Reading the July 1999 issue, I couldn’t help but think how hung up people are about carnal knowledge, and how sad it is that some Sun readers see honest writing about sex in a negative way. It reminded me of a quote from Marlene Dietrich: “Sex: In America, an obsession. In other parts of the world, a fact.”
I imagine you’ll receive quite a few letters about David Guy’s “The Beautiful Woman and the Fear of God.” I enjoyed it as a fine example of one man’s disillusionment with Western religious thought and his embrace of Eastern philosophy.
I am sorry that you chose to publish “The Beautiful Woman and the Fear of God.” I found it to be self-absorbed, sophomoric, and rather tasteless.
I have been an enthusiastic and loyal reader of The Sun for many years. Recently, I encouraged my son and daughter-in-law to subscribe. Now I am afraid this will be their first issue, and they will think their mom an enthusiast of pornography.
On Saturday, I spent a lovely, lazy day floating down a trout stream near my home at the foot of Idaho’s Sawtooth Mountains. Overhead, I saw yellow-headed blackbirds, scarlet tanagers, brown pelicans, red flickers, and a half dozen other species of birds. Beneath the boat, I saw hundreds of brown trout darting and weaving.
When I got home, I climbed into a bath with a bowl of cherries and my first issue of The Sun. I opened to David Guy’s essay, and as I read I kept thinking, I know what this man is talking about. I, too, have been an explorer in the world of sacred sexuality. Like Guy, I became lost in the darker maze of sexual addiction. When I emerged, however, I found healing not in meditation but in walking on the land. This is where the energy comes to me most readily. I have been celibate by choice for three years. Sometimes I think of myself as an uncloistered nun, a modern-day mystic in a convent on the edge of the wilderness.
When I finished with my bath, I felt charged with the power of Guy’s words, which articulated the mystery so well. I lay on my bed, and the universe came to me. My body responded as it would to a sweet, gentle lover. The energy invited me to swim in it, and I did, floating, pulsing, electrified, while brown trout and bright yellow birds wheeled before my eyes.
I’m glad David Guy “learned more about sex on a meditation cushion than . . . in a whorehouse.” What’s unfortunate is that he ever went to a whorehouse at all. While he calls some of his experiences as a john “deeply satisfying,” there seems to be no consideration for the women involved. The dehumanizing and spiritually degrading effects of prostitution have been widely documented, yet I sense no remorse on Guy’s part, despite his spiritual rebirth. Nor do I sense any real progress in the areas of intimacy, connection, and the sharing of pleasure with a woman. Instead, to use W. H. Auden’s phrase, Guy comes off like a “leper selling his sores at market,” the unhappy beneficiary of his voracious libido (“I did just about everything I’d imagined”), until his saving glory, that hip yuppie trend Buddhism, enters his life.
Guy’s piece made me think of Eric Bogosian’s one-man show Sex, Drugs, Rock & Roll — specifically, one of Bogosian’s characters, an aging rock singer in recovery who tells his audience not to do what he did: basically, have sex and snort coke all the time. “It was awful,” the singer laments. Bogosian skewers the hypocrisy inherent in such a message. Guy, on the other hand, implies with a straight face that we men should learn from his experiences and not let our phalluses do the thinking the way he did. Yeah, right. For someone with so much “awareness,” his blind spot seems pretty big.
David M. Guy responds:
Ira Shull may feel that “the dehumanizing and spiritually degrading effects of prostitution have been widely documented,” but in The Red Thread of Passion: Spirituality and the Paradox of Sex, the book from which this chapter was excerpted, I profile Carol Queen, a woman who worked as a prostitute and didn’t find it degrading in the least. Queen, along with four other sexual healers I profile, sees herself as working in the tradition of sacred prostitutes, for whom sex work is part of a spiritual path. Queen and other women write eloquently of their work in Women of the Light: The New Sexual Healers, edited by Kenneth Ray Stubbs.
Certainly, some women are exploited in prostitution — and in many other lines of work — but other women (and men) choose that work and enjoy it. Shull may not “sense” any consideration for the women on my part. (Was I supposed to say I was considerate?) And I don’t know how he feels qualified to judge my “progress in the areas of intimacy, connection, and the sharing of pleasure.” But he’s right that I don’t feel remorse. Going to massage parlors was something I needed to do at the time, and I learned from it. It wasn’t a bad experience.
