by Barrie Jean Borich
She looks just like Vivien Leigh.
Did my mother tell me this, or was I told this firsthand by the admiring man at the photography studio? As if he knew just what to say.
The family portrait over the television. I am in high school. My legs naked and awkward over a royal blue dress—hair teased and curly—I can reach up from my memory and touch it…My Clinique face fixed into a grimace…I never learned how to smile coyly…This is when we wore mascara to match our outfits—I’m sure if I look closely I will find the faintest touch of blue on the tips of my lashes…Pale skin, but mine was not a china doll’s face. Not like the Scarlett O’Hara Madame Alexander Doll on the shelf in my Laura Ashley bedroom. She wears the forest green dress for the Twelve Oaks barbecue, forest green ribbons in her dark hair. They cut young Vivien’s dark ringlets for the Divine Babe when she was at school at the convent. I have green eyes (hazel on my driver’s license), eyes verdant with fury or sorrow.
At this age I am strangely asexual—my sexuality vitalis, as Krafft-Ebing would say, resigned to onanism and oneirism. I have not kissed a boy. I will not kiss a boy until I am almost off to college. He will be my first boyfriend, and it will be a passionate yet virginal love, and it will be both of our first kisses on the scratchy couch in the basement while his mother lies on the couch upstairs dying of cancer, her head permanently wrapped in a towel like she is always just out of the shower. We will be watching Judy Garland sing “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas” from Meet Me in St. Louis, and his lips will be chapped, and the furthest we will go is when I strip and show him my Garfield panties, and he will nuzzle me there. And once we will go to his grandparents’ empty house in Park Ridge and get naked and roll around on a bed, but we won’t know what to do. And another time we will be in the woods on vacation with my family and we will roll around again in the leaves, but we will be scared because we have figured out how to buy cigarettes but not condoms. Later he will think he’s a vampire and be diagnosed with schizophrenia, and when I see him on campus he will announce me to all who will hear as his high school sweetheart he never fucked. I will later think I’m immortal too—with drugs, mind drugs, street drugs, casual sex, way-too-serious sex—and years after that, we will both be back in the northwestern suburbs, each with our own diagnosis from the DSM-IV. He will pick me up like the old days and we will go to Denny’s, and he will scribble prophecies on napkins, his hair now down to his waist and dyed black. He will insist on being called an anagram of his name. We will go to a playground and sit on the swings and make out, and he will tell me I’m still hot even though I have cut off all my hair and no one, absolutely no one, would confuse me for an MGM starlet anymore.
Although I would be a virgin until twenty, I began masturbating furiously at a young age. I would lie on my belly and rub my fingers against my underwear. I needed friction to get off (still do). I know what you’re doing, my mother once said from the foot of the stairs as I pretended to watch TV. This best sums up the exchanges I had with my mother about sex. The implication of surveillance, the undertones of guilt.
I would pound myself into the carpet relentlessly, as if the floor were my overbearing lover that I wished to be consumed by.
In my sex dreams, even when I was young and untouched, I liked it rough. And this I can perhaps blame on Gone with the Wind.
When I was in third grade at St. Emily’s Middle School, I wrote a book report on Gone with the Wind.
This was years before the family photograph. The man at the photography studio didn’t realize the mythology he was contributing to.
Around the time of the book report I decided that everyone should call me Katie Scarlett. Scarlett O’Hara‘s real name was Katie Scarlett—that’s what her drunk Irish father called her—and I was a Katie too, and we both had green eyes and so it was fate.
I swore at least two times in my book report on Gone with the Wind. Although I don’t remember the exact wording, I am told I wrote something like: And Rhett told Scarlett that he didn’t give a damn. But I really do think that he gave a damn.
And Sister Blanche (or was it Benedicta?) called in my mother. I was always getting in trouble at school in this stage of my life.
David Selznick was fined $5000 for that ending word, for going against the Hays Code.
I like to think of this as my first instance of writing the taboo.
I was a promiscuous reader. The only thing my parents never censored while I was growing up was my reading material. Strict about everything else. A perpetual lock-and-key. I was grounded for making the B honor roll. I wasn’t allowed to go to the mall with friends. I couldn’t date until I was sixteen. I couldn’t see R-rated movies. But I was allowed, always, to read whatever I wanted, from their bookshelves or from the public library. I guess they thought reading couldn’t do any harm, not thinking of Flaubert’s dictum that novels corrupt the masses or of Rousseau’s worries about the purity of young girls’ minds.
