We live in interesting times.
Even as stridently misanthropic, hyper-PC “feminists” like Catherine McKinnon and Andrea Dworkin, or cluelessly detached “thinkers” like Robert Jensen continue to insist that the gentlest consensual sex act is tantamount to rape, BDSM has gone mainstream in a surprisingly big way, rising up from the dark subbasement of 1950s-era “criminal perversion” and “pathological disorder” to assume the status of acceptably edgy lifestyle choice for a brave few. In the second decade of the 21st century BDSM seems to be where swinging was at back in the 1970s; the stuff of bourgeois weekend diversion and wildly best-selling “guilty pleasure” fantasy fiction; an exciting hobby, enthusiastically embraced if still not always well understood beyond the dungeons of its true adepts.
I find Jensen’s position particularly troubling. He seems to believe that sex, by its nature, is anti-egalitarian, because, of necessity, one partner must be dominant while the other must be submissive. (Well, duh!) At one point in his writings he even describes how he “tried” homosexuality but found it no more satisfactory than heterosexuality as an expression of equality. (Apparently he’s never tried doing it sitting up, face to face either with a woman or another man. Tell me again why anybody takes this guy seriously?) Given his well-publicized hostility towards pornography—and I would presume that he, along with Dworkin and McKinnon, is among that angry mob of blinkered intellectuals who reflexively conflate erotica with porn—I would hardly expect to catch him reading I.G. Frederick’s erotic fiction, certainly not in any sort of honest, open-minded way. If he did, it’s a pretty safe bet his head would explode. (And, boy! Would I ever pay to see that!)
Unlike those lofty ascetic know-it-alls, I happen to think that sex is a pretty positive thing by and large; I strongly believe that love is love regardless of the form it takes; fulfilling companionship and the diverse expression of affection occasions to be celebrated. Let’s face it; if two (or more) like-hearted people are lucky enough to find each other out of the teaming billions on the face of this planet, that is nothing short of a miracle—and who is anybody to gainsay or condemn such a rare and beautiful thing because it doesn’t take the “acceptably traditional” or “politically correct” form?
It may be unfair to judge I.G. Frederick’s “Shattered” and “Broken” as works of erotica even though both books are expressly marketed as such. I think these titles might more accurately be categorized as mainstream literary fiction with graphic descriptions of ritual domination and submission, and some explicit erotic content. But sex is not the real focus of these stories, and the sooner that is made clear up front, the better. Casual consumers of erotica bring a set of visceral expectations to any story, and have little patience for “meta-” anything. Needless to say, these books are not for that kind of reader. Likewise, some fans of BDSM erotica and especially serious practitioners may be unhappy with the novels’ occasionally less-than-flattering portrayal of the subculture; Frederick delves into the philosophy and psychology of the lifestyle largely by showing us how it’s not supposed to be lived, and the often blatantly unethical, coercive behavior described in these stories can be downright disturbing (as the subtitles promise), teetering all too precariously on the edge of the “anti-erotic.” I believe the original publisher was extremely misguided in its approach to promotion, and did Ms. Frederick and her work a serious disservice.
Even so, both books have a decidedly “teach-y” quality about them; some readers may be left wondering whether they were meant to be entertaining, or were intentionally conceived as catalysts for controversy. Occasionally the story-telling takes on the tenor of an apologia; many parts read less like artfully paced dramatic fiction than the contents of some dry psychological case study or an extended “information dump” in a textbook on the BDSM lifestyle, less erotic diversion than a rather clumsy vehicle of didactic illustration in the tradition of B.F. Skinner’s “Walden Two.”
These two books seem to have begun life as a single, much-longer novel. “Broken” and “Shattered” feature many of the same players, and while the second book is perhaps more satisfying when analyzed solely as story, both are rather disappointing where one considers issues of character-motivation and consistency. Indeed, what I wanted most in these stories—what I kept hoping for as I worked my way through them—was a character I could relate to, or, at least, root for. Unfortunately, I came away feeling more perplexed than satisfied; having been offered a cast of characters I could mostly either choose to hate or pity.
The 1st-century Roman philosopher, Seneca once said “No one can be crushed by misfortune who has not first been deceived by prosperity.” Jessica has definitely been deceived by the illusion of her parents’ prosperity; and when her father’s Madoff-like house of cards comes tumbling down, she finds herself standing at his graveside, alone and destitute. The impression we get of this woman through the author’s words is a bit confusing; she is spoiled, fastidious, almost pathologically appearance-conscious; self-absorbed and coldly calculating while emotionally vulnerable; she takes a scholarly interest in issues surrounding the clinical treatment of depression, even as she appears to lack any semblance of genuine human empathy.
Jessica’s desperate need for money ultimately leads her into the repulsive clutches of the head of the psychology department; a vile, ethically-challenged sadist who promptly enslaves the young woman, and coerces her into a degrading life of BDSM prostitution. Through a series of painful ordeals, graphically portrayed, Jessica eventually discovers her own talent for domination, which becomes a means to self-liberation of a sort.
