How do we come to be who we are sexually?
How do we cope with the forces of desire?
How can we understand the relationship between the transcendent and the physical, between the wish for love and the anarchy of the erotic?
Daniel Bergner looks for answers in the stories of four people whose longings are very different from our own: a devoted husband burdened by an insatiable foot fetish, a clothing designer who finds ecstasy in the pain of others, a man smitten with his young stepdaughter, and an advertising director who casts traditionally beautiful models but who is attracted only to amputees. Bergner finds in their desires metaphors for the issues that confront us all and raises fascinating questions about the erotic differences between men and women and the nature of ecstasy itself: Are some people actually experiencing more ecstasy than the rest of us?
In speaking to experts in the fields of psychology and neurology, and by threading the personal stories of several modern-day Kinseys throughout his riveting case studies, Bergner has written a provocative, profoundly insightful, and brilliantly illuminating book about the most fundamental of human needs.
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About the Author
Daniel Bergner is a contributing writer for the New York Times Magazine and the author of three previous nonfiction books: The Other Side of Desire; In the Land of Magic Soldiers, a Los Angeles Times Best Book of the Year and winner of an Overseas Press Club Award and a Lettre Ulysses Award for the Art of Reportage; and God of the Rodeo, a New York Times Notable Book of the Year. He lives in Brooklyn, New York.
Read an Excerpt
The Other Side of Desire
Four Journeys into the Far Realms of Lust and Longing
By Daniel Bergner
Copyright © 2009
All right reserved.
Chapter One Jacob Miller loved Toronto. He thought of it every day. He was American, and lived in a snowy American city, but a Canadian flag, with its broad bars of red and its red maple leaf, hung in his home office. A printout of the flag, on a sheet of computer paper, was taped to the wall between his kitchen and dining room. Pasted to the rear window of his car, a flag decal hinted at his love. When he dressed casually in wintertime, he favored a letterman's-style jacket. The leaf, big and bright, adorned the back.
If he'd won the lottery, he would have retired and moved to Toronto. If he could have designed his own world, that city would have occupied his entire planet. "When we had our son, I wanted what I call a T-R name," he said, laughing at himself. "Tristan. Troy. Trice. I didn't tell my wife why. I didn't tell her, 'Because it would remind me of Toronto.' She said, 'I'm not naming him Tristan, kids are going to make fun of him. I'm not naming him Troy.' She said, 'What kind of name is Trice?'"
Toronto was a realm where everyone was accepted. On Yonge Street, during a visit in his twenties, twenty years in the past, he'd seen the kids in their punk gear, the parents pushing strollers, the beggars with their cups, the prostitutes in their spandex, the gays hand in hand, all intermixed, passing each other on the sidewalk, tolerating each other, yes, but more than that, seeming tacitly to welcome each other. He'd filled the beggars' cups. Toronto, he felt, was a place even for monsters, a city for men such as himself.
Jacob owned a tidy wooden house not far from downtown in the city where he'd grown up. In the living room, plants cascaded from the mantelpiece; a flat-screen TV was mounted above the greenery. The furniture was soft and stylish. A small white-haired dog trotted across the carpet. The ashes of another, a terrier-beagle he still mourned a decade after its death, sat on a shelf in a box painted gold.
In the driveway, in the months when it wasn't covered in snow, he played basketball with his eight-year-old son, his only child. Ben was dark-haired, frail. They shot at a portable hoop Jacob had bought, lowered to a height the boy could manage. Jacob himself had never been much for sports, but Ben had lately taught him to play Pig. "It's easy, Pop!" he'd cried out. "It's easy!" So they shot and talked, shot and talked. Ben had suffered a stroke during his fifth month in the womb and had cerebral palsy. In the winter months, Jacob was teaching him to ski.
He'd been married to Ben's mother for sixteen years. He'd thought her beautiful when they met; he thought her beautiful now. "I've had men say to me, 'You're a lucky guy.'" She had a profusion of black hair and smooth olive skin and large dark eyes. She was petite and full-breasted. She'd come from a small town, and he took her, on their first date, to a restaurant she saw as dazzling. Over a dinner much more expensive than she was used to, he learned about her job for an airline, at a ticket counter, which allowed her to fly for free. This struck him as glamorous. And he told her about his success as a salesman. "This gorgeous woman," he remembered. "She put me on a pedestal, and I put her on a pedestal."
He still felt they were wonderfully matched. "We're homebody people," he said, listing the things they loved to do together: sit on the porch and watch Ben ride his bicycle or his electric scooter; go to craft shows and collect southwestern ceramics decorated with a flute-playing figure called Kokopelli. After sixteen years, they still called each other from work three or four times a day.
Jacob had put together this life of comfort and love despite at least two relevant obstacles. One was a learning disability so extreme that, in his mid-forties, he could read sentences and calculate numbers no better than most fourth-graders. He'd been given special glasses as a child, with cardboard frames and one green and one red lens. For much of each school day, he'd been made to wear this clownish gear.
The remedy hadn't worked; the only way he'd kept up at all was that classmates read his assignments into a reel-to-reel, and at night he lay in bed, listening. When Jacob was in his late thirties, the head psychiatrist at the hospital of Johns Hopkins University had used him to instruct his students. With Jacob's consent, the psychiatrist had placed him within a U of sixty pupils, and asked him to imagine having seventeen apples and giving away five-how many would he have left? Jacob couldn't answer. There were more questions like it, and a simple paragraph he stumbled through and couldn't comprehend. Then, after the stymied gasps of the psychiatrists-in-training, the head made his point about people's ability to overcome. For Jacob was prosperous, thriving in his job. He kept his customers, across a vast swath of territory along the Great Lakes, unfailingly supplied in the goods he handled, and he supervised a team of junior sales-people. Painstakingly, he managed never to jumble his accounts. He could have carried out his business almost entirely by phone and the Internet, but, always anxious that no one should be unhappy with him, he drove for hours and hours each day to present himself in person, a slightly short, husky man, neatly dressed in a jacket and turtleneck or tie-just to shake hands and chat for a few minutes, just to ask his customers if they had any complaints and reassure them that he would make all adjustments.
The second obstacle had to do with sex.
Excerpted from The Other Side of Desire by Daniel Bergner Copyright © 2009 by Daniel Bergner. Excerpted by permission.
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What People are Saying About This
“Searching, deeply humane. . . . Our reactions to the stories Daniel Bergner recounts reveal as much about ourselves as they do about his oddly winning subjects.”
“Daniel Bergner’s characters live in erotic no-go zones where most of us would fear to tread. Their stories will sadden, enlighten, disturb, and move you—for they are completely, intimately human.”
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
More a collection of four extended essays than a book, this book is slightly uneven, but still powerful. Daniel Berger zooms close in on an individual subject rather than approaching a topic from the macro level. Whether or not this works for you is likely a matter of taste.
This book tells the story of four individuals who have sexual interests that are, to a greater or lesser degree, outside the mainstream. The author talks to foot fetishist, a dominatrix, a amputee fetishist and a convicted molester about their desires and how their desires affect their lives. I think the selections are uneven. The foot fetishist is the most interesting and the one that I felt the most sympathy for because he is genuinely tormented by his proclivity. The others were less sympathetic, either because of their particular interest or their personalities. I also have to say that two of the four people in the book are receiving therapy and I think the therapy may be doing more harm than good.