News & Features » Feature

To Mordor and Back

Drugs and alcohol nearly ruined Sarz Maxwell's life. Writing dirty stories about hobbits made it worth living again.

by

3 comments

Nine years after she got sober, psychiatrist Sarz Maxwell was doing well enough. More than a decade earlier Drug Enforcement Administration officials had caught on that she had been prescribing herself amphetamines for about a year through her practice in Saint Joseph, Missouri. Initially the state's medical licensing board wanted to send her to prison. "It was very scary," she says. "It's a felony to write yourself a prescription for a controlled substance." She wound up making a deal with the board: in exchange for clemency she would let her Missouri license lapse. Prison was no longer a threat but Maxwell's life was nonetheless falling apart. "I was an alcoholic and was dying of it," she says. "The last year in Missouri it was: 'Hang on till we get home.'" She moved to Chicago, where she had family, and entered the Physicians Assistance Program for doctors in recovery at Advocate Lutheran General Hospital, where the evaluating doctor told her, "I think you might be salvageable." After four months as an inpatient, Maxwell took up a new direction as an addiction psychiatrist and eventually opened a small private practice at the Center for Personal Development on Michigan Avenue.

Life had gotten better but she was lonely. Her marriage had ended during medical school about 16 years before, and now that she didn't party it was hard to meet people outside of 12-step meetings. "I've never been terribly good at relationships," she says. "I've always had few friends. Close ones, but few." Her two sisters--one a soccer mom, one a born-again Christian--lived in the suburbs and had little in common with their older sibling, who describes her sexual orientation as "untidy." At one point after Maxwell's move back to Chicago her fundamentalist sister announced, "Sarz, what you have to realize is that you and I are at opposite ends of the moral spectrum."

Christmas of 2001 was particularly difficult for Maxwell--she'd had extensive surgery earlier in the month, and it was the first Christmas she hadn't spent with her mother, with whom she had a troubled relationship. Her first foray out of the house after the surgery was on New Year's Day, when she went to see The Fellowship of the Ring, the first film in the Lord of the Rings trilogy. A Tolkien fan from way back, she went reluctantly. "I've never seen a movie made from a book that was even reasonable, let alone good," she says. "And so I went in there not expecting much."

Though better than she had anticipated, the movie was just entertainment for Maxwell until about three-quarters of the way through, when the wizard Gandalf falls into a fiery abyss while trying to defend Frodo and his companions from the demonic Balrog. Frodo howls--a long, horrified, wounded sound. "That scream tore open something in me," Maxwell says. She huddled in her seat, "crying and screaming and full of joy."

The next day she went back and saw the movie again. She did the same the day after that, and then the day after that, and then the day after that. Maxwell saw The Fellowship of the Ring five times a week for two months, usually by herself. "I could feel the clock moving toward 7 PM, when I knew there was a showing at Village North," she says. "I saw it 20 to 30 times in that theater alone." She also bought the sound track. "I would ride in my car and listen to the sound track and cry and cry. I got so I could picture every scene just from the sound track." As she drove around town, when the music reached the point in the movie where Frodo screams, Maxwell screamed too.

At first she had a hard time finding anyone who understood her new fixation. "I'd say to people, 'Did you see Lord of the Rings' and they'd say, 'Yeah, good movie.' And I'd go, 'But what does it mean that Frodo was an orphan, and then Gandalf falls at Khazad-dum? How did he feel?' And everyone's like, 'Yeah, good movie.'" In frustration she turned to the Internet, where she found fan discussion boards full of people as desperate to analyze every facet of the movie as she was. She also discovered that quite a few fans were writing and posting their own stories about Tolkien's characters. Even more intriguing: some of those fan stories--the ones called "slash"--were homoerotic. A friend she'd met through a Reader personal ad ("Tolkien addict seeks same for obsessive conversation") showed her a story in which Frodo and his hunky male companion Aragorn get it on. "I was like, wow, this is really fucking sexy," she says, grinning. "It was a lightening that I needed. It wasn't all trauma; it was fun too. 'Look at that glance between Frodo and Sam.' You just feel friendlier to someone when you know they're sucking each other's cocks."

