female. As writer Emily Gould noted in The Cut in 2017, the kitchen can cloister women as much as it can provide them a stage for expression. It follows, then, that when Merchant’s first cookbook was published in 1986, the most visible Indian cookbook authors in America were two women: the aforementioned Madhur Jaffrey and Julie Sahni, a dancer-turned-architect-turned-cookbook author who’d grown up in a Tamil Brahmin family.  Merchant published his first cookbook when America was finally disabusing itself of the notion that Indian food was too intricate to bring into the American kitchen. (Merchant’s first cookbook shows its age when it includes a recipe for fried paneer that calls for Cheddar cheese.) Both Jaffrey and Sahni had, the spring before the fall publication of Merchant’s first cookbook, published two cookbooks, A Taste of India and Classic Indian Vegetarian and Grain Cooking, respectively, illustrative of the point to which the genre of Indian cookbooks had grown.  But Merchant’s cookbook was not an Indian cookbook, per se; he certainly didn’t classify it as such. To start, he was operating from a different center of gravity than Hindu Indian food writers, having grown up in an Indian Muslim household who regularly consumed nonvegetarian food, thus disrupting the worn myth of the Indian national who is automatically vegetarian. More crucially, the cookbook is neither national nor regional in scope. Instead, as Craig Claiborne of the New York Times noted, it is “simply one man's inspired notion of what his native land's cookery should taste like. It is tailored to his own sophisticated and remarkably original palate.” Only Merchant could have written these recipes, in other words. Sitting alongside this cultural history of women inverting the trap of the kitchen into a province of creativity is an obscured history of gay men pulling off a similar magic trick. The kitchen has long been an arena for expression for gay men, too, a tradition that food writer John Birdsall unwrapped in his 2013 piece for Lucky Peach, “America, Your Food Is So Gay.” Birdsall gestured towards a working definition of food shaped by gay men (Claiborne, one of the 20th century’s most influential culinary gatekeepers, was one). This was “food that takes pleasure seriously, as an end in itself, an assertion of politics or a human birthright, the product of culture.”  Birdsall wrote of his own impulses as a young line cook working in a casually homophobic San Francisco kitchen. He weathered prejudice routinely in these spaces, resulting in a fury that he soothed into spirited artistic output. He was “fueled by sublimated rage, the outsider with something to prove, taking the ingredients I was handed and making sure they transcended their limits.” Merchant’s writing suggests a similar cognizance of the fact that his cooking possessed a whiff of radicalism, as if he was overcoming the boundaries others had set for him. His friends came to regard him as a master chef. He interpreted the compliment as a testament to his boundless imagination and fearlessness in execution, rooted in a desire to prove his own worth. In his eyes, as he wrote in his first cookbook, a master chef “must have imagination, a flair for mixing conventional and unconventional ingredients, an appreciation of different seasonings, and a desire to satisfy his or her ego.” Today, some of the most prominent male voices in America who have written cookbooks borrowing tenets of Indian cooking—Nik Sharma, Suvir Saran, Raghavan Iyer—happen to be gay men, as if Merchant’s culinary spirit echoes in this current generation. Call it coincidence. (This is to say nothing of the queer women, like Preeti Mistry, who have written cookbooks.)  Reading Merchant’s gentle pleas to “be adventurous and not be afraid to make discoveries” in the kitchen brings to mind Sharma’s Season, the 2018 cookbook that brims with similar refrains. “Mine is the story of a gay immigrant, told through food,” Sharma writes, as if explicating what Merchant could communicate only in hushed tones. “It has been a journey of self-discovery I embarked on more than a decade ago, one that taught me to recognize the inherent tension between originality and tradition, and to opt for the former without rejecting the latter.” Sharma’s is a philosophy that tosses curry leaves with the buttermilk batter for popcorn chicken; that grills pork chops with chaat masala; that puts paneer in places some may least expect to find it, like a salad of cauliflower and lentils. He, like Merchant before him, is guided by reverence to tradition without unwavering fealty to it. His is cooking that moves towards freedom, mindful of the worth of culinary tradition and carefully breaching it. Merchant developed a vocabulary of cooking that was entirely his own long before these men, his queerness contained in whispers. He encouraged the curiosity that motivated him to take cooks places they may not otherwise have imagined. These recipes flowed from him freely, as if he was, in the kitchen, a man who had nothing to hide.
‘There Was a Desire to Write Myself Back Into Existence’: An Interview with Kate Zambreno

The author of Screen Tests on allowing for randomness, accusations of naïvety, and productive nap times.

Kate Zambreno is drawn to the ambulatory nature of the photographer and writer Moyra Davey’s work, how she uses texts to roam through an idea. A film by Davey features her pacing—a visual metaphor for the monologue she's speaking—through her apartment, talking evenly into a microphone that picks up the gulps of air she takes before her next sentence. I picture Zambreno, the author of books including Heroines, Appendix Project, and most recently, Screen Tests (HarperCollins), as she works, physically moving in the same way Davey does, roaming through genre, time periods, and mediums. Zambreno works within the same interdisciplinary nature that once caused Anne Carson to be accused of naïvety. We can hear Davey speak in the film, but she’s not necessarily speaking to us. It feels like she’s making a voice note for her own reference—layering the life of Mary Wollenscraft with that of her own and her sisters, the timeline overlapping like tracing the contours of a drawing with vellum. Who is Zambreno speaking to? In Screen Tests, short texts are removed from the reader, allowing them to process each sentence in private. This distance begets texts that feel more personal than Appendix Project. The second half of Screen Tests is saved for essays—or rather, fragments linked together to form an essay, further proving Zambreno’s knack for lack of specificity. In both books, Zambreno gives the reader insight into the ambulatory nature of her process, a generosity atypical of writers. The following interview provides further insight into Zambreno’s nesting doll mind, motherhood, bad reviews, and the nature of performance.  Tatum Dooley: In Appendix Project, you're using French philosophy and children's books as a lens to view your life in a way that it becomes an autobiography. Kate Zambreno: I’ve been thinking about not how to fill a text with myself, but how to empty myself from a text. Recent work, since Heroines, has been characterized by an ambivalence towards the first person. A lot of the specificity is emptied out of Appendix Project but it penetrates through almost unknowingly.  The children's book stuff is my favourite part of Appendix Project. I think my meditation on the strangeness of these children's books is about how these appendices, these lectures, were written in pure exhaustion. There's this pure ghostly state of exhaustion. Exhaustion is so much like grief and grief is an exhaustion where everything is slowed down and so you notice the strangeness of everyday life. I read each talk in Appendix Project as a mind map. A single talk connected William Mumler to Roland Barthes to your own photo albums to the film Wanda to Goodnight Moon. How do you make those connections? I think that's definitely what I intended with the talks, for them to be about the connections the mind makes and about finding surprising connections between things. The truth is I just read the same things over and over again. Bhanu Kapil's work is so much in Appendix Project because I teach her work and I read her work over and over again. I feel like Roland Barthes is throughout everything. Appendix Project is my failure and my attempt to write about the last couple of years of Roland Barthes's life. I'm really interested in the sort of ambulatory, or the idea of, like, walking in an essay. I think about the writer and photographer Moyra Davey a lot. She'll take on a subject for a book, like the notebooks of Jean Genet, but then she'll drift through all of her reading and put everything in connection to each other. For each of the talks I had about five or six objects that I was thinking through. I allowed for some accident and randomness.  You've mentioned that you had writer’s block after you published Heroines until your daughter was born. Was that a symptom of something larger? Do you have an idea of what brought on the writing block? I was used to writing books that had very little readership except a small community. Heroines broke through and it kind of astonished me. It surprised me and I think it estranged me from myself. Some people had very, very, very strong reactions to Heroines when it came out. I found that paralyzing.  Then I moved to New York. I felt very much closer to New York publishing which is closer to thinking of writing as a commodity. People began to ask me what my next book was and wanted it to be something as buzzy and as loud as Heroines was. I found myself withdrawing and wanting to go more into a private space which is the space of writing. I had to almost revolt against what New York wanted of me and what publishing wanted of me. What came out of that was a rich period of writing. I thought I had writer's block but really it was that I chose to think and read for a while. As soon as I gave birth, I stopped feeling writer's block. The demands of my life meant I had to take on more commissions and I had to be a little less precious about being paralyzed. I had to have a little bit more confidence. I've noticed in Appendix Project and Screen Tests that you keep returning to the origins of things, the town you are born and also motherhood. Book of Mutter only cracked the surface of me trying to write my origins. I feel like that's something that writers are uncomfortable about, it has a lot of shame associated to it.  Those tend to be some of the most interesting areas to write, but they can take a long time. One of the areas my work has started to think about is childhood. I haven't really wanted to write [about] childhood or origins and since I don't really want to write it, the work kind of has a bruise under the narrative. I was surprised to find, in Screen Tests, how much I write about my father. In a recent Paris Review interview, you said, "With the talks and shorter appendixes I felt more liberated to try to think through a weird collage of concerns and ideas, a live-wire essaying. I allowed myself to exist in this space of unknowingness. Maybe it helped that I was not planning on publishing them as a book, until they became one. They were more ephemeral, they were refusing the monument.” I wonder, is this writing similar to what you're interested in with the artist On Kawara—is the text a performance that's ephemeral? I think that there was a lot of desire not to have the talks printed. I thought that that would have been really wonderful for me to have resisted having them made into a book because I think that would have been truly a tribute to their mortality and the performance of them. There was a moment in the book where I write about the writer Sofia Samatar, our dialogue about our desire to write a book and distribute it in train stations without our names. How literature can have this energy of performance, which is a desire of mine. The first talk is a meditation on the daily paintings of On Kawara. I was really interested in this idea of painting as ritual and painting as process and painting a date much like Roland Barthes writes a journal in his Mourning Diary. The paintings stand in for a life lived. What is art but time and transcending time?  I have this quote I've been thinking about a lot lately, which was in one of my notebooks from three years ago. It's from an obit of a painter who is really a critic. I don't have his name. He never sold his paintings, but he kept on painting. This is what he said about why he started painting again: "Although my guess is that the art object is done with. I myself go on making paintings but this doesn't have much to do with making saleable physical objects, making them is more like philosophical investigation, art criticism, or yoga.” I think in some ways the appendices were art criticism, philosophical investigation, and yoga. And so, my desire for writing to have that process feel to it.  The last sentence in each of the short stories in Screen Test twists the knife in the same way Lydia Davis does—it almost becomes like a poem. There’s a cadence to the stories that is enunciated in the last line. I feel like I'm a prose writer who will never be seen as a poet, but everything I write is a desire to be a poet. When I finished Heroines, which felt like this very maximal work in a way, all I wanted to do was write one sentence stories. I'm really drawn to short forms, to the fragment, to smallness. I'm a huge Lydia Davis fan and also of Diane Williams. Anne Carson writes, in the Gender of Sound, which you write about, how she's been called naïve in her use of bringing together different time periods and sources. And I wonder if that's ever been an accusation lobbed at you. Yeah. That passage is about the accusations that she's been naïve in the past for bringing in all different time periods and styles. There was a review last week that brought in Heroines as being incredibly naïve. So much of Appendix Project is a talk about talks—it’s very meta in terms of being aware that I'm often invited as a wild outsider who does this naïve form of scholarship that would be considered very criminal in the university and academia, which is why I don't have a full time job. The truth is I don't identify as a scholar. It’s hard for me to imagine Anne Carson being called naïve. Maggie Nelson has spoken about earlier reviews of her books where she's been called similar things. When Heroines came out, the writer Sheila Heti sent me a very tattered copy of a book called Manet and his Circle, which is about when Manet's paintings came out he was derided as completely naïve, as a plagiarist, as a copyist, and that his paintings were incredibly ugly. It's very hard for us to realize that because Manet is in museums and these works are so beautiful but they were seen as, like, not painting. The idea that in certain time periods if you do something that's considered naïve or ugly you're threatening. You write that Anne Carson says she always has six books by her side when she's writing. I wonder if you do as well, and what are those six books?  Well, it just changes with every piece that I'm working on. I'm currently writing a book about Hervé Guibert's To The Friend Who Did Not Save My Life. I'm thinking through Guibert's Compassion Protocol. And then I have Moyra Davey’s Burn the Diaries and The Station Hill Blanchot Reader and I have Foucault's Birth of the Clinic and I have Anne Carson's Decreation.  When people ask me if I'm reading, what I'm reading, I'm like, I'm just reading Hervé Guibert all over again in translation. I’m thinking back to when you said you started writing when Leo was born. Alice Munro talked about starting to write when she had children, that there was an urgency to write and finish a story as her children napped. So did Raymond Carver. There’s an urgency to write to provide, but also time constraints. Ninety-nine percent of the Screen Tests and Appendix Project were written when Leo napped. Some of the times I had childcare and some of the times I did not. I sat next to Diane Williams [at an event] and I spoke to her about that, I think she started writing when she had children too. One of the things I said to her is that when you're a mother you're a ghost, there’s a sense of you being in the dark and being quiet for the baby. This difficult thing happens, your identity is through another. There is almost a loss of the self that happens, especially at first. It's about the baby. For me, this extreme loss of self was also a form of decreation. I think that's why I really desired to write. Writing is a way into and out of existence. I often write when I'm feeling the most ghostly and I felt extremely ghostly right after I gave birth. There was a desire to write myself back into existence, to mark, like the On Kawara paintings, I am still alive.
Women Between the Wars

In Jean Rhys’s novels, women exhibit a particular kind of English suffering, a perfect illustration of the female condition in the interwar years.

If you consume Jean Rhys’s first four novels one after another, the books begin to bleed into each other. You may try to be logical, making a note of names and ages. There are, after all, four different protagonists: the 18-year-old chorus girl Anna Morgan (Voyage in the Dark), the 28-year-old wife Marya Zelli (Quartet), thirty-something Julia Martin (After Leaving Mr. Mackenzie), and the middle-aged woman Sasha Jensen (Good Morning, Midnight). But after a while, the protagonists start to look like the same person, distorted in funhouse mirrors—this one a little younger, that one a little poorer, one with a fur coat, one who has already sold hers. They are all, even Anna, sad about aging and obsessed with clothing; they’re largely underemployed and dependent on the palely awful men they date for food, board, and taxi money; they flit from depressing lodging to depressing lodging, and they spend the course of the novels inhaling one drink after another. It’s tempting to chalk these similarities up to the novels being largely autobiographical: if the heroines are the same person, maybe that person is Rhys herself? Indeed, in an essay in The Guardian, her Wide Sargasso Sea editor Diana Athill argues that Rhys’s novels were “based on things that really happened.” Several details from Rhys’s own life neatly dovetail with plot in her work: the chorus girl career and abortion in Voyage in the Dark, the affair with Ford Madox Ford in Quartet, the characters’ drinking habits through all four novels. But are these novels really best consumed as autobiography? These four books seem at their most powerful in portraying a general female melancholy that speaks to the conditions of the interwar years rather than one specific to Rhys herself. The financial precarity, the hostile landladies, and the blurred line between dating and sex work sound all too familiar when we look at the historical context. Of course, the geography of these novels matters, too. Nothing feels more characteristically Rhysian than Quartet’s Marya gazing down the Rue de Rennes in Paris and thinking of Tottenham Court Road or Leaving Mr. Mackenzie’s Julia spending 600 francs on new clothes before her trip to London in the hope of looking respectable enough for her family to welcome her. Rhys’s novels are obsessed with England and Englishness,11I will be using the terms “England” and “English” in lieu, in places, for “Britain” and “British” throughout the essay since these are the words Rhys uses over and over in these four novels.regardless of where they’re set. But while her heroines are preoccupied with a sort of establishment Englishness that they feel shut out from, Rhys (who was born and grew up in Dominica) uses these novels to portray a new form of Englishness. Her take on Englishness is markedly multicultural, reflecting how the British colonies have disrupted and dispersed English identity. These novels suggest that to be an English woman in the interwar years is to be unhappy, no matter where you were born or where you live. In Voyage in the Dark, Germaine, a French woman, says “Scorn and loathing of the female—a very common expression in this country… I wouldn’t be an Englishwoman… for any money you could give me or anything else.” In Good Morning, Midnight, a male escort named René claims, ‘“England isn’t a woman’s country. You know the proverb—‘Unhappy as a dog in Turkey or a woman in England’-?”’ In her short story “Till September Petronella” (published in 1960, but written in the ’30s), we hear the same old ditty from an English man himself, someone from the heart of the establishment, telling the eponymous Petronella, “You poor devil of a female, female, female, in a country where females are only tolerated at best!” In Voyage in the Dark, a suitor asks Anna about her work as a chorus dancer, her accommodation in lodgings. When he finds out her wages, he responds, “Good God… You surely can’t manage on that, can you?” How did a generation of women make things work when their wages and bills didn’t quite equal out?  *** In the years Rhys was writing about, two competing fairy tales were being circulated. One was heartening. Things had changed forever for women in Britain. After a surge of women into the workplace during World War I, the gentler sex were on an almost-equal footing to men: they worked, lived in lodgings in big cities, drank, dated. Flappers existed! Everything was thrilling. The other fairy tale was comforting, like someone rocking you back to sleep after a bad dream. After women held the fort while British men were away fighting, now the men were back and the old order could resume. Women could work for a while if they liked, could live in lodgings if they liked, but the vast majority of women would end up marrying and dropping out of the workforce. They would be financially cared for by men or by their families. The truth, situated in the space between the two competing narratives, is painfully clear in numbers. In her study on British lodgings, British Boarding Houses in Interwar Women’s Literature: Alternative domestic spaces, literary critic Terri Mulholland notes that the number of single women over the age of twenty-five increased by over half a million between 1911 and 1931, which meant they outnumbered single men. This is presumably a disparity partially caused by the loss of male lives in World War I, a disparity which would have felt particularly exaggerated in the middle and upper classes, since the largest loss of life was sustained in the officer class. She tells us that 50 percent of women who were single in their late twenties in 1921 were still single a decade later. The obvious conclusion is that women whose families were unable to support them would have gone out to work. But Neal A. Ferguson reports in “Women’s Work: Employment Opportunities and Economic Roles” that throughout 1911-1931 approximately one-third of all “employable women” had jobs. In Good Morning, Midnight, Sasha’s hostile English employer asks her to explain a five-year-long gap in her resume and draws his own conclusions with a sneer. But this wouldn’t have been uncommon. As Ferguson explains, “Underemployment was not a temporary condition; it typified women’s economic position.” While women were eligible for unemployment benefit, their benefit was set at a fraction of what was granted men. Counterintuitively, the number of women in lodgings soared in Britain, implying women were no longer living with their families. A lodging or boarding house was a house in which a person could rent a room. According to Kate Macdonald, lodging houses were structured differently depending on the class of their guests—“there were ‘common lodging houses… hostels for the poor and homeless.’” In these houses, multiple beds would be crowded into one room. “Next up on the scale was the rental of a room rather than a bed.” This is the sort of lodging Rhys’s heroines stay in, but Macdonald emphasises that even within this point on the scale, there was slippage: “At its worst this room would be in a crowded slum building, with a bare minimum of furniture and heating, and no means of cooking other than at the fireplace.” Mulholland observes that between 1861 and 1911 the number of female clerical workers in London more than doubled. She concludes that the increase in women workers resulted in an urgent need for affordable housing “that was simply not available.” What these statistics depict is a society out of step with reality. It was a system, for the most part, structured around the idea that women would be financially provided for by their husbands or their relatives. But there weren’t enough men for women to marry their way into financial security and even middle-class families no longer seemed to be financially stable enough to provide for their daughters. The wages women earned, at approximately half the male rate in most industries by 1931, probably weren’t high enough to live comfortably on while paying the rates demanded for “respectable” lodgings. While Mulholland notes that boarding houses “run by philanthropic organisations” did offer some women on lower incomes cheaper rooms, these were primarily targeted at women under the age of 30, contributing to the idea of lodgings as a short-term solution for working women before married life.                                          ***                                                In Rhys’s books, many heroines come close to going broke. And it is part of these novels’ very particular brand of tragedy that when our heroines work (and for much of these novels, they’re supported by men), they are mostly drawn to professional roles with a built-in expiry date. It would have presumably been more challenging to make a living as a forty-year-old chorus dancer or a forty-year-old artist’s model or a forty-year-old shop mannequin, than a clerk, for example. And this isn’t broadly representative of Britain at the time—according to social historian Katherine Holden, during the 1930s nearly a quarter of all occupied unmarried women worked in retail or clerical work. A secretary or a typist or a shop assistant might not have to be young in the same way a chorus girl would to hang on to their job, but ageism was still prevalent: Holden notes that 75-80 percent of workers in these areas were under the age of thirty. In her study of British lodgings, Mulholland quotes an unemployed 38-year-old woman seeking office work: “I went to the Employment Exchange and to my utter astonishment I was told my age was against me. Now I was made to realise that having put 38 as my age on application forms, no employer had any use for my type of services.” The same woman makes a confession straight out of the pages of After Leaving Mr. Mackenzie: “I am tired of the struggle […] I am always hungry. All I can do all day is wander about the streets. No one needs me. There is no place in the world for me.’” These precarious conditions didn’t go unchallenged by the women they affected. In 1934, Holden reports, a group of middle-class women in central London set up the Over Thirty Association, a group formed to campaign on two problems. The first was female unemployment, which was “widespread” at the time, but the second issue was arguably even more pressing: the deplorable living conditions that so many unmarried women tolerated. *** Rhys’s heroines are grappling with alcoholism and brutal misogyny and mental health issues, but to compound these problems, they have no permanent home—just rooms in boarding houses and hotels. They could get kicked out of their lodgings any time, and they do, over and over again. There’s Anna in Voyage in the Dark, whose landlady gives her the boot after she gets new clothes and comes home late a couple of nights in a row. In Leaving Mr. Mackenzie, Julia’s lover insists she bring him back to her London boarding house—he suspects they might get caught and she might get kicked out, and that’s his kink. And sure enough, she does. This wasn’t a problem specific to Rhys’s characters—this was an interwar issue. Holden writes of an “invisible majority” who “lived in lodgings, boarding houses or institutions or who had no permanent home.” In a boarding house, Holden notes, bachelors were given the “services usually offered by a wife,” like help with housework, meals and laundry. Despite women paying the exact same rent on less wages, these services were rarely included for female boarders and it was common for landladies to regard their female tenants with suspicion. As Mulholland notes, unmarried landladies with no male relatives living in their boarding house were at risk of their establishments being labelled brothels.  The way out of this precarious housing system—buying property—would have been unachievable on the average female wage of the time. So, what would you do as an unmarried woman trying to live comfortably, instead of paycheck to paycheck, or save money in the years between the wars? Possibly, you’d have supplemented your wages as an amateur sex worker. Rhys’s heroines usually “manage” by supplementing their income by moonlighting this way. As literary critic Sue Thomas has noted, this isn’t as clear-cut a deal as traditional sex work—instead of settling on a price from the beginning, the exchange would be “implicitly negotiated,” with sex made available in exchange for gifts of money and clothing, dinners out, drinks. In this exchange model, the sex worker has markedly less power and autonomy—another key difference between sex workers and their amateur equivalents is that most sex workers would have multiple clients but an amateur typically has just one. In other words, these women occupy the uneasy grey space between sex worker and wife. In Kerry Chamberlain’s investigation into interwar sex work in Liverpool, she observes that from 1926 onwards, the number of arrests for amateur sex work “consistently, and often significantly, outweighed” the number of arrests for traditional sex work. She also observes that unlike traditional sex work (which was predominantly carried out by younger women), a wide range of women of different ages were arrested for amateur sex work, which she believes implied that women carried out amateur sex work “at different stages of their lives on a casual and short-term basis, perhaps in response to periods of economic difficulty, departing from the trade before the point at which they came to be legally recognised as ‘common prostitutes.’” Of course, there is nothing inherently harmful about exchanging sex for money. But what’s painful about the amateur model is the way it obscures intention. The woman is reduced to acting on blind trust—that the man will be generous, that he will give her enough money so that she can not only provide for herself but set some aside. There’s no safety net here, no other clients to cushion things if he ups and leaves (which we see in one of the most upsetting novels of the era, Storm Jameson’s A Day Off). The amateur’s own feelings for the man are also entirely irrelevant: leaving isn’t an option. Which might explain Rhys’s curiously numb descriptions of the men her heroines date. This wasn’t an attitude exclusively held by those carrying out sex work. According to history writer Ellie Cawthorne, a common tip from 1930s advice columnists was to prioritise financial security above all other attractions when considering settling down with a man: “Readers ‘were reminded that if a woman married for stability rather than romance, although she may be ‘starved emotionally,’ she would ‘at least be sure of her daily beef and potatoes.’” ***  Rhys’ first four novels all have the same stutter. They’re all compulsively, repetitively focused on Englishness, with hundreds of asides about England and English people (which are fun to read; like Thomas Bernhardt on Austria, Rhys is at her best when she’s dripping contempt for the English). There’s Anna, a white woman who hails from the West Indies but moves to London aged eighteen—more or less exactly like Rhys herself. Marya is so English it’s repeated twice in the first ten pages, except that she’s married to a Polish man and seems so foreign that a fellow Brit isn’t sure of her nationality. There’s Julia, who grew up in England, but whose mother is Brazilian. Then there’s Sasha, who’s English but previously married a Dutch man and spent a sizeable chunk of her life in France. The novels coax out a new vision of English identity that seems to reflect the dispersed England of its colonial history. These novels seem to argue that it’s no longer only the Mr. Horsfields or Walter Jeffries of this society who are English. To be English is no longer just to be from England, but to be from everywhere and nowhere, to have no single national affiliation.  In Rhys’s early work, Englishness becomes a sort of trauma you’re powerless to shake—something which also reflects the reality of English colonial rule. England took formerly healthy countries and bled them dry. In these novels, England does the same to its women. Her characters do not enjoy the same privilege of being English as a Mr. Horsfield—they seem partially disqualified from enjoying the same automatic social acceptance by marrying a foreigner or having a foreign mother. But these women still seem held hostage by their national identity and infected by the same sadness that they associate with England. Like the countries England colonised, they’re given second-class status while remaining beholden to England. In both Good Morning, Midnight and Quartet the protagonists talk about relocating to Paris as a great escape. But none of Rhys’s heroines can ever escape the island, not really. In Paris, at a gathering, amongst new friends, we find Sasha “talking away, quite calmly and sedately, when there is it is again—tears in my eyes, tears rolling down my face. (Saved, rescued, but not quite so good as new…)” Considering what life for unmarried English women of the time was like, these sad, hard novels do not end unhappily. Not as unhappily as they could, at any rate. Nobody is homeless. Nobody kills themselves. An attempt at assault is averted. And despite their precarious existences, the heroines always find money somehow, from someone. “People talk about the happy life,” Sasha says, “but that’s the happy life when you don’t care any longer if you live or die. You only get there after a long time and many misfortunes.” Sasha, along with her heroine doubles, is well on her way.
Good Faith

How queer BDSM and sex work helped me to refuse an inheritance of indoctrination.

