Daniel Bergner's The Other Side of Desire

Reading between the lines.
Jan. 26 2009 6:36 AM

The Mystery of Perversion

What idiosyncratic lust can, and can't, tell us.

With sexual perversion, what we make of it may be less critical than where we locate it. For much of the last century, deviance occupied the core of human psychology. For Freud, the Oedipus complex or its female equivalent shaped personality; everyone was incestuous. In the course of development, children were aroused by a variety of body parts. Inevitably, quirky desires lingered into adulthood. In his Three Essays on the Theory of Sexuality, Freud concluded that no healthy person "can fail to make some addition that might be called perverse to the normal sexual aim." That normal aim was genital and heterosexual—Freud lurched between avant- and arrière-garde when it came to homosexuality. Unusual sexual drives were of great theoretical import, since they offered clues to the nature of the unconscious as it metamorphosed across the life cycle.

Today, we simply don't believe that science will uncover a Rosetta stone that translates sexual idiosyncrasy into truths about who we are as a species. Modern science reads odd compulsions as mere idiosyncrasy, glitches resulting from inheritance or environment that signal only damage or else particular solutions to particular developmental problems. As a result, perversions are back in the side show, a collection of curiosities at psychology's fringe. Scattered researchers still dedicate their careers to studying sexual aberrations, but the findings are likewise scattered: fragments of information about genetics, brain functioning, and cognition.

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Yet the topic still fascinates, both because perversion is uncanny and because it is not alien to us. In The Other Side of Desire, Daniel Bergner, a journalist who has written well-received books about Sierra Leone's civil war and Louisiana's Angola prison, approaches deviance with a reporter's notepad. He selects four areas: foot fetishism, sadomasochism, pedophilia, and an obsession for amputees. In each case, he finds and follows a devotee. In the process, Bergner does what science cannot: He illuminates peculiar longings. His method is at first descriptive and finally poetic. The message of the book is in the interplay among personal narratives that prove alternately bizarre and mundane.

Surely the oddest of Bergner's topics is attraction to amputees. The exemplar is Ron, who from age 5 has felt the appeal of women with misshapen and missing legs. An advertising man, Ron photographs cripples in his spare time. Psychotherapy has helped Ron, and the useful therapist was one who found no harm in Ron's pursuing what he loved.

In time, Ron courts Laura, who lost both her legs when an automobile ran over her. Before the accident, Laura had aspirations to become a psychiatrist and, later, a fashion model. With Ron's help, she approximates her dreams, posing for porn magazines (for readers who share Ron's tastes) and counseling the mentally ill. Ron's enthusiasm for Laura is expressed in conventional terms: "And like the cherry on the cake is that she's a double amputee, which brings me such happiness and pleasure and joy." Obscure lust leads to domestic bliss. At times, Ron seems to see his obsession as a virtue, since it has served to restore Laura's self-esteem. Of the couple's meeting, he says, "It sounds kind of silly, but she was a bud about to bloom."

In contrast, the man Bergner calls Jacob is tortured by his erotic attraction to women's feet. Often what makes a symptom is less the nature of a wish or belief than the manner in which it is held. Jacob experiences his longings as pathology and is tortured by them. The mere mention of feet arouses him. Of weather forecasts, he complains, "Imagine if snowfall was measured in breasts and you were the only man with that sick desire." Jacob has found a psychiatrist, Fred Berlin, who agrees that perversions must be brought under control. Berlin prescribes Jacob a drug that suppresses male sex hormones. His fixation muted, Jacob runs a therapy group for men with mood disorders. Jacob is married, but his shame is such that he never tells his wife of his proclivities.

What makes our attention oscillate between these narratives is the focus on feet. Why is passion for their absence preferable to lust in their presence? Perhaps the sickness in deviance lies not in the object of desire but in the view of the self, as perverted rather than simply different.

Or perhaps it is merely medical authority that defines disease. In Bergner's deft sketches, the doctors  he interviews seem as narrowly absorbed as their subjects. Of Berlin, who suppressed Jacob's foot fetish with libido-squelching drugs, Bergner writes, "[I]t sometimes seemed he was driven, consciously or not, to medicate aberrant lust out of Jacob's life."

Effectively, these paired sketches—of Ron, who (with professional help) takes pride in his fetish, and of Jacob, who subdues desire but holds onto the shame—divide the perversion problem in two. We may not know how deviance arises, but we can decide how we respond to it as a component of the self. Implicitly Bergner favors accommodation, making a virtue of necessity.

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