AS Kate Holden tells it in her memoir, “In My Skin,” in 1995 she was a 23-year-old middle-class Australian with an arts degree from Melbourne University, a job in a bookshop and a fixation with the life and writings of Anais Nin. “My life was surging and bright, like a wave in the sun,” she writes. “I stayed close to my family, whose house full of books and happy chaos and good humour had buoyed me all my life.”
But things were too bright, too happy. The blissful snapshot of her family life in the opening of “In My Skin” is but a prelude for her sudden turn into heroin addiction and prostitution.
So little prepares us for the change. As Holden relates her own state of mind as she approached it, her chief hang-ups seem to have been shyness and uncertainty about her attractiveness. Friends from high school had beaten Holden to the triumphant benchmark of deflowering while she had remained chaste. In her own words: “I couldn’t bear my body,” Holden writes of her “invisible” teenage years. “And so I cherished my mind.” But soon she was fast making up for lost trysts. After brief heartbreak over a first love, who left her for a woman with “green hair, a nose ring and a crazed sort of charm,” Holden began a string of attachments to artsy and feckless young men. She joined a rock band and pierced her nose. All it took for her to extend her arm for a needle was a hint of feeling excluded. A boyfriend spent a night away from her to try heroin. She became obsessed with trying it too. “No one made me try heroin,” she says. “My friends told me to keep away. There was no enticement; just an inductive pressure, a sense that if I didn’t, I would lose.”
And so, in no time, Holden was hooked and not long after that, hooking to support the habit, first as a streetwalker, then as a registered sex worker in a series of Melbourne brothels. As a tale, the bulk of “In My Skin” is more a case of what was on her skin: saliva, semen and caked makeup. This is not a book for the squeamish or those delicate about coarse language. Most of it is unquotable in a family newspaper. Yet in a twist that makes the relentless, graphic succession of stupors and abasements a story worth reading, it is the empathy and self-respect that Holden discovers as a prostitute that gives her the power to eventually beat the drug.
Herein lies both the weakness and glory of the book. Holden is so unflinching in her description of the nocturnal sex trade that it would be easy to miss her economy with the sun-soaked world of the family home. There are countless references to its piles of books but few indications that they had been read, aside from the recurring and reverent references to the decadent glamour of Nin. By the time Holden, in visits from the underworld, has her distraught mother helping her score smack and her father dropping her off at a brothel to begin her night’s work, one can only wonder how that paradisiacal childhood produced such an epic brat.
There is such a blank in the book about the seeds that turned Holden into Persephone as prostitute that the reader is left speculating. One obvious answer would be that she was addicted to attention, not a drug, and that the shy girl from the bookshop was in fact less of a wallflower than a narcissist and stubborn fantasist who, emboldened by narcotics, saw a way of up-sexing the erotic adventures of her hero, Nin. Only Holden knows. But if she has soft-pedaled the motives of the girl, it does nothing to undercut the transcendence of the story as she sheds the baggy sweaters of plain Kate to become “Lucy” in a red velvet gown. That path chosen, it then took a stream of opiates and congress with countless men, many each night, for her to sense her power and to acknowledge her needs. From the flop sweat of car seats, hotel rooms and brothels, she found respect for not just her clients but also for herself.
As she slowly accepts her own nature, her need for heroin subsides and her long-suffering family has fewer and fewer problems coaxing her onto methadone. Yet even sobering up, she keeps hooking and, as she does so, she demands that her family and friends accept that she is a prostitute. Through forgiving, even celebrating the needs of her clients, she finally admits her own.
As she crawls first out of addiction and then leaves the sex trade, she is exhausted. By the time she staggers to an airport for a year abroad in Europe, she’s not yet 30. Rome does her good. So does a fellow named Raffaele. Back in Australia, as she pulls her whorehouse gowns from a suitcase, the garments are musty evidence of a bygone identity. However, one is reminded that the schoolgirl turned sex worker turned writer has a growing closetful of personalities. As this selectively graphic book attests, she has gone from dragging her family to hell and back to a wider commute, this time taking the reading public for a round trip too.
The sheer force of the drop and bounce between shyness and exhibitionism suggests that there will be more chapters to come, with Holden reserving the right to be victim, assailant and, when it suits her, censor of her own extreme saga.
Emily Green is a freelance writer based in Los Angeles.