While attempting to enter into the midnight silence with my pipe and a copy of Don DeLillo’s White Noise on the community bench in front of my apartment complex, a former student of mine greeted me as he walked outside. He has recently become friends with a couple who lives in the complex and had been visiting with the couple earlier that night. As far as raw intelligence goes, this young man is probably the smartest student I have ever had. He was (and I am sure could still be) one of those students whom teachers simultaneously dread and enjoy having in their classes. Namely, with him I had to stay alert, realizing that if I made a lazy, thoughtless comment, he would catch it. Yet, I could also rest assured that I could rely upon him for interesting and helpful class discussion. I casually asked (to beware of idle curiosity is the lesson, I suppose) how he had come to know my neighbors. He responded by asking me if I wanted to know the true story or the socially acceptable version. Not expecting anything too bizarre, I flippantly told him that I would not judge him if he told me the truth. [Digression/confession: first, that was not true, despite my best intentions. Upon telling me the “true story,” I did immediately judge him…and everybody involved…and my modestly sized city…and all of modern life. Besides, can we ever not judge—at least, to a certain degree? Second, why should we always feel compelled—well, I do, anyway—to assure friends and even casual acquaintances that we are willing to create judgment-free zones in which they can park their frequently obnoxious vehicles?] He told me that they had all met in a BSM group. Not knowing how to unpack this acronym, I assumed that he must have been referring to a Dungeons & Dragons/Magic the Gathering type of association, which nicely conformed to the impression that I had been carrying, until that night, of my neighbors.
A little later, my idle curiosity won out again, and I asked him to tell me what a BSM group is. Oh, bondage-sadomasochism—in case you need to know. Now, I do not care to say much more in regard to my erstwhile student, but this did surprise me concerning my neighbors. From all appearances, this is your typical modern couple: quiet, unassuming, and agreeable. They are married (which is more than can be said about most young cohabitating couples), and they both work. In my few conversations with them, they have always been pleasant and well-spoken. To my knowledge, they have never thrown any wild parties that have disturbed their neighbors or have warranted a call to the cops. (And, no, I have never heard the tell-tale lashes of whips or the rattling of chains.) They are, literally, the friendly family across the hall.
Is this it? Has it all come down to this? The Fifty Shades of Grey-ization of America? Flannery O’Connor once wrote that the reason why Southerners write so frequently about freaks is because they are still able to recognize one. (Exact quote not needed because the four or five people who read this blog probably know the quote.) Implicit in this indirect quote is the idea that a norm was once widely acknowledged against which to contrast and identify deviant behavior. Well, Ms. O’Connor, what is to be said about a country when what was once “freaky” becomes the norm or, at least, an acceptable alternative lifestyle diversion? The violent bear it away? A good man is hard to find? Why do the heathen rage? Judgment day?