What follows is an account of the first time I saw pornography. It is not a sexy story.
My friend Mariya has been working on a short story called Trumpet
, a surreal fable about an unlikely communiqué between two strange and disparate worlds. Early in the story is a scene in which a young girl stumbles upon a stack of pornographic magazines in an alley. Curiosity tempered by a calm nonchalance, she takes one home to discover it serves as a portal to another realm.
Initially, I had a little trouble moving beyond this early part of the story. It was eerie, uncanny. What Mariya had described was almost exactly my first encounter with pornography. Though my reaction was hardly that cool.
It’s probably 1990 or so. I’m about 10 years old. Back then, before it was walled off and made the exclusive property of the U of M football team, the giant field next to Yost arena in Ann Arbor was more or less open to the public. It was right across the street from my childhood home on Granger and State. My brother and sister and I used to traipse over there on windy afternoons and fly kites. Due to a work related Sabbath prohibition against carrying objects outside the house (yes, I am for real), on Saturdays we would wander over there empty handed and entertain ourselves by snooping around the railroad tracks at the outlying western perimeter of the field.
Like normal kids, my brother and I were obsessed with treasure. Raised by an obsessive antiques-collecting father we had a broad appreciation for what counted as treasure. A faded pop can for instance, the kind bearing an unusually shaped, antiquated looking mouth, was for us, a magical, monumental find. We horded this kind of junk (cans, torn, moldy paperback books, dirt encrusted shards of cheap jewelry) with a sort of mythic-taxonomic fascination. We imagined great narratives about their origins, elaborate epics and ghost stories whose veracity we’d manage to convince ourselves of chillingly.
Dad instilled in us an innate curiosity and appreciation for every over-looked component of the man-made material universe. He treated every piece of junk we ever brought him with an awed collectors eye. “Very neat” he’d conclude approvingly, turning over a faded bottle cap while we stood there expectantly. “But is it collectible
,” we’d press him. “Hang onto it and we’ll see if we can look up any information about it.”
One Saturday afternoon we were playing around the tracks when something colorful, mashed up against some weeds on fence caught my eye. It was the glossy pages of a magazine flapping in the wind. I moved a little closer, sensing with a strange foreboding that this was something bad, something my siblings should not see. I shooed them home telling them I’d catch up soon and went to investigate this ominous object.
I had never seen a dirty magazine before. It’s difficult to explain the way in which this visual/cerebral experience was so alien. Later on, as I gained some perspective and points of reference on this sort of thing, I could classify the magazine I saw that day as decidedly not of the innocent, soft-core porn variety. In developmental terms this was, rather plainly, a lot of information to assimilate.
With a terror-stricken fascination, akin to rubbernecking at the scene of a gory accident, I flipped through the magazine. There were strange objects being inserted in the women’s hairless vaginas. What were they? The women looked pained. Worse, they looked mean. Their eyebrows were drawn on in sharp, nefarious arcs, their lips curled into haughty sneers. What did the words “Creaming Pussies” mean? This phrase locked itself into my mind, repeating itself hauntingly, obsessively.
After a few moments I threw down the magazine, shuddering in disgust. What should I do with it? I couldn’t just leave it there. What if some other kids found it? I can’t remember if I threw it in a garbage can or stashed it behind some leaves or what. All I knew what that it was noisome to the touch. I wanted it burned. I wanted it erased from the universe.
I returned to my parents’ house queasy and uncharacteristically withdrawn. Predictably, that night I had terrible trouble falling asleep. The phrase “creaming pussies” wouldn’t leave me alone. The alien flesh and the degradation harassed me relentlessly. Why did those girls do that? I felt so sorry for them. Who wanted to look at that? Why? Who would leave it out the railroad tracks to torture me? The hours rolled away and my anguish grew into a feverish panic. I sat in bed, in the glow of my nightlight racked with misery. Eventually I began sobbing and calling for my mother.
My mom appeared in my doorway, bleary eyed, rubbing her arms in her flannel nighty. She sat down and I crawled into her lap weeping disconsolately. I felt guilty because by seeing the dirty pictures I had somehow become implicated in the business of pornography. I was ashamed but I thought I would die if I didn’t unburden myself so hiccupping, sniffling, I told her about my discovery at the railroad tracks. My beautiful mother, so warm and comforting assured me that I had done nothing wrong. As I write this now I’m struggling to remember what words of consolation she offered me. Sadly, this kind of middle-of the night summoning was hardly out of the ordinary. When I reflect on my childhood sleeplessness is one of my most prominent memories. Given to obsessive thinking and worrying, I always had trouble falling asleep. Thoughts about death were the usual culprits.
Once, when I was 7, my dad took my brother and me to the Natural History museum in Washington D.C. where we saw a special exhibit about mummies. One of the mummies was only two feet long, a baby mummy. I couldn’t’ sleep at night for a long time after that because I though the baby mummy was tucked under my covers at the foot of my bed, that terrifying expanse of space my tiny body couldn’t’ fill. I had seen another archeological exhibit featuring some kind of mausoleum from South America and this tortured me too. Every night for weeks my mother had to sit with me at bedtime for hours and hours trying to sooth me into sleep. What did she do to deserve such a morbid child?
“Mom, you’re going to die one day,” I wailed.
“Sweet heart that isn’t going to happen for a very, very long time.”
“But when you do die what am I going to do? Who will take care of me?”
“By then you’ll have your own children who will take care of you.”
“But dad’s going to die too.”
“Yes but that also won’t be for a long time. You don’t have to worry about it now.”
“And grandma and grandpa will die and all my friends are going to die and I’m going to die too! What happens when we die?”
“Abby, you can’t worry so much about all these things that are so far in the future. We have so much life to enjoy in the meantime.”
And then just when it seemed like I had calmed down:
“Mom, what’s going to happen to me when you die?”
And on and on and on.
Other horrific thoughts that kept me awake for months at a time: ships that had sunk to the bottom of the ocean full of treasure and corpses and barnacles, concentration camps and Nazis, toys I had lost and never recovered (not so much being bereft of them as the terror of being unable to account for their whereabouts). Add to this list now shaved, oiled women with foreign objects in their orifices and mean looks on their faces,
I don’t know why it hit me that hard but looking back on it that was a defining loss of innocence for me. I remembered thinking, even years later, that if someone offered me an unfathomable sum of money, a million dollars perhaps, on the condition that I would have to relive that anguish, I would never accept it.
Although the memory is distant now, out of duty to the hypersensitive girl I used to be I’d have to say I would not choose any differently today.
I’m not sure how to end this story without segueing into some debate about pornography. I think it goes without saying that I have since matured into a liberal, reasonably savvy adult (?) with a richer, more nuanced understanding of such a complex issue. At the tender age of 10 I didn’t know anything about sex-positive porn, or feminist porn, or the celebration of deviancy, or theory-laden discourses about inverting gaze. It was just traumatizing.