For a book with the word “x-rated” in the subtitle, Tyler Knight’s memoir, Burn My Shadow: A Selective Memory of an X-Rated Life, starts innocently enough. Readers meet Knight standing in a “bukkake line” (whatever that is) alongside a handful of “mopes” (whatever those are). For a few moments, it seems as though this job is just like any other acting job—the only difference is that co-stars will be exchanging fluids rather than lines. While Knight and the others wait their turn, directors for other movies and “gang bang scenes” approach them with business cards in the hopes of drafting them for their own bukkake scenes. This is tame enough, too.
One director poaches talent for a gang bang scene with an overdue pregnant woman. His scenes resemble a school of swarming piranhas stripping a cow to its bones. The scene will shoot close enough to Northridge Hospital in case the woman goes into labor.
And thus, readers are thrust into the adult entertainment industry the same way a pornographer thrusts his camera lens into the action: mercilessly, ostentatiously, with little concern as to what society might deem proper. Knight holds nothing back, even when you might wish he did. Do readers really need a play-by-play of what happens when a woman does not properly prepare before performing an anal sex scene? No. Do they really want to know what the genitalia of a person with an STD looks like? Definitely not.
Still, while Burn My Shadow often reads like a gratuitous exposé filled with endless grabbing, sucking, and popping, and while some orgies are so detailed that even the most open-minded soul will squirm in his or her seat, Knight almost always seeks to balance the sexual with the personal. Tactful and eloquent, he is highly aware that this porn thing—for him, at least—is hilariously absurd at best, and unsustainable at worst.
One of these “unsustainable at worst” parts is, of course, the threat of transmitting STDs to his long-term girlfriend Amanda. “Wearing a condom on set, with the exception of maybe two studios” would be “career death.” Knight confesses that he has given Amanda chlamydia, and his casual tone suggests that this isn’t the first time. “Every time we make love there’s the chance of a secondhand disease invading her body,” he states matter-of-factly. “Anything I say about continuing to risk her health—her life—is nothing but a rationalization.”
And yet, despite his girlfriend’s protests and his own concerns, Knight continues to do porn after numerous HIV scares ripple through the industry, one hitting dangerously close to Knight himself. Getting out isn’t easy. Very much a drug, porn compromises his ability to get a job outside of the industry; when he does, his new occupation is full of characters who are even less earnest than the ones he left behind. The bottom line—or at least one of them—is that simply handing a loved one a copy of this book will put a damper on any dream one might have about getting into porn, in the same way that a compilation of car crash scenes might deter one from drinking and driving.
But these are the things one might expect to read in an x-rated memoir written by a porn star. What is arguably even more striking—and once again, this depends upon a reader’s familiarity with the porn industry—is the moral landscape that Knight has to navigate. There is a plethora of unconventional porn in the word if you really want to find it, and a lot of it is disturbing, to say the least. In one instance, Knight is asked to portray a breaking-and-entering rapist; in another, he plays an older brother who gives in to his little sister’s sexual curiosities. Ostensibly, “thousands of people from all over the world” hire directors to recreate their own private sexual fantasies—ninety-percent of which, one director notes, “ain’t even close to legal.” It’s enough to make you wonder how many of your acquaintances harbor these transgressive fantasies—and whether it even matters, since the fantasy might keep someone from actually acting on these urges in real life.
Knight’s identity as a black man in the porn industry renders such scenarios even more questionable. In one instance, Knight refuses to allow his white co-star to call him a “nigger.” “Okay, fine,” the director concedes after some back and forth. “We won’t say ‘nigger’ in your scene, but how about darkie… jigaboo… coon… uh, spade…spook?… jigaboo, ha-ha, I said that already.” It even affects how much money he makes: “I’m sitting at a kitchen table listening to a pimp explain to me that the interracial rate practice in porn—in which he can charge more money on behalf of his client if she works with a black man—is not racist.”
The implication that a black body on display has a different “worth” because of said black skin has been pervasive for decades—from the slave auction block, to D.W. Griffith’s Birth of a Nation, to college sports. So, too, in porn. But while these subjects have been repeatedly discussed over the years, it’s interesting to see how they collide within one individual.
Knight reminds readers often of how much of an exception he is: There aren’t many black porn actors who have made it to his level in the industry. But, he also explains—never subtly but often breezily, as though he has accepted defeat—black men really aren’t wanted at that level. It calls to mind a quote from bell hooks’ We Real Cool: Black Men and Masculinity: “Sadly, the real truth, which is a taboo to speak, is that this is a culture that does not love black males… And that especially most black men do not love themselves.” Even when black males are “loved”—when they are wanted at the highest level in the porn industry—it comes at a price. They must fit into a stereotype. They become something exotic, and interracial sex becomes commodified.
Burn My Shadow is often a bit dizzying. Sometimes the scope of sexual acts and physical descriptions of female co-stars can be exhausting. But what shines most in this memoir is the sincerity with which Knight delivers these sometimes appalling, always eye-opening glimpses into an industry that many of us will probably never get a firsthand look into.
In order to thoroughly appreciate this memoir, you must abandon all judgment; whether you land on your feet or crawl toward the corner to avoid getting wet is entirely up to you. Knight, who sees fit to include a foreword, is highly aware of this challenge. “My intent with this work is to show the human condition from a different point of view than most are accustomed to. Regardless of whether you’re an aboriginal New Guinean, a vascular surgeon, or a line cook, we all know of joy, disappointment, hope.”
Some of us may know what it’s like to pop Viagras like Tic-Tacs or have sex under hot lights in front of a camera crew with a stranger, pretending to enjoy the thrill of it all. Some of us don’t. But either way, as Knight says, “The human condition is the through line which unites all of our narratives and proves that we’re all the same.”