by Peter Byrne
Holden, Kate: In My Skin: A Memoir Of Addiction, Arcade, New York, NY, 2006, ISBN-10: 1559708301, ISBN-13: 978-1559708302, 304 pages.
(Swans - March 24, 2008) It's not that we don't have prostitution where I live. "Hooker," though, isn't the word that comes to mind when I read in the local press of the latest police raid. An older woman of "untarnished" reputation is named and there follows a glowing description of her apartment in terms of a nouveau riche fantasy of belle époque splendor. No one would call this lady's "girls" anything less than "courtesans." Like most crime in these parts the madam's trespass is presented as a one-off event, a flagrant exception to the moral, not to say the natural order. No one makes the connection when the same item reoccurs like clockwork a couple of months down the line and so on forever. A university thinker might build a career on tying up this collective hypocrisy to a millennium of Catholicism. Myself I'm too busy enjoying the show.
Meanwhile, down-market, arrangements are just as cozy. The old town, a flat roofed Casbah, hasn't been entirely ruined by the recent makeover for tourists. A seedy corner remains with a handful of salty human prototypes. Years ago you could observe weathered ladies seated enticingly just beyond the open door of the windowless ground floor dwellings. There would be a large animal horn somewhere overhead. This charm against the evil eye also signaled that cards would be scrutinized and fortunes told. Assistant necromancers read palms and other bodily parts down the hall.
On Sunday mornings in the same lanes these days, you can see mature women opening the door with a broad if lined smile to sturdy young migrant farm workers. Italians aren't good at integrating immigrants. However, these diffident young men are greeted like returning sons. Who would dare call the earth mothers at the open door "hookers"? With their thick waists and sturdy brief legs they could be temple prostitutes on the verge of retiring.
A trip to Milan or Rome by car will show that sufficiently exotic looking foreign whores have indeed been integrated and decorate the approach roads. Consequently, our town, Lecce, may not be typical, if any place in this many-centered country can be said to typify the whole. When in the late 19th century, the New Italy carefully excluded Naples from the main stream, Lecce fell asleep in its remoteness from any place that counted. The little city's main feature at present is its sugarplum baroque architecture gradually being transformed into a Disneyfied happy hunting ground for the European Union's aging population. Fortunately the oldies don't come to set up housekeeping as they do on the Spanish coast or in Turkey's Mediterranean towns. The homegrown petty bourgeoisie manage on their own to foul the air with impending death, disputes over parking slots, and the store-fresh odor of mink coats.
Our town has a university to which no one would attach the worn adjective "renowned." I rarely tread its unhallowed halls, but went along when told that an author who wrote in English was in town to present her first book. I'd never heard of Kate Holden, but had a pleasant chat with her before she mounted the podium. She was Australian from Melbourne and our obligatory subject was its climate and atmosphere in contrast to Rome's, where she'd spent some time. We moved on to the ordeal of having one's work translated into Italian. It was this translation that her Italian publisher had arranged to present to a gathering of students who were mainly young women aged about twenty.
Holden, trim and efficient, came across as one of those bright ex-graduate students who would settle into a comfortable university job back home after her European sojourn. She had a degree in classics. You could imagine her long, bespectacled face gaining bony distinction as she moved out of her thirties up the ladder to tenure. It was all so predictable I thought her talk would be déjà-heard too and looked for an exit. But I was edged into a seat in full view. Turning tail would have revealed my congenial book chat as insincere as it had in fact been.
Then Holden read the prologue to her memoir:
What do I remember of being a prostitute? I remember tenderness, boredom, the ice-creams we would eat at 3 a.m. in front of the television; the smell of cocks, shy men with silky skin, laughter; dark streets gleaming; boys in baseball caps slouching in the introduction lounge, heavy bellies pressing on me; conversations, sneaking cigarettes while fixing my make-up.
I sat up straight, assuming an academic and strictly nonsmut hound attitude. The feminine audience stopped shuffling and waited in wide-eyed silence for another jolt. These students were from a very traditional part of Europe where fathers still had the last word and mothers held fast to the umbilical cord. Their questions later wouldn't touch morals or health, but how Holden had squared her lifestyle with her parents.
The author had written a memoir of her life till thirty. Its trajectory took her into heroin addiction, which then rode along on the back of a career as a prostitute. One surprise in her story was that her family left nothing to be desired. Solvent, liberal, loving, and supportive to the point of masochism, her parents even enrolled in classes on how to deal with addicts. It makes the reader wonder if, in a book notable for its candor, the author hasn't suppressed some reference to deeper tension in order not to hurt these admirable people. For instance, did the alternative primary schooling they favored help or hinder her in life? And, in those early years, what were the screaming sessions with her mother about? Truth-telling always remains a selective business, and memoirs with their load of lived-through facts are no trustworthier in this respect than fiction. Indeed, a novel can often reveal more of what's happened to an author than a chronicle.
Holden's narrative line, for that matter, is not unlike a novelist's. She squeezes suspense from the precarious situation of the addict. Will she stick with rehab this time? Will her conduct provoke a definitive break with her family or sever the threads that still connect her to the drug-free world? Or, simply, will she score that day? The age-old drama of a vulnerable young woman at large in the wicked world is defused by Holden's working life on the street and in brothels. The detailed description of her workaday duties hardly leaves the reader in a sweat wondering if the heroine will lose her virginity. So, in this memoir about prostitution the addict's predicament fills in for sex. The book's erotic charge is just about nil -- or less: The author's submerged aim would seem to be to relieve sex of its power by trivializing it. If a vibrator could speak, these would be its views as it bantered sardonically with a used condom.
