Melanie Abrams
Julius Addlesee
Shelley Aikens
A. Aimee
Jeanne Ainslie
Fredrica Alleyn
Rebecca Ambrose
Diane Anderson-Minshall
Laura Antoniou
Janine Ashbless
Lisette Ashton
Gavin Atlas
Danielle Austen
J. P. Beausejour
P.K. Belden
Tina Bell
Jove Belle
Mattilda Bernstein Sycamore
Ronica Black
Candace Blevins
Primula Bond
Lionel Bramble
A. J. Bray
Samantha Brook
Matt Brooks
Zetta Brown
James Buchanan
Louisa Burton
Angela Campion
Angela Caperton
Annabeth Carew
Julia Chambers
Dale Chase
M. Christian
Greta Christina
Valentina Cilescu
Rae Clark
NJ Cole
Christina Crooks
Julius Culdrose
Portia da Costa
Alan Daniels
Angraecus Daniels
Dena De Paulo
Vincent Diamond
Susan DiPlacido
Noelle Douglas-Brown
Hypnotic Dreams
Amanda Earl
Hank Edwards
Jeremy Edwards
Stephen Elliott
Madelynne Ellis
Justine Elyot
Aurelia T. Evans
Lucy Felthouse
Jesse Fox
I. G. Frederick
Simone Freier
Louis Friend
Polly Frost
William Gaius
Bob Genz
Shanna Germain
J. J. Giles
Lesley Gowan
K D Grace
K. D. Grace
Sacchi Green
Ernest Greene
Tamzin Hall
R. E. Hargrave
P. S. Haven
Trebor Healey
Vicki Hendricks
Scott Alexander Hess
Richard Higgins
Julie Hilden
E. M. Hillwood
Amber Hipple
William Holden
Senta Holland
David Holly
Michelle Houston
Debra Hyde
M. E. Hydra
Vina Jackson
Anneke Jacob
Maxim Jakubowski
Kay Jaybee
Ronan Jefferson
Amanda Jilling
SM Johnson
Raven Kaldera
J. P. Kansas
Kevin Killian
D. L. King
Catt Kingsgrave
Kate Kinsey
Geoffrey Knight
Varian Krylov
Vivienne LaFay
Teresa Lamai
Lisa Lane
Randall Lang
James Lear
Amber Lee
Nikko Lee
Tanith Lee
Annabeth Leong
James W. Lewis
Marilyn Jaye Lewis
Ashley Lister
Fiona Locke
Clare London
Scottie Lowe
Simon Lowrie
Catherine Lundoff
Michael T. Luongo
Jay Lygon
Helen E. H. Madden
Nancy Madore
Jodi Malpas
Jeff Mann
Alma Marceau
Sommer Marsden
Gwen Masters
Sean Meriwether
Bridget Midway
I. J. Miller
Madeline Moore
Lucy V. Morgan
Julia Morizawa
David C. Morrow
Walter Mosley
Peggy Munson
Zoe Myonas
Alicia Night Orchid
Craig Odanovich
Cassandra Park
Michael Perkins
Christopher Pierce
Lance Porter
Jack L. Pyke
Devyn Quinn
Cameron Quitain
R. V. Raiment
Shakir Rashaan
Jean Roberta
Paige Roberts
Sam Rosenthal
D. V. Sadero
C Sanchez-Garcia
Lisabet Sarai
R Paul Sardanas
R. Paul Sardanas
Elizabeth Schechter
Erica Scott
Kemble Scott
Mele Shaw
Simon Sheppard
Tom Simple
Talia Skye
Susan St. Aubin
Charlotte Stein
C. Stetson
Chancery Stone
Donna George Storey
Darcy Sweet
Rebecca Symmons
Mitzi Szereto
Cecilia Tan
Lily Temperley
Vinnie Tesla
Claire Thompson
Alexis Trevelyan
Alison Tyler
Gloria Vanderbilt
Vanessa Vaughn
Elissa Wald
Saskia Walker
Kimberly Warner-Cohen
Brian Whitney
Carrie Williams
Peter Wolkoff
T. Martin Woody
Beth Wylde
Daddy X
Lux Zakari
Fiona Zedde
By: Melanie Abrams
Grove Press, Black Cat
ISBN: 0802170471
April 2008

Reviewed By: Lisabet Sarai

For generations, sado-masochism has been characterized as a disorder of the psyche. Those who subscribe to this position view the sexualized desire to inflict or suffer pain as abnormal and unhealthy. Usually, they claim that this desire can be traced to traumatic events in the deviant individual’s past that caused discipline or punishment (as either giver or receiver) to become linked with sexual excitement. No one could possibly want to participate in such bizarre sexual rituals, they reason, without some childhood experience that warped their sexuality into perverse forms.

