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From the notoriously contrarian author of Against Love, a witty and probing examination of why badly behaved men have been her lifelong fascination, on and off the page
It’s no secret that men often behave in intemperate ways, but in recent years we’ve witnessed so many spectacular public displays of male excess—disgraced politicians, erotically desperate professors, fallen sports icons—that we’re left to wonder whether ...
From the notoriously contrarian author of Against Love, a witty and probing examination of why badly behaved men have been her lifelong fascination, on and off the page
It’s no secret that men often behave in intemperate ways, but in recent years we’ve witnessed so many spectacular public displays of male excess—disgraced politicians, erotically desperate professors, fallen sports icons—that we’re left to wonder whether something has come unwired in the collective male psyche.
In the essays collected here, Laura Kipnis revisits the archetypes of wayward masculinity that have captured her imagination over the years, scrutinizing men who have figured in her own life alongside more controversial public examples. Slicing through the usual clichés about the differences between the sexes, Kipnis mixes intellectual rigor and wit to give us compelling survey of the affinities, jealousies, longings, and erotics that structure the male-female bond.
—Publishers Weekly (starred review)
“Feisty, unapologetic forays into the messiness of gender relations… rendered in funny, spirited writing.”
“Men is a witty, incisive collection that exhibits just the right balance of empathy and suspicion for its subject. Kipnis is one of our keenest.”
—Sam Lipsyte, author of The Fun Parts
“Confusion is sex, as Sonic Youth proclaimed, and no one’s a better guide to the sexual confusion of the moment than Laura Kipnis. How can anyone so wise and tolerant about sexual politics also be so funny and entertaining? But don’t take a man’s word for it. Pick up the book.”
—Benjamin Kunkel, author of Utopia or Bust: A Guide to the Present Crisis
“Laura Kipnis’s voice is so intelligent and irreverent, her writing so honest and emotionally as well as intellectually incisive, that I’d gladly read her on any topic—but what she has to say about men, women, sex, and sexism is not to be missed. Whether she is writing about philandering husbands or university sexual harassment codes, she approaches her subject without ideological blinders; her take is invariably fresh, fair and respectful of the messy, imperfect thing we call the human heart.”
—Adelle Waldman, author The Love Affairs of Nathaniel P.
“What do men want? Laura Kipnis knows. Whether she’s aiming her devastating wit at rogues or reprobates, Lotharios or losers (and the women who love them), she’s as fiercely intelligent as she is illuminating. When it comes to our ongoing gender wars, few writing today possess her combination of insight and humor. None keep it as fun.”
—Adam Ross, author of Mr. Peanut
I met Hustler magazine’s obstreperous redneck publisher Larry Flynt twice, the first time before he started believing all the hype about himself and the second time after. By hype, I mean the uplifting stuff floated in Milos Forman’s mushily liberal biopic, The People vs. Larry Flynt, and dutifully parroted in the media coverage—that Flynt isn’t just a scumbag pornographer, he’s also some big First Amendment hero. I liked him better as a scumbag pornographer, though I realize this could be construed as its own form of perversity. Nevertheless, I had a certain investment in protecting my version of Flynt against Forman’s encroachments, though, as anyone can see, I was severely outgunned in this match.
The reason we’d met in the first place was that I’d written an ambivalently admiring essay about Flynt and Hustler, which the ghostwriter of his autobiography had come across and passed on to Larry, and which he’d apparently admired in turn. The ghostwriter contacted me. I was invited to drop in on Larry the next time I was in Los Angeles, and as it happened, I had plans to be there the following month. A meeting was thus arranged. If I said that getting together for a chat with Larry Flynt was an unanticipated turn of events, this would be a vast understatement. The whole reason I’d written about him so freely was that I never expected to face him in person and could therefore imagine him in ways that gratified my conception of who he should be: a white trash savant imbued with junkyard political savvy. In truth, I found the magazine completely disgusting—as I was meant to, obviously: it had long been the most reviled instance of mass-circulation pornography around and used people like me (shame-ridden bourgeois feminists and other elites) for target practice, with excremental grossness among its weapons of choice. It was also particularly nasty to academics who in its imagination are invariably prissy and uptight—sadly I’m one of this breed too. (A cartoon academic to his wife: “Eat your pussy? You forget, Gladys, I have a Ph.D.”)1
Maybe I yearned to be rescued from my primness, though Flynt was obviously no one’s idea of a white knight. (Of course, being attracted to what you’re also repelled by is not exactly unknown in human history.) For some reason, I tend to be drawn to excess: to men who laugh too loud and drink too much, who are temperamentally and romantically immoderate, have off-kilter politics and ideas. Aside from that, it also happened that in the period during which my ideas about things were being formed, the bawdy French satirist Rabelais was enjoying an intellectual revival in my sorts of circles, along with the idea of the “carnivalesque”: the realm of subversion and sacrilege—the grotesque, the unruly, the profane—where the lower bodily stratum and everything that emerges from it is celebrated for supposedly subverting established pieties and hierarchies.
