review by Annie Stevens
Reading Melissa Febos’ memoir, Whip Smart, reminded me of when I first read Bret Easton Ellis’ American Psycho. So graphic and stomach-churning is some of the content that I had to have short ‘rests’ between chapters. What makes Whip Smart even more searing is that Febos resonates: she is human, flawed and real. Febos is a professional dominatrix, a drug addict, and a top student with a bright future. In this memoir – which details her time working at a high end S&M den, ‘The Dungeon,’ the sort of place where men pay to be pooed on – Febos manages to go beyond merely shocking us. Instead, in Whip Smart, Febos touches on universal themes such as the thrill of desire, the headiness of power and how sometimes it can be hard, and lonely, to grow up.
When Febos moves to New York from Boston, as an already hardened 19-year-old, the secret, dual life she lives gives her a certain rush. By day she is a student with a backpack and books. By night she is a dominatrix – ‘Justine,’ the ironically chosen name of the famous submissive – who is paid, handsomely, to torture men. The account of the years Febos spent working at the Dungeon is intersected by graphic descriptions of her shifts there. We read of men who want to be infantalised, raped, tortured, humiliated. The descriptions are so vivid you can almost smell the rubber gloves and the desperation. For much of this time, Febos is a junkie. She snorts, injects and smokes just about anything she can get. Wanting more, getting it by any means possible. She craves the high, the escape, the delirium; and lies, cheats and steals to get it. She pisses in a bottle in her room just so that her housemates don’t have to see her pathetic state. Febos spares no details. But the time of which she writes is an uneasy, murky fog of truth and untruths.
In the book, Febos insists to herself, and to the people that she selects to surround herself with, that she is special; she is not like everybody else. She describes her job as a dominatrix as a ‘lifestyle choice,’ ‘just a job’; or insists she is something of a ‘cultural anthropologist’. And in some ways she is. But as this carefully constructed life begins to be unpicked, and becomes grasping and sad, her seemingly limitless world loses its sheen. Febos believes her specialness renders it impossible for her to live within the confines of the ‘normal world,’ and as life goes on around her, as her housemates study for their final exams, as commuters rush by her on the train, she is ‘choked’ with envy at the ease in which they live a life that Febos has ruled herself out of. The writing at times seems smug, bloated with self-importance, but that comes quickly undone with the kind of honesty Febos possesses. Learning that you are not, in fact, as unique and special as you had thought, can be a crushing first step into adulthood.
Because as Febos gets better at her job, as the men get more wretched, as the heady rush is replaced with numbness, the specialness starts to feel as sweaty and used-up as the Dungeon without its ambient lighting. There is – as Febos discovers on a squeamish, candidly rendered downward spiral – a price for the thrilling highs of being so desired, so unique, so needed.
Whip Smart makes for some uncomfortable reading. However, as Febos works her way through the sticky residue of a sordid dual life, the truths she discovers, about herself, about others and about life, are illuminating. And even, uplifting. With its raw and bruised honesty, Whip Smart provides a glimpse into humanity at its most vulnerable and brutal, and serves as a warning of the dangers in setting and breaking your own limits.
Annie Stevens spent her childhood with her nose in a book, and not much has changed since. She would sooner go into the pantry and read the labels on the boxes and tins, than suffer the dread and dulling sensation of having nothing to read. Annie is a Melbourne based freelance journalist who writes mainly for the Age newspaper. Her writing can often be seen in the A2, M magazine, and on the arts and opinion pages. Her favourite writer is Nancy Mitford, and last year she dragged her long suffering boyfriend all over England to gawk at the childhood homes of the Mitford family.
Annie’s (mostly up-to-date) portfolio can be found at http://www.annie-stevens.com.