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Some Girls
Jillian Lauren
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INTRODUCTION

Spending her last thirty dollars to catch a yellow cab to the airport, restless and determined eighteen year–old Jillian Lauren was at the precipice of an incredible journey. One that would and take her halfway around the world, shatter her illusions, and altogether challenge her sense of self. Lauren would become part of the harem of Prince Jefri Bolkiah of Brunei, emerging from the experience only a couple of years older, but infinitely wiser.

Sone Girls traces Lauren's life from growing up in suburban New Jersey, to living with artist friends in a gritty East Village apartment, to her arrival in an art filled, gilded palace in Borneo. After dropping out of NYU theater school, Lauren follows a tip about upcoming audition, where a "casting director" promises a rich businessman in Singapore will pay American girls $20,000 to stay for two weeks and spice up his parties. Soon, it is revealed that Lauren, and a host of other international beauties, will spend time entertaining the charming, yet taciturn, Prince Jefri Bolkiah of Brunei, nicknamed Robin, and his entourage.

Jillian was one of the first Western women to infiltrate this modern–day iteration of an ancient institution. As she recounts the lavish parties, a parallel tale unfolds—rich in an entirely different way—of Jillian's quest for her identity. Knowing little of the etiquette and duties expected of her, Lauren quickly learns the unwritten rules of harem life. Evening parties are a competition, with the ladies all vying for the playboy Robin's attention—not just for sport—but for survival.

Jillian is intoxicated by the riches, the glamour, and above all by the Prince's charm. She learns to play the role of a modern day Sheherazade to keep his interest. But eventually, amid the late night discos, extravagant shopping sprees and diamond–faced Rolexes, catering to Jefri's capricious whims takes its toll. Lauren ultimately comes to question whether this prince's kingdom really is the happily ever after she imagined. She leaves set on a different course entirely—to find her birth mother and eventually adopt a baby boy.

With poignant storytelling, at times heartbreaking, yet hopeful, Some Girls is the story of a young woman's remarkable search for identity.


ABOUT JILLIAN LAUREN

Jillian Lauren

Author and performer Jillian Lauren grew up in suburban New Jersey and fled across the water to New York City. Her memoir, Some Girls: My Life in a Harem, was published by Plume on April 27 2010.

Her novel, Pretty, will be published by Plume in May 2011.

Jillian has an MFA in Creative Writing from Antioch University. Her writing has appeared in Vanity Fair, Flaunt Magazine, Pindeldyboz Magazine and Opium Magazine, among others.

She has read at spoken word events across the country and has recently worked with directors as diverse as Steve Balderson, Lynne Breedlove and Margaret Cho.

She is married to musician Scott Shriner. They live in Los Angeles with their son.


A CONVERSATION WITH JILLIAN LAUREN

Q. Some Girls is the story of your experiences in the sex industry, including an 18 month period living in the harem of Prince Jefri Bolkiah of Brunei. Why did you want to share your story?

I think it's important for women to be truthful about their lives, particularly women on the fringes of society, who often keep silent because we're led to believe that our stories are something to be ashamed of. We let our stories be told by others, usually men, and we wind up repeatedly being the bodies left behind by serial killers or the hookers with the hearts of gold. I wanted to tell my own story: how I became a sex worker and what it did to my life and my dreams. I wanted to portray the complexity of the experience and to present an emotional journey that I believe will be familiar to many women, even those to whom the events of the narrative may seem outrageous.

Q. The book is a brutally honest, unapologetic memoir. How were you able to get to the point in your life where you could talk candidly and without shame about your experiences in such extreme situations?

Eighteen years passed before I was able to tell this story. It took that long to be ready, from both a craft standpoint and an emotional standpoint, to do the story justice. For me, the trick to writing about such a wild and often dark time in my life was to have a stable foundation. I have a pretty boring life now, and I mean that in the best way. I write; I take care of my family; I go to yoga. I'm lucky that I was able to emerge from the period of time I describe in Some Girls with my health and my sanity. And I'm lucky that I was then able to assemble a life for myself in which I felt safe enough to tell my story.

Q. You grew up in a middle class family in suburban New Jersey—not exactly a background most people would associate with international concubines. How did you end up working in the sex industry?

A lot of different factors contributed to my decision to go into sex work, most prominently my burning desire to be on a stage and my difficult home life. By the time I turned eighteen and I got the job offer in Brunei, I was already dancing in strip clubs and working for an escort service. It was always an innate quality of mine to yearn for adventure, to seek out an extraordinary experience. So when a Prince invited me halfway around the world, of course I said yes. That was who I was at the time.

