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'Whip Smart': Memoirs Of A Dominatrix
TERRY GROSS, host:
This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.
I've always wondered who responds to ads like this one, which was in the back
of the Village Voice: Attractive, young woman wanted for nurse role-play and
domination. No experience necessary, good money, no sex.
Well, my guest actually answered that ad and spent four years as a professional
dominatrix in Midtown Manhattan, and now she's written a memoir about it called
"Whip Smart." It may be the first dominatrix memoir that mentions growing up
listening to NPR.
During those four years in the business, she put herself through college and
got accepted at Sarah Lawrence, where she went on to receive her master of fine
arts and fiction and nonfiction writing. She now teaches writing and literature
at the State University of New York, Purchase College, and she co-creates the
MIXER Reading & Music Series in New York.
Her new memoir offers a fascinating glimpse into part of the sex industry and
into the world of sexual fantasy and role-playing. I guess it's pretty obvious
by now, that this is an adult conversation that is probably not appropriate for
Let's start with her description from the book of the tour she was given of the
so-called dungeon during her job interview.
Ms. MELISSA FEBOS (Author, "Whip Smart: A Memoir"): It was like a movie set, an
atmosphere truly designed for fantasy, more lush than I had even remotely
imagined. It occupied the entire floor, comprised of a maze of dark hallways.
Along these halls were the polished doors of a highly styled, big-budget dream.
Think David Lynch. Excitement folded through me in waves. I had to work there.
Behind three of those doors were the official dungeons: the red room, the black
room and the blue room. Accordingly colored, these rooms were huge. The blue
room was easily 700 square feet and all with 10-foot ceilings.
The red and blue rooms have full baths, Fiona(ph) explained, as she pushed open
the bathroom door in the red room. She circled the marbled floor, pointing out
amenities. These towel racks are heated. So they need to be unplugged after
sessions. All the sinks should have Scope, Dixie Cups and these little packages
of disposable toothbrushes and paste.
I traced her steps, lingering over the miniature tube of Crest in its sealed
package like take-out dinnerware and running my hand along the warm towels as I
followed her back out into the red room.
That over there is the bondage table, she said, indicating a waist-high bed
with leather upholstery and metal rings intermittently hung around its edges.
The top is a lid that opens.
For storage, I asked?
For slaves. It doubles as a coffin.
For clients into sensory deprivation. If you're lucky, you get to tie them,
gag, blindfold, the works, and stick them in there for most of the session. She
shrugged. It can get worked into role-play scenes, too.
GROSS: Okay, that's Melissa Febos, reading from her memoir, "Whip Smart." Now,
people will be really curious. You know, you graduated from college while you
were a dominatrix. You got accepted to Sarah Lawrence College's MSA program
while you were a dominatrix. So why were you choosing to do this work? Was it
for money? Did it fulfill your fantasy? Like, why did you...?
Ms. FEBOS: Oh, that's a huge question with â you know, its answer, it can be
answered in a great number of ways. I mean, ostensibly when I started, I
believed that I was in it for the money. And because I had always known I
wanted to be a writer, and as I was approaching graduation in college, I was
really faced with the reality that there isn't, you know, an illustrious
publishing future awaiting you upon graduation.
And so I had sort of investigated the different jobs, ancillary to writing,
working in publishing and magazines, assisting an agent, and none of those, it
turned out, really had anything to do with writing.
And so in my mind, that was my impetus for becoming a dominatrix. But to a
large degree, the book is really about the sort of unveiling of deeper-seeded
motives for that and things that I couldn't and didn't admit to myself at the
time that I began.
But you know, I had also always been drawn to extremity and to fantasy, and so
it really appealed to me on that level, as well.
GROSS: In the reading that you did, you started to describe three of the rooms
in the dungeon where you worked. I want you to continue that description. You
gave a little bit of the description of the bondage room. There were a lot of
things hanging on the wall in the bondage room. Why don't you describe what
else was in there.
Ms. FEBOS: Well, pretty much all of the dungeons were outfitted with some sort
of, you know, coat-rack-related thing that had all sorts of floggers, riding
crops. A lot of equestrian equipment gets commandeered for S&M practices. There
was always some kind of trunk or container with a stock of rope. We had giant
coils of rope in our utility closet, like thousands of feet that we would just
cut off when you needed it.
There were gas masks and cages and a big, hanging, Inquisition-style cage in
the red room, and there were mirrors along all of the walls, and they were
really vast, you know, and with all of the walls and the ceilings painted, and
it had a very specific effect.
