H/c and me: An autoethnographic account of a troubled love affair

Judith May Fathallah

Cardiff University, Wales, United Kingdom

[0.1] Abstract—An autoethnographic view of the hurt/comfort genre, its significance, and its appeal.

[0.2] Keywords—Fan fiction; Hurt/comfort

Fathallah, Judith May. 2011. "H/c and Me: An Autoethnographic Account of a Troubled Love Affair." Transformative Works and Cultures, no. 7.

1. (A partial) history

[1.1] When my brother and I were small children, our parents took us about twice a month to rent one video each. "Don't you want a different one this time?" they would ask me, as I returned again and again to the same tape. "You must know that one by heart." I almost did; but as those of a fannish disposition will appreciate, that was no obstruction to me wanting to watch it again. The tape was a home safety instructional video featuring the BBC puppet characters Sooty, Sweep, and Sue: a bear, dog, and panda who inexplicably appeared to be siblings, and lived with their puppet operator/adoptive caretaker, Matthew Corbett.

[1.2] Sweep, who was never portrayed as particularly intelligent, suffered a series of mishaps in this video caused by his ignorance of safety in the home. I presume he was then shown the proper way to safely conduct himself, but I do not remember that. That was not the reason I wanted the video. Even aged 4 or 5, for some reason I failed to understand yet was vaguely, uneasily aware of, I wanted to see my favorite fictional characters hurt.

[1.3] I am a pacifist ideologically, and am personally afraid of violence. I used to have nightmares that somehow conscription would return, the absolute worst scenario my younger brain could imagine, and low-flying airplanes still frighten me. The thought of committing physical violence on another human makes me feel sick. Yet as I got older, my predilection for fictional pain and anguish only grew stronger—but only ever on the part of characters I liked and identified strongly with, usually the youngest members of fictional families. This disturbed me. It felt secret, wrong, and I did not understand it. Like many acafans, I was already an ardent writer of fan fiction despite having no idea what it was. The Animals of Farthing Wood and Sonic the Hedgehog continued their adventures in the pages of my diaries, and when I desired more stories without the effort of actually writing them, I nagged and wheedled my older brother to "write me more Sonic stories," which good-natured attempts remain unfinished in boxes and files in an attic.

2. Break-enter theory

[2.1] When I was 13, my life was dramatically interrupted by a complex, life-threatening, and horribly misrepresented illness called anorexia nervosa, and by subsequent inpatient hospitalization. Though I hesitate even to name the illness, for fear of the misconceptions it has caused and will cause about me, I cannot write autoethnographically without stating this fundamental division of my younger and elder selves. I began to reemerge, in my later teens, a darker, harder, more cynical human being, suspicious and impatient with everything, drained of compassion for myself or anyone else. And at this time, I discovered the Internet, organized fandom,, and the vast proliferation of hurt/comfort fiction that, despite my distaste for vulnerability or weakness of any sort in real life, suddenly provided me with reams and reams of exactly what I'd always secretly wanted: my favorite characters being hurt and then comforted. Over and over again. My guilty secret now had a name and took on a life of its own. Now I knew that other people liked it. But surely it wasn't normal. I justified it to myself by pretending it was only the comfort part I was interested in—the making better, the reparation. That was good, surely? That was being a normal human (normal humans shouldn't be interested in observing pain). I seized upon the Freudian fort-da theory in self-explanation as soon as I discovered it: the controlled experience of loss is necessary and fundamental to pleasurable restoration (Freud [1920] 1995, 599–601) (note 1). That must be it. I wasn't evil. I was just wise enough to see that things had to go horribly wrong in order to get better.

[2.2] Then, by chance, when I was about 17, I stumbled across a copy of Camille Bacon-Smith's Enterprising Women (1992). After my initial shock that there was such a thing as scholarship about fandom, I skipped straight to the central section on hurt/comfort. Now a real theory by a real academic could explain me to myself. But what I read repelled me. An exploration of vulnerability in suffering? An outlet for denied female pain? And worst of all—that abhorred term—a feminine reworking of hypermasculinist dominant-culture narrative? (Bacon-Smith 1992, 270–79). Vulnerable and feminine were two labels I absolutely rejected for myself and anything that could possibly interest me; female I grudgingly accepted as my genetic lot. I almost starved myself in what was partially a misguided attempt to prove that, body notwithstanding, I was not feminine, or weak, or dependent on anyone or anything, that I could exert my will over the mess and chaos of existence. The way to get by in this world, I had learned the hard way, was to be tough, independent, and not reliant on anything, especially not the demands of the unruly body. I was tough. I was self-disciplined. My mind told my body what it could have when, and what it couldn't.

