Now this is a young woman with a flamethrower.
I am not sure “happy” is the right word to describe how I feel upon reading what purpose did i serve in your life, Marie Calloway’s controversial sexual memoir-cum-performance document—sad, enthralled, disturbed, amazed, and then, yeah, actually pretty happy. I agree with Tao Lin, as he is quoted in the book, saying I’m happy she exists. I’m happy she’s a very young female artist with hopefully a lot more to make of her life. I’m happy that “Marie Calloway” isn’t her real name, but instead is big bid, the virgin Mary in her callow youth. I’m happy that the famous men she used as stepping stones are named (and in one case, humiliated), while she is still free to drop this identity and take on her ‘real’ one, if she ever wants to.
(I am about three years too late to the blog-world controversy surrounding this writer, I am aware….)
what purpose did I serve in your life is a document of promiscuity that takes place over a couple of short years, starting when Marie Calloway is 18, composed of several long essays—when she lost her virginity to a near stranger, some experiments with having sex for money in London, a 48-hour fling with a 40-year-old hipster intellectual—plus screen grabs, profile pictures, some pixilated porn-shots and, most notoriously, a shot of her with the 40-year-old intellectual’s cum on her face. People, predictably, find her outrageous, enraging, annoying, shallow, callow, solipsistic, slutty, not pretty, a bad writer, self-exploitative, a bad feminist, a banner child for the blog-vomit economy, and so on. She includes some of the vitriolic correspondence she gets in the book, which works well to illustrate how desperate we are to see or deny ourselves in her story.
That everyone has a personal interpretation on her is part of the book’s button-pushing magic–her story calls forth our stories–and I am no exception. Mine is to see what purpose did i serve in your life first as an abuse story that’s not being handled in the conventional way by the author—the abuse is not processed, pre-redemption arc, in some ways ongoing as she continues to visit terrible sexual experiences on herself. I found it riveting and awful to read about, but also saw great humanity in her determination to assert control over her sexuality and admired the toughness it must have taken to write about her experiences with such graphic neutrality.
This is from page 4:
“‘Did any guy ever do that to you before!?’ he asked with nervous excitement. I could smell my pussy on his breath. I wondered if he was excited by the idea of being first.
I had felt his face rubbing against my thighs, but nothing else. (A few years later I would learn that I am completely unable to feel oral sex due to past sexual trauma.)”
She’s so disassociated at times that she can barely feel her own body, yet she’s deciding to have sex, wielding the body like a blunt instrument, and recording all of the thoughts and feelings she has. This is how you have a sex life when you’re piloting a piece of very beautiful machinery you’re not sure you own. It’s a cruel, science-experiment way to treat yourself (and your lovers), but it’s honest. Here’s more from the annals of bad sex:
“His cock went soft for a moment and I thought it was my fault. I couldn’t really feel anything, I think because of the blood. I lifted my legs up. He asked, ‘How does it feel to have sex with thirty-year-olds?’ I opened my eyes and tilted my head to look into his eyes. He looked angry. I must look very ugly right now.”
I don’t exactly identify with her (and shouldn’t have to) but I know who this girl is, I’ve met this girl in many different bodies.
Moreover, Callow Marie’s adventures in viewing and treating herself as an object are relevant even for women who aren’t abuse survivors. They have resonance for me. (Women for whom they don’t resonate could consider themselves lucky). Even without the extremes of Calloway’s damage, in my teens and early twenties I felt like the entire world had an opinion on my body, and what I should be doing with it, and I was trying to excavate from under 10 million layers of crap what I even felt. I was certainly tempted to perform science experiments. There was a time when finding disassociated young female writers who were talking about some of their uglier feelings (Justine Ettler’s The River Ophelia comes to mind) felt essential.
“I need money for BareMinerals foundation and MAC lipstick and soy lattes and pizza. If I earn money I will no longer be a financial burden on my parents; I will be productive and accomplish something. I will be a commodity, and I will be in demand and valuable. I am so beautiful and young that men will pay three hundred dollars to have sex with me; sex work will reify my youth and beauty.”
Sometimes young women have thoughts like that. Not because they’re sluts or whores or bad people, but because that’s the kind of thoughts their culture and role models produce.
It’s uncomfortable, but young women have thoughts like this, too:
“I felt valued even though I actually wasn’t. It didn’t matter. Someone really wanted me and I didn’t have to worry about anything besides making him feel good through a blowjob or whatever he wanted.”
I don’t find Marie Calloway’s adventures empowering, the opposite, as she herself seems to agree with in places, but I do see a certain stubborn purity in her decision to choose to do, to herself, all the worst things men could do to her. It’s a phenomenon abuse survivors are familiar with, and she details it well. I also find it ass-kicking and extraordinary that she refuses to be likeable, as women are supposed to be, and won’t make her story palatable either by making it sexy, or by making it safely not sexy. She won’t make it pretty, she won’t make it acceptable, she won’t shut up.
If I were a women’s studies teacher, I would teach this book.