I was intrigued by these kinds of ideas, despite—or more likely because of—my aforementioned primness. Contemplating where one might locate these carnivalesque impulses in our own time I’d immediately thought of Hustler, even though back then I had only the vaguest idea what bodily abhorrences awaited me within its shrink-wrapped covers (as if a thin sheet of plastic were sufficient to prevent seepage from the filth within). In fact, the first time I peeled away the protective casing and tried to actually read a copy, I was so disgusted I threw it away, I didn’t even want it in the house.
Eventually steeling myself against my umbrage, I mounted another attempt. Hustler’s assaults on taste and decency were indeed echt-Rabelaisian, I quickly saw, as even a partial inventory of its pet subjects will indicate: assholes, monstrous and gigantic sexual organs, body odors, anal sex, farting, and anything that exudes from the body—piss, shit, semen, menstrual blood—particularly when it sullies public, iconic, or sanctified places. Not for Hustler the airbrushed professional-class fantasies that fuel the Playboy and Penthouse imaginations. Instead, Hustler’s pictorials featured pregnant women, middle-aged women (denounced by horrified news commentaries as “geriatric pictorials”), hugely fat women, hermaphrodites, amputees, and—in a moment of true frisson for your typical heterosexual male—a photo spread of a pre-operative transsexual, doubly well endowed. In short, the Hustler body was a gaseous, fluid-emitting, embarrassing body forever defying social mores, and threatening to erupt at any moment. A repeated cartoon motif was someone accidentally defecating in church.
Basically, Hustler’s mission was to exhume and exhibit everything the bourgeois imagination had buried beneath heavy layers of shame, and as someone deeply constrained myself, whose inner life has been shaped by the very same repressions and pretensions Hustler is dedicated to mocking, the depths of its raunchiness often seemed directed at me personally. Reading it I felt implicated and exposed, even though theoretically I’m against all those repressions too. At least I wanted to be against them.
I immediately embarked on reading as many back issues of the magazine as I could locate. These were generally to be unearthed in the discount bins at the back of neighborhood porn stores—this was back in the pre-Internet days, when people had to actually leave their homes to procure porn. Hunting down old copies of Hustler became for a while my weekend hobby, the way some people go antiquing or collect Fiesta ware. Poring over my growing bounty of issues, I could see that Hustler was definitely upholding a venerable, centuries-long rabble-rousing tradition of political pornography, though it still completely grossed me out.
I wasn’t completely unaware of the irony involved in surveying Hustler from this somewhat rarefied intellectual vantage point, especially given how allergic the magazine itself is to all forms of social or intellectual affectation, squaring off like a maddened pit bull against the pretensions (and earning power) of the educated classes. That it was so often explicit about its class resentments reassured me that there was more going on than just raunch for its own sake, though its politics could also be maddeningly incoherent, with its arsenals of vulgarity deployed at American leaders and public figures on every side, systematically sullying every national icon and sacred cow. Of course it ranted against the power of government, by definition corrupt; dedicated countless pages to the hypocrisy of organized religion, with a nonstop parade of jokes on the sexual predilections of the clergy, the sexual possibilities of the crucifixion, the scam of the virgin birth, and the bodily functions of nuns, priests, and ministers; and especially despised liberals (along with, needless to say, feminists), all epitomes of bourgeois conventionality in its book.