In short order Maxwell started writing her own slash. "I hadn't written a word of fiction since college, and I sat down and in six weeks I wrote 30 short stories." She chose the pen name Uluithiel--"unquenchable" in Elvish--and posted her stories to Lord of the Rings slash archives on sites such as fanfiction.net, where she quickly discovered the joys of reader feedback. "The slash world is extremely supportive and extremely helpful. When I post a chapter of my latest story, within 24 hours I'll have 15 comments," she says. She also began to form friendships with other LOTR slash writers she met online: "When my hard drive went down and I went off-line for three days, I had 12 e-mails saying, 'Are you all right?'"

On July 15, 2002--the tenth anniversary of her sobriety--she finished her first major work, a 24,000-word, 12-part series called "Remembrance." Since then she's written several more sagas, met dozens of friends, found love, and come to think of herself as a writer. Without slash, she says, none of that would have happened. "My life--it's unrecognizable."

Fan fiction as we know it sprang up in the 60s, when fans of the original Star Trek series started writing their own stories about the show's characters and distributing them at conventions. So readers could zero in on stories featuring their favorite characters, the stories were labeled with the characters' initials: "K & S" for Captain Kirk and Mr. Spock, for instance.

The first story to feature Kirk and Spock as lovers is thought to have appeared in 1974. By 1978 an all Kirk-Spock slash anthology fanzine, Thrust, had been launched. The term slash comes from the way those stories were labeled with a slash (K/S) instead of an ampersand. Enthusiasm for Star Trek slash waxed through the decades despite the show's cancellation, and gradually the phenomenon spread.

Slash now exists for hundreds of TV shows and movies, from The A-Team to Harry Potter. If it has two male characters in it, someone out there is making them fuck. More important to slash fans, someone is also making them kiss, hug, cry, cuddle, and talk about their relationships. "It's not about the orgasms, it's about the emotions and the angst," Maxwell says. Slash stories can be rated G, NC-17, or anywhere in between. There's explicit sex, but in plenty of stories the characters do nothing more than cast romantic glances at each other.

Nearly all slash writers and readers are women. "I don't know why this always surprises people," Maxwell says. "I mean, what is the thing that men find most erotic? Hello! But men don't go to Women and Children First to get lesbian fiction. Men write women fucking the way men like to fuck. And in slash, women write men fucking the way women like to fuck." Sexual orientation doesn't seem to make a difference--Maxwell estimates that about half the slash fans she knows are lesbian or bisexual. (Femslash, which links two female characters, does exist, but on a much smaller scale.)

Lord of the Rings slash sites started popping up around 1999, but exploded in popularity with the release of the first movie in 2001. The stories are eminently slashable not only because of their huge, virtually all-male cast but because of Tolkien's affinity for depicting comradely affection between men--an affection director Peter Jackson retained in the films. As Maxwell puts it, "You have this group of gorgeous men who are incredibly bonded. They sing songs to each other, they kiss each other, they cry. They love each other, they talk about how they love each other, they carry each other in their arms."

Not only that, but many of the characters fall into pairs--the hobbits Merry and Pippin go everywhere together; the dwarf Gimli and the elf Legolas start out as enemies but grow close. Slash writers often write exclusively about a favorite couple, referred to as their OTP, or One True Pairing. Maxwell's original OTP was Sam/Frodo. It's the most obvious coupling in "Lord of the Rings" slash, what with Sam's many teary declarations of devotion--"I can't carry the Ring, but I can carry you"--but Maxwell had deeper, personal reasons for choosing it.

