People are going to pick up and want to buy Whip Smart because it sounds salacious, gratuitous, sexy. I picked it up because I thought, holy shit, how brave to admit this. I will learn something about how to write the stuff that most scares me to share about myself (spoiler: I’m not a dominatrix).
I was right and wrong. Febos is brave, and makes brave admissions—but not only in the way you think. Her entire tenure as a dominatrix was marked by her attempts at distancing herself from this work she did to put herself through college.
Whip Smart is an addiction narrative. And the addiction isn’t kink or sexual power trips, but every drug you can think of, most notably a serious heroin addiction.
What’s different about this particular addiction narrative is how well the narrator hid, while creating even more elements of her life to hide, all while hiding nothing from the reader.
For me, the most telling and self-aware moment of this memoir comes a little over halfway through: “So long as that list (of accomplishments) was longer than the number of ways I was hurting myself, I was winning.”
School had been my cover from sixth grade on. A’s came easily to me and were a free ticket to get away with whatever badness it was that I wanted—or needed—to be doing. When I was drinking and lying about my age to high school boys at twelve years old, it was my cover. When I was tripping acid, sniffing coke, and skipping every afternoon in high school, it covered me. When I was smoking crystal meth, popping ecstasy pills like aspirin, and robbing the cafes and tattoo shops that employed me, I was also getting A’s at Harvard night school, and no one asked questions. Lying came easily to me and I never asked for money, so how would anyone looking at me from the outside have known?
But why? Febos confesses she had always loved school, learning, discovering, and that “the excitement [she] felt in classes and in writing was pure,” even as she “took pride in [her] ability to work systems and people…” She concludes that her “desire for that feeling had always been trumped by [her] desire for escape, and the quickest escapes…were found in the illicit.”
Recovering from addiction happened, necessarily, before quitting sex work. Febos is candid about how domming was a job, and a lucrative one, while addiction was what made her a dishonest person. For the faint of heart who might read (or more likely, only read about), this book, I feel that was an important distinction to make. Febos isn’t ashamed of her experience as a sex worker. She is ashamed that for the longest time, she had to be high as a proverbial kite to do it.
And ashamed might not even be the right word. Near the end of the memoir, Febos meets a man who makes her feel brand-new at dating and sexual relationships: “Was I still so green? So unconfident? Had I gone straight out of the extremity of sex work to the innocence of my adolescence?” She professes to becoming squeamish about the human body after having been so up-close-and-personal with the more perverse aspects of it as a domme: “In so many ways, it was a return to more tender states, as if my suppressed innocence had been preserved for all that time.” The author forgives herself by intimating there is nothing to forgive after all. She says at first, “the normality of [her] life felt like a huge practical joke” or even “a lie,” until she came to see it as “a blessing” instead.
Also near the end of the book is a passage I deeply related to, about the miracle of existence, if from the perspective of nihilism. Febos writes: “…I took the 88 bus to work every day and was quietly amazed that I made it across the city in one piece, that the bus came on time and drivers obeyed traffic laws, that the world managed for one more day not to dissolve into total chaos. I’m not sure where this fundamental suspicion that the world was perpetually on the brink of dissolving originated from.” I’m not sure where it originated for me either, Melissa, but I feel you. I feel, have felt, that detachment from the world around me, amazement that it functions, that we haven’t all killed each other yet, or that this space rock hasn’t hurled itself into the sun or been sucked into a black hole.
Then I think, there has to be a reason, right? The inherent goodness of most people that’s keeping existence afloat, let alone on course? Some strength of will that we persist and thrive and find each other in the cold dark? What is a dungeon, anyway? What if anything drives humans to open up to other humans, even complete strangers, to give access to and autonomy over their bodies to other humans, if not the need for connection of any kind at all? And if consent is present, how can any kind of connection be inferior to any other kind?
Melissa Febos found her way, her happiness, through dungeons figurative and literal. Before her book, I knew nothing about the lives of dominatrices, and I’m glad my first knowledge came through her voice…even if I learned more about enemas than I ever cared to know!