People are either so paralysed by this terror that it leads them to never taking chances, which ends up with them settling down in a dead-end job with a dead-end relationship in which the most exciting moment is getting out of work early on Friday so they can watch Graham Norton, drink Prosecco and have five minutes of missionary position sex later on.
And some people are determined to cram as much as they can into this life, whether it be mountaineering, skydiving or, in the case of the late Bob Flanagan, nailing your ball sack to a piece of wood in front of an audience.
I wouldn’t recommend looking it up.
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Comprised of six extensive interviews conducted by Re/Search founder V. Vale, Flanagan comes across as erudite, down to earth and amusing while going through his family history, being diagnosed with cystic fibrosis as a baby, becoming a poet, getting into the S&M scene and gaining notoriety not only for shows like Visiting Hours, described as
Freud’s strange drama of Eros and Thanatos, in which existence unfolds as a ceaseless struggle between the instinct for life and the instinct for disintegration or death…interpreted by Pee Wee Herman…designed like a crazy stage set of a children’s residential hospital, replete with a torture chamber lurking amidst the institutional cheer
The following quote sums up his worldview:
In a bizarro, alternative universe kind of way, I sort of resemble Superman. Look, up in the sky, suspended by his wrists and sporting a huge erection – it’s me. Yes, it’s me, and most of the time I feel as though I come from another solar system. And despite my skinny physique and frail sensitivities, I possess certain powers and abilities far beyond those of so-called normal human beings. I was born with a genetic illness that I was supposed to succumb to at two, then ten, then twenty, and so on, but I didn’t. And, in a never-ending battle not just to survive but to subdue my stubborn disease, I’ve learnt to fight sickness with sickness.
Very childlike in its simplicity, but also the refection of someone who repeatedly battled the odds in order to live until he was 43. And someone who realised just how precious life is, and so was determined to make his mark on the world while enjoying himself at the same time. And while penis nailing, skin ripping and mid-air suspension may not be to everyone’s taste, it is important to remember that such people are testing the boundaries in a way that it not only creates art, but that it also forms deep connections with those who do understand and participate (Flanagan and his partner, Sheree Rose, were together from 1980 until his death in 1996).
However, there is one aspect of his tale which is disturbing:
…I had a cousin two years older than I and we started playing what he called the ‘Slave/Master’ game…he pretended to whip us as we swung back and fort on a swing set…As we got older and reached puberty the games involved more nudity and touchy-feely stuff, although that’s as far as it went…
Flanagan doesn’t make any claim for sexual abuse but does trace his love for S&M from these moments, describing it as the first “high” he got from such experiences. Nonetheless, it is a highly uncomfortable moment and, perhaps, helps to explain the road that he took.
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In some ways, this review is quite timely. We’re starting to see books appearing bemoaning that the Sexual Revolution has been a disaster. Sex-positive feminists struggle to reconcile the liberation angle with what has become of the sexual market. More irritatingly, there is now a crossover with the old school anti-sex feminists. The combination of the two has led to an undermining of the notion of consent and the old tropes about BDSM being for degenerate perverts who want to abuse women becoming prevalent again (with one such writer condemning the likes of Fifty Shades of Grey and admitting that she finds it troubling that so many women loved it).
We need more people like Flanagan to step up, to demonstrate that alternate fetishes may not be for everyone, but that they can be viable modes of artistic expression and that there is often a deeper human connection between such people than most normies.
V. Vale (editor), 1993, Re/Search People Series: Bob Flanagan. Re/Search Publications. ISBN-13: 978-0940642256
⏩ Christopher Owens was a reviewer for Metal Ireland and finds time to study the history and inherent contradictions of Ireland. He is currently the TPQ Friday columnist.