No, that wasn’t me… I am the one who does love herself, who last night made her hair shine again with a hundred careful strokes of the brush, who rediscovered the childlike softness of her lips, who kissed herself, sharing the love that yesterday had been denied her.
Melissa Panarello’s 100 Strokes of the Brush Before Bed seems simple enough, it’s a sexual journey of a 14-year old Melissa as told in various diary entries from 2000 to 2002. She takes us inside the psyche and emotions of an adolescent and all her musings on sex and love. It is partly harrowing, oftentimes tender, and always matter-of-factly.
The novel is said to have caused controversy in Italy, primarily because it was one of the few novels to have been released in 2003 that explicitly talked about sex, sperm, and orgasm so casually and bluntly — and Melissa P. is unapologetic about it, which in itself is amazing.
Melissa’s Search for Love
As a reader, I took on the role of putting myself in Melissa’s shoes, and I have no regrets. In fact, by the end of the book, I found myself choking back tears but eventually giving up and shedding a tear or two. It was an emotional and psychological journey for me, completely understanding and empathizing with her desire for love.
Isn’t that something we’re all looking for? Who doesn’t want an unselfish, unconditional, forgiving kind of love? At such a young age, we are taught to believe in it, to never stop looking for it, to trust that it will find us. At the same time, 100 Strokes shows us, that it is also in losing ourselves that we find ourselves. It is in being broken, over and over, that we learn to rebuild ourselves, that we rediscover, and reaffirm self-love.
Melissa also writes about how she believes in how Love is as much a part of herself as her Sensuality, however she experiences it as externally and detachedly; and the Soul (which I would like to call Melissa’s Holy Trinity). She illustrates this beautifully in a letter to Valerio, one of her lovers.
Today the Prof came to meet me again outside school. I was waiting for him: I gave him a letter in which I enclosed a particular pair of panties. I am these panties. They describe me best, curiously designed with a dangling ribbon on each side… Yet they don’t simply belong to me; they are me and my body… If one knot is untied, only one of my spirits is released: Sensuality… He possesses only half of me, and it is probably what I want on most occasions… When someone unties only the knot of Love, I shall give another part of me, a part that is small but deep… Now smell that part of me which lies exactly in the center between Love and Sensuality: It is my Soul, which seeps through my fluids.
Love can be so easily recognized then as another person who has the capacity to set all three free.
The Sex and Self-Love
Throughout the entries Melissa describes each encounter as brutal and direct as possible. Each encounter is unique and every person she is involved with a very different motivation altogether. We only know that they all want to fuck her.
From the first encounter with Daniele, which was absolutely terrible, to the almost-orgy with Valerio and Co., there is nothing concealed, nor taboo. All experiences are told as valid desires and factual occurrences. What is ultimately harrowing for the reader is experiencing it from Melissa’s perspective, and there would be encounters when I find myself screaming (internally) for her to just leave a particular act in fear of a loss of control or a disruption in the power play. Eventually, I realize that Melissa is a powerful character, that there is awareness and consent (to an extent though because let’s face it, she was a minor after all).
For each encounter, there is an acknowledgment of a certain self-love, a personal affirmation of knowing what she wants, and that the sex is just that.
Also interesting was that for all the distressing sex she’s experienced with men, the only ones who were able to gently, and genuinely please her was herself, Ernesto, the couple Germano and Gianmaria, and Letizia, who are all LGBT and non-binary characters. Undoubtedly, they were my favorite storylines for all their tenderness towards Melissa. There was a certain comfort in strangeness, and they were all vessels for Melissa’s introspection and self-discovery.
100 Strokes of the Brush Before Bed is not for everyone, it is considered pornography by some (including the author), erotica by others, and a fictionalized memoir of sorts. For me, it was a mirror — seeing reflected fragments of myself from Melissa’s musings on sex and love, and her fearless exploration of how far she was willing to endure to find what she wanted and to find herself again. More than the graphic depictions, what stuck was the tenderness, the self-doubt, and the assurance that you will find yourself after it all. And then, you find love. I am a 25 year old woman who read a 14 year-old’s sexual diary, but a lot of her reflections still strongly resonate with me. Claudio, one of her lovers defined love perfectly:
You shouldn’t feel imprisoned by me or my love, my affection, anything. You’re an angel who must fly free; you should never allow me to be the sole purpose of your life. You’re going to be a great woman, and now you know it… Never betray yourself, because if you do you’ll hurt both of us. I love you, and I will love you even if our paths should divide.