That Dark, Perverse Stare: Sex and Shame After Abuse

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David Shields spent 18 months interviewing Samantha Matthews, an actress, voice-over artist, and his cousin once removed, about her sexual history, from her abuse at the hands of her half-brothers to her job dubbing Italian porn films into English. The result of their collaboration is a book, told in the form of an extended monologue by Matthews, that grapples with the darkest and most complicated aspects of sexuality. That Thing You Do With Your Mouth will be published by McSweeney’s Books on June 9.

I have less and less of a need, I think, to pretend I’m a good girl. I should be professional, friendly, responsible, accommodating, easy to get along with, elegant, and graceful. Must never step out of the house without wearing at least a tiny bit of makeup, because you never know who you’re going to run into. Lipstick is a winner, because my lips sort of blend in with my face. Must be confident. Don’t slouch. Don’t diminish yourself in public or in any conversation. Wear classic clothes, which suit you. Nothing too tight-fitting because that looks cheap. Always good to make people wonder what’s under those clothes instead of shoving it in their face. Game’s over, and so is their respect for you. I must foresee everyone’s needs. If I’m incredibly attentive to everyone and everything around me, I can avoid all possible conflict, dangerous and trivial situations alike. No one can call me selfish, either. Don’t get in the way or be irritating. Don’t joke around and make silly faces with three chins (I’m really good at that) around your lover, who will then find you unattractive, even disgusting. Be aware of how big your nose is (once, on an airplane when I was fifteen, my mom told me maybe I could just get my sinuses operated on and they could do a quick little nose job while they were at it). Try to avoid the profile: not good. I should never talk about anything negative — that’s a waste of energy and makes others see you as a negative person. I can smile and say yes to everything, make your life easier. Keep those nails trimmed and not painted. No, leave them a little longer, but still not painted; he doesn’t like that. Don’t paint your toenails; he doesn’t like that, either. Be strong. No, don’t. That’s butchy. Seeing a difference between men and women is better. Be vulnerable, but don’t cry around men because there’s a study that says women’s tears actually lower their sexual desire for you. Be mindful. Do yoga. It gives you a great ass.

I’m aroused by distance/coldness. I want someone to know what they want and not fumble around trying to please me. I want them to go for it; I like the roughness sometimes. I’ve always liked that dark, perverse stare, the dangerous, mysterious-looking guy, almost mean looking, the Nine 1/2 Weeks Mickey Rourke. Even the way he treats her badly makes her want him more — that’s sexy to me, just like Carl, my oldest half-brother, handsome and mysterious and scary. At nineteen I found myself wanting him to desire me. Did I invite him to treat me the way he did that Thanksgiving more than twenty years ago? I feel shameful for desiring something I know is twisted.

An open, serious stare from afar that continues during sex … looking straight into your soul with their desire … knowing you desire them just as much. That’s possible only with chemistry. I can’t fake that. I’m sure my ex-husband, Jaume, would have liked me to look at him that way. You simply can’t force desire. Maybe you can fake it in porn, but I doubt it. In the dozens of porn films I’ve dubbed from Italian into English, I think I’ve seen one couple that had that chemistry.

Maybe by watching these uninhibited women for so many years, I’ve come to see it as normal — why couldn’t you be “base” with someone if there was mutual attraction? I envy the women’s openness. They’re dangerous in the way they fuck. I want to be like that. To say, Yes, I like that, and Do that to me, and to be completely open with my body, wanton — I’m reclaiming what I wasn’t allowed to want and feel, which of course only heightens the desire.

Okay, you guys, I know it’s your first day, but I can’t hear you. You’ve got to make some noise, or these scenes are really boring to watch. And use some variation. Break it up with some “Oh yeah baby,” “Fuck me harder,” “Suck my dick,” “Lick my pussy.” You know. And she can come more than once. You can’t just all the time be doing, “Oh! Oh! Oh! Oh!” You’ve got to break it up with “Oh, I’m gonna come! OH!”

