Nonfiction is the new black comedy in this hilarious collection of award-winning literary essays written by the infamous Pagan Kennedy. In the title piece, Alex Comfort, author of The Joy of Sex, reinvents himself as a sex guru in California and hatches a plan to destroy monogamy forever. In the stories that follow, a retired chemist finds a way to turn a wasteland into paradise, an aspiring tyrant tries to become the emperor of America, and an artist rigs himself up to a "brain machine" made from parts he bought at Radio Shack. All of the essaysmost of which have appeared in The New York Times Magazine and The Boston Globe Magazinedocument the stories of visionaries bent on remaking the world, for better or for worse.
|Publisher:||Santa Fe Writer's Project|
|Product dimensions:||4.90(w) x 7.90(h) x 0.60(d)|
About the Author
Pagan Kennedy is the author of 10 books in a variety of genres, including The Exes, The First Man-Made Man, Spinsters, Stripping, and Confessions of a Memory Eater, which was featured in Entertainment Weekly as an "EW pick." She is a regular contributor to the Boston Globe, and has published articles in The New York Times. She also has been the recipient of a Barnes and Noble Discover Award, a National Endowment for the Arts Fellowship in Fiction, and a Smithsonian Fellowship for science writing. She lives in Somerville, Massachusetts.
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The Dangerous Joy of Dr. Sex and Other True Stories
By Pagan Kennedy
Santa Fe Writers ProjectCopyright © 2008 Pagan Kennedy
All rights reserved.
The Dangerous Joy of Dr. Sex:
The story of Alex Comfort, in 17 positions
In 1972, The Joy of Sex skyrocketed to the top of the bestseller lists and stayed for most of the decade. It brought the sexual revolution — which had exploded on college campuses a few years before — into the suburbs. Housewives read it and experienced their very first orgasms. Couples pored over it together. Swingers referred to it in conversation with arched eyebrows. The Joy of Sex became the Bible of the American bedroom, and it added new terms to our language: g-string, tongue bath, water works. Yet, though Joy was as much a '70s superstar as Farrah Fawcett, few people can tell you who wrote it. Its author, Alex Comfort, might be considered one of the greatest and strangest minds of the twentieth century.
This is his story.
One day in 1934, he sequestered himself in his family's greenhouse in London to perform an experiment. Alex Comfort — then 14 years old — had decided to invent his own fireworks. He ground together sugar, sulfur, and saltpeter, an operation so dangerous that most chemists pour water over the ingredients to prevent a blast. Alex neglected to take that precaution. The container exploded. The roof of the greenhouse blew out. A red-tinted vapor hovered in the air before him. Four fingers on his left hand had vanished, leaving a lump of meat with one thumb hanging off it. He felt no pain. Indeed, he found it thrilling to be blown apart.
Or, at least, that's how he told the story later. Alex Comfort loved explosions, even the one that mutilated him. He never would admit any regret at the loss of his four fingers. As a middle-aged physician, he bragged that his stump could be more useful than a conventional hand, particularly when it came to performing certain medical procedures — exploring a woman's birth canal, for instance.
One thing was clear after the accident: Alex should avoid laboratories, at least until he was older. So he set his sights on literary greatness instead. When he was 16, his father took him on a tramp steamer to Buenos Aires and then Senegal; Alex scribbled notes along the way. In 1938, his final year of high school, he published a little gem of a travel book, titled The Silver River, billed as the "diary of a schoolboy."
When Alex arrived at Cambridge University, the other students stood in awe of him — a published author! He regarded himself as brilliant but ugly. A reed-thin boy in a tweed jacket, he kept his eyes caged behind glittering round glasses and wore a glove on one hand. "I didn't like to ask him why," said Robert Greacen, who befriended Alex during his university years. One day, when they shared a train car together, Alex removed the glove, and Greacen noticed the stump, but still didn't dare mention it.
The truth was, Greacen had fallen under the spell of Alex Comfort. "Even though we were the same age, he seemed like a man ten or twelve years older than me in ideas, reading and opinion." Greacen decided that Alex was the cleverest person he'd ever met.
Indeed. At age 22, Alex began sparring with George Orwell in the pages of Tribune; in rhyming verse, they debated whether Britain should have entered World War II. Alex sneered at the concept of a "good war" and denounced the group-think of the British. He was, already, an anarchist.