Yet the magazine was also far less entrenched in misogyny than I’d assumed. What it’s against isn’t women so much as sexual repression, which includes conventional uptight femininity, though within its pages, not everyone who’s sexually repressed, uptight and feminine is necessarily female: prissy men were frequently in the crosshairs too. In fact, Hustler was often surprisingly dubious about the status of men, not to mention their power and potency; often perplexed about male and female sexual incompatibility. On the one hand, you certainly found the standard men’s magazine fantasy bimbette: always ready, always horny, up for anything, and inexplicably attracted to the Hustler male. But just as often there was her flip side: the leagues of women disgusted by the Hustler male’s sexuality—haughty, rejecting (thus deeply desirable), upper-class bitch-goddesses. Class resentment was modulated through resentment of women’s power to humiliate: “Beauty isn’t everything, except to the bitch who’s got it. You see her stalking the aisles of Cartier, stuffing her perfect face at exorbitant cuisineries, tooling her Jag along private-access coastline roads.…” Hardly the usual compensatory fantasy life mobilized by typical men’s magazines, where all women are willing and all men are studs, as long as they identify upward, with money, power, and consumer durables.
Once you put aside your assumptions about Hustler-variety porn aiding and abetting male power, you can’t help noticing how much vulnerability stalks these pages. Even the ads play off male anxieties: various sorts of penis enlargers (“Here is your chance to overcome the problems and insecurities of a penis that is too small. Gain self-confidence and your ability to satisfy women will skyrocket,” reads a typical ad), penis extenders, and erection aids (Stay-Up, Sta-Hard, etc.). The magazine is saturated with frustrated desire and uncertainty: sex is an arena for potential failure, not domination. You don’t get the sense that the Hustler reader is feeling particularly triumphal about his place in the world; that these guys are winners in the sexual caste system.
I wrote up my somewhat conflicted thoughts about Hustler’s pornographic truths and Flynt’s self-styled war against social hypocrisy, and though I took a somewhat sardonic approach to both, I suppose I ended up kind of a fan. A nation gets the pornography it deserves, which is obviously why so many people are affronted by it. Once the essay came out I kept getting requests to write more about pornography, which was irksome because I was never all that crazy about any of it, Rabelais notwithstanding. Still, I guess you could say Flynt turned out to be kind of an influence in my life.
* * *
So there I was, a self-appointed expert on all things Hustler, seated across from the founding father himself in his thickly carpeted penthouse emporium atop the huge kidney-shaped office tower on Wilshire Boulevard, the one with his name emblazoned on the roof in towering letters that you can see for miles. If the magazine is a battleground of sex and vulgarity, Flynt’s office was no less an assault on the senses: Tiffany lamps dueling with garish rococo furniture, gold and velvet-covered clashing everything—it looked like armies of rival interior decorators had fought and died on the job. The surprisingly charming Flynt presided over this expensive-looking mishmash from his famous gold-plated wheelchair (a long-ago assassination attempt by a professed white supremacist enraged by Hustler’s interracial pictorials had left him paralyzed from the waist down2). All those years in the chair have given him an extreme case of middle-aged spread: his face has a melted quality, with only a hint of the self-confident cockiness from old pictures. Newly image-conscious with Forman’s biopic about to be released, he told me immediately that he was on a diet. “I may be a cripple, but I don’t have to be a fat cripple,” he chortled hoarsely.
This helped break the ice, though I was still in a state of mental confusion, faced with this large, damaged, flesh-and-blood man in place of my theoretical construct. On the one hand, I felt like I knew him intimately, having spent so much time conjuring him in my imagination and then crafting him on the page, but at another level everything was also unbridgeable between us. He, of course, had spent no time imagining me, I assumed, though he did pronounce my essay on him “feisty.” This pleased me a little too much—I wanted his good opinion, yet I also wanted not to care about what he thought of me. I also wasn’t sure if by “feisty” he meant the various potshots I’d taken at him in print or just that I’d bucked received feminist wisdom about the magazine, which had not exactly been popular in those precincts.
He wanted to correct me on one point, he said. I’d repeated what I’d read elsewhere—that the shooting and surgeries had left him with no bowel or urinary control, an ironic fate for a man who’d built an empire offending bourgeois sensibilities with their horror of errant bodily functions. To compound the ironies, this man who’d raked in millions on the fantasy of endlessly available fucking was also left impotent—or so I’d written. Flynt said it was the only thing I’d gotten wrong: he’d never been impotent. This seemed like rather intimate territory given the brevity of our acquaintance. I said I’d take his word for it.