In the mid-1970s, the man who would later become my father joined the Unification Church. He had moved to a commune in Northern California after finishing college and wanted to share his newfound devotion with his parents back in Brooklyn. So, he took them to see his guru, the Reverend Sun Myung Moon, at a Madison Square Garden rally. That night, Moon spoke through a translator to a crowd of 20,000. He proselytized that all of human history was on the brink of culmination, that the third world war was going to happen within the next three years. He preached his sexual philosophy, which has since been quoted as, “Woman was born to connect in love with man's sexual organ. Man and woman's sexual organs are the place of the true love palace.” And then Moon declared that Jews were responsible for the death of Jesus. An enraged word pierced the hush of the reverent crowd. In front of thousands of my father’s fellow acolytes, my grandmother stood up and screamed at the top of her lungs: “LIAR!” Her son was humiliated. But this moment of shameless dissent would become an iconic one for me. I keep the story close to my heart the way other people wear heirloom lockets. Still, if I met you while tipping red wine into mugs at a house party and the subject of cults came up, as I find the subject tends to in our anxious times, this isn’t the story I would tell you. Here’s the one I would: Unification Church members like my father were to remain celibate before they were deemed worthy of participating in mass weddings officiated by Moon. After these weddings, they would become the True Children of Moon and his second wife Hak Ja Han, known as the True Father and True Mother. My dad, a communications major, was known even then for his persuasive charisma, and so he was sent on road trips to collect acolytes. On one such trip, the church sent as his companion a schoolteacher in her late twenties who had moved west following a Lutheran upbringing in Iowa. She was not persuasively charismatic, was in fact skeptical of Moon’s teachings. During that road trip, they spread the good word all right, but they apparently didn’t take their vow of abstinence very seriously. On one drive, a group leader noticed my mom leaning over to put a stick of gum in my dad’s mouth. Subsequently, yours truly was born in sexual rebellion. That’s the tale I would tell you, and some of it is even true. My parents were definitely Moonies, but we never talked about it growing up. In fact, my younger sister and I weren’t raised with any faith whatsoever. I might occasionally fudge the years to construct a salacious punchline about my conception being the reason they left the church. This makes great bar talk, a very sensational origin story for a long-time dominatrix and queer pornographer. If every artist’s work centers on a single obsession, mine is sexual power. * From a young age, my attraction to power exchange and pain play was as innate as my multivalent gender orientation. It was more than a single fetish that held my fascination. I was aggressive and restless in my early conventional relationships, like a perverted lab animal that was growing too big for its cage. Unlike many religious people whose proclivities develop from a need for new rituals, I had an organically agnostic approach to my erotic life. I was curious about everything and subscribed to nothing. Which gave me a very good disposition for sex work. It wasn’t until my twenties, when I discovered forums for experimenting with sex professionally, that BDSM (bondage, domination, sado-masochism, and so on) became a proud part of my identity. I discovered an informal commercial dungeon in the Bay Area where I worked collectively with other dominatrixes. We had monthly staff meetings, negotiated the rules of engagement for our paid sessions, and cleaned up our own lube-y dildos. To clients, we were goddesses in thigh-high leather boots; in the basement locker room changing back into street clothes, we were colleagues and friends. We called one another “Mistress” (as in “Mistress, your bicycle almost fell on the latex-drying rack so I moved it!”) with a confirmed ironic wink. The owner of the business was our boss, and there were shift managers, but the Master/slave element of BDSM stayed strictly in the session room. After a few years of exchanging cash for working with men on their illicit desires, I more aggressively pursued my own. I enmeshed myself in Leather subcultures centered around values like exchanging comprehensive education, fighting social oppression, and creating mutual care. And sex. Lots of weird hot cathartic sex!   Leather was never fundamentalist: it was open source, which made it the ideal erotic philosophy for my adult life. Power was to be played with in order to be understood, and that required rituals of communication performed in good faith. Pleasure was not to be pursued at the expense of someone’s agency. Intimacy and ecstasy happened when everyone opted in. Vulnerability was a gift we exchanged with those who deserved it. The more I opened my body and heart freely to my friends, the easier it was to see non-consensual power trips coming a mile away. Where my queerness led me to rip up inherited family recipes and create new tastes from scratch, my parents re-inscribed old values onto a new cult with the same rotten problems as ancient religions. The queer Leather community has offered me a middle path between pleasure and pain, healing and suffering, structure and anarchy. I feel very clear about the appeal of BDSM: for me, it has always provided a space to confront and undermine authority, including the emotional control my parents try to hold over me.  * I had always been content not knowing much about my parents’ lives before I was born; they rarely offered and I rarely asked. When I was thirteen, they separated, and they are both still single and discontented. I actually didn’t know anything about my celibacy-breaking conception story until I was twenty-five and in therapy with my dad. We were attempting to reconcile after our first period of estrangement. I told him I was working happily as a pro-domme. He told me that he and my mom met in a cult. In the years since, when I’ve asked my dad, typically a notorious over-explainer, what drew him to Unification, he can never give me a satisfying answer. He usually just shrugs, saying, “Well, honey, it was the Age of Aquarius.” The best reasoning I’ve been able to come up with is that my Judeo-Christian-disillusioned parents were both looking for fresh, definitive meaning. They thought they found it in Unification but didn’t actually want to follow the rules of their new authority. In the forty years since leaving that group, my dad has continued to explode outward seeking purpose, while my mom continues to apathetically implode, seeking only oblivion. In the decade or so since I learned the truth about my parents’ past, I’ve grown apart from both of them. The more they make me feel obligated to take care of their emotional needs, the more boundaries I feel I have to erect in order to care for my own. I wonder how their early adulthood attempts to find a True Family together led them to very distinct but equally lonely twilight years.   I am now the age my mom was when she gave birth to my younger sister. Like many grown children, I do not want to repeat my parents’ mistakes. Since my love, my friendships, and my work all center around explorations of intimate power through the cultures of kink and the politics of sex work, I find myself considering the questions: what is the meaningful difference between identifying as a Leather queer and participating in a cult? How do you know whether you’re in a kinky polyamorous family or part of an abusive scam? And has settling into a comfortable role within Leather communities helped me to heal from generational trauma that my parents never seemed to have resolved for themselves? Plenty of my polyamorous kinky friends have intimate lives which, frankly, might appear to outsiders to be indistinguishable from a cult; chosen Leather families in which adult queers instate consensual hierarchies dictating anything from domestic chores to erotic play. I’m constantly surrounded by limbs bearing whipping bruises, murmured boot cleaning protocols, echoes of “Yes Ma’am” and “Please Sir” and “I’ll just send my sub out to grab us more coffee.” It has become urgently important to me that I’m able to differentiate consensual domination/submission from the exploitation I associate with cults—not only to separate my own tastes and impulses from those of my parents, but also to be able to tell if a BDSM relationship has gone from being consensual to coercive. Especially since, as I would learn, the Unification church was not exactly known for its asceticism. * Since my father wouldn’t tell me much about his time as a Moonie, I went looking for answers elsewhere. I reached Dr. Janja Lalich on the phone from her house in Butte County, California, not far from where I grew up. Lalich is a professor of sociology at Chico State, and the author of several books on charismatic relationships, political and social movements, ideology, social control, and issues of gender and sexuality, including, with Margaret Singer, Cults in Our Midst. Around the same time that my parents met, Lalich was part of a radical Marxist-Leninist group called the Democratic Workers Party. She told me that, like my father, she earned leadership roles within her cult that gave her a sense of purpose and belonging. Since leaving the group during its dissolution in the late 1980s, she has devoted her career to writing and teaching on the topic of extreme beliefs.  Dr. Lalich asked me where my parents had lived when they were involved in the Unification church. I found myself embarrassed that I didn’t actually know. Berkeley? No, somewhere north, on some land I think? Mendocino? “They might have been at the camp in Boonville,” said Lalich. An uncanny shiver ran through me. Years ago, chatting with my mom about having stopped on a road trip at a Boonville brewery, I watched her get opaquely nostalgic. Lalich described Moonies waiting in bus stations for hippie travelers to arrive in Northern California. They would offer them a hot meal, driving them to the Boonville camp in buses with all the lights on so no one could see where they were going. “By the end of the week, they’d be devotees,” she said. The more I learn about my parents’ lives before me, the more I wonder why I had accepted origin stories with so many plot holes. But guardians can raise you with more than faith: they can also discourage curiosity. Maybe I had been raised with a familial version of “bounded choice,” the term for the internal logic of cult followers which Lalich prefers to “brainwashed.” This logic is often inscrutable to those outside the belief system. When you’re on the inside, you find it normal, since someone else is shaping your world. I guess my parents raised me to be inquisitive about everything in the world besides their past lives, to think it was perfectly normal that I didn’t really know anything about them. I guess a lot of authority figures do that. Lalich spoke about the experience of being in a cult, filling in some of the blanks left by my parents. One particular detail made my blood run cold. She explained that most cults assign a “buddy” to new members.   “That person is supposedly guiding you,” Lalich continued. “What they’re really doing is monitoring your growth and reporting back to leadership.” Of course, this false pretense was the basis of my parents’ relationship. My dad, though six years younger than my mom, was her “discipler” in Unification. As Lalich described the “closed reality” that disciplers create on behalf of the leader, I wondered for the first time if my parents ever restored their compromised capacity for listening to their own intuitions. And I thought about how much more I trust my own gut since playing with erotic power alongside my adult friends and partners. Cult leaders don’t assign you a partner to assuage concerns; their job is to manipulate your shame, to use “humiliation and belittlement” to push you further along the path of devotion. “Questions are turned back on you rather than answered,” says Lalich. Those who join a cult often think they’re gaining a new family, but Lalich warns that if members criticize or try to leave the group, “these people who were once supposedly your family no longer want to have anything to do with you.”   Like many gurus, the Reverend Sun Myung Moon seemed to have had erotic domination on the mind even as he preached for world peace. “Moon was a pervert,” Lalich told me. I asked her to clarify, since "pervert" is a reclaimed word in my friend groups, a source of communal pride like slut or dyke or whore. “He would tell [his followers] what sex positions to take,” she said. Mariah Blake offers more context in a piece for The New Republic:   “Moon told his followers that they could join his sin-free bloodline by marrying a spouse of his choosing and engaging in a series of rituals. First, the newlyweds would beat each other with a bat, and then they would perform a​ ​three-day sex ceremony​ involving prescribed positions in front of Moon’s portrait. After the final sexual interlude—in missionary position—the bride would bow down to the groom, a confirmation that they had restored the ‘lost ideal of goodness.’” Most people would agree this is perverted behavior. It’s not the acts that I find disturbing, though. Personally, I enjoy beating and being beaten with large wooden implements, and one person telling others exactly how to fuck sounds like a hot enough scene to me! But the dictating leader seems to be the one being gratified by these rituals, rather than either of the people performing them. In a BDSM relationship, a sub might prostrate themselves before their dominant, but the idea is for both people to enthusiastically consent from a place of mutual desire and equal volition.   My own need for assurance that I’m not being indoctrinated borders on the neurotic. BDSM soothes that neurosis with a sometimes-comical amount of built-in processing. Scene negotiation and safe words and consent check-ins can feel invigorating even if they’re also tedious at times. Ultimately, they offer an infrastructure of individual agency and subcultural accountability: the opposite of discipling. Speaking with Dr. Lalich reassured me that my sexual experimentations have given me the tools to resist abuse rather than make me more vulnerable to seduction. My parents and their cult background gave me a counter-model, a way not to be. My ass has been beaten black and blue while I've been adrift on waves of euphoria. I’ve given and taken orders, administered and yielded to deserved punishment. My leather pants have been shined with saliva in view of hundreds of casual observers. I’ve fisted men in the leather slings I helped install into warehouse ceilings. I’ve guzzled the piss of strangers in bathroom stalls. I’ve called female partners “Daddy” with a tone that in no way invokes my male genetic predecessor. I’ve done it for cash and I’ve done it for fun and I’ve done it for love; no one has ever persuaded me to pledge my allegiance to anyone or anything. And in all of my years of experience with sexual countercultures, I’ve only met one group that set off all my internal silent alarms, and that I now feel meets Dr. Lalich’s criteria of a cult.  * “Hello, Mistress,” says the tall, tense white man at the bus stop. He looks to be about fifty, someone who has seen little excitement. “I’m slave brain. That’s brain, not Brian. Most people ask me that so I figure I should clarify.” I hoist up my black rolling suitcase. slave brain reaches out to grab it, then hesitates, confused. I’ve seen this look on slaves before. He is wondering how this little woman in Chaco sandals, black jeans, and a tank top could be a Mistress. This is how I always give myself away. I’ve known plenty of femme supremacist dominas who expect male submissives to literally throw their coats down in puddles for them. But my domination style has always had a camp wink and piggish urge to rut around in filth. For me, being a sex worker doesn’t mean I’m a formal dominatrix 24/7. I’m all for patriarchal restitution, but dominating someone I’ve just met, who isn’t paying for the privilege, actually feels to me like extra emotional labor. A slap in the face is still attention. I’m headed to a rural East Coast town, on the recommendation of a new friend, Michelle, who I’ve met through mutual colleagues in the feminist porn scene. Michelle is a captivatingly stern pale goth queen, busty and heavily tattooed, the kind of pro-domme who capitalizes Me and My in her emails. In one such recent email, Michelle has invited me to take sessions at the “kinky inn” she’s involved with. I’ll call it The Space. I’ve recently moved to New York from the Bay Area, and I’m still getting used to the different cultures of BDSM and sex work on opposite coasts. My expectation is that The Space is like the dungeon I’ve worked for in Oakland, or some of the other professional studios I’ve rented in my travels to Toronto and LA. Apparently, The Space hosts play parties and couples retreats, and also welcomes guest professionals to take sessions. According to Michelle, they have enough of an existing clientele that I don’t even have to take out an ad online. The website of The Space boasts about its own kinky reputation in self-aggrandizing terms. I have to admit, I’ve totally fallen for this marketing, probably because I want to believe such subcultural places are real. Their social media presence is vague enough to inspire me to fill in my own fantasy, and I’m expecting something old and grand like the house in the Bette Davis movie Watcher in the Woods—or, more to the point, the deviant isolated manors of Story of O or Laura Antoniou’s The Marketplace. I follow slave brain across the parking lot, a vast sprawl of mostly deserted asphalt. I get into the Jeep Cherokee of this strange man because that’s what I came here to do. I trust him because Michelle told me a slave was coming to get me. I trust Michelle because she’s a fellow kinky punk sex worker, a reckless principle that has nevertheless gotten me in surprisingly little hot water so far. I guess I’m in it for the curiosity almost as much as the money. “So, what’s The Space like?” I ask brain as he drives us into the woods. “Oh, Master M changed my life,” he says, his eyes on the road but suddenly dreamy. “You’re so lucky. And the new headmistress is wonderful, too.” I ask what her name is. “Quinn.” He blinks. “Mistress Quinn.” “So, why do they call you brain?” I ask. “Well, Master M gives everyone a slave name. My name is Brian.” “So, your name is Brian!” “Yes, but Master M says I think too much. So, my slave name is brain to remind me not to think.” A contented grin spreads across his face, as if he is reflecting on a great blessing. The Jeep pulls onto a rural road, bouncing down a sloped gravel driveway, where my provincial mansion fantasies are given a rude awakening. The Space is actually just a squat grey one-story house. It’s not the modesty that catches me off guard, but the dissonance between the grand fantasy it’s selling and the reality I’m now seeing. I let slave brain take my bags this time. After holding open the screen door, he moves aside for me to meet Master M and Mistress Quinn, who are standing expectantly in a small country living room. Master M looks like he is pushing 70, sinewy and rough-skinned, with a stringy grey ponytail and black beady eyes. Quinn can’t be older than 25. Her considerable breasts pour over a leather corset, which she wears casually under black cotton leggings and a hoodie. She has a round, open, girl-next-door face and long shiny brown hair. She does not shake my hand. Michelle is there, too. She seems irritated with M and Quinn for reasons no one bothers to explain to me. The three of them seem distracted and stand-offish, neither friendly nor particularly professional. They show me to a comfortable bedroom with its own bathroom and inform me that dinner is in an hour. slave brain is dismissed and Michelle follows him up the road in her car. I’m alone at The Space with Master M and Mistress Quinn. They inform me that I have a client booked for tonight. The thought of cash soothes my discomfort as we sit down to homemade dinner at a large wooden table. Master M serves venison stew and congee. They offer me red wine and a joint, asking questions about my experience “in the scene.” Trying to find some common ground, I explain that my professional BDSM practice has a different dynamic than it does in my personal life, but that I really love my work and exploring power and… “She takes a long time to answer, doesn’t she?” M says to Quinn, and they both laugh at some joke I’m apparently not going to be let in on. The way they touch each other makes it pretty clear to me that they fuck. I’m unnerved by the creeping sense that I’m being appraised. I’ve met eccentric dungeon owners before, but the worst they’ve been is impersonal while giving me an orientation: Here’s how you buzz your client in, here’s the madacide, here’s the binder of dusty old Portishead CD-Rs, I’ll be in the other room smoking menthols. The Space is making me feel disoriented. I ask my host some reasonable questions: “So how do you screen clients?” and “Where do we negotiate our scenes?” and “Should I collect my money before or after session?” All my queries are met dismissively. “We’ll discuss it later,” or, “You don’t need to worry about that.” So far, I’m not able to discern a concrete reason to feel in danger; but they aren’t giving me any cause to trust them either. After dinner, I change into a sheer pink and black polka-dot teddy and robe, pulling on opaque black stockings and a garter belt because I’m still not sure how East coast clients will react to hairy legs. I’m instructed to wait in the guest bedroom listening as my client, Steve, arrives. M calls me out to the living room. I’m surprised to discover that Quinn has already led Steve downstairs to show him the basement dungeon. Every place I’ve worked has had its own particular style of theatrics. But I’m used to a clear differentiation between the role you play in session and the person you are, the person being hired. Back in Oakland, the worker always greeted the client at the door fully dressed and negotiated the scene for herself. Here, M instructs me to kneel in front of him on the thick musty carpet. Getting on my knees in an ordinary living room, next to couches and a coffee table and an acoustic guitar, feels much less comfortable than crawling around on a dungeon floor. It’s dawning on me that M and Quinn see me as the same class as slave brain. Several voices, deep inside my body, wage a war that lasts an instant. My female-socialized subconscious coos, You probably just missed something. It’ll be over faster if you just go along with what he wants. My insolent self-preservation screams: Call the whole thing off! Don’t kneel to this man! Michelle will come pick you up!  And some punkass part of my nature, the part that always prevails, wants to see what M thinks he can do to me, and how much I can resist while placating him at the same time. So, I do as he says. “Our slaves always stand with their eyes down, to show humility, and their chins up, to show pride in subservience,” M explains as he begins to stalk slowly around me. Does he want me to feel beneath him because he’s hiring me? I think to myself. It’s also possible that he believes the money that Steve is paying me and the cut I’ll owe The Space is beside the point. If part of the fantasy of this place is for clients to interact with “trained house slaves,” I might have agreed ahead of time to play that part. But the client is downstairs, and Master M is not my master. So, who is meant to benefit from this pageantry? M leans forward and begins to stroke my ear. “This is your clit,” he whispers, as if saying it would transubstantiate one collection of nerve endings to another. I don’t feel anything in my clit. But drops of sweat pour down my side from my underarms. I stay still and quiet. M pulls his fingers back and continues to stalk around me. I sense a wave of smugness. That unwelcome appraisal feeling again. Does he think I am enchanted by this? “It’s time for you to go to the dungeon,” M intones. I stand shakily and walk to the basement door, avoiding eye contact. As my eyes adjust to the dim light, I see Quinn and Steve in the far corner, standing expectantly next to a leather sling. Quinn has removed the casual part of her outfit, and now cuts an impressive figure of a tightly corseted girly dominatrix. Steve is a very conventional-looking middle aged white client, bursting out of his skin with anticipation at the sight of me wobbling on kitten heels down the wooden stairs. The dungeon is fully and uniquely stocked with horn-handled crops, matching alligator skin floggers, and hand-built bondage furniture, but the walls are covered in trash bags. It feels like I’m in the haunted garage a family makes every year for Halloween. “Steve likes to tickle!” Quinn explains. I’m comfortable with tickling fetishism: the top is looking for an involuntary and unstaged response. But I don’t understand why Quinn is telling me this instead of Steve. I’m used to having my own negotiation with a client, especially one who will be dominating me. Together, they guide me into the sling, wrapping leather cuffs around my wrists and ankles so I’m laying back, spread-eagle and fully restrained. Any moment now I am expecting Quinn to leave me alone with my client. It’s unsettling to have her there observing me. I would have understood if she or M had explained they would stand by for safety reasons or because I’m new to the house, but that’s not what’s happening. My dynamic with my client is completely thrown by her deliberate presence—imagine a psychologist being non-consensually monitored by the person whose office she is renting. Steve approaches me slowly. Then he dives in. He doesn’t caress or stroke. He just goes directly for my ribs and jabs mercilessly. This kind of fetish torture usually makes me feel euphoric and strong. But I’m also used to clients with finesse, who work with me in real time to build a sort of movement narrative incorporating ebb and flow. Steve is just relentlessly attacking. His face is shocked and delighted. Ordinarily, I would “top from the bottom,” teaching a new client how I like to be teased, but Quinn’s creepy presence has me all out of whack. I laugh. I shriek. I curse excessively and loudly—ohholyfuckingjesuschristshitaaafuckingaaaauuuufhh! If I’m going to be in this weird isolated dungeon in the woods, I figure the least I can get out of it is the catharsis of screaming vulgar bloody murder, something I can rarely justify in a thin-walled city building. My squirming and giggling and chain-rattling is amplified by the tension of this entire situation. Ordinarily, even if I’m enduring something challenging, I can ground myself to the presence of the other workers in the house. They know who I really am when I’m out of character. Here, there is no anchor. I’m learning they expect me to be the character. Every so often Quinn approaches and joins in on the tickling. I could use a safe word, or call the scene off, or tell her to fuck off, but I’m worried that this will be seen as insolence or a reason not to pay me. I choose to let Quinn touch my body, but the choice is bound to the disorientation of my situation. Finally, Quinn tells Steve his allotted hour is up. They unlatch me, and I’m quite shaky getting up the stairs, where M is waiting for us. Quinn, Steve, and I stand in front of an expectant M, who again instructs me to kneel in “slave position.” “I’m very disappointed in you that you would use such language in my house,” he says, referring to my litany of cursing screams. I have no idea what to say. I’m embarrassed and furiously insulted being spoken to like this in front of my client. I thought I had done a professional job making this tickling fetishist very happy. No one has ever questioned the way I process pain and sensation. Cursing is my style, and my style is the experience a client is paying for. Steve genuinely didn’t seem to mind my language, so why should M? The Space seems more concerned about maintaining manipulative hierarchies than doing good business, which is antithetical to everything BDSM means to me. After Steve is sent on his way, I collect my cash with relief, retreating wordlessly to my room. I draw a scalding bath, pouring excessive milks and salts into the tub, seething with indignity and confusion. I realize the boundaries between personal and professional are very blurred here, in a way I’m not used to, in a way that disturbs me. I open the linen closet in my room and notice the labels: maroon towels are for slaves, black towels are for guests. So which towel is for me? In the morning, I leave the house in my exercise clothes without seeing anyone. I run up the gravel driveway and turn left on the dirt road. I don’t encounter any cars or people or other houses. Just trees and birds and clean mountain air for miles. This is a rare treat, to be able to run and let my mind go, even close my eyes, with no surprises and no traffic. I try to breathe the fresh air as deeply as I can. As I run, it occurs to me that if I had to leave, this would be how I would have to do it. I stay at that house for two more days. During that time, I see a different client, a regular to The Space, who singletail whips me mercilessly with no warm up. He makes me walk naked through the surrounding forest carrying a wooden cross, explaining that I’m “a goddess taking on the suffering of the world.” As an atheist I find this extremely ridiculous, but I do take some pride in enduring outrageous scenarios for the satisfaction of paying customers. I hit my limit, though, when he attaches me to the cross by suspension cuffs and raises it, by hydraulics, up the side of a tree. I look down at M, Quinn, and the client, all visibly amused. For the very first time in ten years of stomping and spitting and cursing and cumming for money, I instinctively imagine my best friend—who has been unconditionally supportive through some truly weird sexual shit I’ve done—feeling concerned about the position I’m in. So, I use my safe word. M clucks in disapproval, and I live through an excruciating pause. A safe word is supposed to be a ripcord; you’re not supposed to have to negotiate with the parachute once you’ve pulled it. All of the times I’d used yellow for slow down or red for stop everything, the client has checked in and dropped whatever roles we were playing. No one has ever seriously shamed me for invoking these consent tools. No one has ever questioned my professionalism or devotion to my craft or value as a sadomasochist as a result. Until now. But they do let me down off the cross. And the session is over. And I do get paid. And I do decide it’s time to call Michelle. As I roll my suitcase out the door, Master M tells me scornfully, “It would be good for you to come back. We would love to have you, since you can barely take the pace of one of our kindest Masters.” Staring out the window of Michelle’s station wagon, I feel the dread of a horror movie third act. We head back to her place and spend a few days together. I don’t really tell her about my experience. I roll my money into a sock and zip it into a compartment of my bag. We take her dogs for a walk and swim under a waterfall. We cook vegan dinner with her best friend, a short dark-haired guy with huge ear gauges who owns a tattoo parlor. He makes fun of my $10 pink smoke shop belly button ring, just visible under my loose tie dye shirt, and I snap at him that not everyone can afford fancy things. The next day, he walks into Michelle’s apartment and drops to his knees in front of me. Pulling latex gloves from the pouch of his red and black hoodie, he starts unscrewing my belly button ring. He produces a new piece with aquamarine gemstones that sparkles so much brighter than the cheap one I’ve worn for ages. Slipping the new silver through my piercing hole, he threads the shining ball in place, muttering, “I just don’t like to see good people with bad jewelry.” Michelle takes me to an enormous warehouse owned by her friend. On one floor, the friend makes string for lacrosse sticks, hundreds of white lines whirring and shifting away in somehow whisper-quiet industrial machines. We smoke a joint and she shows me the floor where she wants to shoot porn, giant beams from floor to ceiling, dust catching light from filthy windows. I start to fantasize about raw and dirty kidnapping scenes, how it would feel to run across this enormous space as if you were really trying to escape from someone alluringly sinister. We head to a dive bar where she introduces me to the local motorcycle gang, not just guys in leather jackets, but a real gang, with initiations and hierarchies and birthrights. There is karaoke. I sing “Sympathy for the Devil,” slithering flamboyantly as my beer foams out of its bottle. Broad men with scratchy-looking beards buy me drinks because they claim they have never seen a woman sing like that before, which, as always, I find difficult to believe. Michelle takes me to the parking lot to catch the bus back to Manhattan. I never ask her about her relationship to The Space and frankly I can’t explain that choice. Maybe I was ashamed that there was some expectation I had misunderstood. Or maybe I was just happy to have survived with several bills stuffed in my boot, on my way home to the city, and didn’t want to push my luck.  Every so often, I meet someone who has trained at The Space, even close friends whose approach to sex work I respect and BDSM lifestyle I trust. Though I’m typically notoriously over-inquisitive, I find myself biting my tongue instead of asking them to explain the Masters and Mistresses and slaves and clients out there in the woods. I realize now that I don’t really want to understand. All I care about is staying as far away from that house as possible.   My personal philosophies of kink and sex work did become clearer to me after that weekend. I’m not looking for new authority figures. I’m not looking to recycle the suffering of old gods. I’m looking to make something new. Sometimes, when I look down at the shimmering blue of my belly button ring, it reminds me of that moment of kindness, of a man willingly getting on his knees in front of me to give me a gift, expecting nothing in return. It reminds me of pulling out of that gravel driveway, and of everything women everywhere have endured to make their rent. When I meet the Master Ms of this world, the people who try to take advantage of their perceived power over me, I try to invoke the spirit of my grandmother, screaming “LIAR” at the top of her lungs in front of hundreds of acolytes at Madison Square Garden.  * My family, like most families, has exchanged moments of selfless care and moments of critical resistance.   My dad and I did reconcile after those revelatory therapy sessions, and it took another ten years before I would cut off communication with him again: for unapologetically slapping my ass in a bar, for ignoring my boundaries about when he was welcome to crash on my couch, and most of all for warping every conflict between us to make himself the hero. People usually think of cults in terms of groupthink, or a collection of people brainwashed by a single guru. The more I learn about them, the more I’m struck by how the psychic manipulations of cults echo the dynamics of abusive intimate relationships. Sometimes those abuses look like slaps, and sometimes they’re felt in the form of a man’s entitlement to dismiss a woman’s boundary because he likes it better when it seems like she has none.   “You should be allowed to say no,” Dr. Lalich said when I asked her how to tell if you’re in a healthy group relationship. “To question anyone in the hierarchy including the dominant. You should be allowed to leave when you want, without any rebuke or shunning. You shouldn’t be made to believe that this is the only way to live. You should be able to untie the bonds!” If a family is a cult, then I’m in a perpetual state of trying to walk away from the influence of my own. Even though the healthy consensual BDSM situations I’ve been in have put me in many positions of literal subservience—down on my knees, withstanding torture—nothing has made me feel freer. Because when you surrender from a place of recognized strength, you learn to see false prophets for what they are: people who expect filial piety when they haven’t earned the privilege.    
‘We Can’t Change History, But We Are Complicit in Perpetuating It’: An Interview with Lisa Taddeo