Beneath the surface story of being hooked on heroin and selling her body to pay for it, another trajectory can be discerned: A shy girl, gifted but feeling her gifts are hollow, sets out to prove herself. It isn't enough for her to acquire a university degree and to be considered bright. She insists on confronting what she finds self-challenging, edgy things that allow her little victories over her fear and sense of exclusion. Here the great big cliché of insufficient self-esteem blocks our way. Mouthed on all sides, it explains everything, except what causes it in the first place. Why did Kate Holden have such a low opinion of herself?
"I never imagined I'd be this brave," thought Holden, swigging wine in bed and snorting speed before going on stage to play bass guitar with a rock band. (Page 12) In her perspective, a first kiss, or teenage groping session falls into the same line of adventure as her initial injection of heroin or first blowjob offered for money in a parked car. Her take is that, despite the wear and tear of which she laments (and inflicts on the reader), she's enlarging herself, beating down that bashful, inadequate child. She thinks it may not have been heroin that satisfied her after all, but "my own courage." (Page 21) All the same, her openness to experience -- more is better -- is mined by a deep need for oblivion that's hard to fit in as part of any adventure or personal conquest. Her infatuation with quantity -- try keeping track of her customers or friends -- seems like just another door to self-obliteration. Something is missing in this well-written memoir that would let us puzzle out the human conundrum.
But then memoirs aren't written to solve problems but to state them and, let's say it, to throw down red herring. In her mind that little girl presents her years on the game as a victory of sorts. She has not only defeated her own fear, which for some reason she found essential to do, but also voided a whole area of human experience -- sex -- of most of its meaning. Whatever her winning through means to herself, it seems like a strange wild goose chase to the reader. After three hundred pages, he's still asking why.
Conventional wisdom always has the set phrase ready: Reading about sex is so, so boring. But of course it isn't and you won't find another subject that can be counted on to tell us more about people. However, even Giacomo Casanova's Histoire de ma vie manages to get away from that vain author for pages at a time. We are given striking portraits of his partners, and there are always swaths of social history beyond the confines of his love nests. Kate, like Giacomo, is obsessed with quantity, but the snippets we see of her customers are mere shadows on a window shade. Even her addict boyfriends seem undifferentiated, equally pale, skinny, soft-skinned, spineless, and freeloading. In short, despite Holden's vivid depiction of her state of mind, we get quite sated with her person after a while.
And yet there has been some very pointed writing. The privileged Western middle-class children of the 1990s and their need to dirty down and experience abasement as part of their right to a full life come across better probably than the author intended. Moreover, her good business sense -- she worked years in a bookshop -- plus an expensive education allow her to give us a clear picture of how the sex industry operates. This practical note is also welcome relief from her teasing us so much about whether or not she'll save her flaunted skin. The reader has been tempted to say, as he might to the suicide poised for hours in indecision on the roof, "Okay, then, jump."
Considering her penchant for self-abasement, it doesn't surprise that Holden began prostitution at the cheap end walking the streets. St. Kilda had been the arty suburb of Melbourne that went downhill together with "alternative culture." Pot smoking, tie-dye kerchiefs, and the dog-eared diaries of Anais Nin gave way to dirt that was no longer fashionable but just dirty. Then came the needle and indifference to trifles like urban decay. Vaunting her recklessness to her friends, Holden rendered the gamut of services in cars and the occasional truck. But the time johns wasted looking for parking spaces cut into her earnings. The police also nagged her, having to chalk up a quota of arrests to prove they were protecting society. She had no leverage when men refused to pay up. It annoyed her that impressed customers said she was too good for the street. After all she was out on the street precisely to prove she wasn't too good for it.
Not disgust, then, but a need for a more regular income led her to brothel work. This was legal. A certain strong-arm supervision didn't rule out the rigors of the market economy. The sex workers were put in competition with one another. They reduced the "official" prices in order to have a full dance card. The house maintained a certain order, but the individual workers were still on piecework. To her credit, Holden doesn't mince words about exactly what the various services were. She even rubs our noses, and her own, in them.
Because they made docile employees. addicts were favored in one brothel. In another they were shunned because they could be erratic and upset business routine. But Holden shoots down the accepted idea that all sex workers need drugs to stand the grind. She's enlightening on the variety of motives that bring often very different women to prostitution. For many it was simply a well-paying job. Pimps did not figure large in Holden's experience. At one point, with her skill in language and argument, she fancied herself spokesperson for the brothel workers. But the novelty soon passed, her personal agenda, which called for outdoing colleagues, being much more urgent.
What exactly was that overall agenda? She can explain in the language of the self-help merchants: Prostitution "had enhanced me more than it had reduced me". (Page 241) It "empowered" her. At other times, she's a student again: "It was like an education." (Page 81) But just as often, less sanguine, Holden slips into therapy speak: There was a need to be recognized, desired, and appreciated. Her "tentative adolescence" had to be buried. (Page 60) We never learn the reason why, but have to settle for a very informative read and a spirited restatement of one person's ruling enigma.
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