I think I describe it early in the book as sort of being inside of a kind of
womb. And you know, we were right in the middle of Midtown Manhattan, and yet
being in those rooms just felt like being at a total remove from the rest of
the world. Which, I guess, was the point, because we were there to sort of
create fantasy, you know? And you could really sort of invent the world when
you're in a place that feels that remote from everything else.
GROSS: One of the rooms was a medical room. What was in the medical room, and
what's the fantasy that goes along with a medical room?
(Soundbite of laughter)
Ms. FEBOS: There were actually three rooms that were medical rooms. My dungeon
sort of specialized in medical fantasies. I mean, and I think that most people
are probably familiar with the iconic fantasy of the sexy nurse, and a lot of
the fantasies sort of ran along those lines.
But our medical rooms were actually more pristine and stylish than most of the
doctors' offices that I've been in. They had eye charts and anatomical models,
and great, big dentist lights that came down on arms from the ceiling and the
kind of examination tables that everyone's familiar with, with stirrups and
complete with the paper that rolls down over the seat. And we had all stainless
steel cabinets with every kind of probe and scope and pincher and clamp that
you could imagine.
GROSS: Yeah, can I just stop you and say I can think of nothing less sexy than
a doctor's office.
(Soundbite of laughter)
GROSS: You know, I mean, as you describe the paper that rolls down on the
examining table, the last thing that comes to my mind is sexy, yeah.
Ms. FEBOS: It's true. It's not â in my mind, I've never experienced it as a
sensual or erotic atmosphere. But you know, I think that a lot of fantasies in
general but a lot of the fantasies that we traded in at the dungeon sort of
walked a line between things that people are frequently sort of traumatized by
that get turned into an object of obsession, you know.
And those are not infrequently eroticized, I think, when it comes to sexual
obsessions. They're often rooted in things that people have experienced
intensely in one way or another, be it scary or thrilling or traumatic.
GROSS: Now, one of the rooms was the feminization room. What was that room for?
Ms. FEBOS: The cross-dressing room. Yeah, this was probably the least
intimidating of the rooms. It pretty much â it looked kind of like an old-
fashioned dressing room or a sitting room. There was a big leather couch and an
Oriental rug and a vanity with a mirror and a huge supply of cosmetics and
hairbrushes and this giant wardrobe.
And when you opened the wardrobe, it was literally bursting with giant dresses
and giant high-heeled shoes, and stocking and undergarments, and French maid
costumes and all of these man-size, very typically girly, feminine clothing.
This was actually the room where - we had a lot of downtime in the dungeon,
because we only worked if clients made appointments and came in. And so I
actually spent a fair amount of time in the cross-dressing room doing my
homework. And we had these wrestling mats, because that's also not an uncommon
fantasy, and I would sometimes drag the wrestling mats into the cross-dressing
room and do yoga in my downtime - or take a nap on that couch.
(Soundbite of laughter)
GROSS: When you were watching really large men get into their women's costumes
in the feminization room, I'm assuming that these were men â I mean, were these
men who were closeted drag queens, or are they closeted gay men, or are they
just men who have this little place in their mind that's just reserved for this
obsession with female clothing, and it's very compartmentalized, and it doesn't
kind of carry over in the rest of their life? Like, what was your take on the
men who would come in for that room?
Ms. FEBOS: I think really all of the above. I mean, I think that there's sort
of human behaviors that can be, that manifest in a really uniform way, but
people arrive at them from all different locations in their psyche and their
experience. And so there was really a pretty wide variety of motives, I think.
I mean, some of these men, I think, couldn't really be classified as â I mean,
technically they could be classified as cross-dressers, but a lot of them I
think had developed this sort of obsession or fetish for typically feminine
practices, really out of a desire for some kind of intimacy.
And some of them would just come in and want to play dress-up and want to have
someone brush their hair or just to experience a kind of tenderness, and this
seemed like an obvious way for them to access that. And there was really a kind
of sweetness, sometimes, in those sessions. Like, I really felt compassion for
some of those people.
And for some of them, it was really a purely sort of erotic experience. But a
lot of them, it was sort of this very compartmentalized part of their psyche
and their lives, and you would never have been able to pick who these people
were out of a lineup in their street clothes - never.
GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Melissa Febos, and she's written
a new memoir called "Whip Smart" that's about her four years as a professional
dominatrix. Melissa, let's take a short break here, and then we'll talk some
more. This is FRESH AIR.