I sped-read to the dirty parts. In my father’s book on the history of the papacy, I was only interested in the seedy Renaissance popes, the ones who fucked around and fathered children, who had cups of chocolate served to them in the bathtub.
My grandmother’s paperback romances and their long purply passages of fucking. His long hard sword, her throbbing sheath. She is always virginal, saving herself. He is powerful, seductive. I would sit on the toilet and read these one an hour, my mind swollen and dazed with all of that fucking.
I still read novels with my hands down my pants. I get my own lubrication on the pages, even if they are library books.
On my mother’s bookshelf: Wuthering Heights, Gone with the Wind, and a series of quasi-gothic historical romance rip-offs of the two.
One of these was The Demon Lover.
The Demon Lover was a bodice ripper by Victoria Holt, published in the early ‘80s. It was a first-person narrative about a British woman painter—named Kate—in some far-off era, who hailed from a line of celebrated miniaturists. When her father—who is sadly going blind—is commissioned to paint a famous French baron, Kate must accompany him and pretend to be his helpmate, but really paint the portrait herself.
The Baron is a Byronic type: severe, masculine, cruel. The virginal Kate behaves quite coldly toward him. But then he has her kidnapped and drugged, and holds her captive in his chateau. He eagerly rapes her every night, forcing her into submission, enjoying the fight. By day, a long fur robe covers her bruised porcelain body. His behavior is explained in the book by his Nordic ancestry of raping and pillaging. And of course at the end Kate relents and falls madly in love with him.
I cannot tell you how many times I read The Demon Lover as a child. I did not read it—I devoured it. I shivered at the thought of being ravaged. Hatred and disgust mixed with eroticism and excitement: my formative education in the hate-fuck.
I can recall a line from The Demon Lover from memory: The bed was like a battlefield that night. This is after the first night, when she wakes up, the effects of the drug worn off, and to her horror he is on top of her.
But I fought . . . how I fought! I whipped my hatred for him and somewhere at the back of my mind I realized that I was fighting not only him but something in myself . . . some erotic curiosity, some desire for this conflict . . . some craving for the ultimate satisfaction. I was vanquished but I felt a certain wild exhilaration in defeat and the stronger my hatred the greater my excitement.
I ordered the book online recently and was pleased to find that line there as it was soldered in my memory.
The bed was a battlefield.
I’m getting turned on just typing it.
Rhett Butler and the Baron. My personal archetypes of a certain sort of lover. I only knew brutal boys who were weak approximations.
Clark Gable, the paragon of power and cruel paternity. He needs to teach us a lesson. He wants to give us a spanking.
When Marilyn Monroe was growing up in foster homes, she pasted Clark Gable’s picture in her album and told everyone that he was her daddy. She was devastated when everyone blamed her for his death after filming The Misfits. Always stuck with cowboys in films—she was the rodeo prize.
He slaps Joan Crawford’s ass in Dancing Girl—thank you, she breathes.
With Jean Harlow’s prostitute in Red Dust. He pulls her onto his lap. Hey what’s the big deal, she pouts. But then she realizes she likes it. Harlow was genius at the sudden reaction. He threatens to lock her in the outhouse.
Clark Gable playing the heavy sans moustache in A Free Soul. Everyone remembers him slapping Norma Shearer. He doesn’t. He pushes her onto the couch. One hand. That’s how easy it was. She wants it so bad, with her fuck-me eyes. The society girl and the criminal.
But later after he manhandles her: what a beast you were when the surface was scratched.
His laugh when Mary Astor slaps him in Red Dust.
Clark Gable was Hitler’s favorite movie star.
I want you to faint, he says when he kisses Scarlett. This is what you were meant for.
In his Psychopathia Sexualis, Krafft-Ebing focuses mostly on cases of male masochists. He documents only a few cases of female masochists. His explanation is problematically Hegelian: that women are masochists anyway, slaves to their relationships to men (and that penetration is essentially passive). This he calls female “bondage.”
The desire for the bottom and the brothel. Slumming like Baudelaire. Catherine Deneuve in Belle de Jour dreams of being tied to the tree and whipped by Michel Piccoli.
There is case 84, a Miss X who wished to be the slave of a man whom she loves; she would kiss his feet if he would only whip her.
Rousseau loved the whip too, didn’t he?
Margaret Mitchell wrote that every good girl innocent and well-bred has a devouring curiosity about prostitutes. In the novel, Scarlett fascinated by Belle Watkins.