Maxwell grew up in the Chicago suburbs during the 50s and 60s. Alcoholism killed her father when she was five, and her mother supported the family by working first as a schoolteacher, then as a secretary for a printing company. At 13 Maxwell joined her mother in the printer's bindery after school: "I earned, like, one dollar an hour, paid in cash," she says. When she wasn't in school, working, or looking after her sisters, she was lost in a book. "Ever since I was very little, the characters in books have been intensely real to me," she says. "I remember sitting curled in a chair in the living room, reading way past my bedtime, staying quiet as a mouse. Sometimes it wouldn't be till mom went to bed herself that she'd discover I was still up and reading."

She discovered Tolkien around 11, and by high school her love of the books had grown to the point that she, her boyfriend, and her best friend taught themselves to read and write Tolkien's runes. They'd also "sneak out of the house at night and skulk around in our Elven cloaks, hiding from Black Riders," i.e., the police (though she says they weren't doing anything more illegal than breaking curfew).

Frodo was her favorite character from the beginning. "I have the same birthday as Frodo," she says, "so there's always been this connection." Like Frodo, she knew what it was like to lose a parent; like Frodo, she was bookish. There were other reasons too. Frodo is subject to an enormously powerful source of evil, and so, says Maxwell, was she.

Maxwell says she was repeatedly sexually abused as a child by two friends of the family, though she didn't recall the abuse until almost 30 years later, when she began discussing it with her therapist. And for a long time after that she felt little more than numb about it. It was Frodo's scream that "tore open the vault of the abused emotions. Loss and grief and terror and guilt and resignation. All of the things that Frodo felt. It really was just like a veil ripping."

As a recovering alcoholic, Maxwell says, she understood Frodo's obsession with the Ring. He knows it's destroying him, but he finds himself drawn to it against his will. And every time he gives in to the temptation to put the Ring on his finger, the lust for it becomes stronger.

Now slash gave Maxwell a way to construct a backstory for Frodo that would bring his experience even closer to her own. Much of "Remembrance" is inspired by a passage from The Return of the King in which Frodo is taken captive by orcs. Sam arrives to rescue him and finds him stripped and wounded. Tolkien writes:

"He was naked, lying as if in a swoon on a heap of filthy rags: his arm was flung up, shielding his head, and across his side there ran an ugly whip-weal.

"'Frodo! Mr. Frodo, my dear!' cried Sam, tears almost blinding him. 'It's Sam, I've come!' He half lifted his master and hugged him to his breast. . . .'I'd given up hope, almost. I couldn't find you.'

"'Well, you have now, Sam, dear Sam,' said Frodo, and he lay back in Sam's gentle arms, closing his eyes . . . 'Orcs were all round me . . . The two big brutes: they quarreled, I think. Over me and my things. I lay here terrified.'"

"It's always been my own idea that he was raped," Maxwell says. "Remembrance" portrays Frodo as an abuse survivor being nursed back to physical and mental health by his lover, Sam:

"'Please,' Sam whispered. 'I need you in me. Please.'

"Frodo looked down into the eyes of the person he loved most in the world and saw there only tenderness and longing. His body was shaking at the thought of performing the act that had been done to him so brutally, but the memory of the brutality was washing away in the sweetness flowing from Sam's eyes."

Maxwell appended the following note to the first installment of the series: "Frodo is helping me so much. In telling his story, I can speak the truth." It was as if she could channel all her own pain into Frodo, and all the healing and gentleness she needed into Sam. The relationship she created for the two of them was sexual, but it was playful and loving instead of abusive and exploitative. "That's why the whole slash thing was so incredibly liberating," she says. "I guess if there's safe sex, there's safe voyeurism. I was borrowing other people's bodies to explore my own head."

Slash writers often use the services of a "beta"--another slash fan who volunteers to read a story and offer criticism. Maxwell needed a beta for "Remembrance" and she put out the call online. A female creative writing teacher who lived in Europe responded, and the two quickly established first a working and then a personal relationship. "She says she fell in love with my writing," Maxwell says, smiling. "She pursued me across the Internet." They didn't meet in person until February of 2003, after months of correspondence. That summer they traveled to New Zealand together to tour Lord of the Rings movie sites. Next summer Maxwell's partner hopes to move to the States. For now they make do with visits, phone calls, and lots of instant-messaging.

