A pink cowboy hat

Stripped: The Novel Didn’t Work

By

The year my baby turned sixteen was the year my novel died.

The manuscript lies in a drawer now, after multiple revisions, it is over-processed sausage meat.

It’s time to tell the truth about my years making a living selling the sexy promise of my female body. I am embarking on a memoir.

In writing group I share that it’s hard to write how I profited from my body, that sometimes I feel ashamed. A colleague writes in the margin of my pages, Your story is not new; people have written books like this before. She tells me to own it. She’s not wrong that the story is familiar. Although I’d love to own it, I haven’t felt that I’ve owned my body since before I had words. After the groping, the grabbing, the detailed critiques, the payment, and the assaults, I’d come to understand that my body was public property.

I’ve defined and judged my body and my self exactly as I was taught to do. I’ve been a good subject of the patriarchy, wearing my role like one of the many sparkly, lowcut, synthetic gowns I used to wear onstage at the club.

When I’ve told people I worked as a stripper, their eyes swoop over my breasts, my legs, my ass. I become sex. My female body is all of who I am.

There is the assumption that I worked in strip clubs as a lark. Because I was raised middle class, because I’m white, because I have straight teeth, because I’m articulate, because I have a college education, because I was able to get out, because I’m writing about those years. Because of all this, wasn’t it just a fun, sexy little adventure?

Did your parents know? has morphed into, What about your kids?

I imagine my son explaining the book to friends: My mom was a stripper when she was young and hot. He won’t want to picture greasy dollars being offered to his mom so she will bend over, shimmy, strut, and toss her hair.

As I rework this piece, my smart and articulate editor wonders why I have mental dissonance about being a sex worker and a mother. They tell me that there are plenty of strippers and escorts who are open with their children about their work. I want to find these humans. I want to know where they live. Where is the supportive community that allows this conversation? Can I move there?

Most of the women I shared the dressing room and stage with said that they could not tell their families; some did not tell their partners; several had small children, and they said that Mommy works at a bar or Mommy works at a restaurant. Compared to my coworkers I was more open about my employment, although after being stalked, I learned to be more careful with who I told. My parents knew, as did select friends. When I was in legal trouble and I told the sweetly paternal gay couple who owned the restaurant where I used to work, they clicked their tongues at me, expressing dislike for my highlighted hair and sculpted nails, but then referred me to their lawyer.

I’ve tried to raise my son to understand consent, to respect female voices and bodies, to recognize that pornography is an industry. I never mentioned my personal experience with sex work.

 

The pandemic kept the local high school remote for almost a year, which meant that my son was in class five feet away from where I worked during the shutdown, at a built-in desk in our kitchen: taking client calls, emailing market analysis, writing up opinions of value. In stolen moments I wrote the memoir about my years as a stripper. My son was there as I excavated memories of how I started at the club and then how my boundaries were erased and the work bled into everything.

I write about my addiction to the money in the forms of lists—where I kept my money, what I bought with it, how much I made. I write about the warm light of the unending attention, what the men offered me, what they said about my body. I write about the camaraderie in the dressing room, the fights, the unwritten rules. I write about my body, the things I did to myself to look just so, the rituals, the routines, what I ate and couldn’t eat. I write about how I finally weaned myself away from that life.

In remote school, my son wears his hood up, his face partly obscured. Covid has meant there is less socializing. He is quiet. He used to laugh and talk loudly and quote baseball statistics. During his Zoom classes, he slumps in his seat, making a letter C with his body. C for caution. C for Covid. C for cancel. He is far away from his peers, untouched and untouchable while everything and everyone is distancing. Touch is dangerous.

When I was sixteen I was constantly touching and being touched. Sometimes wanting to, sometimes against my desires. My body was always in proximity to another body. There was no separation, or maybe I just didn’t know boundaries could exist. Arms intertwined, legs entangled, a hand on my back. The sensations of the body were amplified and sometimes dangerous. Scary, strange, and electric.

My son’s body ought to be with other teenaged bodies. His being thrums with energy. Speaking from behind a mask, words are pushed back into the mouth. Conversations happen on a screen with a swish and then disappear. My son is alone.

I’m here, but I don’t count. I’m a mom. My boy sits in science class, tiny faces in a grid on his laptop, sharing the overwhelming knowledge that climate change is real but none of the adults seem to give a shit. His morning toast is on an orange plate left on the floor, the butter has congealed. The dog hovers nearby.

My desk looks out the kitchen window, behind me the fruit bowl, to my right the refrigerator with the juice, the countertop where the toaster sits. This is where I meet my writing group, a mosaic of faces on my computer. We read our work aloud. My son must overhear, but I’ve assumed he doesn’t listen. We’re boring, middle-aged writers reading our earnest drafts.

