I imagined that I could hear the clicking of the carousel, but really I couldn’t. I more or less felt it somewhere in my body though, like my heartbeat.
Sitting in a dark room at the MoMA, I watched Nan Goldin’s slide show, “The Ballad of Sexual Dependency.” On either side of me my Art and Design students slouched and looked at their phones, their faces awash in a neon glow of secrets. We had come to the exhibit to discuss how to analyze art.
During “The Ballad,” topless women slid in and out of my view. Cookie and Suzanne, two of the most prominent characters, took baths, put on lipstick, cried in dive bars. There were more women—women who orgasmed, who fought, who cowered next to coffins, women in coffins. All I could think was, great profile pic.
Great profile pic. Click. Double Tap. Like.
On the train ride home, I scrolled through my Instagram feed. I looked at my own account, tried to analyze my life like an exhibit.
But then I looked at his account. The one I don’t follow; the one I look at the most. Truth is I look at his less often then I look at the accounts he likes: the girls he stalks like a white hunter on safari. Stars on their nipples, tufts of pubic hair inching out of transparent panties. The girls are the real art objects in which I try to find meaning.
I had just had my class read Laura Mulvey’s famous essay on the male gaze, “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema.” I beg Mulvey’s forgiveness every time my finger traces down my phone.
There is an awkward Russian teenager he likes on Instagram. She is only beginning to learn to be coy. She takes pictures lying in bed, the camera positioned an arm’s length away. I think I know what he imagines he shoots onto her face.
I have become obsessed with his obsession.
Nan said that her camera was an extension of her body. I see my female students and their phones look like appendages, extra sets of hands. They wear those flat white Instagram hearts on their sleeves. What’s the difference, Nan, between your grainy electric photographs, and a selfie with its nostalgia filter, and this essay—a kind of augmentation of my thoughts? Do you like me? Do you think like me?
Photograph 1: Nan and Bryan in Bed.
Nan lies in bed, watching Bryan smoke. His bare back is the largest object in the photograph. His shoulders stoop forward, crooked like a man leaning into the wind. He is shaped like a question mark, and even in the photo there is lust coming off his body, like trails of smoke from blown out birthday candles. Or maybe, I’m projecting. I always tell my students: don’t make assumptions until you can read the picture—go back to the image, go back to the text.
Nan takes up less room in the photo, only the tiniest corner. All in black, she gazes at Bryan. I follow her gaze too. I am Nan. I want Bryan just as much as Nan. I think about the ways I could make him stay.
Nan and Bryan in Bed is flooded in buttery yellow light. We don’t know if it’s daylight, or coming from an artificial source. Bryan glows. Nan seems like a mistake, an accidental thumb print.
We know in our hearts, don’t we Nan? That men are always sifting through our hands, always sitting on the edge of the bed ready to get up and leave as soon as we reach for them. This is what makes us so desperate and reliant. Nan put this dependency on display. She is our mirror. In her 1996 artist statement for “The Ballad,” she writes: “Intense sexual bonds become consuming and self-perpetuating. You become dependent on the gratification. Sex becomes a microcosm of the relationship, the battleground, and exorcism.”
Sometimes I felt that when he and I were having sex it was the only time we were truly seeing one another. Once he bent me over and simply stared into my vagina.
But lest we get too caught up in the seduction, cheeky Nan has a reminder. In the top right hand corner is the smallest detail: Bryan’s 8×10 headshot. Nan never wants us to forget—Bryan’s kind of an asshole, or to use Mulvey’s term, he’s a narcissist. Bryan always has a representation of himself that he’s more in love with.
The difference between Nan and Bryan, and Nan and Instagram is that Nan wants us to look, doesn’t pretend otherwise, but she’s the one she’s really playing to. There are no likes in Nan and Bryan in Bed. Nan is her own audience. She says, “I’m not crashing this party; this is my party.”
Photo 2: The Heart-Shaped Bruise.
A person without a head, without an identity, lies on a bed, dress hiked up, tights rolled down, displaying their naked thigh with a giant outline of a purple and crimson heart-shaped bruise. Their hands, chipped silver nail polish, lazily linger next to the legs. The bedsheet is white with bouquets of tiny daisies. The dress is black and white striped, drifting off to meet the pillow, also black and white, but with a curlicue chaotic pattern.
When we went to a restaurant, he looked at our co-ed hostess, and remarked how beautiful her skin was. Then a few minutes later he looked at the other hostess, this time a blonde, and whistled, “all the girls here.”
Now I see girls the way he does. I pick out their good parts like I’m picking out a present from a grab bag. Her skin, her hair, her legs. All the girls here.
Sometimes I see worse things.
But I could never blame Nan. In “The Ballad,” all Nan’s selves meet. The self that is experiencing and the self that is reflecting come together to create the narrative in the photographs. The Heart-Shaped Bruise is not about a detached body part floating in space, it’s about a story. When I look at the bruise I see the longing, the hurt, and I understand the desire. The photograph forces me to do more than assess, it forces me to make meaning.