[2.3] Thus decided, the next thing I attempted was the deliberate abandonment of h/c for slash. Being of an age where sex occupied a large proportion of my thinking, this worked very well for some time. I was pleased. All along, I had been on the moral high ground: it was the repressive, violent, compulsorily straight regime of dominant culture that had led me to h/c in order to satisfy my appropriately radical queer proclivities. H/c aficionados, I informed myself, didn't really know what they wanted: they were the unfortunate dupes of a culture that celebrated violence and denigrated the complexities of sexuality. But I, being clever, had found a subcultural space from which to practice tactical resistance. (I remind the reader I was still only 18 years old or so, in apology for my naïveté.) Conveniently ignoring the intimate, boundary-broaching entanglement of trauma, affect, and sex one finds so clearly in much slash, h/c, and h/c slash (Cvetkovich 2003, 49–56, drawing on Freud's image metaphor of the sensitive organism for consciousness in "Beyond the Pleasure Principle"), I told myself I could separate them clearly. I read the most pain-free slash I could find, largely that espousing an assimilationist queer agenda of love and joyful sex. But then I went away to university, my life experience broadened, and I came gradually to the conclusion that sex—which I then defined as trusting, caring fun without harm—did not account for the full range and complexity of my problems and needs. Sometimes I didn't even want it.

[2.4] And so, inevitably, I returned to reading h/c. And yes—my latest guilty secret, surely the most pathological even I could get—h/c slash. Why was I so compelled, over and over, by these tales of failed bodily and psychic integrity? Why was I so drawn to the often humiliating suffering of the always-male characters I identified with the most?

3. Some insights

[3.1] H/c is a huge phenomenon. Sometimes it is sentimentalized to the point of absurdity, to the point that the characters seem like compulsively overemotive parodies of themselves. Sometimes it is gritty with verisimilitude and almost devoid of the comfort element. Certainly, Bacon-Smith had a narrow view of it, understandable when one considers the date of her work and the small range of material she had to analyze. There is plenty of fic that could be and is called h/c that has very little in common with her paradigm. Yet still, elements of her theory strike a half-embarrassed chord with me. I want the characters I identify with to be made vulnerable, because that is something I cannot afford. I do not want to be vulnerable and I am not a victim, not in real life. Not 99 percent of the time. Yet perhaps h/c fic is my little pressure valve—when the irrational, embarrassed part of myself that feels unfairly wounded and wants to be comforted lives vicariously through a character for a moment. Not a female character. That is uncomfortable, and too close to home.

[3.2] But there is more to it. Perhaps h/c taps a fantasy: the empathetic, nontransmittable understanding of pain. "Western man has become a confessing animal" (Foucault 1980, 59) (note 2) not only in our discourse-formed compulsion to be categorized and interpretable, but also to be understood and accounted for. Pain being the least transmittable of sensations, the dawning understanding that in mental and physical recovery from severe trauma one is most entirely and necessarily alone and uninterpretable came as a shock that I found difficult to assimilate. In h/c, transmission is unnecessary—the comforting character understands, though no one else does. Unnecessary and unwanted: apprehension of the confession compulsion brings a healthy skepticism of "the institutions of power/knowledge that make confession and disclosure potentially less than liberatory" (Cvetkovich 2003, 92). All the more so when, in awkwardly accepting the identity-signifier of survivor or ex-anorexic or (insert pathology/valorization of your choice), one realizes that the mark comes with a terrifying expectation of something called authenticity. I used to make up answers to my psychiatrists' questions because I didn't know what I was supposed to say. It didn't matter: I quickly realized that anything I said would be always already interpreted in terms of the institutionally ratified models of mental illness they had learned, relentlessly invested in the fantasy of a private sphere and individual pathologies magically detachable from globalized late capitalism and the decline of left-wing politics in the UK. (If I met them again—how much I would not talk, how much Foucault and Benjamin and Chantal Mouffe I would give them to read instead!) Thus my enjoyment of h/c comes with a firm condition: not too much talking. If there is too much talking, I stop reading. If the comforter understands, let him understand, but none of the "melodramatic fantasy that the trauma survivor will finally tell all and receive the solace of being heard by a willing and supportive listener" (Cvetkovich 2003, 22).

