Three Women and the Sex Industry
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So Sarah was a college graduate, 22, just moved to San Francisco, broke. And while waiting for the bus on Geary Street, she called a friend. But actually, I can't tell you what the friend said without first warning you that the content of the friend's advice might not be suitable for younger listeners. In fact, the content of most of today's program-- it's This American Life by the way. I'm Ira Glass-- may not be suitable for younger listeners. Today's program is Stories of Three Women and the Sex Industry.
So Sarah's on the street, needs a job. Calls her friend from college. Her friend says, come do phone sex with me.
And so I went to her house that night and we got drunk and took phone sex calls. And I did it for the first time and I was really good at it. And we made like $80.
And what was it like that first night? What instructions did she give you?
She gave me a list of dirty words. It wasn't even a list, it was like just this collage.
Typed or handwritten?
Handwritten. And just every single word that's associated with sex, either profanity or you know just words like "wet" and "hot" and "steamy." And she said that if you got lost, you could really just string them together. And she was really, really, really funny.
The guys on the phone seemed like the normal range of guys you meet, Sarah says. Some unlikable, maybe 20% she felt like she could have been friends with. Another 10% that she really liked. She would do calls where she was supposed to dominate the man and calls where she was supposed to be black or Asian.
You could just sort of do this accent. It was incredibly un-PC. But you could just sort of do this accent which approximated like a guy in Nebraska's idea of what it is that an Asian woman talks like and they would believe you.
OK. So for example, if you were to say something to me in this accent. For example, describe where you're sitting right now as this Asian woman.
You know, I really--
Your dignity will preclude you from doing that?
Yes, it will. It really will. I don't have that much dignity, but I can't do that.
Well, I will respect that.
I also had a British accent, which was really, really awful which I modeled after the woman on LA Law.
Come on, let's here that.
No, I'm not going to do it for you. How was that? That wasn't very good. The guy in the control room in sort of shaking his head at me. I want you to unzip your pants for me. Please, darling.
All right, you can stop right there. It's public broadcasting.
She did phone sex for a year, then got a job as a naked dancer. She did this for two years. She said that she hurt her back dancing for hours in high heels. She hated her bosses. Every now and then a customer would say something mean to her. But she really, really liked the women she worked with. And on a Saturday night, she would have a better time dancing naked at her job to loud music than say, going to a party with her friends.
Because everyone kept trying to tell me, oh, you know, you really hate this job. And you just don't know that you hate it. But I couldn't feel that I hated it. I called my sort of like closest friend and said, do you think it's stupid that I'm doing this? Like I don't feel like I don't like this job. I feel like I like it. I get up in the morning and I go to it and I don't mind. And he was like, well, if you feel like you like it, then you probably do. That was sort of a ramble. But I guess what I'm trying to say is there were really, really crappy things about it, but it was so far from the worst job that I've ever had.
Really? What was a worse job than this?
I'm just going to stop the tape right here. I'm just going to stop the tape and come in live to give you a moment to consider what that worse job might be before she gives her answer. OK, are we all thinking now? All right, here we go.
Being a grant writer for the Central Park Conservancy.
Being a grant writer? A job I myself have done.
She said she didn't like working in an office. She didn't like taking orders. Being naked in front of strangers was preferable to taking orders.
She says if you want to understand what this job is like, she says it's really-- for her anyway-- not that different than other service industry jobs that she's had.
I think it was like day-to-day, just pretty much like any job that's not a great job. It's like waitressing. There are some days where you're waitressing and you're going, oh, this is pretty cool. I'm making pretty good money. I'm working out on the patio today. It's nice out. And some days were like, if I have to ask one more person what they want on their hamburger, I'm going to shoot myself.
Well, that was Sarah's experience. Other women have a different experience in the sex industry. Today on our program, Act One, someone whose life comes apart working in the go-go clubs. Act Two, a guy who prefers pornography to having sex with his girlfriend changes. Stay with us.
Act One, Susan.
Last summer, reporter and radio producer Sandy Tolan was going to do a story about the sex industry from the worker's prospective, with a woman named Susan Walsh. Walsh was an aspiring writer who worked in go-go bars in New Jersey to support her son. And then a week or so before they were going to start work on their documentary, Susan Walsh disappeared.
On July 16, she left her home in Nutley, New Jersey, to make a call at a pay phone on the corner. She didn't have a phone at home. She left her wallet, her keys, and her beeper behind. She told her son that she would be right back, and she never came back. Everybody close to her assumes that she's dead.
So Sandy Tolan decided to set out on a different story. To try to understand what her life was like in the go-go bars of Jersey. And to understand what might have led to her life coming apart.
Again, a warning to parents, this is another story about the sex industry. Large sections of it may not be suitable for younger listeners.
My first stop is at The Village Voice, where my old friend, James Ridgeway, works as a political correspondent. Jim had suggested Susan Walsh and I work together. She was the researcher for his new book, Red Light: Inside the Sex Industry, which tells the story from the point of view of the workers, strippers, street walkers, call girls, and porn actors.
