Conversations With Writers Braver Than Me #6: Jillian Lauren

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For a brief second in my late twenties, I considered working topless. I knew a girl who did. She tried to persuade me to join her, saying it was easy and the money was great. I was having a particularly hard time, financially; that was part of it. But I was also going through a kind of awakening. I’d come out of an unconscious, sleepy marriage to the second guy I’d ever been with, and now I was curious about, well, everything, and also about a certain sort of sexual power.

But I couldn’t do it. No, not me, Nice Jewish Girl From the Suburbs. What would my parents think – my clergyman father, especially – if they found out? (Besides, could there be a more tired clergyman’s daughter cliché?)

So, how does a Nice Jewish Girl From the Suburbs go from belting show tunes in the living room while her father accompanies her on piano, to becoming first a stripper, then a call girl, and finally one of many kept women in Prince Jefri of Brunei’s harem? This is certainly something I wanted to know. Jillian Lauren writes about it in her fascinating memoir, Some Girls: My Life in a Harem.

For me, as interesting as how she made those transitions was how she had the courage to write about it all – her challenging relationships with her adoptive parents, some abuse she suffered at her father’s hands, her complicated sexual and emotional entanglement with Prince Jefri. She spoke with me about this by phone from her home in L.A., where she was putting the final touches on her first novel, due out next fall.

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The Rumpus: I’ve never stripped, been a prostitute, or been anywhere near Brunei, but I still related so much to your book – especially your disillusionment with Judaism while still missing some of the aspects of it, and your challenging relationship with your father. You reveal a lot about your difficulties with him and your mother, and I just found myself wondering how you did it: How did you get over your fears of hurting them, or losing their love because of things you reveal about them and/or yourself?

Jillian Lauren: I wrote the book with a tremendous suspension of disbelief; I wrote it as if no one was ever going to read it. I know that sounds like a cliché. They always tell writers, “Write as if no one is ever going to see it,” but that wasn’t hard for me, because no one had ever read anything I’d written before. I had been writing for a long time and had been unsuccessful at getting things published. I mean, I’d had small things published, but had written books before that no one had read. So it was very easy for me to believe no one would ever read this book.

Rumpus: That would be hard for me, because I’ve already had some essays and articles published that have upset people in my family. So I have this heightened awareness of what that’s like, and that it could happen again.

Lauren: Well, what I’m talking about is easier to do with a book than with an essay or article that’s going to be coming out in a week or a month. When you’re writing a book, the process is so long that it’s easy to kind of trick yourself that way. The time between the moment you sit down at the keyboard and write the first word to the point where somebody’s reading it – I mean, it’s going to be the end of the Mayan calendar before my next book, or, you know, the apocalypse. That helps!

Rumpus: I can see that. Although, I feel guilty as I’m writing this stuff. In the moment, in the act, I’m really conflicted.

Lauren: For me, it got really hard in the final passes, where I still wasn’t sure whether I was going to put in certain things about my family. The stuff about being a sex worker, well, whatever. I didn’t think that would embarrass my family. It was what I did, not what I do. I don’t think I lost anyone over that.

Rumpus: Did you lose people otherwise?

Lauren: I lost people over publishing the material about my father and my family. I caused a lot of pain. The stuff about my being a prostitute didn’t cause anyone a lot of pain, other than maybe me. I think my parents could have lived with that embarrassment or found a way to frame it that would have been acceptable to them. It’s very much about what their neighbors think. I think they could find a way to frame their daughter acting in a way that was unacceptable, but not a way to frame themselves behaving in a way that was unacceptable.

Rumpus: So you lost your parents over this?

Lauren: Yeah, my parents have stopped talking to me. And my brother, sort of. I mean, if I want to reach him I can. He’s very religious and living in Israel now, so he doesn’t approve of me anyway.

Rumpus: After you finished writing – and stopped telling yourself no one would ever read your memoir – did it occur to you that your family would turn their backs on you because of it?

Lauren: What I’d hoped would happen was they’d be able to say: look how much we’ve learned, look how much we’ve changed, all of us. Let us be an example, maybe for other families who are going through the same thing, or parents who have behaved in ways toward their children that they’re not proud of. I mean, I’m a parent now, and it’s only Monday, and already I can list twenty things I’ve done this week that I’m ashamed of.

