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Author Daniel Bergner Explores Erotic Longings

Author Daniel Bergner has written about violent convicts serving life without parole at Louisiana's Angola Prison and about war in Sierra Leone.

In his new book, The Other Side of Desire, Bergner explores paraphilia: erotic drives that fall well outside normal zones.

Bergner calls them "the far realms" of lust and longing. For Bergner, exploring this world meant setting aside his own judgments.

"The erotic is this profound, extremely powerful force within us," Bergner tells NPR's Melissa Block. "No matter what we do with it — tamp it down, or push it to the side, or live with it consciously every day — it's there. And I wanted to be inside of that. I wanted to immerse myself in it. And that did mean at times letting go of moral codes in the hope of a kind of erotic vision."

The first person Bergner explores is Jacob Miller — a name made up to protect his identity — who has an extreme foot fetish. Miller would be both thrilled and tortured just to hear the word "foot," even in the context of a weather report or talking about the square footage of a home. Bergner says it's a story that "should be lighthearted," but it's "self-devouring and tragic" because of Miller's shame of being at odds with the norms of the culture.

"For me, his story reflected on the way all of us — all of our erotic longings — come up against cultural norms and codes and restraints," Bergner says.

But because of Miller's extreme case, and because he's tormented by his difference, he sees a well-known psychiatrist who specializes in sexual desires. Fred Berlin chemically treats Miller to counter the desires. Bergner says he finds this sad.

"I very, very much respect Dr. Berlin, he's an incredibly compassionate, heroic psychiatrist who has dealt with all sorts of sexual desires. But I felt like there was a hesitance to allow Jacob to be Jacob erotically. And especially because his drive was harmless, I thought, well, maybe take away the shame and allow Jacob to explore his sexuality and see where that might lead," Bergner says.

Another character Bergner explores is Roy, who was convicted of fondling his stepdaughter, who was 12 years old when the abuse started. Bergner says it's the story that "brought morality the most to the fore."

When Bergner was writing the chapter, his own daughter was 12 years old, which created a "really intense and troubling juxtaposition," he says.

"Roy was on, in a sense, his own journey of introspection, of trying to figure out how this had happened to him," Bergner says. "He'd had no prior record; in fact he's had no reoffenses since. He was trying to burrow deep. I wanted to go there with him."

Bergner says he did talk with the victim's parents about the "troubling story."

What Bergner found especially troubling, he says, was that Roy was smitten with the girl in a "kind of Lolita-type way" and was making "overt, shocking propositions to her over the Internet." But everyone around him was testifying that he's an "upstanding, caring and crime-free man."

Bergner also went to Roy's treatment group for a year, and his therapist insisted that Roy's level of sexual desire, even when tested in labs, wasn't aberrant.

"It wasn't his desire that was aberrant, it was his loss of control; it was his stepping over the line and acting that made him criminal," Bergner says.

But Bergner says he is not trying to excuse Roy's behavior.

"And yet, in order to do my job, I had to keep my mind open to his exploration," Bergner says. "Was there an inclination on my part to condemn him? Yes. But that inclination could never get me to understanding, and I really wanted to reach that point of understanding with all of my characters.

Bergner says he thinks he did understand what was going on in Roy's mind at the time.

"But I think it's a long, long leap in terms of what's going on his mind and actually making the propositions that he did, touching his victim in the way that he did. That's a distance that I may not fully be able to cross," Bergner says.

Ultimately, Bergner says the outcome of his book — with the exception of Roy — was that he thinks people and culture impose too many constraints on desires.

"I hope there might not have to be so many desires we can't bear," he says. The other stories are about "lust that really can be fulfilled and can really lead people to places that I think are profound and that sort of spark something — either self-discovery or a real deep connection between people — to look at ourselves in a way that might reveal something we wouldn't otherwise be able to see."

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