I first met Susan Walsh in the offices of Screw magazine when I was working on a book about the sex industry. And I went to see Al Goldstein, who was the editor. And as I was talking to him, I was complaining about how I couldn't get anywhere in this whole business. And asked him if he could give me some advice. And he said, well, you know, there's this woman that comes in here every so often and she writes for us and she'd be really good because she really knows this stuff.
And at that point, for some reason, this woman suddenly appeared and she had this kind of long, blonde hair. It was kind of flying in the wind. And she had this motorcycle jacket and she's real skinny and awkward looking. She hardly looked like somebody you'd think was a striptease dancer, or go-go dancer. She looked like kind of a college kid. Only as I later learned that Susan was in her 30s.
A single mother trying to break into journalism paying the bills by dancing Jersey go-go. Susan started working with Jim, two, three days a week.
And she was very smart. She certainly knew the sex business like nobody I ever met when I was doing this book and I certainly met quite a few people. She knew all aspects of it, and what she didn't know, she'd find out. She was like a really good reporter. And she was a terrifically good mother. The big thing in her life was her kid. Her son, David, who at that time was 10, 11.
He would come to my office and he'd work on the computer. He'd work his homework while she did her work on the telephone or we talked. And she was just totally devoted to this boy.
Susan longed to be a full-time writer. Jim got her to write a few pieces on go-go for the Voice. He set her up with a couple of film and radio gigs, but dancing paid the bills. She'd work six days a week sometimes, two shifts a day, just barely making it.
And she was always toting his bag around with her with her g-string and her heels. She didn't have the money to get on the PATH train to go home. She would just check into one of these clubs and dance a set. And see if she'd come out with $10. Now that's not exactly the high life here.
At dusk, I head through the Lincoln tunnel to the Jersey Turnpike, past the big, white oil storage tanks and the rusted globes of national gas. I'm riding with Jill Morley, a writer and actress who worked in Jersey go-go until a couple of years ago when she got sick of it and left. Jill was a friend of Susan's.
It's terribly sad. I go in and out of being emotional about it because sometimes it just seems like it's too absurd to be true that it's happened. It just feels such a loss.
Jersey is the land of go-go, 350 clubs by one estimate. The most of any state.
We pull off the Turnpike and head into the small town of Belleville, just outside Newark. We're trying to find an old haunt of Susan's. And there it is right on a well lit main drag. Wiggles says the pink sign. And below that a banner, breakfast special, legs and eggs. Friday 7:00 AM to Noon.
This seems more like a place Susan would work. It's more like divey and I don't know. More regular looking women working. You know, very Jersey looking.
On the narrow linoleum bar at Wiggles, a woman walks the gauntlet between the hands of men and the bottles of whiskey, gyrating in a Spandex bikini. She pivots toward the men, pauses, presses her breasts together. A customer lodges a folded up dollar bill in her cleavage.
At the bar, we ask around, but nobody seems to remember much about Susan Walsh.
Can I ask you something? We're friends of Susan Walsh.
Of Susan Walsh.
But then a dancer tells us, oh, yeah, she remembers Susan. She takes Jill backstage to the dressing room where it's quieter.
Oh, yeah. I met her. She was very nice. She was really, really nice. But I thought she was a little bit ditzy. And when I found out when she was missing and I read the article in the New York Times. No, the New York Post and it said that she was working on a documentary and all this stuff. I was thinking, it's terrible that she didn't seem that smart to me. Not that she wasn't smart, but she seemed a little ditzy and she didn't seem that mature. Then I found out she was 36 and I was surprised.
Thought she looked really nice. Whenever I seen her I thought she was very striking because she was so pale skinned and her hair was so white without looking phony. Most girls with white hair, it just looks bleached, it's phony. It looked very natural on her. Whether it was real or not, I don't know.
Somebody told me that her family pretty much thinks that she must be dead because she hasn't popped up yet and she would never leave her son. And they were saying maybe they should put it on Unsolved Mysteries. Maybe they'd find her then.
They are. They're doing it.
Are they going to? When is it going to be on?
February 14 I think it's supposed to air.
Wow. That would be great. Maybe something will come of it.
And so it goes throughout the evening. Jill and I walk into a go-go bar. Jill goes backstage and dancers speculates on what might have happened to Susan. Maybe it was the Russian mob. Maybe it was the regular mob. Maybe it was a deranged go-go patron. Maybe somebody was mad at something she said in the book Red Light.
It could have been anything.
You think she could have been bumped off maybe?
Who knows? Who knows? But there have been quite a few dancers that have been found in different areas.
Of course. Yeah, you hear about it. In the [UNINTELLIGIBLE] magazine or in the newspaper. It's never played up. Because everybody thinks, a go-go dancer. Oh, she must be a slut or whatever. They're still people too, and whatever they do they do. But nobody deserves to be killed.
Here, at the Marleybone, a dancer speaks in sharp, low tones, warning us not to ask too many questions about what happened to Susan.
Here at Club After Dark, dozens of Russian women, part of the new wave of immigrant labor grind themselves into the laps of the men at the bar.
