In academe, publishing a book is certainly grounds for congratulations—it’s a boon to any teaching career, a big step toward the goal of all of us adjuncts: to land a full-time professorship, and the time it affords to create our own work. My writing and teaching careers have so far gone according to plan: graduate school, adjuncting, publishing a book, and now pursuing the full-time gig in earnest. Only my original plan didn’t include publishing a book about the most personal and shocking experiences of my life.

While I don’t regret having been a dominatrix or a heroin addict—I emerged on the other side of both with a greater understanding and compassion for myself and other people—I never intended to write about those experiences. When that story of my past hijacked my creative energies I was in graduate school, knee-deep in a novel. On a whim, I had taken a survey course in nonfiction. After book reviews and op-eds, we arrived at memoir. The piece I wrote, about having been a dominatrix, was simultaneously one of the easiest and most difficult I’d ever written. It bubbled forth with the urgency of a story that wants to be told. But I knew it wouldn’t be worth writing with anything less than total honesty. I didn’t want to write a sensationalized account; I wanted to understand the personal transformation I had gone through as well as its universality. But these were not experiences that I had ever planned to share in detail with, well, anyone. Still, when my professor demanded that I abandon my current project and write this book, I knew the advice was sound. So, after having a small heart attack, I wrote it.

I am proud of the book. I did my best to practice what I teach: to merge honesty and experience with careful craft. Nonetheless, the book is full of everything no one ever wants her family to know about her past—or her students, let alone her boss, or potential boss. The material of my book is not the stuff of job interviews.

Like most realistic writers, I expected the book to be received with resounding silence. On some level I hoped, unrealistically, that I would be able to reap the benefits of being a published author without having to confront the vulnerable position that my subject matter put me in. And so, when I was scheduled for an interview on Fresh Air with Terry Gross, and featured on the front page of the New York Post, I was thrilled, but also terrified.

The week after I appeared in the Post, my boss congratulated me at a faculty meeting. “Thank you,” I replied, smiling, but my heart raced. I quickly brought the subject back to grading rubrics.

My colleagues knew that I had a book coming out, but I hadn’t broached its subject directly with anyone I didn’t also consider a friend. In fact, I haven’t yet—now more than two months after the book’s release. I’m embarrassed by my own meekness, but equally embarrassed by the prospect of discussing my past with colleagues. Before my mother read Whip Smart, she asked me to divulge the most intense parts so that she wouldn’t cringe in anticipation while reading. “Mom!,” I half joked. “I wrote it down because I couldn’t say these things aloud.” I had made a decision at the outset to write the book in a vacuum because I knew that if I let myself imagine others’ reactions, I’d never finish it.

My own trepidation is surprising on some level; it’s incongruent with certain long-held self-perceptions. But so many of my self-perceptions have been upturned throughout the process of writing and publishing this book.

I’d always been drawn to extremes, to ways of living outside social prescription. Before writing the book, I would have named my rebellious nature and anthropological curiosity as primary motives for ending up in the “dungeon.” But my motives, like the job itself, were not what I had imagined. The iconic image associated with the word dominatrix—a dominant, self-possessed woman—is somewhat based in truth. However, it is a job that entails embodying the fantasies of other people, transforming oneself into a specified object of desire. It requires the ability, and on some level the desire, to conform to what others want from you, and a need to be desired. Admitting that I have those qualities makes me feel much more vulnerable than admitting that I have a rebellious streak.

Though loath to face it, I care what other people think—my family, my colleagues, and of course, my potential employers. While I privately relish embodying contrasts—I’m a high-school dropout with a graduate degree, a college professor covered in tattoos, a former heroin addict who hasn’t had a drink in seven years—these are not facts I advertise in my classrooms, or on job interviews. And I’m not immune to shame. I may not regret any of my decisions, but neither am I proud of them all.

As much as I’ve always been drawn to dark undersides, I also always wanted to teach. The only thing I’ve wanted longer is to be a writer. My desire to absorb—knowledge, experience, the kinds of education that happen both in and out of classrooms—is matched by a desire to give out as much as I take in. That, I think, suits me to the jobs of writer, teacher, and even sex worker. They aren’t as disparate as you might think.

Although it is part of the sex industry, the job of dominatrix doesn’t include sex. Perhaps for that reason, it is especially dynamic work: equal parts performer, therapist, and personal coach. I’ve heard teachers describe their jobs similarly. As in teaching, you get as much as you give. I brought a tremendous amount of energy into my “sessions,” and when my ability to do that waned, I stopped being able to perform my job. Now I try to bring a lot of energy into my classrooms, and because I believe in what I teach, my reserves are deeper.