The author of Three Women on desire, community, and the male gaze. 

When Lisa Taddeo set out to write her new nonfiction book about desire, three women she met stood out. It took eight years for her to map out the inner workings of Maggie, a high school student in North Dakota who develops a relationship with her English teacher; Lina, a housewife in Indiana who works tirelessly to please a husband who refuses to kiss her; and Sloane, a poised restaurant owner in Rhode Island whose husband enjoys watching her have sex with other couples.   Throughout each account, we watch as the women unwind. As the coils holding them together give way, they experience a kind of renewal, face condemnation, and wrestle with their newfound freedom. And Taddeo is there not only to bear witness, but to observe and unpack the reactions of the women and communities surrounding Maggie, Lina, and Sloane. Three Women (Avid Reader Press) is not just a book about desire, but the consequences for acting on it. Sara Black McCulloch: What led you to write about desire from this perspective? I read that what partly prompted this book was that you were reading Gay Talese’s Thy Neighbor’s Wife, and that you were put off by it—that it was written from a very particular and male perspective. Lisa Taddeo: The main thing with Mr. Talese’s book was that, and you know I met him and he was an unofficial mentor for a certain part of the process, but you know, I found that there was just not a lot of emotion behind the acts he had been describing, and his book was different. It wasn’t that I didn’t like it—I enjoyed it very much. But at the same time, I just wanted to know more about... you know, there was a lot of swinging in it. And what I found with a lot of swingers is that they kind of go, “Oh you know, it’s fine.” And maybe for you it is fine and you don’t feel sad, but I just wanted to know about more of my own biases. I don’t judge them, I’m just so fascinated by it, but I couldn’t do it, so I wanted to know why these people could, in a sense, do it. I just feel like there wasn’t much talk about why—the whys about everything—and that was where I wanted to have a departure. I think Talese was interested in different things, but I was also so fascinated by swingers that I went looking for swingers. I spoke to a lot of different groups of swingers and I could not find someone who gave me the sort of complexity I was looking for until I found Sloane and that was game-changing for me because she was the person I always looked for. I don’t think she’s necessarily representative of swingers, but what she is for me is representative of the complexity I wanted to know more about.   How did you find the women? I know, for instance, that you met Lina in a discussion group you were running.  I posted signs across the country, literally in bars and casinos. I posted them on windows of cars too, just everywhere: churches, bus stops, truck stops, everywhere. I went to the Four Seasons, seedy motels... I was just trying to find people. I moved to Indiana because of the Kinsey Institute [which researches sex and gender] and because I met a doctor who was administering these hormone treatments to women and he was telling me about them. I found Lina really early. I think I spoke to her on the phone before I moved because the doctor had given me a number of his patients who were interested in talking to me. I didn’t know how fascinating she was going to be until she walked into that room and started telling her story.  I had read about Maggie when I was in North Dakota researching a different story. It was about women who were working as waitresses during the day at this coffee shop and by night, they were being trucked into the local oil fields to have sex with the men who worked there. So, I was reading about Maggie in a coffee shop and I read about the trial, which had just ended. I called her mother’s house and introduced myself, asked if I could come and tell them more about what I was doing, and then drove to North Dakota the next day.   I found Sloane by moving into her town to speak to several other people and at that point I was hearing rumours about not just a woman who was swinging, but a woman whose husband wanted to have sex with her every day and that not only did she allow it, she wanted to do it too. And that was the rumour. What was shocking to me about that, and indeed every woman and person that I spoke to, was the ways in which they were reviled by their communities for doing things like that. I just don’t think you should judge other people for their lives. So, I was interested in that. That was how I found those three, but I spoke to hundreds of other people, at least 20-25 at length. I also noticed a shift in voice and POV throughout the book, from diary entries to third-person accounts. What was the reasoning behind these particular choices? They were all different choices, but I wanted the voices to be reflective of the women. For Maggie, one of the reasons why I started with the second-person was because she had been so reviled in the local press that I had in mind the most staunch disbeliever and I wanted that person to be able to instantly get inside her head in such a way that it would be impossible for them to not at least try to understand her. I wanted the literal experience. I did the trial and the other stuff more in the third-person to keep it factual. With Lena, she found herself in the sexual moments—I would say more than anyone else did—and so I wanted her section to reflect that. I mean she told me everything so openly. It was just so infinitely interesting to me that I wanted to show how present she was in those moments.   With Sloane, who was the most reticent to talk and also the most eloquent but detached, I tried to tell her story in her rote voice. You explored some really small communities that judged and condemned others for living their lives, and I wanted to know if you believe that there is such a thing as community anymore? You moved to these towns where these women lived—do you feel like a community is there to essentially police and surveil people now? I do. You know, it’s funny, because my daughter is four years old and we live in a rather rural part of Connecticut, and a lot of people have said to me, "You should move here and here because there are a lot of moms and kids." But I moved to so many places and I’ve seen so many moms and dads, and no! There’s a lot more competition than there is community or a sense of community. You know how people say a child is raised by a community? I just don’t see that anymore in any way. Even with social media, it’s really become so much about who’s got what, and whose kid is doing this, and whose partner has a better career, and a nicer house—all of that! That’s what I found in almost every place. There were some places that were kinder than others, but for the most part, it was not a loving situation.  You don’t just discuss how women condemn each other but how they compete with each other, too. There was something really striking that your mom told you: “Never let them see you happy,” and by “them,” she meant other women. Were you noticing this in your discussion groups and even how these women were communicating with you? One of the reasons I was most drawn to these women was because they were the victims of these things. They were less judgmental about the things that happened in their lives. They were victims of men, to an extent, but also the victims of other women. They were not so much the aggressors, and I found that really warm about them—that they didn’t want other women to necessarily suffer, whereas I found other women who wanted other women to suffer. All the women that I observed for the final cut of the book were all, in some way, jealous or just condemning of Maggie, Sloane, and Lina. A lot of this is frankly biological, as men are not necessarily competing against each other, at least not the same way. The women are competing to be the thing that is chosen and that’s sociological and biological. The idea that men spread their seed—not be clinical—across a large group of women in order to perpetuate the species, whereas women are meant to stay back with the child and bear the whole situation. I find that really informs the way we move about. The sociological implications are that we also, at the same time, want equality. We’re very sentient, wise beings, but our biology and our sociology either mix or they don’t, depending on the day. I really think it’s other women because we’re fighting against each other for men or whatever—at least in heterosexual relationships. (It’s different things across different orientations and sexual predilections.)  The male gaze really fuels that too, but it many ways it also fuels the desires of these three women too. We’re still rooted in it. We can’t change our history, but we are complicit in perpetuating it in the present. We’ve been living under it for centuries, and we can’t just wake up one day and change. We first have to admit that it’s there before we can figure out how to combat the negatives in our lives. When you’re immersing yourself in someone else’s life, especially as a journalist, there is always talk of objectivity. Did you ever find yourself slipping, in a way, and judging these women, or would their stories force you to confront something within yourself? Or trigger the memory of a personal situation? Did you find yourself connecting with them on a deeper level? It’s funny because there were countless things, but the thing that I think about the most is that when I was a kid, like 10 or 11, I was going to Puerto Rico with my parents. I had helicopter parents before the term was coined, and they wouldn’t let me out of their sight. And I just wanted to take a walk down the beach. They finally said yes and I was so happy. That day, I packed baby oil because I wanted to get super-tan. I was wearing a black bikini with little neon butterflies and I loved it. I was so happy. I took Stephen King’s The Stand with me because I was a depressive kid. I laid down in the sand and fell asleep. I woke up with two things: one was a second degree burn across my body that was insane. The other thing that woke me up, in fact, was a man, I don’t know if he was 30 or 40, but I knew that he was a man and I was a kid. He was licking my arm. The first thing I thought—I remember the feeling very well, and not just the tongue, but the feeling I felt in my head, which was, “I don’t want this man to think I don’t... like him?” I don’t know, it’s weird, but I still have that feeling today and I’m nearly 40 years old. It was shocking.  I went back to my parents and I did not tell them about the situation for two reasons: one, that I didn’t think they would ever let me out of their sight again, and two, that they would think I was a slut. And that’s what I thought. I was an 11-year-old girl. I didn’t do anything. I shouldn’t have put baby oil on my body, but other than that, I didn’t do anything. It’s super interesting, and multiple things like that came up. And mainly, it’s about how the formative years shape the way that we are, and we desire, and in other ways that are more obvious in the present. And a lot of people weren’t aware of it. Neither was I! We internalize those experiences and feelings of shame, and that plays out in very different ways: you have to be careful with how you’re perceived by other people. You need to be constantly vigilant. I noticed, too, that even the women you talked to couldn’t fully let go of this vigilance either. It’s a weird kind of invisible service in their public and personal lives. They’re always making sure that everyone else’s needs are being met. And just the performative aspect too—just being aware of yourself and your attractiveness and I found that so much in everyone that I talked to—women and men. But men have this goal, which is an orgasm, no matter how sloppy and smelly they are. With women, some of them can, and I’m inspired by the women who can, but I myself have never personally found that. I will not do anything if my teeth aren’t brushed.   I wanted to talk about parents and what we inherit from them. In the introduction, you talk about your mother and the secrets she hid, and how that creates a barrier to communication—or not telling your parents what happened to you.  Yes, but also, it’s not that I didn’t think I could talk to my parents, it was more that I was ashamed. I thought it was my fault, too. I didn’t want them to stop letting me be alone. I didn’t know that I needed to go to them—I don’t think what they would have said would have been helpful. With Maggie, we see that too—that she didn’t really confide in anyone because she couldn’t. The women you spoke to had these fractured relationships with their parents and people in their lives and they really had to compartmentalize aspects of their lives and themselves. I think that a byproduct of growing up years ago—although this has less to do with Maggie, because with her, it’s more of a byproduct of where she’s from in the country—but with Lina and Sloane, they both had parents that they wouldn’t necessarily feel comfortable going to with the things they experienced. With that said, I think it’s the time, and that now there are a lot more studies about how to be with children. I don’t think people were really looking at that back then. Are any of the women planning on reading the book? Two of the women have read it. I’m in touch with all three of them pretty frequently, so they’re very much aware of the book’s publication date. I’m not supposed to reveal which two have read it. Some are a little more nervous than others about it.  Are you planning on keeping in touch with them and seeing how their lives turn out?   Yes! I am so interested. I’m close to them. I would call all of them friends, but the nature of our relationship is very much—it was mostly one-sided because I was asking the questions. With that said, there were many intimate moments that we shared about their men and about my own stories whenever I thought it was something they would want to hear or that would help them or make them feel comfortable because they were giving so much of themselves. It was organic. One of the things that allowed women to explore their sexuality and desires was the advent of birth control, and in terms of what’s happening now in the U.S., this is going to have an impact on everything, but what impact will this have on desire? I think that to make any heaving step forward, there’s going to be a thousand steps back. It’s always shifting and what’s going on now is awful, but I also hope that it won’t last very long and that eventually those people in power are going to die off and when then do, hopefully there will be less people taking their place that will deal with it the same way. It’s definitely going to change the way women talk about it, but I also think that it’s making voices louder because there’s a lot of rage. Also men—in general and in the book—are threatened by their desire and tend to use it against these women in many ways. Men get nervous when women have desires that go above and beyond their desires. I think that’s why there’s such a rise of this incel community coming out of the woodwork, because they’re hearing about what women want and they’re translating it into, “Women want to have sex with good-looking guys.” For centuries, men have wanted to have sex with good-looking women, but the fact that we’re hearing from women now is making a lot of men who are not confident—and this is sad and they should be heard—but the way that they’re trying to be heard is despicable and that’s a perfect example of what happens when men feel nervous about female desire.
Epcot World Showcase

Every sixteen minutes the couple in the film gets married. Every sixteen minutes they kiss like they wish they could take it back.

Visiting the World Showcase at Epcot when you've had three red wines and a Canadian beer in the outdoor pavilion so you drunkenly ask the attendant at the movie theater in France what Paris is really like: The attendant smiles and says, “come watch the movie.” She says: If you lay on the floor before the lights dim they make you get up, but if you wait until it's dark they don't care what you do. From opening to close, the same film plays every sixteen minutes. In rural, rustic France, wooden carts bustle past soaring, fairytale castles. The fields are dotted with pristine white sheep. Female attendants who work at Epcot, France wear long, russet skirts and peasant tops that tie delicately at the throat. The attendant asks the audience to enjoy this introduction to her home. She says "home" like you might mouth a packet of Splenda. The panoramic screen reveals a view of rocky ocean cliffs and even more soaring castles and cyclists and more sheep and women carrying oversized baskets of bread. Every sixteen minutes the same country road winds along valleys sprinkled with tiny yellow wildflowers. Places people like to fuck at Disney: The Haunted Mansion, It’s a Small World, and the sixteen-minute movie in Epcot, France. Stains dot the theater seats, the curtains, and the floor where you can lay if you wait until the lights dim. Only after the lights dim, the attendant says. Not a second earlier. "The music is from Beauty and the Beast," she whispers in my ear. "Like from the Disney version." If you lay on the floor after the lights dim you see people's feet and bagged merchandise from every country in Epcot. Around the world in less than an hour if you don't stop to watch the sixteen-minute movie in France. A woman feeds her partner a chocolate-covered strawberry bought from the pavilion and he licks the residue from her fingers. You're not supposed to eat in the theater, but according to the attendant, nobody cares what happens after the lights dim. These people eat chocolate-covered strawberries and wear sport sandals. They’re climbing each other like real sports enthusiasts, I tell the attendant. One of them kicks a bag and it rustles. Ocean waves crash against the rocky shore. Sheep bleat beside a moated castle. The attendant says she’s heard it a thousand times before: the movie soundtrack and the fucking. The lights have dimmed so we’re on the floor and she's untying the delicate knot at her throat. I knew this would happen just like I knew it would happen the last time like I know it will happen again. Next weekend. A month from now. Tomorrow. Every sixteen minutes the attendant introduces a film about her home in a peasant top that ties delicately at the throat. The cyclists speed down the road past a cart full of bread. Sheep saunter up the hill, guided by a man in blue slacks. People in the back of the theater wear sport sandals and feed each other chocolate-covered strawberries and fuck next to a rustling bag of Epcot merchandise. Tiny, yellow wildflowers. During her introductory speech, the attendant says you can leave at any time by exiting the theater to your left. No one gets up. There’s only rustling bags, chocolate-covered strawberries, sport sandals, fucking. When I ask the attendant if she ever stays to watch the movie with special guests, she takes my hand. Do you ever stay and watch the movie means: will you lie on the floor with me? Do you ever stay and watch the movie means: will you untie the delicate knot at your throat? Do you ever stay and watch the movie means: I will not take you to dinner after this, we won’t go home together, I did that in another life with a woman like you but that tenderness is gone now, sixteen minutes is all I can offer, please, I’ve already given the other parts of myself away, do you understand? Pan over a snow-capped mountain. A line of people ski down its frozen side like a trail of ants. I tell the attendant the frosted mountain looks like mint chocolate chip ice cream and she laughs. “I haven't heard that one before,” she says, but I’m positive she has. Villagers sell pink and white flowers from a wooden cart. The attendant pulls up her skirt, loosens the knot at her throat. A woman on screen carries too much bread. The man herds sheep in his blue slacks. "Three red wines and a Canadian beer," I tell the attendant when she asks what I had for dinner. She's asking what I had for dinner because she’d like us to get dinner. There’s no dinner in our future, but we will lay on the floor of the movie theater. I know this the way I know the movie repeats every sixteen minutes. The attendant touches the delicate knot at her throat and undoes it using only two fingers. Wooden cart, castle. Pink and white flowers. Bleating sheep. Midway through the film a couple exchanges marriage vows inside a crumbling chapel. The music piped over the ceremony is familiar. “It’s what they use in Beauty and the Beast, the Disney film,” says the attendant. The bride wears a white dress and a shimmering veil. When the couple kisses, it looks like they’d rather die than let their lips touch. When my wife kissed me on our wedding day, she was so nervous her lips trembled. We did not listen to Disney music and there were no castles. Her hands left damp marks on the paper she carried so she could remember the order of the vows. We lit a white candle and the wind blew it out. Every sixteen minutes the couple in the film gets married. Every sixteen minutes they kiss like they wish they could take it back. In the movie theater, the lights dim and the attendant hikes up her skirt to reveal socks that buckle over the knee. “They’re regulation,” she whispers, when I slip a finger beneath the elastic band. Behind us, plastic bags rustle and people's legs move back and forth as they fuck and the attendant wants to know why I'd have three red wines and a Canadian beer for dinner, but what she's really asking is why won't I have dinner with her. Dinner isn’t on the table. We served chicken at our wedding so stringy I picked the gristle from my teeth and my wife kissed me with a mouth full of regrets. Why’d you drink dinner, asks the attendant, and I’m answering her question by ignoring it completely. This is a repeat of the conversation I had last week, two days ago, tonight, tomorrow, three weeks from now. The movie replays every sixteen minutes. On screen a girl in a yellow dress delivers flowers to a market full of smiling, happy people. She hands out flowers until her cart is empty. In sixteen minutes, she'll do it again. Flowers, the wooden cart, cyclists, skiers racing down the mint chocolate chip mountain, a lone woman carrying too much bread. The attendant rolls down her regulation socks and undoes the delicate knot at her throat. My hand slides up her thigh. Sheep dot the landscape like someone ripped open a pillow. There are castles everywhere. I ask the attendant what Paris is like and she says "it's exactly like this," but her eyes get wide when she says it and I know “exactly like this” means she’s willing to be whatever I want. Why did you drink dinner, she asks, and it's an echo in the valley between the ice cream mountains as the bags rustle and the people eat chocolate-covered strawberries and fuck in their sport sandals and we lie on the floor, once the lights are dim. The couple gets married in the crumbling chapel every sixteen minutes and they kiss like strangers. We lit the candle at our wedding and the flame blew out while I laughed, but my wife’s lips trembled and her hands sweat all over our vows and there were no castles anywhere. Why did you drink dinner? The attendant asks, and up come the lights. People pick up their bags and move out of the stained seats so other people can sit in the stained seats and set down their bags on the floor beside bits of popcorn and discarded gummy candies. In a few minutes, the attendant will loosen the knot at her throat. Roll down the regulation socks. Three red wines and a Canadian beer slosh in my stomach in lieu of dinner. There will never be dinner with this woman. There will never be dinner with any of them; there will never be. The movie replays every sixteen minutes. The attendant says: “Please enjoy this introduction to my home,” and we begin again. Sheep. Crumbling chapel. The couple kisses in the church and their mouths are trembling. Every wedding kiss is an earthquake. Pink and white flowers. Castles. We can slip down to the floor, the attendant whispers, once the lights dim.
How Canada Fell in Love with the Stanley Cup

From fans to telegraph operators to a troupe of determined players from the Klondike, here’s how Stanley Cup Fever spread across the country.

