Melissa Petro lost her job last summer after publishing an article on The Rumpus about her former life as a sex worker.
Months ago I posted up a schedule for my gym and a drawing of a bird—a robin, I think—that I had cut out of a magazine and pasted on a piece of red cardstock. Other than that, there is no evidence of me.
Looking around, there are xeroxed papers relating to substitute teaching thumb-tacked up in a disorganized manner. These articles belong to someone else, someone who also uses this cubicle— in the evenings? On the weekends?— or someone who used to use the cubicle and who no longer works here. I don’t ask. I don’t make myself at home. I don’t bother. I learned not to. When I was first here there was a computer that I was welcomed to use. From that PC, I worked on my manuscript. I went online. I bookmarked my favorite sites. Some months later, a not-so-friendly looking man came and confiscated the hard drive. The shell of the computer has sat there impotently ever since. And so I bring a laptop. From that, I write. Sometimes, I think of myself as the Department of Education’s writer-in-residence. Usually, though, I have less a sense of humor.
As a child, I never experienced the sense of home I always imagined other people as having. I imagined as a child that home was, for most people, a safe, stable place. A place where needs were always met. A place where everyone felt loved. This wasn’t the environment within which I grew up. Growing up, I didn’t believe that people came from “different” homes— only that there was “normal” and “not normal” and that my family was “not normal.” I grew up believing everyone in the world had something I didn’t.
This feeling of fundamental difference, and the resulting sense of lack, is partly why I write. As a child, home was the Midwest, a suburb without sidewalks on the east side of Cleveland. My mother was a secretary at a racetrack. By my senior year of high school, my father was gone. I was your typical good kid—over-involved, over-responsible, I overcompensated for my brother, two years older and always in trouble. I was the youngest, second at everything. I grew up feeling very small. I had few friends. As a small child I played made-up games full of made-up rules by myself in the woods around our house. I was a lonely little girl.
I wrote. As a young child, I wrote because my writing pleased my mother and my teachers and because it garnered me attention. I wrote because when people read my work, they told me I was good. I wrote poems about nature and love, about places I had never been. The older I got, the more my writing became for myself. I wrote privately—out of necessity, compulsively. For a period of time, no one read my work, not even me. I burned my journals. I just wrote.
“Most writers,” says Betsy Lerner, “like most children, need to tell. The only problem is that much of what they need to tell will provoke the ire of parent-critics, who are determined to tell writer-children what they can and cannot say. Writing,” Lerner concludes, “is nothing if not breaking the silence.”
Growing up in a world of secrets—my father’s indiscretions, my mother’s private shame—in my writing, always, was the need to break the silence. The need to confess. I write to reacquaint myself with my self and my own experience, and to connect myself with the selves and experiences around me. I write in desire for connection— to place, to people, to custom, to the very act of being. My writing is born out of a battle to survive, a bewildering need to be visible that has hindered me since well before the days I sold sex.
Under the dull florescent witness of the streetlamp I am laying between the double yellow lines running down the center of the street. I’d gotten the idea from a news broadcast talking about how kids had gotten the idea from a movie they’d seen. I don’t recall ever seeing the movie. The first car that drove by was a cop.
My mother must’ve already been asleep because my father answered the door. When the police officer explained what his fourteen year old daughter had been doing by herself in the street at ten thirty at night, he offered a look of confused irritation, like a man just awakened from a comfortable dream. He apologized to the officer and ushered me inside. When the cop left, he shut the door and shuffled back to sit in front of the TV.
For some, sex work is about survival. They do it because they have to. Perhaps they’re forced to or maybe they need money so badly they feel they have no other choice. While this may be true for some, some people perceive all women’s participation in the sex industry as the product of coercion. For me, this couldn’t have felt less true.
For me, stripping began as a means to an end. When I went away to college my mom took a second job and then a third to make ends meet, but the ends didn’t meet and I was sick of her struggling. I felt sorry for her and, at the same time, I felt angry. I was tired of being poor. I did not want to become my mother. I looked down on her for working so hard and just barely getting by. This is not the life I wanted for myself. I told myself I was entitled to more.
