In “Girls Gone Old,” Fiona Helmsley Uses Personal Essay Like A Weapon

by Sara Rauch

In the title essay of her new collection, Girls Gone Old, Fiona Helmsley writes of using her appearance to sell books: “I was a bit of an exhibitionist, but with an agenda. But the thing about this kind of exhibitionism, especially if you’re a woman, is that it has a timestamp. You’re trying to bait assholes. Eventually they won’t want to look.” It is a brave statement — to so explicitly admit to exposing oneself for consumption. But it is also indicative of Helmsley’s keen ability to uncover discomfiting truths that other, more guarded writers might skirt over or avoid altogether. As the essay — a meditation on physicality, sexuality, the female body, and aging — continues, Helmsley delves into the intricacies of desire: welcome and unwelcome, power and (mis)understanding and thrill.

In a lesser writer’s hands, the confession that “being desired is addictive” might come off as self-absorbed. But Helmsley’s sharp wit and sarcastic eye allow for a deeper self-exposure, which in turn reveals some very important insights about body politics.

Girls Gone Old is timely, not only in regard to its unabashed third and fourth wave feminism. The essays collected here cover pop culture icons, class and wealth, addiction, rape culture, even the popularity of Donald Trump. On this last, she writes, “I think this is the real divide in this country: the social principles of empathy, vs the social principles of greed.” It is this kind of insight, discovered through the laying bare of her own actions and decisions, that makes Girls Gone Old so admirable.

There is so much going on in Girls Gone Old, both political and personal: “Secondary Sins,” “The Rape Book,” and “Vagaries of the Demimonde” explore friendship, betrayal, and destructive appetites; “California Dreaming” and “My Inner Debbie Gibson” tell the stories of women Helmsley meets working at a halfway house; “Of Mice and Mothers” is a provocative (and third-person) account of being a mother in the age of school shootings. Throughout it all, Helmsley keeps the stakes taut and the pathos high. Helmsley writes with an unflinching, provocative honesty; coupling this element with her lived experience — heroin addiction, sex work, growing up poor — Girls Gone Old pulses with punk-rock ethos.

At its finest, Girls Gone Old blends the DIY aesthetic of ’90s grrrl zines with an astute eye for injustice, hypocrisy, and “the vagaries of geography.” Helmsley uses the personal essay form like a weapon, aiming at herself and at American culture at large.

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