Bonnie Bremser’s road book For Love of Ray gives a harrowing account of the effects of poverty on travellers. Poverty seems a necessary part of the authentic road experience, since it involves exile from mundane existence and steady income. Like Jack Kerouac’s mythic progenitors Sal Paradise and Dean Moriarty, the duo around which the story revolves are penniless drifters on the road in Mexico. But Ray and Bonnie Bremser were newly married with a child, and so the text allows insight into their bohemian marriage. This article focuses on how the Beat path runs for the woman in the relationship, with differences becoming apparent when Bonnie begins to work as a prostitute in order to remedy their poverty.
Love on the road
It is 1961, and Kerouac’s breakthrough in 1957 with the publication of On the Road was felt from the urban literary scenes to the sad-soul suburbs. Bonnie Bremser was twenty-three years old, a daughter of a State Department official who had attended an exclusive southern girls’ school. She had hung out with big band musicians in New York City, and liked to draw and paint. Ray Bremser was a child of the New Jersey streets, incarcerated at an early age for car theft, and was forging his path in Beat Generation literary and drug scenes. Online video footage of an elderly Ray shows his gift as he reads poetry that sings the rhythm of the American streets, carrying the embodied melopoeia of Pound, so valued by Charles Olson in his ‘Projective Verse’ manifesto. Bremser refers to her husband as “surely poetry’s representative in the flesh.”[i]
For Love of Ray unashamedly bears the influence of Kerouac, featuring similar relentless and frantic road travel. If Mexico was the end of the road for Kerouac, escape to Mexico begins Bremser’s tale. By virtue of her being the female in the pairing, Bremser is encumbered with their baby, which defines her movement. She sits on a bus with a crying Rachel on her lap “trying to groove under the circumstances”; she soothes her in the middle of the night, so as not to wake their housemates, in “the most unsuccessful experiment in communal living.” She waits alone with the child, while Ray goes on daily errands to the post office to await cheques that seldom arrive. At the suggestion of Ray, to whom she is very much emotionally attached– as the book’s title suggests – Bremser begins working as a prostitute to fund their travelling and drug habits. She refers to the selling of her body as “hustling,” a usage drawn from the street world the Beat Generation embraced. We can think of Kerouac’s definition of the original meaning of “beat,” where he recalls the Times Square hustler Herbert Huncke saying “I’m beat” with “radiant light shining out of his despairing eyes,” a word Kerouac imagines was “brought from some midwest carnival or junk cafeteria.”[ii] This underworld appears as a lumpen, skewed version of the American dream where the commodified individual is forced to compete, turning all sorts of tricks in order to get by.
Likewise, hustling is seemingly the only choice for an unconfident, inexperienced young gringa without Spanish language skills, already feeling like a pariah in Veracruz. With Ray in jail in Texas for parole violation, Bonnie launches headlong into hustling, and thus her despair grows concomitantly as does her reliance on street drugs for relief and transcendence. Uncomfortably admitting their poverty and desperation with Ray now out of jail, they sign their daughter out of their hands to be taken up for adoption, leaving Bonnie distraught yet unencumbered. The couple head to rural Huatla seeking relief in experimentation with the religious highs of psychedelic mushrooms. They do not engage with the locals, and like any desiring tourist Bremser consumes and consumes, ingesting way more mushrooms than religious ceremony would prescribe. But this retreat from hustling allowing Bremser a rebirth, what shamans refer to as soul retrieval.[iii] But their relationship deteriorates with outbreaks of physical abuse from Ray, who departs for New York City after learning he is no longer wanted by the authorities in the States. Bremser grudgingly picks up her American life in the States, joined by her Mexican boyfriend, before reuniting with Ray. This comes as something of an anticlimax for readers who have been rallying for Bremser – feminists, egalitarians, or other compassionate beings – but then this is closer to autobiographical truth than Kerouac’s relatively neat picaresque.
