Against Our Own Best Time: Competition Among Writers in the Margins
In the small town where I grew up, I was strange and lonely. Books were my solution. The page was the easiest place to name things, and to find them named. It took me a long time to trust people that way. I didn’t find a community until I found the limits of myself, and to do that I had to drop out of high school and become a drug addict and then a sex worker and then a writer. Along the way, I found my people, and they saved my life. I know the alchemy of a shared trouble, what kind of love it can build. And that’s why the competition I see among my peers sits so uneasily in me. How can we who share so much, and long for the same things begrudge each other our happiness? We do, but we don’t have to. It is more of a choice than we think.
Just before he submitted my memoir to editors, my agent asked me, Are you sure you want to do this? Without hesitation, I answered. Yes.
I knew I would never have that choice again. But I believed in what my book could do, in the illumination of our dark parts as a solution to loneliness and all the ails that come of it. I wanted to give what I had received. And I wanted the women who read my story to know that it had happened to a real person.
I was publishing a memoir about having been a professional dominatrix and a drug addict. People offended by the grotesque or criminal aspects of my story would take issue. People who believed that behaviors outside of social prescription were indeed “deviant” would judge me. People who didn’t believe in this kind of honesty would disagree. That is, I expected backlash.
I’d been an arrogant and frightened young woman when I became a dominatrix, and clung to the belief that I was different from other sex workers, other BDSM practitioners, and other drug addicts. In writing the book, I’d worked hard to show how the experience had dissuaded me of those beliefs, humbled me. My most reductive ideas had been dismantled during those years, and I’d left a lot of shame there, and found a truer self. Naming those experiences was painful, but I believed, as I still do, that a job of the writer—especially the memoirist—is to enact on the page processes both painful and transformative, to offer a vicarious experience that might encourage readers to answer the knocking of their own most daunting questions, their own transformations.
I trusted that the people who shared my experiences—who had sought and found themselves in the places so often condemned and pathologized—would appreciate my story. The feminists, queers, deviants, and outsiders whose communities had always welcomed me, they would welcome my story, too.
The book’s initial reception surprised me. Reviews were overwhelmingly positive, and the critiques offered were thoughtful—I didn’t disagree with them. The book received a lot of press, and I was invited as a guest on NPR’s Fresh Air—I had grown up listening to Terri Gross, and little could have meant more to me. Though overwhelmed, I was profoundly grateful. Sure, I got a few emails from strangers hoping to save me from eternal fire, but those were easy to disregard.
Many of the experiences that I described in the book were things I’d never said aloud, and I did so for the first time in interviews. I expected it to be uncomfortable, and it was. But getting clean had taught me the power and simplicity of honesty, and I made a decision to answer every question as truthfully as I could.
A month after the book’s release, I went on a small book tour that began in Seattle. My first event was booked at a “sex positive” community venue. I looked forward to it, assumed that it would be a warm and informed audience, one that might spare me the more ignorant questions I was getting used to fielding, like why do you hate men? or did your parents abuse you? A few days before the reading, my contact at the venue emailed me. There had been some ugly discussion about my book online, she said, and suggested that I address it before I arrived. Confused, I logged onto the community discussion forum to which she’d directed me, and found a number of BDSM threads decrying my false expertise and exploitation of their lifestyle for financial gain. The consensus was that, as a commercial practitioner and former drug addict, I was a terrible spokesperson for the BDSM community. That spokesperson should be someone like them, who identified as “lifestyle.”
I’ve never attempted to represent any story but my own. My depiction of the commercial world of BDSM was only that. Just as stories about prostitutes do not imply that all sex is comparable, I did not universalize the sexual acts, feelings, or lifestyles my book described. I did not imply a connection between drug use and BDSM practice for anyone but myself. I knew that writers of stories from marginalized experiences often become de facto representatives of those cultures, but my aversion to that phenomenon was not stronger than my reasons for writing my story. As a memoirist, I knew mine was the only story I could tell. But I didn’t feel comfortable walking into a room of people otherwise convinced. Shaken, I canceled the event.
My publicist had also arranged an interview with a columnist at the local paper who was a practicing dominatrix. While my interview experiences had been largely positive thus far, they consisted of repetitive questions—those of folks who needed me to define the word “dominatrix,” and rarely covered the literary aspects of the book. This seemed an opportunity for a more sophisticated conversation. The columnist had also suggested that she write a review of the book, and I was equally eager for her analysis. How many writers had shared that experience with me? I didn’t know a single one.
I followed the directions she’d given me to our interview location, and found it at the top of a skyscraping tower—an empty bar whose windows offered a magnificent view of the city. My interviewer was blond, immaculately assembled in all black, and expertly made up. She greeted me with a remote smile.
“Great to meet you,” I said, shaking her small, cool hand. “What a location!”
“Thanks for agreeing to come,” she said, and led me to a private corner.
“So how does it feel to be the dominatrix expert?” was one of her first questions.
It hurts my heart to look back at my younger self, her innocence. I wish that I could go back and tell her to trust her gut, that she was allowed to walk out of any room that didn’t feel right. But she hadn’t learned that yet.
My interviewer seemed trapped in her dominatrix persona. Her face placid as a doll’s, lip twitching knowingly, she reminded me of the women I’d worked with at the dungeon, of myself back then. The tone of her questions confused me, and the whole interaction felt disconnected. Unable to find the pulse of our conversation, I tried to compensate by being as forthcoming as I could. At one point, she suggested the irresponsibility of my having practiced as a dominatrix while on drugs. She asked me if I felt I owed my former clients an apology.
