Groupies, roadies, drugs. Backstage at a rock concert, such things are expected. An infant is not -- even if it's sporting a tiny punk-rock T-shirt. As she carries this child, Kim Monroe can feel people looking. They disapprove.
Ed Wille knows that feeling. In the baby seat is his 2-year-old son, Angus. And that seat is installed in the back of a hearse. Ed calls this his "family sedan." Angus' stroller is stored where the coffin would go. As Ed parks the hearse at the Great Northern Mall, the people in minivans stop and stare.
The Larsons haven't bought a couch for their new home yet, but a torture rack fills one corner of the living room. Its function is a mystery to the couple's 8-year-old daughter. On the diningroom table a photo album is open, displaying the film from erotic photo sessions shot by the girl's father, Jeff Larson, whose studio is in the attic.
The couples are all in their lower to mid-thirties, all members of a cohort that came of age in the mid-to-late '80s to the sounds and styles of punk rock and/or goth, drawn just as much by the associated counterculture as by the music itself. Their stubborn sense of individuality has followed them into adulthood. Only now they're parents.
And now each couple must strike its own balance: the obligation to provide stability for their child versus the right to be weird.
Their real names are not Jeff and Becky Larson. The couple asked for anonymity, since, as a teacher, she worries that parents might call for her job the moment they learn of her life away from the classroom. He had to leave his last job after his business partner, a Catholic, learned a few of the couple's dirty little secrets. "He didn't want my business," says Jeff, "spreading into his business."
This is the downside to having what might be the kinkiest sex life in Northeast Ohio. To the Larsons, taboos exist to be shattered. They have participated in nearly every variety of erotica and fetish art -- she is featured on a website that celebrates women with real breasts, while he has posed for hardenedhose.com, which shows men with erections wearing pantyhose. They have sex with other couples. And they subject strangers to a style of foreplay that would qualify as a war crime, if the abused weren't begging for it.
Though always nonconformists, the Larsons didn't always choose sex as their mode of expressing it.
They met in high school on a skateboard ramp. Jeff was approaching his adult height of 6'6", and though the basketball coach recruited him for the team, Jeff preferred the scruffy independence of his skateboarding clan and its punk soundtrack.
Becky was a goth girl -- completely bald, with a wardrobe that never deviated from black and baggy. At a time when most girls wanted to be Madonna, Becky embraced the gloom of The Cure and Depeche Mode.
By their late teens they seemed to be straightening out. Jeff came out of drug rehab. Becky grew her hair. "We did the typical college thing, then the typical getting married thing and having the kid," says Becky.
At first, they just mimicked the other parents they saw, the friends who had settled into a responsible but mundane existence. "We were fairly normal, doing what's expected of us," says Becky. But something felt unnatural about their new lives.
A pair of longtime friends wanted the Larsons to swing. The desire was mutual, but the Larsons worried about the effect on their relationship. They also knew that, as parents, their decision might have consequences for their daughter. "We're parents, but we're also human beings," says Jeff. "We have needs."
Ultimately, says Becky, "We decided we had to be us."
So they went for it. And that first adventure launched a journey of sexual exploration five years strong and counting. Soon the Larsons were swinging with people they met at the bar and on the internet. Then they discovered the fetish scene. They both became models, and Jeff found fetish photography. The parade of models he shot only led to more swinging.
"We created a monster," laughs Jeff, who even began crafting his own fetish furniture and selling it on the internet, along with his photography. Becky opened a domination studio where she raised a riding crop over doctors, lawyers, and business big shots. The Larsons even managed an escort agency based in Chicago, via the internet.
On those weekends when they wanted to get naughty, they simply dropped their daughter off at her grandmother's.
The Larsons have indulged their wildest fantasies, attending fetish parties, hosting models for weekend-long photo shoots (one of which involved Becky and a model bound in Saran Wrap) and swing sessions, sometimes leaving town to rendezvous with other couples. Becky once humbled a houseguest by sticking 30 safety pins through his foreskin, then forcing him to count as she extracted them.
The Larsons are on a constant quest for new frontiers. "It's like 'What do we do next? Where do we go from here?'" says Jeff. "That's where the suspension stuff came in."
Suspension, Jeff's latest obsession, involves driving metal hooks into the flesh of one's back, then being pulled off one's feet by cables. (The serial killer in The Cell was into suspension.) The pain is so vicious, Jeff says, that it becomes pleasure.
The Larsons livened up a June 28 fetish party in Cleveland by breaking out a pair of whips. Becky and a friend then flogged a bare-chested Jeff. "My back was open and bleeding," he says with evident pride. "If you're not into pain, it's really hard to explain. You just kind of push through it. And once you come out on the other side, it's just so pleasurable."
