MASOCHISM

PERSPECTIVE:

MASOCHISM

One artist on a fantasy that caused a decade of self-inflicted pain.

BY MIEKE MARPLE / PORTRAIT BY LOGAN WHITE

I made a man I was in love with into a sadist. He wasn’t really a sadist. He didn’t flog or beat people. Didn’t piss in anyone’s mouth. Didn’t derive pleasure from other people’s pain or humiliation. Still, for 10 years, he tortured me—or, rather, I tortured myself and blamed it on him. I martyred myself for him, sacrificed my greatest joys and pleasures for him—and he never even really knew it. His name was Mark. Is Mark. We never slept together or even kissed. We were never an item. Yet, we were intimate. While housesitting for him, I’d cover myself in his sheets, reading books from his library, touching things he had touched less than 24 hours before. At the gym, he’d stand behind me, spotting me, watching milky beads of sweat roll from my armpits as I squatted 135-pound weights. There were so many moments like those. Ten years of them. Enough to feel as good as man and wife. Or, rather, master and submissive. With him forever withholding, and me forever beseeching. At least, inside my head.

And how painful that realization is: that it was all in my head. That the bondage I kept myself in, the sacrifices I made, the things I did just to hear the words “good girl”—were forced on me by no one but myself. I want to blame Mark for so much of the pain. I want to blame him for never breaking the spell, for keeping a pane of glass between us that perpetually kept me on desire’s edge—like the moment before a first kiss, brutally stretched out for a decade. But it was all me. I was a dog begging for a treat from a phantom master—a dog who, for 10 years, didn’t realize she could simply stand up and get it for herself.

It all started when I became Mark’s studio assistant at age 19. I had braces and hair dyed blonde with cheap dye from CVS. Oh, and wore a lot of pink. And Abercrombie. Embarrassing, I know. But true. Anyway, I was good at drawing. Better than good. At 19, I could make drawings as photorealistic as those of Chuck Close. Realer than reality. And that was what Mark needed. A master renderer. So I was his girl. Well, one of a few. He had a number of studio assistants helping him with his art, which were large-scale graphite drawings made from projections of black and white photos. All the source photos were of various straight male things: Tall ships. Car engines. Political conventions. New Yorker cartoons. Mark would turn these photos into old-fashioned slides and then project them onto large rolls of paper stapled to his studio wall. Then we, his staff, would render them using the whole spectrum of Faber Castell pencils—from charcoal-ish 6B to hair-line light 6H—oftentimes spending a month or more on a single 6-foot-tall work.

Mark was a conceptual artist. He had one degree in Interdisciplinary Studies and another in Semiotics (a word I’d never heard before meeting him). At the precocious age of 30, he’d already had a solo museum show and had been to rehab, which was when I started working for him. He wore thick-rimmed glasses, smoked cigarettes day and night, and wore jeans with a white t-shirt—a machismo uniform accented by the Americana tattoos on his forearms. I fell in love with Mark quickly. I loved him because he was smart and acerbic, pretentious and gritty. Because he was an Ivy League graduate and a recovering addict. He was the successful conceptual artist of my dreams. But, mostly, I loved him because he singled me out, taking an interest in me over the other assistants, asking me about my family, my feelings, my ambitions—something no adult had ever asked me before. He took me out on dates—or what felt like dates to a college sophomore. A taping of Jeopardy. Art exhibitions. Dinner.

An audio recording of Marple reading "MASOCHISM".

And this is where it gets murky. For though Mark never technically crossed a professional boundary, though he never touched my hand or knee, never hugged me for a second too long (he was, as you can probably imagine, a stiff and serious man), we became emotionally enmeshed in a way that wasn’t quite kosher—particularly given the impressionability of my age. I became his confidant; he, mine. And the emotional intimacy of this would send me—an emotionally starved 19-year-old girl—on a 10-year-long tailspin. Did he know that his attentions would have a decade-long effect on me? Did he know they entered me in a way I had never been entered before? Probing me and leaving me bare? I’m pretty sure that he did, subconsciously.

And while not a true sadist, Mark—as you have probably guessed—was no angel either. His standards were very high, very harsh. Very much those of a successful conceptual white male artist. In his studio, when we weren’t listening to NPR, we listened to books-on-tape by John Updike, Phillip Roth or Don DeLillo. He openly told artists whose work he hated—work that was colorful or abstract or lacked obvious politics—that they were bad artists. That they should just give up. And though he was more delicate with me about my student artwork, I knew what his brain was capable of. I knew—or I thought I knew—the unspoken thoughts in his head. I vowed to never be the target of them. To avoid even a whiff of derision, I quickly adjusted myself to Mark’s tastes. When, for example, he mentioned hating flip-flops, I never wore flip-flops again. When he suggested getting an internship at a contemporary art gallery, I got one the next week. Whatever he said, even in passing, I clung to like the word of God—distancing or attaching myself to people, things, even career paths accordingly. By the time I graduated college, I no longer dyed my hair blonde. Instead, I wore all black. I subscribed to October—an art history journal so esoteric and pompous it makes The Paris Review look like People magazine. And, most notably, I stopped making art.

You see, I wanted to become the person I thought he wanted me to be: a heavyweight art dealer who, one day, would work side-by-side with him, living only to elevate his career, never carrying a whim or creative fancy of her own. And if I did that—became that person, that glorious servant—I was certain I would win more than just his approval. I would win his heart. He would grab my hand, pull me in close and give me one long kiss. Of course, he never once suggested this. It was a fabricated deal. An imaginary carrot—invented solely by me. But that didn’t matter. My belief system was such that Mark didn’t need to verbalize anything for me to feel certain of the deal’s existence. For it wasn’t so much a deal between us as much as a way of the world—at least, according to the laws inside my head. Career points would lead to romantic ones. Because love was highly conditional.

