Patti Davis, Patty Hearst, and Lorena Bobbitt: Guns and Knives and Bondage, Oh My!
One Good Pat Deserves Another
Did you all notice the blurb in the Chronicle's Personals column, the one about Patti Davis, ex-First Daughter, being interested in s/m? According to New York magazine, Ron Reagan's own renegade daughter wants to be the voice that puts onto tape Anne Rice's three classic s/m novels -- The Claiming of Sleeping Beauty, Beauty's Punishment, and Beauty's Release (written under the pseudonym A.L. Roquelaure). Seems that Davis is writing an "erotic book" of her own, titled Bondage, and wants to study the genre. Now doesn't this speak well for the quintessential all-American family?
Takes me back to that exquisitely Dadaist moment in contemporary American history when that other heiress to the unique pomp and privilege of the American high elite, Patty Hearst, embraced her nefarious kidnappers (in more ways than one) and converted to the twin causes of violent revolution and feeding Oakland's poor. Am I the only one in the neighborhood old enough to remember the Symbionese Liberation Army? The Patty Hearst saga outdid the most outrageous Gilbert and Sullivan satires, complete with Patty falling madly in love with one of her captors, renouncing her family and her wimpy fiance' as capitalist pigs, and exhilarating in the thrill of protecting her adopted family of outlaws with her very own machine gun during at least two robberies.
Amazing what a little taste of passionate existence will do to the protected hothouse flowers of the upper gentry! Don't be fooled by the latter-day revisionists who want us all to believe that the 60s and 70s were nothing more than an aberration, a national bad dream. Debutante Patty Hearst most definitely took in the words (not to mention the flesh) of the SLA, and generated some pretty fine revolutionary rhetoric of her own once she experienced her own liberation as Good Girl Gone Bad. I always thought the turning point must have come when her father -- William Randolph Hearst, jr. -- decided to risk her life while he took precious days setting up a non-profit corporation so that the food he distributed to the poor as ransom for his daughter would be tax deductible. This is a man who knows how to play all the financial angles!
Picture it: Daughter Patty sitting in bondage (sic), in a locked closet, day after day, knowing that she may be killed at any moment, a group of revolutionary zealots propagandizing her about her criminally bourgeois parents, and her father takes the time to turn the situation to his tax advantage. Not exactly father-of-the-year material. Imagine the look on Patty's face ("Just you wait, you bad people! My father is a very powerful man who loves me very much! He'll save me! He'll call the police! You're going to pay for what you're doing to me!") the moment they showed her the story revealing her father's financial/familial priorities. I mean, I don't think any further verbal communiques to the prisoner were necessary to demonstrate the evils of heartless racist capitalism, no ma'am. The girl just picked up her gun, ditched Patty to become reborn as Tania, and was damned ready to spill whatever blood might be necessary for the people's revolution. No two ways about it. And didn't Tania look just fine in her battle fatigues, knees bent, eyes flashing, machine gun ready to do business, in the portrait snapped by the bank's own anti-bandit video camera, the portrait that made every front page in the country, that made Pattyturned -Tania a heroine and role model for every rebellious daughter in America.
Of course they claimed that Tania had merely been brainwashed by Cinque & Co., but the real brainwashing didn't happen until later. Even when Patty was captured and hauled away to jail she was fiery and unrepentant. It was only after they got her into isolation and worked her over psychologically for I don't remember how long -- weeks, wasn't it? -- threatening to send her to the slammer for life if she didn't renounce her venal tryst with the Devil, that her resolve began to falter.
And yes, I do remember, they did manage to break her spirit -- parents, psychologists, and priests working her over in tandem, performing the grand exorcism -- and then they got to put her on TV, Patty once again - - proper, privileged, prodigal daughter, the fire obviously gone out of her -- to publicly renounce the vibrantly blazing woman she had been so insane as to become. It was just the stress of the situation that made her do all those things, they had been saying all along. It was just the stress of the situation, she contritely affirmed. It was a case of temporary insanity, they had been saying all along. It was a case of temporary insanity, she acknowledged. They made her do it, the Hearsts had been wailing. They made me do it, Patty agreed. In the meantime, of course, the SLA holdouts had been firebombed to ground zero in a military attack that makes the assault on David Koresh look positively genteel, so there weren't any voices of protest about to be heard from that part of town.
