Review: Whip Smart by Melissa Febos

Whip Smart

 A Memoir

A unique growing up story, Febos writes of her desires, addictions, and work as a dominatrix in New York City. She’d craved nothing beyond a taste for power, attention, control, and felt like she was hardwired to take risks. “I had no idea what I wanted. Character-building life experience?” She was a high achieving college student, an addict, and “cultural anthropologist”, or so she told herself at the time. Her writer’s mind has grappled with that darkness and drive that few live with and she’s unsparingly honest in her reflections. “I used to feel that I didn’t deserve to be an addict – my childhood hadn’t been fucked up enough.” You have to admire her honesty. I do.

Whip Smart stands out for other reasons too, it’s her intelligence, insights, and the world she takes the reader deep within. Seductive, frightening for some, familiar to others, Febos is unflinching. There are clear almost clinical descriptions of the work done, the torture, tools of the trade, and even the boredom that made her switch it up as time wore on, taking more risks, shedding more of her self-imposed boundaries.

“I have always loved having secrets.” No shit. Febos lived it to extremes and then tells us all about them in fairly detached yet empathic manner. She forgives and understands herself. There must be a great sense of peace there.

The structure is simple, Whip Smart is chronological with memories of family and childhood slipping into her years at the dungeon, all easily flowing from one time frame to another. The language is straight forward with no loss of clarity for lyricism. She keeps it real. The men, her clients, and their needs are told explicitly and in detail. Her reactions to them as well. “As I stood there in the smell, looking down at him, my stomach lurched. I didn’t vomit, but that lurching motion continued, spreading through my body, jolting my vision with ripples.”

Why are her actions so resonant for me? It’s not a culture I know directly but many of my friends have been sex workers. It’s more that her impulses and the rationalisations speak to my interior life. The need to take risks, to stay awake, to be independent and self-sufficient. So, yes, her story is reminiscent of my own twenties, leaving London and hitching across the States alone.

And her descriptions of addictions and drugs stay realistic, at times brutal, and at others she simply tells of the rush that comes. “A speedball hits you like a huge, warm wave. The back of your neck throbs, your ears ring, and everything inside of you muffles while everything outside of you sharpens.”

There are no obvious reasons that drove her so far into living on the edge, the multiplicity of how she presented herself and how she perceived herself. There are so many layers in Whip Smart. Febos has a strong compassionate voice, one that recognises her own actions for the lies we tell ourselves to keep stepping forward, as well as her need and fight to get sober, the moments of clarity that hit her, and the challenge to stay true to being a good person, in actions and inside herself. “What traumas had I suffered that led me there? I surmised that it didn’t really matter, just as it hadn’t mattered why I became an addict, or whether I was born one or not. It just was, and where it would lead now mattered more.”
The trick in reading unflinching memoirs like this is to remember we don’t know Febos. There is so much more to her than this story, these details. We don’t know the writer, not really. There are boundaries and limits to what Febos wrote and we have to respect those so if ever you meet her, see the rest of her, listen to her now, and don’t get lost in a well written and compassionate memoir. Or rather, I should remember this. It’s always easy to get lost in that written intimacy.

All in all, Whip Smart is a powerful book, well told, and her experiences are intriguing, unsettling and inspiring. Whatever your own path is, Febos’ tale will help you find self-acceptance and peace, hopefully. Probably.




Thomas Dunne Books, St Martin’s Press, NY

2010 278 pp ($24.99)

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