October 6th, 2014
(written by lawrence krubner, however indented passages are often quotes). You can contact lawrence at: email@example.com
I didn’t read Not This Kind of Girl seeking insight. I’m not much into relatability: I already find myself a bit outsize for comfort, and part of why I avoided Dunham’s oeuvre is that I spend too much time looking in mirrors as it is. But two parts of her memoir did that juice-cleanse thing she was wanting.
First, the chapter called “I Didn’t Fuck Them, but They Yelled At Me,” which is an unsentimental indictment of the old men in Hollywood who liked to tell her things like “You should be a little more grateful” and “I’ll bet you never say no.” Like the title says, she didn’t fuck them. What is radically terrific about the chapter is that listening to them—just hearing those smarmy, scroterial voices; believing that she was simultaneously strong enough to handle it and also weak enough that she needed to pick up the phone in order to stay—becomes a compromise significant enough to feel like a crime.
Second, there’s a chapter called “Barry” where Dunham details her rape, an encounter told with both unrelenting honesty and a subterranean implication that it’s almost impossible to recount your own rape narrative without many, many versions of the self-preservatory (and often, but not always, rapist-exonerating) lie. In the chapter that directly precedes it, Dunham tells the story quickly, a swift little cringe (“an ill-fated evening of lovemaking with our campus’s resident conservative, who wore purple cowboy boots and hosted a radio show called Real Talk With Jimbo… a study in the way revulsion can quickly become desire when mixed with the right muscle relaxants”). In the Barry chapter, the psychological chronology unfolds, over and over again, shifting as it’s told to other people, named as it should be only when her friend says flatly, “You were raped,” and Dunham bursts out laughing. “I feel like there are fifty ways it’s my fault,” she writes. “I was hungry to be seen. But I also know that in no way did I consent to being handled that way.”
The last page of that essay, where she negotiates confession and desire with her current boyfriend, objectified and disempowered in all the ways that sometimes feel like a benediction —it’s beautiful, narrowing to the pinpoint of individuality, rejecting the misapplied and ineffectual pressure that says Dunham’s lived experience should be either universally appealing or universally understood.
Dunham’s writing gets eloquent in the place of self-degradation. The loneliness after long nights of unfriendly sex is her emerging into the street at noon, “blink[ing] at the flat Brooklyn sunlight, cold to my bones.” She blacks out from fear, lust and alcohol, remembering only that her tights were “balled up and placed in my mouth.” She remembers lying in the tub, half her body in the torrent of a shower, the other on the bathmat stuffing its primary orifice with bread.
This physical frankness extends to her relationships in a way that feels welcome, somehow old-fashioned, and childish in a Freudian way. She remembers peering into her toddler sister’s vagina, going to the closet to sniff her dead grandmother’s pajamas after being reprimanded for huffing at her comb. In one chapter, she lays out a series of arcane rules about bed-sharing (“your mom if you’re a girl, your dad if you’re under twelve or he’s under ninety”). Her emphasis on a compulsive, unbalanced physicality matches up well with her gift for cadence, which makes good paragraphs wind down almost mathematically; in one story about how she remembers her mother’s camp stories in place of her own, she writes, “Diarrhea in a canyon during a lengthy hike isn’t right for every audience. I can’t remember any of the songs.”
Not That Kind of Girl is, instead, what she does remember: the essays edited for craft as tight as a Jacob’s Ladder, the book edited for subject what seems like not at all. The reproduced food diary, the annotated emails, the imaginary emails, the lists; they could have been cut, and to my eye should. But as Dunham notes, in a list about why she “<3s NY," the rules are just suggestions, and I don't need her to note for me that a bunch of old idiots have been making a lot of the rules. Dunham at her best is a good enough writer that none of the introduction's self-justification is necessary, and if I were to surmise about her intentions I'd guess she's in no way writing the Helen Gurley Brown help-book that this book often openly pretends to be. Like her mother taking nude pictures of herself in the '70s, she's got "the flash of fear in her eye—or is it longing?" Not That Kind of Girl is Dunham in the heat of that impulse, nothing more or less important than the "feverish need to reveal who she really is, as much to herself as anybody."