The Chronicle Review

Post Ph.D., an Intellectual Comes to Her Senses

Robb Kendrick

July 09, 2012

My affair with perfume began as a slow, secret flirtation, carried on late at night by the glow of my computer screen. I was up after midnight, working on a not very interesting freelance job, when I went clicking across the Internet and stumbled on my first perfume blog. Startled by the vivid prose I found there, and impressed that it was written simply for the joy of it, I found myself sneaking over to read more reviews every few days or so. Soon enough, I was following links to other writers and reading the comments on their posts, and a lovely dreamworld populated by gentle, scent-mad sophisticates unfurled before me.

Within months, I would be ordering samples in the mail and sniffing my way through my morning walks. But in the beginning, I smelled the scents only in my mind, imagining smoky vanilla slipping into creamy sandalwood, ripe figs paired with their own cool green leaves, or the slap of new leather softened by a dark rose.

Lurking in the electronic shadows, I left no comments, and I told no one in my waking life that what had begun as an occasional dalliance was growing into a daily ritual. I was a serious, Birkenstock-wearing feminist in my mid-30s, and my sudden passion for reading about perfume left me baffled and a little embarrassed.

But then, I was embarrassed about a lot of things in those days. My life had come to a kind of pause. When I ran into old friends or was introduced to strangers, I no longer knew how to explain myself. I'd moved to Austin to get my doctorate, but there wasn't much demand for English Ph.D.'s when I began my studies, and there was even less eight years later when I emerged, degree in hand. The most sensible of my fellow students had dropped out after a few years. Those of us more adept at denial (or faith) kept going, hoping we'd be the exception.

I told myself I was keeping my options open, and I always had a side project or two going. But I stayed too long. I grew deeply attached to my work and to teaching, and I poured my heart into both. That turned out to be a mistake—a serious, passionate, complicated mistake, like marrying the wrong person or moving to the wrong country. It took me several years to fully extricate myself from the web of my plans, habits, and connections, and during that time I wandered around like an exiled divorcée—stunned, brokenhearted, a stranger to the world and to myself.

For the most part, I kept quiet about this state of affairs and did what I knew how to do: work. But after a while I began to think I was missing something—a path, a method, or maybe just a point. I quit my job at a local nonprofit, scrambled together the minimum amount of freelance work I needed to pay the bills, and settled into one of those dreamy, cicada-filled Texas summers where the heat made it impossible to take anything, let alone yourself, very seriously. And it was at the end of that summer, just when school was about to begin again, that I went clicking across the Internet and found a way to surprise myself.

One version of my perfume story is a tale of pure, giddy delight. I dove in headlong, inhaling history, gossip, science, and scent. But that's not the whole story. Part of my giddiness came from the dizzy feeling of floating above my own dark murmurings about decadence, corruption, and escapism. I thought of my passion as a kind of fever and kept expecting—hoping, fearing—it would break. Each night I went to bed, after another evening of reading blogs and sniffing samples, with a different perfume on each wrist and a third on the back of my hand, and each night I thought I would wake up the next morning with a clear head and cool, damp skin, filled with relief and just a touch of regret to be back in the real, relatively unscented world.

My troubles with perfume had to do with a kind of earnestness that had been with me as long as I could remember (and is with me still). I grew up a good schoolgirl: working and worrying, testing well, pleasing my teachers, and following the rules as a matter of course. When, in my early 20s, I learned, as most of us eventually do, that the rules were unfair, and that the world itself is a broken place, it no longer seemed like enough to read books and talk about them. I felt, vaguely but passionately, that Something Must Be Done and that I, personally, was responsible for Doing Something.

While other friends joined the Peace Corps or went to teach in inner-city schools, I went back to my hometown of Boise, Idaho, began writing for the weekly paper, and took a job teaching creative writing and a few other things to adolescents at the local psychiatric hospital. Two years later the newspaper ran out of money for freelancers and the hospital decided to replace the creative-arts classes with courses in socialization, but by then both jobs had restored my faith in the importance of reading and writing, and I ended up back in school.

For nearly a decade, while the stock market roared, my fellow students dropped out to take tech jobs, and all the talk was of expansion, invention, and gleeful consumption. Meanwhile, I wrote about authors who bore witness to poverty, violence, the hard work of survival, and the impossibility of escaping the past. I was teaching, and I never stopped trying to Do Something. I spent a lot of time in poorly lit borrowed spaces—reclaimed warehouses, after-hours conference rooms, weekend classrooms—listening to women and girls tell their own stories about violence and survival.

So when (just as everything began to slow down and fail, and the talk turned to cutting back and working together) I became passionately interested in the useless beauty of perfume, it was not as though I had simply taken up a new and unexpected hobby—long-distance motorcycle riding, say, or pole vaulting. It was more along the lines of announcing, after a lifetime of being allergic to mosquitoes, deathly afraid of snakes, and inclined to narcolepsy in heat and humidity, that my life's true calling was to gather small poisonous frogs in the Amazon jungle. My friends looked at me with the gentle concern we reserve for the harmlessly insane. My mother said, "Really?" And then there was silence.

