Wednesday, February 28, 2024

Ed Wood Wednesdays, week 179: The Perverts (1968) [PART 2 of 2]

An unusual massage from Ed Wood's The Perverts. (Image courtesy of Bob Blackburn.)

Let's play a game.

I'll give you a passage from The Perverts (1968), a sexual guidebook Ed Wood wrote for Viceroy under the assumed name "Jason Nichols," and you try to tell me what this chapter is actually about. Ready? Here goes:
Time and the tide seldom changes. It only revamps itself to progress other thoughts. The river continues to run year after year and one might wonder why it never runs dry. The story is that the river is once more sucked up into the sun and redeposited at the head again.
Okay, maybe that wasn't enough. I'll give you the entire next paragraph:
Sex is much the same way. As has been stated over and over again during these chapters, SEX per se is never satisfied. It is only sucked up into the body of another and redeposited for another fling, and so it shall be to the end of time and since there is no such thing as the end of time so there shall never be an end to SEX and the variations thereof.
Give up? That was from the chapter about incest. So what was all that stuff about tides and rivers and the sun? You got me. But I'm trying to give you an idea of what reading The Perverts is like. 

As a writer with a restless mind, Ed Wood will go off on philosophical tangents that have little or nothing to do with the subject at hand. Remember Glen or Glenda (1953), in which narrator Dr. Alton (Timothy Farrell) is supposed to be telling us about cross-dressers but somehow gets onto the topic of "the modern world and its business administration"? Much of The Perverts is like that. The book's quasi-lofty tone is also highly reminiscent of the ponderous narration of Ed's The Young Marrieds (1972). Very often in that film, the narration will play over footage of waves crashing against the rocks, similar to the tidal imagery used in The Perverts.

Speaking of images, last week I complained that my edition of the book lacked the photos that were in the original printing. Well, Bob Blackburn heard my plea and sent me some of the pics from his copy of The Perverts, which in turn was Ed Wood's own personal copy of the book! Bob says that there are about 20 to 30 "mostly topless" black-and-white photographs altogether in his edition. It does not look like the publisher, Viceroy, commissioned new photos based specifically on Ed Wood's text, but instead used whatever photos they happened to have lying around that sort of matched what was in the book. Below is a collage of images from the chapters on troilism, fetishes, and lesbianism. 

A triptych of images from The Perverts.

I'm grateful to Bob for giving me a sampling of the visual content in The Perverts. Feel free to explore this gallery of images if you're interested in seeing more. But now, let us talk about the literary content in this remarkable book.

The last time we spoke, I was discussing the book's first five chapters, including Ed Wood's thoughts on sadomasochism, necrophilia, fetish objects, prostitution, and three-ways. If you were expecting The Perverts to calm down or play nice in its second half, you were mistaken. In fact, Chapter Six is about one of society's most widely-held taboos: bestiality. I suppose the horny, lonely, heterosexual men who were the primary targets of a book like this were probably fantasizing about women having sex with dogs and horses. And Ed discusses that kind of thing here, but he has a lot more on his mind.

Eve: the first homosexual?
As we know from his numerous glossary-style articles, including "Sexual Terminology" (1971) and "There Are Different Words" (1974), Ed Wood was obsessed with the words we use to describe sexual matters, both clinical jargon and slang terms. Here, at the beginning of his chapter on bestiality, he fixates on the double meaning of "pussy" and ruminates on how the connotations of certain words can change over time. 

Ed eventually starts talking about the strong autoerotic drives of monkeys, horses, and elephants and adds that most of us humans are satisfied with the occasional "quick bang" with our spouses. But then, he tells us, there are "the WEIRD lot" who seek sexual gratification outside typical heteronormative relationships. Some of these thrill-seekers have sex with their cars, for instance. (We talked about that last week.) But when even this is not enough, they move on to animals. Why are beasts superior to automobiles as sex partners? Ed explains that it's because they "can know what is going on and can feel the shaft when it is driven home." Try getting your Buick to do that.

In The Perverts, Ed Wood repeats the old urban legend about syphilis starting when a lusty shepherd had intercourse with a sheep. Don't you believe a word of it, though. Science says otherwise. But Eddie uses this as a springboard to talk about a whole host of topics: Christians being fed to the lions in Ancient Rome, women having sex with ponies at private peep shows, farmers having intercourse with their livestock, etc. He even spouts some nonsense about Adam, Eve, and the snake in the Garden of Eden, somehow arriving at the conclusion that "Eve performed the first homosexual act ever noted." And what was that act? Having oral sex with Adam. (You have to understand that, in Ed Wood's world, all oral sex is homosexual even when men and women perform it on each other.)