Just 20 years old, Weldon Champness Young was already a veteran with the Ottawa Hockey Club when he went to the Russell House hotel for a formal banquet in March of 1892. The evening was hosted by the Ottawa Amateur Athletic Club to celebrate the end of his team’s season. When Weldy and the other guests sat down, they found menu cards that told two tales. One side, as usual, set out the fine fare the hotel would serve that Friday night. The other side showed the names of the Ottawa players and an account of another impressive winter. In ten matches, the squad had won nine times, scoring fifty-three goals and allowing just nineteen. “This was the record,” according to the Daily Journal, “of a genuine amateur team playing for pure love of sport and treating all comers as they wished to be treated themselves.” More than seventy-five people had gathered in the hotel dining room to honour that success, and by the end of the night they’d have even more to cheer about.           Located a short walk from Parliament Hill, the five-story Russell House was the finest hotel in the Canadian capital. Oscar Wilde stayed there in 1882, and many politicians lived there; Wilfrid Laurier called it home for a decade, including during his first year as prime minister. It was also popular with Ottawa’s high society, who enjoyed the luxurious public rooms and excellent food. The 1880s and ‘90s were the hotel’s heyday so it was the obvious choice for a banquet that attracted many prominent gentlemen—including guests from Montreal and Toronto—and featured music from the Governor-General’s Foot Guards band. Around 9:30 or so, women joined the festivities, taking seats in a wing of the dining room, and the hotel staff served coffee and ices for dessert. At 10 o’clock, J. W. McRae, president of the OAAC, began the formal proceedings. A lengthy round of toasts was a regular part of such gatherings and, by tradition, the host always led off with one to the Queen. After McRae had done so, Philip Dansken Ross, the publisher of the Journal and past president of the OAAC, drew cheers for his toast to the Governor-General that included complimentary remarks about the Englishman’s staunch support of sports, especially hockey. In 1888, an aging Queen Victoria had tapped Frederick Arthur Stanley, the 47-year-old son of a former British prime minister, to be her Canadian representative. After serving two decades in Parliament as a Tory MP, Baron Stanley of Preston entered the House of Lords in 1886. Going to Ottawa, not exactly the most glamorous—or warmest—city in the British Empire, sounded like a retirement posting. Initially, he declined the Queen’s vice-regal offer, but Lord Salisbury, his prime minister, talked him into becoming the Dominion of Canada’s sixth Governor-General. When he arrived in Ottawa in June 1888, he was a middle-aged aristocrat with a stout build. He kept a grizzled beard and above his broad forehead, his hair was thinning and starting to grey. The New York Times described him as having “a commanding and soldier-like appearance” and being “decidedly good looking.” He’d never seen a hockey match before coming to Canada, but Stanley came from a sporting family. In 1780, his great-grandfather, the 12th Earl of Derby, created The Derby, the most prestigious of the three races that make up the British Triple Crown. Stanley shared his family’s passion for horse racing as well as its love of hunting, fishing and cricket. He and his wife, Lady Constance, had ten children, eight of whom survived to adulthood. The family quickly embraced winter in the great white north, enjoying snowshoeing, tobogganing and, most of all, hockey. Unable to attend the banquet for the Ottawa Hockey Club, Stanley sent something better. His aide de camp, Lord Kilcoursie, delivered the surprise by reading a letter from His Excellency: “I have for some time past been thinking that it would be a good thing if there were a challenge cup which should be held from year to year by the championship hockey team in the Dominion.” Even better, he’d already asked a former aide, who was now back in England, to order such a trophy. The thrilled guests at the Russell House applauded enthusiastically. When McRae proposed a toast to “the hockey team,” friends and supporters stood on their chairs to drink. Then each player stood to respond. Team captain Herbert Russell went first and made everyone laugh. Young earned a special round of applause for raising a glass to the good fellowship that existed among the clubs of the O.A.A.C. and their members. The last player to speak, Chauncey Kirby, added emphasis to his words by climbing onto the table. Eventually, Kilcoursie was on his feet again with a song he’d composed. Called “The Hockey Men,” it began:                                       There is a game called hockey—                                     There is no finer game,                                     For though some call it “knockey”                                     Yet we love it all the same.                                       ’Tis played in this Dominion,                                     Well played both near and far;                                     There’s only one opinion,                                     How ’tis played in Ottawa.   The verses that followed were about the members of the team and were, if possible, even cornier and more ridiculous than the first two. The stanza about Young, who played cover point, one of two defence positions, went:                                       At cover point—important place—                                     There’s Young, a bulwark strong,                                     No dodging tricks or flying pace                                     Will baffle him for long.   Everyone loved the performance. More songs, toasts and speeches followed until the guests sang “God Save the Queen” and then belted out “Auld Lang Syne” before heading home or moving on to the next party at midnight. The evening had been a great success. The delight at the Governor-General’s promised gift on that evening had come from hockey people: players, league officials and other hangers-on. Still, their excitement over a trophy to recognize the country’s championship team was indicative of the growing ardor for the sport. But not even these insiders could have imagined what the Cup would come to mean to Canada.        *  Stanley had picked just the right moment in hockey’s development to donate a trophy. The modern version of the sport began in 1875 with an indoor match at Montreal’s Victoria Rink. Eight years later, at that city’s first Winter Carnival, three teams—the Victorias, McGill and Quebec City—played a round-robin tournament in what was billed as the “novel game of hockey.” Soon it spread to Ottawa, Kingston and Halifax, where an early version of the sport had long been played. By the end of the 1880s, there were matches in Toronto and the Ontario Hockey Association formed in 1890. More and more Canadians were playing—and watching—the game. But Stanley’s gift wasn’t just good timing. Although the nation had emerged out of a collection of colonies in 1867, Canada was technically just a self-governing dominion and definitely still part of the Empire. In fact, people born in Canada or naturalized immigrants were British subjects (this didn’t change until 1947 with the Canadian Citizenship Act). So colonial thinking lived on. Most English Canadians were ardent Anglophiles and if a member of the British nobility—indeed, the Queen’s own representative in the country—approved of this new game enough to bestow a trophy, people took it seriously: hockey must be something Canadians should enjoy. And so they did. The sport had already made it to the prairies. Local businessmen, including Jack Armytage, launched the Victoria Hockey Club of Winnipeg in 1890 and three years later, the game had “attained an immense hold in the public estimation” in that city. A multi-sport athlete, Armytage was renowned as a trainer and kept himself and his teammates in excellent shape with rigorous drills. In 1895, his Vics toured Ontario, Quebec and Minnesota and won four of five matches. After Winnipeg beat the Montreal Hockey Club 5-1, the teams went to the Montreal Amateur Athletic Association clubhouse for the post-game festivities. While there, Armytage spied the Stanley Cup in a trophy case. He was determined to win it. In February 1896, the Vics hopped on an eastbound train, accompanied by a handful of their hardcore fans. They were going to play Montreal’s own Victorias, the new Cup holders, in a Valentine’s Day match at Victoria Rink. (Sure, two teams named after the Queen meeting each other in a building named after the Queen sounds like a royal parody, but it was just an indication of Canada’s devotion to the monarch.) Adding to the fun, the two teams wore similar colours. Garnet with gold trim and a gold buffalo on the left chest for the westerners and maroon with distinctive yellow Vs on the front of the sweater for the easterners. Few Montrealers gave the challengers much of a chance. Fans liberally placed bets on the assumption that the westerners would get schooled by the hometown squad. The 2,000 or so in attendance included twenty-five Manitobans who “gave an excellent exhibition of Western lung power” in a vain attempt to match the volume of the locals.               The fans back in Winnipeg were no less excited. The phones never seemed to stop ringing at the offices of the Manitoba Free Press as people called the newsroom to get the score. Hundreds of others had congregated in three of the city’s hotels—the Manitoba, the Queen’s and the Clarendon—to await game updates, sent via telegram. Only a few years old, the Manitoba Hotel was the city’s poshest. Built in the French Chateau style by the Northern Pacific and Manitoba Railway, it set the tone for many future railroad hotels in the country. Numerous towers, turrets and gables adorned the roofline of the large red sandstone and brick building. The highlight of the interior was a large, high-ceilinged rotunda. That’s where John Tait, city manager of the CPR Telegraphs, disappointed the fans by announcing, in his distinct Scottish burr, an early Montreal lead. But he soon read another bulletin from the branch office in the hotel. The goal had been disallowed because the play was offside. Eleven minutes into the match, the fans cheered: Armytage had scored. A second goal followed nine minutes later. The telegrams tracked only major developments, such as goals and injuries, so there were stretches of anxious wondering about what was going on more than 1,800 kilometres to the east. In the second half, there was a long, worry-filled wait when nothing at all appeared to be happening until word came in that Higgy—Winnipeg cover point Fred Higginbotham—had broken his suspenders, leading to a delay until someone could find a new pair for him. Finally, at 9:50, Tait announced, “in stentorian tones, which reverberated through the great rotunda,” the final score: 2-0 for Winnipeg. The response was triumphant cheers and gleeful handshakes all ‘round, followed by the sending of many congratulatory telegrams to Montreal. Over at the Bijou opera house, the announcement of the final score during the performance of Princess Toto elicited “a perfect shriek of delight” from the audience. Meanwhile, back in Montreal, supporters of the western Vics made their way to the Windsor Hotel to collect at least $2,000 in winnings for their well-placed wagers. After the traditional dinner with the host team, the Vics headed home in a private car on the CPR train. They took with them their share of the gate—just $160—and the Stanley Cup. A crush of fans packed the platform and cheered as the train chugged into the CPR depot. It was flying the Union Jack and had hockey sticks and brooms, denoting a clean sweep, stuck in its cow-catcher. As a brass band played “See the Conquering Heroes Come,” the players climbed into the open sleighs waiting for them. The Cup sat in full view in the lead sleigh as the procession—including the band and the fans—made its way along Main Street to the Manitoba Hotel, creating the first Stanley Cup parade. [[{"fid":"6705001","view_mode":"media_original","fields":{"format":"media_original","field_file_image_alt_text[und][0][value]":false,"field_file_image_title_text[und][0][value]":false},"type":"media","field_deltas":{"2":{"format":"media_original","field_file_image_alt_text[und][0][value]":false,"field_file_image_title_text[und][0][value]":false}},"attributes":{"class":"media-element file-media-original","data-delta":"2"}}]] A crowd of several thousand greeted them at the hotel. After the mayor and the president of the hockey club had made speeches from the bunting-draped balcony, Armytage stood up in his sleigh. The team captain said he was too hoarse to give a speech, which made the crowd laugh, and thanked everyone for the warm welcome. Then the players and dignitaries made for the hotel’s smoking room where they filled the trophy to the brim with champagne. Drinking from the Cup would become a ritual that subsequent winners would gleefully follow. Losing had been a bitter blow for the Montrealers. A Free Press story claimed the Victoria Rink’s caretaker “was so worked up over the defeat that he shed enough tears to almost fill the big trophy.” The eastern Vics issued a challenge in mid-November and on Christmas Day, the former champions travelled west for a return match scheduled for December 30. This time, there was far more coverage in newspapers across the country. A large crowd went down to the train station and greeted the challengers with “a ringing cheer.” The next morning, 700 people showed up to watch them practice at the McIntyre Rink. In the hotels and shops, and on the streets, all anyone talked about was the big game. Montreal’s Star marveled at the unprecedented excitement and predicted the police would need to focus on keeping order “to prevent the anxious crowds who cannot obtain tickets from storming the rink.” Along with removing the gas lighting and adding four additional electric arc lights as well as opening large vents in the roof in hopes of solving the problem of mist obscuring the fans’ view, the building’s management increased the capacity from 1,200 to about 2,000 in preparation for the game. Even that wasn’t going to be enough. The price for one of the 250 reserved seats was a steep two dollars. But that didn’t stop scalpers from doing brisk business, getting as much as $25 for a pair. A man who’d come in from Calgary to see the game paid $15 for one and another fan traded two-and-a-half tons of coal for a ticket. Lord Stanley had appointed two respected Ottawa men as trustees of the Cup: P.D. Ross, the newspaper publisher who’d been at the 1892 banquet, and John Sweetland, a doctor and the Sheriff of Carleton County. One of their responsibilities was to appoint referees. Weldy Young often reffed hockey and lacrosse matches and was someone both teams could agree on. So the trustees asked him to travel to Winnipeg to handle the game. He started the match a little after 8:20 and before long it was hard to hear his “dainty little whistle” above the crowd noise. The play was fast and close and exciting. The home team thrilled its fans by storming out to an early lead, firing the first three goals. But Montreal roared back to go ahead in the second half. When Winnipeg scored late to tie it up at five goals apiece, the eruption impressed even the Montreal seven. “I have played many exciting championship games, but I never heard such a wild burst of cheering as went up when the score was made even,” one member of the team said later. “It was like a great and prolonged road of thunder rolling again and again from end to end of the rink.” When Montreal scored again, it put “a damper on the crowd but they could not restrain a cheer for the fine work of the visiting team.” The final was 6-5 and as the Daily Tribune observed, “Winnipeg is in mourning for her lost Valentine, her Stanley Cup.”      Young praised the crowd: “During all my experience in hockey matches both as a player and as an official,” he said, “I never saw such an intelligent, impartial and well conducted audience.” Whether he knew it or not, the audience was far larger than just the crowd in the rink. The CPR and Great North Western telegraph companies had arranged to provide detailed coverage of the game with direct wires to the arena. This had been done for other sports, especially boxing, but not for hockey. The Manitoba Hotel had promised that “every move of the puck will be announced.” Several hundred people made the rotunda reverberate with cheers, and groans, as they followed the play in only slightly delayed real-time through frequent CPR bulletins that were written with the help of a hockey expert stationed beside the telegraph operator:         “Merritt has just stopped a hot one.       Grant has just had a run down the rink and made a shot on Winnipeg’s goal, which was well stopped by Merritt.       The play is very fast—and just 8 minutes more to play.       Merritt has stopped several hot ones.       Montrealers are keeping the puck at Winnipeg goal and raining shot after shot.       Winnipeg on the defensive. Montreal is playing the best game.       The Winnipegs are wakening up.       Another shot on Winnipeg goal was beautifully stopped by Merritt.”       In Montreal, the Victoria Rink was hosting the skating club’s first fancy dress carnival of the season and the Daily Star had set up the twelve-foot square Star Bulletin Booth in the centre of the ice. News of the game went up on eight large bulletin boards that rotated on pivots to allow one side to be visible to skaters while the other side was being updated. A brass gong sounded with each new telegram, which came so quickly that five Star employees struggled to keep up. Although Winnipeg’s reign as Cup champions lasted for less than a year, a team from outside Montreal had finally won the trophy and fulfilled Stanley’s desire to create a national honour. The matches in February and December served notice that westerners were just as good at, and just as passionate about, the game as anyone else. Enthusiasm for the sport was exploding, the rinks were packed and the press had made the Cup a big story. Stanley’s gift mattered now. Best of all, fans in two different cities, in two different provinces—and, indeed, anywhere else in the country where people were interested—were able to experience the same game at the same time because of the telegraph. More than an influential precursor to broadcasting, these play-by-play transmissions brought Canadians together through their shared love of hockey. * Having been one of the first people to hear about the Stanley Cup, Young would find it impossible to shake his desire to win it. He and the Ottawas came close a couple of times but failed. Seven years after attending the banquet that launched an obsession, Young moved to the Klondike, leaving his team and his hometown—but not his hunger for the Cup—behind. During his first couple of years in the sub-arctic, he offered occasional updates on life in Dawson for people Outside, as Yukoners called anywhere beyond the territory’s borders. In a summer 1900 letter, he covered local politics, a mild smallpox outbreak and the doings of several former Ottawa residents. He also made an announcement that must have seemed particularly outlandish given the Northern town hadn’t even existed five years earlier. “And now, by way of warning, let me break the news gently, a challenge from the Dawson Hockey club, for the possession of the Stanley Cup, is now being prepared,” Young wrote in the Citizen. “And let me further inform you ‘outsiders’ that if a team is sent you do not want to hold us too cheaply.” The son of Ottawa’s fire brigade chief, Young grew up in a fire hall. Older brother George had been an original member of the Ottawa Hockey Club and Weldy joined the team in 1889. Nicknamed Chalk, he had plenty of skill and speed. As early as 1893, he began scoring, or setting up goals, after making end-to-end rushes, among the first cover points to do so. [[{"fid":"6705006","view_mode":"media_original","fields":{"format":"media_original","field_file_image_alt_text[und][0][value]":false,"field_file_image_title_text[und][0][value]":false},"type":"media","field_deltas":{"3":{"format":"media_original","field_file_image_alt_text[und][0][value]":false,"field_file_image_title_text[und][0][value]":false}},"attributes":{"class":"media-element file-media-original","data-delta":"3"}}]] Although Young was respected as a referee because he had “a thorough knowledge of the game and a reputation for squareness,” he could be a terror as a player. He wasn’t particularly large—he was a wiry 165 pounds, about average for players of the day—but he was tough, loved to indulge in a physical game and could be hot-headed. Many opponents felt his stick across their ankles and he often found himself at the centre of brawls. During a late February 1898 game, in the days before nets, with the score tied 4-4, the umpire signaled a Quebec goal. Everyone else in Ottawa’s Rideau Rink was sure the shot had been well wide. An incensed Young skated up to the umpire and pointed to a path the puck had made along the slushy ice. That, he said, proved the puck hadn’t gone between the uprights. The umpire, who later claimed that Young had jabbed him with his stick, jumped at the player. Young responded by punching him, which brought a crowd of people, including two or three cops, onto the ice and led to a skirmish between players and fans. Since the police weren’t much help in calming everyone down, it fell to Ottawa’s captain Harvey Pulford, known as the Bytown Slugger, to break it up. Off the ice, Young was an affable and gregarious guy with many friends. One day in 1897, while on his way to a Montreal football match, he asked a boy on the street, “Hey, kid, want to see the game?”             “Sure do.”             “Come on, I’ll take you in,” Young told him. When he asked the lad if he liked hockey, the 13-year-old said yes, though he’d really only recently started playing. “Right. I’ll be here with the Ottawa team next winter,” said Young. “How’d you like to be the stick boy?” Serving as stick boy for Young and his teammates when they played in Montreal ignited Lester Patrick’s love of hockey. He went on to be a star rushing cover point on the Brandon team that lost a 1904 Cup challenge to an Ottawa team that included several players he’d fetched sticks for. By the end of his Hall-of-Fame career as a player, coach and general manager, Patrick had won the trophy six times. “It just goes to show what a thoughtful act will do for a boy,” he later said. “Maybe I’d have got into hockey some other way but that gesture by Young set me on my way.” * After moving to Dawson, Weldy Young played for the Civil Service team, which issued a Cup challenge in 1901. Winnipeg’s Vics were once again champs. The Ottawa Journal reported that while the trustees had asked about suitable dates, they never heard back, suggesting the Yukoners had decided against going that winter. But it’s also possible the trustees had discouraged the team; they often used scheduling problems to squelch unwanted challenges. Perhaps Ross, Sweetland and Winnipeg captain Dan Bain appeared accommodating in public out of courtesy but were privately reluctant to entertain a challenge from a team they considered inferior. The Vancouver Daily News printed what the trustees may have been thinking. Dismissing Young as too old, the paper added, “It will no doubt be an enjoyable trip, and the Dawson boys can loosen themselves of their nuggets, but no Dawson team can lift that cup unless all the Vics drop dead.” Three years later, the plan to send the Civil Service team had given way to the idea of assembling an all-star squad made up of the best players in town. By this point, Young’s former club, led by the sport’s original superstar, “One-Eyed” Frank McGee, had a stranglehold on the trophy. A letter to Ross and Sweetland went out on August 24, 1904: “The Klondyke Hockey Club of Dawson, Y. T., hereby challenge the Ottawa Hockey Club, of Ottawa, to a series of games for the Stanley Cup, emblematic of the hockey championship of Canada, said series of games to be played under and in accordance with the regulations governing the trophy in question.” To help the cause, Young wrote a long, less formal, letter to Ross. He laid it on thick about all the success Ottawa’s sports teams had experienced since he’d left. Cleverly dealing with any concerns Ross might have that Young was past his prime, he wrote that it was “particularly gratifying to see that five of the last winter’s unbeaten champions were teammates of my own as far back as ’98 and to me it exemplifies beyond doubt the truth of the old adage ‘The old dog for the hard roads, etc.,’ and holds out for me, I must admit, no little consolation.” Young was referring to an Irish proverb—“The old dog for the hard road and leave the pup on the path”—about the advantage of experience in the face of a difficult task. Young also sought to put Ross at ease about the other players. “Speaking of the team itself, I can assure you that they are as likely a bunch as ever happened,” he wrote. “True we are badly handicapped by so little competition but unless I miss my guess by a large majority I will produce at the right time as good a forward line as ever went a-hunting for a Stanley Cup.” The postscript dropped the name of Joe Boyle, who would represent the team in the east and had full authority to arrange dates. The swaggering Yukon mining promoter was a regular at the Russell House, where Ottawa’s powerful and connected, including Ross, hung out. By mid-October, the Winnipeg Tribune reported that Ottawa had agreed to a best-of three series with Dawson—giving Young another chance to finally win the Stanley Cup. * Late in the year, just a few days before the Winter Solstice, the Klondike enjoyed precious few hours of daylight and the Dawson townsite, at the bottom of the Yukon River valley, received no direct sun at all. So it was dark and cold—a frigid -23 Celsius—when three players left town on foot at 7 a.m. on December 18. They had planned to let a dog team pull their gear, but so little snow had fallen that wasn’t possible. They walked down the Overland Trail wearing moccasins and parkas and carrying their gear on their backs. Many residents cheered the trio off that Sunday morning and the Yukon World noted that the team was going east to “show some of the old time cracks how the noble game should be played.” Accepting the role of long shots simply wasn’t in the Yukoners’ nature. The next morning, four more players hopped on their bikes and rode out of town under clear skies with a north wind behind them. The cyclists hoped to make it to Whitehorse in a week. Setting out to, as they put it, “win fame and the Stanley Cup,” the hockeyists, as players were often called in those days, figured it would be a straightforward eighteen-day trip to Ottawa. Straightforward by Yukon standards, anyway. Eventually, each of the cyclists had to abandon his broken-down wheels and join the walkers. After travelling more than 500 kilometres in nine days, the team arrived in Whitehorse, tired but on schedule. The next morning a blizzard shut down the narrow-gauge White Pass and Yukon Route railway. When they finally reached Skagway, Alaska, they’d missed their steamer to Vancouver by two hours and had to wait three days to board a Seattle-bound ship that made many of the players severely seasick. Worse, Young wasn’t with them. Although he’d been named captain and had helped select the team, if he left with the others, he’d lose his civil service job. He’d have to finish handling the election returns first and then try to catch up.   [[{"fid":"6705011","view_mode":"media_original","fields":{"format":"media_original","field_file_image_alt_text[und][0][value]":false,"field_file_image_title_text[und][0][value]":false},"type":"media","field_deltas":{"4":{"format":"media_original","field_file_image_alt_text[und][0][value]":false,"field_file_image_title_text[und][0][value]":false}},"attributes":{"class":"media-element file-media-original","data-delta":"4"}}]] Even if their star player could make it in time, most hockey people in the east refused to consider Dawson City a serious contender. The team was from a small sub-arctic town and no squad from west of Brandon had yet challenged for—let alone won—the Cup (though none of the Dawson players was originally from anywhere west of Manitoba). The prevailing wisdom was that the game was at its best in Montreal, Ottawa and Winnipeg, while the play in the Ontario Hockey Association, which Ottawa had long ago quit, and the Maritimes was inferior. But there was more to this than hockey snobbery. Even during the Vics versus Vics matches of 1896, the newspapers played up the conflict between the “effete east” and “the Wild and Woolly West.” Hockey wasn’t the root of the country’s endless regional squabbles, but it didn’t escape the wrangling either.     The Ottawa team had insisted the Klondikers not play any exhibition matches en route. This wasn’t to ensure the challengers would arrive unprepared—it was to avoid any lopsided losses that might dampen ticket sales in Ottawa. Despite the cynicism, and the need for the Dawson hockeyists to assure reporters their challenge was no joke, the team’s journey generated a lot of enthusiasm. And there was more to it than an affection for hockey and underdogs. The Klondike Gold Rush was over, but Canadians continued to romanticize the Yukon and the long journey from “the mining centre of the golden North to the Capital of Canada” only added to the story’s charm. All along the route, people cheered the team. And it was no different in the home of the champions, where the Citizen reported, “The matches are creating the greatest interest of any Stanley Cup contests yet played in Ottawa.” At a quarter to five on January 11, 1905, three-and-a-half weeks after leaving Dawson City, the hockeyists stepped off the train and onto the platform of Central Station where a large and appreciative crowd gave them “a right hearty reception.” An executive from the Ottawa Hockey Club led the players away to the Russell House. Despite the cordial welcome, the hosts weren’t about to grant the visitors’ request for a one-week postponement before starting the series. Meanwhile, the challengers denied rumours they’d threatened to default the opening game and focus on the second and third ones rather than play unprepared. The first match would go ahead as scheduled, with Earl Grey, the new Governor-General, “facing the puck” at 8:30 p.m. on Friday the 13th. After nearly a month on the road, and with no time to practice, the exhausted and far-from-game-shape Klondikers, still waiting for Weldy Young, would take on the Stanley Cup champions before a sell-out crowd of 2,200 fans at Dey’s Arena in just over forty-eight hours.  * The Klondikers lost the first game 9-2. Joe Boyle followed an already well-established custom for losing teams and blamed the referee. Then, in the Bijou Hotel bar, Ottawa right winger Alf Smith overheard a Klondiker—Boyle, according to some accounts—trash “One-Eyed” Frank McGee, who’d scored only once: “Who the hell’s McGee? He doesn’t look like much.” Although this may not have been the first example of “bulletin-board material” in hockey, it remains one of the most regrettable. Dawson lost 23-2. “Ottawa simply skated away from them at the whistle,” reported Toronto’s Globe, “and continued to pile up the goals with a merciless monotonous regularity which was farcical in the extreme.” McGee scored fourteen times. The humiliating blowout didn’t mean the two teams were about to dispense with the tradition of celebrating together after the game, though. Eventually, the party became a little too boisterous and, according to legend, Harvey Pulford attempted to dropkick the Cup over the Rideau Canal. It landed on the frozen water and no one thought to recover it until the next day. Young’s teammates were in the Maritimes on a post-series barnstorming tour when he finally caught up with them. These games on the east coast as well as in the United States and Ontario were to fund the players’ return to Dawson City. While the Klondikers had proven no match for Ottawa, they did much better against other teams. They won thirteen games, lost nine and tied one before large and appreciative crowds. The eagerness of the Yukoners to make such an audacious journey, and the public’s response to the whole adventure, revealed just how deeply Canadians had fallen in love with the game. And how quickly. Stanley’s trophy had been a powerful endorsement and technology such as trains and the telegraph had helped spread the sport from Cape Breton to Dawson City, but it was the unlikely mix of grace and ferocity at high speed that really struck people. In the dozen years since the trustees first awarded the Stanley Cup, a niche, largely regional sport with a small fan base had captivated the country. Hockey was now the national pastime.
Dayspring

And the Word became flesh: coarse hair, crooked smile, the taste of salt on his clavicle. I am the disciple whom he loved.

