The Vertical Altar

Anne de Vries, Female at the Sea, 2005.
  • Mary Gaitskill. Don’t Cry. Pantheon. March 2009.
  • Catherine Millet. Jealousy: The Other Life of Catherine M. Grove Press. February 2010.

Mary Gaitskill’s characters do not give blowjobs. But one does bend down to a man’s waist “in a position that was not very pleasing either aesthetically or psychologically.” Her characters do not have random hook-ups. But a woman who’s had too much to drink may kiss a stranger with “an escalating slur of useless feeling.” Phrases like these force the reader to slow down in a way that the characters do not, revealing oral sex as a self-conscious pose, and a kiss as vivified desperation.

Such rigor of imagery and emotion is increasingly valuable, given the surfeit of shallow candor in many contemporary treatments of sexuality. While worthwhile writing about sex makes the reader feel what can’t be seen, excessive explicitness encourages only passive gaping, in which the blunt acuteness of excitement steamrolls sensory and emotional nuance. It may seem paradoxical, but shameless candor can serve as a barrier to intimacy between the writer and the reader; the writer hides behind a litany of shocking disclosures, which in turn can only be read absently.

Consider Catherine Millet and Toni Bentley, two authors who top Playboy’s list of “sexiest memoirs of all time,” and women who claim to find uncomplicated happiness in promiscuity. At the small, cold heart of Bentley’s bestseller The Surrender (2004) was the story of her “liberation” by hundreds (she counted) of anal sex sessions with a man whose nocturnal visits she awaited in torment, hoarding his used condoms during his long absences to reassure herself of his return. And in Millet’s popular The Sexual Life of Catherine M. (2001), the French author found her own “freedom from suffering” by making herself a sex toy for dozens of men during the marathon orgies of her young adulthood.

Amidst the plethora of sexual details through which their life stories are conveyed, both high-profile hedonists admit to getting little physical pleasure from sex. “It is almost impossible for me to reach orgasm in the presence of a witness,” Millet casually announces in her recent follow-up memoir, Jealousy. And Bentley describes, for no apparent reason, the pain of sodomy-session number 162: “By the time he got in five inches and then some, he was pushing into the fist in my gut and rolfing me from the inside. It hurt like hell but I didn’t say a word.” The honesty in these passages might be worthwhile, raising the question of why one chooses to have sex that is not physically satisfying—an impulse as common as it is complex. Alas, both writers would prefer to describe their undergarments.

Gaitskill’s subject matter is no less titillating than the premises of these supposedly sexy memoirs. But unlike Bentley and Millet, Gaitskill writes about typically shocking behaviors—sadomasochism, rape fantasies, promiscuity—in order to reveal their complicated but all too ordinary underpinnings. Consider the story “A Romantic Weekend,” from Gaitskill’s debut collection Bad Behavior (1989), in which two near-strangers decide to go away together with the understanding that sadomasochistic sex will figure heavily into the weekend’s activities. The man finds that his date is not “feminine” enough for him, but he feels the need to fuck her anyway, lest his virility be questioned. “Queasily, he stripped off her clothes and put their bodies in a viable position.” For this man, sex is purely a question of self-image:

He fastened his teeth on her breast and bit her. She made a surprised noise and her body stiffened. He bit her again, harder. She screamed. He wanted to draw blood. Her screams were short and stifled. He could tell that she was trying to like being bitten, but that she did not. He gnawed her breast. She screamed sharply. They screwed.

These short, cold sentences mimic the cadence of the sex itself, which is not shocking, but dully repulsive. By limiting her visual descriptions of the act, Gaitskill arouses our sensibility instead of our senses. Such restraint is the key to lucid and revelatory writing about sex. Rather than making sadistic sex kinky, Gaitskill reveals it as one more way people confusedly and desperately try to get what they want.


