Sexual education (or lack thereof) in the United States is…weird.
When I was in middle school, there was a session in the gymnasium during P.E. We all sat in the middle of gym while a television with the longest extension cord ever was used to pull big and heavy CRT thing on the black stand all the way out, and we proceeded to watch boring medical terminology and watch how exactly a baby is conceived using the most sterile models and animation.
Fast forward to Health class, where the teacher grinned like a cheshire cat when we all horrifically were subjected to a view of a woman’s vagina pushing a baby out of her birth canal. Years later I have to admit that I have some jealousy of our Health teacher as he was able, from a teacher’s perspective, to each year get one moment where your age and understanding unquestionably makes you a better person.
And that was it.
I have read quite a bit on sexuality, from Esther Perel to Erica Jong to Peggy Orenstein’s Girls and Sex which I found revelatory. My father tried to give me a “sex talk” but failed miserably. I had no high-speed internet for a long time, so my experience sexually was in hiding Victoria’s Secret magazines on the sides of my bed. I remember being so angry back then with her finding it, not realizing of course that when changing out the sheets, she was eventually going to pull the magazine out along with them.
I bring all this up because the education to prepare young people sexually is so agonizingly bad that we have to do the legwork for ourselves. It usually ends up being porn and terrible sexual experiences. For others it can be far worse, and if you have kept up with the ongoing sexual assault on campus studies, alcohol ends up being a terrible mixture in all this ignorance.
It wasn’t until really my mid to late twenties before I could feel really comfortable not just having sex, but talking about it, enthusing about it, and, even more profoundly, experiencing sexuality in places that had nothing to do with sex. The real pleasure of sexuality in a life is its ability to color wonderfully the avenues of life that give you meaning and power.
I have a lot of regret about this. But I suppose the grass is always greener: those who lost their virginity earlier wished it was later, and vice versa.
I bring all this up to suggest that Tom Aberrant’s start to his relationship with Annabel comes out of this everything or nothing dilemma that a lack of sexual education seems to provide.
Tom and Annabel’s relationship starts with an article in a paper, but he soon realizes on the phone with her later, as he tries to make amends, that Annabel is lonely. Annabel claims her father “seduces, then bullies, then buys” and that makes up what she does to Tom. They go to parties and slowly, little by little her smoldering wallflowering gains his attention. Her dedication to numbers and coincidences gives their relationship a “story” where before none existed. Tom is eventually bullied into peeing sitting down or in the sink because the piss droplets, the impurity of them, bother Annabel. And when Tom has an opportunity to leave for a graduate education in journalism in Missouri, Annabel threatens him by writing a check to him for $43,000. Oftentimes when we describe other people, we really describe ourselves.
Annabel is an artist living under the rich shadow cast by her father, who makes money feeding the world through inhumane ways. It is a situation where everyone is right: Annabel’s veganism is heroic because she recognizes the poor conditions that we have forced domestic animals to maintain before death. Her father, David, is a figure who has helped feed the world, and in the late 20th century, I think the technology was very nascent for feeding the world and still providing the globalized work structure and diversified market we enjoy today. Tom’s mother is right: he really is feeding the world.
Tom stated in this section that news should function in the tension between right and left, not simply pander to ideologies. I couldn’t agree more. Yet he continues to take a drug he classifies as Annabel, who is such an “either/or” person. She has an overwhelming story she continues to tell herself through coincidences of numbers and dates. She believes in total transparency between Tom and herself, to such an extent that it causes harm and destruction in the family. She hates Tom’s wedding gift, a novella, because she has to be the artist while he becomes the critic. Why can’t…why can’t they both be artists? Why is what she does art and what Tom does criticism? Doesn’t her piece, River of Meat, critique in “visual overload” what her father does that she so despises? Isn’t Tom’s novella a form of art as well? Tom tried to stop Annabel from reading a scathing letter from his mother, which recommends that he dump Annabel for a reasonable girl. She reads it and decides that she can never see her again. At all times she is counting…and she hardly compromises.
Joan Didion has a quote that I have always unquestionably believed: “We tell ourselves stories in order to live.”
Now I am starting to wonder about the quality of the quote. “We tell ourselves stories in order to possibly live badly,” does not have the ring to it, but it’s what Annabel faces in her life. It’s easy to see how Annabel got into her position with Pip, where she has continued to reject anything that may have a hint of impurity to it, to the point where she has so little, and is so dependent on what she has left, that it does not make her strong, it makes her weak.
Why didn’t Tom have sex with Lucy Hill!?
Like a college undergrad, I was swept up in these early stories with Tom. Lucy may have her problems, to be sure, but what she did not have was the capacity to dichotomize everything all of the time. Several times she literally pounces on Tom, because she wants to have sex with him and they may in fact be great together. Tom rejects it because he is sexually naive and he only wants Annabel. But if Lucy is devastated, she never shows it, remarking that “it’s okay.” Does she critique Annabel for being so standoffish? Yes. But there’s some truth to that…
I would have killed to have a friend like Lucy in college. Does she seem sexually mature? I don’t know. It’s clear she wants that from Tom, and whether she is doing that to “win” over Tom from Annabel is a whole different story. The question I suppose to ask here is to wonder if there really ever is a totally pure and perfect sexual experience, and I think to ponder that is to miss the point. I am enamored by Lucy’s adventurous behavior, and her incredible patience…
Sexual understanding, as we’ve seen from popular shows on Netflix, is really in high demand. College students flock to sexuality classes because the information not only makes sex better, it injects sexuality into every other experience.
Binary oppositions with sex, simply thinking about it as just what you do with your penis, is not healthy. Tom at the beginning obsesses over this, and I think it can stunt high school and college relationships.
I stopped in the book where Annabel’s father shows up to their wedding party unawares, though Tom had a conversation with him earlier. We’ll have to see where that leads, but judging from how Annabel treats all other secrets revealed, as injustices to her rather than accidents, I can’t imagine it’ll go very well.
There’s one last thing to mention, speaking of stunted relationships. Annabel is an adult woman who has to be talked to by Leonard, a stuffed animal voiced by Tom. At one point, Annabel even uses Leonard to play with Tom’s dick. For Franzen to name this part of his book after Leonard clearly suggests that, sometimes, we create our own hindrances in life, with a personality or perspective that closes us off to really interrogating motivations and growing as people. Is Leonard an externalization of how the couple reaches each other with a third party? Or is it a strange side effect of the repressive state that Annabel and Tom agree to?
Categorizing the world so harshly does things to the head. Being a virgin or not being a virgin is not an idea that does work for a person but rather does work to a person. What good can come from feeling oneself tainted or damaged or dirty? There is usually in life a continuum. Am I the same person going to bed at night as I am the morning I wake up? No. Which means that even the notion of self is porous and prone to investigation. Annable’s either/or-ness is a false binary.
I am a continuing-education-sexual being! And I still have so much to learn.