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Not Good For Me: An Interview with Suzy Favor Hamilton

Suzy Favor Hamilton. (Courtesy of Favor Hamilton)
Suzy Favor Hamilton (Courtesy of Favor Hamilton)

In 2012, former Olympian middle distance runner and motivational speaker Suzy Favor Hamilton was outed as a Vegas agency escort. Recently, Favor Hamilton published her memoir, Fast Girl: A Life Spent Running From Madness, telling the story of her childhood, her athletic career, her stint escorting, her family life, and her struggle with bipolar disorder. After reviewing the book for Tits and Sass, contributor Katie de Long had a conversation with Favor Hamilton over e-mail about the New York Times bestselling autobiography. The dialogue below is a condensed version of those e-mails.

What motivated you to write your memoir?
When I was outed, I was contacted by several writers within the first couple days. I was still in a heavily narcissistic mode, which […] can be pretty common with bipolar mania, especially when untreated.

At that time, I wanted to pretty much write a sex book, detailing my adventures in Las Vegas, capitalizing on my misfortune, so to speak. No mental illness aspect at all. No running, no childhood, just Vegas. At this time, I had no idea I was bipolar…and saw nothing wrong with me.

As time went along, my motivations changed, and I grew unsure I wanted to write a book at all. My parents were making it clear they did not want me to write a book. Others were advising me against it. Things had settled down, so why bring it all out in the open again?

As I began to achieve more clarity, and what had happened to me began to make more sense after diagnosis and treatment, my motivation for writing a memoir grew again. Before the escorting, I was speaking quite a bit about my brother’s suicide and my experience with anxiety and depression, so that desire to make a difference had always been there. I saw a memoir as the most effective way of making that difference, being better understood, sharing what is admittedly a complicated story, and doing so on my terms. I thought a book could have a more lasting impact on a bigger platform.

What do you hope people will learn about bipolar disorder from your book?
I wanted to show the common elements of denial, silence and stigma and how they prevent good people from getting help, and getting well. I want people to be aware of behaviors to look for, so they can help others or perhaps motivate those not yet diagnosed to seek help for themselves.

There are many people out there who don’t buy the whole idea of mental illness and bipolar and how bizarre behavior can stem from it. The “convenient excuse” argument. I hope my story might open a few minds.

Now that you are receiving treatment and establishing a new normal for yourself, do you find yourself being treated differently? Do some people expect you to be able to return to who you were before the disorder worsened?
My parents want the old me back, but I think they are accepting that won’t happen.

There is that perception that I’m not well, mainly when I speak about sex, dress a certain way, hang with a certain person, use my voice. Or, quite frankly, if I happen to be a little manic or depressed on a certain day (especially manic). I’ve learned with certain friends and family, I…stay away from certain topics…sit on my hands and smile, otherwise…they’ll just give me that concerned look. Others, they like “this me” who’s not afraid to be myself. [They] know my moods might change from day to day, even minute to minute. Those are the people I tend to gravitate to these days.

Those who don’t get mental illness think you have to be a non-functioning zombie when you’re manic…In many ways, you can be more productive, more creative, and go, go, go, etc. I believe my mania was a big reason I was a desired escort…My clients loved my mania. Disney, who hired me for their racing series, also loved my mania when I think about it. Zero inhibitions. Bubbly, sparkly. Life of the party. I had no off switch, no ceiling.

I am that imperfect girl, and I want to be that imperfect girl. What’s the bipolar? What’s the real me? I just know I want independence, [to] do what makes me content. I still want to live life to the fullest, live it with a little edge. Don’t want to live by others expectations. Be myself. But admittedly, I’m pulled into old habits often where I do what others expect of me. People are so accustomed to the old me that they think I’m not well when they see someone else.

Let’s say I were to want to go to Burning Man, go hiking with a couple of escort friends, post a beautiful nude portrait of myself that was done for me…many around me would raise red flags. I’m having to be something to please others and doing what drove me to craziness in the first place. So am I going to get criticized on occasion or told I’m not well? I suppose. Dr. Phil said as much when I was on his damn show.

