Whip Smart

Melissa Febos

 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 addictionsa nd 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)

The Smallbacks of Children

Lidia Yuknavitch


“I see the stories of women but they are always stuck insides the stories of men.”


Yuknavitch breaks that state immediately with the opening page: Disambiguation, a word that refers to mythology as well as to “a woman who is the source of inspiration.”

Art and mythology fill these stories that are dark and compelling, stories written from the body, within the language of the body. There is nothing nice, normal, or easy. The situation starts with a photograph taken of a girl as her family and home explodes behind her in Bosnia. That’s the easiest part of the novel. Trust me.

The plot follows the desire to find and adopt that child. However, the multiple characters involved in that motivation come from such creative, messed up, raw, disturbed and disturbing lives that is not as easy as hoped.
Yuknavitch breaks other rules and expectations with confidence, telling me to trust her. She knows the forms, the usual arc of a novel, the forms and choses, consciously choses otherwise. There is a reason, I trusted her from the start.  Each character is called after creative roles such as the Poet, Playwright, Photographer, Filmmaker and Writer. Chapters shift perspective, tense, and even form. There are poems, plays, split pages with parallel stories of the same experience, one person’s view on the left, the other on the right. You, the reader, have to pay attention. Read carefully. Take breaks. Devour the words slowly. Other times, when Yuknavitch knows the essence is so important, she paces the reader, one sentence per page, pause, absorb, turn the page, read, absorb.
The sexuality is raw, unashamed, violent and detailed with the stickiness, stench, and sweat of passion shared, taken, and truly in all of Yuknavitch’s work “desire is larger than god.”

The painter talks of “passion, chaos, death” within his art, using his bodily fluids as much as the paints themselves.

The performance artist, another of this extended family of friends, writes in jagged and fragmented sentences, suiting her internal processes in the past and present situation. When she receives a letter, her emotional state is disjointed, stunned and in shock. The sentences are short, abrupt, the verbs and adjectives, her use of language captures that state completely. “Her chest hollows. Her hair. Her hands. Nothing. Useless. Thoughtless.”

There’s nothing expected in this book, not in the development of events, the characters’ perspectives and histories, or the ending. You’ll be taken along and even if this is a world beyond yours, you’ll trust Yuknavitch as she writes with authority, compassion, insight and intelligence. Her stories take us to the “belly of things” – basements, dungeons, violent sex, desires, and borders of all kinds. You’ll follow her willingly.

She asks, “where do any of us come from? Is it a country? A mother? Or is it perhaps an image, a song, a story inside which we feel…named?”

Yes. All of the above.  For as she says, “art, she is in me.”


HarperCollins Publishers, NY


224 pp. $24.99






by Rick Moody

On first impressions, the simplicity of form struck me, how it gave me permission to write such fragments myself. Short paragraphs, one after another, a variety of sentence lengths, and dialogue in italics to catch the kids’ voices. The introduction to Moody’s work gave me the background more with such directions as to “assume all silences from now on have grief in them.” How true. There is grief in us all and it’s often unstated but affects how we move through our worlds, what we say, when and how.

Demonology is the most beautiful story of a sister that I could hope for. It makes me want to write about each of my parents in such heartfelt sketches of memories. The depth of my reaction at the end took me by surprise. I’ve read it before, felt it and I remember that pause after reading it, putting the book down and simply sitting. This time the tears came. Harold, my sweet dog, came over to nudge me back into this world.

The introduction warned that Moody is capable of breaking hearts with his prose and he does. The series of sketches takes us so deeply into the daily life of his sister, who’s never named it seems? I didn’t catch a name, which is noticeable only now as I look at my notes. The time frame is condensed down, contained to All Saint’s Eve, Halloween. Moody repeats Halloween, cameras, memory, costumes, treats; it’s a flow through the different paragraphs keeping us in the creek with him.
The opening paragraph sets the tone of kids, family, demands, business, all in one sentence that finishes with ‘beating back the restless souls of the dead.’ A set up? The both ideas in one place, one sentence was telling.

His use of repetition is clean though, it’s not annoying or in your face. He uses the demon phrase in different contexts, manners, even calling themselves ‘demons’ on the dance floor. I have to add that I loved the contrast of wanting to body surf his sister but that the aged backs and little kids stopped them but Moody and sister still spun and laughed anyway.

His descriptions held their power in the simplicity and details. ‘She barely held down her clothes’ tells me everything to picture her as a waiflike figure with all this energy to keep family and kids on track, the calendar showing the weekly needs, all of it is so specific but it’s not overwhelming.

