Taming the Beast
Only two novels have ever made me sob in a café. I don’t mean that I blinked a couple of tears from my eyes and looked around soulfully. My face was smeared with the tears I’d unsuccessfully tried to wipe away, my nose was running and, as I came up on the worst bits, I made little mewling sounds. I put the book down and breathed slowly to regain control, but couldn’t stop reading for more than a few seconds. One of the books those books was Anna Karenina. The other was ‘Taming the Beast’.
The first time I read it I was in a spin for a week. Near the end I was in a café in Derry, ignoring my lunch, unable to stop reading, but pausing sometimes to search for a dry patch of handkerchief. My boyfriend came back from his errand to find me with a red, puffy face and a bowl of cold broth. I tried to explain: he was dangerous, she was going to let him have her, and I wanted her to, and I wanted him to, and it was so, so, awful. A week later he bought me a copy of ‘The Courage To Heal’, he clearly thought that the only explanation for such twisted thinking was the trauma of abuse. Lacking any such history, though, I’m still looking for other reasons.
I’ve reread the book twice this year. It’s about a girl who loves poems and her English teacher, the affair they have when she’s fourteen and the affair they have when she’s twenty-two. It’s got white panties, asphyxiation, a precocious girl and a stern older man, but my reaction goes beyond my list of kinks. It isn’t porn, there’s an emotional truth it in that I can’t quite decipher.
The first time I read it, I’d just finished ‘Daddy’s Girl’, a story about a woman who plays the little girl to her sadistic ‘Daddy’. It’s a story that starts as porn, for those of us who like that sort of thing: naughty girls being spanked, special clothing to be torn off during rapes in the garden, a rich, sophisticated man who knows his girl is special.* It becomes a story about how reality reasserts itself: Daddy’s doesn’t always know best and sometimes he isn’t there when you need him, you might just have to stand on your own. That upset me, because I want the fantasy of an older man who’ll always love me and always make things right. I want it the same way I think some people want God, as a self-validation and a safety net rolled into one. All the same, ‘Taming the Beast’ leaves me with a greater sense of loss.
In ‘Daddy’s Girl’ the narrator loses her Daddy when she realises that the man can’t live up to the fantasy. Sarah, the narrator of ‘Taming the Beast’, sees her lover’s self-justifications, his blaming her for his loss of control, the fact that his need to beat her is at odds with his position as the sensible, caring adult who should be in charge. Sarah is under no illusions, she knows he’s a sadistic criminal, and she wants it, she’ll give up everything for it. She doesn’t care if she dies.
Then he lifted his head, looked into her eyes and slapped her hard across the face. ‘Dear God, Sarah! Why won’t you let me do this right? Why won’t you let me treat you with respect?’
Sarah knew that he could not see how ridiculous his question was. He didn’t see that biting her legs and slapping her face was less satisfying than a mutually satisfying screw. She didn’t know why this intrigued her when any sane person would be disturbed. She could see the twisted logic, the distorted morality, the dangerous self-justification; it’s just that she didn’t mind.
I think that’s what upsets me. Not only seeing the limitations of the fantasy, as in ‘Daddy’s Girl’, but knowing that the impulse doesn’t dissipate, even when it is demonstrated that it’s flawed. There’s something akin to Sarah’s decision at the centre of most of my kinks, the choosing something without reference to the self. Submission involves a suppression of the self, pain reduces the self by narrowing focus to sensation and shutting everything else out, and pain that seems unbearable is not only engrossing, but pushes you to a limit at which you’ll happily give up anything, if only that will make it stop. Pain trumps integrity. In a sense, my kinks involve chasing dissolution of myself, and I’m sad that I can’t take it as far as the impulse goes, because I have other priorities: staying alive, achieving something, independence from fallible lovers and crutches.
On the other hand, interesting and Bataillian as this analysis is, I do wonder if my feelings are baser. I envy Sarah her story. I want to be the girl whose teacher loves her enough to risk seducing her, beat her, teach her poetry and come back for her eight years later when she’s all grown up. I’m disappointed that I can’t have that in real life, which seems mundane and filled with ordinariness and washing up in comparison. Then it struck me that I did have what Sarah had when I was fourteen, and it felt very different.