Shull seems to want me to beat my breast and lament my sinfulness, but that’s not the kind of religion that interests me. Fortunately, that “hip Yuppie trend Buddhism” — actually a tradition that has been around for twenty-five hundred years — doesn’t ask me to.
Andre Dubus’s “Sacraments” [July 1999] spoke to my soul. In spite of, or perhaps because of, what Dubus experienced in his life, he somehow managed to climb out of the “small box of ego-centered, limited thinking” that holds most of us captive. He perceived that “the outward signs of God’s love” — sacraments — “do indeed stretch to infinity.”
I was raised in the Catholic Church but have not attended Mass for many years. Dubus has opened my eyes and allowed me to see the gift of sacraments in an entirely new way.
I was stunned by the beauty of Andre Dubus’s “Sacraments.” When I finished his essay, I turned to the contributors’ notes to find out more about the author and how he had come to view life as he does. I was devastated to learn that he had recently died. It felt like a terrible personal loss: I sat on my chair holding The Sun and cried. But because of him, I did not feel alone.
Because The Sun publishes good confessional writing and encourages neophyte submissions, I expect an occasional whiny, narcissistic piece filled with self-pity and finger pointing. I was stunned, however, to come across one laced with obviously racist remarks: the Readers Write essay on “Privacy” by prisoner Gregory Frederick [July 1999].
Under the clichéd guise of a victimized descendant of slaves (yawn), Frederick purported to write about privacy. His irrelevant remarks about what most white guys in prison are like, however, brought his real agenda to the surface. And his view of prison as a metaphor for society at large is testament to the paranoia, stunted imagination, lack of vision, and caustic view of social responsibility one expects from racists.
The Sun’s editors ought to apply more discrimination in what they choose to publish. Would they, for example, consider printing a white convict’s deprecating view of blacks in prison? How about Frederick’s views on white women? Probably not. But a black man, especially an incarcerated one, taking a shot at white men: that’s provocative social commentary. Sorry, but no. Racist is racist, no matter which way the shot is fired across the color line.
You owe your readers an apology for not editing out the racist remarks from Frederick’s otherwise well-written, if unintentionally revealing, essay.
As a person with an almost genetic sense of low self-esteem — the product of an abusive childhood, poverty, and divorce, who has used recreational drugs, broken laws, spent a little time in jail, and still hasn’t a clue at age forty-nine as to what his life is about — I find your Correspondence section always raises my spirits.
Why? Because, as useless as I am, I still do not read truthful and heartfelt stories of personal pain, anguish, and terror and blame them for bringing up memories of my own pain, anguish, and terror. I remember those things perfectly well on my own, without prompting. Instead, I find myself feeling empathy for the author. And I’ve come to believe that this is sometimes a good thing.
When I see a beautiful photograph on the cover of a magazine, and a teeny, tiny, dark corner of it is covered by the magazine’s logo, I do not assume that art has been debased. Many of my favorite publications have their names on the cover. Some I have framed and hung on my walls.
As a childhood victim of sexual abuse by older children, I do not view pictures of children together as automatically representing abuse. Sometimes children simply play, fight, talk, or stare at the walls together. I know this because I spent only a small portion of my childhood being abused by other children and much more playing, fighting, talking, and staring at the walls with them. This reassures me that I am not solely a victim of abuse, but a fully formed person with other experiences.
Then there’s the debate about assisted suicide — such savage and painfully sincere invective from both sides. For me, it’s a personal issue. If a beloved friend asks me to help him commit suicide, I will use my judgment based on my observations of the person, my understanding of his pain, and my love for him, and play it by ear. If I ask for help in killing myself, I would expect my loved ones to do the same.
Whether my actions are legal or illegal is not much of an issue for me; I have broken quite a few laws in the course of trying to lead a thoughtful and sometimes moral life. I have both participated in and refused to assist with the deaths of friends, and I know others, including medical doctors, who have done the same. Life can be complicated, and each person’s experience is unique. Perhaps I am simply too ignorant to see the one truth, but I am relieved that my low self-esteem keeps me from thinking I have the right to instruct others about it. For reasons beyond my simple, dull understanding, this is something I like about myself, too.
Oops. I forgot to use the words outraged and appalled. I hope you can still print this.
A photo credit was inadvertently dropped from the August 1999 issue. The photograph on page 24 is by Duncan Green. The Sun regrets the error.