Girlvert: A Porno Memoir by Oriana Small
A couple of weeks ago, I had a conversation with a friend of mine who works in literary PR. We were talking about truth vs. craft, and specifically regarding memoirs. I was telling him that I do not value honesty over skill, and that no amount of truth in a story, no matter how searing or critical, can make up for writing that’s indulgent, lazy, or just plain bad. Ironically, this friend then sent me home armed with the exception to my own rule.
Girlvert: A Porno Memoir is not well-written. But it is good. It’s very good. Oriana Small (aka Ashley Blue, the “Girlvert”) is not a writer, she’s a porn star, and for the most part, her account of working her way up the pornography ladder throughout her twenties reads, at least technically, like a high schooler’s diary: in turns sentimental, solipsistic, blithely ignorant. She makes all the hallmark mistakes of a young writer (redundancy, passive voice, overwrought metaphors), in addition to dropping some truly bad sentences:
“We had to try it out before I started judging the idea too hard and put it down completely.”
“All of his actions spoke more than a thousand words which ultimately spelled out IT’S OVER.”
Yet often, Small’s lack of writerly prowess, and resulting dependence on deadpan reporting of facts, is exactly what’s needed. I’d like to see a more astute description of a creepy porno guy than this one:
He looked just like he did on the video boxes, about five-foot-five, bald on top, graying long, stringy hair in the back. His thick eyebrows accentuated his welcoming gestures. He wore round glasses and had a mustache and goatee. He was dressed in a black tee shirt and sweats. he had a belly on him. He used expressions like “make love” and “climax.” He called himself old-fashioned.
And Girlvert is fun to read. Small whisks us through the porn industry in grotty detail, and her episodes are not for the faint of heart (with chapter titles like Double Anal, Ass Herpes, Jolly Roger, Anal Fisting, Ass Cream Pie and Clusterfuck, you can infer what you’re in for here). Yet it somehow avoids being merely episodic, and instead, pornography ends up serving as a backdrop for a deftly-crafted story about being young, and all of the delusions that go along with it: that your first love is the best person for you, that you can avoid the fate of your parents by hating them, that you’re invincible, immortal, with a backpack of mulligans to use. “My sexy boyfriend and I were the coolest people alive. At a second’s notice, we were going to Vegas for the weekend to party with a group of attractive friends, and my shallow heart was complete.”
One of the central stories in Girlvert is Small’s relationship with Tyler, her first boyfriend: a majorly messed-up drug addict with daddy issues and a warped sense of ownership over Small. She describes succumbing to humiliating, and at times painful, sexual escapades because he throws a “tantrum,” and self-negation at every sign of an impending meltdown on his part. But just when you want to strangle her, when you want to jump into the book and go, “I’m sorry but WHAT THE HELL IS WRONG WITH YOU? Ditch this fucking loser!” Small pulls the lens back, and we see where she’s coming from. We learn about her childhood, about Tyler’s childhood, and the multitude of sickening ways the adults in their lives failed to protect them. And we understand why these two need each other.
At times, Small’s naiveté is annoying and somewhat contrived -- “I had no idea what the term ‘swinger’ meant. I thought it had something to do with the movie Swingers, and that was cool. I also liked to eat at a restaurant called Swingers.” -- but for the most part, whether she’s talking about Tyler or drugs or porn, she manages to sustain this pattern of taking us to the brink of frustration at her passivity, only to pull back and show us the whole picture. And it’s incredibly humbling when she does this. The scenes depicting life with her heroin-addicted mother are profoundly disturbing.
I think the most interesting cliché that Small dispels is that sex for money is dehumanizing. Girlvert describes a life in which sex is the singular humanizing aspect, the one thing that allows Small to connect with herself, while “the dehumanizing happened outside of the scene, at home by the ones I loved.” The struggle to break cycles of addiction, to sever dependent relationships, to pay credit card bills and develop healthy habits, to forge a life for oneself from the bleakest of circumstances: these are the dehumanizing acts. Struggle as the Great Dehumanizer.
But ultimately, while I loved reading it, I found myself wishing Girlvert was fiction so that I could rightly lament the lack of sufficient payoff in the end. Because while Small does indeed achieve some major personal triumphs near the book’s close, she never truly becomes her own woman. Or rather, all of the positive changes she makes seem to be for the sake of the man she meets and falls in love with. By this point, we’ve seen her bend over backwards (no pun intended) to impress the men in her life, for years taking her only scraps of pride and achievement from their attention. And we want so badly for her to be able to validate herself by the end, to do what’s right for her because it’s right for her. So we’re thrilled when she says, “Most importantly, I wasn’t seeking the approval that I used to so desperately need from a variety of men or those who watched me fuck.”
Rejoice! Empowerment! Only, the next sentence reads, “The stability and happiness from being with Dave replaced the importance of being a contract girl.”
So, man replaces men. Bizarrely, she goes on to call this one “the perfect man,” asserting that she’s no longer willing to allow herself to be debased, or invite conflict into her life, out of respect for him. No mention of herself. Ugh.
Oh well. A better life is a better life, regardless of motivation, right? Small’s lack of a sense of self isn’t the only mildly disturbing quality on display here, but Girlvert isn’t fiction. Small is a real person, and real people are complicated. I just wanted… more for her. But as she says, “That was my fucked up life and I guess it has some entertainment value.”
That it does. I would read this again in a hot, steamy second.
Girlvert: A Porno Memoir by Oriana Small