(Soundbite of song, "Nightclubbing")
GROSS: My guest is Melissa Febos. She's written a new memoir called "Whip
Smart" about her four years as a professional dominatrix, four years during
which she graduated from college and was accepted into the Sarah Lawrence MFA
program. She now teaches at the State University of New York, Purchase.
So this standard of the dominatrix as a woman, like, wearing, say, a leather
corset, fishnet stockings, like, spike thigh-high boots with a whip in her
hand. Was that you?
Ms. FEBOS: Many days, yes, that was me. But I had a pretty large wardrobe of
costumes. It calls for a lot of costumery, that job. But I think that also what
goes along with that sort of iconic image of the dominatrix is cruelty, right,
and sort of a disdain for men, maybe for everyone. And that sort of
characterization really didn't fit me and didn't fit most of the women whom I
worked with, either. But superficially, yeah, that was basically my work
GROSS: But that was your role, wasn't it, to be the dominant and force men to
submit and to say hateful things to them, to verbally abuse them.
Ms. FEBOS: You know, it was, but there were so many roles that I played, and
that was one of the surprises of that job, that it wasn't just about being the
That was a big part of it. I did play that role a lot. But really I acted out
just about every typically feminine role that you can imagine. There was a lot
of nurturance involved, and a lot of people came there to be abused in some
But to be in the presence of someone who's powerful and to submit to the
control of another person in this context, it didn't always include nastiness
or cruelty or humiliation. A lot of times it did, but a lot of times they
wanted to just, to trust someone else, to sort of hand the reins over to
someone else. And in a lot of the scenes that I would play out, I would end up
being very nurturing and reassuring and just in control.
GROSS: How strange was it to tie people up - people who wanted bondage as part
of what they were paying for? I mean, that just has to be really, particularly
when you're first doing it, it has to be a really crazy, odd, kind of creepy
Ms. FEBOS: Yeah, I mean, a lot of the experiences were. And you know, this is
one of those jobs, I think like a lot of â probably a lot of people in the
medical industry have this kind of experience, or maybe even people in sports,
too, but you work very, very closely with human bodies in a way that most
It's very intimate. You know, you really get to know the human body. And when
people are paying to be put in this position and make themselves really
vulnerable, they do give you a kind of power, and that was sort of a clumsy
position for me to be in at first, and it made me really nervous. And it wasn't
always a power that I wanted, you know, but I was also, I was also fascinated
and kind of mesmerized by it. But yeah, tying up another person is a bizarre
(Soundbite of laughter)
Ms. FEBOS: Most people don't have that experience, I don't think.
GROSS: What's the protocol when a session begins, when you're entering the
room? Is the client already in there? Is there a protocol for them?
Ms. FEBOS: Well, before the session begins, there's usually a consultation. And
if it's a new client who doesn't sort of have a regular dominatrix that he
sees, he comes in, and all of the women working a particular shift will walk
into the room one by one and talk to him for a couple minutes and sort of suss
out what his penchants are and see if they're interested in doing that session
and sort of try to get information but also sell themselves.
And then the phone girl goes back in, and the client will pick the woman that
he wants to do the session with, and then you'll have another consultation
where you'll sort of iron out the fine details of the session so that by the
time the clock actually starts on a session, you already know what the scene
is, you already know what your outfit is, what equipment you'll need, and so
you can really walk into the room and just enter that fantasy.
GROSS: What are some of the costumes that you wore?
Ms. FEBOS: Well, the one that you talked about before, sort of the typical,
iconic dominatrix outfit with the corset and garters and fishnets and
stilettos. But I also had a handful of nurse uniforms, some of them sort of
sexy nurse Halloween costume style, but some of them really authentic.
We used to get a lot of our clothes sort of at actual medical supply stores.
And people are actually surprised. I did another interview recently where the
interviewer asked me where my favorite boutiques for shopping for equipment
were, and actually Home Depot was one of my favorite outlets.
(Soundbite of laughter)
GROSS: What would you get there?
Ms. FEBOS: Rope and clamps and rubber gloves, and it's amazing how many
everyday materials get commandeered for uses that most people don't even know
exist. But I also had certain uniforms, sort of police officer-esque uniform,
schoolgirl uniform. I definitely had sort of a little suit, secretary outfit,
schoolteacher outfit. Pretty much any sort of typically female-dominated
occupation or role, whatever outfit is associated with that, somebody in the
dungeon would have. Probably a lot of us would.
GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Melissa Febos. She's the author
of a new memoir about her four years as a professional dominatrix. It's called
And for anyone just tuning in, I just want to say if you have children, we're
having a very adult conversation. It's the kind of conversation you probably
would not want young children to hear.
Could you describe â I'm not sure if there's something that you could describe
as a typical session, but describe what a session was like, you know, just a
concise overview of what a session was?
Ms. FEBOS: Sure. I mean, you know, actually what comes immediately to mind,
funnily enough, is I recently, you know, I teach writing now, and I've done
that for a while, and I recently lectured about plot in storytelling.
And a lot of sessions actually sort of follow a very traditional plot
structure, where there will be an inciting incident, where we'll sort of be
acting out the scene, and the client will be playing a role. Sometimes it's of
a little boy, sometimes it's an employee, sometimes it's a boss. We're in some
kind of scene.
And there'll be an inciting incident. They'll do something, and then I'll sort
of play the powerful role. And they've eaten some junk food, and I caught them,
or I caught them looking at pornographic magazines or something like that. And
then the conflict sort of rises, and then there's some sort of climax to the
scene where it breaks or pivots, and they really give in. And sometimes
there'll be â they'll cry at this point, or they'll get punished at this point.
I end up forgiving them or comforting them or, you know, there's some kind of
GROSS: And did these scenes come with sexual release for the man in the scene?
Ms. FEBOS: Sometimes. That wasn't required. I mean, and sometimes it was
specifically denied, but sometimes, yeah. They would take care of that
GROSS: What kinds of men became clients where you worked? I'm sure there was a
variety, but what can you generalize about the men who paid to see a
Ms. FEBOS: I mean, it really was a pretty eclectic bunch, our patrons at the
dungeon. But if I have to generalize, I would say that there were a lot of sort
of Wall Street types. I mean, it's not a cheap hobby to have.
GROSS: How not cheap is it? What's a session?
Ms. FEBOS: Well, a session at the dungeon, our clients would pay $200 for an
hour session, and the dom would get $75 of that - and usually there's a tip
When I went sort of freelance, on my own, then there was more of a sliding
scale, and I would pretty much charge what I thought that the client could
GROSS: Melissa Febos will be back in the second half of the show. Her new
memoir is called "Whip Smart." I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.
(Soundbite of music)
GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. Iâm Terry Gross back with Melissa Febos. Her new
memoir, "Whip Smart," is about her four years as a professional dominatrix in a
dungeon in Midtown Manhattan. During that period, she put herself through
college and was accepted to Sarah Lawrence where she went on to get her MFA.
She now teaches writing and literature at SUNY Purchase.
Melissa, I think all of our listeners will be wondering like what - is this
legal? You know what I mean? Like...
Ms. FEBOS: Yeah.
GROSS: ...is this an illegal operation or is it legit?
Ms. FEBOS: You know, I mean it is legal, but I mean things get a little murky,
I think. I mean, my line when I was working was always, if anyone comes and
busts us it'll probably be the IRS because a lot of money goes in and out of
dungeons and I donât remember filling out any tax forms. But there is no actual
sex that happens in the dungeon and so, you know, it could be classified almost
as a kind of therapy.
We really just acted out scenes and most of us kept our clothes on, and so itâs
not illegal. But, you know, there were certain things that would happen in
sessions that probably would flirt with that line. I'm not a lawyer so I donât
know exactly. But there were definitely certain - we were definitely encouraged
to keep things on the conservative side the first time we saw a client.
GROSS: Until you could trust them so that they wouldnât bust, you know, turn
you into the police or something?
Ms. FEBOS: Mm-hmm. Although, you know, plenty of our clients were actual
GROSS: Is that right?
Ms. FEBOS: Mm-hmm. But they were off duty when they came to see us.
GROSS: You know, I was thinking for some of the clients it was probably not
unlike going to a doctor or a therapist in a way because youâve got this secret
life, this secret part of you that you can't share with anybody so you go to a
paid professional and reveal it to them, whether that secret thing - I mean, in
a doctor's office that secret thing might be a, you know, a growth or, you
know, something happening in a private part of your body.
Ms. FEBOS: Mm-hmm.
GROSS: That secret thing might be a genuine secret that youâd share with a
therapist but you wouldnât tell the people youâre close to.
Ms. FEBOS: Mm-hmm.
GROSS: Did you feel that kind of comparison? That people were coming with a
secret part of their life that they could only share with a paid professional?