Nonsense. That has always been my reaction. I’ve found intense pleasure, joy and fulfillment in a BDSM relationship, yet I had the most normal, supportive, loving childhood anyone could ask for. It’s true that I was drawn to submissive scenarios at a very young age. Many practitioners of BDSM will say the same. But I don’t think anyone will find the key to this early attraction in my real world history.

After reading Melanie Abram’s novel Playing, however, I do find myself wondering whether this perspective of kink as pathology might in fact be true for some people. Certainly, Ms Abrams paints a convincing portrait of a woman tortured by her past, seeking momentary release in the punishments inflicted by her dominant lover.

Josie is a smart, attractive young woman, just starting her graduate work in anthropology. She takes a job as live-in nanny to a borderline autistic boy, supposedly to eke out her stipend, but actually because she feels drawn to the boy and his beautiful, vivacious mother. Mary reminds Josie of her own mother, with whom Josie has an extremely conflicted relationship – but Mary seems to accept and approve of Josie in a way that her own mother never could.

Josie’s and Mary’s relationship is strained to near breaking when Devesh, a charismatic Indian surgeon whom Mary wants for herself, chooses Josie instead. It turns out that Devesh is sexually dominant.  As he and Josie  “play”, he fulfills fantasies that have haunted her ever since the death of her infant brother. For Josie, their scenes of discipline and desire are cathartic and overwhelming. Little by little they break down the walls of self-deception she has built to protect herself from the awful truths of her childhood.

Josie is an extreme and yet believable character. Though she is in her late twenties, she is in some sense a victim of arrested development. She sulks and throws tantrums. She is petulant and deliberately disobedient. Though she has an adult’s sense of responsibility, she acts like a child.

Devesh loves her, and thinks that he understands her, but he can’t see the dark secrets that swirl inside her, the nightmares that will release her.  As he comes closer to knowing the truth, Josie pushes him away. He begs her to join him on his visit to India, but she refuses. Finally, disappointed and hurt, he travels by himself, leaving Josie to face her demons alone.   

If erotica is defined as writing intended to arouse, I’m not sure that Playing qualifies for this label. The scenes where Devesh and Josie “play” constitute a relatively small portion of the novel, though they are sufficiently intense that their influence lingers:

The unfairness of it pricked her, and she tried to turn her back to him, but he held her still. He ran his fingers through her hair and held tightly. “Now,” he whispered. “I’m going to give you five more, and you’re to count each of them, nice and loud. Do you understand?”

It was unfair, but she felt her head expand, her body yield, and she nodded.

“Good.” He stepped away and brought the crop down, a hot fiery snap.

“One,” she said.

Quickly, he did it again, and she cried. “Two.” It was electric, and she could feel the welts rise, the heat emanating from the crop to her flesh to her very center. “Three.” The top of her head seemed to open up, and with the next molten snap of the crop, she felt sucked into the ether. It was a familiar feeling, this going outside herself, but this time, her consciousness disintegrated, leaving her body below and counting. “Four.” Just bones and flesh planted firmly. “Five,” and then he was telling her to beg to be fucked, and she was begging, over and over until he was cupping one of her breasts in his hand, and then pushing inside her, his mouth tight on her ear, telling her all the nasty things she’d only thought to herself for years and years and years, and her head was pushing into cold iron, full of nothing but space and air, her insides alive and present, her outsides his completely.

As illustrated by this passage, the novel is far less explicit than most work characterized as erotica. At the same time, this book primarily is about sex, about the intricate relationships between sexuality and all the other emotions in our lives. The core conflict revolves around Josie’s guilt, which has become eroticized and now can be expiated only through punishment at her lover’s hand.

Playing succeeded in making me wonder, briefly, whether there is in fact some key childhood experience that accounts for my kinkiness, something that I’ve blocked from my memory but which continues to affect me. And yet the novel concludes by suggesting that D/s fantasies can be as much a cure as a symptom, if they’re played out in the context of a loving relationship.

Devesh readily admits to having had dominant desires for as long as he could remember.    Still, he denies that this is pathological. For him, BDSM is simply a path to intimacy and pleasure. Josie, on the other hand, needs to confront the reality of her past, stripping away the sexual charge that has accumulated around her deeds and those of her family. Once she does this, she discovers that playing with Devesh, surrendering her self to him, becomes a process of healing. 

Playing is an intelligent and reasonably well-crafted inquiry into the dynamics of sexual “deviance”. Although it is not one-handed reading, it satisfies on other levels.