Having cleared that up, we talked more easily about my essay and his magazine, then he invited the ghostwriter (also in attendance) and me to tag along to a private movie screening up in the Hollywood Hills. Which we did, and afterward trailed Larry and his small entourage to a late-night deli in Beverly Hills. He was gracious and congenial, but I never lost the double consciousness of feeling I was accompanying a character sprung from the recesses of my own fantasies.
This feeling was compounded when the ghostwriter sent me an advance copy of the autobiography a short time later. I was taken aback yet, I have to admit, gratified to find that passages I’d written about Hustler had been inserted into Larry’s mouth as his first-person account of himself. Another passage, followed by my name, had been excerpted and reproduced on the back cover in the form of a blurb, just below the ones by Oliver Stone and Milos Forman.
I mention this to explain why my attitude toward Flynt may have a certain proprietary quality: it’s because I invented him. Or let’s say I invented a version of him that I found palatable, and he went along with it. If only other men I’ve known had been so compliant. (Isn’t this one of the main factors in relationship failure, by the way: other people not conforming to your idea of who they should be?) Though I never really got the impression Flynt had a very firmly fixed idea about who he was in the first place; I suspect he’s more of a scavenger when it comes to identity, which was fine with me. I just wanted him to stay the way I’d fantasized him.
* * *
Which, as I’ve mentioned, was a lot different from the way filmmaker Milos Forman fantasized him.
Pained liberalism is the predominant sentiment in The People vs. Larry Flynt. Pornography may be a necessary evil, but Forman personally dislikes it and wanted it known, once the movie was released, that he’d never personally purchased a copy of Hustler. On my part, I at least sat down and forced myself to read the thing. I may have been disgusted by Flynt but I was willing to learn from him; Forman was all about teaching Flynt an etiquette lesson. The result is a masterfully made movie that sanitizes Flynt’s cantankerous, contrarian life and career into one long, noble crusade for the First Amendment, while erasing everything that’s most interesting about the magazine, namely the way it links bourgeois bodily discretion to political and social hypocrisy. The movie reeks of class condescension. I bristled on Larry’s behalf, though needless to say he was basking in the attention, mostly worried about his waistline and promoting the upcoming autobiography.
For Forman, Flynt’s story was about “becoming an American, a politically cognizant citizen”—as though he wasn’t one to begin with. It may have been Czech émigré Forman’s love letter to American democracy, but it’s also a stunningly undemocratic one if it turns out that political cognizance is the province of the educated classes and Flynt has to learn good citizenship at the feet of his betters. As he does here, under the tutelage of his lawyer, Alan Isaacman (a composite of Flynt’s many lawyers over the years, as he required a small army of them)—predictably, the character with the most education becomes the movie’s moral center.
The movie does at least dramatize how ready a nation founded on the principle of free speech was to back up its codes of social propriety with storm troopers: Flynt is variously gagged with electrical tape, carted off to jail for disrupting courtroom proceedings, and sent to a psychiatric prison for smart-mouthing a judge. To the sober-sided Isaacman, Flynt’s behavior is simply crazy: why would a sane person defy the law? Probably because for Flynt it was just another scam. It thus became his compulsion to locate every loophole he could in the nation’s obscenity laws, and use them to taunt his fellow citizens; his favored tactic being to systematically and extravagantly violate, in the grossest way possible, each and every deeply held social taboo, norm, and propriety he could find.
Failing to appreciate the neo-Rabelaisian inventiveness, the nation responded with its knee-jerk response to all perceived insults and injuries: the lawsuit. Flynt was endlessly clapped in jail on obscenity charges brought by the state, and spent upwards of $50 million over the years defending himself against the hundreds of civil suits brought by his outraged targets. Then there were the contempt charges. Flynt loved playing the wild man in official settings, and in the years following the shooting, his public behavior became even more bizarre—in constant pain, he’d become addicted to morphine and Dilaudid, finally detoxing to methadone. He famously appeared in court sporting an American flag as a diaper and was arrested; at another trial, described by the local paper as “legal surrealism,” his own attorney requested permission to gag his unruly client. On one of his Supreme Court pilgrimages, Flynt got himself arrested for shouting at the justices, “You’re nothing but eight assholes and a token cunt!”