The real thrill, however, was in the horrified gasps that came from onlookers each time the whip tore a new ribbon in his flesh. "It's just the exhibitionist in me," says Jeff. "Whatever it takes to get people to faint or flip out, that's what I'm going to do."
The Larsons say their daughter doesn't know what happens on those weekends when she stays at her grandmother's. They pick her up on Sunday and fall comfortably back into their parenting routines: Driving her to Girl Scouts, reading her books, helping her with homework.
"She knows I take pictures of naked people," says Jeff, who hangs semi-nude photos on the walls upstairs. He suspects that it's her Catholic schooling (Becky's income as a dominatrix allowed the couple to afford tuition) that led his daughter to begin calling his photos "inappropriate."
Neither of the Larsons is religious. Jeff says his daughter is "very, very conservative," influenced by the Episcopalian and Methodist services she attends with her grandparents, as well as by her school. By necessity, the Larsons' daughter has learned the complexity of human attraction. Jeff estimates that three quarters of the couple's friends are gay and are open about it while visiting. The men and women who are models, friends, and lovers to her parents are introduced simply as friends. According to Jeff, "She doesn't know that Daddy also likes boys and Mommy also likes girls."
Jeff says his daughter sees the photographs "as art, which is what they are." The most graphic pictures are kept locked away. She has, however, seen pictures of her father suspended by hooks in his back. "She had the usual questions: 'Does it hurt? Why would you do that?'" says Jeff. (He says he doesn't recall how he responded.)
As she nears her ninth birthday, the Larsons' daughter has begun to inquire about the code-speak her parents use to discuss their weekend dalliances. They will not tell her about the swinging, says Jeff, until she is "much, much older." But they are beginning to feel guilty about keeping secrets.
"It's getting to the point where we might have to explain things to her," says Becky. "I would like to explain to her that it's OK to be different, and it's OK for her to be who she wants to be. Our other option is to hide things, and I don't think we want to do that."
Jeff says his parents never talked to him about sex. He was happy to find out on his own, and he intends to let his daughter do the same. The birds-and-bees talk he plans will require just two words: "Be careful." He jokes that he'd prefer his daughter grow up to be a lesbian, "because I can't imagine having to deal with boys."
The DJ and the Dancer
Single and in Seattle, all Kim Monroe wanted for her 33rd birthday was a man. Her friends delivered Hunter, male stripper.
Ten days later Hunter wanted a date. Considering their differences, it seemed pointless.
He had grown up in the Seattle area, while for Kim the city was just a stop on her career track as a modern rock DJ. She was born in Youngstown, a self-described "wild child" who rocked to The Cure and partied with drugs and booze. Hunter (who asked to be identified only by his stage name) says that during his teens he was a "total loner," mousy and chubby. The jocks used to squeeze his love handles.
When they met, he dated girls who looked like Barbie dolls. She liked her guys "tattooed and emaciated," just like her favorite singers. Also, Kim is eight years older.
So what brought them together? "Great sex!" hollers Kim. Beyond that, she sensed Hunter's "good heart" and he sensed hers, and it was enough to overcome their differences. Ten months after their first date, the pair was married. When Kim landed work at 92.3 Xtreme Radio, they moved back to Northeast Ohio.
Parenting had never interested Kim. "I always thought, 'That's something that people in suburbia do.'" But after returning to the Midwest, she suddenly longed for a child. He was born 16 months ago -- and named Hunter.
"She didn't want 'Hunter,' because that was my stage name," says Hunter Sr. "But I said, 'That's a shitty reason. It's a great name.'"
Kim and Hunter Sr. now own a house in an Avon subdivision. Their living room is full of toys. A big-screen TV plays videos of Barney and the Wiggles nonstop. "It's weird how we've evolved from this decadent, debaucherous lifestyle," she says. "We still have the same thoughts and feelings, but things are tempered now that we're parents."
Not that they're a typical suburban family. Hunter is still dancing, now in a male revue called Ohio Body Talk, which he founded. Kim, with her tangerine-dyed shag and biceps tattoo, still blends with the rock crowd.
Hunter jokes about buying Hunter Jr. a tiny Chippendales collar, then turning the diapered boy loose on the catwalk. "It would help tips," he smirks. In truth the baby is not allowed to watch his father at work -- the couple decided that it would be confusing for Hunter Jr. to see other women lusting after his father.
Hunter Sr. is sure that with his genetics and dedication to exercise, he will be able to dance into his forties. But that will surely complicate things. At some point, the couple will have to explain to their son why his father wears his wedding ring on his right hand. And they will have to convince their son that his father cares only for his mother, not for the women in the bachelorette party. The couple says they will tell Hunter Jr. about his father's profession when they decide he is old enough to understand.
