Journalist Daniel Bergner's The Other Side of Desire is a researcher's intimate glimpse into what those to which it is foreign would call, alternative sexuality.
The first subject (they are depicted more as center pieces than as main characters) of the book's total four, is a man torn apart by his fetish for feet. Unlike others who share his intense predilection, Jacob is unaware of how commonplace his sexuality is, and is only surrounded by people who tell him otherwise. In one of the very first pages I was caught extremely off guard by Jacob referring to himself as a “monster” for his fetishistic leanings. Seeing such a strong (and absolutely harsh) statement made so early on in this text (even if it was made by the subject himself), made me fear that the entire collection would depict this shameful, anxiety ridden side of sexuality. This then motivated me to question the author's intent in compiling such perspectives, and distanced me from him as my supposed trust-worthy narrator. The positioning of this particular account in the book's opening is risky. I'm not yet sure what purpose it serves.
This is touchy matter for anyone who houses an awareness of their own sexual uniqueness. Even for anyone who understands that fetish sexuality is no longer matter for closets. Since Bergner's tone neither leans strongly toward kinky nor non-kinky audiences, it is difficult to decipher who the intended reader is. Which can make it hard for one who empathizes with the subjects to place their allegiance.
However, when we reach the third story in The Other Side of Desire follows a middle-aged man named Roy (the same gender and roughly a decade younger than the author). Bergner's tone becomes more directly empathetic, which runs parallel to a content shift. All of the previous stories contain paragraphs and often even pages of clinical psychology and psychiatry as relayed by a professional. The effect is not unlike that of witnessing a diagnosis. However, in Roy's story, a chunk of that more clinical language is replaced by personal anecdotes shared by the author, about himself. 108 pages in, a paragraph begins in the first person. This occurs elsewhere earlier on, but only to convey an image of the author interviewing whomever is being spoken to, of collecting research, of witnessing that which provokes description. However, here the author jumps into a separate scene, the subject of which is himself. It is both a slightly disorienting and deeply serious moment. The author is no longer merely looking at these people as though they are their own untouchable species, but rather as people that resemble us on enough levels that, with the slip of a decision, we could exist in their predicament.
Roy's story draws out the closest to a collective takeaway this collection contains. It leaves the reader empathizing with the subject in a way previously unimagined, and in doing so, begins to tug at the roots of some of our deepest preconceptions about sexual minorities.
Seeing the powerful response that this one singular story is able to yield in its retelling, makes me sad for the other subjects. Their stories feel as though they are short-ended merely because the author seemingly has less of a capacity and will for empathizing with them himself.
While all subjects are surely dealt with in a way that is as compassionate as journalism can arguably get, there still feels to me a distinct distance between narrative and subject, that stretches beyond the third person perspective. Perhaps in his perception that Bergner holds of a heightened or more “dramatic” version of living that we kinky identifying persons are apparently able to attain, is where I take issue. I, along with (I imagine) the subjects of this book, have no capacity for acknowledging or feeling this drama, since it is the only way of living that we know. For a reader such as myself, reading about a fetishist whose life is in any way sensationalized or heightened, simply does not ring as true. Sure, orgasm in the face of a fetishized object, fabric, activity, or body part is ecstatic, but isn't also the orgasm detached from those particular associations? Isn't the chase, the lusting after of a desire, singularly “dramatic,” no matter its target? In the first story, Phantom of the Opera, Jacob attains arousal from merely hearing the word “feet”. It was used as a means of measurement during winter news forecasts, but this is because he is utterly sexually depraved. If a non fetishistic person also faced an entire life of sexual repression, they too might experience this level of arousal from commonplace language such as “chicken breast.” Yet Bergner paints the picture that Jacob's level of arousal is somehow special, different than that of a non-kinky person.
Journalistically, The Other Side of Desire is masterful in how thoroughly it relays events, summarizes clinical research, and simultaneously follows several story arcs. But for a series of exposés both so personal and edgy, the reader is not left with enough of an emotional resolution. The effect, at times, is similar to that of having access to a richly intimate diary, normally kept under lock and key, ingesting the secrets, and questioning the reason behind your access.
Overall, a fascinating read on controversial treatments for those who some clinicians (still!) refer to as the hyper and perversely sexed–particularly as it pertains to pre DSM V clinical practices. Viewed as a subject study with story-like elements instead of vice versa, The Other Side of Desire has the potential of proving interesting reading material for anyone able to exercise a level of detachment equal to that of the author's–albeit to most, subtle.
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