August 11, 2005

The Box

A man, his mother, President Nixon, and the Girls of the Big 10.

J. Segal

The phone rang on Saturday afternoon as I was about to go out for a run. It was Mom.

"Do you have a second?"
"I was just about to go out for a run."
"Oh. Well. I was cleaning out your closet."
(Actually, it is the closet formerly known as my closet, since it has long been overtaken by whatever off-season clothing my mother wants to store there.)
"Oh, yeah?"
"And I found this box."
A dark but still nebulous thought clouded my brain as my mother adopted a bemused-yet-embarrassed tone.
"And it just fell apart when your father picked it up."
"And all these pornographic magazines and videos of naked ladies just fell out."

J. Segal
J. Segal
The Author awaiting The Rapture.
She found my box of porn.

It seemed like an odd coincidence that my mom was calling me at this particular time to parse the fate of my stash of sleaze. In my day job, I had just seen the pornumentary Inside Deep Throat and interviewed the documentarians, Fenton Bailey and Randy Barbato. (This, friends, passes for work when you're a newspaper reporter.) Their thesis was that for a split second in the early 1970s, pornography shed its stigma of shame and became acceptable to view and talk about in polite company.

But the trend didn't have staying power. After Deep Throat made its very public debut, the now-familiar forces of the religious right pushed back against the film with a legal and public-relations crusade that squelched any chance for legitimacy. The backlash against Deep Throat almost led to jail time for its lead actor and elbowed cinematic sex onto video and back into the closet—where my mother and father unearthed it years later.

I didn't exactly recall leaving a stray box of porn sitting in my childhood closet next to my Cabbage Patch Kid and autographed Twins baseball. But I could believe it.

The circumstances of my sudden move to California from the wholesome Midwest dictated that some of my belongings would be left behind, just like my porn-laden soul would be in the event of The Rapture. Given the choice between taking my golf clubs or a secondary box of porn, I took my clubs. I think I deserve a little credit. Some men would have chosen differently.

But I can't believe that I would have been so negligent as to have left the stuff sitting in my closet in a disintegrating box. Growing up, paranoid, pimply me always kept one hand poised on the remote control as I watched Red Shoe Diaries while my parents were out playing tennis. I was always ready to punch in a quick one-one, to instantly change the channel from the silicone implant festival to the local NBC affiliate, the family-friendly KARE, in case my parents came home. I still clear the cache of their web browser each time I use their computer. (Even if I'm doing something as tame as checking my email; old habits die hard.)

Now, after getting away with it for 27 years, I was caught. I expected embarrassment. I expected, perhaps, a rebuke from my mother, who always displayed a sort of ew attitude toward pornography, placing it somewhere between gambling and wearing white after Labor Day in her personal pantheon of sins. What I did not expect was a discussion.

"So," my mother asked, "what do you want me to do with it?"

It was bad enough that they called me instead of just leaving the box be, or throwing it away. The call was unnecessary to begin with; they tossed my favorite armchair, schlepped all the way from Madison to my parents' basement, without so much as a text message.

But now they wanted me to agonize over the fate of my old box of porn.

"Do you want me to keep it for you?" she asked. "Or can I throw it out?"

Option A was a little tempting, until I imagined the implications.

One scenario had my parents playing bridge with another couple, the Hoffmans, the Kupemans, the Whatevermans. Somehow, the subject of the box of porn comes up. Inevitably, the guest couple, perhaps my childhood pediatrician and his math-teacher wife, parse through my box of private shame, holding up various publications and ridiculing me as my parents wonder how they birthed and raised a degenerate chronic masturbator with a fetish for the Girls of the Big 10. (If only I had gotten into Yale like my sister, they would think, maybe I would have turned out decent.)

A second, more sinister scenario seeped through my skull. My parents keep the porn, yes, probably move it from the closet to the basement, where it would stay. But it tugs at their psyches, a black spot in the corners of their brains. Curious about his son's secret life, my father opens the box. The provocative images inside arouse dormant desires. Soon, the box becomes an issue that spirals out of control, ending with my father frequenting the strip clubs of Minneapolis's Warehouse District in a leisure suit with hair plugs and a golden medallion. Left in the home, my box of porn becomes the poison pill killing off an otherwise healthy 35-year marriage.

The shame. The shame. "You can throw it out," I said.

What happened next confirmed that I made the right decision. My mother started, piece by piece, going through the box while I was on the phone.

Cindy Crawford
The Temptress, before her MILF days
"Are you sure?" she asked. "What about this Playboy with Cindy Crawford on it?" "Yes, I'm sure." "College Girls?" "C'mon, Mom!" "What about all these video covers?" she asked. "I can't find the videos. Do you need the covers?"

My mood was beginning to shift from embarrassment to annoyance, with just a dash of aggression. This was vengeance for all the cracks I made about their remodeling project, and my mom was enjoying it a little too much.

"Throw out the whole box," I said. "I live with my girlfriend. I don't have any use for it anymore."
My mother pressed on.
"What did you use this stuff for, anyway?" she asked—rhetorically, I think.

But I couldn't let the question lie. The shame, ironically, motivated conversational candor that probably hadn't been seen since Deep Throat played matinee shows in Times Square.

"What do you think I use it for?," I said. "I used it to masturbate. When I was a lonely college kid. Are you happy now? What? You think Dad never masturbated? Why don't you ask him what it's for."

Screw Inside Deep Throat. Nixon was right. Sex is better cloaked in an aura of shame and secrecy—at least where my parents are concerned. That way, at least, conversations like the one I had with my mother last weekend could be avoided.

The porn had to go. But not before my mother had the last word.

"What about this tape," she asked. Hillbilly Honeys?


When not writing about porn, watching porn, or hiding in shame from his mother, J. Segal blogs about running at

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