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Review: Spent by Antonia Crane

June 23rd, 2014     by Allison McCarthy     Comments

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There are stories within stories. On its most recognizable level, Antonia Crane’s debut memoir, Spent, can be framed as a powerful behind-the-scenes peek into the candid details of Crane’s experiences in the adult entertainment industry. So that’s one story – and certainly it’s a story that deserves to be told, as the stories of sex workers are too often painted as broad stereotypes in mainstream media. (Think Julia Roberts’ “Hooker with a Heart of Gold” in Pretty Woman).

But for perceptive readers, there are other, more subtle stories to be mined. Crane’s truth-telling extends far beyond the details of her profession and into her life as an artist and survivor. Spent proves to be a fascinating, complex and richly observed first-person account of the author’s experience at the intersections of social class, mother-daughter relationships, body image and queer sexuality.

Crane is raised primarily by her mother, who worries about her daughter’s safety even as she exposes her to danger in the form of a physically abusive boyfriend-turned-stepfather. We know from the outset of the book that her mother has died, but what we learn over time is how her relationship with her mother informed her world view. For Crane, who is often cast into the role of caregiver for men such as her brother and boyfriend, there is no financial safety net and often, emotional support can only be translated as worried voicemail messages from a distant, complicated mother.

Speaking of complicated personal relationships, as a reader, I found it especially refreshing that Crane writes so honestly about her romantic relationships with both women and men. Too often, the stories of folks who fall outside of the gay/straight binary are streamlined, as if readers are incapable of understanding bisexuality or queer identity. But Crane never simplifies her experiences and she even takes responsibility for her own biases: regarding her feelings of insecurity for a girlfriend’s relationships with other women, Crane writes: “I clammed up. Jealousy was not invited to the non-monogamy racket.”

Crane’s work in Spent remains powerful and equally unafraid at every turn her story takes. She writes in blunt terms about her issues of shame and struggle with weight: “I was haunted by fat, always pinching the blubber around my hips. I hated mirrors. I compared my thighs to the skinny girls in Jazzercise whose bodies were sharp points of perfection.” For Crane, food is both a source of comfort and an enemy to be vanquished as she channels her grief into baking lemon bars that she refuses to eat. Spent critiques ideals of feminine perfection even as the narrative descends into the author’s unending struggles with weight gain and loss. While Crane boasts of building “a seasoned hustler persona and body to match,” she admits to being “relieved to see the range of body types… round hips, stretch marks and crooked smiles; their garters held stacks of green. They were making money. Maybe I could, too.”

The Boston Women’s Health Collective’s Our Bodies, Ourselves for the New Century notes that “Contrary to the ugly stereotypes of prostitutes as fallen women, dope addicts, or disease carriers, sex workers are women at work… surviving economically in a job market that underpays women at every economic level.” Spent never shies away from the author’s vision of her industry as a means to an end – financial liberation. Yet this book’s approach also liberates from the oppressive weight of secrets and shame. Even in moving through themes of grief and loneliness, Crane never verges into self-pity. In reflecting on her career decisions, she writes: “Sometimes I wish I had made a different choice when I was broke and feisty and alone. But I didn’t. I became the hardest working dancer I could be. I learned how to extract blood from stone.”

The most wrenching of Spent’s themes is the loss of Crane’s mother, who endures “a cancer so rare, it’s like getting struck by lightning… She was logical, reasonable, and organized. She didn’t want to inconvenience me.” Crane’s depiction of the rippling effects of her grief are part of an ongoing literary conversation in memoirs such as Cheryl Strayed’s Wild; these titles could easily be paired together as part of an accessible, honest discussion on the loss of mothers. But don’t expect any neat or tidy narrative resolutions from Crane. The stories within stories of Spent revel in the contradictions of Crane’s life and fully embrace ambiguity, uncertainty and nuance.

Tags: body politics

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