Here at Club 516, smoke and Spandex and dead eyes. A woman mechanically pulling her skirt up and down as she stares at herself in the mirror. I'm reminded of a photograph of Susan in the book Red Light.
She's on a carpeted stage, guys with beards are perched on bar stools enjoying a laugh. And Susan, in a bikini, blonde hair falling over her shoulders, swivels her backside toward the men. She's poised before the mirror, dazed, alone, in another world.
Susan used to say that when she first got into go-go, it seemed like such a good idea. Her she is telling her story on a radio talk show two weeks before she disappeared.
I had been working for six years as a writer for engineering and business publications after college and raising a son pretty much on my own. I was separated and I'd lost my job because of the recession. And I said, wow, how can I raise my son, go to graduate school, and take my writing out of the trade sector into the public sector and still do it all? Not just have time to make dinner and go to sleep every night. And I thought it was an easy way out because I had a friend who was making thousands a week. She said to me, why don't you dance a couple nights a week, and then you can do whatever you want. Raise your kid, go to school. I said, great.
At first I felt totally in control. Lots of attention, men loved me. I'm getting attention. I'm the little princess on stage. It's insidious and after a while I realized that it was exhausting. There were many hidden costs and I stayed in it for far too many years and I'm not happy with the fact that I am still dancing.
Yes, I did complete half of my master's and I have been doing a lot of writing. But boy, what a high price I had to pay.
At lunchtime, on the last day of July, I drive out to see Susan's mom, Martha Young, in Wayne, New Jersey. Susan's son, David, is visiting that day. Susan's been missing for two weeks now. We eat lunch and make small talk, then they invite me to join them at a video arcade at the mall.
What do you want to do [UNINTELLIGIBLE]. Should we get the tickets first?
Oh, Lucky & Wild. That's a great two-player game.
Martha watches David run off, dashing between video games. She's glad he's got something else to do besides think about his mother. She says he's blocking his feelings, not wanting to confront the possibilities.
I hope Suzy is still alive, but it's the not knowing that is so horrible. But it's also what would be worse is knowing that she isn't with us anymore. I'm just crazy inside. I feel as though I'm broken apart.
This is all so unlike Susan, her mom says. She would never leave David like this. Then Martha pauses a moment. She has something she wants to say. She stares at my microphone.
Hi, Suzy, this is mom. If you're listening or if you hear about this, I want to give a message to you. I love you very, very much. More than anybody in the world. And I just want to see you again. And please, take good care of yourself wherever you are and know that you're loved and missed so much by everybody. I love you.
Late October, three and a half months now since Susan disappeared. Jill Morley and I are in Midtown, Manhattan. We're paying a visit on Susan's therapist, Mary Nolan, who works a lot with go-go girls and prostitutes. We're trying to make sense of something. By all accounts, Susan had a lot going for her outside of go-go, and she wasn't making much money dancing, yet she kept doing it.
Susan could not cut the ties with that world because it was a powerful pull for her. So something was happening. I guess the term would be repetition compulsion. It's acting out some type of an early event to get it right in the future. And she worked the whole gamut of the adult sex industry. I don't think she missed a wrinkle because she had a need to know and do this. And then she had a need to write about it and tell people about it.
And now a striptease from the beautiful Susan Walsh for you out there in Midnight Blue land.
Hi, I'm Susan Walsh and I'm a dancer. This is what I do for you when I dance in gentlemen's clubs. I move as if I were your lover, some fantastic embodiment of [? veloxed ?] beauty, breathless, hungry siren--
Susan wrote this essay for Al Goldstein's Midnight Blue porn cable show. And defending the notion of free speech, they put it on.
Now I will be [UNINTELLIGIBLE] for you. You say you will, you must tease my sexual nerves.
You laugh when I struggle to protect my nipples from your raggedy fingers, as if I'm trying to believe the absurd notion that I'm real.
She smiles, takes off her top, calls the bar patrons, "Pathetic droplets of insect mucus."
We count the dollar bills you stuff into our costumes or fold into nauseatingly cute shapes like frogs or flowers. We unravel it all at the end of the night, our legs coated with dust and bruises and memories of your existence rush from our mind.
If we thought about you too long, we'd go crazy. So we stuff your bills in our pockets, just like we stuff the idea that maybe we all lost out. Maybe paying the rent just isn't worth--
Christmastime now, I'm back in New York. It's more than five months since anyone's heard a word from Susan. Susan's father, Floyd Merchant, drives in from New Jersey to see me. He looks like he's been crying. He says he often talked to Susan about quitting go-go.
The go-go bars were the worst place for somebody with their head on straight. Her's wasn't on straight. First of all, she's a recovering alcoholic and drug addict and is sitting on the railroad tracks jumping off every time the train passes. And then jumping right back on. I thought she might have cardiac arrest. I was almost sure she was going to go back to drinking and using.
Susan's health was failing. She had emphysema, an ulcer, and chronic bronchitis. And then she did start drinking and using drugs again, mixing them with the anti-anxiety drug, Xanax. It was a potent cocktail and Susan started getting more and more disconnected from reality.
