Thoughts

My impulse was to absolutely not comment publicly about the Journal’s “Hooked” story. I knew it wouldn’t go away, but I didn’t want to pay one bit of attention to it. I can’t help it. A certain type of “shocking” leaves me weary for better things.

But then some asshole who must be heavily emotionally invested in the story showed up at our Surfrider Shindig. He was there with a couple friends who stopped by to pick up a hoodie and they, the friends, brought up the controversy over the cover. I expressed some understanding that people might be dismayed by it. The guy with them (the asshole) then exploded into a rant about how fucking children are always crashing into his fucking knees and stepping on his fucking feet and their fucking parents don’t do a fucking thing and so fuck all those fucking uptight parents and their fucking children. This was at my family-oriented nonprofit fundraiser, where some of those fucking children and their fucking parents were purchasing raffle tickets about five feet away. The proceeds of which go toward helping ensure clean ocean, beaches, waves, yadda yadda.

You know, stuff that is totally unimportant when compared to the absolute right of assholes to be as rude and offensive to others as they fucking want — we all remember that part in the Bill of Rights, right?

So that resulted in further unintended dialogue regarding the cover image.

And then I absentmindedly read the comments on Eric’s blog following the post in which he praised Susan Cooper’s thoughtful letter to the editor in response to said cover. “Absentmindedly” at first, “appalled” as I went on. Not that I expect much from people who comment on blogs, but jeez, the relationship between the thoughtfulness of Eric’s remarks and the vitriol of the commenters was so skewed – this, finally, was shocking.

After expending so much mental energy on this, I find myself compelled to document my thoughts. This is all from the perspective of a 40-year-old mother of three, former Arcata Eye Scene Editor, a girl who grew up rebellious and shy with a not-completely-outgrown self-destructive streak. I survived my dreary hometown culture by reading alt-weeklies (they were just “weeklies” back then), then moved to a big city, where I kept reading those weeklies and favor them still.

On to the story…

(First of all, if a story is really “shocking,” you shouldn’t need to put it in the subhead.)

It isn’t actually so much about human suspension; if it was, we’d have walked away with a greater understanding of why enough people choose to do it that it’s become an actual scene. Maybe we’d know more about the history of piercing and hanging, be able to see a pattern or at least a trail through human culture. We might still be shocked, disgusted or turned on, but in any case, our emotional reaction would be supported or countered by this greater understanding. Ideally.

What the story is about is how one particular woman spends her evenings getting off on getting attention.

From the start, she’s not particularly trustworthy: according to the reporter, Kat “…says a few things that are frankly hard to swallow.” Her “addiction” to the endorphin rush is also noted, “In fact, she’s become rather addicted to them.” In a change-up from journalistic norms, we also don’t get her last name: “Her dad doesn’t know she does this, and she really doesn’t want him to find out.” (That a third-generation local expects to stay unrecognized after having her image plastered across the county on the cover of a popular weekly with her first name inside also seems, frankly, a bit hard to swallow.)

For Kat, suspension is clearly about the kick: “She got into suspensions because the rush of getting pierced had grown diluted over time. It did the trick: The euphoria she felt after her first few hangings lasted a week or more.”

Sure – the threshold moves and one must seek greater thrills. No lack of examples in the world for that. For some people, they move from pot to coke to heroin. Other surf ever bigger waves or climb more giant mountains. The impulse itself is neither bad nor good; how the response to the impulse manifests is what matters. Some people are clearly of the opinion that having your piercing guy stick fish hooks through your back is an unhealthy method by which to seek thrills; others disagree.

Back to Kat: “My idea of pain might be a little skewed.” Our reporter seems to think so, too, during the fish hook insertion: Kat calls it “relaxing.” Our reporter notes, “Some part of her body, at least, remains more rational.” The implication being, obviously, that her attitude is not rational. To further illustrate, “The truth is that she craves the attention. Exhibitionism is central.” We see the exhibitionism in action even before the actual hanging: “…the opportunity to be seen grabbing a drink at the Shanty with half a pound of fish hooks in her back.”

We are also again treated to Kat sharing how she’s supposedly squeamish — “(Twice she’s passed out at the vet’s office during a canine exam; once she had to be revived with doggy oxygen, she says.)” — showing, again, that not only is what she has to say, “hard to swallow,” but that this tendency toward exhibitionism manifests in more than one way.

Then, the highlight of Kat’s evening. “‘We about ready to do this thingy?’ Kat asks the crowd. They respond with loud whistles and a collective ‘Wooo!’ But they immediately fall silent again. ‘I want some energy,’ Kat says.” So she gets to have a rock star moment without actually having to be a rock star. The suspension is a shortcut to fame, albeit small and brief. To drive home that point, “Kat said she probably wouldn’t do suspensions if she lived in a city or somewhere they were more common. The shock factor is an important part of the performance, she said, because she feeds off the energy of the crowd.”

So, at the end of the story, what do we know about human suspension other than some mechanics about how it’s done, that some people get off on it, and that it may or may not be related in some way or another to a ritual practice by some cultures indigenous to North America? Not much.

But we know a lot about Kat. We know her local history, her job, her volunteer efforts, where she gets pierced, what she looks like, a little bit about her relationship with her dad and that she really, really likes to show off, especially if shock factor is involved. So it seems reasonable to think that she’s incredibly pleased by all the attention.

Her audience grew, at least temporarily, to a far greater number than probably ever would’ve shown up to E2 for a live performance. And the NCJ accomplished exactly what the folks at an “alt”-weekly want: controversy and debate and a zillion comments on blogs and their own website. So everyone wins… except for those of us who are saddened when people inflict pain upon themselves as a way to get attention and those of us who prefer to exit from a story feeling like we’ve been somewhere worth going.

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5 thoughts on “Thoughts”

  1. Thank you Jen. I did make the mistake of not actually reading the article, and I’ll clear that up. But from your reading of the article, it sounds like I will still be left with concerns.

    Most of us have self-destructive impulses in some form or another, which makes adolescence a very dangerous time. I think we have to consider the impacts of our actions and what we put out. Apparently even expressing that thought is oppressive, even if you aren’t proposing laws, bans, or any effort to actually prevent the activity.

    In any case, very nice piece.

  2. Great post, Jen.
    I joined many in being grossed out by that cover – so much so that I did not even bother to read the article. I didn’t think it warranted the 10 minutes or so of my time when surrounded by all the other unread magazines, articles, books. But all the resulting hullaballoo of letters, comments, radio commentary, etc. had me wishing I had read it. But, honestly, after reading your analysis I feel that I’ve gotten all I need to get from that particular week’s Journal story. As one of those who “prefer to exit from a story feeling like we’ve been somewhere worth going” I think I’ll continue to give it a pass.

  3. I thought the story was disgusting, kind of like watching a bum barf in an alley. However, I knew before I read the story that it was going to be gross, based on the cover photo. So I voluntarily put myself through the gross out experience. So I can’t blame the editors.

    On a positive note, I suppose I learned about about some freaks that engage in an activity that I was unaware of. I’m not offended by the story. I’m not damaged by it. But I don’t think it made me a better person, either.

    That edition is now in the recycling bin.

    Hank pushed the limits on this one. I derive great entertainment from reading and listening to the reactions, which are far more interesting than the actual article.

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