sex, shame, and videotape
I used to think, like Tom Petty, that “the waaaiting is the hardest part….” After mailing each issue of the ‘zine, I’m on pins and needles, waiting for the responses to trickle in. I’ve never yet managed to feel confident enough about my writing that I’m—like—whatever…. But after “mary’s first porno” hit the streets (see #10 January 2001), I was especially nervous. I had great fun writing that piece, and I thought it turned out fairly light and humorous, compared with, say, The Story of O. But you never know if something that’s funny or interesting to you is going to translate to anyone else. And the responses I received to that issue tell me that the beauty (or not) of every piece of writing is in the eye of the beholder. I always thought that if only I were a good enough writer, everyone would like what I wrote. And now I know it isn’t true. What the reader brings to the page is every bit as important as what the writer puts on it. This is huge, for me.
But I’m getting ahead of myself. I discovered that waiting is not the hardest part. As it happened, the first response I got, two long days after mailing the first batch, was from someone I love and respect who was very uncomfortable with the porno story and said she would “never have gone there.” Instead of taking this at face value as an expression of her own feelings (which it was), I panicked. My blood ran cold, then red hot. It was my worst fear. I had crossed boundaries, broken taboos. I had offended my readers’ sensibilities. I had exposed myself, and now I couldn’t take any of it back. It felt like the biggest mistake of my life.
I didn’t know what to do. I had already mailed out most of the copies and was imagining that everyone I knew and cared about was cringing at my words and calling me a pervert. I pictured mouths dropping open across the land, one time zone after another. Why had I ventured out on such a creaky limb? What was I thinking? I planned all sorts of desperate measures. There were still eight copies to be mailed, and I thought about cutting that story out of those copies and pretending it was just a short issue. Restaurants and cats—let’s stay on safe ground from now on. I even thought of canceling my session with J that week. I couldn’t imagine facing anyone who had read that story. I spent most of the day in bed, under the covers, rigid with shame.
I tried to tell myself that people are responsible for their own feelings—that I was just the messenger bringing the message of their own shame or lack of it. But it didn’t really help. It simply wasn’t possible for me to believe that my friend’s response was hers alone. It triggered something too deep in me, too shameful, something of long standing—just as, probably, my story had done to her.
[2009 update: Recently, my friend asked me to send her the issue again, and she enjoyed it this time.]
Shame isn’t rational; it’s a powerful emotion, learned early. I can trace my earliest experience of shame (my earliest memory of it, anyway) back to the age of 4 or 5, when my cousin Donny and I—partners in pre-pre-pre-pubescent crime—were playing house. Husband comes home from work and finds wife taking a bath—naked, of course. I don’t know why we had chosen that particular scenario; we were much too young to have lascivious thoughts, and there was no touching. But I imagine kids play house in an attempt to manage feelings about the family, especially the feelings of powerlessness of being a child. And in a completely mundane sense, you don’t take a bath with your clothes on, and Daddy doesn’t come home from work naked! Anyway, when my mother came upstairs and found us like that, she completely lost it. I remember lying in bed later, banished to my room, hearing her turn away another friend who had come over to play: “Mary can’t come out now, she’s being punished.” More than the words, I felt the anger and disgust in her voice pour directly on my heart and brain, branding me. I was a tiny computer, processing the information: The body is bad. I have a body. Ergo, I am bad. (I was a tiny computer that hadn’t yet learned the classical logical fallacies.)
Back to the ‘zine. I e-mailed apologies to those I had addresses for and wrote notes to the rest. The responses have been incredibly affirming. I can’t quote from the wonderful phone calls I received, but here’s a sample of some of the mail (apologies in advance for the self-horn-tooting):
… I absolutely loved it; I laughed out loud the whole way through…. I hate thinking you spent one minute feeling you had to apologize. I guess that’s human nature though. And, just like painting, I imagine really putting yourself out there can result in major contraction and self-doubt as the mind scrambles for safe ground….
… I appreciate your writing about the taboos and daring to go somewhere most people wouldn’t dream! So keep writing!
i say hurrah for MMMMMMaaaaaarrry. you crossed a line. marched straight into the wilderness of our shames and humiliations and sang out loud in a manner that for others like me the air opened up, creating more space for courage and play and fun. i could FEEL the fun you had writing the piece, and that was a flavor that gave me a passport to enter into a space that has been off limits to me. limits guarded by my own quivering fearful shamedness. hurrah hurray for mary….
