April 2018

Vox

by Shannon Burns

My life as a monster

Male puberty’s difficult lessons

I fell in love intensely and often from an absurdly young age. In practice, my manner of loving involved contemplating a mental image of the girl I was devoted to, dreaming about her most nights, and imagining scenarios that might offer opportunities to demonstrate the depth of my feelings. I wanted to risk my life to save hers, accept responsibility for her misdeeds, or even degrade myself in the eyes of others – as long as she understood what was being communicated. I had no ambition to “win” her affection; all I needed was for her to understand the message. That was my fantasy of consummation.

I was devoted to Kelly-Anne in junior primary school, then My-Hanh in senior primary. Both of these passions thrived under the restrictions imposed by ignorance and gender-tribalism: I doubt that I ever had a conversation with Kelly-Anne, and if she had reciprocated my interest, at the age of seven, I wouldn’t be able to remember her name now. Instead, I spent most of the day staring at the back of her neck, and a large part of each night dreaming of her face. If My-Hanh had made it known that she “liked” me before the final week of Grade 7, as we splintered off into separate high schools, I might struggle to recall her name as well.

I preferred to project my love from a distance; the more I knew about the actual Kelly-Anne or My-Hanh, the harder it was to view them as I wanted to. And when other girls left letters in my schoolbag, bestowed Valentine’s Day cards and gifts, or followed me home from school, my impulse was always to shy away. Why?

The obvious answer is that love has nowhere to go at such a young age. It can be felt, shared, acknowledged or rejected, but little more than that. A person who falls in love at nine isn’t equipped to make the kinds of decisions or perform the kinds of actions that would convert that feeling into something meaningful. It’s not the right time.

Another possible answer is that I was recasting my feelings for my mother, who’d abandoned me twice by the time I was 10. She was certainly the first woman I pined for without hope of reciprocity. Perhaps unrequited love was the sole variation I was equipped for?

But I suspect that something deeper was going on, that my devotions were more compulsive or fetishistic – especially for a boy – than those circumstances could explain.

The essential pattern continued throughout my teenage years. I wasn’t especially interested in Tamara until her boyfriend tried to beat me up, in an attempt to warn me away. He threw some wild punches and missed; I clocked him on the nose and he cried in front of our maths class. It wasn’t the glory that he’d hoped for, and I was cynical enough to behave as though I regretted what I’d been forced to do while secretly delighting in his humiliation.

Soon after, as in any Hollywood film, Tamara was “mine”. It came easily, because I wasn’t devoted to her. I just “liked” her, and relished salting the wound of a boy who’d dared to try it on with me. But I was a neglectful boyfriend; Tamara lost interest and the relationship faded. A few months later I realised that I’d made a terrible mistake: Tamara was, in fact, the best and most wonderful girl I had ever laid eyes on.

Yet instead of seeking to redeem myself in Tamara’s eyes, I found myself being cruel to her, over and over, for no comprehensible reason. I loved her, yet I behaved as though I hated her. What in the world was going on? Why couldn’t I behave normally?

During the few weeks that I “went out” with Sarah, she seemed perpetually miserable. If I asked her what was wrong, she’d turn her face away, give a slight shake of the head, and become even more remote. I worried that I was doing something wrong (I probably was), but I also worried that she would tell me what was wrong if I asked more insistently.

Perhaps Sarah’s unhappiness was perfectly ordinary. She may have been experiencing difficulties at home or uncertainties at school. Or maybe it was a kind of melancholy that is characteristic of many 14-year-old girls. Whatever it was, I felt unequal to the task of dealing with it, so I slipped out of the relationship and permitted myself to idealise her from afar.

It now occurs to me that Tamara and Sarah were singularly sexless creatures. They were among the more “underdeveloped” girls of our age group – both were petite, with barely a hint of feminine shapeliness. Which reminds me that I regarded sexual desire and romantic love as antithetical forces for an absurdly long time. I can’t remember exactly when this changed, but traces of it continued well into my 20s. I doubt that this was unusual: most of the moral messages directed at teenagers hinted that sex was a thoroughly destructive activity (you could catch a disease, impregnate a girl, ruin your life). But the separation may have been unusually strong for me. I simply couldn’t imagine the things I imagined about the shapelier girls and then claim to love them in the manner to which I was accustomed.

When I was nine years old, a girl who lived in a nearby flat told me that she’d been raped by a house intruder. Because I didn’t understand what that meant, I asked her father, who explained it as delicately as he could. He also explained that she was now prone to sudden fits of sadness. If she refused to talk or went off by herself, he said, I should keep my distance instead of making an effort to comfort her. No matter what you do, he insisted, you will only make it worse.

Two years later, I had a girlfriend who insisted on buying me unsettlingly expensive presents. The day I broke it off with her, she hid away in the sick room. As the afternoon wore on, I resolved to explain myself to her as well as I could, so I informed the teacher that I also felt ill. We were alone together in the sick room for more than an hour. In the course of our conversation the girl revealed that her uncle had sexually abused her for several months, and that she’d used the large sums of money he’d given her to purchase the expensive gifts that had frightened me away.

