“When I was twenty I got my entire back tattooed, the first pain I paid cash for,” writes Margo Steines early in her startling new memoir, Brutalities: A Love Story. The book can be tough to stomach. It is studded with scenes of spectacular, often heart-rending, violence, of which Steines accrued a seemingly inexhaustible store in the 15-odd years she spent working as a dominatrix in a New York City dungeon, and then running a livestock farm in rural upstate New York State with an abusive long-term boyfriend. “Coked-out middle-aged bankers” come to the dungeon asking the 17-year-old Steines to “beat [them] bloody with a rattan cane,” and she obliges. She, too, discovers a dissociative form of ecstasy in sexualized pain, and enters a long-term relationship with a broody Brooklyn artist-metalworker who leaves her “splattered with quickly blackening bruises,” “a clicking jawbone,” and “thin red stripes across my ass and thighs.” On the farm, she learns to “slice into the spare haunches of a spring lamb with a boning knife” and feels “an eerie sense of familiarity with the meat.” Later, she becomes addicted to weight-lifting and long-distance running; she runs until her heel bone cleaves in two, “a loud, hot twinge,” like “a piece of cherry-red steel […] slicing through me from ankle to sole.” She keeps running anyway.
By the time Steines sits down to compose her memoir, she is living in Tucson with a loving partner and is pregnant with their first child. She has found her way to a gentler, less punishing way of inhabiting her body and her life. The memoir unfolds as a series of linked vignettes, alternating between past and present, with every other chapter time-stamped by gestational week; the “Epilogue” consists simply of a black-and-white photograph of Steines, sweaty and smiling and radiant post-delivery, cradling her newborn child to her chest. “Gestational Week 43,” reads the caption, and the reader closes the book with a sigh of relief that its author has found her way safely to the other side of so much pain.
And yet this comforting redemption arc—from lost to found, broken to whole—is not at all what the intervening pages have taught us to deduce from Steines’s story. The usual hackneyed therapeutic assumptions about what causes someone to tolerate or seek out violence simply don’t hold in Steines’s case, a fact she is quick to establish at the outset. “I grew up in peace and safety,” she assures the reader, the daughter of a well-heeled New York City lawyer. “I was given education and a voice for my feelings, […] taught to respect others and myself.” The desire for violence “wasn’t given to me,” she insists. “I set out to find it.” The memoir lays bare her brutal past, dissects it with the detached curiosity and cold precision of a surgeon’s scalpel. But in the end, she regrets nothing in this decades-long tempering of her personhood in the crucible of near-annihilation. That past doesn’t exist in isolation from the (now) treasured softness and safety she has found; each is the other’s necessary complement.
This “problematic” complementarity (as Steines herself refers, in scare quotes, to her unconventional relationship to violence) is precisely the challenge Brutalities poses to the reader, the crux of its paradoxical title. It asks us not to shield our eyes from violence and pain—those most core and basic and unavoidable of human realities—but to pay close attention to them; to more patiently and accurately take their measure; to remain open to the complex, often mysterious ways that pain can unmake but also remake the self.
Steines first discovers a taste for pain when a dungeon client asks her if he can hit her in the face in exchange for money. She is game. He punches her in the jaw “so hard and fast I ceased to exist as the same collection of matter I had been just the previous instant,” she writes. “There was a great crack of deafening whiteblankness […] and [a] shuffling stagger that gave way to buckled knees […] with sweat everywhere and salted metal in the mouth and a flat clean peace that was the best and quietest moment I’d yet experienced.”
Pain, for Steines, works a kind of transformative alchemy in the flesh. She compares the feeling to having her body turned into a “tuning fork,” through which she is “able to both occupy and depart myself in a way that is more compelling than perhaps any other human experience I know.” In writing of her relationship with Dean, the artist-welder with whom she first routinely engages in violent sex, she observes, “What I liked was endurance: the slow violence of accumulation, time and discomfort building upward and outward and showing me the spaces in myself past where I thought I ended […] I found the edges of myself, the only parts I cared to know back then.” The physical beatings are meant to fill a spiritual gap—something she finds not only in sexualized violence, but in endurance sports. In another suite of chapters devoted to her addiction to long-distance running, entitled “Sick Gainz,” Steines describes how running sets her body ablaze in a flame of exhaustion, pain, serotonin, and norepinephrine that crescendos into something like bliss: “Disassociation is a magical space, like a dream,” she writes of this altered state. “You cannot stay in it forever, but it has a feeling of timelessness, of being suspended, numb and content. It is a state I imagine resembles, in many ways, true peace, except that it’s probably killing you.”
Steines’s experience scrambles our received moral truisms about pain and violence. What she is seeking—and largely getting— from pain is peace, or release from a worse pain, what she calls the “bondage of self.” When her being “shatters” with the crack of a fist, when a camel-whip cuts into her flesh to reveal, in a flash of illumination, a piece of herself “past where I thought I ended,” she feels a diminishment of self that is also—uncomfortably, perhaps, but indisputably—an enlightenment. Over the course of these essays, Steines gives a merciless thick description of how pain functioned for her as, among other things, an instrument of self-discovery. That these moments of spiritual expansion were often delivered via violent relationships—ones where the line between consent and non-consent was murky at best, ones where she often feared she might die—is certainly relevant to note. But it in no way amounts to an argument against these moments’ revelatory force.
In a key chapter entitled “A Very Brutal Game,” Steines attempts to push against reductive accounts that classify all sexualized violence as abuse. “My own receipt of violence came in several overlapping categories,” she explains: “violence I explicitly sought, consented to, and relished; violence I consented to by accepting affection or payment in return for it,” and finally, “violence that I did not want, enjoy, or consent to.” These overlaps are avowedly confounding, and she admits to having asked herself “more than once with genuine confusion,” whether she was “being satisfied or abused.” Yet she insists that to reduce these discrete forms of violence to the same thing is as sloppy as it is dishonest. “Violences are as different from each other as kisses are,” she writes, and “one variety of violence does not necessarily inform another.” As with all sexual acts, “an act of violence is only a signifier, and what is signified is determined by context and dynamic.” Ultimately, Steines argues that not all cognitive dissonance is hypocrisy, and demanding purity tests—either/or—negates the very real experience of ambivalence that rings most true for her: both/and.
Steines sympathizes with the impulse to simplify the complicated nature of touch, to say unequivocally that “gentle touch is the only ethical touch.” “For many people who are harmed at the hands of others who abuse power and violence, it is safer and better, and at times necessary, to dismiss roughness altogether,” she concedes. To err on the side of caution ensures blanket protection against unwanted touch and, more importantly, abusive touch—and this is in many ways a noble goal. And yet, Steines argues, to give in to this temptation is not just an intellectual but an ethical failure, a refusal to acknowledge, and empathize with, the complexity and outright ambivalence that characterizes so much of human experience.
Steines admits, at the end of her saga that she has “suffered far more than was necessary” in the course of her three-and-some decades on earth. “There were so many easier ways to arrive” at the place she now calls home, she reflects almost wistfully in the penultimate chapter. And yet, she admits, “I regret nothing. I would cash back not one of the tears or lost moments that have deposited me here, none of them, the worst and the best inextricable from each other.” When asked why she spent much of her life seeking out violence, she avows it a mystery. She has no answers—“only observations in my body.” These observations—spare yet beautifully wrought, unflinching, stripped of judgment—are Steines’s gift to the reader in Brutalities. In an age increasingly menaced by the panicked pull of moral absolutes and lock-step ideological conformity, it is a gift from which we have much to learn.