At the crux of my pedagogical philosophy is honesty—about the difficulty and compromise inherent in the writing life, the outlandish tenacity it requires, and the transcendence possible. But the challenge of adding to that list honesty about who I am has called my philosophy to task. I often talk to my students about writing as a series of risks. Now that I’ve taken what may turn out to be the most terrifying risk of my career, I’m doing my best to land gracefully—to avoid injury, but also to prove, to my students and to myself, that it’s worth it.

I’m often asked if I think the subject matter of my book will inhibit my chances of landing a full-time faculty position. I worry, yes, but know it’s beyond my control. For better or worse, I cannot isolate my experience as a human being from my work. Increasingly, I don’t want to. I’ve learned that it doesn’t serve me as a writer to view any experience as “good” or “bad” or beyond examination. As my belief in the acceptability of my embodiment of seemingly contrasting traits deepens, my instinct to hide them wanes.

For the most part, my job hasn’t changed since the book came out. My students don’t often bring it up in class. I’m grateful for that. But they do approach me after class sometimes—young women mostly—thrusting their copy of the book onto my desk. I always smile, though my heart races, as they thank me for my honesty.

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MELISSA FEBOS is the author of the memoir, WHIP SMART (St. Martin’s Press, 2010). Her writing has been published in Hunger Mountain, Salon, Dissent, Glamour, The Southeast Review, ReDivider, Storyscape Journal, The New York Times, Bitch Magazine, and The Chronicle of Higher Education Review, among other places, and she has been profiled in venues ranging from the cover of the New York Post to NPR’s Fresh Air. A 2010 & 2011 MacDowell Colony fellow, she has taught at Sarah Lawrence College, The New School, and NYU, and holds an MFA from Sarah Lawrence. Currently Assistant Professor of English at Utica College, Melissa splits her time between Brooklyn and Clinton, NY. She is currently at work on a novel. More info at melissafebos.com.

8 responses to “Dominatrix Emerita”

  1. J.E. Fishman says:

    Well, you can forget about that job at Wal-Mart, young lady. You may as well keep writing and keep being honest.

  2. Joe Daly says:

    I’ve wondered about this for some time and appreciate this piece for its subject matter, as well as its timing.

    Your story is compelling for lots of reasons, but I think that a broad part of its appeal is that it provides first hand insight into cultures and practices that most people will never experience. But as you note, the double edge of the sword is that what fascinates people can also be what they use to distance themselves from you. “Thanks for the fascinating read, and thanks for giving me an excuse to judge you instead of examining my own truths.”

    Interesting to hear you acknowledge that the subject matter was at once easy to approach and difficult to get through. Thanks for sharing this. I hope this sparks a good discussion.

  3. Tom Hansen says:

    Wow Melissa. Your experience in how you came to write your book is stunningly similar to mine. Congrats.

    http://www.thenervousbreakdown.com/thansen/2010/02/tom-hansen-the-tnb-self-interview/

  4. I envy you, Melissa. At least you’re able to be “you.” I’m leading a half-dozen different lives b/c some of the people I know in my various social and professional circles would not be able to handle the material I wrote about in my (yet unpublished but soon to be, fingers crossed) first novel. I felt compelled to use a pen name for this book, and I’ve told my very Catholic dad that he can’t read it. If I didn’t value my other lives/identities/careers, I wouldn’t have used the pseudonym. But I do, and so I did, and yet it’s a struggle almost every day in the simplest ways, like how to introduce myself to online friends when we meet in person. For now, I just say I’m baaaaad Jesus, which is good enough, it seems… for now.

  5. LitPark says:

    What a gorgeous, thought-provoking essay. I have no doubt some lucky university will hire you full-time.

  6. dwoz says:

    Just tell the interviewer at the university that yes, there was a camera in those rooms, and yes, you do still have the pics, and my goodness, is this building named after THAT Mr. Burgess?

    no problem!

    seriously though, the problem of honesty. Does honesty always equal personal experience and documentary?

    I encounter this as a songwriter/lyricist. I write about the human condition, how it feels. When I approach certain topics, must I “own” the experience?

    I don’t think there’s a shred of debate that such an ‘owned experience’ is far easier to render poignant, but I think what we must rather ‘own’ is the essence of the experience, not the accoutrement. But that’s the rub, isn’t it…

  7. Shawna says:

    Beautiful, thoughtful piece, Melissa. I’ll be interested in hearing how it all turns out for you. I share the same apprehension-yet-appreciation for truth, as well as a less-commercially-successful memoir about some of the same subject matter. Thank you for your honesty.

  8. melissa says:

    Thanks all.
    @Shawna – I’ll let you know how it all pans out. As of now, still trucking the adjunct thing, though the gigs get better every semester. Hope only good has come of your parallel experience. xo

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