October 5th, 2009

A book that changed my life!

The most recent This American Life (PRI/Chicago Public Radio, carried on most NPR affiliates, podcasts available as well) was a rebroadcast of “The Book That Changed Your Life,” and featured a hilarious segment by David Sedaris describing an event from his youth when he and his sisters came into possession of a trashy, pornographic novel full of incest and depravity going on in some kind of suburban setting. During the days of this book, as it was passed among Sedaris and his siblings, they came to suspect that under the thin veneer of life as they thought they had known it, there was a world of rampant, insatiable and bizarre sexuality, involving everyone that they knew.

This story reminded me of some books that had what might be called a life-changing impact on me. Well, that might be a bit of an exaggeration, but these particular books I have in mind certainly occupied a good deal of my attention for a fairly long time.  They were items from my mother’s secret stash of sex books, such things as the Art of Sensual Massage (replete with black and white photos of naked hairy people massaging each other); a couple of books by Xaviera Hollander (the so-called “Happy Hooker”); and, towering above all the others in its significance (and erection-inducing capacity), Nancy Friday’s stunningly frank anthology of male sex confessions Men in Love, a real classic of the genre to this day. Sure it was vaguely interesting (and a bit creepy) to examine the naked photos in the massage book. Yeah, my jaw hung open in astonishment at Hollander’s perky account of how she took a fourteen-year-old boy’s virginity while his still-younger brother was left to pout in the next room. But the real shit was in Friday’s book.

A thick tome, hundreds of pages of sex and sex and more sex, Men in Love was a major project for me for…I don’t know, a while. Months at least. The content of it is simply one first-person account after another of sexual experiences and sexual fantasies, which I believe she gathered simply by having guys write to her. These stories, accounts, confessions are organized into categories such as masturbation and homosexuality…and some categories that I found incredibly bizarre, such as the “Oedipus complex” section. My immersion in this book at a quite young age seems to have done two different things: 1) I did not really understand that a lot of what I was reading was likely sex fantasy and probably not necessarily real accounts of actual experiences, and so I had a period (similar to what Sedaris describes in his story) of imagining that the world of sex was far, far more varied and interesting and weird than it usually actually is, and that most people are probably secretly involved in some rather kinky activities; and 2) It may have contributed to the fact that I passed through puberty and my teenage years being (at least internally, privately) quite comfortable with things like samesex and opposite-sex interests and impulses because (if Men in Love was to be believed) practically everyone was having similar feelings, or even “weirder” ones. Like enjoying the drinking of urine during sex. Also, masturbation was totally non-controversial to me because I knew from my earliest days of it that everyone was doing that, too, whether they wanted to admit to it or not, and a lot of my evidence for this was contained in Men in Love.

I don’t actually own a copy of this book, and never have. I only read it during sessions of sneaking it out of my mother’s hiding spot when no one was home. If I were to happen upon it in a used bookshop, I might be tempted to bring it home and see if it still contains any of its kinky magic. Somehow, I doubt it would be the same. But it would be fun to page through it again and see what it makes me feel like all these years later.