THE AUTOBIOGRAPHY OF AN OBSESSION
A Review of THE ARMED ROBBERY ORGASM: A Lovemap Autobiography of Masochism by Ronald W. Keyes and John Money
Buffalo: Prometheus Books
Review Copyright © 1993 by William A. Henkin
Originally published in Spectator
The great importance of this remarkable autobiography is that it clearly demonstrates and describes the debilitating effects of sexual masochism as a real problem of both psychology and bio-chemistry. In doing so it enables anyone who has an interest in the subject to discern how this painful experience is related to, yet critically different from, the pleasure some people find as the recipients of intense sensation in Erotic Power Play, more commonly known as consensual sadomasochism or SM. The danger inherent in the book's publication, of course, is that some uninformed or malificent politician will fail or refuse to see the differences, assert that the two practices are the same or at least equal, and on the basis of Ronald Keyes's narrative, seek to make new medical and legal inroads into all Americans' freedom of sexual expression.
From the beginning, Ronald W. Keyes was a boy with a serious set of problems. He was the youngest of four children a fifth was born "many years later" but this circumstance of his birth was not problematic by itself; the circumstantial problem was, rather, that because his father was overseas when he was born, fighting in World War II, Keyes's early care was left to his mother and older siblings.
Keyes's mother, by his account, was abusive in the extreme: she beat him frequently and viciously, on his thighs, his genitals, and especially on his buttocks, using her hands, belts, electric cords, and sticks; she screamed at him for any reason or none at all, blamed him for her miseries, scolded him for affectionately kissing his playmate when they were both three years old, starved him sometimes and compelled him to eat foods he hated at others, threatened to burn him with a hot iron, forced enemas on him, and when she wasn't around she turned him over to one of his sisters who emulated the mother and ordered Keyes around and "beat me as though I were her child to punish."
Keyes's mother apparently had severe problems of her own Keyes thinks her untreated manic-depression was caused by the abuse she had from her father as a girl but it seems Keyes's father was no great shakes either. When he returned from the war he abandoned his family for a younger woman with whom he fathered two more children, returned to impregnate Keyes's mother with her late-born fifth, and abandoned the family again. A man of stunning mental density, if Keyes is to be believed, Keyes, Sr. with his son serving several concurrent ten-year prison terms for armed robbery "suggests forgetting the past."
From an early age, Keyes learned to eroticize pain inflicted on his buttocks and genitals. When he was beaten his penis became erect; soon after, he felt suffused with a warm glow, and his agony was transformed into masochistic bliss. He also eroticized vulvas, perhaps for the reasons he ascribes in this book, so as he grew older his sexual fantasies particularly embraced the sight as well as the feel of a red and welted ass, and the sight as well as the smell of female genitals.
Keyes grew up a social cripple, knowing virtually nothing about how to interact emotionally with other human beings. Also, almost oddly, he knew nothing about sexuality apart from what went on in his own unusual but singularly limited mind. In school his peers picked on him, as children will do to age-mates who don't fit in, until he discovered weight-lifting and became both muscular and attractive to girls.
Despite his body-building Keyes was never a fighter, but neither was he a fucker in his youth. Nearly all adolescent boys walk around with relentless erections that seem to command their lives for a couple of years, but Keyes's hard-ons never seemed to go away completely. Since, moreover, they demanded attention he was unable to deny them, he masturbated repeatedly even though doing so did not necessarily afford him much relief. Yet, as girls became sexually suggestive with him one going so far as to follow him into the art supply room at school to proposition him, another trying to seduce him in a church pew he simply did not know how to respond. His outcast status in school was reified as a result, and his intense masochistic masturbations became increasingly important. For awhile his fantasy life included cross-dressing in his mother's clothes, then spanking not himself, but the girl he saw in the mirror.
A stint in the army did little for Keyes except introduce him to the pleasures and problems of dealing with prostitutes, which he enjoyed, and give him a brief affair with Christianity, which he did not. And while he was in the army he had an experience that almost united his sexuality and his spirituality:
One day ... I took a walk in a nearby wooded area. I sought God's help in resisting the foreboding ritual of my own masochized lovemap.... Inanimate objects seemed animate, especially the sticks on the trees.
