That is the current that runs through Daniels’s new book, “Full Disclosure,” which publishes Oct. 2. (The Washington Post obtained an early copy.) Daniels knows we’re all interested in the juicy bits about Trump, but she doesn’t get there until several chapters in, after detailing a dysfunctional childhood in Louisiana with an uninterested and then absent father and a mother who falls apart as a result. She is repeatedly raped at age 9 by a child molester, and when she finally tells a school counselor, her story isn’t believed. Her mother pretends it never happened, fearing that the assaults will be blamed on negligent parenting. Hers is a childhood marked by indifferent and sometimes callous adults, and she has to prove her basic worth again and again.
Daniels eventually finds solace in horseback riding, which helps her pull away from a life that felt inevitable, a theme she comes back to many times as she considers the absurdity of her current situation (“I should be living in a trailer back in Louisiana, with six kids and no teeth,” she writes in the book’s prologue, as she instead prepares to accept the keys to the city as West Hollywood proclaims Stormy Daniels Day). Her fixation on riding means she avoids drinking, drugs and sex, all parts of a normal teenage social life, but things that can short-circuit plans of escape for those lower on the socioeconomic rungs. “I would see yet another girl who lived around me suddenly pregnant and would say to myself silently, Can’t ride a horse if you’re pregnant.”
That focus also animates Daniels’s professional life, as she starts stripping in high school (focusing on consistent clients rather than gravitating to one-time big tippers), moves on to more-profitable stripping road shows and then tries the adult-film industry. She seeks to write and later direct adult films, and finds quick success.
She is ambitious and bright, and that comes through — she doesn’t just show us, she tells us, repeatedly mentioning that she graduated from a magnet high school, that she has a photographic memory and that she’s smarter than you think. She misses few opportunities to emphasize the loyalty of her fan base — even more so now, as so many people plead with her to save the world as we know it. She name-drops and self-promotes and says how good she is at the many things she does well. As she recalls conversations, she’s always the one shutting down her adversary with a perfect zinger (or what she thinks is a great zinger but a younger reader will interpret as a classic mom joke, if your mom cursed a lot, liked bad metal, and named her boobs Thunder and Lightning). She implies that she was somehow preordained for the prominent history-shaping role she currently occupies.
Reading Daniels’s book, I found myself alternately appreciating her crass and self-aware humor, and cringing at her shameless self-aggrandizement. It struck me, repeatedly, that she’s a bit like the female flipside of Trump: fixated on her greatness, unabashedly bragging about her achievements and a touch vain.
I suspect many readers will feel the same. I also suspect this says more about us than it does about Daniels.
It is her autobiography, after all, and unlike Trump, she doesn’t puff up her life story or pretend to be anything she’s not. She is simply a woman who doesn’t play by the feminine rulebook of crediting others, even when it’s not deserved, and shying away from anything that might resemble ambition, pride or self-promotion. Narcissism is unappealing no matter who it comes from, and it is potentially dangerous when a pathological narcissist has significant power over others as, say, the president of the United States. It is also over-diagnosed in women by armchair psychologists. As I found myself comparing Daniels to Trump, I also became shamefully aware that even the most feminist-minded among us often are viscerally repelled when we witness women who are unvarnished in their normal human self-interest.
Beyond the grounds for potential campaign finance violations, it’s this more profound examination of our subtler biases that Daniels has brought about. Her rags-to-riches story tacks a familiar course, but she got there via sex and brazen power-seeking — things women are not supposed to be quite so blatant about. Women like Daniels are rarely heroes, least of all when they take on powerful men. It is deep-seated, this assumption of deceitfulness and greed in women who are sexually forthcoming. Good women don’t do that, so the ones who do must be bad. Strippers pretend to like you, prostitutes pretend to enjoy sleeping with you, porn stars pretend that what they do on film is like the sex real people have. Never mind that they’re all being paid to uphold (mostly) men’s fantasies; there is disgust wrapped up with the desire, a sense in which men feel free to use their money to incentivize female behavior that pleases them, and then deem that same behavior inauthentic and the women who engage in it greedy liars. (If they’ll do that, what won’t they do?)
That Daniels is taking on a man who ascended to power on the fumes of conspiracy theories and who lies with a depth and frequency heretofore unseen in a president complicates this narrative. It forces all of us to take a look at the judgments we level at certain types of women, whether they’re Stormy Daniels or Hillary Clinton, whether they’re too sexy or too competitive or too ambitious. Daniels is one vehicle through which women are seeing in sharper focus just how much expectations of female deference still shape our paths and the possibilities for our lives.
Now that she’s wealthy and famous, Daniels’s story should be one of redemption, wherein Stormy goes from hooker with a heart of gold to soft, maternal and quiet (to be clear, Daniels never worked as a prostitute, but her detractors paint her as such). She should find true meaning in motherhood; she should take on the polite trappings of the middle class.
Instead, she writes that pregnancy sucked, she got really fat, and she demanded that her husband do porn, too, so that if they ever got divorced he couldn’t use her job against her in a custody battle. She conceals the Trump fling from him. He struggles with mental health issues, and their marriage falls apart under the glare of the public eye. She clearly adores her daughter but also very obviously loves her job, and is proud of the success she’s had in her industry. Yes, she was raped as a little girl, but she maintains that didn’t drive her to porn.
She is vulgar and candid in the way lovably brassy women always are, sharing the farcical and just-too-much, from descriptions of Trump’s genitals and personal grooming habits (Pert Plus up top, not enough attention down below) to an aside about shaving a part of her husband’s body that is unprintable in a family newspaper. For her, the most notable part of the Michael Cohen hearings, which Daniels went to watch, was that her tampon nearly overflowed: “I was wearing this light skirt, and that was what would be all over the front page the next day. STORMY DANIELS, SHOT IN THE ASS. Tragic.” (She makes it to the bathroom before tragedy strikes.)
There are not many women who can walk this line without making themselves the butt of the joke or being self-effacing enough to maintain likability. Daniels is having none of that, and in doing so, she loosens the straitjacket of acceptable femininity a touch more. She is not particularly self-deprecating. She likes making money and doesn’t feel even a bit bad that she capitalized on this crazy story to make a buck — especially since she initially chose to tell it, for free, to reputable venues, knowing that a reputation for honesty is more valuable than a tabloid payday. Her book is not exactly a gripping read or a remarkable piece of literature, but it’s blunt, funny and authentic. She is all the things women are not supposed to be. And yet you like her — not in spite of her rule-breaking but for it. Perhaps more important, when you read her story, you believe her.
By Stormy Daniels
270 pp. $27.99