Kim, in her capacity as 92.3 program director, still goes to rock concerts. If Hunter Jr. comes, she gives him earplugs, and they watch the show from backstage. Mosh pits are off limits.
Still, thanks to Kim's habit of bringing Hunter to work, the baby gets to hang with some of rock's heaviest hitters. "These big rockers see a baby, and they turn into a pile of mush," she says. During a break in a live interview with Disturbed singer Jeff Draiman, he asked to hold Hunter. Aaron Lewis, frontman for Staind, introduced his baby Zoe to Hunter backstage at a show. Papa Roach lead singer Jacoby Shaddix played with Hunter the last time he was at the station.
Kim says she gets plenty of disapproving looks as she carries Hunter backstage during concerts. She can empathize with Sharon Osbourne, who caught flak after her parenting style was given reality-show treatment. And like Sharon, Kim has a hostile reaction to would-be critics.
"I haven't conformed to anybody's ideals of motherhood," says Kim, as she sits on her livingroom carpet, bouncing Hunter Jr. on her lap. "It's not anybody's place to tell me, 'That's inappropriate.' Fuck you, if you don't like it."
The Munsters on Madison
At 18 months old, Angus is too young to be embarrassed. But considering that his dad drives a 1959 Cadillac hearse and plays cardboard-box drums in an aggressively weird punk band, embarrassment may not be far away.
This is a matter of some concern for Ed, his father. "We wonder whether some day he'll say, 'Please Dad, don't drop me off in front of the school with the hearse.' Or it might swing the other way," says Ed with a hopeful look. "He might really like it." The couple also owns a Honda and a Chevy Blazer, so they have a contingency plan.
Still, name a kid Angus, and it's clear the parents are rooting for a rebel. Ed insists the name has little to do with his affection for AC/DC, whose lead guitarist is Angus Young. "We wanted to find a strong-sounding name," says Ed. "Something that sounded a little unusual."
That might also be an apt description for Ed's band, Uncle Scratch's Gospel Revival. Brother Ed, as he's known on the stage, pounds his cardboard drum set with broken drumsticks, while his partner, Brother Ant, bellows lead vocals through a megaphone.
Their lack of instrumentation makes Uncle Scratch dangerously mobile, and they celebrated Angus's birthday with an impromptu performance on Madison Avenue in Lakewood. "We crashed this scooter show, just set up on the sidewalk and started playing," says Ed. "And [Angus] likes it. He bops his little head around." Shutting down this Uncle Scratch sidewalk session required police intervention.
Ed is unabashedly proud of his boy's burgeoning enthusiasm for the classics. "The other day I was washing my car, and I popped in the Ramones. Angus just starts jumping and slamming his head. He was going bananas for that."
Ed and his wife Natalie spend nary a dime on day care. They run B-Ware Video on Madison, and Angus joins his parents behind the counter. It's likely to be the only place in Greater Cleveland that stocks all 15 volumes of Wrasslin' She-Babes. Traci Lords has her own section. There's another video section entitled "Prison Chicks." Vintage posters billing vampire and zombie movies blanket the walls. For added effect, Ed hangs shrunken doll heads on the wall that look like the work of a witch doctor.
"People come in here and they say, 'Man, I wish I could've grown up in a cool place like this,'" says Ed.
He calls theirs the "Lillian and Herman approach" to parenting, but Natalie admits to a growing dissonance about her own Munster qualities. "As a mom now, I kind of feel obligated to tone it down a bit," she says. "There are things I'd really like to wear, but then I catch myself and say, 'I probably shouldn't.'"
Ed scoffs at the mere suggestion of change. "To tell the truth, I don't really care what anybody else thinks. We see kids walking up and down the streets, and they're just the rudest little brats. So if their parents are going to judge the way I raise my kid, they can go to hell."
Dr. Patricia Saunders, a New York City psychologist who specializes in child-rearing, has a message that might cause alarm among the parents above: "Usually, the more nonconformist the parents," says Saunders, "the more conservative the kid."
The goth and punk cultures are anti-establishment in a way that is distinct from the '60s brand of rebellion, says Saunders. Broadly, while the hippies were inclined toward idealism, observers detect nihilism in this younger generation.
"There are elements of punk and goth that are a little worrisome: the 'dark side' stuff, the negativity and cynicism," says Saunders. "These are things that they might communicate to their kid, and they might soon have a depressed, antisocial kid on their hands. That, or the child could develop a passivity that could be detrimental."
Beyond this word of caution, however, Saunders says that for all their eccentricities, these particular punk/goth generation couples make for largely responsible and conscientious parents. Even the Larsons' swinging and sado-masochism, if properly controlled, should have a minimal impact on the child.
