Tales of Sex and Insight: How a Smart Girl From the 'Burbs Ended Up in a Harem in Faraway, Wealthy Brunei
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If a book came across your desk with the title Some Girls: My Life in a Harem, you probably would have done what I started to do: roll your eyes and throw it on the rejection pile.
But as I was about to discard Jillian Lauren's memoir, I noticed two blurbs. One was by the fine novelist Jennifer Egan ( Look at Me), who says of Lauren's book: "Riveting: Lauren illuminates the murky world of high-class prostitution with humor, candor, and a reporter's gimlet eye." Meanwhile, the radical, super-funny Margaret Cho calls the book "a heartstopping thrilling story told by a punk rock Scheherezade."
Hmm, I thought, these two talented stars think this book is not only interesting, but well-written. Book blurbs are usually produced by colleagues in the same field, a kind of "I scratch your back, you scratch mine" deal, but these seemed genuine.
So I peeked inside to find that Lauren grew up in suburban New Jersey, about 15 miles from where I grew up. (Later I learned that she went to Long Beach Island -- the Jersey Shore -- during the summers as I did.) So we had the Jersey thing going on. She was also an arty, edgy, wild New Yorker before she went on her sex journey, hanging in places and doing things very familiar to me, albeit a generation later. And it didn't hurt that she reprinted my favorite Talking Heads lyric in the front of the book, the one that ends with "And you may ask yourself, well... how did I get here?"
So I was hooked. I was going to read this unlikely book because it seemed to defy stereotype. I thought, "This might be one-of-a-kind." And it was. Lauren is a fine writer who establishes an easy intimacy with the reader. She comes across as fundamentally honest and thoughtful about her experiences, and the book is a fun journey, a bizarre and colorful narrative.
One of the richest men in the world, Prince Jefri Bolkiah of Brunei, the youngest brother of the Sultan of Brunei, assembles a rotating collection (or, as Lauren realized, a harem) of some 40 women -- the most beautiful from all over the world -- to be his sexual playmates. Robin, as his women called him, employed a network of procurers, who offered the women a mini bonanza of cash, clothes and extravagant jewelry to come to Brunei and be on constant call as nightly entertainment for Robin, his brothers and his pals. The guy was clearly one of the horniest in the world -- ready to give Hugh Hefner a run for his money.
Brunei is a strange place. Most people think it's in the Middle East along with Dubai and the other states of the United Arab Emirates. In fact, Brunei is on the north coast of Borneo, in Southeast Asia. It has the fifth highest GDP per capita in the world. According to Wikipedia, crude oil and natural gas production account for nearly half of its economy and its wealth includes a mix of foreign and domestic entrepreneurship. Substantial income from overseas investment supplements money from domestic production. The government provides for all medical services and subsidizes food and housing.
For this story, what the economics of the country translate to is the wealth of the Sultan of Brunei -- for a time the richest man in the world -- and his family.
The opulence, the ostentatious wealth and privilege enjoyed by Prince Robin and his royal family and by extension, his harem, is mind-blowing. The stories of manipulation and mind games, of competition among the women for Robin's attention and approval are more akin to "Lord of the Flies" than supportive sisterhood (with some exceptions). Lauren's story illustrates how seeking approval from a powerful figure becomes the be-all-end-all when one is removed from one's environment and comfort zone.