If stories like “A Romantic Weekend” dramatize the tragedy of people who are too guarded for romantic closeness, Gaitskill also shows that intimacy comes in many forms. In “Turgor,” from the collection Because They Wanted To (1998), the narrator shares a moment of closeness with the man she’s brought home from a party when he “cuts a dainty fart” as he bends to put on his boots after their unsatisfying, drunken sexual encounter. Hoping that Frederick knows she is unbothered, the narrator remembers a time when she drooled in front of a fellow passenger on a train: “when I woke and glanced at him in embarrassed realization, I saw right away that he had borne with my drool. That subtle acceptance from a total stranger was deeply satisfying to me, and I was pleased to give it to someone else.”

The unadulterated sweetness of this interaction provides a stark contrast to the unabashed sexual intimacy of the previous scenes—“He slid his hand under my head and gripped handfuls of my hair and pulled it. Carefully, he placed his prick against my genitals; he rubbed it slowly against me.” This contrast makes clear that bodily closeness, particularly the brand of perfunctory rubbing that Frederick employs, can be divorced from emotional closeness. The sexual encounter between Frederick and the narrator consists of two individuals lost in their own solitary physicality. But this doesn’t negate the possibility of connection. Sex may not connect you to another person, but a dainty fart may.

Gaitskill’s compassionate analysis of sexual urges that could be lazily labeled “extreme” or “subversive” is most explicit in her recent collection, Don’t Cry (2009), which often invokes suffering and its alleviation through reflection rather than dialogue and action. In “Folksong,” the narrator reads a news item about a woman who has sex with 1,000 men in a row in hopes of breaking a world record. The narrator then imagines the complexity behind this woman’s attempt to turn herself into a “fucking machine.” Unlike Millet, whose sole concern would seem to be a graphic representation of her couplings, Gaitskill describes the marathon sex almost solely through the music playing, “a hammering dance music” that is “like a high-speed purgatory where the body is disintegrated and reanimated over and over again until the soul is a whipsawed blur. It is fun!”

But, try as she might, the marathon woman is not able to live purely on this “fun” surface level. Throughout the marathon sex, there are moments when her awareness is drawn from the distracting “physical demands” being placed on her into murkier emotional territory, which she tries to ignore: “There are many trapdoors in personality and obsession, and she blunders down some of them—even though she doesn’t realize that she has done so.” Gaitskill, however, takes the time to peer behind these mental trapdoors, inside which she sees the marathon woman in her childhood home, where her parents’ marriage taught her to equate romantic closeness with rage. “When she began to have sex, it was as if she were picking up a doll marked ‘Girl’ and a doll marked ‘Boy’ and banging them together, hoping to unite herself. As she grew older, the woman inside her became more insatiable and the man became more angry.” This imagery is so specific as to be convincing.

Like the marathon woman’s, Millet’s “liberated” love of orgies is more problematic than The Sexual Life would have us believe. She admits as much in her recent follow-up memoir, Jealousy: The Other Life of Catherine M. (2010), wherein the self-described “unfaithful woman now herself the victim of infidelity” agonizes over her husband’s affairs after she discovers his naked photographs and lustful diary entries devoted to several younger women. Millet blames her own sexually permissive past for her resultant pain, even though Jacques has been her partner for the last thirty years, and she has been faithful to him for much, but not all, of that time.

Despite her tidy claim to eye-opening regret, Millet once again presents herself as a character to be gaped at rather than understood, capitalizing this time on the grotesque thrill of watching a loose woman succumb to jealous torment. In describing her panic attacks, obsessive searches through Jacques’s garbage cans, and addiction to tranquilizers, Millet likens herself to “a small, perverted rodent, collecting poisoned food,” an “addict” and “petty thief” who is immersed in a “pool of blood-sucking leeches,” and a “poor neurotic woman.” All fair and good, but because Millet never describes either Jacques or the nature of her love for him, the reader has no context for her sudden onslaught of saintly self-flagellation, and therefore no way to empathize with it.