My interior and exterior monologue sounded the word no! I imagined myself being whipped with a stick, and my erect penis swelled according. Newly devised scenes of female buttocks were extended for a spanking on my mental stage. My God failed me.
Kneeling under the trees, I released my swollen penis. Mysteriously, my fingers grasped a sturdy stick to beat my buttocks. With my pants down to my knees, which were bent on the dry leaves, I commenced whipping my bare buttocks.... I strained to strike my buttock flesh as harshly as my arm would allow.... I was angry with myself because my arm didn't strike my red rump fiercely enough....
My mind and body achieved an ultimate high. My entire organism was stupefied. I wanted my euphoria to prevail forever.... I couldn't believe that something so distorted could feel so good. My body fell onto the leaves in a state of orgasmic frenzy. Afterward those who spoke with me thought that I had had a divine experience....
After serving his time in the army Keyes enrolled in a seminary where he discovered that he was not the only Christian who had sexual thoughts and masturbated. Still, he didn't think he was supposed to do that. "I was an outstanding Christian externally, but internally I failed. Therefore, I departed from the seminary, and disengaged from the Christianized concept of God."
Next, Keyes became a successful traveling salesman. The money he earned allowed him all the trappings of the American dream: "After four years of marriage, I owned a house, two cars, and used twenty credit cards. My son was healthy and growing fast. We fit the appearance of an ideal American family, but it was appearance only...." He began to self-medicate in earnest with alcohol and pills to numb himself against the erotic torments he suffered.
As a salesman, Keyes says, he learned to communicate quite well, especially with women. During his off hours he patronized bars in the Baltimore Block, an area in Baltimore, Maryland frequented by sex workers. He became the lover of one prostitute who "liked me and needed my money," and carried on this weekly clandestine affair for more than a year while his wife praised their fine marital sexual relationship to her friends. Keyes did love his wife, whom he could not spank, but he lusted after his lover, whom he could, and whose images fueled his matrimonial sex. Finally, lust won out.He left his family for what turned out to be a two-year tryst.
Keyes's first major extra-marital affair was one highlight of his submersion into the erotic underworld for which he seems to think he was fore-ordained: "I'm the survivor of an error in my genetic code, a vandalized lovemap, social miscasting, a misguided trial, and a senseless prison term." But it was by no means the greatest. By far the most important of those that were still on his horizon was the affair he had with a stripper named Connie.
In January, 1983, Keyes was hanging out at The 2 O'Clock Club in Baltimore's Block, chatting with Denise, one of his episodic bed partners, when he saw the woman of his dreams. He asked Denise to introduce them and she complied, bringing Connie to his apartment after work, then leaving the two of them alone. Denise had told Connie that Keyes would not seek to have intercourse, so Connie asked Keyes what he wanted. He said he wanted her to act the part of his dominatrix.
Connie and Keyes were a match. She had no problem at all with his request. Instead, erotically aroused herself by his scenario, she had him strip, handcuffed him, forced him to his knees, teased him with the sight of her naked vulva, spanked him till her arm was exhausted, and took over his erotic life.
She made it quite clear that she owned me from that night onward.... With a commanding, but quite feminine voice, Connie told me that she'd call the next day. Then, she left me with a raging hard-on. Connie had forbidden me to masturbate with anyone in mind except her. In fact, I couldn't think of any woman except her.... By the time I climbed out of bed the next morning, I'd achieved about ten orgasms.
In addition to the usual modes, Keyes was also adept at achieving his orgasms without physical touch, but only staring at Connie's vulva. As she exerted more and more dominion over Keyes's life Connie not only beat his ass and cock and balls with a belt or a folded leather strap whenver she chose to do so, she also decided whether, when, and with whose image he might masturbate. After a few months Connie disappeared and Keyes returned to prowling the Block, picking up women on whom he spent hundreds of dollars at a time for the privilege of seeing their bodies, even though his escapades prevented him from earning much of a living at the time.
One night while he was alone, Connie used her key to re-enter his home and his life, demanding money for drugs. He refused.
