by Suzy Favor Hamilton
Harper Audio, 2015
Review by Christian Perring on Apr 26th 2016
Fast Girl is the memoir of Suzy Favor Hamilton, from her childhood to her current married life. She is known for her accomplishments as a runner who made it to the Olympics three times and also for being outed by a muck-raking website for working as an escort in Las Vegas while she was married and had a young daughter. Her memoir puts her behavior in context , explaining her decision to have sex for money as a result of her late-developing undiagnosed bipolar disorder, exacerbated by some of the medication she was taking for what she took to be depression. She compares herself to her brother Dan, who also had serious mental disorder, and killed himself as a young adult.
Sports fans may not find much revelation here about college and professional athletics. Hamilton talks about her relationships with her coaches and her drive to succeed, emphasizing how she pushed herself very hard and didn't accept second best. When she failed to win in her Olympic races, it was devastating to her. In her last Olympic race, she realized that she would be coming last, so she pretended to fall. After, she decided to start seeing a psychologist, but she wasn't fully honest about herself in those meetings. She decided to focus her attention on family life; she had a child and worked in various jobs, settling into a non-sports career, as a realtor. She found that transition especially challenging.
The memoir is far more interesting as an investigation of morality and self-deception. Hamilton grew up in Stephens Point, Wisconsin, in a conventional and somewhat conservative environment. Hamilton's family wasn't so conventional, since her brother was erratic and uncontrollable, and even her father was constantly on the move. Hamilton was very successful at running and the sport became the center of her life. She quickly became well-known in her school because of her amazing accomplishments which would be reported in the newspapers. Her father had moments of explosive anger and her brother was drinking and acting in self-destructive ways. She describes her family as one of secret pain, and says that her reaction was a desire to be perfect.
Her accomplishments made Hamilton different from her peers, and she was able to get distance from family life. This set up a lifelong dynamic in which she felt that she wasn't bound by the rules that others had to live by. She sometimes struggled with accepting whether she belonged in the group of best runners, but she eventually decided that she would be willing to make any sacrifice necessary for success as a runner. In the rest of her life, she missed some major family events and put family second because of her need to run. Eventually, she put her family second when she was pursuing her own sexual exploration working in Las Vegas.
Many times, Hamilton describes her actions as largely or completely beyond her control. She says when she was training in high school, her body was starving itself. But it was her own need to control her weight that led her to become bulimic. She says that she just had to succeed: failure was not an option. Later on she describes her seeking out sexual experience as a need, and this explains why she so often ignored her own husband's warnings that she would be discovered and it would ruin her life. So very often her need to win is both a need to control and a lack of control of that need. Her need to control her body is often paramount, both in her racing and in other aspects. She has breast reduction surgery because she does not think her body had the normal runner's skinny looks. It was the failure of her control of her body, to make it run fast, that caused her the greatest shame and crisis in life.
All people have some issues with control, but Hamilton's emotional life was more fragile than most. She briefly recounts a suicide attempt when she was in college. She had started dating another sports student, Mark Hamilton, in college. She was a virgin when they met, and she explains how despite her uncertainty, they eventually were close enough together for her to be ready to have sex. They stayed together, but one summer a friend of hers put pressure on her to split up with him and she agreed, in order to please her friend. But after two weeks she realized she might really lose him, and so she tried to kill herself, and then she called Mark to tell him to help her. Hamilton makes little of this episode, although she does mention it might have been a sign of mental illness.
Hamilton says that she has bipolar disorder, diagnosed after the revelations about working as a Las Vegas escort. One of the mysteries of the memoir is how far back her mental illness went: did it start with the hormonal fluctuations of pregnancy, or whether it has been around long before that. One might also wonder how well the symptoms she describes fit with the profile of bipolar disorder. She does not paint a picture of emotional cycling of highs and lows. Rather, she sets out some sexual compulsiveness, lack of thought about the effects on her behavior on others, and a love of the life mixing with wealthy and powerful men who gave her expensive gifts on a regular basis. It's impossible for a reader to make anything like an well-justified diagnosis on the basis of a memoir, but it is hard not to wonder whether bipolar disorder is the full story here.
So Fast Girl is a powerful case study in the overlap between mental illness and morally problematic behavior. We don't hear much about the perspective of Hamilton's husband, Mark, but the couple are still together. It sounds like he has come to terms with what they endured and the problems that his wife's behavior has caused them. It would be fascinating to know more about to what extent he had to work through his own resentment and anger, and how he did that. Hamilton says that she is now getting good treatment and that they are a happy family again. She gives that impression that all they needed to do was find the right treatment, but there's more to getting through a difficult period during a marriage than simply correcting future behavior. The past can weigh heavily on people, and making a marriage work again generally requires addressing what happened in the past. That must be especially true since Hamilton has now set out that past in a fair amount of detail. Her husband's side of the story still needs to be told.
This memoir is also a study in identity for an author who has very particular sense of embodiment, both with her athleticism and her sexuality. She starts off the second chapter with the sentence, "When I discovered running, I loved that it was so pure, just my body and me." This sounds like she is separate from her body, but at other times she expresses a greater sense of being one with her body, but the relationship is complex. She writes of her "need for perpetual motion" which seems like a psychological craving. She writes also about her need to win, emphasizing that it was more than just a want. Her internal voice told her, "Now I have to win every state meet I run. There's no choice." (Chapter 2). And a little later: "I knew I had to be an Olympian." "I wanted to stop. I wanted to turn back. All I could do was run." She explains these feelings as needing to please her demanding father, her coaches, and her community.
After her career as a professional athlete was over, and she had settled into a family life with her husband and daughter, Hamiliton felt bored, especially with her work in real estate. So when she first had a threesome with her husband Mark and a female escort in Las Vegas, she was thrilled by it and she wanted more. She made an agreement with Mark that they would have an open relationship. She started seeing male escorts on her own, and she loved it. She says she "couldn't wait" for more experience. But in Las Vegas she assumed a different name, Kelly, and hid her true identity, and she talks as if had two different personalities, one based in her family life and the other in her new sexual life. Chapter 11 is called "Double Life" and tells of how Hamilton started working as an escort herself, and loved the experience. At the end of each chapter, she puts her behavior into the context of her mental illness, and here she writes, "My own time in Vegas is almost like a textbook case of untreated bipolar disease, and for those who wonder how a small-town Midwestern girl married to her college sweetheart could have gotten so far out of control, there's your answer right there…. While I was in Vegas, my bipolar disorder drove me on endlessly."
So Hamilton's identity and her relationship with her mental illness are complex, to the extent of being paradoxical. The energy that enabled her to become an Olympic runner seemed to be the same energy that led her to become an escort. Once she identified herself as a person with bipolar disorder, she disowned her Vegas self but she didn't disown her running self. It seems that the main reason for this is that being an Olympic athlete is socially valorized while being an escort is disapproved of. Each has equal claim to be part of her "real self" and her different attitudes to them put pressure on the whole idea of who the "real person" behind the mental illness is. The project of separating out the person from the illness is at least extremely difficult, and maybe completely impossible.
The unabdridged audiobook is performed by Nan McNamara, who has a consistent tone and is good at separating out different characters with her voice. With this material, however, she sounds a little self-satisfied; this is brought out by the contrast with the sounds of the author's own voice in the Prologue and Epilogue. Hamilton herself is less rehearsed and a bit more real in her intonation, which may mean her reading is less smooth, but it does more to evoke the listener's sympathy.
© 2016 Christian Perring
Christian Perring, Professor of Philosophy, Dowling College, New York