Margo Steines Thinks Violence Makes Us Human, But That Doesn’t Have to Be a Bad Thing

The dominatrix-turned-metalworker-turned-memoirist and author of “Brutalities: A Love Story” chatted with Observer about her bold and acclaimed debut, the newness of motherhood and the nuances of violence.

Margo Steines has lived more lives than most of us ever will. By age seventeen, she had dropped out of high school to beat bankers with sticks for money—a dominatrix with a sadistic taste for pain, as her boss marketed her to clients. That wasn’t true, but life and performance became so intertwined it might as well have been. She fell deep into a decade-long S&M relationship with an older man with whom she shared a farm; memorably, she once stuck her hands into the gory corpse of a ewe as he hacked into it to save the lamb inside. It was a doomed rescue mission. The lamb died in their arms. Later, Steines became a welder; she worked high iron and dangled precariously above New York City with a shaved head and a chest forced flat via layers of sports bras, one of the only women in the business. When metal burned through her clothes and into her skin, she made sure she did not make a sound.

A collage of a women in a hoodie and a book cover
Steines’ debut memoir is less brutal than it is honest. (c) Aiden Avery / W. W. Norton & Company

At one point, she spiraled into an intense exercise addiction and ran miles on a broken heel. At another, she developed a chronic illness no doctors were able, or willing, to diagnose. She’s lived in New York City, the upstate farm, the desert, Hawai’i, Tucson—but for much of her life, everything was tied to a singular thread: “What I enjoyed,” she writes about her terrifying relationship with her ex, whom she refers to as Dean, “was how still I could remain while he hurt me. What I liked was endurance: the slow violence of accumulation, time and discomfort building upward and outward and showing me the spaces in myself past where I had thought I ended. I liked that I could take it.”

This taste for violence appears to be the driving force of Margo Steines’ striking debut memoir essay collection, Brutalities: A Love Story. But the juxtaposition in the title alludes to the true heart of the book. Can a retelling of the violence one has experienced double as a tale of care or kindness? Is there a place for nuance in pain? And if there is, why are we so hesitant to explore it?

“Why did I want this, seek this, demand this? It’s a fair question, and it always seems to be the first one,” she writes, explaining that she grew up in a loving household where she was taught to recognize her own value and worth—a background that might contradict the narrative we’re accustomed to. “The real, confounding truth is that I do not have an answer, only observations: in my body, violence has always brought a quickening of the pulse, a fresh tautness to the abdominal muscles, a soft ringing in the ears, the cresting rise of manic euphoria in the chest.”

The beauty of Brutalities is that much of it is not inherently brutal. The narrative deftly threads a past of pain and a present of comfort together into a meaningful portrait of a life made cohesive by its own contradictions. Despite Steines’ self-described aversion to appearing (or feeling) soft, Brutalities is driven by love and gratefulness just as much as the brutalities themselves—it’s filled to the brim with her hard-won affection for herself, for others, for life and living it. It’s a memoir, and it’s also a universal treatise on the things we do for pain and why we do them. It is deeply, deeply human, often uncomfortably so.

I spoke with Steines a few days before her book’s widespread release about her journey from dominatrix to welder to student to memoirist and mother, the challenges of writing a book as honest as Brutalities and how to live in a violent world that won’t talk about violence.

It’s evident that Brutalities has been a long time coming—when did you first realize your experiences were ones that not only needed to be written about, but read?

Some of this material I had been working on for maybe ten years! I had no idea it would be a book until much later, though. I was working on these essays separately, and I knew they were all in conversation, but I didn’t know how to articulate the connections between them until I had written enough that it sort of just clicked. Plus, it was quarantine, and I was pregnant and feeling so fucking claustrophobic stuck in this apartment, this body, this heat, and even though that scenario was obviously different from the other spaces of extremity I had written about for so long, there were deep connections between them that I wanted to understand.

I never really thought of it as a pure memoir, though—I wanted it to be about ideas more than experiences. If I had another subject, another person, to use as a case study, I would have used them! But I didn’t, so the self ended up being, like, the petri dish I looked into.

The book isn’t quite a memoir, not quite a collection of essays, but a genre-bending amalgamation of both. I love the braided structure you use to weave chapters written about the present (your pregnant life during COVID) into this tapestry of memory and pain. How did you decide on this alternating structure? 

I don’t think 220 pages of trauma would be very nice to read straight through. I would read that, but I don’t know if a lot of other people would without having to put it down and walk away. Then again, I also think that if you read anything that intense for a long period, you get numb to it. And a book is sort of an experience design, right? You’re asking someone to have this experience that you’re curating, and you manipulate that experience in writing it. So I guess I wanted people to feel sort of disturbed, but then also okay, and then… disturbed again. And then okay again!