Eddie ends Chapter Six on an especially disturbing note with one of The Perverts' many fraudulent case studies, specifically the testimony of a deranged, sadistic man who slashes the throats of the dogs he molests so that they don't bark. "I cut their throat and turn 'em upside down," he reports, "and give it to them while they still got hot blood." Narrator Ed steps in to say that a man like this "has to be watched extremely closely" but says there is "no end in sight" to such animal cruelty.

After that descent into hell, Chapter Seven of The Perverts devotes itself to the benign topic of homosexuality. Is Eddie equating being gay with killing dogs for sexual gratification? No, not exactly. In the opening paragraphs of the seventh chapter, he (mostly) dispels the old, outdated image of the villainous gay man, i.e. "a character with dripping fangs and wide eyes under a dark hat who lurked around the corner from the nearest park toilet." Today, Ed tells us, homosexuals have risen to prominent positions in the government, the military, the arts, and "all the business offices of the world." Just like in Glen or Glenda, however, he makes sure to point out the difference between "the true transvestite" and the homosexual who briefly dons women's clothing in order to attract men.

We are then treated to some first-person testimony from "a rugged, handsome, greying man" who loves to admire his own form in the mirror. (The mirror is a classic Woodian motif; I really can't emphasize its importance enough.) Sometimes, this older man likes to pick up a stranger so that both of them can masturbate in front of the mirror together. "I know it's a hell of a waste of love juice," says the man, "but damn it all to hell, it's fun at the time." Since none of The Perverts' interview subjects is real, this "greying man" must represent some aspect of Ed Wood's own personality.

Ed briefly touches on some other, related topics; laws against homosexuality; the widespread blackmailing of gay men (this is another subject he returned to both in his writing and his films); the impracticality of locking up all gays in prison; and even the "psychiatric treatment which might help" cure them of this affliction. Even in 1968, Eddie knew such treatment wasn't for everyone. Again, I'm reminded of Dr. Alton's narration in Glen or Glenda:
Glen/Glenda should consult a competent psychologist, but then, very few transvestites wish to change their strange desires. This is their life. To take it away from them might do as great a harm as taking away an arm or a leg or life itself.
In last week's article, I stated that The Perverts makes a good stand-in for Ed Wood's entire literary canon, in case you don't have time to read his dozens of other books. That's saying a lot, but I stand by it. In the 1960s and '70s, Ed wrote novels as well as supposed nonfiction (or at least nonnarrative) works. The Perverts supposedly falls into the latter category—Eddie even has the gall to call it a "clinical journal"—but some of its more detailed case studies read like miniature novels. 

Chapter Seven contains a perfect example of what I'm talking about: the detailed history of an unnamed fortysomething man who has been arrested 28 times, with the charges ranging from homosexuality to public drunkenness to auto theft. The man is unapologetic about his lifestyle. "I am what I am," he tells the police, evoking both God and Popeye the Sailor Man. Eddie really goes into detail about this man's life, telling us how he was raised by a grandmother who treated him more like a girl than a boy (though she never dressed him in girls' clothes), how he was teased and even sexually abused by his classmates, and how he wound up in the juvenile justice system through a complete mishap, paving the way for an adulthood of criminality. This is very much the kind of story that Eddie liked to tell in his novels, but here it is condensed to just a few pages.

Sexologist Havelock Ellis.
Chapter Eight is the one you've probably been waiting the whole book for: transvestism. It was likely the chapter Eddie himself was most excited to write, since this topic was never far from his mind. True to form, he starts out this section of the book complaining about the anti-crossdressing laws that were the bane of the characters in Glen or Glenda. Apparently, these hadn't gone away in the ensuing 15 years. (I wonder what Ed would have to say about the more recent controversies surrounding drag performers.)

In The Perverts, Ed looks at the issue of crossdressing from a historical standpoint. He relates the tale of mythological hero Achilles dodging the draft by dressing as a woman and compares him to a modern-day actor who wore a "blue angora sweater" (what else?) to his induction physical to keep from being sent to Vietnam. Eddie then tells us how Victorian-era sexologist Havelock Ellis (1859-1939) coined the classy term "eonism" to describe the phenomenon of men dressing as women. Do you suppose that, in trying to understand his own urge to cross-dress, Ed Wood discovered this historical information at his local library and was encouraged or even vindicated when he found it?

