An excerpt from
Who Wrote the Book of Love?
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In the beginning sex created heaven and earth. The earth was formless and void, and darkness was on the face of the deep. The spirit of sex swept over the waters. And then there was light.
I am four years old, maybe just five, and the light penetrates the snug passageway of draped blankets into a cozy cave behind the red velvet couch in the room where my mother is typing.
Reaching out for the bright beam, I am entranced by what seems to be the light touch of light on my palm. Slowly I close my fingers around the glow. As the fingertips of my other hand begin to move in a slow circle against the dark back of the soft sofa, a warmth radiates up my arms, through my shoulders and neck, and down into my chest and stomach. My face is flush.
Breathing deeply, slightly trembling, at once soothed and aching, I am a little afraid and yet very eager for more of the ineffable sensation. When I close my eyes, I can see myself. I say my name, hear it, and repeat it. Raising to my mouth the hand that holds the light, I feel my lips feeling my skin. I smell my fingers, and my tongue tastes the taste of my mouth. For the first time in my life, I am aware of my body as my body, and aware of that awareness as my awareness, feeling all of parts of my body, inside and out, consolidated and structured into me, myself, and I, an animate form distinct from all other bodies and things. My body's pleasure is my pleasure, generating the idea of the first person singular as it predicates a range of future pleasures, desires, and secrets.
It's my first memory of myself. This is not to say that I do not have earlier recollections of other people, of my mother and father, an uncle, grandmother, neighbor, and strangers too, and of other things. There are memories of memories: a gray elephant small enough to fit into my hand; the smell, sound, and sight of the peeling bark of a eucalyptus tree in the backyard; the scent of leather seats in my father's new Cadillac; the feel of a blue paisley silk bathrobe; the taste of a piece of black licorice snatched from a cracked crystal bowl; showering rain on a green canvas awning; the squeak of wooden stairs in a dark stairwell; a ring of toadstools on the front lawn; white sheets on a clothesline ruffled by a warm breeze; the steady sway of the pendulum of an ornate antique clock high on the mantle and its sudden, delicate, and deliberate ding-ding-ding; the red couch; and the tap-tap-tap of my mother's typewriter.…
But this recollection of myself crouched down behind the sofa, stroking the velvet and holding sunlight in my hand, is my first memory of myself as me. And it is my first memory of what I would gradually come to anticipate, recognize, beckon, and welcome as sex. In the beginning was the flesh. And the flesh becomes words.
"Lee, darling," my mother would call out, "are you there?" I might then crawl from my makeshift cave to approach the desk at which she was typing. She'd be sure to kiss my cheek, stroke my hair, say something sweet, or smile to say the very least. She was writing a book. "A love story," she said, if I remember rightly.
There was an empty crib in the room, and my mother was pregnant. Once my brother was born, the room became his and, when it was refurnished as his nursery, the red velvet couch was moved into my room. It was on that divan that I learned about sex.
Sitting next to me there, my mother read from a book that was meant to ready me for the birth of a sibling by revealing what it was that my father had done so that my mother would become pregnant, not only with my brother, but with me as well. I learned that I would never have been born if my father had not used his reproductive system to put things called sperms into my mother's reproductive system, where a little egg lay in waiting for the boldest, swiftest, and strongest one among them. The fantastic procedure, what the book called "coitus or sexual intercourse or sometimes, less formally, just making love," amazed me from the very beginning.
Several years ago, while visiting my mother at the house that is the setting for this reminiscence, I happened to discover, in a dusty basement that in the 1950s was supposed to be a bomb shelter, the long lost book of love in a carton of old children's books that was stacked together with other storage boxes of a childhood's jetsam, all ready to be picked up by the Salvation Army.
I recognized it immediately. On the tattered cover, in bold print superimposed over a washed-out black-and-white photograph of a statue of Cupid and Psyche, is the title: In the Beginning: A Children's Book about Grown-Up Love. And below the white marble adolescent lovers is the author's name: Dr. Isaiah Miller, MD.
