Tramps like us: In Bruce Springsteen’s fearless memoir, his story becomes our story

First look at the first album. Photo from "Born to Run" (©Art Maillet)
First look at the first album. Photo from “Born to Run” (©Art Maillet)

Born to Run
by Bruce Springsteen (Simon & Schuster, pp. 510, $32.50)

Bruce Springsteen fans of a certain age have been living with his warm, sturdy, weathered voice in our ears for more than 40 years. The music has seeped into our DNA. The concerts are tattooed into memory. The lyrics, interviews and biographies have been parsed like holy scripture. We thought we knew all there was to know about our hero The Boss.

It turns out, we were right, and we were so wrong. We might have correctly intuited the shape of his life from the music. But as the 67-year-old Springsteen reveals in his new autobiography Born to Run, the details of that life are darker, tougher, more joyous and so much sadder than fans might have guessed. There are parts of this generous, fearless and gracefully-written book that will pierce your heart. Springsteen’s prose voice — like his songwriting voice, part-compadre, part-carney-barker, part-hardscrabble poet — is  so familiar by now, that his pain isn’t the pain of some remote celebrity, it’s the pain of a family member. And it hurts.

The story begins in Freehold, New Jersey, with a couple of stunning chapters about growing up in the bosom of an eccentric (sometimes poisonously so), blue-collar extended family of first- and second-generation Irish and Italian immigrants. He is doted on by his paternal grandmother, with whom he and his parents, Douglas and Adele, live. His grandmother Alice was long ago broken by the death of her five-year-old daughter Virginia. His grandparents’ house — “the greatest and saddest sanctuary I have ever known” — is dominated by the loss of the little girl. “Her portrait hovers, breathing a ghostly air into the room and shining her ill-fated destiny over our family gatherings,” he writes. “Her seemingly benign gaze … communicates, Watch out! The world is a dangerous and unforgiving place that will knock your ass off your tricycle and into the dead black unknown …”

Grandma Alice takes up little Bruce as a surrogate for her lost child. He is spoiled and protected, with no bedtimes, no rules. “The grinding hypnotic power of this ruined place and these people would never leave me. I visit it in my dreams today … It was a place where I felt an ultimate security, full license and a horrible, unforgettable boundary-less love. It ruined me and it made me. Ruined, in that for the rest of my life I would struggle to create boundaries for myself that would allow me a life of some normalcy in relationships. It made me in the sense that it would set me off on a lifelong pursuit of a ‘singular’ place of my own, giving me a raw hunger that drove me, hell-bent, in my music. It was a desperate, lifelong effort to rebuild, on embers of memory and longing, my temple of safety.”

The yearning for home recurs throughout the book; in a shiveringly evocative passage, he cruises the old neighborhood, even after his family has moved on and success has claimed him, driving slowly after midnight, parking on his old street, but not getting out of the car.  

By the time Bruce is elementary school age, his unorthodox family situation has rendered him “an outcast weirdo misfit sissy-boy … alienating, alienated and socially homeless.” He is unable to conform to the outside world and, especially, to Catholic school. Reclaimed by his parents, he is moved into a house darkened by the hulking silence of his father, a laborer with a boxer’s menace who will later haunt Springsteen songs like “Adam Raised a Cain,” “Factory” and “Independence Day.” As he once did in long, therapeutic stage raps, Springsteen lays out an eerie portrait of his father sitting at the kitchen table, seething and smoking cigarettes in the dark, waiting to lash out at his disappointing son: “He loved me, but he couldn’t stand me.”

Why did his sunny, lively mother submit to her husband’s passive hostility and madness, he wonders. “What penance was she doing? What did she get out of it? Her family? Atonement? … She loved my dad and maybe knowing she had the security of  a man who would not, could not, leave her was enough.” When Bruce is 19, Douglas packs Adele and their youngest daughter, Pam, off to start a new life in San Mateo, California, a last-chance power drive to lift the blackness in his mind. “Get out, Pops! Out of this fucking dump,” his son writes. “How much worse off can you be?” At the time that Bruce signs with Columbia Records, in 1972, he is essentially homeless, crashing in a surfboard factory. He has no credit card or bank account, has never visited a dentist and has yet to learn how to drive.

It wasn’t just the generation gap that had colored the mood inside the Springsteen home. “We are the afflicted,” is how Springsteen characterizes the “serious strain of mental illness” that plagues the Irish side of the family. In later chapters, he writes movingly of his father finally being diagnosed and treated for the depression, paranoid schizophrenia and bipolar disorder that had gone unnamed for so many years.

Springsteen candidly details his own depression and anxiety, which arrived in his 30’s around the time of his mid-eighties Born in the U.S.A. superstardom and his short-lived marriage to actress Julianne Phillips. Therapy helps, and also touring and playing. But it remains an ongoing struggle. He writes of antidepressants that stop working and bring on non-stop crying jags, unyielding depression kept secret while recording 2012’s Wrecking Ball (his greatest late-career record to date) and a terrifying six-week bout with “agitated depression,” during which, he writes, “I was so profoundly uncomfortable in my own skin that I just wanted OUT. … For the first time, I felt I understood what drives people toward the abyss.”

