In her debut memoir, Overcome, Amber van de Bunt is living life as Karmen Karma, porn star extraordinaire and alcoholic addict careening off the rails. Between childhood depression and a sex work career launched straight out of high school, van de Bunt had always known she wasn’t like other girls. Despite a series of traumatizing events—an abusive mother, eating disorder, emotionally fraught abortion, and suicide attempt—van de Bunt forged her own way, trading small town life in Michigan for an award-winning porn career in Los Angeles.
Her path was not without hurdles. It was a headstrong rise through the ranks punctuated with extreme sexual harassment, partner violence, self-sabotaging habits, and a certain learned helplessness common to active addicts. But van de Bunt herself is an uncommon woman who, soon after meeting the man that would become her husband, finally hit her bottom upon realizing the value of what she now had to lose.
In a solid, supportive marriage and the role of loving mother she’d long wished for, van de Bunt eventually returned to the work she loved. Working from home she took the reins, on her turf, and in her own way. Outside the standard toxic environs, uncommon as ever, she’s finally having her say.
The Rumpus: I was struck by the parallels between your early life and mine, including an emotionally abusive mom (downright cruel, in your case), early onset depression, a hypersexual nature starting in childhood, disordered eating, attempted suicide, and a penchant for the sex industry born in our teens. (We even had the same nickname: “Boots”!) I’d expected to start by asking how much of your depression and addictions were a direct result of your mother’s twisted parenting, but to my surprise and delight you write, point blank, in the book: all of it. I found that to be as informed and logical a statement as it was stupendously courageous. Did you get pushback for it—from family, friends, or publishing folk—over that psychologically sound, yet socially unpalatable statement? Does it seem to you that the link between bad parenting and mental illness is underplayed in most addiction memoirs? And, in fact, in life in general?
Amber van de Bunt: I’m interested in your story as well now! It’s nice to meet someone who has been through the same walks of life and I can relate with you. The reason I am very simply able to pinpoint that my hurt has stemmed from my mother is because I have gone through fifteen years of therapy and come to many self-realizations to overcome why I felt and acted the way I did. No one has given me pushback for it, although I’m sure it will happen once my book is released. Regardless, I have done so much work on myself that I know it is my truth and if someone doesn’t agree, they don’t live my life. I am a huge fan of addiction memoirs; it is ninety percent of what I personally read, and I absolutely think the link between bad parenting and mental distress is underplayed. Maybe it is because the writer hasn’t made those connections yet themselves or maybe they want to protect their parents. Whatever the reason, I truly believe that a child’s parents can be a major factor in their overall mental health and well-being. Therefore, I give my daughter the best that I possibly can. I want to show her unconditional love and kindness. I want to show her how important and special she is. I don’t want her to ever have even a sliver of doubt that she is not my entire world. I think that it’s important that parents let their kids know how much they are worth.
Rumpus: You write about your dad in very different—glowing, loving—terms (something else we have in common). Did you blame him, even a little, for not better protecting you from your mother, or trying to curb her abuse and stem the psychological damage she caused you? Do you think your relationship with him influenced your perspective on men in general, whether positively or negatively? Do you think women with big-hearted fathers who happen to fail in that one vital (protective) area, are too forgiving of the men they date and too accepting of a world where they must forever rely on themselves?
van de Bunt: My dad has always been my hero. I looked up to him for raising my two sisters and I entirely by himself. I always felt so grateful that he fought hard to get custody over us; it confirmed how much he loved and wanted us in his life. When I was younger my dad said I used to ask him “Why couldn’t you have given us a nice mommy?” and I know he feels guilty already. Sure, there have been times that I wished he would’ve picked a different woman to be our mother, but I know that he did the best he could. He is not to blame for the way my mother treated us—although I wish he would’ve divorced her years before he did so I didn’t have to live through her abuse. I’m not sure if any of this has affected my perspective on men; I have never given it much thought. My issues have always been to uncover the ways my mother has affected my life. Either way, I think one major thing I did realize from my parents is that I am the only person that I will ever truly be able to rely on for what I truly need.
Rumpus: You knew you were not like other girls, early on. How much do you think that sense of isolation contributed to your addictions? Did you find even a small sense of community in the porn industry, or was it not until your marriage and eventual family that you found the tribe you’d long been missing?
van de Bunt: Growing up in my small town in the Midwest, it was painfully obvious to me that I didn’t belong there. I wasn’t free to be myself openly with the small-minded views that surrounded me. When I started stripping, I finally felt like I could be myself. Then when I moved to Los Angeles and started porn, I absolutely felt like I finally found a community I belonged to for the first time. When I left the industry, it felt like I left a family. It was one of the biggest reasons that I decided to return to the industry—it felt like home.
Rumpus: Even as a child you seemed to exist outside of the herd. Both as a stripper and working in the porn industry you’d make friends seemingly easily, yet those bonds were frequently tumultuous and quick to end. You were without a tribe as a child, and that continued as an adult, including within your family of origin, especially once your addictions became full-blown. Were your siblings supportive in early sobriety or did it take time to rebuild a sense of trust and belonging?
van de Bunt: You are right. It has always been difficult for me to keep any type of relationship for a long period of time. I sense that I tend to self-sabotage to protect myself. I used to always cheat in relationships, so I didn’t get cheated on first. I had faith in nobody. I knew if my mother could leave so easily, that everyone would eventually leave me. I think that early in my sobriety, my siblings did not believe I would stay sober—and for good reason. I announced I would get sober for many years before I could stick to it. I think once they saw I was serious about sobriety, I slowly earned their trust.
