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Coming Clean

by Melissa Febos MFA ’05

A former dominatrix tells all... to her father

“So, the time has come when I can no longer procrastinate giving you the book,” I wrote to my father, a few weeks before my memoir hit shelves nationwide. “It’s probably going to be pretty difficult for you, as my dad, to read … there may be a few passages you’ll want to skim or skip, and please feel free to do so.”

I reread the e-mail, waited for the 300-page document to load as an attachment, and clicked Send. Message Sent, Gmail informed me. For a few moments, I forgot to breathe, as the irretractability of that tiny action sunk in.

I had reason to be nervous. At the crux of the memoir is my four-year experience as a professional dominatrix, a job that began during my senior year of college, just as I was hitting the nadir of an addiction to heroin. Basically, it’s every parent’s worst nightmare. However, both my parents already knew about my past. By the end of my first year at the “dungeon,” I had confessed that my new job was not actually a catering gig. Not long after, I explained that I was a member of a 12-step program.

So what did I have to fear? The thing was, I had omitted much more than I had revealed to them. I gave everyone a tailored version of my job—which made it easier for them to accept, and more difficult for me to ask for help when I wanted out. Likewise, my family knew that I didn’t drink, but they had no idea how ugly the road was that had led to my abstinence.

Eight years after I’d first told him the “truth,” he was about to be confronted by the real deal.

The job description of a dominatrix does not include sex, but it still qualifies as sex work. At the outset of writing the book—which became my MFA thesis at Sarah Lawrence—I knew that my story wouldn’t be worth telling coyly. For the first time, I got honest, really honest. I spared little in my detailing of the daily grotesqueries my job had entailed. Combined with the graphic descriptions of intravenous drug use and the misery that accompanied both pastimes, well, it was basically a book brimming with everything no father wants to know about his daughter. Eight years after I’d first told him the “truth,” he was about to be confronted by the real deal.

“Hi Mel,” my dad wrote. “Before I read a word, I want to say a few things also. The subjects of drug use and sex in the coming book have been my biggest concerns and I do feel fairly ready for the worst. I’ve had years to get used to the idea.” He went on to point out that he’d always been a “liberal and open-minded” parent. “Nothing in the pages you sent me will change my love for you,” he finished. “You are an amazing daughter.”

See? I thought, no big deal, and barely thought of it again for four weeks.

My book wasn’t short, but I knew that it went fast. My mother had called at 8 a.m. the morning after I’d e-mailed her the same hefty PDF.

“I kept putting it down and turning off the light,” she’d said. “But then I’d lie there awake and turn the light back on and pick it up again.” It was the hardest thing she’d ever read, she said. And she thought it was a masterpiece. “It broke my heart,” she told me. “And I am so, so proud of you.”

After five weeks of paternal silence, it was she who called.

“He needs some time,” she said gingerly. “He’s having a hard time with it.”

“I knew it!” I said. “I told him he wasn’t prepared for it.” Outside my Brooklyn apartment, I tugged at my dog’s leash as he investigated a ripped-open garbage bag. There was little comfort in being right.

“Let him call you,” she said.

My father is the son of immigrants, one of whom was an alcoholic—the violent kind. I was raised on fables of his nightmarish childhood, from which I gathered two primary lessons. One, don’t drink. Two, I was very lucky. The second I understood only abstractly, having no empirical basis for comparison. I couldn’t help but take for granted my loving, devoted father, who coached my baseball teams and wrote songs for me.

My father possessed the endless patience and playfulness of someone committed to becoming the father he never had. He was a sea captain, though, and would depart regularly for months-long voyages. When he left, everything in our home would assume an aura of sorrow that lasted for weeks.

Then adolescence arrived. I claimed that he and my mother were “ruining my life!” after I “accidentally” left my diary in my father’s minivan. In the girlish, goldedged pages, I’d kept a detailed log of my preteen sexual exploits.

My father, who had loved me so well, who had spared me the traumas of his own childhood, was heartbroken. What reason had I to hate him? To treat my own body so recklessly? Why could I not confide in him? I think it felt like a betrayal. It is difficult, I have learned, to be so perfectly hurt and not feel it was intended.

Soon after, I resolved to tell him only those details of myself that I thought he wanted to hear. It was easier to talk about the plots of movies he’d seen, to fuel his refurbished vision of me as a nonconformist prodigy. This worked for 10 years. At 28, in his eyes, I was a high school dropout with a graduate degree, still traversing unconventional landscapes, making nary a false step. He referred to my adolescence as when I was “possessed”—an aberration, rather than a symptom of anything. It never occurred to me to tell him the truth and allow the hurt to fall where it may.

Once again, I’d kept secrets to make things easier, and it had backfired. Once again, he seemed to think I’d suffered expressly to hurt him.

