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The Other Side of Desire: Four Journeys into the Far Realms of Lust and Longing Hardcover – January 27, 2009
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From Publishers Weekly
Starred Review. As if it weren't already difficult enough to find a suitable mate, what if a prerequisite was that the lover be missing an arm or a leg? Or willing to be roasted on a spit? Comparatively, a mild-mannered foot fetish seems, well, pedestrian. Bergner (God of the Rodeo) investigates how we become who we are sexually, whether our lusts are common or improbable. The book's combination of titillation, shock value and documentary evokes a set of page-turning conundrums: is a man who desires feet any less odd than the psychiatrist who treats him or the scientist who studies pedophilia or the journalist who describes a whipping session in precise detail or the reader who becomes voyeur? It's all fairly delicate and disturbing material, and while the descriptions can grow florid, the author's strongest moments (e.g., evoking the tabooed desires impelling the artist Hans Bellmer's work) compensate for the lapse. Bergner has an empathetic sensibility and convincingly suggests that what a fetishist needs is a willing and loving partner with complementary interests. (Feb.)
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“Bergner does what science cannot: He illuminates peculiar longings. His method is at first descriptive and finally poetic. . . . Given the limitations of science, resonant journalism may be the best way to approach paraphilia, and Bergner’s book has a musical quality.” (Slate)
“In this fascinating book, Bergner, with a novelist’s eye but a reporter’s grit, examines amputee devotees and S&M fanatics without resorting to sensationalism.” (Metro New York)
“Girded with scientific data about the nature of sexual identity, The Other Side of Desire is a foray into extreme passion, in quest of the human soul.” (O, The Oprah Magazine)
“In carefully etched prose, Bergner unpacks the tightly twisted roots of desire, power seeking, self-hatred and theatricality that motivate his four pseudonymous subjects…Compassionate wisdom about dark needs.” (Kirkus Reviews)
“Searching, deeply humane. . . . Our reactions to the stories Daniel Bergner recounts reveal as much about ourselves as they do about his oddly winning subjects.” (Jennifer Egan, bestselling author of THE KEEP)
“Daniel Bergner’s characters live in erotic no-go zones where most of us would fear to tread. Their stories will sadden, enlighten, disturb, and move you—for they are completely, intimately human.” (George Packer, New York Times bestselling author of THE ASSASSIN'S GATE)
“Attentive, carefully controlled…[Bergner’s] goal is empathy. He gives depth and shadow to his subjects’ longing, never mocking, oversimplifying or vilifying.” (Washington Post Book World)
“Unsettling but riveting....what makes [this book] so powerful is that it’s as much about desire and what’s normal as it is an exploration of why we are the way we are, whether we like it or not.” (New York Times Book Review)
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Top customer reviews
One problem is that the author seems overly credulous: he takes the word of his subjects, be they paraphiliacs or scientists- without weighing what they say against anything else- even published facts, in the case of the pedophile stepfather; one wouldhave thought a journalist, in particular, would have looked up the newspaper accounts sooner rather than later.
A bigger problem, though, is that the writing zooms all over the place. Partial anecdote! scientific study! Interview with therapist! then maybe zooming back to touch on one of the previous before hitting a new tangent! It did keep me unsure of what was going on, which tends to lead to people being more credulous themselves... but I didn't appreciate that; it felt overly manipulative, and the end result was increased confusion rather than understanding.
Not recommended if you want insight rather than "intellectual" titillation.
A: Weird is when you use a feather. Kinky is when you use the whole chicken.
That's essentially what you get with this book, but what is weird, and what is kinky? Where's the break line, and who gets to define where the line is? What is it like if you're on the "wrong" side?
I came to this book after reading Mary Roach's outstanding Bonk. The two are very different in content and approach, but the core subject is still the same, and the two complement each other quite well. I recommend Roach's book be read first, one because it's better written and more entertaining, and two because it's a better overview and serves as a good foundation from which to explore.
This book is about what Bergner calls "eros," the fringes of desire, or to be much more direct, sexual desire. The heart of the book asks what is a fetish, and when does it become a liability? How does one end up saddled with an overpowering fetish, or urge? And most importantly, is such a fetish normal or abnormal?