Ms. FEBOS: Absolutely. I definitely do. I mean and, you know, there is this
whole sort of the secret aspect of it was also pretty unique to the dungeon and
to my relationship with my clients. But I was actually surprised after I
started working at how sort of perfunctory a lot of people were about it. It
was like their weekly checkup or their weekly session with their therapist, and
it was just a built-in part of these men's lives. And to a lot of them, it was
just as essential as a checkup with a doctor or a session with a therapist. And
for some of them I think that it was as helpful as those, for some, not so
For some I think I was, you know, I mean we sort of assume, and it's been my
experience that when I go to see doctors and therapists that there's - I can
rely on sort of a forward progression that I'm growing or healing or learning
more, and that was true for a lot of my relationships with my clients but not
for all of them. For many of them, it was a pretty repetitive experience. It
would be like going to the doctor and getting the same information every time
you saw them.
GROSS: What would the equivalent of growing or getting healed be?
Ms. FEBOS: I mean I think that some of them - I would get a client who was new
to it and had maybe had a private obsession that they were ashamed of for a
long time and then they would come in and I saw, I mean, after a certain, after
a year in the job just nothing will surprise you. Youâve heard it all before.
And so they would come in and I would not be shocked at their fantasy and we
would act something out and they would leave just glowing, you know.
I mean, I think a lot of people are very lonely. Secrecy is a lonely
experience. I know that for myself, you know? And so a lot of these people
would've been carrying around this sort of obsession or interest or fantasy for
a long time, feeling as if they were the only one who'd ever had it, you know,
and feeling privately really alienated from other people. And then they would
come in and I wouldnât gasp or be shocked or disgusted or reject them and it
would be like okay, that's fine. I would just treat them like a normal person
because in that context, they were. I mean in any context, you know, they were.
No one I think is really as weird as they think they are. And so for a lot of
them it was really liberating. And for me, it was really parallel experience
for me because, you know, for a lot of this experience, I was an active drug
addict and I think that there are a lot of parallels. There's a lot of secrecy.
There's a lot of shame. There's a lot of feeling sort of terminally unique. And
then when you find other people who have had this experience before, itâs
really relieving to realize that youâre not the only one.
GROSS: You were a heroin addict and that was probably very connected to why you
were doing the work and how you were doing it. I mean, I imagine the work help
paid for your drugs.
Ms. FEBOS: It did. But, you know, I mean I think that a lot of people tend to
assume that there was a directly sort of causal relationship between my being a
heroin addict and my being a dominatrix and that's not exactly how it sort of
worked out. I donât think - I didnât become a dominatrix out of desperation. It
wasnât to feed my drug addiction. I really think that sort of both of those
practices came from a similar place, you know, both sort of a simultaneous
desire to find a way to make the world feel more manageable and to feel more in
control of my own experience. But also to sort of try to find a limit, you
I mean, even when I was kid, I always sort of sought out extreme experiences
and part of that was a result of, you know, the world is a vast and
heartbreaking and inspiring and overwhelming and terrifying place I think for
all people to some degree. And the way that I dealt with that because of my
particular psychology and experience is that I sought to sort of manage that
experience and to feel in control of it. And drugs are a way of feeling in
control of your experience, to be able to have control over the way your
environment affects you. And playing out these fantasies and playing this role
where I was pursued and where I was in control also felt really safe in a
And at the same time, almost paradoxically, I think that I also sort of sought
out these extreme experiences because to try to manage your own human
experience and to be in control of the world, essentially to sort of try to
play God is exhausting and impossible and a futile task. And I think that in
seeking sort of these extreme experiences I was sort of searching for the wall.
You know, searching to find - to be sort of disproven in my own power so that I
could let go of that futile task.
GROSS: Donât you think in a way that the heroin deadens you enough to do the
work of dominatrix? That it might've been more difficult had all your senses
really been alert and not dulled or changed by heroin?
Ms. FEBOS: I do think so. I mean and the experience of being a dominatrix
really changed really fundamentally when I - because I got clean while I was a
dominatrix and, you know, I assumed actually when I got clean that I would be
rendered almost instantly incapable of doing it anymore because I would be
really awake. And in many ways it's true. You know, I was much more conscious
during my sessions. I was much more aware of things and it did become difficult
in some ways. But it was also, to my own surprise, revealed to me that I could
still do it. That there was something that kept me there and it hadn't been the
drugs, you know, that there was something else in me that brought me there that
was distinct from the drugs because I kept doing it for over a year after I got
GROSS: My guest is Melissa Febos. Her new memoir is called "Whip Smart." We'll
talk more after a break. This is FRESH AIR.
