The author is a deft storyteller and not afraid to provide candid descriptions of her life.

SOME GIRLS: My Life in a Harem. Jillian Lauren. Plume. 339 pages. $15 in paper.

It may be impossible to pick up Jillian Lauren’s new book and not do the proverbial double take: Is this really a true story? Some Girls: My Life in a Harem is indeed a true-life memoir—corroborated with photographs and documents—detailing eighteen months Lauren resided in the harem of Prince Jefri Bolkiah (the Sultan of Brunei’s youngest brother) between age eighteen and twenty. Lauren flaunts considerable creative writing muscle (gained during her MFA from Antioch University) to deliver a tight, sleek narrative standing firmly on Lauren’s deftness as a wordsmith and storyteller, and a titillating tale bound to leave readers desiring more.

Sure—much of the story will, to some, merely seem scabrous. Lauren doesn’t shy from laying out her start as a stripper and quick transition to hired escort, including candid descriptions of sexual encounters. She doesn’t camouflage flaws such as flightiness and stubborn avoidance of hard work. After all, the promise of being paid 20 thousand dollars for spicing up a Singaporean businessman’s parties is enough to get her on the plane, and when it’s revealed the destination is actually Borneo, Lauren doesn’t bat an eye, the money all that matters. It is only when she realizes the parties aren’t just parties that things heat up: “Why hadn’t I realized it before? We were neither party guests nor prostitutes. We were harem girls.”

Shunt aside judgments or Puritanical shock at her questionable choices, however, and what is astounding is that Lauren writes without an ounce of shame, confronting every hard truth. She freely admits her confidence as a sex worker: “I had been a good stripper—a natural, everyone always told me.” And today she appears a natural at writing—astute observations ringing with emotional and factual truth (they’re based on her journal entries)—buoyed by her perspicacious past and loving new family (husband and Weezer bass player Scott Shriner, and an adopted son).

But she wasn’t always this grounded, and Some Girls is, as intended, more about Lauren’s struggle to love and find herself than about sex. Okay—it’s also about sex. You can’t write about a modern-day harem and not expect readers to skip well-placed flashback scenes—drawing astute parallels between Lauren’s harem experiences and those growing up in New Jersey—for promised revelations of the Prince’s venery. And though they add depth and insight, Lauren smartly keeps digressions limited and doesn’t delay juicy details for long.

Lauren was one of the first Westerners to access the Prince’s (they call him Robin) hedonistic playroom, and the intricacies of this ancient but enduring practice are enthralling. Each night, Lauren and a roomful of women of all ages and nationalities await Robin’s arrival, are asked to sing karaoke, retire to a bedroom, or sit next to him in the favored chair. 

One of the book’s most fascinating facets is the fierce and complex competition to stay on top and win the spot of Robin’s fourth wife. “The parties were a petri dish,” Lauren explains, “ideal conditions to breed fierce intimacies and fiercer resentments,” which was perhaps what the bored Robin loved most. Despite struggling with weight and self-esteem, Lauren becomes a star student of harem etiquette and strategy, quickly becoming one of Robin’s favorite girlfriends, instantly drunk on the position’s power, jewels and cash.

This may all sound quasi-romantic, but Lauren unapologetically explains that she was really a quasi-prostitute, locked up under 24-hour surveillance at Robin’s beck and call until she asked to go home. But the seduction was nearly inescapable: “Part of it was treacherous and terrible,” say says, “but part of it wasn’t so bad, this world of women with one enigma of a man who held sway over us all.”

Eventually, Lauren stopped objectifying herself, and sought a path she could walk confidently on her own. And in the post-harem, New York life she encapsulates, she’s transformed into the Scheherazade she likens herself to (along with Patti Smith)—enchanting with her life story with another in the wings, a novel, Pretty, to be released next year. Until then, many will delight in re-reading Some Girls, because it’s too good to read just once.

Read a shorter version at the Miami Herald, published 6.6.10

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