Rumpus: Yeah, I have that same fantasy. I remember telling Shalom Auslander something like that and he just laughed at me and said, “Yeah, that’s never going to happen.”

Lauren: But I think it’s important that we talk about that stuff, particularly in like, upper middle class Jewish communities where there’s this pretense that things like physical abuse don’t happen in our world.

Rumpus: I’m with you there. I keep hearing stories about physical abuse in Jewish families, and it’s always so surprising, even though I dealt with some of that in my own family. My mother’s second husband would sometimes become violent, and at one point we had a social worker from the county coming to our house because a neighbor or somebody had called. But we had to be very hush-hush about it because, like, that doesn’t happen in Jewish families. I’ve rarely told people.

Lauren: When you come from any minority community there’s that concern, like, should I cast doubt or blame, or tell some unflattering story about my parents?  There’s this feeling that I’m betraying the whole community. We keep our secrets, take care of our own. There is this insular feeling about it.

Rumpus: So how is it not having your parents in your life now?

Lauren: It’s very hard. As complicated as my relationship with them was, they were a good part of my son’s life, and my husband’s life. And now they’re not there. My husband said something recently, like, “Oh, wow, I can’t believe we’re not going to hear from your parents at all this holiday,” and I was like, “Nope.” And it is weird. But I made the decision to publish the book with the willingness to let that happen if it had to. I had dinner with my friend Rachel Resnick, who wrote Love Junkie. She lost her relationship with her father over publishing that memoir. She said to me, “If you’re not going to run the manuscript by people, expect to lose them.” But I was unwilling to run the manuscript by people. I felt it was important enough for me to publish this. I stood behind it and I still stand behind it. I don’t regret it.

Rumpus: That is so brave. I have so much respect for you for choosing that.

Lauren: I think there’s only one way to write memoir like this, and that is full out. If you’re going to start manipulating what you are and aren’t going to tell, what you are and aren’t going to reveal, and who you are and aren’t going to hurt, I think the result of that is a coy book. I’ve read them before, and to me it’s the cardinal sin. I think that as artists, we can’t worry about writing work that is going to be acceptable to our children or our parents. Or we’re going to write some bullshit, or like, Harry Potter. Great! I hope to some day write a children’s book. But right now that’s not what I write. I write intensely personal material, often with some sexual content. I don’t want my dad reading that, and I don’t want my son reading that, but it’s not going to stop me from writing it.

Rumpus: I keep wrestling with all of that.

Lauren: Listen, there’s no law saying you have to write a book like this! You can write something else.

Rumpus: I keep wishing I could. But I’m fixated. I have these stories to tell about how I got to be how I am, and there’s no way to do that without having some stuff about my parents and other people in there. I don’t feel like I can write anything else until I write this. And yet I can’t write this! I’m stuck. I am so afraid of my parents’ reactions, so afraid of hurting them.

Lauren: Well, I can tell you something that I have distilled from conversations with other memoirists, which is: Your parents’ reaction to your memoir isn’t going to be any different from your parents’ reaction to anything else you’ve done in your life. Their world perspective is how they are going to react to your book, no matter what is in it. If your parents are the kind of narcissistic parents who expect you to be this perfect representation of them in the world, then they are going to be disappointed. Those things you’ve published in the past, I believe that you couldn’t have written them so that your parents would have liked them, or not have been hurt or offended by them.

Rumpus: That makes so much sense. It sounds like something my former therapist would say. Yet it’s still so hard to accept.

Lauren: You want them to say, “You have your own path. I don’t own you. You are a really awesome loan to me from God. I took care of that loan as best I could, and now, I leave you to your path. And I just think you’re super. And congratulations on your memoir.”

Rumpus: Oh, that sounds awesome. But, yeah, not gonna happen.

Lauren: Yeah, definitely not. Yet, still, that’s the parent that I strive to be. Actually, my mother said to me, “What are you going to do in thirty years when your son writes his memoir?!” My mother, who forever ruined for me the under-water room of the Museum of Natural History the last time I talked to her. As my kid’s running back and forth. And the guards are like, “No running!”

Rumpus: You told your mother about the book at the Museum of Natural History?

Lauren: No, no. We were visiting my parents in New Jersey when I told them what was in the book.

