Author Melissa Febos doesn’t make you wait. In the first paragraph of her book, she adjusts her garters and walks into the dungeon named the "Red Room" where her client Steve is kneeling with nothing between her and the "softly folded fist of his body but anticipation." Anticipation is key here. There has been a lot of it prior to the publication of her memoir Whip Smart, about her life as a former dominatrix and drug addict.
And she delivers. There are lots of lurid details of humiliating everyone from Wall Street power broker types to rabbis at Mistress X, a Midtown dungeon. It was hard work, both physically and mentally. As a newbie, she struggled to find the mot juste of insults. "Stop breathing on my legs, you crust of scum on a rat’s cunt!" barely makes a dent in the consciousness of the guy nuzzling her toes. Smacking someone’s bare ass cheeks for 15 minutes is exhausting. Better to tie him up and go have a smoke. All of the dildos, floggers, nipple clamps, enema bags, rope, syringes and paddles are fully catalogued here, as is the Catherine Wheel, the leather bed that doubles as a coffin, and the various dungeons—medical, school room, torture.
Eventually Febos tired of plowing hairy ass after hairy ass, saw that the power of the game did not reside with her and knew she had to quit the drugs. Her evolution keeps the memoir moving. She ably dissects her own and others’ psychological urges and sexual politics and presents it all in a way that renders the title apt. The memoir should be right at home next to Mary Karr, Nick Flynn and Alex Lemon on the bookshelf. What’s more, leaving the dungeon serves as a universal metaphor for emerging from subterranean urges.
We talk about the whole trajectory over lunch at Le Grainne Cafe in Chelsea. First we meet at her favorite dominatrix supply shop, Purple Passion. We check out the paddles and floggers, admire some corsets and a black latex dress she’d once owned. We wondered who could possibly accommodate the super-sized "Rascal," a chain of tennis ball-sized anal beads, which would have been better named the Velociraptor or the Wreckdom.
Starting in 1999 when she was 19, Febos cultivated and overcame a whopping heroin addiction, perfected her skills as "Mistress Justine," graduated from The New School with a 3.9 GPA, got an MFA from Sarah Lawrence College and wrote and sold her memoir. The woman sets a blistering pace.
"I didn’t feel like things were happening quickly," Febos says. "But my nickname was ‘Crash’ when I was a kid. I was always bumping into things. Partly because I was always enraptured in fantasy, but it was also a symptom of moving incredibly quickly. People were always saying, ‘Slow down!’
Everything that happened during those 10 years had been in a long gestation. I’d started writing at six, started drugs at 11. By the time I came to New York, everything came to a head simultaneously."
The drugs and the domming shared a "common denominator," says Febos. "Both behaviors gave a momentary satisfaction of feeling in control and desirable and fulfilled. But it depleted me. It eroded my self-esteem. They were short cuts, and that deficit doesn’t disappear. You have to account for it at some point." Thanks to her recovery program, a bullshit-proof therapist and her own force of will, she’s done so.
These days she teaches creative writing at The Gotham Writers’ Workshop, NYU and SUNY Purchase College. Her former and current professions are "more similar than you would think," she says, laughing, even though on her blog she’s described herself now as a "college professor who hid her tattoos under pearl-buttoned cardigans."
Febos explains, "The similarities are that you have to perform, and the amount of energy that you bring is the amount of energy that’s returned. With teaching, it’s just amazing. There’s an element of self-forgetting, it’s one of the principle pleasures of it. I disappear into the act of it. In teaching it’s about disappearing into what I love and believe as opposed to a persona. But being a dominatrix pays better."
Despite the cash, she couldn’t see herself going back to being a domme. "Not now, not once I’ve lifted the veil. Not professionally at least." Besides she’s already sold the corsets, leather restraints, and paddles at an eBay store on Flatbush Avenue. "It was such a New York moment, especially with the non-reaction of the woman pricing the stuff. She said, ‘Let’s just call these house wares.’"
Whip Smart by Melissa Febos. Thomas Dunne Books, 288 pages, $24.99.