    In the beginning was the Word. And the Word was with God, and the Word was God. All things were made by him and through him; and without him was not any thing made that was made. And the Word was life, and the life was the light of all. And the light is a light that shines in darkness, and the darkness comprehends it not. And the Word spiraled outward into a cosmos of orbits and counter-orbits, into a billion subjectivities and a trillion perspectives. From the Word came a multiverse of matter and energy interfluxing, a dazzling, bewildering, volatile orrery, a wondrous, widening gyre: a going forth, to multiply. And the Word became flesh: coarse hair, crooked smile, the taste of salt on his clavicle. I am the disciple whom he loved.   [[{"fid":"6705121","view_mode":"media_original","fields":{"format":"media_original","field_file_image_alt_text[und][0][value]":false,"field_file_image_title_text[und][0][value]":false},"type":"media","field_deltas":{"1":{"format":"media_original","field_file_image_alt_text[und][0][value]":false,"field_file_image_title_text[und][0][value]":false}},"attributes":{"class":"media-element file-media-original","data-delta":"1"}}]] When I remember what came before, I see a black sky, a flash, and then hear a sound like the roar of rushing waters. I lay sprawled in the tangle of rope thick and bristled in the stern of my father’s boat. The wood by now is dry, wherever its carcass is beached and whatever now scuttles there, but then it stank of its hundred hauls of ancient fish and its cedar hull that was busily sweating gum that matted the hair on my legs. All day and into night we had caught nothing. And so half-dozing, I stared at a costive sky while my brother, stripped to the waist in the heat (but still wearing his silly hat, all the lanker for the atmosphere’s dense press) minded the net. He whistled a song of my mother’s. I remember her singing it, but not now its words. I remember her singing it, but not quite her voice. I wasn’t there when my brother died. I am thankful for that. They sowed his bones in fields remote, to be seed against a harvest none of us will live to glean. Instead I remember that sticky day before everything, seeing from prone the desperate throb of light stagger in zig-zag, and hearing my brother laugh as the humid summer air at last cracked open and drenched us cold and clean. “Come and see!” and I saw: the whole sea’s skin rippling with the rain’s contusions, and beneath it a net swarming with silver life.   *   tell me a story after that? aren’t you tired? didn’t you, I mean I thought— no, I did. obviously. i touch his hand to the stickiness on his stomach, now growing cool and tacky in his hair oh right. ok. um, In the beginning there was the not that. a real one …ok. ok. so. the night I was born there…there were a lot of animals. it doesn’t matter why ok ok. so there were doves in rafters high, and sheep with curly horn, and um, a cow all white and red and a donkey shaggy and brown around a baby? where were you born in a very funny. so it was cold, because it was winter— wait i open my eyes and pull my head away from the fuzz of his chest when is your birthday? mid spring, when the shepherds are in the field. that’ll be important later. listen; nevermind. it was cold, because it was christmas he pushes my head back to his chest not altogether gently and starts to trace slow curlicues into the back of my hair so i was shivering my baby ass off. so my mom asked the animals to help what the fuck dude i whisper, softly, into the pleasant stink of his armpit listen—so the cow blew his breath all soft and warm her breath what? cows are girls oh. right. ok whatever. moooooooo. cattle lowing, all that good stuff. so I blessed the cow sure but the fucking donkey is all “eyy-onh, eyy-onh.” super cold whinnying. you know, like donkeys do. do donkeys do that? of course they do that. haven’t you met a donkey i mean, i guess. i mostly fished so I go up to the donkey— as a baby? so i go up to the donkey. and I say, “what’s your name?” but he just keeps going eyyy-onh, eyy-onh all cold. so I pull his ears wayyyyy up and say, “your name is DONKEY.” And that’s why donkeys have long ears. It might also be why mules are infertile; I might be confusing the details, and it might be funnier in Portuguese. i roll away from his side and out along the length of his arm, to bring my face to rest inside his open hand, and stare out into the darkness beyond our little light. let me get this straight. donkeys didn’t have long ears until you, as a baby, punished them for breathing on you too coldly? i mean… I am the Way the Truth and the Light. the infinite utterance which speaks all being into being and so am unbound by the laws of cause and effect, chronology and chemistry, space and time, so… why did all the donkeys have to be punished for that one donkey who was only doing what you made him to do? dude, that is kind of my whole deal is that a true story? of course it is. I am the Way, the Truth, and the— did that really happen oh. no. this bedtime story sucks. tell me a better one.   *   I remember the day he came to my brother and me, on the shore as we knelt untying my father’s skiff. Rosy-fingered Dawn was unstitching Night’s design, and then: there he was. In the flesh. Come with me, he said, reaching out a hand that in the years, short years, to come I would kiss until I knew its every callous and curve. Until the Romans broke it, as they break everything, and left it a mangled pulp for us to scrape from their torture post. Until the angels made it incorruptible and a beneficent sign for all to see. Until both left it perfect and golden and alien and unrecognizable to me. How can you follow anything, he said, if you are down upon your knees? Get up and walk. We have work down the road. What could I do but follow straight? We never saw the boat again.   *   One time he got really fucking furious at a fig tree. Just absolutely screamed at it for like forty-five minutes.   *   From silence speaks the light. In the beginning was the Word. The symptom of language then is reality; we speak these stories and these stories speak us over and over until I am not sure if we are anything but history indulging a bad habit. We are the atoms of history: dust that has gathered on sandals. And dust upon sandals, and dust upon the road—who knows the revolutions of dust? My mind is not what it was. Let me try again.   *   Incarnation means nothing more than in the meat, and it was the meat of him I loved—red and raw, the stinking sweating heft of him   *   A father commanded his two sons to work in the vineyard. “Yes father,” said one, but did not go. “No father,” said the other, but he went. Which of these, then, has done his father’s will? I thought, when he asked, that I knew. But I was young then. And now I am old, old as he never was nor ever will be, and I know now that love sometimes makes a promise it cannot keep, and sometimes no toil can fix the clockwork of a heart dropped from the mantle smearing glass across the floor. Sometimes you must say “yes” when you mean “no.” There is a kindness that he never learned in the lie.   *   ok a story once upon a time a nun on an important mission was crossing a river with her donkey laden with supplies. and the beast stumbled, and it sent all her goods, her clothes, her books, tumbling into the stream. and as she tried to recover her ruined things I appeared on a rock, and I said, “that, teresa”—because her name was teresa—“is how I treat all my friends.” “and that, lord,” she said, “is why you have so few of them.”   that story also is not very nice. and it’s kind of the same story as the donkey one yes they all are. the same story   *   He sits in a house cool and dark as the mob presses in. From my post amid the knit of the crowd outside I hear the scratch of his barked laugh tumbling over their bodies like a brook breaking over thirsty stone. A twinge of jealousy dances over my ribs for a second, and is gone. A street away there is a bustle. Men, square and strong, with a beauty that is familiar and a cruelty that is not, are moving through the press, entitled and rough. With them is a woman, older but not old, who watches the crowd part like she is afraid, but not for herself, and not quite of them. From her scarf falls a serpent-coil of hair and I suddenly understand why I know and do not know the features of the young men jostling on her behalf; and I know, not just from the lock of unmistakable tawny brown but from the precise nervous choreography of her sudden gesture to tuck it back behind her ear. I know, with an electric, genetic certainty: this is his mother. She stares at me as she waits outside, while what looks to be the oldest of these men barks into the house, barks with a bark so much like his, with a bravado I will get to know in later years is slightly shrill to mask this man’s nerves. James was my brother’s name, too. In reply from inside the house, I hear the burble of his voice, its words indistinct, and a laugh cascade lazily again through the crowd. He will not see her. In front of me their mother’s eyes are still staring, glassing now, and I feel the heat in my cheeks, the embarrassment he never seems to have the decency to feel, that has left me a raw nerve and forever seeping apologies in his wake. But today, for her, I have none. How could I. How could he. And I know: this is how he will leave me too. A swift, cruel blow that will shatter all my bulk. A surgical strike from above, hurling masonry through the streets like leaves of concrete. I will scream, desperate in the temple precincts, looking for a lost boy I had mistook for kind, who will laugh at my panic: didn’t I know he should be with his father? And the learned and the holy will praise his wit, and his insight, and the bravery with which he left us behind. He will skewer steel through the raw pulsing meat of my heart, to wild acclaim. I watch his brothers swear and push their way back out of the crowd, the sweat darkening their shirts. She glances once, hopefully, over their broad desultory backs shaped so much like his, and I realize I recognize their cruelty after all.     [[{"fid":"6705126","view_mode":"media_original","fields":{"format":"media_original","field_file_image_alt_text[und][0][value]":false,"field_file_image_title_text[und][0][value]":false},"type":"media","field_deltas":{"2":{"format":"media_original","field_file_image_alt_text[und][0][value]":false,"field_file_image_title_text[und][0][value]":false}},"attributes":{"class":"media-element file-media-original","data-delta":"2"}}]] From my house at Patmos I see a serpent blot out a third of the stars, belched hot from ruined Hell to gnaw at the root of a world suspended from a golden chain, and dragging behind him the debris of a universe of death. And as the light from our world hits his scaly skin I wonder how it feels against his scars. He and I both know what it is to outlive our allotted grace. He and I both know what it is to slither over cracking stone in a wilderness grown parched and seasonless. Our God has made monsters of us both. Our God has made us witness to his glory, and dared us to cry out while he ripped the thing we love apart before our eyes. And I watch the Great Serpent who is called Satan make planetfall and drop to crawl through the underbrush and hot dirt, with a brand of hot fire in his tail, side-winding through a world of kindling. And I go back inside. The death of God might have been endurable if he had not then plunged his corpse into the well and poisoned all the earth with wormwood. So let this dead sphere bury its own dead. Tear out the eye that makes you sin. Shake off the dust from off your sandals. Tear down the Temple; build a new one. He always hated nostalgia. It’s what I remember most fondly.   *   wake up please wake up The grass is cool and damp from the night air and the broad flat carpenter pads of his hand are smoothing my hair too roughly. I fell asleep. When did I fall asleep? His nose against my face is slick. A dog, pawing, whimpering. Even in the dark i can see his eyes are wild and wet and his brow soaked and chilled. Through the slit of my white sindon my baffled, dozy erection nudges, which he is cupping desperately and absently. I sleepily try to pull him down to me before I process something is wrong. listen nearby peter’s snores rumble the stone while my brother sleeps face-up, open-mouthed, gulping lazily like a dying trawl. His hand tightens gently and then I hear it: a troop of men, clanking and cursing, are coming up the garden path. what if we ran yes we could run. we would lose peter i would lose my brother but i have lost everything for him before lost mother and father and town the children and wife and dignity i will never have and i cannot care—just dust on the road behind us what would it profit a man to lose his soul just to save some petty world but suddenly there is light everywhere as torches catch the vicious crags of faces. There is a boot in my gut and i am hauled from the turf. “which of these faggots is it?” they throw the sniveling little crabapple traitor into the ash around our cold fire and he scrambles and sobs and clutches at his master’s cheek mewling his apologies and frantic slobbered kisses with a rage i did not know i had i throw him again to the ground and their arms are everywhere on me but the linen is loose their armor is heavy and on him they have not yet even laid a finger and suddenly peter is awake and roaring, brandishing a sword i did not know he had the sense to carry “we run,” i whisper to him while peter holds their attention, sliding from my sleeves, his forehead to mine. “if they kill us they kill us but we run now” in his eyes i see the light that lit the stars the dark that sat brooding upon the waters and i have loved you more than i have loved anything. you can’t forget. Never. Never. the whole of my life before and since I have broken every promise I ever made so that I might more perfectly serve that one. and so i bolt, wriggling from the white robe in the soldier’s hands, slipping from the net like a flash of living mercury. naked and shining under a scudding, lambent moon and laughing, to be so free (at least st ambrose believed it was me)   *   But when I turn breathless on the hilltop, he is not with me. Instead there he stands rooted, right where i left him, stalwart and righteous as a Goya by their torchlight. Still not a hand upon him. Not a man had followed. No one had cared. And i crumble, naked in the grass, and weep til morning light     [[{"fid":"6705131","view_mode":"media_original","fields":{"format":"media_original","field_file_image_alt_text[und][0][value]":false,"field_file_image_title_text[und][0][value]":false},"type":"media","field_deltas":{"3":{"format":"media_original","field_file_image_alt_text[und][0][value]":false,"field_file_image_title_text[und][0][value]":false}},"attributes":{"class":"media-element file-media-original","data-delta":"3"}}]]   when i wake again it is morning and the sun is hot. nearby from a tree hangs the traitor, the cord of his belt around his neck, his expression an ugly scarlet bloat. Upon his brow is a wound i might well have given him. Soon his blotching face will split like sweet rotting fruit and the birds of the tree are inquisitive but not yet brave enough to feast. i take his piss-stained clothes and stumble into town to watch the world end.   *   still i keep my testament and so i am supposed to write. supposed to claw into the rock of history some phrase that will last when I am dead and gone and though all the world cannot conjure the contours of my face it will remember the flinty brilliance that I sparked here in the dark alone and the rock of his majesty against which i struck that light but my heart is so broken. broken is not even right. it is a pulverized thing. a bruised uncabled tissue, its fibers relaxed and purpling with pooling, cooling curdling blood. fruit rotting to succulence when i sleep i remember days that never were. i dream a life i never saw and which i now see he never wanted did you not know i would be in my father’s house? he left, and i do not know what now becomes of me   we are supposed to endure. but the truth of history—the real fact of the record—is that some lives do not matter once they’ve passed out of them we live, but we live in the footnote how is it that they could kill him but i am what died   writing does not heal. the document does not make whole. poesis is not a therapy it is thrusting a filthy digit into the spot where the lance has pierced you and it says: look, here. ascend and transcend all you like; this is the wound that will not close. this is the precise spot you have been marred forever   *   i watch them drive a rivet through a foot that i kissed i know not how oft feet i cooled and washed with my own hair: the delicate, beautiful ball of his ankle, swooping to curve down into ridges dusted with errant tufts of hair, a faint sourness from leather and grit and the thoughtless joy with which he walked and ran and even once danced, scooping me up in his arms in a nighttime waltz in an upper room when all the world was asleep and there was no music but my jackhammering chest and i asked him in a child’s whisper to draw shut a window-curtain lest the neighbours see and which to my secret thrill he did not smashed and ruined and unmade   *   so why do you hate donkeys so much i don’t hate donkeys. he is playing with my fingers, dandling them in the space above our heads, as dust-motes plays in the light i love donkeys. they try, and they fail. donkeys are cute, and they do their best, and they end up hobbled, maimed, broken in a stream every day a stress test, til breakdown. to be a donkey is to know the truth: God always gives us more than we can handle. he presses my finger into the centre of his hand. ok. well, I like the nun. i thought you would.   good night.   and he kisses me on the forehead, and in his arms I dream of the smell of hay and the breath of beasts
‘I’m Not So Interested in Feelings People Go Through on Their Own’: An Interview with Sally Rooney

Talking to the author of Normal People about writing about mental health, whether books can critique the capitalist systems for which they’re turning a profit, and the perils of readings.

