Brow Beat

How Portnoy’s Complaint Helped Me Through My Time in a Domestic Violence Shelter

Philip Roth might not have imagined his novel speaking to a transgender man in a women’s shelter, but it did.

Cover of Portnoy's Complaint, photo of a dormitory inside a shelter.
Photo illustration by Slate. Photo by Thinkstock.

I read Portnoy’s Complaint only once, in a domestic violence shelter during a mandatory three-day waiting period before I was allowed to leave the grounds. At a time when I was more uncertain and alone than I had ever been, I can still remember the desperate freedom of finding, improbably, that I was able to connect and laugh along with Roth’s novel-length jack-off joke. I’m sure it sounds ridiculous, but Roth and his coarse, rebellious Portnoy came to stand for everything I couldn’t say and wasn’t allowed to feel. They were my secret comrades at arms as I negotiated a system that offered help but only if I performed my victimhood exactly as the system thought I should.

Domestic violence shelters are necessary evils, places where you go to be treated as if you might break after having escaped from someone who tried to break you and failed. The shelter I was in was staffed solely by women, and it served only female victims—except in my case, where the technicality that I had not yet admitted to anyone that I was a transgender man sufficed. Shelters come in all shapes and sizes, but this one was a large Victorian house in the country, and I felt like an invalid who’d been shut away from the world to either heal or die. The 72-hour waiting period was imposed for our safety when we first came to stay, and since the other residents were already allowed to leave, and the staff had an office filled with useful, purposeful work, during that three-day period I was largely left to myself. And so I came to wander around the rooms touching the lace curtains, counting the pieces in the board games, trying and failing to find a complete deck of cards, and reading the summaries on the backs of every book in the solitary wooden bookshelf at the foot of the stairs. The ratio of self-help therapy books to romance novels to modern American classics was roughly 15 to 5 to 1; given that I had no interest in either self-help or romance, I suppose I was fated from the start to end up reading Roth’s novel.

For those who haven’t read it (and I think you should), Portnoy’s Complaint is about a Jewish man in psychoanalysis who freely talks with his analyst about the darkest, raunchiest, most nastily sexual parts of himself. Portnoy is ashamed and disgusted by his own sexuality, but he also relishes in the escape that comes in telling one shocking story after the next.

In order to understand the power this book held for me, I’ll tell you something I could never have said then: The sex with my abusive ex was the best I’d ever had. I mean, come on, it would have to be good sex, wouldn’t it? I was naïve and young and dumb, but I wasn’t so dumb that I’d have gotten involved with a crazy person if the sex was bad. My ex’s formula for keeping me around was one part terror, one part manipulating me into feeling sorry for her, and one part orgasms you wouldn’t believe. As I began to compromise more and more of myself for the relationship, the one thing I could count on was hard, dirty, ungentle sex of a kind I hadn’t known bodies like ours were even able to have. In the beginning, and even in the middle when things were starting to go bad, I could not get enough.

I have no doubt that the social role dictated to middle-class Jewish bachelors in the 1960s was quite narrow and oppressive, but the roles we allow victims of domestic violence to inhabit can feel a bit constraining at times, too. One cannot simply be a horny, sex-obsessed, angry, daring, ambitious victim of rape and domestic abuse. There was no space for it in the meetings with caseworkers where you told them all the bad things that had happened to you so that they could decide whether you would be allowed to stay. There was no space for it in the “empowerment” groups where they taught you that abuse is bad, mmkay, so don’t let yourself be abused again. I held in laughter so many times in those groups that I thought I’d lose my capacity for it. Portnoy was a blessed relief from the pretense and performance of submissive, grateful female victimhood that was expected of me in order to earn my place.

I don’t kid myself that Roth could have imagined that a transgender man in a women’s domestic violence shelter might one day see his experience reflected in the shame and yearning for liberation-through-transgression his most famous character displayed. But in being so specifically Jewish and ’60s and cisgender male, Portnoy brings off that special magic that happens when an author drills so deeply into the specifics of one single, idiosyncratic experience that they find deep human truths, truths that then resonate far beyond their time and place. Finding these resonances of human spirit to human spirit in literature can be marvelous and hilarious and delightful and disturbing and dark, and when we find them at our most trying times, they can even have the power to remind us that we are not alone. However weird it is to speak of the sublime in reference to a novel about jerking off, that is always what Roth and this odd little book will mean to me.