There are four real-world observations--these aren't nearly direct and detail-laden enough to be called "case studies"--on that edge. One reader will call these people sick or twisted or even evil, while another might just place them in the decidedly flatter areas of the traditional bell curve of human sexuality. Bergner's biggest success in this book is that he provides no solid judgment of his own as to whether these folks are wrong/right or normal/deviant; the reader is left to make that determination, if such a determination is even appropriate.
This is definitely an adult read, 18+. This is not a book about sex freaks, no parade of the sick, twisted and thoroughly abnormal, which may disappoint some. While not prurient or jaw-dropping--the coprophilia bit might wake you up--the general subject matter is decidedly adult and the specifics of these aspects of sexuality make this reading for the mature adult, ideally one who is already somewhat familiar with various aspects at the more distant ranges of sexuality. There is nothing really shocking here, but if you don't know what "BDSM" means, or if you've never heard of a foot fetish, you'll be lost from the start.
The four observations are of a foot fetishist, an S&M dominatrix, a convicted pedophile, and an acrotomophiliac (a "devotee" of amputees and paralysis victims).
The foot guy I saw as in deep and maddening denial, unhappy and giving in to think of himself as too many others see him, as a sick freak. His fetish has got him a bit dysfunctional, yeah, but he's not sick, just wired differently. In many ways, his story was the saddest, as he was letting others define him and control him, rather than just being himself.
The dominatrix embraces her "role," but nowhere does she actually admit "I like hurting people. I like humiliating people." She cloaks her justification in new-age BS about empowerment and freedom, all nebulous and euphemistic gunk that doesn't offer what I suspect her truth is: she gets a sexual charge out of inflicting pain and humiliation upon others. (But nothing's wrong with that, as long as everybody is willing, and getting out of the exchange what they want.)
The pedophile's case in many ways is the most accessible. There are aspects of it that are truly ambiguous, while there are others that purely black and white. Bergner provides all kinds of information showing that female physical sexual maturity (puberty/menstruation) comes on early as a result of evolution, and that a male response to this highly visible change is in its own way normal. This smashes against Western societal and cultural norms, as well as set-in-stone legal statutes. While male desire may be awakened, and brought to life just as nature intends it to, acting upon it, while "normal" in a scientifically notional way, is flat-out illegal, and you deserve everything you get if you allow yourself to take that path. Blaming the victim, as we get here, is nothing but wrong.
The amputee/paralysis guy seems to me to be the most honest and straightforward. Sure, he's on the edge of what is normal (yes, what exactly constitutes sexually normal is one of the points of the book), but his actions are not exploitive, nor are they unethical, immoral or illegal. He's found something he enjoys, and he embraces it completely. And it seems the handicapped recipients of this attention also are being tended to fairly and appropriately.
Some comments on this book have used "florid" to describe Bergner's work, and I agree. Some of his contextualizing is too maudlin, relying too much on detailed descriptions of settings, right down to describing office furniture, plants and wall decorations, as if they had something to do with the subjects at hand. At times, some of the contextual narrative came off as sappy human interest TV, without the video.
Bottom line: if the relatively detailed dynamics and vagaries of human sexuality interest you, then this is a book for you. If you're shy and uncomfortable with open discussion of any aspect of, well, you know, then this book might really really work for you, if you're reading it secretly, that is. But if way down deep you don't want to hear about other people's sexual proclivities, yearnings well outside what they taught you about in 7th grade health class, and how those non-mainstream feelings may have developed and become overpowering forces in those people's lives, and that some of these folks are actually very happy with the way things have turned out, then get out your Saturday Evening Post back-issues, and you'll be all set.
Really it is very veyr interesting, but the description makes you think it is a book heavy on both narrative and science, which it is not. A journalist takes the time to look into the lives of individuals with alternative sexual turn-ons and it is informational but not exactly educational.
A great book for someone who wants to learn more about people with alternative sexual desires, but not for someone who really wants to delve into the topic, especially from a science or research standpoint.
This book sheds a good deal of light on the subject of paraphilia's and, although "normalization" is not the precise word for what happens here, one's understanding and compassion about the issue becomes greatly enhanced. I heartily recommend it.