My father sleeps with prostitutes. This is his late-life confession to us, his children and his wife, and he makes it on the shore in Florida: Florida, the state with the prettiest name and the skankiest underside; Florida, a place where the beach is as white as a baby’s bed sheet, and there are hookers galore, feathered, bangled, pointed and pierced, blooming like hothouse flowers above the black sewer grates of the southern city near where my father lives.
©2000 Lauren Slater and Nerve.com, Inc.
| It is a Thursday night and I go. To SLAA. The meeting is in a church in one of the wealthier suburbs just outside of Boston. Inside the hall, I see Christ in his nave. I see beautiful stained glass. I smell the azalea bushes just outside, huge dense growths of green-topped tropical pink. They smell divine. The people sit in rows. There are six men and one woman. I focus on the woman. She has kinky blond hair, a saddle of freckles over her nose. She is wearing tailored casual pants, chunky shoes and a shirt that I know is from The Gap, because I have the same one, in a different color. She is streamlined in her figure, with a flat chest that I covet. She has a good figure. |
I should lose weight. I recall a factoid left from my physiopsych class in grad school. Sometimes women with narrow hips and very flat chests have higher testosterone levels than the rest of us. She sits amongst the men, pretty.
“Hi,” she says to me, smiling.
“Hi,” I say to her.
“First time here?” she asks.
“Yeah,” I say. “I have a family member who ”
“You know,” she says, “family members are always welcome here, but there’s also a group for them too. A special set-apart group.”
“Do you feel like this group’s helped you?” I ask.
“On and off,” she answers. “You have to walk your talk you know.”
“Well,” I say and this is relatively easy for me to say, because my career is all about probing; I am a professional busybody “what brings you here?”
She tells me then. Her problem is compulsive masturbation. Her problem is that she fantasizes about other women, especially at work, and the fantasies are so intensive and compelling, she has to leave work early to masturbate, and one masturbation session ends only to start up another one, and it goes on and on, up the hill and over the dale, into the night and through the day, her life a series of compulsive clutches at herself, and then, in secret, seeking sex with other women, behind her boyfriend’s back, and money spent as well, on female prostitutes, it’s a mess, because she loves her boyfriend, she’s bi, it’s really a mess, and although we are strangers she says all of this casually, easily, and I take it in, and then the meeting starts.
We sit in a circle. We say the Lord’s Prayer, and before I can object, someone holds my hand, and so I am held. Who Art In Heaven. Thy Will Be Done. I say the words. I find them immensely comforting. Somehow I always have thought that whatever causes suffering genes, sin, bad luck its only cure is in surrender.
I listen hard when people speak. I note within myself two impulses that fuel my listening. The first is what I think of as the smut impulse. I assume attending an SLAA meeting will be a little bit like oral porn instead of reading it, you speak it, or hear it. The voyeuristic part of me is hoping for more, and even better descriptions than the one the young woman just gave me. I am hoping for descriptions of orgasms so perfectly timed and pitched that the pleasure is pure shudder and moan. After ten years of monogamy, part of me could stand to hear these things.
And it seems significant to me that the people in this SLAA group do not once mention, or describe, their affliction in terms of neurotransmitters. Not once is the word “chemical” used. Neither are there, in the actual meeting itself, any anecdotes involving any sex. (A disappointment! I am a voyeur!) Instead people speak of having humility. The topic is “Turning Points in Recovery.” The woman, whose name is Bess, says, “For me, recovery has been about coming to accept that I am not the biggest piece of shit the world revolves around.” A man who goes by the initials C. M. says, “My recovery rests on the fifth step.”
For just the merest second I am confused by this comment, and look over at the set of steps 1eading to the stage, as though I might see his cure in a little apothecary bottle on one of the treads. But no, of course not. The fifth step is a “fearless and searching moral inventory.” I know this from the pamphlet in my hand, and from clients I have treated. The fifth step is about confession; it’s the mother of all memoirs, it’s about dancing out of the dark, letting your true self be seen, because, as the twelve-steppers like to say, “You are only as sick as your secrets.”
Now it’s my turn to talk. All the others have shared their turning point, and I need to share mine. “I’m not a sex addict,” I begin, “but my father is. I don’t know, but maybe his turning point was when he confessed it to us.”
Everyone nods. I’ve decided I really like this group. Bess has beautiful blond hair. C.M. has wire-rimmed glasses and an Oxford cloth shirt. Through the open window I smell those azaleas, and the rich dirt of a wet summer.
“You know,” I go on, leaning forward, “what confuses me is that the doctors and researchers I’ve talked to say it’s a biochemical disease, but when I listen to everyone here talk, I get the feeling it’s more about . . . about discipline, and having a relationship with God. Do you think of yourselves as having a real and definite physical disease?”