Q. What lessons about life and humanity did you learn from the time you spent in the Brunei harem? Anything that you think would particularly surprise people?

The real lessons for me were learned as I looked back and reflected. I was able to discover a different level of compassion for both myself and for the other people who shared my story. I looked at pictures of myself from that time and I said, What was so wrong with me? Why did I hate myself so much? I was beautiful. I was hopeful. I was brave. I was adorable. I can see it now clear as day, but I couldn't see it then. The story is about struggling to love yourself and learning to forgive yourself.

Q. In the book, you talk about having been adopted and share your curiosities about what your birth mother looked like and whether or not you got certain traits from her. How do you think being adopted affected the course of your life and the decisions you made?

It's hard to say how adoption affected the course of my life, because being adopted is such an integral part of who I am. Adoption is a wonderful thing, but it definitely has profound implications for all of the parties involved. I think all of our stories are, in one way or another, about piecing together the puzzle of our true selves. My search for my birth mother, as written about in Some Girls, is a piece of that puzzle.

Q. You had a strained relationship with your father growing up and write about how he would make negative remarks about your body, weight and intelligence and even become physically abusive with you, your brother and mother. Have you come to terms with your father's treatment of you?

I'm not sure I've come to terms with it. I suspect that coming to terms with my relationship with my father is probably going to be a lifelong journey. When you're dealing with something like abuse, people often expect it to be a black and white situation: abuser and victim, bad guy and good guy. But in my case it's more complicated than that. Because my father is a very loving and generous man in many ways and I care about him a great deal, but he's also a flawed and tragic character who inflicted a lot of damage. So the question for me is how do you portray that in a compassionate and honest way. Writing about my father was probably the most painful part of the process for me and required the most soul–searching.

Q. Have your parents read your book? How much do they know about what you experienced?

My parents were already aware of some of my adventures, but certainly a handful of the revelations in Some Girls were a surprise to them. My parents are hurt by the book and that saddens me a great deal. But it was a story I was compelled to write and I believe it has the potential to connect with many women. I did my best to write a deeply honest and compassionate account of that time in my life and my family was part of that story. I had hoped my family would be more supportive of the book, but I have faith that we'll work through this difficult time. We've gone through worse.

Q. There has been some hoopla in recent years over the validity of memoirs. What would you say to someone who might question the truth and accuracy of your story? How was the book corroborated?

Of course the matter of lying in memoirs is on everyone's minds right now. I definitely had to produce photographs and documents to satisfy my publisher. But on a more personal level, I wrote this book as an exercise in radical honesty. I've always kept journals and I was incredibly fortunate to have those documents to draw on. The deeper question for me was more about the emotional authenticity of the work. It's the central question in any memoir and it was something that I had to examine and reexamine with every draft I wrote.

Q. What do you hope readers take away from your book?

Writing this book was in part an attempt to be honest about my struggle to love myself and hopefully to invite other women to recognize a shared experience. Most of the women reading the book will not have had the experience of being an international teenage escort, but I believe the emotions involved are surprisingly universal.

Q. You are now the proud mother of a son, Tariku, whom you and your husband, Weezer bassist Scott Shriner, adopted. How did you come to the decision to adopt? How did your own experience affect your decision?

Scott and I had always considered adoption. The idea of adopting a baby was always close to my heart, probably due to the fact that I was adopted myself and felt a need to come full circle with it. But our adoption plans were put into motion more quickly than we'd expected when we experienced unexplained infertility. It was a challenging and difficult time for us, but I'd go through every moment of it again a hundred times over if I knew that Tariku was waiting for us at the other side. Much like my experience in Brunei, a time that felt hopeless and overwhelmingly painful at the time turned out to be a gift in the end.

Q. If you could give advice to your younger self, what would you tell her?

I'd probably tell her to learn to breathe, to learn to sit still, to learn to give herself the love she was looking for in others. But she'd never listen to me anyway.


DISCUSSION QUESTIONS

  1. In the prologue, Lauren recounts the story of Sheherazade from 1001 Arabian Nights. She writes that the story of Sheherazade is "…the story of the storyteller. We lay our heads on the block and hope that you'll spare us, that you'll want another tale, that you'll love us in the end. We're looking for the story that will save our lives." What is the place of storytelling in the narrative? Do you believe Lauren is successful in her quest for the story that will save her life? Have you ever felt the desire to find such a story?

