"Well, here at least is the cage, and here is this young woman in the cage. All we have to do now is listen to her." - Jean Paulhan, "Happiness in Slavery"
When I was 14, I bought Exit to Eden*. I'm not even sure why. I'd never read Anne Rice before, but I'm sure I'd heard of her. They were already putting her name on that book, then; it was no longer pseudonymous. I must have read the jacket copy, it must have intrigued me. Even though my parents were well aware I'd read the first three in the Earth's Children series — with all the rape and "nodules" a couple years before, sharing the sexy parts with my grade six pals and giggling with titillated embarrassment — I knew enough to hide this book from them. This was something more: Exit to Eden was dirty. I was a virgin at the time, and while I'd received decent sex education in school, the mechanics of some of the racier scenes took a couple reads (and one scene took a couple years) to grasp. Exit to Eden tapped into something that I'd only vaguely recognized before. I was a kid that got a funny feeling in my stomach when girls were tied to the railway tracks; I'd created and replayed elaborate scenarios in my head for years, and they often revolved around coercion, violence, and gender-bending. I shared that book with pals then too, telling them how amazing it was. My friends, however, would pass the book back to me without much comment. They didn't like it, they didn't get it, it frightened or repulsed them. I was different, maybe only in admitting that Exit to Eden did something to me. After that, because it had been mentioned**, I bought Story of O. Lisa, one of the main characters, remembers reading it at a young age, and feeling a validation that she wasn't alone. There were others out there who got a thrill from the same things she did. That was me. I was that kid. Story of O was even more engaging and puzzling. The first read was purely visceral, but on every re-read I got more from it. More of the mindfuck became apparent. It remains one of the most beautiful things I've ever encountered.
Fact is, some teenaged girls are total perverts. I watched a CBC documentary the other day, called Sext Up Kids, that took the usual tack of showing girls as victims to porn culture. Society's daughters are innocents corrupted by a pervasive adult culture of hardcore sex. Near the end of the doc there was mention made of the validity of female desire and sexual agency, but the overwhelming idea was that girls just don't want sex, and if they do, they certainly don't want to do anything "dirty." In Maidenhead Tamara Faith Berger throws all that shit out the window.
16-year-old Myra, the main character, has a chance encounter on a Florida beach. She's one of three siblings on vacation with parents who are frictioning apart. She thinks about sex: she thinks about the sex her older sister must be having, the sex the girls on spring break are offering in their bathing suits, asses turned to the sun. When she's approached by a man she takes him up on his unspoken offer. They return to his motel room, but she runs away before she can make contact with his penis (though he does pee on her, as she cowers on the carpet). She returns to her family: "My mother's lips were stuck together." Her mother has closed herself, out of necessity, as a counter-point to Myra's unfolding. The vacation, the marriage, the life, isn't working, and Myra's mother is sealing herself off. In speech, yes, but in the context of a book like this we must consider this an allusion, also, to her sensuality. As Myra takes the beginning steps in coming into her sexuality on that vacation, her mother moves in the opposite direction. "My mother was frustrated. Maybe all mothers are frustrated, as if they shit out their hopes with each kid."†
She goes back to that room before her family leaves, and here's why:
Come back, you little bitch. That was what that guy had said when I was running out of his room. [...] I felt something drip in my underwear. That guy's low voice, hunched over, his poking-out cock. Little bitch. Come back, little bicth.She masturbates to orgasm for the first time, thinking about him calling her a bitch. When she goes back to Elijah's motel room, his girlfriend Gayl is there. Gayl is anger and punishment. Gayl slaps Myra, marking her; Myra's skin refuses to heal up, even after she returns home to Canada. The precedent of humiliation, submission, and violence is set. She likes it, and her fear is not of being harmed, but of not being enough.
I want to acknowledge that to dwell on the sexual part of this book is the easy way, and it misses a lot. Myra's journey of self-discovery is intellectual, spiritual, and emotional as well. The book really is about the development of a full being, but it happens through sexual experience. I, however, can't help but identify with Myra, and remember myself at that age. I was that same girl and like her I felt burdened by virginity. Like anti-Hester Prynnes, some girls feel marked by it. To remove that stain is to start your life. Our cultural narrative — despite the sexualized images of young girls (remember how long Britney claimed to be holding out?) — insists that girls will always shy away from sex, need to be convinced and coerced‡ and when they do it, it must be "romantic," it must be with a boy you love. Agency is taken away from young women, no one wants to believe that some girls are just as horny as the boys. Tamara Faith Berger goes even further, showing that some girls know very early on what they want.
As the novel moves forward, and Myra gains practical knowledge about her own sexuality — with Elijah and Gayl but also through a more conventional relationship — and she subsequently becomes more intellectually curious and daring. Berger knows that discovery of the physical often translates into a mental journey; all the things you'd never considered now seem possible. Maidenhead plays out like a dream, a female-driven fantasy, focusing on the erotic potential of being discovered intact and summarily dismantled. There's a good chance that my 14-year-old self would have imagined something similar.
"Fucking is dirty. You want to not have it all romantic and drippy. It's okay that you want it dirty with this guy. It's okay that you want that picture in your head to be true." What I thought was shame, she was saying, was not shame at all. - Tamara Faith Berger, Maidenhead
"Actually, what if the role of the erotic (or of dangerous books, if you prefer) was to inform and instruct us? To reassure us on the subject[.]" - Jean Paulhan, "Happiness in Slavery"
For more on Myra's intellectual journey, and that time I asked a stupid question of Chris Kraus in public, see Emily Keeler's super smart "A fuge of cock" in the Toronto Standard
*I really need to tell you, if you didn't know already, the book has basically zero to do with the movie. *shudder*
**I loaned my copy of Exit to Eden to a friend a couple years back, and it was never returned, so I'm unable to quote it directly.
†Though it's to Berger's credit that she also lets Myra's mother find her own path as well. She moves to Korea to teach English, and winds up living in a love hotel instead of a teacher dorm.
‡And in my opinion it's this bullshit narrative that leads to a lot of girls losing their virginity even if they've maintained a "no," because boys are taught that a girl won't give up her virginity (like it's a possession) unless it's forced from her, somehow. Consent is paramount, always.