Traci Lords is telling her version of a story that isn’t as shocking as it is familiar: how a girl from the heartland took a wrong turn in Hollywood and found a life of drugs and despair, being paid to have sex on camera. This story, however, would have a different ending. Read an excerpt of her new book, “Traci Lords: Underneath It All."
Chapter one: The Ohio Valley
I grew up in a dirty little steel town called Steubenville, in eastern Ohio. It was one of those places where everyone was old, or just plain seemed like it. Even the kids felt the times, and the times were tough.
The streets were narrow and filled with men in Levi’s with metal lunch boxes coming and going to the mills and the coal mines. It seemed like there was a railroad crossing on every other street, where coils of steel were piled up high along the tracks like giant gleaming snakes resting in the sun. It got real hot in the summertime and the dust from the mills wrapped around the people and held them firmly in their places, and the echo of coughing miners was so common you just didn’t hear it.
The local bar, Lou Anne’s, was always hopping. It wasn’t odd to see your neighbor howling at the moon, and every now and then some of the miners would wander down for a cold one and tie their horses to the stop sign. Drinking was a hobby in that little town, and like a lot of small towns, everyone knew everyone else’s business. Women had not quite yet been liberated. Husbands ruled the house, women cleaned it, and any strong female opinion was often rewarded with a fat lip. But no one thought much about that.
At seventeen years old, all my mother, Patricia, ever wanted was to escape. Born in Pennsylvania in the late 1940’s, her dad took off to California and left her and her mother alone. They moved around from place to place, and after a while she had a new stepdad and two half brothers and sisters. Never fully welcomed into this second family, she found comfort and a home at her grandmother’s house.
My great-grandma Harris was a little redheaded Irish woman who loved sugar-toast and drank tea all day long, no matter how hot it was. She combined a fierce sense of social justice with an almost patrician gentleness that was unusual to find in the government housing project where she lived.
The projects were cockroach-ridden matchbox-shaped dwellings inhabited by desperately poor black families who barely survived on meager monthly public assistance checks. It was a place where hungry children played in the gutters of pot-holed streets while munching on sandwiches of Wonder bread and mayonnaise they dubbed “welfare burgers.”
Just a pebble’s throw away down the hill was the University of Ohio, where professors drove their shiny new cars to garden fund-raisers on the campus lawn. I remember catching glimpses of white tablecloths blowing in the afternoon breeze while ladies in crisp white dresses sipped drinks from tall glasses. Every once in a while a burst of applause from the appreciative anthill of university people would enter our world. My mouth watered at the scent of cooking barbecue meat, and I longed to race down the hill and devour the mountain of food on the huge banquet tables.
But my mother explained that “people like us” don’t mix with “people like those.” “People like what?” I demanded, meeting the weary look of my mother, who said it was a matter of “social class.” I was five years old and at the time and didn’t understand why I wasn’t one of the chosen few who could receive hot meals and pretty dresses. I only knew that some people had food and others didn’t, and I was on the wrong side of the fence. I’d gather crab apples from my great-granny’s yard and hurl them in protest toward the happy people down the hill. Although my targets were never struck, I felt justice had been served.
Great-grandma Harris lived in the first brick building at the beginning of the housing projects. There must have been fifty other little red houses, winding around like a figure eight, each one containing four units. Grandma was known by her neighbors as “the crazy white witch” because she was something of a mind reader who had a reputation for being very accurate. People didn’t always like what they were told, but their fear kept grandma safe in a very dodgy neighborhood where racism was a sickening fact of life. Despite it all, my great-grandma was always light, gentle, and seemingly unaffected by her status and the people around her. My mother got a lot of love in that house, and ultimately so did I.
In 1965 the Vietnam War had cast a spell over the people of Steubenville inspiring in them a patriotic fervor. My mother was a beautiful redheaded teenager with piercing green eyes and a peaches-and-cream complexion. Though she was smart and ambitious, she found herself stuck, working in a jewelry store in a town that celebrated everything she loathed. She thought the war was immoral and said so to anyone who would listen.
An independent thinker, she didn’t buy the “be a virgin, go to church, follow the establishment” routine that a lot of her friends were falling into. She liked to dance, listened to the Stones and Bob Dylan, and filled her private notebooks with poems. She played the guitar, made out with boys at the drive-in, and went roller-skating on Saturday nights. She lived her life fully, but was always hungry for a bigger bite.
The war weighed heavily on my mother’s heart because it touched her like it inevitably touched everyone. She watched as her friends’ brothers marched off to a foreign land and cried like everyone else did when they didn’t come back. She ached to have a voice, to make a difference, and to be seen and valued. But she was dead broke and depressed at her lack of opportunities, and no matter which way she looked at it, her future appeared grim ...
The foregoing is excerpted from “Traci Lords: Underneath It All” by Traci Lords. All rights reserved. No part of this book may be used or reproduced without written permission from HarperCollins Publishers, 10 East 53rd Street, New York, NY 10022