Knowing the extent of Springsteen’s battle with depression now brings deeper meaning to a song like “Your Own Worst Enemy” from 2007’s Magic (“There’s a face you know/ Staring back from the shop window/ The condition you’re in/ You just can’t get out of this skin”). Taken literally and not as a metaphor for economic hard times “This Depression” from Wrecking Ball (“I’ve been down, but never this down/ I’ve been lost, but never this lost”) becomes simply shattering.

In an extraordinarily revealing section, Springsteen traces the connection between his father’s and his own mental illness and “the rigidity and the blue-collar narcissism of manhood ‘50s-style … The hard blues of constant disaffection … A misogyny grown from the fear of all dangerous, beautiful, strong women in our lives crossed with the carrying of an underlying physical threat, a psychological bullying that is meant to frighten and communicate that the dark thing in you is barely restrained. You use it to intimidate those you love.” Springsteen describes himself during his marriage to Phillips as a “passively hostile actor” given to “cowardly” acts of emotional violence. “I wanted to wound and hurt and make sure those who loved me paid for it. It was all out of the old man’s playbook.”

Too many rock memoirs merely polish the image set in granite. In Born to Run, Springsteen tells us from the first sentence that he is tinged with fraud, and then, sets about showing us his fragility, his failures, his shame and finally, with almost palpable gratitude, the hard-won lessons that taught him how to be a caring, emotionally open modern man. The pumped-up physique from the Born in the U.S.A. days was, he ruefully explains, “a symbol of an imaginary commanding manhood and masculinity” akin to the ship captain’s hat his father took to wearing in California. “For me there’d be no captain’s hat! Just ‘THE BOSS!’. Bulging muscles, judo and the lifting of thousands and thousands of pounds worth of meaningless objects every … single … day.” Some folks who stopped listening to Springsteen in 1985 might be surprised at how forcefully he takes apart that guy in the red bandana and the muscle shirts.

One of the strengths and pleasures of Born to Run is how we can discern the origin of songs rising up through the narrative, without Springsteen even mentioning their names. The shaggy boardwalk stories recounted here cast your memory back to the bar-band, Jersey shore world of “4th of July, Asbury Park (Sandy)” and “The E Street Shuffle” from his first two albums. The self-lacerating “Brilliant Disguise,” “One Step Up” and “Two Faces” from Tunnel of Love (1987) immediately spring to mind while reading his searing descriptions of his failures as a husband to Phillips. And he returns again and again to the class realities internalized from growing up poor in an economically depressed region in the 1960s, realities incorporated into his late-70’s-early-80’s albums Darkness on the Edge of Town, The River, Nebraska, and the song “My Hometown” from Born in the U.S.A..

The teenager from the wrong side of the tracks who played for the preppies in wealthy Rumson, New Jersey eventually bought a house there. But Springsteen tells of being acutely uncomfortable with being tagged as “a rich man in a poor man’s shirt” when he decides to write about the lives of Mexican immigrants and the rural poor on the 1995 solo album The Ghost of Tom Joad. His songs are “emotionally autobiographical,” he explains. “The piece of me that lived in the working class neighborhoods of my hometown was an essential and permanent part of who I was … No one you have been and no place you have ever gone ever leaves you. The new parts simply jump in the car and go along for the rest of the ride.”

Springsteen’s assessments of his talents swing between wry humility (“I was not a natural genius”) and a seasoned showman’s pride in knowing how to leave it all on the stage. Though he makes it clear that he is THE leader of the E Street Band (“Democracy in rock bands, with very few exceptions, is often a ticking time bomb”), he writes with appreciation and love for the men and women with whom he makes music; they are a long-running train filled with like-minded saints, sinners and lost souls (as he mythologized the band in the beautiful 1999 track “Land of Hope and Dreams”) and they’ve endured through time and age and even beyond death. As for his fans, he counts us as an essential part of the equation. Almost as if he’s breaking the fourth wall, he tells us of struggling to find a spark while rehearsing the band in isolation for its 1999 reunion tour, until some die-hards loitering outside the hall were let in and “suddenly there it was  … there’d been only one thing missing: you.”

Springsteen’s writing is as windy and wordy, funny and rich as his lyrics. There are a few patches of mere workmanlike prose when he gets into track-by-track roll calls of one album or another. But most of his insights into how particular songs came to be are essential. He angrily defends “American Skin (41 Shots)”, the song he wrote about the 1999 shooting death of Guinean immigrant Amadou Diallo by New York City police as he was reaching for his wallet — a song that has proven to be sorrowfully prescient. He writes that no other song of his, including “Born in the U.S.A.” (famously misinterpreted as a patriotic ditty by then-President Reagan) “ever received as confused and controversial a reaction … it truly pissed people off. It was the first song where I stepped directly into the divide of race and in America, race cuts deep.” For writing “American Skin,” he was given a plaque by his local NAACP: “I was always glad that the song brought me just a little closer to the black community I always wished I’d served better.”  