Sally Rooney's second novel, Normal People, is already one of the most talked-about of the year. The book centres on the relationship between Connell and Marianne. Two young people from separate social spheres, they start spending time together because Connell's mum cleans Marianne's family's house. Despite their differences—Connell is popular, athletic, working class; Marianne is ostracized, isolated, and from a wealthy family—they develop a secret relationship rooted in shared intellect and a staggering physical connection. As we follow them to university, the change of environment alters them both, but their connection remains, unconventional and constant.  Many adjectives have been draped on Rooney’s shoulders since she has become a phenomenally successful young novelist, so instead of adding to the list, I will say that the experience of sitting across from Rooney and talking about politics, literature, and music instills the same blend of familiarity and insight that I get from reading her books. There's a warmth to her and a sense that she is someone who is uniquely positioned to capture and reflect on the world she’s living in. Haley Cullingham: I wanted to start by talking about intimacy, because the way that you write about it is one of the things that I’ve most taken away from your work. Do you have some literary touchstones that have shaped the way you think about intimacy? Sally Rooney: Whenever people ask me about this, it’s the one question I’m terrible at answering on my feet. I feel like I really should carry around a little list of books, because I always regret when I walk away from the interview, "Oh, I didn’t say this one book that was really seminal for me." But the one that springs to mind I must say is James Salter’s novel A Sport and a Pastime. Do you know that book? It’s a really, really interesting book. And I’m not actually familiar with the rest of Salter’s work, I’ve read some of his short stories, and I’ve read this one book, and I’m sort of working my way through the rest of his work and his novels and stories, but A Sport and a Pastime is, I guess it’s an erotic novel. It’s set in France, it was published in the late 1960s, ’67 or ’68, and it’s a really, really intense exploration of intimacy between these two characters. Nothing really happens in the book other than the development of this really intense sexual relationship. And that book blew me away when I read it. And I think a couple of critics have spotted [it], purely because of the depth of the influence that book had on me I’m sure. But that book was something that made me feel like, "Oh, it’s possible to construct an entire novel about and propelled by sexual desire." Like to have that be the kind of momentum of the narrative. And there have definitely been other contemporary books as well. Intimacy is the one I keep returning to, and desire and intimacy. I think it fascinates me because it’s a feeling that by its nature involves another person. You can be sad on your own, or happy on your own, or angry or whatever, all on your own, but you can’t desire on your own. Your desire needs to have an object. So, the introduction of the object then creates a kind of tricky relationship between the desirer and the desired, whatever that relationship might be. Is it a relationship of dependence, is it a relationship of antipathy? So, it’s just the introduction of that other aspect that makes the feeling interesting for me as a novelist. I’m not so interested in feelings that people go through on their own. So, I think that maybe that’s why desire and love interest me so much.  I watched this video that you did for Louisiana Channel, and you spoke a lot about the idea of how we can’t be independent in a capitalist society. I was wondering if you could talk a bit about how that connects to intimacy for you, or if that makes it interesting to explore intimacy?   Yeah, I mean, that’s the thing, I’m aware that I might be to some extent just rationalizing my own impulses, because I’m not interested in writing about solitude, and I’m not interested in writing about characters who sort of navigate the world in an independent way. And then the way that I rationalize that is obviously by saying that I don’t really believe in those things conceptually. So, I don’t know which comes first necessarily, the philosophy or the instinct [laughs].  But I definitely do have a strong reaction against the predominant discourse of independence. For me, I came at that through a feminist angle, so my development of my political consciousness was really organized around gender, and I’m still trying, obviously, to organize my thoughts around gender now, and also to incorporate other frames of thinking. But the way that I started thinking about gender politics was organized around female independence, so the idea that women should be independent from men, but also from one another and from social structures, and that empowerment was about personal agency and decision-making. And I guess I just increasingly became critical of that attitude. I now feel like there is absolutely nothing independent about the way that we live our lives. What we have managed to accomplish is a sense of independence because we no longer have to see the people who are doing all the work that sustains our existences, because they’re very far away from us in many cases. Or because their work is concealed through other social structures. And so, I just feel like an almost repulsive reaction against the idea that we can be independent when actually we’re living off the labour of others and just pretending to ourselves that those people don’t exist because we don’t have to look them in the eyes. So, I want to be conscious of that, and then within that, I guess, to take that critique into our personal lives and to negotiate the idea of independence from others in that situation as well. So, the idea of moving independently through our personal lives kind of horrifies me and again, I know that that’s a personal instinct. That’s like me saying, "the idea doesn’t appeal to me," and then I can retroactively apply whatever ideological justification for it, but it’s just something that I don’t like the idea of. Of course, I’m not saying everyone should do monogamous pair-bonding for their lives and raise nuclear families, I don’t believe that. I do believe that in our personal lives, we end up, whether we like it or not, deeply entwined with other people. And so, I’m interested in how we negotiate those relationships, because they are a fact of how we organize our society, and because they’re fascinating for me. I’m not interested in pursuing the idea that we should have, or could have, independence from other people, either in our intimate lives or in a situation within a network of economic exchange.  You’ve described intimacy as a “loss of self,” and I found that phrasing interesting, because I think there’s an appealing element of that, but also a very devastating and terrifying element of that.   Yeeeeeah. [laughs]  Do you think that loss, good or bad, is something that is unique to being young?   No, I don’t think it is. I think the loss of self, it’s something that, really, the more I explore—I have no academic background in philosophy at all, or philosophy of religions—but the more that I put tendrils out into those areas and do a bit of superficial reading, the more I think the theme of loss of self or ego-death is an extremely common feature of most serious developed philosophies and theologies. It seems like most societies have evolved a concept of the loss of self, or the giving away of self, or selflessness. Certainly, very central in Christian thought, in Buddhist thought as well. So, I think there’s something to it. There’s a reason why we keep returning to this idea philosophically across societies and in different cultural circumstances. And I think one of the ways that we experience it most readily, now, in our current cultural setup, is through intimacy with others. That opens up the possibility that we are giving away our sense of self or putting our own best interests behind the best interests of another person. It’s not something that in an ambitious, capitalist society we do very often. We’re generally encouraged to follow our own best interests all the time. But I think when people have children, that’s one big example of when they tend to put somebody else’s interest before their own. And often I think mutually preoccupied lovers, also, would be more interested in what’s happening for the other person than for themselves. And so, I guess that fascinates me, because it runs counter to the logic of the market or whatever you want to say. But also because it’s something that’s, it seems to me, philosophically substantial. The idea of giving up your self. And obviously as a novelist being attentive to how painful and disorientating that is, as well as the potential for joy and for some kind of profound experience, but also how scary it is. And scary not only because it’s just intrinsically scary, but because it runs so counter to all our assumptions about how life should be lived now, that we should always be looking after ourselves and looking after our own needs and policing our own boundaries. That to do the radical opposite of that feels wrong. And I’m interested in that wrongness. So, yeah, being attentive to both possibilities. And I guess also trying to be fairly value-neutral in the way that I write as a novelist. Trying not to say whether the relationships that I depict are healthy or toxic or whatever. I’m not really interested in those value judgements. I think if I wanted to make those I wouldn’t be writing a novel. The novel, for me, is just about observing how they play out, and saying, "Well, I don’t know. This is how it happened." That fear of surrender felt, to me, like the great tragedy of the Connell-Marianne dynamic. As I was reading, I just wanted to be like, "It’s okay! Just be together, you’ll be fine!" Yeah! But they didn’t think they would be fine. And for Connell particularly. Marianne seems, I think, at various points in the novel, ready to give a lot. Connell was not ready to give very much. In the beginning of the book he was ready to give, like, almost nothing. [laughs] Or what felt to him like a lot within very confined boundaries. And by the end maybe he’s learning to give a little bit more of himself. And I think there are reasons why it’s more difficult for him than for her. And one of them may be gender. Like I think maybe men are socialized to fear loss of self more than women are, because women from such a young age are groomed for motherhood, and they’re sort of ready to think, "There will be a time in my life when I’m taking second, or third, or fourth place to the other people in my life." I don’t know that men are socialized to get ready for that in the same way. So maybe there’s a sense in which, because of their different gender roles…but I’m sure there are individual reasons as well. But definitely I think in that circumstance, Marianne was ready, was almost preternaturally ready, to give a whole lot of herself, and Connell was scared by that, and scared by accepting what she was ready to give him and scared by doing the same thing in return. I wanted to talk a little bit about your activism and the writing you’ve done—what role does that play in your life right now?  I mean, I don’t really think of myself as an activist. I’m certainly someone who has strong convictions. [laughs] And I talk about those very readily because I don’t see any reason not to do that, like, to be straightforward and honest about what I believe. I’m certainly not writing a novel then pretending, "Oh, I have no opinions." I have opinions, and I’m fairly ready to stand by them and defend them. And obviously to be challenged and to accept counterarguments and whatever, I think that’s all part of normal life. But I don’t really think of myself as an activist as such.  In my normal life, completely away from my work, I do normal stuff like going to rallies, that I always did, going to marches and stuff like that. And that hasn’t really changed except that I’m a lot busier now, and not so often at home. But other than that, it’s basically the same. But in terms of using my position as a quasi-public figure, bringing that into my activism or using that as a platform for activism, I haven’t really done that almost at all. I wrote a little bit about the abortion referendum, and I guess I did that because it was a situation where I felt, "Okay, I have a little bit to add on this. There’s something that I can maybe offer here, that I haven’t seen necessarily offered in the rest of the discourse." It’s a little grain of something, but it might be helpful to the general public conversation that we’re having. There are very few issues where I feel like I can help the public conversation. Like really few. A lot of times my opinions I’ve just taken from something I’ve read, and thought, "Wow, that’s so smart." [laughs] And then I’m like, instead of just rewriting that, why don’t I just tell people to read the original piece that gave me the good idea? So I guess I feel like there are people who have lived experiences that are more relevant, who are speaking from a position of more relevance, there are people who are just smarter and more sophisticated political thinkers than I am, who are more engaged in those forms of discourse, and so I don’t think I have a whole lot that I can do, beyond what I do as just an ordinary person, which is show up and do things like that. But that’s not to say that I’ll never…like with the case of the abortion referendum, there may arise specific circumstances in which I feel like, "I’m maybe someone who could be a little bit helpful on this one." But I think the circumstances in which I can be helpful are very limited. So, I try, when I can, to direct people to work that’s being done by other people and say, "This is amazing, you should read it or you should engage with it" or whatever it is. But I don’t feel like I’m necessarily a useful participant in a lot of those conversations.  In the Louisiana Channel video, you talk about the role of literature, and how its role in the economy might compromise its ability to speak truth to power. What role do you see literature playing in shaping political ideas and challenging ways of thinking, whether positively or negatively, and what is its potential? I’m very skeptical of its potential in that way. This has been a debate throughout the twentieth century—socialist writers and critics obviously argued about the extent to which aesthetic forms, like the novel or like plays, forms of writing other than polemic, can intervene helpfully in political discourse and how they should do that, and what is a socialist novel? And what is a socialist play? And you have writers like Brecht or whatever who manage to answer that case for themselves, but not necessarily provide an answer that works in general. I’m just deeply skeptical because of the ease with which the novel is accommodated by the system of profit-driven publishing. If the book is turning a profit for shareholders, then the book cannot meaningfully be critiquing the system by which that profit is turned. It can offer the critique, but clearly the critique is capable of being accommodated, because the very presence of the book in the market tells us that. So, is it important to keep offering the critique anyway? Maybe? I don’t intend to stop doing it, because it would just be dishonest to stop, because it’s what I believe. But I also want to be appropriately skeptical of the value of that. And not pat myself on the back for including a paragraph in the book where I suggest that that’s the system, that that’s going on, and that the book contains the critique. [laughs] Okay, it contains the critique, but it is also contained by the system, you know, so. I’m skeptical of it. But I also think that there have to be parts of life that are not…I don’t think anything is completely separate from politics, I think everything we do is captured by one system or another, we’re never totally free of it. But I also think there have to be parts of our lives that make it worth going on with the struggle. And obviously one big part of that is our intimate lives, and that’s what I write about. I think that our personal relationships with other people give us a reason to keep living. And I think for a lot of people, or let’s say for a small number of people, the novel is another reason to keep going, to keep feeling like the struggle is actually worth engaging in, like there’s something worth protecting about human civilization. And for some people that’s the novel. And for other people that’s like, sports or other forms of the arts. There are loads of other things that are of course part of these broad political systems but that bring us a joy or a pleasure that we can salvage that isn’t totally just transactional in its nature. And I think that the novel is one of those things, maybe. That’s obviously not to say it’s fenced off from political concerns, but that there’s maybe something in it that transcends the transaction of simply paying for a book and owning it as a commodity. I would hope so.  I also wanted to talk to you about literary communities, because there’s that wonderful scene in the book, where Connell attends a literary reading… And he’s like, "What is this?" [laughs] "What is happening?" [laughs] and the artifice and the privilege of it really comes through. I was wondering if you can talk a little bit about the harm that those communities might do, but also if you see any value in them? Well, I think, the thing about that scene is, Connell is really suffering from clinical depression at this point, he’s deeply depressed. And he goes to this reading, and as you say, he’s really alienated by what he sees there, it feels so artificial, it feels like the whole art form has been completely captured by the elitist institution, and that people are engaging in it merely as a way of performing their participation in an elite cultural activity. And that appalls Connell—he’s from a working class background, for one thing, so he feels shut out from it, but he also is just someone who’s critical of those kinds of activities, and so it just doesn’t appeal to him. But the writer he meets is actually kind of nice to him! And, again, I wasn’t trying to give a parable there, but I just thought, that rang true to me. That he went along, he thought the reading was kinda bad, the way the reading was structured was borderline tasteless, and he felt very alienated, but the person who wrote the book did so in a sincere way and actually seemed to be a thinking, feeling person, and like, cared. And wasn’t cynical. And Connell left feeling like, "Okay, yeah, I don’t know." Because the way that he felt about the reading was still true, it was an elitist cultural activity, but on the other hand, people who write books, a lot of the time if not all of the time, are sincerely trying to do something good. They’re sincerely trying to find something true or insightful about the human condition or the conditions of our cultural world. And that’s a meaningful thing to do. And they’re sincerely striving to do something meaningful, and obviously they don’t always accomplish it, sometimes they write a book that’s not that great, and the reading’s bad. But the person behind it is sincere, and the cultural activity is meaningful, and we’re all striving in the same direction. So, I think Connell came away from that confused, that there’s a great extent to which artistic endeavor has been captured by commodification and elitist academia, but there’s also some extent to which it’s still worth engaging with because it brings us joy and because artistic effort is still sincere, and it’s worth going on with. It was obviously coloured by the frame of mind that he was in at the time.  But my experience of literary communities, and this is speaking from a position of enormous privilege because I’ve been really lucky, lucky, lucky all the way through, with my first book and my second book, everything has gone kind of right for me, so speaking from that position, which is a very rarefied one, my experience has been that like, other writers have been enormously welcoming and supportive, and I think there’s a strong sense, the way that I’ve experienced it, and again, not to speak for other people, but that we’re all kind of in it together and that the industry feels very random, and you never know what’s going to happen, which book will be successful and which won’t, but that as writers, we’re all doing the same job, and trying to grapple with the same questions, sometimes feeling like we did okay, sometimes feeling like, no, that didn’t really work, but it was an experiment, whatever. And so I think there’s a value to literary and artistic communities, but we should strive not to be captured by the kinds of commodification that Connell is seeing in that scene. Are there any efforts happening right now to dismantle that literary gatekeeping or overcome it, or counter it, that you see that you’re finding inspiring? I’m a very solitary person by nature, and I don’t go out much [laughs] or attend things, unless I have to, and so I feel like, you know, I keep forgetting that I’m now in a position of privilege, and that I have this platform, and that there are actually things I could actively be doing to try and improve literary communities, and to try to open them up. And instead I’m just sitting at home writing my next book, because that’s just what I’m like by disposition. But maybe I need to challenge myself and actually try to do stuff.  I have spent the last year editing a literary magazine in Dublin called The Stinging Fly. And so, we have an open submissions policy, and a big priority for us is publishing work by writers who’ve never been published before, so in that sense I feel very dedicated to openness, and to drawing people into the community, rather than to look after the community as it already exists, kind of thing. One of the previous editors of that magazine, Thomas Morris, the Welsh writer who was living in Ireland, he befriended me when I was in my teens, and encouraged me to keep writing, and introduced me to other aspiring writer friends, and in that totally ramshackle way, we developed a writers' circle and we still all share work with one another. And so, he’s someone that I look to as a really good example of how to build a literary community. To go about it in a completely open, slightly arbitrary kind of way based on wanting to support people who feel left out, and don’t know other writers, and who feel completely at a loss as to how to involve themselves in this community. I had no idea what the publishing industry even was. How it worked, or where it was, it’s in London, I didn’t know that. [laughs] So all of those things, I had no idea. I grew up in the west of Ireland, my dad fixed phone lines for a living. And my mum, in fairness, worked in the arts, she worked in the local art centre, not in publishing at all. So, I wasn’t someone who could just, like, stride into that world. Of course, I had privileges, I had a college education, I did, but it wasn’t easy for me to navigate that world. And so I really did rely on the kindness of other people, who had read maybe like a couple pages of my work and thought, "Oh, come along to this, I’ll introduce you to some of my friends." And I think maybe there’s an aspect in which Dublin is small enough, and Irish social culture is kind of informal enough that it’s easier to do that there. My experience was, when I was writing Conversations with Friends, if you show up to a book launch in Dublin, the writer who wrote the book is right there, you can just talk to them. It’s small, and everyone, in my instance, again, I won’t speak for other people, was very friendly, and open, so it’s easier to feel in touch with the literary community. I think in cities where there is a publishing industry in which there are lots of people employed and working professionally it may be harder to wander into a book launch and meet the person who wrote the book. So I think, in a way, in Dublin, not that I’m saying we don’t have a long way to go in terms of breaking down barriers, because we do—there are lots of issues left to address in terms of accessibility of the arts in Ireland, loads—but just speaking from my personal path to that, I think there are some ways in which it’s fairly open and welcoming, and we need to work on making it more like that. I’ve seen you talk about a funding model for the arts in Ireland that you think is working well. What's the situation, and what's the benefit to literary magazines?  Well, I should stress, the arts need more funding in Ireland. I was not praising the current government’s funding structure. What I was saying, I think, is that I do think there’s a focus in Ireland on magazines and journals that publish previously unpublished writers alongside writers who have been published before, and get that work out there, and I think those journals and magazines are read in London. I know nothing about American and Canadian publishing, so I can’t comment, but I think in London and in the UK it’s difficult for first-time writers, unless they’ve been through specific MFA programs or whatever, to just submit work to say Granta and get it published off the bat. I think that’s really hard. Whereas in Ireland, of course it’s competitive, and it’s difficult to get published in these magazines, but we will read your work and give it a fair shout. And, speaking from having been an editor there for a year, I really don’t care whose name is attached to it. If it’s good, it’s getting published. Or if it’s good enough, we can’t obviously publish everything that’s good.  There’s a sense in which, I feel like the way the arts community has organized itself, specifically in the literary world, that’s seen as a priority: finding new writers who’ve never been published before, supporting their work, giving them editorial attention, drawing them in and publishing that work and getting it read. So that’s a big priority, and I think that’s something that has really helped a generation of writers, like me, definitely, and also other writers who’ve emerged as a sort of new wave of Irish writing. A lot of them were published in The Stinging Fly, or other similar magazines like The Moth, Tangerine in Belfast is another great magazine. So, I think the fact that that is a priority is good. Also, that there are specific grants available to writers who have had maybe like one or two pieces published but have not published books. You can apply to the arts council and just get a little chunk of money, and it’s not a huge amount, but it’s enough to maybe look after rent for a little bit while you just focus on your writing. I got one of those, and that was huge for me. I was still working on Conversations with Friends, I’d published maybe an essay and a story, like, not a whole lot. But they gave me some money and I could do a bit more writing and it meant a lot at that time. So, I do think we need more of that. I’m not saying we have an adequate amount, of course we’re never going to feel we have an adequate amount, we definitely need more [laughs], but it’s important I think that that’s what the model looks like. That it’s not necessarily about funding the artists who are already successful, who represent Ireland abroad. I think it’s much more important to focus on people who have never been published before, who have no idea how to get published, and to make sure that they know that these things exist, that they can apply for these grants, that these magazines are here, and that we’re open, we take submissions. It’s about focusing on that side of things, and I think that’s what Ireland has been relatively good at so far. Normal People takes place during the Downturn Period. Do you feel that there was an impact of that period on Irish art and culture?   Huge. Yeah, I do. I think it was huge. People talk about this new wave in Irish writing, and it’s funny because it’s difficult, for me anyway, to point to a fallow period in Irish writing, because it seems to me like there’ve always been really interesting books coming out of Ireland. And you have writers like Anne Enright, Colm Tóibín, Sebastian Barry, they’re obviously still publishing now, they were publishing before, are they part of the new wave? Maybe not necessarily, but they’re among our obviously greatest writers and they’re still publishing great work all the time. So, for me I think what the new wave refers to is writing that emerged during the period you’re talking about. And that’s what differentiates it from what came before, that it’s writing almost specifically in response to the particular economic conditions that emerged after 2008. And I would date it back to, there’s a collection of short stories by the writer Kevin Barry, called There Are Little Kingdoms, that came out I think it was 2010 maybe? It was published by The Stinging Fly Press actually, and that book felt very different from what had preceeded it in Irish writing, and it was, I think it’s not controversial to say, hugely influential on the writers that then emerged afterwards, writers like Lisa McInerney, like Colin Barrett, and then in turn obviously those writers were influencing me, and the other writers who were emerging then, so I do think that that 2008, 2010, 2011, those years were seeing a big shift in how Irish society was organized, that’s an objective fact, and then, also in the cultural responses that were emerging.  Are there any books forthcoming from Stinging Fly Press or any stories coming out in the magazine that you’re especially excited about?  The current issue is being guest edited by Danny Denton, the writer from Cork, so I’m excited to read everything, because I’m here and he’s there doing the hard work. So, I’m really excited to read everything that is in there, but I haven’t read any of it yet. And then, there’s a writer called Nicole Flattery, who’s just published a collection of stories with Stinging Fly Press, and also with I think Bloomsbury in the UK, called Show Them A Good Time. It’s an unbelievably good collection of stories. Nicole is a really astonishingly gifted writer. I love reading everything that she writes. She just writes the best sentences out there, I just think her sentences are unbelievably good. So, I’m really excited about her book. It came out, maybe I think, February? End of February? So that’s the Stinging Fly book I’m most excited about. I wanted to talk about mental health a little bit. I love the way you write about mental health, from the smaller moments, like in Conversations with Friends, where alcoholism is kind of on the edges of it, and then in Normal People obviously, in my reading, I felt mental health was very, very present. Is that a starting point for a character, or is it something that emerges as you write? I think it emerges in the character. I suppose when I first met these characters, I felt like, they were already fully formed and it was my job to find out what was going on with them. Of course, that’s not actually true, and sometimes I have to remind myself, "You made it up! They did not arrive fully formed. You made it all up!" But I can’t accept that. So, for me, it was like, I met, in Connell’s case, this young man, or teenage boy, and I really think now, looking back, when we meet him, he’s already deeply wracked by social anxiety. He doesn’t have that name for it, necessarily, but he feels so uncomfortable in his own self with regards to what’s perceived as normal. And when he manages to come close to that, he’s feeling okay, and feeling comfortable, like he knows how to navigate his life, and when he feels himself pulling away from what’s normal, he gets very unhappy and sick and upset and not feeling good. And he doesn’t necessarily have the vocabulary to think about that, because who does when they’re 18? And then, as he goes through university and feels further and further away from the social world, just feeling deeply alienated from what he sees around him, he sinks in to this terrible depressive episode, I can’t remember what year of college he’s in, third year I think. And that just felt to me like it was the inevitable result of the factors that I’d introduced, I had this character, I knew how he felt in his school life, I knew how he managed to navigate a very fixed and stable social world, and then I wrenched him out of that, and put him in a very unfixed, very mobile social world, where all the pieces seemed to be moving very quickly. And it just felt like the only way that he could respond to that, particularly when Marianne is gone, ‘cause she’s like his one, even though their relationship is in some ways very unstable, she for him is like a stable presence, and then he goes through this bereavement because of the suicide of his friend from school, who he’s completely fallen away from, drifted away from. It felt like the only way that I could work through that remaining true to who I thought Connell was, was to have him respond in that way. And I mean it was never like I sat down and thought, “I should address the topic of depression,” but I felt like I had to stay true to the character that I had, and I was interested ultimately in following him into that exchange that he has with the counsellor. And again, doing what I described, which is remaining fairly value neutral. Like I wasn’t trying to say counselling is good or bad, that’s not something that interests me in the context of a novel. It’s not a judgement that I feel interested in making. It’s like, here’s what he would have done. Here’s what he did. Here’s how it played out. Was it a good or bad experience? I don’t feel like that’s for me to say. But I wanted to be attentive to the detail, and the strangeness of it for him. It’s something that he probably would not have pursued at an earlier point in his life, no matter how bad he felt. It’s something that became open to him because of the specific situation that he was in, and the fact that it’s free for college students in that specific circumstance. I was interested in how I thought that would play out for him. One of my friends, actually, asked me to ask you this: she was curious about what you were reading and listening to as you were writing, because she listened to the Connell and Marianne playlists that you made. Was that purely a character exercise or was that actually what you were listening to? [Laughs] Oh man, I was listening to those! Yeah, yeah. I spent more time making those than I did writing the novel, they were so intricate, and honestly if you listen to them in chronological order, a lot of the plot is in there. [laughs] Go back! ‘Cause they’re good playlists. I flatter myself but they are good. So, I was listening to that, yeah. What else was I listening to? I’m trying to think now. I wrote Conversations and this book kind of close together, so there’s probably some overlap in terms of what I was listening to. I think I was listening to St. Vincent, I’m not sure when that album came out though. And, oh, you remember that Sufjan Stevens album, Carrie & Lowell? Again, I can’t remember when that came out but I think I was listening to that writing this. And then what was I reading? Not a lot. When I was in the process of actually writing, particularly writing early drafts, working really intensely, writing thousands of words a day, I wasn’t reading a lot. And I find that I really have to use my breaks from writing to read as much as I can, try and read like a book or two a week or whatever, because when I get back into it then, I can’t read. I feel like such a fraud for not being able to read when I’m writing, I feel really bad, because it’s like, am I saying I like my own work more than other books? [laughs] That’s so terrible! But I don’t think that’s what it is, I think it’s just I have to shut off that part of my brain. Maybe it’s just that I love reading so much that it just takes up too much of my mental space and I feel too engaged by it. I would like to think that. And so, I need to kind of distance myself from it in order to get the intense work that I need to do done. So yeah, I was certainly reading a lot in the breaks, while I was writing I wasn’t reading much. What are you reading on this trip? I just finished Emmanuel Carrère's book The Kingdom. Oh my god, it’s amazing. Okay, this book blew me away. He’s this French writer, and he has written this book which is partly a memoir of his own fairly short-lived conversion to Christianity, he’s writing it from the perspective of having then lost his faith but still being very engaged in the philosophical underpinnings of the Catholic faith in specific but Christianity generally, and part of the book is like a retelling of the gospel of Luke from the historical perspective of the Luke character, so it’s like, so fascinating. There’s so much history in it, there’s so much theology in it, and then it’s also this very personal look back on a period in his life that he now struggles to understand, like he really believed in the supernatural elements of the faith and now just doesn’t at all. So, it’s a really, really, really fascinating book, and it has reawakened my, in fairness, kind of lifelong interest in the gospels. I’m really fascinated by the character of Jesus, and whenever I go back and read those gospels I’m just compelled by him all over again. I just find him so interesting! So, I’m going back now and reading over the gospels again as well, so that has been my big reading interest while I’ve been on this trip.
I Could Live Without Speaking

A Self-Portrait, Experiment, and Homage.

‘I Read Books As If They Are Places’: An Interview with Helen Oyeyemi

The author of Gingerbread on K-Dramas, travelling, and coded stories. 

