Imprints 5: Tom Perrotta, Gay Talese, Legs McNeil and Jennifer Osborne

Zach Baron


“By all accounts, he had emerged wild-eyed from below the counter, holding the Bible aloft with both hands, and babbling in a language that had never before been heard in a Best Buy,” writes Tom Perotta, recounting the moment of spiritual rebirth for one of The Abstinence Teacher’s main characters, the priest and local community savior Pastor Dennis. “He stepped out from behind the desk, knocked a flat-screen monitor to the floor, and proceeded to kick over a display of knockoff MP3 players.” Eventually, according to the “police report, conversations with sympathetic eyewitnesses, and the amateur video taken at the end of the incident,” Dennis lands “in front of a three-thousand-dollar, sixty-one-inch, wide-screen flat-panel plasma TV that was playing Lara Croft: Tomb Raider.”

“‘Whore!’ he shouted. ‘Abomination!’” Within seconds, Angelina Jolie has disintegrated “in a rain of shattered glass,” Dennis is pummeled to the ground by his fellow security guards, and a tape of the spectacle is on its way to the nightly news.

So Perotta, in his new book, sketches the composition of the two armies that will do battle in the innocuous surroundings of Stonewood Heights, “a well-to-do Northeastern suburb, not liberal by any means, but not especially conservative, either.” On the one hand, there are the forces of God, represented by Pastor Dennis and those he’s saved, most notably a handsome soccer coach named Tim Mason; and by JoAnn Marlow, a blonde, “hot,” virginal abstinence teacher who enjoys “racquet sports, camping and hiking, and going for long rides on my boyfriend’s Harley.” On the other: the liberals, “the Pleasure is Good, Shame is Bad, and Knowledge is Power” set, personified in Ruth Ramsey, the embattled Sex Ed teacher at the local high school, whose impolitic remarks about the pleasures of oral sex in a ninth grade classroom open the door for an experimental curriculum worked up by a local nonprofit, Wise Choices for Teens.

Ruth, a divorcee, is also the mother of the star player on Tim’s soccer team, and after Tim leads an impromptu on-field prayer, the two town poles are quickly at war. As what Tim fears and what Ruth fears are but two sides of the same coin, their collision, and attraction, is inevitable. “The formula was simple,” Ruth fantasizes at one point. “You brought together a man and a woman who held wildly divergent worldviews––an idealistic doctor, say, and an ambulance-chasing lawyer––and waited for them to realize that their witty intellectual combat was nothing but a smoke screen, kicked up to conceal the inconvenient and increasingly obvious fact that they were desperate to hop into bed with each other.”

Perotta is swift to extend the metaphor: the controversy, and debate, over school curriculum and social norms in Stonewood Heights are pretexts, a way for the prudes and the enlightened alike to circle around the same prurient issues. When Ruth and her fellow teachers are brought in to JoAnn’s classroom for reprogramming, they are forced to write about and discuss, in great detail, “A Sexual Encounter I Regret.” “I’m really ashamed of myself,” confesses one reprobate teacher. “Excellent,” responds JoAnn: “Why don’t you tell us about it.” It’s Freud’s talking cure via Foucault—confession and the will to knowledge as a means of control.

Tim is a reformed alcoholic, drug addict, and philanderer, a musician by trade who, in his new Christian life, cannot separate “the rock ‘n’ roll from the sex, drugs, and booze that always seemed to come along with it.” Instead, he plays Sunday worship services at Pastor Dennis’ church, the Tabernacle, and works by day as a mortgage consultant. His faith is mental trick, a way of being a good father and reliable employee, of staying away from the vices he naturally craves.

Perotta, whose specialty is claustrophobic social drama––famously in his two novels that have been made into films, Election and Little Children––is a lapsed Roman Catholic whose empathy and fascination with evangelical culture is real. Ultimately though, his skepticism towards a Christian subculture that fights temptation with temptation wins out. A faith that tries to save a frigid marriage arranged within the church using a book called “Hot Christian Sex: The Godly Way to Spice Up Your Marriage,” that pushes abstinence with the reward that when coitus finally happens, “it is going to be soooo good, oh my God, better than you can even imagine,” is a faith terrified of itself and of the Best Buy in which it was born.

