Braunstein (Microgreen Garden, 2013, etc.) collects the life stories of several young, female addicts in this nonfiction work.
For more than a quarter-century, the author lived at the end of a secluded road outside the port city of New London, Connecticut. Sex workers and their clients would frequently use the road as a place to transact their business. They would deposit beer cans and condoms on the roadside, which Braunstein would clean up. “After ten years of collecting the sex workers’ trash, I began collecting their stories,” he writes in the introduction to this book, which profiles 22 such workers in the New London, Norwich, and Willimantic areas, which included two large casinos—Foxwoods and Mohegan Sun. These women were habitual users of hard drugs, including crack and heroin, and had turned to sex work to fund their habits. The lifestyle exposed them to dangers of all kinds, from violence to disease to incarceration, and for some, it ended in premature death. One woman, Linda, was born to a well-off family—her mother was a former beauty queen and her father raised horses—but a crack addiction led to a very different life. Another was a teenage runaway and heroin addict whose fatal overdose at age 17 led to the discovery of the motel-based brothel where she had worked. One crack addict not only robbed clients but also banks, including several during a six-day spree in three states. A law-school graduate and cocaine addict passed the bar exam but couldn’t get a jurist license due to her criminal past; after she turned to sex work, she was killed by one of her customers and left naked in the street.
Braunstein’s accounts are based on interviews that he conducted with the subjects or, in the case of the deceased, people who knew them. The text mixes quotes from these first-person accounts with the author’s own reportage. Throughout, the stylized prose is full of dramatic turns of phrase. At times, though, the self-conscious presentation can feel a little too performative: “Knowing their numbed days were numbered, they held back their tears and recounted their life stories as though dictating their last testaments….Their stories are an oral history of a moral mystery.” The stories themselves, though, are often engaging and tragic, and the best make the most of the subjects’ own words. Some speak with a remarkable, epigraphic honesty: “I hated it,” says Linda of streetwalking. “It’s horrible. It’s degrading. But it was easy to do because it wasn’t like having sex. It was more like cleaning toilets.” At times, the work feels a bit exploitative, devoting much more attention to the lurid details of the subjects’ fates, for example, than on the larger systems in which they live. Even so, the act of giving voices to voiceless figures in society is an admirable one, and the book does effectively call attention to the impact of addiction in one corner of New England.
An intriguing, if sometimes-garish, account of the lives of troubled sex workers.