Q&A: Daniel Bergner

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A foot fetishist, a female sadist, a child molester and an amputee "devotee" — these are the protagonists of Daniel Bergner's new book The Other Side of Desire, an exploration into various atypical forms of "lust and longing." In what could have been the worst kind of leering anthropology, Bergner instead finds compassion, sympathy and even commonality. He calls the stories in the book "autobiographical," and the book makes clear that its subjects will provide all of us with convex mirrors reflecting our own sexual desires and practices.

Even amid the sometimes-destructive impact of what sexologists call "paraphilias" — sexual "disorders" that most of society (and this interviewer too, accidentally) often call deviant — Bergner also envies the intensity of feeling that accompanies them.

Bergner's book is an exploration of the people, stories and science behind paraphilias. It raises the questions of where our desires come from and what to do with them once they're there, but Bergner (and the scientists he cites) know that there are no easy answers. An adapted excerpt from his book entitled "What Do Women Want?" appeared recently as a cover story for the New York Times Magazine, but, like The Other Side of Desire as a whole, it's more concerned with exploring our questions about sexuality than with resolving them. Anecdote, authorial intuition and scientific research all tell us that sex might just be as big a mystery as we always thought it was.

I sat down with Bergner the other day and got him talking on his hunches about nature versus nurture, on whether porn hurts or helps, on what inspired or scared him and on the redemptive power of love. More about Daniel and his work can be found at danielbergner.com. — Jack Murnighan

"There was an almost immediate effect on me after spending a weekend among them."

Sex and sexuality tend to prompt so much gawking, I was impressed that your book moved beyond the anthropological and became quite intimate.
I feel like these stories are autobiographical, though that may sound strange to say. They are about states of longing, and they are about people fighting cultural constraints, cultural codes. Even the most mainstream of us experience those things — think about the monogamous rules of marriage. Dismiss Freud if you like, but we all have an erotic layer, a powerful force inside us, a central force. And whatever we do with it — push it to the side, tamp it or live with it consciously — we are dealing with constraints and codes. Here are four really dramatic examples, and I felt in their stories a way to get to something, to some deeper understanding.

You continually address the question of inherency — nature versus nurture. Do you think that people are born quote-unquote deviants, with hardwired inclinations, or are they triggered culturally or experientially?
How we come to be who we are sexually was a question I wanted to address, not only by spending time with scientists but by telling stories. I spent time with scientists who were going so far as to take MRI images of the brain and literally point to distinctions in certain areas that they felt were correlating to differences in erotic direction. But the impact of culture is also clear in large and small ways. At the other end of the extreme of the debate is a really interesting set of studies by an anthropologist who spent time in Papua New Guinea and watched young men grow from homosexual relationships to heterosexual ones according to a sort of cultural script. His research points to the malleability of who we are sexually. On a much more personal note, I spent time in a lot of alternate sexual worlds with people who just see sex differently than I do. There was an almost immediate effect on me after spending a weekend among them: I would begin to see as they see. It wasn't a complete change — I'm still basically the vanilla guy that I am — but it does have its effect. You can feel how we're affected by our surroundings.


Does porn help a child molester like Roy keep from acting on his impulses, or does porn encourage him?
Let's back up a little and talk about pornography in general. Porn can be incredibly liberating because it gives a sort of affirmation; it's a sexual mirror of society, in a way. The only thing that makes me worry, and I say this tentatively, is the solitary nature of it. In Jacob the foot fetishist's story, his shame just feeds on itself; he becomes more and more solitary, and of course if he were to just bring his desire for feet into his otherwise perfectly thriving marriage, he and his wife might be brought closer. I worry that pornography just serves the solitary and maybe doesn't get us to the place that Ron and Laura get to. Now in cases like Roy's, the thinking about porn is complicated. There's a big debate among experts who treat child molesters about whether pornography gives them a safe outlet or feeds their desire. It is such a raging debate; for me to weigh in would be silly.

Then there's the question of rape in general and whether pornography encourages rapists or helps satisfy would-be rapists.
I want to be really careful here because I don't want to be advocating limits on pornography — I think in the balance we'd better keep our free speech and therefore our free access to pornography. But we've got to acknowledge that to some extent pornographic images affect the way we desire, and ultimately to some degree may affect what we do with that desire.

In all the things you were exposed to, did anything give you a stronger sense of how wide the erotic world is or how to expand your own? And did anything scare you?
The easiest thing is to talk about the Baroness' world, because it contains the answer to both questions. There were certainly times with the Baroness when I thought, "No way could I ever do that to someone" — although the word "could" is tricky. I've spent a fair amount of time in war zones, I think we are all capable of doing pretty much anything to anyone, which is frightening.

