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In or Out of Porn, It´s a Cruel World

Burn My Shadow: A Selective Memory of an X-Rated Life

by Tyler Knight

2016 (Barnacle/Rare Bird)


Amongst the many subgenres of the modern memoir, ones growing in frequency and popularity are those written by porn stars and sex workers, a "tell all" of what their lives are like "behind the scenes." What is it really like to make money by having sex, whether on camera as a performer, or in person as an escort or prostitute?


Frequently, these memoirs do little to disrupt the fantasy of the reader. Even after some of the curtain is pulled back, the majority of what we see backstage still feels like an extension of the performance. These books may titillate, but they never quite reveal. The very real risks and challenges inherent in these complex professions are too-often sanitized, if not completely ignored; to go in-depth into the realities of what it is like to work in pornography today might be too discomforting, and would likely shatter the fantasy. Rather than being confessional, the porn star memoir ends up feeling like just another way to monetize the sexual image. The depth is curated into meaninglessness.


Part of this phenomenon is probably political. After decades of written and spoken rhetoric against pornography are already out there, at a moment when sex workers are urgently trying to create resources for their safety, what porn star wants to write a book that is too honest? It might be used against them personally, as well as against the industry as a whole. A detailed account of what it is really like to be paid to have sex would be likely to unravel a lot of the tropes we see surrounding contemporary porn and sex work: that it is done out of fun (for some, but not for most that do it), that it is just a job (while it is work, its labor is not interchangeable with other forms of work for pay), and that those who do it are expressing a political position of sex-positivity (again, for some this may be true, but it is not the norm).


Enter Burn My Shadow: A Selective Memory of an X-Rated Life, a first-person account of what it is like to work as an African-American male porn performer in the twenty-first century. Tyler Knight´s book is direct, bold, and brutally honest. Burn My Shadow has been compared to The Jungle, and there are certainly echoes between the agitation and outrage fueling Upton Sinclair´s novel in describing the exploitative working conditions of the meatpacking industry during the early 1900s and Knight´s grim portrait of doing porn in Southern California one hundred years later. Others have compared Knight´s memoir with Ralph Ellison´s 1952 novel Invisible Man, as both write in painful detail about their experiences with the intersections of race, money, and class in modern day America.


Even before Knight begins his story, we get clues that this memoir is going to be unlike any other we have encountered before. The packaging and visual design of the book includes haunting images from Dante´s Inferno illustrated by the 19th century French artist Gustave Doré. An epigraph from Moby-Dick--an appeal to God and humanity to exalt the "renegades and the castaways", and all of those Herman Melville ascribed "high qualities, though dark"--opens the book; and the title Burn My Shadow, we later learn, references a recurring nightmare Knight has--about being racially profiled by law enforcement, running for his life. Even before Knight begins his story, we sense that this is going to be different, darker, grittier.

Knight´s opening chapter, "Bukkake", describes his unglamorous entry into becoming a porn performer. Along with a crowd of other men in a filthy warehouse, he shuffles forward along with everyone else for his turn to jerk off onto the face of two women, their faces and bodies already caked with dried ejaculate. The scene is gross, visceral, and grim, and Burn My Shadow refuses to pull any punches from there on out.


On one level, the book reads like a scathing report about the contemporary porn industry. Knight is unafraid to expose the systemic racism pervading this industry, from other performers refusing to work with him because they "don´t do interracial scenes"; to how this discrimination impacts Knight and other African-American performers in terms of pay scale, job opportunities, and ultimately agency within this field. Burn My Shadow also goes into considerable depth about the numerous health risks inherent to working within this field as a performer. Knight and other porn stars work in a high risk and unregulated zone; there are no unions or protections, and if one refuses to work, even in the presence of herpes and HIV, one doesn´t get paid. Knight goes into uncomfortable detail about working with others under these conditions, as well as others which are even more disturbing (from a co-star having a very bad case of diarrhea during the shooting of a scene, to a near-death experience requiring hospitalization due to excessive use of Viagra on-set). This and other episodes in the book Knight writes with literary economy and force.


But the book is also about Tyler himself, a Black man trying to make a living in modern day America. The author reveals a few key episodes from his childhood, acknowledging painful experiences of abuse and prejudice, but his reasons for entering porn are not traumatic, but economic. And economic forces are what keep Knight working in porn for years, as his career overlaps with the 2007 financial crisis as well as the rise of internet sites which show pirated content for free, effectively eliminating most of the porn industry´s revenue streams. Knight agrees with his loving girlfriend, who has weathered numerous trials by his side (including being exposed to HIV through his on-set work), that he needs to get out of porn. But doing what? What industries are available for him to make a decent living? We see his attempts towards the later portions of the book, and most readers will be able to identify with his frustrations and struggles with trying to make it in America today.


Knight´s narrative is exceptionally candid, but this does not mean that it is lacking in humor or imagination, either. His inner monologue while working on the various porn shoots are observant and biting in their deadpan humor. His "X-Rated Life" is almost surreal, and frequently absurd, permitting him wide license as a writer to jump through different moments in time, as well as different levels of consciousness (such as how he is convinced to become a writer, and his profound epiphanies while completing a gruelling ultra-marathon).


Burn My Shadow is an exceptional work. Part of its worth stems from the fact that its themes and relatable emotions extend beyond the subject matter itself. By writing about his experience in the porn industry, Tyler Knight has created a powerful confession about race, money, creative ambition, love, resilience, and so much more.



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