(Soundbite of music)
GROSS: Let's get back to our interview with Melissa Febos. Her new memoir "Whip
Smart" is about her four years as a professional dominatrix.
In writing about your experiences as a professional dominatrix, you write: Most
sessions were based on paradigms that were often a kind of inversion of
misogyny; the subjugation of women re-enacted by men on themselves. Our clients
wanted to be dressed in women's clothing and raped, molested, and vandalized,
humiliated and physically abused.
Can you talk about that a little more - this idea of it being like an inversion
Ms. FEBOS: Mm-hmm. You know, I didnât dig very deep into my observations of
that when I first started. You know, it seemed pretty clear to me I am acting
out a powerful role. I can be a feminist and also dress up in these sexy
clothes and enjoy being desired and that seemed to agree for me. But the longer
that I worked in the job, the more I sort of recognized this sort of inversion
of sexual paradigms and it was disturbing and I didnât quite know what to make
of it, and I still donât quite know what to make of it. But I donât think that
it's as simple as I thought in the beginning where it was sort of like, you
know, good, these are men who want to get a taste of their own medicine, you
But also, I was being paid to still conform to these fantasies and in some
ways, it started to dawn on me that even if it was being performed on the men
themselves, it was still sort of reinforcing these kinds of behaviors, you
know, and it was still an obsession with misogyny and with sort of the abuse of
female characters. They just happen to be men dressed up as women. And also, I
mean, I donât have an answer for this or a diagnoses for it, but it occurred to
me then and it occurs to me now that it might also be an expression of men's
discomfort with those paradigms in our culture, you know, and trying to make
sense of it themselves, you know?
GROSS: But even when youâre the dominatrix, youâre the one in power and youâre
humiliating the man, it's in someway still the man who's in control. He's
paying for you.
Ms. FEBOS: Mm-hmm.
GROSS: If you perform well he'll give you a big tip and if you donât he won't.
I mean, he kind of wrote the play and youâre an actress in it.
Ms. FEBOS: Exactly. Exactly. And that became progressively less and less
comfortable for me the longer that I was in the job. Yeah. And I mean, in the
beginning it did feel pretty powerful, you know, to act out those roles. And in
the end - and I mean not even in the end, after a little while, you know, it
wasnât my fantasy in most cases, you know? And in a lot of ways, it felt more
humiliating to me than it did to them. I mean I think it was satisfying for
them. And for me, to enact a sexual fantasy that wasnât my own fantasy was
uncomfortable in a lot of ways and especially after I got clean, became acutely
uncomfortable in many ways.
And as much as I have sort of my own arguments and ideology and
rationalizations about it, like my emotional experience, which I slowly sort of
awoke more and more to throughout my time doing it, my authentic emotional
experience was that it ended up being kind of humiliating for me in a lot of
sessions. Not all, but in many of them.
GROSS: Now, I am looking at youâre resume.
Ms. FEBOS: Mm-hmm.
(Soundbite of laughter)
GROSS: And it has how you got your MFA at Sarah Lawrence College, it has how
you teach at State University of New York Purchase College, how you were the
recipient of the Outstanding Faculty Member of the Year Award in 2008-2009.
(Soundbite of laughter)
GROSS: What it doesnât have is that you were a dominatrix for four years.
(Soundbite of laughter)
Ms. FEBOS: I know.
GROSS: Did you intentionally leave that off the resume?
Ms. FEBOS: Yeah. I hadn't, you know, I haven't typically thought of it as sort
of a boon when job - you know, I'm looking for a full-time faculty position
(Soundbite of laughter)
Ms. FEBOS: And, you know, it's really, this is actually something that I've
been dealing with a lot very recently. You know, my book just came out on
Tuesday and I mean typically having been a sex worker or a dominatrix or
participating, you know, being a former heroin junkie, they're not things that
you talk about with your colleagues at work, especially in academia. But I've
sort of merged my checkered past and my most extreme personal experiences, the
kinds of things that most people donât tell anyone about with my career and
with my profession and with my artistic craft. And so it's a really interesting
adventure and also a challenge.
You know, I donât - I'm not always sure how to navigate it. You know, I was
recently at a faculty meeting congratulated by my boss at Purchase for - I was
on the cover of the New York Post, you know, and it was like, thank you. But I
also - it was an awkward moment, you know, because youâre not used to accepting
congratulations for having had these kinds of experiences.
