Six smart women whose memoirs make me feel like maybe I can do this grown-up thing after all.
Here’s the thing: I have spent a lot of my adult life feeling incompetent, insecure, unsuccessful. I have worried about so many things.
I have been neurotic and self-absorbed, and then become obsessed with how self-absorbed I was, berating myself for it until I didn’t have any time or energy for anyone else.
I have judged my body harshly. I have spent months throwing up the food I ate. I have had too much to drink. I have eaten shit food because I didn’t feel worthy of self-love. I have eaten too much, I have eaten too little, I have eaten my vegetables like a good little girl for whole months at a time.
I have spent too much money. I have failed at things I wanted to succeed at. I haven’t communicated my needs to the people I cared about. I have been passive aggressive to the people I didn’t want to date instead of giving them a straightforward answer. I have fucked shit up.
I’ve also gotten some stuff right.
But my point is, if you were able to print out my mental image of myself on most days, I would look like a homeless woman on the corner, side-eyeing tourists wearing a muumuu under a garbage bag, muttering about how the cats are stalking her.
But that’s not really me. We all know the drill. Our harshest critic is ourselves, etc. etc., blah blah blah.
I don’t read a lot of nonfiction. But I do love reading memoirs. Because they make me realize: EVERYONE feels like an incompetent fuck up, and most of the behaviors or thought patterns that I have pathologized in my own head are actually stuff that a lot of women, maybe most women, experience. And a lot of those thought patterns, like the body image thing, or the fear of success, are imposed upon us by the misogynist, heteronormative framework of our society.
The smartest women can see this, recognize it, understand it in hindsight. But every woman is still affected by all of it.
Which is why I love memoirs. I get to read them and see that even though I’m all fucked up — just like everybody else — I’ve still got a fair shot at succeeding in life. After all, Lena Dunham is doing what she set out to do. So is Jane Lynch, Janet Mock, Heather Havrilesky, Tina Fey.
We all go through bullshit. Some of it exists within us; most of it fucks us up from outside ourselves. But no matter what it is, we can prevail. We are women, and when our own brains or anyone else tells us that we can’t, we know better than to believe it.
Some of my favorites:
Not That Kind of Girl, Lena Dunham
Lena writes in a fluent, conversational and compelling tone; her whole book is basically the style guide for this blog. She’s a young woman who has compulsively revealed every aspect of her inner life to anyone who would listen, pretty much since birth. Every aspect of her art — from doing nude sex scenes on her HBO show, Girls, to writing very personal recollections of her sexual assault in college — reflects this compulsion.
Luckily, she’s also wickedly funny, and her experience and perspective are smart and helpful. There are experiences detailed in her memoir that every woman who came of age in our generation will relate to. And as someone who was running her own show on HBO at age twenty five, Lena just can’t be underestimated. There was an interview her mother gave where she essentially said, “the characters that Lena play would not be able to do what Lena does.” I think she appeals to us as public figure because she acts (and looks) like she has absolutely no idea what she’s doing — like she’s a bougie Brooklyn hot mess with a loft and a wardrobe allowance — when in fact, she is a capable young woman with a lot of professional responsibility.
Maybe the stories in her memoir are a continuation of the affectation of her character in Girls, but I think it’s more like this: No matter what we’re up to, no matter how far we’ve come, we’re all a hot mess, incompetent to a fault and scared shitless, in our own heads. That is what we draw from, in one way or another, when we create. And that’s what Lena has harnessed in Not That Kind of Girl.
Disaster Preparedness, Heather Havrilesky
Have you ever read Ask Polly? If not, you MUST. Right. Now. The advice column is a wordy whirlwind, a one-woman sideshow of feminist pep talks, gifting women back their self-respect and keeping them from falling down the various rabbit holes they may be peering into. Just re-reading certain articles has bolstered my self-esteem enough to keep me from making (or re-making) some pretty iffy romantic decisions. About to drunk text that ex-girlfriend? No. Stop. Read this first (the whole thing. I know it’s long…just do it). Still want to? Well, that’s on you. It’s geared towards straight people, but the lessons still apply.