When I see girls take selfies, it is from inside his brain. They are bent over; there is cum on their faces. I wish I could wipe it off, offer them a tissue. Then I remember it’s only happening in my thoughts.
Again, I could be projecting. But I want to understand his likes, want to experience them. I want to be the actor and the recipient of them.
Photo 3: The Hug.
A woman in a blue dress and black hair is being hugged by a man with a large arm, larger than the woman’s whole back. There are bows on the dress, and little inky polka dots that match her hair. There is no face to see, no expression to read.
She reminds me of a girl I knew from high school—a wild girl with the same boxy hairdo. Her name was Heather and her senior photo was of her in a prom dress with a chainsaw.
In school, we all looked like characters from “The Ballad.” We had absorbed the aesthetic of Nan’s world before we had even seen the pictures. And it was Nan’s world, not Larry Clark’s “Tulsa” that influenced us. We were trying to shake off the male gaze, trying to transgress something before we ever knew how we were being looked at. We were waiting patiently for our own NY La Vie Boehme to spool out in front of us like a film fantasy.
Sitting in the MoMA, I wanted to reach through the screen and stroke the back of that blue dress, let the woman know that this too will come to pass. I also wish I could reach through my phone and warn the Russian teenager.
I’ve been following her for a year, and only recently it’s finally happened. There, nestled between all the pics of her teenage face, is a topless photo—taken in a mirror she has Photoshopped a hot pink crayon line over her breasts. When I saw this, I was filled with such a deep sadness, mainly at its inevitability. The nude photos we take of ourselves seem to have no real agency, they are something that happens to us, like getting the flu or going through puberty.
I wish I could warn myself—past and present.
I lied. In high school, I knew how I was being looked at. When truckers bought me cups of coffee at The Clock—the all-night diner us kids frequented—I was so delighted I’d bounce in my stool. I heard applause for something I didn’t understand I wasn’t winning.
The same way I now hear applause every time my phone dings with a new like.
Photo 4: Nan One Month After Being Battered.
This is possibly the most famous photo in “The Ballad.” A self-portrait of Nan one month after Bryan beat her up. Nan’s face is still swollen, and she has bruises under both eyes. The left eye has a streak of eggplant, but the right is port stained, and the pupil is washed in red, there is no white left. Her bloodshot eye, a pool of fire, matches her cherry lipstick. Nan is dressed for the viewer. Her hair is Bette Midler curly. She has long earrings and a pearl necklace. The background is an eerie green, a lace curtain hangs left of center. She wears nothing but black. The indicators of feminine domesticity: the curtains, the lipstick, the pearls, fight against the very real consequence of domestic abuse played out on Nan’s face.
Nan said she took this photo to remind herself never to go back. She needed proof of what had happened to her.
Photo 5: Lacy on The Shore
Once Michael took my picture with a polaroid camera. I was standing on a lookout at the shore, and my own black hair was whipping around my head like a tornado. I couldn’t believe there would be evidence after all. Now I have no idea what he did with that photo.
When I told Michael that I was taking my students to see the “The Ballad,” he replied that he had been at a party with Nan and she had snapped his photo. When I asked if he had ever seen the picture, he said no, but that he had “taken note.” What easy myth making! No one will know if he’s lying. Except, of course, for Nan.
Nan deserves so much more than the Instagram flat white heart, but that’s because she gives us something we can’t handle. Nan and I look at each other. There is a dual voyeurism. Nan isn’t simply the bearer of the gaze; she is also the maker of the look. Her face activates me, makes me complicit in the wanting. She exchanges longings with me.
Nan wrote that she came from a family that was “revisionist.” They changed their history so much in the telling of their story, that she forgot about her sister who committed suicide. She had to work to remember her. She said she never wanted that to happen again, so she had to document.
On Instagram all we do is revise. We don’t look. We only like.
I don’t ever want to see that flat white heart, that lazy signifier of nothing, appear over my photograph, over my own beating heart, ever again.
I want that photograph Michael took of me on the beach to fall out of the book he made me read out loud. I want him to have crumpled it in his hand because he got so mad after he read my email. I want the color to blur, burn out in yellow and orange fire smudges under his fingertips. I want him to keep that polaroid in his bedside table, letting it sleep there until porn finally gets boring. I want him to put me underneath his pillow, hoping that head to head, he can hear me dreaming. He can hear me singing my own ballad.
Lacy Warner holds an MFA in Nonfiction Writing from Columbia University. She is currently at work on a memoir about spending her childhood following her American diplomat parents from one disaster zone to another. She has written for Roxane Gay’s literary blog, The Butter, The Columbia Journal, Narratively, and others. Follow her on Instagram @unlikeablefemalenarrator.