On Sodom Road Exit: Official Goodness
THE WORD “SODOM” IS LIKE A GHOST: a fuzzy archetype, a mysterious presence. Enshrined as it is in Western colonialist law and culture, the Christian morality tale of Sodom and Gomorrah and its shorthand, sodomy, have become metonyms for deviant (and usually queer-coded) sexualities and sexual practices. What was once a Middle Eastern fable about the sin of inhospitality now conjures the excesses of the Marquis de Sade and Pier Paolo Pasolini; the apocryphal linkage of homosexuality and pedophilia; and the purported evils of non-procreative sex. Like a ghost knocking around in another room, Sodom insists upon itself, all while refusing to be truly understood.
In order to banish a ghost—or at least learn how to live in harmony with it as its tenant—confrontation is necessary. If we’re ever to prise apart Sodom’s conflation with homosex, we must do more than understand this conflation, and why it’s incorrect. But undoing a legacy is a lot more complicated than pointing out its inaccuracies; we can’t just list and disprove them, as if shooting a row of bottles off a log. If that was all it took, the dismantling of the homosexualspecific sodomy and buggery laws of the United States and Canada would have ended the legal disciplining of queers.
As it is, although the laws criminalizing homosexual sex were ruled unconstitutional by the United States Supreme Court a mere fifteen years ago (in Canada, this paradigm shift took place significantly earlier, in 1969), legislation that targets queer and trans people for merely existing is still on the books in both countries. We can see them at work in the criminalization of homelessness, mental illness, and sex work—conditions of survival disproportionately affecting LGBTQI people, and particularly those of color, the indigenous, the disabled, and the poor. It’s easy to break bottles; it’s a lot harder to clean up shattered glass.
Though set thousands of miles and years away from its namesake, Sodom Road Exit, the newest novel by Canadian writer Amber Dawn, is no more exempt from this legacy than the rest of us are. Taking place mostly in Crystal Beach, Ontario, and dividing its time between 1990 and the early 1940s, Sodom gravitates around twenty-three-year-old Starla, who has moved back to her hometown after years of compulsive shopping have left her in catastrophic debt. Steeped in shame and mulling over how very royally she’s fucked up her young life—though her acerbity rarely lacks humor—the semi-closeted Starla is too sharp to miss the semantic joke of her origins. “Pity Sodom Road was never renamed,” observes the prodigal daughter on her hungover return. For her, the immediate association of a “lewd animal butt-lust sodomy,” as she puts it, has the tenacity of a haunting.
The collective trauma of cultural homophobia isn’t Sodom’s only ghost. Starla is soon visited by an apparition, a long-dead woman named Etta who, despite her Rosalind Russell-esque motormouth, is a lot like Starla herself: a raging femme whose life of indulgence is at odds with her time’s notions of respectability. As readers, we’re able to see Amber Dawn’s characters through the additional lens of the present moment, in which, with SESTA, FOSTA, and similar legislation, the digital front of the political war on sex workers has expanded, intensifying the age-old persecution of prostitutes. The more things change, the more they stay the same.
Though Etta met her end on a roller coaster in the theme park whose eventual shutdown spelled the economic ruin of Crystal Beach, her spirit—still just as spirited, still just as queer, still just as unashamed of the prostitution that allowed her to live as she saw fit—endures into Starla’s corporeal lifetime. “I Am Dead” is the name of the chapter that introduces Etta as a character, though if Sodom makes anything clear, it’s that nothing really ever dies.
