1. I was in junior high school in the ‘80s, and at that time there was a weird but pervasive rite of passage, especially among the boys, to have watched an exploitation movie called Faces of Death. I never saw it, though I understand that contraband VHS and Betamax copies could be tracked down through some of the more precocious kids in school. Faces of Death, as I understood it, was a kind of compendium—sort of docu-style—of violent ways to die, and while a lot of the footage was faked, some of it was not and was actually outtakes of journalism reels where someone died on camera. These might have been the kinds of clips the major news outlets (especially during Vietnam and with advances in sports videography) had collectively decided to not show the public, out of a sense of social responsibility, or dignity, or decorum.
I was terrified at the prospect of seeing even a few minutes of Faces of Death, and thought it must be a total anomaly, which is why, I believed then, the movie was so obscure and banned in so many places and would not be repeated in my lifetime. Just thinking about it kept me up at night. (Of course it was turned into a series. I didn’t know that at the time.)
2. When I was eleven I read Anthony Burgess’s A Clockwork Orange, and when I was twelve I watched Kubrick’s movie. My taste in literature even at that age was pretty advanced, but I had never seen sex and violence like this on any screen. (The movie holds up beautifully, of course.) As a kid I thought that Burgess was being hyperbolic or just allegorical in his projection of gang-driven horror. I won’t get into how I accessed the book or movie, pre-puberty, other than to say that there was a Kubrick-Burgess fan in my family and I was sneaky about it. I will also say that I had, generally, a healthy and protected childhood. Here’s how a sheltered girl dealt with the trauma of watching Alex and his droogs: I completely internalized Alex and tried to imagine him—that fucking psychopath—as future boyfriend material.
Despite my advancing high libido, I wouldn’t have sex until I was in my 20s. Go figure. And I married an Englishman. (Note: He is kind and sane.)
3. When I was a teenager, I was told by people who seemed to know that ‘snuff films’ were an urban myth. Snuff films, reportedly and under this description, weren’t the Faces of Death stolen-journalism clips, but pornography shot in corrupt countries where women were actually killed in the course of filming a sex scene. “All hype,” I was told. I think at the time this was correct. The thought of it being real—of people knowingly and purposely filming the torture or death of someone as fetish seemed, in 1988, incomprehensible.
And to reiterate something about item #1, I believed all the way until about age 34 that we, in our lifetime, would never be able to just casually witness the deaths or torture of others on our personal screens. That was the made-up Futureshock world of Cronenberg and Bigelow. I thought, after the end of the Cold War, etc., that we wouldn’t have a Western world that grew more violent, and what violence there was would not become more easily accessible to civilian viewers. And reiterating item #2, I could not have predicted that with one click on any screen that a pre-teenager, surfing Pornhub out of curiosity, might stumble onto an amateur video of a couple of middle-age gringos raping a terrified adolescent in Bangkok. I like sex, I surf Pornhub. I’ve seen this kind of clip, and can’t unsee it. But I’m not worried about me.
I’m 46. These last few weeks, I have, just by browsing news on major outlets and clicking on their video reports, watched people being murdered in Dallas, Baton Rouge, Orlando, France and Turkey. In the last year, I’ve seen footage of young men surrounding and sexually assaulting young women in the U.S. and Western Europe. We can, if we go looking for it without much effort (as info-hungry young people are wont to do), watch beheadings, death by burning, by drowning, by stoning, plus cartel executions, and high-school and college party rapes in progress.
Last night, unmedicated, I slept about eight hours. Do you believe in desensitization? Do you believe in the slippery slope?
If I could tell my ten-year-old self what the world is like today, I would say that in some ways things are better than they’ve ever been. Modern medicine, transportation, secularism, transparency through media, connectedness and the flow of information… all good. But I would also lock my ten-year-old self in a room with no internet and no screens.
But we’re not ten.
We can’t turn our backs on what’s happening in our world. But still, we have to sleep at night, and to have a reason to get out of bed in the morning. When my relentlessly sunny mom calls me on a sunny Friday afternoon and says, “I am totally flatlined. I am crawling into a cave and not ever coming out,” I am both numb and stunned at how all this happened so quickly. But it did. It is happening, and for both better and worse, we are witness to it.