If the soul of the book is Springsteen’s long road to making peace with his father and himself, its heart is his marriage to Patti Scialfa, the singer and Jersey girl who cracked the E Street Band’s boys club when she joined in 1984. Springsteen writes tenderly of Scialfa, who seems a patient, loving and no-bullshit-brooking soul. Under Scialfa’s guidance, Springsteen learns how to be a true partner, as well as how to be a father to their three children — no easy task, having grown up nearly feral himself. And becoming a father brings him closer to Douglas. When the latter lays dying, Springsteen makes a head-to-toe study of the elder man’s illness-ravaged body: “It was not shined or shaped into a suit of armor. It was just the body of a man … His feet … are the feet of my foe, and my hero. They are crumbling now at their base. … I feel warm breath as my lips kiss a sandpaper cheek and I whisper my good-bye.”

Just when you think Born to Run has hit its final emotional peak, out comes one last, house-lights-up encore, an autumnal last paragraph in which Springsteen once again speaks directly to us. He has worked and fought to understand his own life, he writes, to turn its peaks and valleys into music, into shared experience. “This, I presented as my long and noisy prayer, my magic trick. Hoping it would rock your very soul and then pass it on, its spirit rendered, to be read, heard, sung and altered by you and your blood, that it might strengthen and help make sense of your story. Go tell it.”

I heard my story writ large the first time I heard Darkness on the Edge of Town. It was 1978, I was 21 and it gave me the courage to believe that I wasn’t going to be stuck in this house of fear and this defeated Northeast town forever. I carried it with me to California. It inspired and comforted me through depression, parenthood, illness, middle age, loss. And whenever Springsteen comes to my town, I’m there, surrounded by my fellow aging fans, with our aches and pains of body and soul. We all have our own stories, but in every one of them is a chapter called “Rock and Roll Salvation,” subtitled “Bruce.” We are all part of that train that Springsteen set in motion, and now, with the bittersweet summing-up of Born to Run, he’s taking us home.

©Joyce Millman, The Mix Tape 2016

Bruce Springsteen at City Arts And Lectures (10/5/16)


A few quick notes on Bruce Springsteen’s San Francisco stop on the Born to Run book tour …

The event was a 90-minute onstage interview for the venerable City Arts and Lectures series. It  was recorded for San Francisco’s public broadcasting station KQED-FM, and will air on KQED at 1 p.m. Sunday (Pacific time), Oct. 16. City Arts broadcasts also air nationally; check your public radio station for details.

The talk took place at the 1700-seat Nourse Theater. Before the doors opened, fans congregated at the stage entrance and posed for selfies in front of the poster advertising the sold-out show. It was a concert atmosphere, except for one thing: Bruce T-shirts were equalled by San Francisco Giants gear. This is after all, an even-year October.

Once doors opened, the line to purchase pre-autographed copies of Born to Run snaked outside into the courtyard. In the auditorium, fans posed in front of the sparse stage set — two empty orange wing chairs, a little table and a vase of tulips — cradling their copies of the book, or sang along to the Springsteen greatest hits mix blasting from the speakers while checking the National League Wild-Card game on their phones. We are Springsteen fans. We are Giant.

Springsteen shambled onstage looking like his off-duty self in spiffy leather jacket, gray T shirt, distressed jeans and biker boots. He acknowledged the roof-rattling ovation with an “Oh, stop” wave.

The interview itself, while enjoyable, offered little that differed from the Vanity Fair, Rolling Stone and Terry Gross interviews. The problem was the interviewer, Dan Stone. Stone seems to be the go-to guy for City Arts’ interviews with rock musicians. I don’t know how his interview with Patti Smith the night before for the same series went, but he was overmatched for his interview with Elvis Costello last year (Costello, a superb interviewer himself, simply took control and steered the program in a more enlightening direction) and un-imaginative for Springsteen. Maybe he was going on the assumption that his audience was not made up of music fans, but this crowd — many of whom became members of City Arts and Lectures in order to purchase tickets at the member pre-sale — needed more than questions that covered the same well-trod ground. Also, dude — so many Dylan references!

Bruce read a few passages from the book, and did a lovely job of it — as soon as someone emerged from the wings to loan him a pair of drugstore reading glasses. Springsteen explained that he left his own readers “in the car … They’re weird and red, ’cause I only use them in bed.” Now there’s a mental image that was almost worth the price of admission.

The audience erupted in loud, long applause when Stone brought up Springsteen’s cancellation of the E Street Band’s North Carolina concert earlier this year in protest of the state’s anti-LGBT laws. “Folks that are real fans of our music will understand where I’m coming from,” said Springsteen.

Asked if he thought about creating a persona or stage name, like Bob Dylan did, when he was starting out, Springsteen deadpanned , “I did do that. It’s been so mysterious that nobody’s caught on yet.”

In response to a question about why he dropped the bar band sound of his early days when he signed as a solo artist with Columbia, Springsteen answered, “The degree of difficulty of the lyrics on Greetings from Asbury Park would have made people twice as drunk.”

One random but amusing tidbit about the night he first met producer Jon Landau at Joe’s Place in Cambridge, Mass. (the “I’ve seen rock and roll future” gigs): Organist Danny Federici played the shows with a huge white bandage on his forehead covering an injury sustained in a car accident. Federici happened to have been wearing a huge cowboy hat at the time of the crash. The hat,  says Bruce “saved him from disfigurement.”

