The relief of telling the truth about oneself must compete with the challenge of finding an audience to share it with
“There is always more surface to a shattered object than a whole.” —Djuna Barnes
The world has offered two dichotomous representations of people who sell sex: the “happy hooker,” or the “victim,” often underage, who is coerced into the industry and forced to work by a trafficker or pimp. As a sex worker, I resembled neither of these characters. Who was I then? I wrote to find out.
Beginning with a story I felt was so bad it simply could not be told—not to others, not to myself—I wrote my way out of denial and disassociation into what felt like an integrated self. The memoir pieces that I eventually began to publish helped me order my past in a way that I could live with. But there were costs. Most obviously, I lost my job as a public school teacher, the job to which I had transitioned after sex work. My credibility was publicly attacked, I was threatened with legal action by the mayor of New York, and ultimately I was forced to resign from a career I loved.
More disappointing than the arguably predictable moral outrage I faced, however, was the lack of support I received from the very communities who had emboldened me to speak in the first place—namely, the feminists and sex workers whom I had assumed myself to represent. One online women’s magazine (which I now write for) described as “disgusting” what they saw as my desperate plea for attention. Sex workers contacted me to dispute my account of the work as “spiritually bankrupting” and my claim that working as a prostitute had required that I sometimes be dishonest.
Since 2010, much of my writing has recounted this new trauma, of being publicly humiliated and losing my job. These stories, while more accepted by the general public, only prompted further dissatisfaction from sex workers. “?‘Famous’ former sex worker Melissa Petro has thrust herself back into the media again this week,” went one response after an article of mine appeared on the New York magazine blog “The Cut.” “Seeing her retell her tale of woe with increasing levels of dramatic self-pity hits a nerve.” Such reactions once cut me to the core. Lately, though, I’ve come to understand the skepticism. I too question the legitimacy of my now well-practiced narrative; I too wonder at the broad strokes of its design.
In memoir and personal essay, the writer appears in the story as two people: Even if the story you want to tell took place just minutes before sitting down to recount it, you cannot, in writing about it, be the fumbling earlier version of yourself who walked into whatever situation you are now sitting down to explain. You the protagonist—that is, the character inhabiting the action—must beome you the narrator, the voice telling the reader what happened and reflecting on its meaning, a little older, a little wiser.
This reflexive process of integrating experience with reflection is also pivotal in the process of “narrative therapy,” a therapeutic approach developed in the 1970s and ’80s by Australian Michael White and his colleague David Epston and popularized in the United States in the ’90s to treat anorexia nervosa, ADHD, and schizophrenia, among other problems. Narrative therapy assumes that the articulation of experience and its subsequent evaluation in the context of one’s values facilitates the construction and performance of a preferred identity. A patient is encouraged to conceptualize her past self as nonessentialized, to see herself in relation to her problems without seeing herself as defined by them.
I’ve not only personally experienced the therapeutic effects of narrative, but also, as a teacher of writing, witnessed it in others. In addition to my freelance work, I facilitate memoir workshops for “underheard” populations—including active drug users; current, former, and transitioning sex workers; at-risk LGBT youth; and girls who have experienced commercial sexual exploitation. Whether these writers have suffered acute trauma, the trauma of systemic oppression, or what Mark Esptein has described as the everyday trauma of being alive, the goal of the classes is to help students extract from their original, incoherent experience a protagonist and a narrator, an actor and an interpreter.
The memories first accessed by a traumatized person in the construction of a “trauma narrative” cling closely to experience. Because the events tend to have been left alone for a long time—repressed, considered too difficult to think about—when they are finally recalled, they appear as vivid to the rememberer as if they had just happened. The vividness allows the writer to describe in great, relieving detail how it felt to be physically and psychically assaulted, and then to be silenced, shamed, and threatened.
Yet the relief the telling brings must compete with the challenge of sharing the story, as the writer confronts a society that promotes the forgetting or ignoring or downplaying of such stories. Indeed, when victims of trauma share their experience, the response is overwhelmingly one of suppression. Survivors are told that they are lying, selfish, and ungrateful; that it never happened; that they are exaggerating; that their point of view counts for nothing; that they brought it on ourselves; that it is time to forget and move on.
But it is impossible to move on when being told to shut up. The more trauma stories are denied, the more they insist on being told. Shame becomes a way of life; feelings, disconnected from their source, take on a life of their own. Convinced that they are inferior and defective, traumatized people live in constant fear of being found out. They are haunted, possessed by memories that feel less like memories and more like fictions—stories whose emotional, contradictory, fragmented nature undermines their credibility. The erasure of these stories demands their reconstruction; the reconstruction by its nature includes some erasure.
