[The Ohio State University Press; 2020]
Bob Flanagan and Sheree Rose fell in love in the eighties. Soon after, they began artistically displaying their full-time Mistress-slave relationship, forming an early link between the disparate worlds of sadomasochism and art. Rated RX is the fine print beneath this translucent prescription, straightening the record after Bob’s death in 1996. The book details Sheree and Bob’s enduring relationship and collaborative art; entwining Bob’s illness, and eventual death, into the bones of their story along the way. Like how Sheree layered Bob’s cystic fibrosis (CF) pain into remission with Medusa-like incantations in a postmodern mirror, reflecting self-destructive stone; and how Bob was known for nailing his penis to a board, among other body parts, which was a very Gen X fuck you to the pain his disease piled on. But the greatest art Bob gave his audience is devoted to his Domme. Reprints of the out-of-print Fuck Journal (a personal favorite) and Slave Sonnets are dutifully dedicated to his master Sheree. “The thing that people don’t understand is that Bob was my invention,” she writes. Bob would have been a whiny, unhappy poet (see his Pain Journal) without Sheree to whip him into shape. He’d have died younger. His name wouldn’t be enshrined.
“That [Sheree] Rose’s art died with [Bob] Flanagan’s death is a misconception,” Yetta Howard writes in the book’s introduction. After Bob’s death, Sheree has continued ordering people to disrobe. Role-playing religious and medical authority figures, she still straddles the rafters that house us, exhibited by the many artistic nudes, taken by and of Sheree, that are scattered throughout the book. Rated RX sustains its time-release with images that span the decades, with and after Bob (as the subtitle honors) – and Sheree’s oeuvre. There are film stills of a man lying in a twenty-four-hour coffin between beatings, a saran-wrapped woman cut open with scissors, and scenes from Nine Inch Nails’ “Happiness is Slavery”, in which Bob’s penis is tortured with a claw machine. And there’s a vast collection of photographs, including one of an enormous balloon of a ball-gagged Bob in Tokyo, one of Sheree cutting open her leg with a hunting knife in honor of Bob’s birthday, a photo of boys drinking from a baby bottle through the bars of a dog cage, some of tight asses squeezed with a gloved hand, one of a masked Sheree lighting a grave on fire, and some from a 1990 fetish ball – among other incredible images. She’s right when she says that people would beg for more if she stopped.
If Bob stole the show in Sheree’s career, Rated RX is the director’s commentary for the hit movie. In one of the book’s essays “Why Kirby Dick is a ‘Sick’ Prick”, Sheree makes it abundantly clear that she would have welcomed financial stability as an outcome of their art. However, Dick (who filmed the majority of Sick: The Life and Death of Bob Flanagan, Supermasochist) failed to capture Bob’s final days on film and kept Sheree’s name off the front of the DVD, eventually leaving her irrecoverably bankrupt, without a single penny from the award-winning film. Anyone working bravely, and transgressively, across forms in this way, and with as such a sustained career as Sheree, may have to deal with pop radio versions of their craft (in 2011, for example, Rihanna’s single “S&M” went double platinum in the UK). More often than not, the source artist must be intentionally sought out.
In an interview with Tina Takemoto, published in the book, Sheree recalls the performance Matter of Choice when she attached “plastic babies to [Bob’s] flesh using fish hooks and wire.” I joyfully wince through each section in Rated RX, imagining the barbed relief of backtracked fish hooks. The chronically ill are better equipped to grasp the apparent contradiction of pleasure existing within pain, and vice versa. Martin O’Brian – the Irishman with CF, who’s currently performing with Sheree, helping to rekindle her early work, and pain, with Bob – calls the failure to imagine this pleasure “the curse of health”, a riff on Novalis (the 18th century romantic poet) who once said we lose half the world without a sickness to call our own. Both ideas eschew narrow-minded perspectives which fail to accommodate for the mere differences of the sick body.
Kevin Killian, the New Narrative poet, gave me Sheree’s email address after he photographed me naked in a tomb. I had just undergone a colectomy, removing eight inches of scarred shut intestine, and nearly died, due to a mysteriously ruptured blood vessel. The incision down the center of my belly was still ripe and candy apple red. “You remind me of my friend Bob,” Kevin told me, and emailed me PDFs of some of Bob’s unpublished work. I like to think that we both lived through the moral of Venus in Furs – “Whoever allows himself to be whipped deserves to be whipped. But as you see, I have taken the blows well,” – and welcomed each sensation, not as a lesson, but as a sign of devotion. Since then, Bob and Sheree have become pillars in my temple, for even the voice of death, whispered to those who’ve felt its cutting edge, can use a collaborator. Rated RX’s last lines come from Bob’s Fuck Journal: “Pumping, easy. All I can see is the underside of her chin, her head closer to the floor. Then we come, sliding completely off the bed as we do, laughing” – a hot and cutting closure. The book’s challenge to its readers, much like the love between Bob and Sheree, is commitment; for sometimes the depth of commitment is only measured by how deep we’re willing to sink the knife.
David Kuhnlein’s writing is featured in 3:AM Magazine, Entropy, DIAGRAM, Bright Lights Film Journal, Juked, tragickal, and others. He edits the literary review column Torment, venerating pain and illness, at The Quarterless Review. He lives in Michigan. His website is at https://davidkuhnlein.wordpress.com/