TCR Talks with Margo Steines, author of Brutalities: A Love Story
By Dein Sofley
Margo Steines has taken beatings by choice. In her debut memoir, Brutalities: A Love Story, she examines her intimate relationship with pain. Through confessional writing, Steines explores the violent and painful acts she engaged in as a professional dominatrix, homestead farmer, welder on a high-rise building crew, and mixed martial arts enthusiast. Chapter by chapter, she provides readers with a comprehensive map to navigate the width and breadth of her experience, while adeptly deconstructing the narratives about violence that permeate our culture.
Her capacity to interrogate herself with unflinching honesty while holding space on the page for readers is a testament to the transformative power of love and self-acceptance. Her level of care in searching for the words to write about her experiences, thoughts, and feelings allows readers to safely examine their own beliefs around pain and violence.
From Steines’s noble aspiration of exploring the deep recesses of confusion, isolation and shame, readers might stumble into understanding parts of themselves. Steines provides a vocabulary for what is unspoken, exposing the aspects of human nature that scare us.
The Coachella Review: I read that the original title of your book was The Zoology of Pain. At what point did you land on Brutalities: A Love Story?
Margo Steines: That was the working title that I sold it as. Brutalities came to me while I was sleeping, which is not the way a title usually comes to me. And I had written some other work that I ended up adapting for the book that shared the same title. So, I realized that Brutalities was the title of everything. Then my agent came up with the subtitle because publishing really likes a subtitle for nonfiction. I don’t really know why.
TCR: I understand that you’re obsessed with questions of how and why we endure suffering. In Brutalities, you cleave through the cultural front of euphemism and sanitation flawlessly. You wrote, “We lack hunger for truths about violence we participate in.” Can you please share your thoughts on how context and consent can alter the effects of violence?
MS: I was really struck, looking at a lot of these spaces in my own life and outward at martial arts, [by the idea] that the narrative we attach to everything is really what makes it what it is. A person [who] believes in the fundamental human drive towards roughness or violence or whatever you want to call it is something that’s heavily debated by anthropological psychologists. My personal belief [is] that we, like every other kind of animal, want to engage with each other that way. It’s just that we’ve acculturated ourselves to a state where that type of behavior is often inappropriate. But if you look at kids and if you look at people who are martial artists, for instance, they’ve found a place to be free with their bodies and desires, and it is not a harmful practice. It’s not a practice that’s about subjugation or terror or harm, right? It’s about a certain kind of physicality. And because the narrative is different, it’s received differently. So that was what I got obsessed with.
TCR: I relate to your statement, “My body is a vehicle and a prison.” Has writing provided a way for you to transcend and/or reconcile the internal conflict?
MS: That statement still feels true, but I think that it is much less… it’s not self-inflicted in the same way, which feels like a big difference. I do lead a much less [body-focused] life now than I used to, which, for me, is a move towards something sustainable and saner. The work I do is not particularly physical. I sit in this chair. But I also live with chronic illness, so in that way my body does still feel like something that I’m trapped inside of, and the experiences that I want to have are largely mediated by my physicality. So, I think the intensity has changed for sure. But the [theme] is still there.
TCR: In your essay, 5 a.m. in the Arizona Desert, where you’re going for a walk with your daughter through the desert, you wrote, “The desert is a hard place to be a baby, a hard place to be any kind of a person.” Which, of all the places you’ve lived—Connecticut, New York City, upstate New York, Oahu—makes Arizona an interesting choice for you to land, root, and raise your daughter. To what degree do you think environment/place informs identity and shapes a body?
MS: A lot. And that was part of why I wrote about New York so much, because I do feel like it wasn’t until I left the city that I realized how many things that I thought were my personality were really just things I had received from growing up in that place. When I talk to other ex-New Yorkers, I realize we’re all the same in many ways. I also lived in Hawaii for a long time and now I live here, in Arizona, and it’s not always comfortable for me to live here. So, yes, place informs experience for sure. But for me, the young, formative experience of coming into myself [in New York] left far more of an impression on me than anywhere else I’ve been since.
TCR: Reflecting on motherhood still, in Brutalities there’s a moment on the farm where you’re carrying a brood of piglets. You wrote, “A life is a heavy weight, something that suspends itself between the brain and the heart and doesn’t allow benefit of the doubt.” In another beautiful essay, Recalling Painful Lessons in Forgiveness, you meditate on your relationship to your mother: “It is so perilous to love people because eventually you will hurt them, and in my mother’s life it seems as if I have too often been the cause of her pain.” I can relate to that line as a mother and a daughter. My heart ached reading it. Since you’ve experienced childbirth and have been a mother for a few years, have you gotten more comfortable or had any new insight into the fact that motherhood comes with this price of admission?
MS: I don’t know that I’ve gotten more comfortable with it, but it is a fact. I deeply wanted a baby, and I knew that it would complicate my life emotionally to have that kind of bond with someone, but none of that was unexpected. You know what I mean? It’s the same with my partner. We can all have a very emotionally placid life if we don’t have deep connection, but that’s not what I desire for myself.