Dr. Miller had inscribed the book for my parents: "For the beautiful Noreen and Doctor Lee, in hopes that Little Lee, in coming to understand the wonder that is sex, will better appreciate the miracle that is love. Your friend as always, Izzie, April 1, 1950." Published in a limited edition by the Livingstone Press with a note of acknowledgment "to Sigmund Freud, Wilhelm Reich, Alfred Kinsey, and Ernest Grafenberg, comrades in the battle against sexual ignorance, repression, and hypocrisy," the children's book had been censured by church leaders, ladies' groups, and Republicans.
Dr. Miller, my mother's obstetrician and gynecologist, would deliver my brother into the world in 1950, just as he had me in 1945. His book begins with a creation myth:
In the beginning there was a tiny cell called a sperm. One night he met another cell, known as an ovum. He entered into her and, all at once, they became one—a fertilized cell! The one divided into two, and they divided again, and again, and again, remaining one while continuing to divide, to become a little embryo who began to grow into a fetus. And that fetus became you! This book is about you. It is about where you came from, how you were made, and why you are here.
Like this book, In the Beginning has five chapters: What Is Love?; The Birds and the Bees, Elephants and Fleas; Snaps and Snails and Puppy-dogs' Tails; Sugar and Spice and All That's Nice; Love, Marriage, and the Baby Carriage. Chapter one responded to its titular question by trying to convince me that I already knew the answer:
Everybody knows what love is! It can describe how you feel about your puppy or a kitten if you have one, or even a favorite doll if you are a little girl. It's how you feel about your Mommy and Daddy, and how they feel about you. Religions teach us that God is love. We can love so many things! We are born from love, to love and be loved. Love makes the world go round, as the poets say, and it is love that makes life worth living. There's a special kind of love that you will feel when you grow up and become an adult. This kind of love makes two people want to get married, have a baby, and be together forever. When you feel this kind of love, you will want to engage in something known as coitus or sexual intercourse or sometimes, less formally, just making love. That's what you'll have to do in order to have a baby! But it's also what you'll want to do just to be close to the one you love. We'll be learning all about that in Chapter Five.
One down, four to go, and, although I could hardly wait to get there, I had to be patient because, in order to understand the fifth chapter, a child supposedly had to master the basic ideas and fundamental vocabulary presented in the sections preceding it.
Some of the things in chapter 2, "The Birds and the Bees, Elephants and Fleas," were interesting in an academic sort of way—like the fact that although opossums are pregnant for only a little more than a week, elephants remain so for almost two years. I also learned that "the male Bonellia sea worm is so little that he must crawl up inside of the female's reproductive system to fertilize her eggs."
Things picked up in the third chapter, "Snaps and Snails and Puppy-dogs' Tails" (interrogatively subtitled "What Are Little Boys Made Of?"). When it came to elucidating the penis, I thought that Dr. Miller had hit the nail on the head:
The penis is what some boys sometimes call their weenie or wiener, weewee, peepee, peanut, pecker, willie, dickie, peter, and many other pet names. It's what they use to go number one, what is technically known as urination. Usually the penis is lazy and lax, hanging down soft and limp. Sometimes, however, when a boy wakes up in the morning, he will discover that his penis has become hard and stiff like a finger, but much bigger. This is called an erection. Some boys sometimes call it a "boner." But, don't worry, there isn't any bone in it! We'll be learning all about why boys have erections in Chapter Five.
There was a schematic line drawing that was labeled "Map of the Passages and Places in the Male Reproductive System." I discovered that, by turning the book upside-down, I could change the indolently pendulous penis into the most exuberant of boners. Although the illustration located the testicles on either side of the penis, the text put them back in their proper place:
Hanging beneath the penis, boys have a small sac in which there are two little ball-shaped organs known as testes. When a boy is young and still growing, his testes are very sleepy and so don't want to do very much. But when he's about thirteen or fourteen, his testes will wake up, ready to do an important job. At this time, the boy will notice that hair has begun to grow on the pubic region. Since the testes will then remain awake even while the boy is sleeping, the boy may begin to find a strange substance on his pajamas or sheets in the morning. This substance is called a seminal emission. The boy should not be disturbed, afraid, or ashamed of this. No, he should be proud of it! It means that he is becoming a healthy and virile man, capable of sexual reproduction. Some boys, discovering that seminal emissions are accompanied by a feeling of pleasure, will begin to purposefully try to cause those emissions by manipulating the penis with their hands. This is called masturbation. Boys who feel the desire to masturbate should not be ashamed or feel guilty. It is a natural urge, another healthy sign that a boy is growing up.