She was already living in a fantasy world, in a paranoid fantasy world. Not a happy fantasy world. She was running to people saying, there's a contract out on me, but don't tell anybody. Then she'd run to somebody else and say, there's a contract out on me, but don't tell anybody. And this is a preliminary to a real breakdown.
She was addicted to the fantasy part of her life. A lot of the people that she associated with from the bars and stuff like that, they played the fantasy of FBI and CIA.
Now we're back in Jersey, Newark, on a windy, bitter December day. Jill and I are visiting Melissa Hines, Susan's best friend.
She had a friend that claimed that he belonged to the CIA. He was playing the role that she wanted to hear. Oh, I'm CIA. I'm going to Washington for the weekend. Oh, I'm working undercover against the mafia. So it was like this big role playing stuff that I think she lived for that fantasy and the danger that she thought she was in. It was crazy.
And what did the guy turn out to be?
He turned out to be-- worked for a trucking company.
But lot of the fantasy world that she lived in, I think it had a lot to do with the fact that she was once diagnosed with bipolar disorder, manic depressiveness, and she wasn't taking her medication. So she needed a lot of help.
Dozens of presents are piled up under Melissa's Christmas tree, most for her nine-month-old boy. Melissa's having a hard time talking to us. She and Susan used to celebrate Christmas together, and Susan was there when the baby was born.
Melissa gets up, turns on a light, retrieves a well-worn folder. Like everyone in Susan's life, Melissa's been trying to figure out what happened.
This is stuff that I wrote down.
What is it?
It's different people that'd seen her. I wrote down who was calling her. Who she was associating with. She was around a lot of different people. I mean, Friday, July 12, Susan went to Towne Tap in Irvington and was sick. I was at her house and I talked to her and I left. That was the last time I'd seen her, was July 12.
July 13, Susan worked at the Showplace from 5:30 at night to 1:45 AM.
On July 16, Susan left her house around noon. By 3:30, Melissa had a strange feeling. She hurried over to Susan's.
I rung the bell and it looked like there was nobody there and nobody answered. And I got a very bad feeling. Just emptiness inside.
At first, everyone had a hunch. Susan had been murdered by a stalker. Susan had been kidnapped and sold to a motorcycle gang. Susan had been abducted by the Russian mob for sniffing around the story she and I were going to do. Susan was a streetwalker in Newark. She was a call girl in Elizabeth. A dancer in a nightclub upstate or she'd fallen in with a vampire cult. Or she'd checked herself into rehab. Or she enrolled in the witness protection plan. Or she'd died of a drug overdose. As time has passed, more and more of her friends, family, and coworkers have come to believe Susan Walsh is dead.
Which Which house? Is it the one with the rolling Christmas lights?
No, I think it's this one.
Wait, let me just make sure.
January. We look up a guy who says he thinks he knows what happened. He worked with Susan in the business. The guy says he'll talk on a couple of conditions. If we don't use his name, if we distort his voice, and if he talks just to Jill, not to me. She worked go-go, he feels she understands the life. Plus he clearly prefers the idea of a woman visiting him. I wait in the car.
OK. I'm a little nervous. Some dog's barking. Oh boy.
Hey puppy. Man, it is cold out.
Star fleet command is waiting for my official report. [UNINTELLIGIBLE PHRASE].
Can I offer you a drink, like alcohol, wine? Gin and tonic? Anything like that?
Here's what Jill reports from the interview. He lives with his invalid mother. Copies of Mentertainment, the guide to Jersey go-go, are scattered on the table. Nailed into the wall there's a whip broken in half. In his spare time, the guy makes knives. he keeps a photo album, Polaroids of his go-go girls to help him book clubs. He has 80 dancers working all over Jersey. He drives them to and from their gigs.
You're your own boss. It's your car. You can tell them to drink, smoke, or not. I constantly having girls say, well, can I smoke in here? And I'm like, yeah. No problem. But I got a little bit of the power there. I could tell them, no, suffer. Let's see you go through a nicotine fit for the next half hour. I'm sadistic.
I guess so.
During the interview, the guy won't look Jill in the eyes. He turns on the TV, puts it on mute, stares at it. He puffs on his pipe, lighting it over and over.
Let me ask you some more stuff about Susan. What kind of person was she?
She is your typical, average dancer. If there was rap music on, she could dance to that. If it was rock and roll, she could dance to that. It didn't matter, she was good about the whole thing.
For somebody who was 36 and danced, I'd say she was in very good shape. She wasn't untoned or anything like that. She was pretty tight. The only thing she didn't have was a tan.
What do you think happened to her?
I think she fell in some sort of a fatal attraction who made her just that. And she got into somebody's car that she knew and drove away with him and never came back.
What makes you think that, that it was a fatal attraction thing? Had you heard about this happening?
Yeah, she had spoke to me within the prior two weeks to this and said how somebody was constantly beeping her. Susan can just be so friendly, so nice and naive. Maybe she didn't realize what kind of person this actually is.