When it doesn’t read like a textbook, “Broken” feels like an outdated copy of the Nieman Marcus catalog, with more gratuitous luxury-product placements than a Hollywood summer blockbuster. The lavish, highly-detailed descriptions of fancy-restaurant lunches are more passionate and sensuously imbued than most of the sex scenes. The characters seem pat, one dimensional, serving their function in the narrative like stock players in an old-time melodrama, baldly relaying information where needed, going through the stereotyped motions of their parts with a certain robotic efficiency. We are told far more than we are shown; the author cannot seem to resist the urge to explain her plot points and motivations at length—often repeating them several times throughout the course of the story, sometimes as dialogue, more often as narrative, as in this passage:
“Looking in the mirror, she stared at the chain links encircling her neck. She found it interesting that she could disassociate herself from everything that happened at Professor Branson’s house, but the mere thought of servicing Professor Lawrence made her ill.”
The only character for whom I felt even the slightest pang of empathy was Alyssa, the wise, “older” friend, who seems to function as the author’s avatar within the narrative, delivering meta-messages along with small essential tidbits of information where needed:
“That’s what I mean by symbiosis. I am a Dominant, a Mistress. But without my slave I have no one to serve me, no one to make me complete. Klark is a slave, but without a mistress to serve his life has no purpose, no meaning. We fill each other’s needs in a relationship that others might view as parasitic.”
Later, Alyssa ruminates on the downside of BDSM’s status as popular trend:
“The internet had perverted the lifestyle, permitting those with no experience to claim dominant status, and men pretending to be submissives to fulfill their sexual fantasies without offering anything in return.”
While this may be interesting to a curious outsider—even quite enlightening, it hardly makes for a compelling page-turner regardless of genre.
Where, in “Broken,” we first meet Jessica as a rather shallow object of pity, a hapless victim, passively accepting her enslavement, by the end of that first book, she has literally shaken off her chains, realized her true potential as a FemDom, and found a kind of peace in the arms of a soul-mate submissive—a BDSM happily-ever-after if there ever was one. But what are we to make of the Jessica we encounter in “Shattered”? Though now a licensed therapist, this same character has morphed into an ice-hearted monster with no qualms about victimizing others for her own selfish ends; cruel, manipulative, ethically detached, she is the true student of the sadistic professor who first coerced and enslaved her. It may well be that we become like those we hate and fear; but it might also have been interesting to see exactly how that happened to Jessica.
Zachary, a brilliant but deeply troubled young man comes to Jessica’s office seeking help. (The opening paragraphs of “Shattered” offer a pitch-perfect description of obsessive-compulsive behavior.) The victim of childhood abuse and deep psychological trauma, he drifts through life, lacking any meaningful focus or structure. Jessica sees the boy as the perfect guinea pig for a radical experiment;
“Some researchers have used pain to effectively treat depression. Pain causes the release of endorphins, which can reduce anxiety and stimulate your sense of well-being. They can also reduce serotonin levels . . .”
Jessica envisions bondage and discipline—“whipping therapy”—as a way of managing Zachary’s depressive cycles. Such blatantly unethical, unsanctioned experimentation surpasses mere unprofessional behavior, wandering into classic “mad scientist” territory. Fully aware of what might happen if her misconduct is exposed, she isolates and enslaves the young man, imprisoning him in her own personal dungeon. And when he is no longer useful to her research, she abandons him.
One of the keys to a fuller appreciation of this narrative is to understand that “Shattered” is not about Jessica; it is, above all, the story of Zachary’s search for liberation and wholeness. As Jessica fades from the foreground to become the one-dimensional off-stage villain of the piece, Zachary finds Alyssa, Jessica’s wiser, older ex-friend, a Domina who has suffered a terrible debilitating loss. It is through Alyssa and her profound grief that the young man realizes the horror of what has been done to him:
“She (Jessica) only mentioned one threesome; bondage and discipline, domination and submission, and sadism and masochism.’ Alyssa reluctantly pulled her feet away. ‘No, there are three threesomes. Those, but also tops, bottoms and switches, and more importantly, safe, sane and consensual.”
Finding enlightenment and purpose with Alyssa, Zachary begins to understand himself and his own genuine needs; “A slave should always choose if, when, and who to give himself to . . .”
Notwithstanding its awkwardly contrived happy ending, much of what goes on in “Shattered” is quite hard to take; gratuitous degradation and torture, pain and abject humiliation, vividly rendered—and yet, we are left wondering, to what end. Seeing it all in our minds’ eyes, we can begin to appreciate the quote from Nietzsche on one of Zachary’s t-shirts: “In the consciousness of the truth he has perceived, man now sees everywhere only the awfulness or the absurdity of existence . . . and loathing seizes him.”
I do highly commend the author for endeavoring to bring a degree of seriousness and intellectual substance to her storytelling—almost totally unheard of even in the more rarefied examples of literary erotica. Ms. Frederick is conspicuously gifted, profound in her thoughtfulness; and clearly capable of brilliance. I sincerely hope that, in books to come, she may hone her story-craft to a point where it is worthy of her obvious potential.
Terrance Aldon Shaw