Another one of the things the braided structure did for me was to take away some of the potential for the book to come across as overwrought. I don’t want anyone’s pity. I don’t pity myself. That’s not something I’m interested in, and I wanted to make it clear that I have a very good life and no one needs to engage in that kind of pity or sorrow with me.

You’ve been forthright about the fact that you grew up in peace and safety and that the taste for violence wasn’t forced upon you; it counters so many of the reductive narratives about trauma and violence that people still hold. How did you learn to validate your own experiences, despite their deviation from the expected norm?

A lot of the time, people do end up doing fucked-up things because of their trauma. But I feel like the media only ever portrays it in that one way—the classic trope of the fucked-up girl. But that’s also not the only possible explanation. For myself and a lot of people I’ve known, it’s much less causative than that. And because this is still so dominant in media portrayals of “fucked up-ness,” I kept thinking that I would someday uncover something about myself, my childhood, that would be the key, right? Something that would let me finally understand why I was so fucked up. And then I think I eventually got old enough and went to enough therapy that I was able to come to terms with the fact that I don’t think anything happened. Sure, some subtle things happened, and I reacted very poorly to them, but there isn’t some deep-seated traumatic experience that happened when I was three that I’ve repressed ever since, if that makes sense. But it took a long time to accept that.

You wrote that your “dalliances with powerlessness were all to varying degrees facilitated by the privilege that I had and have. To toy with danger is only a game to people with the opportunity to stop playing.” It was clearly important to you to maintain a thoughtful perspective on your own privilege throughout Brutalities—was that a challenge, given the hyper-personal, often painful subject matter?

It’s something I think about a lot. These conditions of privilege, I do have them. The time and space that I had to think so deeply about myself and how I feel at all times is something that I was afforded. I wanted to make it clear that I see that, and that in no way do I compare my experiences to people who have been systemically harmed by forces outside of their control. At the same time, it’s still the truth of my experience, so I can’t make it not like that or pretend my life has been something it hasn’t been.

Teaching creative writing—as well as writing yourself, of course—is certainly a far cry from working on high iron or as a dominatrix. At what point did writing become a prominent practice for you? 

When I look back, I think I always knew I was a writer, that I wanted to be a writer. But if you’d asked me back then, I would have very sincerely said I wasn’t creative. Now, I think that’s ridiculous; we’re all creative, it’s a fundamental human quality. But back then I in no way identified as a writer, probably out of fear. I had tried going to college when I was 18 or 19—I majored in English and I wrote some fucked up stories and I met a mentor—now friend—who was like “You should write something now!” I wanted to, but I was just doing so many drugs. I couldn’t really focus, I was too messy. And then a decade passed. I published my first piece in, I think, 2013. Once I really started, I was very serious about it right away. I was welding, but I knew there was a timeline on that for me and I didn’t know what else to do. I mean, up until recently, I have not had any marketable skills other than sex work and metal work! I grew up in an academic family, too, and I had felt like such a fucking loser that I had dropped out of school and only had a high school education. I wanted to go to school, partly just to finish something. But it was only after, when I got accepted to all these MFA programs I didn’t think I’d get into, that I first started thinking writing might be actually viable for me.

What is it about written language that calls to you, especially when relaying the kind of intimate, seemingly indescribable life experiences you explore in Brutalities

Writing provides a space that allows me to not experience shame as I’m trying to communicate. That’s the barrier for me with face-to-face communication. All of these things I wrote about, maybe now I could talk about them because I’ve sort of numbed myself to that experience, but just sitting and talking to someone about your deepest shame is a uniquely difficult thing to do. With writing, I control the pace, I control when I do it and I control everything else about it. And until I want to make it public, it’s an experience just with myself. I don’t believe in writing as therapy, but it is, in some ways, a corrective experience for all of the times I haven’t been in control of what was happening to me and in my life.

Given how personal the book is, did certain chapters or essays in Brutalities come easier than others? If you feel comfortable answering, which were the hardest to write?

Actually, the parts about my partner, the very tender parts, were the hardest and most emotionally difficult to do. I’m not numb the way I used to be, but I still compartmentalize very well, so I can write about all of the fucked-up stuff with my ex and all the violence in my own life—I don’t feel anything when I write about that. But then to write about how I felt when I was pregnant? It makes me cry.

You write a lot about how new a lot of that tenderness is, and how certain you had become prior to meeting your current partner that you would never experience it—but here you are. So, I know this is a bit, like, woo woo, but I have to ask: what do you think your 17-year-old self would say to you now, and what do you wish you could tell her? 

I think she would be so embarrassed by me! I wear fucking Birkenstocks. I’m exactly what she was not gonna turn into, driving my Subaru everywhere. But at the same time, I get to live now with an amount of peace I could not have imagined at that time in my life, that I would not have believed was possible. I now have a large degree of freedom from all the things that used to just make me want to die every day. I wish I could tell her that. Dan Savage coined this already but, still—it gets better.