It's not clear how much this go-go driver really knows, but Susan did tell people she had a stalker. She told me the week before she disappeared. She told Melissa. She told the therapist. And during a shoot for a documentary Jill's producing, she told a group of other dancers, two days before she disappeared.
That's my beeper. It's probably a stalker right now. I do have a stalker.
You You have a stalker?
I have a stalker too.
I have a stalker. I usually have stalkers.
It could have been Susan's paranoia talking. Most of the people who knew her well believe she died of a drug overdose and whoever was with the panicked and disposed of the body. And the Nutley, New Jersey, police say they checked out the stalker theory. They say they twice hauled in a guy and determined he had nothing to do with Susan's disappearance. But the cops, themselves, were slow in getting started. A week or so after Susan vanished, I called them to see what they knew. A detective told me, well, she's, you know, a dancer. She's probably out, you know, partying.
Eventually several of us pointed out Susan was also a journalist on assignment. Within days, they'd begun a major investigation.
Yeah, we wanted to see Detective Ryan. I'm Sandy Tolan. He's expecting us.
Jill and I finally got to talk to the cops in December. But before we could ask them any questions, they made a big point of showing us how much work they'd done. Hundreds of hours, three loose leaf binders filled up with information on the case.
We sat down at a small round table with detectives Johnson and Ferraro. On the walls, framed posters from cop movies-- Out for Justice, One Good Cop. Detective Ferraro delivers the official line, "Nutley police believe Susan Walsh is still alive."
It's just that she's chosen not to come home at this time. We don't have any other reasons to feel that through all the interviews that we've taken and statements that we've taken and people that we've talked to don't really have any concrete evidence to show something has happened to her.
Nutley police say they've checked out many reports of people who claim they saw Susan street walking in Newark, dancing go-go in North Jersey or New York. But nothing checked out.
Every lead dead-ended. There was just nothing else to go on.
And so the investigation petered out. Then in February, hopes rose again as Susan made prime time.
Tonight on Unsolved Mysteries.
Unsolved Mysteries Host
Susan Walsh was a woman who lived on the edge, a stripper turned journalist whose chosen assignments plunged her into a hazardous stew of Russian mobsters and self-proclaimed vampires. In the end, however, Susan Walsh's walk on the wild side may have led to her death.
It was another false hope producing few new leads. Months before, Jim Ridgeway and I had watched them film part of the docudrama. It was in Tower Books where Jim and Susan had done a book signing for Red Light.
Now, the Unsolved Mysteries crew was shooting a reenactment.
Very quite please. This is rehearsal.
Up on the mezzanine there's wine, cheese, cameras, klieg lights, and actors playing the parts of Jim and Susan. Suddenly, the director spots the real Jim.
Hey, we got an impostor here. Get him out of here.
Hey, how you doing.
What are you doing, you communist. Get over here. Get over to that corner. I'm serious. Come here. I can't have you in the shot. Come here.
We stand in the corner, looking out at actors who look disturbingly like the real Jim Ridgeway-- tall, greying, paternal. And the real Susan Walsh-- slight, blond, vibrant.
Step back please.
Move your lights.
OK, this is picture. Everyone this is picture. Stand by. Roll sound. We're rolling.
[UNINTELLIGIBLE]. Take one. Mark.
[UNINTELLIGIBLE]. Hi. You came out again for us--
The fake Susan makes small talk, signing copies of Red Light while the fake Jim stands by. I point to the fake Jim's larger belly and make a face. Ridgeway obliges with a sour grin, but he's looking past me, gazing at the image of a woman he worked with for three years, alive again for a moment.
And cut. That's a cut. Back to one everyone, please. Back to one. Thank you
I've stayed in it so long that my health is so bad. I have emphysema, bronchitis, and an ulcer.
Yeah, and I was in the hospital twice in the last two weeks.
This is the real Susan in the documentary shoot with Jill and the other dancers. It was two days before she disappeared and it was like Susan was watching herself go down.
I just went through the same thing.
I'm just trying to hang onto my raison d'etre, my reason for being at this point. I'm just trying to hang on. But I stayed in so long that it got me. Because you can crawl on stage half dead. But I stayed in it so long. If you stay in it so long, it will break down your health to the point where you just can't go out and get the job. Now if I had a month to rest, get my health back. But I can't because I'm the only one supporting my son, so I can't stop. And yet, staying in it is killing me. So I'm sort of scared right now.
A Sunday morning and I'm going back home to Boston. I drop over to say goodbye to Jill.
Susan is an extension of all the dancers, all of us. And so what happened to her is that typical dancer trap of going all the way down this downward spiral and choosing the darkest path. She chose the darkest path that we all see. We can see that path and yet, she took it. And it's possible that I could've taken it, or that any one of these other girls could have taken it. And that's really terrifying. And especially that's she's this really smart, warm, loving, mother. Funny. And even her, even she went down that path. I mean, she was an incredible human being.
Coming up, another woman and a porn customer who changes, in a minute when our program continues.
It's This American Life, I'm Ira Glass. Each week on our program, of course, we choose a theme, invite a variety of writers, documentary producers, and performers to take a whack at that theme. Today's program, Three Women and the Sex Industry. We are at Act Two of our program, Striptease.
