Author Daniel Bergner Explores Erotic Longings In his new book, The Other Side of Desire, Daniel Bergner explores erotic drives that fall outside the normal zones. For the New York Times Magazine writer, that meant he had to set aside his own judgments and moral codes to try to understand the "erotic vision."
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Author Daniel Bergner Explores Erotic Longings

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Author Daniel Bergner Explores Erotic Longings

Author Daniel Bergner Explores Erotic Longings

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MICHELE NORRIS, host:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Michele Norris.

MELISSA BLOCK, host:

And I'm Melissa Block.

The author Daniel Bergner has written about violent convicts serving life without parole at Louisiana's Angola Prison. He's written about war in Sierra Leone and now he's written about lust - about what he calls the far realms of lust and longing. His book, "The Other Side of Desire," is about paraphilia: erotic drives that fall well outside normal zones. For Daniel Bergner, exploring this world meant setting aside his own judgments.

Mr. DANIEL BERGNER (Author, "The Other Side of Desire"): The erotic is this profound, extremely powerful force within us. No matter what we do with it — tamp it down or, you know, sort of push it to the side or live with it consciously every day — it's there. And I wanted to be inside of that. I wanted to immerse myself in it. And that did mean at times kind of letting go of moral codes in the hope of a, kind of, erotic vision.

BLOCK: And the first person that you focus on in your book is a man named Jacob Miller. You give him the name Jacob Miller. I take it that's not his real name?

Mr. BERGNER: Right. He did want to retain some degree of anonymity.

BLOCK: And he is a foot fetishist. He's been obsessed with feet all his life, since as long as he can remember.

Mr. BERGNER: Right, and Jacob's story, to me, was very telling because on the one hand, his desire is utterly harmless. What woman, what wife, wouldn't want an ardent foot massage every night? And yet, he feels himself completely and painfully at odds with the norms around him. It's a story that should be light-hearted and yet turns, because of his shame, kind of self-devouring and tragic.

For me, his story reflected on the way all of us — all of our erotic longings — come up against cultural norms and codes and constraints.

BLOCK: But in his case, this goes far beyond just giving his wife foot massage. I mean, for him, this desire is so overwhelming that the word feet - I mean, I could be talking to him about how many feet of snow we're expected to get, or how many square feet my house is, and that would be torture for him.

Mr. BERGNER: Thrilling for him, on the one hand, because this is the language of his desire, torture because he feels himself to be so different that shame overtakes him. And so when he gets turned on, he's also sort of being tormented in a way by his own difference.

BLOCK: He ends up going to a noted expert on sex disorders, Fred Berlin, and is chemically treated, given drugs to counter these desires. And you seem to find that sad in some way, that he's been drained of something that you felt was really vital to him.

Mr. BERGNER: I did find it sad. I very, very much respect Dr. Berlin. He's an incredibly compassionate, heroic psychiatrist who's dealt with all sorts of sexual disorders, but I felt like there was a hesitance somehow to allow Jacob to be Jacob erotically, and especially because his drive was harmless, I thought, well maybe take away the shame and allow Jacob to explore his sexuality and see where that might lead.

BLOCK: You're talking about letting go of moral codes. You have a chapter about a man named Roy who's been convicted of fondling his stepdaughter. She's 12 years old when the abuse started. And it's at this point, I found, like, I was holding the book physically farther and farther away from me. How did you, or were you able, to keep your mind open in talking with Roy?

Mr. BERGNER: Well, Roy's story is definitely the one that, for me, brought morality the most to the fore. And that was the hardest story to report, particularly because Roy's victim was 12, and my daughter at the time I was spending with Roy was 12 years old. So that created a really intense and troubling juxtaposition for me.

And yet Roy was on, in a sense, his own journey of introspection, of trying to figure out how this had happened to him. He'd had no prior record. He's had no re-offenses since. So he was trying to burrow deep. I wanted to go there with him.

BLOCK: Did you talk to the victim? Did you talk to the mom?

Mr. BERGNER: I did talk to the victim's parents. You know, it's a very, very troubling story, Roy just becoming, you know, in a kind of Lolita-like way, smitten with this girl - making really overt, kind of shocking propositions to her over the Internet. And yet everyone around Roy in his life, sort of, testifying that here was this upstanding, caring and crime-free man.

His therapist, who ran the treatment group that I spent over a year with, insisted to me that, you know, Roy's level of sexual attraction - when you sort of tested him in laboratory-type ways - wouldn't be aberrant really at all.

It wasn't his desire that was aberrant. It was his loss of control. It was his stepping over the line and acting on that that made him criminal and that made his case so problematic.

BLOCK: Did you find that at times you were trying to excuse his behavior? I mean, I'm listening to you talk about him being on a journey, and you can also say look, he is a criminal. He committed a crime against a very young girl.

Mr. BERGNER: I don't think ever trying to excuse his behavior. Again, I mean, I have this touchstone of my daughter being, you know, there. And yet in order to do my job, I had to keep my mind open to his exploration. So, was there a sort of inclination on my part to condemn him? Yes, but that inclination could never get me to understanding, and I really wanted to reach that point of understanding with all of my characters.

BLOCK: And did you reach it with Roy, do you think?

Mr. BERGNER: I think I did in terms of what was going through his mind at the time. But I think it's a long, long leap between what's going through one's mind and actually making the propositions that he did, touching his victim in the way that he did. That's a distance I may not fully be able to cross.

BLOCK: You pose a question - in the introduction to your book - you ask: What do we do with the desires we cannot bear? At the end of writing this book, do you find that you've come to some clarity on those questions?

Mr. BERGNER: Well, I hope that there might not have to be so many desires we can't bear, that the personal constraints and the cultural constraints don't need to be quite so confining. I mean, we've touched on one case where clearly those boundaries have very good reason, and that's in Roy's story. But leaving that situation aside, you know, the rest of these stories are about lust that really can be fulfilled and can really lead people to places that I think are profound and that sort of spark something - either self-discovery or a real deep connection between people - to look at ourselves in a way that might reveal something we wouldn't otherwise, you know, be able to see.

BLOCK: Well, Daniel Bergner, thanks very much. Good to talk to you.

Mr. BERGNER: Thanks, Melissa.

NORRIS: You can read an excerpt from Daniel Bergner's book, "The Other Side of Desire," at npr.org.

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