Everyone wanted to play Scarlett: Tallulah Bankhead, Bette Davis, Paulette Goddard, and, of course, Vivien Leigh. “I have cast myself as Scarlett O’Hara,” she announced to David Selznick. Jean Harlow wanted it badly—she read it rapturously like everyone else—she didn’t want to be cast as Belle Watkins. Always the good-time girl. (The fallen woman must reform by fade-out.)
Vivien Leigh with her white gloves . . . she had so many pairs . . . she was brought up so correct and Catholic . . . Vivien Leigh later as Blanche Dubois, roaming red-light districts as “research,” taking home cabdrivers and asking them to throw her against a wall and fuck her senseless.
And does Blanche DuBois really want Stanley, her ape? The rape scene: Stanley wants to debase the Queen of England.
Perhaps Little Red Riding Hood craved the wolf.
Susan Brownmiller points out that Little Red Riding Hood is a rape parable. That my desire to have men with large hands and brute force—the Stanley Kowalskis, the Rhett Butlers—is part of a victimization mentality I’ve been indoctrinated into since childhood.
The Greek raptus. Latin for “to seize.” A crime of property.
Zeus cannot contain himself. He turns into animals. He must overpower her, and she is enthralled by this. To get carried away, to be abducted, to be transported. Poor Helen her mother was raped and then she was raped by Paris and the war inside of her.
Vivien Leigh as Leda her swan neck he is going to snap it.
I don’t remember when I first saw the film version of Gone with the Wind. It is seared in my memory as if I am remembering myself, my childhood.
The so-called rape scene. He is going to crush her head like a walnut. Remove thoughts of Ashley Hamilton from her brain.Observe my hands my dear (I still observe them shivering). I can tear you to pieces with them.
The scene all in reds. THE SCARLET LETTER. The red tart-dress Rhett (RED with rage) forces her to wear to Ashley’s party. Wear plenty of rouge, look the part, he tells her. The crimson velvet robe lined with ermine, a pornographic princess. She sits on the red throne taking her brandy. Her hair in braids with a red ribbon. Her pinched ivory face. Porcelain begging to be shattered. He swallows her up in his arms, his mouth, in the darkness. Rhett, don’t. This is one night you’re not throwing me out. Arms too strong lips too bruising fate too fast, Margaret Mitchell writes.
Next morning she is in her white nightie against white sheets. Vivien Leigh purring like a kitten, those sated cat eyes. In the novel we are told he uses her brutally she is hurt and humbled. A scene based on Margaret Mitchell’s own past of domestic violence. Eroticized in fiction.
And I wonder why I find this so erotic. I’d like to disavow the easy psychoanalytic interpretation, although I wonder if there was something buried in my childhood that made me shiver so much at this scene. My father was not cruel, although he was unyielding in patriarchal authority. The only time we touched was during Mass, when everyone wished each other peace with a handshake, and I would barrel after him with a hug. I remember his palm flat against my collarbone, pushing me away. As if it was somehow indecent to touch one’s daughter.
For a while I didn’t desire peace in my lovers. After the fumblings of my gentle vampire I sought out men who were cruel in their silence and stoicism. And I would bang on the door of their cool remove. Does every woman adore a fascist? Ted Hughes playing Sylvia Plath’s panzer-man. The boot in the face, the brute / Brute heart of a brute like you. Dirk Bogard in The Night Porter. Marlon Brando in Last Tango in Paris.
Perhaps Simone de Beauvoir is right, perhaps Krafft-Ebing is right—that there is a masochism to a certain sort of love, the idealized fairy-tale love we are taught from childhood, which is paternal, mirrored on father-daughter. I think of Catherine Deneuve in Donkey Skin, a grotesque version of the incestuous family romance. We are taught to desire Heathcliff and Lord Byron and Rhett Butler. We are taught to shiver when someone threatens to kick down doors or lash us with a buggy whip, to find the idea of being plundered and pillaged erotic.
Although I wonder if it is Scarlett that I am more curious about. Her internal warfare. The Scarlett who struggled in Rhett Butler’s arms, who fought like a tiger, who was subdued like a kitten. Perhaps I long to struggle, to fight back, to kick and slap. But what am I seeking to vanquish?
The bed was like a battlefield.
KATE ZAMBRENO is the author of the novel O Fallen Angel (Chiasmus Press, 2010) and Green Girl (Emergency Press, 2011). She is an editor at Nightboat Books. She writes the blog Frances Farmer Is My Sister at francesfarmerismysister.blogspot.com.