It's easy to imagine the guy in this next story as one of the customers in a go-go bar in Northern Jersey. He's an extreme case though, and he changes.
Lauren Slater is a psychologist and writer in Boston. This is an account of one of her cases. Again, a warning to listeners. Some of this story may not be appropriate for younger children.
George came to our clinic in early autumn and was diagnosed by the intake worker with an antisocial personality disorder. A sociopath, a deviant, whom I, a newcomer to the field of psychology, was now assigned to work with in therapy for an undefined period of time.
He looked almost ridiculously tough, sitting in a sleeveless leather vest in the clinic's lobby. Hair scrunched back in a pony tail, a cigarette dangling from his mouth. Tattoos coiled over his arms. Immediately I felt awkward in his presence.
The day I met George I was wearing my working garb, a sun dress, a pair of falling apart flats, legs stubbly from hair I'd only half shaved and perhaps a swatch of slip showing beneath my hem. I felt stout and dumpy.
As a therapist, I think I should be beyond these silly social embarrassments. I think I should at least be beyond my own bodily insecurities enough to throw my full attention into the client's waiting lap. But I'm not. Around George I'm not. And the sense of shame he evokes in me to this day is part of our treatment story together.
My office at the time was windowless, and so small we had to sit with our knees near brushing. I got ready to ask my usual orienting questions. Age?, I asked.
Instead of answering me, George gave a dramatic sigh. "I have been waiting for this day," he said. "Ive seen six of you guys and so far no one's worked out. I need a doc who can really push me. I need to be challenged."
"Challenged?" I asked. "Like how?"
"Ive got my problems," George said, "And I can admit to them. The other six I went to just sat there and stared at me. I want someone who will give me feedback, make me see things in a new way."
"So what are these problems?"
George sat back, ran one hand over a large tattoo on his bicep. "Masturbation," he said gravely. "I can't stop. Can't. Seven, eight, nine times a day. I have a strong drive."
Now he pulled a list out of his pocket and began to read. "Masturbation, pornography, aggression, defensiveness, pride, control, these are my problems. Take porn. I love it, but the truth is I'd rather do it with a videotape than with my girlfriend, Joanne. We have huge beefs. Huge," George said. "My anger is just--" he paused. "Like I think I could kill her. I've killed a few people before, so I wouldn't put it past me."
George was staring straight at me when he said this, testing me for my reaction.
"So why do you think you prefer porn to people?" I said, keeping my voice even despite the fact that I suddenly felt like fleeing.
"Don't get me wrong," George said. "I like Joanne, she's a real smoker. But I'll be honest, a picture's just a lot easier. Just a completely quiet and beautiful bod."
I thought of my own bod then and felt my breasts beneath my dress burn with shame.
George is 35 years old and has lived seven of those years on the street, drugging, knife fighting, and stealing. He has been clean now for half a decade, a really remarkable achievement which he attributes to his spirituality, a weird blend of mysticism and heavy metal.
In his apartment where he lived with Joanne, he has two special cupboards side by side. In one of them, he keeps his incense and tarot cards. In the other, he stores his collection of sadomasochistic videos and magazines. Oddly, this second cupboard is lined with floral contact paper left by a previous tenant.
They bring him satisfaction, these videos. A lot goes on for him each day. Joanne is, as he said, a beautiful woman, but she is also unpredictable and self-absorbed, a series of seismic cycles he cannot control.
He tells me he is from the old school, expects his woman to cook and clean, to have fish on the table by six, dustless halls, and sex where her moans are synchronized to his.
When Joanne lets him down, he gets mad. Really red-faced furious so that he hauls her up against a wall, wallops her across the face. He feels so much sheer and irrational hate that he has to retreat to his room to watch his videos. They soothe him, images of female flesh controlled.
In our first several sessions, I tried to find the origins of his hate. For instance, George's father beat him, but the beatings were not as bad as the humiliation that went along with them. He remembers the strap, the hands that were like hatchets. But the intensity of his tale lies for me in this image, a small boy pressed against a refrigerator, white as a nuptial bed sheet. The man pressing against him, shouting at him. George could feel his father's groin hot and hard right in the nook between his thighs. He started to think of himself as having a nook there, a gross, gaping place.
He imagined his body was a girl's. George was disgusted, horrified. Soon afterward, he learned to fight, started to lift weights, running from the softness that is the requisite of all rapes.
I had, at first, a hard time dealing with George because he offended me. I understood his pornography obsession as a deflection of his own anxieties. So he wouldn't have to feel his fear, his memories of helplessness, he tried to control women.
Now understand, I am a woman who has spent much time aiming to please men. I am a woman who, in her adolescent days, denied herself food or threw it all up so I could fit into the airless image, this man in my office was both struggling to possess and shed at the same time.
I remember the smell of myself as an anorexic, a frail, dry odor like scorched grass. My limbs coated with hair. Because of these memories, it was impossible for me to like George. But I did feel deeply for him. After all, hadn't I once driven for his same goals? To eradicate the weak part of the self who hurts and bleeds and feeds.
