Stephen Elliott’s all-American education
Stephen Elliott’s harrowing collection of S/M stories is billed as fiction, but in his introduction he claims “most of it” to be true: “Recently there’s been a rash of crackdowns on practitioners of consensual sadomasochism. Our president, who sanctions torture all over the world . . . has initiated a war at home on people who like to tie and hurt each other in the privacy of their own bedrooms.” The author’s advice to his kinky brethren in these troubled times is to be more frank about their sexual desires. In the book’s press material, he says, “If we don’t take credit for our sexual identities, we don’t have any political power. When you self-censor . .. they win.”
BEAT ME: Memories of a tumultuous childhood invariably intrude on Elliott’s scenes of S&M.
The vaguely chronological collection follows a narrator who most of the time is unnamed. (In “Other Desires,” which first appeared as a chapter in Elliott’s novel Happy Baby, he is referred to as “Theo.”) Like Elliott, he’s the product of an erratic, violent Chicago home and the state facilities in which he spent the majority of his teens. And, also like Elliott, he’s a submissive with a kink streak that stretches back to his late teens, at which time he harbored fantasies about his group-home mom dressing him in women’s underwear and parading him around on a leash.
His fantasies would eventually become a fetish “for being burned and cut and spit on.” No surprise that he finds trouble as he looks for ways to sate his desires. In the first of these stories, “First Things First,” he is tied to a bed, his body grazed by a knife-wielding Dutch dominatrix in an Amsterdam hotel room.
Elliott’s spare, understated style is a good counterpoint to the sensational subject matter. In the title story, the protagonist meets up with his girlfriend in the city (San Francisco, where Elliott himself now lives). Elliott’s description of their night together is so matter-of-fact that you might not register a passage like “She stripped me naked and kept her own clothes on. She gave me a hard spanking. She grabbed my hair and banged my head into the floor several times.” Then the tone shifts: “It was all made up. A game. But I started to feel sad when she mentioned my father.” The narrator left home at 13, but then his father “caught me and beat me and shaved my head and the state took custody. . . . We try to mend things but I get these letters from him and it’s just too much. He thinks he’s the victim.” The narrator’s sexual desire is invariably enmeshed with his tumultuous past. When a dominatrix works him over, he thinks about his childhood and his father. Or as he says flatly, “I eroticize my childhood abuse.”
Elliott distinguishes “kinky” from healthy S&M. And his book’s happy ending (an epilogue called “My Mainstream Girlfriend”) doesn’t involve discarding his fetish. Instead, he discovers that he’s able to play in the bedroom without dragging his past into it: “This time, instead of thinking about my father and all the bad stuff that happened to me when I was younger, I’m thinking about what she looks like fucking me. I’m also thinking about a hamburger and a chocolate shake. . . . It’s a deep hunger, a deep sex hunger. That’s not just normal, that’s all-American.”
, Steve Almond, Stephen Elliott, IAN SANDS Book