I first became aware of Fiona Helmsley in the mid-1990s. I was an awkward teen living in the Pacific Northwest, buying anything on the Kill Rock Stars record label and composing love letters to Allison Wolfe of Bratmobile. I was also a big fan of Miranda July, who was curating Big Miss Moviola, a mail-order videotape series that anthologized low-budget female filmmakers at the time. A short film credited to “Fiona Fingerface” was my favorite in the series called Best Friends. It was in the John Waters gross-out style of no-budget filmmaking, with a camp feminist sense of humor. (The movie had a hilarious ending montage set to the Madonna song “Borderline.”) When I first read the essay “The Optimism of Being a Dope Fiend,” by Fiona Helmsley here on The Rumpus, I didn’t realize that both Fionas were the same person.
Fiona Helmsley’s new essay/story collection My Body Would be the Kindest of Strangers looks back at the time in her life right after she made Best Friends and moved to New York City. Jarett Kobek’s recent essay about the book makes a strong correlation between the subject matter of her writing and the hallmarks of 1990s outsider youth culture: Manic Panic, Beavis and Butt-head, Kurt Cobain, Courtney Love, sex-positive feminism, William S. Burroughs, and GG Allin are all mentioned as influences. Helmsley’s younger self was attuned to that world and engaged in the drug use and self-destructive behaviors that were often a part of it.
Helmsley has referred to her writing as “cringe core.” In a recent email exchange she elaborated about what she means by that: “It’s kind of a joke term, my literary movement of one, though there are plenty of writers who qualify for membership. If it was a humiliating experience in my life, or I was made to feel shame about, I’m probably going to write about it.” She continued, “Shame is such an intimate thing to bond with another person over. I’m pretty retired from dating right now, but it should be the first thing I ask a potential love interest. ‘Let’s cut the bullshit: What have you done that you’re ashamed of?’ I was raised Irish-Catholic, so I’m both a sadist and masochist, and I believe strongly that the things we are ashamed of make for the best stories.”
My Body opens with the essay “A Rite of Passage for a Boy Who Grew Up in a Trunk,” about a regrettable incident with a boyfriend to whom Helmsley almost seems to be apologizing: “We were each other’s first drug-damaged relationship. He was tortured, I was callous.” An argument about money and drugs ends in violence when she hits him in the face, leaving a wound that draws blood.
Helmsley’s titles tend to be lengthy. Her first book was called There are a Million Stories in the Naked City When You’re a Girl Who Gets Naked in the Naked City. When I asked if she’s been influenced by contemporary writers, like July or Marie Calloway, who use long titles in their work and delve into similar subject matter, she answered: “People really try to reduce influence to the last five minutes of culture, don’t they? I like Marie’s writing, but when was she born? 1990? In 1990, I was 14 years old. She’s not an influence, but I like her writing. I love Miranda’s work, and feel like we both came out of the same scene of sex work and fanzines. The biggest influences on my writing are Cookie Mueller and David Wojnarowicz. They are my Glimmer Twins.”
While the majority of the book recounts events intertwined with sex or drug use, two do so in ways that connects the subject matter to current events: “Thoughts on the Shit Show,” which was first published on HTMLGIANT, examines the allowances that we sometimes make for our favorite artists’ bad behavior, and “Disavowing Victim” examines the language we default to when writing about sexual assault. Again Helmsley’s talent for descriptive terminology is on display: She refers to those artists whose bad behavior we tolerate as our “pet savages.”
The only fictional piece in My Body is “Joan Vollmer Burroughs Died for Somebody’s Sins not Mine,” which imagines a meeting between the ghost of Joan Vollmer Burroughs, who was shot and killed by her husband William S. Burroughs, and poet/singer/writer Patti Smith at the Chelsea Hotel. Joan appears to Patti as apparition and asks for her help in investigating the circumstances surrounding her death. When Joan says to Patti, “I just want some acknowledgement of what I think might have happened to me that night. Why doesn’t anyone have the guts to say it aloud—to even question it? Is it because all of you who venerate him [Burroughs] so would have to confront an ugliness about yourselves?” Patti replies, “Look at my bookcase Joan! I’m a scholar of your lives!”
In the powerful essay “Captain Save- A- Ho,” which opens this year’s The Best Sex Writing of the Year from Cleis Press, Helmsley writes about a sex-work client who may have died on September 11. Her feelings for him are tricky to negotiate. “I never know what to say when I’m asked if I knew anyone who died on September 11th. It’s a conflict that cuts right to the strange nature of sex work—the intimate anonymity, the intimate indifference.”
“A Totally Gruesome Document Detailing a Relationship” is an essay comprised of journal entries from a period when Helmsley was in an unstable relationship with a much older man. She writes, “I thought I wanted to be degraded, but I wanted to be degraded with love. You asked me to talk during sex, and what came out was, ‘You hate me.’” In the journal entries she reflects on the death of her father while she was in high school and relates a hilariously embarrassing incident at Planned Parenthood that is “cringe core” for sure.
After watching her short film in the ’90s, I wanted to reach out to Helmsley through a zine she did at the time called I Like My Meat Tender. I wrote her a letter but I never sent it. I never sent my love letters to Allison Wolfe, either. The fact that I composed them in a beat-up Mead notebook is not the kind of disclosure I would normally make. But Helmsley’s willingness to make intimate disclosures in her writing is catchy. Could vulnerability be contagious?
My Body Would be the Kindest of Strangers is a powerful and beautiful rumination on the pains of growing up an outsider. After reading it you might find yourself inexplicably driven to tell strangers your secrets. I think that might be a good thing.