Another observation is how each paragraph has its own focus, the drinks, or treats, or camera, or photographs. These themes come back and hold together the over all progression of her life, of his sister. There is vulnerability in her love of the dogs, of taking photos, of holding onto others’ memories and photos too. A heartbreaking list of her attachments in a sense.

Most of the piece is built with long sentences, running together. Then this. ‘My sister started to seize.’ It stands alone. The next sentence starts on another line and there is the power. The simplicity and starkness of yes, she was seizing, there’s nothing to be done, and she’s alone. Notice this, he’s saying. This is the moment.

His final paragraph is truly heartbreaking. Mine did. So sad. So true. So real. ‘Her eyes were sad and frightened, even in the company of the people she most loved. So it seemed.’


And yes, we all know ‘immediately the content of all middle-of-the-night telephone calls.’


I was deeply moved.


What can I, will I take from this?

  • A desire to write such a heartfelt essay on each of my parents. I still can barely think of the last days with my mum.
  • Permission to build a sketch of a life with a series of short memories
  • Fragments, slice of life, short stories can hold such an impact as this.
  • Repetition done right is powerful and subtle.
  • Time condensed keeps the focus.
  • Length of sentences and changing them creates tension, attention.



The Woman Who Walked Into Doors

by Roddy Doyle


Penguin/ Viking. 228 pages. 1996. Fiction.


“I knew before he spoke.”
The first paragraph in this heartbreaking novel by Doyle brings us immediately into a state of anxiety, a tension that underlies the whole book. Paula tells of her childhood and her marriage, at first in a contented tone, one that pulls us in to her world in Dublin in the seventies. There are layers though and her throwaway asides and digressions hint at a darker truth to even the simple fact that her husband Charlo was shot by the Garda. Why did they? Why wasn’t she surprised? The story within this story is one of love, family, and her determination to regain a sense of dignity.

The simple tale of childhood in poverty, a young marriage to a charming and violent man, and the slide into alcoholism is nothing new yet Doyle gives us such a convincing and likeable narrator that we read on. Paula describes a world most of us don’t know. Flashbacks fill in the details and build up into a story of family loyalty, family fights, an acceptance of the worst another can be and a sense of her all powerful and long-lasting love for Charlo and her kids.

The style is familiar using flashbacks, hints, repetitions and it’s done well, convincingly. There are such long digressions that we’re surprised to come to the end, having been caught up in the narrative and they are so true to real conversations we follow along, unquestioning: It’s how people really do talk.

And Doyle doesn’t hold back. We do ignore abuse, bruises, accidents that bring us back to the hospital over and over, the doctors avoiding her eyes, letting the husband stay right next her, answer for her. And Paula just wanted someone to ask. “Ask me, ask me,” is her lament, her wish that someone had asked and it had changed her life for that one question. But no. No one asks.

Doyle subtly hints at darker truths throughout the novel right from the first page, “He wasn’t one I’d seen before, on the usual ones,” says Paula at seeing the Garda at the door. Her language is simple and true for one who barely left school with any education, and she describes realizing that “it was a fright finding out that I was stupid.” Her new school was tough on kids, kids bullying each other, punching each other, and she’d stepped up, not going to let anyone mess her around. She fought back. Then.

Her first sight of Charlo, first time at a dance with him, she talks of him smoking, it was “Gorgeous”, and his smoke “pushed the old smoke out the way.” How telling. Later on, Paula talks of their wedding day, the first time round it sounds idyllic, and then the second round of memories the tension seeps in, the sadness.

Paula is likeable, it’s hard to understand why considering some of the things she admits to, but we do, we care and by the time the hard stuff hits us we’re with her fully, completely and that’s the magic of Doyle’s portrayal. She’s messed up, fighting her kids, being trashed by her husband, trying to stop drinking so much and we’re with her, rooting for her. The instance of him eating his chips out of her knickers is strangely delightful, a moment of play between the two of them.

The dialogue is true, honest and painful, and we believe her, in her. Doyle breaks it up for us, it’s not one long depressing slide into anxiety but we’re caught up in the ride, “I had good friends, a whole gang.” There are moments of mischief as she delights in her power as a sexual woman, how she drove him crazy, played it up, and laughed with her friends. Her stories of reading Winnie the Pooh made me laugh, “Christopher Robin is always giving parties. It’s well for him, the little prick: he doesn’t have to pay for them.”
There are moments that delight and others when you have to breathe in and hold on.
This novel isn’t for everyone but it could be, should be, men and women, we should all read it.

