That Thing You Do With Your Mouth, by David Shields and Samantha Matthews
Reviewed by Elisabeth Sherman
As a young child, actress Samantha Matthews was the victim of sexual abuse. Her story is a familiar one. Abuse and assault are common themes in the lives of too many women—according to a National Intimate Partner and Sexual Violence Survey, 1.9 million were raped in 2011. But how many are given the opportunity to publicly reshape that traumatizing narrative on their own terms, in their words?
As an adult, Matthews dubbed Italian porn films into English. Her cousin, the author David Shields, thought her work was ripe for a documentary. Though Matthews gathered footage, the film never came together, so Shields suggested they work on building a written narrative. Over many months of emails, Skype sessions, and texting, Shields compiled enough material for That Thing You Do With Your Mouth, the story of Matthews’s sexual history in her own words and voice, edited by her cousin.
Taking the form of an extended monologue, That Thing You Do With Your Mouth is a path toward healing: “Having the stories and the self-analysis on the page rather than just having it swirling around in my brain was hugely cathartic,” Matthews, who was abused by her stepbrothers Carl and Jesse from ages two to five, told me over email. But this book is also a manifesto in favor of frank investigations: What is the role that sex plays in our development? Can we find freedom in publicly sharing our most intimate secrets?
Matthews recounts her sexual conquests, with both men and women—passionate, tumultuous, erotic relationships that she approaches with unreserved honesty, from the boyfriend whose “constant need to have sex became an unbearable lashing,” and with whom she found herself “bent over naked in a divey hotel room with a paper bag over my head, hands bound together, and him photographing me with our Polaroid camera,” while on a road trip, to the girlfriend she “fucked on her living room floor to really loud, deep tech music.” Her confidence (and bravery) is deliciously refreshing. It left me wondering what would happen if all women, given the space, felt comfortable enough to come forward with the stories of their sex lives, uninhibited by shame or fear. Would we be able to cast off the baggage associated with sex and intimacy in our culture, and freely explore our desires? The answer is complicated.
“I still feel shameful about [the book]. Hopefully that will pass over time,” says Matthews. Her attitude isn’t surprising: research by the National Institute of Health (2001) shows that sexual abuse in childhood consistently results in feelings of shame or stigma.
And yet in a book that lacks all subtlety—Matthews recalls being fascinated with “fat” and “skinny” labia as a five year old, and later describes an orgasm as a feeling of “expansive energy…limitless, infinite”—Matthews and Shields take power from their straightforward approach to the complex repercussions of sexual abuse.
“I couldn’t help it and had a look through [Carl’s] Facebook photos and videos, which was like licking a battery,” writes Matthews. “They disturb me, and I’m compelled to look at them again and again. Am I seeking pain by watching these videos [of Carl], trying to relive that darkness because that’s the only thing that feels really real?”
It might be easy to dismiss Matthews’s confessions as dark revelations from the mind of a pain junkie. But while her words carry the weight of shame, she’s offering readers a glimpse into an often silenced inner world of sexual abuse survivors.
Matthews writes that she wants to “avoid the ‘I was abused and never escaped’ moan session” while acknowledging that her traumas “taint everything one way or another…I find it impossible not to see everything linked to it.” And this is where That Thing You Do With Your Mouth makes the case that storytelling is essential to recovery. The very act of writing down our stories releases some of the suffering and shame. Sharing them lessens their hold on our lives. Matthews says that she could never have told Shields her story face-to-face, or even over the phone, but that “Writing it down allowed for a kind of intimacy. [Writing] was a necessary shield for me.”
“The abuse is an integral part of who I am,” Matthews admits. “I am not healed, nor will I ever be, but I’m managing it much better now.”
ELISABETH SHERMAN is a writer and teacher living in Seattle.