In one scene, Pastor Dennis meets a nonbeliever, Jay, at a wedding, who engages him on the subject of Jenna Jameson, the adult film star: “I love Jenna,” says Jay to the otherwise receptive stag table at which he’s been seated: “She’s the only girl for me.” Dennis follows the man into the bathroom, as he tells his congregation, and “when he was in no position to run away, I stepped up beside him, and said, ‘Jenna Jameson doesn’t love you, but I know someone who does.’” For this, Dennis is punched in the face, and rightly so, but before long, Jay is reeled into the flock. Yet his faith quickly fails: “That feeling never came back,” he tells Tim. “I was just sitting there, looking around, and it hit me: that feeling wasn’t Jesus, it was just me, hoping for something better.”

As it happens, the Jenna Jamesons of the world will tend to claim they’re pretty happy with their lot in life. For instance: the porn star Veronica Vera, who once told the Meese Commission and one of its members, the Republican Senator Arlen Specter, “Senator, I’m not a victim. I don’t want to be considered a victim. I think that both men and women need to be free to explore their fantasies.”

The Other Hollywood, an oral history of the pornographic film industry compiled by Legs McNeil, Jennifer Osborne, and Peter Pavia, is full of this kind of colorful self-defense against the repressive forces – the local Pastor, writ large – arrayed against them. As the pornographer Bill Margold notes to the Commission: “What you people believe is that we have sex with underage German Shepherds and then kill them. We don’t have any time for that. Animals bite, and kids say no. Our stuff is between consenting adults.”

Yet The Other Hollywood depicts exactly the sort of Babylon Christian fundamentalists are constantly warning of. Dicks are the coin of the realm, their prodigiousness rated per square inch. “John Holmes was the biggest cock in the business,” raves Al Goldstein, founder of Screw, at one point. “He was almost in the world of Greek Gods. He walked among us with that massive tool, banging on the floor like some huge dinosaur.” This, of course, is the Darwinian nightmare for god-fearing folk. Says Ron Jeremy: “You could take a dump on the set, and we’d put up with it—as long as you were making money.”

Best in this relative wasteland are the seasoned reflections of industry veterans. Take the actor Tim Connelly on “suitcase pimps,” the unique porn character who is “the boyfriend/manager/husband/sometimes-sex-partner on camera, and who ultimately holds the wallet,” and who “always speaks in ‘we’ rather than ‘I’”:

“‘If we’re going to do this double penetration movie, we need to make a little more money if you’re going to put that dick up her ass…’ They always break at that point.”

But it takes a strong stomach to choke down all 590 pages of oral testimony. Linda Lovelace, star of Deep Throat, is forced to have sex with a dog. Women are “bounced off the wall” when disobedient. Actress Kristin Steen is raped on camera. The performers Savannah, Cal Jammer, and Shauna all commit suicide. The actor Marc Wallice works after testing positive for AIDS, infecting four other women. A plastic surgeon puts unlicensed implants in sedated female patients. John Holmes is accomplice to quadruple homicide. Mobsters kill for control of the business. Drugs are rampant. Porn, at its worst, exactly delineates the edge over which the fearful Christians of Stonewood Heights peer—the dissolution of social contract, the id without the superego.

If the ultimate argument is over who best can salvage hope and meaning out of sexual congress, the moralists or those they moralize against, Hollywood––like The Abstinence Teacher––ends up, perhaps unintentionally, calling the bout a draw. Goldstein on Holmes, part 2: “When I met him, I figured I’d meet a guy who had paradise regained, who had everything. Instead I met a sociopath and a liar. In effect, every manifestation of this man’s life was a lie, a distortion, duplicity, a quagmire of deceit. The one truth was that he had a big dick.”

