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February 10, 2011 / Siobhan Argent

‘In My Skin’ by Kate Holden


In My Skin: a memoir

Image courtesy penguin.com.au

If you’re a publisher and you want a book that sells, you publish stuff about sex. Generally, the quality of the literature doesn’t really matter. I’m a reader, I should know; I can’t help myself if I see a lurid story or the promise of titillation. The briefest whisper of sexual misadventure and I’m suckered in like a stay-at-home-mum watching a infomercial about vacuum-pack storage. While I might lapse into boredom five pages in to one of these books and just flick to the good parts, it still means that I’ve given the book with the promise of sex more of a chance than I would have otherwise.

In My Skin doesn’t really fall into the category of sex-for-titillation. And I’ll admit, I finished the book but gave it to my mother, so my direct references to sections of the story might be a bit fuzzy. But don’t blame me; it’s all Mum’s fault.

So, back to the book, and we begin serenely enough; Kate Holden is a young, naive Melbourne Uni student, quiet and introverted, shy around men and unwilling to experiment. She’s writing a thesis on Anais Nin, a twentieth-century writer famous for her erotica, and spends her time buried in her treasured books. Holden’s passion for books shows in the writing; it’s consistently lyrical and somehow oddly sweet, even when she moves onto her discovery of heroin.

Her approach to her eventual drug addiction is glamour-free and unfailingly honest, and not a little bit frightening. Her description of her inclination to try the drug, surrounding by an experimental group of friends, is frighteningly simple. It goes some way to showing how a personality type least likely to stumbles into the drug trap, and falls hard. It doesn’t take long before she’s on a very familiar path towards a life dominated by heroin, driving her out of the protective cocoon she has enjoyed with her family for so long and onto the streets of St. Kilda, where she progressively works her way up the sex-worker food chain.

In My Skin is not about smut, and Holden has been careful not to make it so. She doesn’t hold back on the details, but she does offer highly prized intellectual insight into the machinations of the brothel industry in Melbourne. It’s rare for a prostitute to have a tertiary background, and it’s here that Holden’s Arts degree comes in handy; she can apply her analytical skills to a very real industry and come up with new insight that de-glorifies the sex trade. This is not Diary of a Call Girl (or at least, it’s not the Billie Piper mini-series). And this is definitely not Pretty Woman.

What strikes me most about In My Skin is the blandness of sex. There’s nothing particularly fabulous about being a prostitute, but there are also a myriad of reasons why women become prostitutes, and Holden’s interactions with other sex workers provide an insight into some of the reasons why. The girls in the brothel almost seem like distant relations to the reader; somehow familiar, but in many ways total strangers. But given the workplace, it’s little surprise these women want to keep some areas of their own lives to themselves; Holden describes the most commonly requested sex acts just like someone reeling off what’s on offer at a pizza shop. The dangerous and disturbing situations she finds herself in become part of the job. In the end it’s the gradual emotional shield she begins to construct around herself that is probably the most disturbing thing about her entire experience.

Some people will argue that this is just like any other sex-worker tell-all; that it’s tawdry, and that it’s been well-publicised and well-received because she understands how to write, and she has attention-grabbing subject matter, but it’s more than that. Holden approaches her story as a painter analyses his artwork; by standing back, pulling away, and analysing how all the elements of the image pull together. She is unafraid to dwell on her family’s reaction, on her own suffering, on the pull of the drug and her inability to feel any desire to let heroin go. She seems perfectly capable of understanding how all of these things happened without feeling the need to defend her actions. It means her audience is allowed more than an ‘inside peek’; the reader is permitted to inhabit the mind of someone whose life has not quite gone according to plan. And it’s an incredibly difficult ride, but not nearly as woe-ridden as you might think.

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