If anyone could appreciate such a sensationalist account of supposed soul-searching, it ought to be Bentley, the Goddess of Submission. So it was puzzling to read her damning review of Jealousy. There, Bentley expresses disappointment that Millet is not more like Simone de Beauvoir: “With declarations like ‘Is there, for human beings, any other source of pleasure than that of obscenity?’ one feels more in the company of a schoolgirl aiming to shock than of de Beauvoir’s heir.” Bentley is right to distrust so sweeping a statement about pleasure, and to point out Millet’s penchant for flowery generalizations like: “Thus our lives take shape, not according to the convention which pictures a narrow ribbon of a road, leading to an invisible horizon, but as a series of layers, as densely packed as the earth’s crust, and, likewise, permeable.”

The curious part is how perfectly Bentley’s critique could apply to her own memoir. “He fucks me into my femininity,” she wrote in The Surrender. “As a liberated woman, it is the only way I can go there and retain my dignity.” Beyond the vagueness of these terms—What, precisely, is a liberated woman? Why can one only be feminine while getting fucked? What make femininity and dignity strange, yes, bedfellows?—Bentley’s insistence on the “feminine experience” is in large part what de Beauvoir was fighting against in The Second Sex, in which she argued, famously, for the freedom that comes from individuality. A strong sense of gender identity, she wrote, prevents one from “undertaking an authentic existence.”

This low-wattage gender consciousness pervades Bentley’s writing, both critical and personal. She takes issue, for instance, with Millet’s comparing her body to the Eiffel Tower as she straddles Jacques during sex. “The visible part of my consciousness,” Millet writes, “needed to identify with a conquering figure, a Joan of Arc marching toward the spire of Reims, or rising up, why not, like the Eiffel Tower.” One almost pities the flimsiness of these conqueror clichés as they’re used to assert Millet’s “right” to her lover’s body. But Bentley’s claim that the “image doesn’t do much for feminism’s anti-penis-envy movement” is both irrelevant and absurd, considering her own vehement disavowal of feminism in The Surrender: “This is no feminist treatise.” In both cases, Bentley uses the term “feminist” as a lazy way to up the ante of her argument. She doesn’t seem to care that the word is so embattled as to be meaningless unless explicitly defined by the person who uses it.

The use of unexamined provocations in favor of more rigorous reflection is another Bentley/Millet shared trait, both writers introducing, and quickly abandoning, questions that could lead to self-understanding. In a scene embedded in a 200-page ode to the “land beyond, behind,” Bentley recalls the time her father smashed a banana into her face and hair when she was 4 years old and didn’t want to finish her food. Millet’s upsetting family background is tucked inside a page-long paragraph about her passing interest in plastic surgery. As an aside, she writes, “When my mother killed herself, all the other members of my close family, my maternal grandmother who had lived with us, my father and my brother, had died before her, so I had had to face the violence of her suicide without the support of their intimacy and understanding.” Just as Bentley summarily dismisses her conflict with her father as “boring,” Millet is embarrassed of how ordinary she sounds when she tries to discuss her mother’s suicide with Jacques: “All I could come up with was the phrase, ‘My mother’s death has broken me.’” So she’s grateful to her husband for quickly returning her mind to more exciting contemplations: “‘What kind of cliché is that?’ he answered, rather brusquely, though with the best intentions, to help me find a way out of the crisis.” While such injured admissions belie the writers’ claims to liberated hedonism, they fail to complicate their memoirs interestingly. Since Bentley and Millet are unaware that they are hiding behind their sex appeal—in writing as in life—these glimpses of emotional pain merely reveal a cliché: fucking as a substitute for love.


Bentley and Millet both dreamed as children of becoming saints, who are rewarded for withstanding physical trials not merely with being loved by God, but being subsumed by him. But God is elusive; sex—particularly for an attractive young woman—is not. It was after losing their faith as teenagers that Bentley and Millet chose to undergo submission not to God, but to men they cast in the role of a higher sexual power. “Going past the pain is key,” Bentley explains to those of us wishing to submit to similar “liberation.” Millet, too, links pain to transcendence, describing a stigmata of a scar above her coccyx that she received when she was “set upon so violently” she had to grip the wooden table she was lying on with both hands. Such pain, of course, is not merely pain. Masturbating to debasing fantasies, Millet feels “that perfect beatitude described in The Lives of the Saints, the reward of those who bow to the divine will;” and Bentley, after giving a joint blowjob with another woman, retrospectively sees the scene as “a pair of angels praying over a vertical altar.”

