Book review:
Dominatrix: a Memoir
by Claire Mansfield and John Mendelssohn

reviewed by graham

Dominatrix: A Memoir
Claire Mansfield & John Mendelssohn,
London: Headline Book Publishing, 2002, 14.99.

It is a sign of the times that barely two months after featured as its 'Book of the Week' a collection of interviews with professional dominatrixes colourfully titled 'You beat people up for a living don't you mummy?' that a newly published autobiography from yet another proposes a response along the lines of 'if I was your mummy, yes, I would'. The relative emergence in recent years from the shadows of taboo and prejudice, the growth in entertainment and social outlets, the commercialisation of related goods and services, the emergence of large-scale virtual communities, the increased interest and time-investment by both media organisations and academic institutions, has not surprisingly encouraged into the light of day hitherto undisclosed dialogues. Though still dogged by bigoted outlooks and archaic laws, BDSM in the UK is going mainstream and these publications serve up notice that the times indeed are-a-changing.

The highly welcome publication of Mistress Chloe's Dominatrix: A Memoir exemplifies not only how far BDSM culture has historically travelled in terms of cultural emergence but also how a leading personality located within it has become transformed herself in the process. Its subtitle, 'The Making of Mistress Chloe' sums up precisely that re-making process: the steady development over several decades from a 'sick with nerves' Grammar School pupil to a confident and articulate professional dominatrix. But even if the parallels between her and the culture that she is now part of cannot be usefully drawn further then there is still much here to offer the reader whether they be familiar with BDSM culture or not.

The Memoir opens as all well written memoirs do not with an immediate return to the past but with a vignette from the present moment. 'The Human Washing Machine', Armani-clad and later nappy-gagged, a transformative moment of some note in itself, provides for a fitting demonstration of Mistress Chloe's powers of domination. This is the Mistress finally 'made', supreme and charismatic, the summation of a make-over process that in subsequent chapters will come to be elaborated. Indeed, the structure of the Memoir as with similar works distinctively reflective of memory is ultimately recursive. At the end of the volume, in recording the journey home after a visit to Torture Garden, when her favourite submissive, 'the cheeky Yank', begs her to be marked, the reader cannot easily forget the near contemporaneous taming of 'The Human Washing Machine' at its outset.

Yet when it does happen the Memoir doesn't travel back to Claire Mansfield's early past but alights briefly on the moment when Mistress Chloe begins to first clearly come into being. A party in Hampstead provides the pivotal moment, the conversion to 'kink', where the 'Mouse' of middle-class conscience and convention is startled into appalled apprehension by the strobe-lit, Velvet wannabe, Violet wand world of 'three chained men [...] the prisoners of a petite fiftyish woman in a red latex catsuit'. After the winning by Claire of a gorgeous-looking submissive in a raffle, the 'Mouse', though 'doubtless pouting', is as good as dead.

Reeling further back to the late '60s the Memoir, after pausing by the Roundhouse in Chalk Farm, where 'a group of impossibly gorgeous young rebels oozing confidence in their tight leather, black lace and red lipstick' sets the Mansfield hormones tingling, then begins to chronologically move forward recalling fairly miserable school experiences recompensed by a wall-mounted, Bison-faced clock, acquiring three A levels and joining the David Bowie Fan Club. The latter proves to be the truly formative development, a precursor to immersion into the 1970s New Romantic and punk music scenes though not before imagining, after seeing The Rocky Horror Show, the staging of King Lear.

From there the narrative gathers pace: fronting bands as a singer, working as a copy executive, visits to Paris and to the Rock Garden in London, working as a hostess in a private gentleman's club, and later in a Pizza Hut, are all, among other experiences, recounted with detail, relish and much humour. One 'glorious mad weekend' detailed after another, the Memoir begins to take on almost an epic quality, an exuberant and exhilarating romp through some of the most lively, subcultural moments of the '70s and '80s. And all the time, in her various entanglements in diverse relationships and increasingly unconventional experiences, Mistress Chloe is to be seen in her splendid making.

For some of us here it will be the second half of the Memoir, post-Hampstead, which will likely attract most interest. Anecdotal accounts of sessions sometimes unsuccessful in their ends - the client who makes off with the tribute, the wife who desires her husband to be hurt for real, the submissive, 'extremely sweet, and very clever' yet who suffers from low self-esteem - are interspersed with fairly riotous episodes of extravagant behaviour with fetishes, whips and eyeliners so much in proliferation that Mistress Chloe is herself inspired to comment - and I'm sure some of here us will agree - 'that BDSM is fundamentally pretty hilarious'.

But to focus merely on the 'kink' elements of her Memoir would be to do it a serious injustice, not least as a major element of Mistress Chloe's personality would be overlooked. And that is her longstanding animal anti-abuse activism of which substantial and sharp detail crops up in different places within the narrative. Coupled with the considerable struggle involved in establishing herself as a professional dominatrix in terms of the acquisition of premises and clientele, a struggle which will surely strike a chord with other Mistresses while enlightening many submissives as to what is involved in the engineering of sessions, is an important reminder that there is more to the personality of a dominatrix then a passion for BDSM.

Mistress Chloe's Memoir is sure to set the standard for later, similar works. Finely written with wit in abundance yet underlaid by a deeply held personal philosophy, this is an autobiography to be highly recommended as well as its authoress applauded as an articulate spokesperson for BDSM culture.