These were both shocking and unsettling revelations; they were also reassuringly remote. I understood that such men existed but was certain I wasn’t one of them. I was curious about sex but not obsessed with it. I was faintly aware of erotic impulses but not driven by them. Then puberty struck.

A 14-year-old boy’s sexual fantasies make guilt and shame his constant companions, and drive him into territories of fantasy that neither he nor anyone else is prepared to speak openly about. Here is one of mine: I imagined that I had the power to freeze people in time. I would then wander around the school, undress all of the girls, and touch them as I liked. This fantasy of mass sexual assault would manifest, unbidden, just moments after I shut my eyes in a nightly attempt to sleep. And it wasn’t the most disturbing fantasy.

It was natural to wonder about the sort of person who could imagine such things – the sort of person I was. And the world around me supplied an immediate and straightforward answer: I was a sex maniac and a “predator” in waiting. No one told me that it was normal or common for boys to entertain perverse fantasies. More than two decades later, it seems even more unmentionable.

Those early encounters with the creature inside me were confronting. I was never an angelic child, but my schoolyard antics stemmed partly from self-confidence: because I knew that I was a fundamentally “good” person, it was the playful misbehaviour of an innocent. But by my 14th birthday, that store of moral ease was seriously depleted. Perhaps I hadn’t done anything bad, but it wasn’t for lack of desire.

Meanwhile, I was still in love with Sarah, whom I rarely spoke to and barely saw. If I could keep one girl unsullied by my deviant imagination, perhaps there was still hope for me. When I saw her in the schoolyard or on the street, or if I visited the supermarket where she worked, I would turn away and pretend that I hadn’t noticed her. When we were thrust together in class or at someone’s party, I’d avoid eye contact and remain silent. It was the behaviour of someone paralysed by shame.

It took longer than it should have, but by my late teens I was confident that what I did and what I imagined doing carried vastly different moral implications. The fact that I could encounter echoes of my transgressive fantasies in literature, European films or the visual arts offered tremendous reassurance. It allowed me to entertain the idea that men might be innately monstrous, hovering somewhere between the bestial and the divine. Perhaps disturbing fantasies were a natural occurrence, and maybe a moral life had more to do with our willingness to understand and manage those instincts, and less to do with the impulses themselves.

Everyone knows that young men primarily read fiction written by men, but few people mention the obvious: we read writers who dramatise our most urgent anxieties from a knowing perspective. Dostoevsky’s Demons and The Brothers Karamazov, Joyce’s A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man and Ulysses, and Hardy’s Tess of the d’Urbervilles helped me understand that it wasn’t just me: perverse desire was a burden shared by men around the world and across the ages. Yet the subject could only be broached in code, via the distancing devices of fiction.

I suspect it’s much harder to arrive at such a liberating conclusion now. As they undergo transformations and disorientations comparable to Gregor Samsa’s rude awakening, young men are now invited to understand that the forces inside them are symptomatic of a social disease, rather than their human condition. Wayward desires and fantasies are now considered wrong in and of themselves. The shame is inescapable.

My perverse fantasies faded, without disappearing entirely, roughly in tandem with my sense of guilt. It’s so much easier to be good when you’re not convinced that you’re bad. But – who knows? – another surge of crazed yearnings could be just around the corner. A midlife crisis might claim me with the same force as puberty did. We can never be sure that unforeseen forces aren’t hibernating inside us, biding their time. That is the lesson of male puberty.

Now, if I close my eyes and come across a shocking but titillating image, I smile at myself. It reminds me that I still have that to contend with, and allowing myself to understand this feels essential. I pity those who discover their bestial nature in more destructive ways, and I’m terrified of those who seem oblivious to their condition. Are they not monsters in waiting?

Shannon Burns

Shannon Burns is a freelance writer and critic from Adelaide.

April 2018

From the front page

A day for some Australians

January 26 is going to remain controversial

Image from ‘Her Smell’

Toronto International Film Festival 2018 (part two)

The ordinary and the extraordinary at this year’s event, and the perils of criticism

Image from ‘The Harp in the South’

‘The Harp in the South’ at Sydney Theatre Company

Kate Mulvany’s adaptation proves that Ruth Park’s epic endures

Feeding the Muppets

What does the Morrison government have to offer in terms of serious policy?


In This Issue

Illustration

Rethinking the republic

A change in our head of state won’t change everything, and other lessons for the next push

Tim Winton’s ‘The Shepherd’s Hut’

One of Australia’s most acclaimed novelists offers a painful and beautiful story of redemption

The republic is an Aboriginal issue

Recognition must be at the heart of constitutional reform

Zadie Smith’s ‘Feel Free’

In this collection of essays, Smith shines when she’s addressing the personal


Read on

Image from ‘Her Smell’

Toronto International Film Festival 2018 (part two)

The ordinary and the extraordinary at this year’s event, and the perils of criticism

Image from ‘The Harp in the South’

‘The Harp in the South’ at Sydney Theatre Company

Kate Mulvany’s adaptation proves that Ruth Park’s epic endures

Feeding the Muppets

What does the Morrison government have to offer in terms of serious policy?

Paul Feig’s sophisticated ‘A Simple Favour’

This camp study of sociopathy is far from simple


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