But ultimately, I'm really glad for it and I'm really glad to able to sort of
present these experiences in conjunction with my creative processing with
literature and with my teaching because I do see them. They're not things to be
ashamed of. You know, maybe in our culture at large they are, but theyâve
really profoundly enriched me and deepened me as a human being and as an
intellectual and as a teacher and absolutely as a writer.
GROSS: So you donât feel that either your experiences as a dominatrix or as a
heroin addict, now that it's out and in your book, that they're not - you feel
like they're not going to interfere with your academic career teaching writing?
Ms. FEBOS: Oh, I have no idea if they're going to interfere, but there's
nothing I can do about that, you know. And whether they interfere or not, I'm
sure that there's certain universities that would object to hiring me because
of those experiences but that doesnât affect my view of their value.
GROSS: Melissa Febos, thank you so much.
Ms. FEBOS: Thank you so much, Terry. It's been a huge pleasure.
GROSS: Melissa Febos is the author of the new memoir "Whip Smart."
Coming up, Maureen Corrigan reviews John Banville's new novel, "The
This is FRESH AIR.
Oh, actually we're going to go into that review right now.
(Soundbite of laughter)
So, forgive me. Here we go.
*** TRANSCRIPTION COMPANY BOUNDARY ***
The Gods, At Play In The House Of Mortals
TERRY GROSS, host:
John Banville's an Irish novelist whose won a slew of awards for his work, the
latest being, The Man Booker Prize for his 2005 novel "The Sea." His new novel
is called "The Infinities" and book critic Maureen Corrigan says it takes the
cake for being eloquently mystifying.
MAUREEN CORRIGAN: I used to put a lot of stock in an adage about writing. It
went roughly like this: If a student says he wants to be a writer because he
has something to say, discourage him. But if a student says she wants to be a
writer because she likes to play around with words, well, that student may have
what it takes to be a writer.
I don't believe in absolutes about writing anymore. People write out of all
sorts of longings and take many roundabout paths to producing good books. But I
thought of that axiom as I was reading John Banville's new novel, "The
Infinities." I often had only the dimmest idea about what Banville was trying
to say in this novel, or indeed, even what happens in it. But it's clear that
Banville â as a stylist whose first mentor, not surprisingly, was James Joyce â
loves playing around with language. And his zest carries a reader over the most
opaque thickets here, where sound totally triumphs over sense.
The critical received opinion on Banville is that he's a great though chilly
writer, inclined to elegance of construction and archness of tone. The other
word on Banville is that his mysteries, written under the pseudonym Benjamin
Black, have siphoned off some of the juice that would otherwise go into the
plots of his literary novels. Everything about "The Infinities," for better and
worse, confirms the wisdom of these pronouncements.
"The Infinities" is set in a tumbledown country house in what is probably Great
Britain during a time period that sometimes seems ahead of our own and
sometimes more like the 1930s.
The patriarch of the household, a famous theoretical mathematician,
significantly named Adam Godley, is marooned in his bedroom, dying of a stroke.
Hovering around are his much younger wife, Ursula, and his adult children, Adam
Jr. and a weird daughter named Petra â someone in whom, her father reflects,
there was always something missing, a link to the world where the rest of us
carry on with varying degrees of success the pretense of being at home.
Fortunately, the glum and dying Godleys aren't the only creatures lurking
about. Jazzing up this premature wake is a host of Greek gods â including Zeus
himself â as well as our intermittent narrator, the messenger god Hermes.
Hermes is a hoot: droll, impudent and wise. He's the heart of the novel because
the novel is essentially a series of commentaries on the big questions â love,
death, faith â and Hermes generates most of that philosophical patter. For
instance, realizing that his randy father, Zeus, is off in another part of the
house seducing Adam Jr.'s beautiful wife, Hermes is prompted to reflect on the
odd mortal invention of romantic love. He says the gods only intended to give
the mortals the gift of lust, that they might procreate.
