I loved the film Shame. I found it moving, and simple, and complicated, and dirty, and clean all at the same time. I was drawn in but horrified, not by the central character’s sex addiction but the easy decline of me into voyeur, and the extent of that voyeurism. I was as pulled into the film’s slippery unravelling of its characters. It was uncomfortable because the spotlight was as much on my willingness to look deep into the central brother and sister characters, their rotten past, their flaws and mistake and challenges to each other and the world, as on those things themselves.
And then there was the cock. Michael Fassbender’s majestic cock, and the endless raw, dispiriting confusion of sex and desire and need and want and eroticism and beauty and nastiness it embodied and touched. It is a strong film. A grown-up film for grown-ups and not everyone’s cup of tea.
It interests me though, the potency of everyone and everything, but especially the contradiction of the male lead’s nudity. His bareness is what is perhaps most shocking and high-end about the film, but it is also the film’s most crushing weapon, and Fassbender and McQueen’s masterful provocation. We see all, but we see nothing. And his desperate face on orgasm is more intimate and distressing to watch than his full body. The film is striking for its intimacy laid bare, but more so as that intimacy is false. Though we see all of him, we know nothing of Fassbender’s sexual behaviour, predilections, orientations or past.
I think this today in the tunnels of shame below UCLH when I go to meet a consultant. Of course I do. Because I can’t think in depth about being incontinent at 35 and I realise I’ve ‘coped’ with it merely by denial. Try as I might, for example, I’ve failed to write a simple list of my history to discuss with the big man who perhaps holds the key to a more normal life. Which is completely stupid and self-sabotaging, but the idea that he may be able to cure me contains two others:
The truth of it in all its pissy, shameful and embarrassing tedious unglory
And the fact that he may not, actually, be able to sort it
Perhaps, I panic, he will send me away. Tell me to shut up, buck up and cross my legs. Tell me I am making mountains (of Tena Ladies) from molehills of shame and should be endlessly appalled of myself for complaining. As ever, I can’t decide which is worse – being told there’s nothing wrong or revealing my physical inadequacies in public.
Despite being a regular and an old-hat old hand when it comes to urogynaecology and other humiliations, I have ducked into a tailspin, afraid I’m more of a tired twat. Partly I’m wigging out, of course, because I don’t want to fucking go. Mostly though, because the world of gynaecology and repair and physio, unlike some of my experiences of midwifery and obstetrics, is so surreal.
When you are there, in the belly of the beast, lying in your own piss and bearing down on someone’s hand, or god forbid, a speculum, it feels so normal. They act like it is okay, to uncontrollably wee on someone else’s hand. That OF COURSE when you are weeing all over the bendy bed someone else should be watching.
The humiliation is massive, despite their efforts. And their kindness and normalness brings a cost. It requires a detachment from the doctors – and catches them out in the destigmatising decency. They have to be detached from the reality, because they have to keep pretending that talking to someone who cannot control their urine or other functions and acting as if that is an okay, normal and not at all embarrassing thing is, in and of itself, okay and normal for everyone. It is a confidence trick leading to a strange complacency in the situation if not the people, that I’ve noticed in so many of these areas of embarrassing illnesses.
For example, in a discipline full of bells and whistles and thought and cleverness and kindness, I have yet to go anywhere where there was a normal place to put your pants and Tena Lady and trousers and shoes when you do the half strip. Never. I always end up clutching them and feeling like a prize twat. A total twat. A twat with no knickers on being asked to wee on a man’s hand after shoving a pile of my clothes on top of the bin for waste products.
They crack jokes, they ask questions to put you at ease, you know their names, who their kids are, when their wedding will be. And they know these things about you. No-one mentions that you are having these conversations as they are performing acts that would, in another scenario, be either erotic or abusive. At one point, when told to just ‘keep going’, I almost die. ‘I could charge good money for this in Amsterdam,’ I nearly quip, though I don’t have the heart and am too busy listening to my monologues of ‘sorry, sorry, SORRY, sorry’ on a loop.
Usually, I giddy along. I take a deep breath and pretend I think it is all normal and okay too. I talk candidly and joke. I display my embarrassment only with the weird quirk of being descriptive, detailed and unashamed to use Latin or Anglo Saxon in my c-word-talk, all the while unable to look anyone in the eye.
Today I managed that a little, but I couldn’t get my history out, I jumped around, I was so confused I felt the narrative of me might for ever be broken. It was poetry not reportage, a deranged conflation – medical terms and interjections, most of the right notes but none at all in the right order.
I’m putting it down to fear, but also to the insane mixture of being laid bare completely and utterly for strangers to see but trying to remember that I can and should be myself, that I exist outside of this, that I can be private. And that does make it hard to talk menstruation and sex and orgasm and sensation and toilet talk and tearing and stitching and trauma all at once, and show my snatch to someone, who is still actually a stranger. ‘Who are YOU?’ I want to ask at the obligatory ‘Do you have any questions?’ bit. ‘Would this be easier if we had a relationship?’
I don’t think it would be, and none of this is a complaint about the superb surgeon I spoke to, who was so very kind and hopeful and upfront with me. But that’s why I think of Fassbender, and those stars of 9 Songs too. And how well, and how little, we know them at all. And the trust they must have had in the director and the camera and the story they were telling. Which is the lightbulb moment for even me. Because the story I’m telling is mine, but horrible, and one I am still a bit too immature and cowardly to own. I pass it off as snippets of anecdote and rude jokes, and then write about it on the internet to pretend that by the chutzpah of self-publication I skip the bit where I think about it and process it properly.
I can’t even decide if that’s a shame, or just the only way to deal with it.