Strangely enough, for one so devoted to free thought, Alex remained a virgin throughout most of his university days. "I was a terribly learned little man. I swotted away at my books," he said later. At Cambridge, he rarely spoke to young women — except on Sundays. Then he broke from his studies to run up the stairs of a Congregational church to join an antiwar gathering, young people in corduroys and tweeds, with bobby-pinned hair and precocious pipes. There he met Ruth Harris and her friend Jane Henderson. They seemed to be opposites: Ruth, a pale girl shrouded in a dark coat, had a submissive air about her; Jane, with an explosion of curls, liked to argue about books. Both girls pined after the boy-genius with a leather glove on his hand, but Ruth confessed her love first. Once she'd spilled out her feelings to him, Alex felt honor-bound to her.
In 1943, they married. They commenced to fumble their way through sex acts, ineptly deflowering one another, then set up house in a tree-lined neighborhood outside London.
Did Ruth realize what she was getting into? Raised by churchgoing Congregational parents, she aspired to be a social worker, to help the poor and then return home to tea cozies. "My mother was happier in a much more stifling, suburban atmosphere than my father," according to their son Nick.
Everyone knew Alex to be an eccentric visionary, and he behaved like one, making odd demands of his shy wife. One day he asked her to wear her bikini when she gardened; he wanted to be able to peer out the window and watch her bend over their rose beds in nearly nothing. Ruth complied. Soon he wanted more. After the milkman clip-clopped down their lane in a horse-drawn cart, Alex asked Ruth to go out with a shovel and collect the manure left behind, then use it to fertilize their flowers. Could she do this in her bikini? Ruth obediently climbed into her swimsuit and headed out onto the street with the shovel. Many years later, in his famous book, Alex would reveal a taste for bondage; he liked to tie women up. His garden games might have been an early attempt to experiment with fetish-play.
Ruth regarded herself as the long-suffering wife of a great man. She tried not to complain, though the pure force of his intellect wore her out. He followed her into rooms ranting about whatever subject obsessed him at the moment — ballroom dancing, electricity, cell growth, dulcimers, cooking, pacifism, anarchism, utopia. "Holding a conversation with Dr. Comfort is rather like racing after an express train that has already puffed out of the station," a journalist wrote later.
For his part, Alex tried to tamp down the impulses that upset his wife, and it cost him dearly. "I suffered from a severe form of migraine and it produced an intensive depression," he said later, of that period. In order to rein himself in, he resorted to following a well-established British trope: he became an introverted polymath, pottering from one enthusiasm to the next. His son Nick, born in 1946, remembers his father building a television from spare parts and glue-soaked Weetabix. Alex also wired up innumerable burglar alarms, which only went off when they weren't supposed to, emitting inappropriate shrieks.
And he wrote with blazing speed — poetry, novels, science papers, sociology. By 1950, he'd published a dozen books. A medical doctor and biologist, he became a leading authority on snails, that creature that symbolizes the slow and cautious and flabby. It seemed that the younger Alex — the boy who blew things up — had been squashed forever and replaced by a morose intellectual.
"He seemed like a workaholic — only we didn't have that word back them. He was puritanical," said Greacen, who added that the only way to spend time with Alex was to find him in his lab or else tag along to antiwar meetings. The two belonged to a coalition of writers denouncing Cold War hostilities. After their meetings, the writers adjourned to a pub, to huff on pipes and jaw about books. But Comfort refused to join them. Instead of socializing, "he would jump in his car and go home," according to Greacen. "He thought I was lazy. Once he said to me, 'Look Bob, you shouldn't hang around in pubs with people. You'll get no work done.' When I spent two or three hours with him, I'd go away absolutely tired — my head would be filled with all he said about literature and politics. I used to wonder when he slept." Alex Comfort obsessed about poems, political rants, novels, scientific studies — always, he hurled himself into a realm of thought.
Then, in the late 1950s, Comfort developed a new obsession, one as dangerous, in its way, as the gunpowder had been. He couldn't stop wondering about Jane, Ruth's best friend from university days, now a frequent dinner guest at their house. His wife was the kind of woman who shrunk into middle age. Jane, on the other hand, blossomed at age 40. At ease in her big-boned and athletic body, she made only a token effort to keep her lipstick on straight. To hell with propriety! Her curls blew out everywhere, like springs popping from the active gears of her mind. She was as full of ideas as Alex. Instead of marrying, she'd devoted herself to books, and now she worked as a librarian at the London School of Economics. She spent all day around professors; she understood men like him.
He had to have her.
By 1960, Alex had performed intercourse innumerable times with Ruth, yet he knew next to nothing about sex. So he and Jane studied it together. In the beginning, they snuck around behind Ruth's back, rendezvousing at Jane's flat, which became their laboratory.