And damned if the country didn't swallow the entire charade whole, this little piece of rewriting history as complete as anything George Orwell ever imagined for those baddy-baddy totalitarian type states. Why, it was just another innocent girl led astray by the wiles of the Devil and those who do his sinister work. (See why we need to keep pornography and all those other Bad Ideas out of the hands of innocent women and children? People are so easily misled!) In a perfect little metaphor, Ms. Patty went so far as to marry one of her jailers, elaborating the theme of mixing romance with the oh-so-peculiarly delicious thrill of being held captive. (You see, she didn't renounce everything she learned from her affaire with the SLA. "Oh, honey, tie me to the chair again, put me in the closet, stand close to me where I can smell your sweat, and tell me how you're going to make me come six more times, whether I want to or not, if my father doesn't come up with the money by midnight....")
What is the moral of the story? you may ask. Isn't this column supposed to be about sex? But I say that the kind of crack-me-open transformation that turned Patty Hearst into Tania is the same sort of leap we all need to make to release the full power and liberation that comes from becoming unrepentant sexual beings. The fire in Tania's eyes between the time of her self-discovery and her capitulation was the same fundamental aliveness that is available to any of us when we break through the given sense of The Way It's Supposed To Be and dare to embrace the unruly hot passion which is one of the elemental forces at the heart of the sexual urge.
We have all been raised to be Good People -- to play by the rules, to win the approval of parents and friends, to follow the dictates of the proprieties of a neatly arranged social order. Unfortunately, the social order does not have our best sexual interests in mind. Full sexual existence -- a combination of light and darkness, order and chaos -- is often at odds with being obedient, commercially productive, manipulatable, controllable citizens.
People who have access to the full range of their sexuality are empowered people, and empowered people are more likely to be troublemakers -- to ask for what they want in all aspects of their lives, to reject the notion that they should thank their lucky stars just to have gotten through another day without getting mugged or fired. Sex is revolutionary; to give people the right to be truly sexual would require a restructuring of the entire society.
Could it be that Patti Davis's Bondage is really a retelling of the erotic adventures of Patty Hearst/Tania, sort of an homage to one outfrom -over woman to another? It would explain why Davis wants to "study" the captivity-turn-on genre by talking her way through the Beauty trilogy. But, hey, let's be realistic and keep the sublime away from the ridiculous -- probably not.
Dworkin the Theory, Bobbitt the Practice?
Since the moon seems to be in Lunacy, with Turgis rising, I'm just going to have to say something about the adventures of little Lorena Bobbitt and her most obnoxious husband, John Wayne. (Yes, you've got my number: I'm an ambulance chaser, a lover of the lurid absurd. But I tell you true: These moments when the crust is stretched thin and the lava spills over, when the Emperor forgets to zip up the fly of his nonexistent trousers, these are the precious passing prisms through which we get to see the nation's sexual soul for what it really is, and for what it really isn't.)It's hardly surprising that this elegant off-withhis -cock! morality tale has captured the fascination of the press, not only in this country but around the world as well. I mean, we have here not only the archetypal vengeful severing itself, but also the dramatic pre-dawn search for the Holy Grail, and of course its miraculous reattachment by two charmingly humble small-town surgeons who will never receive any payment for their work (Bobbitt didn't have health insurance).
Step right up, folks, see it all: The wife screaming in her car when she discovers a severed penis in her hand, the husband giving his surgeon a jovial high-five before succumbing to anesthesia, male science (aka sophisticated microsurgery) battling to undo the consequences of the reptilian urges of female impetuosity.
"America, I love you, you are always putting your glasses in your pocket, forgetting they're there, and sitting on them; America I hate you," e.e. cummings once said, much more eloquently than that. What's been most amazing and delightful to me in the national convulsion over the Bobbitts is the truly inspired (dare I say poetic) language that the story has sprung from the normally hackneyed typewriters of the working press.
Take, for example, the syndicated story by Joel Achenbach of the Washington Post, "Behind the Surgical Feat of the Year: Doctors Who Performed Penis Reattachment Emerge as Story's Heroes." How's this for purple prose:
"It arrived in a Ziploc bag, inside a brown paper lunch sack. 'It was an intact penis, very cleanly cut,' recalls Jim Sehn, the urological surgeon. 'It was not crushed. It was not visibly soiled.'
"He had feared the worst. Gravel. Dirt. Run over by a car. Chewed by an animal. Instead, he was amazed by the excellent condition of the organ....
"He could not help but react both as a skilled urologist and as a man -- the doctor compelled to act, to proceed in an orderly fashion, washing the member with Hibiclens surgical scrub and then submerging it in a stainless steel bowl of saline ice, even as the man is wincing, squeamishly handling a human organ that he had touched countless times but never while detached."