 

Once upon a time, I was writing a novel, a fictional account of my non-fictional life as a sex worker. The book was gestated when my teenager was a tiny infant, raw and new. Home alone with my baby, on a maternity leave that I stretched to the limit, the time felt strangely similar to our quarantine isolation. When every hour of the postpartum leave was used up, I quit my administrative job and embarked on a series of frantic side hustles to pay the bills, I wrestled with the transformation from sex goddess to mommy and mourned the self-absorbed glitter girl with a flat stomach and fake tan.

Each morning I changed my son’s diaper, cleaning the tender folds of his skin, a love-wild mother with a soft belly and raccoon eyes. At night, the ghosts in stiletto heels haunted my broken sleep.

When my bald-headed creature with dimpled cheeks napped, I would write. A flowered mug of Hu-Kwa tea at my elbow, the laundry overflowing in the hamper, my breasts leaking. A strip club manager had once referred to my tits as happy balloons. My body, previously featured spotlit and centerstage, was now utilitarian.

 

My fingers tapped the keys frantically in our Washington Heights one-bedroom apartment, hands cramping with the aching need to let it all out. I told funny stripper anecdotes at Mommy and Me yoga. You’re so flexible, said the teacher. My past life as a show girl, I replied. The mommies wanted all the details: You should write a book, I’d buy it.

Stripper me wore thigh-high boots for ten hours shifts. She could lift her leg over her head. Stripper me had been skinny, powerful, and numb, living on cigarettes and diet coke, gaunt poker face, paying cash for everything. Stripper me could exit her body at will. Stripper me was disappearing.

Mommy me wept in the shower exhausted, overflowing with love and worry, my son in his bouncy seat chirping to be fed. Rocking and nursing in an endless loop, twenty minutes on, forty minutes off, reminded me of the relentless dancing schedule at the club, legs and feet cramping, back aching, belly concave with hunger. The postpartum body I inhabited was marshmallow flesh, heavy with fatigue, quivering nerves on high alert.

I thought that if I could commit Stripper me to the pages of a novel, I wouldn’t lose her toughness, strength, or bravery. The dialogue was lean, the story sleek and fast. It needed to move. Where was it going though . . . I hadn’t figured that part out.

My desk in that apartment was against the wall, next to the building’s trash chute. As I wrote, I’d hear the bags of garbage falling, cans rattling. My boy slept for hours, the white noise machine making a sound like distant surf.

I made it fiction because I was ashamed I’d monetized my body. I didn’t want to hurt my partner, my parents, my tiny son with this ugly knowledge that my body had a price tag. At the edge of the black-lit stage, money in hand, men recounted violent fantasies and requested acrobatics. I floated above the scene watching my body perform their wishes for the reward of another handful of cash.

The novel didn’t work.

Apparently the dialogue and setting were excellent, but the manuscript was missing something at its core: The sense of danger inherent in telling the truth.

Make the main character more sympathetic, literary agents advised. They wanted to make sure she had a justification. Dire circumstances or desperation. Suggestions included: college debt, sexual assault, a surgery she can’t afford, an abusive lover, and needing an abortion. These are reasons that could make the narrator likable.

Instead of one compelling motivation I had a jumble:

Reason number 1: I love to perform.

Reason number 2: My best friend wanted to do it and I’m competitive.

Reason number 3: I was bored, and often I worried that I was boring.

Reason number 4: I was cracking open my feminism. My college journal reads, My body is my body and no one can tell me what to do or not do with my body.

Reason number 5: The revelation that I was sexual and afraid of being sexual.

Reason number 6: The money was plentiful, much better than waitressing.

Reason number 7: I visited the strip club and was spellbound by the naked goddesses. I wanted to be them.

Reason number 8: I wanted the work to make me tough enough that no one could hurt me.

Turns out, those reasons are not believable in fiction.

Now, with memoir, I feel like an overripe plum. I’m trying to tell the truest truth. First comes remembering, then writing, then doubting. Write it all; this is my mantra. I’m ripping open bags of garbage and inviting readers to wade through my soggy trash.

 

My son toasts a raisin bagel, spreads on cream cheese, then spoons pesto on both halves while standing at the counter behind my desk. Betsy, who is writing about her work as a rabbi, and speaks with a hint of a New York accent, says that she liked the description of Bobbi, the dancer with the sequined hot pants and double-D plastic titties. Bobbi paid for law school with her tips, meanwhile a customer paid for her boob job. Bobbi had long legs and played only country music. She wore a cowboy hat onstage to cover her thinning hair.

