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Girlvert: A Porno Memoir Paperback – June 3, 2011
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"If Hemingway had been a porn star, this is how he would have written."
The Nervous Breakdown
"Oriana Small has pushed herself to the outermost extremes of what the body and mind are capable ofall before turning thirty years oldand now she's made it an authentic read for the rest of us to marvel at, elevating the depravity and denial inherent in the pornographic arts to a singular literary experience."
James Frey, author of A Million Little Pieces
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I found Oriana Small's account of her life in porn (as Ashley Blue) to be educational, brutally honest, eye-opening, frightening, depressing and, at times, quite disgusting. The storyline is a staple Hollywood tragedy: an emotionally immature young adult from a broken home tries to build a life in the big city, but succumbs to world of drugs, sex and bad relationships. Small, a woman with no apparent inhibitions openly divulges her life in pornography. It's not a happy story and it certainly isn't pretty, but it is revealing and more importantly, honest.
GIRLVERT is an accumulation of small chapters that each highlights pivotal/defining moments in Small's life as a porn actress. The clichéd "wanted to be a model, but ended up in porn" somewhat rings true as she and her boyfriend naively start with nude pictures and progress quickly to a more extreme type of pornography. The honesty of her writing is evident as much of what she describes doing (and what's being done to her) is pretty rough to read about. While she admits to be sexually adventurous (shoving her fist down her throat is a "normal" aspect of her personal sex life), throughout her book she details incidents that were certainly not enjoyable ... but the payday justified any misery she experienced. This behind-the-scenes view of hardcore porn really reveals the seedy nature of the business. Much of what she describes is simply filth ... the disgusting, unclean actors, the rampant drug use, the frequent transfer of STDs and the willing exchange of every bodily fluid imaginable. The idea of the glammed-up pornstar is nothing but a façade ... the reality is that the business is rotten on the inside, but the money is good for those willing to the do the darker stuff and Small was more than willing.
Probably the most frustrating aspect of the book is the constant display of Small's dependency on men who preyed on her emotional naiveté. The cloying boyfriend who joined her in the porn business simply never goes away. When he finally does go away, he's simply replaced by another annoying and insecure porn actor. Over and over again, Small admits to being duped and used by various men in her personal life and work (in the studio). Much of the mess that was Small's personal life, however, was due to her constant drug and alcohol use. Virtually every chapter involved a snort, chug, swallow or toke of some mind-altering substance (reminding me of the depravity portrayed in the movie "Panic in Needle Park"). The history of rash decisions, her dysfunctional family, emotional dependency, substance abuse and pushing the limits of her body for her porn career leave the image of a broken, abused ragdoll. However, Small somehow perseveres, matures, finds a more stable mate and appears to be on-the-mend (emotionally). While there is some sense of closure at the book's end (as Small appears to find peace with herself and her life), it is still somewhat open-ended as her drug-intake, while curbed, still continues.
GIRLVERT is a book that chronicles a lot of aggressive and not-so-clean sex ... it isn't for everyone. I consider myself fairly open-minded and still found several pages in the book tough to read ... a simple two-car wreck that seemed to grow into an ongoing pile-up. But, I found the insider's perspective of the porn industry quite eye-opening. Small doesn't lure readers into a trap of feeling sympathy for her, as she has no qualms/regrets about the path in life she's taken as an adult ... Kudos to Small for telling it like it is.
Girlvert - 3 stars
Inside Seka and Girlvert are among a number of recent autobiographies written by women famous or, as those who disapprove might prefer, infamous for having sex on camera and/or posing for pictures in various states of disrobe (aka pornography). The still largely insular world involving the business of pornography remains an object of fascination in much the same way the mafia does. Both represent worlds that most people would not not themselves venture into directly, but where the strictures of conventional society are thrown aside to allow indulgences in violence, greed, and sex; the Freudian id unbound and indulged. Viewing pornography allows engagement in the fantasy of promiscuity for personal gratification while maintaining a safe distance. That distance has narrowed today compared with Seka's time; fans of porn actresses can now interact more directly with their fantasy women du jour (heterosexual porn mostly caters to male fantasies about women) using social media, web sites, and fan conventions.
Accounts of the porn world and the lives of those that fully inhabited it such as "Inside Seka" by Dorothea Hundley (her name at birth) with co-author Kerry Zukus and "Girlvert" by Oriana Small, better known by her nom de porn as Ashley Blue, reveal much about what it was and is like to be in "the industry", the salacious details, the celebrity and financial rewards, as well as the often significant personal and professional toll. It has become a truism to state the reality of making porn is nothing like the fantasies portrayed. Neither of these books dispels that notion. Although much has changed culturally in America between the time Seka appeared in the late 1970s in the grainy 8 and 16mm loops of the time with her (accidentally) platinum nimbus and striking good looks and when Ashley showed up at the World Modeling Office in Los Angeles just after the turn of the century for what would become her porn debut, the smutty part of making smut persists. Readers of these two books will get, please excuse the expression, a face full.
