The First Time With Strangers

"What are you up to lately?" P. asks – we were in the MAOL program together, but she graduated ahead of me. We haven't seen one another for a few years.

"Well – I quit my job. Decided not to look for a new one. And now I'm writing a memoir." Which explains why I'm attending this professional women's networking event at the prestigious Minneapolis Women's Club – the speaking panel is about getting a book published. I'm here about publishing, not for the schmoozing. But while I never knew her well, I've always respected P. and am happy to chat.

I'm not entirely sure what I'm going to say if she asks the frequent follow-up question. I hadn't thought through the possibility of running into someone here that I already knew well enough to consider telling.

"Oh! How wonderful!", she responds. "Does it focus on a particular time of your life, or start from the beginning, or what?" Ah, someone with enough sense of memoir to probe specifics.

I take a deep breath and jump in. "P.", I say "I'm going to tell you something that may shock you, but I hope it's not too upsetting – please say so if it is." We both smile. "I was a prostitute when I was a young woman." We both gulp. "And so my memoir is in part about that experience. But it's also about what led up to it, and more, it's about the aftermath. It's about turning that fact into a secret, and then the process of deciding to stop keeping it a secret. So, it's about how secrets impact us, and about disclosure."

Now it makes sense to her.

"That sounds interesting!" she pauses.

"That's really great!! I'm so glad you're doing it! You have to let me know when it's done, I want to read it."

She gives me her business card. I'm enjoying being without the things for the first time in nearly two decades, so I can't swap, but I promise to send her my email address soon.

We decide to mingle together – it's a large crowd and neither of us sees anyone else we know. We visit the publishers tables, we go through the hors devours line, pick up another one of P's acquaintances, and head up to the rooftop to enjoy the view, our food, and each other.

In the rooftop dining area, P. and her friend find more acquaintances, including another couple MAOL graduates, whose faces I recognize. They invite us to join them, so now we're seated at a round table, on a perfect breezy summer evening, about 8 women getting to know each other.

I can love or hate this type of situation, depending on how I engage with it. I decide to be open to the moment.

We're going around the table. Each woman tells us what she does, or where her life is at right now, and others probe, unfold and engage around her topic. Then we move to the next one. There are a number of leadership/organizational consultant types.

After a few of these exchanges, I realize we're going in order, I'm going to be up next and I have to make a decision. I'm not ready to tell a group of unknown women who have the potential to overlap with my professional life (if I ever rebuild one) which would be in a related realm of consulting. On the other hand, when do I think I will be ready? If you're going to write a book, at some point you have to tell people about it.

I look at P.. If I wimp out and make some lame comment like "I'm taking some time off to navel-gaze" or even if I say I'm writing a book and then sidestep the topic if it comes up with something like "it's about the impact of secrets," I'll be telling her I'm not serious. Worse, I'll be telling that to me. The revelation is only worth making if I do something with it. Otherwise it's just airing dirty laundry.

Once I conclude that retreat is not an option, I'm ok. Following the conversation, I focus on my heart, keeping the beat as slow as possible.

When it's my turn, I turn to P., smile and say "I'm going to tell them." "Go for it!" she responds. "I'm going to tell them all of it." I say. She smiles, nods & says "Yeah!".

I look around the table and start with a very brief recap of my most recent professional incarnation ("VP of Marketing and Analytics in a . . . ") then a repeat of what I said to P. earlier. And the discussion begins.


"How courageous!"

"What fun!"

"How exciting!"

"That's impressive!"

The initial exclamations.

They're all still smiling. In fact, they're more animated. They ask some questions and we do some back and forth about details. After the initial unanimously supportive commentary, one woman says "I'm struggling with this. I'm not sure why you would tell people that. I mean, I used to slalom ski, but I don't tell that to everyone I meet – I'm not sure how it's relevant."

"You're right," I agree "it's a hard decision. I've grappled with this topic – does it matter? doesn't it matter? – for a long time. So I know exactly where you're coming from."

I'm relieved to find the question didn't make me feel the least defensive – in the past it would have.

I tell them how the MAOL program really made me think about this repeatedly, with the focus on ethics, integrity, authenticity. Then I launch into an abbreviated version of the story of the windowpane exercise in Louise's Senior Seminar. Enough of the women present either know Louise's Senior Seminar or the windowpane exercise or both, so they can connect to the story.

My heart is lighter than it's been in a group of unfamiliar people in a long time. I am in my raconteur mode – I miss this.

I circle back to the question and say "Since I'm writing a book about it, now I have to say it. But the reason I've decided to write about it is because it's not just like some prior career – it's a transgression, a transgression that has to do with women and sexuality and repression. Telling is a political statement."

As I'm saying this, one of the organizational consultants nods supportively and then she jumps in. "Hell," she says "if you were a man, you'd make your public apologies, hire a ghost writer to tell your version, make a lot of money off it and recreate yourself as a talk show host, and no one would question any of that."

My heart feels soothed.

Maybe not all, and maybe not completely, but for the moment they've embraced my adventure. In fact, a couple seem sincerely moved and really supportive.

One says "Plus, we've probably all felt like we've prostituted ourselves at some point in our lives, either in a marriage for security, or in a job, or somehow. And we don't ever talk about it."

As it turns out, I have to leave shortly after the discussion moves on, and I do so, I wonder what they're saying about me now that I'm gone. But it doesn't really matter. On the way home, I feel better about my decision to write this book than I have up to this point. I return to my desk in the morning with a stronger sense of purpose. Maybe some people will read the damn thing after all!

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"For a woman to explore and express the fullness of her sexuality, her emotional and intellectual capacities, would entail who knows what risks and who knows what truly revolutionary alteration of the social conditions that demean and constrain her."

-Louise J. Kaplan - Female Perversions