Asked which current artist deserves to be called the “Voice of a Generation,” Springsteen talked up Kendrick Lamar.

Springsteen got a bit feisty when answering Stone’s question about writing from the working-class perspective after he attained wealth: Nobody “asks Martin Scorsese why isn’t he in the mafia.” Continuing on, Springsteen talked about how working-class roots never leave you, joking, “That’s how you get Howard Hughes naked in a chair in his 60’s saving Kleenex … which I hope I don’t end up that way.”

Ticket holders were given the opportunity to submit questions via email before the program, and Stone read a few of them to close out the evening. From this part of the interview we learned that, as a child, Springsteen’s favorite book was The Wizard of Oz. (“Pay no attention to the man behind the curtain,” he chuckled.) As an adult, Springsteen really dug reading Moby Dick (“more than you ever wanted to know about whales”), the great Russian novelists and the dark fiction of Jim Thompson and Flannery O’Connor.

And that was that. Springsteen didn’t pull out a guitar and play (a long-shot hope, for sure), and there was no meet-and-greet, though some fans got lucky and caught him for an autograph while he was leaving the theater. But it was a chance for us to see Springsteen in an intimate venue, give him and his beautifully-written autobiography some love, and to assemble with fellow fans between concert tours. And the Giants won. Best of all worlds.

©Joyce Millman, The Mix Tape, 2016






Outlander’s day of reckoning

THIS face. ©Starz
THIS face. ©Starz

Ever since I first read Outlander, I’ve wondered how the book’s notorious spanking scene in Chapter 22 (“Reckonings”) could be brought to life, should any filmmaker be brave (or foolish) enough to take it on. How would this scene, in which a husband in 1743 Scotland applies heavy-handed discipline to his modern-thinking wife (she, is, after all, a time traveler from 1945 England), play out on screen? Would it be cut entirely? Or would the filmmakers risk the show losing viewers and becoming a social media outrage du jour? Would Outlander be slapped with the scarlet letter “P” for “problematic” — the new word used to shame entertainment that doesn’t adhere to a strict and ever-widening list of “appropriateness”?

If you’ve read my previous Outlander pieces, you know that I have no problem with That Scene. When I first encountered the scene in the first book of Diana Gabaldon’s much-loved series, I weighed my feminist convictions against my weakness for well-written, big, sexy historical yarns and, well, guilty pleasure won. Individual responses to the scene will differ and, you know what? That’s OK. We’re not all wired up the same.

But I’m just going to throw this out there: Nobody ever seems to get riled up about all the other spankings in the novel Outlander. And there is a lot of spanking, and talking about spanking, and Jamie remembering past spankings he’s received, going on in the book (so far, none of this has made it to TV).  In Dragonfly in Amber (Book 2) and Voyager (Book 3), Jamie is forever being asked to administer spankings (to his surrogate son and his nephew), or is volunteering to take disciplinary whippings to spare the men in his charge. (Interestingly, in Dragonfly, Claire asks him to beat her, but he refuses. I won’t spoil the book for those who haven’t gotten there yet by saying more.) There is a kinky pulse thumping through the novels’ historical romance/fantasy/bodice-ripping heart, and maybe that’s the dirty little secret of why so many women love them.

The other reason might be Jamie himself. Boyish, courageous and built like a ginger Adonis, Jamie is not just a sympathetic romantic hero, he’s an unabashed object of fetishization, as you’ll presumably see as the TV series goes along. (And if you want to talk “problematic,” just wait.) The normally courtly and sweet Jamie spanking Claire is the scene that gets all the attention; some readers are turned on by it, some see it as violence against women. But in the grand scheme of all things Outlander, Jamie is the victim, the one who suffers gruesome physical abuse in the books, not just once, but over and over. Even I have to admit, it’s weird. The irresistible quirky pull of the novels, though, lies in how fluidly Jamie and Claire keep swapping roles as the “damsel in distress” figure and the hero, and how they take turns rescuing one another.

Now, on to Episode 9, called “The Reckoning,” which aired last Saturday. The spanking scene remained, more or less as was written in the book. We saw the set-up in Episode 8, in the first half of this season; Claire ignores Jamie’s order to wait for him in the woods while he and his highlanders go off in pursuit of the one man who might be able to clear Jamie’s name as an outlaw wanted for murder. One bit of dialogue from the book was left out of Episode 8, however  — Jamie warning Claire that if she strayed from her hiding place, he would “tan your bare arse wi’ my sword belt.” I wish that line had stayed; it prepared viewers unfamiliar with the book for what was ahead, rather than having the spanking scene come out of nowhere. I think it would have also signaled to the Outlander uninitiated that the upcoming scene was not intended to be consensual sex-play.

Anyway, Claire, who hasn’t accepted the strictures placed on women in 18th century society and is subservient to no man, least of all her husband, wanders off towards the standing stones that might take her back to her own time, and is captured by Redcoats. She’s taken to Fort William, to Commander Black Jack Randall, Jamie’s old torturer and enemy, and that’s where Episode 8 ends.

