My Life as a Mon­ster by Shan­non Burns

VoX Shan­non Burns

The Monthly (Australia) - - APRIL 2018 -

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?

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