The torment of love can transform people into wretched monsters. — Mathias Malzieu
I recently had the pleasure of attending a brilliantly performed off-broadway production of Brad Fraser’s compelling Love & Human Remains at Playwrights Horizons. Produced by Jen Rudolph and directed by Clyde Baldo, this revival of Fraser’s dark and provocative play illuminates the harrowing plight of seven lost tortured souls, blindly and destructively seeking some form, any form, of interpersonal gratification. Intermittent glimpses into the character’s histories suggest that their quests for love are corrupted by unresolved core injuries, consequentially fueling desperation, cynicism, self hatred, and sexualized aggression.
In witnessing the lives of the characters in Love & Human Remains we come to understand the tragic urgency to reconcile with early abuse so as to obtain mastery and fulfillment of emotional dependency needs. The core wound to the Self incurred through early abuse and insecure attachment results in inexhaustible trapped grief and rage. This source of pain compels the victim to recreate scenarios that replicate the early abuse. Coined the repetition compulsion by Freud, traumatic events are compulsively repeated with the intent of regaining a sense of agency. Once a victim as a child, now as an adult one can hypothetically level the playing field by morphing impotence into power and victimization into predation. Sexualized anger is used in an attempt to restore a sense of self through abuse and power. For five of these wounded protagonists pleasure and pain are entwined and seeks expression and fulfillment through their sexuality.
Sex researcher John Money originated the concept of the “love map” to illustrate what comprises ones idealized erotic arousal template. In Love & Human Remains the manipulative and exploitive sexual dynamics perpetrated by Candy, David, Benita, Robert, and Bernie connote the prevalence of ‘love maps’ permeated with betrayal, neglect, and abuse from their primary caregivers and sundry lovers. Dr. Robert Stoller, author of Perversion: The Erotic form of Hatred, linked trauma and abuse with an arousal template for violent and humiliating sex. Eroticized rage connotes unresolved rage and hatred towards ones primary caregivers, resulting in predatory sexual behavior. The rejection and humiliation experienced with one’s parents is repetitiously and compulsively reenacted with sexual conquests. When primary attachment and emotional dependency disempowers, survival fears are activated, and with that a template for relatedness that is mired in conflict.
Case in point, Candy embodies the emotional despair of the love addict. Driven to fall in love she indiscriminately hunts down either gender, emoting a duplicitous seductive sweetness designed to mask painful feelings of self loathing and insatiable loneliness. She is willing to starve herself, feign sexual gratification, and focus much of her energy on getting the perfectly toned body in order to secure a mate. When Candy pontificates the virtues of love to her gay friend and former lover David, he counters her romantic mythology by reminding her of her parents resemblance to Macbeth. Nevertheless, committed to her fixed delusional system, Candy carries on with her mission to fill her emptiness with the sought after perfect beloved, ignoring her dishonesty with her lesbian love interest Jerri and deifying her husband prospect, the insipid Robert who we later learn is, unbeknownst to Candy, already a husband and father.
The emotionally caustic David on the other hand, hides behind a veneer of vulgarity and aloof self sufficiency. Hence he denies his love for his ostensibly straight friend Bernie, and remains oblivious to Bernie’s latent homosexuality and his psychological deterioration. He maintains that love is a sham, and acts out his cynical despair with Kane, a 17 year old neglected son of disinterested wealthy parents. Kane’s admiration for David, particularly in regard to his past as a successful child actor, evokes hostility in David resulting in him sexually humiliating Kane. David also sexually perpetrates Kane by proxy, through his friend Benita a psychic dominatrix. Sex addiction treatment pioneer Dr. Patrick Carnes wrote, “Anger and rage have many faces in human sexual behavior that have been obscured by their erotic content.” Following this premise, what fuels Davids sadistic sexual conduct with Kane may be related to what is catalyzed by Kane’s decency. Perhaps Kane is a reminder for David of those wholesome parts of himself, sullied and shamed by an abusive childhood and disowned long ago.
The characters of Jerri and Kane present vulnerability and an awkward innocence to this sardonic landscape. Of all the characters they are the most accessible and real. Not surprisingly they are both toyed with by Candy and David. Both Jerri and Kane are obsessively smitten, but their humanity and tenuous self-regard allows them to remain open to love. The phantom character Dana seems to represent the collective death wish permeating the play. Her suicide, catalyzed by an abortion and the abandonment by her fiance Bernie is particularly shattering for Candy, as it is a obliteration of her wish in the worst possible way. Dana gave up on life and love, an impulse the characters in Love & Human Remains intrapsychically grapple with on a daily basis.
Benita is an archetypal force in the play as the sadomasochistic dominatrix. Given her psychic gifts, she has the ability to see things more clearly and discern the truth. Despite her insight she is emotionally devastated by the abuse wrought upon her by her violent father, and she starkly portrays that devastation as both victim and perpetrator. She has an obscure history with David, who she apparently cannot ‘read’, making one wonder if this energy blockage suggests that Benita is afraid to see in David what she fears examining in herself. Sheldon Bach, Ph.D., clinical professor of psychology at New York University and supervising analyst at the New York Freudian Society, states that the problem with sadomasochists, “is that they can’t love. They are searching for love, and S & M is the only way they can try to find it because they are locked into sadomasochistic interactions they had with a parent.” Essentially Dr. Bach is reiterating what Freud expounded with the repetition compulsion. S&M is a traumatic enactment of a power-submissive dynamic in which the submissive and/or the dominant are seeking mastery through catharsis. Although Benita convinces herself that her choices are noble, when she removes her wig after learning of Bernie’s murderous rampage, we are left to wonder if she is re-evaluating her convictions.
The pinnacle of eroticized rage is portrayed in Bernie, a closeted homosexual and psychopath. Murder is his response to his impotence with women. Bernie’s forbidden homosexual feelings for David are expressed through his narcissistic rage towards women, whom he blames for reminding him of who he really is. Bernie’s diabolical rancor towards women is a reflection of his irreparable self hatred. His absence of humanity towards himself and his sexual orientation expresses itself in his need to destroy that which disrupts his personae. Bernie’s obsession with his male identity and living up to the masculine ideal compels him to kill anything that threatens his legitimacy as a male.
In conclusion, Love & Human Remains tells us that when illusions are shattered and rage is confronted a potential shift can occur. With the knowledge of Bernie’s murderous escapades and eventual suicide Candy ‘seems’ to stabilize, albeit it’s not clear if her ability to finally literally and figuratively feed herself is rooted in self acceptance or the fact that David is so emotionally shell-shocked that he needs her to care for him. Leaning towards a more life affirming interpretation, Bernie’s death frees David, to the extent that it makes him more honest. Traumatized by the loss of the one friend he harbored romantic love for, and the realization of how weak and emotionally unconscious he’s been, there is the hope that in this place of extreme sorrow, he will face what he’s been running from and eventually find healing and love.