The Cost of Telling Your Truth, Publicly

Jillian Lauren on the challenges of holding nothing back as a writer—about her time in a harem, her life as a sex worker, and the fallout from her family’s response to her memoirs.

Sari Botton | Longreads | June 2015 | 8 minutes (1,858 words)


In her first memoir, Some Girls: My Life in a Harem, Jillian Lauren held back pretty much nothing—about her eighteen months in the harem of the Prince Jefri Bolkiah, playboy brother of the Sultan of Brunei; her substance abuse; her time as a sex worker.

She didn’t stop there. Lauren also revealed some of the less idyllic aspects of life in her adoptive family, such as her father’s violent nature—a choice for which she paid dearly when her parents stopped talking to her.

In her second memoir, Everything You Ever Wanted, released in May, Lauren depicts the very scene where her parents cut her off, after a family therapy session in which she tells them she won’t be deterred from publishing Some Girls.

It’s just a small part of the new book—which is much more about her life after the harem: kicking her drug habit; meeting her husband; adopting her son, Tariku, from Ethiopia; figuring out how to square Tariku’s advanced intelligence with his lagging behavioral development; and finally, trying to adopt a second child.

But, in light of my never-ending quest for the best way to handle writing about those who’d rather not be written about, I was particularly intrigued by that part of the story.

I was also intrigued, and encouraged, when Lauren told me that she and her parents recently had something of a reconciliation. Her mother and father began speaking to her again in the past year. They attended one of her recent readings, near her hometown in New Jersey. And they say they love this book—even thought that tearful scene is included.

I got to talk with Lauren recently about the price for telling the ugly truth, and why she’d do it all over again. Here’s a part of our conversation, followed by an excerpt from that particular part of the touching, compelling Everything You Ever Wanted.

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In the beginning of the book you’re back in your prior life. You’re using drugs, doing sex work. There’s that scene of you under the bed hiding in your dealer’s apartment, and you make a bargain. Tell me about the bargain that you made.

Well, the book deals with my more scandalous years, mostly in flashback. And that particular flashback was when I really realized that my life had gone so far off the rails, and was dangerous, and never where I thought I would be or wanted to be. So I made a bargain with God. It was probably the first time I had talked to God since my Bat Mitzvah. The bargain was that if I lived through this dangerous scenario, I would get off drugs and I would go to rehab, and that’s exactly what I did.

And it changed your life.

It absolutely changed my life. And when I got out of rehab I decided that I really just wanted a job, I just wanted to be a person, a worker among workers. You know, I wanted a life that was not so very exciting. And so I went to beauty school, and it was when I was in beauty school that I met my husband and my life got exciting again, whether or not I wanted it to.

You also write about the fallout from your first memoir, which is particularly interesting to me. It’s something I live with to some degree, and think about all the time. There are multiple places where you pay the price for writing your first memoir, about, among other things, being in the harem of the Prince Jeffrey, brother of the Sultan of Brunei. There’s a scene in the new book with your parents where you’re at a therapy session with them, and they tell you they no longer want to talk to you. That hit me in the gut. Where are you now with your parents? Are you still not in contact with them?

Well last time I spoke to you I wasn’t talking to them, but now I am. We’ve been talking to them for months now, and I just saw them for the first time at a reading I did in New Jersey, near where I grew up. My feeling about it is that there have been a lot of years, and a lot of water under the bridge since that first memoir came out, and they’re not the only ones getting older, we’re all getting older.

When was the first contact made?

I can’t remember, exactly. I texted my mother—I can’t remember whether it was for her birthday or Mother’s Day—and we started a tentative texting relationship. Then it led to talking on the phone. I’ve talked to my father and mother on the phone. We’re never going to see eye to eye about the first book, or about my childhood, or about a lot of things, but I think we’re definitely reaching toward having some sort of a relationship. You know, if there’s one thing that my early years with my son have taught me, it’s that healing is possible from many things that appear to be insurmountable.

I’m very encouraged by the fact that you’re in touch with them, and that they came to your reading.

I hope a lot of people will be encouraged by that. The story has not yet been written on this. But I felt bad when people used to ask about what happens when you write about family, and I didn’t have a good answer for them. Although, I’ve never regretted it for a second. I stand behind everything I said in that book, and I would say it again. I was sad about what happened, but I was willing to be sad about what happened. I believed in the work enough.

That’s the part of that chapter that really emboldened me, where you said you loved your parents, and were grateful to them, but didn’t believe that gratitude should keep you from writing the truth.

Right. How grateful are we supposed to be to our parents? Are we supposed to be grateful enough to not tell our own story? To not have our experience in the world? And you and I are writers and what we do is we express those experiences in an artistic way. Are we supposed to not do that out of gratitude, or respect, or fear, or love, or any of those things? Would that be a fair thing to request out of love, that we don’t tell our stories?

That’s such an interesting way to look at it. It makes sense to me. I need to try and hold onto that.

I was just at a fundraiser for The Moth last night, and every time I go to a Moth event it reinforces for me the importance of storytelling in our lives, and the importance of sharing the hard stuff, and the messy stuff. And the stuff that our families—if what they expect from us is to present this glossy façade to the world—aren’t going to approve of. Those stories have given me a sense of hope and connection and meaning in the world. And somebody else shared their stories before me, and so I am really honored to be a part of that tradition. It’s just not always without its casualties.

How was it to see your parents at your reading?

This book has been a real gift in that it has opened up some new, authentic roads of communication with my family. It was great having them there and I look forward to seeing what the future brings with our relationship.

How did they respond to the material you read?

They loved it! I read the part about meeting my son for the first time. Tariku was there for the reading, as well. My mom cried. Tariku ran up to me afterwards, hugged me and said, I’m not making this up, I swear, “You made me proud!” That kid! I nearly sobbed my mascara down my face.

There’s a chapter in which you relate the story of your parents cutting you off years ago, in response to your publishing your first memoir, Some Girls. Have they read that chapter? How have they responded to that, and the book, in general?

They really don’t like that book. It embarrassed and saddened them and they didn’t understand why I would air my dirty laundry in public. They’ve had some time to sit with it and now they’re more supportive of what I do as a memoirist. I think they see the value of telling your story now. It’s still a tender subject and I wouldn’t say that they exactly love the book now, but at least it’s an open dialogue.

Let’s talk about the other consequences of telling your story. One of them was that it interfered with your ability, at least from one organization, to adopt a second time.

Yeah. There are consequences for living in a public way. You know, if I had never told that story publicly, we’d probably have three kids by now, we really would. And that is a huge consequence in my life, in my son’s life, in my husband’s life. And what I have gotten out of that is the chance to make amends, the chance to change my behavior, the chance to make a mistake and apologize and start again. I maybe should be clear that I lied on the application, and those lies were apparent from what I had written. So right now we’re going to our second adoption, and we’re working with a new agency. When I walked into this agency, I put manuscripts of my new book and my old book on the desk, and I said to the woman in there, “I need you to read these, and I’ll go over every single thing that’s in them with you. If there’s anything in here that’s a deal breaker for you, then I need to know that now and not six months from now, because neither me nor my child are getting any younger, and we want another kid.” This new agency has been so supportive and so terrific, and they love the new book. They’ve actually had me come and do some trainings with them because of the things that I talk about in the book that are very common adoption-related behaviors and issues. They actually think that they’re a very valuable training tool for potential adoptive families. So it’s been terrific, and now I feel—and this is what I learned with my first book too—that the more honest I am, the more freedom and acceptance I have, not less. It’s just that sometimes it takes some unpleasantness to get to that.

Read an excerpt from Everything You Ever Wanted 

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