Gay Talese, the man who wrote probably the most comprehensive history of license and repression in this country in Thy Neighbor’s Wife, often venerates Goldstein in that book, and he too believes in the lance as arbiter of truth. “Sensitive but resilient, equally available during the day or night with a minimum of coaxing, it has performed purposefully if not always skillfully for an eternity of centuries, endlessly searching, sensing, expanding, probing, penetrating, throbbing, wilting, and wanting more,” writes Talese. “Never concealing its prurient interest, it is man’s most honest organ.” Furthermore, “while the moral force of Judeo-Christian tradition and the law have sought to purify the penis, and to restrict its seed to the sanctified institution of matrimony, the penis is not by nature a monogamous organ. It knows no moral code.”

This, more or less, is the story Talese has to tell in Thy Neighbor’s Wife: the liberation of the penis from heterosexual one-off monogamy into masturbation, multiple orifices on multiple bodies, fresh air, and stacks and stacks of money, with Hugh Hefner as synecdoche in a velvet robe. There are detours through the Sandstone Retreat in the Santa Monica Mountains, the Oneida settlement of Oneida, New York, Manhattan massage parlors, both Playboy mansions, and the United States Supreme Court. Goldstein, Hefner, Lovelace, James Joyce, D.H. Lawrence, Richard Nixon, Bettie Page, and Wilhelm Reich all make appearances. Many a coupling is had.

But always, it seems, the forces of repression lurk. For every Hefner, an Anthony Comstock, “the most awesome censor in the history of America.” For every Lady Chatterley’s Lover or Tropic of Cancer, a vice squad and a vengeful local judge. For every Al Goldstein––“a man who did not aspire to influence society so much as to reflect the world as he knew it was being lived each day and night by thousands of unnoticed people like himself”––a team of FBI agents and 24-hour surveillance. For every massage joint, an undercover cop. For every Sandstone, a Los Angeles County zoning official and outraged neighbors. For every dirty movie, a Presidential Commission on Obscenity and Pornography and, when that didn’t stick, a Keating Report more to the liking of the sitting president, Richard Nixon.

What you cannot help but suspect, through punch and counterpunch of Talese’s chronicle of “American permissiveness,” is that like Perotta’s Ruth and Tim, or the happily reminiscent pornographers in Hollywood running down the premature departures of their star players, is that liberation will win out, but at a cost so high it can barely be called liberation at all. And indeed, “a lean, dark-eyed man of forty-three”––Talese himself––enters late in the narrative of Thy Neighbor’s Wife as a “participating observer . . . Plimton wallowing in oily delight.” He narrates among other things the aftermath of the revelation of “the flagrance of his research” and “its attendant publicity.”

One evening, he writes, “Talese returned home to find his house quiet and an envelope awaiting him on the dining room table. Opening it, he read that his wife had left the house and she did not say when she would return. Her right of privacy, which she valued like few other possessions, was being violated, she declared, by his unwitting willingness to discuss with the press what was none of its business; and she warned further that his candor on the subject of sex, while it might titillate some magazine readers, would only bring ridicule upon himself.” Shame meets the confession and one wonders if the villains might somehow be right; the queasy elision in Thy Neighbor’s Wife (and in the Hollywood monologues of sometime Talese subjects) between sexual license and the kind of freedom that might extend past the end of an erection is easily as chilling as any Christ-inspired distortion.

Gerard Damiano, the director of Deep Throat, at one point tells the writers of The Other Hollywood an anecdote about a day on the set during the filming of the landmark feature film. “Linda was pretty naïve in the early days. One night, after shooting, we went out for dinner and Chuck”––Chuck Traynor, Lovelace’s suitcase pimp and manager–– “ordered a shrimp cocktail for her, and when it came she was amazed,” says Damiano. “She didn’t know what it was. It intrigued me to think that one of the best cocksuckers in the world could be so impressed over a shrimp cocktail.”