Rumpus: How did you tell them?

Lauren: Well, they knew I was writing a book. Before it was done, I wouldn’t talk to them about it further than that. I said, “I’m not talking to anyone about it while I’m writing it,” because nothing will kill that kind of a project like talking about it, although I did tell them it had some adoption-related themes. Perhaps I could have been a little more forthcoming.

When I was ready to tell them, I hired a therapist to act as a mediator. I sat down with my parents six months before book came out, but after it was totally done and in and no changes could be made. I said, this is when the book is coming out, and these are all the things that are in it. I had a list and I went through it one by one. And I said, “I hope this is enough for you and you won’t feel the need to read it. I’d like for you not to read it.” I’ve had friends whose parents agreed not to read their memoir. And I thought, what awesome boundaries on their part! Maybe I’ll at least ask for it.

Rumpus: Oh, that is ideal! I remember reading in the acknowledgements to Julie Klausner’s memoir, like, a promise to her parents that some day she’ll write a book they can actually read, and I thought: Wow. Imagine if you could persuade your parents not to read what you write!

Lauren: Well, sure enough, my mother looks me right in the eye and says, “I am going to read the memoir. Everyone I know is going to be reading your memoir. You can’t tell me not to read your book.” So, so much for that fantasy. It was a very difficult conversation. At the end of it, they insisted that they were okay with the book coming out. But in the wake of that conversation, we were having a very difficult time with our relationship. And then a few months later the first press started. There was an article in the New York Post, and my mother came home from being away for New Year’s to fifteen messages on her answering machine from friends who’d seen the article. She told me she just couldn’t handle it, and so she couldn’t have any more contact with me. And that’s the last I’ve heard from them.

Rumpus: What did you say when your mother told you that?

Lauren: I told her I was really sorry I had hurt her, and I told her that she should brace herself, because I knew that the Post article wouldn’t be the last of it, or the worst of it. I have sort of an unusual situation in that my story involved newsworthy people, such as foreign royalty. Because of that I got an unusual amount of national media attention for my memoir.

Rumpus: It sounds like you were being very practical, and also talking to her in a very compassionate way.

Lauren: Well, I realized the book must have been a really tough pill for my parents to swallow. I have a tremendous amount of sympathy for their position. But I also think that when you are going to be an artist who works with this sort of material, you have to just hand it over to the world. I trust that it’s bigger than me or my relationship with my parents. They have their right to have their reaction to it, but I’m still going to publish it. This has been incredibly hard for a lot of reasons. But I’m going to keep doing it.

Rumpus: How does your husband feel about it? You said that he seemed sad that your parents weren’t going to be in your life these holidays.

Lauren: My husband is incredibly supportive. He has been the whole time. There are certain relationships that I’m unwilling to lose in the world, that would trump me publishing something, and have. I have written a few things that he’s been very uncomfortable with, and so they haven’t made it out of the house. But generally, he is very comfortable being written about. He knows that aspects of our life are going to be all over things I release, and he’s perfectly fine with that. He’s believes in me, and he accepts it. He knew this about me when he married me. I didn’t marry somebody who wasn’t okay with it. So yeah, there are a couple of relationships I’m not willing to lose. And one is my husband, and the other is my son. He’s only two-and-a-half now, so it’s not an issue, but when he gets older, if he’s uncomfortable with something I write, I’ll respect his wishes.

Rumpus: I imagine it would kill your parents to know that you’d make those choices for other people, but not for them.

Lauren: Well, I think it’s sort of the normal order of things. This is my immediate family, this is the world I worked so hard for. I think the ethics around writing about children versus writing about grownups are different. You know, we’re all grownups, we’ve all made choices. I do make concessions for my husband. But that’s because he asks for them so rarely, and because he believes in my work and is so respectful of it. He is really the one who made it possible for me to follow through with writing this book because it was so hard. It did shake me to my core. I really was sitting there the day before the last day that I was allowed to make changes to the manuscript and I was debating, do I leave these paragraphs about my family in or take them out? Back and forth. And he said, “You are protecting a person who did these things. It’s the truth. Your father wasn’t an evil monster, but he was abusive to you and your brother, and it’s an important part of the story. You can spend your life protecting him. But the other option is you can write about it, tell the truth, let it be in the world, and see who it speaks to – who it helps.” You know, abused children protect their abusers. We get enmeshed in these contracts that are unwritten and unspoken, that we will protect our parents. It’s like the opposite of how things should go. As a writer your job is to pull the covers back on the stuff that we are inclined to keep quiet, to present the truth without shame.

