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the empathic rollercoaster

Posted at 20:52 on 28 May 2009 by Pandora / Blake

Tags: corrupting the innocent, Fantasies, in the news, meta-analysis

Emma-Jane and Haron have both written thoughtful posts recently about the Ryan Report. I'm going to ramble a bit: hope you don't mind.

I'd heard about the report from my vanilla Irish friends, but hadn't read it. When I read Haron's post just now and saw it linked, there was something inevitable about my clicking it, opening the page, skimming the titles until I found the section on eye-witness accounts of female abuse. I read a few pages and then I had to stop. I felt sickened, nauseated, distressed. And yet only a few moments before I'd consciously sought it out, skipped straight to the bits that would affect me most.

Reading this material is uncomfortable in several different ways. The first and obvious is basic human compassion and empathy: we are horrified to hear of suffering, particularly prolonged cruelty visited on the most vulnerable. At the most basic level, it's painful to imagine torture because the idea of experiencing it ourselves is horrible.

As a pervert, it's uncomfortable because of the superficial resemblance between the horrific reality and the sex games we enjoy. Never mind the consent boundary, the crucial factors of choice and agency; the difference between an experience that one chooses and can stop at any point; that is short-lived; that one shares with loved ones - and an experience that one does not choose, that is inflicted by people you hate, that is ongoing. The idea that we enjoy something which looks like something real and tragic and horrible makes us feel doubtful and guilty. The idea that we might be selfishly exploiting the suffering of others adds to that guilt.

(We're not, of course: people who made money off cruel institutions were exploiting the suffering of their inmates; we are merely telling a story which bears a shallow resemblance to their story. Writing a novel or film about abused children is arguably no less exploitative; sexualising a story doesn't automatically mean you're behaving unethically.)

But for me, and I expect millions of other people, kinky and vanilla, there is a third circle in the Venn diagram of discomfort: the fascination of the horrific. I am drawn to stories of child abuse, serial killers and human tragedies in the way that other people watch horror films. I have no interest whatsoever in horror fiction but I find stories of human suffering/cruelty/torture very difficult to look away from. I seek them out, and it's not a kinky interest - just a fascination. I'm sure I'm not alone in this.

I have a very strong sense of empathy, and a very vivid imagination. Some people like watching weepy movies or ultra-violent horror flicks. This is, I think, similar. When I read accounts of what people - real people, people like me - experienced, I engage very deeply with what I'm reading. As I imagine myself in those circumstances, my heart rate accelerates and I experience a sense of vertigo; as if I am perched on the edge of a precipice of suffering, and if I were to tumble into the abyss then that reality would become my reality, and I would never be able to escape. It feels as though if I'm not careful, that vividly imagined suffering could become real, could really affect me. Gasping, I stop reading, put it away and return to the real world, shaking and slightly (very, very slightly compared to the reality I'm reading about) traumatised.

It is horrific, upsetting, distressing; and my compassion and sense of injustice is certainly awakened. But I can't, in all honesty, pretend that justice is my primary motive. This is an empathic rollercoaster. It's a game I can play because I'm lucky enough not to have experienced these things for real. I don't know what torture real torture feels like. Humans cannot remember or imagine physical pain; we remember and imagine the fear and horror associated with it, but we cannot re-live the sensation itself. There's a gulf the imagination cannot cross, but you can't seem to stop yourself standing on the edge and looking down. That sense of emotional vertigo, of encountering a dizzying alien reality, is, in a way, exhilirating.

At no point is this experience sexual for me. In fact, if the report I'm reading contains elements too familiar to my kink, it disrupts the process; I'm filled with distaste and can't engage in the same way. Reading about people being spanked or caned is distracting; the emotional trip is most successful with stories about forms of torture or suffering I don't ever fantasise about. And yet ... there must be some connection. Why do I spend shivering hours immersing myself in factual accounts of Tranquillity Bay or children locked in cellars or Irish State institutions or the Holocaust? Why am I most powerfully drawn into reports of rape and torture and systematic, particularly institutional, abuse? Why not sate my cravings for imagined suffering by reading about, say, earthquake or flood victims?

Sometimes it is entirely, unquestionably sexless. I found myself reading eye-witness accounts of the Hillsborough tragedy recently, and the trip was the same: putting myself through a vivid identification with the victims of an horrific event, feeling disconnected and shaky afterwards, haunting myself with the residual images. There is no way that you can possibly connect anything that happened at Hillsborough to my kink, and in this case my sense of injustice was rather more personal, because it happened so recently, in my own country, and because I was already angry about the police's lack of accountability. But I think I let myself drown in it, sought out more and more material to feed my sickened imagination, for the same reason that I seek out stories about mistreated children; and the emotional consequences were very similar.

When I was growing up, one of the things that inhibited my acceptance of my kink was that I used to daydream (or lie awake at night) vividly imagining horrific things. One favourite was the death of loved ones especially my parents or brother. I would play out events in my mind, fully inhabit the imagined grief of the experience, let it overwhelm me. There was nothing sexual about it, and yet I put this kind of "fantasy" in the same category as wanting to be spanked or caned. I thought I had some sort of generic unhealthy victim-wish. These days I know enough about my kink to know what it isn't I'm not turned on by the idea of my parents dying, or of children being starved and tortured. But my desire to immerse myself in emotionally extreme experiences, to ride that empathic rollercoaster, is common to both my fascination with this kind of story, and also to my kink.

In a sense, I think it's healthy to confront the idea of suffering rather than shy away from it. But this is more than curiosity or acceptance of an unpleasant reality. I wouldn't call it a fixation, but it's a powerful fascination, and I'm not comfortable with it. It seems so selfish to me, to use the suffering of others in this way. That discomfort is what stopped me reading on in the Ryan report after the first page or so, despite wanting to keep going: I felt too uncomfortable with the intensity, and inappropriateness, of my response.

It bothers me that I can't clearly describe the boundary between the empathic rollercoaster and my masochistic fantasies, any more than I can define the connection between them.

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