So imagine my delight when I discovered that the columnist who wrote Ask Polly had written a memoir as well. Her real name is Heather Havrilesky, and her longform prose is every bit as delightfully acidic as her column. While in Ask Polly, she practically shouts at us so that we will actually hear how we should be treasured (how we should treasure ourselves), the Heather revealed in her memoir is not exactly warm. She is more…practical. Growing up in the semi-chaos of slightly indifferent parents who refused to sugar coat the big bad world, Heather and her siblings came up with their own plans of action for every emergency. (The house fire plan involved throwing a mattress out the window, then jumping onto it). Even when she flounders, she is able to look back on her life with a kind of practical compassion and useful insight. Here, use this, she says, handing us what she’s learned about the world. I take her advice to heart.
Bossypants, Tina Fey
So many good people have reviewed Bossypants; I won’t even try to do it justice here. But without launching into a Lean In kind of deconstruction of women in the professional world (since I’ve never honestly been that interested in “having a profession,”) let me just say that I truly appreciate Tina’s ruminations on being the boss. She is audacious enough to make suggestions such as “I say, if you’re so mad you could cry, just cry, it terrifies everyone,” and “Don’t waste your energy trying to educate or change opinions; go over, under, through, and opinions will change organically when you’re the boss.” One of my favorites:
“So, my unsolicited advice to women in the workplace is this. When faced with sexism, or ageism, or lookism, or even really aggressive Buddhism, ask yourself the following question: “Is this person in between me and what I want to do?” If the answer is no, ignore it and move on. Your energy is better used doing your work and outpacing people that way. Then, when you’re in charge, don’t hire the people who were jerky to you.”
Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal?, Jeanette Winterson
Jeanette Winterson wrote Orange is the Only Fruit, a sparse, depressing novel based on her sparse, depressing childhood growing up gay with an overbearing, religious mother. She followed her novel with Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal, a memoir detailing that same set of circumstances. The books are both beautiful, and I’m happy she prevailed, but it’s both an arduous and fascinating childhood to get through, even secondhand. The Goodreads summary puts it better than I ever could:
“It’s about a young girl locked out of her home, sitting on the doorstep all night, and a mother waiting for Armageddon with two sets of false teeth and a revolver in the duster drawer; about growing up in a northern industrial town; about the Universe as a Cosmic Dustbin. She thought she had written over the painful past until it returned to haunt her and sent her on a journey into madness and out again, in search of her biological mother.”
Happy Accidents, Jane Lynch
The prose in Jane Lynch’s autobiography (she wrote it with Lisa Dickey), like her comedy, is plain, straightforward and exceedingly entertaining. She published the memoir at the height of her Sue Sylvester-playing fame, but her road to success wasn’t a smooth or a particularly short one. Her ability to keep at it through years and years — years of traveling comedy troupes and alcoholism and bit parts in commercials and overwrought affairs with girls from college — is truly admirable, and when she finally “makes it,” late in life (at least for Hollywood), you can’t help but cheer. Her book is both laugh out loud funny, and far more personal than any of Ellen’s books, which always frustrate me as they use joke after joke to hold the reader at arm’s length, never revealing a single real, personal thing. This is Jane’s story, and it’s fun to get to know.
Redefining Realness, Janet Mock
What did Harvey Milk say about coming out? “Come out to your neighbors… to your fellow workers… to the people who work where you eat and shop…once and for all, break down the myths, destroy the lies and distortions.” Once people knew that their sons, their great aunts, their postmen were gay, Harvey argued, they couldn’t help but change their minds about GLBT politics.
When I was a teenager, and I had never met a trans* person, there was a voice in my head. This is really hard to write, and I wish it wasn’t me, but it was. That’s disgusting, it said. They’re freaks. It was all tied up somehow with the homophobia I directed at myself. It was my first instinct to type that I hated having that voice inside of me, but I didn’t even give it much thought. Until one day, I was flipping channels and a documentary was playing on Logo. By the end of the hour, it was a little like I had gotten to meet a few trans* people. My perceptions started to change. Watching that documentary sparked the beginning of evolution in my head — an movement that came full circle when I picked up Redefining Realness and read it in one sitting, cover-to-cover.
The book is very well-written; as soon as I picked it up, I felt like I knew Janet. And getting to know someone is really all it takes to realize that there are no “freaks.” There are just people. Her story is extraordinary, and hard at times, but she got where she was going. And reading her book helped me get to a new place — a place I should’ve been in all along. It was like a gift she shouldn’t have had to give me, but I’m glad that she was able to. And I hope it reaches a lot of people across the country who might’ve started out in a mindspace similar to — or worse than — my own.
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