But lo, Hermes exclaims: See what they made of this mess of frottage. It is as
if a fractious child had been handed a few timber shavings and a bucket of mud
to keep him quiet only for him to promptly erect a cathedral, complete with
baptistery, steeple, and weathercock and all. Within the precincts of this
consecrated house they afford each other sanctuary, excuse each other their
failings, their sweats and smells, their lies and subterfuges, above all their
ineradicable self-obsession. This is what baffles us gods, how they wriggled
out of our grasp and somehow became free to forgive each other for all they are
Hear how word-drunk Hermes is. When was the last time you heard any character
resort to the term frottage â a fancy word for erotic touching? Frankly, it's
thrilling as a reader to be carried along on these riffs where the unexpected,
underused but oddly precise word or metaphor bobs up every sentence or so. And
the pleasure here is more than aesthetic, because that meditation on what we
mortals have made of that mess of frottage ends on a melancholy affirmation of
the transcendent power of human love. Except Hermes says it better.
"The Infinities" ends with the gods taking their leave of the mortals and
dispensing magical gifts in their wake. In this curious little novel â part
country-house caper, part allegory, all poetry â Banville reminds us readers
that language, also, can be a divine gift.
GROSS: Maureen Corrigan teaches literature at Georgetown University. She
reviewed "The Infinities" by John Banville.
Coming up, our rock critic Ken Tucker remembers Mark Linkous, who performed
under the name Sparklehorse. He took his life Saturday. This is FRESH AIR.
*** TRANSCRIPTION COMPANY BOUNDARY ***
A Tribute To Sparklehorse's Mark Linkous
TERRY GROSS, host:
Singer and songwriter Mark Linkous shot himself in the heart on Saturday. He
was 47. Linkous performed under the name Sparklehorse. Our rock critic Ken
Tucker reviewed Sparklehorse's music and interviewed Linkous on our show, so we
called Ken to talk about Linkous and to choose a track to remember him by.
Hi, Ken. I know, you know, youâve reviewed Sparklehorse on our show. Tell us
what you think made Mark Linkous's music important, what you liked about it.
KEN TUCKER: What I liked about it was that he was a very sophisticated naif. He
was a very much a working-class autodidact and he was very much a kind of a
working-class guy with a very poetic sensibility who was drawn to artists like
himself who worked in isolation.
I remember when I interviewed him, he would cite influences such as William
Blake. He set Blake's poem "London" to music quite beautifully. And he also -
for someone who said that he wasted his life in high school not reading but
drinking and smoking dope, he was very interested in certain literary people
such as Breece Pancake, the southern short story writer who, himself, committed
suicide in 1979.
GROSS: Do you feel like you could hear his depression in his music?
TUCKER: Yes. I mean, with the provision that I always think it's dangerous to
view a life though the artist's final act, I think it's almost inescapable. His
first album contained a wonderful song called "Sad and Beautiful World," and
his final project was a collaboration with the producer Danger Mouse. It was
called "Dark Night of the Soul."
GROSS: What else stood out when you interviewed him?
TUCKER: I thought that the fact that he said that his chief influences for a
guy who was so drawn to the arty side of things, he collaborated with the
Flaming Lips and Radiohead, was that he said he liked early Beatles music and
early punk rock. And he said that, in particular, he said, I like really simple
short songs that sound as if you were hearing snatches of them beaming off
satellites. And I thought that was a perfect description for the way he sang in
this sort of faint scratchy voice that he very deliberately distorted that
became a very sort of whispery confiding voice on the softer songs, and on
louder songs amplified into kind of these kinds of yells of despair.
GROSS: Would you like to choose a song for us to hear?
TUCKER: Yes. I think the most fitting and one of the most wonderful songs he
ever wrote is from his album called "Good Morning Spider," called "Sick of
GROSS: Okay. Well, we'll play that. Ken, thanks very much.
TUCKER: Thank you.
GROSS: Ken Tucker is FRESH AIR's rock critic and editor-at-large for
Mark Linkous took his life Saturday. Here is "Sick of Goodbyes."
(Soundbite of song, "Sick of Goodbyes")
Mr. MARK LINKOUS (Musician): (Singing) If I could just keep my stupid mind
together, then my thoughts would cross the land for you to see. No one sees you
on a vampire planet. No one sees you like I do. Seconds click in which I'm
changed to dust, withered roots of knots and hair and rust. No one sees you on
a vampire planet. No one sees you like I do. I'm so sick of goodbyes, goodbyes.
I'm so sick of goodbyes, goodbyes. Goodbye.
GROSS: That's Mark Linkous performing as Sparklehorse. Earlier, Ken mentioned
the forthcoming album, "Dark Night of the Soul," which Linkous collaborated on
with Danger Mouse and David Lynch. You can hear the entire album on our Web
I'm Terry Gross.
Transcripts are created on a rush deadline, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of Fresh Air interviews and reviews are the audio recordings of each segment.