On Beauty, Innocence, and Broken Wiring

warning_pageWarning upfront: this might be a slightly uncomfortable topic, one that looks at the roots of sex addiction and the abuse that creates it. I want to talk about it because the psychology behind it increasingly driving my next book and I’ve actually learned something from writing about it. Imagine that!

Yesterday I mentioned that my protagonist, Dean, is addicted to hiring prostitutes who are college freshmen, typically of the “barely legal” variety, and I want to talk about that a little today. You see, there’s something more going on with him that goes beyond an obsessive early-book need to possess women as if they were rare cars: Dean’s fundamental operational wiring in his brain is broken, though not permanently. Here are the relevant paragraphs that have made me think more about this:

Her face shifted and he caught a glance of the child that had so recently disappeared into this budding woman.

It made his heart ache. He had no idea why he found the combination of beauty and innocence so intoxicating, surely something from his distant past, but he didn’t worry about that. He was no monster; he had no desire to steal away her remaining naiveté, but at the same time it worked like a powerful aphrodisiac. He simultaneously wanted to protect her and fuck her.

Now make no mistake, gong into this I did not personally understand this point of view; it came from the testimonies of more than one sex addict in the course of my research into the topic. It initially repulsed me, but I couldn’t let it go for some reason. I didn’t have a problem understanding the underlying sentiment: plenty of beautiful, innocent things can make you pause and re-consider the very context of life. Baby bunnies, kittens, and puppies come to mind without too much effort. The very concept of their existence is a fragile, precious thing and worth consideration as an important part of the life cycle.

My misgivings lay in sexualizing this, for what I hope are obvious reasons.  I simply don’t look at something innocent and beautiful and start to feel any of those stirrings. The impulse to protect, yes, I absolutely get that, like I said, it’s a fragile thing in a chaotic, dangerous world. But sexualize? Why? What could cause such a thing?

I honestly failed to comprehend right up until I wrote Dean’s story and the pieces started falling into place. Without giving too much away, something traumatic happened to Dean when he was on the cusp of puberty, which is not at all uncommon for sex addicts. Current psychological theory for why sex abuse causes sex addiction is complex, with many different reasons coming together to create a web of maladaptive behavior, but basically the concept is that an abused person seeks to recreate their trauma and master it this time. This is why you’ll sometimes hear about rape victims who then go on to put themselves into extremely dangerous situations.

This is essentially what Dean is doing. The innocence and beauty in his life was stolen from him at a very vulnerable age and in a sexual manner. The people who should have protected him for one reason or another failed to do so, leaving him open to the dangers of the world, which ultimately consumed his own innocence. When Dean becomes entranced by the quality of beauty and innocence in others, on one level he recognizes some lost component of himself and wishes to protect it, but at the same time the assault has crossed up the wiring in his brain so that when he recognizes this rare and precious trait it’s inexorably associated with sexual trauma.

Essentially, Post Traumatic Stress Disorder is a hell of a thing that screws with you to the very core.

Combine all of that with the addict’s core belief that “I am inherently a bad and unlovable person” and we get the mess that is Dean Rohrer’s brain at the opening of Came to Believe. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not saying that his behavior or any similar behavior is a good thing – it’s a destructive adaptation that destroys lives. But it doesn’t arise in a vacuum and it can’t be fixed without some understanding and attempts to correct that behavior.

So the bulk of the book is about him untangling those threads and learning to appreciate the beauty in life without compulsively sexualizing it – essentially breaking the compulsive patterns. It’s not an easy path for him, nor is it for anyone who has to follow it in real life. There are many pitfalls and sometimes the slightest thing can throw someone off the rails of recovery (as it does for Dean), but it is possible. I’m hoping that Dean’s redemption rings true for folks. We’ll see. I’ll share more on the dynamics of addiction and trauma as I go through the book.