I am surprised at the response I get. Not a second’s hesitation. Not a moment to reflect. Bess turns intentional and driven. C.M. pushes his glasses up against his nose. “Definitely,” they say. “A disease,” they say. “We’re not talking metaphor,” they say. “We are sick.”
“If your addiction is a physical illness,” I venture, “then how do you square that with everything you’ve talked about tonight in terms of taking responsibility for your actions? Owning up? Changing through a relationship with a higher power? If you really, really believe you’re sick, don’t you think you should be getting your treatment at a hospital, not a church?”
I, personally, think that’s a smart question, certain to stump my new friends. Far from stumped, they are ahead of me. “You are always, always responsible,” C.M. replies. “SLAA,” Bess says, “is about learning to take responsibility for your biochemistry.”
The rest of the group nods. A very handsome man speaks up. He is wearing a shirt and tie, and he has chiseled, perfect facial features, but his body is far too thin and his voice is broken. It is a rusty voice rising from a larynx that must have been riddled with cancer, a ghostly sound, a voice at the very end.
“We have,” he says, “two brains.”
“Two brains,” I echo dumbly.
“Yes,” he says, “and that is the explanation for it all.”
“Two brains?” I say again.
“The animal brain,” he says, “and the human brain. In this SLAA group, that’s how we think of it. The animal part of the brain is what makes us do things, or want things, or act sick. But the human part of our brain, which is at the front of our heads, has the capacity to think and pray and make choices. You see?”
I do. Of course he’s right. Hadn’t I studied it in school? There is what’s called the lizard brain, or the snake brain, that sits in a moist, meaty hump where the spine curves into the skull, and then there is the neo cortex, or forebrain, hugest of all in humans, that bloomed above the baser instincts, allowing us, as some neurologists would say, to reason; as some ethicists would say, to choose; as some priests would say, to transcend.
This SLAA group, it occurs to me as I drive home that night, may have hit upon a truly unusual and insightful synthesis for the mind-body dilemma that has caused so much confusion and debate of late. These SLAA members, probably correctly, understand that our brains are both body and spirit, that the frontal lobes, while undeniably physiologically real, give rise to untenables, unfathomables like spirit, like sin, like choice. In this model the two-brain model the material brain contains the matter that allows it to transcend itself. We may have physiological diseases, but we also have spiritual choices about those diseases. Yes, anatomy is destiny, but because our anatomies are so infinite, that destiny is not reduced, but rich with possibilities for flesh and God.
So, I will hold my father responsible. Damn you, Dad. Why didn’t you think? I will forgive him too, for who in God’s name can think when there is such a toxic ruckus in the head? How do we learn to evolve ourselves from snake to lizard to primate to man to woman, to sound sense and balance and finally grace? SLAA says it’s possible. I believe them. I have two brains.
I pull into the driveway at home. Benjamin is sitting on the porch in the dark, smoking a cigarette. The lit tip twinkles like a jewel in the corner of his mouth. I once smoked like a fiend, two packs a day, but I haven’t touched a cigarette since I was twenty-four.
“How was it?” he says.
“Pretty tame,” I say, but if that’s the case, then why do I feel so suddenly untame? Why do I feel my snake brain right this minute hissing and curling like a cobra. Imagine it, sex all day. Dreams all day. A perpetual oil slick between the thighs, a desire for degradation. Blood and come. A condition of despair, of delight. Imagine that craving. I do.
And before I can stop myself I lean over and pluck the cigarette from my husband’s hand, bring it to my lips, place my mouth where his wetness was, and inhale. A deep drag, a hot inward rush, the peppery taste of tobacco, my lungs assaulted and shocked, seizing up. My chest is having an orgasm, and it is not good. It shudders and heaves and then I hack whatever I can back up.
“Jesus,” Benjamin says. He whacks me on the back. “That’s unfiltered, you know. Since when have you started smoking?”
I shake my head. I was not prepared for how hard the bite would be. My eyes begin to burn, my skull to ache. “Can you believe my father?” I say. Something loosens in me, and I start to cry. For him. For us.
“What is it?” Benjamin asks.
“The cigarette,” I say. “Now my head is killing me.”
Like this. This is what he does. He sits me at his feet and works my cranium with his hands. He starts to massage at the base of the skull, where the snake brain sits, and then works his way up, up, I can feel him now, hovering over the thalamus, and then over the parietal lobe, and at last to the frontal lobes, right between the eyes; he presses with his thumbs, sweeps away tangles of pain, and then backs down again, to the snake brain, and up, and over to the wise forebrain, which he soothes and rubs, and as he does this some clearness comes, for me, for him, for my father, for my daughter, for all of us here some clearness can come, and if we are lucky it will last for a little while. n°
©2000 Lauren Slater and Nerve.com, Inc.