Subtler sexual writing examines the spiritual confusion underlying some forms of desire. In Gaitskill’s story “Mirror Ball,” a young woman loses her soul during a one-night-stand. This plot may sound like a symbolic cautionary tale, warning young women to take more care before opening their legs. But the story does not demonize one-night-stands and should not be read as an allegory. Although the soul is anthropomorphized to lend itself to storytelling, there is nothing fantastic about the sexual encounter and the girl’s resulting distress:

She lay on her bed, eyes full of invitation… He kissed her. She rose through her body to meet him. He touched between her legs; she opened her pelvis and unfurled her soul. He felt like a man in a small boat under which a huge sea creature has passed, causing the boat to pitch gently. Like a man in a boat, he could chase it or run from it, and he picked chase. If he felt it on her lips, he put his mouth on her lips. If he found it on the palm of her hand, he opened her hand and licked it up. Her soul darted here and there, sensitive as any creature, tipping her center of balance back and forth as it oscillated. She liked this, and if she had any fear, she did not take it seriously.

After they’re finished having sex, the boy walks home at 4 AM, oblivious that he is carrying the girl’s soul with him; he drops it on the floor of his bedroom, and promptly forgets about the girl to whom it belongs.

But the girl is obsessed with memories of their brief encounter. Despite her attempts to explain away her longing as illogical, “day and night she heard him, and nothing she knew about obsession and projection could help her.” The girl is right that her pining for the boy is misplaced; but she doesn’t understand that it’s her soul she longs for, which calls to her incessantly from the floor of the boy’s bedroom: “She was steadfast and loyal, and she did not know it. She thought she was just a lovesick bitch. Because of what she thought, she was ashamed to keep her heart open. But she did.” Since the girl refuses to harden herself against the pain of longing, her soul is eventually able to find its way back to her.

By dramatizing the distance between our experience and our thoughts about our
experience—the girl believes she’s lovesick; she’s actually being loyal to herself—Gaitskill points out the knee-jerk tendency to turn burdens of mysterious feeling into shallow, tidy narratives. It is this tendency that explains the pretensions to personal liberation around which Millet and Bentley’s memoirs idly revolve. Rather than examining why “the only waking time when [her] anxiety is gone” is in the presence of her fickle anal lover, Bentley claims to have found holy bliss through sodomy; rather than questioning the “freedom to be someone else” that group sex affords Millet, she attributes her love of orgies to her lack of “moral constraints.”


Catherine M. and Ms. Surrender owe their fame to our cultural lust for juicy “true
stories” in any form. The Sexual Life was hailed as “the most sexually explicit book ever written by a woman,” while Bentley was praised for “bravely” venturing into “what has been considered male territory.” If it is indeed brave for a woman to admit to enjoying anal sex—something one in three women has reported experiencing before the age of 24—then we do need frank nonfiction to widen the cultural conversation about sexuality. But form is inseparable from meaning. Through their writing, Bentley and Millet unconsciously reveal not the truth of sexual liberation, but the false conceit of their narrators: ordinary masochists masquerading as unprecedented libertines. Real honesty—in either fiction or memoir—is communicated when the words match a feeling or scene so precisely that even a commonplace experience becomes singularly rich. In Gaitskill’s case, this linguistic care often exposes the unconscious layers of justification we all engage in to get what we believe we need—particularly when it comes to sex, an experience as volatile as it is ordinary.

The risk of self-conscious withholding or affectation is naturally much higher for memoirists than it is for writers of fiction. But this is all the more reason to demand rigorous reflection from those who claim to tell us the truth. Indeed, one’s own sex life is the erotic topic that should lend itself most directly to nuanced imagery and emotional precision—that is, if one can write in the first place. Praising the anthology Hookers, Hos, Call Girls, and Rent Boys (2009) Bentley wrote, “This collection is a wonderful reminder that good writing is not about knowing words, grammar or Faulkner, but having that rare ability to tell the truth.” Ah, there’s the rub—and tug.

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