First I sold my body and then my mind, and I’m here to tell you which one of those two livelihoods caused me shame.
A few years ago, an exciting new publishing house named Unnamed Press published my memoir about street life in the seventies, including the time I spent hooking in various whorehouses and massage parlors around town. The book was well received, and I went on a small tour, where my readings sometimes drew fire. I got to confront, in person, some of those sanctimonious women who I had always sensed were out there.
In the Q&A that followed a reading at The Golden Notebook in Woodstock, one of these gals stood up, puffed herself out like an adder, and asked, “How would you feel today about your daughter selling her body?”
“Thank you for that question,” I responded. “I have to say that if my hypothetical daughter were, for instance, attending NYU law school and strapped for tuition, her turning the occasional trick would bother me a lot less than the alcoholism she might have inherited from her mother—now, that would keep me up nights.”
After a reading at Shakespeare & Company, I heard my favorite question, which came from an Upper East Side matron and sounded more accusatory than curious: “Don’t you ever regret having been a prostitute?”
I paused for a second or two. “No. I’ve searched my soul, and the answer is still no.” Then, with a little gleam in my eye (I like to think), I said, “What I really regret are the more than two decades I spent working in pharmaceutical advertising.”
Recently, a friend of mine heard me compare medical advertising unfavorably to hooking. She jumped on it, saying she’d like to know more about that. Of course, she’s right; it’s good material, but I resisted at first. The prospect of revisiting those decades on the white-collar factory floor—the sheer drudgery, the interminable hours, the casual daily abuse, all of it grinding me down to a little pulp of a person—held scant appeal.
And then there was the research. Maybe I’d have to give an overview, which would mean reading up on that damned inferno of greed and corporate arm-twisting, the constant grab for short-term gain and the gleeful, single-minded focus on the bottom line to the exclusion of the well-being of all of humanity. In conference rooms and behind closed doors, I discovered a fundamentalist reverence for profit. But I learned to ignore the venality. I managed to live in that world for years without stepping back to try to make sense of it—partly because during the few hours I spent away from the job, the last thing I wanted to do was read or even think about it.
Fortunately, almost as soon as I began to focus on writing this essay, I discovered Alexander Zaitchik’s May 2020 piece in The New Republic, “No Vaccine in Sight,” which exposes, in depth, the sordid world of the pharmaceutical industry. “As the world shifts its focus from containment to a cure, it’s become urgent to face up to the dangers of our reliance on pharmaceutical and biotech industries built to serve Wall Street and shareholder value over human needs and public health,” Zaitchik writes. “Regardless of whether one describes this indifference to human suffering and pressing global health threats as sociopathic, criminal, or a necessary precondition for a very profitable industry, it is difficult to find public health experts who believe it has left us better prepared for the Covid-19 pandemic.”
Maybe a few readers would still rather hear about the sordid world of hooking. Even though the memoir I wrote covers all that, I don’t mind taking another look. I’ll stack those years against my long bid in medical advertising any day. For one thing, I got to hold onto my self-respect. After reading this, you can judge for yourself which life was more sinful and destructive; however, I should warn you, screwing anonymous strangers pales in comparison. The true depravity, and the cause of my everlasting shame, was my willingness to collude with Big Pharma. And this was in spite of being confined to smaller and smaller cubicles over the windowless years, while I lived paycheck to paycheck in largely unacknowledged fear and dulled the pain with glad rags and dead-end relationships.
OK, I won’t blame pharmaceutical advertising for my bad luck in love. But the business took everything from me, just like street drugs used to do, including my energy, enthusiasm, and natural curiosity. I was pretty numb. Here I am biting the hand that fed me, because, oh yes, in exchange for my mind, body, and soul, the business did feed me and very occasionally still does.
At first, I marveled at it: I couldn’t get over the fact that there was anyone out there willing to pay me, even pretty well after a while. I chased the buck, like most everyone has to do, but now I believe that if I’d kept my wits about me, I could have found another way to stay solvent. I was educated and smart enough to do something else. So this is a cautionary tale mainly for people who have options. Most workers don’t, of course, but if you are among the blessed few who can choose to go after something worthwhile, at least give it a shot. Try to resist the low-hanging fruit, and, above all, don’t sell your mind.
