Meatpaper two

Till Dinner Do Us Part
Cannibalism strains a marriage

by Camella Bontaites and Jeremy Cantor
illustration by Cy de Groat


Dear Camie:
Love Me Tender

by Jeremy Cantor

IT ALL STARTED a few years back when Camie and I both read Nathaniel Philbrick’s In the Heart of the Sea: The Tragedy of the Whaleship Essex. In the early 1800s, the Essex was rammed and wrecked by a sperm whale and the crew was forced into lifeboats. As supplies diminished, they turned to the “custom of the sea,” in which straws are drawn and the loser murdered and consumed. One of the unlucky souls was Owen Coffin, the nephew that the captain, George Pollard, had sworn to protect at all costs. Philbrick writes that Pollard, asked if he knew a man named Owen Coffin, replied: “Know him? Why, I et him!”

The question had to be asked: “What would you do if we were stuck at sea without food?” Foolishly, I treated it as a thought exercise instead of a test of fidelity. I don’t recall my exact response, but I’m guessing it began with, “I suppose it depends...” And where did it ignite? Well, I told Camie, if I had to eat her, I probably would.

Well, I told Camie, if I had to eat her, I probably would.

Among coupled peoples, amid the tolerated shortcomings and conflicts of legitimate magnitude, a prosaic concept or two repeatedly emerges to strike at some core value or fear, laying naked the reality that we are separate and only somewhat controllable. I’m talking about ostensible trivialities such as “Why can’t you stop biting your fingernails in public?” or “How can you really prefer cats (selfish) to dogs (loyal)?” Our albatross is cannibalism.

Let’s be clear, eating a fellow human deserves its spot at the top of the immorality chart, alongside pedophilia, denying global warming, and theft from the elderly. But undergraduate philosophy posits that morality may be relative and established among peers, and so perhaps a consensual cannibalistic process in the shadow of death is not equivalent to sociopathy.

Consider the raft. Drifting toward oblivion, there would be some compelling reasons to forgo cannibalism and die together: romance, guilt, karmic dread, guilt, fear of a ship coming over the horizon during the first bite, disgust, more guilt.

But isn’t there worth in preserving life, and in sacrifice? Take out the culinary details, and Owen Coffin’s submission to fate looks heroic. Throw Romeo and Juliet and their sophomoric suicide pact in my face, and I’ll toss back my man Leo in “Titanic.” There wouldn’t have been a movie if he’d pulled Kate off of her serving tray to perish with him in the deep. We righteously celebrate selfless grenade smotherers and savers of Private Ryan. Why not celebrate the survivor, too? Is there not dignity in clinging doggedly to life, and carrying a memory forward with grace?

Jesus remarked, “Whoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood remains in me, and I in him.” Maybe he didn’t mean it quite so literally, but I like the sentiment. The story should begin not that I would be willing to eat Camie if she drew the short straw, but that, if the tables were turned, I’d insist she eat me. In fact, I would insist on being the one to go prior to the draw. That’s probably the part of all of this I feel most certain about. It would be profligate tragedy for us both to die; theoretically, someone really should eat someone.

When we peel away the layers, what is left is a cry, “Could you think of me as food?” The line between coexistence and consumption is central to what fascinates us about the Donner Party, as are the limits of our will to survive. These are why cannibalism parties, in which a human figure is made out of food, are huge in Japan. Truly, I find it near impossible to imagine eating Camie, or to imagine being eaten by her, for that matter. It’s nearly the same as choosing to eat you, dear reader, or our beloved cat. Small children recoil when realizing that “chicken is chicken” but then become accustomed. Is a hamburger more easily defended than cannibalism for survival?

Given the remote likelihood of having to act on the answer, it might be better to feign recoil at the question, and avoid long trips on small boats.


Dear Jeremy: A Response to a Husband’s Admission That He Would, in the Event of Near-Starvation at Sea, Take Part in Eating His Wife* If She Drew the Short Straw.

by Camella Bontaites

IT WAS THE KIND OF QUESTION I would inevitably ask after we’d read the book. “You would never eat me, would you?” Jeremy’s response was lightening-quick, practical. “Well, I’d offer myself up first, but you would never eat me! We’d have to eat someone or we’d all die... silly not to.”
A summary of the ensuing days: Eighteen queries from me — “Would you eat Jonathan (dear friend)? Annie (childhood dog)? Your mom?” — nine dinner-party debates, five spiteful, muttered, cannibal references in bed as he drifted off to sleep and one instance when I laughed sincerely and capitulated, admiring his pragmatism.

Seeking some explanation for why a man would eat a perfectly good wife, I scoured the Web for anything I could find on cannibalism. I added new terms: “human psyche,” “immortality,” “being eaten.” I browsed our bookshelves for insights. Among the stories we have written to ourselves throughout the ages, I found that eating and being eaten are often linked to something we all crave in one form or another: Control.

Humans do a powerful thing when we eat. We make something that was here disappear, even make it part of us. The gods have known about this trick for ages. Chronos, the ancient Greek god of Time, ate his children. He had lost control of them and feared them, so he devoured them and there they stayed, imprisoned in his giant belly, until someone gave him a vomit-inducing cocktail and they were freed. He came from good stock, being the son of Earth and the heavens, the grandson of Chaos and Love, but Time had little self-control.

In the ancient Hindu text, the Bhagavad Gita, the epic hero Arjuna sees the god Krishna and cries out:

Rushing through your fangs... men are dangling / from heads / crushed / between your teeth... Homage to you. Best of Gods!

Gruesome, and effective. I moved on to the kids’ section. As it turns out, there is plenty of cannibalism for children. The Aarne-Thompson list of “tale types” is a hundred-year-old repository for common fairy tale plots. In “AT 327A, Hansel and Gretel,” the tale type of our favorite cannibalism story, adults inveigle children to enter dark homes, forests, and cauldrons, and threaten to control them by eating them. Even more insidious, by nestling morals into lullabies, we preserve ourselves and our values in our children, maintaining a small, desperate, clawing hold on the world, even after we’ve gone.

Meanwhile, medical anthropologist Nancy Scheper-Hughes writes about what she calls the “New Cannibalism” — our need for each others’ organs and parts. In a world where transplant surgery is a business and our bodies are our commodities, we have become, quite literally, desperate for each other. We consume each others’ parts to control the amount of time we have here. But our need will never be satisfied, because underneath it all lies an impossible task: staving off death.

Maybe that’s all Jeremy wants: more control, more time. I could try to relent, relax about him handing me over to a boatful of salivating sailors. Hmm. Yesterday, I wrote him a tale, strung together from the Aarne-Thompson list:

AT, The girl and the troll. AT 1468, Marrying a stranger. AT 9, The unjust partner. AT, The man who wanted to get rid of his wife. AT 1450, Clever Elsie. AT 890, A pound of flesh. AT 425a, The search for the lost husband.

Control is an illusion. Nothing can tell us how to transition from warm beds to a cold world each morning with confidence, to look ourselves in the eye and say, I am supposed to be here, everything will be OK. There is no panacea for existential terror, no amount of eating. Just believing. And being as kind to each other as we can.

I’ll finish telling Jeremy the new tale. I’ll hug him then, and I might just mean it.


This article originally appeared in Meatpaper Issue Two.


illustration by Cy de Groat