Girl, Undressed (2008)

afouler3 by Caty and Red

12/9/2013 update: Yesterday, several commenters pointed out that speculating on the author’s trauma history was inappropriate of us. Upon reflection, we agree that this was specious and unnecessary, and apologize deeply for doing so.

Red: I love stripper memoirs; I buy them all indiscriminately and hope for the best. Strippers are like my family, people I love and hate and get driven crazy by but keep returning to. So you know I read Girl, Undressed when I found a copy at Powell’s. And I hated it. When Caty asked if I wanted to co-review it, I got giddy at the idea of sharing my outrage. Is there anything more fun that being righteously furious with a friend?

For those of you who haven’t read it, Girl, Undressed follows Fowler on a dank and seamy voyage, to places only “the ruined” (her term) can sink. She stumbles around early 2000s Manhattan, a weary traveler promising a glimpse at a New York not “vacuum-packed and delivered to your tastefully decorated abodes via HBO… there’ll be a sad lack of shopping expeditions to Bergdorf’s to punctuate each chapter’s end.” In other words, Fowler is not Carrie Bradshaw (but then who is) and I’m also gathering that she’s not writing this for me or her sisters-in-degradation/fellow strippers.

To Live Freely In This World: Sex Worker Activism In Africa (2016)

tolivefreelyA version of this review originally appeared in issue 19 of make/shift magazine

In March 2016, South African deputy president Cyril Ramaphosa made a historic announcement of a nationwide scheme to prevent and treat HIV among sex workers, proclaiming, “we cannot deny the humanity and inalienable rights of people who engage in sex work.” Though Ramaphosa remained mum on the topic of decriminalization, the rousing endorsement this statement represents can’t be underemphasized. It’s impossible to imagine a U.S. politician of any importance saying something similar. The credit for this sea change in attitude goes to South African sex workers’ rights organization SWEAT (Sex Workers Education and Advocacy Taskforce) and sex worker peer organization Sisonke. In her book, To Live Freely In This World: Sex Worker Activism In Africa, Fordham University law professor Chi Adanno Mgbako covers SWEAT and parallel organizations in seven countries.

Mgbako deftly and concisely goes over sex workers’ rights 101 material. The epilogue’s history of global organizing comprehensively places the African movement in its broader context, from the 1970s—Margo St. James’ COYOTE and the French Collective of Prostitutes—to the 2012 Kolkata Sex Worker Freedom Festival. Mgbako explains the importance of not reducing sex work to “a single story” of victimization, the necessity of respecting human agency, and the need to understand sex workers’ rights activism as a labor movement. She traces the connection between violence and criminalization as represented by police abuse and client violence and the structural violence of social stigma, labor exploitation, and healthcare discrimination.

To Live Freely also transcends respectability politics and actively includes the sex workers often left out of our histories. One of the book’s seven chapters is dedicated to the multiple stigmas navigated by queer, migrant, trans, and HIV-positive sex workers. Mgbako makes sure to discuss sex-working queer women, trans men, and gender nonconforming people, who because of their lower visibility are too often excluded.

Many times throughout the text, Mgbako provides long oral histories from sex worker activists. In an admirable and sadly rare move for an ally, she explicitly connects this choice with the fact that she is not a sex worker herself, “and too often, non-sex workers take it upon themselves to speak for sex workers when the latter are fully capable of speaking for themselves.” I found these sections of the book and the solidarity they represented perhaps the most valuable. Kenya Sex Worker Alliance’s Phelister Abdallah’s harrowing account of gang rape by police, the moment representing her personal awakening as an activist, was particularly affecting. Yet, Mgbako never allows these stories to become tragedy porn for non-sex-worker readers—in her introduction, she avers that she only included narratives of abuse when those narratives illustrated the sociopolitical realities of sex workers’ struggle against criminalization. “There are no broken people in this book,” Mgbako declares. Instead, the author’s interest lies in displaying the “radiating strength” of African sex workers.