The adult industry into which Dottie Patton (her name at the time of her first marriage) entered was in what is now called the Golden Age of Porn (circa late 1970s to the mid 1980s). Popularized for broader audiences by titles such as Deep Throat and Behind the Green Door, the era reflected something of a coming out party for pornographers with the opening of larger markets for their products. But the title Golden Age is a misnomer. While it was indeed a time of expansion with aspirations of making movies with plots and production values that would rival mainstream Hollywood movies, the results of those efforts were anything but "Golden" and, as Seka notes, many of the films were so bad, they were good; think Plan-9 from Outer Space or better yet, Manos: The Hands of Fate. It was, to a large extent, the world of bad acting and equally bad directing portrayed in the 1997 movie Boogie Nights (for which Dottie recounts that she declined to serve as an advisor), where there was only a handful of "stars" like Seka who made most of the movies, which were watched in adult movie houses located in the seedier parts of town or in the back of adult bookstores, located in even seedier parts.
Her account or her porn career does not disappoint; the kind of behind-the-scenes details one might expect abound. She provides the dish on many of her equally famous co-stars such as John Holmes, John Leslie, Annette Haven, Veronica Heart, and others. For those who remember the Swedish Erotica line of movies, one of the main producers of the short, one-scene films that were popular then and called "loops" because they provided the endlessly looping masturbatory fodder for peepshow booths, there is a great anecdote explaining the reason the company required every actress to wear a scarf in every scene and just what those scarfs were like (ack!). She answers many of the questions people have asked her repeatedly over the years at conventions and elsewhere: her favorite co-stars, did she enjoy the sex or was she only acting, what was it like to work with John Holmes, does size matter (not necessarily but it ain't bad either) and so on. There are also many anecdotes involving the rich and famous she socialized with regularly during and after her stint in porn including mega-rock stars such as the Rolling Stones and Sam Kinison with whom she had a most unlikely affair.
Were Seka's book simply about what it was like to become and be an internationally famous porn star, how she was treated and more often mistreated by aides, directors, and distributors, it would be well worth the read. What sets it apart from other such accounts, including Girlvert, is the personal story that is at first preamble to and then the backdrop for her rise as a porn star and beyond when she opted to end her career because of the AIDS epidemic. Her personal saga is one of, as the review title indicates, numerous betrayals. That story begins with a vivid recounting of the neglect she suffered from a narcissistic mother and a well-meaning, but alcoholic, mostly absent, and ineffectual father. In one of the more harrowing early childhood incidents, she describes her inexplicable and literal abandonment by her parents, who had taken her siblings to go on vacation in Florida. Amazingly, she fended for herself making her own meals and going to school until circumstances required she contact relatives. The incident is key because it contains important elements that recur to varying degrees in many of her subsequent relationships. Men she marries or with whom she becomes a partner neglect and/or abuse her emotionally for their own sexual or financial gain. Ultimately, in each case, she is able to extricate herself after reaching a breaking point that often feels like it took way too long to occur.
Perhaps too, as a result of that early abandonment and the generally poor treatment she experienced at the hands of her parents and other would-be caretakers throughout her childhood, she developed a matter-of-fact insouciance as a way of dealing with the world. It serves her well as a survival mechanism but it also seems to have affected her ability to fully judge others and the potential risk of getting involved in one situation or another. She makes life-changing decisions that are conveyed in the narrative as being made spontaneously with little deliberation. Not surprisingly, many turn out to be ill-advised: get married at 17 to a pot-smoking dolt; why not if it affords some measure of freedom; take a job as a clerk/manager in an adult bookstore, ok the work is easier than in the factory; get filmed having sex with a stranger while on a junket to buy more porn for the bookstore, why not who's going to see it anyway; head out to LA to make more porn when the loop and photo shoots prove very popular, sure if the money is good; allow a drug-dealing boyfriend to move in, ok; join my emotionally abusive partner at swing parties even if it doesn't appeal to me at all, sure if it makes him happy, and so on. Despite the willfulness and survival instincts, the mounting betrayals take their toll leading her into a particularly dark period whereby she spirals down into alcohol and drug abuse, sustained financially by photo shoots, stints as a feature dancer in strip clubs, a web site, and personal appearances at fan conventions. To supplement her dwindling income, she eventually has to turn to work that would seem unthinkable for someone of her celebrity. Among the jobs she takes are selling hot dogs at a Home Depot and tending bar at various places in her adopted home town of Chicago.
The story is not unrelentingly dark or bitter despite the numerous accounts of failed relationships, court battles with ex-business partners, and the unseemly side of the business of pornography. For one, her sense of humor is revealed in many asides suggesting through it all, she never took herself or her fame too seriously. There are also touching stories such as when she helped raise money for a family member in need of urgent medical care. And one day, with no Drs. Drew or Phil around to provide televised counsel, she determines to end her drug use and indeed she does. Perhaps most touching of all is the coda. The story ends on a note of personal redemption. This is not redemption in the sense of atonement - she feels no need to apologize for her career and embraces it as having been important to determining who she is today. Instead, it is the redemption of finding a place and a person to whom she can belong and who belongs to her and of finally being at peace with herself and her life. The story of her island wedding is especially moving and sweet.
