Tongue First

Etelka Lohoczsy reviews 'Tongue First' by Emily Jenkins.

Published August 20, 1998 7:00PM (EDT)

Bodies are so stubborn. No matter how we peer at and probe them, assail their limits and bully them into submission, they ultimately control us, not the other way around. They lock each of us into, and others out of, our own gnarled, prelingual realm of need and sensation. Anyone who proffers a map to this inner world -- or simply agrees to share their adventures there -- compels our attention. In recent decades it's often been women who have taken on the adventurer's role.

Even in the wake of feminism, anti-feminism and post-feminism, women's bodies still seem more mysterious and hazardous than men's -- both to those on the outside and to those within. And so a series of women writers, from Linda Lovelace and Gloria Steinem to Annie Sprinkle and Susie Bright, have descended into embodiment and returned to tell the tale.

The latest bedraggled explorer to come limping out of the jungle is Columbia University Ph.D. student Emily Jenkins. In "Tongue First," she describes various bodily experiences, some bizarre, some banal. Like her predecessors, Jenkins has made a point of doing things that don't come naturally, at least not to most people. Unlike them, she's also done things that do -- but done them more attentively, and with a notebook along. In "Tongue First" she snorts, strips, tattoos and Rolfs; she also sleeps, bathes, barfs and shops.

Jenkins possesses the nuanced attention to her own feelings that's de rigueur for this form. Her descriptions of sensation make the book pleasurable, but it's her nose for sudden clarity that makes it surprising and memorable. It's all too easy, even (or especially) in our era of determined sexual sophistication, to spin tales of physical derring-do. Countless journalists sell lifestyle magazines their stories of tripping, fasting, abstaining and overdoing -- basically, brazening through any experience we'd like to understand without enduring. Jenkins does far more. In a tone that's both precise and swollen with subterranean emotion, she picks her way delicately to the anxious heart of each exploit. And she drops piquant little aphorisms along the way: "Tacit blindness in nudist settings is ... a rule that is constantly being broken."

Unlike some writers on the body, Jenkins husbands her emotions. Deeply aware of the dangers of self-exposure, she sets firm limits on how much she's willing to tell. Though she fearlessly relates her awkwardness at a Madison Avenue spa and her regressive response to heroin, she's surprisingly reticent about other topics. In "Sex Lessons," a chapter on unspoken sexual rules and rituals, she hews firmly to the universal, describing feelings rather than evoking them. The same prescription applies when she discusses the physical fitness cult; she relates her years of aerobics, but keeps her own motivations for this regimen, and her thoughts about its role in her life, close to her chest.

Remarkably, this restraint works. Jenkins has seen other self-revelatory authors turn exhibitionism into its own defense, and she offers the reader more than a peeping-Tom's view of her soul. She honestly tells what she can, and when she can't, her reserve is its own kind of revelation. In a world so thoroughly explored as this one, silence may be the only secret left.

By Etelka Lehoczsy

Etelka Lehoczsy is an editor at Chicago's Windy City Times.

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