By Joanne Furio
In the age of memes, tweets, texts, IMs, 100-word news stories, and a rotating display of top ten-like lists on your internet service provider’s home page, is the question facing both writers and media companies alike: what is the future of the written word? One theory is that our penchant for quick hits has resulted in a renaissance of the lengthy, as witnessed by a resurgence of long-form journalism and the seven-hundred-page novel. The opposite theory has been promoted by David Shields, an apostle of the fragmented, appropriated and collaged book-length work that is a continuation of the fragmented, appropriated and collaged bits readers expect from written sources elsewhere. Shields is an advocate for such disjunctive writing and one of its main practitioners. Of the twenty books he’s published, two of them have been groundbreaking in that regard—How Literature Saved My Life and Reality Hunger. Both are a collection of riffs—some as short as a sentence, others as long as a page—all connected by a central idea.
In his latest work, Shields and his collaborator, Samantha Matthews, who happens to be his first cousin once removed, attempt “an aggressive intervention against the standard trauma-recovery.” The trauma, in this case, is Matthews’ sexual abuse, starting at the age of two, by her two half brothers. What’s noticeably missing from the standard trauma-recovery formula is the recovery part, the happily-ever-after ending. The book also represents another opportunity for Shields to apply his penchant for shorter spurts of writing to the “as told to” format.
In the introduction, Shields reveals that his initial intent was a lighthearted work featuring Matthews as a sort of twenty-first century Daisy Miller. An actress with off-off Broadway credentials, Matthews married a Spaniard and moved to Barcelona, where she occasionally moonlighted as a dubber of Italian pornography into English. The cousins’ subsequent emailing and video conferencing ultimately exposed the family secret. Shields’ initial intent was not entirely abandoned—the abuse might explain why Williams was attracted to working in porn, even marginally—but incorporated into a larger narrative about sexual abuse, sexual power, and contemporary womanhood. Shields ended up with some 700 pages of material, which has been slashed and shaped into a 116-page book.
The title comes from a zinger spoken by the co-author’s boyfriend, William, during an argument to get her to stop talking. The title also turned out to be a clever innuendo that might be spoken by someone unable to express those unspeakable things people do with their mouths during sex. It is appropriate that these words come from the mouth of William, a taciturn Brit who is not an equal match, sexually, for Matthews’ outsized libido.
The challenge of the disjunctive form is that it affects the characteristics we have come to expect in a piece of non-fiction. But without the traditional use of background and biography, all of our questions will not be answered. Without a traditional narrative arc, time is often suspended. Without the luxury of length, more pressure is put on language, imagery and segues. What holds the pieces together is a main thread that courses through the book. Shields proves a master at this structural tight-rope walk, pulling together disparate bits into a story that is more impressionistic than a typical narrative, yet just as fulfilling.
For Matthews, the mostly monologic approach fits. As someone who feels as if she has spent half her life in therapy, the book has a confessional tone reminiscent of the analyst’s couch. We also learn that Matthews’ loquaciousness actually started much earlier. Her mother had always encouraged her to discuss the sexual abuse whenever she wanted to—advice she took early on, resulting in some pretty shocked eight-year-old friends.
Matthews’ experience of sexual abuse may be singular, yet her exploits as a woman speak to a more general audience, for example, in a rant about the discombobulation we go through to please others, especially men. Wear classic clothes, but “nothing too tight-fitting because that looks cheap.” Never talk about anything negative, which “makes others see you as a negative person.” Smile and say yes all the time, which “makes your life easier.” Grow your nails long, but don’t paint them because “he doesn’t like that.” Be strong, then again, don’t, because “that’s butchy.” Be vulnerable, “but don’t cry around me.” “Do yoga,” not for the spiritual benefits, but because “It gives you a great ass.” The fact that she leaves us with the “great ass” example illustrates that, despite her self-awareness, she, too, will ultimately choose the more feminine, man-pleasing option.
Many of Matthews’ discussions of female sexuality do not sound atypical. She hates parts of her body. She feels beautiful when she’s desired. Likewise, “When I have a sexual desire for someone and it’s not returned, I think I must be disgusting.” These lines could come directly from Everywoman’s Playbook. But soon differences emerge. She’s aroused by distance and coldness (a la Mickey Rourke’s character in 9 1/2 Weeks) and hates herself, when, at the age of 19, she found herself wanting her half-brother to desire her. “Did I invite him to treat me the way he did that Thanksgiving more than 20 years ago? I feel shameful for desiring something I know is twisted.” No, she is not like the rest of us.
It is those early, life-altering experiences that made Matthews an explorer in all realms sexual, as she tries to make sense of it all. She examines her mother’s own conflicted beliefs about her sexuality, which fluctuates between being Carol, the repressed post-1950s mother who tried to scare Matthews out of having sex by telling her things like, “Once they’ve had sex with you, there’s no challenge and they lose interest,” and Kitty, the drunk sex-kitten who talks about how she and her husband used to have sex constantly. Like her mother, Matthews describes herself as a weird mix of “shyness and fuck-all.” Her mother, it turns out, may also have been a victim of childhood sexual abuse. What Matthews remembers of her own abuse is revealed halfway through. Shields then uses that as a segue to reveal how sexual Matthews was as a child. Her mother caught her rubbing against the dinner table at five, the same age she had her first orgasm.
The book chronicles many of Matthews’ sexual relationships, from the hymen-breaking fingering at age 15 to her relationship with dream husband Jaume, “the first person I really felt I could count on,” and who never in their 10-year-relationship asked her to change. Several of those encounters, which include men and women, were abusive. A fellow swimmer in high school points out her thick legs, big nose and horse teeth, before the relationship turns violent with severe pinching and biting. A fellow actor who tied her up, handcuffed her and “threw her around,” came minutes after putting a pillow over her head. Women posed less of a physical threat and made her feel “adored and open, unafraid,” but those relationships were also fraught with power issues and self-hatred.
Shields breaks up these autobiographical accounts with snippets of dialogue from porn films Matthews worked on that pick up on themes in her monologue (the aforementioned importance of segues). One similar entry is an interview with a porn actress talking about how it feels to be peed on, whether she enjoys sex or fakes her orgasm. Who is this woman? Where did it come from? There is no citation. In pastiche world, the important thing is what such passages achieve : more case-building on how crappy it is to be female. Unlike the standard fluff piece that seeks to depict celebs as being just like you and me, the porn star, even off screen, can never escape being a porn star. The intent of her interview is to get a rise.
A few passages remind us that a conversation is taking place between the speaker and the spoken to, a break from the “as told to” in which the latter is invisible. In one instance Matthews responds to an inquiry from Shields: “Good question: Do I think of myself as hyper-sexualized?” (She doesn’t answer that.) Later, she reminds her cousin that they had agreed not to talk about her daughter, Ava, which pains her as it “completes the female family-cycle puzzle.” Sexual abuse is again hinted at later. “Before my mother came her mother. And before Ava comes me.” Curiously, her mother calls Matthews selfish for “abandoning” her two children, but we are offered no clues as to who did the abusing and exactly how she is abandoning her kids.
By the end, we doubt Matthews can ever recover from her terrible childhood trauma. The best possible outcome seems to be her acceptance that she is permanently screwed up, but has learned to deal. “I’m jealous of people who have no need or desire to blot things out. I’ve taught myself how to not feel unpleasant things.” In that way, the book breaks from the standard trauma-recovery fare and at the same time reinforces the notion that this new form does not need to give us everything we may want.