Doyle writes with humor, a poignancy, and lightness that carries us along within the shadows, hoping for the best and leaving with a deep exhale in relief: “It was a great feeling. I’d done something good.”

She had. There’s hope. Dignity.





The Owls

by Norden

Working from a recording of the story is much harder for me than reading. It took much more discipline to settle into it, to really hear it. Music, TV, movies, all of that passes me by, but reading, yes, I can read and engage. The spoken word makes it much harder for me to keep track, make notes, find quotes and even when my eyes stayed closed, attention drifted.

That said, what impressions am I left with from listening to this short story? A visceral sense of narrator as a boy in the car with his dad driving through country lanes. Norden gave us such a detailed sensory description, sounds, movement of air, visuals, all of it really made me feel that as a writer, he put himself fully in this scene. I didn’t want it to end. The second half of the story didn’t connect me so well; it was as if the woman he loved was making him take us back into the physicality of that evening. It was a strange or different way to bring me as reader back into that evening with the boy and his dad and then his mum. Writer to narrator as adult to woman to narrator as child and back again.

Language in the first section was fluid, drawing me along by my senses and I stood at the kitchen counter sipping my seltzer to listen more carefully. There are the descriptions of the tires, heater, owls’ wings, the vibration of the engine as they sit there. Immediacy in the scene.

The second half was too detached for me, those distances and steps in the point of view disconnected me and it was hard to follow, to care enough to listen to the repetitive “I said, I said, I said.” There was little for me to hang on to. The woman in the bedroom brings the narrator back into his childhood bedroom asking for more and more details but I didn’t really get a sense of her at all, just her ‘hmm’ in reaction to his story.

Lastly the ending disappointed me. After reading Bambara, I craved that concrete last image to hold onto. A philosophical statement of how there’s “great pain in all love” didn’t satisfy.

On looking back, it was interesting to see the play in perspectives and to notice how much I appreciated the details that took me into the car with him.

Was it real or imagined? Did the narrator claim the story? No, he wavered in his memory of that moment, and that made me sad. “It’s possible that I made the whole thing up.”
Well, yes and no. Perhaps it’s my sadness or his split in perspective that trips me up? I don’t know. Tricky. Interesting to read this short pieces as we are, slowing down, looking into the craft deliberately.




My Man Bovanne 

by Toni Cade Bambara


I love the simplicity of this evening with Mama and how something as simple as a dance with this man Bovanne brings up all these layers of interrelationships. The language isn’t mine, it’s not my culture or a life or expectations that I know except from stories like these and so it surprises me how familiar it also felt.

One of impressions that struck me was that universality of how children grow up and think they know better than their parents. I was one of those kids and I wish at this age I could apologise to Mum and Dad but it’s too late. So yes, it struck me hard but I also sensed how Mama understands and doesn’t take it on although there are a few lines with such a poignancy like when the daughter Elo puts her hand on her mama’s shoulder. “the hand landin light and not sure it was supposed to be there. Which hurt me to my heart.”

Bambara’s language is so wonderfully straightforward and simple. You can hear her voice, her innocence and her mischief. “Is this what they call the generation gap?”

I like how she sees herself, this Mama, talking of how she’s not “old old. I can still wear me some sleeveless dresses without the mean hangin off my arm.”

Her characters are all clearly described in such a short story, it’s inspiring and I have to slow down to read it to find out how, how did Bambara do this so quickly?
Language and voice of each son and daughter, each one is defined as much by speech as dress. Task is tight, upright is his sentences, with controlled orders in a sense. He tells her about the Reverend and how “You were supposed to be talking with him tonight.”

Her response is perfect; “If grass roots mean you kept in the dark.”

The voice of the story is light, strong, and conversational. It’s very approachable and brings the sad simple truth of how kids forget to treasure their parents, that intimacy and care of a mother is just lost as they reach adulthood.

The narrator is funny, sad with that universal truth, but funny. She took me by surprise when she said “I ain’t been suther than Brooklyn Battery and no more country thatn the window box on the fireescape.” Yes, I’d seen her as Southern, so there goes that assumption of mine! I learn to slow down, read thoroughly, not just for the story.

I also came away with an understanding of a powerful of the last image. That final paragraph fit the checklist we’d talked of last week, how it’s a chance to show the New Life, see how the characters live after that change or confrontation. Here she claims her appreciation of herself as a woman and he as a man, and how age doesn’t matter. There’s also a nice ‘fuck you’ to her kids’ calling her a hussy and how when Bovanne complements her, she says, yes, I am beautiful.

There’s a bluntness, a lightness, and such a strong voice here.