Oedipus is complex, or, fingernails

“Scratch my back?”

I remember saying this, imploringly, almost begging, to my mom. Was I 3? 5? 10? Was I 13? How old was I when I stopped asking for this? When my sense of decorum, my hunger for individuation, my adolescent contempt for my parents and anything implicating them, finally overtook my longing? I remember that longing viscerally – my aching for the sensation of my mom’s nails dragging sensuously down my back, at once igniting, satisfying, and reigniting a particularly insatiable itch in me.

In popular culture, it is a truism – even if it’s not true – that a) Freud hypothesized a universal Oedipus complex, and b) that this means every boy wants (or wanted) to fuck his mom, to kill his dad. Of course, that’s not the story of Oedipus at all. Oedipus is told by the oracle that he will marry his mother, that he will kill his father. All of which has happened, prior to the start of the play. Oedipus wants nothing less than to marry (or fuck) his mother, except, perhaps, to kill his father, but he can’t undo what he’s already done.


I never wanted to fuck my mother. At least not consciously. My sexuality, though, developed in a cauldron fueled, and stirred, by her. Somewhere in these pages I’ve written (I’m sure, though I can’t find it now) of my sociopathic adolescent theft of the panties of girls and women. Friends. Women whose children I babysat. Mothers of friends. Aunts. At least one cousin. And so on. I had a plastic bag filled with these panties – and with the occasional bra – and I remember jerking off as I rubbed my face in them, inhaling the smells deeply, imagining they were the smells of pussy, of breasts, even if, within a week or so, the only smell in the bag was the smell of the bag itself, a sort of dank, musky, slightly fetid smell I still can remember to this day.

I never stole my mother’s lingerie. I didn’t dare. I did, though, borrow it. Before I launched my collection, I took a pair of burgundy lace panties from her dresser drawer and… put them to use. I remember this as uncomfortable. Dissociative, even. I was torn between, on the one hand, my ravenous desire for the smell of pussy, for the opportunity to, even if vicariously through fabric, be close to pussy and, on the other hand, the need not to imagine my mother as a sexual being, the imperative not to be aroused by her or anything to do with her. I would borrow those panties, jerk off, and return them.

You can’t square a circle, they say, but the (my) mind can achieve the impossible. Between denial and dissociation, I achieved the seemingly impossible: an orgasm fueled by my mother’s underwear, by the (imagined) scent of her cunt, somehow completely separated from, dissociated from, any idea of my mother. The vagina whose aroma I breathed in existed in my mind as a sort of ideal vagina, belonging to all women except one, and at the same time, belonging to none.


When my mom scratched my back, I felt a sort of thrilling pleasure, one I didn’t understand, but knew I needed. As an adult, that sensual memory lives on in a not uncomplicated space. No longer can I complete the mental gymnastics necessary to divorce the sensation – the sensual stimulation – from thoughts of my mom. I could do it nearly fifty years ago, even as her nails dragged down my back. I can’t today, with her death nearly thirty-five years in the rear view mirror. Today, when I feel nails trailing down my back, when I revisit those childhood sensations, I’m a little like Proust with his madeleine….

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