by Kleitia Vaso

Not too long ago, later than it should have happened, I finally learned that there is a real divide between theoretical understanding and understanding through experience. J. refers to this illuminating but painful period as my transformation from mermaid to human.

One of the endless topics which has fascinated me, from a relatively safe distance, are relationships with unequal power dynamics, in which one person is clearly dominant and the other seems to have willingly surrendered the lead. In today’s wordy world, the clear label for the extreme version of this relationship would be sadomasochistic but that descriptive adjective highlights the sexual component of the relationship while the most interesting aspect, to me, is the emotional one. Or, rather, I see the sexual as a derivative of the emotional but I might be wrong.

For instance, I never fully understood the dynamics in a movie like Secretary, in which the male protagonist, a lawyer, cannot express his feelings except in the form of the maltreatment of his secretary, the woman, who is willing to suffer any kind of humiliation, with pleasure no less. The key word here is “fully”; a full understanding is only possible through a similar experience or the creation of a bridge between the experiences represented onscreen or in the pages of a book with one’s own. I guess, in this specific case, understanding the role of the lawyer was easier than the secretary’s. I suppose the real question, then, is: Why would anyone choose to take the role of the masochist?

And, then, I remembered several unequal relationships, in which one person had chosen to be the “giving” one while the other one was more clearly positioned as the “taker.” The establishment of this dynamic, with the two extremes being the sadist and the masochist but with most relationships falling somewhere in between these poles, occurs from the very start. At the very beginning one takes the adored position and the other assumes the adoring one. One supposes, logically, that the one in the adoring position is the giver, i.e. the masochistic one, while the one being adored is the taker and so on. But, one quickly forgets or rather dismisses the fact that adoration is addictive and no dose offered will ever suffice; the previous dose will last for a period of time, with each later one lasting less and less, and one always searches for a bigger piece.

This unwillingness to stop voluntarily reminds me of Kevin, the teen shooter in the film We need to talk about Kevin, who increasingly challenges his mother to stop his increasingly sadistic acts (spraying blood-colored water on her newly placed wallpaper, killing his sister’s pet, and it only gets worse from here). He basically will go as far as she will allow him and, although the majority of people better control their animalistic urges, our natural response is to take as much as we can if the limit is not clearly placed somewhere.

This painful conclusion reminds of an even more shameful story involving J. and I when we were little; I guess we all have episodes in our childhood which make us shudder when we remember them. In a fight which escalated, I kept digging my nails in J.’s arm and continuously asked her if it hurt. The response was a stubborn “no” which made me continue dispensing the pain while she obstinately refused to acknowledge my ability to cause it to her. Since I remember it so vividly, the scene has obviously left a mark…and a good dose of guilt. Which one suffers more?!

The same concept and behavior applies to a positive feeling like adoration, affection, love. The offering of these feelings creates pleasure and pleasure, in turn, creates dependence. Dependence leads to the “taker” seeking the drug she/he is used to and then, the provider who will inevitably seem increasingly stingy will look like a torturer and you, the willing victim. Baudelaire, the poet of modernity as Walter Benjamin called him, best pinpoints the dual and merging identity of the torturer/victim when he writes: “I am the cut and the blade/victim and executioner!”

by Kleitia Vaso