Helen Oyeyemi’s work always holds an element of discovery. She describes books as places she visits, and her writing invites readers to do the same. Whether that place is a locked garden, an ancestral home (or several), or an imagined country, the reader is left with the feeling that they’re being guided through by a hand they can’t see, persistently tugging them left or right or sideways. There are many places it feels like Oyeyemi’s latest novel, Gingerbread (Hamish Hamilton), could take you, if you were so inclined. Some of those places are physical: the characters in the book cross borders in trunks, live in houses where the rooms occasionally move or the stairs keep out all but the most determined visitors, and sleep in beds watched over by flowering dolls. But the spaces are also internal: There’s the space created by the suspension of reality that comes with a dramatic health incident and the subsequent, if you’re lucky, healing. Or the cavern carved when someone we love disappoints us entirely and we probably should have seen it coming. Or the space between childhood and adulthood, where we begin to understand the bargains we strike to afford growing up. In each of these places, our reality skews just a little. Gingerbread’s narrative suspends us in Harriet’s tale of her childhood and adolescence while her daughter Perdita recovers from a hospitalization. The reader is allowed into this sojourn from reality, and then, when Perdita is again well, the world tumbles back like Harriet’s signature gingerbread to the floor. First, a few crumbs, and then the whole damn box: family, friends (who Harriet’s not sure about yet—she’s waiting for a sign), meetings and exams and essays and candles that won’t stay lit and houses that might not let you enter. The world keeps going when you remove yourself from it, but like Harriet’s oft-disappearing oldest friend Gretel, your absence is noted.   Haley Cullingham: I wanted to start by talking about place, because I find the way that you write about place so fascinating and, especially in this book, it was such a dominant theme to me. I know you’ve lived in a bunch of different cities, and you travel a fair bit, too. If you’re going somewhere, do you read stories of the place? Helen Oyeyemi: No. I was so interested that you even said that place came through strongly, because I don’t think about place too much. Place is very abstract. So, I guess my approach to place is, I read books as if they are places. It’s more like going into a book. And so, there isn’t that geographic sense, it’s more abstract and interior. There are details that you can pick out and leave the rest quite vague in certain ways. Which I guess is how I travel, just looking at the things that I’m interested in and the rest is sort of a blur. What are some of the places that have left the strongest impression on you? I love Seoul, I try to be there every year, and not just for a few days but weeks. Budapest, I was there for a year and I still think about it a lot. I think about the two cities, and the bridges that connect them, and also the walls that have cannonball marks on them and just the way that the city wears everything that’s happened to it, similar to how you see a shroud and an evening gown, there’s this strange mix of pride in having survived so many things and also this great sadness and melancholy. Where else? Istanbul. I’ve only been there once but I think about that trip a lot.  Do you think you’ll go back?   I think I liked Istanbul so much that I’m worried if I go back it would be disappointing in some way. I say that with most cities, going back, but I’ve started to really love returning. Maybe that’s the thing with Seoul, there’s just more and more city. Or maybe it’s just the way that cities turn over and change so quickly. There’s always something more to see or find out.  When you go back to Seoul, do you revisit a lot, or do you tend to explore new things? I find new corners. With Seoul, there haven’t been places that I feel I need to go back to, but I have been back to Jeju Island, which kind of makes a bit of a cameo toward the end of Gingerbread, but it was two completely different experiences. The first time I went on my own, and I was completely overwhelmed and absorbed in the best way by how lush Jeju is. It was a tumbling into the sea of impressions. And the second time, I went with a friend. We rode this bike, it was so scary. It was a two-person kind of a bike, kind of a wagon, and my friend was like, “I can do this, I can get us around,” but we were on these coastal paths and I just pictured, like, we were going to fall directly into the water. So, it was precarious and fun and different. [laughs] Were you both pedaling? I was just the passenger. I was just wearing this helmet and screaming, which I think she didn’t appreciate. So, the second time was more rambunctious. When you start thinking about a book, does it start with a character, does it start with a story, does it just start with a feeling of wanting to go somewhere? How does that begin for you? It’s been different with every book. So, with Boy, Snow, Bird, I was doing the wicked stepmother story, but I was also doing ‘50s America, and so I had to place myself within that, which was actually a delight because I love the films of that era—Hollywood from the ‘30s to the ‘50s is entirely my space. So, it was kind of fun to write in that register and to think in that register. And then for What Is Not Yours Is Not Yours I just had keys, and then I wrote stories about the keys. With Gingerbread, it was much more abstract, because I had this substance that I wanted to interrogate, and place at the centre of a story without making the meaning of it too clear, because that would be boring. I wanted to allude to various things and suggest various things around this concept of gingerbread, and so it was a lot more slippery to write, and also it felt like more of an adventure, which came from not knowing what sort of book it was going to be. I was wondering if, the way you’ve talked about the keys, if the gingerbread was a similar feeling. I thought it was going to be but the keys, it was straightforward. Nine keys, nine stories. Gingerbread was… [laughs] Touching on the food stuff, for you, is there kinship between cooking and creating a story? Are those things that feel connected? Yes, and the same with consuming the cooking and reading, so I suppose it was all quite densely layered in there. Since I’ve been going around with Gingerbread, hearing people talk about it, and reading the things people write about it, of all of my books, I think this is the one I most want to say: there are lots of things in here. There are lots of ingredients. I’ve become slightly worried when one element is pulled out, and it’s said that the book is about one thing. It’s about all of the things—I’m not saying it’s not about that, but there are so many other things that it is equally about. So many that, in fact, you can’t mention them, which makes it very difficult for anyone who hasn’t read it who’s trying to decide whether to read it. One of the moments when that struck me the most is that little part where you’re talking about Simon, and the way that he would emotionally manipulate his way into getting more gingerbread. To me at least, I was like, this is such a perfect and wonderfully succinct description of addiction. But the books are always so layered that you just have this moment where it’s perfectly clear, and then it’s like, new thing. Yeah, so gingerbread is a way to talk about many things, and then, like, if someone says [gasps] you just say, “Oh, it’s just about gingerbread, I’m only talking about gingerbread.” In some way I feel like it’s a female way of telling stories, I feel like feminine stories have always been quite coded in that way, just in case anyone tries to, like, burn me at the stake or something, you can be like, “No, I was just talking about gingerbread.”  It’s just a recipe, it’s fine. Yeah. So, the codedness, I’m in two minds about the way that it persists into the 21st century. But I don’t think I did it because I was afraid. I think it’s converted into being more on the fun side. Can you talk a bit more about what you mean when you say you’re not sure how you feel about how it persists in the 21st century? Yeah, I mean, a way of writing or speaking elusively that, in some ways it’s about fear of being punished for what you have to say or what you think, that persisting, it makes me sad, and it’s maybe part of the reason why I don’t tweet or do things like that, just because I kind of see people having an opinion, and everyone being like [mimes a pile on]. It’s sad that it may still be necessary to use it for those original purposes, but I don’t think that that was what I was doing with Gingerbread. [laughs]  The book made me think a lot about how there’s always that close connection between things we wield as nourishment, and things we wield as weaponry. Was that something you were thinking about?   I don’t know if I can put it properly into words, but the power that you have over someone by feeding them, or not feeding them, as the case may be. But along with getting to eat and offering something to eat, I was also thinking about children earning their keep and not necessarily eating for free, because they have a role that they have to play, and I guess that line of thought turned into the strange interlude with the Gingerbread Girls and having to perform being children for money. It was the ways in which food can become currency. I give you food, you give me affection, and other forms of that same transaction. I was reading a Bookforum interview you did in 2016, and one of the things you talked about was the idea of being drawn to things that have a certain “faith in storytelling.” And you also used the description of something having “an engine of meaning.” I was wondering if there were any recent stories, whether they’re films or books, that fulfill that for you. One of my favourite films ever is Celine and Julie Go Boating. It has so much imaginative force that it becomes sort of madcap and misshapen around the edges, and the two characters start forgetting when they first met each other, and it’s as if they have always in fact known each other, since before before the story. A snake eating its own tail. But also, there’s this, not exactly a subplot, but counter-plot, where they themselves enter another story and try to hijack the meaning of that story. It’s that engagement that I recognize as a reader or a film watcher where you participate in a story but you’re not subject to its rules. Like being under a spell, but also casting one yourself at the same time, spell and counterspell. So, anything like that that just becomes very magic and reckless and starts pushing the frames of its own existence out further and further. Are there any stories that have been created recently that are starting to take on the significance that fairytales have had? That are starting to bleed into consciousness in that same way?   It might be more of a visual thing, even a televisual thing, than a written words thing. Maybe my obsession with Korean drama is part of this, because there’s a certain tone that they take, which I also recognize from the golden age of Hollywood, especially the screwball comedies and the film noir. I think those, fairytales and K-Drama have something in common. They’re stories that don’t really need you to believe them, they’re just saying. But the things that they’re just saying are resonant on all kinds of levels, like, you laugh, and you sort of wince, and you cry, you just have these responses to what seems like an elaborate, or a vocabulary of, it almost seems like psychology archetypes that they’ve arranged for you and circulated so that you see them in a completely new way. Do you miss some characters from the book more than others?   I miss Perdita. She’s in the story, but she’s like, “Oh well.” I feel like a lot of people become aware that they’re in stories and they’re like, “No, I want out of the story!” or they try to figure out how to game the story so that they can be the main character of the story. You’ve spoken before about how the Czech version of “Once upon a time” is “There was and there wasn’t.” That, to me, feels like a perfect way to talk about Druhástrana. This may be negated by what you said above about the influence of place, but I was wondering if Prague, where you currently live, had crept in in that way. I think it has, yeah. I have not tried to keep it out. Like you said, I will say that I’m someone who’s indifferent to place so I’m quite interested in the fact that there’s bits of Czech in there, and I don’t know what’s going to happen with future books. We’ll see. And there’s Druhástrana, which means “other side” but can also mean “other page” in Czech. And so of course, if you had this country that only Czechs know about, it would make sense for it to have a bookish aspect. Druhástrana as an unknown quantity, it’s a little bit like Czechia. I didn’t know anything about it before I moved there. Prague, it’s just so glorious and strange and wonderful, like, “you’ve been here all my life?” It was very strange. It felt hidden, like I said a magic word and there was Prague. Did you go there knowing you were going to move there? No, I went for a few days and hated it. It was not a good time to go. It was peak tourist season, the weather was terrible, the food was terrible. But I was with a friend that I love very much, and we would have phone conversations being like, “remember when we went to Prague and it was terrible?” And then a year later I just moved and it was completely different. Or I was completely different. You’ve talked a bit about watching K-Dramas while you were writing. Was there anything else that you were listening to, or reading while you were working on this that stands out? There was a lot of the Bill Evans Trio, a little bit of Coltrane as well. And then there was some K-Pop, there was some rap, there’s one song by Big Sean, which I can probably rap off by heart, but I won’t. In the book, Perdita’s grandmother, Margot, talks about houses that look sensible until you get inside, which made me think of your novel White is for Witching as well. I was wondering why you’re drawn to those spaces?  I don’t know that I’m drawn to them. I mean, part of the house thing was maybe a little bit of a joke, because everyone’s always saying to me, “You’re so interested in houses.” And I’m like, “Am I?” “Haunted houses especially!” and I’m like, “Am I?” [laughs] and so it was kind of fun to have these haunted houses that weren’t haunted.  Do you have a favourite haunted house story? No. Oh wait, can I go back in time? Obviously The Haunting of Hill House! The thing about The Haunting of Hill House is that because the house is positioned as sentient, you forget that it’s a haunted house story, so that’s why it slipped my mind. When you’re writing about the gingerbread recipe in the book, you write about the difference between “choking down risk and swallowing it gladly,” and I just thought that was such a lovely way to describe it. I was wondering what inspired that idea? Honestly, I just ate a lot of gingerbread. I just would eat it, and then write down what I thought whilst eating it. And so, it was just something that came to me. Because I guess I was like, what if this gingerbread was poisonous? Would I continue eating it? Probably.
There’s Gotta Be Something Better Than This

Bob Fosse’s current revival makes sense, but the wave of appreciation will also be a reckoning: moral immunity has been rescinded for geniuses.