• • •
By nature of their mysteriousness, ghosts are often misunderstood, but the story of Sodom and Gomorrah is so straightforward that its appropriation as homophobic propaganda seems almost like the product of a coordinated campaign of hatred. If you don’t have a version of the Christian Bible nearby (though it’s likely you do—it just so happens to be the world’s best-selling, as well as most stolen, book), you can Google Genesis, chapters 18 and 19, for the following story:
Two angels disguised as human travelers enter the town of Sodom in Canaan, where Lot, the nephew of Abraham, offers to let them stay in his home. When the wicked townspeople of Sodom command Lot to turn over his guests so that they may rape them, Lot, the paragon of hospitality, offers to his fellow citizens his two virgin daughters in their stead. But the townspeople will have none of his placating. Before they can storm Lot’s home and take them by force, however, the angels strike them with blindness and flee with Lot, his daughters, and his wife. Behind them, God is preparing to smite the fuck out of Sodom, Gomorrah, and two other nearby cities, and it is only because of Lot’s righteousness that he and his family are spared—with the exception, of course, of Lot’s wife, who, against the angels’ warnings, looks back at her doomed city and is turned to a pillar of salt for her disobedience.
Lot’s wife doesn’t have a name. It has either been forgotten, or, more likely, wasn’t known to begin with. But on a long enough timeline, the fate of all of us, human and ghost, is to be forgotten. Did you know that the sheer number of people who have lived and died outnumber the living fifteen to one? The world is thick with ghosts. The world is an ambient haunting.
Another of Sodom’s many ghosts is the protagonist herself. To follow Starla’s story is to disappear with her on her astral plane of dissociation. Her consciousness is one long fugue of trauma, through which she struggles to experience all real emotion from a baseline stew of rage and conflict. There are moments of happiness and clarity, sparkling with sentiment and sexiness, especially when she is with Tamara, a highschool acquaintance who soon becomes her girlfriend, or with the residents of the trailer park where she works the graveyard shift to pay off her debts. These moments of reprieve are never permanent, however. Starla’s ghosts aren’t merely always with her—they are her.
Etta may be the most literal of Sodom’s spirits, but like the world in which it takes place, the book is saturated with them, from the repressed memories of Starla’s early life to the First Nations people that fell to white supremacy’s genocide. Like the abandoned theme park in which Etta plummeted to her death; the neighborhoods desiccated by poverty; the campgrounds and backroads where Starla is ambushed by supernatural encounters; and the families that are pushed to their limits by abuse, suicide, alcoholism, and a heritage of colonial violence, Starla’s very body is a haunted house.
As a survivor of sexual abuse, Starla has lived this way since her childhood. She is often either paralyzed or else propelled forward by some inexplicable momentum into experiences that serve to numb rather than to balm, whether that’s trying to fuck truck drivers to avoid the discomfort of emotional confrontation with someone she cares about, or throwing herself into filthy Lake Erie, clad in a Vivienne Westwood gown, to observe herself from afar as she sinks to its shallow, putrid bottom. Any connection with her body— with her memories, her feelings, her sexuality—is met with the bad feelings of bad recollections, ones she has learned to suppress with an accomplished and diverse portfolio of dissociation: fucking, spelling out difficult words, drinking, and spending more money than she could pay off in a lifetime of minimum wage.
Naturally, the consequences of Star’s coping mechanisms are almost unbearable; survival is no way to live. Thus her return to the home where she was raised, where her mother continues her codependent rampage of denial and narcissism, and where the lines in the baseboard beneath her bed—one for each time one of her mother’s boyfriends molested her—await her, unchanged.
• • •
In his seminal book, The Body Keeps the Score: Brain, Mind, and Body in the Healing of Trauma, Bessel van der Kolk presents a radical reconceptualization of trauma theory: The bad things that happen to us are not just recalled by the brain, but trapped inside the body as somatic memory. Because of the “extreme disconnection from the body that so many people with histories of trauma and neglect experience,” he writes, those who have not yet integrated their trauma into the “ongoing stream of their life” must live under the “tyranny of the past.”
“Being traumatized,” van der Kolk explains, “means continuing to organize your life as if the trauma were still going on—unchanged and immutable—as every new encounter or event is contaminated by the past.” In this model, the mind/body dichotomy is inadequate in the understanding and treatment of trauma, a somatic experience that literally rearranges the topography of our brains, causing a rupture that can’t be healed until the traumatized person has reestablished a sense of safety and learned how to regulate the symptoms of fear and panic.
