BRUTALITIES: A Love Story, by Margo Steines
“Because I have no way of predicting who might be traumatized by which parts,” writes Margo Steines in the vague disclaimer at the beginning of her debut, “I cannot offer a meaningfully specific content warning beyond saying this is a difficult book.”
The warning worried me — aren’t books meant to trigger, to provoke, to expand? But the author is right. “Brutalities: A Love Story” is indeed a difficult book, one that makes the author’s very survival seem like a matter of luck.
Raised in Greenwich Village affluence, educated at private school, Steines changed course and by 17 was a professional dominatrix.
She courted violence in her personal life, too, seeking out men who would hit her during sex, ideally on the face with a devastating backslap or even a closed fist. Her criteria were specific: The men “had to be hard but never angry. I did not want to feel like I was being battered.”
While still a teenager, Steines landed in a decade-long relationship with a much older man she calls Dean, who was happy to oblige her in all these brutalities, and then some, like the special camel whip from Palestine, the crack of which — as she stands naked, awaiting the blow — leaves her wordless and thoughtless. “I was not in pain — I had become pain.” Together they do unspeakable things, like saw in half a pregnant ewe on their upstate New York farm, out of cluelessness — or worse. “We were two reckless creatures, fragile and damaged, possessed of too much power in a place we did not understand,” she writes, by way of explanation.
Even at moments like these, Steines manages to keep her reader close, writing with a rare crystalline precision as she explores her fixation with violence and with certain forms of traditional masculinity. In her post-BDSM career as a welder, she shows up on job sites with a shaved head and two sports bras to flatten her chest, and works on the unprotected beams high above New York City — not even stopping when a smelting rod burns through her clothes and into her flesh.
Even after she extricates herself from Dean — or he from her — by going to get her M.F.A., she maintains her taste for pain. She exercises four hours a day and runs hundreds of miles on a broken heel bone.
What elevates Steines’s book above the difficult, often extreme experiences she shares is her willingness to look honestly and objectively at her desires. Steines does not assume that every reader thinks it’s sexy to be punched in the face. She herself doesn’t entirely understand her desire to be hurt.
She survived suicide attempts, rehabs, detoxes and lockups — though she barely touches on these experiences, mentioning them only glancingly, well after the fact and quite late in her narrative. She had a good childhood, she assures us, and parents who taught her that she mattered. “The real, confounding truth is that I do not have an answer, only observations: In my body, violence has always brought a quickening of the pulse, a fresh tautness to the abdominal muscles, a soft ringing in the ears, the cresting rise of manic euphoria.”
For years, she tells the reader, when her friends would express concern upon seeing her bruised face, she’d shrug — or get new friends. “I can’t help what I like was something I said a lot in my 20s,” she writes. “I thought sexuality — mine, at least — was both fixed and inevitable, coded in me like hazel eyes and brown hair.” But desire, she finds, may not be so immutable.
She remains fixated on violence, even transfixed by it, regularly attending M.M.A. fights and eagerly — and a little too apologetically — taking copious notes.
But she does not covet pain as she used to. Without claiming to know why or how she changed, she knows that she has, and that “maybe what feels preordained might in fact be the result of a series of actions and reactions at once too vast and too minute to identify.”
It is observations like this one that raise Steines’s story above the particularities of the closed-fist punch and the camel whip, to a more universal inquiry into the nature of touch, of violence, of desire itself.
Her narrative slackens in the present day, which is set in the heat of Tucson, where she is spending the quarantine mostly inside, pregnant and cooking healthy food with her nice new partner, a fitness trainer. In describing the ordinary miracles of falling in love, of making a baby, she loses the fiercely searching quality of her earlier history.
Yet, in these peacefully domestic passages, what I often felt was grateful: for a respite from violence and for the simple fact that Steines is still here. Clearly, she has more to say.
Casey Schwartz is the author of two books.