In That Thing You Do With Your Mouth, actress and voiceover artist Samantha Matthews offers — in the form of an extended monologue, prompted and arranged by New York Times–bestselling author (and Matthews’s cousin once removed) David Shields — a vivid investigation of her startling sexual history. From her abuse at the hands of a family member to her present-day life in Barcelona, where she briefly moonlighted as a dubber of Italian pornography into English, Matthews reveals herself to be a darkly funny, deeply contemporary woman with a keen awareness of how her body has been routinely hijacked and how she has been “formatted” by her early trauma. Her story is a study of her own uneasy relationships with female desire, her tormentors, and her lovers — with whom she seeks out both the infliction and receipt of harm. This book is an attempt, sometimes self-thwarted, to break down barriers: sexual and emotional for Matthews, and literary for Shields.
TIMOTHY DUGDALE: What attracted you to this project? I know you used to have a connection to a late night radio sex therapist, correct?
DAVID SHIELDS: I wrote a profile of Delilah for NYT Magazine, but that’s about my only connection to Delilah. I was/am interested in the question that the book animates: to what degree can we overcome original trauma? That question interests me greatly. As I say in the intro, it is in a sense the question.
TD: Samantha is a relative of yours. Was her story part of family lore?
DS: I had vaguely heard of the story, but I thought the book was going to be about her work as a translator of Italian porn into English—a job she did briefly and a while ago. The book pivoted, though, into becoming a book about sexual trauma.
TD: How would you describe your performative role in this work? It struck me that if your name was removed from the book, it could almost read like a fictionalized monologue, as if the narrator is justifying herself to an unseen inquisitor.
DS: I think my role is important—as a shaping arranger and as an implied listener.
TD: How does this work fit into your larger body of work as the performing “David Shields”?
DS: I’m very interested in self-deconstructive nonfiction, and this work fits into that exactly. I’m interested in nakedness, self-exposure, awkwardness, discomfiture. This book embodies this.
TD: Samantha describes herself as “formatted” by her abuse and subsequent sexual adventures. But her wound has a jungle element to it because she recognizes the wound attracts “the loonies.” It’s very animalistic.
DS: I agree.
TD: Do you see anything either generational or national in her story? Is this an American youth story or something that goes well beyond that?
DS: I don’t see the book as generational or national per se. I think the book is about human woe.
TD: What do you consider to be the most important element of Sam’s revelations that you left out of the book?
DS: Hmm. That’s a good question. An impossible paradox along the lines of “This sentence is a lie.” If we left it out, we must have wanted it not to be public. Overall, I was very aware of working with Samantha in order to create something that was painful but not bathetic, and so we tried to excise the self-pity and finger-pointing. I hope we succeeded.
TD: Do think that trauma/abuse has become a fetish? If so, how? What does this trend say about industrialized society’s approach to sex and abuse (Catholics, prick up your ears!)?
DS: If it’s a fetish, the book is an attempt to be an “aggressive intervention against the standard trauma-recovery narrative,” or whatever the flap copy says. Something like that. The book is an attempt to ride along the nerve endings of sex and trauma rather than pretend these issues ever go away.
TD: I am reminded of a scene from As Good As It Gets where Jack Nicholson’s character recognizes the otherworldliness of people who grow up in happy childhoods. Is it true that unhappy families, are unhappy in their own ways?
DS: Haven’t seen the movie. Sounds gruesome. As someone has pointed out (Barthes?), the line could easily be turned upside down. Is it any truer than its obverse? It’s a rhetorical flourish that just sounds true. The book for me is about how trauma both forges and demolishes a human personality. The last ten pages are crucial, for me—Samantha finds a way to accommodate herself to trauma, not by ever overcoming it but by seeing it as a connection between her and every other (necessarily damaged) living soul.
TD: I like the length of the book. One page more and it might have lost its mojo. Even the best episodes of Springer finish within a second of their lives. I know you had a wealth of material. At what point did you know the thing was tight both in length and construction?
DS: Great question. High praise. Thanks. I do know what you mean. I don’t know if you have seen a final, finished copy of book, but it’s a nice little 110-page thing that can fit easily in one’s back pocket. I love books that length, from Heraclitus’s Fragments to Camus’s The Fall to Sarah Manguso’s (forthcoming) 300 Arguments. The exciting artistic challenge for me was to take several hundred pages of exchanges between Samantha and me and find not only an emotional through-line but also psychic closure. I must admit I rather like the last 10 pages, when Samantha finds a way toward accommodation—no triumph or transcendence but a sense that everyone is wounded and that is actually what connects us. I knew we had the ending when the Larkin line fit where it did, along with the moment with actor/begger auditioning for a chocolate commercial. That felt quite conclusive: Samantha gesturing backward toward an earlier boyfriend.
TD: I find the “equinoxe” of the book in the reference to Duras’ The Lover. I still can’t figure out how much of that book is fiction, how much is fact or how much style games that mix. I get the same feeling from this book. Did Sam have any other works in mind that inspired her content or form?
DS: Hmm. For many, many years Samantha and I have been sharing works that we liked—from Spalding Gray to Sandra Bernhard to Eric Bogosian (actors turned monologuists) to, more recently, Sarah Manguso, Maggie Nelson, Amy Fusselman, Leonard Michaels. If there is a model here, for me and/or for Samantha, I think of Bluets, The Guardians, The Pharmacist’s Mate and 8, Leonard Michaels’s “Journal,” Samantha Hunt’s as yet unpublished His Mouth to My Ear. Alphonse Daudet’s In the Land of Pain was a model as well. What else? Joe Wenderoth’s Letters to Wendy’s, George Trow’s Within the Context of No Context, Jean Toomer’s Cane, David Markson’s This Is Not A Novel, Nic Kelman’s Girls, Kathryn Harrison’s The Kiss, Simon Gray’s Smoking Diaries, Annie Ernaux’s Things Seen, Cyril Connolly’s The Unquiet Grave, Anne Carson’s “Essay on the Difference Between Women and Men,” Terry Castle’s “My Heroin Xmas.” Many others, too.
That Thing You Do With Your Mouth
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Read an excerpt from the book here.
Timothy Dugdale is a veteran freelance copywriter and brand manager. He also writes fiction and composes music under a variety of pseudonyms.