We don’t need another story by a woman who did drugs and all kinds of sex and wrote it down just to give a blow-by-blow. We do need The Passionate Mistakes and Intimate Corruption of One Girl in America, a wise, lyrical, autobiographical first novel by 27-year-old Michelle Tea. The title strikes the book’s one false note, with its coyly moralistic “mistakes” and “corruptions.” Narrator Michelle, chronicling her sexual coming-of-age during the late ’80s and early ’90s (ending when she’s 22), is free of affectation and apology. She isn’t shocked by mixed feelings, knows mostly they can’t be resolved, and ably extracts humor from messiness. Her book is a dividend of 30 years of feminism: permission to speak freely and say to hell with the consequences.
Michelle first zooms in on herself at 14, a goth-girl groupie, trancing out more on sociology than male rockers. She’s outside the Orpheum Theater in Boston, awaiting the arrival of INXS, when, in a seismic moment, their tour bus “seemed to quiver and all the girls in black clothes became hushed, clove cigarettes halted, and the door swung open and in the shining frame of the bus was the band, moving out of the darkness. And then a pause like an intake of breath and the girls just descended upon them and everything split open. They were locusts, they enveloped the band and of course everyone wanted the singer.” Michelle wants to touch him too, but something inside resists— “I just could not toss myself into the context of those girls.”
Had the rockers been female, perhaps she would have dived into their disdain. With wry matter-of-factness, Michelle reports her experiments in the sex lab, as she tries out boys gay and straight and girls of every stripe, deciding at around 18 that she’s a lesbian, though she continues to clutch her codependent boyfriend, Ian. For Michelle, sex is less a pleasure hunt than a path to knowledge and a way to exult in youth’s body— a prize especially valued by this working-class kid.
The book is a field guide to death-rocker, substance-addled, arm-slicing guerrilla girls. Wanting to punk up her Catholic school skirt, Michelle pens anarchy symbols into the plaid. Among her peers, guar gum mixed with water substitutes for food. The phrase “I love you” translates into “You can fuck me now.” And Michelle deftly etches the sadistic fickleness of female friendship— for her, a training ground for later romance. After doing graphic work for a publishing company, saving her money, and enrolling in college, she meets femme fatale Liz, who is instantly adored for the way she hassles right-to-lifers outside abortion clinics. They hook up and soon Michelle learns that in order to support her drug habit and expensive tastes, Liz works as a prostitute. Michelle, too, is lured into the life.
But this is no fall-and-redemption narrative, rather an eyeballing— free of shame and flashing— of damage and its twists. Michelle’s home life is shadowy, though in a memory here and a detail there dangerous males materialize. Biological dad splits early and becomes such a toxified spaceman he doesn’t recognize his daughter when, one night in a truck stop, he hassles her and her friends. Stepdad spies on her through holes he drills in the walls. Uncowed, Michelle flares sexual disgust with wicked abandon: “How is it that girls have gotten the big stinky genitalia rap, while everybody pretends that boys don’t smell exactly like moldy mushrooms from the back of the crisper drawer down there.” Still, early pain takes its toll in panic attacks and masochism, some of it tripped and revisited through hustling. “You can take little revenges as they present themselves,” she concludes, “but there are no sex worker superheroes. You are paid to be compliant.”
Desire and its discontents are Michelle’s themes, but in her relationship to language— to observation, thought, and the sensual flood of words— we see her triumph. She’s especially cunning in a lampoon of sex policing, where, trying to purge “violence from her pussy,” Michelle ditches an ineffectual water-on-clit fantasy in favor of a lubricious one of black-gloved domination. From the start, we’re in the hands of a writer implicated in her fate; even when she’s going nuts she’s trying to see why and to measure the part that feels good in feeling bad.
That thinking is itself erotic lofts off Michelle Tea’s sentences. Neither bitter nor romantic, moist nor scorching, she exuberantly declares that, like it or not, there is no coming out of early experience without a ring in your nose and some weird mark on your ankle, even if they’re not visible.