Rumpus: You longed for the nurturance of a mother’s love and affection throughout the book, and presumably onward. Do you think that kind of intensity of longing can get translated in the body as a longing for something else? Say sex, attention, money, drugs, alcohol, or anything else?
van de Bunt: I absolutely think the lack of love from my mother and my longing for sex, alcohol, drugs, and attention directly correlate with one another. I grew up thinking my own mother didn’t love me, so who would ever love me? It made me struggle to even love myself. I liked any type of attention I could get. I had a void in my heart for twenty-five years and didn’t know how to fill it.
Rumpus: How much did having a daughter contribute to your ability to heal from your childhood wounds? What was the most surprising thing about your 180-degree lifestyle shift when you had her… from an emotionally isolated, actively addicted, overworked sex industry veteran to a sober woman, military wife, and busy mother?
van de Bunt: Having my daughter healed me in more ways than I could have ever imagined. My whole life I felt an emptiness and I couldn’t grasp what my purpose was. Even before my daughter was conceived, I looked forward to having my little Vienna one day (I picked her name out when I was thirteen). In rough patches during my journey to getting sober, my husband would hold me and tell me to “just think about how we will have Vienna one day” and it would give me the hope I needed to stay clean and sober. Once I got married and realized I was getting closer to being able to meet my future child, it was the glue that held my sobriety together.
The most surprising thing that happened when I became a mother was finally being able to get over the pain I had carried from not having a mother. I thought of myself as a victim for so many years but when I became a mother myself, I realized it was a blessing in disguise. If I didn’t have such a terrible uncaring mother, I wouldn’t be as determined to be the best mother possible. Missing out on having a good mother is what inspires me to give Vienna everything I never had.
Rumpus: What was it like returning to porn after getting sober? Was it better in every way or were there aspects of the industry that you found more difficult sober? Did you end up working with costars from your addicted years who didn’t understand you were a different person who no longer tolerated disrespectful treatment?
van de Bunt: Shooting porn while I was a drug addict was entirely different than shooting porn now sober. I would casually do a few lines or shots before filming on set which would allow me to let loose and come out of my shell. It would completely take away any nerves I had and allowed me to perform like there was no one else watching. When I got sober, shooting porn was different. Now I must experience the anxiety that I get on set. Even though I’ve been shooting for porn over six years, I still experience nervousness each time. I am having sex with someone I have no feeling for in front of a crew of random people with bright lights shining on me, and a camera close to capture every inch of me.
It takes a lot of guts to put yourself out there like that for people, let alone the Internet, to judge you. Porn was more enjoyable while under the influence because all my inhibitions would vanish. This also meant I wouldn’t care when other performers were overly rough with me. I’ve recently learned that I don’t enjoy all the same things sexually that I did when I was an addict. I’ve worked on being true to myself and started saying no to certain performers and sex acts that I don’t enjoy anymore.
Rumpus: I loved that your husband contributed a short piece from his perspective at the end of your book, especially where he says he thinks Amber needs Karmen. That “Karmen is a powerful part of who my wife is.” Do you agree? Do you think this powerful side of you who is Karmen, allows you to power through life’s bigger challenges—from overcoming childhood abuse to recovering from addiction—and that this is one benefit from working in the sex industry that outsiders just don’t get?
van de Bunt: I absolutely think my husband is right that I need both Amber and Karmen, my two personas. They are entirely different from one another and I’ve found a way to successfully keep them separate from one another. Karmen is my more powerful side. When I’m Karmen I’m able to speak my mind, put on an “I don’t care” attitude, and conquer my challenges. I do think this is a benefit from working in the sex industry because to me it is very empowering. Amber is more sensitive and has her insecurities. However, when it came to recovery, it was Amber that got me through it. Karmen is perceived to be a crazy sexual party girl and the pressure to live up to that fantasy is very real. When I wanted to get clean and sober, I had to focus on Amber for the first time in many years. I was getting sober for Amber to have a future, not Karmen. Tackling my addictions is what finally gave me some hope of a future for Amber.
Photograph of Amber van de Bunt © Cisco Video Vibes.
Voices on Addiction is a column devoted to true personal narratives of addiction, curated by Kelly Thompson, and authored by the spectrum of individuals affected by this illness. Through these essays, interviews, and book reviews we hope—in the words of Rebecca Solnit—to break the story by breaking the status quo of addiction: the shame, stigma, and hopelessness, and the lies and myths that surround it. Sisters, brothers, mothers, fathers, adult children, extended family members, spouses, friends, employers or employees, boyfriends, girlfriends, neighbors, victims of crimes, and those who’ve committed crimes as addicts, and the personnel who often serve them, nurses, doctors, social workers, therapists, prison guards, police officers, policy makers and, of course, addicts themselves: Voices on Addiction will feature your stories. Because the story of addiction impacts us all. It’s time we break it. Submit here.