Episode 9, which premiered after a months-long promo campaign, opens not with Jamie and his men busting in and rescuing Claire from Randall’s attempted rape, but with an interesting change in narrative perspective from Claire’s voice to Jamie’s. We’ve been seeing the action through Claire’s sensibilities all along, which is also how the book is structured. But in changing this episode to Jamie’s story, the material from Chapter 22 becomes his meditation on what it means to be a man. The first scene of the episode echoes Claire’s opening narration from the first episode of the series (“It’s funny the things you remember …”), except it’s Jamie saying those words, over a visual of him pensively skimming rocks in a stream. Then there’s a flashback  to the rescue at Fort William, and a ferocious verbal battle between Jamie and Claire after they’ve gotten well away.

Jamie and Claire’s fight scene lifts whole passages of dialogue from the book, and actors Sam Heughan and Caitriona Balfe generate astounding heat as their characters tear into each other with almost palpable anger. Jamie tells her that, as his wife, she must do as he says, and Claire screams back, her face contorted in magnificent contempt, “Your wife! Your wife! You don’t care a thing about me! I’m just your property! … As long as I’m there to warm your bed, you don’t care what I think or how I feel! That’s all a wife is to you — something to stick your cock into when you feel the urge!”

Of course, Claire has succinctly described the societal norm for husbands and wives in Jamie’s time, one which the naive Jamie (he’s four years younger than Claire) has never questioned before. When he sees Claire’s contempt, he suddenly sinks down on a rock in confusion and frustration. It’s all there in the book, but on film, it becomes an even more powerful moment; it contextualizes the spanking scene, when it comes, as Jamie’s last stand, his attempt to regain his sense of self according to the ideas of manhood as he’s internalized them. She put the men in danger and if Jamie doesn’t make her pay for it, he loses their respect.

As for the spanking scene … In the book, we’re inside Claire’s head, and her narrative voice flits between shock, guilt, humiliation and anger (“Whatever the justice of the situation — and I had to admit that at least some of it lay on his side — my sense of amour-propre was deeply offended at the thought of being beaten, by whomever, and for whatever reason. I felt deeply betrayed by the man I depended on as friend, protector and lover …”). On TV, Balfe expresses all of those feelings in her face, but it’s not the same as hearing her say them. This is the one point where I wish this episode didn’t have a flip in narrative voice.

I’m still not feeling the sprightly jig that strikes up on the soundtrack at the moment Claire twigs that Jamie is serious. I first thought the lively music was what turns the scene a bit too Kiss Me Kate, but then I watched the scene with the sound off and it looks the same, so the lightness must come from the way the scene is choreographed. Jamie’s facial expressions are not menacing, they’re more sheepish, pleading, comically exasperated — why won’t she let him do his duty? Claire fights back hard (in the book, she first agrees to her punishment, but on screen, there is no acquiescence), and there’s a nicely-timed kick upside the head, but eventually, the brawl ends with Jamie the victor, and the strap comes down.

Props to the TV team for not copping out and doing something dumb like coyly placing the spanking off camera. And props for allowing Jamie his believable gleam of sexual arousal at the end (“I said I would have to punish you. I didn’t say I wouldn’t enjoy it”). But the tone of the scene is undeniably lighter than in the book, and I’m not sure that playing it for comedy helps make the whole regressive “wives as infantile property” stuff more palatable. Adapting this scene was always going to be a no-win situation. And so it was.

The real meat of the episode, though, is Jamie and Claire’s reconciliation that comes a few frosty days later, after they’ve reached Jamie’s clan home, Castle Leoch. Claire has refused to sleep with Jamie since the spanking, leaving him more confused over the remorse he’s feeling. Wasn’t he simply doing his duty as a man?  In the episode, Jamie has an epiphany when he sees Colum McKenzie, who is the leader of the clan and his uncle, bend on a point of honor in order to keep peace within the clan. Jamie tells Claire that he punished her because that’s what he’s been taught a man should do, “but for you and me, maybe it has to go a different way.” He kneels and swears an oath on his knife (a serious thing for a highlander) that he will never beat her again. When she’s slow to forgive him, he sorrowfully asks her if she wants to live apart. Balfe has another outstandingly transparent moment here, when her conflicting emotions are all there on her face. “I feel that’s what I should want,” she says. But after a long pause, she adds, “But I don’t.”

“I feel that’s what I should want … but I don’t.” That line gorgeously sums up the conflict between what Claire knows should be her appropriate response in accordance with the social norms of her time, and what she really, viscerally wants, which is, to be with Jamie. It also nicely parallels Jamie’s realization that he doesn’t have to live in a prison of rigid cultural expectations. (Apply it to our own times, if you’re so inclined.) This is the moment when the balance of power in Outlander evens out;  Jamie realizes that Claire is making him into a new kind of man, and it intrigues him, and Claire realizes that, in her fantastic trek through time, she has met her sexual, spiritual equal. They make up, they get naked and have a long, stunningly naturalistic bout of lovemaking (rapidly becoming the show’s specialty) that mirrors the spanking brawl in its acrobatic carnality.

But not before Claire straddles Jamie, holds his knife to his throat and tells him that if he ever raises a hand to her again, she’ll cut out his heart and have it for breakfast.

