After Reading Whip Smart by Melissa Febos
Whip Smart is the story of a bright young woman, raised in a middle class small town American life that she jettisoned by her mid-teens to fend for herself in work and independent life in Boston. Waiting tables, the in, out and in again of myriad relationships, taking night classes at Harvard and eventually relocating to New York to pursue college, Melissa shows her scrapper self. New York, for her, was the only real destination worth marking and it’s here that the story really begins.
Like college students past and present, she lives with other students in shared apartments, is short of cash and curious and adventurous enough to happen her way – via a short cryptic ad in an alternative weekly – into being a dominatrix in a BDSM dungeon in lower Manhattan. Her arrival there is what the book blurbs on the front & back covers call ‘unsettling’, ‘exposing the darkest corners of uncharted territory of both her and her clients’ minds’. And there the story turns onto a wider screen. The BDSM world she charts of life in the dungeon is one marked for her by secrets, the exchange of power, the separation of desire and action and throwing off of any societal standards of appropriate sexual conduct or feelings.
What also comes through is the Febos’s use of dissociation to sustain herself, starting with what’s needed to do her job but spreads into other areas of her life. She goes to work on her designated shifts like any working girl, has relationships with her co-workers and shares take-out and cigarettes in the lounge watching tv between sessions. But as the story continues, her feelings get complicated, really complicated. Febos is a marvelous writer and shows us through her experiences the rationalizations, identity shifts, and frustrated desire that get layered upon layer of her accumulated time there. It’s often very funny, as any drop into a parallel universe can be. What’s missing is any shock, surprise or reaction to the new or unknown. She’s just going to work. It’s not that what she sees is familiar or known (it isn’t) but that her experience in sessions (or as she puts it, sessioning) isn’t felt beyond some certain level. She doesn’t have access to parts of her own experience, which, is one working definition of dissociation. I found myself re-reading sentences and paragraphs, dense with tangles of wobbly-linked experience to make sure I got it all (I probably didn’t). She is working hard to keep segments of her life separated, shorn off and the effect for her is confused numbness. Seamlessly her drug use, active since early teens, becomes an assumed daily activity for her. Narcotics create distance, a distance she needs to keep this all going. Her use of I.V. speedballs (heroin + cocaine) become a matter of course of her, never remarked upon by co-workers or clients until one of her clients in the afterglow of a session asks her directly: Are you on heroin?
We get to see the gritty glamour of life in the dungeon with the scenes she’s asked to orchestrate and co-create with clients, overtly and tacitly. Sometimes this involves playing out scenes of childhood traumas, sometimes making the forbidden real. She’s paid well for her work and takes it all in stride; the claustrophobia and darkness of her work (whoever heard of a light and airy dungeon anyway?) mirrors the tunnel vision needed to be either a submissive or domme in her world. The pageant of men that her clients are are written of respectfully, vividly and we as voyeurs get to see a lot of acting out of inner life in this transgressive little theater. Febos wryly and with more than a wink observes that her work is one of the only high paying acting gigs in New York. It is also a job that requires and creates altered states, the euphoria and disgust of dominating and submitting and the vertigo transiting through them.
As the story unfolds, Febos’s feelings about her work, the explanations, her folding of experience into identity slowly catches up with her. Her having knowledge and a calling card of a unique style becomes a way she gauges acquaintances and dates to see their shock, silence or too-soon-to-believe acceptance. Her own stance towards her drug use and work and the way the 2 intertwine are where her recovery from drug use starts. As with many peoples’ step back from drug mis-use, there are missteps, slips, despair. Finding a sponsor who sees her complicated life, her job, drug use and spiraling depression as one thing, addiction in action, is where her recovery begins. It’s here that the book’s narrative opens up. There’s a freer flow, a sense of air in the atmosphere. Her visits to her therapist and the easily said but hard fought dialogue between them is almost infused with light. Of course! More space inside, more outside. Febos charts this beautifully!
The world that the author paints in Whip Smart is about power, the power of transgressive action, of the gaps between our actions and what we know of our motivations for taking them. Above all, what’s most evident is the power of secrets. Dominance and submission are the foreground power stances exchanged in the scenes played out in the dungeon but also in the minds of the participants involved. The need to give up control is as powerful as the need to assume it, and Febos’s skills as a writer show this two toned world and the desire threading through it all.