The logic of her question didn’t add up to me, but I was interested in being open to the holes in my own thinking. My clients had been middle-aged men, paying a 20-year-old college student to tie them up and call them names. Many of them had brought drugs of their own, and offered to share them with me. Since getting clean, I’d committed to holding myself accountable for my actions while using, and making amends wherever possible. No therapist or spiritual adviser or mentor had ever suggested that I owed my clients an apology, but I openly considered this woman’s suggestion.
I agreed that perhaps I did owe them an apology.
The next day, I picked up a copy of the paper and found her review. In it, she characterized me as an opportunistic tourist and ignoramus who presented the characters in my book like a freak show. At one point, she confessed that reading it made her want to slap me. The only note referring to the literary qualities of the book was, “The prose flows smoothly enough.”
This wasn’t a thoughtful criticism. It was a personal attack, and one that continued for months. Following our interview, she posted subsequent columns lambasting me and my irresponsible writing, referring with transparent contempt to my instant “fame” and position as “The Dominatrix,” bolstered by long trains of comments from men who praised her insight.
“She’s obsessed with you!” my partner raged, and finally tried to post in the comments section of the newspaper column herself. Her posts were immediately deleted.
I knew I should ignore it, as we are always told to ignore bad reviews, and online antagonists—whose work often masquerades as the former (for more on this, read Emily Gould’s excellent take on the subject). Now, I never read the comments section. But then, it wasn’t easy. I had never been targeted by such an attack, or had my words so misrepresented, and was most hurt that it came from such an (I thought then) unlikely source. I spent much of the rest of my book tour curled anxiously in hotel beds, unable to sleep.
I didn’t want false praise because we were both women, or had both been dominatrices. False praise of work from marginalized experiences does little but enforce the status quo. I wanted what most authors want: to offer something to readers who shared my experience, and to be included in a conversation about literature that has excluded people from marginalized groups for centuries. And yes, I had hoped that someone who shared my experience, who likely knew well the particular ways it gets used to dismiss women and their work, might use the opportunity to set an example of how to consider a serious literary work that deals with female sexuality, even in ways that conflicted with her own perspectives.
This isn’t an essay about getting a bad review. It isn’t an essay about “mean girls,” or competition motivated cruelty. It is an essay about fear.
In the many Q&As that have followed my book’s release, I have again been called responsible for the welfare of my former clients. And it is always women asking me if I am ashamed of how I betrayed those men’s marriages. This kind of sexism scolds, we should know better, because they cannot. It excuses men because of their biological limitations, especially regarding sex. This is the same logic that excuses rapists. I was not my clients’ victim, nor were they mine.
I got used to this reaction, as I did the many other forms of sexist dismissal and judgment. Memoirists trade in the admission of past mistakes, but so often, those admissions are quick to be judged out of context (see Roxane Gay’s response to Lena Dunham’s experience). The backlash I had expected did arrive, and though it was sometimes disheartening, I never took it personally. It was the hostility of people who shared my experience that hurt and discouraged me—not as a writer, but as a person.
I understand it. When you come from a marginalized experience, and you are fighting for visibility and respectful acknowledgment, there isn’t much to go around. It hurts to never see your story represented. When there seems only room for one of us at the top, you think it should be you. To varying degrees, we all have these feelings. Writing is an insecure profession, affected by factors beyond talent and intention and hard work, factors over which we are powerless. It is natural to fight for what little resources we have. We are hungry, and hunger makes people fetishize food. It doesn’t, however, make them good cooks.
We are not fighting for food. We are fighting for attention, worse, for the illusion of it. If Lena Dunham didn’t get 3.7 million dollars for her book, it would not have gone to me, or you, or anyone else. That other sex work memoirist, novelist of color, or queer poet did not steal her award from you. Odds are, she worked her ass off for it, just like so many of us.
Straight white men resent each other, too, but they aren’t fighting over scraps. They are writing their books about baseball or divorce or affairs or whatever, because they believe they have a place. They are not hating on all the other straight white male writers, and then wasting energy doubting their own work. They are writing the fuck out of that baseball book. They are blazing through their four-volume memoir, unconcerned about the future belittling of its domestic themes. Straight white men are not worrying that there are already so many books about straight white men and their midlife crises, their father complexes, or their fantasies about women.
It is hard to give when you don’t feel you have enough. The beauty and miracle of being human is that we can be afraid, and not act out of fear. I promise you, generosity costs nothing. It is an investment in your own security. It is how we build the world we want to live in.
Don’t stand in the back of the reading and talk shit. Don’t hoard contacts or job leads. Don’t hesitate to share all of your information, all of your opportunities. Announce your awards, and those of other writers. Nominate them. The solution to scarcity is more, not less. This is a relay, not a sprint. Race, but don’t race against the rest of us. Race against the centuries of books and people that have silenced stories like yours. Race against the suggestion that it’s been done before. Race against your own best time.
Melissa Febos is the author of the memoir, Whip Smart (St. Martin’s Press, 2010). Her work has been widely anthologized and appears in publications including Glamour, Salon, Dissent,New York Times, Kenyon Review, Post Road, Bitch Magazine, The Rumpus, Hunger Mountain, The Portland Review, The Brooklyn Rail, and The Chronicle of Higher Education Review, and she has been featured, among other places, on NPR’s Fresh Air, CNN, and Anderson Cooper Live. Selected by Lia Purpura as the winner of the 2013 Prairie Schooner Creative Nonfiction Contest, she is the recipient of a 2013 Barbara Deming Memorial Fund Artist Grant, a 2012 Bread Loaf Nonfiction Fellowship, and MacDowell Colony fellowships in 2010 and 2011. Currently Assistant Professor of Creative Writing at Monmouth University and MFA faculty at the Institute of American Indian Arts (IAIA), Melissa grew up on Cape Cod, and lives in Brooklyn.