Back in the seventies, when I started peddling my body in whorehouses, I had the arrogance of youth. Nothing scared me, and why should it? Any job you could drink on was fine by me. I loved sex—I even loved the idea of sex. I got a kick out of competing with the other women, all of us young and attractive enough to be doing what we were doing. And there was camaraderie—it was bawdy. Mainly, though, hooking was honest, the same no-bullshit profession it’s always been. Pleasure for money: a straight-up transaction. I’m not romanticizing turning tricks—at least I’m trying not to—but compared to medical advertising, it was a dream job.
By the time I landed my first staff position as a copywriter at a pharmaceutical ad agency, I was forty-eight years old—and terrified. Somehow, up until that point, I’d managed to avoid any and all full-time “straight” jobs in the real world. First, in my twenties came the alcohol, drugs, and prostitution. Then, in my thirties, seven years at Columbia and two degrees, after which I wrote my memoir while freelance editing. And then—oh my god, it hit me, I was going to have to work for a living!
My mother would have looked after me if she could have, but the family money had already dried up. We were “nouveau poor,” as my witty cousin used to say. Here I was, too old to marry into money, and the plan to be a novelist and creative writing teacher had run aground, the way that kind of plan is liable to do. Apparently, I was going to have support myself! I didn’t even know if I could. Looking back, I see that I must have panicked, which is probably how I ended up in that succession of lobster tanks, everyone crawling over each other, thinking it was the best way to survive.
Aside from the primary driver of fear, I was a born huckster who reveled in turning tricks—that’s why they call them “tricks.” The hustle was part of the fun. This predilection would serve me well in my new field, but now the client was asking for a lot more. I never had to lie to a john, except maybe to flatter him. (Even the vainest, most over-confident male can be a little vulnerable when it comes to size and things like that.) Now I had to lie for a living—and not in some hustling, street way, although it certainly paid to be crafty and shrewd. No, we were white-collar underhanded. For instance, we routinely manipulated data without seeming to cherry pick, looking for patterns in the short-and long-term studies of our product to show the superiority of whichever me-too drug we were selling.
But that was the least of it. On the first day of my second copywriting job, the owner of the company took me out to lunch. This gesture of civility occurred right before big corporate agencies swallowed up all the little cash cows. After that, the business model changed, and even the slightest investment in human capital was deemed extravagant. By the late nineties, every medical ad agency had become a white-collar sweatshop to some degree.
While we ate our pasta, my soft-spoken, new boss took me into his confidence. He shared the early history of Versed, a highly potent, water-soluble benzodiazepine similar to Valium, which I had been working on at my last job. I’d enjoyed promoting Versed because it was a wonderful high and the best amnestic drug on the market at the time: people blacked out and forgot their procedures. Anyway, my boss told me that when Hoffman-La Roche launched the drug, the company deliberately recommended excessive dosages, and an untold number of patients bit the dust.
The 1988 congressional hearings on the FDA regulation of Versed confirmed his account. “Numerous studies published in the medical literature reveal that the initially approved doses of Versed for conscious sedation were far too high,” reported Representative Ted Weiss, pointing to a recent study “that also showed these doses to be grossly excessive.” The congressman continued:
Not until November 1987, almost two years after approval, did Roche reduce the recommended total dose…Within a few months after U.S. marketing began, Hoffmann-La Roche personnel concluded that Versed is three to four times as potent as Valium. Despite this, for one and a half years following its approval, Versed was recommended at roughly the same doses for conscious sedation as injectable Valium and marketed in the same solution concentration as Valium. In fact, physicians were apparently encouraged by local Roche sales representatives to use the drug essentially as they had previously used injectable Valium.
These are very serious matters—lives may well have been lost as a result in the process. It was because of the gravity of these cases that we decided to continue these hearings today and more fully explore what occurred in the regulation of Versed.
