History, Pain, and the Erotic Imagination

Image description: a yellow-hue black and white photo of a feminine figure with white skirt and shawl standing in a field faced away from the viewer, her arms held open.

This is a much more personal account than my other Romancing Repose posts, but I decided to include it in the series. -AV

In 8th grade American history class, my desk was in the second row, right next to the wall. On that wall was a cork board that featured a new display every few months. One day I came to class and the teacher was in the middle of changing the board. The pictures were all posted but there were no captions or text to go along with them. There was a picture of Abraham Lincoln, John Wilkes Booth, and some other people I didn’t recognize. At eye level was a black and white photo of the most achingly handsome man I had (up to that point in my 14-year-old life) ever seen.

He was strangely modern looking against the backdrop of history. The aura of the photo and his eyes were haunting in a way I felt in my bones. In the blurry edges of the photo I could see the man was handcuffed.

I had never seen the photo before and my mind went wild. Who was he? Was this picture really taken during the American Civil War? Was this man a prisoner of war?

The next day I came to class and read the full story in the paragraphs of text that had been pinned next to the pictures. Yes, the picture really was taken in the era of the American Civil War, but no, the man was not a prisoner of war. His name was Lewis Powell, one of the conspirators in the assassination of President Abraham Lincoln. Powell was hung at the age of 21 for his part in the assassination attempt and his attack on United States Secretary of State William H. Seward and his family.

Not the innocent heart throb I had originally imagined, to say the least. Not to mention, the other pictures I sought out of him were nowhere near as intriguing as the first. I also learned in my research that Powell’s skull was lost for a while, rediscovered in the Smithsonian, and re-buried next to his mother. You can see pictures of his skull on the internet. So that’s… quite a thing.

I never could abandon that feeling I had the first time I saw the Alexander Gardner photo of Lewis Powell. For ages I held that image in my mind as one of mysterious eroticism. Yes, I knew the history. He wasn’t a good man. Certainly no hero. But the imagery, the emotions in the image plucked a note on my unexplored heart strings.

Decades later, I saw a post on Twitter that caught my attention. It was the photo of Lewis Powell, and the person was Tweeting about how they believed their first crush was a picture they saw of Powell in a history book. When I clicked on the thread, I saw numerous l replies reiterating the same thing: that picture, for one reason or another, had stirred something romantic or erotic in the minds of several people.

I couldn’t believe that this obscure little bit of my personal history had been shared by anyone and it was even more strange to see the evidence popping up on my social media. I did an updated search and found that not only are there pictures of Powell’s skull to be found, but also romance stories and at least one romance novel fictionalizing his story. If you google “hot dead guys” blog posts and articles featuring Powell will pop up.

Buuut seriously…

I’m not sure if this experience imprinted something in me or if it just tapped into something in my psychological essence. But into my adult life, my erotic imagination has always been grazed at the crossroads of history and pain.

For me, it makes sense. I live with a visible disability and compounded chronic illnesses. There’s something to be said in making friends with your pain. To seek out comfort in the corners and crevices. To feel understood in mind, and body.

Not to mention that, between my disability and my sexuality, I often feel like the mores of the past are still cast upon my body. I feel a deeper connection to stories from the past in this regard. Don’t get me wrong, I know so much has changed for the better. I am aware that the happily ever after’s I imagine for my Old West gunslingers and ferocious Flappers didn’t take place for so very many of my ancestors. But in my idea of romance, it’s the bite I can feel when other scenarios leave me numb.

I so I seek out my ancestors—embodied outliers—in snippets of graveled text from old newspapers, in the looped longing of handwritten letters, in glances glimpsed in sepia-toned photographs.

It reminds me how I combed my media for such subtext as a teenager, how in college I found a strange sort of sacred refuge in Livejournal, clinging to historical alternative-universe fanfiction to keep an anchor on my own thoughts and feelings.

Whether it is history or media, I find myself twisting the actual subject until it gets obscure enough to strike a true nerve. To pluck a sweet, sensual string. To glow, as I think, ah, yes. There it is.

At this point, my brain just does it for me. Which brings me to this poster that just made its round on Twitter:

Image description: movie poster for “Cordelia” depicting a woman positioned behind a man. He faces a wall, her arm is around him, her hand authoritatively grasping his forearm. She leans open-mouthed into him, her lips on the back of his neck.

I haven’t watched a movie since 2017 and I have no streaming or TV service so I had no idea whether this was a new movie or what, but as soon as I saw the image I saved it on my phone. Because it just was what I wanted it to be without having to do anything.

My brain saw an historical romance. Unabashed pleasure, feminine assertiveness and even a masculine sexual presence that wasn’t demonized or overbearing. Ah, yes. There it is.

Until… it wasn’t.

As many pointed out in threads beneath the retweets, the characters are wearing modern clothes, I just hadn’t seen it. And the film not a romance at all, but a psychological thriller.

It was like I was back in 8th grade, learning my Powell history all over again. A bit devastating, let’s not lie.

But, history repeats itself because in so many of the responses to the poster, I saw evidence of how this sort of story is what aligns with so many desires, in so many delicious ways. I saw writers ignited to tell this story. I felt like I’m not alone.

I’m not alone, even in the way my mind twists the world to find the comfort in the hurt, to find the passionate place within history.

It’s ours, you know, in our imaginations. And even if we do have a long way to go, I find that something worth treasuring.

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