For myself, writing about the ambivalence I felt over my decision to sell sex led me to my childhood, which was defined by violence and neglect. My earliest writing described the cumulative traumas of witnessing my father emotionally abusing my mother and physically abusing my brother, and my brother’s subsequent drug addiction—all of which contributed to my own sexual compulsion and alcoholism. Initial tellings consisted of scene upon conflict-ridden scene, rich in detail but short on interpretation. Repeating the stories—in other words, revising them—clarified their emotional meaning. My initial fragmented impressions gave way to a confident narrative voice that could locate the origins of my sex-work story in my experience growing up poor and in the degradations I had met as a woman—long before I started selling sex—at the hands of patriarchy as personified by my abusive father.
A narrative of redemption is often one of emancipation, recovery, self-fulfillment, and upward social mobility, what Dan McAdams calls “the actualization of a good inner self.” For me, this has meant at once taking responsibility for my choices and surrendering responsibility for circumstances and situations beyond my control. Yet readers are rightly wary of redemption narratives that exaggerate the scope of the redemption. When writers puts too much distance between the narrator and protagonist, they risk sounding disingenuous. Narrators appear suspect who too victoriously declare themselves entirely changed, or inhabit stories that are simply too tidy. The survivor stories of “prostituted women” often feature weak and vulnerable protagonists recounted by narrators who don’t take moral responsibility for their choices; stories of “happy hookers” take myopic views of women’s participation in the sex industry and often lack a reflective voice. The confessional diarist describes dramatic scenes in graphic and titillating detail but rarely interprets them or relates the individual experience to a universal one. If the story of the redemption narrative is too perfect, the narrator too much in control, the diary can be all protagonist, nearly storyless.
Of course sex workers, like other characters, are neither victims nor villains nor heroes, but rather complicated people leading complicated lives. Why are we so rarely portrayed this way—even when we portray ourselves? To an extent, many online or magazine stories must conform to a dominant narrative in order to exist publicly. The editor becomes, in a sense, a second narrator, and together with the writer narrows a complex story down to 1,200 words or less, written in the “house style” and typically to appeal to mainstream taste. In my experience this has often meant submitting to a certain feminization and sexualization, so that the essay becomes an act of unintended subordination. My trauma narrative can resemble what Jenn Cross calls “a cultural narrative, a grant application anecdote, a Hallmark card.” My sex-work story is my prop, my protagonist a servant to my narrator-self.
Before publishing my first essay in 2005, I could imagine no readers; I wrote mostly for myself or the safe audience of other writers in workshops. When I published my second essay, in 2007, the Huffington Post piece that cost me my career, I became tabloid fodder virtually overnight. Under psychological attack and in material danger (I had lost my job and been made, for all intents and purposes, unemployable because of the negative publicity), I relied on existing narratives to feel understood. I became more selective and strategic in what I said, learning to adapt particular emotional and social positions vis-à-vis my audience. Telling my story became less autobiographical project, more situated performance—my intention less to discover an emotional truth and more to persuade others to agree with me. I treated my personal experience as evidence to support arguments defending myself and my “recovery.” In this way I built a career as a freelance writer. These days, I rarely inhabit my early traumas but for the sake of a story. I have “recovered” from my past—except for the fact that I continue to write about it.
Writing that begins as therapy and ends in publication potentially sets the therapeutic needs of the writer—to come to clarity and get better, to have a protagonist who figures things out—against the needs of the audience, who may prefer the writer to keep fucking up; who may enjoy vicarious self-destruction at least as much as vicarious redemption, if not more; who may have an investment in the very ideological clichés writers need to dispel for their own empowerment. What can be enjoyable for readers may be for the writer therapeutically useless at best, or destructive at worst; what is interesting and therapeutic to the writer can be dull to the reader. Certainly, a writer’s and an audience’s needs are not necessarily the same. Perhaps the problem with narrative therapy is in fact the audience, once the audience is no longer just oneself. In a way, readers discipline the writer: They encourage a simplified story, then punish the writer for that very simplicity. The traumatized writer, looking outward for healing, often finds further trauma.
One purpose of telling stories is, as individuals, to come to terms with the social world by bringing the shadowy inner life of the protagonist-self into the open, to test an inner truth against an outer. And yet in the bright narrative light, what is most disturbingly true loses its power. How do writers like me, who have used memoir as a means of recovery, keep writing? To continue as artists, not as convalescents, requires that we retire the trauma narratives we have come to know too well and tell other, less understood stories—the stories that are still difficult to tell. If first-person memoir is to be as politically important as it can be, we must listen more to the less well-practiced voices. Sometimes, the triumphant narrator needs to step down and let others speak.