My new boss remarked to me over lunch that, “Even though our job is to get around them, don’t forget, without the FDA, we’d all be dead.” This initiation, and the implicit warning to beware of what I was getting into, felt oddly familiar. Then I remembered where I’d heard something like it before. When I turned myself out, one of the first madams I worked for insisted on delivering a lecture before she signed me up.
“Know this: once you’re in this business, there’s no getting out,” she told me. “The money’s too good. Furthermore, no decent man will ever marry you. If you still want to work for me, OK, but I thought I should make that clear.” Welcome to the dark side.
Versed was my introduction, the first of many scams I’d witness—and sometimes more than witness. Another flaming example happened around fifteen years ago. Two out of three brands competing in a new class of anti-inflammatory drugs called COX-2 selective NSAIDs were recalled by the FDA, and the third was corralled with a black-box warning. Vioxx, Bextra, and Celebrex were quite effective and every one of them big moneymakers. Unfortunately, not long after they launched, people who were prescribed the medications began dropping dead from myocardial infarctions and other cardiovascular complications.
The FDA gave Merck and Pfizer six months to withdraw Vioxx and Bextra, the two brands with the worst safety profiles. I can still see my agency full of commotion, spinning like a top. For six months, all of the people on that doomed account worked in shifts, seemingly around the clock, to promote the hell out of their product before it was taken off the market. The usual hypocritical lip service paid to the desire to save lives is quickly abandoned whenever it interferes with a quick buck. By the time the FDA does intervene, the money-laden ship has already sailed.
“Just another hustle” is what I thought about all of it at first, but two more episodes changed my mind. I discovered I had a conscience after all. The first was in 1993, when I was still a copy editor. All of us minions were pulled onto a big project, which was to come up with a presentation for Congress to help defeat—or at least eviscerate—Bill Clinton’s new Comprehensive Childhood Immunization Act, which would guarantee free vaccines to every child. I forget who the client was, one of the big vaccine producers, obviously. (Like the clients in my other profession, they are mostly interchangeable and entirely forgettable.) I did a lot of rewriting, really got into it, pretending it was only an exercise, assuring myself that my work didn’t matter. The client was so thrilled with our efforts that we all got a little bonus, which was dinner for two at any restaurant. I picked Boulet, one of the most expensive places in town. My friend and I both ordered the seven-course tasting menu.
Meanwhile, I got to thinking about how I was selling myself cheap. And it began to dawn on me I was on the wrong side of history. Years later, I would learn about white people standing on the pedestal of genocide and slavery, but that collusion with the pharmaceutical lobby in 1993 marked the beginning of my raised awareness.
Up until that incident, I saw myself as merely a cog in the machine, and therefore, magically absolved. I think a lot of us who work for corporations feel this way—we’re just following orders. Individuals, from the top down, are rarely held accountable, and this reinforces the notion that no one is responsible. Knowing I had done something wrong almost felt good, as it reminded me that I am human and therefore capable of making ethical choices. Prostitution could never have stirred me in quite the same way, because back then, my conscience was clear. I took an almost self-righteous pride in working outside the law. Lately, rather than continue to dismiss that stance as the folly of youth, I’m coming around to thinking I may have been right.
The second wake-up call came years later, in the winter of 2000. By then, I was a copy supervisor—which is to say, fully complicit. I was assigned to promote Omnicef, an antibiotic targeted primarily for otitis media (ear infections) in little children. The problem is that most ear infections are a combination of bacterial and viral. If they were only bacterial, Omnicef would be as good a solution as any; however, much of the time, they’re also viral, and viruses don’t respond to antibiotics.
The good news is that most otitis media infections resolve on their own in a week or less. The client knew this; doctors did, too—we all did. The only people who didn’t were the little children and their parents. But that didn’t keep pediatricians from prescribing Omnicef as a placebo. Why did they do this, especially when a mountain of evidence already showed that antibiotics were being overprescribed, and various bacteria were becoming resistant? I’ll tell you why: parents come into the doctor’s office with toddlers screaming in pain and plead, “My child is in agony, doctor, please do something!” Doctors knows they can do very little, but that’s not a good look, so they prescribe Omnicef or one of its myriad competitors. They tell parents that the earache will take four or five days to resolve (which, it’s never mentioned, is exactly how long it would take without treatment) and the patients leave the doctor’s office feeling grateful.
