On Lessons, Lies and Lena Dunham

I am watching with great interest what I refer to as “Lena Dunham Debacle”.   I was a fan, sort of, of hers until recently. I watched-and enjoyed-Girls, and while I am much older than she, I could somewhat relate to the awkwardness and sadness of all she conveyed in the episodes I watched. (I admit I have not seen them all.) And for some time I followed her on Instagram and other social media outlets. But recently, and by recently I mean before her book came out and the shit storm began swirling, I lost interest in her. Her weirdness was no longer unique an authentic, it felt more like spin, like a persona she was trying on, and while at times I agreed with the message that she was trying to send, her methods were grating on my nerves.

This week she is caught up in the weirdness that she has created and cultivated into her brand. With her new ‘memoir’ hitting the stands she is not just a hero to those that sit a little left of center and the spokesperson for a generation that has no clear identity other than that they just are who they are and that should be good enough, she is now sitting smack in the middle of mainstream America. Perched at the number two spot on the NY Times Best Seller List, her book is being read by housewives and haters alike, by fans and followers, critics and cynics across the globe.

I use the term memoir loosely, since Dunham herself calls herself and ‘unreliable narrator’, and claims that she ‘adds an invented detail to every story she tells’, leaving us to wonder if her memoir should be filed under fiction or not. Regardless, she claims these are her tales to tell and her wisdom should be shared with the masses. And, I should add, while many of her reviews rave about her writing skills, her voice and her craft, just as many wonder what exactly she has learned at the ripe old age of 28, and if she has indeed learned anything, as they were unable to find it in the pages of her book.

The eye of the storm that she has brought upon herself is centered around the admissions that she, by most peoples standards, inappropriately touched her younger sister. That she masturbated while lying in bed next to her, and bribed her with candy for kisses. She even goes on to say that that “anything a sexual predator might do to woo a small suburban girl I was trying.”

The media, social and otherwise, the blogosphere, the tabloids and rags are all abuzz with this scandal, and Lena is perplexed and defensive, claiming it is out of context and completely within the realm of normal childhood curiosity. She seems utterly perplexed at what all the fuss is about, and in a odd rant accused the right wing newsies of fabricating the story.

Maybe in her house it was normal-who knows. But here is the thing about memoirs and personal essays, when you hit submit, or publish, post or print, you are opening the door to your house. You are inviting people in to your house, and introducing them to your family and anyone else you keep behind that door. You are sharing not just your secrets, you are sharing theirs, and in doing so you are bringing the storm down upon them as much as yourself.

It is not that I am not a fan of personal essays, I undoubtedly am. I find them cathartic and medicinal. A way of releasing memories and thoughts that so often hold me back, or keep me down. I find writing about something often guides me back to the path I should have been on, helps me find that thing I wasn’t even looking for. But when I write, I am mindful. I am aware that these are my memories, my recollections, and the mind has a way of altering things. The truths we hold in our hearts are often tainted with emotion, weathered with age, fragile and susceptible to embellishment. While I want to exorcise these things that fester in my head, release them so that I can move forward, I find there are things that I will publish, and things that I cannot. There are things that while they are helpful for me to write, would be hurtful for me to post.

I am fans of and friends with writers that disagree. Their raw honesty is amazing to me, but I cannot help but wonder what happens after.   After they publish, after they share, after their mother reads it, or after their children do. Everything we do, or say, or share and post has a ripple effect and we no longer have the opportunity to watch the waters calm into a glasslike film after a time-all evidence gone. Our words are indelible, etched into the Internet for years to come.   When my youngest son Google’s my name years from now, what do I want him to find? What do I want him to learn about me? I can choose (some of) that, I can control (some of) that, but do I have the right to expose my mother, my father, or siblings to the judgments of strangers and worse yet, my children and grandchildren? Is that fair?

Anne Lamott says “You own everything that happened to you. Tell your stories. If people wanted you to write warmly about them, they should have behaved better” and for the most part I agree. I have ex’s and enemies that deserve no love from me, no words of kindness, but what of those I love and that love me? Is it fair to write of their addictions, their shortcomings, their failures, even if it is part of my story? Do I have the right to open the door to their home, and bring out the skeletons in their closet?

Some days I wonder if this makes me less authentic as a writer or as a person, and I admit the balance can be hard. I recently wrote a piece and for the first time ever I let my husband read it before I posted it-it discussed part of our relationship so I felt like I should share it with him privately. Today, it is still sitting in my saved folder. He didn’t judge, and didn’t tell me not to, he just said very quietly, ‘That is so personal’. I couldn’t tell if that was a good thing or not. I was proud of what I had written and it was personal-to me. But all of this is new to me and while I choose grow and heal by writing, I don’t want to destroy and damage at the same time.

I don’t want to filter, I want to own my truth, but with truth comes consequences and this is what I learned from Lena Dunham without ever having read her book. While Lena and her sister and their respective publicists will deny any wrong doing and claim the ‘out of context’ defense and dribble on about normal curiosity (despite the fact that a 28 year old woman just compared herself to a sexual predator), her story is out there and her consequences are just beginning. Just as quickly as she opened her door, she is closing it, telling us to stay out and not examine the skeletons she pulled out of the closet to parade for us, but it is too late. People are looking at her differently; they are discussing her parents, and questioning her upbringing. They are talking about patterns of abuse and signs of molestation. And we will never know the truth-what is going on behind that closed door. What damage has been done to the relationships in her life, with her mother and father, sister, friends or lovers? We will never know if that bit in her memoir was one of those she added fictional details to, or if she was being ironic and sarcastic, a sad attempt at her awkward humor, or if she did in fact molest her sister. We will never know if her sister really is ‘laughing so hard’ or if she will never speak to her again.

The only person that will know the whole truth to all of this is Lena, and it is doubtful anyone will believe a word she says anymore.

About startingwritenow

I am a mom, a wife, a sister, daughter and friend. I love a good laugh, a house full of people, a great craft beer (or two), a bold red wine and a book or movie of any kind.-good, bad or otherwise! I believe in learning something everyday, in growing and changing every chance you get. I don't fit in every circle, I don't color inside the lines, but I have learned to love my messy life!
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One Response to On Lessons, Lies and Lena Dunham

  1. Very well done. You ask a lot of the questions I think are under-appreciated and valuable in creative nonfiction. As you suggest, there is on one right answer, but to not examine the issues in CNF is, IMHO, unethical.

    The thing that disturbs me about the LD hoopla is, these incidents happened in childhood. She was a child when she did them. So to confuse a child’s behavior with what it would mean if conducted by an adult is a mistake.

    I don’t watch her show. I haven’t read her book. I don’t feel attracted to buy what she is selling. But I sure agree she is a great case study in the consequences of writing CNF. How creative is too creative? And I’m with you. I personally lost some respect for Anne Lamott over that quote. CNF can’t be about revenge. People don’t deserve to be ripped apart because you don’t like how they “behaved.”

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