In answer to your question, I would say, yes, being the object of someone’s desire feels dominant to me. The other person surrenders in their desire, and there’s a softness and vulnerability when their desire is expressed. That gives me room to get in there and take over. It’s like they’re under a spell; they lose control. As long as they desire me, I can do what I want. If the other person has no desire for me, or if the desire isn’t as strong, I lose my power, not just my sexual power. The two are intertwined. I’m sure subliminally I was taught that the other person was more malleable if they were weakened by desire.

People I’m drawn to are strong, a bit masculine, a little mentally unstable (I can be the nurturer), self-confident, funny, and aggressive 

I think my obsession with communication, desire for real intimacy, is directly related to never knowing from one moment to the next if my mom was going to be Carol or Kitty. Carol was the repressed post-1950s mother, scaring me out of having sex, leaving me newspaper clippings in my bathroom drawer about prim-and-proper young ladies dying from AIDS upon losing their virginity, telling me, “When you sleep with someone, you’re giving yourself away,” and “Once they’ve had sex with you, there’s no challenge anymore and they lose interest.” And Kitty I would find passed out, face down on my bed when I came home with my boyfriend, unable to wake her. Kitty would tell me every tragedy that had ever happened to her and talk about how sexy she really was, how she and my dad used to have sex constantly. Is that where I get all this from?

So basically there are two ways to give a blow job: you can either do it like this with your hand — mmm mmm — or some people do it like this — mm mm mm. You’ll find what you like better. You can do the same thing for kissing and the other effects.

Good question: Do I think of myself as hyper-sexualized?

Do other people?

Do you?

I have only a few concrete memories of the abuse, which happened from when I was two to when I was five. There was no penetration, to my memory, and according to the doctor, there hadn’t been, but everything else that could be done was done. I have images/feelings, marking the ages, from two different houses we lived in, in West Bloomfield (Detroit suburb). The boys were from Dad’s previous marriage. Carl and Jesse were twelve and thirteen years older than me.

Carl was always around the corner or about to come home or pop out from who knows where, but always waiting to freak the shit out of me, lock me in a closet, hang me by my feet over the railing from the third landing of the staircase, or put a plastic bag over my head — like a killer whale with a sea lion, playing with it, torturing it, loving it, laughing at my fear.

To this day I can’t watch Star Trek because I remember it playing in Jesse’s bedroom when he’d do his thing with me; I remember him identifying a pair of underwear as being sexy (they were orange and black and satiny and felt kind of adult-like), taking them off me, and licking me down there like a dog would lick a wound, asking me if I liked it. I felt tense and weird, as if I were supposed to like it, and I told him I did, to make him feel okay about it. I remember going numb when he did that to me and staring at the blue light glowing on the ceiling, focusing in on that and disappearing until he’d stop.

I felt sorry for him. He told me this was “our secret” and I should never tell anyone about it. There was a horrible, musky stench, of unwashed sheets and a fat, sweaty body. He wanted me to touch him and I remember thinking it was disgusting. It was sticky and smelly. I hated that part the most. Penises were the most disgusting things ever. His was. Jesse abused me while supposedly babysitting me. I asked my mom why white stuff came out of his penis.

I had a little blond five-year-old boyfriend I got caught with under the bed naked. I told him how to make babies and he wanted to try, but I told him no because I might get pregnant. Upon being discovered, I was scolded and he wasn’t allowed to come over again. It was my fault and I was a bad, dirty person. His parents now thought I was, too.

Recently, I was cast in what will supposedly become a TV series. The guy who is producing it, directing it, and starring in it is an American actor I worked with last year on a film. The premise and script of the series are really sharp, and I was flattered that he cast me, felt/feel a pressure to do well, etc. At the last minute he decided to put me in the teaser. I knew nothing about my character, but on the day of the shoot, the director said, “Well, basically, let’s just say you’re the sex kitten of the show. Do all your lines with that in mind. Everything should have an erotic undertone to it.” Gulp.