"OK, if you won't do it the easy way, I'll make you do it the hard way," Connie said, cruelly and sadistically. "Now, give me your belt and take your pants off."
If I could have said no to her I would have. If I had possessed the choice of resistance, I would have exercised it. I found my flesh to be resistant to my mind. Although Connie weighed only 105 pounds, standing only five feet and one inch tall, she ruled me as though she were a giant. Therefore, at forty years of age, verging on monetary ruin, I handed my belt to Connie.
"I'm going to teach you not to refuse what I want," she snarled menacingly, as she ordered me to bend over the front of my couch. "Keep your hands off your dick or I'll beat that too."
Raising the leather belt high, she lashed my bare buttocks with all of her strength. I submitted to her like a naughty child. I was without volition. The stinging from the belt pierced my flesh and permeated every cell of my organism. My own masochism made me endure her angered battering of my buttocks. And I couldn't stop it.
Connie had a need for money, and a lust to acquire it in specific ways. After he demonstrated his willingness to support her by returning to sales and bringing home large sums of cash, she ordered her slave to be the strong-arm in a series of robberies. As incentive, she offered herself: sometimes for intercourse, sometimes as his minister of pain, but always as the partner in command of their relationship what Keyes repeatedly calls his "goddess of lust." The more they robbed, the more aroused Connie was; the more aroused she was, the more she beat Keyes; and the more she beat him, the more committed he became to her.
Then, abruptly, after they had successfully pulled off two dozen robberies, Connie got bored. She was no longer interested in being Keyes's dominatrix. She was no longer interested in being sexual with him at all. She was no longer interested in armed robbery. She went to the police and turned them both in.
Keyes was convicted on a number of counts and went to prison, where he lost his consuming erotic needs for a year and learned that felons in jail lie around improving the very scripts that brought them there in the first place, and rehearsing ways to act them out more successfully.
In prison that's what inmates do. They fuck in their brains.... If an inmate's impetus to lust is dominating his female partner, he'll rehearse that to perfection on his mind's stage. If an inmate's lust is spurred by raping and murdering little boys, prison will allow him to refine that paraphilic expression. If the inmate's rehearsal pictures are of his watching his wife being copulated by other men, then that's what he'll practice again when he is released. But he'll have the advantage of leisurely rehearsal of his incarcerated orgasms.
During his prison tenure Keyes tried, much to his credit, to learn what his underlying problems were.The psychologist Gregory Lehne led him, by way of the Johns Hopkins University Sexual Disorders Clinic, into the hands of John Money, Ph.D., Professor Emeritus of Medical Psychology and then known as one of the foremost sexologists of his generation. Through Money, Keyes undertook therapeutic treatment for bipolar disorder (manic-depression) and the paraphilia of sexual masochism; he also began to study sexology, and eventually to write this volume. This sequence of events has its upside and its down.
The Armed Robbery Orgasm is a victim's book, written from a victim's perspective and with a victim's mentality. For Keyes, everybody else is always at fault particularly his parents and siblings, but society as well and he is the helpless gull of their endless failings.
Keyes's childhood was wretched, no doubt, and the scars it left him may never be healed. Yet, in trying to come to grips with his history, nowhere does he even begin to see how he might have had some responsibility for his sexual or criminal behavior. In fact, at various places in his narrative he positively rues having missed the opportunity to bed yet another pretty woman, or to take advantage of some other lusty opportunity; for instance:
I was introduced to three of Nora's sisters. My lustfulness was aroused by two of them, and we shared genital sex. The third sister's age and physique matched my lovemap, but her demeanor was contrary to it. It was an unrequited love, and alas one I'll always regret.
Though Keyes observes that his grandparents were pretty messed up themselves and abused their own children, he fails to draw even the simplest inferences of multi-generational abuse from what he observes: he merely blames his parents for raising him poorly, and blames them and others for failing to understand and support him. While no one seems to have been harmed by Keyes's' position but himself and his robbery victims, his blindered vision prevents him from moving past victim status to become what people in the recovery movement call a survivor. This failing is, I think, a consequence of his narrow reading, of his limited understanding, and mostly of his thinly veiled regurgitation of his mentor's theories.