©Joyce Millman, The Mix Tape, 2015

The Outlander post, continued: Like a virgin

And so, to bed. (Starz)
And so, to bed. (Starz)


Seven episodes into the first half of its first season, the Starz series Outlander finally got down to serious business and wedded and bedded its protagonists, Claire Randall (Caitriona Balfe), a time traveling British Army nurse from 1945 mystically cast back to 1743 Scotland, and Jamie Fraser (Sam Heughan), a Highlander outlaw.

The hastily arranged marriage was engineered by Jamie’s uncle Dougal MacKenzie of Clan MacKenzie, of whom Claire is a guest/hostage, in order to save Claire from the sinister Redcoat captain Jonathan “Black Jack” Randall. An ancestor of Claire’s left-behind husband, Frank, Black Jack Randall is a sadist tasked with smoking out Scottish traitors plotting rebellion against British rule. He has a special interest in Claire, who he suspects of being an English prostitute spying for the French, and a very special (read: homoerotic) interest in Jamie, who he flogged to within an inch of his life when Jamie was his prisoner.  If Claire is married to a Scot, she becomes a Scot, and can no longer be compelled to obey Randall’s order to present herself for further questioning. Which is imperative, since Randall tried to rape her on their first meeting, and brutally punched her in the gut on their second.

But enough about that. Let’s get to the sex. Because the wedding episode of Outlander did some very interesting things, sexually speaking. Claire is a strong, adventurous heroine who, at 27, is four years years older than her bridegroom. She’s a married woman in her 1945 existence, and flashbacks have shown her to be a passionate lover, comfortable in her own skin, with a wry self-awareness. Jamie, on the other hand, is a devoutly Catholic virgin at 23. So, added to Claire’s anxiety at becoming a bigamist (of sorts) in the episode was the fact that she had to initiate Jamie into his first sexual experience. It’s not often that series TV presents an older woman/younger man love story, let alone one with the heroine taking the lead in deflowering her mate, in which the relationship is not played for laughs and the woman is not portrayed as a rapacious cougar.

But Outlander, like the book series on which the show is based, leaves such cliches behind and unfolds with a proudly estrogenic storytelling swagger. The wedding episode hewed closely to how author Diana Gabaldon portrayed the scene in book one of her series. Written by Anne Kenney and directed by Anna Foerster, it was a marvel of candlelit sensuality and revolved around a ratcheting eroticism that reminded me at times of Jane Campion’s masterpiece of female-centric erotica, The Piano.

Claire and Jamie began by drinking glass after glass of wine and simply talking to break the ice, like any couple getting to know one another. Claire finally worked up enough liquid courage to guide the gentlemanly but eager Jamie into an awkward coupling — he couldn’t even wait for them to get fully undressed before plowing into her. The result is brief and, as the polite but distracted half smile on Claire’s face lets us (and Jamie) know, unsatisfying .

And that happened just within the first 20 minutes. The rest of the episode moved back and forth in time, from Claire and Jamie in their bedroom, to the preparations for the wedding, to the dramatic ceremony (blood was drawn from a knife slash to each one’s wrist, and mingled in a hand-clasp tied in a white ribbon as they took their vows in Gaelic). We saw Claire remove her husband Frank’s ring and shakily begin to accept her alternate reality, to transfer her affections and loyalties to Jamie.

Jamie is an idealization of the perfect man. He’s brave and strong, but also sensitive and sweet. And kilted. And he has this wild mane of ginger hair and that charming Scots burr and the bluest eyes … Sorry, where was I?  Idealized man. Well, of course he is; Outlander is fantasy-sci-fi-historical-fiction-erotica for women, and more power to it.  There is manly man stuff in the saga, like soldiering and boar hunting and fighting and being brutish 18th century sexist dirtbags. But the story’s tension comes from how pointless and idiotic this all looks through Claire’s WWII-weary modern eyes, compared to the near-invisible daily strengths and struggles of the women she meets.

In one episode, a father dragged a teenage girl before the MacKenzie clan chieftain asking that she be corporally punished for her waywardness. In another episode, Claire watched village women setting dye in wool by dipping it into their own urine. She used her nursing skill to diagnose a case of poisoning in a child who was being treated with exorcism, in defiance of the priest who accused her of being a witch. This is the overtly sexist and misogynistic world into which Claire has been hurtled, and to which she must adjust her modern sensibilities if she is to survive. The delicious subtext of Outlander (and the novels) is that as Claire is pulled into Jamie’s physical world, she pulls Jamie into her inner world, and molds him into a prototype of a modern, considerate, but still strong, male partner.

The molding started in the wedding episode. After that first meh coupling, Claire and Jamie fell into more drinking and talking and a mutual opening of hearts, and as they relaxed and became more comfortable with one another, Claire realized that she was well and truly screwed, in the best way possible. She was falling in love. In an electrically fizzing scene, she told Jamie to stand up and take off his clothes, because she wanted to look at him. The camera looked at him too, as Claire walked around his well-muscled body like a museumgoer inspecting the statue of David. We saw plenty of Jamie’s rear and as much front as possible without being full frontal. There hasn’t been this much female gazing at a TV hero since that one season of Buffy where Spike was naked all the time.