[3.3] Then of course there is the narcissism. "One of the things I love most about reading and writing hurt/comfort," says fan fiction writer Mokibobolink, "is that it gives my favorite characters a chance to be the center of attention" (2010). I like this aspect too—and I suspect, given that I like the hurt party to be the character I identify strongly with, that it fulfills my perpetual younger-child need to be noticed and valued in comparison with other people. For it is also a matter of power and hierarchies, of leveling things out: I like the attention and appreciation bestowed on the hurt character to equalize differences of rank, race, class. I do not want the characters I see as privileged to be hurt; I want them to do the comforting and the worrying and the appreciating. I was unaware of this until my LiveJournal friend Merisunshine36 (March 6, 2010) inadvertently explained me to myself in a post on her frustration with James Kirk: "Kirk represents everything that's upsetting about the way American white boys…are continually favored over everyone else in AOS [Alternative Original Series], and I hate that. I hate how AOS fandom rarely questions this premise, and instead loves to depict him as some Mary Sueish (yes, I said it) combination of genius hero, tragic woobie, loving patriarch, sexual lion and occasional psychic" (note 3).

[3.4] I replied:

[3.5] Ok, you've just explained to me why when I was all about Kirk/Spock, if I was going to read h/c, I couldn't have hurt!Kirk. Because my brain doesn't want him to be tragic! I think at some level I was saying, "He's got everything going for him, he's not allowed to be a tragic woobie!" And also I liked hurt!Spock cos it tended to make Kirk realize how awesome he (Spock) is. Hurt!Kirk just = more tragic hero worship.

[3.6] Being mixed race, proud of my brain but uncomfortable in my body, and not particularly demonstrative, it was only reasonable that I should choose Spock as my point of nonprivileged identification—and thus, I now realized, the character I desired hurt and comforted. I was starting to understand tragedy as societal, not as the ill-fated rise and fall of one brilliant, hubristic hero—"personal" experience, to risk the cliché, as political. Thus the parentheses in the title of section 1 above: it is my history, but it is piecemeal, contextless, because those are the memories I have access to. I am doubtful whether "my history" can really belong to me: I can experience it, certainly—I can even write that experience—but I am doubtful whether individuals can possess histories apart from the local and global contexts that shape those histories, above and below the levels of individual consciousness that fluctuate throughout our lives.

[3.7] This is why I cannot—and think I should not—attempt a totalizing theory of h/c. Its affect needs to be interpreted through these social/personal histories, parts of which must necessarily escape us. We can theorize its potential and effects; we can describe our experiences of it to each other, look for more or less frequently recurring patterns in its pleasures and problems, and try to understand what that tells us about ourselves and our communities in the context in which we live. But the attempt to say what it is, and why people like it, will only lead us back to the exhausted, self-consuming mystery of an individual human nature detached from politics. Not to mention the fact Bacon-Smith never quite accounted for: some people don't like it at all.

[3.8] To return to the concrete: nowadays, I accept my gender happily in the abstract, and am on reasonable terms with my physical body. Perhaps, were I some archetype of a sane person, I would be able to express my own occasional vulnerability, acknowledge without frustration the needs and frailties of my own body in the contexts that constitute that body and my existence in it. Perhaps then I would not love to read h/c anymore. And it is true that I have expanded my reading interests, choosing fic more because I admire and enjoy the author's work than because I am pursuing a particular genre designation. Yet good h/c by an author I admire is still a deep source of pleasure to me, and a delight to find. The archetype of sanity being beyond anyone, it is probably just as well to have fiction keeping us sane enough, happy enough to carry on with life.

4. Acknowledgments

[4.1] Thanks to Mokibobolink and Merisunshine36 for permitting me to reference their meta.

5. Notes

1. This is Freud's famous analysis of a game played by his 18-month-old grandson, consisting of throwing away a toy in order to experience its pleasurable restoration, while enunciating his approximation of the German fort and da ("gone" and "there"). Freud suggests that the controlled and mastered repetition of trauma followed by its resolution allowed the child to cope with the real intermittent absences of his mother, as well as enacting a form of revenge for the pain caused by this absence. He relates this explicitly to the adult games of art and drama that "do not spare the spectators (for instance, in tragedy) the most painful experiences and can yet be felt by them as highly enjoyable" ([1920] 1995, 601).

2. By man, Foucault of course meant people in general.

3. Woobie is a joking fan term for an (excessively) tragic figure made repeatedly to suffer in canon and fanon.

6. Works cited

Bacon-Smith, Camille. 1992. Enterprising Women. Philadelphia: Univ. of Pennsylvania Press.

Cvetkovich, Ann. 2003. An Archive of Feelings: Trauma, Sexuality, and Lesbian Public Cultures. Durham, NC: Duke Univ. Press.

Foucault, Michel. 1980. The History of Sexuality. Vol. 1. Trans. Robert Hurley. London: Random House.

Freud, Sigmund. (1920) 1995. "Beyond the Pleasure Principle." In The Freud Reader, ed. Peter Gay. London: Vintage.

Mokibobolink. 2010. "Hurt/Comfort Fanfiction: Why Do We Hurt the Ones We Love?" Moki's Fanfiction Blog, May 20.