Dear Editor w/Vulnerable Heart….. I thought your porno piece was a riot! I loved it….
No apologies needed. Your writing, as always and no matter what the subject matter, is bright, funny, touching, and engaging. You bring renewed life and validity to the inner personal world, carrying your readers through the intriguing maze of observation and reflection. How’s that for a review?! Carry on!….
I was saving my mary’zine to savor with Sunday morning coffee, but the note I received today carried the imperative to learn the nature of your distress. I was sorry to hear that one person’s reaction to your recent edition caused such remorse that you felt compelled to apologize to your readers. Then I think, perhaps the apology wasn’t directed to your entire readership. Maybe I am on the list of “questionables.” If such is the case, please edit my name from that database, as I’m a true blue Mary McKenney fan. Your stories may be unique, but the feelings, and quite often, the experiences, are universal. Please, don’t stop taking risks with your writing. Please don’t stop exploring, and please keep sharing. Always a grateful and appreciative recipient of “mary’zine”….
Now that I can hold my head up again and face my adoring public, I can see that it was a liberating experience to write that story, because I unburdened myself of one of my darkest secrets: Yes, I used to be a librarian. But seriously, folks. As I replied to the last person quoted above, “In the past few days, I’ve learned a lot about the isolation of shame, and about the beauty and generosity of people like you who have welcomed me out of that isolation.” To hear so many strong words of support was like being welcomed back into the human family, from which I had exiled myself—to my own bedroom, to lie in the dark, being punished. My mother is gone now, but the software lingers on.
To be fair, not everyone was wildly appreciative of my story. One person bemoaned the fact that I had put the image of *n*s l*ck*ng into her head for the better part of the day. Actually, it was probably the worst part of the day. She said she wouldn’t want to pass this issue along to any of her friends who have small children. I agree wholeheartedly. You must treat the mary’zine as a controlled substance. Keep it out of the hands of precocious preschoolers, nosy fifth graders, randy teens. Avoid sharing it with the frail elderly, the weak of heart, the humor-challenged. Keep it away from homophobes, right-wing fundamentalists, cat haters, the mentally unbalanced, the stark raving mad, and anyone who’s likely to come after me with a gun. Other than that, please share the ‘zine (the blog) with your friends. Do your part to make the mary’zine (the blog) an underground sensation.
See, with the mary’zine, you never know what you’re going to get—hard-hitting news, human interest stories of compassion and rollicking humor, shocking revelations. Well, not so much hard-hitting news, I guess, unless you consider it news that my cat likes tuna-flavored laxative. Oh, and by the way, he l*cks his *n*s regularly.
Here but for the grace of God go you.
If it had been up to my mother, I would have had all my teeth pulled when I was 13. She herself had gotten full dentures at the age of 30, so to her it was just a matter of time, and why wait? “You know,” she’d threaten, “I wouldn’t be at all surprised if Dr. NEM [Name Escapes Me] decided to pull them all and get it over with one of these days.” I was terrified whenever she talked like this. I thought frizzy hair was bad? I thought having pimples was bad? Try starting high school with FALSE TEETH. I lived in mortal fear of the dentist. Everyone in my family had bad teeth, but he held me personally responsible for every cavity. And the bastard did manage to pull most of my back teeth, but I escaped with the ones you could see. I had to eat like a chipmunk for years.
As an adult, I’ve had to endure countless hours in the dentist’s chair, making up for Dr. NEM’s handiwork. In the mid-‘70s, I had long bridges installed in all four corners of my mouth, and they have required continual maintenance over the years, usually involving ghastly feats of mechanical engineering. The record so far is 7 STRAIGHT HOURS in the chair as the valiant Dr. Johnson tried mightily to save a tooth by doing a root canal but had to give up eventually because it kept crumbling under the drill. By the end of the 7 hours, I don’t know who was a bigger wreck, me or her. I think we were both ready to jump off the Golden Gate Bridge—me with my mouth locked wide open, her leaning over me with the drill, making one last stab at saving the tooth.
