Zutzut’s Internet Bondage: Her Wired Trip To Hell

Imagine a highly intelligent girl who comes to Barnard College from a working-class family in a small town near Buffalo. Her mind has a dark, playful, literary cast; it moves through a Brontë-ish realm of mutilation, blood and abuse. But real encounters with such matters leave the girl stunned. She craves experience. She is 20 and naïve.

And imagine that after she shows her dark writings to a man, he sexually abuses her, and that when the case goes to court and the woman takes the stand, close associates of the accused call her a psychopath and a defense lawyer attacks her for making Naked Lunch her bible, and the newspapers are filled with talk that the young writer brought these things on herself because she imagined them so vividly.

That’s a literary witch-burning. And it’s also the defense in the cybersex case, in which Oliver Jovanovic, a 30-year-old molecular biology graduate student now on leave from Columbia, is accused of tying the Barnard undergraduate naked to a futon frame in his apartment, hitting her with a nightstick, biting her breasts and pushing a police baton up her rectum and vagina till he untied her and she fled his place.

The talk of the courthouse is that the case is dubious, that Linda Fairstein, head of the sex crimes unit for the Manhattan District Attorney’s office, was nuts to bring such a daring prosecution when there was so little physical evidence and so much in the alleged victim’s postings to impeach her. What was she asking for? The New York Post ‘s Steve Dunleavy has repeatedly mocked the trial and said it should be thrown out of court.

Like medieval scholars shocked by the democratizing power of print, these people are shocked by the intimacy of the Internet, shocked by what it reveals about the human heart. For the most remarkable evidence is the 57-page record of the on-line exchange between Mr. Jovanovic and “Zutzut” (my slight variation on the woman’s handle). The document is an epistolary novel that reveals Mr. Jovanovic’s cruel opacity and Zutzut’s girlish creativity. Ms. Fairstein deserves praise for making a case in the Net, for bringing to the stand emaciated Columbia students who casually refer to their first “meetings” when those meetings were on line.

Zutzut and “Gray” (that was Mr. Jovanovic’s handle) met in summer 1996 in an AOL chat room called “Manhattan” from which the two retired to talk one-on-one. Their flirtation surrounded their own backgrounds and interests. Gray went on and on about the schools he’d attended and Penn and Teller bits. Zutzut was more open and personal. She said she saw herself as a “pyrats mate.”

“I was getting too girly,” she explained. “I was an artiste, an intellectual, this regression is recent.”

Forever making allusions, Gray responded, “Ever see the Butthole Surfers in concert?”

Poetic, self-absorbed, Zutzut was in love with legend and language and had no idea how to spell it.

“(secret-wanna hear),” she said.

“Sure.”

“1st xual fantasy-pan.”

“Oh, you look too refined,” he said later,

“a bit refined, till I’m met.”

From the start, the reader wonders what sad Oedipal projections Zutzut was making. For Gray was closed, cool, swaggery, learned, with nothing to say for himself but a stream of names, from the Cloisters to Sonic Youth to the assertion that Cooper Union, which he attended, is one of the two best art schools in the East.

“I had good parents, despite their being difficult,” was as personal as he ever got.

The tension that is in all on-line relationships had already begun: Do we test these giddy projections IRL, in real life? Anyone who has diddled in cyberspace knows the thrill of its heightened and separated reality. A writer can explore dark recesses of the mind precisely because on-line exchanges are shielded from the worldly weight of ongoing relationships with addresses and jobs and neighbors, where such expression is as good as banned.

Zutzut resumed the flirtation by e-mail in early October. Too poor to afford a computer, she corresponded from a Columbia computer in Butler Library. The ensuing correspondence dwelled on sadomasochistic themes, snuff films and dismemberment. But Zutzut’s riffs were curious and alive while Gray’s were cold.

A tour of the subterranean tunnels at Columbia led her to want to set a snuff film there.

“I was thinking of a sort of hedonistic commentary on the pleasure of hell’s pain and the frustration of reliable pleasure day in day out. Hell would have shiny red satans sexily lurking, scurrying about playing pin ball and atari arcade games under the boiler room pipes hissing spitting keeping the diabolically diabolical and such; hell would be a bubble gum pink living room …”

Said Gray: “Have you ever seen any of Kenneth Anger’s films?”