In 1974, Bob Fosse—the director-choreographer best known then for his smash Broadway musicals and his film Cabaret—set out to adapt a literary novel, Ending by Hilma Wolitzer, about a man dying quietly from cancer. Fosse’s style was associated with sequins and pelvic thrusts, deliberate excess that pleased immediately, while speaking to like-minded cynics through its undertones. By contrast, this project would be somber and austere: a drama about existential confrontation. Fosse went to great lengths to avoid that confrontation; susceptible to depression the moment he slowed down, he lived to die on his feet. He took amphetamines in the morning and afternoon; smoked more than five packs of Camels a day; slept around recklessly, sabotaging his most loving relationships; and took on more work than his system could handle. At the time, he was already editing a biopic about Lenny Bruce, and staging a musical, Chicago, to star his estranged wife, Gwen Verdon. Before Ending could get underway, he was hospitalized with severe chest pains and told he was about to have a heart attack.  When he emerged from the hospital a month later—after bypass surgery followed by another heart attack—the project took on a different significance. “The closer we got to shooting the more depressed I became,” he told the New York Times. “I thought, there must be some way of making death lighter, more interesting, and sharing it in terms I could handle. I didn’t know if I could live with that kind of pain for a year and a half.” He realized that his death movie would have to be a musical, and that the material had to be his own.  Fosse, along with Robert Alan Aurthur, whom he’d hired to write the script, began interviewing friends, family and colleagues, people who’d been around during Fosse’s health crisis. Partly for research, and partly because the project would fail if it didn’t include their perspective; he couldn’t redeem his character without their sympathy. Fosse had put his loved ones through a lot, particularly the women, and he wanted the film to be “honest”—at least in terms he could handle. Interviewees were instructed to be unsparing, although most knew him well enough to guess what he could stand to hear. “You list your crimes at the slightest provocation,” said his friend Herb Gardner, quoted by Martin Gottfried in his 1990 Fosse biography. “I think you do it to absolve yourself. You go on record with your sins. It’s the final play, the biggest con of all.” * One of Fosse’s greatest gifts was drawing the universal out of his own negativity: Cabaret, for instance, a show-business love story set against the rise of the Nazis, worked because it used every sensorial resource to establish a mood of dread and inevitability at the corners of pleasure. This mood was Fosse’s default, and he could extrapolate from it. His work was always personal, but All That Jazz was the first piece to make that self-involvement explicit. The film tells the story of Joe Gideon (Roy Scheider), a womanizing director-choreographer who is staging a musical starring his estranged wife as he edits a film about a standup comedian. He takes uppers every morning, smokes in the shower, cheats on his girlfriend—played by Ann Reinking, Fosse’s former partner—with dancers in his employ, while insisting she remain faithful to him; he breaks promises to his daughter and receives glares from his ex (Leland Palmer). In quiet moments he retreats to a room in his mind, where he reflects on his many indiscretions to a beautiful Angel of Death (Jessica Lange). In the end, as he succumbs to a heart attack, he directs his own finale: a multipart spectacle replete with fan dancers, glowing-eyed mannequin heads, and an audience of everyone he’s ever known. All That Jazz was a great success. It won four out of its nine Oscar nominations, tied for the Palme d’Or at Cannes, and grossed more than anyone expected at the box office. The reviews were ambivalent, but clear on the film’s importance: Critics fixated on Fosse’s narcissism, and noted the character’s chauvinism, but many were doubly impressed that he’d pulled off a premise so obnoxious. The film works because it’s not about Bob Fosse—it’s about death, remorse, and moral failure, grim but mundane emotional realities familiar to anyone, disturbing to everyone, and somehow rendered entertaining. The film’s great generosity was to make terrible feelings bearable, doing for dread what the musical comedy normally does for romance: blow it up like a fireworks display and give it movement. As Fosse told an interviewer, “I made All That Jazz because I thought it would be a good show.” It was hard to know what to do next. Not only had Fosse directed his own life and death—blown his load, thematically—he was feeling exposed: while he might have judged himself relentlessly, in publicizing his flaws he’d invited outside moral scrutiny. The film had set up a self-reckoning he wasn’t prepared to complete: He’d made a public admission of his failures while, in staging his own execution, declining the possibility of atoning for them. Fosse toyed with various projects, but nothing really stuck until his best friend, Paddy Chayefsky, passed along a true crime feature from the Village Voice. It was an awful, brutal story, much grislier than anything Fosse had adapted in the past. But it resonated with him immediately. “Death of a Playmate,” by Teresa Carpenter, told the story of 20-year-old Dorothy Stratten, who’d been “discovered” at a Vancouver Dairy Queen by a former pimp and self-described talent manager named Paul Snider. He romanced her, convinced her to pose nude, and sent the pictures to Playboy; then he followed her to Los Angeles to cash in on her sudden success. Snider’s desperate, controlling manner alienated the Playboy crowd, and created a huge strain on Dorothy, who agreed to marry him out of a sense of obligation. She began an affair with the director Peter Bogdanovich, who had cast her in his film They All Laughed, and Snider hired a private detective to follow them around. When Dorothy came by Snider's apartment on August 14, 1980, to discuss the financials of their separation, he violently raped her, shot her in the face, desecrated her corpse, then shot himself. To adapt the story at all was ethically suspect. But it contained all the themes Fosse had wrestled with his entire career—sex, show business, failure, death—and harked back to the personal trauma that had spawned them to begin with. While All That Jazz had swapped out the worst for a decoy, the events of Stratten’s murder were too recent for aesthetic distance; adapting them would require the kind of painful, exacting honesty he’d been avoiding. Each character in the narrative spoke to some part of his own psyche and personal history, and together they formed a case study in the pathologies of attention, exploitation, and male entitlement. But Fosse, raw and defensive, saw himself in Paul Snider; and set out, disastrously, to tell his story. * At another stage of his life, Fosse might have identified most with Stratten, with whom he shared certain formative experiences. She was only 17 when she met Snider, and her dreams were adapted to her circumstances: raised by a single mother who cleaned houses for a living and later studied nursing at night, she was used to helping out with family finances, and figured she’d go to work as a secretary after graduating high school. Her experiences with men were limited, and painful: her father had left the family when she was four; her only boyfriend had been emotionally abusive, and she’d never enjoyed sleeping with him. “I dreaded the end of the night when I had to give myself up to him,” she said in her private writings, excerpted by Bogdanovich in The Killing of the Unicorn, which he wrote in the aftermath of her murder. “It was sort of like a game I kept losing and that was how I lost.” Snider was sweet at first, Carpenter writes, and his life was much flashier than anything she was used to. He drove her around in his Corvette, bought her jewelry, took her to prom, and made her feel beautiful. With his prodding, she took naturally to the camera, and handled herself with poise at the Playboy Mansion, although nothing in her life had prepared her for glamor, or condescension, at such scale. She was lavished with attention she’d never dreamed she might command, while expected to perform for strangers who treated her like a dish at a free buffet. Fosse’s own sensibilities were forged under similar circumstances. Born in Chicago in 1927, Fosse was the youngest son of six kids in a middle-class Methodist family. His father sold insurance, and later worked on the road as a salesman for Hershey. They lived modestly and weathered the Depression relatively well. Bob had an early knack for performance, though he became a dancer almost by accident: his mother had asked him to accompany his sister to dance class; she was too shy to participate, so he took her place. The school, stationed in a former apartment above a drugstore, was a show business academy, meant to teach kids the art of entertaining and groom the most promising ones for professional management. The school’s overseer, a mustachioed vaudeville enthusiast named Frederic Weaver, paired Fosse with a boy named Charles Grass, and booked them for gigs around Chicago and on the road. The duo took what they could get—and what they got, often, were slots in down-and-out burlesque clubs, where the two barely teenage boys were tasked with dancing for drunken patrons between strip acts. In their downtime they’d finish their homework backstage or in Charles’s mom’s car. Fosse’s life until then had been sheltered: he’d been a religious kid, and this new nighttime existence instilled excitement, terror, and shame. “I can romanticize it, but it was an awful life,” he told the San Francisco Examiner in 1979. “I was very lonely, very scared. You know, hotel rooms in strange towns, and I was all alone, thirteen or fourteen, too shy to talk to anyone, not really knowing what it was all about, and among—not the best people.”  Fosse received a lot of attention from the dancers. They rubbed up against him and may have coerced him into acts he wasn’t ready for; they also humiliated him, waiting until he was about to go onstage and then fondling him to give him an erection. The adults he trusted weren’t concerned: His mother, who doted on him, figured he just wouldn’t look at the naked ladies. Weaver, a mentor, had booked the gigs in the first place. Fosse was making money. In high school, Fosse was a star student, and popular—athlete, Latin club and prom committee member, senior class president. “I could go back to school and tell the guys stories that were at least 75 percent true,” he told Rolling Stone. “It gave me an edge. I had mixed feelings about it, though. I was very excited, but I wasn’t ready for sex.” He didn’t tell anyone what he got up to at night and struggled internally with the shame. “I think it’s done me a lot of harm, being exposed to things that early that I shouldn’t have been exposed to… It left some scar that I have not quite been able to figure out,” he told the Examiner. “He coded it as an early sexual initiation,” Sam Wasson said in a Vanity Fair interview about his 2013 Fosse biography, on which the FX miniseries Fosse/Verdon is based, “so it hasn’t really been spoken of as abuse until this book.” The strip clubs were where Fosse learned to give pleasure, both intimately and publicly, and where the two would fuse; also, where pleasure connected with dread. As a choreographer he would adapt much of his physical vocabulary from burlesque, but the sex in his work is striking less for its erotic power than its grotesqueness—his dancers seem menacing, disassociated; they telegraph glee, but not pleasure. Cognitive dissonance would become the de facto mood of his work, down to the grain of his gestures. (“Every movement is against itself,” one dancer, quoted by Gottfried, said of a seemingly breezy dance in the musical Pippin. “Your body is moving one way, and you’re pulling it the other way… the audience will feel it, this tension working against this appearance of great ease, and that will draw them in.”) The people he met in those strip clubs would become, in Wasson’s words, his “dramatis personae,” and his characters were often drawn from his self-image as it formed within that environment: sweet people stuck in demoralizing situations, longing for some version of wholesomeness they feel life has barred them from, an archetype neither male nor female. Sally Bowles, of Cabaret, performs in a cheap nightclub, but dreams of stardom and flirts with domesticity. Lenny Bruce and his wife, Honey Harlow, meet on the nightclub circuit, where he does standup and she dances; they fall in love, start a family, and self-immolate together. Like Stratten, and at least half his audience, Fosse knew what it felt like to understand sex as a cruel joke at one’s own expense. But his foundational pain had long twisted away from the root, and taking her experience seriously would have required a self-interrogation that he was not, or was no longer, prepared to do. * Fosse had less in common with Snider, whose attitude toward sex was much less complicated, and who measured prestige in cash, though, as Carpenter writes, he wasn’t particularly good at making it. He made an income organizing automotive shows and sometimes wet t-shirt contests, but his hustles fell short of making him rich, and he was once hung by his ankles off a hotel balcony by loan sharks to whom he was in debt. Like Fosse, he was consumed by ambitions so intense that their frustration felt like suffering, but Fosse’s frustrations were largely illusory, as real as they felt. Success had come relatively easy to Fosse, an overachiever by nature; he landed his second audition after moving to New York in 1946, and by the late 1970s exercised near total control on his sets, receiving more leeway than most directors could expect. He also commandeered troops of young women, whose bodies were his material. But early experiences with doubting producers and Hollywood casting directors had given him a chip on his shoulder, and he liked to think of himself as an underdog. Fosse kept a low overhead on his ego. In some ways this was a style—he wore basic black, kept his number listed in the phone book, and took his lunches at the Carnegie Deli—and in some ways an ethos; he was known for his helpfulness and compassion toward the hopefuls who auditioned for his shows. Work coming above all, it was a motivator: Success depressed him nearly as much as failure—it promised more failure ahead, and unsettled his self-image—and he did his best when he imagined himself up against a goliath. (When Cabaret won big at the Oscars, the same year he won Emmys and Tonys for Liza with a Z and Pippin, he fell into a serious depression and briefly checked himself into a mental health facility.) In all, it was a bulwark against guilt. As long as Fosse felt persecuted, he could ignore the ways he abused his own power. Snider was a pathetic character—a true failure, professionally and morally. In him, Fosse saw his own malignant emotions manifest, decades’ worth of bitterness and resentment that festered without a material corollary. What they actually had in common was less sympathetic, but Fosse was looking to show that Snider’s pain—and his own—had a basis. “I somehow identified with him because he was trying to get in,” Fosse told Rolling Stone. “It’s not that I’ve been excluded that much, but I know that sense of them all knowing something I don’t know. And that makes me very angry. I’d like to be offered all of Hollywood’s perks, just so I could refuse them.” Ignoring the obvious—the fact that Snider used and manipulated women for his own gain, and turned violent when his claim to other people was frustrated—Fosse attributed Snider’s crime to rejection by the Hollywood elite, which aligned better with his own self-mythology. “If they would have accepted him into that group,” Gottfried quotes him, “then the tragedy would not have happened.” The only way to justify this approach was to diminish Dorothy to a variable—to think of her, as Paul did, as a means to an end. * Fosse, in earlier years, had shown a rare empathy with women; this affinity, in fact, gave rise to his gifts as choreographer and director. He could relate to his dancers and actresses; he could also render their experiences with care and attention. Fosse’s first self-conceived Broadway show, Sweet Charity, had transposed Fellini’s Nights of Cabiria—about a woman who works as a prostitute in Rome, hopes for true love, but who is defrauded by the men in whom she trusts—to a Times Square dance hall. The protagonist is drawn with real identification, as well as real cynicism: It’s not her line of work, dancing with men by the song, that sources the pathos—Fosse, refreshingly, mostly avoided “fallen women” tropes—but the fact that she’s stuck in a dead-end gig she hates, with no prospects. She was partly inspired, as Fosse biographer Kevin Winkler notes, by the female dancers Fosse worked with, who made great physical and emotional sacrifices for their craft, only to see their opportunities steeply limited with age. From his earliest years as a performer, women were Fosse’s mentors, closest collaborators, eminences grise, and fodder for his vision. As a capability and a resource, his empathy was double-edged: It made his work powerful and humane, and allowed him to direct star-making performances by talents such as Liza Minnelli; but, like Snider, he learned very early how to use it to his advantage. The women who did the most for Bob Fosse were, as with Snider, the ones to whom he was married. He met his first wife, Marion (later Mary Ann, or Mary-Ann) Niles, on his first show, a revue called Call Me Mister. She was a little older—24 to his 20 at the time they got hitched—and a beautiful tap dancer, who had performed in more exclusive venues than he had; they formed a duo, and started gigging around the US and Canada. Eventually they landed jobs on a revue called Dance Me a Song, starring Joan McCracken, a comedic actress beloved by Broadway audiences and producers alike. Fosse fell for her, and, in Wasson’s words, “snapped Mary-Ann from his life like training wheels.” “Joan was the biggest influence in my life,” Fosse would tell American Film magazine in 1979. “She was the one who changed it and gave it direction.” McCracken, who was ten years his senior, was worldly, bohemian and eccentric—she read widely, painted, and attended parties with people like Truman Capote, the partner of her ex-husband, Jack Dunphy. She wrote stories and essays—including a 1946 essay for Dance Magazine in which she proposed new methods of capturing movement in cinema—and shared her inner riches with her younger boyfriend. McCracken told him he was too good to be dancing in nightclubs, and encouraged him to study movement, acting and music, as well as to undergo psychoanalysis. She also pushed him to try his hand at choreography. [[{"fid":"6705071","view_mode":"media_original","fields":{"format":"media_original","field_file_image_alt_text[und][0][value]":false,"field_file_image_title_text[und][0][value]":false},"type":"media","field_deltas":{"1":{"format":"media_original","field_file_image_alt_text[und][0][value]":false,"field_file_image_title_text[und][0][value]":false}},"attributes":{"class":"media-element file-media-original","data-delta":"1"}}]] Fosse was reluctant at first. He’d signed a contract with MGM in 1951, and though he wasn’t getting much work in the movies, he still dreamed of being a performer. But McCracken lobbied on his behalf to the Broadway powerhouse George Abbott who, at her insistence, hired him to choreograph an adaptation of the Book-of-the-Month Club novel 7 ½ Cents. Abbott was skeptical of hiring someone so inexperienced, but the musical, retitled The Pajama Game, would go on to win Tony Awards for Best Musical, Best Performance by a Featured Actress, and—for 27-year-old Fosse—Best Choreography. Abbott quickly offered him another job: another book adaptation, to be titled Damn Yankees, featuring the rising star Gwen Verdon, who had recently won a Tony for her show-stopping performance in Cole Porter’s Can-Can. The two were nervous to work together; at their first meeting, they smoked in tandem as he showed her the dance that would become one of her signatures: “Whatever Lola Wants.” By day’s end they had melted each other’s reserve. “She was hot when I met her,” Fosse told the Los Angeles Times in 1985. “That alabaster skin, those eyes, that bantam-rooster walk. Her in the leotard I will never forget.” They quickly began an affair, which was no secret on the set of Damn Yankees, or to Joan McCracken. It would mark the beginning of a great romance and a career-making collaboration; also the start of a lifelong cycle of betrayal and self-recrimination that would source the worst of Fosse’s anguish, and power some of his best work. *  Having optioned Carpenter’s article with his own money, Fosse sought a backer for his new project, which would be called Star 80, after the vanity license plate Snider obtained for the Mercedes he bought following Stratten’s success. Dan Melnick, who’d produced All That Jazz, declined—he found the material too depressing—but Fosse found a patron in Alan Ladd Jr., who offered him, as Winkler writes in his 2018 biography, “the biggest salary of his career,” along with minimal oversight. Ironically, the biggest pushback on Star 80 would come from the bereaved.  Fosse set about writing the script himself, a goal he’d been working toward, Wasson notes, since the start of his career. This project, he hoped, would be totally his own. There was the matter of Stratten’s loved ones, of course—the people to whom this had happened—who weren’t happy with the film, and expressed these concerns through their lawyers. In a 1982 memo to his attorney, retrieved by Winkler, Bogdanovich decried Fosse’s flat characterization of Stratten and called Fosse’s script “an apologia for a murderer.” (In a recent New York magazine interview, Bogdanovich remembers calling Fosse directly to ask why he was making the film in the first place: “He said, ‘Well, we think it’s a good story.’”) Fosse wanted Star 80 to look and feel as “real” as possible. He had always been attentive to detail: On Cabaret, Wasson reports, he spent weeks “auditioning” shades of red for a scene in which blood is shown on pavement; for Lenny, Wasson writes elsewhere, he hired real servers to act as extras in bar scenes, because they knew the right way to place a glass down on a table. Charity Hope Valentine’s physicality, notes Winkler, was “suggested to [Verdon and Fosse] by the women behind the make-up counter at Bloomingdale’s, whose feet burned from standing all day. To relieve the pressure, they cocked the hip of one leg while sharply flexing the heel of the other, pushing down into the floor.” These touches deepened the work, creating its mood subliminally.  Fosse retraced Carpenter’s research, poring over police reports and interviewing people who’d known and worked with the couple. He sent Wolfgang Glattes, his first assistant director, out to Vancouver ahead of him to scout locations from Stratten’s life. Glattes found the Dairy Queen where she'd worked; they’d secure a permit to shoot there. Dorothy’s mother’s house was off-limits, so Glattes, according to Gottfried, drove up and down the street in order to recreate the setting at a nearby location. Back in Los Angeles, at Fosse’s request, he snuck around the house where Dorothy had really been murdered. “You could still see the bullet holes in the walls,” Glattes told Fosse biographer Kevin Boyd Grubb. “That blood was still on the ceiling; someone had tried to paint over it, but it came through.” He told Wasson that Fosse insisted on using Snider's actual carpet. Glattes argued that blood wouldn’t show up on brown, but this didn’t dissuade the director. It wasn’t clear what this commitment to “accuracy” was meant to arouse in an audience. It might have fostered an uncanniness that feels appropriately sickening, but it seems in retrospect more like a failure of abstract thinking. The ultra-literal, materialist approach did little to establish verisimilitude; instead, it seemed to preclude broader moral and contextual considerations that might have doubled back on the project. (No one watching the film would have known the carpet’s provenance but thinking through what sort of carpet a person like Snider would own might have yielded a more evocative detail.) It was also unnecessarily invasive, with the effect of reducing the lives of his subjects to a set of artifacts—as if by collecting details, Fosse could reassemble the events himself, without thinking too hard about how it had felt to live them.  *  As Fosse’s affair with Verdon quickened, McCracken’s health began to decline. In the past she’d been relatively tolerant of Fosse’s extramarital flings, but this one, she could tell, was serious. Her heart was already strained by diabetes, but “the problems with Fosse added immeasurably to her distress,” her doctor told her biographer, Lisa Jo Sagolla. “She grew seriously depressed.” In spring of 1955, McCracken received an offer to perform the leading role in a touring production of Agnes de Mille’s Rodeo, but on the road, the physical demands grew beyond her management. She quit the tour, and, back in New York, had a heart attack, followed by a likely second, followed by a bout of pneumonia.  Fosse, newly in love with Verdon, didn’t come around much to visit her in the hospital. Instead, Wasson writes, he saw his psychiatrist up to five times a week, to wring out his guilt for abandoning her. When he did visit McCracken, he arrived “only at odd hours,” and pitied himself for his own negligence, shifting the burden of his remorse to her—McCracken might have forgiven him, but he wouldn’t let it go. Upon her release, she was told that, for health reasons, her dancing career was over. Verdon had already made the cover of Time magazine for her role as Lola in Damn Yankees. [[{"fid":"6705076","view_mode":"media_original","fields":{"format":"media_original","field_file_image_alt_text[und][0][value]":false,"field_file_image_title_text[und][0][value]":false},"type":"media","field_deltas":{"2":{"format":"media_original","field_file_image_alt_text[und][0][value]":false,"field_file_image_title_text[und][0][value]":false}},"attributes":{"class":"media-element file-media-original","data-delta":"2"}}]] For months and years afterward, Fosse would call up McCracken when he needed someone to talk to, often in the middle of the night, Sagolla writes; at least once, he trailed her in the shadows down the street. The night of April 2, 1960, he called to ask if she’d ever consider getting back together; long since moved on, she told him no. The next day, he quietly married Verdon. In 1961, McCracken died suddenly of a heart attack, at the age of 43. Fosse couldn’t bring himself to attend her funeral. Instead, he stood and watched from across West 72nd Street. “Do you know what the only thing Bob can retain is? Sorrow,” Verdon would tell American Film magazine. “He can have half a million in the bank, all the Tonys, Oscars, and Emmys one human being can amass in a lifetime, and all he lives with is the fact that Joan McCracken died so young on him.” Fosse never earned the right to forgive himself; even if the damage was never again so monumental, he would repeat the pattern. * Fosse had liked Melanie Griffith for the part of Dorothy—“she understands girl,” he wrote in his notes, cited by Winkler—but Mariel Hemingway, who shared an agent with Fosse, was dead set on the part. In recent years she’d received an Oscar nomination for her role as Woody Allen’s teenage girlfriend in Manhattan, and she’d starred as an aspiring Olympic track runner in Robert Towne’s Personal Best. Fosse thought she might be too boyish for the part, but Hemingway was persistent. “Dorothy was a classic victim,” he told her at a meeting. “She let Paul control her, right up until the end. I don’t see you that way.” Hemingway, recalling this in her memoir Out Came the Sun, explained that while she’d never had a Snider in her life, she knew about the pressure to be agreeable and put her needs aside in order to please other people. “One other thing,” Fosse added. “You’re not a voluptuous person.” Hemingway had been considering breast implants for a while, she writes. Fosse’s assistant gave her the name of a cosmetic surgeon, and after the procedure, she got the part. Casting for Snider was a more involved process. Sam Shepard and Mandy Patinkin read for the role. Fosse pursued Robert De Niro, to no avail. Richard Gere, who’d recently starred in American Gigolo, was the frontrunner; but Eric Roberts, though a less established name, had, in Wasson’s words, “a star’s good looks and charm but a character actor’s fearlessness.” After six grueling auditions, he convinced Fosse of his talent and versatility, as well as his willingness to be a good acolyte. Like Roy Scheider, who trailed Fosse for weeks in order to inhabit his mindset and mannerisms, Roberts was to play a version of Fosse. Fosse closely managed Hemingway’s character research. “He gave me everything,” she told Wasson. “He’d give me tapes to watch, he’d talk about being damaged goods, he taught me how to walk in high heels. He put on my high heels and showed me. Once he said, ‘You’re so innocent and all-American but you’re not. You come from this sick family.’” Conversely, Wasson notes, he encouraged Roberts to take a more experiential approach. “I got a real sense of what it was like to be an outcast,” Roberts told Kevin Boyd Grubb. “I started dressing like Paul, talking like him, thinking like him. I hung out in the same nightclubs he did, and got to know these so-called real people who went there. They gave me a horrible time, made me feel like shit. I’d bring my little reports back to Fosse. He’d wallow in them.” Amid all this, Roberts and Fosse took time to bond—road-tripping together to Vancouver, touring strip clubs in LA. “Even though he cut himself off from being paternal with me,” the actor told Gottfried, “he reminded me of my dad.” * Verdon and Fosse, despite the origins of their relationship, would be canonized as a pair. Theirs was not a muse-visionary relationship, but a symbiotic one: Verdon animated Fosse’s ideas, and Fosse built showcases for Verdon’s particular talents. He developed Sweet Charity with her, partly as a “gift” to welcome her back to Broadway after the birth of their daughter, Nicole Providence, the apple of his eye—“there was this point of great happiness,” he told the Los Angeles Times, “and I wanted to give Gwen something wonderful. I wanted to give her the best show she ever had.” Years later he would develop Chicago partly to give her one last star turn before she retired, and out of guilt for what he’d put her through. Verdon would also serve indispensably behind the scenes. When Shirley MacLaine was picked to star in the film adaptation of Charity, she selflessly flew to LA to help train her replacement. She accompanied Fosse to Germany for Cabaret, working for free on whatever task needed filling. When the German costume crew proved worse than unhelpful (given the instruction, “before the war,” they replied, according to Minnelli, “What war?”), she thrifted some of Liza’s most iconic ensembles. She even flew back to New York to pick out just the right gorilla suit for “If You Could See Her.” Shortly after her return, Wasson reports, she walked in on her husband—who was already involved with a translator on set—with a “couple of German girls,” and walked out. Verdon would never fully leave Fosse. A few years later, when he was in hospital for heart surgery, she’d play den mother to his much-younger girlfriends. She’d serve as his dance assistant long after she had retired from performing, and, along with Ann Reinking, Fosse’s next great love, work to preserve his choreographic legacy after he died. She put up with him because she loved him, and because she had to—his work was hers, too; and while she embodied and co-developed his vision, and at one time received the applause, he was the author and executor. Since he had no intention of changing his behavior, Verdon accepted the unfair conditions, and by necessity demonstrated the emotional discipline he lacked. Fosse wouldn’t change, but he would feel guilty; that guilt would provide thematic kindling. In All That Jazz, Gideon’s ex-wife, rehearsing for their show together, listens as he whines about his creative frustrations. “You want to quit the show? Quit the show,” she says. “You don’t have to do anything for me. But just don’t kid yourself that you’re doing the show for any other reason except guilt about me.” Chicago’s premise—two murderous showgirls attempt to game the justice system by turning their trials into media spectacle—was a transposition of Fosse’s MO, and foreshadowed what All That Jazz would do in earnest: convert his moral failings into theater. As Fosse accrued more psychic weight, and more power, his girlfriends got younger and younger—from peers and mentors to girls in their early 20s, without established careers of their own. “I like to take these young girls and mold them,” he told American Film. “I guess it’s a Pygmalion complex.” Younger women were easier to take lightly, and to discard. Wasson relays an anecdote: sitting in a van scouting locations for Star 80, the film’s director of photography, Sven Nykvist, asked the director why he preferred girls so green. “Their stories are shorter,” he replied.  * Just before Star 80’s rehearsals started, Fosse met with Hemingway in the bar of her hotel for a drink. After a while he suggested they head up to her suite for a nightcap. “The elevator let us off at my floor. I let us into my room,” she wrote, “And then, for the next fifteen minutes, I ran rings around the couch while Bob Fosse chased me for the purposes of sex.” She told him she had a boyfriend—Robert Towne, her previous director—but this only prompted a barrage of insults about his work. Finally, she told him she wasn’t interested, which seemed to catch him off guard. “I have never not fucked my leading lady,” he said. “No, wait. Once,” meaning Shirley MacLaine, “and it was a disaster.” Hemingway replied, “Meet the first.” On Star 80, Fosse was setting up a work dynamic to recreate the powerlessness that Stratten—and, long ago, Fosse himself—had experienced in her personal and professional life. His directorial style had, in the past, verged on callous—or instance when, Wasson reports, he’d told the teenage boy playing his teenage self in All That Jazz that it would be “great if you could really get hard” for the scene where strippers molest him before a performance. But with Hemingway handed such a limited emotional palate—the character was, as he’d said, merely a “classic victim”—his demands on her seemed specifically intended to draw out her pain and vulnerability. “Bob wasn’t just a taskmaster when it came to physical aspects of the film,” Hemingway wrote. “He was an emotional tyrant, too. There were days when he was kind and supportive, and other days when he would look at me icily and say, ‘You’re such a manipulative little cunt.’ He was provoking me, not entirely seriously, but he was also feeding into what he felt the film needed.” During a difficult sex scene, Fosse told Roberts to remove the dance belt covering his genitals, claiming the camera was catching the outline. Roberts was embarrassed—“I didn’t understand why he couldn’t just rearrange the sheets or something so that you couldn’t see the goddamn belt underneath,” he told Grubb—but he complied. Roberts had been a “dream” during rehearsals, Hemingway wrote, but once shooting began, and he settled deeper into the character, he became a “a monster. He wouldn’t look at me until cameras started, or he would stomp down on my toes before a close-up,” she wrote. “He even spit in my face once, and I let it happen because I knew that his character was all about freakish possessiveness and moments of petulance.” Fosse meant to reprimand him, but decided against it. “I realized what he was doing,” he said in an interview, cited by Wasson. “He was trying to feel what it’s like to say the wrong things and have people reject you and what that does to you and how it sours you.” During one scene, after Roberts flubbed a line once too often, Fosse summoned him behind the camera. “Look at me,” he said in Gottfried's account. “Look at me! If I weren’t successfu;—look at me—that’s Paul Snider… now show me me.” * Fosse had always been sexually compulsive, never bothering much to respect professional boundaries—Debbie Reynolds recalled being poked in the back by his erection on set at MGM—and he got away with it, mostly, because most men did. “You can assume he’s going to try to make you,” an anonymous dancer told a reporter for People in 1980. “He tries with every girl and gets a fair percentage. He’s so casual. He doesn’t give you much respect.” Another dancer added, “He’s not easily discouraged. If you tell him you’re engaged, he keeps asking if the wedding hasn’t been called off.” Fosse would claim that this was integral to his creative process. “I have to know we’re in perfect sync,” he told an acquaintance, interviewed by Wasson, “and she has to know exactly where I’m coming from.” By Wasson’s account, Fosse comes across as something of a sexual dynamo, whose talent for giving pleasure, and pain, was holistic and productive. “Sex was a medium for Fosse,” he writes. “It was as much a physical act as it was an opportunity to learn about and merge with his female collaborators, a way of giving to them so they could give back more and better—that is, if they didn’t break under the pressure or retreat in anger.” Wasson glosses over a story that Fosse’s previous biographer, Martin Gottfried, reports in considerably more detail. Jennifer Nairn-Smith, a Balanchine-trained ballerina, first danced for Fosse in Pippin, and had to kick him in the groin when he first advanced on her after a friendly outing. During rehearsals he bullied her to the point of tears, all the while calling her regularly to harass her for sex. “It made me so nervous,” she told Gottfried. “I’m a ballet dancer, and you do what a choreographer says. You could drag me around the floor. I had no self-esteem.” (Balanchine was known for his own line-crossing and abuse of power.) Finally, Fosse wore her down. [[{"fid":"6705081","view_mode":"media_original","fields":{"format":"media_original","field_file_image_alt_text[und][0][value]":false,"field_file_image_title_text[und][0][value]":false},"type":"media","field_deltas":{"3":{"format":"media_original","field_file_image_alt_text[und][0][value]":false,"field_file_image_title_text[und][0][value]":false}},"attributes":{"class":"media-element file-media-original","data-delta":"3"}}]] Nairn-Smith continued to see Fosse while he started his relationship with Ann Reinking, but left eventually, Gottfried reports, with a note on the mirror in lipstick: “To whom it may concern/A threeway to nowhere/I’m out!” Fosse called her the next day and “was so abusive that years later she was still suppressing the memory of his rage and unwilling even to repeat what he had said.  Nairn-Smith would inspire two different characters in All That Jazz: a dippy, not especially talented dancer who gladly hops into bed with Gideon after her audition and receives some tough love from him during rehearsals; and an ex-girlfriend in a flashback sequence who abandons their menage-a-trois on a much treaclier note: “I’m sorry. I cannot share you anymore. I want you all to myself, or not at all.” Nairn-Smith appears in the film as a dancer, observing her representation from the sidelines. Fosse was beloved, if conflictedly, by many of the performers who worked with him; he cared about their careers and appreciated their talents, and he had the personal and structural power to compel forgiveness when he hurt them. In turn, this allowed him to think of himself as forgivable, and removed the pressure to reform. When his guilt mounted a depression, he had plenty of sympathetic women to call in the middle of the night for consolation. Even his first wife, Mary Ann Niles, received his cries for support—“though reluctant,” Lisa Jo Sagolla writes, “she always invited him in.”   Joe Gideon is shown as a womanizer, not a rake—a powerful and attractive man who simply takes what’s offered. His self-awareness is proposed as a saving grace. (“Oh fuck him, he never picks me,” one dancer says after an audition. “Honey, I did fuck him, and he never picks me either,” another replies. This plays as a roundabout testament to the character’s integrity.) Gideon’s take on his own odiousness feels like deliberate overstatement, a public relations trick—the character was a cad; he did things that 1970s-era critics might have called misogynistic; but he never went over the lip of what was allowed to men like him. * As production on Star 80 wore on, dread mounted on set. One day, Fosse received a letter from Dorothy’s younger sister, Louise, “handwritten in her tenth-grade cursive,” Wasson writes, “telling him he didn’t know the truth, that he was hurting her and her family.” Fosse “professed to be overcome with guilt. He did not want to hurt her. He did not want to hurt anyone.” The moral questions Fosse had avoided during pre-production were barging forth in flashes of doubting panic—doubting panic was normal, but this time it had a basis. The project was collapsing the neurotic cycle that sourced his best work: Fosse would behave badly, reflect on himself, and reproduce the churnings of his conscience. Star 80 was the violation itself, and these moments of clarity might have felt like waking during surgery. Fosse performed his remorse in strange and maudlin ways, Wasson continues—muttering to the actor Cliff Robertson, playing Hefner, about the necessity of saving Dorothy Stratten from her inevitable fate; placing bouquets of roses on the craft services table, with a note addressed “To Dorothy.” Nevertheless, the production ran unabated toward the inevitable murder scene. Fosse had secured a permit to film it in the room where Snider had really raped, tortured and murdered Stratten fewer than two years earlier.  Fosse had choreographed every last movement “like a dance,” Wasson reports, which he directed in soft, appeasing tones to Strauss’s Death and Transfiguration. In the film, Stratten’s murder is appropriately horrible to watch, with no shock or thrill attached, nothing to stoke adrenaline—the feeling it most evokes is nausea. This seems almost respectful, until one considers the more unsettling question: if not for reasons of smut, or pathos—if not to make a point, or provoke a bodily response—why film it at all? Fosse may have grappled with, or suppressed, this question as he sat with editor Alan Heim in post-production, reviewing all the rage and gore and misery he had coerced and captured over the past four months. All the ethical quandaries he had blocked out or deferred during the film’s development might have surged up in the moment of its climax; he may have been penitent and uneasy, as he better understood what he’d done, and the reaction it would invite. But the impact of these doubts was negligible. Before the film’s premiere, he leaked photographs of Hemingway in character as Dorothy to Playboy, for their “Sex in Cinema” issue, without her consent. It was a strange decision—there’s little eroticism in the film itself; Hemingway’s sexuality is viscerally awkward and ill-fitting, just as Fosse intended it to be. The stunt might have been purely promotional, or a favor to Hefner, who had let him use Playboy’s logo in the film. But whatever his rationale, Fosse’s decision to exploit Hemingway was in keeping with his appraisal of her character’s autonomy, her status as a cipher in the story of her own death. Ultimately, he did it because he could. “I may have complained to my agent or cried to my friends,” Hemingway wrote. “I may have felt private rage and public shame. But in the end, after I ground my teeth, after I cursed out Bob Fosse’s name in my head, after I worried and wondered how it would all affect my career, I realized there was nothing I could do, and I just let it happen.” *  Early screenings of Star 80 provoked uncomfortable reactions. At one showing, Alan Heim recalled to Gottfried, as the film neared the murder scene an entire row walked out in a huddle. At a screening for cast and crew and friends, the room was bloated with unease; Roberts’s performance was the only thing anyone felt comfortable praising. If All That Jazz had invited moral in addition to aesthetic judgment, Star 80 demanded it. There was no way to look at the film without some disturbing question as to its maker’s intentions; the reviews weren’t all bad, but the negative ones were damning. David Denby called the film “a small pool of dark, ill-smelling bile.” Andrew Sarris, arriving late to the film class he taught at Columbia after a screening, called it “the most disgusting, misogynistic movie I think I’ve ever seen,” a former student remembered in the Village Voice, and said he thought he was going to be sick; his review called it “the biggest treat for women-haters this side of the underground circuit.” Pauline Kael, who had praised Cabaret as one of the most significant movie musicals ever made, wrote a more tempered and perhaps devastating response: “Fosse must believe that he can make art out of anything.”  The film was garish and profane, they wrote, empty glitz; it failed to develop its protagonists, parading them out as tropes from the start; it dehumanized Dorothy Stratten and made a spectacle of her death for no reason. “Three days after it had opened,” Glattes told Gottfried, “Bob knew it for a flop.”  “Bob Fosse’s movie is all rhythm without notes—fancy footwork and weak surmise, based on insufficient research and knowledge, along with a built-in early decision to create an apologia for the killer,” Bogdanovich wrote in The Killing of the Unicorn, published the following year. The book is a difficult read, not only for its content but because of the eerie, idealizing tone Bogdanovich, then in his mid-40s, takes toward his deceased 20-year-old girlfriend, and the level of intimate detail he divulges about her and their private life. (He’d go on to marry Dorothy’s younger sister, Louise, the year she turned 20.) Nevertheless, it’s the only document of Stratten’s life from the time that does much to establish her personhood. From Bogdanovich’s rendering, one gets the impression of a kind and thoughtful person, whose politeness, though it scanned as pliability, was a way of looking after herself. Despite the book’s sanctimoniousness it devotes an appropriate amount of time and consideration to Star 80’s most obvious omission: the dehumanization of women, a line from Snider through Playboy’s working culture to the director who adapted it. “The film’s showy mediocrity and repressed misogyny define none of us as much as it does its director and his Playboy collaborators,” Bogdanovich writes. More than the violence, it’s Stratten’s absence that makes the film most unnerving: the character’s underdevelopment and absolute passivity, against all the scrupulous attention to the raw materials of her life. Fosse told Kevin Kelly of the Boston Globe that he’d conceived Star 80 “as a neon conceit ‘for all the terrible mental confusion that rejection can stimulate.’” The film does get at a jarring emotional reality: the illusory, abject and violent states one can be submerged by when the ego is frustrated; how painful and debasing and ruinous they can be, to the individual as well as their targets. Fosse, having lived out both sides of harm, and shown a rare capacity to sit in his own shame, was uniquely qualified to direct that film. But Star 80, unlike the best of his work, was not an attempt to stage his own cognitive dissonance—the tension between his feelings and his beliefs, or his behavior and his conscience—but, instead, to resolve it, by doubling down on the worst in himself, by nullifying his targets. The film did exactly what he meant it to, though not in the way he’d hoped. *  All That Jazz and Star 80 are outcomes of the same creative process; they represent Fosse at his best and his worst. Looked at now, All That Jazz might seem like an egregious example of an obsolete genre: a nasty protagonist reflecting with self-deprecation on the harm he has done. But what sets it apart is the fact that it tries not to exclude any portion of its audience. A film like Woody Allen’s Manhattan adopts its protagonist’s worldview; to sympathize with Isaac, you have to suspend your empathy for Tracy. Joe Gideon’s humanity is arbitrated by the women around him, and you don’t have to like him to enjoy his death. The film works relentlessly to earn your attention, and it demonstrates Fosse’s grudging commitment to never entirely forgiving himself. Gideon’s original sin, in Fosse’s conception, is allowing show business to completely consume his personal responsibilities, such that even death is a show. This is also his redemption: he turns his mistakes into a brilliant spectacle. And the film works, against the odds, because it is. Part of Fosse’s genius was the seeming paradoxicality of his talents: both a showman and a neurotic, he married Broadway imperatives—attentiveness to an audience that must be entertained—to art-house themes, and the basic pains of living. Neurosis is stasis, a knowing that makes no difference; through some miracle of vision and technique, Fosse was able to give it motion. This required him to subjugate his worst impulses: to give pleasure without denying the worst, he needed to understand himself in relation to other people. Star 80’s creative failures were moral ones: the film represents the only instance in which Fosse served himself ahead of his audience. It was the vanity project All That Jazz never was, and the last film he would ever make. Fosse received other film offers but declined them. It seemed as though cinema had moved on to sex comedies and action flicks, while Broadway had moved on to blockbuster musicals less focused on dance than big voices and pyrotechnics; his final Broadway show, 1986’s Big Deal, closed after two months. Fosse contented himself by helping other people on their projects, and retreated to his house in Quogue, where he took up birdwatching, and began a serious relationship with a gentle 23-year-old named Phoebe Ungerer. In 1986, along with Gwen Verdon, he oversaw a successful Broadway revival of Sweet Charity starring Debbie Allen; he and Verdon accompanied the show on its national tour the following year. On September 23, in Washington D.C., Fosse delivered a speech to the company, and went home to change for the show’s opening at the National Theater. He suffered a massive heart attack, and collapsed at a crosswalk into Gwen Verdon’s arms. By the time the show began an hour later, he was gone. Today, Fosse’s influence lives in the ether: as a choreographer, his style passed through that of Michael Jackson into basic conversational movement. Beyoncé’s video for “Single Ladies” was based on a Fosse routine; even Freddy Krueger was modeled in part on his look. His iconography is ubiquitous and seems, out of context, both classy and kitsch, like the signature stamp on a line of collectible antiques. This makes his work continually discoverable: there’s always a new crop of filmgoers, or theater nerds in the making, surprised to learn that Fosse was an auteur.  His current revival makes sense: Fosse was interested in the psychology of living to please an audience, the merging of life and material, and—above all—the impossibility of pure pleasure. Though not always explicitly, his work was concerned with the social, historical, and personal traumas coiled at the heart of our joys and escapes. Rather than banishing difficult truths for the sake of entertainment, Fosse staged their emergence from below, or encroachment from the margins. This wave of appreciation will also be a reckoning. Fosse’s behavior was never a secret, and not much will be revealed that wasn’t known, or inferable, decades ago; but moral immunity has been rescinded for geniuses, and the humanity of those harmed is not so easy to discount, at least in criticism, when it complicates the legacy of someone beloved. The liminal, disturbing emotions that come with this process—the restive coexistence of pleasure and disgust, the disappointment and self-suspicion—form the mood of Fosse’s work; this mood feels appropriate for its consumption.