During the first few weeks of our therapy together, I began to feel the old shame about my body returning more strongly than it had in a while. Although George said he wanted help to overcome his pornography obsession, he was sometimes driven to watch five, six films a night. And to learn to diffuse his rages, he used his sessions to vent about Joanne's latest transgressions. And from there, he would segue into diatribes about the perfect female sex organs, their size and smell.
After a day during which I'd seen George had ended, I would go home and feel my flash more heavily than ever. I often felt like weeping. And it was during this time that I noticed small black hairs growing up around my nipples. On the one hand, I wanted to pluck them out. On the other hand, I wanted them to grow, lush like the marsh weed that springs up in swamps.
My prescription was for George to learn, somehow, that being soft does not mean being molested or murdered, necessarily. He would have none of it, of course.
We have been going at it for about two months and he told me a story that bowled me over. The woods of his childhood home divided his family's house from Teddy Swayze's, a classmate who lived through several stands of pines.
George was nine years old and that day, Teddy had promised him the use of his new red Tonka toy truck if only George would come over and play. But when he got there, Teddy went back on his part of the bargain. The truck, nope, was not to be shared.
George had walked all this way, had stumbled over tree roots, had opened himself to hope, only to find he was fooled. So he went home, took his father's knife, some rope from the cellar and made a gallows in the woods using branches as a platform.
"Boy, have I got the coolest thing to show you," George said to Teddy. "You got to come."
And then when they were there, George said, "Look up." It was floating against the sky, the noose, very bright in the sunlight.
"Climb," George said, using the knife to persuade. He used the blade on the kid's soft skin and had a sudden jarring image of his mother in the kitchen in the morning wearing an apron and slicing through a warm bar of butter. Teddy was up there, George positioned his head in place, kicked away the sticks, so all of a sudden Teddy swung, neck bunched in the noose.
I was leaning forward in my seat.
"The rope broke," he said. "I knew it would. I just wanted to scare him because I wouldn't be had. I can't be had. You see what I mean?"
I didn't say anything.
"Otherwise I feel like I'm just a doormat." He took an angry drag off his cigarette.
"But do you think everyone in the whole world wants to treat you as a doormat and abuse you in some way?"
"Absolutely," George said. "I know it."
"Must be tiring having to think that. You can never really let down your guard. Have you ever cried in front of someone to show that you're scared, upset?"
George didn't say anything. A long silence settled between as. We were a cut cord, a swarm of static.
"What's going on, George? Why is it unsafe to feel anything but defensiveness or violence in this office? Do you think I'm going to take advantage of you?" Immediately I realized I'd made a blunder by allowing him the opportunity to sexualize our interaction.
"You, take advantage of me? Isn't that supposed to be the other way around?" He leaned back in his chair, lit another cigarette. I saw the smoke slide from his mouth, felt it wrap around me in a blue and gauzy cloud, decking me in the moving material of a see-through dress.
George believed that the bodies outside him were missiles, poised and poisonous. His aggressive, slit-eyed stance is a typically male phenomenon.
My eating disorder, the obsessive desire to be thin, thin, thin, and perfectly, poisonously poised is typically a female phenomenon.
George and I were both victims of our culture's fear of the feminine, unable to lay down our system of weapons and spread our legs open to life because we learned that in this posture, we will be shamed not invigorated. We did not know how to trust what we could not dominate. And the recovering anorexic is not only in a particularly good position to articulate these truths, she is also ironically, in a particularly good position-- vis-a-vis therapy-- to treat the misogynist male. She understands, perhaps better than anyone, the urge to whip and dominate, discipline and even delete the female form.
For years, I was hungry but could not risk the softness of surrender. I dreamt of letting down my guard, sitting at a table on which silver dishes steamed and ingesting colors. Orange carrots, the soft wombs of tomatoes, the tangy dirt of chocolate cake. But I couldn't dare, couldn't trust enough to let myself go.
These are the memories that came to mind when I looked at George, rigid in his chair, his face set against the seepage of any emotion that wasn't cruel or lewd.
He told me about forcing himself to rise before dawn each morning, working out two hours a day, jogging barefoot in the snow. I nodded yes, having done the same to myself.
The more deeply I went into it with him, the more difficult he became. Our therapy started to evolve, so that I played a mostly silent role, while he went on and on, endlessly it seemed. About Joanne's anatomy, the six hour plow, her tight little sex.
What about me, I wanted to say to him. Does it occur to you that I'm a woman here? That you just might be offending me? And beneath that another smaller voice was crying, what about me? Am I not also attractive? Do I not measure up to your standards? Why not?
I began to realize our sessions were a lot like porn, in which I, the silent subject, absorbed his fantasies, and in my featurelessness, reflected them back to him. George let me know clearly what my role in our relationship was by shifting impatiently whenever I spoke. By the quick brushing motions he made with his hands as though to sweep away my words. By interrupting me and then exploding into a tyrannical temper if I asserted my right to finish my own sentence.
"Quiet," he once roared at me.
And I, like a little girl, sank back down in my seat, and felt darkness grow up around me.