Kerouac may have had his problems controlling the manuscript of On the Road against the incursions of editor Malcolm Cowley, but by comparison, Bremser lacks autonomy as author in the traditional sense. Although Bonnie Bremser is credited as author, in the rare instances in the text where she referred to by others it is “Mrs Bremser” or “Brenda” as well as Bonnie, thus confounding the author-as-narrator function. The author is now known as Brenda Frazer, and this was the name under which she appears in anthologies of women’s writing of the Beat Generation.[iv] The manuscript of For Love of Ray arose from her practice of letter writing to Ray while he was once again in prison, in which she pondered and processed the difficulties they had experienced the previous year in Mexico. It was not initially intended to be a book, but took form when Ray and editor Michael Perkins fashioned the letters into a narrative, and was first published in the US in 1969 as Troia: Mexican Memoirs, with troia being an Italian word for “sow,” and by zoomorphic extension, “slut.” So Ray was also the literary pimp and reaped the rewards of a book dedicated to him, which portrays him as a literary outlaw to whom a battered, prostituted wife cannot resist returning.
Bremser’s voice appears as that of the fabled unreliable narrator, stating early in the narrative: “I know that continuity is necessary, and I do my best up to a point, but I believe in distortion.” As is the nature of letter or journal writing, the text is grounded in the present moment. This mirrors the state of their lives at the time, which were focused on the instant gratification of desires and needs to the exclusion of the future. Rather than saving the money Bremser makes in order to get out of prostitution or pool it toward a goal, they use it to go on rural excursions, seeking relief in the beauty and abundance of the undeveloped Mexican landscape. Inevitably the money runs out, and she returns to the cities to make more money, with the cycle continuing ad nauseam. She is also writing for Ray’s titillation, making the text comparable to Memoirs of a Beatnik, which Diane di Prima wrote for Olympia Press’ pornographic remit, but it lacks the narrative control and sense of purpose typical of di Prima. Bremser indulges in descriptions of her skimpy outfits as she bathes in the Mexican sun, but the sexual scenes with her johns are characterized by the use of hipster slang, brevity, dissociation and revulsion rather than eroticism. The confessional, very frank nature of the writing assuages any jealousy Ray may have felt, and through having knowledge of her acts, he is able to retain control, as a pimp does.
The stream-of-consciousness, epistolary creation process results in a narrative flow which shifts focus, stumbles, and then tumbles forward at lightning trajectory. This is a road narrative fragmentary in form, sprawling and messy, open-form and deterritorialized in the manner Deleuze and Guattari, theorists of the nomadic, anti-Oedipal and anti-capitalistic, saw in Kerouac’s writings.[v] Descriptions of heightened, drug-induced states merge with passages running on the extreme emotional states of grief, desire, shame and desolation. It is an intoxicated text, embodying the Beat attempt to get out of the logical mind. An interview the mature Bremser describes the enhanced nature of literary experiences in the Beat period, which she attributes not just to drugs but also to love, poetry, and music; they too “transcended everyday ordinary relationships.”[vi] Yet in many ways these relationships seem very ordinary and mired in post-war American patriarchal society. The specter of the prostitute allows further interpretation of such power dynamics.