Rumpus: You know, I hear you talking about this, and I’ve had a bunch of these conversations, and yet I keep coming back to this strong desire to get my parents’ permission and approval.

Lauren: You’re not going to get their permission and you’re not going to get their approval. It sucks. I’ve finally done something that I know that I would like to my parents to be proud of me for. And they would like to be proud of me, but they can’t. It’s a tragedy.

But I think there has to be a part of you that is capable of a lack of sentimentality. There has to be a part of you that’s willing to just be kind of brutal. This needs to be said, it’s an itch I’ve got to scratch. And it’s going to hurt some people. That’s not why I’m doing it. I’m dealing with it in the most compassionate way, in order to tell the most authentic story and make the best book. I sort of think that mindset is required for this type of work.

Rumpus: That’s hard.

Lauren: But it’s what you have to do. It’s what I’ve had to do. I also have these cuckoo bananas stories. I tried to only write fiction for a long time to avoid revealing this stuff. But it wasn’t until I started writing non-fiction that the door in my mind opened for me. It said to me, “You are on the right track.”

Rumpus: You write in the book that Lauren is actually your middle name. So I am assuming your parents have a different last name than you. Did you do that as a way to protect them?

Lauren: I did it deliberately a long time ago. I did it so that nothing I did professionally would be associated with my parents. But then once you’re on “Good Morning America,” and people who know your family recognize you, that doesn’t work any more.

Rumpus: Yeah, your cover is blown. I’ve thought about using a pseudonym, but I think that would be strange and unsatisfying for me. Do you think your parents will ever come around?

Lauren: I don’t know. The wounds are fairly fresh. But I have bait – their grandson. My friend Shawna Kenney, who wrote I Was a Teenage Dominatrix, was initially shunned by her parents. They didn’t talk to her for two years. But now they’re talking again. So you never know.

Rumpus: It’s not just your parents that you reveal in your book, but also Prince Jefri Bolkiah of Brunei, whose harem you were in for 18 months. Did you have any qualms about shining that kind of a light on him – or any fear of reprisals, legal or otherwise?

Lauren: From a legal standpoint, I figured I was pretty okay. I never signed a confidentiality agreement. The legal department at the publishing house took the vetting of this manuscript very seriously, so I felt well taken care of in that regard.

I didn’t write this with the intention of hurting Jefri at all. I have compassion for him. I don’t hate him; I never hated him. I have a sort of fondness toward him that you get for people who have turned into characters, whether in your book or your life. He doesn’t have any power over me anymore. I feel kind of sorry for him. He just can’t seem to keep himself out of trouble lately. And he cracks me up with those sex statues.

Rumpus: You weren’t concerned he might lash out at you in some way?

Lauren: I’ve been asked before whether retribution was in the realm of possibility. I mean, portraying a Muslim political figure in unflattering ways – I suppose any number of things could happen. But I’m not going to shut my mouth because I’m afraid of a host of possibilities, and I have no idea what they could be. And I’ve found that people have been incredibly supportive – Muslim women in Brunei, for example. I get emails from women in different countries. They write and tell me how much they liked the book.

You know, I felt strongly enough that my story was as important as Prince Jefri’s story. Just because he is wealthy and part of foreign government doesn’t mean he’s more important. I was able to get behind that from a feminist perspective, and that helped to embolden me to not be afraid.

Rumpus: I’m guessing you haven’t heard from him since the book came out?

Lauren: No. I haven’t spoken to him since I left Brunei, years and years ago. But I did hear from one of his wives. She wrote me and said, “You should be ashamed of yourself.”

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Check out the Rumpus Radio interview with Jillian Lauren.


Sari Botton is a writer living in upstate New York. She is the editor of Goodbye to All That: Writers on Loving & Leaving NY. Her articles and essays have appeared in The New York Times, New York Magazine, The Village Voice and more retrograde women’s magazines than she’d care to recall or admit to. She tweets at @saribotton. More from this author →