"Speaking as a psychologist, that's no problem, as long as it doesn't intrude on the rest of their lives," says Saunders. "And sometimes it's a very hard call."
Told of the Larsons' intention to be more open with their daughter, Saunders suggests the couple keep their dirty deeds safely stowed in the attic.
"I don't think 'We're going to show you every aspect of our lives' is necessarily a good idea," says Saunders. Besides, she is impressed that the pair has kept their double life going this long. "They must be awfully good jugglers, if they have a torture rack in the living room and the kid hasn't said anything so far. It sounds like their instincts to protect the kid are right on."
In the case of Hunter and Kim, Saunders thinks it wise to keep the baby away from the bachelorette parties and bars where his dad dances -- there's a danger he would mimic his father's gyrating. "The kid might run into all kinds of problems in school when he starts doing dances around the maypole."
Saunders sees nothing objectionable about the way Ed and Natalie are raising Angus. Weird name, weird band, weird car, and weird video store don't automatically produce a weird kid, even if that's what Angus's father wants. Ed's refusal to be judged by other parents, says Saunders, is laudable: "More power to him," she says.
But the same qualities that elicit praise from Saunders bring furious condemnation from another child psychologist, Dr. Bill Maier.
"Parents who expose their kids to this kind of behavior are either really ignorant about the needs of children, or they're just really selfish and putting their own desires ahead of the best interest of their kids," he says. Maier represents another school of child-raising theory, that of Focus on the Family, the nonprofit based in Colorado that has sold millions of books on parenting -- the Christian way.
Maier doesn't believe the Larsons can keep their daughter from discovering their sexual adventures. Nor does he think that Hunter ought to mingle with rock stars or be made to understand his father's career. He also objects to Ed and Natalie allowing Angus inside their movie store. "Children are not able to process adult sexuality, and to be in that environment could cause them a lot of confusion," says Maier. "Later in life it could affect their ability to be intimate with another adult."
For this reason, he recommends that parents with abnormal lifestyles strive for normality, even if it means self-repression. Those who lead a double life, says Maier, will inevitably be found out by the child.
"I think kids are really perceptive -- especially as they get older," he says. "They're going to be asking questions." Then the parent has to worry that, at the moment his or her activities are discovered, the child may be in for a shock.
Regular shoppers at B-Ware Video ask Ed: "When are you going to show Angus Faces of Death?", referring to the shockumentary in which the dying involves real people. Ed's retort seems way out of character: "Angus ain't going to be watching that kind of crap in my household."
Contradictions like these suggest that, even as they delight in flouting social norms, the parents are prone to conventional instincts. Whether they were punked out or gothed up, the new couples with kids are, like any parents, learning as they go.
Ed once mused wistfully to a friend that Angus might grow up to be a drummer, "just like his old man." The friend said, "Come on, the best thing you can do is stick a book in front of his face instead of an instrument. You know music doesn't pay off." Ed agreed. Natalie reads books to Angus every day.
It's the same for Hunter and Kim. Though their son's very name was inspired by his father's stage identity, the business is off-limits to Hunter Jr. "Daddy does not want him to be a stripper," says Hunter Sr. "This boy, we're putting money away so that he can go to college." Not that stripping has been bad to Hunter. He just feels that he missed out on the college experience, and he doesn't want his son to grow up with the same regret.
Jeff Larson wants to spare his daughter his worst experiences -- those involving drugs. He can speak firsthand about the destructive power of addiction. So can Kim Monroe, who argues that her own history with substance abuse gives her an authority and expertise that naive parents lack. Hillary Wentling, the dookie.com designer, says her son will get a shrewdly edited version of her experimentation. "I'll be open about it," she says. "But I'll also be open about how many funerals I've been to because of drugs. He won't hear the glamorous stories."
For all their bullwhips and torture racks, the Larsons reveal soft spots, too. The couple maintains an internet blog, typically reserved for fetish photos and salacious tales. But one recent entry proves that, for all the sexual themes Jeff captures with his camera, he has an appreciation for innocent beauty too.
"Here is something that you hardly (if ever) see on our journal," wrote Jeff. "Our daughter was out reading on our porch the other day, and it was so cute, I had to take a few pictures." The photo shows the Larsons' daughter curled up in a wicker chair, wrapped in a quilt and engrossed by the book in her hands.
"It's weird," continues Jeff's entry. "I still don't feel like a dad sometimes, let alone the father of a young lady who likes to sit alone and read, can cook, prepare her own lunches and dress herself no prob (she actually has great fashion sense sometimes), and really digs music (and a lot of ours too). Just a little bizarre to think about sometimes. Later tonight I promise to go back to my deviance."