I was supposed to say the first line staring directly into the camera, which for me is always the most difficult thing to do. I like to work off of people and forget about myself. I saw my reflection and didn’t like the makeup job — bags under my eyes and a giant mosquito bite above my left eyebrow, which I asked the makeup artist to cover up. She’d done what most makeup artists do: the minimal thing, making my tiny eyes disappear into my face. Eyes are everything; if the audience can’t see them, you have no power, and I felt ugly. I could tell the DP was having difficulty lighting my face to get that sex-kitten look and I had to feel confident regardless.

To me, a sex kitten is a model, an Angelina Jolie. I felt short and squatty, my quads massive. One absurd Thanksgiving when I was nineteen, Jesse and Carl were invited to our house on Vashon Island. I hadn’t seen them or talked to them since I was about eleven. My dad thought it was a good idea to get the darling boys back in the house after an eight-year absence for a family reunion. I thought it was especially wonderful to catch up with them since Jesse had just made his TV debut on Oprah, claiming to be a recovered rapist. He took me aside and apologized for abusing me, then he and my parents went to bed, leaving me up with Carl, who’d brought along with him his chef’s knife collection, as you do. He began to study my body, with that look I was supposed to give the camera, telling me the reason brothers are always jealous of their sisters’ boyfriends is because they really just want to fuck their sisters. And he wanted to smell me and lick me and make me come. After all, I owed it to him, as my dad had abandoned him and he’d been living on the streets for years. I was sitting in a chair and he knelt down in front of me, grabbing my calves in his hand, massaging them and saying, “Ahhh. Too bad you got the Matthews legs” — “the big, ugly, unfeminine legs” is what he was saying: “You’re lucky I even find you attractive.” This is now what I’m fighting in my head, trying to push away, as the camera rolls and the director calls, “Action!” Carl’s look is nasty, wrong, and I’m supposed to give the exact same look now, but I feel everyone can read what’s going through my head. I’m exposed — vulnerable, scared. I feel my face trembling.

I get home and William and I start watching an episode of The Killing in bed. There’s a scene in which the female cop discovers emails in her lover’s apartment that are evidence he’s the rapist/murderer of a young girl. The computer screen lighting the dark, empty room where the cop is looking at the emails; and then suddenly the murderer is behind her, his terrifying silhouette — all this takes me back to watching Star Trek with Jesse in that dark, blue-lit room. The fear, locked in there, no escape. And on the other side of that bedroom, the other brother waiting to hunt me. I lost it and broke into sobs, turning into my pillow, and told William to turn it off. A feeling of disgust came over me. This fucked-up, ugly, Matthews-legged girl, spiraling into a pile of shit, mulling around in it, going darker and darker, thinking there’s no way anyone would be capable of finding me attractive, and even if I were beautiful, my mental state would be such a massive turnoff.


Oh yeah, baby, I love it when you growl. You tiger! You animal!


Oh, yeah, one more time. Come on — it turns me on.


(In ecstasy) YYYYYeah! Whew!

You like that, huh?

Fuck yeah!

I’m serious at work, then at night with my friends the other Samantha comes out: the fiery, confident one, the one who doesn’t give a shit, the one who makes her own rules and makes people say and do things they wouldn’t normally say or do. I seduce men and women alike. I don’t want to do anything with them physically; I just want them to want me, to acknowledge that I could do something if I wanted to. It gives me power, and in that moment I feel beautiful. I feel visible when I’m desired sexually. Sometimes when the seduction game has gone a little too far, I tense up and tell them to stop. I go numb and lose interest. I’m not good at one-night stands. I can count on one hand how many I’ve had. I always hear my mom telling me I’m cheap and slutty and can never go through with the full sexual act.

I remember the first time I heard someone actually call me “Trouble.” I was shocked. It was almost as though she’d said I was a heroin addict. Friends say if you have a night out with me it’s dangerous; we’re not going to chat quietly over one glass of wine. Most likely we’ll laugh, cry, dance, sing, dress up, and — surely — consume large amounts of alcohol. Forget about doing anything the next day after being out all night with Trouble. I’m incredibly good at getting everyone to follow my manic madness, too. I shower people with attention, make them feel special; I’m a laser beam focused entirely on them, making them happy. Tonight is magic — of course it is! And typically it is. To me it is …

After nights like that I disappear. A night of boundary-breaking intimacy, and then I go into hiding. The other person takes it as distance, rejection, while I’m horrified I lost sight of the good girl; as the night progresses, I act more and more like a cult leader. I’m humiliated by my loss of control, just like my mother is. The fact that we’re not allowed to act salvatge makes us binge. No smoking, no drinking during the week: keep it together and perfect and then on the weekend let that caged-up Doberman speed out of the kennel. I can’t live up to it all.