Being onstage in the spotlight, making money— being paid in cash—as a stripper, I felt powerful. I was nineteen years old: the year my father left, the year I became a sex worker. For as long as I was stripping, my world was as small as that stage and I was in its center. Center stage, I was in control. I was a child, thinking I had discovered the solution. I could work and go to school. I could have it all, I thought, all while earning my degree. Then, I thought, when I graduated—I would have another, even better job— a job that paid me just as much doing something I enjoyed even more.
Growing up in a home without enough food, every hunger you feel feels as if you are starving. As a woman, of such an appetite, you become ashamed. When your needs become confused with your desires, you always want more. Stripping, I learned, was a way to be noticed– and being noticed, I thought, was what it took to survive.
I write because I believe in self-representation. I write because, on the page—as I did onstage—I feel empowered. On the page, I find myself at home. “By writing herself,” writes Helene Cixous, “women will return to the body which has been more than confiscated from her, which has been turned into an uncanny stranger on display.”
At Antioch, I majored in Self, Society and Culture. I was there on scholarship, mostly merit-based, most of which I’d won by writing. At Antioch, I was told to become the change I sought in the world. I interned at charities helping the disadvantaged, at domestic violence shelters and in hospital wings where they put the women who’d been beaten. It was my job to tell everyone they’d all be okay. I told myself I was better off than them. The truth was that I was the same as them, and of that truth I was afraid. I worked as a stripper at night or– if I worked my “real” job at night– then, during the day. I kept the fact that I was stripping a secret from my mother and my boyfriend at the time, the people in my life who loved me the most and who supposedly knew me better than anyone else—why, I sometimes wondered, if these people knew me at all. Perhaps, deep down inside, I sometimes feared I was no good after all.
To be a good writer, I believe, is to write honestly—to write, as Betsy Lerner says, “about all the untidy emotions, the outsize desires, the hideous envy, and disturbing fantasies that makes us human.” To write in this way, Lerner advises, we must be fearless. We must not censor. We must write with audacity, from a place of ego, a sturdy sense of entitlement— “the feeling you have the right to say whatever you want about whomever you want and, what’s more, that your notions about people and actions are defensible.” The writers I most appreciate are those who have swallowed their fears of exposure and persecution and taken risks, sometimes risking their very selves for their art. They have gone to extremes and returned to tell the tale. “Successful writing,” Betsy Lerner says, “never comes through half measures.”
Four years ago, I didn’t know I wanted to be a teacher. I only knew that I needed a job. Teaching, I figured, was as good a job as any and so I applied and was accepted. I got another degree. I grew to love my profession.
During my time at the New School, I had worked as a research assistant at a hospital. It was an honest job and it paid well enough but it wasn’t the “better” job I had been counting on finding when I’d told myself sex work wasn’t forever. For one, at the hospital, I did not feel needed. I had begun to feel needed, instead, as a writer. At the New School I was encouraged to believe I had a story to tell and that my story was important and unique. The truth is that we all have stories to tell, and that each of our stories are important and unique. But I had never been so encouraged before and so I took it to heart. My colleagues at the New School were mostly full-time writers. They interned at literary magazines or slept all day and wrote all night and I wanted that life, too. I was hideously envious and began to feel entitled to no more but no less than what they had— what I began to convince myself everyone on this Earth had except me, never mind that this wasn’t true and I knew it. Not everyone on this Earth gets to do what they love all the time, money no concern. Never mind that their parents paid their rent and sent them a little extra whenever they needed it, I quit my day job to be a full-time writer just like my classmates. To fund this venture, I figured, I would sell sex.
I did not think it was possible for me to have a job that I loved— a job where I was needed doing something I was good at, and that paid me well enough— until I became a teacher. The only thing that’d ever come close to giving me the satisfaction I felt as a teacher was being a writer and that job, as we writers all know, doesn’t pay.