TCR: Are there things about motherhood that have surprised you?
MS: Yeah, for sure. But I think I’ve also had a very specific experience because I was pregnant during the quarantine lockdown. And then, because of my chronic illness, I still live quite carefully in terms of COVID and health generally. So motherhood hasn’t been the community experience that I imagined it was going to be. I also live far away from family. So it’s different. I think it’s funny now, looking back, there was a time when I thought I was gonna be a chill mom who doesn’t care if my kid is, like, eating a Costco cupcake with toxic dye in it. [I thought I’d be] generally relaxed, but I am not. At all. I run a pretty tight ship around here.
Part of it may be because I had terrible postpartum anxiety. But I think that has been a little bit of a surprise to me. I think if I had been more honest with myself leading up to it, I would have been able to predict this a little better. And then the way that love feels for my child. I knew it was going to be good and serious. But it’s bigger and more special and more wonderful than anything I ever experienced before. So that’s great, you know? And this is the most annoying answer to that question, but my kid is so fucking cool. So much cooler than me in every way—just a really remarkable little person. That’s been such a delight!
TCR: You embed inquiries about gender, power, and privilege in your work and you immersed yourself in cultures of men. But I noticed that you work with a host of kick-ass creative women. Has being a part of a community of women who write on the body—Melissa Febos, Leslie Jamison, and Natalie Lima, to name a few—given you a greater understanding and fortitude to write about your own experience of being a woman in this culture?
MS: I think, as an artist, having community—whether it is virtual or physical—is, in some ways, the most important thing, right? Because my ideas always feel kind of two dimensional until I have talked them out with someone. So having people with similar frames of reference and a similar sense of humor allows me to think on the page in a different way. I am so grateful for the support I’ve received from all the people that you’re referencing, and it’s so cool. I love watching my friends make stuff. That’s what I’ve always wanted as an artist: to be in community.
TCR: The word hunger is frequently used as a metaphor for desire. I arrived at the word numerous times in your book, it appears in my own work, and Roxane Gay made it the title of her book, which leaves me to wonder…do you think that word is applied more by women because our bodies have been commodified? Are we trying to take back something for ourselves by reclaiming the word, or do women identify with that word more strongly?
MS: I’m hesitant to make any broad, sweeping, gender-essentialist statements about that. I will say that I think hunger and desire are not quite synonyms but close, and [both] describe a lack, right? We can’t have desire without lacking. So, I do think that [hunger and desire apply to] anyone who has been marginalized in any way. I don’t think women have been marginalized in the same way that Black people have, but I do think we have been marginalized, too, and I think that comes up more where there’s an unmet desire that pulls more because we have historically had less agency to go get shit. But I think that that’s also true for a lot of men who don’t have the same cultural freedom to talk about it. So, I think there’s a lot going on there.
TCR: So, let’s try a rather esoteric experiment of self and embodiment. When you were young, you looked out through your eyes and saw a certain reflection in the mirror. Later in life, you saw a different reflection. From that point of view, how old are you? Not how old is your body. If you were there when you were ten, if you were there when you were thirty, pregnant, eventually on your death bed, and through all the experiences you’ve written, how old are you in there? Who’s looking out through those eyes at your body?
MS: I just turned forty-one, and I do not feel that I represent the age that I am to myself. Sometimes, I’m startled to see the signs of aging on my face. I have gray hair coming in, and I think I’m a child! I think there’s some kind of dysmorphia with aging. For myself, I did not emotionally age at a correct pace for a long time. So, it kind of makes sense. In addiction recovery, people say that when you’re using or drinking or whatever, you stop aging emotionally. Then, when you get sober, you pick up where you left off, whether you were thirteen or thirty. That feels pretty true for me. And by American standards, I’m an older mom; I was thirty-seven when my daughter was born, which was not my idea of when I would be a parent. In my mind, a mom is thirty. And I’m forty-one. It’s a totally weird and arbitrary thing in my mind, but it plays into my perspective sometimes.
TCR: No doubt, it took a lot of courage to birth this book. Was there ever a moment where you looked at your writing and thought, I don’t know if I want to share this?
MS: I have that feeling all the time. But I wrote a lot of this material when I was in my MFA program. I would write it on a Thursday, and someone would read it on a Friday. It helped a lot to integrate that feeling of overexposure in myself. When I was still making it, I wasn’t sure if it was going to work and be good, so it was harder to show to people then.
I get this question a lot. People ask, how are you not afraid of that? I am so afraid of that. I’m afraid of it all the time. But I’ve chosen to do it anyway. At this point, I stand behind the craft of the book. I believe in what I made. So, if someone thinks I’m gross and shitty, it doesn’t feel good, but I can also live with it.
Dein Sofley is a writer, speaker and educator. She earned her BA from Columbia College Chicago and her MFA from UC Riverside. Her work is published in Cagibi, Five on the Fifth, and Writers Resist.