“Trauma is much more than a story about the past that explains why people are frightened, angry or out of control,” writes van der Kolk. “Trauma is re-experienced in the present, not as a story, but as profoundly disturbing physical sensations and emotions that may not be consciously associated with memories of past trauma. Terror, rage and helplessness are manifested as bodily reactions, like a pounding heart, nausea, gut-wrenching sensations and characteristic body movements that signify collapse, rigidity or rage.”
Is there a more elegant symbol of the traumatized person—a person petrified by having witnessed—than Lot’s wife? In van der Kolk’s model, the traumatized are literally transformed, their bodies changed on a fundamental, tangible level. This transformation extends far beyond the intimate internal. The rest of us remember Lot’s wife for what happened to her rather than for who she was, a punishment that every traumatized person imposes upon themselves, at least until they are able to begin healing.
Sodom splits the great category of memory like a prism with white light, laying out different ways of knowing the past—trauma, ghosts, angels, histories—and illustrating the divisions in time and space that cross and blend and build on one another. Memory, linear and individualized; chaotic and embodied; and encompassing more than one person within families, identities, classes, communities, is represented in Sodom as interlocking and indivisible, a net cast over the brain through which we all founder, and occasionally get caught.
When Starla and Tamara are about to have sex in Starla’s childhood bedroom, the site of the violence done to her as a very young person, the trigger is almost immediate. For the first time since they’ve started dating, Starla permits Tamara to top her, but not without warning her, with the exhaustion of a seasoned warrior: “This is why I only fuck people once or twice and don’t have relationships. To avoid convoluted explanations of what’s wrong with my body.” But although Tamara offers to stop after this warning, Starla urges her to keep going, and so they do.
“I want to be stronger than all of this,” Starla says. “I want to be free of it.” As if wanting could ever be enough.
• • •
After making herself known to Starla, Etta decides she wants more human attention, and more acolytes to provide it. Starla begins speaking through her to the people of Crystal Beach, who refer to Etta as “the angel.” Though it seems at first as if Starla is merely speaking for her, possession begins to take hold. She soon learns that you cannot be the middleman without becoming medium.
Like its ghosts, the sodomy of Sodom Road Exit is an ambient energy. As the story of a woman in love with another woman (who also happens to be a stripper), and of chosen families built by multiple generations of women, survivors, and addicts, as well as with people in class solidarity despite the divisive poison of white supremacy, Sodom juxtaposes so-called deviant sexualities and unnatural modes of community with the true danger of the state, of whiteness, and of patriarchy.
The sodomy laws that were ostensibly created to protect children from sexual violence, and which in an ideal world would have protected Starla from abuse (or at least enacted a process of restorative justice afterward), are part and parcel of the sodomy laws that would have criminalized her in a Canada of her not-so-recent-past, or the United States of her present, just a few miles away. Even now, although homosexuality is nominally decriminalized in the United States and Canada, similar deviancy laws created under the auspices of moral panic—not unlike the ones surrounding the use of public restrooms by trans people or websites by sex workers—are used to discipline LGBTQI people less directly, and yet more efficiently, than ever before. Like the story of Lot and his family, the official goodness of Sodom is predicated on misogyny and sexual violence; it depends upon the sacrifice of our loved ones to the all-powerful forces—ghosts, gods, angels, justice systems—that demand everything from us.
The shattered glass stays buried until we go digging for it, a process that promises blood, and as Starla learns all too well, witnessing ghosts is a dangerous business. She, like Lot’s wife, is the only member of her family to confront God’s wrath, to turn and look destruction in its face, and in both instances, this takes a terrible toll. “It’s a pity that pain isn’t a narrative arc,” Starla says at one point. “No one writes ‘the end’ when the pain is over.”