Donna Minkowitz’s Ferocious Romance was especially helpful to me because I’ve been worried my loss of interest in sado-masochism means I’m not cool anymore. Like her, I’m amazed to learn that love is subtler than a poke in the eye with a sharp stick. Minkowitz, a former Voice writer highly regarded as a lesbian journalist, is best known for her infiltration of the religious right, especially a piece she wrote for Ms. about attending a Promise Keepers rally, concealed successfully in male drag. In Ferocious Romance, her first book, she draws strong parallels between the search for ecstasy among Christian fundamentalists and her own now transcended devotion to s/m. That’s actually not much of a stretch, but, for those who find it so, Minkowitz offers a flat-footed subtitle: What My Encounters With the Right Taught Me About Sex, God, and Fury.
Having grown up in the right wing, I don’t have to infiltrate, I just have to go home, and it is precisely for this reason that I find Minkowitz’s bravery as a reporter so extraordinary. As a lesbian, I can’t imagine daring face-to-face debate with media representatives for Focus on the Family, or invading the Promise Keepers, or getting saved in a charismatic service; her chapters about these subjects are strong because her material and point of view are original. However, she’s a better reporter than she is a writer, and that’s too bad, because this could have been an important book, and instead it’s just an interesting one.
Minkowitz opens with a service at the Toronto Airport Christian Fellowship, a fringe group even among charismatics, where people are “spiritually drunk,” make animal noises, and writhe on the floor, providing unobscured evidence that getting saved is a lot like having sex with the “Heavenly Daddy,” which means that it also carries the added heat of incest. Moved despite her cynicism, Minkowitz goes forward to the altar, where she starts “to feel a profound shaking in my chest, and if I were one of the Torontans, I’d be sure it was the Holy Spirit knocking.” It may not be the Holy Spirit knocking, but something real is happening to her that can’t be accounted for with the physiological write-off she first offers. In my own experience, spiritual ecstasy, like orgasm, involves momentary destruction of the self, and those who haven’t had it don’t know what you’re talking about; those who do tend toward denial, and have difficulty creating a trail of words.
The book’s weaknesses come when she is trying to describe her own experiences, especially with s/m. Conceptually, Ferocious Romance was a major opportunity to tease out the entwinements of pleasure and pain. Instead Minkowitz stumbles repeatedly into the potholes of narrative nonfiction: overanalysis and overstatement. On page after page I scribbled in the margins, Too interpreted. “All of us have something in us like the desire to exploit starving boys, the desire to abuse little girls. The impulse to beat up prostitutes, menace wimps, degrade lovers, just because it feels so mysteriously satisfying to treat people like dirt.” Maybe that’s so for Minkowitz (and even for me), but I don’t think it’s true for everyone, and I’ve been around the block a lot. If she’d said “many of us” or even “most,” her assertion might wash, but “all” tips her hand–it’s preachy.
The desire to preach taints Ferocious Romance, but hearing a sex radical use terms like “Old Nick” or “the Afflictor” for the Prince of Darkness is endearing. And her reporting is full of kicky information. At one event–for women only–she describes getting saved combined with a makeover. You could writhe on the floor and get your colors done. In her encounter with Focus on the Family, where she lets the smartest of the fundamentalists lay out their analysis, she achieves some of her finest writing. In return, they listen carefully to her, and
I feel what I can only describe as divine grace–as an incalculable gift from Somewhere. . . . Getting to tell these men my “wrath,” as Blake would put it, means that I can love them without fear. I hear Kurt Cobain in my head. . . . “As a tramp, as a friend,” he sings joyfully to a potential lover. “No, I don’t have a gun! No, I don’t have a gun!”
Connecting Blake, Cobain, fundamentalists, a direct experience of grace, and her own rage is a writing tour de force, successful because she doesn’t create a scaffolding of argument and leave it stuck all over the scene.
Minkowitz came out in the context of queer liberation rather than in the feminist movement, so, like Dorothy Allison, she rode the razor’s edge of anonymous sex and lesbian sado-masochism. Yet her writing about subjects like s/m and places like New York’s Labia Lounge, “where all you had to do was ask and you would receive,” is sketchy and unsatisfying. Carrying language into the darkness is difficult, of course, but the real problem is that Minkowitz just doesn’t have the technical chops yet for the autobiographical disarmament she desires. A great deal of her self-analysis is smart and very honest: ” . . . the connection between my sex and my rage terrifies me. . . . I have never really understood why people find sexual sensations pleasurable. I find arousal mostly frightening and torturous. . . . ” But when it’s necessary to make s/m scenes live on the page, she either fails or shies away. One clear, detailed scene would have provided both menace and shimmer for the issues she’s addressing and would have helped her avoid statements like this one:
Those who have never attempted it usually don’t understand that sadism . . . involves . . . an attempt to be good. Tops in S/M land don’t do what they do simply for the joy of punishing, but also for the joy of punishing without hurting. . . . In fact, most S/M scenes have no genital contact for the top. If there is an orgasm . . . it is much more likely to be the bottom’s.
Again, I found myself questioning this generalization. Maybe she didn’t take s/m far enough.
Minkowitz has the talent and courage to be a much better writer, but first she will have to absorb her theoretical armament, get her defenses down into her core, like, say, Joan Didion, who looks passive but can be devastating. Minkowitz may lay claim to meanness, but, as the above passage indicates, she is closet-tender, a cream puff. Study of Didion’s essays might teach her how to seduce and violate the reader’s point of view.
Minkowitz ends Ferocious Romance like this: “I’ve had to disarm myself to get inside this land. I took off my weapons, and my incense too. And as my feet dipped in the velvety grass I could see that there was no redeemer. No enslaver. Only other people. I approached them with great joy.” Lyrical as these lines are, they’re also cryptic and ungrounded, and oddly reminiscent of science fiction. The reader doesn’t know whether Minkowitz’s velvety grass is in the fields of the lord or in her own backyard or both, and, by God, the question matters.