Wednesday, May 19, 2010

Touching, Looking: Replies from Liz Kuhlman

Liz Kuhlman sent two "scribblings" as she calls them in reply to the previous blog posting on desire; they're such interesting little essays we thought you might like to read them too:


In the “before,” you were always both such attractive people. Handsome and smart, funny, interesting and interested, perhaps that most of all, genuinely, generously interested in other people in a way that made us feel noticed, appreciated, even chosen.

Everyone wanted to be with you. Once on a hike, the last hike we took together as a matter of fact, Dave said, “You are our best friends.” Well, I thought, but we are not their best friends. You were and are still close to so many people. How do you manage? Right after the accident, so many people were emphasizing their personal devastation by saying, “They are our closest friends.”

But among friends, particularly among close friends of the opposite sex, there are accords, meticulously scrupulous but unspoken, related to sex. Hand shakes, hugs, kisses on cheeks, pats on the back, are allowed. Direct, prolonged looks, touches that caress are not. Smoothing brows or stroking hair is out of line. As one who has violated these accords in the past and been pilloried for it, I am acutely aware of them.

The accident has invited us to transform the accords. A vivid memory from right after the accident: Brooke was still in intensive care. Both Dave and I were there. Dave was reading aloud, I think. Brooke was feeling panicky and asked me to stroke his forehead. I was on one side of the bed, Dave on the other. It was something I very much wanted to do, that had occurred to me to do before he asked, but that was, until the asking, forbidden. It was such a relief to pour through my hand all the tenderness and comforting I felt for which there were no adequate words. I stroked Brooke’s “brow” and hair until my arm got tired. He noticed my fatigue, and suggested that Dave and I change sides of the bed so I could use the other arm. I think we were all purring.

So many other tender exchanges followed. Feeding him. I never fail to think of communion. The intimacy of the mouth: tongue and teeth. Nine month old Nicholas sitting on my lap solemnly examining my teeth with his fingers before he reinserts them into his own mouth to sooth his enflamed gums. Putting lotion on Brooke’s feet. The Gospel of John substitutes foot washing for the bread and wine story. These sublime intimacies we ordinarily deny ourselves except with young children and lovers.

Taking sex out of the tangle of emotions between us helps. Health care professionals are given permission by their training, by their uniforms and name badges, to be physically tender in a way that is not to be interpreted as sexual. Some of them, sadly, can’t do it and touch coldly. Others, no doubt, are misinterpreted and sexual transgression happens.

Brooke’s frankness in asking to be touched is a facet of the courage so many comment on. It is a gift to be invited to touch him, to communicate, commune in this intimate way.


I found Brooke’s comments on the erotic potential of vision provocative. Not in the “in your face” political sense or the porn sense, but in that they called forth a flood of thoughts.

If you tell a health care provider that her breasts are beautiful, she might well write in her notes, “Patient has poor boundaries.” People with “healthy boundaries” know better than to think of health care professionals in that way. It is unconventional. But does it transgress?

I have done a lot of thinking about boundaries, personal and professional. There is a photographer named Jock Sturges who got arrested in the early 90’s for purveying child pornography. He photographs people in nudist (or naturalist) colonies in California and France. He has photographed the same people, people he has known well for years (he is one of them), from infancy to adulthood, across generations.

His photographs are arresting (if I may), but not because they are pornographic. I saw an exhibit of his work when I was intensely professionally involved in the problem of child sexual abuse, attending, as a matter of fact, a conference on violence against children. The exhibit was not connected to the conference, but it might have been. I walked among the images of naked children and adolescents pondering. Sturges’ studio had been raided by the FBI and all his negatives seized; he had been thrown in jail. Why, I asked myself, was I so certain that this was an injustice?

No court of law would accept my answer (it is now against federal law to use a model under the age of 18 in any image that shows his or her genital area). But I stand by this hard won personal understanding of this particular boundary. Sturges’ photos, his visions, ask nothing of their subjects. They look without demanding. They are innocent of exploitation.

Brooke’s observations (both the looking itself and his discussion of desire) are very far from pornographic, but they do raise a question: is it OK for him to take erotic pleasure from looking at this care takers? What about his female friends? What about, for example, me? Would I mind? I should be so lucky.

I find it deeply comforting that Brooke is able to take this kind of pleasure from looking. Comforting to know that he can see in this undemanding way. When I first moved to New York City, I had to stop wearing the hot pants and halter tops of the day because men on the street wouldn’t leave me alone. Uninvited demands. That time of my life is past; men generally don’t notice me and I have a fond nostalgia for wolf whistles. It would have been disquieting, though, to think Brooke looked at me this way before the accident. Dave occasionally tells women, out of the blue, that he finds them beautiful. They like it (I think), but I see them also being disquieted.

Now with Brooke, though, my reaction is “Thank God.” What a gift. Looking as an end in itself. This pleasure, given and taken, is partly Peggy’s generosity, partly, I hope, a reward for Brooke’s own keen self-awareness and his own deep generosity. Who knows, maybe it’s God’s generosity.

--Liz Kuhlman