I was one of those teenagers who suddenly discovered the power of her sexuality and couldn’t restrain myself to trying to form a relationship with one of the boys of the best local independent. I wanted to be thought irresistible by everyone: the bus driver, the teachers, friend’s brothers, friend’s fathers, and probably any workmen visiting friends’ houses. I remember getting cold in the doorway turning the charm on the pizza delivery guy (and I got cold pizza, too). My school made us wear blue check summer dresses, primary-school style, until we were sixteen (my mother memorably told the head they were ‘a paedophile’s delight’). I used to loll in the grounds under the cherry trees, wearing daisy chain circlets and reddening my lips with sticky cherry lollipops, parodying what I was. Now, I associate the memory of my doing that with one man.
He was a friend’s father. He worked in publishing, in a low-level job that sounded much more impressive at the time. Like Sarah’s Mr. Carr, he told me I was brilliant, intelligent, and understood him like no one else. He showed me his poetry, which he’d shown no one before, not even his wife. He taught me the word ‘pertinent’. He played me the Sisters of Mercy and he told me about Ruskin’s love life. I felt special, beautiful, chosen. Then one weekend, at my friend’s sleepover, in the kitchen, next to the living room where his wife and daughter were having breakfast, he put his hand up my nightdress and onto my breast. I left the kitchen. He sat next to me on the sofa and drew my duvet across his lap. He held my hand. I thought that perhaps he was sorry. He pulled my hand across to his hot, hard penis. I looked down at his daughter sitting by our feet. I didn’t know what to say, so I just pulled my hand away, and put it, which the other, on top of the duvet.
Writing this I feel disgusted, angry, ashamed, let down by all the people who should have educated me about what to do in such circumstances (I had nails!), guilty and sad. I don’t feel turned on. For months I avoided accepting lifts and visits with varying amounts of success, for years I blamed myself, I still feel terrible that I didn’t say something to someone who could have curbed his activities. I realise that none of this was particularly hard-core, but there’s one notable thing about it: it isn’t seductive like ‘Taming the Beast’. I could argue that Sarah’s lover was more handsome, erudite, etc. He undoubtedly was from her perspective, but like me she saw through his conflicting and simultaneously held visions of who he was (and who she was, for that matter). I saw through my molester, too, but it mattered less when our shared activity was preferring poems to chemistry homework. A hand on the penis is a great clarifier: I enjoyed admiration, but wasn’t foolish enough to desire him. I knew, even then, that I was better than that.
I think my tears throughout ‘Taming the Beast’ are for a fantasy shattered. I fall into it again every time, I want to be the girl who knows her Keats so well that her teacher can’t help himself. And then, as the plot progresses, and Sarah gives up more and more (including, eventually, her studies of poetry) I want to follow her, so very badly, but I can see clearly, and I’m sad that what ought to be raging passion turns out to be nothing but gropes beside the toaster and furtive grabbing under a duvet while watching daytime television.* I’m crying for the limited nature of every role play scene, and the fact that I have to be a grown up and look after myself.
I’ve read it twice this year, and I know it backwards. I want more books like this in my life. So, dearest readers, since you’ve made it through 1,500 words of post, will you do one more thing for me? Tell me which books leave you off-balance and make you ask questions about who you are. I do so very much want to know.
*It’s unfortunately got all the hallmarks of paperback pornography, too: long passages during which the author describes her bottom, and a world in which inappropriate behaviour is always an accepted sexual advance. I can’t think what would be said if I decided to take a bath with the door open half way through one of my friend’s parties. I imagine it wouldn’t be, “that Not, she just can’t help doing sexy things!” Feel free to invite me to better parties.
**This point could be made just as well with ‘Lolita’, but everyone’s already read that, and they should be spending more time talking about Nabokov’s amazing language, narratorial perspective and tension, anyway.