Dr. Johnson quit the profession soon after that, I hope not entirely because of me. My current dentist, Dr. Potter, is a worthy successor. And he knows when to quit. When I went in for yet another root canal recently, he sawed off the bridge, examined the offending tooth, and declared it hopeless and pulled it instead. Unbeknownst to me, this was the high point of my day.
Dr. Potter is a great dentist and also one of the kindest men I’ve ever known, but he tends to say things like, “Let’s get Mr. Tongue out of the way” as he comes at me with yet another new contraption to stick in my mouth. I’m always on the verge of hysterical giggles when I’m there anyway, and that kind of remark doesn’t help. This time I beg him for a Valium or something to calm me down—apparently he doesn’t believe in nitrous oxide—and he gives me a pill called Atanol. I think it should be called Notatall, because it doesn’t do much—except I find it slightly easier than usual to deal with the tray of goop he puts in my mouth to take an impression for the new bridge. To keep from gagging, I have to YELL at myself (internally, of course), “Think about your nose!” for the 2 or 3 minutes it takes for the goop to set. He also gives me a high-dose “cocktail” of ibuprofen and acetaminophen before he pulls the tooth. And of course I’ve had several shots of Novocain. I neglect to tell him I have already taken two Excedrin that morning. I am better stocked than your neighborhood pharmacy at this point.
Getting on toward lunch, I start to feel a little weak, so I drink two small cartons of soy milk I have brought with me. I congratulate myself on my foresight. Dr. Potter finishes up and I leave, feeling a little sick to my stomach. The soy milk went down pretty good, but it comes up even easier in the restroom of the Sutter-Stockton garage. Also, my body chooses this moment, this place and time, to let me know that I now have urinary incontinence while barfing. Nice. My pants are soaked, so I get a plastic bag out of the trunk of my car to put on the driver’s seat. I pull out of the garage into the pouring rain, praying to make it home without further incident. I make it out of the city and through the rainbow tunnel into Marin, but by then it’s hailing, and I’m not feeling so hot. So I pull off at the Spencer Ave. exit above Sausalito and throw up in a paper bag. I look out the window and vaguely register that there is snow on the ground. I feel like I’m in a dream. A police car cruises slowly by. I wonder if they do police escorts for nauseated dental patients. I kind of hope he’ll stop and ask me if everything’s OK ma’am. I could use a knight in shining armor about now.
Suddenly, I realize the bag is leaking. I grab a newspaper to put under it, but not before my urine-soaked pants get dribbled on. Believe it or not, this sounds more gross than it felt at the time. There was a surreal quality to the whole thing, a kind of state you get into when it’s all about survival and you can’t afford to dwell on the gory details. I spend so much of my life worrying about things that could happen, and then when something does happen that I could never have anticipated, I just do what I have to do. It’s reassuring, in a way.
So I get home, throw up once more for good measure, and crawl into bed. I feel like I have had a day of chemo. Every time I get up and try to eat something—some nice hot soup, some nice hot tea—I feel too sick to finish it. Strangely, the only thing I’m able to eat all day is some leftover rice and lemon chicken at 8 p.m. Go figure. I sleep all night and get up at 5 a.m. feeling great.
I drive to Berkeley for my 9 a.m. therapy appointment. J has read the ‘zine by now, so we spend the whole hour talking about masturbation and other sexual topics. Before I wrote that story, I hadn’t used the word “masturbation” in 8 years of therapy. I have since used it approximately 82 times. It’s liberating. On my way home, I sing along with the Divinyls on the radio: “When I think about you, I touch myself.” I tell you, it’s everywhere.
I know this whole sex thing seems like a tempest in a teapot to some of you, but we don’t get to pick and choose our challenges. Sometimes it’s about telling it like it is and risking offense by “oversharing.” Sometimes it’s about enduring—improvising, surviving—when you thought you knew what the big challenge of the day was going to be. Root canal? Forget it. You’re going to spend the day losing your bodily fluids in a freakin’ hailstorm. And I have a feeling the challenges are not going to decrease as I get older. Time is accelerating—the past is bumping up against the future—and events are accumulating meaning like a snowball rolling downhill. Let’s get Mr. Tongue out of the way, shall we? It looks like it’s going to be a wild, wild ride.