Nine and a Half Weeks: A Memoir of a Love Affair (1978) can be interpreted as many things: a sensually macabre narration of BDSM play gone wrong, a cautionary tale on domestic abuse, or a voyeuristic portrayal of a woman discovering her darkest desires.
Most certainly and above all, it is a rather scary and yet utterly fascinating story.
This book is a semi-autobiographical novel by Ingeborg Day, published under the pseudonym Elizabeth McNeill. Interestingly enough, the author chose to publish under another name, while her second and longer memoir, Ghost Waltz: A Family Memoir (1980), also consists of fairly shocking details about her personal and family life. (1)
9 1/2 Weeks is the story of a brief – hence the title – sadomasochistic affair between an art gallery owner and a Wall Street broker. The book was famously adapted onto the silver screen in 1986, starring Kim Basinger and Mickey Rourke.
McNeill has a way of writing that instantly grabs the reader’s attention and keeps them in its grip – mostly because it attacks offensively, goes promptly to the point and doesn’t leave any room for embellishments.
Writer and editor Sarah Weinman summarizes the phenomenon of the novel as well as its impact wonderfully in her in-depth piece on the author:
““Nine and a Half Weeks” is a potent antidote to what passes for erotica today. Instead of over-the-top fictional fantasy, McNeill’s book, presented as memoir, is charged as much by explicitness as it is by absence. The reader is only privy to her perspective.” (1)
The style of writing certainly heightens the sense of danger felt in the description of the events. The book immediately starts with a depiction of sex, and goes directly into matters of dominance and submission, showing the male protagonist pinning the hands of the narrator over her head and subsequently blindfolding her. The book doesn’t linger on romantic stares or take its time for aftercare: it goes from act to trauma and so forth.
The extent of his dominance intensifies, and at first she senses a hidden freedom in being kept like a pet, not making decisions of her own and simply obeying orders.
However, things gradually go sideways as his dominance and wishes far ecxeed what she imagines to be pleasurable, adventuous, or thrilling.
In the end, humiliation and complete submission are what he ultimately seeks, and once she does not comply, violence enters the narrative.
Since the contemporary scale for matters such as kink, play, pain and pleasure appears to be somewhere between 50 Shades of Grey and Twilight, it is refreshing to be reminded that there are publications with an actual analysis on such topics, given from a first-hand perspective.
However, this novel is anything but exciting in a pleasurable sense. While written as a camus-esque clinical style report, the narrative of being cornered into uncompromising submission and being tricked into loving it is frightening. The author is telling her story as a cautionary tale, she recognizes pleasure in her experiences but never forgets to warn her reader about how the story ends. “Antidote” certainly describes the sensation well enough.
While the story is psychologically realistic – on account of it being a real story and written like one as well – a comparison to the romanticizing, soft style of the movie version seems, at times, incomprehensible.
Yes, Rourke reaches the point of controlling sociopath, but when looking at the book, there never was a tender bone in his body, nor did he feel actual affection towards his pet – rather it was always the question of pushing boundaries. The beginning of the movie suggests otherwise, touching on dangerous territory.
On that note, Basinger’s character is better executed on the whole, since the journey from daring a new adventure, venturing into unexpeted pleasure, on to enjoying the thrill of pain and finally, the realisation of entrapment is portrayed rather well.
Of course, there is much more to go on, since the novel is written from the female protagonist’s perspective. However, the movie still does not reach the psychological depths the book possesses.
All in all, readers of contemporary fluffy and unrealistic sex fantasy narratives (see above) can consider McNeill’s very real story as the other side of the coin, and in my opinion the book is a very valuable example on the dynamics of power and the many layers of pleasure, pain, humiliation and abuse.
If one can use that word in the sense, I enjoyed the thrill of reading Nine and a Half Weeks, since it is extremely suspenseful and interesting in its candid ways.
However, I suggest caution and keeping a strong nerve for anyone who would like to get into this book.
The novel is short, but trust me: it will linger.
(1) The New Yorker: Who was the Real Woman Behind “Nine and a half Weeks”?