It’s one of the all-time great lines in the annals of uncivil disobedience, but Forman despises these bad-boy theatrics; Flynt’s dissidence makes him uncomfortable. Instead, for him the hero of the story is the Supreme Court (he’s said as much in interviews). Flynt only deserves our respect when he starts kowtowing to the state: proper citizenship in this movie means obeisance and sucking up to power; freedom means the freedom to conform. When Flynt finally behaves himself and shuts up for the first time at the landmark Falwell libel trial, that’s the film’s moment of triumph. When Isaacman beams approval at Flynt for finally acting like a grown-up, tears welled in my eyes—that’s how adept Forman is at peddling this pap. Repackaging Flynt’s raunchy career into a tribute to American tolerance, wrapping it up in Hollywood’s favorite narrative cliché, personal growth—it’s exactly the kind of syrupy sentimentality Hustler always ridiculed. But so what—you’re going to leave the theater snuggled in a big, warm self-congratulatory glow, whether you want to or not. Look how great we are! Long live America! Lost amidst the flag-hoisting is the awkward fact that Hustler’s entire reason for existing was to crap on this sort of national self-idealization.
Of course, as Forman himself said, he’d never actually read the magazine. His contempt for it leads him to miss the crux of the story: the hero wasn’t the Supreme Court. It’s been pornography that’s pushed the boundaries of political speech ever since the invention of print. The interesting paradox is that as long as political and religious authorities keep trying to suppress them, obscenity and blasphemy will always be wonderfully effective ways of mounting social criticism. Flynt didn’t invent the tactic, though he did use it to leverage his unique brand of anti-authoritarianism into an empire.
Please don’t think I’m mounting an argument for liking Hustler—quite the opposite. The existential dilemma of obscenity is that it requires our inhibitions in order to be effective. So let’s hear it for sexual propriety and shockability, which were, among other things, Flynt’s ticket out of grinding rural poverty—born in Magoffin County, Kentucky, then the poorest county in America, the son of a pipewelder, Flynt is very much the product of the white trash demographic the magazine supposedly addresses. From Magoffin County to Beverly Hills: if anyone owes a debt to sexual repression, it’s Larry Flynt, though you might say the same of Freud too, who built a nice little career for himself on similar foundations.
* * *
I imagine the dilemma for anyone who’s had a movie made about his life is whether you end up consciously or unconsciously transforming yourself into the movie’s version of you. After Forman’s film converted Flynt from loathsome pariah to chubby-cheeked media darling, after he watched Manhattan’s glitterati coo over his supposed life story at the closing night of the New York Film Festival and was jetted to Czechoslovakia with director Forman to screen the movie for fellow dissident Václav Havel—after Flynt chose Forman’s version of him over mine, in other words—what was to become of him and his unbeloved magazine?
Hoping to capitalize on the buzz from the movie, Flynt issued his ghostwritten autobiography, An Unseemly Man: My Life as Pornographer, Pundit, and Social Outcast, shortly later, another attempt at repackaging his life story in an audience-soothing way. Yes, it’s sprinkled with bestiality, sybaritic sex, drugs, and vulgarity, but more often it’s the new, “improved” Larry Flynt sauntering through the pages: waxing patriotic, spouting platitudes—“America is the greatest country in the world because it’s the freest”—and analyzing himself in the upper-middlebrow idioms of pop psychology.
After all those years of using the national stage as a public toilet, now Larry wants our love? His version of his life was as sappy as Forman’s.
When I met up with him next—he was visiting Chicago on a publicity stint for the book—he was still floating in a post-biopic bubble, which I found myself wanting to puncture. I asked him if it felt weird to be receiving so much media adulation—did he resent people trying to clean him up, to make him palatable to middle America? He said, “What’s weird isn’t getting all the attention now; what felt strange was being so vilified for all those years.”
The vilification had indeed been pretty intense. Even after the assassination attempt, the country’s reaction was barely sympathetic. Flynt had made a national nuisance of himself, like some attention-grabbing overgrown adolescent boy mooning the guests at a church social, and the general attitude was that he more or less got what he deserved. News reports of the shooting took a sardonic tone: Time billed it “The Bloody Fall of a Hustler.” The thing worth saying, though, is that unlike your run-of-the-mill pornographer, Flynt’s own body has been on the line too, including, it turned out, as a sacrifice for America’s long history of racial pathology. That Flynt, who was regularly accused of racism, was shot and paralyzed by a white supremacist outraged about Hustler’s liberality on interracial sex—another sensitivity the magazine trod upon long before it was an unremarkable thing—was another twist in an exceedingly convoluted story.