Ed Wood's crossdressing was at the heart of his own sexuality, and he makes that explicit in The Perverts. Very, very explicit. But Eddie's sexuality was labyrinthine, and it can be difficult to understand his views on gender roles and intercourse. I'll give you an example from this chapter:
With the true transvestite, he is taken up, day and night with the thoughts of clothing. There is no bed partner which can satisfy him unless he dresses for the part. On seeing someone who might be of interest, sexually, the person might get all the hots necessary, but the hots cannot be sustained unless they can put on their beloved clothing—many times the clothing of the partner they have chosen. 
When a man wants to be the girl in life, it is only natural he assumes the girl role in bed—the bottom partner. It is in his thoughts that when he makes an insertion into the girl with his penis it is not his tool at all, but the girl is actually making the insertion into him. Tight leg panties, in such cases, becomes all important because the scrotum remains hidden while only the shaft is exposed. Thus when the shaft is buried, who is to really say which end holds the body?
I'll be honest and say I don't really understand how this works. Did Eddie have to have these bewildering conversations with his own bed partners? Or did he keep these jumbled thoughts to himself, only daring to express his complicated views on paper? In her autobiography, Dolores Fuller was very forthcoming in describing her sex life with Ed Wood in the early 1950s, and it doesn't seem like Eddie took a "bottom" role in that relationship. Perhaps all this was going on in Ed's mind and his partners were unaware of it.

Eddie concludes Chapter Eight with yet another of his ginned-up case studies, this time the testimony of a lifelong transvestite whose mother dressed him as a girl and even gave him a feminine name at birth. In many ways, this mostly-happy story acts as a parallel to the very sad one in Chapter Seven. The two men in these stories had vaguely similar origins, but one was essentially thrown to the wolves while the other was protected and nurtured. The first became a criminal, the second a functioning member of society.

Chapter Nine is the aforementioned one about incest. It gives us a highly detailed, if utterly fraudulent, case study of a young woman identified only as Mary X. Her shocking story takes up virtually the entire chapter, occasionally interrupted by vague philosophical statements from the book's narrator. (I gave you a sample of that at the beginning of the article.) Poor Mary began an affair with her own father shortly after being knocked up by one of her high school classmates and giving up the baby for adoption. That incident apparently made "Pappa" look at his daughter differently. Meanwhile, Mary's brothers were having sex with each other, too. Eventually, all of them wound up either in prison or insane asylums, something Mary finds terribly unfair. At least she's not promiscuous like her sisters!

I honestly don't know what Ed Wood is trying to say about Mary X and her family. Is he sympathetic towards them? Is he appalled by them? Here's how he ends the chapter:
Case after case of incest comes to light every year and is on the gain. Sometimes it is the drunken father, or mother, who comes home and it is a one-time embarrassing thing. But more to the fact of the subject it is a many timed affair often to be repeated. The father to the daughter and the mother to the son or reversed as so desired. 
There comes the thought that the mother made the father in the first place—thus the off-springs. Then, another thought, why should not the off-springs get together. The NUTS which come from such an affair are few and far between … It is with only the few—cousin to cousin or the other combinations that the STRANGE ONE is born and with these few the historians will deal and make it look like every child born through incest will come out NUTS, DEFORMED or mentally deficient.
What the hell does that mean, Ed? That the taboo against incest is unfair and that cases of birth defects through inbreeding are rare? In the unproduced screenplay Edward Ford (1978), the "Harold Blake" character based on Ed Wood claims that incest stories are his specialty. Luckily, I haven't found that to be true of the real Ed Wood, but this is clearly a subject about which Eddie felt... something. I'm afraid to find out what.

The final chapter of The Perverts deals with lesbianism. Again, you may be offended that this topic is covered in this book at all, since it's supposedly about perversions, but Chapter Ten contains nothing too terribly inflammatory by Ed Wood standards. Actually, if you've read When the Topic is Sex (2021), you already know what Ed is going to say here. At one point in this chapter, he declares that "lesbianism has held a strange fascination throughout the centuries."  This is very similar to the title of an article he wrote in 1972 under the name Ann Gora: "The Strange Fascination of Lesbianism." 

Eddie trots out the greatest hits here. We get the stereotypical "bull dyke" lesbians who frequent "beer bars." We're also told that suburban housewives are routinely engaging in lesbian orgies while their husbands are at work. ("It is coming more and more to light that suburbia USA is the Lesbian center of the world.") Ed being Ed, he steers the conversation towards angora sweaters, high heels, and sheer nighties. He even manages to work in some threads that are completely unrelated to the topic at hand, including references to the casting couch and to male cross-dressers.

Chapter Ten also includes The Perverts' final case study, this time the recollections of "a lovely blonde who wore the most feminine of styles." This unnamed lass had some (enjoyable) heterosexual experiences in high school but discovered the true joys of lesbianism in college when she and her dormmate, Rose Marie, took a shower together one hot July day. I might ask why these two ladies are taking college classes in July, when most students are on break. Never mind. They found each other.

And thus ends The Perverts, perhaps the most efficient book in the entire Ed Wood canon. In just ten chapters, Eddie has given us a whirlwind tour of his obsessions, expounded on his personal philosophy at some length, and even written some intriguing character studies that read like condensed novels. For these reasons and more, I'd say this title is an excellent candidate for reissue.