This non-fiction book follows Louis Theroux as he travels America ten years after his Weird Weekends series, and catches up with a select group of former interviewees. It tackles the voyeurism, affection and exploitation at the heart of Louis Theroux’s documentary style.
I mostly bought the book to see what had happened to / with Hayley. She was the sex worker Louis awkwardly bonded with at the legal brothel in Nevada. Hayley had alcohol problems and a history of trauma. At one point in the original documentary, Louis discussed her with Susan Austin (the lady running the house). Susan explained that Hayley had been shot by her (now deceased) husband in a murder / suicide attempt.
The same woman had set up a scheme, paying half the tuition for her employees if they wanted to go to a local college. She enthusiastically said Emily was a good candidate. When asked if Hayley could or would take that path, she said no in everything but words.
When Louis returned, Hayley had been fired for cause and no-one knew where she was. He followed her trail and eventually found her in a small rural town. Hayley was actually Tammy. She had found God, stopped drinking and stopped turning tricks. She volunteered at an animal sanctuary, had a nice-seeming boyfriend, and stripped for cash. She still presented as unstable though. Aggressively asking if Louis was religious, and physically attacking her partner when she suspected infidelity.
“It was one of the pitfalls of being back in this world, I reflected. You felt creepy.” – Louis Theroux
Louis begins this chapter by describing the interior of an ‘adult entertainment’ office. Business like producers, ignoring matter of fact nudity. Men in cowboy boots; women wearing chic suits and others wearing nothing at all. One producer, Margold, laments that the creativity has gone. He speculated that eroticism had been replaced by shock value. An interesting (and possibly correct) idea – especially as the follow up documentary suggested the opposite.
JJ was now a sober computer developer with a Ukrainian mail order bride. He harboured dreams of being a porn director but relished the security he had obtained. He also explained (in the follow up doc) that his death wish had been the result of his baby boy dying. He was dealing with his grief by producing a metal album with his band, Shattered Destiny.
He seemed to now feel a lot better, with a secure job, a wife and a pension, but felt restless.
When Louis re-visited patriot community Almost Heaven, Mike Cain was gone, and his house had become a community centre. They had communicated in the time between. Cain had been arrested for several petty infractions. He was also of the belief – like many conspiracists – that 9/11 was an inside job. A kind of Reichstagg fire, fabricated to suspend civil liberties.
After a marriage breakup and attempted suicide, former leader Bo Gritz had moved to Nevada. Despite his friend pointing out that Gritz had been ‘fornicating’ too, he wanted to kill the man that his wife Claudia had run off with.
“A co-operative of rabid individualists” – Louise Therous, on Almost Heaven
The community of Almost Heaven was fracturing. One of Cain’s friends turned out to be an informant. Cain’s wife, Chacha, broke under the pressure and became a nurse’s assistant. Several of the more extreme community members had been arrested.
When they met, Mike was still obsessed with his patriot games. However his wife Chacha didn’t want to hear it. These days, they lived in a gated apartment building with a swimming pool. She was glamorous, thriving; loved Starbucks and bookshops. She made an offhand comment about how the Almost Heaven community ‘felt about women’. It is perhaps telling that another patriot had pointed out that many women had left the community.
The America he explores is barely recognisable as the one on TV and movie screens. There’s a weird, dusty melancholy that overlays the whole book. A sense of lost dreams and thwarted plans. A sentimental, nostalgic regret, most often evoked nowadays in Lana Del Rey videos. One that reminds you of Sweet Bird of Youth. The Tennessee Williams play is overlaid throughout by mournful palm trees that ‘seem to play a lament of “Lost… lost… never to be found again.”’
It seems apt; even though in many ways, the subjects could be framed as doing far better than they were. Hayley / Tammy beat her drinking problem and built a better life in rural America. JJ has a well paid, respectable job, a wife, a future. Mike lives in a gated complex with his wife, regular employment and visits his children.
But all three – the most interesting protagonists of the documentary and non fiction follow up – seemed a little lost and adrift. Not least in that no-one they had spent time with in the last eight years knew where to find them. I feel there’s something important there. In order to improve themselves and create new lives, they had to become ghosts. A utility lacking, or at least more difficult, in a modern era of harsh digital footprints.
Voyeurism and Exploitation
Louis Theroux’s Weird Weekends series started with a weekend at the Wild Horse Resort and Spa. In some ways I think it’s the most important tale of all. It tackles the voyeurism, affection and exploitation at the heart of Louis Theroux’s documentary style. (A style, for the record, that I love).
In revisiting Hayley, Louis talks about mutual exploitation. Near the beginning he is very clear; every ‘girl’ at the house is doing it for the money. He obviously likes Hayley though. Feels connected; wonders how much of that connection is reciprocal and real. And resents her as a result. He also explicitly states that he finds her hard to read; finds it hard to ‘see through the con’. I wonder if that fuels his resentment of her.
It’s a typical tale of a certain type of man who sees sex workers. A type who demands an illusion, wants to believe it is real, and feels hostile toward the person providing the illusion because it clearly is not. And toward himself, for wanting it to be real. Conversely the sex worker knows her income (and potentially her life) hinges on the customer believing the illusion.
Update: When I first wrote this, I had recently re-watched the episode relating to the brothel. It was one of Theroux’s first documentaries. He was more obvious and gauche. I had misinterpreted his comment about ‘mutual manipulation’ to be an expression of wounded masculinity. However in one of his more recent documentaries I saw what he meant far more clearly. He met with a pimp in prison. Initially, Louis deployed his ‘naive, avuncular BBC British clown’ persona, and the pimp was playing up his ‘ignorant gangsta from the hood’ persona. Then at one key point, Louis sharpened up and bluntly said, “That sounds like a cult,” and smiled, in a faint and knowing way. The pimp – who was in no way stupid or ignorant – replied in kind, saying, “Yeah? Yes maybe.” Even his accent changed. He was a man who made a very good living manipulating others, and pretending to be a stupid thug was part of that. In that exquisite cinematic moment, both men saw each other. And I saw what he meant by ‘two master manipulators.”
The strongest example of this is the ‘girlfriend experience‘. Many of the women at the brothel flatly refused to do it. Louis interviewed one woman who did and she seemed exhausted – and faintly disgusted – by it.
The man involved – who looked normal, but had seemed creepier as time went on – had wanted to take Susan, ‘away from all this’. When Louis asked why she had declined, Susan merely laughed, and responded; “common sense.”
Louis describes himself and Hayley as a pair of ‘professional manipulators’. It could be accurate. But Hayley is an extremely vulnerable person whose own husband tried to kill her. She supports her whole family according to one madam Louis meets along the way, and has obviously suffered a great deal. She may be a manipulator, but she has very good reasons, ranging from poverty to trauma.
In the End
Louis’ own manipulations result in a fascinating and devastating portrait. One capturing a particular time, person and scenario. It isn’t necessarily cruel; in some ways it’s rather tender. But it’s uncomfortable, and the follow up even more so, in some ways. Carving a new life is tough; having a recorded memory of your worst times can’t help but make that harder. Having the person who recorded it reappear could be a welcome reminder of how far you have come. Or a devastating reminder of the past.
The discomfort is important in having us re-examine our own attitudes. We are, after all, taking entertainment out of other people’s lives. It struck me more because the Tammy / Hayley portrayed on the page seemed far more real – paradoxically – than the brash, brassy blonde in the documentary. I felt for her, and I felt that both Louis and I were intruding in her (successful) attempt to improve her own life.