Daniel Bergner

But there were moments when the erotic force of the Baroness' connection with her submissives seemed revelatory — the kind of revelatory that I would want. When I think about the language of S&M — "surrender," "submit," "overtake," "overwhelm" — it's the language of love. All of our longing is embedded there. When I watched her submissives, I saw something that was enviable. They were being taken to a level of ecstasy that most of us may not experience. There was this one guy who was talking about onion skins being stripped from his psyche. I'll speak for myself: I want to get there. I don't necessarily want to undergo what that man was undergoing, but I do envy that experience. There was something profound happening.

Even beyond that, I saw again and again with the Baroness and the S&M world a level of communication about the sexual. The couple I call "Ben and Eliza" spent a lot of time planning their erotic encounters — which in itself is pretty erotic — and they take each other to places that are pretty deep.

I said to them, "So now this person you love is way down there in a place of submission, perhaps injured physically or psychologically, utterly vulnerable and exposed, but in a state of ecstasy. How does that person get back? How do you walk outside like a regular couple in the world?" And they said they take their lover in their lap and allow them to be reborn, to become their everyday vertical selves. That was very moving to me.

They really sound synched. It makes me want to see the divorce rates of S&M marriages.
It's like they've got it all there: being taken to complete revelation and vulnerability and transcendence and then nurtured back into everyday being.


And what stuff was the scariest?
Jacob the foot fetishist gets treated by a very compassionate, heroic psychiatrist named Fred Berlin, who has treated men whose sexuality is built around killing women violently, simply put. That is scary. Yet in general, if you take men into the lab, they're going to respond to scenes of coercive sex at the least and probably to violent, nonconsensual sex; there's just no avoiding that data. It is inside us. But it is frightening, and there is something that just shuts down when you talk about inflicting that level of harm.

The other frightening terrain was with Roy. I mean, I spent a year and a half with him, his struggle and his treatment group. His victim's age was that of my daughter's at the time. That made me balk. I had to keep my mind open because I was very intrigued by him and he was so willing to be introspective. He wanted so badly to understand what had happened with him. Coming home to my family was a long trip.

So ultimately did you feel more compassionate about humanity or more fatalistic about our wiring and the hope for us?
Fatalism to me isn't a bad thing. Fatalism to me implies we are who we are, and then the question becomes: Let's understand it more deeply. To me, fatalism and compassion go very much together.

How did Laura, the amputee, ultimately negotiate the synecdoche problem that an amputee has — not being a part for a whole, or a whole for a part?
Laura is a lovely young woman, an army wife, living a town-to-town existence, who in a horrific car accident loses both her legs up near the hip. She feels like her life is over; she literally wants to die. She won't look down, she won't acknowledge what's happened. It's only when they finally get her out of bed for rehab that she has to see it. Her little son asks, "Will your legs grow back?" I shed some tears with her.

Fatalism to me isn't a bad thing.

Later, when she discovers the amputee-devotee community online, she's torn. She wonders why no surgeons or therapists ever mentioned it to her. What she finds ironic is that the whole therapeutic community is about concealing it. It's about wearing prostheses, even though they're not always magical like in that Dupont commercial with the basketball player. The idea is wear prostheses, wear long, flowing clothing and make yourself look quote-unquote normal! She's thinking on one hand, that makes sense, but she's also thinking: Why can't I be me, why can't I be loved for being me, what does it mean that there are men out there who are attracted to this? Is it just like men who are attracted to large breasts or long legs? Her colleagues start asking about it and ridicule the community, saying they sound sick, but she begins to explore it, she does some modeling actually, some amputee-devotee modeling. So in a way she gets to be a model, which she was always too short to do — now that doesn't matter — and with Ron, the devotee she marries, by her side, she goes back to school and eventually gets to do the other thing she wanted, to work as a therapist. With Ron she feels very fortunate to be with him and very, very loved. I stayed with them, I stayed in the bedroom right across from theirs, I could hear their laughter. It was really touching. But she would also tell me that there are times when she wonders if she could get a "normal" man. She tells herself to stop thinking that way, and what's normal anyway? It preys on her sometimes; there's no way around that question.

Once I was at a dinner party of writers; you'd think everyone would be very open-minded and for the most part they were. But when I told the Ron and Laura story, somebody leapt in and said, "But is his love pure?" I was like, "What love is pure?" We can't separate the physical from the transcendent. It's all of a piece and to try to separate it is to take it further from the transcendent. We are bodies and we are souls, and we are not going to pull them apart.

©2009 Jack Murnighan and Nerve.com