Susan Winemaker describes herself as a “nice Jewish girl from Toronto”. She majored in philosophy and the culinary arts, and presumably because the former would not pay, went to study the latter in London. But as everyone knows, learning to be a chef and being a chef-for-hire is not as lucrative as being a dominatrix, and this is where she turned her talents. In Concertina: An Erotic Memoir of Extravagant Tastes and Extreme Desires(St. Martin’s Press), Winemaker gives an account of her work in a trade of administering discipline and pain to men who think it worth, say, 150 an hour to be treated in such a way. It’s an odd career, although it is one long associated with sexuality, especially in England. It has plenty of peculiar moments and fun which Winemaker enjoys and writes about with amusement; the first sentence of the book is, “It’s 11:25 a.m. and I’m sitting on and suffocating Bernie”. The work is delivering a service for a fee, and is full of day-to-day, practical tasks just to get the job done, as in “At 2:13 I was on my hands and knees, wiping semen off the dungeon floor. At 2:17 I was eating a hummus sandwich in the garden, and answering the telephone to a man who was interested in catheters and other medical procedures. At 2:30 I answered the door to a stranger named Robert …” She was good at her trade, and had plenty of repeat clients handled with just the right degree of pain and remove. When she “blurred the boundaries” between mistress and client and took one on as a lover, the results are more disturbing than anything that happened in her dungeon.
There is plenty of food in the book, and many comparisons made between serving up a meal and serving up domination. When she was in training as a chef, she says, “I was shocked by the belligerence, the bellicosity, and the sheer violence” of the ranting of the head chef. “Hurry up!” he yells, “Sauce on the side! you’ve got the memory of a bloody goldfish.” She is amazed by the abusiveness, and commiserates with one of its targets, but gets the reply, “You kidding? I deserved every bit of it and more. We all did! I couldn’t respect a chef that didn’t whip my ass. He’s one of the best around, and don’t you forget it.” It is just the sort of attitude she would later prize in her clients. A friend advises her, “Treat the kitchen as a psychological study in power and discipline.” There are tools in the kitchen, ramekins and salamanders, and tools of her subsequent trade as well. When she sets up in her dungeon, the owner of the cottage that contains it points out and names all the gear: blindfolds, gags, belts, paddles, whips of horsehair, whips of rubber, crops, birches, and tawses. There was a cast iron chamber like a standing coffin, a leather bench, stocks, and a metal headcage that looked like a birdcage. On a trolley were nipple clamps, thumb traps, weights to be hung on the genitals, and clothes pins. And of course, there are latex gloves, wet wipes, and tissues. Serving up something delicious for the client is part of both trades, and she writes that “pain, violence, discipline and a good grasp of the trade’s tools could produce something succulent and beautiful”.
The woman who introduces her to the new profession says that the money will be good, but money must never be the only motive. “You need to enjoy what you’re doing,” she says, “it makes all the difference. Despite how it appears, you need to like men if you want to do the job and do it well… you need to care for them. You’re there to facilitate their fantasy… You’re playing a role. Don’t let it go to your head. Don’t take it too seriously. It’s a game. It’s a job. Make sure to have fun with it and you’ll be fine.” It is all good advice. She does like the game she plays as Mistress Anna and she likes the men. She had a session with “Enema Larry” who liked her to be in rubber nurse uniform, and afterwards he went to kiss her goodbye on the cheek. “I backed away just in time,” she writes. “I don’t want you to catch my cold, Larry.” The response: “Oh, but, Anna, I want your cold,” he instantly volleyed. It was the kindest thing anyone had said to me in the cottage. A beautiful thing to say. I loved my job for moments like that, for unexpected intimacies born of strange circumstances.” From Bernie, she enjoyed witty repartee and the sense of play. He liked being suffocated by her rubber dress, and although he seldom asked for anything, at one session, he said, “You can go really far with the suffocation this time,” and she knew how to handle the request: “Bernie, you said it, you took the words right out of my mouth because today is the day I’m going to push you like you’ve never been pushed before.” But it was a game; she knew she would thereafter “just carry on as usual.” It is illuminating that when she was preparing for her career, she not only read fetish magazines and rope-tying manuals, but also Stanislavski’s Building a Character and An Actor Prepares. She writes of the accord between her and clients, “There will be no ‘sex’ as it’s understood. It will be my job to administer pain erotically and expertly… a symphony in the background, a range of sensations assailing me, the brief connection, the spice of anonymous intimacy, the distilled concentrated moment. I respond to detail and subtlety, rules, roles, and melody. This is theater, finitude, and utterly otherly experience.” Upon enquiry from her parents, she reports that she is working within an exclusive independent theater in London, and this is a stretched truth rather than a lie; she does not mention if she prepared them for the franker descriptions in her book.
Though she is objective in describing her work, the most open and candid part of Concertina is the troubling account of her relationship with a client with whom she fell in love. In many ways, her job was no different from any other; it was demanding work with a good paycheck, but she realized that she was lonely: “I’m giving and I’m going home to no one.” But Adam was gorgeous and responsive, liking especially the genital application of two score clothespins. Outside the dungeon, they developed an intense, sadomasochistic give and take. There is even (gasp) romantic and passionate normal sex. They aren’t able to abandon domination / submission, however, and the convolutions mount. “The thought of ordering my lover to pleasure me was vulgar. I want him to pleasure me because he wants to, not because he has to, and not because it’s the role he’s playing.” The last straw is that Adam, who says he loves her cooking, admits he accidentally ate a raw chicken cutlet and didn’t notice. Winemaker eventually sees the humor in such a denouement, but the resolution of their relationship is sad and cruel. Never mind; she wants to start up a luxury porridge bar in London, and that is not a euphemism for anything erotic but rather a culinary niche that she thinks is unexplored. It would be a simpler life, and I would trust her to write about it colorfully, recipes included, but I suspect it would not result in a memoir as strange or funny as this one.
© 2007 Rob Hardy. All rights reserved. Content may not be copied or used in whole or part without written permission from the author.