Then Jamie gave Claire a crooked grin and told her it was her turn, and she obligingly dropped her nightshift. With the couple getting more turned on as they admired each other’s bodies, they finally toppled into bed and made some of the most joyously un-self-conscious love ever seen on series TV. The scene played as it had in the book — with intense tenderness and intimacy. And hotness. Like pancake batter on a griddle. (Much admiration to Balfe and Heughan for deftly navigating all of the emotional shadings in this episode and giving us a believable portrayal of awakening trust and love.)

Later, Claire took sexual charge again and introduced Jamie to fellatio. And in a reversal of the oft-repeated movie and TV scene where the camera fixes on the face of a young woman experiencing her first orgasm, here it was Jamie’s face registering surprise, arousal and ecstasy. The framing of the shot pulled us, the viewers, into Claire’s perspective; Jamie’s reactions clearly conveyed the power she held over him as lover and sexual instructor. And in giving Claire the power usually reserved for men in scenes like this, Outlander also acknowledged the sexual power of its female viewers. The moment was made all the more stunning and convention-busting by Claire’s obvious enjoyment of going down on her man, an act that has been used on testosterone-infused shows like Game of Thrones and Deadwood, to name two, as a signifier of male dominance and female whorishness. Instead, Outlander gave us a bedroom scene for the ages;  it never lost sight of the “love” in love-making and celebrated female sexuality, instead of denigrating it. I wish that didn’t seem like such a strange thing to see on TV, but it was.

©Joyce Millman, The Mix Tape, 2014

Earlier in the Outlander thread:

 The Story of ‘O’: Outlander comes to TV (published 8/8/14)

The Scottish CosPlay: What they'll be wearing next year at Comic Con (Courtesy of Starz)
The Scottish CosPlay: What they’ll be wearing next year at Comic Con (Courtesy of Starz)


You never forget your first spanking — of the literary kind. For me, it was Diana Gabaldon’s Outlander, Chapter 22, which will heretofore be known as That Scene.

I had innocently picked up Gabaldon’s sci-fi-fantasy-historical romance page-turner at my local library’s sale of used paperbacks. Eight hundred pages for $2 — what a deal! I knew nothing about Outlander except that it was some kind of best-selling genre series. Harry Potter had ended and all I wanted was another thick, juicy, reasonably well-written escapist read to take my head-space somewhere else. So I gave it a shot.

I settled into the tale of Claire Randall, a British Army nurse during World War II, who comes home from the war to a society, and a husband, with whom she has fallen out of sync. Independent, resourceful, passionate and stubborn, Claire has been useful during the war, patching up casualties under the constant adrenaline-rush of danger. Now, she’s back in post-war England struggling to find a sense of purpose within the shrunken parameters of life as a respectable homemaker. Her husband Frank, a courtly Oxford professor who was a spy-runner for MI-6 during the war, wants to start a family, but Claire hasn’t been able to get pregnant.

The novel opens with Claire and Frank trying to get to know one another again on a post-war second honeymoon in the Scottish Highlands. The atmosphere is foggy and pagan; they witness a Druid sun-worshiping ritual, the locals speak of ghosts. Then, Claire wanders off to pick wildflowers (she’s studying their medicinal properties), gets too close to some Druid standing stones and — whoosh! She wakes up in the same woods, except it’s 1743, and there’s a Redcoat who looks just like Frank trying to rape her, but she’s saved/taken prisoner by a clan of Scottish rebels, one of whom is a big, ginger hunk named Jamie Fraser, and, merrily a-bodice-ripping we will go.

I don’t want to completely ruin the new Starz TV adaptation of Outlander (the first episode has been running on the Starz website and on various cable platforms for a while, but the series officially starts on August 9) for potential viewers, so let me say this one more time: SPOILERS A-COMING!

Claire and Jamie strike sparks, even if he can’t understand half the things this uppity “Sassanach”(outlander) is saying. Jamie is, in his own way, a lost soul as out of sync with his times as Claire is with hers. He’s a deeper, more curious, thinker than his rough-hewn cohort, with a dry sense of humor. He’s also an outlaw, but it was all a misunderstanding, really. They spar; they bond; they make wild, passionate, dirty (as in, it’s 18th century Scotland and everything is filthy) love while the clan plays cat and mouse with Frank’s sadistic ancestor, British Army captain “Black Jack” Randall. Yes, Outlander (which is the first in an eight-book series) had me from page one. I was enthralled by the boldly insane plot, I adored thoroughly modern Claire and her sometimes ill-advised attempts to bring feminism to the kilted savages. Eventually, I got to Chapter 22 (“Reckonings”), nearly 400 pages into the book, where Claire attempts to find the time portal to get back home, and ends up endangering the safety of the clan and Jamie has to discipline her with a belt and HELLO, WHAT THE HELL AM I READING?

Surprised as I was by Chapter 22, I had an, um, intensely favorable response to That Scene’s extreme hotness. As a feminist, this sent me into a crisis of conscience. I put the book down, unfinished, for a few weeks. I searched my soul. I started the book over from the beginning. I liked it just as much the second time through. I finally said, Screw you, conscience, if this is my kink, so be it.