It is surprising to me now, given passages like that one, counseling boys as it does to take their penises in their own hands and to take pride in wet dreams, that Dr. Miller's book was not banned in more than thirteen of the states of the puritanical America of 1950.
Although I was too young at the time to have seminal emissions to be proud of (no matter how much or what manner of manipulation I might have tried), I was at least able to take pride in something I learned from In the Beginning about my somnolent testes. They were made of tiny tubes, which, if unraveled and stretched out in a straight line, would, according to Dr. Miller, be over a third of a mile long. This meant, I reflected, that one of my testes could reach from my house all the way down Maple Drive to the house near the corner where, I had noticed during a walk with my mother, a girl about my own age lived.
I thought about her as my mother read chapter 4, "Sugar and Spice and All That's Nice (What Are Little Girls Made Of?)," to me:
Girls have something called a vagina. It is what some girls sometimes call their peepee, weewee, or private. Girls don't have as many names for their sex organ as boys seem to have for theirs. Maybe that's because boys like to talk about theirs more. Or maybe it's because, at first glance, it doesn't look like very much is there. But there is, in fact, a lot more to a girl's reproductive system than meets the eye. While technically the term vagina refers only to the birth canal, less formally the word is often used to refer to the female sexual apparatus as a whole.
It was natural for me to hear the homonym when my mother said "whole."
Finally we got to chapter 5. At last it was elucidated—"coitus or sexual intercourse or sometimes, less formally, just making love,"—the whole shebang, the nitty-gritty, the when, where, how, and why who puts what in what. I learned that "Mother Nature sends blood to the penis to make it big and strong not only when there is a desire to have a baby but also when two people just want to be close to each other and show how much they love one another in a special way."
My mother was eager to proceed to the explanation of what was going on in her "workshop," of how the tiny embryo that, as illustrated in the book, looked no different than the embryo of a fish, turtle, chick, rabbit, pig, or calf, had developed into a human being inside what the book called her uterus or womb. But, as far as I was concerned, the climax of the book had already come: "Mother and Father will lie close together, arms about each other, feeling pleasure and happiness, while the erect penis moves in and out of the vagina with rapid motions until sperm-bearing fluid comes out of it."
In the Beginning had been given to me for Chanukah along with another book, Shalom, Shalom: A Child's Guide to Jewish Life, from which my father, seated in his customary spot at the bar in our library, had read aloud to me. The olive, with its red pimento stuffing, in his martini reminded me of the drawing of the ovum with its nucleus in In the Beginning. "God," according to the Judaic primer, "commanded our forefathers not to eat certain foods. These include ham, bacon, and pork." And this same God, I learned, also had an interest in my penis: "God commanded our forefathers to remove the foreskin from the penis of a newborn child. This is called circumcision." My father proudly informed me that, because I had been circumcised, my penis would look just like his, and like that of his father, and his fathers' before him, all the way back to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. Having been circumcised, my penis would, furthermore, be easier to keep clean than a non-Jewish penis. The book on religion, however, never got around to the good stuff about penises—erections, seminal emissions, or how they move in and out of vaginas with rapid motions.
I recall several of the other gifts I received that Chanukah: an unbreakable plastic miniature replica of a US Army "Big Shot" M551 Howitzer from my uncle Joe, Eskimo mukluks from my grandmother in Wenatchee, and from my mother, a model of Noah's ark with lots of little plastic animals, two of each kind (oddly, in retrospect, including two cows and two bulls). Neezer, the man who came three times a week to clean our house and wash my father's Cadillac, gave me a gift-wrapped yellow plastic egg containing a blob of Silly Putty. When my father explained that Neezer had referred to the gift as a "Christmas present" because he wasn't Jewish, it occurred to me that it was a good thing that Neezer, since he had a non-Jewish penis, was so good at cleaning.