Jane, though sexually inexperienced, was just as eager to learn as Alex. She would try anything. She twisted herself into positions and he named them. The Viennese Oyster, the Goldfish, the X. She wanted him to take notes on each contortion, to draw diagrams. They somehow managed to snap Polaroid photos of themselves (one wonders how they hit the button on the camera) to document their favorite positions for later use. They were two intellectuals screwing in every contortion possible, using the full arsenal of their erudition to explode each other to smithereens of pleasure. In bed, they went to Cambridge University all over again, figuring out everything they could about erotic bliss, which was at that time an arcane art. Back then, four-letter words still shocked people. At the drugstore, pharmacists kept condoms under lock and key. Lady Chatterley's Lover, banned for thirty years, had finally appeared in print, only to be slapped with an obscenity charge; the prosecutor in the case had asked the men in the courtroom whether this was the type of book "you would wish your wife or servants to read." Sex was not just a private matter — it was clandestine.
Before Jane, Alex had suffered alone, trying to subsist on the weak tea of matrimonial intercourse. But now sex — proper sex — brought him back to life. Indeed, it made him feel so good that he decided he needed a new name. In the privacy of his mistress's flat, he dubbed himself "John Thomas."
That was what Lady Chatterley called her gamekeeper's penis. Of course, the name only applied as long as Alex was with Jane. When he washed her smell off him and went out on the street, he became his usual self again: Alex Comfort, MD, DcS, a married man and snail expert who occasionally appeared on the BBC. Also, a middle-aged man. He sagged a bit these days in the stomach. His glasses rattled on his face. The situation would be difficult to explain to his wife Ruth. He was an adulterer, like the gamekeeper in Lawrence's novel. It was a terrible thing, to screw your wife's oldest friend, but he didn't see how he could stop.
And here was the funny thing: despite his experiments with Jane, he still knew little about sex. How on earth did one really make a study of it? You couldn't learn anything in the library, because all the guidebooks were hopeless. Just how hopeless? A sex guide titled The Marriage Art warned readers that "ineptly arranged intercourse leaves [your clothes] in a shambles, your plans for the evening shot." And what about the dangers of well-planned intercourse? The dull, ritualistic acts between husband and wife? Alex Comfort was one of the first intellectuals to worry that bad sex was a plague across Europe and America.
Right from the beginning, he and Jane aspired to do more than just make love sideways, upside down and backwards, with feathers, toes, and swings. They would change sex itself. The two lovers began working on their own guidebook, cataloging all the positions they had tried. Jane, the librarian, had a genius for organizing information. And so they decided they would go topic by topic, alphabetically. A for Anal, B for Big Toe and so on. Using this principle of tireless cataloging, they created a little homemade book, suitable for passing around among friends. The title: "Doing Sex Properly."
Sex, however, turned out to be too explosive and anarchistic a force to do properly. It spilled out of their guidebook and changed Alex entirely. He wanted to blow up Buckingham Palace, and have the pieces rain down in sparks, fireworks of joy that would set everyone to rutting. He wanted to start the sexual revolution all by himself. So, he went to work writing books that he believed would wake people out of their matrimonial comas, and by the early 1960s, he had set himself up as one of Britain's most outspoken advocates for free love. He'd also come clean to Ruth and worked out an agreement with her: he could continue his affair with Jane, so long as he kept it hush-hush.
Only a few close friends knew that he went back and forth between two wives; to strangers, his call for open marriages seemed to be just another of his outrageous political stances. A professor of a certain age, he appeared to only be dreaming of a sexual utopia — not actually struggling to build one in his own home. And Alex did what he could to foster this reputation as an armchair libertine and nothing more. His 1961 novel Come Out to Play tells the story of a doctor and his girlfriend who open a sex school; though the novel sprang out of his adventures with Jane, he dedicated the book to his wife: "For Ruth, who put ideas in my head." He appeared to be a man besotted with his wife — and only her. Jane didn't like being kept a secret, of course, but she would do anything to hold onto Alex.
One day in 1958, Alex received a letter from his son's boarding school: parents should give their sons a talk about "personal hygiene" — that is, the facts of life — as the school would not provide such delicate information. Soon afterwards, Alex called his son in for a talk, fidgeting as he explained the business between man and woman. He exuded so much embarrassment that 12-year-old Nick did not dare ask questions. "He did very little to fill in the gaps," Nick remembered later. "I probably heard less talk about sex than the average child." Nick ended up turning to his father's medical books for information, poring over cut-away diagrams of the male and female reproductive organs.
Because he boarded at school, Nick didn't see much of his father during his teenaged years. He had no idea when his father began an affair with Jane Henderson, whom the boy regarded as an honorary aunt. But clearly, something strange had happened. His father seemed to be on TV and the radio all the time now.