For years, there has been plenty of discussion in reader forums about That Scene, and there will be plenty of discussion when it finally airs somewhere down the line (executive producer Ronald D. Moore is on record promising that the series will be faithful to the book). Is That Scene violence against women, domestic abuse? Or is it a development that arises naturally out of the story, given the personalities of the protagonists? My feeling about the way it plays out in the book is that it’s more the latter than former. Gabaldon sets her story in an overtly brutal and sexist era; a belt-wielding hero feels right at home in this milieu.

If your mind is going to the icky — and totally invented for TV — scene in Game of Thrones where a crossbow-wielding Joffrey orders prostitute Ros to spank, then gruesomely beat, another whore, stop. That scene was the reason I gave up watching Game of Thrones, although I have devoured all the books. It was gratuitous, demeaning and brutalizing to the female characters, and, at that point in the story, unnecessary — we already knew Joffrey was a sadistic monster.

On the pages of Outlander, by contrast, the punishment is a complex act, more than just a one-sided male-titillation or hack “taming of the shrew” theatrics. It’s a face-saving necessity to keep the clan from perceiving Jamie as a weak leader, and from meting their own much more brutal “justice” upon Claire for her recklessness. And it’s the way of things in Jamie’s world — men rule their wives. Claire puts up a fight, but Jamie does what he believes is his duty as a man and a leader. But in the emotional aftermath of That Scene, Gabaldon makes it clear that Jamie and Claire have both learned a lesson from it, and it brings them closer together, truly accepting of the good and the bad about their marriage and each other; they truly become a team.

For Chapter 22 alone, Outlander is often compared to Fifty Shades of Grey. But there is nothing sexy in the latter’s tedious BDSM-ish romance, mainly because Christian and Ana are not truly partners in their dom-sub contract; she enters into it only because she wants to Reform Him With Her Love, and he is a raving, damaged stalker who often crosses the line from S&M play to outright abuse. But it’s also difficult to give a crap about two characters as ineptly drawn as Christian and Ana, particularly when you can feel E.L. James blushing and saying “Ewwwww” behind every sex scene.

Diana Gabaldon is no blusher, which is part of what makes Claire such a robust heroine. Outlander is written from Claire’s intelligent, confident and adaptive perspective, and that perspective is deeper and more reflective than Ana prattling on about her inner goddess. Claire likes sex. She would prefer not to be stuck in a time warp while having it, but there you go.

It’s a relief to see how well cast the show is. Sam Heughan is suitably beefy as Jamie, but with a pleasing vulnerable cast to his good looks. He doesn’t appear until the first episode is more than half over, and the pace quickens considerably when he does. Heughan has a demanding role ahead of him, embodying a literary character who ranks up there with Mr. Darcy and Heathcliff in the eyes of some women readers. I wish him godspeed.

Irish actress Caitriona Balfe is Claire in soul and fiery, sensual spirit. There’s a scene in the first episode where Claire and genealogy buff Frank are exploring the ruins of a castle and she perches on a dusty table, opening her legs to reveal that, underneath her crisp traveling suit, she has gone commando. Balfe’s sexual confidence in this scene is breathtaking. But Balfe makes just as forceful an impression in the prologue of the first episode. Elbow deep in the gore of a wounded soldier in a battlefield medical tent, Claire barks orders to the men around her, and is obeyed. A beat later, peace is declared and she doesn’t know what to do with herself . As nurses, medics and soldiers celebrate, she stands apart, dazed and covered in blood, and hoists a bottle of Champagne to her lips.

The scene is a foreshadowing of the dirk-wielding, herbal healing “medicine woman” Claire is to become when she falls through the wrinkle in time: Fierce, courageous, unflinching Claire is a warrior at heart, which is what draws her to Jamie. In post-war England, her wildness has to be tamped down, her promise stunted, but in her alternate universe with Jamie, it’s allowed to fly free. In turn, Jamie — who’s more civilized and thirsty for knowledge than he can let the clan know — recognizes Claire as a strong, enlightened mate, much more interesting than the local lassies.

Episode One gave me faith that producer Moore (of the Battlestar: Galactica reboot) would at least give Outlander a fighting chance to transfer to screen with its spirit undiminished. Moore is no stranger to sci-fi with rich layers of subtext, and Outlander is bursting with possibilities. Is the Highland fling with Jamie a manifestation of Claire’s restless, war-excited and war-traumatized inner life made flesh? Is this her conflicted psyche working out her fear of/longing for motherhood? Her anxiety over subsuming her identity and independence to make a proper marriage with Frank? (Adding fuel to that psychological fire, the same actor, Tobias Menzies, plays both Frank and Black Jack.)

Outlander has already been called the feminist answer to Game of Thrones. But I think the more apt comparison is the feminist, gender reverse of Doctor Who. Claire is a time traveler who can’t go home, but minds her exile less and less; she roams through time and space, healing, enlightening and fighting the patriarchy with as much female love, hope and ass-kicking energy as she can get away with. Instead of The Doctor’s (almost unanimously) young, attractive female companions, though, Claire has a strapping lad in a kilt. And on this wild ride, knickers are optional.

©Joyce Millman, The Mix Tape, 2014