John Money, who wrote the Foreword to this book and for some reason has credit as its co-author, is a brilliant psycho-sexual theorist. Though I have differences with some of his beliefs and attitudes, I have none with the elegance with which he states his propositions, or with his underlying desire to de-stigmatize sexual variation so that sexological science may have, as he says in his foreword to The Armed Robbery Orgasm, "access to information that will bring about fuller understanding of human sexuality and eroticism as well as the great diversity of its manifestations." Money thinks, for instance, that imprisoning or hospitalizing people for their erotic tastes is a waste of time, money, and human resources, and is sign of malign and foolish prejudice; how can I disagree?
But reading Keyes's one-paragraph versions of ideas Money has explored in depth in his own numerous volumes, or seeing Money's concepts parroted back with little of their philosophical or psychodynamic complexity, made some of the more abstract portions of this book distasteful reading for me especially since they are presented in the inflated langauage and painfully alliterative prose of a late-blooming, self-taught sexological poet:
As our paraphilic lust eventually waned, there was an insufficient residual lovebond to sustain our partnership.
[S]he beat my buttocks without mercy. She chased me into the bedroom with a battering of baleful blows.
Connie rewarded me with the taste of her titillating flesh.
Deep into Connie's vaginal vise I sunk my protruding penis.
We spent about six hours swiving and quimming....
At the same time, while much of this is pretty purple writing for the sensibility of a former English professor, the prose has the sort of ghastly charm that results from the author simply telling his own devastating true story. Like grainy documentaries of presidents being shot or motorists being beaten by police, taken by amateurs who just happened to be on the scene at the moment, The Armed Robbery Orgasm has an authenticity that makes quibbles such as mine about the author's writing style almost pretentious.
This book is important for something other than its strictly literary merit. It exposes a genuine psycho-sexual problem similar to a severe personality disorder, complete with a highly plausible etiology, involving significantly distorted brain chemistry that appears to have caused or resulted from altered glandular activity, in conjunction with a clinical mood problem (manic-depression), dissociative fugues, and an otherwise intelligent and accomplished individual's loss of control over his own life with grave consequences.
Out in the world of erotic sadomasochism, where people join clubs and support groups, and attend classes to improve their knowledge and their skills, we like to believe the life that Ronald Keyes lived is different in kind from ours. We try or claim to live by the phrase, "Safe, sane, non-exploitive, and consensual," and we know that a life such as Keyes's is none of these. But I read in the literature, I hear in my office, and I see on my own mental TV screen the places where the lives Keyes and Connie lived are different not in kind but in degree from the lives of hundreds of people I know, and millions I only know of: they did in real life what others do in the more limited theatres of their fantasies, or as carefully, safely, consensually negotiated activities.
There need be no shame in the sexual diversity that encompasses fantasies as extreme as the ones Keyes and Connie played out, or related activities that do not impinge on people's abilities to love, work, and grow in their lives. The critical differences between Keyes's and Connie's lives and those of most modern American leatherfolk are, first, the places on the spectrum of desire where they are comfortable; and, second, an individual's willingness to take responsibility for what happens in her or his life, in the mind and heart as well as in external circumstances.
Keyes experienced the hypomanic highs that are legendary among people with bipolar disorders, and he seems to have experienced repeatedly the masochistic trance of a serious endorphin high. But he did not enjoy his life, he did not enjoy his sexuality, he was unable to love the people he lusted after or lust after the people he loved and he could not prevent his lust from dominating and eventually ruining his life.
Was the cause psychodynamic, based in his awful, abused childhood? Was it bio-chemical, based in some excess of hormone? Was it genetic, based in some variant brain structure? Was it some trick of Lou Sheldon's God? No one knows. The Armed Robbery Orgasm concerns a far different experience from the good time people in the SM communities talk about, but the difference is like the difference between an evening walk on the beach at sunset, and a week-long forced military march across hostile terrain. The process of walking is the same; the nature of the walk is altogether different.
The danger, the problem, the difficulty for Keyes lay not in what he wanted or did, but in how he chose or seemed not to be able to choose to do it.
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