What sixteen-year-old boy can tune out the phrase, double-D plastic titties? I glance at my son. His face is passive and partly dark in the shadow of his hood. I unplug my laptop and move into the bedroom where my wifi cuts in and out and I have to sit on the edge of my bed, but at least there is privacy. My writing feels like a too-tight pair of pants. I don’t want to keep secrets, but I want to protect my child. What is the balance between truth and comfort?

He knows something, I think. And he will fill in the rest with his imagination.

What will this piece of my past do to my son?

I worry that he will wish he had another mother. He might want a mother who is more like other mothers. He might long for a mother who loves baking and beach reads, who plays tennis and paints her nails pink. This is a mother who doesn’t write at 5 AM with hopes of sending her words out into the world.

A week passes, and I’m driving my son to a doctor’s appointment. He’s getting a physical before baseball season.

“You know that I’m writing a book?” I ask.

“Yeah.” His chin lifts and lowers.

“Do you know what it’s about?” Inside I cringe. I’m doing this.

“Not really,” he says.

“First I was writing a novel. I started it when you were a baby. It was about this time in my life, this real thing I did when I was in college, but I was writing it like it was fiction.” The muscles in my body are tensed and braced, as if I’m skiing a little too fast on an icy hill. “When I was in college, and for some years after, I worked as a stripper.” The end of the sentence dangles, a bent wire hanger alone on an empty coat rack.

There is quiet all around us in the cavern of the car, even though the tires on the road make a hissing whisper and music plays from the radio, a Motown mix that he has chosen.

 

Spring of 1993, I was getting ready to graduate. I’d just started working as a dancer. We called it dancing, not stripping. No one referred to the job as sex work. I did an “amateur’s contest” at a small club on a rural highway in New England. I won. Later I moved to Washington, DC, for an internship at a non-profit theatre and continued to dance. I could fit it in around my internship hours. The money was good, much better than waitressing; the managers gave me the shifts I needed and the customers were sometimes worshipful and other times creepy. I’d told myself I’d just dance through the end of that summer then I’d quit. A year passed. Then more time.

I don’t share with my son the memory of a hazy day that first summer when I drove to my parents in Vermont and met up with girlfriends at a diner. We squeezed into a booth with dented napkin dispensers and sticky vinyl seats. They were buzzing with something important.

“Jimmy told Porter that your brother said you were working as a hooker,” said Kira.

I don’t tell my son that I stared into my coffee feeling the heat rise over my skin like a burn.

“He’s mad,” said Lizzy. “He doesn’t like what you’re doing.”

“I’m not a whore,” I told her. “I’m a dancer. There’s no touching.”

It felt important that my friends knew that I was not a prostitute. I showed my naked body and took money, but there was no touching. Of course there was touching, though there were rules against it. If everyone knew that I wasn’t being touched this could allow me to feel superior.

I was angry at my brother. He wasn’t even supposed to know.

My parents knew. I’d told them about my summer job over the phone. There’d been a long silence. Then, my mother’s fear: You’ll be raped in the parking lot. My father took a tone of reason, a lawyerly tact: You said you were a feminist, isn’t this choice hypocritical to your ideals?

I’d already been raped. The year I graduated high school, a drunk boy took things beyond what I’d wanted. I’d never called it rape. I didn’t name it because that made it easier to mute. It was bad sex that I hadn’t agreed to have. Rape in a parking lot felt unlikely whereas bad sex I didn’t want had seemed inevitable.

In a controlled voice, I tried to explain to my father about the third wave of feminism. We are sex positive; we control our bodies. This could include participating in pornography. I might’ve compared myself to Madonna.

I didn’t talk to my brother or to my sister about my job as a stripper. It wasn’t a conscious secret, just an omission. It’s only for a summer. They’re too young to understand.

My brother had been a teenager when he told his friends I was a hooker. He was approximately the same age my son is now.

In the novel, I wrote the main character as an only child.

A pink cowboy hat

My son will not find out that his mother worked as a stripper from someone else. It must come from me.

Sex work is part of my body’s story. Why is there shame in this work my body has done?

“The novel wasn’t the real story,” I say to my son. “I’m writing about those years in a different way. I’m trying to understand.”

“Yeah,” he says. He is looking straight ahead at the road.

“Maybe it’s not a surprise because you’ve overheard parts of my writing class.”

“I don’t really listen.”

Surely some words have seeped through? Or maybe he didn’t know anything, and I’m confessing and it’s selfish. Will I scar him for life because I’m writing this thing? Still, I forge ahead, dragged by my own momentum.

“I’m telling you the truth because I don’t want you to feel you have to hide parts of yourself. We do things, we try things.” Words are coming out one after the other. I can’t keep up.