In 1962, Alex Comfort participated in an antinuclear protest in Trafalgar Square; the police threw him in jail, along with a cabal of distinguished cellmates like Bertrand Russell. In the morning, most of the other professors sprung themselves by paying a nominal fee. Alex refused to bail himself out and stayed in prison for a month, where he had a lovely time discussing roses with his guards, who were enthusiastic gardeners.
News of Alex Comfort's arrest spread through Nick's boarding school. The other boys taunted the 16-year-old. "Jailbird, jailbird," they called after him. For his part, Nick fumed that his father had chosen to go to prison when he didn't have to — just to get attention. Raised by his mother to value moderation, Nick abhorred his father's outrageous style.
In 1963, his father published a book that advocated for free love, Sex in Society, and went on the radio to push its radical agenda. He called chastity a health problem. He argued for legal prostitution. He celebrated cultures in which children had sex with one another. He lobbed his ideas like bombs, and the British public, duly scandalized, responded with scathing attacks on him. "Being at boarding school when that book came out wasn't the best place to be," according to Nick. Back then, as a teenaged boy, he endured taunts for the actions of his faraway father. Seventeen-year-old Nick seethed over one particular remark his father had made in the book — that 15-year-old boys should be given condoms. Trapped at a blazers-and-neckties school, Nick hardly ever saw girls; he blushed and grew sweaty when he tried to talk to females at a school mixer. The last thing he needed was a condom. His father was busy running around decreeing what was best for theoretical teenagers, but he didn't even know his own son.
The truth was, Alex didn't have much left over for Nick. When you reconstruct his schedule in the mid-1960s, he appears to be comically super-human, like one of those lechers in the old Benny Hill TV show who scooted around in fast-forward, their legs flailing as they chased after naked women. Alex would dash home for dinner with Ruth and sleep there; then in the wee hours of the morning, he'd hurry to Jane's flat, nuzzle with her for a while, drive her to her job at the library, then head off to his own duties at University College London. "For quite a large part of my time, I was with two different women," Alex would comment later. "It is not an arrangement I recommend."
Excerpted from The Dangerous Joy of Dr. Sex and Other True Stories by Pagan Kennedy. Copyright © 2008 Pagan Kennedy. Excerpted by permission of Santa Fe Writers Project.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents
The Dangerous Joy of Dr. Sex 1
Genius on Two Dollars a Day 53
Bird Brain 69
The Strongest Woman in the World 77
Battery-Powered Brain 91
Vermin Supreme Wants to Be Your Tyrant 111
The Chemist in the Desert 123
One Room, Three-Thousand Brains 135
The Mystic Mechanic 149
The Ballad of Conor Oberst 157
How to Make (Almost) Anything 173
What We Mean By Freedom 189
First Person: Stories from My Own Life
Boston Marriage 209
The Encyclopedia of Scorpions 223
Off Season 243
What People are Saying About This
Kennedy prowls the shadowy, creepy, eye-popping limits of the culture where other writers fear to tread. (John Sedgwick, author, The Dark House and The Education of Mrs. Bemis)
"Kennedy prowls the shadowy, creepy, eye-popping limits of the culture where other writers fear to tread." John Sedgwick, author, The Dark House and The Education of Mrs. Bemis
"A dangerous joy of literary pleasurea compelling, spellbinding reading experience. In this book, Pagan Kennedy writes with clarity, honesty and impeccable grace." Lee Gutkind, author, Almost Human: Making Robots Think
"Complicated, cool, and vulnerable at the same time . . . you can't help falling for Pagan Kennedy's characters." The New York Times
A dangerous joy of literary pleasure-a compelling, spellbinding reading experience. In this book, Pagan Kennedy writes with clarity, honesty and impeccable grace. (Lee Gutkind, author, Almost Human: Making Robots Think)
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
The Dangerous Joy of Dr. Sex by Pagan Kennedy is a compilation of true stories. Glorying in the eccentricities that all fascinating people share, the stories are compelling, entertaining and yet frequently humble. Often contrasting hubris with humility, Kennedy tells us stories of Dr. Alex Comfort, the author of the Joy of Sex, who in his arrogance thought he could permanently re-work the cultural norms of sexual relationships. She brings us the story of Amy Smith, who uses her genius and common sense to make lives better in the poorest countries on earth. We read of Vermin Supreme, who enjoins the anti war protestors to respond with ¿A Pony¿, when they are asked to join the antiwar chant, ¿What do we want?¿. Kennedy¿s stories are uplifting, thought provoking and entertaining.