"I wonder if you ever think," I finally burst out to him one day, "That I might be uncomfortable with your sexual talk, with the kinds of expressions you use."
"But you're a shrink," George said to me. "That's what you're here for. That's your whole job."
I wanted to reach out and slap him. "Not even in my office am I just a shrink. I am also a woman and the way you talk about my gender disgusts me."
"I wouldn't ever talk to a woman I was trying to make it with like that, but you're not supposed to--"
"Supposed to what?"
George looked uncomfortable.
Halla-[BLEEP]-lujah, I thought.
"Supposed to mind," he said.
"Surprise," I said. "I mind."
George looked up at me, his expression confused. My face felt all red. For one moment then, our masks dropped away. I could tell by the way George was looking at me that he was, for maybe the first time, considering me not as a function, but as a feeling. I smiled at him. He nodded, hello.
Shortly after this encounter, George left the state for six weeks to do a series of carpentry jobs in Arizona. He returned to therapy in late May. He slumped down in his seat, looked at his lap.
"I was going to call you," he said in a low voice. I'd never heard him use that voice before.
"What happened?" I asked.
"She left me," George said. He shook his head. "Just like that. I called her at her parents and she says it's completely finished. Gonzo. But I'm chasing her. I'm running after her like a goddamn desperate dog. Phoning her 10, 20 times a day, bawling in her ear. It doesn't matter what I do."
"It doesn't matter what you do," I said. "Tell me more about that."
"I've been trying every ploy with this bitch for the past week and I'm--"
"What? You're what?"
"Helpless." His mouth was a bitter line of tension, but his eyes were wet.
"I think that's what upsets you the most about Joanne's leaving. That you have no control. That you feel helpless to get her back."
George, to my surprise, nodded in agreement. His own pain had made him flexible, open to vision and suggestion. For the first time in six months of treatment, I think we really talked.
The next few weeks brought some changes in George. He found himself facing an emotion he could not defend himself against. No amount of swearing or swaggering could express mourning. The pain of Joanne's leaving so suddenly broke his shield with an intensity neither of us had anticipated.
I was drawn into George now and I told him so. In some moments I think I saw his real face, the flow of emotion across it like wind working on sand. And I grew to love him and love the strength in his slow surrender.
It is August. I am 23 years old. I have never met George. I am just out of college. I weigh 88 pounds.
When I look out my bedroom window, I can see tulips. They are the most trusting beings. They with their throats always open. Their long gold tongues hanging out. Nothing bad happens to them. The sun doesn't rape them. They don't gag on the rain.
This day is really many months. I watch the world. I watch the natural cycle of things. Cliche as it may be, this is what cures me.
There comes a moment when recovery is religious. When a person says, all right, I will have faith. I will lay down my sword and shield and see what the world works in me.
I look away from my bedroom window and go downstairs, out onto the porch. Someone has set a table for me. Sliced strawberries lie like the tongues of maidens on a platter, wedges of cheese and bread. I put food in my mouth. For the first time in years, I swallow the softness of ice cream. I want to see if my body will blow up in disgusting fatness with this slow animal stupidity swelling in my stomach. It doesn't.
Letting down my guard, opening my many mouths does not bring about the ruin, the rape I had feared. On the contrary, food brings vitality back to me. I feel my hair take on its sheen, grow longer as though new stalks of thought are springing from my brain. My brain, now nourished, thinks in colors instead of calories. I can run harder. My eyes are moist enough to cry.
George started to taste-- styles, voices, times. He reported allowing himself to sleep late one morning. He started going out some night without his leather vest or black boots. Tried kissing a woman on the neck and going no farther. He brought wood home with him at the end of working days, stayed up late making small objects without any obvious functions. A box, a mobile, a chiseled plaque.
One day, he came to session and told me he had met a woman, [? Blucky, ?] whom he thought he could fall in love with if only he could get over Joanne.
"The other problem is," George said. "She's the greatest person but she's heavy. Maybe 30 pounds overweight. I've never made it with a fat woman before. You know me, I'm used to perfect curves. Thighs I can grab a hold of, someone I can flip like a doll." He gave me one of his lewd George smiles.
I was enchanted by the idea of George with a fat woman. I had seen enough of George changed, naked, to imagine how his body would be within a fat woman's arms.
I imagined her rocking him and him kissing her face and mouth. I could not help but see her spread legs on a bed and he, a little cowed by the site of so much, trying to touch her, allowing himself entry into the many layers of her life. He brushes her, goes up past her hip, until he touches the curved rib bone, the hard male bone taken a long time ago from the man buried and found only in the full woman's body.
Lauren Slater's story, "Striptease," was first published in the quarterly New Letters. It was read by actress Joy Gregory.
Our program was produced today by Alix Spiegel and myself, with Peter Clowney and Nancy Updike. Contributing editor Sarah Vowell, Paul Tough, Jack Hitt and Margy Rochlin.
Some original scoring today by Anthony Barilla Jeff Mueller and Jason Noble.
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I'm Ira Glass, back next week with more stories of This American Life.