Unless I counted members of my family or imaginary pals (like Johnny Cassidy, the five-year-old cowboy who rode bucking broncos with me, or Little Beaver, the five-year-old Indian who helped me arrange the blankets over the red velvet couch in my room into a tepee), Neezer was my best friend in the world. He showed me a few of the things Silly Putty could do, including bounce when rolled into a ball and, when pressed against Dennis the Menace in the comics section of the newspaper, capture a perfect image of little Dennis. I discovered that by pressing Silly Putty against the "Map of the Passages and Places in the Male Reproductive System" in In the Beginning, I could get a pretty good reproduction of the illustration. Even though the schematic penis was not as vivid as Dennis the Menace, it was clear enough to entertain me as, after elongating it with a good stretch of the flesh-colored Silly Putty, I'd wiggle it about.
Sitting next to me on the red sofa, my mother read not only In the Beginning: A Children's Book about Grown-Up Love to me but also another book, Once upon a Time: Children's Best Loved Tales. Like someone long deceased, the physical form of the book has vanished, but its stories still haunt me. These tales may have been loved for children, but it's hard to imagine that they were ever loved by children because childhood, as depicted in them, was intractably fraught with giants, ogres, witches, ravening wolves, malevolent stepparents, tenebrous forests, grim castles, and boiling cauldrons. I was particularly unnerved by "Hansel and Gretel" as my mother read aloud the words that the boy and girl had overheard their mother secretly say to their father, the woodcutter, when she thought the children were asleep: "Early tomorrow morning we will take the children into the forest. There we will light a fire for them, give each of them a piece of bread, and tell them to wait for us while we go to do our work cutting wood. We will leave them there, and they will not find the way home again. And then, at last, we shall be rid of them."
The fairy tale was so disturbing that I hid the book so that my mother would never be able to read it to me again. Loosening one of the upholstery nails that secured the burlap lining under the wooden frame supporting the springs of the red velvet couch, I slipped Once upon a Time into the space there and pushed the nail back in to close the gap between the cloth and the wood.
"Where is Once upon a Time?" my mother, having come to read to me before I went to sleep, asked as she looked around the room for it. I held up In the Beginning for her.
"No, darling, not that one. We must have read it a hundred times by now," she remarked as she searched my shelves and drawers. "The other one, you know, the story book. Your grandmother read it to me when I was your age. I can remember her reading 'Cinderella' as if it were yesterday. Where could it have gone?"
"I don't know," I answered nervously, fearful that my mother would know that I knew precisely where it was. I was as astounded as I was relieved to discover that she did not. It was, as far as I can remember, my first lie. It gave me my first intimation of the inimitable pleasure of successfully lying to a woman.
Before that moment, I had unquestioningly assumed that my mother would innately know all that I thought or felt, or had or had not done. It was a fine feeling to deduce that she was not necessarily aware of these things unless I told her. Just as I had hidden Once upon a Time inside the red velvet couch, I could, I realized, conceal things inside of myself.
Because of the soon-expected baby, it was with some difficulty that my mother got down on her knees to look for the missing book under the bed upon which I was lying.
"Maybe someone stole it," I remarked with the most authentic nonchalance that I, as a beginner at lying, could simulate. And then, to make sure that Miss Crim, my babysitter, and not my friend Neezer, would be the prime suspect in the robbery, I added that the last time I had seen it was the previous night when the babysitter had read the story of Cinderella to me.
Finally giving up the search for Once upon a Time, my mother diffidently agreed to read In the Beginning once more. I opened it to chapter 5.
The success of my inaugural prevarication, providing me a glimmer of feelings of independence and an inkling of the potential power of lies, made me eager to fabricate again. Experimenting with untruth, by trial and error, it was soon clear that, not only did I have the capacity to use speech to conceal truths, I could also, with false words, create realities. In a test of this hypothesis, I informed my mother that, from my bedroom window, I had seen a strange man in our backyard, "He crawled over the back gate and was snooping around." I knew that she had believed me as soon as she telephoned the Beverly Hills Police Department.
Never having lied to a man before, let alone a policeman, I became worried that perhaps people could be sent to jail (and kids to reform school or a foster home) for lying to the police. In being questioned ("What did he look like?" "Tall or short?" "Thin or fat?" "Old or young?" "Was he colored?" "What was he wearing?" "Anything else you can remember about him?"), I intuited that it's the particulars that make a canard credible. And so, in realistic detail, I described the tall, thin, old white man dressed in the dirty brown overcoat, wearing a beat-up gray hat, black gloves, and sunglasses who, I suddenly remembered, walked with a limp.