Today, Friday, is my last day with the Department of Education. I haven’t been in a classroom since September 24th, the Friday before the NY Post came out. I was not allowed to come back to the school to so much as clean out my desk. I miss my students. I sometimes dream of them. In my dreams, they all know what has happened and I feel ashamed. I am not allowed to explain what they do not understand anyway. I am allowed to teach again but I am unprepared for the lesson.
It sometimes feels as if all that I have gained has been taken from me, but this feeling I know is not fact.
On the opposite side of the office by the microwave is a wall of windows. The blinds are drawn closed. If you move them over a bit you can see there is a view of the water and of the Statue of Liberty. There is a layer of dust on the blinds so thick you can tell they have not been opened in a long time.
My cubicle-mate is a woman named Zandra. She has worked for the Department of Education for 18 years. She refuses to let me interview her about her life or her job— I have asked on several occasions— but what I have learned is that any conversation you have with a writer is material even if you say “off the record.” I learned this the hard way, the day of the press conference I held with Gloria Allred, when—before the event— I inadvertently gave AM New York an exclusive in the ladies room. Live and learn. Anyway, it was a sympathetic piece—one of the only—and I am sympathetic of Zandra. She is a single mother, African American, lives in public housing. I want to interview her because she is the hardest worker I have ever met. Not that I am in every day on time but she is. She never eats at her desk, never wears jeans. She’s not on personal calls all day like this one other woman is, the woman who I think is supposed to be my supervisor. Zandra comes in and does her job—something I think having to do with data entry—and, when the time to do so comes, she leaves. Zandra never complains. Zandra tells me that she will work for the DOE in this position until she retires, another 25 years. She tells me that she plays the lotto every day.
“All those we lose, and all that we love works its way into our language,” this writes Susan Griffin in A Chorus of Stones: The Private Life of Wars.
I sort of love Zandra because she is the only person here who is nice to me, and because I have lost my job, something that I loved—in exchange for what, this has not yet been revealed to me, except that I have met Zandra.
Some days, my usefulness escapes me. I feel heavy and dull. I don’t write. Instead, with no other windows around me, I look over my life. I think about other times in my life when I would’ve done anything to get by and feel good and how that stopped working for me so now I can’t. I have to be Responsible. Life on Life’s terms. The truth is that I cannot be the change I seek to see in the world because the world will not pay me simply to be me. Perhaps Zandra would like to do something other than come to work tomorrow, but she, like me, has bills to pay. She loves something greater than pleasure, someone greater than herself. Perhaps that is her daughter. Perhaps I love Zandra because she reminds me of my mother, the woman I am writing myself back to.
When I was a little girl, in my mother’s spare time, she conducted research for a book she’d never complete. My mother was obsessed with Old New York, working feverishly on the weekends and in her off hours to collate the biographies of the wealthy families living in New York at the turn of the century. My mother followed the lives of these people the way most other little girls’ moms followed the soaps. The Victorian Aristocrat— for my mother— was the picture of femininity, women of a class and in a time when so much as a bare ankle could cause scandal. On the bookshelf in the living room my mother kept sketchbooks from high school filled with her pencil drawings. Profiles of women and girls or, perhaps, the same girl, the same woman—again and again, in the nude. My mother’s art bespoke of a part of herself she usually kept private. Her girl in the woods, her diaries kept on a shelf. My mother didn’t play the lottery. Instead, she put all her money on my father. A long shot. The horse that never came in. My mother did not consider herself an artist, although as a child I always did.
In The Bell Jar Sylvia Plath’s fill-in wishes her mother had been a certain powerful and successful magazine editor. “Then,” Plath says, “I’d know what to do.” Instead, the character’s mother teaches shorthand as a way of getting by, and compels her daughter to learn shorthand, too, so that she’ll have a practical skill as well as a college degree. The character shirks the normal and handsome-by-all-outwardly-appearances life of marrying a doctor and becoming a wife to pursue her dream to become a writer in New York, where she goes to live and work on scholarship and while she’s there she goes insane and then comes back to tell the story. There ought, Plath writes,…to be a ritual for being born twice.
Photographs by Hank Zalen.