A pair of graphic novels I either could have done without, or really needed.
07 September 2016
Last spring (or thereabouts) I noticed that a graphic novel titled Mary Wept Over the Feet of Jesus: Prostitution and Religious Obedience in the Bible was getting a lot of press attention. As it was a historical/religion graphic novel, and therefore nonfiction, I thought I would try it. I had read another graphic novel memoir by the same author, Chester Brown, about a million years ago. I couldn't remember it at all, other than its title: I Never Liked You. But I thought, let's try it.
And then I waited for it on hold from the library for so long that I forgot all about what it even was. I kept seeing the title "Mary Wept Over the Feet of Jesus" on my hold list, and I thought, I wonder what that book's about? And then it came.
How could I forget this one? It's a graphic novel, illustrating the stories of numerous women in the Bible, as well as other well known books/stories. Included here are illustrations of the Cain and Abel story, Ruth's marrying Boaz, the Annunciation of Mary, Bathsheba and David, Tamar, and Rahab (the latter two whose stories I don't know very well, but involved prostitution or sex as an exchange in some way). And what is the theme? Well, I'm vastly simplifying it here, but Brown speculates that the way the stories of these women were told, particularly in the Gospel according to Matthew, means there is some evidence that not only were there many prostitutes in the Bible, but that Mary the mother of God was one of them. Here's Matthew talking to himself while writing his Gospel account:
"All the evidence indicates that Jesus's mother was a whore. Jesus himself said so. But many Christians are against prostitution, and they don't want to hear the truth. Even if I wrote it, it would just be censored when the scribes copy out the book. But I want to acknowledge the truth in some manner. Is there a way of hinting at it without it being censored?" p. 146.
So I finish this thing, copious afterword and notes included, and my one thought, is, Wow, for some reason this guy really needs prostitution to be okay.
So I looked up his earlier books, and find his title Paying for It: A Comic-Strip Memoir about Being a John. And of course, everything makes more sense now. Of course he needs prostitution to be okay, because he goes to prostitutes.
Which is all, at this point, bothering me much less than you would think (or my mother would expect of me). For one thing, as a Catholic of a certain age, I was raised in a religious education environment that didn't really pay a whole lot of attention to the Bible. Sure, we had scripture every week in church, but Catholics doing "Bible study" when I was growing up was pretty much unheard of. In my family we seemed to depend a lot more on certain prayers, saint stories (although yes, I had books of Bible stories too), Catholic catechism (as laid down in the conservative Baltimore catechism series), and a special fondness for Mary.* So you know what? I don't care if Mary was a prostitute. I don't really care if she was a virgin, although that's what I learned and frankly it's just as easy for me to believe she was a virgin as anything else (see earlier: I just don't particularly care). The important thing is Mary IS my mother. I love her as my mother and I ask for her help and her intercession like a mother. She has been my only friend at many dark 3 a.m. hours in my life. The Catholic Church has done many things appallingly wrong in its history. But I am so grateful to Catholicism for giving me Mary as an individual in her own right, and my mother.**
So if Chester Brown wants to think she was a prostitute, and has done a lot of reading and research to back that up, well, okay.*** Evidently a lot of his ideas are based in part on Jane Schaberg's scholarly book The Illegitimacy of Jesus. At this point I wasn't particularly bothered.
But then I had to go and read his memoir Paying for It as well.
And now, friends? Now I'm a bit disturbed.
It's not a complicated book. Brown decided, after his girlfriend (with whom he lived) asked if he minded if she pursued a relationship with another man (while they still lived together), that he really didn't mind, and that in fact he was glad to be rid of the jealous feelings of a monogamous relationship. Things progress until he decides to pursue his two competing desires: "the desire to have sex, versus the desire to NOT have a girlfriend," (p. 16) and soon he responds to an escort ad and begins a series of encounters with paid sex workers. Most of the book thereafter details those encounters, set off by interludes of him and his friends engaging in discussions about whether his behavior is wrong or not.
Well, okay. I read the whole book--once again with copious appendices and notes wherein Brown lays out most of his arguments that prostitution should be decriminalized--and while I was reading it I didn't really have much of a reaction. But then I found I would think about different parts of the book, and Brown's arguments, at random points later in the day. And the more I recounted his experiences and his arguments, the more I reacted.
