“In My Skin” by Melbourne author Kate Holden is the fifth-book I have read as part of a blog project on “the junkie in literature”.
In My Skin is Kate Holden’s memoir of her journey from a middle-class suburban family upbringing into heroin addiction and prostitution and later, successfully beating her addiction.
The book charts how she came to become a heroin addict (curiosity, boredom, wanting to be included) and how she was forced to become a prostitute – first walking the streets of St. Kilda and later working in a number of brothels – to pay for her and her boyfriend Robbie’s habits.
It is an incredibly honest account, and quite shocking in its frank description of the life of a prostitute and quite a compassionate one in terms of her views on the men whom frequent brothels and whom she serviced.
It provides the reader with access to a world behind closed doors: brothel bedrooms, the camaraderie of prostitutes, the nervousness of men of women’s bodies and the ferocious nature of some sexual encounters.
I was lucky enough to chat to Kate Holden about the experience of writing “In My Skin”:
Did you read or take inspirations from any other memoirs (about heroin users or anyone else who has struggled against an illness or personal challenge) before or as you wrote “In my skin”?
Kate: I was an interested reader of heroin-related stories I guess, starting with loving ‘Monkey Grip’ (although much more for its Melbourne atmosphere and writing style than anything to do with Javo) and then, just as I was beginning to use, I sought out various books like a novel called ‘Nature Strip’ (by Leonie Stevens set in Melbourne during the 1980s) and another memoir about an American user (name totally forgotten). It was the age of ‘grunge-lit’ so I didn’t have to look far; in the absence of any adult guidance in the ways and destinies of heroin use I had to look for help from literature. I didn’t read anything before I started work on ‘In My Skin’. I can’t stand reading junkie books now.
Who are your favourite writers?
Kate: Hilary Mantel, Anne Michaels, Pablo Neruda, Judith Wright, T. S. Eliot, Geoff Dyer, Michael Chabon.
Was it challenging being so honest about this period in your life or was it mostly cathartic?
Kate: It was refreshing, like jumping in a cold pool.
How did writing the book change how you viewed your journey through heroin addiction? What were the major revelations and insights?
Kate: Mostly I had to figure out a kind of pattern – the arc of addiction, how it made sense within the arc of my life – and to resist the normative ideologies around heroin and the many boring and reductive ways in which people like to either portray it, or pretend to understand it. Generally I came to see that there were some deep, real reasons why I personally came to heroin, and scattered, random, happenstance circumstances that meant I came to heroin. Life is not given to nice moral pat lessons, thank god.
In the books I’ve read about heroin use, I get the sense that something is experienced in the beginning stages of drug use that is of a sublime nature which then makes the ‘ordinary’ world seem dull by comparison? Was this true in your experience?
Kate: The first time I used I lay on a couch feeling slightly sleepy and watched ‘The X Files.’ There was no ecstatic revelation, no swooning back through the carpet (as happens to Renton in Trainspotting), no orgasmic rush. That’s the movies. There are lots of reasons why people like heroin, or don’t; one is that it’s meant to be interesting, and to make you more interesting by dint of being so wild as to dare take it. This is unfortunately very attractive to a shallow naïve person, or a sensitive naïve person like I was.
Do you think there is a certain type of artistic/creative personality (I think of William S. Burroughs, Thomas De Quincey and the character ‘Javo’ in Monkey Grip) that is vulnerable or drawn towards heroin? What is the initial attraction?
Kate: Funny how all the characters or authors you cite are men. I am not a man. So I think automatically it’s unlikely that you have to be William S. Burroughs to be the type to be a heroin user. I will say that most of the users I met were like me, rather nice people when they weren’t desperately savage and haggard.
In “Junky” by William S. Burroughs there is a moment in the book where he looks in the mirror and realises his face has changed and that he has become a junky. Did you experience that sort of thing or was it just that you found yourself suddenly disappearing into this different kind of existence?
Kate: I won’t pretend that there weren’t times when I looked and didn’t know quite who I’d see in the mirror. But actually I was fairly healthy-looking when I was using. Mostly just tired and a bit yellow. There were times I looked and rather enjoyed seeing the changed version of myself. Other times I was just too fucking tired and miserable to care.
In the book, you never seem to lose your pride or purpose while working in the brothel. What was keeping you going? Did you always see a positive end to the story?
Kate: What kept me going was the uncompromising need to make around $500 a day. The positive end was the slice of home delivery lemon meringue pie that I ordered every night on shift as my reward, without which I was utterly desolate. The other reward was heroin. When I gave up heroin the reward was fistfuls of cash and the promise to myself that finally I was going to stop feeling humiliated, since I now had more savings than anyone I knew.
How important was the support of your family in kicking the drug? Do you think you could have become clean without them?
Kate: Words can’t measure it. But to be honest, I had to do it all myself. My family helped by not hating me.
In the book, you have almost a benevolent/healing view of the sex worker? Do you still feel that way about the industry now that you’re no longer part of it?
Kate: I love and admire sex workers more and more as I go. I do work now with Scarlet Alliance (Australian Sex Workers Association) and Vixen (Victorian Sex Industry Network), and fucking adore the company of people who know that world. It’s such a relief not to have to mince words. And they are total spunks.
What happened to your ex-boyfriend “Robbie”? Did he manage to get off heroin and are you still friends?
Kate: He’s around.
Last question, I think of the title “In My Skin” as having two meanings – you learning to be comfortable in your own skin – and also the physical act of injecting heroin in to your skin? Am I reading too much into that?