Seka chose her co-author well and the book moves along in clear, well-written prose. There is also an ample number of pictures provided throughout to show the many characters that are part of her life at various times (including several great photos of her as a high school beauty queen). The style is direct and forthright; she pulls no punches with respect to others or herself. The rating of 4 1/2 stars (only whole stars are allowed on Amazon) is owing to several small missteps in an otherwise well-told story. There is a short chapter late in the book that seems to exist merely for the purpose of showing which celebrities she has befriended. It's unnecessary as these stories appear throughout the rest of the narrative and seem less show-offy than when bundled into a single chapter. The other is that she glosses over the later, very serious transgressions of her friend and a favorite co-star, John Holmes. According to many reports, Holmes knowingly exposed several actresses to HIV and was also a central facilitator in the murders of his addict friends in what came to be known as the Wonderland Murders; at least later in life, he was not such a swell guy as he is (mostly) portrayed here. Those small issues aside, this is an informative page-turner, perfect for summer reading for anyone interested in an inside look at the Golden Age of Porn as well as a bare knuckles expose of the life of one of the era's largest celebrities.
Interestingly, the life story told in Girlvert follows much the same trajectory as Inside Seka. Girlvert is also the story of a series of betrayals and misjudgments that begin in childhood followed by a redemption of sorts, albeit at a much earlier age (Ms. Small is in her early 30s whereas Seka is now 60 years old). Here too is the narcissistic mother and absent father as well as an abusive sociopath boyfriend who facilitates her entry into porn. One only need compare the covers, however, to get a sense of the large distinctions between the way these two women tell their stories and how pornography has changed in the 20 years between Seka's retirement and Ashley Blue's debut. Whereas the cover photo for Inside Seka presents an image meant to convey a sophisticated but tough prettiness, the cover of Girlvert shows Ms. Small with half of her fist jammed down her throat (something she claims she did even before porn as a prelude to sex). And by the early 2000s, abetted by the Internet and the ability to reach niche markets, gagging is one of many fetishistic sub-specialties catered to by the porn industry that were rare to non-existent in Seka's day. As Ashley Blue tells it, her specialty was doing degrading porn whereby she was slapped, spit on (and worse), and choked (to the point of unconsciousness one time) among other endearing activities in her scenes as well as in her real life. Gone form the porn of her time is any pretense of story-lines, replaced by sex from beginning to end in what is now termed "gonzo" porn and which typifies much of the porn produced today; at best, situations have replaced plots. Her specialization in rough, degrading sex eventually leads her to become the degrader herself in the persona of Girlvert, who relishes degrading and perverting other women. It became a recurring and her most famous role and hence the book's title.
Her personal story, unfortunately, runs along a track that parallels her porn career. She was joined in porn by an abusive boyfriend (surprise!) who not only enjoyed seeing her degraded, he also liked to join in. The abuse continued off camera although as she now tells of these events, she seems still not to fully appreciate the extent to which she was abused. This could be because much of her time during her porn career, both on and off camera, involved taking drugs; lots and lots and lots of drugs, especially cocaine. It seems as if her, her boyfriend, and their friends always had a table top covered in cocaine much like Al Pacino did in the last scenes of Scarface. Her porn career financed it all and even that was often not enough. Although there is some variation to this basic story, with anecdotes about different people involved in the porn industry (still seedy, still unreliable, still eager to use a person for money or sex) it gets rather repetitive after awhile. The short, largely adverb- and adjective-free sentences move things along swiftly enough but after about the fifth or sixth chapter that details the drugs used, the abusive sex, and the sociopathic boyfriend, one wants her to put a swift end to the unrelenting and tragic ridiculousness of it all. As with Seka, Ashley Blue eventually does find her way out of the morass although meeting Mr. Right happens so suddenly and with not much explanation, that it is not nearly as compelling or touching as told in Inside Seka. And given that her Mr. Right is a photographer in the porn industry, it does not have the feel of a more complete redemption. Still, it does provide something of a hopeful note that she too has ended her drug addiction and has found some measure of peace as an artist and wife of a man she believes truly loves her.
Like Inside Seka, Girlvert is also a page turner. The main attraction is not so much her personal story as it is the rawness of the sexual acts that are described and the equally raw way in which they are described. The book definitely has shock value and is, in many places, jaw-dropping (She did what???). But her lack of insight as she tells these stories and the repetitive nature of them detracts from the book overall. If you want a glimpse of the darker side of today's porn that is - please also excuse this - jammed down your throat from beginning to end, Girlvert fits that bill nicely.
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