I haven’t done a memoir post in a bit, but that doesn’t mean I haven’t been reading memoir.
I’ve been reading a lot, actually. Since I finished Ta-Nehisi Coates’ two books, I’ve completed my fifth re-read of Lidia Yuknavitch’s The Chronology of Water (someday I will be courageous enough to write a post about what Lidia’s memoir means to me). Based on her recommendation, I then bought and blazed through Whip Smart, by Melissa Febos (another forthcoming post), almost immediately after I finished Dederer. I’m reading essays by Hanif Abdurraqib and poems by Danez Smith and Greek mythology by Robert Graves. I’m reading Carl Jung. I’m reading tarot and headlines.
There is so much to take in, so much to keep us up at night, that I might as well stay up late reading instead of worrying. Most days, this works out.
I worried a lot while reading Dederer. Love and Trouble comes with a subtitle: “A Midlife Reckoning.” At first I thought, I’m not going to relate to this. Silly me. I am almost 37. I’m unafraid of being 37, but it should be noted that while I am approaching what we think of as middle age, I don’t feel like I am. I am often mistaken for a college student on the campus where I work. I still get carded more often than not. I climb mountains and blast the same music I blasted 20 years ago—and I dress like it’s 20 years ago, too. I don’t feel 37. Take that for what it’s worth to you, even hate me for it, if you will.
For so many women, being hated is nothing new.
Before I opened Love and Trouble for the first time, I made a short list in my mind of all the ways this book would be, tsk tsk, judged by its cover. First of all, a blurry photo of an adolescent female? Pass, I imagined a male voice saying at a book fair. Wait, I imagined a second male voice chiming in, possibly the first voice’s dude-bro friend, is she hot? Then there’s the title leading with the word “love,” which would surely relegate this book to the maligned realm of Chick Lit. The word “mid-life” immediately conjures mid-life crisis, even if the noun that follows is “reckoning” and not “crisis.” Ok, “reckoning” is more…empowered? Suggests redemption? Classic memoir. Classic girl-power shit.
Then I read the book, cringing along the way not because Dederer is cringe-worthy—she isn’t, the book is fine, important even, just gimme a sec to get this out—but because I know how she will be cringed at: Who cares about the adolescent female voice? Who cares about one privileged white lady’s midlife crisis? Who cares about one adulterous kiss—not even a fuck, just a KISS? Who cares about all this female crying and sniffling and whining and wondering and navel-gazing?
I do. Dederer’s maladjusted adolescent self kissing every boy who smelled interested in an attempt to find meaning in life and worth of self? Hello, younger me. In that recognition, I felt my age for once. I felt the decades between me and the younger self that seemed to wave back at me from Dederer’s pages.
Dederer’s first sentence: “You did everything right!” She is speaking to two selves here, more than to the reader. She is speaking to her current self, who feels unfulfilled and restless (a kind of Feminine Mystique-style what is wrong with you, your life is perfect!), and her younger self, who worried about whether or not she could would or do anything right at all, ever.
Once my younger self waved at me from the first few pages of this book, I couldn’t focus on anything else but my identification with Dederer’s loathing of HER younger self. Because that’s what she realizes—that she despised herself because she figured out the world did and would despise her, and her worth lay in how she could function in a man’s narrative. At 44, she is depressed and has a sad and urgent longing to revisit her prolific journals for clues about the girl she used to be. Those clues reflect society’s default views of young women who don’t stay neatly within their assigned role; Dederer refers to herself as a “clueless bitch,” a “pirate slut of a girl.” She characterizes her back-then self as “non-utile.”
Now, “you are necessary, in every conceivable way,” Dederer reminds herself about her married-with-children life. So why does she cry so much? Answering this question with substance is the book’s undertaking.
My take is perhaps too much about my own way of relating to this narrative, but isn’t that such an adolescent-female way of approaching anything? Anyway. My take(away) is that some of us don’t realize until the middle of our lives that we didn’t learn something we were supposed to learn way back when we were 13 or 14 or 15-ish. What do girls need to learn except how to be pretty and subservient to boys, right? Wrong, of course, but who is teaching us that wrongness when we’re 13 or 14 or 15? “Normal” emotional development leads to some sense of self, some idea of who we are and how others see us. As we get older, the need to see ourselves through others’ eyes diminishes because, frankly, who the hell cares.
Well, we do, if we never really knew who we were to begin with.
Dederer’s midlife self knows the journals she obsessively kept are her point of entry into this inquiry. She peppers excerpts from them throughout the present-day unfolding of a series of “scandalous” events tame enough to make me think, is that all? even as I can see that, yes, sometimes just a little step out of bounds, just a small transgression, can unravel a woman’s life, can remind a woman who easily society can decide she has screwed everything up completely and forever and can’t be trusted, needs someone else to take care of her. Dederer seems to be cautioning herself and women like her to know ourselves fully so we can know where our lines are, what we can and can’t live without, what we are and aren’t willing to sacrifice to feel good in-the-now. At the beginning of the memoir, Dederer muses, “Maybe a woman’s version of a midlife crisis involves stopping doing stuff?” then later hisses, “This is not nothing!” at the man who kissed her, the married lady, at a writer’s conference. She wants him, and she doesn’t. She loves and even still sleeps with her husband. But the man at the conference wants HER. Where did this feeling of “I am incomplete unless someone wants to fuck me” come from?
Of course there was a sexual assault in her childhood. Of course the younger Dederer downplayed it, blamed herself, ignored it, wondered if it mattered, wondered if it was “that bad.” (Much like her response to being kissed—not to mention having her arms pulled and twisted—at a writer’s conference!) Show me a woman who hasn’t experienced this. And how many of us have or will come to mid-life wondering, hmm, maybe that affected me more than I let it at the time…? Maybe I kind of blamed and hated myself for it…?
In a patriarchal society, there are plenty of opportunities to internalize misogyny (um, “pirate slut”?!). If we can learn to not hate ourselves, then we might be onto something. As a woman, not hating yourself is an act of revolution. And not hating yourself requires painful and prolonged self-reflection until you actually know yourself. The company of women will help, Dederer affirms, because they will nod while you cry and cry while you cry and say that saving I know (i.e., I know YOU). If you write it well, it becomes a mirror others can look into and see their selves, too.
In many ways, Dederer’s memoir was such a mirror for me. Except I don’t have a husband and a Seattle island house hahahahahaha sob. (Kidding, who really wants a husband?) Yes, I dug up some old journals after I finished it. Yes, I cringed at them. Yes, I identified with that self while I was cringing, and yes, that made me cringe again, but also it made me feel tender toward myself. My now self. I have always railed against the hatred of the adolescent female voice, exhibit A being my first book of poems, and thought that exploring that voice in my writing was an act of self-love. And it is—love of that younger self. But what of this adult self who still feels 15 most days? How do I feel about her?