Not sure what I think about the Robert Stoller quote you sent me: “The major traumas and frustrations of early life are reproduced in the fantasies and behaviors that make up adult eroticism, but the story now ends happily. This time, we win. In other words, the adult erotic behavior contains the early trauma. The two fit: the details of the adult script tell what happened to the child.”

I don’t know if I feel that happy ending in my sexual experiences. Somehow, the trauma taints everything one way or another. I completely agree with you about avoiding the “I was abused and never escaped” moan session, but it has formatted me — it’s a filter I have — and right now I find it impossible to not see everything linked to it. Would be great to find some revelation that is cycle-breaking. I feel like I’ve spent half my life in therapy.

My daughter Ava seems overly concerned about appearing sexy, pointing out girls in her class who “are” (at eight) and she won’t wear skirts unless they’re green or blue. Anything pink or purple she feels draws attention to her. It’s like she’s already aware of female objectification. Did I somehow pass that fear of being looked at down to her without even knowing it? At the same time, when we were on the plane coming back from the States, she brushed my hair very carefully, tucked one side behind my ear, tilted my head at a specific angle, and then said, “Now, Mommy, stay like that, and let aaaaall the boys stare at you.” She seemed to take pleasure in thinking the boys would stare at me. Lately, she studies the men on the street studying me and imitates the way they stare me up and down, then asks me if I noticed what they did. She’s simultaneously attracted to and repulsed by this female-hunting male.

Ava and I went together to a frozen yogurt place, and as we sat there in silence for a while, I asked her, “What is this feeling you have that dressing in a feminine way somehow makes you sexy?” She hates that — sexiness. She said, “I just don’t like it … I don’t know … well, I have a secret, but I will never be able to tell you.” Immediately, alarms went off and I thought, Okay, that’s it — here we go — she’s been abused; I’ve been waiting for her to tell me and now I’m going to get her to tell me what happened. I did what my mother did to me: told her she could talk about anything with me, I’d never judge her or love her any differently, and perhaps I could help her/understand her better if she shared what she felt was such a secret. Maybe she’d actually enjoy sharing her secret (intimacy junkie, intimacy junkie). Finally she told me she wanted to be wild: to look dirty and have torn, stained clothes, messy hair (later that evening she identified the exact sublime look in Pirates of the Caribbean). She also said she’d like to be an orphan but felt bad about wanting that because she still wants me to be her mommy. She had all these stories about orphan kids in her head and wanted to make a movie with all her friends — not write it, just make it. So wild was the answer. Not abuse. My projection.

I still find myself staring at crowds of people — in a stadium, on a crowded bus, on a pedestrian-jammed street, all rubbing/chafing up against one another — and I think, They’re all here because two people had sex. All these people. Then I imagine the parents of one person and the parents of another, and then another, all of them passing through their mother’s vagina, the most forbidden place of a woman’s body. And we’re not allowed to talk about that, or look at that, and most definitely not touch that. Especially your mother’s, even though we did when we were born. Well, that’s how I was raised: to feel shameful about something that, in reality, there is no getting around, or we all simply wouldn’t be here. Sex is everything.

I’ll never forgive Jesse or Carl, nor should I. But before them came Karin. Before my mother came her mother. And before Ava comes me. Line I came across on a bathroom stall in grad school: “Man hands on misery to man; it deepens like a coastal shelf.” Men and their fucking selves. Shelves.

Reprinted from That Thing You Do With Your Mouth: The Sexual Autobiography of Samantha Matthews as Told to David Shields, published by McSweeney’s, Copyright David Shields and Samantha Matthews.

That Dark, Perverse Stare