Neon Wasteland: On Love, Motherhood, and Sex Work In A Rust Belt Town (2011)

aneonwastelandpicSusan Dewey conducted fieldwork for her academic study at a strip club she calls “Vixens” in a town she calls “Sparksburgh” in the post-industrial economy in upstate New York. She describes interacting with approximately 50 dancers but focuses on a few: Angel, Chantelle, Cinnamon, Diamond, and Star. Some names were changed, but these pseudonyms will sound familiar to anyone who has spent time in a club. The run-down club offers entertainment for working class people in an area with high unemployment. The club is not glamorous but is perceived as the best opportunity in a place of few options, including a few other bars with exotic dancers.

The first chapter opens with a quote from a dancer addressing Dewey: “You grew up like all of us and so you understand.” This context is important because money and socio-economic class are the main topics of the book. The book describes the women’s lives: poor starts in foster care, having children early, low levels of education, little financial or moral family support, economic contraction in the region, unreliable boyfriends and substance use. Dewey’s primary focuses are family and economics, contributing to a small but important body of work (I think of Jo Weldon’s piece in Sex Work Matters) examining the income provided by sex work. In other words, she studies the work rather than the sex.

Treading Air (2016)

treadingairAs a sex worker and a fairly enthusiastic reader, I’ve come across so few of our stories told in fiction—and very few set in my own country of Australia. So when I recently discovered Ariella van Luyn’s 2016 novel Treading Air, I was instantly intrigued. It had a fascinating historical premise and a sex worker protagonist, Lizzie O’Dea. Unfortunately, it wasn’t what it could have been: although van Luyn had clearly done some research and tried to humanize Lizzie’s portrayal, so many bad clichés about sad sex workers crept into her story that it totally ruined the book for me.

We first meet Lizzie O’Dea in 1943, confined in a lock hospital in Brisbane, Queensland, waiting for her husband to be released from prison after nearly twenty years. The novel alternates between focusing on O’Dea’s story in 1943 and a series of events in the regional port town of Townsville in 1923 and 1924 that would alter the course of her and her husband’s lives.

The decision to set part of the book in a lock hospital in Queensland immediately caught my attention. By Australian standards, Queensland had notoriously draconian controls on sex workers in the latter half of the nineteenth century —although substantive parts of the law remained in place well into the twentieth century as well. Under the Queensland legislation (which was based on a broader version of the English Contagious Diseases Act), sex workers were required to register with police and forced to undergo fortnightly medical checks. If a doctor deemed them to be “diseased”, they were sent to a lock hospital in the state’s main prison to receive treatment, sometimes for long periods of time. It was a system which produced plenty of horror stories, yet it’s largely unknown today. I was curious to see what kind of light van Luyn would shine on on that chapter of history. I should have known that it would turn out to be one more twist on the premise that a sex worker’s story always ends badly.

Much of the first quarter of Treading Air centers on Lizzie’s courtship with future husband Joe, whom she meets at a Brisbane racetrack in 1923. Lizzie is the daughter of an illegal bookmaker and unenthused with her options in life. They promptly marry, moving to Townsville in North Queensland when Joe gains a job as a meat worker. Joe soon loses this job after an industrial accident, and Lizzie, fed up with being back in poverty, accepts an offer to work for a madam she knows. I enjoyed this section of the book: Lizzie’s portrayal felt familiar, the historical details about how her brothel operated made sense, her reasons for entering into the industry were pretty standard, and her first clients were ordinary clients.

And so, I’m happily reading this book when I come across this sentence, not long after Lizzie begins working: “So she reinforces her demeanor of gentleness and politeness. A man can do anything—pick his nose with one hand, hold his cock with the other; piss on her [emphasis mine]; cry and snot on her – and she doesn’t move. They like her for it.”

I thought “wait, what?”. I read this passage out loud to a friend over the phone to ask if it was as fucked up as I thought it was. Her spluttering down the line told me that it was.