Musical Chairs is the gritty memoir of a smart young woman, Jen Knox, who fell into the life of a stripper. This is not polished writing, but it is what it tells—stripped down to the bone and honest. The author has not tried to present herself in the best light or to make excuses. She looks in the mirror long and hard.
It may be that there is nothing very new here that we haven’t heard before. A girl grows up in a rather unorthodox family, deeply dysfunctional, ending with divorce. There is alcohol and there are drugs, and there is also a family history of mental illness. But young Jen is sharp, and she has a strong independent streak. In a fight with her father, still a teenager, she takes up his dare and walks out into the streets with no place to go. A junkie boyfriend takes her in with his father in the background, a porn fiend and alcoholic, who tries to rape Jen when the son is out of the house. What you have here is the perfect recipe for disaster. Indeed, that is what this scenario produces.
Knox stumbles onto an ad for a job—dancers wanted, no experience needed—and all seems too easy. Big money for almost nothing. All she has to do is move her body around on a stage in a sleazy night club and take her clothes off. If there is anything new in this story for which probably most readers already see the ending, it is that this is Knox’s story. As much as we are all unique individuals, we clearly hear the voice of the author throughout—and every story honestly told is worth telling. Indeed, at a time when the use of pornography in the United States is at an all-time high, it is a story that should be told, and heard, and understood, many times over—until it registers.
Knox describes her experience on the stage, never done sober, as none of the women who strip ever do their job sober. She describes the discomfort, the fear, the exploitation of both the women and the men, one of the other. She describes the lies told and accepted, the masks worn, the hidden agendas, the false fantasies. She describes the pimps, the rivalries between strippers, the crime, the escalating addictions. She describes her own alcoholism, encouraged by her boss as he pours hard liquor down her throat to get her to dance. It’s an ugly world and Knox puts it straight into the spotlight, unwrapping the truth from the center pole. On the stage, Knox looks down at the drooling faces and begins to understand her degree of control:
“Take it off, sexy lady!”
These words hit me like a slap to the face. I looked down into the man’s eyes, his eyes on my chest. I wondered why. I took my hand and followed his gaze with my fingers. I touched the buttons on my shirt; I undid them one at a time until my pretty black bra was exposed… I looked at him, realizing that I controlled his eyes now.”(Page 81)
As her career as a stripper progresses, Knox, already lying about her age, continues to feel more and more disconnected. She collects her cash and closes the door in her mind against what it took from her to earn it. In her personal life, the degree to which she allows herself to be abused seems to rise in unison with the abuse in her work, including brutal beatings, sometimes at the hands of other strippers.
“Each day, girls arrived at all times in the late afternoon, making their way, one by one, into the dressing room for our ritualistic transformation. Glitter and powder designed to lighten or color, conceal or contour, was shared and traded, becoming community property in our dressing room. We took such care to exhibit our faces; girls, women: our faces were the focus of that dressing room yet they only ever earned a passing glance from customers as our bodies shifted and twisted onstage.
“We knew that sexuality was expressed through the eyes and mouth, but our variety of salesmanship was less nuanced; our product was vulnerability, nakedness, false promise of sexual conquest. Yet, we spent hours in front of the mirrors smoking, doing lines, gossiping, speculating, all while constructing our masks with care and precision.” (Page 84)
In retrospect as a more mature woman, Jen Knox contemplates her reasoning, realizing there was little when she was so young and vulnerable. She cites curiosity and confusion. Not the low self-esteem or daddy issues or too much television, but a need to be seen. Her writing now, the author says, is a continuation of that need to be seen, heard, defined, even criticized, as long as she is not invisible.
“I felt empowered, and I got lost in the mystery of the dance: its freedom of movement and rhythm; its ability to maintain attention, to communicate to the audience. I expressed myself on stage and felt my femininity rise from a stifled place inside me. My dancing became almost a form of meditation. Until, that is, I looked down at the equally meditative glances from below. The audiences sickened me.” (Page 86)
The other strippers warn her that she, like them, will grow to hate men. Hatred and fear seem to be constant companions on the stage. The disconnect between the person and the actions becomes wider and wider. The disconnect between Knox from herself seems to widen as well. This is a world in which human beings can function only with compartmentalized hearts and minds.
To preserve the mask and keep the walls in place, Knox talks about the rules of that dark world. Strippers never date customers, never give out phone numbers, and when asked for their real names, apparently some use several, none of which are real. Many of the customers, Knox writes, have the ultimate male fantasy of making a stripper a “community service project,” saving the stripper from herself, making her into a girlfriend and getting her on track to a better life. To the strippers, Knox states, these misguided men are the “creepier, disillusioned type,” craving to become heroes.
When a boyfriend later tells Knox, upon learning about her past, that she is his “dream girl with a sultry, sexy side,” Knox responds:
“Stripping isn’t sexy, it’s a business. It’s dirty, gritty, capitalist exploitation.” (Page 152)
Eventually, Knox ends her career. Maturity is a factor, family rebonding, even if with dysfunctional members, rehab centers, treatment for increasing panic attacks that she experiences, all push her out of the business. While her life as a stripper takes center stage in this memoir, there are other storylines here that are also worthy of note. Courage in one area of her life opens up connections to other areas of her life.
Just as she increasingly shut down before, Knox gradually opens up again to herself and others. She eventually is able to establish a good relationship with a young man, whom she later marries, and she finds ways to cope with her family. One can’t help but admire that kind of courage. There may be no greater feat in life to accomplish than looking into a mirror without a mask on, and Knox finally does just this. She finds that courage when women try to exploit her just as men have, trying to make her into their personal good deed, a misconstrued altruism, infuriated when she has no wish to accept it. Knox is perfectly capable of being her own hero, to save herself. She reconciles with family, she goes to college and earns a degree. She is well on her way to developing herself as a writer, and indeed, by end of book, the writing has achieved a higher polish, as if in line with the stripper reentering the light.
Knox’s story is raw, and the writing, too, at times, is raw, but her talent to tell a story is evident. Today, Knox is an editor for a literary magazine and is working on a novel. Unsurprisingly, she is excellent at marketing herself, turning her early skills into positive ones. If her need is to be seen and acknowledged, may she be seen and acknowledged, for the story she is willing to tell is worth hearing.
I've invited Jen Knox to be interviewed in the Winter 2010-2011 Issue of the literary ezine, The Smoking Poet. She has accepted.
What did you think of this review?
Jen Knox is an exceptionally gifted storyteller, who can take the events of the past and craft them invariably into engaging and compelling narratives.
-Phillip Lopate, author of Notes on Sontag
With her unique voice, Jen tells the poignant, yet raw, story of her journey to adulthood, living on the streets as a runaway and her ultimate struggle to establish her own identity as a woman who truly values herself. This is one of those books that lingers long after the last page.
-Heather McIntosh, author of Small Animals First
Jen-s a runner, a runaway. Following in the footsteps of her great grandmother, Glory, who defiantly set out on her own near the same young age, and finding commonalities of mental illnesses among the women in her family, Jen must-ve realized her course was set out for her organically.
In the writing of Musical Chairs, a memoir blatant and unapologetic, Jen attempts to make sense of herself within the larger family history. Yet, for all of the similarities Jen discovered between herself and Glory, there is at least one difference: Glory ran away from family, while Jen-s running brought the both of them back.
-Jennifer Lynne Roberts, playwright and writer, author of Beekeeper and Book of Taos
This true tale of grit, survival and eventual rebirth of the psyche is
engaging and inspirational, even to a small-town girl like me.
-Gretchen A. Phillips, Pearson Education