PSYCHOLOGICAL WHIPLASH: zarina zabrisky's we, monsters

PSYCHOLOGICAL WHIPLASH: zarina zabrisky’s we, monsters

Bossy and controlling women are not hard to find in this country, but I avoid them if I can. One reason my father moved to the west coast was to put 1500 miles between him and his mother. I don’t like taking orders and have never been to a dominatrix.


The only experience I have with that profession was a few years ago when I was photographing a strange theater group. One of the performers, a tall and stunning woman in her 20s, asked if I would do a photo-shoot where she worked. It turned out she was working as a dominatrix in Berkeley. She snuck me into a large home in a quiet neighborhood where the rooms of fine old wood were used for role-playing with the clients. There was a lot of equipment in the room, along with mirrors, like a psycho-gymnastics for the nasty.

Some people need a big production to get off sexually, with whips and chains and costume changes in a dark theater, if not a dungeon. I’m fairly simple by comparison — a woman and a bed and that’s about it. I used to wonder why some people need a big production — maybe it doesn’t mean they are over-sexed, but rather under-sexed. It takes that much to get them going or to locate their libido, to pull it into focus — hence the ropes and chains and other devices. These and other issues can be found in Zarina Zabrisky’s new novel, We, Monsters, where they are handled with the honesty and finesse of a writer who kicked heroin in Russia.

Books have a habit of dying on me, but this one didn’t (my wife couldn’t put it down, which was slightly disconcerting). One thing holding my attention is how multi-dimensional it is. A woman named Rose becomes a dominatrix  for a while, doing research for a book. She is a wife and mother who used to live in Russia and has constant flashbacks to her life there, along with incongruous mood-shifts when she goes from whipping a middle-aged client to making dinner for her kids. There are occasional parallels to how people torture each other in normal life, psychologically and otherwise. (I’ve noticed a lot of women wearing modified dominatrix boots these days.) There is a long-lost sister whose very existence is ambiguous. As if that is not enough, the book is grounded in the footnotes of a psychiatrist who explains the fetishes that Rose encounters:

 the prevalence of finance industry professionals in BDSM [bondage and discipline, sadism and masochism] is a fact, and can best be explained by a number of psychosociological factors, such as the availability of financial resources; the self-acceptance and broadmindedness associated with higher levels of education; and the anal-retentive organization of individuals selecting jobs associated with money…

I suppose if there is anything shameful about BDSM, it is the possibility that one is associating with bankers.

These informative footnotes are found throughout the book, talking about the origins of this or that neurosis/fetish/obsession — for example, linking the allure of bondage to being an infant wrapped in swaddling clothes like a burrito. This is getting into Freudian territory, some of which has been discredited and questioned over the years. It should be taken with a grain of salt, if not a line of coke (as Sigmund did — who Nabokov regarded as “the witch doctor of Vienna”). I have been to the Folsom Street Fair, and one could make the case that wearing leather and being whipped in public is a proclivity that one develops as an adult or during adolescence. There are rules and limits that go along with being dominated, and if you have ever been to Bondage-A-Go-Go, you know how careful the controllers are with those who’re fit to be tied.

The author has a Russian respect for good literature, and so does Rose. When exposed to a boring book in the waiting room of the dungeon, she says, “The language was torturous. Words were like clothespins attached to the brain… I craved good old Dostoevsky or Fitzgerald or Faulkner the way Mistress Spider’s choking clients craved air….”

While waiting for a client she is flipping through a book on “the meaning and importance of fairy tales.”

photo - defiant surrender 3

“There is a widespread refusal to let children know that the source of much that goes wrong in life is due to our very own natures… we want our children to believe that, inherently, all men are good. But children know that they are not always good; and often, even when they are, they would prefer not to be. This contradicts what they are told by their parents, and therefore makes the child a monster in his own eyes.”

There is also this: “The dominant culture wishes to pretend, particularly where children are concerned, that the dark side of man does not exist….” It is a view which divorces people from their own history and leaves them in a Disneyland of middle-class denial — where the notion of “it can’t happen here” infuses the atmosphere.

