Sex, 'skin hunger' and problematic men: Jessie Cole's memoir investigates desire after trauma

Desire's story of loss and longing is threaded with moments of hope, like a 'dangerous but invigorating' ocean swim. Mickael Gresset/Unsplash, <a href="http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/4.0/" rel="nofollow noopener" target="_blank" data-ylk="slk:CC BY" class="link ">CC BY</a>
Desire's story of loss and longing is threaded with moments of hope, like a 'dangerous but invigorating' ocean swim. Mickael Gresset/Unsplash, CC BY

Desire: A Reckoning is a remarkable contemporary memoir. Its author, Jessie Cole, is unafraid to be vulnerable – in her life and her writing. This, her fourth book (and second memoir) is an extraordinary exploration of both physical and emotional desire, and the fraught limits of passion, need and want. Cole’s romantic desires are set against deep family tragedy: the suicide of her sister, and then, some years later, the suicide of her father.

Against layers of thinking about love, desire, bodies and ecological disaster, Desire traces a love affair, a long-distance relationship between Cole and an unnamed, older lover.

Though Cole’s experiences of sex, love and family are all quite different to my own, I had an almost visceral reaction at many moments: this book elicited a sharp gasp of recognition more than once.

Review: Desire: A Reckoning – Jessie Cole (Text Publishing)

This memoir begins with Cole’s exploration of her bodily responses to sex and desire. She yearns for touch, despite living in a secluded forest, accompanied only by family and pets. Her celibacy is punctuated by moments of desire, and unsatisfactory encounters with problematic men.

Early in the book, men are imagined as sexual threat, often in the most casual or mundane of ways. Boys who grope girls on the staircases at school; young men who call her both slut and pricktease; a boyfriend, then partner who assumes she is always ready for sex.

Read more: From reproducers to 'flutters' to 'sluts': tracing attitudes to women's pleasure in Australia

A vulnerable landscape

Beyond the forest, heterosexual encounters are met with bodily revolt: twitches, ticks, an unintended combat roll away from a potential lover. Before a date, her tongue swells. Cole illuminates the ways her desire for touch was complicated by a raft of objections that were, literally, written on her body.

She seeks out an energy healer, who lays hands on her. Is he a predator? No, but he tells her she had been sexually assaulted as a teen when drunk. Puzzled, she doesn’t recall a specific incident of sexual violence, though wonders if perhaps she simply cannot remember. Then, her realisation: “he could say this shit to any woman and it would probably be true”. As a reader, I flinched in recognition at this line.

Cole, through her own body, traces a landscape where women are vulnerable to all manner of threat, yet can still want and need touch. Desire is an engrossing exploration of what it means to be a heterosexual woman, in a world where many formative sexual moments involve – to more or less degrees – some element of trauma. It’s a navigation by a woman who experiences what she terms “skin hunger”, despite it all. What follows is a profound search for touch, joy and pleasure.

But it’s not just a story of sex. It’s a meditation on love, too. The book vibrates with the power of the many forms of love: parental love (both towards her sons and the love received from her mother), her deep devotion to female friends, and the peculiarly intense adoration of a working dog for his mistress.

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Ignored warning signs

It’s a story, too, about family. The unfinished business of Cole’s father’s suicide, in particular, haunts this work. The unreliability of her father, who died at a critical point in her adolescence, flavours her future relationships – so much so that Cole reports reading a 500-page academic work on attachment theory to try to understand the gaps left behind. And when her eventual lover is disinterested in discussing it, it’s an ignored warning sign.

Desire is also a book about writing itself, and how desire might flow through to a page. Cole concludes the book by saying she wrote most of her memoir contemporaneously, as she felt both desire and dejection. The presentness of the work is startling.

This love story is set against a backdrop of climate emergency in the old forests of northern New South Wales. Australian readers will recognise the terrible, scarring patterns of fire and flood that marked the years before the pandemic.

It’s one of the most moving evocations of our damage to Country I have read: the sheer terror of fire and wind (even in the rainforest); the unimaginable havoc of floods; the rejuvenating potential of this beautiful and horrifying land. It’s a love song to the land – one marked, like Cole’s relationships with men, by instability.

Read more: Losing a loved one can change you forever, but grief doesn't have to be the end of your relationship with them

A passionate but detached love affair

Freudians might read Cole’s older lover as a father figure. But while she appears to be attracted to his everyday kindness, the relationship is built on complex needs. She largely flies to visit him in his home in the city, although he does once visit the wonders of her forest life. In a series of vignettes, the couple fall into a habit of good sex and gentle companionship, with passionate visits held together by phone and email. And, importantly, he doesn’t want her too much: too much desire on his side would be alarming, at least at first.

But despite the outward appearance of his care (the warmed towels, the carefully drawn pot of tea), it is never a comfortable relationship: Cole is plagued by doubts of reciprocity, and sometimes her body rebels. Towards the end, she concludes that perhaps she should have listened more to her body, which might have sensed his ambivalence, his lack of driving interest in, or passion for, her.

When he ends the relationship, it is as catastrophic as the floods and fires she has endured. On reflection, she could see desire, but also “undernourishment” throughout their relationship. But the end of their romance still leaves her with the lingering thought that perhaps she is too deeply traumatised to love, and to be loved.

Desire is a powerful, tender book of loss and longing, attempting to grapple with both inner pain and external tragedy. It’s a vulnerable work that moved me to tears more than once. But despite it all, there are moments of hope, even at the end.

Her flower garden, which she built. The water hole, regenerating. A swim in the ocean at dusk, dangerous but invigorating. The final sense that Cole did not – and would not – end her search for intimacy and connection.

This article is republished from The Conversation is the world's leading publisher of research-based news and analysis. A unique collaboration between academics and journalists. It was written by: Lisa Featherstone, The University of Queensland.

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Lisa Featherstone has received an ARC grant on sexual violence.