Move over, Barbara Cartland!
Equally lyric is the almost pornographically fetching portrait of Lorena Bobbitt as glistening, wide-eyed waif that appeared in the November issue of Vanity Fair, the work of world renowned photojournalist Mary Ellen Mark. Mark, whose work often focuses brilliantly on the marginalized and downtrodden (like inmates at a women's mental ward, or prostitutes and circus performers in India), presents us with an image of utter innocence to document Kim Masters's description of Lorena as a "childlike [woman who] has a way of asking you, even compelling you, to take care of her."
But this photograph of Lorena is more than a portrait of innocence, it is a strongly erotic photograph as well, whether or not the photographer has made it so intentionally. What does it mean to eroticize Lorena Bobbitt in this way? Are we being offered a Fatal Attraction Lolita to tickle our senses and sensibilities?...
For the record, for whatever reason (or none), my heart and my gut are with Lorena. For whatever reason (or none), I believe that husband John Wayne abused and raped her. Let's just say he's not my kind of guy. On the other hand, as Anna Quindlen notes in an article about something else entirely, "sometimes bad things happen to bad people... it is possible to be both victim and victimizer." Lorena, by her own admission, shoplifted dresses from Nordstrom, stole money from the wallet of a visiting friend, and embezzled $7,200 from Janna Bisutti, her employer, the one friend and protector she had in the world. She did this partly to pay bills, but also to put in a satellite dish. This is, after all, a woman who came to the U.S. because she watched the Flintstones and decided, "Oh my God, this is the place I want to be."
"The victim mentality," Anna Quindlen notes, "may be the last [seemingly] uncomplicated thing about life in America." But these are the 90s and nothing is free of the complex touches of irony and paradox any more. Among the many twists of the Bobbitts' story, scuzoid John Wayne has already been acquitted, and properly so, I reluctantly admit - - not because Lorena is less than an angel, but because you can't really put somebody away on no evidence, just because someone says they did something bad. Maybe and probably just aren't good enough for this system of law, as the jury of nine women and three men quickly agreed.
Lorena has not yet had her turn on the docket, but I'm guessing that she will be convicted, and properly so, I reluctantly admit -- not because the penis is sacred, but because you can't really allow taking a knife (or gun or fist) to someone because they've done you wrong, even very wrong. (In her statement to police the morning after the incident, Lorena said that she "did it" because "he always have orgasm and he doesn't wait for me to have orgasm. He's selfish. I don't think it's fair." Well, I don't think men who could care less about women's orgasms are fair either, but I'll stick my neck out here and say that I do think there's some virtue in having the punishment fit the crime.)
The biggest irony of all is that, wrong as it may be, the Cut Heard Round the World will probably have a bigger impact on the obscene realities of marital rape and general male sexual arrogance than a hundred well-intentioned public awareness campaigns, even if J.W. Bobbitt is already having reflex erections and peeing without difficulty. Let all the John Wayne Bobbitts in the world think of 24- year-old, 95-pound, child-woman Lorena and cover their crotches with both hands before they slap or force themselves on their wives tonight.
Martin Luther King, commenting on the urban riots of the summer of 1967, said that while no one wants to condone violence, when collective oppression and anger get to the boiling point, violent outbursts are going to happen. Remember, too, that it was only after the riots in Watts and Detroit and Washington, D.C. and Newark scared the hell out of all the tongue-cluckers and made it clear that life as usual could be disrupted for the Comfortable Ones, that Congress passed the Voting Rights Act and the Civil Rights bill.
One final thought: Maybe Lorena Bobbitt should take a cue from Ted Bundy and mount an Andrea Dworkin defense at her trial. She could say she read Intercourse and got so aroused that she just couldn't help herself. She could plead for banning such inflammatory material, to save other women from succumbing to the same antisocial urges. We could have demonstrations. We could chant, "Dworkin is the theory; dismemberment the practice." We could pass a Dworkin-MacKinnon What-MeCensor ? law. Then John Wayne Bobbitt could sue Dworkin, her publisher, her publisher's distributors, and Lorena's favorite bookstore, for the harm they collectively caused her to do to him.
I mean, once we've gone this far into the land of the absurd, why stop now?
Spectator, December 10, 1993
Copyright © 1993 David Steinberg
To receive Comes Naturally columns regularly via email (free and confidential), click here.