The women working in the dungeon are a varied bunch — one is an overweight cow (according to Rose) and another is working on her PhD. She compares one of them to her cat: “Susanna and Potemkin. Diehard confidence in every move, from licking the tail to biting into a sandwich. The secret knowledge of their realness. The lack of doubt in their existence. I sighed. Never, ever had I such security.” I have had similar thoughts about people whose confidence was rooted in their physicality (as Susanna’s is). Writers spend more time in their head, which is not the most stable of dimensions. On the other hand, one should realize when observing others from the outside that their confidence could be an illusion. An actor, for example, could be wearing his or her confidence like a suit of armor, but still be nervous inside.

Another cogent footnote:

“Shopping is a coping skill, similar to eating, which is designed to medicate psychological pain. The essence of both shopping and eating is consumption. Shopping… brings instant gratification. Buying new outfits is also a symbolic reinvention of oneself.”

In a country which depends so heavily on shopping, it would stand to reason that psychological pain (especially for women, who tend to shop more than men) is part of the social machinery. The system maintains a level of pain so people are compelled to go shopping (as well as eat too much). This could lead to a country full of obese neurotics with credit card debt, and doesn’t that sound familiar.

Even worse, if you were brought up to believe that sex is dirty and degrading, then you might have to put yourself into dirty and degrading situations in order to be sexually fulfilled. That may explain why some are into BDSM, although others may just have a libido which requires SDFC (Something Different For a Change).

There are some things it would never occur to me to do: “After puberty he masturbated while sucking his sister’s ballet shoes.”

click for info on release party. photo by charles kruger

click for info on release party. photo by charles kruger

Also: “Fantasies of forced sex are the second leading fantasy subject among heterosexual women. Such fantasies allow women to safely investigate their sexual feelings while not taking responsibility for them [it’s the man’s fault], thus staying guilt-free.” This reminds me of those over-heated bodice rippers in the supermarket which sell in the millions, unhindered by concerns for literary quality. I read somewhere that a common theme is “how to make your rapist fall in love with you,” especially if he is handsome with a steady income.

“Susanna’s mother never allowed her any privacy to masturbate and so she began doing it in secret, in the bathroom, binding her libido to urination or defecation.” If there are forces binding your libido to some orientation or another, you are pretty much stuck with that (although women tend to be more flexible in that respect). If you’re a man who is turned on by women with large breasts, it’s probably not a problem, unless you’re married to a flat-chested woman. If you’re a man who is turned on by other men, you might have to be discreet about it, depending what country you live in. If you are turned on by children or animals you are a tragic figure, because you are controlled by your libido to a certain extent and that could land you in prison, while hurting others as well.

If you are turned on by domineering women (and/or good writing) you should read this book. The prose is clear as a frozen hypodermic.

Meanwhile, things are getting disturbing for the amateur dominatrix. She is getting into it as a power trip. I knew a young woman who had to pay the rent, so she got a job at a strip-joint and was surprised how much she enjoyed it, commanding the attention of a room full of silent men. But all is not well in the dungeon. Rose is learning more about herself than she bargained for, especially after an encounter with a cunning client who turns the psychoanalytic tables on her. She is being a bad mom at home and neglecting her husband, while being haunted by a phantom sister. I thought the husband was awfully patient while his wife was being a domineering cock-tease with strange men (some of them very strange).

Towards the end there is an exchange between Rose and Mommy (the madam), with whom Rose is increasingly at odds. They are in the kitchen of the dungeon and Rose has a new purse.

“Look girls, Rose got herself a new pussy!” she said. “What are those?”
”Pickled watermelon.”
“Where on earth do you get those?”
“In a Russian grocery store.”
“Ew. How revolting. Why would anyone pickle a watermelon?” asked Mommy. “You’re not supposed to do that!”
“You’re not supposed to suspend men from ceilings by their dicks, either,” I said.


Steven Gray has been living in San Francisco since 1849 and has rent control. Self control is another matter. He reads his work on a regular basis in venues throughout San Francisco. Sometimes he accompanies other poets on guitar. He is co-editor of Out of Our, a poetry and art magazine, and has two books of poetry: Jet Shock and Culture Lag (2012), and Shadow on the Rocks (2011).