So, no. Mark is not to blame for my masochism. He was merely the convenient vehicle—with his white male pretentious and dry drunk workaholism—by which to secretly abuse myself. And abuse myself I did. At 25, I stopped working for Mark and interning for others, and became co-owner of my own contemporary art gallery—a space that would become my personal deprivation dungeon. For it, I deprived myself of artmaking. Of old friends. Of any semblance of normal 20-something-year-old life. Of life period. Not that the gallery or anyone else asked this of me. And, as my art dealer star rose, I circled Mark like a hawk, dating artist and collector friends of his five-to-ten years his senior. In doing so, I thought I was flaunting my supreme date-ability. I thought I was burning out the image in his head of me as a naive 19-year-old girl in a pink Abercrombie dress, and replacing it with one of a woman he’d like to take home and kiss until our lips turned raw. In retrospect, however, all I was doing was guaranteeing my loneliness. For no matter what relationship I was in, my inner eye was always turned elsewhere. Forever glancing back at my imaginary master.

On the surface, Mark and I behaved like peers during this period. We went to the gym together. Talked about our love lives. Shared art world gossip. Supported each other professionally. We watched each other grow and change, change and grow. Mark got Lasik, stopped smoking, bought a house, got married. I went from being an art world nobody to an art world somebody with her own assistants. And yet, as much as things seemed to change, deep inside, I hadn’t changed at all. For all my success, in my heart, I was still the same 19-year-old with braces who’d happily draw for 8 hours straight, crouched down on the dirty, graphite-dusted ground, listening to Rabbit, Run if it would make Mark happy, if it would bring him success.

Then, around my 30th birthday, something cracked. I realized that all the love and fulfillment I imagined to be on the other side of my efforts was a horizon line I’d never reach. No matter how far I walked. No matter how much I achieved or sacrificed. Furthermore, I realized that the creative self I’d renounced was too great a part of me to give up in exchange for this illusory deal. And this ultimate realization—that the repression of my poetic impulses had all been (and would always be) for naught—caused me so much pain that my belief system broke. And the break was messy. Believe me. I wish it weren’t. But it was. My obsession with Mark switched to one with my own employee. Whom I did kiss. Whom I did confess my love to. Whom I did, quite problematically, all the things with that Mark never did with me. I’m not sure what my subconscious was thinking. That I was balancing the karmic scales? That I was filling up the deprivation hole I blamed Mark for leaving inside me? That by graduating from masochist to a sadist, I was freeing myself from his grip—a grip that was actually my own?

I suppose, in a very unideal way, I did free myself. For in placing myself in Mark’s shoes and taking steps he himself had never taken—I began to see just how deluded my prior thinking had been. I began to see that what had driven me this whole time was not the promise of Mark’s kiss—but his distance. It was not what lay on the other side of the pane of glass—but the glass itself. A frosted veneer put there not by him—but by me. Furthermore, I realized, on a visceral level, that crossing professional boundaries did not fulfill anyone. It only passed the pain buck down, allowing it to spread like a virus while taking me even further away from myself.

By the time I turned 31, I left my gallery business, moved away and joined a 12-step program for sex and love addiction. The further I got into recovery, the less and less I talked to Mark and the more and more I made art. Once I started drawing for myself, I couldn’t believe I’d ever gone so long without it—let alone 10 years. How—oh, how—had I deprived myself of this fundamental pleasure? Making art was the joy of my life. It offered me that in-the-moment bliss of creating something with no obvious agenda other than helping me see myself better. And it was through making art that, in my 30s, I discovered my true likes and dislikes, my true passions and desires. It was where I discovered myself. And so much of what I drew and painted during this time, Mark would have hated. It was girly, colorful, not especially conceptual or labor-intensive. It was about flowers, spirituality, Tarot. But I no longer cared what Mark or, on a deep level, anyone else thought. I let go of my masochistic impulse to remain silently kneeling on a bed of my own needles.

And what about Mark? What happened to him? He got divorced, moved studio buildings, got a girlfriend. He still has assistants working for him though his work isn’t as hot as it used to be. Still, he seems to me to be doing okay. It wasn’t until he recently joined Instagram and started obsessively posting that I suspected him to be going through anything resembling a crisis—a crisis that instantly impinged on my own serenity. For, in addition to recalling things I’d said or shows we’d put on together back when I was a star dealer and he a star artist, he also started liking all of my posts. All of my rainbow-colored, art-filled posts. “Show looks great!” he even wrote on one. To which my inner masochist violently re-awoke. Obsessive thoughts flooded my brain. Was this the chess move I’d needed to make this whole time? Ignoring him and flaunting his standards for four plus years? Was this the way to finally earn his love?

My thinking was reckless. I knew, intellectually, that this wasn’t Chapter 45 of a 15-year love saga. Mark wasn’t the romantic protagonist of my fantasized movie-life. He wasn’t a sadist who learns to love again—he wasn’t a sadist, period. His presence was merely a bell associated with that old felt sense of mine—that need to isolate from true intimacy by conjuring up imaginary relationships defined by imaginary withholding and denial—and I was Pavlov’s dog.

And yet, when my sponsor suggested blocking him, I became defensive. “I’m not ready to do that yet,” I told her with more defiance than ever before. “I just want to have a conversation with him, explaining my need for space,” I told her. But I was grasping—trying to make myself look reasonable, rational. Trying to convince myself that what I was saying was true, when I knew that it wasn’t. When I knew that the real truth was I didn’t want to give up my self-sadism. I didn’t want to stop cutting myself on that pane of glass. Because some part of me simply didn’t believe anything else could feel as good or as real. Except that a bigger part of me knew that it could, because it already had. And so, with a heavy heart, I blocked his profile. I hope he knows that it’s not about him.