There’s a lot of love and care in the book—after all, the title isn’t just Brutalities; it’s Brutalities: A Love Story, and that subtitle feels important. Was that always there or was it added later on?

That actually came from Matt, my agent. I wasn’t sure about it at first, but I ended up really liking it. I like that it has a couple of different meanings. For me, the love story of Brutalities isn’t really about my partner, although that’s certainly part of it. The real love story is about me.

Was writing it a self-love experience?

No, actually! I had to let go of a lot of ideas about myself I would have preferred to hold on to, but I felt sort of mortified that I’d made myself do this. It probably grew me as a person, but I definitely don’t think it was psychologically nourishing. It was definitely not some sort of Eat Pray Love experience; it felt more like getting something really harmful excised from me. And the process of writing it, while fine day-to-day, hit me a bit hard by the end with the accumulated weight of it all. Just looking at the totality of how I have allowed myself to be treated felt pretty heavy.

And, of course, it’s not just thinking about it either; it’s having to actually put language to it, which really is its own beast. What was your experience trying to write about concepts as loaded as violence and brutality without falling into the pitfalls of conflation and connotation?

I was just really interested in trying to separate the materiality of physical experiences from the contexts they take place in, so the most important thing for me was maintaining nuance throughout. When I would talk to people about martial arts, for instance, people outside of that world would always speak to a viciousness and a cruelty that I found totally absent from that space. From an outside perspective, however, it looks like it’s there because you’re doing these extremely rough things to each others’ bodies. It echoed a lot of experiences I had in BDSM where things that would be criminal if you did them without consent can, in a lot of contexts, be these wholly empowering reenactments because you’re in control and because consent is foregrounded. There’s a distinction between the emotional reality of an act and the physical act itself, but we often don’t know how to talk about that in a meaningful way.

Right, there’s a difference between the physicality of the act and the context in which it takes place.

And in a lot of spaces, consent is that difference. It’s the difference between sex and rape. It’s the difference between martial arts and a street fight. It’s the difference between a lot of things. As such, I don’t think anyone other than the person who was receiving the act gets to say whether harm was caused. You can’t look on from outside and try to say what happened; like, it’s not fucking inside baseball! And that was in some ways one of the main points in the book: the physical action isn’t the point. The point is, what is its meaning? And what is the experience of receiving it?

But I think because it’s hard to talk about, these expressions get pushed into these really private spaces, like the space of sexuality, and then end up not leaving them. We don’t get to compare our experiences with other people’s because they’re in this very shrouded space, and that’s really unfortunate. I believe that the human animal needs to be rough like every other kind of animal and that when we don’t have an opportunity to do that, shit gets weird. That’s a conversation that’s uncomfortable for people, but that discomfort is part of why it’s such a valuable conversation to have.

Do you hope that Brutalities will help make that space less shrouded? Is that a key role you think literature ought to play?

I don’t think it’s the point of writing something, but it is a bonus. I think the giving of language in particular can be huge—even just realizing, “There’s a word for that thing that happened to me.” For instance, there was this quote from Elaine Scarry, in her book The Body in Pain, about how intense pain can feel like “the unmaking of the world.” That was an experience I had had in so many different ways but I, in my whole life, would never have been able to describe it, not without her giving me that framework to think about it. The act of description, of being able to crystallize these sorts of experiences and feelings into language, feels very triumphant to me, both as a reader and a writer.

How did you determine when to end the book? Life keeps happening, so how did you know when to cut it off?

I really wanted the book to end before I had my child—I wanted the scope to start after my own childhood, and I also wanted it to end before I officially became a parent. How I think about everything has really changed since becoming a parent, so I didn’t want to muddy this recollection of my pre-parenthood adult life with my current thoughts. There are a lot of ways that I think now that are different, but it was important to present that era of my life honestly, without altering things to fit my current perspective. I literally decided that the ending would have to be my pregnancy due date. That was my deadline.

Oh my god, that must have been insanely stressful!

Yeah, very stressful. My baby was very late, which helped! But I just had a feeling—and I was right—that my brain would be different afterward and also that I would never again have the luxury of time the way I did while pregnant and during Covid, which has been accurate.

Alright, one final question—a classic, but what do you hope readers take away from Brutalities?

As shitty as a lot of the stuff I did was—and I suffered a lot for the choices I made—I also really value and am grateful for my current quiet life in a way that I would not have been if I hadn’t had to earn it back, and that feels important. While I hope that most people who read it didn’t have the experiences that I had, I would like them to have at least a moment of it while reading. And of course, I want anyone who is doing any of the shit that I was doing to feel seen and less alone.

Margo Steines Thinks Violence Makes Us Human, But That Doesn’t Have to Be a Bad Thing