  2. Lauren refers to singer/poet Patti Smith throughout the book as her punk rock fairy godmother. She writes, "Ever since I was sixteen and I'd first heard Easter and decided that Patti Smith was the barometer of all things cool and right, when faced with tough decisions, I would ask myself, What would Patti Smith do? It was the yardstick by which I measured what was the authentic choice, the balls out choice." What is the place of role models (or the lack thereof) in Lauren's coming–of–age tale?

  3. Lauren recalls her first time performing as a stripper at the Kit Kat Club, and discusses the common societal attitudes about why people become sex workers. Lauren writes, "What makes one financially strapped girl turn into a stripper and another into a Denny's waitress and another into a med student? You want to connect the dots. You want reassurance that it won't be your daughter up there on the pole. Shitty relationship with my father, low self-esteem, astrologically inevitable craving for adventure, dreams of stardom, history of depression and anxiety, tendency towards substance abuse—put it all in a cauldron and cook and the ideal sex worker emerges, dripping and gleaming and whole." Discuss the common stereotypes and misconceptions about sex workers. Does society oversimplify why people become sex workers? How has Lauren's story altered your own perceptions about sex work?

  4. Lauren explains, "Nevertheless, two roads diverged. I picked the one that seemed a bit wilder. Because that was who I wanted to be." Discuss how our personal choices reflect our identities. Do we choose who we ultimately become?

  5. What are some of the images that the word "harem" conjures up for you? How did the real–life harem compare with your expectations? If it was different from your expectations, did that lead you to question any other assumptions you might have about cultural practices that differ from your own?

  6. What factors do you believe contributed to Lauren's decision to go to Brunei? What do you think you would have done in the same position?

  7. When walking through the Prince's palace during the day, Lauren states, "I've always liked rooms when the party hasn't started yet. Even more magical are theaters during the day, before the doors open, before the show begins, when the house lights are on and you can see the rafters and the scuffs on the floor. I love the feeling that anything could happen. After the party, when anything already has happened, there's usually the inevitable fact to face that anything wasn't all you'd hoped it would be." What is the place of hope in the story? Do you find Lauren to be hopeful at the beginning of the story? How about at the end? Are there different kinds of hope?

  8. Lauren suffers from an eating disorder that flares up during her time in the harem. She writes, "I took the phentermine pills and started quietly obsessing about losing weight again. I wasn't alone. Most of the girls in Brunei took pills. We drank laxative teas. Even though we could have ordered any food we wanted, we ordered plain chicken and steamed veggies and tried to fill up on lettuce sprinkled with lemon juice and balsamic vinegar. This is the Faustian bargain for many women who make their bodies their livelihood. Your body will be worshipped by others but hated by you. It will give others pleasure but it will give you only pain." Do you think this sort of behavior is limited to women who make their bodies their livelihood, or does it have a broader scope? Is self–denial and hatred of one's body a common experience for women and if so, why?

  9. Describing the harem's power dynamic, Lauren writes, "All the girls were transformed in some way by the pressure, the paranoia, the insidious insecurity that creeps in when you size yourself up against a roomful of other girls every night. Who would you be? Would you shine or would you buckle? Would you stay and slug it out or would you run?" Describe how the harem's competitiveness begins to affect Lauren. What would you have done in Lauren's place?

  10. How does the definition of power shift during the story?

  11. What are some of the ways that the theme of motherhood is explored throughout the book?

  12. As a very young girl, Lauren has an idealized image of her birth mother, who was a ballerina. Lauren explains, "in my fantasy, my birth mother was a life–size version of the tiny dancer twirling inside my satin–lined music box. My plastic ballerina had the smallest brushstroke of red hair and limbs the width of toothpicks. She never lost her balance; she never had to let her arms down. I imagined my birth mother posed in a perpetual arabesque, swathed in white tulle, with a tiara of sparkling snowflakes in her hair." How did Lauren's perceptions about her birth mother match up to reality? Do you feel there was a sense of disappointment? How did the meeting change Lauren's feelings towards her adoptive parents?

  13. After meeting her birth mother for the first time, Lauren writes "I was only twenty, the age Carrie had been when she put me up for adoption. And when I chronicled my list of outrageous fuckups in the preceding couple of years, when I visited my dismal graveyard of buried aspirations, when I looked at all I had trampled, I was forced to forgive her." Do you believe Lauren's forgiveness of her birth mother was justified? Has there been a time when you forgave someone in a similar situation?