What was the truth? That his absence during my childhood had hurt me. That my foray in sex work had not been a glamorous, theatrical adventure wherein I barely touched my clients. I had enacted profoundly disturbing scenes, eventually crossing every boundary I’d set for myself. I had brought myself to the cusp of death, shooting heroin and cocaine, smoking crack. What was the truth? Not that I was a young intellectual and creative gladiator, nor a tragic street junkie and victimized sex worker. I inhabited a murky, hidden region between these—a place most characterized by loneliness. I had shown my whole self to no one, least of all him.

To my surprise, the scene in the book that was most difficult for my father does not take place in the dungeon. Rather, it recounts a brunch I shared with him and my late grandmother. He remembered this brunch fondly, as a hallmark in the renaissance of our relationship. Reading the book, he discovered that I hadn’t slept the previous night, had relapsed on a drug binge. Feeling numb and ravaged, I had faked my way through the meal, chattering about school, pushing my food around my plate. After they left, I vomited in a public trashcan, squashed my despair, and congratulated myself for having maintained my façade of cheerful, precocious daughter and granddaughter.

My father had been so proud of our closeness, at his righting of the wrongs done him as a son. By lying, and then admitting my lies, I had robbed him of that. It felt like a setup, I think, the final humiliation being his.

During our first dinner after he read the book, he compared my memoir to “a pie in the face.” “I can’t believe how wrong I was about our relationship,” he said. “About who I am as a father.” I saw grief in his brow’s furrow, but also anger. “The book wasn’t about you,” I tightly replied. “It was about me.” The parallels between my adolescent confession via literary bombshell and this one were not lost on me. Once again, I’d kept secrets to make things easier, and it had backfired. Once again, he seemed to think I’d suffered expressly to hurt him.

I began to dread my father’s phone calls. Our conversations skated over such a deep well of unspokenness, of unacknowledged gray area, that they took excruciating energy. I rarely answered his calls, and put off calling him back. I didn’t know where to go from there.

Then, two things happened.

First, I went on a book tour. My father lives on a remote tip of the Olympic Peninsula, in an idyllic community of artists, fishers, and retired hippies. He organized a reading for me in advance of my arrival, rounding up over a hundred eager listeners.

My father had never seen me give a reading. As I fielded questions from the audience, I watched his expression transform from knitted worry to beaming pride. I don’t think he’d ever seen my writing as other people did. And I hadn’t really seen that he was proud of me.

Second, I made a list. In Whip Smart, I had bared the truth about my experiences as a dominatrix and a drug addict, but not as a daughter. After some time had passed, I realized that I owed him the latter, that it might be the only way for us to have the relationship we both wanted. I wrote down everything I hadn’t said in the book, or in the years before it.

Reading that list to him was one of the hardest things I’ve ever done. We spent an entire afternoon together, the papers folded in my back pocket. My urge to protect him, to protect both of us, was still so strong. It still felt like the easy way. But I knew better.

Back at my apartment, before he left, I pulled those creased pages out of my pocket.

“I have some things I want to say to you,” I said quickly. “But I don’t know if I can just say them—I might have to read them to you.”

“Please,” he said, and meant it. On some level, I knew he’d been waiting for me to pipe up for a very long time. I began crying almost immediately. But even that was a relief.

The conversation that followed my admission was the kind we’d never had. Deep and easy. We talked about my childhood, our family, my parents’ marriage and why it ended. We laughed. Then we talked about the book, and our shared passion for our work. It turns out we have a lot in common.

When we hugged goodbye, I still felt an urge to pull away—a hesitance to accept affection—but it felt better. It felt good.

Memoirs often explore difficult truths, and if the process of telling one’s family about them were easier, more people would probably write memoirs. While I knew this intellectually before I published the book, I had no idea how difficult it would be, and how important. My memoir wasn’t about my family, I reasoned, not realizing how much it actually was.

William Zinsser, editor of Inventing the Truth: The Art and Craft of Memoir, writes that successful memoirs “elevate the pain of the past with forgiveness, arriving at a larger truth about families in various stages of brokenness.” What he doesn’t promise is that writers’ lives will be made better by telling these stories, or that the truth will help heal their families. It isn’t true for many memoirists, but it has been true for me. I don’t take that for granted.

On the surface, my relationship with my father doesn’t look very different. But it feels different. Less weighted. A few days ago, I was folding the laundry and heard the buzz of my phone on the kitchen counter. Dad, it announced, in blinking digital font. I picked up.

“Hi, Dad,” I said, smiling.

“Oh, Melly! Hi!” he said. “I didn’t expect you to pick up, but you’re there!”

“I’m here,” I said.

Melissa Febos is the author of the memoir Whip Smart. She teaches at Purchase College, The New School, and New York University. She lives in Brooklyn and is currently at work on a novel.