His knowledge impressed her, amazed “the bejesus out of me.” Zutzut struggled to gain self-awareness, understanding of herself that she was obsessive, fickle-“easily bord”-but had little awareness of the man she was involved with.

“I’m forming strange opinions about you, I have to since you wont tell me anything but what I ask for, and with too many taboos surrounding the questions I want to ask, I’m left to wonder.”

“Taboos are meant to be broken,” he said oafishly.

Then on Nov. 15, 1996, Zutzut accompanied a girl who said she was raped to the hospital. A day later, she decanted her heart to Gray.

“once i thought i had no values. But i didn’t panic. i just thought all the world boring and stuffy.… the closest I’ve ever been to panic was a semi existential crisis when i decided that all the world is the dark bloody void the color of birth, inside the womb if you could expose it to light. Knowing that the only thing that separated the nothing inside me from the nothing outside is flesh, beautiful pink sweet flesh. touch it it quivers, or tightens and screams for mother …”

As to the rape: “so what if this girl was raped. she’s the one who put her self into the situation. I dont get a damn, and still i cried and hurt and wanted to whimper, not scream.”

Gray tried in his way to comfort. “Life can be very cruel at times. It is a killing joke.… If you need to talk to someone, I’m usually up until 4 AM.”

He gave his number. Zutzut was wary.

“is this a plot to begin the dismemberment? hmmm, I don’t know if I should.”

But five days later, she was ready. “Put one foot on the chopping block,” she titled her note. Scanning her gauges, she reported: “Ego- 80%; scholastic obligation for 11-21: 50 %; apprehension: 84%” and surrendered her phone number.

The next entry in the file is Nov. 23, 10:30 P.M., an hour and a half after Zutzut left Mr. Jovanovic’s place in upper Manhattan.

“I have a feeling the experience may not have done you as much good as I’d hoped,” Mr. Jovanovic wrote coldly. “Because you weren’t acting much smarter at the end then you were at the beginning.”

She responded with bile, calling him “sick and wrong,” a “sad sadist.”

“Quite bruised mentally and physically, but never been so happy to be alive, now if I’m happy simply because I’m not dead, well, some may question that,” she said. “I think definite psychopathic impulses flash through your cerebrum. And I’m worried the US intelligence doesn’t keep people as morally free as you under better observation.… you are like a bloody car wreck …”

She closed with the sharpest breach of college-girl reality, let alone on-line reality: “Mom didn’t take it so well.”

Gray came back dropping another name, J.G. Ballard’s, and a warning: “As for your mother, keep in mind that you do not really tell her everything.”

His final note to her was disgusting.

“Do you know how to defend yourself? Do you know much about sex or STDs? Did anything happen to you that you didn’t ask for?”

Zutzut’s mother called the campus police, and Zutzut became the chief prosecution witness. Ms. Fairstein may have overcharged the case, seeking a plea, and now law’s cardboard personae have entered society’s chat room: the prim co-ed in buttoned-up collar, the evil scientist defendant. A tall, slender, attractive woman, Zutzut testified for several days, often sobbing on the stand. In cross-examination, defense attorney Jack Litman, of Robert Chambers fame, countered that Zutzut initially took off her clothes at Mr. Jovanovic’s command, a sign of her willingness.

Unquestionably, Zutzut was a willing adult, a woman daring a dark figure to take her somewhere she’d never been before. But that leaves the question: Sometime over the 20 hours she spent in Mr. Jovanovic’s apartment, did she tell him forcefully to stop? She did, she says. Her last e-mails back her up, as do friends’ descriptions under oath of Zutzut as bruised, incoherent and upset.

Meantime, the forces of illiteracy say that because Zutzut revealed her perverse thoughts about abuse, she licensed everything that followed. It is the same old lie they have always used to demonize desire and censor speech: that because we are aroused by rape fantasies, it means we want to rape or be raped. Steve Dunleavy has blamed Zutzut for everything but the unseasonable weather. Mr. Litman has waved Naked Lunch in her face-“it’s a bible, sort of,” she had said on-line-and said that because books are so vivid to her, she doesn’t understand the difference between fantasy and reality.

These creeps don’t understand books, let alone the Internet. Yes, these fictional places are real, as real in their way as IRL. But it is our choice when we want to cross the border.

Zutzut’s Internet Bondage: Her Wired Trip To Hell