“Uh-hunh,” he says.

In college, I idolized the performance artists Karen Finley, Holly Hughes, Vallie Export, and Marina Abramovic. For a Smith College theatre major in the 1990s, steeped in the classical male literary canon of Shakespeare and the Greeks, Ibsen and Chekhov, these women were aspirational and radical. Chocolate syrup smeared and crusted on the naked female body symbolizing the shitty treatment of women. The female body inside a cardboard box, the audience stared into the eyes of the performer as they inserted their hands into the box and did what they wanted. These performers elicited rage, headlines, and congressional hearings.

Stripping was performance art with decent pay and an enthusiastic audience. The first night I danced I dressed as a bride with pearls and a silk bouquet. The other dancers wore bikinis. The audience went wild when I stepped onstage, cheering for the virgin on her wedding night. They all wanted to be my first, I wrote in my journal, the more nervous I acted the more money they gave me. Another night was braids, a short plaid kilt, and knee socks. Every man loved the little school girl. That’s so fucking disturbing, I wrote. Later, I tried a set dressed as a nun, using my graduation robe, fishnet stockings underneath, a plastic crucifix around my neck. I rapped men’s knuckles with a ruler. Customers told me the nun was offensive. They said, Act normal and just take off your clothes. I didn’t want to act normal, I wanted to reveal my weird self. Now in the midst of another big reveal I feel on the verge of grief and regret.

“Are you ok?” I ask.

“It’s not what I expected.” The sun streams through the windshield, bright stripes of light over his arms and shirt.

“What matters is that we can be honest. Both of us. I’ve tried things. Succeeded, failed. You will, too.”

As a baby he smiled often, slept soundly and hardly ever fussed. The other mothers in my neighborhood, exhausted and pushing strollers up the steep incline of sidewalk that led to the park, often remarked on how lucky I was that he was easy.

We are crossing the bridge. The harbor is filled with boats and the water is calm, the same blue as worn denim. Outside, the day buzzes with heat and the anxiety of vacationers trying to cram it all in. Inside, we are in our cocoon of mother and son. The air is cool, and our world is shaped like an oval that fits just us two. I carried this human inside my body. All I wanted to do was sleep until he was born, so nauseated, sucking on lemon popsicles, throwing up on the subway tracks.

“I’m sure I’ll do things,” he says, “that you don’t like.”

I know that he will. He already has. A bubble of love lodges in my ribs. “Just as long as you don’t murder someone.”

He chuckles and pulls on the rim of his baseball cap. “That’s kind of a cool life motto, As Long As You Don’t Kill Someone.”

“There are a few other things you shouldn’t do.” I think of ogling, catcalling, assault. I think of being a bystander. These are things we’ve discussed in the past, but how much can I lay on this teenaged boy in one car ride?

“I know thaaaaat.” He stretches the last word out like taffy and rolls his eyes.

I put my hand on his warm brown thigh covered with golden fuzz and pat his leg. He lets me. Occasionally he still allows hugging. I’m grateful.

“I don’t need you to keep it a secret.”

“I’m not gonna tell my friends.” He looks out the window.

“I’m not embarrassed.” That’s what I say, but as I imagine his gangling, slack-jawed friends digesting the idea of me as stripper mom, my mouth tastes of metal.

“Neither am I,” he says as we pull into the hospital parking lot. He’s confident in a way I never was as a teen.

As I age, my skin and my past have become loose and soft, like a worn tee-shirt that slides over my body. Not flattering, but familiar. I park the car. There are tents, warning signs, Covid check-in protocols.

“Good talk,” I say.

He flashes a dimpled grin and reaches to open the door. He hates doctor’s offices, but he is probably eager to get out of the car.

“Wait.” I hand him a thin blue paper mask from the console and take one for myself.

We cover our faces, though I feel bare. This is my weird self, kiddo.

As he turns to open his door, I realize that he does not see me differently.

Powerful and skyscraper tall, glittering and tough, love-wild and soft bellied. I continue the striptease as I remove more layers. I write the next chapter, hands cramping, heart opening.

 

 

***

Rumpus original art by Ian MacAllen


Elissa Lash has published pieces in the MV Times, Cape Cod Life, Edible Vineyard, and the anthology "The Covid Monologues MV". She's studied at The Writer’s Center, Gotham Writers Workshop, and Grub Street, Smith College, and the Eugene O'Neill Theatre Center. Currently, she is at work on a memoir about her years working as a stripper, the rules she followed and the ones she broke, the body she inhabited then and now. She lives on an island with her partner and their two cool kids. More from this author →