We are in a time when the taboos have been removed from stigmatized subjects like sex and also from suppressed political information that challenges the corrupt "frat boys" in charge of everything. Two media champions willing to explore these two uncharted grounds are Rachel Maddow and Howard Stern. Both two do media interviews with famous people and both are formidably intelligent, but until I came across Stern's recent publicity for his interview book ("Howard Stern Comes Again", I hadn't really seen him when he was being serious about himself with a major interviewer. He's quite different with Terry Gross than with Stephen Colbert.
Since I try to catch Maddow every time she's on the air, it suddenly struck me that the two probably share a lot of DNA. Both are brunette, tall, lean, East Coast Jewish, and funny. She has his hair and he has hers. The difference is in their culture, which has steered Maddow into historical politics and Stern into an unpredictable we didn't suspect. For instance, he once befriended Trump and claims that he understands the President perfectly. He's just a fake over his head.
The only previous time I caught a Stern show, he was running a contest for men with the smallest penises, mostly because he thinks of his own as small. The men, blushing, lined up in order of size by ruler. No one then understood the phenomenon of the micro-penis, maybe only an inch. Stern was moved by the courage of the men to be self-revealing, the challenge of being in a culture that insists on the size of an organ as the measure of a man, and the puzzle of their wives conceiving children with these men. These days these men might be classified as "intersex" and join a continuum of people who are between two poles that previously denied they existed.
But I had a strange memory. When I was working at animal control in Portland, I was an officer who went out the street as a sheriff's deputy, to sort out complaints and hazards, sometimes with real risk. The shelter attendants were more like humane society people who maintained the kennels, but they also answered the phones, dealing sometimes with strange and even funny calls. There was the lady who called every night to say there was a big snake under her bed -- she could hear it breathing. The attendants were sophisticated enough to make jokes about Freud.
One day there was a call from a woman in tears, desperate for help. She said her husband would not make love to her, but only screwed the cat. The shelter attendants thought it was a joke at first -- was such a thing possible? -- but knew they'd get in trouble if they just hung up. The more they listened, the more they began to realize she was real and telling the truth. Just that no one knew what to do or say. She was so distraught that after venting a while, she was the one who hung up. Now I understand that this husband might have actually fit the cat's receiver better than his wife did. But what to do? Persuade her to form a menage a trois? Forbid him to have a cat? Give up sex altogether?
It was a challenging situation which we never resolved. No one had a record of how to find her. We talked among ourselves and when we'd had her on the phone we had the same advice that we came to with each other: this family needed a one-on-one therapist who could work out what to do in an unshocked and practical way.
Stern claims that psychotherapy -- simply the exploration of the structure of a person's life through the interaction of their own body as built by the proteins of their DNA after it has been pushing back and been pushed back by their environment -- has really worked for him. The same plan in one time/place might turn out a very different result from the same identity in a different time/place. Once this has been sussed out, free from censorship and punishment, a plan for going forward is much clearer.
I was impressed that in both cases the result was books, though they are quite different books. Stern's is a compilation of interviews and Maddow's was first "Drift: The Unmooring of American Military Power" and is now about oil. Again, each is operating outside the role of their gender assignment. The nation's culture is shifting to allow this and is changed by the fact that they're doing it.
We never realized these things. We had thought we were too contemporary to have to contend with the vicious greed of these (mostly) men. Where could they have come from? And why did they flip themselves over so radically from the side of reform and generosity to pure self-interest? Do they need therapy or has some kind of brain contagion gripped them? Is it that the world has changed?
The sexual revelations and reconfigurations are easier to understand. Stern says that when he hit puberty his mother gave him a subscription to Playboy and made him sit down with her to look at the photos. She said, "Real women do not look like the women in this magazine. They are freaks, exceptions. Real woman look like your relatives and classmates. I don't object to you enjoying this magazine, but don't ever think it is about reality." That more or less goes for the whole of what we call sex. Promotion and distortions has set us up to expect the visitation of the Holy Ghost with the Unlimited Vibrating Penis, when the truth is that a lot of people never go beyond a pleasant experience, which is good enough to create a family.
The hard part of a family is pushing it through the circumstances of economics, catastrophes, the politics of relatives and neighbors, while finding ways to persevere and occasions for joy. Both Stern and Maddow, despite setbacks and losses, seem to have managed so far. Mostly. There is hope for all of us, even a solitary like me who merely watches them on TV and tries to stay out of trouble. Mostly.