Born a Catholic with cystic fibrosis, Bob Flanagan was raised confined and tortured nuns hit him with rulers, nurses tied him to hospital beds so he wouldn’t dislodge the tubes going in and out of his body. He pretty much had to find what was pleasurable and humorous in suffering. At age seven, he’d roll himself up in blankets, wanting to feel mummified. He’d seal himself up
in a giant garbage bag until all the air was gone, and claw his way out, gasping. As he grew up, his masochism matured with him. He may have been frail, but he could still “take it” more than the average jock. This gave him a feeling of control and titillation. In 1980, at the age of twenty-eight, Bob met the much-older housewife-turned-mistress Sheree Rose; she became his accomplice and lover, and she documented, took part in and encouraged increasingly complex endurance tests. One time she left him tied to a fence post in the backyard all night long; he suffered thirty-two spider bites. Sado-masochism became their life’s work they made live shows (very
comedic!) out of hammering nails through Bob’s dick or not letting him eat anything but oatmeal for thirty days, all the while explaining the meaning of it in ways non-extremists could understand. The Pain Journal (Semiotext(e), 2001) is the project Bob made out of dying.
Bob was a sort of human bridge between the perverts and the rest of the population; he’d do things more extreme than his shit-eating, meat-hook-hanging peers, yet he remained real and intimate and quietly funny. He was accessible. He didn’t look at shamanistic states brought on by BDSM as superior to good old-fashioned labor he simply combined the two, with no more pomposity than a plumber unclogging your toilet. Yet underneath lay . . . Supermasochist! The film The Life and Times of Bob Flanagan, Supermasochist won the Special Grand Prize at Sundance in 1997. Bob was the subject of a Re/Search book, author of The Fuck Journal (written at Sheree’s command shortly after they met, documenting all the sex they had), and organizer of the art show “Visiting Hours,” which traveled to Berlin, New York and other cities. The driving force behind all these endeavors, and the star, was always Bob’s penis. Bob is the godfather
of BDSM, American-style which means he laughed a lot, he loved TV and he always went further.
I think if anyone could demystify drinking piss and show what’s unbelievably sexy about Jerry Lewis movies, it was Bob. He took down the boundaries separating morbidity, poor taste and truth, and left things wi-i-ide open. When The Pain Journal opens up, Bob, forty-three, has only one year to live. Anyone who’s watched someone die knows that there are universal metamorphasizing elements to a slow death: paranoia, confusion, doctors,
drugs, tubes, wires, treatments, pain, no-pain, pain. These are the things that come over you like a blanket and turn you into anyone, no one turn you into death. That’s what’s scariest about dying. Not the pain or the humiliation, but the suffocation of self. Bob dances with his death blanket jokes about it. Humor and weird sex were always his weapons in the battle against cystic fibrosis. “Fighting sickness with sickness,” he called his method. When he starts losing his masochism, halfway through the book, that’s when he
realizes he’s losing the whole battle. “I get these nostalgic flashes on the person I used to be,” he writes, “not years ago, weeks ago!” Immobile, attached to oxygen tanks and I.V. antibiotics, he looks down to his penis with concern. He reports in the journal on its activities and appearance
almost daily (sometimes hourly). As the rest of his body wastes away or bloats, his penis remains the same.
There’s a clot around his porta cath, but after several days of trying, ejaculation watery though it is from all the drugs does come, and it is a triumph.
It was to be one of the last triumphs of his dick. Later, Sheree (who is fifty-two) brings home an eighteen-year-old girl for her dying forty-two-year-old lover, and he doesn’t know what to do with the girl. His main energy is consumed with breathing. Sheree meant the girl as a metaphysical blood transfusion. It used to work. But this time Bob just gets depressed and pissed off and coughs up phlegm. The girl gets nipple piercings while Bob holds her hand. Eventually she leaves, and Bob turns on the TV. He sees SM practitioners featured on a talk show, doing things he and Sheree pioneered twelve years earlier and got no credit for. These new people “talk about their Mistresses this and their slaves that while I carry this drug pump and oxygen tubing around the house . . . as unsexy as you can get no matter how famous I am for sensualizing the whole lot of it,” he writes. “I’m watching myself shrivel up [and] I’m forcing Sheree to watch it and live, while we both pine away for the old days.”
It’s not the most riveting plot: dying man watches TV, has to go back in the hospital, comes out of the hospital. In, out. Masturbates. Works on his film. Can’t work. Dies. But great literature is one man speaking from the most silent, scared corner of his soul to that corner of someone
else’s (ours), no matter the subject. Bob’s writing is translucent it never masks or distorts the corner from which he is speaking. You know those swoops language can take, the rapid changes in rhythm that take the reader’s breath away? Writers do not lead glamorous lives this is our one chance to be fancy. Bob is obviously smart enough to do the writer’s equivalent of a triple axle, but he never does. He’d rather just talk to the reader. He doesn’t try to prove anything: he trusts we’re already on his side. Early in the Journal Bob matter-of-factly clarifies the unusual allure of “alligator clips”: “Those jagged little teeth bite into my tender spots as I grab hold of something like the bed rail and squeeze until the pain floats off a little, turns sweet almost, and then it’s time for another. It’s almost like eating hot chili peppers, except these taste buds are my balls.”
For Bob it was masochism. For Chagall it was painting goats with knowing looks in their eyes. It’s not the object of obsession that matters; it’s the way they strained toward it, the way it made them feel alive and reminds us to be alive. In this last-year journal of failure, money problems and
sickness, the obsession (which is really faith) burns on, even through Bob’s inability to carry it out. Almost-dead, cold Bob Flanagan sleeping in a cage while his mistress snores under a down comforter and a canopy . . . he knew that was what he wanted, no matter how ridiculous or disgusting it might look to others, and because he always went for it, there wasn’t a repressed or bitter bone in his sick little body.