After finishing "Remembrance" Maxwell was hit with an unexpected emotion: grief. At the end of her story, as at the end of Tolkien's saga, Frodo departs alone for the land of the Elves. "It was just unbearable to me that Frodo had to leave Sam," she says. "I couldn't stand it. I couldn't look at the cover of The Return of the King without breaking into tears. I was, like, disabled." That's when she discovered the appeal of a slash variant: RPS, or real-person slash. Instead of creating stories about fictional characters, RPS slashers create stories about the actors who portray them. "Real person slash--I began to understand it then," Maxwell says. "Because Frodo left. That's canon. There's nothing I can do about it. Elijah Wood is in Los Angeles."

RPS is a contentious issue in the slash world. Some think writing highly personal, sometimes highly explicit stories about real people crosses an ethical line. Others worry that the actors will be offended and sue either the writer of the story or the Web site where it appears. So far that hasn't been a problem. "If any of those men said, 'We think it's disgusting and we want it stopped,' we would put down our pens," Maxwell says. "Or at least, we wouldn't post it on the Net." She sees RPS as a way to pay homage to the actors she loves. "I was talking to a friend of mine and I said, 'Whenever I write one of them, I'm sending good energy their way.' She said, 'Now I understand. It's prayer, isn't it?' Yeah. And it really is."

Most of Maxwell's RPS stories feature Elijah Wood paired with Dominic Monaghan, who played the hobbit Merry in the films. And most of them are AU, or alternate universe stories, which place the characters in a different time or place. Maxwell has written about Wood and Monaghan as farmers in rural 1840s Ohio ("Beekeeper") and as vampires in 1890s London ("Another Hunger"). Both stories are available at http://uluithiel.dombillijah.com, along with "Remembrance" and many of her other stories. "AU to me is a way for RPS to not be as intrusive," she says. "You can take these lovely faces, lovely bodies, lovely personalities, and take them out of the context of their private life and leave that with them. Because this is about love and respect."

Maxwell has since abandoned RPS for original fiction. She's planning a series of mysteries set in Chicago's gay community during the late 80s, and is already well into the first one, "Death on Halsted," which will not appear online. Her main characters are a gay psychologist and a drifter who investigate a murder. She says they won't fall in love--at least not in the first book. She's also hoping to publish "Beekeeper"--which is the length of a novel--with different character names.

Still Maxwell continues her friendships with slash writers and readers all over the world--"Anytime that I log on, there's someone that I know online, at whatever hour"--and is still interested in following the careers of Wood, Monaghan, and the other actors. Last fall she bought the first TV set she's ever owned so she could watch Monaghan on Lost, and she's gotten into some of Wood's favorite bands, such as Coldplay.

Maxwell's professional life is going well these days too. Last year she was elected president of the Illinois Society of Addiction Medicine, and in addition to her private practice, she's the medical director of Chicago Recovery Alliance, an organization that practices harm reduction outreach by providing clean needles, teaching addicts how to administer overdose antidotes, and providing health care referrals. The organization has received DEA approval for a mobile methadone unit--the first one in Illinois--and they hope to have it up and running later this year.

Maxwell realizes that despite everything slash has done for her, many people find her relationship to it puzzling. "We all have our enthusiasms," she explains. "Working out. Your children. Whatever. This is a concept in addiction that is really misunderstood. See, people think that what's wrong with addicts is doing drugs. The only way to really tell if someone has a disease is to look not at what the person does to the drug, but what the drug does to the person. What this drug has done to me has opened up my life. I've made a couple of dozen friends. I've met someone that I want to spend the rest of my life with. What else could I be doing, needlepoint?"

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Paul L. Merideth; illustrations/The Theban Band.

Comments (3)

Showing 1-3 of 3

Add a comment
 

Add a comment