I suppose, knowing all this, I should have kept the whole thing under wraps. But I am very bad at keeping quiet, even when I ought to know better. So after my obsession reached a certain point, I began to have the same conversation at a lot of different parties.

I am standing in the corner with my drink when a scholar or therapist or nonprofit director or artist—these are the kinds of people I know—comes over to chat. "So," he or she asks, "what are you writing about these days?"

There is a pause while I decide whether or not to tell the truth. Most evenings, I take a sip of my drink and a deep breath, and, with the feeling of beginning to run toward the edge of a cliff, I say, "Well, I've gotten really interested in perfume." The response: "You mean like essential oils?" And I have to say, "No, not oils. Perfume." And then the person says: "You mean you like perfume?" (Because surely there is some other reason I'm writing about it.) I say, "Yes. Yes, I like perfume." Then all communication breaks down and the person says, "I don't understand. What exactly are we talking about here?"

So I do my best to explain. I trot out perfume's pedigrees, both sacred and profane, the long and winding road from the holy incense of the East to the precious oils that cost Marie Antoinette her head. (The rebels who captured her carriage had never seen her, but they knew that only a royal could smell like that.) I tell a few of the secret stories of the perfume world, the perfumer on his knees in the garden trying to re-create the scent of a tiny white flower, the great fields of roses and jasmine reserved for a single scent. If I sense genuine curiosity hidden behind the puzzlement, I tell stories about memory and love, the worlds conjured up by the scents of our childhood, and how perfumers use those to weave new, more adult memories, the way Jacques Guerlain turned lemon ice and vanilla into the feral, disturbingly edible darkness of Shalimar.

Sometimes, when I'm feeling bold, I say I like the way perfume forces me to think about art and money, how it is so obviously and unashamedly commercial I can't pretend, the way I sometimes do with other kinds of art, that it's all for some high, pure, romantic purpose, and how, far from tainting its beauty, the sideshow of money makes the best perfume—and art—seem wilder, more real and insistent, and that thinking about these things makes me feel like a citizen of the world.

All these stories are true, and I love telling them. But they are not the plain and delicate thing, the thing I never say, which is that perfume makes me happy, and that what we are talking about here is pleasure.

When I give my long-winded defense of perfume, there is always someone whose eyes light up, someone who leans in closer, and it is almost always a woman. There is always someone who smiles and looks away, lips pressed together over a story of her own.

Over the course of a perfume-soaked year, I learned how to look for those signs and listen for those stories, how to invite them, draw them out. I was, it turned out, far from the only person I knew with a secret perfume life, but it was more than that. Because they were never just about scent, those stories. They were about pleasure and risk and reinvention—how a cherished indulgence could be a doorway from one world, or one self, to another. It was all the things that got tangled up in those stories and the way the women looked while they were telling them—the way they blushed, the way their eyes shone, the way they ran a finger around and around the edge of their wine glass—that made me feel like my own might be worth telling and why I am telling it still.

A few weeks ago, I went back to the university where I did my graduate work—not to the English department, but to the School of Architecture. I was there in my new guise as writer and perfume obsessive to talk about perfume and design.

There were 10 students in the seminar, all young women around 19 or 20 years old. I began by introducing them to the basic structure of perfume, and I passed around some perfume-soaked blotters to demonstrate my points. I assumed their tastes in perfume, if they had any, would be mainstream, so I kept my examples sweet and light. Even so, there were a few wrinkled noses. The room was small and poorly ventilated, and there was far too much perfume in the air. But everyone listened, and everyone talked, and everyone sniffed. At the end of the session, by way of connecting the smells to visual design, I showed the students a few of my favorite bottles.

Among these, was Kingdom, the quickly discontinued women's perfume from the late designer Alexander McQueen. On one side, the bottle is a perfectly smooth, silver upside-down egg that tapers to a point. On the other, a slice has been cut away, as you might cut a slice of apple, to reveal the heavy, ruby-red glass beneath the silver skin. If you turn the bottle just right, the two facets come together to make a gothic bleeding heart.

And the perfume? There's a reason it didn't stay on the market very long. It is brilliantly constructed and, on the right person and the right day, startlingly beautiful. But it takes its cues from an era when women wanted their perfumes to say not "I am young and fresh and sweet," but "I am a powerful female animal. Forget this at your peril." The jasmine in its floral heart is ripe and heady, almost rotting, and running through the whole composition is a huge cumin note—a rich, spicy, alarmingly intimate scent of sweat and sex.

I held that poisonous apple up in front of the students and we talked about McQueen and design. "But what does it smell like?" asked one young woman, a little more adventurous than the others. So I told her most of the above, trailing off when I got to the part about the cumin. "It's dirty," I concluded. "Very, very dirty."

There was a pause, some smothered giggles, looks traded back and forth. "Well, now I want to smell it!" burst out the same student, laughing, and all around the table there were blushes and nodding heads and hands reaching out for the bottle. And I passed it along to them.

Alyssa Harad is a writer in Austin, Tex. This essay is adapted from her book Coming to My Senses, just published by Viking. Copyright © Alyssa Harad, 2012.