The Split Self
Despite attempts to legitimize her hustling by clothing it in various myths and other veils – the happy hooker, the transgressive literary whore who reads de Sade’s Juliette, the revolutionary whore in post-revolution Mexico – For Love of Ray illuminates the unrelenting economic realities of prostitution and the resultant existential fracture. The trajectory of Bremser’s hustling begins with her initially baulking when encouraged by Ray to go out on the streets; she relates “the afternoon headache, trying to get out of it, and pleading with Ray, who answers me reasonably with our broke and hungry situation.” Yet she tries to adopt a more pragmatic attitude, that she is “a member of the great club” and must grow to like it. She adopts various idiosyncratic outfits – a “blue French woolly beret of existential streetwalk all the way from Hoboken” with its connotations of French radicalism; or homemade outfits held together by safety pins and based on Mexican designs, in her willful distancing from American culture. She travels between different locations, yet returns to Mexico City where she can find wealthier clients: “It is hard to figure out why I do well as a whore in Mexico City. I am usually shy of people, but I become such an ardent hustler that as the money accumulates I grow proud.” Yet in a typical volte-face in the next paragraph that she notes she was “driven to complain to Ray of what I feel is killing me: hustling.” Bremser careens into a vortex of misery, in a suicidal frame of mind and physically wrecked through substance use, weight loss, kidney infection, and an abortion. Emotional and economic realities hit home toward the end of the book when in a moment of clarity she considers her “permanent occupation of fucking a bunch of guys I don’t like or have any interest in to get money for us to continue this way.” She continues: “It has no rewards for me, I am alone, lonely, bugged, feeling more and more unloved, as if each trick I turn is a negative score on the happiness list.” By the end of the narrative she writes that her “gig was real ladylike now” and thus in some regards it is a path of growing confidence, yet concurrently, it is a slide into despair.
The feminist theorist Kajsa Ekis Ekman defines prostitution simply as “sex between two people – between one who wants it and one who doesn’t,” with payment taking place due to the absence of desire on one side.[vii] Ekman writes from modern-day Sweden, a country with an established history of research based on the testimonies of prostitutes, where the buying of sex has been criminalized, rather than the selling. Accompanied by support for women leaving prostitution and education of the police, this has lead to a decrease in participation from buyers and sellers, with knock-on effects such as a decrease in the trafficking of women into the country due to lack of demand. Looking at the research that informed this legislation, the similarities to features of Bremser’s narrative become clear.
According to the criteria identified by Ekman, a successful prostitute is one who can portray the illusion of desire, since it is her lack of desire that ensures it is a financial transaction rather than a social one. Success also comes from the ability to employ coping strategies to ensure her longevity, and thus economic value. For example, Bremser writes of her vacillating emotions around her work: “I am somewhat ashamed at enjoying what I am paid for, enjoying it immensely at times and when I don’t I put on a good enough show so that none would ever know—I am able to close my eyes and dream of myself alone.” Bremser is dreaming her way out of her present reality, and this speaks of the “split self,” the separation of body and consciousness, which is universally apparent in prostitutes’ own stories. This often exists with turning-off by using drugs or alcohol, again apparent in For Love of Ray, as Bremser writes: “the object is to stay high and out of it and still operate to keep the money coming in and us fed and Ray writing poems frantically.”
She writes elsewhere that “I just want to fuck and get it over with, and I’m afraid if I get too involved I will get burned somehow.” This talks of other coping strategies identified by Ekman; firstly, setting time limits on physical contact, and secondly, avoiding clients for whom the prostitute may develop feelings. Another classic defense mechanism is hiding the real self by wearing different clothing or adopting a different name – with this somehow reflected in the variance in the names used by the author-as-narrator. At times she seems a collection of garments rather than a physical being: “the safety pins in my dress are going to bug me the whole scene—on his lap we kiss […] Quickly my dress is around my waist and I am on the floor, safety pins exposed amongst the tatters.” As she often pictures herself as others see her, the reader rarely gets a sense of her physical reality. She wears her ability to orgasm with clients as a badge of honour, yet the physical realities of the female prostituted body, and that would include menstruation, bruising, abrasion, and pain, are not mentioned. Instead she appears in an altered, dissociated mental state, outside her body, with or without the use of alcohol and drugs. This is the “split self” of the prostitute, who seeks to separate emotional experience from sexual acts. The various coping strategies Bremser adopts are not successful, and like most young prostitutes she is quickly worn out and used up.
