How I Lived in a Harem, Married My Rock Star Husband, & Other True Stories-An Interview with Jillian LaurenWritten by Jan Lauren Greenfield
Jillian Lauren’s New York Times best-selling memoir Some Girls: My Life in a Harem (Plume, 2010) chronicles the true story of her life in the Sultan of Brunei’s harem, which she lived at, not once but twice. In her first novel Pretty (Plume, 2011) Lauren explores the life of a bruised and battered young woman struggling to put her addictions behind her and bring the pieces of her life together.
Surviving a drug addiction, prostitution, eventually meeting her rocker husband (Lauren married Weezer bass player Scott Shriner in 2005) and starting a family, another name for her memoir could be Sex, Drugs, and Rock and Roll.
I caught up with Jillian in February over email, and we discussed mental health, resilience, writing, and where she finds happiness.
Jan: You’ve survived struggles with depression and eating disorders, addiction and prostitution. Now, you’ve got a successful career as a writer and performer, and you have a family. What is it that contributes to your spirit of resilience?
Jillian: For someone who seemed hell-bent on self-destruction for a long time, I do seem to paradoxically be a survivor. There isn’t a morning that I wake up that I don’t feel the miracle that I’m alive today hit me full force. I never know what it is that gave me my fighting spirit to begin with. But I do know that I ultimately found a sense of purpose in the emotional connections in my life and my desire to create in various mediums. That gives me a reason to keep putting one foot in front of the other.
Jan: In your memoir Some Girls: My Life in a Harem, you recount your experience in the Sultan of Brunei’s harem. You were nineteen years old and signed up for a job on the other side of the world for two weeks to make $20,000? If you could go back in time, would you do it again?
Jillian: Would I do it now? No, absolutely not. And sometimes I wish I could go back and offer some wisdom to the eighteen-year-old girl who made those bold but often detrimental choices. But I don’t regret that time in my life, even if it sometimes saddens me. It has contributed to my compassion for myself and others, and [it’s given] me some great stories to tell.
Jan: Are you in touch with any of the women from Brunei?
Jillian: Yes, I am. I have a handful that I still keep in touch with and one I still consider a close friend. They have all been supportive and encouraging through the process of publishing the book. I was touched and inspired by their grace, even when their memories sometimes differed from mine. A couple of them even showed up to my book release party!
Jan: Returning for the second time to Brunei, you find yourself in bed again with the prince (the sultan’s younger brother) and you, “had to grope around for your internal off switch . . . and was almost sad to flick it.” It seems like earlier in your story you were disconnected from your body and you naturally dissociated? What do you think shifted inside you?
Jillian: I had spent some time back in my “real life” and had gotten out of the practice of leaving my body, dissociating. I think my second trip to Brunei was when I started to feel the unpleasant aspects of dissociation. Until then, I had only experienced it as power. I thought that numbness was desirable, that it was superior to feeling. It wasn’t until I had something to compare it to, that the real sadness of it began to sink in.
Jan: In Some Girls, you write, “Poetry didn’t get you very far and the world wasn’t kind to people with obvious expressions of mental illness.” You talk about your own struggles with depression. Do you think your writing has been part of a therapy or healing for you?
Jillian: Yes and no. I don’t consider writing therapy. In fact, there were times it left me worse off than I started, if you’re strictly looking at depression levels! I think that the healing needs to happen elsewhere. But the work is a place to explore your challenges, to investigate your darkness. I think that writing teaches you how to construct a narrative and that an understanding of narrative structure is immensely helpful when framing the events of our lives so they make sense to us. But I’ve never found writing to be particularly cathartic, or at least not in the way people often expect it to be.
Jan: Fifteen years pass from the end of the book to the epilogue. Was it the process of writing to publishing that took fifteen years?
Jillian: No. It took me that long to be ready to write the book, from both an emotional and a craft standpoint. The publishing process was relatively quick!
Jan: Your novel Pretty weaves together themes of addiction, mental health, the justice system, existential searching, love, friendship, and the rites of passage of becoming an adult. (Spoiler alert!) Bebe, the protagonist, makes it through bruised and battered, but presumably to a safe life, in San Francisco. The casualties seem to be the men in her life—her current boyfriend Jake and her ex-lover Aaron?
Jillian: It just occurred to me that I really turned the tables on the traditional male-driven bildungsroman, in which the women in the story are generally the casualties of the male protagonist’s journey to find himself. I never thought about that before!
Jan: There’s a subtle theme of religion that weaves itself into both of your books. In Pretty, it’s the Jesus mantra (“Jesus is under my fingernails”; “Jesus is in the stucco walls, Jesus is in the sun on my face,” and in Some Girls you refer to your own Jewish upbringing. Is spirituality part of your life today? Was there anything spiritual about the experience in the harem?
Jillian: I consider Pretty to be a deeply religious book and I was grappling with a lot of spiritual questions in my own life when I wrote it. I’m a person with a hunger for God. For many of my friends, spirituality doesn’t have the same urgency that it does for me. Sometimes I wonder if it’s a function of brain chemistry! Yes, I believe there was a great spiritual lesson in the harem. I think there’s always God in pain, in struggle.
Jan: “It’s not the future I’m compelled by. It’s the past,”Bebe declares about herself in Pretty. As a writer, is this true for you?
Jillian: I once read somewhere that writers are either sentimentalists or satirists. I’m definitely the former. I’m Gatsby, forever staring at the green light at the end of Daisy’s dock. At least the writing gives me somewhere to put it all!