This time, there was no fancy dinner—it was just what I got paid to do. Once again, I thought I was inured, but the Omnicef account started to mess with my sleep. My morality, such as it was, had undeniably been compromised, and I began to question capitalism itself in a new way. Why was it the presiding global system? What happened to Marx? What happened to the forty-hour work week, for that matter? I managed to ignore this little voice in my head as I continued to distract myself by climbing up; I became preoccupied with my rank. Eventually, I lateraled out and went freelance—which I used to say was like going from enslavement to indentured servitude.
Pharmaceutical ad agencies were metastasizing all over town; there was plenty of work, but the competition between these agencies grew fierce. Conditions everywhere were lousy and kept getting worse. By the late nineties, accounts were in crisis mode all the time, jumping to the tune of Big Pharma. At least as a freelancer, I got paid by the hour, and I could buy myself some recovery between punishing gigs. The truth is that I still take on the rare freelance copywriting job and am grateful for it—especially because recently, I’ve only worked on products that actually do good, such as a humble clotting bandage and a life-saving rabies vaccine. But that’s just dumb luck; I’ve never refused any job on principle. Nothing is simple in this dehumanizing system, I guess. Outside of prostitution, pharmaceutical advertising is the only way I’ve ever been able to earn a living.
Let’s face it, there never has been such a thing as an inclusive social contract. Around the world, neither lives nor property are safe from this empire. Our endless wars destroy societies and infrastructures, our drones bomb villages, and our international corporations exploit workers in a race to the bottom. Generations ago, Europe and the United States carved up the continent of Africa like a Christmas turkey, and our ships and trains have been carting off countless tons of mineral wealth ever since—not to the benefit of the indigenous people, obviously. Sure, the so-called “rule of law” still protects the likes of me, but the island of “haves” in this world is shrinking, and the law looks after some much better than others.
I won’t go so far as to say that the juggernaut that is the pharmaceutical industry kills with impunity, but I’ve as yet to hear of one executive being prosecuted for downplaying or obfuscating the serious risks of a drug. Now and then, a big pharmaceutical company gets fined, which is written off as the price of doing business. As long as the bottom line is served, everything else is negotiable. The political philosopher, Sheldon Wolin, calls this faceless hegemony “inverted totalitarianism.” Hopefully by now, only a small minority like seeing the United States governed by the ignorant despot who is in power; however, what we don’t see may be even worse. Featureless corporations have taken over, and the state, like an old-fashioned kept wife, looks the other way.
As I write this, people in the street are protesting George Floyd’s sadistic murder by cops, which was caught on camera and plays like a vicious snuff film. Africans in diaspora continue to be colonized, terrorized, and imprisoned in staggering numbers. I know I’ve stoked the furnace of this system, but few of us could be called innocent bystanders. No wonder I don’t regret stepping outside of this society all those years ago.
But hey, I’m not suggesting my carefree hooking experience was typical. The seventies was aberrant, extraordinary; a lot of us saw ourselves as outlaws back then. And of course I paid a price for it (although my wildly excessive drinking and drugging accounted for most of the damage). Nevertheless, after much reflection, I want to go on record as saying that it’s the cost of respectability that is much too high. Keeping our heads down won’t buy peace or security—not anymore. It’s time to look up, organize, and become at least outraged protesters, if not outlaws—or suffer the consequences. Every minute we’re not resisting, we’re colluding. Either way, the whole human race could go down, but at least let’s go down fighting. If you’re young, you can start by making a conscious decision not to sell your mind. Once you’ve done that, I predict, the rest of the way will begin to lighten up.
Janet Capron is a native New Yorker and the author of a memoir, Blue Money, about New York street life in the seventies. She has an MFA in Creative Writing from Columbia.