In a Dusty Gutter
Bremser attained some celebrity within Beat circles after the book’s publication in 1969, but it did not find a firm place in Beat studies until a canon of women’s writing of the Beat Generation was defined and republication came in 2007. It could be argued that Bremser achieves the original meaning of Beat, with the radiant light shining out of her despairing eyes, comparable to Oscar Wilde’s evocation of those in the gutter who are looking up at the stars. But that would be a lie. “Hang on! Where is my romance-where is the total image?” she asks. For Love of Ray does not offer that romance, the escapism that On the Road provided; it being more akin to a document of social realism albeit written through a hazy, dissociative lens. Bremser’s story highlights that despite the adventure and transcendence the Beat path offered, its realities were felt differently on the bodies and psyches of women and men.
Since love is evoked in the title, where does love exist in a book depicting prostitution? The line between paid and unpaid sex is blurred during a depiction of group sex. The men involved refuse payment as they thought Bonnie “was just out for love.” In this light, fucking for money seems just an extension of more general fucking, the alleged free love of the Beats, prior to second-wave feminism’s questioning of gender roles and the HIV epidemic. Ray, the husband, the beloved, is also the pimp who polices Bonnie’s activities. Returning from her work he requires her to re-enact “pornographic scenes . . . to satisfy his curiosity,” and in another example is the voyeur, arranging a meeting for Bonnie with his friend, then punishing her for repeating the sexual encounter without him. The virgin/whore dichotomy of patriarchal culture is still in place, with Ray enjoying Bonnie’s whoreness and reaping financial reward, yet using violence against her when she transgresses the boundaries he set. “He maintains it is good for a chick to get pounded on once in a while for it increases the circulation and makes her pretty,” Bremser relates.
According to Friedrich Engels’ classic analysis of the origins of the family, the first prostitutes were products of the older, less rigid, matriarchal cultures. These temple priestesses of antiquity represented the women of their community in ceremonies dedicated to the goddess of love, with the money going into the temple treasury.[viii] The modern prostitute function grew out of the patriarchal culture of ancient Greece in which marriages were of political and economic convenience. This created dual spheres, with the wife sequestered at home while in the social world the paid hetairai – female slaves or outsiders – provided a love connection and fulfilled heterosexual desire for the civilized man. The chastity of wives ensured that wealth remained within a true lineage. Thus we see the historical origins of the monetization of female bodies and the emergence of the dual narrative of good and bad women, the familiar sexual double standard.
Prostitution mirrors the traditional patriarchal marriage through the economic inequality of buyer and seller, of man and wife. The Bremsers’ marriage lacked the material abundance of the 1950s American ideal, yet the economic power and decision-making resided with Ray. The book is an embodiment of its author’s pattern of escape and return to that paradigm, her rebellion and control. It highlights the responsibility of the individual to tend to their desires and find a lifestyle that allows the expression of those desires without coercion or compromise.
[i] Bremser, Bonnie, 1971, For Love of Ray, London: London Magazine Editions.
[ii] Kerouac, Jack, 1959, ‘The Origins of the Beat Generation’, Playboy (June), rpt. 1998, Good Blonde and Others, by Kerouac, San Francisco: Grey Fox (55-65).
[iii] See Ingerman, Sandra, 1991, Soul Retrieval: Mending the Fragmented Self, San Francisco: Harper.
[iv] See Knight, Brenda, 1996, Women of the Beat Generation: The Writers, Artists and Muses at the Heart of a Revolution, Berkeley: Conari.
[v] Deleuze, Gilles and Felix Guattari, 2004, Anti-Oedipus: Capitalism and Schizophrenia, trans. Robert Hurley et al, London: Continuum.
[vi] Grace, Nancy M. and Ronna C. Johnson, 2004, Breaking the Rule of Cool: Interviewing and Reading Women Beat Writers. Jackson: UP of Mississippi.
[vii] Ekman, Kajsa Ekis, 2013, Being and Being Bought: Prostitution, Surrogacy and the Split Self, trans. Suzanne Martin Cheadle, Melbourne: Spinifex.
[viii] Engels, Friedrich, 2010, The Origin of the Family, Private Property, and the State, Penguin Classics, London: Penguin.
This article originally appeared in Beatdom #16.