By Catherine Wagley
By Channing Sargent
By L.A. Weekly critics
By Amanda Lewis
By Catherine Wagley
By Carol Cheh
By Keegan Hamilton
By Bill Raden
It is a book you want to hate. The literary landscape is overrun with sensitive young girl coming-of-age tales full of angst and hard-won insight. As a genre, the memoir's reputation took a beating after James Frey published his story of drug addiction. How could such a horror of a life be real? people asked. It wasn't. Frey had lied. Oprah Winfrey scolded him on national TV.
But Lauren is about "a radical honesty." Some girls' names have been changed to protect their privacy. The rest is true. Slowly, surely, she wins you over. She doesn't mince words. She calls herself on her own bullshit. Lauren is a natural storyteller as much as she was a natural stripper. She has a gift for metaphor, an eye for the odd detail. Brunei is green, a "sticky, overgrown, ancient green." The palace is tacky with Italian marble and windows "smothered" with peach drapery. It is a place where girls exercise naked on the StairMaster ("Ew," writes Lauren. "Why?"). Where men are "paid play fellows as much as the women are."
She sees three tissue boxes in every room, "each with a decorative gold cover." She sees girls lounging on the upholstery "like tigers draped over the rocks." They tally up one another's flaws and assets. Alliances shift. They are enemies, then best friends, then enemies again.
Some girls try to get pregnant. Some want to marry the prince — only a select few consider that goal to be within their sights. "Those who did were fighting pretty hard for it," Lauren says. "But there were also women who came and went, who were happy to take their cash and go home to L.A. and buy themselves a Mercedes."
Every little thing in the harem environment is treated like life or death. Boring and treacherous. Funny and tragic. "So now the Thai girls and the Indonesian girls were practically in a gang war," she writes. "Girls circumvent the corporeal and go straight for one another's souls. The bleeding is harder to stanch."
She spends long nights sitting on couches, drinking champagne, volleying gossip back and forth for hours and hours. You can only sing the same karaoke songs so many times. Sometimes they weren't allowed out of the houses, in which case they'd watch a laser disc, she adds, laughing at the ridiculousness of it.
The prince's harem girls are well-kept slaves. They are given expensive watches, diamond necklaces. They party from 10 at night to four in the morning, rising at dusk like vampires. Servants bring them breakfast. "We could order anything we wanted in the whole world," Lauren remembers. "Except for papaya. The prince hated papaya."
Snarfing caviar by the spoonful straight from the jar, drinking expensive wine, nothing to do but wait — it sounds like a vacation.
But it isn't. Not when the prince locks you in a freezing-cold room for four hours with no bathroom and you have to urinate so badly you consider peeing in the trash can.
"You have been here long?" Prince Jefri asks her, sounding pleased.
Not when you fall asleep and wake to him thrusting hard into you without a condom at the peak of the AIDS epidemic, this man who has slept with literally thousands of girls. "I couldn't find my voice to stop him," she writes.
Depression takes hold. She stops eating, stops caring. Everything is an illusion. The harem women are left to their own devices but are surveilled by cameras hidden behind mirrors. They never know who is listening to their phone calls or watching them in the shower.
"I began to think of these invisible watchers as ghosts," Lauren writes, "spirits, creatures from another world who lived in the house with us even though we couldn't see them . ... Some girls in Brunei came and went like weekend guests, and some became lady of the manor for a time. I started out the belle of the ball, but I became the crazy lady in the attic."
She begins to write, every day. In the end, it is her salvation. Boredom is replaced by a kind of graphomania.
The diaries she kept are partly how she remembers events in exquisite detail, as if she were there yesterday and not 17 years ago. The other part is the steel trap of memory itself. One thing connects to another, and suddenly she is remembering tissue boxes in locked rooms.
"I'm not sure I want to get rid of it."
—Some Girls, Chapter 21
"Would I go back? Into that world? No," she says now. But living a grown-up life, with a mortgage and laundry and a baby crying in the wee hours of the morning, even a privileged upper-middle-class life, feels very hard sometimes. "Sometimes I wish I had appreciated Brunei more when I was 18," she says. "I didn't really know how hard it was just to take care of yourself in the world. Even though it was boring and treacherous over there, it was pretty luxurious and easy."
She was spoiled, she concedes. She was a teenager. "It was like, whatever! Picassos, schmicassos!"