Trapped. Without options. Lacking self-empowerment. Enslaved by addiction.
Harmony Dust is 19 years old, living in the Los Angeles area, attending college, and addicted to an abusive, opportunistic relationship with a man who neither values nor respects her. Deserted altogether by her father and lacking consistent support or nurturing from her mother, Harmony grew up bouncing from one injurious relationship to another. She endured physical, sexual, and emotional battering. She felt that there was “something really wrong with me that I kept attracting those situations again and again.” To survive, she learned to block out her emotions, disconnecting her heart and head, because deep inside the thing she feared most was being abandoned . . . yet again.
She clings to Derrick, a young man she has known for several years. Determined to complete her education and become a child psychologist, Harmony finds herself $35,000 in debt as a result of her quest to provide for Derrick, who can’t be bothered with gainful employment. Rather, he spends his days playing basketball while she supports him in order to keep him in her life. Harmony even agrees to move into Derrick’s mother’s house to care for her after she suffers a stroke. But when his mother is placed in a care home, they lose the right to remain in the woman’s house, so Harmony again takes on the burden of supporting herself and the shiftless Derrick. He disappears for days with her car . . . and their female next-door neighbor. So desperate is Harmony for the rare bit of affection or regard she receives from Derrick that she even takes in the young woman when she learns that the former neighbor is pregnant with Derrick’s baby. She sleeps on the couch in the living room of the apartment for which she pays rent, while Derrick and his burgeoning family occupy the bedroom.
A classmate suggests that Harmony can increase her income exponentially by becoming an exotic dancer. At first resistant, she eventually succumbs to her classmate’s pressuring. Harmony consults with one of her psychology professors, worried that if she becomes a stripper, it might prohibit her from achieving her ultimate career goal. Instead of dissuading her, the professor tells her, “Well, you certainly don’t have to put it on your resume.” She promises herself that she will work in the strip club for two months only — just long enough to earn the money she needs to pay off her debts. Adept at compartmentalizing her emotions, it is “Monique” — as she christens herself when she awkwardly takes the stage for the first time — who dances for the club’s male customers each night in order to continue supporting herself and Derrick, continue her studies, and become financially independent. When “Monique” is not dancing, Harmony continues hoping against hope that Derrick will eventually love and respect her.
What Harmony comes to realize, of course, is that she will never be capable of accepting love or respect from anyone else until she first learns how to genuinely love and respect herself. A friend invites Harmony to attend a church service. “I didn’t want to go because I was afraid of being judged,” Harmony relates. To her surprise, Harmony finds the congregation warm, welcoming, and decidedly different from the stereotypical church assembly she expected to encounter. “I felt like I was home.” When she asks the club’s management to rearrange her work schedule so that she can continue attending services each week, Harmony discovers that believers can be found in very unexpected places. Over time, the still, small voice inside Harmony grows louder and more insistent, demanding that she face the gnawing realization that the life she is leading is diametrically at odds with her flourishing self-esteem and sense of self-worth.
At last, she takes a giant and literal leap of faith. One night, as the strains of “Purple Rain” by Prince begin, she feels naked for the first time. Three years earlier, she had auditioned by dancing to that same song. She goes straight to the manager and announces that she is finished. Over the protests of her fellow employees — “No one quits. Everyone comes back. You’ll be back,” they tell her — she sells all of her costumes to the other dancers, walks out of the club for the last time, and finally extricates herself from her codependent relationship with Derrick.
Harmony completed her education and fulfilled her dreams. Today she holds a Master of Arts degree in Social Welfare from the University of California at Los Angeles (UCLA), is a happily married mother, and leads Treasures, an organization that helps other women free themselves from the sex industry by discovering their true worth and value.
“You will want to get a copy for every person you know . . . Once you start this book, you will not be able to put it down,” gushes Holly Wagner, author and founder of GodChicks. And rightfully so.
“This is a book about overcoming. You don’t have to spend time working in a strip club to relate to it.” ~ Harmony Dust
The juxtaposition of Harmony — the intelligent, articulate, attractive young woman who dreams of being a child psychologist, but is, despite all of her talents and abilities, so desperate for love and a sense of belonging that she clings to a worthless opportunist like Derrick — against her fabricated alter-ego, “Monique,” is a compelling story. “Monique” is a tough, emotionally detached, goal-driven entrepreneur, but Harmony’s gritty true-life tale bears little resemblance to Hollywood’s typical treatment of this “bad girl goes straight” genre, Pretty Woman being the prime and most notorious example.
Indeed, there is nothing glamorous or appealing about the strip club in which “Monique” performs, much less the style of dance she employs to earn tips from her customers. “Monique” is actually luckier than most of the other strippers, some of whom prostitute themselves. Some are addicted to drugs and/or alcohol, and some never manage to extricate themselves from the business, continuing to dance for decades once they become accustomed to the cash flow and realize that they have no other marketable skills with which to earn even a fracture of the income they are used to generating. Harmony infuses detailed descriptions of her surroundings, fellow dancers, and customers that are so vivid the reader is pulled right into that club with her — you can practically smell the smoke and hear the bass line emanating from the smarmy DJ’s equipment as he asks “Monique” what song she wants to dance to on any given evening.
And some of the incidents she relates are heart-breaking. Especially touching are tales about two of her customers: A man she is shocked and disappointed to find at the club, and another so special that he was the one and only customer with whom she ever let down her emotional guard. Still, the inevitable limitations of their sweet and tender relationship cause Harmony much anguish. She learns a great deal from their encounters and the experience propels her journey of self-discovery forward. (I couldn’t help wondering if that gentleman might not have been an angel dispatched to assist Harmony.)
