Kingsland ‘s “The Secret Life of a Schoolgirl“ and “Traci Lords: Underneath it All“ by Lords have gotten literary and pop culture circles buzzing with their new books, and with good reason. Kingsland is a respected journalist, screenwriter and novelist who used the opportunity of her autobiography to reveal that as a 14-year-old schoolgirl, she had a long-term, torrid affair with a 29-year-old, married Richard Burton. Lords was just 15-years-old when she became a major star in the porn industry, only to have her career brought to an end with an FBI raid at her home just days after her 18th birthday.
Lest all this just sound salacious and sordid, these are two well-written, thoughtful and often moving chronicles written by women who never saw themselves as victims. Kingsland came from an aristocratic English background and Lords from the poverty of a Midwestern mining town, and though of different eras, both learned at an early age that they could exert great influence over men through their sexuality. Eventually, though, both would need to tell their stories to achieve a decidedly personal means of healing. As they do, they keep readers turning the pages and picking their jaws up off the floor.
The Secret Life of a Schoolgirl by Rosemary Kingsland
While many readers will undoubtedly gravitate to rather explicit sections about Kingslands relationship with Burton, this is much more than a kiss-and-tell all, primarily because of the authors fascinating family history and elegant sense of prose, as witnessed by this early passage:
“There comes a time in a young girl‘s life when she is ripe and ready for love, when there is a richness about her, a glow, a honeyed tumescence that draws men like bees to blossom. Call it what you will, nature, biology, pheromones, or lust, it is the moment, that perfect moment when her hormones are sizzling, when she melts, when her eyes are dewy with promise, when everything about her is sending out urgent messages. In short, nature works overtime to make her absolutely irresistible. For me, as I open this account, that moment had not yet come. There were still two years of preparation, during which I matured from a gauche schoolgirl into a wide-eyed young woman standing on the threshold of adult life... It was a period when sex was a taboo word between the generations. Somehow, my friends and I muddled along, the entire subject concealed in whispers, a carefully guarded adult mystery so impossible to penetrate that we were constantly searching for clues. Even the most obscure references to body parts and suggestive activities in the dictionary, the Bible, or Shakespeare assumed pornographic proportions, which, if read out loud in class, invoked furtive whispers and giggles as notes were passed beneath desks. Anything could set us off... For a time, until we forgot about it, hysteria set in. It seemed our world was full of pitfalls to be avoided, yet most of the time, we didn‘t know what those pitfalls were. However, doing it was high on the list.“
By the time she gets around to “doing it“ with Burton, she knows quite a bit about pitfalls, and the learning curve has just begun. Their relationship, like the one Kingsland has with her family is complicated and more than a little dysfunctional, and she does a wonderful job describing it and them. Particularly effective is the way she brings Burton to life and draws parallels between the tormented Welsh actor (who was creepily carrying on a simultaneous affair with another schoolgirl) and her charismatic father, the implications of which are dissected with a sense of wisdom and awareness. Outside of the Burton factor, this would be a very impressive tale all on its own. With it as a centerpiece, it becomes unforgettable - for a number of reasons.
Traci Lords: Underneath It All by Traci Lords
One gets the impression that if the ship were sinking, youd wants Lords on it. This woman, whose name (originally Nora Kuzma) has been synonymous with wanton, underage porn, is a survivor in every sense of the word, and her story is nothing short of fascinating, even when it makes ones skin crawl. In the first chapter, she talks about the second class, third world background she had growing up, factors that were important in her wanting stardom, success and stability and being willing to pay for it with sex:
“I grew up in a dirty little steel town called Steubenville, in eastern Ohio. It was one of those places where everyone was old, or just plain seemed like it. Even the kids felt the times, and the times were tough...The projects were cockroach-ridden matchbox-shaped dwellings inhabited by desperately poor black families who barely survived on meager monthly public assistance checks. It was a place where hungry children played in the gutters of pot-holed streets while munching on sandwiches of Wonder bread and mayonnaise they dubbed “welfare burgers.“ Just a pebble‘s throw away down the hill was the University of Ohio, where professors drove their shiny new cars to garden fund-raisers on the campus lawn. I remember catching glimpses of white tablecloths blowing in the afternoon breeze while ladies in crisp white dresses sipped drinks from tall glasses... But my mother explained that “people like us“ don‘t mix with “people like those.“ “People like what?“ I demanded, meeting the weary look of my mother, who said it was a matter of “social class.“ I was five years old and at the time and didn‘t understand why I wasn‘t one of the chosen few who could receive hot meals and pretty dresses. I only knew that some people had food and others didn‘t, and I was on the wrong side of the fence. I‘d gather crab apples from my great-granny‘s yard and hurl them in protest toward the happy people down the hill. Although my targets were never struck, I felt justice had been served.“
Because she became a prominent porn star at age 15 (thanks to a fake i.d..), there isnt much of a time lapse between her days in Ohio and being Penthouse Pet of the Month. From that point on, its sex, drugs, deceit and sleaze, until the FBI bust, where Lords was made a target as part of the Reagan Administrations efforts to crack down on porn. There were more chapters to be written on her life after this, though, and what follows proves to be as compelling, if not more so, than everything leading up to it.
Frank and tough-talking, Lords doesnt shy away from the dirt in her life, and theres plenty of it, to be sure. Still, redemption is always possible, and by the end of her story, she provides a convincing case that one can triumph over the past and find the health and happiness that come only from self esteem, forgiveness and the simple determination to not have it any other way.