Still in bubble-puncturing mode, I told him I thought the movie had sanitized him too much. He readily agreed, but added earnestly, “If the First Amendment can protect even a scumbag like me, then it will protect all of you, because I’m the worst.” It was a mawkishly noble sentiment, and also a line directly from Forman’s movie script—hearing it from both “real” Larry and movie Larry, I cringed on each occasion.
Or maybe I’m being too hard on him. Who can hold out forever against the malign forces of conventionality? No doubt my Flynt was every bit as fabulated as Forman’s; still, it was painful to hear him saluting the flag instead of using it as a diaper, and parroting the film’s banalities. I couldn’t help thinking that America hadn’t been content with simply paralyzing Flynt, it had to finish the job by reconfiguring him as a patriot and then dousing him in approval for finally growing up. That’s how they get you, I thought darkly. Even lowlife pornographers are suckers for love and a place in the history books, it turns out, lifting a pudgy cheek to the breeze when the world is blowing kisses their way.
* * *
We talked on the phone a few times after that—I was attempting to interview him for a magazine piece, but given my lack of skill at it, the interviews mostly devolved into chats. He liked to introduce his body into the conversation, I noticed and was never exactly sure how to respond—I could only think of it as a tragic deadweight, a thing best left unmentioned. He announced with pride that his most recent diet had been a great success: he’d lost thirty pounds. “Trying to make yourself more sexy for the ladies?” I asked lamely. “Nah, I just looked at myself in the movie [he has a cameo role as a judge] and saw how fat I was, and I said, ‘Who wants to be a porker like you?’”
Falling back on feminist prosaicisms, I tried goading him about how he’d like having the spotlight turned on himself instead of it always being women’s bodies on display. “How about a Larry Flynt centerfold?” I asked. He answered immediately, “The reason more men don’t want to take their clothes off is because they’re so uptight about their little dicks. In all the X-rated videos and magazines they’re twice the size of a normal penis and it’s given every man in America a complex. Even though women all tell me that as long as a guy knows what he’s doing, size isn’t that important.”
I said that women are trained to lie to men, though I wasn’t sure he got the sarcasm. “Women have the same problem about their breasts as men have about their penises,” he assured me. “If someone could somehow get men and women on the same wavelength about this breast–penis thing, I think it would do more to enhance everyone’s life than anything else.” It was a rather utopian vision, coming from a scumbag pornographer.
Since then I’ve followed Flynt’s exploits from a distance, watching as he’s evolved into a sort of elder statesman–pornographer, weighing in unpredictably on national matters and civil liberty issues. When his would-be assassin, Joseph Paul Franklin, was about to be executed in Missouri in 2013 for killing a man outside a synagogue in 1977—just one of at least twenty race-related murders he’d been convicted of or implicated in—Flynt filed a last-minute motion through the ACLU to halt the execution. He was against the death penalty, he announced, and didn’t believe the government should be in the business of killing people for vengeance. Franklin was executed anyway, amidst a national controversy about whether the drugs employed in the lethal injection cocktail would cause him to suffer. Flynt, who after years of brutal pain finally had the nerves leading to his legs cauterized to stop all sensation, said he’d love to spend an hour in a room with Franklin inflicting the same damage on him that he’d inflicted on Flynt, but didn’t want to see him die.
A couple of years earlier I’d been contacted about blurbing his latest book, One Nation Under Sex, a coauthored account of the sex lives of American presidents throughout the nation’s history. I labored to come up with a good quote and finally arrived at this: “Larry Flynt has waged a lifelong battle against hypocrisy and prudery, shattering every propriety and slaughtering every sacred cow. The political classes have never been safe from his special brand of satire. Now he turns his rabble-rousing sensibility back though time with a similar imperative. No more whitewashing! Smash decorum! Bring down the elites!”
I was happy to be in touch with him again, even through intermediaries. He’d meant something to me—he made me examine my limits, he’d challenged me at my corked-up core. I liked the idea that he still thinks about me, as I do about him. I imagined myself giving him a call the next time I was in LA, but I suspect it won’t happen.
Copyright © 2014 by Laura Kipnis