This month, I was fortunate to meet, via cyberspace, a remarkable woman by the name of Stella Marr. Stella was a prostitute in NYC for almost 10 years. During this time, one of her “Johns”, as they’re oft-called, gave her a beautiful condominium opposite the Lincoln Center. He “kept” her as his sex slave for almost two years. After selling the condo, Stella used the money to fund her BA at Columbia University. She graduated with distinction, majoring in writing.
Dear 20-year old Stella,
Work hard on learning to ask for help. It’s the only way you’ll ever break free. No-one ever does anything alone. You don’t have to.
You’ll learn how to make the men happy. The happier they are, the nicer they are. You’ll become very, very good at being a hooker. But when the Johns say, “Baby, you were born for this”, that doesn’t mean it’s true.
Being a hooker doesn’t make you subhuman. It’s not okay for your (white) pimps to threaten and beat you.
Now when most men come near, you feel a stabbing at your eyes, your throat, and your gut that you know isn’t real. You don’t want to admit it, but you’re terrified. You start, you tremble. Your hands shake. Think about it, you’re being stabbed a lot these days. This is a quite reasonable reaction to being used by man after man, day after day, in this prison of a brothel. It doesn’t mean you are so miserably flawed that you can’t do anything but be a hooker.
You have to work up the nerve to pay a cashier for a soda. You’re too scared to ask that guy behind the deli counter to make you a sandwich. This isn’t weakness, it’s biology. Trauma changes your brain; your hippocampus, where you form narrative memory in the brain, shrinks. This is a symptom of PTSD – a neurophysiologic response to repetitive trauma – not evidence that you deserve to be in prostitution.
In the middle of the winter, in the middle of the night, when that guy in the DoubleTree Suite invites you to sit while he pours you a Seltzer, trust your gut and back out of there before the five guys you can’t see, who are waiting in the bedroom, have a chance to get between you and the door.
Being vulnerable means you’re alive. There’s no shame in it. It doesn’t mean you’re a terrible person. You don’t have to apologise for doing what you must to survive.
You’ve lost all sense of the linear – time disappeared and you felt it leave. Now, you’re living in the immediate and eternity. It’s scary and bewildering, but you need this – you need each moment to stretch infinitely so that you can be acutely aware of each man’s tiny movements and shifts in expression, which often reveal a threat before it happens. This hyperawareness will save your life. One day, you will look back at this “being untethered from time” as a kind of grace.
When that shiny classical pianist you meet at Au Bon Pain says he wants to know everything about you, don’t believe him.
When Samantha stops working for your pimp, Johnny, find her and make her get out of the city. Otherwise, two weeks later, Nicole (the madam who works with Johnny) will show you Samantha’s gold initial ring, and tell you Johnny strangled her.
A lot of what’s happening doesn’t make sense now, but it will later. That habit you have of writing poems in your mind to the beloved you haven’t met yet as you’re riding in cabs to calls? There’s something to it.
Your ability to perceive beauty is part of your resilience and survival. When a man is on top of you, watch the wind-shirred leaves out his window. Seize the gusty joy you feel as you run three blocks to a bodega to buy condoms between calls at 3am. When you think for a minute you see that friend, whose death you never got over, standing in the brassy light under a weeping linden, be grateful. All this has a purpose.
Being a hooker can seem to mean you’ve lost everything you hoped to be, but that’s not true. You’ve splintered into a million pieces, but you’re still you. You’re alive. It’s in the spaces between those pieces where you learn to feel how other people are feeling. It hurts so much you’re sure it’ll kill you, but it won’t. Later, when you’re out of the life, it’ll be so easy to be happy. The mundane will buoy you.
When your madam sends you to the Parker Meridien in NYC at 3am, and you meet a British professor who says he wants to help you, believe him. He will set you up in a beautiful condominium across from the Lincoln Center that he deeds in your name. Of course, you’ll have everything to do with this – you are so “good” at being a hooker, so “good” at f%#*ing that you can make a guy want to do this for you. Shame is a hollow stone in the throat.
During the two years that this voracious man “keeps” you as his private prostitute, the condo will come to feel like a platinum trap. But it’s still your chance to get out and heal. Take it.
After you’ve sold the condominium and are living in a graduate dorm at Columbia University, a man with eyes like blue shattered glass will sit beside you in the cafeteria. As he begins to speak, you realise he’s the unmet beloved you’ve been writing poems to all these years. You’ll try to run away, but he won’t let you. Fourteen years later, you’ll be hiking through pink granite outcroppings together with your Labrador retriever. You’ll feel like the freest woman in the world.
One afternoon, when you’re 21, you’ll be visiting at the Museum of Metropolitan of Art with your best friend, Gabriel, who’s also a hustler – a male prostitute. When he says you ‘remind him of his death’, don’t lash back. He told you the doctors said he didn’t have that rare new virus they just named AIDS, but he’s still coughing.
Stop thinking about your own hurt. Don’t be stupid. Don’t lash back with that vicious phrase your mother’s said to you so many times: “I hope you die a slow death”. Don’t tell him you never want to see him again and storm out of the sculpture gallery. Gabriel will die of AIDS five months later. When he said you reminded him “of his own death”, he was trying to tell you he was dying. You’ll regret what you said for the rest of your life. But, even more, you’ll regret that you ran away.
Say forgive me. Say I love you. Stay connected.