The Poetry Project

Freedom & Prostitution by Cassandra Troyan

Review by LA Warman

CW: [includes mention of murder, rape, state violence, etc.]

Freedom & Prostitution (The Elephants, 2020) by Cassandra Troyan is not an easy read. The book is painful. The pain I felt in my body. The pain of countless voices of people impacted by patriarchal violence. This is violence I am familiar with. As a woman, it is violence I have come to expect. The frequency at which it arrives has become almost mundane, like a radio station I cannot change. Through poetic embodiment of language too often used to oppress, Troyan takes this cruelty and subverts it. Those who perform violence have the power. Troyan puts the violence in the hands of all who are not cis-men and demands that it be used. Violence against oppressors forms connection between the varied voices embodied in the text.

In Freedom & Prostitution, the only hope for something like justice is in vengeance. Oppressive forces should be murdered before they kill you. If this cannot be achieved one joins the chorus, an afterlife of haunting. In this way, Troyan creates a third space between life and death, the ability to haunt, the ability to return after death. There is no justice in this world. Justice remains theory, something to hope for but never receive. Justice in this sense is a false desire. Troyan conjures a chorus that is a form of remaking justice, a “radical emptiness” where “bodies become one body” (Troyan, 113). This collectivity joins the living and the dead.

Through Troyan’s poetic conjuring, those killed by the military, gendered violence, and white supremacy are given the ability to come back to life. Their experiences are not sensationalized by Troyan. The stories blur and melt into each other, it’s hard to tell when one person’s experiences become another’s. The blurring continues: “Your life is not separate from your death” (58). Those with biopower work to ensure that those they have power over (women, queer people, sexworkers) will also suffer in life. Those which the state deems disposable live and die in this way. Lead in the water, chemicals in the air, lacking infrastructure all come from the same settler colonial system that legitimizes police violence and invests in weaponized drones. Troyan illuminates the treatment of sex workers in life and in death. They argue directly against beliefs that cause deaths to be unnoticed or even uncared for, a force that emboldens people such as the Green River Killer. Troyan flips this, creating room for lives lived. They collapse the idea of life and death as dichotomous.

Violence is birthed from empire, empire birthed from racialized caste systems. Troyan enters the belly of this power creating a new chance for collectivity with the dead. As they state we must “say more than their names” (49). Mourning must not be a candlelight vigil or something quiet, Troyan argues that to mourn these “women known and unknown” (49) revenge is essential. The way to stop patriarchal violence is for patriarchal forces to stop being violent. Perhaps peaceful opposition never did anything. Perhaps violence is an answer. What can be repressed in prison abolitionist texts is the idea that revenge is pleasureful. When vengeance becomes fantasy, however unattainable, it creates room for swerves away from binary systems of crime and punishment. Vengeance as fantasy creates a space beyond oversimplifications of cause and result.

The book begins with the voice of Aileen Wuornos, a sex worker who killed seven men in Florida in 1989 and 1990. Wuornos stated that she killed those who had raped and abused her as a means of self-defense. Because she was a woman and also a serial killer she became sensationalized, depicted by Charlize Theron in Monster (2003), widely discussed. Wuornos received a death penalty sentance and was held in prison for eleven years before being executed. Through the violence that resulted in Wuornos’ state-sanctioned murder she gets to have more than a name, she gets her vengeance. “Before they executed you said, ‘I’ll be back, I’ll be back’” (62). Repetitious haunting is the achievement of this threat, the continual return. In her death Wuornos is not alone, the chorus grows and grows. It cannot be contained. As people approach death they “know the chorus / is on their way” (117). While living to honor the chorus “you continue with every trick turned, a triumph” (60). Continuing when all violence says stop, refusing to stop, creates power over violence. As violence is a constant in the text, the haunting chorus does not stop it, but there is power in reacting to that violence by not stopping.

Freedom & Prostitution demands more from memorial than saying their names. Troyan first lists the women killed by the Green River Killer and then goes into detail about each of their lives. This depth of account gives the dead another afterlife in language. Further enacting the theory that guides the book, Troyan does not give the killer’s name nor details that the media generally promotes instead of sharing the lives of those killed. This inversion of attention, this act of life-giving, shows that behind each murdered woman is complexity. They are not just bodies hidden. Troyan takes the decaying bodies from the earth and shows them for all their violence, pain, suffering, and joys.

The book desires a future where “there is no such thing as a woman” (34). Wuornos’ identity as a lesbian and what was seen as her non-normative desire created a frame in which the public could only see her as perpetrator. I understand these passages in my lesbian body as I walk through the city, my desirability as a sort of disgust. The men who spit on the ground in front of my feet and then try to take me home. I didn’t choose to have a gendered body; the future Troyan creates frees us from the brutality of the enforcement of binaries.

Destruction of what bell hooks names as imperialist, white-supremacist, capitalist patriarchy is not easy. It is painful. There is loss. There has been so much loss already. Sometimes the vastness of what we have lost sinks me to the ground. But, through Troyan’s text I witness an active death. A way those killed by these forces continue to live through us and through those recreating worlds free of empire. Every person killed is a person who persists in this chorus. Every member of the chorus will live forever. In the chorus, there is a person in front of us and behind us. A person leading the way and a person who has our back from behind. And in this, “your survival / is the greatest revenge” (89). To read Freedom & Prostitution is to hurt, to witness, to grieve, and to open a portal to a future of freedom through violence.

#264 — Spring 2021