Review by Steven Robert Allen
The Inner Circle
Alfred Kinsey's studies of human sexuality were revolutionary when first published in the '40s and '50s. Even from the vantage of our own sexually sophisticated era, the information revealed in Kinsey's two famous volumes—Sexual Behavior in the Human Male (1948) and Sexual Behavior in the Human Female (1953)—still have the power to shock the bejesus out of us. (Who knew, for example, that so many people had so much sex with so many barnyard animals?)
T.C. Boyle uses the interrelationships between Kinsey, his circle of underling researchers and their spouses as the basis of his latest novel. Narrated by Kinsey's first research assistant, the fictional John Milk, The Inner Circle follows Kinsey from his early years as an obscure zoology professor at Indiana University to his later years as a highly controversial international sex celebrity.
Kinsey initially based his research on thousands of interviews with men and women from all walks of life who were willing to reveal in detail their sexual histories and habits. Eventually Kinsey and his young researchers took the project up a notch, secretly observing prostitutes in action, filming hundreds of men masturbating, collecting one of the world's largest collections of pornography, and engaging in some orchestrated group bisexual behavior of their own—all in the name of research, of course.
The world didn't know about any of this until years later. When Kinsey's volume on men's sexuality was published, it became the first blockbuster on human sexuality despite the fact that Kinsey went out of his way to present his findings in the most objective, unprovocative manner possible.
His volume on women, on the other hand, suffered a much more hostile reception. America wasn't ready to learn that women were active sexual beings with highly varied habits, many of which were still illegal at that time. The moral authorities of the day quickly accused Kinsey of indecency, and budding McCarthyists began to promote the ludicrous idea that Kinsey was a Soviet agent intent on undermining the moral fiber of the free world.
Boyle's novel discusses this public face of the project in detail, but, as its title suggests, the main focus is on what went on behind closed doors at the Institute for Sex Research. Given that much of this story revolves around kinky sex, this is particularly fertile terrain for fiction. The Inner Circle is a literary novel, though, so it's far from pornographic. Even so, if your sexual tastes are on the more conventional end of the spectrum, some scenes might make you squirm a bit. That's all part of the fun.
John Milk is a virginal white bread undergraduate student at Indiana University when one of his classmates convinces him to enroll in Kinsey's groundbreaking sex education class, a course designed to give students information necessary for sexually fulfilling marriages. Kinsey's liberal, atheistic worldview soon convinces the university to replace him as an instructor. Now focusing entirely on research, the professor takes Milk on board as his first assistant in a project designed to fully unveil the sexual habits of our species.
Kinsey believes that Judeo-Christian culture has repressed our natural sexuality, creating a society deeply out of tune with itself. Ironically, he teaches this belief with a kind of fervor that's typically only found in backwoods fundamentalist churches. As Boyle tells it, Kinsey is a highly charismatic personality who entices young men and their spouses into what eventually amounts to a kind of secret sex cult.
More than any other researcher at the Institute, Milk falls entirely under Kinsey's spell. They become sex partners, and Kinsey eventually becomes sexually active with all his young assistants. In the beginning of The Inner Circle, there's nothing sinister about this. Kinsey is simply practicing what he preaches. Despite conventional morality, he believes it's natural for humans to engage in all kinds of varied sexual behavior with many partners of both sexes.
As the novel progresses, though, cracks appear in the shiny surface of Kinsey's porcelain charm. Milk marries a young childhood acquaintance named Iris who also gets looped into the inner circle, along with all the other researchers' wives. As Kinsey's tendencies as a workaholic control freak become more pronounced, Milk's work, which often takes him on the road for weeks at a time, begins to affect his marriage. The professor manipulates his team with increasing fervor until their individual interests are subsumed under the all encompassing goal of serving the project.
Milk can be an irritating character, mainly because he's got the strength of will of an overcooked noodle. His constant bowing to the demands of his pompous, overbearing, yet undeniably charming boss seem inexplicable until you realize that Kinsey has that power over almost everyone around him.
From start to finish, Milk's belief that Kinsey is a bona fide genius never falters. The reader comes to share this belief to a large extent. After all, Kinsey did more than anyone to expose the diverse sexual habits of our repressed post war society. In the process, he fired the very first bullets of the sexual revolution.
Although we can admire the man's brilliance, in another sense Kinsey comes off as misguided. It's impossible for most people to divide sex from emotion, and those who can seem vaguely pathological. Kinsey's laser-like focus on statistics and the nuts and bolts of sexual behavior—not to mention his constant preaching that we shouldn't become emotionally evolved with what he calls our "sexual outlets"—seems increasingly creepy as the novel progresses. In the end, it's hard not to agree with the professor's many critics who claim he championed an entirely "mechanistic view of human relations."
I can't say how close this novel approaches the truth about Kinsey's inner circle. I know that Boyle gave the research assistants and other major characters fictional names. I also know that Boyle is correct in asserting that Kinsey was happily married for 35 years, and that both he and his wife engaged in sex with multiple partners of both sexes. The real Kinsey also engaged in group sex and masochistic behavior, and he encouraged his staff to do the same. I'm sure Boyle had to make up many of the details in his novel, but he seems to have made a sincere attempt to replicate the atmosphere within Kinsey's secretive circle.
Even if this weren't the case, the book, despite getting off to a somewhat slow start, is a fascinating read. How could it not be? Boyle's language is sometimes unnecessarily dense and overblown, but the story he tells is provocative and his subject matter is everyone's all time favorite. In other words, like Kinsey's own books, The Inner Circle is respectable—you can read it out in public—but it'll still make you feel nice and dirty inside.
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