Wednesday, June 30, 2021

Escaping The Labyrinth: M.S. Harkness' Desperate Pleasures

The experience of childhood sexual trauma is one that rewires one's brain to such a degree that the result is going through life walking through a labyrinth. It's an especially insidious labyrinth because one can't perceive the walls around you or even that you're in a labyrinth at all. However, one still backtracks, goes off-kilter, chooses dead-ends, and repeats the same paths even if they tend to wind up in the same monstrous predicaments. M.S. Harkness writes about this experience in great detail in her memoir Desperate Pleasures, and it points to the way how different people respond to this kind of trauma in different ways. Not unsurprisingly for her as a young adult, it meant a hypersexual focus coupled with difficulty in actually experiencing true love or intimacy. While that was partly rooted in the kind of emotionally unavailable men that she chose to pursue, her choice to pursue them was intrinsically wrapped up in the feelings of worthlessness that trauma creates.

Harkness explored this in a more lighthearted way in her comic Tinderella, which focused more on the weirdoes she dated and several men she knew were bad for her emotionally but whom she couldn't stop seeing. Desperate Pleasures is thematically richer and features greater formal complexity, especially in the way she repeats certain scenes and memories and adds new contexts to them throughout the book. The book is set a few years earlier, where Harkness is in and out of school and trying to figure out what to do with her life. To make ends meet, she engages as a "sugar baby," meaning that she dated older men who would give her money. It's not unlike being an escort, only without the formal labels. It's often referred to these days as a "mutually beneficial relationship," and the dating aspect of it is as important as the sexual aspect, which distinguishes it from more traditional sex work.

Using a jet-black sense of humor, she noted that she also fucked lots of other guys, "Unpaid. For exposure, I guess." Any freelancer has to grimly laugh at that concept. Sex, once she realized t was a genuine act of pleasure (and ANY pleasure was one to grasp onto), became her outlet for her trauma. The problem was that the men thought of her, to quote Heidegger, as Zuhandenheit or "Ready-to-hand." This means seeing the people and objects we encounter in the world solely for their use-value. With regard to people, it means not seeing their existence as beings. The key sequence in the book ends with the two guys Harkness was sleeping with asking if they could buy weed from her--and she invited both of them over at the same time, as a petty, passive-aggressive way of striking out at their treatment of her as an object at hand.

That sequence followed a hilarious, bleak, and crucial imaginary one-woman-show she was putting on called "Tinderella," wherein she talked about discovering that her abuse hadn't damaged her ability to feel pleasure, but rather that her father was so bad at sex that he didn't know how to touch her. When she went to the gynecologist for the first time, she discovered to her great surprise how sensitive she was. Harkness depicts her audience walking out on her while telling this story, saying, "If you're not laughing, I can't do anything for you." This also hits on the concept of those traumatized as being "brave." There is no bravery or valorization in being sexually assaulted, especially as a child. There is only survival or death. There is only finding a way to cope, no matter how unhealthy it might ultimately be, or not. 

This is a stark realization, but when one is made aware that you're in a labyrinth, one can act on it--although it is very difficult. Harkness goes back and forth in time and cleverly changes her rendering style a number of different times. Her base style is a highly-cartoony rendering of herself where her eyes and mouth are barely perceptible as dots. It's a self-image that's easy to get behind, since it's abstracted from reality. Her hair is more fully-defined than her facial features. In other portions of the book, when things get a lot more "real," he uses a highly naturalistic style. The irony is that this more realistic version of herself is in many ways a put-on, an illusion for the rest of the world. She uses a hazy, dreamy style that relies heavily on shadows for flashbacks to her parents, including how her mother reacted to her abusive father. Harkness ties it back to seeing her father coming back from shore leave or deploying again, clearly as moments of simultaneous dread and excitement. There is a fundamental confusion and sense of cognitive dissonance in coming to terms with abuse at that age, and Harkness depicts it as reality-warping. 

Harkness early on drops hints as to the things that can help her escape the labyrinth. First, despite everything, she desperately wants to make a connection that goes beyond sex. When she tells one of her lovers that she's in love with him on the phone, it's clear he's incapable of reciprocation. Actually telling him this, however, was the one true act of bravery she performed in the book. Second, the warmth she shows to her younger brother in helping him on physical training extends his role from Tinderella; he gives Harkness unconditional love and never judges her. The most important key is hinted at at the beginning and followed through at the end: Harkness' decision to become a physical trainer. While Harkness is a smart and sensitive artist, her stories are always about her need to express herself physically. She escaped the labyrinth not through her own workouts but rather through guiding others through their own journeys. Harkness might be self-deprecating with regard to her self-worth and rejects the idea of her courageousness, but there's a tremendous generosity of spirit and a desire to build others up that seems integral to her self-narrative. How does she help herself? By trusting herself enough to help others and breaking her tendency to go in circles. 

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