What does it say about me that I have enormous sympathy for Jeffrey Dahmer? I mean, seriously: I identify with him. He’s a guy who, best I can tell, spent most of his adult life desperately trying – and, for the most part, succeeding in his efforts – not to kill people. Sure, he fucked up a few times, and killed a few, but as I recall, he was really remorseful. Like, tortured. Like, he thought he was a monster.
And of course, he was a monster – to be sure.
I was thinking about this as I watched “Shame” the other day. The protagonist is hardly sympathetic: he’s an amoral, sociopathic lech. Or worse. But I can’t imagine watching the movie and not feeling sympathy for him. He is a prisoner. The walls of his prison may be of his own construction, but they’re nonetheless real.
I know of life in a prison, as I’ve written about elsewhere. I spent years careening from one tryst to the next. And I’ve had my share of non-sexual compulsions as well. So I have a lot of sympathy for the experience of holding two halves of one’s self, a Jekyll and Hyde. We all do this to some extent. We say things like, “I wish I worked out more,” or “I wish I were neater.” As if the “me” who’s not working out as much as “I” would like is a different person.
Sex is a particularly rich area for this to play itself out, because there’s a fortuitous coincidence of wildly conflicting realities: on the one hand, my desires are entirely beyond my control. If the idea of being tickled by Amazons gets me hard, it just does. I don’t get to decide that it shouldn’t, that really what I fancy are petite ballerinas flogging me. It just is what it is. And on the other hand, there’s no place my self-judging superego is more active than with respect to my sexual selves. I know that my desires reveal something deep, vital, about myself, and so I am quick to judge myself (and others) for what I (and they) desire.
Think about the disdain in which we hold pedophiles: these are people who find themselves attracted to children. We have a sort of societal conflation of pedophilia and pederasty. The pederast is someone who acts on her or his pedophilia. Most of us have a pretty clear/bright line between (most of) our fantasies and our actual, lived experiences. (We may fantasize about rape, but we don’t rape, or seek to be raped.) Our daily use of language, of connotation, denies the pedophile the courtesy of imagining that possibility. We demonize the pedophile – someone who, surely, is a victim of her or his own thoughts and fantasies.
Anyone who has meditated even once understands this intuitively: if I close my eyes and watch my thoughts, allow myself the vantage point of observer, I see just how depraved I am.
We all do.