Harmony’s account of her childhood makes for particularly difficult reading. Even though it is apparent that she has omitted much of the harsh minutiae, the events she relates, including a brutal rape, are harrowing. She shares only sketchy information about her family members and the environment in which she grew up, and some aspects of her fractured familial relationships are puzzling, especially concerning her grandmother. Why, for instance, did she not raise Harmony herself when it was apparent that Harmony’s mother could provide neither adequate emotional nor financial support for her daughter? No cogent answer is provided. And Harmony apparently forgave her absent father, although she never elucidates how their relationship progressed from him refusing, at a point when she desperately needed it, to provide her shelter . . . to her visiting him with her grandmother at his home in Washington a few years later. Further explanation would have been helpful to a complete understanding of Harmony’s journey. Ultimately, however, the omission of those salient points does not detract from the book’s impact.
The focus of Harmony’s story is, of course, her gradual metamorphosis from her double life as Harmony/”Monique” to the self-confident woman who began a ministry simply by placing notes of encouragement on the windshields of cars in the parking lot of the strip club where she used to perform. Harmony’s description of her slow, steady progression into a life of faith and the incremental growth of her courage, marked by seemingly chance encounters with other believers in the most unexpected surroundings and circumstances, rings convincingly true. Hers was no sudden conversion into a life of church-going and proselytizing. Rather, she credibly describes her evolution from a woman so disconnected from her own emotions that she could remove all of her clothing to stand nude in front of a crowd of groping strangers, yet not feel naked . . . to a woman who becomes progressively attuned to that “still, small voice” emanating from deep in her soul. For that reason, when she finally describes the moment when she knew she could never perform another exotic dance, as well as the subsequent scene in the dressing room during which she auctions off her costumes to the other dancers, she evokes chills and “Alleluias!”
Harmony believed that if she broke up with Derrick, she would find herself with another man just like him. So she tried desperately to hold onto and change him. Harmony’s emancipation from her career as a dancer also releases her from her emotional slavery to Derrick and her false hopes about his character and their future together. “It was like a yoke being lifted.”
I walked to the phone with more confidence than I knew I had and fished for some coins in my wallet. Without hesitation, I dropped the change into the phone and dialed the number. The phone rang; and rang; and rang. Please pick up! Please, please pick up! I have to do this, I thought to myself.
“Hello?” His deep voice was slow and lingering; so unsuspecting.
I began to wonder if I could really go through with it.
“Hey, it’s me . . .” I can and I will, I told myself.
“Yeah . . . what’s up?” he said, with his usual “What do you want?” kind of tone.
“I’m just calling to let you know that I can’t have you in my life any more, and from now on I will no longer be supporting you financially.” I spoke with more confidence than I knew I had. . . .
“What? I don’t understand,” he stammered. . . .
“You con’t have to understand. You just have to accept it. Please don’t try to call me,” I replied calmly, as though I had rehearsed it a thousand times. In actuality the words just came to me.
“I have to go.” And with that I hung up the phone, and with it an era of my life. . . .
That’s it. After seven years, a two-minute phone call was all it took to end it. And I am alive. The world has not stopped for this moment. Life goes one. My life will go on. . . .
He was gone from me, and I was still very much alive.
Anyone who has been in or cares about someone in a codependent relationship can appreciate how monumental Harmony’s break with Derrick — seven years in the making — truly was. The words were so deceptively simple, uttered so quickly. But it took her all those years — and the development of a sustaining belief and faith in something larger than herself — to find the courage to say them.
To her credit, Harmony does not foist blame for her circumstances or her choices on anyone else, even though, as a parent, I found plenty of fault with her mother, father, and grandmother. Perhaps that is why she declined to reveal some aspects of her family history and relationships: She does not wish to be perceived as whiny or attempting to elicit sympathy from her readers. So, ultimately, hers is also a story of forgiveness, subtly but genuinely displayed in her actions.
Harmony’s message? If the God she professes could find her in a seedy Los Angeles strip club and lead her out of her despair and self-loathing to the life she now leads, redemption from a life of hopelessness is possible for anyone else who seeks it. That’s powerful testimony, impressively conveyed in a straight-forward, but not preachy manner. To her credit, Harmony peppers her narrative with but a few key Bible verses and describes her all-important baptism day in a direct manner, explaining that while the pastor prayed for her, she was “filled with a peace I have never known, awake or asleep.” (Christians, of course, recognize “the peace that passes understanding,” a euphoric sense of well-being that all-too-often eludes us as we focus on our everyday responsibilities.)
Refreshingly absent from Scars and Stilettos are the unconvincingly effusive, overwrought professions of belief and overt attempts to convert the reader to the author’s belief system that frequently punctuate autobiographies of this sort. Less is definitely more. Because of her wisely restrained writing style, the faith that Harmony believes empowers her to do all things through Him who gives her strength takes center stage and enables Harmony to achieve her goal: Scars and Stilettos is indeed inspiring and uplifting.
Today, Harmony is devoted to helping other women escape the sex industry. Steeped in grace, Harmony remembers “how alone and desperate I felt.” So when she sees women living in situations similar to those from which she escaped, she says, “I have to do something to reach them and tell them that there’s hope.” To learn more about Harmony’s work, visit Treasures.