When the policeman assured us that patrolmen in Beverly Hills would keep an eye out for the man and, if they spotted him, take him in for questioning, I knew that, if they did capture and interrogate him, they'd never believe a thing a shady character like that might say to defend himself, even if it was the truth. It would be his word against mine.
Mindful that a mastery of the art of mendacity required some determination of the boundaries between the believable and the unbelievable, I surveyed the limits of credibility and credulity. Just to see how far I could go, I swore to my mother that I had seen an elephant in our backyard that day: "I think he must have escaped from the zoo."
That my mother laughed, tousled my hair affectionately, and said she'd telephone the zoo to ask if any elephants were missing made me think about it: either my mother was incredibly stupid or she was just pretending to believe me and, in so doing, was lying to me. Countering her move in the new game by pretending to believe that she believed me, I did my best to out-lie her. Her subsequent affectionate smile attested to a truth about falsehood: in some circumstances, there are people who are so charmed by the lies of certain other people that they would like, and so sometimes even try, to believe things they know are completely untrue. I wanted to believe that my mother believed the story about the elephant in our backyard.
One day, as I was telling Neezer about the horses that I had ridden with my pals, Johnny Cassidy and Little Beaver, I became so encouraged by what seemed to be the limitlessness of his gullibility, that I dared to claim that, best of all, I liked riding "bucking broncos."
"That's really something," said the generously smiling man, scrubbing the blue tile in my parents' shower with a sponge full of foaming cleanser. "I've got a friend with a bucking bronco. He lives nearby. When I'm finished with my work, we can go over there, and you can have a ride."
As I fabricated excuses, Neezer countered with ways around them: when I claimed that "I have to go to the store with my mother today," he said, "That's okay, we can go tomorrow"; when I explained that my cowboy boots were at the shoe repair shop and that I couldn't ride without them, he offered to buy me a new pair. Thanking him, and insisting that I'd really like to ride that bronc someday, I divulged that my parents wouldn't allow it. They were punishing me by not allowing me ride any more bucking broncos for a year. When he asked what I had done to deserve such a severe punishment, I confessed: "They caught me lying to them."
"Well," Neezer nodded as he washed the dirt right down the drain, "They're right. A boy shouldn't lie to his parents. I guess I'll just have to wait till next year to see you ride that horse."
I wondered whether Neezer really did believe me. Although I didn't have the nerve to test it by taking up his offer, I suspected that Neezer didn't really have a friend with a bucking bronco. Although it seemed fair to me for kids to lie to adults, there was something wrong about adults lying to children. That Hansel and Gretel's mother and father tried to deceive them was what made the fairy tale so harrowing. The witch in the story lied too: "Dear children," my mother read out loud, "do come in and stay with me. You will have milk and pancakes with sugar and apples to eat, and pretty little beds to sleep in. No harm shall come to you here." On the other hand, it was in knowing how to lie that Gretel saved Hansel from being cooked and eaten by the witch. The little girl had out-lied the old woman. Lies could be a matter of life and death.
That my mother seemed to believe all my fibs and fabrications led me to conclude that it's easier to successfully lie to someone who loves you than to someone who does not. And, just as love tempts that person to want to believe you, so love makes you want to lie to the people you love, to lie because you love them (and so don't want them to be hurt or saddened by some unfortunate truth), and to lie because you want them to love you in return (and so don't want them to be disappointed or angered by some other unpleasant truth). In order to love, I came to understand, you must learn to tell lies, and even more difficult than that, you must learn to believe them.
I was to learn in the ten years that are chronicled in this book that sex, no less than love, as both a source and expression of love, likewise makes liars of us at the same time that it makes dupes of us. It's practically impossible not to lie about sexual desires, hopes, fantasies, reveries, and exploits: all of the boys remembered on these pages lied about sex, swearing that they had done what they hadn't; and girls lied about it too, saying they hadn't done what they had. Children have no choice but to lie about sex to their parents, and parents, I came to understand, must lie to children about it too. There's just something about sex that makes you want to lie. You must, if you have any decency or dignity at all, lie about sex.
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