I'm not going to take each chapter or experience in turn. Instead, I'd like to give you a broad overview of what disturbed me about some of Brown's encounters with sex workers: 1. he often pays for half-hour sessions rather than full-hour sessions, and then depicts himself variously trying to get the prostitutes to move on from oral to full sex, or he shows himself periodically stopping the action to slow down his, ahem, "completion." At least one of the women asks him why he keeps stopping and starting again, informing him, "it's starting to hurt, y'know!" (p. 63.) 2. Periodically he has to question whether the women even understand English, or whether they are really the age they claim to be. 3. At least once he wants to walk away because the prostitute is unattractive, or (gasp) appears to be as old as "in her thirties." 4. After several visits to the same prostitute, he notes afterward that the "dates" are starting to make him feel empty inside. 5. Several prostitutes indicate (to me) they might not be enjoying the work--one says "ow" throughout the entire encounter, another answers Brown's questions about her previous work in a massage parlor and admits that she would rather be back at the massage parlor rather than working as an escort.
So, looking at the above as a whole, the picture I'm drawing of the author is that he's a cheap bastard who so badly wants what he's doing to be okay that he never questions whether women are foreign-born or actually eighteen; who's in his late thirties himself but of course is completely uninterested sexually in women of a comparable age; and although he seems desperate to reassure his friends that he treats these workers kindly (he tips them, lets them use his phone, etc.) he clearly is not put off his stroke when a woman shows clear signs of being in discomfort or pain.
I'm sorry, but there you have it. With that picture in my mind, I simply cannot take most of his arguments for the decriminalization of prostitution seriously. Like the one he relies on a lot: "I believe that, if prostitution is decriminalized, its normalization will happen relatively quickly--within a few generations. When I was born, in 1960, homosexuality was widely seen as 'sick' and disgusting. It was illegal to engage in homosexual activity in this country (and probably all of the other 'western' countries). In 1967, Pierre Trudeau decriminalized homosexuality in Canada...The result, forty-something years later, is that homosexuality has become normalized for most people 'in the west.' It's no longer widely seen as sick or disgusting." (p. 231.) Does anyone else find this argument weak? Are paying for sex with professionals and homosexuality really analogous situations? Also, if activities like pedophilia or necrophilia were "normalized," does that mean they would be okay?
Brown also likes to make the point that prostitutes should have their choice to make their living in the way they choose. Another weak argument, I think. How much money can a woman really make in this line of work if men stop choosing them (as Brown does) the minute they look like they are past their twenties? What is the percentage of women who are really CHOOSING this work? I would suggest you read Robert Kolker's Lost Girls for a look at how someone gets into this work and what happens after they do. It doesn't seem to me that choice often has a lot to do with it.
Anyway. Blah blah blah. I had a lot more thoughts about these two books, but this post is already ridiculously long. I didn't particularly enjoy the experience of interacting with these books, but I do have to admit that I have now given them a lot of thought and even argued with their author in my head. So, paradoxically: A good reading experience. I think the Paying for It book might actually be a good book for all women to read, for its scary insights into one male mind (particularly what Brown describes as the "burden" of his life--"Every time I saw an attractive woman, I wanted to walk up to her and try to initiate some sort of interaction. I usually lacked the confidence to do so...I wasn't even aware that all of that felt like a burden until I walked out of that brothel and saw an attractive woman on the street and realized I felt no inner tension about whether or not I should talk to her. Of course I shouldn't--she was a stranger. Why would I worry that I was missing an opportunity to potentially have sex? Suddenly, sex with beautiful women was easy to get." (p. 263.) I'll tell you this: it obviously takes all kinds.
*Family legend has it that Dad appealed to Mary to intercede and help him find a good wife, and he found our mother. My mother is spectacular, so thanks, Mary!
**And the subject of one of my favorite prayers, a poem by Anne Porter: "Mary, in you/We see the flowering/Of our human beauty/And hear/The songs of God. And in your heart the lost/Rejected and abandoned ones/Are held in honor. Stay with us now/And always."
***This is way off topic, and I never reviewed it here, but this summer I also read a lot of Tom Bissell's really interesting book Apostle: Travels among the Tombs of the Twelve, also about Bible history, and how very little anyone knows about even the Apostles (arguably well-known and often-cited figures that they are). In that book Bissell noted that when he noticed all the inconsistencies and historical fuzziness in the Bible, he lost his verve for his Catholic religion. This does not happen to me. The more I learn about how complex the Bible is, how historically difficult it is to pin anything in it down with certainty, it doesn't make me take my religion less seriously. It makes me take the Bible less seriously. If that makes any sense.